Sunday, January 24, 2010

Coming out

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4: 14-21
******** United Church of Christ
January 24, 2010

First off, I need to say something, something that must be said from the pulpit, even though it may seem like a no-brainer: As a Christian, Pat Robertson is off his rocker! I can’t say that he isn’t a Christian because he is convinced that he is one, and that is really only a difference of opinion. What I can say is that his theology is off the mark and not only that but harmful, especially when measured up against today’s gospel lesson; gospel meaning ‘good news’.

If you haven’t heard by now, once again Pat Robertson is blaming the occurrence of a natural disaster on those who are suffering for it, citing a historically-questionable allegation that the people of Haiti brought these earthquakes on themselves by making a pact with the devil over two hundred years ago to drive out the French who were seeking to enslave the Haitians, colonize Haiti and claim it for their own. Whenever anything horrific and tragic happens in this world, Pat is there to assure us that those who are affected certainly deserved it.

But the devil is having none of it. In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Lily Coyle of Minneapolis wrote a response to Pat Robertson in Satan’s name:

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action.

But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished.

Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"?

If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan

Pardon me for this indulgence but it’s for a very good reason: while Ms. Coyle depicts evil as not wanting to take the credit for such egregious poverty, evil does have a direct link to the excesses of greed, luxury, and easy access to comfort that are at the root of our American empire.

Failed attempts at justice such as legal marriage and civil rights for gays and lesbians, affordable, quality health care for all, a decent living wage and the same opportunity for excellence in education bluntly illustrate that we are not ready to live as equals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. As a nation of high ideals and blatant inequalities, we live a divided life where our outsides do not match our insides.

Some of you know the pain of a divided life, of having lived a half-life in this heterosexual-dominated world. Some of you have a true self that you are understandably reluctant to expose to a world that has been unkind, even cruel to you. There’s the life we live and the life we wish we could live or could have lived.

And most of us have a notion of what it means to be Christian yet many days we settle for a spiritually-impoverished inner life. We straddle our outward commitments like a continental divide, separating ourselves into many fragments for work, home, family, friends, dreams and faith, all the while longing to be made whole.

It’s not easy coming out as a Christian in this world. The divide that exists within us seems like a great chasm in our world as we are still divided by religion and sexual orientation and skin color and class and gender. How are we to repair the breach, even with God’s help? And yet what did you think and feel when you heard the lesson from Luke read out to you? This is Jesus’ ‘coming out’ story, stating unequivocally who he is, Luke having him read from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. It’s also telling, Pat, that he omitted the words "the day of vengeance of our God." This has been the vision of God’s exiled people for well over 2000 years. In this prophetic passage from Isaiah we can hear the inspiration for Mary’s Magnificat:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
And here is the good news for the people of Haiti:
“They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the LORD, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.” (Isaiah 61: 1-7)
Does the reading of this good news, this law of divine love and compassion still have the power to cause us to weep, as in the reading from Nehemiah when the people of Israel wept when they heard their own scripture read out loud to them in the public square in their own land and interpreted for them?

When Jesus declares his mission, we know we are also hearing what is to be our mission. And is today the day that this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing? In another lectionary reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear these familiar words: “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

There are no mismatched insides and outsides: there is only one Body, to which we all belong, even Pat Robertson. There is no divided life. It is an illusion, for within is contained a hidden wholeness. In the Haitian nation and her people there is new nation waiting to be reborn. Within this planet and all it different languages, religions, cultures and peoples is the image of God aching to be known. Within each of us is an authentic self that this world needs in order to be whole.

And this church is the place to begin letting that authentic self out of its oppressive closet. This is the place and the people with whom to experiment and try out what it means to have the Spirit upon us, to be anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of God’s favor; to live out more fully what it really means to be Open and Affirming not only of others but of ourselves.

Coming out as a Christian is vital to our lives but only so as to participate in rebuilding those ancient ruins of the city of God. Wholeness is where we are headed so that we may be a light to those still living in the darkness of injustice. And when we realize that we are one, when there is tragedy and suffering we will no longer need the questions “Where is God? Why did this happen?” for the Spirit of the Lord will indeed be upon us, the Christ made visible through us, the image of God recognized in each of us.

I close this message with a poem by a Haitian-American, Danielle Georges, a professor at Leslie University in Boston, MA, of how she sees her homeland.

Poem for the Poorest Country In the Western Hemisphere
Copyright © 2001 by Danielle Legros Georges

Oh poorest country, this is not your name.
You should be called beacon, and flame,

almond and bougainvillea, garden
and green mountain, villa and hut,

little girl with red ribbons in her hair,
books-under-arm, charmed by the light

of morning, charcoal seller in black skirt,
encircled by dead trees.

You, country, are the businessman
and the eager young man, the grandfather

at the gate, at the crossroads
with the flashlight, with the light,

with the light.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism by fire

Russian Icon of the Baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 43: 1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
******** United Church of Christ
January 10, 2010

It didn’t take long for that baby in the manger to grow up, did it? Christmas was two and a half weeks ago; now he’s a grown man beginning his ministry. He begins with his baptism—a baptism of water, for repentance and the cleansing of sin. In the time of Jesus it was customary (and still is now) for one who is entering the rabbinical vocation to be purified through baptism or mikvah as part of the ordination.

Jesus also may have already had it in mind that eventually he would be heading toward his own death. The experience of being submerged in water and rising with the breath of God filling his lungs may have been to remind him not only of the promise of resurrection, but of God’s promise to sustain him through whatever lay ahead for him.

But the question that lingers is this: why would Jesus, the Son of God, need baptism, need to be cleansed of sin? You see, I think Jesus was aligning himself with the crowds who came for baptism. They would have been considered outcasts by the religious authorities, the poor, the sick, the sinners, tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes with which Jesus would be spending most of his time; in essence, the neediest of God’s people, those who were living through the fires of life and were ready to accept God’s hand to heal them and to lead them.

John said that he baptized with water but that Jesus would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ own baptism by fire comes in Luke 4 when he goes into the desert and fasts for 40 days, where he is met by the tempter, then later in a garden at prayer and on the cross. When we consider the whole of Jesus’ ministry, most of it was a baptism by fire: the never-ending crowds of those who needed him; priests, scribes and Pharisees who frequently provoked and questioned him; always on the road, never a soft place to lay his head, only the clothes on his back and a small group of loyal but hard-headed friends for company; all the time in the back of his mind where his path was going to take him.

Perhaps there were times when Jesus would have called to mind the passage in Isaiah: God promising that when we pass through the waters, we won’t be overwhelmed; when we walk through the fire, we won’t be burned nor consumed, for God will be with us.

Baptism by Fire, Adri Botha, Cape Town, South Africa
There are times, though, when that is small comfort. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather skip the waters and the fire altogether some days. My own acquaintance with baptism by fire began when I was twelve, when my father moved out of the house and my parents decided to divorce. I’ll bet you can recall your first encounter with the fires of life. It’s the first time we know real pain, the kind that grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “[pain] makes theologians of us all.” She goes on to say, “Pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy, and yet the majority of us do everything in our power to avoid it.” [1]

In the movie G.l. Jane, the command master chief instructs his trainees with these words about pain: “Pain is your friend, your ally, it will tell you when you are seriously injured, it will keep you awake and angry, and remind you to finish the job and get the hell home. But you know the best thing about pain? It lets you know you're not dead yet!”

But most of us, when we entered into this relationship with God, did not think that it might entail some serious encounters with pain, especially the pain of letting go and loss. Surely Job, in his righteous life before God, could not have predicted the pain and anguish of losing his livelihood, his children and his health.

When I answered ‘yes’ to God in the call of ministry, I had no idea of giving it up for something else. The minister who prayed over me at my ordination spoke of this calling being a ‘fire in my heart’, that it would give me ‘the cauterizing heat of pain and suffering borne and conquered’. When I gave birth to my first child and then also my second child, I had no idea I would also want to be in ministry as much as I wanted to be a mother. And I had no idea how much pain I would endure as a result of these choices.

A few years ago, when I felt myself to be at my lowest in this fiery baptismal life to which God had called me, I had a dream that assured me once and for all, that God was with me through all of this.

In the dream I am in a room full of women, of all ages. On the floor in the middle of the room is a crying baby girl with a headful of brown hair and big brown eyes. No one seems to hear her or acknowledge her presence. Being one who sometimes acts first and thinks later, I pick up the child and nurse her. Instantly she is soothed and falls asleep.

The next morning as I am eating breakfast and thumbing through a Buddhist meditation catalog, I come upon a picture of this figure, a small statue of Kwan Yin holding Maitreya, the Buddha yet to be. Kwan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of compassion, what is known as a bodhisattva: one who postpones one’s own enlightenment to assist in alleviating the suffering of others. She is like Mary, who gave of her life so that the least of God’s people might be saved from their suffering by the birth of Jesus. When I saw this statue of mother and child, of loving embrace and compassion, I cried, not yet knowing why.

The ‘why’ came later, at Bible study at the church in Monroe, when we opened to the book of Isaiah and in chapter 49 read these words: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

Though at times it may seem as though God is silent, God does not forget us. God is with us in the high waters and in the fires. This is what is meant by ‘Emmanuel’: God with us. God is in solidarity with us. God is with us as the fires of life burn away what is useless and unnecessary and wake us up to what is real and authentic.

Some of you, I know, are traveling through fires much fiercer than mine. I cannot begin to understand cancer or a body that betrays daily or job loss or drug addiction or whatever you are facing in your life right now. Each of us is on our own journey toward the divine; each of us has our own unique pain that brings us face to face with God. And yet pain is pain. Our pain does not make us special. Rather, it has the power to draw us closer to one another as well as to God.

Asking why things happen is a question reserved for the privileged: most folks know the question is really when. Pain is a part of being human and it is also a part of a life of faith. But as to God and suffering, I think that is where choice comes in. We can choose to suffer in our pain through isolation, despair, self-pity or in the midst of our pain we can choose relationship, hope, and the courage to change. We can choose to numb our pain, to ignore it, resist it, wallow in it—or we can choose to be baptized in it and with it and through it: to choose God in the midst of the fire.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, was known to say to people with fierce conviction: “Remember your baptism!” Our baptism with water helps us through the baptism by fire. Through our baptism we know we are precious, beloved children of God who will never leave us.

And not put too fine a point on it but this interim time is a baptism by fire: a time to feel the pain of not having a settled pastor, a time of change and uncertainty but also one of discernment and of winnowing away what is useless and unnecessary. It is a time that can bring you closer to God and to each other, but that is a choice you must make. God is always there, here, in the waters and in the fire, because God will do anything to have us close, even unto a manger and a cross.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 157-158.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Science of the heart/science of prayer

I saw this video over at Jan's place--right up my metaphysical alley. To me, this is the science of prayer, and prayer that is positively-focused rather than just another form of worry and anxiety. We all have those times when we need to vent some anger or fear but our prayers are so much more effective, i.e., they change us more than anything else, when we are peaceful, loving and compassionate.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Word made flesh

The Nativity by Duccio

Jeremiah 31: 7-14; John 1: 1-18
******** United Church of Christ
January 3, 2010

In our culture and in a faith community, when we look over the past year, one of the more poignant things we do is remember who of our family has died. At a time when we celebrate a birth, we also call to mind the temporary nature of our existence on earth.

This past week NPR has been airing stories from what is called “The Obituary Project: Lives of the Unnoticed”. One was about an 80 yr. old woman in Michigan who wanted to save her family horse farm from development after she passes. Through a progression of proposals and outcomes, at Joan Graham’s death, most of her farm will be preserved by a land conservancy but a small portion of it will become a private, environmentally-friendly cemetery. Joan says she wants to be buried beneath an oak tree because it has deep taproots that may take nourishment from her remains. To her, it would be as if she never really died; she would simply morph into a tree.

Another story was about a man who collects obituaries, clipping them from newspapers and gluing them into notebooks. For over 50 years Nowell Briscoe of Monroe, GA has been filling scrapbooks, over 30 of them, several hundred clippings in each book, gathering as many as 400 obituaries in one month. He began his collection at the age of 7 with his grandparents’ obituaries. He says that even though he does not know these people he feels a connection to them. When he takes a notebook off the shelf, opens it and reads the lives that are there, it’s as though he is bringing them back to life.

On Wednesday there was the heartbreaking yet inspiring story of a small group of WWII conscientious objectors who worked at the Philadelphia State Hospital, known as Byberry. The living conditions of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled patients that they witnessed were horrific. As Quakers and pacifists, they realized that kindness was not enough. They came up with a plan to expose the hospital’s inhumanity and patent neglect. Photographs taken by one of the young pacifists, Charlie Lord, resembled those just released photos of Nazi concentration camps. Though one cannot be equated with the other, when the pictures were published in Life magazine, it created a national uproar, that we, a supposedly superior nation, would treat the least among us so inhumanely. The CO’s started a national organization to train workers at state hospitals, to improve the lives of those they served and others around the country.

God's Hands, Kelley Ryden - Tracy Raver

But the one that made me weep and think of Mary holding baby Jesus was the story of Baruch Levi Blum and his mother Joanna. Baruch lived only 10 minutes. When he was delivered by emergency C-section, his mother had known for months that her son would not survive. In order to preserve his brief life, she had contacted the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, an organization of volunteer photographers who will come to the delivery room of a troubled birth and memorialize the child with the family. Photographer Ashley Hutcheson not only documented the beginning and the end of Baruch’s life; she became a part of the family in ways she could not begin to understand.

Christmas joy means nothing if it does not recognize the sacrifice of Jesus, that Word made flesh that died and rose again. In these stories we can hear the Word made flesh: words like courage, conservation, remembrance, peacemaker, and hope, faith, love—those things which abide despite life or death.

In the lives of our family who passed this year—Diane V., Marjorie T., Harold W., Cecil R. and Herbert Y.—we have witnessed the Word made flesh in them; words such as wisdom, humor, compassion, caring, chutzpah, determination, discipline, quiet strength, gratitude, service, and again, the three which abide: faith, hope, and most of all, love.

But we the living must also face those words made manifest through us that cause pain and sorrow, leaving behind wounds in our tender flesh. Perhaps there are words you’d like to expel from your bodily lexicon. Jeremiah speaks of redeeming Jacob from hands too strong for him. What words have oppression over you from which you need to be redeemed? Words like shame, guilt, addiction, codependency, control, pride, scarcity, fear can paralyze our souls, inflict damage upon ourselves and others, and wreak havoc throughout generations, not to mention what it can do to obstruct the path of grace and our relationship with the divine. What words of power are yearning to be made flesh through you, like courage, hope, plenty, forgiveness and joy?

What words made manifest through this fleshly Body of Christ need to be examined and exorcised from use? What words need to be lifted up and celebrated? What are the words yet to be lived and spoken, still on the breath of the Spirit who intercedes with sighs too deep for human words?

No one has seen God. We follow Christ, that Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, close to God’s heart, who has made God known to us. That same Word, through which everything was made, including us, resides in us, yearning to be made known. The words that will be used to remember us are the ones made flesh in our lives, starting now. Amen.