Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wishing and Hoping

Sermon preached April 19, 2015

Texts: I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:34b-48

            Dusty Springfield, “Wishin’ and Hopin’”
            Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying and planning and dreaming each night of his charms; that won’t get you into his arms.  “Hope” can often come across as a rather weak concept. To say, “I hope I can do this,” often betrays a lack of strong confidence that you really can do it.  The American Heritage Dictionary, in its first definition of hope reads: to wish for a particular event that one considers possible.
            Hope can seem as weak as “Pie in the sky.”  It can be like the television character George Castanza pondering his career options following quitting his job impetuously – perhaps he could be the general manager of a baseball team, or an announcer – except he has no experience, or a projectionist – except he doesn’t know how to run a projector, or a talk show host – except he has no idea where to begin (
            When our Capital Campaign Steering Committee met a few days ago, and, by the way, just because we moved the active part of the campaign until fall does not mean I am going to mention it every week until then, when we met we were discussing theme ideas, and the word hope was part of our conversation, but someone noted the possible weakness of that word, “hope.”  We can understand why.
            But hope that is little more than wishing is not biblical hope, not hope as hope is seen in Christian faith.  See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are….  We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
            In the Bible, hope is not a passive mind game, sitting around wishing the world were different or our lives were different.  Biblical hope is a deep trust that God is up to something in our lives and in our world.  We are God’s children, the people of God, and God keeps working in our lives, and there is more ahead.  Such hope moves us to think, dream, imagine and live differently.
            The Greek word used for “hope” here, is a word the Greek philosopher Plato used to talk about an impulse toward the good, something active.  The other key word in this passage is “pure,” and again the Greek is interesting.  The root word for pure here has something to do with that which awakens awe.  Hope is an active power and energy moving us toward the good, the beautiful, toward God’s dream for the world of peace, justice, reconciliation and love.  Hope is an active power and energy moving each of us toward our most awesome self.  Those who have this hope purify themselves.
            Biblical hope is not merely wishing.  German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who spent a number of months as a prisoner of war in World War II, has written powerfully about the biblical concept of hope.  Moltmann argues that Christian hope is “the divine power that makes us alive in this world” (Love: The Foundation of Hope, 4).  He writes that Christian hope is a hope which does not deceive or limit us in our human freedom but opens up for us new horizons of the future… which incites us for the future, emboldens us for freedom, inflames us for the possible, thereby subduing our depression and melancholy over the present state of our lives and society (The Experiment Hope, 16).
            There is a great deal in our world that leaves us with feelings of melancholy.  ISIS in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Queda in the Arabian Penninsula in Yemen, school killings in Kenya and Pakistan are all reminders of our volatile world and of how far away peace seems to be.   Recent incidents in our community and nation have reminded us of the tenacity of racism.  We are becoming much more aware of the issues of sex trafficking – the awareness is a good thing, but the reality of human trafficking should haunt us.  The sociologist Robert Putnam, who will be speaking at an event sponsored by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation, in his most recent book Our Kids, writes about the widening opportunity gap in the United States.  The opportunity gap has widened dramatically, partly because affluent kids now enjoy more advantages than affluent kids then [1950s], but mostly because poor kids now are in much worse shape than their counterparts then (29).  Poor kids, through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids (230).  We wish the world were different, and are disappointed that we have not made more progress.  Our public discourse has moved from the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt who advocated for a second bill of rights which would include: The right to a useful… job;  The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family  enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; The right to a good education; or the ideas of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society - The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.  It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.  But that is just the beginning.  The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.  It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.  It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community; to much more diminished horizons.  We wish it were different.
            More personally, many of us have struggled with issues in our lives that seem to hang on tenaciously, habits that we would like to break, new patterns of behavior that we would like to begin that we just can’t get started.  We wish it were different.
            But biblical hope is not just wishing it were different.  It is a power and an energy rooted in God’s love for humanity and God’s grace toward humanity, that moves us to think, dream, imagine and live differently.
            For me no sermon on hope would be complete without a reference to Anne Lamott, who articulated my favorite definition of hope: Hope is… about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, 275).  But for Lamott it is more than choosing to believe, it is choosing to believe and act on that belief.  She offers this idea of hope in an essay describing her trip to Park City, Utah with her friend Sue who had terminal cancer.  It is an essay about love and death and hope and Easter.  The thing about Easter is that Jesus comes back from the dead both resurrected and broken, with wounds from the nails still visible.  People needed to see that it really did happen, the brutality, the human death.  He came back with a body… a wounded body (272).  Death and pain and brutality are real, but so is love, and hope is believing that love is bigger and stronger and can be embodied in flesh and bone, too.
            Easter hope is a power and an energy.  It is trusting that love wins, and so we love.  It is trusting that the arc of history bends toward justice, and so we do justice.  It is trusting that beauty is tenacious and timeless, and so we create beauty.  Hope opens up for us new horizons of the future.  It emboldens us for freedom, inflames us for the possible.  Hope is the divine power that makes us alive in this world, and so we live fully alive.  Hope is, to use the words of a hymn, the fire of love in our flesh and our bone.
            One last story.  This past Thursday, a friend of mine, and fellow United Methodist clergyperson, Lyndy Zabel came to Duluth to get a sense of some of the mission opportunities in the area.  He is currently part-time Director of Missions for the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church.  Lyndy wanted to see Ruby’s Pantry.  He also wanted to find out more about CHUM and Harbor House so I arranged some time with Lee Stuart of CHUM and Barb Certa-Werner of Harbor House.  As Lee was describing some of the work of CHUM, Lyndy asked about the faith-base in the staff.  Lee said that many of the staff had a faith community, and many others did not.  Then she said how doing this kind of work, work which began for her in the South Bronx, really heightened her desire for and need for a faith community and a lively faith.  She needs the energy and enlarging perspective of her faith to help her do her work.  She told me I could share this story.  What she describes is biblical hope, the power and energy to work toward the good and beautiful and just, even when one confronts a lot of grim bleak stuff.  It is not simply wishing things were different, it is working to make them so, and trusting that the good done is never lost.

            We are God’s children right now, but God has more in store for us and for our world.  What is yet to come remains on the horizon.  Hope is an active power and energy moving us toward the good, the beautiful, toward God’s dream for the world of peace, justice, reconciliation and love.  Hope is an active power and energy moving each of us toward our most awesome self.  May it be the fire of love in our flesh and our bone.  Amen.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Up in the Air

Sermon preached April 12, 2015

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

            Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight:”
            “To know me you have to fly with me.”  These are the words of Ryan Bingham, the central character in Walter Kirn’s novel, Up in the Air and the film based on the movie.  George Clooney plays Ryan in the film. [“Up in the Air” (trailer):]  They begin Kirn’s book.
            Planes and airports are where I feel at home.  Everything fellows like you dislike about them – the dry, recycled air alive with viruses; the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificial lighting – has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. (5)
            Ryan lives to rack up as many miles as he can.  When his sister suggests that he help his niece’s maid of honor get to the wedding by cashing in some of his miles, Ryan stays focused on his goal.  I love my sister.  Unfortunately, she’s ignorant.  She doesn’t fly on a regular basis, so she doesn’t know what I’ve been up against out here.  For years, Great West has been my boss, my sergeant, dictating where I went and if I went, deciding what I ate and if I ate.  My mileage is my one chance to strike back, to snatch satisfaction from humiliation….  The conversation ends here: “My miles are mine.” (38, 39)
            This book and movie pose questions about what matters, what we live for, what’s most important in our lives.  The same question is posed by the writer of The Gospel of John.
            Just after telling the story of the encounter between the risen Jesus and Thomas, who had raised questions about the resurrection, and letting us know that there is much more that could be told about Jesus, the gospel writer adds some comments of his own.  These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.  The gospel writer tells the stories about Jesus so that those who read them may have life in his name.  And what is the center of that?  We get a clue in verse 29.  Jesus said to [Thomas], “have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  What is going to give life is orienting your life to something that you do not see.
            Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about orienting and investing ourselves in the invisible, the unseen, the not yet, things that may seem up in the air.
            When I was in college, I used to write quotes on some of my class folders.  When I was taking my experimental psychology class, I carried a folder with this Albert Schweitzer quote written on it.  No ray of sunshine is ever lost, but the green which it awakens into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted for the sower to see the harvest.  All work that is worth anything is done in faith.  I remember my professor saying that he did not really think that way, that for him, he needed to see results.  To live the Jesus way is to trust that the good we do makes a difference, even if we will never see it.  We invest ourselves in the unseen, and in the not yet, and this can be quite a challenge in a “show me” culture.
            Another quote I have come to love over the years is the one in the Invitation to Worship. Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”  This is probably not true in every circumstance.  We see beauty in all kinds of things.  Keller was wanting us to think deeply about some of the most profound experiences of our lives.  She is encouraging us to invest ourselves in the unseen, the invisible, the not yet.  There is something of the Jesus way in her remarks.
            One last story here, but not for the entire sermon.  Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead were philosophers who, for a time collaborated together in the area of mathematics.  Philosophically, they had some distinct difference which Russell shared by way of a story.  “You think,” said Whitehead to Russell, “the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon-day.  I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one awakes from a deep sleep.”
            Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe [and] that through believing you may have life in [Jesus] name.  The Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about investing ourselves in the invisible, the unseen, the not yet.  It is about trusting that good work we do will have its effect.  It is trusting that some of the best and most beautiful things in the world are the things of the heart.  It is to be open to those parts of the world that are like early morning when one awakes from a deep sleep.
            As followers of Jesus we invest ourselves in the invisible, the unseen, the not yet.  By investing ourselves I mean that we give our time, our energy, our attention, and yes, our money, to furthering the cause of God in the world, the cause of God we know in Jesus, whose way we trust, though we do not see him.
            This week, the Steering Team for our Capital Campaign met for the first time.  We are going to be moving the active part of the campaign into the fall, but you will be hearing about it from time to time as we ramp up for it.  I have kiddingly said there is nothing like talking about investing in the invisible when you are encouraging financial commitments be made for tuck pointing – talk about invisible!
            But what we are investing in here, with our time, our energy, our attention, our giving, both regularly and during capital campaigns, what we are investing in here, finally is people.  There are things that can happen here that don’t happen other places.  People can encounter the God of Jesus in unique ways because we are here.  Lives are touched and changed, and often in quiet and unseen ways, ways that we can only talk about later on.  We give our time, our energy, our attention, our resources to build for a future we cannot see, some of which we will never see.  This building will be fifty years old in 2016, and I would like to think fifty years from now this will still be a place where people encounter the living Christ in ways that give life, that this will still be a place where the community gathers to discuss important issues and find ways to work together to address them, that this will still be a place where people find food and friends, that this will be a place where people are welcomed, where they are guided by the teaching and unconditional love of Jesus, and where they are inspired to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, that fifty years from now this will still be a place where people find hope and healing.
            Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about orienting and investing ourselves in the invisible, the unseen, the not yet.  But there is one more point to be made.  This past week I had the pleasure of listening to the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan at St. Scholastica.  He spoke about violence and the Bible, and I think some of that will find its way into future sermons.  In the book he has just published on the topic, of which I now have a signed copy, Crossan writes, “We live in a world of visible externals and invisible internals” (245).  I think following the Jesus way it to pay a great deal of attention to those invisible internals, but the Jesus way is also about making the invisible visible, about taking what may be in the air and bringing it concretely to earth.
            As followers of the Jesus way we cannot simply tell people to wait behind locked doors and Jesus, wounded side and pierced hands will show up.  So how do we help make real the risen Jesus?  Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them. (Acts 4:32-34a)
            As followers of Jesus we orient and invest ourselves in what is invisible, unseen, not yet, but we do so in such a way that it becomes more real and more visible through our lives, and through our life together.
            Last story.  I was touched last Sunday by a lot, but including the story in the newspaper about St. Luke’s hospice volunteers.  A Florida man died at St. Luke’s on March 13, but though family could not be here, he did not die alone.  One of the hospice volunteers said, “It’s so important that people don’t die alone – to know they’re being loved.”  That volunteer, here name is Nancy, was a seminary class mate of mine, and earlier in our lives, we were part of the same Jesus people group.  She volunteers here quite a bit for Ruby’s Pantry.  Nancy and others were making the invisible love of God real and tangible.  Later in the week, Bill Van Oss, the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church shared that St. Luke’s was started by people from his church in 1886.  They invested themselves in an unseen future, that now includes a hospice program surrounding people with family when their biological family can’t be present.

            All work that is worth anything is done in faith.  The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.  As followers of Jesus we make the invisible, the unseen, the not yet, matter.  As followers of Jesus, we take those things that may seem up in the air, and make them more real, together, by the grace of God.  Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Let's Talk About Chocolate, Isn't That Different

Sermon preached Easter Sunday                                   April 5, 2015
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: John 20:1-18

            “Though no Church has seen fit to canonize him, he was nevertheless a saint.”  The writer and editor William Maxwell wrote these words about the Nineteenth Century Russian physician, short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).  Pretty strong praise.
            I rather like the poem Louis Simpson wrote, based on an incident in Chekhov’s life..  I know I am taking a risk here, all this literary stuff right off the bat, but I think you will enjoy this poem.  If you don’t, I hear the muffins are worth the wait.

Chocolates    Louis Simpson

Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted.  Finally
he said, “Do you like chocolates?”

They were astonished and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”

“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind?  The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”

The conversation became general.
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
                                          In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.

            I think I’d like to talk about chocolate today.  Isn’t that different?  I’d like to talk about chocolate rather than asking what it may mean to say “Christ is risen” in this maddening world of ours – in this world of ISIS or ISIL soldiers beheading people, in this world where nearly 150 are dead at a Kenyan college due to an attack by Islamic militants from Somalia who targeted non-Muslims and in particular Christians, in this world where outside of the building on campus that houses the diversity office a Duke University student hung a noose while their integrated basketball team prepared for the final four.
            Of course, I could avoid all that.  It’s not like I have to choose between talking about Easter or talking about chocolate.  I could talk about Easter as if I were talking about chocolate, or about marshmallow peeps, as something sweet and delicious that no one finds challenging.  But that really isn’t Easter.  An Easter that doesn’t speak to the world as it is isn’t really Easter.  Besides I need an Easter that speaks to the depth of my heart, my mind, my soul.  In need as Easter that speaks to a sometimes messed-up and maddening world, a world in which a young German pilot decides his life isn’t worth living anymore, and takes dozens of people with him into death, a world where I hear a story of a young woman who goes missing from Dinkytown and my first reaction is fear because my daughter lives not too far from there and then there is a sense of relief when we find out there was no foul play but that quickly becomes heartache as you wonder what happened to lead that young woman to take her life in the Mississippi.
            Talking about chocolate might be easier, but I really do want to know what it means to say “Christ is risen” and say it in our world today.
            To say “Christ is risen” is to talk about hope, not an easy optimism that everything will turn out all right, but a hope caked with mud, a hope that sees the worst the world has, and still gives us the courage to act to make the world better.  The story doesn’t move from a Palm Sunday parade to Easter lilies.  It moves through betrayal, agony, injustice, cruelty and death to hope.
            To say “Christ is risen” is to talk about joy, not joy that ignores the difficulties in our lives and in our world, but a joy that sees fully, and perceives moments for joy.  I appreciate the words of Darcey Steinke in her memoir, Easter Everywhere: Life is brutal, full of horror and violence.  Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy.  Both things are true at the same time. (219)
            To say “Christ is risen” is to sense deep down in our bones that love wins.  This is the source of our hope and joy – love wins.  Love often seems down for the count.  Aggressive power and violence seem so dauntingly strong, but love is the true lasting power.  It will not finally be defeated.  It will rise.
            Because of that, there are always fresh possibilities.  To say “Christ is risen” is to trust in a God of love who is actively engaged with the world.  Theologian Jay McDaniel puts it well.  God is reaching into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time.  But the fingers of God are not things you can see with your eyes.  They are fresh possibilities for healing and wholeness, for love and wonder….  They come in surprising ways.  Christians call them grace.  Always they are healing and hopeful; the best for the situation at hand.  The best may not be the ideal.  In the middle of a wilderness, the best may be sheer survival, or humor, or courage, or sleep.  But always it is realized hope, a fresh possibility. (internet)
            To say “Christ is risen” is to say something like what writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says: Anxiety and fear are what we know best in this fantastic century of ours. [He was writing about the last century and isn’t it sad that our new century is also marked by anxiety and fear.] Wars and rumors of wars….  We have heard so much tragic news that when the good news is good we cannot hear it.  But the proclamation of Easter day is that all is well….  Love is the victor….  Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. (The Magnificent Defeat, 81)
            We know all this.  We trust all this, at some level, but it can be so difficult to see and affirm.  You know what?   It has always been difficult to get a glimpse of the working of this God of hope, joy, love and fresh possibility.  At first Mary Magdalene sees nothing but an empty tomb.  Confused and startled she runs for Peter and another disciple, who is not even named.  They find an empty tomb and are at a loss.  They go home.  Mary stays and begins to gain some sight, but it is a little blurred.  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardner…  I love that line in the story, “supposing him to be the gardner.”  God is reaching into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time.  But the fingers of God are not things you can see with your eyes.  It takes Mary awhile to see the fingers of God at work.
            Christ is risen, but we are in good company if at first we see nothing but the gardener.  Christ is risen, and the God who raised Jesus continues to reach into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time, but we don’t always see, at least readily or easily.
            Philip Gulley is a writer and Quaker pastor.  He tells the story of his call to the second church he ever pastored (Home Town Tales, 174ff).  He had been fired from his first church because the church did not like his theology.  When he went to preach a trial sermon for his next call, he preached “a liberal sermon” thinking that the congregation, known for being more conservative, wouldn’t hire him.  Among the call committee was a man named Dick.  After the sermon, and after the call committee meeting, Dick broke the news to Philip.  “We’ve reached agreement.  We’ve agreed that none of us like your sermon.  We’ve also agreed to call you to be our pastor.”
            That afternoon, Dick invited Pastor Philip to play golf.  Dick beat Philip by ten strokes, commenting, “A preacher who can’t preach or play golf.  What have we gotten ourselves into?”
            Dick and I became fast friends.  When I preached a sermon he didn’t like, I was always the first to know.  We golfed once a month.  I never beat him.  Then his elderly mother died, and I conducted her funeral.  It was about then that Dick started liking my sermons.  I never did figure out if it was because I was changing or because Dick was.
            Philip was pastor of that particular church for four years.  The year after he left, Philip ran into Dick at the hospital, and found out that Dick’s wife had died.  Dick asked Philip to officiate at the funeral, and though Philip had a rule about not going back to former churches to do weddings or funerals, he made an exception.  “Five years before, he’d taken a chance on me, and I figured that put me in his debt.”  A couple years after that, Dick died, and Philip again officiated at the funeral.
            At the funeral I talked with some folks about how Christians these days can’t seem to get along.  How we fuss and fight and draw our theological lines in the sand.  I told them how Dick and I were poles apart sometimes, but we’d made up our minds that disagreeing about God would never keep us from loving God’s children.  It’s good to know where you stand, but it’s even better to have your heart turned toward gentleness.  Dick ended up changing me in ways I needed to be changed.  I’d like to think I did the same for him.  Maybe that’s what God has in mind when God brings different folks together – that we each bring our scraps of truth and piece them together into this radiant quilt that is so much finer that anything we could ever have made alone.
            That’s what it means to say “Christ is risen.”  It is to see these small moments of hope, peace, joy, love, fresh possibilities.  It is to see that God who raised Jesus continues to reach into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time, even if the fingers of God can be hard to detect.  Part of our job as a community that proclaims “Christ is risen” is to help each other see, to bring our scraps of truth and insight and piece them together into this radiant quilt that is so much finer that anything we could ever have made alone.  Another part of our job as a community that proclaims “Christ is risen” is to be part of the work of God in the world, to let Christ rise in us, to let Christ rise in the world through us.  It doesn’t have to be a big production, just the quiet work of love, knowing that love wins.

            When they left the conversation with Chekhov, they agreed that it had been a most unusual conversation.  If they had been from Minnesota they may have said, “that’s different.”  When we encounter the risen Christ in all those small ways that the risen Christ shows up, we are made different, made different to make a difference.  Christ is risen.  See it.  Be it.  Amen.

One, Two, Three Kinds of Dying

Sermon preached Good Friday                                      April 3, 2015

            Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  This powerful question is posed by the poet Mary Oliver toward the end of her poem, “The Summer Day.”  The words strike us hard, and they carry a ring of truth.  But maybe they don’t tell all the truth.  Doesn’t everything die at last?  Well, there is no getting around that truth, much as we would like to.  But does everything die too soon?  I have watched people hang on for days, their death seeming to come excruciatingly slow, especially if their final days are painful and difficult.  Perhaps just a little sooner would have been a good thing?  When people were crucified, it was an agonizing death.  The person executed in this way hung there out in the elements sometimes for a few days.  Death often occurred because their lungs finally gave out from hanging there uncomfortably – death by prolonged suffocation. Hanging on a cross, being crucified, the less time there the better.
            Yet even after such difficult deaths, there lingers the feeling that every life ends too soon in some way.  Everything does die at last, and we often feel, too soon.  Mary Oliver, in her poem, confronts us with the difficult realities of death.
            Today’s story, the Good Friday story, also brings us face to face with the harsh realities of cruelty and death.  But this death poses other questions as well.  It always has.  That is part of the power of this day.  I want to ponder some of those questions by reflecting for just a few moments on three kinds of dying.
            The first kind of dying is the kind we all face as human beings, the kind we have already been discussing.  We will die.  For each of us, life will come to an end.  We don’t like to think about it much, and we think those who do think about it a lot are rather morbid people, not the kind of folks you like to have over often for dinner parties.  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Mary Oliver asks.  We know the answer, “Yes, everything dies.”  But our death poses another question, a question that Mary Oliver asks at the very conclusion of her poem, “The Summer Day.”  Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  We will die.  Our lives will end, so what are we going to do with our one wild and precious life?  It is a question we all have to ask, and probably ask more than once during our lives.
            So we have choices to make about how we are going to use our wild and precious lives.  When you look around, it is easy to see that some pretty bad choices are made.  We probably make some of those bad choices.  In a recent Facebook post, the writer Anne Lamott speaks of God.  One synonym for God, besides the big Three – Love, Light, Mind – is Life.  Capital L Life, life not squandered, awakened Life.  We can squander life, let it slide by inattentively, mangle it.  God invites us to life with the capital L, and we make other choices.  In some ways, we can speak meaningfully about spiritual death.  The twentieth century poet T. S. Eliot penned these lines (Choruses from “The Rock,” 1934):
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Where is the life we have lost in living?  We make choices that hurt rather than heal, that squander life rather than create beauty with it, that close us off rather than open us up.  Such choices are a kind of spiritual death.  Being among the “walking dead” doesn’t have to refer to being a zombie!  The writer of Colossians knew something of this kind of death.  When you were stuck in your old sin-dead life, you were incapable of responding to God.  God brought you alive – right along with Christ! (Colossians 2:13, The Message)
            On Good Friday, Jesus is the one who is crucified, but it is those who chose to execute him that know a different kind of death.  They have closed themselves off from God’s creative love in Jesus, from the new thing God was up to in him.  They held too strongly to the way things had always been and they could not let new light shine into their lives.  One might call them “sin-dead,” where that loaded theological word “sin” really just means those things that squander life.  Putting Jesus to death is evidence of a kind of spiritual deadness.
            There is physical death, which we all will suffer.  There is spiritual death which is when we choose to misuse our wild and precious lives, and I would say, finally, about that, that there are degrees of spiritual death.  Then there is what I would call “paradoxical death.”  Here’s what I mean.  If there is a kind of death that we live, a spiritual death that is a squandering of life, to live fully, to be more fully alive may mean that we need to put death to death.  If there are habits and patterns in our life which close us off from being fully alive, then maybe we need to let go of those habits and patterns, let them die, so to speak.  This is a death to death that leads to life – paradoxical.  Again, the writer of the New Testament letter, “Colossians” puts it well (3:3, 5a, The Message).  Your old life is dead.  Your new life, which is your real life… is with Christ in God…. And that means killing off everything connected with the way of death.  And what is the alternative, the way of life?  So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline…. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment.  Never be without it. (3:12, 14, The Message)
            Letting go of old habits and patterns can be difficult, even when they are not very life-giving.  They are familiar and giving them up can feel like a kind of death, but it is the way of life.  Life that is real life is life alive to God.  It is life lived with creativity, courage, integrity, compassion, kindness, quiet strength, and love.  The religion scholar Huston Smith wrote a book called The Soul of Christianity, in which he penned these words: Everything that came from Jesus’ lips worked like a magnifying glass to focus human awareness on the two most important facts about life: God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them in the way water passes without obstruction through a sea anemone (53-54).  That’s life.  Jesus’ death worked like a magnifying glass, focusing God’s love and the need to let that love flow through.

            As we listen to the story of how Jesus lived his life with creativity, courage, and love to the very end, hear the question again, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Try a Little Tenderness

Sermon preached Holy Thursday             April 2, 2015

            One of the most popular bands during my early teen years was a band with the unique name “Three Dog Night.”  Three Dog Night had a remarkable string of hit songs from 1969-1974, late elementary into early high school for me.  The band took its name from a story about aboriginal Australians who were said to have slept with one dog near on cool nights, two dogs near on cold nights, and a cold to freezing night was a “three dog night.”  Some years Maundy Thursday has been a three dog night for us, but not this year. The group’s name may have come from the cold, but in the late 60s to early 70s this band was hot.
            One of the group’s first hit songs was a tune called “Try a Little Tenderness.”  It was a re-make of a song Otis Redding had made popular in the mid-1960s.  I found out, though, that the song is actually much older than Otis Redding.  In 1933, the famous singer Bing Crosby recorded a version of the tune, though if you know Otis Redding and Bing Crosby you can hardly imagine a greater stylistic difference.
            If you ever heard Otis Redding’s version of the song, just recalling its title can bring the melodic urgency of his singing to mind.  Oh she may be weary, women they do get wearyand when she gets weary, try a little tenderness.
            In the church, we are remembering a week where weariness plays a significant role.  Jesus has sparred with religious leaders.  Death hangs heavy over these days.  Betrayal is in the air by Thursday night.  Jesus’s disciples still don’t understand all that he is about.  In a little while, Jesus will ask his disciples to watch and pray with him and they will be unable.  They fall asleep. Oh, they all may be weary.  Disciples, they do get weary.  Jesus may be weary, too… and Jesus tries a little tenderness.
            Jesus tries a little tenderness tonight.  Tonight we remember a basin and a towel.  Tonight we remember a table, food and friends.  There is the tenderness of foot washing.  Weary feet are soothed and cleansed.  Friends dip bread together in sharing a meal.  After the meal, tender acts of sharing happen – a little more bread, a little more wine.
            As we remember these stories of that Thursday long ago, it may be a good time to remember the importance, as we follow Jesus, of a little tenderness.
            I think of the words from a very different tradition, words of Buddha from The DhammapadaAll beings tremble before violence.  All fear death.  All love life.  See yourself in others, then whom can you hurt?  What harm can you do? (The Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom, p. 36 – chapter 10).  Try a little tenderness.
            We need not go searching for distant sources of encouragement toward tenderness.  Beyond the tenderness of this Thursday in the story of Jesus, we find a number of important New Testament references to gentleness and tenderness.  In Ephesians, chapter 4, Paul writes: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love (4:1-2).  The author of James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?”  His answer, Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom (3:13).  The Greek word used for “gentleness” connotes a quality of character a person cultivates with wisdom.  There is a strength in this gentleness.
            In the chapter that begins with the admonition to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, the writer ends with these words: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (4:31-32)  The quality of tender-heartedness is something that a person cultivates in themselves with the whole of their being.  The Greek word here connotes a whole person response.  The word is related to the word translated in other parts of the New Testament as “compassion.”  In the culture of the time, this kind of tenderness and compassion was considered something of a divine quality.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus says in Luke, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
            Surrounded by basin and towel and table and food and friends, tonight is a night to remember, as followers of Jesus, to try a little tenderness.  In a world that can be cold and callous, that can turn away from the hurts and sorrows while being enamored with success, try a little tenderness.  Let it be a quality that seeps into and exudes out of every part of our hearts and minds and souls.  Try a little tenderness.
            In a sermon entitled “Growing Up,” writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) wrote about a brief conversation between the novelist Henry James, known for his long sentences and subtle and complex characterizations, and his nephew, Billy, son of Henry’s famous philosopher brother William James.  Henry told Billy: “There are three things that are important in human life.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  The third is to be kind.”
            Buechner went on to comment.  Be kind because although kindness is not by a long shot the same thing as holiness, kindness is one of the doors that holiness enters the world through, enters us through – not just gently kind but sometimes fiercely kind [I happen to think this is all part of tenderness and that gentleness can be strong and fierce].  Be kind enough to yourselves not just to play it safe with your lives for your own sakes but to spend at least part of your lives like drunken sailors – for God’s sake… and thus to come truly alive.  Be kind enough to others to listen, beneath all the words they speak, for that usually unspoken hunger for holiness which I believe is part of even the unlikeliest of us because by listening to it and cherishing it maybe we can help bring it to birth both in them and in ourselves. (The Clown in the Belfry, 147)
            Try a little tenderness.
            In a little bit, we are going to share in some tenderness, share bread and juice, share in hand washing.  We do that because we do get weary, and we need to be refreshed.  The sadness of the world wears on us.  The sadness of our lives wears on us.  We share tenderness, as well, to strengthen ourselves to continue to grow in love, gentleness, tenderness, kindness, and beauty.  Just as there are sadnesses in the world, there is beauty and courage and laughter and love, and we want these to grow.   After that sharing, we are going to hear the story of Jesus’ last day, and it is a difficult story.  As we hear it, continue to remember that before the cruelty of his death, Jesus extended tenderness.  In a world that would treat him so cruelly, leave him so alone to face his suffering, Jesus extended basin, towel, food – tenderness.
            And as we hear the story, where cruelty and death seem so powerful, remember that in the end, tenderness triumphs.

            Try a little tenderness.  Amen.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Judge Roy Scream

Sermon preached  March 29, 2015

Texts: Mark 11:1-11; Mark 15:21-32

            There is no music to begin today’s sermon.  I had considered calling the sermon “Helter Skelter” and playing The Beatles song of that name, but decided against it for two reasons.  The song is pretty loud with a very edgy guitar.  More importantly, for those of us who have been around for a while, we may recall that Charles Manson used the song and phrase, “Helter Skelter” to justify, in some weird way, killings carried about by his followers.  Who wants to be reminded of that?
            So there is no song, but the sermon title may need some explaining.  I was going to go with “Helter Skelter” because it is an amusement park ride.  That’s what The Beatles song was about, an amusement park ride, a slide that has some features of a roller coaster. When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide/Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride/Till I get to the bottom and I see you again.  So I went with another roller coaster name for the sermon – “Judge Roy Scream.”  This is a wooden roller coaster at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington.  I was a youth pastor in Dallas for seven years, and I had more than one opportunity to ride the Judge Roy Scream.
            So that is a memory for me, and I would like to invite you into some remembering time, into a couple of thought experiments.
            Imagine a very good moment in your life.  It does not have to be the best moment ever, that’s too much pressure.  When was it?  Where were you?  Were you alone or who was with you?  What do visualize?  What do you remember hearing – voices, a breeze, water?  Try to let that feeling come back – do you feel it, at least a bit?  Enjoy.  Do you have a sense of the presence of God in that moment?
            Let go.
            Imagine a difficult time in your life, a time that has been among the most challenging.  It does not have to be the worst moment in your life, that’s too much pressure.  When was it?  Where were you?  Were you alone or who was with you?  What do you visualize?  What do you remember hearing?  What were you feeling – sadness, guilt, abandonment, loss?  Touch it, but not too deeply.  Do you have a sense of the presence of God in that moment?
            Throughout Lent, we have been exploring questions about the presence of God.  Where is God when?  How is God with us?  What does God see?  Today we are stepping back to look more broadly – where is God, how is God when life is a roller coaster, when Helter Skelter or Judge Roy Scream describes just how we are experiencing life?
            At the heart of Christian faith is the trust that God is always present, even when life is a roller coaster, and that’s good, because that’s life.  It’s life as we see it in our Scripture readings which frame this coming week in the life of the church.  The week begins with a joyous celebration, a parade.  It is likely that on the other side of Jerusalem, Pilate is entering in imperial grandeur, reinforcing the power of Rome.  Jesus’ parade speaks of a different way, of a world that is more just, less violent, more inclusive, more caring, more giving.  The kingdom Jesus proclaimed is a dream of a world of compassion, justice, reconciliation and love.  With this parade, there is great expectancy.  Things turn, however, and you had a sense that Jesus knew they would turn.  By week’s end, all the joy and laughter have died as Jesus is executed.  The week goes from parade to a parody of justice.  What a roller coaster.
            A few weeks ago, I shared on my blog this quote from the American philosopher, George Santayana: The world in not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to light among the thorns. (The Philosophy of Santayana, 468-469)  It is a much more elegant way of saying that life is a little “Judge Roy Scream.”
            This week Anne Lamott posted a thoughtful essay on Facebook about the roller coaster of life.  Life is impossible….  Life is so lifey….  Life falls so far short of our hopes.  Lamott illustrates her point.  Two Sundays ago in her youth group, two boys out of three have had brain cancer.  One still has it and the other is blind in one eye.  She goes on to write:  I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what….  I came out of the classroom really moved by what beautiful young people all three of the kids are; but also mad about what they have endured, and the challenges that still lie ahead.  Then a woman flagged me down, with ten envelopes addressed to me.  And they were from you - - - from readers of my Facebook and Twitter posts, who were donating to help our church stay afloat.  Two checks of over $500, eight others.  The woman started to cry.  God is just such a show-off that it can be embarrassing.  Anne Lamott concludes her essay with these words: So Life.  It’s the whole deal.  Mixed grille all the way, gorgeous and sad things all mixed up.  Us at our best and worst, in it together; life death rebirth, and life again.
            Life is so lifey, mixed grille all the way, Judge Roy Scream to the max – and God is with us in it all, and not just when the checks roll in, but even when they don’t.
            If we trust God is with us, perhaps we should ask “How?”  God is with us always influencing us and the world toward the good, toward redemption.  The story of this week in the church is very grim in places, but we will end up at Easter.  God will take a brutal execution, a miscarriage of justice, and turn it around in such a way that the world will never be quite the same again.  Not everything is fixed, but there will be new vision, new creativity, new energy, new hope.
            I appreciate the reflections of my acquaintance, theologian Marjorie Suchocki.  She has been finding her way into my sermons in recent weeks.  God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what it can be (In God’s Presence, 57).  God is always working with a roller coaster world to make it better, more loving, caring compassionate, and kind.  My friend Marjorie has just published a book about movies, Through a Lens Darkly: tracing redemption in film.  She likes faith and film, too.  She watches movies to see how the directors consider “our human plight and possibilities for redress” (117) – another way of speaking of redemption.  She ends her book with these words: Surely there is some glimmer of hope that as we continue to probe our problems, we might not only do the right thing, but by doing so might even contribute some small goodness to the magnificence in which we are embedded (117).  That’s redemption – increasing the good, contributing some small goodness to the magnificence of God, to the beauty of God’s dream for the world.  God is always inviting us to grow, to develop, to do the right thing, to work with God in the direction of redemption in whatever form that can take in a roller coaster world.
            Anne Lamott wrote about that in her Facebook post, too.  I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what; that God’s got it, no matter how hard and unfair things seems; that all we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives.
            God is with us, and God is with us to comfort and care for us, and to give us the courage to pursue redemption.
            And God sees it all.  God sees us honestly and sees the world truthfully.  God sees the beauty and care and tenderness that we are capable of.  God sees the richness of our thought and feeling.  God sees how we misuse our creativity to devise better means of hurting others, how we use our capacity to create wealth to also shut people out, how we use our minds to decide that some humans are less than.  God sees, and God never gives up on us.  God watches the parades celebrating new life, a new dream, a new kingdom, and God sees how some of the same people cheering for something new jeered at the Jesus who was trying to bring it into being.  And God takes it all, and turns it toward redemption.  God never gives up.
            God is with us, always with us.  God marches in our parades.  God celebrates our joys and triumphs.  Redemption is not only taking what is difficult, or painful, and turning it around somehow, it is also building on beauty and joy, increasing them and increasing the number of people who share in them.  I think we sometimes have trouble thinking about God when things are going really well, but our joy is God’s joy.  Try to picture God at that special moment you remembered earlier.  Try to picture God at all your special moments.
            God is with us, always with us.  God is there in our moments of struggle, which may also include moments of tender care.  Thursday of this week, we will remember the struggle of Jesus facing death, but in the midst of that, there is tenderness – food shared, feet washed.  God is with us in struggle.  God is with us to increase tenderness.
            God is with us, always with us, and that includes walking with us in the most difficult moments of life.  That’s what Friday of this week is about.  Sometimes it is at such moments, again, that we have trouble seeing God.  God never leaves us nor forsakes us.

            Life is a roller coaster. Life is so lifey, mixed grille all the way, Judge Roy Scream to the max.  God is with us, always with us working for good, working for redemption.  The world in not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to light among the thorns.  God is at work always helping the spirit bloom, helping it come to light among the thorns, increasing beauty, love, courage and laughter.  Trust that.  Amen.