Friday, February 27, 2015

Songs About Rainbows

Sermon preached February 22, 2015

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

            The Carpenters, “The Rainbow Connection”
            You were expecting maybe a green frog singing?  I had considered it, but green is the liturgical color for the Epiphany season, the church season that ended this week.  We are now into Lenten purple and a green frog, well….  I guess you might say it’s not always easy being green.
            Why are there so many songs about rainbows? Well, there are not really all that many: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – Judy Garland; Elvis Presley, “Pocketful of Rainbows; The Rolling Stones, “She’s a Rainbow;” and then, of course, “The Rainbow Connection” which has been done by Kermit the Frog, Willie Nelson, Sarah McLachlan, and the Carpenters.
            Even if there are not all that many songs about rainbows, the rainbow is a powerful symbol.  James Baldwin used the rainbow image to title a book of essays about the African-American experience in America and the struggle for equality, The Fire Next Time.  “God gave Noah the rainbow sign.  No more water, the fire next time.”  Jesse Jackson used the rainbow image in his political work.  “The Rainbow Coalition” was his effort to bring together struggling persons from all racial-ethnic backgrounds to help the country work better for all.  GLBT persons have used the image of the rainbow as a way to symbolize their struggle for recognition, inclusion and equality.
            The power of the rainbow symbol is ancient.  It is found in the old story of Noah.  Following a flood which wiped out all creation, except Noah, his family and the animals on the ark, God puts in the sky a sign of God’s covenant with all humanity, a rainbow.  The story is retold every time we pray the prayer over the waters of baptism.  In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.
            The portrayal of God in this story is intriguing.  God here inspires a certain fondness and a certain terror.  God sees.  God sees the great wickedness of humankind (6:5).  “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (6:6).  God sees and God feels, these are rather endearing qualities.  Then God acts in a way that God later regrets.  God blots out humankind with a flood, except for Noah and Noah’s family.  This is the part of God that is a little terrifying.  But then God decides that this kind of thing should never happen again.  Just to make sure, God puts a sticky note in the sky to remind Godself, a rainbow sticky note.  God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  God needs some reminders.  When God sees the rainbow, God will remember.  This is also a kind of endearing quality for God.
            I like what Adam Hamilton does with the Noah story in his book Making Sense of the Bible.  Hamilton does not think the story is a literal history of an event, though it may have been inspired by terribly flooding that people experienced centuries ago.  Yet the story speaks truth he says.  “How this story still speaks of God’s grief over the violence we human beings commit against one another, sometimes in God’s name!” (204)  The story also conveys “God’s love and concern for animals” (205)
            God sees.  God sees pain and hurt and destruction, and it grieves God.  God sees into our world more deeply and widely than we might sometimes like to see.  It is not easy to look at some of the brutality in our world.  God also sees more widely and deeply the promise of the human project.  There is something in us worth preserving and working with.  God sees widely and deeply and we are invited to see with the eyes of God.  Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians that God might give them “a spirit of wisdom” that “the eyes of your heart” might be enlightened.  Eugene Peterson in The Message renders Paul’s prayer as a prayer that God might “make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear” (Ephesians 1).  God invites us to see with the eyes of our heart, to have eyes that are focused and clear, perhaps eyes that see a little like God.
            In Mark’s gospel, we read of the temptation of Jesus.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark never indicates the nature of Jesus temptation, only that he was tempted.  Jesus temptation follows immediately from his baptism, where he is called “beloved” by God.  It immediately precedes the beginning of his ministry on the heels of John the Baptist’s arrest.  Perhaps the temptation of Jesus was to narrow his vision, not to see fully what it meant to live God’s belovedness. Perhaps the temptation of Jesus was to narrow his vision, giving into fear in the face of John’s arrest instead of beginning his own ministry.  It is tempting not to see some of the hurt and pain of the world.  It is tempting not to see ourselves as beloved of God, because then we might have to do something about that hurt and pain.  It is tempting to life in a cocoon out of fear.
            God sees more deeply and more widely and invites us to see with eyes cleansed in the waters of baptism.  God invites us to see with the eyes of our hearts the hurt and pain in the world, even when it grieves our hearts.  This week my heart has been grieved deeply.  Friday I officiated at the funeral of a thirteen year old boy who took his life because of the pain of being bullied.  Saturday I officiated at the funeral of a forty-six year old whose parents are both alive to grieve the loss of a son – death out of time.  Being with others in the midst of hurt and grief is part of my calling, and I pray that I can feel with hurting people and be strong enough to be of help.    I pray that I can find words that might bring a bit of God’s healing.  I pray that where there are no words, I can be strong enough just to be present and convey God’s care.  I pray that God will continue to give me the strength to see hurt and pain near and far with the eyes of my heart, to walk with it, to do what I can to bring some healing.  And I pray that this church can be a place of hope and healing in our community and world.
God invites us to see with the eyes of our hearts the hurt and pain in the world, even when it grieves our hearts.  God also invites us to see that we can do something to make the world more just, more beautiful, more compassionate, more caring.  Rainbows are powerful not just as a reminder that God has not given up on the human project, but they are powerful symbols of that project itself, a project in which we can participate – a project of caring for creation, caring for each other, of forming inclusive communities -  beautiful in their rich variety, of creating beauty, of doing justice, of fostering peace and reconciliation.
We are invited to see more deeply and widely, and in the coming weeks in Lent we are going to explore what it is God might see in the midst of some of the difficulties and challenges of life.  We are going to be asking where is God and what does God see.  Here is where we are going: Where is God and what does God see when there seems no way forward?  Where is God and what does God see when we feel let down?  Where is God and what does God see when we mess up?  Where is God and what does God see when people die?  Where is God and what does God see when we are on the roller coaster of life? 
We are going to explore these questions not just theologically, though there will be theological thinking happening.  I can’t help but think theologically with you.  We are exploring these questions so that we can grow in wisdom, so that the eyes of our hearts can be enlightened, so that we can see with eyes focused and clear, so that we can resist the temptations to narrow vision.  This is meant to be a transformational journey, not just a transformation in our thinking, but in our hearts and in our living.  These are all connected.
Perhaps something of my hope for this Lenten series is captured in words written by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Who Needs God?
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 flat, monochromatic world, a world without color or texture, a world in which all days would be the same….  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 that we are worthy of a second chance.  And worst of all, 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….  Who needs God in a world that could be so beautiful and so holy, in a life that could be so full of meaning and satisfaction, if we only opened our eyes and knew where to look?  Where is this God who can help us make the world beautiful and holy?  We want to find that God and see what that God sees.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows?  There are, because rainbows really do help us make connections, connections between loving and dreaming, between God and our human lives which sometimes seem so mired in muck.  Rainbows seem to be an invitation from God to see more deeply, dream more imaginatively, think more creatively, and live more beautifully.  This Lent we are going to see if we can find rainbows even in some dark places, see if we can see what God sees.  This Lent we are praying that the eyes of our hearts be enlightened, that our eyes may be focused and clear, and that our lives may be changed.   Amen.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Looking Through the Eyes of Love

Ash Wednesday reflection February 18, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

            Sunday evening a few of us gathered here for our monthly Faith and Film night to watch Gravity.  There are really only two characters in the film, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, and Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock.  It is Kowalski’s last space flight and you can tell by his back and forth conversations with Mission Control that he has been at this a long time.  With every story he tries to tell, they let him know that they have heard that one before.  “We know the Corvette story, Matt.”
            I sometimes find myself meeting with multiple groups in a brief period of time.  I sometimes find myself saying, ‘Have I told you about…” just to make sure I am not repeating myself to much.  I suppose it might have something to do with age, too.
            So I know I used The Great Gatsby in Sunday’s sermon.  The bulletin cover had an image from the book, a billboard with a large pair of eyes and eyeglasses: “Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, Occulist.”  I did not comment on that on Sunday, however.  Fitzgerald writes very descriptively about this sign in The Great Gatsby.  About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.  This is a valley of ashes. (27)  How appropriate on Ash Wednesday.  But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.  The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.  They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. (27)
            This sign in the valley of ashes comes to play a role much later in the book.  After Myrtle Wilson is killed in a car accident, her husband George is talking to an acquaintance.  George had discovered that his wife was having an affair.  “I spoke to her….  I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God.  I took her to the window… and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing.  You may fool me but you can’t fool God.’”  Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg which had emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night. “God sees everything,” repeated Wilson.  “That’s an advertisement,” Michaelis assured him. (167)
            Over and over again in chapter six of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus utters these words.  “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  He says it about giving alms.  He says it about prayer.  He says it about fasting.  “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
            There is something a little haunting about those words.  They seem to evoke the image of gigantic eyes, peering out at us through the haze, looking out from no face.  God sees everything.  God is constantly peering at us, inside and out.  There is never an action we undertake that God does not know.  There is never a thought we think about which God is unaware.  This is a little uncomfortable.  It is uncomfortable because we don’t always like what we see in our own lives.
            In Gravity we find out that Dr. Ryan Stone lost a daughter at age four, and she carries guilt inside of her.  It was not anything she did, but she still feels guilty, and a little empty.  She would just as soon nobody know.  Most of us carry some guilt in our lives.  Guilt isn’t all bad.  Sometimes we do things for which guilt is an appropriate response.  But guilt is better as a momentary response to some action, it is not meant to be an emotional default.  Many of us carry surplus guilt.  We don’t really want the big eyes of God peering at us.
            Most of us carry shame.  Brene Brown writes that we all have shame.  Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience.  The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. (The Gifts of Imperfection, 38).  If Dr. Brown is right, then all of us here tonight know shame.  Brown defines shame this way: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. (39)  And we all experience it.  Here’s the kicker, though.  We’re all afraid to talk about shame.  The less we talk about shame, the more it has control over our lives. (38)
            God sees everything, sees in secret, Jesus says.  That is disquieting because we carry guilt and shame, guilt and shame beyond what may be needed as ordinary human responses.  We can’t forgive.  We don’t talk about shame and we let it control us.  Jesus intends his words for healing, though.  Don’t worry so much about what others think about you.  So much of our guilt and shame is tied to what others think.  Jesus wants to free us from that.
            But then the words of Matthew come back to bite us, too.  Don’t let anyone know that you are giving generously.  Is enjoying being thanked for your generosity practicing your piety before others?  Don’t let anyone see you pray.  That’s kind of a hard one for me.  I also remember a few years ago when I let everyone know that I was giving up red meat for Lent.  It changed Wednesday night meals for six weeks.  And God sees it all.
            What we often leave out of these words of Jesus is the underlying message of his life.  God’s love.  Yes, God sees all, and God still loves.  I appreciate the way Eugene Peterson renders some of these verses in his version of the Bible, The Message.  Giving: When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks.  Just do it – quietly and unobtrusively.  That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.  Prayer: Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.  The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.  Fasting: God doesn’t require attention-getting devices.  He won’t overlook what you’re doing.
            God sees all, even the secret places, and God continues to love.  We are mortal, and we don’t manage that well.  Ashes are one reminder of our mortality.  God loves us still.  We carry shame, and we don’t want to talk about it.  God loves us still.  We have surplus guilt, and we struggle to forgive.  God forgives and loves us still.  We have not been as creative and courageous as we could be.  I think of that well-known Marianne Williamson quote: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? (A Return to Love).  We fear our own power and potential and creativity.  God loves us still.

            God sees it all and God loves.  God looks at us, looks at our lives, even the secret places, God looks through the eyes of love.  It is not just a Melissa Manchester song, it is the way God is.  God looks at us through the eyes of love.  We are invited to do the same.  Amen.

Gatsby and God

Sermon preached February 15, 2015

Texts: Mark 9:2-9

            In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.  “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
            Those are the opening lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful novel, The Great Gatsby, and they are the thoughts of Nick Carraway, the story teller of the novel.  I hope you are not now shutting down, remembering some bad experience in a high school English class where you simply never liked this book.  This sermon has no prerequisites.  You do not have to have read The Great Gatsby, or liked it, or even seen the movie, to listen.
            Less than 200 pages later, after Jay Gatsby has been killed, and Tom and Daisy Buchanan get to go on with their careless lives, Fitzgerald ends his book with these haunting and beautiful words.  Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther….  And one fine morning----  So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
            I’ve been thinking about The Great Gatsby recently because of Maureen Corrigan.  Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR show Fresh Air.  Any of you ever listen to it?  I don’t as much as I used to, but I love Maureen Corrigan’s voice and her book reviews.  Anyway, she recently published a book of her own on The Great Gatsby, So We Read On.  It was a delightful read.  Corrigan says that one aspect of what is going on in the book is that Fitzgerald writes about a world in which “God no longer exists” (20).  “Like other novels of its shell-shocked generation, Gatsby asks what kind of God would allow the apocalypse of World War I to happen (21-22). 
Given this, it may seem odd to have a sermon entitled “Gatsby and God.”  But I think we, too, wrestle with God.  We wonder where God is in the midst of our own terrors and tragedies.  Somehow we have to reconcile the presence of God in the world with all the news that comes our way through the radio, television, newspapers, through Facebook and Twitter and other internet sites.  Beginning next week, our Lenten journey will be one where we ask where God is.  We will begin some of that discussion now.
One of the most beautiful parts of Corrigan’s book, though, is her discussion of how to appreciate The Great Gatsby.  To do so we need to look at the world a little differently.  To appreciate the book Corrigan says, “you have to wise up a little, get older, become more vulnerable to both the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness” (6).  Becoming vulnerable to the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness opens us up to God, I believe.  It certainly helps me understand what’s going on in the gospel this morning.
Every year, the last Sunday before the season of Lent, the gospel reading is one of the stories of the Transfiguration, this strange and mysterious episode where Peter, James and John go with Jesus up the mountain and there have this visionary experience of him.  In the midst of it, they also hear a voice from a cloud, the voice of God.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Then in a way only Mark does, we have this word “Suddenly!”  “Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”  The Jesus they see is a Jesus who has already begun to speak about his suffering.  This is a moment where we encounter the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a story about Jesus, about his importance for Christian faith.  Mark is asserting the basic Christian claim that Jesus is the one in whom and through whom we know God best.  The story is also a challenge and an invitation to us, as people who have already started on the Jesus way, to see differently, even in the ordinary and every day.  To see differently is to also align our hearts differently and to live differently.  We respond to the world as we understand it, as we see it, but one of the primary images of the New Testament is that we often don’t see very well, and need healing for our “blindness.”
Joan Chittister tells a story about her childhood.  When she was about thirteen years old, she made her first trip to New York City.  She had one site in particular on her mind.  She had her heart set on seeing the Empire State Building.  I scanned every horizon and compared every building I could see with what I could remember of pictures in encyclopedias and grade school magazines. (Gospel Days, 26)  So while my mother and aunt went in and out of store, I walked the streets of New York, head back, gawking at one building after another and calculating their heights.  Finally, a little dizzy, my cousins and I stopped to lean against the nearest building.  I shook my head out, stretched my neck, and without any warning at all, suddenly saw the thing.  “There it is!” I yelled to my cousin.  “It’s down there.”  I pointed at a building blocks beyond us.  “Oh, it is not,” my cousin snapped back, older, superior.  “That’s it on the other corner.”  The cousins argued for a while, then the story continues.  “Aunt Helen,” I demanded when our mothers came out of the store, “which one of us is right, Ellen or me?  Is that the Empire State Building on the left side of that street down there or is it the building on the other corner?”  “It’s neither,” she said.  “You two are leaning against it” (26-27)
We are invited to see the world more truthfully, to be vulnerable to the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness.  There is another beautiful line on the final page of The Great Gatsby.  Nick meditates on Long Island and wonders what it would have been like for the Dutch looking at Long Island and Manhattan for the first time.  For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity  for wonder.  We see the world more truthfully when we can see sadness and loveliness, when we can retain our capacity for wonder.
We are invited to see God in the everyday, active in the world.  We will be exploring many more dimensions of this during Lent, but here is one dimension.  In his book Who Needs God, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a rabbi friend.  His rabbi friend argues that when thinking about God we should practice “predicate theology.”  Do you remember learning in English class [for those of you who never liked English class this has been a brutal morning!] that when the verb a sentence is a form of the infinitive “to be” (am, are is), the part that comes after the verb is not called an object… but is known as a predicate?  “Predicate theology” means that when we find statements about God that say, for example, “God is love,” “God is truth,” “God is the friend of the poor,” we are to concentrate on the predicate rather than the subject.  Those are not statements about God; they are statements about love, truth, and befriending the poor, telling us that those are divine activities, moments in which God is present. (203)  Where are the moments where God is present?  We are invited to see these, not just when we have visions, but when it is only the familiar surrounding us.
We are invited to see other people in a new light.  God called Jesus “beloved.”  God calls each of us “beloved” too.  Can we see the belovedness of others?  There is a poem I use every year with my confirmation class that expresses how I would like us to treat each other.  The Persian poet Hafiz wrote, in part, (The Gift, 47):
If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special Guest,”

How would you then treat them
When you

            We are invited to see ourselves as beloved, too.  I will be speaking more about this on Wednesday night, Ash Wednesday, but for this morning a story.  Once upon a time, a man goes to visit a close friend for dinner.  He drinks too much and falls asleep.  Meanwhile his friend, having to leave on official business, ties a precious jewel within the guests garment as a present before he leaves. The man, being asleep, knows nothing of this.  Awaking he travels onward until he reaches another country.  In this place, he toils hard to earn enough for food and clothing, often just barely eking by.  After a time, the friend who he had visited comes upon him.  “How is it that you toil so strenuously for food and clothing?  Wishing you to be comfortable and satisfied, when you visited I tied a precious jewel within your garment.  It remains, and here you are slaving and worrying to keep yourself alive.  Go and exchange that jewel for what you need and live free from poverty and shortage.” (adapted from Teachings of the Buddha, ed. Kornfield, 203)  D you see the precious jewel that you are?

            Gatsby believed in the green light.  I believe in God, the God of Jesus Christ who is at work in the midst of this world of sadness and loveliness and wonder, calling us beloved, inviting us to treat each other as beloved, inviting us to care for the world and each other, and to celebrate God’s presence with joy, as God continues to work for beauty, truth, love, kindness, justice compassion and peace.  And so we continue on, not borne back ceaselessly into the past, but borne into God’s future.  Do you see it?  Amen.

Friday, February 13, 2015


Sermon preached February 8, 2015

Texts: Mark 1:29-39

            Technology has changed dramatically in my lifetime.  If you enjoy movies, today you can stream them onto your television, or your computer, even your phone with services like Netflix and Hulu, and a host of others.  I still remember when watching movies at home became a part of our family.  We were living in Roseau, MN and had just two of our three children, David and Beth.  We bought our first VCR at K-Mart in Thief River Fall, an almost 70 mile drive from our home.  The VCR made possible a new wrinkle in what we called “Family Fun Nights.”  We often watched movies.
            There was one movie that David and Beth really fell in love with, and we watched it countless times, “Follow That Bird.”  It is the only full-length film featuring the characters from Sesame Street.  The story revolves around Big Bird being adopted by a bird family in Oceanview, Illinois and leaving Sesame Street.  As he prepares to leave, his friends offer some advice about bringing warm clothing and writing.  Grover offers advice too.  “Don’t forget to breathe, in and out.”
            Grover’s advice is meant to make us chuckle.  Who would forget to breathe?  Well… maybe.
            The story of Jesus in this early part of Mark’s gospel is pretty dramatic.  In fact, Mark is really the drama king among the gospel writers.  There is a lot of activity in Mark, and things happen quickly.  “As soon as they left the synagogue” – bing, boom bam.  The action continues.  They go to the house of Simon, whose mother-in-law is sick in bed.  Jesus takes her by the hand, and she becomes well and serves them.  By the way, there is something special in this service.  The only other time this same word is used in Mark is when Jesus serves the disciples at his final meal.
            When sundown comes, the whole city seems to gather around Jesus.  They bring the sick and demon-possessed.  “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”
            Then there is a shift in the story.  “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
            Don’t forget to breathe, in and out.  This part of Mark’s gospel suggests a rhythm of spirituality that I would suggest we sometimes do forget.  It is a rhythm of in and out, of quiet and busyness, of activity and stillness.
            Another image comes to mind, that of ripples.  Seamus Heaney once spoke of poetry in terms of ripples.  He saw his poetry as a pulse coming out from this center of his being, but that it was also important to have messages sent back into that center.  “Ripples are wonderful because they look and are coming out from the center, but they are also traveling inwards to it” (1996 Guthrie lecture).  A Jesus spirituality is a spirituality of ripples.
            A Jesus spirituality tends to the inner life.  It is a spirituality of prayer in all its beauty – including meditation, silent prayer, centering prayer.  It is a spirituality of worship.  Gathered here we tend to our souls.  We listen both for the Spirit of God and for our own spirits – our hopes, fears, longings, regrets, desires, aspirations.  It is a spirituality of reflection – thinking, pondering, musing.
            A Jesus spirituality tends to the inner life.  We, however, need to allow for variety in that tending to the inner life.  We need not force our models of what tending to the inner life is on others.  Not all of us are drawn towards long periods of silence in our praying.  Not all of us get up before dawn to pray.  Our reflecting can be different – some reflect and ponder as they walk outside, and some love the kind of reflecting and pondering that happens as we engage with writings – theology, poetry.  Each of us needs to find ways to tend to that center in our lives, but there are no simple formulas for this.
            We need to tend to that center, because the activity to which we are called as followers of Jesus is not always simple and not always easy.  Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and she serves.  We are touched by God’s love in Jesus and we serve.  We have a message to share, healing to share, demons to challenge.  Following Jesus, engaging in ministry in the name and spirit of Jesus goes beyond “being nice” or “being good.”  Following Jesus actively is not less than this, but it is more or different than this.
            When Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, he broke the rules.  Touch between males and females in Jesus culture was strictly regulated.  Jesus touching a sick woman would have been cutting against the grain, upsetting the status quo.  Bringing the healing love of God in Jesus to others may also mean something different than physical healing.  When that doesn’t happen, we can be a healing presence in the midst of hurting, and that is not an easy task.
            Jesus challenged demons.  He challenged powers that entrap persons.  Sometime we imagine demons as little gremlin like creatures that come and go.  We would do better to think today in terms of all that might keep people down, all that might hurt and harm.  I see the demonic in addictions, in systemic injustices, in our being paralyzed to act in the face of challenges – perhaps because we are so cynical that we don’t believe we make any difference.
            This Jesus work in the world can be tough stuff.  We need to tend to that inner life so that when the ripples of the world come crashing in, we can send out ripples of love and compassion.
            The author Brian McLaren writes about spirituality as an “encounter with the holy mystery and pure loving presence that people commonly call God” (Naked Spirituality, 3).  He goes on to say if… you and I strengthen the sacred connection in the midst of life’s complexities, what will happen then? Won’t we become – habitually, radically, truly – more aligned with God’s compassion, more empowered by it, more resonant with its holy frequency?  And won’t more of us who are more filled with God’s compassion help make a better world? (139)  This is the rhythm of a Jesus spirituality, ripples coming in and going out.
            One final way of looking at this.  Earlier this year, reading through a lovely book of daily thoughts, I encountered these words of the Persian poet Rumi.  Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes.  If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. (Daily Calm, January 15)

            Let’s not forget to breathe, in and out.  Let’s not allow our lives to become spiritually paralyzed, stuck in either the inner or the active.  Instead, may we cultivate a Jesus spirituality that rides ripples and dances to beautiful rhythms.  Amen.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Where's the Beef?

Sermon preached February 1, 2015

Texts: I Corinthians 8:1-13

            I had thought of calling this sermon “Eat Mor Chikin” but I did not want to use a contemporary advertising slogan.  You may see some of those ads if you watch the Super Bowl later today.  They are creative.
            Thirty years ago, a hamburger company also put out some creative ads comparing their product to other quick-serve hamburger products.  The tag line was, “Where’s the Beef?”  The ad, of course, meant that literally.  The line however came to acquire a wider meaning, finding its way into presidential politics.  In a debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls in 1984, Walter Mondale, who would eventually be the nominee, said of Gary Hart’s ideas, “Where’s the beef?”  Mondale wanted to know where the substance of Hart’s ideas was.  It did not do Vice President Mondale much good when it came to the general election.  He was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan.    
TV advertisement:    
            So where’s the beef in today’s Scripture reading?  Where’s the meat for our souls in this rather odd text?  Yes, I did intend this as a bit of a pun, in a Scripture reading about eating meat, we have a sermon entitled “Where’s the Beef?”
            So where’s the beef?  Actually the question before the Corinthian Christian community was, “Where’s this beef been?”  The issue that this community faced was that much of the meat available in the market in this pagan city was meat that had been ritually slaughtered in honor of pagan gods.  Could such meat be eaten by follows of Jesus?  Should such meat be eaten by followers of Jesus?
            Let’s admit that this is an odd debate far removed from the pressing issues of our time.  It is reminiscent of the debate about circumcision that also takes up a lot of space in the letters of Paul.  These are no longer pressing issues for us in the same way.  Circumcision is a health issue little discussed in the church, and I do think it was wise of the earlier followers of Jesus to let that issue go.  I don’t think it was such a winning evangelism strategy.  Imagine telling an adult male, come and follow Jesus and, by the way, in addition to being baptized….  And if we debate meat eating we do that in the context of environmental concerns and health concerns that may be related to our faith, but that are very different from the issue of meat ritually slaughtered.  I worked in a grocery store in high school and college and there were no rituals going on in the butcher shop.
            If we are past this issue, where’s the beef for us today?  I think there is some.
            This Scripture makes clear, as does most of the New Testament, that following Jesus is following Jesus in community.  Paul writes about this issue of eating meat as an issue among “members of your family” (v. 12).  To be a Christian, someone whose relationship to God is decisively shaped by Jesus, whose life is decisively shaped by Jesus, is to join with others on the Jesus way.  Being a Christian is both deeply individual and personal, and decidedly communal.  We each need to make decisions about our lives.  We each need to decide about following Jesus. No one else makes that decision for us.  Yet when we say “yes” to Jesus, we also become part of a new family, a new community.  And we become part of that new family, not in the abstract, but concretely.  We need to find a specific community in which we will follow Jesus.  The Peanuts character Linus once said, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”  There will be none of that for followers of Jesus.  We need to find people with whom we can follow Jesus together.  There’s some of the beef in this Scripture reading.
            There’s more, a second patty if you will.  Living in community, then, requires that we think about others, that we are sensitive to others.  The issue in the Corinthian Church was this: We know that idols aren’t real.  There is no other God but the God we know in Jesus.  If that’s true, how can eating meat ritually butchered to something that doesn’t exist make a difference?  Paul agrees, but asks those “in the know” to ask themselves how their behavior might affect others “in the family.”  Paul wants the Corinthian Christians not to use their freedom carelessly (v. 9, The Message).
            Following Jesus means following Jesus with others, and if we are with others, we need to be sensitive to those others.  There’s the beef, but aren’t there then also egg shells?  How can we live always asking if even the littlest thing we are doing might be harmful to someone’s faith?  Wouldn’t that be constantly walking on egg shells?  How is that the abundant and free life offered in Jesus?
            There are no easy answers to this.  I don’t think Christian life in community is supposed to be like walking on egg shells.  It is about living more freely and abundantly.  It is about growing in knowledge.  It is also about growing in love, and love means using our freedom well and living with some sensitivity toward the sensibilities of others.  It means living with a love that builds up.
            Perhaps a good companion story to the Scripture reading for today comes from the Buddhist tradition.  A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.  The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset by this, but said nothing.  They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”
The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”  The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”
            We want to invite people to growth in knowledge and love, but the invitation must come with sensitivity, and must arise out of relationships where we are sensitive to others, and to where they are in the spiritual journey.  Love is about building up.
            If you want the meat of this entire passage, it can be found chapters later in First Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.”  There’s the beef, and as we are that kind of community, that kind of family in following Jesus together, we have something to offer a world hungry for community and love.  Amen.