Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Demands or Delights?

This sermon was preached on August 29, based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Trying to be a good Christian can seem exhausting sometimes. There are all the rules to follow: the ten commandments that Moses receives, plus that new commandment about loving one another that Jesus gives before he dies, among all the other lists of rules and laws and instructions. It’s tiring trying to learn them all, nevermind to try and not break any. Then there are all the people in the media who are telling us that most of the things we’re doing or thinking or may think soon are damning us all to hell. So if you believe them, you become exhausted from the fear of God’s—or a commentator’s—wrath and trying to make people change. If you disagree with them, you spend your energy being angry with them and on trying to make people see that they don’t speak for all Christians. Of course all of this gets paired up with exhaustion from guilt—whether its’ from breaking a rule or being sinful or not working hard enough to fight for justice, that guilt can be heavy.

Some of you may remember a sermon I preached not so long ago in which I spoke about the word “should.” I think this passage, if one is not careful, could easily lead us down the path paved with shoulds, the guilt-inducing feeling of “something should be happening, and it’s not” (or, in the case of injustice being done, things that should not be happening, but are). Now, this is not always a path to avoid. Too often we don’t want to feel the guilt so we ignore the problems around us altogether. Remember the bent-over woman from last week? Sometimes we need a little nudge to pay attention. Those guilt-inducing shoulds can often lead us into action

In my web browsing this week, as I visited multiple sites geared toward preachers, many were taking this angle with these two texts. Now, clearly these other preachers are all serving churches very un-like our dear First Church, because they were gearing up to preach about radical hospitality, and forgoing the love of money and being content with what we have, remembering those who are imprisoned, and inviting those on the margins to banquets instead of people with high societal standing—with, of course, the underlying message that those are the things that should be happening, and are not—or not enough. Obviously, that message doesn’t apply to our church, right? Ahem.

Anyway…I started taking notes about my thoughts for this sermon, heading in the same direction as these other preachers. This type of sermon generally gets me fired up. I feel like I am following in a great tradition of prophetic speech, from Isaiah and Jeremiah to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marian Wright Edelman. I get fired up to do God’s work and light a fire under other people’s…seats to do the same. I get energized, and it’s generally not very positive energy. It’s usually more a righteous anger, a frustration with systems which keep people from being free to fulfill their full potential as God’s creation, a lamentation that even now, many millennia after prophets first began telling people that God’s wish for Her people is justice, and mercy, and righteousness, that we still allow and take part in the oppression of others…a burning desire to make things different. This is where I thought the Spirit was taking me, along with many other preachers around the world.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit. (Now, there’s a good idea for a musical!) I re-read the texts and my notes and I found myself really, really happy. Gleeful. Giddy. Excited. Because all a sudden, instead of seeing these words as a mandate of what we are supposed to doing or a scolding of how we should be practicing our faith, it became clear that these words are also a blessing. Instead of demands, I saw them as delights.

We get to practice a faith which tells us to continue in mutual love. Dr. King encouraged this when he said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is usually the part of the quote with which people are familiar, but he went on to say, “For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”[1] Another person also explains this beautifully. She is an Australian Aboriginal woman named Lila Watson, and when meeting with mission workers, she told them, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” What an amazing idea, that our liberation is bound up with others’, and vice versa. We depend on each other. Yes, that means we have some responsibility towards others, but that also means others have responsibility towards us. Yes, it means putting energy into loving others, but mutual love means that we receive just as much love back.

We get the privilege of showing hospitality to strangers, and possibly even meeting angels! The writer of this letter is probably referring to Abraham, who welcomes three strange men to his home, feeds them and lets them wash, and they turn out to be messengers from God who bring the news that Sarah will have a baby. We could also stretch this a little, based on Matthew 25, to say “some may have entertained Christ without knowing it.” Even if we don’t meet angels, though, we get to meet someone new. Take a moment to look around the sanctuary at the people gathered here. Every single person in this church was at some point—and maybe still is—a stranger to someone else here. Our friends, our significant others, our brothers and sisters in this family of Christ, were once strangers to us. This is not just a “do this,” but also a “you shall receive.” We don’t need to know you to pray for you. This church has been praying for a 2-year-old girl named Rylie since January, and not one of us has met her. That’s Christian hospitality. Recently some members of the church who don’t come very often were ill and needed help with meals. Not many of those who cooked and delivered the meals knew the couple, but they were happy to do so. Think of all that has been done for total strangers in Louisiana and Mississippi in the five years since Hurricane Katrina hit. How amazing is it to know that these are things we get to do because our faith calls us to it?

Forget feeling guilty. While we certainly need to work on its implementation in this world, let’s celebrate the fact that at Christ’s banquet, all are welcome, and we as followers of Christ get the privilege of telling those who are on the margins, those who most need God’s love, those who feel most excluded, that they’re on the invitation list. In fact, they get VIP status. We get to be like Ed McMahon, except instead of going just to people’s homes, we go everywhere, but especially to homeless shelters and soup kitchens and afterschool programs and detention centers and prisons and hospitals. And instead of a big check, we present grace and a place at the table. How awesome is that?

Is this all easy? No! Of course not! But not much worthwhile is. Think of peace talks, getting people out of gangs, raising a child, accompanying someone at the end of life, sustaining a relationship, finding a cure for a disease, standing up for what’s right. Welcoming the stranger, remembering the prisoner, inviting the marginalized to the table, all that makes us vulnerable, and that’s scary. Ooh, but here’s where that happiness comes in again, because that writer of Hebrews reminds us of God’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God will never leave us or forsake us. I think that’s worth repeating one more time: God will never—NEVER--abandon you. You are never left on your own. This promise then gives us the confidence to say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Sounds an awful lot like Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

So not only do we get to do and say and be all these great things as Christians, but our faith also assures us that God accompanies us through it all. So, maybe trying to meet all the demands of being a good Christian is exhausting sometimes, but other times—many, many other times—it’s exhilarating and uplifting and inspiring—breathing life into us. We get to be a blessing to others, and in turn are richly blessed. Let us lift up our praise for such delights, and let the whole church say, “Amen!”

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, as quoted in John Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, New York: Random House, Inc, 2007, p. 203.

Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Now Is The Time--Luke 13:10-17

Many have asked for it, so here is the sermon I preached Sunday, August 22 based on Luke's story of Jesus healing a bent-over woman on the sabbath.

I want to start this sermon with a practice used by faithful people for generations: confession. I want to confess to all of you…that I am a procrastinator. I have made an art of procrastinating, in fact. I’ve been doing it all my life. I sometimes joke that since I was born 11 days past when I was due to be born, I procrastinated even from the womb. I was that kid in elementary school who would wait until the day before a big project was due to tell my parents I needed to pick a topic, research it at the library and create a diorama to bring to class. In college, being a morning person, I’d often go to bed at a reasonable hour, wake up early the next morning when a paper was due, and write it the day of. Finding ways to avoid or put off doing what needs to be done is easy for me. Seminary paper to write? Perfect time to clean out the closet in the lounge. Sermon to write? You know, I think I’ll start this sewing project I’ve been meaning to get to for a few years. Research to do? Yes, I think I will bake bread! And on and on.

Oh, I know I’m not alone. In fact, I know very few people who are speaking honestly when they say they don’t procrastinate, people who never put things off until a “better” time, until they’re more prepared, until everything is just right. Psychologists will tell you that procrastination is often linked to perfectionism, which is why people who do it need deadlines—otherwise nothing would get done, as everything would be put off until the person is ready, the research is exhausted, the situation is perfect and there is no chance of failing. Not now, we protest, with any number of excuses; maybe tomorrow will be the right time. Let me do something else and try to ignore what I know needs to be done.

Now Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Now by this time, Jesus was probably getting pretty well known. He had declared Isaiah’s prophecy about being anointed with God’s Spirit to have been fulfilled in him. He had healed quite a few people, calmed a storm at sea, and told many parables to his disciples and gathered crowds. So we can imagine that if Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, there were probably a lot of people there to hear him. And maybe it wasn’t a service, like we have here, where everyone is gathered in the same place and listening to one person. Maybe they’d had their regular Sabbath service already, and Jesus was simply teaching something extra, so that while many were gathered around to hear him, others were simply going on about their business. And so perhaps that is why this woman just “appears” to Jesus. Certainly as bent over as Luke describes her, she probably wasn’t moving very quickly. But perhaps the crowds just happened to part the right way all of sudden, and there she is, bent over and “quite unable to stand up straight.”

Jesus could have ignored her. He was in the middle of teaching—maybe even right in the middle of a sentence. It was crowded; he could have simply pretended he hadn’t seen her. It would’ve been easy enough to do. As far as we can tell, she wasn’t seeking him out. He so easily could’ve acted like he never even knew she was there. Haven’t we all done that at one time or another? Averted our eyes away from what makes us uncomfortable or what we just don’t want to deal with? Another confession: there were many times on the subway in New York when I’d deliberately put on my earphones and pull out a book to avoid the person coming down the aisle asking for money. If I could pretend I didn’t see the person, I could continue the act and tell myself I hadn’t, actually. I’d been listening to my music, hadn’t heard the story of a lost job, apartment eviction, hungry kids and waiting for benefits. I’d been reading my book, hadn’t seen the outstretched hand. I had an excuse.

Jesus had plenty of excuses, but he didn’t use them. Instead, he stops what he’s doing when he sees the woman. Now Luke puts three actions in one sentence—he sees her, he calls her, he spoke to her—but we know in life things don’t happen quite that fast. He sees her. He calls her over. She, bent over as she was, makes her way slowly through the crowd, trying not to step on anyone, people shuffling to let her pass. Was there silence as they all watched her go to Jesus? Or were there murmurings, wondering what he was going to do? Did Jesus keep his eyes on her, or watch to see how others were reacting? She finally reaches Jesus and he tells her that she is healed. He lays his hands on her, and he immediately stood up straight and began praising God. We can imagine everyone is joyful.

But wait. The leader of the synagogue steps in. My guess is he was worried this would become a regular thing. Jesus heals one person on the Sabbath, now everyone’s going to want healing. “Hold on,” he says. “There are six other days meant for working. Come and get healed on those days; leave the Sabbath alone.” It seems like he was just trying to avoid, to put off, what he knew needed to be done. He was giving an excuse—it’s not the right time. There are rules, he says. He was telling the people to wait a little longer, come back later. Jesus retorts, basically, that it is always the right time for healing, and perhaps the Sabbath is particularly suited for being healed and set free. Immediately after this healing, Luke writes, “He said therefore, ‘What is the reign of God like?’” It is clear that Luke is connecting Jesus’ act of healing the bent-over woman to the God’s reign.

In John’s Gospel, the night before Jesus dies, he gives his disciples a new commandment. “Love one another,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” If we are to love as Jesus loved, it’s clear that this story from Luke gives us clear example of how we as a church—as the Body of Christ—should act, as well as a model for each one of us. Kate Huey, part of the Local Church Ministries Team of the UCC, writes, “Every single one of us, in our daily lives, has the occasion to encounter the bent-over woman.”[1]

Who is she?

She is the teenager who endures day after day of ridicule and bullying for not keeping in her “place” at school. She is the middle-school student who is taunted relentlessly for being—or just seeming—gay. 15-year-old Phoebe Prince was new to South Hadley and the U.S., a freshman who apparently had dated a senior boy or two. After months of unrelenting torture by some school mates, she committed suicide in January. 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield was told by his mother that he could do anything, and was on the honor roll, but in April of last year, he decided what he couldn’t do anymore was deal with the teasing at school, and he took his own life. Phoebe and Carl are gone, but there are many more like them. They are the bent-over woman, feeling so alone and so helpless, longing for acceptance in God’s reign.

The bent-over woman is a man who got laid off from his high-pay corporate job, couldn’t pay the bills, and lost his home. He and his family sleep in their car, and try to pretend everything’s ok, while he struggles to find work and figure out how to buy food. He is the bent-over woman, feeling hopeless and longing for mercy in the reign of God.

The bent-over woman is a mother whose 7th grade son needed to see a dentist for an $80 tooth extraction, but couldn’t find one who would accept Medicaid. She took him to the ER, where he was given medicine for a headache, sinusitis, and a dental abscess and sent home. When he got much sicker, he was rushed into surgery where it was discovered that bacteria from his abscessed tooth had spread to his brain. Two major operations and eight weeks of hospital care later (costing about $250,000), Deamonte Driver died. His mother is the bent-over woman, grief-stricken and longing for justice in God’s reign.

Where else do we encounter the bent over woman? Who is she in your lives, in this community, around the world? Tell me. The bent-over woman is… [suggestions included the people affected by the floods in Pakistan, the Vietnam vet asking for money on the corner, the person sitting next to us in church who never says a word].

These are some of the ways people are bent over and pressed down. But they're not the only ones. There are people who are weighed down and bent over by loneliness, grief, worry, anxiety, doubt, and addiction. There are people whose mental illness or physical ailments or business struggles or family conflicts feel like burdens that bend them over and weigh them down.[2] And we, ministers to the world each one of us, are called to love them as Jesus loved the bent-over woman.

It is tempting to put it off our work of healing until the “right” time. Sundays are bad for me, I’m struggling with my own stuff right now, let me wait until I do some research into helpful programs, etc, etc, etc. It is tempting to turn away and pretend we don’t see the bent-over woman at all, isn’t it.

Kate Huey writes these moving words: “It is God who brings the reign of God in God's own time. Sure, today we proclaim it, we witness to its beginning in Jesus Christ and to its coming fullness. But we're called to do more than to proclaim that word, we are called to enflesh it, to become a word of hope for all those who appear before us, bearing burdens, pressed down. Jesus is calling you this day to engage yourself in the great dream of freeing all of God's children, all of the daughters of Abraham and the sons of Sarah from everything that holds them in bondage. We're invited to see our lives, our world, as they can be, for God has given us, according to the prophet Jeremiah, ‘a future, and a hope.’ As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the children of God.’

Let us not delay any longer. The time for proclaiming, embodying, and struggling for God’s healing and freedom is not tomorrow, or the next day. The time is now.

Let us pray: Holy God, Great Healer, inspire, motivate, and strengthen us to do the work of your reign to which you call us, and help us to see, acknowledge and act towards healing the bent-over women in this world. Amen.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, August 02, 2010

Summer's End (But Let's Not Rush Things)

Our modern calendar places the beginning of Summer on June 21, but, as that is on or near the summer solstice, that is actually the mid-point of Summer (hence the celebration of Midsummer and Midsummer's Eve). The Celts traditionally believe summer begins on May 1, and ends on August 1. And I have to say, I think they got it right.

Without knowing about the Celtic tradition, the last few years I have found myself first noticing the waning of summer sometime around the beginning of August. While we struggle to squeeze in the last bits of vacation and reading lists before fall "officially" begins, nature is already telling us it's a losing battle.

The nights have already started to become longer and cooler. The first few leaves are starting to change color and fall. We have a lot of old trees in my neighborhood, and as I walked around tonight, I actually crunched through some fallen leaves. One ancient tree has already completely changed color and lost most of its leaves! I noticed that recently I've been wanting to wear jeans, and love the cool mornings when I put on a sweatshirt, and a friend of mine said the same thing. We who have grown up in this type of climate have the rhythm of the seasons flowing through our bodies, and they know even if the calendar doesn't. It's time. Summer has ended, and autumn is beginning.

HOWEVER. This all being said does NOT excuse the grocery stores having candy corn on the shelves in July. I mean, seriously? If you buy it now, you know you're going to eat it way before Halloween. And if not, ew. Do stores really going to think they're going to sell Halloween-specific candy when people haven't even wrapped their brains around back-to-school (which, by the way, I saw signs for in May. Before the kids had actually finished their previous school year.)?

The earth, and our lives, move in cycles and rhythms, but there's no need to rush from one to the next. Summer's ending, but there's a special atmosphere this time of year that happens no other time. The really hot days set off by the increasingly cooler nights. The way the sun slants in late afternoon. The abundance of harvest.

It's the beginning of August. How about we enjoy some fresh corn on the cob, and leave the candy corn for October?

Sphere: Related Content