Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sermon for December 13, Advent 3

Light Against Darkness: Three Advent Reflections
Luke 2:8-15

Note: this is a sermon in three parts, included in a worship service that was based on the practice of lectio divina. -- Matt

— One —
Ok, here is a brain twister for your physicists out there. What is the opposite of light? Were you going to say darkness? Don’t be too quick to answer this one. We now know that particles have anti-particles. Since light is made up of particles called photons, then the opposite of light is anti-photons or anti-light. But wait! It turns out that the anti-particle for the photon is the photon. Which means that the opposite of light is . . . light.

As it turns out, the universe is composed of light. What we call darkness is simply the absence of light. Even in the farthest corners of the universe, light still exists. It may be an small quantity of light immeasurable by existing technology, but the light is still there. The experience of darkness just means that we cannot see the light.

Think about the darkest times in your own life … suffering a great disappointment … the loss of someone you love…the breaking off of a relationship … moving far away from family and friends … hearing the awful news of an illness … or perhaps financial distress. What did this dark hour of the soul feel like to you? Did you want to give up all hope? Was there something or someone who pulled you through? Did you try to pray? Were you too hurt to do anything?

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced a dark hour in his own life. On Christmas Day 1863, Longfellow received the horrible news that his dearly loved son had been critically wounded in battle during the Civil War. Longfellow’s wife had died in a tragic accident two years before. Now his faith was tested again by the war. His son returned home and Longfellow tended to his son’s crippling wounds. He saw other wounded soldiers on the streets of his city. He visited with families who lost sons in battle and he asked, “Where is the peace?” Then, picking up pen a paper, he tried to answer his own question by writing a poem:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
The last verse is especially moving to me.
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
It seems like we are surrounded by darkness. Or . . . maybe we just can’t see the light yet. It’s not mistake that Christmas comes at the darkest time of year. Jesus is born in the middle of the night of the longest night of the year in the deep darkness of the winter solstice. When the earth is the most desolate, we sing our joy. When the darkest part of the year comes, we think about peace, love, and hope. Light shines in the darkness.

Imagine the scene of shepherds, sleeping on a cold hillside, in the night, in the darkness. The skies fill abruptly with light. Angels announce that darkness is just an illusion. A child will be born, a light to the nations, the savior who is Christ the Lord. As Scriptures says, Jesus is the true light that enlightens everyone, the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness (John 1:9). Or, to put it another way, we finally see the light that we couldn’t see before. Darkness is an illusion.

— Two —
Peace would come through the birth of a child. It was foretold long ago. Travelers to the ancient city of Priene in modern-day Turkey might have seen an inscription in a temple. It read, “The good news about the birthday of a divine child who will save the world from destruction by establishing permanent peace.” Who was this child? Who would bring peace and good will to all?

Caesar! The inscription is written about Caesar Augustus. By 9 BCE, it was accepted that Augustus was the savior who would put an end to war and order peace. His birth brought to the world good tidings. Roman theology regularly spoke of the emperor as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “Savior.” Julius Caesar, along with his grandnephew and adopted son Augustus belonged to the Julian tribal family. They claimed a 1000-year-old decent from the goddess Venus and her son Aeneas. In the Forum of Rome, is a relief of Aeneas. In his right hand, Aeneas holds his son named Julus. On his lap he carries their household gods. The scene swept across the Roman Empire in the first century. You can find it on a tombstone in Italy, a relief in Turkey, an altar in Tunisia.

Caesar Augustus, it was claimed, was the son of Apollo, the god of light, and a virgin named Atia. Caesar Augustus was the son of a god who was coming to light up the world.

What happens if you want to replace on son of God with another? You need to counter the imperial theology. According to Luke, Jesus is the light in the darkness. It turns out that the peace of Rome did not end war. The peace of the Empire was based on oppression and violence.

On the first Christmas night, the angels proclaim a different kind of peace -- Jesus, a different Savior, Messiah, and Lord. The first ones to hear this message are shepherds -- a marginalized peasant class who experienced the oppression and exploitation of the Empire. The good news comes to the poor and despised.

The light of Jesus is political. The stories of the birth of Jesus are meant to give an intentional contrast the stories of Caesar. Christ is light, and the Empire is darkness; Christ gives liberation while the rulers of the world bring bondage. The justice of Christ speaks to the injustice around him. The true prince of peace is born in a land of violence. Jesus is the Lord of life. Caesar is the Lord of Death.

Christmas is a time of new beginnings. It is time to destabilize our old habits with something new. It is a time to remember that the old order of things is slipping away. A new order has begun. It is a time to do something new: a time to forgive and forget; a time to throw away prejudices and hatreds; a time to fill your heart and your house with sunshine. There is a new kid in town. His name is Savior, Son of God, Lord. He comes to challenge our assumptions. He comes to show that we need more light in our lives. He comes to make us new.

— Three —
We don’t always want people to be who they really are. We have a code phrase for this: “Don’t Ask. Don’t tell.” In other words, you must suppress and compromise an essential part of who you are. As a husband, I’ve learned there are times in life when “Don’t ask. Don’t tell” seems appropriate. I have learned never to ask certain questions:

"What color is this?" I read about a study that examined the color identification and vocabulary skills of male and female college students. Guess what? The women identified significantly more elaborate colors than did the men. Apparently there is a difference between blue and periwinkle.

There are some other questions I don’t ask anymore, like: “Does this match?” And . . .
“You’re just like your mother.” OK, technically, this is not a question. This is a death wish.

My bride has learned there are some things she should never ask me:
“Do I look fat in this outfit?” and the related question, “Do you like my new haircut?”
“What are you thinking?”
“Would you remarry after I die?”

These are not questions. They are ambushes. Here is what can happen if you pursue these questions. A woman asked her husband, “Would you remarry if I died?”
“No, of course not, dear,” said the husband after a long pause.
“Why, don’t you like being married?” said the wife.
“Of course I do,” he said.
“Then why wouldn’t you remarry?”
“Alright,” said the husband, “I’d remarry.”
“You would?” said the wife, looking hurt.
“Yes” said the husband.
“I see,” said the wife crossly. “And would you let her wear my old clothes?”
“I suppose. If she wanted to,” said the husband.
“Really,” said the wife icily. “And would you take down the pictures of me and replace them with pictures of her?”
“Yes. I think that would be the proper thing to do.”
“Is that so?” said the wife, leaping to her feet. “And I suppose you’d let her play with my golf clubs too.”
“Of course not, dear,” said the husband. “She’s left-handed.”

Some topics are better left alone. However, when it comes to an essential part of who you are, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a recipe for mediocrity. You were made for so much more than mediocrity. Your life purpose is to be more fully who you are. You were made for the light. So let your light shine.

When you are boldly and confidently yourself, you are offering your highest good to the world. Who are you to question the greatness that is the image of God’s light in you? In the words of Marianne Williamson,
“Who are you not to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world . . . You are meant to shine, as children do. You were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. It’s not just in some; it’s in everyone. And as you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As you are liberated from your own fear, your presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles)

As we think about light, think about how each of us is made to shine. Think about our connections and interconnections. And think about making some commitments.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to destroy the life or spirit of others.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to take what is not given.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to engage in abusive relationships.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak falsely or deceptively.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harm self or others through poisonous thoughts, deeds, or substances.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to dwell on past errors.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak of self separate from others.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to possess any form of life selfishly.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harbor ill-will toward any human being.
When we can work on these things, we will begin to understand the true power of Christ, love’s pure light, at work in us, around us, and through us this season.

Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas, 172-197
Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Vest Loved Songs and Carols of Christmas (Grand rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 81-85.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, December 3, 2009 - -Advent 1

Genealogy and Destiny
Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38

Do you have any weirdos in your family? Don’t answer that. Of course you do. Don’t even try to deny it. Maybe you’re the weird one in your family. I think the word family assumes the inclusion of oddballs: the lecherous uncle, the sister speaks Klingon fluently, the cousin no one can figure out.

There are a lot of those on the Braddock side of the family. My father is one of 16 siblings, so there are bound to be a few nonconformists in the extended family. The Braddocks don’t get together much. Funerals are the best occasions for family reunions. And whenever there’s a funeral, I’m usually called in to officiate. On one sad occasion, the youngest of the Braddock 16 passed away. The funeral was held at the funeral home, and the place was packed. Try to picture it. The family is seated. They are all uncomfortable being in this place. They are uneasy at religious gatherings. I’m about to do my thing, when a cousin, a little older than me, starts taking pictures. After all, it is a family reunion. The problem is that the viewfinder on her 35mm camera is cracked. She can’t see through the broken plastic. So she stands up, walks up to me, and asks me to fix her camera. I look at the camera and tell her that she just needs to pry out the broken plastic and she’ll be good to go. And I ask, “Do you have anything in your purse that we can use?” She opens her purse and pulls out a carbon coated steel knife with a 6-inch folding blade and a serrated edge. I make it a habit not to ask about the contents of women’s purses, but I have to make an exception this time. “What are you planning to do with that, gut a fish?” I ask. Without answering, she expertly pries out the plastic, folds the knife, puts it back in her purse, and starts snapping pictures again. As I found out later, my cousin was a Vegas dancer who was on the run from some bad guys. Taking refuge in Connecticut, she kept the knife handy for protection. And camera repair.

Whenever someone says to me, “I have a strange family,” I say, “You mean you have a
family, no need to repeat yourself.” And really we’re all a little weird. And if you don’t think you’re a little weird, that’s a little weird. We might be a little easier on each other if we just admitted it.

Speaking of weird families, I printed out Jesus’ family tree for you to look at. Jesus had a lot of strange folks in his family, too. It’s a little weird, these family trees. Normally we just skip over these genealogies and get right to the Christmas stories. Nothing to look at here, right? Today, as part of our Advent preparation, I want us to look at this family tree and see how weird it is. Let’s savor the oddness. First, the list from Matthew includes the names of five women. First century Palestine was a patriarchal culture. People traced lineage through the male. Luke version of the family tree has no women listed. It just wasn’t done. SO, why did Matthew mention these women? Do you see the names? We see Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, otherwise known as Bathsheba. Finally, Mary the mother of Jesus. That’s two prostitutes, one adulteress, a seductress, and a pregnant, unmarried teenager. That’s an odd collection.

Tamar appears in the book of Genesis. Tamar had a husband named Er. Er died, leaving Tamar without any children. No children, so security. In Hebrew culture, if a woman is going to be left childless, the next son in that family is supposed to marry her. So Er’s brother Onan married Tamar. He also died without leaving her any children. The father of these men was named Judah. Judah had one son left, and he decided not to give him in marriage to Tamar. The odds were not good with this woman. Insulted, Tamar took matters into her own hands. Disguised as a prostitute, she seduced Judah and became pregnant with twin sons. What’s Tamar doing in Jesus’ genealogy?

How about Rahab? She was a Canaanite prostitute who lived in the city of Jericho. Israel sent spies into the city to prepare for a military invasion. Rahab hid the Jewish spies in her home. Even though she was a woman of ill repute, she became a woman of high repute because she knew who the true God was. She helped those spies and also made sure that her family was safe in the invasion. Why mention her in the family tree?

And what about Ruth? There’s a whole book about her in the Bible. She follows her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to a foreign land when all of their husbands die. Ruth exemplifies loyalty and dedication. But after following her mother-in-law, Ruth seduces an old rich man named Boaz so that she can secure her resources. She’s an interesting character.

Bathsheba was the adulteress. Actually, she was more of a victim. King David saw her bathing on her rooftop, and he glowed with lust for her. David ordered his generals to put her husband on the front lines of the army. The husband is killed in battle and David then he sleeps with Bathsheba. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child named Solomon. Bathsheba takes a stand and ensures that Solomon will become the next king of Israel.

Here are four unlikely women. Three are involved in some form of sexual immorality. Two are involved in prostitution. One is an adulteress. All four are in the line that leads to Jesus Christ!

The women have something in common. They all had, shall we say, irregular relationships – including Mary. Every one of them has some sort of a tragic background. But it is precisely through these unconventional women that God controlled the family tree of the Messiah.

Another thing makes these women a little weird. Except for Mary, they are all Gentiles. This is no accident. Matthew is trying to tell us a story: The Messiah is not merely King of the Jews. His ancestry points to a connection with all people everywhere. Jesus is for all people. Jesus is for you and me.

There are plenty of other weirdos and oddballs in Jesus’ family tree. The lists are filled with liars, murderers, thieves, crooked politicians, and outcasts: Adam, the first sinner; Noah, the savior of humanity who dies as a disappointed failure; David the adulterer; Solomon with his hundreds of wives; Manasseh the wicked king who reinstated pagan worship in the Jewish Temple and built altars to foreign gods. Not a pretty picture. Not a “clean” family tree. Jesus was born into a long line of sinners. His family is cluttered with real human beings. It makes this story so painfully and lovingly real. Throughout centuries of weird family, Jesus emerges in the most extraordinary way.

These lists of names let us know that Jesus had a background a lot like yours and mine. He called himself “the friend of sinners.” He said he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He said, “The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” Jesus came for insiders as well as outsiders. Anyone can be included in Jesus’ family tree. It does not matter where we come from, what we’ve done, or what we’ve failed to do.

It’s almost Christmastime, and many of us will be traveling home to spend time with our families. Maybe they are coming to your house this year. Some of you don’t feel good about that. You may have family members who embarrass you. You may have family members who have hurt you deeply in the past. Some of them you’ll be glad to see. Some of them you’d rather not see again. Some of them are sleazy. Some are cheaters. Some are liars. Some are filled with anger and bitterness. Some are just plain bizarre. And you wish you didn’t have to do what you’ve got to do—face those family members at Christmastime.

I like to think that Jesus understands how we feel. He has his own family problems. He knows what it is like to have relatives who embarrass you. He knows all about a dysfunctional family situation. Good news! Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Good news, no matter what we do, no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what weirdos hide in the branches of our family trees, we are all beloved daughters and sons of God. Good news! The worse you are, the better candidate you are for the grace of God. Jesus comes to do what we can never do for ourselves. He comes to reconnect us with the abundant love of God. Look around you. Yes, there’s a lot of dysfunction. There’s a lot of brokenness and a lot of pain. There are a lot of weird people. Good news! These are the one’s Jesus comes to save: Them, and you, and all the members of God’s family.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, 82-98.
Ray Pritchard, “The Forgotten Chapter of the Christmas Story & the Women in Jesus’ Family Tree” http://www.crosswalk.com/who-is-jesus/11561294/
David A. Renwick, “Jesus’ Genealogy: Your Family Tree”
Jim Keck, The Jesus Genealogy, http://firstply.ipower.com/sermons/08_sermons/12-14-08.pdf

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Trumbull Thanksgiving Interfaith Service

Brave and Reckless Gratitude
November 25, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Matthew Braddock

Molly Fumia is a grief expert who writes from the heart about the unique pain of miscarriage and stillborn birth. She finds that the grief associated with miscarriage is often underrated. Mothers are expected to get over their emotional and spiritual pain in a day or two. Well-intentioned family, friends — even counselors — tend to minimize the throbbing ache of grief and devalue the loss of the parents. After experiencing two miscarriages of her own, she knows that it’s an experience of deep longing and unbearable emptiness. That’s why I find her words so amazing. Listen to Molly’s words of healing:
To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise. Our astonishment at being loved, our bold willingness to love in return — these wonders promise the possibility of joyfulness, no matter how often and how harshly love seems to be lost. Therefore, despite the world’s sorrows, we give thanks for our loves, for our joys and for the continued courage to be happily surprised.
I want to be courageously joyful. But I have to tell you, it’s does not come naturally to me. I’m a glass-half-empty person. A cynic. A worrier. A pessimist. A George Will once said, pessimism is as American as apple pie-frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese. I hear ya’, George Will! I once read about an avid duck hunter who found a bird dog that could actually walk on water to retrieve a duck. Shocked by his find, he was sure none of his friends would ever believe him. He decided to try to break the news to a friend of his, a pessimist by nature, and invited him to hunt with him and his new dog. As they waited by the shore, a flock of ducks flew by. They fired and a duck fell. The dog responded and jumped into the water. The dog did not sink. Instead, she walked across the water to retrieve the bird, never getting more than her paws wet. This continued all day long. Each time a duck fell, the dog walked across the surface of the water to retrieve it. The pessimist watched carefully, saw everything, but did not say a single word. On the drive home, the hunter asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?” “I sure did,” responded the pessimist. “Your dog can’t swim!”

I am skeptical of the uninhibited optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. From Oprah, to scores of mega-church pastors and an endless flow of self-help best sellers, we are told that if we just believe, we will get what we want. If we passionately concentrate on our deep desires, our dreams will come true. You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage. The new car is yours for the visualizing. Send enough positive intentions into the universe and your skin will clear up, your diet will finally work, people will laugh at your jokes, you will get a raise at work, and garner instant respect from your boss.

We cannot escape from optimists. I read about a family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. One was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. Just to see what would happen, on the twins’ birthday their father loaded the pessimist’s room with every imaginable toy and game. He loaded the optimist’s room with horse manure. That night the father passed by the pessimist’s room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying. “Why are you crying?” the father asked. “Because my friends will be jealous, I’ll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I’ll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken,” answered the pessimist twin.

Passing the optimist twin’s room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. “What are you so happy about?” he asked. The optimistic twin replied, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

Americans did not start out as unbridled optimists. Trumbull Congregational Church was founded by Puritan settlers. The fabled Pilgrims of our Thanksgiving lore eventually became part of what we now call The United Church of Christ. The original ethos of these white Protestant settlers and their descendants was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings. Even then, there were no promises. You might work hard and still starve to death. You certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or “visualizing” success.

Calvinists thought negatively about the world. They carried a weight of guilt and apprehension that sometimes broke their spirits. In response to this harsh attitude, positive thinking arose in the 19th century — among mystics, healers and transcendentalists —with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

We know that consistent pessimism can be just as deluded as unbridled optimism. We need an alternative, so I’m going to make up a new phrase just for tonight: Appreciative Realism. Appreciative Realism means that we see the risks, have the courage to bear bad news, prepare ourselves for famine as well as plenty, and express gratitude for what we have.

In the Christian tradition, our Appreciative Realist is named Paul. Paul’s travels often landed him in prison. His incarceration in Rome may have been more like house arrest where he awaited trail and possible execution. Tradition actually says that Paul was convicted and beheaded several miles outside the ancient city of Rome. In hindsight, he did indeed have something to worry about. Paul is in prison. As a citizen of Rome, he could have easily changed his situation by promising the Roman authorities he would quit preaching about Jesus. Instead Paul decided it was more important to write some letters, including one to his church in the town of Philippi. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord . . . be thankful . . . Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” What? Where’s the pessimistic introspection? Where’s the optimistic romanticism? Paul gives us a dose of Appreciative Realism: Times of ease will eventually get complicated. Crises will resolve over time. In the ebb and flow of life, be thankful.

Elie Wiesel understood how hard life is. He survived a German death camp with a renewed sense of gratitude. He wrote, “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.” It’s not just because of the relief of survival. It’s the realization that darkness cannot overwhelm an inner light which knows that nothing lasts forever. A story is told about a group of students who came to their Rebbe. “Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?” The Rebbe replied, “Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you.” The students went on the journey. In Anapol, they asked for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age. When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. “Welcome, strangers!” he said. “Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!”

“No. We have come only to ask you a question. Our Rebbe told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?” Reb Zusya laughed. “Me? I have no idea why the Rebbe sent you to me.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.” This is Appreciative Realism: Being grateful for the surprise that is life.

Appreciative Realism also means that we remember that life connects us all. There is a beautiful story from the Zen tradition. Behind a temple there was a field where there were many squashes growing on a vine. One day a fight broke out among them, and the squashes split up into two groups and made a big racket shouting at one another. The Zen master heard the uproar and, going out to see what was going on, found the squashes quarreling. In his booming voice the he scolded them. “Hey squashes! What are you doing out there fighting? Everyone do zazen [sit in meditation].” While the squashes were sitting zazen their anger subsided and they settled down. Then the teacher quietly said, “Everyone put your hand on top of your head.” When the squashes felt the top of their heads, they found some weird thing attached there. It turned out to be a vine that connected them all together. “This is really strange. Here we’ve been arguing when actually we’re all tied together and living just one life. What a mistake!” After that, the squashes all got along with each other quite well.

I know, squashes don’t have hands. Maybe zen squahes do. Like them, can you be thankful for your complete dependence on relationships for survival? When you can, you will flow naturally into an ethic of gratitude that demands that you nurture the same world that nurtures you in return.

My fellow pessimists, optimists, realists: I think there is probably a lot of unnamed and underrated grief here tonight. We live in a fearful and anxious time. We grieve over the loss of jobs, the loss of money, and maybe even the loss of our sense of worth that was connected with these things. We are forced to face our weaknesses and our insecurities. We face difficult marriages and separations, loneliness, anxiety over our children and grandchildren. We hear bad news about health. We deal with the fresh pain of death and the reliable aches from timeworn grief. The reality is that life is filled with happiness and life is filled with pain. Give thanks. Give thanks boldly. Give thanks recklessly. To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise.

Here is a bold and grateful prayer of an appreciative realist: a prayer from the African country of Ghana, as quoted by Desmond Tutu in An African Prayer Book:
Lord, my joy mounts as do the birds, heavenward. The night has taken wings and I rejoice in the light. What a day, Lord! What a day! Your sun has burned away the dew from the grass and from our hearts. What erupts from us, what encircles us is thanksgiving. Lord, we thank you for all and for everything. Lord, I thank you for what I am, for my body tall and broad, despite meager meals at school, and although Father has no world. This body grows and grows, even with malaria in my blood . . . Lord, I am happy. Birds and angels sing and I am exultant. The universe and our hearts are open to your grace. I feel my body and give thanks. The sun burns my skin, and I thank you. The breakers are rolling towards the seashore, the sea foam splashes our house. I give thanks. Lord, I rejoice in your creation, and the you are behind it, and before and next to it, and above — and within us.
Happy Thanksgiving. No matter what life brings, may we find a way to give thanks. We give thanks for our loves, for our joys and for the continued courage to be happily surprised.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon for Sunday Nov. 22, Reign of Christ

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:4-8

Here’s how I know I’ve been having a low week. I yelled at a telemarketer. They always call at a bad time. On the day in question, it was around 8 AM. In between my coughing, trying to figure out what we can make for breakfast that will take the least amount of human effort, dealing with the kid’s fevers, getting the healthy kids ready for school, not to mention the dogs deciding it was time to go berserk over phantoms, the phone rang. It was a guy selling directory assistance Internet ads. “Hello, can I speak to the Trumbull Congressional Church Office?”
“It’s Congregational. And no, this is a residence. Please call the church office after 9:00 AM.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your business?”
“Actually, I do mind. Please call the church office.”
“Do you have the number? I gave the number. He said he would call the office later. Then he asked, “Is this a United Church of Christ?”
"Please call the church office after 9 AM. Good Bye.” I hung up.
No problem so far . . . only mild annoyance . . . until the phone rang again about one minute later. Same company. Same script. Different voice.
“Hello, can I speak to the Trumbull Congressional Church Office?” My sudden anger could have poached an egg. I like to think I’m a patient person. I can put up with a lot of abuse before I lose my cool. But not today.
“Listen,” I said, in that fake, strained, I’m-not-smiling-on-the-inside-OR-the-outside kind of voice. “Someone from your company just called here. This is a residence. The church office opens at 9 AM. Please call the office.”
“I’m very sorry sir. But can you tell me, is this church a United Church of Christ?”
My eyes got all twitchy, and in a terrifying flash I did something I told myself I would never do. I turned into my father on the phone. “I already told you to stop calling here. Now I’m getting REALLY aggravated. Please stop calling here IMMEDIATELY! Good Bye.”

I slammed down the phone. The kids looked at me in surprise. The dogs stopped barking, sat on the floor, and started whimpering. From the other room Chris asked, “Who was that?”
“Telemarketers,” I grumbled.
“You were kind of grumpy with them. I liked it.” She said.

Sometimes life becomes more difficult than we expect it to be. Forget about telemarketers. How many of you are coming into the holidays facing health problems? How many worry about money and jobs? How many are sad because you will be celebrating holidays alone as the kids go to be with the ex-spouse? How many have difficult confrontations to make this season? How many have hard choices? How many seek wisdom and don’t get any answers? In the past two weeks, I’ve talked to people who worry about each of these scenarios. For many, it is a low time of year. We come here with heavy burdens, with anxieties and fears, maybe even panic.

For others, this may be a bright season. Life is good. Do you know people who are always happy? I mean, WAY happy? The Devil himself could rise out of the ground and they would be shake his hand and tell him how happy they are to see him. Once I sat next to one of those happy dads who kept asking me if I was amazed by my children's brain and how wonderful it is to watch kids grow and develop. While I do think they are amazing, I felt like saying “Right now I think it would be amazing and wonderful to not watch my children pick their noses.”

Enough about me. How about you? Is today a low Sunday or a bright Sunday for you? Have you come here carrying heavy burdens, or have you come ready to celebrate the victory of Christ? At one time or another, we feel like we are sinking in the troubles of life. We can use all kinds of bloated rhetoric about resurrection victory and new life in Christ, but that’s not always how we feel. Author Brennan Manning points out that sometimes the church creates the impression that once we confess Jesus as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn. Marriage blossoms into conjugal bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is declared to be a winner. An attractive 20-year old accepts Jesus and becomes Miss America, a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips Alan Dershowitz on court TV, a tenth-round draft choice for the Patriots goes to the Pro Bowl. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing.

For many of us, though, life is more like a victorious limp. More realistically, the story sounds more like this: At some point in our lives many of us were deeply touched by a profound spiritual encounter. We were swept up in joy, we finally felt peace, and love. We no longer became unraveled as we went about the daily routines and occupations of life. But soon enough, we got snagged in the netting of school, or family, or career and all the other important distractions that the busy world offers. We began to treat Jesus like an old high school buddy whom we dearly loved but gradually lost track of. It was unintentional. We simply allowed circumstances to drive us apart. Eventually, heightened by inattention, the presence of Jesus grows more and more remote. So our days become more and more trivial. Our concentration is interspersed by meetings and small crises. Eventually we settle in to well-defined lives of comfortable piety and well-fed virtue. We lead practical lives. Our feeble attempts at prayer are filled with overformal phrases to an impassive God.

I guess I won’t speak for you — this is the victorious limp of my life. It is up and down, peaks and valleys. At different times on the journey, I try to fill spiritual hunger with a variety of substitutes: work, reading, travel, ice cream, TV, music, day dreaming, making lists. Some how, I allow myself to be hardened to God, and therefore I don’t to pay attention to the love Jesus offers.

Today’s reading from Revelation helps me to remember that life doesn’t have to be this way. To begin with, I’m reminded that Jesus is the Alpha. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Jesus is the beginning. I hear Jesus say, “I am the Alpha. Your life begins in me. You are God’s child, and from the beginning of time, I created you to be at home in me.”

Remembering that Jesus is the Alpha reminds me that behind all the Christian clich├ęs, I will fall flat on my face. And at those times I have choice. I can creep away, feeling like a shamed loser, or I can remember that I am God’s child. My life begins in Christ. My existence has purpose and meaning. Because Jesus is my beginning point, I can summon the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout all of life. With all of our scars, with all our sins and insecurities, we stand with Jesus, the Alpha, the First. He marks the beginning of our long journey from death to life.

We also remember that Jesus is the Omega. Omega is the last letter in the Greek Alphabet. In other words, we begin in Jesus, but Jesus is also our finish. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. In Christ we have received life, and to Christ we must give life back.

We hold back so much on life, don’t we? I mean, isn’t it easier to know that everything is going to be safe? Low risks–or no risks involved? I’ve told this story before, but I like it, so you get to hear it again.

A town gathered in the courthouse for a trial. The prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. And, frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a rising big shot, but you haven’t the brains to realize you will never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She replied, “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to babysit him. And he has been a real disappointment to me, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and has a drinking problem. The man can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.” At this point, the judge rapped the courtroom to silence and called both counselors to the bench. In a very quiet voice, he said with menace, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold you both in contempt of court!”

Many of us go to great lengths to hide the truth about ourselves. We live behind all kinds of masks that conceal who we really are. Why do you hold back from a life fully yielded to Christ? What are you afraid of?
Are you afraid Jesus will ask too much? Afraid you might have to actually love some enemies along the way, or even harder, you might have to love yourself?
Are you afraid that Jesus is going to take away all the fun and joy out of life?
Are you afraid Jesus might dig around too deeply into your life along the way?
Afraid of being judged?
Afraid of being seen as a failure?
Are you holding back your love for Christ because you think Jesus won’t like you? You can’t see any good in your life–what if you draw closer to Jesus and he doesn’t see it either?

The question the gospel puts to us is simply this: What are you waiting for? Who shall separate you from the love of Christ? Jesus says, “I am the Omega. I am the End of your hard journey. Come to me.”

Are you afraid your weakness can separate you from the love of Christ?
It can’t.
Are you afraid that your inadequacies can separate you from the love of Christ?
They can’t.
Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over the children’s future?
They can’t.
Negative self-image.
It can’t.
Economic hardship, hatred, rejection by loved ones, suffering and sickness, persecution, terrorism?
They can’t.
Mistakes, fears, and uncertainties? They can’t either.

The Bible says, “Nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.” Jesus loves you. His love is our bright hope during the low times. Everything else will pass away, but in the beginning, and the end, there is still Jesus, the Alpha and Omega. He’s the A and the Z, and everything else in between. From him we come and to him we must return.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sermon for Nov. 15, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? The Harm and Good of Religion
Nov. 15, 2009

For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible . . . So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:8-21

On Tuesday, I was attacked by moths. Moths rule the parsonage, especially the downstairs bathroom. As I walked into that bathroom, moths attacked me. OK, they fluttered at me. But I was really surprised. I’ve never known them to attack before. But here they were, flying around me like I was a new spotlight in an otherwise dreary neighborhood. I had to defend myself, right? I swatted them away -- all except for one persistent assailant that would not leave me alone. The more I swiped at it, the more it returned. At that moment, I had no sense of the strength and power of my left hand, up against a little moth on my right hand. I swatted away, expecting that the moth would fly away as other bugs had. This time, though, I swatted too hard. The moth fell to the ground, lifeless, before my feet. No big deal right? Even thought others in my family are accomplished moth killers, it’s not my thing. I’m more of a catch and release moth hunter. I saw the moth lying on the floor. “Maybe it just landed upside down,” I hoped. But no, I had killed it. I hadn’t meant to. I just was completely inattentive to my own strength and power.

This brief collision between man and beast got me thinking about some other predators, like predator drones — those pilotless weapons of death our government flies into the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our strength and power, our mastery of the skies, must feel a lot like my hand on that little moth to the rural family celebrating a wedding in Pakistan or the laborer in the fields of Afghanistan, hearing that dreaded sound.

I thought about those who have left the church or lost their faith due to significant wounding in the church. The people who rejected them, marginalized them, judged them, or ignored them — those who failed to offer compassion in a moment of crisis — did they know the strength and power of love withheld? Did they have any idea that their actions could lead someone to leave a community of faith?

I also thought about the saints in my life, those who are still living and those who have gone before me. They were not intoxicated with their own strength and power. They used their power for good, for God, for reconciliation, redemption, and release. Our text from Ephesians describes them well: For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.

Religions live within this dual reality. The world’s religions are rich. They have known power and strength. They have had the authority to give and to take away. It has been said that religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. Hatred, violence, intolerance, and bigotry are sustained and inflamed by religions. The reputation of Christianity was shattered long ago by crusades and inquisitions. The reputation of Islam has been shattered by terrorism around the globe. Even Hinduism, once thought to be universally tolerant, destroys mosques and murders non-Hindus in the name of its own religious culture. At the same time, religions are filled with various believers who work for peace. They offer hope of a better world. They strive to radiate the light. Is religion dangerous? Can religion do more good than harm?

We hear this question more and more. To get to the heart of the matter, let’s consider a parallel case. It could also be said that one of the most destructive forces in human life is politics. In Russian and Cambodia, millions of people have been killed in the name of socialist politics. In Latin America, millions of people disappeared in ruthless campaigns of violence. Deception, hypocrisy and deceit are common in political life. Would we be better off in a world without politics?

We might say, “No, of course, not.” We know that humans need some sort of social organization. We know politics are corruptible, but we reluctantly agree that politics and governments do more good than harm. We can think about religion in the same way. Some religious expressions are harmful, just as some political ideologies cause harm. But it seems pointless to condemn religion just because religion causes hatred and violence. Religion can be used to arouse hatred, but it can also be used to inspire love, and commitment. The world would be much poorer without Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa, without Bach or Michelangelo, without St. Francis, Siddhartha Gautama, or Jesus.

How about all the differences in world religions? Do our differences cause harm? Do religious differences lead to conflict? We need to remember that religions exist because humans are imperfect. We live in wicked days. People do evil routinely. Humans are trapped in cycles of hatred, greed and selfishness. Since religions are invented and practiced by imperfect people, religious beliefs will become corrupted. We will see intolerance and repression, irrationality and fear of outsiders. Many of the conflicts between religions are not caused by religious beliefs, but by imperfect believers.

Honestly, some degree of conflict will always exist between religions. Human beings find it hard to live with differences. There will be issues that we will not agree on. Our disagreements will be complicated by the fact that human ignorance, greed, and hatred are just part of the deal. However, religions also contribute to the common good.

When I walked into our old church building early this morning, the radiators were cooking — spreading heat into the sanctuary. The radiators provide a good reason to be an usher on Sunday morning. Pass out bulletins, greet people, and get the prime spot next to the heater on a cold day. It’s a great place to stand, believe me!

At their best, religions are radiators. They send out warmth, and comfort. They draw people in. They radiate God’s light. But we can do better. What would it take for religions to become efficient and beneficial radiators?

1. Religions need to focus on experience over intellect. Religion is not about agreeing to doctrines. Religions, at their best, transform human thought into compassionate action. I recently read about a group called The Compassionate Action Network. They unveiled a charter last Thursday. The Charter has been affirmed by the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, by religious thinkers and leaders from across the religious and secular spectrum. The Charter for Compassion calls people to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. They call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion and to insist that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. They realize that if part of our human family suffers, we all suffer, even if it’s our enemy.

2. Another goal of religion should be a commitment to the flourishing of humanity, and the flourishing of all life. We need to ask our religion: Do you bring more goodness, compassion, and understanding into the world, or more prejudice, division, discord and hatred? Genuine respect means realizing that others have the right to make their own decisions about ultimate reality. Religions need to accept that their teachings represent one of many individual paths to a fulfilling relationship with God. Religions should never force people into thinking and behaving in certain ways. If we learn to value the different ways people see things, as well as the different values they celebrate, there can be the possibility of cooperation between faiths.

Following our religions should bring joy. The author of Ephesians gives readers a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” He tells Christians what to radiate, and what not to radiate. But it is all in the context of living a happy life. Do live in the light and develop a lifestyle befitting of the light. Do harvest goodness, truth, and justice. Do live in wisdom. Do make the most of your time and opportunities. Do seek to discover the will of God for your life. Do drink deeply of the Spirit. Do overflow with songs of praise in your hearts to the Lord.

Can religions take this step? There are some that already have. Those who hold religion back are those who think that their view is the only right, true, unchanging, unquestionable, and absolutely certain view, while everybody’s else’s beliefs and experiences are false. It is that lack of humility – that lack of awareness – that limits our understanding. When our goal is to be supreme, we are unable to see the good in others.

We cannot eliminate religions. They are here to stay. So, let’s make sure religion is a positive force for good in human life. Is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. At best, religion — the search for supreme goodness and a life lived for the sake of good alone — promotes the welfare of all life on this planet. We are radiators. Religion is the compassionate heart that might warm a cold and heartless world. If we live on this earth, our lives radiate something—and what we radiate becomes a teacher to those around us. In a world where anger, despair, and a loss of significance are all around, religion can give us a sense of hope, and peace, and well-being.

• Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward, pp. 179-200
• http://charterforcompassion.org
• Mary Hammond, “The Measure of our Days” at http://pccoberlin.org/blog/ ?paged=2

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sermon for Nov. 8, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Faith and Morality
Matthew 22:23-40

Many religions make many strict requests of their members. This has always been the story for Christianity. For instance, consider the New Destiny Christian Center of the Assemblies of God located in Colorado. New Destiny Christian Center’s goal frightens people into believing in heaven and hell. In 1990, the church created an alternative to the traditional Halloween haunted house. They call it “Hell House” Every Halloween Season guides walk visitors through a building where youth actors depict disturbing scenes in hell. The purpose of Hell House is to save souls – to convert members of the community, specifically teens, into recommitting their lives to Jesus. What started as a small event is now produced around the world. At any given time, one may encounter a Hell House; they are no longer strictly reserved for Halloween. In fact, it can be purchased as an “outreach kit” so it can be performed anywhere at any time. The kit includes a variety of scripted scenes, which depict events as: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the ‘born gay’ lie and died of AIDS;” a “riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” and, a school shooting scene and a “satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice.” The church’s official website (godestiny.org) claims that Hell House, “average[s] a 33% salvation and rededication decision rate” by the end of the “tour.”

The idea is that living a life against Christianity’s ancient morality codes will earn you a personal frying pan in Hell. Accept Jesus, and your life will be turned around. Heaven will be your home. Fail to live your life according to a certain group’s specific morality code, and you are toast. What do you think? Is eternal punishment God’s plan for those who don’t follow the rules? Our question for today is this: Is religion dangerous because it leads people to follow irrational beliefs? Are we supposed to follow biblical laws blindly, or is it OK to realize that moral attitudes change, sometimes for the better? Can it be that morality develops over time, and that religions can develop more humane ways of following God?

Most of our religious moral codes came out of a time called “The Axial Age.” Axial is another word for pivotal, or transformative. The centuries before the life of Jesus were transformative in the ways people thought about religion. Confucianism and Taoism emerged in China. Hinduism and Buddhism were founded in India. Judaism and monotheism began in the Middle East. Philosophy emerged in Greece. Before this time, people thought about the world differently. The world was alive with forces that brought opportunities and threats. It is generally believed that our Stone Age ancestors viewed the powerful forces in their lives as being controlled by spirits or gods. They came to believe that a god, for instance, controlled the gusting wind; a spirit was in the rushing, swirling river; and a fairy swayed the mighty trees. This is called animism—the belief in nature spirits. It is probably the earliest, most universal, and longest lasting theological understanding humans have had.

Around 600-800 years before Christ, religious thinking began to change. It was the beginning of a fresh age of religion. Religious thinkers began to approach their relationship with spirituality differently. They began to ask questions. They began to teach that it is more important how you behave than what you believe. It’s more important to treat people right than to be right. In fact, the Golden Rule comes from the Axial Age. It was firest stated by Confucius in China: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” He said this five centuries before Jesus. The Axial Age began a new form of compassion that came from a very deep place within. People began to understand their connectedness to others. It was also a time of turmoil and social chaos. The message of the Axial Age was to find a place deep within of peace and steadfastness, even when everything around is in turmoil.

I’m giving you this little history lesson because I want us to understand that our religious moral codes are thousands of years old. They were invented during a time when people needed peace, stability, and new ideas. However, as time progresses and societies change, we now have new situations that were not covered in the original codes. Many passages in the Old Testament reflect a tribal mentality that portray God as hating everyone the people of Israel hated. For instance, God’s law justifies the institution of slavery (except for fellow Jews) and defines women as the property of men. Note that even the Ten Commandments tell us “not covet our neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his ox, his donkey, etc.” The neighbor is clearly a male, and the things that we are forbidden to covet are all male possessions. These Hebrew Scriptures, however, also define God as love, justice and as a universal being.

So, there is a lot of current debate about how we should apply these laws for today. Are ancient morality codes supposed to be the basis for all of society’s laws? Are these codes set in stone, or can they be altered to fit our current times? The idea of unchanging, eternal law actually comes from Greek Philosophy. Greeks in the Axial Age believed that perfect truth was eternal. Truth never changes. If you ever took a college psychology course, you might remember the name of Lawrence Kohlberg. He came up with something called the Stages of Moral Development. He wanted to know how children develop a sense of right and wrong. Kohlberg looked to the Greeks to demonstrate how boys and men developed moral standards as they got older. Men, like the ancient Greeks, develop their morality based on unchanging, unbending standards.

Along came another psychologist named Carol Gilligan. She looked at Kohlberg’s research and said, “Hey, he only tested males. Why are the women left out of the research?” She did her own research on the moral development of girls and women and she discovered something very different. While men looked for unchanging standards, women’s moral lives were governed by relationships. Women weighed the cost of their decisions based on how they affected others. For Gilligan’s female subjects, morality was situational and relative.

Maybe this should be true for religion, too. Rather than referring to some unchanging rule, instead of mandating ethics that are unchanging and absolute, perhaps God’s outlook on morality is changing and flexible.

I think Jesus had this kind of change in mind. In today’s reading, Jesus has two conversations with his own religious leaders and law experts. They are trying to trap him. They ask him intricate questions, expecting Jesus to answer according to the strict, eternal code of Jewish Law. Jesus sees the trap. He knows that following the Law is supposed to bring joy and freedom, not oppression. He says to the leaders, “God is for the living, not for the dead. Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” I hear Jesus saying, “Look everyone, following these rules alone does not please God. This life is supposed to be a gift. God is love. If you want to follow God’s lead, then let your lives be defined by love, not law.”

We stand at a moment of great opportunity. Some religious thinkers say that we are in the middle of a second Axial Age. It probably began at the Enlightenment, when society was liberated to use common sense and to question everything. If the first Axial Age was about owning individual beliefs and behavior, this Axial Age that we are now a part of is about global consciousness. It’s about understanding ourselves as part of a global network of people and things, and the earth. It’s about a growing awareness that God is present in us, in others, and in life itself. This second Axial Age is a bringing together of the east and the west. It is a stage for us to draw the best from our tradition but to understand that the moral center of Christian tradition is really no different than the moral center of other religions. Religion is not about judgment, death, and punishment. The core of religious morality is relationship and understanding. The central message of our morality is love.

When American writer Langston Hughes was 12 years old, he was taken to an evangelical revival tent meeting by his auntie, who had prepared him for several weeks before it by saying, “When we go to this meeting you will see Jesus, and when you see Jesus, you will receive him into your heart.” Langston was very excited, waiting for this day when he would finally see Jesus. The night came. He heard an impassioned sermon. The story for that night was the 100 sheep: 99 were saved and there was one who was lost. The preacher came to the end of his talk and shouted out “Do you see the light! Do you see Jesus?” Children scurried to the front of the tent, and received Jesus in their heart -- all except for two young boys, Langston and another boy named Wesley. The two of them huddled together at the back of the tent, Langston upset because he did not see Jesus anywhere. , Meanwhile, Wesley was saying, “Come on, we have to go down in front, this is getting embarrassing.” All the adults gathered around them and prayed for their souls.

Eventually, Wesley said, “I’m out of here!” He went to the front, turned around, and grinned at Langston. Langston thought, “How ironic, this boy is just pretending to be saved, and there is no Jesus here.” Langston sat and withstood the pressure, but eventually ran up to the front and said “Okay, I’m here.” He went home that night and wept in his bed. He thought for sure that Jesus did not exist. He had not seen Jesus. He had just gone down to the front and pretended. Langston Hughes went on to live an inspirational life as a wonderful writer, an activist on issues of racism, someone who knew the heart of the story of Jesus so well. One who had already been saved, and went about liberating others.

Religious morality is dangerous when it is about putting weighty and unreachable expectations on people’s behavior. Religious morality is dangerous when it asks people to be fake in order to please others. Religious morality is dangerous when it creates saved insiders versus unsaved outsiders. Morality should be about liberation. This is all about living authentically, and knowing yourself, and being true to your own perspectives. Of course, we need laws. We need morals. But there should be some guiding principles.

1. Question everything, including everything I say to you. Test everything you hear against your own common sense, your own integrity.

2. It is more important how you behave than what you believe. It is more important to treat people right than to be right.

3. Find that place deep within you that senses its connection with all other things, and practice compassion out of that place.

4. When we are surrounded by chaos, and everything seems to be in turmoil, find a place deep within you that is peaceful and steadfast. When you find that place, you have glimpsed the God within.

Here is the core of our morals: God is every action that you take, every word that you speak. In your actions of compassion toward people, you are no more and no less than showing the presence of God. How marvelous!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sermon for November 1, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Faith and Reason

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen. -- Hebrews 11:1-3

Faith can fix anything, right? We hear it all the time. Just have faith, and everything will be all right. Or will it? In his book, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christian Believe, Pastor Larry Osborne says that this belief tops the list. I know, it sounds weird, doesn’t it. We’ve been taught from our earliest days that faith can move mountains. Faith will keep us going on the tough times. Without faith, what is left to Christianity?

Faith believes in something beyond what can be known by our senses. Sometimes we call it “blind faith” – we don’t see, we just know. We don’t ask questions. We don’t entertain doubts. We just believe what we are told to believe, follow whom we are told to follow, and imagine that having faith will make all of life’s pain go away.

When I think of blind faith, I remember Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” Each year in a rigid and isolated small town, a lottery is held. Everyone gathers in the town square, a big box is brought out, and each person, young and old, draws a slip of paper. As you read the story, you think that the winner of the lottery will gain riches and notoriety. The person who draws the paper with the black spot on it becomes the villages’ sacrificial victim. As soon as the black spot is drawn, the whole village picks up rocks and stones the lottery winner to death. Even family members took part in the stoning. Then everyone goes back to his or her business until the next year and the next lottery. No one ever suggests that the murderous lottery is immoral. For the most part, they accept their tradition without voicing any questions or misgivings, for fear of retribution. It has been passed on for so long that the majority does not think twice about it. “The Lottery” tells the horrendous and repetitive story of how mob violence forms the foundation of religion. The victim’s death justifies the mob's behavior. Most religions have stories about sacrificial victims who atone for the sins of the people. The death of the victim is justified by the guilt of the victim.

Or, maybe you have heard this story about blind faith: A woman is out hiking when she stumbles and falls over a 500-foot cliff to the ocean below. A few feet down, she catches a shrub and clings on for dear life. Dangling precariously, her palms begin to sweat. Realizing she has only seconds to spare, she calls out, “Is there anybody up there?” A deep, booming voice answers: “Let go of the branch. Have faith. This is God speaking. I will catch you and set you down safely. Trust me.” The woman looks down at the sea far below crashing against the jagged rocks and then looks up to the lip of the cliff just out of reach. She then looks at the shrub. She looks down and up several times, then calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

As we go through life, we realize that blind faith does not fix everything. Blind Faith does not fix a broken car. Blind Faith does not make acne go away. Blind Faith does not make an alcoholic stop drinking. Blind Faith doesn’t bring loved ones back from the dead. And this is why some people claim religion is dangerous. It makes smart people believe in dumb things. It’s unreasonable. Faith is dangerous when it becomes an excuse to check your mind at the door, to believe the unbelievable, to stop thinking for yourself and to allow someone else to do the work for you. Faith is dangerous when it promotes wishful thinking against the truth. Faith is dangerous when it creates scapegoats, when it victimizes innocent people and creates class systems based on those who have the right kind of faith and those who don’t. What do you think? Is faith dangerous?

What would you do if I were to tell you that I think the Christian Gospel is sheer fantasy? Would you change the channel you’re watching? Hit the mute button? Well, hear me out: I do believe the Gospel is fantasy, but I also believe it is true. That is, I think the Gospel is beyond our experience. It is beyond our senses. It is beyond our time. Sometimes it is like a dream. We know it speaks some truth, but we don’t know what it means. In that sense, it is a fantasy. And because of that, it calls me to have faith in what it says. To put it another way, the Bible describes a reality that stretches beyond the limits of my finite, mortal existence. Believing what it’s trying to teach us has the capacity to change our lives and the world we share.

Near the beginning of poem, “For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden makes the following confession: “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.” When you are on the brink of death -- from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or catastrophe or oppression or depression or whatever -- when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of something beyond your limitations. That which is merely possible cannot save. And that is what the Gospel offers: an impossible possibility, a reality that goes beyond the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.

Some would call this an escape, a flight from reality. And make no mistake: this is the great risk of the Christian life. Christianity is a gamble that there is a Reality and Truth that lives just behind and beyond our everyday experience. And what a gamble it is! Think about it: week in and week out, in churches all across the world, preachers declare not only that there is a God who created and sustains the universe, but that this God cares deeply and passionately about your hopes and dreams, successes and failures. This God cares enough to send God’s only Son into the world to grant you new and abundant life. This is precisely the gamble that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is talking about when he says that Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Let’s face it, there isn’t much hard evidence for a loving, self-sacrificing God. Just read the newspaper or watch the evening news. Almost everywhere we look it seems that we humans delight in violence and destruction while failing so spectacularly and regularly at loving each other. How, can we begin to imagine a God of love behind it all? In the face of CNN and Fox news, it would seem that the good news of the Gospel is just a little too good to be true.

Sharon Salzberg has a nice way of describing the maturing of faith. Sharon is one of the leading teachers of eastern meditation in the world today. She differentiates between bright faith, verified faith and abiding faith.

Bright faith beams at the possibilities of life. It is pure optimism. Many children have bright faith. It is beyond their comprehension that life will not bend to their will. We get jaded and lose it at some point. Bright faith is appropriate for children. For adults, bright faith can come close to blind faith. The problem with blind faith is that even though faith can move mountains, you need to see which mountain needs to be moved.

Verified faith includes a memory of past survival and achievement. It is learned wisdom. Verified faith works closely with doubt. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. They are two sides of one coin. Doubt sharpens faith, and faith affirms doubt. The Buddha told a story that showed the movement from bright faith to verified faith. He compared faith to a blind giant who meets up with a very sharp-eyed crippled person, called wisdom. The blind giant, called faith, says to the sharp-eyed cripple, “I am very strong, but I can’t see; you are very weak, but you have sharp eyes. Come and ride on my shoulders. Together we will go far.”

Abiding faith is unwavering in the face of change. Abiding faith doesn’t expect life to remain stagnant. It is in tune with a purpose that doesn’t depend on circumstances. It is one with the flow of life.

Of course, if you are anything like me, abiding faith is hard. I move in and out of abiding faith. Just do the best you can, take time to honor yourself for the moments of great faith in your life, and keep moving towards the light.

The amazing thing the Bible is that it not only tells us the stories of the people of faith. It actually invites us into that same fantastic story. At this very moment you are being called to live out the expressions of mature, abiding faith. You are being called to enact your part of God’s story for the world; to struggle to believe in a world of doubts, to love in a world of hate, to make peace in a world of violence, to offer hope in a world of despair. And whether you succeed or fail, I promise you that God will not give up on you. God never has, and God never will. And if you have the faith to believe that, then you will understand the power of abiding faith. Faith gives the courage to face the powers of sin and death and the hope to engage them. We watch those who have gone before us, and in faith, we know that we too can become channels of God’s love.

Ian Lawton, “You Gotta Have Faith.” http://www.christ-community.net/sermons/sermon01_11_09.htm
David Lose, “The Faith Journey.” http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/lose_5017.htm
William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Lousiville: WJK, 2004), 5-8.
Keith Ward. Is Religion Dangerous? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sermon for October 25, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Religion and War
Mark 13:1-31

Onward, Christian Paintball Soldiers! Did you know there is a group called the Christian Paintball Players Association? One of the Association’s most famous paint ball fields is called Promised Land Paintball in Trevor, Wisconsin. Promised Land Paintball Park has special rates for church youth groups, scouts, and others. Promised Land Park brings the Gospel to the paintball community, becoming a living example of God’s word as you being non-Christian friends and share your faith in Jesus with on the paintball field. If you really want to make a statement, make sure to buy some Christian paintball t-shirts through Lion’s Pride Christian paintball gear. It’s popular for paintball teams to post pictures and descriptions of their gear online. Christian paintball teams do the same thing. Take, for instance, “Neplusultra” whose skull-capped logo features a team motto from the book of Psalms: Praise be to the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle (Ps 144:1).

Promised Land Paintball Park is also a Department of Defense Contractor. Visiting military troops are completely outfitted with all required paintball equipment and given a comprehensive “Troop Briefing” that explains the missions. Here’s how a typical special game day might look: In addition to good ol’ Capture the Flag games, you can play unusual scenario games with a plot and a mission! Scenario 1: Outlaw Island. The year is 2008 and the public is tired of paying for an out of control prison system. The answer . . . Outlaw Island where you and your fellow inmates fight for some of the most disgusting food on the planet! Scenario 2 : The Nuke. The “bad guys” want to nuke the area with a suitcase Nuclear Bomb. The bomb has a count-down timer visible from the outside so you can see how long you have to disarm it - just like the movies! Your Mission: Disarm “The Nuke” before you’re all vaporized! Yes, Promised Land Paintball actually have a “Nuke Simulator” complete with a big electronic count down timer! Scenario3: Command & Conquer. Seven Flag Stations and huge hills and valleys on an enormous field make this the biggest and most challenging game of them all!. Capture and defend strongholds - lowering as many enemy flags as you can and raising your own in victory! And the best part of Promised Land Paintball? Pastors, youth pastors, and their wives, get to play totally free of charge (I guess woman pastors aren’t allowed).

Hey, I have a scenario for you. Someone sneaks a video camera to a paintball fight at Promised Land Paintball. The camera captures pictures of children in urban combat gear and facemasks, shooting at each other as their religious leaders give instructions, and look on the scene with approving smiles. Imagine that the video gets sent to Al Jazeera, who plays the clip for the entire Muslim world to see. Can you imagine the lead story? "Look at the American Christians, training their kids for war." The Muslim world is already convinced that America is trying to take them over. What more “proof” would they need?

Picture another scenario. Most of us know the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” It is an innocent, beloved hymn, right? What would happen if Americans heard Muslims singing that song with only one word change: “Onward Muslim soldiers, marching as to war”? Doesn’t sound so innocent anymore, does it?

Is religion dangerous? Do religions cause wars?

Christianity is not without its dangerous doctrines. From time to time, these doctrines give rise to violence and wars. Actually, there is no religious system without potential dangers. Religions have tortured and killed those who have “wrong” beliefs. Religions discriminate against outsiders, regarding them as enemies of God. At times, some religions have imposed their beliefs on entire societies, repressing all other forms of worship. There have been religious wars, persecutions, and hatreds. Whether we are conservative or liberal, these outbursts of religious violence should fill us with horror. There is no denying that they happened. They are inexcusable. How could a faith like Christianity, which appears to be pacifistic in its origins, become a religion of warrior knights and inquisitors?

We must admit that there are many pages in the Bible that drip with blood. Hundreds of verses pertain to killing, violence or war. Our own scriptures portray God as a Divine Warrior. God is the first warrior. By the power of God victory is accomplished. God calls the people and guides them to battle (Judg. 20:18; 1 Sam. 6:8-10; 14:6-10; 30:6-20; 2Sam. 5:17-25). The decision to go to war is not simply left to the discretion of the king or leaders of the land. God decides when the time for war has come. In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about a cosmic battle -- wars and rumors of wars, en end-time apocalypse with images to send even the bravest souls to bed with nightmares. Jesus’ words indict the violence of the Imperial Roman war machine that confined the hopes of his people through military occupation.

Even though the pages of Scripture are often bloody, there are also words filled with longing for peace. There are visions of peace, promised by God. Jesus worked nonviolently as he called people into his community of disciples and taught them to ready themselves to walk in his way. Throughout his life he battled evil but never entered the battle with a force of arms. He fought with the word of truth, the power of love and the signs and wonders of God. He called his followers to prepare themselves, not to kill or destroy in the name of their opposition to evil, but to endure suffering as they sought to serve his cause and be like him. From Luke Jesus is reported as saying:
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:27-36).
What do we do with these mixed messages? Is religion dangerous? Does religion cause wars?

Actually, most wars in human history have not been religious wars. For instance, look at WWI and WWII. These wars involved desire for territory, national pride, and aspirations to extend imperial control. Religion was used to call people to national duty, but these wars were not about supporting religious doctrine. Let’s look at the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They both have strong religious dimensions. But the wars are a so about ethnicity, identity, power struggles, oil, inequality and oppression as the root causes of violence. Religion is used in support when possible, but these are not really holy wars. There’s a group called the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank focused on international security. The IISS has named over 260 armed non-state groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only a minority of them have religious ideals.

My point is, religion can play a part in violent conflict. And while many Western media seem obsessed with religious threats, it turns out that genuine religious wars are few. Where religion is a factor, it is called upon to give support to other causes of conflict. Religions don’t usually cause wars. People cause wars, and they use religion was a justification for their actions. It’s important for religious groups to become aware of their potential to be used for violent ends. Religious groups need to understand that they can be used to inflame conflict.

We need to ask another question. Can religion be a force for peace? Religions need to find ways to encourage the central messages of their faiths that call for peace and reconciliation. Without religion, there will still be wars and violence on earth. With religion, we at least have a chance that the generous voices of our best founders can be heard with greater clarity. With religion, there is at least a chance that goodness may flourish on earth.

War is contrary to the will of God. While the use of violent force may, at times, be a necessity of last resort, Christ pronounces his blessing on the peacemakers. God calls us to live in communities shaped by peace and cooperation. We need to reject policies that lead communities to hopelessness. We proclaim that God created us for each other, and so our security depends on the well being of our global neighbors. Instead of warfare as a solution to conflict, God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our society. Each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth. The earth itself belongs to God and is intrinsically good. We have a biblical mandate to welcome strangers. to heal the sick, and to enjoy right relationship with each other.

Good people, religious people do harmful things. However, peace is the will of God for all creation. The disruption of peace was the result of the fragmentation of right relations. I am convinced that, from a religious perspective, war is wrong. It is not part of God’s plan for the world. Our religious traditions require that when we exercise power, we reflect deeply on the consequences of our actions and the true source of peace and security.

Chiseled into the walls at United Nations headquarters in New York are words taken from the Hebrew prophet Micah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” That is our vision. More than ever, we need to be dedicated to making it a reality.

A Prayer:
God, we pray for our world, a world in need of paths to peace. We pray for a world in which we might learn that differences of faith, of race, of nation, need not separate us. We pray that this world, which may be further divided by this war, can become one where there is less hatred and more understanding. There is only one destiny on this small blue planet, and there are no other hands but ours. So let us, as one people, pray, finally, for the courage and the wisdom to find a path that leads to both peace and justice.

Ward, Keith. Is Religion Dangerous? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. 56-54
Allen, Jospeh. War: A Primer for Christians. Nashville: Abingdom, 1991.

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