Friday, August 28, 2015

Dress Like a Christian

Sermon preached  August 23, 2015

Texts: Ephesians 6:10-20

            “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” Bob Dylan
            We just got back from vacation on Thursday, late in the day.  It was an interesting vacation to pack for.  Saturday, August 16 we attended a wedding – the son of one of Julie’s cousins.  I officiated at the wedding so I had to pack appropriate clothing for that.  On our way out to Montana, where the wedding was held, we encountered days that were near 100 degrees.  The morning of the wedding we went for a mountain hike.  The temperatures were in the 50s and I had a t-shirt and shorts on.  I stayed warm enough, but barely.  Tuesday morning we woke to temperatures in the 30s near Yellowstone Park and during our day there the temperatures never got out of the 50s.  Driving out of Yellowstone, on the Beartooth Pass Highway, we encountered some snow.  We packed as best we could and managed well-enough.
            Paul, or the author of Ephesians writing in the name of Paul – a common first-century practice, uses imagery of clothing, particularly of dressing for battle, to talk about the journey with Jesus.  This is not necessarily my favorite set of images, and perhaps even less so after listening on our vacation to a reading of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth with its scenes of bloody sword fighting and rapacious knights.
            Other translations don’t help much either.  The Message: And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.  Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare.
            I am helped some by this note in The Discipleship Study BibleThese verses do not condone human warfare, but depict the Christian life as part of the cosmic struggle between God and the forces of fallen creation.  The war against the forces that seek to dominate and destroy God’s creation is fought not with the traditional tools of battle, which destroy life, but with weapons that build community and nurture reconciled relationships.
            That helps, and it also helps to acknowledge that life has its battles, its struggles.  When we baptize, we ask a challenging question, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”  Tough question, but there is meaning in it.  When I think of “spiritual forces of wickedness, I think of things like slavery and the racism which has followed and continues to plague us as a nation.  Human decisions created the institutions of slavery, but the racism that followed pulls people in beyond conscious decisions.  I think of the Holocaust, where a virulent anti-Semitism was let loose in Europe, and people got caught up in it beyond conscious choice.  That such forces exist does not absolve people from responsibility, but to use this language helps us understand the persistence of some of our human problems.
            Those are large spiritual forces of wickedness, but there are smaller ones.  Many of you have heard that former president Jimmy Carter’s cancer has spread into his brain.  I never voted for Jimmy Carter.  I was too young to vote in 1976. In 1980, I voted for a third party candidate.  Jimmy Carter may never be ranked among our best presidents, but he may be ranked among our strongest former presidents.  I don’t always agree with President Carter, but I believe him to be a person of deep intelligence and an even deeper conscience.
            So how did some greet the news of the spread of Carter’s cancer?  Here are a couple of posts from the Fox News Facebook page.  “That’s karma Jimmy, it will get you.  You said Homosexuality was OK and you claim to be a Christian?  And a Baptist preacher?  And Now you have cancer?  Karma Buddy.”  "The only thing I am appreciative of peanut Jimmy is that his incompetence made it that much easier for Ronald Reagan to win. Good riddance peanut Jimmy." "I'm so sorry he has cancer, but he needs to keep his mouth shut, because he is a complete idiot."  How coarse. How demeaning.  This lack of compassion, this mean-spiritedness, is a kind of spiritual force of wickedness, certainly not on par with slavery or the Holocaust, not even close, but a certain kind of wickedness nonetheless – people getting caught up in trying to outdo one another in insensitivity masking behind the relative anonymity of social media.
            So what can we do, as followers of Jesus to resist spiritual forces of wickedness great and small?  What can we do as followers of Jesus to live better?  Dress like a Christian, not on the outside, as in the internet suggestions in the call to worship, but in our hearts, minds, and souls.  Let me discuss some of the elements of this inner wardrobe as described in Ephesians.
            The writer recommends the belt of truth.  Let me suggest that truth is not a simple idea.  We often think it is – something is true or not true.  For a certain class of ideas and events, this is an adequate understanding of truth, but it is an inadequate understanding of truth when we think about the complexity and nuance of human existence. Listen to this discussion of “truth” from a Church of England theologian named Andrew Shanks.  Opinions are either correct or incorrect….  But the truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness.  Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more.  And so to be inwardly changed.  Changed in the sense of saved. (What is Truth?, 5) There is truth here, in the idea that truth is complicated.  I also appreciate Parker Palmer’s working definition of truth.  Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline (A Hidden Wholeness, 127).  When asking about the truth of deep statements about human existence, I have learned to ask not simply “Is it true?” but rather “In what way might this be true?” or “How does this illumine my life?”
            The writer encourages wearing the breastplate of righteousness.  Righteousness is a challenging word. It is not one we use in our everyday speech.  I think it has everything to do with right relationships – to God, to others, to ourselves.  When our relationships are in relatively good order, our hearts are guarded, our souls protected. 
            For shoes, the writer tells us to wear “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  The good news of God’s love as known in Jesus is meant to be a word of peace – peace with God, peace with others, peace within, peace in the world, peace with creation.  It is good and joyful news that we can live differently - imagine more, feel more, think more, love more, and so be inwardly changed, changed in the sense of saved.  This is news too good to be kept to ourselves and so we want to share it, share it, perhaps by sharing its joy.  The shoes are dancing shoes.
            And for a shield, the writer tells us, we have faith.  Faith is less a matter of belief, less a cognitive/head matter, than a matter of trust.  The religious philosopher Donald Evans argues that “the most crucial personal struggle in religion, morality, and life is between trust and distrust” (Struggle and Fulfillment, 2).  Evans argues that it is a struggle between basic trust and basic distrust, where basic trust is “an initial openness to whatever is life-affirming and other people and oneself” (2).  Faith is that kind of basic trust.  I appreciate the way Andrew Shanks links faith, trust and truth.  Faith… is a community-building or community-transformative appropriation of the very deepest poetic truth (What is Truth, 5).  This is trust in the meaningfulness of life and the meaningfulness of the struggles for growth and change.  That kind of faith is a shield, protecting us against paralyzing cynicism and despair.
            What’s a good wardrobe without a hat – the helmet of salvation.  Salvation is another one of those words like “righteousness” that is often hard to understand.  “Are you saved?” some ask out of the blue.  Salvation is not simply something that takes care of us after we die, though from many understandings of Christianity, that seems to be about it. Salvation has something to do with overall well-being.  It has to do with the process of being transformed, with the process of growing into all that God desires for us to be.
            The writer ends his discussion of dressing like a Christian with carrying a sword – “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  When we hear that, we are often directed to think of the Bible – the Bible as a sword.  Many use it just like that, wielding it with a certain sense of their own rightness.  To view the Bible as a weapon is not terribly fitting, however.  For one thing, there was no “Bible” in our sense when this letter was written.  There were the sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew people, of the Jewish community, but for the emerging Jesus movement, there was a sense that God was up to something new in Jesus, who was seen as an embodied word.  “The word of God” here has a more dynamic sense.  It has to do with paying attention to the active Spirit of God, which requires openness and listening.  The church has come to teach that we hear the Spirit of God in a unique way in the Bible, in an important and authoritative way, but it is not the only place where the Spirit speaks.
            So how might all of this fit together?  Let me share how they fit together for me.  This wardrobe of the “well-dressed Christian” encourages me to try and find some balance, some centering when life feels a little like a battle, even if it is not necessarily a battle with spiritual forces of wickedness.

            I arrived back from vacation Thursday evening.  Friday I met with two families about upcoming funerals – one was yesterday, one is tomorrow.  I also found out about another death, and that funeral will be September 4.  Saturday I visited Jon Dallman at Solvay Hospice House.  Just before worship, I found out he died this morning.  We are gearing up for our Capital Campaign, and for the fall program year.  The campaign and programs are good things.  That we are here for others in times of death, is a good thing and I take that ministry very seriously.  And it all can be wearing, wearying.  What keeps me from sliding into weariness is finding some time for conversations about truth, even if some of those conversations are with authors I am reading.  I try and make time to listen to the Spirit.  I try to tend to relationships, though sometimes my balance here is not always so good.  Most of all, I am trusting in God for my well-being, my salvation.  I trust God that the struggles are worth it, that being there for others matters, that the energy expended in ministry makes a difference even when that might be difficult to see.  And I put on my dancing shoes to share joyfully that God’s love and grace are there for us all, including for me.  That’s dressing like a Christian.  Amen.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Baseball and Faith

Sermon preached at the annual communion service we offer to our normally shut-in members at First United Methodist Church, August 11, 2015

            Paul sometimes used athletic images and metaphors to discuss the life of faith, the journey of faith.  In I Corinthians, Paul uses images of a runner running for a prize or a boxer in the ring, not just shadowboxing, to talk about living the life of faith.  These are images of engagement and endurance.  He uses the runner and boxer images again in II Timothy 4, but this time to talk about how he feels like he has run the good race and fought the good fight.  Paul is writing about the later innings of his life.
            Later innings, there is another sports image – innings coming from what may be my favorite game, baseball.  While Paul used images from running and boxing, I think baseball images also help us understand the life of faith, the journey of faith.  I agree with the President of New York University, John Sexton, who writes, “Baseball evokes in the life of its faithful features we associate with the spiritual life….  For some, baseball really is a road to God.” (Baseball as a Road to God, 7)
            So inspired by Paul’s use of sports images, I want to share with you how I think baseball speaks to us about our journey with Jesus, our relationship with God in Jesus.
            Baseball, at its best, teaches us to, in the words of John Sexton, “live slow and notice” (217).  Baseball is a slower game than basketball or football or hockey.  When baseball was very young the poet Walt Whitman wrote about it: It’s our game…  America’s game: has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere.  Well, compared to these other games, baseball seems to have a lot less snap, go, and fling.  It has lost popularity because it is not as action packed as some of these other games.  Yet because of that, it can teach us something about going more slowly and paying attention.  The pitcher needs to focus on where she or he will throw the ball.  The batter must concentrate on the ball being thrown.  Fielders must be thinking about what they will do if the ball comes to them.  Those of us watching have time to think and ponder while the game is happening.  We can let our minds wander a bit, yet also pay attention to what is happening.  Baseball is one of the few team sports not controlled by a clock.
            As followers of Jesus, we benefit from slowing down and noticing.  Prayer is a form of slowing down.  When we pay attention to the world around us, we cannot help but see some of its wonder and beauty, even if we also see some of its difficulties and tragedies.
            Baseball teaches that it isn’t over until it’s over.  Baseball is one of those games where there is no clock.  The team that is behind still gets to bat through all nine innings and the game doesn’t end until the last out is made.  Some of the most exciting baseball games are those games where the home team is behind in the ninth inning and during their last at bat, bring in enough runs to win the game.  If you are a Minnesota Twins fan, that has not been happening enough for them lately.
            It isn’t over until it’s over.  Paul wanted to think about finishing his race, but he was also determined to keep on until the very end.  It is hard sometimes, especially when we don’t feel as energetic as we once did, or when some of our capacities are not what they once were.  God always has something for us to do – pray, give a kind word, talk to a friend in need.  Some of us may be in the later innings of life, but it isn’t over until it’s over.
            In baseball, we have to get used to some disappointment.  The season is long, and there will be hitting slumps and losing streaks.  The best hitters in baseball get a hit about once every three times at bat.  Sometimes life disappoints us, too, but with the Spirit of God and the love of Jesus, we can come back.  We can get a hit the next time.
            In baseball, sacrificing for the team matters.  Sometimes the job of the hitter is to get an out that advances the base runner into scoring position.  It doesn’t do the hitter’s batting average much good, but it helps the team.  Sometimes life asks of us some sacrifice, a willingness to give for others.  Jesus is the prime example, the giving of a life so others could live differently.  Thankfully few of us are called to sacrifice our very lives, but there can be a richness to life when we know a measure of giving of ourselves for others.
            Baseball does a good job of helping us see that even with faith in Jesus, life has tragic moments.  We will all know loss of different kinds if we live long enough.  One of the things I really like about baseball is how much wonderful writing has been done about the game.  Here is one of my favorite passages, words that speak about tragic moments in life, too.
            It breaks your heart.  It is designed to break your heart.  The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.  You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. (A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind”)
            As followers of Jesus, we know that we never face the fall alone, but we also know that being a follower of Jesus does not make us immune to tragedy.  It just helps us keep it in some perspective, and gives us the courage to live on.  Fall leads into winter, but winter into spring again – a new season.
            Finally, baseball is about home.  In the companion book to the PBS television series on baseball, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns write: It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before.  Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope – and coming home.
            Our faith is about home, about the kind of place we can make together as followers of Jesus in the church, about the kind of welcome we can give others in the name and spirit of Jesus, and finally about finding our home in God in this life and in the life to come.

            Thanks for letting me share my faith and my love of baseball with you.  I am so glad you are here, that you are home.  We are together part of the home team here at First United Methodist Church.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Death By Bread Alone

Sermon preached August 9, 2015

Texts: John 6:35-41-51

            “Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin.
            This is a good “Blues Fest” song.  Do you think people ever felt dazed and confused when Jesus was speaking, particularly in the way he speaks in the Gospel of John?
            Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty….  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.  Even the first listeners were a little dazed and confused.
            Even looking at more contemporary renderings of the passage does not make it that much easier. 
            Jesus said to them, “I, I am the loaf of life.  The one who takes my route will never go hungry, and the one who bases his life on mine will never stay thirsty….  I am indeed the live loaf that came down from on high.  If one eats from this loaf, he’ll be alive in the new age.  Now the loaf that I’ll give for the life of the world is my own flesh. (Cotton Patch Version).
            So let’s do a little reflecting and then ask what all this might mean for our lives.  First of all it is really important for us to remember again that part of the context for John’s Gospel is a family fight among Jews who were followers of Jesus and those who were not.  In verse 41 where it reads, “then the Jews began to complain,” we should remember that this was not all the Jewish people, for the followers of Jesus were also Jewish.  The sad history of Christian anti-Semitism does not allow us simply to let these words stand without some comment.
            Verses 47-48: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.  We tend to think of the word “believe” as giving cognitive assent.  It is something to do with our thinking.  “Yes, I think Jesus is the bread of life.”  The Greek word is much richer than that and has much more to do with trust.  Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowen Williams, in his book on basic Christian faith, entitled Tokens of Trust, makes this point well, comparing Christian “belief” with belief in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster.  Hence the radical difference from ‘believing’ in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster.  To believe in these doesn’t make that much difference to how I feel about myself and the world in general….  [Christian belief is] about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home. (5-6)
            Finding anchorage in trusting Jesus leads to new life, not just life beyond this life, but a new quality of life here.  Here are a couple of other renderings of verse 47.  “I truly tell you that he who lives his faith has spiritual life” (Cotton Patch).  “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life” (The Message).
            Finally, we should remind ourselves that the language here is poetic language, the language of metaphor, symbol and parable.  Jesus isn’t literally bread, isn’t literally a loaf of bread.  The words of Jesus here are introduced by a feeding story, where a crowd is gathered and in need of food, Jesus takes five loaves and two fish, blesses and distributes them, and there is enough.  If Jesus were literally bread, why any need for the five loaves?  People are fed, but Jesus thinks there may be deeper hungers, and the language shifts to metaphor and symbol.
            So what?  We’ve done some good background work on this passage, but so what?  What might this say to us?  I want to get at that through a series of observations and questions.
            All that happens here seems to imply that human hunger is not just hunger for food, for daily bread.  There are hungers/for a nameless bread poet Carl Sandburg wrote (“Timesweep” in Collected Poems, 758). Poets can be helpful in trying to figure out the meaning of the poetics of Scripture.  The poet William Carlos Williams, on one of his poems (“Asphodel: That Greeny Flower”) wrote:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                        yet men die miserably every day
                                                for lack
of what is found there.
We have hungers of the heart and soul. We hunger for meaning. We hunger for aliveness.  We hunger for connection. We hunger for joy.  We hunger to discover our gifts. We hunger to use our gifts for the good of the world. We hunger for love.  We hunger for God.  The words of Jesus here are intended to open us up to these other hungers.
            If we have so many hungers, how can we make sense of them, how can we deal with them?  First let’s admit we are privileged in that hunger for our daily bread does not consume us.  Most of us are privileged to be able to ask, “What should we have for dinner?  Should we go out, or cook at home?” rather than having to ask, “When will I next eat?  Where will my next meal come from?”  The church that proclaims Jesus as the bread of life, acknowledging the full range of human hungers must not ignore that fact that the basic hunger for bread goes unanswered too often in our world.  In John 6, Jesus feeds the people before moving to this other conversation about the bread of life.
            Yet there is hunger for a nameless bread and such a thing as “death by bread alone.”  I purloined my sermon title from the title of a book by the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle.
            “One does not live by bread alone.”  In fact, bread alone kills us.  To live by bread alone is to die a slow and dreadful death in which all human relationships are mutilated and strangled.  Of course, such a death by bread alone does not mean that we cease to exist.  Our bodies still function.  We still go about the chores and routines of life; we accomplish things; we breathe; we produce and consume and excrete; we come, go, and speak.  Yet we do not really live….  This is what the Bible means when it speaks of death.  Death is what takes place within us when we look upon others not as gift, blessing, or stimulus, but as threat, danger, and competition….  The death of which the Bible speaks lays hold of us in the very midst of life.  It is the boredom and emptiness of going through all the motions of living while being totally drained of all humanity and reduced to the level of an old work horse. (3, 4, 5)
            In these dramatic words, Soelle is trying to tell us that we can misuse and mis-order our hungers.  We may spend too much time, energy and attention entertaining ourselves rather than being engaged in life.  We may spend too much time, energy and attention on accumulating rather than on creating or relating.
            I recall here the words of the theologian James Gustafson about the Christian life.  The question for us, Gustafson thinks is “What is God enabling and requiring us to be and to do?”  the general response is we are to relate ourselves and all things in a manner appropriate to their relations to God (Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective, Volume One, 327).  This is a way of saying that we need to pay attention to how we order our hungers, how we feed our hungers.
            So what might someone coming to this planet say about the ordering of our hungers in this society at this time?  Say someone just dropped in and wanted to find out about how we use our time, our energy and our attention?  They might find that we spend a lot of time, energy and attention on spiritually empty calories, things that may contribute to death by bread alone.  We pay a lot of attention to celebrities.  We may know more about the Kardashians than about our cousins.  We are deeply loyal to athletic teams.  We wrap our identity around them.  They call forth some of our best energy.  We gather to celebrate their successes and mourn their defeats.  The team becomes us.  We have “political” debates but spend much time before them analyzing who got in to the debate rather than discussing the issues that might be debated, then we spend a lot of time afterwards figuring out who “won” rather than discussing the policy proposals.  Apparently after the earlier debate on Thursday, a lot of people wanted to know how old and how tall Carly Fiorina is.
            There is nothing inherently wrong about keeping up with the Kardashians, or following the Twins, the Vikings, the Packers or whomever.  It is o.k to ask about debate processes, and Carly Fiorina is 60 and 5’8,” though you have to wonder why no one is asking how old or how tall Mike Huckabee is.  The concern we should have is how much time, attention and energy we give to things which may be the equivalent of empty calories – they taste good, and are o.k. in perspective, but not highly nutritious.
            So we want to order our hungers, attend to how we use our time, energy and attention.  But it is not a matter of cultivating “the spiritual” over “the material.”  A Jesus spirituality is not an ethereal spirituality that is only concerned about worship, prayer and the next life.  Body and soul are intertwined.  Jesus fed the people before he got into this metaphoric discussion about other hungers.  It was this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother were known, who was also the bread of life, the loaf that came from on high.  It is in this life that we make our relationship to God real.  We worship to connect more deeply with God and to seek grace and wisdom for ordering our lives, here and now.  We pray to help us reflect on how we will use our time, energy and attention, here and now.
            If Jesus is our bread, if we trust that, how do we live?  We acknowledge our hungers and their variety.  We order our hungers and how we meet them.  We give time, energy and attention to what matters most – kindness, generosity, growth, helping others grow, welcoming others into the love of God, doing justice, fostering reconciliation.  There will be time for entertainment and a few empty calories, but too many is death by bread alone.  And to find in Jesus our bread of life is to understand that eternal life is something that happens now.
            A story.  Yesterday we had a celebration of life service here for Floyd Mott.  You may or may not recall Floyd by name, but if you were here in worship on July 19, you will never forget it.  At that point in time, Floyd (65) knew he was dying.  He had also never been baptized, and it was something he wanted.  Why?  I can’t give you all the reasons, but somehow in recent months our church had given him a place where he could meet Jesus as the bread of life.  We offered hospitality, welcome, worship that connected, that help him discover a deep hunger and helped feed that hunger.  So Floyd chose to be baptized, and so, too, did his granddaughters Kaitlyn and Macie on that same morning.  Then Saturday, we offered Floyd’s family and friends a place to gather to celebrate his life and offer his life back to God.
            Our lives are not perfect lives.  Our church is not a perfect church, whatever that means.  When we order our lives so that we are paying attention and using our time and energy to be a place of welcome, hospitality, kindness, caring, connection remarkable things happen.  Jesus, the bread of life becomes more a part of us, and is more real for others.  Let’s keep at it.  Amen.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Sermon preached August 2, 2015

Texts: II Samuel 11:16-12:13a

            “Reflections of My Life,” The Marmalade
            I was ten when that song was released, but I’ve heard it often enough over the years.  I like its tunefulness and the name of the group – “The Marmalade.”
            Reflections.  In Mark 7, Jesus tells the disciples that it is within, within the human heart, that come the things that mess us up, that defile us.  It is in the human heart that we can find “evil intentions.”  Of course, other things are also found there.  Paul encourages the Philippian Christians, to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).  He invited Roman followers of Jesus to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” and to “let love be genuine” (Romans 12: 2, 9).  From within the heart can come beauty and goodness, compassion and love.
            Attending to the heart and mind and soul – self-reflection seems an important spiritual discipline.  The late-thirteenth and early fourteenth century German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: To get at the core of God at God’s greatest, one must first get into their own core… for no one can know God who has not first known himself or herself (The Choice is Always Ours, 105).  St. Ignatius, an important influence on John Wesley, encouraged prayer-filled mindfulness and self-reflection in what has come to be known as the Daily Examen.  It involves reflecting on the presence of God in your life, on reviewing life with gratitude, on paying attention to one’s emotional experience.
            A degree of self-reflection seems important to develop in our faith, to deepen our journey with Jesus.  For instance, if all we ever ask when we read the Bible are questions about history or theology and never about our own lives, we are missing something vitally important.  I love the intellectual questions, but I can keep them theoretical, at arm’s length.  I also need to ask about what’s going on in my heart, mind, soul, life.
            Like most spiritual practices, this one can be misused.  We do not want to become the Christian spiritual equivalents of Narcissus, so enamored with looking within that we never engage others and the important tasks that are a part of the life of faith.  I also think, as with most spiritual practices, temperament plays a role, so that some of us need more self-reflective time than others for a healthy spirituality.  None of us can avoid it all together, though.
            II Samuel 11:26-12:13a is a powerful example of the need to engage our faith thoughtfully, personally and with self-reflection.  David is told a story by Nathan that outrages him.  A powerful man has acted unjustly and should re-pay the damage he has done.  In one of the most dramatic moments in the Scriptures, Nathan turns the story in on David – “You are the man!”
            There is a lot of pain and hurt and injustice in the world.  As followers of Jesus, that is of concern to us.  We want to engage in reconciliation where there has been oppression and racism.  We want to see the hungry fed, the homeless housed.  We want to take good care of the planet and pass it on to our children and grandchildren.  We care about poverty.  We are outraged by abuse.  This is all to the good.  There is also the more difficult task of looking within to see where we have been influenced by racism, sexism, heterosexism, where we act in ways that perhaps don’t contribute to the common good.  This is not meant to be an exercise in guilt, but an opportunity for growth – though it can be difficult and uncomfortable.
            Once upon a time there was a king who offered half his kingdom and his daughter in marriage to anyone who could steal something without anyone finding out about it.  The offer was widely broadcast in the kingdom and soon young men began showing up proclaiming their cleverness.  “I stole this beautiful necklace, and no one knows about it.”  “I stole this magnificent horse, and no one is the wiser.”  To each young man, the king would simply say, “No, forget it.”  It was quite confusing.  One day a young man arrived in the court of the king with nothing.  “I have nothing at all, your Majesty.”  “Why not?” questioned the king.  The man replied, “It is not possible to steal something with absolutely nobody knowing about it, because I myself would always know.”  This was what the king was looking for, someone with wisdom and conscience, not cleverness. (Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness, 175).
            When we make time for self-reflection we will find in our hearts, minds, souls, and lives beauty, goodness, love, wounds, scars, and sins.  Self-reflection is a humanizing activity.  We find elements of shared humanity in knowing our own joys, sorrows, triumphs, foibles, wrongdoing, and goodness.  Self-reflection will have its uncomfortable moments.  Just imagine David’s moment.  In the turn of a screw, David goes from outraged champion of justice, compassionate king, to someone who has to come to grips with his own deepest betrayals and treachery.
            The Noble Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to a Polish poet named Wislawa Szymborska.  She died in 2012.  I had never heard of her until that award, but what I remember when she received it was an interview with American poets who had translated some of her work.  This was on the PBS Newshour.  I have never forgotten one of Szymborska’s poems read during that interview.  It is entitled, “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a toon,
in every other respect they’re light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is number one.

(Symborska, Map: collected and last poems, 227)

            Self-reflection is a vitally important spiritual practice and discipline, and that includes those moments when conscience reminds us of where we have fallen short.  But God does not intend for us to stay mired in our disturbed conscience.  God puts away David’s sin, it says in II Samuel.  The consequences will remain and ripple, but forgiveness is there for David in God’s love and grace.  Forgiveness is always there for us in God’s love and grace.
            Forgiveness – not cheap, not easy, but always a possibility in the grace and love of God.  If self-reflection is a vitally important spiritual practice, so, too is accepting forgiveness.  I have spoken of forgiveness often, but don’t think I’ve ever quite emphasized our need to accept forgiveness as a spiritual practice.  I believe it is, and just as with offering forgiveness, it is a process.  It is a vitally important process, though, because we don’t want to get stuck every time we do something wrong in a cycle of self-recrimination and self-abuse.

            In another place, Meister Eckhart writes, “God does not work in all hearts alike but according to the preparation and sensitivity God finds in each” (The Choice is Always Ours, 383).  Essential to our heart work are the practices of self-reflection and accepting forgiveness.  May God grant us the grace and courage to engage in these practices in ways that help transform us by the renewing of our minds, in ways that help construct the mind of Christ within us, in ways that help us grow in genuine love.  Amen.