Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Some Material May Not Be Suitable

Sermon preached  July 26, 2015

Texts: II Samuel 11:1-15

            Baptisms are often such emotionally warm occasions.  There are parents, often younger.  Most often there are children, cute children dressed so nicely, often infants who bring smiles of joy to our faces and our hearts.  Just last Sunday we experienced together a profoundly moving baptism of a grandfather and his two granddaughters.  Many of our eyes moistened.  Our hearts were moved.
            In the midst of this warm emotional stew comes a stark question, seemingly out of place: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  The language is forceful.  The words are hard – evil, injustice, oppression.  The question brings home to us part of the important reality of baptism, of the church, of Christian faith.  The world is not the world we would like it to be.  Again this week we are mourning shooting deaths in our county.  An ugly form of Islam continues to wreak havoc in the world – ISIS, Boko Haram.  We are still trying to figure out how we can live together as human beings and how we can overcome legacies of racism, injustice and oppression.
            In Jesus Christ God calls us to work for a newer world, more loving, more compassionate, more just.  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 (my definition).  We are here in response to God’s love to work with God and each other on God’s dream for a newer world.  In baptism we say “yes” to the God who has already said “yes” to us.  In baptism we feel the warmth of God’s love in the waters.  In baptism, we pledge a new direction for our lives.  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? 
            This baptismal question is a central question in this morning’s Scripture reading.  The reading would certainly garner a PG-13 rating for sexual references, disturbing plot, and violence.  It could easily be rated R depending on how much detail one wanted to show.  The story could come with a warning – “some material may not be suitable.”  The July 22 issue of The Christian Century reprinted a painting of Bathsheba by Rembrandt.  It is not an image I could project this morning.  Through it all, questions of the use of freedom and power are pointedly raised.
            David has all kinds of power.  He is the king, afterall.  The biblical prophet and judge, Samuel had warned the people of the power of a king.  He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtier.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. (I Samuel 8:11-17)
            David is king, with all kinds of power, and the text alludes to that rather lightly.  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…”  The text recognizes that’s just what kings do.  They have enormous freedom and power.  But this year David does not go.  The reader is being set up for something, for a misuse of freedom and power.  Rather than joining his troops, David hangs back.  Walking on his roof he spies a beautiful woman bathing.  He sends for her.  That is within his power.  They spend time together and she becomes pregnant.  David conceives a plot to cover up his misuse of freedom and power.  He calls her husband Uriah back from the war, hoping that he will be with his wife, Bathsheba, and then he will think he is the father of the child.  Uriah, however, uses some of his freedom and power and does not go into his wife.  That plot failed, David conceives a more dastardly one.  He will put Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battle where he is likely to be killed, and that’s what happens.
            The story is old, but it gets replayed throughout history.  Those with significant freedom and power misuse and abuse it.  History is littered with examples of power and freedom misused – beheadings in ISIS controlled territory, the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the gulags of the Soviet Union, the disappeared in Argentina, the missing in Chile, the African slave trade here in the United States, the shipping of native children to boarding schools.  There are certainly differences in degree here, but it does not take long to come up with examples.  They can be found almost daily in the news.  The powerful are often tempted to misuse their power, and often succumb to the temptation.
            In the story, Bathsheba is relatively powerless.  At the very least, her power pales in comparison to David’s.  The question of her power is difficult to ascertain, but at least in the story as it is told here, she may have had some power.  Could she have said “no” somewhere along the way?  Was there a degree of consent on her part to this relationship?  We should exercise caution here because of the history of males using their relatively greater positions of power against women.  Raising the question, however, moves us to consider the possibility that even the less powerful may have some power and some freedom.
            The story is of a misuse of power and freedom, a giving in to lust that damages.  It is not an anti-sex story, and it is important to say that.  Michael Eigen, in his book Lust, a book I never read out in public, Eigen writes: Lust enlarges, enriches, makes life taste good.  Lust damages and grows from damage….  Selfish lust stops cold at the wall of the other….  The other as fantasy, as pleasure, part of my will. (1, 103).  Desire, even intense desire, is not bad, it is what we do with it.  Sharon Salzberg: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving.  Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires. (Lovingkindness, 175-176).  The problem here is not that David notices Bathsheba’s beauty, or feels some stirring, some energy.  It is the misdirection of his energy, the abuse of power, the misuse of freedom.  The problem is even more acute when he abuses his power to set up the death of Uriah.
            Uriah is a study in contrast in the story, a model of using freedom and power well.  He is faithful in his duties as a soldier.  He is unwilling to enjoy the company of his wife while his fellow soldiers are engaged in battle, a direct contrast to David.  It is interesting that the foreigner, Uriah the Hittite, comes across better than the Jewish King David in this story.
            So, do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  We are not kings or queens.  We do not have that kind of freedom or that kind of power, but we have some freedom and some power, even if limited.  I recently read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with the interfaith book group I lead, and I could read that one in public.  There is this wonderful line in the story, not found in the movie.  When the Lion sees the Wizard for his courage, the Wizard takes a square, green bottle from a shelf and pours its contents into a green-gold dish.  He tells the Lion to drink.  The Lion asks what it is, to which the Wizard replies: Well, if it were inside of you, it would be courage.  You know, of course, that courage is always inside one; so that this really cannot be called courage until you have swallowed it. (L. Frank, Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 162)
            You have freedom and power inside of you.  It is not unlimited, but it exists.  The question always before each of us is will we use our freedom and power well – to resist evil, injustice and oppression, to do good, to create beauty, to do justice, to create peace, to care, to love?  David’s story goes on, and we will explore the next chapter next Sunday.  For today, the question about using our freedom and power well is enough, and I want to end with a poem that encourages us to do that.
“Sometimes”   Sheenagh Pugh
Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

            And sometimes we are part of making the good happen as we use our freedom and power well.  May we, by the grace of God, make that happen and happen often.  By the grace and power of God – from sometimes to often.   Amen.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I've Got Rhythm

Sermon preached July 19, 2015

Texts: Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44, 53-56

            “I Got Rhythm” Ethel Waters:
Awhile ago someone told me they overheard a someone telling a visitor that I play old songs.  Most of those “old songs” are from my youth, but I guess I am not as young as I once was, but this is really an older song, Ethel Waters recorded in 1931. Apologies to George and Ira for getting the name of their song wrong.
            Rhythm.  The reading from the Gospel of Mark for this morning is, in part, about rhythm.  Earlier in chapter 6, Jesus had sent the disciples out to teach and heal.  They now are gathering back together, sharing the stories of their adventures and work, and Jesus invites them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  They had all been busy.  People were coming and going and they were all finding it difficult, sometime, even to eat.  So they get on a boat together to find a quiet place.
            However, they could not get away from the crowds.  They were met on the shore by many, and Jesus had compassion on them.  Jesus and the disciples are called into action – teaching, healing, feeding.
            Life with Jesus, life in the Spirit is a rhythmic life.  I love the words Eugene Peterson uses to translate part of Matthew 11.  Jesus, he write, invites us to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”  Life with Jesus, life in the Spirit is about learning the rhythms of grace.
            There are a number of rhythms that are part of the rhythm of grace.  There is a rhythm between the inner and the outer.  Ephesians chapter 2 talks about how God in Jesus is about the creation of a new humanity, a human community of peace where dividing walls have been broken down and where we become the dwelling place of God.  There are inner and outer dimensions to this.  I appreciate the words of therapist Michael Eigen, whose works continue to help me think and grow.  You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society….  Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create. (Michael Eigen, Faith, 96, 7).  Inner/outer – inner peace/outer peace.
            A related rhythm is a rhythm between action and contemplation.  Another writer who continues to help me along my journey with Jesus, Parker Palmer, describes this rhythm well.  Rightly understood, contemplation and action are standard features of ordinary, everyday life….  Whatever our action, it can express and help shape our souls and our world.  Whatever our contemplation, it can help us see the reality behind the veils.  Contemplation and action are not high skills or specialties for the virtuoso few.  They are the warp and weft of human life, the interwoven threads that form the fabric of who we are and who we are becoming. (Parker Palmer, The Active Life, 18-19).  Breaking down divisions requires inner work of contemplation and outer activity of creating change.  In Mark, the disciples and Jesus seek places of quiet and calm for contemplation, but feeding people requires action.  These are rhythms of grace, and we don’t all dance to exactly the same rhythm.  Some of us are more energized by action, some by contemplation and inner work.  All of us need some measure of both.
            But for the remainder of this morning I want to focus on another rhythm of the Christian spiritual life, the adventure with Jesus, life in the Spirit and that is attending to the rhythms of nature.  There are multiple connections to the Gospel reading, and connections to the recent encyclical from Pope Francis.  There will be more of the Pope here than we tend to hear in a Protestant Church, but his recent social teaching deserves a hearing in the broad Christian community.  The Pope rightly reminds us that Christian spirituality includes care for “our common home” – the subtitle of his letter.  The Pope argues that the creation stories in Genesis suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  (#66).  He goes on to write: Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. (#222).
            Attending to the rhythms of nature in our journey with Jesus involves developing a three step rhythm which includes celebration of and appreciation for the created world, wise use of the resources of the earth, and tender care for our common home.
            Part of the rhythm of Christian spirituality, of our journey with Jesus in relation to creation is a simply joyous celebration of and appreciation for the created world, for the beauty and wonder of nature and its creatures.  In the Gospel of Mark’s story of the feeding of the five thousand there is the small note about how folks sat down in groups “on green grass” (v. 39).  Eugene Peterson expands the image.  “They looked like a patchwork quilt of wildflowers spread out on the green grass!”  Jesus paid attention to the flowers of the field and the birds of the air.  The Psalmist wondered at the expanse of sky.  In the very earliest part of the Bible, God sees all that has been created and calls it good.
            Take time to appreciate, wonder at, celebrate the beauty, mystery, embrace of the created world and its creatures.  I think here of the wonderful poem of Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things” (
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

            We also need to acknowledge that as humans we depend upon nature, its gifts, its creatures, its resources.  From the natural world comes food, materials for clothing, materials from which we make our shelters, the materials which keep us connected, informed, entertained.  Our appreciation for the goodness of creation should not lead us to denigrate the human and human use of nature.  Rather, we should be more thoughtful in our use of the resources of the world.  Here, again, Pope Francis offers some helpful words.  Any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour…. According to the biblical account of creation, God placed man and woman in the garden he had created (cf. Gen 2:15) not only to preserve it (“keep”) but also to make it fruitful (“till”). Labourers and craftsmen thus “maintain the fabric of the world” (Sir 38:34). Developing the created world in a prudent way is the best way of caring for it, as this means that we ourselves become the instrument used by God to bring out the potential which he himself inscribed in things: “The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them” (Sir 38:4). (#124)  In the feeding story in the Gospel, the people are fed with food that is the joint effort of the natural world and of human persons.  Bread has been baked.  Fish have been caught.  Hungry people are fed.
            Wise use of the natural world must include tender care for the earth, its creatures, and its resources.   This is a vitally important part of the rhythm of a spirituality as an adventure with Jesus.  The compassion Jesus feels and displays to the hungry is a compassion that extends to the whole world.  We need to think about what tender care for the earth might mean, what compassion for the earth might entail.  Pope Francis invites conversation.  I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. (#14).  He also invites an acknowledgement of the importance of the earth as a common good, climate as a common good.  The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all…. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat… warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. (#18)
            Developing this part of our life with Jesus, developing a rhythm of our relationship with nature that includes deep appreciate and celebration, wise use and tender care does not provide us easy answers for some of the difficult environmental challenges of our day.  We must grapple with the meaning of celebration, wise use and tender care for climate change, oil pipelines, mining and a host of other issues.  Pope Francis: On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. (#61)  We face hard questions, and we are not, if we take our faith seriously, allowed to simply turn away.
            Yet we are not people without hope.  The very story we read that invited us to think about rhythms of faith is a story of hope.  Faced with the daunting task of feeding such a large crowd, the disciples were flummoxed.  “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  Jesus asks what they have – five loaves and two fish.  Jesus blesses, breaks and shares, and there is enough.  There is more than enough.

            When we get in rhythm with the God of Jesus Christ, when we are more attuned to the rhythms of grace, the rhythms of the Spirit, and in that bless and break and share, healing can happen.  There will be enough.  There will be more than enough.  Praise be!  Amen.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Our Hometown

Sermon preached July 5, 2015

Texts: Mark 6:1-13

            Bruce Springsteen, “My Hometown”
            So let me just say I find today’s Scripture reading incredibly awkward.  Jesus returns to his hometown synagogue and teaches there.  The response is incredulous.  “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hand!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.
            Jesus’ response is not exactly understanding.  “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”… He was amazed at their unbelief.
            The result is that “he could do no deed of power there except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”
            A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child – to use the words from The Message.  Awkward.  This is my hometown.  I have relatives here.  These are the streets I played on as a child.  Yet I have been treated with respect and love.  I have been deeply touched by the kind wishes received on my birthday and tenth anniversary here as your pastor. This has been a wonderful place to be, and will continue to be so.
            I don’t think the passage is meant as a blanket slam against hometowns. So what else is going on here and what might it have to do with us?
            Part of what is going on here is that we can be lulled to sleep by the familiar, fail to see what is really wonderful and magical about the everyday and ordinary.  I have long loved the lines from Walt Whitman: /and later: /.  Some half a century later, in a very different kind of work, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead would write about the potential narrowness of philosophy, and how a good philosophy needed to take into account all the data of the world.  Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world – the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross (Process and Reality, 513)  Now the term “fairies” has come to mean many things, but Whitehead was using it in the older English poetic sense as a reference to what is glorious and magical in the world.
            Whitman and Whitehead are echoing an even more ancient thought.  Psalm 8: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them. Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
            When the familiar becomes too familiar, we miss the miracles, the magic, the wonder that is there.  We can take the blessings of liberty for granted.
            There is another message for us about the everyday and ordinary.  We are invited, challenged, called to live our faith and share our faith in the everyday and ordinary.  We are invited, challenged, called to make our faith more real in our everyday, ordinary life – our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life, and in our hometowns.
            There are challenges here to be sure.  Faith talk often evokes fear of negative judgment.  Faith talk is liable to evoke a “who are you?” response in your hometown.  We become so familiar to those around us that they may forget that faith is an important part of who we are and why we are.  Part of our response is simply to hang in there with people with genuineness and humility, listening to their hurts, questions, wounds, not presupposing that faith gives us all the answers to their questions, but rather that faith helps us be there with and for others.
            There are challenges to living our faith and sharing our faith, to making our faith more real in our everyday lives, in our hometowns, but we cannot simply avoid the invitation and call to try and do this.  We are invited and called, in the words of the wedding benediction I use, “to so bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends.”
            So what does making our faith real in our everyday, ordinary lives, in our hometowns, look like?  Over the years here, I have come to focus on eight words that help me capture what it means to make faith more real in my life, and I hope they resonate with you.  When we are changed, and live out that change, we bear witness to the power of God’s love.  What does that positive transformation in the Spirit look like?  When God’s grace and Spirit are at work in my life, in my everyday life, in my hometown life, my faith is thoughtful, passionate, and compassionate and joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice mark me.
            Thoughtful – God’s Spirit deepens our thinking and helps us think more imaginatively.  God’s Spirit invites us to consider the multifarious world where fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.  During our vacation, I started a thick book called The Fellowship.  It is a joint biography of friends J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.  One line in the book reminds me of the kind of deep thinking the Spirit continues to form.  “Crude scientism is a failure of perspective and imagination” (258).  The battles often fought between science and religion are more often than not battles between a crude scientism and an unimaginative reading of the Bible.
            Passionate – We Northern European Protestants are often considered some of God’s frozen chosen.  We are suspicious of heart and emotion in our faith, and for some good reasons.  But our stream of Christian tradition was born with a John Wesley who knew what it was like to have his heart strangely warmed.  Our lives are richer with passion, and the Spirit inspires passion in us – a thoughtful passion and a passionate thoughtfulness.
            Compassionate – If we are not compassionate, if God’s love for us does not enlarge our hearts in compassion and love for others, then something is deeply amiss.  The disciples are sent out two by two to bring healing and freedom.  That remains our work.
            Joy – Here I am not talking about giddiness.  There are days when joy comes easily and days when joy seems rather distant, but when God’s Spirit is at work, it is never beyond the horizon.  In joy we can enjoy the simple beauties of life, laugh often, trust in the final goodness of life because we know the deep goodness of God.
            Genuineness – The work of the Spirit helps us be honest with ourselves.  When we know that we are fully known and fully loved by God, we are free to be our more authentic selves.
            Gentleness – Gentleness is not weakness, but the strength to be caring and tender, and the confidence to live with humility.  A few years ago when some of us read through the New Testament together, I was struck by how often gentleness was mentioned as a work of the Spirit in our lives.
            Generosity – Generosity has to do not only with giving of our resources, but with a generous spirit, a spirit which looks for the best in others, not naively, but with a sense that others are created in the image of God.
            Justice – Compassion and justice go together.  Justice is a concern for right relationships, and often asks broad systemic questions not just about helping the hurting but about why people are hurting and what may be done about that.
            When the Spirit is at work in our lives, these are the kinds of qualities that emerge and grow.  This is the direction of transformation in our lives.  That transformation can happen and needs to happen in our everyday, ordinary lives, in our hometown lives.
            And what if part of our hometown is the country whose existence we celebrate this weekend.  Some think we are abandoning our “Judeo-Christian traditions” with the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.  I disagree.  I think the bigger issues we face in making faith more real in our national life are issues like mass incarceration, continuing racial divide, not taking environmental issues as seriously as we once did, the fact that poverty rarely appears in our public conversations about the common good, the fact that our public conversations are often more strident than thoughtful.  We can make our faith more real in hometown USA, too.
            So what if we were to continue to grow in these eight qualities by the grace of God and the power of God’s Spirit in Jesus?  What kind of healing might be possible in our lives, in our hometowns?  Might we be even better at bearing witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger might find in us generous friends?  I think so.  Amen.