Friday, April 21, 2017

Buckets of Joy

Saginaw Bay District Day                                                                                        April 8, 2017
First United Methodist Church, Saginaw                                          

Texts: Nehemiah 8:9-12; Isaiah 12:2-6; Galatians 5:22-26

            It is a pleasure to be here with you today.  Thank you for the invitation.  I am very pleased to be here with your District Superintendent, Rev. David Kim.  Rev. Kim is a remarkable person in so many ways.  He has a deep faith, a delightful sense of humor, a strikingly smooth golf swing, and a remarkable singing voice.  Have you heard him sing?  I am wondering, though, if since his appointment as the Saginaw Bay D. S., if he has learned to sing the old Lefty Frizzell song, “Saginaw, Michigan.”
            You may know that I am from Minnesota, though my grandfather on my dad’s side was born in Bay City.  He moved to Duluth, Minnesota as a young child following the death of his mother.  Minnesota and Michigan share quite a lot.  Ojibwa people lived in both places.  The French were some of the first Europeans to find their way to both states.  Mining, logging and agriculture have been important.  Minnesota has never had a president.  Michigan had Gerald Ford, the closest Minnesota got was Vice-President Walter Mondale.  One other difference, and this does my heart good, is that Methodism is more prevalent here than in Minnesota.  Religious affiliation in Minnesota is heavily Roman Catholic and Lutheran.  Of course, Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, and the combination of Garrison Keillor and Lutherans has often been just plain fun.  What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Buddhist?  Someone who sits up all night worrying about nothing. (Pretty Good Joke Book, 5th p. 133)
            Keillor loves to tell a story to make us smile.  The young minister was asked by the funeral director to conduct a graveside service for a homeless man with no family or friends.  The cemetery was way back in the country, and the minister got lost.  Finally, he saw the backhoe in the field and the gravediggers standing by, but no hearse was in sight.  He hurried over to the grace and saw that the vault lid was already in place.  He opened up his Bible and began to preach.  He preached about God’s mercy and the parable of the Prodigal Son and the hope of the Resurrection, and then he bowed his head in prayer.  One of the workers said, “I ain’t never seen anything like this before… and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.” (122)
            Laughter is good for the soul, but there is so much in the world that is no laughing matter, so much that tears at our hearts and brings tears to our eyes.  Just this week we saw images of children dying as a result of a chemical weapons bombing in Syria.  We know that in our world too many go hungry, too many children go without clean water or adequate health care.  Wars and oppressive regimes mark too many places.  The world economy works fabulously for a few, adequately for many, but leaves too many with too little.  In the United States we continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery and our treatment of indigenous people.  Race still divides us.  The church itself is not immune from difficulty.  We struggle with race.  In The United Methodist Church, we are struggling with how we can stay together given important differences in theology and on the inclusion of LGBT persons.  Then there are all the personal disappointments in life that can take their toll – friends who turn away, relationships that go sour, awards not received, the unkind word.  Finally, we all confront the reality that our existence is a bodily existence, and these bodies bleed and get sick, and eventually give out.  We in the church walk with each other through the valley of the shadow of death.
            A few years ago, an essay written by a Polish philosopher was published, the title of which was “Is God Happy?” (Leszek Kolakowski, Is God Happy?)  Leszek Kolakowski concluded that God is not happy in an unchanging sense, because God must notice and care about “human suffering… all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other” (213).  He then turns his essay to human beings and says that we cannot be unchangingly happy either because even if we can experience “pleasure, moments of wonderment and great enchantment… love and joy” (213)… we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition” (214).
            There are deep sorrows in the world, and we cannot ignore that.  Even in the church, committed to God’s love and to sharing and living God’s love in Jesus Christ, we know how to hurt others.  Church disagreements can sometimes erupt into nasty fights.  And just this week a priest and his secretary were indicted for embezzling $450,000 from the church and related charities.  Aren’t you glad you got up to come here this morning?
            In the midst of all this, we have a faith that puts joy at its core.  “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  “With joy you will draw water from the well of salvation,” Isaiah says.  And when God’s Spirit is at work in our lives, what is one of the evidences?  Joy (Galatians 5:22-26) – in fact, joy comes right after love in the list.  The renowned religious scholar Huston Smith, who died December 30 and who grew up the son of Methodist missionaries in China, wrote in his book The Soul of Christianity: When Jesus was in danger, his disciples were alarmed; but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company (78).  Smith goes on to say that one of the remarkably attractive qualities of the community of the early followers of Jesus was their joy.  Outsiders found this baffling.  These scattered Christians were not numerous.  They were not wealthy or powerful, and they were in constant danger of being killed.  Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was unquestionable. (79)  The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life at the hands of the Nazis, once put it very simply.  “Discipleship is joy.”
            On the one hand, we have all the very real hurt and suffering in the world, and on the other hand, we have a faith that has joy at its core.  How do we make sense of that?
            I have begun to distinguish joy and happiness, though the terms can often be used interchangeably.  Perhaps happiness is something that depends upon circumstances.  There are moments when things are going well, and we experience happiness.  Perhaps in such times we can bracket off some of the hurt and pain of the wider world, and for some moments, that is o.k.  If we were “happy” in that sense all the time, people could legitimately ask if we really understand and care about the world in which we live.  The Polish philosopher in his essay on the happiness of God writes that “being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others” (212).  There is something very human about being able to feel pain, our own and the hurt and pain of others.  We cannot be “happy” all the time.
            Maybe joy is something a little different.  I have come to think of joy as the quality of a large heart, of an open heart.  Joy is a basic stance toward life more than an emotion of happiness.  A number of years ago, I read some words that have been of great help to me, that led me into some new dimensions in my journey of faith.  I am changing some of the words just a bit because the writer, Elizabeth Lesser, uses the word “happiness” in places when I think what she is describing is my understanding of joy.  The opposite of [joy] is a closed heart.  [Joy] is a heart so soft and expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness.  A [joyful] heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality….  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead we isolate ourselves even more from joy. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
            Joy is a large heart, an open heart – open to seeing the world in its amazing beauty and its horrific brutality, and staying open.  It is a compassionate heart, ready to embrace with kindness those who are hurting, ready to act courageously in the world to make the world more just and peaceful, ready to laugh with those who laugh, and weep with those who weep.  Joy relishes happy moments, and deepens them.  Joy is a trusting heart, trusting in the power of love to overcome.
            Such joy is not dependent upon happy circumstances.  Our joy as followers of Jesus Christ is rooted in God’s love, God’s incredible, never-give-up-on-us-ever, no-not-ever love.  That’s the heart of our gospel, our good news.  God’s love is always reaching out to us in Jesus Christ.  The grace of Jesus Christ is to be found around every corner.  This love is strong.  This love is deep.  This love’s purposes cannot finally be defeated.  In the words of Paul, For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
            Because our lives are rooted and grounded in this love of God, our basic stance in life is one of joy, the joy of a large heart that is able at any one time to hold a range of emotions.  This is the joy of an open heart, a heart that does not live in fear of life, but is open to creativity, curiosity, adventure.  This is the joy of a compassionate heart, a heart that sees and feels the hurt and pain and destruction we find in the world and though sorrowful, responds energetically as best it can to bring hope and healing and new life.
            We are a people of joy.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.  With joy we draw water out of the wells of salvation.  The well of God’s love is deep, and we draw buckets of joy.  We are people in whom the Spirit of God is at work, and when the Spirit is at work, one of the fruits is joy.
            The first sermon I preached here in Michigan as your bishop was a sermon I preached three times at three welcome events.  Some of you may have attended one of them.  I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands.  In that sermon, I said that I hoped four watermarks would characterize our time together as Michigan United Methodists.  Watermarks – you know, those marks that are found embedded in high quality paper, marks you still write over to tell your story, but that are always in the background of what you write.  I said that I would like joy to be one of the watermarks of our time together.  I quoted the poet Wendell Berry, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”  I love that line, and I think the truth behind it is that we can be joyful as Christians because among the “facts” in our lives is the fact of God’s incredible, never-give-up-on-us-ever, no-not-ever love.
            So though the world is torn by hatred and war and violence in too many places, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to build justice and peace and reconciliation.
            Though too many children go to be hungry, or go unvaccinated, or are left on the streets to fend for themselves, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to act courageously and compassionately to heal a broken world.
            Though the human beings can be cruel toward one another, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to love.
            Though our evangelistic witness has been hampered by the way some who name Jesus live in ways that don’t very adequately embody the spirit of Jesus, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to humbly and kindly share the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
            And when our hearts are joyfully open and large, we are also better able to see the wonder and beauty in the world, places where God’s grace shines through so amazingly – a sunrise or sunset over a great lake, the sounds of beautiful music, the colors in a work of art, the kindness of an embrace, the gentleness of human touch.

            God’s Spirit continue to work within each of us to enlarge and open our hearts in joy.  The joy of the Lord is our strength, and we’ve got buckets of it.  Amen.

While You See a Chance

Lenten Dinner                                                                                        April 2, 2017
Royal Oak United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 19:1-10

            It is a pleasure to be here with you this evening.  My wife Julie sends her regrets.  She was planning on being with me this evening, but has been in Billings, Montana to attend the funeral of a beloved uncle.  Her flight into Detroit arrives just before 9 p.m. so I am feeling really relaxed about our time.
            The Scripture reading is from the Gospel of Luke.  For many Luke’s gospel is among their favorites because only there do we find some of the most remembered teachings of Jesus – the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of Jesus reading in the synagogue at Nazareth (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…).  Luke’s telling of the Jesus story, Luke’s gospel, is among my favorites for many of those same reasons, but also and maybe especially because of the story of Zacchaeus.  Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.  A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.  He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.  You know it is going to be a good story!
            What I would like to do is read this story with a soundtrack.  I like sermons with soundtracks, and I thought of a couple of possibilities.  There is the 70s super group from Sweden, ABBA and their song “Take a Chance.”  But I like even better Steve Winwood’s song, “While You See a Chance.”  While you see a chance, take it.  There is something vitally important to the Christian life in that, to following Jesus along the Jesus way.  If you don’t think so, I’ve only got about an hour to convince you!
            Jesus is passing through Jericho and in the town was a man named Zacchaeus.  We know a couple of things about him.  He was short.  The average height at the time was about 5’1” – so it is likely Zacchaeus was under 5’.  I’m liking the story better already.  We also know he was a chief tax collector.  Already there is some irony in the story.  Zacchaeus is the Greek rendering of a common Hebrew name which meant “innocent.”  Yet Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and that role involved cooperation with the Roman imperial system that many Jews considered traitorous to their law.  Beyond that, Zaccheaus has become rich in his occupation.
            Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, but cannot for there are crowds of people and he cannot see over them.  He runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree.  Zacchaeus takes a chance.  He is religiously curious.  He is doing well.  What would compel him to seek out Jesus?  It strikes me that an important dimension to evangelism is helping people get to the place where they are willing to take a chance on Jesus.  It is not always an easy task.  The church has often given Jesus a bad name.  I was at a gathering the other night, a conversation about the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church.  Stories were shared about how hurtful the church has often been to LGBTQ persons and to their families.  Over the years I have heard a number of stories told by lesbian and gay people who tried to take their lives because they were convinced that they were beyond the love and grace of God.  Stories were also shared the other night about how some who hold what we might call more traditional views have been labeled and mistreated by those in the church who disagree with them.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once called 11 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour in America – and that was when more people were in church on Sundays.  Throughout history people have been enslaved in the name of Jesus, people have been killed in the name of Jesus, people have been hurt in the name of Jesus, people have been hated in the name of Jesus, people have been segregated by race in the name of Jesus.
            Yet, yet there remains something beyond all the ways the church has messed up.  In a wonderful new book entitled Days of Awe and Wonder, a collection of writings and speeches and interviews of the late Marcus Borg, Borg writes about why he is Christian.  I think the Christian message, the Christian gospel, speaks to the two deepest yearnings of most human beings.  One of those yearnings is for a fuller connection to what is….  I also think that most people yearn for the world to be a better place.  These two yearnings are at the heart of the Christian message.  The first is the yearning for God.  The second is the yearning for a better world that is expressed in the second great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. (189)
            What yearnings of the heart compelled Zacchaeus to climb a tree to see Jesus?  Did he yearn for God, and to know himself loved by God?  Did he yearn for a better world?  Perhaps, and he took a chance that this Jesus might be of some help.  Can we help others take that chance on Jesus?
            Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and invites himself to his home.  “I must stay at your house today.”  Jesus takes a chance on Zacchaeus.  Jesus took a lot of chances on people, and the reaction is predictable.  All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  Evangelism is about helping people take a chance on Jesus, but we also need to be willing to take a chance on them.  We need to reach out, to notice, to welcome.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus.  He sees Zacchaeus, not just a short man, not just a tax collector, he sees Zacchaeus.  He calls him by name.
            Friends, you are taking some chances here.  Your $4 million expansion is taking a chance on people.  You want to be able to welcome others.  You want to help others get to the place where they will take a chance on Jesus.  You want to see people fed and clothed in the name of Jesus.  You want people to discern their gifts.  We sometimes use this phrase “taking a chance” rather flippantly.  That’s not how I am using it here.  You have worked hard.  You have planned diligently and intelligently.  You have made deep commitments to the mission of this church.  You stayed with it in the midst of a pastoral change.  This is not taking a chance like flipping a coin, it is taking a thoughtful chance to expand your outreach and mission, but it is taking a chance like Jesus took a chance on Zacchaeus.
            Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house, and there Zacchaeus takes yet another chance.  He commits himself to growing, to developing, to a deeper relationship with Jesus.  “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Zacchaeus has moved from curious to committed.  He wondered if Jesus might be able to address some of those deep yearnings, might help him find what was missing in his life.  Then he staked something of himself, committed himself to this Jesus and the Jesus way.
            That, too, is part of what we are about as the church, moving from curious to committed.  And, I don’t think that is a one-time movement.  The Christian life, the journey with Jesus, is an on-going adventure where we are curious about the next steps and then commit ourselves to taking them.  Someday this phase of your ministry will be completed, at least in some sense.  Expect, then, that the Spirit of God will begin to place some curious ideas in your midst, new dreams for reaching people and caring for a bruised and hurting world.  You will be able to move from curious to committed in new ways.
            While you see a chance, take it.  Zacchaeus did that a couple of times.  Jesus did that with Zacchaeus.  Allow me to put forward just a few more thoughts about the Christian life as taking chances.  I would like to develop just a few more thoughts, and I really was only kidding about going until 8:30.
            The Christian life is about taking thoughtful and prayerful chances.  It is an adventure.  One of my favorite images for that is offered by an author named Patrick Henry in a delightfully titled book The Ironic Christian’s CompanionOnce upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow.  Many people who identify themselves as Christians seem to have leap-frogged over life, short-circuited the adventure….  Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved.  They are part of the payload. (8-9)
            While you see a chance take it, and if we are not taking some chances, if there is no adventure, including the deep adventure of exploring more deeply the inner self, including the wide adventure of asking how God’s love affects how we think about and address pressing social issues, if there is no adventure in our journey of faith and as a faith community, then perhaps we need to climb a tree to see Jesus again.  I don’t think Zacchaeus’ climbing days were over after that one meal with Jesus.
            Taking a chance can be chaotic.  You don’t need me to tell you that!  Taking holy chance, though, is part of God’s creativity.  Another one of my spiritual teachers is the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister.  We’ve never met, but her writings have accompanied me along my journey with Jesus helping me move from curiosity to commitment to curiosity again.  In a recent work, Between the Dark and the Daylight, which I have been using as part of my own devotional life, Chittister tells a story about the painter Pablo Picasso.  Once Picasso’s home was burgled, and the painter told the police he would paint a picture of the intruder.  “And on the strength of that picture,” the French police reported later, “we arrested a mother superior, a government minister, a washing machine, and the Eiffel Tower.” (83)  Chittester goes on to write about the relationship between confusion/chaos and creativity.  Confusion is a beautiful thing without which no greater beauty can possibly be imagined….  The marriage of confusion and creativity is the beginning of new life. (84, 84)
            Imagine yourself into the scene in Jericho.  Crowds following Jesus, so numerous that a short man cannot even see into the center of the gathering.  Zacchaeus runs and climbs into a tree.  Jesus calls to him.  Did he have to shout because the crowds were so noisy?  Who was he calling to?  Why was this wealthy man up in a tree?  Chaos, confusion – then creativity when a connection was made.  Zacchaeus’ life was changed.  He became as innocent as his name.
            One final thought before wrapping up.  When you take chances there are unexpected ripple effects that also touch people’s lives.  The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote about the early Methodist movement, The Methodist preachers aimed at saving men’s souls in the next world, but incidentally they gave a new direction to emotions energizing the world (Adventures of Ideas, 22).  Whitehead went on to say that the Methodists produced the final wave of popular feeling which drove the anti-slavery movement to success (23).  He was writing primarily about the British context.  The early Methodist took chances in reaching out to people in new ways, and in connecting them more with God through Jesus, society was also changed.
            As we take chances in our journey of faith, as we take chances in our ministry, we cannot know how the Spirit might use unleashed creativity to touch lives in ways we never quite imagined.  How were the lives of the poor who were helped by Zacchaeus changed?  How about those people who he had defrauded?  Did some of them end up taking a chance on Jesus?  Did any of them find new ways to be generous?
            While you see a chance, take it – thoughtfully and prayerfully, but with a sense of adventure.  We take chances to expand our ministry and to grow in our faith because finally God is always taking chances on us.  Isn’t that at the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news that we share?  God is always taking chances on us.  When our love fails, God’s love remains steadfast.  God entrusts to us sharing in God’s very work – treasure in clay vessels to use Paul’s image (II Corinthians 4:7).
            Christian life, living the Jesus way, is a life of taking wise, thoughtful and prayerful chances.  Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure – a little chaos and confusion as a prelude to creativity are at the heart of this Jesus’ life.  In one of his poems, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, writes “so walk on air against your better judgement” (“The Gravel Walks”).  There is something to that if we are to follow Jesus.  It is just what Zacchaeus did.
            While you see a chance to think in new ways about your faith, to deepen your connection to the God who is always reaching out to you in Jesus, take it.  Walk on air against your better judgement.
            While you see a chance to help others take a chance on Jesus, take it.  Walk on air against your better judgement.
            While you see a chance to reach out to the hurting, the yearning, the hungry, the least, to share good news, to share bread, to work for justice, take it.  Walk on air against your better judgement.
            While you see a chance to move from curiosity to commitment to curiosity again, take it.  Walk on air against your better judgement.
            The Christian life, the Jesus way is a way of adventure, imagination, curiosity, creativity, sometimes a little chaotic, sometimes a little confusing, but always rippling out into the world in profound and unexpected ways.  While you see a chance take it.  Walk on air against your better judgement and thank you for all the ways you are already doing that in the name and Spirit of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

A Person of Taste

Anabaptist-Mennonite Biblical Seminary
Elkhart, Indiana
March 24, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        Psalm 34:1-10
·        Psalm 42:1-6a
·        Ezekiel 3:1-3

Thank you for your kind invitation to be here today, and thank you for being here.
A person of taste.  For some of us of a certain generation, that phrase evokes the beginning of a song: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”  It is not a song that probably makes most seminary top ten lists, The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The very idea of “taste” seems a rather odd topic for a seminary sermon, or a sermon anywhere.  It seems more suited for the style section of the Sunday New York Times, or if we take the definition another way, the culinary section.  In either case, taste is something that seems at best, pleasant, essentially ephemeral, probably a distraction to the serious business of following Jesus and leading the church.
Yet one might think about taste differently, and in doing so dig deeply into being a follower of Jesus, into being a person shaped by God’s Spirit, and into being in ministry and leading the church in our time.  That’s my plan.
John Wesley, to whom we United Methodists trace our stream of the Christian tradition composed an essay published in 1780, “Thoughts Upon Taste.”  The brief piece is a response to another’s essay about the same subject.  Wesley makes appreciative remarks, but also some critical comments, before engaging in some of this own creative work on “taste.”  Wesley writes about taste as an internal sense that relishes something, that perceives something with pleasure.  Good taste involves relishing excellence, and that could include relishing the beauty to be found in virtue.  Good taste was something “much to be desired.”  “It greatly increases the pleasures of life, which are not only innocent, but useful.”  Good taste could help a person render “greater service to our fellow creatures.”  Especially for those who often engaged in conversation, good taste would help a person be more “agreeable” and “profitable” in conversation.
This essay fits well with interesting descriptions of Wesley found in a work from the 1890s.  A parishioner of mine from Duluth, MN lent me a rare book on Wesley, John Wesley: a study for the times, Thomas J. Dodd, DD (1891).  The author, wanted to show “the illustrious founder of Methodism as the great, broad, liberal man he was” (5).  His journal abounds with allusions to the Greek and Latin classics, and in quotations, which show not only that he was conversant with the great poets, orators, historians, and philosophers of antiquity but that he possessed the taste to appreciate their excellences” (35-36).  In history, philosophy, poetry, romance, physical science, philology, equally with theology, he was at home with the great thinkers of all ages (37).
In Wesley’s own thoughts, and in some writings about him, the idea of “taste” begins to take us deeper into our hearts and souls, deeper into what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus, a Spirit-formed person.  “Taste” can be used as beginning idea for moving into a conversation about our deepest desires, our most profound hungers, that which we relish.  I think one could speak helpfully about the work of God’s Spirit in our lives as the work of shaping our tastes – our hungers, our desires, our pleasures.
Our Scriptures use “taste” in such a way.  Psalm 34 invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Here taste is a verb, but the verse is not about taking a bite out of God.  It is about experience, about sensing God, but also about developing a taste for God, because “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”  Psalm 42 uses a different but related image, “my soul thirsts for God.”  “As a deer longs from flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”  Again, the image of desire, of relishing, of hungering and thirsting is used to describe our experience with God.  In that there is an invitation to develop this kind of taste for God.  In the third chapter of Ezekial, the very word of God is like a scroll to be eaten, a scroll that to the prophet taste “sweet as honey.”
Taste, both in its verb and noun forms, can be used to help us dig deeper into what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a Spirit-formed person.  The work on the Spirit in our lives can be conceived as the work of developing our tastes and shaping our desires.  Here is an overlap between spirituality and ethics.  Ethics is concerned with helping us reflect on doing the right thing, but at the heart of the moral life is the vision of the person who delights in doing good.  Augustine is famously quoted as saying, “love God and do what you will.”  Developing the right kind of taste, and taste for the right kinds of things carries into multiple dimensions of life.  In his essay, “Thoughts Upon Taste,” Wesley wrote that “generous minds” have a taste for human happiness, and a taste for the beauty in virtue.
If we can use the notion of taste as a way to talk meaningfully about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be a Spirit-shaped person, I think we can also use the idea of taste to help us think about some qualities important for leadership in the community of Jesus’ followers, the church.  There are some tastes that will serve us well if we are to lead the church.
Cultivate a taste for learning and growing.  Here is a favorite Wesley anecdote.  In 1765, Wesley was engaged in some conversation with some of his preachers who apparently were taking Wesley’s own words about being a person of a single book too literally.  “But I read only the Bible.”  Then you ought to teach others to read only the Bible, and, by parity or reason, to hear only the Bible.  But if so, you need preach no more.  Just so said George Bell.  And what is the fruit?  Why now he neither reads the Bible nor anything else.  This is rank enthusiasm.  If you need no book but the Bible, you are got above St. Paul.  He wanted others too….  “But different men have different tastes.”  Therefore some may read less than others; but none should read less than this. [Wesley’s “less than” was about five hours]  “But I have not taste for reading.”  Contract a taste for it by use, or return to your trade. (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 227-228).  Thomas Dodd notes in his book on Wesley that Wesley enjoyed a novel now and again when some of his fellow Christians considered the entire enterprise suspect.  In his “Thoughts Upon Taste” Wesley argued that good taste could be developed by engaging with “the writings of the best authors.”
One of the best things seminary can do for us is help us develop this important taste for on-going learning and growing.  I will never forget an encounter I had in my very first church appointment. I was the only United Methodist in a small community in far northern Minnesota which had a number of Lutheran Churches.  There I was, fresh out of seminary, and I recall a pastor telling me, “I have not read a book of theology since I left seminary.”  How disheartening.  You don’t have to aspire to deep scholarly reading alone, but keep reading, keep learning, keep growing.  John Wesley thought it important enough to tell those among his preachers who did not want to read that they ought to develop a taste for it of find other work.
Cultivate a taste for emotions.  This is my way of encouraging emotional intelligence.  Ask nearly anyone who has served in some kind of supervisory position with clergy and they will tell you that the thing that seems to get in the way of a more successful ministry more often than not is the inability of a clergy leader to be sufficiently emotionally intelligent.  A helpful way to think about emotional intelligence is developing a taste for emotions, in oneself and in the situation in which one leads.  Emotional intelligence is all about knowing what’s going on inside oneself, managing that, knowing some of the emotional atmosphere in the group one leads, and managing that as best one can.  Developing a taste for emotions involves slowing down, being reflective, being less anxious.  When you chew your food too quickly, you don’t have the opportunity to savor it.
When I was a district superintendent in Minnesota, I remember bringing a pastor to meet with the Staff-Parish Committee of the church to which the bishop was appointing him.  It was not his first choice of a place of service, but I knew the people of the church to be solid people, willing to embrace new leadership.  At one point in the conversation, someone on the committee said something about friendship.  If you know some of the conversations about healthy boundaries for pastors, you know that there are debates about just how deeply one can develop friendships within a congregation.  Well, this pastor decided to assert his boundary.  “I’m not here to be your friend.”    It took some work to hold that appointment, and it lasted one year.
Cultivate a taste for transformation – for a newer world, for new life.  The work of the church is finally the work of connecting people with the God of Jesus Christ and with others so that God’s Spirit can work to change lives and through changed lives change the world.  If we don’t have a taste for that, a hunger for that, we can easily lose our way in leading the church.
Finally, cultivate a taste for God.  As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God.  Taste and see that the Lord is good.  All the other tastes I have spoken of flow from this deepest taste and hunger for God.  We long to learn because we long for the God of a beautifully complex world, this God who continues to lure us toward even more complex beauty.  We cultivate a taste for emotions, because among the beautiful complexities of this world are the intricacies and complexities of human persons and human relationships, and the salvific work of God is the work of healing and wholeness.  We hunger for justice, righteousness, peace because the God we long for also longs for these.  To long for God is to develop God’s longings for new lives and a newer world.

Long for God.  Develop a taste for God.  Be Spirit-formed persons of taste.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit make it happen.  Amen. 

Liminal Lent

Ash Wednesday                                                                                         March 1, 2017
Central United Methodist Church, Muskegon

Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; II Corinthians 12:1-10

            It is an honor to be here with you this evening.  Thank you for the invitation.  Thank you for being here.
            This particular night in the Christian calendar is unique, and, from the perspective of the wider culture, it is a both odd and unaccounted for.  You won’t find any “Ash Wednesday” cards at the Hallmark store, or displays of Lenten prayer beads or ashes in a necklace.  Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is steeped in ritual, and for some even in the Christian faith, ritual can seem cold and stiff.  Many of our fellow Christians do not mark this night, but we ought also to note that for many in our own tradition, worshipping on Ash Wednesday does not have deep roots.  In the 1945 Book of Worship for The Methodist Church, there is no ritual or order of worship for Ash Wednesday at all.  In the 1965 Book of Worship, a copy of which I was given when ordained an elder, there was an order of service for Ash Wednesday, but it did not include ashes.
            I did not know that, though, in my first appointment.  I had not yet received the Book of Worship, so I decided we should have an Ash Wednesday worship service, and I was going to make it new.  I had read about a ritual that involved people writing on pieces of paper hopes, disappointments and confessions.  These were to be burned, and cooled with water, the ashes then to be impressed upon the forehead.  Here’s what I can tell you.  Glossy office paper, burned in a coffee can and then drowned in water does not make for good Ash Wednesday ashes.  Some of us left that service looking like a bulletin board with singed sticky notes.  I’ve stayed with more traditional ashes since.
            Whatever its history, whatever the reticence among our more non-liturgical sisters and brothers, there is something very special about this night, and about the season that begins this night.  In these forty days, excluding Sundays, we prepare for Easter.  We are invited to self-examination, to repentance, to re-commitment.  These forty days are meant as a time for renewal and renewed development in God’s grace.  In that spirit, I want to this evening, invite you to a liminal Lent.
            Liminal Lent?  It sounds rather like something you might purchase at a frozen yogurt shop.  It would have to be green, wouldn’t it?
            Liminality is a concept used to speak about what happens in rituals.  Liminality is a concept I encountered doing my doctoral work.  Where else would one find such a word except in academia?  An anthropologist (Victor Turner) used the term to describe a phase in rituals that marked rites of passage.  Rites of passage can often be described in three phases: separation – a journey into the wilderness, a coming together in worship with ashes perhaps; liminality – the transition phase when re-orientation might happen, when one gets in touch with something deep and profound; and aggregation – a coming back together into community.  The liminal phase are those moments where we are open to deepest transformation, those moments when something new is most likely to touch us.  The anthropologist went on to say that there are places of liminality in culture beyond ritual moments.
            I think that there is a profound liminal dimension to Christian spirituality, that is to life lived in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Spirit.  The liminal dimension to Christian spirituality is when we come to touch and be touched in the depth of our souls, when we come to understand that there are essential paradoxes to living in the grace of God.  The liminal moments in our lives in Jesus Christ are those moments when we touch those essential paradoxes and negotiate and renegotiate how we hold those poles of the paradox together, when we weave and re-weave those poles of the paradox.
            So I am about as far away from the grittiness of ashes in our fingers and on our foreheads as I can be, but I hope you will bear with me just a moment more at this abstract level.  The liminal dimension of Christian spirituality is coming to touch the essential paradoxes that are part of the life of following Jesus, and recognizing that we are always renegotiating and re-weaving those paradoxes.  So what do I mean by essential paradoxes?  Parker Palmer in one of his earliest books, a book that has more recently been reprinted, writes about The Promise of Paradox.  Palmer defines a paradox as “a statement that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.”  He goes on to say, “the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth” (xxix).  Not all contradictions are paradoxes, but being able to embrace true paradoxes is “a life skill for holding complex experiences” (xxx)  The promise of paradox is “that if we replace either-or with both-and, our lives will become larger and more filled with light” (xxix).  Palmer argues that it is “one of the great gifts of the spiritual life, the transformation of contradiction into paradox” (6).  Another author who has been a gift to my journey of faith, the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, writes, “Confronting the paradoxes of life around us and in us, contemplating the meaning of them for ourselves, eventually and finally, leads to our giving place to the work of the Spirit in our lives” (15).
            An invitation to a liminal Lent is an invitation to rediscover the paradoxes that are at deep places in our life with God in Jesus Christ, and an invitation to reweave these paradoxes.
            Ash Wednesday is the perfect introduction to a liminal Lent for in it we find ourselves right in the midst of a profound paradox about our lives.  One traditional ritual phrase when ashes are imposed on our foreheads or hands is “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We are tonight reminded of our mortality, of our bodily existence and of the limits of bodily existence.  The writer Ernest Becker put it this way: (The Denial of Death, 26): Man is a worm and food for worms… housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.  His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die.  You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Welcome to Ash Wednesday.
            But there is something else about us.  We are capable of being caught up in visions and revelations.  We can be “caught up into Paradise” and hear things “that are not to be told.”  This was Paul’s experience.  Ernest Becker recognized that, too.  (The Denial of Death, 26): The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic….  We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature.  He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history.  He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet.  This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature….  Yet, at the same time… man is a worm and food for worms.  This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. 
The story of our faith is that God took dust and breathed the very breath of God into it – human being.  We are dust and spirit, dust and the very image of God.  A few years ago I began using another ritual phrase when I imposed ashes, “You are dust and stardust.”  Somehow those two need to be held together.  In a world where there is an excess of shame, to only tell people that they are dust leaves out part of the essential paradox that is life in grace.  A liminal Lent reminds us of our mortality, our finitude, and of our capacity for vision, for goodness, for imagination and contemplation.  Sometimes we lean too much one way or the other, get stuck in self-hatred or forget our limits.  Lent is a time to renegotiate and reweave.
Here is another paradox essential to our life in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Spirit: humility and heroics.  Lent has often been framed as more about humility, about our very real need for repentance and caution about our tendencies toward self-importance.  The traditional gospel reading for this evening is Matthew 6 where Jesus warns about blowing our own horn spiritually.  When we give, don’t even let our hands know what they are doing.  When we pray, go to our rooms.  When we fast, wash up and smile.
I have come to think of the essence of humility in this way, as a gentle strength that helps us approach the world and other people with openness and curiosity – knowing that in this wonderfully complex world there is always more to learn, and honestly acknowledging that sometimes we get it wrong.  Humility is not about groveling and thinking badly about oneself.  The lack of humility is not evidenced by feeling good about what one might accomplish, or taking delight in progress made or knowledge gained.  The lack of humility is evidenced by a lack of wonder and curiosity.  The lack of humility is a failure of imagination.  The lack of humility is less about making oneself too big than it is about making the world too small.  Humility is openness, the capacity to wonder and question and be curious, the ability to laugh at oneself.  It is not the opposite of a heroics that delights in work well done, in knowledge gained.  We know we are weaving the paradox of humility and heroics well when we touch righteousness, when we live righteously without becoming self-righteous.
One last paradox for this evening: optimism and pessimism.  When I was a young man, I heard people say that you get more conservative as you get older.  I remember an international relations professor mentioning that in a lecture.  At the time I was none too pleased.  It probably had something to do with my own limited understanding of the meaning of conservative, but even more objectionable to me was the idea that someone was predicting the course of my future development.  I didn’t care for that.  I have also come to think that maybe what the persons who said that were really trying to say is that one becomes more pessimistic as one grows older.  There is some truth to that.
When I was younger, there was a President who at the University of Michigan spoke about working toward a Great Society.  Social theorists wondered what people would do with all the new found leisure that would be made possible by labor-saving technology.  Great strides were being made in civil rights.  Looking around, we have not created the Great Society, nor did we seem to win the war on poverty.  Technologies have not created greater leisure, but instead have often led to lower wages and fewer jobs.  Issues of hatred and bigotry and exclusion have proven to be tenacious, and that is deeply discouraging.  There are real grounds for pessimism.
Yet as followers of Jesus, we are not left in Good Friday despair.  For followers of Jesus, there is always Easter, even in the midst of Lent.  The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: An adequate religion is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism. ("Optimism and Pessimism").  The poet Wendell Berry chimes in: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”  When we hold this paradox together we are wide-eyed and open-hearted, we feel the hurt and despair of the world and joyfully work for a better one, we know our own failures and live joyously in the forgiveness of God.
I invite you to a liminal Lent, a Lent where you touch the deep paradoxes of life in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Spirit.  Touch that liminal dimension of life with Jesus.  Ask how well you are keeping the poles of these essential paradoxes together: dust and stardust, humility and heroics, pessimism and optimism.  I invite you to a liminal Lent, to digging deep inside your heart, mind and soul, and here’s another paradox.  As we do this inner work, we are better able to reach out to others for we have a better way of life to share. As we do this inner work we are better able work for a better world, for what is our vision of a better world but another paradox, that place where, according to Psalm 85: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other.”  Justice and kindness embracing, a liminal text.
Let me wrap up with a final liminal text, the end of Matthew 11 as rendered by Eugene Peterson.  Walk with me and work with me….  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace….  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.  Unforced rhythms of grace, that’s liminality, finding those rhythms of life in the Spirit that keep together dust and stardust, humility and heroics, pessimism and optimism.  Absent those rhythms, we trip over ourselves along the road, and we do that.  Lent is an invitation to find those rhythms again, to touch the liminal dimensions of our lives and be changed.

I invite you to a holy and liminal Lent.  Amen.