Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Dog Named Grace

I did not preach this morning. Thank you to Cody Nielsen, Chaplain and Executive Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Minnesota for preaching this morning at First UMC.

Here is the reflection I wrote for our upcoming May newsletter.

“Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.
Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 162

When we moved to Duluth in the summer of 2005, we had a dog named Annie. Annie, a miniature cocker spaniel, had been part of our family for sixteen years at that time. She was older than our daughter Sarah. Annie’s health we not very good, and a year later we made the difficult decision to put her to sleep. It was an emotional time for us all.
Within weeks, Julie, and our daughters Beth and Sarah were scouring the newspapers looking at dog ads. I wasn’t so sure about the idea, but I had sense enough not to fight it. In August 2006 we added Abby, a female Pomeranian-poodle mix (yes, that’s a “pom-a-poo”) to our family. There had been another pom-a-poo available and we toyed with the idea of two dogs, thinking that they could keep each other company when no one else was home. By the time we got back to the woman who sold us Abby, the boy dog had been sold.
A year later this woman called us up to let us know that Abby’s dad had sired another litter of puppies and asked if we would be interested in one. Again, I was the hesitant one, but we went to look. There was a little female pom-a-poo who seemed to like us. The owner said, “Why don’t you take her home for the weekend to see how the dogs get along. If it doesn’t work, you can bring her back.” Foolishly, we took her home. Who could bring her back? This dog we named Grace. My family let me pick her name and I chose a favorite theological idea.
Each of our dogs has been a gift to us in their own way. Both dogs like people. They are friendly. Grace has been particularly affectionate. She has been a bundle of energy, a little sparkle. For whatever reason, she took to being my constant companion. When I would get up and move from one room to the next, Grace was there. On mornings when I was in bed longer than Julie, Grace curled up next to me. When I was the last one home, Grace waited for me near the door. One might say that Grace incarnated the theological concept she was named after, she was, for me, a six and a half pound furry bundle of acceptance.
God’s grace, God’s acceptance of us, is at the heart of my faith. I also believe that small embodiments of such grace are wonderful gifts in the midst of life. When the day is difficult, it is a joy to have some small reminder of the wonder of grace and acceptance.
Early in the morning, on Wednesday April 17, our little dog Grace died in my arms. God’s grace, especially as experienced in the love of family and the support of friends, will remain the most important dimensions of my life. I sure will miss my other small reminder of grace, though.

Grace and Peace,


Here is a picture of Grace shortly after we brought her home.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"Like" Jesus

Sermon preached April 14, 2013

Text: John 21:1-19

A few months into my first pastorate, a young woman who was a member of my church came to me with a story that was causing her alarm. Proctor and Gamble had a symbol for its company back then – a bearded man in the moon looking out over 13 stars. The story that disturbed the church member was that the President of Proctor and Gamble had appeared on the Phil Donahue Show. He was now prepared to share, in a more open society, his association with Satanism. The symbol of the moon and stars was a satanic symbol, and profits from Proctor and Gamble supported the church of Satan. When asked by Donahue if he thought his openness about this might hurt business, the president of Proctor and Gamble replied, “There are not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference.” My parishioner had received this in a letter which encouraged Christians to stand up and make their voice heard.
The story, by the way, was not true at all. I was skeptical of it, and found a toll-free phone number for Proctor and Gamble. They sent me a packet of documents with testimonies from Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Phil Donahue and others that there was no truth to the story whatsoever. The story would not go away, and eventually Proctor and Gamble gave up that logo. One interesting thing about the story is that it was about how you were supposed to stand up for Jesus by protesting this dissing of Christians by the President of Proctor and Gamble.
There are a few of those kind of “stand up for Jesus” things around, and social media have offered new opportunities for them. Did you know that you could “like” Jesus on Facebook, or follow Jesus on Twitter?
A few days ago, the following was posted by someone on Facebook:
I believe in Jesus Christ and have accepted him as my personal Savior. One Facebooker has challenged all believers to put this on their wall. In the Bible it says, if you deny me in front of your peers, I will deny you in front of my Father at the gates of Heaven. This is simple, if you love God and are not afraid to show it, repost this. Just copy and paste… No shame!
The ironic thing about this is that it is, in itself, a bit shaming. If you are uncomfortable about posting it, are you really a Christian? If you are not ready to storm aisles of your favorite store and avoid Proctor and Gamble, is your faith what it should be? Is the essence of Christian faith really liking Jesus with a click of a mouse, or following Jesus Christ on Twitter?
We have before us today a wonderfully fascinating story from last chapter of the Gospel of John. Some of the disciples are together at the Sea of Tiberius, or Sea of Galilee. They decide to go fishing. They fish through the night, catching nothing. At daybreak Jesus appears on the shore, though they do not recognize him. He asks them about their fishing, invites them to try something else, and when they do, their net is full to the breaking point. Jesus is recognized. Peter puts on some clothes, apparently he had been fishing without any. You never hear of that technique on the Saturday fishing shows. They haul the fish in. They eat the breakfast Jesus has prepared. Jesus and Peter have a conversation.
Jesus asks Peter three times – “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I do.” Jesus tells him: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” He ends the conversation with “Follow me.”
If we take this story seriously, it would seem that to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, has a bit less to do with liking Jesus on Facebook, or following Jesus on Twitter, or posting something that someone tells you you need to post if you really love Jesus, than with trying to be more like Jesus. The Christian life is not “Like” Jesus in the Facebook sense, it is “like” Jesus in character and action.
To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, to try and be like Jesus, has something to do with feeding, and I think we should take this literally. There are a number of stories in the gospels about Jesus feeding others and eating with others. Food is a basic necessity of life. To be like Jesus means to care about whether or not people have enough to eat. I think this is why churches are behind so many food shelves and soup kitchens.
Beyond feeding, we also should be asking why it is there are so many who are hungry. 14.5% of U.S. households—nearly 49 million Americans, including 16.2 million children—struggle to put food on the table. Hunger in the United States does not have to do with the absence of food, but with poverty. More than one in seven people in the United States lives below the poverty line and more than one in five children. 65% of low-income families have at least one working family member. In most areas, a family of four needs to earn twice the poverty line to provide children with basic necessities. A person working full-time at the minimum wage earns about $14,500 a year. The official poverty line for a family of three—one parent with two children—is $17,568. (Statistics from Bread for the World).
Why are there so many hungry? Why are there so many poor? How can hard working people still struggle to get by? Is there something askew with a system where we pay a state university basketball coach with just a few years of experience over a million dollars a year when there are those who work forty hours a week but don’t have health insurance and struggle to feed their families? In attending the workshop this week on poverty I was reminded again of our need to ask questions about social arrangements that leave too many hungry and too many poor. I believe they are questions Jesus would because Jesus was about feeding others.
To be like Jesus is to be concerned with feeding others, and asking about hunger. Human beings have other hungers, deeper hungers. There are hungers/for a nameless bread (Carl Sandburg, “Timesweep” in Collected Poems, 758). We have hungers of the soul. We hunger for meaning. We hunger for connection. We hunger to discover our gifts. We hunger to use our gifts for the good of the world. We hunger for God.
To be like Jesus is to be concerned with these hungers, too. We pay attention to the soul. We seek to help people in their soul work. We walk the spiritual journey with others. We work to break down barriers that get in the way of people connecting, some within ourselves as I was reminded of in another workshop I attended this week.
To be a follower of Jesus is to seek to be like Jesus. To be like Jesus is to engage in action to feed hunger – the hungers of the stomach, the hungers of the soul. To be like Jesus is also shaping a life. The ethicist William Spohn writes, “Those who belong to Christ ought to feel and act as he does” (Go and Do Likewise, 165). He continues: “Love, justice, compassion, gratitude, hope, repentance, and the like gain distinctly Christian content from the particular ways that Jesus spoke and acted” (186). Charles Wesley in his hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” says of Jesus – “Jesus, thou are all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art.” It is that kind of life we are invited to shape, a life of compassion, unbounded love, Jesus love, Jesus justice, Jesus hope.
Only you can be like Jesus the way you can be like Jesus. Only you have your gifts, experiences, histories in which to let Jesus love, Jesus justice, Jesus hope, Jesus compassion shine. You are invited to follow Jesus in your own sweet way.
If our focus as Christians is more on being like Jesus than making statements about liking Jesus, who knows what wonderful things might happen. As we seek to make that mysterious presence of Jesus more real in our lives and in our world, might our nets be filled wonderfully full and yet not be torn? What might that mean?
Maybe it means that in our lives we are able to take in more of the world, its beauty, tragedy, pain, joy while staying true to our work of becoming more like Jesus. Maybe it means that our community of faith becomes enriched with many others, and yet stay together, because we are all focused on becoming more like Jesus. Becoming more like Jesus is what liking Jesus is all about.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Unknowing Knowing

Sermon preached April 7, 2013

Texts: John 20:19-31

The Wedding Song

If you were married in the 1970s or early 1980s, there is a good chance you had this song sung at your wedding – Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, “The Wedding Song.” As the song moves forward, Stookey sings a series of questions: So then what’s to be the reason, for becoming man and wife? Is it love that brings you here, or love that brings you life? And if loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for? Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?
Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before? As a society, we tend not to. Show me the money. Show me what you got. Show me the merchandise. Someone said that it is as if we are all Missourians, we all live in the “show me state.”
Jesus is back. Crucified by the Romans, in an apparent conspiracy with some of the Jewish leaders – and we need to be clear about that. John’s language here is sometimes inelegant – “the Jews.” It was only one slice of the Jewish leadership that opposed Jesus, and they conspired with the Roman authorities. In any event, Jesus is killed, but the grave cannot hold him. When the disciples gather behind locked doors, when they gather together, even though they are afraid, they experience Jesus’ presence. Jesus offers words of peace in the midst of their fear.
Thomas, though, missed the meeting, which means they probably elected him secretary of the group. Thomas misses the meeting, and misses Jesus. He is not willing to take the word of his friends about Jesus. He needs to see for himself. Show me. Jesus does. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Really? In a “show me” world, how can such a thing be true? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. What might this mean for us?
First, we need to be clearer about what John is talking about in this gospel. The Greek word that is translated “believe” has more to do with faith, with trust, than with cognitive assent. Notice Thomas’ response to Jesus presence – “my Lord and my God.” This goes beyond, “so it is you, Jesus.” This is a statement of faith and trust. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes: Hence the radical difference from ‘believing’ in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. To believe in these does not make that much difference to how I feel about myself and the world in general (Tokens of Trust, 5). He goes on to say that the Christian words “I believe” do make a difference in how the world feels and you feel. It is… about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home (6).
When I think about Christian coming to believe, I think of the words of Helen Keller – The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before? Do we trust that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, but must be felt with the heart? It makes a difference in who we are, how we feel about the world, and how we live. Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it well: Faith… is not only the assent to a proposition, but the staking of a whole life on the truth of an invisible reality (Man Is Not Alone, 167).
Blessed are those who stake their whole lives on the truth of an invisible reality, who, in fact, trust that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but are felt with the heart. This is a certain kind of unknowing knowing.
Let’s ponder this in relation to God. Of course we cannot see God. The best the Bible offers when it comes to seeing God are fleeting glimpses – burning bushes, smoke, clouds, a quick flash from behind, the sound of sheer silence. We don’t see God, and most don’t claim to. There are some who claim, though, that they see into the mind of God pretty clearly. They are often those who claim that when disaster strikes – Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook Elementary – it has something to do with abortion or homosexuality or prayer in school.
While faith invites us to stake our lives on the unseen reality of God, we might also want to stake our lives on the possibility that all we will ever know of God is partial, always capable of growing. Author Sam Keen writes, “All of the great religious traditions caution against getting comfortable with our language about God” (In the Absence of God, 139). In our relationship with God, trust and humility can be, should be companions. There is always more to learn about God, and sometimes that may mean unlearning some things about God as well.
Since I first encountered it a few years ago, I have deeply appreciated the words of William James, “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (Preface to The Meaning of Truth). Such humility should characterize our relationship with God. Our experience with God may boil over making us correct our present thinking about God.
One of the great classics in Christian mysticism is an anonymous work from the 14th century, The Cloud of Unknowing. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge, but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love (50). Unknowing knowing.
In our relationship with God, we trust God, though we don’t see God. We trust that we know enough about God to continue trusting God’s presence, God’s influence, God’s wisdom and ways. We also trust that there is always an element of mystery and surprise in our relationship with God. We are blessed when we so trust.
For Christians, our most important clue to what we know about God is in Jesus. Even here, we can be surprised by what Jesus means for our lives. Our understanding of Jesus can change. Yet there are some central facts about Jesus that we are not free to change. The Jesus who is our most significant clue to God is the Jesus who had nails driven through his hands. The Jesus who is our most significant clue to God is the Jesus whose side was pierced as he was dying. Human pain, human suffering, human cruelty, make their mark on God. But God does not let them have the final word. The power of love is greater. The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart. The unseen marks of love are more powerful than nail marks.
And this power of love that was at work in Jesus, this power that finally overcomes human cruelty, tends to work in the world in a particular way. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued that a concept of God which takes its cue from Jesus “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, Chapter II, Part V)
We are blessed when we trust in the God of Jesus who works in the world tenderly, slowly, quietly – in ways hard to perceive sometimes, except with the heart. We are blessed to live this way, to stake our lives on this God of Jesus, because this gives us hope. We are people of hope – a hope that is tough and tenacious.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, who told us that faith entails the staking of a whole life on the truth of an invisible reality also wrote: There are times when defeat is all we face, when horror is all that faith must bear. And yet, in spite of anguish, in spite of terror we are never overcome with ultimate dismay (Man Alone, 154-155).
Sometimes I find things coming out of my mouth before I have thought them through. When I am fortunate, they are either amusing, or things that I can later make sense of. Thursday morning I was meeting with some clergy friends, and we were discussing our sermons for today. We also ventured into some other topics, and some were sharing some really difficult situations. Before I really knew what I was saying, I said, “sometimes we have to trust what we don’t see, because what we see is pretty lousy.” Sometimes it is. I spoke on the phone the other day with an acquaintance who just lost a nephew. She told me that he had struggled with depression and the family believes that his death was a heroin overdose. The leader of North Korea, for reasons known only to him, is threatening war on the Korean peninsula.
2000 years after Jesus, demons still haunt us. 2000 years after the Prince of Peace, war still threatens us. We are not ultimately dismayed because we trust that the God we know in Jesus continues to work in tender, quiet ways. We trust that what is best and most beautiful in the world is not always what we can see, but those movements in the heart that foster love, joy, peace, reconciliation, justice, compassion. We remain hopeful, and I think of the words of Jim Wallis of Sojourners. “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change” (The Soul of Politics, 285).
Do we believe, do we trust, are we willing to stake our lives on the reality of God, who will always be a bit of a mystery, but about whom we know enough, an unknowing knowing? Do we believe, do we trust, are we willing to stake our lives that in Jesus we see something of this God, and thus trust that God is touched by human suffering and tragedy but overcomes it with tenderness, slowly and quietly? Are we willing to trust, to stake our lives, on this Jesus way of life, this way of hope in the world? Are we willing to trust that what is best and most beautiful in the world is not always what we can see, but those movements in the heart that foster love, joy, peace, reconciliation, justice, compassion?
Yes. A blessed yes. Amen.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Whole New Ballgame

Sermon preached Easter Sunday March 31, 2013

Texts: Luke 24:1-12

Here it is. What we have been waiting for. Yes, today is the day just before the beginning of the baseball season.
I have a long-standing love affair with baseball. Except for a few years of faithless inattention on my part, I have enjoyed baseball since about age six. The start of the baseball season is always something to celebrate.
Roger Angell (The Summer Game, 3): Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the beginning of spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue.
Bart Giamatti, former Commissioner of Baseball, whose son, Paul is now a fairly well-known actor: It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. (Baseball: A Literary Anthology, 490). Yet every spring, Giamatti returned to the game. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun (492).
One of the reasons I enjoy baseball is because it has attracted some wonderful writers.
Baseball has roots in English folk games, among them something called stoolball, which scholars have found references to as early at the 14th century. For some reason stoolball has strong associations with Easter, adapting pagan springtime games. See, I have not forgotten that it is Easter, and I am getting back to it. But I want to get back to it through the Roman Empire.
Baseball has roots in English folk games which have roots that may even go back to the Roman Empire. Certainly Rome knew something of games. The later first century Roman poet Juvenal critically proclaimed that Rome often kept its empire intact through bread and circuses – by controlling and distributing food, and by offering entertaining distractions.
But Rome also held on to its rule through intimidation and violence. Political trouble makers were publically executed to remind others of the cost of organizing against Roman rule. The execution was known as crucifixion. It was brutal and it was very public. If bread and circuses were not enough to keep you in line, keep you numb, fear worked well.
Numb and fearful – that is one way of being in the world – numb and fearful and assiduously cautious. None of us is immune from these experiences. Maybe we go through some long periods where this is our way of being – numb, fearful, overly cautious, diminished. Yet at those times, on the edges of our minds, we know there is something different, something better, something more. There’s something about spring, even when it comes haltingly, with its melting snow, emerging green, a new season, the shout to “play ball,” that calls to us, that speaks to us about hope, about joy, about new beginnings, fresh starts, love.
If ever there was a spring-time life, it was the life of Jesus. He healed the broken, welcomed the excluded, told stories of joy, offered words of hope and expectation, loved, told people again and again – “do not be afraid.” So impossibly freeing was his presence and message in an empire that was suspicious of those who were not content to be numb, and fearful and cautious, that he was eventually seen as a threat – a threat to the Roman imperial theology and a threat to those Jewish leaders who had learned to accommodate comfortably to Roman rule. He was the kind of threat that needed to be made an example of. He was. He was arrested. He was scorned, mocked and humiliated. He was publically executed, crucified.
If Jesus lived a springtime kind of life, he also lived a God kind of life, and God was not through with Jesus, even if Rome wanted to be. On Easter, God said “no” and God said “yes.” God said “no” to a way of life based on fear and numbness, extreme caution and diminishment. God said “yes” to Jesus. God said this Jesus way is the way, this Jesus project is my project for the world, this Jesus life is abundant life.
Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus, and through Jesus to us – to our numb, fearful, diminished, cautious selves.
With Easter, it’s a whole new ballgame. Theologian Paul Tillich: Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was; nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before. Author Frederick Buechner: He got up. He said, “Don’t be afraid.” Love is the victor…. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream.
With Easter it’s a whole new ballgame for into a world that often encourages fear and numbness comes the power of hope, the power of joy, the power of new beginnings, the power of love.
With Easter it’s a whole new ballgame, and the question before us is always, “Will we say ‘yes’ to God’s ‘yes’ to us?” The late Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes preached that “the resurrection is God’s invitation to us to start over” (Strength for the Journey, 259). Will we say “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us, to God’s invitation to start over? Theologian John Caputo writes: When God holds sway, the past is dismissed. Where God rules, the past does not rule. If we are slaves to the past, we can expect the future to look like the past. (The Weakness of God, 169). Will we say “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us and not be trapped by our past? Theologian Peter Hodgson writes: In the midst of suffering, defeat, despair, discouragement, we somehow find the resources to go on, to confront the challenges of life anew, to become engaged in the process of creative transformation, which is the divine process. This is the mystery of the resurrection. (Winds of the Spirit, 267) Will we say “yes’ to God’s Easter “yes” to us and find resources for those difficult times in our lives, and risk engaging in the process of creative transformation?
We choose – new beginnings, freedom from the past, resourcefulness for life’s challenges, risking creative transformation or numbness, fear, narrow caution, diminishment.
What might saying “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us look like a little more concretely?
Writer Anne Lamott offers some testimony about this. We’re Easter people living in a Good Friday world…. In Jesus’ real life, the resurrection came two days later, but in our real lives, it can be weeks, years, and you never know for sure that it will come…. But I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’, and in ours…. It’s often hard [though] to find… dramatic evidence of rebirth and hope in our daily lives. (Plan B, 140, 141) Still she suggests small changes that Easter people can make in their lives: I am going to pray to forgive one person today…. You can always begin by lighting a candle…. I am going to send checks to people and organizations I trust…. I am going to walk to the library – In a library, you can find small miracles and truth…. I am going to try to pay attention to the spring…. (141ff). These are ways we can say “yes’ to the God who says an Easter “yes” to us, ways we can live beyond numbness, fear, narrow caution, diminishment.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who works with gang and former gang members in Los Angeles. He tells some wonderfully heart-warming, and terribly heart-rending, stories in his book Tatoos on the Heart. Scrappy was a tough gang member with whom Father Boyle had not had good experiences. They first met when Scrappy was 15, assigned to Boyle’s church by his probation officer. “The chip located on his shoulder was the size of a Pontiac.” Five years later, Scrappy got up and walked out on a funeral Father Boyle was officiating. Three years later, as Gregory Boyle was intervening in a fight, Scrappy pulled a gun on him. Scrappy then spends ten years in prison. Getting out, he seeks Father Boyle. “I’ve spent the last twenty years building a reputation for myself… and now… I regret… that I even have one.” Scrappy breaks down and cries. “Now what do I do? I know how to sell drugs. I know how to gangbang. I know how to shank fools in prison. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car. I know how to drive, but I don’t know how to park. And I don’t know how to wash my clothes except in the sink of a cell.” (34)
Father Boyle offers Scrappy a job with the company he started, Homeboy Industries. He reflects on this experience. Scrappy’s moment of truth was not in recognizing what a disappointment he’s been all these years. It came in realizing that God had been beholding him and smiling for all this time, unable to look anywhere else…. When the vastness of God meets the restriction of our own humanity, words can’t hold it. The best we can do is find the moments that rhyme with this expansive heart of God. (35) We say “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us when we try to live in such a way that our lives rhyme more and more with the expansive heart of God.
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet, winner of the Noble Prize in Literature. He was born in Northern Ireland, and witnessed the political turmoil there. Part of his response occurs in his writing, including a rewriting of a play by Sophocles to which Heaney adds a chorus that speaks of living beyond numbness and fear. (The Cure At Troy, 77)

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.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far-side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Hoping for a great sea-change, believing that a further shore is reachable, believing in miracles and cures and healing wells – these are ways of saying “yes” to the God who says an Easter “yes” to us.
Numbness, fear, assiduous narrow caution, diminishment – there is a great deal around us that would lead us to live this way, though it is not really life as it is meant to be lived. With the God of the risen Jesus, it’s a whole new ballgame. In Easter, God says “yes” to us. Are you ready to say “yes” in return? Do you want to play ball? Amen.

An Odd God

Good Friday March 29, 2013

Texts: The Passion Story in Tenebrae Service, United Methodist Book of Worship

Quite often, during funerals, memorial services, celebrations of life, there is a time when people who knew the person whose life’s end we are marking get an opportunity to share a story about the deceased. It has been my privilege to hear funny and heart-warming stories in that setting, but sometimes things go a bit wobbly.
During one open sharing time, when I was a pastor someplace else, a family member got up and began telling a story about the man who had died. There was a family gathering and the beer was flowing freely. Some kind of rough house playing around was going on, and the man whose life we were celebrating, well he grabbed a broom and was swinging it around playfully, and took out a lamp.
The story-teller was laughing. Some in the congregation were chuckling, and I was trying to smile and be as affirming as I could be while listening to this story of what was sounding like a drunken misadventure. It seemed an odd choice of a story to tell during a funeral.
How odd that we have the story we will hear in a few minutes at the heart of our faith. All four gospels, whatever their differences, tell a similar story about the end of Jesus’ life – he was arrested, mistreated, brought up on charges, sentenced to death, and then executed. What an odd story to have as a shared narrative. And if this story tells us about God, what sort of odd God is revealed?
These events were scandalous in their time. In the words of one theologian: “Jesus died condemned as a blasphemer and general troublemaker” (William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 159). Jesus was condemned and executed by the legitimate political authorities of his day, in collaboration with the local political-religious leaders. Jesus brought healing. Jesus brought people close to God. How could such a good person suffer so? How could he be so humiliated?
His followers needed some way to make sense of such suffering and humiliation and scandal. One language that helped them make sense of this death was the language of substitutionary sacrifice. Sacrificial blood was part of the religious system of temple Judaism. Animals were sacrificed as a part of worship rituals for thanksgiving, for forgiveness, for reconciliation. Perhaps Jesus’ death was an ultimate and final sacrifice for forgiveness and reconciliation, a substitution, an offering to God clearing the way for a renewed relationship between God and human persons.
We hear this idea offered in Scriptures like Hebrews 9:22 – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (See also Leviticus 17:11) So human sin requires that a penalty be paid, and in temple Judaism that penalty involved animal sacrifice. In dying this horrible and shameful death, Jesus became that sacrifice, a once-and-for-all sacrifice.
There is something deeply moving about the idea of someone paying a penalty on our behalf, or paying anything on our behalf. No doubt you’ve heard the wonderful stories of people paying the car toll for the car after them in line – how admirable. New Testament scholar Walter Wink, in discussing some of the theologies surrounding the death of Jesus argues that “God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness…. Perhaps a convict who has committed a serious crime that has caused irreparable harm can only come to believe his sins are forgiven through the image of God as the judge who died in his place.” (The Human Being, 111)
What may have been a helpful way to understand the death of Jesus for some of his first-century followers, may not be as helpful for us. The Jesus as substitutionary sacrifice for our sins view of his death seems to say that God somehow requires a blood sacrifice in order to forgive. Teacher and writer Parker Palmer raises a question many might ask. “What kind of God is it who demands blood – the blood of God’s own son – for atonement?” (The Promise of Paradox, 32) The question is nearly a thousand years old, if not older (Abelard (1079-1142): “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything” (in Cullinan, 26, see also Wink 106). In a world weary of violence, this understanding of the death of Jesus seems to have some real limits.
There are other ways to understand this odd story, and there have been from the beginning. Walter Wink: The virtue of multiple theories of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life (111).
Maybe a good place from which we can understand the story of Jesus’ death are these words from Paul (II Corinthians 5). So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ… That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.
Reconciliation. In Jesus the Christ God draws near. How odd of God to burst into our lives in such a way. In Jesus Christ we see love, a love that heals and frees, a love that breaks down barriers, a love that opens us to the future, a love that forgives and re-establishes the relationship between God and human persons. This love of God in Jesus the Christ confronts the harshest elements of human injustice, it comes face-to-face with the human heart of darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Death and despair have their day, but it is only a day – or three. Jesus’ death does not put an end to his significance, but seen as an act of reconciling love confronting injustice and inhumanity, his death has meaning. We have hope, then in the face of our own difficulties, our own dark nights of the soul, because we are loved by a persistent and tenacious love. We have hope, because we, too, can love, and God reclaims all acts of love. God uses every act of love to build on the long-term Jesus project for the world, a project that goes on. And when we fail to love, there is a love that continues to call us back, a reconciling love that never leaves us nor forsakes us. With Paul I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39)
Last Sunday night a few of us watched together here a powerful film entitled “The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas.” Set during World War II, the film is the story of a friendship that develops between Bruno, whose father is the commandant of a German concentration camp, and Shmuel, a boy of the same age who is a prisoner in the camp. Near the end of the film, Bruno and Shmuel plot together to get Bruno into the camp so he can help Shmuel locate his father. Bruno digs under the fence. Shmuel brings him a set of prison clothes. Together Bruno and Shmuel get caught in a group of prisoners being herded together into a mass shower. The final scene of the film is a closed door, the camera panning back from it. We watched in stunned silence. It is a moment bereft of hope, or almost. Except that the story of the friendship told transcends that moment. The love across boundaries, a reconciling love seems stronger than the locked door.
There is Good Friday/Easter in that moment. The death is real, it just doesn’t have the last word. To understand the power of the death of Jesus and the odd God whose story is also the Jesus story is to find in it a reconciling love stronger than death by crucifixion, stronger than torture, stronger than gas chambers, stronger than cruel diseases which end life too soon. To understand the power of the death of Jesus it to find in it a wild hope. Anne Lamott offers my favorite definition of hope. Hope is “about believing this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff [shit] anyone can throw at us” (Plan B, 275). The grim bleak stuff is there – death by crucifixion, torture, gas chambers, human inhumanity, diseases, violence. The grim bleak stuff is real, but love is bigger.
Today’s story is grim, and it is kind of odd that we keep telling it. We can tell it only because it isn’t the last word. We tell it knowing that along with the grim, bleak stuff, there is a love that is even bigger. As we hear the story, keep telling yourself, “love is bigger.” Trust that, then live it. Amen.


Sermon preached Maundy Thursday March 28, 2013

Texts: Luke 22:14-23, 39-46; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I enjoy writing. I have been fortunate to have a couple of pieces published, though it’s been awhile, and I don’t really submit stuff for publication. I remember one piece, though, that I was really hoping would get published but didn’t. I wrote a review of Bruce Springsteen’s cd “The Rising” and submitted it to The Christian Century. It was not the kind of piece they published.
“The Rising” was Springsteen’s musical response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It was powerful musically and lyrically. I have been a Bruce Springsteen fan for a long time, saw him in concert in 1978 in St. Paul. I find there are a lot of times when Springsteen’s music reaches some deep places inside of me. One such song is “Human Touch.”

So you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt
Show me somebody who ain’t
Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain
But… a little touch up and a little paint…
You might need something to hold on to
When all the answers, they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you could just talk to
And a little of that human touch

Share a little of that human touch
Give me a little of that human touch

Touch. Human touch. Springsteen speaks to me. Music speaks to me. Poetry, which is musical words, speaks to me. Here is poem about touch.

Poem For My Mother Nancy Brewka-Clark (Beloved on the Earth)

Not having her in the world
is the strangest thing. Right now,
a winter wind is blowing sunlight
against the treetops, smashing it
into a million atoms of joy.

She herself found joy in every
lucent leaf, each kiss of transient
breeze against the cheek of
the earth. She watched the short,
sweet month of February with its
red hearts, lace and lengthening
light, the promissory note
of spring, come due with
interest every year, never jaded,
always mailing a card with
Xs and Os to her middle-aged
daughters. When she died we said
it was time, at eighty-eight, no
broken hearts here, she had a full
life, she was ailing, she was failing.

But in this light, with the snow
dripping off the roof and the branches
tossing, this light like a voice calling to
the sleeping bulbs, the burrowing
roots, this breath of fresh wind with
its sting and its kiss, as much as I
honor the spirit, I ache to touch flesh.

Touch. Human touch. Much as I honor the spirit, I ache to touch flesh. Don’t we know that? Don’t we ache, yearn, long to touch, to be touched? Touch is powerful. Sometimes the best thing I can do as a pastor is to let words escape me, fail me, and to grab hold of a hand in silence.
Tonight is about touch. There is food, a Passover meal – food passed from person to person, food touching lips, tongue, taste buds. There is bread, taken, touched, broken, passed. There is wine, lifted up, passed around. There are beads of sweat running down the face of Jesus. There are hands touching each other in prayer.
There are hands, reaching for a towel, a basin. There are hands ladling water. There are hands massaging feet, washing them clean, drying them off.
Touch connects. Touch comforts. It soothes. It heals. Touch can communicate love and kindness and service.
Not all touch. Just outside our readings for tonight there is a kiss that betrays. Jesus is seized, roughed up. This is not healing touch, connecting touch. Touch that is abusive, manipulative, coercive, intrusive is not touch that comforts, connects, heals.
But that is not our focus tonight. Tonight is about touch, human touch, that connects, comforts, soothes, heals, loves. We ache for that kind of touch. In such touch, there is often another touch. In their new cd, Duluth band Low sings a song entitled “Holy Ghost.” I feel the hands/but I don’t see anyone/anyone/I feel the hands/but I don’t see anyone…. Some holy ghost/keeps me hanging on.
In human touch that connects, heals, comforts, loves, there is also the touch of the divine, the touch of the Spirit, the touch of God.
In the touch of the human Jesus, God touched. [Jesus] came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her (Mark 1:31). Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…. Immediately the leprosy left him (Mark 1:41, 42). She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak…. Immediately her hemorrhage stopped (Mark 5:27, 29). And whenever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mark 6:56). Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly (Mark 8:25).
Jesus human touch is also God’s touch. Then he took a loaf of bread…. And he did the same with the cup. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
I need a little of that human touch, and a little of that God touch. I ache for flesh, and for the word made flesh.
Where, tonight, do you need God’s touch? Where do you ache for healing, for wholeness? Where do you feel broken, discouraged, downhearted? Where do you need a guiding hand, an encouraging touch on the shoulder?
We’ve all been broken. We’ve all been hurt. At times, we have done some of the hurting. We have ached to touch flesh, and found the person we most wanted to touch gone. We need a little touch – human and divine.
And if the story of Jesus is any indication, God aches to touch us. Amen.