Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remembering MLK

This past Sunday, we remembered Martin Luther King Jr. by focusing on his role as a prophet.  Perhaps his most provocative speech, one you likely didn't hear yesterday, was his 1968 speech coming out against the war in Vietnam.  Though we listened to excerpts of the speech, I encourage you to follow this link to the full text.  Whether you agree with his stance or not, we can learn from his example of acting upon our God given consciouses even when it might not be to our benefit.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hearing God's Voice amidst the shooting in Tucson

Psalm 29

Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon (delivered at Seven Hills UMC)

Ever have any difficulty hearing the voice of God?

In the wake of Saturday’s violence, I think this is a particularly poignant question.  If you were not aware, on January 8th Representative Gabrielle Giffords and a number of other individuals were shot, and many killed, at a “meet your congresswoman” event in Arizona.  Though there is still much that we do not know, the shooter’s paranoid anti-government rants can be found on the internet.  To me, there is little doubt that this is the work of a mentally ill man, and we pray for the victims, for those still struggling to survive, and even for this man and his family, that God’s peace and healing will settle over all.  However, I also think it would be a mistake to simply write-off this senseless shooting as just the work of a mentally ill man and assume it couldn’t happen anywhere.  

We live in a day and age where our political rhetoric is filled with hate.   When we talk about taking out our opponents, when politicians say we should use “second amendment remedies" to political problems, when our political ads seek to demonize and destroy rather than uplift and inform; these should be signs to us of a wider problem.

In reacting to the events, the local county sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, stated- “It’s time as a country that we need to do a bit of soul-searching, because its the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out that we hear from people in the radio business and some people in the tv business and what we see on tv and how our youngsters are being raised.  That this has not become the nice United States of America that we grew up in and I think its time that we do the soul searching.”  (See below for a fuller portion of his remarks)

Indeed, it is time to search our souls.  To think about the voices we listen to and the rhetoric we tacitly support or maybe even use.  Because when we fill our airwaves, when we fill our minds, when we fill our mouths with these voices of hatred, we begin to drown something out.  We shut out the voice of God who is calling us forth in our baptism to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins...to accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and to put our whole trust in God’s grace.”

But this sets up a dilemma.  It seems easy to me to find and listen to these voices of hatred.  Its much more difficult at times for us to tune into the voice of God.  I can confess that despite being a pastor, I too can feel lost and adrift in my search for God’s voice.  I have no doubt that some in this congregation can recognize God’s leading perhaps a little easier than myself.  But I bet we all experience those moments of struggle, and that is why we need to work on preparing ourselves to recognize God’s voice.  

The voice of God plays a prominent role in both scripture texts this morning.  In Psalm 29, the poet declares:

3The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
I’ve got to tell you, this description has me a bit perplexed.  I mean, if the voice of the Lord has this much power, how is it I keep missing it?  One commentator reinforces just how mighty a voice this is by describing that
“The voice does not break just any little, scrubby tree but rather the cedars of Lebanon – the largest, strongest, and most famous trees in Israel's experience.  [Furthermore] The voice does not cause just any old piece of land to shudder and shake but rather Sirion, also known as Mt. Hermon, the largest, tallest mountain in all the Levant, and the wilderness of Kadesh, the anvil on which Israel was forged.”

It is particularly important that God is said to be “over the waters.”  Water plays a particular role in ancient Israelite and Canaanite societies-  water is seen as chaos, as unordered creation.  Think back to the first creation story at the beginning of Genesis-  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
In this creation account, before there was anything else, there was this formless void that was made up of waters.  It is to this that God brings God’s creative powers-  God separates the waters into sky and sea.  The Creator parts the waters to form ocean and land.  It is out of the waters from which God calls forth life.
So, according to the Psalmist, according to our creation story, God’s voice is one that is over all of creation.  It is one that brings order out of chaos.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit sheepish at this point.  I must really be hard of hearing to shut this all out.
  In fact, while God’s voice, God’s power may be expressed in creation, how is it that we as Christians declare that God’s voice is definitively revealed?
In the humble visage of Jesus Christ our Lord.  

The very Jesus Christ who comes to John and asks him if he might baptize him.  John, of course, has just described himself as unworthy to carry the Messiah’s sandals.  So John rightfully asks, why he should baptize God.  So we have an unworthy John and a great and mighty God.  How dare John presume to baptize God, or if you’d prefer, the son of God?

And yet, Jesus responds that this is God’s will, that Jesus submit himself to a man to be baptized.  And it is in that submission, after he has allow John to baptize him, that God’s voice once again appears, this time as a light little dove, and says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
So which is it God?  If we are listening for your voice, are we supposed to listen for the loud and powerful one that our psalmist describes, or the gentle and submissive one that Jesus displays?

Yes and yes.  

While God’s voice is indeed powerful, Jesus’ actions reveal that God will not force his voice upon us.  Rather than imposing power, God submits at a certain level to humanity.  That doesn’t mean that humanity rules over God, but it does mean that God has given us the power to shut out the divine voice.  To ignore it and go about our own way.  To serve and promote the cause of chaos and destruction, instead of listening to the God who seeks to build up this world through grace and love.

So, it is indeed time for a little soul-searching.  On this Sunday in which we remember the baptism of our Lord, we have the opportunity to reaffirm our baptism.  This means we’ll have a choice once again to decide to whose voice are we willing to listen.  

Will we listen to the voices in the world who promote death and destruction, or the True Voice that seeks to bring us life abundant?  

Will we follow and promote the powers of divisiveness and violence, or will we reaffirm our desire to follow God in bringing love and healing to all those in need?  

Will we stand up to those who use hate and tear down the weak, or will we close our eyes and ears to the pain in our midst?

It is to the baptismal font that we are called.  

It is at this font that we are called to decide.  

It is at this font where we will chose to whom we will listen.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Transforming Together

Acts 2:42  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were faced with the prospect of continuing on without him.  So long as Jesus had been physically present, he had been at the center of all activity.  Now that he was gone, what were they to do?  Would they go their own ways and return to their former lives? Would they launch a violent revolution?  Would factions emerge?  All of these were very real options and each would have been an understandable, if misguided response to Jesus’ ascension.  Fortunately, the disciples settled on  a different course of action.  Rather then drift apart, they banded together and grew into the people Christ intended them to be.
Similarly, when John Wesley became a pastor, he found a church that had lost touch with its people.  Few attended and those that did were rarely transformed by God’s grace.  Thus, he launched an effort to revive Christianity in England- not by building more and bigger churches, but by gathering small groups together so that they could contemplate God and hold one another accountable.
The early disciples and the early Methodists hit upon one important truism-  its very difficult to embark on the Christian journey alone.  Its too tempting to allow other influences to distract you from the path when you are all alone.  This is one of the reasons we come together in worship each Sunday morning.  However, as John Wesley discovered, Sunday worship is generally not enough to foster real growth. It doesn’t allow for extensive sharing of the struggles and joys of your life.  It generally doesn’t allow for conversation that can help one to perceive God a little clearer.
In a small group, friendships can grow.  In a small group, we can hold one another accountable.  In a small group, we can give space for a person to work through their grief.  After all, isn’t this the model Jesus taught us?  You gather together a group, maybe of 12 or so, do God’s work, and transform the world.