Monday, June 29, 2009

Motown Sandwich

Sermon preached June 28, 2009

Text: Mark 5:21-43

One of the joys of life for me is the discovery of writings that move me – that stir my heart, my mind, my soul, my imagination. Last summer I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and found it an incredibly rich work on human life. Becker drew on the tradition of psychoanalysis for some of his incredible insights, and in the year since I read Becker, I have found myself coming across certain psychoanalytic thinkers from time to time, and this has led me to Michael Eigen. I came across his name in a few places and one day in a used book store I came across one of his books, The Electrified Tightrope. It bursts with insightful remarks about human life. Eigen is a therapist, and he writes well about his work. I have experienced many miracles of growth. Mangled areas of torment and stagnation have opened gardens of subjective delight. Out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to the Promised Land: repeatedly. How does this happen? What is IT that does it?... One cannot predict when or how one will find the spot or particular point of entry that will do the trick. (277, 275) I love the way Eigen describes the kind of healing that happens in therapy, and the mystery of that process.
We encounter the mysteries of healing in the gospel reading for today. Crowds surround Jesus. Jairus asks for help for his daughter. Jesus responds by going with him. Suddenly a woman fights her way through the throng to touch Jesus, and she is healed. Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ home only to be told he is too late. Is he? Apparently not, for Jairus’ daughter is brought from seeming death to life, from sleep to wakefulness. The stories are jammed together in a way that heightens their drama and our amazement. We are left wondering, at least a bit – how does this happen? What is IT that does this?
Without taking away all the mystery in these stories, we can learn from them something about how healing happens, about what healing is like. While the stories focus on physical restoration, their meaning penetrates more deeply. Salvation, healing, wholeness are related words in the New Testament, and I think these stories speak powerfully about being made more whole in the broadest sense. I think they speak of aliveness and deadness as described by the teacher and writer Ann Belford Ulanov in her work The Unshuttered Heart. Deadness is living in such a way that it is as if “some part of us has been driven into exile and we cannot get it back” (ix). Deadness feels like no zest, crippling anxiety, a hole in us from something done to us that should not have been done, or from something not done with us that should have been done - - - living at half strength, feeling tepid, dull (9). Ulanov argues that “we all know something of this deadness and we all struggle to be alive and remain alive with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength” (15). To deadness, she contrasts aliveness. Aliveness comes down to one thing – consenting to rise, to be dented, impressed, pressed in upon, to rejoin, to open, to ponder, to be where we are in this moment and see what happens…. Aliveness springs from our making something of what we experience and receiving what experience makes of us. (15)
These stories are about healing, wholeness, aliveness, coming out of deadness. There is a certain mystery here, yet the stories reveal something of what it means to be healed, to be made more whole.
To be healed, to be made whole, to become more alive is to know that we matter, that we are not just taking up space, that God knows us by name. The scene for these stories is a crowd scene. Jesus is being followed, surrounded, pressed in upon. There is a great crowd, a large crowd, a commotion of people. Sometimes we feel lost in the crowd, less than alive in a sea of humanity. Even in church we can come and feel unnoticed, just part of the worship furniture. Healing happens when we are noticed, when we discover that we matter, when our names are identified – Jairus, when we feel the power of another and know that they feel our power.
This week I was at a denominational meeting in Nashville and one morning I was having breakfast with a couple of United Methodist seminary leaders – a dean and a president. The Dean at Drew Theological Seminary shared a story about classes the seminary was offering in prison. Seminarians were half the class and prisoners the other half. It was a powerful educational experience for the seminarians, in part, because they could begin to see these people in prison as persons, as individuals, as singular. When we see others in that way we are changed, made more whole. When we are seen, we are healed and made more whole – the daughter of Jairus, the woman who had been bleeding for years.
Healing happens, aliveness is encouraged when barriers are broken down and boundaries that separate person from person are crossed. The woman in the story who touches Jesus is a remarkable character, and the story is remarkable for all the social conventions violated. A woman should not have been touching a man. The woman’s bleeding made her unclean. She should have stayed away, isolated from all those surrounding Jesus. Instead, she crosses the boundary, she breaks down a wall, and Jesus calls this faith, faith that heals. Jesus goes in to a girl who may be dead – her body, too, would have been considered unclean, religiously impure. Jesus crosses a boundary, and healing happens.
Earlier this week, the youth of our church went to package meals for Feed My Starving Children in the Twin Cities, and you will hear more about that during our sharing time. All together we packaged enough meals to feed twenty-eight children a meal a day for a year. But before and after we watched videos about the children we would be packing meals for – children a half a world a way, children who could not be more different from our youth in so many ways. When we were done, we were headed to Valley Fair, and later ate at Famous Daves. The children we packed food for might not see the kind of money spent for a day at Valley Fair in a month. Boundaries were crossed, walls broken down, children fed – healed, youth made more aware – more alive.
Then there is the Motown sandwich part of the story. I know you have been puzzled by this – well here it is. The top slice of the sandwich is the way these stories tell us healing happens when we reach out – Reach Out, like the Four Tops. The Jesus of these stories encourages people to reach out with the assurance – I’ll be there. For our own healing, we need to be willing to reach out, to acknowledge our need for healing, wholeness, our need to be made more alive, our need to be resurrected from deadness. The insidious thing about deadness in life is that it can become our way of living. We get told often enough we have nothing to offer the world, and we come to believe it and melt into the crowd. We hear often enough that we cannot make a difference in the world, and we bury our gifts in the sand. AA has taught us that the first step in making change in our lives is to admit we need changing – but long before Bill Wilson there was the bleeding woman who had had enough and reached her hand to touch Jesus, and he touched back.
The other half of the Motown sandwich, the bottom slice is another reach out song – Diana Ross - - - reach out and touch, somebody’s hand, make this a better world if you can. In Christ, we can be healed, made more alive, resurrected from deadness – but these are gifts always to be shared. Healing is our ministry in a broken world. Michael Eigen says of therapy “in this business we deal with broken lives and heartbreak, and we do so with our own broken hearts” (277). That is a pretty good description of the ministry of the church. As our broken hearts are healed, we in turn offer others healing. We, in turn, offer healing to a broken world.
There is a certain mysteriousness in healing – how mangled areas of life are made more whole, but these stories give us some idea of what healing is like and how it happens. In these stories we are invited to reach out when we are hurting and when our lives feel dead, to hear our names called and know that we matter, to reach out beyond boundaries that separate. In these stories we are called to bring Christ’s healing to the world. We are called to create safe space here for others to reach out for healing. We are called to be a place where people are known and where they know they matter. We are called to be a place that breaks down barriers – barriers that get in the way of healing, well-being, wholeness - - - barriers such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, background, education.
If you feel that you can’t go on, cause all your hope is gone, and your life is filled with much confusion, and happiness seems just an illusion – reach out, Jesus will be there reminding you that you matter, that your life matters, that your life is to be lived fully. As God’s lively people, reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place, if you can - - - and you can! Amen.

Early Rock n Roll

Sermon preached June 21, 2009
Text: I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

Do you ever find that things you once really liked don’t have the same appeal to you they once did, or that things you once dismissed in some way now are objects of greater appreciation? When I was a kid, I loved watching old movies on television – the early movie after school when I did not have too much homework and the weather outside was not too nice, or, in the summer, the late movie after the 10 o’clock news. This was a time before cable movie channels, a time when network television was all there was. Among the movies I enjoyed as a kid were the Abbot and Costello comedies – among my favorites was Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man – high art, I know! Not long ago I watched an old Abbot and Costello movie and while it was mildly enjoyable, it did not have the same spark I remembered.
Just this week, a new collection of George Harrison music was released – George Harrison of John, Paul, George and Ringo. I read a review of the CD on-line and the particular reviewer, while mildly pleased with the collection, also expressed disappointment that it lacked the song “Crackerbox Palace.” “Crackerbox Palace,” I had not heard that song in years. It came out when I was in high school and I did not remember thinking all that much of it then. Curiosity led me to i tunes, and for a mere $.99 I could download the song. I enjoyed it much more than I remember.
The story of David and Goliath, early rock n roll - - - when David rocked, Goliath rolled - - - is another case of something that has changed for me over time. My early impressions of the story are all very favorable. Who wouldn’t love a story like this? When you are young, to have a hero who shares your name is always kind of cool. The story is told in epic form and plays on classic themes of the triumph of the underdog, the overconfidence of the strong just before they fall, the unlikely hero. You just have to love it!
But at some point, I don’t know when, elements of the story began to disturb me. “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” “David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.” This is all a little gruesome, a little violent, and what’s most disturbing is that it seems God is pleased with the violence. A story like this could be used to justify “sacred violence” and in our world we don’t need any encouragement to be more violent, let alone justify our violence in the name of God.
So what shall we do with the story? Ignore it? We could have done that. The gospel reading for today was a very nice story about Jesus stilling a storm. But I don’t think ignoring stories from the Bible we find disturbing is a good response to them. Sometimes our lives need a little disturbing and to ignore every story that disturbs robs us of the growth opportunity such stories might provide. When Jesus’ mother and brothers come to see him in Mark 3, and he says to the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then sweeps his arms around and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” That is disturbing, especially on a day like Father’s Day. But if we simply cast aside such stories, we miss the opportunity to learn and grow.
Sometimes stories with disturbing elements, like the David and Goliath story, need to be read at a different level. The earliest Christian readers of the Scriptures argued that they are multivocal, polysemous, multidimensional. Origen (184-254) wrote about what he called the body, the soul and the spirit of Scripture and argued that Christians often needed to dig deeper than the literal story (the body) of a text, to get at its soul and spirit to enrich their own spiritual lives (First Principles, Book IV, Ch. 2, #4 – p. 276). Augustine in On Christian Doctrine (3.27.38 – p. 102) writes: “For what could God have more generously and abundantly provided in the divine writings than that the same words might be understood in various ways.”
Digging deeper, reading the story of David and Goliath more metaphorically to get at its soul and spirit, leads me to ask about the giants that cause us fear and trouble. Are there such giants? Where do we find them? Do we struggle against difficult odds sometimes? If so, maybe this story speaks more deeply to us than we might first imagine.
I think we struggle with internal giants – parts of our inner life that work against our well-being and can come out of us sideways to hurt others. In the book we are reading in the First and Ten men’s group, Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer writes: The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love. (82-83) Palmer is right about our needing to hold things like hope and despair in some paradox, but what if the despair becomes a giant threatening to crush hope?
I struggle with that giant sometimes, that inner Goliath that is comprised of knots I am good at tying up inside myself. When I arrived here as your pastor four years ago this month I was leaving a position as a district superintendent, a position in which I worked with churches and pastors trying to help them be their very best. I came here with the same hope, and part of what I envisioned as our very best as First UMC was a church that was attracting new people and growing, especially in our worship attendance. It has not happened that way. New people have come, and I am grateful that we continue to attract new people, but some former members have left. Last year we struggled in a few ways with worship, and we muddled through quite a few awful weather Sundays, and the result was an average worship attendance slightly below 200 – not the direction I hope to see. I put a lot of pressure on myself as a former district superintendent, maybe I don’t have what it takes to lead a congregation well? Maybe I have risen to the level of my incompetence? But helping a congregation grow is not about me – why would I even think in such terms, that doesn’t say much for me does it? Did I miss God’s call somewhere along the way? The knots of despair grow into a 9’9” Goliath, well-armed and well-armored. Maybe some of you are good at tying inner knots, too.
Giants lurk not only inside of us, but in church life itself. How often do we hear about the decline of mainline churches, churches that have been around awhile? We are old hat, taken for granted. Some argue that a church like First UMC declines because it is not socially relevant enough, not out there enough on the pressing social issues of the day. Others tell me that a church like First UMC declines because it is not “biblical” enough, and for them that means a more conservative interpretation of the Bible. Maybe the issue is that we are sometimes not deep enough, that is, we are content to let our faith ride at the surface or sidelines of our lives rather than permeate all our questions about life and the world – how to love, how to be a better partner, how to parent, our vocational life, our inner life, our relationship to the great issues of our world. To go deeper in our faith requires our time and attention, and then we confront the enormous giant of our fragmented, frenzied lives. Who has more time for reading the Bible, for praying, for gathering with other people of faith to ask what it means to live as a Christian today? We confront, as well, the giant of old cultural patterns. In a culture that was once predominantly Christian we assumed that the lessons taught in church would be reinforced in many ways – so faith could be church an hour a week. Our culture has changed, and that is not a bad thing, but it means we need to be more intentional about faith formation in our lives, and that cuts against old patterns that tell us we need not be so intentional, and tell us we can learn everything we need to about our faith by the time confirmation ends. Giants.
Giants also walk the wider world. Global health concerns loom large as AIDS and malaria ravage Africa. Children outside the industrial world die for lack of relatively inexpensive vaccines we take for granted. Yesterdays Duluth newspaper reported a story – world hunger has now reached the one billion person mark. In the United States, millions go without health insurance and lack adequate access to the wonderful quality medical care others enjoy. Recent debates in Congress and the media are reminding us of how big a giant this is. And when we think about global health, what of the health of the planet itself? The human community continues to engage in practices that portend harm to the very environment that sustains our lives, and changing our habits is a gigantic endeavor. Giants roam the earth.
Giants are very real – inside our lives, in our faith communities, in our world – massive giants - - - 9’9” Goliaths, well armed and well-armored. Suddenly this feel-good underdog story with its disturbing elements speaks more powerfully than I imagined. It doesn’t try to convince me that the giants are not real, that would make the story untrue to life. The giants are real – the despair I feel is real, the social forces that create challenges for long-standing churches making it feel like we are finding our way in the dark are real, the challenges of global health and hunger, and the health of the planet are real. The giants are real, yet we are told “let no one’s heart fail” (v. 32) because of them. Doubt, despair, and pain are real, but so, too, are faith, hope and love. Don’t let your heart fail, have courage. It takes courage to confront the giants in our world. It takes courage to listen to the difficult voices within and learn what we need to from them yet not let them overwhelm us.
If courage is required in the face of giants, so is creativity. Some of our old methods for getting rid of giants may not work. David could not walk in Saul’s armor because it did not work for him (v. 39). One can almost picture a young David clanging around in armor too big for him before asking it to be removed. Sometimes we deal with our inner giants by trying to ignore them, but that way doesn’t work very well. The church will have to be its creative best to confront the giants of our contemporary world, be creative and trust the chaos that is a part of creativity. When we are creative, some of our creative endeavors will fail. Some of the problems confronting the human community are not very amenable to technological fixes, our preferred mode of solving problems, but may need a creativity of spirit to be solved – a more generous spirit among the diverse people of the world.
But aren’t courage and creativity simply ways of whistling in the dark against the massive giants we confront in ourselves and in our world. How do courage and creativity make sense when the giants are so big and we are so small? They make sense because of God. To offer another Parker Palmer quote, “above all, God wants us to be alive: life, after all, is God’s original gift to us” (The Promise of Paradox, xxviii). God is with us as we struggle against giants, and God is that in us and among us that which fosters courage and enhances creativity. God is with us, to shrink the doubt, despair and pain we feel from gigantic proportions into their proper role as a part of the paradox of being human. God is with us to help us navigate the historical current we find ourselves in as a mainline church with an important mission, to touch people’s lives with faith, hope and love – to make a difference in people’s lives in the Spirit of Jesus and to make a difference in the world. God is with us as we seek to tackle the challenges of global health and hunger and the health of the planet, for the God of the Bible is most consistently a God of healing and of new creation.
Life’s giants are real, but with God we can confront them with courage and creativity. What a story! Amen.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dust in the Wind

Sermon preached June 14, 2009

Text: Mark 4:26-34

It has been awhile since I have attended the Tuesday morning Men’s Group here at church. During the school year I drive Sarah to school on my way to the church, and the group meets earlier than I am able to attend. School is out, so I came this last week. The group is reading through a book called This I Believe which includes brief statements of the personal philosophies of “remarkable men and women.” This week’s essay was by the poet Carl Sandburg, and in it were these words: I can remember many years ago, a beautiful woman in Santa Fe saying, “I don’t see how anybody can study astronomy and have ambition enough to get up in the morning.” She was putting a comic twist on what an insignificant speck of animate stardust each of us is amid cotillions of billion-year constellations. (207-208) Insignificant speck of animate stardust – all we are is dust in the wind, to use the language of a 1970s song - - - sure glad I got up early to come!
But then I think of other events, stories, moments.
It was 1995 at the Minnesota Annual Conference in St. Cloud. A year earlier I had returned to Minnesota from completing my Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University. At the 1994 Annual Conference, my name had been drawn to be the conference preacher in 1995 – an entire year to work on one sermon, and a sermon to be preached in front of all one’s colleagues in ministry. So the moment came - 1995, and I preached, and the sermon seemed well-received. I sat down next to then Minnesota bishop Sharon Brown Christopher. She turned to me and said simply – “God works through you, David Bard.” Six simple words taking only moments to speak, coming from a woman who had spoken countless words to all kinds of clergy – but those words touched me deeply and I have never forgotten them.
There is a verse in the Buddhist text, The Dhammapada (122, 9:7): Do not underestimate good, thinking it will not affect you. Dripping water can even fill a pitcher, drop by drop; one who is wise is filled with good, even if one accumulates it little by little.
In early May I was the main speaker for a Minnesota United Methodist Women’s spirituality retreat. During the retreat I was part of a small group and in that group was a woman named Jill. I thought I had seen Jill before somewhere, but I could not remember when or where. During one of our small group sessions Jill mentioned that she had been at the United Methodist Women’s School of Christian Mission in 1996 where I was the keynote speaker. The topic was “Shalom Salaam, Peace” so we talked about war and peace that summer. Then she told me how helpful I had been to her in a conversation we had had. Her son was in Iraq at the time and she was understandably anxious and I had said some things that comforted her. I then remembered where I had met Jill, but I could only recall the conversation in the vaguest terms – that is, I remembered it happened but little else. I was left marveling at the power of a few words, a few moments.
Bemidji writer Kent Nerburn tells the story of a neighbor and a friend (Small Graces). The neighbor is a woman named Myra – ornery and hard to like. Raised on the plains of North Dakota, she asks no quarter and gives none…. Our relationship has been an uneasy truce. Though we are neighbors, we have never become close. “She’s had a hard life. She’s got a good heart,” I tell myself. “Treat her with kindness.” But it is not so easy. She turns every conversation to herself, berates people I know to be gentle and generous, and shoots at our cats with buckshot. Nerburn would simply dismiss her were it not for something he had learned years earlier from his friend Craig.
Craig had been in Nerburn’s life only briefly, but in that time, he taught Nerburn something important about human relationships, a lesson the author expresses succinctly: I was coming to all my encounters with a fear that others were judging me, when in fact, they were worrying about how I would judge them. We were all living in fear of each other’s judgment, while the empty space between us was waiting to be filled by a simple gesture of honest caring.
So one day Kent Nerburn finds his neighbor Myra “standing in her front yard, glowering. She is jabbing at a patch of offending leaves with a rake.” She cusses at the leaves as she piles them in a corner of the yard, and Nerburn responds: “A conspiracy between God and gravity.” He pauses, then continues. “That’s a pretty sweater,” I say. She snorts. “If I didn’t have a wife,” I continue, “we’d go out dancing.” She snorts again. I continue on my way. But as I pass, I see her push an errant strand of hair back into place and adjust the collar on her sweater. She looks around to make sure no one was watching, then returns to her raking.
Insignificant animate dust speaking a few words in a world awash with words, offering a small gesture of kindness in a world filled with gestures, many cruel and hateful – a war-torn world, a world where a person can nurture hate into his late eighties and take a gun into a place meant to mark inhumanity, and with violence perpetuate inhumanity.
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs…. The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
How is it that a few moments, a few words, can make such a difference? I don’t know, but they do. The promise is that God uses our small acts of kindness, our brief gestures of compassion, our few words of care, to build up God’s dream for the world.
We may, in some ways, be dust in the wind, but when the wind is the Spirit of God, great things are possible. Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The New Late Show With

Sermon preached June 7, 2009

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

Late night television is changing. This week, in its fifty-fifth year on the air, The Tonight Show, changed hosts. Only five men have been the regular hosts of this program in its long history: Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and now - - - Conan O’Brien. I was watching the news Monday night and suddenly I remembered that this would be the first night for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I thought it would be fun to watch a little history in the making, so I tuned in for the first part of the show – watched Conan O’Brien run across the United States only to discover that he left his studio keys on the window sill in New York. Max Weinberg’s band is now The Tonight Show Band, marking the first time, I think, that a rock and roll musician will lead the Tonight Show music. Change happens.
Change is the topic of another late night talk show, this one from a much earlier era – before podcasts, before television, before radio, before widely disseminated print medium. Roving reporter Nick O’Demus – do you suppose he is Irish like Conan O’Brien? – seeks a late night interview with the religious teacher Jesus of Nazareth, who is creating quite a splash. No doubt Nick wants to get the scoop. He gets more than he bargained for.
Nick tries to set the stage for the interview. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” You expect that he will follow with a question in good late night talk show fashion. Jesus doesn’t wait for the question. “Here’s the truth of things, no one can really get what I am up to, no one can really see God’s dream for the world without being born again, born from above.” The interview was quickly getting away from Nick, but he manages a question. “What!? How is this possible? How, after a person has grown old, can they be born? You can’t go back into your mother’s womb and come out again.” The conversation moves on from there, with Jesus trying to make it clear that he is not talking about being born like you were the first time, but of a different kind of birth , one that comes from the wild Spirit of God. When this Spirit of God blows into and through your life there will be change, there will be life re-orientation. You might see the world and live life in such a new way that it will be like being born for the first time.
From this passage in John 3, there has arisen a tradition within Christian faith that makes the language of being born again the central language of Christian faith. Many of us have had concerned persons come up and ask us if we have been born again. It is helpful to remember that this is but one image used in the New Testament to try and describe what life in Christ and in the God’s Spirit is like. It is not the only image. Many who focus on this image for Christian faith and life also seem to assume that being born again is a one-time experience. “Have you been born again?” seems to ask for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the experience should be one that you can locate in time. If being born again is not the only image for what it means to open your life to God’s love in Jesus Christ and to God’s Spirit, I also want to challenge the idea that the image of being born again should be used for a single experience. What if there are multiple possibilities for being born again? What if God’s Spirit in our lives is always inviting us to new life, to see differently, to live differently? This is not to deny the possibility and reality of dramatic change in people’s lives, of “radical transformation of personality through Christ” to use the words of one commentator on John’s Gospel (John Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 82). Nor is it to deny that all the small choices we make daily contribute to some larger change project in our lives – in fact, I think that is the case. However, each of these small, daily choices are part of being born again, and are, in some ways, new birth.
If we can think to the possibility that new birth happens frequently, the same might be said for the idea of God’s call in our lives. Isaiah 6 uses different language to describe an experience of new birth, and his story adds important dimensions to that experience. Rather than use the term “born again,” however, Isaiah’s story is considered a story of God’s call. The prophet has a powerful experience of the presence of God during a time of national mourning. The experience of God leaves him feeling that his own life lacks, but the encounter with God offers forgiveness and transformation – new birth. And God calls for someone to go to care for God’s work, and Isaiah responds “Here I am; send me!”
Again, the language of the call of God is often used singularly. Are you following your calling? Clergy are often asked to tell the story of their call into ordained ministry – a single call. But what if God’s call might be something that happens daily, moment to moment? This is not to deny that there are also dramatic life-altering calls like a call to ordained ministry or a call to another vocation, but it rather suggests that God is always present, always inviting us to know God, know ourselves more deeply, and to be about God’s work in the world.
Every day, every moment, God speaks our name – {speak some names}. God knows us completely and calls to us.
God always invites us to new life, to new birth. Sometimes we experience that invitation as an invitation to be more of who we really are, to center our lives in our Real Self (John Sanford, 82), or to express our soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness). Sometimes we experience the invitation to new life as a sense of lack, a sense that we have been on the wrong track and need to change, a sense that we have done wrong and need forgiveness and a new beginning. Sometimes when we hear God’s call to new life it causes us to recognize where we have hurt others or hurt ourselves. Isaiah experienced God and felt himself to be a person of unclean lips. Sometimes God’s invitation to new life is to a more genuine life and sometimes it is an invitation to a very different life because we have not been living well.
God calls us by name. God invites us to new life. God also always calls us to meaningful work in the world, to make a difference in the world, to touch others in positive ways. The voice of God saying to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send?” is no different from the voice of God to each of us – whom shall I send to love the world with my love, to do justice, to feed the hungry, to offer compassion, to help others hear my call to new life and new birth?
Today God calls to each of us, by name. God’ Spirit invites us to new life, just as Jesus invited Nicodemus to new life on that late show long ago. God’s Spirit invites us to new work in the world, just as Isaiah was invited so many years ago.
There are two songs, both country songs, that tell this story well. Both speak of life in terms of dancing. Garth Brooks has a song simply entitled “The Dance.” The story line is remembering a wonderful dance with a woman from whom he later separated, and the line that I find particularly memorable is “I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance.” The video tells a more expansive story, showing pictures of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance. Somehow I hear the voice of God calling my name in that, the Spirit of God inviting me to new life, to new birth to dance.
Lee Ann Womack also sings a wonderful song with the simple title, “I Hope You Dance.” I hope you never lose your sense of wonder/You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger/May you never take one single breath for granted/God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed/I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean/Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens/Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance/And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance… I hope you dance. I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance/Never settle for the path of least resistance/Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’/Lovin’ might be a mistake but it’s worth makin’/Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter/When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider/Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance/And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance… I hope you dance.
Somehow I hear the voice of God calling my name in that, the Spirit of God inviting me to new life, to new birth, to dance. I hope you hear God calling your name this morning inviting you to new life, new birth, and I hope you dance! Amen.

Garth Brooks, "The Dance

Lee Ann Womack, "I Hope You Dance

Monday, June 1, 2009

Winged and Wild Wind

Sermon preached Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2009

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost Sunday, and I want to talk about Spirit, about wind, but I don’t intend to be long-winded.
Let’s begin with an experiment. As you are able fold your hands together. Notice which thumb is closest to you. Now fold them the other way. It feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it? It gets harder. Fold your arms if you can. Which arm is on top, which hand tucked. Try to do it the opposite way. It is not easy, is it?
Once upon a time there was a group of people, a group that had been through a difficult time. But they were together when suddenly all heaven broke loose. A sound like a strong, driving wind is heard. Visions of flames appear. People begin to speak out, not in any orderly manner, but all at once, and in different languages. As chaotic as this sounds, a gathering crowd hears it and hears something remarkable – their own language. The crowd is amazed and bewildered. Was there a party going on here? Had this gathered group broken out wine so early in the day? The group makes another claim, this is God’s doing, this is what happens when God’s Spirit shows up – it is like having a winged and wild wind blow through the neighborhood and you can never be sure of all the effects.
How utterly, amazingly strange that the church whose story of origin is found in this text (Pentecost is considered the “birthday of the church”) has come more often to be seen as a place of folded hands rather than of a winged and wild wind, of a raucous party where wine is being shared. Folded hands are more comfortable the way they have always been folded. The church of Jesus Christ and of the Spirit has often been a staid, comfortable place where change is at best tolerated, but only when absolutely necessary. We need to be more a place of the winged and wild wind.
Let me share with you one of my favorite observations about Christian faith. It is offered by Patrick Henry, who, when he wrote this, was executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seemed to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8-9) Exploration, imagination, curiosity, larger heart, wider horizons, minds set free, adventure – these are words more in tune with a Spirit that is a winged and wild wind.
When God’s Spirit is present there is love as comfort, healing, tender care. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has said: There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life…. Life is traumatizing. Trauma hits and keeps on hitting. It is part of who we are. Our very personalities have self-traumatizing aspects. (Conversations with Michael Eigen, 116, 131) I am in a privileged position to hear about some of pain people experience in their lives – their own deteriorating health, the deteriorating health of a loved one, loss of a job, relationship turmoil and dissolution, struggles with meaning and purpose, struggles with addictive behavior. I believe God cares deeply about people in pain and experiencing trauma and that the Spirit of God is often a gentle, healing presence.
God’s Spirit is also a winged and wild wind and where the Spirit of God is present there is creativity, change, and things are shaken up. Hear the story. The Spirit arrives and diverse people who may never before have been together are now together. People who have only heard faintly about God’s deeds of power are now hearing clearly in a language they can understand about this God whose Spirit is a winged and wild wind. A man like Peter whose life vacillated between foolish bravado and cowardly denial becomes a courageous spokesperson for the Jesus community.
The Spirit who is like a winged and wild wind shakes things up and we need to be open to that Spirit.
We need to be open to that Spirit in our individual lives. Yes, we need God’s gentle caring and healing presence, but we also need to be shaken up, moved, changed. Eigen says that there are no trauma-free spaces in life, but he also says that parts of our own personalities are self-traumatizing. We do things that hurt ourselves and hurt others. We can get caught in patterns of behavior that are harmful to ourselves and others. Part of our healing can be and often needs to be change, being shaken up a bit. Beyond that, God invites us to an adventure, to exploration, a larger heart, a more open mind, a wider horizon, and if we are going to follow it will require change.
This week I attended the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Twenty-five years ago I attended my first annual conference where I was ordained a deacon in The United Methodist Church, became a probationary member of the conference and was appointed pastor of The United Methodist Church in Roseau. Being there this year I couldn’t help but think about my life, and how following the winged and wild wind of God’s Spirit has taken me to unimagined places – this shy, quiet kid from a family that was not steeped in church now the pastor of a large congregation getting up in front of people week after week and at Annual Conference spending time at the microphone explaining legislation that was voted on at General Conference last year. It is amazing to me.
We need to be open to that Spirit in our life together as First United Methodist Church. We will be a place that folds its hands in prayer, but just as much we need to be a place of the Spirit that is a winged and wild wind. We will share hope and healing from the skyline, but we will know that to do that well requires shaking things up sometimes, requires creativity, asks of us imagination and an adventuresome spirit.
We have made some changes in worship and in the coming weeks, following months of discussion and consultation I will be sharing with you our plan for a new fall worship and education format. The change we have introduced in worship to date helps us understand the shape of worship and the shape of our lives. We welcome the Spirit and each other – knowing that God, in grace, has already welcomed us. We focus our attention to listen more deeply to the Spirit in our lives. We respond to God’s Spirit with our lives. That is the pattern not only for worship, but for living as Christians. This will be the basic pattern for worship here, with some wonderful variation within that pattern.
Beyond changes in our worship life I want to begin asking us to reframe how we talk about ministry together using one question – Whose lives are we touching? I’ve made no secret that I would like to see our church grow, but growth in and of itself is not the point – making a difference in people’s lives is. To ask how we are touching lives is a question that shapes our ministry with those already a part of our congregation. Are we helping our members and friends connect more deeply with God and with others? Are we helping them grow in faith so that their faith is a resource for them as they navigate the sometimes difficult and troubling waters of life? Are we helping them connect with God’s work in the world?
But I believe that God’s call for our church is also to reach out and touch other lives – the lives of the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the defeated, the discouraged, the despairing. That happens when a child is mentored. That happens when a meal is served to the hungry. That happens when gifts of music are shared in a nursing home. That happens when a cancer walk is organized. That happens when someone is greeted at a hospital. That happens when someone is invited to worship or another church group. It might happen if we were to hold a community meal in our parking lot some summer day just to help people celebrate life a little. Some of the lives we touch in some of these ways may become a part of our congregation. Many won’t, but a life will be touched, a positive difference will be made, and that’s what matters. How is it that the winged and wild wind of God’s Spirit wants to blow us out of this building to touch the lives of others?
We are a people on an adventuresome journey, inspired by God’s Spirit which is a winged and wild wind. YES!