Monday, December 30, 2013

Sermon for December 29, 2013 / Christmas 1

Justice Replaced by Pity
After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”

Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
    Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
    dead and buried.

Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Matthew 2:13-23
When I read today’s text from Matthew, I feel anxious. When I saw this was the gospel text for the day, my stomach dropped. I don't know about you, but I didn't come here this morning, at the end of our holiday celebrations, wanting to hear a story about children getting murdered. We're here this morning to breathe in the last few breaths of the holidays, aren't we? We'll sing some concluding Christmas carols and enjoy the lights and decorations one final week. In the next few days, we'll raise a toast to the New Year, maybe take in a football game or two, visit with friends, enjoy the final days off, and then it will be back to reality. Back to work, back to school, back to the ol' grind. The bright lights of Christmas will be replaced with the colder, darker, wetter reality of winter in January. The holiday cheer that we might have absorbed will return to our usual fare of...what? What is your usual outlook? Is it one of cheer or sadness? Excitement or boredom? Peace or anxiety?

As I said, when I read today’s text from Matthew, I feel anxious. The intensity of the story scares me. Three traveling scholars, we call them The Magi, welcome the prospect of a new king, but the local monarch in Jerusalem, King Herod, isn’t so excited. He responds with the kind of violence we'd rather not think about, an over-the-top brutality we'd rather not pair with our holiday cheer.

Jesus is taken out of the country at this point of Matthew's story. But his safety is only for a season. His escape from violence is only temporary. We all know the climax of the story: eventually the powers and authorities will try to protect their influence by killing Jesus, too. So, as the poet W. H. Auden wrote:
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.
The troubling part is that in the process of eliminating the Christ child, Herod has scores of other little ones killed. And there it is  . . . there’s the reality we go back to this week. There’s the kind of world we live in. We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and then we return to a world of bloodshed where innocent children suffer and are killed every day. This is the point of the sermon were I am supposed to find a nice story that will help us to feel better and to make things alright. But there aren’t too many nice stories, are there? I know too many people who suffered as children, who were abused and neglected. There aren't any nice stories that make their pain all better. There isn't enough holiday cheer to swathe the reality.

So, what do we do? Even in the mist of such perverse violence, I believe there is some good news for us today. It has do with waking up to a whole new way of living – a new way that does not run away from violence but faces it.

I just mentioned the poet W. H. Auden. Auden wrote a Christmas oratorio entitled, For the Time Being. He wrote it during the dark times of World War II. His concern in the poem is not simply to speak of the Nativity of Christ, but also to think about its impact upon the mundane world of the everyday. In part of this long poem, King Herod is a cultural commentator who watches the twentieth century unfold. Herod skewers a Western culture that has become lost to spineless sectarianism. He is unhappy with people who have misplaced the ability to make decisions through rational consensus. While the historical King Herod may have been a vulgar and paranoid Roman puppet, Auden’s Herod is a proud and well-intentioned administrator who loves order. He fears that the infant, whom the scholars from the East are calling God, will replace objective reason and order with personal visions and social chaos. So he makes a decision. In Herod’s words, “Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.”

Auden's Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if doing so means innocents must be slaughtered. Herod doesn’t want to kill, but he predicts what will happen centuries later if the Christ Child survives. He says, “Reason will be replaced by Revelation  … Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish …”

Herod sits in his castle, making sure that everything is decent and orderly. His job is to ensure that life is rationally arranged. Into his balanced, structured world come three magi who turn it all upside down with the news that God has been born. If people follow this Christ child, then there goes order.  Decorum is out the window. The world will be filled with religious fanatics and people who look to their own individual faith to solve their problems instead of relying on rational and tested cures.

I suspect most of us, in our own way, can understand. We may have trouble with a vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow the Christ to an uncertain end. When those who stand for the old way of doing things, like Herod, are confronted with this strange and unsettling possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. Herod becomes the symbol for all systems that refuse to change.

What are the options? We can accept life as it is and try to impose order on it, even if that means violence. We can block out anyone or anything that shakes up our world and be carried along with the tide of useless therapies and distrust of formal politics, skeptical of authority and prey to superstition. We can participate in political language that is corroded by fake pity and euphemism. We can strike out against those who challenge us. These are the ways of Herod. Each of them is a form of exclusion or elimination. It’s what Herod does to maintain his power and sense of balance. It’s what we do when we feel challenged. We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that disturbs our well-crafted identities. Exclusion and elimination expose a withered faith.

I love Auden’s phrase, “Justice will be replaced by Pity.” It is in that phrase where I hear some good news. The German political theorist Hannah Arendt described pity as a response to suffering heeded at a distance. Listen to that again; pity is a response to suffering heeded at a distance. If you pity someone, you don’t have to get involved. You can watch all the terribleness from a safe distance, cluck your tongue, and walk away if you so choose. You can say, “Oh, look at those poor, unfortunate souls over there,” while feeling fortunate or lucky that the same thing is not happening to you. Pity is easy.

 Justice is quite different. Justice is messy. Justice is difficult. Justice takes hands-on commitment to forge a more humane and compassionate world. Justice does not automatically flow from our pity. Justice is not satisfied with platitudes and double talk. Justice knows that when a person sees what is wrong in the world, it does not mean he or she will do something to fix it. Like W.H. Auden’s Herod, Good people do not always challenge the status quo. Upright people do not always speak truth to power or take personal action against that which keeps us from living into our fullest potential for the common good.
Pity creates awareness without action.
 Justice is awareness in action.
To quote another poet, Franz Kafka wrote:
You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
Next week, life goes back to normal, in all of its ordinary-ness. In all of its potential for terribleness. In all of its possibility for good. Whether we celebrate the warm companionship of the holidays or endure the flat stretches of life, Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, continually invites us to follow him into the difficult, messy, wonderful world of new possibilities for compassionate justice. It’s a world where we people of faith don’t look away from evil. We face it. In a world where justice is replaced by pity, We follow Jesus into a new world where pity is replaced by justice. Justice means that we are responsible for how our actions influence our society in its treatment of the "least of these.” The stranger. The outcast. Those who are lost. Those who are struggling.  As this Christmas season comes to an end and another new year comes upon us, I will be looking for ways to follow the Christ.

“In the meantime,” as Auden says in his Christmas oratorio:
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance.  The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

Meditations for December 22, 2013 / Advent 4

Two Advent Meditations on Joseph
The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn't know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God's angel spoke in the dream: "Joseph, son of David, don't hesitate to get married. Mary's pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God's Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—'God saves'—because he will save his people from their sins." This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for "God is with us").

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God's angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)
Meditation #1
It was a few days before Christmas. That morning, a woman woke up and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" Her husband replied, "Oh, you'll know the day after tomorrow."

The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a brilliant diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a stunning diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found . . . a book! And the book's title? How to Interpret Your Dreams.

Advent is a season of dreams. What have you been dreaming about lately? Some of us are dreaming about wonderful potential. We're dreaming of new possibilities, new toys, and new beginnings. I hope all those dreams come true! During my regular sleep time, many of my dreams fall into two major categories. There are worried dreams and chase dreams. The worried dreams are the ones where I stand in a pulpit with nothing to say. Or I’m running an hour late and the worship service has been going on way to long and people are getting up and leaving, and I can’t get the buttons to my robe fastened, and everything is going wrong. In another dream I’m back in college and I show up to class unprepared, or I can’t register for the one class I need in order to graduate. I had a worried/chase dream combo last night. I was a tourist in Israel with a bunch of people. I parked a big red can by the side of the road and when I came back it was gone – stolen. The police would not help. They basically told me I should have known better. Somehow we all got back to the house were staying at – a house by the beach. Safe and sound -- except for the huge rain and wind storm and swelling waves that chased us inside and began pummeling the house and flooding us out. The wind must have been loud outside my bedroom window last night. A stray wire-haired dog in a purple collar showed up in my dream last night, too. Not sure about that part . . .

Sometimes my dreams are refreshing. I dream about reconciliation. I dream that my enemies and I are living at peace. I dream of flying through the air joyfully, or swimming like a dolphin. I dream of new opportunities. These are nights where my hope is renewed.

What are these strange stories that bounce along our brain waves when we sleep? We wake suddenly, and reality itself seems like a different world. Today's gospel lesson is about a dream -- the dream of Joseph. Not Mary's dream, but Joseph's dream. Today we get to consider his point of view. Joseph dreams something wonderful. And scary. God will enter the world in human form. God will be born to Joseph’s fiancĂ©e, as crazy is that is to understand. Joseph has some serious trusting to do! Joseph has to trust that the voice of God is speaking to him in his dreams. Joseph has to trust Mary is telling the truth about how she got pregnant. Joseph has to believe in sacred dreams and then choose to align himself with God’s aims for the world.

I want us to consider a gift that we can give others this season. It’s the gift of trust. It’s the gift of believing in sacred dreams. One of the greatest gifts you can give is to have faith in someone else. Believe in the sacred dream of the person you love. Believe in the sacred dream of your husband. Believe in the sacred dream of your wife. Believe in the sacred dream of your children. Believe in the sacred dream of your hero, your leader, your friend. Believe in their dreams! Believe in sacred dreams this Christmas, and Jesus can be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God can appear.

Meditation #2
Joseph. Tradition  says he is a decent man. A righteous man. A good man facing an impossible choice. A man wanting to do the right thing. But what is the right thing? Joseph is a man caught on the horns of a dilemma. Does he stay faithful to a woman who looks like she has been cheating on him, or follow religious law and call of the wedding? He is torn between his family duty to Mary and his religious duty to law of God. When he hears Mary is pregnant, Joseph does the best he can. He resolves to let her go quietly, not make a big deal over this pregnancy so she doesn’t have to face the law’s punishments for pregnant unmarried women. And then, in the midst of a restless sleep, the angel of God comes to Joseph and invites him to take Mary as his wife and to name her child, and to claiming the child as his own. We know the story. Joseph says “yes”—yes to God. That’s often where the story ends.

But there’s so much more to Joseph’s yes to God. In naming Jesus, Joseph adopts him as his own and raises Jesus in the ways of God’s people. Joseph will watch over Jesus. He will listen in the night. He will worry about him. He will do all he can to keep that baby safe. Joseph will love Jesus and teach him his trade. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. Imagine what Jesus learned from Joseph.

Imagine the two of them at the carpenter’s bench . . . Joseph teaching Jesus how to use tools . . . Joseph telling stories from the Bible, sharing the parables of old . . . singing the psalms . . . singing of a father’s love. Imagine Jesus watching Joseph . . . maybe seeing how Joseph treats the people others ignore . . . perhaps noticing Joseph’s kindness . Maybe Jesus is aware of how Joseph goes out of his way to make others feel welcome. Maybe Jesus sees the tenderness Joseph shows to Mary.

Imagine Joseph telling Jesus stories about the Romans. We can almost hear him muttering about the way the Romans treat the Israelites — the heavy taxes, the hillsides crowded with crosses, the arrogance of Rome’s unlimited power. Imagine Joseph planting in Jesus a passion for justice. Imagine him sharing his longing for peace with Jesus. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life.

And think of the role Jesus played in Joseph’s life. Think of how Joseph’s yes to God rearranged his own life; think of the richness it brought him; think of how that yes to God stretched Joseph into new possibilities, new relationships, and new ways of being in the world.

In this season of dream, God comes to us just as God’s angel came to Joseph. God invites us to take God’s a new promise into our homes and into our hearts. God calls us to live into the fullness of God’s dream for us. God stretches is to accept new realities – new perspectives that we may have never considered before. God gives each of us an opportunity to say yes—to say yes to God. How will we respond?

O God, this Christmas-tide, nurture in us the song of a lover, the vision of a poet, the questions of a child, the boldness of a prophet, and the courage of a disciple. Come God, and give birth to a new creation in our hearts. Let something essential happen to us: something like the blooming of hope and faith, like a grateful heart, like a surge of awareness of how precious these moments are.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Meditation for December 15, 2013 / Advent 3

Everlasting Joy

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
   the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   ‘Be strong, do not fear!

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
From Isaiah 35:1-10
So many people go through life without any joy. For some people, a lack of joy is somebody else’s fault. I’d have joy if I had a different job. I’d have joy if I had more money. I’d have joy if my health was better.

For some people, life can be like a desert. Life can feel dried up, burnt and dusty. When love tragically dries up. When God seems so very far away. When happiness seems so very far away. When the marriage is dead. When your energies have died. Life can become like a desert. In fact, somewhere along your life and mine, life will be a desert for you. Sometime, somewhere, someplace, each of us will walk a desert path.

If you look at people’s lives, if you look at yourself, you will see that every single action that we perform in our lives --whether we’re trying to educate ourselves, make money, raise a family, begin a career -- whatever we may be doing in your life, we’re doing it because we think it’s going to bring happiness. It’s just that one person thinks so much education is happiness, another person thinks that so much money is happiness, somebody else thinks so much pleasure is happiness, for another power is happiness.

If you look at life, we have done so much in this world for our happiness. And what has happened? Many people have created more comfort and convenience -- but not joy.

Maybe we need to stop trying so hard. What if you were created in joy? What I mean is this: I think we are all, in essence, joyful people. Joy is a natural phenomenon. Joy is an original state of being. Misery is a human creation. If life is a journey, with highs and lows, through deserts and verdant hills, then there is no reason why we cannot be joyful for a major part of this journey. Joy is not about what you do and what you do not do. Joy is about how you are within yourself.

Despite all the external comforts we enjoy, with standards of living that would have been unimaginable a century ago, we are insecure, stressed out creatures that are missing out on the full potential of being human.

Imagine the scene that Isaiah describes. Those who were taken from their homeland – the people of Israel who were deported and taken into exile – they will return home. God will build them a highway through the deserts. As they walk the highway, rivers of fresh water will erupt from the ground. Flowers will bloom. Those who are beat down by life will get up and sing and dance. This is a scene of unbridled joy.

Now, we all know people who would walk this road and see a flower blooming in the desert and say, “I don’t like flowers. It’s just gonna dry up and be dead tomorrow.” We know people who would walk that road and see a cool spring of water break through the parched earth and say, “I’m not drinking that. It’s probably contaminated.” That person’s mind has become a misery-manufacturing machine. That person is creating misery. And in one a sense, that miserable person is correct. Those are all external things. And those things cannot make us happy. Nobody or nothing can cause health or joy from the outside. God cannot force you to be joyful. The source of misery is the way that person processes the material of his or her past. Maybe that person had a bad experience in the past, and all those bad memories are coming back. Maybe that person has trained herself, or trained himself to have low expectations. It’s something we do to protect ourselves from getting disappointed. So, I get why that person is creating misery.

But in another sense, we wonder whether that person is at home within himself or herself. The moment you believe that who you are right now is because of what happened yesterday, you have written off your life. You have hampered possibility. Look at the miracles around us, for God’s sake. Deserts are in bloom. We can see the glory of the Lord. We are invited to participate in everlasting joy. It would be a shame to miss that opportunity.

Today we remember, the deserts of life can bloom. Life can flower with joy. Joy is not something that you do; joy is something that you become. Your sadness is created by you. Your joy is created by you. If you have made yourself truly joyful, you have fulfilled the fundamental purpose of your life.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sermon for December 8, 2013 / Advent 2

Melody and Harmony

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name"; and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people"; and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him"; and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:4-13

In music, there is a Latin term named cantus firmus. In English it means fixed song. A cantus firmus is a preexistent melody underlying a polyphonic musical composition (there will be a quiz on this later!). If you imagine a quartet of singers, the cantus firmus is a melody line, usually sung by the lowest part, and then the other parts harmonize on top of that thematic melody. The cantus firmus controls the whole song. It sets the framework for the entire composition. The melody line might not always be obvious throughout the entire song. But it is always there, holding the composition together. Let me play you an example. In this song, the main theme, or melody is sung by a tenor. Other members of the group build harmonies and rhythms in response to the melody as the song goes on. The melody is fixed. It’s firm. One unwavering voice holds the melody throughout the entire song. The counterpoint is all the other stuff (if you don’t know what a melody is, think of it this way: as you listen to a song and want to sing along, what tune would  you sing? That’s probably the melody).

So, why the music lesson? Well, the idea of cantus firmus has been used as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor murdered by the Nazis in the dying days of WWII, wrote from prison of, “a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint . . . Where the [melody] is form and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits . . .  only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness, and assure us that nothing can go wrong so long as the cantus firmus is kept going.” 

It’s an amazing metaphor, really. Bonoeffer is saying that there’s a constant, firm, unwavering melody to our lives. Once you know the cantus firmus, then the improvisation can happen.  Life isn’t whole without melody and harmony working together. But there is no harmony without a strong melody.

We could say that the cantus firmus is our deep-seated song at the core of who we are.  The Apostle Paul talks about it, in different words, at the end of his letter to the Romans. He writes, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify God.” Christian unity is a cantus firmus. We can’t do much of anything else without a strong set of unwavering values holding us together. 

It sounds great in theory, but actually it’s a problem. Paul writes these words because he knows the church in Rome is not getting along well. Arguments threaten to splinter the church. Jewish and Gentile Christians are divided. There is not a clear, principal melody. Jewish leaders sing one song. Gentile leaders sing another. Instead of harmony, they sing in discord. Paul steps in with a cantus firmus: This is not an argument about Jewish nationalism versus universal religion. Paul tunes the church in to a simple yet powerful melody. He knows there is no harmony without a strong melody.

What do you hear when you listen to the sounds and noises around us today? Do you hear a cantus firmus, a strong song? I think many around us hear a hopeless song – a cantus lamentus or a song of lament. Many culture watchers talk about a new age of despair in Western civilization. A generation of giving up. An era of hopelessness. Some say that 1850-1950 was the century of hope. We built the steam engine, the railroad, the car, the airplane, the rocket. Medicines were created and hopes were high. The frontiers of America were expanded. These were year of progress, years of confidence, years when we knew that we could solve the problems of the future. Even the Civil War and World The Great World Wars did not dampen an attitude that we could conquer any problem that stands in our ways.

It feels different today. We live in a new era where we are not so sure that we can solve those major global problems. 

I hear a cantus lamentus, a song of lament, wondering how we are going to feed a world population of eight billion people in a few years.  Many people feel hopeless. They throw up their hands. “Who can stop it? There will be billions of starving bodies in twenty years. Who can feed them?” And how are we going to do it on a planet that is heating up and becoming less able to sustain the human race?

I hear a cantus lamentus, a song of lament, as people wonder how we can stop the arms race that is spiraling into nuclear proliferation and chemical weapon abuse. We have the bomb. China has the bomb. India has the bomb. Pakistan has the bomb. Iran wants the bomb. People are selling bomb equipment on the black market. Although the fears of nuclear incineration of much of the globe have lessened, we sense that the world has a date with destruction. There is still that sinking feeling that we can do nothing about it.

And if someone doesn’t blow us all up, we have to deal with gun violence at home. Listen for the cantus lamentus if you ever drive by Newtown, CT. Driving on I-84 in Connecticut over Thanksgiving, I had an eerie feeling, as if the cries of the holy innocent were still calling for justice. A song of hoplessness. Despair. Sadness. 

I hear a cantus lamentus coming from churches. For many decades, religious life in the United States was marked by four consistent trends: mainline Protestant membership was declining; evangelical Protestants were growing; Roman Catholics were hovering just above the replacement level and each succeeding generation of adults was participating less in religious institutions. New research indicates that both Catholics and the conservative wing of Evangelical Protestantism have joined in the decline. There are a number of factors that contribute to this decline. But researchers note that across the board, denominational and congregational conflict has reached epidemic levels. Conflict impedes growth. Hmmm. Sounds similar to a church in Rome we just heard about that had a hard time hearing the melody of peace.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in a personal song of lament. I realize that I can be part of the problems around me. I have been guilty of standing back and keeping quiet when someone needed to take a stand. I am guilty of labeling, pre-judging, and disengaging. There are times in my life when I have been a partaker in disunity in religious and civic organizations. I am guilty of being the wrong answer to God’s call for harmony. I ask myself, can I reconcile with those I have parted ways with over issues both small and large? Can I remain in relationship with those who challenge me in uncomfortable ways? I need something else – a strong song – a deeply-rooted song at that affirms the core of who I am. Who we are.

Sometimes, the emerging melody can be hard to hear. Sometimes, when I’m listening to Baroque choral music, my mind is swept away by the tempos, instrumentation and organization of the composition. I’m overwhelmed with the technical details of the music. Suddenly, an ancient text of just a few lines, sung in an unwavering melody of long notes, seems to rise and seize control of the choir and orchestra. It’s the cantus firmus. It was there all along, but it now comes forth to tame the frivolous chatter around it. There is no harmony without a strong melody.

The truth is all is not hopelessness and lament. A melody of unity and peace continues to rise and take hold in the world around is. Listen When we hear it, we hear the voice of hope. We hear the voice of God. A melody that reminds us that God has a future for us.

Nelson Mandela sang God’s cantus firmus. As the world honors his life and legacy, I have been struck by this quote. Mandela said, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” All this from a political prisoner who was branded as a terrorist – who overcame it all to sing the melody of peace and reconciliation. May Mandela rest in peace. 

Malala Yousafzai sings the cantus firmus. You know Malala – the teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Afghanistan and survivied! In a recent speech Malala said, “I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.” This is the girl who can tell the world, “I do not hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah . . . And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.” It’s the cantus firmus. Can you hear it? 

Wangari Muta Maathai sang  the cantus firmus. She was an extraordinary leader, noble laureate and founder of the Green Belt movement in Kenya. She galvanized an environmental group that planted more than 30 million trees across Africa, empowered thousands of women, and passionately encouraged a new way of thinking and acting that combined democracy and sustainable development.  Wangari went where no one else dared to go.  She challenged authorities that few dared to challenge. She remained adamant about the full participation of women in civic and public life. Her innovative ideas around job creation through environmental restoration are found in the global development agenda of green jobs and a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. 

I heard the cantus firmus this past week when I read plans for an upcoming prayer vigil. As the anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook approaches, there is an effort to draw media attention away from Newtown and remind the nation that gun violence impacts all of our communities. The Newtown Foundation will host a gathering in D.C. to perform acts of kindness and then come together in prayer. Faith leaders from many traditions as well as victims’ families and survivors will guide a time of healing and hope building. If you are interested in attending, talk to Anne Weissenborn. It’s on December 12th from 3:45 to 5:00 PM at the Washington National Cathedral.


Legend has it that in the 6th century BC, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras walked by a blacksmith’s shop when he had an epiphany. As two smiths were swinging their hammers, Pythagoras noticed that the two hammers made two different sounds when they hit the metal. One was high-pitched and the other was low-pitched. When Pythagoras stopped to look, he noticed that the hammers were different sizes. The big hammer made the lower sound, and the small hammer made the higher sound. Pythagoras theorized that the difference in the sound might have something do with the mass of the hammer. This turned out to be not exactly right, but it led to another observation that did turn out to be right. If a plucked string makes a certain sound, then a plucked string half as long makes a sound exactly one octave higher. And if you cut the string in half again, a quarter of its original length, and pluck it again, it makes a sound two octaves higher than the original sound. And so on and so forth. What Pythagoras discovered, basically, is that sound is not simply a matter of personal taste or preference; but that it has a basis in the very way the universe is put together. Music is a kind of practical geometry. If music is a function of the physical properties of the world, then music could be a way to know the mind of God. And so Pythagoras became a stark-raving mystic. He spent a lot of time plucking strings, leading a monastic community and seeing hints of the way the world was stitched together in music and mathematical equations. He called it the Music of the Spheres. Pythagoras heard a cantus firmus that God was humming, a baseline tune, a primeval creativity from which all other activity and art in the world sprang forth. Pythagoras believed that the world was physically, aesthetically and artistically attuned to God. 

In a world where it sounds like there is confusion while rival voices all vie to shout the dominant melody, in a world of domination and oppression, in a time of fear and lament, we in the church have a special mission. Our work is not to jump in the chorus and add our own confusing melody to the cacophony. Our job is to be quiet. Especially at Advent. We wait. We listen. In the words of the Christmas song, “Do you hear what I hear?” It’s God, singing a melody that rises and tames the frivolous chatter. It’s song of hope. An unwavering melody of peace.  It’s been there all along. Can we hear it? 

When we do hear it, all we can do is add our own harmony – our own counterpoint – to what God has already been already singing. Only a melody and harmony of this kind can give life a wholeness and assure us that nothing can go wrong.  So long as the cantus firmus is kept going.

There is no harmony without a strong melody.

May the God of hope will fill you us all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Spirit. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together we may with one voice glorify God. 


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. SCM 1953

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sermon for November 24, 2013

How Far Will Gratitude Go?

Molly Fumia is a grief expert who writes from the heart about the unique pain of miscarriage and stillborn birth. She finds that the grief associated with miscarriage is often underrated. Mothers are expected to get over their emotional and spiritual pain in a day or two. Well-intentioned family, friends — even counselors — tend to minimize the throbbing ache of grief and devalue the loss of the parents. After experiencing two miscarriages of her own, she knows that it’s an experience of deep longing and unbearable emptiness. That’s why I find her words so amazing. Listen to Molly’s words of healing:
To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise. Our astonishment at being loved, our bold willingness to love in return — these wonders promise the possibility of joyfulness, no matter how often and how harshly love seems to be lost. Therefore, despite the world’s sorrows, we give thanks for our loves, for our joys and for the continued courage to be happily surprised.
I want to be courageously joyful. But I have to tell you, its does not come naturally to me. I can be a cynic when I’m anxious. A worrier. A pessimist. As George Will once said, pessimism is as American as frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese. I hear ya’, George Will! I once read about an avid duck hunter who found a bird dog that could actually walk on water to retrieve a duck. Shocked by his find, he was sure none of his friends would ever believe him. He decided to try to break the news to a friend of his, a pessimist by nature. He invited the friend to hunt with him and his new dog. As they waited by the shore, a flock of ducks flew by. They fired and a duck fell. The dog responded and jumped into the water. The dog did not sink. Instead, she walked across the water to retrieve the bird, never getting more than her paws wet. This continued all day long. Each time a duck fell, the dog walked across the surface of the water to retrieve it. The pessimist watched carefully, saw everything, but did not say a single word. On the drive home, the hunter asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?” “I sure did,” responded the pessimist. “Your dog can’t swim!”

I am skeptical of the uninhibited optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. From superstar mega-church pastors and their flawless smiles to an endless flow of self-help best sellers, we are told that if we just believe, we will get what we want. If we passionately concentrate on our deep desires, our dreams will come true. You will be able to pay that mortgage. A new car is yours for the visualizing. Send enough positive intentions into the universe and your skin will clear up, your diet will finally work, people will laugh at your jokes, you will get a raise at work and garner instant respect from your emotionally inept boss.

There is no escape from optimists. Pastor Gloria is an optimist. When I’m grumbling about some trifle, she is always smiling and challenging me to look on the bright side of life. It’s great to see someone offer a warm smile when life is tough. The world needs optimists! I read about a family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. One was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. Just to see what would happen, on the twins’ birthday their father loaded the pessimist’s room with every imaginable toy and game. He loaded the optimist’s room with horse manure. That night the father passed by one of the rooms and found a son sitting amid his new gifts crying. “Why are you crying?” the father asked. “Because my friends will be jealous, I’ll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I’ll need new batteries all the time and my toys will eventually get broken.” Guess which child that was!

Then the father passed by the optimist twin’s room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. “What are you so happy about?” he asked. The optimistic twin replied, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

Americans did not start out as unbridled optimists. The fabled Pilgrims of our Thanksgiving lore eventually became part of what we now call The United Church of Christ. The original ethos of these Protestant settlers and their descendants was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings. Even then, there were no promises. You might work hard and still starve to death. They certainly did not survive by adjusting their attitudes or visualizing success.

Calvinists thought negatively about the world. They carried a weight of guilt and apprehension that sometimes broke their spirits. In response to this harsh attitude, positive thinking arose in the 19th century among mystics, healers and transcendentalists. A new crowd-pleasing message insisted that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

Neither one of these emotional postures seems to be complete, especially when we think about how far our gratitude will go. Gratitude is a necessary corrective for world-weary pessimists who can forget to look for what is right around them. They need to be reminded that the world is not always a terrible place. The optimists among us must not ignore the pain of the world by straining to be thankful. I've been using a new phrase to strike the balance: Appreciative Realism. Appreciative Realism means that we see the risks, we have the courage to face bad news, we prepare ourselves for famine as well as plenty, and express gratitude for what we have.

In the Christian tradition, our Appreciative Realist is named Paul. When he writes his letter to the Philippians, Paul is in prison. His incarceration in Rome may have been more like house arrest where he awaited trail and possible execution. Tradition actually says that Paul was convicted and beheaded several miles outside the ancient city of Rome. In hindsight, I guess he did indeed have something to worry about. As a citizen of Rome, he could have easily changed his situation by promising the Roman authorities he would quit preaching about Jesus. Instead Paul decided it was more important to write some letters. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord . . . be thankful . . . Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” What? Where’s the pessimistic introspection? Where’s the optimistic romanticism? Paul gives us a dose of Appreciative Realism: Times of ease will eventually get complicated. Crises will resolve over time. In the ebb and flow of life, be thankful.

Jesus gives a good dose of Appreciative Realism in the gospel text from John. He has just pulled off an incredible miracle, feeding thousands of hungry stomachs on a few fish and loaves of bread. Now he is exhausted. He wants some time to recover. He wants to be alone. He sails away, but the crowds follow him. Jesus is like a star trying to get away from paparazzi. There is no place to hide. The crowds want more. The crowd follows him; the crowd with all its suffering; the crowd with its insatiable appetites and hungers. The crowd is not bad. It’s just hungry. It is ill. It is scared. The crowd follows Jesus because Jesus is the last hope for healing hurting bodies and feeding empty stomachs. Jesus feeds a serving of appreciative realism. He says, “Don't spend all your time and energy on physical food that keeps you alive for now. You also need to spend some energy on spiritual food which will keep you alive forever."

They come for bread. Jesus invites them to believe.

They come for momentary relief from physical hunger. Jesus offers ceaseless fulfillment for their spiritual emptiness.

My fellow pessimists, optimists, realists: I think there is a lot of unnamed and underrated pain here today. We live in a fearful and anxious time. We grieve over the loss of jobs, the loss of money, and maybe even the loss of our sense of worth that was connected with these things. We are forced to face our weaknesses and our insecurities. We face difficult marriages and separations, loneliness, anxiety over our children and grandchildren. We hear bad news about health. We deal with the fresh pain of death and the reliable aches from timeworn grief. Our national political system is in shambles. The world is undergoing violent upheavals. The reality is that life is filled with happiness and life is filled with pain. What can we do but look for some relief? Some bread? Someone or something to help us find temporary relief from our suffering? What else can we do?

The Apostle Paul says, “Give thanks.” Give thanks boldly. Give thanks recklessly. To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise.

Jesus says [my paraphrase], “Life is hard. Come to me. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It’s an offer for connection. It’s a different understanding of suffering and pain. Appreciative Realism means that we are connected by our suffering and also transformed by our relationships.

There is a beautiful story from the Zen tradition. Behind a temple there was a field where there were many squashes growing on a vine. One day a fight broke out among them, and the squashes split up into two groups and made a big racket shouting at one another. The Zen master heard the uproar and, going out to see what was going on, found the squashes quarreling. In his booming voice the he scolded them. “Hey squashes! What are you doing out there fighting? Everyone do zazen [sit in meditation].” While the squashes were sitting zazen their anger subsided and they settled down. Then the teacher quietly said, “Everyone put your hand on top of your head.” When the squashes felt the top of their heads, they found some weird thing attached there. It turned out to be a vine that connected them all together. “This is really strange. Here we’ve been arguing when actually we’re all tied together and living just one life. What a mistake!” After that, the squashes all got along with each other quite well.

I know, squashes don’t have hands. Maybe zen squashes do. Like them, can you be thankful for your complete dependence on relationships for survival? When you can, you will flow naturally into an ethic of gratitude that demands that you nurture the same world that nurtures you in return.

Here is a bold and grateful prayer of an appreciative realist: a prayer from the African country of Ghana, as quoted by Desmond Tutu in An African Prayer Book:
Lord, my joy mounts as do the birds, heavenward. The night has taken wings and I rejoice in the light. What a day, Lord! What a day! Your sun has burned away the dew from the grass and from our hearts. What erupts from us, what encircles us is thanksgiving. Lord, we thank you for all and for everything. Lord, I thank you for what I am, for my body tall and broad, despite meager meals at school, and although Father has no world. This body grows and grows, even with malaria in my blood . . . Lord, I am happy. Birds and angels sing and I am exultant. The universe and our hearts are open to your grace. I feel my body and give thanks. The sun burns my skin, and I thank you. The breakers are rolling towards the seashore, the sea foam splashes our house. I give thanks. Lord, I rejoice in your creation, and that you are behind it, and before and next to it, and above — and within us.
Happy Thanksgiving. No matter what life brings, may you find a way to give thanks. Give thanks for your loves. Give thanks for your joys. Give thanks and for the continued courage to offer bold and reckless gratitude. It goes farther than we can even imagine!

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

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