Monday, November 30, 2009

The End of the World As We Know It

Sermon preached November 29, 2009

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

This morning I am going to begin with cartoon strips from this week’s newspaper. First, two from Peanuts. Charile Brown is walking along talking to himself. Sometimes, when you walk by the home of the girl you love, you can see her standing by the window… She waves at you and you wave back, but it’s her grandmother. Later in the week, Charlie is talking to his younger sister, Sally. She asks, “What’s this about waving at somebody?” Charlie: “Every day when I walk past the little red-haired girl’s house, her grandmother and I wave at each other.” Sally: “That’s weird.” Charlie: “No, it’s kind of nice.” Sally: “I waved at a kid on the playground today, and he threw a snowball at me!” Life’s little disappointments – waving at your girlfriend, only to discover it’s her grandmother, waving and getting a snowball in return.
Life’s little disappointments found their way into two of Tuesday’s cartoons. Close to Home showed a wife looking at a card, and then saying to her chagrinned husband: “Oh, isn’t that sweet! My dentist sent me a birthday card! The only person in the whole world who remembered!” Oops! Then there was Non Sequitur. The cartoon was captioned: “How Marketing Works.” It showed a man looking at a display in a store. He was thinking, “Hmmm… Maybe this will relieve the feeling of inadequacy that I didn’t have until just now” and the sign read: “For Real Men Only… BALD DUDE SHAMPOO!”
Life has its little disappointments. It also has bigger disappointments and hurts, losses and griefs. Even with these, most of us would not want to dramatically change the world as we know it. Some changes, yes, but most of them would leave much of the world intact.
Last month during one of the number of meetings I attended out of town, I overheard a United Methodist bishop talking with a lay woman about apocalyptic literature in the Bible, literature depicting cataclysmic change. What he said was that we have trouble relating to that literature because we are relatively happy with the way the world is. I have wondered about and pondered that statement since – and it came back to me as I read the Scripture for this week from Luke. It is apocalyptic – There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Apocalyptic literature is about change, dramatic change, earth-shaking, earth-rattling change. Apocalyptic literature sings out – “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Heaven and earth will pass away. The end will be jarring, cataclysmic.
But I agree with the Bishop, we have a difficult time relating to this literature. Yet it arrives every Advent season in the church, so I want to suggest that this literature is deeply relevant to our lives. This literature wants to say three important things to us:
1. The world is out of whack, off kilter, more than we imagine, more than we want to imagine.
2. We are invited to have a certain restlessness in our lives in the face of what is wrong with the world, seeds of divine discontent.
3. In spite of the darkness and difficulty, there is always hope, for God is always at work. If the days are coming when heaven and earth will pass away and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, then these days will also bring with them the promise of God for justice and righteousness, as Jeremiah indicates.
I think the basic message of Luke 21 and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible is this: open up - - - open your eyes to see more of the world, open your hearts to feel more deeply, open your arms to work for change.
We need to open our eyes to see that the world we live in has some deep, dark sides to it. While we may be relatively content to live in this world, there are realities that cry out for dramatic change.
We cannot ignore the depth of human inhumanity. All we need do is pick up the newspaper, or turn on our computers and we hear stories of rape, murder, torture in the world, stories about abused and neglected children, about child soldiers in Africa, about the selling of human beings into slavery – mostly for purposes of prostitution. In the recent history of humanity have Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s five-year plans, Mao’s cultural revolution, and Cambodia’s killing fields. The word “genocide” is less than 100 years old, coined in the 1930s, though the reality of killing groups of people based on their identity is certainly as old as organized human community. But it was not until then that we coined the term – what does that say about human progress?
We need to open our eyes to our use of the earth’s resources. Can we sustain the economic models which sustain our lives without doing serious and significant long-term damage to the planet? Is the cost of our highly mobile society the depletion and even the death of the planet? I listen to some futurists discuss a more wireless future, communication systems that rely on sensors everywhere, more information immediately available than we can process, but where will the energy for this come from? This week I read in The New York Times Book Review a review of a new book on Google, interesting subtitled – “the end of the world as we know it.” Popular title I guess! Anyway, towards the end of the review the author noted that Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin now “fly around in a customized Boeing 747 and talk sincerely about green computing, even as the free streaming of everyone’s home video clips on YouTube burn through mountaintops of coal.” Is that sustainable?
We need to open our eyes to the realities of wealth and poverty in our world. The Bible and Christian faith are not anti-wealth. The Bible and Christian faith are concerned for the poor, and create in us an uneasiness about a world where some are remarkably, fabulously wealthy, and many, too many are mired in grinding poverty. In his book Enough, John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Mutual fund Group, tells the story about Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, both authors, attending a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. The host is a hedge fund manager, and Vonnegut says to Heller that this man had made more money in a single day than Heller had ever earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22. Heller responds to Vonnegut, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.” (1) Bogle goes on to write: the rampant greed that threatens to overwhelm our financial system and corporate world runs deeper than money. Not knowing what “enough” is subverts our professional values (2). We live in a world where too many don’t have enough and some don’t understand the word “enough.”
The things that are off kilter are not just out there – they are also in here, inside each of us. Inner change is also important in our lives, often small and quiet, sometimes dramatic and far-reaching. We need to open our eyes to our need for change and to the difficulty of some of the change needed inside. I appreciate these words of Ernest Becker about inner change which can involve the going through the hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where one throws off the lendings of culture, the costumes that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as oneself (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 146). Sounds a little dramatic, perhaps, but when patterns of self-destructiveness are deeply ingrained in one’s life, or patterns of relating that cause hurt to others and deeply woven into one’s life, deep change is needed, and it is challenging.
Apocalyptic literature reminds us that there are aspects to our world that need dramatic change, that the world as we know it may need to end in significant ways for a new world to be born. It plants in us a certain restlessness, a certain divine discontent with the way the world is, with the way our lives are. This literature in our Bible invites us to open our eyes to see the world more truthfully. It also invites us to open our hearts to hope, for we trust that God remains at work to build a newer world. It invites us to open our arms to work with God for that newer world.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a deeper openness to the world in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. It is actually difficult to edit life. Especially in regard to feelings. Not being open to anger or sadness usually means being unable to be open to love and joy (203). She goes on to tell the story of a woman in her early sixties who Dr. Remen was treating for ovarian cancer. This woman had led an extraordinary life, at one time taking her children out of school to travel with them around the world. Remen called her a “Zorba the Greek kind of woman.” The treatment experience was tremendously difficult. The woman told Dr. Remen, “At the start, I saw myself at the top of a ski run. It was a hellacious run. What I didn’t realize was that I would have to make it on my knees.” (204) Throughout the experience, the woman listened to what she called her “chemotherapy music.” About a year after her treatment, the woman threw a party for the people who had helped her with her healing. She spoke about her pain and loss, her feelings of hopelessness and despair. She thanked those who had helped her through, and she shared with those gathered her chemotherapy music. Here is Dr. Remen’s description of what happened. After a few seconds of silence a voice filled with emotion shouted out, “Praise God, brothers and sisters!” and a blast of gospel music rocked the room. There was a moment of shock. Then a hundred people – friends and neighbors, sons, daughters, beauticians, lovers, grocery delivery boys and taxi drivers, masseuses and yoga teachers, nurses, cooks and house cleaners – began to dance. We danced for a long time. It was one of the great life celebrations I have ever experienced (205).
Open up, that is what apocalyptic literature like Luke 21 invites us to, asks us to do. Open our eyes to the world in all its pain and ugliness and beauty and wonder, to those places that need dramatic change and those that are already embodying God’s dream for the world. Open our hearts to hope, for God continues to work in our world. Open our arms to work for that newer world. Sometimes the end of the world as we know it is a good thing, for it is part of a new creation. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Just Can't Wait to Be King

Sermon preached November 22, 2009

Texts: John 18:33-37

Children’s Sermon
I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware

Lion: The Wizard of Oz
If I were King of the Forest, Not queen, not duke, not prince.
My regal robes of the forest, would be satin, not cotton, not chintz.
I'd command each thing, be it fish or fowl.
With a woof and a woof and a royal growl - woof.
As I'd click my heel, all the trees would kneel.
And the mountains bow and the bulls kowtow.
And the sparrow would take wing - If I - If I - were King!
Each rabbit would show respect to me. The chipmunks genuflect to me.
Though my tail would lash, I would show compash
For every underling!
If I - If I - were King!
Just King!
Monarch of all I survey -- Mo--na-a-a--a-arch Of all I survey

The King and I
The king is pleased…

He’s pleased with me
My lord and master
He’s pleased with me

I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
I’m gonna be a mighty king
So enemies beward…

No one saying do this
No one saying be there
No one saying stop that…
Free to do it all my way

So that’s what being a king is all about, at least as it is defined in popular culture – free to do whatever one likes, being the recipient of scraping and bowing, wealth and power. In this instances, we might trust these particular kings – the Lion, Yul Brennar, Simba. But history is filled with examples of “kings” who exercised their power more ruthlessly.
By a wonderful coincidence, this past week our confirmation class read and discussed the story of Moses, and you cannot talk about Moses without talking about Egypt and Pharaoh. The Pharaoh in Egypt came to be considered a god in a society that was deeply religious. One person described the rule of Pharaoh this way: “justice is what Pharaoh loves, evil is what Pharaoh hates” (Roberts, A History of the World, 68). And Pharaoh used that power to punish enemies, to send soldiers off to way, to enslave others, to keep himself wealthy. But isn’t that what it means to be king – no one saying do this, no one saying be there, no one saying stop that… free to do it all your way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be king?
There is such a king in today’s gospel reading, at least in the background. That king would have been the emperor of Rome. His representative in the story is Pilate. But there is another figure in the story who is also labeled a king, but he seems a strange figure for a king, doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.
Pilate, questioning Jesus about why he is in trouble, asks about his claim to being a king. Jesus responds: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Cryptic, elusive, mysterious. Pilate: “So you are a king?” Jesus: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
This final Sunday before the beginning of the Advent season in the Christian Church is known as “Christ the King Sunday.” We call Jesus “King.” Especially in Revelation that gets translated as Jesus being a better king than the kings of the world who rule unjustly and often murderously. Jesus is portrayed as a just king. In other places he is portrayed as a good and kind, as well as a just king. I suggest to you today that this new kind of king idea does not do justice to today’s story. It is not radical enough. Rather, I think we can only call Jesus Christ “king” if we understand that he shatters the idea of kingship. Jesus is king not in order to rule, but in order to reveal. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus wants to reveal the truth about our lives, about our world - - - the messy, complicated, wildly rich, sometimes ugly, always beautiful, truth about our lives and the world.
Jesus is a king after Emily Dickinson’s heart. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1129) she writes. The rich, varied, complicated truth about our lives needs to be told slant, offered in various ways, because it is sometimes a difficult truth, and Jesus tells it with power.
Jesus is a king after the heart of psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who in one of a series of talks given on the BBC, and later published, said, “the dictator… wields power through offering a life free from doubt. How dull!” (The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 204) Kings define reality for their subjects. Justice is what Pharaoh loves, evil what Pharaoh hates. Jesus is a king whose truth-telling can lead to doubt before it settles down again. The truth about our lives surprises us sometimes, and following that truth about our lives and the world is never dull.
For the writer of The Gospel According to John, truth is what frees us (“you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” 8:32); and truth and freedom are qualities of abundant life. The same Jesus who tells Pilate “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” also says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). To claim Jesus as king, to proclaim him as king is not to bow down but to open up, open up to truth, to life, to love.
This past Thursday I was at a workshop at St. Mary’s Hospital. It was the fifth event in what the hospital calls the “Spiritual Companion Series.” Linda Wiig and Linda Peterson were also there. The topic was “Voices of Suffering in the Psalms,” but the presenter, Dr. Frederick Gaiser, went in many directions, including sharing with us some ideas of the kinds of truths about our lives that Jesus reveals. To acknowledge Jesus as king is to open ourselves to these truths about our lives and our world.
The world is worse than it has to be. We bemoan natural disasters – floods, fires, hurricanes, treacherous winter storms. They seem just a part of the way the world is. But the world is worse than that. Humanity compounds the hurts and horrors of the world. Crops are destroyed by natural forces, but then the human community exacerbates the problems through inequitable distribution, or by the refusal of a totalitarian government to allow aid to be given. Floods destroy homes, but human beings continue to build in flood plains, or divert rivers making the possibility for flooding worse. Beyond that, there are disasters in the world which are solely the product of human imagination and ingenuity: technologies of torture, weapons of mass destructions, cruelties inflicted one person on another. The world is worse than it has to be, and we find ourselves participating in some of the harm and cruelty. In the series of BBC talks already mentioned, D. W. Winnicott also said, “however much we try to see evil, beastliness, and bad influence as something outside ourselves, or impinging on us from without, in the end we find that whatever things people do and whatever influences actuate them, these are in human nature itself, in fact, in ourselves” (The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 199).
Another truth about our lives and world that comes from Jesus and that I heard articulated on Thursday was this: the birds sing more than Darwinism requires. Yes, the world is worse than it has to be, and we are sometimes a part of that. The world is also more wonderful, more beautiful, more full of grace and joy and delight than we often imagine. In one of her poems, Denise Levertov writes of being tired and hungry late in the day, but feeling the need to wander outside in search of something to quell the emptiness inside, something that will reconnect her to God and world. She walks and waits and listens, nothing touches her soul deeply, but just as she is about to go inside, she turns once more to the north. (“A Reward”)

And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just off shore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you asked
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

The truth is that the birds sing more than Darwinism requires. There is beauty in the world wholly gratuitous.
One final truth about our lives and the world which comes through Jesus is that there is a love in the world which does not end, which cannot be defeated by even the most powerful empires. Jesus is king not because he wields royal power, but because his life was animated by the love that cannot be defeated in the end, his life incarnated a love which will not die, a love which challenges all the harms and injustices of the world, a love which continues to inspire a restlessness in us to make the world a better place.
How there is beauty and ugliness in our lives and in the world, tendencies toward cruelty and hatred and well as energies for goodness and love – this is all rich and mysterious and complex. Jesus as king shines a light into our lives. Jesus as king gives us power to work with the love inside and resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Jesus as king reveals more than rules, and to proclaim Jesus as king is to open up to truth, to freedom, to life, to love.
A man walks in the forest and spies a fox that has lost its legs and wondered how it could live. Then he saw a tiger come in with game in its mouth. The tiger had its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox. The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need.” He did this for many days but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Follow the example of the tiger and stop imitating the damaged fox.”(Soul Food, 54)
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus is a king who reveals more than rules, reveals the truth of our lives so we might live more freely, more fully, more lovingly. To claim and proclaim Jesus as king is to open up to truth, to freedom, to life, to love. It is to open up to the truth that sometimes we want to be the damaged fox, denying our power, when God has given us the strength and energy to be the tiger. It is to open up to the truth that sometimes we are the damaged fox in need of help from others, though we are afraid to admit it. It is to open up to the truth that there is a love in the world which never dies, which persistently and patiently works in our lives and in the world, and to seek to live in that love is to work for the only kind of kingdom that is of interest to Jesus the king. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Feelings Oh Feelings

Sermon preached November 15, 2009

Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20; I Samuel 2:1-10

For the second week in a row, the American poet Emily Dickinson gets the first word in the sermon:
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of Air - am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue -

The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church – and you are wondering how I am going to tie this in with Emily Dickinson, aren’t you? The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church, that is, we do not have specific creedal statements that we say everyone must agree with in order to be United Methodist. We are not indifferent toward what people believe, and we have creeds, ancient and more modern in our worship resources, but we are not a creedal church. And for this congregation, we do not make use, very often, of the creeds of the church. Within my first year here I tossed out the idea to a few people about doing a sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed – the excitement level was such that I soon scrapped that plan!
But if we were to use creeds more often, there is one I recall from my seminary days that particularly grabbed my attention. I won’t share the whole thing with you, only the last two sections. It was composed by a woman named Barbara Troxell, a United Methodist.
We believe our believing affects our daily walking and talking, our doubting and struggling, our decisions and our choice-making, our responses to persons and systems. We intend in this community in these days to raise questions hopefully, to work for justice lovingly, to grow in understanding the ways of God, to share a ministry faithfully, and by God’s grace, passionately!

I think I was so struck by this creed because it ended with the word “passionately.” It was not a word I was used to in the church. Passion – I taste a liquor never brewed!
Passion, feelings – that’s what this sermon is about. As I was thinking about the sermon for today, I couldn’t help but recall some of the songs in the iPod in my brain (I am old enough to use the image, “jukebox” in my brain, but some might not even know what that is) that make reference to feelings: “Hooked on a Feeling;” “I Feel the Earth Move;” “Do You Feel Like We Do?” “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me;” ‘I Feel Fine;” or just “Feelings.” All these feeling songs seem testimony to the words of Michael Eigen: “Feelings matter. Feeling matters.” (Feeling Matters, 152) The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “God gave us so many emotions and such strong ones. Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions” (quoted in Michael Eigen, Flames from the Unconscious, 30)
Feeling is important to who we are. We are rich in feeling, yet many of us are suspicious of feeling, concerned particularly with the combination of feeling and religion. We hear stories like the following and wonder about the potentially poisonous combination of faith and feeling. A judge in Stuart, FL was about to sentence pastor Rodney McGill for real estate fraud, but McGill was undaunted, addressing a courtroom prayer for enemies: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, for every witness against me, I pray cancer in their lives, lupus, brain tumor, pancreatic cancer.” The judge then sentenced him to 20 years in prison. (Funny Times, December 2009, 15).
Outside of religion, there is a lot about feeling that should give us pause. I am in the middle of Wally Lamb’s novel The Hour I First Believed, which I am reading with an interfaith book group in the community. Part of the story takes place in Littleton, Colorado, and brings in factual material from the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Here is a line from Eric Harris’ journal – Harris was one of the Columbine shooters. This is from his journal in 1998: “I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts, but before I leave this worthless place, I will kill whoever I deem unfit…. I’m full of hate and I love it” (Lamb, 179). Maybe it’s best to keep feelings within a tight leash, suppressed. Maybe feelings are best overcome, part of the corrupt nature of the human that God wants us to struggle against.
As powerful, and powerfully dangerous as feelings are, a faith that stays just in our heads, that never also energizes our hearts, seems lacking. Somehow all of who we are – mind, heart, soul, body – belongs a part of the journey of faith. Feelings are a part of the good gift of God’s creation.
I think I get this from the Bible, from today’s Scripture reading. Hannah prays fervently in her distress, so ardent are her prayers that Eli, the priest, mistakes her praying for a drunken spectacle. The descriptive words are rich – her heart is sad, she weeps bitterly, she is deeply distressed, deeply troubled, she pours out her soul – pours out her great anxiety and vexation. When her prayers for pregnancy are answered, Hannah sings out in joy. “My heart exults!”
So when was the last time someone mistook a church gathering for a raucous party? When has anyone ever been concerned that what is going on in church is fueled by wine flowing too freely? Yet when we think of some churches where we consider the display of emotion too wild, those are uncomfortable images, too – holy rollers and the like. Passion, emotion, by themselves are not what we are after, but a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness.
We are a church, after all, that has its beginnings as a particular expression of Christian faith in the thought and experience of John Wesley. Wesley had been a priest in the Church of England for ten years before this experience described in his journal. On May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death. Methodists historically have been advocates for a warm-hearted faith.
But we have seen emotion in faith taken too far, and often react by keeping our faith a head thing, so much so, that perhaps we have lost our sense of balance. John Cobb, a brilliant, sophisticated United Methodist theologian thinks that part of our problem is our failure to integrate head and heart, to seek a thoughtful and passionate faith. I quoted Cobb a couple of newsletters ago. Writing about “oldline churches,” like his own United Methodist Church, Cobb, penned this: As a group and on the whole we are lukewarm. We do good things. We serve real needs of real people. But we inspire no passion. We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel we purport to serve. We are quite content if, among the priorities of our members, Christian faith comes in third or fourth, after family and employer and nation perhaps…. We are lukewarm because we do not have an understanding of Christian faith as supremely important either for ourselves or for our world. (Reclaiming the Church, 4, 8)
For those worried about a faith that is too much passion and not enough thought, I also noted the word of philosopher Dylan Evans who, while he acknowledges that we cannot deny “that emotions sometimes affect our reasoning to our detriment,” goes on to say: On balance, a creature who lacked emotions would not just be less intelligent than we are; it would be less rational (Emotion, 180).
A thoughtful and passionate faith seems a more complete faith, a more intelligent faith, than one that is either all heart or all head, but how do we get there? I will quickly offer four steps.
We get to a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness by acknowledging our emotions, by feeling them honestly. Hannah is a wonderful model for us, as are the Psalms. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord” – Psalm 130. “My tears have been my food day and night” - Psalm 42. Our emotions are an important part of who we are. They are a part of the goodness of God’s creation – though like other parts of that creation they can be bent, warped, misshaped. They tell us things about our own experience. They tell us things about the world.
We get to a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness by acknowledging and feeling our feelings, but then questioning them and recognizing that we don’t have to act on them all. Our feelings need to be questioned – interrogated. The Psalms also encourage this. “Why are you cast down O my soul?” (Psalm 42). We need to ask questions of our feelings, especially when they seem disproportionate to the circumstances. Rage when we are stuck in traffic, or when some little thing bothers us, seems unjustified, and we should stop and ask what is going on inside us.
We question our emotions to find out what might be going on, and we do this while being aware that we don’t have to act on all our feelings. I find this less in today’s Scripture passage than in the broader biblical and Christian witness which understands that our emotions, important as they are can be bent in unhealthy ways, can become inflamed unnecessarily. Simply following our feelings, without critically examining them, can get us into trouble. Not long ago, in the city of Bennington Vermont, four young people in their twenties were arrested after a Chili’s burglar alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m. According to police, the four intended to remove and steal the large chili on the restaurant’s sign using a hacksaw and power drill. However, not possessing a battery-operated drill, they had strung extension cords together running to the nearest outlet they could find, which was 470 feet away, across four lanes of highway and through a Home Depot parking lot. (Funny Times, December 2009, 15). These four would have done well to check their emotions a little more thoroughly. In an interview, the Dalai Lama discusses “healing emotions” and notes that compassion often leads to suffering, “but there is a great purpose for cultivating this temporary uneasiness or unhappiness, because of the great benefit that will follow” (Healing Emotions, 171). Not all uncomfortable emotions are to be avoided. We need a thoughtful, passionate faith.
To get such a faith we need to allow our faith to shape our emotions, our feelings. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “attitudes mold affects” (Coming Through the Whirlwind, xii). John Wesley defined perfection in love as the humble, gentle, patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions. Clearly he believed that our “tempers” could be shaped by love. Anger is an important emotion and has a place in the life of faith – anger at injustice, for instance. But anger needs to be shaped by love and diminished by love. It shouldn’t be our primary default emotion as we grow in God’s love. Spiritual practices and disciplines shape our emotions.
Finally, I would like to note that while the focus of this sermon has been on the inner life, the inner and outer are connected – remember the mobius strip I used a few weeks back. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann makes this connection powerfully. Today life itself and actual survival are called in question. Death is threatening life on earth…. So the passion for life must be awakened and the numbing spell of apathy must be broken. Before the earth dies its nuclear and ecological death, men and women will die the death of apathy in their hearts and souls. The powers to resist are paralyzed if the passion for life is lacking. (The Spirit of Life, 178). A passionate, thoughtful faith is not only life-enhancing for those who cultivate it, such a faith enhances the life of the world.

Seek a faith that weaves head and heart, that is deeply thoughtful and profoundly passionate. Such a faith is what we need. Such a faith is what the world needs from us. Such a faith allows us to taste a liquor never brewed, the living water of God’s Spirit, and to live in that Spirit passionately! Amen.

Less Than Zero

Sermon preached November 8, 2009

Texts: Mark 12:38-44

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?

Emily Dickinson (288)

Ever have a day when those words from Emily Dickinson seemed just right? Or maybe you’ve had a Macbeth day (V,v, 17 – Bartlett’s, p. 240)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Maybe you’ve experienced some of these things.

Ever feel like the soundtrack to your life is Elvis Costello’s “Less Than Zero”?
Then I have a story for you, Mark chapter 12, verses 38-44. Now it doesn’t start out very promising, in fact, Jesus seems in a bit of a funk. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Pretty direct, and pretty harsh.
Then there is a shift. Jesus watches the crowd for awhile, watches as wealthy people put money into the Temple treasury, and a particular woman catches his attention – a poor widow. This woman places two small copper coins in the treasury, worth hardly a penny, and Jesus says “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” Jesus just flunked accounting 101! Yet he explains that others have given out of their abundance but she has given all.
There are a number of themes that could be pursued from this last story. The woman is a model of Christian discipleship – she gives her whole being in contrast to the scribes whose religious practice seems all on the surface. The entire passage presents a critique of a religious system that perpetuates a division between wealth and poverty, that, in fact, devours widows. I will touch on that a bit more later, but my focus is different today.
I want to pay attention to the way Jesus pays attention in this passage. When I do that I see a Jesus who is willing to pay attention to a person no one else is interested in – a poor widow with few earthly resources, a woman on the margins. One of the messages I get from that kind of attending is this - You matter.
You matter. On those days when life threatens to overwhelm you, when change throws projectiles your way, when the endings all seem bad, when failure is your constant companion and you feel like your life is little more than a warning to others – those less than zero days – you matter. The deeper truth about your life is that it is not a tale told by an idiot, but that your life is a precious gift from God. You matter to God. Life will have its ups and downs, its heartaches, its failures, its changes that don’t improve things, its bad endings, but your life is not less than zero. You matter. You are loved. This is sheer good news which you are invited to receive with gratitude.
Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody… Are you Nobody too” ends rather delightfully. Seeming nobodys connect with each other and find quiet friendship and fellowship. They even celebrate their quiet lives.
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The poem invites a celebration of who we are, and so, too, does the gospel story about the widow.
You matter – that is good news which you are invited to receive with gratitude and delight. It is also an invitation to live differently.
You matter in the life of this church. One of the dangers of having one worship service is that when we get 200+ people here, it becomes easier for any one of us to think that we don’t matter much on Sunday morning. Let me tell you, you do! Every person who comes matters to the quality and character of our worship. Every note sung adds to the chorus of praise offered here. Every kind greeting offered raises the friendliness temperature of the church. When you are not here, and I understand that all of us have reasons for not being here from time to time, but when you are not here, someone might look for a friendly face in the spot where you would have been and find it empty instead, and that will leave them feeling a little emptier.
You matter in the life of this church beyond worship. Without your energy, ideas, time we are less than what we can be. Without your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, your witness we are not all we can be. There is nothing insignificant about your participation in the life and ministry of this church. You matter.
You matter, as well to the well-being of the world God loves. Your small acts of kindness and conscience matter in our world. Jesus act of paying attention to scribes and then to a widow seems pretty small, but as the story gets told a system that devoured widows when it was supposed to protect them, gets revealed, and there is hope for change. Caring for widows was supposed to be a hallmark of the Jewish faith of Jesus time. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells of a God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers.” The prophet Isaiah called out to the people (1:17): “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” But that wasn’t happening. Jesus contrasting the scribes and the widow reminded the people of who they were to be, and it mattered. Your acts of compassion and kindness and conscience matter, too – caring for the hungry and the marginalized, calling attention to systems that still create great wealth and excruciating poverty in our world, asking how our economic arrangements are affecting the earth – all that matters. You matter.

Tikkun Deborah Cooper (a Duluth poet)
The man with the overloaded grocery cart
insists I go ahead of him.
Did he see me looking at my watch?
Even though I am running late
I take the time to help the bent woman wrestle a bag of dog food to her trunk.
Arriving home, the bent woman calls her daughter on the phone,
as if they’d spoken only yesterday, never mentioning the rift.
The daughter’s husband walks through the door
into an embrace.
Later, unasked, he cuts the grass of the widow down the street.
From the window, she waves, feels brave enough now
to sort through Frank’s things…pick out a keepsake for each grandchild.
Three states to the east, the gay grandson, once estranged,
opens the package, unrolls the bubble wrap…
carefully hangs the mirror on the wall.
Stones they had collected from that rocky shore
when he was small, set in the frame by his grandfather’s steady hand.
That night, he writes a letter.
Light repeats itself… a subtle yielding here and there, an outstretched hand.

You matter. Hear the good news again. Live the good news always. Extend an outstretched hand. Amen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Newer World

Sermon preached November 1, 2009
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

In one episode of the sitcom, Seinfeld, Elaine is ecstatic that John Kennedy Jr. has joined her health club. She lets her excitement lead her to consider the possibility of romance and marriage. She imagines what it would be like to be Elaine Bennis Kennedy Jr.
The later part of this week I was in Asheville, North Carolina for a meeting of The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order. Just outside of Asheville is Biltmore, the mansion and estate of the Vanderbilt family. I have been to Asheville three times but have never seen Biltmore, only pictures. It looks like quite a place.
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be a Rockefeller, a Kennedy, a Vanderbilt, a Gates? At times I could imagine it would be a gift of sorts. To be born into such a family would mean access to resources few of us can imagine. It would mean possibilities for professions that would be much more difficult to access otherwise. At the same time that being a Rockefeller or Kennedy or Vanderbilt or Gates might be a gift, it would also be a significant responsibility and task. We would be asked to uphold family traditions of public service and philanthropy. Mistakes would be magnified and so one would want to be especially careful.
Being a Christian carries with it that same sense of gift and task. To be a Christian is to be touched by God’s Spirit so that the Spirit continues to work in our lives to transform us. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ and the Spirit of Jesus into participating in God’s work in the world. In the words of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christians stand by God in [God’s] hour of grieving;” they participate “in the powerlessness of God in the world” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 349, 362). We are moved by the Spirit to be a part of God’s work in the world.
What is that work? Our two Scriptures for this morning characterize the essence of God’s work in the world.
God’s work in the world is new life. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is an extended parable. It is a story designed to evoke trust in Jesus as one through whom God gives life – not just physical life (though that is the setting of the story) but abundant life, adventurous life, interesting life. The call of God in Jesus to each of us is to come out of the tombs that contain us, to be unwrapped from the grave clothes which imprison us – unhealthy patterns of behavior that get in the way of true life, fears that prevent us from living more fully. When we open our lives up to Jesus, we, too, see the world through new eyes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to a friend once wrote, “Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 362)
God’s work in the world is transformation, the creation of a new world. Whatever else we find in the wild final book of the Bible, “Revelation,” we find the conviction that God is always at work “making all things new.” The vision in the book’s final chapters is one that inspires joy and awe. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” God is at work to create a new heaven and earth.
As Christians we give our lives to this work of God in the world, and it comes to us both as a gift and as a task.
The work of God in the world is a gift to us. New life is a gift. Sharing in God’s work of new life and a newer world is a gift. What does it mean that something is a gift – here is one definition: “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us.” (Lewis Hyde quoted in Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life, 228). New life in God is a gift in at least two important senses. New life in Christ is a gift we inherit from others. Think about it – we would not be here were it not for others. We would not have life itself were it not for parents. We would not be here in this church were it not for the work of countless church members through the years – those who began this congregation, those who helped build its buildings, those who shared the Methodist version of the Jesus faith, those who made lunches to raise money to move up the hill. We are surrounded by saints who helped share with us the gift of new life in God. Take a moment and name some of these people in your hearts and minds. Whisper some names quietly. On this All Saints Day, we remember those from whom we received faith as a gift.
New life in God, and God’s newer world is also a gift from God. God's presence in our lives brings with it new life. God weaves our work together synergistically, so that it always adds up to more than we did or might do. I am amazed at the number of times remarkable things happen in worship that none of us participating had planned – a song by the choir or Tapestry strikes a deep chord with the sermon in a way we had not considered, unexpected people arrive and share in communion. These are gifts of life from the grace of God.
New life and a newer world are also tasks. The fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once preached (quoted in Needleman, Money, 233): “that a person should receive God within is good. But that God should become fruitful in a person is better; for the fruitfulness of the gift is the only gratitude for the gift.” New life and a newer world are gift and task. Lazarus by himself in the tomb is not a model for our life of faith. We don't just lie around waiting for God to act - at least not most of our lives.
We have work to do to cultivate new life in our lives. Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices: An Altar in the World, 59: The only promise [spiritual practices] make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know – about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God. The great religious traditions of the world are so confident of this that they commend dozens of spiritual practices to their followers without telling those practitioners exactly what will happen when they do. New life in God needs tending, cultivation, discipline and practice. John Wesley consistently encouraged Christians to engage in spiritual practices including prayer, worship, Scripture reading, compassionate action to help those in need. We are not always sure how those practices will shape our lives. The promise is that they will, and that God’s new life will blossom within us.
A newer world is also our task, working with God to make God’s dream for the world more of a reality – a dream of justice and peace, compassion and care, beauty and love. God’s invitation to us is to join in this work of creating a newer world, and we don’t have to look far to find ways to join this effort – food shelves, mentoring, visiting the sick or shut-in, working for a fairer sharing of the world’s resources, caring for the planet.
The poet Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses” penned these words: Come my friends/’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It is never too late, my friends to seek new life, a newer world. It comes as a gift, and our response is gratitude – including gratitude for all the saints whose lives have enriched our own. It is our task, for which we pray for courage. Amen.