Friday, March 27, 2009

Sleeping With the Enemy

Sermon preached March 22, 2009

Scripture Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

My guess is if you have noticed the sermon title for this morning you are a little nervous. That’s o.k., but I need to tell you that the most provocative thing about this morning’s sermon is the title – the most provocative, but I hope not the most interesting.
While I stole the words from the title of a Julia Roberts film, the idea behind it comes from an older source, the Walt Kelly cartoon strip “Pogo.” Perhaps the most famous line from the Pogo strip was “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This Lent I have been preaching about wilderness, about wilderness as those experiences that are challenging, risky, frightening, difficult; experiences that disappoint and hurt. We know that kind of wilderness in our lives as human beings. I have also talked about the biblical image of wilderness as a place that is both difficult and a place where we meet God. More on that later.
Wilderness as experiences of difficulty, disappointment, and hurt – and the odd thing is that we are quite good at taking ourselves more deeply into that very wilderness. We have met the enemy and he is us. Sometimes we are, in fact, our own worst enemies. When we go to bed at night, we are sometimes sleeping with the enemy, because he is us, she is us.
There is this wonderful scene from the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall” that illustrates this beautifully. When I post my sermon on my blog I will include a link to this clip (see the end of the sermon here). The movie is about the relationship between Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, and Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton (in an Oscar winning performance). Toward the end of the movie, Alvy goes to Los Angeles, a city he despises, to propose to Annie. She turns him down, after which Alvy gets into his car. He is not a good driver and trying to back out of the parking lot, he hits one car, then another, then another. Scenes of a childhood Alvy in a bumper car ride are interspersed. Things are going badly – wilderness. A policeman arrives on the scene and asks Alvy to get out of the car. Alvy tells the policeman not to get angry, to be nice, because he has had a difficult day. The policeman is not sympathetic. Alvy continues to plea for a nice tone, telling the policeman that he has a problem with authority. When he drops his license on the ground, and the policeman uses a harsh tone to ask him to pick it up, Alvy does so, then tears it up. It is delightfully funny, and serious. Wilderness, we have met the enemy and he is us.
The people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” The Hebrew people were in the wilderness. It was a time of difficulty and challenge, but it was the way out of slavery. Still, the difficulty loomed large for many, and they did what so many of us do so well, they made matters worse. We have no food, no water. Well, we may have food, but we don’t like it very well. When things are a challenge, complaining about them always makes them better - right? Or does the wilderness get even deeper?
Here is where the Biblical story gets ‘weird, mysterious, even gruesome” (Feasting on the Word). In the story, God is none too pleased with all this complaining and sends poisonous serpents among the people. Those who get bit, die. Soon the Israelites sing a different tune – “Help!” They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf to God. Moses does so and God proposes an ingenious remedy – make a serpent, Moses uses bronze, put it on a pole “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” And so it was.
I want to get at this healing part of the story in a minute (I think that’s promise number two for something yet to come), but one important point in the story is that we human beings have the remarkable capacity to make our lives worse, to deepen our wilderness experiences. Every night, we can be sleeping with the enemy – we have met the enemy and she is us.
The story in Numbers reminds me of another story which illustrates this point – the story of Asclepius. Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine and healing and is often depicted with a staff around which is wound a serpent. In the United States, a familiar medical symbol is the caduceus, a staff around which is wound two snakes, and the staff has wings. It may have some link with the story of Asclepius. Anyway, Asclepius is the son of Apollo and Coronis, but he did not have an auspicious beginning. While she was pregnant with Apollo’s child, Coronis fell in love with another (Isychus). The jealous and enraged Apollo sent his sister Artemis to kill Coronis, and she did. But Apollo finds himself grief-stricken. He met the enemy, and it was himself. Placing Coronis on a funeral pyre, Apollo rescues his child, a son, Asclepius.
That we are implicated in our own wilderness, that we are sometimes, even often, our own worst enemies is not simply an idea ensconced in our oldest myths and texts. The New Testament offers similar analyses. In John chapter 3, there is a lot said about God’s love, but I want to bracket that for a moment – promise number three, and you are now worried about how long it is going to take me to get there! But after wonderful words about love, John notes that sometimes, even when light comes into the world “people loved darkness rather than light.” Cryptic, to be sure, but at least one possible meaning is that we are often implicated in our own misery. We are often our own worst enemies.
By now, you get the general point, and I think it is helpful to get more specific. How are we our own worst enemies? I am going to suggest four ways very briefly. The list is not exhaustive, we could think of more I know. I came up with this list pretty quickly, and I did not have to look very far, no farther than the mirror.
We can be our own worst enemies when we neglect the way our physical, emotional and spiritual lives are intertwined. Here is one presupposition I have about life, that it can be difficult. We will encounter wilderness times no matter how wonderfully we live. We can be the nicest people in the world, but someone won’t like us and it won’t feel good. We will make every effort to accomplish something, and we will fall short. People we love will get hurt, some badly, and somewhere along the way people we love will die. Just this week forty-five year-old Natasha Richardson, an actress and wife of actor Liam Neeson, died as the result of a fall while skiing. There will be wilderness. Our capacity to respond to such wilderness experiences with a measure of strength, dignity, integrity, and grace depends, in part, on how we care for ourselves physically. I push myself a lot. I don’t always get the sleep I should. I don’t always eat as well as I might, and I can tell when I have pushed too hard, too far, for too long. I lose some creativity. My patience becomes thin. We are our own enemies when we forget that link between care for ourselves physically and our emotional and spiritual lives.
We are our enemies when we let our negative thoughts and attitudes become automatic, when one negative thought leads to another – click, click, click – and we do nothing to slow that down. See if this sounds familiar. You have worked hard during the day, and are now at home. You are the first one there and you have gone to some trouble making dinner. No one has helped you, though you didn’t ask. It might have been nice had someone offered, though. And your partner, where is he, where is she? Again, running late. You are kind of annoyed – creeping into the edges of the wilderness. Then you remember those other times that they have been later than anticipated for dinner, stopping off some place you didn’t think was very necessary. What could he/she be doing this time? Your annoyance is building. You realize, once again, how underappreciated you are. Doesn’t anyone even care that you went to all this trouble? Why can’t people be on time – annoyance is growing into anger, you are now knee deep in the wilderness and you are bound and determined to take everyone else there with you. Not terribly helpful. Or you make a mistake, and you feel bad – a bit of wilderness. But it is not the first mistake you have made and your mind suddenly kicks into hyper drive, reminding you of the stupid and silly things you have done wrong, and it seems like this is something you have done before, and you feel really pretty incompetent about now and you begin to wonder if you get things right very often at all and you are now meeting the enemy and she is you!
If we can be our own worst enemies when we beat up on ourselves we can also be our own worst enemies when we refuse to admit that we are wrong, mistaken, when we don’t apologize when we should because we are too proud, or we are ashamed, or we are too fragile. There are probably not too many deep lessons to be learned from the 1970s television show “Happy Days,” probably even fewer from the character Fonzie. But there was one episode that has hung with me all these years. I don’t remember the circumstances, but one time Fonzie realizes that he needs to apologize to someone, and the humor comes when he physically cannot say the word “wrong” as in “I was wrong.” It just wouldn’t come out – and that can be true to life for some of us, maybe more for us men. "Sorry" can be hard. When it is required it usually means we are in a wilderness of some kind already, but refusing to say it usually makes the wilderness even worse.
Finally, we can be our own worst enemies when we consistently sacrifice creativity for same old, same old, when we consistently elevate security above adventure. There is no question that the wilderness experience for the Hebrews was difficult, but it was a new thing, it was a way into a whole new life. Some were willing to sacrifice this life of freedom for the old familiar life of slavery. Security, sameness, slavery over risk, adventure, new life – but we should not be too hard on them for they is us quite often. I am not arguing that security is not an important value, nor arguing that there is a lot of good to be carried forward from the past – my favorite music gets older by the year. What I am saying is that we can become slaves to security, to sameness and thereby intensify our wilderness experiences. How is it that the church where we proclaim a God who is about new life, new creation, making all things new, resurrection so often gets stuck in its ways, gets hamstrung by its familiar way of articulating its ideas. For many of us in the church, we think we can get the basics of the faith by the time we are fourteen and thereafter we really don’t have to ask many questions about our ideas of God, Jesus, the Bible. In how many other areas of our lives are we content to let our fourteen year-old understanding stand? The philosopher William James penned a line I have come to love. “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas.” We are our own worst enemies when we don’t let our experience teach us, don’t let it lead us to ask questions, to make needed changes.
We have met the enemy and she is us, he is us, we go to sleep every night with our own worst enemies. So where is there some good news? It is all over the place, even in these texts. God is with us, even in the wilderness, even when we have made our wilderness harsher, God is with us. God never gives up. God desires life for us – eternal life, which Eugene Peterson renders “whole and lasting life.” This is not just about what happens to us in the future, it is about living life now! God loves – God loves the world. God is about love. God is about healing. God is not interested in wagging a finger at us telling us how silly we are when we make matters worse – “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.”
Even here, in the messiness of our lives when we have done everything we can to make them messier, God is present. God seeks life. God seeks healing. God seeks to illumine life. That’s grace. That’s the gospel – the good news.
Admittedly, there is a little mixed news in this good news. One method God seems to use in offering healing is having us look at how we wound ourselves. Moses holds up a serpent, and Jesus uses this image to talk about his own ministry. When Jesus dies we see just how we can be our own worst enemy. Many of Jesus’ co-religionists feared the kind of openness and change he sought, and were glad to have him silenced. Rome could not abide someone who challenged the value system of the empire, one who proclaimed God’s love for all and the need for compassion and justice, one who proclaimed that the title “child of God” should not be reserved for the imperial family alone. So part of the healing God seeks to bring into our lives requires us to look at our ability to wound ourselves, look at it with honesty and with humor. I don’t know about you, but there is an ironic humor in that snake story – who really wants to look at the thing that bites you in order to get well!
Yes, we have met the enemy, and often he is us. We have also met the God of Jesus Christ who loves us even then, who is with us in the wilderness, even the wilderness of our own making. Open up to the healing and transforming love of God. In it we find the strength to admit our mistakes, our shortcomings, our wrongs – for God loves us as we are. In that love we find the strength to change, for God desires for us whole and lasting life. Receive. Amen.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Sermon preached March 15, 2009

Scripture Readings: John 2:13-22; I Corinthians 1:18-25

Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I have been asked, from time to time if I am almost always upbeat, energetic, positive. We have walked through a lot together in recent months so you know that I don’t turn away from the sadnesses and difficulties of life, but when I am here, in this place on Sunday morning, I am usually upbeat, energetic and positive. That’s who I am, much of the time, and that’s the part of me I want to bring to my worship leadership as your pastor.
But you know that I am not always positive. You know I feel sadness and discouragement. Sometimes I feel it more deeply than I really want to show here, but this morning I want to give you just a peek into a darker moment.
It was a couple of weeks ago. It was in the middle of my dad’s dying process. I was feeling a bit bewildered about some things here at the church. We have experienced some ceiling leaks here at the church, as you know. We are asking some good questions about our worship life and about faith development here, and we want to make some changes (and change is never easy). There were some frustrating things at home. Julie and I were driving out of town, to the Twin Cities. I was going to attend a day long workshop and she was going to visit our daughter, Beth. We were going to meet later for supper before heading back home. We were talking about all these things that were discouraging and then it happened. In a moment of feeling overwhelmingly frustrated and discouraged, I blurted out, “Sometimes life just sucks!” It surprised both of us.
Ever have that feeling, even if only fleetingly? That’s a wilderness feeling. Earlier this week I was speaking with someone who asked me if I ever feel sad about all the cruelty in the world. I told her, “I do.” This week has been a difficult one in the world. In Illinois, a pastor is shot in front of his church. In Alabama, a man goes on a shooting rampage, killing nine, then killing himself. In Iraq, there have been at least twenty insurgent attacks including a bombing outside Baghdad on Tuesday that killed at least 33 people and injured 57. In Germany a 17 year-old kills 15 people then takes his own life. The wilderness feeling of life being disappointing, sad, hurtful creeps up on me when I hear such news. Add to that the smaller personal hurts and disappointments that are a part of all of our lives, and sometimes those hurts and disappointments are not really very small at all, and is it any wonder that someone might cry out in anguish, “sometimes life sucks”? I promise I am now done with that phrase for this morning.
A wilderness feeling, that life is difficult, that life disappoints, that life can hurt. If we think of wilderness images, maybe we don’t think of the biblical desert, but of images of the old west – cactus, rocky bluffs which may hide danger of various kinds – hostile persons, snakes, mountain lions. If that is how we want to envision wilderness, maybe we ask the question asked in this song – “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” Paula Cole. [play part of song]
Where is our John Wayne, where is our prairie son, where is our happy ending, where have all the cowboys gone? For many of us, this is also a God question. Many of us grew up with a John Wayne conception of God. Maybe it worked o.k., at least for awhile. For many of us, we still carry within us that notion of God – the cowboy riding in to rescue the town, the knight in shining armor, the magician waving a magic wand amazing us all.
Wilderness gets thicker when our wilderness experiences challenge these conceptions of God - when our disappointments lead us to wonder if rescue is anywhere to be found, when our hurts challenge our faith. Jewish teacher and therapist Estelle Frankel in her book Sacred Therapy describes this kind of wilderness experience very well. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and often contradictory aspects of the real world (42-43).
Our texts for this morning are about shattered conceptions of faith and God. In the background of Paul’s writing in I Corinthians are two conceptions of God that he sees being shattered. For the Greeks, the gods were larger than life. Their dramas were more intense. Their power could create havoc for humankind. Human persons who dared to challenge the gods were often left wounded, left sorry for their audacity in challenging the gods. For the Hebrews, infamy, ignoble death, shameful suffering were incompatible with the idea of divine blessing. There is this powerful scene in the movie, The Great Debaters which is about the debate team at Wiley College, an African-American college in the 1930s. Two of the Wiley College debaters come upon a lynching scene and barely get out without being attacked themselves. Later, in their conversation, one of the young men says, “What do you suppose he did?” The tragic reality was that he did nothing. For the Hebrews in Paul’s time, there was always a sense that someone killed shamefully, in a way such as crucifixion, must have done something wrong, at least in God’s eyes. Divinity could have nothing to do with shameful suffering. For both the Greeks and Hebrews, God or gods did what was expected. Paul sees the God of Jesus Christ shattering both these conceptions of God. The God of Jesus Christ is different than many imagined.
Not only might conceptions of God and of faith be challenged or let us down, so can the institutions which seek to connect us to faith and God. The story of Jesus we read is a story about his institution of faith, his institution which was supposed to help connect him more deeply with God letting him down, and Jesus is, so to speak, at the end of his rope. The place he thought should nourish spiritual life had become some kind of market place, a religious flea market.
The wilderness is getting really deep and dark and desolate now. Life is going to hell and there are no cowboys in sight, no magicians, no knights in shining armor. Such concepts of God and faith and church are crumbling.
If these texts describe something of our wilderness experiences, times when we are frustrated, disappointed, hurt and our usual conceptions of God seem to be breaking apart in the face of a more complex reality, they also point in the direction of how this kind of wilderness can also be a time and place where we meet God, though the God we meet might be different than the God we might have expected.
When we look more closely at the story of Jesus, Jesus at the end of his rope, we see a story about disappointment with his religious institution, we see a story about deconstruction, but also a story about reconstruction. Jesus tells them to tear the Temple down and he will rebuild it. The whole thing is a little difficult and mysterious, but what it boils down to is this – it is not the Temple as it is, nor the God who always does what is expected, including avoiding the pain and hurt of life, that we should seek. Rather, in looking for God we should look to Jesus, this Jesus who taught and healed and created community and connected people with God, and was killed because he was considered a subversive, considered some kind of threat to the Roman Empire. The God of Jesus Christ is a God who embraces our discouraged, suffering humanity. The God of Jesus Christ is not a God who avoids the pains and tragedies of history, but is God who we see in a crucified Christ. This is a God who walks with us and seeks to bring the best out of us and out of difficulty.
Paul looks for God in this same Jesus Christ, and when he does, typical Greek and Hebrew conceptions of God shatter. The power of God is not something completely foreign to us, completely outside of us, but rather the power of God is within us and between us. The power of God is seen in a crucified Christ, a suffering human being through whom and in whom God continues to work. Even as we struggle in our human lives, God’s power can find ways to work in us and through us. The wisdom of God is not locked in an ivory tower accessible only to the learned, but is to be found in the midst of the grit and grime of life. “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Like both the Greeks and the Hebrews, we like to hold on to our ideas of a cowboy God, a knight in shining armor God, a magician God. Where have all the cowboys gone? We are not sure, but we think we need just to wait. But the God of the crucified Christ is not the cowboy God, which is not to deny that we can sometimes feel rescued from the worst of life. The God of the crucified Christ, a Jesus who could be at the end of his rope is a God for our lives, a God in our lives, a God who is always at work to create love, beauty, justice even in the midst of disappointment. Part of our wilderness experience is a letting go of ideas of God that don’t really fit life. We let go so we can encounter God again, but in new and deep ways.
Let me go back to Estelle Frankel. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and often contradictory aspects of the real world. Yet if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to re-create our lives out of the rubble of our initial failures. And ultimately, we become wiser and more complex as our youthful ideals are replaced by more realistic and sustainable ones…. We must salvage the essential elements of our youthful dreams and ideals and carry them forward on our journeys so that we can find a way to realize them in a more grounded fashion. (Sacred Therapy, 42-43). God is with us, but maybe not as a cowboy or knight in shining armor. We need to let go of outmoded ways of thinking about God so we can meet the God of the bible, the God of Jesus Christ. Another person put it well when he wrote about “the supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (Bingamon in Cooper-White). In the wilderness, where our very ideas about faith and God might be challenged, we can encounter God again as we are willing to let our thinking grow.
So when I have that feeling that life well… that I am having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day – that feeling of disappointment, discouragement, bewilderment, what gets me through? What can help feed hope and faith in that kind of wilderness?
I need to ask about my own contribution to that wilderness feeling, and that will be my theme next week.
I need to remember that God is with me, even when I feel at the end of my rope. God is there, but maybe in surprising ways. I need to slow down and slow my mind down. I need to stay alert. I need to pay attention. The wisdom of God is not locked away in ivory towers nor hidden behind stained glass. It is there in the midst of the wilderness, in the grit and grime of life. The power of God is not something completely foreign to us, completely outside of us, but rather the power of God is within us and between us. The power of God is seen in a crucified Christ, a suffering human being through whom and in whom God continues to work. Knowing God is right there with me, working to bring out the best, working to empower me, feeds faith and hope. The wilderness is a place to encounter God.
I need to remember that learning and growing are always possible, and not just in cognitive ways, not just in my head, but a deep learning, a heart learning, soul-making. If I were to be rescued by some knight in shining armor, by some cowboy coming from the west, I would not have the opportunity to learn and grow in the wilderness. Wilderness experiences can make me a better human person – gentler, more thoughtful, more caring, more courageous.
This weekend at the Opening our Doors, Opening Our Hearts conference, I heard again the story of Phil and Randi Reitan. Phil and Randi have four children, and their youngest, Jacob, is gay. When he first shared the news with his parents, there was a wilderness time for them. Their ideas about God and faith and life were challenged. Their own church disappointed them. In and through this wilderness, however, the Reitans discovered deeper sources of faith, discovered a God who created all people and called that creation good, and that goodness extended to their son Jacob. On another occasion, Phil Reitan confessed that at first, if he had been told he had a magic wand and could wave it and change his son Jacob, he would probably have done that. Now, through the wilderness, Phil Reitan has learned that he can love his son as he is, and wouldn’t change a thing. Instead Phil and Randi have been changed.
Everyone of us knows wilderness times of discouragement and disappointment and hurt, times when life feels heavy and disheartening. In such a wilderness we can meet God, but sometimes only when we leave cowboys at the movies or in Zane Grey novels, only when we let go of kindergarten conceptions of God (of knights in shining armor, of cowboys come to the rescue) in order to embrace the God who is with us in the wilderness, the God of Jesus the Christ who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Amen.

Paula Cole, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone"

Monday, March 16, 2009


Sermon preached March 8, 2009

Scripture Readings: Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

My dad died this week – he passed away on Monday and his memorial service was on Friday. Those flowers in front of the altar are from his service. I am going to say a few things about this this morning, but the very first thing I want to say is “thank you.” Ever since I shared with you my father’s terminal diagnosis, you have been amazing in offering words of comfort, love and care, as well as your prayers. Since my father’s death, there have been so many kind expressions of sympathy – verbally or by card, and when I looked out on the congregation for my father’s service on Friday I was bowled over by how many of you took your time to be there for my family and me. You are wonderful and amazing, and I thank you for that.
My dad died on Monday. I saw him that day, and when I did I knew it would not be long. I have been with enough people at the end of life to have some idea of the kinds of things that happen toward the very end. That day my dad was completely unresponsive. He stared straight ahead, though his eyes were so clouded that I don’t think he could really see anything. His mouth hung open and he had begun that breathing pattern that I have seen so often as people close in on death. When my dad’s wife called later that day to say that my dad had died, I was sad, and also glad that this final stage did not last longer. I have seen it go for three or four days and those are always difficult days.
One of the things that my family and I have said over and over these past couple of months is that we are grateful that my dad did not suffer more in his dying. He seemed fairly comfortable most of the time, and experienced little pain as his cancer began to take his body. He suffered, but it could have been so much worse had his pain been worse.
Suffering. We do not escape life without experiencing suffering. As I think about this I think about what our friends Bob and Sandy Almquist are going through. Bob was out walking a week ago this past Thursday, walking liked he loved to do, he was out walking when he fell and hit his head. At first the doctors were not sure that Bob would even make it and his prognosis remains very uncertain. What suffering they are experiencing. There are others here who have stories of heartbreaking suffering.
In one of my Lenten reflections I share a poem a wrote I few months ago, and I want to share it with you this morning. I told you we don’t get through life without suffering!

There are days
when the truest
statement in the
creed is:
He descended into hell,
and when the
first truth of
Buddhism appears
its most profound:
Life is suffering.
Both also promise
a way forward.
The eightfold path.
Neither promises
that the way
is easy.
And the stay
in hell was
three days.

This is not a hopeless poem, but a poem which acknowledges the reality of suffering and its depth, a poem which sees that suffering can be more than physical pain, but can be a suffering in our souls and spirits. There seem to be days when the Buddha had it just right: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering (In the Buddha’s Words, 76). These words from the Buddhist tradition find their echo in our Scriptures. We read a part of Psalm 22, and will have more to say about it shortly. The Psalm begins: My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning. Words of suffering.
For the Bible, suffering was a conundrum. We could say that suffering leads people into a wilderness time, a wilderness place - a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk. For many people in biblical times suffering posed a significant religious issue. The question they pondered, and a question many today ponder is “why do good people suffer?” For many in Biblical times, the answer was, “they don’t,” or at least they don’t for long. For many in Biblical times there was in life a relatively simple equation – do good, obey God, and you will prosper, if not right away, eventually. The first chapter of Joshua might be an example of such thinking. The Israelites are told there that if they are faithful in following the law, they will “be successful” wherever they go. For some in biblical times, if life was too full of suffering for a person, others might suspect that the person had some hidden fault that was part of the cause of their suffering. One of the reasons the crucifixion of Jesus was such a religious scandal was that some thought such a shameful death must mean that there was something wrong with Jesus. We will explore this more next week. One more thing we should note, however. Many of us carry some similar theological thinking around inside us. When things go wrong for others, don’t we sometimes wonder if they have done something wrong?
While the Bible contains places where this simple theology of equating goodness with success can be found, at its best, the Bible presents a more complex picture of the dilemma of suffering. At its best the Bible provides no easy answers about why people suffer. In Matthew 5 Jesus says that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (45). Suffering would appear to be an equal opportunity employer. If we want to equate being good with a lack of suffering, in any simplistic manner, we are outside the best of the Bible’s thinking.
So suffering happens to us all, no matter how good we are, no matter how careful we might be, no matter how deep our faith or our prayer life. When we suffer, whether it is physical pain or emotional or spiritual pain, we enter a wilderness time and place – a time of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk – a time when our faith can be challenged. But the wilderness in the Bible is not only such a time and place, it is also a time and place where we can encounter God more deeply. Does the Bible offer us any hope that we can make any meaning out of suffering? How does the Bible and Christian faith help us suffering human beings? The Bible and Christian faith offer some thoughts about how the wilderness of suffering can be a place where we meet God, a place where God heals some suffering, but where God also helps us derive some meaning from some of our suffering. I want to offer four quick points, then wrap up.
The most important Christian and biblical affirmation about suffering is that God never abandons us in the midst of our hurt, our pain, our suffering. In response to those who might see suffering as abandonment by God, the Psalmist offers this. “God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me, but heard when I cried out. When we suffer, when we hurt, we often feel terribly alone. God assures us that we are not alone, that God does not shy away from the most difficult moments in our lives, but walks with us.
Having said that all of us experience suffering, I want to make sure I also offer the Biblical word that not all suffering is inevitable, that not all suffering is simply to be endured, but that we have healing work to do in the world. Psalm 22 offers a vision of the world as God would have it. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” This brief verse points to a larger truth about the Bible and Christian faith. The world as it is is not how God would have it. Rather, God dreams a different world – a world of justice and peace, beauty and goodness, forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and love. God dreams of this world and works for this world, and we are invited to work with God. “Dominion belongs to the Lord” the Psalmist proclaims. He is not making a statement that everything that is happening is happening because God wants it to happen that way. The Psalmist is making a statement about what matters most in the world. The Psalmist is arguing that God’s way will win out. We are invited to be a part of that way. Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 8 to take up their cross. This is a complex symbol for Christians, and we usually equate taking up our cross with suffering. But what if, instead of asking his disciples simply to suffer, Jesus is asking them to take up their task in making God’s dream for the world more real? Be a part of God’s healing work in the world. Do what you can to alleviate preventable suffering – and there is so much suffering in the world that we can do something about – hunger, homelessness, the suffering of the planet, hatred, war. We need not let all suffering stand as it is. We can use the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Even when we are loving, even when we are doing our best to alleviate that suffering that can be changed, some suffering will happen to us. That’s life. There are times when some of our suffering is even self-inflicted. If we are suffering from loneliness, sometimes we have pushed people away. If we are suffering from the dregs of the day, maybe we have contributed to the difficulty of the day by our own attitude. In such cases, we should see how we can change some forms of suffering by changing ourselves. Even then, there will be suffering that we cannot change – loved ones die, hatred continues even as we work against it, disease ravages people’s lives. When we are caught in situations where we are suffering, we might always ask how we can learn and grow. When we experience the sorrow of losing someone close, we should let that experience make us more deeply caring. When we experience the pain of being left out, we should become more sensitive to others who might be left out. Suffering can be meaningful if we learn and grow amidst the pain of it.
Finally, Christian faith encourages us not to simply run away from suffering. Sometimes we can learn and grow through our experiences of suffering. Sometimes suffering is a part of the process of doing good, of seeking to change the world. Human history is replete with stories of people working for good who suffered – Martin Luther King, Jr. Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, Vaclav Havel. Doing good, joining God’s healing work in the world does not mean we will suffer, but we might. Then the encouragement is not to run from the suffering, but to keep doing the good in spite of the suffering.
Jesus is the prime biblical example of the person who risked suffering to do good. The predictions of death by Jesus are always a challenge. Did Jesus see his mission in the world primarily as one of dying? I am not sure he did. Maybe Jesus saw his mission as proclaiming the good news of God’s love and justice, of bringing hope and healing to others, but he also knew what a collision course this put him on with the empire. He would also be aware that when goodness collided with the empire, goodness usually lost, and crucifixion was one answer the empire had for those whose idea of goodness and God were different from the imperial theology. So maybe Jesus was letting his disciples know that following the way of God’s goodness in the world could lead to suffering. Take up the cross anyway. Listen to where God is calling you to follow God’s dream for the world and follow. Take up your cross, whatever that may be.
I would like to end with a spectacular story this morning, but I don’t have one for you. Given this past week, and especially these past few days, it is a wonder that I am even up here making some sense. All I can offer in the way of a last word about the wilderness of suffering as a place where we can also meet God is my own experience over these past few months.
There was suffering in my life, the dying and then death of a father, my brother, sister and I coming to terms with the complexity of our relationships to him – our parents divorced over twenty years ago. I hope I listened well to God and sought ways to mitigate or even alleviate some of that suffering. My sister, brother and I talked a lot. I visited my dad frequently and fed him at times, trying to keep him comfortable. Some of the suffering of the past couple of months was unavoidable. I continue to try and learn and grow from this experience. Seeking to do good, I could not turn away from the suffering going on around me, but sought to keep on doing the good. In the midst of it all, I believe God was with me, that God did not turn away from my pain and hurt.
Suffering indeed leads us into a wilderness, but it can be a wilderness where God is found in new ways. Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Sermon preached March 1, 2009
First Sunday in Lent

Ah wilderness. What do you imagine when you hear the word “wilderness”? Do you imagine tall pines, a quiet lake, loon sounds. We might imagine a place of wonder and beauty and mystery, a place of peace, a place for thoughtfulness. The Psalmist’s words might come to mind. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
My guess is that if you have been in the wilderness much at all, you know that it is not all placid and wonderful. Maybe you have had a bear steal your food while you were camping. In Minnesota, the woods are also breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Who of us haven’t had a nice outdoor experience ruined by those pests? The wilderness can be a place of rain and mud and leaky tents.
The Bible, not being written in Northern Minnesota, knows nothing of tall pines, quiet lakes and the haunting cry of the loon. When the Bible speaks about the wilderness the picture is of a desert place, a place of hard rocky ground, of little vegetation, and little water. The wilderness is a dry and difficult place, a place of harsh landscapes, scarce resources and wild beasts. It is often a lonely place where a person must confront oneself without the surrounding noise of a busy world. It is a place of temptation.
Paradoxically and serendipitously, the wilderness, while retaining all those characteristics, is also a place where God is encountered. The Israelites, after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, find themselves wandering through the wilderness, but they meet God there (Exodus). Elijah, fleeing Jezebel, makes his way into the wilderness, and meets God there in the “sound of sheer silence” (I Kings 19).
The writer of The Gospel of Mark probably has such stories in mind when he tells the story about Jesus we heard this morning. Mark’s story draws upon these classic biblical stories, the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus in the wilderness for forty days. Elijah meeting God in the wilderness, Jesus having the angels wait on him. Mark’s story is full of action, adventure, drama – the heavens are torn apart and a voice speaks. The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness. The question that some posed a few years ago was probably misspoken – “what would Jesus drive?” Jesus doesn’t drive, the Spirit does, but it doesn’t say what she drives.
There is temptation, though Mark leaves the exact nature of the temptation to the imagination, unlike Luke and Matthew. The wild beasts may be an echo from Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom where the wolf lies down with the lamb, the leopard with the goat (Isaiah 11). The story ends with a crisis and a new beginning – the arrest of John, the ministry of Jesus.
“Wilderness wanderings/wonderings is our theme for Lent and we will be looking at the wilderness as a difficult and wonderful place. We will use the image and metaphor in a number of ways. This morning the focus, based on this story from Mark, is the wilderness as a place of temptation and a place of encounter with God. But if wilderness can be a metaphor for a great number of realities of life – and I think it can be, which to choose. What wilderness do we want to visit this morning.? Early in the week, on my way to the church I heard Kerri Miller and Krista Tippett talking about our current economic situation. That is a wilderness situation – a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, maybe of danger, a place of wild beasts – in this case a hungry bear on Wall Street. Krista Tippett hosts the MPR program Speaking of Faith and she and Kerri Miller were discussing the spiritual aspects of what is going on, how this can feel like a spiritual wilderness. Speaking of Faith has begun a segment called “repossessing virtue” to talk about the moral and spiritual challenges of the economic downturn, and about the kind of moral and spiritual resources this wilderness is calling forth. There is great material there, and I may use it some upcoming Sunday.
I also considered exploring some of my own personal wilderness of the past few weeks, the experience of watching my father slowly waste away from liver cancer – the ups and downs of all of that. It, too, has been a wilderness experience, difficult, uncertain, confusing. Again, I may come back to this in Lent.
As the week went on, however, I became convinced that I wanted to talk about the wilderness time I think our church is in. If wilderness is a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk, then I think we are in a wilderness time here. Where did I come up with an idea like that and what do I mean?
Maybe it started with some of the reflections I have been offering in the newsletter about Five Fruitful Practices of Congregations, a book written by United Methodist bishop Robert Schnase. Schnase argues that any church, if it is to be faithful in its ministry as a Christian congregation, and if it is to be fruitful in that ministry, should be engaged in five practices: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, extravagant generosity. I have, to date, written newsletter articles about three of these practices. During this time, I have sensed that we are in a wilderness.
Radical hospitality – being warm and welcoming and inviting. We love being warm and welcoming, and we get good feedback from many people about that. There is always room for growth, of course. Being inviting – we are very ambivalent about that. Somehow church growth has a negative connotation for some of us. We are hesitant to tell of our faith because we have been bullied, badgered and battered by other well-meaning people of faith concerned for our souls, and we don’t want to repeat such bullying. I understand. But like Jesus, we have good news to share – “good news of God,” good news that makes a difference in people’s lives. We need to share it with authenticity and integrity. Part of that good news is that a new kind of community can happen when people together seek to live in response to God, the community called the church. Yet some are hesitant to invite others into this community, considering such invitation self-serving. Is the church helped by new members – of course – but we hope those who become members of the congregation are also helped in their lives.
Passionate worship – worship that more deeply connects people with God, with each other and with the world. Even as I was writing about worship other developments emerged. Last year our average Sunday worship attendance dipped below 200. That means on a number of Sundays with two worship services, one of those services has about 100 people in attendance – and in this space, that feels uncomfortable. While pondering what that might mean for us, I also heard someone describe the style of worship in their church, a church in Pennsylvannia. I got excited by some of what I heard and so have begun conversations with staff and others, conversations that are on-going and intentionally quiet, about our worship life. Here are the conclusions I have come up with to date: (1) we need to make some changes in our worship life, though just what will change is uncertain; (2) there are no simple answers to improving our worship life and increasing attendance, if increasing attendance were easy every church would be growing; (3) we need to make changes not just for our benefit, but so we can continue to be a welcoming and attractive place for others who may want to join us – it is never enough to ask just what we want, never enough to ask just what will make us happy; (4) no matter what changes we make, some will be happier than others, and some will be unhappy. (5) Whatever changes we make in the near future may have to be changed again soon. That’s the nature of wilderness with howling winds and wild beasts.
Intentional faith development – I have also come to believe we are not doing all we can be doing on this score. In particular, we need to find a way to offer more opportunities for people to engage in meaningful Bible study, and we are working on that.
If wilderness is a place of uncertainty, of difficulty, of challenge, of risk, then I think we are in a wilderness time and place here at First UMC.
Here is where we need to pay close attention to Jesus’s story as told by Mark. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” There are many reasons we are in a wilderness time and place – sociological, demographic, cultural. In a culture that prizes the new and improved, mainline denominational churches are old news. In a post-denominational culture, “community churches” or churches with non-denominational designations have a definite appeal. Being a part of a church is no longer part of the definition of being a good person. Whatever other reasons there are for being in the wilderness, I believe we are also here because we have been seeking to follow God’s Spirit. We have followed God’s Spirit in being a church that wants to link faith and justice, relationship with God to doing good in the world. We are a progressive faith community that seeks to break through social barriers like race, economic division and sexual orientation. We are a community of faith that does not ask people to leave their brains behind, but invites people to bring their deepest questions into the church. I believe we have followed God’s Spirit in that, but we have come to that place where the way forward is shrouded in mystery, where the tracks in the desert have stopped and we are not sure what comes next. What will our mission look like? How will we build on our progressive heritage? Jesus emerged from his wilderness time to begin a new mission, bringing the kingdom of God closer in a new way. How will the Spirit lead us to bring God’s dream for the world closer?
In this wilderness time, there are temptations. We can play the blame game. We can blame each other. If only families were more committed to the church. If only parents stood up to youth athletic coaches and insisted we get Sundays back. We just need to get our priorities straight, our values in perspective. I don’t think most of that kind of conversation is helpful. You could blame me and I can blame me. People aren’t coming because of my preaching and my leadership. There is a degree of truth in that. There are a few people who are not here because of me. Unfortunately, that is almost inevitable. I followed two very gifted pastors – Elizabeth Macaulay and Cooper Wiggen. I do not have some of the gifts they have. You have not seen me leading worship with a guitar and solo voice, though I have been holding out a bit. I do play a little guitar, a little piano and an occasional drum – but you can’t lead worship with an air band. I have disappointed some and I am not what some are looking for. We are not going to be the church for everybody. I know that, and it still feels kind of awful when people leave or stay away. I will continue to learn and grow and change, and need to. I continue to take constructive comments seriously. But simple blame for a complex reality is a temptation we should avoid.
There is the temptation in this wilderness to let discouragement, which is inevitable, lead to despair, which is not - - - despair, that lasting feeling that we will not come out of the wilderness well and whole. Change is needed, and change is difficult. Despair whispers that we will not be able to change. Mainline churches are on their way out and we will be no different, that’s the voice of despair. Despair speaks directly to me, telling me that I don’t have what it takes to lead through this wilderness time. Despair is a real temptation that we need to resist.
A final temptation is to run from the unknown, to be unwilling to take risks, to avoid experimentation and the chaos that can come with it. We can try and do this by either refusing to make any changes at all or by making decisions too quickly, short-circuiting discernment.
The wilderness is a place of difficulty, of challenge, of risk, of temptation. It is not a comfortable place to be, but there is one last part of this story in Mark we need to hear this morning. Jesus went into the wilderness knowing he would not go alone, but would go with the God who called him “beloved.” We need to hear that word and hear it well – we are beloved by God, and that God is with us in the wilderness, in this wilderness time. Because we are beloved, we need not be battered by all the voices in our world that belittle us, that make us feel unworthy, that take away our zest for living. Because we are beloved, we live with a certain confidence that the good we do is never lost, but God uses it synergistically. Because we are beloved, we trust that even in the wilderness we can tame the wild beasts and witness streams and blossoming. Because we are beloved we trust that we will not be in the wilderness forever, but will find a new way to share and live the good news that with Jesus Christ God’s kingdom is always near, change is always possible. God is with us always, even where the wild things are. Amen.