Sunday, January 26, 2014

Broken Open

Sermon preached January 26, 2014

Texts: Matthew 4:12-23

            “Love Hurts” Roy Orbison
            “Love Hurts” Nazareth
            If you are a fan of Roy Orbison and his song, “Love Hurts” you may be disappointed by the remake of the song that was done in the mid-1970s by a band named “Nazareth.”  If you thought that “Nazareth” might be a religious band, you would really have been disappointed.
            Such disappointments would probably be short-lived.  We can weather these kind of disappointments easily enough.  Life is full of little disappointments.
            But not every disappointment is little.  Life is also marked by deeper disappointments, saddnesses, even traumas.  Sometimes love hurts.
            Last Sunday was the Sunday of the Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday, but this morning I want to tell you a bit of his story.  Dr. King arrived in Montgomery in September, 1954.  He was a young pastor, assuming his first regular pulpit, still working on a Ph. D. at Methodist-related Boston University.  When he went to Montgomery, he had no intention of leading a social protest.  He intended to serve a congregation as his father and grandfather had, and perhaps someday become a college president.
             Fifteen months after his arrival, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.  A group of local clergy and church leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize a bus boycott.  Martin, the newest and youngest clergy, became the reluctant president of the association.  There were twists and turns, arrests and threats in the coming weeks.
            After one stint in jail, late at night, King received a phone call.  The caller told him to leave Montgomery in the next few days.  He was seized with fear.  In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King reflected on that night: 

I was ready to give up.  With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God.  With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.  ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they, too, will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before.  It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, “Stand up for justice, stand up for the truth; and God will be at your side forever.”  Almost at once, my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.

Three days later, the King house was bombed.  “Strangely enough,” wrote King, “I accepted the news calmly.  My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
            Disappointment, discouragement, even trauma.  About a month before he was assassinated, King preached a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta entitled “Unfulfilled Dreams.”  He preached about disappointment. 
            Oh this morning, if I can leave anything with you, let me urge you to be sure you have a strong boat of faith.  The winds are going to blow.  The storms of disappointment are coming.  The agonies and anguishes of life are coming….  It will be dark sometimes, and it will be dismal and trying, and tribulations will come.  But if you have faith in the God I’m talking about this morning, it doesn’t matter.  For you can stand up amid the storms.  A month later, Dr. King was dead.
            Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  We don’t know everything there is to know about the relationship between Jesus and John.  In Luke’s gospel they are related.  In all the gospels, Jesus comes to be baptized by John.  Jesus was, it seems, among those who learned from John.  The gospels, written well after the death of John and Jesus, and written to attest to Jesus, downplay the role of John, but it is easy to think that he may have been an important spiritual mentor for Jesus.
            John is arrested.  Might Jesus have experienced disappointment, discouragement, fear, a measure of trauma?  When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew.  He relocated.  It was then that he began his own distinct work.  From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
            Discouragement, disappointment, hurt, trauma.  It touches our lives.  One never recovers from being human, in the words of psychoanalyst Michael Eigen (frontpiece in Contact With the Depths).  The therapist Mark Epstein writes: Everyday life is so challenging….  Life, even normal life, is arduous, demanding, and ultimately threatening….  We are all traumatized by life, by its unpredictability, its randomness, its lack of regard for our feelings and the losses it brings.  Each in our own way, we suffer. The Trauma of Everyday Life, 17)
            Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  Jesus was touched here by disappointment, discouragement, hurt, a measure of trauma.
            Yet the story goes on.  There seems a trust that God has not abandoned him.  In fact, Jesus’s message is that the kingdom of God has come near.  And in the midst of his disappointment Jesus discovers his mission.  He is able to hear the call of God in his life even as he deals with disappointment, discouragement, difficulty.
            Gillian Rose, born September 20, 1947 (d. December 9, 1995) was a British scholar who worked in the fields of philosophy and sociology.  She was a talented academician who held a few academic positions in her career.  As part of her thinking into the Holocaust, Professor Rose was engaged by the Polish Commission for the Future of Auschwitz in 1990.  In 1993, Rose was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and fought a brave battle with the aggressive disease until she succumbed to it December 9, 1995 at the age of 48.  Born into a non-practicing Jewish family, Rose made a deathbed conversion to Christianity through the Anglican Church.
            In one of her final books, Love’s Work, Rose wrote: When something untoward happens, some trauma or damage, whether inflicted by the commissions or omissions of others, or some cosmic force, one makes the initially unwelcome event one’s own inner occupation….  In ill-health and in unhappy love, this is the hardest work: it requires taking in before letting be.
            God embraces us – small, fearful, disappointed, hurt, traumatized though we may feel.  God calls us – small, fearful, disappointed, hurt, traumatized though we may be, God calls us to be amazing in our own ways.
            God is with us to redeem the hurt, and in some ways this is among the most difficult topics I ever preach about.  Sure, sermons that touch politics or sexuality have the potential to invite more heat, but to speak and preach about human hurt, disappointment and trauma touches us deeply.  There is the danger that I may not seem to take your experience seriously enough.  I never would say, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” because some of us have experienced such daunting disappointment or hurtful trauma that such a statement makes little sense.  It also implies that God is o.k. at some level with all the disappointing things, the traumatic things that happen, and I don’t believe that.  God does not cause or allow all the hurt, disappointment, and trauma in the world, though I know there is some comfort in that idea.  God does not cause it all or allow it all, and we know God does not take all the difficulties of life away.
            What God offers is God’s presence and an invitation into newness of life where we are able to weave a rich tapestry of our experience, even our difficult experience.  God calls to us, even when we are hurting, and the call is to a richer life.  In the words of author Elizabeth Lesser, Over and over, we are broken on the shore of life….  The promise of being broken and the possibility of being opened are written into the contract of human life.  Certainly this tumultuous journey on the waves can be tiresome.  When the sea is rough, and when we are suffering, we may want to give up hope and give in to despair.  But brave pilgrims have gone before us.  They tell us to venture forth with faith and vision. (Broken Open, 273)
            Brave pilgrims have gone before us.  Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  Jesus is one of those brave pilgrims, and he promises to walk the way with us.
            Fosston, Minnesota is a small town along highway 2.  It has a United Methodist Church.  Years ago I was there as their district superintendent, to lead a church conference.  It was a cold November day, and I had left home early to make sure I arrived.  I was there early, and found a parking lot to rest and read.  I had this book with me, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality.  Sitting in my cold car, I read these words: we do not always get what we hope for.  Sometimes… we get more than we hoped for. (119)  I laughed.  A few years before that, I was finishing my Ph.D.  I had two initial interviews for teaching positions, and at that point in my life, that is what I thought I wanted to do.  I was disappointed when I never received a call for a second interview.  But at that moment in Fosston, there was something that helped redeem the hurt.  No, I was not teaching in Boston, but in a parking lot in Fosston.  Yet I was following God’s Spirit.  I was grateful for where life was taking me.

            Life disappoints.  Love hurts.  The world and our lives are filled with beauty and brokenness.  If we can face our hurts and traumas and disappointments honestly, and this is no easy task, if we can take it in, there is possibility for learning, for growth, for new life.  God is always there, embracing us in our pain.  God is always there in Jesus, calling us forward, inviting us to follow into new life.  Say “yes.”  Amen.

Friday, January 24, 2014

That's Different

January 19, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9

            So I am wearing an unusual tie.  Though you might label it “ugly,” I want to tell you that it is not.  The colors on this tie are the colors of the Ugandan flag, and my daughter bought this tie for me when she was in Uganda.  That I received this tie as a gift from my daughter makes it impossible for it to be ugly!
            But it is bright.  It does catch one’s attention.  It is the kind of thing to which we here in northern Minnesota might say, “well, that’s different.”  Ugly tie Sunday – well that’s different.
            An Australian man wanted to surprise his girlfriend, so he disrobed and climbed inside a top-loading washing machine.  The police had to use olive oil as a lubricant to get him out of the washing machine.  This was in the section of The Week magazine under the heading “bad week for hide and seek.”  One could say, “well, that’s different.”
            A woman goes into a pharmacy and asks for the pharmacist.  When he comes to the counter she asks for some cyanide.  He is surprised and says, “That’s a little unusual, and it isn’t something I can just hand out on request.  What do you want it for?”  “I want to give it to my husband,” she says.  “Madam,” he says, suddenly quite formal, “I cannot give you anything that you might use to poison anyone, no matter what you think they have done.”  She says, ‘I don’t think it, I know it,” and she pulls a photo from her purse and shows it to the pharmacist.  “Here’s a picture of him out with your wife.”  “Oh well, that’s different,” the pharmacist says.  “You didn’t tell me you had a prescription.”
            That’s different.  I discovered this story on the web site of The Nebraska Fish and Game Association.  Now that’s different.
            Today is our church conference, a time for us to consider together who we are and where we are going as a congregation.  It is a time to consider and celebrate how we are making a difference in people’s lives and in our community.
            “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him.”  Paul’s words in I Corinthians are words I can say about you.  I give thanks to God for you all, and for the good work we are doing together in the grace of Jesus Christ.  Thursday night was Ruby’s Pantry.  We are in our fourth year of this ministry, and every month it is a small miracle.  We never know what the weather is going to be like.  Thursday it was brutal with the wind.  We never know what food is going to arrive.  We never know how many people are going to come for the food.  We never know how many volunteers we are going to have.  Yet month after month food is distributed.  Lives are touched.  Community is created among the volunteers and among the guests.  Our roast beef dinners are an important fund raiser.  More important to me is the community they create for us, and the welcome they provide for the wider community.  This year a couple of our members organized a “prayer shawl” ministry.  People come together to knit or crochet shawls that are blessed and given away to people as requested, or as the group initiates this.  Our daughter Beth received a shawl, and I know how much that meant to her and to us.  I have had the delight of participating in other shawl sharings.  What a wonderful ministry, and it didn’t happen because of a staff initiative, or by the action of an official committee.  It happened because people share some interest, because they saw an opportunity to share God’s love and we found some space for that.  There is room here for your ideas, too. 
Sunday after Sunday we are blessed and delighted with incredible music coordinated by our gifted organist Velda with the wonderful music staff of Bill, Cynthia and Mike.  We have so many with so many musical gifts who are willing to share those with us.  Thank you.  Worship without your music would just be me, and I don’t want to carry that load.  Sunday after Sunday, children come and learn in our ministry area coordinated so well by Laura.  And children who are interested in music have a new opportunity on Wednesday evenings with JAM and the Peanut Butter Band which Cynthia leads with help from others.  That has provide a great time for children and their families to connect.  Wednesdays are also when our youth connect together under Morgan’s direction, though this week they were here last night for a lock-in.  Thank you Morgan!
We have a wonderful caring ministry, which Linda, our parish nurse coordinates, and which involves a lot of people visiting, praying, and bringing communion.  We want to make a difference for those who are a part of this congregation by the quality of our caring for each other.  We will all be helped in this when our new directory is ready in the coming weeks, and thanks to Cindy for all her work on that and for all that she does in communications to keep us connected.
I could go on, and you know I can.  So many people doing so many things that keep our ministry going.  Our space is well-used, and we are often a front porch for the community – a place where people gather together to discuss significant ideas and issues.  We make a difference in people’s lives and we make a difference in this community and beyond.  Thank you.  We have a lot to celebrate.
We are not perfect.  We don’t succeed all the time.  There may be times when we can understand the words in Isaiah, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”  I hope those times are few and far between!  And what is God’s response?  “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
That’s God call to each of us today, and to us as a community.  God calls us to continue making a difference by being different.  God invites us to be a different kind of people – people not caught in greed or trapped by cynicism, but people concerned for justice, reconciliation, compassion, kindness, and peace.  I have said with some frequency that I want this church to help us be passionate, compassionate, and thoughtful followers of Jesus.  I have with some frequency said that I think God is at work in our lives forming us as joyful, genuine, gentle, generous people concerned for justice.  We will make a difference as we let God’s Spirit make us different.  We will make a difference as we live out our difference in the world.
In addition to being the day of our church conference, it is the Sunday of the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and I want to wrap this morning up with some thoughts from him about being different and making a difference.  In one of his slightly less known sermons King preached about a complete life (“The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”).  In that sermon King said that a complete life was a life of length, breadth and height.  Here is how he spoke:
Go out this morning.  Love yourself….  You are commanded to do that.  That’s the length of life.  Then follow that: Love your neighbor as yourself. You are commanded to do that.  That’s the breadth of life….  There’s a first and even greater commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength.”  I think the psychologist would just say “with all thy personality.”  And when you do that, you’ve got the height of life.  And when you get all three of these together, you can walk and never get weary.  You can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the children of God shouting for joy.  When you get all of these working together in your very life, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream…. 
When you get all three of these together, you look up and every valley will be exalted, and every hill and mountain will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together.

This is the kind of light God wants us to be, people moving toward that complete life.  This is the kind of light Jesus brings us together to be, a place where people’s lives are made more complete.  When we are made different, we make a difference.  We can be a place where people say, “Well, they’re different” and say it with joy, because God’s Spirit is at work on us, in us and through us.  They’re different and don’t they make a difference.  May it be so.  Amen

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I Hope That Took Lord

Sermon preached January 12, 2014 (ironically, we were experiencing freezing rain that morning with all this water imagery)

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

            I know some of my pop culture references are dated.  I just had more time for television when I was younger.  I am not completely out of the loop.  I watch an occasional episode of The Big Bang Theory.  I have watched a couple of new shows this fall – The Crazy Ones and The Michael J. Fox Show.  Our daughter Beth got me interested in Law and Order: SVU.  But I still remember some of the older shows better.
            “All in the Family.”  It was a ground-breaking program for its willingness to introduce topics like race, politics, and sexuality into a family situation comedy.  It was even so bold as to admit that people use the bathroom, because you could hear that toilet flushing every now and again.  One of the central tensions in the show was the tension between Archie and his son-in-law Mike on the topic of religion.  Mike was an atheist.  Archie was a Christian who never went to church.  But he was committed.  When Mike and Gloria had a son, Joey, Archie was determined to get him baptized, but when the pastor would not go along with Archie’s request, Archie took it upon himself to baptize Joey.
            Archie: I ain’t been to church lately, so if I seem a little strange in here, don’t worry.  I’m still Archie Bunker and I still believe very deeply in Thee, Thoo….  I want to do this Lord, because I don’t want my grandson growing up without religion in this rotten world of yours. No intense offended there Lord, we all know you did the best you could with only six days to get it all together.
            I hope that took Lord, because they gonna kill me when I get home.
            Why would someone feel so strongly about baptism?   What might it mean for baptism to “take”?
            The baptism of Jesus Sunday is a good Sunday to reflect on baptism.  If you haven’t been baptized, this sermon is still for you, because in reflecting on baptism we are reflecting on what it may mean to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, to live the Jesus way.  This journey is your journey too, if you want to take it.  We speak of baptism as a sacrament, and we speak of sacraments as outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.  It is that inward part that matters most.
            It makes no difference if, when you were baptized, if you were sprinkled, dipped, or dunked.  I had both sprinkling and dunking, but that’s another story.  It makes no difference the method.  The question isn’t whether the method makes a difference, it is whether the baptism made a difference.  Did it take?
            I want to explore baptism through the questions we ask.
            Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  That first baptismal question is an odd and spooky one.  Typically a really nice family comes up here with their baby and we all feel warm and smiley, then BOOM – the question comes about spiritual forces of wickedness.  It sounds like something out of Star Wars – the Darth Vader question about the dark side.
            A couple of weeks ago I referred to a man who, in writing about the Christian faith discusses our human propensity to mess things up, though he uses a more colorful term.  Christian faith thinks that we have this tendency within us to mess things up, to break things.  It is not so much an article of faith as a way to get at this quandary – If human beings were purely good all the time, why is the world as messed up as it is?  The evidence for being messed up is not hard to find.  This week in New Jersey it was revealed that a high ranking government official, and aid to the governor, ordered lanes closed on the George Washington Bridge as political payback for a mayor who had not endorsed the governor.  What is this, Junior High School?  Yet we recognize this as part of the human repertoire of behavior.  For all his lack of sophistication, Archie Bunker could sound some profound theological notes - I don’t want my grandson growing up without religion in this rotten world of yours. 
And individual hurtful choices can mushroom to become “spiritual forces of wickedness.”  Slavery becomes an institution.  Racism negatively affects our society.  Anti-Jewish sentiment gets systematized into the Holocaust.  Some men’s willingness to pay for sex spans a sex-trafficing industry.  These are “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers.”  And sometimes we get caught in them.  We are affected by racism.  In our own lives, one lie can become a whole tissue of deception.  Those who struggle with addictions – to alcohol, to drugs, to pornography find themselves caught in forces that become powerful.
            At baptism we are invited to turn in a different direction.  Jesus invites us all to turn.  That’s what that strange word “repent” means - to turn, to turn around.  Did it take?  Are you working to turn when spiritual forces of wickedness reach out in your direction?
            Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  Though this sounds just as ominous and serious, there is some good news here.  God gives us some freedom and power.  We can choose.  We can change.  How will you use the freedom and power God gives you?  How will you use it personally?  Will you cultivate your inner gifts?  Will you pay attention to your soul?  Will you work on those personal patterns that may not be so life-giving?  How will you use your freedom and power in the larger world?  Are you taking some time to make the world a little better?  Are you doing some work against injustice?  God is forming us to be “a light to the nations,” to be those who “faithfully bring forth justice.”  How are you using the freedom and power God gives you?  Did it take?
            Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people?  I want to reflect on this question in three parts, but out of order. 
            Serving Jesus as Lord has everything to do with renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness and using the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
            We do this together.  The Christian journey of faith is not merely a solo endeavor.  It is meant to be deeply personal, individually engaging, at times solitary, but never entirely solo.  That Archie has to re-introduce himself to God in church means that he has missed something important.  Jesus brings us together, all kinds of people.  Sometimes that’s not easy.  There are people here who disagree.  There are people here who think about worship differently than me.  There are people here who may not be best friends in other contexts.  Here is where we first test the wings of our faith.  Here we learn how to love, even those who we may struggle to love.  Here we learn how to learn together.  Here we also learn how important it can be to have some people in our corner when life is really hard.
            A lot of what I have described is challenging.  Working on our inner stuff.  Resisting evil.  Finding ways to get along with whoever it is that comes through those doors and also says “yes” to Jesus.  Here’s some really good news – grace.  Put your whole trust in the grace of God as we know that in Jesus.  Grace.  We will fall short sometimes.  We will miss the mark occasionally.  God isn’t keeping score.  Does God care that we grow – yes.  Does God care that justice is done, peace fostered, the hungry fed – of course.  But God isn’t making a list and checking it twice.  God isn’t wagging God’s finger at us scoldingly.  God is saying to us, as God said to Jesus, “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God takes us by the hand, and keeps us.
            Grace.  That is the context for our entire journey with God.  Grace.  Grace really frees us to do good.  Doing good isn’t about earning points on God’s score card.  It is about trying to live the love we have received from God.
            That good news about grace is at the heart of baptism and a Christian faith that uses baptism as a welcome.  Yes, this watery God cleanses like water.  We need that from time to time.  More importantly God’s Spirit refreshes like cool water on a hot day.  God’s Spirit never gives up creating ripples of love and grace and courage and resilience in our lives.  And when we resist the ripples, God keeps tossing spirit pebbles until they make a difference.

            In all these ways – strength to resist, wise and courageous use of freedom and power, and above all, trusting in grace – Lord, I hope baptism takes.  Amen.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Enough Already

Sermon preached January 5, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

            “Christmas Time is Here”
            I really love that song.  It is one of my favorites of the Christmas season.  Now Julie is the real Christmas music person in our family, and she used that to wonderful effect with our daughters.  The first fall in one of our moves, I think it was our move to Alexandria, Beth was not having a great time of it.  Julie came up with the idea of beginning Christmas music season November 1.  It helped and it stuck.  Now that is much too early for me, but I am outnumbered on this one.  So over the years I have tried to find Christmas music I really like, and have burned a few cds.  On one of those cds, I have five versions of “Christmas Time Is Here”: The Vince Guaraldi Trio, the Vince Guaraldi Trio with a children’s choir, Diana Krall, Sarah McLachlan, and Chicago.  So I like this song!
            But I am ready to say “enough already.”  Christmas time was here, but now we are on to the new year and all the tasks that need to be cared for.  Our normal lives resume.  While I appreciate and agree with some of the sentiment of the song, “oh that we could always see such spirit through the year,” we need to move into the new year.  Christmas will come round again.
            Yet here we go again.  In the church calendar it is still Christmas.  The twelve days of Christmas is a church thing, not just a song about drummers drumming, lords leaping, pipers piping, ladies dancing, maids milking, swans swimming, geese laying, calling birds, French hens, turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.  In the church the Christmas season extends from Christmas day to January 6 – Epiphany.  Today we read the gospel reading for Epiphany, but we think of it as a Christmas story.  This story is part of Christmas for us.  “We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse a far.”  Don’t we put these three wise men/kings in the manger with shepherds and animals?  It is rather interesting to note that in Matthew’s story, there is never any mention of how many wise men there are.  When it mentions three gifts, we just assumed that each person brought a gift – three gifts, three wise men.  There is no mention that these men were kings.  The gifts coming from a treasure chest seems to give them regal stature.  They enter a house, not a manger.  Jesus could be as old as two years.  Still, we are quick to ignore these differences with Luke’s story and we mush them all together.
            So here we are, stuck with another Christmas story.  Haven’t we had enough?
            But can we really ever get enough of the good news that we find in this story?  What is that good news?  God shows up.  Into our sometimes messed up, broken world, God shows up.  Into our sometimes messed up, broken lives, God shows up.  Here’s how Isaiah puts it: For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you….  You shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.  Here is how the writer of John’s Gospel reflects on God’s action in Jesus: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth….  From this fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
            God shows up because God loves us wildly.  God shows up to draw us near, all of us, even strangers from the East who bring odd gifts for a child.  There is no place we can go, where the light of God’s love cannot shine.  There is no place we can go where the light of God’s love cannot draw us near. In the presentation I shared with the Faith Forum on December 15 on being on the right path, I said this: “One of the significant emphases of the Wesleyan stream of Christian tradition is the emphasis on grace, on a grace that meets us where we are. In one sense, wherever we are is o.k.  We are on a path that can lead to God and to our better selves.”
            Any path we are on can be a right path.  This is not to say that we cannot do better, it is to say that we are never without hope, never beyond the reach of this God who shows up and draws us near.  Nothing in our lives is beyond God’s redemption in love.  I think of the words of Dag Hammarskjold: How long the road is.  But, for all the time the journey has already taken, how you have needed every second of it in order to learn what the road passes-by. (Markings, 81)  I think of the words of Henri Nouwen: 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)
            I don’t think we can get enough of this message of hope, redemption, healing, acceptance, and love.  In a world that often chips away at our sense of worth, that reminds us in countless ways of who were aren’t and what we lack, I don’t think we can get enough of this message about a God who arrives in love again and again and draws us nearer.
            The poet Denise Levertov offers some wonderful imagery for helping us reflect on this good news in her poem “To Live in the Mercy of God.”
And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself.  Becomes
a form of comfort.
                           Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float upheld,
              as salt water
              would hold you,
                                       once you dared.

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
                                                   O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
                              To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.

            God’s wild, passionate love for the world – good news that we can never get enough of, good news on which we can glide as on air, on which we can float as on salt water if we dare, good news of this God who comes to us with the persistence and passion of a waterfall.  Amen.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pick Up the Pieces

Sermon preached December 29, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

            Play some of “Pick Up the Pieces,” The Average White Band (
            “Pick Up the Pieces” – probably not a bad post-Christmas song.  We pick up the house, discard wrapping paper and packaging.  We do some post-guest cleaning.  If we have young children, we are probably putting together something that may have broken already.
            The phrase, “pick up the pieces” implies brokenness, and that reminds me of a different song: Bob Dylan, “Everything is Broken” (
            Now that’s not a very cheery thought.  It seems counter-intuitive for this holiday season when we praise the generosity and good spirit of the human community.  But then the story from Matthew’s gospel, coming on the heels of his telling of the birth of Jesus, isn’t very cheery either.  It is much more an “everything is broken” story.
            Herod, infuriated that the wise men did not report back to him, goes on a killing spree – a spree worthy of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and most recently, Kim Jong Un in North Korea.  Threatened by a child who others might consider a king, Herod “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”
            The sad reality is that this story from Matthew seems so real, because history has seen it repeated again and again. Destructive conflicts are readily apparent.  Petty grievances find their way into state policies.  Everything is broken.  I have already mentioned the recent executions in North Korea.  South Sudan is in the headlines.  The world’s newest nation, created in 2011 through a peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war, South Sudan has been plunged into violent, murderous conflict.  Rivalries between the Dinka and Neur tribes has escalated, and there has been violence between militias and government troops.  One sad story coming out of the recent funeral for Nelson Mandela was the initial exclusion of Archbishop Desmond Tutu from the state funeral for Mandela in his hometown village.  Tutu has become a vocal critic of the ANC government, who was in charge of the guest list for the state funeral.  After poor publicity, Tutu was invited to attend and did.
            But the brokenness of the world is not just out there.  It is also found in our lives.  In his wonderfully written new book, Unapologetic, which has the wonderful subtitle: “why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense,” Francis Spufford writes about the human heart.  Examining the human condition, Spufford says he finds a “human propensity to [mess] things up” – though he uses a more colorful word.  What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy.  It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here includes moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects….(27)  let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature; that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly like to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling (29-30).
            Couldn’t Matthew have just skipped this story?  Couldn’t we just ignore the brokenness that permeates our world, and also finds its way into our lives?
            There is brokenness.
            There is God.
            We cannot just read the story in Matthew in isolation from the larger story of God in the Bible.  Isaiah tells us something important about the larger story.  I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all the Lord has done for us… according to the abundance of his steadfast love….  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them.
            If the song about the world and about our lives is sometimes “Everything is Broken,” the song of God is a song about “Pick Up the Pieces.”  That’s what God does – heals, frees, loves, offers new beginnings.  The biblical word “saves” has the same roots as the word for healing and wholeness.  God saves, that is, God heals.  God makes what is broken whole.
            Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest in Los Angeles who works with gang members.  He is the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program.  He writes about his ministry and experiences in Tattoos on the Heart.  There he tells the story of baptizing George.  George, 17, and his older brother Cisco, 19, are both gang members.  George has been taken out of his typical environment and placed in a camp.  This is where Father Boyle as come to know him, and he has seen changes in George, from tough street kid “into a thoughtful, measured man, aware of his gifts and talents previously obscured by the unreasonable demands of his gang life.”  George has completed his GED and wants to be baptized as a celebration of that and of his new sense of who he is.
            The night before George’s scheduled baptism, his brother Cisco is walking home before midnight.  A half block from his apartment, rival gang members sneak up and open fire on Cisco, killing him instantly.  Father Boyle consider cancelling the next day’s mass at the camp, but George’s baptism is scheduled.
            When I arrive before Mass, with all the empty chairs in place in the mess hall, there is George standing by himself, holding his newly acquired GED certificate.  He heads toward me, waving his GED and beaming.  We hug each other.  He is in a borrowed, ironed, crisp white shirt and thin black tie.
            At the beginning of Mass, with the mess hall now packed, I ask him, “What’s your name?”  “George Martinez,” he says, with an overflow of confidence.  “And George, what do you ask of God’s church?”  ”Baptism,” he says with a steady, barely contained smile.
            It’s the most difficult baptism of my life.  For as I pour water over George’s head: “Father… Son… Spirit,” I know I will walk George outside alone after and tell him what happened.  As I do, and I put my arm around him, I whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.”
            I can feel all the air leave his body as he heaves a sigh that finds itself a sob in an instant.  We land on a bench.  His face seeks refuge in his open palms, and he sobs quietly.  Most notable is what isn’t present in his rocking and gentle wailing.  I’ve been in this place before many times.  There is always flailing and rage and promises to avenge things.  There is none of this in George.  It is as if the commitment he has just made in water, oil, and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God.  George seems to offer proof of the efficacy of this thing we call sacrament, and he manages to hold all the complexity of this great sadness, right here, on this bench, in his tender weeping.  I had previously asked him in the baptismal rite, after outlining the contours of faith and the commitment “to live as through this truth was true.”   “Do you understand what you are doing?” … “Yes, I do.”  And, yes, he does.  In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope.  George clings to his hope and his faith and his GED certificate and chooses to march, resilient, into his future. (85-86)
            This is a story about brokenness, and about the healing and hopeful work of God, a God who is about picking up the pieces.
            And God invites us to work with God in God’s healing task.  One of my favorite post-Christmas reflections is offered by Howard Thurman, and you will see this again in my newsletter article.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.                Howard Thurman

            There is brokenness.  There is God.  There is healing.  There is work to be done.  Amen.