Friday, May 28, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Spirit

Sermon preached Pentecost Sunday May 23, 2010

Texts: John 14:18, 25-27; John 20:21-22; Acts 2:1-21

I don’t usually do this, but I want to add a couple more verses of Scripture to what we have already heard. Here we have some words of Jesus from John’s Gospel – first from chapter 14, then from chapter 20. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you…. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid….” Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
I will not leave you orphaned. When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Not being left alone. But sometimes that is just what I want and maybe need. On the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory I am an “E” - - - an extrovert on the extrovert/introvert scale, but only slightly on that side. I also appreciate alone time. There are days when my favorite time of the day is that time after everyone else has gone to bed and I just have some time. Alone time can be a good thing sometimes.
One time, traveling to Arizona for a work-related workshop, I was seated next to a chatty woman. She was flying to Arizona to see friends as she recuperated from sinus surgery. I had not even told this woman I was a clergy person – that usually invites conversations about why the person hasn’t been to church much in twenty years, or how active they are in their church and do I think it is right of their pastor to do such and so, or questions about “the end times.” But I had not mentioned that to this particular woman, yet she felt the need to unburden herself a bit, which was fine, except some of the details of her sinus surgery were a bit much. A little alone time would have been a good thing.
While we may like alone time, and we are different in our desire for that, I think, at a deep level, none of us wants to feel alone in the world. We want to know that we are connected with others. We want to know that our lives matter to others, at least some others. We want to know that someone loves us.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Gospel Medicine shares the story of her babysitting experiences as a youngster. She was the eldest of three daughters, so she had plenty of opportunity to babysit. First my father would sit me down and remind me how much he and my mother trusted me – not only because I was the oldest but also because I was the most responsible. This always made me dizzy, but I agreed with him. I would not let the house burn down. I would not open the door to strangers. I would not let my little sisters fall down the basement steps. Then my mother would show me where she had left the telephone number, remind me when they would be home, and all together we would walk to the front door where everyone kissed everyone good-bye. Then the lock clicked into place, and a new era began. I was in charge. Turning around to face my new responsibilities, what I saw were my sisters’ faces, looking at me with something between hope and fear. They knew I was no substitute for what they had just lost, but since I was all they had they were willing to try. And so was I.
Taylor did all the right things – played games, made snacks, reassured her sisters that their parents would be home later, but did she really know that? Something awful could happen. It was hard being the babysitter, because I was a potential orphan too. I had as much to lose as my sisters, and as much to fear, but I could not give in to it because I was the one I charge. I was supposed to know better. I was supposed to exude confidence and create the same thing in them.
But Taylor’s story isn’t just about babysitting. We are Christ’s elder children in the world, the one’s he has left in charge. We are the responsible ones, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name, and everywhere we go we see the faces of those whom he has given into our care…. It is hard, being the one’s in charge, because we are potential orphans too, only he said we would not be.
That is what this Holy Spirit stuff is all about, about the God we know in Jesus not leaving us alone. We are not orphans cast adrift into an uncaring universe. We are part of the family of God, the family of Christ. We are known. We are loved. We are forgiven. Yes, there is work to be done. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Earlier in Acts, Jesus tells the disciples “You will be my witnesses.” There is work to be done, but we are not left alone to do it. We have each other. We have God’s Spirit. Sometimes She arrives like the rush of a violent wind, shaking things up, taking us on a wild ride. Sometimes He arrives with the quietness of breath. However the Spirit arrives, we are not alone.
This good news is meant to give us a sense of peace. It is also meant to help us live differently, to be differently in the world. Knowing we are not alone, knowing we are loved is intended to help us live more openly, less defensively.
Just last week, I was presented a great illustration of the way many of us live, at least some of the time. Here we have the “Passing the Peace Protection Kit.” It includes a protective mask, a hair net (more useful for some than for others), a latex glove, passing the peace cards and a sanitizing towel. The directions for use are simple:
1. Remove all the items from the package before the service begins
2. Place all the items in a place where you can reach them quickly (hymnal)
3. Scan the bulletin for passing the peace to determine the best time to put on the peace protection items
4. Put them on – failure to do so may compromise protected peace passing
5. Shake or hug with confidence
6. Safely pass Peace Cards to unprotected worship participants
7. Wash hands with moist towelette just in case

And that’s how we sometimes live – encased, well-defended, closed, fearful. The Spirit works to sweep away our over-protectiveness. The Spirit rushes in to open us up to ourselves, to each other, to the world, to God. It is not always an easy place to be. Opening to ourselves we see places where we are not where we want to be, places where we need forgiveness. But then forgiveness is there for us. Open to others, we become vulnerable to their hurt and pain, but we don’t bear the burden alone. Open to the world, the sorrow and pain of the world are our concern because we have been sent by Jesus to make a difference in the world. But we don’t go alone. Additionally, open to ourselves, we see beauty within. Open to others, we know the joy of friendship. Open to the world we see grace and beauty there, too.
One story about this openness of the Spirit before I close. Most Thursday mornings finds me meeting with some local clergy colleagues discussing our plans for preaching on Sunday morning. In all honesty, we sometimes don’t get around to talking about the sermon. This last week was one such week. For the first time since their son, Ben, died during the Haiti earthquake, April and Judd Larson were at this clergy group. Their journey over these past weeks and months was the focus of our discussion. They shared a little about how important it has been for people just to be with them, even when they don’t know what to say, or even if they say something that isn’t so great – like the person who told them that God was using Ben’s death to call attention to the needs of Haiti. Being with people in the midst of grief and tragedy can be difficult. April shared the words of a counselor to them – “no one likes to be around someone who has lost a child.” Harsh, but real. We are uncomfortable with death and dying, tragedy, grief and loss. Maybe it reminds us of our own mortality.
One important work of the Spirit in our lives is to let us know that we are not alone, so that we can then be there for others who need to know they are not alone. We are called not simply to be Christ’s elder children in the world. We are called to be Christ in the world, but we don’t do it alone.
Receive the Holy Spirit. You are loved. You are forgiven. You are sent. You are not alone. Amen.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Born (Again) To Be Wild

Sermon preached May 16, 2010

Text: Acts 16:16-34

I am going to begin this confirmation sermon with a brief quote from one of the great theological voices of the last century. Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. Dr. Seuss.
Sara, Katie, Megan, Eli, Cali, and Emily, today is your day. Thank you for sharing it with 200 + of your new closest friends. Today is the culmination of two years of confirmation – last year you were wonderfully taught by Anne Miller, and this year, Julie and I, with help from our son, David, were your teachers. This year, we used episodes from the Bible to try and describe some of the important parts of being a Christian, of being a follower of Jesus, of having trust in God and committing yourselves to live with faith, hope and love. We tried to make some of the Bible stories come alive with art and movies and music. We took a “Magical Mystery Tour” with Abraham and Sarah. We made Dionne Warwick’s “Promises, Promises” a theme song for God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah. “We Are Family” described Jacob’s twelve sons. Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” helped us understand something of the story of Moses. It also helps us understand what God desires for humanity – freedom and new life. Along the way we heard the incredible story of David and how this unbelievably flawed person could still be remembered so lovingly in the Bible. We watched scenes from “Jazz” and “Hotel Rwanda” to get a better understanding of the prophets concern for justice, for peace and reconciliation. Garth Brooks video, “We Shall Be Free” summed that up nicely. We spent a number of weeks looking at the life of Jesus because for Christians his life tells us something about who God is and how we should live in relationship with God.
Of course, there were some wonderful games along the way, especially thanks to Julie who is much more creative in that department than I am.
Along the way we talked about some hard questions you all asked. “Why do people let their faith get in the way of being a good, loving person?” “What age do you see people when you are in heaven?” (22 – kidding) “If someone goes to church every Sunday, but is not a good person, would they still be a good Christian?” “How do we know if the Bible and Jesus are real or telling us the truth is the Bible has been written so many times?” This class has asked a lot of questions, and I asked them questions, too.
I shouldn’t give the impression that this group talked all the time, because that isn’t true. They can be quiet, very quiet. Sara is quiet, but when some other commitments made Wednesdays difficult, we worked together on-line to complete confirmation. I appreciated her willingness to hang in there with this unique way of managing part of confirmation. For Megan, who moved to Bemidji this year, on-line work was a necessity, but she was determined to work toward being confirmed in this place where she was baptized and did cart wheels. I appreciated her determination. Speaking of determination and a willing spirit, Eli demonstrated that. You may have noticed that he is unique among this year’s class – the only young man. The situation was different in class as eighth and ninth grade met together this year, still he was there, the only young man being confirmed, and he was thoughtful and displayed his good heart. Katie, too, is extraordinarily thoughtful in her faith. She has some deep questions and is willing to ask them. We see her helping out with worship a lot, coming up during the last hymn to extinguish the candles – today the candles may just burn right through the final hymn. She has been so faithful in doing that, that one time someone told me they thought she was my daughter – and I took it as a complement. You are all my kids, in a way, and I am grateful for that, and if you are all my kids, then you are like siblings, and no two are more like sisters than Cali and Emily. They enjoy each other’s company and brought their joy to class. Yet both also know how to ask good questions. I appreciated Cali’s smile and questions and her love for the candy we passed around. I liked Emily’s smile, too, her inquisitiveness and her good spirit.
Anyway, here we are today, the end of the confirmation road. And all that we have learned, well, some might see it as a box – a nice frame within which to understand life – the Christian box within which to build a life. The trouble with that image is that boxes too well-defined can become cages, prisons of sorts. I would rather you think of what we have talked about and discussed together as a launching pad, something that will launch you into the adventure of life in the world – to appreciate its beautiful and haunting complexity, and to try and make the world kinder, more loving, more just, more peaceful. I hope you will use what you have learned to help you grow more and more in faith, hope and love. Just as good an image as the launching pad is the image of a home. I hope we have built together a home of the Christian faith, a place that gives you roots to grow on and wings to fly.
Why a launching pad or root and wings rather than a strong box? It is because the God about who we have been learning, the God who loves us and seeks a life-long relationship with us, is less a God of the well-defined than a God who shakes things up. The story in Acts is one among many of a God who shakes things up – the God of the open door, the God who sets free for life. Paul and Silas, filled with God’s Spirit, get in the middle of the usual way of doing business and are sent to prison for it. Then, as now, people don’t like a God who disturbs the status quo. In prison, the foundation shake and the prison doors are open – oh that God! You would have expected Paul and Silas and others to make a break for it, but again, the unexpected happens. They stick around for the good of the guard.
The God of Jesus Christ, this God in whom you will again profess faith/trust, is a God who is willing to shake things up in the interest of a greater and deeper good. I am reminded of the wonderful line in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, where one of the characters describes Aslan. Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe, but he’s good. That’s God, and if we are to be followers of the God of Jesus Christ we need to be born again to be wild.
The reality is that to do good in our world means to shake things up, and to be ready to do good means being shaken ourselves sometimes.
Two years ago, J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books spoke at Harvard University, at their commencement. In her address, she spoke about a time in her life, before Harry Potter, when she was just making ends meet. She worked, then, for Amnesty International. In her job she read letters smuggled out of countries where the people were not free to express themselves. She read testimonies of torture victims, and saw pictures of their injuries. Her work began to give her nightmares as she confronted the “evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power.” Yet Rowling also says that she “learned more about human goodness… than I had ever known before.” What she witnessed, along with the horrors of evil, injustice and oppression was people using the freedom and power God gives them for good. She was especially impressed by the power of the human imagination to be able to comprehend what others are experiencing, and to see other possibilities. “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
But sometimes we are willing to let that power go to waste – we only imagine the next day or the next dollar. We allow our imaginations to become imprisoned. Then we need a God who shakes us up so we can use our imagination, and our other freedom and power, to make a difference in the world. It is the task we all commit ourselves to as followers of Jesus, as church, and today you being confirmed make that commitment anew.
Congratulations today is your day, your off to great places, you’re off and away. Today is your day to be born again to be wild, to say you will follow the God of holy surprises, the God of the open door, the shaken foundations. We pledge to join you in that – companions on the journey. As we make this commitment, may we also remember that the God who shakes things up is also the God who, when life seems most perilous, reminds us that we are loved. Amen.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Peace Train

Sermon preached May 9, 2010

Text: John 14:23-29

Bulletin bloopers are often a good source for a chuckle. So, too, the innocent remarks of children. A three-year-old attending church for the first time gazed in delight at the beautiful stained-glass windows. “Look, cartoons.” (Faith Hope and Hilarity, 98) Sorry, we have no cartoons here. Here are a few bulletin bloopers. 7:30 LENTEN SERVICE: The final Lenten service theme is: “Why Doesn’t God Do Something” with Pastor Meidinger. The correspondence committee will assist with the mailing of the newsletter and stapling of the Annual Report to the congregational members. And we give you thanks, O God, for people of many cultures and nations; for the young and old and muddle-aged. On March 16th, the prayer group met at the home of Margaret Ressler, who is no longer able to attend church. What a blessing! On a Mother’s Day one church wanted to change the traditional hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers” to “Faith of Our Mothers,” but it ended up in the bulletin as “Faith of Our Moths.” (More Holy Humor).
All of those bloopers and comments remind me of what many of us may picture when we think about what it means to be a Christian: going to church, giving, volunteering – sometimes on a committee, doing good things, being a good person (which often meant “respectable” though I would argue those are different), reading the Bible, praying – which usually meant asking God for something for our families, world, or ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with this picture of the Christian life, except that it is incomplete. It is a little like the directory picture of Julie and my family in the last directory. When pictures were available, Sarah, our only child living at home at the time, could not be with us – but our daughter Beth, then in college and not living with us, could be. So that was our picture – Julie, Beth and me. Nice picture, but incomplete. By the way, we are considering working on a new directory next fall.
To have a more complete picture of the meaning of being a Christian, of living a Christian life, we need to have some sense that Christian faith is meant to form a life. It is meant to be a way of life, and not simply a set of discrete activities. And if we were to sum up what the core of that way of life we might choose the word “peace.” Jesus, in John 14, right after he tells his disciples that they will receive God’s Spirit, says this: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Peace. To be a Christian is to seek a life formed around peace. There is something worth exploring here.
One important aspect of being a Christian formed by peace is the cultivation of inner peace. As Christians we trust that peace ultimately comes from God through our relationship to Jesus. It is the peace of Jesus as the Christ that is ours. Yet we have a part to play. We seek to cultivate that inner peace that is a gift. Inner peace, peacefulness is both gift and task. It is also a crying need in our hectic, loud, connected world. It is a crying need if we are to let our best selves unfold. Theologian and writer Patricia Farmer writes about her meditative practice: There is a stuffy place inside us where worries, self-doubts, cynicism, and misspoken words linger. In this place we guard so protectively, heaviness slows down our stride and makes harsh lines between our brows. What we need, I think, is a practice like walking meditation so that we might unfold in warmth, a place to let morning dew clean out our lurking doubts, hurts, and fears – a place to find Beauty lavishly spilling over everything in sight. (Embracing a Beautiful God, 28).
Inner peace is connected with other kinds of peacemaking, which we will say more about shortly. That connection is expressed wonderfully by the Dalai Lama. Peace must first be developed within an individual. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world. (Forward to Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step).
Cultivating the gift of peace is perhaps the thing most missing from a traditional picture of Christian faith and life. Many of us grew up with the notion of prayer as asking, talking, little silence or listening. But the Christian tradition is rich with practices of silent prayer, meditative prayer, and these are important to build of life of peace. Bells can be used as calls to silent prayer (demonstrate). Scriptures can be used for meditative prayer – Psalm 46:10a: Be still and know that I am God (demonstrate prayer using one word at a time forward and backward).
Inner peace is an important part of the picture of Christian faith and life, but it is not the whole picture. Relational peace is essential, too. There is a lot of speculation about the decline of the church, but I think an under-considered factor is that people look at the church and see people who don’t get along any better than they do any place else. A couple of weeks ago, the Duluth News Tribune published an editorial written by a pastor from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. In his editorial he wrote about another Lutheran denomination, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest of the Lutheran denominations, and said of them that they had drifted so far that they were no longer legitimate Lutherans. They did not hold to the “inerrant, infallible, word of God.” They ordained women, and more recently opened the door to the possibility of ordaining gay and lesbian persons. The letter ended with a litany of places the author considered the ELCA to have gone wrong and after each in capital letters is said “REPENT.”
After reading the letter I could not help but wonder what someone outside of church might think of this. Christians can and will disagree. That is not the issue. We can and will disagree about very fundamental issues. That’s not my concern. My concern is that we don’t seem better able to disagree than the world around us. The Missouri Synod writer did not say he disagreed with the ELCA, that they had a different interpretation of Scripture and he felt his was better - - - he said the ELCA was no longer Lutheran, that the option wasn’t continued conversation but only repentance. Relational peace requires respect, listening, care. This peace, too, is both a gift and a task – a gift from the Christ, a task for us to take seriously. As Christians, filled with the Spirit of Christ we seek to foster relational peace in all our one-to-one relationships.
But the topic of peace is incomplete without conversation about peace on a larger scale. Today is Mother’s Day – a day when we celebrate our mothers and give thanks for all they have given to us in our lives. The roots of Mother’s Day run deeper than Hallmark and flowers, though. The first efforts to establish a Mother’s Day holiday were initiated by women’s peace groups who had seen the death and injury of the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe, writer of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, attempted to establish a Mother’s Peace Day in 1872, at which time she issued a famous proclamation which reads in part: Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!... Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those on another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. Earlier, in 1868, a woman named Ann Jarvis sought to establish a Mother’s Friendship Day the purpose of which was to reunite families divided by the Civil War. Ann died in 1905 before seeing the firm establishment of this as an annual celebration, but her daughter carried on the work and our modern Mother’s Day is traced to a 1907 worship service at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, organized by Anna Marie Jarvis.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, and “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Mother’s Day is a wonderful day to think about the Christian task of peacemaking in the world. This week I saw a picture of a craftsperson in Afghanistan turning Russian-made bombs into flower pots. What an image for the work of the church – swords into plowshares, bombs into flower pots. The shell casings were gathered by village women, and a woman commenting on the Afghanistan picture wrote: “the strong hands of women are needed to turn weapons of death into instruments of peace, fierce imagination” (Heather Muarry Elkins). Christians should all exercise such fierce imagination. I don’t have time to get into all the complexities of war and just war theory here. I often tell people I am a just war theorist haunted by pacifism – and by that I mean I would not argue that every use of force is illegitimate, but I would say the human community needs to learn to rely much less heavily on it. We need to create the conditions in the world that mitigate the circumstance that might justify the use of force. The task is neither simple nor easy, but it is ours as followers of Jesus.
Being Christian is about forming a life. Most often we would say that if we were to use a single word to describe the center of that life, we would use the word “love.” I would not disagree. Yet in an image from Psalm 85, I think love and peace are intertwined. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other. Love for oneself invites cultivation of inner peace. Love for others encourages respect. Love for the world encourages our best efforts in peacemaking.
A complete picture of Christian faith and life can be painted around peace. As Christians we are all invited on the peace train (play a bit of the song).

Cat Stevens, Peace Train

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hello Walls

Sermon preached May 2, 2010

Text: Acts 11:1-18

A man brings his brother to a psychiatrist. “Doctor, my brother has a real problem. He thinks he’s a chicken.” “How long has he had this delusion?” “About three years, now.” “Why didn’t you bring him here earlier?” “Our family needed the eggs.”
Psychology often produces humor. It can also be dark. To some of his admirers, the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) ranks with Freud himself as an original thinker about the human mind, the inner life. This same Wilfred Bion once wrote, “Life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (quoted in Eigen, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134). This is an exaggeration to be sure, but sometimes things feel just that way.
Last Sunday afternoon, our church hosted a concert by the pianist John Nilson. When John called to ask if he might perform here, we were not encouraging. None of us had heard of him and we knew that concerts can go poorly, especially when times are busy, like the spring, and the performer has no track record in the community. But John wanted to come because he was in the area and was willing to play for a free will offering. Four people came for the concert, including me. Talking with John just before he began, he was a little shell-shocked. “This never happens to me.” Life is full of surprises, at least some of them bad.
Last Sunday night, after the concert, I flew to Portland to attend a meeting of the planning group for the next United Methodist General Conference. Weeks like this can be a challenge when thinking about preaching for the coming Sunday. There is certainly less time than one would like to think about the sermon. Then, on my return trip, sitting in the Minneapolis airport on Thursday afternoon, Gate A5, I was coming to the end of a book about baseball (Baseball, George Vecsey) and was struck by these words of Casey Stengel: “Every day in baseball you see something you never saw before.” Surprises – surprised by surprises. Life is full of surprises, some good some bad.
But as Christians, surprise should not surprise us. The God of Jesus Christ, the God of our faith, the God of the Bible is a God of surprises - - - a God who breaks down walls, who stretches minds and hearts – a God of the fresh angle of vision. The God of the Bible is particularly adept at taking down walls we considered as permanent as the Great Wall of China – walls inside our hearts, minds, and souls, walls between people.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Peter has been on a bit of a wild ride. You could say that it began with his vision in Joppa, but it really begins before, with the walls Peter has built up within himself of his ideas of clean and unclean. They are walls not unknown within his religious tradition. Part of my current devotional reading, which is a continuing journey reading through the Bible, has come from the book of Ezra. In the fourth chapter, exiles returning to Jerusalem, are rebuilding the Temple, and when local people offer to help them, that help is refused. “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel.” In and out – clean and unclean, the categories were well-established in Peter’s mind, but God would blow his mind. God would break down inner walls and outer walls. God would surprise Peter by showing up where Peter did not expect. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning…. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
God surprises. God breaks through and breaks down walls.
There are inner walls which get in the way of life. Last week I quoted writer and minister Frederick Buechner who describes this phenomenon well. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from (Feasting on the Word, 431). I also appreciate the similar analysis of Elizabeth Lesser. I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart…. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). Even our ideas of God can become too walled in. MIT physicist and biblical scholar Gerald Schroeder in his book God According to God, writes: The problem so many people, believers as well as skeptics have with God really isn’t with God. It’s with the stunted perception of the biblical God we imbibe in our youthful years…. By abandoning our preconceived notions of the Author of creation and replacing them with the Bible’s description and nature’s display of God – we will learn about God according to God. (5) For Schroeder, the God according to God is a God who invites us into partnership to care for and repair the world. This God has a direction for the world – peace and goodwill, but this God can surprise us as we are invited to be partners with God in the creation of a newer world (215ff).
God surprises Peter by breaking through inner walls which strictly separated “clean” from “unclean.” God surprises Peter by breaking down dividing walls in relationships. Peter’s mind is changed, and his actions change. He spends time with uncircumcised people, much to the concern of the circumcised believers. God often surprises as God invites us into new relationships with people who are different from us, who may make us anxious in that difference, but whose humanity enriches ours.
God breaks down social walls. I am deeply saddened by some of the racial incidents that have recently plagued our local colleges. We should be at a better place. In a country steeped in biblical religion, with relatively high rates of religious participation, the majority of which is Christian, we, of all people, should understand that racial division and racial hatred are an affront to God. Yet we struggle as a nation. Reading the history of baseball this past week, I met once again, the anti-Semitism (Vecsey, 72-74) that has been a part of that history. I heard again the stories of the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from major league baseball until 1947 with Jackie Robinson (ch. 12). One of the people instrumental in breaking down that wall was a man named Branch Rickey – whose middle name happened to be Wesley!
Yet if we are, in hindsight, appalled by the slow pace of racial progress in society, we should note that the wider society often nudges the church along rather than the church leading the way in breaking down walls. Baseball integrated in 1947, though Hank Aaron was still receiving death threats as he neared and finally broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in the 1970s. The United Methodist Church maintained a separate structure for African-American congregations until 1968! Sometimes God surprises the church by working outside of it to accomplish God’s purposes of peace and goodwill. Maybe God is doing the same thing as the wider society grows in its acceptance of GLBT persons while elements of the church lag behind.
God is full of surprises, some of them uncomfortable, but always working toward the good. God is a God of surprises, of breaking down walls, of fresh angles of vision.
I was surprised in one final way this week, pulling together this sermon. When you fly, you have a lot of time for reading. In addition to the baseball book, I read a novel for a book group I lead – Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood. The edition I was using was packaged with a collection of O’Connor’s short stories, so I read a couple of them as well – and one, in particular struck me as I was thinking about Acts 11 and Peter’s surprise encounter with the Spirit of God breaking through and breaking down walls. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is about three girls, two fourteen-year-olds spending a weekend from their convent school (Mount St. Scholastica) and the twelve-year-old who lives where they are visiting. The fourteen year olds giggle with each other, calling themselves Temple One and Temple Two because their teacher had told them that they were temples of the Holy Ghost. Later that evening the older girls attend a fair, a small town fair set in the south in the middle of the twentieth century. Returning the younger girl is quite curious about what they saw. “All kinds of freaks.” When asked to explain, the older girls hesitated, but eventually gave in. They described a tent divided in two between men and women, and the “freak” who was on display. This person gave the following speech: I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way…. God made me thisaway and if you laugh, He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing his way. I’m showing you cause I got to make the best of it. The younger girl was puzzled still, and the older two told her that the person in the tent was a man and woman both. The little girl was still puzzled, but as she drifts off to sleep, she imagines the scene in the carnival tent, with the person saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute it.” She imagines a revivalistic response from the crowd – “Amen, Amen.” She imagines call and response. “God done this to me and I praise Him.” “Amen. Amen.” “He could strike you thisaway.” Amen. Amen.” “But he has not.” “Amen.” “Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?” “Amen. Amen.” “If anybody desecrate the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin, and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.” “Amen. Amen.”
O’Connor may have been trying to say something profound in her odd story – that God’s Spirit may be found in unlikely places, in surprising places. It is an Acts 11 story. Surpise. That’s who God is. God surprises. God breaks down walls. Maybe this story was a bit of O’Connor’s story, a devout Catholic in the south, a woman suffering from a crippling disease – lupus, which would take her life at age 39. Maybe she felt a bit like the odd object of a carnival show and needed to know that a God of surprises could surprise her by making her a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Who knows where this God of surprises will show up next? Who knows what walls God will take down? What we do know is to expect surprises. Amen. Amen.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Something Old, Something New

Sermon preached April 25, 2010

Texts: Acts 9:36-43; Matthew 13:51-52

With the title of today’s sermon, you may have expected a story or joke about a wedding – “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” I did look a bit for one, but was unsuccessful. I did, however, find that the phrase was used in a couple of places to discuss the just released on dvd film “Avatar.” We may have to include that on next year’s Faith and Film list.
I do have something old, though, and old joke. Three friends who have met for coffee for years are discussing some of life’s important issues. One poses this question, “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?” The first man says, “I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor in my time and a great family man.” The second man says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and a school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow.” The last friend replied, “I would like them to say, Look, he’s moving.” (Pretty Good Joke Book, 4th, 93)
The story in Acts is a sort of “look, she’s moving” story. We have Peter in Joppa. He’s come there because a disciple, a woman named Tabitha, Dorcas in Greek, has died. By the way, the name Tabitha in Hebrew and Dorcas in Greek, both mean “Gazelle.” It speaks, perhaps to the grace of this woman, a grace not well conveyed by the name “Dorcas.” In any event, Peter has arrived to a community in grief. They have lost a beloved member, one who had devoted herself to good works and acts of charity, one who had used her talents to weave clothing. Peter sends them all out of the room where Tabiatha’s dead body had been appropriately laid out, and before long, Tabitha is moving.
There are no more difficult stories in the Bible than the few stories like this where someone who has died is brought back to life. They confound us. With our inquisitive minds shaped by scientific rationality we want to know what happened and how it could happen. While those are interesting questions, they are not the best questions to bring to this story. Better are questions of meaning and purpose. What does this story mean? Why would someone include this story in a narrative of the early church? Two statements by others answer these questions well.
“The good news is about bringing life where there is death, love where there is hate, healing where there is brokenness.” (William Loader,
“The church is entrusted with the power to create new life… bodily, concretely, locally.” (Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century theolog)
This story about Peter and Tabitha is a story about the church, about its good news, about its mission. The church exists to give life, to enhance life. Its good news is about life, love and healing. It exists to widen the circle of those who know God’s love and it life-giving power. The last line of the story is not simply a throw-away detail. Tanning was considered an unclean occupation by many, yet Peter stays in Joppa with a certain Simon, a tanner.
The church exists to give life, to enhance life. Through its history, the church has not always done that well. Too many have experienced the church as a life-denying place, as narrow, judgmental, cold. That is not the church as Jesus would have it.
The poet Rilke, in one of his Letters to a Young Poet (6th) wrote, What is keeping you… from living your life as though it were one painful beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy? It is a question the church should ask in its work as a healing and life-giving presence. What in life is getting in the way of living life more fully? What is getting in the way of living with hope and expectancy? What in life keeps you from knowing the world more deeply and fully in all its pain and beauty? We should ask the question and then help remove those impediments to life by sharing good news of life, healing and love.
The truth of our lives is that we often create our own prisons. We often distance ourselves from life because it can be difficult and harsh. Frederick Buechner speaks powerfully to this. “The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.” (Feasting on the Word, 431)
The church exists to enhance life, to give life, to help bring healing, to help remove the impediments that get in the way of life, including our own steely defenses. That means the church is about forgiveness, forgiveness of self so one can start afresh, forgiveness of others so that we are not held hostage by the past. Let me add that forgiveness is a process, not a moment – a process of not letting the hurt of the past continue to haunt the present and future. It does not necessarily mean reconciliation or restoration of friendship. It is complex, but its complexity does not diminish its importance. That the church is a life giving place means that we are about transformation – inner and outer. Diana Butler Bass says that “transformation is the promise at the heart of the Christian life” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 281). Tabitha engaged in “good works and acts of charity.” Interesting phrasing. “Acts of Charity” implies inner transformation – a heart made more compassionate and loving living that out in action. But the transforming work of the church as a life-giving place also involves us in social transformation. We engage in good works. We do good in the world. What gets in the way of more life for some is the lack of food, clothing shelter, clean water, opportunity for meaningful work. The church in the name of Jesus Christ cares about this. We care about widening the circle, including the excluded. That there is still more work to be done in our world on this issue is made painfully evident by the recent incident at UMD, where students put on Facebook mean-spirited, denigrating comments about an African-American student – comments that were racist, classist and homophobic.
The story in Acts reminds us that the mission of the church is to give life, to enhance life in the name and Spirit of Jesus. We have good news to share about life, healing, hope, love. The church has not been perfect in living its mission, sometimes painfully far from it. Yet at times the church has done its job. At times, this church has done its job. One of the things we want to do today is celebrate our rich heritage at First United Methodist Church. At our best, we have been a place of hope and healing and love, a life-giving, life-enhancing place.
We have been a community gathering place for many years, a front porch for Duluth. This week’s newspaper had a story about Mark Twain’s visits to Duluth in 1886 and 1895. The 1895 visit saw Twain give a lecture at the First Methodist Episcopal Church – our church, when it was downtown. We have held gatherings for celebration, for learning, and for grieving. When Bill McKibben came to Duluth this spring, a small group of clergy and lay people met with him here. When the Rev. Arthur Foy of St. Mark African-Methodist Episcopal Church passed away tragically, this was the place people came to grieve. Just this past Monday, we helped the community say good-bye to long-time band director and musician Jim Stellmaker. Gathering places give life.
Twain’s visit also makes me think we have been a place for faith to ask questions. Mark Twain would not be considered a conventionally religious person. That our church welcomed him tells me we have been a place where people can bring their questions. We have been a place that wants to help people nurture a faith that grows and develops, a faith of the head and heart. Such a faith is life-giving.
In June of 1920, when Duluth became a place of infamy with the June 15 Clayton, Jackson and McGhie lynchings, one of those who spoke out was Rev. Charles N. Pace, pastor of First Methodist Church. “Duluth’s reputation for high-grade citizenship and its moral victories of recent years has been smirched in the disgraceful outbreak of mob violence” (The Duluth Herald, June 16, 1920). Our history is one of engagement in the community on behalf of justice, on behalf of social transformation. We seek healing in the world. We seek to remove social impediments to richer life.
We could go on for some time, but there is not time. Our history, our heritage includes becoming a reconciling congregation, welcoming GLBT people. Our history includes doing significant anti-racism work. Our heritage includes opening our doors for the annual Second Harvest food drive. It includes our mentoring program at Lake Superior elementary. We are fortunate that a part of our heritage is a financial foundation that supports our annual budget. At our best we have been a place of hope and healing, a life-giving place. If we are honest, we also know that we have not always been at our best. There are times when we have been known to be stand-offish, a church for the well-heeled. A former pastor was heard to have said that we don’t do manual labor here. I want to tell you those days are gone. If we are going to be the church we can be, the life-giving church we can be, we will all need to pitch it in a variety of ways – manual labor, small group leaders, teaching, music – the good news is that we have the gifts to do what we need to do.
In fact, to continue to build on our best history and heritage, to be our best as a healing, life-giving presence in our community and our world, change will be needed. United Methodist seminary president Lovett Weems writes in his book Church Leadership: The only way to preserve values over time is to be involved continuously in renewal and change, thus finding ever fresh expressions for those values (xi). We want to be people who can bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old. – and we are doing some of that. When I realized that on this Sunday when we would be remembering our heritage was also going to be a Sunday when Tapestry was going to lead music, I wondered about that. Then I thought, how perfect. To be a life-giving place we need the old and the new together. We need change and renewal, including in our worship and music.
The church exists to enhance life, to give life, to help bring healing, to help remove the impediments that get in the way of life, to be a place of hope. We are fortunate to have such a rich history to build on. And make no mistake about it, while our building is a part of that history, and is often a gift to the community, our richest heritage is our human heritage – it is in the voice of Charles Pace, it is in the music of Ron Gauger, it is in the financial foresight of Dick Bye and Gene Halverson who established our Foundation, it is in the teaching of Barb Ballou, it is in the hugs of Joe Berini - - - it is in every act of faith, hope and love ever engaged in by every person who has called First Methodist Episcopal, First Methodist, First United Methodist Church home.
We can be a place that gives life, that enhances life, one brick at a time, one moment at a time, building on our past toward the future. We can do it, but not alone. We can do it, with a little help from our friends, the friends who gather here again and again. We can do it because the God of Jesus Christ is at work in our lives and in our life together. Amen.