Monday, January 31, 2011

A fool's errand

Micah 6: 6-8; Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1: 25-31; Matthew 5: 1-12
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 30, 2011

This past Tuesday evening I did not watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech on TV. Rather I have watched clips of it on the Internet. Though I generally support our president, there was one set of remarks he made that gave me pause:

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.”

Sadly, the language of empire still manages to find its way into presidential rhetoric. Capitalism is still the bottom line. I know that the president must contend with Tea Party Republicans and blue dog Democrats and all the rest while striving to remain true to his own goals and values. I saw a photo of a protest poster that read “Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free health care. You’re thinking of Jesus.” I know Obama is not Jesus nor should any of us expect him to be.

And yet I ache inside when the counterculture language of the Bible is overshadowed by our country’s nationalism and our longing for the so-called glory days when the United States was a superpower in every way. What a contrast to phrases such as ‘blessed are the meek’, ‘walk humbly’, and ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’! Yet these words can seem hollow and empty as we human beings continue to grasp for possessions, power and financial security.

All of these lectionary passages speak of how to live in this world—with open vulnerability and authenticity. So much of our culture is about coping with or covering up or protecting or numbing or denying our weaknesses. As I’ve said before, none of us wants to be taken for a fool. And yet we who follow Jesus up that small hill to hear that in our lowest moments we are blessed, against the megaphone of this world and even our own experiences, on some days all our faithfulness can seem like foolishness.

We follow a man who preached love in the face of fear and death, who threatened those in power by eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors and raising the dead, who died on the Roman Empire’s version of the electric chair. In the eyes of the world we are fools. Suckers for Jesus. But the more I preach that story, the more rebellious and subversive I want to become. And that’s the transformation, the life-changing moment that Jesus is after in each one of us; that the story becomes so compelling that it releases our grip on our fear, lifts us out of the narrow view of our own story, and puts us smack dab in the middle of someone else’s story. Like this one.

Every night Julio Diaz, a thirtysomething social worker, ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner. One night in March of 2008, as Diaz stepped off the train and onto a nearly empty platform, he was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy came up to him and pulled out a knife.

The kid wanted his wallet, so Diaz just handed it over. As the boy began to walk away, Diaz said to him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The kid looked at Diaz, “like what's going on here?” He asked Diaz, “Why are you doing this?”

Diaz replied, “If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.” Being a social worker, Diaz thought he could help the guy. They went into the diner and sat in a booth.

Since Diaz is a regular, pretty soon the manager, the dishwashers, the waiters all come by to say hi. The kid said to Diaz, “You know everybody here. Do you own this place?”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told him. The kid replied, “But you're even nice to the dishwasher.”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

“Yeah, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way,” the boy said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. The kid sat there with almost a sad face. He couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz said to his would-be robber, “Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you.”

The kid didn’t think twice and returned the wallet to Diaz, who gave the boy $20, figuring who knows? Maybe it would help. Diaz then asked for something in return — the young man’s knife —and he gave it to Diaz.

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You're the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.” The way Diaz figures it, “if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” [1]

What was the last foolish, makes-no-sense, upside-down thing you did for Jesus? If the cross is foolishness, why are you still here? If serving at this church can sometimes be one of the hardest things you do, what keeps you coming back?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”



Thursday, January 27, 2011


Another January morning, another snowstorm (10"), another snow day for my girls.

Now the sun is shining through our east-facing window--bright and gold through the icicles.

The moon is setting and the snow is rising!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Trust me

Calling Disciples, He Qi

Isaiah 9: 1-4; Matthew 4: 12-23
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 23, 2011

Boyd Packer, a prominent leader in the Mormon Church, tells the story of Dr. Faun Hunsaker, who was visiting their Southern States mission. Dr. Hunsaker was invited to stay at the home of a member, arriving after the children had gone to bed. He was given the parents’ bedroom to stay in.

During the night he heard the door open and the sound of little feet. A little boy frightened by a bad dream had come to his parents' bed for comfort. Sensing that something was different, the little boy felt Brother Hunsaker's face. So he spoke quietly to the child. The startled youngster said, “You're not my daddy!”

“No, I'm not your daddy.”

“Did my daddy say you could sleep here?”

“Yes, your daddy said I could sleep here.”

With that the little youngster crawled into bed with Brother Hunsaker and was soon asleep. [1]

We are soft-wired for connection and trust. We come into this world trusting that the people around us will take care of, love, feed, and comfort us. Through our relationships with our families and later on, with other adults and peers, our ability to trust becomes more complex. We adapt what we’ve learned, gauge what we can say and do with new people based on previous experiences, and choose whether to renew trust with someone who has broken it. If we’ve experienced any kind of abuse, it can be very difficult for us to form connections, to feel like we belong, or to trust ourselves, let alone anyone else.

I Will Make You Fishers of Men, Joey Velasco

Interestingly enough, we are hard-wired for caution and fear, and with good reason. These innate characteristics have saved human beings from becoming the next meal of a grizzly bear or African lion all the way to keeping us from making friends with every person on the street. Caution and fear are what keep us alive some days. They wise us up, saving us in our foolish and reckless youth to living to be older and levelheaded adults.

In fact, we’re so hard-wired for fear and caution that it’s possible to be born without these qualities. It’s called Williams syndrome. Children born with this disorder are biologically incapable of distrust. Yes, most children are friendly, conversing with strangers in public, waving, smiling, mimicking others’ faces, mannerisms, and words. Imagine, though, if during the course of an innocent conversation, your child then said to an unknown adult, “Will you take me? Can I come home with you?”

Children with Williams syndrome are unconditionally trusting and loving. They have no social fear whatsoever. The boy in the previous story was startled, scared to find someone else sleeping in his parents’ bed. He asked questions. He wanted to know if this unknown person had permission from the person he trusted the most, his father. Children with Williams syndrome must be taught these behavioral lessons over and over again, often living very sheltered lives.

However, in this morning’s gospel lesson, we see Jesus’ first disciples behaving as though they are unconditionally trusting as well. They ask no questions. Jesus does not say by what authority or training they will be doing this ‘fishing for people’. Thus far he hasn’t preached any sermons, healed any people, or performed any kind of miracle. Yet Peter and Andrew, James and John immediately leave their nets and boats, their families and community to follow Jesus. What would induce them to trust this unknown and as yet, untested rabbi?

Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew, James Tissot (1886 - 1894)

The author of Matthew himself gives Jesus some geographical credentials by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The territories of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the lost tribes of Israel, to listeners in both Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ would be like us hearing about places like Mogadishu, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Vietnam—places where war and its atrocities had made a living hell for those who live there.

So when Jesus moves into this neighborhood, he is saying in no uncertain terms that he has come for the lost, for those who live in the shadow of death, for those who have been forgotten. Jesus and his disciples would not be fishing for converts but for those the world has left behind. They would be doing God’s work of gathering in those still in exile: the poor, the outcast, those considered unclean. For this reason, these first few disciples trusted Jesus with their lives.

Think of the people you trust, with whom you can be your most vulnerable self. What is it that makes them so trustworthy? What qualities do they possess? Usually these are folks we can believe in, that is to say, they have integrity, their insides match their outside—they are authentic.

When we say we believe in Jesus, what we mean is that we believe, we trust that he is the authentic, utterly faithful image of the fullness of God. For some Christians that means Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin, who came to take away our sins. For others this is not necessary in order to believe in Jesus; rather there are Christians who look to Jesus, his actions, his teachings, his authenticity as one who fully embodies God’s law and love.

Because of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the words ‘trust’,’ believe’, and ‘faith’ have come more to mean to ascribe to a creed or doctrine or religious code. Actually, these words have more to do with loyalty and relationship than with any kind of test. The word ‘believe’ comes from an old English word which means ‘to belove’. When we say we believe in Jesus, we believe in God, we believe in the Holy Spirit, what we’re really saying is that we belove them. We have a relationship with them. We trust them. We trust that when a promise is made, that it will be fulfilled; that we are unconditionally loved; that when we are lost, we will be found; that the kingdom of God truly indeed dwells within us and amongst us.

We could quote Bible verses, the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, and the Ten Commandments until the cows come home. We could agree with every set of statements that exist about the Christian faith. But this is not what it means to be faithful, to trust God, to believe in Jesus. The opposite of faith and trust is not doubt but anxiety, worry, fear. Think about how often during the course of the day you are worried, anxious, fearful. Think about those times you have felt those feelings at church. Are there people here with whom you can share your anxiety, your worries, your fears? Is this a church where these feelings are talked about openly and authentically or with only a few?

Keeping our anxiety, worry and fear to ourselves is what makes us feel lost, is what drives apart community and gets us feeling purposeless, wandering—as though we are in the dark. When a community, a church operates from within the shadows, all of the decisions made, even with the best of intentions, contain within them an undercurrent of anxiety and worry. Being open and honest about these feelings takes away their power over us, bringing the light of God into that shadowy place. Believing in one another, being faithful in our commitment to each other, trusting that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got—this is how we are found, it’s what brings us together, and gives our life together meaning. This is what makes a church feel like home.

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Said another way, “Belove one another as I have beloved you. Believe in one another as I have believed in you.” Jesus trusted these disciples, not because they were exemplary people, not because they had proved themselves in some way, not even because they might have been good fishermen. He trusted them because they said ‘yes’ to him when he hadn’t promised a thing except that they would be catching people.

At some point you said ‘yes’ to Jesus and to each other. You say it each time you come to worship, when you serve on a committee, when you put money in an envelope, when you teach Sunday School, when you bring food and help out at a mission meal and any other number of ways. But as in any relationship, when was the last time you said it out loud and really meant it? Jesus trusts you to do God’s work of gathering in the lost. If Jesus has called each and every one of us, who are we to be anxious?



Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The antidote

Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3: 1-2, 11-17
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 9, 2011

None of us likes to be fooled nor do we want to miss the boat on anything either. It seems that most of us are persuaded that there must be one right way to do things; usually our way or the way of the mob, the majority or those in the resistance camp. We want to know who and what is right so we won’t have to be wrong. For many folks certainty is the unconscious drive behind religious faith. Or the rejection of religious faith. As I said, none of us likes to be hoodwinked.

Recently a group of folks volunteered for a study to not only be hoodwinked but told openly by researchers that they would be. The study was conducted by Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome were divided into two groups: one group was given a placebo to be taken twice a day, the other was given nothing. The hitch was that those who took the placebo knew they were taking sugar pills. Some of the patients and a few of the doctors conducting the study were skeptical as to whether or not the pills would have any effect on symptoms. Placebo studies that had been carried out in the past concealed the fact that patients were taking sugar pills. Though the placebos in many cases worked, hence the term ‘the placebo effect’, the secrecy surrounding the pills made it unethical for doctors to prescribe them.

Surprisingly, 59% of those who knowingly took sugar pills had adequate relief of symptoms compared to 35% of the group who took nothing. And of course, there were no side effects. Researchers theorized that it was the ritual of taking a pill that did the trick. Usually when we take aspirin or something for a headache, we of course expect relief more so than when we don’t take anything.

Many more studies need to be done before doctors could prescribe placebos. So far sugar pills have only been effective on maladies due to an overactive nervous system, that is, stress and anxiety. However, it does beg the question if an honest placebo would work with more serious illnesses like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and others. If the cure to what ails us is in our minds, wouldn’t it be miraculous not to have to poison our bodies in order to be well and whole?

The word ‘placebo’ is actually a 13th c. name given to the rite Vespers of the Office of the Dead, which comes from the opening of the first antiphon or responsive song, taken from Psalm 116.9: “I will please the Lord in the land of the living”. ‘Placebo’ means ‘I will please’, the future tense of the Latin placere. In the late 17th c. the word placebo gained its medical meaning: a medicine taken to please rather than to benefit the patient.

In this morning’s gospel lesson we read that after Jesus is baptized by John, God is well-pleased; that somehow Jesus submitting to John for baptism pleases God. Through the centuries many have been puzzled as to why Jesus would require baptism. It’s not as though he was a sinful person needing repentance, to turn toward God. We’ve heard at least six weeks’ worth of readings that Jesus is God-with-us. What benefit would there be to Jesus receiving John’s baptism of repentance?

In fact, John and his message of repentance were seen as an insidious poison by the powers that be. He challenged the status quo, calling the people out from the cities and towns, declaring that God was not in the seat of power but in the homeless wilderness of our lives. He hurled insults and levied charges against both the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious authorities of his time. He was loud and obnoxious, clothed in animal skins, his diet that of a wild bear.

So when Jesus wades into the Jordan in front of God and everybody, asking John to baptize him, Jesus aligns himself with this apparent poisonous personality. Even though Jesus is both physician and medicine to our souls, to sin and evil, Jesus looks like poison.

We all know or have known people who have toxic personalities. They spread chaos in their wake, they hurt and destroy, they shame and blame others. Perhaps we’ve even been a member of a church where one or more of these bullies was a leader or a behind-the-scenes-wrecker. It’s not easy being in community with the person we least want to be there. When Jesus said ‘love your enemies’, I would bet this is the kind of person who would be the most difficult to love.

And though it may be easy to identify such persons, it’s not as simple as that. Often what irks, angers or frustrates us in other people are traits that we ourselves possess. Rather than examine the health of our own psyche, it’s much easier to diagnose someone else’s problems. All of us are capable of wreaking havoc, large or small, in our communal lives.

Before worship began, I gave two small containers to two different people.

(Here is where the manuscript of my sermon ended, and the extemporaneous began. I had given the two containers pictured to two different worshipers before service. I gave no instruction, except that they may do with them as they wished and that I needed them back at the conclusion of worship. I did not think ahead of time who I would ask; rather I followed the Spirit's leading. What follows is a paraphrase of the rest of my sermon.)

Interesting! The person I gave the button to now has both the prescription bottle and the button pinned to his shirt. The prescription bottle took a trip around the room but the button stayed in one place.

(Incidentally, the bottle had a label on it that said "DAMITOL - Warning: Contents may be hazardous to community life. Keep out of reach of children." Inside the bottle was a slip of paper that read "Active ingredients: Fear, anxiety, self-absorption, anger, non-communicated expectations, assumptions about others. Possible side effects: Conflict, bruised egos. If taken with a dose of grace, there is increased likelihood for spiritual growth.")

Now I could make all kinds of allusions to why one object traveled and one stayed in one place, but I think you can guess those yourself. The thing of it is, is that too often our tradition treats baptism as if it was the antidote to fear and sin, as if the waters of baptism had the power to turn us away from ourselves toward God.

Baptism is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality, that we have made a choice to follow Jesus, to recognize others as a child of God and to treat them that way. Sure, it would be nice to wear a button that says that we are a child of God and I hope you'll treat me that way, but that's not what it means to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus means to take the focus off of ourselves and instead look at others with clear and compassionate eyes. It means making this decision each and every day, that we will follow Jesus.

Jesus is the antidote, taken through the waters of baptism. In Jesus, God says to us, "You are my child and I will treat you that way."

(The idea for this sermon came to me in a dream. I was little nervous: one, because of the source of the idea, and two, because it was open-ended. I didn't have a clue what would happen.)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The word for this year is...

Jan over at Yearning for God is trying to discern a word for the New Year. Rather than formulating some useless resolution that will only be broken just in time for guilt-inducing Lent (now I really do have to give up whatever it is), why not instead have a word to remember for the year? A word to challenge, to guide, to comfort, to focus and bring me round again.

Last night as I was falling asleep, I prayed for a word; that it might come to me in a dream or be wandering in the fog as I wake up. My subconscious seemed to be lying in wait, because right on the heels of my request came the word: Forgive.

Forgive myself every time I make a mistake or fall off the pedestal of other people's expectations that I've put myself on.

Forgive all the drivers who cut me off, won't let me in, tailgate me, all of us in our own little auto-worlds.

Forgive folks for who they are not and love them for who they are.

Forgive the Church for the same reason as the one above. Love the Church for what it is.

Forgive my former stepmother and how our relationship ended but never had closure.

Forgive my father for smoking until the day he died of a heart attack.

Some of this forgiving work I thought I had already done and finished with it. But forgiveness is like an onion - there are many layers and as each one gets peeled away, sometimes it can make you cry.

And of course, the biggie....forgive God. For all the things I've ascribed to her and all the ways I've blamed him. Like most who receive my blame, God hasn't deserved it. Forgive me.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Camped out

The Christ Child by Mike Chapman, 1999
"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." (John 1: 14)

Sirach 24: 1-12; John 1: 1-18
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 2, 2011

My mother has never really liked camping, and now that I’m an adult I can understand why. Basically, it’s like living at home, only more work. Cooking was done over an open fire or a charcoal hibachi or on a propane stove. Pots and pans, plates, cups and silverware were washed in a single, small wash basin. The fridge was essentially a cooler with a bottom container for a block of ice, which also had a spigot for water as the ice melted. The bathroom could be a few yards or a short bike ride away. In summer we could usually count on a dozen or more mosquito bites and what you might call ‘traveling sickness’. In May and October the nights were almost always cold.

Of course my younger brother and I loved it. We got to sleep in our clothes, eat cook-out food every night, roast marshmallows, and sleep in the back of the station wagon, then a tent, and finally a pop-up trailer. Our family could not afford any other kind of vacation, but in all we visited 19 states including the entire eastern seaboard and four of the Maritime Provinces in Canada.

Sometimes when visiting family long-distance we would stay in the trailer especially if we had brought the dog and the cat with us. At a family reunion in Mississippi we set up the trailer in the backyard so there would be more room in my grandparents’ house for aunts and uncles and cousins. In 1976 we went to General Synod in Washington, D.C. but camped in Fairfax, VA because it was much more affordable than the Hilton hosting the meeting. Camping became a way for my family to go anywhere we wanted, to have a home, a familiar dwelling in a strange place.

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt on their long journey to the promised land, God went before them. When the law, the ten commandments, were given, they were then contained in the ark of the covenant, an ornamental chest that was carried on two long poles shouldered by Levite priests. As God’s people journeyed through the desert, they would make camp and the ark of the covenant would be placed in a tabernacle—a tent-like dwelling where God promised to meet with Israel. It was a sanctuary, a temple of the Most High God that could go wherever the people went—a home, a familiar dwelling in a strange place. You could say that God camped out with the people of God.

From the apocryphal book Sirach we heard that Wisdom pitched her tent with Jacob and the people of Israel; that in the holy tent Wisdom ministered before the Creator and in Jerusalem Wisdom took root and was given a resting place, presumably the great temple built by Solomon.

Though revelation and salvation have come in particular times and locations throughout human history, God’s dwelling place was never meant to become permanent, was never intended to become prime real estate or a reason for war. Rather, like Jesus’ ancestor Ruth, God goes where we go, God dwells we dwell. As was said by the Lakota holy man Black Elk, the holy land is everywhere.

Model of the tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant

It has been the practice of humankind since before recorded history to mark a holy site, a place where God’s presence was unmistakable, with what the Celts call a cairn or a makeshift altar—a simple pile of stones. Some of these can still be seen all over the world. These markers point the way along the path rather than assert the privileged claim that God can only be found here.

As Christians we believe that God pitched a tent with us in the life of Jesus, the kingdom of God dwelling within us and within all creation. Over the centuries our hubris has led us to make exclusive claims that God-with-us is more like God-is-with-us. God-with-us, God living in the human tabernacle says more about God than it does about us. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul uses tabernacle as a metaphor for the human body, that our bodies are temple-tents for the living God, reminding us not only of the temporary nature of our lives but also that God is deeply and intimately connected to us.

And we know from the life of Jesus that God goes with us even into the most terrifying, messiest, loneliest places of our lives. So we shouldn’t be so surprised when Jesus invites us to make camp in the most terrifying, messiest, loneliest places in other people’s lives. As my good friend Larry Wood once said, because [Jesus the] Christ is spacious and gracious, the fit can be a little baggy. I’ve never known a tent that wasn’t a little baggy—which is reassuring when we are trying to make some room within us and in our lives for this newborn Jesus.

Nativity icon - in many of these Mary is depicted as being in a womb

And the mystery of it all is that through the birth of Jesus God lives in us and we live and move and have our being in God as well. We dwell within each other, going where the other goes, setting up camp, a sanctuary, a home, a temple for the Most High God, a familiar dwelling in all those strange places we are compelled and called to go.

The question is, how attached are we to the way things are and what we think we know? What are we carrying that needs to be left behind or given away? How far are we willing to go on this camping trip with Jesus? Yes, it’s more work but it’s work that will bring all of us home.

Advent gave us time to prepare for the birth; Epiphany is our time to experience God’s presence as unmistakable. In Epiphany we get ready for the journey, one that eventually leads to the cross. In the words of the poet: “…but Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement; for nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.” We are being made into a sanctuary, a holy tabernacle, a temple-tent, one that can make itself at home in a stable with homeless shepherds yet take us all the way to the foot of the cross

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true
With thanksgiving I’ll be a living
For you