Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Birds on a shovel

I ought to keep a list of pastoral duties which are not taught in seminary but part of pastoral life. It sounds cliché, but it probably is something I ought to do.
As I sat in my office today pondering some important exegetical point, off in my own world, there was a knock at the door from the manager of the nursery school in our building, alerting me that there was a dead bird outside. Apparently, the little bird had flown straight into the clear glass front door of our church and laid quite dead on the ground nearby. “Since you are the leader of the church,” she gently joked, “we nursery school teachers elected you to take care of it.”
And so I did. I grabbed the nearest shovel and scooped the bird up and began to walk toward the ditch at the back of the property. On my way, though, something gray and vaguely phosphorescent caught my eye, and there was another dead bird, this one bigger, I guess a turtledove. I picked the second bird up, loaded him on the shovel, and off the three of us went for what was not the most graceful funeral I have ever done. Holding the birds out to my side as far as I could, careful not to make eye contact (not that the birds would have looked back), we soon arrived at the ditch, and I hurled the two birds, one little and one big, half-way out.
Those were two ugly thuds. Two birds that days before would have skittishly flown away if someone had so much as approached them, now were thrown and just smacked the ground with a thud.
It struck me that one day, I too will make a thud if someone should throw me into a ditch. Not that I hope someone treats my body that way, but I suppose I won’t know the difference anyway.
Death is a mysterious thing; and it takes much faith to hear a thud and to still believe there is more than we can see, more life than we can know here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, March 26

Hi all! Here is the sermon that was preached in worship yesterday, March 26. The text was from John 3:14-21.

This text contains the most famous verse in Scripture; those of you who grew up in Sunday School memorizing Scripture no doubt remember saying "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." John 3:16 is a beloved verse, and it is said that this more than any other presents the truth of the Gospel. And it does; it’s such a beautiful verse, isn’t it? God loved us so much that he gave us his Son. I can tell you something, whether we have a son or a daughter, I’m not giving him or her to any of you. And if I thought you would do anything to hurt or heaven forbid kill that child, I would go to any lengths to keep you from doing that, and I’d even hurt you if need be. I don’t love you like that.

And yet this is the nature of God’s self-giving love for us, that he would give to us his Son, knowing that we’d reject him, put him out, crucify him, and worse yet, ignore him. But freely he gives us the Son, and in him, we are reconciled to God. If we will but believe in him, if we will but look at him and say, "His way is my way," we can know eternal life. We can know life with him after death and even have an eternal quality to our life now because our life will be lived in intimate communion with him through the Holy Spirit.

The text goes on and says, "God didn’t send his Son to condemn the world, but to save the world; to give us a new way of living in Him and in the Spirit that would reconcile us to God." These verses contain the most precious information in the world, the precious truth that God loves us enough to pursue us, the Hound of heaven nipping at our heels until we see the Son and turn and believe and follow that we might be saved. It’s the most beautiful of Scripture, really, because it speaks to us of the way that God loves us and loves us and loves us and loves us. Here is information worth knowing, here is a path worth following, here is a God worth worshiping and loving and thanking over and over again.

But look at the crushing end to this passage. It ought to devastate our hearts and challenge our minds to read what Jesus says here. He says, "But this is the judgement, the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light." In other words, God has revealed himself to be loving and merciful and has given us a way out of our compulsions and illusions through the Way of Jesus, that God has showed himself in Jesus to be everything we hoped he would be, and this is how bad it’s gotten to be in the world: that people looked into the eyes of pure love and an amazing new way of living and they said: "Hmph. Not interested. I like my old, self-destructive ways better." Light has come into the world, a new way of living, of seeing with God’s eyes, of growing in grace, and people say, "I kinda liked the darkness better. In Christ, we have seen the light, we have seen the truth, but people were not interested.

Is this not a little bit like our culture today? To say "I have my way and I’m not interested in learning anything else, not interested in pursuing truth" is a dangerous thing. We live in an age when the idea of truth has lost its appeal. Now I’m not some backward fundamentalist up here, whining about how nobody believes anything anymore. That’s not what I’m doing at all. All I’m saying is that the pursuit of truth used to be a noble thing in the eyes of people. To find out that something was true–biblically true, philosophically true, scientifically true–to find out something that was undeniably true used to be something beautiful. Philosophers and scientists and theologians would wrestle and argue all with the same goal in mind–to find sweet, beautiful truth. Not because of what it could do for us, not because of the money it could make us, not even because of the diseases it could cure, but simply because it was true. Why? Because when we see something that is true, we get a rare and precious glimpse into the nature of God. For example, when we see the inner workings of the atom, and we learn what is true about it, we get a glimpse into the mind of God. When we see the world, perfectly round, revolving around the sun, we’re overcome with the one who created it all. When we open the Scripture and are able to say, "This is true;" then that too gives us a glimpse into the light what God is like.

But today, the notion of truth has lost its appeal. People often choose darkness over light. More often than not, people are afraid of truth. People look at the way religion has often been a factor in wars, they look at the way that the way sometimes people’s religion can be divisive, and based on that experience they believe the idea of searching for truth is wrong. They argue that if nobody was searching for the truth, if nobody was religious, then we wouldn’t have wars, we wouldn’t have divisions.

But a Christianity that doesn’t care about the truth leaves me cold. I understand that different people believe differently, and that certainly is OK. We’ll never see eye-to-eye on everything. But true Christianity is not just peacefully co-existing with our differences. It is challenging others and being challenged ourselves; it is being willing to change under conviction. (An extemporaneous bit about the radical reformers happened here, which I don’t have written out; sorry!)

Let me tell you about a time I learned about the truth. I may have shared this with you before, I don’t know. But when I was in eighth grade, I didn’t believe that you should have patriotic songs sung in church. Church was about God, not about the USA, and we can at least take an hour out each week and not sing patriotic songs. I still feel uneasy today on patriotic Sundays and I’m always grateful for the good job Jim Brior does honoring our soldiers but honoring God and the ideal of peace more.

But anyway, when I was in eighth grade, and someone in our church sang the national anthem, I
decided I would show people how sophisticated I was and not stand up. This would be my witness to them, my way of showing them what was right. The service passed, and afterward, a dear friend, Mr. D, came up to me. Mr. D had served in World War II, and with not a little bit of anger he told me that we stand up for that song. We stand not because we agree with everything that is said or done, but because it is the respectful thing to do.

Now I could have left that church and complained about the old people. I could have complained about how they were selling out to the USA when we’re supposed to be Christians. But you know what? I didn’t do that. Because he was right. What Mr. D said was true. And because it was true, it was worth changing my life about. It was worth checking my attitude. It was worth growing up in Christ. Mr. D was a true Christian to me that day because he did not just go off by himself muttering, but he shared the truth with me.I could have stayed in the darkness, but instead, I came out into the light.

If we are frank with ourselves, and after all that is part of the purpose of Lent, we must realize the ways in which we often choose darkness over light in our lives. What happens when we encounter something that is undeniably true? If something is true, then just by virtue of being true it should make us want to change, to come out from darkness further into the light. Because the truth is so beautiful that it’s worth overhauling our whole lives to be in accordance with it. But often, we encounter the light of the truth and we instead choose to remain in darkness.

I have a professor this semester at school who is a sociologist. He’s a very challenging professor for me in lots of ways, which is good. One thing he said to us which has been eating at me for a while now is that the Christian life is a life of conversion, but most people only like to convert once. After that, people don’t like to convert anymore. And he’s right. I’m not particularly keen on the thought of converting again, of changing my whole life around to be more like Jesus. I’m fine if we want to tweak a few things here and there, throw a few more loving deeds into the mix, take out a few anger hang-ups, whatever. But I get nervous about the thought of converting again.

But you know what? There are things worth converting in our lives. The fact is that truth is precious enough that it is worth the high price of conversion. If it is true that most of the clothes we wear are produced by labor that exploits workers and devalues human life, then it is worth converting how I buy clothes. If it is true that auto pollutants are contributing to the destruction of our environment, it’s worth converting how I travel. If it’s true that our culture is sick in part because we worship our careers, it’s worth converting how I view my career. If it’s true that adultery ruins homes, it’s worth converting how you handle sexual temptation. You may think these things are true, you may think they’re not true, I don’t know, and it’s not the purpose of this sermon to convince you. But the fact is if they are true, then these cry out for conversion. You pay a steep price to follow the truth, but the payoff is always worth it.

And so, you know what I do when I don’t want to pay that price, when I don’t want to convert? I close my eyes and I cover my ears. I pretend like these issues don’t exist, or that they’re so complex that I could never make up my mind about them. In short–I choose darkness rather than light. There is light to be shed on these issues, but when I don’t want to convert, I don’t want to shed light on it; ignorance is bliss, really, and I would rather float along in darkness. If I can justify my actions to myself so I can sleep at night, that’s all I really care about.

Do you see now how this is kind of living is no life at all? Day in, day out, trying to stay in the darkness, out of the light, away from anything that might upset that delicate house of cards we’ve built ourselves? Afraid of ourselves, afraid of our neighbors finding out about us, afraid of everything? Each day, waking up and trying to convince ourselves that the way we’re living is just fine and we don’t need redemption? This is not the kind of life God calls us to. God would never call us to such a half-life. This is a scared life where we run away from anything that threatens us.

And here is the good news of the Gospel: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life." Not a scared life but an eternal kind of life, a kind of life where from moment to moment we know that God is present. A life where we are not afraid to be broken because we know Christ can make us whole, more whole than we could ever be on our own. A life where we are not afraid to give away our time, our money, even our very selves because we know that our true self rests secure in God and cannot be taken away. A life where we’re not afraid of the light, not afraid of the truth. A life where we are free to joyfully offer our lives so that others may see God’s glory, because we know that, in the words of theologian Walter Bouman, "The resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us to do more with our lives than to protect them. It makes us free to offer them." Because we know that our true life rests in God and cannot be touched no matter what.

I want to close with a story that has become very special to me. It is the story of Anna Jansz. Anna was an early Anabaptist, which meant that she believed in adult baptism in a day when infants were always baptized. People didn’t look kindly on Anabaptists in those days because they saw them as social rebels. If Anabaptists were caught and convicted, they were sentenced to death, usually by drowning. But Anna believed she had found the truth when she found the Anabaptists and so she changed her life, even put herself in danger, to be rebaptized. She put herself in peril to follow the truth.

When she was 28, with a fifteen-month old son, she was sentenced to die by drowning. And as she was being dragged down to the river, she looked in terror for someone to take care of him. And the baker in town agreed, and she pressed into the baker’s hands her son and a letter to her little boy, to be read when he was old enough to read it.

We might expect that Anna wondered why she ever followed such a group of people, why she ever gave away her comfortable life to become an Anabaptist. But she didn’t. For Anna, you didn’t believe things because they were convenient, but because they were true. Hear what she wrote to her little boy:

Listen, my son, to the instruction of your mother. Today, I go the path of the prophets, apostles and martyrs; I drink the cup that all of them drank before me; I go the path of Jesus Christ who had to drink this cup as well. I urge you, my son, submit to the yoke of Christ; endure it willingly, for it is a great honor and joy. Do not follow the majority of people; but when you hear about a poor, simple, repudiated handful of men and women cast out of the world, join them. Do not be ashamed to confess your faith. Do not fear the majority of people. It is better to let go of your life than to deviate from the truth.