Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon for August 12, 2012

The Ark Builders

When Noah was 600 years old, on the seventeenth day of the second month, all the underground waters erupted from the earth, and the rain fell in mighty torrents from the sky. The rain continued to fall for forty days and forty nights. That very day Noah had gone into the boat with his wife and his sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—and their wives. With them in the boat were pairs of every kind of animal—domestic and wild, large and small—along with birds of every kind. Two by two they came into the boat, representing every living thing that breathes. A male and female of each kind entered, just as God had commanded Noah. Then the Lord closed the door behind them. For forty days the floodwaters grew deeper, covering the ground and lifting the boat high above the earth. As the waters rose higher and higher above the ground, the boat floated safely on the surface. Finally, the water covered even the highest mountains on the earth, rising more than twenty-two feet[a] above the highest peaks. All the living things on earth died—birds, domestic animals, wild animals, small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the people. Everything that breathed and lived on dry land died. God wiped out every living thing on the earth—people, livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and the birds of the sky. All were destroyed. The only people who survived were Noah and those with him in the boat. And the floodwaters covered the earth for 150 days. But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and livestock with him in the boat. He sent a wind to blow across the earth, and the floodwaters began to recede. The underground waters stopped flowing, and the torrential rains from the sky were stopped. So the floodwaters gradually receded from the earth. After 150 days, exactly five months from the time the flood began, the boat came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Two and a half months later, as the waters continued to go down, other mountain peaks became visible. Genesis 7:11-8:5

You have never heard the story of Noah until you’ve heard it from biblically illiterate Middle School students. A few summers ago, I was running a Bible Summer Camp for 60 Middle School campers.  We talked about the story of Noah’s Ark. Sure, we know about the flood and the rainbow.  But when I asked the kids why God flooded the earth, one Jr. Higher told our group, “OK, so there were these evil men who built their house on some sand, and they wouldn’t listen to God so God sent a flood and everyone who built their house on the sand died but everyone who like built their house on the rocks lived, except the flood came over the whole earth, so they died too.” Bet you didn’t know that part! We don’t always pay attention to the details of the story.

The story begins with God. Embittered. Full of regret.  Creation is a big mistake, so the earth will receive a cleansing destruction.  But the cure seems as bad as the disease. God says to Noah, “Build an ark. Collect representatives from creation. Gather your family and you will be rescued. What’s not on the ark will be destroyed.” I wonder what God’s voice sounded like to Noah. Sad? Disappointed? Weary? Did Noah think about trying to change God’s mind? No matter. It wasn’t long before the hills and valleys became nothing but dark water. I wonder what Noah must have thought after the flood–when he looked back on the months of awesome and fearful events. Did Noah have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome? After watching the Lord God destroy the world, after spending never-ending months on a big boat, what happened to Noah afterwards? In the years after the flood, when dark clouds rolled in and the smell of rain filled the air, did the old feelings come rushing back to Noah? Was he was filled with memories of being saved from death; being given a new chance by a loving God to be his people.

We don’t know. We can’t really infer much from the story. But this much I know. It was nothing like the pleasant scenes we see painted on nursery walls and cartooned in children’s bibles. Once the flood waters recede, the Ark is not surrounded by verdant fields and harmoniously singing birds. Have you ever seen the aftermath of a flood? It’s not pretty. Remember the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina? On August 29, surge waters started quickly flooding homes at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Residents sought high ground on their roofs. Many had to claw through their ceilings with their hands just to get to safety. By the time people got up there, the roofs were blown away. They had to dive into the water, clinging to trees, or grabbing onto debris.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I took a team down to help rebuild homes. We talked to a woman named Paula. When the waters came, her house lifted off its piers and floated away. Paula survived by getting into a small boat that drifted by. She and her extended family spent the next 8 hours in the boat, clinging to the sides while they lived off candy bars floating in the surge. Paula owned 15 horses. Before the storm, she led them to roam in a large pasture. After Katrina, 8 were dead, caught up in trees or tangled in barbed wire. Paula’s house could not be rebuilt. She salvaged her house, board by board, so that the wood could be reused at her sister’s home.

If this is what a regional flood looks like, imagine the devastation in the aftermath of the mythical flood of Genesis.

Destruction and rebirth. Insecurity and Safety. These themes keep playing themselves out in our human story. We can see them today. Look and you may see the waters of destruction eddying all around us. It’s not a physical flood (although we are seeing more of that, too). I’m seeing a overflow of anxiety. I’m sensing a rising deluge of hopelessness among some people.  A fear that this is as good as it gets – that the best times have come and gone and we are on the downside of the bell curve. The world can feel inundated with random violence and senseless retribution, as we saw again with the shootings in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Some scientists have termed what’s going on as “societal regression.” It means that society is more or less anxious and orderly at different times in history. At certain times, there’s more anxiety in all people, which in turn raises chaos and irresponsibility in society. It even happens in non-human societies. One study at the National Institutes of Health noticed that when rat populations became overcrowded, there were instances of abnormal behavior. Mothers forgot how to make nests. Males gave up their nest guarding behavior and sat on the sidelines staring. The same forces affect human institutions. The more troubled society and its institutions become, the more anxiety its members react to. It is a brutal cycle. When we are under stress, it is hard to think clearly and to live according to principle-centered decisions that guide our behavior. We look for the quick fix that will bring some temporary relief to the stressors of life. We become focused on taking care of ourselves. For many, life becomes a matter of survival.

Think about the disasters that surround us on a daily basis. In these tough economic times, there are now 46.2 million Americans living in poverty. That’s about the entire population of Spain. During one of the endless Republican debates cycle, a CNN reporter asked one of the candidates what we should do if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance suddenly found himself in need of six months of intensive care. The candidate replied, “That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” The reporter pressed him again, asking whether “society should just let him die.” In the pause that followed, cheers and shouts of “Yeah!” came from the crowd. There has been a lot written and said about that moment, most of which is partisan. It was not really a Republican moment or a Tea Party moment, or even a political moment. It was a cultural moment. An American moment. A moment that exposes how comfortable we are with inequality, how low our concern is for our neighbor. People around us our suffering. They tread water as the floods refuse to recede. We’ve come to accept the hardship that surrounds us. We may not have been the one shouting “Yeah!” but do we condone it by our inaction?

That’s just one issue. We all know people are drowning in despair. Family members are fighting with one another. Children seem lost. Neighbors are isolated. People we know and love are broken, floating in a rising flood of anxiety, waiting for the next wave to crash upon them. Thinking about it gives me a headache and a heartache.

For Noah, God’s solution was build and ark – a vessel to bring life to a new generation. I believe God is calling us here at Christ Congregational Church to be ark builders for a new generation. Our job is to build a vessel of hope and promise. My question this morning is this: What kind of vessel are we building to bring the gospel to a hurting world?

Church buildings are a vessel, of sorts. In the past congregations said, “Come on board and listen to our beautiful music. Hear an inspiring sermon. Join a church board. Come to one of our classes. Become a church member. Come to us and you will find rest and peace.” It was good for a while, but it stopped working. That vessel does not fit the needs of upcoming generations.

Don’t get me wrong. I love church. I’m the biggest church advocate you will ever find. But I have a critique: at some point churches moved the prime focus away from the people around us who are in trouble. We got thinking that if people really wanted to get their lives together they would come to church. And when they get to church, they had better like the old hymns. They better like formality and liturgy because that’s the way we do it. Where has it gotten us? We live in a time when people are desperate for spiritual meaning, and mainline churches are leaking members by the tens of thousands every year. The truth is that you can come to church for years and your life can still be miserable. You can sit in these pews week after week and still feel like you are dying inside. You can sit in a crowded sanctuary and be the loneliest person on the planet. The challenge, as I see it, is that the church needs to cast off from the dock and get wet. Don’t expect people to just come here and get on board. It’s time to weigh anchor and take off into the watery chaos around us.

We are the ark builders, making a vessel that sail the storms of life. Our CCC ark helps everyone, everywhere to negotiate the storm by using whatever it takes -- whatever it takes -- to help people in trouble find peace.

I am proud of who we are becoming at CCC. In a time of fast-paced frenzy and overloaded schedules, we are building an Ark of Sabbath. 

In a time of random violence and war, at home and abroad, we are building an Ark of Peace.

In a time when the LGBT community is the victim of bigotry, at a time when we see some political and religious leaders denying equal rights to all people, we are building an Ark of Inclusion.

In a time when the pain of racism still throbs in our communities, we are building an Ark of Equality.

In a time when we are moved to serve our communities with greater compassion and accountability, we are building an Ark of Transformation.

In a time when more and more people are coming off bus to the doors of this church looking for a financial help, or food, or just a cup of ice to keep cool on a broiling hot day, we are building an Ark of Care.

In a time when we wonder what kind of world our children will inherit, when we wonder what the earth will look like if these flood waters recede, we are building an Ark of Responsibility.

In a time when we need to come together and take the risk of sharing our vulnerabilities and pains, we are building an Ark of Community.

And for anyone who feels pulled under by the currents of life, we are building an Ark of Care, and Ark of Healing, and Ark of Wholeness. So come, all you who are strong and you who are tired; you who have resources to share and you who need to receive; you who are losing hope and you who see the future’s promise, you who are tired of the fight and you who are energized by optimism. Come as we build this Ark together, and reach out to others who need what we are building.

Aqua Church by  Leonard Sweet, pp.
God: A Biography by Jack Miles, pp.
Michael Williams, ed., The Story Tellers Companion: Genesis.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Check it out . . .

The Englewood Review of Books put a review I wrote online:
Review of Abraham's Children, Kelly James Clark, ed.

Sermon for July 22, 2012

I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks -- kind of lazy about posting. --mbb
Crime and Punishment

Now  . . . Eve became pregnant. When she gave birth to Cain, she said, “With the Lord’s help, I have produced  a man!” Later she gave birth to his brother and named him Abel. When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected. “Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him. Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain replied to the Lord, “My punishment is too great for me to bear!  You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me!” The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. 16 So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Genesis 4:1-16
Was I in a melancholy mood yesterday! I woke up, made a cup of coffee, and started in on the Saturday Washington Post. Of course, the ghastly news from Aurora, Colorado dominated the paper. Our hearts sink with empathy and despair once more as we try to understand the senseless, calculated, deliberate killing of others. As I read the paper, one of my thoughts was, “Here we go again – get ready for another round of arguments about gun control and whether citizens should be able to own glocks and assault rifles. When we are done debating, we will be in exactly the same place as when we started: Pro-gun lobbying interests will win the day, we will have done nothing to address the issues, and we will slowly make our way back to movie theaters again until the next shooting happens. I know this is cynical. I told you I was in a melancholy mood.
Just when I’m wondering if we could ever hope for tolerance of one another (I’m not talking acceptance or understanding – I’d be happy with mere tolerance and civility), The Post also reported on the escalating shadow war between Israel and Iran, as well as the gory violence in Syria, which make the crowd shooting in Colorado look like child’s play.

Well, I was already sad when I put down the Post and read the latest issued of Popular Science. Leading its stories of environmental doomsday scenarios was an article on how climate change scientists are being threatened and attacked for their calls to global action to save our warming planet. Our beautiful home is being destroyed, and as we watch it wilt in the heat the climate-deniers not only debate but threaten the lives of climate scientists and their families. Pro-pollution lobbying interests win the day. By noon, I was feeling a subterranean sense of grief.

Author E.B. White once said, “The more I stay here, the more anxious and boxed in I feel, and the more I worry about whether I will do something, help people, or learn.” That’s all I hope to say in what I do, and in how I act. I’m not planning on leaving for a while, so I’m learning to adapt and make some sense of this world. And I’m looking for some hope. Today it just seems too much: Too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; sometimes the air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion; too much of darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference. It’s just too much; too bloody, bruising, battered much.

The beginnings of human violence begin simply enough. Our ancient stories tell us about how Adam and Eve start a family. They have two sons. Cain, the big brother, becomes a farmer. Abel, the little brother, becomes a shepherd. We are told nothing else about Cain or Abel. They seem to be decent, hard-working sons. They are both religious people, so they honor God by giving a sacrifice specific to each one’s vocation. Each gives God the product of his work. Cain brings some produce from his gardens and Abel brings some firstborn animals from his flocks.

For some reason, God like’s Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Why? Is Cain proud and self-willed? Is God trying to rub it in Cain’s face that he’s the Bad Seed? Is God anti-vegetarian? Was there something wrong with Cain’s crops? Maybe God really does like the little brother best. Maybe Cain’s devotion to God was lukewarm while Abel expressed enthusiastic piety.

For some reason, God likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The only clue we have to why might be found in one small word in the text: “Some.” Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel makes an offering to God, too, which the storyteller describes in detail. Abel gives the best, and Cain only gives some and God rejects it. Cain is angry. And sad. And depressed. Cain will soon be guilty of something rather horrible--so terrible that it makes his lackluster offering look trivial by comparison. Seeing Cain’s simmering rage, God suggests that with some effort, Cain can wrestle temptation to the ground and become the master over it instead of the victim. Did Cain even try? Did wrestle with his frustrations and angers?

Did you notice that Abel never speaks? Able is not given any lines in the story. Abel doesn’t whisper a sound until his blood cries out from the ground. The only words of Abel are the cries of the innocent victim of violence and abuse. Abel’s cry pierces God’s ears as God goes looking for Cain. God asks a question of Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” It reminds us of the question God asked Adam in the Garden after Adam ate the fruit of the tree. “Where are you?” Cain lies. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?  The word “keeper” is the same word used when God created humans and tasked them to work and guard, or “keep”, the Garden.  Cain fails to keep God’s creation. He’s done the opposite. He’s destroyed it.

God says to Cain, “Listen! Don’t you hear the blood crying out!?” Apparently Cain did not. Neither do we most of the time. Crime goes on. So does its punishment.  After Cain spills his brother’s blood onto the ground, the lands will no longer yield crops. Abundance cycles to scarcity. Cain, the farmer, is up-rooted from the ground. He becomes a restless wanderer on the earth, a nomad. It’s as if God gives Cain a living death in a land of barrenness.

Do you know what amazes me about this text? Cain lives. Previous to this, I get the feeling that the Lord God is terrifying and capricious. But Cain will not suffer Abel’s fate. Humanity chooses death but God insists on life. God knows that the cycle of violence needs to be stopped. It’s bad enough that Abel’s blood screams in God’s ears. God can’t bear to hear Cain's blood shout out, too. God chooses life in the face of death. By the end of this short story, we are left with a pool of Abel’s blood screaming into God’s ear. At the same moment, God bends down and kisses Cain’s forehead, marking him for safety, insisting on life.

Screaming blood and kissing lips. Justified punishment and gracious salvation. Cain’s bloody hands and God’s mark of protection on Cain’s forehead. The images collide and bewilder. Why does God keep insisting on life? Why doesn’t the cry of Abel’s blood have the last word? Why? Because only God may have the last word, and that word is life.

Cain chose death and can never settle down again because of it. East of Eden there is only restlessness and wandering. Cain set humanity up for a whole history of restless wandering—we can see the Land of Nod everywhere, it seems. Meanwhile, in all our restless searches for answers and identity, the shed blood of the innocent always speaks to us.  The cries from the blood-soaked Colorado must send God reeling, but no less also the cries from the dust of Mexico, the cities of Syria, the mountains of Afghanistan, the deserts of Iraq, the soil of Somalia, and everywhere that people die as one group keeps trying to gain immortality and mastery over another.

Today, I want to remember the times when I have chosen death over life, even in small ways. Sadly, it happens too easily. And it’s just too much. Or, it is too little: Too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence; too little of music and dance, and laughter, and celebration?

I also NEED to remember, death does not get the last word. Even when the world chooses death, we are loved and protected by God. God always chooses life. God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our sisters and brothers who are hungry for hope.

"Hearing Abel, Raising Cain" by Scott Hoezee,
Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle.
Jack Miles, God: A Biography, pp. 39-42.
Michael Williams, ed., The Storytellers Companion to the Bible: Genesis, pp. 42-47.

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 ...