Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday sermon--Joel 2:1-17

[play clip from The Mummy Returns: composite clip of the army of Anubis arising from the sand and fighting the human army]
That’s a clip from the movie The Mummy Returns
—it’s a fun flick, not particularly deep,
but this bit with the rag-tag good guys
going up against the powers of darkness—it’s very moving.
There’s no way they can survive,
no way to endure the endless onslaught
of the army of the Egyptian god of the dead,
yet they stand their ground,
refusing to give in to the forces pulling them down
into despair and death.
And it kind of looks like the Old Testament.
We all think of the Old Testament as angry and judgmental, right?
That reading from the prophet Joel—how much of that did you take in?
It was a bit long, I know…
It talks about invading armies like darkness,
destroying everything in their path
God at the head, leading them on, calling for bloody recompense
—that reading from the prophet Joel doesn’t help, does it?
God just seems so cranky in the Old Testament,
so violent and approving of violence
and we go with it, don’t we?
There’s some good stuff there, but it’s mostly blood and sand
and angry people fighting each other in God’s name
It’s convenient to forget the violence in the New Testament
The places where Jesus throws the vendors out of the Temple
with harsh words like a lash
The places where Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs,
even though it isn’t fig season, which the text points out
The place where Ananias and Sapphira, Christian converts,
sell their land and give the money to the Apostles
for the well-being of the church.
And, because they hold some of the money back
and lie about it, they drop dead. Right there.
And then Peter launches into a sermon on the spot.
Don’t tell me the New Testament doesn’t have it’s share of violence.
Don’t say Jesus is all sunshine and comforting stories,
because you’ve missed the point.
Absolutely Jesus shows us a different way, brings hope and comfort
Absolutely he brings and is good news!
But there’s a darkness mixed into the message as well.
We see the anger in the Hebrew prophets
We see the weirdly abrupt shifts of mood in the Psalms
And we don’t get it
we see them as evidence of God’s capriciousness,
God must be this vindictive, when we don’t do as God asks, right?
Scripture says it, so let’s take it seriously for a moment.
Tremble in fear, says the text, and we reject that out of hand.
We oughtn’t fear our God who loves us like a parent.
Yet the scriptures are full of language describing God as awesome
…and not like most of us use it now.
Awesome as in worthy of awe,
so inconceivably large, so powerful, so beautiful,
so overwhelming that all we can do
is crash to our knees and gape.
Maybe pray.
Maybe cry in joy and fear.
If God is omnibenevolent and omnipresent
and omniscient and omnipotent,
maybe we’d better be at least a little scared.
Joel writes, “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible
indeed—who can endure it?”
If God sends the armies, seriously, who would survive?
There’s a new book out that I’m eager to read
It’s called Love Wins
and author and pastor Rob Bell says in the promotional material,
“What is God like? …Millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that God ever be good news?”

What is God really like?
How does God act in the world?
Seems to me that these are the questions
that scripture, at the very least, is trying to answer
What is God like?
In verse 12 of the Joel reading, we get a sudden shift
Invading armies, fear and trembling, yadda yadda…
—yet! “God is gracious and merciful
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”
This is the God we know from every sermon ever
This is the God we long for, the God who we love and are loved by
This is the God from whom we can believe good news
But what if they’re both God?
What if God is both angry and forgiving?
And what if God isn’t bipolar, as my friend Ross suggested last night,
but is complex and not easily understood?
At the risk of describing God in too small a way, I offer an example
I have a 2-year-old and she’s delightful
I would go so far as to quote God from last week’s Gospel
“this is my daughter, my beloved,
in whom I am well pleased”
being 2, Abby is innately curious and exuberant
and, being 2, she has no filters yet,
and so any roadblock is a huge crisis
by “huge crisis,” I mean, “reason to throw herself
on the floor and scream and cry”
so, the other day, we were watching Toy Story as we often do
and Abby had a cup of juice without a lid
now, this may have been my big mistake, the no-lid thing,
but she’s a big girl and often can drink unaided
I said, “be careful with that cup, Ab”
And she said, “OH-kay!”
And I said, “I’ll be right back—don’t sit on the couch”
And she said, “OH-kay!”
And from the other room I heard her say “more juice”
And I looked and she’d spilled it
All over the couch
And the floor
And my papers
And I was angry
—angrier than I ought to have been, probably
But I would never, absolutely never ever hurt her
In that moment I was both angry and forgiving
I was both frustrated with what had happened
and deeply in love with my daughter
we forget that much of scripture is poetry
—the prophets and the Psalms are experience and art
not history or biography
Joel is a poet, translating what he sees in the world into verse
Seeing his country, his faith, his enemies, and his blessings
through the lens of metaphor
Joel is writing not about a specific invasion then or now
But about every invasion Israel had had to that point,
about the fear in his gut at seeing an army arrayed on the horizon,
ready to descend,
about the experience of being at war
and he’s writing about invasions of locusts
which, by all accounts, were fairly common in Israel
locusts which, when swarming, make a sound like a raging fire
locusts which destroy an Eden-like landscape in minutes
locusts which might seem like an army,
which might seem like divine retribution for our sins
Joel is writing a poem where God’s anger is the invading armies
and it is the devastation of locusts,
and where all of that fear and despair becomes,
in the blink of an eye,
This is not the work of some dumb desert-dweller
who only saw God as angry,
nor is it a literal picture of God
leading heavenly armies to destroy us now
This is a painting of a multi-faceted God
who loves us
and is annoyed by us
and who created us in the beginning for community and love.
And who relents.
Who does not hurt us, no matter how often we say
“it’s God’s will” in response to something bad
who scatters the invading armies like so much sand
and who calls us back every week, every day,
every hour, every minute
to faithfulness, justice, compassion, and prayer
What if the imposition of these ashes is our responding to that call
Is our saying that we ourselves have been the invading armies
to someone
and that the armies we see invading us
—whether Islamic extremists, Christian extremists,
Communists, the British, secularism, conservatism, etc.—
these armies, like us, are but dust, and to dust they shall return.
What if the imposition of these ashes is us standing our ground,
Like the guys in The Mummy Returns
Receiving these ashes is our refusal to give in
to the forces pulling us down into despair and death.
What if the imposition of these ashes and the communion that follows
Are a gift from God of patience and strength
and protection and deep, abiding love
What if these ashes signify humility—of course—and also new life?
[play second clip from The Mummy Returns: composite clip of the human army preparing to face a second wave of the army of Anubis, the sand-army rushes forward and at the last second disintegrates into black sand which disappears. The humans rejoice.]

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Newsletter article 2.27.11

“Did that hurt?”
This is the number one question I get about my tattoos. Followed by “What’s that say?” and “Why would you do that?” (This last, usually from my father.)

Does it hurt? Of course it hurts. Not to be gross, but it’s basically an open wound for a day or so. It stings for a few hours after it’s done, and then it feels bruised for a day or so.

So why do I do it? Each of my six tattoos is a physical marker for a moment in my life I want to remember. From the moment I realized God was calling me to be a priest to the birth of my daughter, each one is representative of a difficult but rewarding experience. I hesitated to talk about it here, since they’re so personal, yet they also strike me as a good metaphor for the gospel.

Gospel comes from the Greek euanggelion which means “good news.” The four Gospels in our scripture are good news to all of us living in the middle of bad news. Jesus—his deeds, his words, the very fact of his existence—is good news in our bad news. And, while good news is always good, we don’t always receive it that way. Too often, the good news that we don’t have to rely on ourselves and our big brains for salvation reads like bad news—I don’t want to lose control, I have some pretty cool ideas if you’d listen, who’s this God-person anyway. Too often, healing from whatever wounds we have—whether they’re physical or spiritual—is worse than when we got them. In the movie Wit, Emma Thompson’s character notes that the treatment for her cancer makes her much sicker than the disease itself.

And, to be fair, sometimes the good news is simply that—good news. Sometimes it is freeing and transforming and delightful right there on the surface. Thank God for those moments. But as freeing and transforming as the good news is that Jesus brings, we sometimes don’t want to hear it. It’s painful or scary. Yet when we accept it, when we step back to see the painting Jesus has made on the canvas of our lives, it’s beautiful.

The process of getting a tattoo is painful, but the result is beautiful. To me, anyway. The healing of my skin reminds me that God heals all our wounds, that God created us resilient, that even the worst pain can leave us different but wiser.

sunday's sermon--Matthew 17:1-9

Apologies again for the weird formatting.

the disciples get a bad rap in the Gospels
they never seem to understand anything Jesus says
and even when they're shown convincing proof
that he can do what he says he can do
they don't believe and seem puzzled when Jesus rebukes them
just before the Gospel we heard today,
the disciples are seen complaining that they're hungry
and have no bread to eat
just before that Jesus had fed the 5000 with just 5 loaves and 2 fish
and he is understandably frustrated that they can't make the connection
we might say they have no vision
it seems Peter doesn't have vision either
many of us know the story of the Transfiguration well
—and think Peter is an idiot
it's hard not to read it that way
he's gone up the mountain with Jesus to pray
and when Jesus suddenly glows with an unearthly light
it's as if Peter's seeing Jesus for the first time in all his glory
his heart is full
and he's got butterflies in his stomach like he's in love
and he sees God, really sees God in this Jesus
and it's amazing
and he thinks
"I'll put up some tents so we can stay here always
cause this is so cool."
what an idiot, right?
how could he not see what was right in front of him?
how could he not see God revealing Godself and not interrupt?
we, of course, are rational and perceptive people
and we would certainly have been silent and pious
in the face of such holiness…right?
I don't think so
at the sight of my buddy suddenly clothed in dazzling white
and talking to long-dead prophets
I probably would have screamed like a little girl
the history of the church doesn't give us a positive example either
every time a mystic or prophet had a vision,
we codified it
isolated the moment from creation
created a worship service around it
or added to our protocols so we'd be ready the next time
we are nothing if not prepared for the unexpected
the thing is, God breaks in anyway.
why do we do it?
why keep ourselves so scheduled that there is not time for pause or silence or prayer?
is it because we don't actually feel the presence of God?
that we feel like frauds if we admit we don't know what we're doing spiritually?
that we need to hide from a chaotic and seemingly immoral universe by being busy?
think of the times you've tried to make a difference and failed for whatever reason
for years people have been trying to revitalize historic Old Saint George church in Clifton
making it a gathering place, a café, anything
Leighton and I used to go there for lunch every week
they always had fresh, seasonal foods
like corn on the cobb or summer tomatoes
or ribs that melted off the bone
and we always met interesting people there
musicians, business people, homeless men, and visionaries
Old Saint George burned down a couple years ago—it’s vacant
many of us know people who are addicts or mentally ill
and their behavior can be irrational and hurtful
we try to help by forcing them into rehab or intervening
and often it doesn't work and they spiral away
why bother?
in her recent book Leaving Church
Barbara Brown Taylor laments this same situation
she was a small-town parish priest
working hard to make a difference
when she realized there was no joy in what she was doing
She writes, "I pecked God on the cheek the same way I did Ed, drying up inside for want of making love."
that's something we don’t talk about in church
but that's just it
we've been making dinner and making money and not making love
maybe our need to build tents on the mountaintop is because we are so in awe
because we long for something beyond ourselves
not a god-shaped hole
but a pull towards the god we somehow already know
and who knows us
the story of the transfiguration is not about Peter's being an idiot
and trying to pin down what can't be pinned down
it's about his longing for God
he is amazed and overwhelmed by the vision before him
all his life he's desired to see God
to have proof of his faith
to experience that deep joy
and he does
he sees the immediacy of God
the physical incarnation of God in all things
more than that, the story of the transfiguration is about God
God desires us in return
God created us out of love, out of desire for another
how can we not speak of falling in love with god and god with us?
isn't that why you're here today?
You've met God somewhere
on the road
at work
in a stranger
in your family
in a book
even in church
and you've fallen in love with Jesus
the Psalm assigned to yesterday's feast of the Presentation
speaks eloquently of this desire:
"my soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God."
That is beautiful—"my soul longs for the Lord…"
can you feel that?
like the speaker's heart is pounding
and there is an ache in her chest
and she is leaning towards God
to hear the words and just be in the presence
And what does God say in response?
At the transfiguration
after Peter's vulnerable cry
and attempt to cling to the experience
after he falls to the ground in embarrassment and awe
his face flaming in recognition of what he's said
Jesus leans down and takes him by the hand and says
"Get up and do not be afraid."
Or maybe he's saying "I love you. Don't worry."
we're going to keep trying to make a difference
we're going to keep messing things up
we're going to keep doing some pretty fantastic things
and in every moment of every one of those things,
God is present
God is transfiguring us
no matter how low we are
no matter how perfunctory our attention to God
no matter how highly we think of ourselves
God is present
God is transfiguring us
in your longing for more and better
in your longing for understanding or connection
in your longing to reach out and invite in
God is present
God is transfiguring you
God desires you and your love
even when you don't.