Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Essntial Prayer

Essential Prayer
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 26, 2016

Matthew 6:5-15
Luke 11:1-13

          As you might have gathered from the scripture readings, this is a sermon about prayer. You will notice that I have done something unusual in in choosing, for our hearing, two gospel passages – the lectionary passage for today from Luke, and its somewhat parallel passage from Matthew. I know that this is against the rules, but I will take the risk, since neither Tom nor Ernie is here. Both passages, as you heard, talk about Jesus giving instruction in prayer, and, in particular, giving his disciples a model prayer, the words of which we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, I assume that all of you know, by heart, the Lord’s Prayer. You probably know the prayer as it is recorded in Matthew’s gospel, rather than the shorter version we find in Luke. Luke’s version, as saw in your pew Bibles, omits some of the phrases that Matthew includes. The problem is that the various ancient biblical manuscripts, which form the basis of our Bible, sometimes say different things. Because the manuscripts were, of course, hand-copied, usually by monks, over many centuries, words were added or omitted through the ages. Any good study Bible will tell you, through footnotes, the variations. Thus, if you are a Catholic, your acquaintance with the Lord’s Prayer comes from the traditional Vulgate, translated by St Jerome from Greek to Latin. In manuscripts that he was using, what we Protestants call the ending of the prayer  - “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever (and ever) -Amen” is not there. If you are attending Catholic worship and start to add those phrases when the prayer is recited, you are outed as a Protestant. But when the premier English Protestant Bible, the King James Bible, was translated in 1611, the authorities used a Greek manuscript that had, added in the margin, For thine is the kingdom, the power, etc. So it was incorporated into our Bible, and our tradition.

But these are merely items of interest; they are not the point of this sermon.

“What is the point?”, you ask? Well, I haven’t got to that yet. I’ll tell you when I do.

Actually, the main question I kept thinking about, after I received the kind invitation to preach today, was: Why bother with church? And that still is the underlying question I’m pondering. I hope to approach some sort of answer by the time I conclude.

Why bother with church? I realize of course that you may not be asking that question right this minute – though perhaps you are – because you are here. You must have a reason to be here. But what is that reason? And why is it that fewer and fewer people, according to recent surveys – seem to bother with church?

I think the answer has something to do with prayer.

Note the different ways in which these two gospels introduce the Lord’s prayer. In Matthew, it is part of a longer discourse that Jesus is giving on prayer, where he talks about hypocrisy and public display. But in Luke, Jesus responds to a direct request from his disciples, who come to him and ask him to teach them to pray. But why do they do that? It’s funny. Luke says the disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Hmm. Very interesting. Paraphrasing, the disciples say, “Lord, John has taught his disciples to pray, but you haven’t taught us. John’s disciples know more than we do. Teach us to do what they can do.” Hidden beneath the surface of this text is perhaps a latent competition between disciples of John and disciples of Jesus. Which knew more? It reminds me of a time when my children were small.  Stephen, in first grade, was envious of his older brother, Daniel, who was in third grade. One day Stephen complained to us, ”Daniel knows all about vowels, but I don’t even know what vowels is.” Jesus’ disciples did not want to fall behind John’s.

Now we assume that the John mentioned here is John the Baptist.
So you see the problem: John’s disciples were Baptists, and Jesus’ disciples were Congregationalists. Or maybe Presbyterians. In the Baptist tradition, which I know very well, having been brought up in it, people are taught to pray, aloud, when called on. And in most Baptist congregations, the preacher often calls on a member of the congregation – often a deacon, but not always – spontaneously and without warning, to lead the congregation in prayer. And if you are properly trained, you are prepared to do that. You stand up and pray, often for a long time, making an all-inclusive list of things to be  prayed about. If I called on anyone in this congregation today to lead us in prayer spontaneously, some of you might need medical attention. Jesus’ disciple, who were Congregationalists and Presbyterians, needed a definite prayer, preferably short, that they can read, or memorize. Else they have no idea what to say. The prayer that Jesus gave his disciples, whether it is Luke’s version or Matthew’s version, is short and memorable. It is the Christian prayer, shared by all disciples, including  Baptists. And, as Saint Augustine says, this prayer covers everything. And it is the only thing that Jesus ever taught his disciples  to say. He said: SAY THIS. This is  the only liturgy authorized by Jesus.

So let’s see, sticking with the short version, Luke’s version, what it says.

Father  - that’s how it starts. It acknowledges that we did not create ourselves. We have come into being as a gift, and we are part of a great magnificent mystery – a mystery which our scientific discoveries only deepen.

Hallowed be your name.  The mystery is holy. We should approach all being as mystery and treat it with holiness, never losing sight of the holiness of life and its giver.

Your kingdom come. Things are not finished yet. We, and our world, are in process, moving toward a purpose yet to be realized, a reality that will fully embrace the holiness of life, made manifest in perfect love, mercy, justice. And we are a part of that.

Give us each day our daily bread.  We are also material creatures, whose material existence depends upon nourishment, which we require every day, upon which we depend, but which we never create. We merely cultivate what is already in our world.

And forgive us our sins as forgive everyone indebted to us.  We mess up, continually, in small ways and in very large ways. We hurt other people, intentionally or accidentally. None of us can do without forgiveness, and we cannot be forgiven unless we also forgive. That’s just the way it works.

And do not bring us to the time of trial. There will be things that we just don’t think we can handle – that we know we cannot handle. Save us during those times.

Now, I know that there are people who have problems with parts of this prayer. Some don’t like it because they say it assumes, or promotes, patriarchy: by talking about God as Father, some say, male privilege is perpetuated. And there is a valid critique there, because heaven knows in its history the church has been slow to fully embrace gender equality. So if it is important for you to say “our Mother,” I don’t think Jesus would object. It’s the meaning, not the precise word. Mother/father – God is the source of our very being. But let’s not use “Parent.” – a term which, I think, depersonalizes the prayer. And if kingdom is offensive to you, use queendom, or divine purpose. But learn this prayer, because it is the prayer that Jesus taught us, and it is what we need to say, to believe, to live for, and to live with. It is the prayer we must pray, as Jesus said, continually. We must keep on praying it, keep asking, keep knocking, keep seeking – even when it seems that no one is listening.

So finally we are back to my question: Why bother with church? You know, when, many years ago, after my seminary education at Vanderbilt, I recognized that I had been predestined to be a Presbyterian, I was comforted by the old adage; When Presbyterian ministers stand up to preach, they know that everyone who is supposed to be there is there. But it seems more and more that God intends people to be somewhere else. And why is that? I think it’s because, for many, church has become an empty obligation rather than a joy. It’s natural. Human beings seek joy and hope. If they are not finding it in church, they ask, “Why bother?” If you get nothing out of going to church, you will stop going. That simple. So what is there to get? Two things. A reminder of the mysterious love that encompasses us all, known for us supremely in Jesus Christ, and a community that shows that love to one another, and to the world.

People are attracted to different styles of church. Roman Catholics and Episcopalians are deeply attracted to a liturgy, a format or prayer and praise that does not often change, where the words become second nature. Protestants, whether they are staid Congregationalists or Presbyterians, say they want a stimulating sermon and beautiful music. Younger millennials want lively music, projected on a screen, with simple lyrics, informal sermons, and no dress code. But what all want is a sense of community that affirms and expresses the love of God, the mystery of being, and the hope that our lives can contribute to increasing goodness in this world.

You know, I sometimes worry about this church a bit. That may surprise you. I worry that, when new people come here, they may find it hard to connect. Tom has been trying to encourage us all to come to coffee hour. He’s right, but coffee hour doesn’t work if you only talk to people you already know. I think people often huddle in familiar groups because we feel reluctant to engage people we don’t know. Maybe we think: “ I should know who these people are, but I don’t. Are they visitors? What will they think if I introduce myself to them? Will they be offended that I don’t know them?” Rather than risk being wrong, we are shy.

I am suggesting that it is awfully hard for visitors to know how to break the ice. William Sloane Coffin once told me that most congregational churches in New England are so cold that you can ice skate down the center aisle. That’s what he said. I’m just quoting him.

Of course, the point is to welcome people into a community where Christ is at the center. A community where people continually pray, with words and hearts  and deeds, the Lord’s prayer.

I will say one other thing that I hope it will challenge you, lovingly. I know how important it is to many of you to close each of our services with the recitation of your covenant, which you revised just last year. I have no problem with the covenant, except for one  word: “our.” I become uncomfortable when I am asked to pledge allegiance to “our church.” No, it’s not our church. It’s Christ’s church. The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, I think it’s called. Perhaps it would help if, at the conclusion of worship, a word was said such as this: “Whether you are a student or a newcomer to town or a long-time resident, we invite you to be a part of this community of Christ. We want to get to know you. In this congregation, it is our custom to close our worship by remembering and reciting our church covenant, which reminds us of our commitment to each other and to the world. We invite you to join us in this weekly renewal of our commitment, if you wish. And afterward, we invite all of you to join us for refreshment and conversation at the coffee hour downstairs. You are very welcome here. ”

Some things need to be said over and over. As Jesus reminded us in today’s Lukan lesson, prayer never ceases. We have to keep at it.  When it seems that the forces of violence and greed and hatred and ignorance and indifference will overwhelm us, we have to keep praying that prayer “thy kingdom come” – knowing that our puny efforts, if we make them consistently, will make a difference.

Why bother with church? Because that’s where people learn to pray the Lord’s prayer. That’s the point.  I told you I would tell you when we finally reached my point, so there is it. That’s the point. Why bother with church? Because it’s the  place where people learn to pray the Lord’s prayer, together, over and over, continually,  until our lives are shaped by it and we really mean it. Amen.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What Happened on Easter

Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
Easter Sunday
March 28, 2016

What Happened on Easter
What Happens on Easter

All of you, I am sure, are familiar with the Easter story. Jesus, the Christ, rose from the dead. That is what we celebrate. But what do we really know about what happened? I want to make two assertions. First, we as Christians cannot claim to know more than we know. And, second, we as Christians cannot claim to know less than we know.

What actually happened on Easter? The only accounts we have about what happened on what we now call Easter Day are in the Bible, in the Gospels. There was no news story published in The Jerusalem Times! And although the four gospels all assert that Christ rose from the dead, the details are quite different.

All the gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified, and that his body was put in a tomb, which was sealed with a large stone. But then, the stories differ. All four gospels say that Mary Magdalen went to the tomb early in the morning. She is the only person so mentioned in all four gospel accounts. But John says that she went alone; Mathew says she was accompanied by “the other Mary”; Mark says she was accompanied by Mary the mother of James and Salome; Luke says she was accompanied by Mary the mother of James, Joana, and other unnamed women.

What they reportedly saw varies. John says that Mary Magdalen saw a young man, who she first thought was the gardener, but who was in fact Jesus himself. Matthew says there was an earthquake, and the two women saw an angel “descending from heaven”, ”whose appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow”.  And then they saw Jesus himself, who said “Greetings!” Mark says ”they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” of the tomb. Luke says they saw “two men in dazzling clothes.”

 In each story, the woman, or the women, received a message from the young man, or the angel, or the angels – but the messages vary.

In Mark, the angel says: “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And the women, afraid, fled and told no one.

In Matthew, the risen Jesus himself tells the women to go and tell the disciples that he will see them in Galilee. The women delivered the message, and the disciples then left for Galilee.

In Luke, the men in dazzling clothes asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and told them, “He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” So the women went and told the disciples, who did not believe them, except for Peter, who got up and ran to the tomb, where he saw only the cloths in which Jesus had been buried.

In John, after he called her name, Mary Magdalen recognized  that the young man, whom she thought was the gardener, was in fact Jesus,  and she heard Jesus himself say: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Which Mary Magdalen did. And the frightened disciples, except Thomas, huddled in the upper room in Jerusalem, where we remember that Jesus himself appeared to them on Easter night.

My point in going through these stories is to show that we really do not know exactly what happened. The stories vary; the details are significantly different, and the substance of the story – that Jesus rose from the dead - is beyond comprehension. It is, perhaps, a mark of authenticity that these stories do not agree in all details. When everyone tells a story the same way, we know that they have probably been coached. These stories reflect different voices. The only significant point of agreement is that when Mary Magdalen, and possibly some other women, (and remember that they all were women), went to the tomb early on Easter morning, they did not find the body of Jesus, and they all reported extraordinary visions or encounters. We don’t even know much about Mary Magdalen. Legends have grown up about her, but the only thing the gospels tell us is that one of them, Luke, reports that Jesus had healed her.  She apparently became very devoted to him. Matthew, Mark, and John report that she stood by his cross while he was crucified, and they all report that she went to the tomb on Easter morning. She is sometimes called the “apostle to the apostles” because she carried the good news to his disciples, Some scholars have even speculated that she was herself a disciple, even perhaps the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” But that is all speculation. We do not know.

And so, when we talk about what happened at Easter, we cannot claim to know more than we know. What exactly happened is a mystery, and the point of a mystery is that we do not know, we cannot explain it. If the writers of the gospels cannot explain it, neither can we.

But if we as Christians cannot claim to know more than we know, we also cannot claim to know less than we know – because we do know a great deal. And what we know does make all the difference.

What do we know. We know that whatever happened on Easter was so powerful that it not only transformed the lives of his friends and disciples, but led them to be willing to die for what they knew. We know that Jesus’s disciples - not only the 11, but his women friends, his cousins, his family – came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. They didn’t know exactly how, either, but some of them later claimed that they had seen the risen Lord. And these claims were not made casually, as a matter of rumor; they were made openly, definitely, and sometimes defiantly. Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus only three days before, later was himself crucified for his testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. We do not know how many early disciples testified to the truth of their belief by giving up their lives, but we do know that many did. And of course we have the testimony of Paul, who encountered the risen Lord in what was surely a vision, but a vision so powerful that it totally changed his life, and led Paul also to imprisonment and execution. This we know. It is not a matter of speculation. It is a matter of fact.

During the last few centuries, some skeptics have tried to discredit these testimonies by saying the story of the resurrection was a hoax, based either on a plot to steal the body of Jesus and claim that he was resurrected, or on hallucinations.  Such skepticism, for me, fades in the face of the facts that we know: disciples experienced imprisonment, torture, and execution. Would they do that to perpetuate a hoax or a delusion?

Consider the testimony of Paul, which we read earlier, but which we should listen to more carefully now, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. The he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared unto me.”

Paul’s account here is different even from the account in the gospels -  but remember, Paul had not read the gospels. They had not been written when he wrote his letters. But he had received the stories, the stories on which some people whom  Paul himself had been persecuting were betting their lives.

So we know for certain that what happened on Easter caused many people not only to believe it, but to bet their lives on it, to live for its truth, and to die for its truth. That is what we know. We cannot claim to know less than we know.

We also know that the meaning of Easter has not yet been fully understood. We are slow disciples. We know that, in addition to proclaiming the love of God, and the power of the risen Christ, as one who has experienced and transcended torture and violence and death, we know that Christians have sometimes - indeed, far too many times – have inflicted torture and violence and death on others.  This is a sad but undeniable fact. We cannot claim to know less than we know.

But we also know, beyond dispute, that people, many people, thousands of people, millions of people have gathered on every Easter Day for almost 2000 years to proclaim their hope, their faith, their belief in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, the victory of the crucified one. In good times and bad, wartime and peace time, in youth and in age, among admirable people and sometimes among unadmirable people, the faith has endured. We know this, don’t we, even if we know nothing else. That itself is miracle.

And we are part of that miracle today. Some of us, some of you, may be, like Thomas, doubters. You have heard the testimony, but you cannot fully believe it. You are not like the apostles, who saw the resurrected Christ. You are not like Paul, who was stunned into blindness by a vision of the resurrected Christ. You are still, however, part of the  throngs who have heard the  word, and whose life is sustained by the possibility, the hope, the faith that God has shown us that death does not win, that power does not prevail over goodness, that our suffering, whatever it may be, is somehow redeemed in the crucified but risen Lord. You are among those who yearn and work for the day when, as promised in Isaiah, there will be an end to torture and violence and disease and war, and “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” To the extent that the story touches your heart and finds a place in it, you are also part of the miracle. We do not know everything about what happened on Easter, 2000 years ago. But we do know what happens on Easter, right now.

We cannot claim to know more than we know. But we also cannot claim to know less than we know. And what we do know makes all the difference in the world. Amen.

Easter Prayer March 27, 2016

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ, the resurrected one, you have conquered the power of death, cruelty, violence, and despair, and you have called us to follow him, in faith. We pray, O Resurrected One, strengthen our faith:

In a world where violence and hatred are resurgent,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For a world in which many live in poverty, with no access to the riches around them; and where many a, driven from their homes, are in search of refuge;
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For those facing the trials of loneliness, disease, and despair; for loved ones who have died, and those of us who are approaching our own deaths,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For our families, whose lives we value more than our own, but whom we know we cannot completely protect.
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For those imprisoned, justly or unjustly, and for those who are imprisoned by addiction.
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For the church, for all its ministers and members, that we may more boldly follow in your way,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For ourselves, in the trials we face, the doubts that paralyze us, and the false gods in which we so often put our trust;
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

Give us grace¸ we pray, to follow in the way of the Resurrected One, who taught us to pray:

Our Father

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Our Society is Corrupt

Richard R. Crocker, Dartmouth College Chaplain
“The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it?”
First Congregational Church, Lebanon, NH
August 15, 2010
Isaiah 5:1-7,  Luke 12:49-56

            Summer is a time when many people attend family reunions. Some of the reunions, especially the large ones, can be very trying. Although you are related somehow to the many people who gather, you may feel little kinship with them, and, if the truth be told, you may not even want to talk to them. Indeed, you may discover, as soon as you try to enter into a conversation, that there is no safe subject except the weather. Just because you are related to them doesn’t mean that you share deep beliefs about things that really matter.  Race, religion, politics – talking about these subjects reveals, very quickly, deep seemingly unbridgeable disagreements, and each party seems to think that they are absolutely right. Too many of my conversations at such gatherings end up with one of my relatives saying to me, “Our society is corrupt; what are you going to do about it?” – or, since most of my relatives are southerners: “This country is messed up, and what are yewe goan do about it?” Unfortunately, I don’t think many of them really want to hear my suggestions. Especially is a nation as polarized as ours is now, we often find the situation that Jesus described: father against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in law. This is of course not a universal experience, but it is a common one. All of us prefer to have deep conversations with people who share our basic values. We find it hard to talk comfortably with people who hold strong convictions that are antithetical to ours. It is hard to have a pleasant conversation with someone who is deeply convinced that you are going to hell.

            Now this fact, this reality, is something we wish were not true. All of us love the sentimental picture, I expect, of the large family gathering where everyone agrees and is delighted to see each other; where there is no tension or conflict; where everyone is right-thinking, appealing, and accepting. But that just doesn’t describe reality. Even at the general assembly of the Presbyterian church, where 1000 of the most saintly of Christians gather every two years, the tension over issues like homosexual clergy, evangelism, abortion, the second coming of Christ, the right way to interpret the Bible – sometimes threatens to disrupt the fundamental Presbyterian love of doing things decently and in order. Even people who claim to love Jesus sometimes find themselves in violent disagreement with each other. The ideal picture of Christian love and charity is sometimes very far from reality.

            So we know that the simplistic description – if everybody just loved Jesus, we’d all get along – is not true. I know most of my family deeply love Jesus, and most Presbyterians do too – but that doesn’t mean we can always get along. Somehow we seem to love Jesus in different and sometimes conflicting ways. And then there are those people who say they don’t have any love for Jesus at all, yet who seem, in some ways, to be more agreeable to us than the members of our own family of faith.

            This is not a new situation. The passage that we read today from Isaiah states the situation well. Isaiah speaks for God, who likens the people Israel to a vineyard. God wants to sing a love song to Israel, a vineyard that he has carefully planted and cultivated. But what God discovers is that the beloved vineyard, which should be producing good grapes, is full of wild useless bitter grapes. So God resolves to tear up the useless vineyard. It is a metaphor that is explained in these words: The vineyard “is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” (Isaiah 5:7).   Even 2500 years ago, there was a fundamental tension within Judaism about what it meant to be God’s people. Isaiah was among the prophets who spoke in God’s name to tell them that their way of life was wrong, leading to destruction – that God’s patience with his beloved vineyard was running out. The demand of Isaiah – God’s demand, really, - was for justice, but what God found was bloodshed; God demanded righteousness, but heard instead the cry of people being abused. In other words, Isaiah proclaimed to the people Israel, just as so many today proclaim, “Our society is corrupt, and what are you going to do about it?”

            Throughout our history, our nation, the United States of America, has often seen itself as a second Israel – as God’s chosen people, a chosen nation. Certainly many of the early English settlers saw it this way – a land they considered all but empty, fruitful and fertile beyond measure, offering an opportunity to establish a godly society, to start anew and do things right. John Winthrop, in his famous sermon to the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony, (called A Model of Christian Charity) proclaimed that they would be a city on the hill, an example to the nations. And we have thought of ourselves in this way ever since. We have always assumed that we are a righteous people – the most righteous on earth. Our government is divinely inspired, our way of life sacred, our mission to spread light and democracy and prosperity to the world.  This makes it extremely difficult for us to hear criticism. Even if we have strong disagreements among ourselves, we will hardly brook any criticism from "foreigners” – especially the benighted Europeans. It makes it hard for us to hear the words of prophets who call us into question today, who say, “What have you done with the advantages you were given? I planted a vineyard and expected good fruit. I expected justice, but what I see is bloodshed; I expected righteousness, but I hear people crying.”

            Now the irony is that although everybody thinks the society is corrupt, everybody also thinks that they are righteous. And so we have people who condemn the inexcusable greed of our financial system, rightly pointing to the inequality of wealth that it perpetuates, but the investment bankers think that they are the victims of corrupt politicians who are only grand-standing for public approval, and who are themselves corrupt. We have supporters of the president blaming congress for our corrupt society and opponents of the president blaming the president for a corrupt society. There is blame and accusation coming from every quarter, and those of us who sit out in the hinterlands observe it all as we would observe two armies clashing in a far off field, each firing at the other, but with smoke so thick and noise so great that he participants are indistinguishable, and nothing is certain except carnage.

            Is this what Jesus meant when he said, in this difficult passage, that he did not come to bring peace, but rather division? Did he mean that people would always claim his own name for their fights, cloaking their self-interests in piety? Did he mean that there would be perpetual jockeying for power? Did he mean that there would be endless violence,  endless greed, endless abuse of the poor, endless self destruction, all justified in the name of God? Does not Jesus himself offer a way out of this endless conflict?
            There is a way out, but it requires great sacrifice. It requires that we give up the desire to be right and seek instead to be compassionate. And that’s hard – because most of us would rather be right than compassionate. But Jesus does not so much expect that we be right as that we be compassionate. Compassion means “Suffering with someone”, or feeling their suffering. It is hard to replace our desire to be right – our own righteousness, if you will - with compassion, but it is not impossible. Even in war, the most extreme situation of people willing to die because they think they are right, those who serve under the red cross seek to treat the wounded without ever asking which side the victim is on. Their only concern is healing.

            Yet, it is a sad thing that even compassion brings division – for there are those, always, who argue against it, who see it as weakness rather than strength. Take, for example, the current debate about immigration. What is to be done with people who are in this country illegally? There is no right answer. Certainly borders need to be respected, since we have not yet reached a world of totally unrestricted movement. But how does one deport illegal immigrants whose children, born here, are US citizens? Does upholding the law demand feeling no compassion for those who are desperate?

            There is no way always to be right. Compassion cares less about being right, and more about alleviating suffering. Our scripture lesson today says that God looked for righteousness, but heard, instead, a cry. Righteousness does not mean always being right; it means being in right relationship, and the right relationship between human beings is compassion.

            Compassion, however, does not always tell us what to do. We may feel someone’s pain without knowing how to alleviate it. In fact, our action may make it worse. We don’t always know what to do. But at least it’s a start. Compassion does not ignore the cry. And that’s a start.

            I have been reading a wonderful a book about the Civil War (or the War Between the States) – that time when our country was most bitterly divided. The book, called Upon the Altar of the Nation,[i] describes how both North and South were equally convinced that they were right, and each side was fervent in its faith that God favored their cause. At first each side thought it would be a short war; each side thought it would win quickly. But, as you know, the war dragged on for four years, with over a million people killed, countless others wounded. It was this war which inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the hymn that we sing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which, drawing upon Isaiah’s imagery, describes the judgment of God against the South  - God “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” It has taken a long time for many Southerners to be able to sing that hymn. Yet all of us now acknowledge the truth of President Lincoln’s words, near the end of that bloody war, who said in his very brief second inaugural address that it was our primary duty “to bind up the nation’s wounds”[ii] (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”)– for he knew that a nation cannot cohere if it is divided between those who are right and those who are wrong. Righteousness, as Lincoln knew, requires, above all, compassion.

            The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it? Let’s start by paying attention to the bloodshed, and listening to the people who cry. That is what God expects of us all.

[i] Harry S. Stout, New York, Viking Press, 2006

Monday, August 5, 2013

"Jonah: The Unwilling Prophet" by Richard R. Crocker

Jonah - The Unwilling Prophet
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
August 4, 2013
Jonah 1:1-17

                You have all heard the story, I am sure, of the boy scout who reported at the weekly troop meeting about his good deed for the week. He said that he had helped an old lady cross the street. His friend immediately reported that he also had helped the old lady across the street, whereupon the scoutmaster said, “Why did it take both of you to help her cross the street?” To which they replied, ‘”Because she didn’t want to go.” It’s an old joke, and I apologize for inflicting it on you. But it is a fitting introduction to the last of our sermons on the minor prophets. Today we consider Jonah, the unwilling prophet, the prophet who did not want to go.

            Jonah is different. If you have read the earlier prophets we considered – Amos, Hosea, Zephaniah, Micah, and Haggai-  you will note that the book of Jonah is very different. Jonah is the first prophet we have considered who directs his words not to the Jews, but to the Assyrians. And his book does not consist of a series of sometimes mysterious oracles. Instead, it tells a story – a brief, fascinating, interesting, fantastic story. Some have said that it’s the biggest fish story ever told.

            Biggest or not – it is a story. I expect that, of all the prophets we have considered, you are most familiar with this book – because it tells a story. The bible contains many kinds of literature, and this is a story – a story with a message. Scholars date this book as the latest of the minor prophets: it was written, they say, after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. It is “post-exilic”. Yet the story takes place at least 200 years earlier - back in the time of Amos and Hosea. The story is about Jonah, a relatively unknown prophet, who receives a call to go to Nineveh, that great city. We know that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – the empire that preoccupied Amos and Hosea, and that finally conquered the northern kingdom. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to cry out against its wickedness. He was not eager to go. Indeed, he was determined not to go. So instead, he went to the seashore at Joppa and booked passage to Tarshish, which is like someone today booking passage to Timbuktu – in other words, a place as far away from Nineveh as he could possibly go. But his trip was interrupted by a gigantic storm that struck so much fear into the boat’s crew that they decided the gods must be against them (obviously they were not Jews), and they drew lots to identify the offender. Now this logic seems strange to us. We do not assume that storms are caused by God to get the attention of one particular person – but, as I said, this is a story, and in a story, we are quite willing to suspend our disbelief.  When the lot fell  upon Jonah, he admitted his fault and showed that he was not a coward, "Throw me overboard," he said, "and the storm will stop." They did and it did. And the crew was semi-converted by the miracle.  But God wasn’t done with Jonah. He was preserved and protected  - and given a time out – by being swallowed by a great fish, where he spent three days surveying his situation. When Jonah had time to reconsider things, the fish spewed him out, and Jonah was willing to go to Nineveh – that great sinful city, to cry out against its wickedness.

            Now it is a surprising thing that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. But it is even more surprising that, when he got to Nineveh and cried out against its wickedness, the people, including the king, immediately believed him and repented. As we know, this was unusual, even for the people of Israel – much less for Assyrians. They repented, and God changed his mind. But Jonah pouted. Here he was, going to all this trouble after having been swallowed by the fish, and all, and making the great journey, and crying out against wickedness , and what was the result? The Lord changed his mind and didn’t destroy the city.
What a bummer for Jonah! He went outside the city and built himself a little hut to watch the fireworks, but nothing happened. A bush grew up to shelter him- overnight, and he was happy under the bush, but the next day the bush disappeared and he was hot and angry. So God asked him why he was angry, and Jonah said; “I knew you would spare them. That’s why I didn’t want to come. Why did I have to do all this and come over here just to watch you spare them? Dog-gone it, I am mad.” To which God makes this wonderful reply that ends the book:

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
(Jonah 4:9-11)

Aren’t we glad that we have the story of Jonah? Aren’t we glad that the picture of God presented in this story is a picture of a God who is forgiving, who is concerned for all creation? Doesn’t this story give all of us hope – especially after we have heard so many prophecies of destruction and doom which went unheeded by the people of Israel and Judah? Well, we ought to be, but often we aren’t. Jonah wasn’t glad and neither are we. We are often people who do not want the salvation of our enemies, but rather take pleasure in their destruction.

I think of two present situations that illustrate this point.

            First: Jonah going to Nineveh would be like to Benjamin Netanyahu going to Tehran.  Literally. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, which is contemporary Iran. The fact that peace talks between Israel and Palestine are possible once again should be a source of great rejoicing to everyone. But taking initiative to start peace talks with one’s enemy is hardly ever a popular political position. It’s not popular in Israel, or Palestine, now, even though everyone knows that the present situation is untenable. So also, of course, are the situations in Iran, and in Syria. Who knows what to do?  What prophet would want to be sent to Damascus? Any volunteers? We are quite willing to send weapons, even perhaps soldiers, but we don’t want to send peacemakers and negotiators.  What would have happened in Iraq ten years ago if we had trusted the United Nations inspectors who told us there were no weapons of mass destruction there? How many lives would have been saved?

            Second: a few months ago, retired Bishop Gene Robinson spoke at the Dartmouth baccalaureate service. During his remarks, he made one observation or assertion that I found both provocative and strangely true. Bishop Robinson, speaking in reference to Jesus’ first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth – the one where you remember the townspeople got so angry that they tried to throw him off a cliff, said this:

“When you preach a God who is too merciful, too kind, too loving, too accepting, too inclusive, there will be hell to pay, and you will get into trouble, I promise you. You can preach a vengeful, hateful God and nobody will mind one bit. But you talk about a God who is too loving and I promise you you will get into trouble.”

I think the Bishop was speaking from his own experience.  And certainly Jonah seems a case in point.  Jonah preached a message calling people to repent or face destruction, then sat and watched, waiting for the destruction. When it didn’t come it made him so angry – that God was far more loving and accepting and forgiving than Jonah. It is probably true that some of us are unhappy with the mercy of God.

Some of us have been far too exposed to hateful preaching and not exposed enough to loving preaching. We take pleasure in the threat of God’s punishment, especially if it is directed at other people, and take offense at the suggestion that God truly loves sinners. And yet, of course, that is the essential Christian message – a message foretold In the story of Jonah, where God’s acceptance and forgiveness went far beyond the bounds of Israel to the people of a wicked city – and even to their animals.

            In a sense, this is a great story for us to end on, isn’t it? But it’s also a challenging story. It does not eliminate the call to repentance, does it? The message that Jonah preached was one of repentance – of turning from evil. But the tragedy was that he had a very hard time hearing that message himself – even though he was the spokesperson for it.

The bishop said that you will get into trouble when you preach a God who is too loving. He’s right: it is a challenge to proclaim the love of God in a way that is not simply indifference. A God who is simply indifferent to the reality of evil is no God at all. But a God who teaches us, inspires us, and helps us to overcome evil with good is a God who saves us, and whose forgiveness is so inclusive that even our failures are forgiven too.

You know, I am very heartened – as I think many of us are - that it seems that we Protestants have a pope who wants to include us – a pope whose genuine concern for all people goes beyond traditional Roman Catholic boundaries. His recent remarks (“Who am I to judge?”)  have been exceptionally inclusive. I wonder if those remarks will get him into trouble?

So, let us end this series by drawing a few conclusions. I hope you have learned from considering these six sermons that we must read the Bible in its context. Taken out of historical and literary context, many of these passages are mysterious at best and very misleading at worst. To read the prophets, especially the minor prophets, you need an annotated study Bible.
            Second, all the prophets we have read, including Jonah, proclaim both God’s love and faithfulness and God’s judgment. Love and judgment go together; they are not unrelated.  In our modern context, we often assume that loving people means making no judgment about them. That is only partly true. If you see a car speeding down the road toward a bridge that is washed out, it is a loving thing to try to stop them and tell them that the bridge has washed out. The prophets are people who know that the bridge is washed out.  Their warnings are meant to turn us toward God’s love. Mercy and judgment are all part of God’s love for us. Amos in his demand for justice, Hosea in his drama of marrying a harlot, Zephaniah in his demand for humility, Micah in his reminder of what God really requires of us, Haggai in his encouragement to those who have experienced devastation, and Jonah in his pouting spoke to our ancient ancestors about the mercy, love, and judgment of God. These are messages not only for them, but also for us.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Haggai: Starting Over" by Richard R. Crocker

Starting Over
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 28, 2013
Haggai 2:1-9

            When I first thought of doing this sermon series on the minor prophets, it was partly because I had never heard such a series. Now I know why. I have been able to muddle through Amos and Hosea, Zephaniah  and Micah, but now I have come to Haggai. I bet none of you have ever heard a sermon on Haggai. Me either. It’s a short book – only two chapters long, practically invisible as you thumb through the Bible. “What,” I thought, “can I make out of this?” But I quickly discovered that this short book was preserved in our scriptures for a reason. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of its brevity, it has an important message, both for its time and for ours.

            This is a sermon for people who have experienced devastation. It is a sermon for people who have had to start over. There are many kinds of devastation, of course. Let me list only a few:

losing a loved one;
the ending of a friendship or marriage, particularly on bad terms;
a life-altering illness or injury, for you or a member  of your family;
unexpected unemployment;
facing up to an addiction;
the loss of your life savings in the stock market;
a house fire;
a tornado or hurricane that levels your home;
a flood that invades your home;
a war – particularly a war where you, or your loved ones, are combatants, or where your home land is invaded;
the theft or loss of something you have prized your whole life;
or, if you are in college –
the ending of a romantic relationship;
getting a D in organic chemistry;
not getting a fraternity or sorority bid that you wanted.

This is only a start – certainly not a complete list. I expect many of you have, at some time in your life, experienced devastation; perhaps some of you are in the midst of it now.

If so, Haggai is for you.

We left off last week with Micah, who prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah around 700 BC. Micah predicted the fall of Jerusalem, and, sure enough, in 586 BC, it happened. The Babylonians, the kingdom to the southeast of Judah, across the Jordan – modern Iraq, finally conquered the resistant Judeans, killing some its citizens, maiming others, and carrying the most prominent citizens into captivity in Babylon. The beloved temple, the center of worship, which many thought guaranteed the perpetual safety of Jerusalem, was totally destroyed – leveled. A remnant of Jews was left in Jerusalem, but they were poor, distraught, and bereft. Those taken into captivity were devastated as well. You remember, perhaps, that plaintiff psalm, recounting the grief and anger of exile: it’s psalm 137 – one of the most beautiful, haunting and troubling psalms in our bible

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

The first part is haunting; the second part is troubling – troubling, but very human. The desire for revenge against those who have hurt us is very deep, and it is not easily appeased by the thought that two wrongs do not make a right.  Our rationality is sometimes overwhelmed by devastation and we only want revenge – and this psalm reflects that reality. Is such a desire right? No. Is it natural? Yes. We are struck by stories we hear of people who have undergone enormous  loss and who have been able to forgive the offenders. I think especially of the Amish community in Pennsylvania here, several years ago, a group of school children were killed by a deranged person. The community gathered to express its grief, but also its forgiveness toward the offender. As Christians, we see in them the example of Christ and the forgiveness of God. But such stories are striking because they are exceptional. The more common ones are stories of revenge. There is nothing more natural in the world than to say to someone who has caused us great loss: “may you suffer as you have made me to suffer.” 

            I think, for example – and it is only an example -  of that battle in Gettysburg which occurred 150 years ago this month, the hot July of 1863  – the greatest battle of our civil war, where 8000 soldiers were killed and almost 50,000 were wounded, maimed, or missing. It is, of course, only one of many battles in many wars, but it is one that somehow captures our imaginations and our sympathy. But I also recall the occasion 100 years ago, in 1913, fifty years after the battle, when veterans of both sides gathered at the battlefield, wearing their blue and gray uniforms, if they had them, standing at the line of Pickett’s charge, grasping hands, and weeping. It took them fifty years.

            The exiles from Judah spent about fifty years in Babylon – fifty years of servitude, and then the comforting prophecies of return were fulfilled. Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon, and one of his first acts was to allow the Jewish captives to return to their homeland. This was, to the captive Jews, both a miracle and a fulfillment of prophecy. So when they returned, finding some of their relatives still there in a devastated land, they faced the challenge of starting over. Their temple had been reduced to rubble. They thought their way of life had been reduced to rubble. Into this breach stepped the prophet Haggai.

            We know nothing about this man, except his few, very specific words. His writings are comprised of four very specific oracles, which he dates precisely. The first of them he received “in the second year of king Darius, on the sixth day.” The second one, which we read, came precisely one month and fifteen days later. The oracles instructed Haggai to speak to Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the Persian-appointed high priest.  These two messages, and the remaining two that followed, all concern the state of depression, confusion, and destruction that the returning exiles faced, along with the Jews who had not been in exile. The message is simple: Get busy and rebuild the temple. The temple that was destroyed, do you remember it? How can you pay attention to building your own houses but neglect rebuilding the temple? And we know that, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose books we also have in the Old Testament, that the returning exiles did exactly that. They went through the several years-long process of rebuilding the temple, and, by some accounts, it was a grander temple that the first. Only when the temple was built were the Jews able to regain their sense of cohesiveness and the religion that bound them together.

            Now we are dealing here with historical facts. The original temple, build during the reign of Solomon around 1000 BC, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. It had lasted around 400 years. It lay in waste for at least fifty years – maybe 100 years. It was rebuilt after the exile and was the center of Jewish religion and worship for another 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70- AD. And, as we know, it has not been rebuilt. What is referred to as the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem today is the remaining wall of the second temple built by these returning exiles and destroyed again by the Romans. The temple wall, or wailing wall, is a source of contention because holy Muslim sites, including the Dome of the Rock, were later constructed on the temple mound. This of course makes the rebuilding of a Jewish temple extremely problematic.

            There are a couple of lessons for us in this story of rebuilding, which Haggai in some ways spear-headed and promoted. The first is simply the scale of time, and what it means for us. The first temple lasted almost five hundred years; the second also lasted five hundred years. It has now been almost 2000 years since it was destroyed. Empires rise and fall: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. None of them endures forever. We Americans pay little attention to the past; we are obsessed with the present and future. But we need to know and remember things that have happened – such as the Civil War. Our country is only 237 years old. The first European settlers arrived less than 400 years ago. We are now an empire. We do not like to think we are, but we are. And like all empires, we will have our day, and then, usually because of over-reach, the empire fades. We live in the heyday of the American Empire. If it continues to behave as an Empire, it will eventually fall – perhaps not into ruin, or insignificance, but like the British empire, as a shadow of itself. Such has been life on this earth, and such it will continue to be. Our life-times are short. We face devastation both as individuals and as nations, and, no matter what, we must start over. Sometimes we simply do not have the strength, as individuals, to do it, but we find strength in reaffirming our community. 
Second, destruction is never final. When we face devastation and loss, we may become angry, depressed, sad, hurt, despairing. This can and does certainly happen. When the loss is a material one – of money or possessions, we can at least think of rebuilding. So, for example, the homes lost in Hurricane Irene, despite the sadness, have been and are being restored. People are adjusting and starting over, with help from their neighbors and our government. But when the loss is immaterial, it is hard to know how to start over. When a loved one has died, or when a reputation has been lost, or when a symbol of our being has been destroyed, no material restoration can give us new strength. Such losses are spiritual losses, and they can only be borne by spiritual strength and comfort. Thus, when we face the death of a loved one, as we surely have and surely will, we instinctively reach out for the assurance  of eternal life – or life beyond the dimensions of time. For Christians, this is an explicit part of our faith. But even people who claim to have no religion, even those who call themselves atheists, seek some sort of ultimate meaning that allows them to face this loss and move on – start over. If there is nothing that allows us to do this, we are stuck in the saddest kind of paralysis. By no means does this mean discounting or overlooking the loss. By no means. Grief is essential to human life, but so is hope. And hope was, for the Jewish people, centered in the temple. In some ways it still is.

            Another way of saying this is that, after devastation – whether it is a failed marriage, an addiction, a death - no matter what it is, we must rebuild our spiritual center. Just as the Jews rebuilt the temple after their exile, we also must reconstruct the center of our being after it has been destroyed. Nothing else really matters until we reconnect and reconstruct the spiritual center of our lives, where lives the faith that sustains us in all of life. Haggai’s word to the returning exiles is also a word to us – a word to remember:
Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts …. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (Haggai 2:4-5)

            It is appropriate that we also remember the words of another prophet who spoke fifty years ago, next month, about a dream that he had for America and its people. That speech was born out of faith, coming after hundreds of years of injustice. Dr. King would not live long, but his words and his faith endure – reminding us, as Haggai did, that we must work to rebuild the spiritual center of our lives.  Amen.