Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year New You

Sermon preached December 27, 2009

Texts: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
Woody Allen’s 1977 Academy-Award winning film Annie Hall is about a man named Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and his relationship with a woman named Annie Hall, portrayed by Diane Keaton. After a series of ups and downs Annie and Alvy have a difficult conversation about the state of their relationship.

Annie Hall clip

Annie: Let’s face it, I don’t think our relationship is working.
Alvy: I know, a relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know, it has to constantly move forward or it dies. I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.
There is wisdom in that for our faith. Our faith should continue to move forward, to grow. When it doesn’t, it can become stale. It can seem too small for our lives. Our Scriptures encourage growth in faith as they describe Samuel and Jesus. “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Growing older is inevitable. Growing in our faith is intentional.
And the church exists, in important part, to help those who are a part of it grow in faith. Another way to say that is to say that the product of the church is people. The church exists to help people, whether or not they are a part of the church – so we reach out to feed the hungry, to clothe those with inadequate clothing, to house those without housing, to care for the sick and dying, to establish justice, to strive for peace, to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. One “product” of the church is a better life for others. Another product of the church is changed lives among those who call our church “home.” We want to mess with your lives if you become part of the church. We want to see people’s lives shaped, formed, transformed by the love of Jesus. Another “product” of the church is those changed lives. Of course those two goals are interconnected. As people’s lives are changed, formed, shaped by God’s love in Jesus, they will reach out to make a difference in the world. One of the ways our lives are shaped and formed in love happens as we reach out to others.
Our faith needs to move forward, to grow, and as one year turns to the next seems like a good time to consider how we might like to help our faith grow, how we might like to shape our lives in cooperation with God’s Spirit in the coming year, how we might like to be more deeply formed in faith. I want to suggest that there are a number of ways we can more deeply be formed in Christian faith, be more open to God’s Spirit. I want to briefly discuss these broad categories and offer us some time for reflection on how each of us might choose to be formed more deeply in faith in the new year.
I think we can be more deeply formed in faith and grow in faith as we seek to reweave the past into our lives. In his novel Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner writes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Act I, scene 3, p. 80) There is deep truth there. We carry the past with us, and while we cannot change the past, we can rework it, see it differently, reframe it – and doing so helps us grow as people of faith. If I use some of my energy to hold on to a past wrong done me, I have less energy for the present and the future. Some past wrongs need to be rectified. Some need to be let go. There is a huge difference within between saying “someone hurt me and I can’t be whole until they get their due” and saying “someone hurt me and it is unfair but I am not going to be trapped by this forever.” Only you know when it is appropriate to take which stance in your life, but as we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, is there something in the past that needs to be rewoven into the present? Jack Kornfield, therapist and spiritual teacher once wrote, “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25). We may not be able to change the past to make it better but we can reweave it into our present. Is there some place where you need to forgive to free yourself in this new year?
We are formed in faith and grow in faith as we enlarge our territories. There was a very popular Christian book published ten years ago now, The Prayer of Jabez. Maybe some of you remember it. It seemed helpful to some. Jabez was a minor character in I Chronicles chapter 4 who managed a few more lines in a long list of names than others. A pastor named Bruce Wilkinson took the prayer of Jabez (Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain) and made it into a small cottage industry. Part of the prayer was for enlarging one’s territory. Wilkinson has an interesting view of that part of the prayer. If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, “Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolis.” (31) I am not sure that this is a very good interpretation of the prayer of Jabez, but Wilkinson is on to something with that idea of enlarging our territory. We grow in faith as we learn new things, as we take on new tasks and responsibilities in our lives. As we stretch ourselves we find God in new ways. As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to learn more or what new task or responsibility might God be inviting you to consider in your life?
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, believed that people were formed more deeply in faith and grew in faith by following three general rules. These have been updated by Bishop Rueben Job. The rules are: do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. I would like to use some of Bishop Job’s words to expand on each of ways of being formed more deeply in faith.
To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation…. I will determine everyday that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than with the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God – a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved – just like myself. (31) As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to grow in your ability to heal rather than harm, grow in your determination to see others as beloved of God?
Doing good, like doing no harm, is a proactive way of living. I do not need to wait to be asked to do some good deed or provide some needed help. I do not need to wait until circumstances cry out for aid to relieve suffering or correct some horrible injustice. I can decide my way of living will come down on the side of doing good to all in every circumstance and in every way I can. I can decide that I will choose a way of living that nourishes goodness and strengthens community…. (37-38) Taking appropriate care of self and living selflessly are not opposites. Rather they are each essential elements of a healthy and productive life(46). As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to grow in doing good, in nourishing goodness and strengthening community? Where might you need to take better care of yourself?
Staying in love with God is the foundation to all of life. It is in a vital relationship with God that we are enlivened, sustained, guided, called, sent, formed and transformed…. Only living in the healing, loving, redeeming, forming, and guiding light and presence of God will bring the redemption, healing, transformation and guidance that is so desperately needed. (48-49) We may name our spiritual disciplines differently, but we too must find our way of living and practicing those disciplines that will keep us in love with God – practices that will help keep us positioned in such a way that we may hear and be responsive to God’s slightest whisper of direction and receive God’s promised presence and power every day and in every situation (55). As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where do you need to hone your spiritual disciplines in order to stay in love with God?
I’ve suggested some ways our lives are formed and our faith deepened. It is often helpful to keep before ourselves a picture of the direction of this new you that we want to work with God to create in our lives. One wonderful picture of the kind of people we try to produce as the church is found in Colossians 3. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another… forgive each other…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together…. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. I like the way Eugene Peterson renders this passage in The Message. So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive and offense…. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
That’s the new you for the new year we want to produce here, helping each other along the way. As you reflect on the ways that new you can be formed, what one thing would you like to do in the new year to be more Christ-like, to wear love more consistently? I would invite you to use the blank space on the bulletin to write down one or two, but no more than three things you would like to do this year to grow in faith, to be more deeply formed in faith. You don’t need to share it with anyone else, but keep it in a place where you can look at it from time to time, just to see how you are doing.
A woman asked her spiritual teacher, “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?” “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?” “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.” (deMillo, One Minute Wisdom, 11)
A shark moving forward, a new wardrobe knit out of love, the sun rising in our lives - - - it is a new year, a good time to consider how we can work with God to cultivate a new you. Amen.

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve December 24, 2009
Scripture Readings: Micah 5:1-5a; Isaiah 9:2-9; Luke 2:1-20

It is good to be together on Christmas Eve. I hope you are having a wonderful or have had a wonderful day and I hope it continues throughout the day tomorrow.
Christmas is a special time, and we love to hear stories that makes us smile or laugh or bring tears of joy – stories of sweetness and goodness and light. Often the stories are about children. We love to hear about how they miss certain elements of the story. There was the little girl, who, in explaining the Christmas story to her mother said that the angels came to share the news about the birth of Jesus while shepherds washed their socks at night. A family returning home from a Christmas pageant began to talk about what they had seen. The father thought it might be good to make sure the children got the main message so he asked, “Who was that baby in the manger?” His four year old daughter said, “Wayne!” “Wayne?!?” “Weren’t you listening Dad, it said so in that song – a wayne in a manger. (Dick Van Dyke, Faith Hope and Hilarity, p. 70, 71). That’s why choir directors always tell you to enunciate! Not long ago a pastor friend of mine shared with me about the Christmas pageant at his church where the young boy who played the innkeeper learned his part very well, but when crunch time came he couldn’t bring himself to say “no” to Mary and Joseph as they stood before him. So when they asked if there was any room at the inn, his compassion took over and he said, “Sure, come on in.”
A few times this fall and early winter I have heard stories about gold coins dropped in Salvation Army kettles: November 27 a gold South African krugerrand worth about $1,000 in a kettle in Southeast Pennsylvania, December 4-5 three gold coins worth about $1,000 each dropped into various kettles in the Denver area, December 17 a Canadian gold coin worth hundreds of dollars in a kettle in Ohio.
When I think back on Christmas I remember Christmas Eve at my Grandmother’s house, 212 ½ E. Fifth Street. Our family would gather – aunts and uncles and cousins. Parking was always interesting because she lived in an alley. We ate around this long, heavy, wood dinning room table drinking from green glass ware. There was food and laughter and cards, and after a time we opened presents from our grandparents – presents my grandma often bought at Daugherty Hardware. We stayed late, coming home well after midnight, and by that time all the street lights were flashing. Little Joe on KDAL was playing Christmas music and it seemed like magic. Even the street lights were different.
Stories of sweetness and goodness and light – those are the stories we like to hear at Christmas, and it is how we read the Christmas story itself. Mary and Joseph always seem idyllic and at peace. The innkeeper turns them away, but always with a gentle, sorrowful voice, never a harsh tone. You never get the sense that they panicked a little when they had no place to stay, didn’t complain once about having to sleep with animals, nor did they mutter if they stepped in what the animals might leave behind. In fact, we read a fairly disinfected story – the animals really don’t do that kind of thing here. We imagine that the night is a little cool, but we don’t usually picture those bone-chilling, teeth-chattering winter winds we know about. It is night, but we picture a beautifully clear and starry night – maybe with a few snowflakes gently falling. How it is both clear and snowy, I don’t know.
The Christmas story as a story of sweetness and goodness and light, that’s how we like it. And that’s o.k. Among my favorite Christmas stories are O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” – a sweet story about a young married couple each secretly selling their prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other; It’s a Wonderful Life – where Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey avoids jail and Clarence gets his wings; A Charlie Brown Christmas – where Charlie discovers the true meaning of Christmas by rescuing a scraggly tree; and The Homecoming: a Christmas Story – where father gets home through a storm and John Boy gets the paper and pencil he wants to nurture his writing talent. Stories of sweetness and goodness and light.
But if all we hear are these stories, if the Christmas story itself is nothing more than sweetness and light, I am concerned that it might become disconnected from our more complicated lives. The day I began to work on Christmas Eve services, December 9, was a bitterly cold, blustery day. The wind was whipping across the parking lot as I looked out of the window in my office. Can Christmas connect to lives where such bitter winds sometimes blow? I worry that we make Christmas breakable, fragile as a crystal angel hanging from a tree or fragile as a snow flake. We treat fragile ornaments with great care, taking them out only once a year and packing them tightly away when the holiday is over. Fragile snow flakes melt quickly. Will we let the Christmas story disappear as well when the calendar turns into a new year? Is it too sweet and good and light to carry us through darker days and tougher times, for we will have such times?
When you read the story again it is not all sweetness and light. The Christmas story is about angels and shepherds. It is also about an unplanned pregnancy. It is a story about a people under imperial rule. Mary and Joseph are made to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by order of the Roman Empire and there seems something just a little bit cruel in making a pregnant woman travel a distance for purposes of taxation and a census. It is a story about a young family with no place to stay. It is about a birth outside – amidst the hay and mess and smell of animals. This story connects to the whole of our lives – the sweetness and light, the harder days, the chill winds. The story speaks good news, a word of hope, not just as icing on the cake when all is well. It speaks good news and a word of hope amidst the harsh realities of life. In the words of Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The Christmas story acknowledges the difficulty of the world, and the light of hope that comes into a sometimes harsh world.
Irish author and Noble prize winner Samuel Beckett captures something of this feeling of living in a challenging, difficult world in his plays and novels and perhaps no better than in the ending of his novel The Unnamable the entirety of which seems to be some kind of interior dialogue – a conversation of a person with himself or herself. It ends this way: you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Something inside of us, a spirit, a life urge, something I believe put there by God, moves us toward life in all its fullness. But there are days when putting one foot in front of another is about all we can muster, days when discouragements pile up, when we know grief and sorrow, when we fail, when we fail ourselves. I know, not the kind of Christmas story you came to hear, but that’s the point. The depth of the Christmas story is that it acknowledges the tough times, the difficult days, the “I can’t go on” feelings, and tries to open us again to life so that we go on – and more than just go on, truly live. Christmas is sweetness and light, but not simply sweetness and light. It is sturdy and not fragile.
Joan Chittister says this beautifully in her book Gospel Days. Christmas reminds us that God gives us one chance after another in life to become new again, to let things grow in us, to birth in ourselves fresh and different ways to God. (December 9) One chance after another, light, hope, fresh starts – that’s what Christmas is about. That’s what Christmas is about when everything is sweetness and light, that’s what Christmas is about when things are difficult – a God of new life who finds ways into our lives and our world.
When our son David was ten, we were living in Dallas, Texas and I was a youth minister at a Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church. On a December Sunday, returning home from the children’s Christmas program, David tripped while entering our apartment. We were coming in through the patio area, through a sliding glass door. David tripped and fell toward the door, and reflexively put his hand out to break his fall. What broke was the glass in the door. He was cut, badly. Julie said we needed to go to the hospital, and of course, I asked if she was sure. Dumb question. We rushed David to the emergency room, where doctors examined his lacerated wrist – tendons appeared to be torn along the top of his wrist. I remember all of this pretty well, but what I had not remembered until last Sunday when David shared this during Soul Kitchen was that as doctors were cleaning his wound and picking out shards of glass I asked him if he wanted to hear a Christmas story. “Yes.” So while the doctors worked on him, I told him the story “The Gift of the Magi” – that story about a young married couple at Christmas. Jim’s most valuable possession was a pocket watch, which he kept in his pocket on a string. Della’s most valuable possession was her beautiful hair. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a lovely watch chain, and Jim pawns his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs for her hair. The author, O. Henry, compares the wisdom of their gifts, given in love, to the wisdom of the Magi, the wise men. It is a tender, touching Christmas story full of sweetness and light, but the story fit a more difficult circumstance – just like the Christmas story itself.
Into this world that is beautiful and bleeding, wonderful and wounded, comes a God who gives us one chance after another to become new again, to let things grow in us. That’s the Christmas story in all its toughness and tenderness.
As I wrap up, let me share with you a brief poem written by the late Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.

It’s Midnight Lord
The Spirit is breathing.

All those with eyes to see,
women and men with ears for hearing
detect a coming dawn;
a reason to go on.

They seem small, these signs of dawn
perhaps ridiculous.

All those with eyes to see,
Women and men with ears for hearing
uncover in the night
a certain gleam of light;
they see the reason to go on.

Christmas is about the Spirit breathing. It is about small, perhaps ridiculous signs of dawn in a midnight world. It is about one chance after another, when it may seem like every last chance has come and gone. It is about new beginnings even when endings seem the only thing in sight. It is about new birth, even amidst the deaths in life that we experience. It is about glimmers of light, even if they need to find their way through the smallest cracks under the door. It is about hope and courage to go on, to add your light to the world, the light God gave you to shine. Christmas is a story about joy and light and goodness meant for even the toughest times because it is about the God of life who comes near in every time. Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Wind Cries Mary

Sermon preached December 20, 2009

Text: Luke 1:39-55

Play the first verse and chorus of Jimi Hendrix, “The Wind Cries Mary.”

If Bob Dylan can put out a Christmas album, I figure a little Jimi Hendrix might work, though to be honest, I don’t think the Mary to whom he is referring is the Mary from the gospels. She is our focus today. Today, the wind cries “Mary.”
And one of the ways the wind is going to cry “Mary” is through a brief poem. It is called “Nazareth” and it is by a Spanish poet named Rosario Castallanos.

Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

“Too small for the destiny she must contain.” Mary, too small for her destiny? Mary is a fascinating combination of humility and determination, quietness and courage. In our texts for today, Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. She goes quickly because she is still trying to take in all that has happened to her – an angel’s visit, an announcement that she will become pregnant. Elizabeth affirms Mary, calls her blessed, and Mary sings out. But earlier in the gospel, Mary is perplexed and pondering. In the story we will read on Thursday, Christmas Eve, Mary again will be pondering. Is she wondering if she is too small for the destiny she must contain?
How about us? Are we too small for the destiny we must contain? What is our destiny? That’s an awesome question and cannot be answered in any great detail, but as Christians I think we have a destiny, a task, if you will, that we can describe generally - - - change ourselves and change the world. How’s that for destiny! Maybe we are a little small for that.
Consider the world in which we live. We believe that our destiny is the call of God to us to make the world more loving, more compassionate, more just, more peaceful, more caring; to fill the hungry with good things; to be humble and gentle, yet strong and determined. We are called to be good caretakers of each other and of the earth itself.
The world is not yet where we would like it to be. Every day we hear stories of the hungry and homeless. We hear about the despair of lost jobs and lost health care. We hear about incredible violence person against person. Hatred springs up in the world based on nothing more than skin color, or heritage, or tribe, or sexual orientation. Women are abused and children left unattended. We have yet to figure out how to balance our economic life with care for the planet on which we live – and we often seem afraid to even think deeply about some of those issues. I confess to you that there are days when I simply turn the news off for awhile, take a news break, because the pain and discouragement begins to weigh too profoundly on my soul.
In such a world it is our destiny as God’s people, to make a difference. To make change. To work with God’s Spirit to transform the world.
Maybe we should focus on changing ourselves. That might be easier. Maybe, sometimes, but we are foolish if we think it easy all the time. Think of the stories recently of people caught up in behaviors that have been terribly hurtful and destructive. I am sorry to say all the examples that came to mind are men! I think of Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina whose wife announced this week that she is divorcing him for his infidelity. I think of David Letterman who ended up confessing on television that he had not been faithful in his marriage. Of course, most recently, Tiger Woods whose reputation has been incredibly tarnished, whose marriage has been bruised, whose family has been hurt, because of his behavior. At some point do you think it may have dawned on them that some kind of change was needed in their lives, that maybe they were giving in to desires that needed to be managed differently? Yet change didn’t happen, with tragic results. The story is as old as Joseph and Potipher’s wife or David and Bathsheeba. Inner change is no picnic.
I consider my own life. Thankfully I have no Tiger Woods stories to tell. But I do know of other inner struggles and issues with which I continue to grapple – how an insecurity long past can still bubble up now and again, how amazing I am sometimes at awfulizing – you know, taking some little thing that is not going well and making it the first step to the end of the free world as we know it. Over the years I’ve gotten a little better at stopping the train of thought. I seem to be able to intervene at step 5 rather than step 10, but I would kind of like to get to that place in my life where I don’t even let the awfulizing train leave the station. I know I am not the only person who deals with long-term issues in their lives – anger, impatience, insecurity, bitterness held on to for too long, resentments that cling to the soul. Inner change can be difficult.
Our destiny, our call, as Christians, is to change our lives, with God’s help, and to make a difference in the world, with God’s help. And feeling too small for this seems an appropriate response when you consider all that change might entail.
Yet, like Mary, we are called. Think again about Mary – young, of modest means or even poor, living under difficult circumstances – under an empire that could make you go from one place to the next to “register” – think of Mary, chosen vase. Like any cup, easily broken; like all vessels, too small for the destiny she must contain. Yet Mary said “yes.”
Like Mary we are called. We are called to open our lives to the touch of God’s Spirit, God’s grace, God’s love. We are invited by that Spirit to become kinder, gentler, more genuine, more courageous, more joyous. We are called to live out these qualities in our daily lives. We are called to be open to work with God’s Spirit in making a difference in the world, to change it – to make the world a kinder place, more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, fairer or more just.
That is our call, that is our destiny, and to it we are invited to say “yes” again and again and again. Yet that call always comes in a context. It comes to us where we live. It comes to us as we are, even as it invites us to change. In the movie Forrest Gump, when Forrest was asking his mama about destiny she told him “you have to do the best with what God gave you.” That’s our call and destiny, too, to do the best with what God gives us. The call to inner change and making a difference in the world always comes in our time, in our place, with our gifts and skills. We are to do what we can to change ourselves and change the world. We are not really too small to respond to that call, not with God’s Spirit stirring inside of us.
Yes, this sermon is an invitation and a challenge, but I want to end with celebration. I want to share stories of how we have lived out a bit of our destiny, our calling as persons and as a congregation. Last week I shared with you about a family in need. Our church council had heard about this family, its struggles with cancer and the financial difficulties that has created, and thought we could help. So we put up some paper Christmas stockings on the welcome center and invited people, if they chose to do so, to take one and buy the gift and bring it back here so we could bring it to the family. And it has been an amazing week. I have seen you bring the gifts in and seen the joy and excitement in your eyes and voices. I have heard you ask, “Is this o.k.?” because you care. I have seen little touches added to what was purchased, a child’s watch that wasn’t on the list, but that the buyer thought looked cute and might be appreciated. Your generosity and kindness have been a joy to behold. By week’s end we had more volunteers than gifts to buy. Later in the week another family told me that they, as a family, hoped to adopt a family for Christmas. We found a family on the verge of eviction because of a lost job. One income was not quite enough for this family right now – but now they are being helped with their rent and with some gifts for Christmas. Wednesday night our confirmation class, joined by a host of others shared a little Christmas joy through song at Chris Jensen. For some of the kids, this is very awkward, but even though they might have been uncomfortable, they shared, and the joy on the faces of those at Chris Jensen was delightful. They reacted like we were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
In some ways church is always about challenge and celebration. We know how much needs changing in our world. We know the work it takes to change our lives. It is understandable to feel small, overwhelmed – yet the call, the challenge from God never disappears. So it is always good to keep before us moments we can celebrate. We hear the wind cry Mary and we think of her, small, yet willing to say “yes” to God. And I cherish in my heart images from this week where I have seen so many say “yes” to God. My spirit rejoices in God and in you. Amen.

The Wind Cries Mary

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I did not preach on December 13, as it was our Children and Youth Christmas program. For some reflections on that you can read my other blog: With Faith and With Feathers. Thanks.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Once Upon a Time

Sermon preached December 6, 2009

Texts: Luke 3:1-6

“Once upon a time.” When you hear that phrase it usually introduces a fascinating story, one which often takes places in a fantastic location and often has wonderfully odd creatures. This phrase has been used probably since about the 14th century and by the 17th century was a familiar way to introduce the telling of a story. Comparable phrases are found in many languages. While the stories introduced by “once upon a time” are interesting and usually have some lesson for our lives, we know we don’t live in a once upon a time world. We also know we don’t live in a world of “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” though stories that come to us like that are also wonderful, as are stories set at some indefinite time in the future. But that’s not where we live, either.
We do however, sometimes live in this kind of world: “when the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.” That’s the “Age of Aquarius.” When the stars all align, then I will: take better care of myself, take my faith more seriously, change. If only this, this and this were in place, life would be nearly perfect. I will be happy when I have the job of my dreams, no longer have to worry about money (at least not much), find the just-right person to spend the rest of my life with. We have all lived here for a little while, I would guess, and there is a temptation to have this be the primary orientation of our life.
Luke offers us a different sense of time. Luke does not tell a story that begins: “once upon a time,” or “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” or “someday,” or “when the moon was in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligned with Mars.” He offers a very different beginning. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Besides being a little boring and dry, what does this
tell us? It offers us a very different sense of time – concrete, specific. More than that, we need to know that this litany of names does not portend an age of Aquarius. In many ways Luke is telling us this is an anti-Aquarius time, a difficult time, a harsh time. The names given here are not remembered for being particularly kind to the people of John, the Jews. This was a hard time.
Yet, yet, this is God’s time. I think Luke is telling us that “now” is always God’s time. Now is always God’s time. There are no circumstances that cannot lead to a deepening of our faith, a deepening of our humanity, an enriching of our relationship with God. In one of her books, Joan Chittister writes: Christmas is the commitment to life made incarnate. It is the call to see God everywhere and especially in those places we would not expect to find glory and grace…. Christmas is the obligation to see that everything leads us directly to God, to realize that there is no one, nothing on earth that is not the way of God for me. (Gospel Days, 149)
There is no time that is not God’s time – God’s time for enriching our lives and helping us make the world more caring, more just, more peaceful, more beautiful. We don’t need to wait until the stars align to deepen our faith, take our spiritual practices more seriously, be more caring, take better care of ourselves and others, tackle the difficult change we need to make in our lives, become more fully human and more fully alive, deepen our relationship with God. We don’t need to wait until everything is just right because frankly that will never happen. Now is the time, not once upon a time.
Denise Roy, mother, psychotherapist and spiritual director tells a wonderful story about finding grace in an unlikely place (My Monastery is a Minivan, 54-55). She shares that she and her father are political opposites, so they avoid political topics whenever they are together. However, her father began sending out e-mails, sometimes long e-mails to try and convince his children, including Denise, of the error of their ways. “It got so bad that every time I saw his name attached to an e-mail, I’d sigh and delete it before even reading it.”
But one morning she was sitting down to write a reflection on “grace.” It wasn’t going well. She was having trouble getting started. When nothing else seemed to help, she thought it might help to distract herself by checking her e-mail. Wouldn’t you know it, there was another one from her father. She was getting ready to delete the e-mail when something inside her told her to open it up. It was one of those things that was making the rounds by e-mail, but it was just what she needed. Here’s what it said:

The man whispered, “God speak to me,” and a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear.

So the man yelled, “God speak to me!” And the thunder rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen.

The man looked around and said, “God, let me see you.” And a star shined brightly. But the man did not notice.

And the man shouted, “God, show me a miracle!” And a life was born. But the man did not know.

So the man cried out in despair, “Touch me, God, and let me know you are here!” But the man brushed away the butterfly and walked on.

Don’t miss out on a blessing because it isn’t packaged the way that you expect.

And Denise Roy smiled and reflected: “Grace even arrives by e-mail.” Now is the time, not once upon a time.
Advent tells us that God’s time is always now, no matter how difficult and challenging a time it is. That’s not to say God caused all the difficulty to teach us something. It is to say that there is nothing that happens that God cannot weave into our lives for our own growth. Advent tells us that God’s time is now. Christmas tells us that everything can be part of the path to deeper faith, richer humanity, closer connection to God.
The message of the season is not once upon a time, but now is the time. Amen.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The End of the World As We Know It

Sermon preached November 29, 2009

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

This morning I am going to begin with cartoon strips from this week’s newspaper. First, two from Peanuts. Charile Brown is walking along talking to himself. Sometimes, when you walk by the home of the girl you love, you can see her standing by the window… She waves at you and you wave back, but it’s her grandmother. Later in the week, Charlie is talking to his younger sister, Sally. She asks, “What’s this about waving at somebody?” Charlie: “Every day when I walk past the little red-haired girl’s house, her grandmother and I wave at each other.” Sally: “That’s weird.” Charlie: “No, it’s kind of nice.” Sally: “I waved at a kid on the playground today, and he threw a snowball at me!” Life’s little disappointments – waving at your girlfriend, only to discover it’s her grandmother, waving and getting a snowball in return.
Life’s little disappointments found their way into two of Tuesday’s cartoons. Close to Home showed a wife looking at a card, and then saying to her chagrinned husband: “Oh, isn’t that sweet! My dentist sent me a birthday card! The only person in the whole world who remembered!” Oops! Then there was Non Sequitur. The cartoon was captioned: “How Marketing Works.” It showed a man looking at a display in a store. He was thinking, “Hmmm… Maybe this will relieve the feeling of inadequacy that I didn’t have until just now” and the sign read: “For Real Men Only… BALD DUDE SHAMPOO!”
Life has its little disappointments. It also has bigger disappointments and hurts, losses and griefs. Even with these, most of us would not want to dramatically change the world as we know it. Some changes, yes, but most of them would leave much of the world intact.
Last month during one of the number of meetings I attended out of town, I overheard a United Methodist bishop talking with a lay woman about apocalyptic literature in the Bible, literature depicting cataclysmic change. What he said was that we have trouble relating to that literature because we are relatively happy with the way the world is. I have wondered about and pondered that statement since – and it came back to me as I read the Scripture for this week from Luke. It is apocalyptic – There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Apocalyptic literature is about change, dramatic change, earth-shaking, earth-rattling change. Apocalyptic literature sings out – “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Heaven and earth will pass away. The end will be jarring, cataclysmic.
But I agree with the Bishop, we have a difficult time relating to this literature. Yet it arrives every Advent season in the church, so I want to suggest that this literature is deeply relevant to our lives. This literature wants to say three important things to us:
1. The world is out of whack, off kilter, more than we imagine, more than we want to imagine.
2. We are invited to have a certain restlessness in our lives in the face of what is wrong with the world, seeds of divine discontent.
3. In spite of the darkness and difficulty, there is always hope, for God is always at work. If the days are coming when heaven and earth will pass away and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, then these days will also bring with them the promise of God for justice and righteousness, as Jeremiah indicates.
I think the basic message of Luke 21 and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible is this: open up - - - open your eyes to see more of the world, open your hearts to feel more deeply, open your arms to work for change.
We need to open our eyes to see that the world we live in has some deep, dark sides to it. While we may be relatively content to live in this world, there are realities that cry out for dramatic change.
We cannot ignore the depth of human inhumanity. All we need do is pick up the newspaper, or turn on our computers and we hear stories of rape, murder, torture in the world, stories about abused and neglected children, about child soldiers in Africa, about the selling of human beings into slavery – mostly for purposes of prostitution. In the recent history of humanity have Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s five-year plans, Mao’s cultural revolution, and Cambodia’s killing fields. The word “genocide” is less than 100 years old, coined in the 1930s, though the reality of killing groups of people based on their identity is certainly as old as organized human community. But it was not until then that we coined the term – what does that say about human progress?
We need to open our eyes to our use of the earth’s resources. Can we sustain the economic models which sustain our lives without doing serious and significant long-term damage to the planet? Is the cost of our highly mobile society the depletion and even the death of the planet? I listen to some futurists discuss a more wireless future, communication systems that rely on sensors everywhere, more information immediately available than we can process, but where will the energy for this come from? This week I read in The New York Times Book Review a review of a new book on Google, interesting subtitled – “the end of the world as we know it.” Popular title I guess! Anyway, towards the end of the review the author noted that Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin now “fly around in a customized Boeing 747 and talk sincerely about green computing, even as the free streaming of everyone’s home video clips on YouTube burn through mountaintops of coal.” Is that sustainable?
We need to open our eyes to the realities of wealth and poverty in our world. The Bible and Christian faith are not anti-wealth. The Bible and Christian faith are concerned for the poor, and create in us an uneasiness about a world where some are remarkably, fabulously wealthy, and many, too many are mired in grinding poverty. In his book Enough, John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Mutual fund Group, tells the story about Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, both authors, attending a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. The host is a hedge fund manager, and Vonnegut says to Heller that this man had made more money in a single day than Heller had ever earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22. Heller responds to Vonnegut, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.” (1) Bogle goes on to write: the rampant greed that threatens to overwhelm our financial system and corporate world runs deeper than money. Not knowing what “enough” is subverts our professional values (2). We live in a world where too many don’t have enough and some don’t understand the word “enough.”
The things that are off kilter are not just out there – they are also in here, inside each of us. Inner change is also important in our lives, often small and quiet, sometimes dramatic and far-reaching. We need to open our eyes to our need for change and to the difficulty of some of the change needed inside. I appreciate these words of Ernest Becker about inner change which can involve the going through the hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where one throws off the lendings of culture, the costumes that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as oneself (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 146). Sounds a little dramatic, perhaps, but when patterns of self-destructiveness are deeply ingrained in one’s life, or patterns of relating that cause hurt to others and deeply woven into one’s life, deep change is needed, and it is challenging.
Apocalyptic literature reminds us that there are aspects to our world that need dramatic change, that the world as we know it may need to end in significant ways for a new world to be born. It plants in us a certain restlessness, a certain divine discontent with the way the world is, with the way our lives are. This literature in our Bible invites us to open our eyes to see the world more truthfully. It also invites us to open our hearts to hope, for we trust that God remains at work to build a newer world. It invites us to open our arms to work with God for that newer world.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a deeper openness to the world in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. It is actually difficult to edit life. Especially in regard to feelings. Not being open to anger or sadness usually means being unable to be open to love and joy (203). She goes on to tell the story of a woman in her early sixties who Dr. Remen was treating for ovarian cancer. This woman had led an extraordinary life, at one time taking her children out of school to travel with them around the world. Remen called her a “Zorba the Greek kind of woman.” The treatment experience was tremendously difficult. The woman told Dr. Remen, “At the start, I saw myself at the top of a ski run. It was a hellacious run. What I didn’t realize was that I would have to make it on my knees.” (204) Throughout the experience, the woman listened to what she called her “chemotherapy music.” About a year after her treatment, the woman threw a party for the people who had helped her with her healing. She spoke about her pain and loss, her feelings of hopelessness and despair. She thanked those who had helped her through, and she shared with those gathered her chemotherapy music. Here is Dr. Remen’s description of what happened. After a few seconds of silence a voice filled with emotion shouted out, “Praise God, brothers and sisters!” and a blast of gospel music rocked the room. There was a moment of shock. Then a hundred people – friends and neighbors, sons, daughters, beauticians, lovers, grocery delivery boys and taxi drivers, masseuses and yoga teachers, nurses, cooks and house cleaners – began to dance. We danced for a long time. It was one of the great life celebrations I have ever experienced (205).
Open up, that is what apocalyptic literature like Luke 21 invites us to, asks us to do. Open our eyes to the world in all its pain and ugliness and beauty and wonder, to those places that need dramatic change and those that are already embodying God’s dream for the world. Open our hearts to hope, for God continues to work in our world. Open our arms to work for that newer world. Sometimes the end of the world as we know it is a good thing, for it is part of a new creation. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Just Can't Wait to Be King

Sermon preached November 22, 2009

Texts: John 18:33-37

Children’s Sermon
I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware

Lion: The Wizard of Oz
If I were King of the Forest, Not queen, not duke, not prince.
My regal robes of the forest, would be satin, not cotton, not chintz.
I'd command each thing, be it fish or fowl.
With a woof and a woof and a royal growl - woof.
As I'd click my heel, all the trees would kneel.
And the mountains bow and the bulls kowtow.
And the sparrow would take wing - If I - If I - were King!
Each rabbit would show respect to me. The chipmunks genuflect to me.
Though my tail would lash, I would show compash
For every underling!
If I - If I - were King!
Just King!
Monarch of all I survey -- Mo--na-a-a--a-arch Of all I survey

The King and I
The king is pleased…

He’s pleased with me
My lord and master
He’s pleased with me

I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
I’m gonna be a mighty king
So enemies beward…

No one saying do this
No one saying be there
No one saying stop that…
Free to do it all my way

So that’s what being a king is all about, at least as it is defined in popular culture – free to do whatever one likes, being the recipient of scraping and bowing, wealth and power. In this instances, we might trust these particular kings – the Lion, Yul Brennar, Simba. But history is filled with examples of “kings” who exercised their power more ruthlessly.
By a wonderful coincidence, this past week our confirmation class read and discussed the story of Moses, and you cannot talk about Moses without talking about Egypt and Pharaoh. The Pharaoh in Egypt came to be considered a god in a society that was deeply religious. One person described the rule of Pharaoh this way: “justice is what Pharaoh loves, evil is what Pharaoh hates” (Roberts, A History of the World, 68). And Pharaoh used that power to punish enemies, to send soldiers off to way, to enslave others, to keep himself wealthy. But isn’t that what it means to be king – no one saying do this, no one saying be there, no one saying stop that… free to do it all your way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be king?
There is such a king in today’s gospel reading, at least in the background. That king would have been the emperor of Rome. His representative in the story is Pilate. But there is another figure in the story who is also labeled a king, but he seems a strange figure for a king, doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.
Pilate, questioning Jesus about why he is in trouble, asks about his claim to being a king. Jesus responds: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Cryptic, elusive, mysterious. Pilate: “So you are a king?” Jesus: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
This final Sunday before the beginning of the Advent season in the Christian Church is known as “Christ the King Sunday.” We call Jesus “King.” Especially in Revelation that gets translated as Jesus being a better king than the kings of the world who rule unjustly and often murderously. Jesus is portrayed as a just king. In other places he is portrayed as a good and kind, as well as a just king. I suggest to you today that this new kind of king idea does not do justice to today’s story. It is not radical enough. Rather, I think we can only call Jesus Christ “king” if we understand that he shatters the idea of kingship. Jesus is king not in order to rule, but in order to reveal. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus wants to reveal the truth about our lives, about our world - - - the messy, complicated, wildly rich, sometimes ugly, always beautiful, truth about our lives and the world.
Jesus is a king after Emily Dickinson’s heart. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1129) she writes. The rich, varied, complicated truth about our lives needs to be told slant, offered in various ways, because it is sometimes a difficult truth, and Jesus tells it with power.
Jesus is a king after the heart of psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who in one of a series of talks given on the BBC, and later published, said, “the dictator… wields power through offering a life free from doubt. How dull!” (The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 204) Kings define reality for their subjects. Justice is what Pharaoh loves, evil what Pharaoh hates. Jesus is a king whose truth-telling can lead to doubt before it settles down again. The truth about our lives surprises us sometimes, and following that truth about our lives and the world is never dull.
For the writer of The Gospel According to John, truth is what frees us (“you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” 8:32); and truth and freedom are qualities of abundant life. The same Jesus who tells Pilate “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” also says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). To claim Jesus as king, to proclaim him as king is not to bow down but to open up, open up to truth, to life, to love.
This past Thursday I was at a workshop at St. Mary’s Hospital. It was the fifth event in what the hospital calls the “Spiritual Companion Series.” Linda Wiig and Linda Peterson were also there. The topic was “Voices of Suffering in the Psalms,” but the presenter, Dr. Frederick Gaiser, went in many directions, including sharing with us some ideas of the kinds of truths about our lives that Jesus reveals. To acknowledge Jesus as king is to open ourselves to these truths about our lives and our world.
The world is worse than it has to be. We bemoan natural disasters – floods, fires, hurricanes, treacherous winter storms. They seem just a part of the way the world is. But the world is worse than that. Humanity compounds the hurts and horrors of the world. Crops are destroyed by natural forces, but then the human community exacerbates the problems through inequitable distribution, or by the refusal of a totalitarian government to allow aid to be given. Floods destroy homes, but human beings continue to build in flood plains, or divert rivers making the possibility for flooding worse. Beyond that, there are disasters in the world which are solely the product of human imagination and ingenuity: technologies of torture, weapons of mass destructions, cruelties inflicted one person on another. The world is worse than it has to be, and we find ourselves participating in some of the harm and cruelty. In the series of BBC talks already mentioned, D. W. Winnicott also said, “however much we try to see evil, beastliness, and bad influence as something outside ourselves, or impinging on us from without, in the end we find that whatever things people do and whatever influences actuate them, these are in human nature itself, in fact, in ourselves” (The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 199).
Another truth about our lives and world that comes from Jesus and that I heard articulated on Thursday was this: the birds sing more than Darwinism requires. Yes, the world is worse than it has to be, and we are sometimes a part of that. The world is also more wonderful, more beautiful, more full of grace and joy and delight than we often imagine. In one of her poems, Denise Levertov writes of being tired and hungry late in the day, but feeling the need to wander outside in search of something to quell the emptiness inside, something that will reconnect her to God and world. She walks and waits and listens, nothing touches her soul deeply, but just as she is about to go inside, she turns once more to the north. (“A Reward”)

And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just off shore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you asked
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

The truth is that the birds sing more than Darwinism requires. There is beauty in the world wholly gratuitous.
One final truth about our lives and the world which comes through Jesus is that there is a love in the world which does not end, which cannot be defeated by even the most powerful empires. Jesus is king not because he wields royal power, but because his life was animated by the love that cannot be defeated in the end, his life incarnated a love which will not die, a love which challenges all the harms and injustices of the world, a love which continues to inspire a restlessness in us to make the world a better place.
How there is beauty and ugliness in our lives and in the world, tendencies toward cruelty and hatred and well as energies for goodness and love – this is all rich and mysterious and complex. Jesus as king shines a light into our lives. Jesus as king gives us power to work with the love inside and resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Jesus as king reveals more than rules, and to proclaim Jesus as king is to open up to truth, to freedom, to life, to love.
A man walks in the forest and spies a fox that has lost its legs and wondered how it could live. Then he saw a tiger come in with game in its mouth. The tiger had its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox. The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need.” He did this for many days but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Follow the example of the tiger and stop imitating the damaged fox.”(Soul Food, 54)
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus is a king who reveals more than rules, reveals the truth of our lives so we might live more freely, more fully, more lovingly. To claim and proclaim Jesus as king is to open up to truth, to freedom, to life, to love. It is to open up to the truth that sometimes we want to be the damaged fox, denying our power, when God has given us the strength and energy to be the tiger. It is to open up to the truth that sometimes we are the damaged fox in need of help from others, though we are afraid to admit it. It is to open up to the truth that there is a love in the world which never dies, which persistently and patiently works in our lives and in the world, and to seek to live in that love is to work for the only kind of kingdom that is of interest to Jesus the king. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Feelings Oh Feelings

Sermon preached November 15, 2009

Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20; I Samuel 2:1-10

For the second week in a row, the American poet Emily Dickinson gets the first word in the sermon:
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of Air - am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue -

The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church – and you are wondering how I am going to tie this in with Emily Dickinson, aren’t you? The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church, that is, we do not have specific creedal statements that we say everyone must agree with in order to be United Methodist. We are not indifferent toward what people believe, and we have creeds, ancient and more modern in our worship resources, but we are not a creedal church. And for this congregation, we do not make use, very often, of the creeds of the church. Within my first year here I tossed out the idea to a few people about doing a sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed – the excitement level was such that I soon scrapped that plan!
But if we were to use creeds more often, there is one I recall from my seminary days that particularly grabbed my attention. I won’t share the whole thing with you, only the last two sections. It was composed by a woman named Barbara Troxell, a United Methodist.
We believe our believing affects our daily walking and talking, our doubting and struggling, our decisions and our choice-making, our responses to persons and systems. We intend in this community in these days to raise questions hopefully, to work for justice lovingly, to grow in understanding the ways of God, to share a ministry faithfully, and by God’s grace, passionately!

I think I was so struck by this creed because it ended with the word “passionately.” It was not a word I was used to in the church. Passion – I taste a liquor never brewed!
Passion, feelings – that’s what this sermon is about. As I was thinking about the sermon for today, I couldn’t help but recall some of the songs in the iPod in my brain (I am old enough to use the image, “jukebox” in my brain, but some might not even know what that is) that make reference to feelings: “Hooked on a Feeling;” “I Feel the Earth Move;” “Do You Feel Like We Do?” “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me;” ‘I Feel Fine;” or just “Feelings.” All these feeling songs seem testimony to the words of Michael Eigen: “Feelings matter. Feeling matters.” (Feeling Matters, 152) The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “God gave us so many emotions and such strong ones. Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions” (quoted in Michael Eigen, Flames from the Unconscious, 30)
Feeling is important to who we are. We are rich in feeling, yet many of us are suspicious of feeling, concerned particularly with the combination of feeling and religion. We hear stories like the following and wonder about the potentially poisonous combination of faith and feeling. A judge in Stuart, FL was about to sentence pastor Rodney McGill for real estate fraud, but McGill was undaunted, addressing a courtroom prayer for enemies: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, for every witness against me, I pray cancer in their lives, lupus, brain tumor, pancreatic cancer.” The judge then sentenced him to 20 years in prison. (Funny Times, December 2009, 15).
Outside of religion, there is a lot about feeling that should give us pause. I am in the middle of Wally Lamb’s novel The Hour I First Believed, which I am reading with an interfaith book group in the community. Part of the story takes place in Littleton, Colorado, and brings in factual material from the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Here is a line from Eric Harris’ journal – Harris was one of the Columbine shooters. This is from his journal in 1998: “I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts, but before I leave this worthless place, I will kill whoever I deem unfit…. I’m full of hate and I love it” (Lamb, 179). Maybe it’s best to keep feelings within a tight leash, suppressed. Maybe feelings are best overcome, part of the corrupt nature of the human that God wants us to struggle against.
As powerful, and powerfully dangerous as feelings are, a faith that stays just in our heads, that never also energizes our hearts, seems lacking. Somehow all of who we are – mind, heart, soul, body – belongs a part of the journey of faith. Feelings are a part of the good gift of God’s creation.
I think I get this from the Bible, from today’s Scripture reading. Hannah prays fervently in her distress, so ardent are her prayers that Eli, the priest, mistakes her praying for a drunken spectacle. The descriptive words are rich – her heart is sad, she weeps bitterly, she is deeply distressed, deeply troubled, she pours out her soul – pours out her great anxiety and vexation. When her prayers for pregnancy are answered, Hannah sings out in joy. “My heart exults!”
So when was the last time someone mistook a church gathering for a raucous party? When has anyone ever been concerned that what is going on in church is fueled by wine flowing too freely? Yet when we think of some churches where we consider the display of emotion too wild, those are uncomfortable images, too – holy rollers and the like. Passion, emotion, by themselves are not what we are after, but a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness.
We are a church, after all, that has its beginnings as a particular expression of Christian faith in the thought and experience of John Wesley. Wesley had been a priest in the Church of England for ten years before this experience described in his journal. On May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death. Methodists historically have been advocates for a warm-hearted faith.
But we have seen emotion in faith taken too far, and often react by keeping our faith a head thing, so much so, that perhaps we have lost our sense of balance. John Cobb, a brilliant, sophisticated United Methodist theologian thinks that part of our problem is our failure to integrate head and heart, to seek a thoughtful and passionate faith. I quoted Cobb a couple of newsletters ago. Writing about “oldline churches,” like his own United Methodist Church, Cobb, penned this: As a group and on the whole we are lukewarm. We do good things. We serve real needs of real people. But we inspire no passion. We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel we purport to serve. We are quite content if, among the priorities of our members, Christian faith comes in third or fourth, after family and employer and nation perhaps…. We are lukewarm because we do not have an understanding of Christian faith as supremely important either for ourselves or for our world. (Reclaiming the Church, 4, 8)
For those worried about a faith that is too much passion and not enough thought, I also noted the word of philosopher Dylan Evans who, while he acknowledges that we cannot deny “that emotions sometimes affect our reasoning to our detriment,” goes on to say: On balance, a creature who lacked emotions would not just be less intelligent than we are; it would be less rational (Emotion, 180).
A thoughtful and passionate faith seems a more complete faith, a more intelligent faith, than one that is either all heart or all head, but how do we get there? I will quickly offer four steps.
We get to a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness by acknowledging our emotions, by feeling them honestly. Hannah is a wonderful model for us, as are the Psalms. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord” – Psalm 130. “My tears have been my food day and night” - Psalm 42. Our emotions are an important part of who we are. They are a part of the goodness of God’s creation – though like other parts of that creation they can be bent, warped, misshaped. They tell us things about our own experience. They tell us things about the world.
We get to a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness by acknowledging and feeling our feelings, but then questioning them and recognizing that we don’t have to act on them all. Our feelings need to be questioned – interrogated. The Psalms also encourage this. “Why are you cast down O my soul?” (Psalm 42). We need to ask questions of our feelings, especially when they seem disproportionate to the circumstances. Rage when we are stuck in traffic, or when some little thing bothers us, seems unjustified, and we should stop and ask what is going on inside us.
We question our emotions to find out what might be going on, and we do this while being aware that we don’t have to act on all our feelings. I find this less in today’s Scripture passage than in the broader biblical and Christian witness which understands that our emotions, important as they are can be bent in unhealthy ways, can become inflamed unnecessarily. Simply following our feelings, without critically examining them, can get us into trouble. Not long ago, in the city of Bennington Vermont, four young people in their twenties were arrested after a Chili’s burglar alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m. According to police, the four intended to remove and steal the large chili on the restaurant’s sign using a hacksaw and power drill. However, not possessing a battery-operated drill, they had strung extension cords together running to the nearest outlet they could find, which was 470 feet away, across four lanes of highway and through a Home Depot parking lot. (Funny Times, December 2009, 15). These four would have done well to check their emotions a little more thoroughly. In an interview, the Dalai Lama discusses “healing emotions” and notes that compassion often leads to suffering, “but there is a great purpose for cultivating this temporary uneasiness or unhappiness, because of the great benefit that will follow” (Healing Emotions, 171). Not all uncomfortable emotions are to be avoided. We need a thoughtful, passionate faith.
To get such a faith we need to allow our faith to shape our emotions, our feelings. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “attitudes mold affects” (Coming Through the Whirlwind, xii). John Wesley defined perfection in love as the humble, gentle, patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions. Clearly he believed that our “tempers” could be shaped by love. Anger is an important emotion and has a place in the life of faith – anger at injustice, for instance. But anger needs to be shaped by love and diminished by love. It shouldn’t be our primary default emotion as we grow in God’s love. Spiritual practices and disciplines shape our emotions.
Finally, I would like to note that while the focus of this sermon has been on the inner life, the inner and outer are connected – remember the mobius strip I used a few weeks back. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann makes this connection powerfully. Today life itself and actual survival are called in question. Death is threatening life on earth…. So the passion for life must be awakened and the numbing spell of apathy must be broken. Before the earth dies its nuclear and ecological death, men and women will die the death of apathy in their hearts and souls. The powers to resist are paralyzed if the passion for life is lacking. (The Spirit of Life, 178). A passionate, thoughtful faith is not only life-enhancing for those who cultivate it, such a faith enhances the life of the world.

Seek a faith that weaves head and heart, that is deeply thoughtful and profoundly passionate. Such a faith is what we need. Such a faith is what the world needs from us. Such a faith allows us to taste a liquor never brewed, the living water of God’s Spirit, and to live in that Spirit passionately! Amen.

Less Than Zero

Sermon preached November 8, 2009

Texts: Mark 12:38-44

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?

Emily Dickinson (288)

Ever have a day when those words from Emily Dickinson seemed just right? Or maybe you’ve had a Macbeth day (V,v, 17 – Bartlett’s, p. 240)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Maybe you’ve experienced some of these things.

Ever feel like the soundtrack to your life is Elvis Costello’s “Less Than Zero”?
Then I have a story for you, Mark chapter 12, verses 38-44. Now it doesn’t start out very promising, in fact, Jesus seems in a bit of a funk. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Pretty direct, and pretty harsh.
Then there is a shift. Jesus watches the crowd for awhile, watches as wealthy people put money into the Temple treasury, and a particular woman catches his attention – a poor widow. This woman places two small copper coins in the treasury, worth hardly a penny, and Jesus says “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” Jesus just flunked accounting 101! Yet he explains that others have given out of their abundance but she has given all.
There are a number of themes that could be pursued from this last story. The woman is a model of Christian discipleship – she gives her whole being in contrast to the scribes whose religious practice seems all on the surface. The entire passage presents a critique of a religious system that perpetuates a division between wealth and poverty, that, in fact, devours widows. I will touch on that a bit more later, but my focus is different today.
I want to pay attention to the way Jesus pays attention in this passage. When I do that I see a Jesus who is willing to pay attention to a person no one else is interested in – a poor widow with few earthly resources, a woman on the margins. One of the messages I get from that kind of attending is this - You matter.
You matter. On those days when life threatens to overwhelm you, when change throws projectiles your way, when the endings all seem bad, when failure is your constant companion and you feel like your life is little more than a warning to others – those less than zero days – you matter. The deeper truth about your life is that it is not a tale told by an idiot, but that your life is a precious gift from God. You matter to God. Life will have its ups and downs, its heartaches, its failures, its changes that don’t improve things, its bad endings, but your life is not less than zero. You matter. You are loved. This is sheer good news which you are invited to receive with gratitude.
Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody… Are you Nobody too” ends rather delightfully. Seeming nobodys connect with each other and find quiet friendship and fellowship. They even celebrate their quiet lives.
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The poem invites a celebration of who we are, and so, too, does the gospel story about the widow.
You matter – that is good news which you are invited to receive with gratitude and delight. It is also an invitation to live differently.
You matter in the life of this church. One of the dangers of having one worship service is that when we get 200+ people here, it becomes easier for any one of us to think that we don’t matter much on Sunday morning. Let me tell you, you do! Every person who comes matters to the quality and character of our worship. Every note sung adds to the chorus of praise offered here. Every kind greeting offered raises the friendliness temperature of the church. When you are not here, and I understand that all of us have reasons for not being here from time to time, but when you are not here, someone might look for a friendly face in the spot where you would have been and find it empty instead, and that will leave them feeling a little emptier.
You matter in the life of this church beyond worship. Without your energy, ideas, time we are less than what we can be. Without your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, your witness we are not all we can be. There is nothing insignificant about your participation in the life and ministry of this church. You matter.
You matter, as well to the well-being of the world God loves. Your small acts of kindness and conscience matter in our world. Jesus act of paying attention to scribes and then to a widow seems pretty small, but as the story gets told a system that devoured widows when it was supposed to protect them, gets revealed, and there is hope for change. Caring for widows was supposed to be a hallmark of the Jewish faith of Jesus time. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells of a God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers.” The prophet Isaiah called out to the people (1:17): “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” But that wasn’t happening. Jesus contrasting the scribes and the widow reminded the people of who they were to be, and it mattered. Your acts of compassion and kindness and conscience matter, too – caring for the hungry and the marginalized, calling attention to systems that still create great wealth and excruciating poverty in our world, asking how our economic arrangements are affecting the earth – all that matters. You matter.

Tikkun Deborah Cooper (a Duluth poet)
The man with the overloaded grocery cart
insists I go ahead of him.
Did he see me looking at my watch?
Even though I am running late
I take the time to help the bent woman wrestle a bag of dog food to her trunk.
Arriving home, the bent woman calls her daughter on the phone,
as if they’d spoken only yesterday, never mentioning the rift.
The daughter’s husband walks through the door
into an embrace.
Later, unasked, he cuts the grass of the widow down the street.
From the window, she waves, feels brave enough now
to sort through Frank’s things…pick out a keepsake for each grandchild.
Three states to the east, the gay grandson, once estranged,
opens the package, unrolls the bubble wrap…
carefully hangs the mirror on the wall.
Stones they had collected from that rocky shore
when he was small, set in the frame by his grandfather’s steady hand.
That night, he writes a letter.
Light repeats itself… a subtle yielding here and there, an outstretched hand.

You matter. Hear the good news again. Live the good news always. Extend an outstretched hand. Amen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Newer World

Sermon preached November 1, 2009
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

In one episode of the sitcom, Seinfeld, Elaine is ecstatic that John Kennedy Jr. has joined her health club. She lets her excitement lead her to consider the possibility of romance and marriage. She imagines what it would be like to be Elaine Bennis Kennedy Jr.
The later part of this week I was in Asheville, North Carolina for a meeting of The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order. Just outside of Asheville is Biltmore, the mansion and estate of the Vanderbilt family. I have been to Asheville three times but have never seen Biltmore, only pictures. It looks like quite a place.
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be a Rockefeller, a Kennedy, a Vanderbilt, a Gates? At times I could imagine it would be a gift of sorts. To be born into such a family would mean access to resources few of us can imagine. It would mean possibilities for professions that would be much more difficult to access otherwise. At the same time that being a Rockefeller or Kennedy or Vanderbilt or Gates might be a gift, it would also be a significant responsibility and task. We would be asked to uphold family traditions of public service and philanthropy. Mistakes would be magnified and so one would want to be especially careful.
Being a Christian carries with it that same sense of gift and task. To be a Christian is to be touched by God’s Spirit so that the Spirit continues to work in our lives to transform us. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ and the Spirit of Jesus into participating in God’s work in the world. In the words of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christians stand by God in [God’s] hour of grieving;” they participate “in the powerlessness of God in the world” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 349, 362). We are moved by the Spirit to be a part of God’s work in the world.
What is that work? Our two Scriptures for this morning characterize the essence of God’s work in the world.
God’s work in the world is new life. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is an extended parable. It is a story designed to evoke trust in Jesus as one through whom God gives life – not just physical life (though that is the setting of the story) but abundant life, adventurous life, interesting life. The call of God in Jesus to each of us is to come out of the tombs that contain us, to be unwrapped from the grave clothes which imprison us – unhealthy patterns of behavior that get in the way of true life, fears that prevent us from living more fully. When we open our lives up to Jesus, we, too, see the world through new eyes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to a friend once wrote, “Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 362)
God’s work in the world is transformation, the creation of a new world. Whatever else we find in the wild final book of the Bible, “Revelation,” we find the conviction that God is always at work “making all things new.” The vision in the book’s final chapters is one that inspires joy and awe. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” God is at work to create a new heaven and earth.
As Christians we give our lives to this work of God in the world, and it comes to us both as a gift and as a task.
The work of God in the world is a gift to us. New life is a gift. Sharing in God’s work of new life and a newer world is a gift. What does it mean that something is a gift – here is one definition: “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us.” (Lewis Hyde quoted in Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life, 228). New life in God is a gift in at least two important senses. New life in Christ is a gift we inherit from others. Think about it – we would not be here were it not for others. We would not have life itself were it not for parents. We would not be here in this church were it not for the work of countless church members through the years – those who began this congregation, those who helped build its buildings, those who shared the Methodist version of the Jesus faith, those who made lunches to raise money to move up the hill. We are surrounded by saints who helped share with us the gift of new life in God. Take a moment and name some of these people in your hearts and minds. Whisper some names quietly. On this All Saints Day, we remember those from whom we received faith as a gift.
New life in God, and God’s newer world is also a gift from God. God's presence in our lives brings with it new life. God weaves our work together synergistically, so that it always adds up to more than we did or might do. I am amazed at the number of times remarkable things happen in worship that none of us participating had planned – a song by the choir or Tapestry strikes a deep chord with the sermon in a way we had not considered, unexpected people arrive and share in communion. These are gifts of life from the grace of God.
New life and a newer world are also tasks. The fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once preached (quoted in Needleman, Money, 233): “that a person should receive God within is good. But that God should become fruitful in a person is better; for the fruitfulness of the gift is the only gratitude for the gift.” New life and a newer world are gift and task. Lazarus by himself in the tomb is not a model for our life of faith. We don't just lie around waiting for God to act - at least not most of our lives.
We have work to do to cultivate new life in our lives. Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices: An Altar in the World, 59: The only promise [spiritual practices] make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know – about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God. The great religious traditions of the world are so confident of this that they commend dozens of spiritual practices to their followers without telling those practitioners exactly what will happen when they do. New life in God needs tending, cultivation, discipline and practice. John Wesley consistently encouraged Christians to engage in spiritual practices including prayer, worship, Scripture reading, compassionate action to help those in need. We are not always sure how those practices will shape our lives. The promise is that they will, and that God’s new life will blossom within us.
A newer world is also our task, working with God to make God’s dream for the world more of a reality – a dream of justice and peace, compassion and care, beauty and love. God’s invitation to us is to join in this work of creating a newer world, and we don’t have to look far to find ways to join this effort – food shelves, mentoring, visiting the sick or shut-in, working for a fairer sharing of the world’s resources, caring for the planet.
The poet Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses” penned these words: Come my friends/’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It is never too late, my friends to seek new life, a newer world. It comes as a gift, and our response is gratitude – including gratitude for all the saints whose lives have enriched our own. It is our task, for which we pray for courage. Amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What 'Good is Faith?

Sermon preached October 25, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:46-52

What do poetry and quiche have in common? Real men avoid both! I came up a little dry this week on humor, and I thought that was better than, “How does a poet sneeze?” “Haiku!”
I am going to begin this morning with a poem, and yes, it is too late to schedule that Sunday morning root canal. For those present at Wednesday’s UMW meeting, this is a repeat.

"Otherwise" Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Sadly for those of us who appreciate her work, Jane Kenyon’s “otherwise day” came in 1995 when she died of leukemia just shy of her 48th birthday.
When I was twenty-one, I began experiencing medical symptoms that needed further exploration. After undergoing diagnostic testing and a course of medication it was determined that I had chronic ulcerative colitis. The inner lining of my colon acted up from time to time, and the best theory now around is that my immune system attacks that inner lining. For the most part the disease has been well controlled for these past twenty-nine years, with some significant exceptions. The most concerning issue with ulcerative colitis is the increased risk of colon cancer, especially after one has had the disease for twenty years or more. The kind of colon cancer associated with ulcerative colitis tends to be more aggressive than other kinds of colon cancer, so I get my colon scoped every year. This year was in late September, and I spent the next couple of weeks concerned about a new development.
My doctor discovered a polyp, a suspicious looking polyp and he was concerned that it was pre-cancerous. He told Julie and I that he was sending in biopsies and depending on the result I would either need to come in for a follow-up colonoscopy in six months or be referred to Rochester for further testing, likely leading to surgery for the removal of my colon next summer. So we waited – and the end of our waiting was unexpected good news. The polyp over which he was concerned was not related to cancer. I am guessing I am one of the few people in the world looking forward to having his next colonoscopy in a year.
It was good news, very good news, but someday, it will be otherwise. Some day we will all face difficult medical news. For some it will come later in life. In a recent week, I officiated at two funerals and the combined ages of the women whose lives we celebrated was 190. In these past few weeks, though, I have also been touched by more untimely deaths: Gregg Marquardt, age 62; Diane Nickila, age 58; Lynn (Wittich) Bergquist, teacher at Laura MacArthur, age 50 – a high school classmate of mine.
Short of that kind of tragedy, life has more than its share of smaller disappointments, hurts and tragedies – jobs not offered, dates refused, promotions not given, unkind remarks, invitations that never arrive, unexpected home or car repairs. Life’s disappointments, hurts and tragedies are not limited to our personal lives. Our world, too, has many. How can one not be disappointed that the human community fights senseless wars, that we allow so many of our fellow human beings to go hungry, that women are still brutalized, that children get sold into slavery, that skin color or place of birth gets in the way of recognizing the humanity of another? I am disappointed that our country cannot seem to muster the will and intelligence to come up with some way to provide medical insurance for all its citizens. I am often disappointed at the inflammatory rhetoric that passes for political discourse these days. Someone once wrote, “life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (Wilfred Bion, quoted by Michael Eigen in The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134). That is too stark and strong, but there are days when life feels like that.
So who put lemon juice in my coffee this morning? How do I get from this nice story about the healing of Bartimaeus to this discussion? The story of Bartimaeus is a nice story. Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho, heading toward Jerusalem, and they come upon Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. He shouts out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd tried to quiet him down, but he cried out even more loudly. Jesus calls Bartimaeus, asks what he would like. “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said, “Go; your faith has made you well.” The story has a happy ending.
But here’s the puzzle – we all know that at some point in time healing does not happen. Something gets us all. Faith will not always make us well. Our “otherwise day” will come. So what good is faith? What good is faith when life still disappoints, when we still get hurt, when an otherwise day awaits us all?
Here is where reading this story more closely helps. I would argue that there are multiple dimensions of healing in this story, and that the physical healing is only one, and not even the most significant healing that happens to Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus cannot see, but beyond that, his life if filled with discouragement and lack of direction. He sits by the side of the road hoping for handouts. The minute Jesus invites him, the crowd tells Bartimaeus to “take heart.” That is a healing in itself – the healing of the heart. With a healed heart, Bartimaeus begins to take some action in his life. He springs up, throwing off his cloak. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well – his faith. Bartimaeus hears Jesus speak words about his strength – “your faith” has made you well. With heart and courage, Bartimaeus is also given sight. He could use his heart and courage any way he would like. He chooses to follow Jesus – another healing.
The most significant kinds of healing in our lives occur when Jesus summons our inner strength and we hear the Spirit speak to us – “take heart.” Faith will not resolve all our difficulties or prevent all our hurt and illness. What good is faith? Faith gives us the capacity to take heart amidst the pain and discouragement of life. Faith gives us the courage to weave all our experiences in life together so that we are stronger, more compassionate, more loving. In a recent interview in Ode, Karen Armstrong says, “Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease. But it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.” (September/October 2009: 36) Not everything in life will get cured, but the heart can always grow in care, and that is the good of faith.
Faith also gives us eyes to see the good and beautiful that is in the world, alongside the hurtful and tragic. It gives us eyes to see the rich resources of grace and strength that are there for us. Faith plus Jesus equals wellness, wholeness, healing, heart. Faith in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love opens us to rich resources for life that are just there for us. They are there. Theologian Bernard Meland writes in an essay about the relationships which form our existence, and they do. None of us chose to be born or when or to whom. It just happened. It just is. Meland writes: We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from [these] come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining…. [There is a] goodness in existence which we do not create, but which creates and save us. (Fallible Forms and Symbols, 151) What faith opens up to us is an experience of One whose very nature is goodness and love and who is always at work to bring the possible good out of any situation, to “One who does understand, accept, and love even when the world seems to have turned completely against us” in the words of theologian John Cobb (Mesle, Process Theology, 141). Faith opens us up to this one we call “God” and we affirm that we know this God best in Jesus Christ, a Jesus who pays attention to the blind beggar on the side of the road, gives him the courage to take heart, recognizes that a healing faith is at work in even this unlikely character, welcomes him to the way.
Wednesday at the UMW gathering I shared a favorite story of mine written by Annie Dillard. She tells of a time when she rounded a corner to watch a mockingbird in free fall, and then watched as it remarkably spread its magnificent wings just before crashing head long into the ground. She reflects: Cruelty is a mystery; and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump up against another mystery: the inrush of power and light…. Unless all ages and races of [humans] have been deluded… there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitious…. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard Reader, 286, 287). Faith helps us be there.
Life is full of surprises, some of them, at least, are bad. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. These are both truths about life. What good is faith? In faith we have access to resources which give us strength, courage and heart to weave difficulty into our lives and be more compassionate and caring. This is healing. Faith helps us see that we are loved and cared about, deeply. This is healing. Faith helps us see that life’s surprises include beauty and wonder and grace. This is healing. Faith helps us act to create beauty and grace, to follow Jesus along the way, to bring healing to the world. That is the good of faith. Amen.