Friday, February 27, 2009

Wonderful World of Disney

Sermon preached on February 22, 2009
Sunday honoring United Methodist Women

Scripture Readings: John 1:1-5, 14; Luke 4:18-19

I am a United Methodist Woman. Let me rephrase that. As an ordained clergy person who serves as a United Methodist pastor, I am a member of The United Methodist Women. I am very pleased about that as I stand here on this UMW Sunday.
Some of you may wonder why, then, I chose such a unique sermon title. Admittedly there is risk involved. Wonderful World of Disney – seems a little frivolous for a Sunday on which we celebrate United Methodist Women. I hope I can work it through.
You need to know, right away that the UMW is no Mickey Mouse organization. If anything, they are more like the Magic Kingdom. The United Methodist women exist to “be a community of women whose purpose is to know God and to experience freedom as whole persons through Jesus Christ; to develop a creative supportive fellowship; and to expand concepts of mission through participation in the global ministries of the church.” It has roots in women’s mission societies dating back to the 1860s.
Our local UMW raises money and then gives it away to support work in our community, our state, our nation and our world. Locally our UMW has supported the work of CHUM, Second Harvest, Life House, Safe Haven, First Witness, and our congregation’s work at Lake Superior Elementary School – among other things.
Nationally, the United Methodist Women gave over $18 million to mission work in 2006. Since 1939, they have held an annual Mission Education and Action for Justice event which leads women in connecting faith and justice and compassion, and encourages them to take this back to their local churches. In 2008, among the topics featured in Response, the national UMW magazine, were: peacemaking, immigrant rights, simple living.
Personally it has been my privilege to be a teacher at our Minnesota Conference UMW School for Christian Mission and this May I will be leading a retreat for the conference UMW on Living the Sacred.
The theme of UMW Sunday is “The Sacred Circle of Life.” That’s where I began to think about the Wonderful World of Disney. I couldn’t help but have the song, “The Circle of Life” come to mind. Part of my brain is a library card catalog, part of it is a movie screening room and part of it is an i pod. “The Circle of Life” is the theme song from “The Lion King.” We hear it when Mufasa holds his son Simba up on Pride Rock, and we hear it again when Simba holds his son up from the same spot – the circle of life from birth to parenting to giving way to the next generation. The circle of life including birth and death and love and sex and children and parenting and community are all portrayed in the film, well mostly. When we think about the circle of human life it is wonderful and beautiful and mysterious, filled with joy and sorrow and amazement.
I remember a number of years ago, when I was a pastor on the Iron Range, I was driving on a blustery winter day, one of those days after a rather heavy snow when the road is still marked by fallen snow and the wind is whipping it around. On a day like that I was driving on US 169 which cuts across the Mesabi Range and I couldn’t help but notice this black bird, crow or raven I’m not sure, but this black bird flying around in this miserable weather using the winds to play, or so it seemed. It was not fighting the wind, but letting the wind carry it. It was one of those amazing moments of seeing the wonder of the world, the circle of life created not by Disney, but by a force greater.
So the circle of life is amazing and wonderful and mysterious. Is that what makes it sacred? Why do we want to call it the “sacred circle of life”? As Christians we call it the sacred circle of life, in part, because of its wonder and beauty and amazement and mystery – but even more because we believe in an embodied God. In our faith, we call it “incarnation.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. All things came into being through the Word…. In the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word… full of grace and truth.
The circle of life is sacred because we believe in a God who embodied Godself, who incarnates Godself. What does that mean for us? United Methodist theologian Delwin Brown puts it well. “The doctrine of the incarnation means we are at home in the world. We are at home in the world precisely because God is.” (What Does a Progressive Christian Believe, 37-38) Brown spells out what he considers some of the more concrete implications of this view of God and human life.
o We know the physical world in the same way that others know the world.
o We participate in the world of values in the same way that others do. The arts and philosophies of our many cultures are all places where God is present.
o We seek the healing of the world alongside of others…. The worldly processes in which justice struggles to be born and grow are the processes in which God is working to bring about wholeness and healing

God does not walk away or shy away from this earth, this world, life as we know it. God makes Godself a part of it. The circle of life is sacred because God is present and the presence of the incarnate God is what underlies life’s beauty and wonder and amazement and mystery.
Theologian Sallie McFague, with whom some of you are familiar, also considers incarnation central to our understanding of God and our relationship to God. If God is always incarnate – if God is always in us and we in God – then Christians should attend to the model of the world as God’s body. For Christians, God did not become human on a whim; rather, it is God’s nature to be embodied, to be one in whom we live and move and have our being…. The model of the world as God’s body… focuses attention on the near, on the neighbor, on the earth, on meeting God… here and now. (A New Climate for Theology, 72-73). For McFague, meeting God here and now has two primary movements. “The two most distinctive activities of religious people are gratitude toward God and compassion toward others” (102).
In the sacred circle of life, we want to pay attention to where God is. We want to look for God, because we know God is around. We want to heighten our sensitivity to God and our appreciation of what God is up to in the world. The Christian mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg, wrote, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw – and knew I saw – all things in God and God in all things.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 1) Barbara Brown Taylor, who quotes Mechtild, goes on to write, “Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery on our way to somewhere else” (24). When we are moving so fast, we hardly notice our own thoughts, let alone the quiet movement of God’s Spirit. We want to pay attention to where God is in the midst of the circle of life, for God is there.
Let me share with you a testimony to where someone has experienced God’s presence when he paid attention. John Updike is a novelist who recently died. Awhile back, Updike wrote for the “This I Believe” series on NPR. The Tuesday morning men’s group has been reading through this book (I hope it’s o.k. to mention the men’s group on UMW Sunday). Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything – from the behavior of galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their submicroscopic components – seems to be inarguable and the principle glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and – may we even say – illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me. (This I Believe, 245-246) Paying attention to what is going on inside is one way to pay attention to God presence incarnate in the world. I believe gratitude becomes a part of such paying attention.
As McFague asserted, gratitude and compassion are the two most distinctive activities of religious people. They are responses to a God who we meet incarnate in the world. McFague: We meet God in the world, and especially in the flesh of the world: in feeding the hungry, in healing the sick – and in reducing greenhouse gasses. (73) Her list is not meant to be exhaustive. Jesus’ understanding of what it meant to meet God in the world through compassion can be found in many places, including Luke 4. The Spirit of the Lord us upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We meet God in the flesh of the world when we care for our own bodies. Lent begins this week and one way I am caring for my body is in giving up red meat during Lent. I am doing this to get a better hold on my own eating habits and I am doing it because too much red meat cannot only be bad for the body, but it is not helpful for the planet either.
We meet God in the flesh of the world when we care for our relationships. We are not completely self-formed creatures. Who we are is, in part, determined by the web of relationships we create and tend to. When these relationships are healthy, we are healthier. We need to care for these relationships.
Some of these relationships we need to tend to are our intimate relationships and some of them are the relationships we create together in our community. Our church’s anti-racism team is in a time of discernment about its on-going existence, wondering if it has accomplished its initial goals. What ever happens to the team itself, issues of racial reconciliation need to remain a part of who we are as First United Methodist Church. Issues of race still tear at the fabric of our community here in Duluth and of our nation. Part of meeting God in the flesh of the world is to recognize that the flesh of the world in which God resides is of many hues.
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to care about the physical well-being of others. It is to feed the hungry, clothe the ill-clad, house the homeless. United Methodist Women in this church and around the world have done a wonderful job of meeting God in this way. One project we celebrate with UMW is a program begun in Cambodia, a country still rebuilding after being ravaged by a brutal regime. The UMW works with the Methodist Mission in Cambodia to operate cow and pig banks that support families and communities with access to healthy livestock they can raise and use for farming and food. Women are able to improve their livelihoods – living as healthy women, entrepreneurial women, planting seeds of hope. (Response, November 2008)
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to engage in peacemaking. Once again, United Methodist Women are also at work in this, working hard to connect women from around the world in efforts to foster peace, security and well-being for women, children and families. One such effort is UMW support for Isis – Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, which has brought women together from across ethnic and political divides and trained them in the nuts and bolts of peacemaking. (Response, May 2008)
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to do justice. We can look to United Methodist Women for examples of how this is being done, too. In Southwest Texas, immigrant families, including some 75 children, are detained in the privately owned Hutto Detention Center. Sue Sydney, president of the UMW for the Southwest Texas Conference, reports that UMW members in the conference wrote letters in support of the local human rights coalition’s campaign to get the public school system to supply teachers for children in the detention center. The UMW also supports may immigrant families in the area through a community center.
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to care for the planet. This past Thursday, Naomi Yeager shared with the Coppertoppers about her work as a part of the United Methodist Women’s Green Team, one effort the UMW makes to encourage United Methodist Christians to meet God in the flesh of the world by caring for the world. Naomi’s task is to raise consciousness about the environmental impact of our actions.
On this UMW Sunday we celebrate and affirm a God who comes to us in the midst of this wonderful world. God doesn’t come with the wave of a magic wand, but is among us in the humblest circumstances. We meet God by paying attention and by attending to the flesh of the world. The God of Christian faith, the God of Jesus Christ is found, as we sing in one of our hymns, “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place.” Pay attention. Live with compassion. In the name of the one we call God with us, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oops! (or Letting the Leaping Leper In)

Sermon preached February 15, 2009
Scripture Reading: Mark 1:40-45

So last week’s sermon title was “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and it sat proudly out on our sign outside the church. Someone commented to me that if that were posted outside a Catholic Church, the meaning might be entirely different. And then I thought about the combination of last week’s sermon title and this week’s on the sign of a Catholic Church and couldn’t help but laugh. It’s o.k. I was in the car by myself. “I’ve Got Rhythm” followed by “Oops!”
Some might find this humor a little risqu̩ for the church. There are hints of sexuality in it. The church is no place for talk about sex. If we talk about alcohol it ought to be in purely condemnatory terms. Same goes for dancing. You heard no doubt about the Baptist pastor who preached vigorously against premarital sex Рit could lead to dancing you know.
Somehow we have it ingrained in our heads that to be religious, or maybe even more religious – to be pious, is to avoid these more earthy topics except in either whispered or condemnatory tones. To be religious is to be like this character in Lewis Smedes little fable, “The Magic Eyes.” In the village of Faken in innermost Friesland there live a long thin baker named Fouke, a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Fouke was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Faken preferred to stay away.
Don’t you hear in that description something of the picture you have in your mind of what a really pious/religious person is like? Isn’t our picture of being religious colored by images of people who are stern, who lack humor, who are rigid, who follow the rules oh so very well. If any of you have seen the movie Doubt the nun played by Meryl Streep fits the bill pretty well.
There is a certain allure in this image of religiousness, we are attracted by a certain purity perhaps. But we are also, I think, deeply ambivalent about being too “religious” with that image in mind. One of the interesting things about being a clergy person is that others assume that anything religious will be appealing to me. I have often heard people talk about an acquaintance and then say, “You would like him, he’s very religious.” What people don’t know is that when I hear that my stomach often tightens, because frequently the image given of the very religious person is someone who listens to Christian radio all the time, watches religious programming on the television, never cusses – but rarely laughs, prays in such a way that everyone seems to know they pray, has observable religious symbols displayed, carries a Bible in a prominent place. Please know that I am all for prayer and the Bible, I love religious symbolism, sometimes listen to Christian radio and can find ETWN and Inspiration on my cable system – but I have a hard time with a view that sees the deeply religious in these terms alone and often adds a sternness, a rigidity to it. I listen to classic rock and jazz most often, and I may know more about Seinfeld than Joel Osteen.
I struggle with that understanding of being pious, being religious precisely because I read my Bible and there I read stories like today’s story. In today’s story being deeply religious, if we take Jesus as our model for what that means – Jesus, along with other Biblical characters, being deeply religious is about creative disobedience. It is about depth of feeling and living. That’s right – religious, pious, creatively disobedient, depth!! Quite a combination.
Let’s start with Jesus. First of all, Jesus is deeply moved in this story. “Moved with pity” – Peterson translates this “deeply moved,” Jesus acts. The language here is of strong emotion, deeply moved, and it has tones of compassion and anger. Jesus might be angry at the pain he sees in the leper who has come to him. Jesus might be angry at the religious system that has isolated this man and failed to bring him any kind of healing. There may be anger, but compassion, deeply felt compassion, is the predominant response.
Then Jesus breaks the rules. He engages in creative disobedience to the rules and regulations of his day, the religiously enforced rules. Oops! Jesus reaches out and touches the leper. Touching a leper made one unclean. Jesus turns that idea on its head. Reaching out in compassion and healing doesn’t make the one who reaches out unclean, it helps heal and make clean the one touched. Yes, there is a physical healing, but also a spiritual and emotional healing. The leper is welcomed back into the community. And the writer of Mark’s gospel puts this story of creative disobedience right in the first chapter of his work (compared to Matthew, ch. 8 and Luke, ch. 5).
But then Jesus seems to morph into a kind of narrow religiousness, giving a stern warning, giving strict orders to the leper not to share his story, but to go right to the priest to testify. And what does this leper do? Oops – he creatively disobeys Jesus, and somehow the gospel writer does not identify this as a problem! The leper chooses to embody the spirit of Jesus instead of following the strict rule Jesus lays down. How audacious, and can’t you see this leper joyously dancing, leaping, speaking, shouting, singing!
And here’s the message for today – let the leaping leper in. Broaden your imagination of what it means to be pious, what it means to be religious. Let the leaping leper in – see deep religiousness in Christian faith as deep engagement with the world, with its hurts, pains and joys, see deep religiousness as depth of heart and feeling and thinking and compassion. Broaden your imagination of what it means to be religious, what it means to be a person of deep faith – let the leaping leper in and live in this broad imagination. I want this church to be a risky place, a dangerous place. I want it to be a place where we are all in danger of becoming more deeply religious, not in that narrow, pinched, prim and proper sense that is the caricature creation of our culture, but deeply religious in the sense I see in this story - a story of creative disobedience, of risk, of adventure, of joy, of healing, of depth, of leaping.
Please hear me well. I am not saying that in the life of Christian faith there is no place for order, structure, rules, conceptions of duty. There certainly is. Not long ago I was at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry for The United Methodist Church in Minnesota, and I was the only one who had a copy of the new United Methodist Book of Discipline. I serve on local, state and national/international United Methodist boards. I am excited to have been recently elected to the first ever United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order. I am denominational up to my eyeballs. I am our Minnesota Conference parliamentarian, and I feel bad when I hear Robert’s Rules of Order get bashed. Within Christian faith, within Christian spirituality and religiosity there is a place for order, structure, duties, rules.
At the same time, our primary images of the Christian religious life should be dynamic, adventurous – images of dancing, leaping, singing, shouting – images of jazz where the music is improvisational, always responding to the other musicians and to the spirit of the music, and the Spirit of our music is the God we know in Jesus Christ.
Some of you know I teach a class in Health Care Ethics – “Religious Perspectives in Health Care Ethics.” This year I re-wrote my introductory lecture to describe what I mean by religion, being religious. I describe human existence with the help of Ernest Becker. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 26: The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic…. 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…. Yet, at the same time… man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: 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. (Becker, 268-269): The real dilemma of existence: the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned – finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy… that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. It is not a lecture that has them rolling in the aisles. Someone else described coming to terms with the human situation as “terrified tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds” (George Saunders, Harpers, January 2009, 29).
So what is religion, if this is the human situation? I share some definitions of religion in the lecture, some offered by my own teachers. (Frederick Streng, Understanding Religious Life): Religion is a means to ultimate transformation… a fundamental change from being caught up in the troubles of common existence (sin, ignorance) to living in such a way that one can cope at the deepest levels with those troubles. (2) Religion – the instrument humanity has fashioned in relation to certain objective forces to heal forever its deepest maladies. (Religion and Ultimate Well-Being, Martin Prozesky, 9) (Schubert Ogden, Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many?): By “religion” I understand the primary form of culture in terms of which human beings explicitly ask and answer the existential question of the meaning of ultimate reality for us. (5) These definitions share some common themes: ultimacy, personal-existential, transformation (lived experience – shaped, healed). The religious question is: “What makes sense of the human condition and is there some ultimate reality, some ultimate good, to which the human person can contribute in the span of a life that will inevitably end?” CEUs will be available following the service!
My point is that this sense of religion is so much more than the image of the narrow, prim, proper person who cannot talk about the very stuff of life – sex and sorrow and death and healing and justice and joy and love. To be religious in the sense offered by Christian faith is to see the human condition for its dignity and tragedy, for its incredible potential and for our failure to live out that potential with grace and humility – to see deeply and then to live with integrity, authenticity, courage, compassion, joy, love. To be religious is to risk creative disobedience sometimes in the service of healing, justice, inclusion, compassion, love. It is to be willing to be deep and deeply moved. We need to let the leaping leper into our imagination of what it means to be a person of faith and then live out of that imagination.
David Roche is an inspirational speaker who has a compelling personal story. Anne Lamott shares it in her book Plan B. Roche was born with a large benign tumor on his face. Surgeons tried to remove it when he was very young, and ended up taking his lower lip. Radiation treatment caused the lower part of his face to stop growing. David knew love and esteem from his parents, but acceptance among others was often more difficult. He remembers a game of spin the bottle when the girl who was supposed to kiss him recoiled in horror. He also remembers a date with a girl named Carol. It took David a long time to ask her out, but finally he did and she agreed. They went to the movies and afterward sat on his front porch; he kept trying to put his arm around her but couldn’t quite do it, so they talked and talked and talked. He wanted to kiss her but was too shy to ask; he was afraid it was like asking her to kiss a monster. Finally she said, “I need to go home now,” and he said, “Carol, I want to kiss you,” and she said, “David, I thought you’d never ask.”
That was a moment of true grace, and from this experience, he built a church inside himself… teaching people to tell their stories, their marvelous, screwed-up, and often hilarious resurrection stories. David calls it the Church of Eighty Percent Sincerity. “We in the Church of Eighty Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles. But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you’ve got to put your foot in.” Anne Lamott comments: It’s such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe – that if you look good, you’ll be happy, and have it all together, and you’ll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won’t have to die, and the rot won’t get in. (109)
David’s story, and its impact on Anne Lamott are much closer to genuine Christian religion than the pictures of narrow piety we may carry around inside of us. Christian faith subverts those images of narrow religiosity and piety. Christian faith is about life, about seeing it deeply, knowing it profoundly, and living with integrity, authenticity, courage, compassion, joy, love, in an on-going dance with the God we know in Jesus Christ, a Jesus who engaged in creative disobedience in the interest of healing and compassion and justice. The religious life, Christian version, is about a Jesus who is deeply moved and creatively disobedient and about a leaping leper who cannot contain the joy inside of him. Let that leaping leper in. Amen.

David Roche

I've Got Rhythm

Sermon preached February 8, 2009

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:29-39

Just a few letters can make a big difference. Take the “g” from sing and Benny Goodman’s song becomes “Sin, Sin Sin.” That was probably the worst fear of parents whose children were listening to swing music in the 1930s! A church bulletin contained the following announcement: “Today, we celebrate the baptism of Edward George Smith, the sin of Fred and Martha Smith.” One of my favorite bulletin bloopers with a misplaced letter was this: “As a part of making time for quiet during Lent, please join us Thursday evening at 7 p.m. for a service of prayer and medication.”
Knowing the importance of few letters, I owe Ira Gershwin an apology. I was stealing my sermon title from a George and Ira Gershwin song, but on Friday discovered that my thievery was inept. The song is entitled “I Got Rhythm” not “I’ve Got Rhythm.” I goofed, though I believe I have made my seventh grade grammar teacher, Ms. Mckibben, proud – “I’ve Got Rhythm” is more grammatically correct.
“I Got Rhythm” is a wonderful , well-loved and well-known song. How many of you know it? For the next time you play Trivial Pursuit, here are some interesting tidbits. The song was written for a 1930 musical called Girl Crazy, and it was first performed in that musical by Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman was a phenomenal singer, but some of us know here as the woman who played Gopher’s mother in an occasional role on Love Boat. Someone described Ms. Merman’s performance of “I Got Rhythm” in the debut of Girl Crazy as having “all the subtlety of a tornado descending on a trailer park” (Will Friewald). In the orchestra that night were Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, and Glen Miller. Those of you who know jazz know what a big deal this is.
The same writer who so colorfully described Ethel Merman’s performance also wrote about “I Got Rhythm” that it is “the most celebrated rhythm song of all time.” It is a song that lends itself to improvisation, so it is a jazz favorite. Louis Armstrong has recorded it, as has Ella Fitzgerald. The chord changes in the song have been used as a basis for other songs by other jazz greats – Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane (“Giant Steps”). This song about rhythm and love is justly celebrated.
Rhythm – it seems as much a part of the human condition as love itself. Rhythm is our first music, it is etched in the movement of our bodies. There should also be some rhythm to our spiritual lives.
The spiritual life, by which I mean life lived in response to and tuned into God’s Spirit, life which in turn expresses and shapes our spirits - the spiritual life, when healthy, has certain rhythms to it. Just as in various jazz versions of “I Got Rhythm” there is room for creativity and improvisation, so the spiritual life has its individual uniqueness’s. Still, certain rhythms are present in healthy Christian spiritual lives.
I get this idea from Mark 1:29-39. Reading it attentively, one hears certain rhythms of life, rhythms we want to attend to.
One rhythm of a healthy spiritual life is a rhythm of prayer and action. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus had been teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. He healed a man there. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law when he arrives at Peter’s house. At sundown, a crowd of the sick and demon-possessed gathered to be touched by Jesus, and he cured many. He will go on from here to other places to share his message and to bring hope and healing. Nevertheless, in the midst of the chaos and busyness, Jesus takes time, makes time, to pray.
The Dalai Lama, a person deeply concerned with fostering peace and making the world a better place, writes simply in his newest book, Worlds in Harmony, “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” (70) Yet, the Dalai Lama sees the need, in the rhythm of a healthy spiritual life, for prayer, meditation, work on the inner life. In this same book, he writes: In the beginning of Buddhist practice… the emphasis is on healing ourselves and on transforming our mind and heart. But as we continue, we, we become stronger and increasingly able to serve others. But until that time, we may get overwhelmed by the suffering and difficulties of other people. We may become exhausted and not able to serve others effectively, not to mention ourselves. So we must begin by simply doing as well as we can, trying to improve ourselves, and, at the same time, trying as much as we can to serve other people. (69) His insights about the Buddhist spiritual life are applicable to the Christian spiritual life. Prayer and the shaping of the inner life are vital for effective action in the world – action to bring healing and justice and peace to the world. Yet inner healing is never the stopping point. We carry that healing into the world. Prayer and action. Both are necessary. Both are needed.
Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize community in France once wrote, “nothing is more responsible than to pray” (Glimpses of Happiness, 81). Now that may sound like typical words for a monk, but Brother Roger knew what it was like to act to change the world. In 1940, as World War II was raging in Europe, Brother Roger left neutral Switzerland and moved to Taize, France. He wanted to be of help to suffering people and to found an intentional religious community. He began to offer hospitality to political refugees, including Jews. Because of his activity, he was forced to leave France and return to Switzerland. He returned to Taize in 1944, and began the Taize community formally in 1949. Committed to prayer, Brother Roger never lost the rhythm of prayer and action so important to the spiritual life. The disparity between the accumulation of wealth by some and the poverty of countless others is one of the most serious questions of our time. Will we do all in our power for the world economy to provide solutions? (Brother Roger, Essential Writings, 67)
As Christians, we often emphasize one or the other part of this rhythm of the spiritual life – prayer or action. Both are necessary for a healthy spiritual life, and that was expressed eloquently by one of our members at Thursday night’s CHUM meeting. In presenting the report of the CHUM nominating committee, Kevin Walsh noted that CHUM meetings were now conducted in the midst of worship, in the midst of prayer and that all CHUM’s work to feed the hungry, the shelter the homeless and to end hunger and poverty was work done in the context of prayer. Prayer and action are an essential rhythm of the spiritual life.
There is another rhythm in these verses, the rhythm of gathering in/coming together and going out. Jesus and his disciples are together in the synagogue. They will go and carry their message and mission to other places, but here, and it will happen again, they take time to gather together in Capernaum. They take time to be a community together. We need each other. We need to worship together. We need the quiet and support and encouragement of a common life. We need to offer grace and peace and healing to each other. We need to take grace and peace and healing into the world. We gather, we scatter – a necessary rhythm.
Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life, writes the following: Paradoxically, as we enter more deeply into the true community of our lives, we are relieved of those fears that keep us from becoming the authentic selves we are born to be. Community and individuality are not an either/or choice… they are the poles of another great paradox. A culture of isolated individualism produces mass conformity because people who think they must bear life all alone are too fearful to take the risks of selfhood. But people who know they are embedded in an eternal community are both free and empowered to become who they were born to be (156-157). Gathering in community helps us develop our best selves, and we then take that out to the world to make a difference in the direction of God’s dream for the world.
Gerald May, a spiritual teacher and psychotherapist also writes movingly about the power of community. God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant or as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power. (Addiction and Grace, 173; quoted in Feasting on the Word) I know something of that because I have been the recipient of the healing power of this community as I journey with my family during my father’s dying process.
Christian community as a necessary part of the rhythm of the spiritual life is not merely an end in itself. It is one part of a larger rhythm – gathering in/going out. The German Christian theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this. Among the works Bonhoeffer wrote during his brief life was a book called Life Together. In it he reflected on the utter importance of gathering together in Christian community. It serves as an important reminder that Bonhoeffer’s active opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, an opposition which cost him imprisonment and death, that opposition was rooted in a gathered Christian community. Gather in for healing, for breathing in God’s Spirit. Scatter out to bring healing to the world. This, too, is a necessary and needed rhythm of the spiritual life.
The third rhythmic movement of the Christian spiritual life I find in Mark 1:29-39 is of a different sort. We need both prayer and action. We need both gathering in community and going out into the world to share hope and healing. We have a role to play in each of these rhythmic movements. The third rhythm of the spiritual life is part observation and part action. A healthy Christian spiritual life is one in which there is death, resurrection and a new life of love and service. This rhythm is illustrated in what happens to Peter’s mother-in-law. She is sick. Jesus heals her. She demonstrates love and service.
The first part of this rhythm recognizes that we are not immune from hurt, pain, sickness, suffering, grief, disappointment, hardship. Such things will be a part of each of our lives in one way or another at one time or another. We will experience small deaths – disappointments that sting, psychological wounds, the loss of jobs or friend, dreams deferred or denied – all these are a part of life no matter how good we are, no matter how careful we are, no matter how hard we work. Life is difficult. Life will disappoint sometimes. Deepening our spiritual lives does not simply make the difficulties, the disappointments, the discouragements, the hurts, the pains of life disappear.
So what good, then, is the Christian spiritual life? The good is in the second and third movements of this rhythm of the spiritual life: death, resurrection, new life. Even when we experience pain and disappointment, we are never without hope, and we know that the way of God’s Spirit is the way of new life, the way of resurrection. We will not be stuck in disappointment for ever, there are new possibilities to be discovered. There is hurt, but there is also healing, and new life. And this new life is a life of love and service, a life which offers hope and healing to others.
Vaclav Havel was born in Prague in 1936 into an intellectual and entrepreneurial family. Czechoslovakia became part of Communist Eastern Europe after World War II and Havel’s family history made him suspect in the Communist government. He was not permitted to attend any schools with humanities programs after completing his basic schooling. Nevertheless, Havel found his way into the theater and to work as a playwright.
Havel’s work led him to political involvement. In the 1960s he began criticizing the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, and for his troubles was imprisoned on a number of occasions, the longest stretch was from June 1974-January 1984. Havel experienced all kinds of little deaths in his life, but resurrection was in the offing. In 1989, in a span of six weeks, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia crumbled under in the face of a nonviolent movement for change, something which was dubbed “The Velvet Revolution.” Rising up from the ashes of a regime that had imprisoned him, Vaclav Havel was elected the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia and when the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated in 1992, he was the first president of the Czech Republic, holding office from 1989-2003.
The events of Havel’s life speak boldly of this rhythm of death-resurrection-new life to love and serve. His own reflections lend themselves to seeing this pattern. The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind…. It is a dimension of the soul…. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart…. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless. (The Impossible Will Take a Little While, 82-83)
This final rhythm of the spiritual life is openness to hope, and a willingness to let hope energize us to live differently in the world – to share hope and bring healing.
So can you sing “I Got Rhythm” in your spiritual life? Who could ask for anything more? Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bacon and Eggs

Sermon preached February 1, 2009

Scripture Reading: I Corinthians 8:1-13

A hen and a pig are having a discussion around the barnyard. They both agree that the farmer who is caring for them is a good man – that he knows his business and that he cares well for his fields and animals. They think that it might be nice to do something special for him. They consider their options. Finally the hen suggests that they fix him a nice meal. “What should we make?” asks the pig. “How about bacon and eggs/” suggests the hen. Pig: “Bacon and eggs?! Bacon and eggs - - - for you that is a nice contribution, for me that would be the ultimate sacrifice.”
Sacrifice. That is a part of the story of our Scripture reading for this morning. Sacrifice, sensitivity and sacrifice. Here’s the story. The Christian congregation at Corinth was a diverse congregation. The people who constituted this Jesus community came from different backgrounds, they had differing opinions, they came with different life experiences. This created tension and conflict.
One issue around which the church disagreed had to do with eating meat, specifically meat a part of which had been offered to idols. This is where the passage becomes a little difficult for us. We would be surprised if our local butcher cut off some part of the meat he was putting out in the case and said a prayer to say Apollo, Zeus, Artemis, Asclepius, Dionysius, offered that piece of meat to that god and then put the rest out into the case. I worked in a grocery store for five and a half years and I never witnessed anything of the sort in the meat department. But for the people of Corinth, such offerings were commonplace. The meat market would have been full of temple meat. Furthermore, many of the regular social functions in the society of the time were held on the grounds of the temples of gods. One can still find the ruins of a temple to Apollo in modern Corinth. If you were a part of the social life of the more well-to-do in Corinth, you would expect to participate in feasts, and celebrations on temple grounds.
Apparently some of the people who were part of the Christian community at Corinth were well-educated, well-to-do, and relatively sophisticated. They did not see their new found Christian faith incompatible with continuing participation in the social life of Corinth. Perhaps they would not pray to gods like Apollo, but they could eat food served on social occasions. They offered a well-considered and theologically-sophisticated argument for their position. As Christians we affirm that there is only one God and we know this one God in Jesus Christ. These other so-called gods are chimera, unreal, pure figments of imagination. How can eating meat that may have been offered to a fictional god affect my relationship with the real God whom I know in my Lord Jesus Christ?
Paul responds by agreeing with this argument. It is true, there is only one God that is real. It is also true that “we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” They have it right. Yet, Paul poses some questions: What about love? What about community? What about relationships? What about the effect of your actions on others in the Jesus community? Paul is asking for sensitivity. Paul is asking that people consider sacrificing some of their legitimate rights for the sake of community well-being, for the sake of stronger relationships.
Well, the whole business about idol meat makes this passage strange and difficult. And a diverse congregation where people bring different backgrounds, experiences, thoughts – who ever heard of that!!!! I want to tell you something – I can only preach the sermon I am preaching today because right now our diverse congregation is not embroiled or embattled. I am not concerned about the words I speak today being misused in an on-going dispute. I am not saying we agree about everything, but we are not in the midst of intense conflict right now and it is at such times that it is good to take a look at ourselves and ask how we can strengthen our community and how we can improve our community-building relational skills.
Sensitivity and sacrifice – these words arrive in a culture that takes “rights” very seriously. Our founding document, The Declaration of Independence states unequivocally that persons are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I would argue that this view of inalienable rights is deeply Christian in many ways – it is a recognition of the value of each person, an acknowledgement that each person carries the image of God within. If this notion is deeply Christian, though not exclusively Christian, so too is the journey of our country in trying to expand the notion of “all persons.” The Constitution drawn up to express the principle of The Declaration of Independence exclude women from voting. African-American persons were considered property, not persons. We have had little compunction in our history in treating Native peoples less as people and more as obstacles in the way of our manifest destiny. We have grown in our inclusion as a society and grown in our understanding of the importance of rights for all.
Though rights can be deeply rooted in Christian understanding, Christian community pushes us beyond “rights.” The church as a community of people gathered in the name and spirit of Jesus is concerned for freedom and rights - - - and concerned about love, relationships, sensitivity and sacrifice. We ask the questions: what are my rights? What am I free to do? We also ask: How will my actions affect others? How can I best use my freedom to build up others and not only myself? When would it be good to sacrifice my rights in the interest of love, community, relationships? Difficult questions. Necessary questions.
This passage invites and challenges us to be sensitive.
We need to be sensitive to the experience of others. The past two weeks during our adult faith forum, we watched videos about difference in our society and discussed them. The first video, produced by The United Methodist Church, was called “Truth and Wholeness” and it was about “white privilege.” My guess is that that term is uncomfortable for many of us. It has been for me. I grew up in Lester Park. I remember at least two times when my dad came home from work having been laid off. My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties. I paid my own college expenses, working at a grocery store. When my dad dies in the coming weeks, there will be no inheritance. “Privilege” doesn’t seem to apply. Yet when I listen with sensitivity to the stories of others, especially people of color, I know that I have never had to worry that someone may be following me in a store because of how I look. I know no one will ever turn me away from an interview because of the color of my skin. No one will doubt my competence just because of my gender or ethnic background. White privilege is less about having advantages than about not having hurdles – and the deepest lesson as I deal with issues around race is the need to listen deeply and with sensitivity to the stories of others, especially others who are different from me. The church needs to be a community of sensitivity to others.
The church should be a community of sensitivity to the earth itself. Paul, in I Corinthians is focused on the quality of human relationships that should characterize the Jesus community. As we have come to a deeper understanding of the human interconnection with the natural world, I think we also need to include sensitivity to that world among the characteristics of the contemporary church. What is the earth telling us about how we are living? Are we being told to be more careful about our use of resources? Are we being told that we need to pay even more attention to our sources of energy? Are we being told that if we don’t care for the earth, it may come back to haunt us?
Sensitivity to others, especially to those who are different; sensitivity to the earth itself, are part of what it means to live as Christians in community. Our sensitivity also needs to be attuned to the pain and hurt in our world, maybe especially attuned to the pain and hurt in others and in the world. Henri Nouwen, in one of his books writes, “Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken” (The Way of the Heart, 20). Christian community as Paul encourages it is a compassionate community.
Sensitivity may lead to sacrifice. Frederick Buechner writes, “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love” (Wishful Thinking). When we listen deeply to others, when we are attuned to the pain and hurt in others, in the world, in the earth itself, we may come to that place where we realize that it would be better to sacrifice our right to do or say something in the interest of healing, in the interest of caring, in the interest of compassion, in the interest of love.
Listening is itself a sacrificial act when done well. We give up our right to be thinking of a response and instead listen deeply to others. When we have heard their stories, it may be that we simply thank them and give up our need, our right to respond.
Decision-making in the midst of on-going dialogue requires sacrifice. We agree to sacrifice our own particular preference in favor of a decision that may be more widely shared. In the coming years we may have challenging decisions before us. We will talk. We will listen. We will have to make decisions. We hope to be able to do that in love and care and in such a way that even when our position may not prevail, we stay connected. That is part of the sacrifice community asks of us.
Sometimes for the sake of community, we also need to sacrifice our need to be right. I am a fairly bright person. I have a number of diplomas on the wall in my office and I can put: BA, M.Div., and Ph.D. after my name. I also enjoy trivia games, where the object is to get the right answer. I don’t know when it was, but somewhere along the line I learned that life is not a game of Trivial Pursuit. It is o.k. not to be right all the time, and it is o.k. not to press the point even if you are right. Not every mispronunciation needs to be corrected, not every inaccurate statement needs to be set straight. Somewhere along the line I learned, though I am still learning it, that one can be right in all the wrong ways. In many ways, that is what Paul is trying to convey to the well-to-do, well-educated and sophisticated Corinthian Christians. You can be right in all the wrong ways. You aren’t doing anything wrong in eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, but your lack of sensitivity to those troubled by your actions is doing harm to the community and you need to think about that, and maybe sometimes sacrifice your right to eat meat for the good of the community. Give it away for love.
To be sure, this lesson can be overlearned and misused. Sensitivity to others and an openness to sacrifice for the well-being of the community does not entail running away from difficult issues or controversial matters. We do not want to turn away from the doors we have opened wide to others here – opened to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, background, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status. We will not discontinue talking about challenging issues like white privilege, or interreligious dialogue. But we will seek to be prophetic and progressive and questioning in a loving and sensitive way. Sometimes, even then, people will decide to leave because we have tackled a tough issue, and there is only so much we can do about that. The image for such leaving should be centered in the image Paul uses in other places for the church – a body. When people leave it is like an amputation – there is pain which we feel and there is a scar which we acknowledge.
Together we are on a transformational journey. Together we are seeking to figure out what it means to live the way of Jesus in our day and time. Together we are seeking to respond to God’s Spirit as it invites us into new life. One important part of this kind of life is to be in a community of sensitivity, a community where sacrifice sometimes makes sense.
I often like to end with a story that reaches inside and fires the imagination, stimulates the mind, grabs at the heart, and there are such stories to illustrate what it means to live in a community of sensitivity and sacrifice, but we will enact that in a little bit, with communion. Stay tuned.
 Communion centered in Jesus who sacrificed himself, not because God needed some kind of sacrifice but because faithfulness to his friends and to his teaching lead down that road
 We come together. We may stand next to someone we do not know, yet in that standing there is a connection. We may stand with someone with whom we disagree, and we see them as a sister as a brother in Christ. We come open and vulnerable, and we stand with open and vulnerable people, and we offer our sensitivity to others
 All are welcome here, no outsiders and we know that means welcoming difference
 Just being here is a sacrifice of a type – we are giving of an hour for our own benefit, but also for others