27 June 2011

The City of God

Psalm 46 & Revelation 22: 1-6
Second Sunday in Pentecost/ June 26, 2011

God has a special fondness for cities.  Although the Bible’s story begins in a garden, it ends in a city.[1]  Although Jesus began his ministry in the tiny villages of the Galilee, his ministry culminated in a city – Jerusalem.  Although Paul was convicted by the Spirit on the road to Damascus (on the way to a city), the conclusion of his ministry was in the greatest city of the ancient world – Rome – and his journey in the Spirit led him through the major cities of the Roman Empire, particularly Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth. The growth of the early church and the proclamation of the gospel centered around urban areas.  Trade routes brought the message of Jesus from city to city.  The first Christians were urban, not farmers, not villagers, but people who gathered for worship, for prayer, for the sharing of meals, for service, in the city.  Ideas and beliefs spread from one city to the other.  When John had his revelation on the island of Patmos, he sent letters to the churches in the cities of Asia Minor – to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Laodicea, Sardis, Thyatira, and Philadelphia.

            In all these settings the health and vitality of a church community was directly related to its context, to its setting, to the city.  Indeed, the health and vitality of the church was directly related to its ability to relate to, preach to, witness to, and minister to the needs of the wider community.  The health of the church has often been directly connected to the health of the city.

            Today, many of our cities are in sad shape – as are many of the churches that try to survive in urban settings (Not unlike the church as a whole that’s suffering; I wonder if there’s a connection.) On Thursday evening at the meeting of Baltimore Presbytery we heard a rousing sermon given by the Reverend John Thomas of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, Baltimore.  He said that although cities have been “the crucible of progress, our cities are dying from within.”  Just about every city in the United States is struggling, particularly the cities in the Midwest, the Rust Belt, the Deep South, the old industrial cities of the Northeast.  Due to the racial unrests of the 1960s, combined with the sagging economy of the 1970s (a time when people pretty much gave up on the city), many churches left the inner-city and rebuilt in the suburbs (making matters worse in the city).  I grew up between Manhattan to the east about five miles and the city of Newark, NJ, about five miles to the south.  I heard the stories of the riots in Newark.  I grew up being afraid of the city.  And yet, I enjoyed going to Newark with my mother and grandmother, walking down Broad Street, past the Old First Presbyterian Church, the church of the first settlers of the city in the 1600s. Today, even though Newark is slowly coming back to life after all these years, that church continues to struggle.A city like Newark was a place from which to escape.  Moving away from the city, avoiding the city, driving around the city so as not to see its blight, was common.

            There are some that dislike cities and prefer living in quieter, suburban, even rural areas.  There are others who prefer life in the city, with its frenetic activity and buzz.  Whether one likes cities or not, there are still sections of every city which we probably avoid altogether because we don’t want to see what’s there.  We don’t want to see the boarded up row houses or empty shells that once housed families, we don’t want to see the crack dens, the poverty, signs of unemployment, or homelessness.  We don’t want to see the crime. 

            I often think that there’s something about the power of wealth that separates. With enough money we can separate ourselves from pain and suffering.  The wealthy can leave the city, the wealthy can move to a bigger home, a nicer neighborhood, safer, cleaner, with trees. Drive through the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore and you’ll see block after block will be missing trees.  Our wealth means we can drive away from there, drive around it and not see what’s going on there.
            But it’s there. Just take the Amtrak train from Wilmington to Baltimore.  As you approach Penn Station and look out the window, you can’t ignore it – block after block of blight.  Sometimes, I intentionally get lost driving around downtown Baltimore. Sometimes, I intentionally go into extremely poor areas of Baltimore, along North Fulton Avenue or North Avenue – not to avoid, but to see, to remind myself what’s going on in my city (I live in the city, on the edge of the city, but still in the city). Granted, it’s from the relative safety of my car, but it’s better than ignoring what’s in my backyard or watching it from a distance on television. 

            It’s true, some cities have experienced renewal:  think of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, many neighborhoods are coming back to life (Bolton Hill, Hampden, Canton); I think of downtown Washington, DC, especially along the 7th Street, NW, corridor.  People are moving back into the city, the urban renewal movement among architects is reimagining urban life. 

            And the church – many churches – are reimagining urban life, of the ministry waiting for us there.  We are being reminded that God loves to dwell in the city – the city of God is lifted up as the model for the beloved community, the place where God’s people dwell with God. God seeks the the welfare of the city, which means God’s children are also called to seek the welfare of the city.  Why? Because God longs to dwell where people live. God wants to be involved in our lives. And God seeks to dwell with people in greatest need – especially the poor.  God wants cities to flourish.  The psalmist envisions a city fed by a life-giving river, life-giving water that courses through the heart of it. A similar vision is offered at the end of the Bible in Revelation.  John sees the city of God coming down out of heaven, established on the earth.  It’s the place where God will dwell with God’s people.  At the center of this city is a river flowing with the water of life. The source of the river is the throne of God; it pours through the city bringing life to the nations.  That’s what God intends for the city.

            Sure, God dwells with people in the suburbs and in rural places.  But we need to remember that we won’t find any reference to the suburbs in the Bible.  It’s a foreign concept to the Bible.  There was no such thing as a suburb.  Yes, God dwells in the suburbs and in the country, but there’s something about the city and its people and it’s poverty that matters in a unique way to God.  Maybe because how a people address the needs of the people in a city says something about what really matters most to people, what’s at the center of a culture or civilization.

            One of the leading evangelists of our time was in Baltimore this past Wednesday evening at M & T Stadium, he’s one of the best theologians of our day, a tireless advocate for justice and peace and the coming kingdom of God.  His name is Bono, from U2.  Bono is a deeply committed Christian (you can hear it all through his song lyrics, particularly in the last album), a faith shaped by writers such as Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) and Walker Percy (1916-1990).  In a speech given to the NAACP in 2007, Bono said:  “God has a special place for the poor. The poor are where God lives.  God, my friends, is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.  This is not a burden it is an adventure.”

            In the city of God known as Philadelphia there was a downtown Presbyterian Church that faced decline and neglect and urban decay.  The community scattered as the neighborhood around it deteriorated.  The presbytery shut the doors of the church.   The church left and things got worse.  For decades, this facility – enormous sanctuary, chapel, church school rooms, fellowship hall – sat empty on south Broad Street. That is until my friend Bill Golderer, who was raised in the wealthy Philly suburb of Bryn Mawr, had a vision for the place – a different kind of church, doing a different kind of ministry that was rooted and grounded in the community, in that context, in the city.  In 2005, Broad Street Ministry was established as “a broad-minded Christian community that cherishes creativity, fosters and nurtures artistic expression, extends inclusive hospitality and – works for a more just world through civic engagement.”[2]    My good friend, Erika Funk, is now also on the staff, who, together with Bill, both are Presbyterian ministers, have built an amazing ministry.  Our middle schoolers went up there for an overnight several years ago and came back ready to end world hunger in a month.   Another group was there earlier this year and returned equally blessed and challenged.   In a few minutes we will commission our senior highs leaving today after worship for South Broad Street, Philadelphia.  They will be at Broad Street Ministry all week.

            I wish Broad Street was closer to Baltimore, if only to attend their worship services on Sunday evenings.  Communion is served weekly.  People come from as far away as Princeton (about an hour) to worship with the residents of the community, the homeless, people recovering from addiction, people struggling in many ways, but seeking the fellowship of God’s people and searching for the love of God in tangible, life-giving ways.  After worship, they all share a meal together.

            The ministry at Broad Street is built around this core value:  “We believe God is dynamically at work in the life of every person. We aim to meet people where they are – to learn from their spiritual experiences and share ours. We seek to enhance the experience of God through worship, educational offerings, and spiritual friendship.” They are about “building community, a contemporary ‘cathedral’” that “welcomes, serves, shelters, supports and befriends our community regardless of faith commitments or lack thereof.  We attempt to provide our neighbors with the encouragement and resources that are needed to experience the flourishing God intends for everyone.”

            What will our group be doing this coming week?  I asked Erika.  They’ll be meeting with homeless people in Philadelphia on the street and in residences, they’ll be working on urban neighborhood gardens, working with people in recovery, helping with food distribution, helping with their Breaking Bread meal on Thursday at 11 a.m.  A free meal is served to the community and they provide all kinds of free social services, they’ll be doing art projects, helping an old church fix up its building.

            I also asked Erika if there’s a particular theme for the coming week.  Get this:  she wrote back, “the theme for the week is ‘Between the Trees,’ how we are to live between the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Tree of Life in Revelation, living between what God has done and what God will do. And how do we participate in God’s work now?”  I smiled when I read her e-mail because the reference to the Tree of Life in Revelation is here in chapter 22 and I picked this text earlier in the week before I heard from Erika.  It must be a Spirit-thing.  The Tree of Life in Revelation stands right in the center of the city of God. That tree is alive and flourishing, fed by the water of life flowing from the throne of the living God.  It’s a tree producing fruit. Not just one kind of fruit, but twelve kinds of fruit all on one tree.  Have you ever heard of such a tree?  What an amazing symbol of diversity and abundance.  And it produces fruit, not seasonally, but each month – continually yielding life. And the leaves, the leaves are for the healing of the nations.  (I thought of the Moringa tree project in Congo that we’ve been supporting, of the way the leaves of this miracle tree rich in vitamins and nutrients are literally saving lives, yielding health.) The leaves of healing and health – for the people of God in the city of God. This is the vision the Bible ends with.  This is the hopeful vision Revelation offers us. This is the goal toward which the entire universe is moving and every one of us is called and invited to join in the struggle – not the burden, but the adventure of embracing this vision for a world, a city, a people renewed.

            In the meantime, in the in-between times between the trees, between what God has done and what God will do, we are called to act, to live, to love, to serve, to share.  We are called to participate in the new thing that even now God is doing in our lives.  That’s what these two texts call us toward.  It’s what our youth in Philadelphia will be experiencing and praying about this week.  It’s what we’re called to pray about here too, as we seek to discern, how do we participate in God’s work now?  What are we who live in the suburbs, on the edge of a city, called to do?  Where does that life-giving river need to flow in Catonsville, Arbutus, Woodlawn, Hunting Ridge, and Howard County?  Perhaps when our youth get back from Philadelphia they will have something to teach us, to share with us, to help us discover what God is trying to do through us and for us.  May it be so.

Image:  The Schuylkill River running through the city of Philadelphia, PA.

[1] I attribute this quote to David Buttrick.  I heard him offer this insight years ago at the Donald Macleod/Short Hills (NJ) Community Congregational Church Preaching Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary.
[2] Descriptions taken from the Broad Street Ministry website: http://www.broadstreetministry.org/

21 June 2011

The Water of Life

Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday/ June 19, 2011

There’s something about water that’s healing, that’s restorative – that’s necessary for life.

But we live in a fallen, broken world where water can also be destructive and damaging, with an inexorable power to erode, to break down.  Think of the excessive rain and the flooding of the Mississippi, New Orleans after Katrina, the tsunamis of Japan and Southeast Asia in 2006.  We might bless water, but we just as easily curse it.

            I was cursing water a lot last week.  I was in Savannah for my brother’s wedding.  Craig is an extraordinary golfer and as part of his wedding activities that week a lot of golf was played.  Now, I like golf and having lived in St. Andrews, the home of golf, you would like I’d love it more.   I had a great time on the various courses.  But last Thursday’s game was not a good one.  It started off okay, but by the 16th hole I stopped keeping score.  My cousins started called me Aqua Kenny.  You see, my ball, once it left the tee, had this uncanny ability to land in water.  I had a bad slice that day which I couldn’t correct.  The balls were all curving to the right, exactly where most of the water was located on each hole.  I thought I was safe on the 14th hole because the water on my left.  Since I was slicing the shots to the right, I felt at least I was safe on that hole. But, no.  I sliced it to the left and it landed right in the water. Aqua Kenny baptized a lot of golf balls that day – full immersion, full dunks.  I was inevitably drawn to water.

            Water has a way of doing that to us doesn’t it?  Whether it’s a running brook or stream in the woods after a heavy rain, the vast expanse of the ocean, there’s something about water that draws us in.  Whether it’s at the neighborhood pool or surrounded by water on a cruise ship, we feel different around water.  Hotels always charge more for river views or ocean views because they can.  We want to see water.  Maybe you dream of living near the water one day.  We love to be in it, love to touch it.  We like the sound of water – the sound of rain. We like the smell of water, the smell of rain.

            One of the four key elements– along with air, fire, and earth – water is the source of life.  We know this cognitively – we need water to survive, we have to remain hydrated or we will die.  It’s essential to life.  But there’s also a deeper dimension to this awareness. Water has a way of touching something primal, archetypal in us.  Water connects with the depths of our souls.  It reminds of us of the source, the beginning, the emergence of our lives.  I think at some unconscious level we know that we spent time in water, that we were formed by the ocean, that we all swam in water for a time.  We came to be in amniotic fluid which is mostly water in early gestation.  In time we inhaled and exhaled that fluid through our lungs in order to breath.  We remember water as a kind of home.  That’s probably why it continues to speak to us so meaningfully – the sound, the touch, the feel of water, the experience of water resonates with something deep at the core of our being.  It’s why water can be therapeutic, restorative, healing.  It has a way of connecting us with the generative experience of life because at some fundamental level it is the source of life. 

            There’s also something about the flow of water that is essential for its healing, restorative power. We like the sound of moving water.  Water itself gains life and is renewed and refreshed when it flows.  The flow is essential.  If water doesn’t flow it becomes stagnant and the breeding ground for all kinds of deadly diseases.  Living water flows.

            In the liturgical calendar today is Trinity Sunday. The lectionary text for the day lifts up an early Trinitarian designation, rare in the New Testament.  Just before Jesus’ ascension, he commissions his disciples to go and make more disciples, more students, more followers. And as you go, he says – baptize them in the name of “the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

            In this text we find an amazing confluence of symbols and theological claims and missional tasks and at the center of it is the command to baptize – which cannot be done without water.  It’s remarkable that at the center of these verses is an allusion to something so primal, elemental, archetypal as water, water as essential for the making of disciples, water as essential for giving life to the nations, water as essential in the remembrance that Jesus is with us to the close of the age.

            The commission requires water.  Baptize.  Be bathed. Be washed.  Be cleansed. Be purified. Sink into a tub of holy water and be refreshed.  That’s what baptism means.  That’s what is symbolizes.

            And then Jesus connects the symbol of water, the act of baptism, with the Trinity.  The Trinity is linked to baptism; baptism to the Trinity.  Now the text doesn’t get bogged down in trying to explain (or explain away) the mystery of the Trinity and neither should we.  But this doesn’t mean we get to ignore the Trinity either.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit – the Holy Three reveals the inherent relationality of God, an image of God as relationship.  Father relating to Son relating to Spirit relating to Son relating to Father. Three ways of being; one essence that is inherently relational and dynamic.  The Trinity presents us with a dynamic understanding of God, not a static image.  The movement to and fro, between them denotes movement, fluidity, activity, action.  God is a verb (as the Old Testament makes clear), not a noun. As a verb, God acts and inherent to God’s action is God’s creativity.  When God acts, God creates. For God to act is to witness God’s activity, God’s creativity. 
            In this sense we can say that God is generative, life-giving, life-forming and reforming, the source of life, the elemental source of all that is – not unlike water.  And like water, God’s presence flows in and through the relationship of the Trinity, and flows into the life of Jesus’ disciples, who are then sent to flow out into the world to teach the good news of the God’s kingdom.  To be baptized in the Trinity is to be marked, immersed in the source of all there is.  To be baptized in the Trinity is to participate in the inexhaustible source of life.

            Like a fountain whose source is inexhaustible, so too is the life that flows from the Triune God.    When Jesus sends us out to baptize in the name of the Trinity, he’s inviting us and others to be immersed, to be drenched, to be soaked in the source of all there is, in the source of all love and grace and goodness and beauty in this universe.  It’s an invitation to come alive, fully alive: to let something new flow through us.  To be baptized is more than just what is required to join the church.  It’s not primarily about incorporation into the church, but about incorporation into Christ who is himself incorporated in the source of everything.  To be baptized in him is to be connected to the source of everything.  It means to come alive.

            Several weeks ago, I was in the ancient Roman city of Pergamum in Turkey. There you can see in the hillside valleys the remains of a Roman aqueduct that brought water from springs deep inside the mountain to the city of Pergamum. To this day, the source of that spring, deep in the mountain, has yet to be identified.  Its source is inexhaustible – not unlike God’s love. The font – this font (even though it has only six sides; baptismal fonts should have eight sides, for eight is the ancient number of new beginnings, of creativity, of holiness which baptism symbolizes; I’m not sure what six represents) – nevertheless, this font symbolizes for us that to be in Christ means that we are also sharing in the generative life of Christ.

            That’s what this font symbolizes.  It’s what baptism points us toward and invites us to claim.  John Calvin’s (1509-1564) favorite image of God was God as the fons omnium bonorum, the font of all goodness.  The font flows and flows.  The more you go to the font and draw from it, but more it has to give us.  It’s similar to what Saint-ExupĂ©ry (1900-1944) said of love: “For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have. And if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow.”

            But we have to remember to go to the source.  Sometimes we forget that we’re not the source of life, we’re not the fountainhead.  Sometimes God’s life isn’t flowing through us.  The flow gets blocked and we become stagnant.  Then we wonder why we don’t have any love or grace or mercy to give, don’t have hearts left to give to others, to the world.

            It’s necessary to remember this, daily and often, which, I wonder, is why Jesus makes such a close connection between the Trinity, baptism, and the great commission.  Because the work Jesus is sending us out to do, the kind of struggles the gospel compels us to take up and take on, the overwhelming demands and burdens placed upon us because of his burden to love and his yoke of forgiveness and the desire to redeem, can’t be done if we’re relying upon our own resources, as if it’s all about us.  And it’s not about us.  He sent us to teach the kingdom – to teach this radical way of living, teach and live radical love, God’s way of loving and forgiving.  You can’t do this; I can’t do this unless you and I rely upon him, the source of life and allow God’s grace to flow through us.  We can’t do and become what we’re supposed to do and become individually as Christians and together as the Church without participating in Christ, without being drenched, immersed, soaked in this grace and presence.  We have to draw upon him, the fountainhead of love, and the more we draw from him, the more abundant is the flow in our lives.

            In a few moments we will witness two baptisms, an infant and an adult, using the Triune name.  As you hear the questions and hear the responses, as you hear the water flowing, as you see it drip from Charlotte and Sarah’s forehead, remember your own baptism.  And ask yourself – where is God’s grace flowing in us in you?  Where is it being blocked?  Where is it stagnant? What will it take to let is flow?  And let us not only witness this, but participate in this baptism. May we be drenched, immersed, soaked in Christ’s presence, in the grace of God, in the flowing love of the Spirit.  May we leave here dripping wet and sent out into a world that is parched and thirsty for the water of life.

16 June 2011

Our Sacrifice of Praise

Psalm 145 & Hebrews 13: 15-16

Sixth Sunday in Eastertide/ 29th May 2011/ Commitment Sunday

Sacrifice: it’s a difficult word. What does it really mean?  It’s been bandied about around here quite a bit for the last four months or so.   We’ve seen it primarily in conjunction with our Embracing the Vision campaign.  You’ve seen the prayer in the bulletin for weeks:  “Help me discern a meaningful, three-year sacrifice that I might make to the capital campaign.”  It’s the word our RSI consultants encourage us to use.  The commitments we make today are viewed as a kind of sacrifice offered to God.

It’s still a difficult word.  It doesn’t come rolling off our tongues with affection and joy, does it?  It’s not a word we hear much about around this church.  It’s not part of my theological vocabulary; it’s not at the center of our ecclesial vocabulary; nor is it part of our national or cultural vocabularies.  There’s something odd about interjecting the word “sacrifice” into our common life that might feel unsettling.  It’s a difficult concept. I’ve heard this, sensed this.  It’s come up in discussion on Sunday mornings in adult education, on Thursday mornings in Bible study, in the leadership planning discussions.  There’s something about this word that doesn’t quite sit well with us.  Maybe it should.  Maybe in our ecclesial life we need to be talking more about sacrifice; in our theological reflections, in mission and ministry maybe we’re missing out on something that is central to other worshipping communities, other Christians.  I’m not sure.

            Today, we are offering to God a three-year financial commitment to eradicate our debt and strengthen mission, a sacrificial gift in which we are asked to give up something of value and give it over to God for the sake of this campaign.

            To give up…that’s often how we view the meaning of the word.  To go without…  What other words come to mind when we hear sacrifice:   pain, suffering, belt-tightening, deprivation, death, priest, blood, victim, throwing victims into volcanoes, maybe the cross.  For the most part, we have negative associations with the word.  Yes, the cross, in the end, becomes a symbol of something positive, but something horrific had to take place on it first.  It’s not a word that makes our hearts sing, is it?

            So we have to be honest about our associations with this word, what it means in our world and what it meant in ancient times and knowing the difference.

            After spending ten days in Turkey and Greece, immersed in the ancient Greco-Roman world, visiting ancient temples to the gods – Diana and Athena, Apollo and Zeus, even the Roman emperors as gods—we were never far from the world of sacrifice.  Every god required a temple, every temple an altar, every altar a sacrifice conducted by a priest or priests.  Some of us took an excursion to the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete. Dating from the 2nd millennium B. C. (before the Greeks), the Minoans worshipped the bull and sacrificed countless bulls in their temples.  The Greeks adopted the same liturgy, as did the Romans.  The Romans slaughtered bulls and scattered the blood over their altars.  In the Ara Pacis in Rome, a temple built by Caesar Augustus (28 BC-14 AD) to give thanks for the peace of the empire during his reign, there is a carving of a religious procession led by a bull about to be slaughtered.

            In Athens, we visited the recently-opened Acropolis museum, becoming one of the finest museums in the world.  As you make your way up to the first floor on your left and right behind glass on shelves are hundreds of votives—little ceramic statues presented to the goddess Athena, unearthed on the Acropolis.  These are ancient offerings to the gods. 

            Several years ago a bulldozer broke ground on a development near Jamnia (Javneh) in Israel.  As is the case throughout Israel, dig just a little below the surface and you’ll run into the past.  The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were brought in and quickly realized they stumbled upon the storehouse of an ancient Philistine temple.  In the storehouse were hundreds of votives, statues, gifts offered to the Philistine gods, offered as a kind of sacrifice or gift to the gods.  In time the temples were so full of gifts that they need to be removed, placed in a storehouse, to make room for more offerings, for more sacrifices to the deities[1]  
            All of this is foreign to us. We don’t understand how killing a goat or a bull has the power to curry God’s favor or bring about healing or mercy.  To be honest, there are plenty of Christians who have difficulty viewing the cross as a sacrifice, of God requiring the death of his Son in order to be merciful.   Ritual sacrifice has been found in virtually every human civilization.  It’s a practice found virtually everywhere in ancient religion—in just about every religion of the ancient world.  Sacrifice is not part of our faith today.  When we study scripture and try to make sense of sacrifice in the Bible, especially in Leviticus and also here in Hebrews, it really makes no sense to us.  We might guess at what it all meant in the past, but we are sure it means nothing now.  In our sophistication, we think it was a kind of “protoscience,” that is,  “an illusory means to manipulate the gods or nature,” as a kind of “deluded technology.”   The use of sacrifice has been replaced by science and knowledge.  Some would say sacrifice is extinct.  “We do not kill persons or goats to avert plagues; we get immunizations.”[2]  It’s a thing of the past, and, to some extent, it is.  But then what do we do with passages in scripture that call for offerings, for sacrifices in capital campaigns? Do we take them literally?  Or are they simply metaphors? 

            Sure, we still use the word.  To give up, to go without…this is the way of parenthood, isn’t it?  Parents make sacrifices for their children all the time.  On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember the women and men who made the “ultimate sacrifice,” who gave up their lives for their country, to go without so that others might know liberty and liberation.  It’s a kind of sacrifice very few of us can even begin to understand or fathom.  It’s a devotion to something other, higher than oneself that one is willing to give one’s life to.  That’s how we talk about sacrifice today.  Even here, although noble and laudable, we know that it’s associated with pain, with suffering, and maybe even death.

            It’s difficult getting around such connotations.  But I think we must if we are going to make sense of how scripture, especially the New Testament understands this word. 

            First, we would be well to remember that the etymology of sacrifice did not originally mean to go without or to give up.  It means, literally, to make holy, to make something sacred.  The act of making something holy means that it is therefore acceptable and worthy to be received by a God who is holy.

            Second, we need to remember that the ancients believed that when you gave your gift to the god—a holy gift—part of you went with it.  You were in what you offered.  The gift allowed you to participate in the power and presence of the god and the god to connect with you.  If you took something ordinary and ritually, liturgically set it aside as holy (which is what the word holy means, to be set apart), and then offered it to a god, then the gift carried a part of you toward the god.  They participated in the power of the god through the gift.  To make a sacrifice means to make something fit for a god, worthy of god.

            Now in Old Testament, there is a long-running argument between those who, on the one hand, believed the center of the worship life of Israel was in the temple, in the sacrifices and offerings of the priests and those, on the other, who felt that Yahweh despised such offerings, the sacrifice of goats and bulls like the other gods; what mattered was the offering one made with one’s heart and with one’s life, the offering of justice for all God’s people.  The prophet Hosea, for example, channels God’s anger and asks, “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah?  …For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6: 4, 6).  Yahweh doesn’t want burnt offerings and dead goats, or thousands of rams, or any other gift than this:  what does the Yahweh require of you, “but to do justice and to love kindness; and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6: 6-8).

            In the New Testament, everything changes—Christianity is critical of sacrifices within Judaism (which is really what the epistle to the Hebrews is getting at) and condemns the sacrificial practices of the Greco-Roman world.  In fact, it might come as a surprise, as it was to me this week, that the language of sacrifice and the priesthood are never applied to Christian worship in the New Testament, never used to describe the cultic life of early Christians.  When words like sacrifice and priesthood are used they refer to Jewish and Gentile practices or they refer to the death of Jesus or a life of service or, finally, in its use here in Hebrews, as a metaphor for Christian faith and obedience. [3] The New Testament writers seem to distance themselves from the cultic, religious life of the Jewish and pagan world, to show a different way.

            For the author of Hebrews there is no more need for priests in the temple, no need of sacrifices.  Christ as the great high priest has given his life and because of this act there is no more need for the shedding of blood and attempts to curry favor with God.  When Christians gather for worship the only sacrifice we are called to make is a new kind of sacrifice or offering—and not just the priests, everyone— a sacrifice of praise.  Praise that is sacrifice—that is, made holy—and therefore worthy of a God who is holy.  Praise that is sacrifice—that is, made holy—and offered to God.  Our praise offered up to God, praise that participates in and with God (like psalm 145), that shares in God’s glory, praise that mediates back to us a sense of God’s glory and holiness and love. 

            Maybe, sacrifice is less about what we give up or do without as it is about all the ways that we offer our lives, our resources, our gifts, our emotions, our intellects, our experiences, set them apart and then give them over to God, most profoundly in praise, pure effusive, endless and ever-flowing praise.  God works and connects through us, in what we offer—and what we offer changes us. When we praise this way, when we offer ourselves to God in this way, we are changed, the church is changed, and the world is changed.

            As we know,  the Embracing the Vision campaign is about more than dollars and debt.  It includes these, of course.  But it’s really about our level of commitment. These are our sacrifices of praise that will change us as God works through what we offer.  What we offer will open new possibilities for us, new doorways to service and ministry.

            The sacrifices we offer in this campaign are really expressions of our praise to God, expressions of grace and gratitude, expressions of what the power of God is doing in us, demonstrations that we are participating in the very power and presence of the living Christ—to whom be all praise in the church and in the world, now and forever.  Thanks be to God!

[1] “Philistine Cult Stands,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2011, 55-60.

14 June 2011

Into the World

John 17: 1-19

Seventh Sunday in Easter/ 5th June 2011/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Nobody prays like this. If any of us offered a prayer like this it would be presumptuous, ludicrous.  If I offered a public prayer like this the heresy police would be at the doors of our sanctuary to escort me away.  Nobody prays like this—except Jesus.

 And Jesus prays—and does he pray: deeply, personally, boldly, with faith, with conviction, with power, with focus, with vision.  John 17 is known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  In John’s gospel the prayer comes after Jesus’ last meal with the disciples, it concludes their dinner conversation.  He prays and then goes out to the Kidron valley to be arrested. It comes just before his betrayal.  Knowing what was about to transpire, he pauses in prayer and becomes like a priest.

            A priest is a mediator—that’s what priests do. They mediate between humanity and divinity. They convey the needs of humanity to God and they convey the promise and hope of God to humanity.  John views Jesus as a priest who stands between heaven and earth, between this world and another world.  And as such, Jesus offers this amazing prayer. 

            If we took the time to really break it down, analyze it, pay attention to the words, the tense, the flow of its content, we would discover Jesus doing this amazing dance back and forth between being human and at the same time participating in God.  The Father-Son relationship is obvious.  Jesus acknowledges that he glorified God with his ministry—but then he asks to be glorified, with the same glory he possessed with God before the world began.  In his prayer for his disciples, Jesus says, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”  None of us would ever pray this way.  It is clear that Jesus identifies himself with the glory of God.  There is no doubt in Jesus: he knows who he is.  He shares in the glory of God.  In the world of theology, this is called a high Christology—there is no doubt that Jesus is divine here. 

            And yet, it is extraordinary how he continues to pray and plead from the human side.   He prays on behalf of the disciples from out of his experience with them as a human, as one of them.  He places his feet firmly in both worlds, here and there; in two natures, human and divine, but does so with the strength of a God who embraces the tension in himself.  Nobody prays like this; except Jesus.  And as Jesus prays this way he participates as a human being in the very life of God. 

            He goes to God on behalf of his disciples, but also on behalf of all humanity.  As God in humanity he brings humanity before God; as humanity participating in God he brings to humanity something of God.  This is the dance; this is the exchange; this blessed movement back and forth in his prayer.  He goes to God on our behalf.  He places our needs before God.  He intercedes with us and for us.  “Protect them in your name that you have given me,” he said, “so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

            And he just doesn’t pray for his disciples alone, as a detached priest, as if he personally needs nothing.   He’s praying out of his own need: he needs and he wants from God something for his disciples.  This is the occasion for the prayer:  Jesus wants his disciples glorified, he wants them strengthen and cared for. There is no reference to the Holy Spirit in this text—that will come—but Jesus’ prayer is really a prayer for the Holy Spirit to do something with and in his disciples:  to sanctify them, to sanctify us, to set us apart and bless us and equip us.[1]

            And here we get to the heart of the prayer:  “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world,” Jesus said. 

            We need to pause briefly here to note what John means by “world;” what we find here is a form of the Greek word, kosmos.  The kosmos is understood as the part of the universe that is at odds with God’s will; it’s a force that seeks to undo what God desires and hopes for. This word, with this meaning shows up a lot in John’s gospel.  Although kosmos is a force at odds with God, it is always, nevertheless, the object of God’s love.  God desire is to redeem it. For example, “For God so loved the kosmos that God sent the Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the kosmos, not to condemn the kosmos, but that the kosmos might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).  The theme is picked up here in the prayer in John 17.  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”    And here:  “They do not belong to the kosmos, just as I do not belong to the kosmos. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you have sent me into the world,” the kosmos—hey, are you with me? here it is—“so I have sent them into the kosmos.  And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they may also be sanctified in the truth.”

            The object of God’s love is the kosmos—it’s everything in this world that is at odds with God and undoes God’s work, whether in the depths of our psyches, in relationships, in society—which God loves and seeks to redeem.  It’s nothing less than the kosmos that is the object of God’s love and death and resurrection.  This is God’s plan – send the Son to train disciples and then send them into the world to continue the redemption of the world.  Into the world; into the kosmos.  The grand design is this:  the sanctification of the world through the sanctification of God’s people.  Through people like you and me who have been baptized and equipped with the Holy Spirit, who know the love of Christ, and seek to serve him.

            Into the world. There’s nothing escapist about this vision.  It’s why obsessions with raptures (which I saw even on billboards in Turkey last month) and the end of days is a dangerous diversion from the work at hand.  In last week’s The New Yorker there was a cartoon of a prophet-like figure standing with a sign that read:  “The End Was Near.”[2]

            There’s an old “Peanuts” comic strip from years ago that pictured Peppermint Patty troubled by the imminent end of the world.  “What if the world ends tonight?”  Patty asks her friend Marcie.  Marcie offers this theologically sound response, “I promise there’ll be a tomorrow,” she said. “In fact, it is already tomorrow in Australia.”[3]  It is already tomorrow.  Another day follows another day as the world turns moving into God’s future.  There will come a time when our sun will burn out and the earth will be no more, so we’re told.   That shouldn’t be of concern to us, because in the meantime there is still plenty of work left to do – there are people who need to be cared for and loved and healed.  There’s injustice to fight and people enslaved who need to know liberty. There are people in need of redemption and resurrection.  For God so loved and loves this world and will continue to love the world and send us into the world.  A disciple of Jesus never gives up on this world.  We do not wait for raptures.  To those obsessed with trying to work out a timetable for Christ’s return, Presbyterians say, “Only God knows, but God has given us important work to do in the meantime.”[4]  And so Jesus prays for us.

            Indeed, as Calvin himself knew and encouraged the Reformers to see, this world is the object of God’s love. We need to see the kosmos as on the way to being redeemed and reformed and loved into the kingdom – and it’s the job of the church to help work for it, to reform the church and reform society.  And if we’re not going to work for it in the world, then for God’s sake don’t stand in the way—indeed, get out of the way, so that the world and its people can be loved. How many times has the church throughout its history stood in the way of social justice and the work of the kingdom?  It grieves me to no end to see the way the church obstructs the love of God.  Oh, that we would be given new “spectacles,” as John Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, to see the sparks of God’s glory everywhere, glittering every blessed thing.  “The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theatre of divine glory.”[5]  This means that even the parts of the world or kosmos that are against God’s vision of redemption and grace might be loved and equipped to serve the glory of God.  Nothing is beyond redemption; no one is beyond redemption.

            Jesus shared a meal with the disciples; prayed for them; and then sent them out into the world.  He shares the same meal with us—invites to his table—and prays for us and through us and with us, and then sends us to love kosmos into the kingdom.  May it be so.


Image: Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue on Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
[1] Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1988), 196-199.
[2] The New Yorker, June 6, 2011, 47.
[3]Cited in W. Eugene March, “The End of the World,” Presbyterians Today, What Presbyterians Believe issue, June, 2011, 56-59.
[4] W. Eugene March, 59.
[5] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “Correctly then is this world called the mirror of divinity; not that there is sufficient clearness for man to gain a full knowledge of God, by looking at the world, but…the faithful, to whom he has given eyes, see sparks of his glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing.  The world was not doubt made, that it might be the theatre of divine glory.”