Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Christendom

Isaiah 43:18-21
“But forget all that— it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. The wild animals in the fields will thank me, the jackals and owls, too, for giving them water in the desert. Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland so my chosen people can be refreshed. I have made Israel for myself, and they will someday honor me before the whole world.

Deuteronomy 31:7-8
Then Moses called for Joshua, and as all Israel watched, he said to him, “Be strong and courageous! For you will lead these people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors he would give them. You are the one who will divide it among them as their grants of land. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.”


In a London school, a teenager with no church connections hears the Christmas story for the first time. His teacher tells it well and he is fascinated by this amazing story. When the teacher concludes the story, risking his friends’ mockery, he raises his hand, and thanks her for the story. One thing disturbs him however, so he asks: “Why did they give the baby a swear–word for his name?”

One Sunday in Oxford, a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative arts project at the church. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks, “What are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!”

The stories depict a British culture in which the Christian story is unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms of life don’t intrude on most members of society. A few years ago, neither would have been believable, but today there are numerous signs that the era of Christendom is fading in the West. In his book The Secret Servant, Daniel Silva observes an old stone church in stately Amsterdam. He writes, “It’s a church without faithful in a city without God.” It could be said of many cities in the Great Britain, and Europe. In Great Britain, only 4 percent of the children are involved in church. If the Church of Scotland continues to shrink at the present rate, it will die in 2033 (only 26 years from now!)

But that can’t be the case in America, right? Isn’t he church in America is still a thriving centerpiece of our culture? Consider these chilling statistics. Over the past ten years, the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church, has experienced a net numerical decline of about 400,000 members. The Presbyterian Church (USA) experienced a net decline of about 336,000 members. The UCC lost almost 230,000 members, about 15% of the total.

How about our congregation? Has TCC experienced the same decline? Founded in 1730 by Puritans, our congregation proudly boasts of its multi-century presence in the community. The founding of TCC is the story of resolute men and women making their way in a flourishing but difficult new world. With good sense, steady nerves, and unconquerable resolution, they began a 279-year record of “faith, tolerance, and good works.” In 1730, the Puritan meetinghouse was the center of all religious and civic gatherings. The early residents of Trumbull saw problem with holding town meetings in a place of worship. TCC had power and influence when it was the only church in town and attendance was mandatory. Today, there are at least twenty-seven houses of worship in Trumbull. At one time, TCC was the symbolic center of the town’s spiritual life. Community residents no longer see our congregation as the center of formation and identity. In 1954, our Sunday School attendance of 176 students, including seventy-eight Junior High and High School students and nineteen teachers. The active church membership rolls swelled to 543 members, representing a net gain of 32 from the previous year. Now our church rolls hover at around 225 active members with 100 to 120 people attending worship on Sunday mornings. Committees do more work with fewer volunteers and less funding. Income rarely exceeds expenses. Worship attendance holds steady, while the cost per worshipper has increased.

Forces far beyond our control have forced us into a land that is very different from our past. Many of the things that have been familiar to us are gone or have changed. These things have been with us for so long we can’t imagine living without them. What’s going on here?

In 313 C.E., when Emperor Constantine, the leader of the Roman Empire, legalized Christianity, Christianity changed from an illegal and sometimes persecuted minority to the favored religion of the Roman Empire. The Empire came to be identified with the cause of Christianity. Church officials used the government as an ally to promote Christian orthodoxy. Convinced that Christendom owned the right answers to the world’s problems, the church used the Great Commission as its marching orders to expand the kingdom of God. Conversion of the masses justified any necessary means of persuasion to make it happen. Christianity evolved into what we call Christendom. It literally means “the dominion of Christ,” the established religion of the Empire and the dominant way of understanding our faith up until recent times.

Christendom calls Christians in local congregations to be good citizens and to support both the state and the church in reaching and overcoming those who live outside its bounds. Christendom calls for absolute unity. It gives no space for difference or dissent. One joins the church as a matter of birth, not volition. The laity are expected to be good, law-abiding citizens, pay taxes, and support efforts to enlarge the state. Loyalty and obedience are the primary virtues of Christendom’s inhabitants. The Christendom paradigm calls upon Christians to support the government and their church leaders with their prayers and even their lives, if called upon.

The form of Christendom known best to our congregation came to the New World on the Mayflower and took on a new name: American Christendom. American Christendom was both different from and similar to the European form. Though this country was founded on principles that separated church and state, Christianity was nonetheless the culturally established religion. In New England, the clergy were influential in politics and in the formation of the new nation. These traditions carried on for a long time. The secular culture helped the churches by doing things like teaching prayer in schools and limiting sports on Sundays. In return, the churches helped the culture build hospitals and take care of the poor. Christendom flourished like this until just a half century ago.

Many of us grew up in this world of American Christendom, a world where church and culture were interwoven in ways that we were mostly unaware of. For example, many of you who grew up in the East can remember times when all the stores were closed on Sunday. In fact, not much of anything happened on Sundays, except church. No youth sports, no charity walks or runs, no college sports. Public schools opened the day with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer – sometimes even a reading from the Bible. These were central ways in which the culture supported the church.

Today’s world is much different. Certainly no prayers and Christmas pageants in public schools. Sundays have become a day to get more things done, not a day of worship and rest. We kick around all kinds of terms for our times: post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational, pluralistic, multi-faith. The simple way of putting it is to say that the world for which we were carefully preparing, the world in which we learned what it meant to be a Christian, is being taken away from us.

I believe that today the church faces a crisis of apostolicity. The term “apostolicity” has the word “apostle” in it. It describes the affirmation that the church is chosen and sent by God into the world to share God’s blessings to others. Apostles are people who bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the apostles of today. We are the ones who bear witness to the resurrection and the teachings of Jesus. This does not mean that we remain stuck in our traditions and comfortable worldviews. It does mean we need to be realistic about our situation. We are not the church at the center of life anymore. We are becoming a church on the margins, and we need to redefine ourselves if we want to faithfully proclaim our faith to the next generations.

We are not the first ones to experience a seismic shift in our religious practice. In the Bible, the people of Israel went through something called the Exile. God’s people were taken over by the armies of Babylon and deported from the Promised Land. Babylon’s armies killed the monarchy and smashed the temple in Jerusalem to the ground. Some Israelites remained in their devastated homeland, but most were forced to live as defeated slaves in Babylon. Everything they relied on to define their spiritual existence was taken from them: the Temple, the religious establishment, the monarchy, their sense of entitlement, their self-assurance of God’s favored blessing. All they had were God’s promises that they were not doomed to extinction. God would not leave them. God would not forsake them. God would not bring them to the Promised Land just to snatch it away. God would make a pathway through the wilderness and lead them home.

It is not so different today. We can’t imagine living without our church buildings, our denominational structure, our preeminent place in the culture, our belief God will favor us and our nation forever. But those things are changing. Our buildings are so expensive that they compromise our witness. Our denomination seems to be fading away. Christianity is no longer the unofficial state religion. Sometimes it feels like God has withdrawn favor toward us. In other words, we are being forced to live in a land and a church that is far different from what it was when most of us grew up.

Many of us are feel is a sense of loss — a grief over what no longer exists, and a sense of discouragement about the church. Our sanctuaries are not as full as they used to be. Some of our neighboring Congregational churches that used to be the bedrock of the town are closing their doors. Denominational identity is unsatisfying. Church programs that once worked are now ineffective. We are being forced into exile. In this time of loss and change, we can feel anxiety, anger, desperation, and a rush for answers or programs or people who will take away our pain and take us back to the time when life was better and easier. We want the one program that will revitalize our church, bring in new members, put money in the offering plate. We want the denomination to do something. But none of them seem able to do what we want or need. We are entering exile.

Of course, great things are still happening. The church is still a meaningful place for us. It’s just that the world around us changed and we didn’t think we had to change with it. The sooner we acknowledge our current experience and fully enter the exile the sooner we will find out why God has put us here and what God offers us while we are here. I say that because, ultimately, it is God who wants us in exile. And for good reasons. God is up to something new. God wants us to embrace our new place on the margins of society so that we can more fully become the church God created us to be in the first place. This is the place where we can learn about the deep value of forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, the restoration in families, and the power of neighborhood organizations. This is the place where we can rediscover the meaning of spirituality. This is the place where we can learn about worship and recognize that something deeper is needed in our life, a place where in spiritual roots can be nurtured and grow so that we can are anchored in faith in the face of relentless stress in a global community. This is the place where we learn to build a sense of community and break down the loneliness, isolation, and polarization of life in Trumbull. This is the place where we support each other as we experience the demise of culturally supported Christendom and affirm the liberating decision to be a Christian. We don’t have to apologize for our faith, yet in a pluralistic culture we must find creative ways to invite others to join us while being careful not to be intolerant or feel superior to others.

This is our opportunity to become the church that God intended us to be: the caring, creative, counter-cultural, critical, and Christ-following apostles who bear witness to new life. If you are ready for adventure, this is a great time to be a member of the church. We face a wondrously exciting time that can help our congregational enter into our changing times and the new life that comes with it.

Sources
· http://www.pcusa.org/research/reports/denominational_size.pdf

· A “Funeral” for Christendom. Available online at http://www.firstchurchlongmeadow.org/firstchurch/PDFFiles/Sermon%20of%20November%2012%202006%20MSB.pdf

· “It’s Not About You” a sermon preached by Dr. Larry Corbett. Available online at http://www.pinnaclepres.com/sermons/2007/sermon_070812.html

· Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church (Washington D.C.:The Alban Institute, 1991.

· The Trumbull Congregational Church, “Meeting Minutes,” January 18, 1954.

· Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1994).

· Stuart. Murray, Church After Christendom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004).

· Stuart. Murray, Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004).

· Dana Lindsley, “Life is Hard in Exile.” Available online at http://www.psne.org/Ref%20D.pdf

· Anthony Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sermon for April 19, 2009

Dear Matt,

I love April in the Ozarks. Spring seems to come all at once. I’ll wake up one morning and say to myself, “I wasn’t waked up by a salt truck rumbling down my street. I can actually feel my fingers and toes – they don’t feel like cold salt potatoes this morning. I am alive again.” I’ve seen wild crocus blooming in the fields and the redbuds and dogwoods are just aching to come into bud. Sure, the weather can turn on a dime and I’ll be caught off guard, knee-deep in snow, but I choose to think we’re on an upswing. The surest sign of Spring is that your cousin, Daryl Bob Broadfoot, emerges from his trailer at the beginning of April. We have some great truths of life that we count on in the Ozarks: You can’t trust your dog to watch your food. You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. You never hold a dustbuster and a cat at the same time. Always drink upstream from the herd. Finally, don’t plant ‘maters ‘till you’ve seen Daryl Bob Broadfoot. People come from all over and set up lawn chairs in front of #52 at the Misty Mountain Acres Trailer Park. Folks talk in hushed murmurs for the yearly event. As regular as custard, Daryl Bob sticks his head outta of his 390 C Travelair luxury park model trailer and greets the Spring. If he comes outta the door with his bloodhound, Mr. Pickles, that means he’s going to the local dawg park to burn off some winter lard. That also means no more snow this April. If Daryl Bob greets Spring by glaring us with angry red eyes as he chews his last piece of pinto bean fudge, that means one more snowstorm’s a-comin’.


What’s he doin’ in that Travelair trailer all Winter? How does he survive? We never knew until this year. The crowds congregated on April 1 to see Daryl Bob Braodfoot appear. When he opened the screen door, he had a crazy look in his eyes. He held fistfuls of computer printouts that had strange headlines on the top, punctuated by exclamation points, food smudges, and coffee mug rings. His printouts said things like: SCIENCE ITEM! France unveils secret images of aliens and their spaceships! SCIENCE ITEM! Dog gives birth to mutant creature that looks like a human being! SCIENCE ITEM! Horrible hairy sea monster cast ashore! SCIENCE ITEM! Fir tree grows inside man’s lungs! SCIENCE ITEM! Global climate change, disproved yet again! He found all of this on Pravda online. What’s Pravda? Turns out, Pravda is Russia’s best source for news and analysis. All Winter long, Daryl Bob was cooped up like a battery hen, reading wingnut science articles from the Russain Internet, eating chicken-fried squirrel and getting hisself all worked up for the end of the world. (Do I kid you? No. I kid you not.) One headline especially agitated the crowds. Pravda says that we’re soon in for an Ice Age. Not global warming. An Ice Age! Gracious! Best grab a scarf! Don’t take the plow off the truck yet. We might be in for that Spring blizzard after all.


Everything I’ve been hearing leads me to some other conviction. It sounds like old Mother Earth is heatin’ up instead of cooling down. Of course, I’m no scientist. I only know what I hear on the evening news and what I read in the newspapers other than Pravda. Us farmers care a lot about the weather. Our lives depend on regular seasons. I recently read that if the temperature keeps rising, it won’t be a safe subject to talk about the weather anymore. The rhythm of the seasons with snow in the winter and rain in the spring might become the distant memory that we only hear about in old country ballads. The new weather will be unpredictable, switching from one shape to another, with storms, and droughts, and floods, and altering the globe more or less at the same time. The climate will change in jerks, jumping from one season to another.


I don’t know how we got to this place. Some blame the Chinese. Some blame city folks. Some think it is our materialistic culture. Some scientists blame my cows, saying they produce more climate-changing methane than any other animal. It’s probably a little of everything. I’m not quite sure how to fix it, even if we can. This isn’t something that can be fixed with bailing wire bubble gum and duct tape. Your Uncle Slim could do anything with bailing wire, by the way. He’d make a wrench holder, a chum tie, a marshmallow rotisserie. He even made a few sculptures before he died. His favorite was a sculpture of Garfield the Cat that he perched on our mailbox. He even painted his favorite Garfield quote underneath it: “If you want to appear smarter, hang around someone stupider.” It’s still there. True story.


Anyways, I’m not the only one worried about the earth. Bea Jimson’s husband Woodchuck often admits that he’s scared as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs whenever he thinks of global warming. He’s afraid he’s gonna die before his time. Just the other day I heard him say, “It scares the Christmas out of me. The thought of dyin’ from a creepin’ sea or a red hot sun and things like that has me plumb terrified to death.” Woodchuck paused for a moment to down him a swig of sugar-free YooHoo, light a fresh filterless Camel cigarette and open a whole box of Devil Dogs. Then he continued, “I can’t believe that human beans would even consider doing something like this to their fellow man and woman. I mean, what kind of monster would do that? Cause our coast lands to sink and our crops to fail?” His wife, Bea Jimson, after listening to his rant for maybe the 200th time, took in sharp breath, cussed and declared through gritted teeth, “You know Woodchuck, I never met an overweight, chain-smoking, pill-popping, YooHoo-drinking, Devil-dog munching person who ever died yet from global warming.” This was a revelation to Woodchuck. It truly was. He decided, right then and there, that this was a sign to clean up his act so he could properly worry about how he was gonna die.


Woodchuck decided he was gonna go green. And he was gonna start be recycling. Woodchuck’s become quite the scientist. His recycling isn’t about putting cans at the curbside. Instead, he digs through the garbage, trying to find uses for Bea’s throw away household goods. Then he writes them all down and sends his ideas to the newspaper. Did you know you might use a Mr. Coffee filter to cover bowls and dishes in the microwave? You can also use ‘em for cooking. After frying a catfish, strain the oil through a sieve lined with a Mr. Coffee fFilter. A Mr. Coffee filter also makes a good taco holder. He made a back massager by putting some Wilson tennis balls in an old sock. He even painted his barn with Carnation Nonfat Dry Milk and a pair of queen sized pantyhose. I haven’t tried it yet, but Woodchuck swears it works: Mix one and a half-cups Carnation Nonfat Dry Milk and one-half cup water until it is the consistency of paint. Thin the paint by adding more water, thicken the paint by adding more nonfat dry milk. With the pantyhose, brush on the milk as you would any other paint. Woodchuck also uses those pantyhose as produce bags. You can see him down at the Piggly Wiggly, stuffing boxes of fat-free Devil Dogs into Bea’s old pantyhose, shuffling to the checkout line just as happy as a rat with a gold tooth. To me, that’s just a bit too unsanitary and even a little bit creepy.


For my part, I’ve been composting more than I used to. Another way to say that sentence is “I’ve got fruit flies in my house.” I’m fine with a few fruit flies. If that’s the cost of me personally saving the earth that’s a fair trade, but these fruit flies have attitude. I’ll find them in rooms that have nothing to do with fruit. Why are fruit flies in the shower with me? Rarely, and I mean rarely, will I just carve up a pineapple in there. And yet, as I reached for the shampoo the other day, a fruit fly flittered across my field of vision with a look on its face like, “Hey lady. Give me some directions back to the kitchen. Pronto.” (I have really good eyesight.)

Hopefully my church, the Jerico Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks, will be smarter than I am when it comes to embracing the color “Green.” Going green is a pretty popular thing to do right now, which is great. But I’m not sure we’re doing enough. Sure we’re recycling more and printing less church materials and finding little ways to help the planet, but maybe there are some untapped methods we’ve forgotten to look at. Here are some of my ideas.

Idea #1 — Harness the energy of the Haters. I think that we’re missing a tremendous source of untapped energy—complainers. If we could find a way to harness the grumbling of a sprinkling of people Sunday after Sunday, we could probably power the Mississippi river valley for a few years. Instead of trying to convert haters into nice people, convert them into energy. When they come into church, ask them to wear some sort of backpack battery device. As the service starts and they start grumbling, “I hate the pastor’s sermons. This music is too loud. This music is too soft,” the backpack will capture all that wasted energy.

Idea #2—Make people earn their energy at church.
I’m not sure that every room in the church building deserves to have the lights on and a box fan in the window. We should kick the Sunday School Room decorating wars up a notch by rewarding the people with the best ornamentations. If you paint a real nice Noah’s ark mural, you get yourself a box fan. Oh, looks like this class just taped up a sad little poster that came in a box of Lucky Charms. I’d wear a tank top tomorrow if I were you, because it’s about to get lot hotter in your room.


Idea #3—Stiff-arm the bulletin hander outer.
I usually give my bulletin back at the end of service because I take all my notes in that notebook your kids sent me at Christmas that says “Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite.” Maybe I shouldn’t even take a bulletin. Maybe I should stiff-arm the bulletin hander outer when she tries to give me one. I’ll giver her a look that says, “Why do you hate the planet so much?” And then I can get my own hater backpack and power the youth group room for three weeks with the energy from my grump. Circle of life, Matt. Circle of life.

It’s doubtful any of these will take off and sweep the nation. I hope that you have better ideas. At the end of the day, this is all I know: The dignity of human bein’s and the honor of Mother Earth rests upon seeing everyone and everything as valuable. We need to start seeing everything as good, just like God does. I think folks have lost their focus. We need to put on a new set of spectacles and retrain our eyes to see God everywhere. We know what the Bible says: We are created in the image of God. And Lord, knows, it’s hard enough to look at annoying people and see God when all you want to do is slap ‘em. But what if we open our eyes more and see the face of God everywhere. What if all of creation is part of God’s body, and our job is to realize that we rely on the other parts of the body for our life. Whatever happens to us and to our world happens to God. If we misuse one part, even a tiny part, we harm ourselves. Even worse, we harm God. We could not live a moment without the gifts of God’s body — air, food, water, land, and other varmints. We don’t have to go somewhere special or wait for heaven to meet God. We meet God in the nitty-gritty of our regular lives. As we think of ways to care for the earth, we remember that God is with us.


Some will face the future like Daryl Bob Broadfoot, ignoring problems, choosing to focus on mutant dogs and alien abductions instead of changing their verve. Some folks will panic like Woodchuck, and drown their hope in a can of YooHoo. When despair creeps over me like an unwelcome stranger, I try to remember that God is with us. We are not alone. We never face problems on our own. Since we live and die in God’s world, we live and die in God’s love.


There I go preaching again. I ought to leave it to you professionals, and go back to my simple life. I don’t know where you are with whatever God is asking you to lean into, but I hope you’ll do it even if it feels really small and invisible to the rest of the world. I hope you’ll forever retire the phrase, “This isn’t important,” because we can’t possibly know what God has planned for the tiny things we do. I hope you’ll believe in the beauty of a God who weaves a story through simple decisions, and chatty widows, and devil-dog eating farmers, and sometimes even smug aunts that try to think they’re as clever as a cartload of monkeys. It’s God’s story. It’s God’s body. And even the small things are big when they are in the hands of the Creator.


Hugs to all the little ones,

Aunt Georgia

Sermon for April 12 ,2009 -- Easter Sunday

The Day Everything Changed

Saturday evening, when the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out and purchased burial spices so they could anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on Sunday morning, just at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, but the angel said, “Don’t be afraid. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.” The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened. — Mark 16:1-8


Remember Junior High romance? I do. There was a girl. And there was a school dance coming up. Not just any dance – our fist middle school semi-formal dance. I was sure this girl would go to the dance with me. I thought she was pretty and fun. But mostly, I knew she would say yes. So, I did what most self-respecting 6th graders do. I got my best friend to ask the girl if she would go to the dance with me. As I saw it, there was only one slight glitch in my plan. My best friend told everyone that he was a Martian who was left on earth in a human kid’s body. In hindsight, putting my romantic future in the hands of an abandoned Martian may not have been a good move. The day had come. We all sat on the bleachers in gym class -- the girl and her friends on one side, my best friend and I on the other. He slid over to her, holding up his hand and giving the Martian sign indicating that he came in peace. Then he said, “The Warlord Matt would be pleased to have the company of a young, green Martian maid at the Dance of Barsoom. May the white apes take us all!” As he said talked, he made sweeping gestures in my direction and smiled. I buried my head in my hands. She looked confused. She apparently did not know any Martian customs. My best friend then leaned over, cupped his hand over his mouth and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and smiled. My friend quickly shuffled back to me, grinning. She said yes.

The day of the dance, I was so nervous I got sick. My mother and I bought a wrist corsage at the hospital flower shop while visiting my great grandmother. As I picked out my only tie, I knew my date would wear the white dress with the little red polka dots. It’s the only one I ever saw her wear. I knew it was going to be a good night. Little did I know, it would be my first date with rejection.

We met at the dance. I gave her the flower and she put the corsage on her wrist. Then we sat on the bleachers in the school gym. And then we sat some more. Then she announced that she needed to visit the girl’s room. That was the last I saw of my first date. Her friends kept coming out of the bathroom to ask me, “What did you do to her? She’s in the bathroom crying, and she won’t come out.” Later on that night, one of her friends came out to announce that my date was breaking up with me. I never found out what the problem was. Obviously, something was wrong. What had I done? Or, what hadn’t I done?

I had my first of many questions about women that day. I would later learn, however, that the problem was not a problem with women. It was, and is, a human problem. It is the problem of expectations. My first date had certain expectations of me. I had expectations of her. And although nothing was ever stated, the perception was there.

The truth of the matter is the world is full of empty promises and unfulfilled expectations. Like the ShamWow. I received my first ShamWow for Christmas this year. I was very excited. I love to watch infomercials, so when I saw the ShamWow on TV, I knew it had to be the real deal. The TV huckster tells me that this revolutionary fabric works wet or dry, acts like a vacuum to soak up spills and holds 20 times its weight in moisture. The machine-washable fabric wicks liquid and air-dries quickly for reuse, saving big bucks on paper towels. Guess what. It did not meet my expectations. It’s a glorified micro-fiber rag that feels like 200 grit sandpaper when you rub it on your body. We watch TV, and the advertisements tell us that we can be happy, sexy, rich, or famous, if we only purchase a certain product. It doesn’t take long before we’ve been fooled enough to know that the world’s promises are full of emptiness.

Expectations can get serious, too. They can block our ways, like stones rolled in front of the tomb. Expectations can be immoveable objects that keep us from living our dreams. They’ve been known to mess up more than a sixth-grade romance. Divorce, job tension, poor self-image, world wars, and embittered friendships — all of these can be caused by the same culprit — unrequited expectations.

What expectations do you have this Easter? More specifically, what expectations do you have of Jesus? Imagine the expectations of the women who approached the tomb on that first Easter morning. It was dark as they arose that Sunday morning. They grabbed their spices and headed out on the dirt road out of the city. As the sun began to rise, the path was lined with dark shadows. But no shadow or darkness could compare with the darkness that hovered over their spirits. As they walked the path towards the tomb, thoughts and sights of the last week ripped through their minds. They were there when Jesus rode a colt in a parade, waving palms and poking fun at the powers of the Empire. Unfortunately, their memories didn’t stop there. They saw Jesus tied to a post as a Roman whip, filled with broken pieces of pottery, glass and bones, ripped across his back. They remembered the purple robe -- the beatings, the cruel mocking and the crown of thorns. These two women were there at the cross. They saw Jesus’ body struggle and wince with every breath that he took. They were there when Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” They saw his head fall as he cried, “It is finished.” Their Lord was dead. Their hope was gone. So what are they doing up so early on this Sunday morning? Why aren’t they taking a moment of self-indulgent misery? What was it that drove them from their beds before dawn? Someone had to prepare the body for burial. The task they were going to perform was difficult. They would be the ones who would wipe the blood from the brow, from the legs, from the sides. They would be the last ones, to touch his face and close his eyes. As they near the tomb, they think of a sudden a problem — something they hadn’t thought of until now — Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb? As they reach the tomb, they see the stone rolled away, and a young man dressed in white who says, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is raised from the dead!” Talk about blowing away one’s expectations! Honestly, is this any way to run a resurrection? You’d think there would be more fanfare: angel choirs and a marching band, and Jesus bursting from the ground like fireworks and crowds of people pointing in wonder as they say, “Ooooh, aaaaaah!”

Instead, we read that the first witnesses to the resurrection are terrified into stunned silence. But, what did you expect? Imagine spine-tingling fear as they gazed into the empty tomb. Imagine their confusion. Imagine their fear-filled joy. What they had expected to happen had been turned upside down. Here is the promise of Easter: Instead of expectations full of emptiness, on Easter Jesus gave us emptiness that is full of expectation.

What do you expect from Jesus this Easter. I know one thing we can count on. Easter is about love. When we love, we usually love with expectations attached. I love you, but I’ll love you even more if . . . you fill in the blank. Christ’s love has none of this. No strings. No expectations. No hidden agendas. No secrets. His love for us is and is up front and clear. Love is the message of the empty cross and the empty tomb. The expectation is not that we run in fear, but we live into the dawn of a new day when everything changes. We find joy. We have hope that death does not get the final victory. We peer into the dark and empty tombs of this world and we find resurrection.

We have expectations of Jesus. I think Jesus also has some expectations of us. In Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” he writes these words:
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest...Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts . . . Practice resurrection
I believe Wendell Berry says it well: “Practice resurrection.” We all know too well the practice of crucifixion. We see it daily in the news, in the tears of friends, and in our own faces, sleepless and worn. But what do we know of resurrection? What do we know about struggling with the issues of the day; reaching out to those who are hungry, poor, and oppressed; healing the sick and broken and breathing life into every moment.

Here’s why crucifixion was so tragic: Jesus didn’t want to die. He didn’t have to die. But he believed that he must die on the cross so that others would have the opportunity to practice resurrection. He hoped that his death would open our hearts to the love of humanity and of God. The empty tomb speaks to a deep place in our souls where we decide who we will be, how we will live, whom we will trust. Jesus Christ is alive. That news should be enough to transform cowards into brave disciples. “Do not be afraid” were the first words spoken to the women at the tomb. Fear not. Fear nothing. Practice resurrection. Or, as Peter Marshall once put it, “Let’s not live another day as if He were dead.”

We practice resurrection whenever we notice beauty and are truly grateful. We practice resurrection whenever we swallow our anger and our pride and start over again with living. We practice resurrection when we ask for forgiveness or forgive someone else; when we find some love that has been buried inside of us; when we say NO to the forces of death in our world and say YES to that which enhances life. We practice resurrection by growing a soul and living a larger life.

Mark’s story is punctuated by the messenger’s closing words, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Yes, Jesus is going ahead of us. Practicing resurrection means walking one step at a time and living one day at a time following the Risen One. It means following Jesus, even when the path is uncertain, trusting that in the very act of walking we will find our way. The empty tomb defies expectations. The future remains surprising, open, and uncertain. But, Jesus is risen and going ahead of us, showing the way we are called to travel and inviting us to rejoice, to sing, to journey and proclaim, “Don’t be afraid.”

Sermon for April 5, 2009 -- Palm Sunday

A Tale of Two Parades
Mark11:1-11
April 5, 2009 / Palm Sunday

Based on “All This Joy, All this Sorrow,” A Sermon Preached by Peter Ilgenfritz and “Which way will be our way?” A sermon by Joe Hoffman

Two parades enter Jerusalem. From the West, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, rides through the city gates on a grand war horse at the head of a majestic procession of imperial soldiers on horseback. From the East, Jesus rides a borrowed donkey down to the city gate from the Mount of Olives. From the West, drowning out all other sound from the markets and streets is the marching of feet, the beating of drums, the creak of leather and the crack of whips. From the East, if we draw enough, we might hear a band of voices singing “Hosanna!” “Save Us!” “Blessed is the one who comes!”

All parades use symbols. The Trumbull Memorial Day parade, for instance, has every volunteer and civic organization in town marching down the road, complete with flags, a military fly over, and street venders overcharging for balloons. Its symbolism is perfect for our area. When I lived in Western New York, the parades were all fire trucks and farm equipment — perfect for a small agriculturally-based village. Pilate’s parade has banners, armor, helmets, weapons, and gold eagles mounted on poles — perfect symbolism for the power, authority, might and wealth of the Roman Empire — a fitting tribute to the Roman Emperor whom they call “Son of God”, “Lord” and “Savior”.

Jesus rides in on a donkey. Those in the crowd who know the scriptures catch the symbolism from the prophet Zechariah, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) The rest of Zechariah goes on to say exactly what kind of king he will be: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

In the West, no one on the street asks who is this. Everyone knows it is Pontius Pilate processing from his palace on the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He has not come to Jerusalem out of respect for the religious devotion of his Jewish subjects. He rides to make sure that no trouble breaks out on this holiday when pilgrims swell the city and the Jews remember the story of their liberation from another empire in Egypt.

In the East, a few people stop and ask, “Who is that?” And someone says, “It’s Jesus, whom they call a prophet. He comes from up north in Nazareth in the region of Galilee.”

If you were there on the streets of Jerusalem, which parade would you be drawn to?
Pilate’s parade has huge appeal. It’s noisy. It’s big. It stands for all the things that were valued in society. It is power, strength, authority, and wealth. It is a brawny and dominant symbol of the Empire’s potency. Pilate’s parade offers control, leadership and security. And let’s be honest, it leaves us with our mouths gaping wide. Pilate’s parade is not mentioned in any of the scriptures, but this parade forms the background of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade. Jesus’ parade only makes sense when we know that Pilate had another parade going at the same time. Jesus’ parade is clearly a caricature of Pilate’s parade. It is laughable. It is ridiculous. A grand leader decked in gold on horseback versus a peasant riding a borrowed donkey? Jesus’ parade wants to make us wake up, to pay attention, to laugh at the Empire, to think about who really is in charge of the land of Israel and the nations of the world.

Much in my life draws me to Pilate’s parade. Big and powerful things have allure. I want to be around people who can make me feel strong and influential. All of us are drawn to that which makes us feel important and admired in the hopes that it might rub off on us. And yet, something keeps calling me back to Jesus’ parade. The past couple of weeks I have been puzzling over what that is. Why do I feel anxious when I drift away from Jesus’ parade to Pilate’s? What is so enticing about Pilate, even when I know in my head his parade does not represent my values? I was puzzling over this when I heard a song. It’s called “Chariot” by a band called Page France. It’s a song with a simple melody and steady, moving beat. I heard this song and thought, “This is it. This is what draws me to Jesus’ parade. Something in this song.” I’m going to play a little bit for you, with the understanding that music is like love. You can’t always explain why you love something. You just do. This song moves me. It makes me feel.

When I listen to a song like this, I remember that Jesus does not ride in order to subdue and punish me. He is does not ride to inspire fear and make me behave. Jesus rides to let me know that he is one of us. He breaks the bread for us and sings. Something about him that makes us want to play a little – to wave some palms and have a giggle in the face of warring madness. Jesus rides so we can become a happy ending.

Pilate’s parade attracts us. It inspires feelings of importance and status. But there’s a cost. We have give up parts of ourselves to be in Pilate’s parade. We need to bring our strength but cannot bring our need. We need to bring our devotion, but we cannot bring our longing, doubting selves. Pilate’s parade offers us status, but to earn this status we have to be willing to march in time with Pilate’s relentless marching beat. We have to become who Pilate wants us to be.

Jesus’ parade is different. Jesus’ parade invites us to hold all parts of our life together. The joy and the sorrow. The promise and the pain. In his parade, we do not march in time with one strict beat. We walk with Jesus. His parade wants us to remember the truth of our humanity. Here is Jesus, confronting a grand parade of status and power, inviting us to walk a very human parade of humility — a parade that proclaims a power that comes not from following God, not human strength and weaponry.

Here is Jesus, riding to the Temple where he will topple the money changers’ tables, calling us to be aware of the practices we take part in without thinking; calling us back from blind materialism, consumption, consumerism, to our true humanity. Jesus rides to the place where people give in to fear and resort to violence to solve their problems. He calls us to reach out in love to those who came to greet us with hatred.

Here is Jesus, riding to on Good Friday and the cross. In a world that denies suffering and death, here is Jesus not denying pain but embracing it, calling us back to our humanity to feel the truth that is pain and suffering. Only in facing it can such pain and suffering be transformed.

Jesus rides to Easter. The Good News of Easter is not that we wait for a leader on a white horse to come into town to save us. The message of Easter is what we will celebrate when we come to the table: “This is my body broken for you.” It is here, in and between us — a broken, longing, hoping people — that Christ rises. Here in this body. In this place and time. Restoring us to life, Spirit and love.

Holy Week is our week to reflect prayerfully and passionately on our faith. It is our time to ask which way of life we will follow. We decide and then we bring all of our heart and soul to living that way.

There were two processions that day. And the people had to decide in which one they would participate. That’s still the decision we all must make. Which world order will we help to bring forth: The domination of the empire that uses violence, coercion and the taking advantage of the poor and marginalized to maintain control and order: to maintain the power structure that benefits a few at the cost of the masses? Or, will we help bring forth the world that embraces each life, that values the power of community in relationship, that trusts in the power of love and the possibility of peace— the one where we can be truly free. Which procession will we participate in?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Community Lenten Worship at TCC

Reflecting the Image of God
April 1, 2009 / 6th Week of Lent
Based on a sermon by Ian Lawton, Christ Community Church
We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
— 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

In a large temple north of Thailand’s ancient capital, Sukothai, there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha. Over a period of five hundred years, violent storms, changes of government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the statue endured. At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack. It would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took a light and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. Now uncovered, the golden Buddha draws throngs of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand. The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.

What might happen if we trained ourselves to see beyond our cracks to the shimmering beauty that lies beneath? Paul describes this experience in 2 Corinthians 4 as “treasures in clay jars.” He says the treasures are in clay jars so that you won’t get attached to pride. You will keep a proper and restrained view of yourself. We won’t treasure a particular version of yourself that might not be true — for example, the self who stops traffic with youthful good looks, or the self who fascinates the world with middle aged charm, or the self who dazzles the world with senior wisdom. These stories we tell about ourselves are not reliable measures of self worth. These various “selves” we masquerade aren’t so unique. We are all just slight variations on a theme. The real measure of worth is what Paul describes as “the all surpassing power of God” — treasures in jars of clay. I like to think about it as beauty beneath the cracks.

You won’t ever see the beauty beneath the cracks in others or in the world, until you accept the cracks in yourself. You won’t learn to see the image of God in others until you learn to see it in yourself. Think of yourself in a new way. Do not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world, especially what the media or other people tell you about yourself. Think of your body in a new way. Look at the wrinkles on your face and see only character lines. Look at your spare tires and see bay windows with a panoramic view of life. Look at the stretch marks and see a road map that tells the story of your journey. Look at the extra flab on your arms and see wings that can soar like eagles. Learn to recognize the image of God in yourself, and then you will be ready to see it in others.

I once heard a story about a young kid named Jake who always wanted to be just like Billy Widdledon. He walked like Billy walked and talked like Billy talked. But then Billy Widdledon began to hang out around Herby Vandeman. He walked like Herb, and talked like Herb. It messed with Jake’s head. He was walking and talking like Bill Widdledon, who was walking and talking like Herby Vandeman. Then it dawned on Jake that Herb Vandeman walked and talked just like Joey Haverlin, and Joey Haverlin walked and talked just like Corky Sabinson. Jake thought to himself — here I am walking and talking like Billy Widdledon’s imitation of Herby Vandeman’s version of Joey Haverlin, trying to walk and talk like Corky Sabinson. And who do you think Corky Sabinson is always walking and talking like? Of all people, Dopey Wellington - that guy who walks and talks just like me!

A lot of us, myself included, fall for the trap of seeking change at the surface and then feeling surprised that we don’t feel any better at a deeper level. If you want to lose weight, but start from the assumption that your extra weight is an imperfection, then you are bound for disappointment. If you use Botox, but start from the assumption that your blemished skin is ugly, then you are bound for disappointment. If you begin a workout regime but start from the assumption that you are not good enough without it, then you are bound for disappointment. If you die your hair, but start from the assumption that your natural color is not adequate, then you are bound for disappointment. Now, here is a liberating truth. If you have come to see the constant and beautiful image of God within, the masterpiece that is you, then you can work at changing the surface effects with freedom. You can celebrate the lost weight, the toned arms, the smooth skin, the died hair, with a great sense of achievement, but all the time knowing that this too will pass and when it does you are no less of a person.

Here’s a Lenten practice for us: giving up self-loathing. Put aside everything you see in yourself that you hate. Seek the image of God first, then worry about smoothing out the wrinkles, if it even matters to you anymore. Maybe once we see the image of God, we will spend our time and money elsewhere.

Maybe you have a head full of impossible goals. Maybe they have been in your head since you were a child. The media creates an image of what beauty looks like, and it is an impossible image, reflected by none other than those touched up and photo shopped into perfection. The media’s beauty myth is particularly devastating for women. It is said that only 2% of women in the world believe that they are beautiful. About 10 years ago, I read this account about actress Michelle Pfeiffer. She appeared on the cover of a magazine with the caption “What Michele Pfeiffer Needs Is . . .Absolutely Nothing!” It was later discovered by a reporter, however, that Michelle Pfeiffer did need something after all. She needed more than $1,500 worth of touch-up work on that cover photo. From the touch-up artist’s bill, here is a partial list of things that were done to make Michelle Pfeiffer look beautiful: Clean up complexion, soften eye lines, soften smile line, add color to lips, trim chin, remove neck lines, soften line under earlobe, add highlights to earrings, add blush to cheek, clean up neckline, remove stray hair, remove hair strands on dress, adjust color and add hair on top of head, add dress on side to create better line, add forehead, add dress on shoulder, soften neck muscle a bit, clean up and smooth dress folds under arm, and create one seam on image on right side. Total price: $1,525.00

Imagine if beauty was measured according to the image of God. What percentage of people in the world recognize the image of God within, no matter how they define or experience that image of God? Don’t fall for the beauty myth. You are so much more valuable than the media would have you believe.

I came across a beautiful article on the beauty myth, written by a blind man. The man describes the way he experiences beauty:
Occasionally, I allow myself to imagine that I see the inestimable and charged faces that we all suspect lie just below the surface. But in any event, I know you differently than do your hand mirrors or photographs. One thing I won’t know is whether you are, in the ocular sense of the word, beautiful. It’s not that I’m inured to beauty. Imagine that you’re talking to a woman who is sitting across a table from you. When you look at her, all you see is a shimmering cloud of light. On the one hand, you are able to observe people as mystical emanations of divine radiance. On the other hand, you don’t know what this woman looks like. So you pour some pinot grigio, and you listen. She’s talking about hats: late 19th-century “Gibson girl” hats with the flowers and jaunty brims. She’s talking about the first great era of catalogue fashion and a new kind of innocent loveliness. A sighted person might have trouble believing this, but if you’re having a nice time in a cloud of light, and you’re talking about beauty, the person opposite you is, in fact, beautiful.”
Isn’t that marvelous? He senses “mystical emanations of divine radiance.

I think that when we realize that we are created in the image of God, cracks and all, we can experience atonement. The idea of atonement rests on the notion that there is a rupture between God and us. We live in the world of the rupture, where every creature walks alone, feeling split off from the Whole, cut off from holiness and goodness, severed from the Source of life and power. Where is this the all-surpassing power of God that Paul talks about? Let’s listen a little earlier in 2 Corinthians. Paul writes these words:
“For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (3:18)

The Greek translation of the word image is eikon. The atonement is designed by God to restore cracked eikons into glory-producing eikons. To be saved is to be renewed in the true image of God, as women and men in Christ. To be saved is to have our relationships restored between God, others, and the self. We are free to be new creations – people who sparkle and shine, and reflect God’s glory. And don’t you worry. God shines through you. Through cracks and wrinkles, through spare tires and stretch marks, through faults mistakes and regrets, God shines through you.

So get rid of some self-loathing this Lent. Seek God. Look beyond the masks and the false images of your Self that you think will win admiration from others. Look beyond the beauty myths and ridiculously unreachable standards. Look beyond any poor estimations of yourself. You may be surprised to find God in a place where you never thought God would be. You might just see the image of God shining in you. Then you will also be able to see the image of God in the world around you.

Sources:
· Reflecting the Image of God.
· A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul
· The Washington Post. · AR2006110801480.html?referrer=emailarticle>.
· Austin Garrett Ward. .

Sermon for March 29 2009, Lent V

The Cross and the Tomb

This all happened on Friday, the day of preparation, the day before the Sabbath. As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea took a risk and went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was an honored member of the high council, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.) Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead, so he called for the Roman officer and asked if he had died yet. The officer confirmed that Jesus was dead, so Pilate told Joseph he could have the body. Joseph bought a long sheet of linen cloth. Then he took Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone in front of the entrance. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where Jesus’ body was laid.
—Mark 15:21-47

I’ve finally been reading The Shack. I’ve been avoiding it for a while, but it’s due back at the library on Thursday and I told someone I’d read it. The novel revolves around Mack Philips, whose daughter, Missy, is abducted during a family vacation. Though her body is never found, evidence in an abandoned shack proves that she was brutally murdered. After receiving a mysterious invitation to visits the scene of the crime, Mack goes back to the shack, walking back into his darkest nightmare and experiencing a weekend-long encounter with God. Much of the book deals with the question of why God allows bad things to happen. The Holy Spirit is personified as a stunning, ethereal Asian woman named Sarayu. At one point, Mack asks Sarayu “What am I supposed to think? I just don’t understand how God could love Missy and let her go through that horror. She was innocent. She didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

I hear similar questions all the time. “Where is God?” Everyone’s life is sprinkled with moments of evil and suffering. At some point, tragedy, or great suffering, or some unexplained pain will grip each of our lives. “Where is God?” Sometimes people ask the question because they feel abandoned by God when they needed God the most. People come to me and want to know why God didn’t protect them from the abusive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know why God would allow such things to go on — The woman who was beaten as a child for something as senseless as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his alcohol-crazed father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide, or cancer, or a fatal accident.

Anguished voices echo across the centuries back to the days of Jesus and before...back to humans’ first awareness of death. And we always ask the same question...WHY? It might be the hardest question that has ever been asked. I ask it every time I listen to the news. Just pick up the evening newspaper and its all there...terrorism, wars, starvation, population-killing diseases, unsustainable climate change, worldwide economic meltdown, and on it goes. So why won’t a loving God do something about all of this mess? Didn’t God become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth to make things better . . . to redeem us from our sin and restore us to the loving arms of God?

Try to imagine the scene that Mark depicts in today’s gospel lesson. It is a Friday. Darkness covers the land for three hours. It’s Mark’s way of describing the shadows that invade our world. Deserted and betrayed by his disciples, rejected and condemned by the nation’s leaders, taunted by the crowds, publicly humiliated and punished as a political insurrectionist, Jesus now experiences utter despair. At this moment, Jesus is fully one with us. At this moment, Jesus faces evil, pain, and death, and shares our human despair to the fullest. It’s as if Jesus is crying out with us, “God, WHY? Where are you when I need you?” And with a final cry of anguish, Jesus dies. Then something amazing happens. A Roman centurion–one of the executioners looks at the dead man and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In Mark’s Gospel, no human being utters these words until this point. Caesar is the only one who is called God’s son. Now, a Roman soldier, and symbol of state terrorism, recognizes Jesus as God’s Son..

Here’s the point. Jesus knows all about suffering from evil and pain. He tells us that we will face violence. But he also tells us that we won’t be alone when evil abounds. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God. The way he suffers reveals his true nature. Jesus won’t idly stand by when our hearts break. Where is God when evil abounds? Where is God when tragedy strikes? Where is God when death looms, when we are scared senseless, when we are confused by the pain in the world and in our hearts? God is with us, reminding us that Jesus came to fill our suffering with God’s presence.

Every time I think about the passion accounts, the behavior of the disciples shocks me. When darkness comes, they run away. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others and hide. Some people think that we are becoming more isolated from one another. A study in 2006 showed that Americans are more socially isolated today than they we were two decades ago. A growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide. A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from three to two. Some argue that social networking Internet sites like Facebook increase a person’s social connections. However, a recent study maintains that social networking sites play a significant role in making people become more isolated. While social networking sites should allow us to enhance our social lives, some research suggests that the number of hours people spend interacting face-to-face has fallen dramatically since 1987 as the use of electronic media has increased. There is actually an evolutionary benefit to us being together geographically. Much of it isn’t understood, but there does seem to be a difference between real presence and the virtual variety.

Any time we separate from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way – the way of Christ. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who an get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God and reach out to others who suffer. Peacemakers are those who have suffered with Christ, just like Christ as suffered with us. Because of their connection with the suffering of Christ, they have compassion, humility, and the desire to root out the weeds of evil.

Let me tell you about a peacemaker I recently met. You may have read in the paper that one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan has been in the area. The Lost Boys of Sudan are more than 27,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War in which about 2 million people were killed. In a mass exodus from the country, tens of thousands of children fled Sudan on foot – a four-month journey across the country to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Over half were killed or captured. In 2001, about 3800 Lost Boys arrived in the United States. No longer boys, these Sudenese men currently pursue their educations. They maintain a strong sense of community and work to support themselves. They are dedicated to helping rebuild their villages and their country now that a peace agreement has been signed. I had the opportunity hear Gabriel Bol Deng, one of the Lost Boys, speak at Hillcrest School on Friday. When he was 10 years old, Gabriel ran from a militia attack on his village. He swam crocodile-infested rivers and walked endless deserts. Crossing the Sahara, he recalls: “We were always thirsty. We tried to lick the dew on the sparse Savannah grass but it did not quench the thirst. Some people died of dehydration. We had no food supplies ... so we ate the leaves off the trees.” In 2001, Gabriel came to the United States. He resettled in Syracuse. He has since graduated from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, having received their “Distinguished Student Teacher of the Year” award in 2006. Gabriel has thrived in the United States and is now working to help his village enhance their education by building, maintaining and raising money for the Ariang Primary School. His commitment to education is strong and his belief that education is key to his village’s success has not waived. Gabriel is a peacemaker. In the face of the worst humanity has to offer, he survived and makes a way for peace through education. He tells students to always stay positive and focus on their learning. His ultimate message is that having hope and perseverance can enable people to overcome adversity. This from a man who, when he was 10 years old, lost his parents, was shot at, walked across the Sahara, lived nine years in a refugee camp, and survived.

Peacemakers are spiritual activists. They turn the world upside down by radically living out the Good News that God has not abandoned us. They do crazy things like forgive others. They allow themselves to mourn. They stand up for justice, and compassion and equality. They do it with humility, and sacrifice, and grace.

There are many peacemakers around us today. Can you be one of them? Peacemakers learn to love those with whom we are in conflict. This is a challenge for most of us. First, we need to love, forgive and accept ourselves before we feel good enough to love our neighbors and our enemies. I really believe that a mind full of love cannot hold fear and anger at the same time. Perform a small, loving act toward an adversary. Act with compassion even if you feel rejected or offended.

Peacemakers see the image of God in everyone.

Peacemakers pray. They pray for ourselves for strength, patience and intelligence. They pray for guidance and wisdom to say and do the right thing as we walk on this path. They pray for each other, our leaders, our nation, all life, and the planet. They pray for our adversaries. Holding negative thoughts about others is counterproductive. It leads to division and isolation. Peacemakers pray for the well being of all. They pray for guidance and a positive resolution to any differences between people with whom they differ.

Peacemakers stay alert for fearful or angry images that others want us to focus on. We can transform our consciousness by lifting our thoughts out of fear, anger and negativity by affirming the highest God-given qualities and virtues for ourselves and others.

Peacemakers let go of the obsession to dominate and always be right. They focus on the issues rather than attacking the opposition.

Peacemakers are not isolated from the pain and suffering of the world. As we let the pain in, we become transformed, compassionate and motivated to action.

Peacemakers commit to non-violent, direct action as an appropriate way to protest harmful and unjust practices. When evil abounds, peacemakers affirm that God has not abandoned us —that God can be found among those who establish the values of God’s Reign — love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness.

Where is God when evil abounds? God is with us because God has faced the darkness has shown us the way to the light. God is with the peacemakers, for they are the children of God. Our hearts go out to those who have lost much, and we pray the comfort that friends and a suffering Christ can provide.

Sources:
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week
“Online networking 'harms health'” at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7898510.stm
“Social Isolation Growing in U.S., Study Says” at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/22/AR2006062201763_2.html
“Hope for Ariang” at http://david-morse.com/hopeforariang/gbd/

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...