Friday, August 28, 2009

Forty Years Ago Today

Sermon preached August 23, 2009

Text: Psalm 84

Today’s Psalm is a very happy psalm, a joyous song. It evokes sunshine and paying attention to beauty. We will get back to that, but first a detour, a difficult detour.
Not all the psalms are so sunny, as indicated in the prayer for today. Take these words from Psalm 38 for instance: I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart…. My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes – it has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off. This psalm reminds me of the words of Scott Peck. Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. (The Road Less Traveled, 15). It reminds me of similar words of D. W. Winnicott, British psychoanalyst. Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for every one from the very beginning. (quoted in Winnicott, Adam Phillips, 51).
We will get back to Psalm 84, but not just yet. When did the truth about life being difficult become clear to me, because it is now? I think it came to me over time. Maybe some of it was watching the struggles in my parent’s relationship. They divorced when I was in my early 20s. There is adolescence with all of its heartbreaks – not being the athlete one would like to have been, hearing “no” when it had taken all the courage you could muster to ask that girl for a dance or a date. Life certainly became more difficult for me when, at age 21 I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. There were countless times since that I have wished this would just disappear, but it never did, and because of it I am at an increased risk for colon cancer, and because of that risk I get my colon scoped every year and have for the last eight or so years. A couple of years after that diagnosis, one of my best friends from high school and college was diagnosed with leukemia and died. When you confront death so closely, you become aware that life is difficult – and in the last year my father died, and in the last month a friend and colleague in ministry, a woman probably in her late fifties, died in an accident on her farm.
I feel the truth that life is difficult deep in my bones, and the truth of it has been confirmed not just in my personal life, but as I have grown more aware of the wider world. A woman named Rebecca Kamate (not her real name) works with women in the Congo who have suffered rape. Here is part of her story as reported in the New York Review (August 13, 2009, 18). “What pushed me into this work,” says Kamate… “is that I am also one who was raped.” This happened a decade ago; the rapists were from the now-defunct militia of a local warlord backed by Uganda. “Their main purpose was to kill my husband. They took everything. They cut up his body like you would cut up meat, with knives. He was alive. They began cutting off his fingers. Then they cut off his sex. They opened his stomach and took out his intestines. When they poked his heart, he died. They were holding a gun to my head…. They ordered me to collect all his body parts and to lie on top of them and there they raped me – twelve soldiers. I lost consciousness. Then I heard someone cry out in the next room and I realized they were raping my daughters [ages 12 and 15].
Difficult seems much too tame a word for such horror. Life can be horrific, terrifying, cruel, as well as difficult.
Not only can life be difficult, but goodness can be fleeting. Forty years ago this year – yes, there was Woodstock – but forty years ago this year The Beatles played music together for the last time. Music so many enjoyed was to be made no more, and it remains a significant event. The most recent issue of Rolling Stone (September 3, 2009) has as its cover story; “Why the Beatles Broke Up.” In my teenage years in the 1970s there was this persistent rumor that The Beatles were going to get back together for a concert, an album, but it never happened. In 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed by a deranged man. In 2001 George Harrison died of cancer.
Ready to get back to Psalm 84? Just last year, Paul McCartney released a CD of new music, Memory Almost Full, and on it was this song. {Play about a minute of “Gratitude” link at the end of the sermon!}
Gratitude. That’s the spirit of Psalm 84 – gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. How lovely – sparrows nesting, swallows laying eggs and hatching young. Happy are those who sing God’s praise. Happy are those whose heart is a highway to the place of God. God does not withhold any good thing from those who walk that highway in their heart to God.
Here’s the deal, we have an absolute need in our lives for gratitude, to cultivate gratitude, to feel gratitude, to have grateful hearts. We need to see beauty and goodness in the world, even when we see pain and harm and ugliness. They are both there, and if we neglect either we miss life. We need to notice the sparrows and swallows and sunshine and feel joy, but it is not a shallow joy that forgets that there is real horror in our world. We need to feel the goodness of life and know that this goodness is just there, that there is a quality of gift about it for which we can be grateful. We are to be those who sing, “I’m so grateful for everything.” This, too, I feel deep in my bones. Life is difficult, yes. Life is filled with beauty and goodness and wonder, some of which I help to create, and much of which I am simply the beneficiary. Gratitude and joy are knit deep within, too.
Maybe like me, you feel both these things deep inside, and have days when you forget one or the other – the pain and difficulty of the world, the joy of the world for which we can be grateful. Today, in the spirit of the Psalm I invite us: Remember the joy. Cultivate gratitude. Trust in the goodness of God.
Maybe like me, you do that best when you take time to really think about what you have to have to be grateful for. The Psalmist is doing a little of that in Psalm 84 – making a gratitude list. I want to share some of mine with you.
I am grateful to God, the God I know in Jesus Christ. And that’s how I know God, through Jesus and the tradition in which he lived and the tradition which he inspired and inspires. The God I know in Jesus is the source of life and beauty. This God’s very nature is creativity and love. God loves all who live, persons and creatures and world. God inspires goodness, creativity, justice and love. I am grateful for God’s love in my life, for God’s constant invitation in my life to be all that I can be and to do the good I can do with my life. That loving invitation comes again and again and again, even when I have ignored God, and that constant connection is grace.
I am grateful for the relationships which sustain my life – especially for my family. I am deeply grateful for Julie who has shared my life now for close to thirty years, twenty-seven as my wife. We have had the joy of bringing three children into the world and while we have experienced the twists and turns of parenting, we could not be prouder or more filled with joy when we think of David, Beth and Sarah. I have been blessed with friends who care about my life and give me the opportunity to care about them.
I am grateful for my body. Okay, that may seem a strange thing to say. It is not as tall as I might have liked. I wouldn’t mind if my hair had not abandoned ship a few years ago. I have already told you about some of my inward parts and we don’t need to go there again. Still, this is me. These are the eyes through which I have seen the world, though they now need glasses. These are the eyes through which I have read the Bible and theology and philosophy and poetry. These are the hands that have touched the world, that have held my own children, that have held the children of others to be baptized, that have done some good in the world. These are the ears that have heard the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck. This is the face by which people know me.
I am grateful for this church. Being a pastor here has its challenges. I am sometimes frustrated by our building. I wish I could please everybody all the time, but that is not possible. We have changes coming and maybe more changes that need to be made so that we can be all God calls us to be. Still, I am grateful for you all and for this place. You help keep me on my toes. You challenge me to keep growing in my faith and we all walk the journey of faith together. I think we have a good thing going here and I want to see us share it with others.
I am grateful for meaningful work. This is my job, and there are times when it is important for me to see it as my job, lest I be consumed by it. Pastors are not the only ones who can get consumed by their jobs. I wrote about that very thing on my blog about a month and a half ago. It is o.k. to remember that even if my job involves ultimate meanings, the job itself does not contain all ultimate meaning. God has called me to be a pastor, but first God called me to be a Christian, a full human being who finds what that means in Jesus. It is o.k., then, to have times when I don’t have to like all that I do, just do it. Sometimes being a pastor is just a job. I am deeply grateful that it is also often so much more. And I am grateful.
I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. I am aware of our failings and foibles. I am also aware of how much our country still symbolizes freedom and opportunity and the bringing together of diverse people. I will talk about how we can do better, but I do so because I care about this country.
My list would not be complete with a word about my gratitude for music and movies and books – art and thought which engages my mind and enlarges my heart.
I began with a couple of quotes, let me wrap up with a couple more. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast: Gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness (Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, 12). Without gratitude we are not alive to much of the world. We don’t see the world as it is. E.B. White: I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. Life is difficult, sometimes even horrific and terrifying. It needs saving and that is the work of God and the work God invites us to join in. Life is also filled with goodness and beauty and delight, things to be savored and enjoyed, things for which the appropriate heart-response is gratitude. But I would add, this, without savoring the world, enjoying the world with deep gratitude, we have little energy to work on improving the world. The woman whose horrific story from the Congo we heard works to help others because she believes she can make a difference, because she sees a goodness that is possible.
Savor the world, enjoy the world with gratitude, and use the energy of joy and gratitude to improve the world. Trust that this is possible, and be among those whose very hearts are a highway to the place of God, among those who trust in the goodness God inspires, even in a difficult world. Amen.

Paul McCartney "Gratitude"

Monday, August 10, 2009

Everyday People

Sermon preached August 9, 2009

Texts: John 6:35, 41-51; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Sly and the Family Stone, "Everyday People

Play Everyday People Sly and the Family Stone, about half the song (to second chorus – “I love everyday people”).
I love everyday people, and we got to live together.
We are everyday people – younger and older, shorter or taller, working and retired, partnered and single, parents and grandparents and childless, with different backgrounds, different affectional orientations, different countries of ancestry. I love everyday people.
We are also followers of Jesus Christ. To use the image given in John’s Gospel, we are those for whom Jesus is the bread of life. Our deepest hungers are fed through this bread. That image is a little mysterious. John’s Gospel is often that way. How can a person be bread? And some of the language used is just hard to grab hold of. It reminds me of some of the theology I have read. In all its concrete details the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ confirms his character as the bearer of New Being or as the one in whom the conflict between the essential unity of God and persons and human existential estrangement is overcome…. Christology is a function of soteriology. The problem of soteriology creates the christological question and gives direction to the christological answer. For it is the Christ who brings the New Being, who saves persons from the old being, that is, from existential estrangement and its self-destructive consequences. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II (125, 150). That’s really just a long way of saying that Jesus is the bread of life!!
So the bread of life imagery is a little mysterious, but it is also striking in it ordinariness. In John’s Gospel there is no discussion of existential estrangement and New Being, but of bread, something common, ordinary. In fact, one of the complaints lodged against Jesus in the text is this – how can he be any kind of bread for humankind when he is so ordinary, one of the everyday people, the son of Joseph whose mother is known. How can this ordinary person be bread come from heaven, be the New Being in his everyday life? That’s the remarkable paradox of incarnation, of God making Godself know in everyday life.
And God is concerned about everyday life. We are everyday people who are also followers of Jesus Christ. We are everyday people who proclaim that Jesus is the bread of our lives. We are to live as followers of Jesus in our everyday lives. To be a Christian is to live just a little differently because Jesus “feeds” our lives. To be a follower of Jesus is to be an everyday person who lives his or her everyday life differently.
Being a follower of Jesus affects how we spend our time. We are here. We make time in our week to remember that we are followers of Jesus. We gather to support each other, to pray for each other, to sing together, to hear God’s Spirit speak to us in the midst of our everyday lives. Being a follower of Jesus affects how we use our money. We support the work of the church with our regular gifts. We give to special outreach efforts to heal a hurting humanity. We give to causes outside the church. We try to shop more wisely and support businesses that value human labor, human social bonds, and the earth. Being a follower of Jesus affects our relationships. We are willing to struggle with the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation when bonds are broken, knowing that this is always a process. We value life-long partnerships and work together to strengthen families of all kinds. We value children and youth, wanting to see them grow and develop the gifts God has given each of them. They are not just a marketing segment to us.
Being everyday people and followers of Jesus means we seek to live a little differently in our everyday lives. The passage from Ephesians is a wonderful companion to John’s Gospel because it makes real what it means to say that Jesus is the bread of life. Speak the truth. Be angry but do not sin. Let your words give peace to those who hear. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. Powerful stuff intended for our everyday lives. To say Jesus is the bread of life is to seek to live differently in these ways.
One of the struggles we all have in living this new way of life is that we all carry in us old tapes about how the world is and how we should react to it, and these old tapes often lead more toward bitterness, wrangling, anger that gets away from us, than toward tenderhearted love. To be a follower of Jesus, to proclaim that Jesus is the bread of life, is to struggle against these old tapes inside of us – and they are there.
The news over the past couple of weeks has been filled with the story of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates – so filled, in fact, that some of you may be groaning inwardly knowing that I am going to say something about this. It is a complex story, and one old tape we all need to struggle against is that tape in us which crams everything into simple categories, not letting the complexity of human life emerge so we can respond more fully to it, rather than react to our simple story lines.
The basic outline of the story is that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, returning from a trip, was having trouble getting into his home. He ended up “breaking into it” and this was witnessed by a neighbor who called the police thinking that a break-in might be occurring. The police arrived, a Sgt. James Crowley. He asked Gates for some identification. Professor Gates apparently took offense at this and became angry. Crowley became angry as well, handcuffed Gates and took him in. Gates is 5’8”, 150 pounds, walks with a cane, and is African-American. Crowley is white.
Race had a role in this incident. Many of us, probably all of us, carry around tapes inside that tell us things about people different from us. Recent research done by neuroscientists and cognitive scientists suggests that some attitudes about people who are different get wired into our nervous system. The amygdala area of the brain, which gets more active when we feel threatened or afraid, has been shown to be more active in Americans of all races when they view black male faces (Greater Good). Our culture, it seems, has conditioned us to see black male faces as a threat – an old tape that I am guessing had an impact on Sgt. Crowley. I would also guess that Henry Louis Gates had some tapes playing – tapes that reflected the mistreatment of African-Americans over the years and which may have led him to respond petulantly to the request for identification. There was probably a class tape playing too, a Harvard professor telling a police officer, “Don’t you know who I am, I teach at Harvard.” All these old tapes playing, and the old tapes play more loudly when we are under stress – like doing police work, like having a police officer asking us questions in our own home.
But if that story from Harvard seems just too distant, the news in Duluth this week contained its own old tapes. Thursday’s newspaper carried a story about t-shirts being sold in town at the “I Love Duluth” store. The t-shirts read: “My Indian Name is Crawling Drunk” and “My Indian Name is Drinks Like a Fish.” Old tapes playing, and one of the saddest parts of the story to me was that somewhere a t-shirt manufacturer thought this would be harmless humor, not considering the horrendous dehumanization involved.
To be a follower of Jesus in our everyday lives is to struggle against these old tapes that produce bitterness and malice and speech that tears at the social fabric rather than producing peace. It is to struggle against them so we can be kind and tenderhearted.
As long as I am on a roll with social issues, one more old tape I hope we struggle against as everyday followers of Jesus is an old tape that many of us carry that says that any attempt to look at health care as something other than a commodity subject to market forces is a direct road to socialism or communism. 47 to 50 million Americans are without health insurance. I know some percentage of this group of people are healthy people who could afford health insurance, but no one argues it is an enormous percentage. We find ourselves once again in the midst of a great debate about how to provide more care to more people. It is a difficult and complex issue and I offer no simple solutions. But some of the terms of the debate need to change, and I think we everyday followers of Jesus have a role to play. Can we begin to talk together about what it means to care for each other as Americans and how health care plays a role in that? Can we talk about how basic health care might be a social good and not simply a market good? I was particularly spurred on to think about this in reading commentary from the British press on our current debate. I found commentary from the London Daily Telegraph, London Observer, London Sunday Telegraph and London Independent summarized in The Week (August 7, 2009). The United States spends more on health care than any other country yet we are unhealthier on many measures – infant mortality is higher and life expectancy is lower than in Europe. “Why does the richest country on earth have an immunization rate worse than Botswana’s?” To Britons, it is baffling that Americans refuse to consider a system that would require a few people to wait for the most expensive operations, yet they tolerate their current system, which is “fiendishly complex and full of loopholes, so even those with coverage can have it withdrawn.” By the way, the practice of denying coverage for a previously approved claim is called “recission” and on June 16, testifying before Congress, executives from WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group and Assurant refused to end the practice. (New York Review, August 13, 2009, 70). The strongest language about our health care debate coming from Britain argued that Americans really don’t care about the poor, that we view have-nots as “failed Americans.” “Sure, America’s got talent, but it’s also got some of the most unpleasant, uncompassionate, unerringly ruthless people on the face of this planet.”
Of course one old tape we all have is one that says “We are Americans and we don’t need to listen to anyone else.” So we can ignore how the rest of the world looks at our health care debate, but what if some of what they say makes sense. What if we don’t care for each other as well as we might? What if there are more compassionate ways to be Americans? Who might raise such questions in the midst of debates about health care? Might it be followers of Jesus Christ who, in their everyday lives are citizens of the United States? Might it be those who feed on Jesus as the bread of life?
The Ephesians passage ends simply. Be imitators of God… and live in love, as Christ loved us. That’s what it means to be everyday followers of Jesus Christ. Imitate God. Love as Christ loved. Struggle against any old tapes you carry that lead away from love and kindness. God’s gracious love empowers us in this effort. God’s gracious love forgives us when we fall short, when the old tapes get played out again.
As everyday people be imitators of God and live in love as Christ loved. Amen.

You Da Man

Sermon preached August 2, 2009

Text: II Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Men are interesting creatures. On the Prairie Home Companion, the following story was shared (108). Eve, in the Garden of Eden, said to God, “I have a problem. It’s a beautiful garden, but I’m lonely and I’m sick of eating apples.” “Okay,” said God, I’ll create a man for you.” Eve said, “What’s a man.” “He’s a creature with aggressive tendencies and an enormous ego who doesn’t listen and gets lost a lot, but he’s big and strong, he can open jars and hunt animals and is physically fun.” “Sounds great,” said Eve. “There’s only one thing. He’s going to want to believe I made him first.” Many jokes about men carry a modicum of truth. How are men and mascara alike? They both run at the sight of emotion.
But men can be intelligent and sensitive, though they may express it in unique ways. Watch a baseball or football game sometime, and you will see men, often reticent to be too touchy-feely, swat each other on the backside to congratulate the player who performed well.
More recently, we have invented a phrase to praise and admire another man. “You da man.” It is said best at a rather loud decibel level. When you analyze the phrase, it seems rather silly – to call a man a man. But as early as the first part of the twentieth century, the phrase, “the man” came in slang to mean someone in authority and control, and the phrase was used both positively and negatively. In jazz circles in the 1950s the phrase “you’re the man” became a term not to denote authority, but a term of admiration and praise. You’re the man. In our world of increasing clipped language, “you’re the man” has become “you da man” – still used in praise and admiration.
This morning’s Scripture reading is a sort of “you da man” story, but with some surprising twists. David is the man – he is the king. He has power and authority and control. Nathan, well Nathan is an advisor to David, and advisors to kings often find it helpful to tell the man that he is the man. “You da man, David, you da man.” Human history testifies to the need of those in power to be given praise and admiration.
But Nathan’s visit this time has a different purpose. Nathan has gotten wind of a troubling story – heard it from God, in fact. David, at home with not much to do while his troops were out fighting, has slept with another man’s wife, a woman named Bathsheba. He impregnated her in fact, but wanted to hide it. He brought Bathsheba’s husband Uriah back from the war, hoping he would sleep with Bathsheba and the illicit pregnancy would go undiscovered. Uriah refuses to sleep with his wife while his men are in battle. David, desperate to hide his action, sends Uriah to the place in the battle where the fighting is most fierce, and Uriah is killed. David marries Bathsheba so he can hide his actions. In fact, David might come off looking noble – marrying a widow who everyone will know was pregnant when she got married. You da man, David, you da man. This is better than “The Bachelorette.”
So Nathan, sent by God, tells David a story. Imagine two men in a city, a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had flocks of animals, herds of animals. The poor man had but one lamb. He bought the lamb young and it became like a part of the family, growing up with the man’s children, sharing their meager food stuffs. Now a traveler came to visit the rich man and he needed to serve him dinner. He looked at all he had, but was reluctant to use one of his own animals to feed this man. Instead he took the only lamb of the poor man and fixed it for the traveler.
David is angered, enraged. How morally obtuse of the rich man, how utterly wrong he was to take the single lamb of the poor man. “Such a man deserves to die, or at the very least re-pay the poor man four times over for the lamb he took.” David has some moral sensitivity to him. He can see wrong-doing when it happens.
Then it comes. To this point Nathan has taken the advice of Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan, “the worst thing you can do is confront human beings bluntly” (quoted in Michael Eigen, The Electrified Tightrope, 147). Nathan has simply told David a story which engages David’s moral sensibilities. David is angered, outraged. Now it comes. “David, you da man.” And Nathan isn’t telling David he is powerful, and he is not telling him he should be admired. David is the rich man in the story who has taken the wife of Uriah for his own. Worse than that, his actions led directly to the death of Uriah, just so he could cover up his misdeeds. But the cover-up has failed. Nathan knows. God knows.
Intriguing story, but to the best of my knowledge no one here has acted anywhere near this horrifically. You can all breathe a sigh of relief. But I want to tell you another story.
A pastor asked children during a children’s sermon: “If all the good people were red and all the bad people were white, what color would you be?” Little Mary Jane replied, “Pastor, I’d be streaky like a candy cane.” (Anthony DeMillo, The Song of the Bird, 129). Another version of the story Nathan tells David, but only more general. Streaky people, anyone you know? Do you also hear a voice saying, “You da one!”
In some ways that whole Bible tells a Nathan story about humanity, about us – that we fall short sometimes, that we miss the mark, that our lives get off kilter. The Bible tends to use a rather ugly word to describe this being off the mark, off kilter. It calls it “sin.” David says, “I have sinned against the Lord” – and that’s not to mention Uriah!
But sin is an ugly word, and primarily because the church and church people have made it so. When we think of sin we think of people wagging their fingers at others taking them to task for their sins. We think of people making huge moral issues out of rather innocent activities like going to a movie or playing cribbage. Sin has been abused in so many ways that the word is almost unusable, but the idea behind it matters.
The purpose of the Bible’s idea of sin is not so others can tell us how awful we are, or come up with lists of sins and keep count. The purpose of the Bible’s idea of sin is asking us to be honest about our lives – and it says that when we are honest about our lives we admit that we are streaky people, people who miss the mark sometimes, people who are out of kilter sometimes. Have you ever been frustrated with your child over a legitimate issue, but let your frustration and anger get the best of you when you sought to correct that child? Have you ever let your anger get the best of you? Have you ever turned away when helping someone would have been quick and easy? Have you ever held a grudge too long? Have you ever been too proud to say you were sorry? Have you ever felt kind of good when someone who usually does better than you on something falls flat? To make matters worse, have you ever denied a mistake, and error, a wrong, and then had to keep constructing elaborate schemes to keep the truth hidden? Maybe you never sent a Uriah into battle, but the pattern is familiar. Missing the mark. Off kilter. Out of line. Streaky people. We da ones!
The God of the Bible wants to meet us where we are, but if we are not honest about our live, we don’t know where that is. The God of the Bible loves us as we are, but we aren’t sure who that is if we are not honest about our streakiness. Now God may want us to change and grow, but we always begin from where we are. We can be honest with ourselves and we will not melt.
And here is the utterly remarkable thing, God uses streaky people just like us to do good in the world. Listen to these words from Ezekial, written well after David’s time as king. It is written as a promise of God to the Israelites. “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them…. And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.” Pretty high praise for a letch, don’t you think? If God can work with a person like that, think what God might do in the lives of us whose streakiness never included sleeping with another’s spouse and then sending the spouse into battle to be killed.
There is also another kind of streaky people, and I was among them last weekend. A few of us traveled to Cedar Rapids to help with flood relief. By the end of the day, we were streaky people, people streaked with sweat and dirt and sun – all trying to make the world a little kinder, gentler, better, in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. I won’t speak for anyone else on the trip, but I am a streaky person in the first sense – a person who misses the mark, who can be off kilter, who needs forgiveness sometimes. I am glad that God can work in me to make me a streaky person in the second sense – streaked with sweat and dirt and sun trying to do some good in the name and spirit of Jesus.
You see the bottom line of the whole David saga is that God uses streaky people to do good, to be streaky people in that Cedar Rapids sense. Ironically, God uses us best when we give up our pretensions, when we are honest with ourselves. It’s only when we know where we are that we can get some place better. You da one to do just that. Amen.