Friday, September 30, 2011

Whine or Cry

Sermon preached September 25, 2011

Text: Exodus 17:1-7

So how are you doing? We have been discussing in recent weeks and invitation given by and to churches in our area to be good neighbors, to rediscover the art of neighboring. It begins with the simple act of getting to know those who are your neighbors. If you want to see others who are asking this question go to the site and enter your address. There are also ideas there for having block parties as a way to get to know each other in your neighborhood.
Some days it is kind of difficult to think about block parties, and not just because it is starting to get cold outside. In many ways this is not the best time in the life of our nation and world to be considering parties. Someone has described the world in which we live as a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous – and he argues that it is likely to continue to be this kind of world, only more so in the future. In this VUCA world we experience a great deal of insecurity. That we have a Department of Homeland Security is itself a testimony to our sense of insecurity. And if we want to discuss insecurity, we cannot ignore the deepening sense of economic insecurity being felt. Do we have a job? What will become of that job? Will our income go down? What about investments? Will my company continue to provide health insurance? We feel it, our neighbors feel it. It is affecting us all, some more than others.
In a time of economic insecurity, as many of us worry about our own economic well-being or the economic well-being of our children or grandchildren, it is easy to close in on ourselves, close down a bit. Becoming overwhelmed with our own concerns, we can easily lose sight of the wider concerns in our world, the concerns of our neighbors near and far. I want to preach a bit about our world this morning and the point of what I want to say is not economic or political, though I will be sharing some about the current state of our political economy, my point is spiritual. I want to speak primarily about our hearts and our souls and our relationship to God.
This past week a number of statistics about poverty were released. Nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty (15.2%) – a record 46.2 million people. The poverty rate is the highest it has been in fifty years. The percent of children living in poverty is 22%. If people in poverty were evenly distributed in our neighborhoods, someone who lives right next to you or across the street from you would be in poverty. It is also helpful to know a bit more what we are talking about. The poverty level is about $22,000 for a family of four. Friday’s Duluth NewsTribune reported poverty statistics for Minnesota. We are doing a little better here – 11.6% with a child poverty rate of 15.2% (an increase of over 1% from 2010). Yet Minnesota’s “good news” is not as good for our county. The poverty rate in St. Louis County is 17.9% and at least one in five people in Duluth lives in poverty.
Behind the numbers are some harsh realities of childhood poverty. Children in poverty suffer asthma at an enhanced rate. When children are malnourished their brain development is affected and the effects can last for years.
Behind the numbers are people and stories. A family in Palatine, Illinois that once earned over $100,000 is struggling to make it. Both husband and wife lost their jobs forcing them to move from their rented home into an apartment and to give up their car. There is the former McDonald’s restaurant manager in New Mexico laid off from his job now living with his wife, who was also laid off from Subway, in a homeless shelter after they had spent time living in their car. There are other stories, many other stories. The Pew Research Center reports that more than 55% of adults in the U.S. labor force have suffered a work-related hardship since the recession began – things like reduction in work hours, pay cut, unpaid leave. Not all have fallen into poverty, but many have.
Amidst all these statistics released this week the one that caught my attention the most, that concerns me the most is this – for the first time in the fifteen years the Pew Research Center has asked about this, the majority of Americans oppose more government spending to help the poor and needy. I know this is a complex issue and I know that we are deep in debt and need to keep that ever before us – yet this response may say something about our hearts and souls. There is a spiritual issue here.
The Israelites have been freed from Egypt and they are on their wilderness journey. It is not a walk in the park. They arrive at Rephidim, a place lacking water. That is a problem, a problem they raise with Moses. It is not the first time they have raised such issues with Moses, issues about water and food. Thus far on the journey, they have been provided for, but they are feeling insecure again. Once we imagined if we work hard, attend to our education, our economic future would be relatively secure. The people are thirst, and Moses is a little tired of their complaining. Moses takes the matter up with God. “What shall I do with this people?” God responds and water is provided, though the place is named “quarrel” and “test.” It was a place where the people wondered if God was still among them. God’s presence is evident, in part, because the need for water was met.
There is a lot to this story. One could use it as a story about whining. So you have a problem – would you like a little cheese with that whine? The people are not exactly portrayed in the most favorable light. They seem whiny, especially given the history of God’s care for them to this point in the larger story.
But the need is real. Without water, people die. The issue is not insignificant. Though perhaps the people come across as kind of whiny in the story, notice God does not take them to task for that. God hears. God hears not a whine but a cry, a cry of the needy, and God responds. That seems to be the character of God.
So, in the midst of deep human need with growing poverty, is prayer the answer? Prayer is appropriate, always appropriate. But there is more. God acts through people to meet the need, instructing Moses to act. We may have a part to play in this.
But I want to take this even further. The character of God is that God hears the cry of the needy. Now hear these words from the New Testament, words of Jesus. Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Be perfect as God is perfect. Perfection isn’t about never making mistakes. Perfection is about wholeness. Perfection may have something to do with a heart and soul open to all of life, even to the cries of the needy, those in poverty, the lonely, the hurting, the marginalized. That kind of perfection is not easy. More than openness, perfection has also to do with our responsiveness, being open to the world and responsive to it. Jesus again, Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate (Luke 6:36). When we read stories that focus on the character of God they are also stories that give us clues as to the kind of people God desires us to be as followers of Jesus Christ – open, responsive, compassionate.
This is heavy stuff. Last week I spoke about another core characteristic of God, grace. That is always in the background. When I am inviting us today to think about where our hearts and souls are at in a suffering world, grace is always in the background. I am not talking about our acceptability to God, and the point here is not guilt. The point is grace and growth in grace. God’s grace is the grace of a warm, supple heart open to the pain of the world, the needs of the world, the hurt of the world. Our growth in grace is keeping our hearts warm, supple, open. Be compassionate as God is compassionate.
When I read that perhaps we as a nation are losing some of our compassion, when we are unwilling to even consider how our government, which is the only way we have of acting together as a nation, might be of help to those who are now in poverty, I am concerned. We cannot dismiss the cries of the hurting as merely whining. I understand where some of this is coming from. We have seen some programs to help the poor mire them deeper in cycles of dysfunction. But that is not true of every such program. If we are managing to get by, we still feel some of the insecurity of our time, and chronic anxiety tends not to bring out our best. That’s why we need to be particularly attentive to what’s going on inside of us. Are our hearts growing in grace? Are our souls open to the world and to the movement of God’s Spirit which takes the needs of the world seriously?
Open hearts and souls don’t solve complex political and economic problems by themselves, but without a willingness to hear the cry of the poor, the hungry, the hurting, the children, we will not muster the will to think about how we can best help – as individuals, as churches and as a nation. As God’s people who follow Jesus listen, respond as best you can with compassion, keep your hearts warm and your souls supple. Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Gospel Freakonomics

Sermon preached September 18, 2011

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

So how are you doing? Last week we heard of a challenge being given by and to churches in our area to be good neighbors, to rediscover the art of neighboring. It begins with the simple act of getting to know those who are your neighbors, of asking the Fred Rogers question – “won’t you be my neighbor?” If you want to see others who are asking this question go to the site and enter your address. I will post this site on our church blog accessible from the web site and it will be in the text of my sermon when that is posted later this week.
Neighboring is such a nice concept. It kind of gives you that warm feeling. It evokes images of Mr. Rogers neighborhood. Yet just when we want to talk about such a positive topic, the lectionary gospel reading takes us into more conflicted territory. Jesus tells a story and he gets political. Politics is generally not the first conversation you want to have with your neighbor.
It is obvious here that Jesus is supportive of Tea Party Republicans. In the story the landowner says: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Get the government off the backs of the job creators. Shouldn’t we be allowed to do what we want with what belongs to us – sounds like less regulation, lower taxes.
It is obvious that Jesus is supportive of left-leaning Democrats. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” There is a concern here for those on the lower end of the social and economic spectrum. Jesus may even be a closet socialist. At the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same – to each according to their need. That was what the daily wage was, a subsistence wage. Had those who worked only part of the day not been paid the daily wage, there would not have been enough.
If “freakonomics” is the application of economic theory to diverse subjects not usually considered from an economic point of view, perhaps what we have in this story is “gospel freakonomics” – a story that pushes us beyond some typical ways of thinking about life.
Think with this story for a while. It is a convoluted and difficult story in many ways. It is harvest time, and I am guessing that there is some urgency when grapes need to be harvested. A landowner hires workers, and it seems a laborers market on one sense – more work than workers. The landowner agrees to pay the workers who he first hires the usual daily wage. The basic story line, wherein laborers get paid the same amount of money at the end of the day regardless of how long they worked violates our sense of fairness. The justification provided by the landowner, that he can do whatever he pleases with what is his, strikes me as capricious.
How can this story, then, tell us anything very helpful about the kingdom of God? Yet Jesus says it does – and here is one way I think it does. The story suggests that at some very fundamental level we are all valued just because we are, and this “being valued” is grace, and grace really takes us beyond easy calculations like those normally used in paying wages.
Grace - gospel freakonomics is about grace and grace says that not all of life fits into the categories of earning and deserving. Our fundamental relationship with God is one of grace, not of earning and deserving. Sometimes grace is defined as unmerited favor – that is getting something we don’t deserve. That may be part of grace, but I think grace is more radical than that. It explodes the calculus of earning and deserving.
Grace. Here is a rather sophisticated, yet at the same time beautiful understanding of grace. Bernard Meland, Fallible Forms and Symbols: The nexus of relationships that forms our existence… is given. We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from this matrix come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining (151). With life itself comes goodness that we do not create, but from which we benefit. None of us willed our own births. That we are is grace. The love and care of a parent for a child does not fit well in any kind of calculation of deserving or earning. Who earns the beautiful orange full moon over the lake we have witnessed this week? It just is and that we see it is grace. Late this week, Eleanor Mondale and Kara Kennedy, both 51, died. Both had suffered from cancer. That I am here at age 52 is grace
Beauty, goodness, love come to us outside any calculation of earning or deserving, and the most powerful instance of this is God’s love toward us. It is present in our lives without our willing, earning or “deserving.” Theologian Daniel Day Williams puts it well. What makes the Christian gospel good news is its proclamation of the reality of God’s redeeming grace. A new life can come into being within the present wrong and failure, the bitter injustice and despair. (God’s Grace and Man’s Hope, 62). That is the essence of the Christian good news, that God’s love continues to touch our lives with beauty and goodness outside any calculations of earning or deserving. Gospel freakonomics.
I want to press on this just a bit more. Many of us still have somewhere deep inside of us this sense that God’s love is something to be earned and deserved. Often into our discussions of faith we hear the language of being “good enough” creep in. I was struck by this recently when I officiated at a funeral, not someone from here. The man who had died was someone for whom I was a pastor earlier in my ministry. He was a genuinely good and kind person, a real gem. As I was visiting with someone before the service, this person said about the man who died, “if he doesn’t get into heaven who will?” I understand where he is coming from, and our Christian faith is intended to mold and shape us toward goodness, kindness, and love. Yet the underlying narrative in that remark is that our ultimate acceptance by God is something to be earned, deserved. Gospel freakonomics says that isn’t so. Our ultimate acceptance by God is about grace.
I am going to press even further. For many of us, we may have some comfort with the idea of a calculus of deserving God’s acceptance. We look at our lives and see an overall balance of good over bad. We are kind. We try to do the right thing. We are like those workers hired at the beginning of the day, and we have done our work appropriately.
Even if our calculus comes out o.k., we may worry about the equation at some point, or worry that some past event that we have put behind us may come back to haunt us. And what if in someone’s life there is that kind of haunting event from the past. Perhaps someone who has struggled and overcome chemical addiction of some kind still carries shame for something done while under the influence and they wonder if they will ever be acceptable. As a member of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry I attended a workshop this week on compulsive behavior among clergy, especially related to adult sites on the internet. One phrase from the workshop was the “creeping ubiquity” of internet porn. So what if someone who has struggled with such issues carries images in their head which still create shame and they wonder if they will ever be ultimately acceptable? What if you once sent a picture or text with your cell phone that still haunts you and you wonder if you will ever be acceptable? Sufferers of abuse are often filled with shame not easily shaken. They wonder if they will ever be acceptable. For some people, maybe for some of us, the sense that there is a calculus for acceptance by God is discomforting. We feel will never make it, no matter how good we are from here on out. We carry our past like a millstone, maybe well-hidden, but still there.
The good news is for us all – that God’s love for us and acceptance of us is not based on a calculus, it is based on grace which operates outside of the calculus of deserving and earning. For some people that is the best news they have ever heard. You are loved and accepted by God just as you are! Gospel freakonomics – grace even if we arrived in the fields late.
Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace offers these words about this grace that really is amazing. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him…. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we’ve run. And maybe that is one reason we worship – to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own. (151) God has faith in us! God has called us God’s own!
But we began talking about neighboring – where did we lose our way? We didn’t. Christian neighboring begins with grace. It begins with who we are and how we are, knowing that we are loved and accepted and welcomed by God. It begins with letting that grace sink into the depths of our hearts and souls, even into those wounded places and dark places inside of us. As grace does its work in us we are made different. We receive grace and we live more graciously – we live more kindly toward others, including the neighbors we have.
Know grace. Be gracious. Be a gracious neighbor. Two anecdotes. When trying to explain grace as compassion, one person tells a story about a homeless person he encounters almost every day. The homeless man is trying to be resourceful by selling newspapers. Everyday the man who passes by stops to buy a paper, though he doesn’t need one. Not only does he buy the paper, but he tells the homeless man to keep it so he can sell it to someone else (Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, 130). This isn’t about earning or deserving, it is about grace. Mother Teresa once said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Do you always check to see if the person you are smiling at deserves a smile that day? Don’t you just sort of give them out? That’s grace.
Grace is given us. Let it sink in. Give grace back, including to your neighbors. Practice Gospel freakonomics. Amen.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor

Sermon preached September 11, 2011

Text: Romans 14:1-12

Mr. Rogers routine with sweater and sneakers.
Many of us grew up with at least one person who wanted to be our neighbor, or helped introduce our children to everybody’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers. I admit that I was a little older when Fred Rogers came on the scene and remember more the spoofs about him when I was in college. Yet as I had children of my own, and as I heard more about this man, who, by the way, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, I gained a deep respect for him and for his work. His idea of being a neighbor and recognizing that everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine was rooted in his understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Neighboring, being a good neighbor. This fall, a number of churches in our community, cutting across denominational and theological lines, have agreed to emphasize the importance of neighboring, rediscovering the art of neighboring. What would happen if we all, in these various churches, took Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor more seriously, the neighbors we literally have living around us? What if we made an effort to move from strangers to acquaintances to perhaps a level of friendship with the persons around us? It could make a difference for the quality of our life as a community. This theme will be weaving its way in and out of worship through the fall. One part of this emphasis on the art of neighboring is to invite us all to get to know those who live around us – the houses next door, the houses across the street, the houses behind us. For some of us it may be the few apartments near to us. For others there may only be a neighbor or two, but the invitation and challenge is to get to know these people for no other reason than that it is a good thing, for no other reason than that such relationships enhance the quality of our life together as a community.
Of course, we do not have before us Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor this morning. They will come up October 30, a day when we will also have a potluck following worship – great way to love your neighbor. Plan to come and bring a neighbor if you wish. Bring a little extra food because I am going to invite college students just to come! Anyway, we don’t have Jesus’ words about loving our neighbors before us today, we have this text from Romans 14. It is an interesting process when I try to work with both themes and lectionary texts. The Lectionary is a series of Scripture readings in a three-year cycle that many mainline Protestant churches, and the Roman Catholic Church use regularly. That’s why if you listen on the radio to, say, a Lutheran sermon, you may hear the same text in worship here. Each week there is a Psalm, a Hebrew Scripture reading, New Testament reading and New Testament reading from the Gospels. We have some choice. What is interesting is that sometimes when I want to touch on a particular theme, none of the texts really fits. I go off lectionary then, and I am going to do that some this fall. Today, however, I think Romans 14 is a great text for thinking together about neighboring as a response to God’s love in Jesus Christ, neighboring as an activity for the people of God who follow Jesus.
Actions are rooted in attitudes, and can also shape attitudes. The attitudes I see commended in Romans 14 to the people of God who follow Jesus are the foundation for good neighboring. Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling…. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves…. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?... Each of us will be accountable to God.
There is a deep encouragement to openness and acceptance in these words. Welcome. We are relational persons – not living to ourselves or dying to ourselves. Be cautious about judging, knowing that our final accountability is to God. Somehow we need to make an intelligent distinction between judging in a judgmental way and judging in a discerning way. We cannot help but make judgments if we are ever to decide anything at all. When we became a reconciling congregation, we made a judgment that this was more deeply in keeping with the Christian faith. When we undertook anti-racism work, or when we said that as a congregation we would refrain from using the word “illegals” as a noun, we made judgments that these actions were more deeply in keeping with the Christian faith. There is a difference between being discerning and being judgmental, and maybe one way to think about this is to distinguish between judgments about adequacy and judgments about inclusivity. I think being a reconciling, anti-racism congregation is more adequate to the Christian witness of faith than other possibilities. I would not judge someone who still struggles with issues of the acceptance of GLBT persons or someone whose position on immigration and the use of the language of “illegal” is different from mine to be outside of the Christian faith, however.
Welcome, openness, acceptance – these attitudes, these virtues held up in Romans 14 are part of the essence of neighboring. One might say, however, that Paul here is writing only for the community of faith – about the kinds of attitudes we should display here as people of God who follow Jesus. Maybe, but it is clear in other parts of Paul’s letter that he wants to draw the circle wider. Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 13:10: “Love does not wrong to a neighbor.”
Welcome, openness, acceptance – these attitudes, these virtues, are part of the essence of neighboring. If we seek to know our neighbors simply to convert them to our way of thinking, well, that’s not really neighboring. I am not saying discussions about faith or invitations to church are never appropriate, but they should arise out of a neighboring relationship that is first characterized by welcome, openness and acceptance. Do you know who your neighbors are? I want to build on this next week, but now want to shift to another context for neighboring.
Today is September 11, 2011. Those of us who are now adults probably remember where we were ten years ago today. Tom Wiig was in New York for a surgical conference with about 130 surgeons who were mobilized to provide triage and other help and the events of that morning unfolded. I was a district superintendent for The United Methodist Church in Northwestern Minnesota, and I was with the clergy of that district on a retreat. One of our clergy was leading the retreat, and that morning between breakfast and our first session, he approached me with news that something was happening in New York. We were at a UM camp, and so media was not great, but we were able to gather around a single television set and watch those horrific images of planes flying into buildings – images of flames, and smoke, and dust and destruction. We watched often in stunned silence. After a time, we prayed for one another and sent each other on our way to be religious leaders in our communities.
Neighboring in a post September 11 world is complex, and desperately needed. The events of September 11, 2001 made us all more aware of the diversity in our nation and in our world. It made us all more aware that we cannot be, as a nation and people, an isolated island separated by oceans from a diverse world. As people of God who follow Jesus, we are to be neighbors to all, neighbors to those who are like us and to those who are different from us – different culturally, socio-economically, and religiously.
One of the great tasks of neighboring in our time is to foster neighboring between Christians and Muslims. I am not ignoring other important neighboring tasks and we will be discussing them in the weeks to come, but focusing on a crucial challenge for our time. Together, Christians and Muslims comprise about 55% of the world’s population – about a third is Christian and a fifth Muslim. For the sake of the human community which shares this planet, for the well-being of each of our communities and of the other 45% of the human community, we need to seek ways to be welcoming, open and accepting of each other. We need to emphasize those many places in our traditions that speak unequivocally of our need to work together for justice, peace, and reconciliation. This does not mean we do not share our faith, but it means that we do so only in the context of a neighboring relationship that understands that our need to get along is paramount.
Being neighbors with Muslims in a post September 11 world is a challenge. It requires us to confront some of our own fears and suspicions. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, in an essay published this week writes the following ( In 2002 39 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam and Muslims, whereas in 2010 that number jumped to 49 percent. The increase was not a fruit of deepened insight but of stronger prejudice. For many Americans, Osama bin Laden is the paradigmatic Muslim, an absurd conviction for anyone who has lived with Muslims. Prejudice is a form of untruthfulness, and untruthfulness is an insidious form of injustice.
Yet there are other signs, other movements. There is the story of Heartsong United Methodist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis. Two years ago the pastor learned that a mosque had purchased property across the street. A few days later a sign appeared on the church property: “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.” When the mosque was not ready for Ramadan, Heartsong opened its doors to the Islamic community to let them hold their prayers there. (Sojourners, September-October 2011). One member of the church who initially opposed the hospitality shares this story. “They were Muslim and Islamic and I grouped them all together as extremists.” But reading the gospels this person found “nothing in there that said I was doing the right thing by harboring these feelings.” He prayed “If this is a problem with me, take it from me. I don’t want it.” (Interpreter, September-October 2011) Neighboring.
As people of God who follow Jesus Christ, neighboring is our calling – welcoming, openness, acceptance. Neighboring is certainly more complex than donning sneakers and a sweater. But if we pay attention to the voice of Jesus, we will always be asking others, “won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Sermon preached September 4, 2011

Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20

Don’t you love serendipity – that coming together of positive things that just happens? This week I was looking for some humorous church bulletin or church sign bloopers to begin the sermon. I had found a few on-line, but then in a wonderful serendipity, Tom Wiig sent me a bunch by e-mail. Here are just a couple:
Sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on Water. Sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus
Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Please use the side door.
Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.
The peace-making committee meeting scheduled for today has been cancelled due to a conflict.
Due to a conflict. How many of you, when I say the word “conflict” get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside? Not many. I know I don’t. The word “conflict” usually makes my stomach muscles tighten up a bit. I would not be a founding member of the “I heart conflict club.” It is one of life’s ironies that I have found myself at times in roles and positions where dealing with conflict is prominent. I was a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church for seven years, and was often asked to help work with conflict. A few times in that ministry, I would be the recipient of anger over a conflict. I had a man storm out of a charge conference one time when my response to his question about the United Methodist position on a controversial issue didn’t satisfy him. I had people mad at me when they lost a vote about a building project at their church, just because I presided at the meeting. Dealing with conflict went with the territory.
For a number of years, I was also a member of the “Conflict Transformation Team” in the Minnesota Conference. Being a part of that team meant that I taught conflict management seminars and occasionally intervened when there was a difficult conflict in a congregation.
So while I don’t love conflict, I have experience with it, and I have come to the conclusion that being a person of faith, a follower of Jesus Christ, does not mean a conflict free life. I have also come to understand that churches have conflict. Where two or three are gathered together, there are often four or five opinions. Here is the surprising discovery – I don’t think conflict itself is a problem. We are unique people with different ideas and perspectives and we are a richer community of faith when we can share our differing viewpoints as we make decisions together. We won’t all agree all the time, and that’s ok. That is what I mean by conflict. Now sometimes the word “conflict” connotes a disagreement that gets ugly, out of hand. That’s not ok.
Conflict, disagreement will happen – in our close relationships and in our church. It is inevitable and it is ok. Conflict itself is not the problem. Disagreement itself is not the issue. What matters is how we work with our differences and disagreements. When we are able to work with our disagreements well in our personal relationships, those relationships are stronger. When we are able to work with our disagreements and conflicts well in the church, our church is healthier. When we are able to transform conflict, not only is our church healthier, it is a stronger witness to the world about the power of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. A community where conflict is worked with creatively is a breath of fresh air in a world that tends to manage conflict poorly. On the other hand, people will not be attracted to communities where conflicts become ugly fights. Who needs more of that? Working creatively with conflict is one place where the rubber meets the road in our faith.
Reinhold Niebuhr is a theologian who has deeply shaped my thinking about Christian faith and life. In one of his books he writes this: Christian faith is no sentimental thing. It is a faith that takes all the dimensions of life into consideration. (Justice and Mercy, 34) Christian faith is not unrealistic about the presence of conflict in communities and disagreements in personal relationships.
Matthew 18 is a great example of the realism of Christian faith, and of its practicality. As God’s people who follow Jesus Christ, we will encounter conflict. It will be helpful to have some idea of how to deal with it creatively and constructively. Here is a roadmap.
If another member of the church sins against you. Interesting beginning. Does this imply the possibility of a conflict-free community – “If”? One of the resources I used as a member of the Conflict Transformation Team and as a District Superintendent was something produced by JustPeace, the Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation. Here is what it has to say about conflict: Conflict is a natural part of a creation that is relational and diverse, a creation in which we are free to make choices. God declares it good. We will always have conflict. Let us not seek the absence of conflict but the presence of shalom or justpeace. Conflict is a natural part of creation. I think this is a biblical view when one takes in the whole scope of the biblical witness. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:6). Paul does not presume we will be anger-free, but that we have choices about what to do with our anger. Our lives will not be conflict-free, but we have choices about what to do with conflict.
So why the “If”? One choice we can make when we disagree with someone, or even when someone disappoints us or hurts us in a smaller way – and I emphasize smaller way because I am not talking here about physical threats or harms, or deep psychological threats or harms – when we are hurt in a small way or disappointed, we can choose to let it go.
There are a couple of important movements here. One is to ask how we may be contributing to a situation of disagreement or conflict. If we hearken back to an earlier point in Matthew 18, we have words that describe the possibility that we are a cause for others to stumble. Sometimes when we feel a disagreement or conflict, maybe it is an occasion for our own learning and growth as much as anything else.
Sometimes when there is disagreement or conflict, sometimes when we have been disappointed or hurt in a small way, we can just let it go. A number of years ago, I read these wise words from theologian and popular author Lewis Smedes. Forgiving always comes with blame attached; anybody who gets forgiven knows when he has first been blamed. What we often need is not to be forgiven, but to be indulged a little. Not every annoyance needs forgiveness. Some pains beg only for a little magnanimity. I need it from my wife when I switch channels mindlessly on the television set. She needs it from me when she stretches her short stories at dinner into full-length novels. With a little magnanimity, the quality of the big soul that puts up with small pains, we can reserve serious forgiveness for serious offense. (A Pretty Good Person, 170) Not every hurt may require forgiveness. Not every disagreement needs to be pursued. Magnanimity is the reason for the “If” at the beginning of Matthew 18:15.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. When we have conflict or disagreement, at work, in the church, even in our closest relationships, we often seek allies before we do anything else. We find people who will declare us “right.” It feels so good. Then we go to the other person to let them know the error of their ways! This is not a good process for working creatively and constructively with conflict. Go first to the person you have an issue with. This principle applies in our close relationships and in our communities. Find ways to talk to that person. Listen well. Use “I” statements – “here is what I am experiencing,” rather than “you” statements – “you always do this.” Actually, avoid “always” and “never.”
If that doesn’t work, doesn’t move the relationship forward or help the community resolve an issue, get help. It is o.k. to ask for help. Sometimes our own bootstraps are not strong enough to pull us up and out. We get by with a little help from our friends – Beatles and biblical! For individual relationships, seek out a friend, counselor, maybe even a pastor to help. In the church, we have a staff-parish relations committee that is there to help when there is conflict involving staff, and other persons to help in other circumstance.
Tell it to the church. The church has resources that are of help in working with conflict. Prayer is a resource. Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace. Fill my heart with your love. Fill my soul with your joy. As we nurture our inner lives by practicing spiritual disciplines and deepening our theological reflection, we are better able to work creatively with conflict. The church has models for working with conflict at a community level, models that take Matthew 18 seriously.
If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Matthew 18 may have as its initial paradigm a situation where there has been some clear wrong-doing. There are times for accountability when healthy community practices have been flagrantly violated. But the processes here are applicable to wider situations of disagreement and conflict, and here we acknowledge that not every disagreement or conflict can be resolved. There are times when we need to live with our disagreements as best we can. There are even those rare times when someone chooses to leave. A few weeks ago I made reference to someone who left this church when a previous pastor left open the possibility that Muslims might be in heaven. He disagreed so strongly that he left. There is realism here. There is disappointment and sadness when we cannot resolve all our disagreements, but it happens. Yet the possibility for future agreement is always there. Jesus’ ministry often focuses on the Gentiles and tax collectors. There is a certain beautiful irony in this passage about treating persons as Gentiles and tax collectors.
Disagreement happens. Conflict is a natural part of a creation that is relational and diverse, a creation in which we are free to make choices. Yet we are reminded that where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. God is with us, always. God empowers us to make decisions – binding and loosing, but God does not simply walk away. God is there - source of wisdom and courage in the midst of disagreement and conflict. God is there – source of forgiveness when we need it. Thanks be to God.
Working creatively and constructively with conflict is one place where the rubber meets the road in our faith. It is one powerful witness to God’s gracious presence in our lives. Amen.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Chapter One

Sermon preached August 28, 2011

Text: Romans 12:1-21

Groucho Marx: Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read.
When reading a book, it makes sense to begin at the beginning, to begin with chapter one. Some books are known for their memorable beginnings:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (Moby Dick)
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn…. Call me Stingo, which was the nickname I was known by in those days, if I was called anything at all. (Sophie’s Choice)
In the beginning (Genesis 1:1)
Yet, while the beginning of a book can be memorable, if we want to get to the heart of a book, we often find that later. While The Great Gatsby begins adequately enough: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” - - - it’s heart is found later, at its end. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…. and one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. In some way we might say that the last chapter of Gatsby is first in importance – chapter one for the meaning of the book.
The Bible is a unique book. It is unique in that it isn’t really a single book at all but a collection of writings. Yet we believe this book is also unique in the way it communicates God’s character and the nature of God’s love for the world. We believe that it has been inspired by the Spirit in a special way and therefore requires some special attention.
Awhile back I read a book compiled by New Testament scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg – Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings. The book is what it says it is in its title, sayings of Jesus and sayings of the Buddha side by side. Borg both wants to show some of the commonalities in these two teachers and to make the case that Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Sometimes in the history of the church we have neglected the teaching of Jesus, and Borg wanted to shift our attention. An introduction to the book was offered by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield and there he offers these words: If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one verse from these teachings, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives.
So one teaching might have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives. I think he may be right, but which verse, which chapter should be chapter one in our reading of the Bible. Where do we find the heart of the Bible’s teaching, teaching that illumines, transforms frees?
There are a number of wonderful candidates for a “chapter one” for the Bible. John 3:16 is often considered the heart of the Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Others might choose the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) or the parable of the prodigal (Luke 15). Some might turn to Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I am not going to argue against any of these possibilities as containing the genuine heart of the Bible. What I would like to do is lift up for our attention another candidate for that chapter one in importance – Romans 12. I think Romans 12 is worthy of our attention, study, action, and if we attend to it I believe there is power here to illuminate our lives, free us, transform us. Take a look with me.
Romans 12 begins with grace, begins with mercy, begins with God. There have been attempts to try and construct a Christian faith “without God.” While some of these have been creative and intellectually interesting, I don’t think there is a Christian faith without God. We can legitimately debate the more exact nature of God, but God is central to Christian faith. And the God who is central to the Bible and Christian faith is a God of mercy, grace and love. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God.” God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s love are central. I appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders an early part of Romans 12. “Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” Christian faith doesn’t begin with a list of dos and don’ts it begins with the goodness of God in creating and loving that which is created. That we are is grace. That there is beauty is grace. That people love us before we can speak or feed ourselves or dress ourselves or walk is grace. Christian faith begins with God’s love and grace, and only then our response.
And this grace, this knowing that we are loved ultimately by God is powerful. It is transforming. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.” There is this beautiful saying from the Talmud: "Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers “Grow, grow”. Knowing that God roots us in love and roots for us to grow, that makes a difference in how we see our lives and how we live our lives. Again, I appreciate Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
As we respond to God’s love for us, grow in grace and love, develop well-formed maturity, we may find that we are “counter-cultural.” “Do not be conformed to this world.” Peterson: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in without even thinking.” I admit, this is complicated stuff. Culture is not monolithic. What part of our culture should we counter? There are those who argue that the church should be counter-cultural in standing against greater acceptance of GLBT persons. That’s not my sense of being lovingly counter-cultural. How about being people who find ways to cooperate with those who are different from us, disagree with us? Might this be a constructive Christian counter-culturalism? What if we say that not everything fits neatly into sports models of winning and losing – so that not every political event or bill before congress should be seen as which party wins or loses? Not every personal disagreement should be a matter of keeping score. Might this be a constructive Christian counter-culturalism? Paul offers us fair warning. As we are being changed by God’s grace, we may not always fit in with the surrounding culture. We are left to discern what that looks like in our day and time.
One way that we are counter-cultural, though, is our emphasis on community. We belong together as Christians. One of the ways God’s love continues to transform our lives is that God brings us together in the name of Jesus into these communities called churches. It is as we are together that we begin to see how God’s love works in our lives. We don’t choose all those who Jesus brings into our lives in the church. There will be people in our church community we disagree with. Here we learn to appreciate differing gifts. There are people whose background is different from us. Here we see the gift of difference. In the church we are meant to understand common good, and thus we stand counter to an individualism that often runs amok in our culture. We are one body, with many members, and each of us has gifts to develop, share, give – kind of back to grace again!
“Let love be genuine.” Peterson: “Love from the center of who you are.” This verse returns me to Jack Kornfield’s words: If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one verse from these teachings, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives. This is such a verse. Love. Let love be genuine. Love from the center of who you are. But what if our center is not as loving as we would like it to be? Two things – return to the first part of the chapter about Christian faith beginning with God’s grace, mercy and love. We grow in love as we know we are loved. Two: remember that love can grow from the outside in, too. Sometimes we need to act lovingly, even when our feelings are a little shaky, our hearts a little empty. This isn’t faking it, it is one way of growing into our giftedness. At our center is not just who we are now, but who we would like to be. "Let love be genuine…. Love one another with mutual affection.”
Paul goes on to offer some ideas about what love means. “Outdo one another in showing honor.” When I hear that I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (“The Drum Major Instinct”). I am delighted that there is now a national monument to Dr. King, the dedication of which was delayed by Hurricane Irene, but it is coming. Love expresses itself in service to others, in doing good for others. “Contribute to the needs of the saints.”
Where love can challenge us most deeply is that we are not only to care for those who are part of us – “the saints,” but also to “extend hospitality to strangers.” As children we are taught a healthy concern for people we don’t know who may approach us. As people maturing in Christian faith, strangers are persons to whom we extend hospitality, and this expression of love challenges us in our church community and in our national community.
Love means “live peaceably with all.” Peterson renders this thought “discover beauty in everyone.” The work of love is also the work of peace and justice.
Love also means this – “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Christians are not the only ones to recognize this work of love. There is a Buddhist Scripture that reads: In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is an ancient, inexhaustible truth, an eternal truth. (Dhammapada, 5) Respond to evil with good. Respond to hatred with love. Love from the center of who you are, and if you are not as loving in your center as your would like – dip more deeply into God’s grace.
Paul acknowledges our need to be renewed and recharged in God’s grace and love. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit… rejoice in hope… persevere in prayer.” Again, Peterson helps me get a handle on this. “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.” The Christian life is grace and work, joy and occasional heartbreak. Standing against the prevailing culture takes energy. Responding to evil with good may be an eternal law, but it has been broken more times than the laws against speeding. We need prayer, time to reconnect more deeply with the God of Jesus Christ whose love is inexhaustible. Worship is a special form of prayer, where we gather together even when praying may be hard for us – there are others here on the journey.
If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one chapter from the Bible, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives. Romans 12 has that power, if we let it. I invite you, encourage you, dare you, to read this chapter often. Meet God’s grace through it in new ways and be transformed by the renewing of your minds by the Spirit and your hearts in love. Amen.

Romans 12

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,

5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;

7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;

8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.