Monday, April 28, 2014

Healthy Skepticism

1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

If you had been alive that first week after Jesus was crucified, would you have been one of the believers or one of the skeptics?  If you had been a follower of Jesus, would you have believed the stories you were hearing, or would you have needed to see with your own eyes? If you had been one of the ten disciples to whom Jesus appeared on that first night, would you wonder if what you thought you experienced was true? Are there other Biblical stories and claims that do not make sense to your 21st century mind? 

It might be helpful to remember that there are a number of mythic stories in the Bible that were understood by their first hearers, and those who listened to them for centuries later, as stories that were never meant to be factual, but were intended to convey something true about the human experience of God, or about what it means to be human. Some of those stories attempt to answer big, existential questions, like where did we come from? Or why do bad things happen to good people? It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that we began to read the Bible literally. Some miraculous stories have always had more power for people of faith, and it’s some of those stories that drive skeptics away from the faith. I think a healthy skepticism is a good thing. It means that we are using our God-given ability to think and to reason. I can’t imagine that the Creator of the vastness and wonder of space, and the extraordinary diversity of just the part of the world that we can see, and the complexity of the structures that we are still discovering too small for the human eye—I can’t imagine that God would want us to leap blindly to some belief that doesn’t make sense to the incredible minds that we are given. 

So my rule of thumb is: if some part of scripture or the tradition doesn’t make sense to me after applying the tools of careful reading, the wisdom of my peers, my own experience, and thoughtful reasoning, I think of it as the bones that are left after I eat a piece of chicken. The bones are still chicken, but they are not nourishing or helpful to me. Sometimes I will find that something that has not made sense becomes crystal clear when the tradition is discarded and I read through a new lens. But that’s a topic for another day. Today, I want to affirm any healthy skepticism you have had about claims of the Christian faith. I am grateful to John’s gospel for preserving this story of healthy skepticism and doubt. Good for Thomas! He’s the kind of guy who would proclaim that the emperor has no clothes—to mix parables. And we need clear-eyed skeptics to keep our faith and church real and relevant. 

So here’s the bottom line for me. I don’t need to believe in anything that scripture or the faith claims about Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus, I just need to believe that what he said was true and trust that it will work in my life. For example, I don’t need to believe in the virgin birth to follow Jesus. I do need to believe what Jesus said about loving my neighbor as much as I love myself, meaning I believe your child needs as good an education as mine does, and I will support public education. I don’t have to believe that Jesus could turn water into wine, but I do believe that the plain, ordinary gifts that I offer can become beautiful, healing, joy-filled, and celebratory through the power of love. I might not be able to wrap my brain around whatever happened in the resurrection, but I can be so committed to loving God and my neighbor and to the cause of justice, that I am willing to pour out my life every day even to the point of risking my life.

The amazing part of today’s reading, that gives me hope when I doubt, is Jesus’ willingness to show Thomas what he showed the other disciples. That’s the generosity of God’s love showing. But for some of us, that still may be in the realm of the unbelievable. So I am grateful for every demonstration of the possibility of new life that I encounter. It may be as ordinary as new leaves on the trees or tulips bursting out of the cold dark earth. When I have failed in some way, big or small, I am grateful for the reality of butterflies (that decompose in their cocoons and emerge a different animal) and sunrises (after long dark nights) and the new life that springs up through volcanic ash. I am grateful for any sign of new life, no matter how odd it may be. So let me tell you a true story. When our son was in high school, his girlfriend’s mother worked in a veterinarian’s office. A couple brought their dog, Turkey, to the vet to have it put to sleep because it dug in their yard. The vet didn’t have the heart to put down a beautiful dog for such a petty reason. And the dog was beautiful! The vet had extra kennel space and decided to try to find the dog a new home. In the meantime, the vet had a hole in his schedule and decided to clean the dog’s teeth. During the procedure, under anesthesia, the dog died. The vet did everything he could to save Turkey. He did CPR and gave him mouth to snout resuscitation, but nothing worked. Sadly, the vet and his assistant zipped the dog into a burial bag. Just as they were putting the bag into the freezer, the dog woke up! Amazed, the vet kept the dog several days to check for brain damage, and finally released him to the home his assistant found—our home. We just couldn’t call such a beautiful dog Turkey. Duke, the wonder dog, lived with us for many years and was our beloved friend. If he were here today, he would quietly sit next to you and put his beautiful head in your lap. 

As skeptical as I sometimes am, and that’s a good thing, it is also good for me to encounter realities that are a mystery to me and to simply hold that mystery as a sign of God’s presence and love. As we sing our closing hymn, let it be about believing what does make sense to you and holding a space to be surprised by the mystery.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Sermons: "In the Breaking of the Bread" and "I Believe in Resurrection"

Easter Sunrise Service: In the Breaking of the Bread

Matthew 28:1-10
John 21:1-14

We have gathered very early this morning in this beautiful space to celebrate the resurrection. We have come to meet the risen Christ. I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in memorial observances. I want to meet my Lord on this seashore (or the bank of this bay). I don’t want to experience an earthquake or find angels here, or be confused about an empty tomb and have to go tell people something they aren’t going to believe anyway. But I do want to hear Jesus call my name. 

I like the second story, the one where Jesus cooks fish and reminds the disciples of several miracles they have shared with him. If we’d read a little father, we would have heard a conversation about what the disciples could expect next, about an uncertain future in which Jesus would be with his disciples only through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s our reality. We experience the presence of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit—and in the breaking of the bread, and in the love we have for one another, and sometimes in our prayer or in our dreams, and in remembering the miracles we have experienced . . . and we meet Jesus when we least expect it—when we are going about our daily work and he catches our attention. We can’t count on these chance encounters, but we can count on meeting the risen Christ when we gather together and break bread. 

Surprisingly, when I have met the risen Christ in community at the table, when I have been fed by love and forgiveness, when I have seen Christ in your eyes, when I know that I belong and am accepted just as I am, then I can go tell people something they might not believe anyway: that mistakes, and failures, and brokenness, and even death are not the end of the story. No matter how we mess up our lives, God is faithful and loves us—to and beyond the end. No matter what, God loves you. And the good news, no, the great news is that God offers us new life every day. How can we not tell people such great news? How can we keep from singing our thanks and praise?

Easter Service: I Believe in Resurrection

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
John 20:1-18

On that first Easter Sunday, a woman named Mary got up very early in the morning, if she slept at all, packed up spices and cloths, and made her way in the dark to the garden tomb where her teacher and friend had been laid two days before—on the day we now call Good Friday. Only two days. Easter dawned in the midst of the sleeplessness and disorientation of mourning. Is it any wonder that Mary and the other disciples seemed so dazed and confused? No wonder they did not comprehend what they saw and heard. Nothing seems real in the middle of such grief. Deep in grief we hope that we will awake from the dreadful nightmare, but we also know with certainty that nothing will ever be the same. Easter dawns in the midst of grief and loss. The memorial service in most Christian churches is called a service of death and resurrection. In our deepest time of grief, the church speaks a word of hope. We proclaim the resurrection. We are reminded that our souls are born to be eternal and that our dying precedes our rising to eternal life.

God has revealed the pattern of death and resurrection in our earthly life—a pattern evident in the natural order—in the cycles of days and months and years, in the season of planting and harvest. Easter dawns in the midst of grief if we dare to hope in the God of eternal life.

That first Easter came at the end of a mob frenzied trial, brutal violence and an execution. This year we are painfully aware that all is not well in our world, and yet because of the resurrection, we dare to hope. We live in a violent world, addicted to violence on school grounds, in work places, in public squares, on battlefields and even in our entertainment. On Good Friday we fixed our gaze on the horror of our human penchant for killing those who offend us—and heard Jesus offer forgiveness, commanding those who would follow him to forgive and love even in the face of betrayal. We heard Jesus tell Peter to put his sword away and Jesus reached out to heal a soldier who has come to arrest him. Even in the nightmare of Good Friday, Jesus dared to hope in the God of life and love and he was not disappointed. God wills life, even when we will death. Our darkness is no match for God’s light. Easter dawns in the midst of violence if we dare to hope in the way of peace.
When my oldest son was little, he would hold a birthday gift or Christmas present in his hands and say with delight, “I hope what it is.” Real hope is not necessary when everything is going right. When we are healthy and all of life is good, we don’t need hope. Hope is what keeps us going when everything falls apart, when the news is not good, when our hearts are breaking, when we cannot imagine a future. The apostle Paul wrote:

In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:24-27)

Hope counts on God seeing through our darkness, breathing when we cannot breathe, and loving us—sometimes loving us in spite of what we have done. Hope counts on God’s goodness when human goodness fails, when our resources are not enough, when everything crumbles around us. In the most horrific or chaotic times, hope counts on God’s future for our souls, our families, our communities, and our world.

Hope trusts that God will bless our efforts to live a life that is surrendered to God’ s compassion and love for those who are the most vulnerable, and God’s requirement for just treatment of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. Hope gives us the courage to follow Jesus and to commit those whom we love most to his care.

We need to know that God’s love conquers even death so that we can have hope for resurrection in every part of our lives—not just a beginning again of the same old thing, but the transformation of resurrection. We need the sins in our past to die so that we can begin again, and this time, do things differently. We need our addictions to die so that we can live a new life free of the fears we try to drown by self-medicating. We even need our successes to pass away so that we can keep our eyes on the present moment. We need resurrection to redeem the many images of God we have created over the centuries by projecting our own pathologies onto the Creator and Sustainer of all that is. We need the resurrection to give us hope that we can redeem old structures and create new ways for people to live in peace and share the abundance of creation.

On that first Good Friday, one future died. Easter dawned with the promise of a new future—one that depended on an assurance that death cannot trump God’s love, and a growing awareness that the future of the Kingdom of God rested in the hands of a few disciples empowered by the risen Christ. The same is true today. The future of the Kingdom of God rests in our hands—in spite of our grief, in spite of our fear, in spite of our failures, in spite of our feeling that we are not worthy or prepared for such a task. I believe in resurrection and a new future because I have experience new life and I expect it in the future. The future of the Kingdom of God rests in our hands—yours and mine. Because you see, the God of all creation dares to hope in us. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Blessed Are the Whistle Blowers

Psalm 69:1-18, 30-36
Matthew 5:10-12

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Righteousness is one of those words that appears often in scripture, but the meaning seems nebulous to us. I think in our culture it sometimes freighted by our individualistic sense of needing to be right—we have a clearer picture of what it means to be self-righteous, than we do what it means to be righteous before God and our neighbor. Righteousness in the final Beatitude means justice or creating right relationship with God and neighbor. Each Beatitude before this one describes a step in rectifying broken social relationships and systems. Those who have been oppressed are called to claim their dignity and inheritance. Oppressors are called to repentance and acts of mercy. The restoration of justice must be more strongly desired than the safety of submission and compliance or the fruits of power. Above all, those who would co-create a just world with God, must be pure in their motives and peaceful in word and action.
The Beatitudes are a pattern for creating social change. We can see the pattern in the peaceful resistance that was the hallmark of the civil rights movement in America, and in the truth and reconciliation movement in South Africa. We also know that even the most peaceful resistance can elicit a violent response which lays bare the brutality behind oppressive systems. The culminating Beatitude warns Kingdom workers that they will in all likelihood face persecution and perhaps even death. It was true for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. It was true for a young man facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square and for Rachel Corey, a young woman from our state who tried to block Israeli bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes and paid with her life. It was true for Archbishop Oscar Romero and four American churchwomen, two of them Maryknoll nuns, martyred in El Salvador. It has been true for whistle blowers throughout history who have revealed corruption and the abuse of power. And it was true for Jesus. As we prepare to enter Holy Week next Sunday, I want to be very clear that I do not believe that the God of peace sent Jesus to die for my sins or your sins. I believe he was killed for speaking truth to power and for his commitment to co-creating the Kingdom of God. Jesus was killed by human beings for very human motives. Jesus warned his disciples that following his teachings may cost them their lives. 
The good news is that love wins in the end. That’s the God part. God’s love wins. It is more powerful that greed, or power, or evil, or death. Anyone can believe statements about Jesus. It’s another thing to believe what Jesus said and to live it. Following Jesus can be dangerous, but it’s the best way I know to create lasting justice and peace.

Let me read the final Beatitude from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message. Peterson leaves out the connection to neighbor in his paraphrase—I’m going to add it:
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God [and your neighbor] provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

Those prophets and witnesses claimed that God’s love is for everyone; God’s provision is for everyone; the goodness of Creation is for everyone—it is the inheritance of every human being. And some of those prophets and witnesses paid with their lives—and some changed the hearts of rulers and systems like segregation and apartheid. I keep the season of Lent and Holy Week as an invitation to consider seriously the cost of discipleship. I am so often aware of my own lack of commitment and courage as well as my complicity and comfort in the status quo. I’ll tell you that I believe with all my heart that love wins. But it’s like the old story of the tight rope walker who dazzled crowds by walking a wire stretched high above the churning waters of Niagara Falls. After performing several spectacular stunts, he asked the amazed crowd below if they believed that he could push a wheelbarrow across the Falls. The crowd cheered its affirmation. Then the tight rope walker extended his invitation, “If you believe I can do, who will get in the wheelbarrow?” That’s my challenge during Lent and Holy Week—to put my belief that love wins into action; to risk following Jesus and getting into trouble. God, grant us courage!



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Divine DNA

James 3:13-18
Matthew 5:9

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

My friend Rich Horton once said, “Imagine that! People who make peace share God’s DNA.” Right? Children share their parents’ DNA. I think there is something profound in that statement.  I was the camp pastor for a senior high winter camp several years ago. Watching the teenagers play their first ice breaker game, I looked at one girl and said to myself, “She has to be a Bofferding.” The Bofferdings had four children and attended Fairwood UMC, where Steve and I raised our children. The oldest Bofferding girl was one of our daughter’s very best friends. I hadn’t seen the family in a number of years, but there was no mistaking the family resemblance. In a few minutes this young woman turned around and I could see her last name printed on her jacket—Bofferding. There was something else about being a Bofferding. Their very wise mother, Diana, taught her girls and their friends that they were princesses. Princesses had many privileges, one of which was to be trusted to be kind, and thoughtful, and to do the right thing. Therefore, they had tremendous freedom to make choices. But, if they their behavior was harmful to themselves or another person, they would lose the privilege of being a princess and have to abide by very strict rules. I assume that the youngest, who was a boy, was treated as a prince.  Even if she hadn’t been wearing her name on her jacket, by the end of the retreat, her behavior over the weekend proved that she was a Bofferding princess.
My friend Rich’s observation that peacemakers share God’s DNA implies that to be identified as God’s child, we would be known by our behavior as peacemakers. Every parent knows that there are temporary measures we can take to achieve a few moments of peace, but to affect a lasting peace, all parties must be content that their needs have been met. No one can feel wronged or betrayed. No one can suffer loss at the expense of someone else’s gain.
Remember how often an angel’s greeting to a frightened human being was “Peace be with you,” or “Do not be afraid.” According to Luke’s gospel, an angel choir greeted shepherds with tidings of peace on the night of Jesus’ birth. Peace is God’s desire and God’s offer to humans. But Jesus did not live in a time of peace. Jesus’ audience knew well the injustice and oppression of living in an occupied territory. Enmity between tribes and nations in the Middle East was as real then as it is now. Enough of what Jesus said in his lifetime gained him the reputation of being a zealous Zionist who threatened Rome’s rule, for which the penalty was crucifixion. And yet, Jesus would not resort to violence, even to save his life. He may have turned tables in the Temple and confronted injustice and unethical behavior, but he also fed people and healed the sick. He offered forgiveness and restored people to their right minds. The core of his ministry was reconciling people with their Creator and their community. His actions caused Jesus to be identified by those who followed him, the gospel writers, and even a Roman soldier at the foot of the cross as “the son of God.”
In my lifetime, there have been more years of war than of peace. The last few years have seemed to be particularly violent around the world. Our culture seems to be addicted to violence. I can’t think of a time when peace seemed more unattainable and perhaps na├»ve. But our souls long for peace. Don’t we long to bring our men and women in the armed forces home? How long can we live with the destruction to bodies and minds and families? Don’t we long for peaceful settlements of international disagreements? I can vote and write letters, but I’ll tell you, I feel pretty helpless in making international peace. I pray for our president and leaders in our government and military, and for their counterparts around the world.
Is there any way for us, as children of God, to begin to build a more peaceful world from our little patch of ground? I think there are a number of ways that we can learn to be peacemakers in our homes, our schools, our workplaces and our community. It starts with love—not the romantic kind—but the kind of love that wants the best for the other person. The kind of love that respects the complete otherness of the other person (as in not just like me, not mine to do with as I choose, not a reflection of me, and not a screen on which I can project my own issues). The kind of love that respects the complete otherness of the other person and understands that the other person is also God’s beloved. The kind of love that acknowledges that the other person has the same needs that we do. We will see things differently because we are are unique creations, but we all have valid needs. If we start with love and respect, we at least have a beginning.
Then we have to learn how to communicate in ways that are non-violent. There are resources available here on Vashon to learn non-violent communication. After I studied the book Non-Violent Communication with a church group, I realized how much I needed to learn, and how effective being able to communicate clearly and respectfully can be. You all probably know way more than I do about being peacemakers because you live on an island. I know there is a group on the island that wants to learn how to mediate disagreements in a peaceful manner.
And I know that you have learned from an expert interim pastor how to love one another even when you disagree. There are commitments that you make to one another to honor the integrity of this faith community.
Learning to make peace requires so much more commitment and expertise than learning to make war. I know that’s true in families. If we start with the smallest segment of culture, the nuclear family, we know how much easier it is to pick a fight, escalate an argument, and start a cold war than it is to make peace. It’s also the place where we learn how painful a lack of peace can be. Don’t we long for peace where our souls are at home? Home is where we learn the truth of our connectedness—we share the same DNA.
I want to share with you one of my favorite poems from the book Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. The poem was written by Hadiz, the most beloved Persian poet who lived from 1320-1389.  Daniel Ladinsky, the editor of Love Poems from God, writes of Hafiz, “He is rightfully called ‘The Tongue of the Invisible,’ for through his works he continues to sing beautiful and wild love songs to this world from God.”[1]
“I Have Come into this World to See This”

I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height
of their arc of anger

because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His—the Christ’s, our

I have come into this world to see this: all creatures hold hands as
we pass through this miraculous existence we share on the way
to even a greater being of soul,

a being of just ecstatic light, forever entwined and at play
with Him.

I have come into this world to hear this:

every song the earth has sung since it was conceived in
the Divine’s womb and began spinning from
His wish,

every song by wing and fin and hoof,
every song by hill and field and tree and woman and child,
every song of stream and rock,

every song of tool and lyre and flute,
every song of gold and emerald
and fire,

every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity
to know itself as
part of God;

for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching—
only imbibing the glorious Sun
will complete us.

I have come into the world to experience this:

men so true to love
they would rather die before speaking
an unkind word,

men so true their lives are His covenant—
the promise of

I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men’s hands
even at the height of
their arc of

because we have finally realized
there is just one flesh

we can wound.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they know that there is only one flesh that can be wounded. Blessed are the peacemakers. They have found within themselves and the other the image of the Holy One. They will be called children of God. May it be so for us.

[1] Daniel Ladinsky, ed., Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Compass), 152.