21 November 2012

Open Orthodoxy

I had an interesting experience the other day.  We have a Bible study group that meets weekly over lunch at a local restaurant, and a question was raised about whether or not the early church wound up erecting a structure to fit the happenings after Jesus ascended to heaven.  In other words, is the historic faith we have shared, including the Biblical canon and the many, many practical decisions made along the way, our best attempt to make sense of the world post-Jesus, or is it only and always the working of the Holy Spirit?  And, to even ask such a question:  is this faith or heresy?

20 November 2012

Running Thankful

So, um, yeah, I'm still here.  Sort of.

Tonight was our Thanksgiving Worship at St. Petri.  Can I just say that I love the fact that we do this worship on Tuesday night?  For families that are traveling tomorrow, like ours, we can leave as soon as school is out and be at our destinations at a reasonable time (I should arrive back home sometime near supper, Mom).  I don't know why it never occurred to me that Tuesday night might be the better night for worship in Thanksgiving week.  Going to be my recommendation from here on out.  

04 November 2012

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday - "Saints at the Feast"

Preaching Text:  Isaiah 25.6-9

6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. 8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.9It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

            When I stepped on the scale this morning, it read 237 pounds.  This is not good news.  When Kristin and I got married eight years ago, I weighed 200 pounds, and I was in the best shape I’d been in since my football days in high school.  Eight years of happily married life, two children, a bit of aging and a plethora of changes means I’m more than the man I used to be, in more ways than one. 
            Part of my problem, of course, is how and where I live.  Isaiah 25 has nothing on the options available to an average middle class American like me.  In Isaiah’s time, the daily diet was mainly bread, some fruits and vegetables depending on what was in season and available, and occasionally meat.  By “occasionally” I mean “at times of great importance.”  No feedlot cattle in Isaiah’s day.  No hog confinements pushing out pork by the ton.  Shoot, they wouldn’t even have free range chickens.  If I want, I can march right up to Pizza Ranch and consume more food in one meal than most families in Isaiah’s time would have eaten in a day.  As a matter of fact, part of my problem is that I’ve done precisely that a few times too many since we’ve moved to Story City.
            Let’s be clear about what’s happening in Isaiah 25 as we gather today for worship.  Let’s think about context.  Let’s think about the world the prophet knew as he described this great mountaintop feast.  Imagine a life where you never really know where your next meal is coming from.  Maybe there will be bread or some fruit, but maybe not.  If you had food for two or three days, you were unimaginably fortunate.  The amount and variety of food available to us today would have been absolutely overwhelming to the person reading Isaiah’s prophecy of the mountaintop feast; which makes it, I believe, that much more wonderful to consider.
            Now let’s think about more than just food in Isaiah’s day.  No penicillin or antibiotics, so infection and viral disease would be left to run rampant; death could be waiting around any corner, and would take your loved ones swiftly and pitilessly.  No health insurance, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC, Habitat for Humanity or anything like it.  Your social network was your family, perhaps your friends, but in a world where every meal is a question and every mouth divides that question further and further, sometimes hard choices needed to be made.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that in the state of nature, human life is “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”  For most of human history, we would have been heartbeats away from such an existence – it is into this world that the prophet Isaiah delivers God’s message of the feast to come. 
            This is why I’m dwelling so much on what Isaiah’s hearers would have known, and why it is so different from our own experience. It’s not about making you feel guilty about how good you have it; it’s about the outrageous extravagance of what God promises to God’s people.  To a society that was intimately familiar with hardship, hunger, disease, death and destruction, God promised a feast unlike anything they’d ever known.  In a world where tears are always a heartbeat away, God promises to bend the knee and wipe away the tears of generations of those who mourn. 
            Last month the Logos and Latte group read C.S. Lewis’ story The Great Divorce.  If you want to contrast the world of Isaiah with a modern outlook on death, heaven and hell, this is as good a way to do it as I know.  Lewis imagined a world much like our own, where we separate ourselves further and further from our neighbors because we have all we ‘need’ and find the reality of other people uncomfortable.  But every once in a while, a bus comes to take people to another world, where the grass is so substantial it cuts your feet and our beings are so light and ephemeral we can walk on the water because there’s just nothing to us.  In this world, the feast isn’t remarkable because we never eat: the feast is remarkable because it’s so real we can’t handle it.  The surplus of our lives leads us to think that everything is inconsequential, that an apple is just another thing to eat instead of a vessel containing the glory of God.  In The Great Divorce, one person tries to carry an apple back to the old world, but he cannot because it is just too heavy.  As he struggles, a voice booms out from the sky: ‘”Fool,” he said, “put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you.”’[1]
            This, I think, is our reality on this All Saints’ Day.  We have so much of what we need that we often miss the simple truth that our very existence is a gift from God and a glory unto itself.  When you can buy apples for $.99/pound at the market, the wonder of the feast begins to fade, until everything is a commodity and nothing is a gift.  Our task as followers of Jesus Christ is to be made aware of the glory that surrounds us and the glory that awaits us, the reality of God that is more substantial than we can truly envision.
            The Hebrew word for glory, dbk, begins to get at this idea of substance and reality.  Its literal meaning is “weighty/heavy.”  You might compare it to the difference between a plastic cup and this heavy tumbler – the second is more precious because it has heft and substance. It is not intended to be used once and then cast away; it is meant to be permanent, to be used again and again, to endure.  And let’s face it:  in a world where we discard more than any culture before us, our voracious appetite for consumption is rarely put in check.  Do we understand glory?  Do we understand that this world was not created to be consumed and then discarded?  When we can gather for treats after worship this morning and discard our plates and cups after one use, how long will it be until we begin to look at people in the same way?  When you can throw away your dishes, how long until you can throw away the relationships in your lives rather than working to clean them up?           
            We do have one thing in common with the people of Isaiah’s time:  death still consumes us.  Amy Erickson writes: “the Hebrew word for death (twm) is related to the word that designates the god of death (Môt), whose appetite for human life is insatiable…”[2]  All of us will be consumed by death someday – no matter how much we gather, no matter how much we consume, no matter how much we discard, death will come for us all.  You’ve heard the joke:  you never see a U-Haul in a funeral procession.  And yet we all laugh nervously when we tell that joke, because we know how hard it is to break ourselves out of our mindset towards consumption, towards acquisition, towards building what we have in the desperate hope that it will be enough in the end.  Even in a world inundated with abundance, we are still a people driven by scarcity and anxiety.  God knows this.  God has always known this, and so God makes yet another promise, one you might have missed in all the talk about good wine and rich meats: “[God] will swallow up death forever.”  Again, Amy Erickson says, “God must be stronger, more voracious, and more vicious than Death.”[3]  And to that, I add:  God IS.  The glory of God in this world, whether it is an apple, a child’s laugh or the last breath of a dying saint, is more substantial and more important than we can ever imagine: so glorious that even death cannot withstand it.
            This is All Saints’ Day.  We remember the lives of those who have passed into the glory of God – and we do this because those beloved saints matter.  Our anxiety and fear tell us that our lives are meaningless, a chasing after the wind, but God promises that this simply is not so, that in God we matter, we are substantial, we carry the weight of God’s glory in a world that is heartbreakingly real.
Your life has weight and heft and meaning because God says this is so.  You are a child invited to the banquet.  You are a saint invited to the feast.  Here and now this feast is your life:  family, work, friends, your church – all of it is holy, rich and substantial and far more important than we realize.  One day this feast will be the life of all creation, gathered on the holy mountain of God, more rich and substantial and incredible than we can realize.  Until that day, when all tears are wiped away, we gather in hope, remembering our beloved who rest in God’s glory.  Live here, you weighty saints of God, and rejoice in the hope of the feast that is to come.  Amen.

[1] Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. © 19XX
[2] Erickson, Amy. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&alt=2
[3] Ibid.