Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sermon for March 29, 2015 / Palm Sunday

From Exhaustion to Revolution

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘What are you doing?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it and will return it soon.’”

The two disciples left and found the colt standing in the street, tied outside the front door. As they were untying it, some bystanders demanded, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They said what Jesus had told them to say, and they were permitted to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it, and he sat on it.

Many in the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others spread leafy branches they had cut in the fields. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,

“Praise God!
    Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Praise God in highest heaven!”

So Jesus came to Jerusalem and went into the Temple. After looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples
. Mark 11:1-11
I wonder about something. Jesus riding on a donkey to the acclaim of a rugged crowd, spreading green branches before him as a verdant carpet over the dusty crossroads at the city limits. I wonder.
I wonder how Jesus feels right before this Palm Sunday pageant.
I wonder if Jesus feels exhausted.
I wonder if the chilling shadow of the waiting cross makes him want to turn around.
I wonder if he knows, in the face of what lies ahead, he is a person of secret innocence.
I wonder if Jesus knows no darkness can hold him, and that nothing can stop upcoming vicious events from unfolding, and that the only chance for peace is to face death on his own terms.
I wonder if the saying of the ancient Rabbis was going through his head: “We are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.”
I wonder if Jesus knew that exhaustion contain the seeds of regeneration and renewal.
I wonder, as his parade enters Jerusalem, as a crowd chants, “Hosanna,” and covers the dusty path before him with a green blanket of new life; I wonder if, at the brink of the gloomiest moment, Jesus knows the light is almost ready to shine again.

I wonder . . .

Most of us have moments like that, don’t we -- a season of exhaustion, feeling like we can’t take another step forward, facing our fears, doubting our strength and courage to carry on? We face those seasons when life feels like a dried-up lakebed with nettlesome scavengers stalking the shoreline. Hard times dry up our spirits and host a flock of worries. Forget about growing or benefitting from such hard times. We wonder whether we can just endure, hoping to find enough courage to tap that wellspring of human endurance: hope.

Robert A. Johnson was a devoted student and scholar of Carl Jung. He put it this way: “… Exhaustion is ... sometimes the best tool for enlightenment, as it gets the ego out of the way. It finally just wears down so that the divine can pour through." Sometimes exhaustion means something new wants to be born through the eroded channels that scar the dried up lakebeds in our lives.

We have a term for this experience in Christianity – these moments when we respond to that which wants to be born anew in our lives. We call it conversion.

Some people have some hang ups around this word. Some people think conversion is something that happens at a revival or a Billy Graham Crusade. Sinners come forward at the altar call to repent of their past life and accept a new life in Jesus. The well-known writer and pastor Eugene Peterson, the one who wrote the Bible paraphrase called The Message, tells a story about conversion. As a First Grade student, Eugene Peterson was discovered by the school bully – Garrison Johns.  Garrison beat Eugene up daily, no matter what he did.  Eugene tried to find alternate routes home.  Garrison found him and beat him up.  Peterson told his mom. She told Eugene that he must “turn the other cheek” and “bless those who persecute you” -- Not what Eugene wanted to hear. When Garrison found out Eugene was a Christian, the bullying went to a whole new level.  After he would beat Eugene, Garrison would taunt him with names like “Jesus Sissy!” This went on for some time.  Until one day it happened.  Eugene writes, “I was with my neighborhood friends on this day, seven or eight of them, when Garrison caught up with us and started in on me, jabbing and taunting, working himself up to the main event. He had an audience, and that helped. He always did better with an audience. That’s when it happened. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character. Something snapped within me. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he was. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest, and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it—he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists … By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on … I said to Garrison, “Say ‘Uncle.’” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again … More cheering. Now my audience was bringing the best out of me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, ‘Say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. I tried again, ‘Say ‘I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.”

It’s an amusing story. It’s also kind of sad. For some, this is the image of conversion – people getting beaten into submission by Christians. So, let’s re-think the term for a moment. Conversion means, “turn around” Conversion is a change of perspective, not of who you are, but of how you experience life. You’re still human in your DNA, but you’re not quite the same, either. You experience life differently.

In the world of Evangelical Christianity, people speak of being born again. They refer to the moment when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The moment of conversion is instant and identifiable.

I’m guessing that many of us here today don’t have that kind of conversion. You may have never experienced a moment when you decided to accept Christ and were “born again.” For many, there’s a sense of having always believed in God and feeling at home in the church. Conversion isn’t a moment, as much as it is an ongoing process of growth. Here’s the reality of my own life: I’ve had both experiences. I was raised in the UCC, where we thought of faith as a process. I also had a come-to-Jesus moment as a teenager when I felt called by Jesus to turn my life around. And, if we are being honest, despite both of those experiences, I still don’t live a life of 24-hour peace, joy, and victory. Sometimes my life feels like a dried up river bed. Sometimes I get anxious. I still skirmish with bad habits and defeating attitudes. Does that mean I did not experience a conversion?

Or, does conversion mean something else?

Could it be that conversion means admitting that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses? Is conversion an ongoing, moment-by-moment opportunity to turn away from fear and turn towards hope? Maybe conversion is a beginning point, AND a daily re-orientation to Jesus. Perhaps God renews us continually and calls us to turn from death to life, from old to new, and it’s worked out between each individual and God within the safe nurture of a community of faith.

I wonder about something. I wonder if conversion is really about revolution -- a cycle of forward movement that leads back to the original starting point. We tend to think of a revolution as a sudden, unpredictable, even violent change. But revolution is actually another kind of turning. The original meaning has to do with regular, repetitive orbits around a fixed axis … like the revolution of a wheel or a planet. So whether we are talking about conversion, or transformation, or revolution, the effect is the same. Moving from exhaustion to revolution has to do with endurance.  Every once in a while, God visits us with a light so dazzling that we cannot help but be changed. But most often, God's light shines dimly, in ordinary ways and unexciting places. We don’t always notice how we change over time. Slowly. Gently.

So don’t rush it. I just read a story about Crater Lake—the deepest fresh water lake in America. It was formed by a collapsing volcano. With no inlet or outlet, it has been filled only by rain and snow. Do you know how long it took to fill that parched basis with water? 250 years! I’m just saying, whether it’s conversion, transformation, or revolution – sometimes it takes a while to move from life to death, and back to life again. We cannot create conversion in ourselves or in others. But we can keep our eyes open for the daily ways God invites us to respond to the Spirit.

I wonder something. I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of preparation. Maybe today is the beginning of a process of growth for us – a time of conversion.

I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of strength. Perhaps today marks a season of courage as we face the unknown future – a time of transformation.

I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of truth. Imagine whether we can enter a time of honesty with ourselves and curiosity about what God wants from us in the days ahead.

I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of grace. I wonder if today we can stop trying so hard to earn approval and simply enjoy our connection with God’s unlimited love.

I wonder whether we have the bravery to allow God to change and renew us; perhaps a conversion from chaos to order; maybe a transformation from fear to courage, or conversion from exhaustion to revolution.

I wonder.

Sermon for March 22, 2015 / Lent V

The Well

Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration paid a visit to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. They said, “Sir, we want to meet Jesus.” Philip told Andrew about it, and they went together to ask Jesus.

Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.

“Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came! Father, bring glory to your name.”

Then a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.” When the crowd heard the voice, some thought it was thunder, while others declared an angel had spoken to him.

Then Jesus told them, “The voice was for your benefit, not mine. The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this to indicate how he was going to die. John 12:20-33
Parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. Each of our bodies lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, just as many cells reproduce in a healthy body. Our bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years. What an enormous relief to me. It’s those cells that refuse to die off that pose the real problem, because they cause diseases like cancer. Most pre-cancerous cells die before they can cause cancer. The ones that don’t die continue to mutate. They get in the way and block healthy development of the body.

So, when it comes to our bodies, I am always dying. It’s a great thing. With each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second, hundreds of thousands of cells die off to allow the possibility for more. I keep dying so life may abound. 

The healthy rhythm of existence goes like this: Life leads to death. Death brings new life. Might this hold true in our spiritual and emotional lives as well.  Can new life come without death? We know all about death-dealing ways. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit. Holding on to regret strangles hope. Trying to control events and other people lead to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. What happens when we learn to forgive, to let go, to love enemies and work for compassionate justice? Might we find new life? Let’s look to today’s Gospel passage and see how John’s gospel answers the questions.

In the passage for today, Jesus tells a story about death and life, the rhythm of decay and new growth.  It’s Passover time, and thousands of people have gathered in Jerusalem. In this wild mass of humanity, some Greek travelers listen in on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. As they listen, they notice that one of the disciples has a Greek accent.  And so they approach this disciple, Philip, and they ask him in Greek, “Can we see Jesus?”

Realize this: Jesus has six days left on the earth. He knows how he is going to die. He knows when he is going to die. Only six days left. Any other time, Jesus might answer their request directly. But Jesus is distracted.  He’s preoccupied. If you knew you only had six days of life left, where would your mind be? Here’s where Jesus’ mind is. He says, “Unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.”

That’s a weird answer.  The Greeks just want to meet Jesus and instead he talks about dead wheat. Maybe there is a connection: If you really want to see Jesus, then you start by recognizing the importance of dying in order to live.

I know, I know, we don’t like to think about death.  As W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” But, let’s get real for a moment. How would you feel if you knew for sure you were going to die six days from now? In the few days that you had left, would the thought consume the rest of your life? Would you become philosophical about death? Would you make any amends? Would you have any regrets? Most of us don't know when we are going to die. Oh, it will happen. We just don't know the details. So, with the time I have left, whether it's a few days or many decades, I have an intense desire to make my time on this planet count for something. I want the world to be better because I lived here and loved here. I want to know that my spirit goes on to nourish others – that my body will return to dust and feed this weary earth. As the environmentalist Edward Abbey said, "If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture -- that is immortality enough for me."

Yes, death will certainly come upon us at some point. We neither know when nor how. Life on the other hand is a choice. Life is an invitation to live each moment with intention. If you accept the invitation to live fully and abundantly, your life will be worth dying for.

Sometimes I imagine how I might respond if I were told that I had a terminal illness. I think how I might feel, what I would do with my remaining days, and whether I would have any regrets. I get very sad. This usually happens at night when I can’t sleep -- lying in bed, listening to my wife breath, hearing my kids tossing in their beds. Sometimes I go into another room and turn on the TV, trying to avoid these thoughts. There’s nothing like late night infomercials to numb sad feelings. But sometimes, I tiptoe upstairs, going from one room to another, listening to my sleeping children. I eavesdrop on their midnight murmurs. I breathe deeply to draw in their scents. Then I go back to bed, oddly fulfilled. Chilly from the trek, I snuggle close to my wife, feel her warmth, love her enormously, and fall asleep. It’s my reminder that the end gives meaning to all that comes before. My relationships mean everything. Even in the face of death, people’s worth and dignity remain. We can trust the deep rhythm and flow of the life we are given.

Sometimes we want to hold on to all of this. We don’t want it to change. Most of us don’t want anything in life to change. Ever. We need to be careful, here. We must not assume that order and stability are always good. Before new things can be born the old must perish. We must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. My question is, where do we go, in time of fear and sadness, to find our center? Is there a bubbling well to which we can return when we need some sustenance?

In olden days, as in some places and cultures today, communities dug wells where there was deep, abundant, clean water. When the community needed access to water, people didn’t move the well to the city. The city went to the well. The well did not change to accommodate the people. People changed their lives to go to the well. Change was a matter of survival. Spiritually nourishing relationships work the same way. Political structures change over time. So do nations and languages. So do morals and ethics. So do customs, habits, and ways of life. But human need remains the same. As generations come and go, people still require the inexhaustible abundance of a well. Spiritually speaking . . .
  • What are the good wells in the lives of our communities?
  • Where are the deep wells from which you draw waters of life?
  • Which relationships provide refreshment in your life?
  • To where do you keep returning when you need some drink in these parched and arid times?

Some wells are no good. They are dry and empty, or the water is stale and polluted
  •  Do our communities draw from wells that harm us?
  • Do you keep trying to draw water from dry wells, hoping that it will be different each time you return there?
  • Is it time to stop drinking from unhealthy waters or some toxic relationships?
  • Is it time to abandon a poisoned pit in order to find refreshment and abundance at another well?
These questions have to do with the rhythms of death and life, decay and growth. Accepting that change happens. Change is dangerous. And it hurts. And it’s part of the script of life. The world must perish so that beings can bounce back, deal with the new, and live again.

A comic I read online, called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal puts it this way:
Here is something true: one day you will be dead.
Here is something false: you only live once.
It takes about seven years to master something.
If you live to be 88, after age 11, you have 11 opportunities to be great at something.
These are your lifetimes.
Most people never let themselves die.
Some are afraid of death.
Some think they are already ghosts.
But you have many lives.
Spend a life writing poems.
Spend another building things.
Spend a life looking for facts.
And another looking for truths.
These are your lifetimes.
Use them.
Jesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat.  For whoever will find life will lose it, but whoever loses life will find it.  If anyone would serve me, they must follow me.  They must follow me in death.”

Science Watch, March/April 2000 http://www.sciencewatch.com/march-april2000/sw_march-april2000_page3.htm

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sermon for March 22, 2015 / Lent IV

Begrudging and Forgiving

There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”

“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked. Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
John 3:1-17 New Living Translation
I’ve been thinking about pits this week; pits, like holes in the ground, not pits like the center of fruit or the pit in NASCAR racing. I’m talking pits as in: money pit, snake pit, The Pit and the Pendulum, tar pit, mosh pit, bottomless pit, pit viper, the pit of depression, the Pit of Despair and “that’s the pits,” in other words, the worst, most despicable example of something. In the verb form, to pit is to set someone or something in conflict or competition with another. The CIA’s torture report from last December mentioned a notorious prison site in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, where untrained CIA operatives conducted unauthorized, unsupervised interrogation there. Most pits are not friendly places.  A pit represent a sense of isolation and a lack of connection with one’s community or family. The pit is the place where one feels fear and nervousness.

In spiritual terms, a pit is the abode of evil spirits. In Hebrew scripture, The Pit is a deathly, dreary, dark, disorderly land in the bowels of the earth where dead souls go.  In Greek and Roman thought, we get the image of the realm of Hades, the Abyss, or the bottomless, fiery pit of destruction saved for the devil and his minions. In some cultures, volcanoes are seen as the entry to the afterlife, since gods lived inside the fiery pit.

Pits remind us of hardness. Separation. Isolation. Punishment

There is another “pit” word with negative meaning: The pit of the stomach. Just as you can love someone from the bottom of your heart, you can also experience a sensation of dread and fear in the pit, or bottom, of your stomach.

I had one of those fear-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach-experiences last week. I had worrisome, radiating chest pains and ended up driving myself to the hospital emergency room. I will say this: The medical staff was wonderful. The experience itself was horrible. After an initial EKG, I was eventually ushered into a waiting room inside another waiting room – a pit of sorts – a holding area for patients like me who needed to be observed but for whom there was nowhere else to go. I was in a small room with eight or so chairs full of people getting blood work done, people with IV bags hanging off of wall hooks, people sitting there for hour upon hour having almost zero interaction. People in pain. People with no privacy, some in hospital gowns, sleeping in chairs or staring at the floor. There I was, worrying about what was wrong with me, separated from my family and isolated from any comfort. The longer I sat there, the worse my chest pain seemed to grow. After eight hours of waiting, with some tests thrown in to break up the monotony, doctors admitted me to a windowless observation room to spend the night. Spend the night does not mean sleep. With crashing doors, dissonant alarms, and one bathroom for everyone to share at the end of the hall; with the constant poking and monitoring; with the 6 AM phone call to ask me what I want for breakfast, there is no sleep. It is no wonder many patients are grumpy in the hospital. Patients are sleep deprived. The experience is not made for connection. There is no sense of community. It’s designed to isolate people, and patients can feel disconnection and disorientation.

I’m OK, by the way. I did not have a cardiac event. My heart and lungs are in great shape. My stress level, on the other hand, needs some management. Nothing like 24 hours in the hospital to prompt some soul searching. I’ll save that sermon for another time.

Let’s get back to pits. Imagine a great pit of water, shady and fathomless. The word pit actually comes from an Old English word meaning “water hole,” It’s murky. It’s scary. Primordial chaos. Now imagine the slightest of breezes stirring the water and dispersing its shadows.  Imagine wind blowing over the formless void. It’s an image of creation from the book of Genesis. In the beginning there was darkness. Just a gaping void.  Suddenly, a wind – the breath of the Creator – sweeps over the face of the formless, shadow-shrouded deep. Creation ripples into being under the brooding scrutiny of God's breath. Darkness give way to light. The formless water gives birth.

When I think of Jesus promising heaven, I go back to this image of a gentle wind blowing over a deep pit of water. As I read John 3, I get a sense that hardness and separation give birth to a new creation with some gentle influence. The wind of God stirs our sense of connection and unity.

Sometimes human nature doubts this, in a world where violence and aggression seem to rule the day, not to mention Christian theology. Violence, separation and isolation have been the go-to metaphors used to describe what happens to someone who dies without Jesus. You spend eternity in utter desolation, imprisoned by God in the pit of Hell.  Many of us were taught that God punishes or even tortures those who do not love him. Teachers used Bible verses like John 3:16 to prove it. If you believe in the Son of God, you will be saved, which also means the inverse is true: if you reject the Son of God, then God will reject you.

If our notion of heaven is based on exclusion of another, then it is by definition not heaven. The more we exclude, the more hellish our existence will be. How could anyone enjoy the perfect happiness of any heaven if she knew her loved ones were not there, or were being tortured for all eternity?

I don’t think Jesus is talking about saving us for some future heaven. In ancient times the sense of community and connectedness was seen as holy because of the strength and health it gave to a family and a community. Being saved, or born again, can be about nurturing a growing feeling of unity with others.  For me, this is the essence of John 3:16. For this is how God loved the world: God gave the one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Connection. Community. Relationship. It’s not so much about an individual sense of righteousness, but the healing and wholeness of the community – a sense of re-connection with life itself.

It’s about the deep listening and faithful emerging of who we truly are as God’s creation.

So, there is nothing like a hospital stay to get one thinking about life. I’ve done A LOT of thinking over the past few days about how temporary life is; how much we take for granted and how short a time we have here on this Earth. I’ve been considering how I spend so much time on trivialities and how often I forget to do things that are really important.  I’m coming to believe that learning to live deeply in this present moment is not only the greatest challenge facing us, but also the grandest place to experience heaven. The more grounded I am in the present, the more aware I am of the presence of God here and now.

I’ve been thinking about how, in the face of death, we need real connections and deep community to save us from formless voids of isolation. How do we, as communities, develop and nurture sacred connections that lead to salvation? I keep coming back to one idea: forgiveness. We must grow our capacity to forgive. Because the pit is not just an external holding tank. Speaking for myself, the pit is all of the experiences and attitudes that lurk in the shadows of my own heart. When I foster anger, bitterness or vengeance in my own life, I am pulled out of relationship with others. I end up isolated, alone, and tempted to think life would be better if all those other jerks weren’t making it so difficult.

Then, a gentle stirring happens – a wind that stirs the dank water of self-deception and reveals new possibilities. Perhaps someone did me wrong. In the opinion of that person I was the offender. It doesn't matter now. Let past bitterness go. With forgiveness lies our hope for healing.  We learn to open our hearts and answer feelings of danger with. Make peace with someone with whom you recently have had strained relations. They might be a little chilly at first, but conditions will quickly ameliorate. Be uncharacteristically good-natured and watch the world give you maximum respect. That’s what it means to be born anew – born of wind and spirit.

We bumble along, focusing on minutiae, worrying and fretting away our days, too often worrying about things which will either never happen, or things over which we have no control.  We worry about petty slights and hurt egos. We take ourselves way to seriously. It’s all a distraction. I don't know about you but it has been my experience that my faith is strongest, I feel most close to God when I participate in community, when I care about others, and when I let go of my certainties and remain open to the guiding of God's Spirit. For me, that’s what it means to be born again – born of wind and spirit.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon for March 8, 2015 / Lent 3

Small Gains
Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You all are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Mark 8:31-38
Is love worth the pain? The quick answer is, “Yes! Of course!” But that answer only comes easily when you are not experiencing the convulsions of loss. Is love worth the pain when you feel like a wounded animal … when each time you get up to do something, you find yourself needing to retreat back to bed, wanting only to roll up into a ball, covers around you, eyes shut, hoping to forget for a while the reality of your pain. The dance of love pulls us close … so tantalizing, so alluring, and yet so painful. It’s a miracle any of us ever go back in for the next round once we have loved and lost. Our hearts will get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next depends on HOW our hearts break. In the painful aftermath of lost love, with a heart still raw, regretful and tender, can we choose not to let pain be the cause for a shut down? Will suffering become an excuse to never trust or love again? When all feels lost; can we be startled from our sorrow, can we raise remembering eyes and become blinded by tears of joy instead of sobs of sorrow?

Is love worth the pain? If only we could ask someone like Mother Theresa. Mother Teresa decided it didn’t make a lot of sense to worship God in church while God’s image was dying alone in the streets in bodies of Calcutta’s poor. She believed that it was silly to weep when thinking about Jesus being crucified two thousand years ago, yet not weep while watching Jesus crucified today, on the streets of Calcutta or Haiti or D.C. or in the high school hallway. Mother Teresa saw God in every human being, and when she held a dying leper and dressed his wounds, she did not imagine that she was helping Jesus die with dignity, she really was helping Jesus die with dignity.

Is love worth the pain? The ancient rabbis told a story of when we die and we’re all on our way to heaven, we will look at one another and say one word. When we die and we know fully as we are fully known and are returning to God together, we will look at one another and say, “Oh.” We will say that because we will finally see each other as we really are, scars and all, and know one each other’s full story and fall madly in love.

I’m thinking about love and suffering because of all this talk from Jesus about denying self, turning from our selfish ways, taking up our crosses and following him. We’ve been told from some teachers that Jesus is the example of suffering love. The Savior must suffer and sacrifice his life for others. Jesus stands in for us, suffers God’s wrath on our behalf and opens the way for us to be saved. Christ’s death becomes the final atonement for all sin, past present and future.

I’ve had a problem with this theory for a long time. The fundamental problem, for me, is that it puts God the Parent, co-equal and co-eternal person of the Trinity #1, as the one who cause the suffering and death of an innocent person, namely co-equal and co-eternal person of the Trinity #2. I choose to believe that God is not like that.

What if Jesus did not suffer and die to save us, but to show us how to experience salvation? What if Jesus did not suffer and died FOR sin, but BECAUSE of sin. What if he took up the cross to expose the human potential for corruption and the human tendency to cover our mistakes? What if he died to show us that we can choose to let pain open him so that we can know what it looks like to shine in a world where evil abounds? What if he came to show us how to save ourselves? After all, does Jesus say, “If you give up your life for my sake, I will save it”? No. Listen again: “If you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.”

In Mark’s Gospel, the call to "take up the cross" is a summons to oppose the powers of evil that oppress people. The kind of powers that would nail a person to a cross.

Mark wants readers to focus on that cross.  Mark wants to show us a stark demonstration of the violence and cruelty of the religious and political powers.  In the face of oppression and marginalization, Jesus suffers because of sin and shows us the face of compassionate love in the twirling tempests of death the world deals. If we follow Jesus, it means we share in the same mission. We speak out against every mean spirit. We feed the hungry and heal the sick. We speak the truth. We touch the untouchable. We forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable. We march over the Pettus Bridge to face the violence of the Empire if it means holding a mirror up to the cruelty of oppression. We salve the sores of the suffering if it means helping the Savior himself die with dignity. We risk love, even if it rips our heart again. We see each other’s scars and finally realize we are connected by glory, we are connected by pain, and we can fall madly in love with each other again. In other words, we will do God's work in the world, just like Jesus.

When we do that, we have every reason to expect that what happened to him might happen to us. When we love honestly, we also suffer. The two go together.  If God intervened and transformed the misery and evil of the world, if God offered love without suffering, we would have to pay the one price which we cannot pay. We would lose our freedom . . . we would give up the dignity of our humanity. We might be happier, but we would be lower beings. In the Gospels, God sends Jesus to give back dignity to all who have it taken away. As Paul Tillich, the famous theologian from the last century reminded us, “Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross … and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and of [humanity].”

Here’s the question. Is it worth it? Is love worth the pain? When we are broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, and death . . . when we want to retreat to bed, roll up into a ball and shut out the pain of life, take up the cross of suffering and love and follow Jesus?

All I can say is this: Timing is everything. Carrying the cross is not about reaching a destination. It’s more about moving in a direction in which there is no more need to struggle. Carrying the cross is about making small gains towards liberation, step-by-step, in the road of restoration.

Think if a tree grown from a seed, like a maple saplings that roots itself in the untended, leaf-mulched areas in your yard or in the woods. Left alone, a maple grows from that seed, moving around obstacles but persevering. I don’t think a tree thinks much about becoming a giant silver maple while it is still a sapling. All the sapling needs to do is keep growing – surviving day-by-day, season-by season. I think we might learn from the wisdom of the sapling. We grow by how we react to the daily challenges and obstacles we face. We follow Jesus with cautious starts, small gains, one step at a time. Later, we’ll look up and discover where he’s led us.

On the journey of small gains, our hearts will break a thousand times; that alone is enough of a cross to bear. We can watch our hearts break apart, or we can watch them break open. A heart, broken open, allows us to feel the broken heart of others and their sufferings. The small gains of following Christ can be seen in the generosity, in the caring, and in the tenderness we all share, in parting as well as in staying.

Is it worth it? The suffering? The crosses we must bear? Can we stand to gaze into the heart of our loss, the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away? The greatest gift of love is the gesture of open arms – come what may because we care so much that we are helpless to do anything else. So, we accept the cost, the unavoidable blow to the heart. Better in this life, after all, for the heart to be broken – to take on the rich, the tender vulnerability of being human. We trust that love is a perpetual wound that is always worth taking. It reminds us that love is stronger than fear. Life is stronger than death. Hope is stronger than despair.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Meditation: March 1, 2015 (Lent 3)

I thirst for …

Access to clean, safe, and affordable water is a basic human right essential for a healthy population, environment, and economy. Not everyone gets that right. The Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ first coined a term to explain why. In 1987, they came out with a report and coined the term, “environmental racism” Environmental discrimination can be defined as corporate and government actions and decisions that result in the unequal exposure of people of color and low-income people to environmental dangers that threaten their physical, social, economic, or environmental health and well-being.

The Commission found a link between a person’s race and one’s likelihood of living near a hazardous waste facility. This ground-breaking report prompted numerous other studies that supported the UCC’s conclusions. Evidence mounted quickly saying that people of color and low-income communities bear a lop-sided share of environmental dangers and thus are victims of environmental racism.  While many are quick to conclude that communities of color are targeted solely because of their generally low-income, many of demonstrate that race is more of a factor than class. In other words, if one were to compare a middle-class community of color to a low-income white community, and look at which community is more likely to have a hazardous waste facility sited there, the middle-class community of color would have a greater chance of being targeted for such a facility. In fact, in some cases, race is a more significant indicator of pollution burdens than income, poverty, childhood poverty, education, employment or home ownership.

For me, this is a faith issues. It is a thirst issue. Are we thirsty for justice? If we are thirsting for God to fill us, mold us and use us, are we also thirsting for all people to experience the same blessings? If others do not receive them, then my faith compels me to do my part to spread God’s love and compassion cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea. And for me, it starts locally. People of faith are called to care for all of our neighbors, regardless of their race, their income level, or their life circumstances. Can we look around us, during these dry and withered times, in our communities, with our neighbors, and say, “We thirst for righteousness, God.” When we say, as a church, that Black Lives matter, it means opening our eyes to these kinds of problems and working for change. If we say we are an anti-racist church, it means we pay attention when American Indian lands are victims of toxic assault. Today, hundreds of Indian Nations are being approached by both the waste disposal industry and the United States Government in search of new dumping grounds for the unwanted toxic, nuclear, medical and solid waste of industrial society. I read a story of Latino students in a school in California who were exposed to chemical pesticides in their schools. Officials knew about it and covered up the health risks. My faith tells me that God’s reign isn’t about supporting systems that make children sick and marginalized communities pay the price for economic progress. My faith tells me that when I thirst for justice, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.

  • I wanted to check all of this out on a local level. So I went online to check the environmental scorecard for pollution in Maryland. Here is what I found:The worst is Hareford County, north of Baltimore to the State line. Hareford County has a lot of non-white, low income, lower-educated people who are exposed to high levels of pollution and toxins.
  • Montgomery County is more or less equally dispersed between race and class. If anything, white and high income families and children above poverty in Montgomery County have higher exposure to toxic chemical releases.

Which gets me to one more issue. It’s the difference between equity and justice. Sometimes, governments try to fix social problems by working for equity. In the case of environmental racism, it means that everyone share more equally in the risks. No one group of people should be singled out. So, as numbers show in Montgomery County, everyone gets poisoned more or less equally? That does not make sense to me. We are not talking about environmental equity. We are talking about environmental justice.

There is a fundamental difference between “poisoning people equally” and “stop poisoning people, period!”

Thirsting for justice, thirsting for righteousness means seeing the blessedness in each us. A blessedness that is diverse and wonderful. A blessedness that insists that all lives demand dignity and respect. A blessedness that offers all people a vision of who they are created to be.

If God is the source of our life, so let us worship God by living rightly. If God is the source of love, so let us worship God by loving genuinely. If God is the ground of being, so let us worship God by taking care of the earth that grounds us. If God is just, so let us worship God by thirsting for justice.


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 ...