Thursday, October 25, 2012

Daniel and the Reformation

Well, here's something a little different: a peek into my thought process before I publish my finished sermon. Being at a new call which has not become accustomed to the lectionary, I decided to take the plunge and go off-lectionary for a while. After my first non-lectionary week, I had three weeks of stewardship, so that was pretty easy. Then I was left with a feeling of, "Ok, now what? How do I choose my sermon focus from the whole Bible?" I'm not sure how it arose, but I decided to start preaching stories. Familiar stories from Sunday school, not-as-familiar stories that are skipped by the lectionary, etc. I began at the beginning, with the two creation stories. The first week, I led a "time of wonder" (based on Godly Play) for my sermon, which allowed those in the congregation to share their reactions, thoughts, and feelings. The second week, I preached a sermon based on how we read both stories, which is posted here. Now, it's almost a free-for-all, though I'm realizing why preachers don't do this much--the stories are LONG! I definitely got used to preaching on small bits of scripture, and then honing in on one line or idea on which to base my sermon. Five paragraphs offer a lot of sermon potential, but at the moment I have this feeling that I should preach on the story as a whole, which I'm not sure will last.

Anyway, this week I've chosen Daniel in the lion's den (Daniel 6) as my story. It happens that this is also Reformation Sunday. Usually I don't even notice, but over the past week I've seen multiple posts on Facebook about how my colleagues are crafting their sermons in relation to this celebration of the birth of Protestantism, and it's caught my interest. So now in addition to figuring out how to focus my preaching on Daniel (in hindsight, perhaps starting a Bible study on the stories, rather than a sermon series, might have been more appropriate), I'm also trying to weave in Reformation.

At the moment, I have a sermon title, "Abraham, Martin...and Daniel" and some sense that I want to talk about faithfulness to God amidst and informing change and reform. How are we reforming now? How can we, like Daniel, hold on to faithful traditions and values even if they put us in danger of ridicule or marginalization (since not many of our lives are in danger for our faith, at least not here in the US)?Not at all sure how that's going to shape up, but I decided at the last minute to finally include in this week's liturgy a prayer of dedication I found in our hymnal weeks ago and have been eager to use. I think the ideas in this prayer will help shape my sermon. (Funny sidenote: I just did a quick search to see if I could find a link to the prayer, and it turns out the author, Herbert Brokering, edited a book of Luther's prayers. Even more perfect!). I can't seem to find it online, so I'm going to share it here, with citation (and begging forgiveness from copyright holders).

Lord, call us into the church.
Call us in often,
    and teach us the old words and old songs
    with their new meanings.
Lord, give us new words
    for the words we wear out.
Give us new songs
    for those that have lost their spirit.
Give us new reasons for coming in
    and for going out,
    into our streets and to our homes.
As the house of the Lord once moved
    like a tent through the wilderness,
    so keep our churches from being rigid.
Make our congregations alive and free.
Give us ideas we never had before,
    so that alleluia and gloria and amen
    are like the experiences we know in daily living.
Alleluia! O Lord, be praised!
In worship and in work, be praised! Amen.
 From Lord, Be With. Copyright 1969 by Concordia Publishing House. As published in Hymns for the Family of God, Paragon Associates, Inc, copyright 1976.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

One Wild and Precious Life

I am feeling reflective today. Yesterday, a faculty member from my high school passed away, only a few weeks after being hospitalized to be treated for bladder cancer. As far as I know, before that he was still teaching math and coaching. I never had him as a teacher, but his wife joined students in dance classes, and I performed with her. I grieve for her. Their daughters attended the school with me; one was a year ahead, the other, three years behind. I grieve for them. I also grieve for his students. We lost three faculty members my senior year, and one was like this--mid-term diagnosed with cancer, gone very quickly, most beloved.

As I walked my dog Lily this morning through the wooded country roads of the town where I have been serving at a new call since September, I couldn't help but think of poet Mary Oliver's famous question: "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Once again, Perspective has come and knocked me out of my procrastinating, lackadaisical meandering through life.

The other quote that was running through my head this morning was from an anti-drug commercial. Remember the ones where kids were listing what they wanted to be when they grew up, and the voice at the end says, "No one says they want to be a junkie when they grow up." Of course, it's different, but no one plans for cancer, either. No one says, "Ok, I'll graduate and get a job and get married and have kids and then I'll deal with cancer, and we'll just have to see after that."

Yesterday, I discovered the Facebook page of a family trying to bring everyone home. Sean was serving in Afghanistan. Heather was pregnant with a child they'd prayed 7 years for. Baby John was growing in her womb. Then, at 34 weeks, Heather had back pain and a headache, went to the hospital, and collapsed with a massive brain bleed. Baby John was delivered by emergency C-section. Sean spent 72 hours trying to get home. Heather slipped into a coma. Sean is home from war, Baby John is home after 20 days in the hospital, and Heather is still in a coma. I'm sure this is not the life they imagined when they found out they were finally expecting. In an instant, everything changed.

A woman I went to elementary school with is the mother of three beautiful girls. One January day, she took her youngest, then just 22 months old, to the ER with a swollen belly, thinking she was constipated. Instead, it was a tumor on her liver, that had basically appeared overnight. Neuroblastoma. No treatments were successful; little Rylie Hope died in April of the following year, a month after her third birthday. Not a day goes by that I don't think of that little girl, who I never had the chance to meet, but whose smile enchanted me through photos.

Shit happens when you least expect it. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. Forget plans. What ARE you DOING with your one wild and precious life?

Of course, it's hard to live like that. There are bills to pay, and the yard needs to be raked so that if you are indeed around for next spring, the lawn won't look like hell, and there is work to do, and savings to build because what if you do live to be 102?

But still. Today, anyway, I'm being mindful. I will go rake leaves not just because it's a chore to complete but because I love the colorful leaves and the sound of the dog racing through them and the smell of their damp earthiness. And I will wash the dishes, and clean the dining room and organize information for the worship bulletin because those things need to get done. But I blogged, which I've been meaning to do for months, and hope to do much more frequently. And if I don't get to sew today, at least I'll do some sketches.

See, Mary Oliver's question makes me nervous, makes me fearful of death, because right now, if I were asked what I did with my one wild and precious life, I don't think I'd like the answer. Right now, I'm wasting it, betting that I can do things tomorrow, next month, in a few years. No. I get one. ONE wild and precious life, and it's time to stop wasting it, and start singing, "No day but to-day!"

I'm off to rake leaves.

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Another Creation Story?

Sermon preached October 21, 2012, based on Genesis 1:1-2:4a (read in worship the previous week) and Genesis 2:4b-24.

I want to begin this morning with something that seems so far removed from this ancient story as to be almost comical. I want to very quickly try and explain Twitter. Twitter is an online tool for what is called “social networking,” something that used to be done over dinner or drinks, but is now done via computer or smart phone. Most users of Twitter have their profiles open to the public, which means that whether one is signed up for a Twitter account or not, their information and comments (what they call “tweets”) are accessible. One distinction about Twitter is that any post or comment you make has to be 140 characters or less. If you do have an account, you then “follow” other users so that their tweets show up in your feed, and you can interact with other users.

There are a variety of ways people use Twitter. Some use it solely to connect with people they actually know. Some use it to connect with other people who have similar interests. Some use it to promote their business or brand, or in the case of celebrities, themselves. There are those who use Twitter in one direction only; that is, they only send information out and don’t interact. Most, however, end up having “conversations” with other users and engaging with each other.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because I use Twitter. I follow people I’ve actually met and many that I haven’t. I follow people who are in ministry, or have shops on Etsy, or are interested in the environment, or have adopted, or are just interesting or funny. There is one particular user I follow with whom I agree on almost everything. He tends to Tweet a lot of social commentary, focusing on race and gender and sexual orientation. He has an interesting perspective on the world. He often Tweets in spurts, sort of making lists of opinions on certain things, Tweet after Tweet. Usually, I’ll read through his blurbs and find myself nodding my head in agreement. “Yes, that’s so true.” “Oh, what a good point.” Eventually, though, he’ll drift over into the one area where we strongly disagree: religion. See, this user is an atheist, an intellectual who believes religion is ridiculous. One of his frequent comments is about how all religions are just myths. He recently Tweeted in annoyance at how Christians call Greek and Roman god stories myths as though they are any different from our own faith stories.

Does he have a point? I mean, last week we read through the beginning of Genesis, an account of how God created the universe, including the Earth and human beings. This story is immediately followed by the one we heard this morning, another account of how the world was created. Two different stories. In one, the universe was created in six days; in the other, one day was all it took to create the earth and its inhabitants and the rest of the universe wasn’t mentioned. In the first story, male and female human beings were created at the same time, and after all the other animals. In the second, the male human came first, then all the other animals, then the female human. They also just have very different tones to them. Which one is true? Are either of them true? What about what science says about how our world was created? Are these really just myths? Because let’s be honest: if we were told these stories came from some other tradition or culture, and not from the Bible, we’d call them legends, or “creation myths,” and not even really consider believing them, right? Isn’t that what we do? I mean, come on, woman is created from the rib of man? Humans are made out of dust, like a kid playing with Play-doh? God sets a dome over the earth to separate heaven from earth, like we’re a big planetarium?

In my three years teaching Confirmation, reading these two Creation stories was always a big moment for the kids. Many had “come out of the woodwork” for Confirmation, not having been in church since they were baptized, but even those who had gone to Sunday School every week had a revelation. They knew the stories, but they never really thought about the fact that they were two separate stories. I think our society does that too: Creation happened in 6 days and Adam and Eve were the humans created. Right? So when we sit and read the stories, and they realize there are two, separate, different stories, they start asking all those same questions. Perhaps some of you are experiencing this same event this morning. Maybe some of you never realized there were two different stories. Maybe some of you knew, but always had those lingering questions. Maybe some of you felt guilty for questioning Scripture. Maybe others accepted the stories as part of our tradition and the validity of evolution without ever really thinking about it.

They are big questions, though. It is amazing how something as simple as figuring out that our Bible contains two different accounts of Creation can shake a person’s faith. All of a sudden, we wonder about the authority of the Bible. We question all we believe, and why. If those stories aren’t real, what is? How can we believe anything in the Bible? If one is true and the other isn’t, then how can we tell what else the Bible gets right or wrong? Do we hold the Bible as the holy “sufficient rule of faith and practice,” or not? What is the truth?

And here’s what I tell my Confirmation students, something I had to discover myself when all these questions arose for me in seminary, as we dissected every last word of the Bible until it seemed to have lost all meaning and sanctity: there is a difference between TRUTH and FACT.

Factually, perhaps the story we shared this morning may not have happened. Factually, although it does mesh a little better with the scientific explanation of the origins of the universe, the story we heard last week might not be quite right either. However, we can find truth in both of them.

Here are some truths I make out. First and foremost, God is the author of Creation. However it happened, beginning with the Big Bang or before that or through some other theory, God is the Creator. Another truth: human beings have a special role in creation. We have reached the point where we have the ability to destroy everything in a way nothing else on Earth can, and the capacity to see, at least in part, how the consequences of our actions will play out in the future. That endows us with a particular responsibility to care for God’s creation—to be good stewards of the Creation of which we are a part. Related to that, another truth: we are deeply connected to the earth, to dirt, to the very fibers which make up this planet. In Hebrew, we can see the wordplay: adam, human, was formed from adamah, ground or soil. Another truth: Human nature is not a duality of body and soul but a single living being, dust animated by God’s breath. More truth: male and female are both images of the Divine. Also, maybe God doesn’t get everything right the first time. In this morning’s story, God made every animal and bird as failed attempt at a partner for adam. Another truth, and hold onto your hats for this one: sexual intercourse is a divinely blessed act. Both stories make a reference to it: in the first, God tells the humans to “be fruitful and multiply,” and in the second, the man and woman cling to each other and become one flesh. More truth: Creation is very good, and ideal when there is diversity—many different plants and creatures and fish and waters. And yet more truth: like air, God is invisible, but knowable in movement and action. God’s wind swept over the waters at the beginning of creation; God’s breath brought life to human beings.

There are is probably a lot more truth to be found in these stories, and certainly in the rest of the Bible. And perhaps by the dictionary definition, they are myths—stories of heroes or deities or events of nature without a determinable basis of fact. But then, maybe that’s ok. We’re not claiming the facts, necessarily, but the truth that we can learn about God through them, which we see with the help of the Holy Spirit. As we hear more stories from our faith tradition in the weeks to come may that same Spirit of Wisdom and Truth guide us to know our God more fully. Amen.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Truth Is...

Sermon preached Sunday, August 12 at First Church of Christ in Longmeadow, based on Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

So this morning's sermon is a bit of a brainstorm, or to use a turn of phrase I heard recently, "a mind dump." I just put thoughts down as they came, without organizing them in any particular way, so I apologize if they may seem a little random.

The title of this morning's message comes from a game played on Facebook. Those of you with middle school--or even high school--Facebook friends may have seen this. Somebody posts "message me with a number for truth is." Someone does so, and the original poster then posts a "truth" about the friend, but only using the number so it's sort of anonymous. Truths might be things like "You're a really good cheerleader" or "I had fun with you in band."

Given this morning's text's mention of speaking truth to our neighbors, I thought I'd share some of my own truths with you. These are truths about the passage, church, and some of my beliefs.

  • Truth is, sometimes it's hard to speak truth to our neighbors--they might get mad or offended or worst of all respond with another truth we don't really want to hear.
  • Truth is, I don't think we should gloss over the face that this letter writer is telling thieves to stop stealing not because it's wrong or so they can make an honest living for themselves, but so they'll have something to share with the needy.
  • Truth is, when you argue right before bedtime, it's hard to not go to bed angry.
  • Truth is, Christianity is really weird. And awesome. (That one came from a friend)
  • Truth is, I worry about the future of the Church.
  • Truth is, I'm not sure I believe in the devil, but if the devil exists, I probably leave room for it a lot more than I should.
  • Truth is, evil DOES exist.
  • Truth is, the prayer of confession at the beginning of worship is not meant to condemn individuals or make us feel guilty but recognize our communal frailty as humans.
  • Truth is, forgiving is one of the hardest parts of Christianity, and one of the most important.
  • Truth is, it's easy to be neighbors and "members of one another" with people like us. It's a lot more difficult to say, act, and feel that about people and groups we just can't stand, or fear, or who do terrible things.
  • Truth is, we should be praying for them at least twice as much as the people we know, love, care about, and like.
  • Truth is, sometimes it's tough to talk about stuff like this, or why people are or aren't coming to church, without getting angry and snarky and bitter, which is exactly what Ephesians tells us not to do.
  • Truth is, it's really tough to always do what we're supposed to do.
  • Truth is, I'm not sure how Jesus would feel about church committees (really! I'm not suggesting an alternative or to get rid of them, just...think about it!)
  • Truth is, a lot of what we focus on and put our energy and money into doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, and we neglect the things that do.
  • Truth is, the world might really be different if we did indeed let no evil talk or slander or malice come out of our mouths but instead passed everything through a filter, asking ourselves before speaking if what we're about to say is useful for building up, if it will give grace to those who hear.
  • Truth is, that idea is in the same paragraph as the one that says speak truth to our neighbors, so truth is they're probably connected.
  • Truth is, I still haven't quite figured out the whole heaven/hell/salvation thing (and if you have, please feel free to share with me after church!)
  • Truth is, I agree with Charlie Hamlin, who says every day we should do something to strengthen our minds, bodies, and spirits.
  • Truth is, some parts of the Bible are really disturbing and almost impossible to consider holy.
  • Truth is, I wonder what the apostles and other early Christians think about how we follow Christ and worship God and experience the Holy Spirit.
  • Truth is, I wonder what God thinks, too.
  • Truth is, if it's easy, it probably isn't truth (simple, maybe, but not easy)
  • Truth is, I am not the fount of truth, because truth is, you all have your own truths, too, and I hope in the spirit (if not the intention) of this morning's text, you will share some of them with me and your other neighbors after worship at coffee hour and in the coming days and weeks. 
Let us pray: Holy God, you who are the ultimate Truth, loosen our tongues that we may speak truth to our neighbors, always in love, ever for your glory. Amen.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Grace and All That

Wowza has it been a long time since I posted. I knew I was neglecting my blog, but I didn't realize that it was quite this bad! I'd like to promise to do better, and I think that promise would be as much for myself as any readers, but I don't make promises I'm not sure I can keep. So I'll try, but that's the best I can do.

So anyway, my thoughts this morning are on grace. I recently had a conversation with some folks about grace, and salvation, and hell, and faith. It was exhausting, as much of that part of my theology is still developing, but it was also exhilarating. I believe it's necessary to wrestle with these kinds of things. We didn't come to too many conclusions, but the wrestling has stuck with me over the last couple weeks. Just how big is God's grace? It's not earned, but aren't there some requirements? If there is no hell, then what is the point of salvation? What DOES Jesus mean when he says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light, and no one gets to the Father except through me?" If non-Christians receive God's grace too, then why did God send Jesus? Can you be a Christian if you don't believe Jesus was divine? If so, is there still a trinity?

Seriously, they are questions that can keep someone like me awake at night. And as I told those folks, my life would be infinitely easier if I were a black-and-white kind of person, if I could just accept pat answers, memorize them, and spit them back out as truth. Salvation from sin comes through atonement and the cross alone, and it means salvation from Hell. Good people who believe Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior do not go to Hell. Being "good" means following what is written in the Bible, and what is found there is infallible.

However, I'm not that kind of person. I am much more aware of nuance and different perspectives. I struggle to figure out what place the really crappy stories and and instructions in the Bible have in our faith lives today.  I shudder to think that the beautiful, loving non-Christian people I know will go to Hell while vile, hate-spewing oppressor Christians get the Eternal Good Life. It's not all clear. The Bible contradicts itself. It was written by fallible humans, and as someone who frequently attempts to write and speak with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I know first hand that sometimes we get in the way or screw it up or spin the message to our liking.

Here's my mini-morsel of insight that has occurred to me on this hazy, hot and humid summer morning in Massachusetts: if God's grace looks like our human ideas of justice and fairness, we're probably not getting it right. I don't know exactly what God's justice looks like. I do know that I don't believe in an eternal separation from God in a fiery underworld. That being said, I think we must be accountable for our actions--or inaction--in this life. How that plays out, I just don't know. My human sense of justice is that of course Mother Theresa and Jerry Sandusky (making an assumption of guilt here, although of course he's still in court receiving his fair trial) would end up in different places. That's only fair. A life lived ministering to the poor vs. a life lived inflicting horrific abuse on children? Duh. 

And yet. I have no doubt that anyone who is a perpetrator of abuse--and particularly abuse against children-- will have to answer to her/his Creator. I have no doubt that God has little tolerance for such evil. And yet, something in my gut twists a little to create such an absolute, such a limit to God's grace. Where is the line? Is it rape, murder, abuse? What about stealing? What about not caring for "the least of these?" In Jesus' famous speech about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners and in doing such, doing so for him and being blessed, we tend to stop reading before we get to the second part about the people who DON'T do those things facing damnation. Or there's that line in Mark about most sin being forgivable except blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, which is eternally unforgivable. 

I think God's grace is big. Bigger than we could ever imagine. And while we certainly must strive to live in obedience to God and God's commandments, I think we'd do well not to say for certain, "This thing is beyond God's grace." Somehow, I just picture God's response to such a limit to be something along the lines of, "Oh yeah? Watch me."

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