Sunday, 15 October 2017

In Heaven as It Is on Earth (Matthew 18:18-20)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on October 15, 2017, Proper 23)



Whatever You Do on Earth Will Be Done in Heaven

Every week we pray with Jesus: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are praying, effectively, for heaven on earth.

In today’s short passage, there’s a curious reversal in Jesus’ words.  Rather than talking about the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus talks about life in heaven as it is on earth.  “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Basically, whatever you do on earth will be done in heaven.  In other words, Jesus isn’t talking about heaven coming to earth.  He’s suggesting the opposite here: that life on earth will somehow become life in heaven. 

This is a striking counterpoint, then, to the Lord’s prayer.  If the Lord’s prayer had misled us into thinking that God would be heaven’s chauffeur and drive heaven down to our doorstep, Jesus’ words here remind us that we have a radical responsibility.  Heaven can come to earth, but not without our willing hearts.  Not without us binding or holding onto what is good, and not without us loosing or letting go of what is hurtful.

The Little Things Live On

Jesus’ words in today’s passage emerge from a conversation about personal relationships.  So when he says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and likewise whatever you loose,” I think what he’s really saying is that heaven, if it is ever to happen, will begin in our personal relationships.  The kingdom of God will not come as a great spectacle.  It will come in the little things.  For the little things live on—in heaven as they were on earth.

If you’ve read or seen A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, perhaps you remember the ghost of Jacob Marley, who bears a heavy chain and warns Scrooge: “I wear the chain I forged in life.  I made it link by link…and of my own free will I wore it.”  Marley is bound beyond as he was bound on earth.

But we can bind and be bound by other things too.  My memories of living in Sheffield visit me most frequently at breakfast time.  In the little terraced house where I lived, our home full of graduate students was always abuzz in the morning.  There would be a common pot of coffee brewing, started by whoever got up the earliest.  If I’d made biscuits, they’d be in the oven, filling the kitchen with the smell of warm butter.  My housemate Adriana often began her day with a smoke; sometimes I’d take a cup of coffee out on the back steps and accompany her, and we’d share our hopes for the day or our speculations on life…or simply our silence.

This is all to say, those mornings in Sheffield have an afterlife.  The little deeds we’ve done are gone, but they also live on.  Our terraced house was not always the scene of peace and harmony; there were differences and arguments from time to time.  But for the most part, we let those go.  Our forgiveness “loosed” those things on earth, and now, I trust, they have no hold on us in heaven.  But the love that bound and held us together here on earth—still binds and holds us together now, as we move toward heaven.

An Infinitely Charged and Sacred Space

In telling that story, I’ve played it safe.  You and I both have histories that are not so peaceful and easy.  We have histories that still hurt, in which we are still “bound,” which we still hold onto.

Those hurtful histories prove Jesus’ point as much as the harmonious ones do.  Namely, that our relationships are an infinitely charged and sacred space.  They have the capacity to bless us with heaven, but also to harm us indefinitely.  What we hold onto and let go of now, is what will hold onto us or not for longer than we can know.

As our Visioning Team met this last year, we shared stories of our most meaningful experiences at Gayton Road.  We’ve already heard about how significant the table has been—as the place where we encounter our Lord in feasting and friendship, in sharing and self-giving, as the place where we receive and participate in God’s love, which is stronger even than death.  Another story shared frequently in the Visioning Team’s meetings, was the memory of small group gatherings.  These memories were good ones.  Having heard Jesus’ words today, I would even go so far as to say that these small groups are where the kingdom happened, where life on earth became in fact life in heaven.  As we hear some of these stories now, I would invite us all to reflect on our own experience of small gatherings, both here at church and elsewhere.  Where have we experienced small groups as sacred, as charged with holy possibility? 

In the Face of Another

As we’ve just heard from Amanda and John, in the small gatherings here at Gayton Road, there is a sacred potential and holy responsibility.  It goes far beyond the content of these groups—whether that’s songs or Bible study.  It has to do, rather, with a way of life, a way of relating to each other, a way of forgiving bad notes and being bound in love and care.  When at these gatherings we hold onto what is good and let go of what is hurtful, we welcome the kingdom.  Or as Jesus puts it, where two or three gather in his name—which is to say, in the spirit of his binding love and his loosing forgiveness—Jesus himself is there. 

Our small groups are saturated with holy possibility.  In the face of another, we receive an invitation to love and forgive, a call to bind our hearts together and to let go of hurt.  So that one day it will be in heaven as it is on earth. 

Prayer

Living Christ,
Who entrusts us
With the kingdom responsibility
Of love and forgiveness,
Binding and loosing:
Gather with us
In our small groups,
And inspire us
To the little deeds
That live on

In heaven.  Amen.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

He Came Eating and Drinking (Luke 7:34)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on October 1, 2017, Proper 21)



More Than a Man Eating and Drinking,
More Than a Table

If you were playing hide-and-seek with Jesus, and you were it, where would begin looking?  We might be tempted to begin by looking for Jesus in the Temple, as his parents did when he was a child.  Or perhaps we might look for him in the workshop, for it’s said that his family were carpenters.  But if the gospels are any indication, we would have better luck searching somewhere else.  We would do better to begin with the local diner. 

It’s a striking fact: in the gospels, we find Jesus at the table much more often than at the Temple.

So often is he found at the table, in fact, that he becomes known as “a drunkard and a glutton” (Luke 7:34).  It’s understandable, perhaps, how Jesus receives this reputation, but it’s rather unfortunate too.  Jesus is always at the table, yes—but he’s doing much more than eating and drinking.  If all that we see is a drunkard and a glutton, then we’ve really missed out.

Perhaps Jesus explains it best himself.  In the gospels, there are two ways that Jesus describes his own life.  On one occasion, he owns up to the obvious: “The Son of Man,” he says, “came eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34).  I imagine Jesus saying this in the same way that we might confess to an undeniable charge.  “Alright, you’ve got me.  I’m always at the table, eating and drinking.  There, I’ve said it!”

But on another occasion, Jesus gives us a glimpse into what’s really going on in all the eating and drinking.  There is more at the table than meets the eye.  At the spiritual heart of all that Jesus does is this: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God,” he says.  “For this purpose I was sent” (Luke 4:43).

In other words, the Jesus who comes “eating and drinking” is the same Jesus who is always “proclaim[ing] the good news of the kingdom of God.”  The table is not just a mess of food and drink.  The table is how Jesus shows us the kingdom of God.  For Jesus, the table becomes a picture of the kingdom.  A doorway into the kingdom.  A celebration consummating the kingdom.

What the Kingdom Looks Like

What does the kingdom of God look like?  While the world dreams of pearly gates and streets of gold, power and prestige beyond measure, Jesus simply sets a table.  “Here,” he seems to say, “Let me show you what the kingdom really looks like.”

At the table, Jesus brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, giving pride of place to the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame (Luke 14:12-14).  At the table, Jesus welcomes the unwelcome: he eats with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34).  At the table, Jesus makes friends (Luke 7:34).  At the table, Jesus makes life more abundant, turning water into wine (John 2:1-10).  At the table, Jesus tells stories, stories that shatter our assumptions and presumption and open up new life (cf. Luke 7:36-50, 14:15-24).  At the table, Jesus meets needs, giving bread to the hungry (Luke 9:10-17).  At the table, Jesus heals the sick  (Luke 14:1-6).  At the table, Jesus sees ours tears and shows us forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50).  At the table, Jesus serves us and cares for us—even washes our feet (John 13:1-17).  At the table, Jesus shares bread and cup as reminders of his undying love, as a promise that he will always be with us (Luke 22:14-20). 

The table is so much a part of who Jesus is, that even when he’s not there, he cannot help talking about it.  It spills into his thoughts and his dreams, his parables and his conversations.  When he speaks, it’s about weddings and feasts (Luke 5:34-35; 14:7-11), banquets and celebrations (Luke 15:11-32), wineskins and vineyards (Luke 5:36-38; 13:6-8; 20:9-19; Matt 20:1-16; 21:28-32, 33-45), seeds and gardens (Matt 13:24-30; Luke 8:4-8; 13:6-9, 18-19), yeast and bread and water and fruit (Luke 13:20-21; John 4:7-15; 6:22-59; 7:37-39). 

Jesus is never far from the table.  And the table, I must believe, is never far from the kingdom of God.

Stories of the Table,
Stories of the Kingdom

Over the last year, as our Visioning Team met together and shared stories and experiences, the table came up again and again.  In retrospect, that’s no surprise.  I have a hunch, a suspicion, that the tables here at Gayton Road are much more than simply tables, just as Jesus was much more than a man eating and drinking.  I have an inkling that the table is, in fact, where we have caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God, perhaps even stepped foot inside the kingdom of God.

As we hear some of these stories now, I invite you to reflect on your own experience of the table.  Not just the communion table here in the sanctuary, but the tables in the fellowship hall, and the tables at your home, and the tables across the world at which you have sat with friends and strangers.  Have these tables ever been more than just tables, more than just a mess of food and drink?  Have you ever caught a glimpse of the kingdom at one of them?  When?  Where?  How? 

What did it look like?

Prayer

Christ who came eating and drinking,
Whose kingdom draws wondrously near
In tables
Where gifts of food and drink are prepared and shared,
Where we are filled with gratitude,
Where strangers are welcomed,
Where nobodies become somebody,
Where friendships are made,
Where healing and forgiveness and care give us new life,
Where your love is blessed, broken, and shared:
Be our holy guest today, at this table,
And in the days to come, at tables near and far.

Your kingdom come, your will be done.  Amen.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Grumbling at God's Gift (Exodus 16:2-15)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 24, 2017, Proper 20)



Grumbling at Seafood

The year was 2004.  My family and I were in the Swiss Alps.  For Christmas.  We lodged for several nights in a quaint little chalet, surrounded by mountains and snow.  We were quite literally living a dream. 

Our first night at the chalet, we entered the dining room with anticipation.  We had heard that there would be no menu.  We would be eating whatever the chef prepared.  It was almost like a culinary Christmas gift.  We had no idea what we would be eating, but we could hardly wait to find out.

We found out soon enough.  Fish.  When the waiter set it ceremoniously on the table, we all smiled nervously.  No one wanted to say anything.  Not right away.  But as soon as the waiter left, we gave a collective grumble. 

Growing up, the closest I had ever gotten to seafood was popcorn shrimp.  Anything else was avoided, mainly because my mom is severely allergic to most finfish.  Better safe than sorry was my family’s seafood policy.

The truth is, except for my mom, we could have eaten that fish in the Swiss chalet.  But we didn’t like fish.  We never ate it.  So when the waiter returned, our collective grumble became a collective half-lie.  We sadly informed him that we were allergic to seafood.  Perhaps they had something else on the menu?

I imagine that the cooks were the next to grumble as their gourmet fish was returned to the kitchen and they heated up its bland replacement: chicken tenders and fries. 

Grumbling as a Faith Disorder

Our two scriptures today are full of grumbling (Ex 16:2-15; Matt 20:1-16).  Just as my family grumbled at the fish, so the Israelites “grumble” at the uncertainty of their next meal (16:2, 7-8, 12), and so the early workers “grumble” at their wages (20:11), which are no better than the wages of the late workers.  The irony in each story, is that no one is grumbling at a hardship.

My family grumbled at the prospect of an unfavorable dish, but that fish would have nourished us and given us life.  The Israelites grumbled at the uncertainty of wandering through the wilderness, but for the first time in their existence they were free to live their own lives.  The early workers grumbled about their paycheck, but the truth is that they were paid a day’s wage, enough to put food on the table, a shirt on their back, and hope in their hearts—enough for a good life.

In each story, the disgruntled grumble not at hardship but at the gift of life: daily bread, freedom, a livelihood.

According to these three stories, then, grumbling is more than a rumble at the back of our throats, more than a momentary expression of frustration.  Grumbling is a faith disorder.  It is a spiritual blindness to the gift of life.  A grumbling spirit could not see a gift if it were right in front of its eyes.  Why?  Because a grumbling spirit reduces life to a market of exchange.  It only understands this-for-that, payment and purchase.

When my family sat down in the chalet dining room, we grumbled because fish—something we did not like—was not a fair exchange for our night’s expense.  When the Israelites wandered into freedom, they grumbled and became nostalgic for their slavery.  Why?  Because in Egypt, they did not have to live in day-to-day uncertainty.  In Egypt, they had been guaranteed an exchange: meat and bread for their labor.  When the workers clocked out with the manager of the vineyard, they grumbled because they expected an exchange proportionate to their labor.  If those who had only worked one hour received one silver coin, then how many more should they receive who worked nine hours?

The Gift of Seafood

After that night in Switzerland, my palate took a curious journey.  Seven years later, I went to study in England.  My first year there, I lived in a flat with 7 other international students.  One of my flat-mates, Fran, was from Barcelona, and he loved seafood.  It was only a matter of time before he had cooked a dish to share.  Paella—with mussels and clams and prawns and tuna. 

How proud he was to share this hometown favorite with me!  It was a gift.  How could I say no?

So I ate it.  At first, every bite was a hard swallow.  But gradually I came to appreciate some of the flavors.  I won’t say I loved the dish.  What I remember most is not how it tasted.  What I remember most is how happy Fran was.  Paella will forever remind me of his excited eyes as I took my first bite, his laughter as I gave it my cautious approval.

It wasn’t long before my palate set sail again for another seafood adventure.  In the culinary world, England is practically synonymous with fish and chips.  For many Brits, a life without fish and chips would be no life at all.  It would have been inexcusable for me to live there and not eat fish and chips.  So I did.  Over my next four years, I ended up visiting more chippies than I can count.  And now I can honestly say that, sometimes, I enjoy fish.  It will never be a favorite for taste.  But it will always remind me of my life there—the friends with whom I ate and the places we went—all of which were, I think, a gift.

In the grand scheme of things, the journey of my palate is pretty trivial.  I understand that.  But I cannot help feeling a certain truth in this experience.  First, seafood was the object of my grumbling.  Years later, it was a gift.  Life was all the more abundant when I received it as a gift.  I hardly remember the chicken tenders and fries of Switzerland.  But Fran’s paella and all the chippies I visited, I will never forget.  They filled me with new life.

Life Is a Gift—Every Day

In both of today’s scriptures, God responds to the grumbling of the people.  And in each response, there is a common theme.  In the wilderness, God promises Moses that the people will have their daily bread: “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day” (Ex 16:4).  In the kingdom parable that Jesus tells, the landowner reminds the workers that, whatever their complaints, they have received their “usual daily wage” (Matt 20:13). 

This, then, is how God responds to grumbling: “Look at me,” God says.  “Don’t look at the past.  Don’t look at others.  Look at me.  I am giving you life today.”

In other words, life is a gift.  Every day.  There is a revolutionary seed in the parable that Jesus tells.  On the surface, this is a story about workers and wages.  It is a story of this for that.  Labor for money.  And yet at the end of the story, the landowner explodes the idea that he was ever giving wages: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you” (Matt 20:14).   The landowner’s money is not a fair wage.  Contrary to all appearances, this is not a story of workers and wages.  This is a story about a gift.

In the kingdom of God, life is not earned or bartered.  Life is a gift.  Every day. 

A Remedy to Grumbling: Gratitude

Both of today’s stories showcase the faith disorder of grumbling.  Both stories diagnose the people’s blindness to God’s gift of life.  But neither story offers a remedy.

There is, however, a hint in today’s psalm, which begins: “O give thanks to the Lord.” 

Gratitude.  Paul takes this one to the extreme when he says, “Give thanks at all times” (cf. 1 Thes 5:18; Eph 5:20).

Whereas grumbling is blind to life, and does nothing to encourage it, gratitude is daily on the quest for life, whatever tender stem or tiny root of life it can find.  Gratitude is the fertilizer of life.  It looks upon life as the gift of God, and welcomes it with open hands, rather than turning it away with a grumbling heart.

“It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote those words in a Nazi prison.  He would die within two years.  That is not fair.  But it did not stop Bonhoeffer from giving thanks anyway—celebrating the life that he had found anyway.  And today Bonhoeffer’s words continue to nourish many readers, myself included, encouraging us to seek out and celebrate life.  Because of his gratitude, there is more life on this earth. 

Perhaps one day, the same might be said of us.

Prayer

God who gives life
In the wilderness,
In our work,
In what does not always fit
Our idea of a fair exchange—
Heal us of our grumbling,
And draw us into a gratitude
That fertilizes your gift of life.
In the name of him
Who saw your gift in all creation, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Where He Said He'd Be (Psalm 114:1-8)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 17, 2017, Proper 19)



The Story of a People:
Who Are Israel?

The last few weeks, we’ve been in Egypt.  We began with the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter and the mother and sister of Moses, all of whom conspired in their own way to serve life instead of death.  We followed Moses out into the wilderness, where he had run away from death and suffering.  There he encountered God in the burning bush, and there he heard the call to return to his fellow Israelites, to share their suffering and their struggle for life.  We followed the Israelites last week as God passed over Egypt and delivered them from slavery, giving them life.  This week, we hear in our Psalm a song celebrating God’s liberating power, a power so great that the earth trembles with life before it. 

Together these stories tell the story of life.  How life triumphed over suffering and death.  But these stories are not a universal story (however universal their themes may be).  They’re a particular story about a particular people.    

Who are the people of Israel?  They are the people who were slaves in Egypt.  They are the people whom God liberated and gave new life.

Who Is Gayton Road?

Over the last year, our Visioning Team—Mark, Grace and Carol, John, Judy, Virginia, and myself, all of whom volunteered to explore our church’s sense of call—met together to ask a similar question: Who is Gayton Road Christian Church?  What is our story of life?  How is God calling us today?

After months of sharing stories and exploring experiences, we began to notice a pattern, a trajectory.  There was no burning bush or desert wilderness like in the Israelites’ story, but there were tales of difficulty and brokenness and liberation and new life.  And these tales again and again tread the same three trails, three trails of liberation where God has met us in our need, and where we believe the church is called to meet others in their need.  From these three trails emerged a sense of who we are and how we are called.  This finds expression at the bottom of the front of your bulletin:
  
“Gayton Road feels called to share the life of faith around tables, in small groups, and with the needful.”

Where Jesus Is:
Around Tables, In Small Groups, With the Needful

Around tables.  In small groups.  With the needful.

Is it any wonder that these three places are where we have found new life amid loss, liberation from the chains of the past?  Is it any coincidence that these three places are where the world trembles with life?  These three places—the table, small groups, and the needful—are precisely where Jesus promised we would always find him.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said at the table, promising that his memory would always be with us there (cf. Luke 22:19).  “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them,” he said, promising that he would always be with us even in the smallest of groups (cf. Matt 18:20).  “What you have done for the least of these, you have done to me,” he said, promising that he would always be with us in the needful (cf. Matt 25:40).

Where Gayton Road has found life, is precisely where Jesus said he would be. 

All It Needs Is Christ

A couple months ago, I shared this sense of call with our high school youth and asked them if they had any ideas about an image to illustrate our calling.  Within two crazy hours, we ended up with an image very similar to the one that’s on your bulletin.  


I cannot express how proud I am of our youth and their design.  As you can see, the image is the Disciples chalice, supplemented by three simple figures: the table, two people gathered on the right, and a needful person on the left.  You’ll notice, too, that the table in the middle is also the cross, reminding us that the cross and its story of love and self-giving sits at the heart of our every gathering.

Over the next couple months, you’ll be seeing this image a lot more.  I invite you to chew on it.  Ruminate over it.  Let it steep in your heart and in your prayers.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, “icons” are an important practice of faith: they are pictures that serve as windows through which we might catch a glimpse of God.  We are not Eastern Orthodox, but perhaps we might take a page from their book and look upon this image as an icon.  An image cannot capture God, but a good one can invite us into the mystery of God.  Perhaps this is such an image.  Because this tells not only the story of who we are and where we have found life.  It also tells the story of who Christ is and where he finds us.

In today’s world, it’s easy for the church to get lost in a sea of programming and entertainment and advertisement.  It’s easy for the church to confuse life with bodies in the pew and programs in the bulletin and bucks in the budget.  But as our Visioning Team discovered, and as our youth so creatively illustrated, the life of the church is not about power or prestige.  The life of the church is about where we meet Christ and find new life.  It’s about where we share that love and new life with others.  The life of the church doesn’t need any dressing up.  All it needs is a table.  Or a group of two or three people.  Or a person in need.  All it needs is Christ.

Remembering Why We Are Here and Where We Are Called

For six weeks, from October 1 to November 5, we will explore in worship our sense of call as a church.   We will hear stories from church members and friends.  Some Sundays we’ll do things a bit differently, devoting our time especially to these three simple practices: gathering at the table, meeting in small groups, and caring for the needful.  For example, on October 8, we will not have worship in this sanctuary.  Instead, we will gather at the back picnic shelters in the park, where we will simply eat with one another and with any friends who join us.  On the one hand, you might ask if this even qualifies as worship.  But on the other hand, when you consider that the table is precisely where Jesus promises he would be, that this is how he repeatedly describes the kingdom—as a feast!—that this is where we ourselves have encountered Christ again and again, then you might wonder why we don’t do this more often!

Similarly, as we gather in small groups and care for the needful, we will consider how this is the heart of who we are, this is where we encounter Christ and find new life, this is where we share that new life.  We need not look around and wonder: “Do we need better programs?  Are there enough people here?  How can we become more attractive?”  “Bigger and better” are not the reasons that we have been drawn to Gayton Road, and they’re not the reasons that we stay.  We are here because around tables, in little gatherings, and with the needful, we encounter Christ and we share Christ with others.

Is It Any Surprise?

Who were the people of Israel?  They were the people who were slaves in Egypt.  They were the people whom God liberated and gave new life.

Who is Gayton Road Christian Church?  We are the people who have found new life amid loss, liberation from the chains of our past.  We are the people who have encountered Christ and shared his life around tables, in small gatherings, and with the needful.  And is it any surprise?  This is just where Jesus promised he would be.

Prayer

Dear Jesus,
We have found you
Right where you said you’d be.
While the world looks for bigger and better,
Help us to feel the kingdom tectonics
Trembling and transforming the earth
Not through might and muscle
But through your love shared
At tables, in little gatherings, and with the needful.
In your name: Amen.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

What We Remember (Exodus 12:1-14)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 10, 2017, Proper 18)



A Living Memory:
God the Liberator, the Life-Giver

“Remember this day,” God says to Moses on the eve of his people’s liberation (cf. 12:14).  “Mark it on your calendar.  In fact, make it the beginning of your calendar, the first month of the year.  Make it the most important memory, the center of your world” (cf. 12:2).  “Celebrate it every year, til the end of time” (cf. 12:14).

Why is this memory so important?  Why make it the first month of the year and celebrate it again and again?  Because it is a timeless memory, a memory that lives, a memory that comes true again and again.  God was, is, and will be the liberator, the life-giver.

Fast-forward over a thousand years from Moses to Jesus, and the Israelites were still remembering that Passover day.  Jesus and his disciples go to Jerusalem to remember it.  For them, Passover is not an idle memory, a pleasant recollection.  It is a living memory, a memory that comes alive again.  As the Israelites suffered in Egypt, so Jesus will suffer on the cross.  As the Israelites were delivered, so Jesus will be resurrected.  Over a thousand years later, it is still true.  God is the liberator, the life-giver.

Today, three thousand years after Moses, the Jewish faith still celebrates the Passover.  For them too, it is a living memory, a memory that they have lived over and over again.  As their ancestors suffered in Egypt, they too have suffered: persecution in ancient Rome, organized massacres in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Holocaust.  And as their ancestors found freedom from Egypt, they continue to find life too.  It is still true for them: God is the liberator, the life-giver.

Insofar as the Lord’s Supper is a Passover meal, we also celebrate the memory.  In fact, we celebrate it every week—or even more often: “Whenever [we] eat this bread or drink this cup,” Paul says (1 Cor 11:26).  Just as the Passover was originally ordained as the beginning of the calendar, the memory that would define time and life itself, so the Lord’s Supper begins our every week, reminding us that though the times may change, this memory will be true again and again: God is the liberator, the life-giver.

The Lord Still Dies

Every week, at the very end of the Lord’s Supper, we quote scripture: “For as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).  Up until this week, that conclusion has always puzzled me and left me feeling a bit empty.  Why do we only remember the Lord’s death?  Why not his resurrection?  Why not new life?

But now I have a theory.  It’s because the Lord still dies.  It’s because there is still suffering in this world.  There are still many Egypts, many Pharaohs, many chains in this world.  We proclaim the Lord’s death not because we’re pessimists or doomsayers, but because we believe there is more liberating that needs to be done, more resurrection that needs to happen.  This memory is not an idle recollection, a pleasant reminiscence.  This memory is a defiant act of faith, a commitment to a different future.

If God had solved the problems of the world once and for all with the Passover event, then there would be no need to remember.  God invites the Israelites to remember that day forever, year after year, because there will still be suffering left in their world.  And God wants them to remember that suffering does not have the last word, that liberation and life are always at hand, that God is the liberator, the life-giver.

That is why we remember the Lord’s death every week.  Because every week we see his death in our world and yet we defiantly proclaim that liberation and life are at hand.

When we hear about the thousands who face a departure from their home and all they have known, we remember the Lord’s death.  When we hear about the LGBTQ community rejected by the church, we remember the Lord’s death.  When we hear about the poor Salvadorans caught in the crossfire between the gangs and the government, we remember the Lord’s death.

Johann Baptist Metz, a German theologian who has spent his life wrestling with the memory of the Holocaust, calls the memory of Christ “the dangerous memory of suffering.”  It is dangerous because it sees in the face of every suffering person the face of Christ, because it will not rest until they do, because it defies the injustice of the world and proclaims with love that liberation and life are at hand.

Not Just Back Then, But Now

For the rest of the sermon, I would like to share with you some personal reflections.  Here I am going to take a page from Paul’s book, and preface what follows with a reminder: “This is me speaking, not the Lord” (cf. 1 Cor 7:12; 2 Cor 11:17).  As if you needed to be reminded of that….

When the Israelites celebrate the Passover or when we celebrate the Last Supper, what we’re really celebrating is not an event shrouded in the mists of history.  What we’re really celebrating is a God who liberates, who gives life.  Not just back then but now.  What we’re proclaiming is that as sure as the week has seven days, or the year 365, suffering and oppression do not have the last word.

If that’s true, then where are the liberation stories of recent generations?  There’s one in particular that I think we need to remember, and I would like to share it with you today.

April 3, 1865, is often cited as the day that Richmond fell, and with it the Confederate States of America.  That is certainly how I have been taught to remember the day.  As I read recently through the story of that day, however, I cannot help but hear echoes of another story.  Listen with me.

One woman living in Richmond at the time remembers that day as a day of darkness: “We covered our faces and cried aloud,” she writes.  “All through the house was the sound of sobbing.  It was the house of mourning, the house of death.”[1]  Such words could easily have been written of the Egyptian houses on that dark night of the Passover (cf. Ex 12:30). 

Reverend Garland H. White, a former slave who was serving as a chaplain in the Union Army, describes the scene from the other side: “A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I…proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God.”[2]  Another chaplain writes also of divine deliverance, “We brought…heaven-born liberty.  The slaves seemed to think that the day of jubilee had fully come.  How they danced, shouted…shook our hands…laughed all over, and thanked God…!”[3]  And then in a passage that recalls the divine command to remember the Passover forever (12:14), he writes, “It is a day never to be forgotten by us till days shall be no more.”[4]

Indeed, forty years later, on April 3, 1905, Richmond hosted the Emancipation Day Parade, commemorating the day that many slaves in Richmond and across the south were actually liberated.  Thousands gathered for the festivities and celebrated with a procession through the city streets that ended up at the Broad Street Baseball Park.  (If there are any history buffs among you, I’d be curious to learn exactly where that was.)

Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Virginia, April 3, 1905[5]

Passover in Richmond—and What It Might Mean

As a native of Richmond, I have been taught to remember April 3, 1865, as the fall of this city and the fall of the Confederacy.  But as a follower of Christ, I am invited to remember the God who liberates, who gives life.  Which means I am invited to remember April 3, 1865, as a day of divine deliverance, a holy Passover.  A heavy day and a day of great cost, yes, as it was thousands of years ago in Egypt, but a day when the God the liberator, God the life-giver, passed over the city—this city!—bringing freedom to thousands.

I am honored to call Richmond home, if for no other than that here happened a Passover.  And this memory, which is but one of many in the long line of memories going all the way back to Egypt, a host of memories which ring most loud and most true in the Last Supper of Christ—this memory is for me a defiant act of faith, a commitment to a different future.  It means remembering the Lord’s death in the subjugation and suffering of those today who still share the struggles that those slaves did: educational barriers, labor inequalities, presumptions of guilt and dangerousness.  This memory means believing that God the liberator and life-giver is against that suffering still, that Jesus Christ is in that suffering still, and that his love will somehow bring new life out of that suffering.  It means that while many dismiss or minimalize the suffering of others, we remember the death of our Lord, who must still be dying in these places, and we love in the middle of this suffering, because we believe that love is even stronger than death.  We believe that liberation and life are at hand.

The Future in the Past

In today’s charged atmosphere of partisan politics, it is difficult to talk about people’s lives without being implicated in a party or its policies.  But heaven forbid that keep us from talking.  As a follower of Christ, I am not partisan to one party or another.  I am partisan to the people who are suffering, in whom our Lord is still dying, whose lives cry out for liberation.  I am very interested in politics, yes—the politics of the kingdom of God, a kingdom for which I pray, a kingdom which I believe is coming.  And its coming, I believe, is somehow tied up with this beautiful past of Passovers that we remember.

Prayer

Lord Christ,
Whose death we still remember
When we see the suffering of our world:
May the memories
Of Passover and the Table and April 3
Inspire us to celebrate
The God who liberates and gives life,
And to share in God’s liberation
By living in your love,
Which is stronger than death.
Amen.




[1] A Virginia Girl in the Civil War (ed. Myrta Lockett Avery; New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903), 362.
[2] A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (ed. Edwin S. Redkey; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 175-176.
[3] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut during the War of 1861-65 (eds. W. A. Croffut and John M. Morris; New York: Ledyard Bill, 1868), 791.  These are the words of Henry Swift DeForest.
[4] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut, 792.
[5] James Branch Cabell Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The God Who Suffers (Exodus 3:1-15)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 3, 2017, Proper 17)



A Man Who Has Cooled Off

Today’s story begins with a peaceful, pastoral scene.  There against the wide backdrop of wilderness Moses moseys along, his eyes resting on the flock of sheep and goats around him.

If you knew Moses from his younger days, then this relaxed, easygoing shepherd might surprise you.  A long time ago, Moses had a very different reputation.  Here’s his previous reputation as the Bible records it—just verses before today’s scripture:

Having grown up as a Hebrew orphan in the Egyptian palace, Moses one day went out and saw the slavery of his people.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Just some Egyptian masters bullying their Hebrew slaves.  One Egyptian, however, went a bit too far.  His bullying became beating.  Moses was inflamed.  His heart burned within him.  He fixated on this one Egyptian man, and when the coast was clear, he killed him.

As it turned out, though, the coast had not been clear.  The murder became well known, and Moses fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, which is where we find him today.   By now, he has settled down.  He has made friends with a local shepherd, married this man’s daughter, and had a son.  This is no longer the man who stood up to Egyptian brutality.  This is a man who has cooled off, who has put down roots and is happy to live out his days in peace (cf. 2:11-22).

God and the Chessboard

And so here he is, ambling alongside his flock in the wilderness, when suddenly something catches his eye. 

The rest of the story is history: Moses and the burning bush.  It’s a familiar story.  I’ll assume that you know it.  I assumed that I knew it.  But I didn’t—not completely.  I thought it was simple: God tells Moses to return to Egypt to bring his people out.  I thought of it as a scene of divine recruitment, when God the employer contracts Moses to a very special job, when God the commander hands Moses a mission impossible. 

What I discovered, however, is not a distant God, a God sitting above the chessboard of our world, cool and calculating, making moves, transferring players from one square to another.  What I discovered is the opposite: a God on the chessboard.  What I discovered is a God who suffers. 

An Odd Repetition

Religion has long held fantasies of a God who is above all and all-powerful and who will fix everything in the blink of an eye.  When God tells Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt…and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,” I imagine that Moses nodded his head approvingly, thinking to himself, “Amen!”  That’s the God Moses wanted.  That’s the God we all want.  The God above who will come down in power and fix it all in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

But as Moses finds out, that’s not quite who God is.

There’s an odd repetition in the story of the burning bush.  First, God tells Moses that God has seen the Israelites’ misery and will come down to deliver them.  At this point, Moses and we both are pretty happy.  That’s the God we want.  But God continues, saying, “I have…seen how the Egyptians oppress” the Israelites—at which point, I imagine Moses blinking, thinking, “Yeah, you just said that.”  And then God says, “So come, I will send you!”  Wait, what?

God’s tune has changed.  First, it was: I have seen their suffering, I have come down to deliver them (cf. 3:7-8).  But then the second time around, it becomes: I have seen their suffering—“so come, I will send you” (cf. 3:9-10)!

A Tale of Two Fires

Well, which is it?  Is God coming down to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, or is Moses going to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?  In a word: Yes.  Both.

God and Moses together.  Not like a tag team: God pulling one punch, Moses pulling the next.  But rather like a call and a response.  To the outside observer, only Moses will be leading the Israelites.  But he would not be leading them if he hadn’t first stumbled upon that blazing fire that called to him in the wilderness.

Speaking of fire...I can’t help but wonder if this is not really a tale of two fires.  Remember how long ago, Moses like God had seen the suffering of the Israelites?  Remember how that had inflamed him?  But the fire within his heart had long cooled, as he settled down in Midian and married and had a son.

God’s heart, however, has not cooled.  The God whom Moses encounters is a never-ending fire.  It’s a fascinating comparison.  God and Moses had shared the same fundamental observation.  Both of them witnessed the suffering of the Israelites.  But one ran away from the suffering and settled down, cooling off.  The other stayed a blazing fire. 

The key to this eternal divine combustion?  I think we hear it early on in God’s message to Moses: “I know their sufferings” (3:7).

Running Away from Suffering

“I know their sufferings.”

You’ve probably heard the question before: “Where is God when it hurts?”  If today’s story is any indication, the answer is simple: in the hurt.  “I know their sufferings.”  Where is God in our world today, our world of hurricane-flooding and systemic poverty and racial injustice?  According to today’s scripture, God’s heart beats most clearly in the hearts of the suffering. 

I would even go so far as to say, God knows our suffering better than we do ourselves!  When we see suffering, whether our own or others’, we do like Moses did: we run far away from it and settle down where things are more comfortable.  I don’t know about you, but for me it’s almost a reflex!  When someone shares with me a story of illness, my response comes out immediately, “I hope it gets better.”  When someone shares with me a story of difficulty, my mind races for solutions, “Have you asked a professional for help?  Have you considered this, that, or the other?”  There’s nothing wrong with trying to help, of course.  It’s just that I’m suspicious about our motives, sometimes.  I think we, like Moses, are afraid of suffering.  We don’t know what to do with it.  So we run away from it.  We mask it with platitudes and plans, programs and pipe dreams.

Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer deeply concerned with racial injustice, claims that racism and slavery never died, they just evolved: first in the form of Jim Crow laws and then in the socioeconomic tangle that has advanced our system of mass incarceration.  Stevenson contends that the reason our nation has not found healing, is because we have never really addressed the wound.  He points out that on the whole our nation does not do sorrow and suffering very well.  We do business and gold medals and victory well, but we do not do sorrow and suffering very well.  As a result, we have still yet to address many of the racial injustices of our history.  To put it very simply, we like Moses have run away from the suffering.  Whereas South Africa regularly remembers the suffering of its apartheid history in an effort to seek truth and reconciliation; whereas Germany memorializes the suffering inflicted by the Nazi regime; we in America do very little to tell the story of the genocide of Native Americans or of the lynchings of black Americans.  We run away from the suffering. 

God Shares the Suffering

But God does not.  “I know their sufferings,” God says, which can only mean one thing.  If God really knows their suffering, that must mean God is suffering too.  God shares their suffering.  Is that not the story of Jesus?  The gospel writer of Matthew offers a fascinating observation about Jesus when he goes about healing people.  Citing a verse from Isaiah, he says that when Jesus healed people, “He took [their] infirmities and bore [their] diseases” (Matt 8:17).  In other words, he shared their suffering.  Jesus was not a magician curing people with the impersonal wave of a wand any more than God is a chess-master, high above the board, cool and calculating, moving pieces at will.

The gospel of Jesus is the same gospel that we read in today’s story.  It’s that even when we like Moses run away from the suffering of our world, God does not.  God shares the suffering.  God suffers too.

Called to Share God’s Suffering

This is good news, of course, to the suffering.  But chances are, this news alone won’t make them feel much better.  If the only thing I take away from this story, is that I should give a pat on the shoulder to people who are suffering and tell them that God is with them, before I go on my merry way, then I think I’ve missed the point.

The point isn’t simply that God suffers with the Israelites.  The point is that Moses feels called to join God, to share himself the suffering of God and the Israelites.  When God promises Moses, “I will be with you” (3:12), I think what God is really saying, is: I am with the suffering, and when you stop running away and return to share their suffering, there you will find me.  There, “I will be with you.”

We Americans do success well.  We do fundraising dinners and charitable programs and tax-deductible donations pretty well.  But I wonder if sometimes this is simply how we run away from suffering.  I wonder if these things are not just our escape route into Midian, into a life of contentment and happily ever after, a reflex by which we avoid sharing the pain of others.

The good news of today’s scripture is not that God fixes things instantaneously from on high, or that Jesus waves a wand and cures all our problems.  Those are fantasies that have long tempted religion, fantasies that bear a curious resemblance to our own methods of throwing money or quick-fix programs at a problem.  The good news is that rather than keeping a safe distance from our suffering, God enters into it.  Shares it.  And if we want to find God, that’s where.  We will find God in the memory-loss of residents at Symphony Manor.  Within the stopgap homes of refugees.  In the tears of a friend who grieves.  We will find God with the gay youth who has been left burned by his family and his church.  With the Muslim who continually endures suspicious looks and intimidation.  With the disabled who are treated impatiently as burdens.

“I know their sufferings.”  The good news is not a fix or a cure.  There are some things that have no fix or cure—not in the way that we would want.  The good news is a God who does not run away.  The good news is a God who suffers with those who suffer, and who draws us into their presence, just as God drew Moses back to the Israelites, just as Jesus draws us to the least of these.  As good as any donation or plan or program may be, what the suffering need even more than that is us.  By their side.

Prayer

God who shares our suffering
And knows it better
Than we do ourselves:
Kindle within our hearts
A love that courageously
Enters into the suffering of others
And stays there,
With you.
In the name of him
Who took our infirmities and bore our diseases, Jesus Christ.
Amen.