Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Parable of the Talented

What do you do when your favorite author dies an untimely death?

Science fiction author Octavia Butler dies at the age of 58

You read all of her books again, which is what I'm going to do.

Fledgling (2005)
Lilith's Brood (2000)
Parable of the Talents (1998)
Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995)
Parable of the Sower (1993)
Imago (1989)
Adulthood Rites (1988)
Dawn (1987)
Clay's Ark (1984)
Wild Seed (1980)
Kindred (1979)
Survivor (1978)
Mind of My Mind (1977)
Patternmaster (1976)

This woman was a genius, even though she would deny it. I got hooked when I read Parable of the Sower. I dare you to read one of her books without wanting to read any of the rest.

You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It's just so easy to give up!
Octavia Butler, 2000

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Time to Teach

Weekly sermons are not only an opportunity to witness to faith, to empower worshipers, or to challenge assumptions and long-cherished opinions; it is mostly a time to teach, especially about the Bible, a mysterious book if ever there was one. Many folks who come to church do not know many of the stories therein or the traditions that surround them. The following sermon is an effort toward that end.


2 Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50: 1-6; Mark 9: 2-9
******** United Church of Christ
February 26, 2006 (Transfiguration Sunday)

Elijah was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, prophets in Israel. A prophet was someone who was chosen to read the signs of the times of his people and then proclaim to the king and to the people what would happen in their relationship with God if events continued to unfold, what could happen if they changed course; the kind of preaching that happens when one has a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, as William Sloan Coffin puts it. Elijah was prophet to the people and to the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE. Because of the miracles he performed and the miraculous events that followed him, his fame grew beyond legend to the point of being regarded as the one who would usher in the Day of the Lord, the end of time when God and righteousness would reign.

Now we join his story at its end, after he has walked the length and breadth of Israel, when he is to be taken up into the heavens. He is with his disciple and chosen successor, Elisha. Both know somehow that Elijah’s time has come, but neither of them will speak of it. Even so, their emotion is palpable; even though it is not stated outright we can glean a sense of how close their master/student relationship has been. Elijah gives Elisha (and perhaps himself) a way out this painful goodbye three times; three times Elisha vows to stay with Elijah as long as he lives. It is a scene reminiscent of Ruth and Naomi, when Ruth promises to go with Naomi to a foreign land to be her daughter.

When they finally reach the Jordan River and cross over, imagery we now use for passing from this life into the next, Elijah grants Elisha a final gift of their friendship. By his answer we can hear what he is not asking for: “I’ve learned everything I can from you about being a prophet, a leader, how to turn the people toward the Lord, except how to be a prophet without you. I can’t beg you or the Lord that you should stay. I’ll ask for the next best thing.” Elisha asks for a double-share of his spirit. A son would normally receive a share, a third of the father’s possessions as an inheritance; to double that might put the rest of the family in jeopardy. It is a hard thing for Elijah to grant for it is not up to him to decide; God will make the decision if Elisha is to receive this.

As they go, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them and Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind on the hot breath of God. Elisha calls out to his beloved master “Father! Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” When he could no longer see him, Elisha performs an act of mourning and tears his clothing in two. Having seen his master taken into heaven, we now know that Elijah’s spirit is with Elisha. In the next verse he picks up the mantle that was Elijah’s and carries it, wears it as his own.

I wore my father’s robe when I was ordained about 14 ½ years ago. I’m wearing it today. But he was not the example of prophetic ministry to me in the way that Elijah was to Elisha. My father was an alcoholic and was asked to leave his position as a minister of Christian Education. He was not very happy as a minister because he was not a happy person. When I told him that I was thinking about going into the ministry, he said why would I want to do that to myself. I think he went into the ministry as a way of healing the pain in his life. Within a year of leaving ordained ministry he quit drinking and began a crisis counseling center in the church where we had begun worshiping, the church I would eventually be ordained in. But his body had already taken enough abuse from drinking and smoking and buried sorrow that the counseling work took its toll and he left ministry altogether. He died of a heart attack when I was nineteen.

To say the least, my mother was concerned when I told her of my plans to attend seminary, not to mention the same seminary my father attended. She was afraid that I was trying to live out my father’s life, to redeem it somehow by following in his flawed footsteps. Later she came to see that indeed I was happy in the ministry and enjoying my vocation.

What I did not realize until I was older is that I did receive a portion of my father’s spirit. In reading reports that he wrote while in his intern year I saw that he was passionate about the kingdom of God and justice for all people. So am I. He questioned authority. So do I. He was a person of deep feeling to the point of wearing his heart on his sleeve sometimes when it came to caring for others. So do I. Though he was not an ideal example, I still learned from him, both about myself and about what kind of minister I wanted to be.

All of us, leaders, parents, teachers included, are formed in the crucible of our experience. We learn not only in the light, but in the dark as well. God is revealed not only in the bright light of the transfiguration, a mere glimpse of the resurrection, but also in the darkness of the cross.

In the gospel lesson we see that Peter is beside himself, terrified at the sight of Jesus and the sound of God’s voice. Like Elisha, he seems to know what is being asked of him by being allowed to witness such an event. With Elijah and Moses present, it is a sign that the Messianic Age is at hand, that the end times are near. When the moment is over, they are alone with Jesus again, signaling that it is Jesus who is the harbinger of the Day of the Lord, that Jesus is the new Elijah, the new Moses of God’s people.

But then Jesus tells them not to say anything until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. There is an even greater glory to come but at the cost of the cross. God’s greatest love is revealed not only through healing but also through pain; not only through life but also through death.

It is easy for us to associate light as a gift of God, as well as love, healing, peace, and life. It is much more difficult for us to see darkness and pain and death as gifts or as having anything to do with God. We love to learn from good examples but shun or ignore the bad or painful example. Yet God is still with us in the darkness, in pain and in death, and none of these can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is still at work, revealing to us how far God will go to keep us close.

One of the most well-known and most-beloved sayings of Jesus is said by him at night, in the darkness, when he reveals who he is to Nicodemus the Pharisee when he says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” It is not only through Jesus’ life and teachings that we learn the depth of his love but much more so through his death on the cross.

The Church came into being because Mary Magdalene and other Easter morning witnesses, the disciples, the apostle Paul, and many others were captured by the story of the events of Holy Week; of how one man sent by God, preaching justice and the forgiveness of sins, was arrested, tortured, crucified, was buried and rose on the third day to live again. Their imaginations were so enraptured that they were willing to suffer pain to remain a part of this salvation story and to share it with others.

Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, said that it is not easy to resist the offer of a gospel of success, an invitation to “a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” In the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Jesus has a vision while being crucified of climbing down off the cross to settle down with Mary Magdalene, to have a family, live out his days, and die an old man. But in the end he realizes that the cross is inevitable, that it cannot be escaped. The only way to escape darkness is to take part in the light, to love, but there is no love without pain in this world. And the only remedy for love is to love even more.

The life of the Church is where love and pain, where darkness and light meet, in the shadows. We are called to go to those who live in the shadows. U2’s lead singer Bono put it this way: “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives. And God is with us, if we are with them.”

The bright light of the transfiguration reveals the darkness of the cross, creating a long shadow that extends through all life, showing us the depth of God’s love and the path for God’s people. What are moments of insight, when you as a church both saw God’s glory and heard God still speaking to you, calling you to the path of discipleship? What are the shadows, the challenges that face you as a congregation as you strive to be the church in the world? What are the gifts, both painful and healing, that have helped you be the church you are now? How has God been revealed to you in Epiphany, this season of light? What are you going to do this Lent to keep God’s presence so very real in your every day life?

Let’s keep our eyes and ears and hearts open these forty days of Lent. When we see and feel pain, let us look also for the healing that Christ gives. When the darkness creeps in, may we turn and find the light of God’s glory poking through a crack. When we hear of war and rumors of war, let us also witness to peace and justice and hope. When we reflect on our past, as a church and as individuals, may we have grace enough to learn from painful lessons as well as from times of joy. Let us be on the lookout, that when God is revealed in this wide wonderful, crazy world, we will be there as witness, that we too may become a revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Sermons, She Wrote

This week I wrote two sermons but preached only one. This particular Sunday all ages were in church, so it was supposed to be a briefer service and a shorter sermon, one that everyone could relate to. The first sermon, "Immediately", uses some material from a sermon I wrote three years ago (the lectionary readings are on a 3-year cycle). But I didn't think it was one for all ages. So I wrote "Fuhgeddaboutit!" which is about saying sorry, forgiving others, and being forgiven, something the whole world could use a dose of.


Isaiah 43: 18-25; Ps. 41; Mark 2: 1-12
******** United Church of Christ

February 19, 2006

We live in a culture of impatience. We want whatever it is that we want, and we want it right now. Having to wait is a waste of time for us. So we invented cell phones, Palm pilots, hand-held video games, DVD players in cars, and any number of items to insure that we are not wasting our time by waiting. In Carrie Fisher’s book Postcards from the Edge, about Hollywood life, the since-famous mother says to her troubled daughter in a drug rehab that she’s too impatient, that her fuse is too short, that’s she’s only interested in instant gratification. The daughter glibly responds, “Instant gratification takes too long.” That’s our culture in a nutshell. Immediately, or even “I want it yesterday”.

Immediately: we think that’s a word that can’t be quantified. “Immediately” means “without interval of time”. That’s a human definition of the word from a dictionary. I think God has a different way of viewing “immediately”.

Take for instance the speed of light. The speed of light is 671 million miles per hour or 300,000 kilometers per second. A light year, the distance light travels in a year, is about 6 trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometers. Light, coming from quasars, can travel as far as 12-15 billion light years to reach us here on earth. It takes 12-15 billion years for the light of a quasar to reach Earth. We also have a measurement of interstellar space called a parsec. A parsec is 3.26 light years or 19.2 trillion miles. Then we also have a kiloparsec, which is 1,000 times as far as a parsec. Or a megaparsec, which is a million times as far as a parsec. Whoever said science has nothing to say about God? Even the speed of light, which seems immediate, is not instantaneous. It takes time for light to get from one place to another. Even with God, it takes time to do what God will do.

In Mark’s gospel, the word “immediately” is used more often than in any other gospel or book of the Bible. It shows up 17 times in Mark, with Luke a close second at 13. Let us remember, though: the author of Luke, when writing his gospel, had a copy of Mark in his hand. The use of “immediately” is found in many of the healing stories in Mark. And Mark is also not only the shortest gospel, but also the most expedient in terms of Jesus’ ministry. Mark starts immediately with John’s preaching and Jesus’ baptism and moves on from there. There truly is an immediacy to Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Mark. What can I say—he’s on a mission from God. Other gospels use birth stories, genealogy, and even a theological spin on the creation in the gospel of John to instruct us, the readers, about the authority of Jesus. For Mark, the authority of Jesus rests in his baptism and his ministry—simple as that.

“Immediately” has more to do with Jesus’ authority than it does with our expectations. Don’t we all wish we could find that job immediately, be healed from a chronic illness immediately, get out of debt immediately, immediately find that faith that sustains in bad times as well as good ones, that all this war and violence and terrorism would just resolve itself immediately. But the “immediately” in this story comes about as a result of what Jesus does, not the expectations of the paralyzed man and his friends.

Or does it? Perhaps not their expectations, but certainly their actions have something to do with this healing happening “immediately”. Certainly the man would not have been healed at that moment in time if it had not been for his friends who carried him to Jesus when his own two legs could not. Certainly if it had not been for his fast-thinking friends, the man would not have been lowered down through a hole in the roof by the pressing crowd. Certainly if it had not been for the faith of his friends who believed that if not Jesus could do something for this man but at least in their friendship with the man, we are left wondering what faith would this man have on his own.

God’s “immediately” happens in God’s time, but also in the community of faith, wherever that may be found. The authority of Jesus to do as God wills is to act in the community of faith, to free it from its paralysis and its sin so that it might proclaim the good news to the world, the good news that we are God’s children, that there is no place we can go where God is not. And the community of faith has to be a willing partner in all of this, to carry each other, depend on each other, trust each other, that maybe a hole in the roof isn’t such a bad thing after all! Or a hole in the way we do things. Or a hole in that armor we sometimes wear over our hearts and our faith. It’s through that messy hole that Jesus is found, seemingly waiting for us, ready to act and to show mercy.

Now don’t confuse me with the message I’m giving. I’m as impatient as they come. I tell my girls that waiting and waiting well makes their patience muscles strong. If they’re being impatient, it means those muscles are getting flabby and they need a workout. I say all this stuff because I need to hear it myself. Then one day I came across this prayer in The Christian Century written by Walter Brueggemann, a Hebrew scripture scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. There was one section that stood out and glared at me.

“We pray to you this day, for ourselves and others like us who are genuinely good people, who meditate on your Torah day and night, who are propelled by and for your best causes, who are on the right side of every issue, who wear ourselves out in obedience to you, and sometimes wear others out with our good intentions. Be among us ultimate enough to make our passions penultimate, valid but less than crucial.”

In the end, we can do all that we can for justice, for peace, for love, for our church, but it is up to God when that will happen. We can’t force God’s hand. And no matter what side of an issue we’re on, we can’t force others to our way of thinking. We must wait and wait patiently with each other. What is ultimately crucial in the community of faith is that we learn to love each other despite our differences and then bring that same accepting love out into the world. If it is one thing that is paralyzed in this world of ours, it is the power of love—to heal, to forgive, to lay down whatever weapons we are carrying and simply open our hands.

We all know from experience that hindsight is 20/20. When we look back, we can see how God was acting in our lives. Yet when we were living through it, it was difficult to perceive it. God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Sometimes we can be so mired in our paralysis that we do not see the friends of God who bear us up, or notice even ourselves as the scenery changes from day to day.

Change is the way of God. Perhaps things look like they are staying the same because they’re moving so slowly. God moves in the seasons, in the tides, in the phases of the moon, in the resurrection of Jesus, so we have faith; our lives, our world, our faith, our church will change, too. In the mean time, we are to be friends of Christ, friends of one another, friends of the friendless, friends even with our enemies, that when change happens seemingly in the blink of an eye, the kindness and love we have shared will make that change all the more wonderful and blessed and miraculous. May it be so. Amen.


Isaiah 43: 18-25; Ps. 41; Mark 2: 1-12
******** United Church of Christ

February 19, 2006

You don’t have to raise hands but how many of us need to say we’re sorry to someone? How many of us are waiting for someone to say to us that they’re sorry? How many of us are waiting for someone to forgive us? And how many of us need to forgive someone?

Which is easier to say: I’m sorry or you’re forgiven? I don’t know about you but I find it easier to say “you’re forgiven” than to hear it. It’s more comfortable for me to hear “I’m sorry” than it is for me to say it. In the play “A Thousand Clowns”, one of the characters, Murray, stands on a street corner in New York City, saying “I’m sorry” to everyone who passes by. Just about everyone responds by forgiving him: “It’s okay, buddy. It’s alright. I forgive you. Fuhgeddaboutit.”

Imagine, though, if he was offering forgiveness to all those New Yorkers: “I forgive you. You’re forgiven. I forgive you.” He probably would have gotten some hard glares, some snarls, if not a threat to his person. We’re all in need of some forgiveness but it’s not easy to hear when we haven’t even considered apologizing for something we’re not sure we did wrong.

Saying we’re sorry and forgiving someone are a way of bringing our lives back into balance. We are in debt to someone we’ve hurt or we are holding onto a debt that we feel is owed us when someone hurts us and we are no longer on equal footing with each other. I’m alright when God forgives me because I know God understands. Have you ever had someone forgive you and it seemed like they were doing you a favor rather than offering you understanding and mercy? Or had someone apologize with an edge in their voice instead of a touch of humility? When we have difficulty hearing forgiveness or saying we’re sorry, it’s almost as if we think we’re on the losing side of a battle, that we’d rather be right than happy.

In the book of Isaiah the prophet tells the people that their sins are a burden to God, that our injustice to one another wears God out. Have you ever heard your parents say (or you who are parents, have you ever said…) “You are wearing me out!” especially when you were testing their patience and misbehaving? God also gets weary when we remember all the bad things someone did to us and hold it against them or when we have hurt someone else and have not apologized nor sought out their forgiveness. Yet the prophet says to the people that God will not remember their sins, that God is going to do a new thing and will make a way where there is no way. Instead of bearing the burden of guilt that has kept us down, we now can bear the burden of responsibility for making things right which ultimately sets us free. God will make it possible for us to find the forgiveness we have been looking for; God will make real the ability to forgive someone who has hurt us and to remember their sin no more. God does not want any of us to hurt. God wants all of us to live and to love with joy.

Needing forgiveness, holding onto a grudge, being reluctant to say we’re sorry can cause us suffering. It hurts when we feel separate from someone we love. And we can feel stuck too. We can’t seem to get into a good mood or really enjoy something or serve God faithfully until we say we’re sorry, forgive someone, let go of that grudge. It’s almost like we’re paralyzed, like that man in the gospel story. Sometimes we need the gentle nudging of some friends to bear us up so we can get to that place where we can let Jesus touch us and release us from being stuck in our hurt and guilty feelings.

And the beauty of it is we don’t have to say a word when it comes to getting God’s help but we do have to show up and allow ourselves to be put in God’s care. In the gospel story it is the faith of his friends that catches Jesus’ attention. Ten to one we all have someone praying for us, praying that we can let go and forgive, say we’re sorry, so that we can make room for joy and get on with our lives.

We’re not in this alone. We have our families and our friends who stick with us and love us when we feel unlovable. We have this community of faithful people who love us despite our ability to get stuck sometimes. And this church is not alone. This church has brothers and sisters that we can lean on in those times when we are in need of healing. And the relationships go both ways. We’re here to bear each other up, to bear with each other, to practice what it means to be loving and forgiving so we can take that gift out into the world that is crying out for love and mercy.

Most of all, we have the companionship of Jesus the Christ, who heals us, forgives us, releases us and gives us the strength to move on with our lives. So, fuhgeddaboutit! Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Due to a blizzard...

There was no church yesterday, that is, the worshiping community wisely stayed home and communed with God each in their own way.

Which means no one heard this sermon but I hope persons will go online and read it. I had considered not finishing it since I figured I'd be staying home anyway. But just because we wouldn't be together does not mean that the Word need not be proclaimed. God and the Good News do not take days off. I may not have preached but the work of God goes on. So here it is in all its undelivered glory.

Inside Out, Outside In

2 Kings 5: 1-15b; Ps. 30; Mark 1: 40-45
******** United Church of Christ

February 12, 2006

I would venture to say that most, if not all, of us have been excluded at least one time in our lives. We were judged by our appearance or by the clothes we were wearing. We said something that was misunderstood or hurt someone. We couldn’t control our feelings of grief, anger, or sadness. It was the color of our skin or a language we didn’t speak. It was our attraction to the same gender, persons of both genders, our transgendered or intersexed nature, our confusion about our identity. It was our weight. It was depression or bi-polar disorder or those two weeks we spent in detox, the years we spent in and out of therapy. It was the wheelchair, the crutches, the cane, the walker, the missing limb. It was a speech impediment. It was difficulty with hearing or sight. It was our age. It was an illness or disease. It was our religion. It was whether we had money or an education or a job; it was where we lived, where we grew up, what family or background we came from. Whatever it was, we were judged on the surface, only skin deep, without someone getting to know us inside and out.

It is difficult for human beings not to judge in some way. It is our ego that sorts and categorizes all of the information that our brain gathers: it’s a cold day, this room is warm, she’s wearing a heavy sweater, he’s tall for his age. We then take that information and attach some kind meaning or an association to it in some way so that when we come across the same or similar piece of information we will recognize it and it won’t have to be sorted in the same intricate way.

Imagine going through your day and not associating anything with the color blue. You’d look up at the sky and say to yourself, “It’s blue”, and then go onto the next thing, without thinking about whether it’s azure or cerulean, how bright the sun is, a lighter feeling inside, days on the beach or on a mountain, the poem you read that described a blue sky as though it was ironed, and on and on. Everyone associates something with something else—for good or for ill. Most of the time we learn these associations from others and from our own experiences; these responses are often conditioned.

In the movie “Trading Places”, Eddie Murphy plays a con artist street bum who gets “adopted” by two filthy rich brothers who have a bet as to whether they can recondition this reprobate into a gentleman while turning their cultured, equally snooty associate, played by Dan Ackroyd, into a gun-toting, poverty stricken criminal. What’s truly rich about the movie is that the two victims of this plot overcome their assumptions about each other and work together to bring down the scheming brothers.

For its day that movie poked fun at our assumptions, exaggerated them a bit to show us how real they are, and in the end we had a good laugh, if a bit raunchy. But nowadays those assumptions and crash judgments are getting our world into trouble. Listen to this contemporary analogy of the reading from 2 Kings:

“Saddam was an Iraqi military general, praised by all as a valiant warrior and a great man. In fact, the God of Israel and our God had granted victory to Iraq through Saddam.” This is how the story of Naaman begins. Imagine how it would end given this contemporary interpretation. Naaman is given a second chance in that he is restored to health, his skin like that of a young boy; like a baby’s bottom, I was thinking. I looked up the word “clean” as it is used in this story; it means to be unadulterated, pure and bright, physically sound, as though one were restored to a state of innocence, as though the past had been erased.

In Jeremiah God promises to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, even though they broke the old one, even though they didn’t deserve it. God promises to forgive their iniquity and to remember their sin no more.

We give the past such power and permanence. Our ego is never so active as when it is sorting over the past and keeping it very much alive in the present. One of my nasty habits is rehashing those times when I have said the wrong thing or thought I said the wrong thing or wishing I had said that witty or cutting remark or hadn’t said it or when someone hurt my feelings or excluded me or accused me. Lately I have been trying to stop when I catch myself doing this and ask God to heal me, to help me to remember the lessons but to forget the sins of my past, and those who trespassed against me, as God is so willing to do.

Letting go of past hurts, past wrongs is a lot like letting God change a light bulb that doesn’t work anymore.

How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? What? Change the light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb.

How many times does it take for a pastor to change a light bulb? We don't know, everyone fell asleep while she was giving a sermon on it.

How many United Church of Christ members does it take to change a light bulb? How dare you be so intolerant! So what if the light bulb has an alternative light style?

How many Assembly of God church members does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, he already has his hands in the air.

How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb? 1 and 99 to cast out the spirit of darkness!!

How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today.

How many Worshiping Musicians does it take to change a light bulb? One, but soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.
Why did I just tell all those jokes? Laughter reminds us of the joy of being in this community, the joy we feel by having been touched by Jesus. Laughter has the power of healing, to mend and bind together a community, to renew our minds and our spirits and turn our mood inside out, to make the past a thing of the past. We are no longer outcasts, strangers, loners excluded from the inner circle. We who were on the outside have been welcomed in. Jesus has reached out with pity and compassion, in other ancient authorities, with anger at our exclusion, chosen us and touched us with healing power and restored us to life and to community.
You see, the people of Jesus’ time expected that where the messiah is, there is no misery. Jesus gave them and us a more meaningful expectation, that where there is misery, there is the messiah; and where there is the messiah there is healing and joy that cannot be contained. Only God was believed to heal at will. When Jesus chooses to heal, he reveals that compassion is the root of God’s power and that God’s power is with him and is in every place where there is anger at the human condition, every place that pity and compassion move across boundaries that exclude.

Jesus redefined what it meant to be pure; not ritually or religiously pure or morally or socially pure or physically pure but pure in heart: to be loving, extravagantly and unconditionally so. He took the purity laws and turned them inside out. They were created to put the community and its members right with God and to set the Jews morally and spiritually apart from those who worshiped other gods. Instead these purity laws were abused and were used to exclude persons from the community of faith because they were considered unclean and impure. When Jesus healed the man of his skin disease he released him from a past of exclusion, unemployment, beggary, and poverty. He restored him to his family, his faith community, and to life itself.
So, ******** United Church of Christ, what in your past that is holding you back do you need to be released from? How has Jesus restored you to life? When has this congregation been moved to extravagant love? Who are the outcasts, strangers, and loners that need your healing touch? Who are the insiders, the popular powerful folk, outsiders in a place like this, who also need your extravagant love and gentle nudging? To what misery can you give witness to the healing power of Jesus?

It is important to remember that with anyone, we don’t know the whole story. Sometimes all we can see is what a person or group or nation presents to us on the surface. It is up to us to choose to go beyond whatever boundaries or obstacles and reach out with love, the extravagant love of Jesus that reached out to us when we were outside the gate. We have been turned inside out, pure and bright and new each day, that we might reach others who are outside and invite them into this joy that cannot be contained. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fat?! Phat is more like it!

I am 5'3", 137 lbs. (size 10) and recently declared healthy by my primary care physician. Friday morning I was listening to a story on NPR about how French women are now on the average 5'3" and 138 lbs. I thought, "Wonderful! Now one of the most fashionable countries has some real women for whom they can design real fashion!" Instantly I felt more affectionate toward my belly and hips and trés française.

Imagine my shock and horror when I looked up the story on the website and found this title:

French Women Can Get Fat, It Turns Out

I have since written an e-mail to Morning Edition and am awaiting Thursday morning when they read letters from listeners. Woe to the writer if he be male...and pity if she be female.

Gospel Liberty

Isaiah 40: 21-31; I Corinthians 9: 16-23
******** United Church of Christ

February 5, 2006

One of the things I love to do best is to go to the movies and watch movies at home. I love stories that invite me to be a part of them, that weave the characters’ lives into my imagination and have it all affect me in a profound way, whether the movie be drama or comedy or fantasy.

One of my favorite black and white films is “Sullivan’s Travels”, starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. It’s about a Hollywood film director who thinks his comedy work is a waste of time. In his quest to make a serious, tragic, truth-telling film about the plight of the impoverished, the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, he decides he has to live such a life in order to tell it on screen. But it’s just an act, with a studio RV trailing him the whole way, and a comfortable life just waiting for him when he’s done. It’s not until he goes out a second time, is robbed, assaulted, and his identification stolen that he learns what it means to be at the bottom and how brutal life can be. He winds up in prison. On a particularly dark day, when he is despairing whether he will ever get his life back, he and his prison comrades are guests of a black congregation in their church and shown a comedy movie. He realizes, only by inhabiting this cruel life, that it is indeed laughter that lifts one out of the murky depths and restores one’s hopes.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is inviting these new Christians into the story of Christ in such a way as to become a part of it. While their imaginations have been captured by Jesus’ life, his death and resurrection so much so as to be baptized, now it is time for these newly minted Christians to move into the world to persuade others to come to Christ. Paul is engaging the Corinthians by using himself as an example. Paul has not only listened to the message of Christ, that of love, mercy, and justice but has also put himself in the life of those he is trying to reach, as Christ put himself in the life of humanity, in the life of those who needed him most.

Many people have heard this message and taken it to heart. Mahatma Gandhi, when he returned to India after being educated in England and practicing law in South Africa, wore the simple homespun clothing of his fellow Indians. When he saw that most of India was poor and depended on the mercy of the British government, he decided that he must live as one of them but also show them how to support themselves, how to make their own cloth, how to be independent of the British, that one day they would not take their freedom by force but would earn it.

I think Paul and Gandhi would have been great friends. Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” This is the meaning of “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Paul is not saying that the Church should be so accommodating and versatile that the Church be all things to all people but that we need to place limits on our human freedom, to relinquish our inalienable rights to reach those who are alienated, who need Christ’s gospel of truth, mercy, love and justice. Paul is urging the Church to take its relationship with Christ and make relationships with all people and not just some.

In our culture it is expected more often than not that we be educated, employed and secure so as to advance ourselves rather than to bring justice and mercy to others. Even when we as a society do help others there is usually something in it for us and our position in society has not wavered. As a society we have not risked anything nor stepped out in faith. The church in Corinth may have had similar concerns; Corinth was a prosperous city and shipping port, famous for its pottery and bronze work, with cosmopolitan, knowledgeable citizens. Paul is instructing the Corinthians in what it means to have a congregational lifestyle and not just an individual one. In other words, for the Church and its members to become weak is to adopt a cruciform way of living, that is, to live the way of the cross.

A hog farmer decided one morning to attend a church in town. He went into town in his work clothes smelling remarkably like his hog pen. The church folks were outraged at the smell. The pastor said to the farmer: "The next time you come here, ask the Lord what you should wear." The farmer agreed. The following Sunday the farmer returned to the same church ...in his work clothes. The pastor asked: "What did the Lord say?" The farmer replied, "The Lord said he had never been to this church and didn't know what to wear."

How do you welcome home one who has been in exile? You who are Open and Affirming, what stranger or guest would test your skills of hospitality? Relationships are never easy, including those we make at church. At church we’re expected to act a certain way because, after all, this is church. This is the place where we have to take you in. Henri Nouwen said that community is “that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” The way of the cross limits us in that we give up our human freedom for gospel freedom: freedom to love with abandon, to forgive, to help others with no thought to ourselves. We are called to sacrifice our way for God’s way. Usually it’s the way we see things.

Isaiah calls upon his listeners, the exiles who have been living in captivity in Babylon, to lift up their eyes on high and see; see what God sees, as God sees it. We worry about what we can see right in front of us; God’s concerns are all that is. God calls each one by name; not one is missing. God stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in. For a desert people this is good news. How has this church, this tent to live in as community, been good news for you? How can it become good news for those who are not here yet?

Someone once said if we seek healing, we must become healers. If we are searching for love, we must become love. If we want to be helped, we must help others. We must become good news to one another and to our community. If we are looking for new life, we must come alive as Jesus is alive.

It’s a tall order for those of us who feel as though we do not need to become weak because we already feel weak. But we who band together in the name of Christ are strong because of God’s strength. We do not live only in our individual bodies; we live in the Body of Christ. We who are also exiles on our way home to God are told to wait upon the Lord. We who feel powerless are asked to commit ourselves to God in hopeful expectation of God’s power. Everything does not hinge on our efforts alone. Each day, for some, each hour, we must decide to trust God, to have faith, that the One who calls us to this “gospel liberty” is also the God who created the heavens and the earth, who is never weary, whose strength goes to the helpless and gives them the power to fly.

I want to close with a poem written by Carol Wimmer in 1988, entitled “When I say…I am a Christian”. First, hear these words about the poem by the poet herself, followed by the poem.

“My heart was heavy as I wrote the poem. I had begun to sense an increasing societal resentment toward the attitude of self-righteousness that has been adopted by so many Christians. I knew such behavior was and is a perversion of Christianity. Thus, the sentiment of the poem was born out of my personal awareness of this perversion and the heartache it can cause in our pluralistic society.
I jotted down my thoughts with an inner determination to define the Christian spirit as I wished to experience it. …Four years later, I sent the poem to 5 different publishers. As a result of its first publication in 1992, someone placed the poem on the Internet where it miraculously began taking on a life of its own. From Manila to South Africa; Australia to Singapore; Finland to Bahrain—I’ve received e-mails from people all over the world who express a common desire to walk humbly with God. Therefore, I owe a sincere “Thank You” to the unknown person who originally posted the poem on the Internet and the countless number of readers who have subsequently passed this simple expression on to others.”

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not shouting "I am saved"
I'm whispering "I get lost!"
"That is why I chose this way.

"When I say..."I am a Christian"
don't speak of this with pride.
I'm confessing that I stumble
and need someone to be my guide.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not trying to be strong.
I'm professing that I'm weak
and pray for strength to carry on.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not bragging of success.
I'm admitting I have failed
and cannot ever pay the debt.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not claiming to be perfect,
my flaws are too visible
but God believes I'm worth it.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartaches
which is why I seek His name.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority.
I only know I'm loved.

by Carol Wimmer © 1988

Our citizenship in the kingdom of God is nothing to boast about; it is a gift that we are to share humbly and freely with others. Thanks be to God, for this limiting Christian life that ultimately sets us free: to be empowered and to give power, to love and be loved, to serve and be served, to forgive and to be forgiven, to heal and to be healed and be made whole. Amen.