October 31, 2006

Idols Idols Everywhere

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Acts 17:16-34

I’m not much of a sports fan. I played some sports growing up – basketball for a few years on the city parks and rec team and then in junior high I was on the school basketball and track team. But it was never really my thing. Dance was more my thing and I would consider dance a sport.

Now my younger brothers on the other hand, they were into sports, and still are. They played some basketball and baseball growing up, but mostly they played soccer, lots and lots of soccer. And they just loved and continue to love sports in general – following all the teams, memorizing all sorts of stats on their favorite players, blocking time on Saturday to watch the games.

I definitely can’t compete with either one of my brothers or Todd on that. But I do take an interest in some of the championship series, especially if the hometown team is competing for the top title. I guess I’m what one would call a fair weather fan. But I’m okay with that. And so I’ve been following the Major League Baseball World Series … because the Detroit Tigers were in it. And it was amazing that they were so good this year because in recent years they had done so poorly. I followed the World Series over the last week and a half and I was disappointed Friday night when the St. Louis Cardinals won the series in the fifth game and became the champions.

But I’m over it. I’ve moved on in life and I probably won’t care about Major League Baseball again until next fall and then, only if the Tigers are doing well. Yet for many Americans, the draw of sports does not start and stop so easily. For many Americans sports is an obsession – an idol constructed in the days of youth and pee wee teams and continued into adulthood; an idol that sits at the center of fanatics’ lives and rules schedules and dominates television and is so revered that it is worshipped.

And that idol is just one among many to choose from in today’s culture, for idols are grabbing our attention left and right. There’s the popular show American Idol on television which searches for the next great singer and lots of other shows that some fans follow more closely than their own lives. There’s the lure of academia – the classroom, learning and books – for others. There’s the idol of physical appearance, ability and image. And there’s the idol of high expectations and ideals, probably the idol with which I struggle the most. More idols are being added to the list every day; more images and representations of things and objects that if we are not careful could easily be turned into gods and worshipped.

Why is it that there are so many idols out there? … scattered among our cities and in the marketplace … taking up our time … eating up our money … taking over our lives … I would say it’s because we’re searching, searching for meaning in life, continuing a search that was begun long ago in Athens.

In today’s passage from Acts, Paul stands in the center of the city of Athens, the very heart of pagan culture and the very center of an intellectual university town; and he is unimpressed with what he sees. It is little more than a wasteland full of idols – so many idols that all of them are not even named. And the people of the city that Paul meets are searching, desperately searching for the next great idea and the latest cool thing and the up and coming idol.

And Paul stands in the middle of the crowd and addresses the people. First, flattering them – their impulse to worship is right even if the objects of their worship are wrong. Then, Paul presents the only true recipient of worship – God. He lays out the scandal of faith: unlike all those other gods the people are worshipping, the true God is not passive, only made of stone. The true God is living. And therefore, absolutely nothing deserves to be honored “before God,” as God’s people have been commanded in the First Commandment.

For the God whom Paul proclaims is not just another option for human devotion, not an accommodating God content to be one among many. The God who sent the Christ is still the Holy One of Israel, a jealous deity without rivals, an exclusive lover who tolerates no competition – money, ideals, institutions, sports, television, a jealous God who fiercely judges all idols made by hands or minds of humans.

Because God alone is to be worshipped and praised, honored and served. God alone deserves that level of devotion and enthusiasm. God alone is worthy. For God alone made the world and everything that is in it – the heavens and the earth; the sun, moon and stars; the waters teeming with fish and sea creatures of every kind; the sky swarming with colorful birds and butterflies; the land with its lush vegetation; the living creatures of every kind that creep and crawl along the ground; and us, humanity. The Lord of all creation is indeed worthy to be praised.

And not just because God so carefully crafted the world out of nothing. But because God didn’t stop there. The Lord of all the universe didn’t go away to hide after all that hard work; God began a relationship with humanity and ultimately came to earth as Jesus Christ.
God gave people a hunger for God, so they might grope for God and find God, even though God is never very far away from any one of us. For in God we come to life; in God we are motivated; in God we find meaning.

And as God’s children we gather as the body of Christ – this Sunday and every Sunday; as God’s beloved we gather as the church to worship the only One deserving worship. For the divine is not found in sports teams or the latest book or the highest ideal or the most popular television show – not any of the products of our own cunning and creation. It is found in God alone.

As we disperse we are called to place nothing on so high a pedestal that we are in danger of worshipping it. We can maintain an interest in any of a number of good things without worshipping them. For worship belongs to God alone. As God’s children, we are called to continue our worship beyond the songs and prayers of this morning, continue our worship when we exit the doors of the church at 11:30.

Many of you already do so. Some of you spend a morning or two a week volunteering at Operation Attack. Some of you serve as elders and work on committees to ensure that the work and mission of the church is accomplished. Some of you are committed to praying for the church and its members and friends. Others of you volunteer an hour a week to a child at St. Pete Reads. And still others give back in many unknown ways behind the scenes. God is being worshipped and served in this place. God is good!

As we start to think about the next year in the life of this church, consider how you might be willing to worship and serve God with your time, talent and treasure. Consider how you might think, meditate, remember, esteem, honor, adore, choose, love, desire, fear, trust, hope, delight and rejoice in the Lord our God.

For the Lord alone is indeed worthy to be praised. Amen.

October 23, 2006

Things I've Learned

Whilst my seminary friends are in the midst of midterms, papers and projects, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned thus far from my internship, although I don’t have to put these learnings in any graded form (yeah!).
  • Being a pastor at a small church sometimes means being the building manager. This means that I now know some things about heating and cooling systems and their maintenance, pest control, garbage removal, roofing, and generators. It also means that I've spent time with the city inspector.
  • When there are mice in the church kitchen, putting all food items in big plastic tubs is a pain, but necessary.
  • Congregation members want you in the office so they can talk to you when they call, but they also want to know why you aren’t out “doing something.”
  • In a congregation with numerous elderly members, if you’re heard by everyone it doesn’t really matter what you say.
  • Having some sort of secretary/administrative assistant makes life much easier. However, since that position at this church has been empty since my arrival, I am now proficient at typing, copying, folding, and stuffing the bulletin; preparing a non-profit mailing; and writing a grant.

October 21, 2006

Things That Are Saving Me

I just finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. I loved the book; her honesty is always so refreshing to me. In the last chapter, she discusses a question that she asks others and she continues to answer herself: “What is saving your life now?” BBT lists things like teaching school, observing Sabbath, encountering God in others.

Moving to Florida for a year long internship while the rest of my seminary classmates enter their final year of classes has been difficult. But it's getting easier. I'm finally starting to feel settled into my new home and church. And I'm starting to feel at peace about being here. This is due in part to things that are saving my own life right now:
  • Dance is saving my life right now. Teaching worship dance to the youth group, dropping by regularly at a worship dance group at a local church, and dancing my own prayers.
  • Amazing friends who call, email, and write are saving my life right now.
  • My parents’ recent visit is saving my life right now.
  • Looking forward to a visit to seminary is saving my life right now.
  • And a God who continues to be in the big things and the little details is saving my life right now.

October 16, 2006

Moved by the Spirit

It turns out that I preached the sermon I most needed to hear:

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Acts 16:6-15

How do you prepare for a journey or a trip? Are you one of those people who waits until the last minute and throws some things into a bag, hoping you’ve remembered everything, traveling with the philosophy that you can buy or borrow anything you’ve forgotten, or chew a lot of gum if you forgot your toothpaste? Or do you spend some time thinking about where you’re going and what the weather might be like there and the essentials that you’ll need, maybe even making a checklist to ensure that nothing is forgotten? Or do you set off on a long journey without any preparation at all, not even a final destination in mind, open to whatever may happen along the way, knowing that there are few truly essential things in life?

If you are traveling or flying anywhere in today’s world, chances are it’s not the third option. The Transportation Security Administration ensures that you think carefully about what exactly you are placing in your baggage. And if you’re traveling with others, chances are that you have some idea of where you’ll be going. So we plan and we pack and we are guided by space or rules or other people.

But Paul and his companions did not have the TSA to guide their packing or planning. Although, they probably didn’t pack much of anything to take with them on their travels. And they probably hadn’t planned on being part of the early church. So, they made do and found food and shelter along the way as they spread the good news of Jesus Christ. They were motivated and moved by a different source – not the well laid plans, rules and guidelines of another person or organization, but of the Holy Spirit. They had the Holy Spirit as their tour guide.

But the Holy Spirit didn’t lead them on an all-inclusive vacation trip. Their journeys were much more difficult than that – landing them in various prisons or in the middle of riots at times, as they preached the startling news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and the inclusivity of God. But even beyond the message that some were not ready for, the Holy Spirit didn’t make traveling easy. In fact, sometimes the Holy Spirit blocked Paul and his companions from exactly where they were heading. Paul’s best laid plans were twice overruled in today’s reading as the itinerary is redrawn by the Spirit. First, the group does not speak the word in Asia and then it does not go into Bithynia in Mysia.

So Paul and friends, who have learned to be open to the workings of God in Jew and Gentile, are open to a guide that doesn’t show them where to go, but moves them instead away from specific places. These movements away could have been frustrating. They would have meant more travel – which translates into more walking, more nights on the road before a few nights in the same town, more wondering when the journey would end.

Yet Paul is open to the workings of the Holy Spirit. And Paul remains open to the Holy Spirit. And this time the Holy Spirit comes to Paul in a vision, in a dream in the middle of the night. And this time it’s not another roadblock; this time it’s a command given through the vision of a man from Macedonia, who says: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” That’s it; short and sweet – the command to come and help. And immediately, immediately the group tried to cross over to Macedonia. Though it wasn’t in the plans and it may not have been the best time of day, or night rather, to travel, immediately the group follows the call and movement of the Spirit.

And so the group ends up in Philippi, a large city in Macedonia. And they remain there for a number of days. Nothing noteworthy happens at first, or at least nothing worth recording. But then Paul and friends gather together on the Sabbath for prayer. And the Holy Spirit is on the move again, because Paul’s group just so happens to head down to the river to pray.

When I read this part of the story, in my mind I begin to see a scene from the 2000 movie starring George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou. Three escaped convicts are around a campfire in the woods when a nearby event arouses their attention. “Down to the River to Pray” is being sung in the background. They see a line of people all dressed in white robes weaving their way through the trees to a river. The escaped convicts who are on the run stand in the woods and watch as a large number are baptized. Two of the convicts are moved by something and run down into the river to be baptized also. They stand out among the crowd, splashing and running into the waters, dirty and smelly from days on the run from the law. But they both merge into the line and are dunked in the water.

And as crazy as it is to consider that movie scene where two rumpled, escaped convicts are baptized in the midst of an orderly group baptism, it is just as crazy to consider what Paul and his companions do down at the river. First, they talk to the women, women – those who were not considered important, but were low on the social scale. A radical step when viewed from the standards of society, but nothing new to those who knew Jesus and his concern for just those people that society shunned.

And then, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, God opens one woman’s heart to Paul and the good news of Jesus Christ. Her name is Lydia and she is baptized right then and there. But not just her; her whole household too. No time needed to ponder it all and consider the option. It was immediate baptism because the Spirit had moved in their hearts. And the Spirit could move in their hearts because they were open to it.

The apostles have opened themselves up to new possibilities. They are traveling on their journey day-to-day, open to where the wind might blow them, open to a transportation guide quite different from the standard. They are open to God the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit isn’t about nice, neat, tidy travel plans. The Holy Spirit isn’t concerned with maintaining equilibrium, having everything balanced. The Holy Spirit is taking them all over the place.

And yet the apostles follow. They trust. They listen and obey. They are willing to be surprised by what the Spirit might do. And the Spirit will do surprising things – a number of them in a few short verses. The Spirit will lead them away from places they were heading toward and the Spirit will speak through a vision to lead them somewhere else. But still, they follow. And then the Spirit leads them to a river and many are baptized. And it seems being moved by the Spirit reaps many rewards.

However, allowing one’s self to be moved by the Holy Spirit isn’t easy. The Holy Spirit travel plan seems pretty discombobulated and unorganized. It may leave us wondering: Is that really what we signed on for when we said “we believe?” Is that really part of our faith today? But, yes it is. It is part of the messiness of being a follower of Jesus Christ. The barriers and rules that hold in world do not hold in the church and do not hold for the Holy Spirit.

And that means the Holy Spirit moves in our lives – guiding and sustaining us, yes, but also pushing and pulling us in new directions, if we are open to it. So how are we open to it? It’s difficult because it’s not something concrete, something that can easily be seen or done. It’s more of a posture of receptiveness. But that doesn’t mean it’s passive. The posture has to be nurtured and given space to develop.

So how do we acquire a posture of receptiveness? We remain in tune with God. We remain open to being pushed and pulled, being tugged here and there, being blocked and called because the Holy Spirit is on the move. And it won’t be any easy thing. The travel to the end destination may look haphazard and chaotic and unbalanced, but the Holy Spirit that came down upon the disciples at Pentecost is not about order.

So keep your eyes, ears, and heart open to the ever mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit in the world today. Be open to being blown in a new direction. Remain open to new experiences. Open yourself to others. Just let the movement begin.

In the name of the One who creates and guides us all; Amen.

October 13, 2006

An Update

A somewhat random posting of the latest and greatest from my life:

  • Could not resolve Mac/PC networking problems in the church office. I knew more about computers than the computer guy that came out to help with this. This is sad. This also means the church bought a new Dell Laptop for me to use. I miss my Mac.
  • Joined the Y, which means a couple of mornings this past week I've woken up very sore. Not working out on a regular basis for the summer months will do this to you.
  • I've been found out. Yesterday a man from the senior citizen condo community was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I got a knock on my door from the grounds man. Apparently man in the ambulance pointed to my car and said his relatives lived there. After realizing that I was not related to the man in the ambulance, grounds man asks what I'm doing in the condo. I hastily answer that I am staying in the place for a friend, say bye, and shut the door.
  • Parents are coming to visit this weekend. This is a really good thing. I'm preaching on Sunday. This is a good thing. My sermon is not done and my parents land in an hour. This is not a good thing. I can't get out what I want to say. This is a really not good thing.

October 05, 2006

A Split Soul

There’s a story of an explorer who traveled madly from one edge of South America to the other, getting up before dawn every day and pushing his crew until after sundown. One morning, as he was getting ready for yet another day of busy exploration, his native porters failed to appear. The explorer found them all seated under a tree, not doing anything in particular, but looking as if they were settled in for the better part of the day. He approached them impatiently and demanded an explanation. One of the porters then matter-of-factly replied, “We have traveled far and we have traveled fast. Now we must allow time for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”

I have traveled far and I have definitely traveled fast. Since I’ve had more time on my hands lately I’ve come to realize that my soul is split and I haven't allowed it time to catch up with my body: there’s a part of me that is still in Mississippi with my summer internship church, and there’s a part of me that longs to be at seminary in Georgia, and then there’s the part of me that is here in Florida. And the Florida part of me is currently the smallest.

And now I have all this time on my hands and I'm resenting that gift. But I must allow time for my soul to catch up with my body. Then maybe I can be more open to the gifts that are here, in this new place, in this good church, being offered by these warm people. But it’s going to take some time.