Friday, July 29, 2016


Sermon preached July 24, 2016

Texts: Luke 11:1-13

            The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’”
            In the late 1960s, early 1970s, the phrase “truckin’” connoted keeping on.  Keep on truckin’ – keep on going.  Toward the end of this song by the Grateful Dead, the singer sings, “lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.”  Well, I am in a reflecting mood these days as I move toward my new role as a bishop and new position in Michigan.  It has been a wonderful trip these last eleven years.  Lately it occurs to me how quickly that time has gone and how deep the bonds run.  More on that in a couple of weeks.
            Our gospel reading for this morning has a lot to do with persistence, keeping on.  The story, however, begins with prayer.  Jesus has been praying and the disciples ask him to teach them to pray.  Jesus offers them a prayer, not atypical of the teachers of his time.  It offers a beautiful prayer, and in it one can find a summary of what the life of discipleship is to be about: intimacy with God, desiring God’s dream for the world to become a reality, concern for basic needs, forming a community of love and forgiveness, easing times of trial and courage to confront them.
            This delightful and wonderful prayer is followed by a rather odd story, a story only Luke has Jesus tell. Luke has Jesus tell a story about a man who has unexpected company arriving late at night.  This man goes to his friend to ask for bread to help show hospitality to the guest.  The man with the bread at first refuses, but then relents, giving bread to his friend not out of friendship but out of persistence.
            So is this story trying to say that God is a God who wants us to pester, perhaps even grovel?  Is this story trying to say that God is reluctant in generosity, but if we are persistent in our asking this reluctant God may relent?
            Jesus continues, though, and his words indicate that God is not that kind of God.  Ask and it will be given you, search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you….  How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?
            Persistence seems to be a quality of God.  God is persistent in love.  God is persistent in grace.  God is persistent in wanting to give good gifts, particularly God’s own self in the Spirit.  Our persistence is rooted in the persistence of God.  We persist in prayer not to get the attention of a reluctant or capricious God, but in response to God’s persistent love and grace.  Keep on in prayer, because God keeps desiring our best.  There is ambiguity in the story Jesus tells about the man seeking the bread.  Most of us read it as his persistence getting bread from his friend.  The story can be read as persistence belonging to the giver of the bread.  He wants to be persistent in doing good.
            Jesus encourages us to be persistent in prayer, to keep on praying because God is always responding to our prayers.  Theologian Marjorie Suchocki wrote one of my favorite books on prayer.  In it she writes: God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be.  Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be.  Quite simply, prayer changes the “isness” of the world…. And God who is always working with the world takes every opportunity within the world to influence it for its own good. (In God’s Presence, 31, 49).  God is always working for the good of the world.  God is persistent, and our persistent prayers are ways we open ourselves to God’s continuing influence.
            Yet while the focus of these words of Jesus seems to be prayer, and keeping on in praying, keep on truckin’ in prayer, the prayer that Jesus first offers, a model for the prayer we pray weekly and many of us pray more frequently, is a prayer about the entire life of discipleship.  The persistence Jesus highlights here is also a persistence in all the work of God, all of the work of God’s dream for the world – intimacy with God, meeting basic needs, building communities of love and forgiveness, easing difficulty and cultivating courage for difficult times.  Jesus seems to be saying keep on, keep on truckin’, keep on going, God is at work in the world and when you draw near to this God of persistent love and grace, you become persistent in love and grace.
            The Irish poet Seamus Heaney is a favorite of mine, as many of you know.  I have told the story of how one day, when I was a pastor on the Iron Range I heard a recorded reading of his from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis while driving in my car.  I was excited that the reading would be repeated that night at 9 p.m.  I made my cassette recorder ready and taped that reading.  I love the poems and I love his voice reading the poems.
            One of the poems Heaney read that day was from his then new book The Spirit Level.  It was a poem dedicated to his brother, an Irish farmer, a Catholic in the Protestant north.  The poem is a wonderful mix of childhood memories with cruelties from the news.  Heaney recalls how his brother one time used a whitewash brush and chair to pretend he was playing the bagpipes, and the laughter created.  He recalls his brother’s broken arm.  He also, in the poem notes the death of a part-time reservist who had been waiting for a lift – Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood/In spatters on the whitewash.  Heaney does a wonderful job of reminding us of the small joys of life, the small injuries of life, and the large cruelties that are also part of the world.
            He ends the poem with a tribute to his brother who lives in this world of ours.
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

            After reading this poem, Heaney shared a bit of wisdom with the Guthrie Theater crowd.  “Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about.  Getting started.  Keeping going.  Getting started again.  That’s it.”

            Those words are especially poignant now.  Getting started, keeping going, getting started again.  Here we are on the edge of change, you and me.  We are getting started again, you with some new pastoral leadership, and me as The United Methodist Bishop assigned to Michigan.  God’s love is here for us as it always has been, God’s persistent love.  God invites us to get started again and keep going – keep going in deepening intimacy with God, keep going in desiring and working for God’s dream for the world, keep going in being concerned for basic human need, keep going in creating a community of love and forgiveness, keep going in trying to ease difficult times and cultivating the courage for when those difficult times come anyway.  God is not interested in our groveling.  God desires our good.  God desires to fill us with God’s Spirit.  God desires us to get started, keep going and get started again.  Sometimes the trip may seem long and strange, but God’s way is the way of grace and joy.  Keep on truckin’ in that way.  In Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Whatever Happens

Sermon preached July 10, 2016

Texts: Luke 10:25-37

            Last Sunday I told you about my July 1 driving adventure back from the Twin Cities – the traffic jam around the construction in Hinkley which made the two and a half hour drive a four and a half hour drive.  So here’s a little irony, one of the songs I listened to on the drive was this one:  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “The Waiting.”
            It is also a pretty ironic song this morning.  July 2016 has been about waiting for Julie and me, and this week the waiting is over.  Episcopal elections are this week, and when I stand here next week, we will all know what the coming year will bring.  The waiting is the hardest part.
            There is another kind of waiting that requires attention this morning, the waiting of a man, robbed, beaten, stripped, left half dead by the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Jesus uses this man in a story, part of his conversation with a religious scholar, and expert in Jewish law and teaching.  The teacher has asked about the heart of the law – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asks the religious scholar his opinion.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus affirms his answer, but the question arises, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus counters with a story about the man robbed, beaten and stripped, the waiting man.  This man wait, perhaps half-conscious, for help.  How aware is he?  Do his hopes rise a bit when he glimpse the figure of a man walking by?
            He waits.  The first man, a priest, passes by.  The man waits.  A Levite, another religious person, passes by.  The man waits.  Does hope wane?  Is he now more than half dead?  Another figure casts a shadow and then draws near – a Samaritan.  Does the injured man know it is a Samaritan?  Does he care?
            Why does it matter to the story?  Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  Samaritans were seen as impure, practicing a deformed kind of Judaism.  In Jesus’ time, as in our own, stories often made sport of religious leaders, wanting to shatter their pretensions.  As Jesus told the story, the listeners would have expected a common Jew to come by and be the hero, maybe a Tevya like character from Fiddler on the Roof.  Instead, Jesus shocks his listeners.  The hero is a Samaritan.  He is the one who takes care of the bleeding, bruised man.
            This is a story of radically inclusive love and care.  What seems to matter most are love and care and compassion and kindness, and it does not matter if you are the most socially respected person or the most despised person.  What matters is love.  The welcome statement in our bulletin speaks of our understanding of inclusivity.  All persons, without regard to race, sexual orientation, economic condition or religious background are invited to participate in our ministries and programs, and may become members of our congregation.  We welcome all in God’s love because all, without regard to race, sexual orientation, economic condition or religious background can know God’s love and can show God’s love.  All can have faith in Jesus Christ.
            What matters most in God’s scheme of things is love and care and compassion and kindness, a love, care, compassion and kindness that responds to the broken and bruised and bleeding bodies we encounter, and oh, goodness, how many such bodies we have encountered in recent days.  Still reeling from the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando with bleeding and broken bodies of LGBT persons – who are Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, who are black and white and Latino, every color of the human rainbow – shot by a Muslim, we hear of terrorist attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh and this week in Saudi Arabia, and the broken and bruised and bleeding bodies are Muslim.  This week the broken bodies were the African-American men, shot and killed by police officers, and then the broken, bleeding and bruised bodies were police officers in Dallas.  Our highways and byways have plenty of broken and bruised and bleeding bodies, and not all our wounds are physical – there are the broken spirits, the bruised hearts that need attention too.
            And the temptation is there to look away.  The needs are so great, some days I would just like to walk on by.  Earlier this week, I shared a poem at the memorial service for Camille Como, and the poem contained these lines:
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.     (Mary Oliver, “The Ponds”)

            This is a beautiful poem, and I want in my life to be willing to be dazzled.  Nothing wrong with that.  Nothing wrong with wanting, at times to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even float above this difficult world.  The world is difficult and complex and messy.  Yet to turn aside cannot be a permanent condition for we followers of Jesus.  The neighbor is the one who helps – love God, love your neighbor.  Love no matter who you are.  Love no matter who needs loving.
            Awhile back Bob Higgins shared a little book with me, John Wesley: a study for the times – the times were 1891.  The author, Thomas J. Dodd, D.D. wanted to write about Wesley as someone whose faith and character could be instructive for followers of Jesus.  Dodd describes Wesley as “like some broad, liberal man of the world, loving God and his fellow-men, holding to his own opinions, and doing in his own way what he could to advance the cause of good morals and religion” (47).  Illustrating Wesley’s broad-mindedness, Dodd tells the story of Wesley’s assessment of a Unitarian named William Edmonson, someone who the Church of Wesley’s time would have considered outside the bounds of true faith.  Of him Wesley would write: What faith, love, gentleness, long-suffering!  Could mistake send such a man as this to hell? – I scruple not to say, Let my soul be with the soul of William Edmonson” (Dodd, 50).  What matters most is faith, love, gentleness – love of God and neighbor.
            In seminary I read a classic from the mid-twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.  H. Richard Niebuhr is the older brother of Reinhold Niebuhr whose work I used last Sunday (trivia!).  In this classic little book Niebuhr writes that the purpose of the church, what is central and what matters most to the church of Jesus Christ, is “the increase among [persons] of the love of God and neighbor” (31).  Niebuhr goes on: God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exists without the other (34).  I have referred back to these words often in the years since my seminary graduation in 1984.  They are part of my stored memory bank, and they remind me that what matters most is love, care, compassion, kindness - God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor.
            In that memory bank is also a brief poem by Wendell Berry (1998 Sabbath poem).
Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
into the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

            Love seems like such a weak counter to all the broken, bruised and bleeding bodies in our world.  How can we talk about love when black men are shot and killed because of a broken tail light?  How can we talk about love when in the name of a religion, people are blowing other people up, or shooting other people?  How can we talk about love when police officers are gunned down by a sniper?
            Yet the message of Jesus is clear – love, love without condition or boundaries or definitions of who is in and who is out.  Love no matter who you are.  Love no matter who needs loving.  The purpose of the church is to increase love of God and neighbor, so love.  It is not an easy call to answer, this call of love.  We have to notice all the brokenness and bleeding.  We have to feel the ache of bending down to draw near and lift up.  We cannot be so dazzled that we forever float above the difficult world, but rather we need to encounter that difficult world with kindness and courage.  There will be time for being dazzled and drifting above for awhile, because the world is also a beautiful place, but it is made most beautiful by love.
Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
into the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

            Whatever happens, love.  These memorized words are even more poignant for me today.  In the next few days, my future will be decided and the decision will have an impact here.  We have done good work here in loving and caring and kindness and compassion – without limits, beyond boundaries.  We have not been perfect.  I have not been perfect, and sometimes get stark reminders of my imperfections, but together we have sought to be the church, that place that seeks to grow love of God and neighbor.  I am proud of the work we have done, and would be proud to continue that work as your pastor, and the work needs to continue.  A broken and bleeding and bruised world needs the love, care, compassion, and kindness, the hope and healing we can offer.

            Whatever happens, love.  In the name and spirit of Jesus, love, whatever happens.  Amen.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Blinded By the Light, July 4

Sermon preached  July 3, 2016

Texts: II Kings 5:1-14

            Manfred Mann, “Blinded By the Light”
            So in February I preached a sermon with this same title, but played a different version of the song – two versions, two sermons, right?
            This version was the more popular song on the radio.  It was a #1 song in 1977, the year I graduated from Duluth East High School.  This is Manfred Mann, who had an earlier hit song with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.”  The song was written by and originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen.  It appeared on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park.”
            It seems fitting today to play a song written by someone who has become an American classic – on this Independence Day weekend.  But what does this have to do with the story Anne read from II Kings, the story of the ruler Naaman and his encounter with the prophet Elisha?  And what does this story have to do with us?
            The story is a classic.  Naaman is powerful, a military hero from Aram.  He also suffered from leprosy.  Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, including the capture of an Israelite who became a slave to Naaman’s wife, Naaman travels to Israel/Samaria to see Elisha to see if Elisha might cure his leprosy.  He first sees the king of Israel, who is quite distressed.  Suddenly a powerful nearby king expects a healing!?  He suspects this is just a pretense for a fight.  Elisha, however is willing to act on God’s behalf to heal Naaman.  With full entourage, he arrives at Elisha’s home, and Elisha sends a messenger out with instructions that Naaman is supposed to wash in the Jordan River.
            Naaman’s response is also a classic.  He becomes quite angry and upset.  “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them and be clean?”  Enraged, Naaman was ready to turn away.  Servants, though, brought him to his senses.  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was ‘Wash, and be clean?’”  Naaman decided to give it a try, and it worked!
            So here’s one lesson to draw for our lives.  Power can blind us, and healing often comes with new vision and new perspective.  Naaman is powerful, so powerful that he becomes offended when Elisha does not seem to pay due deference.  He is willing to walk away from the possibility for healing because he is so full of himself, so taken with his own superiority and the superiority of his country.  Naaman is powerful and pretentious.
            We all have the capacity for pretension.  The great American theologian and public thinker of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book The Irony of American History, wrote about this.  “[The human person] is constantly tempted to overestimate the degree of his freedom and forget that he is also a creature” (Reinhold Niebuhr, LOA, 585).  “We… are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire” (589).  One of the core convictions of Niebuhr’s theology was that we humans tend to overestimate our own virtue, goodness and wisdom, and underestimate that in others.  The Christian virtue of humility has something to do with being open to what others might teach us, and when we are so open, remarkable things might happen.
            I recall an episode of the old television program “All in the Family” where a young man, George, who was developmentally disabled, a “slow learner,” encounters Archie Bunker and family (season 4, episode 19, “Gloria’s Boyfriend).  Toward the end of the show, the young man brings over a small poster that one of his teacher’s gave him when he was younger.  The teacher gave it to George because he cried when other kids called him “stupid.”  The poster read, “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him.”  George said it meant that everybody could learn from everybody – a good lesson, a lesson Naaman finally gets.  When Naaman lets go of his pretensions, his “blindness,” healing happens.
            Naaman’s story adds yet another dimension, power.  Naaman is powerful, and the addition of power to the human capacity for pretension strengthens that capacity.  We seem even more tempted to overestimate our wisdom and our goodness when we have power.  Couldn’t the prophet, at least for me have come out and waved his hands over my skin?  Aren’t the rivers of Damascus better than anything that Samaria or Israel has?
            Here’s where Independence Day comes into view.  The United States is a powerful nation, perhaps the most powerful nation on the planet right now.  The United States has in its founding documents and originating dreams profound human values.  One question before us as a nation is whether we can celebrate our accomplishments and promise while also acknowledging our shortcomings and failings.  Here is Reinhold Niebuhr again.  The question for a nation, particularly for a very powerful nation, is whether the necessary exercise of its virtue in meeting ruthlessness and the impressive nature of its power will blind it to the ambiguity of all human virtues and competencies LOA, 585-586)
            The United States has wonderful dreams at its core.  I think of the words on the Statue of Liberty (Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”):

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

            What a beautiful dream.  We celebrate that this week.  Can we also acknowledge the truth captured by another poet, the African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes?:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)….

            Can we honestly look at places where America has not been the dream we were meant to be?  As Christians, can we ask such questions, knowing that God in love yearns for human communities to be communities of hope and healing, care and compassion, justice, peace, reconciliation and love?  Can we be people who are not afraid of difficult truths, people who understand that the truth sets us free, and that new vision is often a prelude to healing?
            In her book about mass incarceration in the United States, an particularly its impact on African-American communities, Michele Alexander writes about “callous colorblindness.”  It is not an overstatement to say the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post-civil rights era if the nation had not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness….  It is precisely because we, as a nation, have not cared much about African-Americans that we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste (240-241).  Hard words, but is she on to something?  Will we have the courage to look, particularly if we have enough power not to worry so much about getting caught up in that system?

            We all have our “blind spots.”  As human beings we all tend to overestimate our virtue and our wisdom.  When we have power, as persons, as a nation, that temptation is even greater.  Reinhold Niebuhr put it well.  “If men are inclined to deal unjustly with their fellows, the possession of power aggravates this inclination” (LOA, 354)  The Naaman story reminds us that God’s healing comes when we are open to new visions, new perspectives.  God’s healing comes when we can let go of our blindnesses, let go of our self-importance, not our self-esteem but our self-importance, and wash in the rivers of love and justice and freedom that may be near at hand.  When we do that we are a stronger people.  When we do that, we are a stronger nation.  Amen.