Saturday, February 12, 2011

sunday's sermon--Matthew 5:21-37

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
* * *
My daughter Abby is 2. It’s delightful. Except when it’s not. They talk about the terrible twos and you think, “yeah, it’ll be tough, but we can handle it” but you don’t know what that’s like until you’re in it. You really don’t. It’s more like the Sudden Unending Wailing for no Good Reason twos.

Basically, Abby wants what she wants when she wants it. She doesn’t like no. And she doesn’t like rules. A limit of one hour of television does not go over well. I once heard that toddlers are just like us grown-ups only without anything holding us back.

We don’t want rules and restrictions any more than Abby does. And so today’s lessons put us in a bit of a bind. The Old Testament lesson tells us if we obey, we’ll be prosperous, and if we don’t there will be only death and misery. Matthew talks about self-mutilation and extreme interpretations of the law. Even the Psalm talks about how delighted we are to be under the Law of the Lord, that we delight in God’s rules.

Do we? I mean, really?

How many rules govern Washington Park? Or maybe I should say “Governed”? No sleeping over night, no soliciting, no spitting, no standing, no doing anything. Awhile back, my friend Bob McGonalgle was trying to get arrested for distributing food here to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and the ridiculous laws around them. How many more rules govern the park now that it’s a construction zone, do you think?

It’s not that rules themselves are bad—I think we can all agree that having traffic lights is a helpful thing for our safety and civility—and it’s not that a given law, whether Cincinnati’s or God’s is unnecessary or too much. But they can seem so at times.

The most popular book and movie series in recent years is Harry Potter—and how often does the hero Harry follow the rules? How often does he do his own thing and delight in doing it? This is, of course, why many folks didn’t like it—because Harry wasn’t a good little boy, following the rules and doing what he was told. But if he hadn’t been creative and curious and determined not to let the people he cared about get hurt, evil would have won. Within his world, rule-breaking was the heroic response. It’s not the Bible, sure, but it is human nature writ large…

And just last week we heard Jesus say that he’s the fulfillment of the law, not the destruction of it. He even goes so far as to say not even a single cross on a T in the law will be removed because of him. So much for the kinder, gentler Jesus, the Jesus who says, “it’s okay, man—come hang out with the tax collectors and prostitutes, the tattoo artists and people who live in “bad” neighborhoods—they’re more fun anyway!”.
And this week, he says, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. Sorry, this is not PG rated, folks—this is the gross part, the angry, judgmental part of the New Testament we like to forget. Jesus says pull out your own eye if you look at something you shouldn’t. And cut off your own hand if it does something it shouldn’t. Now, as Lutherans, we don’t read these things literally—you know that right?—so don’t go home and mutilate yourselves after church. But how are we supposed to take this?
He follows that up with saying that adultery is not just sleeping with someone you shouldn’t but the very thought of it—your fantasies themselves are adultery. As is divorce. This is extreme, man. Kind of like taking the Pharisees—the literalistic, religious establishment—even more seriously than they take themselves. It makes the Law pretty much impossible to follow, you know? And maybe that’s the point.

My husband says, Jesus was saying it’s not enough just to follow the rules, that following him, loving God, it’s a way of life. Can’t just check off the boxes, it’s about constant effort/work. Jesus is saying it’s about a different way of life. Being a Christian is not about rule-following—though there are certain things that we do and do not do—being a Christian is about living a different life. It’s about seeing hope where others see only failure. It’s about connecting to one another when the world says just do it for yourself. It’s about seeing something beyond our current situation, about seeing something bigger in everything we do—whether it’s raising our kids or tutoring someone or asking for change. It’s about not being alone and it’s about trying to be better.

And, more than that, it’s about God knowing that we can’t possibly fulfill it all. Jesus makes his point so extreme to point us towards God’s grace. It’s not about checking off boxes but about relying on God completely.

In my daughter’s case, she’ll figure out what rules she can break and what she can’t, just like she’ll figure out that no matter what she does, I will always love her. Seems like that’s the point of these lessons, that’s the point of talking about God as a Father, as Divine Parent. As human beings, we know what it is to be loved, but when we become parents, we know what it is to love so deeply that we are brought to our knees.

In another place, Jesus says he came to give us life and life abundantly. THIS is life abundant—to live for one another, to live with one another, sacrificing ourselves for each other and receiving each others’ sacrifices. THIS is life abundant—to return here every week to be filled with the bread of life. THIS is life abundant—to love one another as a mother loves her baby, to love one another as God loves us.


Sunday, February 06, 2011

sunday's sermon--Isaiah 58.1-12

teach song “you shall be like a garden, like a deep spring whose waters never fail”

That’s so pretty—really, you guys, good singing.
But that’s not going to save you.
I’m sorry, but you heard Isaiah
—“day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.”
“as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness”
Brother Isaiah says we people here in church tonight,
we people want to know God,
love reading about him and singing about him,
love designing stained glass windows
and wearing fancy crosses around our necks,
as if we knew what God was really about.
As if we actually cared what God said
and did what God wanted.
We sing prettily as though what we sing
and what we do with our lives made a difference.
But it doesn’t.
Isaiah says as long as we argue and oppress
our prayers will not be heard.
Isaiah says IF we sacrifice ourselves for others
and work for their betterment,
THEN we’ll be that deep spring.
But not before.
Our worship here tonight is empty, pointless, he says,
if it is not accompanied by justice out there.
I’ve heard this before
—from high school students, from college students, from folks in bars—
church people are hypocrites,
church people don’t believe any of what they’re saying,
they’re just saying the same thing over and over and nothing changes.
Did you know that something like 75% of young people
in the Millennial generation
—those same young people who we want to be in our congregations,
with whom we want to share our passion for God
and worship and justice,
those young people have predominantly negative things
to say about the church?
According to research from the Barna Group
published in the book unChristian,
Christians are perceived as
judgmental, hypocritical, antigay,
too political, sheltered, and conversion-oriented.
It’s not like we haven’t done anything
—look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa
in the wake of apartheid
—Archbishop Desmond Tutu
fostered thousands of difficult, truth-telling conversations
which have helped to heal the country.
Look at Christians’ role in reforming child labor laws in the 1800s.
Look at Habitat for Humanity
or any of thousands of soup kitchens, faith-based advocates, and literacy centers.
We do work for justice.
Mostly. Well, some. Not enough, that’s for sure.
And it doesn’t take a 6th century BCE prophet to show us that.
But maybe it does take a 6th century BCE prophet to show us the way out.
Maybe we need Isaiah to show us a path of hope.
Maybe we need Isaiah to show us how to practice righteousness
so God doesn’t have to say “as if.”
Brother Isaiah says that the religious practice God wants is
“to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
He says, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house,
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
The religious practice God wants is
“…a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech,
self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one's privilege.”
The religious practice God wants is
our wasteful love given to everyone we meet.
Everyone is in need of justice and freedom,
everyone is hungry and thirsty for something,
everyone is naked and vulnerable—so go love them.
My Mormon friends tell me the practice in their churches is
for every member to have a job, a calling.
You move to a new town, you show up at your new church,
and you’re given a job to help the community
—both worship and outreach!—
to run smoothly.
They are to live out their worship in their relationships.
These same friends will also tell me that
the process of receiving your calling is flawed,
to say the least
—but isn’t that a bit of what Isaiah is pleading?
That we don’t simply show up for worship
and consider ourselves done.
That we don’t just put a dollar in a panhandler’s cup
and consider ourselves righteous.
That we live out our worship,
that we worship God with our lives, no matter what it costs us.
Through folks at the Edge campus ministry house at UC,
I know a woman who used to be homeless.
Truth be told, in some ways, she and her family
are still living as though they’re homeless.
They move from one crisis to the next, always on the verge of ruin.
Her 18-year-old son wants to go to college
—he’d be the first in several generations—
and some of my students and I are helping him apply.
To some, this is a small thing—fill out some paperwork, no big deal—
but to him, it’s everything.
And to me
—Alice Connor who can’t say no to anything
and who struggles to have enough time
to even hang out with her husband—
it’s a sacrifice.
But Lord knows, Isaiah and God didn’t say it would be easy.
To fall in love with Jesus,
to delight in Christian community is to sacrifice.
And when we’re practicing regularly, that sacrifice is a delight.
Seems to me that Isaiah has something else to say to us in the 21st century,
2600 years later.
Seems to me that when Isaiah says Israel needs to practice righteousness,
when he says “you,”
he’s not talking about a specific individual but about all of us.
When we give the $20 bill instead of the $1,
when we help a grown woman learn to read,
we’re not doing it for our own,
individual blessedness but as part of the body of Christ.
We are a deep spring whose waters never fail.
In doing as God asks, in taking risks,
we are fountains of divine love,
we are more deeply alive than if we were stagnant pools
concerned only with ourselves.
It’s about community.
We don’t do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God
and our neighbors because that will save us
—we are saved by grace alone.
And we don’t do them simply because they’re difficult
—we do them because of the joy we have in offering ourselves to others.
We do these things because we’ve received God’s grace,
not in order to receive it.
Our choices matter to God
because God doesn’t act in isolation any more than we do.
God expects us to participate in God’s life
of justice and creativity and delight.
God is, if you’ll go with the metaphor, the fountain
and we’re the drops of water.
Or God is the flashlight
and we are the photons of light, breaking forth like the dawn
This place, this building, this people, this table
—all are food for the journey.
Our worship at a particular moment in the week
fills us for our worship in every other moment.
So, be filled here,
so that y’all may be a fertile garden for your neighbors’ lives,
so that y’all may be a deep, cool, unfailing spring for the world.

sing “you shall be like a garden, like a deep spring whose waters never fail”