October 26, 2014 FAITHFUL TO THE DREAM

FAITHFUL TO THE DREAM!
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 26, 2014

Hear the sermon.

How would you like to write your own epitaph? Cemeteries today tend to require that all headstones be the same size and shape, and none of them with epitaphs. How boring! Whatever their reasons for such dullness, we and those who follow us have lost something when they do away with epitaphs.
Epitaphs are a gift to future generations. Most of us are familiar with variations of this often used and somewhat smug epitaph found in multiple cemeteries around the world:
Come, blooming youths, as you walk by,
And on these lines do cast an eye.
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so shall you be.
Remember this and follow me.

To which someone at a cemetery in Waynesville, NC replied by writing on the tombstone:
To follow you I am not content,
How do I know which way you went?

Then there is the wonderful epitaph of Mel Blanc, who was the voice of Porky Pig. It simply reads, “That’s all, folks!” Also in Hollywood, there is the epitaph of Jackie Gleason: “And away we go!”
In Uniontown, Pennsylvania, is the epitaph of a man named Jonathan Blake:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake,
Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.

Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona has some wonderful epitaphs:
Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a 44
No less, no more.

OK—one more: this one is from Albany, NY:
Harry Edsel Smith
Born 1903-Died 1942
Looked up the elevator shaft
To see if the car
Was on the way down.
It was

This stuff is priceless: like the gravestone of the hypochondriac in Georgia that says, “I told you I was sick!”

I

 

There is an extraordinary epitaph in the story of the death of Moses. It was written by someone who was obviously struck by the fact that the shining star of Israel’s history had no monument, not even a gravesite for people to visit. No one knew where he was buried. So in a postscript to the book of Deuteronomy, some unknown author gave Moses an epitaph: Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.

That is quite an epitaph! Who among us would not like to have something like that said about us? Never since has there arisen a golfer in New England like me…. Never since has there arisen a soccer mom in Providence like me…. You know, we could let our imaginations go wild on this!

But Moses was assigned this spectacular epitaph. There appears to be some wistfulness in this epitaph. After all, Moses had a hard life. The very people who revered him when he died gave him hell while he was living! And finally, when they reached the very edge of the Promised Land, Moses climbs Mount Pisgah and looks out over the land of his dreams.

Ah, the land of his dreams, the land for which he had been yearning all those years, the land toward which all his work and struggle had been directed for a lifetime. And now, at long last, he stands on top of Mount Pisgah looking out over that land, and he will never step foot on it. The biblical text says almost pathetically: Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab…. The fulfillment of his lifetime dream would be left to someone else.

II

The unspoken message of this story is that many great dreams are greater than one lifetime can fulfill. In fact, the great dreams are constructed on a scale too large to fulfill in one lifetime. When we hear a resonate baritone voice singing a spiritual like, Deep river, my home is over Jordan…, a spiritual inspired by this very biblical story, we imagine all the generations of slaves who dreamed of freedom but never got there. They died and were buried, often in unmarked graves, while their children and their children’s children were left to cross over into freedom.

It is, of course, very good to experience the fruits of our labor and to know the fulfillment of dreams come true. But it is also true that some dreams are greater than the scope of our lifetimes. We need those mega-dreams, those dreams that are bigger than we can fulfill in one generation. We all need a place that holds up the standard of great dreams…dreams like the hope of “a beloved community,” the dreams of the prophets like a time when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, dreams of Jesus when he spoke of the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart and the peacemakers and the salt of the earth. We need a place where we can grapple with difficult dreams like loving our enemies and who is our neighbor and praying for those who persecute you. We need a community where the dream of love becomes flesh-and-blood real.

Church is just such a place! Church holds up dreams greater than one lifetime can fulfill. Providence was founded on a dream that was oh so fragile at the time: a dream of soul liberty and separation of church and state. In 1638, who could have imagined that a whole nation would adopt that dream? That dream was bigger than the lifetime of Roger Williams.

When we gather as a church, we are working together to fulfill a dream, a dream that is bigger than one person, bigger than one congregation, bigger than one lifetime can fulfill. We constantly work together on this dream; we teach it to our children; we pass on to the next generation that gleam in the eye, that hope for a better world, that Way of living which Jesus taught us. Being faithful to that mega-dream takes a lifetime and more.

Why anyone would ever imagine that working for that dream is not worth our greatest investment, our deepest commitment, and our most fervent prayers is beyond me. Society goes through trends when church is more or less important. We endure periods when scandal rocks parts of the church, when attendance rises or falls, and the quality of church programming varies over the years. But the dream remains. It is as real today as it was in the golden glow of yesteryear when this church, along with most Protestant churches, was filled with people.

When we announced today that the theme for this year’s stewardship emphasis is “Choices That Matter,” we were thinking not just of political choices. We will, I hope, all make choices and vote on Election Day. Those are important choices. But there is also our choice to invest in the church’s dream, a dream greater than the budgetary needs for one year. Sure, a church budget pays for the heat…it pays for the salaries of staff members…it pays all the bills an institution like ours accumulates in order to function. And, it pays out generous checks to ministries in this community and around the world to keep the larger dream alive.
The function of a church budget is not so much to keep the lights on in the building as it is to keep the dream alive in our hearts! That dream is greater than the sum of all our bills. It is the dream that we fund, and it calls for faithfulness.

Moses died and is buried on Mount Pisgah. Joshua steps into his place, and he in turn eventually dies and is buried. New circumstances require new leaders, and generation after generation does its part and passes the leadership on. Yet through all those generations, the one dream, inspired by the divine Spirit, remains constant.

III

Some of you are familiar with the mountain near Asheville, NC called Mount Pisgah.  You can understand why it was named Mount Pisgah. It is a 360 degree view. On a clear day you can see 100 miles over some of the most beautiful land in America.

On a good day, this church is our Mount Pisgah. When we worship together we are casting our eyes over a dream of a world that is just and peaceful, a world in which wars are no more and hatred is vanquished, a world in which there is enough for everyone, and a world in which compassion prevails. It is dream articulated so eloquently by Martin Luther King in August of 1963: a dream “when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…Free at last….” Our generation now carries this dream, and we will pass it on to the next.

That dream sustains us; it inspires us; it compels us. And like Moses, there will come a day when we will say to those we love, “This is a dream that I now leave for you, but be assured that you are not alone.” May it be said of this generation that we were faithful to the dream, faithful to the hope, and faithful to the reality of living that dream in the community of faith that we know as the First Baptist Church in America.

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October 19, 2014 TAKE YOUR MAT

Take your mat
John 5: 2-18
A sermon by Linda Bausserman

Hear the sermon.

Our scripture today is like a one act play with two scenes. The first scene takes place near the edge of the city by a pool of water. The second takes place in the temple and the two are tied together by a man who is healed by Jesus. Apparently this pool on the outskirts of the city was fed by a spring. When the spring released water, the surface of the pool would ripple. People believed that the first person into the pool when the waters were disturbed, would be healed. So, as you can imagine, the pool was surrounded by the sick, the maimed, the desperate. Among those people, was a man who had been there for 38 years, waiting for his turn to be healed. We don’t know what his infirmity was; but it hindered quick movement to the pool. And apparently he had no friends or family to help him. It must have been an every-man-for-himself kind of place. Into this mass of suffering humanity waded Jesus. He went straight to this man – surely the most pitiable of all those gathered there. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Well duh! What an astounding question! “I can’t get to the pool fast enough,” the man replies. Jesus says, “Pick up your mat and walk.” and he does.
Now I have a little different take on this from what I have heard in sermons and read in commentaries. I have seen implications that the man was accustomed to his life of ease on his pallet and thus there was some doubt that he really wanted to be healed. Not an unreasonable question and one can certainly make a powerful sermon based whether we really desire healing which would also involve a change in lifestyle. The man in our story would have to go out and find a job to support himself. It had been 38 years – what skills might he still have? He would have to start completely from scratch. Certainly a daunting prospect as anyone knows who had been out of work for a while. But look at the light this interpretation puts on Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was taunting this guy for his laziness nor accusing him of not trying hard enough or of being a welfare cheat. I can’t imagine what this man’s frame of mind might have been after all these years of frustration, disappointment and pain. I think Jesus posed the question to give the man a minute to recover from his surprise and start the transition from despair to hope. I also don’t think the man’s answer was evasive. We expect him, of course, to say yes, enthusiastically and joyfully. But as we read later in the story, he didn’t even know who Jesus was so wasn’t aware of the possibilities. The idea that someone might heal him on the spot was probably incomprehensible, just as it would be today. I think that he was simply telling Jesus what he needed – someone to help him get down into the water in the pool. Can you imagine how surprised and flustered he must have been that someone paid attention to him and might be willing to help him after all this time? Then Jesus simply tells him to get up and carry his mat. And, he does. Don’t you wonder why Jesus tells him to take his mat? It isn’t the first time Jesus has done that. He also told a paralytic that he healed to carry his mat. I don’t know how long this man had been lying on that particular mat; but, I can’t imagine that he would want to take it with him. And, why should Jesus care about what he did with it? It sounds a bit like Jesus’ admonition: “take up your cross and follow me.” (“Pick up your mat and walk”) The man is not only healed, he is charged with something to do. Perhaps the mat will serve as a reminder of where he came from and what Jesus has done for him. Though he is healed, his illness is a burden that he must bear – certainly 38 years of suffering will leave a mark on a person. We all have our mats to carry as we face what life brings us.
This story also raises a difficult question – why was this particular man healed? Most of the stories of healing involve people who come to Jesus or are brought to him to be healed. I believe that this is the only time that Jesus approached someone and asked if they wanted to be healed. It appears that Jesus didn’t heal unless someone wanted it. However, it also seems that any time someone in the Bible asked for healing Jesus provided it. So we are left wondering why we aren’t always healed when we ask for it. It wouldn’t surprise me if everyone here has had the experience that their prayers for healing of a friend or family member weren’t answered the way they wanted. It is clear in this story that Jesus didn’t heal everyone. He might have waved his arm in a mighty gesture and healed everyone by the pool. But he didn’t. Don’t we wish God would wave a mighty arm over West Africa and heal all those afflicted with Ebola. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Jesus chose this one man. It’s tempting to speculate that he chose this man because his was the worst case. He had after all suffered there for long time. But perhaps the time spent there spoke to his capacity for hope. Perhaps during his time there, he had come to deep spiritual truths as people often do in times of great suffering. We can assume that he was religious because the first place he went after being healed was the temple. Still, he had done nothing obvious to make him Jesus’ choice. He didn’t ask to be healed or profess any belief in Jesus himself. He hadn’t done any great deed that might make him worthy of reward. There was nothing special about him to make him stand out as deserving to be healed. Perhaps Jesus chose him simply because he was the person most needing healing. Why some people are healed and others not, only God knows; but I find comfort knowing that Jesus comes to us in our worst moments, unbidden, to offer hope if not healing. And isn’t that what we really need, hope to carry on, comfort that we are not alone, knowledge that God is with us in our suffering?
There are, of course, examples in the Bible where God didn’t answer the petitioners the way they wanted. One is Paul who prayed to have what he called ‘a thorn in his side’ removed. We don’t know what that thorn was – it has been speculated that it was malaria because Paul came from Tarsus, a mosquito breeding-ground. God’s answer to Paul was not healing but “My grace is sufficient for you” which I take to mean that though God wouldn’t remove the thorn, he would provide Paul the support to get through it or bear it. And apparently he did because Paul learned to live with his thorn. He remained faithful to God and lived into his sixties and died not from this thorn but by martyrdom. I don’t know why Paul wasn’t healed. It seems he had already had plenty of suffering in his life of beatings and imprisonments. But since he wasn’t healed, I’m grateful that he wrote about it. If a person like Paul wasn’t always given what he asked for, why should I be disappointed when my petitions aren’t answered the way I wish. It doesn’t mean that I should give up praying, prayer keeps up the connection with God and gives us hope. Hope that God will be with us, as he was with Paul, no matter what. So our challenge is to remain faithful, like Paul – no matter what.
Another example was Jesus himself in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him. God didn’t remove the cup but Jesus also remained faithful. Despite feeling forsaken by God on the cross, he said “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” And the outcome was resurrection and joy. When our prayers for healing aren’t answered the way we want, it’s small comfort in the midst of the suffering to know that we are in good company. But at least we should not assume that we aren’t good enough, or aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith if we don’t get the answers we want. What we can be sure of is that God is there with us in our most difficult moments, supporting us, loving us and giving us hope.
Now the healing is not the end of this story. There is a second scene in this play. The man went to the temple, carrying his mat and immediately got into trouble. It was against the law to carry a mat on the Sabbath. No one was interested in the astounding fact that he had been sick for 38 years and was now well. They were more concerned that he had broken a law. For them, you shall not carry anything on the Sabbath had become a more important law than love your neighbor! They also confronted Jesus, who had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. There were at least three other healings that took place in the temple on the Sabbath and each time Jesus tried to get the Pharisees to understand that people are more important than the law. The law was meant to help people in their relationship to God, not do them harm. Unfortunately, they never did get it.
Our Thursday evening group has been reading a book by Thomas Cahill, the same author that Tom has mentioned in a couple of his sermons. Cahill suggests that Jesus is preaching to two groups of people, the powerless and the powerful. Take, for example, the beatitudes. Some are directed toward people who have no control over their situation and others toward those who are in their position by choice. Cahill places the mourners, the meek, the pure and the persecuted among the powerless who have had their situation thrust upon them. Saying that the powerless are blessed reminded them that God loves them and will see to their ultimate triumph. In contrast, the poor in spirit, the champions of justice for the downtrodden, the merciful and the peacemakers have chosen to be the way they are. And the powerful are goaded by these examples of people who are blessed because they have abandoned their comfort for the sake of others. To use a quote you have probably heard before, the purpose of Jesus message is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our story today seems to fit into that pattern. In scene 1 Jesus blessed a powerless man. He chose to heal a suffering man on the Sabbath even though it was against the law. He surely knew that he would get into trouble for it. But it provided him yet another opportunity, in scene 2, to show the people in power what their priorities should be.
Jesus always puts people first. Yet he never forces anyone to accept him. He never interferes with our free will. Similarly, we are offered opportunities to serve; but, again, how we respond is our choice. In our lives there will be times of suffering. But there will also be times when we can be of service to our neighbor. When we are suffering, we are called to trust. When life is good, we are challenged to help others. Whatever our situation, however, we are assured that God support and guide us. God will always be there with us, loving us.

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October 12, 2014 POWER, SEX, AND A SELF-MADE GOD

POWER, SEX, AND A SELF-MADE GOD
Exodus 32: 1-14 and Matthew 23: 23-28
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 12, 2014

Hear the sermon.

If you think of an ancient story like the worship of the golden calf to be hopelessly out of date and having no connection with the 21st century, I invite you to think with me this morning about how closely and clearly such a story speaks to our day.
The story has Moses standing next to God on Mt. Sinai, and you half expect Moses to be pulling his hair out in frustration! Instead, God observes that crowd dancing around a golden calf and calls them a stiff-necked people and growls to Moses, Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them, as if God was not capable of being furious with them when Moses was present!
I
We do not know what convinced Aaron to turn against his brother Moses. Perhaps it was a case of sibling rivalry, as novelist Frederick Buechner speculates. What we do know is that it had to do with power and control. There was no question that the God of Sinai was powerful, but not controllable, and people yearn to have a god that they can control.
Isn’t it interesting that as long as this God was saving them from the Egyptians or providing manna, they were fine with that! But no sooner did God make some ethical demands on them in the form of the Ten Commandments, and they were ready to fall down before a golden calf. The word really indicates a bull. There was nothing unusual about that. Every culture in the ancient world was connected to bull worship of some kind. A snorting bull was a pervasive symbol of power and virility in the ancient world.
It still is: consider the statue of the Wall Street bull in Manhattan. What a symbol! It is eleven feet tall, with nostrils flaring, and its wickedly long, sharp horns are ready to gore. Its tail is curved like a lash. This contemporary bull shows an aggressive, even belligerent force on the move, and also symbolizes unpredictability. Not a bad symbol for the stock market!
The bull in the biblical story, like any bull market today, is made of the gold and jewelry of the people. Aaron had the bull fashioned into a deity. For them, the bull represented a powerful, sexually active, and promiscuous god who would not burden them with any ethical guidelines and no call for a covenant commitment to live together in peace and justice. This god cared nothing for the poor, the stranger, or the sick. This god was mute in the face of any behavior they chose.
And choose they did! The enigmatic biblical phrase, rose up to revel, has definite sexual connotations. So with no ethical guidelines, no restrictions on behavior, these people reveled before the golden bull, celebrating not just freedom, but license to do whatever in the world they wanted to do!
II
So what contemporary meaning can we take away from this primitive story? Why does the picture of the golden bull linger in our collective consciousness? What is it about this story that can speak to a tech-friendly 21st century crowd?
Let us start with this: the problem was not irreligion. There was plenty of religion dancing around that golden bull. So when you hear someone say that all religion is basically the same, you know better. The worship of the golden bull is not the same as the worship of the God of Sinai!
To use the imagery of this story, how do we know when religion is worshipping a golden bull, and when religion is worshipping the God of Sinai? How do we distinguish between the two? What is good religion and what is bad religion? This is a question raised repeatedly by thoughtful people.
Some critics of religion seem to see only bad religion, and no one of us would even attempt to deny the critics who claim that religion can be bad. Clearly, bad religion has led to bloody wars, cruel persecutions, human sacrifice, and hypocrisy, and it can be narrow-minded, selfish, and intolerant. Sheer cruelty and brutal murder practiced by bullies claiming to represent Islam can make our stomach turn and be an embarrassment to faithful Muslims around the world. No one denies that there is bad religion.
After all, bad religion was what Jesus confronted! I doubt that he ever encountered an atheist! Irreligion was not a problem he confronted. If you read the gospel stories closely, you will see that Jesus was constantly trying to bring people back to good religion. Listen to him address bad religion: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith!
III
So let us think together about good religion. Out of the mysterious smoke and thunder of Sinai came Moses with Ten Commandments chiseled on stone. From those Ten Commandments came a prophetic tradition that is clearly articulated in the prophets: What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts…. cease to do evil. Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow–so said Isaiah.
And then there was Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Good religion passionately cares about justice, kindness, and humility. Good religion cares about the poor and needy, the overlooked and the oppressed. This is the prophetic tradition, and it is clearly the tradition for which Jesus lived and died. Bad religion stood at the foot of the cross and mocked him, saying: He saved others; he cannot save himself. Bad religion walked into Jerusalem past those three crosses on Golgotha and ducked its head, ignoring the injustice on the hill above them, the same way we duck our heads and ignore the injustice in our world. Good religion stays focused on justice, kindness, and humility. And so it has been for 2,000 years.
For the last two centuries it has been assumed by western culture that as society becomes more scientific and technological, people will become more secular and less religious. On the surface, the decline in church attendance might lead us to believe that assumption. Church attendance may be in decline, but some studies show that religion has actually increased!
IV
So we have no lack of religion. The problem is lack of good religion! Just as the story we read today about the golden bull represents a picture of bad religion, I want to leave you with a picture of good religion. Here is a word picture that has quickly traveled the internet and has thus become well-known throughout the world and is read and re-read at the beginning of each school year. I am talking about the letter written by Nelba Marquez-Greene to school teachers everywhere. Here is a condensed version of it:
I lost my 6-year-old daughter Ana Grace on Dec. 14, 2012, in the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My son, who was in the building and heard the shooting, survived.
While waiting in the firehouse that day to hear the official news that our daughter was dead, my husband and I made promises to ourselves, to each other, and to our son. We promised to face the future with courage, faith, and love. As teachers and school employees begin this new year, my wish for you is that same courage, faith, and love….
Parents are sending their precious children to you this fall. Some will come fully prepared, and others not. They will come fed and with empty bellies. They will come from intact homes and fractured ones. Love them all.
………………..

A few weeks before the shooting, Ana Grace and I shared a special morning. Lunches were packed and clothes were picked out the night before, so we had extra time to snuggle. And while I lay in bed with my beautiful caramel princess, she sensed that I was distracted and asked, “What’s the matter, Mom?” I remember saying to her, “Nothing, baby. It’s just work.” She looked at me for a very long time with a thoughtful stare, then she told me, “Don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry, Mom.”
As you begin this school year, remember Ana Grace. Walk with courage, with faith, and with love. And don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry.”
V
She was writing that letter to teachers everywhere, but she could have been writing it to any of us. This is good religion. And it happens not just among the teachers and school workers to whom she was writing, but also in homes and offices and labs and hospitals and on farms and in the air. And thank God, it also happens in churches!
We all worry about the events in the news over which we have very little influence and no control. It can be frustrating and frightening. But there are some things over which we do have influence and even some control. We can practice good religion every single day. There are people to help, children and youth to respect and love and guide, patients to treat, clients to deal with honestly, colleagues to honor, friends to care for, and family members to love. There are grateful notes to write, kind words to type, compliments to tweet, and hugs to give. These are all daily actions of good religion.
Good religion is confidence that life has meaning because whatever we may face, life has a divine origin and a divine destiny. Whatever we may face, we have the divine promise from Christ himself, I am with you always. And if little Ana Grace were living and speaking with us today, she might remind us that in the midst of all our busy lives, “Don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry.”

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October 5, 2014 The Top Ten Words

THE TOP TEN WORDS
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 5, 2014

Hear the sermon.

Who would have thought that a primitive document that is 3,000 years old, born in a culture that was in the backwaters of the Mediterranean world, a culture that the educated, influential, literate world hardly noticed, would end up being a football kicked around in the culture battles of the most advanced technological society on the face of the earth!
I
Yet a battle over the posting of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or in public school classrooms has raged or simmered off and on for at least a decade. One Kentucky lawyer, trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Ten Commandments were mainly secular, argued that references to God in the Ten Commandments were minimal. This prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask if he had actually read the first four, the first of which begins, I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the display of public monuments of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, the nine justices produced at least ten opinions. Sounds like a Baptist church!
On the extreme right wing of the debate are organizations such as The Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, whose purpose includes doing away with the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and replacing it with the Ten Commandments. And while they are at it, they promote the death penalty for all murder, adultery, and homosexuality, a position that does seem to contradict the sixth commandment, but let’s not be picky!
Thomas Cahill, who has written a wonderful book entitled The Gifts of the Jews, makes the remarkable comment that there is no document in all of the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. He goes on to explain that other cultures do offer similar ethical guidelines, but here is the difference: they are always offered in a legal framework (i.e. if you do such and such, then this will be the consequence). That is not the case with the Ten Commandments.
Neither are they what we might call a Martha Stewart list of ten ways to make life happier and healthier. You know, the Ten Commandments are not a case of God looking at humanity and saying something like, I do wish you would get your act together! Why aren’t you eating silky braised chicken with pearl onions and mushrooms for lunch? Where is your collection of hand-painted Venetian glass? And while you’re at it, where did you pick up those extra pounds?
II
So let us pause for a few minutes to consider what is so special about these Ten Commandments. What has made them remain alive and well through all the centuries?
Here in this document, for the first time in history, human beings were offered a code without justification and without elaboration. In fact, biblical scholars think that they were originally just ten Hebrew words that could easily be memorized by illiterate people in the desert. Ten Words that still speak in the 21st century!
They are not propositions for debate; they are not suggestions for happier living; they are not even challenges. They are just what they seem to be, and they have been received by three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, Islam also considers them as Holy Scripture! And they have been accepted by billions more non-religious folk as reasonable and necessary and even unalterable because they come, as Cahill poetically phrased it, from the deep silence that each of us carries within.
But what do they mean? How can they bend and flex for every age and every culture? Take the prohibition on killing, for example. Those who howl the loudest about public displays of the Ten Commandments are frequently the very ones who call the loudest for capital punishment or for carpet bombing of an enemy. So how do we bend and shape the commandment about not killing to justify what obviously is killing? Commandment #6 is a challenge!
These and other obvious questions are not easily answered. Yet…we know deep down that there is something fundamentally right about the commandment! We just don’t know how to apply it! And what about the slow, unnoticed destruction of human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves? If poverty kills, as we know it does, then are we breaking the 6th commandment when we fail to support jobs programs? Are drug companies guilty of breaking the 6th commandment when they choose not to produce a life-saving drug because it will not turn a profit?
There is more than one way to kill, as we all recognize. If the divine principle behind this commandment is that all human life is precious, then we live out this commandment by supporting laws and public policy that enhance and protect the most human life and support the highest quality of life for the most people. This is always a very complex issue that is not easily reduced to a bumper sticker.
III
Now let’s slow down and take a deep breath! We are wading into some deep water here! But one thing is not so deep: through all the centuries since Jesus, the Ten Commandments have been most often used to instruct new Christians at the time of their baptism. In fact, some of the oldest baptismal liturgies ever found have the believer being baptized at sunrise, coming up out of the water of baptism and facing East, the direction of the rising sun, and reciting none other than the Ten Commandments! Think of that! At the dawn of a new day in the life of a believer, the first words spoken are the words of the Decalogue! Why? Because like the children of Israel coming through the waters of the Red Sea and receiving the commandments, the new Christian comes through the waters of baptism and pledges allegiance to a vision of reality that is rooted in God’s radical policy and deeply at odds with our dominant culture.
When a new Christian is baptized, she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve this act of God’s grace. She is raised to new life because of something God has done, not something she has done! And when we take communion, we are being gifted with new life, not because of anything we have done, but because of something Christ has done!
This is precisely what struck John Newton, the slave ship captain who was converted and wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He was only too aware of what he had done, and there was nothing he could do to undo the misery he had caused as the captain of a slave ship. The pain and death caused by the infamous Middle Passage had been part of the economic system, you could say, but he knew he had cooperated in an evil system. No amount of saying he was sorry or just doing his job could atone for it.
Then he experienced the “amazing grace” of God. We might cringe at the 18th century language that describes himself as a “wretch,” but how would you feel if you had been the captain of a slave ship? “Wretch” might be too tame a word! And yet few of us would fail to identify with his classic line: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
The church has always agreed with our Jewish friends that the Ten Commandments are sheer grace, a gift from God to a world in desperate need of those Ten Words. Those ten words, along with the presence of Christ, can lead us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and they can lead us home.
IV
And what is home? Ah, you know what home is! Home is any place that lives out the grace of God and accepts you just the way you are. Home is the place where you can make mistakes and still be loved. Home is the place where you can break every commandment in the book and still be forgiven. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost famously said, “they have to take you in.”
I want to remind you that this church is just such a place. To paraphrase a familiar line, “we reserve the right to be a spiritual home to anyone looking for a home.” Whatever dangers, toils, and snares may lie before you, you know that here is a place where you can face them with a church family that will support you, pray for you, and love you.
This week I received an email from an good friend named Mitch Carnell, who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC. That church, like this one, has a long history. It was the first Baptist church established in the south. Here is what Mitch wrote to me and to several others: “October 6, 2014, is my 50th anniversary as a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston…Although these fifty years have not been without heartbreak and pain, my family and I found a home. This is a loving, supportive church family. I have nothing but gratitude for the people at First Baptist and thanksgiving for the spiritual nourishment I have found here.”
Many of you can say the same about this church. Families gather; they laugh and cry together; they tell stories; and they eat. Oh, how families eat! So let’s be family, wherever you are from today. It is dinner time…time to eat…time to be thankful…time to remember.

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September 28, 2014 FRESH VISION AND THE WATER OF LIFE

FRESH VISION AND THE WATER OF LIFE!
Exodus 17: 1-7 and John 4: 7-15
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 28, 2014

Hear the sermon.

What a bummer! A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month asked the question, “Will life for our children’s generation be better than it has been for us?” And the result was that fully 76% said that they do not have such confidence. And it was the same with the wealthy and the poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, old and young, east and west, north and south.

This is not just about who is in the White House. The numbers were similar when there was a Republican President. There is a loss of confidence that is exacerbated by rising threat levels from terror organizations. There’s an old saying that confidence is silent; insecurity is loud.

I

In the story we read from the book of Exodus today, Moses is finding the people to be louder and louder! “Are we there yet? How much farther do we have to go? My feet hurt. Are we there yet? I think I’m going to throw up! I’m tired; I’m bored; Are we there yet? I’m sick of manna; I’m frustrated; I need a break. Why can’t we rest? Are we there yet? Do we have to wait in line for manna? Aren’t we there yet? Where is God? Where is this Yahwey?”

These are the same people who had observed the plagues in Egypt…the same people who had been liberated from slavery…the same people who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea…the same people who had been grateful for manna to eat…these are the same people who now experience a widespread loss of confidence! It was hot; they were thirsty; the cattle were dying; the children were crying; tempers were flaring.

The scene is at Rephidim in the wilderness. No one knows exactly where that was. We just know that it was a place they did not want to be. It was a place where their insecurities made them loud in their complaints. Heat and thirst have a way of cutting through the red tape of politeness. Where is God now? There is no substitute for water, the basic element of life that would sustain them. So the deepest question of faith (“Where is God?”) is tied to the deepest material reality of life (“Where is water?”).

That is to say, the water question was turned into the God question! As a result, they dare to ask the question, “Is God with us or not?” In their quarrelsome, testy relationship with Moses, they asked a variation of the question articulated by Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”: “Don’t talk of love, show me!” “Don’t talk of water, show me!” Don’t give me pious platitudes, show me! You brought us out here, now show us the water!

We are all sympathetic with Moses in this story. After all, it wasn’t his fault that they were thirsty; he was just as thirsty as they were! He was only following what he believed to be the leadership of God. If we had been in his shoes, we would have been tempted to say, “Hey, I didn’t want this job in the first place! Don’t give me any grief after all I have done for you!”

But instead of saying something like that, Moses follows a different plan. Strike the rock, says the Almighty. Strike it! Strike it hard! Just do it! And water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. Like blood from a turnip; like a purse from the ear of a sow; like joy from sorrow; like hope from despair; like Easter out of Good Friday! We can’t explain it; we just know it happens; and this story about water gushing from a rock in the desert is our story, our experience, our faith, our hope.

It prompts us to ask the contemporary questions: is there cool water rushing from the rock of nations exhausted from constant conflict? Is there life-giving water for the person wandering in the wilderness of depression, or the wilderness of addiction, or the wilderness of doubt? Is there refreshing water for the person facing the heat of cancer radiation, the fear of illness, the agony of post-traumatic stress disorder? Is there relief for those who feel dried up inside, thinking they are worthless, living a personal hell, and wondering whether they will ever be good enough?

II

Years later, Jesus would meet just such a person. She is nameless in our gospel reading for today. We know her as the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus begins by asking her for a drink of water, but then quickly reverses the conversation by saying, “I have asked you for water, but you should really be asking me for water, for I have the water of life.” And this woman, anxious, parched, and brittle, says, Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty….
This exchange is a dramatic way to make the claim that in this story, Jesus is doing what only God can do: give water in a barren life, turn an inner wilderness into a productive life, and give hope where there was no hope. To some, she was just another nobody, relegated to second or third class status, ignored by others, despised because of her race, ostracized because of her life-style, avoided because of her gender, feared because of her ethnicity, shunned as unorthodox because of her religion, nothing but “a dog,” as most of the Jews called Samaritans.

It is hot; she is thirsty; she takes her bucket to the only source of water she knows, trudging under the heat of the noonday sun, and she encounters this stranger sitting on the side of the well. She tucks her head and ignores him. Of course she does! It is social convention. It is an unspoken rule. They would act as if neither of them were present. She draws her water…, and HE breaks the silence!

And when he does that, he crosses that most formidable barrier in human history, that barrier that separates people from one another by prejudice, by social convention, by hatred, by fear. He breaks that barrier, cutting through all the pretensions and the red tape, crossing over the social expectations and cultural norms built up over the centuries. He speaks to her!

And in doing so he becomes the Jewish man speaking kindly to a Palestinian woman, the Sunni man speaking with a Shiite woman, the Christian fundamentalist speaking with a trans-gendered woman; the Republican speaking kindly to a Democrat, an oil magnate speaking kindly to an environmentalist, the farmer speaking kindly to the urban sophisticate, the majority speaking kindly to the minority. Doesn’t Jesus have any respect for our long-established boundaries? Doesn’t Jesus know about our culture wars?!

When the disciples returned from an errand, the text says that they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Of course they were! They were still caught up in the old right and wrong, them and us, good and evil dichotomies. They had been taught about the “evil empire,” and as far as they were concerned, Samaria was the capital of the evil empire.

But have you noticed? The conversation Jesus has with this thirsty, needy Samaritan woman is longer than any conversation recorded in the New Testament! He looks right into her eyes and gives her the respect that no one had given her for no telling how long. He doesn’t care about social taboos. He doesn’t care about what people think. All he cares about is giving living water to a thus far barren life.

This is extraordinary good news! Into the desert of a failed, defeated, dejected, defamed, demoralized, depressed life comes the cool, clear, life-giving, thirst-quenching, hope-instilling water of life! From the hard rock of a failed, floundering, faltering, forsaken, fallen life comes the pure, cool water that quenches the deepest needs of life! This is good news for any culture living in fear, anxious over the future, and thirsting for God.

III

Could it be today that you are thirsty for such water? Do you find yourself complaining, tired, fatigued from trying to create your own spiritual water supply by pursuing larger portfolios or the latest fashions or longer vacations or loftier titles or the latest I-phone? Have you noticed that such attempt s can leave us still thirsty? Have you noticed that the accumulation of things can leave us full of trinkets but empty of meaning? These scripture stories today invite us to ponder these questions.

They also invite us to stand back while God breaks all the taboos of history and social convention and even logic to supply us with a deluge of refreshment. Stand back and stand by, for we are thirsty people! The staff is raised over the rock; Jesus is waiting for us by the well; and God is longing for us to say, Give me this water, that I may never thirst again!

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September 21, 2014 ENTITLEMENT VERSUS GRACE

ENTITLEMENT VERSUS GRACE
Matthew 20: 1-6
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 21, 2014

Hear the sermon.

The month of September marks the anniversaries of two separate deaths that took place within days of each other. The first is the tragic death of Princess Diana at the age of thirty-six; the other is the death by heart attack of Mother Theresa, who died just one day before Diana’s state funeral. I mention these two anniversaries partly because they represent such contrasts.

While much of the world was riveted to their TV’s for Diana’s funeral, Mother Theresa’s funeral was a quiet affair in the Catholic tradition, where prayers for God’s mercy were said, and there was nothing in the funeral that recognized any special claim she might have had for divine favor. The liturgy itself reminded the participants that everyone alike is in need of God’s grace.

I

I think of these two funerals when I consider the contrast between entitlement and grace. Princess Diana was born into an aristocratic English family in 1961, and received the title Lady Diana Spencer when her father inherited the title Earl Spencer in 1975, when Diana was only 14 years old. A global audience of 750 million people watched her wedding that took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral in July, 1981. Once married to Prince Charles, she received more titles: Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Duchess of Rothesay, Countess of Chester, and Baroness of Renfrew. It’s a good thing she didn’t have to put all of that on a business card!

Mother Theresa, by contrast, was born of Albanian parents in 1910. Her given name was Agnes. Her father was a construction worker who died when she was 10 years old. She was raised by her devout mother, who instilled in her daughter a deep compassion for the poor. “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” her mother once told her. Her mother would invite the poor into their home to eat. Agnes once asked her mother, “Who are all these people?” And her mother responded, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.” Mother Theresa never grew to be more than five feet tall, and she had no titles.

Mother Theresa would have loved this story Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard. Reading between the lines, I suspect the writer of the gospel of Matthew slipped this story in because the church he was leading was composed of two types of people. First, there were the entitled: those who had a strong Jewish background and had become Christians in the synagogue after hearing the story of Jesus. They had been blessed with all the gifts of the Jewish faith. They knew the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. The men had been circumcised, and both women and men had benefited from the idea that they were part of God’s chosen people. They felt privileged; they felt entitled; they were like royalty in the church!

And then there were those who would have identified more with Mother Theresa. They were people who had grown up out of the orbit of the Jewish faith. They did not know the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. They had never been through the rituals of circumcision or experienced a bar or bat mitzvah. They had no conception of being God’s special people.

We can hardly imagine how those two groups melded into one! That is to say, how do we create a church out of Princess Diana aristocrats and Mother Theresa destitute and outcasts? It is in that context that I think this parable was used. The late-comers to the congregation, the Gentiles, were fully members of the church and deserved the same recognition as the Jewish members of the church.

Those who had been working from the very beginning to establish the church in a hostile environment; those who gave generously all those years to keep the church afloat; those who sacrificed their time and efforts, taught the scriptures, led the worship, served on committees, visited the sick, supported the poor, washed the dishes, cleaned the floors, served communion, took out the garbage, passed the plates, paid the bills, sang in the choir, filled out the annual report forms, served coffee after the service, and locked the doors when everyone had left…these people thought they deserved more than those upstart Gentiles who just came into the church!

That, I think, is the way this story was used in the early church. And, I suppose, it has its relevance for today, but instead of wringing this text tighter to get a few more drops of meaning out of it, I propose that we step back and look at this story alongside the old familiar story of Jonah.

II

There really is a parallel! The story of Jonah is a kind of parable that speaks about entitlement and grace. Jonah thought he was special! After all, he was called to be a prophet! He was educated, ordained, credentialed, certified, and validated by his denomination. He had a sheaf of letters of reference, a 4.0 GPA, and he came from a long line of famous preachers. Jonah was happy to receive grace from God. In fact, he expected nothing less from God! He thought he was entitled. In fact, Jonah had decided that he would be the ideal pastor of that fine, well-to-do, high-salaried church in Tarshish! But God apparently had other plans for Jonah. God called Jonah to a church in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood of the city of Nineveh, a city renowned for its crime and corruption.

That call of God was a stinging blow to someone like Jonah, who thought he was entitled. So instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah decided he would just take a trip to Tarshish and show up at that well-to-do church. That is when Jonah found himself in big trouble. On the ship sailing to Tarshish, a storm blew up, and the ship was in danger of sinking. So here we find the famous account of Jonah being swallowed up by a great sea monster…(incidentally, the word “whale” is not found in the story of Jonah! It is clearly a parable, never meant to be literal.) Haven’t you ever felt like Jonah? Haven’t you ever felt swallowed up by developments beyond your control?

But as I was saying, when Jonah found himself sinking and sliding down the gullet of a great sea monster, he started yelling: I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.,…The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head…yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord…! I bet he did!
Truth is, Jonah didn’t deserve such deliverance. He had been a jerk, and he proceeded to continue being a jerk. He went to the city of Nineveh and announced with glee its impending destruction. Then he waited outside the city limits to watch the show. But the destruction of Nineveh did not take place because the city repented, from the king down to the poorest citizen, they all repented. And they received divine mercy. There is nothing that can make some religious people madder than the mercy of God! God seems to like people that some religious folk can’t seem to stand!

III

So we have before us two stories that end in the same way. Jonah is peeved over God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh, and the full-time workers are peeved over the equal treatment of the part-time workers. And the truth is that we are secretly sympathetic with their anger. Both stories assault our sense of fairness! We may never understand God’s logic, but we can understand some things.

Like this: whether you enter the life of faith sooner or later, whether you serve God from the first flush of youth into the strength of your midday and finally when the shadows of life are lengthening; or, if you enter the life of faith as your day is dying in the west, you are equally precious to God.
And to carry this one step further, there are those who are full of years, when their work is done and they have finished their course. They are surrounded by children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, honored for the heritage they leave. But then there are those young people who are taken from us long before their journey is ended, long before they have achieved their potential, long before we are ready even to consider the possibility of their death. And from this parable we get the assurance that both are equally welcomed by the divine. We learn something about the welcome of God.

But there is more: we learn something about the compassion of God. There is a tenderness to these stories. I don’t know a better word to use: tenderness. Jonah, the jerk, was like Fred Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist Church, loving the idea of the wrath of God. But God turned out to have compassion on Nineveh just the way God had compassion for Jonah in his plight. But this was an affront to Jonah’s sense of entitlement! How could God have compassion on the people of Nineveh—they didn’t deserve it the way he did!

And in the parable of Jesus, the owner of the vineyard keeps coming back to the town square to find more workers because he can’t stand to see people out of work. There is a compassion here for those out of work. We may not have an easy answer to the complex issue of joblessness, but we can advocate for those out of work. We can vote for humane policies that show compassion and not condemnation for those out of work.

And there is one more thing: these stories picture an extraordinarily generous God. It is pure grace that saved Jonah, and it is pure grace that pays the workers a full day’s wage. Nothing but grace! The bottom line is that the life God gives us is not just payment for good work, but a gift we do not even deserve…nothing but grace!

IV

In every other vineyard in this world, what really counts are political connections and status and degrees and titles and seniority. We strive to be President, Chairperson, Dean, doctor, tenured professor, the Reverend Doctor, whatever! But all of those titles are irrelevant in this life of faith.

When you enter the world of faith in Christ, you enter a community of brothers and sisters, founded to help heal the wounds of the world. Let none of us begrudge the width of God’s embrace. We cannot earn the favor of God. As the old gospel song says, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell.” There is no pecking order, no ranking according to our church attendance, no social or economic status, no title or birthright to give any one of us special privilege. The call of Christ is to all who labor and are heavy-laden.
And to all who received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God.

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September 7, 2014 RESTIVE IN THE EMPIRE

RESTIVE IN THE EMPIRE
Exodus 12: 1-14
A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens

Hear the sermon.

Who is this YHWH? sneers the god-king Pharaoh. Most scholars believe that the voice was that of Rameses II, who reigned midway through the 13th century B.C. These are the first recorded words of the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, but they are a kind of recurring refrain, not only for this Pharaoh, but for all of us to this very day!

I

Who is this YHWH? is the recurring question of all religion, and it is THE recurring question of modern history. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders asked, “Who is this God?” and they concluded that this was solely a Christian God who wanted all non-Christians to be put to the sword. In the 20th century Hitler asked, “Who is this God?” and concluded that this was a fair-skinned God of Aryans only. All others, especially Jews, were to be eliminated.

Thirteen years ago this week, a group of fundamentalist Muslims hijacked three planes asking the question, “Who is this God?” and concluding that this God is only for radical Muslim fundamentalists like them. All others should be killed or at least convert to their radicalized, politicized, violent deviation of an historic religion that has for many centuries lived peaceably with Christians and Jews. And now, thirteen years later, their brutal ideological offspring are beheading journalists under the delusion that God approves such savagery. So once again, the world is asking, “Who is this God?”

The search for the answer has taken us on a journey of multiple and sometimes conflicting conclusions. Phil Robertson, one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, declares that he believes God has one answer to the threat of ISIS: “…either convert them or kill them,” he says. His is a tit-for-tat God, a “my God is bigger than your God” approach.

Then some have concluded that religion itself is the problem, not a solution, given the fact that so much violence over the centuries has come in the name of religion. That charge conveniently ignores the violence stemming from non-religious issues such as race or land or treasure, but this is not the time to debate contemporary atheism.

For others, the question of “Who is this God?” has deepened their faith, even if that faith is more sober. For all of us, the atrocities we have witnessed both on 9/11 and in recent days have raised feelings of deep emotion and understandable anger, and we struggle along with others while we maintain and work hard on our own faith. Each year’s anniversary of 9/11 is sobering, and we would not want to conduct worship on the Sunday before that date without recognizing and offering our prayers for those who still suffer from the memories of terrible day.

II

So Pharaoh’s question to Moses turns out to be a contemporary, recurring, habitual inquiry. Who is this God? When you read the story of the life of Moses, we might be tempted to ask, “Why ask Moses? He had just met this God himself! It was back there beyond the wilderness, back on that holy mountain, that he had heard a voice coming out of the vision of a burning bush. That voice called on him to do something both politically and personally dangerous: to go back to Egypt and demand that the slave system on which their high standard of living had been constructed should be abolished!

Moses asked the Voice from the bush the same basic question that Pharaoh would later ask of him. Here is the way Moses worded it: If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?
And the answer that comes out of the burning bush constitutes one of the great mysteries of the Bible…of the human race. God tells Moses his name all right, and it is an unpronounceable word: YHWH! Four consonants! But ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Vowel subscripts were only added to Hebrew script in the Middle Ages. By then the name of God had become so sacred that it was never uttered. Faithful Jews avoided speaking the name of God by substituting the word Adonai, meaning “the Lord,” in the text of the Bible whenever they came to the word YHWH. So, after such a long succession of centuries we have lost any certain knowledge of the way the name of God would have been pronounced even if they were willing to pronounce it!

We do know that YHWH is a form of the verb “to be.” God’s essence, in other words, is not a noun, but a verb. God is not a thing: God is being itself. All other beings come from God. But a more precise translation of the word could be, I am who I am. In other words, “Moses, my name is none of your business. I am not one of your household gods that you take along for good luck. I am not an icon, a rabbit’s foot, an amulet, a wishbone, a horseshoe, or a lucky charm. I am not a dashboard Jesus. Don’t try to control me by giving me a name.”

But of all the ideas about the meaning of God’s name, I am most fascinated by the thought of Thomas Cahill, who wrote The Gifts of the Jews. He suggests that we try to say the consonants without resort to the vowels. YHWH—when you try to say those consonants without using vowels, you find yourself just breathing in, then out. In this pronunciation of YHWH, God becomes the breath of life!

Who is this YHWH? says Pharaoh. Answer: this God is the source of the breath of life for all people. It is with this God that you are dealing! This is not the god of partisan politics. We do not come to church for a rehearsal of the political maneuverings that attempt to put God on the side of whatever candidate they are promoting. When we come to church we are dealing with the God who spoke from a vision of a burning bush to Moses long centuries ago, the God who gave us the breath of life and called us to this place, and the God who will still be God when political elections are long forgotten and the United States of America is a blip on the screen of history. This is the God who was, who is, and who forever will be, the God who is the judge of all our politics, and we will not shrink our worship to fit any narrow political, social, or even religious ideology!

III

The story of Moses and the first Passover is a story of a people who were restless for freedom in the empire of ancient Egypt. The story of Jesus and the early church is also a story of a people restless for freedom in another empire. They lived in a cookie-cutter world: it was conform or die. Jesus compared their restlessness to new wine in an old wineskin. Others compared it to the rush of a mighty wind.

They were restless in the Roman Empire, and Jesus died a cruel death when he refused to conform. Others followed, and many of them died for their restlessness. Yet by the second generation the Apostle Paul could write to the church in the very heart of the Roman imperium: Be not conformed to this world! This God, this YHWH, always calls for freedom and justice, and this God is greater than the shape of whatever imperial restrictions on faith that any Roman emperor could proclaim. Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. They were restive in the empire of Rome!

When we worship in this place we are worshipping in the very epicenter of the American experience of religious non-conformity. That little band of early Baptists in 1638 was called every name in the book by the Puritan Empire of New England. “Scabs to be contended against,” sneered Urion Oaks, the second President of Harvard College. He was referring to Baptists, and was surely facing south and thinking of that crowd of Baptists down in Providence. We Baptists may have been scabs, but what he failed to see is that the purpose of a scab is to protect a wound and let it heal! Those early Baptists did just that—they protected the jagged wound of religious coercion until it healed into the jewel of religious liberty that this nation eventually proclaimed in the First Amendment!

IV

And now, we are the inheritors of that jewel of freedom, thanks in large part to those who worshipped on this very spot and within these sacred walls. They, like us, heard the words, This is my body…this is my blood. And they, like us, took that bite of bread and that sip of wine and knew that their faith in Christ set them free from the conforming religious strangulation of any empire. For freedom Christ has set us free! insisted the Apostle Paul.

Christian faith is always about a people who are restless with the worship of any god lesser than the liberating God seen so clearly in the life, death, resurrection, and present Spirit of Jesus Christ. To follow Jesus means to be continually restive in the face of injustice, but continually free in being transformed into God’s people for this time and place.

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August 31, 2014 ORDINARY PEOPLE…ORDINARY THINGS (Exodus 3: 1-15)

ORDINARY PEOPLE…ORDINARY THINGS
Exodus 3: 1-15
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
August 31, 2014

Hear the sermon.

If there were no such thing as a Labor Day, the church might very well invent a liturgical day to honor labor. By that I am not talking about wages or working conditions, although those are important. What the church has to say about labor can be summed up in one word: vocation. As the origin of that word implies, it has to do with a sense of call, a summons from outside of ourselves, a feeling that you did not choose this work as much as you were chosen for it. If your income-producing job coincides with your vocation, then you are fortunate indeed.

I

Few contemporary accounts of vocation are more moving than that of James Foley, the journalist whose savage execution in Syria has broken our hearts. Coming from a devout Catholic faith in Rochester, New Hampshire, he had already endured one kidnapping in Syria in 2011 when he was held for 44 days before being released. When he determined to return to Syria to report what was happening, he told his family that he felt compelled to go back. His friend Sarah Fang, who taught with him in Teach for America, is quoted as saying, “His sense of integrity has always meant devoting himself entirely to his work.”

Clearly, he felt called by a higher power to his work. His integrity and his courage honor his profession of journalism, and his sense of calling honors his profession of Christian faith. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, who suffers by following a sense of call. When his death was first reported, I could not help but think of the words of Martin Luther’s famous hymn:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

James Foley stands in a long line of honorable and courageous people who felt that God was calling them to do something important.

We have heard read today the familiar and ancient story of the call of Moses. Even those in our culture who practice no religion at all are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Knowing what we do about the early life of Moses, we would all agree that Moses would not have been voted “Most Likely to Be Called by God!” He was, in fact, a white collar criminal, a fugitive from the law, on the run in Midian, trying to stay one step ahead of the sheriff. He had committed murder in Egypt, fled the land, found a wife, and was given a job by his father-in-law that would keep him on the backside of nowhere, which was a perfect place for anyone on the run. The scripture seems to emphasize just how far away he was: …he led his flock beyond the wilderness, it says. Not just to the wilderness or in the wilderness, but BEYOND the wilderness, the better to hide from the law.

It is just at this point that I want to recognize the fact that the call of God came to this man, not in temple or shrine or palace or classroom. It came in a lonely, desolate place on the backside of nowhere. And it came to a lonely, desolate man who must have been wondering if his life would ever amount to anything. The importance of this reality cannot be overestimated, for that is the way God seems so often to work!

So there he is in the middle of nowhere, and the story gets interesting: There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.

Is the story implying that if Moses had not turned aside, then God would not have spoken to him? What if he had chosen to walk on by as though he had seen such things a million times before? It could happen! We do it all the time! We are terribly busy; no time to stop; we have schedules to keep; we’ll come back later, we say. We keep walking.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

That was Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the 19th century.

Every year at this time there are hosts of people who move into this community for school or a job. Some feel lonely and anxious. It can be overwhelming! They do not expect to see a burning bush! They may see this meeting house and wonder if they should turn aside, but they conclude that religion is just mumbo-jumbo about God, and the last thing they expect would be a life-changing encounter with the divine.

But Moses turned aside! And God spoke to him out of that vision of a burning bush! St Catherine Monastery in Egypt claims to be the very place where Moses saw the burning bush. They even have the Chapel of the Burning Bush, with the reputed bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus.
But I have good news for you! You don’t have to go to Mount Sinai or St. Catherine Monastery to encounter the same God who called Moses! You can keep trudging through your wilderness, keep every appointment, return every call, attend every committee meeting, pour over every report, meet every deadline, fill out every required form, create a new vision statement, answer every email, type every report, do your exercises, eat the right foods, get a good night’s sleep, feed the cat, walk the dog, and fulfill every item on your job description, and still miss your calling! There comes a moment when you must stop and turn aside.

II

That is what worship is all about. Worship is a time to slow down long enough to see the burning bush, to hear the voice calling, and recognize what is holy in this life. It allows us a safe place to hear the voice calling us from our contemporary burning bush!

What do we find when we turn aside? We find a God who is not consumed and will not be silent. I don’t think God was silent when God led the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to ignore the command of the King to kill every boy baby. I don’t think God was silent when the mother of Moses hid her baby for three months, and finally decided to make a little papyrus basket that would float, and place it among the reeds in the river where she knew the daughter of Pharaoh bathed. I don’t think God was quiet when Miriam, the sister of Moses, watched until the princess found the little basket with the baby Moses in it and offered to find someone to nurse the child. God was not silent; God was still calling people!

The sound of the god-kings of Egypt, like Ramases II, the great pyramid builder, seemed to be the only voice heard by most people. They would bow and scrape before the voice of the Pharaoh, and oppression of the poor slaves would continue it seemed forever. But in the Bible, there is never any question about whose side God is on in the historical equation of master and slave, oppressor and oppressed. God is freedom to the bound, comfort for the bruised, reproof for the tyrant, and strength for the weak.

And God will not stay silent. God is a burning fire that will not be consumed by tyrants in any palace. When God says to Moses, I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry, we are hearing a universal truth. God always observes the misery and hears the cry, including yours! The question is never whose side is God on, but whose side we are on!

III

This brings us back to that issue of vocation on this Labor Day weekend. A genuine sense of calling may be one of the most counter-cultural things the church can proclaim in our world. The ideology of our time is that we can live an uncalled life, a life spent doing work that is totally channeled toward meeting our own needs and fulfilling our own desires. Self-fulfillment is our culture’s mantra.

But biblical faith in general, and Christian faith in particular, provides an alternative to the autonomous life. That alternative is vocation, a life called by God to live in community as part of God’s people. The model for Christians is the call of Jesus, whose summons came to ordinary people busy about ordinary things.

If any want to become my followers, he said, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. The precise meaning of that call is different for each of us, but what is clear is that the call of Jesus is meant to be lived out in community. It is not an individualistic ethic of the solitary “I.” It is “we,” living in community as God’s people, calling out our various gifts, enabling ordinary people in ordinary places to do extraordinary things.
Some of us in this room heard that call years ago, perhaps in a church or around a campfire or alone in our room. And we responded by quietly saying,

Wherever he leads I’ll go, wherever he leads I’ll go;
I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so.
Wherever he leads I’ll go.

Now that same Christ has led us together in this place, in this community, to be God’s people. This may be the very time that God has been waiting for you to turn aside, to be in God’s presence and listen for God’s voice calling you.

It is significant, I think, that all through the Bible God’s name is attached to the names of people. God says to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God’s name is always attached to human names: God is also the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, the God of Mary Magdalene and Sojourner Truth; the God of Roger Williams and James Manning and Isaac Backus and Samuel Stillman and Thomas Baldwin and Francis Wayland. God has a very long name! And there is always a blank space for you to add your own name, and by this name God will be known forever.

IV

Ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places…that is where God’s extraordinary presence burns to this day, and that is where God’s voice still calls us to do extraordinary things.

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August 24, 2014 DUET WITH THE MILKY WAY (Psalm 148)

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A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens

Old South Church in Boston figured out how to solve their financial challenges: they sold one of their Bay Psalm Books for multi-millions of dollars. It was printed in Cambridge in 1640, the first book printed in this country. Think of that! The very first book printed in this land was a hymnbook! With tongue and lungs, those old Puritans sang their praises to God.

I

I mention that sale today, not because I think this church should rummage around in its archives and find something valuable to sell. I mention it because we read one of the last psalms in the Bible today—Psalm 148. There are only 150 psalms in the Bible, and the last five of those psalms serve as a kind of exclamation point to the whole collection.

When you look at the entire collection of psalms, you notice that just about every kind of emotion is expressed: thanksgiving, lament, complaints, anger, joy, love, passion, the whole long list of emotions that are part of the human experience. That is the reason the psalms are always relevant.
But the last five psalms begin and end with one Hebrew word translated in our Bibles as Praise the Lord! That one word is Hallelujah! The first and last word in each of the last five psalms is Hallelujah. That makes ten Hallelujahs at the end of the collection of psalms: but then Psalm 150, the last of the collections, adds ten more! So when we read Psalm 148, we are in the middle of the original “Hallelujah Chorus!”

But there is something unusual about Psalm 148 that makes it distinctive among all the psalms. It is what I am calling a duet with the Milky Way. That is to say, the first half of the psalm calls on all the heavenly creatures to praise the Lord, and the second half of the psalm calls on earthly creatures to praise the Lord.

Now I am going somewhere contemporary with this, so please stay with me! This heavenly part of the praise fest includes angels, the heavenly armies, the sun, the moon, the stars, and what the ancient writer calls the waters above the heavens, reflecting the ancient belief that the sky was actually a giant dome set down upon a flat earth, and rain came when God opened the windows of heaven to let the waters above the heavens fall on the flat earth.

II

So the first half of the psalm is a call for all the heavenly creatures to praise the Lord. Now what does that have to do with us, especially when you consider the ancient view of a flat earth? Look deeper into that culture, and you discover that calling on all the heavens to praise the Lord was quite revolutionary! The poet names the sun, the moon, the stars, the angels, the whole heavenly host, and says, Let them praise the name of the Lord…. He was living in a culture of nature worshippers, people who believed that the sun, the moon, the stars, the angels, the whole heavenly host, WERE gods. They were not created by one God; they were gods themselves to be worshipped. Here was a writer with the audacity to say that all of these heavenly beings were created by one God and were to praise the Lord.

This writer, however, doesn’t just leave it there; he gives a reason for their praise. And this is where the psalm becomes contemporary. Look closely at this writer’s audacity. After listing all those heavenly bodies, he says this: Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Living in a world full of people who believed that these heavenly bodies were themselves gods who controlled their lives, this audacious writer was saying that the God of Israel made them and set bounds around them. Suddenly these heavenly bodies become creatures of God, not gods themselves!
If you think we are beyond what some would consider superstitious nature worship, consider the contemporary worship of deities that we call by other names. Often those gods end in the suffix “ism.” Consider the grotesque bloodbath we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria under the banner of religious extremism. We are stunned by the brutality and persecution of anyone who does not fall down and worship the extremism of ISIS.

There are, of course, many other “isms” that we fall down and worship: there is consumerism, capitalism, materialism, nationalism, chauvinism, racism, determinism, and on and on. These “isms” are like stars in the sky: some people are ready to fall down and worship them!

This psalm reminds us that God has set bounds on all these “isms.” Not one of them is the ultimate truth, the final answer, the one thing of eternal value. God has fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed. That is the reason people with vastly different political or ideological positions can worship together. We all recognize that there are boundaries to our ideologies. And above those boundaries is our God who made us all and who loves us all.

III

The heavenly bodies are one part of this great duet. The other part is a list of earthly things: let them, too, praise the Lord. He lists them: sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals, cattle, creeping things, and birds. They all should praise the Lord, he says.

Then he finally reaches the level of human beings: kings, princes, rulers, men and women, old and young together. Let them praise the name of the Lord, he writes. Why should all these people praise the Lord? The writer gives a reason: He has raised up a horn for his people!
What in the world is that about? A horn? In the Old Testament, the horn of an ox or a ram was a symbol of strength and power. For the psalmist to say that God has raised up a horn for his people means that in the face of death and destruction, grief and chaos, blood and terror, God will not be cowed! God has set bounds on the worship of extremism and fanaticism. To embrace this psalm is to stand with fellow citizens and say, “God is greater than hatred.” When you see black and white citizens standing arm in arm in the name of peace in Ferguson, MO, you are seeing God raising up a horn for his people!

IV

There is one final thing to say about this duet with the Milky Way: it is ONE chorus. The praise of this God is not confined to one religion, one nation, one race. It is a chorus of praise from all peoples, all things, both seen and unseen, animate and inanimate. It is an image of all of the creation this writer could imagine praising God.

If this two-part harmony sung by the heavenly beings on the one hand and the earthly beings on the other hand seems a little odd to you in our scientific world; if it seems perhaps a little weird, even; consider this: we sing about this duet every Christmas in one of our favorite Christmas carols. We hear it each year in church and in shopping malls, and it is possible we have missed its meaning.

Consider the words written by Isaac Watts:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

Watts was thinking big. Heaven and nature are joining together in a two-part harmony of joyful praise! To make sure that everybody gets the point, he repeats “heav’n and nature” three times, even having the tenors and basses echo it in a refrain.

V

When we gather for worship and sing our praises to this God, we are joining a great chorus that transcends earth, transcends time, even transcends our imaginations. God is doing something amazing in this world, and we will not allow the nightly news of chaos and destruction, brutality and heartache to cover up God’s goodness. Sun and stars, dogwoods and dandelions, beetles and baboons, snips and snails and puppy dog tails, the earth and all its creatures—all join in the chorus.

And we will not stop singing, for God’s strength is here in our voices joined in praise.

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August 17, 2014 SOUL BLESSING (Psalm 103)

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In spite of the fact that we are witnessing daily news of an unfolding rescue of suffering people on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, a tragic example of what can happen when religious liberty is abandoned, it still remains true that mountaintops are also places of beauty and inspiration.
On mountaintops, especially those mountains where we can see great distances, we sense not only the beauty but also the grandeur of this earth. Many of us have had soul-stirring experiences as we viewed God’s good earth from the vantage point of a mountaintop.

I

When I ponder Psalm 103, I feel like I am standing at the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park on a clear summer day. There is no direction you can look where the view is not breathtakingly beautiful. To the east is the sea and the islands; to the west are mountain ranges. The sky merges with the sea, and if you are there at sunrise, you are the first to see it in the country. There is no place quite like it. That is the nature of Psalm 103. There is no way to do it justice.

But we can take in a few of the sights from this mountain peak of a psalm, and plan to return for another visit on another day. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. The writer of this psalm is talking to himself! Do you think it is weird to talk to yourself? I hope not, because I find myself talking to myself a lot, especially when I’m driving! However, I do find it a little weird when I am walking down a sidewalk and someone is talking on the phone using one of those hands-free earpieces. I still look around for the person he is talking to!

This psalm writer is talking to himself, reminding himself out loud that even if others fail or falter, his life should bless the Lord. Let others complain or condemn or bellyache, but you bless! Let others spend their time blessing themselves or their achievements or their possessions, but you bless the Lord. And all that is within me, bless his holy name. Half-hearted, indifferent, lukewarm, apathetic praises are not good enough; this writer is telling himself to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind and strength. He is reminding himself to offer God nothing less than the best, the utmost, the finest praise and thanks that he is capable of giving.

I am happy for people to come to worship however they are dressed. Glad to have you! But it bothers me when church leaders are told that in order to attract young people, we must start being hip! We have to wear jeans and a sweatshirt in the pulpit. We have to speak to God in our prayers like God is nothing more than a friend, a sidekick, a buddy.

The writer of Psalm 103 would not think of God in this way. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. God’s name is holy, and when we approach God in worship, we are engaged in holy business. We do not want to offer God sloppy, careless, slipshod worship. We present to God the best we have! We want the sanctuary clean and sparkling. We do not apologize for dressing as if this hour is special! It is holy! It is different from other activities. One of my childhood memories is the ritual of shining shoes on Saturday night. We wanted our shoes looking good for Sunday. That ritual quietly taught us children that Sunday was special, different from other days.

II

OK—that is looking one direction from this mountaintop of a psalm. Let’s turn now and look in another direction, knowing that we are leaving out much of this psalm for another occasion. Let us look to the middle of this psalm (vv. 15ff.) to find words that we often hear at a funeral; words that make us think that this psalm-writer had some years on him, had some experience under his belt. He had lived long enough to see many of his loved ones and friends die. He knew the pain of grief. So he concludes: As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

The life that begins in a mother’s loving arms, moves through childhood and adolescence, through school and first job, through years of strength and usefulness, and finally through years of physical decline—it all goes so fast. Ask anyone born before World War II if life has gone fast and you will likely get the same answer: “I can’t believe how fast it has gone!” This writer knew that feeling. Our lives are like flowers, he says, they flourish for a time, and then they are gone.

The cosmetic industry is devoted to fighting that decline, as is the plastic surgery industry. There is a billboard that I pass every time I drive from Worcester to Providence. It has a before and after picture of a woman who had surgery on the loose skin of her neck. The caption says, “Love your neck again!” We try to stretch out that youthful energy and that youthful look for as long as we can!

But as the song written by Pete Seeger asks, “Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to the graveyard, every one.” Within these very walls, in these very pews and in this very pulpit, there were people of energy and ideas, growth, complexity, and beauty. But now, how many of their names do we know? Oh, I suppose Stan Lemons knows many of their names, but most of us know only a handful of names. They flourished here, like flowers of the field, but now the place knows them no more.

Does the church have anything helpful to say to those who are struck with how quickly it all goes? Oh, I know that there are some churches that are so sure about the nature of life after death that they can describe the heavenly architecture in detail. I once had funerals for two sisters who died only a few months apart. When the first sister died, the living sister wanted to make sure that I read the scripture from John 14 when Jesus says, In my father’s house are many mansions (King James Version). I was happy to use that text, but I made the mistake of reading it from the NRSV: In my father’s house are many dwelling places…. That living sister was not happy! She wanted her sister to be in a mansion, not a mere dwelling place! When the second sister died, you can be sure that I read it from the KJV!

What can we say to the issue of how fleeting life seems to be? One popular answer is found in Shakespeare. He has Macbeth give the hopeless answer: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What a depressing view of life! Yet that is the view of much of our culture.
But there is another view, a view that is expressed by the writer of Psalm 103. It is a view that accepts the reality of how quickly life flies by, but also a deep faith that life does signify something important, that in all the sound and fury of our days there is significance. Consider the reality of Psalm 103: As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. So far that could be very depressing! But read on: But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…who keep his covenant….

A tale told by an idiot—that is the hopeless, Godless option. But the church gladly proclaims the other option: that out beyond the horizon in the distance, that horizon that we call death, there is the everlasting love of God. And when we cross that horizon, we do not cross into nothingness, but into the presence of that loving God. Our life here is not a tale told by an idiot. It has meaning because we are part of a moving, generational drama of a people who pledge to live the way of Christ in this place in our time. Future generations may not remember our names or have any idea what we looked like or how we sounded, but we all play a part in this moving drama of God’s people.

The approaching end of summer reminds us that we are all like grass, like the flowers of the field. The wind will pass over us, and we will soon be gone—every one of us. But it’s all right! Why? Because the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting…. Someday, no one will know that we worshipped here today, no one will know what we thought or how we behaved or who we loved, but God will know. From everlasting to everlasting, God will know. So we look out at the vast sea with its horizon in the distance, and we see, not dread, but beauty, and we say: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.

III

Every generation in this church has had members who rested on this promise, who knew that even though their names would someday be forgotten by the generations to come, they were precious to God and would someday be called home to be with God. One of those members whose name has been largely forgotten is Patience Borden, whose epitaph describes her as “a free woman of colour and humble disciple of Jesus. She gave to the First Baptist Church in this town of which she was a member 230 dollars as a fund for the relief of the poor of color of that church.”

She died in 1811. Her name is not known, but her life continues to bless us, for she lived to bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Within a few generations, our names may not be known, but we too will bless future generations by our faithfulness today. To speak to your own soul this way is to bless not only God, but future generations who will worship here: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

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