Friday, March 26, 2010

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sermon preached March 21, 2010

Text: John 12:1-8

Joan Chittister: “There is no substitute for the drama that goes on within the self” (Living Well, 41). She may be right, but what if the drama within the self is like a Hitchcock movie – intense and dark?
I don’t know what it was, but Friday March 5 I woke up feeling out of sorts. I was feeling kind of blue, kind of cranky, all mixed in together. Little things at the start of the day, a glitch with my computer and my pedometer, a small spill at breakfast, confirmed that this was a lousy day. Negativity engulfed me. I wasn’t much company and I was alone. I felt all this, could step back a little and recognize what was happening, but I struggled with this much of the day. It was sort of a long day’s journey into night, at least until finally, after struggling, the fog lifted and I could feel o.k. again.
Ever have days like those, or times like those – times when the inner struggle was real and difficult? This morning’s gospel text, strange and brief, invites us to look inside, to look at what’s going on within, to acknowledge that there can be darkness inside and to struggle with it. The text also invites us to acknowledge the good within and to try and strengthen that by the grace of God, with the help of God’s Spirit.
The text is parabolic. Jesus told stories which invited creative and surprising reflection. The author of the Gospel of John often tells stories about Jesus that have the quality of parables, and I think this is one. There is a lot going on here, and a lot that has the quality of parable. The setting of the story is a dinner party, but this is an odd time for a party. Rumor has it that Jesus is in trouble with the authorities, that they are looking to arrest him. Yet there is a party. At the party a very strange and wonderful thing happens. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, took costly perfume, poured it on the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. If the act is not strange enough in itself, some of the details give this story the quality of parable. Judas says that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii - nearly a full year’s wages for a laborer. That amount of money could actually have bought about 100 pounds of perfume. The amounts here are extravagant, lavish. The act itself is wildly countercultural. Jesus should not have let Mary touch him in this way. Mary risks an intimacy that breaks the social conventions of the time. Letting her hair show would also been unseemly.
Then there is Judas. He raises a good question, a practical question, a question of justice. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Why indeed. Then the author invites us inside – inside the heart and mind of Judas. “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” The parable of Mary and Judas invites us to look inside.
The story ends with a startling line from Jesus, one which is easily misunderstood. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” More on that later.
The parable of Mary and Judas, if I might call this story by that name, sets up this fascinating contrast between the two. We have the extravagantly generous heart against the self-centered heart, the open heart against the closed heart, the joyous heart against a spirit unable to celebrate, a spirit of creative risk against one of narrow caution. The parable invites inner reflection because the Judas heart is cloaked in “goodness” – concern for wastefulness, concern for the poor. It invites us to ask – “what’s going on inside?’
Let me tell you that what’s going on inside most of us is that we have within us both the Mary heart and the Judas heart. We have the capacity to be generous, extravagant, open, joyous, to take creative risks. We have the capacity to be self-absorbed, narrow, pinched, overly cautious. The work of God’s Spirit in our lives is the work of strengthening our Mary hearts and struggling against and diminishing the Judas part.
And in this struggle, I don’t think it does us much good to deny the Judas part. We don’t have to call it that. That can seem harsh, but something like that is within us, a darkness within against which we struggle. When we are honest about that, we can even see how that gets masked by good things. Judas masked his angry, self-centered, pinched heart by evoking concern for the poor. The Judas heart is insidious that way. There is a lot in the world to be angry about – poverty, injustice, senseless war, the inability of long-standing enemies to see how destructive their fighting is and to make peace, the inane comments of a Glenn Beck who tells Christians to leave their churches if their churches talk about social justice. But righteous indignation has its limits, and if anger is our default emotion, inner work needs to be done.
I am currently reading a novel called The Book Thief for an interfaith book group I lead. It is a fascinating read, and in it there is a wonderful example of the divided heart that is part of the human condition. The story is set in Germany during the Nazi regime. The contradictory politics of Alex Steiner: Point One: he was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter. Point Two: secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse – gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business – propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers. Point Three: but did that mean they should be driven out completely? Point Four: his family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party. Point Five: somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out. (59-60)
This may be getting out of hand. Do we really have a certain darkness within that can be compared to a Judas or someone who uneasily joined the Nazi Party? Remember, I began with my own divided day, my own inner struggle. I don’t want us to overplay the drama within, I just don’t want us to deny it. There is good that comes from looking within and acknowledging that all is not always sweetness and light inside. There is some good in taking the long day’s journey into night. It is an important step into creating more light inside and in the world.

“In Praise of Self-Deprecation” Wislawa Szymborska

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live and they live and are glad of it.

The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

Acknowledging the inner struggle is an important step is strengthening the good heart – the generous, joyous, open, creative heart. And that generous, joyous, open, creative heart will include a heart open and generous toward the poor. Jesus, in responding to Judas in this parable may be referring to a part of their shared religious tradition – Deuteronomy 15:11 – “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” The whole verse, which parables are good at making cryptic reference to reads like this. Since there will never cease to be come in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open you hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Jesus’ response to Judas should never be taken as an excuse for doing nothing for the poor. The generosity of a Mary heart includes opening up to the poor and needy.
“There is no substitute for the drama that goes on within the self.” Sometimes that drama is a struggle between conflicting tendencies – toward a generous, open, creative, joyous heart or toward a pinched, narrow, self-absorbed crimped heart. This parabolic story invites us to acknowledge the struggle, not to berate ourselves but to strengthen the good heart, to let God’s grace and Spirit work more completely in our lives to strengthen the good heart. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has a strong sense of this inner struggle. He writes about humans as “wounded-wounding creatures” (Age of Psychopathy, 8), but he also writes, “there are so many ways to light up the world” (The Electrified Tightrope, 276). There are so many ways to light up the world. There are so many ways for each of us to light up the world. But we only shine brightest when we are aware of, and struggle with those parts of ourselves that are not light. We shine brightest on the other side of the long day’s journey into night. We don’t ever take that journey alone. We don’t ever struggle alone. Jesus goes with us reminding us always that there are so many ways to light up the world. Amen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ever Present Past

Sermon preached March 14, 2010

Texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

How many of you watched the Academy Award show last Sunday night? I watched different parts of it, sometimes while doing something else. One of the parts of the show that I appreciate most is the “In Memoriam” segment – the portion of the program where some of those who had been a part of the movie industry and died during the past year are remembered. When I first started watching the Oscars years ago I am guessing that I knew very few of those being memorialized – some were probably silent film stars. This year I recognized many: Karl Malden, David Carradine, Dom DeLuise, Ron Silver, Horton Foote. It is a sign of growing older. There were some forgotten, like Farrah Fawcett and Bea Arthur; and some who were all too young – Natasha Richardson and Brittany Murphy.
But we like the Academy Awards because we enjoy the movies and we enjoy the movies because we love a good story. We not only love a good story, stories shape us. I grew up in a home that was not the most progressive place when race was mentioned. My dad did not say a lot about African-Americans, but what he did say was too often derogatory. He used unflattering slang sometimes. Apparently he came by some of those attitudes naturally. A couple of years ago, my grandmother said to me she never really liked black people – except she used another word. One reason I am different is the impact of a movie – Brian’s Song - a made for TV drama about Gayle Sayers, an African-American running back for the Chicago Bears, and his friendship with another Bears running back named Brian Piccolo, a Caucasian. Is that the only reason I don’t hold some of my dad’s and grandmothers attitudes about African-Americans? No, but it played a role.
We love a good story and stories shape us. Good stories also often work at different levels, or they contain many layers. That’s true of the story for today from Luke’s gospel. In fact, we have here a story within a story. First there is the story of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Various religious authorities and leaders see Jesus’ behavior, how he attracted “tax collectors and sinners” and welcomed them. He even ate with them. Such behavior was considered unbecoming among the religiously serious. To their criticism, Jesus responds with a series of stories – a story about lost sheep and how joyful the shepherd is when the lost sheep is found, a story about a lost coin and how happy is the woman who finds the coin she has lost. Then comes the story which we heard – about a man and his two sons. Jesus is telling stories which are meant to teach about God and God’s dream for the world. God seems to welcome all into God’s dream, and when they find their way into it, there is cause for great joy.
So we have this overarching narrative with Jesus telling stories and then we have the story he tells. “There was a man who had two sons.” It is a richly textured story in itself and could easily serve as the basis for a month of sermons. So what are you doing for the next ninety minutes?
It is a rich story, and I want to pursue one angle, an angle in keeping with the overall theme for Lent – “From Darkness to Light.” Today the focus is “Confronting the Darkness of the Past.” What do I mean by the darkness of the past? The past is dark because it is often murky. It can also be dark because it contains pain. Certainly not all the past is dark in either of these senses. Sometimes our memories are clear as a bell. Parts of our past are joyful, not painful – our first kiss, the birth of children, the first time someone called you mom or dad or grandma or grandpa, graduation. But there is murkiness in our past and pain in our past. Michael Eigen writes, “one cannot experience without suffering” (Feeling Matters, 2). I think he is right.
Why even bother with the past? The past is past, isn’t it? Well yes and no. There is truth in the words of novelist William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, Act I, scene 3, p. 80). I balance that statement with another that I find deeply helpful and meaningful. Jack Kornfield, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, 25). But I don’t think Kornfield is trying to say that we just forget and move on. We cannot change the past, and we need to know that. We can, however, reweave it into our present. We can see it differently. We can let it be present in our lives in new ways. Kornfield is saying that forgiveness involves acknowledging that we cannot change the past, yet not letting the past imprison us.
We are our histories, but how we weave those histories together determines whether we grow through and beyond that history or whether we are imprisoned by it. The past never remains past. While we cannot change the past, nor change that it is part of our present, we can change how it is a part of our present.
These lessons can be found in the story of the compassionate father, the wandering and wasteful son, and the angry, small-hearted, petulant son. Consider the father. His past relationship with his wandering and wasteful son is filled with pain, anger, hurt disappointment. His son had taken the money and run. You don’t sense he even let his father know if he was dead or alive. When we arrive at that moment in the story when the wandering and wasteful son returns, the father cannot change what has already happened. He can choose how he will weave what has happened into his reaction to this son right now. He can take his pain and hurt and disappointment and turn his son away, or demand that the son stay distant for awhile – work his way back into the good graces of his father. Few would blame him if he did either. Instead the father weaves all that has happened with love and compassion. He ran, put his arms around his son and kissed him.
The wandering and wasteful son might have known bitterness. Surely his father knew he would not manage his new found wealth well. Why had he given in? He should have been stricter. This son had experienced humiliation, and that can make one bitter and angry. He could have talked himself into continuing stubborn defiance of his family ties. Imagine him saying to himself, “I am going to get back all that I lost. I will not return home until I am somebody.” Instead this son weaves all that has happened with humility and love. He cannot change what he has done, but he can say that perhaps he could have done better. He can seek reconciliation.
Then there is the “good son” who is also angry and small-hearted and petulant. He remains imprisoned by the past. His brother left him to keep up the family business and to take care of dad. He will not reweave his own anger or hurt with anything else. The past is not dead for him, and it will be present as motivation to seethe. His imprisonment by the past even causes him to misread it. To a father with whom he has shared a life he says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Do you think this is a very accurate picture of the past? We are left to wonder whether this son will have the courage to reweave a painful past into a more compassionate present and a more hopeful future.
So, how are you and I going to weave and reweave the past, the ever present past, into our present and our future? Let me, as I move toward concluding, identify four areas that may be worthy of work as we seek to move from darkness to light.
We have made mistakes and been unloving sometimes. All of us. I have made mistakes and been unkind and unloving sometimes. How will we deal with these darker moments of our past? Sometimes we choose to try and bury such things. Our inability to acknowledge that we make mistakes, even more that we have been unkind and unloving sometimes, leaves us constantly on the defensive. If I cannot admit my mistakes and my sins, I try and defend my every action instead of acknowledging my humanity. Will we weave this dark part of the past into the present, instead, with humility and compassion – compassion for ourselves? Will we be like the younger son in the story who does just that? Or will we deny our humanity, refuse humility and become like the bitter big brother?
We have been disappointed and hurt in the past. Suffering has been inflicted on us. People have been unloving and unkind toward us. Can we weave these dark experiences of the past into the present with forgiveness and love, like the father in the story? Let us admit that forgiveness is a process and a goal toward which we move. We may not get there, and certainly not quickly when the hurt has been deep, but if we are not on our way there, where are we going? How are we weaving these past hurts into our present?
The past is not simply individual. We have a social past as well. This week I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Bill McKibben, author and Methodist lay person discuss some of his writing, share some of his concerns. You helped make that possible as this small gathering of clergy and lay people from local churches was held here Tuesday afternoon. As I listened to Bill, I was struck by some of the elements in our social past. We are a country whose culture has moved ever more toward a deep individualism. Individuality is important, but so is community. Will we be imprisoned by our past and keep moving toward more sweeping individualism, or will we choose to weave back in the balancing theme of the commons, the community, the common good? McKibben also argues that the economic ideas of the past drive us in a certain direction. We think of the goal of our economic life as growth and production. Growth, up to a certain point, is good. Production of more goods matters to those on the lowest end of the economic spectrum. But McKibben argues that past a certain point, these inherited ideas from the past are not life-giving for us. Studies show that more does not make us happier when our basic needs are met and we have some security about this. Our planet may not be able to sustain the kind of economic growth we envision with our current models. Perhaps we need to weave the story of growth anew, imagining wealth as wealth of human connection, not simply economic production.
We often inherit from our social past ideas of insiders and outsiders. We inherit barriers of prejudice and exclusion. In our society some of the most powerful have been ideas about race and sexual orientation. As a society, we are working on weaving a new story about race, about our common humanity. The work is incomplete, but we have begun. Our work in breaking down barriers around sexual orientation is not as far along, and if we are honest, one place we have inherited ideas about excluding GLBT persons is the church. We have misread our Scriptures to reinforce our discomforts. Can we reweave this story and confront the darkness of our past exclusion? Can we weave from our dark past a newer story of justice and compassion – values that are much deeper and more frequently mentioned in our Scriptures than texts about sexual orientation?
Stories have power. Will we weave this story from the past – this story of the compassionate father, the wandering and wasteful son, and the angry, small-hearted, petulant son, into our lives more deeply so that the ever present past does not imprison us with our past mistakes, our past hurts, our past paradigms, our past prejudices, but rather serves as a place from which we grow more compassionate, more loving, more relational, more just? May it be so by the power of the love and grace of God, who is like a father running out to meet a long lost son and throw him a party to which all are invited. Amen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Afraid So

Sermon preached February 28, 2010

Texts: Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

Afraid So Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?
Did the glass break?
Was the baggage misrouted?
Will this go on my record?
Are you missing much money?
Was anyone injured?
Is the traffic heavy?
Do I have to remove my clothes?
Will it leave a scar?
Must you go?
Will this be in the papers?
Is my time up already?
Are we seeing the understudy?
Will it affect my eyesight?
Did all the books burn?
Are you still smoking?
Is the bone broken?
Will I have to put him to sleep?
Was the car totaled?
Am I responsible for those charges?
Are you contagious?
Will we have to wait long?
Is the runway icy?
Was the gun loaded?
Could this cause side effects?
Do you know who betrayed you?
Is the wound infected?
Are we lost?
Will it get any worse?

Jesus confronts an “afraid so” moment in this morning’s Scripture reading. Pharisees are warning him that as he heads toward Jerusalem he risks being killed by Herod. Will it get any worse? Afraid so. Threats from political authorities who have the ability to carry out those threats are something to be afraid of. And Jesus may have felt some of that fear, but if so, he does not let it define him, does not let it get in the way of his mission to cast our demons and perform cures today and tomorrow and until his work is finished. Jesus responds to a fearful circumstance with courage and compassion.
Fear. We all experience, and sometimes even seek it out in small doses. Part of the thrill of a roller coaster is the small bit of fear that heightens our senses for the ride. The same dynamic applies to movies that play some on our fear. Fear has a healthy side to it. Theologian Donald Evans put it well. “Fear can mobilize my body and mind into a temporary unity to meet some specific threat; it focuses my strength and attention in a particular direction” (Struggle and Fulfillment, 44). If I am walking in the woods and see a bear some distance off, I wouldn’t mind just a little fear mobilizing me to action.
But fear becomes a problem when it becomes too pervasive, when it begins to define our basic life stance, when it is the major chord in our response to the world. Henri Nouwen writes perceptively about this kind of fear. Often fear has penetrated our inner selves so deeply that it controls, whether we are aware of it or not, most of our choices and decisions…. Fear can make us angry and upset. It can drive us into depression or despair. It can surround us with darkness and make us feel close to destruction and death. (Lifesigns, 15). Fear becomes pervasive in many forms – especially fear of some of life’s inevitable issues. We fear change. We fear loss. We fear difference. We fear intimacy. We fear our own power and freedom. We fear making mistakes and looking foolish. We fear meaninglessness.
When fear becomes so pervasive it becomes insidious. Brain research shows that fear and anxiety can interfere with clarity of thought. Pervasive fear can paralyze us, inhibit action, or move us to act in ways that hurt others or distance others. Again, Donald Evans: [Fear] scatters my strength and tears me apart as I respond to a nameless threat which teases me and torments me from every direction at once. I lose my grip on myself and the world I live in. (op. cit.) When fear becomes pervasive, a life stance, we even lose touch with the source of that fear.
Because fear threatens to become pervasive and therefore insidious, the Bible, Christian faith, the God of the Bible and our faith speak a word – do not be afraid. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear. The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid…. Let your heart take courage.” It is not that there are no reasons to fear. The Psalmist does a good job of mentioning his predicament. Evildoers, adversaries and foes assail him, they are breathing out violence. He even hints that God can seem hidden. It is not that there are not things in the world to be afraid of, but making fear a pervasive life stance destroys life. I have always appreciated Parker Palmer’s words on fear, and I believe they reflect the Psalm. It is no accident that all of the world’s wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy…. “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear…. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have…. We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94)
As we continue on our Lenten journey from darkness to light, the journey means confronting pervasive fear and grabbing hold of and being grasped by the light of faith. Faith can translate into courage, I think.
Faith is the courage to live with compassion in the face of those powers that threaten life and well-being. Herod is a fox, Jesus says, and then goes on to compare himself to a loving hen who desires nothing more than to gather her brood under her wing. The forces of the fox are alive and well – the forces of violence, injustice and oppression, the forces of hunger and poverty, the forces of hatred. Faith is the courage to live with compassion nevertheless. Faith is the courage to keep on with the mission of Jesus to bring healing to the world and to remind all God’s creation that they are cared for by this God whose symbol is not the tyrant Herod, but the Jesus who reaches out like a mother hen to gather them all in.
Faith is the courage to make needed changes in our lives and in the world. A favorite prayer of mine remains Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Grace is serenity, wisdom, and courage. Faith is the courage to make needed changes. Change is difficult in our lives, in our church, in our world. But change happens and it is up to us whether we will make positive changes in our lives, our church and our world to meet the new conditions in the world
Faith is the courage to live compassionately with loss. Life involves loss, and we will say more about that next week. But because there is loss in life, fear of loss can lead us to hide from life itself. Instead in the midst of loss, may we have the courage to live with compassion. Many of us have been moved this week by the courage of the Canadian Olympic figure skater Joannie Rochette. Joannie’s mother died unexpectedly on Sunday as she arrived in Vancouver to watch her daughter compete. Joannie, with great courage and grace, skated. On Tuesday she wept when she finished her short program, and was in third. Thursday night she skated beautifully and won a bronze medal. Loss happens, and faith is the courage to live with grace and compassion in the face of loss.
Faith is the courage to welcome difference – to listen well, to hear deeply and to learn from people whose experience of life is different from ours. Fear of difference cuts us off from learning about some of the richness of the human experience, and this fear is tragically pervasive. We fear others who look different, who talk different, who come from different places, who practice different religions. Peter Gomes, Minister at Memorial Chapel at Harvard, writes movingly about a fear of difference he believes to be pervasive in our society. The contemporary fear gripping America appears to be a fear of the normalization of homosexuality. What a strange pathology this is – fear that the sexual identity and practices of a minority will somehow taint the identity and practices of the majority…. This irrational fear of the sexual other is all the more dangerous because it conceals itself within the sanctions of religion. (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 106) Faith is the courage to shine the light of love into the dark fear of difference.
Faith is the courage to share ourselves. We fear intimacy because we often fear that when people get to know us, they will reject us, and we have experienced that from time to time. But fear of rejection leaves us lonely and isolated. We need to risk appropriate intimacy with other, we need the courage to offer ourselves to others for our growth and theirs.
Faith is the courage to exercise our freedom. “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” We say “yes” to that at baptism and confirmation. Faith is the courage to say “yes” to that again and again and again. You have some freedom. You have some power. You can work to change your life and your world by the grace of God. Faith is the courage to claim that.
Faith is the courage to act even knowing we will make mistakes and our mistakes may seem foolish. Those of us who have ever struggled with perfectionist tendencies, and I am among them, know how deep fear of failure can run. We know how deeply we fear looking stupid, foolish, unprepared, incompetent. Faith is the courage to act in a world where not everything turns out just as you might hope.
Faith is the courage to live with compassion, love and justice in spite of powerful voices that tell you that these have no meaning, that life is about struggle to get what you want, and the more you get the better. Faith is the courage to proclaim and live that the way of compassion, love and justice is the way to meaningful life. It is the way of Jesus Christ, the way of God.
From darkness to light. From fear to courage, compassion and love. The church is a community of comfort in a fearful world. The church is a community of courage in a world where fear can sometimes seem sensible as a pervasive stance. The church is a community of compassion, seeking to make the world less fearful.
Is this going to hurt? Afraid so. Will it leave a scar? Afraid so. Could this have side effects? Afraid so. Will it get worse? Afraid so. But fear need not define us, should not define us. Faith, hope, and love do. Do not be afraid. Amen.