Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Change Run Amok?

Sermon preached on January 25, 2009
Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

Today’s sermon is built around the Scripture readings for today and around two words – change and call. Now that’s not “change for a call.” Do you suppose two generations from now people will even know what it means to have asked for change to make a call? I picture people watching that old episode of Seinfeld where George is annoyed because he is trying to call his girlfriend from a Chinese restaurant and others keep using the phone in front of him. I can imagine people saying, “Why doesn’t he just use his cell phone?” The other day I was showing a clip of the film Million Dollar Baby to my health care ethics class and there was this scene with an old black dial phone. I wondered if any of the class had ever used such a phone.
I guess all these astute observations about contemporary life already speak to the ubiquity of change in our world. That was evident to me again this week as I attended a meeting of the Commission on Theological Education of the University Senate of The United Methodist Church – now that’s a mouthful. During the opening worship service we sang a song, it’s number 444 in our hymnal, O Young and Fearless Prophet. The man singing next to me, a former seminary president said that the song brought back fond memories for him of time in a youth group, and a woman a row ahead of us said the same. Later the man told me he had grown up in a more Pentecostal Church and that this song was his first encounter with the idea that the gospel has a social dimension to it. I confessed that I don’t think I ever sang this song before. I remember Pass It On from my youth group days – not O Young and Fearless Prophet. I hope I didn’t make him feel old. It’s not a bad hymn, though and we will sing it sometime here. Change happens.
This week represented momentous change in our national life. A candidate whose campaign slogan was “Change We Can Believe In” was sworn in as the 44th President of these United States. Not only that, but President Barack Obama is our country’s first African-American president and our first multi-racial president. He has promised to work with the American people to make changes in our national life that will help us meet the current crises we face. Whether or not you voted for him, I believe we all hope he succeeds, because change is needed right now. Our economic life is too tenuous. We have not yet done enough to meet the environmental and energy challenges of our time. Health care is in need of reform. Change is what was voted for, change is what is needed. Change is what we must all commit ourselves to.
But is change always positive? Can there be too much change? Can change run amok? Grace Valley Baptist Church has been losing about a dozen members a year for the past few years, but with their new system, they now report a 7% annual growth rate. They have decided to measure worship attendance not by the number of people present, but by weight. An industrial scale was installed under the entry way door, and the numbers look good. The holidays have been especially good for growth.
Maybe change can run amok.
A proctologist decided that he needed a change of careers. He was interested in cars and thought he would check out becoming a mechanic. He enrolled in the local technical college and found he really enjoyed the work. His first exam went extremely well – he scored 150%. While he was pleased, he was also mystified, so he went to speak to the instructor. “It’s not that I am unhappy with this evaluation, but help me understand it better.” The instructor replied, “Well, you took the engine apart perfectly, that was worth 50%. You put it back together perfectly, that was worth another 50%. I gave you an additional 50% because you did it all through the tailpipe.”
May some things shouldn’t change. Maybe change can run amok.
President Obama was elected on a platform of change, yet in his inaugural speech he said that in meeting the challenges of our day we need to return to truths deeply embedded in our history – “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” Not everything needs to change.
How about with God? Where does God fit into all of this – the God of our faith, the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ. We sing in the old song, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise:” To all life, Thou givest, to both great and small/In all life Thou livest, the true life of all/We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree/And wither and perish/but naught changeth thee. Change may threaten to run amok, but here we can stand on solid ground. God never changes – right? That’s what many of us have been taught.
Yet here we run into a problem - - - Jonah indicates that God changes. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity God said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it. God also seems to repeat Godself – God called Jonah a second time. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. What’s going on here? Change may be needed, but shouldn’t God be a part of what remains stable?
The Jonah story also introduces the second word I said would center today’s sermon – “call.” God called Jonah, and when Jonah ran from that sense of call, only to run into problem after problem, God called Jonah a second time. How do we think about change and call together? We often hear language that suggests God’s call in our lives is singular – to one task, to one purpose, to one vocation, to a particular marriage partner. Careful – I believe God has something to do with bringing people together and certainly has something to do with couples staying together. I don’t believe that God has some single person picked out for someone – so that if you get it wrong you simply married the wrong person. Some of you may remember the popular song from the 1970s – It’s Sad To Belong to Someone Else When the Right One Comes Along – England Dan and John Ford Coley. Not a bad soft rock song, but a terrible theology.
That sense of an unchanging God issuing an unchanging call in our lives can be found in lots of places. Rick Warren, who was a part of this week’s inauguration sold many copies of a book entitled The Purpose-Driven Life. Our Tuesday morning men’s group read it together awhile back. In that book Warren writes things like: “Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life.” About calling he says things such as: “You were put on earth to make a contribution” (227), and talks about “serving God in a way that expresses your heart” (289). I agree with both these statements wholeheartedly, but then he goes on to write “to fulfill your mission will require that you abandon your agenda and accept God’s agenda for your life” (288). I find this more problematic, not that idea that God may have something different in mind for us than we have for ourselves – I am nearing 50 and am not a multi-millionaire – given my recent pension report I can tell you that I am further away than I was last summer! But the idea of “God’s agenda” matched with that sense that God has planned every moment of our lives leaves us feeling that there is just one unchanging plan and our job is to figure that out in the midst of a world that changes all the time. A similar idea is found in the book the Monday night First and Ten men’s group is reading, John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. “You have a purpose – a design that is central to God’s dream for the human race” (58) – again, the language seems singular – one plan, one design, never changing. Admittedly, both Ortberg and Warren are sometimes more nuanced in exploring what that means, but they often fall into this language which suggests an unchanging God and an unchanging call.
Here’s my problem with that, the world changes. We change. We are not the same people we were five years ago. We have made decisions about our lives – some better than others. We have tried to be responsive to our sense of God’s Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we have been and other times maybe not so much. We know Jonah’s story because it is ours – we go the other way from God’s Spirit sometimes. And I believe that God genuinely responds to the changes in our lives. I believe God changes with our changes and that God’s call in our lives responds to our changing circumstances and the changing circumstances of the world.
The language in Mark’s gospel is interesting. After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus responds to an event, John’s arrest. He preaches a message of change – God is doing something new, get on board. He calls Peter, James and John from the midst of their lives.
God calls to each of us, but we may do better to think less of “our calling” than of God calling in each moment of our lives in response to what we have chosen and the choices of others. God is responsive to our lives and to our world, and in that way, God changes. I am not saying the character of God changes – God is always love, and God’s Spirit is always working in the direction of love, reconciliation, peace, forgiveness, justice, the common good, beauty, community – what I have called God’s dream for the world. Theologian Bruce Epperly puts it well. Our callings and vocations in life are grounded in our environment, DNA, family of origin, religious upbringing, past choices, and many other factors, including God’s emerging vision for our lives. God’s basic character does not change, but God’s call in and on our lives changes in response to changes in our lives and in our world.
What does all this mean for us more concretely? Most important of all I think it means that no matter what changes in our lives and in our world, God never stops calling to us, never stops inviting us into new life, never stops luring us into a better life and toward a better world. There is nothing we can do, no decision we can make, that takes us so far from God that God does not still see a purpose for our lives, a purpose that makes a difference to the world. That is grace. That is good news.
I also believe that this idea of a responsive God who changes and whose call responds to changes in our lives and world invites us to be open to the movement of the Spirit in our individual lives. If God never stops calling us, we ought never stop listening. Sometimes that call may be to a long range plan – like becoming a pastor. God may be calling someone here to that life. I believe God calls me to be a pastor, but could God call me to something else in the future – yes. Could I do some things that require God to change my calling? Yes. I always need to pay attention – and within my calling as a pastor, I need to pay attention to the ways God calls me to live out my ministry. I truly believe God has work for us to do together here as a part of my calling and yours. We need to listen to the Spirit together.
Responding to God’s call is often less a matter of trying to figure out the rest of your life in one fell swoop than responding to the voice, the touch, the gentle inkling of God’s Spirit in your life even now. Sometimes the call may be to a life changing vocation, but more often it is the still small voice asking us to take a next step in our journey of faith.
The same is true for our congregation. I believe God continues to call us to ministry in ways consistent with our history and our values, but we need to pay attention day to day for that calling. Where is God calling us now? How is God inviting us to build on the rich history of this congregation, a congregation that has tried to unite being prayerful and progressive, a congregation that has long welcomed all and welcomed the community. I see us growing together as a congregation that nurtures others – inviting them into our community life so that all who are part of our congregation are open to these movements of God’s Spirit in our lives. I see us growing as a congregation that helps people take the next step in their journey of faith, whatever that next step may be – deeper prayer, reaching out in compassion to the world in new ways, struggling for justice, connecting faith more deeply with caring for the world, a richer reading of our scriptures. I see us growing as a congregation in our being a good neighbor in our community, seeking to make a difference in Duluth and in the world. Responding to God’s call to our congregation is not simply something I define, it is something we figure out together.
Change happens, and often needs to happen. Change happens inside the life of God, but one thing never changes – God’s desire for our lives to be all they can be, God’s desire for our congregation to be all that it can be. The exact nature of God’s call may change, but that God will call us a second time, a third time, a hundred times, that doesn’t change. How well are we listening? How well are we responding? Amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Body Language

Sermon preached on January 18, 2009

Texts: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; I Corinthians 6:12-20

A minister, a priest and a rabbi went for a hike together one summer afternoon. It was a very hot day, and after awhile, the three men were sweaty and tired. Fortunately, their hike took them by a small lake, and since the lake was fairly secluded, the three decided to take a swim. Removing all their clothes, they jumped in with delight. Feeling refreshed, the three got out of the water and decided to let themselves air dry, then they got the idea to pick some berries while they did so. As they moved across an open area, who should they find hiking but a group of women from town. Unable to get back to their clothes in time, the minister and the priest covered up their private areas as best they could and the rabbi covered his face as all three ran for cover. After the women had left and the men were dressed, the minister and the priest asked the rabbi why he had covered his face rather than his more private parts. The rabbi replied, “I don’t know about you, but in my congregation, it’s my face they would recognize.” (A Minister, A Priest, and a Rabbi, 170).
There is a lot of humor about the body, much of which will never be heard in a sermon on Sunday morning. We are good at making fun of the human body. He’s so thin that if he stood sideways and stuck out his tongue he would look like a zipper. He’s so fat that when his beeper goes off people think he’s backing up. She’s so big that when she wears a yellow raincoat, people holler out, “Taxi.” (Keillor, Pretty Good Joke Book, 75, 78).
We have a very interesting relationship to our bodies in our culture. We often denigrate them, think less of our bodily existence. We are often uncomfortable with our bodies in some way, and sometimes uncomfortable talking about our existence as fleshy creatures. I love these lines from an Anne Lamott essay which capture this sense of dis-ease about our bodies. This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing – it’s another thing I’d like to bring up with God. Bodies are so messy, and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says, “We think we’re human beings having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits, having human experiences,” (a) I think it’s true, and (b) I want to ram the car. (Plan B, 271). When you listen carefully to Anne Lamott’s words, you really do get a sense of the confusion about the body – “been issued a body” - - - what were we before being issued a body? Her words mirror some of our confusion and discomfort with bodily life.
There may be some good reasons for our confusion and ambivalence about bodily life and our bodies. Ernest Becker, who thinks profoundly about the human condition, as does Anne Lamott, but Becker does not have as light a touch (The Denial of Death, Escape from Evil), Becker writes: Man is a worm and food for worms…. He is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. (The Denial of Death, 26) I told you Becker lacked a light touch.
Becker hammers home to us the reality of our bodily existence, but he also reminds us that we seem to transcend this existence. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature. (26) Not bad.
What I really appreciate about Becker is that he gets us closer to what I think is a more biblical view of the human person, of human existence, of bodily life. Our culture tends to want to separate spirit, soul from body. Our bodies are issued to us. We are spirits having a human bodily existence. Yes, we have this deeply spiritual side, this symbolic, reflective side, but our bodies are more than just issued to some disembodied spirits. Whatever our spirits are, they are intimately connected to our bodies, body and soul, body and spirit are deeply intertwined.
One of the earliest images of the human person is the image from Genesis where God breathes into earth, clay, mud – breathes spirit. Life is always this combination of earth and spirit, inseparable. The Psalmist builds on that tradition. God is as near as our bodies. God was near as our bodies formed in our mothers’ wombs. We are fearfully and wonderfully made – “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
Paul also builds on this tradition, adding a specific Christian emphasis. Our bodies are a part of Christ – our bodies! He also says our spirits become one with Christ – body and spirit interconnected, intertwined. Our bodies, Paul says, are temples of the Holy Spirit, and they can glorify God. I appreciate the way Eugene Peterson renders parts of this passage in his Bible translation/paraphrase The Message. Didn’t you realize your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.
That’s some significant body language – let people see God in and through your body. All this philosophical and theological speculation on the nature of the human person has a concrete pay off – pay attention to your body and let people see God in and through it. Let your body language, the language of your body, be the language of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s goodness. It’s Paul’s basic point, even sex should be a way in which we let our bodies speak the language of love and some kinds of sexual expression just don’t do that. Let your body language be the language of God’s love, peace, justice, goodness.
How? Glad you asked.
Love your body. Talk about a difficult and counter-cultural idea – love your body - - - and yes, the very body that got you here today with all of its extra rooms, and earned lines and hair that is places you never thought it would be or not in places you think it should be - - - the very body that sometimes lets you down. Love your body.
Among the best writing Anne Lamott does about faith is about faith and loving the body. For too long, and despite what people told me, I had fallen for what the culture said about beauty, youth, features, heights, weights, hair textures, upper arms. Sometimes, in certain lights, I could see that I was beautiful, not in spite of but because of unusual features – funky teeth, wild hair, acne scars. My mother’s nose, very English, with pinched indents at the tip and what she called her horns – incredibly helpful to my self-esteem as a child and which I now call my proton nobulators. My father’s crooked teeth. Cellulite that would make Jesus weep. (Grace Eventually, 71) Her humor lets us know that while she may struggle with this sometimes, Anne can see her body as it is and love it as a beautiful work of God.
We should see the same thing when we look in the mirror. It would not be a bad spiritual practice, in fact, for us every now and again, to look in a full length mirror and thank God for the beautiful body we have been given. If you wear glasses, put them on! If you really want to be adventurous in your spiritual practice, take your clothes off before you look in the mirror. Hey, if some pastor in Florida or Texas can invite all the married couples in his congregation to make love every night for a month, I figure it is not that big a deal to invite you to take your clothes off and look at your body. You probably take your clothes off sometimes anyway. I am trying to be funny, but the point is a serious one. Look. This body is a place where God dwells. It is sacred space.
Moving on - - - Care for your body is a spiritual discipline. Spiritual disciplines/spiritual practices are ways to tend to the sacred places in our lives, and from a biblical perspective, our bodies are such spaces. Loving our bodies does not preclude the idea that we may want to change them just a bit, not so much for some cultural concept of beauty, but to keep them healthy, keep them as beautiful as they were created to be. It begins with affirming our beauty now. Anne Lamott: If you cannot see that you’re okay now, you won’t be able to see it if you lose twenty pounds (74). Affirm your beauty, affirm your body as a sacred space, then see how you might like it to be a little healthier. Positive change usually begins with a positive attitude about the present.
Last June, all the United Methodist clergy in Minnesota were given the opportunity to be part of a walking program using a pedometer. You wear the pedometer, and it plugs into your computer and lets you know how much you are walking. I decided to participate. I knew my exercise was not what I wanted it to be. Exercise will not make me Brad Pitt, but I want to be as healthy as I can be. I have worn my pedometer every day since I got it programmed right, and I like how it is helping me think about caring for my body. I have a goal of walking 10,000 steps every day, and if I don’t get there just by my activity, which is most days, I make sure I spend some time on our treadmill until I get to 10,000 steps. This is a part of my spiritual practice, of taking time to tend to the sacred in my life. The treadmill is a great place to pray, to reflect, or just to celebrate life while listening to some music.
I continue to try and love my body, and also take better care of it. I would still like to lose some weight. This Lent I am considering giving up red meat as a spiritual practice. I think it would set me on a little better course for the future. There is much to be said for the positive social effects of eating less red meat. I am in the discernment phase of this, but I feel like it’s what I want and need to do. It will be part of a spiritual practice of caring for my body.
Knowing that our bodies are sacred places is one root of our concern for human bodily existence, for seeing that people are fed, are clothed are housed. Every body is a sacred place, a place where God dwells. No body deserves to be without the necessities of life. To speak the language of God with our bodies, to let people see God through our bodies is to be concerned with the bodily well-being of others, and with the well-being of the planet which sustains us. It is to do what we can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, bring medical care to the sick, lessen our negative impact on the planet.
Because we are concerned with the bodily well-being of others and the well-being of the planet itself, we need to use our bodies to speak the language of God’s love and justice in very concrete ways. We have many who have gone this way before us, whose example and inspiration gives us courage and spurs us on. One such person is the man whose birthday our country celebrates this weekend – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King knew what it was like to use his body, a sacred place, for the sacred purpose of tearing down walls that divide, for the sacred purpose of reminding us all that sacred bodies come in all shades and hues.
Sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” (Strength to Love, 40): While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as co-operation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. What powerful images these are of using the sacred place that is the body for the sacred purpose of justice and love. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched with his body, stood with his body, took hits to his body, spoke with the voice of his body the language of God’s justice and love.
April 3, 1968, the night before he died, at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, TN: It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night. And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (A Testament of Hope, 286) If we are a little closer to God’s dream for the world, God’s promise land, it is because of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who used his body to speak the language of God’s justice, God’s love.
Your body is sacred space, a place where God dwells. Love your body. Take care of your body. Let your body language be the language of God’s love, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s goodness. You don’t have to be a Martin Luther King, Jr. to do it. Your own body will work just fine. Amen.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let It Shine

Sermon preached January 4, 2009 (I will not be preaching on January 11, so the next post will be after my January 18 sermon)

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

On Sunday evening December 28, a small group of us gathered for the monthly Faith and Film night to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. It came at the end of a chaotic series of days for me, and truth be told there was a part of me that would not have been crushed had no one shown up. That’s not about them, it is about how I was feeling. Christmas had been busy, which it always is, but the business and chaos was compounded by my father’s dying process and my fender-bender. I had spent part of the afternoon on Sunday at St. Mary’s hospital where my dad had returned briefly – he is in a nursing home. Anyway, people came and we screened the film and had a wonderful time.
It’s a Wonderful Life is enjoyable, and it has the capacity to teach. We miss some of that because of the neat ending to the story, but when we are willing to penetrate the movie a bit more deeply, there are all kinds of life lessons there. I am not alone in thinking this. In the December 26 issue of The Week, the magazine published an article on It’s a Wonderful Life telling the story of the movie from its release in 1946, to its failure at the box office, to its comeback in the 1970s, to its enormous popularity today. The film still works, the article says, because “it plays on people’s great ambivalence about Christmas. For many, the holiday is a time of both great joy and mournful introspection. By deftly poising those two themes on an emotional knife-edge [the movie] touched America’s collective heart.” Stephen Spielberg: “It’s a Wonderful Life shows that every human being on this Earth matters and that’s a very powerful message.”
Days later, the January 5, 2009 issue of The New Yorker contained a commentary by Adam Gopnik about the economy, and he drew lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life. Gopnik argued that the economy cannot be understood simply by thinking in terms of “rational economic” behavior, but needs to consider “social-emotional” behavior. Mr. Potter may have been greedy and power hungry, but in terms of economic models, he is the rational actor – not willing to risk loans to people he considers too unworthy. George Bailey, in the article is a “Capraesque Keynesian.” That’s a lot to take from a simple 1946 movie.
Yet the movie is deeper than we may imagine. Behind the feel-good ending we get glimpses of a man whose dreams have been stymied by the death of his father, by his desire to help his younger brother, by circumstances of his own choosing. In the movie there are moments of genuine anguish and despair, and a central scene in the movie involves suicidal despair. From that perspective this hardly seems like a light holiday film. There is also greed, money and power in the film. There really is a lot there to chew on.
A lighter scene which remains significant for the whole film is one in which Mary, played by Donna Reed, and George, played by Jimmy Stewart, are walking home after Mary’s high school graduation dance. You want the moon, Mary? Just say the word and I’ll put a lasso around it and pull it down for you. I’ll take it. Then what? Then you could swallow it. And it’ll all dissolve, see and the moonbeams would shoot out your fingers, and your toes and the ends of your hair. Of course, George cannot pull down the moon, though that image returns again and again is a picture Mary creates for him. By movie’s end, we know Mary has a light inside of her that shines. In the end, George discovers that he has a light too, a light that has touched countless lives and a light that needs to stay lit.
Our Scripture texts for today remind me of this particular scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. In the traditional story of the coming of the magi, the wise men from the east, there is a star that guides them to the place where they will find Jesus. Of course, the star is only intended to point to the more significant light coming into the world. Augustine reminds us “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but the star shone forth because Christ was born” (Feasting On the Word). With Christ, something will change in history, something outside the usual structures of power. Herod remains clueless. Something is happening in this Christ child that will draw people even from distant places. A new inclusivity is being inaugurated.
Because light has come into the world in Jesus the Christ, as Christians we hear the words of Isaiah in a new way – “Arise, shine your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The light arrives, even when darkness seems to cover the earth, even thick darkness – the darkness of a world at war, the darkness of despair over dreams lost, the darkness of economic uncertainty, the darkness of planetary peril. The light arrives and our response is to shine. We take in the Christ, and want the beams of his light, grace, love, compassion to shine through our fingers and toes and the ends of our hair (or our scalps as may be appropriate).
I think there are two parts to letting our lights shine. We need to care for the light within, to polish our lamps in a manner of speaking. Our bishop calls this “spiritual vitality.” Have you ever reached for a flashlight when the power has gone out, only to discover that the batteries you put into it months before have gone dead? When batteries just sit, they still lose power. So in our lives, when we don’t care for the light within, it dims. Traditionally, Christians call the things we do to care for the light inside spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices. Traditionally they have included things like prayer in all its wonderful variety, Scripture reading, shared worship including communion. They have also included compassionate action and work for justice and the common good – but more about these shortly. There has been a deep and renewed interest in Christian spiritual practices in recent years, and this is to the good. The lists of activities that can become spiritual practices has expanded. Here is a list from a web site called Spirituality and Practice, a web site I found through a clergy friend:

Being Present
X - The Mystery

Our texts speak about receiving gifts. Keeping our inner light bright is being open to receiving the grace and love and passion of God into our lives, and spiritual practices are doing those things that help that grace, love and passion enter and shape us deeply.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is never simply about receiving, about polishing our inner light. It is also always about letting that light shine out into a world. We shine because the world needs to be touched by light. The darkness is deep indeed, and we need to let the light of Christ shine through us to make the world a little less dark. Serendipitously, letting our light shine also keeps that light bright.
Washington Gladden, a powerful preacher at the turn of the last century, in a speech given in 1907 urged his listeners “to see the church as a manifestation of Christ.” Gladden believed that one of the most important reasons for the life of Christ and for the life of the church was “to make men and women feel that the great joy of life… is the joy of service; to populate this world with… people whose central purpose it shall be, not to get as much as they can, but to give as much as they can – this is what Jesus came into this world to do” (Feasting on the Word). Let your light shine.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a shining light in his own right shares the story of another woman who has let her light shine – Angela Rackstraw (Ode, January/February 2009, p. 58). In the 1980s, the apartheid government of South Africa was cracking down on black communities that were centers of protest, including the small community of Crossroads in Cape Town. Crossroads was divided by factions, one of which was a government paid group whose mission was to destroy anti-government activists. At the time, Angela Rackstraw was a member of Christ Church, Kenilworth, an Anglican parish deeply committed to social justice and the common good. The parish provided food and blankets to activists in Crossroads, often working late at night to foil the government. Angela was a nurse and she rode along on one of the deliveries to see what was happening. What she saw shocked her to the core. Children were playing in the street, jumping over humps in the road. Coming closer, she saw the humps were the dead and dying, victims of the latest shootout. Angela wondered what would happen to children who witnessed such violence, and she knew that it was likely they would become teenagers who would kill or be killed. Angela decided she needed to do something, something beyond nursing. She decided that she might be able to help by becoming an art therapist. To do so, she would need further training – in both psychology and art, even though she was an artist already. She began to study at the University of Cape Town. The University of Hereford in the U.K. offered a degree in art therapy and admitted her, but the cost was more than she could afford. She struggled to come up with the funds for tuition and travel, and managed to do that. She studied for four years in the U.K., working nights in a nursing home to cover her living expenses, and earned her master’s degree in art therapy.
Returning to Cape Town she found no jobs, so she began the Community Art Therapy program. The program has grown and expanded, though finances are always a challenge. Archbishop Tutu writes about her: Her work with children and women may be a drop in the ocean considering the thousands upon thousands who live in our sprawling townships, often in the most appalling conditions, where they become victims of abuse, violence, and exploitation. But for those who come to Angela, she’s a healer who endows them with hope. She gives children a future, and that’s a gift to us all.
Arise, shine, for your light has come. You have a light within, let it shine. Only you have your light – let it shine. Only you can do the good you can do. Let your light shine. Keep your light bright within, but always let it shine. The darkness may be deep in our world, and we sometimes feel the darkness creeping within us, but let your light shine. Amen.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Timing Is Everything

Sermon preached on December 28, 2008

Scripture Readings: Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas and that the remaining days of 2008 have enough joy and hope to carry you into the new year with energy. I hope you enjoyed singing some of the songs we have sung together. Thanks for your help with that.
As I have been preparing for today, my mind was shifting to other songs. There is a part of me that simply thinks in musical terms. If you could plug my brain into a computer to see some of its contents, there would be a significant section that looked a little like an 80 gig iPod register. Today’s sermon had me thinking about songs like: Time Has Come Today , The Chambers Brothers; Time After Time, Cyndi Lauper; If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time, Willie Nelson; Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is, Chicago; Time Passages, Al Stewart; Time, Pink Floyd. You don’t have to be attuned to subtlety or schooled in nuance to know where I am headed today – time.
More specifically, I want to reflect on the idea of timing, because it is a prominent theme in our Scriptures for this morning. Timing – and timing matters.
Two businessmen friends went to the local bank on their lunch hour. While they were waiting in line, two other men came into the bank to rob it. They locked the doors, moved all the customers along one wall and began collecting their watches, jewelry, wallets and handbags. Standing in the line, one businessman felt his friend stuff something into his pocket. The man asked, “What are you doing? What is this?” to which the other replied, “Remember that $100 I owe you…” Timing matters.
Not long ago in Green Bay a 31 year-old woman named Wendy Brown was arrested and charged with identity theft. She enrolled in high school pretending to be her 15 year-old daughter (who actually lives in Nevada). One reason she gave for going back to high school was to fulfill her life-long dream of being a cheerleader. It worked for awhile. She attended practices and made the cheerleading squad even though some noticed that she looked a little older than the other girls. (Funny Times, December 2008, 17). Timing matters.
Timing matters in all kinds of ways. Last Monday, I was in a car accident. I was traveling south on Lake Avenue to go and visit two of our shut-ins at the Franciscan Health Center on Park Point. One lane was closed on the Lift Bridge as I was crossing, and cars ahead of me, going over on that one lane, were stopped. I applied my brakes and felt just how icy it was. I slid and stopped just as I touched the car in front of me – no damage to either vehicle, but the truck coming from behind had no such luck. It hit my van and did some significant damage to the back bumper. Thankfully no one was hurt, though I did fall on the ice as I went to look at the damage. It was glare ice.
Car accidents are never fun to deal with, but on top of everything else it all felt surreal. This was just two days after I found out my father has inoperable liver cancer and only weeks to live. When I got home that night I told my son it almost felt like I was in some kind of movie – father dying, car accident. Of course, in a movie I would be single and a beautiful woman would come along and help me get through all this. I quickly told my son it was a good thing I already had a beautiful woman in my life! Timing matters.
Our Scriptures are, in many ways, about timing. Galatians 4:4-5 is Paul’s Christmas story. Good thing we have more than that on which to base Christmas songs and pageants! “When the fullness of time had come, God sent God’s son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” In the fullness of time – Paul had a sense that with Jesus a new time had begun, and he was writing to a group of Gentile Christians to remind them how wonderful this new time was. It was a time when all people might know that they were children of God.
The language Paul uses is not terribly revolutionary to us, but it certainly was in his day and time. Paul was telling Gentiles that they could come to know God without following the law, the way Paul’s own people had known God. This was a revolutionary concept to the Jewish people of Paul’s day. Even more revolutionary is Paul’s assertion that we can all be children of God, that we can all call God “Father.” In that day, there was a person officially proclaimed to be son of god – that person was the emperor. In that day, as well, paternity often limited destiny. Your father’s identity and background was made all the difference. Paul undermines both systems of stratification and division. You are children of God. This is not an exclusive title for the emperor. God is your father, you need not be limited by the status of your biological father. Timing is everything, and Paul thought this was a wonderful time in so many ways.
Timing mattered to Simeon and Anna too. Simeon had been looking forward to the redeeming of Israel, now under Roman rule. Simeon witnesses a different kind of liberation beginning with the child Jesus, a liberation that would include the Gentiles – there’s that wonderful inclusiveness again. Anna, too, held such expectations, even in her older years – of course 84 today is not what it was then – I hear 84 is the new 70. Both these characters in Luke’s larger Christmas story are beneficiaries of being a part of a special time.
Both these texts have lessons for us about the importance of timing in our own lives, lessons that may serve us well as this year comes to an end and a new one begins.
The first lesson may be that we don’t always control the timing of events in our lives and so patience, openness and receptivity are often needed. That we don’t control everything about our lives is not an easy lesson to learn, and it is only one side of a larger truth. It must always be held in balance with the idea that we are often more powerful than we imagine. We should not simply give in to all the circumstances of our lives, yet we do not control all those circumstances either. None of us chooses when, where and to whom we will be born. We don’t control all of the economic and political realities in our world, though we have something to say about some of them. We cannot change the fact that we age. At some point it is no longer appropriate to pursue the dream of being a high school cheerleader. God’s purposes for our lives are always responsive to the circumstances of our lives – so patience and openness and receptivity are important so that our action in the world will be timely.
The spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield writes in his book, A Path With a Heart: Each stage of our life holds the seeds for our spiritual growth. Our spiritual life matures when we consciously accept the life tasks appropriate for us (174). Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity teaches you a process of humility waiting, ego surrender, patience and trust, much more than giving you prefabricated content to defend or prove” (Hope Against Darkness, 158-159). Timing matters and the timing that matters most in our lives is to be attuned to who we are, where we are, and where God is in the midst of our lives.
Irwin Kula is a rabbi, an eighth-generation rabbi. He tells a story about his life and teaches us something about timing, about patience, about openness and receptivity. Joy and sorrow, good and evil, greatness and triviality, hope and anxiety, the ideal and the actual: The ability to live with these seeming contradictions and the ambivalence and tension they create is what gives rise to wisdom…. The first time I felt this in my bones was a few minutes after my younger daughter, Talia, was born…. As we walked to the hospital a few blocks away, doing her Lamaze breathing, the streets of Manhattan were transformed; every street light shone more brightly; every car sweeping by seemed to move in slow motion…. It felt like a dream as Dana held our new baby just minutes after she emerged. Tears flowed down our cheeks. We felt joy and gratitude mixed with exhaustion and the final release of Dana’s pain; blood and body fluids were everywhere, and there was that perfect child. Then I had a thought that knocked the wind out of me. Just about one year earlier Dana had suffered a miscarriage. If she hadn’t, Talia would not be in this world. In that moment I was filled with both sadness and peace. I felt the terror of that memory and the gratitude of this moment at the same time…. It wasn’t that the birth of Talia made the miscarriage okay or that “it happened for a reason…. It was the realization that chaos and coherence are indistinguishable and awe-full. (Yearnings, 45-46).
Simeon and Anna must have wondered at times, what they were waiting for, wondered if God would ever touch their lives in a way they were hoping for. Their patience and openness led to their being witness to a wonderful work of God in the world. And they were there just at the right time.
A second lesson from these texts is that there is never a time in our lives when we can’t serve God, when we cannot further God’s purposes in the world. We are never too old or too young to be a part of God’s work of loving the world, of extending justice and compassion and beauty and peace.
A riot was raging through La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. Twenty-five hundred fed-up prisoners, packed into a compound built for six hundred, angrily hurled broken bottles at police, who fired back with machine guns. Then, as the peak of pandemonium, came a startling sight: A tiny, five-foot-two, sixty-three-year-old woman in an immaculate nun’s habit calmly strolled into the battle, hands outstretched in a simple gesture of peace. Ignoring the shower of bullets and flying bottles, she stood quietly and ordered everyone to stop. Incredibly, they did.
The diminutive nun, Sister Antonia, was once a woman named Mary Clarke. Mary grew up in Beverly Hills where he father owned a successful office supply company. Clarke grew up during the heyday of Hollywood – big stars, lavish musical productions – and during World War II. After high school, Mary was married and raised seven children in a fine Granada Hills home. But twenty-five years later the marriage ended in a divorce. With her children grown, and on her own, Mary sought to help those less fortunate. The suffering of others had always affected her deeply and now she sought to help in new ways. In the mid-60s she began traveling across the Mexican border with a Catholic priest to take medicines and supplies to the poor. Once she and the priest got lost and wound up at La Mesa by mistake. She was moved by what she saw, and began spending nights there sleeping on a bunk in the women’s section, learning Spanish, assisting inmates and their families in any way she could. In 1977, Mary Clarke became Sister Antonia, and La Mesa prison became her permanent home. She was 50 years old. In 1997, at age 70, Sister Antonia turned her work into a religious community, The Servants of the Eleventh Hour. (Everyday Greatness, 10-13, and on-line material)
Simeon, Anna, Sister Antonia remind us that there is never a time in our lives when we cannot further God’s purposes of love, justice, peace, compassion and beauty.
Finally, these stories remind us that timing is important and that NOW is always the time to renew our faith, hope and love so that our lives reflect the light of Christ, whose birth we continue celebrating. One of the best reminders of this I know of is the short poem/meditation by Howard Thurman called “The Work of Christmas.”

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.

May it be so with us. While timing may not be everything, it matters, AND NOW is always the time. Again, Merry Christmas, and may we all join together in the work of Christmas, open to the world and God’s presence there. Amen.