March On

(sermon 3/25/18 – Palm Sunday)

March for our Lives crowd

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Yesterday was a very important day in our nation’s history.  Certainly, by now all of you have seen images and video of the different “March for Our Lives” events around the country, especially the one in Washington D.C It was an amazing day. I was thinking about that, and several things really stood out to me about this series of events. The first thing is that this was truly a youth-driven thing. In Washington, there wasn’t a single speaker at the podium, there wasn’t a single speech given, by anyone over 18 years old.  In my generation, they used to say don’t trust anyone over thirty; this generation is tightening that down even more. I hope you had a chance to hear some of the speeches, and to hear some of the passion, and to see just the raw numbers in Washington, and Boston, and Los Angeles, and everywhere – 800 different events, most in this country, but worldwide as well. And it struck me that this is a generation of young people, who frankly, we’ve failed. And they’re taking the reins. They’re saying “Enough!” It amazed me that this is all youth-led. Now, were there adult organizers involved? Obviously. There were individuals and associated organizations that helped them to handle the logistics. I mean, if the initial attendance estimates are correct, this was the largest single-day protest gathering in the history of our country. Those kinds of events normally take even professionals a year to plan, not a month. So the logistics of this thing were amazing, and yes, they clearly had the help of organizations and talented people who knew how to make this happen, but those organizers stayed out of the limelight, and they let those kids say what was really on their mind – what the country, what the world really needed to hear.

Another thing that really struck me about the event was that you didn’t hear “The Republicans this,” or “The Democrats that;” or red-state/blue state; and all of that partisanship. Yes, I’m sure if you saw video of the crowd, there were probably some outlier signs that were partisan, but by and large, the overall message, and the speeches, were absolutely, completely non-partisan. They stuck on-target, on-topic – because this is not a partisan political issue that these young people were protesting, that they were lifting up for the world to see and pay attention to. As they said, “No longer” and “Not any more;” no more of these school shootings, no more mass violence.

But what struck me the most about what was happening was the feeling, the mood, the attitude. You heard those kids, and you heard the adults, and you listened to so many of the crowd interviews, and the overarching spirit was one of optimism. It was hope. It was positive. It was optimistic for the future – that this was going to be the tipping point; this was a Selma moment; this was a Stonewall moment; this was the tipping point for this generation. In that crowd, there was joy. There was elation, over the hope, the promise, that this day’s events gave to these people – to this country. And there were certainly people there, and at other events around the country, who will remember being a part of this day, of this event. They will tell their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there that day. I heard Emma Gonzalez speak. What a day.

Now many of us look at those events with eyes older than theirs, and with hair thinner and greyer than theirs, and we know what is possible. We know what may very well happen. Sad to say, but as the news cameras cover this for a few days, and then they move on to cover the next shiny thing in the news cycle  – and everyone gets bogged down with making sure that the bills get paid this month, and getting the kids to soccer practice, and all of the other distractions – that the hope, the excitement of yesterday is going to fade. And if politics continues its normal trajectory, in all likelihood, will fade, and dwindle, and very little will be done – that’s if the normal script is followed. And if that happens, you will have a generation of young people in this country who may become disillusioned, and bitter, and dejected, and angry, and hurt. And let’s face it; the odds are pretty good that that’s what’s going to happen. And yet, even after the hurt that is probably, unfortunately inevitable, in the long haul these young people are going to win. Their cause is just, the time is right, the long moral arc of history is bending in their direction. They are going to win this battle, even though in the short term they are in all likelihood going to face setbacks. They’re going to lose battles but they are going win the war. They are going to have hurt, but they are going to win. They are going to be validated; they are going to be vindicated in the end. An hopefully, enough of them know that, and they keep on pushing when the hurt comes, when the disillusionment comes, and hopefully enough of them will keep the courage, they will keep the faith and they will keep pushing, and moving, until they do, in fact, win, and they are going to win.

As I thought about all that, I saw a parallel between what is in all likelihood going to unfold as a part of this March for Our Lives, and what we’re observing here today. Imagining Jesus on that donkey, heading out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, making that short ride, even being able to see Jerusalem, just two and a half or three miles down the road, coming around that path along the side of the hill, looking down into the valley and back up the other side, seeing all of Jerusalem spread out before him, and having his spirits lifted, his spirits buoyed, by the people surrounding him. Shouting his praises, singing his praises. Laying out their version of the red carpet for him. Their savior is coming; their king is coming, they’re going to push the occupying Romans out of Jerusalem. God’s kingdom is finally going to be once again established on earth, here in Jerusalem. Oh, happy day! People behind him in the procession, people ahead of him in the procession, people laughing and giggling and giddy with joy, and they’re taking selfies with Jesus on the donkey in the background, and they’re going through all of this. And still, Jesus sits on the donkey, seeing Jerusalem laid out ahead of him, and he knows that all of these people who are supporting him and singing his praises this day are going to vanish. His support is going to vaporize like a cobweb getting hit with a blowtorch as soon as the pressure comes, as soon as the heat comes bearing down on Jesus, they’re going to disappear. “What, Jesus? Jesus who? Never heard of him!” Jesus knows that at the end of this week stands the cross, and what this crowd will see as the end result of a failure, a fraud. Carrying along the resentment that they’ve been taken along for a ride by this fake, this phony. He knows all of this. He knows that this is coming.

Every time I think about that, every time I really consider that, and I put myself in Jesus’ place – I put myself on the back of that donkey, I cannot believe that I’d have kept going. I believe that if I were in that position, I would not have gone into the city. I’d have just turned that donkey around, and headed off toward the opposite side of the hill. I would have ridden off into the sunset, and said, “Folks, you’re on your own!”

But knowing full well what was to come, he did it. Being aware of all the events that would play out in the comings days, he did it. Because he knew that in the end, God would vindicate, would validate, everything that he had said, everything that he had done. It would all be validated through the resurrection.

And so that leaves us. Clearly not Jesus, and most all of us older than 18. We’re in the middle. And we think about our own life’s experiences. When we think about the things that we want in our lives – our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, the things that we know are the way things should be, and for whatever reason, they aren’t quite that. And as people of faith, we come to God, and we ask God, we petition God, we ask for God’s intercession for these things that are not right. Medical fears. Relationship fears; that person who came into your life who you thought was God’s blessing to you, an answered prayer, has now disappeared on you, and you begin to wonder if you were mistaken, or if God is just cruel. There are times in your life when things aren’t going right, and you’ve been taught from the time that you were an infant to pray to God, and God hears and answers your prayers. And yet, as someone who has been around a while, you know that in all likelihood, in many of these cases, the answer to the prayer that you lift up is not the answer you’d hoped for. You can feel deserted, rejected, abandoned. In that sense, we do sometimes feel like Jesus riding on that donkey. We feel like so many of those youth are going to feel the first time some piece of legislation gets tabled, or not even introduced at all. We know that in all likelihood, in so many of these cases, there is going to be a feeling of abandonment.

How do we square that? We certainly know, as followers of Jesus, that as Jesus was himself, we play the long game. We know that that long moral arc is indeed bending toward our intended goal. We know that eventually, God is going to vindicate, God is going to validate, our hopes, our prayers, our aspirations. The day is coming. I don’t know when, and I don’t know what the details are in your own given circumstances, but I do know that vindication is coming. I can stand here and say that boldly and without qualification, because of the things that happened from the time that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey, and through that following week, and into the resurrection.

We have this hope within us, that when things aren’t going exactly the way we’d planned, we know where it’s all headed. This day, it’s headed, on the back of a donkey, down the road, around the bend, down into the valley and back up the other side, into Jerusalem.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Occam’s (Twin-Blade) Razor

(sermon 3/18/18)

my razor-resized

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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This is my razor. I bought it when I was 18 years old, just a week or two before I went off to Penn State for undergraduate studies. It’s followed along with me ever since, wherever I’ve gone, whatever I was doing. I’ve shaved with this razor pretty much every day for almost 40 years. I’ve never replaced it with some newer, better one because as far as I was concerned, it did its job just fine and it wasn’t broken. To some people in our society, for me to not have bought a number of fancier, upgraded razors in all those years makes me not just a little odd, and not just cheap, but a troublemaker. Not a team player. A rabble-rouser; a dissident. I am the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of shaving. Because since the end of World War II, our economy, our society, has been built on the concept of continuous consumption. We’re taught from almost every direction that we should always want more than we already have. And once we have it, we need to buy a nicer, newer version of it just a year or two later. We’re told – and more often than not, we internalize – that our own worth is dependent on our “stuff.” If we have the newest of technology, the nicest furniture, the most current clothing, then we matter; and if we don’t, we don’t.

This isn’t just my opinion; it’s reality, and it isn’t just coincidence that this is the way things are. It’s intentional. After World War II, when we had a huge workforce coming home from the war looking for work, and a massive industrial structure needing some new purpose, a well-known economic analyst named Victor Lebow advised the government and industry leaders that our enormously productive economy required that we make consumption a way of life – making buying and selling of goods our formative social rituals, the rituals that give shape and meaning to our lives. Society needed to be altered so that we sought our actual spiritual satisfaction in consumption. The government and industry were all too eager to implement this strategy to keep a robust economy going, and now, for many people, their sense of self-worth is entirely wrapped up in the stuff they possess.

And yet, despite having more and better and nicer stuff than any other society in the history of the world, we aren’t content. We aren’t spiritually satisfied at all. In fact, at the same time we’re the generation that has the most material stuff, we also have the most psychological stuff. Generally speaking, we are  the most spiritually unfulfilled, dissatisfied, depressed, anxiety-ridden generation in history. How can this be?

Well, I introduced you to my razor earlier; now I’ll mention a more famous one – Occam’s Razor; the philosophical principle that when you’re trying to determine the solution to a question or problem, the most likely answer is the simplest one; the one that relies on the fewest assumptions or what-ifs. In this case, the simplest answer to the question of why we’re so unhappy even with all this stuff, is that the whole idea that stuff can make us happy and fulfilled is wrong from the very outset. We *can’t* find happiness through obtaining stuff. We can’t derive a sense of self-worth through consumption. We’ll never find spiritual satisfaction through material goods.

Even though all of us sometimes fall victim to this big lie that our society tells, in our hearts, and especially as followers of Jesus, we know that stuff isn’t a real solution. We’re reminded throughout the scriptures, and throughout Jesus’ teaching as we heard in today’s reading, that God has a better idea for us – that our peace, our fulfillment, our happiness, comes entirely through God’s mercy and unending love for us, poured out on us every day.

Of course, we all need some stuff, in order to get by and enjoy our lives, but because of this covenant relationship that God has made us a part of, we don’t have to be enslaved by it. We don’t have to be emotionally and spiritually impoverished by the pursuit of more and more things. Because of our covenant relationship with God, we can relax. We don’t have to get caught up in the constant burdensome cycle of working harder to buy more stuff, and then throwing 99% of it all out within six months’ time and having to work harder to replace that stuff that was perfectly fine that you just got rid of.

And the problem here isn’t just physical stuff, either. Here, as the church, for example, we can fall victim to what I’ll call the “consumption of concerns.” There is just so much need in the world – so many projects to do this good thing, or to work to stop this other bad thing, or to help this person, or to support this group, and we can fall victim to the idea that we have to just keep doing more and more and more stuff in order to get God’s approval or to really show that we’re good Christians. And sometimes, it can all just become exhausting.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, all of those things are important expressions of faith that we all need to be involved in. But sometimes, we also need to slow down, and relax. To realize that Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and in me you will find rest.” He didn’t say “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I’ll pile some more on your shoulders.”

Some of the subjects during our Lenten series have called us to action in a number of good and important ways. Today’s focus is in a different direction. It isn’t a call to more, but rather, to less. To buy less, and yes, from time to time, to also do less, in order to refocus on God’s immense, unending love. To remember how loved we are by God, and how God wants us to be at peace. To have contentment and fulfillment. To remember that in Christ, we find our peace. In Christ, we have our contentment. In Christ, we recognize just how immense our value is in God’s eyes.

So if that’s true – and I believe it is  – then take time during Lent to focus on where, and how, you feel a closer, deeper connection with God, in order to build on that sense of contentment. Were and when do you feel most connected with God? Is it a particular place? Is it with particular people that you love? Is it being *away* from other people, enjoying solitude? Is it in times of prayer and meditation? Is it a particular time of day, or doing a particular activity? When you do think about wherever and however you feel most connected with God, you’ll likely recognize that that connection really isn’t dependent upon your “stuff” at all.

And once you recognize how you connect more deeply with God, follow through with it. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to society’s big lie; become a bit of a countercultural dissident yourself – find your self-worth and your spiritual satisfaction with God, and not a gift card. Take that personal “quiet time” in your day. Carve out more time to be with whoever the special people are in your life. Make that trip to that wonderful, special place where you always intensely felt God’s presence. And when you go, remember to pack your razor.

Thanks be to God.

*For more detail about some of the things I refer to in this sermon, see “The Story of Stuff,” a wonderful short video, at https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/

This Sermon Approved by Number 37

cattle and calf

(sermon 3/11/18)

Genesis 1:28-31

God blessed the human beings, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good. 

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Hannah, if I’ve done the math correctly, was about eight or nine years old when I first met her. She and her younger brother and her mother and father were members of the little southern Ohio church I first pastored. They lived on a farm, and they raised Angus cattle. Being a kid on a farm, you learn at a pretty young age that the livestock aren’t pets, and what their final destiny is going to be, so it isn’t wise to get too attached to any of them. They’re commodities, just identified by the number on the tags attached to their ears. But despite that, some animals do have a personality that makes them stand out from the others, and you do end up having favorites, and that was the case with Hannah this particular year and one of the herd. Well, time moved on, and the realities of raising Angus cattle continued, too. Sometime later that year, Hannah’s mother had made hamburgers for dinner, and Hannah got very upset. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she said “Oh, Mom – don’t tell me it’s Number 37!”

Hannah definitely had a good understanding of where her food came from – how it was produced, where it came from, every step of the process that led to it being on the dinner table. But most of us don’t have that kind of direct connection or understanding. At best, most of us have some vague assumptions about where our food comes from, and how it gets to us, but in most of our cases there are some pretty big gaps in our food awareness. There are a lot of details that we don’t know; and there are other things that we know enough to know that we don’t really want to know. Most of us, I suppose, have seen news stories or documentary films of the terrible conditions endured by calves, and chickens, and other animals in the mass production of our food. And we know that the people who grow, and pick, and process our food are often paid terribly, unsustainably low wages for what’s often backbreaking work. And we also know that these conditions exist in order for us, as consumers, to be able to buy our food at the absolute lowest cost possible – and really, who doesn’t like low prices?

Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us that according to the scriptures, our sacred story that shapes our faith and bonds us into a community, all of creation is God’s, not ours – and that God has instructed us, entrusted us, to care for it, and tend to it; to use it wisely to provide for us, and not to abuse or exploit it. I think it’s a shame that some people read that passage and latch on to those phrases to “subdue” and  to “have dominion over” creation, and mistakenly take it to mean that God told us we can do whatever we want with it – exploit it, trash it, even destroy it, because really, it doesn’t matter – when Jesus comes back he’ll set everything right again. It’s a shame, since this passage actually means the exact opposite of that.

We’ve been created by God in God’s own image, and that includes that part of God that creates, and cares for, and sustains. We discover another part of being created in God’s image just a little while later in Genesis, when we hear the story of Cain and Abel, and we’re told that according to God, yes, we are indeed expected to be our brother’s keeper, just as God is our keeper. Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we were created to tend and care for one another, and to do whatever is in our power to see that all of God’s people are treated fairly and justly.

So today, when food is the topic in our “Tread Lightly” Lenten series, I invite us all to consider that all of the decisions we make about our food actually come together to become a kind of statement of faith. Those decisions reflect what we believe about having been created in God’s image. They reflect the way we understand our place in creation, and not just being in it, but being part of it.

You heard some things from the youth today about the boycott that the Presbyterian Church endorses in order to get Wendy’s to agree to fair payment to the tomato growers who provide their restaurants with produce, trying to get them to sign on to the same fair-pay agreement signed by most, if not all of their competitors. You heard about the “Meatless Monday” movement, which would result in significant environmental benefit. There’s a movement that I’m sure Number 37 could get behind.

Beyond those things, we can be more mindful in general about buying foods that are locally and sustainably produced, cutting down on fossil fuel use and pollution caused by long-distance transport and environmentally-unfriendly production methods.

We should consider doing all those things, not just because this happened to be a topic on our Lenten calendar, not because they’re trendy, not because they might be considered “politically correct.” We shouldn’t do them just to show everyone that we’re nice, socially conscious, responsible people, although hopefully, we are. The reason we’re talking about this subject during Lent, as we’re engaged in self-reflection as we approach the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, and the reason we should make wise decisions about our food, is because it goes right to the core of what we believe about incarnation. I don’t mean the kind of incarnation of God in Jesus, but, through Jesus, the kind of incarnation of God in us. God dwells within each of us, and because of that, and out of gratitude for it, we’re called to use the thoughtfulness and compassion that God created in us to be God’s agents in creation – to help establish healing, and wholeness, and justice, for creation, and for all people wherever it’s lacking. To be part of that Hebrew concept of tikkun olam; mending or repairing the brokenness in the world. That’s all a part of the charge that God gave us in Genesis.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the world, and warns us that salt is useless if it loses its flavor. Frankly, I think the bigger danger isn’t the salt losing its flavor, but rather, that the salt would just stay in the shaker and not seasoning anything, and just feeling proud of itself for being salt. So this Lent, let’s consider how we can be salt outside of the shaker. Let’s consider how making wise and ethical decisions about what food we will or won’t buy can be that salt, seasoning and adding flavor to the world, and to the lives of others.

Thanks be to God.