Shake It Up

(sermon 7/30/17)

ziplining

John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.  

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I remember being on a family vacation once, when the girls were pretty young. We were in a McDonalds, grabbing a quick breakfast before getting on with the rest of the day. We’d allowed ourselves to sleep in, and we were getting a bit of a late start, so our breakfast was pushing right up against the time when the McDonalds was about to switch over to serving its lunch menu. This particular McDonalds had what’s now an old-school mechanical menu board, where at the designated time – I think it was ten o’clock – all the strips showing the breakfast menu items would mechanically flip to the lunch menu items. While we were eating, Andrea was really hungry, and she really liked the pancakes she’d gotten, and she said she wanted to get another order of them. But by this time, it was just a couple of minutes before ten, so we told her she’d better hurry if she wanted to get more. So she got her sister to slide out of the way, and she wiggled out of the booth and was making a beeline to the counter – but when she was still only about halfway there, all of a sudden – flipflipflipflipflip…. The menu board changed over to lunch. And from where we were sitting, we could only see Andrea from behind, so what we saw as she was going up to the counter was something like this: [walking fast toward counter – stops – shoulders dramatically sag – dejected, turn around, trudge back to booth]. Not a word was said, but the disappointment was palpable, and I’m sorry to say that we all got a laugh at her expense that day.

That incident came to mind again this week when I read through this gospel text. I expect the lame man must have felt something like that, but of course, in a much more serious way. I mean, just imagine, 38 years of trying unsuccessfully to be the first one into the pool when the water stirred, and tradition was that the stirring was caused by an angel who would heal the first one into the water – and never getting there in time.

But in today’s lesson, we heard that this was the man’s lucky day. This day, he encountered Jesus and was healed. It happened without any stirring of the water, but Jesus certainly stirred the pot – because he had had the nerve of healing this man on a sabbath day. And we all know from countless past sermons and Sunday School lessons that healing was considered work, and work was prohibited on the sabbath, according to long-standing religious rules and customs. Imagine that – being so beholden to rules and traditions that the big news here wasn’t that a man who had been lame for 38 years had been healed, but instead, that it broke the rules because it was done on a particular day of the week.

Here, and in numerous other places in the gospels, Jesus makes a point of breaking established rules, of violating long-standing customs and cherished traditions, whenever it was necessary to extend compassion in a situation – to bring healing, wholeness, something good into a person’s life. Based on Jesus’ example, it seems that any time there’s a conflict between showing compassion or obeying established rules or laws, being compassionate always trumps following the rules. Always.

We’ve talked before about our need to be willing to break the rules when necessary to show and stand up for compassion. I won’t tick off the list of historical examples again here today; we’ve been through all that before, and that isn’t what I want to talk about this morning. But still, we almost can’t stress enough how important this concept seems to be to Jesus – the idea of showing others compassion even when we have to break or reframe the rules in order to do it. Jesus shows us clearly, over and over again, that sometimes, the old rules, the old normal, have to give way in order for new avenues of compassion and goodness to come forth.

A lot of times, when the old rules, the old normal, gets disrupted in the largest ways, it isn’t intentional – it’s some kind of change or disruption or getting shaken up that’s thrust upon us, that we don’t really want. A relationship crumbles. A loved one dies. A job situation changes. Or even war breaks out, and causes a complete upheaval in life, and requires starting life all over again from scratch – maybe even in a strange new country surrounded by strange new people.

When that kind of unbidden change happens, all we can do is to look for how compassion and goodness might arise out of this in new and different ways. If this weren’t “Congregation’s Choice” Sunday, one of the hymns I might have picked today would have been “Hymn of Promise,” #250. The last verse of that hymn says,

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection, at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

There’s a lot of truth in those words. When we experience unexpected, unbidden, unwanted change in our lives, when the rules and customs and patterns we’d come to know and trust get broken, we can, and should, search for how God could be bringing new compassion and goodness out of it.

But that deals with unbidden breaking of the rules and norms. It’s the other kind of situation, the kind more like Jesus’ intentional breaking of rules and customs in order to show compassion, in order to heal the lame man at the pool, that I want to think about now. In order to follow Jesus’ lead on this, we need to always have the kind of personal flexibility that would allow us to do that. Our hearts and minds need to always be in the right place, where we aren’t worshipping our rules and traditions more than the God who says that we should always be willing to toss them all aside, if it would lead to greater compassion in the world.

It isn’t always easy to have that kind of flexibility. It’s almost like we need to do some spiritual and mental stretching exercises, so that we’re limber enough to see and take those opportunities when they arise.

Several years ago, I suggested to another congregation, in another sermon, some possible things that we could do that might help us to have that kind of flexibility, and to not be overly beholden to old rules or customs or patterns in our lives. They were little things – silly things, really; they certainly weren’t anything that would ever be mistaken for true spiritual disciplines or practices, and they really didn’t have anything directly to do with being more compassionate per se. They were just suggested activities that might loosen us up a bit, and make us more ready and able to break rules in order to be more compassionate when the opportunity arose. These were the suggestions I offered to them, and now, I offer to you:

Try some kind of international food you’ve never tried before, but always thought you might like to try. Take a different route to work, so you’ll experience another part of town than you’re used to. Sit in a completely different place in church from where you normally sit, so you experience worship from a different vantage point. If for fifty years, the first thing you did when you jumped into the shower is wash your left arm, start washing your right leg first. Find some common hobby or interest that you share with someone on the completely opposite end of the political spectrum, and engage in that hobby with them. Let your grandchildren take you to a concert of their favorite music group. Let your grandparents take you to one of theirs. And in both of those options, be sure to dance. If you haven’t done it in decades, go to a costume party, and don’t be timid; go large – be fabulous; be outrageous; be over the top. I can tell you from personal experience, clown shoes work well for that. Go zip lining, or maybe even, if you’re feeling really adventurous, try tandem skydiving. Commit to go skinny dipping at least once a year. Have breakfast for dinner – at least, that is, if they’re still serving it.

Thanks be to God.

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Compassion Reaches Out

(sermon 7/23/17)

reaching toward you

Luke 7:11-17

[Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. 

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They continued along the road, Jesus and the group of people who were following him. Some of them, of course, were with him long-term; others were just tagging along to hear what he said and see what he did while he was passing through their neck of the woods, before they returned to their normal routine after Jesus moved on. The day was hot and the road was dusty and they were tired and thirsty, but it wasn’t so bad because now they could easily see their destination – the walled town called Nain, which was a solid four- or five-hour walk south of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in the northern part of modern-day Israel and very close to the northern edge of that part of Palestine that we call the West Bank.

As they got closer, they could see the main gateway into the town – small and narrow so it could easily be defended, with stone-walled rooms on either side of the portal meant to house armed men who could take care of any enemy troops trying to enter the town by attacking them from both sides as they tried to get through the narrow opening just a few soldiers at a time. Usually, though, it was much more mundane than that, being just a pinch-point for people trying to get out and others trying to get into the town.

Just inside the main gate would have been a stone-walled courtyard – again, with relatively narrow access points to it could be easily defended. This was the main public gathering place in town. It was the coffee shop where people came to have offsite business meetings and cut deals. It was the magistrate’s court, where the town elders heard and settled legal disputes. It was the park, where young people hung out and laughed and watched each other and did the things young people do; and where old people hung out and read the paper and talked about the good old days and complained about the young people. It was the central gathering place for public celebrations, like weddings, and public mourning, like funerals as we heard in this gospel text was happening on this particular day.

Just as Jesus and his followers got to the main gate, this funeral procession was moving out of the courtyard and was coming through the gate. And just as we pull over or stop to let a funeral procession go by or pass through an intersection, Jesus and his followers and all the other people who were trying to get through the checkpoint and into town moved over to the side of the road to let them by.

While they waited, I imagine they had the same kind of thoughts that run through our own minds when we’re in a similar situation; a combination of respect and compassion, and if we’re being totally honest, maybe also mixed with some minor annoyance that we’re being held up as the procession goes by. And with thoughts running through our heads:  I wonder who it was that died? Did they die from old age, or were they younger; was there maybe some illness or tragic accident? What was their story? Who are they leaving behind; will they be OK? Yes, there but for the grace of God go I, and even at that, I’ll go that way all too soon. So sad. Oh well, the road’s clear now; I can get back on my way. I wonder what I should have for dinner?

But that isn’t what happened on this particular day, at least not completely. This day, as the procession came through, Jesus didn’t just stand quietly and respectfully on the sidelines. He stepped into the procession and into their grief. He learned that this was the only son of a widow, whose well-being, maybe even whose very survival, was threatened by the loss of this last male provider, beyond even the grief that any parent would feel over the loss of a child. And having compassion for her in her suffering, he reached out, raising this man from the dead, bringing life back to not just him, but to his mother too. Put simply, Jesus didn’t just passively watch this situation play out. He didn’t just continue into town after they’d gone by. He didn’t just organize clusters of people to walk around town and pray for the widow’s well-being. He stepped into this most public of tragedies as it unfolded, in the moment, and he concretely did what was in his power to bring physical and emotional and spiritual healing into the lives of these total strangers. He apparently didn’t know and didn’t care about any of the details of the man or his mother. Were they good people? Were they devout Jews? Had they lived the kind of life that people would approve of? Did they deserve this special attention? None of that seemed to be important to Jesus. Apparently, he raised the man from the dead strictly out of compassion and because they were beloved children of God.

We’re supposed to do the same kind of thing, of course – to step in and provide life and love and hope and compassion and healing into people’s lives, even the lies of total strangers – people we know as little about as the man and his mother, and to do it in the same unqualified way that Jesus did.

You think you can’t do this same kind of thing? You think you don’t have the power of life and death and healing? Jesus would disagree. He told his disciples that after he left them, that through the Holy Spirit they would do far greater things than even Jesus himself had accomplished. And by definition, that’s true – I mean, Jesus was just one man, whose earthly ministry only lasted about three years or so; while more than two billion followers have been working for good in the world in Jesus’ name for two thousand years now.

Well sure, you might say, we have the ability to do good things, and to help people, but we don’t actually have the power over life and death; that’s in the realm of miracles…. Really? Collectively, through our voices, through our actions, we have the power to shape our society. We have the ability to push our social policies in one direction or another, toward more ethical action and compassion, or in the opposite direction. When we hear on the news about official government analysis that the proposed changes to our current healthcare insurance system would result in the unnecessary, premature deaths of an additional 23-30 million people over a ten-year period because they’ll be stripped of the healthcare coverage that they currently have – friends, we do very much have the power of life and death, the power of health and healing, in our hands.

In compassion, Jesus reached out, and he calls us to do the same, in our own way, in our own time and place.

Is that hard? Yes, sometimes. Is it something to dread, or to do because we’re trying to earn God’s approval? No, we’re no more able to earn God’s approval than the dead man on that stretcher was. We need to work this way on behalf of others out of gratitude, thankful for the grace that God has filled our lives with. And we can have that kind of gratitude because of the full power and meaning of this gospel text. I know that I’ve said that it’s a good thing to try to experience a story from scripture by imagining it, experiencing it, through the eyes of different people in the story. In this case though, I don’t think we get the full power of the message of God’s compassion, or develop a true sense of gratitude, by seeing this story through the eyes of one of the people standing along the road watching it all play out. We don’t even get the fullness of this story if we see it through the eyes of the widow. We don’t get its full meaning seeing it through the eyes of the people carrying the stretcher. We get it when we see it through the eyes of the one being carried. Through the eyes of the one who Jesus reached out to, and touched, and healed, and gave new life to. Because whoever we are, I think we’re a lot like him.

Thanks be to God.

Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

The Compassion-Killer

(sermon 7/16/17)

piano

Mark 10:17-27

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

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I have a piano. It was made in Chicago in 1911. It’s five feet tall, five feet wide, 28 1/2 inches deep, and weighs about 754 pounds. It bears a lot of scars earned over the last hundred and six years, but all things considered, it looks better at 106 than I suppose I would. It didn’t cost me anything, at least not up front; the people who owned it said we could have it if we just paid to take it away. Once we got it home, I painstakingly refinished its beautiful book-matched walnut veneer, removing a fair amount of both pink and mint green paint left in crevices from two different paint jobs it endured over the course of its long life. After that, I had a piano technician install new key covers to replace the old chipped ivories; level the key bed, repair and regulate the action, and give it a good tuning; and after all that, it still wasn’t a great piano, but it wasn’t a bad one – definitely a good one for the two girls and I to take lessons on. After a while, all three of us gave up on the lessons. But after all these years, I’m still lugging this thing around with me wherever I go; it’s been through three moves in three different states now. I almost got rid of it before I moved here, but when I said something about that around my older daughter, she said with a pained tone in her voice, “Oh, no, you can’t get rid of the piano!” So I still have it. In this most recent move, the movers ended up giving it a few new scuffs, they bent my storm door, made a hole in a wall, and broke a caster off of it – but they did finally get it into the house, ending about a year of it being in storage in two different garages. As you might guess, all that has had an effect on its feel, its touch, its playability, but then again, as I’d mentioned, there really isn’t anyone around to play it regularly anyway. So it sits there, silent for the most part, holding up the television, and gathering dust,  and taking up way too much room in my already snug living room.

I have a piano.

Well, since the piano wasn’t invented until 1700, it’s pretty safe to say that the rich young man who struck up a conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson didn’t own one, but apparently, he did have a lot of other possessions. This is one of those passages that can make us squirm a bit when we hear it. Even if we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as rich, we know in our hearts that by the world’s standards, even the least well-off among us is wealthy beyond imagination. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there are 3.8 billion people in the world who live on about $1,300 per year. So when we hear what Jesus tells this young man, somewhere deep down, we wonder if Jesus might give us the same advice = and we worry that the answer to that question might be yes, and we aren’t comfortable with what our response to that might be.

We want to follow Jesus, and we want to help others out of gratitude for God’s grace and love that’s been showered on us. But we don’t want to give up our stuff. Seriously. We’ve worked hard for it, to be able to enjoy it. And really, Jesus doesn’t expect us all to be poor, does he? I mean sure, there are scriptural passages, from Amos, and Hosea, and Ezekiel, and a number of other places, and even Jesus’ own words here, that don’t have very favorable things to say about wealth and the wealthy; but there are also lots of other passages that say that having wealth is a sign of God’s favor; it’s a blessing. And truth be told, that’s been a common theme in a lot of our own Reformed, Calvinistic history, too. So Jesus wouldn’t really want us to get rid of all of our possessions, would he? Maybe that was just a comment specifically for this young man, not a universal commandment for all of his followers, right?

Well, I can’t speak to that part of what Jesus might have had in mind. But I do think that he’s addressing something related to wealth and money and possessions, but which goes far beyond that. I think he’s really teaching the man – and by extension, us – about the dangers of fear.

I believe that in one way or another, fear is at the root of almost all of the problems in the world. People don’t hoard money, or other possessions out of an abstract greed; they do it out of fear of an unknown and uncertain future, and that money, those things, make it possible to be insulated from that uncertainty and, theoretically at least, to be able to control it. We fear other people, especially people who aren’t like us, because we worry that they pose a risk, a threat, to what’s familiar, fixed, predictable – controllable – in our own lives. We fear real honesty in our relationships and friendships, setting up barriers and facades and projecting false images of who we really are and what we really think and feel, because honesty and openness makes us vulnerable to injury, rejection, hurt. And when we are hurt, we fear letting go of that hurt, because as much as me may even know that holding onto the hurt is harmful, at least it’s familiar to us, comfortable, predictable. We fear letting go, and trusting God.

I own a piano because my daughter seemed so upset at the thought of my getting rid of it, and I feared what that might do to her. There’s been a lot of brokenness and hurt and sadness in our family life in the past, and I thought that maybe for her, the piano, this big, stupid, hulking thing that weighs more than a boat anchor, actually does anchor her to some of the good times and happy memories. And I suppose if I’m completely honest with myself, I want it to do the same thing for me, too. So despite all the good, and the hope, and the promise that I have for the future; despite all the love and compassion that I feel from God, the piano still sits there – a constant, scratched, slightly out of tune reminder of my fear of letting go of things in my life that deep down I know I should let go of, for my own spiritual and emotional well-being.

Fear, in any of its manifestations, handicaps us. It blinds us. It ties our hands, and clouds our brains. Fear is the ultimate compassion-killer that paralyzes us by keeping our focus excessively on ourselves. It’s the compassion-killer that keeps us from doing and being so much of what we know God would want of us. It’s what causes us to build walls around us, to protect us, to insulate us, to isolate us. So in fear we build those walls, whether the bricks that we use to build them are dollars, or possessions, or opinions, or even pianos; and then we sit behind our walls, less and less able to show compassion to others.

In this passage, Jesus has compassion on the young man by addressing the particular way his fear was holding him back, keeping him from a deeper experience of God and God’s love for him. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring message for him, or for us.

For the reassuring part of the message, we have to hear all the other times that Jesus told us, and the many times that God tells us throughout the scriptures, to not be afraid. To be at peace. To have the assurance that God really does love us, and has compassion for us, and will always have our backs, through whatever is causing us fear and uncertainty. To trust God, with more and more of our lives, unlike the rich young man in the story.

So today, and throughout this coming week, let’s try to do that. Let’s ask God for the strength to let go of the fear and anxiety that surpasses all reason, and instead, to allow ourselves to accept the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. That promise of God’s unfailing compassion for us should be music to our ears; whether that music is played on a beat-up old piano, or otherwise.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion in the Stillness

(sermon 7/9/17)

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Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

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We’ve been considering compassion these past few weeks, and in this passage from Matthew, we heard that Jesus had compassion for the people he was meeting as he went from town to town. That compassion arose in part out of his perception that they were “like sheep without a shepherd,” as Matthew’s author put it. Just reading it now, we get good general understanding of his meaning with that phrase, but in writing his gospel to an original audience who primarily grew up within Judaism, they would have known that this phrase that shows up multiple times in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly to condemn government and religious leaders who haven’t led the people wisely or well; who haven’t looked after the people’s best interests, and leaving them to fend for themselves.

A lot of times when this passage is used as a preaching text, the sermon emphasis will be on Jesus’ last line – “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” The sermon becomes a call to action; to evangelize more, and to do more for others in the name of the gospel because the amount of suffering in the world is so great.

There’s nothing wrong with taking the sermon in that direction; it’s a perfectly logical message to draw out of Jesus’ words. As we’ve thought about compassion, we’ve certainly emphasized the idea of being the face of Christ, and being more compassionate to others, both inside the church walls and especially beyond. But you know, after a while that can become a real burden, to be told over and over and over again that we need to do more and more for others. We know we’re supposed to be self-giving and compassionate, but there’s just so much need in the world, so much that needs to be done, and with few clear answers on exactly what should be done, and how, that in our efforts to be compassionate, it’s very easy to feel like a ship without a rudder, like sheep without a shepherd. With all the need, we can start to feel like whatever we might do adds up to less than a drop in a bucket. And after a while, we can find ourselves slipping into “compassion fatigue;” that we’re depleting ourselves as we keep trying to do more and more for others. And along with that compassion fatigue, we can start to feel resentful of the continual calls to do more, more, more – and then, when we don’t – can’t – live up to all that, feelings of guilt and shame can set in, and in the end, we don’t feel like being very compassionate at all.

Imagine being a woman with a husband and three kids and a fulltime job outside the home, and you do all the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and laundry and all the other housework and get dry cleaning and get the kids to soccer practice and dance class and youth group and the dog to the vet and your mother to the doctor and make dinner and clean up after dinner and then help the kids with their homework and you give of yourself all day and all night long for the good of your family – so that by the time you flop into bed at night, you’re exhausted, you’re spent, and you realize you haven’t had a moment of the day just for yourself, and you start to wonder if there’s really any “you” left at all – only to get up the next morning, get all the kids out of bed, and ready to go, and get out the door to church… only to hear the preacher – and yes, it’s usually a man – tell you for the umpteenth time that you need to stop being to selfish; you need to  think less of yourself, and that you have to give even more of yourself for others. If that’s your story, I just don’t think that’s the sermon you need to hear.

So today, I want to suggest that we hear this gospel text from a slightly different vantage point. A lot of times, when we hear a story from the Bible, we tend to picture it as if we’re watching it on a movie or television screen, watching it all unfold in the third person. But this morning, Instead of considering Jesus’ having compassion for some abstract group of other people “over there,” picture this story in the middle of the action, as one of those people. Imagine this story, seeing it through the eyes of one of those people that Jesus is helping and healing and having compassion on. I’m suggesting today that it’s important to recognize that we aren’t always the distributor of Christ’s compassion in the world, but we’re the recipient of it, too. It’s important to recognize that we’re worthy of that love and compassion.

That can be hard for us to imagine or accept sometimes. Maybe there’s something in our past, or our present – something that we did that was immoral, or even illegal. We hurt another person. We were unfaithful. We were dishonest. Whatever it was, or is, it’s something that maybe we feel guilt or shame about, and it’s keeping us from feeling that we’re worthy of Christ’s compassion.

And I have to say that some of the language that the church uses feeds into those kinds of feelings. We talk about God’s grace as being something that God extends to us strictly as a matter of God’s own choice; something that God unilaterally decides to offer to us and that we could never obtain from God by way of earning it through our own efforts. That’s very true, and it’s something we should all be grateful for. But then, we take that concept further, saying that we aren’t deserving, we aren’t worthy, of God’s compassion and love. I know that that’s standard, orthodox Christian doctrine. But honestly, I wonder if putting things that way doesn’t go a step too far. I mean, I think of the entire, overall biblical record of God’s dealing with humanity; I think about God’s entering our existence in the flesh; and I think of the crucifixion; and I can almost hear God saying “Unworthy? Unworthy? Look at what I’ve done for you – look at how I’ve walked in solidarity with you in the flesh. Look at how I suffered for you. I did these things precisely to show you that you are worthy of my love and compassion!  I call you precious, and loved, and worthy! So don’t let anyone – not the world, not even the church, not even yourself – call you unworthy after I’ve called you worthy!”

As most of you know, a couple of weeks ago a group of us marched in the Kentuckiana Pride Parade. It was a great time; a lot of fun. But it was more than just fun. We were able to represent our congregation and witness to our welcoming and inclusive nature to some 18,000 people who were at the parade. And with the exception of one or two screaming street preachers with bullhorns, we received a very favorable response from the crowd, and several of us were able to have good conversations about our faith and our church along the way. At the end of the parade, while we were just standing round chit-chatting, a young woman was standing on the sidewalk, and she said to one of us, “Wow, that’s really cool, that a church would march in the Pride Parade and show support for us.” And our member said “Yes, we do.” “And you allow gay people like me in your church?” “Yes, absolutely; in our church we say all are welcome, and we really mean it. You should come check us out sometime.” “Oh, I don’t know. I mean… I loved being part of church when I was younger, before they told me I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I’d like to be part of a church again, but there are just so many things in my life, that make me feel unworthy to go.”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? Can’t you just hear God saying, “I call you worthy; don’t let anyone convince you that you aren’t!”

I want us all to do something this morning. We did this at Montreat; I’ve done it before, too, and probably some of you have also. I want you to get comfortable in your seat, and close your eyes. Sit in the silence; feel the stillness. Now take a deep breath in, and hold it…. Now breath out. Again, breathe in, and as you do, imagine that God, and all goodness and peace and love are entering into you along with your breath, then hold it… and let it out, and as you let it out, imagine all that stuff that’s a barrier between you and God, all that stuff that’s causing the feelings of unworthiness, is leaving your body. So breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. [repeats]. Now imagine yourself in someplace that’s special to you, someplace where you feel at peace, someplace that you have fond memories of…. And imagine that you’re sitting at a table, or maybe on a blanket spread out for a picnic…. And imagine sitting across from you, the most special people in your life, the people you love the most…. And now, imagine loved ones that you cared for the most who have passed away; you’re all there together… And now imagine in the center of them, looking at you, is Jesus… Now imagine that they’re all looking deeply into your eyes, into your very heart, and they’re smiling, they’re beaming at you… and they’re all telling you, assuring you through their eyes, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are loved; that when you were created, God called you very good. That you are worthy…. Embrace the compassion of this stillness; feel it throughout your body….Now, imagine yourself coming back out of this, breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. Breathe in, and as you do feel the warmth and beauty of knowing that you are worthy and loved by God. Hold it… … Breathe out. [repeat]. OK, open your eyes.

Remember that we are indeed called to be compassionate to others; it’s an important, inseparable part of what it means to follow Jesus. But before we can offer Christ’s compassion to others, we have to know it, and be assured of it, for ourselves. So remember the compassion you felt this morning in the stillness – and remember that if you ever start to feel overwhelmed with compassion fatigue, or you feel guilt or shame creeping in, if you feel unworthy again, you can go back to that place in the stillness, and feel that compassion again.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion in Community

(sermon 7/2/17)

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2 Kings 6:8-23

Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.” The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert. The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, “Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?” Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”

He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.” He was told, “He is in Dothan.” So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

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Back in my days as an architect, I had a business associate, a commercial real estate leasing agent named Don. For twenty years, Don and I shared business leads back and forth. We also shared a lot of our business and personal ups and downs. We were there to congratulate each other on the birth of our kids, and shared in the joys and challenges as they grew up. Don was a valued business associate, but he was more than that – he was also a dear and valued friend.

Don was an extreme go-getter, Type-A personality. He was passionate about his work and everything else in life. He was constantly smiling; an eternal optimist; you almost never saw him down. And he could talk to anyone, about anything, any time. He could find some connection with you and draw on that, and encourage you, and build you up. That kind of personality is almost literally gold in the business world. It was a gift that I could only dream of having.

Of all of his really amazing qualities, though, his driving wasn’t always one of them. Consistent with his supercharged personality, Don never met a speed limit he couldn’t beat by twenty or thirty miles per hour. Multiple lanes of busy traffic were seen as a challenge – a personal slalom course for him to navigate as he tried to get to wherever the first and the fastest. One morning, Don was driving on the highway between his home and the office, on his way to work. He was undoubtedly in the hottest, newest BMW of the time. Those seemed to be a weakness of his; I always envied him for the great cars that he drove. But on this day, Don encountered another driver like himself – and before you knew it, the two were engaged in what I’ll just politely call “competitive highway driving.” At some point in all of this, Don was even nudging the other guy’s car with his own, trying to get him to do what he wanted. Eventually, the two of them pulled off to the side of the road. The other driver got out of his car, loaded for bear, spitting mad, yelling and screaming at Don, just itching for a fight. Don, for his part, just stayed calm as he listened to the man. He took it all in stride, and then, with a calm and friendly demeanor, he said “Yes, you’re right, I was being a jerk – in fact, we both were; we both got carried away, we let our egos get the better of us. What we were doing was wrong, and dangerous. We’re both better than that. Of course, I’ll pay for whatever damage I did to the side of your car.”

As the man had started to calm down, Dan started to chat with him. Asked him what he did for a living, who he worked for. As they were exchanging information, Don said “Oh, your last name is _____? I know someone with that same name, ________; do you know them?” “Yes, he’s a relative.” “Oh, well if you know him, you probably know _______, too.” “Yes, in fact we went to school together; I was just talking to them a few days ago.” And on and on. By the time they were done talking, the man was at ease, and smiling, and the two of them even laughed at the situation. When they were done, the two of them shook hands and parted ways. Now if this were a perfect story, Don would have ended up leasing the man some office space. That didn’t happen, but I’m sure that he at least had tried to line up a showing.

That incident came to mind again when I read today’s sermon text. This story deals with the prophet Elisha – who is not to be confused with his mentor, the prophet Elijah. In this story, the king of Aram – the king of the Aramean people – is having constant setbacks on the battlefield in his war against the Israelites, and he’s enraged when he’s told that it’s been Elisha, with his direct line to God, who has been advising the king of Israel regarding where the Arameans would be and what their plans were. So he sends troops to capture, or maybe kill, Elisha; they surround the city he’s living in. But as you heard, Elisha asks God to temporarily, partially blind the soldiers. Then, in a classic bit of scriptural orneriness, Elisha tells the soldiers “Oh no, the man you’re looking for isn’t here; this is the wrong town. But I know where he is; here, let me take you to him!” And he leads the Arameans to Samaria – a city that’s stongly fortified by Israelite troops. And then, once they’re there, the Arameans’ sight is restored, they see that they’re completely surrounded and hemmed in.

At this point, the king of Israel, as excited as a kid who wants to tear into his presents on Christmas morning, asks Elisha “Can I kill them?!! Can I kill them?!!!” It made sense. God had brought the enemies of Israel right into the palm of their hand. Surely, God would want them to finish them off. But contrary to what anyone would think, Elisha says no, don’t kill them. In fact, don’t just refrain from killing them – throw them a party. Prepare a big banquet, lay out a feast for them. So that’s what they did. I can only imagine the conversations among the soldiers from the two armies had at that meal. Telling one another where they were from; what they did for a living when the king wasn’t sending them off to war. Showing one another pictures on their phones of their wives, their kids, their pets. Complaining about their king, and taxes, and the lack of rain for the crops. And after it was over, the Arameans were granted safe passage home, and the passage says that they ended their hostilities against the Israelites.

Elisha had instructed the king to do, by way of a common meal, and being compassionate in community with the Arameans, the same basic thing that Don had done out along the roadside – to not just defuse a tense, dangerous situation, but to actually turn it into something positive and constructive.

There’s something universal, something that cuts across all cultures and all times, about the sharing of a common meal. There’s something almost magical in the way that a meal can bring about healing and reconciliation, and create a sense of community. And since the gospel – God’s good news of compassion for all people – is primarily enacted in the world through forgiveness and community, it seems only natural that one of the most sacred expressions of our faith is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and compassion, seen through the reenactment and continuation of an eternal, communal meal.

Since we’re continuing to examine God’s compassion this Sunday, we should recognize that reality – that God’s compassion is primarily enacted in the world through radical forgiveness and being in community; in contrast to the opposing attitude of trying to earn God’s compassion through personal acts of would-be holiness and self-righteousness, and concentrating on individualism instead of community.

That’s important for us to remember, because our society has almost always had a strong emphasis on individualism. We’ve sung the praises of the rugged individualist; the one who settled the frontier, the captain of industry, the self-made man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, who got everything he had by his own hands, who didn’t get any help from anyone and who didn’t owe anything to anyone else. We need to recognize that these attitudes are completely contrary to the kind of community accountability and responsibility that Christ himself has called us to. As our society has evolved, we’ve placed an unhealthy – and I’ll suggest, an immoral, and even sinful – emphasis on individualism over the importance of community, and communal accountability to and responsibility for, one another. And you don’t need to go any further than the evening news, and the ongoing debates over how, or even whether, we have any responsibility for providing healthcare for people in this country, or affirming equal rights and equal protection under the law, to see examples of this ongoing battle to balance individualism and community responsibility in our society.

Our excessive focus on individualism has shaped a lot of American Christianity, too, and usually not for the better. It’s partly why there are so many different denominations – individualists set their own rules and feel no accountability to the rest of a community when there’s any disagreement; they can just go off and start their own church. It’s also why there’s so much emphasis in parts of the church about Jesus being someone’s personal Lord and Savior, minimizing the essential community aspect of the faith. It’s why you hear so many people say they can be a Christian but not be part of a church family.  It’s why there are so many Christian songs full of references to “I” and “Me,” versus “Us” and “We.”

As we look at how we’re supposed to live as God’s people, in both church and society, we have to recognize the high importance that God places on being in community – and that that community has to be as broad as possible. It has to include people who are different from us. People who look different. Who think different. Who vote different. Who live different, who love different, who worship different. And as Elisha showed us, it even has to include people we consider our enemies. Being in *that* kind of community is how God’s compassion breaks into the world, and into people’s lives. That’s how God shows a better alternative to a world where otherwise, Don and the other driver would have ended up in a fistfight, and the Arameans would have been slaughtered.

Being in that kind of community with others isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright hard. But part of the good news for us in all of this is that we know that God does actually empower us and enable us to be able to model that kind of community, and to extend it beyond ourselves and out into the world – whether that ends up being somewhere  literally at a meal around a table; or in the workplace; or at school; or in the neighborhood – or even along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.