Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Relinquishing--Sermon 3/25/12


When I was growing up, I spent time in the hot Northern Indiana summers at Chapman Lake, close to here in Warsaw, Indiana, where my grandparents had a home. When I was around eight or so, I was granted the luxury of visiting the lake for a week with my best friend, also named Kristen. The only drawback to lake visits, though, was that my grandparents used that time as their own little private work camp. Both believed in the Protestant Work Ethic, and had somehow made an agreement with one another ahead of time that we would grow up to be ladies of substance (my grandmother would never have used the word “women”), through the sweat of our brow. And so, Kristen and I learned how to empty the water out of the pontoons on the back of the paddle boat, and how to hang laundry to dry, all the while flicking the June bugs off the linens. We learned how to make biscuits, and we helped Grandpa fertilize his beloved roses. We shone the flashlight under the car as Grandpa fixed a part on his old Nash, and we learned the importance of higher thread count on sheets. The Millers were not afraid of a little work, after all, it put hair on your chest.

But throughout the day, throughout the humid steamy days, my grandparents also remembered that we were first and foremost kids, and thus we were also granted pockets of free time, a few hours or so here or there, and we would grab our towels and scamper a quarter mile or so down the lakefront and make our way to the swimming hole where we would indulge in exhilarated and unadulterated fun (watched all the while by my grandmother via binoculars as she sat on the front porch with a Pepsi). And I share all of this with you this morning for a reason…for it was that summer that I learned the sacredness of relinquishment. Of course I couldn’t have told you that then, but in hindsight I remember it all clearly. For you see, I learned what it meant to relinquish as I stood on the raft in the deep, deep water of Chapman Lake with my best friend on a break from our chores. I learned what it meant to relinquish as I faced backwards on the raft and would imitate a commercial I saw on television that summer. You may recall it, the NesTea iced tea commercial from the late 1970s? In it, a man seemingly hot and exhausted holds an iced tea in his hand while standing fully clothed on the edge of a pool, and then falls backward into the cool water while a voiceover invites the audience to take the NesTea plunge. Ahhh…relinquishment. That summer when I was eight years old, I loved to step backward off that raft, and fall back into the cold and comforting waters of Chapman Lake, while the water held me up. I remember the thrill, and even a little fear in the fall, the tremendous trust I had to place in that lake to hold me up, the ability to defy the laws of gravity for just a second as I hovered in the air. But mostly it was the sense of just letting go. Just letting go and falling. And that’s what we’re talking about today, prayers of relinquishing. Placing ourselves in God’s hands, a bit like Jesus did in this verse in John, recognizing that he had come to an hour when he was tempted to say, “Father, save me from this hour,” but then went on to say, “Father, glorify your name.” I believe Jesus taught us in the end of his life, the power of prayers of relinquishment.

Now, I believe that sometimes it is easier to define something by what it is NOT rather than by what it is, and so I want to say a few words very clearly and upfront that I do not believe relinquishing an easy one-step move. Instead, it is a prayer rife with struggle, questioning and doubt. Prayers of relinquishment are about process, time, and honest searching. This form of prayer is NOT about fatalism, yielding to chance, or claiming that we are puppets merely following the will of an omniscient and demanding God. Instead, I believe that prayers or relinquishment are about accepting our responsibility as co-creators with God in our future while at that same time being willing to walk into the unknown, trusting that God is with us on the journey. We walk a fine line when we talk about relinquishment, for we must be in relationship with God to practice this form of prayer, just as Jesus was. We must find ways to live our lives in tandem with our Creator, to seek God’s guidance, to study God’s word, to intuit God’s wisdom, just as Jesus could. But, it is also about just taking that deep breath and plunging into the water sometimes too…knowing that loving arms will carry us, wherever we go.

The one who taught us the ultimate prayer of relinquishing was one who had this kind of intimate trusting relationship. The one who modeled this kind of plunging into the unknown was one who journeyed with his Abba on a daily basis. And this verse in the book of John gives us glimpses of what will come in the garden of Gethsemane.

I have to confess that this morning’s lectionary text is perplexing to me. It isn’t one that sits easily or comfortably with me, maybe you feel the same way. In it, Jesus tells some of those who are following him that the time has come, or rather, the time is up. He announces that his death is imminent and that he is like a grain of wheat which must fall into the earth and regenerate to become a field of wheat. He foretells his demise, but with this beautiful sense of continuity, reminding his disciples that there is more to come. And I get it when it comes to Jesus. I mean, how much more proof do we need that Jesus was that grain of wheat? We’re sitting here in this church this morning, the religion survived for 2,000 plus years. Jesus died and in doing he sowed fields and fields and fields of wheat. But, I don’t know how comfortable I am with that personally…I’m a little more inclined to want to hold on to this one life I have, to be that one single grain of wheat, and to cling to this one tender life I have. I like the idea in the abstract, the idea that my death could yield more fruit, but it’s still a little sticky for us, isn’t it? We still doubt some, don’t we? And prefer to cling to this one wild and tender life we have? But maybe I’m being too literal here. What might it mean if the message that Jesus offers for us is instead about the power of relinquishing, the power of letting go of control as we cling to that one tiny sheaf of wheat, and allow ourselves to be used by God if we can just fall into God’s arms.

In the next weeks we will hear more about relinquishment than we can wrap our heads around as we hear the story of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, as we walk through the final weeks of the life of Jesus. We will imagine that starry night on the Mount of Olives where Jesus crouched in prayer in that garden surrounded by wild open space where he could have hidden, where he could have run, where he could have escaped from what must have seemed an ominous future, where he could have clung to the grain of wheat that he was rather than becoming the fields of the future. And yet, we know that he didn’t. Instead he knelt. And he prayed. He sweated. And he doubted. He asked. And he begged. But most importantly, when it was time, and only when he was ready, he yielded and he relinquished. He placed his future in the God who he knew loved him, and who he knew would not abandon him, and in that trust he glorified his God.

Our journeys are different then his, of course. Our cares and concerns may seem trivial at times when we compare them with those of Jesus. But we still know those moments when we cling to life, wondering how we will live into the next moment, unable to relinquish our clasp on the idea of control, uncertain how to plunge into the arms of a faithful God and know we will be held.

And maybe that’s where we start practicing simple relinquishing prayers so we’re ready to trust God in the bigger ones. For me, my first lesson in relinquishment at age eight, led to a deeper experience later in life. Several years ago as I was coming out of anesthesia after a surgery of several hours, I awoke feeling disoriented, frightened, confused. I was one of those few people who wake up feeling as if they have a Mack truck resting on their chest and I was convinced I couldn’t breathe (in spite of the fact that all the accompanying machines I was hooked up to seemed to be assuring me I was). My family stood near me, reassuring me that all was well. The doctors and nurses wandering by, reminding me that surgery was through, that I would be home the next day, that all was well. But I couldn’t calm myself. Every time I began to speak I would hyperventilate. Every time I tried to express my fears, I felt unable to explain myself. I was still under enough anesthesia that I couldn’t move my legs. And I couldn’t get up. And I felt smothered by blankets. Now I knew logically that I was still just waiting for the anesthesia to wear off. I knew that it was only a matter of time before this large truck parked on my chest would relocate, but rationalization doesn’t work in the face of panic. And then in the midst of the chaos, a saint of a nurse walked by, and read the notes on my chart, and looked at my heart rate on the screen, and stopped next to my bed and gently picked up my hand and she said simply this, “Christen, let go. Simply let go. Trust me. And do what I do.” And then she began to breathe slowly and deeply in and out. And keeping my eyes locked on hers, I began to mimic her breaths. And I fell into that deep pattern myself. And with every breath out I imagined myself yielding, relinquishing. And with every breath in, I tried to receive God’s grace. And after about ten or fifteen minutes, I drifted into peace. For in relinquishing, I was held. In letting go, I finally found peace. That’s what I imagine Jesus must invite us to do, as we loosen our clasp on our tiny grains of wheat.

I think if the prayer of relinquishment had a soundtrack it might be The Beatles song, “Let it Be,” You all know it right? Finding oneself in times of trouble, mother Mary coming, and speaking the words of wisdom, to let it be. Maybe that’s the truth of the Lenten journey, terrible things will happen, unspeakable things may come, but we are met by the presence of the divine, we are not alone.

Friends, we are walking toward the cross. We know the journey that lies ahead. And there are times when the world we live in now mimics the chaos of the two thousand plus years ago. This morning, may our prayers allow us to sigh. May our prayers allow us to plunge. And in all ways, may we fall back into the arms of God, who will sustain us, and who will beckon us to bear the fruits of justice and peace.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Transparency--Sermon 3/18/12


I have a little quiz for you this morning. How many of you can recite John 3:16 by memory? You don’t have to do it now, I trust you, but give me a show of hands if its one that rattles off your tongue fairly easily. If my suspicions are correct, a good 50% or higher of this church know this one. Perhaps you learned it in elementary school, or in confirmation classes. Lately, there has be a resurgence of interest in the verse, a verse that some refer to as the Gospel in a nutshell, thanks to the newest football sensation Tim Tebow, who adds it as uniform regulation, like his helmet and shoulder pads to his eyeblack at gametime. In fact, in 2009 after playing a championship game, over 92 million people googled John 3:16 to see exactly what Tebow was trying to convey [www.huffingtonpostreligion.com]. Last week I sat in the line of a drive-thru at McDonalds and saw that the Escalade in front of me had a perfectly centered John 3:16 bumpersticker placed on their back window. So John 3:16, for better or worse, seems to have become a codeword for Christians, a phrase that we see and nod knowingly. John 3:16? Gotcha.

But how often do we really unpack the verse? Or how many of us can recite John 3:17 after it? For while 3:16 does pack a punch, while it does sum things up pretty nicely, there is more that must be said, for we can’t live our faith only according to trendy bumperstickers and eyeblack.

Samantha read for you the scripture from the Living Version of the Bible, the way in which you’re used to hearing it. But this morning I would like to add a reading from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s modern day translation of scripture. Hear his words, and listen in a new way: This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need to be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind son of God when introduced to him. This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they are not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But everyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.

Wow. I love the spin that Peterson puts on it, the way his words indict me. For without saying the words directly, without spelling it out, what this scripture is actually talking about is salvation. And how God offers salvation. And what it means.

I don’t know about you, but when someone asks me about my salvation I get a little weirded out. It’s a pretty personal topic isn’t it? And more often than not, those folks who are asking if I am saved generally wouldn’t be too convinced if I told them the answer of what has saved me. The question, “Are you saved?” has been used in some communities as a “yes” or “no” answer, a litmus test of the faithful, a box that needs to be checked so that the rest of life can be lived. And I’m not convinced it works that way.

The Hebrew and Greek translations of “salvation” actually have less to do with theology and more to do with the secular culture of the time, particularly the military culture. In the Hebrew and the Greek the word “salvation” literally meant, “to make wide” or “to make sufficient.” Salvation wasn’t just a one-time affair. It referred to those times in life where the path of life was made wider so that new insight could be seen, to a time when recognition came that things were well. But, as often happens, the word has become co-opted, reclaimed, and now it’s a word we don’t know how to use without sounding like televangelists or itinerant revivalists.

So on this Lenten Sunday, I’m going to take a stand here. I’m going to use the privilege of the pulpit to pronounce some Gospel truth, brothers and sisters. This morning, I am here to demand that we reclaim salvation, and listen for what it can mean for us today. Can I get an Amen?

Because I believe we need to be saved. I do.

Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking, writes this: Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second. Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy—all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen. (1) you lose yourself, and (2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual. [Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. p.102-103] And I have come to believe that this is what salvation is truly about. I think salvation happens when we recognize God’s abundant, grace-filled, extravagant love for us and then when we separate ourselves from the illusion that we are not beloved. I think salvation happens when we so fully immerse ourselves in grace that we can do none other than be stunned into silent awe. I think salvation happens when we recognize that we are called to be fully transparent with God, that the light of God’s grace may shine right through us. But how do we let this happen? I think we begin by asking a simple question: What is saving my life right now?

The question comes from the pen of Barbara Brown Taylor, former Episcopal preacher turned Homiletics professor. In both her books Leaving Church and An Altar in the World she tells the story of being invited to speak at a church in Alabama. When she asked her host, a wise old priest, what he would like her to preach on he said, “Come tell us what is saving your life now.” Barbara Brown Taylor went on to say, “It was such a good question that I have made a practice of asking others to answer it even as I continue to answer it myself. Salvation is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe…Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name.” She goes on to say, “To be saved is not only to recognize an alternative to the deadliness pressing down upon us but also to be able to act upon it.” [Taylor, Barbara Brown. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, p. 226]

And so I ask you this morning. What is saving you today? Perhaps it is a deeply held conviction that you live your life by. Perhaps it is spiritual discipline which centers and grounds you. Perhaps it is a ritual or routine whereby you connect to God. But perhaps you also listen to that question and think, “I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea” and instead of embracing the transparency of a relationship of intimacy, of seeking a way to something which gives you life, you realize the ways in which you are enmeshed in life-denying actions and ways of being.

At perhaps the hardest time in my life, as I was going through a divorce, as decisions were being made about my future in pastoral ministry that I felt were being made without my input, what saved me was my front porch. After work each afternoon, I sat on that porch, which was hidden by evergreens and I watched the sun set. No matter the weather, no matter the season. I made my way to that porch where I sat in silence. And at that point in my life, it saved me. At other times in my life I shake my head, recognizing that there may not have been a life-saving practice. But I have come to believe it is an important question, perhaps the most important question that deserves an answer as people of faith. What is saving your life now? And how do you invite God to be part of that salvation? The God who extends extravagant grace and begs to live transparently with us in the light of love.

Throughout the week as I’ve been considering that question I have been reading the web logs and articles of other theologians and mystics who consider this important question and I found this honest account from a young father, a Unitarian minister in Minneapolis. He writes: Here is one of the things that is “saving my life” right now. Putting our son down for a nap. Crazy, right?!? Maybe you’re wondering: “How is this life saving, exactly?” Here’s the story: I’ve had some time off…this has meant that I’ve been home during the day and thus able to put our son down for his name. He is not a big fan of the nap, but he absolutely needs it, or else he’s a wreck by 6 p.m. And the best way for me to get him down is to hold and rock him, sitting on the edge of the bed or in a chair. He fights pretty hard for the first ten minutes or so, kicking, crying, telling me he’s hungry, or needs to get down to “go for a walk.”…It’s an intense experience, gently restraining him as he struggles, being clear that it is a nap time, and that I love him. After a little while, he settles down into my arms, still awake, but not struggling. His breathing deepens. He lets me rest my face in his hair. He smells like sweat, and shampoo, and something beautiful I can’t even begin to describe, and the warmth and smell of his head touches something deep inside me. As he relaxes in my arms, and moves more deeply toward sleep, I feel grounded in the present moment, my arms gently holding my three-year-old son…This is saving my life because it is a reminder that things won’t always be this way. Soon, I won’t be able to hold and cradle him…It’s saving my life because it brings us together in a way that nothing else does…It’s saving my life because it’s giving me new insight, meaning, and connection. It help me feel whole.” (http://wellswedidnotdig.blogspot.com)

So what saves your life today? What brings your brilliantly into the transparent light of God’s love? What opens you to true awareness of Jesus’s journey this Lenten season? For God so loved the world that he gave abundantly…

And we can be saved.