Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What we know... that we really don't know much.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Go naked for a sign

The Human Condition, Rene Magritte, 1933

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-8; Psalm 32
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
March 13, 2011

The summer before my oldest daughter turned three, Andrea would not wear a bathing suit. It was the summer of toilet training, before she would begin preschool in the fall. She wanted to be free, to feel the sun and water and sand on her bare skin, and if she had an accident, she wouldn’t need to be changed. She ran on the beach with no shame, no self-consciousness about her body or her nakedness. As I wrote this sermon I looked at the pictures I took of her as she unabashedly looked into the camera. She was beautiful.

But I could tell that not everyone on the beach that day felt as I did. There were glares and stares, even a whispered comment that she was too old to be running around without a bathing suit. They didn’t understand how different this child was from the infant who screamed when we gave her a bath.

From her very first bath Andrea could not stand to be exposed and bathed, not even in the safety baby tub that barely contained any water. She would turn red from crying as she lay in the prone position, the only position allowed in this new-fangled way of keeping baby safe while bathing. David and I had to devise our own method in order that Andrea feel safe and comforted while we bathed her. What we did was to recreate some of the atmosphere of the womb, the first waters that Andrea ever knew.

First, we would warm the bathroom with a heater. Then we lit a few candles rather than use the overhead light. The bathtub was filled only halfway with warm water. Then either David or I would get undressed and get into the tub holding Andrea against our chest so she could hear our heartbeat, cradling her much in the same way as she was carried in utero. It was at about three months, after the colic dissipated, that she was able to sit up with assistance in a small tub and then in a safety chair in the bathtub.

When both my girls were born they were placed on my bare chest; not only to begin the nursing process but more so they would bond with me and I with them. When we’re born, much like Adam and Eve when their eyes were opened, we move from unknowing to knowing, from having all our needs met without even having to ask into a strange new world of light and sound, varying temperatures and naked vulnerability. That first skin-to-skin contact stabilizes the baby’s heart and breathing rates, helps keep the baby warm, and reduces crying, giving the child the earliest opportunity to nurse and to know that their needs will be met. This naked vulnerability between mother and infant is baby’s immediate education in the ways of trust and dependence.

Adam and Eve, Marc Chagall, 1912

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree, they were born into the world of good and evil. Rather than this naked vulnerability binding them to God, it drove them away into hiding themselves. From this point on, nakedness would be equated with shame, our bodies relegated to evil rather than good, our standing with God being on tenuous terms.

However, this is not a prescriptive story about how it should be; rather it is a descriptive story about how things are. We were created for the garden. We were intended to live in innocence, shamelessness, and in harmony with God, each other and the creation. If there was any original sin, it was in humanity’s ignorance and hubris that we could outsmart this mysterious power that brought forth life out of lifelessness, that we could have knowledge like that which created the heavens and the earth, that we could evade death. And throughout our evolution as a human race we have tried to hide ourselves from God and from each other, protecting our naked vulnerability, shaming what makes us unique, denigrating what makes us beautiful in the eyes of God.

How often do we hide our tears and keep our sadness and grief to ourselves? How many of us try to avoid seeing our naked bodies in the mirror at all costs? When was the last time we were with someone or a group of people and we were not afraid to be our true selves? How many times a day do we regret what we said or did not say, what we did or what we did not do? How bare do we lay our souls, the good and the bad, before God?

The Nakedness of Adam, Alan Falk, 2003

We might be able to fool others, and more likely ourselves, but we can’t fool God. It’s like hiding the liquor bottles at the bottom of the recycling bin, sneaking something we’re not supposed to eat on a diet, not telling our partner about that bonus check or the money we lost, buying things we don’t need and stuffing them in the closet for later. And no matter which part of us we hide, the good or the bad, we end up hiding the other as well—we might as well be invisible for all that! God knows us inside and out, sees us for who we are, and calls us to do God-work anyway. God knows that we are far from innocent and yet does not condemn. With God, the cat’s out of the bag and it’s okay!

This doesn’t mean we can do what we want and get away with it. Nor can we just let it all hang out, as they used to say. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant reformation, wrote these words about sin and grace: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. …Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.” God’s mercy is infinite because our capacity to sin is also infinite but so is our ability to do and be good.

As I’ve said before, our ability to accept and love others as they are is directly related to our own level of self-acceptance. A church cannot give an extravagant welcome if its members are worried about where they stand with God, each other and themselves. What if the next time you were about to give yourself a piece of harsh criticism (or anyone else for that matter), instead you gave yourself or someone else a hug? What if, as Maggie Kuhn said, you spoke your truth even if your voice is shaking? What if instead of only seeing the bad or the good about yourself and others, you looked at yourself and at others the way God does?

Trust is...

(c) Kristin Noelle, 2011.

God’s eyes were already opened that day in the garden. Later in the passage we can hear the disappointment in God’s voice. God metes out some consequences for each of the players in this drama. But there is also tenderness—God clothes Adam and Eve with garments made from animal skins.

Even though they thought they could hide what they did and who they had become, God looked on this humankind made in God’s own likeness with clear eyes. God saw the mistakes, the tendency to be beguiled, to act without thinking, to hide and cover up, and to pass the blame yet also saw that original innocence, that naked vulnerability that resides in each one of us. God saw the whole package, and even so God still desired to be in relationship with these unpredictable beings of free will, even to the point of suffering and dying on a cross.

The Garden of Eden, Erastus Salisbury Field, 1865

God was and is willing to go naked for a sign. In creating humankind in the divine image God became naked and vulnerable to the creation. We witness this in moments of courage and greatness, in the many expressions of creativity and genius, in the simplicity of a meal for one who is hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, caring for the sick, clean water for those who thirst. God’s naked vulnerability can also be seen in the eyes of those who suffer from injustice, whose young bodies and lives are bought and sold and discarded, in those who bear the indignities of age without care, those who live through war, disease, poverty, natural disasters and their aftermath.

If we are to do God-work, then we must be willing to go naked for a sign ourselves: to be honest about who we are without shame, to love unabashedly, and allow the divine image within us to take its rightful place. When you look in the mirror, Woodmont UCC, what do you see? Do you see your beauty and your love handles? Do you see your openness and your hesitation? Do you see your greatness and your pettiness? Do you see your passionate spirit and your fear of failing? Do you yet have a measure of courage and serenity and wisdom to embrace all of who you are and serve God anyway?

Go naked for a sign. Be vulnerable and tell God everything. God knows it all and wants you still.


August, 2007: US-installation artist Spencer Tunick and Greenpeace present a living sculpture: hundreds of naked volunteers symbolize the vulnerability of the glaciers under climate change.
(Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland)


[2] The sermon title is taken from avant-garde poet/author Hakim Bey. I also used this same term in last year's Transfiguration sermon.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Glory dazed


Exodus 24: 12-18; Matthew 17: 1-9
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
March 6, 2011 – Transfiguration Sunday

One day in the span of eternity, Jesus and Moses decide to visit their former stomping grounds for old time’s sake. While walking in the Sinai they come to a huge rock; Moses takes a wooden stick, strikes the rock, and water comes pouring forth. Jesus says, “Not bad, old man, not bad.” Upon entering a small village Jesus finds some jugs filled with water; he dips in a cup and the cup is miraculously full of wine. Moses said, “Still got the touch, huh?” Then they come to the Red Sea; Moses lifts his hands in the air, the waters part, and they cross safely. Jesus says, “Wow. That one is my all-time favorite.” After a few days’ journey they come to the Sea of Galilee; Jesus steps out onto the water and begins to walk across the surface. All of a sudden, he sinks like a stone. After he swims to the shore, he says to Moses, “I can’t understand it. I used to be able to do that, no problem.” Moses says to Jesus, “You putz! Now you’ve got holes in your feet!”

We love to relive the good old days, those days of glory when we were younger; things were familiar and comfortable, and seemingly more predictable. Though we would never admit to a desire to live in the past, many times we may find ourselves unconsciously trying to recreate the good memories and feelings we enjoyed in past relationships, events, and patterns of behavior. Even if some of Freud’s theories of psychology were a bit outlandish, he was right about one thing: we tend to project our myopic view of the past onto present circumstances as a way of creating a comfort zone to shield us from the unknown.

Look at what is coming out of Hollywood these days. Many big movies and TV shows are remakes of each other, or of Broadway productions, adaptations of popular books or earlier versions of a familiar story. Recent movies such as Tron: Legacy, Yogi Bear, The Green Hornet, The Green Lantern, and even True Grit are all examples of our longing for the familiar past recaptured by new technology and another generation of magic-makers. In the short term it generates a lot of excitement, but in the end, a steady diet of old-made-new produces a cynical viewing audience who think they’ve seen it all because they have.

When Peter sees Jesus in all his glory, together with Moses and Elijah from those good old days, it’s as if God were back in the house. Before Israel settled down and made a home, a temple for the presence of God, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in a tent that could be packed up and go wherever God led the people of Israel. As you know, the festival of Sukkot, or the festival of booths, is to remind faithful Jews of the wandering in the desert and of their dependency on God. Peter reacts to this holy event like any good Jew would: he wants to build booths for the presence of God revealed in Jesus.

But this isn’t the good old days of Israel. And what’s funny is that those good old days weren’t so good all the time. The people murmured and complained to Moses about the food and water. They turned from God and worshiped a golden calf. They were bitten by poisonous snakes. When Elijah was prophet, Israel was a divided kingdom and there was drought and famine in the land. He had to flee Israel because there was a price on his head from Israel’s foreign queen, Jezebel.

Though God’s people had not had a prophetic leader in a long time, even so they weren’t really paying attention to the new thing God was doing in their midst. Jesus wasn’t God’s version of “Prophet 3.0”—he wasn’t even behaving like the messiah that had been long-expected. God snaps Peter out of his ‘glory daze’ with words similar to those heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” It’s a new day! The Good News, fresh words of grace and mercy, peace and justice, are forthcoming—take notice!

Lately I have heard some murmuring here too. Excitement and anxiety levels are rising as the search committee begins to focus on a few talented candidates. There have been comments along the lines of: ‘I can’t wait for the new pastor to come in and take over’. In the most recent set of glory days your last pastor was a take-charge person. So, purposefully, I have not been a take-charge kind of pastor; in fact, that’s not even who I am. When moving on to new leadership it’s good to have another experience of leadership style, to open the community to other possibilities, other avenues of creativity and ministry.

When matching up congregations and pastors, it’s all about a good fit. There are different ways of being church and different ways of being a pastor and both can change in the course of their lives. It’s not about finding the right kind of pastor or being the right kind of congregation but whether or not you’re right for each other, whether or not you’re a good fit.

Receiving a new pastor can be a transfiguring event in the life of a faith community. Hopefully, though, it won’t be like the good old days before but like the new glory days ahead. Both the Exodus and Matthew passages refer to 'six days', recalling the sixth day of creation when humankind was created in the image of God. God is not done with you yet. God is still creating, still speaking.

Six days after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection he is transfigured into glory. Where Jesus leads, the church is to follow. You too will make sacrifices on your way to the cross. You too are called to carry your own cross and to die upon it. But you will also be resurrected into glory, into new life and yet-to-be-imagined possibilities. And not solely because of a new pastor but through the Holy Spirit working through your partnership in ministry.

What are you looking forward to as a church? What are your dreams, your hopes for the new glory days ahead? How open are you to the unexpected, to the surprising ways of the Holy Spirit? What past behaviors, expectations, and habits do you still need to let go of? What do you need to be doing in your own spiritual life to be able to follow Jesus wherever he leads?

Glory to God in the Highest by Cornelis Monsma

God is always coming into our lives in new and fresh ways, still creating, still speaking. We are made new whenever we listen, when we pay attention to Jesus and where he is going next. And when we go with Jesus, we’ll never be able to say that we’ve seen it all. It will be as the beloved hymn: “Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, crowned as saints, we ever shall be lost in wonder, love and praise.” May it be so. Amen.