Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sermon for January 20, 2013



God’s Garland of Beauty
Because I love Zion,
    I will not keep still.
Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem,
    I cannot remain silent.
I will not stop praying for her
    until her righteousness shines like the dawn,
    and her salvation blazes like a burning torch.
The nations will see your righteousness.
    World leaders will be blinded by your glory.
And you will be given a new name
    by the Lord’s own mouth.
The Lord will hold you in his hand for all to see—
    a splendid crown in the hand of God.
Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City”
    or “The Desolate Land.”
Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight”
    and “The Bride of God,”
 for the Lord delights in you
    and will claim you as his bride. Isaiah 62:1-4
We all know how the entertainment industry works. A movie gets released, makes a ton of money, and as a result everyone wants to go back and milk the cash cow yet again with a sequel. We’ve seen it a thousand times for a thousand different movies, and usually the sequels are never as good as the original shows. Either there’s a “been there, done that” feeling or the plot changes somehow to turn the audience against the very same characters they once loved. Not all sequels are bad. Some are good, but not as good as the original. Then, there are the sequels that are so terrible they effectively ruin the good name of the original movie.

Consider the movie, The Matrix Reloaded (2003). I really liked the original movie, The Matrix, when it came out in 1999. I didn’t understand half of it, but I liked it. The special effects were larger-than-life, the film spawned obnoxious catchphrases, and everyone wore a big black trench coat for Halloween that year. Needless to say, when the sequels were green lighted, everyone was excited about the possibility of seeing where the characters ended up next. Unfortunately, as one critic said, they ended up taking the stink train to Lousytown. The Matrix Reloaded was everything the original Matrix was not: boring, entirely too long, technologically outdated, and stupefying pretentious. The redo is not as good as the original.

Consider another example: A woman in Spain took the art world by storm when she decided to save her church some time and money and restore her favorite piece of art. She went to work restoring the flaking, 100-year-olf fresco of Jesus, ecce homo, using skills that only the parent of a kindergartener could love. The result was a simian-looking Jesus that looked like a rhesus monkey with a lion’s mane and a robe. Just because someone's paid to restore works of art doesn't mean they can't mess it up — especially when seemingly minor mistakes can have major consequences.

Redos aren’t always as good. I get that sense from the reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 62 comes out of the post-exilic period, a period of new beginnings for the people of Israel, but also a period of unrealized hopes.  After generations in exile, the people of Israel have returned home and are rebuilding Jerusalem. They have high expectations, but things aren’t working out quite as expected.  The new Temple they are building lacks the grandeur of the old, destroyed one it is replacing. It’s lousy. And they feel lousy. Their new chance at self-determination is failing. The sequel isn’t so great.

And to make things worse, Isaiah uses the well-worn biblical image of a morally loose women to explain Israel’s feelings. The people of Israel are presented as a desperate, fallen harlot in need of deliverance by a man through marriage. Isaiah 62:1-5 is one of those texts that make progressive people cringe. In an age in which women have made tremendous strides in education, earnings and independence, this text sounds offensive to our modern ears.

At the same time, behind the offensive imagery we hear a grippingly tender voice. God is intimate and emotive. The people feel forsaken, despised and desolate. God feels differently. It’s as if God, the Beloved approaches her cherished darling from behind, wraps arms around her love and pulls her partner into a closer embrace. It is a scene of pure delight.

It reminds me of a scene from the book Mortal Lessons, in which physician Richard Selzer describes a meeting in a hospital room after performing surgery on a young woman's face: I stand by the bed where the young woman lies -- her face, postoperative -- her mouth twisted in palsy -- clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight -- isolated from me -- private. Who are they? I ask myself -- he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously. The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” “She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers -- to show her that their kiss still works.

The God I encounter in this reading from Isaiah is the Partner who is willing to do whatever it takes to relish the transcendent beauty of the beloved.

I want you to think about the person sitting to your right and your left. Think about the person who is sitting in front of you and behind you. Think about your family and your friends. Think about the handful of people who drive you crazy. I’m going to tell you something about them. They know desolation. They know what it feels like to be God-forsaken. Let me tell you something else about them: Each and every one of those people, you and me included, aches to be loved. In a world that seems plagued by an epidemic of emotional agony, it’s not surprising that we are infatuated with love. Many people will go to great extremes to feel loved. Romantic fantasies . . . casual one-night-stands . . . we’ll spend billions of dollars on how-to-books, pills, make-up, and seductive clothes. But none of these seem to secure the kind of love that will fill the empty, lonely spot inside that waits for someone – anyone – to accept and passionately love the real me.

We all have times when we look inward, and see nothing but bare mountains, deserts, desolate wastes. We all have times when we feel alone; times when we feel distant from the people we adore.  We feel devastated when trusted friends betray us.  We are wounded when those whom we trust attack us for no legitimate reason.  We are confused when disease strikes us and those we love. We are perplexed when we cannot save ourselves and our loved ones from pain.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola encourages a process of self -examination founded on the idea of listening for how our deepest feelings and yearnings can impact us.  He encourages us to get in touch with our areas of desolation. We don’t run from misery. We acknowledge the pain. And we also look for opportunities for consolation. Simply put: Consolation is whatever helps us connect with ourselves, others and God in life-giving ways.  Desolation is whatever disconnects us.

When I think of consolation, I think of a word I’ve introduced from this pulpit before. It’s from the Buddhist tradition. The word is Maitri -- Sanskrit for “unconditional friendship with one’s self.” Unconditional friendship with one’s self can be hard to find. We feel grief, shame, fear, anger and regret, and we look outside of ourselves for some validation.  A lot of this has to do with our relationship with pain and difficulty. What might happen if we stopped struggling against the pain in our life? This is not the kind of question we like to answer. We want a redo! We want a sequel. We want to fix pain, or at least ignore it. When we try to ignore pain, we ignore part of our very selves.

To this interior world of desolation, God speaks consolation. God says, “You are my delight.”  God takes great delight in raising people up from the dust. God finds those whom everyone else has given up on and uses them to radiates God’s glory to a broken world

This week, I want each of us to find a space where you can be alone with God. Sit quietly and allow the Sacred Spirit to confirm this message to you. Allow God to speak love to you in inward stillness. Come to God saying, “O God, lover of my body, mind and spirit, I am yours. I belong to you and you love me as I am.” And as you listen, may the Sacred Spirit twist and touch your pain you as you feel the kiss of a God who is totally in love with you

Friends, I have some good news for us today. In the words of poet Anne Weems:
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Or, in the words of the Gospel According to Martina McBride, "God is great, but sometimes life ain't good/When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should." 

God meets us in our desolation, and adorns us with garlands of beauty. Not only are we God’s delight, we can SHARE God’s delight in the most disappointing times, the most devastated places, in the deserts and wastelands and shadows. As Martina says:
You can spend your whole life building
Something from nothin'
One storm come and blow it all away.
Build it anyway.

You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way.
Dream it anyway.

This world's gone crazy and it's hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today.
Believe it anyway.

You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
In a moment they can choose to walk away.
Love 'em anyway.

You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in
That tomorrow they'll forget you ever sang.
Sing it anyway.

God is great, but sometimes life ain't good.
When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should.
But I do it anyway.
Life is tough. God is faithful. So sing, dream, love, pray, and wait, anyway. Why? Because you are God’s delight.

Sources:
Anyway, by Martina McBride, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uLtyzRgmyI

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sermon for January 13, 2013 / Baptism of Christ

Called by Name
Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. John answered their questions by saying, “I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire . . .  One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy. Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

People often ask me how I got into ministry. How did I know? The question usually comes from new encounters at dinner parties. When guests find out I’m a minister, they start trying to figure it out. It is a familiar but uncommon occupation, after all. You’d think I’d have a pat answer by now, but the question still makes me stumble. How did I know? Well . . . I just knew. I’ve known since I was 12 years old. Picture a serious, 12-year old boy who hears the voice of God and begins ordering the complete set of John Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible so that he can get an early start on his clerical studies; a boy staying up late and reading theology by flashlight long after his parents have told him to turn out the lights and go to sleep; a boy so caught up in the bliss of biblical studies, he cannot focus on world geography and mathematics. Got the picture? Well, that wasn’t me. I was a sassy, loud- mouthed 12-year-old who teased others relentlessly, watched Three’s Company and the Love Boat faithfully, listened to Toto sing Rosanna endlessly, and did not have much interest in reading anything. I was an average kid and an average student living in an average American household. That’s the kid God called into ministry. As I grew, I tried on different ideas for occupations.  By my college years, I talked myself into training to be a High School English teacher. But I could not shake the call to be a pastor.

I was ordained to ministry in 1997. It was a big worship service, concluding with me kneeling in front of the sanctuary as 15 or so ministers gathered around me. They were liberal and conservative; Black, White and Asian; male and female; younger and older. The ministers touched me head and shoulders, and prayed, and conferred the time-honored tradition of ordained ministry through the laying on of hands.

Do you remember the time you got ordained? You are, you know . . . Ordained! I’m not just talking to the 10-or 12 ordained ministers and seminary-trained folk who worship here at CCC each Sunday. I’m talking to all of us. You are a minister of the gospel. YOU are! And it happened at your baptism.

Through the course of time, baptism has lost some of its significance as the making of "ministers" in the world. Today we think of it as an initiation rite into the covenant life of church. This has led many to the unfortunate conclusion that pastors, those who are ordained, are the real ministers of the church and the laity are there just to undergird and support the work of the clergy.

Generally the notion of call is understood as a calling to professional ministry, with a seminary education and a path that leads to ordination. This has never been the only way to think about ministry in our congregational tradition. Some people are called to special functions in the church and are trained to fulfill those functions as ordained pastors and teachers. But our tradition teaches that God gives talents and abilities to all people, and calls all people to serve in many ways. We call it “the priesthood of all believers.” We believe that all of us who are on this journey of faith are ministers. We, in the United Church of Christ, believe that God calls each and every one of us. The call of God may be to a specific occupation, but most often it is to a task, a work, a mission, a ministry to others, which may have little to do with a  job. We have a name for the work of listening. We call it “discernment.” One of the jobs of the church member is to listen and reflect – to discern -- on life's journeys in ways that help us understand how God urges and prods us in a certain directions. There are moments when that process seems very clear and understandable, and there are times when it seems almost impossible to understand what God wants from us.

Today's gospel story recalls the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus is baptized, says Luke, a dove descends and a mysterious voice proclaims Jesus as a beloved child of God. Right after this event, Jesus begins his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing -- a sign that the Reign of God is coming. Jesus' baptism is the day of his "ordination," the beginning point of his ministry. But Luke's gospel lets us know that the Holy Spirit has been working long before the day that Jesus is grown and beginning his ministry. Just a few weeks ago we heard the story of the angel's annunciation to Mary. Remember what the angel told Mary on that occasion? "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God" (Luke 1:35). That day was the beginning of her work for God. It happens earlier in the Gospel to the parents of John the Baptist, too. In their old age, they will bring a child into the world who will be a prophet of hope.

In biblical times names had incredible importance. A name carried more than your identity. It said something about who you are, what your God is like, or how you were expected to live. As I read the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, I’m struck by the power of names. Maybe you remember these parts of the story: An angel appears to a priest named Zechariah and says, ““Do not be afraid, Zechariah . . . Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John . . . And he will  . . . turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The name John means, “God is Gracious” – a reminder of God’s loving presence. He will become known as John the Baptist. In the same way, an angel appears to Mary says, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Luke even tells us about the naming ceremony in the Temple where Mary’s baby is named Jesus in fulfillment of the promise. The name Jesus means, “God saves.”

In today’s reading, with John and Jesus together, a voice from heaven speaks, directed at Jesus. “This is my son, my beloved.” I hear these words not as a description, but as a name. It’s as if the voice says, “Everyone look at this man. His name is God’s Beloved. I know him by name.” By the way, the word “beloved” in Hebrew might be related to the same word from which we get the name David. And we remember King David, the famous warlord of ancient Israel, is Jesus’ ancestor. Just as ancient kings like David were anointed with oil as a sign of their authority, Jesus, God’s Beloved and the new leader of God’s Reign, is anointed with the Spirit at his baptism. There is power in a name. And God knows it.

These traditions still carry over into today. We anoint with water. Some traditions use oil, too. Often we ask parents, “By what name will your child be known?” It’s our recognition that this little person will take on a special identity linked to a name. It’s also our way of remembering that God knows us. God forms us. God has meaning for our lives. God knows us by name.

And not just that, God CALLS us, God calls you, by name.

Maybe God is calling you to do something risky with your faith, but you ask “What’s going to happen to my future? Will this lead to grief, disappointment, or disaster? Will somebody bring violence or harm to me or my family? Will I suffer some disaster?”

Maybe you are being called to reconcile a bad relationship. We face the demands of relationships every day; loving those who are hard to love, forgiving the offender; making up with those whom we’ve wronged, living up to our vows, keeping our self‑promises, trying to be effective parents and partners.

Maybe you are being called out of our comfort zone, to stretch yourself, to travel new pathways and gain new experiences. As MLK Weekend approaches, think of the calling and struggles of Martin Luther King, Jr. In April of 1963, Martin was arrested and placed in jail in Birmingham, Alabama for his non-violent resistance to segregation. After King’s incarceration, eight leading Christian and Jewish religious leaders in that city released a statement criticizing Martin’s work and ideas, saying that his activities to end segregation in the South were, “unwise and untimely.” In response to that statement, Martin wrote these eight men, what has come to be known as his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Martin wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.. . Just as the prophets carried ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond their villages, and just like the apostle Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom. . . we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Martin struggled to rise above that deadening culture where people did only what was right in their own eyes. He chose not give in. He chose not to serve the immoral culture and to become separated from God in the process. He chose to follow God’s ways of justice, freedom and love. He chose to move out of the dead zone of racial hatred where God’s call could not be heard, to the life giving zone of justice and love

Today, we must hear and heed our own call, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Listen because God calls us by name. It might be through a still, small voice. You may hear it in the turmoil of daily events. To hear it is always a moment of grace. You have gifts that God has given you. God wants you to use them. There are needs in this Church where God may be inviting you to use your gifts and abilities to make a difference. God calls us to evaluate our commitment to justice, freedom and love. God knows you, and God knows us. God has a calling for you whether you realize it or not. And God is calling for us. 

To be honest, I have already seen you in ministry, CCC. I have evidence that you are ordained -- gifted with the Divine Spirit for ministry. I have seen you at ministry in the choir room, or a Sunday school room, or the sick room, or the meeting room. I've seen you ministering to the homeless and to the hungry. I have seen you minister to one another in times of sickness and tragedy. Many have expressed their desire to help. You want to minister.

So in a way, I said it wrong. The day I got ordained was not that afternoon back in 1997 when a group of ministers laid hands on my head. The day I got ordained as a minister was a Sunday morning all the way back in 1978 when a UCC pastor dipped his hand in a baptismal bowl, poured water on my 8-year-old head, reminded by family and me that I had been given the Holy Spirit, and made me a minister.

One reason why we are here in church on Sunday is to be fed, to be nourished, for ministry. As one of your pastors, I preach and I teach and in order that you might preach and teach wherever you go in the coming week. I help serve the sacraments so that you might be the sacramental presence of God wherever you go.

So go and be a minister! Let us use the gifts God has given us as a sign of the outbreak of the presence of God. Let us be the ministers that God has called us, ordained us, to be.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Sermon in Memory of Eleanor Waldrop

January 12, 2012

I have a poem for us to listen to. It’s an English translation of the German poem from Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, otherwise known as “The Resurrection Symphony.”

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you created!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who die.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!


Our CCC choir used to sing this piece and that Eleanor identified as music she wanted at her memorial service. She must have performed it back in the days when Al Newman was the Music Director here. It is complicated and emotional composition. The finale of the symphony offers words of hopeful anticipation in the face of mourning. “You were not born for nothing…Die shall I in order to live. Rise again, yes, rise again, will you, my heart, in an instant! That for which you suffered, to God will it lead you!”

Isn’t that what we all want to believe? Especially faced with a situation such as Eleanor’s death! We thought we had more time with her, and now we face the mystery of life and resurrection. As we wonder at Mahler’s lyrics, I want to bring another voice into our conversation -- the teachings of Eckhart Tolle on the cross and resurrection. Tolle is a questioner and a curious listener to deep truths, much like Eleanor was, so I thought it would be appropriate to honor Eleanor with some different ways of thinking.

Tolle says our mind, or ego, has taken over so much of our lives that we have become unconscious of our true nature and live in a kind of insane world of ego battles. We fight wars, label people and carry with us personal problems; we think we ARE our personal problems. He says the lessons of the cross and resurrection are key to finding our way out of this focused world of ego. Tolle told a story to Oprah during a Book Club interview. He visited a 600-year old, European church and pondered both a crucifix and an empty golden cross. It was as if he was looking at the images for the very first time, as if he were an alien from another planet pondering what they could mean. He said, “Jesus on the cross stands for humanity. Jesus represents every human being that has ever lived or will ever live. Jesus represents something that is part of the human condition . . . I saw that what this represents is a human being who experiences an extreme form of limitation . . .  He went to the depths of suffering and then totally accepted suffering. And through this total acceptance of suffering, sudden [metamorphosis] happened, and the very torture instrument, the cross that had produced the suffering, was transformed and became a symbol for the divine . . . “

Every human life will experience some form of suffering. We all know people whose hearts have been broken and those who have suffered loss. Family members and friends have died or have been injured or have died in attacks and wars. We live through sadness. We live through hardship. We live through grief. People lose loved ones and ask, “Why? Why her? Why him? Why now?” Every time we feel such bitter loss, people react differently. Some become angry and withdrawn. Some shut their hearts down, retreating into fearful isolation or angrily lashing out. Brokenhearted and heavily armed, some people nourish their pain by making their world an even more dangerous place.

Others become more compassionate. They treat their despair with tenderness. They realize that suffering can lead to false perceptions, and false perceptions can lead to more suffering. I don’t know all the steps to how a shattered soul becomes whole again. But I do know this . . . It is possible to step back, and breathe deeply, and allow our anxiety to settle, and sense new possibilities in situations that once seemed unsolvable. When we face suffering of any kind, we can be released -- resurrected, if you will -- into a more intelligent way of living, one that is more in sync with the Universe.

The writer of Ecclesiastes knows this. There is a time for everything  and all hardship is balanced with sublimity. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . .” Many of our travails are little annoyances; the seemingly mundane, irritating situations we experience each day (think of telemarketers at dinner or the ice-cream truck that drives by at 3 AM with its jingly music playing outside your bedroom window). These are all crosses we must die to. Facing these tough times become our opportunity for “salvation.” Every time we encounter an obstacle, we have an opportunity to let any false perceptions go. Each obstacle is an opportunity for us to become more intentional about who we are and who we want to become.

Tolle states that every situation we encounter on Earth is the practice. Driving, walking, washing hands, relationships, everything is the practice. At each moment, then, we have the opportunity to practice and catch glimpses of what it means to be awake and alive.

Today we have a chance to practice – to practice the art of remembering a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend. Eleanor was a great lover of nature and enjoyed hikes on wooded trails to mountaintops with beautiful vistas.  She knew the proper name of every tree, flower, and shrub. So, when you go to the beach or walk along a forest path, either in person or in your mind, practice the art of remembering what it means to be alive.

Eleanor was a lover of good music and theater and made sure to share that enthusiasm with her children. When you hear something enchanting or heartbreaking, or see a breathtaking performance, practice the art of remembering what it means to love beauty .

Eleanor was always great with words.  She read a huge number of books – novels, poetry, history, philosophy.  And she enjoyed word-play.  In recent years she discovered cryptic crosswords with their puns, anagrams, and reversals, and quickly became an expert. So when you hear a good pun, or wonder about the etymology of a certain word, it is a chance to practice the art of remembering what it means to seek wisdom.

As Eleanor got older, she watched her diet and worked hard at keeping herself physically fit.  Until recently she worked out at the Y and attended aerobics classes there.  She loved to dance – that’ why we have so many dancing hymns and songs today.  Two years ago she bought a treadmill so she could keep up her walking regimen during bad weather. So, next time you go to Friendly’s and wonder whether you should get the ice cream sundae after lunch, it’s a time to practice the art of remembering what it means to love and care for one’s self. As I recall, Eleanor would only allow post-church ice cream sundaes only once a month or so as a special treat.

As member of CCC for over 60 years, the church and her friends here remained a big part of Eleanor’s life.  She included a generous bequest to CCC in her will, and shortly before she died she added a second bequest to help the church’s Capital Campaign. When you come to worship, it is a chance to practice the art of remembering what it means to balance faith and intellect as Eleanor did.

My point is this. As we face the suffering and sadness of this moment, we can use it as an opportunity to practice some sort of resurrection. Tell stories. Laugh, cry, and think about Eleanor’s life. But don’t let your commitment stop there. How are your remaining relationships doing? If there’s any reset buttons to be pushed, any new chances that you need to take advantage of, let it start today. Tomorrow may be too late. Don’t let anyone you love go to bed tonight without knowing you love him or her. Don’t let another day pass without practicing the life lessons Eleanor taught. Give others the gift of love and inspiration that she gave you. We are glad Eleanor lived. We are glad we knew her love. We cherish the memory of her words, her deeds and her character.

There’s an interesting footnote to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. It turns out that as an Austrian Jew in the late 1800s, the composer faced significant anti-Semitism. He was not allowed to conduct the symphony in Vienna unless he converted to Catholicism. He did convert as a formality, and out of a horrible situation came something quite beautiful that carries so much meaning to people of all faiths. When Mahler was asked why he never composed a Mass, he answered bluntly that he could never, with any degree of artistic or spiritual integrity, voice the Credo. He was a confirmed agnostic, a doubter and seeker, a spiritual wanderer who practiced the art of remembering beauty in the face of suffering.

“Bereite dich zu leben!” Mahler wrote. “Prepare yourself to live!” We don’t have to wait to die to be resurrected; rather, we can experience resurrection today, now, at this very moment. So, in honor of Eleanor’s wishes, practicing and preparing for signs of abundant life and wholeness hear and now, I invite us to listen to the last few minutes of the Resurrection Symphony. We will listen to a live performance of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuala.

In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sermon For December 30, 2012

The Audacious Savior
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Luke 2:41- 52
A child is lost. Even though the child is divine, the parents, Mary and Joseph, must have some typical parental reactions. First comes panic. “My boy must be scared to death wandering around all by himself, lost and hungry and cold in the big city. Or maybe our fears have come true. Maybe he's been kidnapped. Maybe he's been hurt . . . or worse.”

Then comes anger. “Why did he do this to us? Didn't he know how worried we would be? Didn't he realize how much trouble he would cause us, making us turn around and go back to look for him. Just wait till I get my hands on that kid.” Maybe you’ve heard a parent utter an angry threat about a child who is a lot let Jesus-ey than Jesus – something like, “If he’s not crying when we find him, then I’ll give him something to cry about.” Or the modern parent who says, “I'm going to make it clear to him in no uncertain terms that his behavior was very inappropriate and that he's old enough to make more responsible choices.”

Then comes the guilt. “Why didn't we take better care of him? How could we have left without checking to be sure that he was with his uncle and aunt? If he's hurt, it's really our own fault.”

It’s been the same with parents from time immemorial. Can’t you feel these parent’s emotions as they journey back to Jerusalem to find their lost son: sheer panic, seething anger, gut-wrenching guilt? They arrive in Jerusalem and the search begins. For three long days they look for him. They ask strangers on the street: "Have you seen a gentle and mild, blue-eyed, waspish-looking boy with dirty blond hair, dressed in a shiny white robe with a halo over his head?" They check all the first century fast food places and toy stores -- everywhere a twelve-year-old boy might hang out. Then finally they see him, in a house of worship, of all places. First they breathe a sigh of relief. He's safe! Then the anger comes back full force.  He's just sitting there among the teachers and elders, listening and asking questions. “Where have you been, young man” the mother scolds. The parents don’t know what to do with the sharp, simple answer they get from Jesus: "Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know that I have to be about my Father's business?"  The conversation breaks off abruptly. Awkward!

Bible expositors tell us that the interpretation of the story goes like this: As a child growing up at home, Jesus honored and obeyed his father and mother. But now that he’s 12 years old, life changes. Jesus has just been through his bar mitzvah. He outgrows his childhood and his identity as the son of Mary and Joseph, and is growing into his destiny as the Son of God. Now he has to choose between his responsibility to his earthly parents and his responsibility to his heavenly Father. And given that choice, he must forget his parents, no matter how much anguish it causes them, to serve God. Eventually, he submits to his parents and goes home. It may difficult for him to submit to those who aren't as intelligent, or as spiritually aware. They can be so annoying. But it is also necessary for Jesus to listen to his parents even if he is the Son of God. The call is there, but it is not yet time to fulfill it. He must wait, learn, grow, and prepare himself for that time when he will enter into his ministry.

I am uncomfortable with this idea of Jesus rejecting his earthly family’s values in order to fulfill what God wants – that somehow Jesus has to break the 5th commandment and dishonor one set of parents in order to make another parent figure happy. Is this really what is happening -- Jesus is being loyal to his family, but not until after having established that his true allegiance is to God, which supersedes even the love given to his family?

What if Jesus, in his own way, was being true to Mary and Joseph? Instead of rejecting them and their values, what if Jesus is honoring them by fulfilling what he has learned up to this point? And what about the parents, here? They are trying to fulfill God’s aims, too. What if being about God’s business isn’t about panic, anger, and guilt? What if, for Mary and Joseph, being about God’s business is raising a child with that balance of righteous insolence and holy reverence; respect and audacity – even if the kid is the Son of God.

I don’t know what it’s like to be like Jesus. But I know something about parenting. And this text has me asking, what might it mean for caretakers and children, for families of all kinds, to believe that we must be about God’s business? It might mean that caretakers and teachers would teach children, and children would learn from their caretaker and teachers, that God is not just the God me and my family, but the God of all other families too; a God who loves and cares for the people outside our little family circle as much as for the insiders’ a God who wants the welfare and happiness of others just as much as ours. It might mean making it the business of our families to respect the value and dignity of every human life—including, of course, the value and dignity of each of us in our particular family, but also the value and dignity of the life of all other people as well: people like us and people different from us, people of our own race and social class and religion and people of other races and classes and religions, people who are the friends and people who are the enemies of "our people" and our nation. It would mean respecting and defending and protecting the value and dignity of all human life.

And, following in the steps of twelve-year-old Jesus, it might mean that we ourselves find that middle way between respect righteous insolence and holy reverence – that WE show some spiritual audacity. As a parent, the episode of a na├»ve and lost child makes me writhe in cathartic agony. But as someone who likes Jesus quite a bit, I think the boy has a lot of pluck. As he matures, he shows some boldness. Some fearlessness. Some courage. He’s not afraid to confront misunderstanding. He’s willing to take the lessons he learned from his home and put them into action. It’s all good. Considering all he will go through, he will need all of that.

I put a quote by Dr. Mitzi Smith in the bulletin. She writes, “Sometimes I have put my feet up, when I should have ‘put my foot down’; I've said ‘yes’ when I should have said ‘no’ and said ‘no’ when I should have said ‘yes.’ Good news: It is never too late to change! For me, that’s the lesson of this text, for those who are teachers and those who are still learning.

I think it’s a lesson we celebrate as we honor the 150th anniversary of the singing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was, in the words of Frederick Douglass, "the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages." The five-page document declared that slaves in the rebel states were free, provided them with the support of the U.S. government, declared that freed slaves should be paid a wage, urged freed slaves to abstain from violence except in self-defense, and publically declared that all suitable freed men would be accepted into the armed services to fight in the war. However, many argued that the proclamation didn’t actually free any slaves or destroy the institution of slavery itself—it still only applied to states in active rebellion, not to the slave-holding border states or to rebel areas already under Union control. In reality, it simply freed Union army officers from returning runaway slaves to their owners. The power of the Emancipation Proclamation was how Lincoln used it to reframe the narrative of the Civil War. Instead of being about state’s rights and union, with one document, Lincoln turned it into a war to end slavery. The Proclamation was a “yes,” after many, including Lincoln himself, had said, “no” so many times before. The proclamation was an act of audacity – a chance to practice righteous insolence and holy reverence.

When the Emancipation Proclamation turned 100 years old, African American writer James Baldwin lamented freedom’s celebration.  Writing amidst the upheavals of the civil rights revolution, Baldwin gazed upon the racial landscape of early-1960s America and saw a sobering and ongoing nightmare. Baldwin wrote, “You know, and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

It’s difficult to hear Baldwin’s words today and not feel uncomfortable and embarrassed about our own narratives of progress. A half century later and 150 years further still from Emancipation, solutions to racism’s historical legacies and contemporary currency continue to elude us. Particulars have changed, but less so than many of us would like to believe. Social and economic marginalization of millions of poor Black urbanites in many places is as bad—or worse—than ever. Urban joblessness and underemployment is pervasive.  Assaults on voting rights fall disproportionately on the poor, especially the Black and Brown poor. The list goes on and on.

At the same time, some people deny we even have a racial problem in American society. I hear people say we’ve moved “beyond race,” and that we live in a “post-racial” nation. Sometimes I hear people say that those who are truly enlightened no longer “see” race. After all, the argument goes, ours is a society without formal barriers to access, a place where anyone with a brain and a work ethic can make their way. We have a Black president to prove it -- an accomplishment that marks our collective maturity on issues of race.

We need to be careful. The idea of a post-racial nation is an exaggerated narrative of social progress. Racism’s historical legacies and contemporary impacts continue to shape our culture, economy, and society in profound ways. The deep wounds that racism cuts in our social fabric bleed heavy.

What might happen if we take the lead of the boy Jesus from our text today? What might happen if we ask the right questions and listen with reverence? What might happen if we had the audacity to defy cultural expectation and look for the presence of God the places society has deemed as the least likely places to experience the sacred – especially when it comes to racism? As a congregation, we need to keep thinking, talking, and doing something about racism because it touches us all and because we are far from a solution.

I received a small book called The Peace Book by Louise Diamond a few weeks ago. She says that diversity – and the tensions and prejudices that go along with it, can enrich us or destroy us. And there are some moves we can take to continue to be aware.

First, we notice our prejudices. We become aware of how our assumptions feed negative stereotyping and replace those thoughts with more positive, respectful beliefs.

We also need to be sensitive to the legacy of hurt. Sometimes, those in the dominant culture don’t understand why others need to talk about their histories of pain. We need to be aware of the fact that pain makes people vulnerable to signs of disrespect. If we can we aware of the legacy of pain, in ourselves and in others, we can reduce the risk of hurting others.

Diamond suggests that we practice curiosity.  Find someone who is different from you. Learn about that person’s culture and history. Ask about holidays, foods, and customs. Discover areas of commonality.

And learn about your own identity. Sometimes we forget that to others, we are the ones who are different. What aspects of your identity might you share with others to widen their perspectives?

I will add something to Louise Diamond’s list. It’s time for some courage when it comes to fulfilling God’s aims for the world. It’s time to put the compassionate wisdom we have learned from our elders into practice. Parents and grandparents, teach your children. Adult mentors, lead those who are growing into maturity. Church, teach the community and show the world that individual justice, freedom, happiness, success and security cannot be separated from justice, freedom, happiness, success and security of all people.

We refuse to gloss over history but see the pain and hear the suffering of others. We build a world where our stories and languages and cultures are valued, where our wounds are healed by deliberate listening. We strive to know and respect our differences and make possible the highest expectations for humanity. We do the work of liberating ourselves from hatred – beginning in the modest places of our longing souls and always reaching out – with our words, our actions, our prayers, our love and our hands – to all souls – to all souls. This is how we can be made whole again. This is how the world can be made whole again and all her people one.

And to those who are looking for Jesus in all this, the Audacious Savior answers with another question: “Why were you searching for me? I am doing God’s business. If you want to see me, then look for the presence of God and go there. If you want to find me, then go where God is going and do what God is doing.” We know where Jesus has gone. The question is, what do we do once we find him?

Sources:
“James Baldwin’s America and the Paradox of Race” By Simon Balto, December 3, 2012, http://www.progressive.org/james-baldwin-america-paradox-of-race
Guthrie, Shirley C., Jr., "Jesus' Family and Ours," Journal for Preachers, 1987.
http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/30/2012&tab=4
http://www.historynet.com/emancipation-proclamation
Louise Diamond. The Peace Book. Bristol, VT: The Peace Company, 2001. 45-56.




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