July 27, 2016

Imagine That!

Imagination is one of the greatest forces for change at work in the world today.

No less of a thinker than Albert Einstein said,

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.
Regardless of one’s profession of daily routine, imagination is at the heart of innovation, creativity, and improvement.

An inventor imagines a machine that will accomplish a familiar job at half the cost and twice the speed. An ad exec imagines a campaign that will help her client reach previously untapped markets.

A musician sits at a silent piano and imagines a symphony in his mind.

An athlete imagines how a play will unfold so that she’ll be prepared to be in the right place ay just the right time.

It doesn’t matter if you work on Wall Street or Main Street, John Street or Broadway, imagination is vital. Imagination can change a point of view or landscape. Imagination can change the world.

Imagination helps children develop. It helps the troubled soul pursue a new and better say of being. Imagination shines the light of justice into an unjust situation. Imagination is a revolutionary force within each and every one of us.

You see, we’re not talking about some flight of fancy here. We’re talking about the ability to press beyond the limited thinking of “the way things are” and “the ways things have always been” in order to experience life more deeply.

Is it any wonder, then, why some people are so threatened by imagination?

Dictators and tyrants always try to control what their people are thinking, lest the tenuousness of their grip on power be exposed.

False prophets and charlatans always aim to suppress thoughts and ideas that aren’t their own.

Even in our time and place, there are countless voices and forces of the status quo determined to keep us from engaging questions and concerns with a creative and imaginative spirit.

What’s so interesting about our circumstances, however, is that they perfectly prepare us to hear Good News in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.

There were forces that wanted to keep the Colossians in line, too, the brutal and seductive powers of the Roman Empire.

Historians remind us that Rome’s objective was very clear—hold on to power through any means necessary. Bribe the people, entertain the people, crush the people, or destroy the people—Rome’s intentions were clear. Limit the options available to the people so severely, that all choices benefited the Empire.

Think of it like living your life in a casino. You might have some good moments, but, in the end, the House always wins.

A powerful Empire intends to create an environment in which it ultimately benefits from all acceptable choices.

A spirit, a vision, a savior had taken hold of Paul, however, that just wouldn’t let him accept that Rome’s approved options were the only options available to him. Paul knew that there was another power at work in the world, the Power in whom the hopes and dreams of all people rests.

Colossians is a meditation on that Power.

Listen, again, to this passage from the letter’s opening verses that we read in worship a few weeks ago.

Recalling the moment he learned that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had reached the Colossians, Paul wrote,

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
The implication is that the new believers could expect the forces of wickedness to challenge their budding faith and to tempt them to go astray.

In light of this, Paul continued,

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Paul wanted the people who were living in the shadow of Rome to imagine another way of living rather than the one being pushed upon them from every direction.

There was another way to find peace rather than simply crushing your enemies.

There was another way to have a good life rather than exploiting your neighbors.

There was a real God whose image you wouldn’t be forced to worship, but in whose image you were truly created.

For in [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
In the face of an imposing, seductive, violent power our spiritual ancestors had the courage and faith to see an ever greater power at work in the world and reigning in their hearts, a power that set them free—free from the bondage of imagination stomping oppression—free to realize that with God’s help, the way it was not the way it had to be. Those first Christians could imagine a community in which old barriers of race and ethnicity and economics came tumbling down, a community where people cared for one another, a community committed to justice and reconciliation.

They also had the courage to take concrete steps toward making that image their reality.

Today, you and I come together as the heirs to the promise of the community called Church that they built so long ago to build our lives on the same foundation of God’s grace.

Like them, we need to hear the Gospel of God’s love and power made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Like them, we need the God-given imagination to envision relationships and communities and a world in which, as we pray every Sunday, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

And like faithful disciples in every age, we need courage and creativity to step out of line and into the light, to love other as God loves us, to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, that we might be for the world his kind hands—“for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

And that is why we call the Gospel he gave us to share, Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

July 18, 2016

Summertime

Despite the fact that I come from a long line of farmers, I struggle to pick up even a decent piece of fruit at the supermarket. However, growing up where and how I did taught me enough about the work of farmers to know that in all seasons timing is of the essence.

The timing of spring rain, summer droughts, and the fall’s first frost can make the difference between bounteous and lean crops.

The preferred window of time to plant at one time of year and to reap at another might require round the clock work in the fields.

Depending on when it comes during the season, farmers might receive a heavy storm as a blessing, an inconvenience, or a disaster.

Timing is of the essence.

Of course, we who merely enjoy the fruit of the farmers’ fields know this to be true, too. The apple in your kitchen that is crisp and tasty today will be mealy and gross in a couple of days. Given a little more time, the avocados that would make perfect guacamole this afternoon will be brown, disgusting, and inedible.

From the planting of the seed and the blooming of the first blossom to picking the fruit and eating it, timing is everything.

Grasping the importance of timing is fundamental to understanding the prophet Amos’ vision of a basket of summer fruit.

Amos declared,

This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”
God showed Amos a basket of fruit, but what did the vision mean?

Would there be a feast, a celebration?

Was the kingdom about to enter a great season of prosperity and wealth?

God began to explain Amos’ vision.

Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.
The summer fruit isn’t a vision on prosperity because the time to enjoy the fruit has past. It’s no good anymore.

Amos’ vision, therefore, proves to be the introduction to a scathing indictment against God’s people for the wickedness they’d allowed to take root in their lives.

Let’s look again at our first lesson.

“Be silent!” God said.

The image here reminds me of a judge calling a defendant to attention so that the charges can be recounted and a sentence delivered. The defendant in this case is the Kingdom of Israel.

“Be silent” and listen to the three charges against you.

The first count of the indictment,

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?
The “new moon” and “Sabbath” were holy days of rest and worship. The first charge, therefore, is religious hypocrisy.

This refers to those who keep up the appearance of religion—they mark the holy days—but they know nothing of religion’s spirit. This is a charge against those who never turn their hearts toward God nor turn off their drive and hunger for the next day’s profit.

“You’re greedy hypocrites,” says the Lord.

That’s the first count of the indictment against the people.

The second count reads like this.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.”
The “ephah” and “shekel” were units of measurement in Israel’s marketplaces, so the second charge is conspiring to cheat one’s customers, of literally rigging the scales against them—like a market that overcharges you for your lunchtime salad.
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land,” you greedy hypocrites, you cheaters and frauds. Hear God’s third charge against you. You say, “We will…[buy] the poor for silver and needy for a pair of sandals.”
A greedy heart is bad enough and cheating in business is criminal, but the third charge against the people hints at something atrocious in their community—debt slavery—a whole system corrupted and twisted so as to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable were seen only as a source of cheap labor that could be exploited for the profit of others.

Do you sense the depravity of the situation in which Amos found himself?

Do you recognize the hypocrisy of a community whose members could pay lip service to God (the God of their own deliverance from bondage), yet still conspire to profit from human trafficking?

The Judge reviewed the charges (Greed, Cheating, Buying and Selling the Poor) and delivered the Kingdom’s sentence with a roar.

Surely I will never forget any of their deeds...The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.
And, indeed, that day came in the form of an invading army. Within the lifetime of Amos’ audience, the Assyria army conquered Israel, or the northern portion of King David’s once united empire, and removed it from the map forever.

Such was the substance and aftermath of the ancient prophet’s sermon about summer fruit.

But what are we to do with Amos’ words today?

Surely, we must confess that dishonest practices that exploit the poor—like the injustices Amos enumerates—remain offensive to God.

God still cares about greed, and cheating, and the sick dehumanizing conditions in which these practices force people to live.

And from young women traded for sex to workers forced into the shadows so that we can pay less for our food and our stuff, since every crime Amos mentions clearly has its twenty-first century manifestations, the prophetic word still tells us that the time is right to confess our broken and sinful ways.

The time is right, People of God, for us to come to the God who meets us in the Good News of Jesus Christ and his victory over sin.

In Jesus, God drew near to a hurting and hurtful world to offer healing and to make healers of all who would place their trust and find their place in him.

When the time was right, Jesus announced, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the Lord’s Jubilee.”

And that same Spirit is with us—blessing, reconciling, and equipping us to live and to love as those who know that love of the Living God.

Amos’ vision of summer fruit should elicit a response from us. It should stir up within the Church a renewed sense of mission and purpose.

To that end, I think we can revisit Amos’ vision.

Acknowledging that timing is of the essence, we know that the fruit that is sweet today could be rotten tomorrow.

As disciples of Jesus Christ who are guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit the time is right for us to take action, and to confront injustice with courage and compassion.

We have a calling to meet dehumanizing conspiracies with the Light of God’s Truth and—in our time and in our hearts—to live into the promise that all life is precious and sacred in God’s sight.

The Spirit of the Lord that spoke through Amos and took on flesh in Jesus is with us in this time, in this moment.

May the Spirit lead us to seek justice and love kindness and may it make the life we share together Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

July 10, 2016

Language Barrier

What a terrible week! Seven days ago we prayed that the promises of life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness would be shared among all people, then we experienced daily deadly reminders that the efficacy of those promises have never been self-evident to African Americans and that evil and ancient forces always seek to undermine and destroy the conditions that make genuine and honest community possible. Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, and addictive violence have unleashed their fury again, like menacing clouds on a hot and humid summer day.

Unlike talking about heat waves and thunderstorms, however, naming and speaking about the forces we’ve witnessed this week is fraught. The shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens expose some of the deepest and most volatile fault lines running through this nation. So deep are these fissures that even our ability to communicate becomes weak and language itself seems to fail us.

Speaking of race, it seems that some—specifically people of color—have been having “the Talk” and raising their voices for so long that the unwillingness of others to listen leaves them speechless.

For others—specifically white people—our privileged place in society tempts us to believe that race is so irrelevant in contemporary America that we either lack the will to have a conversation about it in the first place, or we discover that we lack the cultural grammar to communicate effectively.

Honestly, this week on the six train I overheard conversations between New Yorkers and tourists who didn’t speak the same language that were easier to follow, displayed infinitely more patience and trust, and made more sense to me than the venomous reactions on social media to the statement “Black Lives Matter.”

Something like a language barrier impedes discussions about race in this country, a barrier that those evil and ancient forces arrayed against God’s family are more than willing to exploit.

Of course, it is inevitable that our backgrounds and experiences influence our perceptions of events and how we understand them. Even those of us gathered here this morning would tell differently the stories of what happened in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas this week, and I’m sure that we have different ideas about what these things mean and what should happen next.

There’s not necessarily any sin in that.

However, when perceptions and understandings fuel arrogance and pride, when our point of view excludes the validity of all others, when the way we see the world leads us to turn a blind eye to oppression, injustice, and violence we must confess that by the measure of God’s righteous plumb line, our hearts are listing, wanting, and flawed.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as it’s been incumbent upon believers in every age, to know the truth about ourselves, humbly to do the work of confession and repentance, and to allow God’s Spirit to make steady our wobbly ways and to bring us back into a true and right relationship with God and one another.

God taught Moses this truth by giving him the Ten Commandments that forever linked our theology and ethics and drawing a straight line between the One who is worthy of worship and our neighbors who are worthy of respect, fairness, and justice.

God taught this to Amos, too. That’s why the prophet who railed against religious corruption and economic exploitation, also challenged God’s people to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

And Jesus still teaches this truth to all with hears to hear his parable about a merciful Samaritan.

This is how Luke introduces the iconic story.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer,” said Jesus, “do this, and you will live.”

“What do you read in the law about eternal life?” asked Jesus.

“Love God with everything you’ve got and remember that all neighbors matter.”

“That’s right!” said Jesus. “Now go do it.”

But the lawyer had a peculiar reaction to Jesus. Luke says he wanted to “justify himself” or “to make himself right.” Given the context, I think it’s fair for us to infer from this that what the lawyer really just wanted Jesus to tell him that he was doing a great job and didn’t need to change a single thing about the way he was living his life.

The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Clearly this man wanted Jesus to draw a line between the people in his life—separating them into neighbors whom he should love and others whom he could ignore—a line that I’m sure the man expected to follow precisely his understanding of “my people” and “those people.”

And that should sound familiar to us because the same forces at work in our time were working on the lawyer’s heart, too.

By asking Jesus to locate love of neighbor’s end, the man was participating in an age-old habit of persons in power—saying the great and magnanimous thing, but doing little to see that statement become reality.

To love one’s neighbor as oneself is a radical statement, too radical for the lawyer, in fact, so he asked Jesus to tell him that some of those people weren’t really his neighbor after all.

When our nation’s forefathers signed on to the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their create with certain inalienable rights,” they made a radical statement, then continued to buy and sale some men, women, and children, too.

When, toward the end of the 1800s, it became the custom to pledge allegiance to our flag and republic, proclaiming “liberty and justice for all,” all still only meant some.

Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, addictive violence, the failure of language—we know these forces well, and they were present in the communities Jesus visited and in the lives his ministry touched, too, so Jesus bound these up and wove them into a story for the ages.

He set the story in a violent place in the aftermath of a violent event—a man was beaten and robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

He cast the story with people of social privilege like the lawyer—a priest and a Levite.

And he made the story’s protagonist a racial and religious minority—a Samaritan.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan didn’t just pray for they man. He didn’t just march for better security on the Jericho Road. He did the hard, selfless, generous work of mercy.

Jesus teaches us that mercy has the power to short circuit the evil and ancient forces that undermine and destroy the conditions that make genuine and honest community possible.

It’s not being proven right, it’s not maintaining our privileges, it’s not being satisfied with justice and equality for some people, it’s mercy—mercy is the blessing that breaks open hardened hearts, compels actions, and changes lives.

Mercy restores sight to those who have become blind to oppression, injustice, and violence.

Mercy leads us to confess that by the measure of God’s righteous plumb line, our hearts are listing, wanting, and flawed.

Mercy—our experience of it and our mandate to do it—is for us the essence of God’s Good News.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as it’s been incumbent upon believers in every age, to know the truth about ourselves, humbly to do the work of confession and repentance, and to allow God’s Spirit to make steady our wobbly ways and to bring us back into a true and right relationship with God and one another.

Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, addictive violence, the failure of language—where can we find the path to eternal life in a landscape fractured by these?

“Go,” says Jesus, “and do mercy.”