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!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Belated and Heartfelt Word of Thanks


After over a decade at war, U.S. veterans are still often met with deafening and ambiguous silence. Especially in a non-election year, months can go by in the news without mention of the fact that service men and women are still dying in Afghanistan (to  give credit to the Washington Post, the paper does occasionally run pictures of soldiers who have died in service). For the military men and women who have recently returned, silence makes clear that for some, America’s wars are not a subject to be talked about. Military service is not always shared comfortably with the communities that ultimately sent our soldiers out in our nation’s name.

I confess my own ambivalence. As one who has very high requirements for a “just war” and as a proponent of “just peace,” I don’t like to talk about America’s wars. It’s not something I live with. It’s not a subject that affects me on a personal level. So, last Sunday, I was silent about Veteran’s Day. It wasn’t an intentional omission or a form of passive protest. It was a careless omission.

When some people brought this to my attention, I was embarrassed. As we grow together as a minister and congregation, I hope you are learning something about me: I do not think our congregation is supposed to be silent, solitary, and stoic. Silence in the face of injustice is never an option.  And sending people to war without thanking them for their service is an injustice that calls for a response.

Please accept belated and heartfelt words of thanks. A thousand thanks to the veterans, military workers and families who offer great service to the common good. A thousand thanks to the soldiers who reflect the heights of human charity and to those who have stood in the line of fire for one another, risking their lives for civilians and comrades alike. A thousand thanks to people like my father, a Vietnam veteran, who continues to show me the strength of calm resilience. A thousand thanks to those who are working to make the world a better place. A thousand thanks to soldiers who remind us of the words of Christ: the greatest love that we can have for one another is to lay down our lives for our friends.

We have an ongoing list of service women and men in our CCC Pastoral Prayer and Care booklet, available outside the office each week. We continue to hold them and their families in our thoughts and prayers. If you have any names to add, please let me know.

Yours on the journey,
Pastor Matt

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sermon for November 10, 2013

ἀνάστασις

Some Sadducees came up. This is the Jewish party that denies any possibility of resurrection. They asked, “Teacher, Moses wrote us that if a man dies and leaves a wife but no child, his brother is obligated to take the widow to wife and get her with child. Well, there once were seven brothers. The first took a wife. He died childless. The second married her and died, then the third, and eventually all seven had their turn, but no child. After all that, the wife died. That wife, now—in the resurrection whose wife is she? All seven married her.”

Jesus said, “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there. Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God. Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, ‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living. To him all are alive.” Luke 20:27-38, The Message

A preacher, newly called to a small country town, needed to mail a letter. Passing a young boy on the street, the pastor asked where he could find the post office. After getting his answer, the minister thanked the boy and said, “If you’ll come to the community church this evening, you can hear me tell everyone how to get to heaven.”

The boy replied. “I don’t know, sir. You don’t even know how to get to the post office!”

There’s a life lesson here – don’t take directions from someone who hasn’t been there. They are only guessing, right? Sometimes even your GPS will steer you wrong. It’s using data, not experience. The same holds true for heaven. There is no consistent map. We have the experiences of some who say they’ve been and come back. We have sacred data, otherwise known as Scripture. But to my ears, it begins to sound like informed guesses.

Today we read about a group of religious officials who confront Jesus. They are called Sadducees and they are a faction within first century Judaism that is quite traditional in their reading of the Torah. They also tend to be cozy with the Romans. They come to Jesus with a question about resurrection that is couched in the ritual of something called levirate marriage.  In levirate marriage, if a man dies, leaving his widow without a child, then a male relative, usually a younger brother, marries the widow.  So the Sadducees pose this question: suppose a man dies, leaving no child.  According to tradition, seven brothers in all marry this woman, but none of them father a child with her before she dies.  Therefore, in the resurrection to whom will she be married?

Understand, the Sadducees are the worst kind of Biblical literalists. They have not accepted a new idea in hundreds of years. They believe scriptural inspiration died with Moses. They take no risks. Their form of Judaism is decent and respectable. It is also a cold, indelectable, anemic version of Judaism. They hunt scripture to find a tricky way to back Jesus into a corner. They want him to say something that will offend their honor. They find an insignificant thread of the tradition and try to tie Jesus up with it.

Have you ever gotten one of those questions (or maybe you’ve done it yourself )? Have you ever had someone ask you a question and it sounds like they are open to your answer, but they really want to test you out, to categorize you, to see whether your beliefs are right or wrong? They want to be offended so they can feel justified and safe in their own beliefs.
“I was just wondering . . . where in the Bible does it say same sex marriage is OK?” 
“If you were to die today and stand before a Holy God, and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you say?”
 “If someone asked you who Jesus is, what would you say?”


I used to try to explain my answers, you know, reason with Christians who don’t like my ideas:
    “If someone asked you who Jesus is, what would you say?”
    “Jesus is my Lord and Savior? What do you say?”
Not good enough. Next question:
    “For you, where is the hope in that story if you don't believe the basic Gospel     message?”
Each answer leads to more gate-keeping questions. Then I start feeling defensive. Or l feel like I’m trying to convince someone who just wants to be right by making me wrong. That’s what happens in those conversations. A lot of times, we think they are leading to understanding, when in reality they create division and misunderstanding.

Jesus does it differently than me. In the reading from Luke, Jesus changes the conversation. Instead of a dialogue about content, he promotes awareness of a different context. In other words, don’t try to trip Jesus up with questions about how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle or how many husbands a woman will have in heaven. This is not about being right. It’s about living with joy. This is not about arguing obscure theological details to feed your ego. It’s about realizing the possibility that all ecstasies and intimacies will be ours. There are better things to think about.

I get you, Jesus. At least sometimes. I think that for most people, 90% of life feels like hell. People are not at ease with their selves and their world. Most of us are only at ease when we are distracted. That’s why the world is so busy. If we stay on the move, if we keep occupied, if we eliminate our downtime by checking emails and Facebook statuses on our phones, then we don’t have to face the feeling that we are not at ease with ourselves and we feel uncomfortable and scared in our world. For most people, 90% of life feels like hell. That may be a generous margin.

Some religious traditions developed an idea of heaven to distract people from suffering. For Christians, it gives us a goal. A reason for right living. A reward. It also gives us an escape.  We are left with an image of some bright place tucked behind a galaxy where birds chirp and organs play with heavy tremolo and angels bounce from cloud to cloud. For some this may be a remarkable vision of things to come. For me, it’s remarkably boring. Visions like these come from Madison Avenue, Hollywood, bad poetry and willful ignoring of astrophysics.

By the way, recent research poses an idea that the earliest church considered itself to be paradise restored on earth. The earliest Christians did not think of heaven or paradise as a reward beyond this life. Heaven was first and foremost in this world, made possible by the Spirit. They showed this by painting scenes of lush abundance in which humanity is liberated from oppression beneath domes of stars in the night sky.

In a world where people died, starved and killed each other, the early church offered a new reality. In a world where people faced alienation, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis, the earliest Christians had a word of restoration.

So here’s what I really want to know. Today. Here and now. Is it really heaven that we need? Is a vision of future glory going to make you more at ease? Does heaven help those who feel like 90% of their life is hell?

What do you really want from this one life, precious, short life that you have?

Happiness? We all want some happiness, right? Why do you want to go to heaven for that? If you want happiness, why not address it directly? Don’t talk about God, or self-realization, or heaven if what you really want is happiness, because heaven is not going to make you happy. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that heaven is a place of eternal misery? Once you get there, you will be completely bored. You would not want to go there. So it’s not heaven you want. It’s happiness. Let’s be honest about what we really need.

The same is true about pain. We want relief from suffering, don’t we? The dominant emotion in most people is fear. Almost everything we do in our lives is in search of some kind of security. Fear is always in the background. So, let’s not use heaven as a way to escape suffering. Let’s stop focusing on eternal security.  Let’s talk about why you are suffering and how you can find some joy.

All I’m saying is this: Don’t use God, or heaven, or hell, or anything else as a way to avoid the discomforts of life. Otherwise there can be no transformation.

Of course, we can always go to the old fallback plan – avoidance.  “I don’t want to talk about it.” I once got a call from a funeral home to do the service for a woman I never met. The family wanted a Protestant minister to do the funeral. I get this a lot – called in as a minister-for-hire for families that want religious services but who have no church home.

I was introduced to the son, Mr. Cooper. I shook his hand and said, “Hi Mr. Cooper. I am so sorry about the loss of your mother. Is there anything you would like said today? Is there anyone who would like to speak on your mother’s behalf?”

Mr. Cooper was a tall, middle-aged man, white hair with a tanned, active appearance. He shifted on his feet, and smiled and said, “No, just do you thing. Just do a simple service. You can even talk fast if you want to get it done quicker.” A small group of mourners began to arrive at the funeral home. At first, people seemed emotionally disinterested and uncaring.  But after a while, I realized they were lost. They did not know how to cope with their pain. They did not have the skills needed to bear this burden. It was easier to avoid the pain. “Just do your thing. I don’t want to talk about it.”

The funeral was done in 15 minutes. I read out of a book. Got in and out. And I’ve always regretted it.

Because life is pain. And fear. Because 90% of life can feel like hell. And our good news says, “Don’t avoid pain. Embrace it. Transformation awaits.” Mr. Cooper got what he said he wanted. I said, “Everything will be all right.  You will meet your mother again in paradise.” And I’ve always wondered if he got what he needed. I’ve wondered if, instead of having someone water down the pain, Mr. Cooper really needed someone to light a path out of the darkness.

Henri Nouwen talked about this in his classic book The Wounded Healer. He wrote to ministers. But In this case, let’s not think about professional clergy. Let’s imagine we are all ministers. We are all called to do healing, relationship-nurturing work. Nouwen says that the primary task of ministers it not to take away pain. Ministry does not allow people to live with the illusions of immortality and wholeness. Ministry reminds others that they are mortal and broken. When we get that, liberation starts.

There is a Greek word we use to describe this process of liberating transformation: ἀνάστασις. We read about it in today’s text. We translate it “resurrection” and it has LOTS of theological, emotional, and spiritual baggage. It’s fodder for one of those questions that ancient or modern Sadducees might ask: Do you believe in a literal bodily resurrection from the dead?

In this way of thinking, resurrection is passive. It is something given to believers so they can get to heaven and be with God. Resurrection is something done to you.

Let’s make it simpler than that: ἀνάστασις literally means, “to stand up.”

This is not a passive understanding. It is active. It is imperative. In my mind, the word is always followed with an urgent exclamation point. Stand Up! Arise!

What if you are one of those people who feel like 90% of life feels like hell? What if I told you that it can be different? What if you could move from 90% – 89%? It might not seem like a lot, but that’s one percent less pain and once percent more at ease with yourself and your world. In that one percent, you’ve gained an infinite amount of happiness. Imagine a reverse Richter Scale where one percent represents an exponential decrease in suffering and an exponential increase in happiness. That’s where the moment of transformation happens. That’s a moment of resurrection.

And it’s not going to happen with some outside source doing it for you. It happens when you stand up! Resurrection is defiance of death. Resurrection is the forerunner of gladness.
Resurrection is a newness. Resurrection is our reminder that we are mortal and broken. When we get that, liberation starts.

Don’t worry about heaven. I can’t guide you there. Here’s what I can do. Here’s what Pastor Gloria can help you with: Be like Jesus, and focus on the context, not the content. Seek what you really need.
If you want happiness, stand up.

In the face of all that wants to steal your joy, stand up.

If you want less pain, stand up. In a world where people die, starve and kill each other, offer yourself a new reality. Stand up!

In a world where we faced depression, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis, hear a word of restoration. Stand up!

Stand up to that which stifles your hope.
Stand up to those who want to hamstring you with their expectations
Stand up to that which pokes holes in the clay jar of your joy.
Stand up in grief.
Stand up to hatred.
Stand up to injustice.
Stand up to fear.
Stand up!
Stand!

And when you stand, join hands with others who are struggling do the same thing as you.
Aid
Assist
Cure
Heal
Help
Mend
Mobilize
Strengthen
Repair

And  that . . . that is a resurrection.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...