For Doubters and Dreamers – The Great Three Days

PastorSteveOn summer evenings at my grandparents’ lake cottage, there was terrible televisions reception and too many mosquitoes to go outside so card games were the usual fare. Sometimes it was Hearts with two decks of cards because there were so many players and sometimes it was just the kids playing Spoons or I Doubt It.

The latter of the three, as I think back, probably helped develop a terrible skill for children because to be successful you had to become a pretty convincing liar. The object of the game is to run out of cards first laying down your cards in sequence, or drawing from the deck if you don’t have a card to play. Or, you could lie. Play a card and declare it to be the one to play. Another player could challenge you: “I doubt it.” If caught, you had to pick up all the cards on the table. But if you told the truth, the doubter had to pick up the cards.

Each year at Holy Week, we tell the same story. It is filled with intrigue. There is love and betrayal, schemes and hidden agendas, cruelty and compassion and it ends with one of the great plot twists of all time. And each year, at least in my lifetime, there has been a movie or two designed to “prove” that the story is more than story: it is history.

I like to think that it is more than history: it is a story. And frankly, I really don’t care what bits of the story actually happened and what bits of the story were told because words could not actually describe what happened. In his book, “Zealot,” Reza Aslan writes of many religious leaders that came and went in the same period as Jesus. He writes of the ones who at least made it into a historical footnote, who knows how many didn’t even get that far?

So what is it about this story that has endured so many years and is still told today? Esperanza’s Thursday Bible Study group took a look at historical creeds earlier this year, and then we wrote our own: “The Thursday Creed.” I like a lot f things about it, so did our Confirmation class who compared it to the Apostle’s Creed last week.

The part I like the most is the description of God: “We believe that God is eternal and everlasting and cannot be contained by words.” Something happened long ago that was life changing, history changing and world changing. Many tried, and did the best they could, but language was simply not able to describe it, explain it, contain it. It is an experience for doubters and dreamers. Perhaps we can capture just a bit of it this week.

 

Here is a prayer for doubters and dreamers from 20th Century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

Provoke and Encourage – Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

PastorSteveFor most of us, the word provoke carries a negative connotation. It is what I used to do, often in very subtle ways, to irritate my brother until he would finally haul off and slug me. Then of course, I would run to my mother: “he hit me!” That was the way the game of little brother was played.

            The writer of Hebrews had something very different in mind. Provoke does mean to do something that results in a responsive action from another but it is not the kind of action my brother took. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” It is definitely a different kind of provocation.

Furthermore, it isn’t just provocation, it is also encouragement. I got news this week that one of my favorite teachers died. He had a long teaching career that was marked by both provocation and encouragement. He had said that the job of a teacher is not to teach people what to think but rather to teach them how to think.

One of the things we had to do in his classes was write a research paper. It was how I learned to navigate through the card file in the library (those of you who do not know that a card file is should ask your parents). He really didn’t care what the topic was; the rumor was that he liked unusual or offbeat topics. What he did expect is that you would defend your thesis and thoroughly document your sources.

I still have my term paper on the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, and a wider conspiracy to take over the government to derail Lincoln’s reconstruction plans in favor of punishing the south for the war. I kept it because my teacher loved it. He had provoked and encouraged.

I sometimes wonder why congregations have mission statements. I can not imagine a better one: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

 

Here are some provocative and encouraging words from 20th Century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

Oreos and Manna – Numbers 11:4-29

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

This week the satirical website “The Onion” posted a photo of Pope Francis holding a package of Oreos in each hand with the headline, “Pope Francis Reverses Position on Capitalism After Seeing Wide Variety of American Oreos.” It caused me to remember complaining to my mother about the home made cookies in my lunch and wondering why I couldn’t have store bought like the other kids.

In our culture, the word “blessing” almost always means something good, and usually in abundance. That may not be the biblical meaning of the word. The Israelites seemed to have quickly forgotten about slave labor and captivity because it didn’t take long for them to start complaining about the lack of food during the Exodus. Even when they got all the manna they could eat, the complaining went on: fond remembrances of fish and cucumbers and leeks and garlic.

The people complained about their abundance to Moses and Moses passed it on to God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he moaned. “Let me die.” Moses had been reluctant to be in charge in the first place. Perhaps he knew just how whiney people get, even when they are being led to freedom. God responded with sarcasm. They want meat they will get meat, “until it comes out your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”

Touring Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as a first year seminarian in the late 1970’s, I was shocked at the shabby conditions and the widespread poverty. My teacher, Rev. Roberto Navarro told me that God does not always judge with scarcity, sometimes God judges with abundance.

One does wonder sometimes if our abundance is a blessing or a curse or if it has the potential to be both. For his part, the Pope decided not to have lunch with leaders on Capital Hill. Instead he blessed a meal for needy and homeless people at Washington’s Saint Maria Meals. They had brownies for desert, but he was too busy talking with the people to sit down to lunch.

 

Martin Luther said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” Pope Francis blessed the meal in Washington with only two: “Buon appetito.”

Pardon our Mess(iah) – Mark 8:27-38

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he is asking them what they tell others about him. Peter chimes up, “You are the Messiah.” Of course, two seconds later he tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” Change of heart? I don’t think so. What I think is that Jesus wasn’t entirely comfortable with Peter’s answer. I think that because he sternly tells the disciples not to tell anyone.

The word messiah comes from the Hebrew word meaning “anointed.” In ancient Judaism the word tended only to apply to the Davidic kings and the High Priest. Following the exile however, new ideas emerged about what a messiah would be like. Having endured generations of exile and ruin, an image of a vindicating king who would smite Israel’s oppressors and restore a never-ending kingdom began to emerge.

While I don’t think Jesus rejected Peter’s answer, I also don’t think he wanted to create the expectation that he was that kind of messiah. His announcement that the Son of Man would have to be rejected, suffer, die and be resurrected was intended to indicate what kind of a messiah he was. Peter’s disappointment was just the sort of thing Jesus sought to avoid.

In fact, Jesus is pretty much the opposite of the conquering king messiah; his power does not come from armies and weapons. He pushes the disciples to think beyond this world’s vision of power and authority, to gain the things that can only be gained by giving them away.

 

As we observe the 14th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, here is the familiar prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226):

 

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

 

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Yes the Cart Goes In Front of the Horse – Mark 7:1-23

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

I don’t know how many Pharisees there were in the first century. And I don’t know how many how many went around kvetching about the stuff Jesus did and said but I think it was probably just a few. There were others who were probably kvetching about the stuff that other non-authorized leaders were doing and saying and then there were some, maybe even most, who found nothing to kvetch about.

In Mark’s story, the ones with Jesus were upset that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. But let’s be clear, this story was not about dirty hands. No one was concerned about the spread of the common cold. This was about tradition. The hand washing had long since ceased to be about hygiene. And if those grumbling Pharisees demonstrate Jesus’ cavalier attitude toward “the way it’s always been,” maybe others would stop paying him attention.

And really, it wasn’t so much about the law and tradition so much as it was the way he was always leaning toward the culture’s most disagreeable sorts. The long-standing tradition was clear: if there was to be any kind of forgiveness at all, there first had to be repentance. All those rules (and there’s 613 of them) were there to show you just how messed up you really were and just what you had to do to get un-messed.

Jesus went and put the cart before the horse. The Pharisees were like the demonic schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” screaming, “You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.” You have to follow the rules before you can be part of the community. Jesus turns it on its head, and all the wrong sorts are welcome to the table, even those with dirty hands.

Sadly, much of Christianity has yet to get that message. “Repent and be saved” they shout. Jesus did the salvation part first. We are invited to the table of grace with dirty hands, and nourished by the bread and wine we are finally freed to seek to be what we were created to be.

 

Amelia Boynton Robinson died this week at the age of 104. She was nearly beaten to death as she marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma Alabama in support of the Voting Rights Act in what has been called “Bloody Sunday.” Last March, she crossed the bridge again, 50 years later, this time in a wheel chair, holding the hand of the United States’ first black President. In an interview last December she said, “Only until all human beings begin to recognize themselves as human beings will prejudice be gone forever. People ask me what race I am, but there is no such thing as race. I just answer: ‘I’m a member of the human race.’ ”

The Whole Megillah – John 6:56-69

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

The jazz standard, “Body and Soul” has been around since 1930. It has been recorded by legends such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, and as recently as 2011 as a duet by Tony Bennett and the late Amy Winehouse. The titular phrase, body and soul meant everything, completely in, the whole megillah. In case you’re not familiar with that last one, megillah is the Hebrew word for scroll. On Purim, the entire scroll of the book of Esther is read. The whole megillah.

And since we’re on the subject of Hebrew, there is a Hebrew idiom, flesh and blood, that means the entire person, the whole megillah. As much as you wanted to strangle a member of your family, you couldn’t because they were your own flesh and blood. They were part of you. You were a part of them, flesh and blood, the whole megillah.

For five weeks now we have been in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John in which Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as the bread of life. The setting for chapter six is the Passover and the people were no doubt thinking about the story of the Exodus. Jesus is portrayed parallel to Moses, and something more than Moses. Both go to the wilderness, both go up a mountain, both attract large crowds. Most of all, both see to it that the crowds are fed. In the Exodus story, Moses prays and after the dew burns off, a flaky sweet bread-like substance called manna appears (I like to think it was baklava, but I digress).

Jesus takes the comparison further: he not only provides the bread, he claims that he is the bread. He doesn’t just encourage the people to eat the bread that is him, he tells them to devour it, wolf it down, consume the whole megillah. flesh and blood, body and soul. Is it a metaphor? Yes, certainly, but it is also more than a metaphor.

Years ago, I had a parishioner comment that I wore “clunky” shoes.” When I asked her to repeat, she told me that when she knelt for communion all she could see was my clunky shoes. I told her that she needed to accept the challenge of thinking about something other than my footwear at the Lord’s Supper.

So what do you think about? Is it just another thing that we do because we have always done it? Or are you fully consuming the whole megillah? Do you take communion and then are done with it for another week, or are you devouring every morsel of who and what the Christ of God is; does he become a part of you? As for that everlasting life, it isn’t something you have to die to experience, it is happening right now.

 

Here is a prayer of St. Basil of Caessarea, a bishop in Asia Monir in the fourth century:

O Master, Christ our God, King of the ages, and maker of all things: I thank thee for all the good things which thou hast bestowed upon me, and for this partaking of thine immaculate and life-giving Mysteries. Wherefore I pray thee, who art good and lovest mankind: Keep me under thy protection, and in the shadow of thy wings; and grant unto me with a pure conscience and even unto my last breath, to partake of thy holy Mysteries, unto remission of sins and unto life everlasting. For thou art the Bread of Life, the Fountain of holiness, the Giver of good things, and unto thee we ascribe Glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

Wisdom Not Always the Obvious Choice – Proverbs 9:1-6

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

The tragic loss of two 14 year-old boys in Florida last month brought back a lot of memories. While the Internet lit up with outrage at the parents for letting two boys go fishing in a 19-foot boat, I thought of my own childhood that involved a lot of boats.

Boats gave me an autonomy that nothing else could – I have been sailing since I was seven and I wasn’t much older than that when I was allowed to take out a 16 foot fishing boat with a 5 horsepower motor. Of course, that autonomy came with a great deal of responsibility. There were rules about when and where I could sail or fish. And even though I was much younger than some of the other boaters, often I was more versed in safety and seamanship.

That was the case with the boys in Florida. They grew up around boats; they knew their stuff. No one knows what their intentions were when they went out that day, but it seems like they exceeded their boundaries and the consequences were terrible. Even though I had strict rules on the lake and followed them most of the time, I have to admit that I exceeded my boundaries a few times. I got away with it both in terms of not getting caught, and in terms of nothing disastrous happening.

The lesson from Proverbs introduces us to Wisdom. Wisdom is described as a woman living in a house built on seven pillars. She mixes wine, prepares a feast and sends servants out to invite people to come. A few verses past our lesson, we are introduced to another woman. She is Folly. She does not prepare a feast but instead sits in her doorway and invites those passing by to come in. Her words are the same as Wisdom’s, but her table is spread with food and drink that has been stolen. Folly’s guests, the writer tells us, “are in the depths of Sheol.”

How quick we are in the face of such tragedy, to find someone to blame. Uncovering a scapegoat helps us to rest in the embracing arms of the delusion that terrible things won’t just happen. There doesn’t need to be a why or a who, terrible things do just happen. We all have taken a seat a Folly’s table and gorged ourselves.

The amazing thing about grace if that God loves those at Folly’s table just as much as those seated at Wisdom’s. Maybe even a little more.

 

Here is a portion of William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence:”

 

Man was made for joy and woe

And when this we rightly know

Thro the world we safely go

Joy and woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine

What is Satisfied? – John 6:1-21

Pastor Steve Hammer

Pastor Steve Hammer

Feeding the multitude is the only pre-crucifixion story about Jesus that occurs in all four gospels. I conclude from that that the early church found it to be particularly important. In John’s telling of the story, it was close to Passover so you might imagine that the people were thinking of Moses. At very least, you might imagine that Jesus was thinking about Moses because he seemed to go out of his way to do Moses-y things.

Moses went to the wilderness, Jesus crossed to the south shore of the lake. Moses was concerned about what the Israelites would eat, Jesus asked Philip how they were going to feed everyone (even though he knew). Moses went up a mountain and so did Jesus. Moses parted the water, Jesus walked on it.

But something else takes place that sends the message that Jesus isn’t just like Moses; Jesus is more than Moses! Moses gave the law, but Jesus feeds the people. Instead of the law, Jesus demonstrates in a physical way that when we give ourselves away we end up with more left over than we started with.

John tells us that everyone’s hunger was satisfied. I was at lunch this week on a typically hot Phoenix day, and I asked the waitress to suggest a particularly light and refreshing beer. She nailed it. It was really quite nice. She came around later in the lunch and asked if I wanted another. Oh, yes, I wanted, I said, but had to get back to work. She replied that there is a difference between want and need. She nailed it again.

“They were satisfied,” John writes. The bread was distributed and the people were satisfied. Is this a story about hunger, a story about a miracle? Perhaps, but I think this is a story about justice; distributive justice. Distributive justice is not about everyone getting the same or everyone getting what they want: distributive justice is about everybody getting what they need.

One compelling interpretation of the story is that Jesus did not pull off a magic trick in which five loaves and two fish fed thousands with 12 baskets full of left overs, but that the “miracle” is that when everyone shared what little they had, and all were satisfied.

What is it you want? What is it you need? What would it take for you to be satisfied? Now ask the same three questions substituting your neighbor for you.

 

Here is a prayer for justice from the United Church of Christ:

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:

a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;

a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;

a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;

a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.

Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

No Stars Upon Thars – Ephesians 2:11-22

PastorSteveDr. Seuss, in his wonderful book, “The Sneetches,” tells the story of two groups of creatures that were identical with the exception of one little thing: half of them had stars on their bellies. “Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”

But it did matter. The star-bellied Sneetches concluded that the stars made them superior to the plain-bellied Sneetches. They didn’t socialize with their plain-bellied cousins and walked around with their noses in the air. They taught their children to avoid plain-bellies, exclude them from games, and thus the difference gained cultural and historical credence.

And then came Sylvester McMonkey McBean. He had invented a machine that, for a price, could imprint the plain-bellies with a star. One group of Sneetches still felt that they were superior to the other, but it was no longer possible to tell which Sneetch was which. To add to the confusion, McBean reversed his machine so that it would remove the stars from the star-bellies.

He exploited his machine – adding stars and removing stars – until the Sneetches had spent all of their money. The he packed up his machine and drove off, gleefully proclaiming, “You can’t teach a Sneetch.”

Dividing walls were nothing new among the first Jesus followers. Those who grew up with the temple in Jerusalem as the primary sign of their faith and culture knew all about them. Something like concentric rectangles, moving inward from the gates there was an area where just about anybody could be, an area only for Jews, and area only for male Jews finally ending up in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go, and he only twice a year.

The early church knew all about dividing walls. Jew/Gentile, clean/unclean, male/female, citizen/alien. It made things orderly; you knew where you belonged and more importantly you knew whom to exclude. The early church had already blurred some of those boundaries; Jews and Gentiles were worshipping together. But of course, even after the walls tumble down, the boundaries still exist. The author of Ephesians refers to the two groups there as the “circumcision” and the “uncircumcision.”

And then he makes a powerful summary of the gospel, “Bun now you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and had broken down the dividing wall.” Our unity has nothing to do with our sameness. All of the ways humanity sorts humanity into separate pigeon holes have fallen away. It has nothing to do with uniformity or orthodoxy or politics or culture or national boundaries. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

How is a Sylvester McMonkey McBean supposed to make a living now?

 

Here is the last stanza of “The Sneetches:”

But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say.

That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether

They had one, or not, upon thars.

Each Heard in Their Native Language – Acts 2:1-21

PastorStevePentecost is the fiftieth day since Easter Sunday. The first one just happened to be on a Jewish festival that celebrated the harvest and the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Jerusalem was probably filled with pilgrims and partiers. The party part is important because when a bunch of Galileans started speaking about the great deeds of God in multiple languages, the scoffers scoffed that they were just drunk. Being that it was only nine in the morning, the implication was that they were on an all night bender.

Peter assured them that this was not the meaningless babble of the overly beveraged, and when folks from around the Jewish world heard proclamations in their native languages, some began to realize that God was up to something.

Something is going on in Fountain Hills too, but I am pretty sure it is not God’s doing. Eight congregations are uniting by placing large banners on their property declaring, “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?” The pastors are all preaching on the same subjects for several weeks to, as one of the pastor’s explained, help people distinguish between “true biblical Christianity and progressive Christianity.”

It is hard not to see this as a direct assault on Pastor David Felton of The Fountains Methodist Church in that he was written a book on Progressive Christianity and is the co-author of the “Living the Questions” series done here at Esperanza several times.

First of all, I am bewildered by the language: true biblical Christianity. Is there an untrue biblical Christianity or a true unbiblical Christianity? Is it all or nothing? And while I am not exactly sure what the eight pastors understand Progressive Christianity to be. Religion Professor James McGrath of Butler University uses this definition: “Progressive Christianity is a broad tradition, encompassing all forms of Christianity which honestly acknowledge that being a Christian is not merely about preserving things from the past, but innovating, revising, reforming, and creatively engaging with the present as well.”

I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I think the Pentecost lesson is not so much about people speaking or hearing languages as it is the message of the gospel being a language that each of us hears in their own way. And it is not as if there is a right or wrong way to “hear” it, it is something that changes and develops over time if we are open to the changes.

Our culture presses us to eliminate ambiguity; we want to know what is right and what is wrong, or in the words of the eight congregations in Fountain Hills, what is faction and what is fictitious. Spirituality however, is not a polemic of fact against fiction, it is something much deeper than that.

 

Here is a prayer by J. Philip Newell from his book, “Celtic Benediction:”

May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul.

May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.

May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight and for ever.

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