Monday, October 18, 2010

Holding on and letting go

The Widow and the Unjust Judge

Genesis 32: 22-31; Psalm 121; Luke 18: 1-8
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 17, 2010

Earlier this week I hope you all had an opportunity to watch some of the footage of the Chilean miners being rescued from their 68-day ordeal 700 meters below the earth’s surface. To me, it was like watching a birth, as the workers stood by the rescue shaft, waiting as the cable slowly raised the capsule containing, each in their turn, one of the 33 miners, moving from darkness into the light. I couldn’t help but cry with joy and with memories of those times when someone lifted me or a loved one out of the darkness, when God reached into that pit of despair and raised me into the light.

Of course, as a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but think of the resurrection, as though that deep hole underground was a tomb of death yet through love and hope and prayer and the hard work of many, it became a womb of life. As a person of faith I would say it was the prayers of perhaps millions around the world that sustained the miners and their families in their waiting, as well as knowing that everything was being done to rescue them and care for them.

In fact, one of the miners, Mario Gomez, the 9th and oldest miner to reach the surface, knelt down and prayed when he emerged from the rescue capsule. Two of the miners who were previously agnostic were said to have ‘found religion’ in the midst of their ordeal and joined in the daily prayer time the miners shared with one other. Many are calling what happened a miracle. And the Chilean people are ascribing the success of the rescue not to themselves but to God.

Mario Gomez

Alexander Chancellor, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, and a self-avowed non-believer, writes that “[the] Chilean miners' rescue had everything to do with the impressive feats of the rescuers and nothing to do with God.” He admires their humility but is also confused by it, saying that the miners were also very lucky in their circumstances, unlike the nearly 500 who perished in the earthquake earlier this year. To this journalist and to us too at times, it seems that God’s mercy is mercurial, reserved for some and not for others.

Since humanity has been able to reflect on itself and human beings have perceived themselves as individuals and not just as a member of a group, the question of why do bad things happen has persisted. We have been wrestling with God on this point for millennia and we have not come any closer to an answer that gives us undoubted assurance. We have witnessed the power of prayer and yet we have also experienced its apparent failure. Does the efficacy of our prayers depend on our faith or how frequently we pray? Is it how we word our prayers, how specific or general our requests? Would things have turned out the way they did anyway, regardless of our prayers?

It seems to me that, in the American Christian experience of faith, too easily we grasp onto God and too easily we let go. The idea of God is something we should approach with fear and trembling as much as with comfort and release. The same could also be said about letting go of the idea of God. Too often, in the vacuum that our fear or anger or despair creates, we latch onto God as a cosmic cure-all, in a desperate attempt to assuage our very natural, very human feelings. We also tend to let go of God in that very same vacuum, when the God of our perceptions fails us.

There are two fundamental questions at the core of our human experience that as yet have no once and for all, satisfactory answer: one, where did this existence we live in come from? How was energy transformed into matter? What started all of this? And two, where is all this headed? What is the purpose of the universe? To put it in terms of human experience, where did we come from, how did each of us unique persons come to be? And what will happen to us when we die? Any of those questions has the power to create that vacuum, that empty space we so desperately try to fill.

The majority of human beings have come to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work in this world, that there is something beyond what science and our five senses can tell us. There is a mystery beyond our present capacity to understand, despite what Stephen Hawking says. Author Joseph Campbell wrote "We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what's important." But how do we encounter the mystery, the unanswerable, the ineffable?

Ironically, we generally avoid these existential questions at church. Ron Brown, one of our associate conference ministers, says that there’s not a great deal of wrestling in the church. There’s plenty of what he calls ‘rassling’: arguments over small details, tussles over unimportant matters. But what the church needs is more wrestling. For instance, what about wrestling with why the church is in decline and whether nor not we’re going to follow? What about wrestling with how to be like Jesus in our daily lives? What about wrestling with forgiveness?

In these days it’s too easy to hang on to a feel-good faith or to let go of it when it runs empty. It’s hard hanging on to that mystery called God when what we’re wrestling with is the poverty or oppression of our neighbors or the cancer eating away at our life or an addiction compelling us to fill that vacuum inside us or the darkness seeping into our souls. It’s hard hanging on to God when we’re feeling spiritually hurt, especially when the church has been involved.

Jacob had the nerve to hang on until the blessing came, and we are challenged to do the same. Yes, he came away with a limp, but God never promised us a struggle-free life and certainly not struggle-free community. God did promise to help us and to remain faithful and love us—forever.

Jacob wrestling with an angel

Jesus dares us to be persistent, even nagging, in our need for justice. God’s mercy is not of the quick-fix variety or a security blanket or a bulletproof shield protecting our bodies from all harm. Luke’s gospel was speaking to early followers of Jesus—Jews and Gentiles—around the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Few, if any, of Luke’s readers may have known Jesus; most did not. They were hopeful of his return but also despairing over their circumstances of persecution and what appeared to be permanent exile. In this parable, Jesus is telling his present disciples and those through the ages that God’s mercy will come quickly.

But how quickly, they and we wonder? People were perishing; communities of faith were growing weary, the power to transform seemingly ebbing away from them. Sounds familiar, yes? The spiritual practice that Jesus compels the disciples to engage in is the same for disciples of the 21st century: to pray always and to not lose heart.

Prayer that sustains us is more, though, than talking to God and a list of our requests. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that prayer is “to come into the presence of God in the hope that we will be changed by doing so.” In prayer we persevere with God, we wrestle with God and we hang on until the blessing comes, until justice is done and mercy is granted. Prayer does not take us out of the world but brings us face to face with it and with God’s dream for the world, that kingdom of peace and righteousness for the whole of creation. In prayer we hang onto God for dear life and we let go of the outcome, trusting that God has not our best interests, but the wholeness of all at heart.

The Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer are ones we can say through the day to help us not lose heart, to help us not let go of our hearts. I’d like to introduce you to another prayer to take with you, one that if prayed in sincerity and honesty, has power, like any other prayer, to bring change and healing:

“Holy Spirit, if this direction or course of action is right for me, let it become more firmly rooted and established in my life. If this is wrong for me, let it become less important to me, and let it be increasingly removed from my life.” [1]

Are you ready to hang on for love and healing and rescue? Are you ready to let go of the schedule, the timeline, the outcome and trust God? Are you ready for blessing, for justice, for mercy? Are you ready to go deeper with God that you would be raised to new life?

[1] Flora Slosson Wuellner. Prayer, Stress and Our Inner Wounds. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1985, pg. 78.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Crossing the line

Psalm 111; Luke 17: 11-19
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 10, 2010

Two weeks ago, when rain was pounding the eastern seaboard and storm drains were flooding, an elderly woman and her great-grandson were driving down Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, D.C. The water was so high and rising so fast that it suddenly stopped the car and surged into where Bernice and Davonte were sitting. The boy opened his door and got of the car amidst the cold, raging water. But his great-grandmother was stuck in the car. As he tried to reach her, the water kept pushing him back. Because of the increasing water pressure, Bernice couldn’t open her door. When the water level reached the steering wheel, she thought she was a goner.

One of the passersby at the scene, a Hispanic man by appearance, stripped off his clothes and swam over to the car through the trash-ridden, fast-moving, unseasonably-cold water. He opened the car door, pulled Bernice out and helped her to safety. He didn’t hesitate or keep his safe distance. He didn’t take a picture or make a video. He didn’t even call 911. Instead he risked his life to save a complete stranger from drowning.

He also didn’t stick around to be thanked or to even introduce himself. Speculation is that he may have been an undocumented immigrant who didn’t wish to be questioned by the police when they arrived at the scene. Even though many undocumented immigrants may seem invisible to us, this man crossed that invisible line between citizen and foreigner and blurred that line so much that we couldn’t tell one from the other.

Boundaries and rules are important and should be respected. They keep us safe and healthy and whole. Usually when we break those limits, some sort of trouble or disease or injury ensues. We see the sense of them and we learn to keep them.

But we all know there are other restrictions intended to control or exclude or inflict harm on others. Many of us have known what that is like. Most, if not all, of you would cross such a line to set free, include and offer healing to one such as this anonymous rescuer.

So, isn’t it strange that in the gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus does not bridge the prescribed distance between himself and this small community of lepers? Jesus was known to be not only a rule-bender but a rule-breaker when it came to healing, forgiveness and the kingdom of God. These lepers are obeying the Levitical laws of purity by keeping their distance, but that’s never stopped Jesus before. In fact, it is in the obedience to those laws that these men are healed, as they are going to show themselves to the priests. And it is the lepers who bridge the gap by initiating conversation between themselves and Jesus.

Jesus is walking the line between Galilee and Samaria, between homeland and ghetto-land, doing his high-wire act on his way to Jerusalem. On his way Jesus encounters all sorts of people: a man with many demons, a girl on the edge of death, a woman with a hemorrhage, these ten lepers. Through these people Luke shows us what kind of person shows faith, what kind of person responds to Jesus and his message of forgiveness. It was not the leaders, the in-crowd, the longtime believers who were showing faith, but outsiders who were responding to Jesus’ message with shouts of praise and gratitude.

But only one healed man returns to give thanks and praise, and he is a double outcast: he is also a Samaritan, a foreigner. He is outside the covenant and thus, not even bound to go show himself to the priests. Yet he obeys anyway, and when he sees he has been healed, turns back, falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him profusely.

Yes, the other nine did as they were told and were also healed, but it was the faith of the Samaritan that saved him. In other translations the word ‘whole’ is used in place of ‘well’: “Your faith has made you whole”, implying more than physical healing. Here we have the difference between being healed and being saved, between obedient faith and faith that has the power to save us and transform us.

Jesus wants to know what kind of faith we have. Are we obedient to God and the limits God has placed on us, such as the Ten Commandments? There is certainly nothing wrong with that kind of faith, but for Jesus, obedient faith is a place to start. Jesus wants to know if we’re willing to cross the line from homeland into ghetto-land, to join him in his high-wire act on the way to Jerusalem. And we all know what’s waiting in Jerusalem.

Keeping to the rules may heal the open wounds we human beings have made in this world but the rules won’t save us. And as we all know, sometimes we have to go beyond the rules and our self-imposed limits for mercy and compassion to have their way.

The difference is joyful, jubilant gratitude. The Samaritan crossed the line of obedience to the law into the fearless expression of gratitude. Jesus offered him not only healing but the opportunity to be saved by grace. To one who was unclean and outside the covenant, this was good news indeed! It would be like not only winning the lottery but also being given the chance to change someone else’s life for the better.

When I had that dream that saved my life some thirty years ago (!), I felt like I had to give something back, that I had to ‘pay it forward’ to someone else who needed God’s transforming grace. I came across two verses in the gospel of Matthew that became a scripture reading at my ordination: “…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

And so by entering the ministry I thought I was giving my life in return for the new life that had been given to me. But the giving in gratitude for my life didn’t end there. When I was in seminary, I racked up some debts. I had tuition, books, room and board, a car payment, and a credit card: American Express: no carrying the balance forward. I had gotten in over my head. Any income I had went out to pay bills. I can remember being on my knees crying and fervently praying to God because I was so scared of being in debt. I called a friend in my home church and shared my troubles.

Not long after that I received a money order for $1200 from an anonymous donor from my church, mailed to me by the church secretary. To this day, I have no idea who saved me. But in gratitude for that saving grace, I have been a pledging giver ever since.

I pledge to this church as a measure of my joy and thankfulness for what God is doing through you and through our time together. Each month I make out a check for $400—about 8% of my total salary. I know I’m crossing a line by telling you that, but if I am asking you to move beyond the comfort of home into a place none of us have been before, then I should be the first to cross that line.

I also plan to increase my pledge to $450 a month in 2011, for as long as I am here. You are searching for a settled pastor and you want to be able to pay that person well enough that they will be a good giver and pledge to this church. I want to be a part of that, to be a part of not only the healing but the saving grace and jubilant thanks that often comes with a new pastor.

Even though the stewardship season has not quite begun, I want you to start thinking about it and praying about it. I invite you to increase your pledge this year, even if it’s only by a dollar a week. If you give but don’t pledge, I encourage you to pledge whatever you can. In order to welcome the future with joy and deep gratitude, I ask you to make that transition, to go beyond where you are now, and cross that line of fear to get to a place of magic, that place where Jesus waits for us with not only healing but with soul-saving, life-transforming grace. That place is this church, Woodmont United Church of Christ, daring to reveal God’s unconditional love by welcoming and accepting all people, through joyful and creative worship, faithful service and spiritual growth. Amen.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

U.S. religious knowledge survey

An ironic surprise...agnostics, atheists, Jews and Mormons scored best on this Pew Research survey. Which means we who call ourselves Christian weren't paying attention in Sunday School. Or we forgot about that World Religions class and U.S. History and Civics. Or we're not getting our news from a balanced perspective. Or didn't receive a quality education. No wonder bigotry and ignorance still have their place in this country.

Take the quiz yourself and post your results in the comments.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Say anything

Psalm 137; Psalm 37: 1-9
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 3, 2010 – World Communion Sunday

George Carlin was rocketed to comic fame with his routine “The Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television”. Jesus had his seven last words from the cross: “I thirst”, “Behold your mother, behold your son”, “Today you shall join me in paradise” and so forth. The church has its own seven last words: “We’ve never done it that way before.”

And even though the United Church of Christ and one of its forebears, the Congregational church, are known for their freedom of the pulpit, that is, the freedom of the preacher to say what needs to be said to God’s people, there are still some subjects that God’s people don’t want to hear about from the pulpit. Many of them are also avoided in polite conversation. There may not be seven of them but you know what they are: money, sex, politics, and religion. Yes, even religion is a touchy topic many folks don’t want to hear about from the pulpit, especially if it is about our own religion and how it requires, demands, even commands something of us.

Today’s scripture adds to that list of unacceptable subjects: angry, hot revenge. You may have heard the saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold” but we all know that the desire to even the score runs hot in our blood. And we hear not only the hot-bloodedness of the writer of Psalm 137, we also hear the pain and anguish, the injustice that can cause our blood to boil.

“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
“…O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

We ask: how can language like that be in the Bible? How can a psalm like that be not only allowed but used in a book of worship?

Once again, the lectionary has taken us to the time of the Babylonian exile, that catastrophic event in the life of the Israelites. Jerusalem and its temple have been destroyed, homes have been turned to rubble, survivors, after having seen their loved ones killed, have been carted off to Babylon as spoils of war. Their trust in God was shaken to its very core. These Israelite captives wanted not only revenge but justice for their captors—a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe, as it is stated in the 21st chapter of Exodus. We can only imagine that whoever wrote Psalm 137 witnessed the death of their own child at the violent hand of their enemy.

In the book of Psalms, in their holy book of worship, the Israelites knew they could say anything to God, that there was nothing to keep from the creator of the heavens and the earth, the one who has searched us and known us since before we were born. But there is also a balance: a heaping measure of God’s comfort and reassurance:

“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.”

How many of us have wanted revenge on another? If you think you’re above or immune to such feelings, what about road rage? Or wishing someone ‘a taste of their own medicine’? Or withholding forgiveness, holding a grudge? We’ve all felt those feelings and our God is big enough to hear them, so why isn’t our church big enough to allow their expression here, in a place intended for honest confession, healing and reconciliation?

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 many churches and other places of worship were open for people to come and pray, to worship together, hold hands, light candles, to have faith in the dawn of another day. That spirit of reflection and unity lasted for quite a while. But then it seemed the songs we sang in our pain and grief were seized upon and used as a prelude to war. Though vastly different in scope, the parallels between the exile and that dark day are almost too close. A great center of commerce, twin skyscrapers that testified to American ingenuity and prowess, was made into rubble. Thousands died, including those who tried to save others. We too were shaken to our very core. Two years later war was declared and our sons and daughters have been giving their lives to it, have been made captives of it ever since.

Perhaps if we had expressed more of our grief, our sadness, our rage and our anguish within these walls, to the point of recognizing that vengeance is not ours, perhaps we might have realized the futility of war. Even if a preemptive war is intended to prevent terrorism, is not war a form of terrorism in and of itself? Can we also imagine that there are those who would pray this psalm against us? In the words of Confucius, before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

The apostle Paul urges Christian citizens of the empire in Rome, and we who are Christian citizens of our own empire, to remember to never avenge themselves, “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” When was the last time we witnessed mercy and forgiveness in the public forum? Reconciliation begins here. In order for that to happen, we first need to express those raw emotions that make us cry out for justice.

World Communion Sunday reminds us that we exist in relationships, that what we do here in this place affects not only ourselves but others as well, rippling through this human web we live in. Let us trust that the God who demands justice will also carry it out. Jesus himself, who from an instrument of torture and death, groaned, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but who also prayed “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We can say anything to God in prayer—God who tenderly holds us and understands, who forgives and heals us.


Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last official hangman, said that hanging is more about revenge than about justice: "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people...The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off."