Monday, May 30, 2011

For Good

Sermon preached May 29, 2011

Text: I Peter 3:13-22

There is an old story and my apologies if you have heard this one before. A chicken and a pig were grateful for the home given them by a local farmer and they decided they wanted to do something nice for him. They thought about it for awhile and the chicken suggested fixing him a nice breakfast. “How about bacon and eggs?” The pig replied, “For you, that’s a gift, for me that’s the ultimate sacrifice.”
This is Memorial Day weekend here in the United States. Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a time to remember those who had died during the Civil War. Graves of fallen soldiers were decorated with flowers. The holiday evolved into Memorial Day after World War I - a time to remember any who had given their lives in service to the country. As the holiday has further evolved, it has come to be a time to remember all those whose lives have touched ours but who are no longer with us. As a child I remember going with my family to Park Hill cemetery where my mother’s parent’s graves are located.
So Memorial Day is a day to remember. It is a day to give thanks, thanks to all whose lives have enriched ours but who are no longer with us. Especially, it is a day to give thanks to those who have given their lives in service or who lost their lives in war – those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. It is a time when we think about suffering and sacrifice and war. As Christians, we begin with an understanding that peace is God’s hope for the human community and that war always represents a failure of some kind. Yet many Christians believe that while war is always tragic, is can sometimes be necessary in order to prevent even greater suffering. Justifiable wars in the Christian tradition are those that seek to prevent greater harm and suffering, for instance, World War II seeking to prevent the spread of the murderous regime of Adolph Hitler.
Trying to alleviate suffering, that is a Christian concern and mandate. James 1:27 reads: 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. Theologian Dorothee Soelle in her book Suffering writes: As long as Christ lives and is remembered his friends will be with those who suffer (177). One way we are with the suffering is to work to alleviate their suffering.
We also know that not all human suffering can be alleviated. We suffer when those close to us die, and we will all experience the death of people we love. It is part of the poignancy of this weekend. There are smaller hurts and traumas along life’s way that will never be eliminated. With growth and change come beginnings and endings, and they can be hard. As parents, we hurt when our children hurt. When suffering cannot be changed, we are with those who suffer as friends who offer comfort. A Russian Christian liturgy reads, “everyone who comforts another is the mouth of Christ” (Soelle, Suffering, 177).
As Christians we work to prevent preventable suffering. When suffering has occurred or when it cannot be alleviated, we stand with those who suffer. I Peter 3, offers yet another perspective on suffering for we followers of Jesus. It suggests that there are times when we embrace suffering for a greater good. If you suffer for doing right, you are blessed…. It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing wrong. The text provides Jesus as an example. Jesus suffered in doing good. We might also suffer in doing good. There are times when we may willingly embrace suffering for a greater good. Challenging words, but fitting for this Memorial Day weekend.
Suffering for good. There are times when doing good brings some inevitable discomfort with it. Rabbi Edwin Friedman, and influential leadership theorist in religious communities is fond of saying, “no good deed goes unpunished” (A Failure of Nerve Seabury edition, 189). I think his point is well-taken, especially in the charged atmosphere of society today. If a Democrat does something – almost no matter how good, Republicans will find fault. If Republicans do something – almost no matter how good, Democrats will find fault. If you do good for someone, others may suspect your motives. There are all kinds of instances when doing something for good brings with it negative consequences, suffering of a kind. Yet the encouragement of I Peter is to do good anyway.
Beyond even that, we recognize the need not only to endure suffering that may come when we do good, but also the need, on occasion, to willingly suffer in order that good might be done. Sometimes the good requires that we sacrifice something, that we give of ourselves even when it is uncomfortable.
I think about the church. For the church to be the community of Jesus there are times when we all have to give a little. There are times when the way forward may not be our preferred way, but it is for good. Last Sunday night a few of us gathered to watch Toy Story 3. There is a parable for the church there. The toys in Toy Story 3 are confronted with the crisis of their boy, Andy, going off to college. What will be their fate – the attic, the trash? Woody, the first of Andy’s favorite toys could go off to college with him, but in the end, he works to make sure all the toys find a new home, and he with them.
O.K. – it is just a movie, but it is also a lesson about being the church and working for good, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. I am grateful for the ways I have seen that kind of work for good here. When we made a challenging decision about worship two years ago, it could have been very difficult. Being together for one service means no one’s style of music prevails all the time. It means we may all be uncomfortable sometime. While things are not perfect, things seem to have worked for good, at least for this season in our life together. When the cold winter months came, we figured that we would need to keep people coming for Ruby’s Pantry warm. The sanctuary was the only place where this would work. Given my experiences in other places, I thought I would surely hear some concern about using the sanctuary as a waiting space for Ruby’s Pantry. No one has said a negative word about this. It is a little inconvenient sometimes. It requires a little more work on our part, but no one has said to me we should not be doing this. And frankly, I kinda brag about this with other clergy!
Sometimes the good requires that we sacrifice something, that we give of ourselves even when it is uncomfortable. It is true for the church and true for our society. Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to think together about our country. One of the things about us today that concerns me is the difficulty we seem to have as a society in thinking about giving of ourselves, of sacrificing for the common good. Some of the roots of this might be found in the excesses of the self-help movement of the 1970s which sometimes devolved from a legitimate concern for a healthy self-esteem to looking out for number 1. Some of the roots are found in the current fascination with Ayn Rand, whose essays include “The virtue of selfishness” and whose novel Atlas Shrugged has its hero John Galt say, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." Rand may have insights to offer, but such thoughts easily lend themselves to a feeling that giving for good, suffering for good, sacrificing for good are not valuable. At its most extreme, taxation becomes a form of theft rather than something we contribute to a common good from which we also benefit; and making changes in order to respond to climate change becomes only an economic inconvenience that we cannot currently afford.
Let me make this personal. Perhaps resolving issues with the long-term solvency of Social Security might require considering raising my retirement age. Perhaps resolving the long-term debt of our government will mean putting the mortgage deduction tax credit on the table. These will hurt me, but I need to be open to these possibilities if they help promote the common good.
So what if Christians in the United States began to lead in our willingness to give of ourselves for the common good? What if we began to ask more consistently about the common good and shared sacrifice and shared benefit? Could we help move our country forward in some new ways?
Such thinking will lead to different policy ideas. There is no single way to balance taxation and economic incentive. We need to remember that policy ideas are not the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news is that God continues to work in the world for good, and we are invited to join God’s work for good. The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it powerfully. God is now in need of [the human person], because [God] made [the human] a partner in [God’s] enterprise, “a partner in the work of creation (Man is Not Alone, 243). We are partners in God’s work of love, partners in God’s work of justice, partners in God’s work of peace, partners in God’s work of reconciliation, partners in God’s work of creation-care. Sometimes there is suffering along the way. Sometimes the work is difficult. Sometimes we need to give of ourselves for good. The good news is that we are partners with God. The good news is that if you suffer for doing right, you are blessed. The good news is that we are loved by God and invited to shine with the light of God’s love in the world. Let us shine. Amen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Look at You!

Sermon preached May 22, 2011

Texts: I Peter 2:9-10; John 14:1-14


Well, here we are. The beginning of the end did not happen yesterday as predicted by Oakland Pastor Harold Camping. Yesterday was supposed to be the Rapture, that event that certain Christians believe in where believers are taken from the earth to avoid the horrendous and cataclysmic final days of life on earth. Apparently that was supposed to happen yesterday – to be followed by the end of the world on October 21.
The absurdity of such end times predictions masks the truth contained within those passages in the Bible which speak of an end to things as we know them and the beginning of a new world. The truth in those passages is that we long for, we deeply yearn for a better world, a world made right. Looking at the world as it is can be difficult and discouraging.
About ten days ago I was at a breakfast for Lutheran Social Services, a fund-raiser for their work with homeless teens. Mary Wright was kind enough to invite me. LSS does good work, and being on the board of Life House, another good agency working with homeless teen, I know how deep the need is. And there was a moment during that morning when hopelessness hit me. Most teens are out on the street because their home situation has become unbearable. Often parental addiction issues are involved. For a moment, I felt this tremendous sadness for such situations and I thought to myself, if people never feel on the borderline of hopelessness, I wonder if they are really seeing the world well.
This past week I was in Los Angeles for a conference on cross-racial, cross-cultural ministries within The United Methodist Church. These predominantly take the form of clergy from a non-European heritage pastoring congregations whose members are predominantly of that heritage. For instance, if the pastor here were, say, Korean-American, that would be considered a cross-racial, cross-cultural appointment. We have a few such appointments here in Minnesota, and there are more in other places in the U.S.
In any case, some of the stories I heard were disheartening. One pastor, Mexican-American, appointed to an anglo church in South Texas was told by a parishioner – “I was so disappointed when they took my country, now a Mexican has taken my church.” A young African-American pastor from Atlanta, a woman, shared a story about a 94 year-old in her church who shared with her after worship – “You are my favorite colored preacher. You are such a sweet colored girl.” I was in a small group with a man from the East Coast who began to share why he believed some anglo congregations might not be very accepting of pastors of color. It was due to their experience with young men of color in places like shopping malls – with their foul language and pants hanging down. Somehow the adolescent acting out behavior of boys of color tainted all persons of color including preachers. Oh that the world would change.
Beyond discouraging human conduct – whether in broken homes sending teenagers into the streets, or in racial prejudice, racial stereotyping, racism, beyond such things as these, there are those deeply painful mysteries of life which confront us, such as the death of a four and a half month old child, Sandy Lanthier’s nephew. The shadows of hopelessness creep closer. The clouds of despair gather. We long for a newer world. Bob Johansen in his book, Leaders Make the Future, writes, “Clear-eyed leaders will experience hopelessness” (40). So do clear-eyed Christians.
So what keeps us from giving up and giving in? We see all there is to discourage us, to bring despair and hopelessness near. What keeps us going? Johansen writes: “clear-eyed leaders will experience hopelessness,” then he continues: “but they won’t accept it.” Neither will clear-eyed Christians, but why?
Because there is more to the story than the signs of hopelessness. We see more than that. We understand who we really are.
Who are we? You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Look at you! That’s who we are.
We are people on the Jesus way, and here is the astonishing thing Jesus says about us. The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these. Look at you! That’s who we are.
Here I need to insert a footnote. I am sorry, a footnote in a sermon?! The other day, I was meeting with clergy colleagues and one said, you can’t just read John 14:6, about Jesus being the way, the truth and the life, and no one coming to the Father except through him without saying something about it. I was going to try, but after the insensitive and, frankly ignorant prayer offered by Bradlee Dean at the state legislature on Friday, I guess my colleague was right. So here is the footnote about John 14:6, a quote from The People’s New Testament Commentary: The text does not claim that adherents of all other religions are doomed if they do not make a personal confession of faith in Jesus before they die. The text affirms that all who come to God come to the God who has revealed himself in Christ. End of footnote, but the beginning of a much longer discussion, I hope.
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people on the Jesus way, doing the work of Jesus, and maybe even greater work than that. Yes, we see the difficulties in the world, the profound hurt, the cruelties and disappointments that mar human existence. We know about addicted parents and abused children. We know about racism. We know about fear of difference, including difference in sexual orientation. We know about misusing religious language to foster division, maybe even hatred – sometimes it is the language of Islam, sometimes it is the language of Christianity, sometimes it is the language of Hinduism, sometimes it is the language of Shinto. We see all this and perhaps have moments where hopelessness lands for a few moments in our hearts, but we do not let it reside there because we also see more clearly and more deeply.
We trust that God is active in the world, even this world. We trust that Jesus is alive. We know the Christ Spirit within us. We see clearly and deeply. We see God at work and we see ourselves as God’s people on the Jesus way – and God’s people on the Jesus way, well we are up to something. God’s people on the Jesus way act hopefully, making a difference in the world.
Le Cambon, France during World War II was a place of resistance, resistance to the Nazis and to the collaborating Vichy regime in France. In the late summer of 1942 the pastors would encourage their parishioners in the Protestant church to search their hearts and conscience, and where there was a conflict between the civil law and Biblical morality, such as in the laws against Jewish people, the Christians need to follow Jesus. The people responded by sheltering Jews, and sending them into the country side when searches were conducted by the authorities. One afternoon in summer 1942, another search was conducted. Buses pulled into the town square to transport Jews for resettlement. Again, Jews were signaled and fled. One Austrian Jew, however, was arrested. He sat in one of the buses, surrounded by several policemen, and the villagers smiled at him as they passed through the square and stared at the empty buses – several policemen with one lone prisoner to be guarded. The eldest son of the primary pastor of the church gave the man, named Stekler, his last piece of rationed imitation chocolate cake. Others brought more presents, and soon the quiet little man had a pile of gifts beside him almost as big as himself. (Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, 112).
God’s people on the Jesus way, doing great things – engaging in acts of hope.
The school year is quickly drawing to a close, and this coming week there will be a party celebrating another year of mentoring at Lake Superior Elementary School. We, God’s people on the Jesus way, caring for children – doing the kind of things Jesus would do.
Thursday was Ruby’s Pantry night. Again, about 500 families in the Duluth-area were helped with food. Next month, Ruby’s Pantry is going to also have a location in Morgan Park. It will be separate from ours here, but our work helped bring this ministry to our area. Thursday night, a woman came from Poplar, wondering about getting a Ruby’s Pantry site there. We, God’s people on the Jesus way, feeding the hungry – doing the kinds of things Jesus would do.
Today marks the end of our Christian education year. We have had dedicated teachers offering their time, their talent and their love so that our children and youth would know the stories of Jesus, of the Jesus who invited the children to come to him – God’s people on the Jesus way doing the kinds of things Jesus would do.
Yes, there is a lot of pain in the world. Yes there is a lot of hurt in the world. There is cruelty and violence and hard-heartedness. We are not na├»ve about this. Beyond that, are the tragedies that befall us – a raging river, a tsunami, a tornado, death coming from no where taking one much too young. We stand with those in pain. We work with God in a hopeful spirit, doing what we can to alleviate the suffering we can. We work with God toward a better world.
Look at you!!!
We are… a chosen race – chosen to work with God in the Jesus way.
We are… a royal priesthood – invited to be near to the heart of God, near to God’s hopeful heart for the world.
We are… a holy nation – people formed and shaped by the biblical story and by its desire to see human lives more whole.
We are… God own people on the Jesus way, doing the Jesus work and sometimes amazing ourselves in what we can do with God’s Spirit.
Look at you. That’s who we are and in that we have hope. In that we have comfort. In that we have strength. In that we are challenged.
We are God’s people on the Jesus way. Look at you!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Confirmed for Life

Sermon preached May 15, 2011

Text: John 10:1-10

Picture this. You are riding in an old West stagecoach. Suddenly, a man riding a horse pulls up to the left side of the stagecoach, and a riderless horse pulls up on the right. The man leans down, pulls open the door, and jumps off his horse into the stagecoach. Then he opens the door on the other side and jumps onto the other horse. Just as he rides off you yell to him, “What was that all about?” To which he replies, “Nothing. It’s just a stage I’m going through.”
Today is confirmation Sunday here at First United Methodist Church. In some ways it marks, for those being confirmed, moving from one stage in life to another. At baptism, we are welcomed into the church, the family of Christ. The church community promises to surround us with a community of love, care and forgiveness and commits to helping us grow gently in love of God and others. Today, Brooke, Keara, Tyler, Erin, Alyssa, Laura, Gus and Maria make the vows made at their baptism their own. They pledge to follow Jesus and pledge to be part of the Jesus community which Christ has opened to all people. They will be part of this community that journeys together with Jesus and promises to welcome and nurture others as they have been welcomed and nurtured.
This is a milestone, a significant faith marker, a stage if you will. Today you are confirmed for life. But there is danger in that “stage” language. We often think of stages as something we go through, something we then leave behind. Unfortunately, confirmation is often considered that kind of stage. Parents express a sigh of relief – “at least I got my child through confirmation.” Confirmation is seen as a sort of graduation, and what does it mean to graduate? You don’t have to go back to school. Confirmation often becomes the end of one’s training in religious knowledge.
If we think of confirmation in only that way, we miss its deeper meaning, its more profound purpose, its true significance. Confirmation is an end, but more importantly it is a beginning. You are confirmed for life – confirmed to live the Jesus way of life which is a way that always needs to be reaffirmed and reconsidered anew. If you want to live out the vows of confirmation in this Jesus kind of life, you are in for a bit of a wild ride, as wild as a guy jumping through a stage coach. The Spirit blows where she will. The love of God leads us to new places. The Lord of the Dance invites us to new steps.
In John 10, Jesus is clear about his purpose in being a part of our lives. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It is helpful to consult a couple of different translations, just to get some more of the flavor of these words. Eugene Peterson in The Message says about the life Jesus seeks to bring that it is “more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” The Common English Bible, one of the most recent translations of the New Testament, translates the saying of Jesus this way: “I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to its fullest.”
To make sure Jesus got this point across, he engages in some metaphorical shape-shifting. He sets us a scene – sheep, shepherd, gatekeeper, sheepfold and gate. Jesus seems to want to say that he is like a shepherd. If you want abundant life, listen carefully for the voice of Jesus. Become familiar with his voice, the voice of God’s Spirit. But those hearing Jesus did not quite get it. So Jesus says that he is the gate. He is the way into this full and rich life. In verse 11, he becomes the shepherd again – I am the good shepherd. All these images, which seem distant to most of us, are attempts to make the point that following Jesus is a way of life and a way to life. Abundant life, rich life, full life, more and better life than you dreamed of – that is what the Jesus way promises, and you are being confirmed for that life.
There are a lot of voices out there, but not all the voices out there are life-giving. The first two vows of confirmation acknowledge that. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? There are voices in the world of hatred. There are voices in the world that tell us not to care. There are voices that tell us the meaning of life is all wrapped up in stuff. These are not voices of life.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? There are voices that would lead us astray, but the voice of Jesus reminds us that God has given us freedom and power. The voice of Jesus encourages us to use it well, use your freedom and power in ways that make for fullness of life for you and for others.
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people? Jesus leads to life. Where Jesus is there is life – rich, full, abundant, overflowing, more and better life than we may have dreamed possible. We live following the gentle winds of God’s Spirit, never sure exactly where Jesus may lead. Except we have some clues of the general direction of this fullness of life.
In Acts chapter 2, there is a description of the life of the early followers of the Jesus. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. It goes on to talk about sharing, and about being taken with wonder at what is possible when people work together to follow Jesus. The Jesus life, which is the way of abundant life is a way of learning, growing, praying, sharing and being open to wonder. It is an exciting journey, and for you being confirmed, a new chapter begins today.
Brooke, Keara, Tyler, Erin, Alyssa, Laura, Gus and Maria, you are being confirmed for life. My hope and prayer is that you will continue this journey, that you will continue to try and listen for the life-giving voice of Jesus, that you will follow that voice wherever it leads, and in doing so, know life in its fullest.
But the encouragement to continue the journey with Jesus needs to be given to us all, whatever our age or stage. The journey with Jesus is there for each of us, and now we have these eight fine young people joining us on the journey in a new way.
One of the beautiful things these eight will share with us along the way are their gifts, just as we share ours with them. And when gifts are shared together in the community of faith, wonderful things happen. With these eight we have gifts for thoughtfulness – particularly strong in Brooke, Tyler, Gus and Maria. All will share with us their gift for laughter, an important gift for the church. The sixteenth century saint, St. Teresa of Avila once wrote, “From somber, serious, sullen saints, save us, O Lord.” These eight will help us from becoming sullen saints. We have gifts of care for the environment, particularly strong in Erin. We have actors among us in Laura and Gus. We have musicians in Brooke, Keara, Alyssa, and Laura. We have athletes in Keara, Tyler, Erin, Alyssa, and Maria. Gus snowboards. Brooke writes. Though often quiet, these are thoughtful and energetic young people. They have found ways already to contribute to the church and will continue to do so. They care about each other, they care about the church, they care about the world. All share gifts for compassion.
Of course the best gift each of you has to share with the church and the world is the gift of yourself, the unique, full-of-life person God desires you to be. When you share yourself with us, you will be changed, we will be changed, and the world will be made different.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” One way Jesus gives life is that he brings us together into community – to help each other grow in faith, hope and love, to pray for each other, to be there for each other when life gets hard, to share in Jesus’s work of touching the world with God’s love. Today we celebrate that these eight, already a part of our community, join us in a new way on the journey with Jesus. Amen.

Friday, May 13, 2011

When Jesus Shows Up

Sermon preached May 8, 2011
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Text: Luke 24:13-35

Play the first part of “You’re So Vain” Carly Simon


Do you know people like that, who could walk into a party like they were walking on to a yacht, people who seem to light up a room when they appear, or whose presence changes the dynamic? Carly Simon sings about someone who does that, but knows it and is vain about it. That’s not true about all such people. One can change the atmosphere, light up a room without being vain.
Jesus was like that. When you read the gospels you see a Jesus who changed things when he showed up. People were amazed by his teaching, touching him brought healing, hearing his voice could be life-changing. The text from Luke’s gospel is also a story about Jesus that says when Jesus shows up things happen, things change. One remarkable element of today’s story is that it tells us Jesus showed up after his death. It is an Easter story, a story witnessing to the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is about the energizing Presence of Jesus transcending death.
So what does this story of two disciples of Jesus, one named Cleopas, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus tell us about what happens when Jesus shows up?
When Jesus shows up hearts burn. This is not to be confused with the experience of eating a bad burrito. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us? The words are reminiscent of words written by John Wesley, to whom Methodists trace the beginning of this stream of the Christian faith. On May 24, 1738, Wesley wrote in his journal: In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation;
(The Journal of John Wesley, May 24, 1738)
When Jesus shows up something happens in our hearts. A passion for life is kindled. I remember reading in my college days Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road and being taken by this line early in the book: the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” (9). Passion for life – wanting to know and explore and grow – rich life, full life, abundant life. In John 10, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” When Jesus shows up passion for life is kindled. Our hearts burn.
Our hearts also open in new ways when Jesus shows up. Meeting this stranger on the journey, the disciples invite him to stay, offer him hospitality. Even before they know it is Jesus, their compassion kicks in in his presence. We are in the midst of some significant debates in our state and in our nation – debates that on the surface are about taxes and spending and debt, but more deeply they are about who we will be as a state and a nation. When Jesus shows up we must ask questions not only about finances but also about caring. How will the vulnerable be affected by policy decisions? How will children be affected? The Bishop for The United Methodist Church in Minnesota, Sally Dyck, wrote in a letter published in the Minneapolis StarTribune that Mother’s Day might be a good day to remind ourselves as faith communities that “we are called to care for all children, not just our own” (April 16, 2011). When Jesus shows up our hearts are opened up and such questions get asked.
When Jesus shows up, minds are engaged, wisdom and insight are increased. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. One of the telling marks of the Christian faith and Christian life should be thoughtfulness – and I mean that both in the sense of kindness and in the sense of being thinking, reflecting persons. Thoughtful Christian should be a redundancy, but it is, unfortunately, a necessary redundancy because Christians are not always at their best. It took the church hundreds of years to admit Galileo’s science was correct when he argued that the earth revolved around the sun. We have Christians today who argue that only a literal seven-day creation of the universe is an acceptable Christian view of the world, and that the earth is quite young – this in spite of overwhelming evidence that the earth is quite old. I think the Spirit of Jesus is most present when we are thoughtful.
One place I have seen a wonderfully thoughtful Christian faith at work this week is the response most Christian leaders gave to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. It was a response not of cheering or gloating, but one which recognized that while the world may be a little safer because someone bent on killing and destruction was no longer in it, there is a sadness that we live in a world where the response to violence is more violence, and even when that response is justifiable, there is a tragic dimension to it. Diana Butler Bass encouraged Christians to respond to the news of bin Laden’s death with “reverent prayer and quiet introspection.” A Vatican spokesperson said : “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY: "Without apology, we all sleep better in our beds knowing that Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat. But celebration in the streets is something that falls short of the sobriety that I think Christians should have on our hearts in reflecting on this event." Jim Wallis of Sojourners: “[Osama bin Laden] was truly an apostle of hate, a dedicated purveyor of violence in response to every grievance, a manipulator and distorter of religion for political purposes, and a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Nevertheless, it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil. Violence is always an indication of our failure to resolve our conflicts by peaceful means, and is always an occasion for deeper reflection.” We may not always get “thoughtful Christian” right, but here we did. When Jesus shows up, our minds are engaged, and wisdom and insight are increased.
When Jesus shows up, bread is shared. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Sharing resources is another one of those hallmarks of Christian faith. It is a lesson most of us learned early on from our mothers – share. The lesson needs to be learned again and again in our individual lives and in our politics. I also celebrate where I see it and one moment of celebration this weekend was driving our daughter Beth to the Minneapolis airport Saturday morning at 4 am for her medical mission trip to Haiti. Among the items she was taking with her was a hockey equipment bag packed to the max with dental supplies collected here and at Lake Superior elementary. When Jesus shows up, sharing happens.
Pulling all this together I might say, on this Mother’s Day, that when Jesus shows up something very maternal happens. There is this concept that I first encountered a few years ago and about which I continue to learn – the concept of the holding environment. Here is a description of our earliest “holding environment’: The mother is needed as someone who survives each day, and who can integrate the various feelings, sensations, excitements, angers, griefs, etc. that go up to make an infant’s life but which the infant cannot hold. The infant is not yet a unit. The mother is holding the infant, the human being in the making…. The infant does not start off as a person able to identify with other people. There has to be a gradual building up of the self as a whole or a unit, and there has to be a gradual development of the capacity to feel that the world outside and also the world within are related things, but not the same as the self (D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 182-183, 181). We develop as human beings in this holding environment, and in a succession of holding environments (Kegan, The Evolving Self, 116), and when such relationships are good enough, we develop well. There are those who extend this concept of the holding environment to organizations, arguing that leaders are responsible for working with their groups to create holding environments where people can flourish.
Now I have never seen, nor expect to see a Mother’s Day card that says, “thanks for being such a great holding environment” and I am not thinking this is a winner, but it is what we are thankful for in our mothers - that they got us off to a good start in becoming our best selves.
And that’s what happens when Jesus shows up. Jesus creates for us a holding environment in which life can flourish, in which we recognize our gifts, in which our passion for life is inflamed and our hearts burn, in which our hearts are open compassionately to the world, in which our minds are engaged so that wisdom develops, in which we learn to share. When Jesus shows up, there is life in all its abundance. When Jesus shows up there is the open heart. When Jesus shows up there is the wise mind. When Jesus shows up there is the caring hand.
And one final thing, when Jesus shows up, good news is shared. Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. When Jesus shows up, good news is shared, and here is good news – Jesus shows up. Amen.

Carly Simon, "You're So Vain

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Spirit of Peace

Sermon preached May 1, 2011

Text: John 20:19-23

Children’s Sermon

Begin with a demonstration of rapidly preparing for airline security.

I don’t mean to boast, but I am really good at this, and you know why? I don’t want to be that guy that fumbles and stumbles and holds up the line. I want to appear competent and confident. I am afraid of looking incompetent and foolish and confused.
Fears. We all have them. They are a part of the fabric of all our lives, for better and for worse. Fear has some benefits. It is a good thing to have a healthy fear of lions, not viewing them as simply kitty cats grown large. Fear of looking incompetent means that I am the kind of person you want to be behind when going through airline security. So confident do I appear that because I sometimes have a blue suit on and have this black overcoat, I have been asked if I am airline staff. Now me flying a plane – that’s something you should be afraid of!
We fear failure. The upside of such a fear is that we strive to do well. We want the projects in which we are involved to succeed. I was often frustrated in school when we were assigned group projects and there was a person in the group who did not have some fear of failure. You knew you were going to have to do extra work because this person was not to be counted on. The downside of fear of failure is that it can lead to a paralyzing risk-aversion. If we are too afraid to fail, we will never try something where the chance of success is not weighted heavily in our favor.
We fear rejection. The upside of such a fear is that we work to present our best most charming selves. We spend some time on manners and hygiene. The downside of fear of rejection is that we will avoid social situations where rejection is a possibility.
We fear disappointment. Again, the upside of such a fear is that we will work to make things succeed. The downside, and this is a fear that has a much greater downside, is that we won’t ever venture forth into the new, the creative, the unusual. We may lock ourselves in tight psychic rooms to avoid being disappointed. We will do our best to isolate ourselves from large swaths of life. More on this shortly.
We fear meaninglessness. The upside of such a fear is a search for a life that has purpose and meaning. It is to search and work for a life that contributes to something greater than ourselves. The downside of such a fear is an anxiety that can lead to despair when our meaning-making projects don’t seem ultimately meaningful, when we doubt the importance of our own lives.
That is a brief catalog of individual fears, but there are social fears, too, and on these I am not going to try and articulate an upside. They are heavily weighted on the downside. We fear change which seems rooted is a fear of loss. That fear of loss is real and relevant because changes in life can bring loss. Not all change is good in every respect. Change can mean loss of relationships, as when we move away from our home town. But fear of change and fear of loss, on a social scale, can be detrimental. What happens in church if my favorite program is made different, or worship is not what it used to be? What happens when someone born of an African father becomes President of the United States?
We fear economic loss. There is a big upside to this. It can motivate us to work for more justice, more fairness in our economic life. The economy will change, but we are not powerless to help provide some direction for such change. The downside to such fear is that we can oppose any policy that seems to benefit someone else. Why should they have good health insurance if I don’t?
We fear the stranger, the Other. Part of our sense of identity is formed by acquiring a sense of who we are in relation to others. It begins early in our family life and continues on from there. We see ourselves as certain kinds of people. There is a benefit in that. But when fear of the other, the stranger gets woven into our sense of who we are, problems arise. Fear of the other, the stranger cuts us off from seeing the common humanity of persons and prevents us from learning other ways of being human. Part of the Biblical invitation to abundant life is the injunction to welcome the stranger. We are richer for learning from those whose experiences of the world are different from ours, but in this fearful time, fear of the other manifests itself in misunderstanding of the Muslim, hatred for the immigrant.
Fear. Psalm 139:14 reads, in part, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are creatures full of fear and wonder, a mixture of fear and wonder. The problem arises when the downside of fear prevails. The problem arises when we are more fearful than wondering. The problem arises when fear becomes a locked room so that we are isolated from that which is life-giving. We fear failure, so don’t try anything new. We fear rejection, so don’t offer ourselves in relationships to others. We fear disappointment, so we shut ourselves behind closed doors. We fear meaninglessness, so we refuse to ask questions of beliefs, tenaciously clinging to old forms even when they may no longer give life. We fear loss and thus fear change. We fear the other, the stranger, who invites change.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear… Jesus came and stood among them. Jesus arrives in our lives in those places of fear, even when we have locked the doors. Jesus, the rejected, wounded, crucified and now resurrected one comes to us when we are afraid. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Jesus comes to us, even in our places of fear and offers instead, peace. Often Jesus couples the offer of peace with the words, “do not be afraid” as in John 14 (v. 27).
Peace is not the exact opposite of fear. To have peace as people fearfully and wonderfully made is not to be without fear, it is not to let fear define us. To have the peace of Christ is to not let the downside of fear become its predominant manifestation in our lives. Peace is not the exact opposite of fear. It is the opposite of letting fear be a locked room in which we hide from life – its joys, its challenges, its hopes, its dreams, its accomplishments, and yes, with that disappointments and hurts. I have always appreciated Parker Palmer’s analysis of the phrase, “do not be afraid.” It doesn’t mean never having fear, it means not being our fear – do not be afraid.
And what are the grounds for having peace instead of being our fear? Jesus offers the word, “peace be with you.” In what is this offer rooted. It is rooted in an assurance that God is love and that God’s love extends to each of us. It is rooted in a firm conviction that love wins. Incarnate love could not be defeated by the cruelty of death by crucifixion. The offer of peace is an invitation to be a part of God’s mission of love, and we find our life’s meaning in that mission – a mission of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. The offer of peace comes with the promise that the Spirit of Jesus will be with us – he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This has been a week for all things royal (Will and Kate’s wedding on Friday). Recently I watched again the movie, The King’s Speech. It is a wonderful story of the locked room that fear can be and how one might be released from it. Prince Albert, the stuttering Prince of England seeks help from one Lionel Logue. He simply wants to carry out his duties more adequately. He will never be king – that is his brother’s place, until his brother abdicates and Prince Albert, now King George VI, must lead his people as England enters again into war, the Second World War. It is a great movie, and a Christian parable. Logue calls the Prince “Bertie” and helps him find his voice. Jesus calls us by name, speaks the word, “peace be with you,” and gives us an ability to use our voice beyond the fears which may keep them locked behind closed doors. Amen.