Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sermon for Feb. 14, 2010

Jesus, the Glorious One

About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus glory and the two men standing with him. As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, Master, its wonderful for us to be here! Lets make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them. Then a voice from the cloud said, This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him. When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didnt tell anyone at that time what they had seen. -- Luke 9:28-36

Youre drained. You’re tapped out. You have little energy to give others. We’ve all been there. Usually, after a little break we revive and step back up to the plate. What happens, however, when these feelings don’t pass? What happens when you just want to give up? If you have ever cared for an elderly parent or a sick child, or worked as a health care worker of social worker, you might know what I’m talking about. Sometimes caregivers just give up. It’s called compassion fatigue. It refers to a physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that takes over a person and causes a decline in his or her ability to experience joy or to feel and care for others. It’s not that one day you’re living your life with a great deal of energy and enjoyment, and the next, you wake up exhausted and devoid of any energy. Compassion fatigue develops over time, taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. Basically, it’s a clouding of caring and concern for others in your life whether you work in or outside the home. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion.

Compassion fatigue also affects us when we hear news of disasters. Compassion fatigue sets in whenever there is a long-running news story that shows no signs of resolution. Viewers can become bored by even the most compelling story, if it seems never to change. Media audiences become jaded. Just think about the news cycle over few years: Katrina, Genocide in Sudan, War in the Middle East, Indonesian tsunami, Kashmir earthquake, Japan earthquake, China earthquake, Haiti earthquake, and the list goes on and on. There are days we wake up and, frankly, don't feel like turning the TV on. If I do watch TV, I’m stuck with a so-called “Reality TV Show.” The irony is not lost on me.

Isn’t there enough pain within ten miles of our homes to last us a lifetime? What do we do when we hear an orphanage was buried under a mudslide in Ecuador or a bus full of nuns holding babies in their arms went off a cliff in Singapore? I could probably spend two or three hours a day just praying for the crushing needs of people I know. So how can I shoulder the rest of the world’s problems? After all, God does not call ME to be the savior of the world. Sometimes I think about the pain all around, and all I can do is sit and put my bleary face into my cupped hands and pray.

Author Max Lucado tells another story of compassion fatigue: Four people snake up a mountain. The trip has been long. The hour is late. A level place on a hillside is reached, and they sit down. Theyre tired. Their muscles hurt. The grayness of twilight settles over them like soft cloth. The quartet of pilgrims longs to sleep, but only three do. The fourth sits in the shadows, legs crossed. Face skyward. He slips off his sandals and rubs his sore feet and reflects on the wildness of it all. A God with sore legs? Holiness with hunger? Divinity with thirst? A World-maker made weary by his world?

His thoughts drift homeward. Nazareth. How good it would be to be home again. The memories surface so easily. A sawdust-covered work bench. Friends stopping to talk. Dinner-table laughter. Wrestling with his brothers. But Nazareth would never be home again. They tried to kill him last time he was there. Even his brothers and sisters considered him insane. They were ashamed to be known as his family. No, Nazareth would never be home again.

What about Galilee? The crowds listened in Galilee. There the people followed... as long as he said what they wanted to hear. He remembered the crowds as they turned away. He heard their jeering. He felt their rejection.

He thinks of Jerusalem. She offers no comfort. He knows what is waiting for him there. A foreboding pain stabs his wrists. He winces at the slicing of his brow. He sees the world around him growing darker. He shakes his head and takes a staggered breath. His thoughts return to the present. He plucks a shoot of grass, puts it into his mouth, and sits in the shadow of his fear. He looks at his followers, as asleep as they are naive. They have no idea. He speaks of suffering; they think of conquering. He speaks of sacrifice; they think of celebration. They think they hear. They think they see. But they dont. Part of him knew it would be like this. And part of him never knew it would be so bad. Talk about compassion fatigue! Part of him wonders, Would it be so bad to give up? He has given his best and what does he have? A ragged band of good-hearted followers who are destined to fall flat on promises they cant keep. He thinks about the future. Jesus will be banished by his people. Physical attack awaits him in Jerusalem. Only God really knows the cost of the struggle. So he sits down and puts his bleary face into cupped hands and prays. Its all he can do.

Sounds familiar, doesnt it helper? You thought you could save the world one person at a time. You saw where you could best demonstrate your gifts of compassion, and you went there. But now you are tired, questioning your motives, feeling drained and useless, wondering when relief will come, kicking yourself for not having a back-up plan, resenting that you are the only one doing the work.

Sounds familiar, doesnt it, dreamer? You wanted to badly change the world. Sure the mountain was high, but you were brave. Then winds came. Sharp rocks of reality cut your feet, breaking your stride . . . breaking your heart. And you found the role of the cynic was less costly than the role of the dreamer. So you sat down.

You need to know something. Jesus sat down, too. Sure, there were moments that he stood tall. There were hours of splendor. The days came when the sick leaped for joy and the dead came to life. But the peaks of popularity were corrupted by canyons of isolation. And on this day, the crevasse is deep. His strength has reached a low point.

Listen to what happens next. Luke writes, As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. For just a moment Jesus is transfigured; a glorious radiance pours from him. For a few minutes, the burden of humanity is lifted. God holds him. The One who felt weary is soon reminded that the weariness will soon pass. As Jesus prepares himself for the work of death, Moses and Elijah draw near: Moses the lawgiver whose grave no one knew; Elijah the prophet who side-stepped death in a fiery chariot. The one who faces death is reminded: the grave is powerless.

And then the Voice thunders. In the Bible, God likes to show up in mountain-wrapping clouds. Gods enveloping presence transforms the mountain into a shining monument. And from the belly of the clouds the Father speaks: This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him. Its as if God shouts, It doesnt matter what people think. Right now, it only matters what I think, and Im proud. By now the apostles are awake. For Peter, James, and John, the scene must have looked bizarre: dazzling white clouds, a voice from the sky, living images from the past. But for Jesus, it is a view of home. A view into yesterday. A glimpse into tomorrow. And he heads down the mountain. You see, there is a boy who needs to be healed. There are disciples who need to understand. There is a cross waiting in Jerusalem.

If we look hard enough, we can see Jesus in faces all around us.

Look at the face of Jesus the underpaid nurse who puts up with abuse as she tends to her patient’s needs Or in the rescue worker who hasn’t slept in days because of the crushing needs of humanity around her -- Or in the Mom who struggles to raise her family with solid values, but is just simply exhausted by her kid’s relentless demands.

Look at the face of Jesus in the couple seeking to pick up the pieces of the fractured relationship, worn out and looking for the strength to go on.

Look at the face of Jesus in the cancer patient fighting to survive or the Alzheimer patient who feels the future is hopeless.

Look at the face of Jesus in a grieving spouse, asking why and looking for answers and finding the courage to live.

Look at the face of Jesus in the teen who thinks nobody understands or even cares who she really is.

If you look hard enough, he is even there in your own lonely, spots where no one else is invited to sit with you.

There are people all around us who are tired. Weary. Suffering others irrational reactions to their principles. Tempted to give up and looking for anything to help them just endure. Jesus was there, too.

This morning I invite all of us to travel up the mountain top with a weary Christ. If you do, a wonderful thing will happen. You will see Jesus for who he really is. And when we see Jesus for who he is, we are also able to see ourselves for who we really are. The pure, transfiguring light of God exposes all. It revealed Jesus as Gods beloved. Gods light reveals your own need to be loved, your disappointment with yourself, your shame and frustration, your deepest fears, your isolation and emptiness. In the transfiguring light of God, there is nowhere to hide. We stand stripped and vulnerable before our God and we hear a voice that says, This is my son who is much loved. This is my daughter, whom I adore. Gods talking about you. Gods just crazy in love with you. God thinks you are magnificent. God fills us with glory when we are lost and weary.

It is so easy and yet so hard to accept. God loves you. God understands your weariness. God has felt your emptiness. The voice of God calls out to us. Are you listening?

Through Christ, God says:
Come, you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Through Christ, God says:
Give all your worries and cares to me, for I care about what happens to you.

Through Christ, God says:
You are my child. I choose you. Listen.

God loves you. Jesus calls you. The Spirit is ready to fill you. Are you listening?

Sermon for Feb. 7, 2010

Jesus the Shepherd

Psalm 23; Luke 15:1-7

Once there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of the sheep went astray from the flock. The shepherds colleagues figured this was probably due to some carelessness on the shepherds part. After all, when the shepherd used to be a farmer, he had been seen tossing seed in the middle of paved parking lots and seagull hangouts without much thought as to whether anything would actually grow there. He acquired a reputation for being a little impractical.

The ninety-nine sheep, wanting to be helpful, immediately sprang into action ... or discussion, anyway. One loudly announced that the Historic Flock never included more than ninety-nine sheep, and therefore the stray was probably a goat, or perhaps a musk ox, and should not be bothered with. If a wolf got it, thats what it deserved for straying from the flock, or for being a musk ox, or whatever its problem was.

Factions gathered in response to that announcement. Some suggested that perhaps a letter could be sent to the stray that if she were to stop being a musk ox and become a sheep, or at least learn to bleat like one, or perhaps if she stopped making whatever noise it is that musk oxen make)? Cries immediately went up for a subcommittee to study that issue. Anyway, if she could become more like a sheep, she could rejoin the flock. A website and glossy magazine ads were put in place to further this effort. A committee instituted a series of dialogues, in which each member of a panel of three sheep would present its view of what species the strays were, followed by discussion and concluding with a very nice and moving liturgy.

Another faction formed to try to win over the first group. They poured their resources into a public relations campaign in the flock to celebrate the contributions of all sheep, even the ones reputed to be musk oxen or goats. Some rumors arose that the stray sheep was being attacked by wolves. Another voice in the flock suggested that perhaps something ought to be done. Another of the ninety-nine sheep produced a marvelous-looking PowerPoint presentation documenting the decline in wolf attacks by well over 30% over the last fifteen years. He noted, There used to be 78 strays per year. The fact that weve got it down to one is most impressive! The faction responded with a loud cheer and dashed off to a fundraiser to cover the cost of a digital camera to supply graphics for future presentations.

All of this pro-stray rhetoric greatly annoyed the planners of the campaign to convince the stray to return to Historic Flock, and the sheep who didnt want the stray back in the flock at all were furious. They threatened to leave the flock. Uproar ensued. If you could somehow manage to listen beyond all of the loud bleating and blaring loudspeakers and committee deliberations and rousing choruses of Bringing In the Sheep, you might notice that the shepherd was gone, as one silhouetted figure left to find the stray as some wolf howls echoed in the distance.

In a culture that sanctions every individuals right to seek his or her own path to perfection, self-righteousness can seem like a mere irritating character flaw. One person decides that steaming vegetables is the responsible way to eat and turns pale when her friends order meat. Someone else discovers the aerobic benefits of running and begins to hound all his lazy friends. We all do it on some level. We find something that gives us life and we want everyone else to have it too. We want to share the good we have found, whether its as simple as a new way of losing weight or as profound as a new way of approaching God.

But when I turn my good into your duty and judge you for your failure to perform it according to my standards, then my wish for your well-being becomes something darker and more dangerous.

In todays reading, Jesus dines with tax collectors and other sinners. Maybe there are some prostitutes there, or some camel or donkey drivers. There may be a Jewish terrorist or a public activist at the table. They have two things in common. They are judged as polluted people by the proper religious people of the day, and they have a good time with Jesus. The religious people are scandalized. They pass judgment on Jesus, sneering, This man welcomes dirtballs and eats with them. The religious people are so full of their well-refined values, and so offended against those who do not share them, that even the dynamite of the gospel has little effect on them. So, Jesus tells a story.

I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldnt you go out after the lost one until you find it? Or imagine it this way: Which Superbowl-caliber football coach among you will not leave the team to practice on their own for the season, and go, and search out that student in the college chess club and take him onto the field and spend every afternoon running drills with him and personally coach him so that at last he is prepared to try out. And when that student makes it onto the JV team, will you not run to the entire coaching staff and all the first-string players and say, Come, party with me! The one who is a klutz has made it onto the team! Be happy! Rejoice and be glad! Which one of you would not do that?

None of us would do that. (Certainly not if we want to keep our job as a football coach.) And thats the answer to the question about the shepherd too. Nobody in the sheep business has one hundred sheep, loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves and coyotes, and goes chasing off after the idiot that wandered away. You would never leave the 99 sheep unprotected in the wilderness to go after one lost one. You cut your losses, forget about the lost sheep, and go on with the ninety-nine.

At this point, the scribes and the Pharisees smile to themselves. They agree with Jesus. God always goes out to find the lost. God wants people to get their lives in line with the rules and traditions and religious values. Yes, lets get these tax collectors and camel drivers to clean up their lives and get in line with the rest of us.

Then Jesus says, Lets just say you go ahead and look for the lost sheep, although everyone tells you its foolish. What would you do with the sheep if you found it? The shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and goes to his house. Jesus does not say that the shepherd goes back to the ninety-nine and puts the sheep back in the flock. He leaves the 99 other sheep back in the field and he goes home. He carries the lost sheep right into the living room and says, Hey, I just found my sheep. His wife says, Get that dang sheep out of my living room. Its going to make a mess. I just vacuumed in here. This is a crazy thing for a shepherd to do with a lost sheep. But hes so happy; he has to bring it in, even though it’s dirty and smelly. He says, I want him right in my living room. This is my lost sheep. I just found him. And then Jesus says: There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who dont think they are lost, who dont think that they have any need to get right with God.

By the end, the people of the tradition wonder, How many lost sheep are there? One or 99? The Pharisees sense Jesus directing this parable in their direction, and they dont like the implications. The Scribes and Pharisees are the most religious of the people: they attend worship every Friday night. They make big financial contributions to the synagogue. They dont eat certain foods. They dont use four letter words when they hit their thumbs with hammers. They attend all the potluck dinners. They know, without a doubt, that they are the found ones. The scoundrels outside their carefully-constructed walls are lost. Jesus tells them that God is willing to leave them and put them all at risk just to go save one stray sheep and bring it home. Meanwhile, there are 99 sheep that God does not rejoice over.

The question is: can you come to church every week, be generous in your offerings, say all the right prayers, show up for all the potluck dinners, and still be lost? Can church actually distract us from our relationship with God? Can we become so comfortable with the self-righteous defense of our traditions that we lose our way?

The story for today is not about the 33% of Trumbull residents who dont belong to a church and we the church are to go out and gather the lost sheep. Its not about the lost sheep who live outside the walls of the church and we need to go and find them. The story for today is not intended for someone else; someone like your son or daughter or brother or sister or mother or father or work associate. Im not preaching so we will leave here and think, I wish that so and so was in church to hear this sermon. I know someone who needed to hear it. No, this story is about you and me -- when we get lost from God -- when we wander away from God and we dont even realize it.

There is a line in Psalm 23 that says, He restores my soul. It can also be translated, God causes my soul to return, or God causes my soul to repent. The Psalm pictures David wandering from the paths of righteousness, and being turned back to those paths by the Lord Himself. Jesus leaves the invitation open ended. The pathway begins in front of us. It turns us back to the life God has for us. Or we can choose to stay where we are, clinging to beliefs that feel secure but dont give us life. There are some who refuse to walk the path of new life. They exclude themselves from joy. They would rather not be with a God who chooses to eat with tax collectors and sinners. The story about a lost sheep communicates Gods invitation for us to turn back to God, and hold onto God, and talk with God, and walk with God and pray with God. God gets such great joy when we finally come to our senses, wake up, and return to a loving and living relationship. Maybe its time for you and me to be found . . . again.

Sermon for Jan 31, 2010

This sermon, in three parts, was part of a Lectio Divina inspired worship service.

Jesus the Servant
Isaiah Ch. 52-53

--One --
In 1620, when our spiritual ancestors prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with an historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation couldn’t be confined. Our understanding of God is so limited, so fragile. We need to be ready for that crisis of faith – that moment when our old understanding of God doesn’t work anymore, but we have nothing new yet. “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” That is why in our tradition we read the Bible, we study ancient creeds and catechisms, and we look to the wisdom and guidance of individuals and faith communities throughout history and across cultures. It is also why we never let ourselves believe that we have read or heard all that God has to say, or all that God may be calling us to be and do.

Sometimes you have to be to let go, to release, to accept some things in order to come into this new season of possibilities. The same is true about God. It’s easy enough to believe in a God. The question we need to ask ourselves is, simply, which God? What is your image of God in whom you claim to believe? What kind of company does your God keep? What does your God ask of you? What does your God do to you?

Today we are going to think about suffering. A lot of people think that suffering happens because God is punishing sin. Let’s call it cause and effect thinking. Are you sick? God is mad at you, and you won’t get better until you get right with God. Is there a natural disaster? God is wielding unlimited power to punish us. The God of cause and effect is founded on the assumption of power. Is that your God? When you think about God, do you think the last word in sheer might and authority? Or do you think of compassion, mercy, and self-giving love? In cause and effect thinking, we need to find someone to blame. The God of power seemed appropriate. For some, their assumption about God is that He (and it’s always He), must stand for omnipotence and therefore chose to allow suffering to happen. Here’s what we fail to grasp. Gods who prevent evil and set everything right can only do so by overruling someone’s behavior. Those who get mad at God for failing to act godlike and exercise unlimited power are usually the same ones who are most offended when their freedom is taken. They want the world to be what they want to world to be, and the only god they can tolerate is the one whose will perfectly matches their own.

I think that the god of power has failed us. Any god who punishes the innocent is not worthy of our worship. It’s time for us to grow up out of the adolescent belief that God gives good to the good and sends the plague upon the wicked. If suffering is the essence of being, then God shares our destiny by suffering in it with us. God does not interfere with the way things are. We are in it together. God’s power is seen in the power to endure. This is the witness of Jesus the suffering servant – God is with us. God is with us.

--Two --
Driving through Texas, a New Yorker collided with a truck carrying a horse. A few months later he tried to collect damages for his injuries. "How can you now claim to have all these injuries?" asked the insurance company's lawyer. "According to the police report, at the time you said you were not hurt."

"Look," replied the New Yorker. "I was lying on the road in a lot of pain, and I heard someone say the horse had a broken leg. The net thing I know this Texas Ranger pulls out his gun and shoots the horse. Then he turns to me and asks, 'Are you okay?'"

Is God a Texas Ranger? Is God ready to put you out of your misery when you are already down and out? One might think so, if you read the Bible. There are some profoundly violent, immoral and unethical passages in the Bible when it’s compared to today’s secular and religious ethical systems. These passages cast religion in a bad light. They cause many people to reject religion, and may contribute to the legitimization of violence throughout the culture.

What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, that’s what it’s doing. It’s reminding us about our human condition. It’s telling us about the dynamics that lead to human bloodshed. The violence in the Bible shows us that we humans like to find scapegoats. We like to find someone who will carry away our sins – someone who will atone so that we don’t have to be responsible for our wayward actions. God is not the one who crushes the suffering servant. We are. We are the ones who wound and crush others for our mistakes. It’s wrong. But, it’s what we do.

Violence and suffering in the Bible allow us to hear to voices of the persecuted victims and their cried for justice. Violence in the Bible reminds us that God judges our violent ways and sides with the victims, the outcasts, and the persecuted. God loves. God embraces. God frees. And the Bible is persistent in reminding us that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

A spiritual teacher I admire named Richard Rohr once said, “The pain we don’t transform, is the pain we transmit to others.” You know how it goes. You have a frustrating day at work and so you take it out in rage against other drivers trying to get home or when you get home you kick the dog or pick a fight with your partner. We try to make someone else responsible for how we are feeling. And we know how well that works for us. There is a lot of pain being transmitted right now in the world – a lot of pain being blamed on an innocent bystander. What might happen if we realize that we are simply in pain, and God is not to blame? This is why we need each other – not to blame but to support, not to scapegoat, but to learn to see other’s pain and shadow while allowing them to see ours.

--Three --
The news from Haiti leads to a lot of questions about God. One blog I read this week sneeringly used the earthquake to make a case against believing in God at all. The writer implied that he could not believe in a God who would inflict such suffering on so many people. I have to admit; according to that definition I must be an atheist too because I don’t believe in that God either. The God I worship is not a distant judge who is cruelly indifferent to our pain. My God is not some monster who causes random calamities. My God does not make people suffer because of their sins. I worship a God who weeps; a God who suffers not only for us but with us. That’s what I see when I look at the cross – God with us, suffering with us, aching with us, bearing our pain and giving it some meaning. What can we do but confess that this is not a God who causes suffering? Our God bears suffering. God does not initiate suffering…God transforms it.

The reports that came in that first 24 hours following the quake said that when night fell on the streets of Port AU Prince people were singing hymns and psalms. Blessed be God, they sang. People were singing praises to God amidst their entire world destroyed. Yesterday, I also heard a Haitian pastor claim that God brought the earthquake because of the wickedness of the people. I really struggle with this perspective. If what he said is true, that’s a lot of wickedness. There are plenty of other wicked people in the world. Why would God lose patience with the poorest of the poor, the ones God promised to stand beside?

On his flagship TV program, “The 700 Club,” Pat Robertson said that Haitians need to have a "great turning to god" while he was reporting on the most powerful and devastating earthquake to hit the country in a century. Robertson took to the airwaves and said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, “We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the Devil said, ‘Okay it's a deal.’”

I have a message for Pat Robertson. Your 'theological' nonsense is revolting. Don't speak for Haiti, and don't speak for God. Haiti is suffering a catastrophe and you offer silliness at best, and racism at the worst. Haiti is suffering, and the only response from Christians and other decent human beings is compassion, love, and all the concrete support we can supply.
There is no reason for this destruction – but there IS meaning. And this meaning is to be found as we again become the human family of God’s new creation without country, religion, boundary or race to divide us. In this moment, we act like Jesus. We love and care for those suffering from the earthquake as if they are our own beloved family, as if we are all Haiti.

Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 96-103.

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 ...