Friday, April 23, 2010

Sing a Song

Sermon preached April 18, 2010

Text: Acts 9:1-20

I had great dinner companions on Wednesday night. I was seated at a table with Libby and her son Tommy, with Josh and Josie, and with Bob. At one point in Tommy began looking through a hole in his cracker and I said something about “looking at the world through a hole in the cracker.” Josh said that he thought this might be a good sermon title, and I agreed, though Bob said I seemed to prefer titles that had some connection to a 60s or 70s pop song. I guess there is a pattern here, so I jumped in with an idea – “Crackerbox Palace.” No one at the table remembered that George Harrison song. Some Sunday there may be a sermon with “cracker” in the title!
Well, the reference to a past song is the basis for the sermon title this morning – “Sing a Song” - - - anyone know the group – Earth, Wind and Fire! (play song) When you feel down and out, sing a song it’ll make your day. Here’s a time to shout, sing a song it’ll make a way.
Well we all have stories to tell. We all have songs to sing. We have stories to tell and songs to sing about our journeys of life and faith, about the twists and turns and discoveries and surprises of our relationship with the God of Jesus Christ. We have stories to tell and songs to sing about how God has touched our lives, about how faith has made us different even as we are still works in progress.
Acts 9 is a story, a song, as it were, about a man’s life. It is a dramatic story about a man named Saul who had seen his mission in life to be the stamping out of a small, suspect movement within his own faith. He was a person who breathed threats against these disciples of Jesus, these “Christians.” He was a person so convinced of the rightness of his position, he thought it appropriate to forcefully oppose those who disagreed. But something convinced him otherwise – a dramatic experience, a spiritual jolt. His story is unlike most of our own, I might guess, though perhaps there are elements of the dramatic in our own faith journeys. The novelist Flannery O’Connor once said of this story, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” (Feasting on the Word) Saul’s life change was so complete and dramatic, that he changed his name from Saul to Paul. Either that, or his previous life had so many negatives attached to it that he changed his name.
Paul’s story is so dramatic, it often leaves us sheepish about sharing our stories of faith. We, perhaps, have not changed so dramatically so quickly. We, perhaps, have little in our lives which would cause us to change our names. The notes of Paul’s song are so overwhelming that it makes us less willing to share our song. But there is another story here, another song – the story of Ananias. We don’t know much about him. There are no other references to him in the Bible. He seems to have possessed a quiet faith. “Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias.” This quiet faith was an open and courageous one. He paid attention to God’s Spirit, listened for God in his life. He was willing to reach out in the name of Jesus Christ even when he was afraid. Yet without the quiet faith of Ananias, Saul’s story would be different.
Reading these stories of faith encourages us to listen to stories of faith, to tell stories of faith, to sing our songs. In listening we learn. In telling we strengthen our commitment.
My own story of faith is more like an Ananias story, but with a little of Paul. I grew up in a family where church was not a strong priority. My dad did not go to church. My mom liked to go some, but could not drive, so going to church meant walking eight blocks. We traveled out of town a fair amount. I participated in religious release classes, and still have the Gideon New Testament from that class (January 30, 1968). In eighth grade I made a distinct commitment to Jesus Christ, and in some ways it turned my life upside down. It’s not that I went from something terrible to something wonderful, but my life has never been the same. Since that time I have wrestled with questions of faith and life. I have prayed and read the Bible and worshipped as a part of the discipline of living. I have sought to trace the social implications of the gospel as I think about the wider world. Who would ever have imagined that I would someday be up in front of people discussing same-sex marriage, and that I would be doing that as a clergy person?
My call to ministry was much more Ananias like. My journey of faith in college became a journey of questions and explorations, of seeking to incorporate into my faith things like psychology and philosophy and politics and history and literature. When I finished college, majoring in philosophy and psychology, seminary seemed a good next step – not to become a clergy person necessarily, but to explore more deeply my faith. But in the midst of that exploration, God whispered, God’s Spirit brushed my heart as a slight breeze brushes a cheek, and in that was an invitation to ordained ministry. It just seemed what my gifts, graces and experiences led me too. It made sense – no lightening bolts, or thunderous voices. Maybe God will, or even is calling some of you that way. And I followed – not always easily, but I followed.
Telling my story helps me continue to live it.
Listen. Tell. Sing.
Many of us have had the privilege over the past few months of reading Mel White’s book Stranger at the Gate. It is the story of one man’s struggle to understand himself and his relationship to God. It is the story of a person who finds that he feels attraction to and affection for other men – affectional orientation is more accurate, I think, than the term sexual orientation. How could this be, he wondered. He was a deeply committed Christian and understood this affectional orientation to be wrong, immoral, evil, perverted, but try as he might for forty years – including therapy, exorcism and electro-shock treatments, that orientation wouldn’t change. Maybe it did not need to. Maybe God loved him and affirmed him just as he was. As he was coming to that realization, he was also hearing stories of others who struggled, and he shares those in his book – stories including this one.
A young man comes to an Evangelicals Concerned meeting. This is difficult for me. I have never told anyone why I was sent to the hospital last year. And I’m ashamed to tell it now. When I told my parents that I was gay, they told me that I was no longer welcome in their home. I went to the garage got a bottle of paint thinner, and drank it. They had taught me about sharing Jesus’ love since I was a child and then when I needed a little love of my own, they sent me away. (235-236)
And many of us had the joy of hearing Mel speak over the weekend at the Opening Our Doors conference. Hearing such stories is what makes most difference for people who have questions about those with a different affectional orientation. Hearing how God works in their lives changes minds. And in his remarks over the weekend, Mel spoke of the vital importance of friendship. “No issue is as important as friendship.” Friendships sustain us on the journey. I have been thinking since I heard this that I would like us to be a church that fosters friendships – a place where friendships might flourish and/or where we can learn the gifts and skills of friendship. Among those skills are the skills of listening to the stories of others and telling our own stories. Sing your song.
This is also Earth Sunday, and stories are vitally important here, too. There is a place for statistics and abstract moral arguments when it comes to making the case that the human community needs to take better care of the earth. We need to debate policy options and the human contribution to climate change. But stories also have a vital place. When I hear how it is that the natural world inspires awe, how it draws a person into the sacred and holy, my own sense of care for the earth is increased. I am reminded of my own experiences with a wildly brilliant sunset coming down out of dark clouds or stopping in the woods on a snowy night to listen only to the wind and silence. Hearing those stories, I know that as we damage creation, we cut-off an important source of communication with the God of creation.
Poems often tell stories of encountering creation most powerfully, so I would like to share a Mary Oliver poem this Earth Sunday (Evidence, 47)
I am standing
on the dunes
in the heat of summer
and I am listening

to mockingbird again
who is tonguing
his embellishments
and, in the distance,

the shy
weed loving sparrow
who has but one
soft song

which he sings
again and again
and something
somewhere inside

my own unmusical self
begins humming:
thanks for the beauty of the world.
Thanks for my life.

We have stories to tell about God’s love and grace, about faith that sustains and our own journeys, about questions answered and new questions posed, about discovering the Spirit in surprising places, about the gifts of friendship, about how caring for the earth is caring for our own soul.
Listen… Listen.
Sing your song, it’ll make a way.
When you don’t sing your song, the symphony of First United Methodist Church is not as rich a song as it could be. Amen.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

What's The Point

Sermon preached April 11, 2010

Texts: John 20:19-31

In a wonderful bit of television metanarrative, Jerry and George, on the television show “Seinfeld” are meeting with television executives from NBC to pitch an idea for a television show based on the person Jerry Seinfeld. George, as he sometimes does, has an idea stuck in his head that he cannot let go of – that the show will be about nothing. The chief executive from NBC is skeptical, while George is adamant – no plot, no story, no character development. “So why would people watch it?” “Because it’s on television.”
Truth be told, I don’t watch a lot of television these days, but from some of the ads I see when I do watch, it seems like maybe there is a lot of nothing that has gotten on television. I don’t really get some of it. What’s the point? I hear about shows where women vie for the attention of a man, or men vie for the attention of women, and you see people’s pain and heartbreak, and if the magazines whose covers I see standing in line at the grocery store are any indication, even after the choice is made, things don’t always turn out well. Why would someone want to put their very real pain and heartbreak on television that way? What’s the point?
Maybe someone asked the writer of John’s Gospel that question at some time. You’ve written down all this stuff – what’s the point? In John 20:30-31, he answers that very question. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John, in composing his gospel, was not engaged in doing journalism or history – though there are facts in his gospel. Whatever biblical inspiration means it needs to be consistent with human authorship and human creativity. Each of the gospel writers took stories about Jesus and crafted a work from those stories – including some and not others, locating them in different places in their narratives. John is the only gospel writer to tell the story about Thomas. John’s purpose is to help people come to believe and to have new life. Actually, that’s not a bad way to think about the purpose of the Bible as a whole. But the kind of “belief” that John is interested in, that the Bible is interested in is not so much intellectual assent – belief “that” - - - belief that this or that happened, etc. Rather the gospel and the Bible are most interested in belief as faith, as trust.
In his book, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, argues that the essence of Christian belief is trust, confidence. Belief is faith that makes “a difference in how the world feels and how you feel” (6). Faith was one theme of confirmation this past Wednesday and I share with the students two views of faith that have been important to me.
Daniel Day Williams: Faith is response. It is the whole-souled giving of life into the keeping of God who is the absolutely trustworthy source and redeemer of life.
Dorothee Soelle: Without faith you can’t live authentically…. You cannot live authentically without trusting that life is good, even your life, that the difficulties and setbacks are not the last word, not even for you, and that your life has a purpose.
Faith, new life. That’s why John tells the stories he tells in the gospel. He is inviting us to faith, and his invitation is also God’s invitation to faith and new life.
We see that very dynamic in the story John shares just before offering his “what’s the point” comment – the story of Thomas. Thomas is not present when the disciples first experienced Jesus as alive. Jesus offers words of peace. Jesus breathes on them, sharing God’s Spirit, his Spirit with them. But Thomas has missed that, and he is unwilling to simply take their word for what happened. A week later, he, too experiences the risen Christ. He received the Spirit in a different way. His faith is renewed. His life will be different. Legend has it that Thomas took the good news about Jesus to India. Early Christian writings bear his name.
But more importantly for John, the Thomas story leads into our story. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We who live centuries after Jesus have not seen him in the way his first followers did. We don’t know what he looked like. We don’t know the timber of his voice. We don’t know the facial expressions he used when he spoke. Yet, we trust that the story of Jesus did not end all those centuries ago, that it is a continuing story, that his is a continuing life that still affects ours. Jesus still brings peace, still instills Spirit, still sends us out. We trust. We know new life. We are blessed. Again, Rowan Williams: Because of Jesus we can now see that what God has always meant to happen is… peace and praise…. This and this alone is God’s agenda: the world he had made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt. (8)
That’s the point – trust and new life. It’s the point of John’s Gospel, it’s the point of the Bible, it’s the point of Christian faith - - - an invitation to trust a trustworthy God and in relationship with God live life fully. And this God is the God of the risen Christ.
In their book Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, put new life in the context of resurrection, just as John does in his gospel. The Resurrection was the gift of persistent love, stronger than death, they write. And as disciples experienced that gift, celebrated it in community they took strength to embody ethical grace in the world – the world that God so generously loved (54,55). We trust God. We trust God’s love. We trust that God has no other agenda than to love and bring peace, reconciliation, freedom, justice, righteousness into the world. We trust and are made different by that trust. We trust and we live differently – live with ethical grace.
A final image and story. Desmond Tutu, in his new book, Made for Goodness, talks about his faith, his trust in God’s love. Through the years I have been blessed with so many people who have “put skin on” God’s love for me. One person who showed me God’s love “with skin on” was my maternal grandmother, Kuku, who brought me jam-filled treats as the end of the day. As was my mother, who made the long, weekly treks to the hospital when I was sick with tuberculosis. Before that, when at age six I had suffered a severe burn on my leg, she had made daily trips to that hospital to visit me. I hated that hospital, too. I hated the food. I hated the smells. I hated being there. My mother had to have me discharged from the hospital early because my sustained piteous whimpering was disturbing the other patients. Of course that meant more work for her, taking care of me at home. (183)
What’s the point of Christian faith? What’s the point of showing up here week after week to sing and pray? What’s the point of our life together as First United Methodist Church? Trust. New life.
Trust deeply in God’s love – persistent love, stronger than death.
Put skin on that love for others.
Embody ethical grace in the world.
Be blessed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Take a Sad Song And

Sermon preached Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010

Text: Luke 24:1-12

There are a number of people who have been here a long time this morning and I really appreciate them all – those who worked with the breakfast, musicians, others. Thank you. Some have already heard the sermon I am about to preach, though they are never exactly the same twice. Still, I thought a small 11 a.m. bonus was in order – no I am not cutting five minutes! A group of salesmen went to the funeral of one of their colleagues. As a few of them went to view the body, they couldn’t help but notice that their friend did not look good. “Gosh, he looks just terrible,” one of them finally admitted. “What did he have?” To which another replied, “North Dakota, South Dakota, western Minnesota…” (Pretty Good Joke Book, 4th ed. 99)
One Easter morning, a Sunday School teacher asked her class if they knew the origins of this special day. One young man responded immediately, “It’s opening day for the Yankees and the Mets!” Not wishing to stifle creative thinking, the teacher responded, “Yes, that is correct! But I had something else in mind.” A young girl then stood and remarked, “This is the day we get nice new clothes and go find the eggs from the Easter Bunny.” “That’s right,” said the teacher, “but there’s something else just a little more important.” A young man then jumped up and yelled, “I know, I know! After Jesus died on the cross, some of his friends buried him in a tomb they called a sepulcher.” The teacher thought, “I don’t believe it, someone actually knows.” The little boy continued, “And three days later Jesus arose and opened the door of his tomb and stepped out.” “Yes, yes,” said the teacher, “go on, go on!” And the youngster said, “And if he sees his shadow, we have six more weeks of winter.” (A Minister, a Priest, and a Rabbi, 46-47)
This is a silly story, and, in some ways, an idle tale. “Idle tale” that was the first reaction of those who heard the story of the resurrection. How could this be? Jesus died a cruel, gruesome death at the hands of the Roman authorities. How is it possible that he lives? Yet, over time, each came to know the reality of that morning. The testimony of the women became a reality for them. Each disciple experienced the Jesus they had known as wise teacher, healing presence, visionary leader, each experienced him as alive. It amazed them. It changed them forever. Their life-changing relationship with Jesus continued.
How can this be? How is it possible to get from despair to hope, from fear to courage? How is it possible to go through death to new life? The Easter story, the story of Jesus’ resurrection, does not resolve all the mysteries about what happened, nor answer all the questions we may have, but this much it does say – it is possible to get from despair to hope. It is possible to move from fear to courage. Easter offers testimony that new life is possible on the other side of death. The Easter story is a story that takes a sad song, and makes it better.
How can this be? It just is. The testimony of the resurrection is that the God of Jesus Christ is a God who does this, who influences the world in this way. The God of Jesus Christ specializes in new life. The God of Jesus Christ speaks a clear “yes” to life, to love, to compassion, in the resurrection. The God of Jesus Christ is an artist who works wonders when it comes to taking sad songs and making them better. The presence of this God in our lives has become the continuing presence of Jesus in our lives, and the presence of Jesus in our lives is a resurrection presence.
This story is not an idle tale to us, not simply because we read it from a work called “The Gospel According to Luke.” This story is not an idle tale to us because we, too, can testify that resurrection happens. We have stories to tell about the tenacity of hope, about the strength of love, about the possibilities for new life when all seemed to be dead or dying. We, too, have experienced God’s presence, the presence of Jesus in our lives as healing, hopeful, encouraging, love-inspiring and life-giving.
Last week, a few of us gathered together to watch the film The Visitor for our faith and film night. It is the story about a university professor named Walter whose life is a sort of living death. He tells his colleagues he is working on a book when he has done virtually nothing. He has been teaching the same course for twenty years, and now just changes the dates on the syllabus. His wife’s death in the recent past has left him empty. She was a gifted pianist, but his own attempts to learn the piano are fruitless. He seems to have no gift for music.
On a trip to New York, where he has an apartment he has not been in in a long time, Walter discovers that another couple has moved in, swindled by someone who rented the place to them. Tarek is a musician from Syria, a drummer. His girlfriend, Zainab is from Senegal, and makes and sells jewelry. An unlikely friendship develops. Tarek begins to teach Walter the drums – and he finds his gift for music. Literally and metaphorically, he is living life in a new rhythm. It is life rather than a walking death. When Tarek is picked up for a minor charge in the subway, Walter discovers that Tarek and Zainab are in the country illegally, but his caring for them doesn’t end. He has found life. He has rediscovered connection with the world. A sad song has been made better.
This is a story about resurrection. It is a story about the kind of thing God does in people’s lives. While it is only a movie, it connects with people at a deep level because we know this story. Perhaps it has been ours – life drifts. We lose touch with others and with ourselves. We go through the motions. But new life is always possible. Resurrection can happen, and happens. This is not an idle tale.
In his recent book, Made for Goodness, written with his daughter Mpho, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mpho share the story of Natalie. Natalie sits in an orphanage in Rwanda cuddling a small child to her breast. Natalie is a Tutsi woman. Her family was massacred by a Hutu mob in the genocide. The child she is holding is not her own. It is a Hutu child. Who knows if the child’s parents are dead or if they have been imprisoned for their part in the slaughter? Perhaps this is the child of one of those responsible for the death of Natalie’s family. No matter; Natalie says she is grateful to be alive. This person in her lap is alive and in need of comfort. This small act of love is Natalie’s act of hope. A hug is an ordinary gesture. It is repeated around the world a million times a day. Natalie’s hug offers a testimony. The ordinary gift of a cuddle stands as witness to goodness. The child’s goodness has not been erased by her people’s deeds. Natalie’s goodness allows her to see, in the face of one who might be considered an enemy, a child who is a good gift from the good God. (34-35)
When surrounded by death, as were so many in Rwanda, as are too many in places near and far, we can succumb to a kind of death in life. Caring can become too painful, too risky. Trying to make the world a little better can seem pointless. Sad songs can seem permanently etched in the playlist of our hearts. But resurrection happens. It is not an idle tale. The Natalies of the world remind us that caring is possible even in the most tragic circumstances. Small acts of love are acts of resurrection hope. Sad songs can be made better.
Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, once shared this story in a sermon. Our friend had already done two full courses of chemotherapy and through it all had somehow managed to complete a doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia. To celebrate she and her husband rented a VFW hall, hired a band, and threw one of the biggest parties I’ve ever seed for the whole church and half the community. Two days before graduation her doctors confirmed that the cancer was back. The experimental treatments would begin the day after graduation. Only a few of us knew it, and my guess is we would have limped through the ceremony and cancelled the party. But she had the party. And I tell you I have never heard the gospel of God’s “Yes” preached more powerfully than I saw it danced on the floor of the VFW. An outsider would have seen only the vintage 1960’s arthritic gyrations that we were all doing, but this was a woman of faith and she danced her Yes in the grip of the No. And that’s the way we do it. The best celebrating is done in the face of the enemy, the best dancing on the devil’s dance floor. You can’t always separate the Yes from the No but at least one person has done it definitively. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we trust that there is this distinction, and that it holds true for us. (Richard Lischer, sermon on II Corinthians 1:15-22, privately printed found on line)
Life throws us plenty of Nos, and there are fewer bigger Nos than tragic, untimely deaths – deaths like Jesus’. The resurrection is about God’s “Yes” – yes to life, yes to love, yes to hope, yes to dreams, yes to dancing, yes to taking sad songs and making them better. The resurrection is not an idle tale because it happens - - - and we will witness it when we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our mind, our souls. The resurrection is not an idle tale because it changes the way we live.
Ku Sang was a Korean poet and journalist who lived from 1919-2004. Ku experienced the ups and downs of his nation in the twentieth century, having had to flee from North to South after the liberation of Korea in 1945 and developments which followed in the North. Before that, he had suffered a significant crisis of faith while studying in Japan. Yet Ku could compose a poem which captures some of the life-changing power of the resurrection. Here are a few lines from his poem, “Easter Hymn.”

Since there is your Resurrection and ours,
Truth exists;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
Justice triumphs;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
suffering accepted has value;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
our faith, hope love, are not in vain;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
our lives are not an empty abyss.

Because God is this kind of God, because Jesus is resurrection, we live the way of love. We live with courage. We live with joy. We live with hope. We live with compassion. We live in ways that give life. We live in new rhythms.
Resurrection is no idle tale. It is a sad song made better and by God’s grace it happens all the time. We are invited to join the party, to sing new songs, to dance to new rhythms. Amen.

God Wants Us

Sermon preached Good Friday, April 2, 2010

Minnesota theologian Colleen Carpenter Cullinan writes in her book Redeeming the Story: When I was growing up, I had never understood why they had called the day of Jesus’ death “Good Friday.” What on earth was good about it? (149) Perhaps we all might wonder that. This is really a difficult day. The events we recall together here include betrayal, denial, miscarriage of justice, and execution. The method of execution was particularly gruesome. Monday evening, Dr. Tom Wiig from our church shared with a men’s group some of the medical and historical facts about crucifixion. It was an awful way to die, even if it was more common than we often realize. A historian of the Roman Empire recounts this history: The Roman generals and governors assigned to Judea and Galilee repeatedly used crucifixion as a means to terrorize the populace, presumably to deter further resistance. In retaliation for the widespread revolt in 4 B.C.E., around the time Jesus was born, the Roman general Varus, after burning towns and devastating the countryside, scoured the hills for rebels and eventually had about two thousand men crucified. (quoted in Cullinan, 146)
But here we are on Good Friday to hear the story again – and it can only be called “Good Friday” because as people of faith we believe that some good comes from this horrible series of events culminating in death. There is, of course, in the offing, Sunday’s story of resurrection, the story of Easter, and that certainly changed things, and in our faith we cannot finally separate Jesus’ death from Jesus’ resurrection. Without the resurrection, this death would be one of the countless now anonymous crucifixions carried out by Rome. But because of the resurrection, we ask, “What does this death mean?”
The technical theological term for trying to answer this question is atonement theory (see Walter Wink, The Human Being, 104-112, and Cullinan, 10-29). But you did not come to hear a theology lecture this afternoon! Suffice it to say that even within the New Testament itself there are multiple images and ideas used to try and understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. That’s important to remember because there are those who would reduce the richness of Christian thinking here by arguing that only one interpretation of Jesus’ death is appropriate.
One prominent theological theory of the atonement that is sometimes held up as the preeminent one begins with something like the assertion in Hebrews 9:22 – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (See also Leviticus 17:11) In this view, human sin requires that a penalty be paid, something akin to ancient Hebrew practices of animal sacrifice, and Jesus becomes that sacrifice. While there is something deeply moving about the idea of someone paying a penalty on our behalf, there is also something difficult about this view. Its view of God is that God somehow requires a blood sacrifice in order to forgive. Teacher and writer Parker Palmer raises the question very directly. “What kind of God is it who demands blood – the blood of God’s own son – for atonement?” (The Promise of Paradox, 32) The question is nearly a thousand years old, if not older (Abelard (1079-1142): “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything” in Cullinan, 26).
But what if God really isn’t in need of or even very interested in being paid penalties or being the recipient of blood sacrifice. There are other images in our Bible and faith tradition which suggest as much, other images by which we can understand the significance of the death of Jesus. Freedom is central to some biblical and theological understandings of the significance of the death of Jesus. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Perhaps what God really wants is not a substitutionary sacrifice, but us – you and me. The problem is we are not free to give ourselves to God and God’s love and God’s cause in the world because we are entangled in webs that bind us, caught in traps often of our own making.
Sometimes our lives are caught in traps of a too fragile sense of self. A couple of years ago, I was a candidate for bishop in The United Methodist Church and one of the people voting asked someone from the Minnesota delegation if I had a Napoleon complex, that is, was I trying to compensate for my stature by seeking a position of prominence! I don’t think I suffer from that particular affliction, but apparently some have it. A too fragile sense of self can entrap us into unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Perhaps we are trapped by our woundedness. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life” (Conversations, 116). We have all been hurt in some way or another along the way, whether it was a date refused, a friend rejecting us, parent’s divorce, parental indifference, career disappointments, and the list is too long to continue. Sometimes we live completely to protect ourselves from further hurt, but then we shrink from life, we become trapped.
If we can be trapped by too fragile a sense of self, we can also be trapped by fear of our potential. Abraham Maslow (quoted in Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 48): We fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments… We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves…. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these same possibilities.
Guilt and shame trap us. If I see shortcomings in the penal, substitutionary sacrifice ideas about the meaning of Jesus death it is not because I don’t take seriously that human beings can be cruel, mean, hurtful, selfish – that they can sin. We not only feel guilty about things we have done, but also about things left undone. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 180: “guilt results from unused life.” We cannot change the past, but we can shape how it is part of our present. Therapist and spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield writes “forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25), and the same author also says, “without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release” (21). We can, in other words, be trapped by guilt.
We can also be trapped by human created systems which begin to take on a life of their own and divide human persons from each other. Rome divided the world between the free and slaves, between citizens and non-citizens. We can become trapped by buying into systems of domination and division that dehumanize those who are different, whether that difference be racial, ethnic, gender, class, or affectional orientation.
Jesus death frees us for God by freeing us from all these traps – not always immediately or automatically, but often over time as we let the story of Jesus who was crucified permeate our lives, let his Spirit move in our hearts, souls, minds. The cross frees us by breaking open our hearts and minds.
On the cross we see a deep faithfulness to love - lavish and wasteful love. For love of God and love of others, Jesus stayed true to his mission, even when it meant death. Such lavish love is God’s “yes” to us – God’s response to a fragile sense of self or a fear of one’s highest possibilities.
The cross, together with the resurrection, show us a way of dying and rising that is an important part of God’s way in the world. Therefore we have courage in the face of hurt and trauma. There is one who has shared our pain, and made it through. The message of Jesus and the cross is “take heart, do not be afraid.”
At the cross there is forgiveness. What conceivably could be worse than putting someone to death unjustly, especially when that death was torturous? Yet from the cross we hear these words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The cross reveals the dynamics of human systems that dominate and divide. It leads us to ask difficult questions about any social arrangement. What price peace? Who is not being included? Who is suffering? Asking such questions frees us from simply going with the flow when the flow is not healthy or helpful.
When I hear the story of the death of Jesus I don’t hear a story about a God who wants or needs blood or sacrifice or a substitute to punish. I hear a story about a God who wants us, each of us - - - a God who wants us healthy and whole and free, free to live fully and love as lavishly and wastefully as God does here. And that is good news. Amen.

The Choice is Always Ours

Sermon preached Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2010

I would like to begin with a poem. Remember, it is still Lent, a time for difficult disciplines! Of course, I am teasing about this. I know that some of you really appreciate poetry, though not all, but anyway, here goes. This is a poem I have read before, and use occasionally at funerals - Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”
The Summer Day Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This poem may seem like an odd choice for tonight, but I don’t think it is. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That question looms large for Jesus tonight. It is a question he has had to answer again and again. He had to answer it during his days of temptation. He has had to answer it as he engaged in healing and picking grain on the Sabbath. He has had to answer it as he has been challenged by some of the religious authorities of his day. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Tonight we see a very human Jesus. Let’s set aside some of our theological affirmations about Jesus as human and divine, bracket them for the evening. Tonight we see the human Jesus deciding. The deepening shadows of betrayal and arrest are cast over the night. Death is a real possibility. The Roman Empire does not treat agitators very kindly. How will Jesus spend his remaining time with his disciples? Is there some other way to be faithful to his sense of calling, to his sense of what it means to be a Spirit person, to his sense of God? The circumstances couldn’t be more difficult, yet decisions have to be made.
We know what Jesus decides. He decides for deep faithfulness. He decides for love. “Having loved his own… he loved them to the end.” His love is expressed very tangibly – sharing bread, sharing wine, washing feet. His decision for deep faithfulness and love will take him down a difficult road. Deep faithfulness and love – this is what Jesus is doing with his one wild and precious life.
Years ago, when I was in college, I bought a book entitled The Choice is Always Ours. It was subtitled “an anthology on the religious way.” It is a wonderful collection of writings on spirituality and the spiritual journey. The epigraph, from which the book takes its title, was written by novelist Aldous Huxley. The choice is always ours. Then, let me choose the longest art, the hard Promethean way cherishingly to tend and feed and fan that inward fire, whose small precarious flame, kindled or quenched, creates the noble or ignoble people we are, the worlds we live in and the very fates, our bright or muddy star.
The choice is always ours as to what we will do with our one wild and precious life. Will we offer bread to the world even when it is difficult? Here I am reminded of the words of Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.” But bread for the world goes beyond trying to meet needs for physical well-being. There is the bread of friendship, the bread of kindness, the bread of compassion that needs to be offered too.
Will we share the wine of joy? How is it that the Church, born in the rush of a mighty wind, born with laughter and a bit of chaos, so much noise and chaos that people did not think the group could be sober, how is it that the Church has often been such a sober place, dismally serious? Frederick Buechner asks, “Could anyone guess by looking at us that joy is at the heart of what goes on in church Sunday after Sunday?” (Secrets in the Dark, 241). Joy should be our heartbeat, even as we consider some of the great challenges and difficulties of life and faith. But this joy is meant to be shared, the wine of joy – shared even when our own broken hearts may be healing. Even if joy is our heartbeat, we are not immune from broken hearts, after all.
Will we offer water to refresh, cool water for parched tongues, fresh water for healthy drinking, water to cleanse the body, waters of the spirit to revive the soul - - - will we offer water even when we know no one will notice, or if they notice they may think we are too lavish in our offering the waters of spirit and grace to others.
Will we take bread and wine and water ourselves so that we do not grow weary in well-doing, so that our own hearts and minds and souls don’t wither and dry up as we seek to follow Jesus?
Will we live the way of deep faithfulness and love, even when the way is arduous and fraught with difficulty?
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? The choice is always ours.
Scott Peck, of The Road Less Traveled fame writes in another book (In Search of Stones, 87-91) about his wife Lilly. Lilly began to suffer from pathological episodes of depression as soon as she entered her teens. Although seldom lasting long these episodes were frightening in their intensity. She initially handled them by hiding them…. By the fifth year of our marriage, the pretense no longer worked…. The episodes were more frequent and severe. They couldn’t be hidden any longer.
Peck wrote that as a psychiatrist he had seen many people more seriously depressed than his wife, and more nonfunctional, but that he had “never seen anyone with such black moods. They were frightening, even terrifying.
Peck continues: In the sixth year of our marriage, Lily was averaging two depressions a week, each approximately two days in duration…. The lines of depression had started to be etched into her face even when she was feeling well. Lily decided to enter intensive psychotherapy with an experienced psychoanalyst. Peck writes: Entering psychotherapy with genuine intent is always an act of considerable courage. By virtue of various factors in her background, Lily’s doing so was not merely brave, it was heroic.
Peck shares some of his wife’s journey in therapy. After about two years and three hundred hours of therapy, Lily still averaged two depressions a week, but now they lasted eight hours, instead of forty-eight. Further work brought the duration to two hours. “Today she still has two depressions a week. Each lasts about five minutes.”
Peck reflects on all that has happened with his wife. Substantial psychotherapy is successful… only when it becomes a way of life…. As psychotherapy becomes a way of life, one becomes a contemplative: a person who focuses at least as much upon her inner world as upon the outer one. Daydreams, night dreams, thoughts and feelings, insights, intuitions, and understandings all assume ever-increasing importance…. The reason Lily was able to decrease the duration of her depressions from roughly three thousand minutes to five minutes is simply that she grew more aware. She became aware of the strength of her will, her need to control, and her false expectations. She became aware of how best to look at herself when a depression was triggered, and how to quickly discern the steps she needed to take forward to come out the other end, and finally how to rapidly take those steps. Learning this depth of awareness has taken her thirty years. Over these years she has become very wise.
I share this story not as an antidote to depression, but as an illustration of how the way of deep faithfulness and love can be challenging, can take courage, can be arduous. We might all have stories to share about how this is so – stories of inner journeys, stories of outer journeys. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? There may be easier ways to live than the way of deep faithfulness to God and the way of love, but the testimony of Christian faith is that these other ways, though at times easier, are not the way of life.
The choice is always ours as to what we will do with our one wild and precious life. May we choose the longest art. May we choose to tend and feed and fan that inward fire and its precarious flame so that our star burns bright. May we choose the way of deep faithfulness and love, giving bread and wine and water - - - never forgetting to receive them as well. Amen.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I Dare You

Sermon preached March 28, 2010

Texts: Luke 19:28-40; Luke 22:14-21, 39-46; Luke 23:13-25, 44-46

There was a kindergarten teacher in Texas who was helping one of her students put on his cowboy boots. He asked for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time they got the second boot on, the teacher had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked, and sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the right feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots!” She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again, she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they gotten the boots off when he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear ‘em.” Now she didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. But, she mustered up what grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots on his feet again. Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed ‘em in the toes of my boots.”
Some days are difficult. Sometimes things in life go from bad to worse. That is the story of this week in the life of the church as we read the story of Jesus last week. Except in the story of this week, things go from really good to terribly awful. This week is an amazing and frightening roller coaster ride, and if I were to choose a secular theme song for it I might choose, The Beatles, “Helter Skelter” – a rocking song about a roller coaster ride.
For many of us, we might like to skip the ride. We might like to go from palms to lilies, from this Sunday to next, but we will not – at least not today. Today we are going to look, even if briefly, at the whole week. We are going to ride the roller coaster. I dare you to come along. I dare you to look at the whole story with eyes wide open. I dare you to consider how this roller coaster of a story might make a difference in your life. We are going to take the ride of this week not chronologically but thematically. It’s time to get to the bottom and go back to the top of the slide.
Then Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.
Inner work, tending the inner life, seeking healing for our psychological and spiritual wounds, seeking forgiveness for our sins and misdeeds, seeking an inner peace and joy, cultivating awareness, gratitude, compassion and love – if we take the story of this week seriously, we take the journey within seriously. Joan Chittister writes, “Only by going inside ourselves to clear out the debris of the heart rather than to concentrate on trying to control the environment and situations around us do we change the texture of life” (Living Well, 41). Are you willing to explore the deepest recesses of your soul, to allow God’s Spirit into even the most hidden places inside – even those places of anguish and disappointment? Are you willing to struggle inside with the tough choices being a disciple of Jesus Christ can ask of us sometimes? I dare you.
Then they shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed over Jesus as they wished.
The trial of Jesus makes a mockery of justice. The trial of Jesus also illumines how the powerful can warp justice. In a way, Pilate, representative of the Roman Empire, is toying with the people. He doesn’t have to give anyone a break. He has ordered executions before, because it is his job to keep the peace, the peace of Rome. Sometimes a little honey mixed in with the vinegar helps keep the peace, so Pilate in this story is willing to release a person to the crowd. Crowds can be manipulated, however, and this crowd is whipped up into an anti-Jesus frenzy. Pilate may have gotten more than he bargained for, but he remains in control, and if it is Barabbas the crowd wants, Barabbas they will get. But to make sure that everyone knows Rome can be strong as well as magnanimous, Jesus will be crucified, killed as an insurrectionist.
There is injustice in the world. The world is not as it should be. Too many people go hungry. Too many people lack clean water. Too many people get sick and are not treated. Too many children lack affordable immunizations which would prevent them from getting sick. Too many people live in fear that they might say something about their government only to disappear into the night. After the earthquake in Haiti, I heard things about their history I had never heard before. Haiti is poor, but its poverty is not a simple accident of history or a flaw in character. The country was freed from French rule by a revolution (1791-1804) and became the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Other governments were reluctant to recognize the new status of Haiti, including the government of the young republic of The United States of America. France did not recognize the county until 1825, at which time the French government demanded reparations – 150 million gold francs. Haiti agreed so as to end a crippling embargo being imposed by France, Britain and the United States. Paying this debt required high interest loans and these loans were not finally repaid until 1947!
Are you willing to look at injustice in the world, to look at all the places where the world is not as it should be and in the name and Spirit of Jesus, seek to make a difference in the world? Are you willing to feel some of the pain and suffering of the world and respond in compassion as you can? I dare you.
The story of this week asks us to do inner work and outer work. Both are needed. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, believed that a wholistic spiritual life required both acts of piety and acts of mercy, that is, tending to both the inner life and the outer life. It requires inner work like prayer, worship, Scripture reading, contemplation, participation in the sacraments, tending to our hopes, dreams, joys, wounds, hurts. It requires acts of compassion and justice such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, caring for the earth, advocating for justice, working for the common good. Both are needed.
Both are challenging. Inner work and outer work often entail change, and that is never easy. Reflecting on some of the events of this week in the gospel, writer John Sanford remarks: The death and burial of Jesus is part of the general symbolism of mortificato: before anything new can be born, something first must die; out of the death of the old there emerges that which is new…. We found it earlier in the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel in the image of the grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die in order that it may then yield a rich harvest. (Mystical Christianity, 320) To grow as people of faith we sometimes need to let go of the old and familiar to let the new emerge. That can feel like a death. This is true for the inner life of the heart, soul, spirit. New ways of seeing and experiencing are often only possible when the old ones are set aside. It is true in our life together as the church. Sometimes the old and familiar must give way to a new way of being the church. It is true in the world. Structures of injustice often have to be dismantled before justice can be achieved. Are you open to walking with Jesus in the way of dying and rising? I dare you.
But this week begins in celebration and that, too is part of the roller coaster ride. There are lessons for our life here. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
That there is this parade, this incredible celebration, as a part of this week is paradox, but as Parker Palmer reminds us, The Spiritual life – whose territory is the nonrational, not the irrational – proceeds with trembling confidence that God’s truth is too large for the simplicity of either-or. It can be apprehended only by the complexity of both-and (The Promise of Paradox, revised edition, 7). The world is out of kilter. Our lives are not always where we would like them to be. Unhelpful patterns hold sway. We react out of our woundedness instead of responding as whole people. We give into fears. We let disappointments discourage us. The world is not God’s dream for it. There is too much violence, too many wars, too much hunger, too much dehumanization. Yet this world is also a place of breath-taking beauty, of grace, of joy, of compassion, of kindness, of generosity, of love. I so appreciate a line from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches.” In that poem, Frost remembers being a swinger of birches, and imagines what it would be like to get away from it all again for awhile by climbing up a tree. Yet he humorously expressed a concern that someone not take his desire for escaping from the world too literally, and grant his wish for escape permanently because “Earth’s the right place for love:/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
Earth’s the right place for love, and we need to celebrate that, even when we know hate is not yet finished. Earth’s the right place for joy, even though there remains much to weep for. Earth’s the right place to see beauty, though we know there are ugly realities too. If we do not celebrate our lives are poorer for it. If we do not celebrate, the stones might just cry out. Celebrate. Rejoice. Dance. I dare you.
Do the inner work. Do the outer work. Celebrate, and keep going. That is one of the strongest messages of the week – keeping going. Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength…. Having said this, he breathed his last.
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet who received the Noble Prize for literature in 1995. Among his poems is one he wrote about and for his brother. The poem begins with a scene of his brother marching around with a kitchen chair, with a whitewash brush at his side as a sporran (purse/pocket) pretending to play a bagpipe, and the laughter this evoked. Through the poem Heaney uses the image of the whitewash brush to recall his relationship with his brother, but also part of the history in which they live, a history that includes the tremendous violence that has plagued Northern Ireland. The poem refers to the shooting death of a part-time reserve soldier. It is a difficult world, Heaney reminds us. Then comes the powerful final stanza.

My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh above the revs, you keep
Old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper’s sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

Will we keep going? Can we keep going? We can because of Jesus who has walked this way before. We can because we know life in a wider horizon, but that is next week’s story. In the meantime I dare you to let this week’s stories be your story. I dare you to do the inner work you need to. I dare you to seek to make a difference in the world. I dare you to keep going. I dare you to dance. In the name and Spirit of the Christ. Amen.