Saturday, May 31, 2014

Through It All

 Sermon preached May 25, 2014

            One of my favorite movies turns twenty next year.  Mr. Holland’s Opus is a movie about a music teacher, and we follow him through his career.  In one memorable scene, Mr. Holland attends the funeral of a former student killed in Vietnam, and we hear the voice of the gym teacher reading a familiar poem.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

            The poem, written by a Canadian soldier in World War I, goes on from there.  It is a familiar poem, perhaps especially this weekend, when we as a nation recall all those who fought and died and are buried in various Flanders fields.
            War.  Loss.  Death.  “Life is difficult,” so Scott Peck tells us at the beginning of The Road Less Traveled, a book now well over thirty years old.  But Peck goes on to say, “once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.” (15)
            With all due respect, I disagree with the last part of Peck’s statement.  Simply understanding that life is difficult does not seem to dispense with its difficulties.  Even Peck, himself, hedges.  What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one.  Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke in us frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or fear or anxiety or anguish or despair.  These are uncomfortable feelings….  And since life poses and endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy. (16)  Simply understanding does not make the pain and difficulty all disappear.
            When I was a younger man, I expected the world to be in better shape than it is now.  This week I was at the Damiano Center with some of the youth going to New York in June.  I asked about how the center began.  It started in 1982 when there was a deep economic crisis in Duluth, and across the country.  It began as a temporary effort to provide food for folks until the economy got better.  Thirty some years later it is still going, busy as ever.
            A former president, in a State of the Union speech said the following: The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?  Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.  It has become a common cause of all the people of this country….  Clean air, clean water, open spaces – these should once again be the birthright of every American.  The date was January 22, 1970, the president was Richard Nixon.  A great question of the seventies is now a great question of the teens, but now there seems a great partisan divide over environmental issues, especially climate change.
            Heroin, a scourge of an earlier drug abuse age, something that seemed entirely frightening to me as a teen, heroin is making a comeback, enslaving people, taking lives.
            In Nigeria, over 300 girls have been kidnapped in the name of a fundamentalist brand of Islam by an organization called Boko Haram for seeking an education.  Boko Haram itself means something like “Western education is forbidden.”
            I thought the world would be doing better by now.  Life is difficult.
            But we need not only look out at the world to experience the difficulty of life.  As Scott Peck wrote in his book, we know life is difficult from our own experience.  There are inner difficulties we experience.
            Over thirty years ago, psychologist Carl Rogers noted: to a degree probably unknown before, modern man experiences his loneliness, his cut-off-ness,his isolation both from his own deeper being and from others (A Way of Being, 166-167).  There has always been a degree of loneliness and isolation in human existence, but something about modern society makes our experience of this even more acute. Life is difficult.
Poet William Stafford, in a notebook penned this: You had your wound – now the healing starts.  The wounding is clean, but the healing hurts.  (Sound of the Ax, 67)  Healing, as necessary and needed as it is, can also be painful.
One of the reasons I love the Psalms is that they do not turn away from the difficulty of life.  They are honest.  They take the challenges, pains, hurts, disappointments, difficulties of life seriously.  Life is such that our feet can slip, and sometimes they do.  Sometimes we get trapped, sometimes because of our own choices.  Life can feel like a burden laid upon our backs.  Sometimes in life it feels like people ride over our heads, that we have to go through fire and water.
I love the Psalms because they are honest.  Now the Psalms wonder about the place of God in all the difficulties of life, and here the writer suggests that God lets it all happen.  I would argue with the Psalmist there, but that is another sermon, another discussion.  The bottom line in the Psalm is that life presents us with difficulties, hurts, challenges, pains.
While the Psalms often offer unflinching looks at life’s difficulties, struggles, pains and sorrows, they also offer something else.  They offer an invitation to see more, to see God, and to trust God through it all.
Through it all, God has kept us among the living.  Through it all, God has brought us out to a spacious place. Life sometimes gives us reason to cry aloud, yet God listens. God hears the cries of our hearts, when the cries are cries of pain, when the cries are shouts of joy.  Through it all, God never removes God’s steadfast love from us.
In the Psalms we see life is difficult and we see that life is beautiful.  That’s important.  An honest faith needs to look at all of life, all of the world.  If we ignore life’s difficulties, we paint a skewed picture of the world and we find that we cannot speak to many people of our faith.  If we ignore life’s beauty and joy, we miss the on-going activity of the Spirit in the world and we have a no less skewed view of the world.
Life is difficult and life is beautiful.
The writer Annie Dillard speaks so eloquently of this.  Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery….  There seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous….  Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there. (from Pilgrim At Tinker Creek in The Annie Dillard Reader, 286-287)
The writer John Updike is equally eloquent.  In his “Forward” to his collection of early short stories, Updike writes: But when has happiness ever been the subject of fiction?  The pursuit of it is just that – a pursuit.  Death and its adjutants tax each transaction.  What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted. Discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear – these are the worthy, inevitable subjects (xiv, The Early Stories).  Yet Updike says he finds in his stories “no lack of joy… no lack of affection and goodwill.”  “Art hopes to sidestep mortality with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connection” (xiv).  Updike said he wrote to “give the mundane its beautiful due” (xv).
Life is difficult.  Life is beautiful.  The question before us is a question of where to place our trust.  Do we trust that the grace, goodness and beauty have deeper roots, have a power that finally will not be extinguished by the struggles, hurts, pains, cruelties of the world?  Do we trust that God’s steadfast love, which is grace, beauty, goodness, remains and seeks always to lead us out to a spacious place, even if we cannot simply stay there forever?  The pain won’t simply go away.  The struggles and difficulties do not magically disappear.  Healing can still be painful.  Do we trust that through it all, God is with us?  Do we trust that through it all, God continues to incarnate love, joy, beauty, grace and goodness?  Do we trust deeply enough to stake our lives on it, to live differently, to live for love, joy, beauty, grace and goodness?
Walter Wink was a New Testament scholar – a pastor, theologian, political activist and writer.  Wink died of dementia in 2012.  His last book was published earlier this year – it is a memoir of sorts entitled  Just Jesus.
My perfectionism did not arise from any form of indoctrination from fundamentalism.  It came straight out of my desperate desire to win my parents’ – and God’s love (28-29)…  There still remains a wound at the core of my existence. Why did I have to struggle so hard to overcome its consequences?  I know this: without that wound, I would have become a shallow caricature of a person (30)…  I understand that God worked for my healing…  How did God use my wound to heal me? (30)…  But I still struggle to become a human being. (32)
Wink writes movingly and convincingly about the joys and struggles of life and faith, of coming to spacious places.  Speaking of his parents: Over time, I realized that… my refusal to love and forgive them had robbed all of us of much deserved happiness (32).  And what sustains Walter Wink in all of this?  The Human Being keeps us going (34) – the Human Being, the son of the man, God incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

Life is difficult.  Life is beautiful.  Healing hurts.  Beauty and grace are performed whether we will or sense them.  Through it all, God is with us, listening to the cries of our hearts.  Through it all, God seeks to incarnate joy, beauty, grace goodness, love.  Through it all, God never removes God’s steadfast love from us.  Through it all, trust that love.  Amen.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jesus the Fifth Beatle

May 18, 2014

Texts: I Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

            The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
            The year is 1966.  In August, The Beatles release Revolver, their seventh studio album, though if you know something of the history of The Beatles you know that albums were released differently in the United States, and this was their eleventh US album.  Someone has written of Revlover “This almost flawless album can be seen as the peak of the Beatle’s creative career” (The Beatles: an illustrated history, 54).  “Eleanor Rigby” comes from this album.
            The Beatles were a phenomenon.  Ever since they hit the shores of  the United States in February 1964, the world was struck with Beatlemania.  Given the proliferation of media outlets I don’t think we will ever see something quite like the Beatles again.  Beyond all the hype and publicity, though, the songs have held up well over time.
            Given their success, there were people who wanted to attach themselves to the group in one way or another.  Occasionally, someone would try and claim the title “the fifth Beatle.”  One of the first to do so was a New York disc jockey named Muarry the K.  Doesn’t that sound like the 1960s!  At times other musicians were given the title the fifth Beatle – Harry Nillson, Billy Preston.
            For The Beatles, 1966 was also a year marked by controversy.  Early in the year, John Lennon had given an interview with a British journalist in which he said about The Beatles, “we’re more popular than Jesus now.”  Months later the remarks were reported in the United States, and they created an uproar.  Radio stations in Alabama and Texas banned Beatle’s music from being played.  Some organized Beatle’s record burnings, as did other groups.
            If being the fifth Beatle means doing something rather “Beatle-like,” maybe Jesus would qualify.  Listen to these words again from John 14.  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”  Greater than Jesus!  When John Lennon was making his rather awkward comment on Jesus, he was trying to say something about the state of the church in England at that time, echoing things even English church observers were noting about the decline of the church in that country in the 1960s.  When Jesus was speaking, he was making a more dramatic claim.
            If Jesus can be thought of as the face of God turned toward us, we are often the face of Jesus for the world.  Jesus wants to touch the world through us.  God wants to love the world through us.
            The year is 1966.  A cornerstone is placed in a building constructed at the intersection of Sixth Avenue East, Mesaba Avenue, and Central Entrance.  It is our cornerstone, but we are now inheritors of the traditions of two earlier churches, Chester Park United Methodist Church – for many years at 18th Avenue East, and First Methodist Church, formerly at Third Avenue East and Third Street.  While we have a cornerstone that turns fifty in just a couple of years, our inner cornerstone is Jesus himself – a living stone, and we are being “built into a spiritual house.”  It is another image for this idea that Jesus wants to touch the world through us, that God wants to love the world through us.  Those who live the Jesus way, the Jesus truth, the Jesus life, are involved in the very work of Jesus, and may even do some greater things, touch more people, bringing good news to wider circles, feed thousands.
            So what are we up to?  How are we doing?  Just this week, we distributed over 220 shares of food through Ruby’s Pantry, which is now nearing the end of its fourth year here.  In speaking with someone earlier in the week, I was told just how helpful Ruby’s Pantry has been to their family, and how they share some of the food they get here with others.  Thank you for being about the work of Jesus, for letting Jesus touch the world through you, letting God love the world through you.
            The end of the week, our social hall became a mobile packing site for Feed My Starving Children.  It was part of an effort by The United Methodist Church in Minnesota to pack one million meals to be sent to hungry people across the world.  Our site packed over 100,000 meals Friday evening and Saturday.  Thank you for being about the work of Jesus, for letting Jesus touch the world through you, letting God love the world through you.
            We served our roast beef dinner last week.  While it is indeed a significant fund-raiser for the church, we are also giving to others through this dinner.  This summer we will help feed youth on a mission trip to this area with some of the leftover beef.  Following the dinner, we took some meals to Harbor House Crisis Shelter in Superior, and heard back this week about how for many it was the best meal they had eaten in awhile.  They were very grateful.  Thank you for being about the work of Jesus, for letting Jesus touch the world through you, letting God love the world through you.
            We heard some this morning again about our on-going work with Lake Superior Elementary – mentoring, the clothes closet.  Thank you for being about the work of Jesus, for letting Jesus touch the world through you, letting God love the world through you.
            This week we ministered to the grieving.  I officiated at a service for Bill Sharp.  Yesterday we hosted a service for Elsa Hurmi Campbell, a long-time member.  We walk with people in grief.  We are all saddened this week by the death of our friend Dave Miller.  I know how much your love and care and prayers have meant to Dave’s family as they walked the journey of his last days.  Thank you for being about the work of Jesus, for letting Jesus touch the world through you, letting God love the world through you.
            Letting Jesus touch the world through us, letting God love the world through us is not just a matter of what we do, of being busy all the time.  It is about the work, but it is also about becoming certain kinds of people.  It’s not just what we do, but also who we are.  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.”  We are being made different, shined up a bit, so that God’s love, care, compassion radiate just a little bit more brightly in our lives.  Thank you for letting God’s Spirit continue to form your hearts, for letting Jesus touch the world through you, letting God love the world through you.
            We are not perfect.  We mess up.  I know I mess up.  But we are on a journey together.  We are on the way.
            The year is 1963.  John F. Kennedy is president.  The Beatles had released two albums in the United Kingdom, but none yet in the United States.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian sends a telegram to the president, the day before a scheduled meeting with him which will include other religious leaders.  He writes the president about civil rights, which will be the topic of the discussion.  Heschel writes: “Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration.  We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate the Negros.”  Heschel, whose daughter I had the pleasure of knowing a bit at Southern Methodist University, Heschel ends his telegram: “the hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

            Jesus makes an audacious claim, that others will be bigger than him.  “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”  We continue to try and take that seriously here – doing the work of Jesus, being people of the Spirit, letting Jesus touch the world through us, letting God love the world through us.  It is all pretty audacious, but should our response to God in Jesus ever be anything less than moral grandeur and spiritual audacity?  Amen.

Friday, May 16, 2014

That's Life

 Sermon preached May 11, 2014, Confirmation Sunday

Texts: Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10

            Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life”:
            I thought I would begin by playing something that I was sure was on the ipods of all these fine young men being confirmed today.  Do you know who that is?  I guess we can be glad that Frank Sinatra never came up as a word in Catch Phrase or Telestrations.
            Beginning with a little bit of humor seemed appropriate.  This year’s confirmation class can be quiet, very quiet.  It might have something to do with adolescent boys and 8:45 am on Sunday mornings.  Though they can be quiet, they each have delightful senses of humor.  It found its way a bit into the confirmation bios, at least I am hoping Oscar’s goal in life is not really to live in his parent’s basement.
            That’s life – ups, downs, twists, turns, joys, sorrows, moments of clarity, moments of doubt and questions – that’s life.  What does faith have to do with life?  What does it mean to confirm one’s faith?  While these are questions especially for these five young men, they are questions for each of us.  What does faith have to do with life and what does it mean to confirm our faith?  My biggest criticism of the idea of “confirmation” is that we sometimes reduce it to a one-time event in life.  Confirmed my faith – check.  In reality, confirming our faith is something that should happen again and again.  The life of faith is a life-long adventure, and involves life-long learning.
            What does faith have to do with life?  One of my favorite passages of Scripture is the very last part of this morning’s Scripture reading.  Jesus is using images taken from the experience of shepherds to describe who he is for people of faith.  Here he compares himself to a sheep gate. Later he will compare himself to the shepherd.  Whatever the comparison, the key seems to me in the last part of verse 10.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message: I came so that they have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.  The Jesus way of life, the way of life of faith in Jesus is intended to be full, rich, abundant life, more and better life than we may have even dreamed of.
            Really?  Let’s take a peak at Acts 2 for a moment -  a picture of some folks trying to live the Jesus way of life.  They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
            Now many of us reading or hearing that may say to ourselves, “That sounds really pious to me, but not necessarily a description of grabbing hold of life, of shaking the tree of life to gather as much fruit as possible, to sucking the marrow out of life.”  But look again, not so much at the exact details, but at the overall themes.  These people are learning, praying, sharing, experiencing moments of awe, and developing glad and generous hearts.  Learning, praying, sharing, openness to awe, and developing glad and generous hearts – this seems like the makings of a way of life.  This is not a bad description of the Jesus way of life, and confirming our faith is saying “yes” to Jesus and this Jesus way of life.
            And by faith here, I mean trust.  The essence of faith is not belief, it is trust.  Do you believe that the earth was created in seven days is not really a faith question.  It is an empirical question, a scientific question to which the answer seems to be "no."“ Do you trust that however the earth came into being that God has an intention for creation, for human life, for your life?  That is a faith question because is it a question of trust and if we say “yes” it asks of us that we live differently.
            Reflecting on faith as trust, the theologian Dorothee Soelle wrote: You cannot life authentically without trusting that life is good, even your life, that the difficulties and setbacks are not the last word, not even for you, and that your life has a purpose (Not Just Yes and Amen, 54)  The religious writer Sam Keen also reflects in a similar vein.  The ultimate significance, meaning, security, value, dignity of my life is not dependent upon anything I can do, make or accomplish.  Therefore, my action may spring out of what I am rather that arising out of a desperate need to establish myself (quoted in Donald Evans, Struggle and Fulfillment, 25)
            Life will have its ups and downs, twists and turns, joys and sorrows, moments of clarity and moments of confusion, times of achievement, and times of disappointment.  That’s life.  Do we trust that life is good and that finally we are valued and have dignity no matter what?  These values and dignity are rooted in the love of God in Jesus Christ.  When we know this deep valuing of our lives we live a way of life characterized by learning, praying, sharing, openness to awe, and developing glad and generous hearts.  Do we trust that this is the way of life?
            This way of life is different from other ways that are supposed to give us abundant life.  In his delightful book about Christian faith, Unapologetic, Francis Spufford says that the world shaped by advertising suggests to us that “the center of gravity of the human race, our default condition, is to be young, buff and available” (9).  Of course, that’s true about this morning’s confirmation class, but it is not true for any of us all of our lives.  Sorry guys.  That’s life.  That narrow definition of the good life seems to boil life down to enjoyment, but that’s not really all of life.  Spufford writes: The rest of the time, you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion, and the rest.  It makes no more sense to say that you should feel the single emotion of enjoyment about your life than to say that you should spend it entirely in a state of fear, or of hopping-from-foot-to-foot anticipation.  Life just isn’t unanimous like that. (8)  A way of life characterized by learning, praying, sharing, openness to awe, and developing glad and generous hearts seems to be truer to life.  Do we trust that?
            Two more brief reflections on faith and life before wrapping up.  Writer Doris Betts asserts that faith is ‘not synonymous with certainty… [but] is the decision to keep your eyes open” (in Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, 169).  When we trust that life is good, even with its darknesses and difficulties, even my life and your life, then we can be more open to the world.  We are not so fragile.  We can take it all in and in doing so are more open to awe.
            A Desert monk in the Christian tradition offers this reflection on faith.  “Faith is to live humbly and give alms” (Norris, 170).  That is a nice shorthand way of saying that when we trust in the love and goodness of God, we live lives characterized by learning, praying, sharing, openness to awe, and developing glad and generous hearts.  We trust that this Jesus way of life is really life – abundant life, more and better life.
            This is faith.  This is life.  Confirming our faith should happen again and again, but as we are encouraged to confirm our faith, let’s admit that this Jesus way is not always easy.  There are “spiritual forces of wickedness,” that is powerful influences that would have us narrow the scope of our lives.  Life is about more than success, getting spending – none of which are bad in themselves, but they are not the whole of life.  Enjoyment is not the whole of life, though there is nothing wrong with enjoyment.  Yet if we are not at times brought to tears by some of the tragedy in the world, are we really open to life?
            This way of faith is a way of courage – using the freedom and power God gives us to oppose evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  That is certainly not an easy task.
            The way of faith is a way of forgiveness, of admitting that sometimes we don’t live up to our faith and need forgiveness.  It is trusting that forgiveness is always there.
            Drew, Robbie, Jeremy, Oscar, Josh – you have gifts – music, athletics, acting, thoughtfulness, humor – develop them, use them for good.  Trust that doing that is the way of life, the way of Jesus.  Even more important, continue to develop your hearts, may they be glad and generous hearts.
            Always remember, you are not alone.  Today you say “yes” to God, and you say “yes” to the church.  We will continue to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness and we will walk this Jesus journey with you.  We will with you learn, pray, share, be open to awe, and work on developing glad and generous hearts

            Now that’s life.  Amen.

Friday, May 9, 2014


May 4, 2014

Texts: Luke 24:13-35

            Bread, “If”  O.K. so this song just sounds like the 1970s.  This song evokes both warmth and terror.  It was the kind of song you dreamed of dancing to with that cute girl from your math class, and the kind of song that created sweaty palms as you stood there at the Ordean Junior High dance too terrified to actually go ask that girl to dance.  Worse yet, you may have finally screwed up the courage to ask, and she said “no,” then you had to make your way back across the cafeteria floor to the other side of the room feeling really awful.
            The name of the group was “Bread” – another echo of the 1970s.  This sermon is a companion to last week’s sermon and not just because it is also named after a band.  Last week I spoke about blind faith, how our Christian faith is not a blind faith in that it does not ask us to believe without questions or doubts.  Yet Christian faith is a sort of blind faith in that it asks of us trust – trust that the most important things in life cannot be seen, but are matters of the heart and soul; trust that the good we do is never lost, but that God  is one who acts  with “a tender care that nothing be lost” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 525 old edition). 
            I trust that the most important matters in life are often unseen.  I trust that with God, nothing good is lost.  At the same time that we affirm this, we also affirm the importance of the invisible becoming visible.  While what matters most in life is unseen, we trust that the unseen can, in fact, be seen sometimes.  We may not see kindness, but we see how kindness becomes visible in the world.  Justice is not something that we can take a picture of, but we know something of justice when historical wrongs are made right, when oppression is overcome, when people are set free.  We may not see love, but we see people in love and how they live with each other.
            If at the heart of Christian faith there is this trust in the importance of the unseen, there is also a trust that this important unseen stuff can and does become visible, we might say “incarnate.”  At the heart of Christian faith is God - unseen Spirit.  At the heart of Christian faith is Jesus – God made visible, “the side of God turned toward us, the face of God” in the words of Marcus Borg (Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, p. 137).  In the Christian faith we celebrate “sacraments.”  Today we will share in communion.  The sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”  While we don’t call marriage a sacrament in The United Methodist Church, there is something sacramental about it.  When I hold up rings during a wedding, I say, “These rings are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace signifying to all the uniting of this couple in marriage.”
            We trust in the importance of the invisible.  We also trust that this important invisible stuff wants and needs to be made more visible.
            There is this story in the Gospel of Luke.  Two disciples of Jesus are walking toward a village, Emmaus.  While they are walking and talking about the event of Jesus’ arrest and death, Jesus himself joins them, though they did not recognize him.  The conversation is lively.  They arrive and urge the stranger to stay with them.  So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
            This Jesus, who appears and disappears mysteriously, wants to make himself visible.  He becomes visible in the breaking of bread.  When we share communion, we trust that Jesus can be real to us in an important way as we eat the bread and drink the juice.  Communion is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  When we baptize, we use ordinary water, but that water becomes a visible and tangible expression of God’s love, and of the love of God’s people for the one being baptized.
            God’s love in Jesus, may not be visible, yet it wants to become more visible in sacraments, in actions.  We trust the importance of that invisible love becoming visible, and we trust that all our efforts to make that love of God more visible in the world are worth it, and that with God, none of our good is lost.
            Another aspect to this is that in Jesus, God invites us to be sacramental people.  We are ones through whom God wants to love the world.  We may be the Jesus people see.  We are to be outward and visible signs of the inward grace and love of God.  The theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, in his book Church: the human story of God writes: Where good is furthered and evil is challenged in the human interest, then through this historical practice the being of God… is also established (12).  In other words, our actions in response to God’s call in Jesus Christ to be more loving, compassionate, to do justice and care for creation, are outward and visible signs of God’s presence in the world.  We help make God more real, in the words of Schillebeeckx, “in and through acts of love” (12)
            Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch priest, went to Syria in 1966 to minister to the people there.  He worked in the city of Homs.  In recent years, as Syria has deteriorated into a situation of civil war, Father Frans refused to leave his community.  Homs became part of rebel-held territory, blockaded by the Syrian government.  Earlier this year some 1,400 people were evacuated, but Father Frans stayed on, ministering to the area’s remaining Christians and helping poor families, particularly through the distribution of bread.  Father Frans told reporters, “I don’t see people as Muslims or Christians, I see a human being first and foremost.”  In early April, a gunman came to Father Frans’ house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head, killing him.
            Thankfully most sacramental acts don’t end in death.
            Sometimes loving can be dangerous.  Sometimes the work of justice is difficult and complicated.  Sometimes compassion is challenging.  Father Frans, in his ministry in Syria was a sacramental person, giving bread to the poor, reaching out to people regardless of whether or not they were Christian of Muslim.
            God’s love in Jesus, may not be visible, yet it wants to become more visible in sacraments, in actions.  We trust the importance of that invisible love becoming visible, and we trust that all our efforts to make that love of God more visible in the world are worth it, and that with God, none of our good is lost.  God invites us to be sacramental people.

            Take this bread, so you can be bread for the world, a sacrament of God’s grace and love in Jesus.  Take this cup, so you can refresh the world with the grace and love of God in Jesus.  Turn to your neighbor, and say, “the Christ in me greets the Christ in you.”  Amen.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Blind Faith

Sermon preached April 27, 2014

Texts: I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

            Here is your morning music quiz.  Name this super group that made only one album together: Blind Faith, “Can’t Find My Way Home”:
            Blind Faith included Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker.  They made but one record together and it included this lovely song “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
            Blind faith – is that what faith is all about, blind faith?  Some might see that very thing in this morning’s gospel reading from John, that well-known story about Thomas.  He’s even acquired a nickname – “doubting Thomas.”  Thomas had not yet had the experience of the other disciples.  He had not yet encountered the risen Jesus, and he was not going to take the word of others.  Then Jesus appears again, and among the words he speaks to Thomas are these – “Do not doubt, but believe.”
            Some Christians argue that a kind of blind faith is the essence of faith.  “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  It was a phrase I encountered in a Bible promises book some years ago.  Questions were not encouraged.  Doubt was dissed.  One was not to ask if there might be a difference between the word of God and the words which have come to us in the Bible, or how we might discern the voice of the Spirit through the text.
            Is this what faith is all about?  I don’t think so.  Thomas had been asking questions, reserving judgment, and he was still welcomed by the disciples.  It was a week after he began asking questions that Jesus appeared to him.  He was not ostracized by the disciples during that time.  It seems to me if we exclude questions, we are excluding people who might just want to know a little more about this Jesus, this Christian faith of ours.  I would go even further.  Sometimes it takes a measure of faith to ask questions, to raise doubts.  The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich wrote in his book Dynamics of Faith: Faith includes courage.  Therefore it can include the doubt about itself….  Serious doubt is a confirmation of faith (20,22).
            The essence of faith in Jesus Christ, of Christian faith in God is not a blind, unthinking, uncritical faith.  Yet, I would also say that faith in Jesus Christ, Christian faith in God is, at the same time, a blind faith of another sort.  There are two parts to this important blindness of faith.
            The first important blindness of Christian faith is well-expressed in these words of Helen Keller.  The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.  They must be felt with the heart.  The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.  They must be felt with the heart.
            Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  The writer of I Peter writes, “Although you have not seen him [Jesus Christ], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”
            The heart of Christian faith is a trust that things unseen are among the most important in the world.  We trust that there is a God, a power in the world whose nature is love, and therefore to act lovingly is to work with the very grain of the universe.  We trust that the way of life is the way of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  Now sometimes we see goodness being rewarded, or we see goodness being its own reward, but not always.  Still we trust that the best and most beautiful things in the world are unseen, or perhaps not easily seen.  We live differently because of that.  We come here regularly to attune ourselves to the unseen, to listen more carefully for the whisper of God’s Spirit.  We pay attention to our inner life.  We live trusting that in the end what will matter most about our lives are the other lives we touched in ways that are not always visible, that are hard to describe.  So there is this kind of blindness to genuine faith.
            Another dimension to the essential blindness of our faith is well-expressed in these words of Albert Schweitzer.  No ray of sunshine is ever lost but the green which it awakens into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted for the sower to see the harvest.  All work that is worth anything is done in faith.  I think I have mentioned that I have for a long time collected quotes.  My first notebook with quotes written in it is from high school.  It had once been my “Mass Media” class notebook from my senior year.  The Schweitzer quote is in that notebook.  But I particularly remember the quote because I used to sometimes also write quotes on school folders, including in college, and one of my psychology professors noticed this quote one time and asked me about it.  He said that he did not work that way.  He really needed to see results.
            I like to see results, too, but sometimes we don’t get that opportunity, particularly when we are talking about the good we may do for others.  We in the church are here for each other.  One of the things Jesus does is bring people together.  Bishop John Shelby Spong writes, “the business of the church is to love people into life” (Resurrection, 288).  That’s an audacious description of what we are about here.  And sometimes we will point to places where we can celebrate where we have done just that, and many times we simply have to keep loving and hope that we are indeed loving people into life.  We may never know, but we trust.
            We trust that, in the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, God is one who acts  with “a tender care that nothing be lost” (Process and Reality, 525 old edition).  Whether we see the results of our kindness, our loving, our caring, we continue being kind, loving and caring, trusting that in God none of this is lost.
            We trust that some of the best and most beautiful things in the world are unseen and yet what matter most.  We trust that the good we do is never lost.  In these ways, there is, indeed, a certain blindness to our Christian faith.  It is not a blindness that refuses to ask questions, to entertain doubts, to look at the world.  Rather our faith trusts that some things that are terribly important cannot be seen, or at least not be seen easily.  So we live differently.  If loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for?  Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?   - to quote lyrics from one song.
            Or to put it in the words of Blind Faith:

Blind Faith, “Presence of the Lord”: