Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's really all about God

This is the next book on my reading list:

The author, Samir Selmanovic, has also founded an interfaith community, Faith House Manhattan.

My favorite quote from the video: "Religions are living things and we can expect them to change."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Pre-Existing Condition

Mark 10: 46-52
******** United Church of Christ
October 25, 2009

If it’s one thing we’ve been hearing a great deal of in the news, it’s health care reform. The debate, the wrangling, the angry outbursts—all this resistance has been carrying on for months. Finally, the Senate has agreed to include a public option in their health care reform bill, but they’re not as altruistic as they sound. It’s more of a political wedge, really. Democrats want Republicans to be the bad guys when they are forced to vote against a public option that right now enjoys a slim majority in most recent polls.

It seems no one is really considering the real lives that this bill will affect. Take for instance Dawn Smith of Atlanta, Georgia. Four years ago Dawn was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that causes electric shock head pain. Recently her health insurance company doubled her premium from $350 to over $700. She had been paying a co-pay of $10 for a particular pain medication, but then she was informed that the cost of this medication had gone over $3000, raising that co-pay to over $1100! Dawn was told she would have to find another medication.

She was denied coverage of tests and treatment from an out-of-network epilepsy center. After fruitless months of persistent letters to her representatives in Washington, she caught the attention of the political action committee,, who sent her story to their massive email list. Her health care company was then forced to cover the tests and treatments at the Cleveland Clinic. Later she was also told that her doctor made a clerical error regarding her extremely overpriced medication.

Dawn also faces a conundrum that most folks like her face: because of her health condition Dawn is unable to do her work as a freelance writer, thus unable to earn an income that would help pay for expensive premiums, costly medication, treatments and tests. She has used up all her savings. Mostly she has benefited from the mercy of strangers who contribute to on her behalf. She is one of so many who have been forced to choose between making a living and living a sustainable life.

The cries of Bartimaeus in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark could be the cries of Dawn Smith and all those like her: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Bartimaeus was blind and thus, he had to beg for his living. He too had to rely on the mercy of strangers in order to have some money to live on.

Beggary was a life one was consigned to. There was no hope of any other kind of life, for even if one was healed by a miracle, there was no other occupation to fall back on, no other way to earn a living. Even though beggary is not enviable, in Jesus’ time it was a just-barely sustainable lifestyle, because observant Jews were obligated to be generous to those who were less fortunate, what we now call noblesse oblige. Bartimaeus could trust that on any given day a few coins would land on his cloak, enough to keep him from starving. So though his income was meager, it was also a steady stream he could depend on. Kind of like Social Security.

Yet when he hears that Jesus is passing through town (we can assume that being on a public road he must have heard the local scuttlebutt), Bartimaeus is willing to give up what is familiar to him for a life lived in the unknown. More than a story of healing, this is a story of call: Jesus’ call to servanthood and one poor beggar’s response.

Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Here, Bartimaeus makes use of and trusts with his life the highest form of noblesse oblige. When a king passes by in procession and a subject cries out for mercy, the king, by virtue of his nobility, is obliged to stop the procession and attend to the needs of that subject. The title “Son of David”, used for here for the first in Mark’s gospel, reveals that Bartimaeus not only recognizes Jesus’ kingship but that he is also the Promised One, the Messiah who would bring about a new world order, both spiritually and politically.

"Sight to the Blind - Gene Tierney" from Hymn to Her by Karen Whitehill

But notice how this title is used. First, there is the contrast between “son of Timaeus” and “Son of David”, that the Son of David, this king, this messiah came for those humble ones such as Bartimaeus. And then there is the timing of this title. Mark places this call story right before Jesus is to enter Jerusalem for the last time. This new world order will come about not by a coronation or by revolution but by an innocent man being put to death. And this is when Bartimaeus decides he is ready to give up his meager but safe existence for the Way of Jesus, that way that leads to the cross.

Michael Moore, in his latest movie Capitalism: A Love Story, sardonically subverts some of Jesus’ teaching and turns them into profit-making slogans. In one scene Jesus refuses to heal a sick man because of the man’s “pre-existing condition”.

Bartimaeus’ pre-existing condition is on two levels. On the surface, yes, he is blind and poor, making him humble and willing to surrender but more importantly, under all that, he trusts that Jesus, this Son of David, will indeed have mercy on him. And so he is persistent in his cries, trusting that he will be heard and that Jesus will do for him whatever he asks.

I’m going to make a leap of understanding here and suggest that perhaps one reason you chose to call me as your interim pastor is that we have a pre-existing condition. We are acquainted with one another from three years ago; something that I thought could possibly be an obstacle to an effective interim time. But it seems that this previous relationship has provided us with a baseline of trust upon which we have been able to build.

But again I ask, how much further are you willing to go? Do you trust yourselves and each other to surrender what is for what can be? Do you trust that God is calling you to a reformation of your life together? Do you trust the future? Do you trust the call of Jesus to follow him on the Way? Being a part of a church means that as we move closer to Jesus, inevitably we will move closer to the cross.

Our nation is in a time of transition. President Obama is endeavoring to lead us through a time between what was and what will be. There are tremendous opportunities for real change before us. There is uncertainty but also a new hope on the rise. The same is true for this church. The interim time is a crucial period when a congregation is called to trust that the way of the cross is the way of transformation.

The first definition of the word ‘faith’ has nothing to do with belief or doctrine but with loyalty and trust. Bartimaeus trusted Jesus: he had faith that Jesus would indeed have mercy and do whatever was asked of him. Our pre-existing condition, that has been in our hearts since God first loved us, is faith: that trust and loyalty that we give to God and extend to one another, that has the power to heal and to spur us to follow Jesus, wherever he may lead. Amen.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Holy Disruption

Minimum Security by Stephanie McMillan - April 25, 2009

Mark 10: 32-45
******** United Church of Christ

October 18, 2009

A spiritual discipline that I have endeavored to apply over the years of my adulthood, especially as a pastor and mother, is the acceptance of disruptions. A disruption is any change in the status quo. It can be welcome or unwelcome, unexpected or expected, or merely a suspension of the usual process of living. Many a time I have welcomed a disruption, even planned for a few of them, such as moving away from home and resigning from full-time ministry. Some of these planned disruptions of ‘the way things are’ were of the most positive kind, like getting married or having children or returning to work, yet each also comes with its own challenges as well. Most of the time I work at welcoming disruptions into my status quo; some of them are of the merely inconvenient variety, but usually they are an opportunity for ministry.

In fact, ministry is comprised mainly of disruptions to the status quo. Someone loses a job or needs some help paying the bills or just moved into town or was in an accident or has just quit smoking or is in recovery or received disturbing news from a lab report or a relationship has ended or a loved one has passed away—and they need to talk, they need community, they need help.

Jesus knew this. Often he would try to get away by himself and pray but more often than not, folks who were hurting or lonely would find him and Jesus would give them what they needed most: healing, forgiveness, love and a changed life.

In this morning’s scripture lesson Jesus and the disciples are headed for the biggest, most traumatic disruption of their life together. For the third time Jesus has told his closest friends and followers what will happen to him when they reach Jerusalem. He goes into great detail—betrayal, torture, then death, and at the last, resurrection.

Two of the disciples, James and John, have the strangest reaction to this disruption, this oncoming train wreck: to ask to be at the right and left of Jesus when he comes into his glory. The author of Mark does nothing to gloss over their request or to make them appear less connected to this audacious demand, as does Matthew by having their mother ask Jesus for them. Mark presents the disciples as very human. It would not be the last time that when a leader’s death or leave-taking is imminent, even one as beloved as Jesus, someone would make a power grab. This does not beg for a judgment but rather understanding. By asking for seats of glory, they betray their fear at losing Jesus and the intimate community from which they have received a new life.

But Jesus is as cool as a cucumber. As the ultimate transition man, he exudes an ideal non-anxious presence. He does not judge them for asking something from him, even as he is about to enter the city where he will meet his death. He responds to the ignorance that is masking their fear with gentleness, as though they are young children lacking certain life experience.

What the disciples do not know is that disruptions can also be deep sources of transformation, especially the ones that cause a great deal of pain. Like a mother giving birth to a child, painful disruptions have within them the possibility of transformation, of birthing us from one life into another. It is how we approach and creatively handle these disruptions that determines what shape this transformed, changed life will take.

Jesus warns James and John that indeed they will drink from the same cup and share the same baptism, but who will be at his right and his left has already been prepared. Only recently have I wondered if the two thieves who were crucified on the right and left side of Jesus were representative of these two disciples, illuminating the truth that on the path to glory there is no escaping pain and disruption, but that there is also transformation of the highest order.

You’d think that if the other disciples were listening in, they would have heard Jesus’ warning and heeded it, but no. Thankfully these other disciples are just as wonderfully human as we are. They become angry at James and John, perhaps because they made the request before any of the rest of them could.

Jesus then reminds them of the worldly powers that be, that there is a certain pecking order to be observed and obeyed but as usual with Jesus, it is turned upside down. And in so doing, Jesus has set the disciples and us free from any humiliation from the powers that be by commanding that we be humble instead, by living as servants and slaves.

Servanthood is a life lived in the service of disruption. The master calls, the servant responds, disrupting whatever was currently happening. The servant is willing to disrupt his or her life for the sake of the master.

This past week I met with a group of clergy friends for our monthly spirituality group. Each month we take turns leading the group through a discussion, some prayer and singing, and sharing Communion. This time we shared Communion quite differently. We were instructed to take a sizeable chunk of bread and then to feed each member of the group with a small morsel of it, saying each person’s name with the words “I am willing to disrupt my life for you.” And a few of them had already done that for me.

You are currently living through one of the more challenging disruptions that can disturb the status quo of a congregation, that time of transition when a pastor leaves but not quite time for a new settled pastor. You may not have been willing to live through this disruption at its beginning but I have witnessed your willingness to disrupt your life together grow over the past seven months (yes, it has been that long).

How much further are you willing to go? Are you ready to make those difficult changes that will prepare you for the future, such as how you govern yourselves? You already disrupt so much of your individual lives for the sake of this church. THANK YOU! The irony, however, is that when our practice of church becomes an unconscious pattern, when it becomes the status quo, such as giving the same pledge each year or the same people leading, it is then that a holy disruption is needed.

Are you truly being challenged by the words of Jesus? Do his words poke holes in your arguments, your resistance, in your status quo? For through those holes, through those holy disruptions will come shafts of light, to illumine your way to true servanthood, to glory, to transformation, to a changed life. Amen.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Lost "Cymbal"

(as in a noisy, clanging sound...)

I've just started reading Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and he's already lost me to a degree. In the second chapter, in the voice of his character Mal'akh, who is tattooing himself, he writes this:

"The act of tattooing one's skin was a transformative declaration of power, an announcement to the world: I am in control of my own flesh. The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices...cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids...even bulimia and transgendering (emphasis added)."

He equates, in the mind of one of his characters, the act of tattooing and other addictions to altering one's flesh with transgendering! Transgendered persons do not feel that they are in control of their own flesh but quite the opposite. They know themselves to be a stranger in their own flesh, outwardly presenting one gender but inwardly identifying with the other.

I just couldn't believe he wrote such an ill-informed concept. If he had just used "anorexia" instead, he would have been right on.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A passion for beauty

Kalachakra sand mandala

Just recently I began reading the daybook Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. In today's reading she writes about having a passion for beauty, for desiring beautiful things: artwork, music, poetry, rich fabric, glassware, color, flowers, jewelry--anything that enriches and enhances our lives with joy.

Lately I have come to the conclusion that whatever art or beauty I participate in, I want it to be practical. I don't want to produce a painting or sculpture or piece of handmade jewelry or even a book that needs to be preserved. I would rather it have some practical use, like cooking a delicious meal or planting a garden or singing my own interpretation of a song for an audience or writing a sermon or poem to be spoken aloud. This world already has too many things, too much waste. I don't want to add to it.

Now that may sound harsh to some, that art cannot continue to be frivolous or art for its own sake. But I think this points to our fear, our desire to hold onto beauty because one day it will fade or change. Witness the enormous digital camera enterprise, yet our reluctance to print these pictures. We want to preserve the moment, to not let it go, yet we do not take the time to make something permanent of that moment. Or we are obsessed with doing so, as seen in the scrapbooking movement. I also think this may be the source of our materialism and our infatuation with novelty, to be able to possess the beautiful thing, whatever it is, that we may hold a piece of beauty and temporarily satisfy our passion for it.

For me, the purpose of creativity is not to produce a 'thing' to be preserved but to live a life that is a work of art, a thing of beauty in and of itself. I want to enjoy beauty but to then let it go. I think of Buddhist monks who, in the attitude of prayer, painstakingly create a beautiful mandala out of colored sand but then sweep it away in the same attitude.

We are only passing through. The key is to appreciate beauty whenever we witness it and to give thanks to the mystery that brought it into being.

"Nothing gold can stay." --Robert Frost

Sunday, October 04, 2009

What God has joined together

Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16
******** United Church of Christ
October 4, 2009 – World Communion Sunday

I almost chickened out from preaching on the passage in Mark. I mean, it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. One, it has a narrow view of marriage because that’s all that was known in the time of Jesus: husband and wife. And two, Jesus says if you divorce, then you have sinned.

I know a lot of divorced persons who get very angry and defensive about this passage. I was reluctant to preach on this knowing there are divorced and remarried persons in the congregation. I myself am a child of divorced parents. My parents did everything they could to save their marriage, 17 years of it by the end, even though it was probably doomed from the start. All of us have been touched by divorce one way or another. Even if we don’t know anyone who is divorced, our thoughts about marriage have been clouded by the issue.

Not long ago I heard on public radio a local journalist read her commentary about marriage and divorce. She cited her own divorce process as being very difficult, long and drawn out, a year of counseling to prove her marriage was dead and not merely sleeping. There was meeting after meeting with lawyers and her soon-to-be ex-husband about financial arrangements. There were parenting classes on how to handle this new family situation. And only after all that was she served papers. She contrasted this with the process for getting married. There was very little counseling, no parenting classes, and all the running around was merely errands for flowers, music, the hall, the church, dress, invitations, etc. Not much was required of her and her fiancé when it came to getting married as opposed to when they got divorced.

Billboard seen in New York City, 2006.
Back in the day of Jesus, it was comparatively painless to get divorced. In Deuteronomy chapter 24 it reads that if a man’s wife did not please him, that is, if he found something objectionable about her, he could write his wife a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. If she married again, the second husband could do the same, but the first husband could not marry her again because she had been defiled. There is nothing written in Deuteronomy about how a woman could divorce her husband. In Palestine, Jewish women could not sue for divorce. Jesus, though, upholds the same standard for men and women, holding each accountable.

The Pharisees may have been snoops by testing him, but Jesus was speaking of marriage and divorce in this way because he was building a community, a kingdom, a commonwealth, where love reigns rather than power. In the case of divorce, people were just writing each other off because they had the power to do so. There was no consideration of what this action might do to a woman, which would have rendered her useless and poor, unless some other man wanted her. Jesus said to the Pharisees that Moses wrote this commandment for the people of Israel because of their hardness of heart. The Law was shaped to the character of those for whom it was written. Jesus in effect says to them and to us that we need to shape our character to God’s law, which is love.

None of us is dispensable. We cannot write anyone off. In Hebrews we read that because the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father, and to be inclusive, one Creator, Jesus is not ashamed to call us sisters and brothers. All human beings are God’s children. When we dismiss someone else’s claim to grace, we reduce them in our eyes as being not as worthy.

Sometimes we leave the community that can and often does disappoint us. We think we will find something better: another church family that will not let us down, worship that suits us better, a better preacher, people that are friendlier. But in truth we cannot divorce ourselves from community or from those whom we find objectionable just because we have the power to do so. Every group of human beings has it flaws and its own need for forgiveness. To love is to know disappointment at one time or another. We know this from our own families and relationships. Nothing could be more true about the church, about us brothers and sisters striving to live out what it means to be in covenant with one another.

Thursday morning I peeled a few bags of the ugliest apples I have ever seen. Most folks wouldn’t give these apples a second glance, let alone use them in apple pies to be served to the public. Yet you take them and peel them and season them with cinnamon and sugar and bake them into something wonderful.

And you’ve all heard the saying about ‘one bad apple spoils the whole apple barrel.’ In truth, studies have been done where good people are put into a bad system, a bad apple barrel and those good people, over time, become bad apples, behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the bad system. It is what sort of system in which human beings connect and form relationships which can create dysfunction and that what needs to change is the apple barrel, the system if there is to be any hope of changing patterns of individual and communal behavior. Which means we’re all in this together.

In truth, we are all married, joined to each other; we are all brothers and sisters, children of God, promised to one another in Christ. What God has joined together, none of us should separate.

Imagine a world joined in covenant as in marriage, sealed with solemn promises, ‘til death us do part. Imagine then if we treated one another, thought of others around the world, as a spouse, a partner, a companion. We would promise to be faithful to them, to be with them in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. A wedding I performed a few years ago included words from the book of Ruth for the couple’s vows: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you. For where you go I will go; and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, your history, my history; and your future, my future.”

We enter into this covenant of commitment and renew it each time we receive Communion. Through Communion we enter into a covenant with Christ and all those whom Christ loves, even those fractured covenants where the Church is divorced against itself; even those who will not worship with us because of who we welcome; even those we deem unlovable and objectionable; even those we cannot forgive: our enemies. Through Christ’s flesh, we see that we are one flesh. Through Christ’s blood, we see that we are one people. Marriage, that is, making a covenant, means more than just two people creating a life together. Marriage is all of us making a covenant, creating a family of God together, a whole family that excludes none from God’s grace and blessing.

And I close with these words of blessing from the UCC Book of Worship in the Order for the Marriage Covenant: “Be merciful in all your ways, kind in heart, and humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another. Forgive as freely as God as forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, remembering that as members of the one body you are called to live in harmony, and never forget to be thankful for what God has done for you.” Amen.