Friday, August 27, 2010

Irreligiously Religious

Sermon preached August 22, 2010

Text: Luke 13:10-17

A pastor received this letter from a parishioner. What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning new hymns. Last Sunday’s was particularly unnerving. The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite disturbing. The letter was written in the 90s – the 1890s and the hymn in question was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The story should give us cause for reflection.
Here is another such story – with two quotes. (1) In employing instrumental music [they] ape the practice of God’s ancient people… in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in worship. (2) The church is just now torn with controversy over the question of the introduction of instrumental music into its form of worship - - - the secession of of [some] members will follow. The first quote comes from John Calvin (1509-1564, on the Psalms – 1550s? with word order changed for ease of quoting) and the second from a New York Times article from 1883. The primary instrument that was the focus of controversy – the organ. Cause for reflection.
I tell this next story with some fear and trepidation. Now that I have your attention, here goes. I have heard this story a couple of times from people here at First UMC but I may not have all the details right. Once, during the time of a former pastor, a young man came to worship here. He planted himself in a front pew and put his feet up on the partition. The pastor, while preaching did not miss a beat but casually walked over and brushed the young man’s feet from the partition. Appropriate enough, and I would not put down the pastor- and I have wondered what the young man thought. I have wondered if all his conceptions about the church as being more concerned with the furniture than with someone coming to try and connect with God were confirmed. Cause for reflection.
These stories provide a context for the Gospel story. It takes place during a religious service. Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. “Just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” Jesus heals and frees her. But wait, this is the Sabbath. An indignant leader objects. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
Jesus is being criticized for being disrespectful, irreverent, irreligious. He is breaking the traditions of the Sabbath. We ought not to take that lightly. Sabbath observance helped mark the Jewish people in their relationship with /God. It was a part of their understanding of what it meant to be faithful to God, to be God’s people. Setting aside time from work was a sign of trust in God’s goodness. It was a reminder that we are more than our economic productivity – a lesson we struggle to remember in our day and time. Current strands of Judaism continue to wrestle with the meaning of Sabbath. In one modern Orthodox school, a physician shared with student his belief that keeping Sabbath meant that on that day he could save the life of a Jew, but not a Gentile, except under particular circumstance (Feasting on the Word, 385).
Jesus’ response is not to destroy the importance of Sabbath, only to remind his listeners that on a sacred day, and in a sacred space, it is good to remember what the essence of religion is, and for Jesus, healing is central to religion, central to his understanding of what God is up to in the world. Breaking the Sabbath, Jesus is being irreligiously religious.
The story is cause for deeper reflection. It is one illustration among many that biblical faith is a self-critical faith. Here is another illustration, two verses from the book of James. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27).
Religion, relationship with God, has something to do with healing, with well-being, with helping others stand up and stand tall. It has something to do with healing in our own lives. It has something to do with repairing the world. Consider all the ways the world is in need of healing – wounds of the soul and spirit that run deep; hunger for food and for connection with other people; social wounds where people are shunned for their race, background, socio-economic status, sexual orientation; senseless violence; the violation of the earth. When we were on vacation, we spent part of our time in Memphis, and in one museum I was struck by a sign carried during the civil rights movement of the 1960 – “I Am a Man.” A world which cannot recognize the humanity of another is a world in need of healing.
Religion, relationship with God, has something to do with healing, with well-being, with helping others stand up and stand tall. This is the witness of the Bible. Another part of the witness of the Bible is that we get this wrong sometimes. We miss the mark sometimes. We give greater weight to less important aspects of living our faith, and lose focus from what matters more. It happens, and when it does we are called to be irreligiously religious.
Being irreligiously religious does not mean throwing everything that is traditional out the window. It does not mean change for its own sake. It does not mean being insensitive to others. Being irreligiously religious is to know that we may be uncomfortable in church sometimes. It is to be open. It is to be willing to hang in there with our discomfort, asking whether God might be up to something here, asking if what is making us uncomfortable may be contributing to the healing and well-being of the world. It is to be willing to ask questions and live with the fact that some answers don’t come quickly, nor are they always the answers we want to hear.
To be irreligiously irreligious has implications for our theology – and here I don’t mean the more abstract theology in books but the theology we hold in our head and heart. Sometimes our inner theology, the image of God we hold in our head, needs to change, because it is getting in the way of God’s Spirit. In the story from the Gospel we have a woman who had been bent over for eighteen years. Do you think she ever heard this was God’s will for her, that God would not give her anything more than she could handle? Perhaps she took some comfort from that, but I wonder if she was bent over inside as much as outside by a theology of a “God of what is” instead of a richer understanding of a “God of what is and what might be.” I cannot plumb all the mysteries of suffering right now, and there are some things that don’t get better. We will all die sometime. Yet we are often too quick to look at what is and say it must be God’s purpose, when God’s purpose might be to work to change that situation toward healing and well-being. To be irreligiously religious is to be open to questions, even about our view of God. It is to be willing to confront, in the words of Kirk Bingaman, “the supreme choice facing every person of faith… whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (Freud and Faith, 60)
To be irreligiously religious has implications for our worship. We continue to work to integrate various worship practices, various styles of music into our worship here. Some weeks, like today, our music is all more contemporary. At other times we are almost all more traditional. Most weeks a combination. We will continue to work with other media here. I would be kind of surprised if someone has not wondered about the appropriateness of the rocks on the pulpit. The essence of worship is to try to connect deeper parts of ourselves with the richness of God, and there are no simple formulas for that. Worship will always have a bit of an experimental feel, and that will make us uncomfortable sometimes. Being irreligiously religious means being willing to hang in there with that discomfort.
To be irreligiously religious has implications for our wider ministry. Thursday evening, we launched Ruby’s Pantry Coppertop, a food distribution ministry. There were over 400 people or families who came to get food and about 80 volunteers. Julie, my wife, shared one story with me. She was standing next to the woman giving chicken, and a mother with children was excited when she received her chicken. “Look, meat. We haven’t had meat in weeks. I can’t remember the last time.” Julie then said, “Would you like some carrots to go with that?” “Fresh carrots – we usually have to eat canned vegetables. The fresh ones are so expensive.” We were a part of healing in our community, but we will have some issues. It was a beautiful day Thursday, but when it gets cold, where are we going to put people? Maybe they will wait in here, and we, some of us might be uncomfortable about that, but we have to ask, is God calling us to help heal our community in this way, and if so, are we willing to hang in there with our discomfort?
To follow a lively God who cares about the healing of the world, to follow a wind-blown Spirit, to follow an irreligiously religious, Jesus can be uncomfortable sometimes, but it is the way of life, the way of healing for our souls and spirits, it is the way of well-being, it is the way of standing up straight. Amen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Long Run

Sermon preached August 15, 2010

Texts: Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12: 49-53

Once upon a time there was a hare who considered himself the fastest creature in the forest. He challenged any other animal to a race, but no one would accept the challenge – that is, until one day a tortoise took it up. The hare taunted the tortoise. “You don’t have a chance against me. I’ll be done before you even get half way.” After the race began it seemed like the hare was probably going to be right. He sped ahead of the tortoise quickly. So confident was he in his abilities that the hare decided he had time for a snack and a nap. That was his undoing. The nap lasted longer than he thought, and the plodding tortoise finished ahead of the speedy hare.
Most of your recognize this old story from Aesop’s Fables. The moral of the story is usually stated as: “slow and steady wins the race.” A good life lesson BUT don’t you want to go fast sometimes, feel the wind in your hair (at least metaphorically). Cardboard gods is a book in which the author tells his story by reflecting on his baseball card collection from the 1970s. In one chapter, the author writes, “The point is that life is not to be methodically considered and solved like a math equation. Life… is to be sprinted toward and bungled beyond all recognition” (19).
Patience – slow and steady wins the race. Passion – life is to be sprinted toward. There is a place for both, a need for both in our lives lived with God, in our lives lived with each other in the community called the church. In the long run of life, in the long run of the journey of faith, we require both patience and passion.
The writer of Hebrews knew something about the importance of patience. He recorded a litany of names of patient people of faith. One can almost hear an early Christian sermon in his words. The lesson drawn from the stories is one of patience and perseverance. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely; and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Patience – perseverance - - - I think we know that. We know that in our lives. Ever make a change in your life – lose weight, learn a new skill. It takes patience. While on vacation, I went golfing for the first time this summer. The first nine holes required patience, believe me. I know that if I really want to improve, I need to practice and play more, stick to it, continue to be patient. Long-term relationships, if they are to be successful, require a great deal of patience. Throughout a marriage we continue to adjust to living with a person who grows and changes, just as we grow and change. It requires patience to make it work well. Long-term friendships the same.
We know about patience in our church, too. We would not be here today if not for the patient service of countless persons through the years since 1869. I am so thankful for the great cloud of witnesses that have been a part of this congregation, and this week we are grieving the loss of one of those patient saints – Lee Amundson. In his book A Long Obedience, Eugene Peterson writes: Stick-to-it-iveness. Perseverance. Patience. The way of faith is not a fad that is taken up in one century only to be discarded in the next. It lasts. It is a way that works. (123-124)
Slow and steady wins the race. Patience. I think we know this, even though we don’t always embody it perfectly. I think we know this. I think we get this. Patience is a needed virtue for life in the long run.
What of passion? Joan Chittister uses this cryptic and difficult verse from Luke’s gospel to talk about passion and enthusiasm in life. There is so much life that is never lived because we lack the enthusiasm to live it. The problem is that I have seen apathy – that deep-down, bone-weary lethargy, that passes too often, I think, for calm – and I know that, though it is not death, it is not life either…. I’m with Jesus: I prefer fire to smoke. And God knows there is plenty of reason for fire in a world in which apathy has become both a social virtue and a contagious disease…. There is nothing in life worth doing that is not worth doing with enthusiasm. Anything else is simply a matter of going through the motions. (Living Well, 48-49, 51)
We are both drawn to and afraid of passion. That is understandable. We often associate passion with lack of control, with a lack of reflection. We have seen passionate hatred do damage to others. We have seen passionate religion used to persecute others. This week the author Anne Rice said she was quitting Christianity because it is “quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious.” Unfortunately, we know what she means. We have seen passionate politics degenerate into group think or, worse, mob violence.
But this unthinking, uncontrollable passion is not the genuine article. It is a degraded version. Genuine passion is thoughtful and reflective and can be directed. It is always in a give and take relationship with deep, reflective thinking. (Stephen Mitchell, Can Love Last, 199)
Not only can passion be deeply thoughtful, reflective and directed, it is needed in the long run of life, in the long run of the journey of faith. We need the energy of passion in our lives, in our relationships, in our church. Think of how flat life becomes when we go through periods where we are little enthused about anything. Think of how pale marriage or other relationships seem when there is little passion to draw on. Life lived together in the church needs passion in the long run, too.
Perhaps we need a new season of passion here – passion about God, Jesus, faith, church. There is reason for it. We celebrate a God whose love energizes and sustains our lives. We remember a Jesus whose wisdom, courage and love continue to enthrall and fascinate and draw us into deeper life. We are part of a faith that has guided and inspired people for centuries and while sometimes Christians have lost their way – becoming quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious, others have stayed faithful to a truer vision of life lived in relationship with God – a life of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice. We have a community of people drawn together here for the purpose of growing as followers of Jesus Christ and making a positive difference in our world. In a world that often tells us we are valuable based only on how we look, or what we earn, or what we have – we proclaim a God who loves us as we are, who sees all we can be and desires that for us. In a world often willing to turn away from the suffering of the least, we here tune our ears to the voices of the outcast, the downcast, the left out and the left behind, knowing that they, too, are beloved by God and worthy of respect. I can get passionate about these things, how about you!?
Passion need not be loud, or raucous always, but sometimes it should be. Methodist theologian Don Sailers once said, “Whatever people can say with passion and in heightened speech they will end up singing in some form” (quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 205). Songs of passion should be part of our life together here – and the songs can be quiet or loud, classical, jazz, folk or rock, but we need songs of passion to energize us and sustain us for the long run.
Patience and passion – we need them both in the long run. We can generate them because the God of Jesus is a God who walks with us always. We can patiently rely on God. This God is also a God of surprise and joy – a God who evokes passion. Patience, passion – may we know both the slow and steady and the sprint of life, by the grace of God. Amen.