09 February 2009

When Our Confidence Fades

Isaiah 40: 21-31 (Mark 1: 29-39)
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 8th February 2009

There’s a marvelous scene in the movie, Chariots Fire, when the famous Scottish missionary Olympian, Eric Liddell (1902-1945), is standing up in the pulpit of the Scots Kirk in Paris, about to preach to a packed church. It is the Sunday he was scheduled to run the 100 meters for Britain in the 1924 Olympiad, but didn’t because he wouldn’t compete on the Sabbath. Just prior to preaching, he reads these verses of Isaiah 40, starting where we did at verse twenty-one. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” The allusions to running in the closing verses of the chapter drive the point home of the kind of race one can really run and win when we remember who gives energy and strength to the runner. I will probably always associate this text with that scene. I love that moment in the movie. Maybe it’s because actor Ian Charleson reads it so beautifully. But it’s not just the text, an assortment of words, or the poetry. Somehow he takes us into the meaning and movement of the text.

It’s the closing couple of verses that we know the best, probably. We tend to read them at funerals; we find them used by Hallmark ad nauseum, see find them printed on tacky color posters with pictures of Bald eagles or athletes, the kind we might find in Christian bookstores. They are assuring, affirming, uplifting. There is something about the images and words of this majestic text and the imaginative vision of the author that seems to invite our souls to soar. Yet, the source of that soaring, that ability to thrive, to run the race when you feel like quitting is rooted in something else.

These closing verses are powerful alone, but they take on enormous energy when we read them within the context of the entire chapter, especially starting at verse twenty-one, and when we remember where and why they were written.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” These questions are more than rhetorical flourishes, but are directly addressed to the Israelites. And where are they? In captivity, in exile. These words were written to a people lost and confused, sad and depressed, unsure of what the future will bring, eager to return home, or at least to something that feels like home, feels safe, instead of being held captive by an alien race, with their alien gods, far from borders of Zion. These words were written to a people who were giving up on God; written to a people who wondered where God might be in the midst of their suffering; feeling like God had given up on them altogether; written to a people who were losing their faith.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? These are questions addressed to Israel. They’re not a test; nor is the author trying to shame them, but to get them to remember. These questions are an invitation, a call to remember their history. Go back over your lives, Israel, and remember every time that Yahweh proved faithful to you. Go back over your lives, Judah, and remember Yahweh’s faithfulness to the creation and the covenant. Remember the promises given to Abraham and how they were later realized through them. Remember the word of liberation given to Moses and how they moved from the impossible to the real on a path that went right through the Red Sea and the wilderness wasteland. If God did that then, God will do that now.

Isaiah wants them to remember that Yahweh, their God, was first known to them as the Creator, who makes something out of nothing, and brings into being things and people beyond all of our imaginings. Yahweh’s work as the Creator counters every other competing power of the Babylonian deities, counters every other competing power of lesser gods. Yahweh is the subject of the verbs in this text. Not only is creation described here, but God is doing the creating, acting, being involved in the creation, being attentive to the creation. From Isaiah’s perspective, Yahweh is the only God who has demonstrated power as creator, and therefore the other gods of Babylon merit neither obedience nor deference, because every other deity, every other god, and every other power that tries to act like God has neither authority nor power.[1]

Isaiah paints for us a majestic, powerful image of God, an image of God before whom we might feel very, very small and insignificant – like how we feel when we’re out in the country on a dark night and look up into the heavens and see all the stars and feel so tiny, knowing that you see only an exceedingly tiny fraction of what is really up there.

Before the vastness of the cosmos and this lofty image of God, it’s so easy for all of us feel lost and insignificant. It’s easy to feel invisible – so tiny in the vastness that no one even sees us or cares. How could God possible care about me? Worry about me? Who am I that God should be mindful of me (Psalm 8)? We all know that feeling. That was Israel’s complaint. That’s how they were feeling. You can see why they were losing faith, lacking confidence (meaning, literally, “without faith”). But the text reminds us Yahweh cares for the vastness of the creation and is attentive to every detail, every star, and every soul that bears God’s image. So, it’s almost with the broken heart of a parent after hearing a child say, “You don’t really care about me,” that we hear Isaiah say, “Why do you say, O Jacob,’ and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God?’” And then we hear these questions again, these rhetorical questions that move us, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

Personally-speaking, I can remember the time these verses first struck and moved through my being. “Have you not known?” This question, directed at me. Me? What do I know? But then, the question did its work. I found myself going back over my life, looking into my past and seeing all the times I felt God caring for me and my loved ones, remembering how God was indeed faithful, that God was committed to me, that God understood, and that I wasn’t alone. Have you not known? The answer, if we think about it, is yes. Yes, we have known – whether in our own lives or in the lives of the characters found throughout the pages of scripture. Yahweh doesn’t give up on creation. Yahweh doesn’t give up on you. Yahweh never abandons us nor forsakes us. Yahweh is faithful – even when we don’t feel like this is true.

Isaiah wants his people and all people to remember that God is trustworthy because God has proved to be, again and again, ever faithful to us. This doesn’t mean that with God all suffering will cease, that tough times will go away, and that we’ll live with some kind of divine, protective shield around us. This doesn’t mean that if we believe and trust in God that we’ll never be tired or weak again, because that’s not what this text is saying.

Some might read this text to say, if we believe enough in God, have enough faith, then we won’t fall exhausted or stumble. Then when believers stumble or fall exhausted, others are quick to judge – See, they didn’t have enough faith. There’s no good news in that reading; it’s the worst possible kind of news

This is what the text says. It says when we fall and stumble and grow tired, there is good news to be heard. This text speak to all of us who are tired and weary, worried and concerned, unsure about the future, frustrated with the present, wavering in faith and commitment, not exactly clear how we will surmount an overwhelming obstacle before us – like hearing the Labor Department’s disturbing unemployment figures on Friday, of facing retirement with a shrinking portfolio, or churches confronting sizable deficit budgets.

This text invites us to turn our focus away from ourselves and our circumstances, if only for a moment, and remember who we are and whose we are. Have you not known? Have you not heard? These questions wake us up, bring us back to our senses, bring us back to the truth. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary;….” Remember who God is and who we are in the image of God. Be assured and confident. “He gives power to the faint and weary, and strengthens the powerless.” Even when we cannot muster the faith to trust in God, God never gives up on us, and believes in us and the work he is achieving with us and through us.

The point couldn’t be any clearer in Yahweh sending Yeshua to us to show us, in the flesh, that God is faithful. Even in Jesus’ own ministry, at times tired, weary, stumbling, wrestling, struggling, he could do nothing apart from his time in prayer, when he reconnected with the source of his power and strength (Mark 1: 29-39).

People will grow tired and weary. People will be fearful. People will be weak, so weak they won’t know how they’re going to get the strength to face another day. People will be scared and worried. We will faint. Yes, even the youth will faint and the young shall fall exhausted. We will stumble and we will fall – hard.

“But those who wait for the LORD….”

“But for those who wait upon the LORD” – who is always faithful.

But those who lean upon the LORD – who is always faithful.

But those who trust in the LORD – who is always faithful.

When we confide in God’s power to empower us, we remember God will not desert us but provide a way through, because God always provides a way through. When we wait and trust, we will come to find our strength renewed – soaring and flying like eagles, running without weariness, walking without growing faint.

Yet, we will grow faint again and become weary again and tired again. When we do, we are asked to remember: Have you not known? We’ll discover then there’s another power, another source of strength coursing through all of us that has little to do with any of us.

None of this happens on our own, but only through our reliance upon and trust in God.

This kind of sounds like a sentiment you find in a Hallmark card. It’s so simple. But it’s true. Have we not known? Have we not heard?

[1] See Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 150-151.

03 February 2009

Finding Christ in Community

Acts 2:43-47


Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 1st February 2009/Sacrament of Holy Communion


"Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories." It's at the heart of what we do. It's so simple; yet so radical and life-changing. Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories. We know this how earliest Christians worshipped and what they did when they gathered. One of the most concise descriptions of what happened when believers met together is found here in Acts 2, in the picture Luke paints of believers in Jerusalem on Pentecost.


It's quite simple: "All who believed were together (v.44)." Believers gathered. Not separated, not apart, with no fear of "organized religion," to worry about, and no desire to be spiritual alone, but to be faithful together. From the very beginning, believers in Jesus gathered together in small groups, in what we could call "circles of trust." Because the level of trust was high, they "had all things in common." Buried behind the English word "common" is the Greek word, koina, common. It's derived from one of the most beautiful and profound Greek words in the New Testament, koinonia, a word rich in meaning. Koinonia pulls this text together, pulls the disciples together and, by God's grace, pulls us all of us together with them.


Koinonia is just under the surface shaping most of what happens throughout the New Testament, and it emerges in English in many places, whenever we read words like: fellowship, sharing, participation, contribution, community, and communion. Behind these words is the Greek koinonia. It has many meanings; no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness. It's difficult finding the words to capture what this word means; maybe because koinonia isn't a concept to be understood, but an experience to be encountered. Or, better, koinonia is a description of what it looks like and feels like when believers of Jesus Christ gather together, break bread, tell their stories of how Jesus changed and continues to change their lives, share their lives and resources, their gladness and generosity, determined to live not apart but together.


Determined to live and believe together not apart, that is not because of any sense of "ought," but because believers are drawn together, drawn to the presence of Christ who meets us here and "shows up" when his people gather, break bread, and tell the stories of his love. What this text points to (and many like it in scripture) and reminds us is that from the beginning Christ was worshipped and experienced and served in and through community (koinonia), when believers shared (koinonia) their joys and their sorrows, when they contributed generously to the community and then share (koinonia)with those in need, and through the rich, intimate fellowship (koinonia) that occurs when believers break bread in Jesus' name and see his face imprinted in the members of the community. When all of this happens, we can say Jesus "shows up." The early church knew, as we know, we are participating (koinonia) – right now, right here, gathering, breaking, telling, sharing – in the very life of Christ!


This becomes the basis for our understanding of breaking bread and sharing a cup, of Communion (koinonia). It's why this is more than just a "memorial meal," and why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted Communion served on every Lord's Day. It's a participation in the very life of Christ found here in this community. Holy Communion is communionco-union, a communing with Jesus; it is the mystical joining of Jesus Christ with the community of the faithful. That's how the early church saw it. That's why it's holy. Listen to Paul. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (koinonia) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the koinonia of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16). The NRSV translates this "communion" as "sharing." All these words point to this one experience.


This link with Jesus, this bond of affection and love with Jesus through the meal was lived out on a daily basis in the links and bonds formed in community among believers. Whenever they ate a meal, they were reminded of this bond. This is why Christians love to eat together, because when we do something happens when we share a meal. We find Jesus in the lives of fellow-believers who also are linked with Jesus.


Believers gathered yields a new kind of community of trust, of sharing, of mutual care and concern. If I can see Jesus in the lives of fellow-believers who are also linked with Jesus, then that means when fellow-believers gather, then it could be said Jesus shows up, too. When this happens we find we're in a different kind of community, maybe a little odd (Christians are supposed to be odd in the eyes of the world, at odds with the rest of the world. It's a community that welcomes all who bear the image of Christ, where resources are generously shared, where people know they're not alone, where needs are met, where people put their own desires aside and seek the best for the others in community, where people feel safe and secure, a kind of community where lives are shared in a circle of trust, where people suffer with those who are suffering, sharing sorrows, carrying each other's burdens and worries, even as we rejoice with those who are rejoicing, sharing hopes, carrying each other's joy, aspirations, dreams.


Now you might think what I'm describing the church here. But I'm not. The New Testament is full of examples of churches lacking trust, full of division and dysfunction, wavering in conviction, and bordering on apostasy. This is why Paul had to write all of his letters. I've been around the church long enough, and so have you, and have seen things and heard things occurring in congregations that break God's heart. There's no such thing as a perfect church, even as there's no such thing as a perfect Christian – so we should just set those expectations aside and be done with them. Perfection always sets us up for disappointment.


I'm not talking about the church, but about something that happens and does happen – by the grace of God – in the midst of congregations, something that happens which, in many ways, ensures the vitality of that congregation and moves the church of Jesus Christ from one generation to the next; it's when koinonia, true community occurs, true fellowship, true communion with Christ and among Christ's people takes place; when a congregation is renewed and transformed into a community, a koinonia. If there was more of this in our churches, I wonder if so many would be suspicious of organized religion.



I grew up in a strong, healthy church home, in a thriving church, with a marvelous youth program, where I learned about Jesus and met Jesus in people who really cared about me and loved me. But I never experienced koinonia until I went to seminary and lived on the fourth floor of Alexander Hall. Fourth Alex was probably the closest thing to a frat house we had on the Princeton Seminary campus. We were often playing games, being loud and boisterous, pulling pranks (include me), having water-balloon fights (indoors), staying up far too late, blowing the large Jewish shofar or ram's horn (which we owned). One time, we blew the shofar during lunchtime in the dining hall. We were promoting a fundraiser-dance on our floor. What we didn't know was that in the next room there was a Jewish-Christian conference going on. Now, the shofar is only blown on high holy days or to announce the coming of the Messiah. So when the Jewish guests heard the horn blew, knowing it wasn't a holy day, were shocked to think that the Messiah has come – and on the campus of Princeton Seminary! We got in trouble for this one. We liked to blow the shofar at 2 a.m., waking up the dorm and the campus. But on Wednesday evenings at 10 p.m. there was our floor meeting. Everyone was expected to be there – fellowship always trumped study (even of Calvin). And it was fellowship, true koinonia: we sang and prayed, we gathered together, broke bread (well, often nachos and beer), and told our stories of how Jesus touched our lives, of how Jesus was working in our lives, struggling with Jesus' call in our lives. We learned to care for each other, and love each other (even folks it might be difficult to love), to cry and laugh together, to be honest and real without the fear of being judged, to pray with and for each other in a circle of trust, eventually forming in time a community and a bond with people to this day I call, literally call, my brothers, part of a family of Christ. When it happens, it's pure grace, pure gift – but it's rare.


I've found it now and again in the church, now and again in this church, and even beyond the church. But it doesn't have to be rare. It just doesn't magically happen, either. You have to search for it, want it, make it a priority, set aside time for it, really hunger for it. In fact, I think every one of us hungers for it (at times more than we would like to admit), especially people who have given up on the church, or Christianity for that matter. I know what's possible when believers gather, break bread, and tell their stories. We all do. Sadly, Jesus might not always be found in a church, but he's always found in koinonia – in the community of believers who know Christ within themselves and serve him by loving the Christ in each other and sharing their lives together.


So let us break this bread believers and let us share this cup knowing we participate in the presence of Christ alive within us and among us here – and then watch how Christ is formed in us and among us and through us, a congregation of widely diverse people gathered together in communion, in koinonia, and formed into a community that embodies the presence of Christ. Pure grace. Pure gift.




Cited by Larry Rasmussen, "Shaping Communities," in Dorothy C. Bass, ed. Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 119. He calls it "the perennial strategy."

This is a term central to the thought of Parker J. Palmer, Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 25ff.