Friday, May 31, 2013

Stay Tuned

Sermon preached May 26, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-5; John 16:12-15

Many of you are familiar with the concept of the “lectionary.” The Ecumenical Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings – Psalm, Old Testament, Gospel, and New Testament – for each Sunday of the year. It is widely used in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. I typically follow the readings, though will not this summer in the series on “sticky scriptures” I am offering.
Today’s readings seemed to have something to do with wisdom, so I thought I would preach about it. Wisdom. Nice idea in the abstract, but was this really a wise choice?
We humans are not always so wise, or even so bright. Here are some label instructions which suggest that we have a long way to go. On a Sears hair dryer: Do not use while sleeping. On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside. On a bar of Dial soap: Directions: Use like regular soap. On a Swanson frozen dinner: Serving suggestion: Defrost. On a bread pudding: Product will be hot after heating. On an iron: Do not iron clothes on body. On most packages of Christmas lights: For indoor or outdoor use only. On an American Airlines packet of nuts: Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts. On a child’s Superman costume: Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.
Wisdom may be calling out, but you have to wonder if anyone is listening. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, renders Proverbs 8:5, which in the NRSV reads – “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it” – this way: Listen you idiots – learn good sense! You blockheads – shape up! Sometimes we may be a little blockheaded.
Yet, we live in an information age. There is more information out there available more quickly than many of us would have imagined thirty years ago. When I first attended UMD, there was computer registration for classes. You had to go to the gym, stand in long lines, and pull computer punch cards to register, and it was always frustrating when you finally got to the table and there were no more cards for the class you wanted to take. Now my phone has more memory than the first home computer we bought. Information it might once have taken days to find out, maybe because you had to go to the library to look it up, can be received in minutes through an internet search, or a phone service like “cha cha.” We live in an age of Wikipedia and Twitter – loads of information, instantaneous information, but I am not sure we would call this information age an age of wisdom.
Bombarded with information, the words of Mick Jagger still seem pretty true, about the guy on the radio speaking “about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination” (“Satisfaction”). The words of Bruce Springsteen still seem relevant: “there was fifty-seven channels and nothing on” (“57 Channels – and nothing on”). Do I really need to know the latest drama about the Kardashians, or Linday Lohan’s latest legel problem. Fifty-seven channels and nothing on, indeed!
Our information age has not necessarily made us less prone to blockheadedness. The information age has not magically produced an age of wisdom. Information and wisdom seem distinct, so what is “wisdom”? It is certainly not simply the accumulation of facts and information, though facts and information matter. It is not just thinking that has lasted. The phrase “conventional wisdom” indicates that our sense of what is truly wise can change, that the wisdom from the past, while important, also needs to be critically examined. The American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, defines wisdom this way: the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight. Wisdom has to do with discernment, which has to do with knowing, but more importantly, with orienting our lives.
When I think of wisdom, I often think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change, the courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Wisdom has to do with discernment and with orienting our lives. For Christians, it also has to do with God’s grace. God grant us grace, and in grace wisdom. The Biblical tradition sees wisdom as paying attention to God, listening for the voice of the Spirit. “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” Later on in Proverbs 8 wisdom is portrayed as being with God at the beginning of creation, “rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” In John, Jesus says that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth” and truth here, is best understood as wisdom. The pastor and theologian Andrew Shanks puts it well. The truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly change. Changed, in the sense of saved. (What is Truth?, 5) To hear the voice of wisdom is to hear the challenge to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more, and so to be changed.
Wisdom for Christians has to do with the grace of God, with the work of God’s Spirit, with the person of Jesus. Marcus Borg: Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom. What he taught was “a way of transformation” and “his teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world” (Jesus: A New Vision, 97). In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is the one in whom the very wisdom of God, the logos of God, present at creation, becomes embodied – grace and truth, grace and wisdom.
For Christians, wisdom has to do with the grace of God, with the work of God’s Spirit, with the person of Jesus. And we believe in a living God, a living presence. This wisdom of God, this Spirit-voice, still speaks. “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” Wisdom’s call “is to all that live.” The voice of wisdom still calls us to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more, and so to be changed. The great challenge in our day and time is that there are so many voices, so much noise. While you would think and information age might also be an age of wisdom, we often risk losing wisdom in a flood of information. So many voices vie for our attention. Our task is to stay tuned, to pay attention.
One night Rabbi Isaac was told in his dream to go to far away Prague and there to dig for treasure under a bridge that led to the palace of the King. Rabbi Isaac paid little attention to the dream, until it recurred four or five times. He then made up his mind to go. When he arrived at the bridge he found, to his dismay, that it was heavily guarded by soldiers both day and night. All Rabbi Isaac could do was gaze at the bridge from some distance. But since he was there every morning, the captain of the guards took notice, and one day asked Rabbi Isaac what was going on. The rabbi was embarrassed to tell the captain of the guards about his dream, but seeing little alternative, and finding the man congenial, he shared his story. The captain roared with laughter. “Good heavens! You, a rabbi taking your dreams so seriously. If I were so silly as to act on my dreams, I would be wandering around Poland today. I, too have had a recurrent dream – a voice keeps telling me to go to Krakow and dig for treasure in the corner of the kitchen of one Isaac, son of Ezechiel. Now wouldn’t it be stupid of me to wander around Krakow looking for someone named Isaac, and someone else named Ezechiel? How many such people are there?” The rabbi, stunned by what he heard, thanked the captain, returned to his own home, dug up the corner of his kitchen, and found a treasure abundant enough to keep him comfortable til his death. (Anthony DeMillo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 177-178).
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice, still? Stay tuned – through worship, prayer, silence, self-reflection, deep conversation, deep conversation with the Bible and tradition, deep conversation with others. Stay tuned, pay attention.
One final thought on this Memorial Day weekend. We need to search for wisdom in our national life as well as in our individual lives and our church life. So many in our political culture seem more oriented to shaping information, to spin it, in the interest of winning the next election, than in seeking wisdom in the midst of complex issues like national security and care for the environment. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel issued wise words when he wrote a number of years ago: By what standards do we measure culture? It is customary to evaluate a nation by the magnitude of its scientific contributions or the quality of its artistic achievements. However, the true standard by which to gauge a culture is the extent to which reverence, compassion, justice are to be found in the daily lives of a whole people, not only in the acts of isolated individuals (The Insecurity of Freedom, 72). These words are echoed more recently by Jim Wallis in his new book On God’s Side: The prerequisite for solving the deepest problems this country and the world now face is a commitment to a very ancient idea whose time has urgently come: the common good. How do we work together, even with people who we don’t agree with? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another? (xi).
This weekend we will remember those who gave their lives for a better United States and a better world. Isn’t one of the best memorials we can give to continue the work toward a better future? I think this is true for both the church and the world. We stand on many shoulders here, and within this past year we added another set of them as Chester Park UMC and First UMC merged. Becoming the best First UMC we can be honors those who gave so much to our churches. Becoming the best nation we can be honors those who gave themselves to and for our country.
Wisdom calls. Wisdom’s call is the challenge to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more, and so to be changed. Wisdom’s call is to be changed and to work for positive change in church and world, honoring the work of so many others. That’s what we are up to here, by God’s grace and Spirit. By God’s grace and Spirit we are staying tuned to the voice of wisdom in a very noisy world. Amen.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Wind and Rainbow Connection

Sermon preached Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013

Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17

Imagine. There is a group of people gathered together for a prayer meeting. Often such gatherings are quiet. Woosh! Suddenly there is a rush of wind. Sparks of fire, that look like tongues, dance around the room and touch each person. Voices rise up, different languages being spoken. A crowd gathers around all the commotion - Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Romans, Cretans and Arabs. They all hear something in their own language. Imagine.
Imagine a green frog in the woods strumming a banjo, sitting on a log on the edge of a pond, and singing:

"The Rainbow Connection

By the way, this is from “The Muppet Movie” – 1979. Next week we are showing a newer movie, “The Muppets” from 2012. Imagine that.
And imagine some poor preacher starting with these two stories and trying to make some sense of them together.
These two stories are about connection. At Pentecost, Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontusites and Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans and Arabs – all become connected through wind and flame, all become connected through the Spirit that arrives as wind, as flame, as voice. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God, joint heirs.” It is a rainbow connection, all nations. Kermit’s rainbow connection is the connection of lovers and dreamers. Aren’t those who are touched by the Spirit of Jesus lovers and dreamers? They are to love as God in Jesus loves. God loves and God wants to love the world through the followers of Jesus. God has a dream for the world – where the hungry are fed, the poor have enough, there is peace between peoples, justice is done, and love reigns. In the Spirit, God haunts imaginations with this dream.
These two stories are about connection, and they are connected to our lives. We who follow Jesus today are touched by the wind and flame of the Spirit. Regardless of our origin, our nationality, our ethnicity, our age, our gender, our sexual orientation, our economic status, our education, we are connected by the wind of the Spirit. We are God’s Pentecost people. We are a rainbow people, tinged with the flames of the Spirit in all of our beautiful diversity. We are children of God, joint heirs, family. One of the reasons I am pleased with the change in the marriage law in Minnesota, and I understand that this is a delicate topic and I am speaking for myself here, one reason I am pleased with the change in our state law is that it recognizes our common humanity, our beautiful diversity as human beings, and our shared need for love and companionship.
We, here, are Jesus’ people, connected by wind and rainbow. We are loved by God and God wants to love the world through us. God has a dream for the world - where the hungry are fed, the poor have enough, there is peace between peoples, justice is done, and love reigns. In the Spirit, God haunts our imaginations with this dream. If we are to love as we are loved, if we are to work toward this God dream for the world, we need our connection. We need each other.
I have shared with you that sometime in high school I started to collect meaningful quotations, sometimes from books, sometimes from posters. In a notebook, on the cover of which it says “Dave Bard, Grade 12, Homeroom 103” (which was Mrs. Collyard’s biology classroom), there are these words I am sure I copied from a poster.

We are all messy rooms sometimes,
Out of order.
And we hide it.
We can’t hide it,
And that’s because
We need
Faith, love, peace…
Each other.

We are connected and we need that connection. We need each other because we are all messy rooms sometimes. We need each other because we help each other love the world as God loves. We need each other because we help bring God’s dream for the world into reality.
We are connected. We need each other. We need to celebrate that, celebrate our wind and rainbow connection.
How many of you have helped provide music – choir, bells, band, special music - here?
How many of you have helped teach children or youth here?
How many of you have helped with worship in other ways - reading, ushering, greeting, helping with communion, driving the bus, filling candles with oil, lighting the candles, helping with sound, helping with projection?
How many of you have served on a committee, helping organize our work as this Jesus community?
How many of you have helped in the office?
How many of you have helped serve a Wednesday meal?
How many of you helped with one of the roast beef dinners?
How many of you helped with Ruby’s Pantry?
How many of you helped with the Coppertop Craft and Bake Sale?
How many of you have helped raise funds for the church or for Imagine No Malaria, or another project?
How many of you have helped with the lawns or gardens or the snow shoveling?
How many of you have helped with roadside clean-up?
How many of you have participated in a small group – women’s circle, study group, men’s group, a laughing ladies group, a movie night, a Faith Forum, a retreat?
How many of you have mentored?
How many of you have shared a good word about your faith or this church?
How many of you have visited a shut-in, perhaps brought them communion, or visited a person in the hospital?
How many of you have helped provide hospitality for a funeral?
How many of you have brought food to share here?
How many of you have done some cleaning here – washed a dish, swept a floor?
How many of you have donated blood here?
How many of you, because of the faith that gets nurtured here, have volunteered in the community in some way, working for a better world?
How many of you, because of the faith that gets nurtured here, have taken some time to reach out to another person in care and compassion?
And how many of you do I owe a big apology because I have forgotten something important on this list?
We are all messy rooms sometimes, and we hide it. Sometimes we can’t hide it and that’s because we need faith, love peace, each other. We are connected by wind and rainbow. We need each other. We need all the gifts that each of you bring here. Without any one of you, we are less the community we can be. Together we are a beautiful Spirit-blown, wind-swept rainbow, and there is always room for adding more color to our rainbow.
Please turn to someone near you. “Thank you for what you do.” If this is your first time here don’t worry, we have great confidence that you are doing some special things to share God’s love with the world. Turn to someone else near you – “thank you for what you do.”
Now turn to someone, and it can be someone you’ve already spoken to. “Thank you for who you are.” It’s not just what we do that matters, it is that Jesus Christ is being formed in us as God’s Spirit-blown people. “Thank you for who you are.”
We need each other. We are connected to each other by wind and rainbow. We celebrate our wind and rainbow connection today.
Nothing says celebrate like the word “joy.”
Nothing says we are connected by wind and rainbow like the flames of the Spirit dancing on our banners, or maybe Kermit the frog.
So I thought of a special ending to this sermon – Kermit the frog joy tie.
I celebrate you in joy. We are connected by wind and rainbow. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for who you are. Amen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The In Crowd

Sermon preached May 12, 2013, Confirmation Sunday

Texts: John 17: 20-26

It will come as no surprise, but I use music when I teach confirmation. So here is one last "confirmation teaching song" - though you also know music finds its way into many of my sermons.

Dobie Gray, "The In Crowd"

If it sounds like that song is really old, well, it is kind of old. I was five when it came out. Many of your parents were not even born yet. I am guessing none of your parents were born in 1964, but we won’t ask. That’s not a requirement of confirmation.
The In Crowd. Today, you are becoming a part of the “in crowd” here at First United Methodist Church. You are affirming your faith. You are joining the church. While this is an important day, it is also another step in your journey of faith. You have been part of us for a long time. My guess is that it does not seem that long ago to your parents when they presented you for baptism, just as Easton’s parents presented him for baptism today. Baptism is another moment when you become part of the in crowd of the church. We use more theological language to describe it. Through the sacrament of baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s might acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
Jesus generated crowds. More importantly, out of those crowds Jesus sought to form community. He cared about the quality of the community that he formed. Gus read part of a prayer that Jesus is said to have prayed toward the end of his life. He prayed for the community formed in his name. “That they may be one…. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you loved me.” He concluded by praying that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Yes, the words are a little confusing, but the point is that Jesus cared deeply about bringing people together and cared deeply about the quality of life the Jesus community would live.
Today, you are becoming part of this particular Jesus community called First United Methodist Church in a new way.
To you in this community, let me tell you a little bit about the fine folks who we have known, and yet will get to know even better. As a group they have been quiet and thoughtful. Julie and I are not sure how much the quiet part had to do with 8:45 am classes, but that’s how it goes. We have enjoyed working with this group.
Luke brings energy and sensitivity to all that he does here. I have appreciated his work with our Sunday morning children’s programs.
Hans will ask good questions. He will add to our community both musical talent and computer skills. He has helped put together some videos for the children’s and youth programming.
Jimmy is thoughtful, and will also ask us good questions. His mind searches over lots of areas. I have appreciated his help on roadside clean-up.
Jon likes the Beatles – do we need to say more? Of course. Jon enjoys sports, but he matches his love of the sports and outdoors with a caring heart, a desire to do the right thing.
Parker brings music and organization to our community. From unofficial manager of Tapestry, to Strikepoint, to helping serve communion, Parker has been involved in a lot of areas of our church. We appreciate his sensitivity and energy.
Jake, too, has been active here in the bell program and the youth program. He, too, is a sports person, but also a music person. He brings joy and enthusiasm to church.
Courtney gets the award for courage and persistence. For a long time she has been the girl in this age group in our church. That has not deterred her from being here, from participating, from sharing her thoughts. She is a dancer.
These delightful young men and woman have been a part of us, and they are becoming part of us in a new way. We are adding to our “in crowd.” We are filled with pride and joy.
Today is a good day for all of us to remember, even as we celebrate our “in crowd,” that Jesus idea of an “in crowd” is an unusual one. Jesus prayed that we might become one. He asserted that the quality of our life together would say something to the wider world about Jesus himself and the power of the Spirit unleashed in him. That idea should haunt us a little. An important part of our witness to God’s love in Jesus is how we act together. At times in the history of the church throughout the world, I would think Jesus has been more than a little embarrassed about the kind of witness given.
Jesus prayed that we would be one, and I think the meaning of that is something we encounter every time we share in communion. I don’t always, or even often, follow the liturgical prayers in the hymnal when presiding at communion, but there is one part of the liturgical prayer that I almost always use. “By your Spirit, make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”
The Jesus community is that unique in crowd that seeks to be made one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. Confirming your faith and joining the church is saying that you want to be part of this community that is seeking to be one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world. In welcoming these seven into church membership, and in welcoming those baptized, all of us recommit ourselves to being that community that seeks, through the power of God’s Spirit to be one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
Each of these “onenesses” deserves just a little more comment.
We are a community seeking to be one with Christ. What makes us different from other good organizations in the world is our commitment to Jesus Christ. We look to Jesus to understand God. We look to Jesus to understand what a good life looks like. We look to Jesus not just as a figure from the past, but as, somehow a present reality. Part of becoming one is becoming one with Christ through prayer, worship, and actions that form Christ-like character.
We are a community seeking to be one with each other. The journey of faith is not intended to be a solo endeavor. We are on this road together. Yes, there are personal choices to make, like the fundamental choice to follow Jesus. Once we decide to follow Jesus, though, we are brought together into community. Father Gregory Boyle in his wonderful book, Tatoos on the Heart, quotes Mother Teresa, who said that one of the problems in the world is that we have “forgotten that we belong to each other” (187). We belong to each other as followers of Jesus and members of this Jesus community.
We are a community seeking to be one in ministry to all the world. Jesus brings us together not simply so we can enjoy each other’s company, though I hope we do. Jesus brings us together not simply so we can work on our own personal spiritual growth, though we need to be doing that. Jesus brings us together so that as we grow in love, we share that love in the world. In confirmation, we talk about following Jesus through compassion, justice, caring for creation, and breaking down barriers. Gregory Boyle has some good words for us here, as well. “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself” (75)
This is the kind of in-crowd Jesus is still working at forming, people becoming one – one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. But “in crowd” is not a very good term for what the Spirit of Jesus does in our lives. In crowd typically implies an out crowd. Not with the Jesus community. For the Jesus community, the in crowd is an inside-out crowd. We give ourselves away in ministry to all the world, and invite all who would to join us. The love of God that we feel in our hearts, and in our community, needs to be shared with the world.
This is big stuff that you being confirmed are getting yourselves in to. It is an adventure – a crazy, courageous, joyous, sometimes heart-breaking journey. The good news is that we are not alone. We have each other. We have Jesus. The adventure continues. Amen.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Troubled Untroubled Hearts

Sermon preached May 5, 2013

Texts: John 14:23-29

An awakening of thought to knowledge, to presence, to being; to re-presentation, to knowledge, to the secret will that wills and intends in the intention, reversing the latter in an act of constitution. Is that the original awakening of thought? (Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 4) Say what?
This is not atypical of contemporary French philosophy. Sometimes the Gospel of John seems like a work of contemporary French philosophy. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” Yet, in the midst of some jumbled and confusing language, we find moments of beauty and truth that move us, that open us to life, to love, to God.
Emmanuel Levinas: Is not the face of one’s fellow man the original locus in which transcendence calls an authority with a silent voice in which God comes to the mind? (5)
Jesus: But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Jesus’ words here are wonderful and beautiful. The Spirit will be with us – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus. The promise is for peace. Yet that promise does not stand alone. The Spirit will also remind us of the life and teaching of Jesus, and to be reminded of the life and teaching of Jesus is not always peaceful. Some of Jesus teachings are challenging, difficult. There seems a paradox in this saying of Jesus. Here is the paradox - the Spirit brings peace and brings trouble.
Paradox. This is not two physicians consulting on a case. Parker Palmer says that “a paradox is a statement that seems self-contradictory but on investigation may prove to be essentially true” (The Promise of Paradox, 6). And Parker Palmer argues that one of the great gifts of the spiritual life is “the transformation of contradiction into paradox” (6). Spiritual truth often seems self-contradictory when judged by conventional logic…. The spiritual life… proceeds with a trembling confidence that God’s truth is too large for the simplicity of either-or. It can be apprehended only by the complexity of both-and. (7)
We might say that the presence of the Spirit in our lives is a paradoxical presence, peaceful and troubling together, both-and, not either-or.
When the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, is present there is peace. There is peace, a sense that our lives will be o.k, even amidst all the turbulence of the world. There is peace, a sense that our lives will be o.k., even amidst all the dislocation and discouragement in our lives. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
That peace of God, peace of Christ, peace of the Spirit is rooted in love. It is rooted in grace. For a long time I have appreciated the theologian Paul Tillich’s words about the meaning of grace. You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens to us, we experience grace. (The Shaking of the Foundations, 162).
When the Spirit comes, the Spirit reminds us of God’s love, of God’s acceptance of us. “I love you and you are mine” in the word of the song we shall soon sing. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. This grace, this love, which brings us peace, is the heart of our faith.
Yet this same Spirit reminds us of Jesus, and sometimes those reminders can trouble our untroubled hearts. In the words of Parker Palmer: The truth of the Spirit contradicts the lies we are living. The light of the Spirit contradicts our inner shadow-life. The unity of the Spirit contradicts our brokenness. (5)
The Spirit reminds us of the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. That should disturb us more than a little. Jesus told us not to be anxious, and in hearing those words don’t we become even more anxious? Life in the Spirit of Jesus is living in a love that embraces us fully, and a love that drives us out into the world to bring hope and healing, to foster compassion and justice.
The presence of the Spirit in our lives, then, is a paradoxical presence. The Spirit brings peace and the Spirit troubles our untroubled hearts. The Spirit helps us see deeply and truthfully. We see that we are loved by an unconquerable love. We are loved and are in turn to love. We see beauty, grandeur, and possibility in the world and we are awed, amazed, wonder-struck. And in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “awareness of the divine begins with wonder” (Essential Writings, 51). We see pain, hurt, violence, ugliness - and human beings trapped by them. And in the words of the French philosopher Levinas, seeing the face of another human is also to bring God to mind.
When the Spirit arrives, we see deeply and truthfully. Seeing deeply and truthfully, we live differently. When the Spirit comes, we are to not let our hearts be troubled. Yet, when the Spirit comes, sometimes our untroubled hearts are troubled, the gift of paradox. That’s life in the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus. It is life that is real life. Amen.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Beautiful World?

Sermon preached April 28, 2013

Texts: Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

U2, A Beautiful Day

The Rascals, A Beautiful Morning

Louis Armstrong, A Wonderful World

I love each of those songs. In listening, I am reminded of the line from the 1930s series of aphorisms – “Desiderata”: With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Is it?
I picked up my newspaper this week and read that with an unstable Syria next door, the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and there are concerns that it, too, may descend into civil war.
Last week in the town of West, Texas, a chemical fertilizer plant exploded, killing dozens, injuring many more, leaving a 100 foot wide, 10 feet deep hole in the ground. The very things we have invented to help us feed each other, have the potential to do great harm.
Of course there is Boston. Two young men, apparently angry and estranged, feed their alienation so that it becomes a violent malice, a malice that led them toward bombing and murder, with plans for more. The communication tools we have invented to stay connected also provide opportunities for the feeding of hatred. The same video capabilities which allow me to watch the U2 video of “It’s a Beautiful Day” allow others to watch bomb-making videos. Religious teachings, intended to bring out our best, to foster compassion, to promote peace, are twisted by anger and alienation into providing justification for violent, calculated killing.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it’s still a beautiful world? There is more than just sham and drudgery and broken dreams. Candide is right, “there is a horrible deal of evil on earth.”
Can we really say, “it’s still a beautiful world?” No and yes.
To my mind it does us little good to minimize the pain, hurt, hatred, violence, malice, discouragement and broken dreams we see in the world around us. Our Christian faith is not the faith of Pangloss, “in the best of all possible worlds, everything is for the best.” Instead we acknowledge “the spiritual forces of wickedness, the evil powers of this world” as our baptismal vows have it.
And yet, and yet, there is beauty, grace, kindness, generosity, tenderness, courage, compassion and love. In those moments when someone does his worst, other people display what is best about us – courage, compassion, care. We run toward explosions to see if anyone needs our help.
There is beauty, grace, kindness, generosity, tenderness, courage, compassion and love amidst horrible evil, malice, destructiveness. Yes there are spiritual forces of wickedness – decisions toward harm and evil build up and take up a life of their own. Hatred multiplies, and becomes something more than any one person chose. Yet in the end, what we affirm, what our faith affirms, is that beauty is stronger. Beauty and grace and kindness and goodness and generosity and tenderness and courage and compassion and love are stronger because God is at work in our lives and in our world building a newer world, a world rooted in love.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new…. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
God is at work toward a newer world. God is at work making all things new.
Jesus said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
God is at work toward a newer world, a beautiful world. God is at work making all things new. The direction of this work is love.
Have you ever been puzzled by Jesus’ words here? What’s so new about this new commandment? In Deuteronomy we are told to love God. In Leviticus we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves – yes, that’s in Leviticus. What’s new here? Maybe this. “Just as I have loved you, love.” We are to love with a Jesus-kind of love, a God-kind of love. And maybe what else is new is the scope of that love – both intimate and wide. Love one another, in the Jesus community. Love starts here. It starts in our families and in our family in faith. The distinguishing characteristic of followers of Jesus is not what we do at 10 am Sunday morning, though that matters. The distinguishing characteristic of followers of Jesus is how they relate to all those who are gathering together in the same place at 10 am Sunday morning. Are we building a community of love here?
But our love cannot just stay here. The Jesus-kind of love, the God-kind of love is broad and expansive. It reaches out. Churches are intended to be experiments in building communities of love whose love boils over into the world.
God is at work building a beautiful world rooted in love.
This is love, that we know the closeness of God. This is God’s newer world.
This is love, that tears are wiped gently away. This is God’s newer world.
This is love, that we respond to mourning. This is God’s newer world.
This is love, that we answer the cries of pain we hear. This is God’s newer world.
This is love, that the thirsty have their thirsts quenched. This is God’s newer world.
Love is a gift. You are loved. Accept that. Accept that you are excepted.
Love is a task. You are loved, so love. Take the risk to love. Exercise the courage to love. It may be a process. It often is. The important thing is that we are on that journey toward loving.
There was a fascinating article in the latest issue of The Christian Century (May 1, 2013) “Feeling forgiven helps us forgive others.” The article reported on two research projects which say that “individuals who believe that a loving God forgives them are far more likely to turn around and absolve others.” Furthermore, trust in God’s forgiveness… also may make it more likely for individuals to forgive themselves, which in turn seems to make it easier for them to extend mercy to others. By the way, all of this forgiveness also seems to have health benefits. And just one other tidbit from the report: “participants who were more satisfied with the emotional support they received from church members were more likely to forgive themselves.”
Forgiveness is a powerful form of love. Love is a gift. Accept it. Accept that you are accepted. Accept that you are forgiven. Love is a task. You are loved – love. You are forgiven – forgive. Now both are processes, as I’ve said before – especially forgiveness – but are we on the journey? And the quality of our life together here helps us love and forgive ourselves and others. We are companions on the way.
And then God takes our acts of love and uses them to build God’s newer world. And when we love, it is like that newer world breaking into this world of ours. With all its sham, drudgery, broken dreams, pain, hurt, horror, it’s still a beautiful world because God’s newer beautiful world begins here, breaks in here. It blossoms in our lives. It is meant to flourish in our life together here. It is intended to be shared with the world. When we love, we work with God to create a more beautiful world. There is no greater joy, no more delightful purpose for our lives. By this will all know that we follow Jesus. Love. Amen.