Sunday, September 27, 2009

Road Salt

Sermon preached September 27, 2009

Text: Mark 9:38-50

The internet is an amazing thing. Scouring for sermon illustrations or ideas, especially when one was struggling a bit with some part of the sermon used to involve hours of paging through books. I still do some of that, but I also use this new technology. Like this week, I was struggling to find something to begin this morning’s sermon so I used an internet search engine.
I typed in “salty stories” and was given a number of sites with stories about the sea. I typed in “salty jokes” and was asked, “do you mean nasty jokes?” I thought I better stop there. I typed in ‘salty sayings” and one site I was directed to was full of sayings from Canada. Here are a couple: “the gene pool around here could use a little chlorine;” “What’s the difference between Calgary and yogurt? Yogurt has active culture.” I am guessing the Calgary Chamber of Commerce did not come up with that one.
What we have in Mark 9:38-50 are some salty sayings of Jesus. It might help us understand these verses better if we recall that the gospels are literary works not newspaper reports. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were constructed by authors who used material that had circulated primarily in oral form for many years – stories and sayings of Jesus. Mark is the earliest of the four gospels and it was written about 70 CE, almost forty years after the death of Jesus. Mark wanted to tell the story of Jesus in a way that helped his own Jesus community, his own faith community. The sayings found in the verses we read may not have been spoken together by Jesus, but Mark finds a common thread, and our understanding of these verses will be enhanced as we find a common thread.
By the way, this entire discussion of the gospel and the gospels will be part of our discussion in Soul Kitchen following worship at 10:45. Faith Forum will be discussing our newest forms of communication – the internet, and Soul Kitchen will discuss older forms – how stories told by word of mouth became our gospels and why we expect these old texts to speak to our lives. I hope you will find your way to one or the other.
What Mark has presents us is a series of sayings of Jesus, the first couched in a brief story and the final sayings all about salt. In between water and salt we have some disturbing words about cutting off body parts and unquenchable fire. So what’s the frequency Kenneth, or how might these verses speak to our lives?
I think we might focus on that final image of salt as a good way to hear these words and consider how they might speak to our lives. Salt, at that time, was a precious good, sometimes even used for wages. Salt helped preserve food. Salt flavored food. Salt was a purifying agent. Salt was used often in ritual, sacrifices were salted before being burned. If Jesus was a northern Minnesotan instead of a northern Palestinian in the Roman Empire, I think he would have included the use of salt on slippery roads as a part of his imagery! The bottom line in this thread of verses is the encouragement to followers of Jesus, then and now, to stay salty. Be the kind of people who preserve the good, who add flavor and zest to life, who make life a little purer, who help people draw closer to God, who help keep the road safe for others. Be salt, flavorful and preserving. Be road salt, helping others when the streets of life are dangerous and the way is easily lost.
So what kind of people are salty people? Believe it or not, I think these verses tell us, in their own uniquely wonderful way.
Salty people have a generous spirit. The very first story is fascinating. The disciples are getting bent out of shape because someone who was not a part of their group was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, doing good, bringing healing in Jesus’ name. They tried to stop this person in fact, and Jesus tells them, “whoever is not against us is for us.” Salty people, people of generous spirit, delight when healing happens even when they have not been a part of it. They are pleased when some program succeeds, even if it was someone else’s idea. They pitch in on activities even when their favorite idea was not chosen. They celebrate the good wherever it may be found, even if the Lutherans are doing it. They are able to forgive. Sounds like every church you have ever been a part of, doesn’t it? Maybe we are not as salty, sometimes, as we are invited to be.
Salty people are compassionate people. “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” With those few words, Jesus offers a striking image of the kind of people we are called to be – people who cultivate compassion and care, people who offer small acts of kindness and care – a cup of water, a listening ear, a friendly smile.
Salty people stay connected with others, value the relationships that enhance faith and life. One crucial message of all those difficult words in the middle of these sayings of Jesus is an encouragement to care for others, it is to be road salt along the streets of life for others – helping them keep the faith in the midst of the difficulties and challenges of life. When followers of Jesus are together in community, they ought to be of help to each other.
The other crucial message of these difficult words is an invitation to greater inner awareness. The metaphors are sharp and jarring. If your hand or foot or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better to be missing these parts than to end up in the unquenchable fire. Is Jesus being literal here? I hardly think so, not about cutting off body parts and not about the image of hell. It is all metaphor, disturbing and challenging – and maybe necessary. The inner journey can be difficult. We don’t easily admit that we have those places inside that cause us to lose our saltiness – our flavor, our helpfulness. We sometimes fear what we will find by examining our hearts, minds, souls. In an interview, psychoanalyst Michael Eigen said, “I do think we are more afraid of ourselves than of death” (Conversations, 62). Salty people take the challenge of looking inside, of increasing awareness, and of making changes to keep their saltiness, making changes that keep life from being burned up uselessly.
The invitations to generosity of spirit, to celebrating the good wherever it may be found, to cultivating compassion and caring, to caring for relationships, to inner awareness are challenging invitations. We know that we have refused them sometimes, that we have let the saltiness of our lives lose flavor. But these invitations come to our lives in the context of the grace and love of God. They come from Jesus who is God’s love embodied. The God who invites in us a generous spirit is a God of the generous Spirit – of care, of compassion, of the cold cup of water for our parched lives. We might say that we have a salty God.
That’s the bottom line here – be salt. Let your life add flavor to others and to the world. Let your life be road salt for others, helping them gain traction when they are sliding away.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) struggled against deep-seated white prejudice and racism to found and establish the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a college for African-Americans. One day walking the streets of Tuskegee, Washington passed the mansion of a wealthy woman to whom he was just another black man. She called out to him, “Come here, boy, I need some wood chopped.” Without a word, Washington took off his jacket, picked up an ax and went to work chopping wood. He not only cut a pile of wood but carried it into the house for the woman. He had scarcely left when a servant told the woman, “That was Professor Washington, Ma’am.” Embarrassed, the woman went to the Institute to apologize. Washington replied, “There’s no need for apology, madam. I’m delighted to do favors for my friends.” The woman became one of Tuskegee’s warmest and most generous supporters. (Covey, Everyday Greatness, 345)
That story speaks to me of being a salty person, of staying salty, of being road salt in the world. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Amen.

Everybody is a Star

Sermon preached September 20, 2009

Text: Mark 9:30-37

I loved getting the Scholastic Book Club orders when I was in elementary school. Here is a favorite book of mine from the club from probably the fifth grade: The Greatest in Baseball. Here is another book from that same year, Baseball Stars, though this was not a Scholastic book, it was a promotion through a grocery store, I think, where each week you were able to obtain pictures for each American League team. You might say that in addition to being attracted to baseball, I was also attracted to greatness, to being a star. I am sure I imagined what that would be like to excel in the game of baseball, to have my picture in a book like that, to have a baseball card with my name and picture. The dream didn’t last very long. I wasn’t all that good at the game.
Baseball or not, there may be something in us that desires greatness, that wants to be great, that wants to be important, that wants to stand out, that wants to be a person of distinction. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that we all have this desire and he called it the drum major instinct in one of his famous sermons.
We see such a desire evident in the Gospel of Mark, chapter nine. The disciples are arguing about who was the greatest. They sensed that in following Jesus they were part of a movement that was going to shake things up, change the world, and they wanted to be front and center, and even to stand out among Jesus’s closest followers. The tragic-comic irony in these verses is that Jesus keeps telling them that things are going to get rough, brutal, painful. World-shaping change would come, but only on the other side of sorrow and tragedy. They just didn’t get that.
They also didn’t get the meaning of “greatness,” at least Jesus’ meaning of greatness. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Greatness, Jesus says, comes through compassion, service, caring - - - especially for the least, the move vulnerable, those without status, those unable to return the favor. That’s what children were at that time, vulnerable, without status – and we will discuss that more during Soul Kitchen at 10:45.
If greatness comes through service, through compassion, caring and love, then everyone can be great. Everyone is a star whose light can shine. We kind of like that – and we don’t. If everybody can be great, if everybody is a star, then is anybody really great, really a star? In our human capacity to turn things inside out, and not always for the better, we can even make this definition of greatness competitive. The really great are those who really serve well, who really humble themselves.
On an Ash Wednesday service, a pastor, moved by all that has happened, overwhelmed by a religious feeling, toward the end of the service kneels at the altar rail and prays, “God, before you I am nothing.” Moved by this display, and not to be outdone, the associate pastor goes to the altar rail and prays, “God, before you I am nothing.” Moved by their humility, a man a few rows back from the front of the church gets up and goes to the altar rail. “Before you God, I am nothing.” The pastor, noting this, elbows the associate pastor, and says, “Look who thinks he is nothing!”
When Jesus redefines greatness as service, I don’t think he intends to start off a new kind of competition – who can think the least about themselves most often. Now it might be nice if there were in the world a competition for compassion rather than say, for armaments, but I think Jesus’s words cut even deeper. In a culture deeply concerned for competing for power, prestige, and wealth, which was the culture of the Roman Empire, Jesus offers a profound critique. The deepest measure of our lives, the most thorough-going measure of our greatness has nothing to do with comparing ourselves to others. If caring, compassion, service and love define greatness, then the only comparison worth making is an internal comparison. Am I better today than who I was yesterday? Am I more compassionate, caring, loving, giving, than I was before? That’s the greatness question, and it takes the whole of our lives to answer it.
A long time ago, I knew I would never be great like Babe Ruth. Over the years, I have also discovered that I will not be great in the way a Martin Luther King, Jr, or a Mother Teresa are great. The greatness question for me is not whether I can be more compassionate than the Dalai Lama, but whether I can be a more compassionate David Bard today than I was yesterday, last week, last month, last year – and I don’t mean comparing myself with my son, David.
And that’s the question for you, too. You want to be great? Love, serve, care, be compassionate. Does your greatness need a little competition? Love and serve and care and be compassionate a little more today than you were yesterday. Will anyone see this and call you great? Will anyone else know about your greatness? Maybe not, but God will know, and your heart will know and grow.
A really good sermon might conclude here with a moving story about, humble, gentle quiet service. The stories are worth telling, but this week I am going to let you finish the sermon. This week, be your own sermon illustration by the greatness of your love and compassion and care. Be a star and let your light shine, even if nobody but you and God know. Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Into the Great Wide Open

Sermon preached September 13, 2009

Do you ever read “Dilbert”? Friday’s was a good one. Dilbert’s boss, the blad guy with the pointy hair on the sides, introduces Dilbert to a new employee named Gabe. “Gabe was downsized when his last employer had financial troubles. I was lucky to hire him.” Dilbert responds, “Because they always downsize their best employees first?” Gabe and the boss both look frustrated and Dilbert continues, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to put it in context.”
Putting it in context. That is important, especially when reading the Bible. If we really want to get at some of the meaning of a text, and the meaning of a text for our lives, context matters. Jumping from one text to another in rapid succession, which some “biblical preachers” do, often misses the context of any one of the passages cited.
This morning I want to focus on the words of Jesus in Mark 8, where he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In particular I want to focus on the line about taking up the cross.
It has become commonplace for people to refer to their cross in life as some individual burden, or something for which they suffer. Someone in a dead-end unpleasant job they cannot leave because they need the income to support their family might say that that job is “their cross to bear.” Someone who has a physical ailment might refer to it as their cross to bear. Taking up a cross, then, is seen as an unpleasant reality that one just has to live with, suffer silently with. Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. I don’t think that fits the context.
In Mark 8, Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. Right away, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that his work could end badly – in suffering and death, but that he trusts in resurrection. Now remember the gospels were put together years after Jesus died, and how the stories get told in the gospels is related to the concerns of the emerging Christian community. That Jesus was indeed killed affects how this story is told. Anyway, Mark’s Jesus is making clear to the disciples that this Messiah business may be rough going. Then he goes on to tell them, and to tell the crowd that if any want to follow him, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow. Jesus put the work of discipleship in the context of his own mission, symbolized by the cross.
So what was the cross for Jesus? It was the instrument of his death, yes, but symbolically it is more than that. The cross is a symbol for Jesus’ openness to God and to the world. It is a symbol for his way of living out God’s love in his unique life. Jesus was executed because of what he taught and the healing that came into people’s lives through his teaching and touch. The authorities were afraid that his teaching might lead to rebellion. Jesus’ teaching and healing came out of his openness to God and his desire to let God’s love and grace touch the world through his life.
In this context, I would argue that the invitation to take up one’s cross is an invitation to open life to God and to the world, and an invitation to live out God’s love in our own unique way, which means developing our best selves. The second century Christian theologian Ireneaus wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” (Gerald May, Dark Night of the Soul, 181). To take up our cross is to move toward becoming more open, more alive. It is an invitation into the great wide open.
To take up our cross and follow Jesus is to follow Jesus into the great wide open. A number of Christian writers through the years have testified that this is what discipleship is all about – openness, adventure, possibility, joy, aliveness. The Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard, in a really fun-sounding book The Sickness Unto Death, writes, “For God is that all things are possible, and that all things are possible is God” (in Auden, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, 155). The twentieth-century German theologian and Nazi death camp victim Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about discipleship penned these words: And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy. (The Cost of Discipleship, 41/40). The last phrase can also be translated, “discipleship is joy.” More recently, in his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion, Patrick Henry writes, 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…. 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. (8-9)
To take up your cross is to follow Jesus into the great wide open – into joy, adventure, possibility, imagination, deeper openness to God and world.
But the context of the invitation to take up the cross speaks of denying oneself, of losing life, what about these aspects of taking up a cross? If I am going to talk about context I cannot ignore this. First, please note that the bottom line here is life – finding life, saving life. There is an important and deep truth in these words. Our self is complex. We carry within us all the marks of our experiences from birth, and a bit before birth, to this very moment. Our self is the complex interaction of our genetic inheritance, our family life, our relationships, our memories, our experiences, our desires, our hopes, our fears, our unique capacities and talents, our capacities for growth. Part of being who we are is how we continue to weave and re-weave our past into our present, e.g. when we forgive, we often lessen the hurtful impact of a past event, re-weaving that event into our sense of self. Have I painted a complicated enough picture? Our self is complex, plurality in unity. In Colossians in the New Testament we read, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3), and in that phrase you get another sense of the complexity of the self.
We are complex, parts of ourselves work against our growth, work against our becoming more fully alive. As a recently published book on kindness states, “the ways we protect ourselves tend also to be the ways we imprison ourselves” (On Kindness, Phillips and Taylor, 62-63). When we deny ourselves in taking up our cross it is denying those parts of ourselves that imprison us - - - old hurts held onto too long, old patterns of behavior that no longer serve us as we seek to grow and as we seek deeper more loving relationships. We know from experience that we are capable of sabotaging our own well-being. We know we can be our own worst enemies. To take up our cross and follow Jesus into the great wide open means being willing to leave behind that which closes us off instead of opening us up, that which imprisons instead of frees, that which poisons love rather than fostering it.
One last note about taking up our cross. We have often associated taking up our cross with suffering of some kind. Certainly the cross was painful for Jesus. While I have argued that suffering is not the primary characteristic of taking up our cross, I think it is a part of it. Greater openness to life means greater openness to the hurt and pain of the world, means greater openness to suffering. A man named Michael Eigen has written, “one cannot experience without suffering” (Feeling Matters, 2) and I think he is on to something. When we love, we open ourselves to the hurt of others, and to the possibility of being hurt by others. When we become parents we open ourselves to the suffering that comes from disappointing our children and being disappointed by them. While we want to deny those parts of ourselves that are less-than life-giving, there can be suffering in such self-denial, even if it is a long-run benefit. On a wider scale, openness to life is willing to be open to the suffering of the world which is enormous – hunger, injustice, brutality, oppression, terror all affect us at some level when we open ourselves more radically to God, to others, to the world and we seek to live God’s love in our own unique way.
The way of the cross is not always easy then. The great wide open can be a scary place, but it is the way of life. It is the way to enhance life. Jesus, in inviting us to take up our cross, invites us to adventure, joy, possibility, compassion, caring, imagination. Often people think of the image of taking up our cross as if we were blowing up a balloon into an enclosed space (demonstrate). I believe taking up our cross is allowing our lives to be filled with the breath of God so we can float into the great wide open.
Michael Eigen writes, “there are so many ways to light up the world” (The Electrified Tightrope, 276). God in Jesus Christ invites you to take up your cross, invites you into the great wide open to know life and to light up the world as only you can. Will you say “yes”? Amen.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Offensive Words

Sermon preached September 6, 2009

Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-7; Mark 7:24-30

Memory is fascinating. Why is it we remember some things and not others? Why do we remember so many seemingly odd details from years ago?
When I was a kid, my family owned one of those cabinet stereos, and my dad had someone wire speakers into our basement. I am sure he did not do that himself, given his own shortcomings as a handyman. But my parents liked to entertain and when they did they would sometimes put a stack of records on that stereo – I think it held up to ten records – and let them play through. One group my parents liked to listen to was a folk group from the early 1960s called The Kingston Trio. They had a lot of good songs, among them a song called “Greenback Dollar,” which had a rather daring chorus. And I don’t give a damn about a greenback dollar/Spend it fast as I can/For a wailing song and a good guitar/The only things that I understand, oh boy, the only things I understand. I guess that’s memorable enough, but I also remember listening to KDAL radio one afternoon, at a time when KDAL still played music, and there it was – The Kingston Trio “Greenback Dollar.” Except when the chorus came on, there was a guitar strumming over one word – and I don’t give a strum bout a greenback dollar. Radio stations apparently wouldn’t play the song in its original form. The word strummed over was considered offensive.
Last week, with the death of Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, another memory came back to me, again from something I heard on the radio. There was a time in my life when I tuned into Jimmy Swaggart and I remember listening to a broadcast where he was talking about liquor and its evils. It had never touched his lips, he said, but if it tasted anything like it smelled, he thought it must be awful. Then he began to talk about the Kennedy family, and how they made their money on alcohol and he speculated that maybe there was some kind of curse on that family because of their link to liquor, a curse that included the deaths of John and Bobby, and the reckless behavior of Ted at Chappaquiddick. I think it was the last time I listened to Jimmy Swaggart. I found that theory offensive.
As long as I am recounting memories having to do with offensive words, I retain the foggiest memory of George Carlin’s comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” – but I retain enough of a memory to know that I cannot share any of those words here.
Offensive words. The poet Carl Sandburg was once asked what the most offensive word in the English language was. He said, “exclusive.” What an odd thing to say. Don’t you like getting things in the mail that tell you you are the recipient of an “exclusive offer”? When a baseball player hits over 500 home runs, he is said to be part of an “exclusive club.” Sounds kind of nice to me. Why would someone say that exclusive is the most offensive word in the English language? An exclusive club when one refers to an achievement seems honorable, but try thinking of belonging to an exclusive club when that means no Jewish people, no Catholic people, no black people, no American Indian people, no women (and it is not so long ago in our history that such clubs existed widely) – and try imagining the feeling of being one excluded. However foggy our memories, my guess is that we can all remember times when we were excluded from something, and it felt pretty bad. Maybe Sandburg was on to something.
If our Scripture texts are any indication, the God of the Bible might agree with Sandburg. Three texts, taken from three very different parts of the Bible, all move in the direction of greater inclusion and away from exclusion. In Proverbs we are reminded that rich or poor, God is our Creator. Because of our common humanity in God, we are to treat the poor with generosity, we are to be careful not to crush or afflict those in poverty.
James, too, is concerned with the way the poor might be treated, and with favoritism toward the well-off. Partiality and favoritism have no place in God’s ordering of things. James is writing to the early Christian community, warning them of this tendency in their common life.
We then have the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, a disturbing and wonderful story, a wonderfully disturbing story. Jesus is on the road and is getting quite far from his home base. He travels to the region of Tyre, a predominantly Gentile area extending to the Mediterranean Sea. He is tired, weary, in need of rest – ever been there? He would like to remain anonymous, but that doesn’t last long. A woman, a “clever and determined foreign woman” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) - Syrophoenecian, a non-Jew – comes to Jesus and asks for help for her daughter. Calling her a “dog” would have been quite derogatory, a slam against her religion, culture and ethnic background. Jesus’ response is troubling. Is he that tired? Is he trying to be clever? We don’t know. What we do know is that the woman is very clever - she takes Jesus’ own words and turns them in a different direction, opening up the possibility of healing – and healing happens. Is Jesus surprised by, amazed at the breadth of God’s inclusivity? The story should leave us amazed at God’s inclusivity.
The God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, is a God who seems always interested in expanding the circle of inclusivity, expanding the circle of people who we should care about, even if sometimes our caring can be little more than sympathetic awareness of their plight. God is ever inspiring us to include in our circle of caring the poor, those whose backgrounds differ from our – whether that difference be race or class or religion. God is ever inspiring us to welcome the stranger, to extend healing beyond our familiar and comfortable categories. All are a part of God’s dream for the world. All have a place in the beloved community.
My guess is that few struggle with this notion in the abstract. We understand that the God of Jesus Christ is a God who invites us, challenges us to reach across boundaries, who invites us, challenges us to break down barriers, who invites us, challenges us to work toward more inclusive communities in our world and to see the human community, at some level, as itself an inclusive community.
Where things get more difficult is when we begin to ask questions about specific barriers in our world, and perhaps one of the more puzzling barriers we confront is that barrier dealing with human sexuality, with sexual orientation and gender identity. Why are so many churches struggling with these issues when they are often difficult and uncomfortable to discuss – GLBT issues? Can’t we just sort of welcome folks and be quiet about it all - - - keep talking about the beloved and inclusive community without getting so specific?
Part of the reason we discuss GLBT inclusion issues is that our understandings of human identity have grown, developed, changed. Abraham Maslow is one of my favorite writers, and a familiar figure to many who took psychology courses in high school or college. Maslow died in 1970 at the age of 62. In 1959 he wrote an essay on the shortcomings of perceiving the world in only an appreciative way, and in that essay said one shortcoming was that people who excelled at perceiving everything appreciatively and seeing the beauty in most everything might, inadvertently, seem to approve of behavior that really out not to be approved, for example, Maslow writes, “homosexuality or crime or irresponsibility” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 123). Sexual orientation is lumped together with criminality and irresponsibility. Yet as we have come to know GLBT people we know they are no more criminal than the rest of the population, nor more irresponsible. Science no longer lumps homosexuality with criminality and irresponsibility. Our understandings have developed. With that comes the responsibility of the church to grapple in new ways with the meaning of faith. When science discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, Christian faith had to think about itself anew. When science discovered that the earth is more than 6,000 years old, Christian faith had to think about itself anew. So now we need to ask what inclusion means as our understandings of orientation and identity are developing.
More importantly, much more importantly, the church needs to grapple with GLBT issues and inclusivity because there are some who, in the name of Christian faith are willing to speak the most offensive things about GLBT persons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination recently changed its policy on who could be clergy, allowing for persons in committed, monogomous same-gendered relationships to be pastors in good standing, allowing, then, congregations to call them. Wednesday’s Duluth NewsTribune had editorials by the ELCA bishop of the Northeast Minnesota Synod and by the pastor of the local Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The former made the case that the ELCA also committed itself to “bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound conscience of all.” The WELS pastor declared that “ELCA leaders lack the ability to defend and back their stance with God’s word because they have discarded the belief that it is truthful and authoritative.” Furthermore, he says, “Satan has won yet another battle with false doctrine in a very visible church.” So some in the church tell us that if we believe God’s inclusive community includes GLBT people as GLBT people we have abandoned the Bible and have given in to Satan.
Pretty harsh, but that is nothing compared to the words of the pastor at Faith Word Baptist Church in Phoenix, Steven Anderson. The same God who instituted the death penalty for murderers is the same God who instituted the death penalty for rapists and for homosexuals, sodomites and queers! That’s what it was instituted for. That’s God, he hasn’t changed…. His only solution to the problem of homosexuality was to pour out literal Hellfire and destroy the city as an example of what he thinks about sodomy…. We need a revival of old-fashioned righteous indignation and hatred for sin and perverts.
Now those are offensive words, and maybe Sandburg was right, they are deeply offensive because they represent the ultimate in exclusion, excluding people from the human community. That these words are spoken in the name of Jesus Christ pains me deeply and gives me reason to say we need to struggle with what it means to be inclusive.
As a congregation we have taken a stand. We have said that all means all, that God’s love is extended to all persons and that this love breaks down barriers – of race, of origin, of economic circumstance, of background, and yes, of sexual orientation. We proclaim that God’s inclusive community includes GLBT people. Do we condone everything that happens in the name of GLBT freedom – no. Nor do we condone everything that heterosexuals do. We welcome and accept people as we believe God made them. We believe all people have room for growth in faith, hope and love and we desire to be the kind of inclusive community that offers such help to all. We also welcome and accept people whose opinion on this issue is still in question, who are engaged in honest struggle with these issues.
I remember Carl Sandburg from high school, not the quote about exclusion, but some of his poetry. Chicago: Hog Butcher for the World,/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;/Stormy, husky, brawling,/City of the Big Shoulders:. Another poet I learned about at the same time was Robert Frost, and one of his poems begins: Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Maybe that something is God’s Spirit, that is, when that wall is in our human hearts. Amen

Friday, September 4, 2009

Life on the Strip

Sermon preached August 30, 2009

Texts: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There were two old bills having a conversation. One was a $100 dollar bill and the other was a $1 dollar bill. The $100 dollar bill said, "I've lived a good life. I've been to the amusement park, the theater, the zoo and baseball games."
"Wow," said the $1 dollar bill. "You sure have had a good life."
"Where have you been?" asked the $100 dollar bill.
"Oh, I've been to a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a Lutheran church and an Episcopal church."
The $100 bill said, "What's a church?"
What’s a Christian? What does it mean to be a Christian? Here is one definition. A Christian is one for whom Jesus Christ plays the definitive role in life. In one way or another the man of Nazareth determines one’s identity, helps to define what it means to be human, and offers the assurance of a source of eternal love available to each human being. (George Ricker, What You Don’t Have To Believe to Be a Christian, ix). For this person, being Christian seems to have a lot to do with what goes on inside a person, especially inside her head. But then I read the story of Douglas John Hall, a Canadian theologian who shares some of his story of growing up. He grew up in a small town of about 300, entirely Protestant, where almost everyone went to church – they were “Anglo-Saxon Christians” (5). But Hall does not think the Christian faith he encountered there would have carried him through to his adult life. “The truth is, the leading lights of my Christian village were, with exceptions, not very admirable people…. Too many of our village saints were moralistic, self-righteous, unforgiving human beings. It was not pleasant to be with them.” (Why Christian?, 6) Hall had to discover a different kind of Christianity, one that made a difference to how one lived. For him, Christian faith has something to do with how we act, has something to do with acting to change behavior and change our world.
So which is it? Is being Christian something about what we think, or maybe feel? Is it a change of heart and mind? Or is being Christian about acting in certain ways, including acting in ways that change the world? The great religious teacher, Huston Smith, thinks that somehow it is both. What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel and affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you can consider yourself a Christian. (Huston Smith, Tales of Wonder, 109)
Is being Christian about an on-going change of heart, mind and soul? Is being Christian about changing our actions and changing the world? Yes, to both. That’s the message of our Scriptures taken together this morning. In Mark, Jesus takes some of the religious people of his day and time to task for focusing on the outward behavior of their faith – washing hands, washing dishes, not eating certain things. What matters, Jesus says, is the human heart, what is within that then comes out of us in our action. The writer of James looks at things from a different angle. “Be doers of the word,” he writes, “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” What matters is changing our behavior, and changing the world so that it cares for the least fortunate, those in distress.
To be Christian is not to decide between focusing on inner change or changing the world - - - there is no decision to be made. To be Christian is both. Unfortunately, in the history of Christianity, churches have tended to focus only on one or the other. Some group of churches tended to focus on salvation of the soul, being born again, having a new heart, while others focused on doing justice, acting kindly, feeding the hungry, clothing and sheltering those in need. But being Christian is not one or the other. It is both/and. The theologian and Biblical scholar Marcus Borg puts it simply and succinctly when he says that there are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life” (103), that the Christian life “is about being born again and the Kingdom of God (The Heart of Christianity, 126). To be Christian is to be open to the Spirit of God in Jesus so that the Spirit transforms us within and moves us to transform the world.
There is an image that captures this inner/outer transformation well – the mobius strip. Parker Palmer calls this a Quaker PowerPoint! It is an interesting image and model. Geometrically, the mobius strip has some fascinating properties, but this is not geometry so I will skip over most of those. Here is a property of not - if an ant were to crawl along the length of this strip, it would return to its starting point having traversed both sides of the strip, yet never crossing an edge. The mobius strip unites inner and outer. Parker Palmer writes: The mechanics of the Mobius strip are mysterious, but its message is clear: whatever is inside us continually flows outward to help form, or deform, the world – and whatever is outside us continually flows inward to help form, or deform, our lives. (A Hidden Wholeness, 47). Being a Christian is to live life on the strip. It is to deepen the connection between the inner (heart, mind, soul) and the outer (work to change the world) and to open the whole of our lives – our attitudes, affections and actions to the transforming work of the Spirit of God we know in Jesus.
Both our inner lives and our outer actions need transforming. The case that the world needs changing is easy to make – there is poverty, there is violence, there is hunger, there is injustice and oppression, there are places in the world where expressing an opinion can get you jailed, there is torture, there is war. Every night the evening news makes the case for the need to transform the world, and as Christians we believe God care about those in distress. We read it in James. We see it in Jesus.
The case for transforming the world can be so compelling that we may find any discussion of inner transformation narcissistic, unnecessary navel-gazing, inappropriate self-preoccupation. But there is wisdom in the Mobius strip which sees the deep connection between inner and outer. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist many of us encountered along the way in our education, argues consistently for the interrelationship of the inner and outer, the psyche and the social. Ultimately the best “helper” is the “good person.” So often the sick or inadequate person trying to help, does harm instead. (Toward a Psychology of Being, iii) Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen takes the point even further, “social reform is not enough without working with the human psyche that informs the ways we govern ourselves” (Feeling Matters, 154). So if the person whose heart, mind, soul are bent out of shape often does harm, has the balance tipped the other way, to focusing first and foremost on our inner life? No. Maslow himself notes: the best way to become a better “helper” is to become a better person. But one necessary aspect of becoming a better person is via helping other people. (Religion, Values and Peak-Experiences, xii) We focus on the human heart. We focus on being doers of the word. Being a Christian is to live life on the strip. It is to deepen the connection between the inner (heart, mind, soul) and the outer (work to change the world) and to open the whole of our lives – our attitudes, affections and actions to the transforming work of the Spirit of God we know in Jesus.
Transformation happens along the Mobius strip from outside in, and from inside out - - - both/and. The traditional soul-shaping disciplines of Christian faith: common worship, shared and individual Scripture reading, prayer – with others and by oneself, contemplation, holy conversation, compassionate action were intended to shape persons from outside in. They are ways God’s Spirit works on us and in us. But there is no single formula for combining these practices, and if the practices are not shaping our lives in the way we are currently engaging them, we should change our practices. Augustine, in On Christian Doctrine, argues that a person “supported by faith, hope, and love, with an unshaken hold upon them, does not need the Scriptures except for the instruction of others” (Book One, 39.43 – p. 32). That’s a remarkable statement! If our practices are not changing us, creating in us faith, hope and love, or joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice, then we should consider changing our practice.
On the other hand, if our perceived inner transformation is not demonstrating itself in action to care for others and to create justice, then we need to ask how deep that transformation is. A contemporary theologian has written that “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind” (Robert Neville, Symbols of Jesus, xviii). That sounds like inner work, but he goes on to say that we know something of the minimum requirements of kindness - - - being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. What this writer is saying is that we cannot authentically claim to be kind inside unless this kindness is transforming the world in some of these ways.
This transformative journey, this life on the strip is what Christian faith is about. It is what the church is about. Transformation is our bottom line. In The United Methodist Church we say that the mission of the church, the very reason the church exists is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Life on the strip – inner and outer change, both/and! We have some changes coming this fall. We will worship at 9:30. We are adding something called “Soul Kitchen” to our adult education opportunities. Some are pleased that we will have one worship service. Some are not. Some like one service, but don’t like the time. While your views matter, these changes were made not to please or displease, but in hopes that the transformative work of God’s Spirit would be more powerful here. There is risk involved. I ask for your courage as we make these changes. I ask for patience. I ask for humility. I pray for all these for my own life. And if these changes don’t help us in our work of making disciples, which includes inviting new people to the adventure of Christian faith, and transforming the world, we will make more changes. We are out to see the human heart, mind and soul reshaped. We seek to be doers of the word.
Two stories – like our Scriptures, both needed.
Two brothers, one married and one unmarried shared a farm whose fertile soil produced and abundance of grain. Half the grain went to each brother. It was a good life for each. Yet every now and again the married brother would wake in the night and think to himself, “This isn’t fair. My brother isn’t married, he’s all alone, yet he gets only half the produce of the farm. Here I am with a lovely wife and five children, so I have companionship and security for my old age. Who will care for my brother when he gets old? He needs to save more than me. His need is greater than mine.” When such nights came, the married brother would get up in the dark of night, sneak over to his brother’s granary, and pour in a sack full or two of grain.
The bachelor brother, though, would also have nights when he would awaken. “This isn’t fair. My brother has a wife and five children to care for, and he gets only half the produce. I have only myself to support. Is it just that my brother, whose need is obviously greater than mine, should receive no more than me?” When these nights came the unmarried brother would get up in the dark of night, sneak over to his brother’s granary, and pour in a sack full or two of grain.
One night, the brothers met each other crossing the field with grain for the other. They laughed. They embraced. Many years later, after both brothers had died, the story leaked out. When the nearby townsfolk wanted to build a new church, they could think of no better spot in all the world on which to build it, no spot holier. (de Millo, Taking Flight, 60-61)
Dov Ber was an uncommon man. When people came into his presence, they trembled. He was a Talmudic scholar of repute, inflexible, uncompromising in his doctrine. He took life seriously, never laughed. He believe firmly in the spiritual value of austere disciplines, even when they were painful. Unfortunately, his ascetic ways got the better of him. He fell seriously ill and there was nothing the doctors could do to cure him. Someone suggested he seek the help of the Hasidic rabbi, Baal Shem Tov.
Dov Ber agreed, though reluctantly. He disapproved of Baal Shem, considering him something of a heretic. And while Dov Ber believed life was only made meaningful by discipline and suffering, Baal Shem sought to alleviate pain and openly preached that it was the spirit of rejoicing that gave meaning to life.
It was after midnight when Baal Shem arrived. He walked into Dov Ber’s room and handed him the Book of Splendor, which Dov Ber opened and began to read aloud. He had barely begun reading when Baal Shem Tov interrupted. “Something is missing. Something is lacking in your faith?” “What is that?” the sick man asked. “Soul.” (de Millo, Taking Flight, 57-58)
That’s Christian life and faith, life on the strip, kindness in action, life with heart and soul. May it be our lives. Amen.

Escher, Mobius Strip