Monday, April 19, 2010

The way forward

– a skit based on Acts 9: 1-20

Characters: Anybody Everyperson (owner of a party planning business), balloon inflation technician, table decorator, God disguised as a AAA mechanic, and a narrator.


Narrator: Once upon a time, a long time ago, in fact it was in the beginning, everything was done God’s Way, and it was good. It was very good. After a long series of fits and starts, God’s people figured out that God’s Way was a good way to do things. They called it the wise way. If one did not do things God’s Way, then one was following the foolish way. But human beings, being who they are, were soon calling God’s Way the right way and everything else the wrong way. It didn’t take long after that for it then to be referred to as my way and your way, or my way and the wrong way.

Act 1: Scene 1: Setting: a party planning business. Employees are getting an area ready for a party. Anybody Everyperson is checking on how they are doing their jobs. The balloon inflation technician is working furiously but accomplishing a great deal. Sign displayed with the company logo and motto: “Our way is the best way to have a party.”)

AE: How’s that balloon inflation thing going?

Tech: It’s going fine. I’m almost done. Just a few more to go.

AE: Are you going to tie them that way? Here, give me that!

(Grabs balloon but loses grip and it flies around the room.)

AE: (huffily) Well, just hurry up and finish those balloons! (Stalks out the door.)

Tech: (rolls eyes and sighs loudly.) (Says in a sarcastic, sing-song voice) “Our way is the best way to have a party!” Yeah, right.

Act 1: Scene 2: Setting: the table decorator is setting the communion table with the cross, candlesticks, flowers, ceramic birds, offering plates and arranging them in an unusual way but is obviously pleased with the effects.

AE: Is that how you’re going to set the table?

TD: Yeah, isn’t it great? It’s so post-modern, asymmetrical, non-politically correct! (Walks offstage to get another table element.)

AE: Not today! (rearranges table elements in a typical fashion and then walks offstage.)

TD: (Walks back in to see table rearranged. Rolls eyes and sighs loudly.) (Says in a sarcastic, sing-song voice) “Our way is the best way to have a party!” Yeah, right.

Act 1, Scene 3: Setting: Anybody Everyperson is in her car, pulled over the side of the road with a flat tire, alone late at night, on a deserted country road.

Narrator: No one had paid attention to the wise way and the foolish way for a long time. God knew that something had to be done to save people from themselves and from one another, and so God decided to turn things upside down. At the right time, God sent Jesus to teach the foolish way of love.

AE: (feeling sorry for herself and crying) No one likes me at work. They all hate me. I can’t seem to do anything right. I’m so stupid. Why did I ever think I could run a party business? And now a flat tire! What am I going to do? I’m stranded out here! O God, please help me!

AAA guy: (“AAA guy” placard in front.) What seems to be the problem, ma’am?

AE: Oh thank God you’re here. I’ve got a flat tire.

AAA guy: Well, you’re welcome! Nice of you to say thank you. Most folks don’t remember to thank me, especially when they’re going through a difficult time such as yourself.

AE: Thank you? I said thank … oh my word! Who are you?

AAA guy: (switches placards.) The triple A guy of the cosmos! The Alpha and the Omega! The creator of the universe. And you. Why are you persecuting my child?

AE: Your child? You mean Jesus? I never said anything against him.

AAA guy: (Reaches into toolbag.) Here, one of my tools. (Hands AE a hand mirror.) Look in that.

AE: Yeah, so what? I see me, a screwed-up control freak who bullies everybody.

AAA guy: No, what you see is me—I just happen to look like you. You are a child of God and I will treat you that way.

AE: Wow, really? I am your child? Oh, I’m your child that I’ve been persecuting!

AAA guy: And some others too. Like your employees. You know, when I created human beings, I said they were good, not perfect. I think you’re good, and so are they. Do you think you could live with good?

AE: Good sounds very good right about now.

AAA guy: Okay, then. I want you to take that mirror to work and show it to your employees. Then I want you to say “You are a child of God and I will treat you that way.” Then behave that way.

AE: Are you kidding me?

AAA guy: (throws her a look.)

AE: Okay, okay, I’ll do it.

AAA guy: Now let’s take care of this tire.

AE: Is that how you’re going to fix it?

AAA guy: (throws her another long, slow look.)

AE: Just kidding, just kidding!

Act 2, Scene 1: Setting: the party planning business. AE has made a new business sign that reads “You are a child of God and I will treat you that way.”

Tech: (points at sign.) That’s different. What’s going on, boss?

AE: (smiles.) Here, look in this. (hands over the mirror.)

Tech: (looks in the mirror.) Yeah, so?

AE: When you look in there, you’re looking at God. I forgot about that. I forgot what I looked like. I forgot what you look like.

Tech: So, things are going to be different around here, huh?

AE: It may not always be a party but from now on, we’re doing things God’s way.

Narrator: And they all lived, really lived, ever after. And it was good.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bodies R Us

Emmaus by Emmanuel Garibay (Jesus is in red.)

(Instead of a sermon, I preached a brief reflection on the scripture so there would be time for all the religious jokes folks brought to church with them. I didn't think you'd mind. :-)

John 20: 19 – 31
******** United Church of Christ
April 11, 2010 – Holy Humor/Bright Sunday

In this post-modern age there are many who do not know what to make of the resurrection. Of course there are those of us who never question it, who believe Jesus’ earthly body was raised from the dead and that Jesus in his resurrected body could move through locked doors and eat and have scars because the Bible says it is so, because faith is a mystery. And this faith, this mystery gives millions of people hope, comfort and strength, which shall not be taken away from them.

But what about folks, perhaps you, who just can’t go there, whose intellect tells them otherwise, who have trouble with all this supernatural stuff, including the virgin birth and the miracles? Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, two leading Jesus scholars, are of the mind that it doesn’t do to ask whether the stories in the Bible really happened but rather what meaning do they have. They invite us to read the Bible as a parable, and generally we don’t ask whether a parable really happened in order for the parable to have meaning. The resurrection can have meaning without trying to figure out whether or not it really happened. I don’t know about you but that gives me a great deal of hope, comfort and strength.

So, what’s the meaning of this resurrection story about Jesus and Thomas? The simplest one is that it is an affirmation of bodies, of living and breathing in this fragile, earthy, miraculous, burdensome, wonderfully, painfully sensing body. Resurrection isn’t experienced only intellectually (“Hey, Thomas, we saw Jesus and you didn’t!”) or spiritually or metaphorically or literally or physically but in all these ways and more. The meaning of a bodily resurrection is that we can’t experience resurrection if we’re not connected to a body—either our physical, individual one or a collective body, like a church—the Body of Christ.

Thomas couldn’t accept the resurrection because he hadn’t experienced the risen Christ with the body of disciples nor had he seen and touched Jesus’ body himself. He wanted his own resurrection experience, with his friends, in the flesh.

Today, and every day, is our resurrection experience—in our bodies, in our bellies, in our laughter and in our joy—and in Christ’s body, in the church. Our bodies were given the ability to feel a multitude of experiences so we could choose which ones we want to experience more often than others. We can try out despair and anger and sadness; we were not meant to live in these but from these it is possible for us be resurrected. We were created for joy and laughter and hope, a wonderful communion of good things to enjoy and to share with others—in the flesh, in the Body of Christ.

So go on, let your sides ache for joy—Jesus did. Amen.

An extra bonus in honor of Holy Humor Sunday--Mr. Deity and the Skeptic. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Windows 04.04.10

Window view of the Tuscan hills near Volterra and Montecatini.

John 20: 1-20
******** United Church of Christ
April 4, 2010 – Easter Sunday/Resurrection Day

Paul Tillich, 20th century German theologian and philosopher, introduced the radical notion of transparency. We have many ways, rituals, sources of authority, written works that illustrate the divine but these are not the divine itself. They are transparent to the divine, to the ultimate reality. They may point the way to God but they are not God.

An illustration of this would be a large picture window, in a home built in, say, the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The people who live in the house have invited you into their home to look out this large window. What do you see? Big blue sky. Peaks and hills overlapping like ocean waves. Or clouds heavy with moisture sinking into the valleys and shrouding the green hills. Perhaps you might catch an eagle or a hawk in flight. Or see an oncoming thunderstorm in the distance. Whatever you see, it would indeed be an awesome view.

However, there is one thing you would not see, even though it is the nearest object in your line of sight. You would not say you see the window because the window is transparent. The purpose of a window is to see through it, to the view beyond.

The Bible and other holy texts are windows. Religious art is a window. Worship, communion, baptism, marriage, even death—all these are windows that provide us with a view of the divine. What is radical about Tillich’s notion of transparency is that Jesus is a window. He is a transparent being through whom the divine can be seen clearly. We may think of Jesus as the view through the window, but time and again, Jesus pointed beyond himself to God and to God’s kingdom.

When Mary Magdalene remains at the grave, weeping at the window of despair, she does not recognize Jesus. “Whom do you seek?” Jesus asks her. What do you see through the window? She is afraid that she has lost her beloved friend for good, that even Jesus’ body is not left for her to anoint and to mourn. Jesus says to her “Mary!” as if to wake her and clear her vision that she may see through the window of resurrection, the window of a changed life, the window of God’s “yes” to Jesus and to love.

Christ Appearing to Mary as a Gardener by Richard Serrin

Mary wants to hold onto Jesus, to cling to what she thinks is the awesome view, and it is, this Jesus who defies the powers of domination and death, who heals and raises the dead, who feasts with tax collectors, lifts up the lowly and preaches peace through justice. But Jesus stops her, saying “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Here again Jesus points away from himself toward the One who sent him, the One who makes the Way of love visible and clear through Jesus. And not only that, but Jesus points to the One who works through us and sends us as well: his Father and our Father, his God and our God.

You and I are also called to be transparent, to be a window through which the love of God shines. The more we focus on the view through Jesus, the more transparent we become. Through us, God’s Easter people, God’s vision of rebirth and hope and justice has the power to change lives, change systems and communities, change laws and policies, indeed change the world.

Imagine if God had not raised Jesus from the dead; what would the window look like then? What kind of view would there be? What if God had not said “no” to violence, oppression, poverty, and injustice, and death was the last word? As it is, God said “yes” to Jesus, to his Way of compassion, grace, forgiveness, and peace through justice that the view would be one of hope rather than despair.

******** United Church of Christ, in your newly-born purpose statement, you have declared that, like a window, you dare to reveal God’s unconditional love by welcoming and accepting all people, through your joyful and creative worship, faithful service and spiritual growth. What a window! What a view!

But do not cling to that which is only the window. Rather, be willing to go to wherever Jesus’ brothers and sisters are, and who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Any who live out the love of God in their lives, those who are becoming transparent to the divine, and tell them what you have seen. Ask them to tell you what they have seen. Share the view. Amen.

(Much of the inspiration for this Easter meditation belongs to author Kate Braestrup, chapter 12 of her new book Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, New York: Little, Brown Co., 2010. I hope I have used enough of my own inspiration to keep her from suing me.)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The (dis)comfort of a scapegoat

John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
******** United Church of Christ
April 1, 2010 – Maundy Thursday

When I was in eighth grade we had to read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. If you’re not familiar with the story, it begins on a warm June morning in small town, about 300 people. Folks are gathering in the town square. The children are there first, restless with play, since school had released them for the summer. Then the men of the town gather, talking of planting and tractors and other sundry details of their lives. The women come from hanging laundry or other housework, calling to their children and husbands and soon family groups begin to form.

It’s Lottery Day. Mr. Summers, the lottery official, comes to the square carrying the lottery box, painted black and stuffed with little pieces of folded paper, bringing with him a list of all the families of the town. Just before Mr. Summers can get started, Tessie Hutchinson comes running up, saying she forgot what day it was. She joins her family and the lottery begins. The rules of the lottery and the last names of families are read out, family heads come forward in their turn and take a folded slip of paper out of the black box. Old Man Warner has been to every lottery. He puts down some scuttlebutt about another village giving up the lottery. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” he reminds everyone. Everyone opens their slip of paper at the same time. Only one slip of paper has a big black dot on it and Bill Hutchinson has it. Tessie says it isn’t fair but no one sides with her.

There are five members of the Hutchinson family: Bill Jr., Nancy, little Davey, their father Bill and their mother Tessie. The slip of paper with the big black dot is placed back in the box along with four blank ones. Each of the Hutchinsons must now pick a slip of paper. When all have chosen, they unfold their paper slips and Tessie has the big black dot on her paper. Mr. Summers says, “All right, folks. Let’s finish quickly.”

Even though some of the ritual has been lost, they still remember to use stones. A pile of rocks had been put together earlier by the children. Tessie is in a cleared area now as the townspeople begin to throw the stones, until she is dead.

The practice of a scapegoat has been around for millennia. It has been used to purify a community before a king’s wedding, as a response to natural disasters or disease, or as in the story, to ensure a bountiful crop. In the Bible a goat was used to carry the sins of the people into the desert where it would perish. Jesus has been viewed as the scapegoat of the Christian faith, taking on the sins of humanity and atoning for them by dying on the cross.

The purpose of the scapegoat was, and still is, a release valve for people living in community. One animal, one person or a group of people are given the blame for whatever calamity or fear or ill-feeling or bad circumstance and driven from the community, usually with some form of violence. Poverty is a form of violence. Usually the scapegoated group is a minority of some kind: different religious belief or skin color or sexual orientation or ethnic background or political stance or any kind of behavior that is different from the majority. Or the “bad apple” is blamed, rather than examining the bad apple barrel.

We have become so accustomed to the notion of a scapegoat that we don’t even realize when we are participating in a lottery of our own making. Health care, education, decent housing, and a fair wage for everyone have not happened because we live in a scapegoat society. Because we have allowed one man to pay for everyone’s sins, we have become less likely to shoulder our own cross for the sake of others.

The new codependency is one of incessant taking and a sense of entitlement. Where previous generations have hurt themselves and others by making themselves into martyrs and endless victims in giving too much, the present generations control their reality by looking out for themselves, believing that those that suffer must have done something to earn it. In essence, scapegoating.

But Jesus didn’t die because he was a scapegoat. He died for love and for friends. If he had hid himself from the authorities, allowed those whom he loved to shelter him, his friends would have been next in line for the cross. In John 15 Jesus tells his disciples, after repeating his commandment to love one another, that no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus washes their feet to illustrate that they are to emulate him and his Way, not the ways of the world. To love one another is to treat others not only as equals but even as superior to oneself. Jesus takes on the form of a slave or servant, kneels at their smelly, dirty feet and washes them clean, taking the human tendency toward self-absorption and transforming it into grace.

Such love is an anathema to a system built on domination. Perhaps there were those who believed that quashing Jesus would end his Way of things, that by using him as a scapegoat, others would fall in line. In the end, though, his disciples did learn what it meant to love and they fell in line right behind Jesus.

Scapegoat by graphic designer Jeremy Lang

How do we participate in systems that scapegoat and blame? How often during the course of the day do we think of others, not how they relate to us, but of their own concerns and troubles and joys? For whom or for what would we be willing to lay down our lives? In what ways do we need to get clean with Jesus and his commandment to love? How might we go out of our way for the sake of another or for a whole group of people?

There things we need to die to, to confront within us and then release them that an empty space might be created—that empty space that signifies new life. But this is Thursday night.

In the darkest night
it is not possible to believe
that light will come.

Because light has come before,
doesn’t mean it will again.

Hold faith tonight
for those who see the darkness
stretch before them -

who know no other truth than that -

whose barren-ness prevails,
who are buffeted by despair,
who cannot breathe for fear.

Join your prayer to God’s:
let there be light.

--written by Cheryl Lawrie,