Friday, October 18, 2013

sermon on Habakkuk 1-2

Let me tell you about the prophet Habakkuk.
First, awesome name. Tried and failed to name my youngest that.
Second, his book is very violent
—apparently using up 10% of all the uses
of the actual word “violence” in the Bible.
There are other books arguably more violent,
but Habakkuk’s book is short
and has little comfort to balance it.
His basic point is that invading armies are a punishment from God,
but for what?
He doesn’t say clearly.
And in the end, the good news
is that God will destroy those invading armies.
It’s not bad news, to be sure,
but how many of us find a bloody battle to be good news?
It’s even less clear on what it is God or even Habakkuk
wants us to do with it all.
It’s more the Cliff’s Notes of biblical prophecy
—y’all are terrible sinners for keeping your wealth to yourselves
so imma gonna smitcha.
Let’s talk then about biblical prophecy.
Lots of people both inside and outside the church
think prophets are like Nostradamus, seeing the future,
prognosticating events through the veil of time.
Lots of folks then think they can correctly interpret various prophets
or apocalyptic scripture to tell them
when the Antichrist is coming or the Rapture or whathaveyou.
But that’s not the point of prophecy.
The point of biblical prophecy is this: WAKE UP.

When Hosea writes that God commanded him to take a prostitute as his wife
and to name his kids Punishment,
No Pity,
and You Are Not My People,
(I didn’t try to name my youngest any of those)
whether or not he actually did it is beside the point.
Hosea is saying to the people of Israel WAKE UP,
you’re asleep, you’re comfortable in your nice houses
and you’re missing it.
When Ezekiel cuts off his hair and burns some and cuts some up with a sword
and releases some to the wind and binds some in the hem of his robe,
he’s not just being weird.
He’s saying WAKE UP, people, you’ve fallen asleep.
People are dying.
You are obsessing about reality TV or what color the drapes are
or which school to send your kids to
and you don’t even know you’re asleep.
They say that no one translates Ezekiel accurately
because he had such a foul mouth.
Consider what it would be like if I stood up here
and released a flood of swear words about you,
your mom, and everything you hold dear.
And don’t even get me started on Ezekiel’s poems
about Israel as God’s lover—puts Miley Cyrus to shame. A lot.
The prophets use extreme, violent, sexual, bizarre language
to talk about God, about what God wants from us,
about what it’s like for God to draw near,
about what will happen when we don’t pay attention
—because that’s how to get through our thick heads.
You think we’re inured to violence in the media now;
it was the same back then.
—they talk about rape and human excrement
and widespread destruction of cities
to jolt us out of thinking everything’s fine.
Because everything’s not fine.
It’s meant to be a slap in the face.
“You can’t talk about rape in church!”
And suddenly, just for a second, you’re awake to the world,
to the women in India who live in fear of rape on the commute to work,
to the men and women here in America who fear their spouses,
to the violence we perpetrate on one another
from something that big to something small like a lie.
For a moment, the prophets insult your sense of what’s proper
and you’re awake.
Here’s what a 20th century prophet said about that.
His name was Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest who died in 1987.
He says,
“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence…Most people tell you they want to get out of kindergarten, but don’t believe them. Don’t believe them! All they want you to do is to mend their broken toys. ‘Give me back my wife. Give me back my job. Give me back my money. Give me back my reputation, my success.’ This is what they want; they want their toys replaced. That’s all. Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. [advance slide] What they want is relief; a cure is painful.”[1]

Ain’t that the truth.
Two of the Edge House students who are in addiction recovery programs
would be nodding vigorously right now
—their addictions were their minds trying to create relief.
Being cured of their addictions is much more difficult
and much more painful.
What are you addicted to? What do you need to wake up from?
I’ve started a morning practice of the Ignatian examen
—it’s a form of prayer where you slowly consider
the day that has gone before,
what you did, who you talked to,
and notice when you felt particularly grateful or loving.
You also notice the other side, when you were not grateful,
when you were not loving.
You spend some time confessing those last ones
as well as time dwelling in the more positive ones.
The more I practice it, the more I notice these things during the day
—being more present to what I’m saying and doing
when it’s happening.
It feels like I’ve been asleep and I’m groggily looking around
after a late night.
It’s a calming yet uncomfortable feeling.
“Why did I say that?” I think.
Reread Jesus’ words and you’ll find that
we Christians are not called to be comfortable.
God calls us to be faithful not successful,
to be fruitful, not productive.
These are the language of the world
—success, productivity, prosperity—
not the language of the spirit.
Jesus tells us in his every word and every action
up to and including the empty tomb
to wake up from the nightmare of things being comfortable.
Did you see the video that was going around recently
of comedian Louis CK on Conan O’Brian?
It was brilliantly truthful but too much swearing for church
—ponder that for a moment…
Louis CK spoke about how addicted we are to our cell phones,
though I imagine there are other things in your lives
which might follow this same function.
He said, when he’s feeling sad, he immediately texts a bunch of people
and suddenly he doesn’t feel sad anymore.
But that’s the problem.
Everything’s not fine.
We don’t feel sadness in any deep way.
 We run away from it, refuse to allow grief
for the ordinary bits of our day to be real.
When there’s a big tragedy, there’s a bit of an emotional relief
because it’s okay to be sad about that.
But just existence being sad—nope.
And he says we go through our lives just being comfortable,
but not really experiencing what’s really happening.
Don’t get too excited about things because they could fail.
Don’t get too sad about things because no one wants to see you cry.
We’re asleep.
The lives we’ve been given by our Maker are terrifying and invigorating
and we’re standing on a ledge
struggling to maintain balance.
This [I used slides throughout and here I put up some of his photos.] is photographer KerrySkarbakka who photographs himself
in perilous situations.
He calls the series “Struggle to Right Oneself”
and this sense of being entirely off-balance,
being about to crash
is exactly what we hide from ourselves.
Everything’s not fine.
We construct elaborate facades
so as not to let anyone in to the messy, empty, angry, unattractive
real self.
We set up safety nets so we don’t have to see
the depth of the pain of the world.
Maybe you’re one who feels that pain deeply much of the time.
Good. And yet not good.
That sadness might itself be a fa├žade
to keep you from seeing the great joy of the world.
I still haven’t seen any images
from the earthquake in Haiti several years ago
—I couldn’t bring myself to.
It was too overwhelming.
And did I respond to that situation at all? Nope.
I mean, I cried. And we sent a little money to the Red Cross.
And then I went back to my life. Went grocerying.
Do you see? Do you do that as well?
We’re all teetering
on the edge but we convince ourselves
that it’s a comfy armchair. Wake. Up.
Who calls to you now?
Who makes you uncomfortable when they talk about what you hold dear?
Liberal comedian John Stewart?
Conservative columnist Mark Steyn?
Atheist Christopher Hitchens?
Activist Dorothy Day?
Or is it that much easier now to just change the channel
and not listen to someone with whom we don’t agree?
What is God calling you to do or be?
How do you tell that’s what’s happening?
What have you loved for years but never did?
What have you noticed coming up in conversation or on the radio a lot
that has gotten you thinking?
What do you avoid thinking about?
Maybe that’s God calling you.
This is your 8am wake-up call, friends.
This is your 2013 wake-up call.
Wake up from our partisan political assumptions that we have the answers.
Wake up from resentments
Wake up from our need to be liked and do what is right rather than what is easy.
God’s calling, what are you going to do about it?

[1] De Mello, Anthony. Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. Doubleday, NY:1990. pp. 5-6.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

special bonus sermon on Ecclesiastes 1-2

I've been going through old sermons and this one spoke to me this weekend when I felt out of sorts and out of control.
*          *          *
There is nothing new under the sun.
Can I get an “amen”?
[sigh] There is nothing new under the sun.
I’m going to be honest with y’all,
I don’t know what to do about Bennie.
Bennie’s a homeless guy who hangs out on the porch
at the Edge campus ministry house where I work.
He sits on a chair, watches folks pass by,
tells us the same story ten times in as many minutes,
eats a sandwich when we offer it
—he’s clearly unbalanced, but he always seemed harmless.
But he’s been sleeping on the porch, too, sleeping off a drunk.
And he’s been leaving garbage.
And peeing on the porch.
And just two days ago, he kicked one of my ministry partners
when she told him he needed to leave.
According to the public defender’s office,
he’s the current record-holder for arrests in Hamilton County
with more than 470
and has more than three warrants out right now.
And he’s a violent, mean drunk
who has walked away from or been kicked out
of every social service agency in town.
So, what to do, eh?
         As a person of faith, what do I do?
He can’t sleep and pee on the porch, that much is clear.
And I can’t have someone who could turn violent in a moment
around my students—that’s not fair to anyone.
So, we have set up a no trespassing order and,
after the kicking incident, have filled out an arrest warrant
—so we’re one of the three.
The behavior cannot go on
—and I think Jesus would be with us on that, at least.
Jesus was no doormat
and challenged to the people he met both in word and action.
But what’s the hospitality side of this?
How can we actually help Bennie in any meaningful way?
Can we, even?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
And this might lead some folk to despair.
Some of ya’ll might be thinking “all is vanity and a chasing after wind”. Maybe.
“There is nothing new under the sun” you might be thinking,
and you’d be right.
We’re not the only ones to deal with friends or relatives
who have mental illness or alcoholism or even poor table manners.
We’re not the first people to feel overwhelmed by poverty
or to struggle with evangelism.
On the deeply spiritual TV show Battlestar Galactica,
a line which gets repeated often is
“All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” [Seriously, it’s a great show. And darkly appropriate to Ecclesiastes.]
Y’all might know Ecclesiastes better by another passage:
“For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…”
That’s chapter three,
almost directly after this reading we heard from ______________.
Ecclesiastes might have been a crotchety old man
or maybe he was just a realist.
Either way, his book is filled with a kind of heaviness.
He seeks after and finds wisdom,
yet it doesn’t last
and only shows him the futility of human endeavors.
He seeks after pleasure, yet it doesn‘t last and dies with the person.
He builds and plants and creates and,
though he enjoys the building and planting and creating themselves,
the results do not last but crumble
and cannot be taken past the grave.
“All is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
And who among us has not had a similar experience?
At the very least, many of us have watched toddlers play.
Or, rather, destroy.
Typical of preachers, I’m talking about my own family
         —my daughter Abby is a year and a half
and she loves building towers.
Or my building towers for her.
She loves admiring them for a moment,
then destroying them like Godzilla.
And I could take the depressing route and say,
“Why should I toil in vain
and build towers that my daughter knocks down?
It is vanity and a chasing after wind”
No, I build it again, because I see her delight.
Maybe you know more viscerally
that experience of “chasing after wind”
—maybe you have built a business only to see it fail
or to succeed better for another owner,
maybe you poured your heart and soul into someone beloved
who was suffering only to see her die.
Many folks think Ecclesiastes is depressing,
but some of us find it comforting.
Perhaps it’s the Lutherans I work with rubbing off on me,
but it suggests to me that it’s not our works
—good or evil—that save us.
God does that.
What we do or create is important,
         but that ultimately, it’s all in God’s hands.
That I don’t have responsibility
         for making everything turn out okay. Phew.
I wonder if we have a hard time with evangelism
because maybe we really believe the story ends with “this is vanity”
rather than how it actually ends.
The assigned lesson for today ends with
“all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation;
even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
Did you find yourself wondering what you’re supposed to do with that?
A bit like my quandary about Bennie,
you had something complicated and heavy dropped on you
and now what?
I’m not sure why this is,
but the compilers of the lectionary often cut off the reading
before it is ripe.
Remember that more famous bit of Ecclesiastes that I mentioned
comes almost directly after our reading?
Yeah, Here’s part of what we missed:
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink,
and find enjoyment in their toil.
This also, I saw, is from the hand of God;
for apart from him,
who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”
This changes everything.
I think we sometimes dislike Ecclesiastes because he is us.
         He writes what we all think
                  —that we have a hope, but it’s pretty tissue thin
and what does what we do amount to anyway?
Particularly when it comes to spirituality?
We think, if we shared our stories with friends, neighbors, strangers,
no one would listen to us,
and even if they did, what would we say in the first place?
It’s pointless and a chasing after wind.
We think we have to have all the answers
—about how salvation works,
about who’s in and who’s out,
about the church’s problematic history,
about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or whatever—but we don’t.
That’s not the story!
That’s not the good news that God offered
in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Evangelism only asks us to be honest with one another
about our lives and our experiences of God.
Evangelism is sharing part of your story with someone else,
it’s building relationships with folks you meet,
from friends to aggressive homeless guys
who pee on your porch.
It’s certainly not easy,
and I don’t yet know how to build relationship
with Bennie.
It’s not easy, but it is freeing.
The good news is that we don’t have to shoulder the responsibility
of fixing everything.
The good news is that eating, drinking, and enjoying our toil
—whether it’s our paying job,
whether it’s putting storm windows on someone’s house,
whether it’s writing a song or running a marathon,
or being rejected in our attempts to connect
—the good news is there is nothing better for us
than to try
and all of it comes from God.
The good news is
“there is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink
and find enjoyment in their toil”
because, as brother Paul of Tarsus wrote,
“If we live, we live to the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.”[1]

[1] Romans 14:8