Monday, July 16, 2012

Sermon for July 15, 2012

Original Sin or Original Blessing?

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the LORD God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

 “Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied.  “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

 “You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman.  “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”
The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and the woman heard the LORD God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the LORD God among the trees.  Then the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”

 He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”
 “Who told you that you were naked?” the LORD God asked. “Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?”

The man replied, “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.”

 Then the LORD God asked the woman, “What have you done?”

“The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

Then the LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, you are cursed
    more than all animals, domestic and wild.
You will crawl on your belly,
    groveling in the dust as long as you live.
And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

 Then the LORD God said to the woman,
“I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy,
    and in pain you will give birth.
And you will desire to control your husband,
    but he will rule over you.”
And to the man God said,
“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
    whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
    All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.
It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
    though you will eat of its grains.
By the sweat of your brow
    will you have food to eat
until you return to the ground
    from which you were made.
For you were made from dust,
    and to dust you will return.
Genesis 3:1-20

So . . . my mother calls her tax accountant. The accountant is excited. She says to my mother, “Oh I’m glad you called. Your sister is sitting right in front of me. So is your brother and your mother.” Strange coincidences happen all the time right? This one’s not really that unusual. They all use the same accountant. They could all happen to show up at the same time and have a good laugh about it. Here’s what threw my mother off. My mother’s mother -- my grandmother -- has been dead for many years. So I asked my mother, how did grandma get to the accountant’s office? And of all the places for the spirits of the dead to visit, why would grandma choose the accountant’s office? It all started years ago when my uncle talked probate with the accountant. Mid sentence, the account suddenly froze  and started to zone off and stare into the distance. And then her eyes rolled back in her head. My uncle thought she was having a seizure, and when he arose to get some help, she snapped out of it and said that my dead grandmother was now in the room with them. Since then, departed relatives visit regularly at tax appointments. My grandmother and grandfather have talked through the accountant, as well as other relations. I don’t know what to think. When I go to the accountant, I plan to talk about . . . well, taxes. I think this accountant is overstepping her professional boundaries a bit. It says even more about my family that they are willing to stay with this woman. I think they like the visitations from the spirit world. Plus, the woman is a wonder of an accountant.

I am unsure whether the accountant’s behavior is a blessing or a curse. Are her actions helpful or sinful? I can ask that about a lot of people’s behavior, including my own. In my relationships with people, do I bless them with my words and actions, or am I liability? How about our relationship with God? Were we created to be blessings, or do we carry the mark of original sin in us? Is it written into our genetic code that we will always say the wrong things, make the wrong decisions, and alienate ourselves from each other all before we even get out of bed in the morning?

The traditional way of thinking about sin comes from our understanding of the events in the Garden of Eden. God says, don’t eat the fruit of that tree. The snake tempts the woman, the woman tempts the man, the man and the woman eat some fruit, gain knowledge of good and evil and then God punishes the whole bundle of them in an explosion of fury.  And their offspring. And all generations since. And each generation has been passing on the seeds of this rebellion in this fractured world. In Christian theology, we call it original sin – what the Reformer John Calvin called hereditary depravity. Here’s our question for today: do we enter a torn and sinful world as wanton, sin-stained blotches on existence or do we enter the world as good, beautiful, original blessings?

Last week, we took some time to listen to the Bible’s first account of creation. The Bible does not begin with a story of temptation and failure. Scripture opens with splendid, generous, abundant blessing. Each day God creates something and calls it beautiful.  Humans are created with such great possibilities. We are fragile, radiant beings. So, how is it that we humans, the glory of God’s creation, are scarred by the infection of original sin?

If you grew up Catholic, or Evangelical Christian, or in a Calvinist tradition, the assumption of original sin is embedded in you. In these traditions, the evidence of original sin is losing control. Any passion is a loss of control. Lovemaking and any expressions of sexuality are seen as a loss of control. How many of you had to sit through scary religious lectures about the evils of your bodies and how you were all one bad decision away from burning in eternal torment? From the earliest days of Christendom, Christian theologians declared God has no passion. God never loses control. God never has to repent. Unlike us, God is unchangeable, even to the point where, in typical Trinitarian language, theologians declared God the Father did not suffer on the cross with God the son. God relates to corrupted humanity by removing God’s Self from it, sustaining us and judging us all at the same time. It’s called antipatripassionism. The doctrine, as I understand it, says: 1) Passion, the loss of control, causes pain, 2) God does not suffer pain, therefore, 3) God must not experience passion. Our congregational ancestors taught the same thing as they sailed for safety from what they saw as the decadent culture of the day, taming their wild passions while they tamed the wilderness of their new colony. But take out your Bible sometime and scrutinize the texts. The first humans are disobedient to God’s one and only rule – don’t eat the fruit of the tree.  They do just the opposite and get the Lord God really, REALLY upset. In this scene, the Lord God is gratuitous in wrath as much as God was gratuitous in bounty in Genesis 1. However, the doctrine of original sin is not found in any writings of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is certainly not in the first three chapters of Genesis. Look closely at the basis of humanity. It’s not the curse, but the blessing. 

The “original sin” is not so much a rebellion but rather laziness, passing the buck, blaming the snake, and not owning up to responsibility. In other words, we are originally blessed, but for some reason we can’t handle it. It seems that in the past 10,000 years humans learned something rather well, and it is not a reflection of our original blessing. We have times when human ugliness shows through, much to our embarrassment.

We still look at other people who are different than us with fear. We judge others. We protect ourselves from “them.” We talk about “those people” but fail to think about how we function in the system.

Instead of celebrating and being gentle to our bodies we are hard on them, working them long hours, depriving them of sleep, putting all kinds of foreign substances in them and otherwise wearing them out before their time.

Instead of emphasizing the healing of the whole people of God, the whole earth, we want our own personal salvation, and our own piece of the economic pie, and we want it now, even if two-thirds of the world must suffer to support our selfish standard of living

Our desire to experience ecstasy and the joy of sexuality turns on itself and we use the blessing of sexuality to sell cars, and boats, and cosmetics, and of course, Viagra.
The opening chapters of Genesis remind me that yes, we make mistakes, and yes, God has a different plan for the world. Original blessing is the basis what it means to be human.

What if we took this idea of original blessing seriously? What happens when we begin to understand ourselves as originally blessed, rather than originally cursed? How much better might we feel about ourselves?

What if instead of being suspicious about our bodies, we welcome our bodies and we treat each other with gentleness?

What if the word “humility” no longer mean despising of one’s self? The word humility and human come from the same root – hummus. It actually means dirt. Humility literally means to befriend one’s earthiness.

What if instead of trying to control and dominate our relationships, we become ready to experience and celebrate the ardor of life?

What if instead of regarding humans as sinners, we regard ourselves as those who can choose to create or destroy?

So, which is it? Are we originally blessed or originally cursed? Fred Craddock, a well known teacher and preacher, was driving through Tennessee some years ago. He stopped at a restaurant for a meal, and he was intrigued as one man went from table to table greeting everyone. When the man came to Craddock and learned he was a minister, the man insisted on telling a story. The man had been born in the mountains not far from where they sat. His mother was not married when he came into this world. In that time and culture, the mother and her son were scorned. The boy grew up feeling the love of his mother, but also the contempt of the townsfolk. At recess, his classmates would exclude him, and he learned to keep to himself in order to avoid getting teased. At age 12 the boy took up going to church on his own. A new minister had come to the church near his house. The boy would slip into the back row just as the services began, and leave before it was over so that no one would ask him, “What’s a boy like you doing here.”

However, one Sunday he so wrapped up in the service that he forgot to slip out. Before he could quietly exit, he felt the big hand of the minister on his shoulder, light and gentle. The preacher looked at him and asked, “Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?” The boy’s heart sank, and perhaps his pain showed on his face. But then the preacher answered, “Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable . . . You are a child of God.” With those words, he patted him on the back and added, “That’s quite an inheritance. Go, and claim it” The boy was now an old man greeting people in a restaurant. He told Craddock, “That one statement literally changed my whole life.” The man’s name was Ben Hooper and he elected the governor of Tennessee -- twice.

Do we hurt others, live by our compromises, and forget some of the important things?
Do we take what God created as good, and manipulate it for our own gain?
    Of course we do.
Do we suffer the consequences of the others' bad decisions?
    Yes, we do.

Are we the bearers of hereditary depravity, cursed and rejected by God? All I can say is this, I know who we are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. We are the children of God. We bear the beautiful image of God. Our legacy, and our potential, is exceedingly good. Now go and claim it.

“Original Sin or Original Blessing” by The Rev. Rod Frohman
Original Blessing,  by Matthew Fox.
“Making Sense of Sin” by The Rev. Ricky Hoyt.
“An Original Theology: Creation and Matthew Fox” by Michael D. Obrien.
“Exceedingly Good” by Rev. Bruce Southworth.
“Original Sin” at Wikipedia.
“Puritans” at Wikepedia.
God: A Biography, by Jack Miles.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Rhythm of Spiritual Activism

St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “There are two ways of life that God has commended to the Church. One is through faith, the other is through vision. One is in pilgrimage through a foreign land, the other is in our eternal home; one in labor, the other in repose; one in a journey to our homeland, the other in that land itself; one in action, the other in the fruits of contemplation” (Tract. 124, 5, 7).

Augustine draws on two biblical characters to describe these two ways of life: The Apostles John and Peter.  Augustine says, “The first life, the life of action, is personified by the Apostle Peter; the contemplative life, by John. The first life is passed here on earth until the end of time, when it reaches its completion; the second is not fulfilled until the end of the world, but in the world to come it lasts forever.”

As illustrated by Peter, the first way of life is the way of contemplative action. It is the verve and dash that responds to the call of Christ to “follow me.” The life of action seeks to live into God’s aims for the world by doing what God is doing and going where God is going.

Of course, one can only do what God is doing and go where God is going by listening to God. For Augustine, this second way of life is active contemplation, demonstrated by John. While Peter is the “do-er,” John is the one who leans on Christ’s chest, listening to the divine breath, feeling the heartbeat of God, and enjoying the reality of being God’s beloved.

We need both at CCC. Even in this Summer season, we are an active group. We are already planning events to help us live into our covenantal commitments in the Fall. We are preparing to pass Maryland’s Marriage Equality referendum. We are planning anti-racism discussions and events on Middle East peace. Summer has just started, and I’ve already met with groups who are preparing Fall Sunday School and Youth Group calendars, New Member events, the Capital Campaign, Gifts and Callings classes, and Senior events. We are an active church. But I didn’t need to tell you that.

Go out there and act, CCC! I’m right there with you. Let’s meet the needs of the world, preaching, teaching, nurturing, feeding, singing, liberating, stewardship-ing, and following the living Christ. And in the midst of our contemplative action, let’s not forget active contemplation. Activism has a spiritual rhythm. We plan for the pauses. We act together, and then we draw together to pray, dream, and listen for the breath of the Divine Sprit. Only then do we engage the community again. We act and then we listen. We engage and then we pause. We move and then we become still. As we take part in this rhythm, we do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.

Blessings on you all this Summer season.
Pastor Matt

Sermon for July 8, 2012

Lessons from Creation
Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Our Scripture reading is a paraphrase of the opening words of Genesis, pieced together by David Blementhal of Emory University from the commentaries of Rashbam, otherwise known as Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (1083-1174). Click on the link to read.

If you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, scientists suggest taking a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks. Horrendous wildfires in Colorado. Oppressive heat waves, droughts and  all-time heat records. One observer described our D.C. heat wave as “being in a giant wet mouth, except six degrees warmer.” And then there was that powerful freak wind-storm-for-the-ages that blew through last Friday. First there was the roaring wind --blowing dust, and debris and tumbleweeds -- followed by an explosive display of thunder and lightning that left hundreds of thousands of people without power.

As terrifying as that storm was, the aftermath reminded me of my younger days. The next morning, my street had no electricity, and therefore not as much of the noise that comes with power consumption. There were no whining generators, no a/c units, no humming of transformers. The chirping birds, singing in the morning heat and humidity brought me back to my childhood experiences on my family’s farm in Jerico Springs, Missouri, population 259. Many summers we would visit my great grandfather on the farm. Missouri summers are hot and steamy. Grandpa Hudson had a few antique desk fans to cool the kitchen – the kind that would lop off a limb if you got too close. My grandmother would set up shop in the kitchen frying hearty meals for family farm workers over the kitchen stove. She suffered through those visits to Jerico Springs. For her, a visit to Missouri meant a week of hard labor and sweat. As for me . . . I remember trying to sleep on the downstairs couch in the old farmhouse, waiting for a breeze as I checked in with the jar of fireflies I had caught and kept near my pillow.

The morning after our D.C. storm brought me back to Jerico Springs, MO. It also got me wondering what might happen if these weather events become a regular feature of modern life. These are, after all, the kinds of extremes scientists predicted will come with climate change. In the days following the wind and heat, I’ve heard more people wondering whether this is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. As one scientist noted, "The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about." The head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in fire-charred Colorado said these are the very record-breaking conditions he has said would happen, but many people wouldn't listen. So it's I told-you-so time.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that just 18 percent of those polled name climate change as their top environmental concern. Maybe we hear about it so much, it’s becoming too easy to tune the message out. As one woman told the Post, “I really don’t give it a thought.” We don’t always think of ourselves as intertwined with our environment. It’s as if we humans are no longer part of creation. We stride the earth as gods, and the ground beneath our feet serves our desires. In the wake of yet another weather-related calamity, we face the same lesson once more: short-term advantages can be gained by exploiting the environment. But in the long term we pay for it. When we consume the natural world as a commodity, we alienate ourselves from the earth, from each other, and also from God. I don’t think this is the relationship God intended.

Martin Buber was a rabbi, philosopher and social activist. In 1923 he came out with a groundbreaking book called I and Thou. He talked about two different types of relationships. Some people have I-Thou or I-You relationships. An I-You relationship is a true dialogue. A person relates to another with mutuality, openness, and directness. There are also I-It relationships. In an I-It relationship, a person learns about another, and experiences another, but never enters into a relationship. I-It relationships are entirely objective. I have an I-It relationship with my doctor. We don’t get together and enter into one another’s profound hopes and fears. He doesn’t really  know me. He looks me over and objectively compares my health to other males of my age.

Or, take the example of a tree. You see a tree in the middle of summer – a rigid green pillar in a flood of light. You can feel its movement and sense the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core. You can sense the sucking of the roots and the breathing of the leaves. You can name put the tree in a category– call it a maple, an oak, a birch. You can tell with some predictability how it will grow and when it will lose its leaves. But, up to this point the tree remains an object – an It. You have only experienced the tree.

But, it can also happen, when will and grace are joined, that as you contemplate the tree you are drawn into a relationship. The tree ceases to be an It. All of the sudden you notice the unique features of this tree. It is not just a maple. It has original features that make it different from other maples. It still has a predictable form, color, and chemistry. But now, it’s as if you are confronting this maple as an individual. As the breeze tickles its branches, the leaves shake and the limbs sway, and all of the sudden this tree is dancing with you. You are in a relationship. And relation is reciprocity.

Many of us have I-It relationships with creation. We think that if we have enough objective knowledge and experience and science and can pour it all into new technology, then we will be saved. Many of us feel stuck in a cheap and impotent synthetic world. Our ability to enjoy one another, and the rest of creation is dammed up by greed, corruption, fractured relationships, boredom, and injustice. But God’s creation will not be tamed. Leonard Bernstein reminds us of this in some words from his Mass:
You can lock up the bold men,
Go and lock up your bold men,
And hold men in tow.
You can stifle all adventure
For a century or so.
Smother hope before its risen.
Watch it wizen like a gourd.
But you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord.
No, you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord.
Buber plays on the words of the creation story and writes, “In the beginning is the relation.” This is one lesson of creation. If we want to recover health and harmony, our broken relationships need healing. The process begins when we can see the image of God around us. I’m not talking about pantheism here. Pantheism is when you look at a rock and think, that rock is a god. So is that tree. So are you and I. Pantheism states that everything is God and God is everything. But, the lesson I’m learning from creation is to add one word to this formula: God is in everything, and everything is in God. That includes you and me. Creation reveals God to us and allows us to experience God’s presence.

I’m talking about I-You relationships with creation – transforming every experience into a unique connection. I-You relationships draw us closer to one another and to God. Nature’s abundance and beauty reveals God’s generosity and majesty. Creation’s healing, nourishing and life-giving properties reveal divine love.

The question is whether we can relate back to God. Martin Buber says,  “Relation is reciprocity.” A new relationship with God and creation means being vulnerable to God’s Word-- the ongoing, creative energy of God. Our spiritual task is to get out of the way enough so that we might be filled and renewed with God’s Word so that we can go about our work of healing, celebrating, and co-creating.

What I’m really talking about today is the power of love. I’m asking us to love creation and to love one another, and to love God. The love I’m talking about involves some risk. Think of a two people who fall in love. In a moment of passion, one partner says, “I love you.” And the other partner says, “Wow, I love you too.” I see it in the movies all the time. One partner might say “I love you” and mean it with all of her soul. But she is only into experiencing the moment: the rush of excitement. A partner might say, “I Love you,” but he might really mean, “I love how you look,” or “I love how I feel right now.” If that’s the case, then what he calls love is really using the other person as an object to fulfill his so-called “needs” at that moment. How many people do you know who have heard the words “I love you,” and then left the relationship feeling cheap and used? We might call it love, but it’s not a relationship.

Think of what happens with another couple when they say “I love you.” They look, and listen, and touch one another, and they know that what they see, hear, and feel has been kissed by God. This is not just any person. This is not just MY Partner, MY wife, or MY husband, or MY lover. This person represents the kiss of God.

We can do the same with the natural world. We can say, “I love the earth,” but really mean, “I love how we can take what’s around us and make our lives comfortable.” But think of what happens when we feel the breeze and sense the kiss of the Divine Spirit, when we dig our hands into the dirt and realize that the elements that make up the topsoil are the same elements that compose human life. This is not just air, soil, and water – these are images of God.

There was once a traveling rabbi who had the ability to answer every question he was asked. One day he arrived at a town where thousands came to hear him. A little girl in the crowd raised her hand. "I have the question you can't answer," she said. "I have a bird in my hand. Is it alive or dead?" Whichever answer the rabbi chose, the girl knew she would prove him wrong. If the rabbi said the bird is alive, she would close her hand and kill it. But if he said the bird was dead, then she'd open her hand and let it live. The rabbi was well aware of the trick behind this question, yet still found himself stumped. Perhaps this truly was the question he couldn't answer. Then suddenly the answer hit him. Tears came streaming down his cheeks, even as his face broke into a smile. Looking at the girl in the midst of the huge crowd, he said, "My precious, precious child. You hold in your hand a bird and ask if the bird is alive or dead. I can only tell you one thing. The fate of this bird lies in your hands. You can let it live, or you can let it die."

We can let creation live or we can let it die. Her fate is in our hands, yours and mine. Sure, we can suck the life out of our earth, and its resources, and inhabitants until we are bloated and satisfied while others are tossed aside like second-hand remnants after they’ve served their purpose. There is another way.

We can approach one another, and the creation around us with reverence, realizing that that we see, and hear, and touch is a single unique being, interconnected yet unique. The very least we can do is look -- really look. And listen. And touch. And know that what we see, and hear, and feel, has been kissed by God.

Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner, 1970), 56-58.
 “The Call of Creation: God's Invitation and the Human Response,” /
Some ideas in this sermon were freely lifted from
Original Blessing by Matthew Fox (New York: Putnam, 1983).
Avraham Weiss, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World. Kindle Edition.

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 ...