Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Day After the Day After Tomorrow

Sermon preached March 22, 2015

Texts: John 12:20-33

            Miles Davis, “Fall”
There has been some wondering about a song I might play given this morning’s sermon title -  “The Day After the Day After Tomorrow.”  Could it be REM’s “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”?  How about Badfinger “Day After Day” or The Kinks, “Til the End of the Day”?  What about Godspell, “Day by Day”?
            The song that I played was the first part of a song by Miles Davis entitled “Fall.”  The sermon title has nothing to do with the song, but it has a lot to do with the sermon.
            I was first diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis when I was in college.  I was 21.  Because people with this disease are at a higher risk for colon cancer, I have my colon scoped regularly, now annually.  If a cancerous polyp or even pre-cancerous polyp is discovered, it would probably mean surgery to remove my colon.  Over the years, we have had a couple of scares.  In 2001 when I went for my colonoscopy, the doctor could not even perform the procedure because of the inflammation present.  I was referred to a specialist.  It was that summer, when I was not feeling all that spectacular, that I rediscovered jazz.  It was that fall, driving to a retreat that this Miles Davis song penetrated my heart and stirred my soul.  It was a beautiful day and this song was as bright as the sun and as colorful as the leaves.
            Two years after that, the medications I was on to control my inflammation just gave out.  That was a scary time.  A couple of years after I arrived here, my colonoscopy revealed a suspicious polyp.  My doctor began to discuss with us potential surgical options.  Thankfully, when the test results came back, the polyp was non-cancerous.
            I share this history not because it is all that remarkable.  Many of you have had to confront more difficult medical issues.  While I have worried some about cancer, you have had to battle it.  I tell the story because it is part of my contact with and confrontation with the fragility of life, and with mortality.  I played the song because it centers me, and I wanted that this morning, and because it reminds me that even in the midst of dealing with fragility and mortality, there are moments when awe, and beauty and wonder and mystery break through.
            “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”  Jesus had been saying something about being lifted up from the earth.  Part of this passage is Jesus confronting his own mortality.  We all confront mortality.  People die.  Where is God?
            My experience with death goes well beyond the times I have had to think about colon cancer.  Within my first six weeks as a pastor, at age twenty-five, I officiated at three funerals – the first for a man who was about the age I am right now. He had a brain tumor.  In my ministry I have officiated at services for, and helped families deal with the death of children from months old, to a couple of years old, to people over age 100.  I have worked with families where parents have lost children, where young children have lost a mother or a father.  I have worked with two suicides, a thirteen year-old and a man in his seventies.  The first question his sister asked me was if her brother was in hell.  I officiated at the funeral of a young woman who was killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend in a drunken rage.  I have walked a lot in the valley of the shadow of death.  I look around this morning and see many who have also walked in that valley.  I look around and see places where people we knew and loved sat on Sunday mornings past.
            Where is God when people we love and care about die?  How is God with us at such times?
            First, I don’t think God plans our time.  I know some find comfort in that thought, and I want to say that I could be wrong, but I don’t think God has all our days mapped out, and that there is an appointed time when we will die.  Too many heart-wrenching deaths that seem out of time to me lead me to think this.  I have been helped in my thinking by my acquaintance, theologian Marjorie Suchocki.  In the chapter on prayers for healing in her book In God’s Presence, she writes that prayers for healing must take place in the full recognition of our mortality.  We will all die; it is not a question of if, but a question of when.  The wonder is that given our fragility, and all the illnesses we contract, all but one of these illnesses are irreversible. (58)  So we pray for healing and “prayers for healing make a difference in what kind of resources God can use as God faithfully touches  us with impulses toward our good” (59).  God does not know in advance which disease will be our demise.  God only knows when some disease reaches a point of irreversibility.  God does not know just how many days after the day after tomorrow we may have, and God’s work is always toward healing until healing as health is no longer possible.
            When that time comes, God welcomes the dying person into new life beyond this life.  I remember the first time I ever heard the ending of the statement of faith of The United Church of Canada.  I thought that this was a beautiful statement of faith.  “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God.”  God receives each of our perishing lives into God’s own life in ways that ultimately shade off into mystery.  God receives our lives when we die, and there is new life.  I think of the lovely image offered by Alfred North Whitehead, the image of God as “a tender care that nothing be lost” (Process and Reality, 525).  We hear such trust in Jesus’ words in John.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  We trust that in death God takes the grain of our lives and makes it part of something beautiful in a tender care that nothing be lost.
            I also believe God is with us when we face the death of a loved one giving us the grace of remembering.  In one of the prayers I frequently use at memorial services there is thanksgiving to God for that of the person who has died, “which lives and grows in each of us.”  We are so created by God that we have the wonderful ability to carry other people inside of us.  Many, many times I have quoted the poet May Sarton, “the people we love are built into us.”
            In the face of death, God is also with us to bring new life.  When we grieve, God shares our grief and seeks to bring us new life.  When we cry in sorrow, God shares our tears, and seeks to bring us new life.  When his twenty-five year-old died in a mountain climbing accident, the theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff penned a moving book, Lament for a Son, in which he describes something of this new life God seeks to bring in the midst of sorrow and grief.
            To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love.  If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. (92)  Such new life is not easy, and we are always marked by the pain of the death of those we loved.  Yet new life is possible.  The grain of wheat falls into the earth, and something new emerges.  As hard as it can be some days, with God there is always the day after the day after tomorrow.
            But I cannot leave this passage from John without also recognizing that it is saying something not just about how God can be with us as we confront death in the literal sense.  Jesus speaks using an image, a metaphor, and that image says something about our lives beyond our confrontation with mortality and death.
            In our lives, change itself can be a kind of dying, but change is also the path to new life.  Sometimes in order to be the kind of people we want to be and God invites us to be, we need to let go of old habits, old patterns of living that get in the way of being more loving and caring and concerned.  Such letting go requires a kind of dying and a kind of faith that on the other side there is new life.  Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Faith is, itself, a giving of ourselves to something bigger – to love, to compassion, to justice, to a world not yet fully here or fully born.  Every moment used is a kind of death, the death of that moment.  Will we use our moments in ways that plant fruitful seeds for God’s dream for the world?
            It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.  (A. Bartlett Giamatti, from "The Green Fields of the Mind ")  Former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti penned those words about baseball.  They are also about life.  It breaks your heart.  Life will break our hearts some times, and never more than when we lose someone close to us to death.  God is with us – in life, in death, in life beyond death.  God is with us to comfort us.  God is with us as tenderness that nothing be lost.  God is with us as the grace of remembering.  God is with us to give us the courage of the soft heart, for the only alternative to a heart that cannot break is a hard heart, and that is not the way of life.   And God is about life, and about new life - about sympathy for the world’s wounds being enlarged, about expanding love for those around us, about gratitude for what is good flaming up, about deepened insight, about strengthening commitment to what is important, about aching for a new day, about faith and hope and love, about beauty, wonder and awe breaking through even when life is feels fragile, about using our lives for something bigger.

            In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone – today, and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after the day after tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Sermon preached March 15, 2015

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

            The Beatles, “I’m a Loser”
Following up on that song, I found out that there are quizzes on the internet to determine how big a loser you may be.  I have no intention of telling you how I scored.
            I really don’t want to talk about being a “loser.”  Most of the time, it is not a helpful category for talking about human lives.  Instead, I want to talk about something related – how we, as humans can mess things up.  Sometimes when we mess things up, we feel like we are losers.
            Sometimes we mess things up simply by making mistakes.  Recently I ran into a clergy acquaintance of mine.  As we were chatting, he mentioned that his father had died last summer.  I said I was so sorry, and that I did not remember hearing that.  Turns out I had sent him an e-mail conveying my condolences.  I felt like singing a chorus of ‘I’m a Loser.”  We all make mistakes, though I hope this one was not hurtful.
            Sometimes our mistakes are not making silly choices or being forgetful, sometimes they involve choices between two good things.  Life choices are not always between good options and bad ones.  Some of the challenging choices in life are between two good options – perhaps between educational choices, or vocational choices.  We make a choice that is not a bad choice, but later may feel like we should have made the other choice.  We feel like we may have messed up.
            So here is kind of an embarrassing mistake from my childhood.  I was filling something out that asked about my favorite actress.  I had not really thought about that much.  I knew more actors than actresses, but I saw the name Sophia Loren in the newspaper, so put her name down.  It was kind of an embarrassing choice for an elementary student.  Sophia Loren was as much a sex symbol as an actress then.  However, she has also said some wise things, among them, “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for living a full life.”
            Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for living a full life, and we can live with some of the embarrassment that may accompany our mistakes.  While at times we may regret making one good choice over another, we typically live with the good choices we make.
            There is another kind of messing up, though, that is more problematic.  It is our ability to take what is whole and break it, to take what is good and misuse it, our abilities to be mean or petty.  We mess things up by our failure to see our own messes, and by turning away from the hurts of the world.
            Francis Spufford, in his wonderfully titled book Apologetic: why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, writes insightfully about the human tendency to mess things up.  He does so using a slightly more colorful word.  What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy.  It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. (27)  We are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling (30).
            Theologian Marjorie Suchocki, an acquaintance of mine, also writes in powerful ways about our capacity for messing up.  She says that as humans we have natural capacities for sustaining ourselves, defending ourselves, and for relating to others.  These natural instincts to sustain ourselves and defend ourselves are not sinful, but they can easily turn into instruments whereby we contribute unnecessarily to the ill-being of others….  The very openness that invites relation also makes us vulnerable, and sometimes we try to close ourselves off in protection. (In God’s Presence, 71)
            I don’t mean to pile on here, but one more theologian on the human condition and our ability to mess up, Barbara Brown Taylor.  We really are free to make disastrous decisions.  Our choices really do have consequences…. Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life. (Speaking of Sin, 47, 62).  Her book is called, Speaking of Sin.
            I prefer to speak of messing up because the idea of “sin” has so often been used in sinful ways, creating shame, holding it as power over someone.  The fact, however, is that we mess up.
            I was leading a youth group on a work trip in Arkansas.  We were at a camp that worked with physically and mentally challenged children.  Our tasks were primarily maintenance.  There was a camp counselor there who worked with our group, and at times, I felt he interfered too much with how the adults I had brought were trying to work with our group.  I was upset and was talking with some of the adult chaperones when I noticed this young man out of the corner of my eye.  He probably heard my frustration with him.  I should have handled the situation differently.  I still feel the wrong I did to him.  Remember that strong feeling memory bank I told you I have? 
I remember trying to help our son as he was trying to connect with some boys in the neighborhood.  I offered advice – do this, not that – until finally he just said, “Maybe I should just be someone else.”  My advice had really stomped on his spirit.  I had been insensitive.  I still feel that moment.
            Where is God when we mess up – either deliberately by our attention or by our inattention?  So from our Scripture reading for this morning the answer is pretty simple and straightforward.  We mess up, God sends snakes and we die.  Amen – time for the offering and benediction.
            We really need to read this passage with a metaphoric mind.  That’s how the gospel writer reads it.  The Numbers story is about humans messing up.  Freedom is hard.  The people were thinking that at least as slaves there were regular meals.  Here they had no food.  Or, I guess there was food, but it was not very good food.  Not every step on the road to freedom is an easy one, and the people wanted to turn back.  They were snakebit before any snakes even arrive on the scene in the story.  That’s like us, we are snakebit, but we are the ones who stuck our hand in the adder’s den.
            We are snakebit, but healing comes.  Healing comes through looking at a snake.  Somehow healing happens when we truly see our capacity to be snakebit.  The gospel writer in John uses this frankly weird and frightening story to make sense of Jesus, and God’s love expressed in Jesus.  In Jesus’s death on the cross we see something of the capacity of human’s to mess up big time.  The imperial powers don’t want anyone messing with their rule.  Religious authorities can crush creativity.  Jesus dies, he gets lifted up.  Then we find those beautiful words from John.  For God so loved the world the he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
            God is about healing.  In Greek and Latin there are similar words for healing and salvation.  God’s love is a healing love, a love that heals through the wreckage.  That is not always easy healing.  We need to see the snake, need to see our own ability to mess things up.  I have come to think that the idea of forgive and forget is mostly b.s.  bogus sensibility.  Forgiveness is in not really in forgetting, it is in how we remember, how it is we look at the snake, at the wreckage.  My favorite definition of forgiveness remains that of Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist and a therapist.  “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, 25).
            God is about healing love.  How is this God of healing love with us when we mess up?
            God is with us as forgiveness.  Forgiveness is about new beginnings.  It is not about forgetting the past, it is about re-weaving it into our lives.  If I could take back some of the hurtful comments I have made in my life, if I could remove those moments when I stepped on somebody’s spirit, if I could change those times when I wasn’t sensitive enough to others and to the world, I would.  I cannot.  Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.  It is making our way through and learning from the messes we have made and trying to do better with the help of God and in community with others.  Henri Nouwen wrote about “living through” our wounds and discovering they will not destroy us.  When we wrong others, we also wound ourselves, and we need to live through it by the grace of God, and in God’s grace, we can discover, in Nouwen’s words, “your heart is greater than your wounds” (Henri Nouwen: writings selected by Robert Jonas, 40).
            God is also with us as the courage to say “I’m sorry,” and that takes a fair amount of courage in our culture where accepting that one has done wrong seems anathema.  So “Happy Days,” the television show was not necessarily a theological gold mine, but I remember one episode where “Fonzie” tried to say he was “wrong” and could not.  It was an archetypal moment in our culture.  How often do we hear apologies phrased, “I’m sorry if someone was hurt or offended…” which seem to imply that the problem is in the sensitivities of others and not with one’s own actions.  When we mess up, God is with us as courage to say we are sorry.

            In her analysis of the human situation, Marjorie Suchocki writes, We are such creatures that it is probably not possible for us not to sin, given the fragility of human existence (71).  Yet God is with us.  God does not abandon us to the poisonous snakes of our own making.  God is healing love.  God is forgiveness.  God is courage.  We can make fewer and less harmful messes, even if we cannot completely avoid messing up.  God as healing love does not want us to live in constant fear that we might mess up.  Maybe God is a little like Sophia Loren, “mistakes are part of the price we pay for living a full life.”  God’s intention is life, is healing, is wholeness.  God wants us to live with both sensitivity and adventure.  God desires that we be sensitive to our ability to hurt and wound, and yet that we also live with creativity and adventure.  When we mess up, we look to God’s healing love, and there we find forgiveness, courage, new beginnings, fullness of  life.  God so loved, God so loves, that there is life, even amid our messes.  Amen.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Jackie Wilson Said

Sermon preached  March 8, 2015

Texts: John 2:13-22

            Van Morrison, “Jackie Wilson Said”
            Jackie Wilson, “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher”
            This are pretty bouncy and positive songs and seem dramatically incongruous with the Scripture reading.  They are about as jarring a contrast as the contrast we often feel between Jesus the gentle shepherd of our souls and Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple with chords.  Let’s see if we can make some connections here.
            Well, Jackie Wilson said, “once I was downhearted, disappointment was my closest friend.”  Disappointment, feeling let down.  Who of us has not been there?  Who of us might not be able to, at least sometimes, sing with deep feeling, “Once I was downhearted, disappointment was my closest friend”?  We may be able to sing it with deep feeling even if not as melodically as Jackie Wilson.
            Disappointments.  I am not speaking here of the kind of difficult crises that we discussed last Sunday – when we can’t seem to find a way forward.  I am talking about some of the littler hurts that happen in life. We are not at a seeming dead-end, but feel let down by life.  I am also not going to talk today about how we might let ourselves down, that’s part of next week’s sermon.
            Disappointments.  This weekend if we are Hermantown or Duluth East hockey fans, we know about disappointment, though Superior hockey fans are certainly not.  A little over twenty years ago, I graduated with my Ph.D. in religious studies from Southern Methodist University.  I had gone back to school after serving for three years as a pastor in Roseau.  Completing my Ph.D. was fulfilling a significant aspiration, and another aspiration was to teach.  I thought this was the direction my life would take.  I had two preliminary interviews with schools, one a college and the other a theological seminary, but never heard from them again.  When it became pretty clear that I would not be receiving a teaching offer, I contacted my district superintendent here in Minnesota to say that I was open to be appointed again as a church pastor.  There was some disappointment in that, but I remember feeling it most acutely when talking with the other Ph.D. graduate from my program that year.  Simeon was from Nigeria and he and I had done work together in our program, both of us focusing on Christian ethics.  Simeon was offered a tenure-track position at Wake Forest, where he is still teaching.  When he asked what I was going to do I told him that I had been offered a pastorate in northern Minnesota.  When he said, “Congratulations,” I remember feeling the disappointment, not because of where I was going, but because part of a dream was dying.  I can still feel it – I have a good feeling memory bank.
            Disappointment happens, even if we are sometimes counseled to keep a still upper lip.  Anne Lamott, in her book Stitches writes about that.  If you were raised in the 1950s or 1960s, and grasped how scary the world could be, in Birmingham, Vietnam and the house on the corner where the daddy drank, you were diagnosed as being the overly sensitive child….  Also you worried about global starvation, animals at the pound who didn’t get adopted, and smog.  What a nut.  You looked at things too deeply, and you noticed things that not many others could see, and this exasperated parents and teachers….  Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and the catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth. However, if you reacted, or cried, or raised the subject at all, you were being a worrywart. (27-28)  Anne Lamott was discovering that the world could be disappointing, even disappointing about being disappointed.
            Passover was drawing near, and Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem.  On arriving there, he could not help but take note of people selling cattle, sheep and doves.  Rather than travel with your animal sacrifice, it might be easier to purchase the animal at the site of the Temple.  Jesus could not help but notice people exchanging money.  You see, the Romans issued coins, but these were not acceptable in the Temple, so there were currency exchanges set up.  The sight of all this religious commerce did not seem to please Jesus.  He made a whip of chords, and he drove them all out – money changers and cattle alike.
When Jesus was in the Temple, engaging in this divine spring cleaning, the question that most often gets asked, is, “Was Jesus angry?”  His actions suggest that perhaps he was.  At the very least we know he was passionate, filled with zeal.  Might his passion been fueled by deep disappointment?  Could Jesus have been deeply disappointed by what he saw happening in this place he considered sacred?  Perhaps Jesus was something of an overly sensitive person.
So where is God when life lets us down, when we feel disappointed?  I believe God is with us, so I prefer to turn the question to “How is God with us when we feel disappointed, when life lets us down?”  Let me suggest three ways God is with us when we are disappointed.
God might be with us when what is disappointing needs changing.  The Temple grounds had deteriorated into some kind of tacky religious marketplace, at least as Jesus saw it.  Something needed to be done so that the Temple could more clearly be the house of worship and prayer it was intended to be.  Disappointment fueled passion and passion fueled courage to act.
I am not suggesting that for every wrong we see, a reaction like that of Jesus is appropriate.  But when we are disappointed by life, and what is disappointing can be changed, God is with us to give us the courage to create change.  Perhaps it will be the courage of Selma marchers disappointed that our country still was not getting it right in its treatment of African-Americans.  Perhaps it will be the courage of Norwegian Muslims forming a peace circle around the synagogue in Oslo following recent anti-Jewish violence in Europe perpetrated in the name of radical Islam. 
I appreciate, again, Anne Lamott.  Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it.  We clean up beaches after oil spills.  We rebuild whole towns after hurricanes and tornadoes.  We return calls and library books.  We get people water.  Some of us even pray.  Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.  The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.  The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry….  We live stitch by stitch….  We do what we can as well, as we can. (13-14)
When life disappoints us, when we feel let down, maybe what is disappointing can be changed, and God is with us as the courage to create positive change.
Sometimes what is letting us down cannot be changed, or sometimes that is not really the best first question.  We are disappointed, feeling hurt, let down.  God is with us reminding us that we are not alone.  God, in Jesus, shares our disappointment, Jesus, who was disappointed more than once himself.  I still love the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead - God is the great companion - the fellow-sufferer who understands. (Process and Reality, 532)  The theologian Patricia Adams Farmer writes about losing the diamond from her wedding ring, and then finding it almost hidden in the carpet.  She writes about how this helps her think about God.  God knows when things fall out or fall down or fall apart.  And God knows that precious things, like my diamond, are not lost.  They have fallen onto the deep, soft places of God’s heart. (Embracing a Beautiful God, 45)  We are also held in those deep, soft places of God’s heart when life disappoints.
When life disappoints, lets us down, God is with us, sometimes as the courage to create change, and sometimes as the fellow-suffer who understands, who holds us deeply and softly.  But as God holds us, sometimes we can also learn and grow through our disappointment.  A number of years ago, I discovered this blessing for weddings by Robert Fulgham, you know, the “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindgergarten” guy, and I use it from time to time.  One of the lines of the blessing says, “May your dreams come true, and when they don’t, may new ones arise.”  Sometimes in the disappointment of old dreams dying, new dreams arise that are wonderful.  I was disappointed, in a way, to be coming back to Minnesota following earning my Ph.D.  When I think of all the experiences I have had in the churches I have pastored, of all the people I have come to know and love, all that I have learned about myself – it’s o.k. that a dream died.  I have discovered new dreams on the other side of disappointment.
The same dynamic can work for our church community.  We can learn and grow on the other side of disappointment.  The leadership consultants and authors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have written, “Leadership can be understood, in part, as about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.”  That can sound manipulative, but what they are saying is that leaders sometimes need to disappoint if necessary changes are to be made.  I will never forget my first summer here.  One of the pressing issues at the time was whether or not, when fall came, we would return to two worship services, as was our pattern at that time.  After carefully talking with any number of church leaders and members, I made the decision that we would, indeed, return to two worship services.  I wrote my reasons in the newsletter.  The Sunday following Dorothy Ottinger, bless her, came up to me after church and let me know of her disappointment.  “I thought you were going to unite us,” she said.  Welcome to First UMC!  Dorothy was disappointed, as were some others, just as others were disappointed when later we made the decision to have a single worship service.  But I think we have learned and grown together through all of this.  We are a better and stronger community because we have stuck around through some disappointments.
I love how Nadia Bolz-Weber, the really hip and cool Lutheran pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, writes about his in her book Pastrix.  At new member classes she writes, she speaks last, and says to those who have come: This community will disappoint them.  It’s a matter of when, not if.  We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings.  I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happen.  If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. (54-55)

Jackie Wilson said, “Once, I was downhearted.  Disappointment was my closest friend.”  Sometimes that’s true.  Life disappoints, leaves us feeling let down.  God is with us as the courage to change.  God is with us, the great companion.  The hurt is real, and God is our fellow-sufferer.  With God, though, on the other side of disappointment, there can be another Temple, new life, new dreams, a kind of grace that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.  Amen.

Friday, March 6, 2015

That Evening Sun Go Down

Sermon preached on March 1, 2015

Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

            Baseball spring training began this week.  For those of us who really enjoy the sport, there is a measure of excitement and a modicum of hope.  The hope comes from knowing that a game played on green fields is not long away.
            Among other things, baseball has a rich history, and a rich history remarkable athletes and of notable characters.  Among the best catchers to play baseball is also a man known for his rather interesting phrases, Yogi Berra.  “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”  "I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did."  “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.”  “I never said most of the things I said.”  Of course – “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
            When you come to a fork in the road, take it.  What about when the road seems to come to a complete dead end, when there seems no good way forward.  Yogi Berra was from St. Louis, and here is a St. Louis song that helps express what I mean.
            Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, “St. Louis Blues”
            I hate to see that evening sun go down.  The singer laments lost love and the accompanying loneliness.  We know something of that experience.  I hate to see the evening sun go down.  Friday morning I was at the doctor’s office for my annual physical exam.  Prior to the exam the nurse takes your vital signs and asks some questions.  One series of questions goes something like this: Have you recently been feeling sad, depressed, lonely, hopeless.  I have often thought of answering, “You mean beyond what’s normal for the human condition?”
            In preparing for this morning, I entered “dead-end” into an internet search.  Here were a couple of gems I discovered.  “Aspirations – trying to remember what yours once were helps pass the time on the commute to your dead end job.”  It is meant to be funny, but some experience it as too true.  “Dead-end bolt: no one’s getting in and no one’s getting out.”  That is also meant to be funny, but here are some stories about dead ends that are heartbreaking.
            When I completed my Ph.D. in 1994 I returned to Minnesota and was appointed one of the pastors in an experimental cooperative parish arrangement on the Iron Range.  There were two full-time pastors, one half-time pastor, and a regular lay speaker who would staff seven congregations.  Within my first year there I was asked to visit with a woman from one of the churches named Audrey.  Audrey was in her early eighties.  She was a widow with no children and no relatives close by.  She had been a successful nurse and was a real leader in her congregation.  Audrey was also a cancer survivor, but the reason she had asked to visit with me and with the other full-time pastor in the parish was that her cancer had returned.  While undergoing treatment for the cancer, Audrey’s kidneys had failed, and now she was faced with the prospect of dialysis for the rest of her life, something she was finding quite draining physically.  She was thinking about her choices and wanted someone to think with her, and pray with her.
            Within my first couple of years here I had a woman come to my office.  She had been driving most of the night from someplace down south.  She had grown up in Duluth and had a sister here who she was on her way to visit, but she needed to talk to a pastor.  The woman was married with a couple of children.  Her husband worked summers in Alaska as a fisherman.  She had recently come to discover that he had another family up there.  Part of the reason she wanted to talk with a pastor was that she had friend’s telling her that her husband must never have really been God’s match for her, and that now she could find that person.
            I recently had a conversation with a clergy friend of mine, someone not from Minnesota or this area.  We were simply visiting when he said, “I don’t think I’ve told you about my wife, have I? “ I had met his wife once before.  “She is a raging alcoholic and has run off with another man.  When he found her too out of control, she found yet another man to be with.  I have wondered if I could still function as a pastor.”
            Last week, at the funeral for Tristan Seehus, the thirteen year-old boy who ended his own life I pondered with those gathered: Where is God in all of this?  Where was God for Tristan?  I had to pose that question, and had to attempt a response.  I believe God’s voice was the whisper trying to help Tristan see some other way, but it was a voice difficult to hear, seemingly drowned out by the white noise of pain.
            Where is God when life hits those moments when there seems no good way forward, when life seems on a permanent pause, when we confront what seem like dead-ends in the road?  This Lent we are asking, “Where is God?” questions.  My response will always be that God is present, but it is important to ask, “How is God present, and how does God see in fresh ways?”  God is always present, and there are things that seemingly God alone can see.
            I believe God is present in those difficult dead-end moments as that whisper that is pointing a way forward.  The whispered voice of God can be drowned out by our noisy world, and even by the noise in our lives, so we need to cultivate capacities to hear that voice.  Yet God is always present, even when there seems no way forward.
            Abram and Sarai were no longer a young married couple.  They were not a young married couple when they first heard the whisper of God to leave home and country (“Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” Genesis12:4)  Sarai had not given birth to any children at that point in their marriage, and now Abram is ninety-nine. The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless.  And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous….  You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations….  I will make you exceedingly fruitful….  As for Sarai your wife… I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.
            At this point, Abram may have thought that God had rather forgotten anything about Sarai giving birth to a son, or about making Abram the father of many.  Abram may have looked at himself and thought such things impossible.  Sarai may have wanted to curl up with more than a good book, but was he able?  His response to the whisper of God seems quite reasonable.  The Abram fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?  Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?”  Imagine the chuckling at the kindergarten round up?  Whose great-grandparents are these?
            But God sees something.  God doesn’t see Abram, he sees Abraham, the ancestor of many.  God doesn’t see Sarai, he sees Sarah, a princess.  In our lives, God does not just see what we sometimes see in our own lives, especially when what we see are dead ends, God sees in us new life, courage, resiliency.  God sees who we are at our beautiful best.
            Audrey called two pastors to her room to ask about her life and her choices.  She was feeling that maybe life on dialysis multiple times a week was not the life she wanted.  Perhaps it would be o.k. not to continue treatment and let go.  To some of us, that may seem like giving up.  What I think God may have seen was a woman of courage and determination who trusted God in life and in death, and was not afraid to say that she had lived a good life and now it was coming to an end.  Her decision need not be everyone’s decision, but it was a decision made with courage and hope.  She was able to see something of who she was in God.

            God is with us.  God is with us always.  God is with us at those moments when we don’t see much of a way forward.  God is with us, and God sees in every Abram an Abraham and in every Sarai and Sarah, even when that seems laughable.  In each of us God sees a beautiful person capable of love and generosity and courage, and God sees a way forward, and God invites us to see what God sees.  Amen.