Tuesday, July 29, 2014

sermon on Israel/Palestine, BS, and Romans 8

I bring you greetings, friends,
from the students at The Edge House campus ministry at UC
—we are always grateful for you
and your continued ministry here at Prince of Peace.
Alas, my students could not be here
because of work and classes and not-being-in-Ohio,
but they send their love.
They also send me as an emissary
to share with you a little of our pilgrimage
to the Rocky Mountains at Spring Break this past year.
Each year we offer our Spring Break as a tithe of sorts
—time away from our normal schedules and busy-ness
to observe God’s action in the world
and to give back what we have been given.
This year, we restructured our trip as a pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is a journey to a place of special spiritual significance.
There’s a fine line between that and being a tourist
—the idea is that we’re going somewhere
to see something powerful with our own eyes,
not just taking pictures and moving on.
Used to be, folks walked hundreds of miles
to a cathedral or even the Holy Land,
others have needed to go to Ground Zero or to Auschwitz
to see it with their own eyes
—for us, it was the Rocky Mountains.
We were able to worship with our friends at HFASS,
to spend retreat time in the deeply snow-covered mountains,
to work with the Boulder parks department,
and to walk several labyrinths.
For me, the most beautiful moment came
when we were walking our second labyrinth
—our work had been cancelled for the day due to high winds,
so we were at loose ends.
I admit to being angry about the loss of a workday
—aren’t we here to help out?
We searched out a labyrinth in the very public lobby
of a large office building.
It was laid out in the stonework of the floor
—a life-sized recreation
of the 11-circuit labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.
After walking it, we explored the art gallery
just off the lobby where the building’s developer
had donated his and his wife’s art collection.
It was beautiful.
Sculpture and watercolors and furniture
—just amazing to have it there in a public space
for the folks who came in and out of the office building.
A security guard came over and told me
that the old lady who had just come in was the developer’s wife
and that she had dementia.
Her husband pays for a pianist to play for her in the lobby
twice a week and she sits there,
a look of delight on her face as she dances in her chair.
And then. And then.
On my way out of the gallery, I saw a small painting
of a boy in tall grass next to some large text.
It was a quotation from the developer
saying that their collection had many critically-praised pieces
worth millions of dollars.
And that when one critic visited, he stood still,
taking in a wall of this magnificent art and then said,
“I really love this small one here, the boy in the tall grass.”
And the developer said, “That’s one of my favorites as well.
My wife painted it.”
His wife, who was right there, unaware.
I wept for their life together and for the gift he had given her.
If we had not had our work called off,
we would never have experienced that love.
Dementia cannot separate us from the love of God.
Anger with plans changing cannot separate us from the love of God.

Last week, I helped celebrate at the funeral
of a young adult from Good Shepherd.
Jackie died of a heart attack at 34.
She was a lovely, committed, active woman and she just suddenly died.
At her funeral, I did what I expect most of us do,
grieve her loss but also wonder what I was doing with my life
—what risks am I taking for the Kingdom? Am I?
And then I stood up to read the lessons,
including one of my most favorite passages, Romans 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And I thought, “yes, yes. Nothing can separate us.
This is our hope, this is my experience.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
Death cannot separate us from the love of God.
Misery and grief and even anger at such a young person dying
cannot separate us from the love of God.
And then. And then.

Thursday this past week, I got a call from my hair salon
saying that the man who has been doing my hair for years,
J who was 49 and snarky and lovely, had died.
I couldn’t process it. I still can’t.
And then I was at the gym on the elliptical,
what’s on the morning show on the TV right in front of me?
A grainy video of a man in India beating a small child.
Played on repeat as the commentators discussed how terrible it was.
And then another video of a nanny doing the same thing.
I couldn’t look away—it was right in front of me and I couldn’t look away.
We know these things happen,
maybe we even try to stop them in a vague kind of way,
but to see it with our own eyes, to really see it…
And then to hear of the death tolls in the current version
of the Israel/Palestine conflict
—yesterday, the BBC reported that of the more than 800 people
who have died so far,
at least 278 are Palestinian women and children.
The UN says 73% of the Palestinian dead are civilians.
I’m very aware that talking about this is going to make someone mad.
I imagine at least one of you out there right now is seething already.
One of the reporters I heard talking about it said that
reporting on anything at all related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
will get you death threats
                  Israel is not a superhero. Palestine is not just a victim.
—it’s so fraught, so complicated,
so emotional for everyone involved,
and even for us who aren’t involved.
What are we supposed to think as Christians
—not as a religious sect or as Christian Americans,
but as followers of Jesus Christ
who preached peace
and also preached not letting oppressors get away with oppression?
What are we supposed to think
when Israel accuses Hamas of using human shields
and Hamas accuses Israel of firing first
and intentionally attacking civilian targets?
And both sides have been fighting over the same tiny plot of land
since at least 539 BCE.
I remember hearing a WW2 vet speaking brokenly
of the invasion of Normandy when the Germans
had put women and children on the tops of the gun turrets
along the beach so the Allies would have to shoot them.
Can you imagine? Who would do that?
If we stop to think about it at all,
if we do any research (and not in the comments section of news articles), we know it’s so very complicated and so very tragic.
So many people are dying and being displaced
there and Syria and Sudan and everywhere over what?
Really, though, over what?
I’m calling BS.
Because it sure looks like something can separate us from the love of God.
Is it easy for us here in safe middle-America
to say nothing can separate us from the love of God
when children all over the Middle East
and even here in our inner cities grow up with PTSD?
Is it ridiculous for us to say that neither things present nor things to come
nor powers can separate us from the love of God?
When our own savior Jesus Christ hung on the cross and cried out
eloi eloi lama sabacthani
—my god, my god, why have you forgotten me?”
What the hell are we doing to ourselves as human beings? There and here?
What is keeping us from recognizing God in each other?
What is allowing us to insist on our own way
like toddlers refusing to share toys
when those toys are basic nutrition and access to health care
and, I don’t know, not living in fear for your life,
whether it’s in Gaza or Sandy Hook?
This is a difficult time to preach grace. And, really, it always is.
The problem is that grace is staring us in the face.
These moments, these years when we are destroying each other
and ignoring how we’re destroying each other,
this is when Jesus is all up in our business,
refusing to break eye-contact,
standing in front of us awkwardly and saying,
“Please” and “It’s ok.”
And then. And then.
We see with our own eyes, even for only a moment,
that this is not how it has to be.
This is not how it always is.
There’s a moment at the wedding of an Edge House alum
when he blushes at the loving things his best man is saying to him,
and their friendship,
the friendship between an atheist and a Christian,
is the shape of the Kingdom.
There’s a moment when your child snuggles into your bed with you
when you are not annoyed because she’s out of bed
but overwhelmed with love simply by the smell of her sweaty hair.
There’s a moment when slaves in the American South
jumped the broom and got married
because they found love in the midst of terror.
There’s the moment when a mother whose son was murdered
takes the murderer into her life
and they grow to love and forgive one another.
There’s a moment when women in concentration camps
wrote down recipes for foods they would never eat again
because doing so was their resistance, their way of saying,
“this is not the end of our story. You cannot destroy our hope.”
It’s not that Gaza and Sudan and my friend’s death don’t matter
because they really do—but that something else is going on.
We are fooling ourselves if we think we can define it completely
and we are fools if we can define it by what we value here in America,
but our great hope, the good news that Jesus brought and still brings,
is that something else is going on,
something better,
something life-giving and creative
and that God is doing something with our suffering.
Not that God planned our suffering or somehow wills it,
but that God can make something beautiful
with even the worst parts of our lives.
And we can participate in that.
And then. And then.
Paul says “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height,
nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Terror cannot separate us from the love of God.
Entitlement and complacency cannot separate us from the love of God.
Liberalism or conservatism, patriotism and protest,
rejection and retaliation cannot separate us from the love of God.
Nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Friday, April 18, 2014

sermon on Matthew 7:15-29 on hypocrites and fruit

You guys, those hypocrites! Jesus is totally right.
Arent’ they terrible, not practicing what they preach—
why can’t they be consistent, why can’t they not be jerks?
What are people hypocritical about?
What do you see out there that gets your goat?
[wait for responses]
So, out of curiosity, I Googled the phrase “Christians are hypocrites”
and the very first hit contained this quote:
“Christians, they love to talk about how loving, dutiful and compassionate they are, yet I have yet to meet ONE who does not practice hypocrisy to the highest degree.  Their willful ignorance of the Bible combined with their two faced idealism to preach it, has made us sick, hasn’t it?  For nearly two thousand years Biblicists have been lecturing people on the importance of adhering to the Bible’s teachings on ethics, manners, and morality.  They quote Jesus and Paul profusely, with a liberal sprinkling of Old Testament moralism.  The problem with their approach lies not only in an oft- noted failure to practice what they preach, but an equally pronounced tendency to ignore what the Bible itself, preaches.  Christians practice what can only be described as “selective morality”.  What they like, they cling to and shove down other’s throats; what they don’t like, they ignore vehemently.  That which is palatable and acceptable is supposedly applicable to all; while that which is obnoxious, inconvenient, or self-denying is only applicable to those addressed 2,000 years ago.  Their hypocrisy is so rampant that even the validity of calling oneself “Christian” is in question. I see so many people enjoy quoting the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and some of Paul’s sermons, but don’t even PRETEND to heed other, equally valid, maxims.”[1]

Not surprising, maybe, but still painful, right?
This is how a lot of people see us, and for good reason.

As others have noted before,
we are much more often admirers of Jesus than followers.
For people who claim to follow a peaceful, loving man,
we have for years been experts at finding folks
to hurt and exclude.
The Jews who we said “killed Jesus,” we destroyed in the Inquisition
native peoples who were inconveniently living on land we wanted
we said weren’t human anyway
and took what we wanted
and the ways now that we make people victims,
whether we’re aware of them or not
Muslims, gays, poor people, other Christians…
We are human, so we make mistakes and hurt each other
and aren’t aware of our motivations.
It’s not just other people but us.
If we take Jesus seriously when he says to the rich young man
“sell everything you have and give the money to the poor,”
what does that look like in our lives?
If we take Jesus seriously when he hangs out with prostitutes
and predatory lenders and AIDS patients,
what does that mean for our lives?
If we take the prophets seriously when they condemn institutional power
at the expense of the masses,
what does that mean?
We’re not talking about making ourselves miserable here,
we’re talking about doing what we say we think is important.
In other words, what difference does our belief in Jesus make?
Consider this thought from Stephen Colbert
specifically about helping the poor:
[assistant 1]
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

it’s easy for us to explain away the difficult things Jesus calls us to.
Maybe it’s true that Jesus isn’t telling every person in this room
to sell everything we have and give the money to the poor.
But let’s not kid ourselves that Jesus is saying
keep all the comfy houses and clothes and 401ks
and don’t worry so much about the people
who don’t have those things.
Our comfort is nice but not the point.
You know this as well as I do.
How often do we let ourselves get uncomfortable
because of what scripture says?
It comes down to what Jesus says about hypocrites:
that we’ll know them by their fruit.
There’s the fruit of hypocrisy [take cardboard apple from assistant 2]
of successfulness.
And there’s the fruit of truth and vulnerability
[take basket of fruit from assistant 3].
Thank you lovely assistants.
This is politicians having affairs and covering it up with public money
and saying “mistakes were made.”
And this is Amish families taking care of the widow of the man
who shot eight of their daughters and then himself.
Here’s what one of my favorite theologians Henri Nouwen says:
[assistant 4]
“There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.”

Hypocrisy, it seems to me, comes from the need to be successful,
the need to be seen in a particular way
rather than as who we were created to be.
I personally need to be seen as overly-competent, perfect even
(which is ridiculous since I fail at that on a daily basis).
In the middle of writing this very sermon
I got angry with my 5-year-old
For interrupting me to find her Barbie’s shoes.
It seems like an impossible task to live up to Jesus’ teachings.
So I construct a cardboard cut-out to hold up for folks to see
and I spend a lot of time maintaining it but that’s not my fruit.
It has been noticed by many folks that the louder we protest something
the more likely it is that we practice it ourselves—
how many pastors have railed against homosexuality
only to be cheating on their wives with men?
How many of us here speak out of both sides of our mouths
trying to hide the brokenness we don’t want each other to see? Do you see where I’m going here?
Be honest—what do you do that you know is not Jesus-like?
Or even that others might see that way?
What are you hiding in your own hypocrisy?
And what is your fruit?
Friends, the beauty, the joy, the grace is this:
we are made for love and relationship and sharing and compassion
all these cardboard cutouts are bad habits, not who we really are
and yes, we are all broken, but we’re trying to mend.
And we’re forgiven.
 But when we throw away our cardboard cut-outs,
when we speak honestly about our wounds and our dreams
and really listen to one another,
when we use our gifts and resist our self-interest,
we become flowering fruit trees.
Metaphorically, of course.
When we take that risk to say “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry”
or “that hurts” or “I love you”,
we become gardens of delight.
[juggle the fruit]
We are doing what we were created to do.
This dance, this riot of color, this vulnerability and truth, this is the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

sermon on Matthew 2, magi, and being an outsider

Happy Epiphany! The season of light, we call it. We are a city on a hill, a lamp on a lampstand that no one covers. We are those hundreds of little flames that made our faces glow on Christmas Eve while we sang Silent Night. We are streetlamps set out to light the path for our neighbors. Epiphany is the season of light and it’s about light illuminating everything, not just pretty twinkly lights on the tree. It’s the kind of light CS Lewis spoke of, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Epiphany is a kind of revealing of Jesus, about what difference this birth makes, kind of like Pentecost after Easter. After Easter, we’re basking in the glow of a kind of second birth and then Pentecost rolls around and the Holy Spirit says, “and…?” “Your turn!” and expects us to talk to other people about it all. After Christmas, we’re basking in the glow of the baby Jesus, and then Epiphany and these crazy magi from the East come and say, “and…?” What’s next? What difference does Jesus being born make? What light are we carrying out of the Christmas season this year?

Sharing that light can be really hard, especially when we feel like we’re stuck in the dark, on the outside. Or even when we don’t realize we’re stuck outside in the dark. When I was in junior high school, I was not popular. I was the weird kid. Big surprise, I know. I wore combat boots with girly skirts and read science fiction and talked about complicated English currency. Which, because I can’t keep my mouth shut, meant I was an outsider most of the time. And it was obvious who the popular girls were—they had more money than we had, mostly, and they had perfect hair and skin and dressed on-trend, and knew how to flirt with boys. All I know how to do with boys was argue and be awkward. This might not have bothered me because I did have friends. Nerds and skaters and punks. But when I had a Halloween party one year and my mom and I made up a scavenger hunt and had lots of tasty food, only five people came. I invited 20. Now, you might be rational here and say that 20 was a lot of people for a 12-year-old in a very small town to expect at a party. Of course, but to me it was a huge rejection. I knew I was weird, but I thought people would still like me, would still want to come to a party.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was having a birthday party. I’d invited all my friends, and most of them were coming. One friend who had not yet RSVP’d called up a few days before to ask who all was coming to the party. Surely you know how rude that is, right? “I’m not going to commit to coming until I know who’s going to be there and if I don’t like someone, I’m not coming.” Yikes.

Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. Or maybe someone at school not-so-subtly stage-whispers about how terrible your class presentation always is or how ugly your clothes are. Or someone at work is often conspicuously absent from your meetings. Or shows up and doesn’t pay any attention, which might be worse. It’s all still this question of who’s inside and who’s out. Who gets to stand in the light? Maybe popularity isn’t the standard, but we all find ourselves on one side or the other of the line. I suspect we’ve all been on both sides of the insider/outsider line at some point in our lives. What was that like for you? Who was it who was the outsider when you drew the line? Who was it who was the insider who drew the line against you?

I understand from other clergy I know that sometimes members of their congregations don’t want to hear them preach. They walk out of the sanctuary to avoid it, even. And I understand that happens even here at Good Shepherd, to Pastor Larry when he was here, to me, though I’m not observant enough to have noticed it myself. And it grieves me to know it. Not because I or my words are so amazing or because I need to be liked, but because it ends up making outsiders again. Because it means we’re not listening to each other, not really. Perhaps if you or someone you know leaves when I preach or Pastor Pat or Pastor Jess preaches, it’s because you feel like an outsider. Or maybe you don’t want to listen to whatever claptrap we’ve prepared. I don’t know why and neither do my clergy friends outside this church because no one tells us. Sometimes someone tells us but it ends up only being an ultimatum, not a real conversation about differences. And it’s not just an issue with whether y’all agree with our preaching—out there in the world, we don’t talk to each other. Politicians seem to only be about the sound-byte and the party platform. Maybe they’re having substantive conversation behind closed doors, but we certainly don’t see it. Neighbors in dispute often don’t really listen to each other, preferring to listen to the negative narrative on our heads instead. “He says he tried to get in touch with me about that tree limb, but he didn’t really. He’s a jerk.” Friday afternoon, some guys across the street from my house were not listening to each other…very loudly. Enough that my daughter began crying. Not listening to each other enough that one of them got out a gun. He didn’t use it and they left soon after, but that’s not the point. They could not understand each other, like so many people before them, and resorted to anger and violence. Thank goodness y’all don’t threaten us clergy with weapons when you don’t like our preaching, but nothing will change in any of us if we don’t really talk to one another. We don’t spend a lot of time listening to one another as a congregation when it comes to difficult issues like gay marriage or whether war is justified—are we afraid of hurting someone’s feelings? Or of being transformed by hearing someone’s story?

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, mind you. Listening is affirming that the other is a human being with legitimate reasons for thinking the way they do. They might be wrong. We might be wrong. Listening is about seeing the light of God in the other person. When we don’t listen to each other, whether we agree with each other or not, we are, in effect, choosing to sit in darkness and reject the Kingdom of God in all its variety. To ignore another person is to put them on the outside. And it’s the opposite of what Jesus did.
It’s exactly what Herod did. King Herod met with the mysterious magi from the East and was terrified to hear that a new king of the Jews had been born. Wasn’t he the rightful king? What would happen to him if he weren’t? Wouldn’t this new king kill him to get to the throne? So, just in case, he planned to put this “newborn king” far on the outside, he planned to kill him. Now you remember from last week, he didn’t just try to kill Jesus, he killed all the kids younger than 2 years, so the story goes.

These magi who show up following a star, who are they if not outsiders? Who knows if they’re insiders back home—maybe wealthy, learned, powerful people, maybe not. We don’t even know how many of them there were or if any women were part of the group. They were, to the ancient Jews, definitively outsiders. From Persia, so not Jewish, which is outsider enough, but also sorcerers. Scripture only uses the word magi which means magicians, sorcerers, wise in astrology. They didn’t know about Messiahs and Bethlehem and Emmanuel, yet they were prompted somehow to follow the star and worship king Jesus. Matthew’s story tells us that the circle that defines who’s inside and who’s outside is much bigger than we think. Maybe much bigger than we’d feel comfortable with. Look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—the church in Ephesus was made up of Gentiles, non-Jews, and Paul kind of made his name on sharing the good news of Jesus with non-Jews. He says that in the past, people didn’t know of this great mystery, the mystery that God was present to all people, not just the chosen, the Jews. He says “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Fellow heirs, meaning these outsider Gentiles were brothers and sisters of the Jews. Members of the same body, he says, meaning even closer than brothers and sisters, of the same flesh, necessary to functioning. And even more, sharers in the promise of Christ—these outsiders who may have hurt us and who are, at the least, strange to us in how they do things, these outsiders are part of the great Kingdom of God. God who created all things, Paul says—all things. Not just the bits we like.
We here today would have been the outsiders of the early churchwe who are now the dominant religion in America, we had to be invited in.

And what do we do once we’ve been invited? We turn and invite someone else. Narcotics Anonymous folks will recognize one of their principles here: “The newcomer is the most important person at any meeting, because we can only keep what we have by giving it away.” We can only keep what we have by giving it away. If that’s not church, I don’t know what is. Do you remember Christmas Eve, here and probably at lots of other churches, we lit candles from the Christ candle up here and then spread the light out among all our candles? The room was radiant with light and heat because we gave away what we were given.

Who is the outsider to you, personally? Who is outside the circle of who you think is appropriate or saved or polite? Who is the outsider to this church? How could we just begin to see them as brothers and sisters? Be honest with yourself—that truth can set you free.
What difference does Jesus make to our lives? Who needs to hear of our love for them? What light will you give away? That truth can set someone else free.
I want to leave you with a song that we sing at the Edge campus ministry house. It’s directly from our Isaiah reading this morning.

Teach “Arise, Shine.”