Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sermon for June 6, 2010

Courageous Compassion
Jesus went with his disciples to the village of Nain, and a large crowd followed him. A funeral procession was coming out as he approached the village gate. The young man who had died was a widow’s only son, and a large crowd from the village was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said. Then he walked over to the coffin and touched it, and the bearers stopped. “Young man,” he said, “I tell you, get up.” Then the dead boy sat up and began to talk! And Jesus gave him back to his mother. Great fear swept the crowd, and they praised God, saying, “A mighty prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people today.” And the news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding countryside. -- Luke 7:11-17
Many years ago, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old manager of a bar in Queens, New York, returned to her quiet residential neighborhood, parked her car in a lot adjacent to her apartment building, and began to walk the 30 yards through the lot to her door. Noticing a man at the far end of the lot, she paused. When he started toward her, she turned the other way and tried to reach a police call box half a block away. The man caught and stabbed her. She started screaming that she'd been stabbed, and screaming for help. Lights went on in the apartment building across the street. Windows opened. One man called out, “Let that girl alone!”

The assailant shrugged and walked away. Windows closed and lights went out. The assailant returned and attacked Ms. Genovese again. This time she screamed “I'm dying! I'm dying.” This time lots more windows opened and lots more lights went on. The attacker walked to his car and drove away, leaving Genovese to crawl along the street to her apartment building. Somehow, she managed to drag herself inside. The man returned a third time, found Genovese on the floor at the foot of her stairs, and finally succeeded in killing her. During those three separate attacks over the course of 35 minutes, not one of Genovese's neighbors tried to intervene. Worse than that, of the more than 30 people who saw at least one of the attacks and heard Genovese's screams and pleas for help, not one of them called the police.

We hear stories like this once in a while. They make us wonder about what makes us human. They call us to a deeper level of reflection and responsibility. Today, I want is to think about how the church responds to the screams for help around us. What do we do when we see people in pain?

One response religions often take is to ignore problems. Sometimes, we withdraw from the crucial issues of the world. Our religious values and practices can disconnect from human suffering. The problem is, compassion is inconvenient. Think back to the story about Kitty Genovese. One of the witnesses to the crime said he was too tired to call the police, so he went back to bed! He found a way to justify his actions. We've probably all done it, when we are presented with an opportunity to show compassion. For instance, I've excused myself pulling over when I witnessed a minor fender bender at midnight because I didn't want to stick around for an hour to fill out a police report. Without any good reason, I've excused myself from several opportunities to show compassion.

Another strategy is anger with the sponsors of crisis. I experienced this yesterday. I was out for a bike ride on the trails. As I was crossing Rte. 111, I heard something clap the pavement. A driver threw a full garbage bag into the middle of the road and sped away. Was I ever angry! How dare he pollute, especially in this day and age! How dare he assume someone else will pick up his filth! The more I thought, the angrier I got. The laziness!! The arrogance!! The lack of concern!! Guess what I did NOT do. I did not go back and pick up the garbage from the road. Turns out, the laziness, hubris, and lack of concern were part of my soul, too. Religions do this all the time. We get angry at the sources of pain, but we do nothing to alleviate the suffering. In fact, that which we condemn, we often find lurking in our own religious worlds.

Another strategy religions use to deal with pain is to talk about it. We need to think, explore, read, reflect, pray, understand, mull, listen, form a committee, go to a workshop, call in experts, find all the opinions, debate, vote, and then come up with a proposition to deal with the problem. This may be helpful in moral and ethical development, but it seems to have limited success in engaging the pain of the world around us. Here is the problem: We can convince ourselves that we are correct in our own conclusions when we talk too much. We begin to think we are wise. When we talk too much, we open ourselves to arrogance and superiority.

Here is another response: sometimes religions engage in social action. Finally, we meet need with deed. Many churches are great at social action, such as charity to the poor, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and so on. We need to be careful here, though. Charity is not compassion. Charity can be good. It alleviates pain temporarily. But it is not the same as compassion.

I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. I think I've told you about my experience with a woman named Jen. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church – I’d been there for about a year. One day I met Jennifer, and 18-year old mom with a daughter who was just a few months younger than Zoe. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, unmarried, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors had it that the boyfriend was abusive, so Chris invited Jen to a mother’s group to get her out of the house and meet some people in the community. That afternoon, when I came home from work, Jen was sitting at our kitchen table with Chris and Zoe. Jen decided to leave her boyfriend who, according to her, was verbally and emotionally brutal. She was like a prisoner in her own house and she wanted out. Since she was still 17 and a minor, her decision posed some unique challenges. Jen quickly learned the “system”: social services, WIC, welfare, and family court. We gave her grocery money to help her get by. Chris watched her baby for free. The deacons bought Christmas gifts for Jen and her baby. Family Court eventually awarded her full custody. When she wasn’t living with a family member, she and her baby stayed at a sleazy hotel room, funded by Social Services. After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. I guessed she would rather live with the abuse than live with the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund her reckless decisions. When we heard she moved back, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was she ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing? Did we help her like Jesus would have helped her? This band-aid approach may salve guilty consciences and give temporary symptomatic aid to victims but does not attend to structural and institutional causes of the crises.

Today, I suggest another response. Courageous Compassion. This is what I see Jesus doing, and it's where I see us going. We need a new religious vision that addresses the global problems around us. The twentieth first century, so far, leaves millions of people hungry and homeless and hopeless. Nightly news depicts the pathetic pictures of bloated stomachs, bodies distorted by disease and wars, and the agonies of death by starvation. These dark images of misery stand in contrast to equally deplorable images of overfed, overweight, and overindulged consumers who live in overdeveloped countries. The poor have always had a special place in the thoughts and practice of major religions. Yet, as deprivation grows, traditional religions limit themselves to making statements and providing temporary handouts. They seldom tackle the systemic changes required to make the world a better place.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus does something amazing. When the Lord sees the grieving widow, he has compassion. He comes forward and touches the coffin. What Jesus does is inconceivable. Few things are as unclean in ancient Jewish culture as a corpse, or anything connected with a corpse. It is against the law of Torah to touch a coffin. One who does so becomes unclean. Rabbis don't touch the unclean. Jesus touched the coffin. Jesus is willing to get his hands dirty to touch something unclean and controversial for the sake of the weak and vulnerable. Jesus polluted himself. The people talked. They murmured. They gossiped. They accused. But no one else was willing to take the pain upon himself like Jesus did. This is about more than raising a dead man. With Courageous Compassion, Jesus confronts a system where rules have become more important than people. He puts love before law, the integrity compassion before the purity of dogma.

There is another healing that day, too. Consider the mother. She is in trouble. She is a widow and her only son has died. With no more family connections, her life expectancy is short. In Jesus’ day, women did not speak on their own behalf. They did not own property. They had no status. This mother's last remaining means of survival was gone. What would happen to her? Jesus sees her, and moved with compassion, he touches her dead son. He lives, and now the mother is given her life back, too. Jesus raises the mother from social death, just as he raises the son from physical death. Both are now empowered to live new, productive lives.

Courageous Compassion means loving everyone. Period. It means we don't listen to shoulds, coulds, and oughts when it comes to touching the pain of others. It means we don't even consider another person's skin color, or social class, or religion, or sexual orientation, or wealth, or anything. Every human is created in the image of God and they need to be loved.

Courageous Compassion begins with us, today, right here, right now. God is leading you to confront some pain and suffering in the world. You might ignore it, but it's there. You might get angry at it, but that only makes YOU worse off. You might talk about it, but the problem persists. You might give charity, but while you feel better, it is only a temporary fix. So now what? How about Courageous Compassion? How about becoming unclean for the sake of restoring some sanity to the world? How about touching the pain, without first mapping out consequences? How about embodying love in action to those who offend us, to those who have hurt us, to those who don't deserve a second chance (or a third or fourth)? How about turning the status quo upside down? How about confronting unjust family systems, and religious systems and economic or political systems that offer great gifts to insiders while pushing others to the side?

In Christ's sight, there are no insiders. No outsiders. We are all one nature. One flesh. One grief. One hope. If we fail to love, we fail in everything else, too. So, train your heart to look at people at the grocery store, at the gas station, at restaurants, at the office, in the neighborhood, and the people you see as you drive. Give yourself permission to be inconvenienced by their pains. Let yourself be moved by compassion that is free from any strings. Be open, and God will use you. And who knows? You might just change part of the world!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sermon for May 30, 2010

Wisdom Calls -- A Letter From Home

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him,
like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. Prov. 8:22-31

Dear Matt,

We had ourselves a garden-variety tornado here on the hill. It danced its way through the better part of our county. When my weather radio alarm went off, I turned on the television to see what the radar picture would show (I’m a visual learner). The weatherman was giving me ‘bout 8 to 10 minutes to get my life in order. I don’t have a basement or a storm shelter -- just a small bathroom in the back of the house. From the television it didn’t look like it was heading dead-on straight at me but it was close enough. I took up a few items I didn’t want blown away to the next county and stored them in the back bathroom. Then I went out on the front porch and looked westward through the trees along our ridge. It was pitch black. The blackness moved northeast towards the end of our farm. While it was taking out a neighbor’s barn, I could hear what sounded like a jet engine with the pilot’s foot all the way down on the gas pedal. It then continued to the next little town where it tore things up even more.

Now this tornado was said to have only been an EF-0 to an EF-1, not anything that would get cast in a movie. But there it was. It completely demolished a barn and took roofs off of some houses as it hiked through the hills leaving a path not unlike the one Bea Jimson leaves when she’s havin’ one of her temper spells. You remember Bea -- she’s Woodchuck’s wife. We have a saying ‘round here: Meanness don’t happen overnight. They wrote that one in honor of Bea Jimson.

I never thought I was so special that I could get a tornado right at my front door any more than believing Ed McMann would show up holding balloons and a Publishing Clearance House check. It makes me stop and think ‘bout what’s most important in life. What kind a’ person I want to be.

The tornado made your cousin, Daryl-Bob Broadfoot, think ‘bout the meaning of life, too. Usually he keeps to himself in his 390 C Travelair luxury park model trailer. You know, he’s always trying to make a buck or two. He heard that rich city folk pay big money for old our throwaway art projects. They call it folk art. Why not take some of our simple hill food and market it as fancy cuisine? Our chow is actually more savory than the strange garbage I see them TV chef’s serving up to their tongue-wagging fans. Those people think we eat strange, all the while they suck down all sorts of unholy offerings. The other day, on the cable TV, I saw a chef cooked up a LIVE lobster sushi. No joke. The dying lobster was served while in his final death throws, his antennae frantically waving like a last ditch SOS code. This dish is for people who enjoy watching the lobster watching them devour his tail, fully horrified at being eaten alive. It’s all for the show, not the flavor, since raw lobster is probably a lot like eating greasy rubber eggs.

Anyways, Daryl-Bob has been working at making new Slim Jim recipes. One’s called Slim Jim Chili Mac. He boils the Slim Jims in beer until he gets a red greasy sludge, adds pasta and nacho cheese sauce. It would do if you were easy to please, but last time I tried it, the chili mac coated my tongue with an odd waxiness. He drives all the way to Chigger Falls to pick up the meat sticks, due to the Slim Jim shortage from the gas leak, which destroyed the only Slim Jim plant on the planet. Anyways, he was going to the Ozark Unnatural Food Coop when he saw something that changed his life. It was a martial arts practice hall, run by a one-armed judo master named Freelove Turnbo. Freelove Turnbo lost his arm in a farm accident when he was just 10. His parents put him into the Judo to help him learn some confidence, not to mention some balance. Freelove actually was good at the Judo. There was only one problem. After three months of training, the humble Judo master only taught him one move. Freelove finally got up the guts to ask his teacher, “Shouldn’t I learn more moves?” “This is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the humble Judo master replied.

Freelove didn’t get it, but he kept on training. Several months later, the teacher took Freelove to his first Judo Games. Surprise, surprise, Freelove won his first two matches, easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Amazed by his success, Freelove made it to the finals. His opponent was big as a continent and strong as a brick outhouse. Called himself Child of Calamity. Freelove was overmatched, and he sure took a beating for a while. Eventually, the brute got distracted. Freelove saw the opportunity and used his move topple Calamity to the ground. Freelove Turnbo, the one-armed judo boy, was the champion. On the way home, Freelove summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind. “Teacher, how did I win the Judu Games with only one move?”

“I reckon you won for two reasons,” the humble Judo master answered. “First, you mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second . . . the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grip your left arm.”

That was one wise teacher. Turned out, Freelove Turnbo’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength.

When Daryl-Bob heard that story, he decided he was gonna change the world by learning the Judo. Daryl-Bob’s not the smartest man in the world. I love him, but that boy is ‘bout as dumb as a pot of beans. ‘Bout a week ago, I was washing my dinner dishes when I see a flash of red out the window. Thought maybe it was a cardinal. ‘Bout two minutes later, I spot that flash again, only big this time. I slinked out to the stoop to investigate, and there is Daryl-Bob, wearing his blue jeans and dirty t-shirt. He also had a red cape that he twirled around his shoulders like a rodeo clown. Right next to him is his lazy sidekick, his dawg named Mr. Pickles. The old Bloodhound got a cape on, too, and a pair of star-spangled undergarments. I reckon that dog looked just like Wonder Woman, and he looked real shamed ‘bout it. I says, “Daryl-Bob, what are you up to now.” He looks at me, kind of mysterious-like, and he says, “I’m the Jerico Ninjee.” Turns out, after one Judo lesson with Freelove Turnbo, Daryl-Bob went and bought his’ self and his dawg some fancy get ups, and now they will protect us from Lord knows what. What I’ve always wanted to know is, who will protect us from Daryl-Bob Broadfoot.

Daryl-Bob wants to show me his routine. Now, I’m not really in the mood, mind you, not with dishes in the sink that need washing. But I’ve learned, you can’t say no to Daryl-Bob. I nod, but I give him the hairy eyeball so he knows he better not be wasting my time. He lifts his right arm up and swings it straight back down, and he says, “Right there’s a Judy Chop. You gotta say it as you do it.” He yells out, “Judy Chop,” and swings his arm again, like he’s a hillbilly Jackie Chan on a Twinkies high. Then he kicks his foot in the air and hollers out, “Kung Fu Kick! Did ya’ see that Antie Georgee? I know, you are just a beginner, so I’ll go over it slow.” He chops at the air again. “You got yourself a Judy Chop, and a Kung Fu kick. But you don’t NEVER want to do ‘em at the same time. Likely to chop your own leg right off if you ain’t careful.” He starts spinning and kicking, like he’s having a sleep twitch. Then, as soon as it began, the judo fit stops. He folds his hands, takes a deep bow, and runs inside to make himself a sandwich. Guess all those “Judy” moves work up an appetite. I follow him in the house and watch him make a grilled bologna sandwich on buttered Wonder Bread toast. He drips some soy sauce on the top -- figures he might as well eat like a real ninja now. With his mouth full of food, he gets all serious and says, “Auntie Georgee, you gotta promise me somethin’, OK? I showed you some real secret moves out there. With great power comes great responsibility. Now you promise me not to use any of them Ninjee moves I showed ya’ unless you have ta’. Don’t go ninjin someone who don’t need ninjin! OK?”

Daryl-Bob is a lovable fool. He couldn’t hurt a shoe fly if he wanted to. Problem with Daryl-Bob is he lacks wisdom. Daryl-Bob is oblivious. He just does his own thing – makes his own tainted recipes, dresses in his own red cape, and Judy Chops to the tune of his own sak-u-hachi. I’m just waiting for him to learn what Freelove Turnbo learned all those years ago: his biggest weakness can become his greatest strength.

As for me, I don’t know if I can change. I’m just getting old. Some people think if you soak up enough years, pretty soon everyone will be asking for your advice. I don’t think wisdom just comes to us when we get old. Wisdom is something that God creates, “The first of God’s acts long ago,” Scripture says. Wisdom leads us from one point to another in life until we learn what we’re supposed to learn. We do what we’re supposed to do. We each become what God crafted us to become. It’s like we become God’s folk art.

Pastor Sanford at the Jerico Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks was just preaching on wisdom. He did a ten-part sermon series. If he asked me, I could’ a done it in two sermons. He likes to stretch things out. Anyways, he says if you wanna get wise, the first thing you need to do is get in touch with bad feelings. Lots of people have bad feelings they’re not even aware of. Take gloominess, for instance. You’re feeling gloomy and moody. You feel that life is as pointless as having two windows at the McDondald’s drive-thru -- it just makes no sense. You’ve got hurt feelings. You’re nervous and tense. Get yourself in touch with those feelings first.

Next, you gotta understand that the feelings are not reliable. We spend all our time trying to change our spouses, our bosses, our friends, our enemies, and everybody else. But we don’t stop and ponder that maybe WE need to change instead. Truth is, no person on earth has the power to make you unhappy. There is no event on this wide earth that has the power to disturb you. So stop taking stuff personally.

Let’s suppose that rain washes out a picnic. Who’s grumbling? The rain, or YOU? When you bump your knee against a table, the table’s fine. It’s busy being what it was made to be -a table. Believe me, the table’s not sitting there wondering why you hate it. That table’s not saying, “Oh, I guess Jimmy, there, is havin’ a bad day and he’s taking out on me.” Nope -- it’s just a table. The pain’s in your knee, not in the table. The feeling is in you, not in reality.

You see, you are more than your feelings. Don’t say, “I am gloomy.” If you want to say gloominess is there, that’s fine. But don’t say, “I am gloomy.” You’re defining yourself by a feeling. Your gloominess actually has nothing to do with your happiness.

No matter how clever you are, or how wise you have been in the past, the moment you allow these distractions to control you and define you. Why, that’s ‘bout as foolish as yankin’ a dawg’s ears. We’re so busy thinking ‘bout how we’ve been insulted, we stop forgiving. Carrying grudges makes us even worse off. It’s all so incredibly addled-brained.

We spend so much time seeking. We seek happiness. We seek revenge. We seek justice. We seek peace. If I’ve learned one thing I’ve learned is that when it some to faith, I’m better off when I let God seek me. God has a lot of ways of finding me, too. That’s what the wise ones do – they stop seeking.

The Ozark Standard had a nice way of explaining wisdom – it was right next to a recipe for livermush on page 12: a wise person no longer marches to the drums of society. The wise one dances to the tune of the music that springs up from within. When you depend on what all the other people think ‘bout you to make you happy, then you always have to be on your best behavior. You can never let your hair down. You can’t take your girdle off an have a piece of candy. You’ve got to live up to expectations, right? But, if you live to love, and find ways to get yourself found by God, maybe we’d get rid of all that fool pain we carry around. Deep wisdom has been there since the dawn of time. What might happen if we let that deep and ancient wisdom from God lead us home?

As I scribble this note, it gets me to thinking that maybe Daryl-Bob is wiser than I give him credit for. Maybe he’s wise ‘cause he lives in a life of compassion, and there really is no such thing as wisdom without compassion. He’s truly ignorant of what the world thinks about him, and he’s happy. He doesn’t know how ridiculous he really is. It’s ‘cause he has nothing to prove. He has no hatred. He has no enemies, far as he’s concerned.

Well, time for this old lady to stop preaching. I got a new martial art that I’m gonna teach Daryl Bob. I call it No Kan Do. It’s actually a very simple art. I’ve doin’ it for years, and no one can lay a blow on me. When someone tries to fight me, I scream “No Kan Do” and run away. I’m undefeated in fifteen, cross-discipline bouts. You no longer need to be bullied, just learn No Kan Do.

Give my love to the little ones, and remind those church people in CT that there’s a good way to live -- the way of wisdom and compassion. Just be still and let God be God.

Love,
Aunt Georgia.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...