Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thinking outside the paradox

1 Kings 19: 1-18; Galatians 3: 23-29
******** United Church of Christ
June 20, 2010

This morning I want to talk to you directly as a congregation. Usually in a sermon a pastor will talk about a spiritual issue in the scripture and invite the congregation into the conversation she or he is having with the biblical text. Instead I want to begin the conversation with you, about what I’ve observed about you in the little over a year since I’ve been your interim pastor. And I want to begin by telling you a story.

The story is from pastor and author Max Lucado. It’s the tale of a parakeet named Chippie. Chippie was like any other parakeet: she sang, she preened her beautiful green and yellow feathers, and she brought much joy to her owner. One day all that changed, when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out her cage ....

With a vacuum cleaner.

She was almost finished when the phone rang, so she turned around to answer it. With a thwup, Chippie was gone. Frantically she ripped open the vacuum bag. There was Chippie, stunned, her bright feathers coated with thick dust, but still alive. She carried the poor bird to the bathroom and gently rinsed her off under the faucet. Poor Chippie was wet and shivering, so, trying to be merciful, her owner took hold of the hair dryer and blew Chippie away with a gust of hot air. A few days later, a friend asked her how the little parakeet was recovering. “Well”, she replied, “Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore.”

Have you ever felt like Chippie? Have you ever felt like life sucked you in, left you washed up and blown away? I know I have. We can’t always see what’s up ahead of us. And no matter how hard we try to eat right, live right, do the right thing, say the right thing, be the right person, our lives can change in a heartbeat. It only takes one phone call from the police about one of our children or our partner, one messenger delivering the divorce papers, one pink slip from work, one meeting with our boss or supervisor, one bad test result or mammogram or biopsy, one misplaced footstep or turn of the steering wheel, to leave us feeling like poor little Chippie. Some of us have survived one Chippie episode only long enough to be hit by another.

This is where we find the prophet Elijah in the reading from 1 Kings. Did you hear the desperation, the fear? Could you feel his loneliness, his emptiness? Do you know the wind and the earthquake and the fire of life and loss? Have you sat in the silence of God, waited and, like Chippie, could not sing? And yet have you also known God in the midst of all that? Did you realize you were being fed at God’s table by God’s messengers? Have you suddenly realized that there were other souls and saints about you, that you weren’t as alone as you thought you were? Can you hear the paradox in Elijah’s story and in your own?

You are like no other congregation in my experience, and I’ve experienced quite a few—between growing up in a few, serving in a few, and preaching in quite a number of churches. You really meant it when you say you welcome and accept everyone who comes here. Each of you is either dealing with a current Chippie/Elijah episode or you’ve been through one at some point or it’s an on-going theme in your life. You welcome and accept folks other churches open the door to but have difficulty incorporating into the whole life of the church. You don’t require that people have their act together before they serve on a committee or lead worship or teach Sunday school or help with a mission project. Your criteria for “having your act together” are that you show up, you witness to your faith by giving as best as you are able each day, and you love each other.

Now here’s the paradox: you seem to expect that you should be like other churches—well-organized, always well-behaved, everything on track and accounted for, financially secure with a steeple on top. The irony is that then you wouldn’t be you. You wouldn’t know God in the silence. You wouldn’t be able to tolerate the paradoxes of faith as well as you do.

Many of you are familiar with the twelve steps of recovery: admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable, came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, made a decision to turn our lives over to God as we understood God, and so on. Another principle of 12 step programs is these three words known as the 3 A’s: awareness, acceptance, and action. First, we become aware of an emotion, a void, a loss, a mistake, a betrayal, an annoyance, a problem—we become aware of a source of pain. Second, we accept our reality, in all its dimensions, as it is, and we sit with our acceptance until we intuitively come to a course of action or it comes to us.

The reason why the 3 A’s are part of a 12 step program is because most of the time we move from awareness straight to action, bypassing the gift of acceptance. We see this in the story of Elijah. In order to establish her cult to the god Baal Jezebel had given orders that the prophets of Israel be killed; Elijah thinks he is the sole survivor of that holocaust. In retaliation Elijah defeats the prophets of the false god Baal in a contest and then incites the people to kill the false prophets. He has incurred the wrath of this pretender queen Jezebel. He thinks his goose is cooked, assuming he’s going to wind up dead like the rest of the prophets of Israel.

He’s aware of his very painful situation, so what does he do? He gets as far away as he can from Jezebel, into the wilderness. He finds a single broom tree, lies down under it and asks God to take his life. He goes straight to action; he gives in to his fear rather than surrendering to God and waiting for instruction.

But God is the ultimate teacher of acceptance. God sends a messenger, an angel to feed him not once but twice that Elijah might have enough strength for the journey to Mt. Horeb, God’s holy mountain.

Elijah thinks he’s taken all the action he can. It looks like he’s accepted his circumstances, but not quite. He’s left God out of the equation—God who has a much wider view of reality than we do. But still God accepts the situation—and Elijah—even to the point of bringing God’s presence near to pass by Elijah.

But God is not in the special effects of wind and earthquake and fire. Instead God arrives in the silence and Elijah hears it. He repeats his little speech but now we hear it wrapped in the silence of God. Elijah accepts his circumstances in the presence of God and God’s mighty silence. Now God has action for Elijah to take, defensive strategy that will keep him safe, a brother prophet—Elisha—who will one day take over his ministry, and 7000 souls who still call upon the name of Yahweh. Elijah now knows he is not alone.

I have witnessed in many situations over the course of the past year a tendency for you to become aware and then to take action, bypassing the gift of acceptance and God’s mighty silence. Though you accept and welcome everyone, you seem to have difficulty accepting who you are, a wonderful mix of foibles and blessings, and perhaps that is because you’re still becoming acquainted with who you are. In the past you had been referred to as the “Island of Misfit Toys”. I have called you “a diamond in the rough”. But you are even more than that.

In Christ you are outside the paradox of conventionalities. In Christ there is no longer black or white, believer or seeker, gay or straight, elder or younger, rich or poor, able-bodied or challenged, organized or disorganized, fledgling leader or on top of your game servant, longtime member or brand-new to the UCC, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. You are all these things and more and you are none of these things any longer. You are ******** United Church of Christ— a workshop for the kingdom of God, God’s own beautiful creation, continually co-created with each and every one of you.

Accept who you are—imperfect yet good, a cup half empty but it’s half full too, human yet forgiving, intolerant of hate yet compassionate for the hateful, struggling with life yet witnessing for the living God, poor in things yet rich in soul. Surrender to this beauty that is uniquely yours.

I’ll close with these words from a source of twelve step wisdom:

“If we willingly surrender ourselves … our lives will be transformed. We will become mature, responsible individuals with a greater capacity for joy fulfillment, and wonder. Though we may never be perfect, continued spiritual progress will reveal to us our enormous potential. We will discover that we are both worthy of love and loving. We will love others without losing ourselves, and will learn to accept love in return. Our sight, once clouded and confused, will clear and we will be able to perceive reality and recognize truth. Courage and fellowship will replace fear. We will be able to risk failure in order to develop new, hidden talents. Our lives, no matter how battered and degraded, will yield hope to share with others. We will begin to feel and will come to know the vastness of our emotions, but we will not be slaves to them. Our secrets will no longer bind us in shame. As we gain the ability to forgive ourselves, our families, and the world, our choices will expand. With dignity we will stand for ourselves, but not against our [sisters and brothers]. Serenity and peace will have meaning for us, as we allow our lives and the lives of those we love to flow day by day with God's ease, balance, and grace. No longer terrified, we will discover we are free to delight in life's paradox, mystery, and awe. We will laugh more. Fear will be replaced by faith, and gratitude will come naturally as we realize that our Higher Power is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

“Can we really grow to such proportions? Only if we accept life as a continuing process of maturation and evolution toward wholeness. Then we suddenly begin to notice these gifts appearing. We see them in those who walk beside us. Sometimes slowly or haltingly, occasionally in great bursts of brilliance, those who work [on their spiritual lives] change and grow toward light, toward health, and toward their Higher Power. Watching others, we realize this is also possible for us.

“Will we ever arrive? Feel joyful all the time? Have no cruelty, tragedy, or injustice to face? Probably not, but we will acquire a growing acceptance of our human fallibility, as well as greater love and tolerance for each other. Self-pity, resentment, martyrdom, rage, and depression will fade into memory. Community rather than loneliness will define our lives. We will know that we belong, we are welcome, we have something to contribute - and that this is enough.” [1]


1. From Survival to Recovery: Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home, Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters Inc., .pp. 269-270


Andy said...


Suzanne said...

Nice girlfriend, real nice.

Cynthia said...

Thank you both. This was a message I had been wanting to give for a while now but I had to wait for the right scripture to come along. Everything in its time, I guess.

Kay said...

I'm a new reader of your blog. I found you via Mystical Seeker. :)

First - I echo the above Amen for your post. I most definitely can say that I've felt sucked up and blown away. And just when I think I might be ready to sing again, out comes the vacuum cleaner.

I couldn't find a way to contact you via email, and hate to post something off topic, but I read blogs through an RSS reader, and I'd wondered if you were aware of how yours looked? It's a tad difficult to make out. :)

Cynthia said...

Hi Kay. Welcome!

Thanks for your comments and feedback. This is a new template, courtesy of Blogger. On my computer it is clear and easy to read. I've never used a RSS reader, so I'm at a loss as to what to do. I hope it doesn't prevent you from reading and commenting further.