Saturday, September 22, 2012

sermon on mark 9.30-37

Jesus used metaphor to describe the world and God’s action in it, but sometimes we don’t get the metaphor. Sometimes, 2000 years later, we have trouble understanding his object lessons and need another object lesson to explain it to us. So, [hold up onion] scripture is like an onion.

It’s got layers, see, and each one is meaningful and important but isn’t the whole onion by itself. Let’s look at the first layer of today’s gospel—

We start with the kids bit—the disciples are arguing about who’s the greatest and Jesus asks what they’re talking about (probably knowing already as none of us are that subtle and he’s, you know, Jesus). And they don’t want to tell him. So he sighs, sits down, and pulls a nearby child into his lap—from where? Not the point. He says, the first shall be last and the last first. Welcome children and you’re welcoming me. Aaw, we say, we can do that! Kids are great! And they sure say the darndest things, am I right? No problem, Jesus! Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and Precious Moments all on the way! We will have the best programs here at church you’ve ever seen!

But “Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great.  Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.” The first layer of our scriptural onion is good, but it’s not the only thing to consider. Here’s the second layer: Jesus says, “hold up, folks, that’s only the beginning. Yes, teach them the Word with macaroni art and coloring pages—that’s good, but it’s about more than that. It’s not about being the greatest, it’s about service. Look at this cute kid—serving her means serving me. So, go serve some kids.”

And so we did: prayers before bed with loving parents, volunteer gigs with Kids Against Hunger and such to help needy kids around the world. Check. Kids served. Next! 

This story isn’t just about raising and treating kids well. Again, the second layer is good and necessary, but not the only message. Jesus is also talking about the disciples’ childish argument about who’s the greatest—he loves me best, does not, does too!—dudes, you’re still missing it! Maybe he’s cuddling a child in his lap and talking about intentionally coming in last because they’re acting like children, that they’re the ones who need to be welcomed into his arms.

That third layer is good and something we all need to hear, no matter how much we don’t want to hear that we are acting childishly. Yet again, that is not the final interpretation. The next layer of the onion is about hospitality. Not the mint-on-the-pillow, free-continental-breakfast, coffee-in-the-church-lobby kind of hospitality, though that’s lovely and needed. No, he’s talking about a deep, way-of-life kind of hospitality. The kind of hospitality that requires sacrifice.
Let’s talk about rats for a moment—don’t worry, we’ll get back to the onion… The recent book How Children Succeed discusses research on rats showing that the single most important determining factor for the health and thriving of adult rats was how much their mother rats licked and groomed them. Infant rats whose mothers took care of them more were more likely to take risks when at play and ate more than those whose mothers did not. And not only that, the researchers discovered "big variations in the size and shape and complexity of the parts of the brain that regulated stress" (30). Obviously, it's more complex than that—all research is, and I commend How Children Succeed to your reading—but put simply, and translated into human behavior, children whose mothers cuddle them, praise them, take care of them in a consistent way grow up healthier and more resilient. Our brains, our bodies are physically transformed…by love. These researchers have found the gospel writ large in the brains of rats.

Getting back to our scriptural onion, here’s the thing, we all know that raising children is difficult. And we know that it involves sacrifice on our parts. These first few months of my new baby Jackson’s life have been delightful but also very difficult. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t cried a lot—partly from sleep deprivation, partly as I see clearly the life I had outside work shrinking and changing into changing diapers, nursing, and tummy-time. I have had to sacrifice time with friends, time to work on art projects, time to do whatever it was I did before I had kids. And it’s not just about kids. The things worth doing in this world require sacrifice. One of my former students enjoyed cooking for us while on mission trips—he’d spend the afternoon making a huge amount of food, then insist on going last through the line. When someone needs to talk when I need to write an article or finish a report, I sit and chat—sacrifice. The coffee in the lobby isn’t just coffee, it’s a symbol of our willingness to engage deeply with newcomers—we sacrifice time with our old friends to gather new people in to our community. When we at Good Shepherd begin our annual stewardship drive in the spring because we value sharing our resources with folks who need it—sacrifice. When, dare I say it, your tax bill comes due, you probably feel the sacrifice, but again, it’s because, the details of the tax code aside, we as a nation find helping one another worth doing. And so we have a system of sacrifice. And that sacrifice is precisely what we mean when we talk about hospitality. And what Jesus is talking about with the children. We make ourselves last to put someone else first—hospitality.

These sacrifices we make for one another, for our loved ones, for the least of these around the world, they transform us. Our bodies are physically transformed by our sacrifice, by our love. The hospitality we show to the stranger, whether it be a newcomer to this church, the children at Taft Elementary, the gays and lesbians in our communities who think we Christians hate them, the families around the world who don’t have clean water to drink—the hospitality we show to these strangers we show to Jesus himself.

And so we come to the center of the onion—the core of truth that Jesus offers us in everything he said and did. Love is our driving force, and love demands something of us. Often more than we’re prepared to give. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, after all, and I don't think he meant that in a purely abstract way. Yet that love is what we ourselves yearn for, that love is what God offers us freely with Jesus own sacrifice, and that love will transform us body and soul.

Who is the stranger you meet? How can you love them? How can you sacrifice for them to show them hospitality? What can you give up to show them how much you and God love them? And how will you be transformed by that love? Like an onion, it will bring you to tears if you give it a try.

leaving something out

 I learned in seminary to try to leave something out of the sermon--you can't say it all and there's always something that will distract from the main point. This was a note I had in my manuscript that I wanted to use but couldn't find a way to make it fit.

“the least of these”—not very comfortable to talk about who the "leasts" are
we don’t want to admit who we think of as least, to ourselves and definitely not out loud, in church
Jesus says to love the least, so we can’t have resentful or condescending thoughts about anyone, right?
It’s a question of how you react to those thoughts, not the having of them.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

sermon on James 3:1-12

“I don’t love you.” My daughter says. I know she doesn’t mean it, but for a brief moment, it hurts. She’s only three and has no filter. She says it in anger, in jest, because she gets a response from me. She says hurtful things and she probably gets it from me. And I probably got it from my folks. This is what we in the business call “original sin” and, whether you believe that’s an accurate theology or not, it’s a good description of the world we live in. We are all of us sinners, wounding one another with our words. Surely I’m not the only one who wants to physically pull back my words sometimes—no, I didn’t mean that, I was speaking in anger, I didn’t know what I was saying, I didn’t know all the facts, I’m just hurt, I’m so sorry… In an argument with my husband the other day, in the heat of my anger, I said something about hoping he would die of whatever it was we were arguing about—pecans? Politics? I don’t know. I confess that to you now, here in the assembly of Christians, because I need to repent of it. I confess that to you in the hopes that you understand, in the hopes that you see the same idle talk in yourselves, that you, too, need to repent of something.

Maybe you’re not ready for that confession yet. I hear you. Let’s move on. But we’ll be back.

Let’s talk about current events instead. In the discipleship groups I lead at the campus ministry I serve, the students and I have just read a blog post called “Why are Christians so mean?” The author herself is a Christian and had noticed that many folks in our country look at us askance—“you follow the Prince of Peace yet yell at one another and us all the time—what gives?” they seem to ask. She wondered if she was alone in noticing this and she writes:
“Within one quarter of a second, a Google search of ‘Why are Christians so mean’ returned 5,190 results.
To put these numbers in context, I ran the same query for other faiths.  As we would expect in the post 9-11 environment, “Why are Muslims so mean” yielded 8,320 results.  More telling, however, are the following comparisons:
There were seven results for ‘Why are Jews so mean?’ and four results for ‘Why are Hindus so mean?’ ‘Why are Buddhists so mean’ yielded one result with no results at all when I asked, ‘Why are Sikhs so mean?’
It wasn’t always this way.  Certainly not in the early Church, when Tertullian remarked, ‘Look, how they love one another’ or when Aristides wrote, ‘They walk in all humility and kindness.’  When is the last time you heard anyone say anything even close to that about Christians?”
How we act and what we say makes a difference, like James said in his letter. “[N]o one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” he writes, and “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” Well said, James.

Let’s make this very concrete. You’re aware of the kerfuffle recently over Chik-fil-A? Perhaps some of y’all showed up to buy a chicken sandwich that day or perhaps you were angry at those who did. I’m not here this Sunday to talk about the right or wrong of CEO Dan Cathy’s remarks nor even of the right or wrong of homosexuality. No, in keeping with brother James, consider how Christians responded. How were we perceived by the world when large masses of us went to Chik-fil-A on a particular day? Consider that 99% of the gay population of the world saw that and assumed that we all hate them. And then consider how those same Christians perceived the gay community when some loving, gay couples showed up for a Kiss-In—they assumed that the gay community are all exhibitionists and wanted to force something on them.

Neither of these is true. Both were hurtful. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

The blogger I mentioned closed her post with these questions: “What are the consequences of those things I have done and left undone?  How are others likely to interpret my actions?  How are they likely to respond?”

How we use our tongues, as James writes, what we say… is everything. And yet our words can be meaningless as well. In someone’s grief, we struggle for the right words, filling the sad silence with platitudes trying to heal the pain. I’ve talked to so many folks who said a well-meaning friend told them God needed another angel and how much they hated God in that moment.

James says that we’re wild horses needing to be broken with a bridle—not very complimentary. I don’t want to think of myself as a dumb beast needing physical restraint, or as a boat going only where the captain directs me with no creativity of my own. But there’s truth in what he says. Our tongues can run wild, speaking truth and lies indiscriminately. We can’t help it. We need something to hold us back from the hurt we inflict. We need a divine and maybe sometimes harsh “no” to pull us up short, to show us what we’ve done. God is, in this moment, a divine parent, speaking truth to us rebellious children, trying to aim our energy in a better direction.

Because sometimes we get it right. Sometimes our tongues speak love and comfort or encouragement in just the right moment. A couple of months ago, in the first week after I gave birth to my son, my mother-in-law stayed with us and helped us out. She cooked for us, cleaned the house, brought me things while I was still in pain. It was, in some ways, her job to be here—she was happy to do it—but I needed to say thank you for that gift. I sent her a thank you note which arrived on a day when everything was going wrong for her.

My words worked, but not because of their poetry. She was comforted in the middle of a cruddy day because I was present with her. Sure, it was only in the form of a note, but it’s like we say, “it’s the thought that counts.” In that thought, I was present and that, more than the words I wrote, made a difference.

And now we get to the heart of it. Showing up is what we are called to do. When someone is in mourning, we sit with them, maybe bring a casserole. When someone is imprisoned, we show up, speak to with them through the glass. When someone is celebrating, we show up and celebrate with them. When someone says something hurtful to us, like “I hope you die from pecans” we stay with them—my husband forgave me because he loves me and because we show up daily in each other’s lives. In the church business, we call this incarnation—I am physically present here with you fine people today, I’m incarnate here. This is what Jesus did—the word became flesh and dwelt among us—he showed up. He sat with us, he ate with us—sure, he talked a bunch, said some impressive and convicting things—but what he did was show up. He was present with us. Most of us don’t take that time—we don’t get to know our gay or conservative evangelical neighbors. We only react, speaking the emotional truth of the moment—I’m angry! I’m hurt!—and don’t think of how we’re perceived. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

Friday afternoon, this discipleship group I mentioned, we met for our weekly conversation. Partway through our conversation we became aware of a group of Muslim students demonstrating across the street. They held signs in support of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya who was killed. They handed out flowers and stood calmly supporting peace. And so we joined them. I and my students crossed the street, showed up, you might say, with our brothers and sisters.

If we can come to rest in the knowledge that God is here too, that God is incarnate in Jesus and a little in us and our neighbors, maybe the drive to be right or to say the right thing can slip away. If we can try to see our neighbors and our enemies as people, as distant family, maybe we can be content sitting with them at a dinner table or on the front stoop. Maybe we can show up and simply be with one another, letting our presence speak for itself. Maybe then there’s room for God to work the wonders that need working. My brothers and sisters, may it be so.