Friday, April 25, 2014

Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time

Sermon preached Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014

Texts: Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

            The Delfonics, “Didn’t (I Blow Your Mind This Time)
            It’s Easter and this may be a little unexpected, but didn’t I blow your mind this time?  Besides what music would God like better than soul music?!  Before I get in real trouble, let me say that I find soul in all kinds of music.
            This Lent we explored shades of God, dimensions of God in order to better understand how God might be at work in our lives and in order to better understand the kind of people we should be.  To understand God better is to understand the direction for our lives in relationship to God.  If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God. (St. Maximus the Confessor, The Philokalia, II, 171).
            This Easter Sunday morning I want to offer one more image of God, and of how God might work in our lives.  God is a mind blower.  “Didn’t I blow your mind this time,” could be the voice of God.  Blowing your mind - something is mind-blowing if it excites or surprises or makes an extremely strong impression.  God is a God who blows our minds.
            And God is never more mind-blowing than at Easter.  Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and she saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  This mind-blowing morning is just beginning.  She is startled, and runs to get Peter and another disciple, who return with Mary to the tomb.  Sure enough, empty.  The two men leave – “for as yet they did not understand.”  Mary remains, weeping.  She peers into the tomb, and this time it is not empty.  She sees two angels.  Mind blowing, and they speak to her.  “Why are you weeping?”  She turns and there is a figure standing there.  She thinks it is the gardener.  But then she hears the voice, “Mary.”  Mind blowing.  She responds, “Teacher.”  God is never more mind-blowing than at Easter.
            But here is good news.  God has not stopped being mind-blowing.  If we think of Easter, if we think of resurrection, only in the past tense, we leave this story in a cave with a heavy stone rolled in front.  God’s Spirit still can blow our minds.  God seeks to open up our lives to God, to others, to the world, to ourselves.
            One of the qualities that should characterize us as God’s Spirit people, as God’s Jesus people, as God’s Easter people is the quality of openness – “wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around” to quote Patrick Henry ( The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8).  God’s Easter people are open to the world in all its wonder, splendor, beauty, amazingness, destructiveness, hurt, pain, and sorrow. 
In her book Help, Thanks, Wow which some of us read this Lent, the writer Anne Lamott writes: The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction….  “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.  We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Center towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. (71)
God is a mind-blowing God, never more so than at Easter, and an appropriate response is the openness of Wow.  It is the large-hearted openness Elizabeth Lesser writes about.  The opposite of happiness is a closed heart.  Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness….  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality….  I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.  Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
God is a mind-blowing, heart-opening, soul-stretching God, never more so than at Easter, and an appropriate response is openness.  Embrace your life in all its mystery, wonder, splendor, beauty, amazingness, destructiveness, hurt, pain, and sorrow.  Embrace the world in all its wonder, splendor, beauty, amazingness, destructiveness, hurt, pain, and sorrow.  In the words of the poet Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection” (‘Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front”)
Let’s be honest.  This openness and embracing, this way of practicing resurrection is not easy.  Oh we like the beauty, wonder and splendor parts of the world, but it is difficult to be open to the other stuff.  How open do we want to be to a world where the average age of a young woman when she is first trafficked for sex is 13 -14?  How open do we want to be to a world where some 73 year-old man gets so blinded by the hate he has been nurturing for so long he goes on a shooting spree against Jews, and kills three people, none of whom are even Jewish – he is that blinded by hate.  In another of her books, Anne Lamott writes, “Darkness is our context, and Easter’s context: without it you probably couldn’t see the light” (Plan B, 275).  By being open to this world, by embracing this world, I don’t mean accepting the ugliness and brutality, I mean embracing it enough to ask hard questions about the lives of teenage girls who end up trafficked and then trying to do something about what we learn.  By being open to this world, by embracing this world, I don’t mean accepting the hatred and destructiveness, I mean using the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, to use language from our baptism liturgy.  Being open and embracing this world means engaging it for positive change, and it means being willing to accompany the hurting when change isn’t possible.
Why would someone want to live this way?  Why be open?  Why embrace our lives and the world?  In a word, “trust.”  If an appropriate response to the mind-blowing God of Easter is to let the winds of God’s Spirit blow open our lives, enlarge our hearts, expand our minds, stretch our souls, such openness is based in trust, another appropriate response to the God of the risen Jesus.  Trust.  Trust that the God who raised Jesus, whose love was not nailed permanently to a cross or sealed forever in a tomb, trust that this God still can blow our minds.  Trust that this God still acts in the world.  Trust your life with this God who, in the beautiful words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, older edition, 520).  Trust that “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).  Trust that openness and love are the way of true life.
What might this life of openness and trust in this God who continues operate in the world in mind-blowing ways look like?  Here are some stories.
This past week I attended a workshop and lecture presented by Rachel Lloyd.  Rachel Lloyd is from England and ended up in the commercial sex industry in Germany.  She escaped “the life” as she calls it and is now working to help sexually-exploited children.  In her memoir, Lloyd writes about leaving the life.  The thought that may I have a greater purpose leads me to a small nondenominational American church the following Sunday, and that sets me on a path that will result in my walking away from the life two months later and never going back.  This inexplicable belief in God’s love for me at a critical moment sustains me over the next few months, and ultimately over the next decade. (171)  Of her church she writes that is was a place “where I’ve experienced the kind of peace and overwhelming love that I’ve never felt anywhere else and where I’ve begun to believe that perhaps God really does love me” (225).  Openness to life, to God, to self, trusting the mind-blowing God of Easter gives us strength to make difficult changes.  Openness to all of life as a church puts us in places where we can offer God’s love to those who need it in the midst of their deepest pains and struggles.  We trust that God can use us to touch the world with a love that works tenderly, slowly, often quietly, sometimes dramatically.
In Help, Thanks, Wow Anne Lamott writes “that life is usually Chutes and Ladders, with no guaranteed gains” (97).  That may not strike us as a very hopeful vision.  Where is the mind-blowing God of Easter?  Yet Lamott also writes: I pray not to be such a whiny, self-obsessed baby, and give thanks that I am not quite as bad as I used to be (talk about miracles).  Then something comes up, and I overreact and blame and sulk, and it feels like I haven’t made any progress at all.  But it turns out I’m less of a brat that before, and I hit the reset button much sooner, shake if off and get my sense of humor back.  That we and those we love have lightened up over the years is one of the most astonishing sights we will ever witness. (95-96).  I guess it is not all just Chutes and Ladders.  Openness and trust in the mind-blowing, heart enlarging, soul stretching God offers some hope of progress, God working with the tender elements of the world which slowly and in quietness operate by love.  Sometimes we see the gardener before we finally hear the voice of Jesus, but we can learn to hear the voice of Jesus more often.
Kent Nerburn, a writer and artist from Bemidji tells a story of time spent in Germany.  It was a lonely time.  One day he decides to take the train to a nearby town to see an American movie, to hear his own language.  Arriving several hours before the movie, he sits on a street bench and watches as the town begins to close down for the evening.  Still waiting for his movie, he notices a man walking toward him.  He was obviously drunk.  And he was sobbing. (Lord, Make Me An Instrument, 40)  The man approaches Nerburn, and they greet one another as best they can – The German’s English adequate, but not well-used, and Nerburn’s German barely passable.  The man is grief-stricken, sobbing and through it all manages to tell his story.  He was a judge, well respected in the community.  That morning, a young girl had run in front of his car as he was driving to work.  There had been no time to stop.  He had struck her, killing her instantly.  He had been wandering the streets, drinking, ever since. (41)  The man kept reliving the moment and thinking about his life.  “I am a judge, how could I have done this?  I keep seeing her in front of me, why could I not stop?  Nerburn: I tried to speak some words that would matter, but he stopped me.  “Don’t talk,” he said.  “I don’t need words.  I just need to be near somebody. (42) Nerburn stayed with the man long into the night, and reflected later on his experience.  If we are able to stay with someone at their time of darkness and doubt and simply bear witness, we are performing a holy act, and the wounded heart will know.  By the mute testimony of our presence, we are saying, “You are a child of God, and you matter.”  And that is sometimes enough to make a wounded heart turn back, if only for a moment, and feel the presence of the light. (43-44)  The mind-blowing, heart-enlarging, soul-stretching God, the God of Easter, invites us to be open to people who are in pain, anguish, angst and to trust that our presence in love makes a difference.  When we are present in love, somehow God is present in love.  We hope someone was present to the family of the young girl as well.
Toward the end of Friday evening’s worship service, these words were spoken: On a silent Saturday we wonder, would the words ever be heard again – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Or would the words remain sealed away forever?

Today we know.  Today we celebrate.  The God of Jesus Christ is not silent or entombed but still acts in mind-blowing, heart-enlarging, soul-stretching ways.  Practice resurrection.  Embrace the world.  Embrace your life.  Open up, trusting that God might just blow your mind this time, and again and again and again.  Amen.

Grim, Bleak Stuff (Good Friday sermon)

Good Friday, April 18, 2014

            Some of us, this Lent, read Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow.  It is a book focused on prayer, but it is not her first book on faith.  Lamott did not grow up in a family of faith.  My parents worshipped at the church of The New York Times, and we bowed down before our antique hi-fi cabinet, which held the Ark of the Covenant – Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk albums.  So, to recap, my parents, who were too hip and intellectual to pray, worshipped mostly mentally ill junkies (Help, Thanks, Wow, 17)  Lamott came to faith as an adult, came to faith out of a number of difficult experiences, and has discovered that faith does not necessarily make all the difficulties go away.
            In one of her earlier books, reflecting on her life and faith, Plan B, Lamott offers some thoughts about Good Friday.  It’s a sad day, of loss and cruelty; and all you have to go on is faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it (274).  She then goes on to offer some of her most profound words: Hope is not about proving anything.  It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] {original: shit} anyone can throw at us. (275)  If you know Anne Lamott, you may know that I had to edit her writing a little here, substituting a five-letter “s” word – “stuff,” for the four-letter “s” word in her book.  Hope is choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.
            Grim, bleak, stuff.  The story of Good Friday is a grim, bleak story.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of the misuse of power – both political and religious.  It is a story of abandonment.  It is a story of dehumanization.  It is a story about fear, and the use of fear.  It is a story about pain and death.
            Difficult as it is, we need to look this grim, bleak stuff right in the eye.  We need to take this grim, bleak stuff seriously.  It is part of our world.  Anne Lamott: “Darkness is our context” (Plan B, 275).  Darkness is our context.  In this morning’s newspaper we read about the disturbing rise in heroin usage in our area.  It is a problem plaguing the entire country.  Earlier this week, in Kansas City, a 73 year-old man, who seemed to have dedicated much of his time and energy to hating, shot and killed three people.  The places of the killings were Jewish, but none of the victims was.  On April 7, in Homs, Syria a Dutch priest, Father Frans van der Lught was executed, shot twice in the head by an unknown assailant.  Father Frans had been in Syria since 1966 and refused to leave even as violence escalated.  He was committed to helping the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation.
            Earlier this week, I spent a day learning more about human trafficking, sex trafficking to be more specific.  I had the privilege of learning from Rachel Lloyd, a woman who experienced the commercial sex trade first-hand and went on to write about it and to try and do something about it.  In her memoir, Girls Like Us, she discusses how she was helped leave “the life” by a church.  She writes that she never “fully shared” her past, though the church folks knew she had been through some stuff (275).  Monday evening, Lloyd shared that she did try once to share a bit more with a woman who she considered her closest friend in the church, but that this friend backed off, signaling that she really could not hear Rachel Lloyd’s whole story.
            We in the church need to hear, to see, to look the grim, bleak stuff in the eye.  If we are going to reach out into the world with the healing love of Jesus, we need to have some idea of the depth of the healing needed.
            Looking the grim, bleak stuff right in the eye does not just mean looking out there – at the cruelty and destructiveness and pain in the world.  It also means looking into our own hearts and souls.  There can be some grim, bleak stuff inside of us, too.  Sometimes our lives get entangled with grim, bleak stuff in the world.  The first question we ask parents of children being baptized, or those affirming their faith is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”  That’s a pretty heavy question, but it tries to get us to see that sometimes we can get entangled in grim, bleak stuff – spiritual forces of wickedness.  We can become complicit with grim, bleak stuff – evil powers of this world.  Ordinary Germans got caught up in the Holocaust.  Ordinary Russians got caught up in the police state and gulag system of the Soviets.  Ordinary Chinese got caught up in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  Ordinary Americans got caught up in the slave system.
            Grim, bleak stuff inside.  We are invited to change – to confession and repentance.  Some of our grim, bleak stuff is not our complicity, or our wrongdoing, but may also be our own buried hurts and pains.  We need to look at that too – our wounds, our hurts, our disappointments, our pain.  We need to see how deep the need for healing is in our own lives.
            When we can confront the grim, bleak stuff, when we can take it seriously and look it in the eye, then we can testify to the power of love and the strength of hope that we find in the God of Jesus Christ.
            In his book, Loving Jesus, Mark Allan Powell writes about sharing the faith.  Have you ever heard the testimony of someone who has no doubt… who is certain that he or she has found the kingdom: Before I knew Jesus, my life was a mess.  I was on drugs.  Or maybe I drank too much.  I was unfaithful to my spouse.  I couldn’t keep my kids in line.  I was mean to my dog.  I lost my job.  I was unhappy and bitter.  I was a real mess.  But then I found Jesus and he turned me into the wonderful person that I am today.  And I’m here to tell you the good news: if you accept Christ into your life, you can be just as together as I am.  Your life can be as good as mine.  These people do not make good evangelists. (Loving Jesus, 126)
            Of course, I believe Jesus can and does make life better.  I rejoice with those for whom the power of love in Jesus helped them overcome destructive behaviors, or heal damaged relationships, or healed deep wounds. There may be those whose faith leads to a problem free life.  For most of us, though, the grim, bleak stuff does not simply disappear.  We lose our way a bit.  We continue to know hurt and disappointment.  People we love get sick.  People we love die.  On Good Friday, I take seriously the grim, bleak stuff and the reality that it does not simply disappear from most lives.  I also take seriously that hope is choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.  The grim, bleak stuff can keep coming.  It may not magically disappear from our lives inside or out.  But there is something stronger, bigger.

            Today is a day of grim, bleak stuff.  It is a day for confession.  It is a day for honesty.  It is a day for authenticity.  It is also a day to recognize the strength of hope and the power of love.  It is day to remember that God, in Jesus, met the grim, bleak stuff with eyes wide open, and that love prevailed.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Happy Joyful

Sermon preached April 13, 2014

Texts: Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 27:32-54

Everybody loves a parade, and by the way the recording I am playing the morning is from 1890.
            Everybody loves a parade, and everybody loves to be happy.  “Happy” The Rolling Stones.  So we don’t hear The Rolling Stones in church much, but maybe we should.  They are an Easter band after all – rolling stones!
            God delights in our happiness.  The Psalmist writes, “God delights in God’s people” (149:4).  God delights in our happiness.
            Why, then, we might ask, aren’t our circumstances always happy?  That they aren’t is obvious from our second Scripture reading for this morning.  Why don’t happy things always happen?  Part of the answer is found simply in the human condition.  We are bodily creatures with a life span and our bodies and our life span are frustrating.  We have to deal with that.  We also need to remember that God is not the only actor there is.   God does not possess all the power there is.  Circumstances created by others can create deep unhappiness for us.  An overbearing boss, a dysfunctional family, an uncaring friend – the list could go on and on of those who can create unhappy circumstances in our lives.  Our own actions can undermine our happiness.  Sometimes what we think will make us happy does not.  Sometime we pursue some short-term thrill that leaves us with difficult long-term consequences.
            Life is not always happy.  That does not change that God delights in our happiness.  God, too, loves a parade.
            Even more, though, God fosters joy.  At the heart of joy is the heart of God.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus sums up pretty much everything by saying, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  He said it at the supper that he knew was the last one he’d have a mouth to eat.  Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation.  Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 57-58)
            There does seem to be a meaningful distinction between happiness and joy.  Circumstances are not always happy, yet they never completely preclude at least a modicum of joy.  Since I first read them I have appreciated the wise words of Elizabeth Lesser.  A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any on emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality.  Joseph Campbell calls happiness the “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”  (The New American Spirituality, 180)  I also have a deep fondness for Wendell Berry’s phrase, “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts” (‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”).
            Let’s admit it.  This is a weird Sunday in the church and not just because I have played both John Phillips Sousa and the Marine Corps Band and The Rolling Stones.  This is a weird Sunday in the church because we read both the Palm Sunday parade text, and some of the story of Jesus’s death.  It is kind of strange, yet the faith we share, the faith that encompasses both these stories has at its heart a God whose heart is a heart of joy.
            When Jesus was in danger, his disciples were alarmed; but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company.  And when he told his disciples that he wanted his joy to be in them, “that your joy may be complete,” to a remarkable degree that objective was realized. (Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity, 78)  With Jesus, there is joy.  How about the startling words of Greek Orthodox Father Alexander Schmemann: I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it.  Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything. (Journals)  Joy is the very tonality of Christianity!  It was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company.  Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
            What are the roots of our joy, a joy possible in the midst of even unhappy circumstances?  Our joy is rooted is the wild, ubiquitous, persistent love of God.  Look at this poem by Raymond Carver (Late Fragment), a poem cited by Anne Lamott in the book some of us have read – Help, Thanks, Wow (99).
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

            Because of God’s wild, persistent, ubiquitous love, these words fit us.  You can call yourself beloved.  You can feel yourself beloved on the earth.  In that is joy.
            And in that love of God for us our lives matter.  That, too, is a root of joy.  Our lives matter.  Our lives make a difference.  To use a quote from last week: That you are here – that life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass).  You matter.  You make a difference.  You contribute a verse to the powerful play of life.  You contribute a verse to the powerful play of God’s life.  In that is joy.
            There are few more joyous occasions than weddings.  One favorite poem I use occasionally at weddings provides a nice image of joy.
“Prayer for a Marriage”   Steve Scafidi

When we are old one night and the moon
arcs over the house like an antique
China saucer and the teacup sun

follows somewhere far behind
I hope the stars deepen to a shine
so bright you could read by it

if you liked and the sadnesses
we will have known go away
for awhile – in this hour or two

before sleep – and that we kiss
standing in the kitchen not fighting
gravity so much as embodying

its sweet force, and I hope we kiss
like we do today knowing so much
good is said in this primitive tongue

from the wild first surprising ones
to the lower dizzy ten thousand
infinitely slower ones – and I hope

while we stand there in the kitchen
making tea and kissing, the whistle
of the teapot wakes the neighbors.

            There are sadnesses in life we will know, but joy is the kiss while the tea kettle whistles.  And joy is the very tonality of Christianity.  It was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company.  Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
            God is a God of joy.  It is a predominant shade of God.  God is a God of joy, and God loves a parade.  God is particularly delighted when joy and happiness combine, like here:
Pharrell Williams, “Happy”  Know God, know joy, even when things are hard.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Life and Life Only

Sermon preached April 6, 2014

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-44

            I like poetry.  If any of you were hoping that I would be that pastor who would be inviting you to my next mixed martial arts fight (, I am sorry to disappoint you.  I was delighted to read this line in Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: Poetry is the official palace language of Wow (79).
            I might be no surprise to you then, that one of my favorite movies is Dead Poets Society (1989), where Robin Williams plays an English teacher at a boys prep school.  The film is where I recall my attention first being drawn to Henry David Thoreau’s words from Walden: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life….  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life (172).  In the film the lines of Walt Whitman are cited (as on your insert).  The question, O me! So sad recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?/Answer/That you are here – the life exists and identity,/that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
            Life.  Life and life only.  Full, rich abundant life, better life than we ever dreamed of.  Among the shades of God as we know God in Jesus Christ is that God is life giving.  In the words of theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, God liberates because God is the God of life (The God of Life, 3)
            The two Scripture texts for today are well-known to those of us who have been around the Bible for a while, and they are well-known stories about the God of Jesus Christ as life-giving.  Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, dies.  He is dead, stinking dead – “already there is a stench.”  Martha trusts that her brother “will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” but Jesus assures Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  The stone is rolled from the grave.  The stench clears and Lazarus is unbound.
            God gives a vision to Ezekiel.  He brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones….  He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?”…  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live….  The breath came into them, and they lived.
            There is life, and there is life.  Thoreau did not want to come to the end of his life and wonder if he had lived.  In Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott writes, “when nothing new can get in, that’s death.”  Somehow, even when we are alive, our lives can become bound up and stink.  Even in the midst of life, we can become like dry bones.  Where is the Life we have lost in living? the poet T. S. Eliot asks (“The Rock” chorus 1).  The theologian Dorothee Soelle writes, “It is possible to miss the whole of life, to throw it away, to treat it as a disposable object” (Choosing Life, 8).
            We can live life so that life is narrow, fearful, cynical.  That kind of life is like being bound in stinky grave cloths.  That kind of life is like dry bones strewn across a valley.
            God desires for us something else.  The theologian Paul Tillich, in words not on your insert, argues that life in the Spirit is marked by “increasing awareness… increasing freedom… increasing relatedness… increasing transcendence” (Systematic Theology, III, 231).  God desires for us life that is truly life, life where we are more aware of ourselves and the world, life where we are freer, life where we are more deeply related to others, and life where we grow in relationship to God.
            God, the life-giving Spirit, the God of Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life even now, not just at some future time, God desires for us life that is truly life – wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  Patrick Henry goes on to write, Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved.  They are part of the payload. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8-9)
            God, the life-giving Spirit, the God of Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life even now, not just at some future time, God desires for us life that has some Wow in it.  Anne Lamott: “Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes….  Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention….  Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time.  Let it be.  Unto us, so much is given.  We just have to be open for business. (Help, Thanks, Wow, 71, 85)
            This life that God desires for us is not something that we hoard, but something that is also shared.  Life in God’s Spirit is a life of increasing relatedness.  Lazarus comes to life again in the midst of relationship with Mary, Martha, and Jesus.  Together they unbind him.
            This life that God desires for us is something God desires for the whole world.  To come more alive in God’s Spirit is also to realize that there is a lot in the world that does not promote fullness of life, and God calls us to do what we can to clear the way for life.  Dorothee Soelle: Choosing life is the very capacity for not putting up with the matter-of-course destruction of life surrounding us, and the matter-of-course cynicism that is our constant companion (Choosing Life, 7).  Jurgen Moltmann: Life in God’s Spirit is life against death….  To say ‘yes’ to life means saying ‘no’ to war and its devastations.  To say ‘yes’ to life means saying ‘no’ to poverty and its humiliations.  There is no genuine affirmation of life in this world without the struggle against life’s negations. (The Spirit of Life, 97-98)
            Our job as a church , as a Jesus community, is to connect with the God of life.  We are here to unbind one another, to help each other move from dry bones to the dance of life.  Connecting with the God of life, we are different.  Connecting with the God of life, we seek to make the world different.
            Let me leave you with these images of living life in the dance of God the life-giver (Denise Levertov, “The Avowal”).

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.


Friday, April 4, 2014

See Me, Heal Me

Sermon preached March 30, 2014

Text: John 9:1-23

            I remember when the gospel stories of Jesus became rock operas or rock musicals.  I have heard of the wonderful performances of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” that were performed in this very place.  “Godspell” continues to be performed years after its debut in 1971.  A song from “Godspell,” “Day by Day” became a charted single in the summer of 1972 and its simple lyrics are a wonderful prayer that I have prayed.  “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly – day by day.”
            I have sometimes wondered what it might be like, though, to have a soundtrack for the Gospels using more secular songs.  Here is a song that could fit today’s story:
The Who, “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me”
            Can’t you imagine the man, born blind, singing this song – see me, feel me, touch me, heal me?
            And Jesus does.  And the story is told wonderfully with humor and irony.  There’s the healing itself.  Jesus spits to make mud, puts the mud on the man’s eyes and asks him to go wash in a pool.  So this person who has never seen is sent, face full of mud, to find the pool of Siloam?  By the way, many trace the toast, “Here’s mud in your eye” to this story!  The man washes, and he returns with his sight, and some who knew him only as a beggar find him unrecognizable now.  Some of the Pharisees get into an argument about Jesus – whether or not healing on the Sabbath is really appropriate.  Rather than deal with the issue at hand, they deny that the man was ever blind, and seek out his parents, who in turn respond – “Don’t ask us, he’s old enough to answer for himself.”  The story continues after our reading, an indicates a continuing blindness among at least some of the Pharisees, who cannot figure out what is going on.  They continue to asset their own spiritual insight, but fail to listen, saying later to the man, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
            This is a wonderfully told story.  The healing stories of Jesus are wonderful and amazing and puzzling.  The healing stories of Jesus challenge us, and one reason they challenge us is because in our lives, healing doesn’t always happen.  Cure does not always come.  Let’s think about this together for a few moments.
            The mighty deeds of Jesus were understood by gospel writers as power from the Power….  The might deeds of Jesus were seen as the product of the power that flowed through him as a Spirit-filled mystic.  (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 148)  The healing stories of Jesus function primarily to tell us something about Jesus, and through him about God.  They tell us about a God who “creates the world, sustains it, and engages in all that is toward healing” (Laurel Schneider, in Constructive Theology, 75).  God’s desire is for healing.
            God’s desire is for healing, but that’s just the challenge isn’t it?  Healing doesn’t always happen.  I really appreciate theologian Marjorie Suchocki’s reflections on healing and prayer.  God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what can be.  Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what can be.  The application of these dynamics to prayers for healing requires recognition that mortality is part of the way the world is, and that immortality within the conditions of history is not part of our possibilities in the world….  Each of us will encounter one disease or dysfunction that leads to our death.  Prayers for healing must take place in the full recognition of our mortality.  (Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 57, 58).  God wills the well-being of this world, even in the midst of its fragility and mortality….  Prayers for healing make a difference in what kind of resources God can use as God faithfully touches us with impulses toward our good, given our condition.  (Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 59).
            Mortality is part of the reality of the world in which we live.  We will all die.  Life is terminal.  We may wish it were different, but it is not.  Conversations about healing and faith and prayer and God and Jesus occur in that context.  Sickness happens.  Bodies hurt and parts fail.  Often we recover, but in the end something will get us all.  Why does healing happen sometimes, and not others, and where is God the healer in all that?
            We often appeal to a sense of mystery here, and that is appropriate.  Human healing in and of itself is a bit of a mystery.  I am amazed by the capacities of the human body.  Over the years, as a teacher, Julie has brought home many colds, but I typically don’t catch them.  Bring God into the healing equation, and there’s bound to be mystery.  But how we appeal to mystery matters, I think.  To say that God heals this person but not that person and the reason is shrouded in mystery can leave God sounding kind of capricious. 
Some might then respond by arguing that if God desires healing and well-being, and it doesn’t happen, then God is ineffectual.  I don’t think that’s the only alternative.  God could be seen as one with the strongest influence on any situation, but not the only influence.  One could see God as the most powerful influence in the world consistent with other entities also having power.  This is something like Marjorie Suchocki’s position.  There remains mystery here, the mystery of just how God’s influence operates in life, but it is not the mystery of a God who just chooses this one or that one for healing.
So the healing stories challenge us, and we all have to grapple with the challenge they pose and make our way theologically through this.  The bottom line message of these stories, though, is that God is healer.  The consistent message is that God is always at work toward healing and well-being, no matter the cause of the hurt or disease.  Jesus statement early in the story about sin not being involved in the man’s blindness is not meant to say that God caused the man to be blind for years so that Jesus could come along and heal him.  It is a statement of God’s unrelenting work toward healing.  I have a friend who has shared that the words of Jesus about sin not being involved in disease were a great comfort to her when she had to deal with breast cancer in her life.  It let her know that stuff just happens, and she did not have to be blaming herself for her cancer.
God is healer.  Not only do we have to grapple with this idea in a world where everyone dies, we also need to acknowledge the important distinction between healing and cure. Healing can be more than, or other than, cure.  I really like the quote from Harry Guntrip on your insert: A problem created in childhood is ‘never too late to mend.’  Age does not necessarily bring loss of capacity for emotional change and relief of longstanding tension.  (Harry Guntrip, quoted in H.J. S. Guntrip: a psychoanalytic biography, v)  Guntrip was a clergy person before becoming a therapist, and he reminds us that healing has emotional and spiritual connotations.  He also reminds us that healing of old emotional wounds is always possible.  In the gospel story, the man is not only healed by having sight given, he is healed just as deeply by being recognized by Jesus.  The man is seen.  The man is welcomed.  The man has his life story taken seriously by Jesus.  Healing is happening in all kinds of dimensions.
Sometimes healing takes the form of the ability to keep going, even when one’s physical ailments persist, or the challenges in life remain difficult.  Last week I quoted Anne Lamott from Help, Thanks, Wow: But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on. (47)  There is a healing in keeping going.
I know a bit of that in my own life.  At twenty-one I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis.  I have prayed for its disappearance over the years, but it has not disappeared.  Because of my disease, I am at a higher risk for colon cancer, and because of that higher risk I receive an annual colonoscopy.  All the recent ad campaigns encouraging colonoscopys bring a smile to me.  I have had a couple of scares with results, but thankfully none have turned out to be cancer.  Often my prayers now are for keeping going.  Just this week, I prayed for some healing relief.  Monday I woke up with a terribly stiff neck and shoulders.  What from, I don’t know – who sinned?  Late Monday, Tuesday, into Wednesday, not only was I stiff, but I was getting spasms in my neck and shoulder, like Charlie horse cramps.  It wasn’t very pleasant, but I also had some important things to care for.  Warren Berg’s funeral was here Tuesday.  My primary prayer was to be able to keep going.  I prayed the opening prayer for the Minnesota State Senate on Wednesday.  I prayed before hand, more than anything to be able to keep going.  I managed, and by Thursday evening my symptoms were subsiding.
Even more than these personal examples, I have learned so much from so many here as you have kept going in dealing with difficult issues in your lives – with discouraging diagnoses, with relationship issues.  Healing, in terms of the ending of a disease or the ending of a difficult situation has not always happened, though it certainly does sometimes.  Healing as keeping going, as the grace of a second wind I witness a lot.
Just a couple more thoughts about God as healer.  If God is the one who “creates the world, sustains it, and engages in all that is toward healing,” – understanding all the complexities of healing in our world, then one of our responses to this God who heals is to be open to that healing in whatever way it may come, and some of the ways it may come have to do with our very openness to that healing.  Last week I mentioned Anthony Robinson’s note that we in mainline churches have traditionally been better and seeing ourselves as strong givers to others, but that we need to balance that with receiving.  I put his quote on the sheet this week.  A one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver… can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God….The self that is anxious and the self that is hurting; the self that is, yes, capable of giving but that also needs to receive the gifts of God and the grace of God. (Anthony Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, 67)  The prayer we prayed this morning was intended to help us be more open to our own hurts and needs and wounds so that God as healer might touch our lives more profoundly.
Yet as we are healed, we are also called to be about God’s work of healing.  “We must work the works of the One who sends us,” to slightly change the words of Jesus.  The priest and writer Henri Nouwen writes about our task in ministry as being wounded healers.  Not only are we recipients of the healing grace of God in our lives, but our own wounds might help us be sources of the healing grace of God for others.  Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as arising from the depth of the human condition which all [persons] share….  How does healing take place?  Many words, such as care and compassion, understanding and forgiveness, fellowship and community have been used for the healing task of the Christian.  (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 88-89).  I appreciate Nouwen’s expansive idea of healing – care, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, fellowship, community.

            To be honest, I would rather be like Superman whose only weakness is kryptonite than be a wounded healer.  That sounds much messier and more complicated.  However, it sounds more real, more authentic, more genuine in a world where we all know woundedness, and where all life ends.  God, whose one shade is God the healer invites us into a healing relationship, and invites us, as we are being healed, to heal.  We are invited, that is, to be more ourselves and be more God-like.  Amen.