Friday, August 30, 2013

TMI or Is Ignorance Bliss?

Sermon preached August 25, 2013

Texts: II Peter 2:15-22; Romans 2:12-16

I think I have told you that I am sometimes reticent to tell people with whom I am flying that I am a pastor. The reactions can be fascinating. “Oh, you’re a pastor! What do you think about what our pastor did recently?” “You know, I haven’t been to church in twenty years and let me tell you why.” Maybe you can give me some advice?” “Do you think we are living in the end times?” Uncomfortable silence – as if this person cannot wait until this flight is over and hopefully he’ll have someone more fun to sit with on the next leg of the journey.
The most awkward conversation I ever had on an airplane, though, had nothing to do with my being a clergy person. I was seated next to a woman on a flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix who was just getting away from it all. She had been going through a rough time, most recently a sinus surgery. She shared some of her woes, and went into some detail about her sinus surgery, how stuff can just get hard in there and needs to be chiseled out. It is about such conversations that the three-letter acronym TMI is intended – “too much information.”
When we were expecting Sarah, our son David was 8 and our daughter Beth was six – old enough to notice the changes in their mother’s body. So how are babies born? Wanting to be good parents, and wanting to share accurate information appropriately, we went to the local library, the educational videos section, and found an animated feature that was supposed to help parents explain to their children where babies come from. We sat down to watch it together, and it gave accurate information. After the movie, we asked David and Beth if they had any questions. They were completely silent, speechless might be better. They never asked about this again. They may very well have responded TMI. I wonder if the roots of Beth’s career as an OB/GYN can be traced to that night?
Too much information. We know the phenomenon, but do we follow that and argue that ignorance is bliss? This morning’s Scripture reading from Second Peter, the final “sticky Scripture’ in this summer’s sermon series, suggests as much. “It would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.” To make his point as sharp as possible, the writer adds: It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”
Is there such a thing as spiritual TMI? Is spiritual ignorance bliss? It might be helpful recall that II Peter was written sometime late in the First Century or even the early Second Century. As is true of other New Testament letters, there is some dispute going on in the Christian Community about what it means to follow Jesus. Seems we Christians have been discussing issues about the meaning of following Jesus since the beginning. The writer resorts to some pretty strong language in describing his opponents. They are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm…. They speak bombastic nonsense. As already noted, the opponents of the author are like dogs returning to their vomit or pigs wallowing in the mud just after being cleaned.
The writer argues against teachers who “secretly bring in destructive opinions.” Just what these opinions are is unclear, but what is important is that they are destructive – destructive of the Jesus way of life, of the Jesus community, and destructive for the person herself or himself. The ideas are less the problem, whatever they may have been, than their destructive import, and their self-destructive consequences.
For the writer, these destructive teachers had begun in a good place, but now they have wondered off. Better had they never known. Can we have too much spiritual information? Is ignorance bliss? Should our church services come with warning labels – you might hear something here today that you wish you never knew?
I don’t think the point of the writer of II Peter is that it is better not to know. He is not really arguing that spiritual ignorance is bliss. Instead he is arguing that we need to take responsibility for our spiritual insights and our growth in the Spirit. We need to integrate knowledge and love. Knowledge and love together are wisdom. Wisdom is our goal – loving wisely.
Theologian Daniel Day Williams: Whatever opens the person to the richness of the world beyond himself, whatever encourages the mind to give itself to the search for what is there to be known, whatever releases the person from defensiveness about his present structure of thought, and whatever overcomes distraction and triviality is the search for truth, contributes to the work of reason. And here surely we are not far from a definition of love. (The Spirit and Forms of Love, 287-288). Love. Wisdom.
Pondering II Peter and the issue of spiritual TMI, thinking about knowing and love and wisdom, I want to share three important thoughts.
In writing about one of his plays, and its protagonist, the playwright Arthur Miller penned these words. “The Man cannot bear to accept living without the truth whatever it may cost his self-esteem” (Collected Plays, 1964-1982, 782). There is something about this character that is deeply human. There is something inside of us that wants to know, that drives us to open up to the richness of the world. The theologian Daniel Day Williams in the same book already quoted writes, the search for the vision of God, the eros for truth, is one manifestation of that will to belong which, we have seen, is the image of God in [the human] (300-301). “To love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth,” Williams says (300).
Ignorance really cannot be bliss, ultimately, spiritually, because the very Spirit of God in us drives us toward deeper knowledge, opens us to the richness of the world. To love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth.
That does not mean knowledge is comfortable, or that our discoveries about the world are easy to deal with. That’s my second thought. On our vacation we visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. What an utterly enthralling place. Ford was fascinated by discoveries and innovation, so there was a lot there about the development of the automobile and the airplane. The museum also had sections devoted to the human quest for liberty and justice in the U.S. The bus Rosa Parks refused to move seats in is in the Henry Ford. The struggle for women’s equality was traced. To know some of that history is not easy. Sometimes I pine for simpler times, better times, but better for whom. The early 1950s seemed ideal in many ways, though I was not alive then, but African-Americans could not drink from the same fountains, sit at the same lunch counters, attend the same schools as European-Americans. We also saw “The Butler” while on vacation. In the mid 1800s, women had fewer rights than men who were in insane asylums. Legacies of slavery and discrimination remain – and that is uncomfortable knowledge.
There is a memorable episode of the television show MASH, where a pilot comes to the 4077th MASH, slightly injured. He discusses how nice the war has been for him – several times a week he flies missions, drops his load of bombs, and heads back to the base for dinner at the officer’s club and perhaps drinks and dancing. He has to hang around the MASH unit for a few days, and Hawkeye wants him to see something else. A Korean child has been brought in, wounded by a bombing. The pilot asks, “Was it one of ours or one of theirs?” Hawkeye, “What difference does it make?” “It makes a difference, a lot of difference.” “Not to her.” Later Hawkeye tell the pilot, “You seem like a decent guy, too decent to think this could be anything like a clean war.”
Opening up to the world, we can discover difficult truths among the richness of the world. We have to learn to live with these truths, but living with them is part of spiritual maturity. Even when the truth is difficult, ignorance is not bliss. One problem with the false teachers in II Peter was that they wanted people to believe that truth is easy, that one does not have to struggle sometimes. But we have to struggle in the spiritual life sometimes.
Third thought. We are driven to know, to open to the richness of life. Sometimes what we discover is wonderful and beautiful, and sometimes it is difficult. What we need to do is to take our knowledge, integrate it with love and act on it. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Truth does not free us from difficulty. Truth does not free us from complexity. Truth does not free us from the obligation to think. Truth frees us for wise loving, and to act wisely and lovingly. I love the song we sometimes sing – “Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness.” The point of the passages in II Peter is not that we should not know. The point the writer is conveying is that followers of Jesus should know better, and live better because they know.
Paul makes a similar point in Romans 2. Writing of persons who did not have the Jewish Scriptures, he says, “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness.” What matters, Paul is saying, is that we put our knowledge into action. Earlier in his writing, the author of II Peter says something similar, and says it rather beautifully. You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. (1:5-7)
Is there such a thing as spiritual TMI? Is ignorance bliss in the spiritual life? No. The bottom line is that there is something inside of us that drives us to know, to open up to the richness of the world. It is part of the image of God in us as human beings. We ignore this to our diminishment. We are, however, responsible for our knowing, for putting our knowledge to work through love.
This is the spiritual journey. It is a journey toward maturity. “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up” (Ephesians 4:15. Also James 1:4) Would it be better not to have begun? No.
And here’s another bottom line, we are not on this journey alone. We have each other. We have the love of God. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us” (I John 4:10). Because we are loved, we love, and to love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth. To mature spiritually is to live richly and truthfully, and in God’s grace. It is good that we are on this journey. Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

George Michael Says... (A Meaningful Life - Faith)

Sermon preached August 11, 2013

Texts: Hebrews 11:1-3; Luke 12:32-40

Play George Michael “Faith.”


I am trying to update my musical examples a little. This song is from 1987. I am working my way to the twenty-first century!
The song’s lyrics may leave you wondering just a bit. It is a song about a physical relationship, but it is about not getting involved in a physical relationship because the singer is looking for love with devotion. You got to have faith.
This is the second of a series of two sermons on a meaningful life. In order to live a meaningful life, you got to have faith. Last week’s sermon was on a meaningful life as focusing not on how much, but on how well. To say a meaningful life focuses on how well we live instead of on how much we accumulate is a statement of faith, a statement of trust.
In order to live a meaningful life, you got to have faith, and we do. The core of faith is trust, and as human beings, we live with a degree of trust. All of us do. We believe that we live in a world with a certain amount of order to it. We trust that each day the sun will rise and set. We trust that the people we knew yesterday will know us today, unless some kind of disease process has occurred. We trust that our senses tell us something about the world we experience, and that there is a measure of consistency and order in that world. We trust that our lives have some kind of significance to them, that there are not simply full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. To even ask questions about life’s meaning and purpose is to have some faith, some trust, that the question is worth asking.
All human beings have a modicum of this kind of basic faith or ordinary faith (B. A. Gerrish, Secular and Saving Faith, 33, 47; Schubert Ogden, The Understanding of Christian Faith, 24). To lack any such basic faith is to live in a completely untrustworthy world. The psychologist Erik Erikson posited that the first psychological experiences of our lives move us in the direction of more or less trust in the world. When we have positive care in our lives, trust predominates and that feeds hope and drive in the child. When distrust becomes strong, our psychological growth is impaired (Erikson, Childhood and Society, 250, 274. See also Donald Evans, Struggle and Fulfillment). Even when the struggle for trust is difficult, though, there is a basic faith that the struggle is worth it.
This basic or ordinary faith fits the broad definition given in Hebrews 11 of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We can’t see the future, but we have a basic trust that certain features of the world will not change – water will be wet, people we know will continue to know us, the sun will come up, as the body ages it changes. On such faith we get up and go through our lives, taking care of the things we need to take care of – working, parenting perhaps, caring for a significant relationship perhaps, eating, figuring out our finances.
Life can be more, and I think we want more than simply to go through the motions of life. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, in which Campbell said: People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (Campbell with Moyers, The Power of Myth, 4-5)
A meaningful life is a more fully alive life, the experience of being more alive. A meaningful life connects our innermost being and reality with the ultimate reality of the universe. Another take on this is offered by the late psychologist Abraham Maslow. He distinguishes between coping or adapting behavior and creative or expressive behavior. Creative and expressive behavior has to do with “beauty, art, fun, play, wonder, awe, joy, love, happiness, and other ‘useless’ reactions and end-experiences” (Motivation and Personality, 131) We want and need both. We need to do what needs to be done for life to continue, and we trust that there is some order to the world so that we can care for the bare necessities. We also want to feel alive, to know beauty, play, joy, wonder, awe, happiness, and love. We want to open ourselves to reality with its wonder and even its challenges.
Christian faith, at its best, offers us that more because the God of Jesus Christ is the truly trustworthy ultimate reality, and this God wants us to know life at its best, wants us to feel alive, wants us to know in our innermost being that we are loved and cared for.
Rowan Williams is the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury. In his book on the Nicene Creed, Williams writes about trust and God. “I believe in God the Father almighty” isn’t the first in a set of answers to the question, “How many ideas or pictures have I inside my head?” as if God were the name of one more doubtful thing like UFOs and ghosts to add to the list of the furniture in my imagination. It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home. (Tokens of Trust, 6)
Christian faith is about trust, but it is trust in God as the ultimately trustworthy reality. While Hebrews 11 begins with a generic definition of faith that describes ordinary or basic faith, it quickly moves on to a certain invisible reality. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God.”
And who is this God we know in Jesus? Why should we consider God trustworthy? Williams: This and this alone is God’s “agenda”: the world he has made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt. (8) Williams goes on to say: What the Bible puts before us is not a record of a God who is always triumphantly getting his way… but a God who gets his way by patiently struggling to make himself clear to human being, to make his love real to them, especially when they seem not to want to know, or to want to avoid him and retreat into their own fantasies about him. (16) Jesus: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
A meaningful life, an alive life, is to tune into this ultimate reality which is the God we know in Jesus, to trust God, and this opens us to all reality and gives us the courage to live graciously, generously, lovingly even when the world seems to be going in other directions.
I want to share three quotes with you that speak to me about the life of faith, the life where we trust God to open us up to life, to love, to our innermost selves. This life is the full rich life we have in Jesus Christ.
Rowan Williams: When we express faith in “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” we affirm that we have grounds for hoping that our lives, in all their fragmentedness, their conflict and their imperfection, can be held and drawn into cohesion – just as the diverse and alarming world itself is held in cohesion – so that God’s own self-consistent active love and beauty may be reflected within the universe. We have grounds for hoping that our lives here within the complex system of created reality can show in some degree the gratuitious and generous love out of which everything comes, the love of the Creator in whose image we are made. (55) We trust God’s love and are more alive. We trust God’s love and demonstrate that trust in loving. We open our arms wide to the world. To trust God is to give our hearts to the One who is the heartbeat of love in the universe, and in response to God’s trustworthy love we are dressed for action and have our lamps lit – always ready to bring a little more light into the world – a little more joy and beauty and adventure.
Michael Eigen: Suffering never vanishes, not for long…. Pain does not go away but you can make/find a bigger field, so that it takes up less space. Doing this takes practice…. Crucifixions don’t stop…. If you stay with it, there may be a resurrection. A kind of constant conjunction, crucifixion-resurrection. A basic rhythm I call a rhythm of faith. (Faith and Transformation, 109-110. On courage and risk, see also Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, 99-105). To live fully is to risk suffering and to take that risk is to know that we will suffer. A full life is a life of courage, the courage to risk suffering in a hurting world. It hurts to look at a world where there remains too much violence, too much hunger, too much hatred. It hurts to care about others and see them suffer – the family that lost a loved one too young, the articulate woman who struggles to put words together after a stroke, the parents whose child died. We could hide, but that’s not really living. With God, we have the courage not to shy away. We trust that with God we can find a bigger field in our lives so suffering doesn’t take up too much space. Instead we have more space for joy, beauty and play. We trust that with God we can find a rhythm of faith that is crucifixion-resurrection.
Ernest Becker: The ideal critique of a faith must always be whether it embodies within itself the fundamental contradictions of the human paradox and yet is able to support them without fanaticism, sadism, and narcissism, but with openness and trust. (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 198. See also Richard Beck, The Authenticity of Faith) Faith in the God of Jesus Christ, trust in God as the ultimate reality which we trust and to which we tune our lives, opens us to life in all its wonder and all its tragedy. We see the world as it is and revel in its joyous mysteries. We see the world as it is and trust that it can be something different. We hold these fundamental contradictions together, and we can do that without being theological bullies, or self-absorbed spiritualists. In this there is joy, beauty, fullness of life.
You got to have faith, faith, faith – authentic faith, which opens us to the fullness of reality and makes possible fullness of life. A meaningful life is a life of such faith, where we engage reality with courage and determination, knowing that we are loved wildly by God, who is the trustworthy ultimate reality.
I have offered some long quotes because they spoke to me. I know they don’t speak to everyone. Something else spoke to me this week. In my personal Scripture reading, I read this verse from I Peter (4:19): Therefore let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good. I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s rendering. So if you find life difficult because you’re doing what God said, take it in stride. Trust him. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll keep doing it.
There, for me, is the faith, the trust, that is at the heart of a meaningful life. Sometimes life is difficult, even when we are doing good. In fact, doing good opens us to the hurt of others. In the midst of life, both wonderful and difficult, I entrust my life to a faithful Creator, and I seek to keep doing good. As George Michael says, you got to have faith, faith, faith. Amen.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Meaningful Life: Not How Much, How Well

Sermon preached August 4, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12: 13-21

Play “Money, That’s What I Want.” Barrett Strong
That’s a song most of us could sing with a great deal of feeling, don’t you think? My first job was as a golf caddy at Northland Country Club, and I enjoyed earning the money I made, and felt some disappointment when the tip was small or non-existent. I enjoy many of the things I own.
I’ve got some good news for all of us this morning. God wants us to be rich. That’s right, God wants us to be rich.
Having said that, I don’t think I mean the same thing that some others who say that mean. Pastor Joel Osteen has said: When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance. He is a preacher who preaches a form of what some have called the Prosperity Gospel, or Prosperity Theology. In a 2006 Time poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%--a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America--agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. (,9171,1533448,00.html#ixzz2apdYagZR)
It can be easy to dismiss such thinking, especially from a pastor who received a reported $13 million advance for one of his books. If God really wanted everyone to be financially rich, wouldn’t churches be the places where money was never a problem? That’s not true for most churches I know.
But I don’t want to merely dismiss the link between faith and our economic lives, our everyday financial concerns. I believe God cares about our economic and financial well-being, but I think the testimony of the Bible is not that God wants everyone to be financially rich, but that it is God’s desire that everyone have enough. We would have a difficult time reading the Bible and not encountering numerous references to the hungry, the poor, the widow, the orphan. In building up to his powerful words “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream,” the prophet Amos decries his society’s treatment of the poor. Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses hewn of stone, but you shall not live in them…. I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, who push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5) The New Testament letter of James echoes these thoughts. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (1:27) In this I hear a desire of God that everyone have enough.
Yet I think God, in love, desires more than for us just to get by in life. Yet the rich life God desires for us is of a different order. Jesus tells a story. The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there will I will store all my grain and goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus ends the story and continues with these words: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
God’s desire is that we have enough, and that call of God to the human community to so structure its life that people have enough should ring in our ears and echo in our hearts, God’s desire is that we have enough, but also that we are rich – rich toward God.
What does that look like? “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” the author of Colossians tells us. To be rich toward God is to see our lives as more than the outward trappings of success, more than a balance sheet. I don’t mean by this that one’s economic well-being or successfulness are unimportant, only that it does not define us completely. Just like I like some of my stuff, I like to succeed. When I was in school I did well. I have a Ph.D. that I worked hard for. The other night at softball, I took a called final strike, and my lack of success bothered me for a good two or three hours. How can you strike out in slow pitch softball for goodness sake?
Being rich toward God has more to do with our inner lives, what is often hidden, and then how we live out the character of Christ that is being formed inside of us. The writer of Colossians goes on to say a lot about what being rich toward God shouldn’t be – fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying. Some of the terms are vague and need discussion, but the sense one gets is that as human beings we have inclinations, desires, that can be good, but can be poorly used. Sexuality is a good gift – misused it creates great harm. Passion is a good thing – but needs to be well-directed. Anger may have a place in the work of justice and love, but to be angry all the time about the way the world is typically isn’t as helpful in changing the world. Hatred and malice have little to no place in the “new self” – the person “being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” For a more positive look at what being rich toward God might be like, we need to read on in Colossians 3. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love.
The problem with the farmer in the story Jesus tells is not that he was prosperous, it is that he began to define himself by his economic well-being. “Soul, you have ample goods.” Does having a lot mean having a rich soul? Does it mean being rich toward God? The tragic tales of troubled rich people suggests otherwise – think Aaron Hernandez, Alex Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan. The farmer focuses only on how much he has, not how well he is living his life, how well it is with his soul. While he can be commended for thinking ahead, he can be faulted for not thinking of others. He lacks generosity. He has become, it seems, completely caught up in his wealth and possessions. In a sense they possess him as much as he possesses them.
I still love the story about the novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, both now dead. One time they attended a party on Shelter Island at the home of a wealthy man. Vonnegut told Heller, perhaps to get his goat a bit or perhaps to bemoan their common fate as authors, that their host, a hedge fund manager had made more money in a single day than Heller had made entirely from the sale of his best-selling book, Catch-22. Heller replied, “Yes, but I have something that this man will never have… enough” (Bogle, Enough, 1). In writing about the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12, the New Testament scholar Dan Via says, “Such seeking for security is death, for in it one becomes the slave of the very realities which he hopes will give him security” (The Parables, 120).
Holding too tightly to our goods, we can become trapped by them. Holding them more loosely, we feel richer. I don’t know about you, but there is a joy I experience when giving some money for others and to good causes. But the generosity which makes us rich toward God is not just financial generosity, it is a generosity of spirit - compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiveness and, above all, love. When we are rich on the inside, in those hidden places, such riches cannot be easily taken away.
God wants us to be rich, to be rich toward God. God wants us to have enough, but also to know “enough” – not getting too caught up in money and success. God desires that we be rich in generosity, which means holding our stuff more loosely, including giving generously, and also means nurturing a generosity of spirit.
I want to end this morning by reminding us just how rich we are here at First UMC. At one time we were a rich church, that is, we had some very wealthy families that helped build this building and sustain a large staff. While we have a variety of incomes here in the church today, we are not as rich a church as we once were in that sense.
Yet I celebrate just how rich a church we are. Tim Robinson and Gary Lundstrom have been a part of our congregation for many years now. They have been a couple since before they came here. On Thursday morning, 7 am in the Rose Garden, on the shores of Lake Superior, Tim and Gary legally married. Mayor Don Ness officiated as a friend of Gary and Tim. I participated in the service to the extent that I could given our denominational policies. Looking out at those gathered, I was completely amazed by the number of people there from this church. It was incredible. Many of you thanked me for being a part of the service, and hoped that I was not getting into trouble. Thank you. Your generosity of spirit toward me over these past eight plus years helped me be there Thursday morning. Now interestingly I had a meeting scheduled with our United Methodist District Superintendent Pam Serdar later that morning. I debated what to say to her about the morning, but decided I rather she hear it from me than from the news, so I told her I participated in the wedding service. My intent was not to violate church rules, and I don’t believe I did because while I prayed and preached, I did not “officiate.” I think it’s going to be o.k. But one other thing I did that morning was brag a little bit on you all to Pam. This was my annual review, and among the things that I said was going well was the wonderful generosity of spirit that I sense, and feel, and experience here. We have been through a lot together this past couple of years – some change in prominent staff, church merger, experimenting with worship time. Such things can be mine fields, but you have been gracious and generous of spirit. I celebrate that.
Let’s continue our journey toward being rich together, rich toward God. Life is not about how much, but about how well. Amen.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Sticky Taffy Sermon

Sermon preached July 28, 2013

Texts: Romans 8:31-39

I guess when you take requests for sermons, as I have this summer, you should be ready for surprises. In the sermon suggestion box earlier this summer I discovered a piece of candy. Kind of unusual – then I found the accompanying sermon suggestion. “Relate how salt water taffy warms the heart like the song of God.” Someone also suggested the verses we read from Romans 8, not so much because they found the verses difficult – the theme for the summer sermon suggestions was “sticky Scriptures” – but because they wanted to see what I might do with it.
This morning you get to see what I will do with both Romans 8 and salt water taffy. I do want to say this, however. The taffy suggestion seems to want me to sing the praises of taffy. I intend to use taffy to sing the praises of God.
One of the qualities of taffy is stickiness. There are some different connotations for the idea of stickiness. We can talk about getting stuck – stuck in the snow, stuck in the mud, stuck in traffic, emotionally stuck. That kind of stickiness, that kind of getting stuck is a negative. We can get stuck spiritually as well.
There is a more positive kind of stickiness. When we want to repair torn paper we use sticky tape. When we want to hang a poster we may use sticky poster putty. There are times when it is good that things are sticky because we want them to adhere. We use the term metaphorically to talk about relationships – stick together. We also talk about stickiness as persistence, and that is a good thing – stick to it, stick with it.
This summer’s sticky Scriptures sermon series has mostly been about negative stickiness, and we have one more such sticky Scripture sermon coming later in August. Why would I want to even do such a thing? Because people do get stuck on some Scriptures or theological ideas that get in the way of their spiritual life. Stuck on a difficult idea, they can get spiritually stuck. How can we make sense of the Bible at all? Does it have to be interpreted literally? Did God, in essence, write every word? How do we try and distinguish the human element in the Bible? How do we distinguish the metaphorical, symbolic, mythic? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we pay so much attention to the two verses in Leviticus supposedly about homosexuality, ignore most of the rest of the book, and miss what is most important in it? What do we do with all those passages where God is violent? What about Revelation – the book? It has been an adventurous summer.
I wanted to tackle such questions with you because they can be sticking points in one’s spiritual life. I want to help us get unstuck. I hope we have helped open the Scriptures up in new ways so God’s Spirit can speak to our lives through them.
Today, though, I want to focus on positive stickiness in response to the taffy and Romans 8 suggestions. Here is the sticky question – what do we want to stick with us in our faith? What do we want to adhere most deeply in our hearts, minds souls? What do we want to stick with us, and stick with as God’s people loved in Jesus? What do we want to warm our hearts like salt water taffy? I think that is just the question Paul is answering in the verses we read from Romans 8, though I’m not sure he was prompted by a piece of taffy.
First a multi-media interlude (picture). I saw this picture for the first time in many, many years last weekend. It looks pretty old – black and white, the hair and the clothes. I am in it – age 15 or 16. Some of the sons and daughters of this congregation are also in the picture. I was 14 when I found Jesus, or Jesus found me, at my United Methodist Church. It was at that time that something started to really stick me, and stick to me about Christian faith. It sent me on a journey trying to figure out what following this Jesus meant, and at least for a season in my life, it sent me beyond my local United Methodist Church. You probably gathered that this was not a United Methodist Church picnic, though it is a church picnic – a church formed as part of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s.

I have grown and changed since this picture. My understanding of Jesus and what God’s love means has grown and changed since this picture. How I read the Bible has changed since this picture.
What has stuck, and still sticks with me, is God’s love in Jesus Christ – a patient, persistent, embracing, welcoming, relentless love.
I have asked a lot of questions since those days, and I still ask a lot of questions. I have a much deeper appreciation for the mystery of life, the world and God than I did in those days. In asking my questions, though, I have had this experience described by the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. Out of the darkness comes a voice disclosing that the ultimate mystery is not an enigma but the God of mercy (God in Search of Man, 353). There are many questions to be pondered, many mysteries to be explored and appreciated. In the midst of it all is the God of mercy, the God of love. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For 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.
This love of God saves. Jesus saves. My understanding of that has changed, but not my conviction that the love of God in Jesus saves. I now think of salvation as something that is just as important now as when we face death, but it is still rooted in the love of God. Here is some theology about salvation offered by one of my teachers and theological mentors, Schubert Ogden. By “salvation” is properly meant, first of all and fundamentally, the redemptive activity of God whereby the whole of humankind, and thus each and every human being, notwithstanding the universal fact of sin, is accepted into God’s own everlasting life – the theological term for this divine activity being “grace.” And then, secondly, and in absolute dependence on God’s grace, salvation is the activity of a woman or man through which she or he accepts God’s acceptance – the theological term for this human activity being “faith” and, more exactly, “faith working through love,” a love that, as I like to say, incarnates itself as justice. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 123). God’s love in Jesus saves in its acceptance of us, its embrace of us, just as we are – like the old hymn, “Just As I Am.” It saves us from all those feelings of guilt, shame, unworthiness, that plague many of us. God’s love in Jesus saves by inviting a response of faith – accepting our acceptance, and then living life differently because of that – loving, working for justice. It saves us from wondering lost in the world by giving us direction and purpose, in this life, right here and now. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For 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.
What about our lives as we face death, and we will all face death? There, too, we will encounter God’s love. In the face of the mystery of death, we will encounter the God of mercy. My teacher Schubert Ogden put it this way: in spite of the transience and death of all things, and even in spite of our own sinfulness as human beings, their and our final destiny is to be embraced everlastingly by God’s love (136). Our hope and trust is that “in God nothing is lost” (William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 176), in the words of the theologian Karl Barth: No suffering or joy… no ray of sunlight; no note which ever has sounded… no wing-beat of the day-fly in the far flung epochs of geological time (Placher, 176). This love with which God loves us in Jesus Christ now, which saves us now, doesn’t end at death, but saves us there, too. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For 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.
Through all these years, this patient, persistent, embracing, welcoming, relentless love of God in Jesus has stuck with me – this love which is there in the midst of mystery and questions, this love which heals, frees, saves – now and at the hour of death.
I hope that love has been sticking with you, too. Let God love you. Accept that you are accepted. One of the wonderful things about the journey of faith is that over time new images of God’s love and grace emerge. Recently I read this story told by Father Gregory Boyle in his book Tatoos on the Heart. Father Boyle spent some time as a priest in Bolivia, and he recounts one time a Mass he gave in an open field where everything seemed to go wrong. His Spanish was inadequate. It felt awful. Following the Mass an elderly woman wants to give her confession. She had not been to confession in ten years, so she has a lot to say, but Father Boyle understands almost none of it because she is speaking in her native language. He offers some penance as best he can, and then, getting ready to leave, discovers that everyone else is gone. He has no ride down the mountain. “I am convinced that a worse priest has never visited this place or walked this earth” (37).
As he gathers his things to make his way down the mountain to the town, an old peasant approaches him. He thanks Father Boyle for coming, then reaches into his suit coat pocket and pulls out two fistfuls of multi-colored rose petals. He drops them over Father Boyle’s head, reaches in for more and continues the gesture, leaving Father Boyle speechless and in tears. He writes in his book: God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God…. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restrictions of not measuring up…. The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop , endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take His eyes off of you. (38-39)
A new image to stick with me, to let God’s sticky love stay with me. Let God love you. Let God drop rose petals on your head.
Let God love through and with you. May you be one who drops the rose petals of God’s love and justice on the heads of others.
Let this stick with you. Stick to this faith, this love and the road it leads us on. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For 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. Stickery than taffy. Amen.