Sermons

Daily Resurrection: Losing to Find

Stepping-stones

Lesson: Mark 8:31-38

“What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”[1]

Marcus Borg tells the story of a three-year-old girl who was the firstborn and only child in her family. Her mother, however, was pregnant, and the little girl was very excited about having a new baby brother or sister. Finally the day arrived when her parents came home from the hospital with a baby boy. A few hours after the baby arrived home, the little girl asked if she could be alone with her new brother in his room, with the door closed. Understandably, her parents were a little uneasy about this, but they wanted to encourage their daughter’s interest in her new sibling. Besides, they had an intercom in the nursery. So they watched her go into the nursery, shut the door behind her, and then raced to their listening post. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”[2]

This story suggests that we come from God and that when we’re very young, we remember this. We remember that we belong to God; that all of us belong to God. But what happens? Well, we grow up. And in the process of growing up, of learning the ways of this world, we forget the One from whom we came and in whom we live. So that by the time we’re ten or twelve or even younger, we’re measuring ourselves against our culture’s standards, “the 3 A’s of appearance, achievement and affluence.”[3] Few of us believe we’re enough – thin enough, rich enough, smart enough, pretty enough, good enough, successful enough – because the messages we get from parents, school, work, even church but most especially the media tell us again and again we’re not.

As a result, most of us fall deeper and deeper into a world of separation and alienation, comparison and judgment – of ourselves and others. A number of writers – Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and others – call this life the false self. The false self isn’t your bad self; it’s just that it’s the self that doesn’t believe you’re worthy and so keeps you striving to prove you are. And in the process, the true self, the self that remembers our connection to God and each other, the real you, is lost.

Jesus has an answer for this in this morning’s reading. The central theme in Mark’s gospel is “the way.” Mark announces this at the beginning of his gospel: it is about “the way of the Lord.” The way is the story of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Three times in the course of his journey, Jesus speaks of his impending death and resurrection, and each time, he pairs this announcement with a teaching about following him. We read the first one this morning. Jesus concludes by explaining that to follow him means to follow on his path. In your pew Bibles, in the New Revised Standard Version, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[4]

Scary, right? Whenever we hit a scary or difficult teaching of Jesus, the best approach is to look at it in the context of his other teachings. Jesus taught about nonviolence, a simple lifestyle, love of the poor, forgiveness, love of enemies, inclusivity, mercy, healing; not seeking status, power, perks and possessions. These teachings tell us that human beings matter to God. That who you are matters to God; who I am matters to God. So “deny yourself” and “take up your cross” can’t be read in a way that devalues human life and well-being, or that’s inconsistent with Jesus’ message of human wholeness and healing. We need to read these words in the light of what Jesus called the two greatest commandments: that we are to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves.[5] Above all else, Jesus taught, we are to be connected with God and with each other.

Perhaps that’s a good place to start in trying to understand this passage: To deny yourself and to take up your cross must in some way further these two great commandments. To deny ourselves and to take up our crosses must help us, somehow, to choose the connection with God and each other that God chooses.

We get a hint from Jesus’ conversation with his disciples. His disciples weren’t bombarded with 5000 advertising images every day as we are, telling them what they are supposed to look like and drive and wear and eat to be successful or cool or hip or whatever. But they still imagine that the secret to life is strength and power and the 3 A’s, rather than vulnerability and love; rather than connecting with God and each other. And so they interpret Jesus’ miraculous acts as demonstrations of power rather than manifestations of love.[6] When Jesus lays out for them the inevitable consequences of his path, the predictable outcome of insisting on living in God’s kingdom rather than Caesar’s, the way of love rather than the way of domination, then the disciples, and Peter in particular, throw a fit. Jesus needs to win! Conquer! Defeat! Not be conquered and killed himself. Jesus turns on Peter and accuses him of being the mouthpiece of the dark side.[7] Peter’s way of thinking is the opposite of God’s thinking.

The disciples don’t get it that Jesus is leading them along a way that means giving up winning so that God can win with everybody.[8] And so what Jesus is saying is that they, and we, need to go through some form of death – psychological, spiritual, relational, or physical – in order to loosen our ties to the way of winning, the way of the 3 A’s, the way of disconnection from God and each other.[9]

To “deny yourself” is to embrace the truth that we can’t live in this world, we can’t live our lives, without being connected.[10] And what needs to die in order to connect with God and each other is the false self, so that we can rediscover the true self – which is not, not remotely, the perfect self; it’s just the self that knows we’re all connected and we all belong to God, and that this is the most important fact about any of us.

It is Lent. This work, this dying to the false self to rise to the true self, is a whole lot harder, my friends, than giving up chocolate for 6 weeks. Jesus doesn’t sugar coat this. The images he uses are of sacrifice and death. Change is hard. Becoming aware of whatever it is in us that gets in the way of loving our God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is hard work. As Richard Rohr writes, “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.”[11]

Brené Brown tells a story about being asked to speak at a women’s networking lunch, early in her career as an author and social science researcher. She arrived early at the swanky country club where the event was being hosted and introduced herself to the woman in charge. After sizing Brown up for what felt like an eternity, the woman said she was going to introduce Brown and so she needed her bio, the page describing her and her work. Brown handed it over and the woman read it for thirty seconds before she gasped, turned to Brown and peering over her glasses, snapped, “This says you’re a shame researcher. Is that true?”

Brown says all of a sudden she was ten years old and in the principal’s office. “Yes, ma’am,” she confessed. With lips pursed, the woman bit off each word: “Do. You. Study. Anything. Else?” “Yes,” said Brown. “I also study fear and vulnerability.”

Brown says the woman gave some sort of a combination shriek and gasp. “I was told that you collect research on how to be more joyful and how to have more connection and meaning in our lives.” Brown now understood. She tried to explain that she did not study ‘how-to’ be joyful and have more meaning in our lives, but knew a lot about those topics because she studies what gets in the way of joy, meaning and connection. Without responding the woman walked away and left Brown standing there. “Oh the irony,” writes Brown, “of a shame researcher standing in a puddle of ‘I’m not good enough.’”

The woman came back in a few minutes, and looking over the top of Brown’s head, said, “Here’s how this is going to go. Number 1: You’re not to talk about the things that get in the way. You’re going to talk about the how-to part. That’s what people want to hear. People want how-to. Number 2: Do not mention the word shame. People will be eating. Number 3: People want to be comfortable and joyful. That’s all. Keep it joyful and comfortable.”

Brown stood there speechless and the woman said, “Okay?” and before Brown could speak, she answered for her, “Sounds good.” Then, as she started walking away, she turned around and said, “Light and breezy. People like light and breezy.” And just in case Brown wasn’t clear what that meant, the woman spread her fingers far apart and made huge sweeping gestures with her hands to illustrate “light” and “breezy.” Brown writes, “picture Margaret Thatcher imitating Bob Fosse.”[12]

Brown said she stood in front of the women’s group, totally paralyzed and repeating different versions of “Joy is good. Happy is so, so good.  We should all have meaning.” She said it was a train wreck. But what she figured out was that the country club woman wasn’t out to sabotage her talk. She was speaking a deep truth, which is that our culture doesn’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty how-to list for happiness. Brown writes, “Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but that just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, meaningful life, we must talk about the things that get in the way. … Here’s the bottom line: If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear and vulnerability.”[13]

Jesus is telling Peter and the disciples, and us, that if we are going to live the resurrection life, the new life lived in the kingdom of God, we can’t skip the hard stuff. And in fact, we can’t skip dealing with shame and fear and figuring out how to live vulnerably, because isn’t that what drives us to chase the 3 A’s of appearance, achievement and affluence? Isn’t that what keeps us looking for excuses, caveats, and loopholes when it comes to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t that what causes the amnesia that makes us forget that that we belong to God, and that our neighbors next door and on the other side of the globe belong to God, too? That we are enough, and that they are enough?

It is hard work, but it is holy work and we do not do it alone. Resurrection is always the work of God. God is all about resurrection. Every single day. This Lent here at First Presbyterian Church, we are looking at “daily resurrection.” Daily dying to what does not give life, and daily rising to what does. The dailiness of it fits my experience. Marcus Borg writes, “In the course of a day, I sometimes realize that I have become burdened, and the cause is that I have forgotten God. In the act of remembering God, of reminding myself of the reality of God, I sometimes feel a lightness of being – rising out of my self-preoccupation and burdensome confinement. We are called again and again to come forth from our tombs.”[14]

Jesus promises this is what will save us. This is how we will find ourselves. “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?” The connected you. The you that remembers God. In your pews, on the inside aisle, are paper cups with small stones, enough for at least one for each person in your pew, and a permanent marker. Sometime between now and the time you leave the pew, pass the cups down and take a stone and write on it. Write a word or letter or symbol for the stone you need God to roll away for you to rise to new life as your true self, the self that is connected to God and everyone else. You may take it home, or you might throw it in the stone “river” in the landscaping in front of the church.

On my stone, I think I’ll write “comparison,” or just a C if that’s all there’s room for. But if the stone were big enough, I’d write, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.

[1] Mark 8:37, Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs Like You’ve Never Read Them Before (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1993), pp. 110. Peterson is probably best known for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, which was written to make the original meaning more understandable and accessible to the modern reader. Peterson explains: “When Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter, the people who received it understood it instantly. When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can’t imagine that people went to the library to figure it out. That was the basic premise under which I worked. I began with the New Testament in the Greek – a rough and jagged language, not so grammatically clean. I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians.”

[2] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), pp. 113-114.

[3] Borg, p. 116.

[4] Mark 8:34.

[5] Mark 12:28-31.

[6] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/lent-2-b/.

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), p. 118.

[8] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), p. 4.

[9] Rohr, p. 62.

[10] Karoline Lewis, “A Different Kind of Denial,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542.

[11] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 74.

[12] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazeldon, 2010), pp. 33-35.

[13] Brown, pp. 35-36.

[14] Borg, p. 118.

Daily Resurrection: Time’s Up!

top

Lesson: Mark 1:9-15

We’ve all seen cartoons of an angry, bearded man holding the sign “Repent!” If the sign is large enough, it’ll show the entire verse using King James language: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” The message seems to be that you’d better get ready for the judgment of an angry God who will punish you for your sins. The presumed solution is to join the church, believe the right set of religious ideas,[1] or pour your liquor cabinet contents down the drain.  This fits with what most people think about the season of Lent – that it’s a time for penitence: for remembering that we’re miserable sinners in the eyes of our harshly judging God. For centuries, Lent focused primarily on self-deprivation and generally feeling unworthy, feeling bad about ourselves. And for centuries, it kept people focused on their fear of what was going to happen to them after they died. Focusing on the afterlife meant few people rocked the boat in the name of Jesus, which, by the way, was convenient for those in power.

But this doesn’t fit with the God we meet in Jesus, whose very first message in the gospels, usually translated “repent,” is the Greek word metanoia, which literally means to change your mind or your heart. Change, because the kingdom of God is at hand. Other translations say, “Ultimate reality is at hand!”[2] or “God’s benevolent society is already among us.”[3] The thing is, changing in order to live in this ultimate reality or in God’s benevolent society wouldn’t be convenient for those in power at all, because living as though God is the ruler of our hearts and lives means living as though the leaders of this world are not. Jesus’ first words have to be read in relation to what was going on at Jesus’ time: the kingdom of Caesar and the empire of Rome.

Jesus came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion. It wasn’t information about how individual souls could avoid hell and go to heaven after death. It was about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven for all people. It was about God’s faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression and evil. It was about God’s compassion, and the call to be reconciled with God and with one another – now, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, as citizens of a new kingdom.[4]

That is why Eugene Peterson writes that living a holy life is the Christian equivalent of revolution.[5] Think about that: a holy life is the Christian equivalent of revolution.  And what Lent is really about is remembering that we are part of that revolution, a revolution defined by resurrection.  A revolution that says no to what deals in death and yes to what gives life, for us, and for all people. Lent is when we notice the ways we’ve slipped into living in those other “kingdoms” or systems around us, the systems that do not celebrate healing and our common humanity, that do not see the world and life as a gift, that do not put love of God and the Other as the central shaping principle for everything we do.

So during Lent, we’re invited to practice resurrection. We practice saying no to what does not give life and love, and saying yes to what does. You’ve probably known people who give up chocolate for Lent; maybe you have yourself. I honestly don’t understand how depriving yourself of one of life’s most innocent God-given pleasures brings us closer to God – and let this be remembered as the time your two pastors preached about chocolate two weeks in a row. But there’s actually a good reason, a resurrection reason to give up chocolate, or at least most chocolate. According to an investigative report by the BBC, human trafficking, child slavery, and abusive labor practices are common in the cacao industry. Hundreds of thousands of children are being purchased from their destitute parents or outright stolen and then shipped to Ivory Coast, where they are enslaved on cocoa farms. These children, 11-to-16-years-old but sometimes younger, are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They’re paid nothing, receive no education, are under fed, and often are viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.[6]

Congress has tried to address this but the deep pockets of the big chocolate companies prevailed. You can go online and find a list of chocolate companies that certify they are child labor free.[7] Or look for the fair trade label.

You can do this simple thing today. The most striking single element of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom may have been “The time has come!” “Time’s up!” as The Message[8] puts it. The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims: the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now. The time has come today to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of dying to death-dealing ways and rising to life-giving ways. The time has come to be shaped by Christ’s resurrection, to participate in his resurrection, and this doesn’t depend on any holy setting or equipment – or rather, I should say that this makes everything that is ordinary and normal a holy moment, a holy opportunity. A bar of chocolate, for instance. Bread and wine shared in the sacrament. Pancakes shared in Duncan Hall.

At the front door as you leave worship today, and over in Duncan Hall for the pancake eaters, there are baskets of stones. The stones are all different shapes and sizes and colors. Smooth, rough, crisscrossed with veins, broken, large enough to be a paperweight and small enough to slip unnoticeably in your pocket. Some are flashy, most are ordinary until you look closely at the flecks, the texture, the grain. We invite you to take a stone home today. Put it somewhere you can see it during Lent: your desk, a windowsill, your bedside table, or carry it in your pocket. Let it remind you that we are called and then empowered to change – ourselves, and our world. Let it remind you, daily, of daily resurrection, of the stone God rolled away to raise Jesus, and rolls away in our lives as well. Now. And every single day.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.

[1] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now (New York: Crossroad, 2009), p. 89.

[2] Rohr, ibid.

[3] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010), p. 138.

[4] Brian McLaren, p. 139.

[5] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), p. 230.

[6] Amanda Gregory, “Chocolate and Child Slavery: Say No to Human Trafficking this Holiday Season,” October 31, 2013, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-gregory/chocolate-and-child-slave_b_4181089.html.

[7] http://fairtradeusa.org/products-partners/cocoa

[8] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs Like You’ve Never Read Them Before (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1993), pp. 90-91. Peterson is probably best known for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, which was written to make the original meaning more understandable and accessible to the modern reader. Peterson explains: “When Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter, the people who received it understood it instantly. When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can’t imagine that people went to the library to figure it out. That was the basic premise under which I worked. I began with the New Testament in the Greek – a rough and jagged language, not so grammatically clean. I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians.”

You Have Something on Your Forehead

ash.2

Lessons: Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

I will not give the Lent sales pitch tonight. I’ll save that for Sunday, for the people who are not here tonight. For whatever reason, you have already decided that the journey of healing that we call Lent is a journey worth beginning. So instead, I’ll introduce our Lenten theme of “Daily Resurrection,” and connect it to ashes that give tonight its name, and the stones that will be part of worship starting Sunday.

When most people think about resurrection, they think, “That’s about Jesus; it happened on Easter a couple of thousand years ago and it has nothing to do with me.” Or perhaps they think resurrection does have something to do with them, but only after they die. The church itself has fostered this limited view of resurrection, this “Jesus died and went to heaven and so will we” approach to resurrection.

The message of the resurrection is much bigger than this, and it is utterly central in the New Testament and in early Christianity. At the very center of the Christian life was and is personal transformation, and this transformation is described as dying to an old way of being and rising to a new way of being, dying to an old identity and rising into a new identity, a new way of being and a new identity centered in God.[1] Dying, and then rising. That’s why Jesus tells us we have to take up our crosses, and in case there’s any question, Luke adds the word “daily.”[2] Daily take up our crosses. Daily die to what is not life-giving and daily rise to new life.

What is this new life? John Ortberg calls it “the life you’ve always wanted.”[3] Brené Brown calls it “whole-hearted living.”[4] The second century Christian theologian Irenaeus called it “a human being fully alive.” The Hebrew Scriptures call it shalom, and Jesus called it life in the kingdom of God – life lived as though God is the ruler of our hearts and lives – and as though the rulers currently running this world are not. Jesus’ description makes it clear that daily resurrection is about you and your life but not just about you and your life: it is also about all God’s creation, our lives together, and the unjust systems that create human suffering. Christianity is about both. It is about the change in you and me that changes the world.

This process is not something we do for ourselves, but rather, that God does in us. Resurrection is not self-improvement. Because God is involved, there’s something unpredictable, something beyond our control about it all. This means that in order to respond, we need open hearts, a phrase Scripture uses again and again to describe what other traditions call “beginner’s mind.” An open heart is the heart that is alive to wonder, that feels gratitude and compassion, that has a passion for justice, and that is open to the surprising work of the Spirit. An open heart is the heart that is ready to learn and become something new. This is what the psalmist means when he prays in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”[5] The psalmist knows that he needs to start from scratch, be open, do the inner work that changes outer behavior. He writes, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”[6]

We don’t make resurrection happen, but as Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “we work together with [God].”[7] As we continue to be formed by resurrection, we participate with God in the resurrection life. Richard Rohr writes, “The core task of all good spirituality is to teach us to ‘cooperate’ with what God already wants to do and has already begun to do.”[8] That is what it means to live the resurrection life, day by day. We will never do it perfectly. We know that. We also trust in God’s grace when we do not.

What does this have to do with ashes? What do you say tonight if someone tells you that you have something on your forehead? In Scripture, ashes serve as a sign of mourning. Resurrection to new life is always preceded by death to the old life, and even if the promise of resurrection is the life you’ve always wanted or a whole-hearted life or life in the kingdom of God, any little change is a little death; any little death of ego; any little dying to thinking things are back and white is a little death. And a bigger change feels like a bigger death. The ashes acknowledge the grief that goes with these deaths. So you might say tonight, “The cross reminds us that there are things we have to die to in order to live whole-heartedly. The ashes tell us that every death brings grief.”

But in addition to announcing grief, those ashes proclaim resurrection. Astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Joni Mitchell put it more poetically in her song covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”[9] It is an act of resurrection to become aware that we are all connected, that we are all in this together, and that today, in our world, this connection is more important than being “right.” Rohr also writes, “Remember, Jesus never said, ‘This is my commandment: thou shalt be right.’”[10] Instead, he said to love each other as we love ourselves. So if someone asks you what’s on your forehead tonight, you might say, “Stardust. Billion-year-old carbon. What’s on my forehead is my connection to the past, present and future of humanity and of the other approximately 8 and a half million species on this blue-green planet that God gave us as our home. What’s on my forehead reminds me that we are part of everything, and everything is a part of us, and that there are ways that we can celebrate that and embrace that and be open to that rather than deny it.”

That is the resurrection life.  Some people might call that process, this journey of embracing our connection, “getting back to the garden.” This Lent, we are calling it “daily resurrection.” The stones we will use to pray throughout Lent are both trail markers on that journey, and reminders of resurrection, of the stone God rolled away to raise Jesus, and rolls away in our lives as well. Every single day.

Ash Wednesday is one of the most poetic of our holy days, with symbols drawn right on our skin, and so I will close with an actual poem, an Ash Wednesday blessing by poet Jan Richardson that captures the journey of daily resurrection:

To receive this blessing,

all you have to do

is let your heart break.

Let it crack open.

Let it fall apart

so that you can see

its secret chambers,

the hidden spaces

where you have hesitated

to go.

 

Your entire life

is here, inscribed whole

upon your heart’s walls:

every path taken

or left behind,

every face you turned toward

or turned away,

every word spoken in love

or in rage,

every line of your life

you would prefer to leave

in shadow,

every story that shimmers

with treasures known

and those you have yet

to find.

 

It could take you days

to wander these rooms.

Forty, at least.

 

And so let this be

a season for wandering

for trusting the breaking

for tracing the tear

that will return you

 

to the One who waits

who watches

who works within

the rending

to make your heart

whole.[11]

 

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

[1] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 107.

[2] Luke 9:23.

[3] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 13-29.

[4] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazeldon, 2010), pp. 1-6.

[5] Psalm 51:10.

[6] Psalm 51:6.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:6.

[8] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now (New York: Crossroad, 2009), p. 23.

[9] Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” 1970.

[10] Rohr, p. 45.

[11] Jan Richardson, Rend Your Heart: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday,”

http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/02/15/day-1ash-wednesday-rend-your-heart/

.

Transfigure…what?

310878095_d6e3694949_z

Lesson: Mark 9:2-9

It should be no surprise to many of you when I say that I love chocolate. I do. And as a connoisseur I have my favorite brand s, styles and parings. Tcho cholocate, the bay area chocolatier used to be located on the Embarcadero. I took their tour and realized my love of chocolate and my desire for justice could be combined into full-blown chocolate snobbery. That was a good day. Before I get too carried away by child labor concerns and purity codes of chocolate versus candy…let me simply say that Tcho would tell us real chocolate only has a few, natural ingredients.

The two most important are cocoa nibs and cocoa butter. The chocolate’s flavor is dependent on the cocoa itself – where it was grown, how it is processed, etc. Dark chocolate gets its rich flavors from cocoa nibs, or grounds of cocoa left in the mix. White chocolate on the other hand uses milk particles instead of cocoa nibs, which changes the color and allows for more of the cocoa butter flavor to come through. These days it seems that bitter is the flavor marker of an elevated palate. In coffee, chocolate, and other adult beverages, bitterness seems to be equivalent with better. Sharp espresso. Dark, dark chocolate. 60% cocoa, 70%, 75% cocoa… Are on menu’s across Marin and in valentines given and received this weekend.

I’ve heard it said that the simple sweetness that is white chocolate – is a supposed marker of a young palate – a reminder of childhood and the good old days of simplicity. This is the way I have always approached today’s scripture about Jesus and the transfiguration: as if it’s white chocolate: simple, obvious, and without much depth. Those of us schooled in Christian language and tradition may or may not recognize this word, transfiguration, and know the story immediately. I grew up in the church and I didn’t know this story until I had to read it for class in college. It’s imagery seems an obvious choice for inclusion in art and children’s books, but it is left out of most children’s Bibles and curriculums – including Godly Play. I wonder why then it is included in our worship calendar every year? It’s given a place of honor in the Christian calendar, but it’s unclear to me why when so many of our resources and faithful expressions seem to dodge it?

I am not going to make a case that today’s story is actually fine, dark chocolate with almonds and toffee. No. But, I do think there are more layers and flavors in this story than what at first appears. I’m thinking milk chocolate.

It would be pretty easy to try to explain away this text of a miraculous light, dead people showing up, and a booming voice in a cloud. It would be. And, this is one of those stories in the Bible that leave many of us scratching our heads. We can appreciate all of the obvious cultural and religious references within the story. We can identify the cocoa nibs and pieces of the Jewish tradition – patriarchs from ancient Hebrew stories in the books of Genesis and 1 & 2 Kings. Mark’s audience would have known their stories well. We probably recognize Moses although we may associate him with the escape from Egypt and the 10 Commandments before we recall his secret meetings with God on the mountaintops. I’d bet most of us do not recognize Elijah or recall the stories of his great deeds with God’s help. Perhaps instead we might identify with the disciples – with Peter who, in his discomfort, flails around trying to figure out what to do, making plans that are neither wise nor needed. Or, perhaps we identify with John and James who do not say a word – frozen and paralyzed. Jesus leads them back down the mountain without a word spoken.

Sometime when we think of this text, we get concerned with theological questions – what does this say about Jesus? Or, the practical, how we might respond to God’s call to, “listen?” I wonder if we are missing the important part, the part where, if God were a chocolatier, God would want us to sample. God is coming through to the world, to the disciples, in an especially brilliant way. If our pallets are ready, we might be able to join in the awe and wonder of God’s flavors.

I am not concerned with the literal facts in this story and trying to nail down which mountain? How white was Jesus exactly? What was going on psychologically inside Peter’s head? Rather, I wonder what the gospel writer is trying to tell us about an experience of God in Jesus? I wonder because in my experience there are moments of transformation when our DNA does not change, but our perceptions of others and ourselves change. In those moments when we recognize God’s presence in a new way, it might seem as if we are blinded by truth and awe.

Now, our culture loves this idea of transformation and there are many other books we could explore on the topic of transforming our lives – work – relationships – pets. Is there a difference between what these books describe and what we experience? I wonder. I would hope that my faith would lead me to greater wonder and awe. I wonder if it is faith that takes a breath and names the radiance – gives thanks for the experience and names it holy? As people of faith, we claim that the Spirit is acting within and around and among us and thus, there is an aspect of transformation is grounded in the hope and love we know as God. Somehow God is in these moments. I would wager that it is exactly these precious moments of recognizing the Spirit that keep us coming back to this community – back to prayer, back to worship.

Here in Marin we are blessed to be able to point to God in nature. All we have to do is walk outside, and point in almost any direction and our breath can be taken away by God’s glory in nature. Annie Dillard shares a moment of profound awareness and beauty in her own neighborhood, Tinker Creek. She had heard of the tree with the lights in it, and she wanted to see it for herself. She writes:

“It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all, and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured … I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. … Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells un-flamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment the mountains open and a new light roars in….”[i]

In Dillard’s experience, this tree with light is more than a brilliant nature moment. There was a powerful connection and revelation for her. I wonder if we might call this a God moment? A moment of glory in the presence of something so real and powerful that we are struck with awe. Especially here in Marin we are used to hearing about God moments in nature – we expect it, that’s partially why we all live here. I wonder if there are other ways we experience God? I wonder if there are God moments in our lives we have not shared because we fear what others might say? Because we might sound like “those” Christians? Or because words fail us and we cannot ever quite capture the profound sense of awe that we experienced – nor can we get back to that exact, vivid moment. I wonder if there are moments that we might name and share if given a non-judging space to be heard?

What would it take for us to let go of our assumptions of how God is supposed to show up, and to let go of our fear to celebrate the many ways the Spirit leaves a mark on our lives? What would it take to let go of our expectations of where God will meet us, and fall back in love with the mysterious, amazing, complex, fullness – the flavors of the living God?

There are many stories of faith-filled people experiencing God – both in the scriptures and in the world around us. They take many forms. One of the most visceral is the way Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu describes the transformation of the South African people as they struggled to claim a new identity after Apartheid. He describes their first election cycle like this:

“Everywhere else elections are secular political events. Ours was more than this, much, much more. It was a veritable spiritual experience. It was a mountaintop experience. The black person entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a new, transfigured person. She entered weighted down by the anguish and burden of oppression, with the memory of being treated like rubbish gnawing away at her very vitals like some corrosive acid. She reappeared as someone new, “I am free,” as she walked away with head held high, the shoulders set straighter, and an elastic spring in her step. How do you convey that sense of freedom that tasted like sweet nectar for the first time? How do you explain it to someone who was born into freedom? It is impossible to convey. It is ineffable, like trying perhaps to describe the color red to a person born blind.

“It is a feeling that makes you want to cry and laugh at the same time, to dance with joy, and yet fearful that it was too good to be true and that it just might all evaporate. You’re on cloud nine. …

“The white person entered the voting booth burdened by the load of guilt for having enjoyed the fruits of oppression and injustice. He emerged as somebody new. He too cried out, “The burden has been lifted from my shoulders, I am free, transfigured, made into a new person,” He walked tall, with head held high and shoulders set square and straight.”[ii]

Walking tall in dignity, flailing about, quietly walking down the mountain, walking the path with new expectations…these are all faith filled stories and responses to a God who shows up unexpectedly, and, like fine chocolate, your life and taste buds will never be the same. However God shows up in your life, however you experience transformation, may your life be enriched by the experience of being present to God’s awesome power and transforming love. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

 

© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015

Image credit: “Cristo Redentor” CC image courtesy of bossa07, 2006, Flickr

 

[i] Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Harper Perennial: 1974 p.33-34

[ii] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. Image: 1999. p. 8

Chameleons for Christ?

10926368_10152707661006559_6816600735970421883_n (1)

Lessons: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Paul’s declaration that he has, “become all things to all people”[1] gives me the heebie-jeebies, as a woman, and as a pastor. As a woman, it reminds me of a Peggy Lee song[2] made popular in a perfume ad when I was a teenager. The catch line of the commercial was, “the 8-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman,” who could, according to the song, “bring home the bacon” and “fry it up in a pan,” and, oh, by the way, “never ever let you forget you’re a man.” In the ad, a flawlessly gorgeous model appears first in a power suit with fistful of cash, then in slacks waving a frying pan around, and finally in a slinky cocktail dress.[3] Subtle, right? Well, it was the 1970’s.

And then, as a pastor, as much as both pastors and parishioners secretly or not so secretly want the pastor of their church to be everything to everybody, it’s a recipe for burnout and not healthy for a congregation.

Paul just may be experiencing burnout, himself, but he can’t stop himself. The Corinthian church is divided and one faction has challenged Paul’s authority as an apostle to guide and teach them. In these verses, Paul is justifying his decision not to accept financial support from the Corinthians even though he’s entitled to it. We don’t know why he isn’t asking to be paid in this situation. He explains to the Corinthians that he proclaims the gospel because he is compelled to do so, he can’t stop himself, whether he gets paid or not. He does whatever he needs to do to get Christ’s message across, including becoming like a Jew when he’s with Jews or like a Gentile when he’s with Gentiles. Perhaps some of the Corinthians interpret this as being wishy-washy. People in marketing might be thinking Paul is just following the old adage, “Know your audience.” But is this about marketing and sales? Is Paul just being a chameleon, one thing for one audience, another thing for another? It sounds a little slick; a little manipulative – even if it is all done for the sake of the gospel, as Paul insists.

Paul adds one more way he has adjusted to his audience. He says, “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.”[4] Here, he doesn’t say that he became “like” or “as” the weak. He says he became weak. Suddenly we move out of chameleon territory into something else. What Paul is describing here is neither a marketing strategy nor an evangelism strategy.[5] He is talking about encountering people in a genuine, vulnerable way. Paul uses the word “weak,” which sounds judgmental to us, a better-than or worse-than word. I believe what he means by “weak” is vulnerability. Paul remembers the God who sought him and the people who showed him that God was seeking him, and, most importantly, that God was also seeking everyone else on the planet. The way Jesus sought and connected with and included with people was by opening up, emptying himself of ego, again and again. This is Paul’s model. In order for Paul to “become as a Jew” – he already was one, but he was trying to connect with those of his own people who didn’t share his new understandings and practices – in order to become like a Jew he had to care about a group of people who were different from him. He had to care enough to meet them on their own terms.[6] This meant listening to them. Opening his heart to them. Being vulnerable to their stories, needs, desires, and fears. And this is always risky, because truly opening up to the Other, being vulnerable to the Other, inevitably means we will change.

The word for this kind of behavior, for Paul’s behavior, is not marketing, or evangelism, but hospitality. We often think of hospitality as being about tea and cakes or maybe a warm greeting or maybe even taking the trouble to invite a newcomer over to coffee hour. Those are all good things. But Christian hospitality, Biblical hospitality, goes beyond this. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the practice of hospitality in the Bible is often described with the word philoxenia. “Take the word apart and you get philo, from one of the four Greek words for love, and xenia, the word for stranger. Love the stranger, in other words, which is about as counterintuitive as you can get. For most of us, xenophobia – fear of stranger – comes much more naturally but in that case scripture is unnatural. According to Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, ‘the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger.”’”[7] Sacks continues, “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image, for only then can we see past our reflections in the mirror to the God we did not make up.”[8]

To see God’s image in one who is not our image. This morning we begin our four-week conversation on race and privilege, at 11:30 in the Fireside Room following coffee hour. In the film we’ll watch this morning, anti-racism activist Tim Wise talks about a conversation at a racism awareness training session. The African Americans in the session described the race and the class barriers that had made it so difficult for them to live what we might call the American Dream. At one point a white man spoke up and said, “It’s simple. You work hard and you get ahead.” That had been his reality. That’s what his world looked like to him. And so Tim Wise said to the man, “What would it mean if these people in the room know their reality better than you know their reality?”

The hospitality Paul describes means opening up to the fact that our reality is not the other person’s reality. It means attempting to understand and having compassion for the other person’s reality. Paul is operating out of a principle stated by Miroslav Volf in his book, Exclusion and Embrace: “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others and invite them in – even our enemies.”[9] Now, “inviting them in” doesn’t mean converting people to our way of thinking or being or doing or believing. The President caught flack this week for noting in reference to ISIS that there have been times when people mass-murdered in the name of Christianity, too.[10] It is time that we Christians redefined evangelism or perhaps recaptured or restored the original meaning of the word that Paul models for us here: evangelism as radical hospitality. What Paul describes is a radical way of life in which he walks alongside all kinds of people in order to draw them to God. In order to draw them to relationship with God, not to a set of beliefs about God. And I know of no better way to draw people to God than by imitating God’s welcome.

I had the chance to practice this on Friday night. It was my turn to work at our Friday night shelter. We take the shelter for granted after five years of hosting it, but I know there are people here this morning who don’t know what it is or what we do. Every Friday night from mid-November through mid-April, we host from 25 to 50 men who have no place else to sleep. We make a good hot meal and serve it on real dishes and real glassware, with cloth tablecloths and napkins and floral centerpieces. Friday night we had lasagna, roasted fresh vegetables – the men favored the mushrooms over the Brussels sprouts – a spinach salad with berries, jicama and feta cheese – I know these details because that was my contribution – hot rolls and apple pie for dessert. It was raining Friday night, and the men arrived at the peak of the downpour. Several of the men working at the shelter went out to meet the bus with umbrellas to walk our guests into Duncan Hall. We greeted them at the door – shook hands, traded mundane observations about the weather, and invited them to have a cup of coffee or tea or instant cocoa to warm up while we were getting the food ready to serve.

Then Joy Snyder rang her Nepalese singing bowl, and we formed “the circle.” There were a handful of announcements, including that the paperback books that Maureen Kalbus had set out are there for the taking, and don’t need to be returned. Joy described the meal, and we all laughed sheepishly when we learned that the guys had been served lasagna several nights last week. Bernie Del Santo, a retired San Anselmo police chief, passed out space blankets, those compact foil-looking blankets that will keep folks warm and dry. He also gave away a jacket. Then we joined hands – Joy told the men they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to – and Royce led us in grace. Martha Spears, Sue Neil, Joan Basore, Elizabeth from the preschool and I served the food buffet style and we try to have enough that we can be generous – big helpings and seconds if folks want. Phil Boyle, former city planner for San Anselmo, and high school junior James Conant, our intrepid dishwasher, served the milk, water and orange juice at the tables. The Cowperthwaites, John and Carol, brought the apple pie around at the end of the meal.

But before the pie, we, the church folks and other volunteers preparing and serving, also sit down and eat with our guests, spreading ourselves around so that there are no more than one or two of us at a table. And we talk, the way people talk at a meal. At my table the talk about the weather led to two of our guests discovering they’d both grown up in Maine. The young vet with several visible tattoos and the pale, refined gentlemen with a monogram on the pocket of his buttoned-down collar shirt joked that Californians are such wimps about bad weather. The African American man was concerned about getting a sleeping space a bit out of the way, close to the wall in one of the alcoves. None of them talked about how they got there, why they are homeless, what part of their life had come apart at the seams.

Later, I remarked to Joy that much of Friday night’s crowd looked so … normal. There was the young man who looked barely twenty. Another man who’d trained at the California Culinary Academy, and suggested we try making pasta Alfredo with chicken because it’s easy, cheap, and great comfort food. A Latino man talked about the traffic being so crazy after he got off work – the man has a job. Joy reminded me that if we heard their stories, we’d hear everything from addiction to mental illness to no safety net to broken relationships to too many bad breaks in a row. And then it struck me that all those stories are normal. Many of us in this sanctuary could tell those same stories. I was reminded that we welcome our guests not because their stories are different from ours or because their stories are the same as ours but because we have been welcomed, with all our stories. We welcome them because, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “encountering another human being is as close to God as [we] may ever get – in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing – which is where God’s Beloved” – Christ – “has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see [Christ]. The point is to see the person standing right in front of [us], who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.”[11]

We are not to be chameleons for Christ. Paul is not telling us we need to know our audience and adjust accordingly in order to sell our beliefs or the church or anything else. Even Paul was not actually all things to all people. In his letters he tells how he was run out of town, beaten by mobs, thrown in jail by people with whom he did not exactly fully connect. We will not be all things to everyone either. But, one quarter of the New Testament came from the hand of someone who treated every person as if he or she mattered to him and to God, and sought to embody that still more excellent way,[12] the way of love.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.

[1] 1 Corinthians 9:22.

[2] “I’m a Woman,” lyrics and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; performed in 1962 by Peggy Lee.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Q0P94wyBYk (1970’s ad for Enjoli perfume).

[4] 1 Corinthians 9:22.

[5] Frank L. Crouch, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2348.

[6] Crouch, ibid.

[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009), p. 96.

[8] Taylor, ibid.

[9] Miroslov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996).

[10] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2015/02/06/why-obama-invoked-the-crusades-in-re-islam-and-terrorism/.

[11] Taylor, p. 102.

[12] Crouch, ibid., 1 Corinthians 12:31.

Choosing Community

blog2008-best-supper1

Lesson: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I actually do know who’s playing, but mostly because of the underinflated football scandal in the news. It’s fair to say that I am both neutral and detached from the outcome of today’s game. On the other hand, Marin County was in the national news last week, as well – the New York Times,[1] NPR and NBC News. Marin holds the dubious honor of having one of the highest rates in California of “personal belief exemptions” for immunizations – that means, people opting out of having their children immunized for personal reasons. This made national news because of six-year-old Rhett Krawitt. Rhett went through over three years of chemotherapy for leukemia, and now he’s in remission, but he has a weakened immune system. It’ll be a while before he’s strong enough to get his vaccinations. In the meantime, he and his family count on the rest of us to be immunized. On Wednesday, a case of measles was confirmed in Marin.[2] Measles was declared eradicated from the U.S. in 2000 – and then people quit immunizing their children. Rhett’s parents are understandably worried.

Read more →

What Does It Mean to “Trust God”?

Martin-Luther-King-Jr_Pastor_HD_768x432-16x9

Lessons: Psalm 62Mark 1:14-20

Part of putting together a bulletin for Sunday morning is finding an image for the cover. This past week I googled “trust in God” to see what images came up, and what came up were dozens of “inspirational” posters and plaques filled with clichés and platitudes that reminded me of something Anne Lamott wrote in a Facebook post not long ago. She said, “There is no one left in my circle who would dare say, brightly, ‘Let go and let God,’ because they know I would come after them with a fork.”[1]

We’ve all heard those vaguely biblical-sounding clichés. “When God closes a door, God opens a window,” or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Neither of these is in the Bible. And then there’s, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” It isn’t in the Bible, and unfortunately, it isn’t true. One poster I found was brief and to the point: “Everything’s gonna be all right. Just trust God.”[2] Maybe some of you take great comfort in these platitudes and that’s OK but I will warn you now, that I, like Anne Lamott, do not.

But then again, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

Read more →

Speak Lord!

1_img0046_copy.jpg__1072x0_q85_upscale

Lesson: 1 Samuel 3:1-20

Our story this morning opens with a quick reminder: The word of the Lord was rare in those days. This is important information that sets up the big surprise when God does speak. Eli is in charge and he’s already in bed. Young Samuel, the apprentice of sorts, is sleeping in the room near the Ark of the Covenant. This is also important because if God were to talk to anyone anywhere, the ancient custom and understanding was that it would be to someone asleep near the ark.

And a well known, somewhat comedic scene ensues. A voice calls to Samuel, wakes him up, and he jumps up to see what his master, Eli, wants. He announces his presence and his willingness to act with “Here I am.” But, we know that it was not Eli who was calling. Three times Samuel runs into Eli’s room like a good lad. And, with what must have been great patience, Eli is roused from slumber three times for what seemed like no reason at all.

But, Eli was perceptive. For if it is not he, himself who is calling young Samuel, who is? Eli has a moment of insight. Eli suggests Samuel stay right where he is the next time he hears this voice – Stay near the ark of the covenant itself – and ask God to reveal God’s self.

I wonder if Eli was able to get back to sleep? Or, did he stay up all night wondering how the evening might play out?

Samuel goes back to bed. Again, God calls. Samuel answers, Speak, your servant is listening. And, God speaks. And, Samuel listens. And, Samuel did not go running to Eli with the news. Speak, for your servant is listening. These are brave words for a young boy to muster. I wonder if he had any idea what might follow?

Speak, for your servants are listening. These are powerful words. They imply agency by both Samuel and God. Samuel in particular asks God to say something directly to him which was a bigger deal back then than it is today. But, it is still an earnest prayer. Then he promises to listen and respond. “Your servant is listening.” A servant is not going to listen and then judge whether he can fit this into his calendar…or not. No, a servant is committed for better or worse to listen and then respond.

And, here’s the thing…it’s almost always worse. I cannot think of a single time that God speaks to a prophet with comforting words that the status quo is just fine and pleasing in God’s sight. Nowhere in scripture does God show up to complement that new way you’re wearing your hair. Lovely, dear. Those glasses – stunning, really. Maybe I’m forgetting a verse or a story, but I’m pretty confident that when God speaks to a prophet it is to get something done or to assure people that everything will be all right, as in future tense, because life is particularly difficult or scary in this moment. In this particular moment, the temple priests are blatantly misbehaving and the people, along with God, are fed up. A loud voice is disturbing Samuel’s sleep, and he’s given the advice to ask the voice to speak.

Now, here’s where it gets a bit tricky and tough for young Samuel. God says listen up! I’m going to hold Eli and his sons accountable for the ways his sons have repeatedly been corrupt in their duties as priests. Eli is aware of the problems but has not stopped them. If you were to read the previous chapter, chapter 2 – and do read this because it’s fascinating – there are two places where Eli is made aware of the problems and of God’s anger, and Eli does not end his sons’ disgraceful behaviors. It is interesting that God decides to make a final judgment to the child in the house. How frequently the truth comes out of the mouths of young people. The boy Samuel is called to speak God’s words, and in this case, to tell his elders that they are all losing their jobs as God’s priests. Ouch. Oh, and you, young man, are the new leader. Surprise! It must have been a long night for Samuel, too: frustrating, confusing, and sleepless.

The next morning it is Eli who searches out Samuel. Samuel greets him with the familiar, Here I am. He is obviously afraid, can you imagine? Eli knows something is wrong and tells Samuel to speak the truth. And Samuel repeats God’s words.

Isn’t it interesting that the word from God is not some miraculous vision, it’s not something out of the ordinary. No amazing vision. No colorful images. God did not say anything particularly new or out of the ordinary. God spoke to Samuel about cleaning house in the name of justice. Samuel knew the problems. Eli knew the problems. It was not out of the blue. God had had enough. God repeats a desire for leaders to treat their people with dignity and mercy. God demands justice and respect return to the temple leadership and thereby the entire community. It all makes sense in context, and they knew it was coming. Yet in the pronouncement is a call for change. And, change is not easy.

Change isn’t easy. Change is difficult. It’s painful. It’s necessary for new growth. Unless you want to stay where you are. But, I think God loves us too much to let us stay the same: both as individuals and as a community.

Many people talk about their personal discernment in similar terms. They feel as if God is calling them, but they are not sure. It takes running around, stumbling around in the dark for awhile before they run into people and situations that can help them tease out what it is they are feelings called to do or say. In many ways we need one another – we depend on friends, family, mentors, and all types of community to help us recognize and respond to God’s initiative.

I really appreciate the way this one scholar summed up this passage: “God’s call comes when we least expect it and often to those we least expect. God is always the God of surprises. We, as the church, need to be like Eli, encouraging everyone to hear the voice that calls them forth into all they are created to be. At the same time, we help each other to tell the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear.”[i] (WP Tanner)

Truth is often hard to hear. I wonder if we could hear God for all of the noise coming at us. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Cornell West, we live in a culture of mass distraction. The media speaks in sound bites that change constantly. Telemarketers call us by name (quote) and know us by the patterns of our shopping and online browsing. Is there a word from the Lord amidst all the noise? Would we be able to recognize God’s speech if it landed in our inbox or whispered in our ears? What woke us up in the middle of the night? Is that God or indigestion? Is that God or should I take another anti-anxiety med?

Some calls are clearer than others, especially in hindsight. Some calls for justice may be clear, but we may not know how we are to respond yet. Sometimes we must say “here I am” for years before we figure out how to say, Speak, Lord! And, often, when God’s voice speaks of justice, it takes a community to respond.

I don’t have to tell you that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a calling. We all know he had a dream. We cannot separate Dr. King from the civil rights movement. One cannot exist without the other. Movements are about people – groups of people coming together because they have all been stirred to action in some way by God’s voice.

Today’s bulletin cover is an image from one of the marches in Selma, Alabama in 1965. What I appreciate about this photo and the new movie, Selma, is the way it shows ordinary people responding together in community to God’s voice. We cannot separate Dr. King from the thousands of people who kept the struggle for equality alive and inching forward. The movie does a nice job of highlighting the many ways leaders came together – not always on the same page – but always with a spirit of prophetic justice to struggle together to create something new – to create change. These people struggled to do God’s will as they struggled to love courageously. And we all of us continue the struggle as we question assumptions about race, work to end hunger and poverty, and strive for justice of the earth. We continue to love and respond to God’s call.

I found a quote by Dr. King towards the end of his life and ministry. When he had decided the Lord was calling him to be even more radical in the ways he loved humanity. He was being cut off from previous avenues of support because he was talking about poverty and ending the war in Vietnam. Here are his words:

As I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart…may persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about he war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, thought I often understand the sources of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.[ii]

The more he followed in God’s path of radical love, the greater his capacity to love. I remember his, as a man who loved somebody – who loved the whole world, and whose words ring true today as a continued call to tear down walls that divide us from one another and especially those that hurt those living in poverty. Dr. King is many things. I take comfort knowing he was challenged to change his whole life. I take comfort knowing God was still speaking to him and it was not easy – not even for him. If the great Dr. King needs to change, then there’s probably a new word for this servant, too. Speak Lord, your servants are listening, and praying and coming together. May we continue to come together in service to one another – to hold one another when we cry and to support one another as we dig around for the truth, and as we strive to live with integrity and love the world radically. May we do so together, in Christ’s name. Amen.

© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015

 

Image Credit: James Barker, Selma AL, 1965

[i] Tanner, Beth. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20].” “Preaching This Week (RCL).” WorkingPreacher.org

[ii] King, Martin Luther Jr., remarks delivered at Riverside Church, New York, April 4, 1967 as printed in The Radical King by Cornel West.

 

Claim the Grace

timthumb

Lessons: Isaiah 43:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

If you arrived after the opening greeting this morning or haven’t yet had a chance to peruse the announcements in your bulletin, our liturgist this morning is the Rev. Dr. Jean Morris, visiting us from Grace Presbyterian Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. And my first cousin. My mother was Canadian – a war bride who married my Californian father just before VE Day. The U.S. Army was putting communications lines up along the Alaska Highway, important to the war effort because of Alaskan oil. My father was a company clerk with the Army Signal Corps, stationed in my mother’s hometown of Edmonton. He met my very Scottish Canadian mother at a young people’s group at the First Presbyterian Church of Edmonton, and she ended up a Californian. My mother’s name, before she married, was Jean Morris.

Our names tell us who we are, and sometimes our names remind us of “whose” we are. If you look at my family tree on my mother’s side, you’ll see many of the same names. Lots of Jeans and Janets and Jessies; lots of Donalds and Johns and Gordans. My name came from my mother’s sister, our Aunt Agnes. I am deeply grateful that when my Aunt Agnes was still a young girl, she told my mother, “If you ever name a child after me, for heaven’s sake, don’t name her Agnes. Name her Joanne,” which was Agnes’ middle name. My name tells me that even though I was born and raised in California, I belong to my Scottish Canadian family, too.

Read more →

The Light Shines in the Darkness

119458432

Lesson: John 1:1-18

Again, happy New Year! I lived in Texas for seven years as a young adult, which was long enough for the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck to become my tradition. Apparently eating special foods on New Year’s Day for luck is a tradition in many cultures. For some it’s pork with sauerkraut; for others, pickled herring; for still others, lentils and sausage. In Spain, folks eat one grape with each toll of the clock at midnight. If you can eat all twelve grapes within the period of the chimes, you’ll have good luck in the New Year.

Good luck in the New Year. We all long for it. When you think about it, “New Year” is a curious fiction, isn’t it? The planet has been spinning through space a lot longer than 2,014 years, and not everyone celebrates the beginning of a new year on January 1st.[1] So when you think about it, the hoopla we make at midnight on December 31st is a tad over the top for one more fairly arbitrary tick of the clock. But this annual ritual allows us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we’re on the threshold of something new and better, whether we call that good luck or blessings or just a better year than last year. At my house, we watched the local news station on New Year’s Eve, waiting for the fireworks display at the San Francisco Ferry Building at midnight. The Channel 4 newsman asked a crowd of young revelers whether 2015 would be better or worse than 2014. They all shrieked, “Better!” Whether it’s an arbitrary tick of the clock or not, we all hope for the fresh start, the resetting of our possibilities for the future that we imagine at New Year’s. Poet Anne Hillman offers this evocative guidance for threshold crossing: Read more →