Tuesday, June 21, 2011

All Good--Sermon 6/19/11

All Good

I want to begin this morning by sharing with you a story. You see, I collect stories, I love to hear them, I love them well-told, I love when the synchronicities within them lead to greater truth, and comfort, and peace.

When I was in seminary each of the seniors in our small community would lead a chapel service throughout the year. And in my first year in the Bethany and Earlham School of Religion communities I heard one of the truest and clearest and simplest stories of grace I had ever heard. I confess now that I have no idea who preached the sermon. I can tell you with some degree of certainty that his first name was Dean, but wherever Dean went after seminary or where his life journey took him I have no idea. Dean began his sermon that morning telling a funny story about growing up in a conservative Lutheran church, one of those traditional churches where all the pews faced the front and the altar was raised and set apart. As a young boy Dean would sit in worship and stare at that ornate altar, complete with its gold candelabras and towering cross. He decided in the way of only the most creative of four-year-olds that God must live behind that altar, else why did everyone bow down to it, face it in worship, pray toward it? One Sunday, his four-year-old, curiosity got the better of him and after worship he untangled his hand from his mothers and snuck away from and made his way down that long aisle to take a gander behind that altar, to see this God to whom he had learned to pray. He went forward, full of trepidation and awe, and cautiously and as reverently as a four-year-old can he looked behind the altar, where he found, stored, no doubt in a convenient place, by some dear church custodian an upright vacuum cleaner. The puzzled four-year-old backed away with a great deal of certainty and clarity, and Dean shared, jokingly that throughout his preschool years he truly believed that God was a Hoover.

His story, of course, got a chuckle, for we all know silly stories of misunderstandings we had about the nature of the church in our younger years. But then this masterful preacher quickly changed the subject and shared a different story, one which wasn’t as whimsical and silly. With a tentative voice, Dean shared painfully of what a difficult semester it had been. As a young seminarian he was working as a chaplain for three months in an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education unit at a trauma hospital in Dayton. He struggled with issues of doubt, grappled with questions of suffering and loss and the nature of God. And felt as if he were losing his faith. The painful horrors that he had seen in the trauma bays of the emergency rooms had left impressions which were hard to shake. And his supervisors were critical of him and his ministry. He felt all hope was lost. After a particularly bloody trauma call which involved two gunshot wounds on an overnight shift he made his way to an out of the way hospital waiting room, and sat, his head in his hands and began to weep quiet tears. Questioning his vocation, questioning God’s existence, questioning the world we live in where brothers shoot brothers. In the midst of his tears quietly a cleaning woman had entered the room to straighten and tidy it for the next day, and with her she brought, of course, a Hoover vacuum cleaner, symbol of Dean’s young faith. And Dean said that as he sat there, inwardly smiling at God’s sense of humor in that hour, he raised his feet to allow the cleaning woman to clean around him, and this saint of a woman put her hands on his shoulder and said, “No, you’re good. You’re good right where you are.”

Dean reflected later that he probably frightened that instrument of God with his sobs as she touched his shoulder and shared her divine proclamation (even if she only referred to the placement of his feet). But this young minister was certain of the message from his God. He had been reminded by his quirky creator, the God who has a sense of humor, of the truth of the matter. He was good. He was good right there. And it was both confirmation and creation, for Dean began a new career in his ministry. And his story was told, and is told again.

Creation stories, the origins of how things came to be are always fascinating to me. Often when I worked at Hospice, and spent time with patients who were near the end of life, I found that the richest conversations happened when we talked about how things began, or when new things came to be. Where were you born? How did you come to live in Fort Wayne? How did you meet your spouse? What led you to start that project, that business, to travel that life path? As a parent, I’ve learned that our children love few stories more than the stories we tell them about their own beginnings--where each of them were born, how Brynn spent her first nine days of life in the NICU at Lutheran, how Grayson turned to look at his daddy’s face as he lay in that incubator only minutes old, how Robert introduced Tess to trees in the car on the way home from the hospital. Creation stories fascinate us, for we love how artfully they weave the stories of our lives, how they proclaim the wonder of how we got from there to here. How they give us hints about who we would become, or how we were led to this spot on the map of our lives.

The Ancient Israelites were no less entranced with stories of creation and origin, and they were mindful of how those stories should be told to their children. At the time that the book of Genesis was recorded, the Israelites were held captive by their Babylonian oppressors. The stories the Babylonians told themselves and others about the creation of the universe were filled with violence and blood, stories of domination and power. The Israelites had a different sense of the creation of the world and in an act of counter-cultural revolution they knew in their bones a different story, a creation story with a different twist. The tale woven around the fireside that was shared with each generation of Israelite children, and the story documented by our forebearers in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a different one. It is a story of blessing and grace, a story where humanity is created after the universe was put into motion, woman and man created in the image of their loving and adoring God who looks on them with tender eyes and sees them as good. All good. The Spirit of God hovered and brooded over deep water, hopeful and yearning, and brought forth the blessing of our created bodies. All blessing.

Don’t ask me how this began to get twisted, how the idea of original blessing became original sin. Some say it was the first taste of the fruit Adam bit, or that pesky snake, or Eve wanting to have a teeny tiny bit more knowledge. But no word is mentioned in these accounts of sin, and God seems less angry Dad and more disappointed and reluctant parent as the tale continues. And so I think that original sin stigma came even later and forever shaped the history that grew up around it. Augustine, who wrote in the fourth and fifth century was the one who really claimed that there was a fall, or a break from our relationship with God. And the idea of original sin was expounded on, then by other early church fathers intent on maintaining order and demanding that children of the church repent of the sins of Adam and Eve. Meanwhile, original sin is never mentioned in the Bible. Nowhere.

Which raises the question again? How did we drift so far afield from this idea that humanity was created “all good,” that our inherent nature, the spark of God within us is made with a default “good” switch? How did we stray so far away from our scriptural roots? And how do we find our way back to that idea of original blessing?

If we know we are created in the image of God, created good, then what is our responsibility now? How do we live into this goodness? How do we accept this unimaginable gift of being loved inherently, just as we are?

I think we can offer two responses. The first is this: Knowing we are loved, we are required to love. Plain and simple. Knowing that God chose each of us as a vehicle for the divine, so much so that God chose to become mortal and walk the earth as Jesus Christ, reminds us of our mission. We are created in love, and so we must love. Even when we are afraid, even when we have doubts, even when it is difficult. The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “There are a hundred different paths through the world that are easier than loving. But who wants easier?” May this be our mantra. We don’t need easier. We need to love. And so this must be the first response we have to our original blessing: love.

And the second response is like it: we must recognize our place in creation. Frederick Buechner wrote in his book Wishful Thinking, “Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them. If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy. Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same either.” (Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, Harper San Francisco, 1973). As images of God, as original blessings, we must recognize that we are part of all creation, and that our role on this planet is not coincidental. We have a unique task to do here, and a God who whispers to us through all of creation, or through old upright vacuum cleaners, as assurance of our place here, and our goodness in it.

Make no mistake. Discipleship is difficult. Doubts and fears will impede us at times. But we are made all good, and our creator delights and hovers over us offering us gifts of grace at every turn. It’s all good, friends. May it be so.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When Pentecost is Personal--Sermon 6/12/11

I speak this morning from a unique vantage point, for I am both pastor and candidate for new membership. I am both welcomer and welcomed. I am both seasoned in Peace Church’s ways after being your pastor for almost a year, and one of the new kids on the block. It isn’t often that a preacher can speak from that perspective. It’s humbling, actually. And to do so on Pentecost as we celebrate the birth of the institutional church, as we imagine that gust of wind that shook the foundations of that room in Jerusalem, as we consider what tongues of fire are, seems even more overwhelming.

There are a lot of sermons I could give this morning on Pentecost, on the rich symbolism of the story, on the beauty of those speaking in different languages and all understanding one another, on the passionate joy in that congregation, joy which bubbled over so much that bystanders believed that the early church members had been tipping the bottle well before 9:00 a.m.

But I’m hoping I have many Pentecost Sundays in years to come to preach those sermons to you. So, instead I’d like to share a story.

In the most chaotic times of my life there is a recurring dream that I have. I’m sure a Jungian analyst would have fun with the symbols that flow out of my subconscious mind at night. When things are askew in my world in whatever capacity I dream of tornadoes, that Midwest flat-land funneling phenomenon. In the dreams I am running from them, seeking shelter, trying to find safe haven. And usually, thankfully, the dream often ends with my finding a cellar door open, or discovering a firmly-rooted tree that I can hold on to. And then, often the nighttime panic is averted. And I ride the storm out, only to awaken in the morning wondering how my mind had tangled itself into that dreamworld mess the nightbefore.

There was one night, though, when the tornado finally found me, caught me in my dreams. It was a snowy night in January of 2004. During that time I was leaving my first pastorate after having been together for six years. I left with a great deal of ambiguity, loving them, but knowing it was time to move to a new chapter. Wanting to hold on to the past, but knowing that there was no future for me in that congregation, or indeed, in that denomination. Swirling with emotions for a variety of reasons and feeling even angry at God for calling me into ministry and then leaving me in the wilderness. On that night in January I dreamt that I was driving a car which safely protected my new family, for Robert and I had only been married a few months, and that the four of us were being chased by a tornado together. I so clearly remember the sense of urgency, the sense that I needed to protect not just myself now but Robert, and Tess and Brynn. And in that dream landscape a church showed up on the horizon, and I ran to the door and jiggled the locked handle, and banged on the stained glass-windows and demanded to be let in. And someone yelled out to me that there was no room for any of us, and that I needed to go away. And before I could return to the car it was gathered into a whirlwind and scooped into the belly of the twister, everything scattered this way and that. I awoke that night in a sweat, and felt slammed back into the real world, disoriented and distraught.

But this haunting dream, accurately named my reality. For at that time in my life, for a variety of reasons, there was not a church which had sheltered us. While there was a God who I believed sustained me, there was no community to call home. And in a sense, I felt unmoored, and untethered.

I share that story with you as one who will make vows this morning that bind me in covenant with you, as one who represents the voice of so many in this world. There have been times and there are currently times when for whatever reason, the institutional church has failed and will fail to meet the needs of some. And there have been times and there will be times when for whatever reason the institutional church has not welcomed others and will not welcome others. There have been times and there will be times when this human social institution which we call “The Church” has disappointed us or betrayed us or abandoned us. But, when any of those times come, the Holy Spirit will sweep in and do Its fancy, sacred, passionate, Holy Spirit dance among us. And we realize that we can be more. The power of the Pentecost comes when we realize that within the church there is an unquenchable fire which has not stopped burning for two thousand years. And we realize that we are part of that flame.

The theologian Renita Weems has written, “We are the church, a ragged band of miracle workers: ragged because we are often contentious, scared, lazy, undependable and—in a word—flawed; miracle workers because we’ve had to take straw and build a cathedral of hope for every generation that crossed our threshold.”

Today we celebrate the birth of the church, church with a capital “C.” And we realize that with all of its imperfections and all of its faults, it has the capacity for miracles and we see them. We see them when we baptize children, and then when we watch them grow into beautiful high school graduates. And we know that the Holy Spirit is with us. We see it when the call goes out that someone is in need, and then casseroles are baked and paper products are collected. And we know that the Holy Spirit is with us. We see it when the still speaking voice of God urges us to speak out against oppression or injustice, and our voice is echoed and magnified by our brothers and sisters. And we know that the Holy Spirit is with us. We see it when our brother or sister disagrees with us and emotions run hot, and then reconciliation is sought and forgiveness is offered. And we know that the Holy Spirit is with us. We, this ragged band of miracle workers.

I have not had any tornado dreams in the past year. Ironic, isn’t it? As your pastor, and as someone who will be binding her troth with that of this church in the next few minutes I offer thanks to you and praise to God for that. For you are a welcoming, gracious people, and the Spirit is alive here.

May we, as the people of Peace United Church of Christ on this Pentecost Sunday, feel the wind on our faces as the Holy Spirit whips through this church to refresh us with its power, and if the wind ever feels too strong, may we know that we can always find solace in the shelter of one another’s love. May the fire of the Holy Spirit be kindled in us that we may live out our mission and be the church of Christ today. Amen.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Where Are You Looking?--Sermon 5/29/11

Where Are You Looking?

When I was in college I had a roommate who grew up in the rolling green hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (and just as an FYI, it’s pronounced Lancaster, and not Laancaster, as my Hoosier lips wanted to say it). And so I got to know this part of the country a bit better than your average midwesternern. Rebecca’s family were Church of the Brethren, one of the Anabaptist sectarian movements in those parts, but her family were close with Amish families, and Old Order German Baptist families, and Mennonite families. And so I learned more than the average a bear about life among the “plain people.” Rebecca and I were perhaps anomalies among our college friends and liked wandering around the tiny towns in Lancaster county looking at old antique stores, or Mennonite-owned quilt shops. And at that time I was fascinated by these folk who call themselves, “plain people.” One weekend in June, however, when I was visiting, and Rebecca and I were out galavanting we noticed that all the shops were closed. It was a weekday, a Thursday it seems, and it made no sense to us…what had we missed? Had the rapture come and we didn’t know it? Finally, on our third stop at an Amish bakery we saw a hand-written sign that said, “We are closed, to celebrate Ascension Day.” We both puzzled over the sign, having never heard of Ascension Day celebrations, or Ascension Day hooplas, or Ascension Day picnics. Even now, Hallmark hasn’t picked up Ascension Day theme with cards or gift wrap (and what would that look like exactly? Probably clouds?) and we don’t sing Happy Ascension Day to one another. I wondered then, and I continue to ponder even ten or twelve years later, “What’s this Ascension stuff mean? And how have I grown up in the church without ever really noticing it before? How have I allowed this liturgical obscurity to pass me by?”

This year I decided to make up for nearly forty years of Ascension Day ignorance by doing some remedial theological learning, and because whenever I get enthused about a theological topic I preach about it, guess who gets to come along on the journey with me? That’s right…you do! Wahoo!

The first chapter and first verses of the Acts of the Apostles are classically known as “the definitive” story of the ascension. The writer of Acts, who it is believed was also the writer of the book of Luke, was so amazed by the story that he actually wrote about it twice, once in Luke and then with more detail and four-part harmony again in Acts, and so it is this second scripture that we’ll look at this morning.

Picture if you will a motley crew of assorted characters. A band of followers who had lost their leader, and were at loose ends, sort of like the mice who have lost the pied piper, or a bee hive that has lost its queen. They were a scruffy band of folk who had had their hopes shattered by the death of this one they thought was the Messiah. They’d been in mourning for a good forty days, a little over a month after watching Jesus die. And not only did he die, but he died in an incredibly violent and agonizing and cruel way. And then, puzzlingly, strangely, there had been that cryptic message from the angel in the tomb, and those sightings of him, which were hard to wrap your head around. While it seemed Jesus was popping up here and there, or at least people were saying they had seen a fleeting glimpse of him (think of modern day Elvis sightings), there hadn’t been any clear directive from the disciples en masse. There was no clear movement or direction that could be agreed upon. There was no master plan, no mission statement, no grand vision. There were just some folks, scattered here and there, aimlessly wondering what was next for them, and what they should do with their remaining time on this earth.

And then, (and you already knew this, since Bev already read ahead in the story for you), lo and behold, there was a sign. Out of nowhere word came from this one who they knew as the Messiah, speaking on behalf of their God. Jesus appeared to the disciples and told them not to leave Jerusalem. They were to stay put, hang tight, just wait patiently. For there was something exciting and unanticipated on the horizon. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was imminent.

I love thinking about these disciples then…I have a pretty irreverent picture of them in my mind’s eye at this point. I see them as sort of like the Keystone Cops, fumbling and muttering to themselves, running into one another and bustling back and forth in a commotion. Not entirely understanding, not entirely catching Jesus’s drift, but still feeling the need to act. Perhaps I see them this way because it is I would see myself in their shoes, laughing along with jokes I don’t quite get, and wanting, desperately wanting to do the right thing, which would lead to lots of fumbling movement and accidental incidents.

The disciples didn’t understand. Not yet. They asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of heaven?” Such an eager question. And the response they got was a perplexing one. Instead of answering the question he told them, politely, that the coming of the kingdom of heaven is in God’s hands. Jesus doesn’t give a yes or no answer, he doesn’t tell them an exact date and time and then encourage them to hand over their savings accounts to him so that he might create billboards and pass out flyers so that they might neglect the needs of this world and instead focus on the next one. Instead what Jesus says is this, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”

I wonder what the disciples thought of that response. Did they understand? Did they furrow their brows and scratch their heads? Did it make any sense to them? Does it make any response to those who follow him some two thousand years later?

Jesus’s response was a crafty one. If I were a disciple, I might have been inclined to want to grab his shoulders and shake him and say, “Just answer the question! The question is this: Are you, or are you not, here to restore the kingdom!?!” But Jesus has a wisdom which offers a depth that mere mortals like me don’t understand. The fact that Jesus didn’t answer this question, and moved on to another topic makes me think that the disciples were asking the wrong question. For if the disciples were simply continuing to hope for a cosmic ruler who would command the people and bring a new kingdom, if they are simply looking out into the distance and waiting for the next world, they are missing the point entirely. They are looking in the wrong place.

The kingdom language that Jesus spoke of throughout his life, throughout his ministry is not about another place and time. The kingdom language that Jesus uses has much more to do with how we bring about the community of God today, and tomorrow. And the job of furthering the mission, the task of ushering in the kingdom is the responsibility of us all. The reign of God is ushered in when we love. The reign of God is realized when we go about creating spaces of sanctuary for those in need. The reign of God is alive here when we practice compassion and tenderness. And this reign isn’t about tomorrow, and it isn’t about looking up. It’s about today. And it’s about looking here.

Listen to Jesus’s response to his disciples again, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” What he says, in the common vernacular is, “It’s not just about me now, friends. This ushering in of the kingdom of God, it’s up to you now too.”

And after these words he was gone. Poof. As the disciples watched he was lifted into a cloud. He ascended. Voila, the first Ascension Day! And disciples are left with his words, and with a mission.

But there’s one more part of this story that I really love…the part that assures me that God has a twinkling sense of humor and a sparkle in the eye—as well as the patience to get through to even the densest of followers. While the disciples are still standing there, looking up, gazing heaven-ward two new men show up. Two mysterious men in robes and ask pointedly, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And the disciples must have wanted to point at Jesus’s still rising feet and say, “Well, um…duh!”

But the question seems to be the moral of the story, the way to sum it all up. Why stand around waiting? Why focus so much on the next world, when there’s a world right in front of you hungry for God’s touch? Why stand looking up when right down the road there is a beggar who needs help, when there is a blind man who needs healed? What are you looking at? The community of God needs to be ushered in here, my brothers, and it’s not going to get done if you just keep standing here staring at the sky.

I find it ironic that when the Church, and I mean Church with a capital “C” celebrates ascension, much more time is spent considering the rising, when what the writer of Acts documents, the words spoken from the lips of Jesus seem to have more to do with the witness that happens down here…in this world…in this place.

Friends, there is a hungry world waiting for out gifts, and the followers of Jesus don’t have the luxury of resting on our haunches. Friends, there is a planet which needs our attention, and the followers of Jesus can’t simply ignore it while we await the heavenly realm. Friends, justice is still slow to come to our nation, and to our world, and the followers of Jesus aren’t permitted to excuse ourselves from the cause.

Instead, we must stand together, and imbibe the power of the Holy Spirit. We can gaze fleetingly at the Christ who rose, but then we must get back to work building the kingdom on this ground, just as Jesus did in his ministry.

I want to close by sharing with you the words of a Nicaraguan song taught to me in college:

Enviado Soy de Dios
I am sent by God. My hands they are ready. Ready to build a peaceful loving world. The angels, they were not sent to change a world of pain into a world of peace. God has called me, to make it a reality. Help me, God, to do Your work.

In the name of Jesus, may it be so.