Thursday, October 31, 2013

Play Ball

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

Texts: Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Heart" Not the Band

Sermon preached October 20, 2013

Texts: II Timothy 3:14-17; Luke 18:1-8

            This week Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Not long ago, the world lost a former Nobel laureate in literature when the Irish poet Seamus Heaney died on August 30.  He won the award in 1995.
            One of Heaney’s poems is entitled “Keeping Going.”  It is a poem dedicated to his brother Hugh who stayed on the family farm.  It contains an image of Hugh as a boy using a white wash brush and a kitchen chair to pretend he was playing the bag pipes.  It also contains a starling image of a North Ireland reservist shot to death while waiting for a ride, a reminder that our lives cannot be isolated from the troubles of the wider world.
            The year following being awarded the Nobel prize, Heaney gave a poetry reading and lecture at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.  He read “Keeping Going” and then followed with these remarks (play).
{Interview with Seamus Heaney:}
Do you ever imagine what God’s voice would sound like – James Earl Jones? Whoopi Goldberg?  George Burns?  I kind of like to imagine God sounds like Seamus Heaney.
Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about.  Getting started, keeping going, getting started again.  That’s it.
Is it?  I am not sure if given time even Seamus Heaney would have said that his statement was unequivocally and completely true, but there is truth here, important truth.  We hear it in our Scripture readings for this morning.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it.”  Keeping going.
“The Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  Keeping going.  Heart, though not the band.  Some of you may have been hoping to hear some of “Crazy On You” or “Magic Man” and if you have no idea who the band “Heart” is, it is o.k.  You’ll get through life just fine.
Let’s explore the passage from Luke just a bit more.  Jesus tells this story, the gospel narrator tells us, in order to encourage us to keeping praying and not lose heart.  The story itself is both true to life and somewhat confusing in its context.  It is about a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  It is about a widow seeking justice.  At first the judge refuses.  Either he does not think the widow’s case has merit or he has little concern for justice.  Perhaps he recognizes that the widow has very little social status.  She is among the voiceless and powerless.  Yet she finds her voice, and is so persistent that the judge relents to her request.  “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
The story is true to life.  We know what it can be like to want to just get someone off our case.  It is a little odd as a lesson about prayer.  There is the underlying implication that there is something of God in this judge.  Jesus ends by saying, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?”  Are we to be pests in prayer?  Does God need to be bothered to do justice?
That does not seem like God to me, nor does it fit with Jesus teachings about God.  Rather God is at work for justice in the world, but the world is a bit like the judge.  Don’t we know what it is like to experience the world as a place that often has no respect for God or for people and their struggles?
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Our task in the world is to be people of faith, of trust, of heart.  Our task in the world is to trust that indeed God is at work for justice, God is at work for goodness, God is at work creating beauty, God is at work for reconciliation, God is love.  We trust that, and we do not lose heart.  We are about getting started, keeping going, getting started again.
This is important because the world can be a discouraging place.  Our government ended its shutdown and averted a potential fiscal calamity, but I am not convinced we have seen the last of government by crisis.  Our political system seems more geared to the next election than to governing for the common good.  While our government struggles, hunger remains, poverty grows, the gap between those doing extraordinarily well and many others widens.  What is so disheartening to me is that I grew up in a time when there was talk about a great society. I was only four when then President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech at the University of Michigan on “the great society.”
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life….  The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.  It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.  But that is just the beginning.  The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.  It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.  It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
Just so you know, I did not memorize that at age 4.  The point I am making is that it is discouraging to me to see how far we seem to have fallen in our national aspirations.  Our goal has been to avert crisis, not build a better world.
It is a tough time to be the church, particularly mainline or old-line or long-standing denominational churches.  In the United States, the number of persons in such churches has diminished.  Newer churches have sprung up, and part of their selling point is that they are not us.  I drove by a church the other day with the logo – “Real God, real people.”  The underlying implication might be “and no denomination” though I know there is a denomination involved.  And there is a lot of hand-wringing in our denomination, and a lot of it focused on pastoral leadership.  There is quite a bit of stuff out there that says that the reason The United Methodist Church has lost members is because it lacks the right kind of leaders.  One highly-touted denominational report said that “a large portion of the Church’s clergy has performance effectiveness issues.”  More recently a United Methodist lay person and economist shared with one of our denominational boards that a retired United Methodist bishop shared with him that “we have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.”  I hope you don’t mind me saying that this can be discouraging.
It is into this world, this world as it is that the message comes, “do not lose heart.”  Do not lose heart.  Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – heart.  Do not lose that.  Keep on praying.  Keep on reading those Scriptures that are intended to equip us for every good work.  Keep doing the good.  Keep working for justice.  Keep creating beauty.  Keep struggling with those things in your life that you need to struggle with.  Keep loving.  Trust that God is at work.  Trust that God works with, in the words of the philosopher Whitehead, “the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, uncorrected edition, 520).  Trust that working with God energizes us for life, makes for a meaningful life.
In our keeping going there are many to inspire us along the way.  Many of us continue to be inspired by the young Pakistani girl, Malala.  Since age 11, she has been standing up for the education of girls in her native Pakistan.  At age 15 she was shot by a Taliban soldier for her standing up for education.  She has recovered and remain undeterred in her work.  She was considered for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
I am inspired by my family.  If United Methodist pastors are sometimes under fire, school teachers are even more so and by a wider group.  The teaching profession is frequently denigrated as examples of marginal teachers who are difficult to let go are dredged up time and again as if this was the norm among teachers.  My wife Julie keeps going, giving her heart and soul to the education and well-being of children, whether in first grade or children with special challenges.  This morning in the United Methodist Church in Virginia our son David is preaching for laity Sunday.  He is going to share how his faith and church have been important to him as he has dealt with the difficult issues around support for and custody of his daughter.  His daughter has significant developmental issues and has been diagnosed with Rett syndrome.  Given her needs, David has given up trying to fight for visitation.  Our daughter Beth broke her hip at age 10.  It may be one of the reasons she is a doctor today, doing her residency in Rochester, NY.  Standing for long periods of time on those long days is uncomfortable, but she continues her work.  Sarah meets new challenges, like being a camp counselor this summer and now beginning her Doctor of Physical Therapy program, with a lot of grace and poise.  My family inspires me.
I am inspired by many of you.  I witness how many struggle with illness with grace.  I see how many deal with death with courage.  I witness how often you give of your time and energy not just here inside these walls but in our community, and I know I don’t know nearly all of that.  I appreciated this week how we have been hanging in there, though tired and stretched.
Among the lines Seamus Heaney ends his poem “Keeping Going” with are these:
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens…..

But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all?  As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

            My friends, you have good stamina.  You have heart.  It is about keeping going as we follow Jesus.  It is also about walking on air against our better judgment to follow the winds of the Spirit.  It is also about working with the tender elements of the world which slowly and in quietness operate by love so that, at least sometimes, hope and history rhymes.

            Heart, not the band.  Keeping going.  Together.  Amen.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Beyond the Smile

Sermon preached October 13, 2013

Texts: Luke 17:11-19

            I am backsliding.  Just a couple of weeks after I said I would look for sermon examples from more contemporary culture, here I am reaching back, back before my time.
            Accentuate The Positive:
            That’s Bing Crosby from the 1940s.  Bing was still around when I was a boy, he even sang a duet with David Bowie.  Of course, David Bowie is no longer a young man.  So for those of you who are younger, you might be wondering what kind of name is “Bing,” just like some who are older may be asking what kind of name is “Kayne.”  I figured I better get something from this century into this part of the sermon.
            Accentuate the positive.  That is a popular message in much of our culture, and it has been for some time.  The Power of Positive Thinking was an enormous best-seller for many years.  More recently, popular speakers like Loretta Laroche offer advice like:
Squeeze the juice out of every moment of every day. Let it be filled with delight, joy, love, and good humor.
            Many of us have heard this story, I am guessing.  Once there were five-year-old twin boys, one a pessimist and the other an optimist.  Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike could be so different, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high with new toys, expecting the boy to be thrilled. But instead he burst into tears. Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, "don't you want to play with these toys?" "Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them."  Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure. The boy yelped with delight, clambered to the top of the pile, and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop, tossing the manure into the air with glee. "What on earth are you doing?" the psychiatrist asked.  "Well,” said the boy, beaming “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
            Such stories and sayings are often summarized on bumper stickers about having an attitude of gratitude.
            You may notice that I smile a lot.  It comes easy.  One time I heard that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown.  I guess I enjoy doing what’s easier.
            So, is smiling a lot, is encouragement to have an attitude of gratitude, is looking for a pony in the piles of manure, is positive thinking the heart of biblical, Christian, faith-rooted gratitude?  Does God just want us to put on a happy face, or is there more beyond and behind the smile that we need to dig into?
            There is little question that today’s story about Jesus is also about gratitude.  Ten lepers approach Jesus, though keeping their distance, asking for mercy.  He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.  As they go, following Jesus’ instructions, they are made clean, cured of their condition.  One of them, filled with astonishing joy, does not continue on the journey to the priests.  We guess that the others might do that, and it would make sense.  Don’t you need to follow through on the task?  What if the healing disappears if they do not follow through?  Nevertheless one of them, a Samaritan, runs back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Jesus.  Jesus wonders about the other nine, and then says to the Samaritan, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”
            There are a lot of angles to this story.  Perhaps the Samaritan discontinued to travel with the others and returned to Jesus, in part, because he knew he might not be welcomed by the priests.  Samaritans were considered religious outliers.  Yet the Samaritan becomes the “hero” of the story.  And what do we make of Jesus’ final saying?  Was the cleanliness of the other nine rescinded?  There is no indication of that in the story.  They remained “healed.”  What then of this Samaritan who is told, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”  This suggests some kind of deeper healing.
            Gratitude, biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude has something to do with a deeper healing.  Beyond the smile, there is more going on.
            Sometimes in our popular culture when it focuses on an attitude of gratitude, on accentuating the positive, sometimes we are even encouraged to be grateful for the negative.  Some popular culture understandings even argue that we bring the negative on ourselves, attract it.  If so, it must be what we need and so we should be grateful for it.
            I want to suggest here, and then elaborate for a few moments on the idea that biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude is not simply giving thanks for the good times, or when things are going well, though it includes that; and it is also more complex than simply saying thank you for all the bad things in our lives.
            Not long ago I read an essay by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski entitled, “Is God Happy?” In the essay, Kolakowski argues this: Even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the ‘eternal present’ of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition.  We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life. (Is God Happy?, 214)  So you may not want to invite this man to a dinner party.
            What I appreciate about Kolakowski is that he pushes me to think about gratitude in deeper and richer ways.  Somehow gratitude cannot be simply looking for a pony in a pile of manure, because sometimes the manure of life keeps getting dumped.  It cannot be simply accentuating the positive, when some of the negatives are so significant.  Biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude has to grapple with the significance and seriousness of human suffering.  It has to get beyond the easy smile.  The Samaritan who comes to know deep healing still remains a Samaritan, unwelcome in the broader Jewish community of the time, though welcome in the Jesus community.
            So what does biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude, grappling with the significance and seriousness of human suffering look like?
            It is certainly gratitude for good things.  The Samaritan, a leper, is a leper no longer.  Wild joy and gratitude are appropriate, even if they cause the man to stray from Jesus’ instructions.  Joan Chittister, in her book Happiness, writes about faith-rooted gratitude.  To protect ourselves from becoming constantly negative about the little irritations of life until they become burdens rather than simply passing aggravations, it’s important to remind ourselves of the little gifts of our lives that live on in us yet, that punctuate our every day, and, far too often, that go totally unnoticed. (123)
            There is truth in the popular culture stuff about an attitude of gratitude.  We do need to look for all those places in our lives where there are gifts, many simply there – the sunrise or sunset, the sound of the waves or the trees when the breeze blows gently.  There are gifts of friendship that we have both worked on and yet come beyond our work.  There is music and art and literature.  There is the pleasure of physical exertion and activity.  Ironically, while one part of our culture encourages an attitude of gratitude, another part is constantly nagging at us that our lives are incomplete.  What is advertising but a constant message that you are not who, what or where you should be, but you can be if you purchase the right product.
            Faith-rooted gratitude is gratitude for life’s goodness, and an encouragement to pay attention to life’s goodness, not take it for granted.  Yet paying attention to life means we also see what is not so good.  Anne Lamott in her book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow, writes: It is easy to thank God for life when things are going well.  But life is much bigger than we give it credit for, and much of the time it’s harder than we would like.  It’s a package deal….  We and life are spectacularly flawed and complex. (44-45)
            Trying to hold that complex reality together as we consider gratitude leads us to the heart of biblical, Christian faith-based gratitude.  It leads us to God, for it is gratitude to God that is at the heart of biblical, Christian faith-based gratitude.  The Samaritan “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.”  He was grateful to God.  When we give thanks for the good gifts of life, we are grateful for friends, for creative souls who create art, for meaningful work in a job created by people and an economic system.  But as Christians we assert that in the midst of all these goodnesses there is the goodness of God.  God has something to do with all the good we know and enjoy.
            Monday I was at a meeting of our Board of Ordained Ministry, and the opening devotion asked the question, “Where have you seen God?”  Where have you seen God.  To pay attention to the good gifts of life is to begin to answer the question of where we have seen God.  Where there is goodness and beauty, there is God.
            And gratitude is possible when life is difficult, when things are not going the way we desire, when we are aware of evil and suffering and that we all will die, gratitude is possible because this God who is goodness and beauty is always at work, even in the most difficult moments of life.  Patricia Farmer puts it well: Beauty cannot be drowned.  It cannot be swept away.  It will not give up or give in.  And in the ruins of tragedy, God never stops luring, creating, transforming, redeeming, and loving things back into life and wholeness. (Embracing a Beautiful God, 41)  God, in the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, God works with “the tender elements of the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, first edition, 520).
            Biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude is God centered.  We give thanks for the good gifts of life, many of which are gifts of sheer grace, because we trust that God works to create such goodness and beauty.  We don’t lose gratitude because we trust that in even the most difficult and dire circumstances, God remains at work luring, creating, transforming, redeeming, and loving things back into life and wholeness.  We don’t have slap on a silly smile and say thanks for the difficulties and dreaded circumstances.  Beyond and behind the smile, in the tears, we can be grateful that God never leaves us or forsakes us, and is always working toward healing and wholeness.  In the long run we may even embrace the tough times.  Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future” (quoted in Melanie Svoboda, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality, 102).

            Gratitude heals deeply because gratitude helps us see goodness and beauty we may miss in the busyness of our lives.  Gratitude heals deeply because when we are grateful we feel that our lives are o.k., that we can make it through tough times, and even grow through them.  Beyond the smile, gratitude heals, and we can always find some seed of gratitude because God is always finding us in love, embracing us and moving us toward healing and wholeness and toward the healing and wholeness of the world.  Amen. 

Friday, October 11, 2013


Sermon preached October 6, 2013

Texts: II Timothy 1:3-7; Luke 17:5-6

            “Teach Your Children Well”
Now I know some of you try and guess if I am going to play a song during my sermon, and try and guess what that song might be.  This may seem an odd combination – “Teach You Children” with the sermon title – “sparking.”  What am I encouraging you to teach?
            Sparking can refer to courting or wooing, and apparently this use of the term has Scandinavian origins.  Apparently we Scandinavians are not always just the frozen chosen.  Sparking can imply kissing.  It can refer to having a crush, or an attraction.  “Didn’t you know that guy was really sparking on you?”
            But this morning I don’t want to talk about what we teach our children about romantic relationships.  Maybe another Sunday. I want to use “sparking” in the sense of giving off sparks, of igniting, of rousing up something.  And I want to do this in the context of the verses from II Timothy and of the camp song referred to in the Invitation to Worship.  The setting of II Timothy is a letter of Paul to a younger follower of Jesus named Timothy.  Paul writes of Timothy’s “sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice.”  Timothy has faith, Christian faith.  It is a spark that began with his grandmother and his mother.  It only takes a spark, to get a fire going, and apparently this spark stayed lit in Timothy’s life.  Paul encourages him to keep it lit.  “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.”
            So how do we pass our faith on, particularly to next generations?  How do we spark faith in others, particularly those younger than us, and maybe, particularly in the lives of our children?  I am going to make an assertion, a rather bold one, then qualify it, than return to it.  That’s where we are going.
            We have the best opportunity to pass on Christian faith when we rekindle it in our own lives.  More important than any particular church programs we can offer, keeping our own faith sparked, vital, alive matters most in whether or not that faith gets passed on.
            So here is qualification one.  Programs matter.  Little things we do matter.  Jesus saying about faith the size of a mustard seed tells us that small things can have a big impact – and I will return to that later.  Programs matter.  We strive to have quality programs for children and youth.  We are in the process of hiring a new youth director because we think that provides us an important opportunity to teach and share faith with our youth.  Every Sunday morning we offer Christian faith formation for children and youth.  These matter.  These make a difference.  Bringing our children and youth matters.
Over the years I have had some conversations with parents who say that they are not going to have their children participate in any faith community growing up.  When they get older they will let them decide.  While that may have a nice ring to it, it is pretty vacuous.  If children are never given the opportunity to learn about Christian faith, what will they even have to decide?  Programs matter – qualifying statement number one.
The second qualifying statement is this – there are no guarantees.  When you hear me assert that keeping our own faith sparked, vital, alive matters most in whether or not that faith gets passed on, and think perhaps about your own children, if they are now adults, and maybe not part of a faith community, you may ask “Where did I go wrong?”  I know people ask that.  This is not a sermon trying to create guilt and hand-wringing about the past.  There are no guarantees.
A concept I have come to appreciate in recent years is the concept of “overdetetrmination.”  Essentially it means that there are multiple factors affecting human action and we often go wrong when we try to simplify the causes of particular human actions.  It is a sophisticated way of saying that there are no guarantees when it comes to sparking faith in others.
If someone is not churched or not interested in faith, it is simplistic to look only to the faith life of parents or grandparents.  Timothy’s faith was a faith that his grandmother Lois lived, and his mother Eunice lived, but Paul was also a factor in the development of that faith.  “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”  We live in a society where in the broader culture Christianity is often seen as narrow, judgmental, anti-science, and even if we don’t share that kind of faith with our children, they may associate Christian faith with that kind of thinking and being, and struggle with it.  There are no guarantees.
Qualifier number three, and the last one.  Faith may take on new expressions in our children and youth.  They may find another stream of the Christian tradition that keeps their faith lively and vital.  There was an interesting blog circulating recently, “Young Evangelicals Are Getting High.”  The essay discussed a growing trend among young adults who had grown up in non-denominational, evangelical Protestant churches are moving toward more highly liturgical churches, and this trend was much to the dismay of the essays author.  I happen to think the Methodist stream of Christian tradition has a lot to offer, but the sparks we ignite may carry people in some other directions.
With all those qualifiers in the back of our minds, it still makes sense to me to say that we have the best opportunity to pass on Christian faith when we rekindle it in our own lives.  More important than any particular church programs we can offer, keeping our own faith sparked, vital, alive matters most in whether or not that faith gets passed on.
            Toward the end of his book Psychology: The Briefer Course, William James wrote: But just as courage is so often a reflex of another’s courage, so our faith is apt to be faith in someone else’s faith.  We draw new life from the heroic example.
            A recent national survey of congregations shows that young adults are more attracted to congregations with spiritual vitality than ones with programs for their age group.  Where congregations place significant emphasis on spiritual practices, young adult participation is stronger. (The Christian Century, October 2, 2013).  In a book many of us read together a couple of years ago, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass identifies some significant Christian spiritual practices: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty.
            In my years here I have talked about us being a place that nurtures a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate Christian faith, a faith marked by joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.
            Keeping our own faith vital and alive, engaging in spiritual practices that nurture a thoughtful, passionate, and compassionate Christian faith, is what we need to be doing to spark faith in others.  We have the best opportunity to pass on Christian faith when we rekindle it in our own lives.  Keeping our own faith sparked, vital, alive matters most in whether or not that faith gets passed on.

            And one final note.  We don’t need to be spiritual giants to be sparking faith.  We just need to tend to that mustard-seed sized faith that we have.  Just tend to that, but tend to that.  You can’t start a fire without a spark, but it only takes a spark to get a fire going.  Amen.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

God of the Gap

Sermon preached September 29, 2013

Texts: Luke 16:19-31

If I Were a Rich Man

This is a song we could all sing with feeling, at least if the lyrics were more gender neutral.
But here’s something to think about. If we take the Bible seriously we need to know that there wealth is viewed with a great deal of concern. Many are familiar with the words from I Timothy: But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (6:9-10a). The Bible is full of cautionary tales about wealth.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. So begins a story told by Jesus. God, would it have been too much to have given me a small fortune? This rich man in the story is given no name, only well-described. It may be helpful to know that purple in the time of Jesus was the color of wealth, royalty, and position. The Roman Empire regulated how purple was to be worn.
In some tales, people come into wealth at the end of the story, and they all live happily ever after. Not so here.
There is another character in the story, a poor man, someone desperately poor, so poor he does not have the energy to move away from dogs licking at his open sores. Yet this man gets a name, Lazarus – the name is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eleazar which means “God helps.”
Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Death – the great equalizer, yet in the story death does not really equalize things. The afterlife reverses things – the rich man is in torment and Lazarus is in comfort. The rich man, who had ignored Lazarus in this life, though perhaps not completely or how would he recognize him, the rich man asks from Lazarus just a taste of water. Within the confines of the story there is an uncross able chasm making this impossible.
It is good for us to remember here that this is a story. This is not intended to be a description of the afterlife. It is not really about the afterlife at all, but about this life. The message isn’t subtle. You cannot not care about the poor. If you follow Jesus, not caring is not an option. God is a God of the gap, a God who cares about those on the margins, without neglecting to care for those who are well-off.
If not caring about the poor is not an option, we find ourselves smack in the middle of the messiness of life where spirituality – following Jesus, is all mixed up with morality – what is the right thing to do and who is a good person, and these get mixed into politics – how are we going to live together as a society.
A recent issue of The Christian Century reported on the results of a poll asking respondents “When Jesus and the prophets urged concern for the poor, they were primarily talking about (a) our obligation to create a just society, or (b) charitable acts by individuals?” Among all respondents, 50% chose charitable acts in contrast to 41% who chose creating a just society. The number was 57% to 33% among white mainline Protestants.
Now you may be nodding inside. Jesus certainly is talking about charity when he mentions the poor. We should be engaged in directly working to improve the lives of those who find themselves poor. But how do we confront the fact that charity isn’t enough, nor is it always effective or efficient. For instance, it makes more sense to construct public sanitation systems than to simply allow for charitable care for those sickened by unsanitary conditions.
Charity isn’t enough. In the United States 17.6 million families face food insecurity. Military families used $100 million in government food aid last year. That did not prevent the House of Representatives from recently voting to cut food assistance programs by $40 billion over the next ten years, with even deeper cuts considered. Feeding America, the largest hunger charity in the country processed $5 billion in food and funding last year. Feeding America would have to double its contributions to make up for these recent cuts while maintaining their current services.
All recent economic data indicate that the middle class in the United States is shrinking, poverty is increasing, and the percentage of income going to the upper income brackets is increasing. With the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percentage of children in poverty than the United States (The Nation, 10-7-13). Charity isn’t enough.
Interestingly in an op-ed piece in Friday’s Duluth News Tribune another pastor in town wrote an article decrying how words have been misused especially “by those on the left.” He asserted that those on the left now define “fairness” as “the state of things when all people possess the same level of material resources irrespective of their education, initiative or responsible life decisions.” I am not sure anyone defines fairness in that way, though some might. Could fairness, though, entail that while inequality is acceptable given people’s choices, initiative, and education, perhaps fairness also means no one falls too low, that a fairer society is one where no one starves?
These are tough questions and there are no easy answers. Even if we agree that this story, in urging care for the poor, asks us to engage in the creation of a more just society as well as to offer charity, how we attain the goals of a more just society is open to vigorous debate. The bottom line is that we cannot not care about those who are poor if we want to follow Jesus.
And here’s another frame, another challenge as we seek to follow Jesus. In 2006 a Princeton University study by neuroimaging researchers found that the very poor are viewed with such disdain that they are often dehumanized. Brain activity suggested that the very poor were viewed with disgust and repugnance. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in her most recent book that “narcissistic emotions such as envy, shame, and disgust” threaten social arrangements when not held in check (Political Emotions, 116) Disgust can be personally and socially destructive. So this story of the rich man and Lazarus, a story told by Jesus which has something to do with following Jesus, is not only about action to alleviate poverty. It is also about looking into our own hearts and souls to see if we really see those who are on the margins as fellow humans, persons created in the image of God, this God who wants to bridge the gap between us.
If people experience disgust toward the very poor, perhaps we can understand why. If we experience disgust toward the very poor, perhaps we can understand why. We may fear our own vulnerability. If the very poor are poor completely of their own mismanagement of life, then surely we can manage our lives well enough to avoid their fate. To see the humanity of those on the margins is perhaps to see that sometimes life circumstances can overcome we humans. Enormous medical bills become bankruptcy. Untreated mental illness becomes living on the streets. An abusive home environment with insufficient social intervention becomes a youth on the streets. Rather than confront our own anxiety about the vicissitudes of life, it can be easier to look at those on the margins, those with the dogs licking their sores, as less than. Perhaps we stop seeing them all together. In the story Jesus tells, it is this man who has a name, Lazarus.
A miser bought himself a nice piece of pastry but before he could taste it, he accidentally dropped it in the street. When the miser picked it up he found to his disgust that the pastry had become covered with dirt. Just then a poor man asked for charity. The miser was hardly about to part with good coins; he never had. He handed the poor man the dirty pastry and thought no more about it.
But that night the miser dreamed. And in his dream he sat in a large restaurant, a crowded restaurant with waiters running about, bringing the customers the most wonderful cakes the miser had ever seen. Yet not one waiter came his way. At last, furious, he shouted for service. But all he was given was one dirt-covered piece of pastry.
“What is this!” he roared. “How dare you bring me this dirty pastry! I did not ask for charity! I have money enough to buy the finest cake!”
“I’m sorry,” said one waiter. “You cannot use money here. This is Eternity, and here you can only eat what you, yourself, sent ahead from the Mortal World. You, alas, sent only this one piece of dirty piece of pastry, and I’m afraid that’s all you may receive.”
This is tough stuff. Following Jesus can be a challenge. We are asked to look at our world and see where it can be better. It is not about blaming those who are doing well, it is asking questions about our current social arrangements that seem to allow some to do tremendously well, while too many others are slipping, and too many are not making it. It is not about feeling guilty, it is about searching our hearts and souls to see where we are not seeing, to move from disgust to compassion.
Gospel is another word for good news, and maybe you don’t feel like you’ve heard any. Well, here’s some. Change is possible, in our hearts and in our world. We can all grow in our ability to see and to care. That’s good news.
Here’s some more. God knows us by name, even when we are at our most vulnerable. There are other kinds of poverty than material poverty. God cares about that gap, but also about the other gaps in human life, those wounds of the soul that leave us feeling like Lazarus. The compassion of God is boundless, and God’s attitude toward us is never one of disgust, only of compassion. That’s good news.
You are loved, so love. In this complicated, messy world, know you are loved and know you can love, by the grace and power of Jesus. Amen.