Friday, December 31, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again

Sermon preached December 26, 2010

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas. I hope you were with people you enjoy. I hope the food was good. I hope you gave a gift someone really appreciated and that you received something that brought some joy to you.
Part of my appreciation of the season for me is in the music. I love the hymns we sing this time of year, and I love how people tend to sing out a little more. I enjoy many of the more secular songs of the season. I have fond memories of the Goodyear Christmas albums of the 1960s. I remember them around our house growing up.
I find that some of my favorite Christmas songs are tinged with a certain sadness – sometimes in the tune, sometimes in the words, sometimes both. Christmas Time Is Here from “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special” is beautiful and melodic but with a certain sad undertone, and the lyrics wistfully hope for a better world – “oh that we could always see such spirit through the year.” I’ll Be Home For Christmas is a delightful reminder of some of the small things that make Christmas special – snow and mistletoe, and yet there is sadness because the singer may only be home in his or her dreams. The song was copyrighted in 1943, during World War II when many could only be home for Christmas in their dreams. The lyricist says he first penned the words as a homesick college student. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, likewise combines a beautiful, haunting melody and lyrics both hopeful and sad. There are references to troubles that may someday be out of sight and to muddling through somehow.
Maybe I have grown in appreciation of these songs because in the last few years I find that I am making more peace with sadness in my life. It is partly a function of age, but it is more than that. It is a part of my spiritual journey. It is part of the work of the Spirit in my life trying to deepen my humanity. I remember encountering these words from Elizabeth Lesser a few years ago, and they rang so true to me: The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy. From my own experience and from observing many others, I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). That has been something of my spiritual journey for a number of years, working with the Spirit toward a more open heart, a heart open to my own sadness and a heart open to the pain of the world. I am working with the Spirit to weave into my spiritual life the sadness, disappointment, discouragement I have known and to keep my eyes and heart open to the deep sorrow and pain in a world where there is too much hunger, too much violence, too much oppression, too much injustice.
I appreciate this difficult story we read today. I don’t necessarily like it, but I appreciate it. It is not the best story for the day after Christmas. No shepherds. The wise men have left (and oddly we will come back to their story next week). Angels don’t announce good news, only warn of danger. Joseph, Mary and Jesus have to flee in fear to Egypt. Herod, fearful for his power seeks to destroy all potential rivals, going so far as to eliminate children.
I appreciate this story for its realism. The world is sometimes a dangerous place. The powerful abuse their power. Children suffer unjustly and mothers weep inconsolably. The journey of Jesus’ family reprises the journey of his people so many years before. Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to a place of great pain for the Israelites, the place of their enslavement. Sometimes the spiritual journey of our lives requires that we, too, revisit places of difficulty, pain and sorrow – not to wallow in them, not to be perpetual victims of our pasts, but to weave all of our experiences into our hearts so our hearts can be more open and tender.
Jesus returns to Palestine, but he returns different. Though he was a boy during this time, he would have experienced exile in Egypt, even in his young life. He would have known displacement and wandering. He goes home, but he is different, marked, changed. You can’t go home again. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it this way: You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on. (Fr. 21; Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 71) Jesus returns to Palestine, but different. He has experienced something of the suffering of his people. He has probably experienced some sadness himself – leaving the familiarity of Egypt for a home he has not seen to years.
I appreciate this difficult story because it invites us to be open to all of our experiences, the highs, the lows, the triumphs, the disappointments, the joys, the sorrows, the pain and the healing. Take our experience and weave it more deeply and creatively into our lives. Take our experience and use it, use it to create a better world.
This story invites honesty. Life is not easy, nor perfect. Joan Chittister puts it well. When we manage to create for ourselves the perfect living space, uninterrupted and uninterruptable, we can be sure that we are no longer living life (Living Well, December 21). There are disappointments and sadnesses in our lives, and if we ignore them our lives shrink and our hearts harden. There are tragedies and sorrows in the world, and if we ignore them we abandon others, we leave weeping mothers inconsolable. We need to begin where we are in life to move forward. We need to see the world as it is to change it. We begin where we are, and we meet God there.
We begin where we are and we make choices about our lives and our world. C. S. Lewis penned these powerful words in his work Christian Behavior. Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing into one state or the other. (Mere Christianity, large print, 154-155) Every moment we choose. Every moment, God invites us to choose toward well-being, to weave all that we experience into a healthier whole – our joys and sadness, our accomplishments and disappointments. Every moment God invites us to create deeper peace in the world.
Friday night I shared some of the story of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a Presbyterian pastor and prolific author. Friday I shared with you some of his struggles with his anorexic daughter and where he experienced the love of God in that struggle. Buechner’s story has even more sides to it. [Listening For God, I] One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him. (40) Buechner was raised by a mother who did not want to discuss what had happened. “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” were the rules of the family.
Buechner writes about his father’s suicide, his mother’s emotional closure, his daughter’s anorexia not to air depressing family facts, but because his story might help others be more honest in their lives and in that honesty connect more deeply with God, with others, and with themselves. My story is important not because it is mine… but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually. (52-53) He goes on to write: The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of strength and wisdom for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later. (54)
Even this sad story from Matthew offers a Christmas message. God meets us in the midst of life, even when it is difficult, painful, sad and worse. God meets us. God is with us. We can’t go home again, but we can work with God to create a newer home, a newer world. God invites us reweave our live so that they are more whole. God invites us to work with God to create a world with fewer tyrants, less misuse of power, fewer children dying before their time, and fewer mothers weeping. God invites us to begin where we are to create with God peace on earth and in our hearts. That, too, is from a wonderful Christmas song (by Sheryl Crow). In the end, that song plays most forcefully in my life, in our lives. And God invites us to sing along with the whole of our lives. Amen.

Blue Christmas

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 63:7-9; Luke 2:1-20

Christmas music. I am going to begin this sermon and Sunday’s sermon with Christmas music stories.
At our house, Christmas music season begins November 1, and there is some history there. Julie really enjoys Christmas music, and that love has been shared with our children, especially with our daughter Beth. But the November 1 start date has a more recent origin. In 1998 we moved from Pengilly to Alexandria, and the move was not an easy one for Beth. At age 11, Beth broke her hip and some of her activities were restricted. She was not very happy with moving from a community that had surrounded her with care during a difficult time, and the first couple months of school in Alexandria proved trying. So Julie, with a certain genius, came up with the idea that come November 1, we would start playing Christmas music at our house. A tradition began.
I am not the family’s biggest fan when it comes to this tradition. I like Christmas music and have fond memories of the Goodyear Christmas albums that used to come out. My mom and dad had a few of those. But November 1 is just too early for me. Nevertheless, I admit that my appreciation for Christmas music has grown through the course of my married life. So I get to listen to some things I really like, I have burned a few Christmas CDs over the years – sort of my version of Goodyear’s great songs of Christmas. There are some surprisingly good songs by unexpected artists. Who could imagine Bing Crosby and David Bowie combining on a powerful version of The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth? Bruce Springsteen does a great “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” There are also some Christmas songs that just don’t resonate. I am a big Bob Dylan fan, but Bob Dylan “Christmas in the Heart” - thank goodness the money went to charity! I am also not a big fan of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” It has just never done anything for me.
Yet when you looked through the bulletin tonight and saw a sermon entitled “Blue Christmas” I bet that’s where a number of you went.
But maybe some others of you went someplace else. “Blue Christmas” has more recently come to mean worship services that acknowledge how difficult a time of year this can be. If a family lives apart, Christmas can be a painful reminder of that distance. If family or friends are separated by hard feelings, Christmas can remind us of that, too. At Christmas we remember loved ones lost. Julie’s dad was born on Christmas and loved the holiday, and our celebrations are different without him. If economic hardship has struck, Christmas can be difficult. Life’s difficulties don’t take a holiday. Blue Christmas has those connotations, too, and it is important for us to remember and be sensitive to those who struggle with a blue Christmas. That may be some of us here tonight.
But I want to go someplace else with the idea of a blue Christmas. Avatar. How many of you have seen the 2009 blockbuster movie, Avatar? It is a story set in 2154 about human exploration of a place called Pandora, human exploration and exploitation. A corporation is mining for unobtanium on Pandora, and while they are doing this scientists have found a way for humans to interact with the local population – the Na’vi. The Na’vi are tall blue human-like creatures, and humans interact with them through Avatars – genetically-engineered Na’vi/human hybrid bodies. The scientists want to do research, other humans are interested only in exploiting whatever relationships might develop with the Na’vi through the use of the avatars. One kind of life taking on the form of another.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. Joseph went to be registered with Mary…. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. A birth, the birth of a boy amidst the hay and smell of animals, born to a family far from home. But there was something special about this child. He grew into a powerful teacher, a remarkable healer, a bit of a renegade. It cost him, cost him his life, but his followers claimed that his life came back, that he was present even after execution. Though we tell the story of the birth of Jesus, we need to keep in mind his whole life – including his death and resurrection. Bands of cloth which swaddle him at birth will later be grave clothes which will not hold him.
And those who experienced this Jesus alive and alive again, they dug into their religious texts to try and understand who he was. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us… and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [Isaiah 9] And they wrote new words about him. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [John 1]
Jesus was born, and like most babies he was probably a little blue at his birth. I bet you wondered how I was going to get back to the blue. Jesus was born, and in his life people knew God. God drew near in Jesus. A bit like the avatars, God comes close – to share our lives, to let us know that God understands, to share something of God’s life with us. Unlike the avatars, Jesus is not interested in exploiting us. God does not draw near to use us, rather God draws near so that we might have life. God draws near in order to foster peace and good will, joy and well-being. The red and green of Christmas, the blue of Christmas, the lights of Christmas, are meant to tell us that God is near. God is for us. God loves us. God desires peace and good will and well-being. God becomes like us so that we might become more like God.
And this is good news – good news of great joy for all. Do not be afraid. God draws near to us to give us life, hope, joy, love. A child has been born for us. To you is born this day a Savior. Good news.
This is good news for a thirteen year old, whose hip was broken, whose heart was broken. You are not alone. There can be music in your life to heal your heart.
This is good news for the young woman I spoke with on the phone the other day. She was a student in my on-line class “Religious Perspectives on Living, Dying and Grieving,” and when I phoned her for our final conversation and asked her what she learned, she told me that she felt better prepared to handle grief in her life, and it was especially helpful because her grandmother had died that morning. She is not alone, but there is one to comfort her.
This is good news for my friend Bill. Bill is a retired United Methodist pastor from New York state who I met while serving on a denominational commission. A few months ago, Bill informed us that he had been feeling poorly for quite some time and had now received a diagnosis – MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, sometimes called preleukemia. He has just found out that out of 15 million in the transplant registry, he has no adequate stem cell donor match. Bill has heard the good news of Jesus and shared it in a recent e-mail. I offer you a “be joyful always… living life as prayer (not a separate activity – my life-long personal practice)… and giving thanks in all circumstances kind of Christmas. Makes celebrating the birth of the one many of us choose to follow in our lives, Jesus of Nazareth, real and always exciting. Always this season brings hope that more and more will finally come to know the Christian journey as about this life’s vocation on the love-compassion-kindness-forgiveness continuum and NOT about a life destination. Jesus’ message to us was clearly about behavior, not belief. Whoops, didn’t mean to almost preach but it sure felt good there for a minute. Let’s just leave it at this: our Christmas peace is great this year because of you. This is a man who knows Christmas as good news and I may just have to write him to let him know he got to preach a little on Christmas Eve here tonight.
This is good news for Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and prolific author. He has known difficulty and tragedy. One of his daughters was anorexic. My anorectic daughter was in danger of starving to death, and without knowing it, so was I. I wasn’t living my own life any more because I was so caught up in hers. If in refusing to eat she was mad as a hatter, I was if anything madder still because whereas in some sense she knew what she was doing to herself, I knew nothing at all about what I was doing to myself. She had given up food. I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly. To be at peace is to have peace inside yourself more or less in spite of what is going on outside yourself. In that sense I had no peace at all…. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter. Buechner needed to give her some room, offer her some space, and it finally happened when his daughter was hospitalized three thousand miles away. A judge hospitalized her and it taught him something about God’s love. The power that created the universe and spun the dragonfly’s wing and is beyond all other powers holds back, in love, from overpowering us. I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was. Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air – God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us. (Listening to God, I: 49-50, 51-52) God is with us, gently, quietly, like a baby born on a long ago night in Bethlehem.
This is good news for us, for all. It is good news that comes with no strings attached. Yet it is good news that changes everything. Good news received is good news meant to be lived. If God comes to us in this way – for peace, good will, well-being, shouldn’t we be in the world for one another in that same way? Theologian Walter Wink states it succinctly. Jesus incarnated God in his own person in order to show all of us how to incarnate God. And to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human. (The Human Being, 30) Hear the good news. Be the good news.
Columnist Jean Brody tells this story. I once knew a woman who had very little in the way of material possessions. Her clothes were clean but faded. She ironed other people’s clothes to make money for her children. There was no car so she walked to work everywhere, and thus her shoes were worn and cracked. She and her two children lived in a tiny corner house that had once been white and they all slept in one bedroom. I met her through her little boy who used to come into my pet store after school. He love animals and I would pay him to “help me” by sweeping the floor. He brought mom around to see me one wintry day and I liked her and, since I was nice to her child, she liked me. Mothers are like that. When Christmas came, she appeared in my store, smiling and red-cheeked, with a gift for me. Wrapped in a newspaper were three things – a red candle never lit, four dimes wrapped in tissue and a magazine. She asked if I could open it so she could explain it to me. Blinking back tears, I listened as she said that the red candle would bring light in my life. The four dimes were to be distributed to my four children, and, in the magazine was an article she’d found about the true meaning of giving and loving one another. Jean hugged her new friend and accepted her heart-felt gifts graciously, and every year she puts that red candle, four dimes and magazine under the tree to keep the meaning of Christmas in sight. Good news lived and shared.
The good news is that Christmas is avatar blue – God comes near to bring us near to God. This is good news – God is with us working for peace, healing, well-being, good will, love. Tonight and all nights, hear this good news. Tonight and all nights, live this good news, be this good news for others. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Urgent Advent

Sermon preached December 19, 2010

Texts: James 5:7-10

This morning I want to begin with two items from this past week’s newspaper, and I have a power point slide for one. A postal worker in the small town of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, eight miles north of Milwaukee, was arrested at the North Shore Post Office last Thursday for wearing an unsanctioned uniform while making his rounds. That is, no uniform at all. The 52-year-old man allegedly walked into an office building to deliver mail wearing only a smile. According to Whitefish Bay Now, which cites a town police report, the man has since admitted the nude delivery, saying “he was sorry and it was a stupid thing to do.” The Associated Press reports that the postman was hoping to cheer up a woman working at the office, who he said seemed stressed. The AP also says the woman “dared him to do it,” but Whitefish Bay Now says the woman has denied encouraging the delivery of any sort of special package. Still, she says she doesn’t believe he intended any harm. Slide please. Oh, this is the second story. Here we have the cartoon Non sequitur which appeared in Friday’s newspaper. The caption reads “The Modern Iconoclast.” We have a scene of people frantically scurrying around, fearfully shouting, and in the midst of them is the odd looking man carrying a sign that reads, “Calm Down, Things Will Work Out.” It is often that same man in other cartoons who carries a message of doom and gloom, “The End is Near.” It says something about our time that this cartoon makes sense to us.
Advent is drawing to a close. It will end Friday when we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve (worship services at 4 and 10 – invite a friend). This Advent we have been working with the theme “waiting for God.” It is a thought-provoking theme, really, as we believe God is always present in our lives, moment by moment influencing us toward our good and the good of the world. But God’s influence is often quiet, and sometimes the pattern for that influence takes some time to discern – so we “wait for God.” We wait for God and are ready for the unexpected. We wait for God and are open to the unusual. In this final Advent sermon I want to say that we wait for God with an attitude that can be described as urgent patience.
I came across this phrase “urgent patience” in a book by Bob Johansen called Leaders Make the Future. Johansen argues that among the enduring leadership skills needed in a changing world – a violent, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – is the skill of urgent patience. He took the idea from Bill Walsh, successful coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Urgent patience means understanding when we need to take on new challenges, when we need to get moving, and when we need to be more patient, persistent, steady. (15-16)
There is a time and a place in our lives, in our church, in our world for a calm, steady presence. There is also a time and place for urgency. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, a recognized expert on leadership and change, writes in response to the question “What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change?” – they did not create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction (Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, viii). Yet Kotter also recognizes that urgency can be false. With a false sense of urgency, an organization does have a great deal of energized action, but it’s driven by anxiety, anger, and frustration, and not a focused determination to win (x).
Urgency and patience are both important at the right time as we seek to be God’s people, as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ, yet both have their shadow sides. Patience can edge over into complacency and passivity. “Calm down” may often be good advice, but things won’t necessarily be all right unless we act. Urgency can edge into panic, frenetic activity, frantic activity, impulsiveness. The mailman in Whitefish Bay probably wishes he had been a little more patient and a little less urgent.
As God’s people, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to live in the balance and tension of urgent patience. It is right there in the New Testament. James encourages disciples of Jesus to “be patient…. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” But the author also adds a sense of urgency – “the coming of the Lord is near.” God is up to something – always active in the work of renewal, and we need to be ready to follow this active, adventuresome God. And any good farmer knows that it does not help just to wait for the rain to get a decent crop – you have to till the soil and plant the seeds and tend the weeds. James even seems to think this urgent patience lends itself to certain behaviors – strengthening the heart, not grumbling against one another.
While the modern iconoclast with his sign “Calm Down. Things Will Work Out,” may not have it exactly right, may not quite capture urgent patience, this attitude of urgent patience is deeply needed in our world, and it is often hard to locate.
As I think about our national life, I wonder if we are lacking in this sense of urgent patience. Two years ago, we elected a President promising hope and change. Two years later, we sweep that President’s party out of power. And if the complex problems of healthcare and budgets and environmental concerns and energy are not solved in the next two years, will we do another about face? I cannot help but wonder if we have lost something of the balance of urgent patience in our national life. The problems we face require some urgent action, require forward movement, but many are complex enough that the solutions require long-term patience along with urgency. Could Christians develop this Advent attitude deeply enough to share it with others and be a leaven in our national life?
But the church is not immune from its own imbalance when it comes to urgent patience. Dan Dick is a United Methodist minister who works for the UMC in Wisconsin. Prior to that he worked for a national United Methodist agency. About a year ago he wrote the following on his blog: We’re old. We’re dying. We’re decaying. We’re declining. We’re ineffective. We’re irrelevant. Doesn’t that motivate you to do better? Come on, be honest. Don’t such messages just fill you with energy, vigor, passion and hope? Sure they do, otherwise why would we dwell so constantly upon them? Why waste time envisioning ourselves as God is calling us to be when we can wallow in all the things we aren’t? Doom-and-gloomers eat this stuff up. The United Methodist Church will be gone in 40 years. The average age of United Methodists is 104. We’re closing 24,000 churches every year. It’s like crack. Once we taste the bad news, we simply can’t get enough of it. He is writing tongue in cheek, but he is not far off the mark in depicting what we hear. The United Methodist Church is declining in membership in the U.S., and our members are older than the average U.S. population. We are closing churches – in many communities where there is no longer any school or hardware store or maybe even post office. We have issues to be concerned about – there is need for some urgency. But are we too often edging into the frantic, the panicked, the frenetic? Our issues require action, but thoughtful, well-considered action and a willingness to try things that may take time to develop. How ironic that we who should know urgent patience well seem to be missing it.
This congregation is part of the trend in our denomination. In 1984 we had just over 1,000 members, today we have about 600. Worship attendance that year averaged 350, now we are closer to 200. We should feel a sense of urgency in seeking ways to turn this trend around. I believe we feel that. We know our situation. Yet we, too, need to be thoughtful, reflective, patient as we try out ideas, as we seek to be faithful to who we are and to who God is inviting us to be. We will need to let go of some things along the way. We will try some things that don’t work. Some things we will need to give sufficient time – early and late rains. Together we need to figure out when to welcome new challenges and when to be more patient.
Urgent patience is needed in our personal lives, as well. In every life, there are moments of significant decision. We may be faced with a health crisis. We may confront an economic hardship. Our relationships may hit crisis points. Our spiritual lives may have moments of crisis. These may require urgent attention. Often, however, the urgent action is only a first step on a much longer road to change. Changing health habits and becoming healthier is a long journey, requiring patience, even when it begins in an urgent moment. Repairing a torn personal relationship takes time and patience, even if it begins with a crisis point. Some social scientists theorize that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to become an expert. We shape our lives in response to God’s Spirit over the whole of our lives – urgent patience.
It is Advent, even if only for a few more days. Jesus is near, always near. Change is needed in our lives, in our church, in our world. Strengthen your hearts. Let go of the grumbling. May we be urgent when we need to be in following our adventuresome God, but may our urgency never be without patience, and my our patience never become complacency. And if you ever get the urge to deliver the mail naked, be a lot more patient. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I did not preach on December 12. It was our children's and youth Christmas program. Next sermon post will be sometime after December 19.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ain't That Peculiar

Sermon Preached the Second Sunday in Advent, December 5, 2010

Texts: Matthew 3:1-12

Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion have the Emerald City in their sights, just across a field of flowers. Unfortunately, the flowers put Toto, the Lion and Dorothy to sleep. A spell cast by the Wicked Witch of the West. To the rescue comes the good witch of the North – she causes a refreshing snow to fall. Upon waking, the Lion, in only the way he can, utters one of the classic lines of the film “The Wizard of Oz: “Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it?” This time of year, it becomes a little more difficult for us to consider snow as refreshing because snow is anything but unusual for us.
Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it? Last Sunday I said that a part of waiting for God was being ready for the unexpected. Waiting for God also has something to do with being open to the unusual. God seems to take delight in the unusual. We might say God takes a certain peculiar delight in it. In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea…. Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. John is an unusual figure, peculiar, odd. Yet God uses John to get us to Jesus. John has an essential role to play in the good news of God’s love come near in Jesus. God seems to take peculiar delight in the unusual, the odd. John is not alone in this regard. He stands in a long line of Hebrew prophets. Hosea took Gomer, a harlot, for his wife. Unusual. Isaiah walks around naked for three years to teach and preach (Isaiah). Makes the whole camel’s hair and leather belt thing seem more sane. Odd, isn’t it.
Last summer, at our Annual Conference session, our Bishop, Sally Dyck said that as Christians we are “awed” and “odd.” “Odd means that our worldview is shaped by Jesus. But for some reason as Christians in our American culture, we have lost that sense of being odd—being salt and light and yeast—in the world. We’ve lost pride in being different, being odd, being counter-cultural in the way Jesus has called us to be.”
Waiting for God. Willing to be odd. Open to the unusual. Last Sunday evening, some of us gathered together to watch the film, “Amazing Grace.” It is the story of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a person of deep faith who dedicated himself to the abolition of the British slave trade. There is this wonderful scene in the movie which, in compact fashion, depicts a deepening of Wilberforce’s faith. A household servant finds Wilberforce lying in the grass. “I’ve been even more strange than usual lately, haven’t I?…. “It’s God.” “You’ve found God sir?” “I think he found me. Do you have any idea how inconvenient that is, how idiotic that will sound?” God seems to have a fondness for the peculiar, the odd, the unusual.
Wilberforce, with a bright career in politics contemplates a life of solitude and prayer, but a group of people thinks perhaps he has another calling. Presented with some of the heinous facts of the British slave trade – the chains, the cramped quarters on slave ships (4 ft x 18 in), the branding of human beings as property, the question of his future is posed to him. “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.” “We humbly suggest that you can do both.” Both – how peculiar, but Wilberforce’s tireless work over many years led to the elimination of the slave trade in the British colonies.
In Acts 10, Peter is confronted with a dilemma. Can God be at work in the life of a Gentile? He dreams a peculiar dream about all kinds of animals, animals unclean to him, are lowered on a giant sheet and he is told to kill and eat. Unusual, odd, peculiar – but it is clear in the story that this dream is God’s way of getting him ready to see that God can be found in unusual places, in unusual people. The authors of the study book on Acts we are using write this: “Peter… finds himself led where he has not thought or chosen to go” (Robinson and Wall, Called To Be Church, 162).
Waiting for God, open to the unusual. I think about my own life, sometimes, the places I have gone trying to be a follower of Jesus, trying to let my life be carried on the winds of the Spirit. Over the years I have spent five weeks of my life in a little town in Texas – Robstown – a predominantly Hispanic community outside of Corpus Christi, with a small impoverished African-American population. Not all that exotic, I know, but not the place I ever imagined when I was growing up in Lester Park. I have spent time on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Earlier this fall, while at a denominational meeting in Nashville, a couple of the people I serve on a committee with wanted to experience a bit of the Nashville music scene. So there we were, a Russian, a German, an Alaskan and a Minnesotan walking into a honky tonk – ain’t that peculiar.
I think about the peculiar resources that have strengthened my faith. Growing up in Lester Park United Methodist Church, who would have ever thought that Buddhist texts or psychoanalytic writings would have helped me grow in my faith in Jesus Christ? How odd, yet they have.
Waiting for God. God offers creative influence in every moment of our lives. God is always seeking to persuade us in the direction of our good and the good of the world. God responds to human action. Yet in God’s responsive love, perhaps God also paints with broad brush strokes, and waiting for God can mean waiting for that bigger picture to become clearer as God continues to work in our lives in response to all that is going on in the world. If we are to detect those patterns for our lives, we need to be open to the unusual, the peculiar, the odd. To follow God in Jesus Christ is to be open to being odd in a world often at odds with God’s purposes.
In a world that often encourages us to say “me, me, me” we often ask about “we.” Ain’t that peculiar?
In a world where Sunday is often no different from any other day – working, shopping, busyness, we still gather, taking time from a busy world to slow down, to worship. Ain’t that peculiar?
In a world good at putting up barriers, erecting walls between people, we follow a Jesus who breaks down dividing walls and works against hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Ain’t that peculiar?
In a world that often wants faith to be purely private, we seek to live a life of faith that says we can praise God and work to change the world. Ain’t that peculiar?
So where might God be leading us next? What peculiar places are we headed for? What unusual resources will we find strengthening our faith? What odd people will God bring our way so we can be God’s odd people ourselves? What kind of people even ask such questions? Ain’t that peculiar?
Unusual people, ain’t we? Ain’t we peculiar!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ready For What?

Sermon preached First Sunday in Advent November 28, 2010

Texts: Matthew 24:36-44

What kind of “waiter” are you? I am not talking about waiting tables here. I am not asking if you are good at remembering beverage orders or recommending the daily special. How well do you wait? Are you patient when you need to wait or do you tend to get frustrated? Do you look forward to times when you have nothing else to do but wait, or do they seem like a waste of time? Maybe it depends on the circumstances. If it is an expected wait, then maybe we do better with it – bring a book along, listen to music. When I have to fly someplace, I don’t really mind getting to the airport early and reading. If the wait is unanticipated, like getting stuck in traffic, that may be a different matter. For me, I have to talk myself into being a more patient waiter in those situations.
Waiting. Advent begins today, that season in the church year when we anticipate Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ. In our culture this tends to be a busy, stressful time, a frantic and frenetic time. Here the church is counter-cultural, inviting us into a more reflective and deliberate time. For our reflection during Advent, I have chosen to focus on the theme “Waiting for God.”
Waiting for God? It is a rather odd idea, really. Don’t we believe that God is always present in our lives? Yes we do. In every moment of our lives, God is there. God seeks to influence us for our good and the good of the world, and God continues to respond to the actions of the world with new influences. God is a God of creative and responsive love. This God never leaves us nor forsakes us. How can we speak intelligibly about waiting for God?
God offers creative influence in every moment of our lives. God is always seeking to persuade us in the direction of our good and the good of the world. God responds to human action. Our relationship with God is a bit like a dance. When it is going well, there is a graceful flow. When it is not, we are stepping on God’s toes, trying to lead off in unhelpful directions, and God responds by seeking to gently move us in a better direction. But God is not just dancing with us individually, God is dancing with all others simultaneously. God has to respond not just to our actions, but to all that is going on in the world – a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
In that multi-faceted responsiveness to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, there may be times when God seeks to move us in broader direction. Think of it like this. If I need to lose weight and become healthier, there are the moment by moment decisions – about what I eat, about how to stay active – but there is also the general direction of being healthier, and it is helpful to see that bigger picture. If I want to pursue a particular vocation, there are the moment by moment decisions about school and studying, but it is helpful to keep the bigger picture in mind. Waiting for God can mean waiting for that bigger picture to become clearer as God continues to work in our lives in response to all that is going on in the world.
So we wait. When we are good waiter, we wait looking for signs that what we are waiting for is coming. If we go to pick someone up at the airport, we pay attention to the schedule. We watch as people come out into the waiting area. We look for a familiar face, listen for a familiar voice. So what should we look for as we look for while waiting for God, while trying to understand more clearly how God might be trying to influence our lives and our life together as this church in response to who we are and what the world needs? In being ready for God, what should we be ready for?
“If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” Jesus uses these words in Matthew 24 to tell us that perhaps we would do well to look for God in the unexpected, in the surprising.
Now not all that comes to us in life that is unexpected is good. Joan Chittister tells the following story. It was Christmas Day, an unlikely time, when it happened. He was driving across town from his brother’s home to ours for Christmas dinner. The ice storm that came up suddenly during the day left the streets empty and slick. Every road was a rink of danger. Dad’s car spun on an empty street, jumped a curb, cracked a telephone pole, and came to a befuddled stop, askew and confounded but not really very damaged, not smashed and crashed and crumpled. It was, at most, to the casual bystander, a kind of comic scene…. And yet Dad died in that moment’s slippage…. We were not prepared…. As the years went by, I began to understand that “preparation” is more hope than reality. Who is ever really prepared for anything life-altering…. How is it even possible for us to prepare for such a thing even when we want to, even if we tell ourselves every day of our lives that we must “be prepared”? (Gospel Days, 136)
I believe we need to look for God in the unexpected, but not all that is unexpected is God’s doing. We need to discern, to think, to ponder. God did not cause Joan Chittister’s fathers accident, but I believe God was there for her. When the unexpected is tragic, I believe we wait for God and look for God in signs of healing and growth. Joan Chittister learned about life from this tragedy and passes the lessons on. Grief grows us up. When we come to understand that whatever we have we can lose, we begin, first, to hold everything lightly and, second, we learn to squeeze happiness dry (Nov. 1). Be grateful for grief. It is an infallible sign that we have loved something deeply enough to miss it (Nov. 22). Lucy says it all the time: “Good grief, Charlie Brown.” Now what do you suppose that means? Maybe it means that those with lamps burning are prepared for anything – even grief – and that’s the real good in life (Nov. 30)
Waiting for God means being as ready as we can be for the unexpected, even when some of the unexpected is not what we, or what God, wanted. When the unexpected is tragic, we wait for God’s direction for healing, for care, for learning.
But sometimes the unexpected is just what God has in mind, and if we want to listen and follow the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, we need to be ready for that kind of unexpected.
For the past couple of years, maybe even longer, I have had a sense that we as a congregation needed another opportunity for service. I sensed that there was something more for us to be engaged in in our community in the name and spirit of Jesus. We have people active in the community doing good in all kinds of ways. That is part of the ministry of our church. Our work with Lake Superior Elementary is significant, and your generosity with change for change has been amazing, as has been all the wonderful mentoring. I sensed there was something more for us.
Late last spring, Barb Hill began to talk to me, and then to our church council about a food distribution program. She arranged for a presentation from a group called “Jesus Delivers” to our council. We liked the concept they presented, a generous amount of food for a minimal donation, but there were some thing about their particular method that left us with some questions. Barb found a second organization that operated in a similar way – Ruby’s Pantry. I was cautious, but open. Things kept moving forward. Barb has told me that she never really saw herself as leading these kinds of efforts, saw herself more as a strong supporter, a good worker. But this unexpected role was what was needed. We were hoping for a Saturday distribution date, but Thursday was what was available – another unexpected twist. After August it became clear that when the weather got colder, we would need to put all the people coming for food someplace, and the sanctuary was really the only alternative. That was an unexpected turn of events, an unexpected use of this space, but it is working.
While it is not unexpected that our church should be involved in this kind of ministry, in fact, it fits who we are very well, there has been a lot here that has been unexpected. A year ago, who could have imagined this ministry in our midst? Yet I believe we are involved in this ministry in response to God’s creative-responsive love in Jesus Christ. God in the unexpected.
About two years ago during this season of the year, my dad got sick. He ended up being diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and died in March of 2009. I know that I have mentioned that my relationship with my dad was not particularly close. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t close. As an adult, my dad was unchurched. I became a pastor. My parents divorced when I was in seminary. I remember being in college and becoming politically interested. I subscribed to Mother Jones magazine, and my dad couldn’t understand that. I remember overhearing him talking to my mom about that, but he never talked to me about it. While my dad was dying, I visited him regularly. I will never forget one visit in particular, and the unexpected turn it took. As I was leaving, my dad said, “Pray for me.” Almost before I knew it, coming out of my mouth were the words, “Would you like me to do that now?” And so we prayed. Unexpected, but part of dancing with the creative-responsive love of God. I don’t believe my father’s unexpected diagnosis was God’s will for that time, but I do believe that unexpected moment of prayer had something to do with God.
Keep awake. Be ready. We hear these a lot at Advent. Waiting for God, we are awake to the unexpected. We are as ready as we can be for life and for God’s direction in it. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Got Any Change?

Sermon preached November 21, 2010

Texts: Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 19:1-10

November 29, 1978 I attended a concert at the old St. Paul Civic Center. It was a phenomenal concert by Bruce Springsteen. He and the E Street Band played with incredible energy for over two and a half hours. I was reminded of this in a couple of ways this week. This week, Springsteen released a CD of material recorded during this period of time – “The Promise.” There are songs on there I heard in concert that night. I was also reminded of that concert while watching a Springsteen concert Monday night while walking the treadmill. With winter comes the treadmill, and often, for me, with the treadmill comes music – sometimes concert videos.
The video was of a concert from London in 2009. Springsteen is thirty years older than when I heard him in concert - I guess I am, too – but this concert was energetic, joyful, exuberant. It evoked fond memories of that concert long ago.
And I was thinking, shouldn’t church be like that? What if every week worship was like a rock concert, or, if you prefer, a celebratory symphony, maybe with the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Shouldn’t worship be something like that? Shouldn’t our church experience be something like that?
Maybe, but there are limits to the comparison. I really enjoyed myself thirty some years ago in St. Paul, but what impact did it have on my life? I listen to other Springsteen music, and often buy it when it comes out. I know some of the songs well, enough to sing along with them in the car when they are playing. “I wanna know if love is wild, babe, I wanna know if love is real.” The other night, when I was getting off the treadmill, a great song came on the video, and I continued my exercising dancing around for a bit. So Bruce Springsteen has affected my buying habits, and helped me stay in better shape, but my life is not significantly different because I am a Bruce Springsteen fan.
And see, that’s where the church is up to something else. The church is about a significantly different life. The church is about change, about transformation, about messing with your life, with my life, with the world. We hear it again and again. The language in Colossians may be a bit strange, but it is about change. It is about lives being “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred… into the kingdom of” Jesus. Christian faith and the church are about redemption, forgiveness, strength, patience joy, reconciliation. They are about being a part of what God is doing through Jesus.
Marcus Borg argues that there are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social-political” (The Heart of Christianity, 103). The Christian life, he writes “is about ‘being born again’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’’ (126).
Diana Butler Bass, in Christianity For the Rest of Us, which many of us have been and are reading (and this is the final sermon using that book as its jumping off point), writes, “Transformation is the promise at the heart of Christianity” (281). She uses the image of the tourist and the pilgrim to make her point. Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere – to a transformed life (216). She argues that a vital Christian faith and a vital Christian church in this day and time needs to be a pilgrim church, helping people along a continuing journey. But the transformation of the person leads to seeking to make a difference in the world. “Changing the self empowers the pilgrim to change the world” (217).
Between Marcus Borg and Diana Butler Bass and the New Testament, another person also claimed that transformation is the promise at the heart of Christian faith and life – a man named John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley argued that at the heart of the Christian life was the movement toward Christian perfection. “Perfection” can sound ominous, but here is what Wesley meant by Christian perfection – by perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our attitudes, words, and actions (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection, 1767)
To be on the Christian spiritual journey, to be a Christian pilgrim, is to be open to being changed, transformed, in the direction of love. It is the work of God’s Spirit within us, but it is jointly our work. We are co-creators with God of our lives, and so the Christian journey is not a journey toward a destination but without a map. We have a map – Christian practices. Christian faith and life is practice, and a vital Christian faith and church in our day and time will include a renewal of faith practices discussed in Christianity For the Rest of Us: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty. And in the end, is change, transformation, growth in love. We are shaped by practices, and we need to shape those practices so that they are indeed helping us grow in love. Along the way, I hope there are some moments of joy and exuberance, like a good concert, but concerts are more tourist events, and we are on a pilgrimage.
We are on a change journey, like the man of short stature, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, thus considered a collaborator with Rome. He had become rich through his work, something that would not have endeared him to those in the society in which he lived. But Zacchaeus was on a journey – literally and spiritually. He kept trying to see Jesus, or have Jesus see him. He ran to get the best place to see-be seen, even climbing a tree. Not very dignified for a rich tax collector! But Jesus sees him and extends hospitality, calling him by name. He receives hospitality from Zacchaeus, scandalizing those who considered Zacchaeus religiously unworthy. Jesus not only associates with Zacchaeus, he welcomes him deeply into the community of faith – “he, too, is a son of Abraham.” For his part, Zacchaeus’ life changes. He practices hospitality. He practices healing – giving to those in need. He practices justice, righting any wrongs he may have done. Got any change? Yes, we do, just ask Zacchaeus.
We are on a change journey, like Sara Miles. I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread…. Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. (Jesus Freak, xi) Miles set up a food pantry at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, set it up around the church altar. It was an important part of her Christian spiritual journey of being transformed in and toward love. In the thrilling and difficult years after my first communion, I kept learning that my new Christina identity required me to act. Simply going to church offered no ethereal juju that would automatically turn me into a less smug and self-righteous person. Time and again, I was going to have to forgive people I was mad at, say I was sorry, be honest when I felt petty, and sit down to eat, as Jesus did, with my betrayers and enemies: the mad, the boring, and the merely unlikable. (xii) Got any change? Yes, we do, just ask Sara Miles.
Thirty-two years ago this month, I attended a Bruce Springsteen concert, and one of the songs he played that night contains these words. I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the hope that can save me, I believe in the faith and I pray, that someday it may raise me (“Badlands”)
In the end I believe in a faith that raises me up, in a hope that saves me, in a love that transforms my life. As Christians we believe in a faith that raises us up, in a hope that saves us, in a love that changes us. We are on a journey of transformation, on a journey of change. We seek to live differently here. We open our lives to being changed. We are inspired to change the world. Got any change? Yes, we do – and if you are interested in a changed life, there is always room here for more pilgrims. Amen.

Bruce Springsteen, "Badlands"

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Seventy Minute Hour

Sermon preached November 14, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 22:1-5

This past week we celebrated Veteran’s Day in our county – giving thanks to those who have served the United States in the military. Some churches have large wall plaques commemorating members who served in the military and lost their lives in the line of duty. In one such church, the pastor noticed one of his young parishioners, a boy named Alex staring at that church’s plaque. It was impressive, covered with names and with small flags on either side. The pastor walked over, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex.” “Good morning pastor. What is this all about?” “Well, Alex, this is a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.” Without saying a word, the two stood there for a while. Finally, Alex broke the silence. “In the service, which one, 9 or 11?”
One of many memorable lines from the television program M*A*S*H had Major Frank Burns tell a prominent military chaplain that he attended church services as often as he could. “It’s a great way to kill an hour.” A great way to kill an hour? Sometimes worship is one of the few events that can make an hour seem like it is seventy minutes long.
So worship is sometimes difficult, dull, removed from life. Sometimes the sermon is off the mark, or the music is all unfamiliar. Worship can be more, can be better, but I want to ask those of us gathered here – why worship?
Why worship? Listening to some Christians, and some other religionists as well, you could get the impression that God is a God who needs to keep hearing how wonderful God is. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes, “Worship is not about God needing praise” (157). That he feels the need to write this says that there are some who seem to think that is just what worship is about – God needing praise, God needing to hear how wonderful God is, and if God does not get the praise and adoration God deems deserving, well, God gets peeved. We worship to keep the angry God at bay. I don’t think this is very good theology or spirituality, especially not if our spirituality is rooted in Jesus, but we would be less than honest if we did not admit that there is sometimes a fear factor in why people worship.
If we are sometimes unsure about why we worship, we can also be uncertain as to what constitutes good worship. The invitation to worship for this morning used three statements – all of them from an inventory used to determine “spiritual types.” The author of that work argues that there is no one way to be spiritual. None of those statements is meant as the bottom line truth about worship, though persons of particular spiritual types think so.
Worship is complicated stuff. We are not always sure why we worship, and sometimes fear lurks there. We disagree about what makes for good worship. Yet we know worship is central to Christian faith, life and spirituality – we knew it before we read Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, yet because many of us are reading it worship and beauty are today’s themes. And if we accomplish nothing else this morning, I hope we will see the link between worship and beauty as important elements in a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century and I hope we will drive the fear out of worship.
Why worship? What is worship about so that it draws us in? Marcus Borg is right, worship is not about God needing praise, but he is also right in saying that worship is about praising God. But worship, though centered on God, is not just about God. It is also about our lives in relationship to God. Pamela Dickey Young (Recreating the Church, 109): Worship is said to glorify God and sanctify the human being. Worship is focused attention to God and to God’s presence…. Worship glorifies God by noticing God, by being “set apart” moments in time and space where Christians concentrate on the God-human relationship. Worship is about God, and about the human relationship to God. In encountering God, in paying attention to God, we are changed. In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “at its core, worship is an experience that transforms the heart” (177).
What sort of experience. Butler Bass tells the story of Eric, a pastor. Trying to think about the heart of worship during a study leave, Eric one summer day was sitting on the dock of a lakeside cabin. As he stared at the water, the largest bass he had ever seen swam by Eric was filled with wonder and awe. Eric: “This is the foundation of worship. If you can take an hour on Sunday morning and open people to experiencing just a quarter-second of awe, wonder and surrender you just experienced, it is accomplished.” (173). Similarly, Marcus Borg writes about worship as a thin place, a place where we encounter God in wonder, awe and mystery. The Christian life is about the “hatching of the heart,” the opening of the self to the Spirit of God by spending time in “thin places” – those places and practices through which we become open to and nourished by the Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being (The Heart of Christianity, 161).
Worship is about praising God, expressing gratitude for the good gifts of life. It is about wonder and awe and mystery and thin places. It is also about celebration. Kent Ira Groff: “Genuine worship is celebrating God’s work in people’s lives” (The Soul of Tomorrow’s Church, 54). We gather to pay attention to where God has been in our lives, trusting that we may catch glimpses of where God is moving into the future. We pay attention and celebrate. Butler Bass: “Christian worship embodies the full range of emotions any person would experience in celebration, from sorrow to mirth…. Christian celebration… participates in God’s festival of life and shalom” (177). Worship helps us notice good things and among those good things is that we are still here – individually and collectively – and that is good!
We celebrate God’s work in people’s lives, and one way to characterize that work of God in the world is beauty. Read the texts in the Bible that try to describe the direction of God in the world, texts like Isaiah 65 and Revelation 22. God is creating a new heaven and new earth. Houses will go up and vineyards will blossom – and they will be enjoyed. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” There will be a river, ‘bright as crystal” flowing from God. The trees along the river are fruitful and the leaves are “for the healing of the nations.” Only beautiful visions can grasp something of what God is doing in the world. I like the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. God “is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by [God’s] vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, quoted in Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy, 86). Only beautiful words can describe what God is doing in the world because God’s work is beauty.
Beauty is not an easy concept to define. Writing about beauty and worship, Pamela Dickey Young writes “by beauty I mean that which evokes satisfaction in all its senses, a balancing of harmony and intensity that allows one to enter into the fullness of life” (111). Another theologian writes “beauty is that which glistens on the edges of our yearnings and lures us into the depth of things” (Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God, 1). God’s work in the world is creating beauty – a beauty which includes justice and peace and reconciliation, and healing of the nations. When we encounter beauty, it changes us, and worship is intended to be an encounter with beauty in some form or another. Beauty is intended to change us. Author Sam Keen in Hymns To An Unknown God pens these words: "Throughout my life, beauty, more than any argument, has persuaded me of the blessedness of this world” (123). Beauty opens us up, engages our mind, enlarges our hearts. Good worship is beautiful, and beauty makes itself know in worship as the work of God which we celebrate. We worship because we need to, because we need to encounter the beauty of the poet God which changes us.
Out of all the instinctual needs we human have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54)
But beauty is better experienced than discussed. This has been a rather learned sermon, lots of quotes, but in the end, I want to give way to beauty – images, music, and a poem.

[ played: John Coltrane, “After The Rain” with 24 slides @ 5 seconds, ending with Denise Levertov poem read while the music was still playing.]

Denise Levertov, “Primary Wonder”
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just This

Sermon preached November 7, 2010

Texts: Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Acts 4:32-38

This is the fifth of seven sermons on aspects of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century. The basis for the broad ideas in these sermons is found in Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity For the Rest of Us, which 60-75 of us are reading. Thus far we have set the context for being Christian and being a mainline church in this day and time. The term “mainline” is simply a historical term for Protestant churches that have a relatively long history and were once the center of religious life in the United States. That has changed in some ways and so we are exploring what it may mean to have a vital Christian faith and an alive Christian community in this day and time. We have already explored certain elements of such a faith and community: hospitality, healing, discernment, contemplation, testimony and reflection. Today the key words are justice and diversity.
These are important elements of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century and they deserve more time than I can give them this morning given all that is happening in worship. Make no mistake, the relative brevity of this sermon belies the importance of the topic. At the same time, perhaps brevity also reflects something about this church. We already understand the centrality, the utter importance of justice and diversity for Christian faith. The United Methodist Church, of which we are a part, has John Wesley as its founder, and Wesley once wrote: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Doing good, caring about the world, working for justice, overcoming the division diversity can create – these are part of the heartbeat of our church. By the way, I use “justice” in the primary sense we get of it from the Bible. Justice has to do with fairness, with right relationship, with respect, with a concern that people have enough of the basic necessities of life. Justice is a central element of “shalom” which is God’s comprehensive dream for the world – a dream of joy, peace, love, reconciliation, justice, beauty and delight (see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 69-72). In the words of a theologian, “Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Wolterstorff, 72).
Caring about the world, working for justice, overcoming the division diversity can create – these are part of the heartbeat of our church. I think we get that here, though our embodiment of it can always grow. In fact, I think that this element of a vital faith is so much our focus that we may give short shrift to the good that also needs doing in our inner lives. Make no mistake, I would rather have a group of people working to feed the hungry, or mentor, or work for justice, or stand up against racism than excuse themselves from such activity because they are reading the Bible. If I had to choose, that would be my choice, but we do not have to choose. A vital Christian faith is both/and - justice and personal spiritual disciplines, justice and inner work.
In Christianity For the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass makes some provocative statements about justice in Christian faith. Justice and diversity are “biblical ideals,” part of the “spiritual journey.” Justice is not about backing a secular political agenda – whether that be liberal or conservative…. Justice is part of the faithful life of being a Christian; justice is spirituality….Doing justice is much more than supporting a particular political party and its policy agenda. Doing justice goes beyond fixing unfair and oppressive structures. Doing justice means engaging the powers – transforming the “inner spirit” of all systems of injustice, violence, and exclusion. (161-162) I expect for some those words will give us pause, and they might be pushed too far. Public policy matters, and we should engage our minds and hearts in thinking together about the kind of society we want to create through our political systems and structures. Yet, biblical justice is more than that. To take justice seriously as a part of the spiritual journey is to know that we cannot only work for systemic change and do nothing else. It is to know that we cannot wait until systems change to engage in acts of justice and compassion.
To take biblical justice seriously as part of the spiritual journey of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century is to work to create a community that is making a difference in the world by making a difference in people’s lives – alongside whatever policy work we also engage in. We need to be working together here to create a transformational community that weaves diverse people together into a “polyculture of the Spirit” (144). We want to bring people together who have diverse ideas about how best to create justice in the wider world. “Besides the fact that diversity is a deeply biblical and profoundly Christian practice, it is just more fun to go on a pilgrimage with interesting people” (155-156). One of our models for biblical justice and diversity work is found in Acts 4. It is a picture of a community that amidst diversity discovered a deep unity – a unity of heart and soul. It is a picture of a group of people joined together in a shared way. It is a picture of a group of people who cared about the needs of all and shared so that none would be without.
This work of justice does not need to wait until the government does this or that. This work of justice does not wait until policies change or large programs are initiated. Policies and programs matter, but the work of justice does not wait.
We do not wait until social programs are in place to meet the needs of others. We work with other churches through the Gabriel Project to help meet human need. We don’t wait until large-scale food programs are in place to feed the hungry. We set up Ruby’s Pantry Coppertop and work to make a difference in feeding people. We do not wait until the medical system changes to offer care for the sick. We visit, individually and through our lay pastor program. We discuss end-of-life issues. We promote healthy living. It is not all that needs doing, but we don’t simply wait. We don’t wait until programs are in place that provide care for the elderly. We visit again through lay pastors, but also through a number of people who volunteer at places like the Benedictine Health Center. We don’t wait until all the social policies about schools are in place to care about the young. We offer ourselves as mentors.
A vital and credible faith for the twenty-first century is a faith that takes diversity seriously – diversity of race, orientation, background, opinion, yet seeks to create community out of a deeper unity of heart and soul. A vital and credible Christian faith for the twenty-first century is a faith that does justice, that sees justice as a spiritual journey. It is a faith that unites justice and prayer, worship and working for a better world.
Ironically, finding a vital and credible faith for the twenty-first century means rediscovering some old ideas. Hear these words of Amos, in a fresh rendering. “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” Hear these words of Micah, also in a fresh rendering. “But God’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.”
Just this – justice – oceans of it.
Just this – fairness – rivers of it.
Just this – compassion.
Just this – loyalty.
Just this – love.
Just this – walking the way with God - a way of justice and prayer, worship and work, unity in diversity, loyalty and love.
Just this. It’s that simple. It’s that challenging. Amen.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wisdom of the Scarecrow

Sermon preached October 31, 2010

Texts: Philippians 4:8-9; Mark 7:31-37

Dorothy and her dog Toto are walking through Oz on the Yellow Brick Road, when they come to a fork in it. Pondering aloud to herself, Dorothy wonders which way to turn. Suddenly a voice – it is a nearby Scarecrow. The Scarecrow isn’t much help to Dorothy. “I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t go a brain, only straw.” “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?” “I don’t know, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
I could wile away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain. My head I’d be scratching, while my thoughts are a hatching – if I only had a brain.
Talking, thinking, thoughtful conversation, reflective testimony – Christianity for the rest of us.
Yes, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking. Some of that talk is religious talk. I have read in recent letters to the editor some of the silliest things about Islam written by fellow Christians. I know they have brains, but the letters did not indicate that they were in very full use at the time.
Ignorance is not a Christian virtue – not ignorance about other religions, not ignorance about science, not ignorance about the years and years of scholarly writing about the Bible, not ignorance about the thousands of years of discussion about the meaning of Christian faith.
Ignorance is not a Christian virtue, nor is obnoxiousness. Walking up to someone you have never met, about whose life you know nothing – not their pains, joys, hopes, dreams, sorrows, disappointments – walking up to someone you’ve never met asking if they are saved, that strikes me as obnoxious. I ought to know. I have done it.
Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, and some of those people are Christians and sometimes some of those people are us. And that kind of talk makes other Christian talk hard. I sometimes hear people compare our cultural situation to the cultural situation in the Book of Acts. They argue that Christianity is no longer in the center of our culture, like it was not during the time of the early church. There is something to be said for that, except that the early church did not have hundreds of years of Christian talk already behind them, and the apostles did not have to say, “Well, that is not the way I understand Christian faith.” When you have someone wanting to burn Qu’rans and calling it Christian, it makes other Christian talk difficult. When you have a few people calling themselves Christians and arguing that the heart of the faith has something to do with the “white race,” it makes other Christian talk difficult. When you have Christians who assume that the two most pressing issues of faith in our national life are abortion and homosexuality, it makes other Christian talk difficult. It also makes other Christian talk necessary. Other voices are needed. Other testimony needs to be given.
Mark 7:31-37 is a wonderfully challenging story. It is a healing story and all such stories have their challenging aspects. The word “deaf” itself has fallen out of favor, but it is there in the story. Jesus heals a man who could not speak and could not hear. His ears are opened and his tongue is loosened. Then he makes this impossible request – don’t tell anyone! The man, the crowd witnessing all this – be quiet. Of course they cannot contain themselves.
That’s the kind of Christian word that needs to be spoken, testimony rooted in our own experience of a God who through Jesus touches our lives in deep and profound ways. I can tell a story about a boy who grew up in a family with an unchurched father, a boy for whom public speaking was not anything he aspired to – never on the speech team or the debate team – who gets up every week in front of people to talk about the Bible, Jesus, faith and God and even sometimes sings like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. I can tell you about how, on my worst days, when discouragement gets the better of me and the inner pain is deep, I take courage from the story of Jesus for whom things did not always turn out well. I can do what I need to do. I can find my way again.
Testimony is not about God fixing people. Rather, it speaks of God making wholeness out of human woundedness, human incompleteness. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 141). I appreciate how, in her chapter on “Testimony” Butler Bass includes a couple.
One story shared in the book is of a man who grew up in an agnostic household. At age thirty-four, he came out as a gay man. He participated regularly in church, but did not readily share this part of his life there, and he felt somewhat disconnected. Anyway, he found himself at a meeting of church leadership, and his story goes from there. By the way, “Lillian” is the church pastor, pastor of a Congregational Church near Yale.
It was hot. I didn’t feel comfortable with the people there…. We started with a simple exercise: Lillian read a passage of Scripture about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Good stuff. Then she asked each of us to write about a transformation in our own lives. I couldn’t think of a “safe” example, so I wrote about the personal transformation I experienced in coming out, in accepting myself as a gay man. No one had to know: I was writing this for myself. But when Lillian asked if anyone wanted to share their story, the Spirit moved me to volunteer. I didn’t know what would happen. There was a lump in my throat, my palms were sweaty. I took a leap of faith. It was a leap back from the wilderness into a new relationship with God, one based on my true nature. It didn’t hurt that no one gasped or avoided me: in fact I felt affirmation. In moving me to speak from my heart, the Spirit had also transformed my relationship with the congregation. I felt radiant, lighter than air. I felt I had found home. (136-137)
Talk rooted in our experiences of the grace of God in Jesus, we need that kind of thoughtful Christian talk in our world.
A group of disciples gathered around their teacher, peppering him with question after question about God. The teacher said that anything we say about God is just words, because God is unknowable completely. One disciple finally asked, “Then why do you speak of God at all?” and the master replied, “Why does the bird sing? She sings not because she has a statement but because she has a song.” (Anthony DeMillo story in Lamott, Operating Instructions, and Long, Testimony, 157) We have a song to sing.
And our song is a thoughtful song. Christian talk in our day and time needs to be testimony and thoughtful, reflective conversation. Thinking, contrary to some, is a Christian virtue. “Think about these things” we read in Philippians 8. If the world needs to hear Christians share genuinely from their heart, the world also needs Christians who can engage their brains and express their thoughts.
Unfortunately, church people often pit the mind against the heart. Some simply ignore the mind in favor of experience; others reduce intellectual endeavor to memorizing approved dogma or Bible verses…. Many churches encourage thinking – as long as you think like everyone else. As a result, much of American religion has a strangely circumscribed intellectual character, a sort of anti-intellectual intellectualism. (187) Having set that context, Butler Bass goes on to write about a different kind of Christian life of the mind. “Mainline pilgrims insisted upon the importance of intellectual openness to vital spirituality…. These mainline pilgrims linked intellectual curiosity with humility” (191).
Maybe that‘s the bottom line for genuine Christian talk, testimony, and conversation. We share our experience as just that, our experience, trusting that the story might be of help to another. And if not, that is o.k. God’s grace works in people’s lives in a variety of ways and we are humble enough to acknowledge that. Still we have a song to sing. In I Peter 3 we are encouraged to tell our story with gentleness (I Peter 3:16).
And we engage our minds in our faith because we are humbly open to the vast, complex and mysterious world. Who really wants to claim that we know all the ways God is engaged in that world? I Peter 3 also encourages us to combine “a tender heart and a humble mind” (I Peter 3:8). Intellectual curiosity is a part of spiritual vitality. Questions are as much faith talk as are affirmations.
The Scarecrow really is wise. He helps us acknowledge that sometimes we do speak without engaging our brains. In the end, however, he discovers that he had a brain all along and that it could be used for good – for thinking good thoughts, for speaking wisely and genuinely. Maybe the Scarecrow is some kind of saint in a Christianity for the rest of us. Amen.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Anybody Want Anything?

Sermon preached October 24, 2010

Texts: Proverbs 1:1-6, 20-23; Psalm 131; Luke 18:1-8

What do you think of when you think of prayer? Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. If I should live another day, I pray the Lord to guide my way. I hope I haven’t given anyone any ideas. If your neighbor looks a little drowsy, please nudge them gently.
By the way, how many of you learned that prayer as a child. Honestly, it is a rather frightening prayer – praying every night about death! Or maybe when you think about prayer you think about the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer many of us also grew up with. Or when you think about praying, perhaps you think about who is sick and what to ask for – prayer as asking, petition, supplication.
This past summer I attended a continuing education event called The School of Congregational Development. It is a significant denominational continuing education endeavor and has been held for ten years in various parts of the country. This summer it was in Nashville. One evening, the conference helped sponsor an event with the United Methodist Committee on Relief that was to be a fund-raiser for Haiti and for Nashville – Haiti recovering from the earthquake and Nashville recovering from Spring flooding. The featured speaker for the evening was Tony Campolo. That night Tony talked about a lot of things, prayer among them. He talked about his own developing understandings and practices of prayer. For a long time he understood the primary mode of prayer to be asking, but he contended that there were limits to that understanding. That hit him one night as his son was going to bed, announcing that fact. “I’m going to bed now. I’m going to pray. Anybody want anything?”
My guess is that this is sort of our default mode for understanding and practicing prayer. What do we want? What does someone else need? How much trouble are we really in, as in “O.K. God I know it has been a long time since we last spoke but I did not have time to study for this test so could you help me out?”
The parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 seems to reinforce this understanding of prayer as asking. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” He goes on to tell a story about a judge who is not a particularly likeable character. He keeps getting petitioned for justice from a widow, a persistent widow, who nearly wears him out. It is because of this that he grants her justice. Are we to pray like the persistent widow? Is God really like an uncaring judge who only responds because he gets tired of the constant petitions? What if Jesus is using some humor here, offering a riddle? There seems to be other possibilities in this story. God isn’t really like the judge. Jesus says that God quickly grants justice. God is always listening and responding. In a surprising way God is more like the widow than the judge – God is persistent in pursuit of justice and relationship. God wants to be connected with us!
“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance to the gate she speaks.” Wisdom is an essential characteristic of God, and in these words from Proverbs, where wisdom is a woman, wisdom is the one crying out – crying out for you and for me to pay attention, to listen to hear. Maybe the best response is something more than chattering back to wisdom and God with all our requests. Anybody want anything?
I am not dismissing prayer as asking. I pray those kinds of prayers all the time. When I am at a hospital bedside, something more than silent prayer seems required. So, too, in the face of grief, sadness, difficulty – though there are moments when some of life’s hardships also require silence. I am not dismissing prayer as asking but inviting us to other dimensions – dimensions of discernment and contemplation, two practices that Diana Butler Bass identifies as an important part of Christianity for the rest of us. I am inviting us to think about, experience, and practice prayer as listening with our hearts and with our souls – prayer as silence.
Christians believe that human beings have the capacity to hear, see, touch, and feel God – a genuine sensing of truth and beauty through which we know God and know God’s will. Christians call this discernment. (Christianity For the Rest of Us, 91) Diana Butler Bass goes on to talk about discernment as “a practice that can be developed through participation in reflection, questions, prayer, and community.” It is a practice “that involves self-criticism, questions and risk” (95). The central questions are “God-questions” (94), that is, questions about where God’s Spirit may be moving in the midst of one’s life and in the midst of a Christian community. One of the places where we continue to need the practice of discernment in our life together as First United Methodist Church is around the question, “what is the good we can do?” Phrased differently, “what is the good God might be calling us to do?” We know there is more good that needs doing in the world than we can do as this church, though we keep our hands in a lot of things. But we cannot do it all. Given who we are, where we are in our life, who we are in this community, what is the good we can do? We need practices of reflection, prayer and questions to help us continue to discern this. Some pieces of the puzzle are in place – mentoring, Ruby’s Pantry, Christian care giving within, welcoming all - and the list goes on – but what else might we need to do. Who else should we be reaching? What other hurts in the world calls to us most strongly?
And if we engage in the practices of discernment, if we ask questions about our life together, we need to leave space for answers. The same is true for our individual lives. If we ask questions of ourselves and of God, we need to leave space for answers. Some of that space should be quiet space. Bernard of Clairvaux (117): Continual silence, and removal from the noise of things of this world and forgetfulness of them, lifts the heart and asks us to think of the things of heaven and sets our heart upon them. I find that amusing when I remember that Bernard lived in the twelfth century. How noisy could it have been? Meister Eckhart (1260-1327): “Nothing in creation is so like God as silence.”
Tony Campolo shared that his understanding and experience of prayer has moved in the direction of more silence. Sometimes he simply prays, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” and then is quiet.
I know for some of you the very idea of that kind of contemplation, that kind of silent prayer sends shivers. I genuinely believe we have different spiritual styles and differing levels of need for silence. But even with that, I believe we all need a little silence sometimes.
I encourage you to take some time for silence, for paying attention to what’s going on inside, and to where God might be moving in your life. Start small – two minutes even. Go from there. Perhaps begin with words from Psalm 131. “I have calmed and quieted my soul.” See if you don’t hear God a little bit more in doing this. See if you don’t hear something deep within a bit more clearly.
In Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, I am going to invite any who wish to come early to pray. We will gather at 8:45 and have five minutes of silence as a part of that prayer time. I know it is early. I know many don’t come until 10 a.m., but if you don’t want to physically be here, I am going to invite you to take some time at home before coming for silent prayer. If it seems worthwhile, we may try it again during Lent. Maybe we will all hear something of the voice of God’s wisdom for our life together.
In her chapter on contemplation, Diana Butler Bass quotes teacher and theologian Richard Rohr. “When the church is no longer teaching the people how to pray, we could almost say it will have lost its reason for existence” (118). There is a lot of good to be done in the world, and we need to be doing some of it. While we cannot do it all, as a church part of the good we must do is help people connect more deeply with God through prayer and discernment. It is part of the very definition of being church.
As a final lesson in prayer, I offer this Mary Oliver poem – “Praying.”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Sermon preached October 17, 2010

Texts: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Mark 5:1-20

This is the second is a series of sermons, and you may think that the theme is meteorological. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon entitled, “Let It Rain” and today the sermon is “hail.” You already know that I am not going to talk about little ice balls. But this is the second sermon in a series of sermons using as their base the book Christianity For the Rest of Us. Part I of the book provides an overall vision and the context, personal and historical, for Diana Butler Bass’ work of checking on mainline Protestant churches that were doing well, bucking the trend among many such congregations. Chapter two might be an especially hard slog for some as the author gets into history and is sometimes a little polemic. Don’t let that chapter get in the way of your moving forward.
The heart of the book is Part II wherein Butler Bass identifies some Christian practices that characterize churches that are finding new life, not as mega-churches, but new life nonetheless. In the next five weeks I am going to preach about those practices, signposts along the Christian way. From the earliest days of the Christian faith, Jesus’ followers, known as people of the Way, were recognized by what they did…. If you act like a Christian by joining its practices, by following its tracings, you may well become one. Being a Christian is not a one-moment miracle of salvation. It takes practice. It is a process of faith and a continuing conversion…. Practices invite weary nomads to join the journey, to find home, to create a different kind of village, to enter the memory of Jesus (74-75)
Today, we are going to discuss the Christian practices of healing and hospitality. But what do they have in common? They both begin with the letter “H.” I also think they have something in common with another “h” word – “hail.” Hail, when not referring to icy precipitation falling during a severe thunderstorm is a form of greeting – “Hail.” It is a greeting, a welcome. It is also a word that at its root refers to being whole, being well, and is linked to the more theological word “salvation.” Healing, hospitality, hail.
Let’s look at the story from Mark for a few moments. Sometimes this is called the story of the Gerasene demoniac. It is fascinating in its strangeness. What do we know about this man? He is hurting. He is filled with an unclean spirit named legion – his problems are many. He howls – communication issues. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. Because of all this he lives in isolation, among the tombs. When Jesus shows up, he heals the man by striking an unusual bargain with the unclean spirits. Notice what happens to the man who is healed. People come to see him clothed and in his right mind. He will no longer be at home in the tombs, but among them. In fact, Jesus sends the man home to tell his story. He will become a part of the community again, and his presence as one who has been healed with help others. Part of the healing process is restoration in the community - - - healing and hospitality.
We may be uncomfortable with the language of healing in mainline Protestant churches. The word “faith-healer” probably does not conjure up positive images. Yet the idea of healing is central to Christian faith and practice. I concur with Diana Butler Bass. Healing has become a metaphor for salvation. For mainline pilgrims, salvation entails several levels of healing: emotions and psyche, physical wellness, human reconciliation, and cosmic restoration…. Longing for healing is not flaky, idiosyncratic, or New Age – it is an inchoate human desire to experience shalom, God’s dream of created wholeness. (108, 111)
Maybe as difficult as getting over our negative stereotypes of the word healing in relation to faith is the difficulty of admitting our need for healing, admitting our woundedness, admitting that we inflict wounds on our own lives, admitting that the vision of a new heart we read in Jeremiah has relevance of us – that we need a new heart. But I think of the words of psychologist Michael Eigen – “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life” (Conversations, 116). I think of the words of psychologist D. W. Winnicott: ‘Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning” (in Winnicott, Adam Phillips, 51). We get hurt, and maybe we respond by building up layers of defense so we won’t get hurt again, choking off something essential about our lives, and the defenses become legion. Maybe we strike out of our hurt, wounding others, and the wounds we leave are legion. Maybe we beat others to the punch, wounding ourselves – denying our giftedness or lacking the ability to forgive ourselves. Legion are the ways we damage our own lives.
But the church has often been the last place for honestly admitting our need for healing, admitting our capacity to wound others or ourselves. We bandage ourselves up in our Sunday best, hiding the wounded souls in need of forgiveness, in need of healing, in need of community. Growing up I remember hearing someone say that she did not appreciate preachers talking about sin to their congregations – after all, they were the ones in church. We need the language of sin and salvation, of hurt, pain and healing. If we cannot use the word “sin” because it has been so abused, we cannot lose the idea that we are sometimes less than our best, that we miss the mark, and that we are sometimes people who wound others. The church is not just a place for those who have it all together. It is a place for those of us trying to get it together, even when our problems are legion.
In a book that shares some of the same themes and emphases as Christianity For the Rest of Us, Anthony Robinson writes: In the civic-faith era, church was a place where we went to give and where we were expected to give to others. Less often were we taught to receive, to see our own needs, which may not be material but are every bit as real. Not only can a one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver be a power trip, but it can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God. (Transforming Congregational Culture, 66) Robinson believes we need to learn to be receivers who give.
Community often plays a role in healing. The welcoming word is often a healing word. So many of our wounds are wounds of exclusion. We have all been painfully reminded recently of the effects of teenage and youth bullying, as schools see children, youth and young adults take their lives rather than live them confined to the tombs of loneliness and ostracism. Hospitality – welcoming, and healing are deeply interconnected.
In a time of hate-filled extremism, some Christians still long for a word of nonviolent love, or reconciling peace. Of human wholeness, of true brother and sisterhood, in God’s compassion. For them hospitality opens the way to practicing peace, doing a tangible thing that can change the world. (86)
Over the past many years, I begin confirmation with a session on community-building. We do some fun things to get to know one another, but I emphasize that this is not just to have fun or get to know each other. The purpose runs deeper, and I share these words: Christian community practices hospitality, creating a safe space where different people can feel welcomed, affirmed, visible and valuable (Thomas Hawkins).
Hospitality that provides healing. Healing that leads to reincorporation into community. Hail – a welcoming word, a word of healing and well-being.
I am a Christian because I know my wounds and feel them deeply and I find healing in Jesus. I am a Christian because I know my own ability to would, even wound myself and I find forgiveness and new beginnings in Jesus and in Christian community. I am a Christian because I need a home along the way and I find a word of “hail” in Jesus and among Jesus’ people – a word of welcome and well-being. I am a Christian because sometimes my problems or wounds are legion and life feels as if it is being lived wandering among the tombs and I need someone who will help me find my right mind – and Jesus does that. I am a Christian who believes maybe others hurt, feel wounded, need forgiveness, long for hospitality and home, and maybe Jesus can help them too. Maybe Jesus wants to help them through us. Maybe Jesus wants this to be one hail of a church. Amen.