Friday, October 29, 2010

Anybody Want Anything?

Sermon preached October 24, 2010

Texts: Proverbs 1:1-6, 20-23; Psalm 131; Luke 18:1-8

What do you think of when you think of prayer? Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. If I should live another day, I pray the Lord to guide my way. I hope I haven’t given anyone any ideas. If your neighbor looks a little drowsy, please nudge them gently.
By the way, how many of you learned that prayer as a child. Honestly, it is a rather frightening prayer – praying every night about death! Or maybe when you think about prayer you think about the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer many of us also grew up with. Or when you think about praying, perhaps you think about who is sick and what to ask for – prayer as asking, petition, supplication.
This past summer I attended a continuing education event called The School of Congregational Development. It is a significant denominational continuing education endeavor and has been held for ten years in various parts of the country. This summer it was in Nashville. One evening, the conference helped sponsor an event with the United Methodist Committee on Relief that was to be a fund-raiser for Haiti and for Nashville – Haiti recovering from the earthquake and Nashville recovering from Spring flooding. The featured speaker for the evening was Tony Campolo. That night Tony talked about a lot of things, prayer among them. He talked about his own developing understandings and practices of prayer. For a long time he understood the primary mode of prayer to be asking, but he contended that there were limits to that understanding. That hit him one night as his son was going to bed, announcing that fact. “I’m going to bed now. I’m going to pray. Anybody want anything?”
My guess is that this is sort of our default mode for understanding and practicing prayer. What do we want? What does someone else need? How much trouble are we really in, as in “O.K. God I know it has been a long time since we last spoke but I did not have time to study for this test so could you help me out?”
The parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 seems to reinforce this understanding of prayer as asking. “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” He goes on to tell a story about a judge who is not a particularly likeable character. He keeps getting petitioned for justice from a widow, a persistent widow, who nearly wears him out. It is because of this that he grants her justice. Are we to pray like the persistent widow? Is God really like an uncaring judge who only responds because he gets tired of the constant petitions? What if Jesus is using some humor here, offering a riddle? There seems to be other possibilities in this story. God isn’t really like the judge. Jesus says that God quickly grants justice. God is always listening and responding. In a surprising way God is more like the widow than the judge – God is persistent in pursuit of justice and relationship. God wants to be connected with us!
“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance to the gate she speaks.” Wisdom is an essential characteristic of God, and in these words from Proverbs, where wisdom is a woman, wisdom is the one crying out – crying out for you and for me to pay attention, to listen to hear. Maybe the best response is something more than chattering back to wisdom and God with all our requests. Anybody want anything?
I am not dismissing prayer as asking. I pray those kinds of prayers all the time. When I am at a hospital bedside, something more than silent prayer seems required. So, too, in the face of grief, sadness, difficulty – though there are moments when some of life’s hardships also require silence. I am not dismissing prayer as asking but inviting us to other dimensions – dimensions of discernment and contemplation, two practices that Diana Butler Bass identifies as an important part of Christianity for the rest of us. I am inviting us to think about, experience, and practice prayer as listening with our hearts and with our souls – prayer as silence.
Christians believe that human beings have the capacity to hear, see, touch, and feel God – a genuine sensing of truth and beauty through which we know God and know God’s will. Christians call this discernment. (Christianity For the Rest of Us, 91) Diana Butler Bass goes on to talk about discernment as “a practice that can be developed through participation in reflection, questions, prayer, and community.” It is a practice “that involves self-criticism, questions and risk” (95). The central questions are “God-questions” (94), that is, questions about where God’s Spirit may be moving in the midst of one’s life and in the midst of a Christian community. One of the places where we continue to need the practice of discernment in our life together as First United Methodist Church is around the question, “what is the good we can do?” Phrased differently, “what is the good God might be calling us to do?” We know there is more good that needs doing in the world than we can do as this church, though we keep our hands in a lot of things. But we cannot do it all. Given who we are, where we are in our life, who we are in this community, what is the good we can do? We need practices of reflection, prayer and questions to help us continue to discern this. Some pieces of the puzzle are in place – mentoring, Ruby’s Pantry, Christian care giving within, welcoming all - and the list goes on – but what else might we need to do. Who else should we be reaching? What other hurts in the world calls to us most strongly?
And if we engage in the practices of discernment, if we ask questions about our life together, we need to leave space for answers. The same is true for our individual lives. If we ask questions of ourselves and of God, we need to leave space for answers. Some of that space should be quiet space. Bernard of Clairvaux (117): Continual silence, and removal from the noise of things of this world and forgetfulness of them, lifts the heart and asks us to think of the things of heaven and sets our heart upon them. I find that amusing when I remember that Bernard lived in the twelfth century. How noisy could it have been? Meister Eckhart (1260-1327): “Nothing in creation is so like God as silence.”
Tony Campolo shared that his understanding and experience of prayer has moved in the direction of more silence. Sometimes he simply prays, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” and then is quiet.
I know for some of you the very idea of that kind of contemplation, that kind of silent prayer sends shivers. I genuinely believe we have different spiritual styles and differing levels of need for silence. But even with that, I believe we all need a little silence sometimes.
I encourage you to take some time for silence, for paying attention to what’s going on inside, and to where God might be moving in your life. Start small – two minutes even. Go from there. Perhaps begin with words from Psalm 131. “I have calmed and quieted my soul.” See if you don’t hear God a little bit more in doing this. See if you don’t hear something deep within a bit more clearly.
In Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, I am going to invite any who wish to come early to pray. We will gather at 8:45 and have five minutes of silence as a part of that prayer time. I know it is early. I know many don’t come until 10 a.m., but if you don’t want to physically be here, I am going to invite you to take some time at home before coming for silent prayer. If it seems worthwhile, we may try it again during Lent. Maybe we will all hear something of the voice of God’s wisdom for our life together.
In her chapter on contemplation, Diana Butler Bass quotes teacher and theologian Richard Rohr. “When the church is no longer teaching the people how to pray, we could almost say it will have lost its reason for existence” (118). There is a lot of good to be done in the world, and we need to be doing some of it. While we cannot do it all, as a church part of the good we must do is help people connect more deeply with God through prayer and discernment. It is part of the very definition of being church.
As a final lesson in prayer, I offer this Mary Oliver poem – “Praying.”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Sermon preached October 17, 2010

Texts: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Mark 5:1-20

This is the second is a series of sermons, and you may think that the theme is meteorological. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon entitled, “Let It Rain” and today the sermon is “hail.” You already know that I am not going to talk about little ice balls. But this is the second sermon in a series of sermons using as their base the book Christianity For the Rest of Us. Part I of the book provides an overall vision and the context, personal and historical, for Diana Butler Bass’ work of checking on mainline Protestant churches that were doing well, bucking the trend among many such congregations. Chapter two might be an especially hard slog for some as the author gets into history and is sometimes a little polemic. Don’t let that chapter get in the way of your moving forward.
The heart of the book is Part II wherein Butler Bass identifies some Christian practices that characterize churches that are finding new life, not as mega-churches, but new life nonetheless. In the next five weeks I am going to preach about those practices, signposts along the Christian way. From the earliest days of the Christian faith, Jesus’ followers, known as people of the Way, were recognized by what they did…. If you act like a Christian by joining its practices, by following its tracings, you may well become one. Being a Christian is not a one-moment miracle of salvation. It takes practice. It is a process of faith and a continuing conversion…. Practices invite weary nomads to join the journey, to find home, to create a different kind of village, to enter the memory of Jesus (74-75)
Today, we are going to discuss the Christian practices of healing and hospitality. But what do they have in common? They both begin with the letter “H.” I also think they have something in common with another “h” word – “hail.” Hail, when not referring to icy precipitation falling during a severe thunderstorm is a form of greeting – “Hail.” It is a greeting, a welcome. It is also a word that at its root refers to being whole, being well, and is linked to the more theological word “salvation.” Healing, hospitality, hail.
Let’s look at the story from Mark for a few moments. Sometimes this is called the story of the Gerasene demoniac. It is fascinating in its strangeness. What do we know about this man? He is hurting. He is filled with an unclean spirit named legion – his problems are many. He howls – communication issues. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. Because of all this he lives in isolation, among the tombs. When Jesus shows up, he heals the man by striking an unusual bargain with the unclean spirits. Notice what happens to the man who is healed. People come to see him clothed and in his right mind. He will no longer be at home in the tombs, but among them. In fact, Jesus sends the man home to tell his story. He will become a part of the community again, and his presence as one who has been healed with help others. Part of the healing process is restoration in the community - - - healing and hospitality.
We may be uncomfortable with the language of healing in mainline Protestant churches. The word “faith-healer” probably does not conjure up positive images. Yet the idea of healing is central to Christian faith and practice. I concur with Diana Butler Bass. Healing has become a metaphor for salvation. For mainline pilgrims, salvation entails several levels of healing: emotions and psyche, physical wellness, human reconciliation, and cosmic restoration…. Longing for healing is not flaky, idiosyncratic, or New Age – it is an inchoate human desire to experience shalom, God’s dream of created wholeness. (108, 111)
Maybe as difficult as getting over our negative stereotypes of the word healing in relation to faith is the difficulty of admitting our need for healing, admitting our woundedness, admitting that we inflict wounds on our own lives, admitting that the vision of a new heart we read in Jeremiah has relevance of us – that we need a new heart. But I think of the words of psychologist Michael Eigen – “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life” (Conversations, 116). I think of the words of psychologist D. W. Winnicott: ‘Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning” (in Winnicott, Adam Phillips, 51). We get hurt, and maybe we respond by building up layers of defense so we won’t get hurt again, choking off something essential about our lives, and the defenses become legion. Maybe we strike out of our hurt, wounding others, and the wounds we leave are legion. Maybe we beat others to the punch, wounding ourselves – denying our giftedness or lacking the ability to forgive ourselves. Legion are the ways we damage our own lives.
But the church has often been the last place for honestly admitting our need for healing, admitting our capacity to wound others or ourselves. We bandage ourselves up in our Sunday best, hiding the wounded souls in need of forgiveness, in need of healing, in need of community. Growing up I remember hearing someone say that she did not appreciate preachers talking about sin to their congregations – after all, they were the ones in church. We need the language of sin and salvation, of hurt, pain and healing. If we cannot use the word “sin” because it has been so abused, we cannot lose the idea that we are sometimes less than our best, that we miss the mark, and that we are sometimes people who wound others. The church is not just a place for those who have it all together. It is a place for those of us trying to get it together, even when our problems are legion.
In a book that shares some of the same themes and emphases as Christianity For the Rest of Us, Anthony Robinson writes: In the civic-faith era, church was a place where we went to give and where we were expected to give to others. Less often were we taught to receive, to see our own needs, which may not be material but are every bit as real. Not only can a one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver be a power trip, but it can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God. (Transforming Congregational Culture, 66) Robinson believes we need to learn to be receivers who give.
Community often plays a role in healing. The welcoming word is often a healing word. So many of our wounds are wounds of exclusion. We have all been painfully reminded recently of the effects of teenage and youth bullying, as schools see children, youth and young adults take their lives rather than live them confined to the tombs of loneliness and ostracism. Hospitality – welcoming, and healing are deeply interconnected.
In a time of hate-filled extremism, some Christians still long for a word of nonviolent love, or reconciling peace. Of human wholeness, of true brother and sisterhood, in God’s compassion. For them hospitality opens the way to practicing peace, doing a tangible thing that can change the world. (86)
Over the past many years, I begin confirmation with a session on community-building. We do some fun things to get to know one another, but I emphasize that this is not just to have fun or get to know each other. The purpose runs deeper, and I share these words: Christian community practices hospitality, creating a safe space where different people can feel welcomed, affirmed, visible and valuable (Thomas Hawkins).
Hospitality that provides healing. Healing that leads to reincorporation into community. Hail – a welcoming word, a word of healing and well-being.
I am a Christian because I know my wounds and feel them deeply and I find healing in Jesus. I am a Christian because I know my own ability to would, even wound myself and I find forgiveness and new beginnings in Jesus and in Christian community. I am a Christian because I need a home along the way and I find a word of “hail” in Jesus and among Jesus’ people – a word of welcome and well-being. I am a Christian because sometimes my problems or wounds are legion and life feels as if it is being lived wandering among the tombs and I need someone who will help me find my right mind – and Jesus does that. I am a Christian who believes maybe others hurt, feel wounded, need forgiveness, long for hospitality and home, and maybe Jesus can help them too. Maybe Jesus wants to help them through us. Maybe Jesus wants this to be one hail of a church. Amen.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Christianity For the Rest of Us

Christianity For the Rest of Us

Sermon preached October 3, 2010

Texts: Lamentations 1:1-6; Luke 17:5-10

As mentioned in the Children’s time, today is World Communion Sunday, and I think that makes it a good day to speak about the state of Christianity in the world. Now that is about the least exciting beginning to a sermon I can imagine, but I hope you hang in there with me because I am going to bring it all back, close to home.
So what is happening with Christianity in the world? In 1910 there were over 600 million Christians in the world, about 34.8% of the population. It was the world’s largest religion by percent. In 2010, Christianity still claims more adherents than any other religion, now with 2.2 billion persons calling themselves Christian. However, the percent of the world’s population that is Christian has declined ever so slightly, 33.2%. And in these past 100 years which religion has grown most dramatically? Islam – 12.6% in 1910 to 22.4% in 2010. While the percentage of the world’s population that considers itself Christian has remained about the same, the geographic center of Christianity is shifting. Christianity is declining in the modern, industrial and post-industrial West and increasing elsewhere, especially in Africa.
Closer to home, we know that the situation for mainline Protestant Churches in the United States has changed and continues to change. The place of the church in the culture has shifted. Here are some words offered by the authors of the book we are using in the 9 a.m. Bible study on Acts: No longer are stores closed on Sunday in tacit support of the church and Christianity. No longer do public schools give privileged status to Christianity and its leaders. No longer does the church benefit from a pervasive expectation that part of being a good American is being a participant and member of a church or synagogue. (Called To Be Church, 9). Our own church statistics for worship attendance and membership are an indication of such changes. In 1984 First UMC had 1023 members and averaged 352 in worship on a Sunday morning. In 2009, our membership was 592 and our average worship attendance 194. Interestingly, I recently came across some information that indicates that while church membership fell some after the 1950s in the US, “participation in churches has remained proportionately higher compared to previous eras” (Christian Century, August 10, 2010, 9) Another change for us is that there is not only greater “competition” for our time from outside activities, there is also more “competition” from new churches. A couple of weeks ago I was at a church fair at St. Scholastica – an opportunity for local congregations to promote themselves to college students. One of the amazing things I noticed was the number of newer ministries present – Community Churches – Rock Hill, Eastridge; the Vineyard Church; funky sounding ministries like The Fringe.
To all of this we could offer a lamentation. How lonely sits the church that once was full of people. How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the community…. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her. There is biblical precedent for such lamentation.
But if we offer lamentation, it should not be our signature note. Yes, our situation is different from the situation in which this church was founded in 1869 and when we built here in 1966. The world is not the same. Yet God still calls to us. Jesus is not yet done with us. If we want to lament for awhile, fine, but let us also seek refreshment, renewal, rekindling the fire.
What might that look like? There are some models of Christian faith out there that are not necessarily fitting for us, that are not the way for our renewal. The First and Ten men’s group is reading a book called When Christians Get it Wrong, written by Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor of one of the largest mainline churches in the country with 17,000 members. Christians can get it wrong; even some successful Christian churches get it wrong. Hamilton’s book discusses how Christians get it wrong sometimes in our temperament, in our thinking about science and politics, when speaking of other religions, when bad things happen, in dealing with homosexuality. Evidence of getting it wrong abounds. Our newspaper has carried letters written by local Christian clergy in which Islam is called evil and Allah a demon and foreign god. I received a fax this week from an organization called “The Pray in Jesus Name Project.” It was a voter’s guide and I was encouraged to reproduce it and distribute it. The guide ranked our Minnesota congressional delegation on “faith-friendly” issues. And how were these defined? Abortion and homosexuality. The statement of faith of one of the growing churches in our area proclaims “the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked” (Vineyard Statement of Faith), but it is not clear who that includes – anyone who is not a Christian?
So if there are forms of Christian faith that seem to us to get it wrong, versions of Christian faith that don’t seem fitting as our road to renewal, and yet we know we cannot simply turn back the clock to a time when church was the only thing going on Sundays and the culture strongly encouraged that you go, what are we left with? Christianity for the rest of us!
Two weeks ago I invited you to pray with me that God would let God’s Spirit rain upon us generously. Today I invite you to join others in thinking about what it means to be a Christian and a part of a Christian community in our day and time, beginning with reading Christianity For the Rest of Us. The author of that book shares stories about churches like ours that are discovering new life, often by reclaiming faith practices from our Christian tradition, but making them new. From now until Thanksgiving, I am going to be preaching on some of the themes of the book. People are going to be reading the book and discussing it in groups. It is not a magic wand, but it is a step.
In light of the declining position of mainline churches and of our church, we might want to lament. We also might pray, “Increase our faith.” Jesus response to the disciples request for an increase in faith was to tell them, in a cryptic way, “Use what you’ve got!”
I believe the seeds for the renewal of our church are here. They are here in our thoughtful minds. They are here in our compassionate hearts. They are here in our shared life with its inclusive table fellowship. We may not soon have 1,000 members, but as we seek renewal of our faith and life, as we seek to live out a Christianity for the rest of us, others will find that attractive and join us on the journey. What we want here is faith in Jesus that is thoughtful, compassionate, and passionate – one that is open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just. We want a Christianity for the rest of us, a Christian faith that gets it right often.
I began with statistics, let me end with a story. You may have heard about the Superior Spartan High School Football team. Last week in a game against Menomonie, losing significantly, the Superior team, late in the game, allowed a Menomonie player to catch a pass and score a touchdown. The player was a senior with developmental disabilities. The first time I heard the story was in an e-mail from Julie that was circulating in the Superior school district. A man had sent a copy of a letter he was writing the Superior Telegram to the district, and it was being circulated. In the letter the man wrote about “the larger than life gift given by these Superior HS men…. That Friday night the Superior HS varsity football team and its coaching staff exhibited, without apology, a willingness to honor the ‘least of these.’”
You know where that phrase comes from – the Bible. Our world yearns for Christians to live this way. It yearns for followers of Jesus who live a faith in Jesus that is thoughtful, compassionate, and passionate – one that is open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just. That is our path to renewal, and the seeds of it are already planted in our hearts, our minds, our souls. May the rain of God’s Spirit water them generously. Amen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Scary Stories

Sermon preached September 26, 2010
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: I Timothy 6:6-10; Luke 16:19-31

Did you hear about the math teacher that was detained by airport security carrying a slide rule and calculator? They were questioning him for carrying weapons of math instruction. (Pretty Good Joke Book, 5th. 24)
Teachers. Good teachers help shape our lives by offering us tools for living and by helping us see the world differently. Do you remember some teachers who made a difference for you – school teachers, Sunday School teachers?
The gospels portray Jesus as an exceptional teacher. His words connected with those he taught and his teaching helped change lives. As he taught, he opened people to God in new ways. Those of us who call ourselves Christian still claim to learn from the teachings of Jesus. One of the remarkable things about Jesus as teacher was his use of varying methods. He used aphorisms to distill wisdom into memorable phrases. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” He told pithy stories that could startle his listeners into seeing the world differently. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Some of these stories, these parables, were funny – the woman who turns her house upside down to find a coin and then calls all the neighbors to tell them what she has done. Some of the stories were like riddles – no easy answer but they got you to think. And Jesus even used scary stories sometimes to make his point – like today.
There was a rich man. Jesus is telling a story, not relating a news item, yet the story weaves in some of the social realities of the day – purple was very expensive and reserved for the rich. Outside the rich man’s home was a poor man named Lazarus. Both men die and their fates differ significantly. The rich man is tormented while Lazarus gets to feast with Abraham. This is a story, not a metaphysical description of life after death. The point of the story is not that wealth is bad, but that how we use our wealth matters. The rich man seems to have no conscience toward Lazarus. Only when it is too late does he seem to develop a conscience. He becomes worried about his brothers. Not only had he failed to use his wealth in a way that helped others, but he had not taken time to teach his brothers about the wise use of wealth, and now he cannot. It is a scary story meant to drive home to listeners the importance of using wealth wisely, compassionately – here, now.
The text from Timothy is a nice accompaniment. The writer of Timothy was someone grappling with what it meant to live as a follower of Jesus years after Jesus had been killed. He, too, grapples with issues of money and goes even deeper than Jesus, in some ways. Use wealth wisely, but know that if you don’t it may use you. Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…. Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. Talk about your scary story! When we don’t get our relationship with money, with wealth right, it can skew us. It can screw us up. Think Bernie Maddoff. Think Kenneth Lay and Enron. Think of people you know or even times in your own life when your relationship with money or possessions was not healthy.
How we use our wealth matters, matters deeply, matters ultimately. When we cling too tightly, when we pursue too vigorously, when we refuse to share and care, we get it wrong. When we get it wrong it can plunge people into ruin and destruction. It can mess with our own souls. The good news is the church has a solution. Give as much as you can to us and we will unburden you! Yes, that is supposed to be funny. There is truth in the giving part. A healthy relationship with money, wealth, things, knows involves giving for the good of others – giving money, giving time, giving attention. The rich man’s problem went beyond his refusal to share with Lazarus. It was his refusal to see Lazarus as a human being until it was too late.
But I will not turn these powerful teachings, couched in scary stories, into a simple sermon on giving. The teaching is deeper than that. It invites us to a profound self-examination of our values. Maybe one place to begin is at a beginning, with the words we use at baptism – and we are going to use them soon. Will you use the freedom and power God gives you? How we use our freedom and power matters. We can use it well or not. What is using these well? Resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Trust Jesus Christ and God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Build community with all kinds of people who also want to follow Jesus.
Notice what we don’t say. We don’t mention wealth at all. My hope for Keira, and for every child I baptize is that they would never know the pangs of hunger and be unsure of where their next meal is coming from. I hope none of those I baptize ever knows deep economic uncertainty and scarcity. I hope Keira and all those I baptize in the name of the church always have enough. I also hope they grow to understand “enough” so that in their lives they will pursue justice, goodness, sharing, kindness, community, love.
One scary story deserves another. In hell, people are seated at a table overflowing with delicious food. But the people all have splints on their elbows so they are unable to reach their mouths with their spoons, or forks, or even hands. They sit though eternity emaciated, hungry, in the midst of plenty. In heaven, the scene is much the same – a table overflowing with delicious food and people with splints on their elbows. But in heaven they have learned to feed each other and so enjoy the banquet together. (Naomi Rachel Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, 233). One test of whether or not our relationship with wealth is healthy is whether or not we can feed others, care about and care for others, bless others.
In the end these scary stories are not meant so much to scare us as to scar us, that is to mark our lives like the waters of baptism mark us with the sign of the cross. Grow gently in love of God. Use the freedom and power God gives you to pursue justice, goodness, kindness, community, peace, love. Use your wealth – your money, your time, your energy, your attention – use it well. We don’t have forever. Amen.