Saturday, May 30, 2015

Blessed are the Heartbroken

Sermon preached May 24, 2015

Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27

            Jimmy Ruffin, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”
            Blessed are the heartbroken.  What a strange thing to say, particularly on Pentecost Sunday, that day in the church year when hear the story of the coming of God’s Spirit in a special way.  In that story, the disciples of Jesus are all together in one place. 
The writer may mean the twelve disciples, now called apostles or it may be the larger group of about 120 mentioned in 1:15.  This group was together, and good things seem to happen when people are together, working together on God’s work, worshipping nad praying together and caring for each other.  Anyway, they were together when something remarkable happens.  The sound as of the rush of a violent wind is heard.  Tongues of fire appear.  The apostles are filled with the Spirit.  People begin to speak in other languages.
            This speaking in other languages is really helpful because it is the Feast of Pentecost, a time when Jews from around the known world gathered to worship – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans, Arabs – it almost takes speaking in tongues to read this passage – thank you Mike.  Into this wide gathering voices are heard speaking of God’s “deeds of power.”
            So wild a scene is this that people begin to wonder what this group has been drinking.  Almost as amazing is Peter.  Peter had not exactly distinguished himself around the time of Jesus’ death.  Now he, filled with God’s Spirit, begins to speak about what it going on from the Scriptures that all these folks share.  God’s Spirit is arriving, and it will touch female and male, younger and older, slave and free.
            So where in all this might one find the idea that the heartbroken are blessed?
            Taken in isolation, this story of God’s Spirit might not lend itself very well to answering Jimmy Ruffin’s question, “What becomes of the brokenhearted?”  It may not seem to fit with the idea, “blessed are the heartbroken.”  But it is not the only Scripture reading that discusses the coming of God’s Spirit.
            Look at the passage from Romans which we read.  What happens when the Spirit arrives?  There is groaning, a groaning in all creation for a newer day, a newer world.  There is sighing, sighing too deep for words.  Groaning, aching and sighing, words that fit broken hearts.  When the Spirit shows up there is not only winds and voices, a ceartain kind of creative chaos, but also groaning and aching and sighing.
            Can this, too, be a gift of God’s Spirit?  Can a broken heart be a work of God’s Spirit?
            There is certainly a lot in our lives and in our world that can break our hearts.  In our individual lives unfulfilled dreams can be heartbreaking.  Relationships that we put so much hope into can fall apart, leaving us with broken hearts.  Families, when things are not going well, can be heartbreaking.  When we see families struggling mightily, particularly when there are young children, don’t our hearts ache.  We groan with creation as we see damage done.  An oil pipeline, not currently in use, ruptured this week on the California coast, coating beautiful beaches near Santa Barbara with oil. From one news report I heard the company who owned the pipeline has some history of inadequate maintenance.  The world is still too violent, too marked by division.  Recent events have once again brought to the fore racial divisions in our nation.  The Islamic State has captured more territory in Iraq and Syria, including a valued archeological site.  Their history has been to destroy precious historical artifacts as idolatrous.  Heartbreaking.
            It is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we remember those who lost their lives in service to the United States.  Sons and fathers and husbands, daughters and mothers and wives have not come home from battlefields.  Many of our families have been touched by such loss, or if we have not, we feel the heartbreak.  And many of us take this time to remember others in our families who have died.  I have walked the road with many as they deal with death in their families, and did again this week.  My heart always breaks some each time.
            Groaning, aching, sighing – hearts that can be broken, is this really a gift of the Spirit, part of the work of God’s Spirit?  I think it is.  The alternative to not having a heart that can be broken is something the Bible calls a hard heart.  That’s not who we want to be.  We want to be those who can feel the heartbreak in the world, I think.  When God’s Spirit arrives, our hearts are softened, more easily broken.
            I have been helped in my thinking here by the work of a woman named Elizabeth Lesser.  I don’t know much about her, only words she has written that help me understand the gift of heartbreak.
            I know I have shared these words before, but they are so meaningful to me.  Sadness… is not the opposite of happiness.  The opposite of happiness is a closed heart.  Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness.  A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality.  Joseph Campbell calls happiness the “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”…  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy….  I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.  Happiness is ours as we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.  (The New American Spirituality, 180)
            If I were to describe the gift of the Spirit in heartbreak it would be twofold: God’s Spirit works in our lives to keep our hearts soft and supple, keep our hearts feeling.  Sometimes what we will feel is pain, grief, and brokenness, a broken heart.  As already discussed, there is enough out in the world to break our hearts, and most of us also know inner heartbreak.  Then the gift of the Spirit is this, that when our hearts are broken, they can be broken open – become bigger and stronger.
            Elizabeth Lesser wrote a second book after the one I have quoted from.  It was entitled, Broken Open.  It is about openness, about having a heart that can be broken open.  In the book she shares the story of a rabbi badly injured in a car accident.  His pelvis was shattered.  His femur had been knocked out of its socket.  The rabbi reflects on his experience, first by quoting another rabbi.  Rabbi Scnhuer Zalman said it clearly when he wrote: “A broken heart is not the same as sadness.  Sadness occurs when the heart is stone cold and lifeless.  On the contrary, there is an unbelieveable amount of vitality in a broken heart.”  In the middle of the mystery of pain, I harvested this precious jewel.  I also harvested the love and beauty right here, in this world.  I may have been dealt a broken body and heart, but I can also tell you I have had more love and compassion poured over me, through me, and around me than I ever knew existed.  (Broken Open, 89-90)
            One could read Acts, chapter 2, as another example of the Spirit’s work of heart break and breaking open.  The disciples certainly had their hearts broken with the death of Jesus.  Even here they are no doubt still trying to figure out what his death meant even in light of his resurrection.  The Spirit does not simply take away the experience of heartbreak, but opens the disciples up to deeper experiences of the Spirit.  The work of the Spirit is making larger the heart.
            One of the most poignant stories for me about the work of God’s Spirit as breaking hearts open comes from a letter I received a number of years ago, a letter I still treasure.  For four years I was a pastor for a number of churches on the Iron Range.  Two of the churches had part-time secretaries, and the one in the office I was in most frequently was named Phoebe, a church member.  Phoebe had known some real challenges in her life.  Her husband had died suddenly when she was still relatively young.  Following his death, Phoebe, who was from the Range, went back to school to earn a teaching license.  She taught in Houston, Texas for a time, a long way from Nashwauk.  She later returned to Nashwauk, and during the time I was her pastor, she began to do some lay speaking.
            After I was appointed as a district superintendent, Phoebe sent me a note that I continue to cherish.  I have been blessed by knowing you and working with you rather than for you.  You have encouraged me enormously in going forward in my journey of faith.  But more than that, you have somehow, and I really don’t know how or when this happened, brought me back to allowing myself to feel things.  I had intentionally cut myself off from feeling real emotions not wanting to get hurt again.  You have made me realize that to live fully one must feel things – love, caring, sadness, and pain.  I want to thank you for this.  My life may have pain, as it does now, but living will be fuller and more meaningful.  In 2002 I was asked to be part of Phoebe’s funeral in Nashwauk.

            An important part of the work of God’s Spirit in our lives is to keep our hearts soft and supple.  That means our hearts will break, but the Spirit is also at work helping to have our heart break be a breaking open to love, to life, to each other, beauty, and joy and God.  What becomes of the broken hearted, when it is Spirit heartbreak, we are blessed.  Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Watching the River Flow

 Sermon preached May 17, 2015

Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

            Bob Dylan, “Watching the River Flow”
            The Byrds, “Ballad of Easy Rider”
            Loggins and Messina, “Watching the River Run”
            John Lennon “Watching the Wheels”
            Bob Dylan turns 74 this week (b. May 24, 1941).  I first encountered Bob Dylan’s music through a songbook used by a Christian youth group.  When I wanted to explore new ideas and music in my high school days, Dylan was a starting place.  I remember buying two albums, Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, v. 2.  The very first song on the Greatest Hits, 2 was this: “Watching the River Flow”
            Many of Bob Dylan’s songs were made more popular by others and one group that recorded a lot of his songs was a group called The Byrds.  They recorded a lot of their own songs as well, like “Ballad of Easy Rider.”
            And if you knew something of The Byrds, you would soon discover that at about that same time in LA there was another pretty remarkable band with people like Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Jim Messina, Buffalo Springfield.  Messina later went on the work with Kenny Loggins – Loggins and Messina and here is one of their early hits – “Watching the River Run.”
            But if you grew up in the 1960s, even if you were only ten at the end of the decade, you could not be interested in music without being familiar with The Beatles.  After the group broke up, each had some success as solo artists, and not long before he was killed, John Lennon recorded new music, including this: “Watching the Wheels.”
            All this is a long detour back into the Scripture readings for this morning, and a theme found there.  In the reading from Luke, the resurrected Jesus is conversing with his disciples, teaching them again, but for the last time.  Then he gives them a charge.  “You are witnesses of these things.  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  The disciples have a task, but the first step is to wait, and to watch.  They watch as Jesus is taken away.
            In Paul’s letter to the early Jesus community in Ephesus, he has been observant.  “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
            Waiting, watching – the river flows, watching the river flow, watching the river run, watching the wheels go round and round.
            I have to admit, I find this attractive.  In fact, I would like to think of myself as “easy going,” but I remember one time a number of years ago sitting with a group of clergy for some deep conversation and I had to confess that while I would like to think of myself as easy going, it is not a very complete description of me.  I can be easy going, particularly with others.  With myself, I am often more driven than I would like.  I make lists of things to do, and love the feeling of checking things off my list.  When I have a project, I often go at it like a tornado.  Being driven has often served me well.  It got me through my doctoral program as I kept plugging and pounding away at my 400 page doctoral dissertation.
            But along the way, I have learned, and keep wanting and needing to learn, about the grace that comes with waiting, watching.
            Over eighty years ago, two brothers, both Christian theologians, engaged in a public debate in the pages of The Christian Century.  The issue was whether or not the United States should intervene in the Russian-Japanese war of the early 1930s.  The brothers, Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, took different sides.  Richard entitled one of his essays “The grace of doing nothing.”  Richard Niebuhr argued for a certain kind of “doing nothing,” a radical Christian kind where we are invited to deep self-reflection.  Reinhold argued that sometimes in the midst of complex social realities, action was necessary along with reflection.  I tend to be more of a Reinhold Niebuhr person.  I wrote one chapter of my dissertation on his theology of political democracy.  But, with Richard, I also believe there is such a thing as “the grace of doing nothing.”
            Just this week an article on church leadership came to my inbox – “Noticing – Unhurried, Unafraid Curiosity.”  The article invites congregations, in their planning, not to get so caught up in their strategic plan that they forget to notice the world in which they are engaged in ministry.  The author encourages “taking it slow” sometimes.  It would be good, sometimes, to be more curious than to be quick and convinced.  The article reminded me of a leadership theory I read about a few years ago, “theory U,” which invited creativity by going deep, by seeing in new ways, sensing in new ways, being present to others and the world in new ways (Senge, Presencing; Scharmer, Theory U).
            The grace of doing nothing.  Watching the river flow and run.  Waiting.  I have come to believe that this is part of the rhythm of a healthy spiritual life in Jesus.  It is not the whole of that spiritual life, and the precise rhythm of watching-waiting-reflecting-slowing with acting will be different for different people.  Yet in our rather frenzied, harried world it may be this part of the spiritual life in Jesus that we most need to revive for our own lives.
            The grace of doing nothing is not really about nothing.  There are things that happen in this quiet time, watching time, that are vital, and I want to say a brief word about some of this.
            When we wait and watch, we can go deep within where there is important work to do in our lives.  The German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart reportedly wrote that “there is no such thing as a spiritual journey.”  Taking his cue from Eckhart, John O’Donahue goes on: “If there were a spiritual journey, it would only be a quarter inch long, though many miles deep.  It would swerve into rhythm with your deepest nature and presence.” (Anam Cara, 89-90)  When we open the depths of ourselves to God’s Spirit, we have the opportunity to have “the eyes of our heart enlightened.”  We can know more profoundly the hope to which God has called us and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power in our lives (Ephesians).
            When we wait and watch, we can begin to see more broadly and deeply.  I appreciate the take on faith offered by writer and therapist Michael Eigen.  “Faith supports experimental exploration, imaginative conjecture, experiential probes” (Faith and Transformation, vii).  Faith, in the grace of doing nothing, opens us up.  Waiting, the disciples understanding of the Scriptures is deepened.  Taking time, Paul sees the Ephesian followers of the Jesus way from some fresh perspectives.
            Waiting and watching also encourages seeing that for which we can be grateful.  Paul gives thanks to God for what he hears about the Ephesian Jesus community.  Meister Eckhart once wrote, “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be sufficient” (Brian MacLaren, Naked Spirituality, 49).
            I have said that prayer many times, but I also struggle sometimes with the way gratitude is encouraged.  Have an attitude of gratitude – but sometimes the advocates have most everything going for them.  Sometimes they seem oblivious to the pain, hurt and trauma that can be part of being human, or oblivious to the injustice, terror, and harm happening in our world.  Sometimes gratitude seems shallow, at least that’s how it comes across.  Sometimes joy seems no deeper than the redness of the lips a smile seems pasted upon.
            Here’s where I appreciate someone like Anne Lamott.  It is easy to thank God for life when things are going well.  But life is much bigger than we give it credit for, and much of the time it’s harder than we would like.  It’s a package deal, though. Sometimes our mouths sag open with exhaustion, and our souls and minds do, too, with defeat, and that saggy opening is what we needed all along.  Any opening leads to the chance of flow, which sometimes is the best we can hope for, and a minor miracle at that, open and fascinated instead of tense and scared and shut down.  Thank you God. (Help Thanks Wow, 44-45).  Now here is someone I trust when she talks about gratitude.  There is thanks caked with dirt, joy caked with mud.  Here one acknowledges pain, hurt, trauma, terror, injustice, destructions, and acknowledges that we will feel that and it’s ok, and yet leaves room for joy and gratitude – even if it is sometimes only the possibility of joy.
            There is a rhythm to a healthy Jesus spirituality – work and rest, action and reflection, moving along and watching the river flow.  It takes wisdom to get the rhythm right for our lives and for our life together.  Digging deeply, this rhythm is one deeply rooted in grace.  We can watch the river flow sometimes because we trust deeply in the goodness of God.  When we act, we act out of a sense that we are joining in God’s work of justice, beauty, reconciliation, peace and love.
            And that rhythm to our spiritual lives, we will get it wrong sometimes.  I get it wrong sometimes.  Here, too is grace.  I will get it wrong, but it will never be my last chance.

            I wish us all wisdom, enlightened hearts, and times to watch the river flow – all rooted in the grace of God in Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

You've Got a Friend

Sermon preached  May 10, 2015

Texts: John 15:9-17

            It is probably no surprise to any of you that I use music in teaching confirmation.  For Sannah, Elise, Shelby, Nakiah and Josie, they won’t have to listen to this anymore, except with the rest of you on Sunday morning!
            So let’s go out with a bang.  Here is a little medley, and your final test.  What theme can be found in these songs? The Beatles, “With a Little Help From My Friends” James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend” Queen, “You’re My Best Friend” Dionne Warwick, et. al. “That’s What Friends Are For” Clarence Clemons and Jackson Browne, “You’re a Friend of Mine” The Rembrandts, “I’ll Be There For You”
            These songs are about friendship.  In the Scripture reading, we also read about friendship.  Jesus says to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you….  You are my friends if you do what I command you.…  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
            Today is Confirmation Sunday and one way to think about it is in terms of friendship.  It is not that everyone who completes confirmation are the best of friends, though I hope you have connected with each other more deeply over these past two years, building on earlier connections you may have had.  It is about friendship with Jesus in a couple of ways, and about being friends with the friends of Jesus.  Let me say a little bit more about each of these while also saying a little bit more about this remarkable group of young women who are this year’s confirmation class.
            Confirmation is about finding a friend in Jesus.  It is about confirming the faith that was proclaimed at baptism, a faith in the God known in Jesus the Christ.  It is to say “yes” to God in Jesus again, and commit ourselves to keeping on saying “yes” to God in Jesus.  We don’t say “yes” just one time, but again and again, day by day.
            Jesus told his disciples that they were his friends.  We have a friend in Jesus.  In thinking about friendship and Jesus for today, I recalled a powerful poem the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote when he was imprisoned by the German government.  In prison, Bonhoeffer reflected deeply on what it meant to be a Christian in the modern world.  Part of what it meant for Bonhoeffer was to stand in opposition to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi government.  For his opposition, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and eventually executed.
            Even in such extreme circumstances, Bonhoeffer knew that he had a friend in Jesus, a source of comfort and strength in the God of Jesus.  Here are a few lines from a prison poem, written in 1944 (“Christians and Heathens” Letters and Papers From Prison, p. 460 or July 1944.)
People go to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, pray for blessing and bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
So do they all, all of them, Christians and heathens.

God goes to all people in their need,
fills body and soul with God’s own bread.

            To find a friend in Jesus is to trust that in Jesus, in the God of Jesus, there is food for our souls, love for our hearts, courage for living.  To find a friend in Jesus is to find joy in faith, hope and love.  Today you being confirmed will affirm that in Jesus you are finding life, and a way of life.
            But we are not friends with Jesus alone.  Today is also about knowing that when we find a friend in Jesus, we also find friends in the other friends of Jesus.  “Faith is a journey best taken with others” according to the morning prayer, and it is true.  When Paul writes all of his letters to people trying to figure out what being a friend with Jesus might mean, he wrote a lot about how people should live together in community.  As you are confirmed today, we will pledge to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness.  That’s what we are trying to create here together as friends of Jesus who are friends with each other – a community of love and forgiveness.
            There is another dimension to being friends with the friends of Jesus, something we might call home.  Now you all have your own homes, and they are really nice homes.  But in life, I am not sure we can ever have enough places that feel like home.  The poet Robert Frost (Have you had to read any Robert Frost in school?), the poet Robert Frost once described home this way.  “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in” (“Death of the Hired Man”).  When you say “yes” to Jesus, you also say “yes” to being friends with the friends of Jesus.  “Do you trust Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people?” In church we also find home.
            You have enriched our community in so many ways already.  You have brightened our Jesus home here.  We have heard music from Sannah, Elise, Nakiah, and Josie.  Sannah, Nakiah and Shelby were part of last summer’s youth trip to New York where we found out about the city, and about poverty and hunger there and in other parts of the world.  They have helped with dinners.  They have participated in a variety of church activities, brightening each with their smiles, deepening each with their wonderful curiosity.  Outside of church they are dancers, skiers, runners, writers, actors, soccer players, divers, musicians – in short, remarkable.  We are glad you are our friends in Jesus.  We are glad you are part of home here for us.
            Today is about reaffirming that we have a friend in Jesus, it is about reaffirming friendship with the friends of Jesus, and it is committing ourselves to being friends of Jesus day in and day out, and continuing to grow in that.  Friends of Jesus seek to live in a certain way: living with hope and resisting despair; living with love and resisting prejudice and hate; working for peace and justice and standing up against evil and oppression; praying, even when it may be difficult.  Friends of Jesus love.  I appreciate the insights offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer about being a friend of Jesus, from the poem cited earlier:
People go to God when God’s in need,
find God poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand by God in God’s own pain.

            To be a friend of Jesus is to stand with Jesus as Jesus is open to the pain and hurt of the world.  It is to stand with God as God sees the pain of the world and seeks healing and compassion and love.
            Sannah, Elise, Shelby, Nakiah, and Josie, may you always know that you have a friend in Jesus and may you continue to explore the depth of God’s love for you in Jesus. You’ve got a friend.  May you always know that in Jesus, you have all these friends, and many more besides, that you always have a home among the friends of Jesus.  You will get by with little help from your friends ‘cause that’s what friends are for.  May you also always seek to do the harder work of being a friend of Jesus who loves the world.  May you always use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  As you do know that we’ll be there for you and with you.  We want to be friends of Jesus, too.  Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

For the Sake of the Song

Sermon preached May 3, 2015

Texts: Acts 8:26-40

            Townes Van Zandt, “For the Sake of the Song”
            “Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song.”  Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) is not necessarily a household name, but he is considered among many to have been an exceptional songwriter, even if his life was often difficult.  Van Zandt was born to a wealthy oil family in Ft. Worth, Texas, and suffered with alcoholism and depression.  Yet he had a song to share and shared it.  Please put a “bookmark” in that idea of for the sake of the song.
            I want to quick cut to this morning’s Scripture reading.  Like all Christians, we United Methodists find the heart of our faith as we engage in the Scriptures of our faith.  The promise is that as we grapple with these texts, God’s Spirit will touch our lives in special ways.  We share that with all Christians, but unlike some, we do not think these readings are best understood simply or literally.  These are complex texts that are best read knowing something of the history behind them and something of their literary background.  We are not biblical literalists or non-contextualists, but there may be some exceptions, and I think this morning’s reading is one of them.
            This is a text about sharing faith, and I am guessing that for many of us we are willing to be just like Philip in this story.  The very next time God sends an angel to tell us to walk along a particular stretch of road, and on that road we encounter an Ethiopian eunuch riding in a chariot and reading the Bible, the very next time that happens, we will be more than willing to talk about our faith.  Until then, well…
            Our hesitance and reticence to talk about our faith is understandable.  Many of us have had those encounters with persons we don’t know who boldly ask us, “Are you saved?” “Are you born again?”  They know nothing of our lives and yet presume to judge us unsaved, unredeemed if we cannot answer in a way that fits their liking in thirty seconds or less.  Sometimes these people exude a sense of self-righteousness that is quite unbecoming.
            I remember attending a church growth seminar a number of years ago, led by someone whose work I tended to respect.  At the workshop this person said, “When you get to heaven, the first thing that Jesus is going to ask you is ‘How many did you bring with you?’”  That leaves me a little cold.  I don’t want people to be seen as notches on my “how many I led to Jesus” belt.  I do want people to know the God I know in Jesus, but that goes beyond numbers.
            Then there is the dynamic of not wanting to have our lives out there as some kind of example, causing us to feel we have to be perfect and pious.  If you share your faith in some way, will people be constantly watching to see if you mess up somehow?  Ish.  Or what if someone asks you a really tough question and you can’t answer it?
            Maybe it’s best to wait until you find that eunuch in a chariot on a road an angel has sent you too before you say much about your faith.
            Except, I think we have a story to tell.  I think we have a song to sing, and we need to sing it simply for the sake of the song.  Recently, I bought some stamps and I decided to buy newly minted Maya Angelou stamps, on which are printed the words: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”  Turns out that while Angelou used this line, its origins are with an author named Joan Walsh Anglund.  Regardless, the thought is important.  A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”  We have a story to tell, a song to sing, and we should sing it for the sake of the song.
            So what’s our story, our song?  There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but I want to look at another New Testament passage. This past week in our Philippians Bible Study, we read chapter 2, which begins, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy.”  Paul is engaged in a rhetorical move here.  He thinks and believes that those to whom he is writing have experienced just that in their relationship to God through Jesus and in their life together as a community seeking to live the Jesus way: encouragement, consolation, love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion, sympathy.  He goes on to say that if you have experienced such things, continue to grow in them.  I would say if you have experienced such things, share them, because others need them, too.
            We have a song to sing, a story to tell, good news to share.  The good news is that we can be different – we can grow in love, compassion, sympathy, in the Spirit.  The good news is that the world can be different. Part of the power of the story in Acts 8 is hidden unless we know some of the history here.  The person with whom Philip is sharing is an Ethiopian eunuch.  This particular person has become a Jew, for he has been in Jerusalem for worship.  Yet he has unanswered questions.  He continues to search.  What is particularly remarkable is just how much of an outsider this person is.  Here is a note from one of my study bibles: His outsider status is indicated both geographically (he is a foreigner from Ethiopia) and religiously (he is a eunuch whose castration in service of a pagan ruler excludes him from pious Israel, according to Deuteronomy 23:1-2 and Leviticus 21:17-21) [Discipleship Study Bible]  The good news is that we can be different, more welcoming, caring, accepting.  The God of Jesus works to change hearts and minds.  The good news is that the world can be different, barriers can be broken down, understanding across diverse experience can be built – and we desperately need that kind of good news in light of all the tensions in our country and in the world today.  The God of Jesus works to change the world.  Both are part of the song we sing, the story we tell, because both are needed.  In his most recent book, Faith, therapist Michael Eigen writes: We can try to solve all the social problems we can.  Relieve poverty and hunger, racial and sexual inequalities – all to the good.  But do not be surprised if the loose card in the deck, emotional life, finds ways to sabotage at least part of what is built….  Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create (6-7).
            We have a song to sing, a story to share, good news to share, but the song must be sung, the news shared with compassion, with listening and generous hearts.  Philip begins from where the Ethiopian is.  I love the words of Henri Nouwen about hospitality.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….  It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. (Reaching Out, 51).

            Have we experienced in our relationship to God through Jesus, and in our life together as this Jesus community encouragement, consolation, love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion, sympathy?  Have we experienced that our lives can be different, and that the world can be different?  Share the story, which is your story, with gentleness and care.  Sing the song, which is your song, sing it because it needs singing, with tenderness and care.  When we do that we will open up space where change can take place for others, too.  May it be so.  Amen.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Love is Just a Four-Letter Word

Sermon preached   April 26, 2015

Texts: I John 3:16-21

            Joan Baez, “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word”
            If you don’t appreciate my love of music, you could, in part, blame Bob Dylan.  I first encountered his songs in a song book for Christian youth groups.  When I started exploring ideas and music more broadly in my late high school years, I remembered Bob Dylan and sought out his music.  And you couldn’t know Bob Dylan without knowing Joan Baez.  Joan Baez often sang Dylan songs, and recorded an entire album of Dylan covers, including “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word.” It is a Dylan song that Dylan has never recorded himself.
            The song is a connected series of scenes and thoughts as the singer puzzles over the idea that love is just a four-letter word, something that covers disappointment, something that is supposed to last but doesn’t.  The song is beautifully sung, but rather depressing in its theme.  By the end, the singer does not need to be assured that “love is just a four-letter word.”
            A few weeks ago, Julie and I watched last year’s Academy Award winning film “Birdman.”  It is a rather strange movie about an actor who had played a superhero in Hollywood trying to bring a serious play to Broadway.  Early on in the movie, as we watched the play that was being brought to Broadway, I said, “Hey, that’s Raymond Carver – the short-story writer.”  Yes, the play Birdman was trying to bring to Hollywood was based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, particularly the story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
            “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a story about four people, two married couples, sitting around a table drinking gin and talking about love.  For one of the married couples, it is a second marriage, and previous relationships have not ended well.  The most painful vignette in the story is how a woman named Terri talks about a former boyfriend who beat her, and yet continues to assert, “Say what you want to….  It may sound crazy to you….  Sometimes he may have acted crazy.  Okay.  But he loved me.  In his own way maybe, but he loved me.” (Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, 138)
            We talk about love a lot here.  Our mission statement says that we are a place “guided by the teachings and unconditional love of Jesus.”  We talk about love a lot, here, but how is our talk about love different from all the love talk in the world around us, where sometimes love is little more than a four-letter word, or love masks abuse and control, or where love is soft and squishy, or where love is fickle?
            Awhile back I read a book about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.  I became curious to read his first novel, the one that earned him fame and money, and put him in a position where he could marry his beloved Zelda – This Side of Paradise.  It is the coming of age story of Amory Blaine, like Fitzgerald himself a young man from St. Paul who went to college at Princeton.  The novel includes no shortage of episodes about love.  Within two weeks Amory and Rosalind were deeply and passionately in love.  The critical qualities which had spoiled for each of them a dozen romances were dulled by the great wave of emotion that washed over them. (145)
            There are problems, though.  Rosalind is from a well-to-do family and Amory’s family’s money is coming to an end.  He will not be able to offer her much if they get married, at least at first.  He is working for an advertising agency.  Rosalind’s mother warns her daughter: “You’d be dependent absolutely on a dreamer, a nice, well-born boy, but a dreamer – merely clever.” (149)  Another man appears on the scene, wealthier, and he wants to marry Rosalind.  She tells Amory, “We’re pitiful, that’s all.  The very qualities I love you for are the ones that will always make you a failure” (151).  She goes on.  “Marrying you would be a failure and I never fail” (152)
            Is that love?  What do we talk about when we talk about love?
            We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  Eugene Peterson renders that last part in this way: let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.
            That’s the kind of love we are talking about, and trying to live out, a love that comes from knowing we are loved – loved by a God who is bigger than our hearts, a love flowing from a generous heart.  It is a love that moves us beyond, in the translation of Eugene Peterson, “debilitating self-criticism.”
            The writer says strong things about this kind of love that is at work actively and truthfully.  When we love, we abide in God.  When we love, we hang with God, we remain in God’s sphere of influence, we continue to pay attention to the whisper of God’s Spirit.  In some sense, of course, God never stops trying to influence us.  That’s the meaning of grace.  What I think the writer here is getting at is that when we love, that when we know that we are paying attention to that movement of God’s Spirit in our lives.  When we live with generous hearts and spirits, when we care for those in need, we know we are hanging with God.
            This is what we talk about when we talk about love.  This is why for us love is not just a four-letter word.  Our understanding of love affects who we are and what we are about together.  This week I was asked about my definition of the church.  It needed to be brief – fifty words.  My initial reaction was that I would have liked to have done some research and then get back to the person.  That academic part of me remains important.  But I continued to think about that and decided that I had given this a lot of thought over the years, and every day I want to live out some idea of the church.  So I responded.  The church is a community of people who have been touched by God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ and who are seeking to live in such a way, individually and together, that they grow in love of God and others, and witness to the grace of God in Jesus.  When I finished typing, I did a word count – exactly fifty words.  But that’s how I see what it means to be the church, to be a community on the Jesus way.  We seek to love each other and grow in love individually and together.  That’s what we talk about when we talk about love.  It’s not just a four-letter word.
            And our love extends beyond our community.  One morning this week I attended a workshop on ACES – adverse childhood experiences.  Such experiences include things such as feeling humiliated or threatened by an adult in your home, being physically abused by an adult in your home, being sexually abused by an adult, feeling no one in your family loved or supported you, parental separation or divorce, lack of food or clothing or parents too chemically dependent to care, mother/stepmother physically abused, chemical dependency or abuse in the household, household member significantly depressed or suicidal, household member incarcerated.  The workshop developed themes also found in Robert Putnam’s recent book Our Kids, where he writes:  Recent research has greatly expanded our understanding of how young children’s early experiences and socioeconomic environment influence their neurobiological development, and how, in turn, early neurobiological development influences their later lives.  These effects turn out to be powerful and long-lasting….  Early environments powerfully affect the architecture of the developing brain. (Robert Putnam, Our Kids, 109, 110)  Putnam goes on to write: Kids at any socioeconomic level can encounter such adverse experiences, of course, but those who grow up in low-income, less-educated families are at considerably greater risk (114).
            I John 3:17, The Message: If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love?  It disappears.  And you made it disappear.
            During that workshop on adverse childhood experiences, a hospital chaplain named Sara Lund shared a story, and she gave me permission to share her story.  I mention Sara’s name because she meets here every month with an organization called Blue Star Mothers, a supportive group for women who have children in the military.  We are glad to provide them space.
            Sara shared that she entered a hospital room one time and the patient said to her, “You are the very last person I would want to see.”  Rather than turn away, Sara decided to hang in there with this guy a bit longer.  “You know, that’s the very most interesting thing I’ve heard all day.”  The patient invited her to stay and talk.  She asked him what would make him say that.  She heard about some of his difficult experiences with the church.  After a bit, the man said to Sara, “If I was a praying person, this is about the time I would ask for a prayer.”  Sara said, “Well, if you were to ask for a prayer, this is the prayer I would say.”  Being willing to hang in there with someone when they are hurting or angry, that’s a form of love in action, love that is more than a four-letter word.  That’s what we are talking about when we talk about love.

            May God’s Spirit full us with love, with a love that our hearts cannot contain, a love that overflows for others – “more and more with knowledge and full insight” to use a phrase of Paul’s (Philippians 1:9), a love that overflows in actions.  That’s what we are talking about when we talk about love.  It is so much more than a four-letter word.  May it continue to be so.  Amen.