Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Truck, A Bar, A Church

Sermon preached April 26, 2009

Text: Luke 24:36b-48

In the congregation of a small town church was a woman named Mildred. Mildred considered herself an outstanding member of the church and community. She also was the self-appointed monitor of the church’s morals and was good at sharing her concerns about others moral failings. Many members of the church did not approve of Mildred’s vigilance or her gossip. However, they feared her enough to maintain their silence.
Then came George. George was new to town and new to the church, when Mildred accused him of having a drinking problem. She told him she had seen his old pickup parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She emphatically told George, and then several others, that everyone who saw his truck parked there would know exactly what he was doing.
George, a man of few words, stared at Mildred for a moment and then just turned and walked away. He didn’t explain his actions, defend himself, or deny anything. He said nothing.
Later that evening, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Mildred’s house and walked home. He left the truck there all night. A truck, a bar, a church.
What words might we use to describe church people? I hope we would include kind, compassionate, caring, loving, joyful, fair, open-minded, generous, big-hearted. That is often true. But we are also painfully aware from our own experience, and from the experience of others that church people have been known to be narrow, rigid, judgmental, self-righteous. Somewhere along the line some of picked up the idea that to be a Christian, to be a church person is to be that kind of person – a Mildred sure of her own virtue and policing the virtue of others, self-righteous, priggishly perfect, seeing no need of growth in her own life she finds areas for growth in others.
How different a picture we get in Luke of Christians, of church people. Listen again to some of the adjectives used to describe the disciples in this story – startled, terrified, frightened, disbelieving, wondering. These are not people who have it all together all the time, who have no room for growth or improvement. At the same time, these are the exact same people who have the peace of Christ, who are joyful, and who are called by Christ – “you are witnesses.” The picture of Christians, of church people in the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke is a picture of people who are flawed but called.
The good news of Christian faith is that God meets us where we are, accepts us as we are, loves us and calls us in every moment and circumstance of our lives. God meets us, accepts us, loves us, calls us with all our imperfections, with our doubts and questions, with our anxieties, with our hurts.
Yes, God invites us to work on our imperfections. God forgives and seeks to repair the torn places in our lives.
God seeks to give us peace so that we might overcome our fears and anxieties, or keep them in check. God seeks to heal our hurts.
God is with us even as we ask questions, even as we doubt. God invites us to live our questions in ways that help us appreciate the complex beauty and mystery of our lives and of the world.
The good news is that we don’t wait until everything is perfect in our lives to be witnesses for Jesus Christ through words and deeds of love, through offering hospitality and welcome, through care, through working for justice, through compassion, through kindness. I would argue that one way we witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ is precisely through being honest and humble and genuine – not pretending to be people we are not, not hiding behind a façade of self-righteousness.
About a year and a half ago, I preached a sermon in which I talked about how I would like people to be different because they are a part of this church, and one of the ways I hoped people would be different is that they would be more genuine - - - with the capacity to enter into deeper and more genuine relationships. I hope people are freed here to ask their deepest and most probing questions about life and faith. I don’t want people who join our church to be able to mouth pious platitudes that don’t connect with their lives. I want them to be able to engage the language of faith profoundly, deeply with all their heart, soul and mind. If I could take a full page ad out in the newspaper about our church, I might have it say – “Know the Faith? – Think Again.” I want people to be able to think profoundly and feel deeply because they are a part of this church. I believe that being a Christian is as much being a part of an on-going dialogue as it is affirming certain ideas. Christianity is not as much about memorizing answers as it is about asking questions and engaging in a conversation that has been happening since Jesus.
I love the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on living questions. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it live your way into the answer. (34-35, Letter 4) Christians need not have all the answers. We can be startled and terrified and doubting and wondering and live the questions and still respond to Christ’s call to be witnesses.
In the early history of Christianity there were various phases of persecution by the Roman Imperial government. One intense period of persecution occurred in the early 300s, not long before Constantine gave favored status to Christianity with the empire. During this persecution, Christian churches were ransacked and Christian Scriptures were to be turned over to be burned. Some Christians were executed when they refused to do so and some Christians complied. When the persecution ended there was a significant quandary facing the church – how to regard priests and bishops who had turned over Scriptures and other religious objects to the Roman authorities. Donatus of Carthage argued that these apostate priests and bishops needed to go through and extended period of repentance and then be re-baptized. He and those who took his position argued further that the ministry of those priests and bishops who were not re-baptized was deficient. A Donatist bishop argued that the church should be like the Ark of Noah, well-tarred both inside and out. It should retain the good water of baptism and keep out the defiling waters of the world (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 221). St. Augustine, on the other hand argued against re-baptism and for the validity of the ministry of even those priests who had not remained as faithful as they might have. He saw the church as dynamic, a place where growth was possible and needed (222-223). The church has within it imperfect people, sometimes frightened, sometimes with a faltering faith. Still Jesus tells us we are witnesses – flawed yet called. We can be forgiven and freed to do God’s work in the world.
Christians, people of the church are not immune from the hurts and pains of life. We are wounded by hurtful words. We grieve in the face of loss. Healing takes time, and there are not always many times when we feel without some pain, some hurt. Jesus offers us words of peace and we gratefully accept, but the words can take time to penetrate to the depth of our hurting hearts, our wounded souls.
Two 9/11 widows, grateful for the outpouring of support they received after their own loss, started thinking about the women of Afghanistan, who, when widowed, lose status in that society. Because of that, they find their difficult lives even more difficult. These two women raised money and formed a foundation called Beyond the 11th to help Afghan widows. They traveled to Afghanistan to meet the widows they were helping. (Feasting on the Word, 428) Wounded, yet healers. Frightened and wondering, yet reaching out to share love with the world.
How many of you know who Susan Boyle is. Susan Boyle has been all over the internet. She is from a small village in Scotland, in her late forties, and in the words of a columnist from the Los Angeles Times, “unemployed, with frizzy hair, midriff bulge and a figure like a spinster teacher from the 1940s” (The Week). She claims to have never been kissed. Well Susan recently appeared on television, on the British version of American Idol called Britain’s Got Talent. Her appearance has been viewed over 100 million times on You Tube, but not by Susan because she does not have a computer. Susan was called “Susie Simple” in school because of a mild learning disability. So why has she become so famous, so watched?
Susan got on this television show, which allows amateurs to share talent with an audience and three judges. She was everything she has been described as – not attractive by most standards, dressed in a rather plain dress. The judges, you could tell, were not expecting much. Many in the audience were rolling their eyes when she said she was going to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical Les Miserables. Then she started to sing and it was remarkable. In the words of the columnist from the LA Times – “her piercingly beautiful voice stunned the slack-jawed judges and touched the hearts of everyone who heard her. If you haven’t seen this, find a computer and watch it. When I post my sermon this week, I will include a link. It sends chills up your spine.
Susan Boyle is, in many ways, a symbol of Christians and church people as Luke describes them in chapter 24: plain, ordinary, sometimes maybe even a little ugly - - - he uses words like startled, terrified, disbelieving, frightened, wondering. Yet they are loved as they are, given peace in Jesus Christ, called even as they are flawed.
Let’s be honest. Our lives are not always beautiful. We mess up sometimes. We wonder and doubt and question sometimes. We are anxious sometimes. Yet God still calls us. Jesus Christ still offers peace and we know joy in that call, the call to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Into our plain ordinary lives, God has placed a song, and the call of God in Jesus Christ is for each of us to sing our song as best we can – even when we are not perfect, even when we don’t have it all together. Startled, terrified, disbelieving, frightened, wondering - - - given peace and joy, called to witness in word and deed to God’s love. Sing out!!!! Amen.

Susan Boyle Video

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Body and Soul

Sermon preached April 19, 2009

Texts: Psalm 133; John 20:19-31

The Bible is not history. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t convey some historically accurate information. The Bible is not science. For the most part it offers little that would be classified as “science,” though there are insights into the human condition that could be part of a science of humanity. Those who read the first chapters of Genesis as if this were modern science are simply mis-reading the text. If we take the Bible seriously, then we should take seriously what it says about itself. In the Gospel of John, what it says about itself is this “these were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
The Bible is a book that wants to change us, to shape us, to transform us. The God of the Bible who we know most clearly in Jesus, and who we also encounter as Spirit, the God of the Bible desires life for us – new life, abundant life, and living such a life requires change and transformation.
One of the most important ways the Spirit speaks through the Bible to transform us is reshaping how we see life, ourselves, the world. How we see things makes a big difference. Years ago I was walking into a semi-lighted movie theater when I spotted an old friend. I quickly walked up to my friend and patted him on the shoulder, waiting for him to turn around with an excited greeting – except that it was not an old friend at all, but someone I did not know. I was quite embarrassed. Greeting someone with excitement is appropriate for an old friend, but not quite fitting for a stranger. How we see helps determine our response to a person, to life. Whether we see a bear moving across the road ahead of us, or a dog, would call for a different response.
I would argue that both the Psalm we read this morning and the passage we read from John’s gospel want to get us to see the world in a certain way. I think they share at least one transforming perspective and I would call it “the earthiness of God and of faith.”
One of the assignments I gave myself preparing this sermon was listening to two versions of the song from which I stole my title – “Body and Soul.” Will Friewald considers this among the most influential popular songs in the history of American popular music. I listened to a 1947 Frank Sinatra recording of “Body and Soul” as well as a version important in jazz history, Coleman Hawkins 1939 jazz recording. I know, I know, I am pretty brutal with myself in preparing sermons! The lyrics include:
My heart is sad and lonely,
For you I sigh, for you, dear only.
Why haven’t you seen it?
I’m all for you body and soul!

Most of the time we consider body and soul somehow separate though related. We speak as if our soul could be completely separated from our body. We can imagine giving someone our body without our soul, and sometimes that is helpful, as when someone experiences torture or abuse and they think to themselves that their body can be bruised and battered, but their soul remain untouched. We can imagine giving someone our soul without our body. The song “Body and Soul” works because we can imagine their separation, and so singing “I’m all for you, body and soul” has some power to it – a complete dedication.
But I think our Scriptures want to change our viewpoint on this, at least a little. They want us to consider that the body and soul are deeply intertwined, the spiritual and the physical, that there is an earthiness to the spiritual life, the life of faith, that the soul expresses itself in this life and is not simply waiting for liberation in a next life. Listen to the way the psalmist expresses himself. How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! This is a very soulful thought, but the metaphors are distinctly earthy. It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. Soul is like oil poured over the head, soaking the beard, and like dew falling on the mountain.
Body and soul are intertwined, and so are God and the world. In the language of the church we call this “incarnation,” and here is how one theologian (a Methodist layperson) expresses this idea. God is somehow incarnate in the entire creation – the ordinary and extraordinary, the broken and the whole, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the mysterious world in all its dimensions. God is not reducible to the world; “God” and “world” are not synonymous. The world is not perfect. But God’s place is this imperfect place, and its destiny and God’s are joined. God is with us, and the “us” includes all creation. (Delwin Brown, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?, 36-37) Another theologian, Sallie McFague, writes, If God is always incarnate – if God is always in us and we in God – the 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 the one in whom we live and move and have our being (A New Climate for Theology, 72). God and the world are intertwined, like body and soul. God’s salvation/healing is intended for the entire created world.
The story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in John 20 is filled with images of incarnation, of the intertwining of God and the world. The Jesus in whom God comes to touch the world in a unique way is the Jesus with scars on his hands and in his side. God did not just take up temporary residence in a human Jesus – the divinity and humanity were deeply, intimately intertwined. Look at the hands, the side, and let it transform you. In the story the Spirit of Jesus is breathed into the very human disciples. They, too, become part of the incarnation of God in the world.
I say this is a transforming perspective because we often take the world for granted. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” Two younger fish acknowledge with a nod and continue on their way until a few moments later when one says to the other, “What’s water?” (David Foster Wallace, This is Water) We walk on the earth and pay little attention to it. We breathe the air and don’t think all that much about it. We eat the produce of the land and much of the time don’t consider where the food came from. It’s just there, like water for fish. But if soul and body are intimately connected, if God and the world are intimately intertwined in incarnation, then we need to see the world differently.
Creation becomes a place of revelation, a place where we can learn more about, even experience the presence of God, because God is there. One of the wonderful gifts writer Annie Dillard offers the world is her deep observation. Another is the ability to put those observations into words. I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and… fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life. (Annie Dillard Reader (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 355). One of the things Annie Dillard observes with minute detail is the intricacy of the created world – the landscape of the world is “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” (366). She continues: intricacy is that which is given from the beginning, the birthright, and in intricacy is the hardiness of complexity that ensurses against the failure of all life…. The wonder is – given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time – the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found…. Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance…. This, then, is the extravagant landscape of the world, given, given with exuberance, given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. (366). Those last words are biblical (Luke 6:38) – the messages of creation are often wonderful repetitions of the messages about God in the Bible, a God of gratuitous grace, of exuberant creativity.
Creation feeds us, body and soul. Hearing that again should give new meaning to the ancient practice of table grace. Grace could become a time when we slow down enough to wonder at the bounty before us, to give thanks to God not just for creating a world from which we dine, but for being embodied in that world. When we eat, we take some part of the divine life into our lives. That should not seem strange to us as Christians – we do it all the time and we call it communion. In some way, every meal is an opportunity for communion, and that is a cause for thankfulness. Creation feeds us, body and soul, with food and beauty. On Maundy Thursday I quoted from a novel I read years ago, and offer those words to you again. Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54). And creation often feeds us the beauty we need to be human.
Finally, in creation we see a web of life for which we have special responsibility. Let me offer you the words of theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, profound words that will at first have you scratching your heads, but then thinking more deeply about what it means to be human in a world where God is incarnate. “We humans are the evolutionary growing edge of this imperfectly realized impulse to consciousness and kindness” (Gaia and God, 31). What Ruether is saying in a way that perhaps only a theologian would, is that we are a unique combination of the intertwining of body and soul. We are a part of the created world. We share the fate of all living creatures in that we die. Yet of all living creatures we have a remarkable capacity to see the world as an interconnected web. Of all living creatures we have a remarkable capacity for awareness and for kindness. While God is present to all life, God is present to human life in a unique way, and that means we have a unique responsibility for the care and nurture of the world.
So if we see the world differently, as a place where God is incarnate, a place where we then learn more of God and experience God, a place where we are fed by God, and a place for which we have special responsibility, how do we exercise that responsibility? How do we keep a place that feeds us with beauty beautiful? How do we keep a place that feeds us healthy enough to produce healthy food? How do we keep a place where we encounter God thriving, so others can encounter God here for years to come?
I appreciate theologian Sallie McFague’s suggestion. She writes: extending the… inclusive love of Jesus Christ to the natural world… is best begun… by developing real relations with some particular places, lifeforms, entities in nature. Caring for a small backyard garden, or even a single houseplant – is more likely to develop into fighting city hall for an inner city pocket park than is an armchair “love of nature” gained from watching the Discovery channel (Super, Natural Christians, 24). But if you can’t get out, the Discovery channel might not be a bad place to start either!
Do some cleaning. Maybe some of you might join us today in sweeping our parking lot. Maybe some of you can join us on May 2 for our highway clean-up on the Ryan Road. When you are out walking, carry a light bag in which you might put some trash you find along the way. Beautify the land.
Save energy – replace light bulbs with more energy efficient ones, use more energy efficient means of transportation when you can, turn lights off when no one is in a room, use canvas grocery bags. The list here is almost endless. Recently we replaced all the lighting fixtures in the social hall with more energy efficient fixtures, and we will continue to find other energy savings as a church.
Look at the connections between environmental damage and poverty. On Saturday, we have the opportunity for twelve people to see what being poor in Duluth is like, and we still have room for about eight people. The connections between environmental damage and poverty are significant. When landfills are needed, poorer areas are often targeted. When air quality indexes lead to warnings, it is the homeless that have no place to go to escape the poor air. As the impact of climate change continues to grow, it is the poorer areas of the world that will be most adversely affected.
The world is the body of God, a place where we can know and experience God in profound ways, a place from which we are fed by God, a place for which we have a special responsibility as creatures who can uniquely embody God in awareness and kindness.
On this Sunday when we celebrate the goodness of creation, let me end with a poem by Mary Oliver (“Mysteries, Yes” Evidence, 62)

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Jesus comes saying, “Peace be with you…. Reach out your hand”… touch. Bring the peace of Christ as you touch another, as you touch the earth, this place where God dwells – as you touch even where there are scars. Touch, look, laugh, bow, love, work. Give yourself to this new Christ-life. Give yourself body and soul. Amen.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Marrow Way

Sermon preached April 12, 2009 Easter Sunday

Texts: I Corinthians 15:1-10; John 20:1-18

It had been a crazy week, an emotional roller coaster from the heights of elation to the depths of depression. Guilt, too, cast a dark shadow over the week – first the guilty verdict rendered by the authorities sentencing Jesus to death, then their own sharply felt guilt over abandoning him, some even denying they ever knew him – their teacher and friend. Since the guilty verdict things had gone from bad to worse. Whatever hope they may have had that the imperial authorities might not be in cahoots with some of the religious authorities was quickly dispelled. Some of the same voices that had been cheering Jesus early in the week seemed all too willing to cry out, “Crucify him” when encouraged to do so. And so he was executed, crucified, a form of execution reserved for runaway slaves or those fomenting insurrection – a brutal form of execution, painful and degrading Often there was nothing left to bury after the birds and the scavenging dogs had their way with the victims of crucifixion. In that way, Jesus was fortunate. He was put in a tomb. Apparently the Roman authorities had seen Jesus as a threat because they sentenced him to die like that. Because they had been a part of his movement, after the crucifixion the disciples tended to speak in hushed tones, to meet, if they met at all, behind closed doors so as not to arouse the suspicion of the authorities. The person they had followed to Jerusalem was dead. The dream he had inspired in them was broken and shattered. The power and might of the political and religious status quo had crushed Jesus and his message about God’s love, about the possibility for new life in God’s love, about the opportunity to turn our lives around, about the possibility for a newer world.
Now it is the first day of the next week, and weird and wild news comes to Peter and another disciple from Mary Magdalene. The stone had been rolled away. Jesus body was missing. At first it is just a puzzle, and it left them sad and confused. But then pieces of the puzzle begin to come together – Mary experiences Jesus alive, calling her name, telling her to share the news with others that Jesus is not missing, He is living.
What did this mean for those disciples? It meant new life. It meant that the pieces of the shattered dream that Jesus had taught and lived could be put back together again, though it would not exactly be the same dream. The dream of God’s kingdom that the disciples imagined did not go through the pain and suffering of a crucifixion, but the new dream of God’s kingdom had to make sense of this. Somehow God’s dream for the world might go through death before new life emerges. The dream is alive again, but it is more complicated, it embraces more of the world, more of life.
And what does this story mean for us, we who have gathered to hear it as Christians have done now for centuries? What do we hear here that makes any difference for our lives? Will we hear the words, sing the songs and return to our homes unchanged, as initially Peter and another disciple did? Or will we wait more profoundly, ponder more deeply, as Mary does? Will we let the risen Jesus call our name?
Often we take this story and leap to talk about Easter and life after death. If Jesus was raised from the dead, so might we be raised and so we hope for a life beyond death. This story, and Christian faith more generally, speak to issues of life beyond death, but I believe the Easter story speaks as powerfully, even more powerfully, about this life, about life after death within this life, about life after our dreams are shattered, about life after our hurts and disappointments, about life after living in the shadow of guilt, about a life of hope in the face of a world which often give us little to hang hope on. Earlier in the Gospel of John, from which the Easter story was read today, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). In another letter to the Corinthian Christians, Paul writes “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17) Easter, the story of the resurrection, is about abundant life now. Easter, the story of the resurrection, is about new creation now.
In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau, considering humankind writes, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (111). Thoreau sought something else in life, sought to live differently. I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived. (172) His words resonate over the years. In a 1989 movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Thoreau’s quote serves as a life philosophy for a group of prep school students and the popularity of the movie is evidence that many yearn for a deeper engagement with life, yearn for a life that embraces life, that engages us deeply heart and soul and mind.
That’s what Easter is about – fullness of life, new creation, rolling away the heavy stones that get in the way of life, leaping out of tombs that trap us in a life that is not life. The God of Jesus Christ is a God of life and new life, a God of new creation, a God of the marrow way who wants us to live life fully, live deeply.
The 2009 major league baseball season began this week and in the line-up for the Texas Rangers was outfielder Josh Hamilton. Hamilton is coming off a remarkable 2008 season - .304 batting average, 32 home runs, 130 runs batted in – leading the American League. Enormously talented, Josh Hamilton has not always turned his talent into success. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 1999 as a high school student, Josh first tried cocaine in 2001 while battling a back injury. It began a winding road for this gifted athlete - numerous cycles of failed drug tests, suspensions, short rehab trips, stretches of sobriety, reinstatement and relapse. When it was at its worst, his addiction included downing a bottle of Crown Royal daily along with crack and cocaine. His addictions used up his nearly four million dollar signing bonus. From 2003 to 2005 he was out of baseball entirely. But after four years of struggle with addiction, Josh Hamilton made it back to baseball and had a phenomenal year last year, and he credits the love of his family and his Christian faith for keeping him clean and sober (Lindy 2009 Baseball Annual). Faith in Jesus Christ has given Josh Hamilton the opportunity to live his life more deeply, to use his gifts to their fullest. It helped him escape the tomb of addiction. It put him on the marrow way.
Brother Roger, the founder of the Christian community at Taize, offers this wonderful prayer in one of his books: Jesus… you want to turn us into people who are fully alive, not lukewarm. It is a prayer that captures the meaning of Easter beautifully. It is a prayer for the marrow way.
Rwanda is a beautiful country haunted by the brutality of its recent past. Fifteen years ago, after the plane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down, the country was plunged into chaos, a chaos of slaughter and brutality. John Rucyahana is an Anglican bishop in Africa and a native of Rwanda. Though he was living in Uganda at the time of the terrible violence, he decided he needed to return to the land of his birth, to preach hope standing on a “pile of bones” as he puts it. He moved back to the country in 1996. In 2001 he opened a boarding school for orphans, a crying need in a country that had lost over one million people. He called the school “Sonrise” because he says, “the Son of God rises into the misery, into our darkness.” Bishop Rucyahana has been involved in prison ministry, reaching out to those who perpetrated violence in 1994, encouraging them to accept responsibility for their actions and turn their lives around. He has established reconciliation villages where victims and perpetrators live together A pastor in one of those villages, when asked how it is possible for perpetrators and victims to live together with some trust says, “They have to learn that life goes on. So instead of dwelling on the past, they embrace the future. And, if their faith is strong, they even embrace the people who killed their children, destroyed their homes and left them traumatized and afraid.” Bishop Rucyahana says about his country, “I think God is using this, the humility, the brokenness, the ashes, to set an example for other countries… If Rwanda can recover from this… other nations can recover.” (Newsweek, April 13, 2009)
This is an Easter parable, a story about the marrow way. Embracing life means dealing realistically with the hurt, pain, and disappointment in life. It means having our eyes fully opened to the brutal facts about human cruelty. It means knowing that human beings can be unkind and insensitive, and that we will experience that unkindness and insensitivity. It is looking at life fully, but not recoiling in fear. It is emerging from the tombs of our hurt and disappointment, ready to engage life again. It is about coming back when the forces of injustice have momentarily triumphed. In his book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, Harold Kushner writes, “broken hearts, like broken legs, hurt but heal and… the scars they leave are testimony to our having had the courage to dream, to love, and to risk being hurt” (130-131). The marrow way is the way of courage to dream, to love and to risk being hurt, because unwillingness to risk that is the way of quiet desperation.
The marrow way, the way opened to us in the Easter story is a way of hope. Joan Chittister, author, teacher, nun, writes about “the task of hope in the face of despair: to find out how much life we can still make with whatever of it we have left.” She continues: The hard thing to come to understand in life is that it is the becoming that counts… but becoming is our most byzantine task. Giving ourselves over to be sculpted can take a lifetime of shifts and gyrations, of aimless orbits and dizzying spins, of near despair and of dogged, intransigent, tenacious hope…. Hope… is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see but can trust to God. Surrendering to the demands of the moment, holding on when holding seems pointless, brings us to the point of personal transformation which is the juncture of maturity and sagacity. (Scarred By Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 110)
In another place Joan Chittister shares a wonderful story about a woman who seems to have gotten what it means to live the marrow way, hopeful and alive. Joan was in her fifties when she met an eighty-one year old woman who impressed her deeply. The eighty-one year old had decided to go on a train trip to San Francisco with three friends. Joan was concerned about this plan, a train trip across the country at 81. “How long are you going to be there?” asked Joan. “Oh, I think about three weeks. After all, I’ve never been there before, and I have no idea of how long it will be before I go again.” Joan reflects: That, I decided then and there, was an icon I would hang on the wall of my mind forever entitled “Live till you die. Nothing else is worthy of life.” There is so much life that is never lived because we lack the enthusiasm to live it. (Living Well, 48-49) The marrow way.
In all these stories, I hear the Easter story – buried and raised, weeping then joy when Christ calls your name, seeing the risen Christ, life transformed, hope renewed, the invitation to live deeply, to suck the marrow out of life rather than live lives of quiet desperation.
Christ is risen. The stone is rolled away. We can move out of the tomb of our destructive, life-denying habits. Forgiveness and freedom are possible. We can walk the marrow way.
Christ is risen. The stone of injustice is rolled back. Justice, peace, reconciliation can emerge, can live again along the marrow way.
Christ is risen. The stone is rolled away. We need not be entombed by our pain, our hurt, our disappointment, our shattered dreams. We are free to walk the marrow way, maybe scarred here and there, but free to walk the way of courage, of dreaming, of hope, of love.
I am going to end this morning with a poem, a poem about Easter, about new life, about new creation, about the marrow way. The poem is by Mary Oliver and is simply entitled, “Prayer” (Evidence, 33)

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.

Christ is risen. The marrow way is open. Let’s dance. Amen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Standing At the Crossroads of Love

Sermon preached April 10, 2009 Good Friday

Texts: The Passion Story, with candles being extinguished along the way

This is a difficult day and a puzzling day. We will hear the story of betrayal, of justice perverted, of a conspiracy, of an execution. The story is bloody and ugly. Yet the Christian faith tells us that there is something meaningful, saving, transforming in this story.
Jesus death was horrific and painful. That the death sentence he received was also a mockery of justice makes the pain of his death more intense. It did not need to be intensified. The Romans did not invent crucifixion as a method of capital punishment, but they used it with measured brutality. It was a form of execution reserved for slaves who kept running away, or for people fomenting insurgency against Rome. It was carried out in public so that it might be a deterrent to others who might disturb the peace of Rome. The vertical beams were usually permanently in place just outside a city gate on a high, prominent place. The person sentenced to crucifixion was often made to carry the horizontal cross beam to the site of the execution. It was also often the case that persons crucified were crucified so low to the ground that not only carrion birds but also scavenging dogs could reach their dead bodies. Often there was little left to bury, another indignity of crucifixion. This is a brutal and ugly story we tell today. (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, 146 for information on crucifixion).
Jesus death was horrific and painful, and some focus on that as a key to the story. I remember sitting in a movie theater watching the Mel Gibson directed movie The Passion of the Christ which went to great lengths to portray brutality and blood in its depiction of the death of Jesus, and there was a woman sitting a couple of seats away from me weeping and crying in a muffled prayer “thank you, Jesus,” and I got the sense that it was the suffering itself which moved her. Some speak of the suffering of Jesus as if no one ever suffered such pain in the history of human kind, but that doesn’t ring true to me. Human history is too brutal and blood-soaked to make any single death the most painful death ever suffered. Think Columbine or Binghamton, where people completely innocent in relationship to killers were gunned down in cold blood. Their deaths were quick, I guess, but imagine the depth of fear they experienced even if for a moment. But if lingering torture makes death worse, there are stories from the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in China, death squad in Central America that provide plenty of pain.
Some Christians focus on the bloodiness of the event, arguing that the blood of Jesus itself is what is most significant in the story, what makes it meaningful, transforming, saving. This focus has a long history within Christianity. In a recent issue of The Christian Century the cover story was entitled “God Does Not Require Blood” (February 10, 2009). The author of the article, Daniel Bell, argues that “God does not demand or require blood to redeem us.” He argued that much of the focus on blood sacrifice in Christian theology has had detrimental consequences, sometimes providing justification for war, for the poor simply enduring their suffering, for spousal abuse. Shortly thereafter I received by way of e-mail a response to this article written by a self-described evangelical United Methodist, Riley Case. The response was entitled “There is Power in the Blood” and in it Dr. Case sites many hymn texts that refer to the blood of Jesus while arguing for “a theology of salvation, which has as a main focus the cross, and in the cross sacrifice, and in the sacrifice, the blood.”
Many Christians struggle with that understanding of the significance of today’s story, though many are afraid to articulate their questions. That blood is somehow necessary for forgiveness is difficult for many. Without getting into the minutia of theological debate, what if Dr. Bell makes a strong point in saying that “Christ’s work on the cross is not about satisfying a divine demand for blood,” but rather “the love of God expressed in Jesus saves us”? If we take our focus off the suffering, without denying that there was excruciating suffering, and off the blood, without dismissing those who think the focus needs to stay there, what might this story mean for us? How might it be meaningful and transforming?
“The love of God expressed in Jesus saves us.” Love may be the key to this story, to how this story saves and transforms, to what gives this story its most important meaning. Maybe today when we hear the story again, we not only stand at the foot of the cross, but at the crossroads of love. Jesus walked the way of love and would not turn away even in the face of violent rejection of that way – a rejection by the established authorities religious and political. This is a story about a tough and tenacious love.
While it is Good Friday today, and our focus is on today’s story, we cannot, as Christian fail to read this story knowing Easter is coming – the horizon of the resurrection is always present and in light of that this is a story about love, about God’s love which is tough and tenacious and finally triumphant.
We have Jesus who walked the way of love, walked it so beautifully that in his life we see the very love of God expressed – a tough and tenacious love, a love that never gives up and never gives in. And then there is our love. The story is about failure and invitation – the failure of humans to love, the ability of humans to be destructive of creative love. The story glaringly reveals human proclivities to act out of fear when creative love threatens a status quo with which we are comfortable. It glaringly reveals the human ability to misuse power. Yet God’s love triumphs, and in that there is the invitation to live differently. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has written that in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus “we are assured that our destructiveness is not the last word” (Resurrection, 26). Our destructiveness is not the last word, and we are invited to leave it behind and to live more lovingly. That is meaningful, transforming, saving.
When we hear this story, we recognize that we stand at the crossroads of love, and we have choices to make. And this story makes our choices even more poignant as it reminds us that there is one thing we cannot choose, we cannot choose not to die. Hearing this story I am reminded that I cannot choose whether or not to die, I will. What I can choose is how to live my life with whatever time limits it will have. I can live knowing God’s love for me and knowing God wants to love the world through me, I can live with integrity and compassion, or I can live fearfully, closed off from life, a me-only existence.
Standing at the crossroads of love, I am free to choose, and God has set me free, for this story tells me that the tough and tenacious love of God is strong enough to forgive where I have been unloving and fierce enough to set me free for the future.
There is a Hebrew word, timsh’l, which is found in a very different place in the Bible, Genesis 4:7 in the story of Cain and Abel. It has found its way into American literature in the novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952). In the novel, a Chinese domestic servant named Lee offers Biblical interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel. At one point in the story, God addresses an angry Cain telling him that sin is lurking at the door for him – then the word timsh’l gets used. Some translate it to say that Cain will master sin, and some translate it so that Cain is commanded to master sin. The character Lee offers a different perspective, believing the word timsh’l is best rendered “you may” master sin. Here is a passage from Steinbeck’s novel with Lee speaking. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – “Thou mayest” – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open…. That makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (349 – part III, chapter 24)
Standing at the crossroads of love, we have the choice to live more lovingly or live more fearfully, to live more open to the world or more closed from life, the make the world different or to be indifferent. Timsh’l we choose, and the God of Jesus Christ whose story we will hear continues to call us to choose life – and in that invitation given in love there is the possibility for transformation. Timshel. Amen.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Simple Gifts

Sermon preached April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday
Scripture Readings: I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It is Thursday and my Lenten fast from red meat ends Sunday. I will enjoy my breakfast sausages at our church’s pancake breakfast. We have ham in our refrigerator ready to be cooked for Easter dinner.
I really don’t want to make too much of this fast. It hasn’t been particularly difficult. I have discovered more of the joy of salmon these past weeks, and tried more vegetarian dishes than I might otherwise have. There was that one evening when Julie and I had traveled to the Twin Cities to visit our daughter Beth and we took her for dinner. As we were driving up to the restaurant we were going to eat at Beth said, “This place is known for fantastic hamburgers!” I had a portabella mushroom sandwich.
This being Holy Week, I ought to confess that I have not kept this fast perfectly. From the beginning I said that I would not inconvenience others by my fasting. There has been only one time when I asked for an alternative meal – lasagna was being served for lunch when I was at a meeting in Washington, D.C. and I asked if there was a non-beef alternative. They brought me a plate of spaghetti with a wonderful vegetable marinara sauce. I enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed the lasagna. But twice during Lent I have eaten pork or beef.
The first occasion happened after my dad died. I knew it would happen. My sister and brother came to town for his funeral and we ordered Sammy’s Pizza. When my brother and sister come to town, we always order Sammy’s Pizza. Our family favorites are the Sammy’s Special which has sausage on it, and beef, mushroom and onion. And so we ordered and so I ate. As I said at my dad’s funeral, while it may seem like my family has a complicated relationship with food, we really don’t. Our relationship with food is a simple one, we like it. Eating Sammy’s Pizza together is almost a bonding ritual for my family, and in a time of grief and healing, you don’t mess with rituals.
The other time I broke my fast was just this past Sunday. My mom has a cousin, Kathy, a woman who lived with us for a time when I was young. My mom’s cousin is the only remaining relative she has on her mother’s side of the family, and Kathy has battled cancer. She has survived it twice, but now it has returned for a third time, and the prognosis isn’t terribly good. Last Sunday there was a fundraising dinner for Kathy at the Blue Max on Fish Lake, a spaghetti dinner, but this time there was no non-beef alternative. I ate the spaghetti.
Maybe I wasn’t as strict as I should have been, but somehow I don’t think apologies are in order. Words of thanks certainly are as you all helped me with this fast, but apologies for my two shortcomings don’t seem to be. Sharing Sammy’s Pizza with my family after my father’s death, eating spaghetti with meat sauce to help out a cousin – these reminded me of the importance of food and of simple gifts.
On the night he was arrested, having some sense of foreboding, Jesus chose to eat with his disciples. To emphasize the importance of sharing simple gifts even in the shadows of life’s deepest challenges, he takes bread and wine and shares them, telling the disciples that in sharing these gifts he shares his life with them. When we share the bread and wine/juice, we still trust that Jesus shares his life with us, too.
There is a second tradition about what happened on the night when he was arrested, that Jesus, to demonstrate love, washed the feet of the disciples. He encouraged them to continue the practice – I guess we find it easier to share bread and juice! Coupled with this tender, caring act of refreshment, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to love one another – that it will be the mark of discipleship.
Simple gifts - a meal shared, bread and wine passed around, feet washed. Simple gifts, gifts which will help Jesus through the dark and difficult days ahead, gifts which will help the disciples through the dark and difficult days ahead.
Life is hard in so many ways and trying to live with integrity, trying to live with compassion, trying to live with love, trying to make the world better, trying to live the love of Jesus, doesn’t make life easier. Sometimes it makes it more difficult. We trust deeply, however, that living with integrity, compassion, love, living to make a positive difference, makes life more worthwhile and ultimately more joyful. We call that trust “faith.”
One shorthand expression we might use for living the Jesus way, the way of faith, is taking up our cross. Often we think of this expression as having to do with enduring suffering. It meant that for Jesus, but the more fundamental reality is not the suffering, it is following the Jesus way of integrity, compassion, love. Our cross is our way of following – sometimes the way is wonderfully smooth and sometimes the way is deeply difficult.
Life is hard even for followers of the Jesus way, and sometimes especially for followers of the Jesus way, so we need simple gifts to sustain us as we take our cross, as we follow Jesus, as we live faith.
We need the simple gift of kind and thoughtful words. Loving his disciples, Jesus loved them to the end, and he expressed that. We need expressions of love and care in our lives. A few years ago I read a book called How Full Is Your Bucket? It may not be the most profound book ever written, but I think the core idea is tremendously important. The core idea/metaphor of the book is this, we all live with invisible buckets, buckets that are constantly being filled or emptied depending on what others say or do to us. We feel better the more full our buckets are. We each also possess invisible dippers. When we use our dippers to fill other people’s buckets, by saying kind things, by shining a light on what is right, by saying and doing things that increase their positive emotions, we find that our buckets fill up as well, and the reverse is true - when we dip into other people’s buckets by reducing their positive emotions, our buckets are emptier. The research used in the book argued that it takes five positive interactions to overcome a negative interaction. And in case you are worried about this, positivity begins to feel less authentic when it reaches a 13 to 1 ratio. Do we ever come very close to that?
David Cooperrider teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In the mid-1980s, Cooperrider and his associates began putting forward a new model for organizational change. Our traditional model of managing change is to begin with problems, analyze and diagnose, then arrive at a solution. Cooperrider developed an alternative model based on a different assumption – “in every organization something works and change can be managed through identification of what works, and the analysis of how to do more of what works” (Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry). Cooperrider’s approach, “appreciative inquiry” has been used with a great deal of success in a wide variety of organizations.
Shining a light on what is right, accentuating the positive – loving one another in our words and deeds – simple gifts to sustain us as we take up our crosses and live the Jesus way.
Food – and here I would focus on spiritual food, another simple gift to sustain us along the way. What feeds your soul? Christian tradition says that we are fed through worship together, through Bible reading, through prayer and through acts of compassion and justice. Yes. There is other soul food out there as well. For me it is music and poetry and any well-turned phrase that shines a new light into my soul or into the world. It is laughter with friends or just a good conversation. It is being with my family and realizing how fortunate I am that I have such a wonderful wife and children. We need the simple gifts that feed our soul to sustain us as we take our cross and live the Jesus way.
Water cleanses and refreshes. Many of the things that feed our souls also refreshes and cleanses them. Beauty feeds my soul and refreshes it. I love these words from a novel I read eight years ago, or so. Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54). We need the simple gifts that refresh our soul to sustain us as we take up our cross and live the Jesus way.
Kind and thoughtful words, soul food, refreshing water – all simple gifts, all needed, and so too is the gift of each other. Jesus might have chosen to brood alone that night, feeling deep inside that evil was about to strike and strike out at him. Instead he was with his closest friends, his students. They ate together and there was conversation and probably laughter. Have you ever had a good meal with wine and no laughter? Jesus washed their feet, and there was love in that place. Jesus symbolically shared his life in bread and wine. We believe he still shares his life. I think we ought also believe that as we share this bread and wine together we share our lives with each other. When he went to pray, a solitary act in many ways, he took some of his friends with him. We need the simple gift of each other as we carry our crosses along the difficult paths of life.
Denise Roy is a mother, a spiritual director and a psychotherapist. In her book, My Monastery is a Minivan she writes about the simple gift of each other. So here I am in this pew. It’s not always comfortable. Community is a mirror, one in which we will see our best face and our worst. A spiritual community is not only the place where we go about the work of transforming the world; it is also the place of our transformation. Sometimes I’d rather interact only with certain people, especially with those who think like me or act in ways I approve of. But growth requires that I move out of my narrow and separate world. The experience of being in a community reminds me of the practice in Korea of washing potatoes. I read that in that country, when people want to wash a lot of dirty potatoes, they don’t wash them one at a time. They put them all in a tub of water. Then they put a stick in the tub and move it up and down, causing the potatoes to bump up against one another. As they bump into one another, the hard dirt covering them is loosened and falls off. It would take a long time to wash these potatoes one by one; by putting them all together, they help to clean one another. This is why I choose to be in a community of faith. When we join hands, our prayers and our lives bump up against one another, and something holy is made in the process (102-103). We need the simple gift of each other as we carry our crosses along the difficult paths of life.
Simple gifts – food and water, kind words, community. Tonight we remember how Jesus shared simple gifts in a dark and difficult time. Tonight we share these gifts with each other, sustaining each other in the Jesus way, the way of faith. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Long Run

Sermon preached on April 5, Palm/Passion Sunday

Scripture readings: Mark 11:1-11; Mark 15:1-15

I hold in my hand a startling document. I know you can’t see it from there so I need to tell you it is not startling because of the language used or any inappropriate images. It is startling because I can’t believe it came in the mail for me this week. It is an AARP card with my name on it! I turn 50 later this year and apparently that is when one becomes eligible for membership in AARP. This is an unmistakable sign that I am getting older, not exactly news, I guess.
I admit I used to hate it when people would say to me, in my younger years, “you will understand this when you get older” or “it will make sense when you are older.” It bothered me, I think, because I could look around and see people who had gotten older, but had not necessarily grown in wisdom. I experienced what Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about in his book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, when he says there is a “difference between the person who has grown up and the person who has only grown older” (109).
This AARP card tells me I have grown older. I have also learned that some things make better sense with age. Maturing takes time. Learning and growth often happen in the long run, and not just in the short run.
I think I discovered something of that when I was a youth minister in my late twenties and early thirties. I was twenty-eight when I became the youth pastor at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, TX, and I was thirty-five when I left that position. I enjoyed working with youth a lot, and still enjoy working with youth. One of the things I discovered in those years was that some of the problems my kids had were magnified by the brevity of their life experience. For teens, everything is the short run. When your heart first gets broken, you haven’t yet had the experience of a heart healing and of finding a new romantic attraction, and the hurt is magnified. When you experience your first failure, you have not yet had the experience of picking up the pieces of a broken dream and creating a new one, so the pain of that failure is magnified. When hurts are magnified, responses to them can be more extreme and that is one root of some of the challenging behaviors of teenagers. We need to be careful about characterizing these years as particularly problematic. A person writing about teen spirituality reminds us: “Every teenage problem is finally rooted in and perpetuated by the adult world problems…. American adults have as many or more of most of the problems with which youth struggle” (Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 187). While the problems of youth may not be unique to youth, the fact that everything is seen in the short run can make the response to those problems more challenging.
Holy week, this time beginning today with Palm Sunday and extending through Saturday night, Easter-eve, is a good time in the church calendar to consider the contrast between the short run and the long run. That contrast is compressed in the story of the week, but I think it is there and has something to teach us.
Consider the events we will remember this week. It begins with a parade, Jesus riding in to Jerusalem with a great deal of fanfare. However, this is not the only parade in Jerusalem that day. Pilate is arriving in Jerusalem, too, and he would have been greeted with a royal parade and fanfare as a representative of the imperial government of Rome. There is a contrast even on Palm Sunday - a parade celebrating the kingdom of God, a parade celebrating the empire of Rome.
As the week moves forward, contrast turns to confrontation. Jesus confronts the religious establishment in the Temple, and this is also a political confrontation. Rome is keenly aware that the Jews in Palestine have caused problems for them before and any ruckus in that community becomes an issue of governance. This is something that must be dealt with. The story continues. There is an arrest, a trial, an execution – we call it “crucifixion.” The final words in today’s reading: “Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). In the short run, things seem pretty grim, at least if you’re rooting for Jesus. As Christians we know there is a long run, another horizon. We call it Easter, but if we are to be faithful to the story, we shouldn’t get to Easter too soon. We need to get through the short run of this week before we see the new horizon, the long run of Easter. In the short run, life can be difficult, can be like a wilderness, and this in our last week in the wilderness of Lent.
In the short run, relationships can be difficult. Here is the story told by a Catholic nun about family relationships that are a part of her life history. There was plenty of pain and abuse in my family’s past…. I grew up in an alcoholic family, from at least my grandfather on down, and the sense we had of ourselves was shame-based. When it arises strongly enough, none of my practices and prayers work; I just don’t feel good enough about anything. I’ll be praying and a voice comes: “You are a disgrace compared to what you should be. You are not using your gifts; you are not enough.” Never enough! In the short run of her family relationships – shame. In the short run of her own prayer life, there was also sometimes shame. In the short run, relationships can be difficult. The nun’s story continues as she shares that through therapy and a great deal of inner work she’s come to understand this as just part of a cycle of shame, so that when she experiences it, she can let it go more easily – “Oh it’s just another cycle of shame.” (Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, 221)
Harold Kushner wrote about relationship difficulties in this week’s First and Ten reading. Judith Viorst: “In a grown-up marriage, we recognize that we don’t always have to be in love with one another… But a grown-up marriage enables us when we fall out of love with each other to stick around until we fall back in.” (111) Diane Rehm: “Any relationship involves at times just sticking it out, no matter how difficult those times are.” (115) In the short run, some of our most important relationships are not easy.
In the short run, our desires can be a tangled mess. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Loving-kindness writes, “Lust cracks the brain. All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy a sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure.” (175-176) Harold Kushner tells the story of a husband and wife. They had twenty years of a stable and gratifying marriage, but one day the man received a call from an “old flame,” someone with whom he had been deeply in love with in college. She had broken his heart, then, by marrying someone else. Now she arrives back in town, newly divorced and has been in touch with the husband, just wondering how he is getting along. Since the initial contact, the husband has had several long phone conversations with the woman and met her once for lunch. The man’s wife is worried that he has never gotten over the dream of this woman loving him and may be willing to sacrifice their twenty-year marriage to pursue that dream. In the short run, our desires can be quite a tangle.
Advertising plays on that very human quality. We are influenced from many quarters to buy, and even more to see ourselves by what we have not who we are or what we have done to make a difference in the world. In the short run, the tangle of desire can leave us confused about who we are and the kind of life we want to live.
In the short run, greed and excess seem to make sense, at least that seems to be one of the lessons of our recent history. Remember the movie Wall Street from the early 1980s – “greed is good.” Apparently many people took that to heart – Bernie Madoff being only one of the most glaring examples. As a nation, in our recent past we became dissatisfied with profits of 5-7%. 15-20% was marginally acceptable and we asked too few questions about the long run. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme court in the case of Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp ruled that Minnesota could not impose its limits on interest rates on a bank located in another state. States began competing for banking business by passing lenient interest laws, allowing credit card companies to hike interest rates. Some of the recent crisis in consumer debt and bankruptcy can be traced to the exorbitant interest rates that were once illegal. In the short run, it made sense to let interest rise to previously unknown levels.
In the short run, as well, we let profit trump environment. I was listening the other day to a radio program on ethanol, and one of the person on the program said something like, “Well, the environmental concerns have just emerged in the last year or so.” I wondered where they had gone. In the short run, we are all too willing to ignore them in favor of profit and excess.
Of coruse, now, in the short run, we are all living with the economic hangover from a time of excess – inflated home prices, inflated stock prices, an auto industry too focused on big vehicles.
If we take the Bible seriously, we know the short run can be difficult, can feel like the wilderness. As Christians who take the Bible seriously, we should be honest about that. We also know that decisions made when we think only of the short run are not always the best. Jesus will struggle with that on Thursday of this week. He knows that being true to his mission has led him to a difficult place. He has stood against all that is unjust and unloving, and he knows that unjust and unloving powers don’t take being challenged lightly. Should he retreat, go into hiding and forget his sense of God’s mission? He agonizes in prayer on Thursday night.
The short run in life can be difficult, painful, can require courage and patience. We need to hear some good news, and I have some to share. God is with us in the pain and struggle of the short run, when the short run is painful, and when it is a struggle - - - and the pain and struggle are real. We cannot deny that. God is with us. God is, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands” (Process and Reality, 351).
God is also this Spirit on the horizon, inviting us into the long run where life may be different – where the Spirit of God might just break out of the bleak tombs that can exist in the short run and shine powerfully with the light of love and life. But that’s next week’s story. Amen.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

When Dreams Die

Sermon preached March 29, 2009

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

A couple is asleep at home one night, when, in the middle of the night, the man cries out, “Hello!” He wakes everyone in the house up while he remains sleeping soundly. When asked about it the next morning, he recalls dreaming about greeting an old friend. As the couple prepares for bed the next night, the man’s wife says to him – “Honey, if you meet an old friend tonight we all hope you will just wave.”
A man goes to a psychiatrist. “Doctor, I keep having these dreams.” Doctor: “Tell me about them.” “Well, for the last several nights I have been having this dream that a group of beautiful women come to my home and they want my attention. They want me to hug them and kiss them. But all I do is push them away.” Doctor: “What would you like me to do about that?” “Break my arms.”
Dreams. Today I want to talk a bit about dreams, not night dreams but those daytime dreams that we all have, those dreams about how we would like life to be – our lives, the life of the world. If you are an adult, think for a minute about what dreams you had for your life growing up. What did you want to be? What was your definition of success? Did all your dreams happen just as you wished? If they did, it would be remarkable. Most of us know what it is like to have dreams that don’t come true, dreams that are disappointed, dreams that shatter. To have our dreams disappointed, frustrated, shattered is a wilderness experience.
Langston Hughes was an African-American poet of the early twentieth-century, a time when being black in the United States could often be difficult. Hughes penned one of my favorite poems about dreams, a poem I first encountered in high school.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Hughes encouraged dreaming, but recognized that sometimes dreams would go, would be denied, disappointed, deferred, shattered.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore - -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over - -
like syrup sweet?
Maybe it just sags - -
like a heavy load?
Or does it explode?

Hughes knew what it was like to have dreams be disappointed, deferred, denied, shattered. In one of his poems about living in the United States he would write: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed… America never was America to me.”
Most of us do not know what it is like to be African-American at the beginning of the twentieth-century, but we have experienced our own disappointment in dreaming. We have had dreams deferred, denied, shattered. Some of our dreams have died, and we have felt life as the broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Some of our dreams have gone, and we have experienced life as that barren field, frozen with snow. There may have been times in our lives when we feel life is like that raisin in the sun, dry and shriveled. These are wilderness experiences.
The First and Ten men’s group has been reading Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments. In the chapter read for this week, Kushner was describing some of the disappointments that can occur in relationships – some hope to marry and never do; some hope for children within their marriage, and are unable to have them; sometimes children are born and they are born with some serious disability – physical or mental (Kushner experienced this himself when he and his wife were told their three-year old son had an incurable syndrome that would distort his appearance and significantly shorten his life) (I was at a meeting this week in Washington, D.C. and has the chance to speak with someone I have worked with on other national United Methodist committees, though I did not know him well. As we had more time to talk this week, he shared with me that his middle child, a son now 26, is autistic and has never spoken. He loves his child, but don’t we dream dreams for our children that don’t include such difficulty, such tragedy?). Kushner continues his list. Some dream of marriage, some dream of children, and life often conspires to thwart their dreams. But I suspect that many citizens of the land of broken dreams and disappointments are there because they did get married, they did have children, but they saw the joy and optimism of act 1 turn into the bitterness and frustration of act 2. (81-82).
Reading Kushner I could not help but think of others I have known. I thought about Teresa and her family – Teresa in her early twenties when her life was cut short by a drunken boyfriend with a gun. I officiated at her funeral and cannot help wonder how her family has managed to cope with her loss in the years since. I remember officiating at the funeral of a two-year old who was born with a genetic disease which kept her life so brief. I heard her parents ended up divorcing.
Dreams disappointed, deferred, denied, shattered, need not rise to that level of tragedy to be painful. Harold Kushner writes: Every disappointment, every rejection, every dream that doesn’t come true leaves a wound in the person’s soul. Major setbacks… leave permanent scars. Small disappointments… leave smaller wounds, but wounds nonetheless (50). I remember finishing my Ph.D. and hoping that I might be given the opportunity to teach at a seminary or college. I had only two preliminary interviews and nothing ever came of them. A dream died and it left a mark.
We all know what that is like, to have a dream be disappointed, to have it shattered, to have it denied, to have it frustrated. As human beings we have had more than one dream pass through our hands like sand. From one angle, life can be seen as a series of small deaths, a series of dreams that have died. The poet T. S. Eliot asks a poignant question in one of his poems. “Where is the life we have lost in living?” (Chorus from “The Rock” in Selected Poems, 107) We can lose life in the living of it. We experience small deaths as dreams die and life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. I was reading from the Biblical book of Lamentations this week as a part of my personal devotion. In the introduction he wrote to his translation of Lamentations in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes: Suffering is a huge, unavoidable element in the human condition. To be human is to suffer. No one gets an exemption. We all travel into the wilderness of broken dreams, disappointed dreams, shattered dreams. Some are more devastating than others, but we all know life as a broken-winged bird, life as a barren, frozen field, life as a shriveling raisin. Some of our dreams are not just dreams for ourselves, but also dreams for a better world, and we know how often those dreams are frustrated, how slow positive change in the world can be. At the meeting I attended this week a woman shared that her husband, a native of Zimbabwe, was traveling in South Africa and was in a store when it was robbed. The thieves led her husband and another man into a back room, bound their hands behind them and made them lie face down on the floor. For some reason, this time the thieves did not kill these men – and such killing is all too common in South Africa. The world does not live up to our dreams for it.
Yes, this is pretty difficult stuff, sad, difficult. Not long ago a study was released saying that the fastest growing religious group in the county is those who claim no religious affiliation. I know that some of these people have experience with churches. There are many reasons for why people leave churches, but maybe one of them is that we have not always been very honest about life. Maybe the church has not been honest enough with people about the hard realities of life, the wildernesses, broken dreams. It is a part of life. No one is exempt, including people of faith. We need to be honest about that.
But for Christians there is also another reality the reality of God, the reality of the God of Jesus Christ. This God is a God of new life. This God is a God of open doors. This God is a dream weaver. This God is a God of resurrection. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…. I will put my law within [people], and I will write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. The God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ is a God of new life, of re-created hearts. No we cannot avoid small deaths, dreams deferred, denied, shattered, hearts broken with broken dreams. We need to hear some of the context of the words of Jeremiah 31. Here are some words from the previous chapter which sets the context for the hopeful words about a new heart. “Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous…. Your pain is incurable.” Broken hearts and broken dreams are real, but so too is the God who mends hearts, who works with us to pick up the pieces of our broken dreams and weave new ones.
If we are honest with ourselves, sometimes when our dreams are broken and reconstructed the results are quite wonderful, and even better than if we had our original dream come true. Small deaths are difficult and painful. Resurrection can be remarkable. That is a little bit of what Jesus is getting at in John 12. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The gospel writer uses these words of Jesus to help frame his coming death, but the principle has wider application. Sometimes we dream too small. Sometimes our dreams are really dreams others have imposed upon us, and they don’t represent our best selves. One last time, allow me to quote Harold Kushner. “Sometimes the most useful dream is the one that calls us to give up on the dream we have been chasing” (94). Sometimes the death of one dream, the closing of one door, is the only way we get to another open door, the only way we are able to create an even better dream.
I sometimes think back on the disappointment I felt in 1994 when I completed my Ph.D. and did not even come close to getting a teaching job. We returned to Minnesota where I went back to the work of a church pastor. I think of all the wonderful people I got to know in that appointment on the Iron Range. I am so glad they became a part of our lives. I was appointed as a district superintendent, and that was a remarkable learning and growing experience. I have had great opportunities to get to know United Methodists from around the world by serving on denominational committees. We are together, working together to make FUMC the best church it can be in this day and time, and this is meaningful work and you are wonderful people to work with. None of that would have happened without a dream disappointed and the hurt of that.
Not all new dreams are necessarily better than the dream that has died. Often times we should not even compare. Sometimes our loss is so great, comparing an old and a new dream is just not appropriate. The good news of Christian faith is not that we can avoid disappointed dreams, but that God is a God who helps us pick up the pieces of our shattered dreams and puzzle together new ones. God is a God of resurrection, of new life after the death of old dreams. God is a God who helps open new doors when other doors have closed upon us. A few years ago I came across this wonderful wedding blessing written by Robert Fulgham (the everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten person). Part of the blessing goes like this: May your dreams come true, and when they don’t may new dreams arise. The truth of life is that not all our dreams come true. The truth of God is that new dreams can arise.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler was a much-loved and well-respected rabbi in New York. He and his wife retired to Westport , Connecticut a few years ago, and when he retired he was presented two priceless gifts – a Dutch-made diamond encrusted Torah pointer made in the 1800s and a silver Torah crown. Rabbi Schindler’s daughter Judith is a rabbi in Charlotte, North Carolina and she recently shared her family’s story in the Charlotte Observer. Apparently, Judith Schindler’s parents, like a number of others invested money with financier Bernie Madoff, and like others, they now find that the money they invested with Madoff is all gone. Rabbi Judith Schindler’s mother must now sell the priceless retirement gifts and her Connecticut home because of money lost in the Madoff Ponzi scheme. Rabbi Judith Schindler reflected in the newspaper about all that had happened to her family, but instead of focusing on the loss, and focusing on anger and bitterness, Rabbi Schindler encouraged readers to look at life from another angle. “No matter who we are and what we face, as an organization or as a family, we need to open our eyes, see our resources, and rebuild.” (Dannye Romine Powell, Charlotte Observer, posted March 10, 2009). I hear the Spirit of God in this story – the Spirit of the God who is a God of resurrection, of new life, a God who helps us pick up the pieces of our shattered dreams and build new ones.
Yes, life will break your heart sometimes. Dreams will die or fly away, leaving us feeling broken-winged. We will know this kind of wilderness. We are also invited to know the God who is there after every broken dream, to help weave a new one. We are invited to know the God who after every small death in life, is there to bring resurrection. We are invited to know the God who keeps dreaming a dream for the world of justice, peace, beauty, reconciliation and love and who invites us to dream it too, even though it is frequently frustrated. We are invited to know the God who when hearts harden, offers us new, soft hearts for living life more fully.
Even in the wilderness of broken dreams, God is there to weave new ones. Even in the wilderness of dying dreams, God is there as a God of resurrection. Amen.