Monday, February 23, 2015

Sermon for February 15, 2015 / Transfiguration Day, National Preach-in On Global Warming

A Vision for a Transfigured Creation

Mark 9:2-9 & Psalm 50:1-6

Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Seeing it might make you reconsider the old saying that all mountains in the East are just foothills in comparison to those in the West. Mount Katahdin is the most difficult non-technical climb in the East, and many of the trails have a tendency to go straight up. The most spectacular route involves taking the mile-long Knife Edge, which combines 2,000 foot drops on either side of the trail. It's definitely not a trail to get caught on in bad weather.

Many years ago when I was in scouts, troop chose a beautiful day to backpack to the summit of Katahdin. At the foot of the mountain flowers were beginning to bloom and a warm gentle breeze filled us with confidence as we went to tackle the Knife Edge. The trail that meandered through the pine forest eventually gave way to gravelly climbs on steeper slopes. However, once we got past the tree line, it seemed as if the mountain’s fury was not going to let us pass. We put on our raincoats and continued the climb. At one point, climbers need to use iron hand and foot grips to navigate the trail that goes straight up the rock face. As we climbed, the storm worsened. Stinging rain, driven by horizontal winds, began to shred the raincoats from our bodies. We were on our hands and knees, clinging to the side of the mountain and trembling with the anticipation of the unexpected. There was no way to move on. We slowly made our way back down the trail on our hands and knees, never making it to the Knife Edge, but learning to respect the Mountain. Of course, at the base of the mountain, life was beautiful and verdant.

I’m not much of a mountain climber. I’ve never been back to Katahdin. But as I remember this event I think of those who have tried to summit Mount Everest. Some make it. Many do not.  Bill Burke was one of the oldest climbers to summit Everest at age 71. He plans to return. When asked why, Burke said, “I love that mountain and think about it often.  Mt. Everest is beautiful, powerful, awe inspiring, fearsome and benevolent, all at the same time. It is always the same, and it is never the same. When I find myself blessed to be on its flanks, I feel like I am standing on sacred ground.”
Agreed. Mountains can be sacred places. It should be no surprise that mountaintop experiences part of our sacred stories.  As the waters of the great flood subside, Noah’s ark comes to rest in the mountains.  On the mountain of the Lord, Abraham draws his knife to sacrifice Isaac, and on the mountain God provides a substitute offering.  God calls Moses from a burning bush on a mountain. On a mountain, God gives the Law to Moses.  And on that very same mountain, centuries later, the Prophet Elijah hears God in a sound of sheer silence. Jesus delivers his best-known sermon on a mountain. And today, we get the story of a backpacking trip with Jesus up a mountain. On the mountain, Jesus’ shines in dazzling, transforming light.  On the mountain, people they hear the voice of God and see Moses and Elijah.

A lot of people connect with God on mountains. How about you? Where do you connect with God? When I ask this question, a vast majority of people tell me that they sense God most when they are in nature. People tell me about hiking up a mountain and catching the view at the summit, taking a walk in the woods, going to the shore, or working in the garden. Last week, Public Religion Research gave their findings about why Americans are conflicted about climate change. One of the survey questions connected spiritual experience with nature. Public Religion Research asked people how often they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe, nature and the earth. A majority of the 3000 or so people reported a moderate to very high connection.

I have to wonder, if people feel deep spiritual connections in nature, why don’t we spend more time outside? If we feel a sense of wonder and awe wandering around creation, why don’t we take better care of it? What’s the ambivalence about? Why are we even arguing about the reality of global warming and climate change? The good news is this: 57% of those surveyed by Public Religion Research believe God gave us the responsibility to live with other living creatures and resources on our planet – they are not there just for human benefit. We could call this a “stewardship” mindset. For me, this is a transforming, transfiguring trend. The bad news: many people of faith are stuck in a worn-out way of treating the earth. 37% of those surveyed believe God gave human beings the right to use other living beings and the resources of the planet for human benefit. We could call this a “dominion” mindset.

In spite of the mounting scientific data, global warming continues to be controversial. I don’t think the controversy is over the fact of climate change. Global temperature has increased over the last 50 years. Glaciers are definitely melting. Tundra is thawing. Ocean levels are rising.  There is more CO2 in the atmosphere. The controversy seems to be over the degree to which human activity is responsible for this warming and the extent to which changes in human behavior can stop it. I do not possess the scientific tools to resolve that controversy, although I am convinced that human activities bear much responsibility for greenhouse gases, which contribute to the warming.  I think substantial changes in human behavior would moderate global warming.

My vision of a transfigured creation is not just about buying LED lightbulbs and installing solar power on your house. I love those ideas, but there is some inner-work that needs to be done, first. Before we renew creation, there is some transfiguring change that has to happen in our minds. WHY are we buying the LEDs and solar panels? WHY would be need to make sacrifices to our comfort? Our mindset about global warming is influenced by hundreds of years of assumptions that have come to us from names of those philosophers and scientists you learned about in college: Kant, and Locke, Copernicus and Descartes. Once upon a time, humans and our climate were intimately linked. Humans understood themselves as part of creation and responsible for its care and protection. Now, we humans see ourselves as displaced from the rest of creation, estranged and isolated from a natural world, needing to subdue it and tame it.

For me, a vision of a transfigured creation means that we hear the voice of God, in creation. This is the experience of Psalm writers, who insist that the earth speaks about the glory of God. Listen to these words from Psalm 50:
The mighty God, the Lord, has summoned all humankind from east to west! God’s glory-light shines from the beautiful Temple on Mount Zion. God comes with the noise of thunder, surrounded by devastating fire; a great storm rages round. God has come to judge the people. To heaven and earth God shouts, “Gather together my own people who by their sacrifice upon my altar have promised to obey me.” God will judge them with complete fairness, for all heaven declares that God is just.
Creation is God’s court, summoning us to worship.
In every mountaintop vista, in every ocean wave crashing the shore, in every star in the sky on a clear night, we hear God saying, “This, this is my beloved. Listen to it. Listen.”

If we listen, I think we will hear something disturbing. We will hear creation crying for justice.
Global warming is, like food, housing, and healthcare, a matter of justice. Those most adversely affected by global warming have the least ability to do anything about it.  Those who have the most to gain by staying the course also have the greatest ability to protect themselves from the direst results.  Sure, all will suffer from climate change, but the world’s poor will suffer the most.

I want us to consider that our faith calls us us to love the poor. If we are really listening to the voice of the earth, we will realize that the poor are not just poor people. Nature itself is the new poor. When we talk about God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed, we must include that natural world within our scope. Respect for the natural world will mean some commitments from those of us who are on the privileged side of the equation. It will mean converting from our consumerist lifestyles, addressing poverty, avoiding war and its devastating ecological effects, promoting education in ecological responsibility, and appreciating the beauty of nature, which summons us to God’s presence. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then the range of neighbors now includes the whale, the monarch butterfly, the ferns growing on the side of the bike path, the entire web of life. If the common good requires solidarity with all who suffer, then our compassion extends to suffering species caught in patterns of extinction.

So here is what I think needs to happen. What I’m about to say is not a solution. It is not a technical fix. Let’s call it an adaptive challenge – in other words, something we need to do to transfigure our minds and our souls. I think we need to reclaim the idea of repentance. I’m not talking about walking around with “repent for the end is near” signs in downtown Silver Spring. I think we need to transpose the idea of repentance – to shift it it from the religious world into the civil world. Repentance needs to become part of our national vocabulary. This may not be as ridiculous as it sounds. Other religious ideas have already made the shift. Like the idea of stewardship. Stewardship started out as a religious term. Now ecologists use it all the time, talking about environmental stewardship. What if the idea of repentance could make the same leap? After all, the world simply means “to turn” – to make a 180 and go the other direction. What might that look like?
First, it would mean learning how to show true remorse for what we have done to the earth as a way of showing respect to that which has been violated.

But we all know remorse is not enough. Another part of civic repentance means making restitution. This could mean financial punishments, sanctions, and civic pressure on businesses that continue to abuse and neglect the earth. Restitution also means restorative justice. In other words, justice to an injured earth requires that we work to restore the victim to wholeness. We need to find ways to listen to the earth’s cries and help those who have hurt the earth have a stake in its repair.
Many times we stop there.  We show remorse and we make amends. But repentance has one more step. Those who are truly repentant must restructure their lives. Guilty parties must show, over a period of time, that we have transformed and transfigured our own lives – that we have new priorities that are sustained over time.

Some people say that we need a moral megalogue on civic repentance. A "moral megalogue" is a dialogue projected onto a larger scale. It is a process by which we identify shared fundamental values that guide our lives.  How could we possible get entire societies to come together to affirm a set of values by means of a moral megalogue? The process occurs by linking millions of local conversations -- between couples, in neighborhood bars and pubs, in coffee houses, next to water coolers at work -- into society-wide networks and shared public focal points.

It has happened before.  Until 1970, the environment was not considered a shared core value in Western societies. Society as a whole paid it little heed to the ecology, and it was not listed among America's core values.  The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring triggered a nationwide megalogue.  A massive oil spill and the ensuing protests in Santa Barbara, California, and the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant incident further impressed the subject on the national agenda. Thousands of people gathered in New York City to listen to pro-environment speeches and to pick up garbage along Fifth Avenue. Two hundred thousand people gathered on the Washington Mall in 1970 to demonstrate concern for the environment on Earth Day.  The same process of moral megalogue could strengthen any one country's commitment to repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.
Our God is not merely the God who changes the way we see.  Our God is also the God who changes who we are. So we work for a transfigured creation: a world where our love for getting and spending is tempered by the growth of human solidarity and devotion to the public good; a world where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; a world where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; a world where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate. A world that calls us to repentance, to restoration. A World that summons us to live in God’s beautiful light.

A Political Theology of Climate Change by John Northcutt

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sermon for February 8, 2015

Revolutionary Healing
February 8, 2015
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Mark 1:29-29
Ok, so it’s pretty well established that math and I do not get along well. I’ve mentioned it before. That’s why I’m so well qualified to delve into a basic mathematical idea called Set Theory with you this morning. Wait. Don’t go to sleep on me yet. Let’s work with this idea for a minute. Sets are exactly what you might think they are—groups of things. A set is a collection of distinct objects, which when grouped together become an object in its own right. Like the numbers 2,4,6. They are each individual numbers, but we can combine them into a set of even numbers {2,4,6…}. Sets are groups of objects with common characteristics: Prime numbers, unicorns, tofu recipes, whatever ... you can make a set of it. Set Theory is a way of talking about what sets do and how they relate to each other.

One day, a social scientist came along and said, “You know what? We can talk about organizations as sets. When I look at organizations, I can see that they form around common social characteristics. For instance, some organizations are what I’m going to call ‘bounded sets.’” Bounded-set organizations have firm outer boundaries that must be crossed by those who want to belong to the organization. Bounded-set organizations have strict rituals, rules, and language that make it possible for others to know who is in and who is out. We could say that bounded set organizations tend to gravitate towards a certain singular criteria in order to allow people to become members. Churches are pros at this. Churches tend to have coded church language that newcomers don’t always understand. We have rituals during worship, like when we sit and when we stand. We have rules, like how decisions are made and who gets to make those decisions. The boundaries can be confusing to someone who wants to be part but doesn’t understand the characteristics of the congregation that make it come together as a set.

Some bounded-set churches make “belonging” the requirement to become a member: “You must be one of us in order to be accepted.”

Others make “”believing” a qualification for admittance: “If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior (or affirm the Apostle’s creed, or agree to our statement of faith),you can be one of us.”

Still others require a certain type of “behavior”: “Here is the list of moral and ethical requirements we hold as a church. No drinking, No swearing, No dancing. Follow the 10 commandments. If you obey our behavioral norm, you will be pure and can be part of our group.”

Church consultants tend to settle into one of these areas in order bring renewal to congregations. Some tell us that the renewal of the church will come though working on belief, for instance, reclaiming traditional doctrine. Others emphasize belonging though innovative outreach projects and new member initiatives, new budgets and new buildings. Others may emphasize behaving though social action, creative worship, or liturgical worship. However, each one of these avenues can act like fence that keeps certain members within the perimeter and other people out.

There is another kind of set in organizations. They are called centered sets. Where a bounded-set organization recognizes people in relationship to its boundary, a centered-set organization recognizes people in relationship to the center. If the bounded-set church is like a traditional ranch with high fences to keep the right cattle in, the centered set church is like an Outback ranch with a wellspring at its center. The Outback ranch has no fences, just a watering hole. The rancher has no need to control the livestock. The animals always come back to the center for water. The primary concern of those in this set is to bring others into relationship with the center. Because there are no firm outer boundaries, centered-set of organizations can feel chaotic and disorderly. Let’s be honest. Some people prefer fences. They like a clear line to say who is in and who is out. It can feel better to have some firm guidelines. It is harder to find order in chaos.

I wonder if we could understand God as a centered-set organization. God is like this (throwing arms wide open), forever going out from God’s self, creating out of love, embracing out of love and pulling the creation into the center. Most humans are different. We are more like a bounded set, (hunching over and pulling in arms as if clinging to something). We constrict, protect what we think belongs to us and forming boundaries to keep out those who scare us or who are too different from us. We have all been on the outside of a bounded set. We’ve been told that we lack a certain something for entrance to the get-together: we are too young or too old, too ugly or too pretty, the wrong gender, the wrong sexual identity, the wrong race, the wrong political party. We went to the wrong school or lived in the wrong place. We didn’t have enough money or didn’t belong to the right club or organization. We weren’t smart enough or educated enough. Who’s in and who’s out? Nearly all of us know what it’s like to be out. But the amazing love of God keeps reaches out wide across all lines and boundaries and pulling is into the center to organize us into a new set, a new group – something called the People of God.

I see Jesus doing this in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. For the second Sunday in a row, we have a reading about exorcisms – Jesus casting our demons from suffering people. Unlike today when we are unconvinced about exorcisms, it was a different story in Jesus’ day. Possession was a well-known and accepted reality throughout the ancient world. When Jesus walked the earth, there were all kinds of healers who would make money by going from town to town casting out demons for a fee. Traveling exorcists commonly performed before sensation-seeking crowds. So, at first, it probably looked like Jesus was another one of these faith healers.  The crowds watching Jesus would expect to be entertained, astounded and amazed by the wonder-working miracle show of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, notice how Jesus changes the geography of power. Traveling exorcists who heal others for money don’t do it to restore the suffering person. They do it to become wealthier at the expense of another’s pain. They do it to enlarge their own ego. I imagine Jesus could have been tempted by this. He could have given the crowds a good show and become a famous faith healer. But notice how in the midst of the miracles, Jesus steals away to pray alone. In his times of solitude, as he prays, I think Jesus is re-focusing his mission. He has not come to build his own empire. He has come to topple one. Jesus has come to establish a new government – the Reign of God, built on human wholeness, justice, and compassion.

Make no mistake, people in Jesus’ world needed some healing. Roman rule was emotionally and physically destructive to people in Judea. Despite Rome’s earlier tolerance of Jewish religious life, subjection to Roman rule began to require a break with Jewish religious traditions. Jesus comes to re-direct these realities. His healings are not just random acts of charity. Healings are not side show spectacles to make a quick buck.  Healings are his way of showing that God’s demands human well-being, even in the face of death.

Consider the demon-possessed man in our story. The man is an unwilling participant in a social and religious system that labels, excludes and dominates certain classes of people. Jesus chooses to heal this man to provoke conflict. With all eyes on him, Jesus engages in subversive public action -- he restores the demonized man to wholeness. In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus heals it is an act of public protest. In fact, whenever Jesus heals the sick, conflict escalates between Jesus and the religious leaders. When Jesus heals people, he challenges the authority of the religious establishment that works in collusion with the Roman government. Every time he heals, he symbolically calls for an end to a corrupt religious system that segregates, stigmatizes, and oppresses people. Healing is an act of protest.

Jesus comes to heal the world, to heal us, not only of our illnesses to exorcize the demonic lies that uphold oppressive systems. If we want to walk in the steps of the living Christ, then our teaching, our healing, and our spiritual care must challenge the corrupted foundations that people think will keep them steady.

The renewal of the church, the re-making of our communities, the healing of our warring world will come neither through a recovery of doctrine, nor through innovative projects of evangelism, nor social action, nor in creative techniques or liturgical worship, nor in elegant sermons, nor in new budgets, new buildings, and new members.  Healing renewal will not come about by believing, behaving or belonging. Healing renewal will come about by becoming …by becoming a community of compassion rather than a congregation of condemnation;
  • by becoming the people who share God’s grace instead of those who think we get to decide who is in and who is outside of God’s love;
  • by becoming spiritual beings, living grounded, balanced lives;
  •  by becoming the congregation that can expand the circle of our tribe to include not just our family, our friends, our nation, but all people everywhere
  • by becoming the protesters, the revolutionaries, the peacemakers, the prophets, the activists, the teachers, the leaders, the holy provocateurs, the healers who refuse to let unjust systems of oppression have the last word.
The renewal of the church will come about by becoming a local community whose common life bears the marks of love. For all of us how know love, we know there is some pain involved. But the pain of love seems to be worth the prize.
A Closing Blessing:
That each ill will
be released from you
and each sorrow
be shed from you
and each pain
be made comfort for you
and each wound
be made whole in you
that joy will
arise in you
and strength will
take hold of you
and hope will
take wing for you
and all be made well.
–Jan Richardson


Monday, February 2, 2015

A Meditation, February 1, 2105

A Meditation
Mark 1:21-28

Our world is filled with so called “authorities.” They fill the media with their most confident opinions. Health experts. Sporting pundits. Dietitians. Gardening experts. Stock market advisers. Psychologists. Astrologers. Ethical analysts. Political commentators. Automotive experts. Preachers claiming the only true gospel. Authorities are everywhere. They claim to really know what they are talking about. They want to influence us, and in some cases manipulate us for their purposes. The trouble is many of these authorities do not deliver what they promise. The stock market expert accepts no responsibility when his opinion costs you thousands. The automotive expert doesn’t care if you follow his opinion and end up buying a lemon. It doesn’t matter to the TV preacher if you gave your money away on an empty promise.

Today we listen to a different kind of authority. In the town of Capernaum, he taught in the synagogue’s Sabbath service. Those who listened “were astonished at his teaching, for unlike the scribes he taught them with a note of authority.” To tell you where the listeners are coming from, there is a deranged, demon-possessed man running around in their worship space. Jesus addresses the demon in the man, and it screams, and shrieks, and convulses. The people treat it like it’s an ordinary event. “Oh yeah, that’s Harvey. He’s just like that.” But when Jesus heals the man, now the people are more amazed. Hurting, victimized people are commonplace. Healing is not. When Jesus of Nazareth taught, and befriended, and healed people, something from deep within the human soul cried, “Yes! Yes! This is it! This is the real thing.” He awakens an echo of God that lies deep inside us. No matter how far buried under their junk, the sacred resonates in his presence. A forgotten, neglected, or wounded part of our humanity gasps with new hope. Jesus awakens life that seems buried and bleak. Jesus speaks to the core of our being, and that core stirs and starts to come to life. How different his authority is from the counterfeit experts of the age.

Have you ever heard that voice, speaking to the core of your being? If not, then today is a chance to realize that Christ, the one who speaks with God’s authority, has the power to liberate us from all that keeps us from being whole people. Christ shatters the domineering designs that shackle people to lower standards for life than God intends. Jesus stands ready to help us caste aside that which binds and constricts us, the demons that defeat our best and highest purposes. Christ stands ready with the authority of grace, which breaks the power of sin over us.

I know. We don’t like to talk about demons. But I’m not talking about bat-winged creatures that torment you. I’m not talking about the enemies of TV preachers and priests from horror movies. To me, any force that prevents even a single one of us from experiencing the full humanity God intends for all humanity is demonic. I think of possession as an unhealthy way of relating to God, our fellow human beings, and even ourselves. Instead of working in collaboration with communities, the powers of evil manipulate and use others for their own benefit. It’s like those invasive root systems I pull out of my yard every year – you know that vine that grows 15 feet a year and chokes out the tree it twists itself upon to find life? Evil is like that. It needs a host. Those little plant shoots looks innocent enough in the early spring when they pop out of the ground. We don’t recognize the extent of that plant’s root system. Just let those tender shoots grow for a few weeks. It quickly overtakes everything around it. Let it go too long, and drastic measures are needed to make it go away. And like that dreaded vine in my yard, we can’t get rid of evil all together. It keeps coming back. And we keep fighting it. It takes vigilance. It’s hard, work that does not seem to get a lot of long-term benefit.

The deeply-rooted evils of racism, sexism, and homophobia haunt our communities through generations. Poverty enslaves millions around the world, keeping them uneducated, unemployed, homeless, hungry, and hopeless despite an overabundance of resources. Maybe if we close our eyes they will go away. No, that doesn’t work. They grow too quickly for us to just ignore. Maybe we can run from them? But that won’t work either. Those who have tried know that our demons follow us.

A while ago I watched the movie “I Am Legend” with Will Smith playing Dr. Robert Neville, a world-famous epidemiologist. It’s a remake of Omega Man starring Chuck Heston. That movie still haunts me. After a cancer cure mutates into a plague, Dr. Neville finds himself the only person left in New York City, and perhaps in the entire world. Something in his blood grants him immunity from a disease that turns people into sub-human, aggressive, violent killers. Neville’s only protection is his fortified bunker, and the sunlight -- which drives back the demonic hordes until nightfall. He tirelessly works on a cure for this disease, even though he thinks he is the only human left. But why?

At one point in the movie, he meets two more survivors. They are traveling to a survivor’s colony, but Neville won’t go. He says, “The people who are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness.” I won’t give it all away, but by the end of the movie, Neville lights up the darkness. He doesn’t run and he doesn’t cover his eyes. He touches the evil around him. His actions give the rest of humanity a cure.

If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we are called to touch some of this evil, to light up the darkness, to confront the invasive evil in our own lives and in our communities. We are called to name the powers that bind our lives and the lives of our sisters and brothers. We are called to name the abuse, the addictions, the bigotry, the violence, the poverty, the greed, the apathy, and every other demon that haunts this old world.

As we take communion today, I want us to think about the authority that God gave to Jesus, and the authority that Jesus gives to us. Many of us have demons we are dealing with today. Your job may not be going well or you may have lost it. You may be struggling with illness or are feeling the pain of someone who is. You may be depressed, anxious, nervous, or scared. You may be looking for guidance or struggling to know where God is leading you. . We need to be healed in body, mind, and soul. We need to be raised from the dead and dying places in our lives. We need to be cleansed from every division. We need to be freed from the demonic powers that keep us separated from God and one another. We need help to become the people God created us to be. As you take the bread and the cup, remember the unbounded compassion that moves God to embrace us in all our faults and frailty and love us even more. Don’t be afraid. Light up the darkness.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...