Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon for March 25, 2012 -- Lent 5

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Radical Empathy

In the early years of the Hassidic movement, the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of a Hassidic community, would travel through eastern European towns and villages holding private audiences for his disciples in each place. In these meetings he would listen to their sorrows and sins and advise them. The following tale is told of the Mitteler Rebbe:

One day at midday, when hundreds of men crowded around outside waiting for a private audience, the Rebbe suddenly ordered that the doors be closed and ceased receiving visitors…After an hour or two passed, some of the senior disciples entered the house and heard the Rebbe weeping inside his room, pouring out his sorrows and reciting the psalms with great sincerity…

After some days had passed, one of the disciples asked what the reason for this incident had been. Immediately the Rebbe became very downcast and, after a moment, answered: “When disciples enter for private meetings and reveal their most secret and personal failings, each person as they truly are, each defect that the Rebbe is told about he must find first within himself, at least in some small quantity. It is impossible to teach the disciple how to fix (tikkun) this flaw or set it right until the Rebbe has first fixed it in himself. Only then can he give advice and instruction for this transformation. That day a man entered for a private meeting with me and his words distressed me. However, I was unable to find in myself even the smallest quantity of this defect, even in the most negligible amount. It then occurred to me that it might be an evil trait, hidden deep in my heart, that I am blind to! This realization shook me to my foundations and persuaded me to return to God completely with all my heart.”

We cannot hope to direct someone across a treacherous mountain pass unless we are already familiar with that terrain. If we don’t recognize the problem, or if we find ourselves unable to empathize, it is time to take a careful look in the mirror. In order to be truly complete human beings we must accept and “own” every part of ourselves. Even those parts that we would rather forget. Even our own deaths.

In today’s scripture reading, we get a glimpse of the radical empathy of Jesus. He knows that to fully enter the suffering of the earth and its inhabitants, he has to suffer and die. In order to lead people through the valley of the shadow of death, he has to learn the terrain himself.

W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” That’s our culture in a nutshell. Talking about death is uncomfortable. So we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. The note to someone who is dying never gets written, the call never gets made, the visit is repeatedly put off. Or we do write the note, we do make the call, we do take the time to visit, but the anxiety is too much for us. Nervous, we say things like, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Don’t talk that way. Think positive. It will be OK.” Those who are dying want to know that they are still the person they always were to us and that we still love them. Instead, we may get fidgety in the presence of the sick, or talk to others in the room as if the dying person is not there, or stand or sit a little too far away. Those who are dying want a taste of normalcy in the midst of all the craziness. They want to talk about the weather, talk about politics, talk about neighborhood gossip. In our state of upheaval, we try to force heavy conversations about life, the universe, and everything. We just don’t know any better.

What might happen if you practice radical empathy and open your heart to your own death? Invite the thought of death in. Will it bring sadness? Of course. The thought of all the loss, the thought of leaving; how this will impact the people depending on us, how the party will go on without us. Inviting the thought of death will bring sadness. Thinking about death may also trigger fear: fear of losing control, fear of the unknown. To the degree we allow ourselves to live with the thought of death, to sit on our very own grave and see ourselves from that perspective, our understanding and appreciation of what we have and of the life that is before us grows.

Sometimes I imagine how I might respond if I were told that I had a terminal illness. I think about how I would react if I were caring for my wife, refusing further treatment for my mother, saying goodbye to a friend. I think how I might feel, whether I could act, and what I might regret. I walk through the process, and as I do, I get very sad. This usually happens at night when I can’t sleep. Lying in bed, listening to my partner breath, hearing my children rustling around in their rooms, feeling the house creek. I roll onto my side and see the bright red numbers on my clock. Sometimes I go into the other room and turn on the TV, trying to avoid these thoughts – there’s nothing like late night television infomericals to numb deep thoughts. But sometimes, I tiptoe from from one room to another so that I can gaze upon my sleeping children. I listen to their rhythmic breathing, pull up the covers, rub their cheeks, and draw in their scents. Then I go back to bed, oddly fulfilled. Cold from the trek, I snuggle close to my partner, feel her warmth, love her enormously, and fall asleep. Here is my reminder that the end gives meaning to all that comes before. Even in the face of death, people’s worth and dignity remain. We affirm our worth and dignity by trusting the rhythm and flow of the life we are given. The poet May Sarton puts it this way:
But I am learning to trust death
As I have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment,
And a sweeter grace—
Learning to let go.
I am not ready to die,
But as I approach sixty
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open up to a far horizon
Over the floating, never-still flux and change.
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters….
There are no farewells . . .
Jesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.

Sources:
http://www.marcadamkraus.com/radical-empathy/
http://www.c3center.org/archive/life-and-death-in-perspective/
http://www.uuca.org/making-peace-with-death

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sermon for March 18, 2012

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Mitzvah
Hillel said: The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more worry; the more servants, the more thievery. The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more charity, the more peace. Pirke Avot 2:8

Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” Matthew 9:35-38

Let’s do a little compassion exercise together. If you prefer not to participate then that’s fine. Participate as fully as you feel you are able to. I invite you to become aware of yourself: Be aware of your own body and how you feel at this moment, aware of the people that sit near you, aware of this building, its particular smells and sounds, and if it helps you to become more aware I invite you to close your eyes.

I’m going to give to you a series of people and situations that I want you to feel in your body. I’ll invite you to say a phrase in the quietness of your own mind, after each of these situations:

Think about Afghanistan. I hear that Kabul is a place where it’s easy to lose empathy for the suffering of others. There’s just too much suffering, endless numbers of people in need of help. When you know that the next attack could mean the end of your own life, you focus on yourself and those dearest to you. The rest of the people become somebody else’s business. We’ve heard about the massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan this past week, 9 of whom were children. I invite you to say to yourself, “I know sadness and fear. People in Afghanistan also know deep sadness and fear.”

Imagine another situation: A 15-year-old girl whose name is Maria. She lives in Honduras where she works 12 hour days without any overtime pay. She is paid 50 cents an hour to make jeans, unprotected from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Maria is trying to avoid suffering in her life.”

Think about a politician with whom you have very different views. Say, “Just like me, he or she is human and learning about life.”

The next situation is a friend, family member or a colleague with whom you find yourself in conflict. It could be a recent conflict or a past argument. With that person in mind say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking joy and meaning in life.”

Think about the person next to you, either left or right, front or back, and with your focus on that person say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking happiness in life.”

You can now open your eyes. I wonder for whom is it easier to feel compassion: those farther away from us or those closest to us? Even within our own church family, so many people are suffering. My heart breaks for so many of you. It seems that there’s not enough room in the world to hold all the pain we experience. Each of us holds the pain of the world in our bodies, just as Jesus held the suffering of the world in his body.

There is a word from the Jewish Tradition that I’d like to explore today -- a word that related to what I’m, talking about. The word is mitzvah. Mitzvah is a Hebrew word, usually defined as a commandment, a good deed or religious act. A mitzvah is a single act of goodness or religious observance. However, mitzvah is much more than that. Mitzvah means human capacity. Mitzvah is how you feel when your sick kid wakes up in the middle of the night and you have to get up the next morning to go to work. You take care of your child, no matter how tired you are. We all need mitzvah in our lives, or life becomes shallow. We want to be there for the people we love. Mitzvah is a crucial principal in the journey of the spiritual seeker. We hold the needs of the world in our bodies. Instead of offering pity or charity, we offer a mitzvah. We say, “I am present, I am fully here, how can I use my life and gifts to empower you?”

I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church. I’d been there for about a year when I met Jennifer, a 17-year old mom with a baby girl. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors around town said the boyfriend was abusive. Chris, my wife, 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. 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 how to navigate “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 church 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 meager motel room, funded by Social Services.

After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. She would have rather lived with the abuse than have tolerated the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund what we considered a reckless path. When we heard she moved back in with her boyfriend, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was it a mitzvah? Was Jen ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing?

Pity or empowerment? I also learned the difference from Brett. One Sunday morning, right before the beginning of worship, a mom pulled me aside and told me that her stepson Brett had tried to kill himself again by jumping off a three story building. Two weeks later I visited Brett at a hospital in Buffalo, right after the last of his extensive reconstructive surgeries. Brett was a handsome, 22-year old whose eyes told the whole story. He was broken. His body was crushed. His emotions were tormented by depression and loneliness. His spiritual life was non-existent. As it turned out, Brett had not tried to kill himself. He was running away from a drug deal gone bad, and tried to leap off the roof to get away. In these situations, there is really nothing to say. I can’t lecture the guy on his bad decisions. He has family for that. No need to heap guilt or to be manipulative. I wanted him to know that there is a God who wants him to know a sense of belonging, total love and full acceptance. What do we do when we’re moved with compassion but we don’t know how to show it? What do we do when we get one chance to say the right thing, and we end up just sitting silently listening, trying to be a friend, trying to how some understanding? Could Brett be empowered to change his life? To be a better person? A healthier member of our community?

Jesus knew about mitzvah. He could hold the needs of the world in his body, and say, “Here I am. I am present, I am fully here. How can I use my life and gifts to empower you?” He had a way of seeing potential in people: Street women, tax collectors, lepers, and those marginalized by society. Jesus saw value in each of them. There is an important phrase in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus, “had compassion on them.” We hear it again and again. Jesus healed. He empowered. He offered life with new possibilities. Can I do that? Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving some of that which I value?

I’ve learned something important through these two situations. I had not gone on my own inner journey. I hadn’t worked out why I needed to help. I had not been honest about my own needs and motives before I offered to fix someone else’s mess. So the compassion I offered was more like pity. Whether it helps the other or not, offering pity makes me feel better, but it only addresses symptoms, not causes. Compassion is much more profound if we can offer a mitzvah out of a deep inner mindfulness. “Here I am. I am present, I am fully here. How can I use my life and gifts to empower you?”

Consider what your faces of compassion are. Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be tough love. Compassion can be receptive and listening, or it can be active and practical, or anywhere on that spectrum. Compassion can be deeply patient, or recklessly impatient. Compassion can be sitting with someone, or to taking someone’s hand and leading. Compassion can be neat and clear. Compassion can be messy and clumsy. Above all else, compassion is about presence. There are so many expressions of compassion. How do you show it? Where do you find yourself skillful in empowering others?

Truth be told, this is really my stewardship sermon. As we take time to consider our financial giving to CCC, I hope our giving can be a mitzvah. I hope we can give some of what we hold on to out of compassion. Sometimes the biggest stumbling block for people is that the church, in its hour of prosperity, does so little to alleviate the suffering of the world. We are trying to change that here. I hope you know that as you give your time, talents, and treasure to this church, as you learn about your gifts and how to practice spiritual activism, you empower us to do great things. Yes, we pay staff, operate and upkeep our buildings, pay utilities, mow the grass and pay for air conditioning. We also educate our children in values like love, social justice, faith, and service. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We serve our community and extend our hospitality. We try to make the world a healthier place, a more loving place, a more equitable place. Your compassionate gifts empower CCC to give back to you – to empower you to be a better mother, a better father, a better partner, a better member of the community, a better friend, a better child of God, a better human. Our giving is a mitzvah. It helps us realize that in Christ there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one nature, one flesh one grief, one hope. We are here, with each other, using our lives and our gifts to empower one another.

I know, we worry about money. We think of all the things we can’t do. Ancient Rabbis taught that many of the things we spend much of our lives attempting to acquire come with a price tag. We hear it in our reading from Pirke Avot: the more possessions, the more worry. We often assume that money, status and pleasure will provide us with happiness. These blessings will not last beyond the grave — and may very well take us there much sooner.

The more compassion, the more peace. Peace comes when we are fully engaged in our community and world. Peace comes when we share what we have with others who are in need. Peace comes when we know who we are – one of God’s children who knows sadness and fear; one of God’s children who wants to avoid suffering and find happiness; one of God’s children who is learning about life and trying to find joy and meaning. We do not have to worry about compassion. It exists in abundance. Wake up to it. Reach out and share it. Live it. Become it. Hold it in your body. When we can, we will be part of the transformation of the world through service, justice and compassion.

Sermon for March 11, 2012

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Doubt
You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living. Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress. Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever.
Job 30:21-3
It’s one of the oldest stories in existence. His children are dead -- his wealth, obliterated. His wife walked out on him. Now he is sick, covered with skin boils and rashes. His friends don’t really know how to console him. God doesn’t answer his prayers. He suffers. He complains. Confusion and doubt consume him. It just doesn’t make sense. He is a good man, a righteous man. His name is Job, and he did not do anything to deserve such suffering.

Centuries upon centuries later, we still ask the same questions. If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God stop wars and genocides? Why does God allow my loved ones to suffer? If God is near, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? In the play J.B. by Archibald McLeish, Job comes to this conclusion: “If god is god, he is not good. If god is good, he is not god.”

We learned from childhood that when we do wrong we get punished. Disobey, and you get in trouble. Do something good, you’ll get a reward. Is that what’s happening here? Is God punishing humanity for sin? Sometimes, well-meaning people will offer fast and loose Scripture quotes to give you an explanation. They tell us: If we obey God, and live moral and wholesome lives, we will be healthy and wealthy. If we suffer, God must want to teach us something. Suffering is the only way God can get our attention. Well-meaning people are full of spiritual diagnosis and prescription. It all sounds so hopeful. But then we begin to wonder, “If this is true, why is it we feel worse instead of better?”

As we get older, we often realize that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. We do the right thing and still get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit from behind side and sent spinning. This is the suffering that bewilders and outrages us. This is the kind of suffering that bewilders and outrages Job. Job does everything right, but everything goes so wrong. Job outright rejects the kind of well-meaning advice that provides glib explanations for every painful condition. Job suffers. And Job doubts God.

Is that OK? Is it alright to have doubts? After all, some studies show that rejecting one’s previously held beliefs can lead to shame and guilt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in our New Testament clearly states, “... those who doubts are condemned.” Feelings of guilt and shame can erode a person's sense of self-worth As the famous Protestant theologian Dr. Karl Barth wrote, “No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.” Thank you Dr. Barth! Now I not only have doubts. I ashamed, too.

Barth and Paul do not get the last word. There are wise people who tell us it’s OK to doubt. Consider an ancient Zen saying: “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”

Remember Renee Descartes, the “I think therefore I am” guy? Descartes had another philosophy that doesn’t get repeated as much: dubito ergo sum, “I doubt, therefore I am.” Descartes believed that doubt was essential for learning the truth. More specifically, Descarte believed that a person can grasp the truth only by doubting and calling into question everything one knows.

C.S. Lewis, a great Christian writer and theologian, believed that doubts were good part of our spiritual development because they make us examine our faith. He wrote, “If ours is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, then we were believing that which was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger . . .” This from a man who started his faith journey as an atheist. When Lewis gave himself permission to explore of his doubts, after years of searching and struggling, he became one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Christianity.

Some say that doubt is part of our psychological development. A psychologist named James Fowler has studied faith development in Christians. Fowler thinks that when people hit their 30s and 40s, they enter a time of anxiety and struggle as they face difficult questions about who they are and what they believe. Perhaps for the first time, a person takes responsibility for her beliefs and feelings. Where once a person believed what religious authorities told him without any questions, he now re-examines what he’s been told. Nothing feels certain anymore. Disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be in. Most people, after entering this stage, sense that the world is far more complex than they previously thought.

I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was exploding, these are the times I grow the most.
Doubt is an important quality to have if you are a spiritual seeker. Doubt can motivate us to study and learn. Doubt can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. Doubt can humble our arrogance. Doubt can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. Doubt can remind us of how much truth matters. Authentic faith must be as open to questions as it is receptive of answers.

If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can we go to cry?
If this is not a place where our questions can be asked, where can we go to seek?
If this is not a place where our heart cries can be heard, where shall we go to find comfort?

May this church be such a place for all of us—a place where our questions, and even our doubts, are always welcome.

Sources:
• http://www.religioustolerance.org/reldoubt2.htm.
• James Fowler, Faith Development and Pastoral Care (Philadelphia,: Fortress, 1987).
• Neal Krause and Keith M. Wulff. “Religious doubt and health: exploring the potential dark side of religion,” Sociology of Religion (Spring, 2004). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/ mi_m0SOR/ is_1_65/ai_n6141810/? tag=content;col1.
• Rev. David Tinney. “Can we doubt?” www.inglefarmbaptist.com/media/focus/ focus270806.pdf.
• Dr. David T. Howeth, "Upgrading Our Faith by Asking Questions." http://www.schreiberumc.org/sermons/08-12-14.pdf

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon for March 4 -- Lent 2

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Mutuality
Jesus replied with this story: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I now have a wife, so I can’t come.’ The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.'" Luke 14:16-24
There was a bumper sticker around a few years ago. It said, “Commit senseless acts of random kindness.” I like it. I know we don’t always like random, unplanned events in our lives, but in this case, I think it would make life better. There’s actually a branch of science and mathematics that studies what we think of as randomness. It’s called Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory says that the tiniest changes in one small area of the world can cause massive changes in other, distant parts of the world. In 1961, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz had been working on theoretical models about how tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes develop. He came up with an idea that was called the “butterfly effect.” The small eddy of wind current made by a butterfly wing can change the weather on the other side of the globe. One small change leads to a larger change, which leads to an even larger change, and so on. Of course, if a butterfly fluttering by can add to a hurricane, more butterflies fluttering by can change the course of that hurricane entirely. In the same way, initial conditions of acts of kindness can also cause small changes that ripple out, and eventually change the world.

In spiritual terms, let’s call it the theory of mutuality. The actions of one affect all. This law of mutuality reaches into the subatomic level of our universe. For instance, we now know that once two electrons have connected or touched in some way, they can never be the same again. No matter how far apart those electrons go, what happens to one happens to the other. We inhabit a universe where everything is part of everything else.

This is hard for some people to accept. Especially in churches. Most of us weren’t brought up in churches known for their adaptability. Throughout history, churches including Congregationalists, have been known for the ability to control, restrict, contain, narrow, purify, define, and restrain. Our spiritual ancestors, The Puritans, were not famous for their tolerance and open-mindedness. The Puritans created strict rules that that governed everyone’s behavior. For instance, in 1648, a law was passed in Massachusetts ordering all playhouses and theaters be taken down. All actors were to be captured and whipped, and anyone who was seen watching a play had to pay a fine. But guess what? There was a loophole! In Puritan law, someone convicted of a crime could plead “Benefit of Clergy.” If a convicted person could read a passage from the Bible without one mistake, the sentence would be reduced.

It’s human nature, really. We expect people to conform to our image. We want them others to dress a certain way, to behave in certain ways, to talk in acceptable ways. Our desire to control can get out of control. Left unchecked, people try to dominate or marginalize others. We create insiders and outsiders. The goal of the church has been to find the outsiders and bring them in. But not without some cost. We demand transformation, right? We want people to clean up their acts, live new lives. Break old habits.

Old habits die hard. Even for the church. Do you know how outsiders see Christians? Here are some stereotypes:

Christians are known for what we oppose: anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-thinking, etc.
Christians are viewed as angry, mean, judgmental, wanting to convert everyone and generally are not peaceful people. Christians are judged as hypocritical and inauthentic in our faith and lifestyle (we say one thing, do another or act like we have it all together)

Today, I want to suggest that one quality of spiritual seekers is mutuality. Instead of trying to control others and make them conform, what might happen if we submitted to the collective subconscious of the people in order to better fulfill our mission? What transformations might take place when we learn to tap into the wisdom of the community? Mutuality has to do with acting individually and instinctively while giving yourself the freedom to let others do the same. Let me explain.

I’ve been reading about swarm theory. Scientists are studying the group behavior of ants, bees, locusts, schools of fish, and crowds of people. They are learning that these swarms and crowds organize around some simple rules. Each individual member of a swarm, acting individually, will impact the behavior of others. The actions of a few members of the group affect the actions of all. No one tells the group what to do. There are no orders or commands from the leader at the top. Groups organize spontaneously, following simple, basic rules. One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command submissive ant warriors. No boss manages the ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no top-down management at all—at least none that we would recognize.

Or consider bees. What commands a hive of bees to swarm? Scientists know it is not the queen bee. When a swarm pours itself out through the front slot of the hive, the queen bee can only follow. By choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote. The hive commands. The queen follows. Thousands of bees united into one collective direct themselves to swarm. The Queen Bee is not the leader. In fact, there are anonymous leaders within the swarm called “streakers.” The streakers direct from within the swarm by flaying faster and straighter than the other bees. The swarm has no center, but rather thousands of autonomous individual bees engaged in parallel actions, interacting with one another and influencing each other.

Relationship. Connectivity. Interactivity. Collaboration. Mutuality. These are the processes from which every living thing is created, survives, and prospers.

Almost any group that follows bees' rules will make itself smarter. Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups. Maybe even churches that want to follow God’s aims for the world. It turns out the group is smarter than the individual. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, mindlessly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. If members of the group are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting to reach a group decision, they will reach a correct answer more with greater precision than any single expert. Science confirms something that some religions have taught for centuries. Selflessness. Losing the ego. Being a part of something bigger than yourself. Becoming a drop in the spiritual ocean.

Mutuality is less about controlling people than releasing them. In our tradition, every person must be given every decision-making power and boost to rise to the top. Every person must be treated with dignity and respect. Those who are pushed to the margins or have less power are invited to be part of the center of the action. Power and authority must be shared by everyone. When we drain complexity and chaos from our work, we snuff out the system. We limit our ability to learn and grow. Mutuality helps us add complexity and diversity. And we trust that diversity brings health.

For a healthy church, we need to focus less on control and more on collaboration. There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and inviting them to help lead it. I’ve heard a minister say, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” I think it sends the message that we are not acceptable enough for who we are right here and now. Jesus doesn’t say that to us. Think about the parable we read from Luke. There’s a big banquet. It’s a party. All of the cool people are invited, and they all have excuses why they can’t go. The one throwing the party says to the servants, “Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” There is no indication that they have to clean up their acts first. Everyone’s invited. Everyone’s welcome. Everyone has an important place at the table.

What would happen if we simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You ARE welcome right now. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.” We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. We are all in the same swarm and we have work to do. We work independently, and we work as a community of faith. We trust our collective wisdom, and we rely on our collective compassion.


Sources:
• “Swarm theory supports spiritual independence,” at “http://hinessight.blogs.com/church_of_the_churchless/2007/07/swarm-theory-su.html”
• “My Swarm Theory,” at http://theagnosticpentecostal.com/2010/04/19/my-swarm-theory-synchroblog/
• "Swarm Theory" at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/07/swarms/miller-text
• The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller
The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher
Aqua Church by Leonard Sweet
• Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Divine and Human Mutuality: Man’s Helplessness Without God.” http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol6/9Aug1959DivineandHumanMutuality-Man%27sHelplessnessWithoutGod.pdf
You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by
Hirschfield, Brad (p. 57).

Sermon for February 26, 2012 -- Lent 1

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Authenticity
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor . . . When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”

“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”

When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant . . . For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45
Today we begin a Lenten sermon series that will help us get in touch with some important qualities of spiritual seekers. This is, after all, a season of growth and change – a time when we are focused on becoming the best “us” that we can be, as individuals and as a religious faith community. Lent is our time to think about what it means to be good Christians, and to live into the hope of new and transformed life together.

Being a good Christian isn’t easy, by the way. I’ve had people tell me that they don’t feel like good Christians. I’ve had people tell me that I’m not a good Christian. What makes someone a good Christian? Is a Christian the same as a churchgoer? Is a Christian a good person with strong moral fiber? Is a Christian someone who believes and confesses the correct creeds and doctrines? Sometimes we hear that a real Christian is someone who makes a decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior – someone who is filled with joy and never has one’s faith shaken. Is a Christian a conservative Republican or a passionate liberal? Is a Christian someone who acts just like you do?

I went to Google and typed in the words “true Christian” to see what would come up. You won’t believe how many people out there claim to have the correct litmus test for whether you are a real Christian, including lots of Christian dating sites where you can find God’s true match for you. Of course, Rick Santorum came up in my Web search, since he recently told some Ohio Tea Partyers that President Obama promotes "some phony theology.” He didn't come right out and call the president a Kenyan Muslim, but it's hard to see where else Santorum was headed with that statement.

Many sites say have more traditional claims about what makes a real Christian. A true Christian will desire to obey God and study the Bible. Real Christians will increasingly understand the Bible, admit they sin, follow Jesus, sin less and less, love others, not love the things of world more than God and have the fruit of the Spirit.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia has a test to be able to spot a true Christian. They say that a true Christian is one who follows the words of Christ literally. So, true Christians will be able to literally handle snakes, drink poison, and walk over scorpions. They must hate their families and also be hated by their families. True Christians can move mountains and wither fig trees. The site goes on to say “There are many different types of Christians, many sects and denominations. In their pride and arrogance they all claim to be true believers. But it is important to make sure that we have the real thing because Jesus said that there would be many fakers. In [many Bible passages] Jesus tells us about false prophets, false Christians. When dealing with Christians ask them if they are 'true' Christians. If the answer is 'yes' then chuck a [poisonous snake] at them and stick a few scorpions in their shoes.”

What these sites all have in common is that Christianity is defined by following a certain set of rules and behaviors. First you pick and choose Scripture passages that you think are the most important ones to follow. Once you fulfill an unreasonably long list of requirements, you can know that you are (or someone else is) a Christian.

I want to change the definition. Instead of true Christians, I want to talk about authentic Christians. On Ash Wednesday, Pastor Amy and I put ashes on the heads of those who came to worship and said, “Receive this outward sign of an inward journey.” Lists of rules for Real Christians are all about the outward signs. They are about proving to others that real Christians behave certain ways. But, they neglect the inward journey. Christians are spiritual seekers who want to harmonize outward expressions of faith with the inward journey of devotion. In other words, Christians are, of nothing else, authentic.

For me, authentic Christianity starts when we give up the notion that Christianity is God’s favorite religion. In today’s Gospel story, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, ask for a favor. “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” I can’t really blame them for asking. To have a special place helps to overcome the fear of being nobody and the fear of having no power. Christians claim special access and favored status all the time. It’s a way of claiming power.

Notice how Jesus changes the focus of the conversation. As soon as the other ten disciples hear about the request made by James and John, they get angry. Jesus does not tell James and John that they are wrong or bad for wanting to have a special status. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.” Jesus understands that a special bond can form, and it happens we put our lives in service on behalf of others.

There's an old phrase from 2000 years ago: "The dust of the rabbi". When rabbis and their disciples used to walk everywhere (like Jesus and his followers), the greatest disciple would be the one following the teacher most closely, listening to every word and watching every gesture. This one would be covered with the dirt and dust the rabbi's feet kicked up as he walked. Authentic Christians are like that. Their overriding concern is not seeking status, but walking in the dust of the Rabbi. Is it costly? Oh yeah! It means loving, no matter what; serving, no matter what; speaking the truth, no matter the cost. Authentic Christians allow our word and action to be rooted in showing God’s mercy, not positioning ourselves in the religious pecking order.

So, authentic Christianity harmonizes our outward faith and inward journeys in ways that help us own our limitations. Authentic Christianity is also concerned with our efforts to make us more HUMANE. In every human encounter, we have an opportunity to reach out in common humanity – to listen, to encourage, to reach out, to lift up . . . and to recognize in every person the presence of The Holy One.

Let’s begin this Lenten season thinking about harmonizing outward signs and inward journeys – our authentic selves. We affirm the importance of taking responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions. We join side by side to identify, challenge and move beyond excuses and the ways we limit and side step much of life and relating. We humbly affirm, encourage and commend each other to live fully in a spirit of service to others.

I find it interesting that the early church did not call one another “Christians”. They called one another sister. They called one another brother. An authentic Christian is not only a follower of Christ, but a brother or sister to others. An authentic Christian is one who strives to be like Jesus AND embraces the Jesus in others. An authentic Christian is one who loves Jesus and also loves the Jesus in others – even if the person is different – even if the other person disgusts us, or hates us – even if the other person is an enemy.

May our resourcefulness and resiliency be more fully demonstrated; may our god-likeness and divine presence be known, heard and felt; may this community of care cause inspiration and be inspired as this day unfolds.

Sources:
http://rodefshalom.org/judaism/writings/mitzvah-day-sermon-april-26-2009
http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au/articles/how-spot-true-christian
http://www.tcpc.org/about/point8_study.cfm
http://www.tcpc.org/library/article.cfm?library_id=638

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...