Friday, February 26, 2010

Tempted By the Fruit of Another

Sermon preached February 21, 2010
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

This may be difficult for you to imagine, but this story is true. Years ago, when I was in college, I had a number of people tell me I looked like the actor John Ritter. This was when he was on the television show Three’s Company – a show about a single man who ends up sharing an apartment with two single women so they can all save on the rent. Suzanne Sommers played one of the roommates. It was not high art, but being thought to look like John Ritter wasn’t so bad. Back then, if someone asked who I might like to play my life if a movie were made, I could have gladly said, “John Ritter.”
Times change. If I were more honest with myself and were asked “Who should play you if a movie were made about you life?” I should probably answer someone like Danny Devito or Stanley Tucci. Times do change.
Have you ever in some moment of reverie thought about what a movie about your life might be like? Have you ever wondered who you would like to play the starring role? Have you ever wondered what it might be like to make movies for a living? Have you ever imagined your life being very different from the life you have? I am guessing that we all have done that, and it is fun to imagine such things.
But I also wonder if we are not tempted to do more than pretend our lives were very different. Are we tempted, sometimes, and do we give into the temptation, sometimes, to hide from ourselves, to hide from God’s call and invitation in our lives right here, right now? Are we tempted to imagine that God really can’t do much with the lives we have, with the person we are? Are we tempted by the fruit of another – another life, another identity?
The temptation story of Jesus can be read as a story of temptation to be other. Jesus has had a powerful experience of the Spirit at his baptism, and feels led by this same Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus is discerning the meaning of these powerful Spirit experiences. How is it possible that he, a simple person whose mother is Mary and whose father is not a learned scholar nor religious leader but a laborer, how is it possible that God’s Spirit should be calling him so powerfully? What will this call mean for his life? How can he live it out with integrity and authenticity in the context of who he is?
The temptations to be other come. If only he were some kind of magician wowing the crowds with turning stones into bread. But he knows that is he is to live out this call of God in his life he needs to use whatever Spirit power he has not to wow the crowds with magic, but to heal and feed. If only he became a part of the ruling elite, think of the possibilities for getting his message out. Think of the good he could do. But his call is not to rule, but to change the rules, to share a picture of what God’s dream for the world is. “What would the world be like if God’s dream for it were fully realized?” the hungry would be fed, the outcasts would be welcomed, the brokenhearted would be cared for, peacefulness and peace would characterize lives and relationships. If only he could get everyone’s attention with spectacular feats, demonstrating that he is so special to God that the normal rules don’t apply, think of the disciples who would line up. But his call is to invite people through the wisdom of his teaching and the quality of his compassion. Jesus is tempted by the fruit of another, and he resists.
We are tempted, sometimes, to think in our own “if only” terms. Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me, “Why were you not Zusya?” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, 2) That old story is an indication of the prevalence of the temptation humans experience to wish they were other, to live in “if only” terms. If only I were born in a different time and place, if only I were taller-richer-smarter-more successful, if only I had made different decisions way back when - - - then my life would be better, then God could really do spectacular things through me. God calls us all, right here, right now as we are, to be the best we can be, to share God’s love with our lives as only we can.
Are there things in our lives that need to change sometimes? Of course. But that change process always begins where we are with who we are. Knowing about change in our lives also involves recognizing what cannot be changed. We cannot change where we were born, when we were born, and to whom we were born. We cannot change past actions, our own, or those things which are a part of our history – both happy and hurtful. All we can do with the past is grow in our understanding of it and weave and reweave it into our present. That is important work, and an important part of growing, but we cannot change that past and those things which have brought us to this place in life. And that’s o.k. because it is in this place in life that God calls us. It is as we are that God invites us to be God’s Spirit people in the world. Each of us has a call to share love and bread and healing and wisdom with the world, and only we can share it in our own way.
And all these lessons about our individual lives apply to our shared life as First United Methodist Church. We are tempted to wish, sometimes, we were other, but need to remember that God calls us right here, right now, with who we are, with our history and all, to be the best First UMC we can be, touching the world with God’s love, standing up in the world for God’s justice, bringing hope and healing as only we can. We may wish we lived in a different time when church life wasn’t quite as complicated as it is today, when Sunday morning church was the only thing happening on Sunday mornings. But we are called to minister in the name of Jesus Christ in this day and time. There are times when we may wish forty years ago we had hired a different architect so that our building does not have some of the shortcomings it has. Some day we, as a congregation may even decide that our facility has become more of a roadblock to ministry than a means to ministry. Right now, this is where we are and we are called to use this gift of a place to the best of our ability – to do things like house parental visits and music lessons, day care and health groups, to offer space to AA, to give the Hmong a place to gather at their new year, to be the site of blood drives and food drives and dental clinics, to be front porch for our community; to be a place where a congregation gathers and grows and sends itself into the world to transform it.
History is not destiny, but it is a resource for our ministry. The Israelites recognized that. Every year they were to rehearse their history. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us… the Lord saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt…” Our history has shaped our values as a congregation. A few weeks ago I offered a picture of what disciples of Jesus Christ here at First UMC look like, or what our values say they look like. Disciples of Jesus Christ here at First UMC are welcoming and inclusive – we work to keep barriers from getting in the way of community here – barriers of age, race, background, orientation. Disciples of Jesus Christ here are committed to growth – we see life as a journey. Disciples of Jesus Christ here want to bring out the best in each other, affirm our gifts. Disciples of Jesus Christ here ask questions – we want a faith that appeals to head, heart and hands, one that is open to mystery and complexity. Disciples of Jesus Christ here really want to make a difference in the world. Our history has brought us to these values and we will change our life together best as we claim these values. And we do want to change. One part of our history that I recently discovered is that for quite some time, we have tended to worship on Sunday about a third of our membership. I would like to see us do better there. But we begin where we are. God calls us as we are in this place and time to be a certain community of faith that only we can be because only we have our history and our people. That is not to diminish God’s call to other congregations, because a part of who we are is a congregation that welcomes working with others. It is simply to affirm our call to be the best First UMC we can be.
The theme for Lent this year is “from darkness to light.” Darkness is a place where our identity is hidden away. The light of God’s love helps us see who we are, affirm who we are, even when we recognize need for change, and invites us to be lights to the world. May we be so. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Tonight, Lent begins, and this season is often associated with serious spiritual disciplines and spiritual practices that are not always easy or fun. So I am going to begin by sharing a poem. Perhaps I should give up poor humor for Lent!

Let Evening Come (Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come)

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in the long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to the air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

When I was asked about a theme for Lent, the idea of “From Darkness to Light” came to mind. Seasonally, this makes sense – as spring nears, the days get a little longer and we appreciate that additional light. We think of Lent as something of a serious time as we prepare for the light and joy of Easter to arrive. So that is our theme this year – “from darkness to light.”
In the Bible, darkness is often used as a negative metaphor. Darkness symbolizes evil – the night is dark and in the dark of night is a time for crime. Remember, the Bible was composed at a time when there were few artificial lights so people were much more tied to natural cycles of light and dark. Walking in the dark of night was more dangerous than in the light of day – so darkness represented that which frightens. In darkness, things are hidden, our faces are hidden from one another. Touring a cave once, we were informed that to exist in total darkness for a length of time would drive a human person stark raving mad. Darkness represents chaos and death, as against light which symbolizes life and happiness and prosperity. We hear the contrast in places such as Ecclesiastes 2:13. Wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. In Lent, then, we commit ourselves to journey toward all that is wise and life-giving and loving, and to light candles in a world which is too darkened by hatred and injustice and unkindness.
But as with many Biblical images, this one speaks polyphonically, multivocally. Not everywhere in the Bible is darkness portrayed negatively. Isaiah 45:7 has God saying, “I form light and create darkness.” Even more strongly, in a work written between the testaments, “The Prayer of Azariah” – a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel included in the Apocrypha, we read: “Bless the Lord, light and darkness.” Darkness can mean something else then. Some kind of darkness can bless God and be a place where the creativity of God is encountered.
It is an invitation to that kind of darkness, of creativity and blessing, that I hear in Jane Kenyon’s poem. Hearing it, one can almost experience the coming of night, the quiet, the serenity – and here we are told God is present. Here darkness might symbolize silence, quiet, slowing down, time for inner reflection. Let evening come.
Where darkness means frightening and fearful, chaos and destruction – cultivate the light of love, life, goodness. Light a candle in a dark world. That it good Lenten practice. Where darkness instead means quiet, slowing down, inner reflection, good Lenten practice invites us to cultivate that darkness, to let evening come.
I hear in Matthew 6, in the words of Jesus there, an invitation, an encouragement to quiet disciplines. We are encouraged to quiet generosity, to giving that is so subtle one hardly notices it oneself. Does that mean all our giving should be anonymous? I don’t think so, but these words invite us to inner reflection. Do we give more for the recognition or for the good the gift will do? Most do both, but which predominates. Answering that question provides insight into our hearts.
We are encouraged to simple prayer, to prayer that is in private, that is not pretentious, that does not rely on extra words. Does that mean we should never pray together? I hope not. I trust not. These words don’t speak against public prayer, but for quiet prayer and simple prayer, public or private. It invites prayer in the quit and dark spaces.
We are encouraged to secret fasting, to practices that discipline our minds and bodies well. Does that mean we should never share our fasting practices, such as giving up red meat for Lent as someone did last year? No. I think it means most of the self-discipline we need is ours to struggle with and we share it only for accountability’s sake, and not so we can point out what a phenomenal spiritual athlete we are.
We are encouraged to cultivate a right heart – through prayer, through generosity, through self-discipline and by other means available. Cultivating a right heart – a heart oriented toward God, toward life, toward goodness, requires time for quiet, for silence, for self-reflection – it requires some darkness.
A boy could not wait to get to high school. The high school kids seemed to be having so much fun. When he got to high school he couldn’t help but notice the people, like his older sister who were in college. They seemed to be having more fun than he was, seemed to be enjoying life more than he. He could not wait to get to college. College, however, seemed to drag on after a time and he was tired of it – tired of all the reading and papers. He couldn’t wait to get out of school and get a job and make some money. When he got his first job, it seemed as though people who were really happy were the ones with a wife or husband, children, a home with a yard – maybe a family dog. After he was married with two children and a mortgage and a dog, he envied those couples whose children had gone away to college. They seemed to have so much more time for each other and for doing the things they wanted to do. Finally, his children left for college, but the cost of tuition added to the cost of his mortgage required a lot of hard work and saving. He couldn’t wait to pay off his debt, own his home outright and retire. Then the real joy in life would begin – he could move to Arizona and play golf every day. One day, standing in a tee box at his favorite golf course near his home in Tucson, the man, still trying to straighten out the slice which continued to plague him even after all these years, the man stood there and couldn’t help but ask, “Is this all?”
Lent is a time to consider how we move from darkness to light – and for lighting candles in the dark places in the world, but also a time for finding a certain darkness, certain times of quiet and shadow where we give quietly, pray silently, fast secretly, and most of all engage in the kind of self-reflection that helps us cultivate a good heart. Let evening come. Amen.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs Out

Sermon preached February 14, 2010

Text: Luke 9:28-43a

The United Methodist Church traces its beginnings as a unique expression of Christian faith to John Wesley, an ordained minister in the Church of England. Wesley was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1728. He came to the Americas in 1735, but his experience here was not positive. His ministry did not go as well as he had hoped and a relationship with a woman ended rather badly. During his travels back to England (1737) Wesley noted how fearful he was, and this was an occasion for religious doubt. Wesley was impressed by Moravian Christians he encountered on the boat, and sought a deeper faith. On May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Journal entry)
C. S. Lewis was not a Christian in his mid-twenties, by his own self-definition. He was a seeker, and what he sought was joy. Lewis was a deeply thoughtful person, and quite good at self-reflection. His book Surprised by Joy is an account of his journey toward Christian faith through his search for joy. Here is a snippet of his story – a moment of significant insight.
I had been wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all…. Joy proclaimed, “You want – I myself am your want of – something other, outside, not you or any state of you…. This brought me already into the region of awe, for I thus understood that in the deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self.
Thomas Forsthoefel is a professor of religion at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvannia, and he has edited a book: The Dalai Lama: the essential sayings for a series called “Modern Spiritual Masters.” Forsthoefel, in the introduction, shares his story of meeting the Dalai Lama. Forsthoefel was one of over a hundred participants in a conference held in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama. Here is how he describes the encounter with the Dalai Lama.
At the end of the conference, in a small hall… the Dalai Lama received each participant personally. When it was my turn to greet him, the Dalai Lama took both my hands and gazed at me. It took a moment for me to gain my bearings; for a moment my mind was scattered, marked by anxiety and self-consciousness. After a moment of such mental “dispersal,” I quickly collected myself and became very aware that the Dalai Lama, in my view, was doing something that far transcended typical mundane encounters. This was no back-slapping, “How’bout them Bulls!” Instead the encounter was something deeper and more penetrating, which I later flippantly characterized as being zapped by the Dalai Lama’s mojo.
All these are experiences of a kind of spiritual ecstasy. In Christian terms we might speak of being swept up in grace, surprised by joy, sensing God nearer than our breath or heartbeat. I have had some of these kinds of experiences. I have had moments in worship where God’s light and love seemed to bathe me – times when I have almost been brought to tears. There have been times in prayer when it seemed as if time had melted away and I experienced an incredible sense of peacefulness.
At times such as these, we have little doubt of the presence of the holy, the divine, the presence of God, and for Christians God has the face of Jesus Christ. These experiences are not unlike the experience related in the first part of this morning’s text where Peter, James and John go up a mountain with Jesus and in their time of prayer hear the voice of God and see Jesus bathed in light. God is remarkably present in these moments of spiritual ecstasy.
Recently I read a story whose title grabbed hold of me – “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” I read the story with great anticipation wondering if it would it be rich in theological references or engaging symbolism. Might it be a story about some spiritual ecstasy? It was not. The chief protagonist of the story is a man named Ray who lives in a small town, probably in Connecticut, called Farnham. Ray is a semi-retired attorney who has very mixed feelings about his marriage to a sometimes pretentious and difficult woman named Eleanor. Ellie reminds Ray every now and again that they promised to be married “for better or for worse.” She is not an entirely unsympathetic character, having undergone a hysterectomy at age 33. The other primary character in the story is Ray’s daughter-in-law, Macy. She is a young woman whose life has been a struggle. Her mother has drug problems and borrows money. Macy was fortunate to receive a college scholarship, but lived in a boarding house and worked hard just to make ends meet. Macy has also lied to Ray and her husband, Ray and Ellie’s son Neil, about her parents and her background. She has told them that her parents are dead. Another particularly memorable character is Randeane, owner and waitress at The Cup coffee shop. She describes her father as Jewish left-wing and her mother as white trash Pentecostal. Ray believes he is in love with Randeane. Randeane offers wisdom in the story. Visiting Randeane, Ray is offered his choice of a chair or a hammock. He chooses the chair, telling Randeane that the hammock is too unpredictable. “Oh, life’s a hammock,” Randeane said. There is little here of spiritual ecstasy. What the author provides instead are small incidents which tell us something about these people and their relationships, especially about Ray and Macy. The story moves through moments of disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, small pleasures, and a few deep joys. No grand theology. No mysterious symbolism. No spiritual ecstasy.
So I thought a little bit about that and it occurred to me that maybe that’s just the point of the story. Where does the God of love hang out? Maybe God hangs out in the midst of ordinary lives that are sad and disappointing and embarrassing; lives with scars from hurts large and small; lives with small pleasures and a few deep joys. God is there too, not just in those incredible moments of spiritual ecstasy.
And that is a good thing. In his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield writes: Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the Divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace – these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: they don’t last. (xiii)
If God is there only when we have these incredible moments of joy and ecstasy, these feelings of oneness and timelessness, then God isn’t around much. Even in today’s story, you have the sense that this experience of Peter, James and John was not long lasting. And the next day they all come down from the mountain where there are crowds, and shouting, and unhealthy spirits, and difficult tasks.
Even though experiences of spiritual ecstasy are rather fleeting, they can be a valuable component of the spiritual live. They help us see the world differently, they help us see that the God of love indeed cares about this world and hangs out with us. To use the more eloquent image offered by the poet William Blake: If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Beyond that, such experiences can give us courage, energy, determination, hope and joy for the ordinary tasks of life. If after the ecstasy, the laundry, it is a good thing that the ecstasy can shore us up for the tasks of life – for addressing the needs of healing in a broken world, for confronting evil, for listening for God even as crowds are shouting.
Whatever our experiences of spiritual ecstasy, they are meant to change us for our ordinary lives, for the God of love hangs out there, too. It is God we seek, not spiritual thrills for themselves, and the God we know in Jesus Christ is present in the mountain-top experiences, and in the midst of a broken and crying world. The God of love hangs out wherever we are and wants our lives to reflect that love. God wants our lives, in fact, to be a part of God’s hanging out in the world. May it be so. Amen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Trolling Through Ice

Sermon preached February 7, 2010

Texts: Luke 5:1-11

Awhile back I was leading a meeting, and we had been discussing some issue or another and we had gotten to a place where it seemed like we just needed more time. So I said to the group, “Why don’t we put a pin in it?” By that I meant, let’s remember what we have discussed and come back to it later. No one had ever heard that expression before, and I got these blank looks staring back at me. I had to explain what I meant, and most were relieved. Some thought that I meant – “stick a pin in it” which has a whole different meaning. When you stick a pin in something the image is of popping a balloon – the idea dies.
It was an interesting reminder that images aren’t universal, nor do images keep their meaning over time. A figure of speech can fail to connect with others , and figures of speech can become outdated. As I was thinking about this, I wondered if even now someone listening to the old Turtles’ song “Happy Together” might be confused by the line – “if I should call you up invest a dime.” I can imagine people asking, “What does it mean to invest a dime?”
All this is mere introduction to a confession. I confess that I have never liked the image Jesus uses in this passage from Luke. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” I like the “do not be afraid” part. It is amazing how often we come across that phrase in the Bible, but that is an upcoming sermon. I have never warmed up to the fishing for people image. I remember the song we learned in Sunday School, “I will make you fishers of men.” Didn’t really like it then. Maybe this image has outlived its usefulness? Maybe it is time not just to put a pin in it put to stick a pin in it!
Yet I can give up this image and this passage from Luke still speaks powerfully to me about reaching out, about good news, about, dare I say it, “evangelism.” But many of us associate “evangelism” with fishing for people; in fact, the word for many of us conjures up an image of “trolling through ice.” So I am willing to let go of that word if I need to. I would rather put a pin in it and come back to it later, but I am not going to push that.
The basic reality is that we as Christians, we who have been touched by God’s love in Jesus Christ, we who seek to live out that love in our lives day after day, we who have said “yes” to God’s invitation to new life, we who have experienced God’s grace - - - we have good news to share.
Here’s good news – look what happens when Jesus shows up. Let me tell the story again using The Cotton Patch Version. Jesus does some teaching from a boat, then turns to Simon and says, “Go out where it’s deep , and let down your nets for a haul.” Simon answered, “Mister, we’ve worked our heads off all night long and haven’t caught a thing; but if you say so, I’ll put out the nets.” They did, and they caught such a slew of fish that their nets started bursting.
Look what happens when Jesus shows up – wonderful things, marvelous things, unexpected things. A few days ago I wrote something in a journal. One of the lessons of age, that we can survive life’s disappointments, and that there are many more of them than we might have imagined. Okay, so it may not have been the cheeriest thought I have ever thought, but I think it is true. When I was a youth pastor, one of the best things I could do for my youth was to assure them that the current disappointment wasn’t the end of the world. The fact that this boy or this girl did not ask them out was not a sign of the apocalypse. One zit does not make you the creature from the black lagoon. I hope I have been able to do that as a parent, too. We need to take their pain seriously, and if you find the words “it’s no big deal” coming from your mouth – stop; we need to take their pain seriously and assure them that they can make it through because people care and God cares. When you get older, you realize that you have survived a lot of disappointment, and you realize that there is more than you imagined. It is not even that I personally experience tremendous amounts of disappointment, though I experience some like all of us do (the movie you had been excited to see turns out to be a loser, the dinner you spent hours preparing turns out rather ordinary, the plans you made to get away for a day need to be cancelled because your child’s sports team has called an extra practice, the disappointments in the wider world – things like living in a wealthy country that cannot seem to find a way to provide health insurance for all its citizens), I also see the disappointment my children have experienced and it affects me.
So is the good news that when Jesus shows up there is never again any disappointment? Hardly. Have you read the gospels? The good news is that Jesus reminds us of a love that is there for us regardless of disappointment, and when Jesus shows up sometimes unexpectedly wonderful things can happen in our lives – we can feel forgiveness for something that we have been unable to let go of, we can feel new courage for a difficult task, we can know comfort for a sorrowful day. That is good news, and good news that deserves to be shared.
There is another word of the good news in this passage. If the first one is, “look what can happen when Jesus shows up,” the second is “God casts a wide net.” Okay, so I am bordering on the fishing metaphor again, but only tangentially. In the story, the nets are cast and a slew of fish are brought in. Later, however, Simon Peter makes this remarkable statement - - - “Don’t waste your time on a bum like me, sir!” God casts a wide net, and that image conjures up for me feelings of rescue and help and inclusivity - - - God casts a wide net and it includes bums like me!
Do you ever have those Peter days – “don’t waste your time on a bum like me”? Do you ever wonder if you are worth the change you may want to make in your life? Do you ever wonder if you have done something that can never be healed or forgiven or overcome? I am joining others in reading Mel White’s book, Stranger At the Gate: to be gay and Christian in America, and though I am only in the early pages, I can feel with him his feelings of rejection. As a teenager, stuff was going on inside of him, and he surmised that it must be horrible because no one would even talk about it. And to that we respond with good news, God casts a wide net. That does not mean God condones everything anyone has done. It does mean that God’s love and grace and care are never withdrawn. It also means that God’s love is wider than some of our social conventions about what is acceptable. Just because society calls you a bum, doesn’t mean that you are. In a world that has been good about dividing people by race or class or heritage or affectional orientation, the good news is that God’s love doesn’t do that.
So there is good news here - when Jesus shows up unexpected things happen, and God casts a wide net. Good news begs to be shared, and it is our task to keep pointing at the net. We do that best as we are willing with humility and authenticity and integrity talk about the difference Jesus makes in our lives. We are not baiting hooks, we are pointing at the wideness of God’s love and the power of God’s love as we have experienced it in Jesus. I am a different person because I continue to grapple with and struggle with and be embraced by the Jesus way in life. I am not perfect, but I hope I am growing, and growing in ways that I would not have had I not been on this Jesus way. With Jesus I find the courage to confront my inner dilemmas. With Jesus, I know that while I cannot do all the good that needs doing in the world it is not o.k. to turn away from the hurt and pain of the world. I have a healing task to perform and with Jesus I can do it a little better.
We keep pointing at the net with our lives. St. Francis once said, “preach the gospel, sometimes use words.” On Wednesday in confirmation we discussed a question one of the students had posed. “Why does faith get in the way of people being good, kind and loving?” That is a profound question, and we must admit to the truth behind it. People of faith have done horrible things in the world – blown up buildings, become suicide bombers, threatened people with hell for not agreeing with them. It is our job to point to the wide net of God’s love by being people of faith who are kind and good and loving. There is this wonderful Alison Krause song about love that says, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.” Maybe we share the power of God’s love in Jesus best when we point to the net with our lives and say nothing at all. But a word now and again doesn’t hurt, either. Not trolling through ice, pointing at the net. Amen.

Monday, February 1, 2010

All You Need Is

Sermon preached January 31, 2010

Texts: Luke 4:21-30; I Corinthians 13:1-13

There’s nothing you do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
It’s easy.
All you need is……

All You Need Is Love

Familiar words to many of us. All you need is love – it’s easy. One of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, once said he was very glad that most of The Beatles songs were about peace and love. He continued that tradition in his solo career. One song of his popular when I was in high school was entitled “Silly Love Songs” - - - “love isn’t silly at all.” It isn’t, nor is it really easy.

Silly Love Songs

Let’s go back a couple of millennium. In Nazareth, a hometown boy is making a public appearance. Jesus is in the synagogue and “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Yet apparently not all were amazed. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Somehow, because he was familiar, his words seemed less eloquent, less amazing to some. He read Scripture and commented upon it, and the more he spoke, the more irritated the people became. Why should we listen to this guy. We know him. We know his family. One of the lessons of this story is that we can become immune to the power of something when it becomes too familiar, too well-known. We can become tone deaf to words we hear too often, immune to their power and potential.
There may be few better illustrations of that than the very familiar words from I Corinthians 13. Practically every wedding we attend in a church, or where a Christian clergy is officiating uses some of these words. I know I use them often in that context. We can buy posters and wall hangings and plaques with these words on them. But because they are so familiar, we risk missing their power. We risk making I Corinthians 13 some kind of silly love song. But love isn’t silly, and if we really listen, if we open our ears, our hearts, our minds, these words should shake us a little, should challenge us, should shape us and change us.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. For someone who gets up in front of people to speak a lot, these words challenge. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. For someone who has spent a great deal of time reading, and thinking and learning, these words put learning in a different context, a challenging context. If I give away all my possession, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. O.K., so I haven’t given it all away, but I believe in service, in doing good, and these words challenge all of us who believe in doing good – doing it without love is dangerous.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I appreciate the Contemporary English Version translation of the last phrase: Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting.
This is love, and when we read these words we should feel challenged to the depth of our souls. This is love, and when we read these words we should know that love wants to mess with us, to change us, to shake us up. This is love.
This is the love with which we are loved. It is fascinating that God makes no appearance in this chapter at all, nor is Jesus mentioned. But we need to read these words in the context of the letter of which they are a part, and this letter is written out of a sense that these people are recipients of God’s grace, God’s love (1:4), and that they have received this in relationship with Jesus as the Christ.
This is love. This is the love with which we are to live. Now living such love is challenging enough in our most intimate relationships. That’s why this chapter is a wonderful reading for weddings. In some ways, there are parts of love that may be even more challenging in our closest relationships. I don’t know about you, but little things can become irritants, and the chances for irritability seem greater at home. So love is a challenge even there.
But Paul was writing not for a wedding. He was writing for a church, a church like this church or any other church. And the church to which Paul was writing was having some problems. That remains true of churches today, but if you think we have problems sometimes, you should read this whole letter again. This church was mired in conflict. The very faith in Jesus Christ that brought this community of people together was being used to divide them. People began developing a hierarchy of spiritual gifts – these gifts made one more spiritual. A dangerous spiritual elitism was forming here, and if you were not among the spiritual elite, you might be excluded from parts of church life. The church was divided among rich and poor members. They would have a church meal, and in this part of the social hall was “the haves”, and they were eating and drinking becoming full and a little tipsy (this was not a Methodist Church); and in that part of the social hall were the people barely getting by, and sharing was not taking place.
Into that conflicted environment come these Spirit-inspired words from Paul. How do we measure deep spirituality – by love! How do we know the Spirit is working in our lives – when we grow in love. Nothing wrong with eloquent speech, or deep learning, or sacrificial giving – these are important, but without love they are next to nothing.
And this is love: patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, supportive, loyal, hopeful, trusting. Where love is active envy and arrogance and resentment and irritability are on the wane.
Listen. Hear. Hear not just with your ears, but also with your heart, your mind, your soul. We are in danger of making these words a silly love song, but love isn’t silly. It is true, all we need is love – but it is this soul-challenging, heart-stretching, Spirit-inspired and spirit inspiring love that we need. In the end, Paul says, “love.”
And while we are thinking about love, let's add the strong word about love that is also in the story about Jesus. The crowd was bothered by the familiarity of this Jesus. They were especially bothered by his reminder to them that the love of God opens arms wider than we are usually comfortable with. You might imagine that the hometown crowd wanted Jesus to say really nice things about them, how growing up with them helped make him such an amazing preacher. I hope he said some of those things in other places. Here Jesus reminds the folks that the God they worship has a love that reaches out beyond the usual boundaries. Elijah reaches out to a widow in Zarephath in Sidon – non-Jewish territory. Elisha heals the leper Naaman, a Syrian. The love with which we are loved challenges us, stretches us, inspires us to love widely and with abandon. In the end, love.
In 1181 in Assisi, Italy Francesco di Pietro Bernadone was born (1181-1226) into a wealthy family. Francesco enjoyed the privileges of wealth. While he was a kind person, he also appreciated fine food, fine clothes, laughter with friends. There was something in him that began calling him to a different kind of life. In 1205, a searching Francesco made a pilgrimage to Rome. There he witnessed incredible splendor and incredible poverty – poverty about which he knew little first hand. Something whispered to him that he needed to know more. Approached by a beggar on the street, Francesco asked if he might trade clothes with him and then he spent the day in Rome as a beggar. Something moves inside the heart of Francesco – love is stirring in new ways.
As he rides back home, Francesco confronts one of his greatest fears – leprosy. This is how one writer describes the situation at the time. Many lepers on the roads around Assisi were frighteningly and pathetically hideous, their skin discolored and their limbs crippled – they had often lost their hair, fingers, and noses; their bleeding or suppurating sores often gave off the stench of putrefying flesh (House, Francis of Assisi, 57). As he rides Francesco spies a leper. Since childhood, he has feared these people. He could simply ignore the man. He could, if he wished, drop a coin as he passed by. Love is stirring in Francesco, a love that will stretch him, that will open his arms wider than he ever imagined. Francesco comes upon the leper and dismounts. He reaches into his purse and hands him a coin. Francesco then takes the hand of the leper and kisses it. The leper gives him a kiss of peace in return. Days later, Francesco takes a large sum of money to the leper hospital and gathering all the inmates together, he distributes the money, kissing the hand of each. Years later, Francesco, St. Francis, would write that this was the time when God was inviting him to a new life. This is love – demanding, life-changing, energizing, soul-challenging, heart-stretching, Spirit-inspired and spirit inspiring love.
Sean Tuohy is a rich, successful Southern white man. He played basketball for Ole Miss, and married an Ole Miss cheerleader. He owns a chain of restaurants. He is a part of a growing evangelical Christian Church in Memphis. His former cheerleader wife, Leigh Ann, grew up with a firm set of beliefs about black people. Her father was a United States Marshall who loathed black people and wanted to pass that attitude on to his daughter. In 1973 when Memphis integrated their schools, Leigh Ann’s father pulled her out of the public school system. When she married Sean, a number of his former basketball teammates were present, some of them black, and her father asked, “Why are all these [niggers] here.”
Love does strange things. God’s love challenges and stretches. This family ended up welcoming into their home a young black man named Michael Oher, age sixteen, Michael - who hadn’t seen his father in years, whose mother was chemically-dependent, who had a sister he hadn’t seen in years, who had had seven addresses and gone to fifteen different schools in his sixteen years of life. He became a part of their family. A year into this unusual relationship, Leigh Ann would tell people who kept asking her about it, “I love him as if I birthed him.” [information from Lewis, The Blind Side, 65, 67-8, 140, 146]
This is love. If we had no other Scripture than I Corinthians 13, it should shake us and rattle us because it challenges us to the core. In the end, love: demanding, life-changing, energizing, soul-challenging, heart-stretching, Spirit-inspired and spirit inspiring love. It isn’t silly and it isn’t easy, but it is all we need. All you need is love. Amen.