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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