Sunday, May 30, 2010

The long view

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5: 1-5
******** United Church of Christ
May 30, 2010 – Trinity Sunday

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to play a game called “Mother May I?” Actually, it was a frustrating, control-freakish way of playing tag. The one who was ‘it’ got to stand still and decide how close folks could get. Players would ask something like “Mother, may I take 3 or 5 giant steps or baby steps forward?” Whoever was ‘Mother’ didn’t always let you move forward. Sometimes she (or he) would say “No, take 2 or 3 or 4 giant steps back.” If you got caught sneaking up from behind without ‘Mother’s’ permission, you had to take some really big giant steps backward, sometimes going all the way back to the beginning.

Sometimes our relationship with God can feel like that. We feel like we’re getting close to understanding, to having a grip on reality, to knowing how to move through our lives and then life sends us back a few giant steps, sometimes all the way back to where we started. Or more often than not, it’s our own choices and decisions that can send us into a spiritual tailspin.

When we hear Wisdom speak in Proverbs, she sounds like she wants us to come closer, to listen, to heed her call. Like the mother in “Mother May I?” she stands in one place while we are to draw ever nearer. But in order that we may understand her wise words and respect her place in the created order that we may gain wisdom about our place, she sends us back to the very beginning.

Before there was an earth or waters or mountains, Wisdom was there by God’s side. Wisdom was the first of God’s creative acts, and the first thing God created was light. Author Terry Pratchett says this about light: “Light thinks it travels faster than anything, but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” God gave us light first, because the darkness is always there first, waiting for us. God gave us wisdom, light in our darkness, because more often than not, foolishness and pride and self-absorption come before wise thinking.

We human beings tend to take a very short view of things, perhaps because, as the psalmist writes, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” We don’t know how long any of us has and so we struggle and do battle and love and wonder each day that we have. And we procrastinate and escape and indulge and scrape by, hoping for another day.

Ecclesiastes writes “[God] has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” But we have difficulty taking pleasure in all our toil because many days that’s exactly what it is—toil, hard work, the scut of life. Often we can feel a void, an emptiness growing inside us, and that line about suffering and endurance in Romans can sound like a hill of beans.

It’s not long after that that we can find ourselves reaching for something we think we deserve; maybe we’ve talked ourselves into thinking we really need it, that we can’t live without it. And I’m not just talking about individual lives but about communities, states, nations, human society. As a human race we know of that collective void within us, that comes from millennia of what can feel like busywork but is often looked at as progress.

But what kind of progress and at what cost? War is more efficient but also more violent, it lasts longer and it costs more, a lot more. We can get somewhere faster with a car, but we usually drive alone, all of us separated by what we think are our individual destinies. We have vast amounts of energy and technology at our fingertips that frees us from physical scut work so we can do what? How many of us fill our free time with music and art and poetry and good home-cooked wholesome food and walks in the woods and on the beach with people we love and serving others and ensuring that generations after us will be able to enjoy what we enjoy? Instead we witness more and more the arts and other special programs eliminated from education budgets, those things that make us more human, more in the image of God. More often than not, even as nations the human race reaches for things it thinks it deserves, persuaded that it even needs, rather than face the void, the emptiness within.

The oil spill tragedy on the Gulf coast is a prime example of our hubris. In our demand for cheap available oil, in a corporation’s desire for ever bigger profits, we have reaped these terrible results that will reach generations beyond us. In Newsweek magazine, in reference to two earlier BP massive oil leaks in Alaska, an EPA agent was quoted saying “There was a corporate philosophy that it was cheaper to operate to failure and then deal with the problem later than do preventive maintenance.” Newsweek further cites that the global demand for oil is so insatiable that a “best-case scenario” leak of 450,000 barrels would amount to only 7 ½ minutes of worldwide daily consumption!

French mystic and activist Simone Weil wrote that “all sins are attempts to fill voids”. All sins are our inability to live with the emptiness, the longing for something more that seems to come with being human. When Paul was writing about suffering and endurance it was only about 25 years or so after Jesus was crucified—certainly still within the lifetime of those who knew Jesus in the flesh. The hope of Jesus returning soon was still alive. When the early community of faith of John’s gospel heard the words “God will send the Advocate, the Comforter, to be with you forever” it had been at least 70 years since the time of Jesus. They began to see that the Holy Spirit was sent not only to create communities of faith but to sustain them and to help keep in focus the long view of God.

You’re somewhere in the middle of this time of transition, which sometimes can feel like the beginning, as I’m sure the pastoral search committee can tell you. I know of some other churches that went through transitions and took the short view of things and shortchanged themselves of time to grieve, some much-needed introspection, and the time it takes to look for the right person. I know when I was single I kissed a lot of frogs before I found my prince and I was just about ready to give in when David showed up.

We know the short view is easier, and in the end we know we’ll pay for it dearly. The long view is hard for a reason. The long view produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope—hope that does not disappoint us. Why? Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message puts it this way:
“We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”

When we sit with that void, that emptiness that comes with waiting, when we allow it to become passionate patience that turns into the steel of virtue, God does not leave us to our emptiness. Rather, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, with wisdom, with light to overflowing. We spill over with compassion and justice rather than oil; we’re bursting with love rather than reaching and grabbing for that which does not satisfy but only leaves us even emptier.

Mother Wisdom, Holy Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter wants us to come close and pay attention but by way of the long view. She is ready to pour out what we need into our emptiness, into our waiting but we too must be ready. We must be ready with a hope that is born out of an integrity that comes from the patience known only in our emptiness.

What is the emptiness within you, that you witness around you, that you try to fill, both as an individual and as a church? What can you go without or use less of? What gives you hope? What are some of the Holy Spirit moments you have witnessed in this community of faith and in your own spiritual life? What is God pouring into your life together right now, this moment?

In all things be willing to take the long view, the Holy Spirit-Wisdom outlook, to suffer the emptiness so that hope may have a long, fulfilled life. Amen.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Church rebellious

(I was away on vacation May 9 - 17, participating in the wedding of a dear friend of mine from seminary who now lives in New Zealand. Pictures to follow in another post. A couple in the congregation celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary renewed their vows in the worship service, hence, the marriage theme in the sermon.)

Acts 2: 1-21
******** United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
May 23, 2010 – Pentecost Sunday

At the end of her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who had been living in Indonesia. Both Elizabeth and Felipe promised each other that they would love each other for the rest of their lives but also that they would never, under any circumstances, get married; both of them had been through horrendous divorces. But then the Department of Homeland Security stepped in. In order for Felipe and Elizabeth to make any kind of life together in the United States they would have to get married. So, being an author, Ms. Gilbert researched the institution of marriage in other cultures, in history and literature so that she could make some sort of peace with a tradition she thought of as highly suspect. Her results have been published in her new book entitled Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.

Of course, because it is comprised of human beings, marriage as an institution has a sketchy history. On the whole it has not favored women and has been particularly antithetical toward interracial couples and those of the same sex. While marriage is often seen as a backbone of society, it has also been used to exclude. Ironically, it is often easier to get married than it is to end a marriage. It’s a wonder more of us aren’t as skeptical as Elizabeth and Felipe.

So what finally convinced these two to marry? None other than a conservative columnist for the London Sunday Times by the name of Ferdinand Mount who describes marriage as an act of rebellion against authority and the state. In marriage there is a degree of privacy into which the state cannot interfere. Those bound by sacred covenant and legal union cannot be forced to testify against each other in a court of law. Gilbert writes: “Every couple in the world has the potential over time to become a small and isolated nation of two—creating their own culture, their own language, and their own moral code, to which nobody else can be privy.”

As it is said after a couple has made their vows, “those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.” Let no one come in between, interfere or invade the intimacy created by two human beings joined together for their own private reasons. Any authority figure or governing body that wishes to hold sway over the populace will find that individuals are easier to persuade or coerce than a family or clan.

Yet early on in Christianity, the church taught that celibacy was the better way of life. Jesus even said that in order to follow him, one must leave one’s family. Still most of us choose to marry anyway. Why? Because of that subversive emotion known as love; a love that binds us to another in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, for as long as we both shall live, even though he grinds his teeth, even though he loses his job, even though she talks and drives at the same time losing her way, even though she’s an addict, even though they’ve hurt one another. Even so.

Pentecostes, a Mexican icon

We may hold up Mary and those flame-dancing apostles as the saints of the church, but I’m sure they had their days when they couldn’t stand living with one another. Maybe when that violent wind came rushing through they could understand each other, each in their own language but I’ll bet sometimes the language of love didn’t come so easily. Yet they held everything in common, sharing with one another as each had need, devoting themselves to study, prayer, and breaking bread with one another.

Such devotion to each other undermined the power that the Roman Empire might have had over them. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and the early followers of the Way rebelled against the ways of domination and oppression by submitting to an even higher authority. Peter tells the crowd that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord, not Caesar, shall be saved. Who shall dream God’s dream? Not just the elite or the educated. Everyone. Men and women, sons and daughters, free and slaves—all shall prophesy the coming of God’s great and glorious day.

As the Church, we’ve gotten lost since then, driving and talking at the same time, not always paying attention to where we’re going, and hurting a lot of people along the way. But by the grace of the Holy Spirit, that marriage between people and God called the Church is still here, rebelling against the powers that seek to co-opt the Church or banish it into oblivion.

Some would say it’s too late—the Church is irrelevant, it’s already been co-opted by the corrupt, society has divorced itself from the Church and its values, its days are numbered. The Church as it exists now may be on its way toward becoming irrelevant but Jesus is not. Corrupt powers may be holding sway but they cannot separate us from God if we choose. Society may have divorced itself from the Church and its values, but we do not have to follow. As for the days of the Church being numbered, it is up to us to decide if we’re going to acquiesce or keep on rebelling and keep on loving.

Fire in the Sky, by Robin Jensen

And I already know what your answer is, ******** United Church of Christ, for you are a church that dares to reveal God’s unconditional love by accepting and welcoming all people, through joyful and creative worship, faithful service, and spiritual growth. [1] But as any two longtime married people will tell you, it takes courage, compassion, forgiveness and a willingness to evolve and change with your partner so that the relationship not only continues but also gives life to those in it and around it.

That’s what this interim time is all about—a time to discover that willingness to change and grow, to fire up your courage for the future, to shower yourselves and each other in compassion and forgiveness, to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into your mission and into your relationship with God and each other. On this Pentecost Sunday you also renew your covenant as a church. You’ve been here for 125 years—imagine what the next 125 years will look like? What do you want to preserve and what needs to change in order for ******** United Church of Christ and its daring purpose to continue?

Happy anniversary, everyone. God bless this community, this family of faith. Amen.

[1] This purpose statement was adopted by the congregation on May 23, 2010 - Pentecost Sunday.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

What dreams may come

Robin Williams in the 1998 film What Dreams May Come

Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21: 1-6
******** United Church of Christ
May 2, 2010

In the movie “What Dreams May Come” a man’s experience of heaven comes from the canvases of his wife’s art. From her imagination and his devotion to her, we see realms of glorious color, wild fantasy, heartrending beauty and unspeakable wonder. In this vision of heaven, humankind’s role as co-creator with God comes alive with vivid scenes of splendor woven together from the imaginations of heaven’s citizens.

from the film What Dreams May Come (1998)

The reading from the book of Revelation gives us another view of the new heaven and new earth, and its center is the new Jerusalem, no longer estranged from the ways of God but now adorned for God as a bride for a husband. In this new Jerusalem, death and mourning and crying will be no more, for the first things have passed away. This is good news indeed for the Jerusalem of today and for all cities where death and mourning and pain are the way of life for its citizens.

We all have images and dreams of what heaven will be like, of who we will see, what we might experience or at least from what we will be free. Over the course of human history, whenever the future has seemed bleak at best, our dreams of heaven have been at their strongest. And we can only dream of heaven because none of us really knows what it will be like. Even that resurrected Jesus, doggone it, didn’t really say a concrete word about what heaven is like. You’d think he’d want to put our minds at ease. No. Instead, he wanted us to put our faith to work.

Peter too has a heavenly vision, but it’s more about a new earth than a new heaven; perhaps more about heaven on earth. In this vision God reveals something that at the time was unimaginable, that salvation is not only for a few but for all, even for those who were thought to be unclean and unworthy. God’s big dream, the Spirit’s fervent hope, Jesus’ simple prayer, that they may all be one, means all and one. There’s no equivocating, no loopholes, no hedge bets.

Peter's Vision by Doug Jaques, Austin, TX

And no, it doesn’t and shouldn’t put our minds at ease. It puts our faith to work and demands that we dream big with God. How will we co-create this new Jerusalem, this heaven on earth, this new city of God, with one another and with God? How might you, ******** United Church of Christ, be faithful to your traditions and history and yet leave room for the Holy Spirit, for dreams and imagination to give you a vision for your future? How might you be hindering God’s big dream for you?

There’s so much more I could say about this, about dreaming with God and all of us using our imaginations to envision what this community of faith could be and can be. Instead I want to invite you, during the time of reflection, to begin to create a vivid picture of this church’s future: what the church looks like inside and out, who is here, what is happening, and how do you feel, what are you doing in that picture. I invite you to take time each and every day to add more color and detail and texture to that picture and to make that your prayer during this interim time.

Each of you will have a slightly different picture, but if you choose to adopt your purpose statement, that ******** United Church of Christ dares to reveal God’s unconditional love by accepting and welcoming all people, through joyful and creative worship, faithful service, and spiritual growth, and if you use that purpose statement as the foundation for your picture, I think what each of you imagines for this church will be very similar indeed. I also encourage you to share your vision, your picture of this church with your sisters and brothers and with others.

Dream big, ******** UCC; dream God’s big dream, that dream of all and one. You’ve already begun to create a little piece of heaven on earth. How might you extend that piece of heaven to others who need to experience the good news of all and one? God has promised that the good work begun in you will be brought to completion. What a sweet dream indeed. Amen.

(This was a particularly full service: receiving of new members, two by baptism, and communion, hence, a briefer sermon. Funny, no one seemed to mind.)