Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Cup of Cold Water
Mt. 10:40-42; Rom. 6:12-23[1]
Sometimes I think religious professionals may be more of a hindrance to spiritual living than a help. You may find that a strange thing for a religious professional to say! It seems to me, for some reason, we religious professionals tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. We create systems and rules to ensure that everyone winds up at the same place in their spiritual journeys. But systems always have to be tweaked, as any Presbyterian who has tracked the evolution of the Book of Order can attest. And rules always have to be expanded to take care of exceptions and loopholes, as any tax attorney can attest! It might be tempting for us to point the finger at those other religions out there, for “straining a gnat and swallowing a camel,” as Jesus put it. But the reality is that all religions, as attempts to create a systematic way in which all people can approach ultimate things like God and eternity, can become obstacles in the spiritual quest.
In the Hebrew Bible, we see an approach to the spiritual life that essentially defines holiness in terms of carefully conducted ritual sacrifices, and it defines sin in terms of staying pure by eating the right foods and having intimate relationships with the right kind of people. Well let’s look at this: we no longer believe that people have to offer ritual sacrifices in order to please God. And we don’t think that having a plate of oysters somehow makes us unclean in God’s sight. But many in our faith still believe that the essence of sin is having an intimate relationship with the wrong kind of person (even in the context of marriage). And yet, the “wrong kind” of person for the Hebrew Bible was anybody outside the family of Abraham! Do we really believe that marrying a person outside your faith, or marrying a person of another race, or another ethnic group somehow makes us sinful in God’s eyes? I wonder if it’s time to move past this aspect of the Hebrew Bible as well.
I see some of this when read our lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans for today. While we are clearly indebted to the great Apostle for many of the building blocks of our faith, I think his views on sin have some problems. In a very real sense, I think the main problem is that he has a very “First-Century Jewish” notion of sin. On the surface of things, obviously we don’t want to be “slaves of sin” but “servants of righteousness.” But the problem comes when you ask what kind of sin Paul had in mind. With all his talk of your “members,” or body parts (6:13), presented to “impurity” in the “passions” of the “flesh,” it seems to me pretty clear that the kind of “sin” that leads to “death” in St. Paul’s thinking here is sexual sin—having an intimate relationship with the “wrong kind” of person.
But is that really what we believe? When we look around at the world in which we live, where do you see sin leading to death? Well, I see power-hungry dictators unleashing tanks against their own peoples to suppress dissent. And the result of that sin is death—over and over. And I see impoverished people living in ramshackle slums that are swept away completely—with all their residents, men, women, and children—whenever an earthquake or a flood or a hurricane comes through. I see the death that results from the sin of the wealthy in those countries hoarding all the resources and the sin of the government leaders who profit personally from injustice. I would have to say, in all honesty, that I don’t death resulting from having an intimate relationship with the “wrong kind” of person. I’m afraid I’d have to say that the beloved Apostle missed it on this one. His feet are firmly stuck in the Jewish notions of sin prevalent in his fellow Pharisees.
Whenever we make the essence of spirituality and holiness a matter of following religious rules, it seems to me that we have missed the mark. Rigid religious rules always become obstacles to loving other people; it seems to me that means they are obstacles to truly loving God. Jesus called them “burdens too heavy to lift” and points the finger at religious perfectionists of all stripes for ignoring their own sins and focusing on the minor lapses of others. It all becomes just an elaborate way of justifying myself by condemning someone else. But at the end of the day, even we religious perfectionists can’t bear the burden we’ve created for others.
Jesus had a way of cutting through all the hypocrisy and trivia and nonsense that we religious professionals can generate in that foolish effort. He said that true holiness is about loving God and loving others—all others, no exceptions. He said that true spirituality is about embracing a child, caring for the weak and outcast. He said that true goodness is about feeding the hungry person, visiting the sick, and being a companion to those who are in prison.[2] For Jesus, a truly spiritual way of living is about being willing to give someone a cup of cold water on a hot day (Mt. 10:42).[3] It’s really no more complicated than that. No elaborate systems, no obsessions with keeping every jot and tittle. At the end of the day, it’s about having a heart that is willing to give to others the same grace, and mercy, and unconditional love that we have received.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/26/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 126-9, where he says in effect that those who truly follow Christ are to be serving where Christ awaits us, “amid the downtrodden, the sick, and the captives.”
[3] I recognize that Jesus is probably talking about people receiving the “little ones” among the disciples who are traveling as evangelists and teachers, but I think that the same principle of kindness can apply generally. Cf. Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew: A Commentary, 121-22.
The God of Love and Peace
Mt. 28:20; 2 Cor 13:11[1]
One of the blessings of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. We can learn about what is going on in Pakistan, or Somalia, or in Japan or New Zealand almost as soon as it happens. I think that’s a very good thing, because it means that all people across all kinds of lines get to see up close and personal how much we human beings are alike. One of the curses of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. That means that we also get to see—up close and personal—all the corruption and cruelty and violence and hatred and injustice afflicting the human family. Unfortunately, the feeling that the world is becoming a smaller place can reinforce the feeling that we have been forsaken by whatever “gods” we might have believed in. Especially the Jewish and Christian notion of a God of compassion, a God of love and peace. In the face of overwhelming cruelty and violence and injustice, it can seem incredibly naïve to believe in a God who is working to bring grace and mercy and peace and justice and love and life into this world!
On the surface of things, it would seem that the reality of our world contradicts the message of our gospel lesson for today. In the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Christ is giving his final instructions to his disciples. And in the midst of it all, he gives them a couple of words of assurance: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Mt. 28:18, 20, Today’s NIV) I guess I would have to say that I would expect the world to look a lot different if that were the case. A world in which all authority belongs to Jesus Christ, the one who stood for peace and compassion and justice and love would, I think, bear a whole lot more evidence of peace and compassion and love! This question has vexed the minds and hearts of believers throughout the centuries. If God is so good and loving, why is there so much evil in the world? And some of the best minds through the ages have diligently sought answers.
But I’m not so sure that the answer is all that complicated. It seems to me that God’s presence in this world is no more complicated than giving and receiving compassion. It is in the small acts by which we share kindness and love with our fellow human beings that we experience the true presence of God.[2] I think that may be something of what St. Paul had in mind when he told the believers at Corinth that it is when they “agree with one another” and “live in peace” that they can be sure that “the God of love and peace” would be with them.[3] I would think it stands to reason that the only way we can experience the presence of “the God of love and peace” is if we are practicing “love and peace” in our lives. And I don’t think this works in the theoretical—I think it has to play itself out in the way we relate to those around us on a daily basis.
It seems to me that as we open ourselves in compassion to our sisters and brothers all around us, we find that there is a great deal of peace and compassion and love in the world—even in the midst of suffering and injustice. Precisely in the midst of suffering and injustice. I heard an interview this week with Sarah Shourd, one of a group of American hikers who were arrested and imprisoned in Iran, accused of spying for the U. S. government.[4] As Sarah tells her story, she recounts how she was separated from her companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. At first, she didn’t have any contact with anyone outside her cell. During that period of her confinement, she says that “all I did was cry and beat at the walls,” and that she came close to losing her mind during that time.
In the midst of her ordeal, Sarah says one of the things that sustained her was the compassion of Iranian women whom she never actually met, though they were her fellow prisoners. Those Iranian women, when they heard Sarah crying, would sing songs to her in English to comfort her. I find that amazing! Most them were themselves unjustly imprisoned and had every right to be angry and bitter or at least fearful and timid. And yet, in the depths of Sarah’s despair, they would cry out to her in English, “We love you Sarah!” There she was, surrounded by some of the worst of human injustice and cruelty and violence, and in the midst of all that suffering, the voice of compassion came to her, “we love you Sarah!”
I think for most of us, the reality of our world makes us tend to isolate ourselves from those around us. We stay, safely detached from everything and everyone in our world, walking around with earbuds and iPods, comfortable in our cars, withdrawing to our homes to engage with virtual reality over some kind of screen or another. And it’s no wonder we look at our world and complain, “Where is God?” It is precisely when we open ourselves to those who are around us and allow ourselves to experience their pain and suffering and share compassion and kindness with them that we experience God’s presence. That’s when we can be sure that the God of love and peace is with us, filling us all with grace and joy and life!

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/19/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 45: “the most convincing, perhaps the primary way in which we can encounter the reality of the Divine is in the face of the other” (summarizing Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas); cf. also 181, 194
[3] I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Be cheerful. Keep things in good repair. Keep your spirits up. Think in harmony. Be agreeable. Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure.” (2 Cor. 13:11)
[4] Sarah Montague, Interview with Sarah Shourd, “Hardtalk,” June 10, 2011; accessed at .
Acts of God
Acts 2:1-12[1]
Over the last several months we’ve all witnessed a wide variety of events in our world that we tend to categorize as “Acts of God.” “Acts of God” include things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. At one time, the phrase would have made sense, because most people probably didn’t understand the natural causes for catastrophic events. When the Vesuvius exploded and destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, it had to be an “Act of God” because people didn’t understand the forces of geology. When an earthquake destroyed the medieval city of Lisbon in Portugal, it had to be an “Act of God” because people had no idea about the movement of tectonic plates.
In our world, most of us are familiar with the phrase “Acts of God” because insurance companies use it to describe any number of natural disasters that they exclude from your coverage. But nobody—well, perhaps I should say almost nobody—believes that these events come directly from God any more. We know that a hurricane occurs when a low pressure system hits warm water and starts spinning around. We know that a tornado is the product of warm air hitting cold air. We can basically explain the natural causes of all of these “Acts of God”—so that they really don’t seem to fit into the category of “Act of God” any more. In a very real sense, I think we could say that describes much of what has happened in our world. Much of what at one time would have been attributed to some mysterious or miraculous “act of God” now has a completely rational and natural explanation.
This shift even affected the way we practice our faith. One of the traits of the Reformed branch of the Christian family is an approach that is reasonable, seeking to explain all things spiritual in terms that everyone can understand and grasp. And so the sermon became the focus for Christian worship instead of the Communion table. In the Catholic Church, the whole point of the service is the mass, the miracle by which the material elements become Jesus’ own body and blood. It is a great mystery, not to be explained, but to be experienced. In the Reformed churches, however, the sermon became central to worship, because the point of worship is to explain all things related to faith. And yet, the audacity that presumes we can explain everything—even matters that the wisest of sages would recognize belong firmly in the realm of mystery—leaves little room for wonder, for awe, for faith, and perhaps even for God.
In our lesson from Acts, which tells the story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the response of the people who witnessed it was not one of calm, rational understanding, but rather they were “bewildered,” “amazed and astonished,” and “perplexed” (Acts 2:6 ,7, 12). This event, which I would consider a real “Act of God,” was beyond their ability to comprehend or explain. It left them in a state of confusion, as the lesson puts it: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12).
Most of us don’t like what we can’t understand. We feel uncomfortable with confusion. And so someone may object that the story goes on to tell us that what Peter did was precisely to “explain” this event. And you may also insist that the “miracle” of Pentecost was that the language of the Apostles was fully intelligible to people of many different dialects. I wonder if part of the problem with our churches today is that we insist on keeping God firmly within the box of what we can understand and explain. But surely we don’t want a God who keeps everything nicely and neatly in the realm of what we can explain over Sunday School refreshments? What kind of a faith is that? How in the world does that motivate us to live for the peace and justice and freedom of God’s realm in a world that is so unfree and unjust?
None of our attempts at rational explanation can change the fact that the event of Pentecost itself is something astonishing.[2] And so it seems to me that one of the lessons of Pentecost is that when “God happens,” it will be something astonishing, like Pentecost itself.[3] If we want to see some genuine “Acts of God” in our midst, we need to be prepared for some amazement, some confusion. If we want our faith to be something living, if we want our church to be alive with the power of the Spirit, we have to expect that it will only happen to the extent that the God of Pentecost comes to us and shakes things up and blows things around.[4]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/12/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Unruly Spirit,” The Christian Century 110 no 16 (May 12, 1993): 515: “If the speech that comes forth from believers is intelligible, it is simultaneously incredible.” She goes on to observe that we tend to want to tame the “unruly Spirit” of Pentecost by either individualizing it or institutionalizing it.
[3] Cf. Jim Callaghan, “Windblown,” The Christian Century 117 no 17 (May 24-31 2000): 597.
[4] Cf. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, “The Wind that Blows the Doors Off,” Journal for Preachers 26 no 4 (Pentecost 2003): 56, where she says, “This wild Spirit wind of God … toppled all human understandings of who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, who is worthy to proclaim the Gospel and who is not. … because of this wind, everyone in that room who thought they had God all figured out and safely circumscribed in their neat and orderly theological boxes, saw the doors of those boxes completely blown off.”
Recovering Hope
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23[1]
During this season of Holy Week and Easter, we’ve been examining the fact that faith is not easy. We’ve been talking about how we have some challenges with our faith. I think one of the most difficult challenges we all face is that at some point in our lives we find the very clear, simple and confident faith of our childhood shattered. All of us have had the experience of saying “I had hoped …” with greater or lesser degrees of despair and perhaps even anger. Life is such that just about all of our hopes are at some point dashed. They wind up like “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”[2]!
This is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to faith. Once our hopes have been dashed, what do we do? Once the faith of our childhood is shattered, how do we move forward into a new faith? I think the same thing we said last week applies here as well—just as when we’re learning faith for the first time, re-learning faith in a whole new way is a matter of learning by doing. When we are children, we cultivate faith by participating in worship, by learning the prayers and singing the hymns.[3] I think that applies to re-learning faith as well. We cultivate a new faith as we participate in worship, learning to say the prayers in whole new ways, learning to sing the hymns with a whole new meaning, learning to confess our faith with new substance behind the words. Worshipping with the community of faith is where we learn faith in the first place; it’s also where we re-learn faith after our hopes have been shattered.
At this point you might be scratching your head. You might be thinking that when you’ve lost your faith, the last place you want to be is in church, saying the same prayers that have lost their punch, singing the same hymns that have lost their meaning. And yet, even though a worship service is the last place you’d like to be, it is still the place to re-learn faith. In worship we’re essentially learning how to make all of our lives a believing and faithful response to God’s gift of grace and mercy and peace and joy and love and life to us all. [4]
I’m not saying it will be easy or that it will come quickly or that it won’t be frustrating. Losing faith and trying to get it back again is probably one of the most trying experiences anyone can go through. You feel very much as if God has abandoned you and you find yourself wondering what you did wrong, or why God won’t help you, or even if there is a God at all. Re-learning faith after we’ve lost the faith of our childhood can be one of the most difficult and painful experiences in life. But the plain truth is that the only way to re-learn faith, the only way to recover shattered hopes, is to go back to the place where you learned faith in the first place, and keep going through the motions until the breakthrough comes.
Where else do we have the opportunity to pray the prayer our Savior taught us, looking for God to bring peace and justice into this world? Where else do we have the opportunity to sing the words of faith in the hymns of our childhood? Where else can we experience the sacraments, which remind us of the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit in our daily lives? In fact, I would maintain that the sacraments may be one of the most important means of re-learning our faith. As “signs and seals” of what God is doing in this world, they both proclaim the gospel to us, and they also serve as a means of experiencing the grace of God and the presence of Christ again and again.[5] This is especially true of the Lord’s Supper. In Communion we experience God’s sustaining grace—leading us beside still waters, making us lie down in green pastures, restoring our souls.[6] When we come to the table of our Savior, we experience in a way that is like no other the presence of the risen and living Christ.[7] It is truly one of the high points of our worship.
In the previous context where I served, every worship service was supposed to end with an evangelistic invitation. While I understand that this came out of the revival tradition, I always felt frustrated with trying to find some logical or reasonable way to lead into a call to conversion, no matter what the topic of the sermon might have been. On the other hand, I never grow tired of inviting people to the table Christ has prepared for us. As we seek to recover shattered hopes, as we seek to re-learn faith in new ways, we come to the table and find the presence of the risen Savior. We find the gift of God’s unconditional acceptance, God’s sustaining grace, and God’s redeeming love. We come with our community of faith and draw our very life from the one who died for us. And we leave with our hope and faith renewed.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/15/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] James Taylor, “Fire and Rain” from Sweet Baby James, Warner Brothers, 1970.
[3] Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 325: “Faith in God is only possible when we live by faith.”
[4] Book of Order W-1.1001; cf. Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 426-36. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 109, says that new life in Christ is to be “celebrated as the feast of freedom, as joy in existence and as the ecstasy of bliss.”
[5] Cf. The Study Catechism, question 69: “add water, or bread and wine, to the word of promise, and it becomes a visible word. In this form it does what by grace the word always does: it brings the salvation it promises, and conveys to faith the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.14.17.
[6] In the Lord’s supper, Christ may be said to “feed” us—that is he confirms and nurtures our faith, and he renews and sustains us in our service (W.2.4004).
[7] This is the distinctive Reformed view of the sacrament; cf. Weber, Foundations II:618.