Thursday, December 26, 2013

What Did You Bring?

Sermon preached Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

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

Again, welcome.  It is good to be together again.  It’s been a year since last we gathered here like this.  I don’t mean this as some sort of scolding pastor remark to those I may not have seen since last Christmas.  There is enough of that around in other places.  I genuinely mean that it has been a year since we gathered together as a Christmas community on the Jesus way.  It is good to be together like this.
What did you bring?  It is an interesting question and one that should only be asked in certain contexts.  If you are gathering with friends for a meal or celebration where each person brings something to the feast, it is appropriate to ask, “What did you bring?”  In that case you hope not everyone brought the same thing.  Perhaps you gather with family or friends for a game night, inviting people to bring their favorite game, or a music night, where everyone gets to bring their favorite new music to share.  “What did you bring?” would be a great question in those contexts, too.
Of course, there are awkward times, socially inappropriate times, to ask “What did you bring?”  When you were a child, and you had a birthday party, didn’t you want to ask that of your guests when they arrived?  I remember as a boy wondering how it was people knew about bringing gifts to parties.  It is amazing how much we are just supposed to learn by social convention.  Have you ever been at one of those holiday gatherings where people were supposed to bring a white elephant gift, and most also including something kind of nice, and you didn’t?  Awkward!
So what did you bring?  I am not asking about your offering.  That would be tacky.  What did you bring in your heart tonight?  What did you bring in your soul tonight?
Since last we gathered on Christmas Eve it has been quite a year.  Our daughter Beth graduated from medical school and worked today in the hospital in Rochester, NY where she is a resident.  This past summer I got to drive a U-Haul from St. Paul to Rochester.  Our daughter Sarah is beginning her doctoral studies in physical therapy.  Our son, David is exploring some new avenues in his life.  While traveling this summer Julie, Sarah and I visited the Lucille Ball museum and the Henry Ford museum.  It is probably obvious by now that I am sort of just dumping our family Christmas letter into this sermon.  I’m calling it “efficiency in production.”
But there has been more.  Just after Christmas last year, Julie’s mom, Lois, after struggling with her health all fall, had some kind of significant health episode which led to her being moved into the Solvay Hospice House, where she died on January 5 of this year.  This is our first family Christmas without her.  The world has lost Nelson Mandela, and the Noble-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney.  On an early April morning, our dog Grace died in my arms, and the pain we felt was a reminder of how deeply it is we give our pets a place in our hearts.  Grief has marked our year.
This past year I have had the joy of baptizing a number of babies and children, and for those of you who have been here for some of these, you know what a delight this is for me.  When I was asked to bring to a retreat this fall an object that said something about my joy in ministry one of the things I brought was a picture taken during a baptism, where the child was resting her head on my shoulder.
While baptizing children, I have little else on my mind and heart but the gift of that moment, but sometime during the day, I am also reminded of a child that I will probably never get to hold again.  I have a granddaughter that will turn two next week, Isabelle.  Without getting into a lot of the messy detail, Isabelle’s mom has chosen to raise her without involving us.  We know Isabelle has serious medical issues, but know little else.  After I’ve had the joy and privilege of holding a child being baptized, I often think about the granddaughter I cannot hold.
What did you bring?  I bring all that tonight.  I bring my whole life to this moment, because that’s what Christmas is all about.  Christmas is about bringing everything to the God whose story is all tied up in this birth story.  At the heart of this birth story is this message, stated so eloquently by Frederick Buechner: through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world….  The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it. (The Faces of Jesus, 17).
Something happened at this birth, something special that brings God closer.  Old words are made new.  Words spoken centuries before by the prophet Isaiah came alive.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us….  He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  There shall be endless peace….  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them….  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
Something happened at this birth, something special that brings God closer.  Shepherds came from out of the fields where their work is hard and cold, sometimes dangerous, sometimes dirty and smelly.  Their lives were touched with good news.  Joseph is there, kind of a quiet presence in Luke’s story.  His life will change, as does any father’s life when a child is born, but there will be something more.
Mary is there, weighted with a child, nurturing life.  The story glosses over the messiness of giving birth, the pain, the blood, the fluids, but Mary is there giving birth like countless others before and after.  Yet there are things here which cause her to ponder in her heart.
There is a beautiful brief poem about Mary that I have come to love:
Nazareth    Rosario Castellanos
Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chose vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

            All these are met by God in a special way through the child Jesus.  The shepherds return to work, but they are changed.  The work remains the same, but they are different.  Joseph’s life is changed, as any father’s life is, but this child’s birth has already haunted his dreams and I think that will continue.  God will speak through those dreams.  Mary, giving birth, Mary, pondering so many things in her heart – Mary will be both fragile and strong.  The God who is present at this birth will give her the strength and capacity to see this child through, even to his death.  Shepherds, Joseph, Mary – each brought themselves.  Each was met by God in Jesus.  Each experienced something of God’s life-giving power.  Their world was now different.  The entire world was now different.  God is present in the world in a new way.
            Through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world.  If you are willing to risk bringing the whole of yourself to this story, and to the God whose story is all tied-up in this story, there remains life-giving power here.  There is beauty in this story which can change the way we see the world.  Bringing our whole selves, we may never see the world just the same again.  There is wonder in this story to set our minds aflame.  In a world darkened by cynicism and despair, when we bring our whole selves to this story, we can nourish a hope as deep as the shepherds, trusting that God still works to bring good news of great joy.  There is mystery in this story.  Birth is a pretty common thing.  There are over seven billion of us on the planet now.  Why does this birth continue to capture our imaginations, continue to inspire our pondering?  I can’t say, exactly, but when we allow ourselves the opportunity to ponder deeply, as Mary pondered, when we bring our whole selves to this story, we may also find the capacity to bring something of God to birth in the world.  There is joy in this story.  When we bring our whole selves to this story, we can find a joy that is a deep strength for our lives, even when life disappoints and hurts.  There is new life in this story, and bringing our whole selves to it, we too can find new beginnings, new beginnings sown in love.
Through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world.  If you are willing to risk bringing the whole of yourself to this story, and to the God whose story is all tied-up in this story, there remains life-giving power here.  There is healing here for our broken lives through beauty, wonder, mystery, joy, love.  There is hope here for our broken world.  In the winter of 1993 in Serbia, during a bleak time in its history, the poet Jane Kenyon wrote a poem entitled “Mosaic of the Nativity.”  It ends with these lines.  and inside her the mind/of Christ, cloaked in blood,/lodges and begins to grow.  History remains soaked in blood, but the mind of Christ is not absent.  It can grow in you and in me and in the world.
What did you bring?  What has your life been like this past year, these past few months?  I know there has been joy and beauty and wonder and mystery, and heartache and pain and disappointment and struggle.  Are you willing to bring your whole self tonight?  Are you willing to risk bringing your whole life to the God who continues to find ways into our world, to love us, to heal us, to change us?
The writer Annie Dillard reflects on visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the place where tradition has it that Jesus was born – “one of the queerest spots on earth” she writes.  Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto.  The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver star impressed me.  The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains… the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance –bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put up with.  And why should he not?  Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.  Yet Dillard is not finished with her reflection.  “Every day,” said Rabbi Nachman… “the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”
What did you bring?  Did you think you could only bring your cheeriest self, your most polished self, your best-dressed self today, tonight?  Did you think this story is only sweetness and light so that all you could bring was sweetness and light?  The world is a difficult place – wonderful, beautiful, painful, destructive, and God did not leave us alone, but joined us in Jesus.  Our lives are messy, complicated, filled with delight and beauty and more than pain enough, and God does not leave us alone.

But to know this life-giving power, we have to bring something, the whole of who we are.  What did you bring today, tonight?  Amen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Making Waves Not Splashes, Walking Lightly II

Sermon preached December 15, 2013

Texts: Matthew 11:2-11; Luke 1:46-55

            During my college years, there was a time when I was very interested in Buddhism.  I know, it is the Christmas season, so starting with Buddhism is a little strange, but hang in there with me.
            The form of Buddhism that was especially interesting to me was Zen Buddhism, and I recall, in particular one phrase from a Zen text (Zenrin) that was part of a book entitled The Gospel According to Zen: Entering the water he makes no splash.  There is something attractive in that image.  For a time there were probably some who thought I might shave my head and spend some time in a Zen monastery.  It never happened, though I guess my head kind of shaved itself.
            Anyway, hold on to that image for a moment – entering the water he makes no splash.
            Our theme for Advent, or for the two Sundays I am preaching in Advent, is walking as a child of the light, living in the light of God’s love as we see it in Jesus.  Words are my sandbox, my paint pallet, and so I love to play with them.  I took the image of walking in the light and shifted it to walking lightly.  Two weeks ago I preached about walking lightly in our personal lives.  Today I want to preach about walking lightly in a more social way.  What might it mean to follow Jesus as social beings, as citizens?
            And when I hear the phrase “walking lightly,” it brings back that image from the Zen text – “entering the water he makes no splash.”  To follow Jesus in our social lives has a lot to do with walking lightly, with entering the water and making no splash.
            First a quick word about the social world in which we live, and for that I turn to the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.  Not long ago I quoted a well-known line from one of Heaney’s poems.  The line was: “But then, once in a lifetime/the longed-for tidal wave/of justice can rise up,/and hope and history rhyme.”  It is a beautiful line, but that poem begins in a very different place:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.

That is part of the reality of the world in which we live.  In North Korea, the nation’s leader had his own uncle executed for sedition.  Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut and almost surreally, as that story was being told, the news stations cut away to report on a school shooting in Colorado.  Human beings suffer – they suffer hunger, injustice, grief.  We torture one another – sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally.  We get hurt.  Our hearts harden.  This is not the whole of our world, but we cannot ignore it either.
            How do we follow Jesus in this world?  Walking lightly.  Entering the water, making no splash.
            One of the commitments we can make in following Jesus, in trying to live out God’s dream for the world – a dream of peace, justice, caring, reconciliation and love, one of the commitments we can make is to do no harm and to try and heal the harm we encounter.
            As we read the passage from Matthew, we cannot help but be struck by all the images of healing.  Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  When the light of the love of Jesus is present, healing happens.  Harm is not done, and it is undone in a manner of speaking.
            A few years ago, retired United Methodist Bishop Rueben Job wrote a slim volume entitled Three Simple Rules: a Wesleyan Way of Living.  John Wesley is one of the primary persons to whom the United Methodist trace our stream in the Christian tradition.  The first simple rule, according to Bishop Job was “do no harm.”
            Entering the water, we make no splash, following Jesus we walk lightly, we seek to do no harm.  This is not a simple matter.  Is it possible to live in this complex and violent world without doing harm?  Are we supposed to turn the other cheek to those who distort the truth by selective use of the facts of any given situation?  Is it wise to do no harm to those who seek to harm us, our future, our reputation?  Are we able to limit our response to a way that is not destructive to those who us false and violent words that seek to harm and destroy us?  Is it possible to speak the truth in love and gentleness when others seem to speak partial truth in anger and hatred? (27)  Bishop Job poses these questions for us to wrestle with.  They do not have easy answers, but we cannot avoid these questions.  Bishop Job: It is a challenging path to walk. Yet, even a casual reading of the gospel suggests that Jesus taught and practices a way of living that did no harm. (27)  Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 
            Walking lightly, following Jesus in the wider world means grappling with how we do no harm, and how we work to heal harm done. It truly is walking lightly, making no splash.
            Human beings suffer – and here is a real kicker, we cannot prevent nor undo all the suffering that human beings undergo, or at least undo it all quickly.  There is the suffering of our bodies, some of which is inherent in the human condition.  There are structural injustices that take a long time to change, and while we work to change them we cannot ignore that suffering continues.
            Go tell John what you hear and see:… the poor have good news brought to them.  Part of the good news that the suffering have shared with them is that they are not alone.  To follow Jesus, to walk lightly, is to stand with those who are hurting and suffering in their pain.  Listen again to the words we read together as Advent candles were lighted: The joy of the Risen Christ is not going to make us insensitive to the suffering of other people.  On the contrary, it can make us even more sensitive, and we will be able both to carry this great joy within us and to enter profoundly into the distress and suffering of our neighbor at the same time.  There is no contradiction: joy is not opposed to compassion…. Joy nourishes compassion. (Brother Roger of Taize)
            Walking lightly in the Spirit of Jesus means being willing and able to do the hard work of being with those who are hurting in their pain and suffering.  Entering the water, we make no splash.
            Thus far I have been able to carry forward with the images of walking lightly, and entering the water without making a splash, as ways to talk about following Jesus in our social lives, as citizens.  But here is where I need to stretch a little more, because following Jesus in the wider world cannot always be so placid.  Human beings suffer.  They torture one another.  They get hurt and they get hard.  We seek to do no harm, or as little harm as possible.  We seek to heal hurts.  We will stand with the hurting and suffering.  We are also called to prevent harm, to work against harm, to right wrongs when we can, to challenge social arrangements which perpetuate injustice and cause suffering.
            Walking lightly we may not need to make a splash, but we sometimes need to make waves.  There are few more wave-making texts in the New Testament than the Song of Mary from Luke 1.  [God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  Yes, that makes some waves all right. 
Among the areas where I think we, as followers of Jesus, need to be making some waves in our day and time are on issues related to the environment and to the economy.  Are our primary means of creating good paying jobs as a global economy ways that are destructive of our environment, ways that produce short-term gain but contribute to long-term planetary degradation?  Can’t we be more creative? 
In the United States, our economic gains seem to be accruing to those who are doing the best.  There is solid documentation of the continuing growth of economic inequality in our country.  In the most recent issue of The Atlantic (December 2013, 26-29) there was a report on business leaders concerned for how global capitalism is functioning.  Fear that the market economy has become dysfunctional… is being publically expressed, with increasing frequency, by some of the people who occupy the commanding heights of the global economy.  The article quoted a former head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management: “Some people say income inequality doesn’t matter.  I disagree.  We are creating a situation in which only the elite of the elite can be successful – and that is not sustainable.”  Add to this an argument put forward recently in The New Yorker (December 2, 2013, Jill Lepore, p. 79): One well-established fact is that polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality.  The smaller the gap between rich and poor, the more moderate our politicians; the greater the gap, the greater disagreement between liberals and conservatives.
[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.   Following Jesus, walking lightly may mean making some waves.
I cannot finish this morning’s reflection on following Jesus in the wider world, on walking lightly, without a word about Nelson Mandela.  The world recently lost a remarkable person and leader when Nelson Mandela died December 5.  Among the iconic images in my lifetime is the image of Mandela being released from prison in 1990.  At the time I was working on my doctorate, and I wrote my dissertation on Christian faith and political democracy.  Mandela’s release and subsequent election were powerful symbols of democracy.  What made Mandela so remarkable was his ability to move forward.  Here was a man who had been imprisoned for twenty-seven years. When he became president of South Africa, he did not turn around and seek retribution against those who had imprisoned him.  He walked lightly, walked in the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He made waves, but maybe not splashes.  Another iconic image from Mandela’s life was when South Africa won the world cup in rugby, a white man’s sport in South Africa, and Mandela donned the green shirt supporting the team.
In his book reflecting on South Africa and on social dimensions of Christian faith, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote words that speak of Mandela, but that also speak powerfully to us all about walking lightly in Jesus in the world.
Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods.  Social harmony is for us the… greatest good.  Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague.  Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good.…  What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me.  [Forgiveness] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. (No Future Without Forgiveness, 31)

May God grant us grace that we may walk in the power of the Spirit of Jesus, walk as people of the light, walk lightly – minimizing harm and healing, walking with the suffering, making waves of love, justice, peace and reconciliation.  Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Walking Lightly

Sermon preached First Sunday in Advent December 1, 2013

Texts: Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 26:36-44

We have entered new seasons.  In the church we are beginning the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas.  In the wider culture we are in what we generically call the holiday season.  One reflection: Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall. We traditionally do this in my family by driving around the parking lot until we see a shopper emerge from the mall, then we follow her, in very much the same spirit as the Three Wise Men, who 2,000 years ago followed a star, week after week, until it led them to a parking space. (Dave Barry, humor columnist)
Thursday night following dinner our family sat down together to watch a little television.  We had already seen most of two football games, so we were looking for something else.  I thought I had stumbled across a new episode of “The Twilight Zone” on ME-tv, until I realized that Lady Gaga and the Muppets really did have a “holiday special.”
Friday morning on the Weather Channel, they were interviewing shoppers who were out early on “Black Friday.”  One woman interviewed said, “I live for this day.”
That is a powerful statement, “I live for this day.”  This expectancy shapes her life.  She takes the day off from work each year and probably has certain things she does to prepare herself for black Friday.
Advent is a season of expectancy in the church.  It is intended to be a season of watchfulness and self-reflection.  It is a good season for asking what we live for.  It is a good season to ask about how we want to live our lives.  What we expect shapes how we live.
One way we in the church have talked about what we expect at Advent is to use the image of light.  Jesus coming into the world was described this way in the Gospel of John: What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  In Advent we proclaim that light entered the world in a unique way in Jesus, and that this Jesus light will shine even more brightly at some time to come.  “The night is far gone, the day is near,” in the words of Romans.
In expectancy, we are invited to live differently.  “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  Later we will sing “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  That’s a wonderful Advent song, and our theme for Advent this year.  What might it mean to walk as a child of the light, to walk lightly?  Today I am going to suggest some aspects of that for our personal lives.  December 15 I am going to suggest some aspects of that for our social lives, for our world.
Walking lightly then.
Walking lightly has to do with watchfulness, attentiveness, mindfulness.  One of the things light helps us do is see better.  I had to hold a can nearer the light the other day to discover that the chicken broth I was going to open was dated 2008.  Thankfully I caught that before it became part of our stuffing.  Walking lightly, following Jesus who we call the light of the world, means to pay attention, to be watchful.  “Keep awake”, the writer of Matthew’s gospel enjoins us.
Walking lightly means we are attentive to the full spectrum of the world.  We take time to appreciate beauty and goodness.  We make time for wonder and awe.  We keep our eyes open, as well, to the tragedy and hurt and pain and suffering in the world.  Beauty and goodness remind us that God’s grace remains powerful in our world, breaking in often.  Seeing the suffering in the world attunes us to the voice of the Spirit which invites us to work with God in response to suffering, to walk lightly with God in healing the world.
In one of his writings, the Greek philosopher Parmenides, has a goddess call out, “It is necessary, however, for you to experience everything” (Heidegger, Four Seminars, 96)  I think this is a call to us as we seek to walk lightly, a call to openness, attentiveness, wakefulness.
Walking lightly has to do with developing character.  Character attends to the whole person.  It asks what sorts of people we are becoming through our actions and relations with others….  Our actions and relations become habits that gradually shape the stable personal core we call “character.” (William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 13)  Walking lightly has to do with working with God to shape our lives so that the light of Jesus shines in them and through them more brightly.
There is a wonderful story that comes from Native American traditions.  One evening an elder shared this story with his grandson.  “My son, in each person there are two wolves that struggle with each other.  One wolf is the wolf of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other wolf is the wolf of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”  The grandson pondered the story for a while then asked, “Which wolf wins?  The grandfather replied, “The one that you feed.”
Walking lightly means feeding the right wolf through things like worship, prayer, meditation, acts of kindness, generosity and beauty.  “Let us live honorably as in the day.”
Walking lightly has something to do with growing.  Two quick quotes.  Faith is a dynamic process, close to the center of the self, that continually works to enable us to deal with the challenges and changes life presents us (James Fowler, Faithful Change, 67)  It’s our purpose to grow as human beings, to look within ourselves,  to find and build upon that source of peace and understanding and strength that is our individual self (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross quoted in Leo Buscaglia, Living, Loving, and Learning, 217).
If we are paying attention to all that is going on in the world and in our own lives, if we are seeking to shape our character in tune with God’s Spirit, then how can walking lightly be anything other than a constant process of growing?  Walking lightly means growing for the whole of our lives, learning, shaping, being shaped.  Faith isn’t primarily about learning certain creedal statements which we can recite back at a moment’s notice.  Faith is about weaving and reweaving our Christian tradition into the whole of our lives as we meet new challenges in our living.
Walking lightly is about love.  Just before the verses we read in Romans, we find these words: Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8, 10).  When we see beauty, goodness, tenderness there is love.  When we see hurt and pain and suffering, there is often an absence of love.  The character we are seeking to form in our souls is a character rooted in love.  Our growth as followers of Jesus is meant to be growth in love.
Walking lightly is about attentiveness.  It is about character.  It is about growth.  It is about love.  If all this sounds kind of complicated, it is.  Too simple an idea of what it means to be a follower of Jesus does not do justice to the world we live in.  It does not do justice to the richness of our experience or the richness of our sacred texts.
One final image.  I like the play on words in this phrase, “walking lightly.”  I also like that is suggests the Christian life is moving and dynamic.  Walking lightly suggests dance, and I am reminded for Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Matthew 11:28f.  There Jesus offers this invitation: Are you tired?  Worn out? Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life….  Walk with me.  Work with me – watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

This Advent, let’s walk lightly to those unforced rhythms of grace.  Let’s dance lightly to those unforced rhythms of grace.  Amen.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Jesus Who

Texts: Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 1:68-79

            The internet is fascinating.  It has changed much about our lives and our world in both helpful and perhaps unhelpful ways.  Some wonder what the effect may be on memory now that we can look so many things up instantaneously.  The other day I was wondering what the name of the actress was who played the talented young singer in Mr. Holland’s Opus, and what the television series was that she later starred in.  There’s you challenge for you with smart phones.  Let me know when you have the answer (Jean Louisa Kelly – “Yes Dear”).
            So I saw this story on the internet this week.  At an Applebee’s restaurant, a person who had eaten with a larger group, and was thus charged an 18% gratuity, scratched off the tip and wrote “I give God 10%, why do you get 18” and then signed the receipt, Pastor _________.  The server posted the receipt on-line, the pastor complained.  The server has been fired for breaching privacy and the pastor has apologized.  It does make me want to ask about the kind of Jesus this pastor follows.  Jesus who?
            Also on the internet this week I discovered a sermon excerpt.  Much of the hate and discord that has been poisoning our nation has been preached in the name of Christ and the church.  This sermon was preached in Dallas, Texas in a Methodist Church on the Sunday following the assassination of President John Kennedy fifty years ago (November 22, 1963/November 24, 1963 – Rev. Charles V. Denman, Wesley Methodist Church).  The words still have relevance, and they make me ask, “Jesus who?”
            A few weeks ago, I posted on my blog some reflections on being an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.  In part I wrote about the unique situation of the church today, and how, though some have compared our situation with the First Century, I don’t think that comparison holds up very well.  After all there are Christians in powerful places and doing some powerful things and the example I used was Hobby Lobby suing the federal government arguing that providing contraceptive health coverage for female employees violates the Christian values of the store and its owner.  It was not the main point of my reflection, but I received this response: "contraceptive health coverage" = abortion and abortifacients. You, David have a gift of communication, it's too bad it's wasted on politics and social engineering instead of preaching the Good News of the Gospel and the saving power of faith in Jesus.  The respondent is someone I know.  I was the pastor to this person’s parents in another place.
            I happen to disagree with my respondent’s view that all contraception is abortion, but I also think the criticism misses the point of disagreement between us.  We disagree on the question of “Jesus who?”
            Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year before the beginning of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas.  Traditionally it is known as the Sunday of Christ the King.  It is a Sunday to focus in a unique way on Jesus.  It is a Sunday to remind ourselves that Jesus is at the heart and soul of Christian faith and life.  No Jesus, no Christian faith.  On that every Christian would agree.
            But the question then becomes, “Jesus who?”  And that question matters profoundly.  Theologian and biblical scholar Marcus Borg puts it well.  There is a strong connection between images of Jesus and images of the Christian life, between how we think of Jesus and how we think of the Christian life.  Our image of Jesus affects our perception of the Christian life in two ways; it gives shape to the Christian life; and… it can make Christianity credible or incredible. (Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, 1-2)
            How might we answer the question, “Jesus who?”
            This morning’s invitation to worship provides one answer.  He was a man's man, but we feminized him in the church ... He was a tough guy and that's the Jesus that I want to be like. That's the side that I want to be like. But we've feminized Jesus in the church and the men can't identify with him anymore; not the kind of men that I want to hang out with, they can't identify with this effeminate Jesus that we've tried to portray. He was a tough guy. He was a man's man. (Jerry Boykin)
            Does focusing on masculinity, and importing a certain idea of masculinity into a picture of Jesus get at the heart of the Jesus who is at the heart of the Christian faith and life?  How do women get to follow Jesus the tough guy?
            Some answers to the question of “Jesus who?” focus on Jesus’ death.  Jesus’ death is significant, but too often that death is disconnected from Jesus the teacher, and healer, and welcoming presence.  Too often Jesus’ death is disconnected from history.  The Romans used crucifixion as a method of execution for those they considered politically subversive.  That matters, I think.  If we only focus on the death of Jesus in answering the question of “Jesus who?” I think we miss the richness of his life as given in the Gospels.
            Today is Christ the King Sunday and we are going to sing later “Crown Him With Many Crowns” – a very stately song.  And sometimes in answering the question of “Jesus who?” we have focused on this magisterial Jesus, but imported our ideas of royalty into the picture.  We make Jesus a new Caesar, with thrones and dominion and ruling power, as in the language in Colossians.  Yet we should not forget that at least part of the function of the language of King and Lord being used for Jesus was to put him in contrast with the Roman Caesars.  Jesus is not intended to be a different Caesar, but stands for a different kind of ordering of life altogether.  Our understanding of Jesus as king needs to fit with these words of Jesus from Luke 22: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority are called benefactors.  But not so with you….  I am among you as one who serves.
            There are more adequate ways to answer the question, “Jesus who?”
            Jesus is the one who shows us the character of God.  He is the image of the invisible God….  In him was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell  And what does Jesus reveal about the character of God?  A very good, succinct answer can be found in one of Charles Wesley’s hymns: Jesus thou art all compassion.  Pure unbounded love thou art. (Schubert Ogden, The Understanding of Christian Faith, 28).  The character of God shines through the character of Jesus – pure, unbounded love.
            Jesus is one who transforms our lives, who moves us, whose presence in our lives changes us.  We have been “rescued from the power of darkness.”  We have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  We are reconciled.  I appreciate the language Eugene Peterson uses in his Message version of the Colossians text.  So spacious is he [Jesus], so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.  Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies.
            I had a conversation this week about church with someone and in that conversation she said, “Isn’t it really about being a good person?”  And the person who said this really is a good person and we did not have time for a longer conversation.  Christian faith, isn’t it really about being a good person?  Yes, but only if we have a rich enough idea of what that means.  I think I would say it’s about goodness and graciousness.  Jesus wants to bring out our goodness, but God’s pure, unbounded love is there before anything we do and cannot be lost because of anything we do.  If it’s just about being good, I know some folks who are always comparing their goodness with others, and that’s not the point.  That easily leads to self-righteousness.  Jesus is about bringing out our goodness, but also offering forgiveness when we mess up, and offering healing for those broken places, places we sometimes try to hide when we think it is all about being good.  Our goodness is rooted in the graciousness of God and our goodness should always be mixed with graciousness towards others.
            My last “Jesus who” for this morning.  Jesus is one who guides “our feet into the way of peace.”  There is a social side to the Jesus way.  It is not just about our personal relationship with God through Jesus, though it is importantly about that.  God in Jesus invites us into a way, a way that sometimes challenges the way the world works.  The way of Jesus is a way of peace, of caring for the poor, of welcoming the outcasts, of healing the hurts of the world and trying to prevent further hurts.  We can disagree about exactly what the Jesus way means for our politics and social arrangements, but someone would be hard pressed to say that the Jesus way has nothing to do with the larger social world.
            In his rich and thought-provoking book about Jesus, The Human Being, theologian and biblical scholar Walter Wink writes: My deepest interest in encountering Jesus is not to confirm my own prejudices… but to be delivered from a stunted soul, a limited mind, and an unjust social order (16).
            My friend who wrote about my disinterest in Jesus and faith in Jesus is wrong about me.  I am pretty wild about this Jesus.
Ø  I am pretty wild about this Jesus who delivers me from a stunted soul, from the power of darkness.

Ø  I am pretty wild about this Jesus who delivers me from a limited mind, and who is always teaching me about this God who is pure, unbounded love.

Ø  I am pretty wild about this Jesus who teaches me about goodness, who enriches my understanding of being good, and how being good means also being gracious.

Ø  I am pretty wild about this Jesus who offers my life space and grace and forgiveness.

Ø  I am pretty wild about this Jesus who takes all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – and fixes and fits them together in vibrant harmonies.  Some of those broken pieces are the broken pieces of my own life.

Ø  I am pretty wild about this Jesus who seeks to guide my feet in the way of peace, justice, reconciliation and love.

I am pretty wild about this Jesus who, and I invite you to be wild about this Jesus who too.  Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

God the Scarecrow

Sermon Preached November 17, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

            “If I Only Had a Brain”:
I could wile away the hours
Conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain
And my head I’d be scratchin’
While my thoughts are busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain

Oh I could tell you why
The ocean’s near the shore
I could think of things I never thunk before
And then I’d sit and think some more

            When I was a child, there were certain annual television events that we anticipated.  There was the “Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin Halloween Special.”  There was the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” from which I still love the music.  There was “Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer,” narrated by Burl Ives.  And once a year, one of the three television networks would broadcast “The Wizard of Oz.”  In our day and age of streaming movies and Net Flix, it seems strange to think that people would wait a year to see a movie or show, but that’s the way it was then.
            If you were watching the Wizard of Oz with theological eyes, I would guess that for many people the Wizard of Oz himself, that stern, disembodied, rather frightful image might capture something of one’s image of God.  God is Spirit, that seems to fit.  God is often portrayed in human discourse as stern, demanding obedience – “Silence.”  There may be some kindness there, but you have to get beyond a lot of fear first.  I think there are a lot of people alienated from the church because that is just how the church has sometimes described God.
            I think there is a better image of God in “The Wizard of Oz” and my sermon title leaves little room for wondering who I think it is – “God the Scarecrow.”  I don’t mean the Scarecrow who sings, “If I Only Had a Brain.”  I am thinking of another image of the Scarecrow from the movie.  I will let you know which one in just a bit.
            But I want to get to that image of God the Scarecrow through our Scripture readings for this morning.
            God is up to something.  That is a clear message in Isaiah 65.  God is up to something.  For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth….  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.
            God is up to something in the world, and this is the direction of that new creating.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard… or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be… an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live our a lifetime….  They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit….  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox….  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
            Don’t you just want to say, “Yes!”  This passage reminds me of part of a Seamus Heaney poem (Chorus in Philoctetes):
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

            God is at work creating a tidal wave of justice.  God is at work creating a newer world where hope and history rhyme.  God is at work toward a world of peace, reconciliation, beauty, harmony, care, tenderness, wholeness for all, a world where all are safe and all have enough.
            And God is doing this work in the midst of our world - our volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world.  Part of the world we live in is well-described by Jesus in Luke 21.  We live in a world of wars and insurrections.  “Nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
            It is important to read Isaiah and Luke together, and to think of this as the on-going work of God in the world, not simply as words meant for some future time.  The world is just like the world described by Jesus sometimes.  All we need to do is read the newspapers.  But it is in that very world that God continues to work toward a newer world.  In the midst of this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, God is creating a newer world, a new heaven and a new earth.
            And, and… God invites us along.  That’s where God is like the Scarecrow.  With the sight of the Emerald City in the distance, the Scarecrow leads the way, running.  “Come on.  Come on.”  []  And that’s just what God does in our lives.  “There is a horizon where hope and history rhyme.  I am creating a newer world.  Come on.  Come on.”
            I think of a Robert Frost poem, “The Pasture”
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I amy):
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother.  It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.

            Here is the good news of the Christian faith.  God remains at work raking the leaves of the older world away, in tenderness caring for all creation, creating a newer world where hope and history rhyme.  Like the Scarecrow God is out ahead of us, waving God’s arms, “Come on.  Come on.  You come too.”  And that means you and you and you and you, and every “you.”

            But there is more good news.  This newer world that we are invited to journey with God toward is a reality where not only is the world made new, but we are, too.  In God’s newer world we find for our own lives heart, courage, our right mind, the way home.  In fact, we begin to discover these on the journey itself.  That’s the promise of the Christian faith.  That’s the adventure of the Jesus way.  God is waving, God’s arms beckoning us forward to a newer life, a newer world.  God continues to create.  You come too.  Amen.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Some Splaining To Do

Sermon preached November 10, 2013

Texts: Luke 19:1-10

            “I Love Lucy” theme:
            How many of you over 40 knew that song?  How many of you under 40?  How many did not want to raise their hand because it might give away their age?
            This summer, on our way back from visiting our daughter in Rochester, New York, we took the long way back and stopped at the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz museum in Jamestown, New York, Lucy’s hometown.  Lucille Ball had a remarkable television career.  “I Love Lucy” was on the air from 1951-1957 when it morphed into “Lucy and Desi Comedy Hour” which was on the air until 1960.  These shows were followed by “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy” so that Lucille Ball was an on-going presence on television for twenty-three years.  Twenty-three years!  Remarkable.  These were different times but I tried to think of a contemporary actress who has had that kind of staying power.  One candidate might be Jennifer Aniston who was on “Friends” for ten years beginning in 1994, and has certainly been in the spotlight since.  Just this week we heard that she has a new hair style!  It seems these days Jennifer Aniston is known as much for being Jennifer Aniston as she is for her acting.  That has something to do with the different times we live in – not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, just different.
            When Lucille Ball was doing “I Love Lucy”, her show shared a theme with countless other situation comedies – they were set in family life.  “I Love Lucy” was on with “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” Leave It To Beaver.”  Lucy’s family dynamic was unique, though, in that her husband played a role not unlike his real life persona – Desi Arnaz played a Cuban band leader, Ricky Ricardo.  By the way, it is easy to forget that during this show, Cuba had not yet become a communist country under Castro.  Some of the humor played on Desi’s accent.  A famous line from the show, when Lucy had made a mess of something was: “Lucy, you got some splaining to do.”
            Rewind even further back, to Roman occupied Palestine.  This is a time before tweeting, Facebook, text messages, television, even before radio or telegraph.  For ordinary people in the harsh economy of Rome, there probably was not a lot of time for entertainment anyway.  Yet people enjoyed stories.  They enjoyed debates.  Debates could be about serious issues, to be sure, but there might also be a certain entertainment value in them.
            In the Jewish community of Jesus day in Roman occupied Palestine, there were some vigorous debates about religious matters, with differing groups taking differing positions.  Sadducess were part of the Jewish aristocracy, part of the priestly class.  The Sadducess religious views were distinct in two ways.  They accepted only the Torah, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, as Scripture, whereas most of the Jews of Jesus time also accepted the prophets and the writings.  The other issue which made them distinct was their rejection of an afterlife.  They did not believe in a resurrection of the dead.
            Jesus, apparently did, along with the Pharisees, who are so often at odds with Jesus in other places in the Gospels.  But what kind of absurd belief is this, contended the Sadducees, and they set up a Scriptural test case.  A woman marries a man, the oldest of seven brothers.  The man dies.  According to the Jewish practice of the time, if a man dies before his wife conceives an heir, then his brother is to take her as his wife and conceive a child who will be treated as the older brother’s heir.  Marriage in that day was less about romance than about property and heirs.  In the case set up by the Sadducees, though, all seven brothers die.  Then the woman dies.  The question they pose is this: In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?  Jesus, you got some splaining to do.
            Jesus responds brilliantly.  They think that resurrection life is just some kind of continuation of this life, but it is not.  “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  Jesus shifts the whole premise of their question.  He does even more, but I take that up in a moment.
            Eugene Peterson in The Message renders some of Jesus’ words this way.  “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there….  They have better things to think about, if you can believe it.  All ecstasies and intimacies will be with God.”
            But wait!  Jesus, you got some splaining to do, not to the Sadducees, but to us.  How often when we come together to mourn our dead, to grieve our losses do we take comfort in the idea that in the afterlife our loved ones will be reunited with each other, and one day we will join them.  Is Jesus here taking that away?  Is he dashing that hope?  Jesus you got some splaining to do.
            I don’t think that is what Jesus is up to.  The Sadducees are not really asking a serious question.  They are asking a rhetorical question, thinking that they will have stumped Jesus.  Jesus responds brilliantly by digging deeper.  You don’t even understand the question you ask, and perhaps not even the God about whom you ask it.  Speculation about resurrection and the afterlife is o.k. and I don’t think Jesus is really making a very serious statement about how we might relate to others after death.  His concern is elsewhere.  “God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.”
            What is brilliant about Jesus response is that he takes a rhetorical question and turns it into an existential question, that is a question about who we are going to be and how we are going to live now.  Are you alive in God now?
            Religious questions are wonderful and always welcome here.  A strong faith is a faith strong enough to ask questions.  At the end of the day, however, the question we each need to answer is who we are going to be and how we are going to live now.  It is who we are going to be and how we are going to live toward God, God’s love for us, God’s work in the world.  The Sadducees, at least in this story in Luke, wanted to major in minors and Jesus won’t let them.
            So what does life alive to God look like?  What does it mean to have all our ecstasies and intimacies rooted in God?  There are all kinds of places in the Bible we could go for an answer.  We could look at the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7.  We could look to I Corinthians 13, where we are told that faith, hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love.  We could look to Romans 12 and its description of life transformed by the renewing of our minds.  We could look to Galatians 5 and its list of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  A few years ago, I proposed using five words to describe what life alive to God might look like: joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  Being alive in God should have joy to it, not a shallow smile slapped across the lips but a deep sense that one is loved and a deep appreciation for the beauty in the world.  Being alive in God should mean that we can be more honest, authentic and genuine in our lives.  Begin alive in God means being gentle – learning the strong art of forgiveness, being gentle on the earth.  Being alive in God means being generous, generous with our resources, but also generous in spirit.  Being alive in God is to know that God is at work toward a newer world, at work toward inner and outer transformation, at work toward a world of justice and shalom and that work of God in the world is our to share with God and with each other.
            The crucial question we need to ask ourselves often is how alive we are in God.  The Jesus way is the way of being alive in God now, then trusting God with our lives when this life ends.
            This focus on being alive in God that Jesus is putting forward in his discussion with the Sadducees does, though, have some implications for the topic the Sadducees begin with – marriage.  Being alive in God becomes a criterion to evaluate our lives, our relationships and our institutions.  While the focus of Jesus in this story is not on the afterlife nor on marriage, he does, in a quiet way offer a cautionary word about marriage and families.
            Now I have some splaining to do.  I am a family person.  I cherish my family.  My family has helped me be more alive to God in wonderful ways.  I want our church to be a family-caring, family-nurturing place.  But the church, by which I mean the Christian church through history, and maybe especially in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries has sometimes made an idol out of families.  In a recent blog post on the Christian magazine Sojourners site, a single woman wrote about “the isolating power of family-centered language” (Emily Dause, 10-21-2013  I am 27, single, and my father has passed away.  It seems everywhere I turn in the Christian world… I am excluded, because I am not part of a family.  A pastor comments excitedly on the number of new families joining his church.  If I joined, would my membership be valuable?  Respected Christian leaders urge us to support “family values.”  Are values really tied to family units, or can I have values, too?...  A church bulletin asks me to bring enough food for my family to the church gathering.  Am I even invited in the first place?
            The writer understands that most of those who speak in such ways mean well, but good intentions alone are not sufficient.  The Church of Jesus Christ, concerned as Jesus is with being alive in God, needs to acknowledge that sometimes we have made an idol out of families, particularly families of a certain kind.  The Church of Jesus Christ, concerned as Jesus is with being alive in God, needs to say that marriage matters, all marriage; that families matter, but families of all kinds; and that persons who may not see themselves in a family matter.  What matters most is being alive in God, and that possibility is open to us all by God’s grace – open to us all: single, married, widowed, divorced, gay, straight.

            And one of the remarkable things this God of Jesus Christ does in our lives as we seek to be more alive in God, as we seek to be people of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice, one of the remarkable things this God of Jesus Christ does is create something like an extended family.  And here we are, trying together to be more alive to God.  Amen. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Give Me a Boost

Sermon preached November 3, 2013
Texts: Luke 19:1-10

            Many of you know that my family and I lived for seven years in Dallas, Texas.  Our daughter Sarah was born there.  She is a Texan by birth.  These days when the Vikings play the Cowboys are difficult for our son, David.  He grew up a Cowboy’s fan.
            When we lived in Dallas we lived in a townhouse apartment in a complex of such apartments.  Over the years we had various neighbors.  One who lived next door to us for a few years was a man, a large man.  He lived there with his wife and two children.  Jerry was his name.  Jerry looked like he could have played linebacker for the Cowboys.  He was that big a man.  Jerry often seemed to have some issues with his car, and thus was often working on this or that in the parking lot behind our apartments.
            One day as I was walking out to our car, I heard Jerry say, “Dave, Dave, come give me a boost.”  Now in my upper Midwest understanding, giving somebody a boost meant helping them climb something, maybe putting your hands together and lifting them up.  “Dave, Dave, come give me a boost.”  The thought of lifting Jerry up anyplace was absurd.  He was a really big guy.  Thankfully, my jaw did not drop nor my eyes squinch before the context made his request clear.  He wanted me to use some jumper cables to help him get his car started.
            Zacchaeus was not a Jerry sized guy.  He wasn’t playing linebacker for anybody.  But Zacchaeus needed some help.  He needed to get higher, to get elevated.  Did he need a boost to get up into the sycamore tree?  The story doesn’t indicate that, but he sure needed to get up into that tree to see Jesus.
            Sometimes we need a boost to get a better look at Jesus.  Sometimes we need a little help from our friends if we are to move forward in our lives, if we are to live the Jesus way more adequately.  Sometimes we need someone to be a tree branch for us.  That may not be the most flattering image, unless you know the story of St. Kevin.  St. Kevin is an Irish saint, who was praying in his tiny, narrow monastic cell with his arm stretched out a window when a bird came and landed in his hand.  Seamus Heaney tells the story in his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird.”

Kevin feels that warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws, and finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Don’t we need people who can hold us up until something in us is hatched and fledged and flown, something of our spirit?
            All Saint’s Sunday is about celebrating those people who give us a boost so we can see Jesus a little bit better, so we can hear him a little more clearly, so we can follow him a little more nearly.  There’s almost a song here!  All Saint’s Sunday is about remembering and celebrating those who have held us until something essential about us is hatched and fledged and flown.  Today we remember and celebrate those who have seen us as beloved people of God, those who have helped form us in faith, who have encouraged us along the Jesus way.  While it is often those who have  moved on from this life that we pay special attention to, this is a day for all those who have been saints for us, all those who have given us a boost, all those who have held us in the sun and rain of life.
            For many of us it is a day to remember family - grandparents or parents.  My mom is here today and she is part of the reason I am here today.  As many of you know, my dad was not a church goer.  My mom was not a driver, but she was the one who got us up and walked with us the eight blocks to church on many Sunday mornings.
            Other family members are important to our faith.  A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how my own family, Julie and our children, inspire me.  They have often given me a boost so I can see and hear Jesus more clearly in my life.
            Along the way there have been teachers who have encouraged gifts in us.  Coming back to Duluth I have had the wonderful opportunity to see some of the teachers who encouraged me to develop some of God’s gifts in me.  Sometimes they have even found their way here.
            There are church people - pastors, teachers, friends, who give us a boost so we can see and hear and follow Jesus more closely.  For me, there are a number of pastors who are my friends who have boosted me along the way, who have held me until something in me has been hatched and fledged and flown.  Over the years, this day has become a very special day as I recall with fondness the gifts of God given in those we will remember in a few moments.
            The saints we know in person are often those with the most impact, but there is such a thing as saints from a distance.  For me my faith has often been given a boost by theologians, poets, novelists, philosophers, essayists, musicians.  Some of the writers and artists who have helped me see the world more broadly and deeply, and thus to see Jesus in new ways have been Christians.  Some have been quiet Christians, like Seamus Heaney, about whom you are probably getting tired of hearing me speak.  Some have had very little to say about faith.  This past week the musician Lou Reed died.  His music, among other things, helped me hear beauty in new ways.  His words combined an open-eyed look at some of the gritty realities of the world with a celebration of love and tenderness.
            In my first year of college, I wrote to myself that the three people having the most influence on my thinking at that time were Abraham Maslow, a Jewish-humanist psychologist, Alan Watts, a former Episcopal priest who left the ministry to teach Buddhism, and Taoism, and Bob Dylan.  In some ways their thinking and artistry held me until something in me was hatched and fledged and flown.  I am a better follower of Jesus because of them, and because of so many.
            This week I watched a TED talk by a young man named Joseph Kim, a young man who escaped from North Korea and eventually made his way to the United States. [] Kim tells his heart-breaking, hopeful story and among the things he shares is how he was inspired by small acts of love.  Joseph was not a good student, and struggled in school.  One evening at dinner with his foster family, when Joseph wanted another chicken wing, but refrained because there wasn’t enough, he found the last wing put on his plate by his foster father.  It reminded him of how often his biological father had sacrificed some of his own food to keep his son fed.  “That chicken wing changed my life.”  It motivated Joseph to work hard in school.
            If All Saint’s Sunday is celebrating those people who have given us a boost along the way so that we can see and hear and follow Jesus better, if it is celebrating those who have held us until something in us is hatched and fledged and flown, it is also intended to be a day when we rededicate ourselves to being saints for others.  Zacchaeus is changed in his encounter with Jesus.  He is moved to help the poor and make up for whatever damage he has caused.  He wants to boost the lives of others.
            I was in North Carolina earlier this week.  On the return plane ride to Minneapolis, the man sitting next to me, a man who was wearing a cap and jeans and had carried on a camouflage duffle bag, looked at me in my coat and tie and said, “You don’t look like you’re going to Minnesota to go hunting.”  No I wasn’t and I figured that it would not be too long until I had to tell him what I did.  I am the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Duluth, the Coppertop Church.  He knew where it was.  He was from northern Wisconsin.  After a bit, he said, “I bet you deal with a lot of tragedy.”  ‘I guess I do.”  “My grandson is really struggling.  He is ten and has lost both his grandmothers in the last two years.  He is asking a lot of questions, asking me if I am going to be going too.”  I mentioned something about grief resources, but coming to Duluth was not really an option.  I wish I had some magic words to share with this man for his grandson, but there are none.  “The best thing you can do for him is just be there for him.”  As we got off the plane in Minneapolis I asked him his grandson’s name.  “Justin.”  I said that I would pray for Justin.  I have.  We did.

            I don’t know what good I did, but I know that as a follower of Jesus who has been given a boost by so many, who has been held by so many along the way, I have to try and hold others, too, until something in them is hatched and fledged and flown.  The Jesus way is the way of small acts of love that help give life and hope.  On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember and celebrate the saints in our lives even as we rededicate ourselves, in the strength of God’s Spirit, to be saints for others.  Amen.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Play Ball

Sermon preached October 27, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Luke 18:9-14

            Baseball.  It feels a little cold to be thinking about baseball, but we are in the middle of the World Series, “the fall classic.”  Baseball is alive and well, and for those of us who have a certain love for the game, this is a wonderful time of year.  In part in honor of the World Series, last Sunday night, for Faith and Film, we watched “42” the bio-pic about Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play major league baseball.  He came into the major leagues in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the team president who brought Robinson to the Dodgers was a man named Wesley Branch Rickey, a Methodist.
            I have long enjoyed baseball.  As a boy I collected baseball cards and never thought putting them on the spokes of my bicycle made much sense, unless it was the check list cards.  I organized my cards by teams, alphabetized them, wrote down rosters for the teams, and played games with my cards in the basement.
            The American poet Walt Whitman once said about baseball (April 1889): It’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it; America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere.  (Ward and Burns, Baseball, xvii).  After the miracle Mets took the 1969 World Series in five games from the Baltimore Orioles, Orioles manager Earl Weaver was asked whether, had his team been able to hold on to their lead late in game 5, and brought the series back to Baltimore, they might not have won it.  No, that’s what you can never do in baseball.  You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock.  You’ve got to throw the ball over the __________ plate and give the other man his chance.  That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all. (Roger Angell, Once More Around the Park, 23)
            Baseball, the greatest game of them all.  I guess it is biblical.  It is the only game mentioned in the Bible and early on.  “In the big inning……”
            Notice Earl Weaver’s words – “the greatest game of them all.”  To him, baseball is the best.  It is a comparative statement, a competitive statement about a competitive game.
            We like competition.  We are enamored with it, and I am not immune.  Last weekend Julie and I participated in a 5 K for her school.  We had not been running much, so Julie suggested that we mostly walk.  I said, “O.K., as long as we don’t finish last.”  Earlier in our relationship, Julie and I discovered that it was better for that relationship if we did not play the game “Risk.”
            We like competition.  We love our sports.  I think a strong case could be made that there is a significant religious dimension to our fascination with sports.  Whereas once people may have identified themselves with particular religious organizations, people now often identify themselves by their teams.  I once officiated at a funeral for a young man who was entirely decked out in Minnesota North Star regalia.  People gather with the fervor of an old fashioned revival meeting at sporting events.  Tailgating forms community.
            If competitive sports have religious dimensions, they also provide some of the guiding metaphors for our national life.  How often are sports metaphors used in other areas of life?  Baseball metaphors have been used for sexual experiences.  Our politics is often, too often, described in terms of competitive sports.  What will the President’s policies do for his party, his team.  Will the government shut down handicap (as in horse racing) the Republicans in the next election.  At times it seems we have turned the whole of our politics into elections which are filtered in our imagination through the metaphors from competitive sports.
            We love competition, so much so that we forget too easily that competition has its limits.  We need to use our wisdom to decide where competition may be helpful and enjoyable, and where it may be unhelpful and perhaps even detrimental.  The psychologist Abraham Maslow, who is often considered a person behind our culture’s focus on self-esteem, once wrote, “To be strong, a person must acquire frustration-tolerance” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 200).  We need to learn to compete, to risk, and lose sometimes.  Yet Maslow also warned of the dangers of being unimaginative in our description of the world.  “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” (paraphrase of The Psychology of Science, 15-16)  If the only intellectual filter we have for our world is sports, we tend to see everything as a competition.
            Here is where competition has no space – the spiritual life.  In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells an example story, though Luke calls it a parable.  Two men went up to the temple to pray.  One of the men was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, that is one was traditionally religious and pious and the other among the despised.  Imagine that, tax collectors not thought of warmly!  The Pharisee looks at the tax collector and prays to God thanking God that his life is not like that tax collector’s life.  Look at all the good things I do, God.  On the other hand, the tax collector looks down and prays for mercy.  Jesus likes the tax collector’s prayer better.
            Here’s the wonderful irony in the story.  Jesus is telling us that the spiritual life is not about competition, not about comparing your spirituality with the spirituality of others, yet he does this by comparing these two.  There is a story about a group of monks together praying, and one monk seems to be praying with particular fervor – “O God, I am nothing.  O God, I am nothing.”  One monk nearby, pokes the monk next to him and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”  The spiritual life is not about competition with others.
            Yet there is another parabolic twist to this story.  While the tax collector “went down to his home justified,” neither man has it quite right.
            For the Pharisee, that he prays, and fasts and gives – these are not bad things.  Spiritual practices are important for the spiritual life.  He misunderstood their place in the spiritual life.  He sought security in the wrong things.  He misunderstands God.  You get the impression that his God is the God of the brownie points, the tally board, the God who keeps score – messed up here, did o.k. here.  This God lurks around in the attics of many of our imaginations.  God is keeping score and we need to have more points in the good column than in the bad column.  Security in our relationship with God the score keeper only comes from racking up more points.  But we are always anxious about that, so we try to relieve that anxiety by finding someone we are sure is doing worse.  Of course we are ahead of this person.  Comparison becomes complacency, and relieves our anxiety.
            The tax collector looks within.  That’s good.  He is not interested in comparing himself to anyone else, though surely there are rogues, thieves and adulterers doing worse than he is.  You wonder, though, will he ever raise his eyes to see God’s grace which accepts him as he is?  Will he ever hear on his way home that indeed God loves him?
            What God desires from us is to play ball, play ball in that sense of being engaged with someone.  Have you ever played catch by yourself?  It stays interesting only for awhile. It is much nicer to play catch with someone.  But there is no keeping score in catch.  It is about engagement.  It is about enjoyment.  It is about improving one’s skills – not to get better than your partner, but to get better than you are now.  That’s the spiritual life.  That’s our relationship with God. 
God desires a dialogic relationship.  We are honest with ourselves, and sometimes we need change, sometimes dramatic change.  Yet we look up from our introspection to also see God, welcoming us as we are.
This week Parker Palmer posted this wonderful poem by the German poet Rilke on Facebook.  The poem is entitled “Autumn.”  In the poem the poet observes leaves falling, and notes that we all fall in our lives.
We are all falling.  The hand is falling.
And look at the others; it’s inside them all.

And yet there’s one who with infinite
tenderness holds this falling in his hands.

            That’s God, this one who with infinite tenderness holds us in God’s hands.  That’s God’s grace, welcoming us as we are, holding us as we are.  Self-righteousness has no place here because God isn’t keeping score.  This isn’t a competition.  The spiritual life is about engagement.

            The spiritual life, our relationship with God begins where we are.  We grow from there.  It’s more like the game of catch, not a competitive contest.  “Play Ball!”