Sunday, August 25, 2013

You can't do that!

Luke 13: 10-17  You Can’t do that!

How many times have we heard or said the phrase- You can’t do that?  More often than we can count.  As a church and as a society we have more rules than we realize; some unspoken cultural norms, some which take 300 pages to write down all the details and some are just silly.

Don’t smack your gum, chew with your mouth closed, No food or drink in church, you must have rhythm to sing or clap in church, each person is expected to be in church at a minimum of once a week with only 2 excused absences allowed per calendar year.  Any absences beyond this can only be excused when accompanied by the bulletin of an approved alternate place of worship for that week, all ushers must wear a tie and sport coat, candles on the alter must be polished weekly and placed at a perfect 42 degree angle to the chip of paint on the back of the sanctuary wall …. I am sure you have heard other rules like these in your life- some more serious and some just as outrageous.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Not all rules are frivolous.  Some have a very good purpose.  Some of our rules protect people from discrimination, physical, emotional and financial harm.  They create order, provide for our safety and ensure our rights are not violated as humans and as citizens of this country.  These, usually anyway, are the good kinds of rules and most of them make sense. 
There are rules however, disguised as protective and normative, but instead of creating an environment of safety they work to maintain the status quo, control, elevating the value and status of some while suppressing the rights and freedoms of other individuals and groups.  Some rules, were meant to be broken. 
Jesus was a rule breaker.  He not only broke the rule of healing on the Sabbath but he broke the unspoken cultural norms of the day too.  This woman was oppressed because of her gender and her disability.  She was not even supposed to be allowed in the temple but Jesus calls her out anyway-instead of ignoring her he acknowledges her worth as a daughter of Abraham and a child of God. 
Where would we be as Protestants if people like Martin Luther and John Calvin hadn’t challenged the authority and rule of the church?
Where would we be as people called Methodists if John Wesley and others had not challenged the system of church and worship?
I would not be your pastor if over 40 years ago someone hadn’t decided to break the rule of male only church leadership.
What would life be like today if college students in the 1960’s hadn’t participated in the lunch counter sit-ins or if a tired seamstress had not broken the rules by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in Birmingham? 
This week, we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington.  Where would our society be today if people of all races had not fought for non-discriminatory hiring practices and a minimum wage?  These people chose to break the sometimes unspoken but always present rules of segregation and white supremacy. 
When we abide by these rules that cause division, discrimination, and oppression; we become like the woman in our scripture today.  Crippled by demons with a field of vision so narrow we can see little more than the dirt on the floor and the wear of someone’s shoes. 
We all know people like this.  Maybe we are these people.  We all have arbitrary rules of life. Some are seemingly insignificant like “always wash the dishes before bed” But some are still used to oppress and demean- even if we don’t realize we have them.  Maybe someone isn’t helped on the side of the road because of the way they appear; maybe someone isn’t hired because of their gender, they have an ethnic name or an accent.  We make up stories and assumptions about others because of preconceived notions and stereotypes. 
Life doesn’t have to be that way.  Jesus is calling us to break these rules, allow his presence to heal our lives and to stand up straight, break the bonds that cripple us and prevent us from seeing the Kingdom of God, understanding our capacity to love and grow in faith, loving our neighbor and being an active and willing disciple of Jesus Christ. 
Most of you know I like to hike but I often find myself spending so much time looking down at where my feet are going- so worried that I am going to trip, fall or step in some mud- that I miss the beauty of God’s creation that surrounds me and sometimes miss my turn because I am not watching the blazes that mark the trails.  If we walk through life, afraid, so overly focused on the rules, worried about doing it wrong instead of doing what is right- we too can miss the wondrous creation around us and get lost to the spiritual path God wants us to be on. 
The truth is, Jesus can break these bonds on our lives. We don’t have to live that way.  Only you and God know what your demons are.  Maybe you have been bound for so long that you can’t imagine life being any different, maybe you can still hear the words of someone you admire telling you you’re not worth it, but Jesus sees you, has compassion on you and wants to offer you healing and freedom from your ailments. 
 If we are following Christ- we don’t have to worry about being led astray, getting lost or failing because we know we have a God who loves us and is showing us the right path and leading the way to a better future.  We just have to look up and listen for the voice of God telling us to stand up.
There will always be those who don’t want you and our society to be healed and will advocate for us to keep looking down instead of seeing the God given hope, love and greatness that surrounds us. Every time the TV is on it seems someone is trying to scare us into believing that there is no hope- politics, crime, corruption and fear mongering stress that the worst case scenario is inevitable. Maybe it is the parent, teacher or boss that instead of building up and encouraging independence and free thinking fosters a sense of fear and dependence on the authority figure so they can maintain control and power. Attempting to scare us into believing that the only safe place to look is down.
This creation of fear binds us and prevents us from seeing the possibilities of hope and love God wants us to experience.  Even though the voice that oppresses and insists on maintaining power and control at all costs may seem loud and authoritative; with Christ we know there is still hope.
 It only takes one act of kindness, one opportunity to stand up for someone who can’t and one offer to help someone heal, to show the Kingdom of God to that person. Jesus Christ brought the Kingdom of God to earth one person at a time, one touch at a time, one word at a time (GP).  But each person who encounters Christ is a new witness to that Kingdom and all those who see how God has changed a person’s life will be witness to a new life in Christ and together we can drown out the voices of fear and oppression. 
We cannot live our lives looking down- scared to see the opportunities God has given us to change the world, the community or even one life.  God is calling us to stand up, be healed, have faith and believe in the glory of God that surrounds us.  I promise if we allow God to heal our broken lives and broken society there will be nothing left to do but praise God.
Maybe you are you feeling bound, crippled and unable to see and experience the glories of God.  Maybe you realize you are one of the oppressors and you need God’s help to change your mind and your life.  God can do that; God can heal your brokenness.  Take these next few minutes to pray for healing. 
Maybe God is calling you to fight against the status quo or stand up for someone who can’t.  Maybe God has put it on your heart that you need to offer healing, wholeness and the Kingdom of God to someone.  Spend this time asking God for guidance, courage and discernment to what is right and what steps to take next.   – listen during these next few moments of prayer and meditation for the voice and will of God. 
Prayer from GBOD.ORG
Lift us up, O God,  as you lifted the bent-over woman in the synagogue.   Deliver us from a lifetime of looking pessimistically at the floor as though we had no hope in you,  as though you cared nothing for us.
Lift us up above the scowls of the critics and their loudly broadcasted pronouncements about the present and our future.
We choose to believe that even on the bleakest day you hold our families, our jobs
and everything about our future in your hands and we are reminded that you love us –
like the Good Shepherd that cares for the sheep, like one who lifts an infant to the cheek,
like Jesus when he saw the helpless crowds reaching out to touch him.

Hold our faces in your hands, O God.  Comfort us and help us to look beyond what we see today,
what we overheard yesterday, and what we fear about tomorrow.

Lift us up, O God, and give us the power to walk upright again. Amen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reflections on Faith and culture

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

I originally went on this trip to Venezuela for my own self-absorbed purposes.  I wasn’t really sure what I might learn.  I thought I would learn something about Latino culture, meet some nice people, learn how to be in ministry with people different than myself, travel, and get class credit.  I don’t know about you but I often see God as “other worldly.”  I believe all the Sunday school answers.  Prior to this trip my idea of faith was believing that God exists, Jesus lived and died for our sins, rose from the dead and that the Holy Spirit is present- gently guiding, encouraging us to do what is right but all the while thinking I was still in control. Never really expecting modern day miracles, much less actively asking for them to occur.
When I see the “God is my co-pilot” bumper stickers I often laugh and think to myself- If God is the co-pilot you are in the wrong seat my friend.  But, if I am honest, I actually live my life more like the bumper sticker than I want to admit.  Yes, God is in my life, but I still get to make all the decisions.  God is just along for the ride.  From time to time, when life hits turbulence I might throw up my hands and ask God to take control, but it is never for long.  As soon as I stop panicking and gain my confidence I take the controls back.  I might throw God a quick “thank you Lord for handling that little problem for me- I’ll take it from here.” 
I never realized before how arrogant my thoughts were and how much I had to learn; how little I knew about God, about my relationship with Jesus Christ and how the Holy Spirit is active in this world.    
I looked at the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the early Christians and I thought- Oh, that must have been hard on them.  But, it is so far from my reality that I honestly struggle to relate.  Even when I see miracles and God’s provision in my life and the life of those around me, I often dismiss it as chance, giving God only perfunctory credit for answering my half-hearted prayers.  My time in Venezuela helped me see, helped me understand how these stories still apply today.  God really does provide.  God really does answer prayers.  God really is active and alive in this life.  Not just in the past and not just in some distant future, but now.  I just have to pay attention long enough to notice.
As I read the scripture for today.  It seemed to come alive in the lives of the people I met in Venezuela.  While there I was able to meet people and hear stories of what life is like in that country.  I repeatedly heard stories and saw dramatizations of crime, danger, poverty, corruption and hope. 
I realize that hope may seem like an odd word to include in this list but despite all the negative energy and circumstances that surround these resilient people, there remains hope and faith in God to lead them to a new and better life.  They believe without a doubt that this is the new City of God.
Venezuela is a beautiful country abounding in natural resources and potential for greatness.  The land is rich with fertile soil, petroleum products and minerals with a beautiful and varied landscape.  Yet, it regularly has shortages of food, water, paper products, and other basic necessities of life.  The people have become so accustomed to life like this that it is a normal to be surrounded by crime, bribery, and manipulation. Homes and businesses alike are walled and gated to provide some level of security.  People try their best to travel in groups and stay on well-traveled paths for safety. 
And yet, while this is their reality, the people we met continue to have hope.  Most everyone we encountered, including people outside the church were friendly, happy and genuinely nice people.  Although they don’t have much, they share what they do have, greet you with a warm smile and often a kiss on the cheek.  They are industrious, kind, hospitable and full of hope and love. 
My first morning there, my Venezuelan roommates surprised me with an orange in my bed and fresh made hot tea.  They knew I was in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by an unfamiliar language so they shared their love for Christ and me through hospitality.  Instead of giving up and succumbing to the negativity of their environment, isolating themselves from this stranger, they chose hope.
Like Abraham, they desire a country built on faith whose architect and builder is God- not government, crime and corruption.  While the country of Venezuela is culturally catholic many are not practicing and according to some I met, witchcraft is still very common.  But, the people have chosen not to give up on God and the church but to seek a better way.  The Methodist church in Venezuela is less than 20 years old and has fewer than 30 churches.  Yet, while they are few in number, they know their trust lies not in themselves but on God who is greater than any government and greater than any church. 
They turn to stories like that of Abraham and see themselves.  They go out in faith, worshiping and praising our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ sharing the Good News of salvation not just in the eternal life but in this life.  While they could easily look at their surroundings and feel that their land is barren, they see the birth of each new Christian, and each new church as a seed of their faithfulness. 
The Sunday we were in Venezuela I was privileged to attend worship at the largest Methodist Church in Venezuela, Resurrection Church in Barquisimeto.  They have an average of 700 in attendance each week and the speaker that day was a high level government official who was stepping down to go into the ministry.  He spoke with a prophetic voice of how God, not the government, was in control, reliable and active.  He called out the government for not keeping promises to provide and encouraged people to understand that the love of Christ never fails and God never breaks promises.  Christ is the face of hope in a sea of corruption and disorganized government.
 The other church I was privileged to attend was a small 50 member church which although small, is in the process of building an orphanage.  They find hope in living in the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  Not waiting on an eternal peace which is promised to all those who believe but also the understanding that God is calling us to meet the needs of our community, bringing the Kingdom to life now.  There is a complete trust in the promises of God not just in the next life but in this life. 
God may have started this faith with one old man and one barren woman but together they had one son and the seed of promise was planted.  Like Abraham and Isaac, they know they may not see the full fruits of this New Jerusalem for which they ardently pray but they have assurance in the Promise of Christ.  Each time faith is shared, each time someone new comes to know Christ, each time a seed of hope in Christ is planted they glimpse the future God has promised them. And they have complete faith and trust that this will come to fruition. 
This sense of hope was felt deeply in their prayers.  Their prayers and preaching were emotional and heart felt.  They constantly gave praise to God repeating thank you Lord, Praise God, Glory to God.  Even those who seemed to have little to our standards, had faith enough and were more than grateful for all they do have.  As they prayed, even when one led the prayer, they all combined their voices giving encouragement, power and relevance to the words being prayed. 
Their prayers echoed their belief that God is alive, present and ever working to make this life better.  They cried, they laughed, they sang, jumped and clapped for joy in their worship.  There was no restraint, no holding back.  They believe God will answer their prayers, and even if they don’t see the results now they rejoice in each step towards the fulfillment of that promise.  They aren’t naive and they don’t turn a blind eye to the world around them, instead they embrace their faith and trust that the Holy Spirit is leading them to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. 
I was ashamed of myself and our culture when I witnessed their faith. It seems some days we have long given up on a God who performs miracles.  When we see miracles happen we write it off as chance, coincidence.  We depend on government and non-profit organizations to relieve suffering and care for the broken and lost.  We leave it up to someone else to bring God’s kingdom to this place and then get upset when things aren’t done the way we think they should be.   
We take scripture that tells us the poor will always be with us and we experience people who, in their effort to survive, take advantage of systems and the kindness of individuals so we choose to wash our hands, write them off and look to our own personal future of salvation instead of truly believing that the Kingdom of God is present and the Holy Spirit is active in this world today and that the promises of God are not only for eternal life but for this life too. 
I challenge you to go back, look at the stories of Abraham and Sarah and the miracles of Christ and pay attention to the world around us.  Children who should have never survived an illness, cancers that have been healed, jobs acquired just at the right time...  God is there ready and willing to hear your cries for a miracle too.  God wants your life, this life, to be full of love, joy and peace.  God wants those of us who have faith abundant to share the Kingdom of God with others. 
Where is God calling us to bring the love of Christ?  This religion which we so proudly call our own started with one voice of faith, one action of trust in God and Christ keeps calling us, sending us and urging us to have this same faith and willingness to step out and bring his kingdom to this community and this world and to every person we meet.  What is the Holy Spirit leading you to do?