Thursday, December 31, 2015

God is in the House

Christmas Eve, Sermon preached December 24, 2015

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

            Christmas is messy.  Now, to be sure, we work hard to make it neat.  Company comes, guests arrive, and we work to make our homes look their best.  We don’t want our families to think we don’t keep house adequately.  Even so, there is a lot of messiness with Christmas.
            Tuesday I went home for lunch, and Julie and Sarah were baking.  I had a bit of a time trying to find some space to eat.  The results of the baking were wonderful, so no complaints here.  The end result was delicious, but the process was messy.
Think of what your house may look like tomorrow morning, or tonight, or earlier tonight – depending on when you open gifts.  That’s sort of one of those things couples have to negotiate, like whether the toilet paper roll goes over or under or whether you squeeze the tooth paste from the end or the middle.  My family was a strictly Christmas morning opening gifts family.  Julie’s was much more a Christmas Eve family.  We had to work that out in our relationship.  Anyway, whenever you open, it is a mess – paper and bows and ribbons all over the place.  Think of the messiness of the shopping, especially this year when slush and ice were everywhere.
            Then there is the messiness of Christmas in the Bible.  There is the messiness of birth, and the added messiness of a birth in a stable.  Then there is the messiness of the stories in the gospels.  Mark has no birth story at all.  Jesus just appears – “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9).  Matthew and Luke each tell stories about Jesus’ birth, but the stories are different.  Both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Luke is the only one to mention a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the only one to include a manger, the only one to mention shepherds to whom angels speak.  Matthew has none of these.  Instead, Matthew has three wise men come from the East.  He has a worried King Herod.  He has Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt before settling in Nazareth.
            Of course we often conflate the stories in our Christmas decorations and pageants. We try to make it nice and neat. Nativity sets don’t choose between Matthew and Luke.  We always see wise men or kings along with shepherds.  I mean what would a Christmas pageant be without young children in bath robes, either with crown on their heads – three kings, or towels on their heads – which is how we know they are the shepherds responsible for the sheep adorned with cotton balls?  We like to bring these stories together, to make it a little neater, though when it comes to pageants, they are rarely neat.  In one pageant, the inn keeper, when Joseph and Mary arrive looking for a room says, “You’re in luck, we’ve just had a cancellation.”  I’m not sure where the pageant went from there.
            John doesn’t tell a birth story at all but instead offers theologically imaginative images of what Jesus’ birth means.  The Gospel writer reflects on what it means that someone so filled with the light and love of God was born into this world, someone whose very being shone with God.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  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… full of grace and truth.  I love the way The Message renders part of this passage: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood….  Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
            In Jesus, God moved into the neighborhood.  In the Matthew and Luke stories, “neighbors” come and visit – wise men, shepherds, animals.  Yet, at the heart of their stories is this idea that in Jesus, God has moved into the neighborhood.  God has arrived into our world.  God has come close.
            When we think about the neighborhood God has moved into, there is messiness there, too.  This neighborhood, this world of ours, is not exactly Sesame Street or Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  The neighborhood into which God has moved is pretty messy, pretty messed up in many ways.  This Christmas season I watched the video of John Lennon’s song, “Merry Xmas (War is Over).”  It is filled with scenes of children hungry, children suffering from the ravages of war.  It shows tanks and machine guns.  There are pictures of children soldiers.  This is our neighborhood.
            Simon and Garfunkel, in the late 1960s released a version of Silent Night in which they sang over the words from an evening news broadcast, August 3, 1966.  The news that night included a compromise on a civil rights bill, the original bill would have included a complete ban on housing discrimination of any kind, but that had no chance of passing.  Comedian Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose.  Martin Luther King, Jr. reaffirmed plans for a march for open housing in the Chicago suburb of Cicero despite local opposition.  A person was indicted for a mass killing spree.  A House Committee on “Un-American Activities” was holding hearings on opposition to the Vietnam War.  What might such a song sound like in 2015?  We could have stories about the threat of ISIS, about domestic terrorism, about the tensions between police and racial-ethnic communities, about on-going hatred and intolerance, about the rising income of St. Louis County while poverty also rises, about a heroin addict falling asleep in his vehicle and striking and killing a man on a sidewalk.  This is the neighborhood into which God has moved.
            To be sure, this is not all there is to the human neighborhood.  There is also beauty and wonder and mystery and kindness and love and compassion. Yet we sometimes wonder where the balance lies.  This messy world is the world into which God shows up, and keeps showing up, a place that leaves us sometimes scratching our heads wondering if we will ever overcome our difficulties, if we will ever make significant progress as a human community.  God shows up.  God comes into the neighborhood.  God is in the house.  And it matters.  It makes all the difference.
            In his wonderful book Who Needs God? Rabbi Harold Kushner ponders the difference God makes by asking what the world would be like without God.  Without God it would be a world where no one was outraged by crime or cruelty, and no one was inspired to put an end to them….  In a world without God, there would be no more inspiring goal for our lives than self-interest, amassing as many of the good things of life as we could grab.  There would be neither room nor reason for tenderness, generosity, helpfulness….  A world without God would be a world in which gravity pulled us down and there was no counterforce to lift us up, to cleanse us if we had sullied ourselves when we stumbled and fell, and assure us we were worthy of a second chance…. In a world without God, we would be all alone – no one to help us when we had to do something hard, no one to forgive us when we had disappointed ourselves, no one to replenish us when we had come to the point of using ourselves up, and no one to promise us that, even when it was over, it will not be over. (205-206)
            I would argue that Kushner’s words ring even truer in light of the story of Christmas.  It is a story not only about a God who exists, but of a God who moves into the neighborhood again and again and again, about a God who is always in the house.
            Because God shows up, we can show up.
            Because God is about peace and goodwill, endless peace, we can be about peace and goodwill.
            Because God loves, we can keep loving.
            God is in the house.  God moves into the neighborhood, even when the neighborhood seems at is messiest, its shabbiest, its most run down, its most broken.
            When I think about my favorite Christmas stories, they are really all stories about the difference it makes that God is in the house, that God moves into the neighborhood.
            I love the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, the story where Jim and Della, a young married couple just making it day by day, and each decides to sell their most valuable possession – Jim his watch and Della her hair, to buy a Christmas gift for the other.  The author tells us that these are the wise ones, the magi.  The story of God in the neighborhood makes a difference.
            I love the Michael Lindvall story, “Christmas Baptism,” about a young eighteen year old, Tina, a single mom, who brings her baby to the church for baptism the Sunday before Christmas.  In that church family of the child would stand during the baptism, and Tina has only her mother Mildred to stand with her, until one of the elders of the church decides to stand for that baby too, then another member, then another and another until the whole congregation, weeping in compassion and joy, stands with that little child.  God is in the neighborhood with those people and it makes all the difference.
            I love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where an angel intervenes to remind Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey that his life has really touched so many others.  Dreams have died along the way.  Life is difficult, but it is also wonderful because God is in the house.
            I love “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special”  - now marking its 50th anniversary, and when those 50th anniversaries roll around I can say I was there at the beginning - where a reading of the Christmas story from Luke helps Charlie Brown find something of the meaning of Christmas, particularly as his friends see the beauty in the scraggly tree Charlie picked out from the lot.  God moves into the neighborhood and it matters.
            Deeper than the sentimentality in these stories is the message that God shows up, that God moves into the neighborhood, that God is in the house and it matters.  It makes all the difference.  Rabbi Kushner puts it well.  God is found in the incredible resiliency of the human soul, in our willingness to love though we understand how vulnerable love makes us, in our determination to go on affirming the value of life even when events in the world teach us that life is cheap. (178)  The evening news reminds us how shabby the neighborhood can be, how broken, but Christmas reminds us that Silent Night still gets sung, and the music never stops.  Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister reminds us: Christmas, the celebration of the birth of a child, is about the fact that God’s presence is everywhere.  In the smallest things.  In the weakest things.  In the beginning of things.  And we are responsible for nurturing it. (Living Well)  Gee, a nun and a rabbi show up at a Methodist Christmas service!
            Where do you need God to show up in your life tonight?  Where is the neighborhood of your life most run down?  Where is your heart broken?  Trust that God is in the house, that God will come into the neighborhood again, and it will make a difference in your life.
            I know our world needs God to keep coming into the neighborhood.  Let God love you tonight and let God love the world through you.  Be the singing of Silent Night in the midst of the evening news.

            Tonight know that God is in the house.  Tonight know that God has again moved into the neighborhood – the neighborhood of your life, the neighborhood of this world.  This is the good news, good news for all people, good news of great joy.  Glory to God.  Alleluia.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tuff Stuff

Sermon preached  December 20, 2015

Texts: Luke 1:39-55

            The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Tuff Enough”
            Bob Dylan and the Band, “Tough Mama”
            I thought maybe you all needed a little break from Christmas music J.  The first song is a one-hit wonder from the 1980s – “Tuff Enough” by The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  The second song is done by Bob Dylan and the Band from an album called “Planet Waves.”  I initially got that album because of a mistake my sister made.  My sister was looking for a song called “Wedding Song” and this Bob Dylan album has “Wedding Song” on it, but she was looking for that really melodic Paul Stookey song – you know, “He is now to be among you, at the calling of your hearts.”  Bob Dylan’s “Wedding Song is quite different, and my sister never really developed a taste for Dylan’s music.  As I was discovering his music and finding it intriguing, she gladly sold me this album for a pittance.
            “Tuff Enough,”  “Tough Mama,” – “Tough,” not exactly a seasonal word, is it, except maybe for those who are culinarily challenged.  “My these mashed potatoes are tough!”
            Mary is at the center of today’s Scripture reading, and in the history of the church Mary, the mother of Jesus has been called many things, but tough mama is not one of them, though I think anyone who has ever been a mother knows that you have to have a certain toughness about you.  Mary may never have been called a tough mama, but the language she uses in her song is pretty tough.
            My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….  The Mighty One has done great things….  God has shown great strength… scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  Tough stuff.
            This is the language of tough love.  Now I have some qualms about that phrase.  Sometimes in the way it gets used it is really about being tough rather than about being loving.  When there is punishment and the person doing the punishing says, “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you,” we have a right to be skeptical.  Tough love has been used to justify just not really caring.
            Yet even with those concerns, I think tough love is an important concept.  Sometimes love requires that we let people know limits and boundaries.  Love can require letting people experience the consequences of their actions.  Love can mean speaking difficult truths.
            I will never forget an experience I had in a ministry learning setting when I was in seminary.  The small ministry placement group I was in worked at Abbot-Northwestern Hospital, and one time we were allowed to witness part of an alcohol treatment session.  The session we were given permission to witness was a family session.  Family members had come to the treatment center to meet with the woman who was there for her alcohol abuse.  I am guessing the woman was in her early to mid-sixties, and she had adult children there to speak about some of their experiences of her alcohol abuse.  I particularly remember an adult daughter talking about holiday meals, as her mother was intoxicated trying to get dinner ready and the mess and havoc that was created.  The daughter was courageous, even as she was crying.  This was an act of tough love.  This woman wanted her mother to know how destructive alcohol was in her life so she would make the effort to change.  What saddened me was that this mother seemed untouched by her daughters words.  She did not remember any of this and kind of blew it off.  Tough love was needed, but tough love is not magic.
            As parents, we know that we sometimes need to exercise tough love.  I think it has less to do with any kind of punishment than with sometimes allowing our children to experience the force of the consequences of their actions when they have made poor choices.  Such love is often tough on both parents and children.  It can mean having your child apologize and admit they were wrong.  It can mean having your child help repair something they may have broken.  As parents, tough love may also mean that we apologize to our children when we have been wrong or overreacted.  That can be tough, too.
            Tough love has its place.  Mary’s song is a song of tough love to the human community.  The words speak of the love of God which seems to recognize those on the margins, which is concerned for the lowly and the hungry.  It is a song which, in love, seems to say that when we only pay attention to the proud, the powerful and the well-off, we are missing the boat as a human community.  Love asks of us to do better.  Mary’s song is about accountability for the way the world is organized, and in a democracy, we all have some part to play in how our society is organized.
            I also want to suggest that there is another meaning to tough love that is even more important than tough love as accountability, as recognizing limits and boundaries, as living with consequences.  This kind of tough love is even more deeply woven into the Advent season.  This is the idea of love as tough because it is tenacious, because it never gives up.
            God’s love is that kind of tough love.  God’s love keeps coming to us again and again and again.  When we gather on Christmas Eve, that’s what we celebrate, the love of God which keeps arriving, and often in the most unlikely places – in the backwaters of Nazareth to a young unmarried woman, someone considered lowly.  I want to say a lot more about that on Thursday.
            Tough love is tenacious love.  It is the kind of love to which we are called.  As followers of this Jesus born of Mary we are to be tenacious in seeking a newer world, a world not just for the powerful and proud and well-off, but a world for all of us.  As followers of this Jesus born of Mary we are to be tenacious in our pursuit of hope, peace, joy and love.  These Advent candles are more than an opportunity to get more people involved in December worship.  They represent our calling, a calling to a tough, tenacious love.
            God wants to grace us with tough love, with hearts strong in love, with souls strong in spirit.  Mary is a wonderful example of such tough love.  She was willing to be tough in giving birth to one whose very nature and name would be love.  She was lowly, but tough enough to believe that God still cared, that God wanted to touch the world in a remarkable way through her.
            Tough love as tenacious love.  I don’t know how I discovered the poetry of William Stafford. I do know that it was not because my sister mistakenly bought a William Stafford book.  William Stafford has a poem that speaks to me powerfully about tough love.  The poem is called “A Ritual To Read To Each Other” and I want to share just a part of it.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
our star.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

            The darkness around us is deep.  Mary looked at a world enthralled with the powerful, the proud, the well-off.  She believed tenaciously that God was not yet done with this world, that God, in love had more to do and she could help give birth to it.  Tough love, tenacious love.

            Tough love, a tenacious love which keeps on loving.  It is the kind of love with which God loves us.  It is the kind of love to which God calls us in Jesus.  Ain’t we tuff enough?  Fabulously so.  Amen.

Friday, December 4, 2015

What's Your Sign?

Sermon preached November 29, 2015

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

            The Fifth Dimension, “The Age of Aquarius”
            “What’s your sign?”  The question, one asked sometimes in the late 1960s/early 1970s referred to astrology - the belief that what happens in the stars affects what happens here on earth.  At its most basic, it has to do with understanding when you were born, which determines which of twelve signs you were born into, and those signs affect how you make decisions about your life.  My birthdate makes me a “Cancer.”  In the daily newspaper, you can read a “forecast” for the day based on your sign.  I am guessing some of us look at that every now and again, but most of the time the advice is pretty generic. 
Anyway, astrology was kind of popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  Some argued at the time, based on astrology, that we were on the verge of a wonderful new age, the Age of Aquarius.  However, things stayed very much the same and “What’s your sign?” became a cliché pick-up line.  There were some snappy comebacks to it.  “Hey, honey, what’s your sign?”  “Stop!”  “”You’re cute, what sign were you born under?” “No parking.” I won’t do a survey of those who may have used the line or heard the retorts.
            Much of people’s curiosity about astrology, or looking for signs, is pretty harmless.  That’s not always the case.  Individuals have gotten so caught up in astrology that it paralyzes their lives.  Major religious traditions have their own fascination with signs, not signs of the zodiac, but signs that tell them that the world may be coming to a cataclysmic end.  Sometimes this can also be rather harmless.  I will never forget the gentleman at a wedding reception I attended after officiating at the wedding coming up to me as he sipped whiskey from a plastic hotel coffee mug and asking, “Do you think we live in the end times?”  He may have thought so, but it obviously was not putting him in any kind of panic.
            Benign end times thinking isn’t always the case.  One of the haunting and dangerous things about the so-called Islamic State is that it is rooted in an end-times theology.  In explaining the meaning of its flag, an ISIS document reads: “We ask God, praised be He, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims.  We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid… the Mahdi at the holy house of God.”  The figure of the Mahdi is a savior who will appear in the end times, the times leading up to the apocalypse.  The Islamic State declaration of a caliphate is part of this apocalyptic, end-times theology, a theology not shared by most Muslims. (McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, 22)  While a number of Muslims may have some kind of end-of-time theology, most do not share the notion that violence will hasten the coming of the Mahdi.  There is a real danger when a group of people believes that its violent actions will help bring about the decisive battle for God in the world.
            A significant number of Christians also believe that there will be a final battle between good and evil in the world, an Armageddon at the apocalypse.  Thankfully, most of these folks do not believe violence will hasten this event, the second coming of Christ.  While there may be some resemblance between Christian and Muslim end-time thinking, there is very little violence among Christians who may believe in a coming Armageddon, a coming apocalypse.  Yet sometimes this way of thinking has other drawbacks.  New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing argues “The dispensationalist timetable completely postpones any renewal or healing for the world until a distant time way off in the future….  Dispensationalists clearly are not interested in any healing for the world.” (The Rapture Exposed, 141)  Religion professor Amy Johnson Frykholm in her book Rapture Culture writes: “For some… the narrative of the rapture is primarily about exclusion.  It helps to create a faith house made of secure walls and a few doors, where only those with the right answers will be allowed inside” (187).  One negative side of this kind of Christian end-times thinking can be an apathy in the face of the world’s hurt and pain.  It won’t get better until Jesus comes again.  Another can be a deep sense of us versus them where the “us” is willing to let the “them” be fodder for destruction.  Jesus is coming again, so watch out you…  Instead of working to alleviate some of the hurt and pain of the world, difficulties and tragedies become only signs of the end-times – signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.
            These more ominous end-times theologies remind me of William Butler Yeats famous poem “The Second Coming” published in 1921.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Perhaps all the end-times thinking that happens when it seems that things are falling apart, the center failing to hold, leads not to a peaceable kingdom, but to the coming of some kind of rough beast?
            Yet, it is difficult to fault people for wondering if the world is not on the verge of some kind of cataclysm, some apocalyptic moment.  The very existence of ISIS, with its brutal rule over lands it controls and its willingness to make war not only on the West, but on any it considers infidels, shocks us.  We are weary of war, yet seemed doomed to engage in it – Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and countless other sites of conflict.  Paris has been attacked, blood running in the streets in a place where we imagine the blood should simply run through our hearts of little faster for it is a place of romance.  Racial tensions in the United States continue to be high.  In Chicago a police officer has been charged with first-degree murder following the release of a video showing his shooting of a seventeen-year-old.  The young man was high, and was wielding a knife, but if you saw the video you were left aghast that there were not more measures taken before the officer opened fire.  The officer was white, the young man black.  Just down the road from us, protests continue in Minneapolis over the shooting death of a twenty-four year-old African-American man.  There are a lot of details that remain unknown about the shooting, but our hearts are torn apart.  On top of that, three young white men shot at black protestors in Minneapolis, perhaps an act of white supremacy.  The human community seems unable to act in the face of some of our most difficult problems.  We are still working at racial reconciliation, and that needs to happen with Native Americans as well.  We don’t seem able to address issues of climate change, where there is strong evidence that human beings are contributing to the change in our climate that is having adverse effects.
            Are these simply to be viewed as signs of the end-times, of the coming of the Son of Man?  There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory….  When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near….  Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.  Be alert.  The world is a difficult and troubling place.  Is our sole response to keep watch, to hang on, because it is simply inevitable?  Are we to be simply observers of signs, hoping to avoid the worst of what may happen to humanity until it is somehow all over and we end up on the right side of things?
            Or is there something else and something more?  I am intrigued that Luke uses the phrase, “the kingdom of God is near” in chapter 21.  Earlier in the gospel, when John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus, asking if he is the one to come, Jesus replies:  Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. (7:22)  The kingdom has come near in such things.  In chapter ten, Jesus tells the disciples as he sends them out, “the kingdom of God has come near” (v. 11).  In the next chapter of the gospel, Jesus casts out a demon and defends his actions with these words, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11:20).  In chapter 17 of the Gospel, Jesus makes these cryptic statements to the Pharisees, The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There is is!”  For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you (17:20-21)
            It seems, then, that when there is healing, help, freedom, when there is forgiveness and reconciliation, the kingdom of God is there.  Maybe the world often feels like it is falling apart, like the center cannot hold, like anarchy is loosed upon the world.  Maybe those signs in the moons and the sun and the stars are never far from us, wars and rumors of wars.  We long for a time when it might end, when there might be some decisive victory of good, when the pain and hurt and sorrow will be gone.  There may be such a time, but in the meantime our job may not be to try and figure out if we are near the end, to look for signs of the end.  Perhaps our job as followers of Jesus is to look for signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our history once again in acts of healing, compassion, justice, peace, reconciliation and love.  We cannot ignore the difficult signs in the world, and they are easy to spot.  What the world may need more is people who can point to places where love happens, where reconciliation occurs, where hurts are healed, where justice executed in the land, to use the language of Jeremiah.  “The days are surely coming” says Jeremiah.  Sometimes they are already here.  God works in the world now, not just in the future, and we are invited to see that.
            But even more, we are invited to be signs of God presence, power and work in the world.  Let me offer three voices.  Barbara Rossing:  While Christ’s reign is not yet fully realized, God gives us glimpses of it even now, even while we wait for it to fully unfold in the future.  [We can] enter into God’s vision for our world even now, and to live in terms of this vision. (149)  Another New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, writes: It is not difficult to see… perils that threaten the very viability of life on earth today.  Global warming, the ozone hole, overpopulation, starvation and malnutrition, war, unemployment, the destruction  of species and the rain forests, pollution of water and air, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, errors in genetic engineering, erosion of topsoil, overfishing, anarchy and crime, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear mishap: together, or in some cases singly, these dangers threaten to “catch us unexpectedly, like a trap”….  The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendence. (The Human Being, 161, 159)  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann (The Coming God, 234, 235): The Indonesian word for hope means literally “to look beyond the horizon.” …  Life out of this hope then means already acting here and today in accordance with that world of justice and righteousness and peace, contrary to appearances, and contrary to all historical chances of success….  It means an unconditional Yes to life in the face of the inescapable death of all the living.

            What’s your sign?  Our sign is less to worry about when time will end and Jesus will come.  Our task is to watch for signs of how the power of God in Jesus is already at work in our world, even as we hope for and trust that in God all will be made right.  Our task is to become signs of the power of God in Jesus in how we live.  May Jesus come again through us to touch the world with hope and healing, justice and reconciliation, compassion and love.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Strange King, Weird Kingdom

Sermon preached November 22, 2015

Texts: Jeremiah 29:10b-11; John 18:33-37

            So last week I preached about risk, vulnerability and courage.  I also mentioned that Julie and I did not do so well with the board game Risk.  Well, how can you speak about risk without taking a risk with Risk?  So we did, and we are still here together.  We managed it all pretty well.
            So you may be curious about the result?  Here is a song that sums up how I did: Seals and Croft, “The King of Nothing”  I ended up the king of nothing, not great for a game about global domination!
            Jesus is before Pilate, the Roman authority in Palestine.  He has been arrested and charged with sedition, with undermining the authority of the empire and creating a ruckus among the Jewish people, who were often problematic for the Romans.  Pilate asks him about the charge, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus eventually answers, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
            What kind of king is this?  What sort of kingdom is not from this world?  Strange king, weird kingdom.
            Isn’t being a king exactly about this world?  Isn’t the very definition of being a king that you accrue power and wealth?  Even the Cowardly Lion knows this.  “If I were King of the Forest…. I’d command each thing be it fish or fowl with a woof and a woof and a royal growl.”  Doesn’t being a king entitle you to command?
            Jesus doesn’t seem to understand.  To be a king is to consolidate power and to centralize authority.  He is kind of a strange king.  His kingdom is kind of a weird kingdom.
            Jesus is a king who is about sharing power, about empowering others, about setting people free.  All over John’s gospel, we read things like:  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (10:10).  You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (8:32).  If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (8:36).  Perhaps strangest and most audacious of all, 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 (14:12).
            What sort of king says such things?  What sort of king gives back power, sets people free, tells others that they will be even greater than he?  Jesus, strange king that he is.  Strange king, weird kingdom.
            And Jesus does not seem to understand consolidating authority, building a castle, a capital.  Yes, the Christian Church through the centuries has built magnificent cathedrals, and at least one pretty nice “Coppertop” church.  But churches are not like castles, they are more like missions – diplomatic establishments, with groups of people to enhance relationships and provide assistance.  We are here to extend the mission of this weird kingdom of Jesus, the mission of life, freedom, of creating beauty, of doing justice, of expressing compassion, of seeing the humanity of each person and finding ways to help it grow, of seeing where the world is going wrong and trying to repair it.  We invite others to join us in all this.
            That’s what we are all about here in this mission of the kingdom called First United Methodist Church, “the Coppertop Church.”  This is ultimately what our capital campaign is about.  Yes, we are doing building stuff, but it is in the service of being a mission, of following this strange king, of being part of this weird kingdom. 
            We are Jesus’ people.  We are a kingdom place.  Our purpose is to extend that kingdom.  It is to help all know God’s love, for all are welcome.  It is help all grow in God’s love.  It is to help all discover and use their wonderful and beautiful gifts to show God’s love in the world.  We are a people and a place of promise – the promise of new life, of freedom from all that gets in the way of new life.  We are a promise that we want to extend into the future.
            Once upon a time there was a man who had twelve cows, and he cared well for his cows.  Every morning and evening he would praise them for the amount of milk they were giving and praise them for their beauty.  One morning he noticed that the amount of milk was less.  Each day for a week he noticed the same thing.  So that night he decided to stay up and see what was going on.
            About midnight, he happened to look up at the stars, and he saw one star that seemed to be getting larger and brighter.  It got brighter and larger as the star came closer and closer to earth.  It came straight down toward his cow pasture and stopped a few feet from him in the form a great ball of light. Inside the light there was a beautiful and luminous woman.  Just as her toes touched the earth, the light disappeared, and she stood there like an ordinary woman, ordinary but extraordinarily lovely.
            The man said to her, “Are you the one who has been taking milk from my cows?”  “Yes,” she said, “my sisters and I like the milk from your cows very much.”  He said, “You are very beautiful.  And I am glad that you like my cows.  Here is what I would like.  If you marry me, we can live together, and I will be kind to you and you won’t have to take care of the cows all the time, we can share the chore.  Will you marry me?”  She said slowly, “Yes, I will, but there is one condition.  I have brought this basket with me, and I want you to agree that you will never look into this basket.  You must never look into it, no matter how long we are married.  Do you agree to that?”  “Yes, oh yes, I do,” he said.
            They married and lived together well for six or seven months.  Then one day, while his wife was out herding the cows, the man noticed the basket just sitting in the corner of the room.  His curiosity got the best of him, and he even rationalized it quite well, saying to himself, “Well, you know, now that we are married, her basket is also my basket.”  He opened the basket and began to laugh.  “There’s nothing in the basket.   There’s nothing in the basket.  There’s absolutely nothing in the basket!  Nothing!”  He kept repeating this to himself and laughing.  Even though she was herding the cows, his wife began to hear her husband’s voice and laughter from the house.
            She came into the house and asked, “Have you opened the basket?”  He began laughing again.  “Yes, yes I did.  There’s nothing in the basket.  There’s absolutely nothing in the basket – nothing at all!”
            She said, “I must go now.  I have to go back.”  The man began to plead, “Please don’t go.  Don’t leave me!”  She said, “I have to go back now.  What I brought with me was spirit.  It’s so like human beings to think that spirit is nothing.”

            Pilate says to Jesus, “So you are a King!?”  Jesus has already told him, “My kingdom is not from this world.”  Strange king, weird kingdom, and we are a part of it.  We witness to something more to life and to something else about life – spirit, soul, the heart.  We tend that here.  We nurture that here.  Together we seek courage from the Holy Spirit to live with heart, soul and spirit every day.  We want to know God’s love thoughtfully and deeply.  We want to grow in God’s love, grow as people of heart, soul and spirit.  We want to show God’s love by living with compassion and seeking peace and justice in the world.  Some may consider this a kind of nothing, but we know that we are simply following a rather strange king and are part of a rather weird kingdom, and we are deeply grateful for here we find life at its deepest, richest and best.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Risk: It's Not Just a Board Game

Sermon preached November 15, 2015

Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20

            My wife Julie and I have been married for over thirty-three years.  I feel blessed that we enjoy each other’s company, that we laugh often, and that we have three pretty wonderful children.  It is our daughter Sarah’s birthday today.  It might not have been, however.  Our relationship struggled with Risk.  I’m not talking about taking chances, I am talking about the board game Risk, the game of global domination.
            Neither Julie nor I are the most competitive people I know.  I compete more with myself than with others, though, if I go golfing and am not doing so well it is some small consolation if I am doing a little better than someone else.  Mostly, I just want to do well.  Risk, especially when only two play pits person against person, and when one is winning the other is losing.  Early in our relationship, playing that game – well, they weren’t our best moments.
            I asked Julie permission to tell our Risk story, and we both are wondering what it might be like to play the game again.  If Julie isn’t in church some coming Sunday, well….
            Risk – it’s not just a board game.  Risk seems to me to be an important element in the life of faith in the God of Jesus, an important part of following Jesus, of living in the Spirit.  In his justly-celebrated book, The Road Less Traveled published now over thirty-five years ago, Scott Peck wrote: On some level spiritual growth, and therefore love, always requires courage and involves risk (131).  He goes on: All life represents a risk, and the more lovingly we live our lives the more risks we take (134).  If Scott Peck were alive today, he died in 2005, he might be on TED talks.  One writer who has become well-known through TED talks, Brene Brown ( ), in fact over 22 million people have listened to her TED talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown echoes some of the thoughts of Scott Peck in more recent writings.  To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain (The Gifts of Imperfection, 73)
            Risk, it’s more than just a board game.  To live life fully, to follow Jesus, to have faith in God, to live in the Spirit, entails risk.  Hannah’s story is a story about risk – and about vulnerability, and about courage and about love.  I want to reflect on this story and how it might speak to us of life, faith, love and risk – the importance of risk for life, faith and love.
            Hannah risks genuine feeling, complex feeling, and that challenges us in a relatively shallow age.  Hannah weeps, deeply distressed.  She weeps bitterly.  She weeps embarrassingly. Elkanah is uncomfortable with her distress, and makes a rather feeble attempt to close off her pain.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  Eli thinks she is inebriated.   She weeps from the depth of who she is.  She feels her pain, her deep anxiety. Later she feels joy. She is open to herself, even if it is painful right now.  She is open and honest with God, feeling deeply and complexly.
            Brene Brown wisely writes: We cannot selectively numb emotions.  When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions (The Gifts of Imperfection, 70).  Yet we live in an age of numbing, of keeping things shallow.  Are we willing to risk deep and genuine feeling, complex feeling?  In the wake of the tragedy in Paris, there is anger.  Are we also willing to feel all the feelings – anger, grief, sadness, compassion?
            Hannah risks heartbreak in the cause of a larger heart, and that challenges us in a defensive age.  Hannah feels, and what she feels in this story is a lot of heartache.  Her heart is broken.  We may not quite get it, though if you have ever been in conversations with couples who want to have a child and are having difficulty, you know the depth of this heartbreak.  In Hannah’s culture, a woman’s worth was tied up in providing her husband with a male child.  Barrenness was considered something of a curse.  Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah, who had given Elkanah both sons and daughters, reminds Hannah of her sorry state.  Hannah feels heartbreak over the way things are.
            Parker Palmer writes insightfully about heartbreak.  There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken.  One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about – a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid.  The other is to imagine the heart broken open into a new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.  As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. (A Hidden Wholeness, 178)
            There is a Hasidic tale about the heart.  A pupil comes to his teacher.  “Rebbe, why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’?  Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The teacher answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.” (In Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, 181)
            Heartbreak, hearts broken open into new capacities, so new words can fall in – are we willing to risk having our hearts broken by the gap between what is and what could be in an age that encourages defensiveness against just such heart break?
            Hannah risks looking foolish, and that challenges us in a cynical age, when caring to the point of looking foolish is considered silly.  Hannah appears inebriated, at least to the priest Eli.  Both Elkanah and Eli consider her foolish, overwrought.  Then, toward the end of the story, Hannah, feeling assured that something is different, tries again with Elkanah.  If you are going to have a child, you need to do such things as might make that possible.  Hannah tries again.  She acts as if things could be different, as if God really might be at work in the world to make things different.
            We live in a time of great cynicism.  People don’t engage in the public arena because there are convinced that it will do no good.  People don’t re-examine the relationship that doesn’t seem to be working, convinced that nothing can be done.  To be sure, change can come slowly.  To be sure, that is true for individuals as well as for the larger world.  Yes, history is littered with nations blundering into war, and people oppressing people.  Cynicism can make sense – the closed heart, the shallow emotions, not investing too much of myself in others or in causes.  Yet cynicism is a kind of numbing, and we cannot numb selectively.
            Hannah risked showing up and letting herself be seen.  Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly writes: Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging….  Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.  Our only choice is a question of engagement.  Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measures of our fear and disconnection….  We must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. (2)  The story of Hannah is a story about a woman who engages her vulnerability and dares to show up and be seen.  Are we willing to do the same?
            It is asking a lot of ourselves to engage in such “risky” behavior – risk deep, genuine and complex feeling, risk heartbreak in the service of a larger heart, risk looking foolish in the service of larger questions and causes and personal growth, risk showing up and being seen.  It is good to remind ourselves of the promise of this way.  Brene Brown: Vulnerability [uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure] is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.  It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. (Daring Greatly, 34)
            It is good to have contemporary confirmation of the insights of ancient stories.  Hannah understands and lives risk, vulnerability, courage, and love, and in the end she finds life – literally and metaphorically.  Woven throughout this story, though, is a deep trust in God.  What makes the courage to risk, to be vulnerable, possible for Hannah, and for us, too, I think, is deep trust that God walks with us, cares for us, loves us, wants us to grow, needs us to work with God for a newer world.  The God of the Hannah story is a God of grace, goodness, surprises, delight – a God who delights in bringing those on the margins into the center of the story, a God who delights in bringing joy out of mourning, a God who delights in new life.
            Hannah’s story will echo in other stories we will read soon as the season of Advent and Christmas arrive – the story of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, the story of Mary, mother of Jesus.

            Trusting God, may we risk feeling and heartbreak and foolishness and showing up.  May we risk praying to this God of grace, goodness, surprises and delight: In grace, make us more sensitive to the stirrings of your Spirit.  Move us, shake us, shape us, embrace us.  Form us in your creative and responsive love.  Nurture in us songs of hope, audacious visions, essential questions, prophetic boldness, the strength to love.  Grant us the courage to live the way of Jesus.  It is a risky prayer, maybe just the kind of prayer God enjoys most.  It is a risky prayer, but a necessary one in a world so in need of songs of hope, audacious visions, essential questions, prophetic boldness, the strength to love.  Amen.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Naked as a Jaybird

Sermon preached November 8, 2015

Texts: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44

            Ray Stevens, “The Streak
            Some of you may remember the odd fad in the 1970s – “streaking.”  It involved a person or persons running through some public event, naked as a jaybird, with nothing on but a smile.  Years later, the tv show, Seinfeld, brought us a reminder of the fad.  George Costanza, trying to get fired from his job with the New York Yankees, streaks at a Yankee game.  George is too self-conscious to actually streak so he wears a body suit.  He becomes “body-suit man.”
            By the way, the phrase “naked as a jaybird” is a little mysterious.  Apparently the 19th century phrase was “naked as a robin,” but neither bird loses its feathers.  I did run across another explanation for the phrase.  In the 1920s and 30s in the United States, prisoners, “jail birds” or “j-birds” would often disembark a bus, strip down, and have to walk naked across the yard to the showers when they first entered the prison.  There is your Jeopardy moment for today.
            Wherever the phrase comes from, the idea behind being naked as a jaybird is pretty uncomfortable for most of us.  Streaking was not a long-lived fad, and it has not returned.  Recently I a friend told me that she had booked a hotel for a vacation, but was a little concerned about it.  Further research indicated that the resort was “clothing optional.”  She quickly cancelled that reservation and made a new one.  In Genesis 2:25 “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”  I am thinking that was probably about the last time people were not uncomfortable about their unclad bodies.
            But the focus of this morning is not on nudity, but on naked spirituality.  Brian McLaren, well-known author and former pastor, penned a book a few years ago which he entitled Naked Spirituality.  Early in the book he quotes another well-known Christian spiritual writer, Richard Rohr.  The goal of all spirituality is to lead the “naked person” to stand trustfully before the naked God.  The important thing is that we’re naked; in other words that we come without title, merit, shame, or even demerit.  All we can offer to God is who we really are, which to all of us never seems like enough. (McLaren, Naked Spirituality, 3)
            McLaren tells a story that is attributed to the life of Mother Teresa, though he admits he is not sure of whether this really happened to her or not.  Mother Teresa was asked by a reporter what she said to God when she prayed.  She replied, “Mostly I just listen.”  Asked what God said to her, Mother Teresa replied, “Mostly God just listens.”  McLaren goes on to comment, “Could it be that the loving, attentive, mutual listening of the soul and the Spirit constitute the greatest expression of spirituality?”  (223)  This is what McLaren means by naked spirituality.
            That kind of naked spirituality has deep roots in the Bible.  Now no one is actually naked in today’s gospel reading, but it is about naked spirituality.  In the first part of the story, the scribes are layered.  They walk around in long robes.  They like the honor and prestige of their position.  They make a show of their piety.  They are clothed not only with long robes, but with pretension.  Yet they don’t seem honest with themselves.  Underneath it all, Jesus notices that they “devour widows’ houses.”  These are folks who have wrapped layer upon layer around themselves, and their souls are dying.  If they could be honest with God, they would see they are not spiritually robust, but spiritually emaciated.
            Contrast that with the widow Jesus notices in the next scene.  He is watching as people, crowds, contribute to the Temple treasury.  Many wealthy come with their gifts, large sums.  This is impressive.  People would pay attention to this, and perhaps some of these folks are like the scribes, they like the attention.  Perhaps some are getting caught up in that.  Jesus also notices a nobody, someone with no status.  To be a widow in Jesus time was really difficult.  Women had virtually no economic standing, and few economic opportunities.  This widow was also poor.  She comes and drops two coins into the treasury, two coins of the lowest value.  Jesus notices her gift, and in the strange kind of math that often characterizes Jesus, he says that she has “put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”  He goes on, “All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
            Jesus is good at puzzling us.  This text is not really about giving it all away, emptying our pockets, wallets, bank accounts into the offering plate.  It has something to do with generosity, though, generosity in the widest sense which includes financial generosity.  It is about heart, soul, spirit, about naked spirituality.  This is about opening oneself, without layers and pretensions.  It is about allowing oneself to be vulnerable.  It is about trusting, trusting that as we open the whole of our lives to God, we will discover life at its best.  When we are open and vulnerable, our hearts grow, and it is giving from our generous hearts that matters most deeply.
            We cannot leave this text without noting some irony.  Jesus has just called out the scribes for being pretentious, for being spiritually layered, not open and vulnerable.  One evidence of this is that they “devour widows’ houses.”  Next we have a widow who lives on the margins giving, and who does her gift help support?  The scribes.  Jesus seems both to be noticing the widow for her naked spirituality – her openness, vulnerability and trust, and cautioning that such openness and trust can be manipulated.  Perhaps a naked spirituality requires both soft hearts and keen minds – wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
            Naked spirituality can also be found in the story of Ruth.  In that story there is literal nakedness, but more importantly naked spirituality – openness, vulnerability, trust.  It is helpful to recall a little more of the story.  Ruth is not an Israelite.  She is a foreigner who has married an Israelite.  Naomi is her mother-in-law.  Both women are widowed, thus put in precarious positions.  However, Naomi has a well-to-do relative named Boaz.  The story we read today is about how Ruth and Boaz eventually become coupled.  The entire story is one of openness, vulnerability, and trust.  The end is blessing.  Boaz and Ruth have a son, Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David – who will become king.  A poor, foreign, widow who is open, vulnerable and trusting, who stays with her widowed mother-in-law, is part of the lineage of Israel’s great king.
            Naked spirituality, openness, honesty, vulnerability, trust.  A widow giving deeply of herself, another widow refusing to abandon her mother-in-law but instead staying with her.  People on the margins trusting that their lives matter to God.
            The kind of spirituality to which we are invited in Jesus Christ is this naked spirituality in two dimensions.
            The first dimension is openness, honesty, vulnerability and trust in God.  Brian McLaren offers words from another Christian spiritual teacher that are again helpful (Kenneth Leech): True religion helps us to grow, but pseudo-religion hinders growth, for it creates and maintains obstacles and barriers.  Thus it is that much religion merely censors experience and does not liberate it, stifles human potential and does not allow it to blossom. Much religion is superficial and does not help the journey inwards, which is so necessary to spiritual health.  There has to be a movement toward the still center, the depths of our being, where, according to the mystics, we find the presence of God. (13)
            To grow as a human person, to grow in our relationship with God requires openness and vulnerability, the willingness to look inside.  We need to deal with guilt or shame we may carry.  We need to be honest with ourselves and God about our thoughts and feelings, our questions and quandaries.  We need to be honest about our wounds and scars.  We open all of our life to God, becoming vulnerable to God’s love and Spirit, and trusting that love to help us heal and grow.
            The second dimension is openness and vulnerability to others, trusting that God will strengthen us to do justice and engage in compassionate action.  Reflecting on the word “righteous” in her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes: The word “righteous” used to grate on my ear; for years I was able to hear it only in its negative mode, as self-righteous, as judgmental.  Gradually, as I became more acquainted with the word in its biblical context, I found that it does not mean self-righteous at all, but righteous in the sight of God.  And this righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms and gospels, as a willingness to care to the most vulnerable people in a culture, characterized in ancient Israel as orphans, widows, resident aliens, and the poor. (96)
            Naked spirituality is both about moving deeply inward, and about reaching outward in compassion and care.  It is about knowing God’s love and about knowing ourselves in God’s love.  It is about showing God’s love through compassionate living in the world.

            Streaking, thankfully, is a fad whose time has come and gone.  Naked spirituality, however, is always in season.  Amen.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Living Dead

Sermon preached November 1, 2015

Texts: John 11:32-44

            The story begins simply enough.  “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany.”  It has a bit of a “Once upon a time” feel to it.  There is a connection between this man, his sisters, and Jesus.  Jesus loved Lazarus.  His sisters think Jesus would like to know about this, so they send word.  Jesus does not come right away, however.  He is on a mission, to share good news about God, to let God’s glory shine through him.
            His work done across the Jordan, Jesus determines to return to Judea, but Judea seems a dangerous place.  Jesus has already experienced threats there, but he does not let fear hamper his mission.  Judea, indeed, turns out to be a dangerous place, for just after our reading for today we would read about the conspiracy to have Jesus killed.  Fearing what Rome might do given Jesus work a decision is made that it is better for one man to die than for a whole people to be destroyed.
            The verses we read are in the middle of the sweep of this story.  Lazarus has died.  Jesus has told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”   This is not simply something for the future, but something for now, and soon Jesus will demonstrate that.  Jesus enters into all that is happening.  Seeing the grief, he feels “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  He weeps.  His friend has died, and he knows and feels something of the grief and loss people are feeling.  It is as he is fully present, emotionally present, that he is able to move forward with his mission here, as well, to share good news about God, to let God’s glory shine through him.  Jesus calls to Lazarus, “Come out!”  He responds and Jesus tells others “Unbind him, and let him go.”
            This can be a puzzling text for we moderns.  In our experience, dead is dead. Sure there are significant debates in bio-medical ethics about how we might define that moment of death – is it loss of cardio-pulmonary functioning, the complete and irreversible loss of brain activity, of higher brain activity?  But once death comes, we experience it as irreversible.
            To get too caught up in what happened questions, though, is to miss the point and power of the text.  The gospel writers, including the author of the Gospel of John were focused on the “why” more than the “what.”  They were not interested so much in journalism as in evangelism – sharing good news.  The focus of this story is Jesus as one through whom the glory of God shines and touches other lives.  In Jesus we find resurrection and life.  In Jesus we see God’s loving power even over death.  In Jesus, we discover God’s gift of new life, new existence.  One scholar wrote that what we have here is an “elaborate object lesson of God’s life-giving power.”
            And it is something that is present, not just something that is future.  Jesus’ words are not meant only to be assurance about those who have died, though they certainly are that, and I speak them at every funeral I officiate at.  Jesus’s word are also about life now.  Even now, Jesus enters into our grieving, our sorrow, our moments when we are greatly disturbed in spirit, and he feels with us and brings new life.  In Jesus there is a new way to live, and in Jesus we are deeply connected with each other.  In some ways this is a kind of love story – the power of love to bring new life, the power of love which strengthens connections – Martha, Mary, Lazarus, Jesus.
            We might say life in Jesus is about soul.  The writer and scholar Mark Edmundson distinguishes between the State of Self and the State of Soul.  In the State of Self “we live for our personal desires; we want food and sex, money and power and prestige.  We aspire to health.” (Self and Soul, 14)  Another kind of existence is possible, the State of Soul.  “Then we live not for desire but for hope.  We live for the fulfillment of ideals.” (15)  In the book in which he writes about this, Edumudson says that he “seeks the resurrection of Soul” (15). 
Essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson, who spoke at The College of St. Scholastica a few years ago, has written recently about fear.  “Contemporary America is full of fear….  Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” (The Givenness of Things, 125)  Paradoxically, she goes on to write, “As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (125).  To be too filled with fear is to lose our souls.
Life in Jesus is about soul.  It is about living with hope and living for ideals, ideals like compassion, justice, reconciliation, grace, beauty, kindness, and love.  It is about living with hope and for ideals in the messiness of the world, engaging that world fully, being fully present in times of grief, sorrow and when people are greatly disturbed in spirit.  That is the way of life and to find it is to experience a resurrection of soul.  Jesus offers us such resurrection and life.
Soul life is also connected life.  Jesus brings people together into community.  Jesus creates new kinds of connections that are like family.  And those connections remain even in death.  Death does not eliminate the bonds that connect us, the tissues that encircle us.  Here the dead are also the living.
Novelist William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, 80). In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which is, in part about his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, therapist Victor Frankl wrote: Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being (131).  Such statements are even truer in Jesus, true in an even deeper sense.  We remain connected not only with our own past, but with the people who have been part of us in Jesus.  This might more adequately be expressed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes of God as “a tender  care that nothing be lost….  A tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved” (Process and Reality, 525)  In Jesus we are a community, and a community that continues to include those who have gone before.
I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to remember.  Remember those whose names we will read.  Remember those who sat with you in this place.  Remember those who in their lives did soul work and helped you do soul work.
I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to hold grief and gratitude together and to “be stretched large by them” (Francis Weller, interview in The Sun, October 2015, p. 7).

I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to continue our soul work, knowing that we are connected to each other in Jesus, and always will be.  Amen.

Friday, October 30, 2015


Sermon preached  October 25, 2015

Texts: Mark 10:46-52

            U2, “Desire”
            Just so you know, the second choice for a song this morning was Tame Impala, “Desire Be Desire Go.”  I want you to know that I listen to music made in this century, even if my Halloween costume is from the middle of the last century.
            So this is supposed to be a beatnik outfit.  The entire “beatnik” phenomenon of the 1950s was, in many ways, a media creation, highlighting very shallow aspects of what was a deeper literary movement of writers seeking spiritual connection and meaning.  One of the central writers of the Beat Generation was novelist Jack Kerouac, whose novel On the Road, published in 1957 was an important book for this group of writers.  Just over twenty years after its publication, I discovered the book in my early college years.
            The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”(On the Road, 9)  Kerouac describes something of the human condition, filled with desire.
            The story of Aladdin and the magic lamp, a story familiar to us from movies or fairy tales is a story of desire.  Aladdin is sent into a cave by his uncle Mustafa and there discovers an old lamp, but a special lamp.  The genie of the lamp has the power to grant three wishes.  Aladdin wishes to be sent home.  He wished for riches and happiness.  He marries well, there is trouble, but the ending is a happy one.  The whole genie and the lamp idea gets spoofed often.  An insurance company ad asks, “Well, did you know genies can be really literal?”  A man asks for one million bucks, and what does he get but antlered animals.  Desire gone wrong, but who of us would turn away a large sum of money, or a magic lamp?  Among our qualities as humans is that we desire, and our desires are multiple.
            Our desires are multiple and trying to follow them pulls us in different directions.  We wish for a million bucks, get a million antlered animals and then have to wish them away, and with our one wish left some trivial idea makes its way to our lips and we have lost the power of the lamp.  Yes, this is a folk tale, and a folk tale gone wrong, but it is also a glimpse into who we are.  What do we do with our multiple desires pulling us in different directions – desires for love, for intimacy, for security, for meaningful work, for companionship, for a good meal, for a bit of notoriety, desire for some quiet time, but desire not to be lonely, for something nice to wear?  What do we do?
            Much of our Christian tradition is suspicious of human desire.  Pleasure and distress, desire and fear, and what follows from them, were not originally created as elements of human nature….  These things were introduced as a result of our fall from perfection.  St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia, II: 178).  One cannot drive away impassioned thoughts unless he watches over his desire and incensive power.  Evagrios the Solitary (Philokalia, I: 39)
            Yet listen to the question Jesus asks Bartimaeus.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward Jerusalem.  They are leaving Jericho amid a large crowd.  Along the side of the road is a blind man, Bartimaeus, a beggar.  He shouts out to Jesus, but many only wanted him to be quiet. He has caught Jesus’ attention.  “Call him here.”  The crowd changes its tune.  “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”  “What do you want me to do for you?”  It seems a silly question, doesn’t it?  If you are blind, wouldn’t you want your sight returned?  Why even ask?  Indeed, this is what Bartimaeus asks, but the pause and phrasing make us feel that something more is going on here.  “My teacher, let me see again.”  He is asking for sight, but also for deeper insight.  “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Bartimaues regains sight, but also gains insight -  a deeper desire hidden within is met.  He is a person of faith, discovers that, and as such, he follows Jesus on the way.
            What do you want?  If we ask that question deeply and profoundly enough, can we make some sense of our multitudinous desires?
            Let me hit the pause button here for just a moment.  Let’s acknowledge that we are fortunate to be able to be here in this place asking such questions.  Mari Ruti is a professor at the University of Toronto whose writings on love and a meaningful life are wonderfully thought-provoking.  In one of her books, though, she acknowledges that she can ask such questions while some suffer from “structural inequalities that make it difficult for many… to think beyond our daily survival” (Reinventing the Soul, xii)  If we are starving, or realistically afraid that we will find ourselves on the verge of homelessness, or starvation, or violence against our person, what we want is a modicum of security, enough to eat, a warm place to sleep.  It is a little like the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work where he argues that “for the [person] who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food” (Motivation and Personality, 37)  Asking the question of what we want assumes some measure of security in having our basic needs met.  That’s what drives my passion for seeking a world where everyone has enough, where no one starves, where all have adequate shelter.  It is then that deeper questions might be asked, deeper desires felt.
Interestingly, Bartimaeus, a beggar, does not ask for food, he asks to see.  If we ask ourselves “What do you want?” deeply and profoundly enough, I think we find a desire to be whole.  I think we find a desire to live life fully.  I think we find a desire to develop.  I think we find a desire to connect with God and grow in that connection.  I think we desire a deep connection with others.  I think we desire to contribute.  I would wrap all these together into a deep desire to live fully and to be whole.
The testimonies to such a profound desire in us to live fully and be whole run deep.  St. Augustine, in famous words from his work The Confessions, writes: For you [O God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until is rests in you (Book I, Chapter 1).  The nineteenth-century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote a book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, and what was that one thing?  Genuinely to will the Good, as an individual (206).  Death camp survivor and therapist Victor Frankl movingly wrote about Man’s Search for MeaningMan’s search for meaning is a primary force in his life….  Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.  In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to live he can only respond by being responsible. (154, 172)  One final testimony, Joseph Campbell, interviewed by Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth): People say what we’re all seeking is meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  It think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our own life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our inner most being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (4-5)
All these voices speak a little differently, but they point in a single direction.  There is a profound and deep desire in us for life, for living well, for developing our capacities, for relating to God, for joy, for relationship – to live fully and be whole.  To touch that deep yearning, that profound desire, helps us order our other desires.  Following Jesus on the way isn’t to get rid of our human desires, it is to order them in light of this deepest desire.  Such ordering is very important in our noisy culture that would often use our desires against us.  Ads blare at us all day long, pulling at this desire or that desire, elevating it to the most important thing, while perhaps drowning out that deepest desire to be whole, to live fully and feel alive, to know God, to grow, to connect.  Wendy Farley: Surging underneath our ordinary desires is a brilliant desire that makes us glisten like stars (The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 3).  We want to glisten like stars.
The beat writer Jack Kerouac was not about berets or other shallow expressions that came to be associated with beatniks.  He really wanted to live fully and be whole.  He wanted to make that deep and profound desire of the human heart more plain in his writings.  Unfortunately, he, himself got caught up in the whirlwind of human desires.  He lost track of that deep desire for wholeness.  Fame overcame him.  Alcohol got the best of him, and he died before reaching age 50.
An eighty-five-year-old woman was being interviewed on her birthday.  “What advice would you give to people who want to be as vibrant as you are when they are eighty-five?” the reporter asked.  “Well, at our age it is very important to keep using all our potential or it dries up.  It is important to be with people and, if at all possible, to earn one’s living through service.  That’s what keep us alive and well.”  “May I ask exactly what it is you do for service at your age?”  “Why yes, I look after an old woman in my neighborhood.”  (Anthony DeMillo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 146)

What do you want?  We follow Jesus on the way to sharpen the question and to have it answered, to have our deepest desire, our most profound yearning for wholeness met, and to have our other desires affirmed and ordered.  Amen.