Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It

Christmas Eve Sermon
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

It’s December 24 and we are still here. The world did not end a few days ago. Maybe the Mayans just got tired of making calendars out into the distant future. As I told the Tuesday morning Men’s Group awhile back, I didn’t think the potential end of the world would give me an excuse for not being ready for tonight’s worship services.
How many of your know REM? If you’re thinking it’s a kind of sleep, you are right, and I hope that my sermon helps you avoid it during the next few minutes. REM is also a band that began making music in the 1980s and just broke up about a year ago. One of their well-known songs is “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” I am not going to play it as I sometimes do, though I considered asking Tapestry/Bells if they might consider it. The song has never made a Christmas collection, to the best of my knowledge, but maybe it should
While the world may not have ended December 21 as some thought a Mayan prediction indicated it would, the message of Christmas is that it’s the end of the world as we know it. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas write: “Advent and Christmas are about a new world” (240). Advent and Christmas are about a new world. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
But how can this be? The world we live in is quite familiar to us – sometimes frustratingly and disappointingly familiar. There are still too many people who go hungry in our world. There are too many people who have no permanent place to call home. There are still too many people struggling with addictions. There are too many broken relationships. There is too much loneliness, even in our ever-crowded world. The world is frustratingly familiar in its violence. There are too many tragedies.
My heart is heavy tonight as I think about families in Newtown, Connecticut whose sons and daughters, first graders, will not be there to celebrate Christmas this year. I can’t just bracket them off. And the world is disappointingly familiar in some of our anemic responses to this tragic event. We have heard bad theology as the event has been blamed on systematically removing God from schools (Mike Huckabee), as God not going where God is not wanted (Bryan Fischer), or God allowing judgment to fall on America (James Dobson). Those who produce movies and video games may want to blame inadequate mental health care and guns – certainly not violent images in our culture. Those who speak for the gun manufacturers want to blame movies and video games and inadequate mental health care, certainly not guns. And if mental health care is part of the issue, how many are willing to make sure we as a county pay for better mental health care? We might have written the scripts of the responses to Sandy Hook Elementary even before we heard them
The end of the world as we know it? A newer world?
Christmas says that this is not the way the world has to be. The world does not have to be a place of hunger, addiction, loneliness, brokenness, violence, bad theology and unimaginative thinking. Christmas is the birth of someone who will announce and live a different way, a way in keeping with the grain of the universe. We can be different. There are possibilities for healing and wholeness in our lives that we can just barely imagine. Our world can be different. There are possibilities for community and connection that we have only allowed on the edges of our dreams.
Christmas says that we can be different, that the world can be different because God is at work, because God draws near. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. (Isaiah 11). For a child has been born for us, a son given to us… and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9). Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2)
God draws near. God is at work, and this is the direction of God’s work, the direction the grain of the universe runs. Good news of great joy for all the people - glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace. (Luke 2) There shall be endless peace…. He will establish it with justice and with righteousness. (Isaiah 9). With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adders den. They will not hurt or destroy. (Isaiah 11)
God draws near. God is at work, working toward a newer world where love wins, a newer world where, in the words of the Psalmist: steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other (85:10).
God draws near. Joan Chittister writes: I realize more and more every year, it is the spark of the divine in life that Christmas is meant to celebrate. It is fragile life, holy life, that Christmas hallows (Living Well, 147) Christmas tells us that God is with us, that the spark of the divine in life is always there and that it is always working even in our fragile and sometimes frustratingly familiar lives to make our lives and the world new. The God of the Christmas story is not a God who turns away or a God whose primary activity is horrendous judgment so that we might pay God more attention. The God of the Christ child celebrates the spark of the divine in life, a spark that seeks to ignite flames of hope and healing in our lives and in our world. The spark of the divine in life works not so much in the palatial palaces of power as in the quiet places, through small miracles, in tender moments and acts of kindness and gentleness. God is there in those moments of awe when beauty is seen and new life is celebrated.
The Christmas story is meant to speak to us, not only about the past, but about our lives. We know the story, but what happens when we try to tell the story with children?
A pastor was once recruited to play the role of Joseph in his congregation’s Christmas program when the child playing Joseph fell ill. Getting ready to tell the Christmas story with these children, a kindergartner arrived wearing a feathery white swan costume. The director of the children’s program expected the pastor to discourage the child from wearing the swan costume. Who ever heard of a swan in the manger? The pastor knelt down to the five-year-old and asked if she wouldn’t rather be a sheep or a donkey. “I’m a swan,” she said. The pastor patiently explained that there were no swans around the cradle of Jesus in the manger. The child looked at the pastor with a thoughtfully furrowed brow and said calmly, “Don’t you think swans love Jesus too?” (The Christian Century, November 28, 2012, p. 10) The pageant had a swan that year, and I have heard of raccoons and giraffes appearing in other pageants. In the world as we know it, there are no swans or giraffes or raccoons in the Christmas story. Things need to be neat and tidy and the way they always have been. But with the God of the Jesus of Christmas, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and all have a place, and I feel fine.
Leo Buscaglia was a teacher and writer whose favorite topics were love and learning. He loved his demonstrative Italian family and loved to tell stories about lessons he learned from them. As Christmas 1982 was drawing near, Buscaglia went to the hospital for his annual exam. It was Christmas break from teaching and it seemed like a good time to go. It was something to get out of the way before a wonderful family Christmas celebration filled with food and laugher. While at the doctor’s office for his exam, Buscaglia suffered a heart attack. “It occurred quickly, without warning, and was totally incapacitating.” Buscaglia would have to undergo an emergency quintuple by-pass operation.
Buscaglia’s family immediately decided that there would be no family Christmas celebration that year. Not without Leo. But Buscaglia knew all the planning that had gone into Christmas that year, and so he convinced them they needed to go on, and they pledged to do so.
Buscaglia’s surgery went well, and his family supported him lovingly. Within days I was moved into a private room in the cardiac ward. A constant parade of loved ones made their way to my bedside. Each person was bearing gifts, things they were certain I couldn’t live without: baked lasagna, homemade sausage, salami, mortadella, pureed chestnuts, cut flowers, potted plants, and my favorite holiday treat – ‘frittura dussa’, breaded cornmeal with lemon peel, fried in butter (Seven Stories of Christmas Love, 108-109) Buscaglia felt surrounded by love and care. I have no idea what the cardiologists thought about his diet!
He continues his story. When visitors leave and darkness falls in a hospital, an eerie ambiance comes over the place. It was during one of these periods, while walking silently and cautiously around the ward, that I became aware of my neighbors. Seeing them alone, in semidarkness, I had the sudden inspiration to share my good fortune. To the elderly woman in the room immediately next to mine I gave my blooming poinsettia and a healthy serving of my sister’s best egg custard. With the man down the hall who had (I’d been told) lost the will to live, I shared my largest array of cut flowers. I also delivered a portion of ‘frittura dussa,’ which I was certain would add a new spark and perhaps an eagerness to try some more. The succulent wonder of that ambrosia is of itself reason enough to live. In a few hours we all became fast friends, bound together by the same mystery of the shared moment. (109-110)
Reflecting on this experience, Buscaglia writes: I shall never forget that Christmas…. I still have years ahead of me for giving, sharing, caring, accepting, loving. I want to live this allotted time in a holiday spirit. What better way to live? (110)
In the world as we know it, hospitals are not sites for joyous celebrations and the creation of community. With the God of the Jesus of Christmas, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
In the world as we know it including a swan in a Christmas program or sharing custard and flowers are not considered significant. They don’t seem to be earth-shaking events. But with the God of the Jesus of Christmas, it is in these places of fragile life, holy life that the significant events happen. The world is changed as hearts are moved, softened, minds are sharpened and opened. It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
Christmas reminds us that God draws near, that God is at work nudging, coaxing, inviting us toward a newer life, a newer world. God draws near and is at work in you and in me, in our fragile lives which can be holy lives. With Christmas, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and with the God of the Christ Child, I feel fine. I hope you do too. Merry Christmas. Amen.


Sermon preached December 23, 2012
We also had a Cantata of Lessons and Songs this day

Texts: Luke 1:39-45

Are you expecting? That’s been our theme these past weeks of the Advent season. When families are expecting a child, whether it be by birth or by adoption, they spend time learning. They get stuff ready – they nest. We want to be well prepared for the arrival of new life in our midst. That’s a good thing.
Yet no matter how much we learn, no matter how much we prepare, no matter how much we nest, there will be surprises along the way. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.” No matter how ready we are, there will be those leaping moments of surprise.
The same holds true in our spiritual lives, in our journey with Jesus, in our journey with God. God’s Spirit surprises no matter how deep our prayer life, no matter how sophisticated our theology. If we journey with Jesus, we will be surprised. There will be leaps of joy within us.
I have been surprised this Advent by a video. A few days ago, I was sent a link to a video of an orchestral flash mob. A flash mob is a gathering of folks typically called together through social media, and they just show up in a place. This particular flash mob was better organized than that. It was the town square in the Spanish community of Sabadell. It began with a bass. A crowd begins to gather as the musician plays. Other musician join the “mob” slowly. The final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his “Ode to Joy” was played and sung by this gathered group. Watching it brought joy, especially as I remembered that Beethoven was suffering profound hearing loss as he wrote this, his final symphony. The story is told that after he conducted it, he had to be turned around to see the applause of the audience, because he could not hear it, and seeing their appreciation, he wept. Surprise.

Ode to Joy

Last Sunday, we had a friend of our community, Hajii, come as he has come the past few years, to bring goods made by refugees, the sale of which supports refugees. Before he left, Hajii made a gift of this print to us. It is a picture of a community and he thought it a nice symbol for us all. Surprise.
This past Thursday, out of the blue a member of the congregation called. He said he had recently heard about Julie’s mother’s health issues. Julie’s mom is receiving in-home hospice care. He said he didn’t know that it would make a difference, but just wanted me to know he was thinking about me. Surprise, and I thought of all the other times in our years together I have been surprised by your love and care. Not surprised that you cared, just delighted by particular expressions of that care.
Are you expecting? Are you expecting to be surprised by the Spirit of God this Advent and Christmas? God is about the business of such surprise, of moments of leaping joy.
And here’s another surprise. I’m done.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Sermon preached December 16, 2012

Texts: Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Are you expecting? That’s a delicate question and our Advent theme this year. When parents are expecting a child, they often learn about the process of giving birth and about what parenting might entail. The journey of faith, our journey together with the God we know in Jesus is meant to be a life-long journey of learning. God’s love may be unchanging – though I would argue that we need to be a bit careful with that assertion because God’s love responds to the circumstances in our lives and in the world, God’s love may be unchanging, but we change and the world we try to love with the love of God changes. What we learned in confirmation was important but it may not carry us far enough in a world where we can induce comas to keep young people alive and yet cannot finally prevent death from touching us all, in a world of instant communication yet persistent isolation and alienation, in a world where twice in one week a lone gunman opened fire on unsuspecting people, Friday on a group of school children. We need to keep learning and growing.
As I was discussing the Advent theme with the worship committee, I planned out three sub-themes to “Are you expecting” – learning, getting the right stuff together and surprise. When I was talking with Velda and Cynthia about the getting the right stuff together I elaborated – you know how parents buy cribs and highchairs and car seats and playpens and all that. Cynthia said, “You mean like nesting?”
Nesting. That was a new term for me. Nesting. It is kind of an old-fashioned term. I remember Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” asking his wife, played by Donna Reed – “You on the nest Mary?” If there is worse question to ask a woman of childbearing years than “Are you expecting?” – “You on the nest?” may be it!
But we do “nest” when we are expecting a baby. We buy all the necessary supplies – car seats, blankets, diapers, pack and play. And it does kind of remind you of bird’s building their nests – finding what they need to make a comfortable home for the newly arrived. When you see a bird’s nest, they are rather fascinating – carefully constructed, with an occasional odd item used. They want a safe and secure place for their newly hatched. We humans want a warm, safe and secure environment for our children coming into our lives.
Is there something here about the spiritual journey? Does it make sense to try and talk about our lives as places where God will come and feel welcome? What can we do to welcome God, to make in our lives a warm and welcoming place for this ever-arriving God? I want to say three things in response to this question.
First, we need to admit that there is something a little odd in talking about a God who arrives, who comes. We affirm, after all, a God who is ever present. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)
We affirm that there is no place we can go where God is not, yet the human experience of God is that God can seem absent. God’s presence can be elusive in our experience. Often we have such experiences when things happen in our lives and in our world that don’t fit well with our ideas about God. Where is God when science explains things we used to attribute to God? Where is God when a job is lost? Where is God when dreams turn into disappointments? Where is God when a child dies in infancy? Where is God when a mother is killed in a car accident? Where is God when children are shot and killed in a school? Where is God when a vibrant twenty-three year old is attacked by unknown organisms affecting her nervous system? Where is God when rape and torture become weapons in wars of liberation? Where is God when six million Jews are killed during the Holocaust?
We ask deep questions that have no easy answers. God seems distant or drifting. We experience what Christian mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.” Such dark night of the soul experiences are not the absence of God, but can signal a need for growth on our part. Gerald May: when habitual senses of God do disappear in the process of the dark night, it is surely because it is time for us to relinquish our attachment to them (The Dark Night of the Soul, 91).
God is not absent, but our experience of God’s distance may perhaps mean we need to tune into God differently. We need to reconstruct our nest for God’s presence in our lives. We can be more attentive to God’s presence. We can be more perceptive of God’s presence. This is the second point I want to make about nesting as a part of our spiritual journey.
Michael Eigen is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist whose writings I have discovered over the past couple of years. In a recent book, Eigen reflects on the experience of the biblical character Job. You remember that Job loses everything, and his friends try to help by offering their opinions about where God is in Job’s life. They seem focused on the idea that because Job’s life has gone south, he must have done something wrong. God finally shows up at the end of the book and tells Job’s friend they just got it wrong. God shows up and meets with Job, but never really answers Job’s questions about why all this stuff happened to him. God just shows up in a new way in Job’s life. Eigen: [God] simply shows himself…. Job is awed by the immensity of existence, the bare fact of being. God’s show of power blows a hole through him. Talking with his Creator brings unsuspected moments of illumination, new levels of intensity, realization…. Life would not be the same after his rock-bottom shake-up and meeting God face to face. (Contact With the Depths, 34, 35).
We can be more open to God’s presence. We can be more perceptive of God’s presence. We can be more attentive to God’s presence. We can do things in our lives that make them more open to God, a better nest for welcoming the Spirit.
So here’s my final point. Remember points one and two: (1) God is always present, but our experience of God is not always attuned to that presence; (2) we can be more perceptive of and attentive to God’s presence. Here’s three: We become more perceptive of God, more attentive to God through soul work, and an important part of soul work follows the Mobius principle. Clear as mud?!
Soul work is the nesting of our spiritual journey, the way we make our lives more open to the presence of God who is always present, ever-arriving. We often think of soul work as things like meditation, prayer, spiritual direction, depth therapy. They are important. Philippians 4 reminds us of the importance of prayer, especially prayers of joy. There is a wonderful insight here. We tend to more naturally pray when things are not going so well. Our prayers are simple: “Help!” When things are going well, prayer can find a back seat. Pray prayers of joy – prayers of “thanks” and “wow.”
Then there’s the Mobius principle part of soul work – good works are also soul work. The Mobius strip moves in and out. What is in our souls is expressed in our action, but our actions also shape our souls. Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Mother Night, quoted in Timothy White Strangers to Ourselves, 203). Psychologist Timothy White writes: “the first step to changing our non-conscious inclinations is to change our behavior” (212).
So here’s John the Baptist, the paradigmatic figure for Advent. We have not forgotten about him. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). We sometimes think that first comes the repentance, then the works – the soul work of repentance expressing itself in living differently. What if, however, the actions are part of the repentance, the soul work? A new thing is on the horizon. Our understanding of God’s action and presence is changing. Repentance is the soul work we do to be more attentive to God’s presence. Part of that soul work is good works. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Tax collectors – collect no more that the amount prescribed for you. Soldiers – do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages. (Luke 3:10-14, edited). By the way John was not against wage increases. Soldiers in John’s time added to their wages by taking money from common people.
Good works are also soul work, preparing us to be more attentive to God’s presence. We don’t do good to earn God’s love. God already loves. We do good in response to God’s love and to open ourselves more deeply. Our soul work benefits the world, another Mobius moment and right now our world needs our kindness and gentleness.
So how are you doing shaping a place for God? How are you doing in being more perceptive of God’s presence? How are you doing in being more attentive to God’s presence?
Advent is soul work time, including the soul work of good works. You on the nest?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent Reflection

Last Sunday was the children and youth Christmas program at our church. I did not preach, but earlier in the week I lead a communion service at a local senior care facility. Here is my reflection from that service.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
I don’t know about you, but it sounds a lot like the morning news programs. Hurricane Sandy certainly had roaring seas and waves. Fear and foreboding – fiscal cliff, the end of the Mayan calendar. Fear leaps at us from our radios, televisions, computers, and even our phones.
So in the midst of all this chaos and confusion, what does Jesus in this part of the Gospel According to Luke have to say? “Stand up and raise up you heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
It’s Advent, and Jesus is coming.
Jesus is coming, and I don’t mean that the world as we know it is going to end. I was kidding some men at my church yesterday, saying that even though some think the world will be ending December 21 (Mayan calendar), I can’t use that as an excuse not to work on my Christmas Eve sermon. Jesus is coming in ways that Jesus has been coming since he first came – on a quiet night, in the midst of the ordinary. Jesus may also be coming at some later time on a cloud with power and glory, but if that is the only coming of Jesus we concern ourselves with, we miss the meaning, the mystery, the magic of Advent. In Advent, we would do well to pay more attention to the quiet comings of God’s love, God’s grace in Jesus.
Joan Chittister is a nun and a prolific writer. She is also among my favorite authors. Joan’s early years were spent in an industrial town in Pennsylvania, the kind of place where “coal dirt belched from the chimneys of the large corrugated shop segments day and night.” It was a place where “house paints, whatever their original colors, turned an inevitable uniform gray” (Living Well, 146)
When she was about ten years old, Joan’s family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, and Joan was captivated by it. The place vibrated life…. Trees and thick bushes in big yards and wild grasses in open lots and live flowers everywhere (147). Reflecting on this years later, Joan draws a lesson for Advent, for the coming of Jesus. The truth is that life is not only about living. Life is also, purely and simply, about life, about the holiness of creation, about God’s love incarnate in the world around us. And, interestingly enough, I realize more and more every year, it is the spark of the divine in life that Christmas is meant to celebrate. It is fragile life, holy life, that Christmas hallows, that Christmas calls us to recognize, that Christmas reminds us to bow down before as we go. (147)
It is Advent and Jesus is coming. Stand up, raise your heads.
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also when you see these things taking place, you will know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:29-31). I am told that fig trees are rather unique. When there are no leaves, their bare spiky branches give the tree and appearance of being “utterly dead.” The budding leaves allow those paying attention to watch as sap returns to the tree, and it can be observed with particular clarity. (Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 120) It is as if the tree is moving from death to life. When places vibrate life, the kingdom of God is near. Jesus is present.
Mary Oliver is a favorite poet of mine. Her poem “Sometimes” (Red Bird) is divided into short sections, each a poem in itself.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

This is like the perfect Advent poem. It is Advent and Jesus is coming. Raise your heads. Look around. Pay attention. Be astonished.
How might Jesus be trying to be born in you and around you this Advent What beauty is there to see? What kindness is extended toward you? What kindness are you extending toward others? Where is there a smile that shares God’s grace that it will be all right? Where is the gentle holding of the hand that shares the peace of Christ?
It is Advent and Jesus is coming. Raise your heads. Look. Pay attention. Be astonished. Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Are You Expecting?

Sermon preached December 2, 2012

Play beginning of Buffalo Springfield, “Expecting To Fly”

Expecting To Fly

Now that’s a strange way to begin Advent. Were you expecting something else? Maybe you’ve come to expect the unexpected sometimes here?
Are you expecting? That is a question in which context is everything. If your postal delivery person asks it of you, it would be considered a courtesy. If you ask it of a woman of child-bearing years – well, don’t do that.
Of course, the typical context for “Are you expecting?” has to do with pregnancy. Are you expecting a child? One of the things parents do when they are expecting a child is that they learn. What is this going to mean? What should we be doing? The number of books for expectant parents is amazing. I did a little on-line research and one of the sites I found – had a list of forty great pregnancy books. Forty great pregnancy books! They listed them out by the forty weeks of pregnancy from week one: Taking Charge of Your Fertility, to week forty: Baby Signs. In between were such books as Frankly Pregnant, What’s Going On In There?, and The Expectant Father. Forty books!
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also when you see these things taking place, you will know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:29-31)
I am told that fig trees are rather unique. When there are no leaves, their bare spiky branches give the tree an appearance of being “utterly dead.” The budding leaves allows those paying attention to watch as sap returns to the tree. It can be observed with particular clarity. (Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 120) It is as if the tree is moving from death to life.
This parable of the fig tree is a parable about learning. One of the things expectant parents tend to do is learn. They may not read forty books in forty weeks. They may not read much at all, but then they may learn from classes, or from parents about what it will mean to have this baby in their lives. Such learning happens most vigorously when a first child is expected, but it doesn’t end when more children come. What’s it going to be like when you have two babies in the home? One of the stories we tell at our household is the story of bringing Beth home from the hospital. David, our oldest, was about twenty-months old, and when we brought this little baby home to be part of our family, he sat there and cried. We were learning about having two infant children.
Expectant parents learn. Followers of Jesus, disciples of Jesus, learn. Our journey of faith is a journey of learning, or is intended to be anyway. We think parenting involves learning. Many professions require evidence of continued learning – CEUs. Why do we sometimes assume that our journey of faith is different? God’s love may be unchanging, but I would argue that it is only so in a particular way. God’s love may be unchanging, but our lives change. Our world changes. What love requires of us can change. Prayer can change. I think there is a difference in thinking about prayer disciplines in an age of almost constant communication in contrast to an age before radio, television, computers, the internet, and phones that are multi-media communication devices.
Our lives change. Our world changes. Do we expect, in the midst of all this change, God’s kingdom to break in? Do we expect, in the midst of all this change, God’s persistent, persuasive, loving presence to show up, to touch us, to move us? Taking my Bible and my faith seriously, God shows up. God’s love keeps on coming. That’s grace. And our response – look, watch, learn. Learn to see. Learn to hear. Learn to think in new ways. Learn to feel in new ways.
Kent Ira Groff is a writer and teacher about the Christian spiritual journey. He believes that one powerful image for this journey is the West African image of the Sankofa (project). Groff: Picture the primodern bird joyously dancing its way through life, feet forward, eyes backward, sideways, head forward again! Go back and fetch the essence of life…. Dance is the ideal metaphor for Sankofa and the final answer to the question, How shall we then live? “Dance then, wherever you may be!” Dance with all life’s opposites – the personal and the political, your disciplines and delights. (What Would I Believe if I Didn't Believe Anything: A Handbook for Spiritual Orphans, 183)

Like the parable of the fig tree, the parable of the Sankofa is a parable about our need to learn. That sense of the spiritual journey as a journey of on-going learning is also captured well in this short poem from Mary Oliver’s new book A Thousand Mornings.

“Three Things To Remember”

As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

The poem takes rules seriously, seriously enough to know that sometimes rules need to be extended in new ways to new situation, and seriously enough to know that sometimes rules can become outdated – rules that enforced segregated lunch counters, or segregated marriages.
How do we live when dancing is required, required by a God whose love dances through the cosmos? We expect that love to be active. We learn where it may be found. We look. We pay attention. We trip over our own two feet sometimes and learn even from that.
Leo Buscaglia (1924-1998) wrote a rather famous book about love. In a later book, he shared this conversation: “Dr. Buscaglia, will you define love?” “Nooo! But if you follow me around I’ll try to live it.” (Living, Loving, Learning, 131)
The lesson of the fig tree is learn – learn to see, hear, think in new ways, feel in new ways. The related lesson of the Sankofa and of the poet is dance. The related lesson of Buscagli is love. The lesson of Jesus is all of these – learn, dance, love. What else would you expect? Blessed Advent.

Friday, November 30, 2012

If I Were King

Sermon preached November 25, 2012
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: John 18:33-37

If I were King of the Forest, Not queen, not duke, not prince.
My regal robes of the forest, would be satin, not cotton, not chintz.
I'd command each thing, be it fish or fowl.
With a woof and a woof and a royal growl - woof.
As I'd click my heel, all the trees would kneel.
And the mountains bow and the bulls kowtow.
And the sparrow would take wing - If I - If I - were King!
Each rabbit would show respect to me. The chipmunks genuflect to me.
Though my tail would lash, I would show compash
For every underling!
If I - If I - were King!
Just King!
Monarch of all I survey -- Mo--na-a-a--a-arch Of all I survey!

If I Were King

One of the rites of passage growing up when I did was an annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz. This was the days before cable, when movies were re-run once a year. For me, for many years, it was before color television. I only heard that the movie changed to color in the land of Oz.
A more recent movie about a lion king is The Lion King. A young Simba imagines what it will be like when he is king. I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware. I’m gonna be the mane event, like no king was before. I’m brushing up on looking down, I’m working on my roar…. No one saying do this. No one saying be there. No one saying stop that. No one saying see here.
Kings, lion or otherwise, are seen as those who do what they want, at least much of the time. They do what they want, and they get others to help, sometimes commanding others to help. Our picture of being king is of someone who has tremendous resources, and tremendous capacity to increase those resources. Our picture of being king is of someone with power, and power is doing what one wants. We seem enamored with power. How else can one explain popular television shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or The Apprentice.
Kings are powerful and have resources. That’s our picture, and it affected even a poor kid who grew up to be called, “The King.” When friends of Elvis Presley, policemen, approached him in 1976 about what they viewed as a substance abuse problem, The King responded, “You don’t think I can handle it, do you? You don’t think I’m strong enough. I know what I’m doing. I can get off of this stuff anytime I want.” At the time, as Presley biographer Peter Guralnick noted, Presley had some other issues as well – financial issues. He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars “for cars, planes, gifts, guns, jewelry, and clothing, anything in fact on which his eye might alight” (Guralnick, Careless Love, 597)
Flashback to an earlier time, to a place representative of power as we think of it - kingly power, imperial power. Jesus stands in the court of Pilate, governor of Judea under the reign of Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, second emperor of Rome. Pilate was Caesar’s man in Jerusalem and Palestine. Emperor’s and kings don’t take kindly to others who lay claim to their power and prestige. Pilate has before him a Jesus, accused of arguing that he is king of the Jewish people. “Are you the king of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not from this world…. My kingdom is not from here.”
Some have argued that Jesus’ words mean that the focus of his life, work and ministry is spiritual, by which they mean other-worldly and focused on the after-life. Yes, Jesus is focused on the spiritual, but it is not a spirituality focused exclusively on what happens after we die. I think some other translations of Jesus’ words, “my kingdom is not from here” capture that more adequately. “My kingdom is not founded on all this” (Phillips). “I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king” (The Message). A Jesus spirituality is not other-worldly in the sense of focusing on another life. It is other-worldly in the sense of thinking differently about what is most important and most powerful even in this world.
In the liturgical year of the church, the final Sunday before Advent is known as Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. What is powerful in Jesus is, in the words of one theologian, “his capacity to enter into relation with those around him – to influence and be influenced by others” (Bernard Loomer, quoted in The Size of God, 11). For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
The encounter between Pilate and Jesus is an encounter between the typical view of power in human thinking and the Jesus’ view of power. For Rome, peace rested on strength and threat and intimidation. Things were peaceful because to rock the boat could get you into trouble. Jesus is in big trouble because he is accused of being a king beside Caesar, perhaps challenging Caesar. And in a way, he does. Caesar’s power if based on fear, and it works, for a while. We would be foolish to think that in the area of international relations, there is not a place for strength and power, as we usually think of it. But that kind of power breeds, in reaction, a search for a superior power, and in the long run that does not make for peace. If you have peace only to the extent that you have superior power, you are constantly suspicious, wondering where the next challenge will come from.
For Jesus, power rests in one’s relationship to God and in one’s openness and responsiveness to others. Peace comes from knowing that one’s life rests in God. For Jesus power is creative, responsive, and persuasive love. Power creates beauty, kindness, caring, love. To call Jesus king is to seek to live differently. Our way is not always the way of the world.
We live differently because of Jesus. We give differently because of Jesus. We are wrapping up our financial stewardship campaign. One way to work with this part of our life is to say here’s how much money we need to keep doing what we are doing, and what are you going to contribute. There is value in that approach, and we should always be giving you good financial information. The deeper reason we give, though, is because we really believe God is up to something here. Jesus Spirit is active in our life together and in our lives and we want to participate in that. One of the ways we participate is through our financial giving. It is an important way we participate, but it is not the only way, and the important thing is not simply making our budget - though that matters. The important thing is keeping the Spirit moving in our lives and in our life together.
Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus, and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
Benjamin was raped at age 9, lost his mother to cancer at age 12, and had a father who was often drunk. His siblings were either dead of in jail. After the death of his mother, Benjamin was adopted by an Episcopal priest named Martha Overall. Rev. Overall was the priest at St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx, a church with an excellent after-school program. Overall worked hard to help Benjamin along, but seemingly without success. He ran away from school, joined a gang, took drugs, and stole from stores and even from his adopted mom. He eventually ended up in jail where Martha Overall bailed him out and the judge sentenced him to probation. Then, Benjamin decided to join a drug recovery program. He’s now clean and is counseling other addicts.
What helped Benjamin turn around? He remembers a time when his adopted mother, Rev. Martha Overall came to St. Ann’s Church. Many in the community and congregation were loyal to her predecessor, a Hispanic person who had been removed from the parish for corruption. Benjamin remembers a time, before Overall adopted him, when she arrived at the church to find protesters waving signs saying “No White Woman Wanted Here.” She went about her work “and the example of her persistence, conscientiousness, self-confidence, and grit… sent a message to Benjamin” (The Nation, December 3, 2012, p. 35). Benjamin has said that his adopted mother’s “determined benevolence and… her fierce faith – in herself, her greater mission and in him, personally "helped me find the strength inside of me I didn’t know I had" (The Nation).
Love is powerful - a persistent, persuasive, powerful presence. Love is the power of the kingdom of God, the power of king Jesus. It is a power that helps others find their inner strength, not a power afraid of the power of others.
Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus, and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
If I were king, and even if I am just myself, this is the kind of power I want working in my life, working on my life, and working in the world. Amen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Better Git It In Your Soul

Sermon preached November 18, 2012

Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20

I was born in 1959. Let me make this easy for you – 53.
I did not know this at the time, but 1959 was a phenomenal year for jazz. USA Today, in a 2009 article said, “1959 was one of those rare stellar years in the jazz universe when all of the creative, commercial and celestial forces aligned.” Wow. Sounds like a good year to be born!
I realize that talking about jazz does not necessarily grab a lot of people. Jazz, in a good year, represents about 3-5% of music sales. Nevertheless, I hope you will indulge me for just a little longer here. In 1959, four significant jazz albums were released. All four make it near the top of lists like 100 jazz albums that shook the world (all in top 20). There is Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, perhaps the least well-known of these four. There is Dave Brubeck’s Time Out with “Take Five” as a centerpiece. There is the best-selling jazz record of all-time, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blues with tracks like “So What” and “Blue in Green.” Then there is Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, which starts off with this song. “Better Git It In Your Soul”

Mingus, Better Git It In Your Soul

As [Hannah] continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”
When was the last time someone mistook your spirituality for having a little too much to drink? Better git it in your soul.
Now spectacle is not a value in itself. We have all witnessed people whipped up into emotional peaks for hurtful purposes. We know of religious spectacles that ended tragically – Jim Jones in Guiana, David Koresh in Waco. Spectacle and emotion are not valuable all by themselves. Yet God wants God’s love and Spirit woven into the depths of who we are. God desires to have God’s love and Spirit penetrate into our minds, our hearts, our souls. God wants our relationship with God to be our deepest, truest relationship. God seeks to engage us mind, heart and soul.
Anne Lamott’s latest book is about prayer. You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God…. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s” (Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, 1-2) The book is entitled Help, Thanks, Wow – the three essential prayers. Better git it in your soul.
In encouraging us to go deep, to let our faith be a part of our emotional life, I am not saying that we will always feel wonderful and spiritual and close to God. I am not saying that we should wait for the feeling in order to pray and love. While I hope to grow, and hope we all grow to a place where our prayers come from the deep places inside, like Hannah’s, and our actions of goodness, kindness and love flow readily from a heart filled with love and joy – well sometimes we need to act before the feeling is there. Sometimes we need to pray even when we don’t feel up to it. Our actions are part of forming our hearts.
During a crisis time in his ministry, when John Wesley was struggling with the adequacy of his faith, of his journey with Jesus, a man named Peter Boehler advised Wesley this way. Preach faith til you have it, and then because you have it, you will preach faith (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 77). Boehler was not asking Wesley to be disingenuous. He understood that sometimes we act ahead of where we are, that actions shape our hearts, minds, and souls, and don’t simply flow from our hearts, minds and souls. He also understood that while we seek a congruence between faith and feeling, our feelings can ebb and flow, and we should not simply wait to pray or do good until we feel like it. The goal, though, is to get it in our souls – to have God’s love and Spirit shape who we are, to have our relationship with God in Jesus be the deepest, truest of our relationships – that place where we can pour out our hearts in anguish, where we can share our deepest hopes and disappointments, where we can sing our most beautiful songs, and express our most profound moments of awe.
As I was thinking about this action on the way, living out faith even when our feelings may be lagging, I thought about Ruby’s Pantry. I will confess to you that there are moments, particularly early in a Ruby’s Pantry week when I am thinking, “Again?” I don’t always feel like Ruby’s Pantry. But it is where I need to be, and almost without fail, something gets into my soul. Last month a woman shared with me that she had a piano that she needed to get rid of as she was moving. It would be free to anyone who would be willing to come and get it. Just a couple of days before she moved, I received an e-mail from a person interested in the piano. A connection was made, the piano found a new home. The woman who received the piano thanked me by e-mail. The woman who gave the piano thanked me in person at Ruby’s Pantry Thursday.
This past week a woman came to volunteer. She shared with me that it had been a few months she was last able to do so. Her mother had been ill, and she was flying frequently to Vancouver. Her mother died, and volunteering at Ruby’s Pantry, she said, was part of her getting back to normal. We are about distributing food at Ruby’s Pantry, but we also create community here every month – a community of kindness and dignity and joy. I was touched this month, by the sheer number of volunteers – students, entire families, but even more by the quality of community we were able to create here and are able to create here for a few hours once a month.
Better git it in your soul.
Hannah’s story in I Samuel continues. Chapter 2 begins with Hannah’s song. My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. I am not sure that translation does a lot for us. That “exult” language is not really our language. Here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the first part of Hannah’s song. I’m bursting with God-news! I’m walking on air…. I’m dancing my salvation. There she goes again, crying out from her heart, expressing the depth of her soul. This time it’s joy, thanksgiving, gratitude.
Can we get there? When was the last time someone mistook our spirituality for having a little too much wine to drink? Better git it in your soul.
Toward the end of her book, Anne Lamott writes: Amazing things appear in our lives, almost out of nowhere – landscapes, seascapes, forgiveness – and they keep happening; so many vistas and so much healing to give thanks for. Even when we don’t cooperate, blessings return to our lives, even in the aftermath of tragedy. Things get a little better when we ask for help. People help us. Most astonishing of all, people forgive us, and we eventually forgive them. Talk about miracles. The kids turn out to be okay after all. The widow finally gets back on her feet. If you’re like me, you ask your higher power for help, and then cause further need for help by procrastinating, or refusing to cooperate with simple instructions that follow sincere petition. And yet even so, grace, progress, blessings continue to be given to you, because God gives. It’s God’s job. (99-100). I think Anne Lamott is bursting with God-news, walking on air, and dancing her salvation.
Can we get there? On this week of Thanksgiving, can we get there? For all of us, may we git it in our souls. Amen.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wishing, Hoping, Thinking, Praying

Sermon preached November 11, 2012

Texts: Mark 12:38-44

Play a bit of Dusty Springfield, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (1964).
Does anyone know what movie from the 1990s helped that song make a comeback? “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997). I find it fun when an older song finds its way into a contemporary movie. Not long ago I watched the movie “Greenberg” and heard a song I’d not heard in years – Albert Hammond, Jr. “It Never Rains in California.”
Anyway, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” does not really give wishing and hoping a good name.

Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'
Plannin' and dreamin' each night of his charms
That won't get you into his arms

The song suggests that action is necessary, not mere wishing and hoping and thinking and praying and planning and dreaming. But, I think that these are necessary elements in the spiritual life. Henri Nouwen: Those who think they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it…. An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. (quoted in the Spiritual Formation Bible).
Jesus: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The religious community leaders Jesus is criticizing thought that had it made. They had spiritually arrived. They spiritual journey was ossified because they did not think it needed to go anywhere. They were spiritually and socially arrogant, and their spiritual arrogance led them to justify unjust actions.
In a brilliant rhetorical move, Jesus contrasts these scribes who in their spiritual arrogance devour widows’ houses, with a widow who gives her whole life, her whole self in trust to God. This woman seemingly has nothing over which she could be arrogant. She is poor. She is widowed, and in the time of Jesus those two things often went together for women had little economic standing. She gives what she has – wishing, hoping, thinking, praying, dreaming, longing, waiting, expecting. This isn’t just about money, and I am going to avoid the temptation to use this text in that way during our stewardship time. This is also a symbolic action, a giving of the whole self longing for the fullness of life God promises to those who seek it in God. This woman is willing to trust her life to God whose love nudges, lures, inspires, draws us forward.
The journey with Jesus is something that engages our whole selves, the whole of our lives, or is meant to. The journey with Jesus is dynamic and growing. It is movement and dance. If we think we have arrived, we are probably lost. If we think we have it all together, there is probably something missing. If we lose that sense of hoping, dreaming, longing, expecting, we are missing something. Joan Chittister, in one of her books, writes: “Unchanging commitment to non-change flies in the face of the Holy Spirit” (The Fire in These Ashes, 87)
This aspect of the spiritual life, the journey with Jesus is something we struggle with. It is something I struggle with. A few years ago, I took a Strengths Finder inventory. One of my top five strengths is “Achiever.” Your Achiever theme helps explain your drive. Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself…. You have an internal fire burning inside you. It pushes you to do more, to achieve more. (Buckingham and Clifton, Now Discover Your Strengths). I make checklists for myself, daily to do lists, and I like to see stuff get checked off. The spiritual life is not so much arriving at a goal as working toward something that is always out ahead. Life with Jesus is not so much a destination, instead it is a journey, an on-going dance. There are achievements along the way, but I need to see them as temporary landing places, not permanent homes. The journey with Jesus is not the arrogant achievement of the scribes, it is the seeking to offer ones whole self to God of the widow.
The spiritual life, the journey with Jesus is a creative-responsive dance with the Spirit in the midst of change. We change. The world changes. God’s Spirit nudges us to respond in love in the midst of change, and what love requires may change. Today is Veteran’s Day. We honor those who have served our country and the hopes and dreams it represents – liberty and justice. The day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I. The congressional resolution marking Armistice Day (1926): read, in part: the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations. It is thus a day to give thanks for service and a day to seek peace. We often lose that balance. Our deep gratitude for the brave and heroic service of men and women in the military should not be confused with an uncritical acceptance of every act of war. Balancing gratitude for service, critical thinking about war and actions to perpetuate peace is an on-going journey. When we think we have arrived, perhaps we have not.
The spiritual life, the journey with Jesus is a journey filled with hoping, dreaming, longing, expecting. It is living with a God who is both always with us, and always out on some horizon ahead, drawing us forward. Joan Chittister (Called To Question: a spiritual memoir, 222: Growth in the spiritual life is a slow, circuitous route to the God within. It winds through devotion and disaster, through fidelity and sin to the point of self-knowledge and need, self-sufficiency and an unending desire for “the More.”
Last Sunday’s newspaper – Parade – had a brief story about the actor Scott Baio, who played Chachi on Happy Days. He is now playing a television father and in real life is father to a five year old. When asked how he felt about being a tv dad he replied, “it’s very surreal. I forget that I’m 52. In my head, I’m still 23!” I remember when I was younger hearing people say that and frankly I thought it was silly. What do you mean? Can’t you see that you aren’t 23 anymore. Now that I am in my early 50s I understand something of this.
On the journey with Jesus we should all have that sense that there is still more up ahead, a sense of wishing, hoping, thinking, dreaming, longing, expecting. There should be in our lives a certain righteous restlessness as we seek to give our whole lives, our entire selves to God’s love, to God’s dream for the world, knowing that God is always with us, inside us, but also that God is out on the horizon too, and we are always changing. Amen.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Joy

Sermon preached November 4, 2012

Texts: John 11:32-44; Revelation 21:1-6a

New translations of the Bible bring with them certain advantages and disadvantages. The most recent translation is getting quite a bit of use in The Untied Methodist Church, it is known as “The Common English Bible.” In the Common English Bible, John 11:35 is translated “Jesus began to cry.” In the version I read, the New Revised Standard Version, that verse reads, “Jesus began to weep.” Cry is more contemporary to be sure, but both these translations have a distinct disadvantage when compared to the good old King James Version. There John 11:35 read simply – “Jesus wept.” That made John 11:35 the most memorized Bible passage among students required to memorize a Bible passage! Now we are adding words and that complicates things, doesn’t it?
Years ago, during my time as a District Superintendent, I was invited to preach during a chapel service at Luther Theological Seminary. The services were brief, and I was told I had about ten minutes. I chose the passage “Jesus wept” and preached how I thought the whole of the gospel could be found in those two words. Given all that we have going in this morning’s worship service, I don’t want to take much more than about ten minutes, and so I better keep this moving along.
“Jesus began weeping” and he was weeping because he was moved by the death of his friend Lazarus and moved by the grief of Lazarus’ friends and families. This is a story about tears of sorrow.
Fast forward to the end of the story, not the end of the story of Lazarus, but the end of the Biblical story in the Book of Revelation. After pages of haunting twists and turns, cryptic symbols and hideous beasts, we arrive at a vision of joy and peace. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; the will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Cue Eric Clapton, “And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.” But maybe that’s not just quite right. Maybe there will be tears of joy in heaven.
Today is All Saints Sunday – a day when we remember and celebrate the saints in our communities of faith and the saints in our lives. We will be reading the names of those from our church community who have died since last we marked All Saints Sunday, and we sincerely hope we have the list right. I know there have been other losses suffered by persons in our community of faith. Today is a day for tears of sorrow and for tears of joy. We weep because of our loss. The sadness of our loss touches us still. We also recall with joy moments shared with these persons. We are grateful for laughter shared, and for lessons of love we learned from and with these persons we remember today.
“Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days. A world without saints forgets how to praise.” So the song goes. Does a world without saints also forget how to cry – tears of sorrow, tears of joy? I think so. The temptation is great to close our hearts a little, to become hard, cold, cynical. Bombarded with images of hunger, pain, suffering and disaster, it can be overwhelming and we seek to solve the problem by closing off and closing down. The election season can be especially hard on our hearts. Words that might touch us are thrown about so often for narrow political purposes that it is difficult to listen, to keep an open heart. Nastiness is offered in the service of winning an election. We are tempted to close our hearts and let our tear ducts dry up.
The saints in our lives remind us of the importance of keeping our hearts soft and open, open to beauty and to God’s dreams, open to pain and tragedy. They remind us of the importance of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. Our saints can be poets and painters, writers and philosophers, parents and friends and people who sit in pews in churches with us.
Wendy Lesser, in a passage I know I have quoted before, but whose lesson I continue to learn, offers saintly advice (New American Spirituality, 180): We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart…. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.
A heart open to the world, to its beauty and its tragedy, is a heart that is capable of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. Such an open heart is also a heart open to God and to God’s dream for the world. Our saints help us keep our hearts open and our tears flowing.
Tears are also a prelude to healing. They are a part of the healing of our own hearts and souls. We cannot heal what we cannot feel. Our saints are those who’ve walked the healing road with us. Tears of sorrow and of joy are a part of the work of healing the world. We cannot heal what we refuse to see – hunger, injustice, homelessness, humiliation. The work of healing is inspired by a vision of joy, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and we celebrate with joyful tears the small victories that seem to make the new heaven and new earth a little more real here and now. Our saints are those who work for a new heaven and a new earth.
Jesus began to weep – tears of sorrow, ending with the healing of Lazarus – tears of joy. God will wipe every tear from their eyes – tears of sorrow gone in a new heaven and a new earth, only tears of joy. Thanks be to God for saints. A world without saints forgets how to cry tears of sorrow, tears of joy. Amen.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Luther Nailed It

Sermon preached October 28, 2012

Text: Mark 10:46-52

Lutherans. We want to be careful what we say about Lutherans because we are surrounded by them. I used to tell Methodists in Minnesota that it would do their hearts good to visit Dallas because there were big United Methodist Churches on all the major corners and you really had to look hard to find a Lutheran church.
Lutheranism, because of where its stream of Christianity became prominent, has come to be identified with being Scandinavian or German, and these are cultures that are not usually known for demonstrative emotional expression. A lot of Lutheran humor depends on that.

You know you are a Lutheran if:
• You hear something funny during a sermon and smile as loudly as you can
• Your church library has three Jello cookbooks
• All your casserole dishes have your name printed on masking tape on the bottoms.

How do we know Adam was a Lutheran? Who else could stand beside a naked woman and be tempted by a piece of fruit?
It says something about the strength of Scandinavian Lutheran culture that most such humor fits Upper Midwest United Methodists pretty well.
Today is Reformation Sunday, not typically a big deal within The United Methodist Church. Maybe it is one way we try to distinguish ourselves from Lutherans. Maybe we don’t mark this day so much because we United Methodists are really step children of the Reformation – second generation. The Anglican Church from which John Wesley came was already a reformed church. The roots of the Evangelical and United Brethren Churches were in the Reformed Church in Germany. Still - no Luther, no us. When Luther nailed his Ninty-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 he started a wave, a movement that reverberated throughout Christianity.
The Ninty-five Theses themselves were not that striking. The official title of that brief work was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” – and reading them one is not necessarily deeply moved in faith. What began as a small ripple soon became a tidal wave, as Luther followed his thinking about the meaning of Christian faith in more radical directions. Luther argued that Christians are dramatically free yet also subject to the work of love (“Freedom of a Christian,” 1520, Dillenberger, p. 53). One does works of love not to gain God’s approval, not to chalk up points for the heaven board, but out of love for the God who already loves (68). Here’s the remarkable part of that. I don’t do good for others because it earns me points with God. God already loves me, so I am free to love without trying to figure out how many brownie points I may be earning.
Luther wrote movingly about the experience of faith, in many places, including in his “Preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.” Faith is a living, unshakable confidence, a belief in the grace of God so assured that a [person] would die a thousand deaths for its sake (Dillenberger, 24). Faith is contrasted to belief which Luther saw as “an idea without a corresponding experience in the depths of the heart” (23).
Perhaps it was words such as these that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, heard on night in May 1738. 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 he 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, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Outler, p. 66)
Luther got some important things right about Christian faith. We might say, Luther nailed it when it came to some critical issues about what it means to be Christian. He is where we shift from history to the story of our lives.
Luther nailed it about the importance of grace. I love Frederick Buechner’s discussion of grace (Wishful Thinking). Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace…. A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
At the heart of Christian faith is grace. It is grace found in stories like that of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road. He lives at the margins of his society. People find him easy to ignore. He cries out for mercy – a term meaning loving kindness, grace. He is not arguing that he is owed something. His life is difficult. He hopes Jesus will touch him with some kindness, compassion, love. He is crying out for it. Jesus does not disappoint. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Let me see again.” “Go, your faith has made you well.” A gift is accepted in trust – faith. It heals, grace working through faith. Bartimaeus follows Jesus.
That kind of grace is at the heart of Christian faith and life. God’s love you. The party wouldn’t be complete without you. Can you see your life in this way? You are a gift, and it is a gift to be able to see this.
Luther nailed it not only in identifying grace as at the heart of Christian faith, but also in asserting that we have an on-going need for grace. Even as we seek to follow Jesus, we lose our way sometimes. At the end of the Bartimaeus story, we read, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” A happy ending. But if we follow the story in Mark’s gospel, we later read this: “All of them deserted him and fled.” There is even an interesting detail found only in Mark. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. This is sheer speculation, but might this be Bartimaeus? Once he threw off his cloak to get to Jesus, and now he casts it aside to get away?
We can lose our way on the journey with Jesus. We can forget some of the lessons of love. We can neglect important spiritual practices that help us develop in faith, hope and love. We have a life-long need of grace. God’s love is always both creative, presenting us opportunities for being loving, caring, compassionate, for creating beauty and goodness and justice, and responsive, meeting us where we are, even if we have lost our way again.
Luther nailed it in starting a reformation that continues to seek to be reforming. Just about fifty years ago, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose brother Reinhold was also one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr published an article entitled “Reformation – Continuing Imperative.” In the article he wrote “I still believe reformation is a permanent movement” (The Responsibility of the Church for Society, 143). Luther understood that forms of Christian faith and life can become stultifying, stifling, dead. If that was true in the 1500s, it was true in 1960 when Niebuhr wrote about reformation as a permanent movement, and it is true today. What Niebuhr wrote fifty years ago still makes sense. I do not believe that we can meet in our day the need the church was founded to meet by becoming more orthodox or more liberal, more biblical or more liturgical. I look for a resymbolization of the message and the life of faith in the One God. (144) It is our task as the church in the twenty-first century to find ways to say meaningfully to our day and time what those around Jesus said to Bartimaeus: “Take heart, he is calling you.” That the number of those who claim no religious affiliation is growing in our country says that we have not yet figured out the next wave of Christian reformation.
We stand within the ripples of the Spirit initiated by Martin Luther. The heart of our faith is grace. Our lives are a gift and to see them as such is also a gift. We, too, hear the words spoken to us, “take heart.”
The call of Jesus to us to take heart, the call of God’s love in Jesus Christ, never goes away, no matter how lost we become or how blinded we become. God’s gracious love is a responsive love, responsive to us where we are.
God’s gracious love, responsive and creative, opens us again and again to the new. We need to find new ways to tell the old, old story. We need to find new ways to keep fresh the traditional spiritual disciplines. God’s gracious love is always creating anew. In our lives we are born again and again and again. In our church, we are reformed and always reforming.
Luther nailed it. May our hearts be strangely warmed, and our church be reformed – again and again and again. Amen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's a Mystery

Sermon preached October 21, 2012

Have you ever had an embarrassing moment? Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a group of people, out of place? I probably should just ask if you have experience as a human being, because occasional embarrassment or out-of-placeness just go with the territory.
The seminary I attended, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, held an annual fall retreat for students and faculty. The retreat included recreation, but also worship, lectures and small breakout groups. One year I thought it might be interesting to attend a breakout session on mystery stories. I cannot recall the specific title of the session, but I remember pondering – “theological thinking about mystery stories, that could be interesting.”
I arrived at the session and we were seated in a circle. One of the seminary faculty was the convener of the group. She said that rather than make any kind of presentation, she was assuming everyone in the group was there because they were mystery story readers and we would just be going around to share some of our favorite mystery writers. Oh no. While I was interested in mystery stories, I had come to find out more about them and something about their theological significance. I did not have any favorite mystery writers to share. I felt embarrassed, uncomfortable and out of place, though things ended up o.k.
Since then, I have acquired a few mystery writers whose works I like to tell others about: Julia Spenser-Fleming, Nevada Barr, Peter Robinson, John D. MacDonald. I enjoy a good mystery story now and again.
The Biblical book of Job is a mystery story of sorts. It is a book filled with questions. Where is God when humans suffer? Why do we sometimes assume that when people suffer, God is somehow behind it? Unlike many mystery stories, unless there is a planned sequel, Job ends up providing more questions than answers. We read this morning from some of the final chapters in the book. Job and some of his friends have had conversation about Job’s suffering. In the end of the story God responds, but with more questions. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Job is a mystery story, but of a unique kind, and the kind of mystery story Job is has something to say about our Christian faith.
When we think about mystery stories we tend to think about mystery stories that are puzzles of sorts. There is a crime – a murder, a theft, and the plot of the mystery story revolves around trying to figure out who committed the crime. Really good mystery stories, though, make their characters three-dimensional, especially the detectives. Really good mystery stories can give us insight into the human condition. But Job is not the kind of mystery story that is a puzzle to be solved.
I am also cautious when we, in religious circles, appeal too easily to mystery. Sometimes it is as if some churches want to tell people – “Quit thinking so much. It is a mystery.” If mystery stories as puzzles invite our thinking, these religious appeals to mystery want to short-circuit our thinking. Earlier this month it was reported that a Georgia congressman (Rep. Paul Broun) who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said at a church banquet: God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell…. I believe that [the Earth] was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. If asked how this could be given all the scientific knowledge we have, some religionists might say simply, “It’s a mystery.” Really? Does being a Christian mean that we leave our critical thinking behind, that questions are forbidden? Does being a Christian mean that if science seems to suggest something different than on understanding of the Bible, we simply say, “the Bible tells me so” and appeal to the mystery of our faith?
That’s not the kind of mystery story Job is, nor is it the kind of mystery to which we are invited as Christians.
Mystery is important in Christian faith, but mystery as understood like this – Frederick Buechner: There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance, a murder mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for example. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential, living part will always elude you, i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. (Wishful Thinking, 76)
I think Buechner is right about the character of mystery that is at the heart of job and Christian faith. There is something about being human that takes us beyond what our critical thinking can tell us. We don’t abandon such thinking, we push beyond it to ponder and live mystery. Even when we learn all that we can about the human brain and human body and biochemistry, it still will not explain what being a person feels like. There will always be something mysterious about being human, and particularly about being human in relation to God.
In First Corinthians 4, Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” The Message renders that last part like this: “We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets.” To be Christian is to follow Jesus into the mysteries of God and of human life. It is to follow Jesus into God’s most sublime secrets. We are stewards of God’s mysteries, mysteries like those identified by the poet Denise Levertov: the quiet mystery… the mystery/that there is anything, anything at all,/let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,/rather than void: and that, O Lord,/Creator, Hallowed One, You still/hour by hour sustain it. (“Primary Wonder”)
To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to have some answers, yes, but maybe what we have even more are signposts pointing in a direction. You want to know something about God? You want to know something about the meaning of being human? Look in this direction – toward Jesus Christ. What we find in Jesus is not a series of bullet points, but a guide into God’s most sublime secrets. The way of Jesus is the way of the open heart, the open mind – open to the mystery of our lives, open to the mystery of the world. It is not a way that tells us to forget our brains, it is a way that says beyond what we can know through our best thinking, there may be even more to be known and experienced in a different way.
I bring with me today some testimony to the importance of mystery in Christian faith.
Kathleen Norris, poet, Christian spiritual writer, asserts that at the heart of prayer is mystery. Prayer is not doing, but being. It is not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself…. [Prayer] is ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder, a wonder that makes us know the smallness of oneself in an enormous and various universe. (Amazing Grace, 350, 351) Prayer can be doing. Prayer can be asking. When prayer seems to get to its deepest place in my life, there is that beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of One greater than myself, One who has depths of mystery beyond me.
God is central to Christian faith, and the God of Jesus Christ will always be sublime and mysterious. James Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life: Language is limited by space and time, culture, and individual experience. To speak directly about God is to limit God by treating God like an object in the world of tables and chairs. That is precisely what God is not. (174) Have you ever been a little confused about some parts of the Ten Commandments, particularly the parts about idols and graven images (KJV)? Perhaps this is an invitation to take seriously the limitations of human communication when it comes to God, to remember the depths of God’s mystery, to recall just how sublime are God’s secrets.
The voice of God that calls to us as followers of Jesus will always have a certain mysterious quality to it. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke often of the ineffable when he wrote about God. The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide…. We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. (I Asked for Wonder, 19)
We followers of Jesus are stewards of the mysteries of God. We seek to be attentive to deeper realities and invite others to join us in paying attention. We believe we are responsible in our lives to a mysterious One who we know, but cannot fully name. We may not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure, but an adventure it is. Following Jesus in tracking the mystery of God is an adventure. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity; a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion, p. 8-9)
This month the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its latest survey on religious affiliation in the United States. One in five adults now considers themselves religiously unaffiliated. Most do not consider themselves atheist, but there is something about organized religion that they are not finding helpful. Perhaps we have tried to offer pat answers rather than invite them to the adventure of following Jesus in tracing the ways of a God of love who yet remains sublime and mysterious. Perhaps the church has been a poor steward of the mysteries of God – appealing to mystery as a substitute for thinking rather than inviting to mystery that considers thinking as a companion on the way.
In a preface he wrote to a book of his poems, Abraham Joshua Heschel penned these words, words addressed to God: “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” (I Asked For Wonder, 7) Pray for wonder. Embrace mystery. You will find the God of wonder and mystery embracing you. Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Money Trap

Sermon preached October 14, 2012

Text: Mark 10:17-27

I borrow shamelessly from popular culture in coming up with sermon titles. This morning’s sermon title is the title of a movie, but it was not the movie I was thinking of. I had in mind a movie with Tom Hanks. The Tom Hanks film, co-starring Shelley Long was really called “The Money Pit.” “The Money Pit” (1986) is about a young couple trying to fix up an old, dilapidated house, and their work becomes a money pit. The film is a romantic comedy about the way home improvement projects can get carried away, and about problems with money.
“The Money Trap” (1965) is a very different movie. The movie starred Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth and Elke Summer and is about a cop with financial troubles because of his wife's constant spending. In the course of his work, he himself turns toward theft in order to make money. It doesn’t end well. There is romance here, but, even more there is tragedy.
Our relationship to money can be comic. Often it is more tragic.
Mark, in today’s gospel reading, relates a tragic story about Jesus’ encounter with a man. It is a story about money/possessions. We don’t have much description of the man here. In Matthew he is young. In Luke he is a ruler. In all the gospels the man is a person of means. Here it is said that “he had many possessions.” This man comes to Jesus, while Jesus is on a journey. He kneels before Jesus. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds him of the basic commandments – and the ones that have to do with human relationships: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
We seem to have here, in contrast to so many others in the gospels, an honest seeker. This is someone asking Jesus questions not in order to trap him, but to move his life forward. Jesus recognizes this – “Jesus looking at him, loved him.” Yet the love with which Jesus loves can be a challenging love. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” It is too much for the man. He is shocked and leaves grieving.
The shock of the story is not over. Jesus offers some teaching. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” It is the disciples turn to be shocked. They are perplexed and greatly astounded. A camel through the eye of a needle? By the way, there is no gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” that camels could get through with great difficulty. Jesus is offering an astonishing image, and impossible image – except with God, anything is possible.
What Jesus is describing is the weird economics of the kingdom of God. In the weird economics of the kingdom of God, the rich are going to have a hard time of it. That is pretty astonishing.
What’s Jesus problem with wealth? Does he simply have a bad case of wealth envy? Why might I describe our relationship with money as often tragic? I want to explore how money, things, possessions can be problematic for us in our lives, our relationships to others, and our relationship to God, but first I want to acknowledge that not enough is also a problem. We cannot take this passage from Mark out of the context of the entire Bible, and the Bible indicates that God is deeply concerned with the hungry, the poor, the ill-clad or ill-housed. God is concerned with those who lack enough. In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley encouraged Christians to “gain all you can” – that is, to work hard, though one ought not to work at things that are unhealthy. Wesley had a strong sense that we should not be Pollyannaish about money. It has its uses and not having enough is a problem.
Beyond enough, though, there are other problems – the money trap. The man who comes to Jesus is caught in a money trap, possessed by his possessions rather than possessing them. I want to describe this money trap using some quotes and stories.
After he wrote his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. There he quotes the psychologist Carl Jung: We overlook the essential fact that the accomplishments which society rewards are won at the cost of the diminution of personality (23)
A few weeks ago, I heard the story of a young woman in her twenties who is currently in investment banking. She is doing well, but the company she works for is doing some strange things, making her feel undervalued and underappreciated. She told a friend, “I would look for another job, but I like my lifestyle too much.” In the pursuit of enough to finance a certain lifestyle, is some part of this woman’s personality being diminished?
In 2008, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money. I found this in a book entitled Enough written by John Bogle, founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group.
Bogle also shares the story about the two writers, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Vonnegut and Heller were attending a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. The host was a hedge fund manager. Vonnegut told Heller that their host had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel, Catch-22. Heller responded, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.” (Bogle, 1) We lose our way with money and things, and we become trapped when we cannot say “enough.”
In another one of his books, Living a Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about something deep inside of each of us. Our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way, as we realize that those two paths may diverge sharply. (15) Kushner argues that our chasing fame or fortune has something to do with a deep need to feel important and valued for our accomplishments. It is a desire that can be warped.
Father and son writing team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky, in their book How Much is Enough? name that warping of our desire for importance, when it becomes a warped relationship with money and things, “insatiability.” They identify a number of inner and outer forces that contribute to that sense of insatiability, that sense that even for those who already have everything, there is more to be had. Insatiability arises from an inner restlessness, a sense of joy in novelty. We like to achieve things that others do not have – positional goods, like trophies for first place. Beyond that, we seek to feel special by demonstrating our status. Having things, and consuming conspicuously, feeds status needs. (33ff)
I offer all these thoughts and resources to suggest that the money trap is out there, is real, and is something from which none of us is immune. We all want to feel as if we matter, are important. We all want our accomplishments to be valued, and the currency that seems highly valued in our society is cash. Is your work valued? Show me the money! I know I have asked myself “what if?” What if I had devoted myself to a career that had more to do with making money? I know I have daydreamed about “wouldn’t it be nice to win the lottery?” I don’t daydream enough to actually buy a ticket, though.
We all struggle with those inner and social forces that make cash the value of who we are, that make things the measure of our worth. We can get caught up in money and things in such a way that we are trapped, that we close off life-enhancing possibilities. Jesus looks into our eyes, too, with love, and invites us into a different relationship with money and things.
The money trap is there and none of us is immune. Sometimes we fall in. Jesus offers ways out. Generosity is something that lessens the grip of money and things. When we can give freely and generously to enhance the lives of others, we put money and things in their place. We will discuss that more as we approach our stewardship Sundays, but it is a good lesson to hear whenever.
But being generous is not all there is. Jesus invites us to a searching self-examination as he invited the man in this story to self-examination. In a society where having everything is still not enough, how do we keep balance – rightly prizing hard work, and hard-won income, without getting too caught up in status? How do we possess things without them possessing us? The reality is that sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes we will fall into the money trap, and will once again need grace. The Harvard Professor and Minister Peter Gomes argues that the primary moral of the gospel story is of our need for grace. Anything is possible for God, even helping us again and again to climb from the money trap, and maybe helping us fall into it less often. (Sermons, 60-61)
The Reverend Fred Craddock was visiting in the home of his niece. There he encountered an old greyhound, just like the ones who raced around tracks chasing mechanical rabbits. Apparently Craddock’s niece had taken the dog in to prevent it from being destroyed after its racing days were over. Anyway, Craddock strikes up a conversation with the dog – at least that’s how he tells it.
“Are you still racing?”
“No,” the greyhound replied.
“Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?”
“No, I still had some race in me.”
“Well, what then? Were you not winning?”
“I won over a million dollars for my owner.”
“Well, did he treat you badly, then?”
“Oh, no,” the dog said. “We were treated quite well while we were racing.”
“Were you injured?”
“Then why? Why aren’t you racing?”
“I quit.”
“You quit? Why would you quit?”
“I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.” (Bogle, Enough, 211-212)

Jesus looking at him, loved him. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded.
At its best the church, and the Jesus of the church, reminds us both of the need for enough and the trap that awaits those who continue to stretch what is enough. Jesus looks at us lovingly and offers grace, a grace that makes anything possible. The church points us in the direction of deeper values and more profound mysteries. More on that next week. Amen.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Like Ish

Sermon preached October 7, 2012

Text: Mark 10:13-16

You all know, those of you who know me, that I like music. This summer, maybe because I had a class reunion, I started listening again to music from the 1970s and found myself rediscovering some songs from that time that I had forgotten. So here is a song I stumbled across on a CD called “AM Gold 1970.”

[Play the first part of Ray Stevens, “Everything is Beautiful”: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.]

Everything is Beautiful

Not a bad song for World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our connections with Christians from around the world.
Children. Last week I mentioned that one of my college majors was philosophy. The other was psychology, and psychology often finds children fascinating for a host of reasons. Psychologists want to know something about how we get from childhood to adulthood and what positive growth and development might be like. Freud postulated in his work that there was a lot more going on in children than most had previously considered.
One of the reasons I became a psychology major was the work of Abraham Maslow, work I first encountered in high school. Maslow’s focus was not on children per se, but on self-actualizing people. Yet Maslow had some interesting things to say about children. “The facts… seem to be that normal children are in fact often hostile, destructive, and selfish in a primitive sort of way” (Motivation and Personality, 121). Freud has postulated such things. Maslow goes on to write: “But they are also at other times, and perhaps as often, generous, cooperative, and unselfish in the same primitive style” (121). Which parts of a child predominate depends to a large degree, Maslow argued, on how well the child’s needs for safety, love belongingness and self-esteem were met. Maslow also argued that what we sometimes perceive as destructiveness in children is better considered curiosity. When a child dismantles something, she may just want to know how it works. Maslow notes, “children do not have to be taught to be curious” (50). Children have a lot going on, much good, some not so good.
Children. Jesus was not the first child psychologist, but he did pay attention to children, and, like Maslow, seemed to find something admirable about them. In a culture that did not really focus on children, Jesus embraced them warmly and held them up as examples. Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
While the Bible points us to children as examples, it does not do so uncritically. In I Corinthians 13, Paul writes: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
Jesus encourages us to emulate children, and Paul notes that there is a time to put an end to childish ways. One way we might helpfully think about the appropriate child qualities of faith is to distinguish between like and ish – childlike and childish. When Jesus encourages us to receive the kingdom of God like a child, I think he is encouraging child-like attitudes, and not childish attitudes. There are probably times in our lives when we are more childish than child-like.
So what characteristics might we think of as childish, those attitudes to be given up as we mature? Children can be impatient. Are we there yet? While there may be a place for a certain kind of righteous impatience at times, we would do well to understand that so many good things in life take time. The world is not the way I would like it to be – too much hunger, poverty, prejudice, war, cruelty. Change is needed, but positive change can take time. Long-time enmities between people do not end overnight. A lack of patience can lead to cynicism and burnout, and cynicism is the opposite of faith.
Children can be self-absorbed. The world of infants is small. When they are hungry or wet, they cry out. It takes time to develop a wider view, and acknowledgement of the other, and frankly it is a life-long task.
Children can be masters at blaming someone else. If something is broken, it must have been a brother or sister, or the next door neighbor. Sometimes children are really creative and the problem is caused by an imaginative friend. Failing to take responsibility for our lives is a common childish quality.
Children also have a tendency to wish it would be easy. This is Scott Peck in reverse. Peck, begins his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled with a simple statement: “life is difficult.” It is, but as children we don’t necessarily see that, and maybe that’s o.k. for children. Thinking everything will be easy is childish when we cling to that idea into adulthood.
When Jesus encourages childlike qualities in us, he is not inviting us to childish impatience, self-absorption, irresponsibility, or immature wishful thinking.
Instead I think Jesus is inviting us to wonder, welcoming, delight and a kind of mature wishful thinking - child-like qualities that we should nurture in our lives throughout our lives.
Wonder. Abraham Maslow in his work on self-actualizing people argued that one characteristic of such people is “continued freshness of appreciation” (163). “Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy” (163). Children have a marvelous capacity for wonder that we lose too easily as we grow older. God’s work in the world of nurturing love, encouraging justice, creating beauty, continues, but we are not always ready to see where it is happening. Everything is beautiful, in its own way, if only we will see with childlike wonder and appreciation. One final Maslow quote. “Getting used to our blessings is one of the most important nonevil generators of human evil, tragedy, and suffering” (163). Wonder at the beauty in God’s world, gratitude for the goodness of God and God’s creativity, is at the heart of God’s kingdom work. Wonder is a child-like kingdom characteristic.
Openness and welcoming. Children have a lot to teach us about welcoming others. We have to teach our children to fear others, sometimes for their own safety, but we often take the lessons too far. Children don’t seem bothered by differences in color or abilities or orientations. They see friends first of all. The New Jerusalem Bible translates Jesus’ words in Mark 10 this way – “anyone who welcomes the kingdom of God as a child.” Welcoming and openness to others is a child-like kingdom characteristic. Jesus loves all the children of the world. On World Communion Sunday we are invited to love as openly, as freely, as widely.
Joy, delight and playfulness. The psychologist D. W. Winnicott once wrote: It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self (quoted in Cherishment, Young-Bruehl and Bethelard, 207). Being able to give ourselves to joy, to delight in experiences, to be able to play are important child-like kingdom characteristics. They display a deep faith that God continues to be at work in the world. They help us discover who we are as God’s people. One of my concerns as I look at our society is that we are diminishing the role of play in the lives of our children. We are substituting instead competition. We don’t play as much as compete, and we need to ask what we are losing if all our playing is now competition. If we lose joy, delight and playfulness in children, we will be more hard-pressed to nurture these as adults. Joy, delight and playfulness are child-like kingdom characteristics.
Mature wishful thinking. Is there such a thing? Author, minister and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote a book on theology: Wishful Thinking: a seeker’s abc. Wishful thinking and theology? Christianity is mainly wishful thinking…. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking…. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth come true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. Curiosity, creativity and imagination are child-like kingdom characteristics. Doesn’t it take some audacious imagining to celebrate World Communion Sunday in such a divided world? We imagine that sharing bread and juice together here can help bridge differences world-wide. We imagine that sharing bread and juice bring Jesus closer.
Nurturing child-like kingdom characteristics, leaving behind childishness – this is not easy, but then life is difficult sometimes. Yet this is the Jesus way. It asks of us patience. It requires giving of ourselves to something bigger – God’s dream for the world. There will be failures along the way for which we need grace. The Jesus way is the way of childlike wonder, openness, joy and delight. The Jesus way is a way in which truth comes to us on wishful wings. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.