Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon for July 20, 2014

Laws for Living: #4 Peace with Uncertainty
You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living. Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress. Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. Job 30:21-27
It’s one of the oldest stories in existence. His children are dead. His wealth, obliterated. His wife walked out on him. Now he is sick, covered with skin blisters and rashes. His friends don’t really know how to console him. God doesn’t answer his prayers. He suffers. He complains. Confusion and doubt consume him. It just doesn’t make sense. He is a good man, a righteous man. His name is Job, and he did not do anything to deserve such suffering.

Centuries upon centuries later, we still ask the same questions. If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God stop wars and genocides? Why does God allow my loved ones to suffer? If God is near, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? In the play J.B. by Archibald McLeish, Job comes to this conclusion: “If god is god, he is not good. If god is good, he is not god.”

We learned from childhood that when we do wrong we get punished. Disobey, and you get in trouble. Do something good, you’ll get a reward. Is that what’s happening here? Is God punishing humanity for sin? I doubt it. Sometimes, well-meaning people will offer fast and loose Scripture quotes to give you an explanation. They tell us: If we obey God, and live moral and wholesome lives, we will be healthy and wealthy. If we suffer, God must want to teach us something. Suffering is the only way God can get our attention. It all sounds so true. But then we begin to wonder, “If this is true, why is it we feel worse instead of better?”

As we get older, we often realize that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. We do the right thing and still get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit upside the head and sent spinning. This is the suffering that bewilders and outrages us. This is the kind of suffering that bewilders and outrages Job. Job does everything right, but everything goes so wrong. Job outright rejects the kind of well-meaning advice that provides glib explanations for every painful condition. Job suffers. And Job doubts God.

Is that OK? Is it alright to have doubts? After all, some studies show that rejecting one’s previously held beliefs can lead to shame and guilt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in our New Testament clearly states, “... those who doubts are condemned.” Feelings of guilt and shame can erode a person's sense of self-worth As the famous Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote, “No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.” Thank you Dr. Barth! Now I not only have doubts. I ashamed, too.

Barth and Paul do not get the last word. There are wise people who tell us it’s OK to doubt. Consider an ancient Zen saying: “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”

Some people come from religious traditions where there is a system of dogma, canon law, or a corpus of right beliefs to guide the believer in the spiritual journey. Some traditions rely on creeds and catechisms to be the most faithful interpreters of Scripture. In the UCC, we take a different approach. And sometimes our approach gives people heartburn. Our covenantal tradition means there is no centralized authority or hierarchy to impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the historic faith. The UCC therefore accepts the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies of faith, but not tests of the faith. Non-creedal does not mean anything goes. It means that we are a Protestant Christian church which does not require members to recite the Apostle’s Creed, or any other statement of faith in order to be members of the church.

It also means that we arrive at greater truths through a process of questioning, sharing, journeying, and yes, even doubting together. In some ways, you could say that the UCC preserves the individual’s freedom of doubt. For those who want to know the rules and follow them to the letter, you can see how this can be frustrating.

Remember Renee Descartes, the “I think therefore I am” guy? We use that phrase to sum up his rationalistic philosophy. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I exist. There is actually an expanded version of his philosophy that does not get repeated much: Dubito ergo cogito. Cogito ergo sum. "Since I doubt, I think; since I think I exist." Descartes believed that doubt was essential for learning the truth. More specifically, Descartes believed that a person can grasp the truth only by doubting and calling into question everything one knows. He said, “I am a thinking (conscious) thing, that is, a being who doubts, affirms, denies, knows a few objects, and is ignorant of many.”

Doubt has now become a modern phenomenon. We now live in an age where we have the luxury of being able to question matters of faith. In some ways, we are all skeptics, believer and unbeliever alike. The general view of our day is that there is no longer one true faith evident in all times and all places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience. God is no longer thought to be the center of the cosmos. In our day, the individual and the material world have become the centers of meaning-making. I would say that if we allow ourselves to think about it for a while, most modern Westerners feel adrift and cast into a cold, anonymous, dark and infinitely large universe that is ultimately unknowable and un-mappable.

That puts us in a place where we have choices to make. Some religious traditions claim that the modern way of thinking requires people of faith to bring back and live out medieval moral codes. They will call it getting back to the spirit of the New Testament Church, but what they really want is an enchanted, spiritual worldview charged with presences like the Spirit, or angels and devils -- unnatural presences who come upon and enter into an open, vulnerable individual. In the medieval mindset, to be human meant to be open to an outside force, whether good or evil, open to blessing or curse, open to possession or grace. Some religious traditions seek to preserve that way of being. Others religious traditions say the universe is not really like that. The world doesn’t work that way. There is no longer a distinction between sacred and profane, or between sanctified and secular. Like it or not, we have to deal with our doubts as those who live our lives individually, yet in community, before the face of God. In the words of the novelist Flannery O’Connor,
“There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not.”
C.S. Lewis, a great Christian writer and theologian, believed that doubts were good part of our spiritual development because they make us examine our faith. He wrote,
“If ours is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, then we were believing that which was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger . . .”
This from a man who started his faith journey as an atheist. When Lewis gave himself permission to explore of his doubts, after years of searching and struggling, he became one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Christianity.

Some say that doubt is part of our psychological development. A psychologist named James Fowler has studied faith development in Christians. Fowler thinks that when people hit their 30s and 40s, they enter a time of anxiety and struggle as they face difficult questions about who they are and what they believe. Perhaps for the first time, a person takes responsibility for her beliefs and feelings. Where once a person accepted what religious authorities said without any questions, she now re-examines what she’s been told. Nothing feels certain anymore. Disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be in. Most people, after entering this stage, sense that the world is far more complex than they previously thought.

I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was exploding, these are the times I grow the most.

Doubt is an important quality to have if you are a spiritual seeker. Perhaps we need to alter Descartes’ formula a little bit. He said, “I doubt, therefore I think; I think therefore I am.”  Maybe it should go more like this: “We are, therefore we think; we think, therefore we doubt.” To be human is to think. To think is to doubt, otherwise we’re just parroting what we've been told, and that's not thought at all.

Doubt can motivate us to study and learn. Doubt can help us question counterfeit beliefs that have crept into our faith. Doubt can humble our arrogance. Doubt can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. Doubt can remind us of how much truth matters. Authentic faith must be as open to questions as it is receptive of answers.

If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can we go to cry?
If this is not a place where our questions can be asked, where can we go to seek?
If this is not a place where our heart cries can be heard, where shall we go to find comfort?

May this church be such a place for all of us—a place where our questions, and even our doubts, are always welcome.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon for July 13, 2014

Laws for Living: #3 Peace with Others

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:1-6)

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~e.e. cummings

Jake’s emotional outburst was legendary. Infamous. Seven years after that fateful meeting when Jake’s temper spewed the hot ash of anger, seven years after Jake had left the church, seven years after the congregation’s minister had also resigned and moved far away, members of the church still talked about Jake’s roaring, vulcanian tantrum.

The members of this established, oldline church tiptoed around conflict in the weeks leading up to Jake’s explosion. The congregational temperature rose due to a number of issues including financial pressure and shrinking membership, the grief of impermanence and no place to vent worry. Blame increased. Some people faulted the long-tenured pastor, whom several members thought had stayed past his usefulness. While some devotees united around the minister, another group called for his retirement. The factions kept their anxiety just under the boiling point until Jake erupted on that critical meeting night. After Jake’s emotional explosion, the church could no longer manage the heat of conflict.

Seven years later, I met Jake at a denominational event. He was confident and approachable. We hit it off over dinner. Finding an opening to hear his version of the story, I asked him, cautiously, what happened at that meeting. With evaporating poise, gazing down at the floor, hands folded in front of him, he said,   “That was a terrible night. There’s no doubt about it. I lost my temper. I know everyone blames me for what went wrong at the church. But do you know what I wish? I wish just one person would have called to see if everything was alright.  No one ever talked me after that. No one ever reached out to see if I was OK. If they had, I would have told them about how I came home from work that night, right before leaving for the church meeting, and my wife told me she wanted a divorce. I was so upset. So angry and confused. I went to church that night even though my world had turned upside down. Looking back, I shouldn’t have gone to the meeting. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I’m sorry. But still, I wish someone had bothered to ask.”

When people act badly, I try to remember Jake’s story. We don’t often know what happened during someone’s day before we see them. One person could be having a lovely day while another may be feeling terrible. When someone snaps at me, I tend to take it personally. I may choose to be offended. I can also choose to marginalize or disparage the person by whom I fee attacked. I can criticize. I can gossip. I can fault. I can judge. Or, I can choose another reaction. I can choose not to take it personally.

I can choose to follow the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge. Take the log out of your own eye before you examine the speck in someone else’s.” It sounds straight forward to me.

We tend to think that Jesus is talking about the self-righteous kind of judgment – those opinions of ourselves that put us in a one-up position over another. There’s another kind of judgment I want to talk about today. It’s what happens when you look at another person and judge the other to be more competent than you. What happens when you look around and others are always smarter, faster, thinner, wealthier, happier, nicer, luckier and more talented than you?  It’s a double judgment, really.

The first judgy thing you are doing is comparing yourself to another person – haunted by the specter of self-judgment. The second piece, however, is that you are really making assumptions about the other. You are deciding for yourself that the other person must have it better than you – the other person is better than you.

Have you ever delighted in the downfall of someone whom you perceive as better than you? Have you ever been in rivalry with another person, but the other person has no idea?  Psychologists have a world to describe this phenomenon:  projection.  Projection involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might start believing that she or he does not like you. Projection is an unconscious fantasy that we are able to rid ourselves of some part of our thinking by splitting it off and putting it outside ourselves, usually into somebody else. 

In church language, we have another word for this behavior: Envy. Envy is a feeling of unhappiness at the blessing and fortune of others. It’s a projection of an idealized fantasy. In others words, instead of dealing with my own unhappiness, I make up a story about how great the life of another person is, convince myself to believe it, and then resent the person I made up the story about. Instead of taking responsibility for my unhappiness, I make up a reason why someone else is responsible for making me unhappy. In the words of one ancient theologian, envy is sorrow for another’s good. It’s the painful and often resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else. Envy and rivalry are poison to true community. When envy takes root, we are constantly on edge, competing with each other and throwing elbows over the smallest advantage.

So, when Jesus says, “Do not judge others or you to will be judged,” the intent may be deeper than just confronting our tendency to look down on others. J.B. Phillips paraphrases Matthew 7:1 like this: "Don't criticize people, and you will not be criticized." In The Message, Eugene H. Peterson paraphrases it, "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults -- unless, of course, you want the same treatment."

The English theological and scholar John Stott prefers the word censoriousness. It means, “marked by or given to censure;” not  an objective, discerning judgment, but the harshness of one who is a fault-finder, a blamer, one who puts the worst possible interpretation on the motivations of others.

Part of the problem with envy and judgment, with projection and censoriousness, is that they are based on false perceptions. Whatever we are thinking about another person is probably not true. We don’t know what pains the other person bears. We don’t really know how another person is doing behind the veneer of success. We don’t know what that person faced before he came into a meeting and exploded unexpectedly.

And yet, many of us have a tendency to compare ourselves with others—over and over again. Demoralizing and useless as it is, we keep doing it. 

Think about it. What does your status, your value, your worth have to do with anyone else’s?  What does the size of my body have to do with anyone else’s?  How is my self worth any different if I say it should be equal to or greater than someone else’s?  Comparing myself to others does not change a thing about me in reality. I am what I am. Right now.  And that’s the reality.  Or, as one anonymous commentator said, “Why compare yourself with others? No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you than you.”

What might happen if we stop mentally assessing our worth by comparing it to others?

What might happen if we can make peace with others by making peace with ourselves?

Here is your homework, if you choose to accept it. It’s called “Flip the Focus.” The next time you find yourself being judgmental, envious, or censorious, identify something positive that you have —a trait, a possession, a relationship, a value— something that you can feel good about. It has nothing to do with any other person.  We are done comparing ourselves with others, so this so there’s no need to try to ‘one up’ someone else in your mind.

For example, the next time I wish I had a big vacation house on the shore, I can flip the focus and remember: I may not have a vacation house, but I do have a loving family to share my time with.

If I find myself comparing my body to another person’s, I can flip my focus and remind myself of how well my body has served me all these years.  And I can remind myself of other positive traits—I’m a generous friend, a loving partner, a talented cook, and a funny person.

Let’s move away from devaluing ourselves and others. Choose to move away from feeling bad about yourself for not being like someone else. Flip your focus and remind yourself of all that you are instead of focusing on what you think you aren’t.

Over time, you will see a change. You will find yourself looking for the good in everyone, including yourself. Instead of always finding ways that we don’t measure up, you will find ways to celebrate the parts of you that make you unique.

It’s OK to be easy on yourself with this. We are all caught up in this problem together. But do you know what? As Christians, we are also caught up together in Jesus Christ.  We are caught up together by the Spirit, and together we can be set free.

I do not need to envy my neighbor’s success. I do not need to bring another down by judging her in my mind. I am not defined by the blessings of others. I am defined by the grace of God. I can make peace with others by refusing to measure myself by a false standard. I can resist the compulsive and relentless urge to compete with everyone under the sun (especially those who are called to do the same things that I am). I can put away malicious dreams about the downfall and failure of others by savoring the sure knowledge that God is lavish in grace and that she has promised to graciously, freely, and abundantly give to me, and to them, God’s all-consuming love.


Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...