Sunday, July 15, 2012

Open Wide Open

Sermon preached July 15, 2012

Text: Psalm 24

I am going to let you in on one of the world’s worst kept secrets. I enjoy music, and all kinds of music - - - from La Traviata to La Bamba, from John Coltrane’s Naima to the Goo Goo Dolls Name. When I get around to writing my next blog I intend to write more about how this spring I both attended my first opera – La Traviata and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Today’s sermon, “Open Wide Open” could be subtitled a sermon in five songs, because I am going to wrap what I say around five different songs. We’ll see how it works.
The first song is Psalm 24 itself. The Psalms were the worship texts for ancient Israel, theology wrapped in song. A biblical scholar has written that “the book of Psalms invites attention to God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace on a world-encompassing scale” (The Discipleship Study Bible). The songs in the Psalms sing praise for a God whose intent for the world is justice, righteousness and peace. They are songs of affirmation – this is who God is, a God who desires justice, righteousness and peace. They are songs of commitment – prayers which say that we will align our lives with the intention of God for justice, righteousness and peace. They are songs of lament for a world that is not yet a world of justice, righteousness and peace. The psalms sing, “We want the King of glory to come, the Lord of hosts, who triumphs when justice, righteousness and peace triumph.” We will live in anticipation of the final victory of justice, righteousness and peace.

Song two: “Wide Open Spaces” The Dixie Chicks.
Wide Open Spaces

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” There is not much left out here. The Common English Bible, the newest translation of the Bible into English, lets us know “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all its inhabitants too.” All and everything. Eugene Peterson in The Message renders the passage like this: “God claims Earth and everything in it; God claims World and all who live on it.” The Dixie Chicks sing about a young woman’s dream needing wide open spaces. The psalmist sings that God’s dream needs all the space the world can provide. God’s dream encompasses everything and everybody. No one is left out of the dream, that dream of justice, righteousness and peace. Talk about your wide open spaces! God’s dream for the world includes all God’s creatures and the earth itself. On this Lake Superior Sunday, we affirm that God’s dream for the world includes that big lake as well, includes our treating it with respect and care. If you have ever let yourself dream by the shores of the lake on a bright sunny day or on a magnificent moonlit night, know God’s a dreamer too, a dreamer of wide open spaces, a dreamer whose dream includes everything.

Song three: “Let ‘Em In” Paul McCartney and Wings.
Let 'Em In

God is a big dreamer, a dreamer of wide open spaces. The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” What should our response be? “Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell…. Let ‘em in.” Our response to this God of wide open spaces is to open wide. “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” Yes, this is a psalm imagining God as returning to Jerusalem and to the temple triumphant in the struggle for justice, righteousness and peace. Yet the imagery can be personal, too. Open your heads and hearts and souls wide to God. Let God in. Let God’s dream fill and inspire our own dreaming. It is good to dream dreams for our lives, but a part of our dreaming should also be for the world. How will we be a part of God’s dream for the whole earth, for the entire world, this dream of justice, righteousness and peace?

Song four: “I Saw God Today,” George Strait.
I Saw God Today

So one result of my visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has been giving country music more of a listen than I have in the past, with a focus on classic country singers and songwriters. George Strait is a country singer in the classic mold and one of his songs is entitled “I Saw God Today.” It is a song that tells the story of a new father, whose wife has just given birth to a baby girl. In the chorus he sings about God – “I know he’s here but I don’t look near as often as I should.” When he looks he sees a flower growing in the middle of a sidewalk. I saw God today. When he looks he sees a couple holding hands, the woman with child. I saw God today. When he looks into the nursery window and sees his daughter he sings again, “I saw God today.”
When we open wide to God two things happen. One, we see beauty. There are God sightings in beauty – the flower, the loving couple, the baby. Maybe some of us have those kind of God sightings in beauty with Lake Superior. Maybe we have heard something of the sound of God when waves lap up against a rocky shore line. My favorite God sighting on the lake is the full moon shining bright orange on the waters. I want to sing praises to the God who claims the Earth and the World.

Song Five: “Botswanna” John Stewart

How can you have a sermon in five songs without one song being obscure? For music lovers there is a certain joy in finding the lost song, the little known tune that speaks to you. John Stewart was an American folk singer and song writer. He is best known for being a member of the Kingston Trio in the 1960s and the writer of the song “Daydream Believer.” The song “Botswanna” begins with a vision of beauty, sometimes neglected. Oh I live in California /I can look out at the ocean /On the silver blue Pacific /It is always there to see /And I’m as busy working /That I don’t have time to see it /But it’s the knowing that it’s there /That means a lot to me. That song could fit with Lake Superior. Just knowing that it’s there means a lot. The song takes a turn, however. Looking out at such beauty makes it hard to see something else. And it makes it hard /And I wonder if God cries /When he sees the pictures /That were taken at Botswanna /The pictures of the children /With the flies in their eyes.
When we open wide to God, two things happen. One, we see beauty; we encounter God sightings in beauty. The other is that we see things that make us wonder if God cries. We see things, I think, that bring us to knowing that God cries. When there is cruelty, God cries. When there is suffering, God cries. When the earth is degraded, God cries. When God’s dream of justice, righteousness and peace is violated, God cries. Opening wide to God’s wide open dream means seeing all those places in the world where God’s dream is not yet a reality and having our hearts broken a little, like the heart of God.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all its inhabitants. God claims Earth and everything in it; God claims World and all who live on it. God emerges in beauty, and in the beauty of justice, righteousness and peace. God cries when God’s dream is violated, when there is pain, when the earth’s inhabitants do not care for each other or for the earth itself. God calls us to open wide to God’s presence in beauty and in the struggle for justice, righteousness and peace. God calls us to open wide and to live wide open with love – to create beauty, to alleviate pain. How is such an open wide open life possible? Because God is always wide open to us. Verses five and six, The Message: God is at their side; with God’s help they make it. This… is what happens to God-seekers, God questers.
Open wide. Live wide open. Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Take It To the Limit

Sermon preached July 8, 2012

Texts: Mark 6:1-13

Last summer, some of the United Methodist Churches in the Duluth area put together a softball team to play in a recreational church league. Even though I had not played organized softball for at least 18 years, I signed up to play. We are playing again this summer. I have noticed something different about softball between my mid-thirties and my early fifties. Muscles tighten up more easily. Last year my quad muscles tightened up so much that it took two weeks for them to recover fully. A couple of weeks ago, running to first base, my left calf muscle tightened up and I needed a pinch runner. I don’t remember those kind of things happening twenty years ago. I am discovering my body has some limits.
It is not an entirely new discovery. I remember when I was in junior high school discovering these basketball hoops at a grade school in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where we often traveled to visit relatives. They were maybe six feet instead of ten feet, and that allowed me to dunk a basketball, my only opportunity ever. If I could really have dunked a basketball I would have been Irv St. John’s best friend at East High School. My body was just not constructed for basketball jams.
The first part of the reading from Mark’s gospel is about limits. “And he [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” The “there” is Jesus’ hometown. He wasn’t able, in his hometown, to do some of the things he had been doing other places. They were not open to him. They could not get past his previous identity. It was a stumbling block for them. Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?
Hometowns can be tough places sometimes. They are places that can say “He’s become too big for his britches.” That’s kind of what they were saying about Jesus. Baseball great Mickey Mantle was from the small town of Commerce, Oklahoma, with about 2,500 hundred people. In one biography of Mantle the author wrote: “Some of Commerce resented its successful native son, a factor in the Mantle’s family move to Dallas.” (Falkner, The Last Hero, picture caption). Hometowns can be tough places, I guess.
I am genuinely grateful that here in Duluth I have been able to be a pastor, even though I grew up here and some of you knew me when I was a kid. I have been able to function as a pastor for families I have known much of my life. Just Saturday I officiated at what unfortunately was the third funeral in the past two years for a family that grew up just blocks from where I lived on Avondale Street in Lester Park.
Anyway, the attitudes of people in Jesus’ home town were limiting factors for his work. “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Even Jesus bumped up against limits. We confront limits in our lives – not tall enough to dunk a basketball, muscles that need more stretching than they once did, born in a particular place and time, the ultimate limit which is we don’t live forever.
The theologian Douglas Ottati has helped me think about limits. He writes: People wield significant but nonetheless limited powers…. Human decisions and actions make a difference in how things turn out…. On the other hand, we clearly do not control all outcomes and events. (Hopeful Realism, 17)
We live within limits, and there is value in recognizing that. If our moments were endless, we might not appreciate any particular moment very deeply. Every choice we make sets the context for the next choices we make, adding significance to our lives and choices. We want to pay attention, because we can miss something important that will not happen again. The people of Jesus’ hometown missed that moment for healing and wisdom. Perhaps at a later time, they became more open, but even then, time was lost.
We live within limits, and while we need to recognize and acknowledge this, we also need to be careful not to draw the lines around our limits too quickly and easily. One of my college psychology teachers at UMD was a man named Robert Falk, R. J. One of R.J.’s favorite quotes was from a guy named John Lilly. Lilly was born in St. Paul in 1915 and was a medical doctor and a neuroscientist. He did significant work with isolation tanks and on dolphin communication. R. J. Falk loved this John Lilly quote: In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended.
Lilly recognized that we live with limits, but often our limits are internal and when they are it is our job to push against them, because some of our limits are meant to be overcome. I cannot change my height, nor the fact that I am 53. There are some limits there that I need to acknowledge. But if the limits in my life are my ideas about what it means to age – like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” then maybe some of those limits need to be taken down.
There are limits in life, but many of them are not pre-determined. The Spirit of Jesus is one that helps us push against the limits, at least the limits that should be pushed against. That’s what happens as we continue in the gospel reading for today. Jesus has experienced some “failure.” He was limited by the attitudes of others in his own hometown. Those were changeable limits, but they could not be changed by Jesus, they would have to be changed by those who could not get past his family history or previous vocational identity. So Jesus experiences some failure in touching the world with wisdom and healing.
Yet as the story continues, Jesus will not let one failure limit him completely. He continued to go about teaching and he recruits others to the mission. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” And there is success. So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
We live within limits. That is simply a part of life as given by God. We should neither ignore our limits, nor should we give into them too soon. Some of the current limits in our lives, especially inner limits, are meant to be pushed against and changed. We should neither ignore our limits nor give into them too soon. We should be neither fool-hardy, as if we had no limits, nor risk-averse, as if every limit were set in stone. As followers of Jesus, believers in the power of God’s love, perhaps one of our theme songs should be that 70s Eagles’ tune, “Take It To the Limit.” Our first question should not be about limits but about where God might be leading us. Take it to the limit.
The Spirit of Jesus in which we are invited to live is a spirit of adventure, of taking it to the limit. The power of God’s love is a power that helps us break through some of what we may have perceived as impenetrable limits. The Spirit of Jesus in which we are invited to live is also a spirit of wisdom, recognizing that some limits cannot be overcome. We are invited to live with both wisdom and adventure and courage – take it to the limit. We recognize, in the words of Douglas Ottati that: In a world of fragmentation, misorientation, conflict, and destruction, nevertheless possibilities for good abound (Hopeful Realism, 19). Giving in too soon to perceived limits means we miss some of those possibilities for doing good. Take it to the limit. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition and of the United Methodist Church, once said, “Do all the good you can.” The “can” implies some limits, but if we give in to limits too easily or too soon, we will find that we are not really doing all the good we can. Take it to the limit.
To live in the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of wisdom, adventure and courage, is something we are invited to do in our lives and in our life together. Even as this new church, combining the former First UMC and the former Chester Park UMC, we have some limits. Money, building space, people, energy are not endless. There is more good to do in the world than we can do. We will have to say “no” sometimes to worthy projects. Yet to focus too much and too soon on limits will prevent us from being open to what Jesus may want to do in us an through us. Yes, there are limits, but by the power of God some of what we think of as limits will be overcome as we move into the future together.
Wisdom, adventure, courage. The Spirit of Jesus. Take it to the limit one more time, always one more time. Amen.

Friday, July 6, 2012

When All Seems Lost

Sermon preached July 1, 2012

Texts: Mark 5:21-43

Here we are, July 1. Where did June go? We are just days away from July 4, a day of celebration for The United States of America. A day like this, so close to the 4th, is often a good time to reflect on our national life – what’s going well and what may need more work.
I believe there is a moral dimension to being a follower of Jesus. When Jesus tells us to love others, he is asking for more than a good feeling. Loving others has something to do with respect, with care, with compassion, with justice. The moral dimension to being a follower of Jesus laps into politics. Broadly understood, politics is about making decisions about our life together as a nation. There are moral dimensions to issues such as poverty, hunger, health care, war, care for the environment.
As a pastor charged with speaking about faith and leading us deeper into following Jesus, there will be times when I share my understanding of the political implications of the moral dimensions of following Jesus. I will comment, and you can disagree. I hope we can keep the spirit of John Wesley in such conversations – “though we may not think alike, may we not love alike?” I do celebrate today and this week that we live in a country where such conversations are possible. I celebrate that we live in a country where we are free to worship as we deem appropriate.
But this July 4 weekend, I want to go in a different direction, a more personal direction. I feel led that way by this week’s gospel readings.
Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel is action packed. Jesus is surrounded by a crowd, and some in the crowd seek Jesus because their lives are in disarray. They are hurting. Jairus, a synagogue leader has a daughter who is deathly ill. He thinks Jesus may be able to help. Pushing her way through the crowd to touch Jesus is a woman who has been suffering for years, and no one has been able to help her. She thinks that Jesus may be able to help.
The second story takes center stage for a time. The woman reaches Jesus, touches him and is made well. Jesus senses something has happened, and upon finding out what, tells the woman “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” A happy ending.
That has created a delay for Jesus in attending to the first crisis, and it seems as if he is now too late. Jairus’ daughter has died. Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jairus does. His daughter is brought back to life.
One entry point into these stories is to recognize that both are about people feeling helpless, hopeless. They are people caught in situations and circumstances when all seems lost. In both stories, Jesus is there and is of help.
Let’s admit that as modern readers, these stories pose some problems for us. How are such things possible? The stories seem just a bit too neat. They are neatly packaged and with their happy endings they feel a bit like an hour-long television drama where the story is nicely wrapped up. There are difficulties here, but I hope we won’t let either set of issues get in the way of our hearing the message.
The point of the story is not asking how such things are possible, and yes, the stories are a little neat. This is a gospel, not a newspaper report, and the gospel wants to share good news, and it is this – Jesus is hope, Jesus is healing, Jesus is a way when all seems lost. Even in our complex world and our complicated lives, where we know that not every issue will be easily resolved, and where we know that eventually something will get each of us, for we all will die, even in such a world, Jesus, as the face of God turned toward us, Jesus is hope, Jesus is healing, Jesus is a way when all seems lost.
A pastor tells the story of a friend, a person he describes as “a man of deep faith.” This man was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was in his fifties. The man and his wife prayed for his healing. Twenty years later, he is in the last, debilitating stages of the disease. Yet this man once told his pastor friend that his prayers had been answered. I have been healed, not of my Parkinson’s disease, but I have been healed of my fear of my Parkinson’s disease. (Feasting on the Word). In a world where we all get sick sometime, and where we know that some one of those diseases will be our last, there are other kinds of healing than physical healing, important kinds of healing that represent real hope and a real way forward when all seems lost.
When I was in my early twenties, still in college, I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. I have prayed for its disappearance, wished that after some visit to the doctor I would be told that my colon no longer showed any signs of the disease. That has not happened during my long journey with this condition. Because I have had this disease for so long, I am at a higher risk for colon cancer and the kind of colon cancer I am at risk for is a more aggressive type. I, therefore, undergo an annual colonoscopy. Fasting has become one of my spiritual disciplines. A few years ago, before I was your pastor, the medications I had been taking to keep my disease in check simply quit working and it took some time to find the right new medications.
I am not healed from this disease, but I do think that there have been other kinds of healing in my life because I carry this disease. I am very aware of the fears people have of going without health insurance, and of getting health insurance due to pre-existing conditions. I am more aware of the remarkable nature of the human body – its combination of fragility and toughness. I believe the spirit of Jesus has helped such “healing” to happen in my life.
Some of you know that last December Julie and I became grandparents to a little girl named Isabelle. She is our son’s daughter by a woman with whom he is no longer in an on-going relationship. Some of you ask about Isabelle sometimes, and some of you may wonder why I don’t say much about her. The truth is I have only met Isabelle once, last January. The situation is a difficult and challenging one. I sometimes feel disappointed, or angry, and even a bit hopeless and a bit lost. There has been some suffering along the way.
While I cannot offer a neat ending to the story, I know that my relationship with Jesus has helped. There has been some healing for the hurt. There remain rays of hope within. I believe there will be ways forward, even when all seems lost.
I don’t think I am alone this morning with having experiences of hurt, experiences of discouragement bordering on hopelessness, of feeling as if all is lost. The good news today, and every day, is that Jesus is hope, Jesus is healing, Jesus is a way when all seems lost.
And this good news is meant for all. Reading the stories in Mark in their cultural context, Jesus boldly moves into ministry with the marginalized. A woman bleeding was considered unclean in Jesus’ cultural context, so, too, the body of a dead person. Jesus lets himself be touched by this isolated woman, and she is healed. Jesus touched the hand of a dead girl, and she was brought back to life. The good news is for all.
As followers of Jesus, we are not exempt from tough times, from difficult days. Jesus is hope, is healing, is a way when all seems lost. As followers of Jesus, we are not exempt from illness, and one day we will die. Still, Jesus is hope, is healing, is a way when all seems lost. As followers of Jesus, we are not exempt from heartbreak and disappointment. Jesus is hope, is healing, is a way when all seems lost. As followers of Jesus we are not exempt from floods. Jesus is hope, is healing, is a way when all seems lost.
The hope that is Jesus may take a surprising form. The healing that is Jesus may be different than we might expect or pray for. Yet the good news is that Jesus is a way when all seems lost, and this is good news for each and for all. May we receive it with hopeful joy. Amen.