Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Heel or Heal

Sermon preached July 19, 2009

Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Thoughts about God vary widely. Here are a couple of notes to God penned by children. Thank you for the baby brother but what I wanted was a puppy. Joyce. Dear God, If you give me a genie lamp like Alladin I will give you anything you want except my money or my chess set. Raphael. Here we have images of God as a cosmic waiter taking requests and filling them as best as God can - - - and sometimes missing the mark.
Not all our images for God, not all the images for God in our minds or in our culture are so gentle or benign. Some of the images used for God are more terrifying than funny.
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (July 8, 1741)
Okay, so that sermon is two hundred sixty some years old, but the image of God used there remains current in many strands of the Christian Church. The National Association of Evangelicals includes in their statement of faith a phrase about the “resurrection of damnation” that occurs in the future. The statement of faith of the Vineyard Church includes a belief about “eternal conscious punishment” for the wicked. Behind those phrases one sees Edwards image of an angry God, a God whose wrath and anger burn hot against those who do not fall in line. Their fate is fire, the resurrection of damnation, eternal conscious punishment.
When I encounter such doctrines I am reminded of the words of the third century Christian theologian Origen, who wrote that there were people in the church who, “while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men” (On First Principles, 184-5/253; p. 271). The God portrayed by Edwards seems a God most interested in us groveling, engaging in fearful obedience, clipping along at God’s heel. The image of God as master and humans as obedient puppies being taught to heel is not far from Edwards imagery, nor necessarily from those who would find Edwards imagery congenial today.
I believe some of these images haunt us. If they were ever a part of our experience of Christian faith, they often remain deeply embedded in our souls and we continue to struggle with them. These images of God sometimes also afflict our national life as some persons somehow take on the role as executors of God’s wrath and vengeance - setting off suicide bombs, flying planes into buildings, shooting physicians whose practices they oppose. Certainly the vast majority of people whose image of God fits in with this angry, wrathful judge do not engage in violent behavior, but the images are not simply benign.
While the Bible has a great deal to say about judgment, an excessive focus on that, on God as judge, is unbalanced and in many ways unbiblical. It certainly does not comport well with the central aspects of Jesus' teaching. Marcus Borg, in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time contends that “Jesus invited his hearers to see god not as the judge… but as gracious and compassionate” (82). Jesus himself, in Borg’s words is, for Christians, “the face of God… the side of God turned toward us” (137).
If we take Jesus as our definitive clue into the nature of God, as the side of God turned toward us, as the face of God, what does that tell us? As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…. And wherever Jesus went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
The God of Jesus Christ, the God whose face shines in the face of Jesus, whose hands reach out in the hands of Jesus, who speaks in some remarkable way through the words of Jesus, this God is a God of care, of compassion, of healing. Healing of broken lives is what this God desires more, not groveling and heeling like some fearful pet. Does this God judge? Yes, but I would argue God’s judgment is not for the sake of punishment but for the sake of diagnosis – here are the broken places in your heart, mind, soul, world and they need healing and repair. Judgment is a function of compassion, not anger. God’s judgment might be something like these words from a psychoanalyst. “The ways we protect ourselves tend also to be the ways we imprison ourselves” (Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness, 62-63). Hearing that, we know where to look to see our prisons and know something more about how to be more free, more whole, how to be healed and well.
God is a God of healing and well-being wholeness and God will use a variety of means to bring that healing and well-being and wholeness into our lives. The church exists to bring God’s healing into the lives of those who are a part of it and to share that healing with all the world. We are here for each other, and for our community and world. We celebrate the good news of God’s love here, help each other see those broken places, and help each other heal. We encourage each other to reach out into the world with hope and healing.
I believe Lake Superior is something God uses to bring healing into people’s lives. In some ways that is remarkable, because the lake’s effects can be cruel. Fifty degrees in July has a certain cruelty to it. More profoundly, we know that the Lake has taken its toll. Some of us remember the Edmund Fitzgerald. All of us know about the chapel in our church commemorating four lives lost in the Lake. Still this powerful, cold, mysterious presence is often a source of healing. Its fresh waters sustain our lives. Its navigable waters provide recreation and an economic resource. Its wonder and beauty nurtures our souls, our imaginations. When I was in college, I spent a number of thoughtful moments listening to the waters of the Lake lap up against the shore as I thought about my life. It is a discipline I should renew. I am often taken by the beauty of the Lake, on a sunny day the purity of its blue waters, on a full-moon night, its ability to reflect the bright orange glow. For me, and for many, Lake Superior is a healing presence, one of the ways God’s healing touches our lives.
God is a God of compassion, care, healing. Today, I invite you to know that, to experience that. See the broken places in your life and let God touch them. See those places in your life where self-protection has become self-imprisonment, and let God’s love free you.
Experiencing God’s love, compassion and care, reflect it in your life. Care for others. Tend all that heals, including caring for places like Lake Superior. Work with God to bring more healing to the world’s broken places.
Alexie Torres-Fleming is the founder and executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the South Bronx. She was raised in a housing project in the South Bronx by parents who were Puerto Rican immigrants. By the time she was in her twenties, she has escaped the poverty of her neighborhood, living in a nice apartment in midtown Manhattan. But she sensed that God wanted something from her. She sensed God was calling her back to her neighborhood to be a force for healing, to see the healing power of the people that were still there. She returned to her old church and worked with it to organize against drugs in the neighborhood. She worked with others to organize a march through the neighborhood and about two hundred people showed up. Two weeks later, drug dealers, in retaliation, torched her church. She worked with others again to organize another march, even in the face of death threats – this time 1,200 people showed up to march – God’s healing power at work. Alexie saw God’s healing power working through one person in particular.
I learned what power was that day… from a man who was homeless as a teenager, who was an alcoholic, who raised four children in the South Bronx, who was a deli man. A man who talked about how they used to make him work in the back of the deli. If he needed something, they had a little hole in the wall where he could ask, because they didn’t want to see the brown people in the front of the deli. A man who, when I was a little girl, washed urine off the elevator walls…. On that day, this man, my father, taught me the greatest lesson about the poor and about power, because when I looked out at the crowd gathered to march, he was there. (Sojourners, July 2009, 34).
There are places in our lives that need healing. Open to God’s compassionate healing. There are places in the world that need healing. Let the power of God’s compassionate healing touch the world through you.
One final story. One evening a child had been watching the news before supper. When he was asked to say the table grace he added a little to it. “Dear God, take care of Mommy and Daddy, and my little sister, and Grandma, and please, God, take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you, we’re all sunk.” (Dick Van Dyke, Faith, Hope and Hilarity, 39). We all need the healing power of God’s compassion in our lives to help mend those broken places within. It comes to us in many ways, a friend, a church community, a book, a lake. The healing power of God’s compassionate love can touch the world through you, too. Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Dance, Dance, Dance

Sermon preached July 12, 2009

Text: II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

Warning – the following story is rated PG-13. Now that I have your attention… You heard about the fundamental Christian preacher who spoke often against the evils of premarital sex - - - he was concerned it might lead to dancing.
The church deals with serious matters. What we do here is serious business. A couple of weeks ago I quoted psychotherapist Michael Eigen to describe the ministry of the church: “in this business we deal with broken lives and heartbreak, and we do so with our own broken hearts” (The Electrified Tightrope, 277). That is serious stuff.
In a couple of weeks I will be in Chicago teaching a ten-day class in Christian ethics for persons licensed for pastoral ministry in The United Methodist Church. Unlike ordained pastors, those licensed are not required to complete seminary, but have to do summer course work along the lines of a seminary curriculum, and I was asked to teach the class in Christian ethics. One of the texts for the course is The Pastor as Moral Guide. I recently finished reading it and heard powerful stories within it about the kind of serious issues the church confronts in its ministry: a family with two hard-working parents seeking help with their fourteen year-old who has violated the towns curfew and is probably smoking marijuana; a couple married nineteen years with two adolescent daughters on the verge of a divorce because the woman is seeing someone else who she says makes her free and happy and loved; another marriage where the wife is being physically abused by her husband; a church staff situation where the senior pastor is made aware that the associate pastor, who is married with young children, is having an affair with a parishioner who is also married with young children. It is easier to use stories from the book, but from my own experience I can tell you that they are not out of the ordinary for the ministry of the church. There is heartbreak in the world and the church is about the serious business of bringing healing. We need to be a place where we see the heartbreak in our own lives, where we see the heartbreak in the world, and where we offer each other and the world the healing power of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
But if we are not also teaching you how to dance, if we are not teaching each other how to dance with all our might, we are not being the church. We are not doing our job. The church deals with serious issues, but we should never be dour. Those churches that through history condemned anything that looked joyous, raucous, that smacked of laughter and pleasure, somehow must have missed this part of the Bible. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. Truth be told, most of us probably grew up in churches that while they did not condemn dancing, also didn’t think it was very “proper” for church – which was always to be quiet and pious and somber. We deal with serious issues in the church, and silence has its place in worship, but the church should also be a “Hoorah!” place, a place of laughter and not just tears, a place that is serious without being somber and dour, a place that is realistic and hopeful at the same time, a place of joy and dancing even as we take seriously the sorrow, pain, tragedy, hurt, and injustices of the world. David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
Frederick Buechner, minister and author has written some of the wisest words about vocation I have ever read, vocation meaning “the work a person is called to by God” (Wishful Thinking, 118-119). Buechner argues that we all hear all kinds of voices in our lives, and so distinguishing the voice of God takes careful listening. How do we figure out what God might be calling us to do in our lives? By and large, a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you most need to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you’ve probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you’ve not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Deep gladness, joy, dancing. If we are not learning how to dance together with all our might, if we are not schooling each other in joy, we are not being the church.
I need to add a small caveat to Buechner’s words. The job to which God calls us will not always be delightful in every moment or in every respect. The Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church is asking all of its congregations and pastors to think more broadly, more deeply, more intentionally and more systematically about their ministry - - - and a part of doing that will be to document these conversations in goal statements and ministry plans. The thought of all the additional paperwork being asked does not bring me deep gladness, even though I think what is being asked can be used to help us in our ministry as a church. Not every moment is a high point, no matter the job to which we are called, but being in ministry with you here often gladdens my heart.
We as the church of Jesus Christ are invited to be a place of great joy, a place of dancing and music, a hallelujah place. I don’t think we are fully where we want to be yet, but I see times when we are just such a place. The past Thursday the Duluth-area United Methodist Men held their annual golf tournament and thanks go to Irv St. John, Jim Terry, Kent Giese for planning this event. It is a nice way to get United Methodist men from the area together, and those who work together to plan the event seem to enjoy that. We also had our fourth annual Coppertop Drive-In. Because of the golf tournament I arrived late, but when I got here, I could not help but feel the sense of joy among those who were here to be a part of the drive-in. It is a lot of work, but coming together to accomplish a shared task brings joy and for me to contribute to the day a little by cleaning up some trash, by helping a little boy who had spilled his milk shake and was crying, by picking up a mop, really felt good. Thanks to Lisa Blade for being the lead coordinator of this event and for each and every one of you who were part of the day.
I think we need to build on these kind of experiences here – not to do big Coppertop Drive-In events more often, but to find ways we can come together in groups to share tasks – serving a meal together at the Damiano Center or Union Gospel Mission or CHUM, getting a few families together for a picnic and conversation to discuss family life in our hectic world, bringing people together to discuss a book, painting a room here at the church. Some of this happens. More can, and our joy will be enhanced.
Two final, and quick remarks about the dancing joy of the Christian life. Our dancing joy should always seek to enlarge the circle of dancers. I am struck in the passage we read just how often we hear the word “all”: David and all the people, David and all the house of Israel, with all their might, David and all the house of Israel (again), all the people, all the people (yes, twice). The community of dancing joy that God creates in our life together is meant to be an inclusive community. David’s wife, Michal, who is herself the daughter of a king, despises David for his dancing, and at least a part of the reason for this is that she thought his behavior unbecoming, vulgar, too common. He, the king, danced with all the people. He was inclusive when some thought the role of the king was to be more exclusive. In the dancing joy of God, there is always room for more dancers, singers, musicians.
The dancing joy of God should always seek to enlarge the circle of dancers. The dancing joy of God also gives us energy to reach out to the world in love and care. The joy we know here is not meant to be hoarded, but move us to care for the world. At the end of the story, food is distributed among all the people – bread and meat and raisin cakes. One function of the joyous celebrations in the life of Israel was to distribute food, to make sure no one went hungry. Joy and care for the world. At his best, the recently deceased Michael Jackson combined those well. When he was teaching the world to dance to Billie Jean he was also organizing world hunger relief through We Are the World. Whatever the other more tragic dimensions of his life, and there were many and we need not consider his whole life exemplary, still in some small way he taught us how to dance and care.
The dancing joy of God in Christian community always moves us out of our doors to invite others to the dance and to meet the needs of the world. Our deep gladness, the deep needs of the world - - - Dance, Dance Dance! Amen.