Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Sermon preached on December 21, the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Luke 1:26-38

This sermon is based around two characters. Here is the first one:

“Be very very quiet - - - haaaaaaa…..” Of course, Elmer Fudd wanted quiet because it was hunting season – duck or rabbit.
Elmer Fudd’s words are not easy to observe. We live in a decidedly noisy society. And we keep thinking of ways to make it noisier. Have you ever felt frustrated when you were trying to call someone on their cell phone, and they did not answer right away? Haven’t our expectations for being able to talk with someone risen dramatically? It has become so much easier to carry around large quantities of music. I can carry around all the Beatles music on a small Mp3 player. When I first started buying music to listen to, it would have required carrying around a stack of record albums, and then something to play them on – a portable turntable. Our cars are equipped with CD players, Mp3 players, some still have cassette tape decks, they have radios. When we shop at the stores, many have background music playing continually. It is not that difficult to conceive of an entire waking day without a time when there is no human produced noise.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once defined religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness” (Religion in the Making in Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, 472). What would Whitehead, who lived in the early part of the twentieth century make of our time when quiet solitariness is at a premium?
In our noisy world, this is a noisy season. The music in the stores is Christmas music. At least two Duluth radio stations have gone with an all-Christmas music format. We hear bell ringers standing by Salvation Army kettles. People sing for others in Christmas caroling. These are all good things, and they add to the noise of our world. Maybe because we live in such a noisy world, some of my favorite Christmas songs are quiet ones – Vince Guaraldi, “Christmas Time is Here,” “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Even so, I can play them often enough so that I leave myself little sense of quiet.
I think our lack of quiet is problematic. I would argue that a measure of quietness, stillness, solitude are essential as we prepare to open our lives to the Christ anew – which is what this season of Advent is all about. Quiet, solitude, stillness are not only important for Advent, they are vital to Christian spiritual life. To be sure, different people have different needs for such quiet, but I can’t think of anyone whose life and relationship to God and the world would not benefit from a measure of quiet.
This brings me to the second person who frames this morning's sermon

This is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 painting “The Annunciation.” Tanner was the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. The annunciation story is what we read from Luke today, the story of how the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce that she is favored by God and will bear a special child.
The Mary portrayed in Luke’s gospel is a model for a person of Christian faith. She has an encounter with God and opens herself to God’s purpose for her life and the world. She is willing to be a part of God’s impossible possibilities.
Notice one phrase in particular in this story. The angel Gabriel greets her and it says, “but she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (v. 29). One thing I really like about Tanner’s painting is that it evokes that feeling of quiet, stillness, wonder, pondering. The presence of God through the messenger Gabriel is so wonderfully done. Mary takes all this in, ponders, acts. She followed God’s way out of a quiet and still center.
Advent is a good time to remind ourselves of the importance of a little quiet, a little stillness, a little pondering in our own live. In the rest of this morning’s sermon, I want to offer testimonies to quietness, stillness, pondering.
Charles S. Peirce is well-known to students of American philosophy, but perhaps not to many others. He deeply influenced William James. He believed that at its heart Christian faith was a way of life defined by love. In one of his essays on God, Peirce wrote about the importance of what he called “musement” (Selected Writings, 360), the pure play of the mind. Peirce was convinced that as people engaged in this kind of thinking, the idea of God would become more convincing. In the Pure Play of Musement the idea of God’s Reality will be sooner or later to be found an attractive fancy, which the Muser will develop in various ways. The more he ponders it, the more it will find response in every part of his mind, for its beauty, for its supplying an ideal of life, and for its thoroughly satisfactory explanation of his whole environment. (365) Because of the promise of taking time to ponder, to muse, Peirce recommended the practice highly. Enter your skiff of Musement, push off into the lake of thought, and leave the breath of heaven to swell your sail. With your eyes open, awake to what is about or within you, and open conversation with yourself; for such is all meditation. (362)
St. Hesychios was the abbot of the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush at Sinai, probably sometime in the eighth or ninth century. His work, “On Watchfulness and Holiness” is a part of the Philokalia, the remarkable collection of Christian spiritual writings from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Hesychios thought one important aspect of “watchfulness” is “freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still” (volume 1, p. 164). Of this practice he writes, “Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace” (165).
Parker Palmer is a teacher, author and lecturer. In one of his early works, The Company of Strangers, Palmer wrote about people of Christian faith and the renewal of public life. His words remain powerful as we seek to renew public life yet again in the United States. Christians need to engage the world to foster community, to work for peace, to build justice. Such action, Palmer argues is “promising, important, even obligatory for Christians” (154). We miss an important part of the annunciation story if we miss its political side. There is a child to be born, a child who will rule, a child who will be called “Son of God.” Well, according to the ruling Roman power, there was already one born son of god, and that one was the emperor. Why would God choose this young, poor woman in backwater Palestine to give birth to God’s new thing? Wouldn’t it make more sense to work with the powerful government in Rome? In the song that follows shortly after the verses we read today, it says that God is one who brings down the powerful from their thrones, who scatters the proud, who fills the hungry with good things. We call this song of Mary, the Magnificat. Action for justice is part of this story.
But Palmer is concerned that we not become overly busy doing all the time. My hope, as a Christian, is grounded not in our own ability to solve problems but in God’s love, God’s justice, God’s promise of fidelity to us…. If we are to know hope in God’s will , then inward quest is necessary, for it is inwardly, in the stillness of prayer and contemplation, that God’s word is most often clearly heard…. If our public action is not to lead to burn-out and despair, the inward quest is necessary once more, for it is inwardly that we renew the wellsprings of faith which sustain action. (154-155) Out of the quiet of her pondering, Mary said “yes” to God and God’s work of love, beauty and justice.
Writer Annie Dillard shares a story about living for a time on a farm on an island in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington (“A Field of Silence” in Teaching a Stone to Talk). She writes about it with a beauty and thoughtfulness that is uniquely hers, and those of you who have read Annie Dillard know what I am talking about. But she shares of an experience she had one morning and of its aftermath. Standing looking at the fields around the farm, she writes, The silence gathered and struck me. It bashed me broadside from the heavens above me like yard goods; ten acres of fallen invisible sky choked the fields. The pastures on either side of the road turned green in a surrealistic fashion, monstrous, impeccable, as if they were holding their breaths…. All the things of the world – the fields and the fencing, the road, a parked orange truck – were stricken and self-conscious. A world pressed down on their surfaces, a world battered just within their surfaces, and that real world, so near to emerging, had got stuck. There was only silence. I hope you get some sense of this profound experience of the silence, one that was almost oppressive to Dillard at the time. Only later she would say something remarkable. Several months later, walking past the farm on the way to a volleyball game, I remarked to a friend, by way of information, “There are angels in those fields.”… I’ve rarely been so surprised at something I’ve said…. I had never thought of angels, in any way at all….From that time I began to think of angels. I considered that sights such as I had seen of the silence must have been shared by the people who said they saw angels. I began to review the thing I had seen that morning. My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits – spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at the time – thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernable to the eye, and whirling…. Their motion was clear… and their beauty unspeakable. Out of silence, Annie Dillard finds herself in touch with a profound sense of divine beauty and mystery.
One night a number of years ago I was driving home to Alexandria, Minnesota from leading a church conference somewhere north and west of Park Rapids. Snow had started falling as I left and it got heavier and heavier as I drove. The highway that would take me into Park Rapids, and lead toward home, skirted the edge of Itasca State Park. I wanted to try and get home that night, and so was making the best time I could. In one stretch of highway, with tall pines becoming covered with a blanket of bright new snow, and the large flakes falling with a beauty and grace no movie could replicate, and the road becoming covered with snow, I had this strong sense that I should pull to the side of the road and get out of the car – just for a while. I steered my car to the shoulder and turned it off, leaving the lights on in case another car should come by, though there was none in sight. I got out of the car and stood there, listening to the silence – no cars, no music, no phone, only the wind blowing through the trees, blowing the snow around. To try and put words to what I felt seems to betray the experience. There was something of God in that moment for me, and sometimes when I am struggling with a day, I try and remember that moment, for it was only a few moments before I got back in the car and headed for home, I try and remember that moment – the quiet, the stillness, the aloneness yet not feeling alone.
Carve out a few moments of quietness, stillness, pondering, musement this Advent. See if the Christ does not find a new way to be born into your life this Christmas.

(The sermon was followed by a time of silent prayer. A gong was used before and after the silence)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Edison Stole the Idea

Sermon preached on Sunday December 14

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Someone recently shared with me a number of notes children wrote to God. They are wonderful and I will share them with you from time to time. Here are just a couple. Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that o.k.? Neil 2: Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry. 3: We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday School they said you did it. So I bet he stoled your idea. Sincerely, Donna.
So Thomas Edison stole the idea of light! Of course Edison did not invent light, so I guess it makes no sense to accuse him of stealing from God. Instead he figured out a way to have electric current flow through a carbon filament to create light out of electricity. This occurred in the late 1870s. Until that time, and for many years afterward, until electricity was brought to nearly every area of the country, people burned oil lamps or candles for light once darkness had descended. Light in darkness, maybe Edison stole that idea from the writer of John’s gospel, for he uses it quite a bit.
Surrounding the passage we read today about John the Baptist, the writer of the gospel (who is not the John who is John the Baptist) says things like all things came into being through the Word, including life – “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light, darkness, life – if you read John’s gospel you will encounter these themes again and again. The gospel writer uses the images in chapter one to say that something wonderful and awe-inspiring and life-giving and life-changing and history-changing has happened. He wants to say that God has been at work in a wonderful way, that God has touched our lives and our world in the life of a man named Jesus. It is like light shining in the darkness.
We need to use this image with care and with intelligence. We use it with care because such images have reinforced racial stereotypes, and that is not what they are about. Darkness in the Bible can be a frightening, dangerous place, but also a place where God is found in unique ways. John uses it to describe a kind of life that is less than life, a life filled with fear, a life blind to beauty and possibility. John, the gospel writer writes centuries before Edison, during a time when darkness was terribly dark. Once the sun set, there were no street lights to illumine dark places. If you wanted to see at night inside, you needed to burn candles or oil, but these might be in short supply, especially if you were poor. In the dark, those who would do you harm might feel freer to strike. The darkness could be a time of violence and robbery. Even today, people are cautioned if they are out well after dark to walk in lighted places. The gospel writer uses a common, everyday image to try and share something about what God has done in the life of Jesus – brought light and life into a dark world.
It is almost redundant then to share this story about John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s function is the same as the writer’s function – to testify to the light. God can be at work in the world, but God is always looking for people to share the story, to witness, to testify. God always calls people to see, to hear, to pay attention, and then to tell others about where God is at work.
The dynamic of God inviting people to witness, to testify, has a long history in the Bible before the Gospel of John. John the gospel writer, in fact, turns to an older biblical text to describe the testifying and witnessing work of John the Baptist. He is like the voice of one crying in the wilderness – a quote from Isaiah 40. Isaiah also writes about a person filled with the Spirit sent to bring good news. This could be John the Baptist too. God’s movement in the world, God’s Spirit touching lives, is meant to be witnessed. Good news is meant to be shared. The good news of Christian faith is that light of God’s love shines into the darkness of our lives and our world. The good news of Christian faith is that God continues to inspire so that the oppressed are given justice, the brokenhearted are healed, the captives are set free, those who mourn are comforted, faint spirits are strengthened. Peter Gomes from Harvard has said succinctly that the good news is “You don’t have to be as you are” (The Christian Century, December 15, 2008, p. 37). I would add, “The world doesn’t have to be as it is.” Such good news needs a witness. Such good news needs one to testify on its behalf.
I can testify to the light of God’s love. I can witness to the difference God’s grace, God’s love makes in a human life. I have not shared a great deal about the family I grew up in, in large measure because I know some of you know my parents. I intend to remain somewhat circumspect about this, but for me to testify to the power of God’s love in my life, you need to know a little bit about my background.
My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties. I don’t think it would be sharing too much to say that the tensions which resulted in that divorce were felt in our family for a number of years. It added some challenges to growing up. As I have learned more about my family history, I know that there are issues going back further than my parent’s marital tensions. Both sets of grandparents had alcohol problems, though they were significantly less pronounced in my grandmother who is still living at age 96. Alcohol contributed to the deaths of my other three grandparents and to my mom’s brother – who died in his late 50s. Who can say what those issues ended up contributing to my own parent’s marital discord. In the past few weeks, I have heard a story that goes even further back in my family history. My great-grandmother, who lived to be 94 and who I remember well, in fact she died twenty years ago this past week, my great-grandmother divorced her husband in 1946. She was 52 and Catholic. She had been suffering from bleeding for a time, but her husband told her she would be just fine and forbid her from seeking medical attention. She worked with some of her children to come to Duluth to get the attention she needed, and she determined that she would never return to her husband.
One of the issues that divided my parents was church. My dad had been raised Catholic, but never attended church when I was growing up. My mother did not drive, but would walk us to church when we went. I suppose I could tell you I was always excited to go to church, but I was not. I remember trying to pretend I was sleeping and hoping my mom would not wake me to go to church. It was when I was in the eighth grade at my home church that I had a powerful experience of God’s love and grace, an experience that has shaped me ever since. I didn’t fall down on my knees in a flash of blinding light or go forward at a mass evangelism rally. I had a teacher who told me of God’s love and over time I became convinced of that love and believed I needed to respond. I can do all kinds of analyzing of this time in my life – tensions at home, feeling awkward at school in so many ways (it was eighth grade!) – all of that no doubt contributed to what I experienced, but I trust that God was in the midst of that, calling me by name, letting me know that I was beloved. That’s what my name in Hebrew means – David, much loved. It was at that time I first considered becoming an ordained minister.
But there was not a straight line from eighth grade to this moment standing here today. In later high school and college, I questions, I explored, I drifted. My mind expanded but my faith did not immediately follow. When Julie and I started dating in college, she was probably the more traditional Christian than me. But in the midst of all this, the church, which was not always a kind place to me as I have shared before, my church was a kind place, a welcoming place, a place that gave me room to explore – or at least welcomed me as I explored. Even as I entered seminary, it was less a vocational choice than the next step in my spiritual journey, my journey of faith. But I had been touched by a light, embraced by a love and I found my way back to that faith – a different faith perhaps, but a faith for a new day a new time in my life. Two quotes come to mind to describe this part of my journey – one I have loved for a long time and one I have just discovered.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets, 59)

The supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God
Kirk Bingamon (in Cooper-White, p. 23)

Finding my faith again, renewed, transformed, a faith able to grow, to handle questions even as it continued to question me, led to hearing a call from God to ordained ministry. I have continued to try and follow that call and the way of Jesus and Christian faith in my life. I am not perfect at it. I know those places in my life where I can be unloving. I know the struggles I have within. I know when my “spiritual disciplines” are faintly followed. The way of Jesus is a challenging way. To be open to all the world is not easy. I have never related well to those stories of faith where a person finds Jesus and then they just skate along. That’s not been true for me. What I can testify to is that there has been a powerful love in my life which continues to call me, shape me, form me, invite me to be my best self and to care about the world. Because of that love maybe I’ve been able to resist passing on some of the less helpful parts of my family history, and perhaps have passed on some better ones. I am still growing and developing, still asking questions and exploring, but I know that a light has been shined into the darkness. I know I can be different than I am now, that the rough places can be smoothed out. I know that the world can be different and I will do what I can to make it so. Like John the Baptist, I testify to the light.
You can too. You have stories to share about how God’s love has made a difference in your lives. You have stories to share about how Christian faith, the Bible, church, make a difference for you. And people need to hear your stories. One part of sharing your story is to invite others to this community of faith. Frankly it is often easier to begin with that kind of invitation than to share your whole life story with someone, but the two go together.
We invite people to church and to faith by sharing our faith story. We invite people to church because we know that there are many stories of faith to be heard, and in a way the job of testifying to the light of God’s love in our lives belongs to us all, and belongs to us all together. We share our stories and invite people here because we want others to know God’s love, to have some sense of the joy and peace and direction and even challenge we know in our lives. We invite people because we want them to know God’s love and to live God’s love with us.
In recent newsletters I have written a lot about inviting, about radical hospitality, about sharing what we have here with others. I know that this is a little uncomfortable because I have heard from some that it is. Shouldn’t the church be interested in others and not itself? You have a point there – but what if what others need as much as anything in their lives is a sense of community, a people with whom to ask questions, a place to search out their spirituality, people who will laugh with them and cry with them? Don’t we have that to offer? Why wouldn’t we offer it?
I am going to be straightforward with you. I would like to see this church grow. I would like to see both our worship services average near 150 in attendance. I would like to see more small groups. But churches grow in all kinds of ways and growth in numbers is not as important as helping people grow in faith, as growing in our sense of community with each other – love for each other, as growing in our ministry to our community and world – a ministry of compassion and justice. I would like to see our church grow because I believe people need what we have – each other, a faith that enriches our lives and challenges us to be better and a God who loves us even when we fail. I would like to see our church grow because I believe the world needs what we have – people committed to a more just, peaceful, compassionate and green world. My primary reason for wanting to see this church grow is to connect people with God’s love, to help them grow in their understanding and experience of that love, and to live that love more fully in their lives. That’s so important to me that I tell people who may be checking us out, “if this is not the place you need for your faith right now, for your spiritual journey, I will help you find another congregation in town that may be more helpful.”
What we are about is connecting people to God’s love, to each other and inspiring people to live God’s dream for the world. That’s the light that shines in the darkness, and I want people to find a place where that light shines most brightly from them.
But if we don’t testify to the light, if we don’t invite people, we never give them the opportunity to think about their lives in some new ways. And you need to find your way to do it. You will do this in your way, not mine. You will do it in a way that avoids all the obnoxiousness that too often comes with discussions of faith and invitations to church.
Dan Dick, a United Methodist pastor shares the story of a time in an airport when he was between flights. A woman approached him. “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Dan said he was startled by the woman and tried to ignore her. She persisted. “You may think I’m weird, but I need you to know that you are in danger of eternal damnation if you don’t accept Jesus. TODAY!” “Thanks, ma’am, but I’m a United Methodist pastor.” “Yes, but are you saved?” Irritated, Dan looked her straight in the eye and said, “I just told you I’m a minister.” “But you said you were Methodist. I want to know if you’re Christian.” (Bursting the Bubble, 93)
You have my permission and deep encouragement not to do that!!! But find ways to testify to the light in your life. Find ways to invite others to journey with you and with us. To give you a little help and encouragement, you will find an invitation to Christmas Eve services in your bulletin. You are invited. I invite you to invite someone else. Testify to the light. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's a Nice Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

I did not preach this past Sunday. It was our children's and youth Christmas program. I thought I would post a sermon I preached awhile back - May 6, 2007.

Scripture Readings: John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18

After church one Sunday morning, a boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a minister when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us, but what made you decide you wanted to be a minister?” “Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell.” (Pretty Good Joke Book, 106)
I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital here in Duluth in 1959. For my first six years of life I lived in a duplex on 43rd Avenue East. Then we moved to 5430 Avondale St. I attended Lester Park Elementary, Ordean Junior High, East High School, UMD. The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a police officer. That was in third grade. It was in eighth grade that I first though about becoming a minister – and that idea came and went a few times before it stuck.
When I came here to interview with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee in late March of 2005, as the person the Bishop wanted to appoint to First United Methodist Church, the committee told me that this was a Reconciling Congregation and asked if I could be supportive of that. A Reconciling Congregation is one that has publicly declared that it will be open to, welcome and affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons – GLBT persons. The official position of our denomination is that all persons are of sacred worth and yet we believe the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. As a reconciling congregation we have said we stand in opposition to the last part of that and we will welcome GLBT persons and let them participate fully in our congregation, as fully as our denomination allows.
Thankfully, I knew that when I was asked about it by the Staff-Parish Committee. I’m not sure what would have happened had I said, “a reconciling what?” I told the committee that I could and would be supportive of the church’s reconciling position. What I could not honestly say was, “You know, ever since I was a kid I aspired to be the pastor of a Reconciling Congregation.” I just could not say that. And sometimes I even wonder, what’s a nice boy from Lester Park doing trying to talk about such matters in this setting? How did I get here? I want to say a few words about that today, because it has everything to do with the Scripture readings for this morning and I’ll make that connection shortly.
When I was growing up, I never knew much about GLBT persons or issues. I did not have a closeted uncle or aunt. My siblings are straight – divorced, but straight. In junior high and high school, we used to throw the term “fag” around kind of loosely. When a few of us looked up the word in a dictionary and found it could also mean a “bundle of sticks” we used to tease each other by calling out “you bundle of sticks.” Who can explain adolescent boys? But to be honest, though I would sometimes use such words, and probably sometimes in anger, I never really thought that anyone I ever called a bundle of sticks really might be different, really might be gay. It just never crossed my mind. I do remember reading some Christian literature that talked about the issue. David Wilkerson a pastor and author of The Cross and the Switchblade, wrote about the issue. Homosexuals are not “queers.” They are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters from all walks of life involved in a serious problem…. So-called homosexual Christians can never be acceptable in the eyes of God if they live in their sin (Jesus People Maturity Manual). I read the words, but what did they have to do with me?
In college I guess I became more aware that there were really GLBT people, but again, what did that have to do with me? I wasn’t one, and did not care much if they were who they were. I don’t recall my pastor ever talking about the issue – and about now some of you may be wishing for the same thing. We don’t need to hide the fact that we get a little uncomfortable talking about human sexuality.
When I got to seminary, however, I came face-to-face with GLBT issues, because for the first time I came face-to-face with gay and lesbian persons. This was unfamiliar territory for me, and uncomfortable. Some of the words I had read in the past remained a part of my thinking, no doubt. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. I also became much more aware of how difficult and divisive an issue this was for the church.
There were those Scriptures of our faith that seemed to present a pretty negative take on GLBT persons – Levitcus (two verses), for instance. But it became puzzling to me that we could take a verse or two from this book so seriously, yet let others slide by so easily. In the same chapter of Leviticus that seemingly condemns a man lying with a man as with a woman, the Israelites are told to put to death those caught in adultery and those who curse their mother or father. In the very next chapter, the following types of people are prohibited from becoming priests, or serving as priest while these conditions persist: one who has a blemish, the blind or lame, one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, one who has a broken hand or foot, “or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs, or crushed testicles” (Leviticus 21: 18-20). Our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry does not ask clergy candidates about such things.
And in a few places Paul writes rather disapprovingly about same-sex relationships. He looked around his culture and saw things he disapproved of, but we are not sure just what it is Paul was concerned about. In the words of theologian William Placher, in his book Jesus the Savior: “We are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw…. Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong in the same way to Paul? We cannot summon him up from the dead… and find out what he would have thought” (100). Placher, in fact, makes a strong point in his book. It is hard to imagine how anyone, reading the Bible through, could come up with homosexuality as one of the central topics it lays out for ethical reflection (96). Texts that address GLBT issues are very few, and are open to genuine interpretive differences.
At the same time I struggled with Scripture, I was hearing stories like one shared by Parker Palmer. Stuart Mathis was a gay man who grew up in a religious community that regards homosexuality as a sin. His church insisted that he “change his sexual orientation,” and when he found it impossible to do so, he committed suicide, leaving these words behind: [My] church has no idea that as I type this letter, there are surely boys and girls on their callused knees imploring God to free them from this pain. They hate themselves. They retire to bed with their fingers pointed to their heads in the form of a gun. I am now free. I am no longer in pain and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended for me to be straight. Perhaps my death might be a catalyst for some good. (A Hidden Wholeness, 41)
I was also meeting people who were wonderful Christians, and gay. It remained rather uncomfortable territory. Even as a senior in seminary I confessed to a friend that I still found something about all this a bit “unnatural.” Yet something continued to simmer inside of me.
Peter could not imagine less unnatural a thing than that God’s Spirit might be at work in uncircumcised, non-Jewish people – Gentiles. Jesus had been Jewish. He taught in synagogues. He worshipped at the Temple. He was a rather faithful follower of the law, even as he criticized some of it. While he often told stories that made heroes out of non-Jews, and seemed at times willing to reach beyond his people, his first followers were all Jewish and it seems they expected that those who would follow Jesus would be Jewish too. But a wild dream experience compels Peter to reach out to Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort. When he goes to see Cornelius, he finds that God’s Spirit was also present. Peter, in giving his report to skeptical believers in Jerusalem says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter moved by the Spirit of God, compelled by the words of Jesus himself (I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.) Peter goes beyond his comfort zone. Love brought him to a new place. The Spirit took him into unfamiliar territory. His mind was changed about who was acceptable to God and to whom God might give God’s Spirit.
I have had no wild dream like experience and I cannot even tell you when exactly I came to this point, but love and God’s Spirit brought me to a new place – at first uncomfortable, unfamiliar, but a new place. I say in Peter’s words, if God is at work in the lives of GLBT people, and I have witnessed that time and again, who am I that I should hinder God?
Now I don’t have to say that everything any GLBT person does is o.k. just as I would not say that everything a heterosexual person does is o.k. The Christian faith has consistently maintained that all persons are vulnerable to sin, and that may include sexual sin, and in fact, all have sinned. But at its best our faith knows that the essence of sin is a violation of the command to love. It is refusal to love. I don’t see homosexuality in itself as sinful.
So here I am, a kid from Lester Park, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Duluth, a Reconciling Congregation. And I am proud to be here. And I also want this church to be a place that welcomes those who may not be in complete agreement with our reconciling stance, who may be at a different place on the journey. How hypocritical it would be for me, who took a journey himself to say, “if you are not where I have arrived at, you are not welcome.” For above all, a Reconciling congregation should be a place that takes seriously the idea that God’s Spirit moves in surprising ways, invites us into unfamiliar and sometimes challenging places, but always in service of God’s love. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. And who knows where love may take us? Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Lesson of the Pine Tree

Sermon Preached November 30, 2008. Text: Mark 13:24-37

Did you know that if you had purchased $1,000 of Delta Air Lines stock one year ago, you would have $49 left? If you had invested that same $1,000 with Fannie Mae, you would have $2.50 left. With AIG, you would have less than $15 left. But if you had purchased $1,000 worth of beer one year ago, drunk all the beer, then turned in the cans for the aluminum recycling refund, you would have $214 cash, and you would have enjoyed the beer. (Funny Times, December 2008, p. 10) By the way this story is told for illustrative purposes only, and no investment advice is to be inferred from it. You might say, however, that the story offers the lesson of the beer cans.
Jesus liked to use ordinary images in his teaching, common images to make a point. He was especially partial to images from nature. In today’s Scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “from the fig tree learn its lesson.”
And what lesson was Jesus trying to convey? Keep alert. Keep awake. Just as you watch a fig tree to give you clues as to the change of seasons, so watch the world to see signs of the presence of God. Keep alert. Keep awake. Many of the early Christians, and maybe even Jesus himself had expectations that God was going to change the world dramatically in the near future, that the fullness of God’s dream for the world was going to become a reality. Even though the expectation was high, there remained a note of caution. “About that day or hour no one knows,” only God. So there would be no passive waiting around for this coming world-altering change. With waiting would come alertness and awakening – more active terms. The people were reminded that whatever might come, the teaching of Jesus would be part of that newer world – “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Almost 2,000 years later, we still wait for the world to be made right. We still hunger for a world that is just and peaceful. We still yearn for a world where differences are celebrated as part of a rich tapestry, instead of used to divide – a world of reconciliation and forgiveness. We desire a world of joy and love, where the very creation itself is embraced. The headlines about economic crises, about terrorist attacks in India, about violence closer to home all tell us that the world is not yet God’s dream for it. So we wait.
But our waiting is not to be a passive waiting. The season of Advent which begins today, that season of four weeks until Christmas, is meant to remind us that we are to keep alert, keep awake – that we are to be people who continue to try and live out the words and Spirit of Jesus. Advent invites us to prepare our lives to receive the Christ in new and renewed ways. In the spirit of Jesus’ own teaching, I think we can be reminded of some of the lessons of Advent by learning the lesson of the pine tree. If Jesus were teaching in Northern Minnesota today, I’m not sure he would ever appeal to beer cans in his teaching, but I think he would encourage us to learn the lesson of the pine tree.
So what might we learn from the pine tree? We might learn something about being alive and vibrant in a variety of circumstances. Pine trees are evergreen, displaying their life in every season – winter, spring summer, fall. They exist in a variety of environments – the cold of northern Minnesota, the heights of the mountains – many of the trees on the tree lines are evergreens/pines. Different species of pine are found in climates from frosty to balmy. But this morning I want to focus on the pine cone and the lesson it teaches us about preparing anew for the Christ in our lives, about being awake and alert. The lesson of the pine tree and pine cone I want to develop is openness. We prepare ourselves for the renewed presence of the Christ by cultivating the openness of the pine in our lives.
Pine cones open to give to the world. I did some research for this sermon and discovered, or re-discovered, that pine cones are distinguishable between male and female. No, you can’t tell which is which by picking them up and looking underneath them. Male cones tend to exhibit less variety from species to species, while the female cones’ structures vary more markedly between species of pine. I don’t think I want to draw any lessons there! Both male and female pine cones are open in giving. The male cones produce pollen which fertilizes the seeds in the female cones. That seed is nurtured and then the female cone opens its scales to release the seeds into the world so that new evergreens can sprout and grow.
We open our lives in faith when we risk sharing our faith story with others. Many of us have deeply appreciated the faith stories we have heard shared during our stewardship moments these past few Sundays, and I have had a number of people tell me they would like to hear more of that more often. I agree. To share something about the joys and struggles of one’s faith is powerful. When that happens it helps us all, the ones sharing and the ones listening. When we hear how faith has helped someone in a difficult time, or when it has given meaning and direction to a life, we hear something of our own stories in that, and we can say “yes.” When we hear how sometimes other struggle with deep questions of faith we no longer have to pretend that faith in God and in Jesus Christ provides us simple answers for the complex questions of life. It helps, but the way of Jesus is not always easy or simple. That kind of honest sharing in faith is important for us all.
Sharing our faith story with others also helps us live our faith more consistently. When I was a young clergy person, one of the most challenging lessons I had to learn was to get comfortable with the fact that whenever you are in public, you are a clergy person. You never know who may be seeing you. It took some time for me to grow into being comfortable with that responsibility, but I honestly think it has helped me in some ways. I always want to present the best face for our church and for Christian faith. Like all of you, I can get impatient in traffic or standing in line. I get irritated sometimes, like Friday when the three older women in the mall parking lot seemed completely at a loss for where to park, and I was right behind them. It helps me to remember that I am the face of the church and need to let go of my impatience and irritation. That doesn’t mean I am perfect or less than myself – it means I have an extra incentive to be my better self. When we share our faith, we have an extra incentive to be our better selves.
We open our lives in faith when we sow seeds of love and joy, healing and justice in the world. This is a time of year when we often decry the excesses of our culture, and there is good reason to do so. After worship, the Sustainability Group is going to be distributing a guide to celebrating a simpler Christmas and we need to pay attention to that. For all of our excesses and missteps, though, I still appreciate this season of the year. I was reading the blog of a friend the other day and he was saying how he has really come to dislike Thanksgiving – we eat too much and too much of what is bad for us. The history of the holiday often masks the darker side of the relationship between Native Americans and European Americans. I agree with what he said, but I cannot dislike Thanksgiving and Christmas if for no other reason than that they seem to evoke in so many people the openness to sowing seeds of love and kindness, healing and justice. Make sure part of your celebration of the holidays this year involves giving yourself generously, sowing seeds of love and joy and healing and justice.
To learn the lesson of the pine cone, we also need to know that pine cones open to receive from the world. We prepare our lives for the renewed presence of the Christ when we open ourselves to the world around us, to receive its gifts.
One of my favorite prayers is the prayer that has come to be known as The Serenity Prayer. It is a staple of AA, but I prefer its original version, as written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. God, grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed; the courage to change the things that should be changed; and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. I like this version of the prayer best because it is rooted in God’s grace. It is a prayer for grace – the grace of acceptance, the grace of serenity, the grace of courage, the grace of wisdom. When we seek to sow seeds of love, joy, justice and healing, we seek the grace of courage to change the world. This prayer asks us to be open to the world in giving. This prayer also asks us to be open to the world in receiving, and I often find that more difficult. God grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. I cannot change my height, I cannot change where and when and to whom I was born. I cannot change my DNA. I cannot change the fact that at 21 I was diagnosed with a chronic colon condition. I cannot change other people, at least not directly. I cannot change the past. There are more things in the world that cannot be changed than we sometimes like to admit – things wonderful and frightening, things beautiful and ugly, things that bless and things that curse. Part of the lesson of the pine is that we need to be open to receiving from the world as it is – from God, from others, from reality itself. We will want to change much, but I think change begins with an openness to things as they are.
In the most recent issue of Ode magazine, a woman named Hilary Hart wrote a piece on “receiving” in which she argues that one of the greatest gifts we can offer someone is “the willingness to receive fully and freely.” Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of experience, connecting all life in an interdependent whole. Just as many of us long to experience moments of pure altruism, when we offer our hearts with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, experiencing what it means to be given to – touched, nourished and even transformed by life. Some of her reflection was prompted by the receipt of a scarf from her mother – a gray cotton scarf with pink flowers – and Ms. Hart does not wear pink. So she mulls over what it means to be a good receiver – our longing for it, the difficulty of it. “Receiving isn’t easy. If it were, more of us would do it with grace and gratitude.” She is insightful about what makes receiving difficult – that it sometimes comes with strings attached (quid pro puo), that it sometimes seems to put us in a weaker position, e.g. the March of Dimes wants me to call everyone I’ve helped to see if they will give a donation to the March of Dimes for me. We are concerned about receiving because we are concerned that others may not be getting enough. Receiving is complicated, yet necessary for fullness of life. In Hart’s article a woman named Miriam Greenspan shares her insights and story. Life is a gift we receive each day, but the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we are close, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life. These might seem like nice sentiments, but coming from Miriam Greenspan they are more than that. Miriam Greenspan was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany where she lived for four years after the Holocaust. Her first child was born with a brain injury and lived only 66 days. Her third child was born with complex physical and cognitive disabilities. The gift in grieving for our losses, for example, is deep gratitude. From fully experiencing despair we go on a journey for new meaning and find a more resilient faith in life. When we befriend our fear, we discover the joy of living fully.
Hilary Hart tries on the scarf her mother has sent and is surprised to see how good it looked.
This Advent season, let us learn the lesson of the pine cone. Let us learn that to be ever green and growing and full of life is to be open to giving – sharing our faith, sowing seeds of love, joy, healing and justice; and open to receiving – from others, from reality, from God. Advent reminds us that the Christ comes again and again and that we know this Christ in ever new ways as we give and as we receive. Amen.