Monday, August 31, 2009

Have you washed your hands?

James 1: 17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
******** United Church of Christ
August 20, 2009

How many of you washed your hands this morning? Washing hands and using hand sanitizing gel have become the popular foot soldiers in the battle against swine flu, colds, and any other airborne virus or bacteria that can make us sick. Hand gel and foam can be found not only at entrances to hospitals but at retailers like grocery stores, even in the common areas at Silver Lake. When I was a kid, washing hands was a matter of course but it was also something I tried to get out of. Did this ever happen to you? My parents would ask, “Have you washed your hands?” I’d yell from some corner of the house, “Yeah.” Then I’d hear the reply, “With soap?”

So, when Jesus says that nothing outside a person going in can defile, does that mean that Jesus is clueless here and the Pharisees have it right? After all, we know that keeping our hands clean is the first line of defense against germs. We know from experience that that which comes from ‘outside our bodies’ defiles them with illness. We know that most disease comes to us from the air we breathe, the smoke we inhale, the toxins we ingest, bodily fluids we exchange with someone else. We’ve known long before the days of penicillin that what comes into the body can potentially harm it.

Our Jewish and Muslim neighbors ceremonially wash before worship. Our Catholic sisters and brothers renew their baptism with holy water before entering to receive the Mass. We confess our sin to cleanse ourselves from within. We’ve all been taught that we need to be purer in the eyes of God.

The Pharisees were concerned with purity of practice, right worship, and orthodox belief, that from these would come righteousness and salvation. Washing one’s hands insured that what was put into the body would be clean and pure. Garrison Keillor once said that you can become a Christian by coming to church about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in your garage. It’s more than just showing up and doing the right motions, believing the right way, and following the rules. Jesus said the pure of heart would see God. Being pure of heart means that what comes forth from our lips is just as, if not more, important than the cleanliness of what passes our lips.

There has been a lot of spew in the news lately: loud, angry outbursts, debates, and downright verbal brawls about the proposed health care reform. Once again the fear-mongers and their unwitting disciples are having more than just their fifteen minutes, with the media granting them the biggest megaphone, all in the name of free speech.

from Time, Inc.
I am always astonished to hear the first amendment invoked on occasions when the language is hurtful and maligning. Whatever happened to the ninth commandment about not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor? Again, when I was a kid, if I had spoken to someone the way some folks have been speaking to public servants, I would have heard the worst threat of all, “You keep talking like that, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.” To enact it would be child abuse, but the meaning is clear: keep your speech clean.

Clean hands, clean speech, clean hearts: which one do you think is the one that will save us, that will keep us on the path toward God, that will make us pure in the eyes of God? God already sees us through the eyes of grace and love. Often, though, what derails us the most is what we say to ourselves. We are our own worst judge, critic and censor. We measure ourselves against others and find ourselves lacking. We look in the mirror to find fault rather than to admire ourselves. We chide ourselves over petty mistakes and beat ourselves up over the bigger ones. We listen to old tapes of those who told us we wouldn’t amount to anything, why should we try, that we were not meant for anything special.

And as for special, it seems that nowadays everyone is, and if everyone is special, then no one is, our judge tells us. We can lie to ourselves with our self-importance and self-absorption. We censor the voice of praise within, thinking we’re being humble, all the while burying our self-worth. We pollute our insides, creating an atmosphere of self-doubt, fear, resentment, rage, shame, and all those other negative qualities that bind us and blind us to grace.

There is a story about an old Cherokee when he told his grandson about a debate that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle between two wolves is inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

What we tell ourselves, the speech we use to teach and feed our hearts has the power to build us up or bring us down. If we are to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, our hearts must be ready to hear God’s word of kindness not just for others but also for ourselves. If we are to be servants of the Most High God, then we must be pure in heart, which is to be able to bear God’s immense compassion for others and for ourselves. And we cannot be pure in heart if we wash our hearts in the bad language of the past (or the present), in lies and half-truths, and in the spew of others’ crazymaking ways.

Look at the slip of paper you were given when you entered the sanctuary. (1) What was your first reaction when you read it? Shock? Disbelief? Doubt? Thanks? Pride? A smile? Envy of your neighbor’s slip of paper? Scoffing, as if you were reading a Chinese fortune? Or wonder, as if you were reading your next step along the path toward God?

Even if the compliment or word of encouragement on that piece of paper does not apply to you today, it could become a goal for you. Not organized and hard-working? It’s something to aim toward. How much more helpful would it be if someone said you weren’t organized and hard-working? Would that inspire you to change your ways? We all know how far a kind word goes with us. Mark Twain said he could live for two months on a good compliment.

What are the bad tapes that get played in this church, the negative messages that continue to pollute the heart of this church? How often do you as a church celebrate your good qualities, lift up and support your ministries, appreciate the gifts you bring to this community? What are the lies and half-truths you tell yourselves that need to be uncovered and replaced with vision, hope and the whole truth of God’s love for you? Do you know how precious and wonderful each of you is in the eyes of God? Do you realize the power this church possesses to effect even more positive change in this world?

Thanks be to God for you, you wonderfully kind, generous, funny, compassionate, questioning, justice-making, seeking-to-be-pure-in-heart church. God has called you by name, you belong to God, and God loves you. Amen.

1. I wrote 65 different compliments/words of encouragement so everyone would have their own. Here are a few of them:

You are sunshine on a cloudy day.

When others see a caterpillar, you see the butterfly.

You give good hugs.

You are smarter than your boss.

You are a smart person and you know what you need to do next.

Just as you are, you are enough.

You are something beautiful from God’s own imagination.

You bring light to a dark world.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Artist's Way

As I said in my last sermon I've begun taking a workshop on Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way. Last week during 'reading deprivation' I came across these wonderful words of wisdom:

"If there is no God, or if that God is disinterested in our puny little affairs, then everything can roll along as always and we can feel quite justified in declaring certain things impossible, other things unfair. If God, or the lack of God, is responsible for the state of the world, then we can easily wax cynical and resign ourselves to apathy. What's the use? Why try changing anything?

"This is the use. If there is a responsive creative force that does hear us and act on our behalf, then we may really be able to do some things. The jig, in short, is up: God knows that the sky's the limit. Anyone honest will tell you that possibility is far more frightening than impossibility, that freedom is far more terrifying than any prison [of our own making]. If we do, in fact, have to deal with a force beyond ourselves that involves itself in our lives, then we may have to move into action on those previously impossible dreams.

"Life is what we make of it. Whether we conceive of an inner god force or an other, outer God, doesn't matter. Relying on that force does."

Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002, pg. 63-64.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Justin Case: A Fingers-Crossed-Behind-His-Back, Well-Meaning Christian (3)

Justin didn't know whether the Archbishop of Canterbury was being cautious or cowardly in regard to homosexuals in the Episcopal Church; he was just glad he wasn't Anglican.

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold or hot. I wish you were either cold or hot." --Rev. 3: 15.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Experiment of a Lifetime

Russian icon, Sophia: God's Holy Wisdom

Proverbs 8: 22 – 9: 6; Ephesians 5: 15-20
******** United Church of Christ
August 16, 2009

Recently I began a 12-week workshop entitled “The Artist’s Way” that follows Julia Cameron’s book of the same name. Some of you may have heard of it or even completed the exercises in a workshop yourself. The goal is to recover your inner artist, your creative child and connect to the Great Creator herself or himself which we call God. Each week certain tasks are assigned, each designed to help 'loosen the sludge', as Julia puts it, that is blocking our creativity. One of this week’s tasks is to not read. That’s right—no reading for a week. I can only read the book for the workshop, nothing else; the idea being that we distract ourselves from our own inner wisdom and creativity by constantly relying on the wisdom and creativity of others.

Can you imagine a pastor not reading for a week? Can you imagine you not reading for week? Most pastors and many other people I know are book addicts, a book recommendation always at the ready, with a stack of several on the nightstand or desk, a few unread books on the bookshelf, and at least one tucked into a briefcase or purse or totebag—maybe even a stash in the bathroom.

So, how was I to prepare my sermon for this week, I wondered. Usually I read several websites and blogs giving commentary and reflections on the lectionary. I read articles in The Christian Century as well as their invaluable lectionary reflections written by local pastors and educators. I read various prayers and affirmations of faith relating to the theme of the scripture. And of course I read the passages themselves from the Bible, often consulting more than one translation to get a different flavor.

Therefore, I decided that, in order to be as faithful as I could to the challenge and to the responsibility of preparing the sermon, I would read only the Bible, and I would read the book for the workshop. All quotes or references in the sermon or in the bulletin are from those two sources and from my memory and life experience.

It used to be that our faith experience resided only in our memories and life experiences and in stories passed down through the generations. At crucial points in history the decision was made to write down humankind’s different tribal experiences of God, and we became the People of the Book: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Not only did we all take our holy stories and write them down but we also have some of those stories in common. And because of these holy books, each tradition has its own scholarship. Jews took their sacred stories and created commentaries and built upon those stories in the Talmud and the Midrash. Muslims consider the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian scriptures to be their sacred stories as well as the Qur’an. Christians refer to Jesus as the Word, or logos—the Word incarnate, in the flesh, a sacred story of God permeating human living and breathing, of the teaching of right living and soul-forgiving healing, of brutal death and merciful rebirth.

The Greek word logos can have many different meanings besides ‘word’: theory, message, motive, reason, story or wisdom. And we know this word logos best from the first few verses of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Word was with God in the beginning and all things came into being through this Word; not one thing came into being without this Word. In this Word was life and the life was the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Imagine some of these other meanings in these verses from John: In the beginning was the theory, the message, the motive, the reason, the story, the wisdom; it was with God, and it was God: the theory, the message, the motive, the reason, the story, the wisdom, and the darkness did not overcome it.

We also hear this same rhythm from the gospel of John in the lesson from Proverbs. Wisdom is speaking and wisdom is female—in Hebrew she is hokhmah; in Latin she is sapientia; in Greek she is sophia. Wisdom declares that she was there before creation came into being, that wisdom was the first of God’s acts long ago, and that wisdom was God’s creative companion, a master worker, daily God’s delight, like a little child alongside the artist parent.

Wisdom, God’s holy wisdom, is what we need to know for right living or what the Bible calls the path of righteousness. King Solomon, declaring himself to be only a little child in the footsteps of his great father David, asked God to grant him an understanding mind that he would be able to discern how to govern God’s people and how to discern between good and evil. Delighting in what Solomon asked, God promised him that he would have a wise and discerning mind, that there was none like him before and that none like him would arise after him. It is said Solomon composed 3,000 proverbs.

But of course Solomon didn’t pull these proverbs out of thin air. Even if God revealed them to him, wisdom proves itself out by working in experience. Wisdom is born out from living life, from making mistakes, from failure, and from our successes.

From the time we begin to realize that we are separate entities from our parents, we become little scientists, discovering our own wisdom for living. What happens when I smile? Those big people smile back at me! What happens when I lie on my stomach, push up with my arms and lift my head? I can see around me! What happens when I grab the couch with both hands and pull up, using my legs to support me? I can stand! What happens when I stick a pea up my nose? I can’t breathe so well and we have to go to the doctor!

And ever since then we’ve been doing the same thing, asking the question “what happens when I…?” but as time moves on and we get older, we do it with perhaps not the same amount of enthusiasm and mindfulness because the level of responsibility has increased exponentially. We’re no longer child scientists but adults, parents, employees, leaders. What happens when I’m going to be late and I don’t call? People who care about me worry and get mad at me. What happens when I say I’m going to do something and then I’m just not up to the task, whatever it is? People I respect may feel disappointed in me but I know I’m going to feel horrible. What happens when I leap? I just might fall.

Some of us conducted different experiments than others, some the same experiments with different results, depending on the family we grew up in or the genes we inherited or the personality we came into this world with. Some of us grew up with God in the mix and some of us didn’t. Many of us learned to fear. Some of us, now that we’ve known God awhile, don’t know what do with God. And others are firmly on that path with God, learning how to dance. We all have our own unique wisdom for living our lives—some of it meshing with others and some of it not.

“Ask and you shall receive. Knock and it shall be opened to you…” Julia Cameron writes, “These words are among the more unpleasant ones ascribed to Jesus Christ. They suggest the possibility of scientific method: ask (experiment) and see what happens (record the results).”
[1] Our whole lives, even our life with God and with each other, are an experiment. We keep trying to find a plan, a map, one right way to do things but instead God gives us purpose. And that purpose is love. It may sound simple in theory but we all know how difficult it is to do. Love is the purpose, the way, the truth, the life; the theory, the message, the motive, the reason, the story, the wisdom. For us Christians it is our hope that we see that wisdom, that story, that love most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. And church is the experiment, the place, the people where we endeavor to live out that wisdom, that love as best as we are able.

Church is the experiment of the kingdom of God on earth. It’s where we learn how to love and forgive so we can bring that wisdom into the rest of our lives. Church is where we ask: What happens when we live together in community, each with our own unique wisdom, striving to live out God’s holy wisdom? Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes things just flow. Sometimes it’s chaotic and confusing. Sometimes it’s creative and joyful. And sometimes it’s painful. That’s the paradox of the purpose of love: without love, we wouldn’t feel pain and without love, pain would be unbearable. But the wisdom of love is that when we leap, we can trust that the net will appear, that the darkness has not overcome that love.

What leap do you need to take? What is the darkness that creeps into your trust of God? What is the collective wisdom of this church? What have you learned over the years of being a family of faith? What wisdom that you possess could be brought to bear during this time of transition? Is there a particular piece of God’s holy wisdom that gives you comfort, that challenges you, that speaks to you right now? Who are the wise ones among you, likely and unlikely, who are sources of creativity and wisdom? Think of the many saints of this church who have passed on; what would they say?

Thanks be to God, for that wisdom was shared with us in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, whose wisdom continues to speak to us through the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for the wisdom through which all creation was made, even each one of us. Thanks be to God for the wisdom gained in the experiment of human living and for love, that purpose that makes it all worthwhile. Amen.

[1] Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002, pg. 64.