Barbara S. Blaisdell – Tacoma FCC – August 30, 2015
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but look to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Joan Chittister is a theologian and a Benedictine monastic who tells the story of a disciple approaching a great religious master with a question: “Master, do you believe in miracles?” The master pauses and then responds, “My child, that depends upon what you mean by a miracle. Most people believe it is a miracle when God submits to the will of people.” That’s what we think of as an answer to prayer, right, when God submits to what our will for a situation is? But the master goes on to say, “We believe it is a miracle when people submit to the will of God.” Think about that. Most of us believe it is a miracle when God submits to our view of what ought to happen: when the Mariners or the Seahawks beat the other guys; or when the fire goes in a different direction, away from our house and therefor by definition toward the other guys’ houses. The great religious master argues that a true miracle is when we begin to answer God’s prayers.
That ought to give us pause in our prayers, shouldn’t it? And I want to suggest that this is one way to look at the purpose of the church. Our purpose, our mission as a congregation is to embody the miracle of people answering God’s prayers for the world. But that begs the question, doesn’t it? Because sooner or later we will end up asking, what are God’s prayers for the world? What is the will of God? And who gets to decide?
Have you been following the story of the so-called “prosperity preachers,” guys like Creflo Dollar (yes, that really is his name) who has asked his audience to pay for a $65 million jet plane; or Kenneth Copeland who has used his ministry jet to travel to lavish vacations? These are televangelists who preach that if you “plant seed money” in their ministry, “seed” money that you “plant” in the “ground” of faith (meaning these guy’s wealthy lifestyles), they promise that God will respond by wiping out your credit card debt or by healing your cancer or by blessing you with a better job. I don’t need to tell you how pernicious this notion is, do I, how exploitative this is? If you haven’t seen John Oliver’s scathing report on these guys on his show, Last Week Tonight. You can watch on YouTube. Is it any wonder that too many people see Christianity as a con?
This all reminds me of the time, back years ago when Oral Roberts of Tulsa, Oklahoma told us that God had spoken to him and told him that God would take his life unless he raised the money and built a prayer tower on the campus of his university there. Millions of Americans responded with donations. I was appalled. These would be the very same people who would be furious if our government negotiated with terrorists and yet, here they were, willing to bribe, with their donations, some terrorist god that Oral Roberts had pulled out of his darkest psyche, a god that was willing to hold his servant hostage with a death threat in order to get a monument to himself built.
I am so glad that we are a people willing to question those who would claim to know with such certainty what the will of God is. But…. it can also make us a stiff-necked people. We can come to distrust everybody’s motives who might dare to talk, even humbly about the prayers of God, will of God for the world or for a church or a community. So who can tell us the will of God? And if no one can tell us, how will we know? Do we dare simply trust our own thoughts and feelings on the matter when we know how we can be deceived by our own appetites, our own self-deception, self-denial, not to mention our limited knowledge of the circumstances of things? Or do we each go our own individual way and if so, how do we ever hope to accomplish anything together?
Both God and the apostle Paul have an answer for us in what Miles just read to us. The first text you will recognize as the story of the time that Moses goes up onto Mt. Sinai to commune with God and the people turn to Aaron and ask him to build them a god they can see and touch. And so Aaron asks the people to give seed money to his ministry so that he can build them an idol of gold, an idol that they hoped would more clearly guide the Israelites through the desert to the promised land.
But gold can’t guide anyone. Just like gold can’t seed anything. Generosity can: people to people generosity. You to you. And you to you. And us to the people in Eastern Washington and in Oregon and in Northern California affected by the fires. That kind of generosity will seed further generosity—though it won’t magically erase your credit card bill. Sorry! But generosity and kindness will also guide people through all kinds of wilderness!
Paul knew this. Did you hear the loveliness of his language? What Miles read from Philippians was an early hymn of the church. We don’t know if Paul wrote these words and they were so beautiful that a first century musician set them to music or if a wonderful church musician and lyricist (a first century Ben or Monica or Jeff) wrote these words and Paul quoted them. I wish we still had this hymn and its music. We’d sing it every Sunday as a doxology or a closing benediction song.
Paul is writing to a congregation that is seeking to find its purpose. Differences have surfaced in their community and they have not always known how to resolve those differences. They had begun to forget that they were to be the answer to God’s prayers. So Paul gets very specific about how they can come to know the will of God. Listen again to Paul’s advice:
“If you have ever found any encouragement in Christ; if you have ever found any consolation from love; if you know what it means to share in the Spirit; if you have found any compassion and sympathy in this place, make my joy complete:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be used or exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
To put it bluntly (as Paul was quite capable of being), this Christianity stuff, this church stuff–it’s not about you. God’s prayer for you is about you but it’s about more than you. That may be the most radical thing I can say this morning because we have been lied to in this culture. We have been taught that it is all about us. This is why the prosperity gospel works so well. It promises that it is all about us and it puts in front of all Americans preachers who model just that: it is all about me! We are taught that our relationships are foremost about getting our needs met and that love is foremost about our own fulfillment and if we cannot clearly see ahead of time what it is we are getting out of a relationship or an institution, we ought to get out of it. So preachers who can maximize making it about them, who can garner for themselves mansions and jet planes can be rather intriguing holy men to Americans. But if we are to be faithful followers of this brown eyed Palestinian Jew called Jesus, it really can’t be all about us. This Christianity thing: it’s not about what you want or like or prefer. And it most certainly cannot be about what I like or want or prefer. It’s not even about meeting your needs (or mine). What it is about is converting us, changing us, transforming us so that what we need and want is more in line with what God needs and wants. Because while God wants for us a fulfilling life, a beautiful life, God knows that a truly beautiful and fulfilling life for us requires so much more than what we think we need and what we think we want and that a truly beautiful life is this balance of giving and receiving of generosity. It’s about love. And it’s about mission, which is just another word for love, for the hands and feet of love.
In Jesus’ world there were people who tried to talk about the righteous and the sinners; the “church people” and “those other people,” and Jesus said, “no.” There is no “us and them”; the all good and the all bad. We are, all of us a mixture of both. And he told his disciples that it was their job go out and to welcome the them into the us. That’s our job too, by the way: to go out into the world an find those who have been the “them” and make them “us,”
In Jesus’ world, there were people who tried to separate the Jews from the gentiles, the us and the them. And to this world view, Jesus said “no.” The apostle Paul himself was one of the biggest supporters of the Jewish/gentile divide, that huge, first century us and them. His preference, his taste, even his needs were best met by a Jewish community. And so it was to him particularly, that the Spirit of Christ came to say, “no.” No more. Your job is to welcome the them into the us. After that encounter with Christ, Paul’s will and his taste and his preferences and even his needs were miraculously transformed. And because he was transformed, you and I as non-Jews were, for the first time, welcomed into the church.
In Jesus’ world today there is the us and the them of generational differences. Sociologists make their living describing how change has made us so different from them, how those of one generation have such different ways of looking at things from another. And it can be really helpful to have those differences described, if the point is to help us understand each other. But when anyone begins to use it as “us” and “them” language, to that, Jesus says “no.” There is no us and them.
There is no us straight, them gay. No us brown or tan and them white, us old and them, young. We are to make all of “them” into “us;” not to make them just like us; but a part of us, changing our “us” by their presence.
“Master,” the disciple asked, “do you believe in miracles?”
“That depends,” said the master, “on what you mean by a miracle. Some believe it is a miracle when God submits to the will of people. We believe it is a miracle when people submit to the will of God.”
Let us pray for miracles!!!