Friday, September 30, 2016

Sermon for September 25, 2016

Awareness, Empowerment, Embodiement
Mark 13:34-37

Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491, one of 13 children in a family of minor nobility in northern Spain. As a young man, Ignatius felt inflamed by the ideals of courtly love and knighthood and he dreamed of doing great deeds. But in 1521,  Ignatius was gravely wounded in a battle with the French. While recuperating, Ignatius experienced a transcendent spiritual awakening. He began reading about the life of Jesus and the  saints, and realized that the awakening feelings he experienced were clues to God’s direction for him.

Over the years, Ignatius collected his insights in a book called the Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential books on the spiritual life ever written. With a small group of friends, Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, a.k.a the Jesuits. He thought of the Jesuits as “contemplatives in action.” The ignatian way seeks to unite action, contemplation, and imagination to discern how best to love and free the soul from all unnecessary attachments so that we can seek God’s will.

Today I want to highlight two of those movements. These are tried and tested means to grow and nurture our spirituality. The first is awareness. Awareness is the beginning, middle and end of the spiritual life. We begin by thinking about an event near the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Mark 13:34-37
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his workers in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
When we read texts like this, we can get so caught up on the literal details of Jesus’ return. I think Mark points us to something much more significant.  In Jesus’ day, there were only two groups of people who had any business being out and about at night;  shepherds who tended to their flocks and Roman soldiers who kept the watch. The most scrupulously kept regimen of the Roman Army was the night watch. Lack of courage in battle was a severe thing, but it could be remedied. Lack of disciple on a night watch was unforgivable. One Roman historian described what happened if a soldier was found asleep. A court-martial tribunal met, and if the soldier was found guilty the tribunal took  a cudgel and touched the condemned soldier with it, sealing his fate. After the sentence, all in the camp beat or stoned him. If the soldier managed to escape, he was not allowed to return to his home. None of his family would dare to receive him. Because of  the extreme severity of the penalty, the night watches of the Roman Army were taken seriously.. Mark’s readers would have known all about the night watch, so Mark borrows from this tradition when he writes about the events leading to Jesus’ arrest and death. Pay attention to what Mark does in the story.

  • Mark 14:17ff. When it was evening, Jesus came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” The disciples vehemently defend themselves. They are not aware. Evening has come and gone. The 1st watch is over.
  • Mark 15:32 ff. After sharing dinner, Jesus and the disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s midnight. Jesus says, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” He falls on the ground and prays that the hour might pass from him. After praying, Jesus finds the disciples sleeping. He says to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The 2nd watch of the night has ended, and the disciples are not awake.
  • Mark 14:66 ff. After his arrest and detention, Peter follows to watch. When asked if he knows this man, Peter denies knowing Jesus. Just then, a rooster crows. The 3rd watch has come, and Peter’s lack of awareness is fulfilled by his denial.
  • Mark 15:1 ff. “As soon as it was daybreak . . .” The 4th watch is here. Jesus is bound and led away to Pilate. The drama has unfolded, and the reader knows that the failure of discipleship is a failure of awareness. We all play in this drama. The final act is dependent on us keeping awake. And what does he mean? On a practical level, how do we practice awareness?
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards.” His words remind me of Sankofa, a symbol from West Africa. Sankofa portrays a bird with its feet facing forward and its head looking back, usually with an egg in its mouth. It reminds us to keep an eye on the past, to draw from its treasures, while moving forward into the future. Picture this little bird joyously dancing its way through life – feet forwards, eyes backwards, looking ahead and then looking behind to fetch the essence of life. Imagine this bird singing in your heart, “If I hadn’t gone through that struggle back then, I wouldn’t be prepared for this struggle now.” The first movement of the spiritual life reminds us to be aware that life is beautiful yet broken.

The second direction or movement is empowerment, or, embodied love in the world as seen through the message and actions of Jesus. Empowerment means noticing, offering, and listening to your gifts in order to claim your own potential for transforming the world. It means living awake to your passion. It means finding your voice, or letting your voice find you. As novelist Emile Zola says, “If you ask me what I have come to do in the world, I will tell you: I am here to live out loud.”

One writer (Jurgen Moltmann), put it this way: The secret of human life is easy to understand: anyone who wants to keep his life, and therefore holds onto it and keeps it back, will lose it; he already loses it by becoming incapable of living. But anyone who lives life and commits it and surrenders it, will gain that life; she already gains it by becoming alive. Keeping his life means withdrawing his soul from his body ... In this affirmation life becomes alive in the truly human sense. Anyone who lives like this will be mortal, but dies meaningfully. Life that is never lived cannot die. But life that is truly affirmed can die.

To get to this place, we learn to live by our values and core beliefs. By the way, I am fierce in my determination that at CCC, we don't tell you what your core value and beliefs are. This is not a sign-on-the-dotted-line church. Everyone looks at the world differently. Two people can have the same experience yet have very different interpretations of what happened. Core beliefs are the deeply held beliefs that influence how we interpret our experiences. We may share many of those core beliefs. We may agree to work together to live them out. But we never impose one strict rule of thinking or behaving on another. Think of core beliefs like a pair of sunglasses. Everyone has a different “shade” that causes them to see things differently.

Imagine this situation: you meet a new person whom you find interesting. You think about asking the person out for coffee. A lifetime of self-talk and internalized messages kicks informed a core belief in you which says, ”I’m not worthy.” The next thought is: “Why would they ever go out with me?” The related behavior? You do not ask person to coffee. Many people have negative core beliefs that cause harmful consequences .To begin challenging your negative core beliefs, you first need to identify what they are. We hear them all the time: I’m not smart enough. I’m not successful enough. I’m not beautiful. I’m a failure. I’m no good. I’m boring. I’m stupid. I’m undeserving.

Let’s re-think the same situation: you meet a new person whom you find interesting. You think about asking the person out for coffee. After years of work and deep listening, you develop a core belief that says, “I’m am worthy,” which leads to the thought: “We might have fun if we have coffee together.” The behavior? Asks the person to coffee.

So, I have some homework for us. I want you to think of three negative, limiting messages you tell yourself all the time. Write each down somewhere. And for each one of those negative messages, think of three positive ways to describe yourself. You are kind, intelligent, loyal, hard-working, down-to-earth, attractive, organized and creative. You are strong, friendly, nurturing, thoughtful, confident optimistic, determined, enthusiastic, and motivated. You are insightful, funny, patient, honest, generous, independent, reliable, brave, innovative, and trustworthy. I think this is more than a schmaltzy self-affirmation exercise. When Jesus spoke words of affirmation, people’s cells as well as their souls were transformed. Jesus transformed people’s spiritual identities and transformed their place in society. We are empowered when we can tap into that and express it in our bodies. God wants us to have abundant life. Within the limitations of our current life situations, including our healthy and unhealthy professional and personal habits, our prayer lives, our addictions, and our deep desire for wholeness, God is at work, providing creative possibilities and power to live out who we truly are.

Empowerment means noticing, offering, and listening to your gifts in order to claim your potential for transforming the world. As you cultivate qualities of passion, compassion, gratitude, imagination, and openness to surprise, they build on each other as your inner work and outer work connect with glimpses of the greater work.

Awareness, empowerment and Black Lives Matter -- think about this at the lunch and learn after worship today. What are the realities to which we need to wake up? And when we do, how do we align our values, our thoughts, and our actions to embody God’s love and God’s will?

Sermon for September 18, 2016

“Awareness: Awakening to the Spiritual Life”

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed. Psalm 139:13-16  (NLT)
How do you define your Self? I am a married, white, straight, educated, 45-year-old child of the ‘80s with four children, who enjoys variety in my menu, who likes to dress in mismatched plaids and who enjoys a relatively good amount of health and happiness. Each of these descriptions is a code to more understanding. When I was born, what I eat, how I dress, how much money I make, where I live and with whom – you form assumptions based on what you see and hear about me.

I am also more than any of that. I can define my Self by my consciousness. I think. I evaluate. I act on decisions. I am aware of my world. However, I don’t always know why I do the things I do, so something else must be at work. Sometimes I sense unknown motives and desires behind what I do. Sometimes these things just pop out and shock me. How can I explain an urge to suddenly call an old friend or to take a drive alone? How can I explain why I want to cross my legs when I sit down? Sometimes we can find triggers for our impulses, but usually we just move from one subconscious desire to another without any real awareness of why we do what we do. So I know there are two parts of my Self, conscious and subconscious. But I don’t know enough about these parts and how they work to form a good picture of who I am.

I have a spiritual Self -- driven by unseen forces and universal realities that are bigger than I can fathom. I have a Self that others see. People have an opinion about me when they get to know me. Am I any of this? Can I know my real Self? Can you know my real Self?

Over the next few weeks, we will be talking about how we, as a church, take good care of the Self, the Self as individual and the Self in relationship with others in our church and in our world. We will be thinking about a process of spiritual formation that includes letting go of old ways of doing things so Self-transformation can emerge in our individual lives and in our church. Before we can engage on any journey of transformation, before we talk about empowerment and new life, there’s a beginning step. We must become aware. Awareness is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the spiritual life. Today, we become aware of the Self in relationship with God and others.
 ______

When I was a teenager, trying to figure out who I was and where I fit into the world, the church I belonged to had an answer for me. The Self is created by God, fallen into sin, restored through the atoning work of Christ, and destined to inherit life through resurrection.

Sounds good on paper, but what does it mean? I was taught that a self-existent, totally unique, Supreme Being called God creates and controls the universe. This God is self-sufficient, does not need creation to be complete, and does not rely on creation for anything. God can’t rely on us, the creation, because creation is corrupted … sinful … separated from a holy, perfect God. The difference between the Creator and the human creation is so vast that God exists fundamentally in a different order of being -- an infinitely superior, stronger, more excellent way. It’s as if one compared the sun and a candle, the ocean and a raindrop, or the universe and the room we are sitting in.

The Self is created by God and fashioned in the image of God. The job of the self is to love God. But, because of our sinful nature, we can only love God, Self, and others imperfectly. I was told that the only way to know perfect love is to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world who takes away our sin and restores us to right, perfect relationships.

As time went on, I had some issue with this answer. It did not take into account how we are fearfully and wonderfully complex, as the Psalmist puts it. It does not take into account how God partners with us to forge a more just, compassionate world. The theology I grew up with wanted me to understand myself as someone who inherited sin – someone who is originally cursed. Over time I began to wonder what might happen if we understood ourselves as originally blessed, rather than originally cursed?

Instead of being suspicious about our bodies, we would welcome our bodies and we would be gentle, instead of combative. Humility would no longer mean despising of one’s Self.

Instead of trying to control everything, we would be more ready to experience and celebrate the passions of life. Instead of regarding humans as sinners we would regard ourselves and others people who can choose to create or destroy.

So, let’s flip the assumptions. Let’s become aware of a different way of thinking about God and Self. Here is my first provocative proposal of the morning: God does not know the future. You see, I was also taught, back in the day, that God has the future all mapped out and pre-determined. My teachers took the poetic words of Psalm 139 literally: every day of life is recorded in God’s book. Every moment is laid out. If we don’t live into that future, we are straying from God. So God needs to use coercive force and punishment to correct us and guide us and get us back on track.

The God I worship is a God of relationship –a God who shares power with us instead of using power to punish us. In my experience God is the creative and transforming power in my life, ever new, ever leading me to put my faith and trust in the beckoning future.  And if our relationship is truly mutual, then God grows as I grow, as we all grow into a more compassionate, peace-building humanity. God is present in all things, but God’s presence leaves room for growth, creativity, freedom. 

Instead of a sinner in the hands of an angry God, I think the Self is created with agency. That means the Self acts in freedom to birth a future that is best for the nature that has birthed us. God’s will for humans is that we use our freedom to co-create and nurture the world.  The Self exists in relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. The Self always has choices. Each of us is in charge of shaping our lives and justifying our choices.

Now keep in mind, freedom should not be mistaken for equality with God, the Creator. We partner with God in a cosmic, ongoing creative process.

The theology I grew up with did not leave a lot of room to think about the Self. In fact, I was taught that thinking about Self was selfish. As we talk about awareness of Self in relationship with God, I want to re-think that idea. I guess I’m feeling contrary today. Here is today’s provocative proposal #2: Selfless behavior is immoral. People who act out of selfless love may in be in danger of losing the very Self they ought to be developing and they may end up hurting the people for whom they care. Think about it. If a moral saint is spending all her time feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising money for Habitat for Humanity, and packing peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless, then she’s not taking time to read a good book, go for a brisk walk, or enjoy the smell of warm wet earth after a passing Summer thunderstorm. If a moral saint is giving all of himself to save the world, he has no time to be an artist, or a good parent, or a skilled listener. There’s no chance for a truly selfless person to have the time or moral permission to develop the skills, talents and personality that make us interesting, well-rounded people. Selfless behavior is immoral when it prevents you from knowing your own intrinsic and equal value as a human being. What kind of love asks you to discount your Self for the sake of the other? What kind of love asks you to deny your needs? Where’s the mutuality? Where’s the trust? Is this the kind of love God wants from us? Selfless love? No! There is no such thing. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants to feel needed. Selfless love may seem ideal, but it eventually denies partners what they need—to be desired and needed as equals.

I know plenty of people who give selflessly of themselves and feel rejected by those they love. What kind of love is that? As long as we feel rejected, we cannot love fully.

I know people who have been manipulated by others in the name of serving God. If God appears to us as an unhappy recipient of selfless love who gives according pleasure and condemns according to wrath, we cannot love perfectly.

If we can be in touch with the true spirit of love, our imperfect relationships can change. We can share in a love so extravagant, so complete, so true, that once we feel it, we can’t stop sharing it.

Closing Act of Awareness

Imagining the three Divine Persons gazing on the whole surface or circuit of the world, full of people. Consider what the Divine Persons (and you) see and hear: men and women of different sizes, shapes, and colors; rich and poor; old and young . . . People speaking different languages. Some being born, others dying; some running and playing, others sick and suffering . . . Some laughing, others crying. Some screaming and shouting, others praying and singing. With the gaze of the Trinity, consider how people are treating one another: some loving, others hating; some hugging, others hitting; some helping, others ignoring, hurting, and killing. What do you see and hear? How do you feel as you imagine the world in this way? How do the three Divine Persons respond to the joys and sufferings of the world?  How does the God who is Love respond to us, God’s children, who are lost, aimless, suffering, sinning, confused, and hurting? Hear the Divine Persons saying, “Let us work the redemption of the human race”

What words do you want to speak to God, who is Creator, Christ and Spirit

Monday, September 5, 2016

Sermon for September 4, 2016

Hope

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
~ Proverbs 13:12
Can you remember a time when you lost hope; a time when you thought that life would not get better; a time when you chose to run rather than weep because you did not want to get involved?

As Christians, hope is our currency. Lose hope, and what do you have left. Yet, we all know people whose lives are truly hopeless. There are no remedies or cures to sustain hope. For some, hope is a curse. Recently I read the myth of Pandora’s Box. Do you remember that old story? Pandora was the first mortal woman, created out of clay by the Titans. She was given a box as a wedding gift. It was probably more like a decorated storage jar. Zeus had one very important condition on the gift – Pandora must never opened the box. As we know, curiosity got the best of her. She took a deep breath and slowly lifted the lid of the box. She peered into the box, expecting to see fine silks, gowns or jewelry or even piles of gold coins. But there was no gleam of gold or treasure. There were no shining bracelets and not one beautiful dress. The look of excitement on her face quickly turned horror. For Zeus had packed the box full of all the terrible evils he could think of. Out of the box poured disease and poverty. Out flew misery. Out came sadness. Death took wing. The creatures stung Pandora over and over again as she slammed the lid shut.

Pandora shut the lid before the last spirit one could escape. Its name was Hope. In some sanitized versions of the myth, Hope remained to touch and heal the wounds created by the evil creatures. That’s the fairy tale ending. In early versions of the myth, Hope remains trapped in the jar because Hope is the worst of all evils. Hope prolongs the torments of humankind. Think about that for a moment. Too much hope can be a bad thing. I witness this when I speak with people in one-sided love fantasies or failing marriages.  I see it in the self-inflated hubris of people who imagine themselves as more than they are despite daily evidence to the contrary.  I hear it in those who want the easy way out and avoid the trials and discipline of transformation.

Think of another ancient classic – Dante’s The Divine Comedy. As Virgil leads Dante through the gates of the Inferno, he sees the inscription, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” It is pointless to waste time on hope when one is about to become a permanent resident of Hell.

I think of this when I read the poem that many people consider to be Emily Dickinson’s homage to optimism, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
If you don’t think I’ve completely lost it yet, bear with me. In that first line, “Hope” is the thing with feathers – the word “Hope” has quotation marks around it. That’s why when I read it to you, I lifted fingers in the air and make bunny-eared, air-quote hand gestures. Dickinson exaggerated the word hope. She called attention to the word to move us beyond our conventional understanding. And notice how the ceaseless, sweet-song of “hope” in the poem never asks anything of the poet, except to keep on listening and hoping in the midst of the tempest. Such optimism in the face of horror can actually be a burden, not a gift. Spiritual values like faith, hope, and love always require active response on our part. To remain so passively optimistic, so hopeful that everything will be all right when clearly it is not, can be na├»ve at best, and heartlessly callous at its worst.

I remember times when I chose to detach and look on rather than get involved because I did not want to even hope that things could get better. It is all too easy to look the other way and abandon hope when it feels like the world around us is crumbling to ashes in our human-made hells. Although humans appear to be creatures who can anticipate a better world, we are also are creatures so wounded and battered that we do give in to despair. “Hope” alone is not enough to fix the unjust structures that cause unimaginable suffering. “Hope” alone is not enough to help us understand our complicity with systems and structures that marginalize certain groups of people.

I write all of this knowing that hope is a cornerstone of Christian religious experience, rooted in a theology of a heavenly paradise for those who are faithful to the Kingdom of Christ. Proverbs says a desire, a hope, for fulfillment is a tree of life. Our theologies point us to an eternal utopia where pain is gone, tears are wiped away, and we live in God’s presence forever. But this kind of thinking has gotten Christians into trouble over the centuries. Sometimes, we have become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. So, we need to know the difference between false hope and realistic hope.

False hope is Dickinson’s “Hope” in quotes. There was a European philosopher named Ernst Bloch, often called the philosopher of hope, who criticized abstract utopian thinking.  He said abstract utopias are expressed in dreams conjured from gossamer without any trace of possibility for breaking into history. Abstract utopias are wishful thinking without the will to change anything. They focus only on fantasy and memory. The same definition could be used for false hope. False hope is full of expectation, but cannot fulfill what it desires.

Realistic hope is similar to what Bloch called concrete utopian thinking. Instead of being bound in a fantasy of the past, realistic hope reaches towards actual possibility with both wishful and willful thinking. Realistic hope focuses on what can really be achieved.

Are human flourishing and liberation all but impossible? Must the forces inertia prevail over our struggles for justice? To help us navigate these questions, I let’s make another distinction. While we think about the differences between false hope and realistic hope, let’s put another filter over our framework. Let’s think about “collective” hope and “personal” hope. Collective hope is also called public or social hope. It embraces the big vision: our unending efforts to create a decent world will one day pay off; the universe does not have to be cold and unresponsive; humans build systems of law and dignity’ we develop vast knowledge systems and scientific medicine; we demonstrate compassionate response to the plight of the vulnerable. We are creatures of will, determination and action.

Personal hope requires attachment and care for something – anything –outside of ourselves. It demands self-reflection that recognizes our dependence, our finiteness, and the incompleteness of our understanding of others.

We need both collective and personal expressions like these to help us develop realistic hope. The difficulty is that we confuse personal hope with privatize hope. In our disturbed and damaged world of unbridled consumer individualism, people are encouraged to abandon social hope to grab for their own personal well-being. Our unhinged world is a expression of what happens when we think blessings limited to individuals and their families alone. When this happens, hope shrivels. We lose the critical capacity to see and name the social structures of domination, inequality and oppression that strand in the way of the resurrection of a new world.

Worn, weary, wounded, we may wonder if hope is a gift or curse. My hope is a blessing when it moves me, in cooperation with my community, to become the presence of healing love. Real hope helps us become one with God and God’s creation. And they are one with us. We are changed. We are God’s hope. We are God's 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...