Sunday, February 19, 2017

Foundations and Futures

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 (NRSV)

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,

“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20 and again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,  that they are futile.”

21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

 Every week Leah and I conspire together on the artwork for the message.  Sometimes we giggle like little girls, sometimes we share that evil geek laugh that means we have come up with something seriously outlandish, and sometimes we have an idea that just seems to come from God.  This week felt more like one of the God weeks - and we didn’t quite get what we were hoping for, but we did pretty well.  I was working toward getting a clear-ish shot of the foundation stone through the rose bush, symbolizing new growth sort of obscuring the beginnings.  When my photography skills weren’t up to the challenge, we asked Jordan to give it a shot.  But I forgot to tell him the concept.  So he went to great lengths to carefully bend the rosebush out of the way, so he could get a clear shot of the stone.  (No musicians were injured in the taking of this photograph.)   

And maybe his concept is better, anyway.  Because here we are, in the now, celebrating our past and looking toward our future.  And right now today the new growth that is the rose bush is sort of covering up the foundation stone, but in a beautiful way.  Not obscuring it, exactly, but enhancing it.   No one looking from the street can see what year we built this building, but everyone can see the beauty that is produced on this land.  And that’s kind of the point of church, don’t you think?

The church in Corinth was having growing pains.  And it was having trouble remembering whose church it was, exactly.  Paul had founded the church, but after he left various other evangelists came and preached for a bit - you know, new pastors, bringing new ideas with them.  As a result, some of them thought they were Paul’s church, and some thought they were Appolos’ church, and some thought they were the church of Cephas.  And Paul says, “All of y’all are wrong.  This is the church of Jesus Christ.  He is the church’s foundation.  I’m just the guy who laid the stones. And they are guys who helped you all build it stronger. But it’s Jesus’ church.  He is the foundation.” 

You know, that still happens sometimes.  Congregations, and even pastors, sometimes forget whose church this is.  Sometimes a cult of personality is built and it seems to be all about the pastor.  You know, like the way people sometimes talk about Joel Osteen’s church, or Rick Warren’s church, or Robert Shuller’s Crystal Cathedral.  As if they are all about the pastor, and the real foundation got lost in translation somehow.  

But if you were here last night, if you were here and heard former pastors Patty Evans and Janet Chapman talk about this church and this congregation, you would know that here, at First Christian Church in Selma, nobody forgets who the church’s one foundation is.  Their stories were about Jesus on the roof, and a congregation caring for its pastor, and about the love that flows out of this place like a river.  If you were here last night, you heard the folks from Visalia Church talk about they love they felt in here, and about the joy with which they made a gift to enable us to move forward.  If you were here last night, you heard us celebrating the building, but even more than that, you heard us celebrating the people whose love for Christ’s church caused this building to be raised, on a foundation of chicken dinners.  And a successful pledge campaign.  You see, I was listening to Alan’s excellent history lesson.  

The church in Corinth was having growing pains.  It wasn’t the same small group of believers that started a house church with Paul as their founding pastor.  It wasn’t even the established church with a Sunday School of over 200 people whose picture normally hangs in the church office.  Or am I getting it confused with the Disciples church in Selma?  Never mind, the church in Corinth did get through their growing pains and changed in ways that no one could have imagined.  They continued to have internal conflicts and theological conversations, some of them a bit heated, and Paul continued to try to help them understand that it really wasn’t just about them.  It was about Jesus.  It was about helping others.  It was about becoming whatever they needed to become to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  He said to them, “let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,  whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  The church in Corinth grew and changed and moved and spread the Gospel, and that is all Paul hoped for, that this church he started would spread the Good News across the land.
So here we are, a couple of thousand years later, celebrating our 100 year old building.   And we look at pictures of Sunday School classes of 200 people and wonder why it’s not like that any more.  Sometimes I think we forget - and some of you may not even know this - but once upon a time there weren’t any businesses open on Sunday - in 1916, for example, and 1960 as well.  There weren’t places to go and people to see on Sundays, or children’s sports teams playing, or totally important TV shows, or social networking, or video games, or malls.  Most people didn’t work on Sunday.  There really wasn’t much else to do except go to church.  It was entertainment, of a sort. Today, it’s different.  Today, when we are all expected to multi-task and be involved in everything, and we are bombarded with all kinds of opportunities and ways to spend our time, it can be hard to decide where to put our priorities.  The fact that this many of you show up here on Sunday morning says a lot, not about me or this particular church, but about you and your dedication to God.  

The church is going through growing pains.   It’s not like it was in Paul’s day, or like it was when this building was built.  When they built this building it was cutting edge - the very newest thing!  It was, and is, beautiful, a magnificent testimony to architectural creativity and the gifts of an unknown stained glass artist.   And it would be awesome if we could just stay here and bask in this beauty for another 100 years.   But . . .

“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”

We welcome all to the Lord’s Table….except we don’t.  We can’t.  We are limited by architecture, which, as beautiful and awe inspiring as it is, is not welcoming to all persons.  Our tech guy, Jason, can’t come to this church.  Our older members who have trouble walking, can’t come to this church.  Folks who are in wheelchairs and can’t manage stairs, can’t come to this church.  Oh, they can get in to the sanctuary, but heaven forbid they should need to use the bathroom, because that’s down a couple of sets of stairs.  Engineers have been consulted and long ago the decision was made, with great pain I am sure, to build a new building.  

I take welcoming all persons very seriously.  Sometimes it seems that when we say “All” we have particular sets of persons in mind.  But All means All - everyone!  Including folks with accessibility issues.  My Uncle Frank only had one leg and I saw how hard it was for him to get around.  A dear friend in Florida was paraplegic, and an activist for the Americans with Disabilities Act.  My ex-husband spent the time we were at Chapman caring for a quadriplegic and his service dog, Shadow.  In seminary I was student chaplain in a retirement community, which had been designed with the ADA in mind.  Accessibility is important to me.  Welcoming All persons is important to me.  And I believe it is important to you.

When I was interviewing with the Search Committee they told me about their plans to build a new building.  They were so proud of the concept, and so sad that the economy tanked right at the height of their enthusiasm.  The building was delayed, the ground it was to occupy lay fallow, the building campaign came to a halt.  And, like all search committees have done since the days of that little house church in Corinth, they asked me to grow the church.  But here was a real opportunity to do just that.  A new building, a dream already in place, a place where the entire community can gather, a congregation who is more than willing to take the lead in doing Christ’s work in the world.  I can seriously get behind that.  Or in front of it.  Whichever.  

I know there are still some who aren’t sure we need to go ahead with a new building.  I know there are some who worry how we will come up with the money.    And I want to remind you what our theme for the year is . . . Fear not, for I am with you.   

Fear not.  Have faith.  For God is with us in every circumstance.

If you were here last night, you heard two Disciples from Visalia talk about the future of our church, and how their gift to us of $10,000 for our new building fund is their way of staying alive, in us.  If you were here last night, the Spirit brought you to your feet, applauding and crying out with joy at that sign of love and faith.  If you were here last night, you know that we need not fear the future, that our past makes it clear that we came this far by faith, and that God will take us where ever we need to go in the future.   If you were here last night, you know that this celebration weekend is not just a birthday party, not just a celebration of the past, but a going ahead party.  I believe that those 100 year ago Selma disciples, who had outgrown their beloved wood church over by Berry Park, are standing in heaven cheering us on as we move forward, into the future, into another new building, which hopefully will last through another 100 years of making Disciples.  

The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, our Lord.  But we are the stones and the mortar and workers who will raise that church from its foundation.  We are the hands and feet and voice of Christ, who will continue to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth, and who will make a place where all persons may come and worship God, and be made whole again.  We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness . . .   Let us go forward into our fragmented world, to make it whole.  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Matter of Life and Death

Sirach 15:15-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
    and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
16 He has placed before you fire and water;
    stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
17 Before each person are life and death,
    and whichever one chooses will be given.
18 For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
    he is mighty in power and sees everything;
19 his eyes are on those who fear him,
    and he knows every human action.
20 He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
    and he has not given anyone permission to sin.


Some of you may be wondering about the reading this morning.  Sirach is part of the collection of books in the Bible known as the Apocrypha.   These are books of Wisdom sayings, stories, and prophetic writings that are considered to be informative and important as to matters of living right, but are not thought to be authoritative in matters of doctrine.  They are generally found in between the Old and New Testament, and more often in study Bibles than in personal or pew Bibles.  They are included in the Revised Common Lectionary used in many Protestant churches - like this one - for the selection of scriptures to be preached each week as one of the Old Testament selections, as all of them are believed to have been written sometime between the last of the prophets and the birth of Jesus.  That belief is pretty much backed up by the fact that many tell the story of what happened in and to Israel after the exile.  I am quite fond of some of the readings to be found in Sirach.  My very favorite is one I use for folks who don’t want to cooperate with their doctors, which ends with the words, “He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.”  (Sirach 38:15).  

Just so you know, all of today’s passages speak of good and evil, obedience and disobedience, the choice between life and death.  I chose this reading because i just really liked how plainly the dichotomy was stated in Sirach.  “If you choose, you can keep the commandments.”  

The reading in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 says the same thing, but somewhat less clearly.  “15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God. . . then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, . . . 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish;”  The problem with this reading is it also seems to set up the concept of “Do right and good things will happen.  Do evil and bad things will happen.”  It was this concept that the Book of Job was written to address, because bad things DO happen to good and obedient people, all the time.

When I was a student at Chapman I said to my advisor one time, apropos of I don’t remember what, “It must have been God’s will. It happened because it was meant to happen.”  He asked if I really believed that.  When I said yes, he asked if I thought God had planned for me to be a drug addict, and if God had caused all the bad things that I experienced before and after those years to happen.  I said no, of course not, because God is good and loving.  I told him I believed that we have a choice, that one of the greatest gifts God has given us is free will, and … at that point my voice kind of drifted off and I realized that I was busy believing two opposite things at the same time.  That’s not terribly unusual.  Lots of us believe in contradictory things all the time.  But in this case, the next thing I knew I had agreed to do my senior project on Free Will, and so I spent the next 3 months doing research, meeting with him to discuss my research, and writing my thesis.   

That work has been incredibly helpful to me.  One man used to ask me all the time if I believed that God has a plan for everyone.  He was especially worried about children who are killed in war zones, or die from horrible, preventable diseases, or die of hunger.  He wanted to know what kind of God makes a plan like that for someone’s life?  Another man, who had once been a very active member of his church, told me he left the church when his teenaged son was killed by a drunk driver.  He couldn’t forgive God for taking his son like that.   Even though he understood the concept that the drunk driver made a decision to get behind the wheel of his car, he still couldn’t get past the belief that God could have stopped it.  He couldn’t accept that God’s plan for his son was to die at age 17 because some dude decided to drive drunk.  

I do, in fact, believe that God has plans for all of us.  But sometimes other people’s decisions, or our own, or even natural disasters, interfere with that plan, and because God is not a puppet master, God’s plan doesn’t come to fruition.  I don’t believe that God’s plan is for children to die of preventable diseases, or in a war because one group of people want the land and rare metals or gems that another people live on, or in drunk driving accidents.  I believe that God has a magnificent plan for everyone’s life.  But droughts and wars and decisions by governments continue to kill children and cut short God’s plans for them.  An individual’s bad decision killed the young man and many others like him, and destroyed the magnificent plans God had for them.  

This is not to say that God is not all powerful.  God is more powerful than we can possibly imagine!  But I believe strongly that God has given us free will, that we get to choose between good and evil, life and death, blessing and curse.  And because God has given us that gift, I believe He feels it necessary to allow our decisions to bear whatever fruit they will.  I believe that, because God has given each of us that choice, when my bad decision impacts someone else, as it often does, I have to live with the consequences.  I find that this passage in Sirach says that so much better than any other reading I have come across.  First, we make the choice to either be obedient or not.  And then, “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.”  God is no puppet master, and wants us to do what is right. But we have to make the choice to do God’s will, or not.  It was never God’s plan for me to become a drug addict, and while maybe it is good now that I have had all those experiences, still, all those years of doing the wrong thing were by my choice.  I believe that I started doing God’s will when I realized that I was dead inside and wanted to live.  I believe I started doing God’s will when I made the decision to change my life, and that decision eventually led me here.  

If you choose, you can keep the commandments.  and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.   
17 Before each person are life and death,  and whichever one chooses will be given.

Making the right choices, the obedient choices, can be incredibly difficult.  We talked about that last week - trying to decide what is right and just can be really hard.  There might be no one right answer, no one obviously right choice.  Sometimes it really does come down to, “What will hurt the least number of people?” or “What will do the least harm?”  If the decision I make is on the side of love and compassion, I have probably made the right one.  If the decision I make is a result of selfishness or fear, anger or hatred, then it is probably not the best choice.  

God’s choice for the people of Israel, from his very first conversation with Abram, was for them to follow his commandments, treat each other with the kind of extravagant love that He poured out on them, and be his hands and feet and mouth in the world.  Unfortunately, over and over again Israel wandered off, made the wrong choices, and eventually had to be rescued.  Over and over again, God sent rescuers - judges like Samson and Deborah, prophets like Samuel, Kings Saul and David and Solomon, even foreign kings, like Cyrus the Great.  And then he sent someone different, someone who wasn’t as obvious as David or Samson or even Cyrus.  He sent Jesus, an ordinary man, to simply speak God’s Word to everyone he encountered.  To teach the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.  To make disciples and spread that Word across all the earth.  To tell everyone that we have choices today.  That we, as descendants of Abraham by adoption, have the same choices that God gave the people of Israel so long ago - to choose the ways of God, or the ways of the world.  That we can choose to do what Love demands and live, or what the world demands and die inside.  

I think I like it best the way Joshua said it, when he faced the Hebrews on the banks of the River.  “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”   (Joshua 24:15)  

May we all choose to follow Jesus, and serve the Lord, our God. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Guiding Light

Isaiah 58:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB)   

58 Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
    raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 They seek me day after day,
    desiring knowledge of my ways
    like a nation that acted righteously,
    that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
    wanting to be close to God.
3 “Why do we fast and you don’t see;
    why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want,
    and oppress all your workers.
4 You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
    you hit each other violently with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
    if you want to make your voice heard on high.

5 Is this the kind of fast I choose,
    a day of self-affliction,
    of bending one’s head like a reed
    and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
    Is this what you call a fast,
        a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 Isn’t this the fast I choose:
    releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
    setting free the mistreated,
    and breaking every yoke?
7 Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
    and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
    covering the naked when you see them,
    and not hiding from your own family?
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn,
    and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness will walk before you,
    and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;
10     if you open your heart to the hungry,
    and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
    your light will shine in the darkness,
    and your gloom will be like the noon.
11 The Lord will guide you continually
    and provide for you, even in parched places.
    He will rescue your bones.
You will be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
12 They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account;
    the foundations of generations past you will restore.
You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, a Restorer of Livable Streets.


I love this passage. It’s long, but every word is golden.  The people of Judah had complained to God that they weren’t being heard.  They were tearing their garments as in mourning.  They were putting ashes on their faces. They were praying more loudly. They were making more and larger sacrifices.  They were fasting!  And yet, for some strange reason, God wasn’t giving them what they wanted.  It was as if they thought that if they did these things, that they would sort of buy God’s goodwill and receive a reward for their outward show of religiosity.   And God said to Isaiah, “Tell my people that they are making the wrong sacrifices.  I don ’t need them to sacrifice bulls to me, when there are people starving in the streets.  I don’t need them to give up food for a day or a week when there are children dying of hunger.  I don’t need you to put more gold in the Temple treasury when there are families who can’t pay their rent.  I don’t need you to tell me how good and obedient you are to My will, when you oppress your workers.  I don’t need you to bow down in humility, when you fight among yourselves to prove who is most powerful.  Why do you ask me what I want from you when I have told you over and over and over again?  Did I ask you to do any of these things?  No.  This was all your idea.  What I asked you to do is justice.  What I asked you to do is take care of the hungry, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan, the stranger from another land who has come to live among you. I asked you to speak kindly to one another, with compassion and mercy.  When you are doing all those things, then you will be like a watered garden.  When you are doing these things, then all good things will come to you, and your name will live on forever.”  

Well, we know what happened to Judah.  They did not do what God said.  And they were defeated.  The Temple of which they were so proud was torn down, it’s gold and treasures taken off to Babylon.  The people were enslaved.  The rich and powerful were taken away in chains.  

You would think it would be easy, doing justice the way God asks.  I mean, how hard can it be to make sure all the hungry are fed, and all the homeless are housed, and all the mentally ill are cared for, and all the elderly widows and orphans have a safe place to live, and all the immigrants are treated fairly?  

I know.  That’s a trick question.   It’s not easy at all.  The Temple was supposed to receive 10% of everything every person earned.  And with that 10% they were supposed to feed the hungry, care for the widows and orphans, pay the priests and temple workers, do all the upkeep for the temple - buy the lamp oil, keep a stock of incense, buy the wood to burn sacrifices, and so on.  They depended upon over and above gifts to do other necessary things - roof repair or whatever.  (Does any of this sound familiar?)   It simply wasn’t possible, given the ever increasing population, to care for everyone and do everything else God required with just the 10% that (hopefully) came in from every person.

Nor did the law say in any way shape or form that only the Temple was supposed to help the helpless.  This was the responsibility of every individual.  Some, then as now, didn’t see it as their problem.  Some, then as now, thought the Temple should do all of that sort of care.   Some, then as now, thought only those who deserved help should get it.  The leaders of the nation were constantly being called out by the prophets for their lack of care for those who most needed their help.  And, then as now, the leaders very often ignored the words of the prophets.  In the case of Israel, that always led to a bad end.

Today, given the current political climate and the news stories that are pinging my phone every hour or so, many of my friends and colleagues are going to be preaching strong sermons about exactly what justice is today.  They are going to be telling their people, plus everyone who reads or listens to or or watches their sermons on the Interwebz, exactly what everyone needs to do to make sure that justice - God’s justice- is served.   They will speak of demonstrations that can be joined and political actions that can be taken.  They will speak strong, harsh words and give very specific direction about what everyone needs to do next.

And while I personally have opinions about what is right and just, I also know something that we really hate to say out loud.  Justice is hard.  Deciding what is just is hard.  There is no black and white, right and wrong, one way or another, my way or the highway with social justice.  I wish there was, but there isn’t.

For example.  I am kind of Green.  When I lived in Southern California I went to Sacramento once a year to lobby for clean energy bills and against those that would add more pollutants to the air.  If if was up to me, the Parsonage would have a nice yard of river rocks or maybe be xeriscaped, so that we didn’t have to waste water keeping the grass alive.  But . . . if we do that, what will Arthur do?  Who’s Arthur?  He’s the lawn guy.  He has a family to feed and rent to pay. If we took out the lawn, we wouldn’t need him.  So, is justice saving water or saving his job?  I will choose saving Arthur’s job every time.  

When I lived in Pennsylvania back in the day it was a no-brainer to boycott California grapes.  I was all for the Farm Workers Union.  I even sent a copy of Cesar Chavez’ biography to my brother for a Christmas gift one year.  He was not pleased.  You see, my brother was a produce broker in Texas.  I thought I was doing the just thing. (Well, except for the book.  That was just me tormenting my big brother.) Then I came here, and heard another side of the story.  And I have to wonder if I did the just thing, after all.

Some of you know that I don’t shop at Walmart.  It was not easy to make that decision, but until the way Walmart employees are treated changes dramatically, I will continue to boycott.  No - you don’t have to.  Because here is the thing.  Although they have a bad reputation for employee care, and although every time they come into a town all the small businesses that can’t compete eventually close, Walmart does a lot of good stuff in the community.  They give employment opportunities to the mentally challenged and elderly.  They give scholarships and school supplies to local kids and they make large donations to a growing number of charitable organizations.  Opposing the way they oppress is justice.  Supporting the good they do is also justice.  So, your choice.  And quite frankly, it would save me a lot of time and gasoline if I would shop there instead of Target, and I’m kind of Green, so there’s another justice issue I get to deal with.

Justice is hard.  Deciding what is just is hard.  Doing the just thing is often even harder.  And yet, this is what our Lord requires of us.  To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.  To feed the hungry, to lift the yoke of oppression from the workers and the strangers in our land, to bring the homeless poor into our shelters, to cover the naked with clothing.  

And now, like so many of my colleagues and friends, I will give you all very specific directions about what to do next.  

Pray.  Pray for discernment, so that you can say to yourself and to God that you have made a decision about what it means to act justly.  And then, go, out to where the restless, hungry, homeless, oppressed crowds are thronging, and do what is just, following God’s guiding light, which is Jesus, the Christ.