Monday, February 22, 2016

Chicks and Stones

Psalm 27
Luke 13:31-35

In the reading that we just heard from Luke, Jesus chooses to go to Jerusalem, knowing that there are threats on his life.  The gospel writers tell us that Jesus was executed for the sin of blasphemy because he claimed to speak for God.  He also criticized the established religious doctrine of his day.  He was compassionate to the poor.  He healed the sick.  He reached out to untouchables, zealots, and collaborators.  He exposed both religious and secular power structures for what they were through his words, like the parable of the talents, and actions, like overturning money changing tables in the temple.  Jesus identified himself with the prophets before him who also dared to speak for God.  He knew their fate well.  Most prophets faced the wrath of the people who heard them, and many were killed.  Jesus will meet the same fate.

Prophecy is dangerous business.  We often think of prophecy as telling the future.  But the biblical prophets were critics of their times and cultures.  They named the excesses and destructive practices of their day.  They equated their anger with God’s anger.  They called the people of their times back to the virtue of kindness and the principles of equity and justice.  Prophets interpreted the culture and clarified God’s desire for the wellbeing of all creation.  After their indictment of the culture, they always ended with God’s desire to gather, restore, and bless.

Jesus’ life is already in danger when some Pharisees warn him to run away from Herod.  Instead he turns his face towards Jerusalem with a lament.  Why do the people pick up stones to kill when all he wants is to gather them together as a mother hen gathers her chicks?  What made the temple leaders and the citizens of Jerusalem pick up stones instead of allowing themselves to be gathered and blessed?  What makes us pick up stones instead of gathering all the chicks?

Before I write a sermon, I look in my file to see what I may have said before, what stories I’ve told, so that I don’t repeat myself.  Many years ago one congregant told me I didn’t need to worry about telling stories a second time.  She said most people don’t remember what I say from Sunday to Sunday.  I think that was meant to be reassuring.  The last time I preached on this scripture was also the first time, twelve years ago.  I used some stories from the news to illustrate how those who speak on behalf of the oppressed and act as peacekeepers in the Middle East continue to be killed along with the people they try to protect.  Twelve years later there are so many more stories to tell.  But not all stones are militarized weapons.  There are many ways to divide, exclude, and oppress.  Twelve years ago, on the second Sunday of Lent, I quickly added this paragraph to my sermon:

A little over a week from now, a United Methodist minister, the Rev. Karen Damman, will go on trial for being in a loving and committed partnership with another woman.  Together they are raising a son.  Her church stands by her and affirms her call to ministry.  But the judicial council has required a new trial, this time with jury members who will pledge to uphold the Discipline, as if the first jurors did not comply with their ordination vows to uphold all of the Discipline.  I wanted to let you to know that I will be there as a silent witness on her behalf and on behalf of my other gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in ministry who serve the church with amazing gifts and graces.  Like the psalmist, they desire nothing more than to dwell in the house of the Lord, to behold the beauty of God, and to inquire in God’s temple.  I want you to know that I will be there.  I know that we may disagree on this issue and I will always respect your opinion and hope that we can be in dialogue.  I hope that we can talk about this issue that affects approximately one tenth of our population.  If you would like to be a silent witness, I have materials for you, if will see me after church.  I understand that we expect people on both sides of this issue to fly to Seattle to be present.  Several of my clergy friends are part of the jury pool.  I intended to tell you that one of my clergy friends has been asked to be a peace keeper.  A peace keeper!  But five minutes before I left the house this morning, I received a call asking me to be a peacekeeper as well, and I agreed.  There is a need for more peacekeepers, so if any of you would be willing to serve in that role please see me after church.  I ask you to pray for our church, to pray for people on both sides of this issue, to pray for each other.

Because we are going to consider what it would mean for us to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, I’d like to share my experience of that trial with you.  I was trained as one of about 20 peacekeepers along with two other people from the small congregation I served.  You’ve met Ben Weber, who was our pianist.  The other was Ann Wiltse, one of the first victim advocates in the United Methodist Church.  The peacekeepers were asked to help set up the courtroom in the fellowship hall of Bothell United Methodist Church.  Elaine Stanovski stood in the middle of that room that usually rang with laughter at coffee hours and potlucks and lamented that the church had become a court.  While I put signs on the seats designating the actors in the trial, Ben found the piano and began to play “Sanctuary.”  You know the words, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.  With thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary for you.”
We watched as some of my clergy colleagues tried to act as a shield to prevent the trial from beginning.  They were arrested and taken away.  That was where I had expected to be.  Instead, I was inside as a gatekeeper, asking journalists for their phones and cameras, safeguarding their equipment and trying to soothe ruffled feathers.  Some of my colleagues were chosen as jurors.  The trial lasted for several days.  We prayed, provided as much hospitality as we could, and made peace cranes by the hundreds.
The verdict was delivered.  Rev. Dammann was found guilty of being a lesbian, but not guilty of practice incompatible with Christian teaching.  She remained in good standing as a minister.  There were those who were deeply disappointed by the ruling, and those who were jubilant.  Together they took communion—the participants in the trial, those who came to observe, and the journalists who reported.  Some wept at the communion rail and others wrapped their arms around them.  After all the stones had been cast in the courtroom, the people were gathered.  All except one young man who could not bring himself to eat at the table with people with whom he disagreed so vehemently.  Clint Stanovski, one of the peacekeepers, sat with him on the steps of the church to hear his lament.  
At the end of the trial, some of the peacekeepers drove participants back to their cars parked at other area churches as overflow.  Ben Weber drove a Jewish woman who was the secretary of a neighboring Lutheran church to her car.  She commented that she had worked in a Christian church for many years, but the communion service was the first time she had seen it being the Church.  We are the body of Christ when we gather all the chicks under our wings.  


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Identity Theft

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Luke 4:1-13

     Identity theft gets a lot of press right now, but it is nothing new.  I think it is the operative dynamic of the gospel story of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.  

     In the chapter just before our gospel reading, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John.  As Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus hears that he is not only God’s beloved child, but that God delights in him.  His public ministry has not started.  In fact we know nothing about his life before his baptism except for the birth narratives and a short story from his twelfth year.  But before Jesus has done any miracles or preached any sermons, God names him “beloved son” and is pleased with him.

       Then, Luke tells us, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  Not in the way that we usually think of temptation.  In the gospel, the tempter attacks Jesus’ very identity.  Using the scriptures from which Jesus has learned of God’s love and abiding presence, the devil dares Jesus to prove his belovedness by saying “If . . . .”  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. . . . If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.”  The Psalm we just heard promises that God’s special ones will be protected by harm by God’s angels.  “Are you really a special one?” the devil insinuates.  The tempter even tries to steal God’s identity.  Looking out over the kingdoms of the world, the tempter whispers, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, will worship me, all this will be yours.”  

        “If” is such a subtle word.  “If” calls into question.  “If you really are the Son of God,” implies that maybe Jesus is the Son of God, but maybe not.  How could Jesus know for sure?  Maybe he heard God say those precious words, but maybe he only imagined it.  “If” demands proof.  “If” can be a subtle destroyer.  

        This essential identity theft is not unique to Jesus.  We live in a world that questions our identity all the time.  And if it’s not a message we get from others, we tempt ourselves to question our eternal value as God’s beloved children.  If I were more . . . . If I were richer, smarter, happier, taller, shorter, thinner, healthier.  If I had more . . . . time, money, better health, more energy, a partner—can I tell you how very unsubtle the message was to me when I was growing up that I wasn’t enough as a person.  I needed a spouse—in the words from the movie Jerry Maguire—to complete me.  I got married when I was 19 years old to the second person I dated because I bought that lie.  For some reason we feel that we need to be more than we are to be enough.  That is the temptation that steals our identity.  Brothers and sisters, you heard it when you were baptized and we hear it again every time we baptize someone into the household of God.  You are beloved.  You are a child of God.  You are a child of God’s promises and God delights in you.

        In the wilderness, in response to the tempter, Jesus claimed scriptures to maintain God’s true identity and his own.  I encourage you to do the same.  Learn the promises of God starting with Jesus’ responses and the Psalm we heard this morning.  About that Psalm—the 91st Psalm:  the Psalmist doesn’t dare us to jump from high places so that we can experience the thrill of being rescued.  Nor is the Psalmist inviting us to stomp all over lions and snakes as a litmus test for being one of God’s special ones.  In the exaggeration of hyperbole, the poet sings of God’s abiding presence and protection of our souls.  Let me tell you the story of Bill Bloom, a volunteer member of the ski patrol, who was buried in an avalanche.  Because God had previously rescued him from addictions to drugs and alcohol through a 12 step program, he turned to prayer and thanksgiving for having had a second chance in life.  And when his mind began to fade and he knew that he would most likely die, he prayed the serenity prayer:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.  Whether he lived or died, he trusted God with his life—with his eternal spirit.  He knew that neither danger nor death could separate him from God’s presence or love.  He was safe, even if he died.  Bill was rescued after being buried for 40 minutes.  Common wisdom would not have expected him to survive after 15 minutes.  He lived to tell his story—and what he tells is that his experience of God’s love and protection would have been true either way.

       Jesus chose to anchor his identity in God’s words at his baptism.  He was the Son of God, the beloved.  God’s pleasure rested on him.  He did not need to fear anything—not even starvation.  He did not need to control anything—he didn’t need political power to have authority.  He did not need to prove that God would always be with him, even in mortal danger.

        When we know ourselves to be beloved, we do not have to earn God’s pleasure—we already have it.  We don’t have to fear anything—we are free to be courageous and bold, knowing that nothing can separate us from God’s love or God’s presence, even death.  Being a beloved child of God does not mean that we will never be in danger, or know sorrow, or experience pain.  It means that none of those things can change our identity as beloved children of God, nor can they separate us from God’s love and presence.

       This morning we sang one of my favorite songs from the TaizĂ© community, “Nada Te Turbe” (“Nothing Can Trouble”).  “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.  Those who seek God shall never go wanting.  Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten, God alone fills us.”  The original Spanish words can more nearly be translated:  Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.  Those who have God have no need.  Only God suffices, or God alone is enough.

       You are God’s son or daughter.  You are beloved.  In you God is well pleased.  You are enough because you belong to God.  And God will always be more than enough to keep you safe.  That is your identity, beloved.  Don’t let anyone—not even yourself—tempt you to think otherwise.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Inspiration and Perspiration

Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-43a
Transfiguration Sunday

Luke begins this story with these introductory words, “On the eighth day.”  This is an interpretive statement by Luke.  In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, the event happens “six days later.”  By the time Luke writes his gospel, the eighth day has developed into a significant theological symbol for the beginning of the new creation and a return to paradise.  We’ve talked about the significance of the eighth day before.
The resurrection happened on the first day of the week
Early Christians worshiped on Saturday evening, the Sabbath, but they met together to sing hymns, pray, and celebrate the Lord’s supper before they went to work on the first day of the week in recognition of the Lord’s rising on the first day.  It was called by early Christian writers the eighth day, celebrating the new creation.  Eventually the practice of Sabbath and eighth day worship were combined by Christians and Sunday became the Lord’s Day.  Early baptismal fonts were made in the shape of an octagon with baptism symbolizing dying to the old and rising as a new creation.  
So Luke begins his transfiguration story significantly “on the eighth day.”   On this day, the Law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) meet with Jesus and he is bathed in glory.  This is a pre-image of the resurrected Christ witnessed by Peter, James, and Andrew.  

The two halves of this story, the transfiguration and the healing of the boy, are tied together in all three synoptic gospels.  The mountaintop experience is so powerful that the disciples would love to stay there, to build a place of worship, to remain in that ecstatic moment.  There is something wonder-filled in that experience of God’s presence that makes us long for more.  To be inspired, to breathe in (that’s what inspired means), to breathe in God’s presence, to be filled with light and awe and joy and wonder is an amazing thing.  Celtic spirituality calls that the thin space where we transcend the here and now and enter momentarily into the eternal, the Divine, where we see beyond.  The purpose of prayer and worship is to inspire us, to allow us to breathe in God’s presence.  But that in-filling of God’s presence by the Holy Spirit, is not only to bless us.  We are inspired, we breathe in God’s love so that we can breathe out God’s peace and healing.
Breath is an important metaphor in the gospels.  There are two other breath words that we use.  Expire and perspire.  Expire means to breathe out.  Perspire, means that our breath fuels work that makes us sweat.  The word “perspire” derives from a middle French word meaning to blow.  Jesus’ prayer life fueled his work among the people.  And it may have been the source of his frustration with his disciples and the people gathered around the child with epilepsy that Jesus meets when he comes down the mountain.  They were merely exhaling when they needed to take a deep breath of God’s Spirit and blow with all their might.
I’m aware of how silly that might sound—a little like the Big Bad Wolf.  But we know that physical exertion causes us to breathe hard and sweat.  The genius of lived Christianity is that it is like genius in every other field—one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.  It’s hard work to live in community.  It’s hard work to practice forgiveness and compassion.  It’s really hard work to find solutions for big societal problems like homelessness or lack of access to medical care.  It feels impossible to solve the issues of poverty and racism.  Jesus is frustrated because his disciples feel powerless and either haven’t tried or haven’t tried very hard.  The fact that we have treatments for epilepsy today is a result of people working hard, expending time and vast amounts of energy to find effective medications and procedures.  
Genius requires vast amounts of perspiration fueled by inspiration.  Jesus often went away to spend time in prayer.  Jesus could pray so much longer than his poor, distracted disciples.  In the gospels, whenever Jesus went away to prayer, they either fell asleep if they were with him, or came looking for him because they thought he’d been gone too long.  It’s hard for most of us to imagine praying in the way that Jesus did.  Even pastors find it hard to go away to listen to God because there always seems to be something more pressing to do.  It’s easy to say that we are too busy or don’t have time.  I liked the bumper sticker that is on the cover of your bulletin:  "I don't have time" is the grown-up version of "The dog ate my homework".  St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”  Jesus found his purpose and his power in prayer.  When he finished praying he moved back into ministry—and not easy ministry.  He was ready to meet people in their desperation and deepest need.  He was ready to challenge destructive assumptions about his culture, both religious and secular.  
Truth be told, most of us are much more inclined to build a shrine and worship than to keep watch and pray and follow Jesus into the broken heart of the city, to touch and heal and speak words of forgiveness and love, to challenge and speak truth to power, to see a world reborn in which the treasure in every human life is honored and the values of God’s Kingdom are lived.
I understand why we crave mountaintop experiences.  I have known people who chased worship experiences looking for that spiritual high.  I also understand why I resist being as faithful in my prayer life as Jesus was in his.  I have many good excuses!  Jesus modeled a committed prayer life that enabled profound, life-changing ministry.  Our personal prayer and corporate worship should inspire us—so that we breathe in God’s love.  It should
  • remind us of who we are, the baptized and sent,
  • lift the world before God,
  • ask for wisdom and courage in seeking justice and mercy,
  • reconnect us as the body of Christ
  • and send us out into the world to do the hard work of ministry.

Then we need to perspire, to blow the peace and healing of God into the world with power.  We need to go and do.  It occurred to me that we have already looked at our community and identified the need to support middle school youth.  We have hired an amazing coordinator, Ted Packard, to develop the program.  Ted is working hard.  He needs our support.  This is a secular program, which means that we are not going to evangelize these young people.  But we’ve designed and funded this program because we are concerned about their welfare.  We need to support them with prayer.  We have four youth right now.  Would you be willing to pray for one of them every day during the season of Lent that begins this Wednesday?  I would love it if each young person had at least three people committed to praying for them.  One of the youth is our own Nik Eliason.  I have the other student’s names on a list in my pocket.  If you are willing to pray, see me at the end of the service or call me during the week.  None of these youth have the serious health concerns of the boy in this morning gospel reading, but it’s not easy to navigate life when you’re in middle school.  They all have their challenges.  
The other issue that we are working on right now is racism.  There is a group of people who are concerned about racism on the island that is meeting tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. in the primary room.  Pray and then join them if you can to do the hard work of finding solutions.  And then keep praying.  
The genius of the Christian faith is that God inspires us so that we can do the work of healing our world.  Let’s take a deep breath and blow with all our might.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Rethink Church

Jeremiah 1:4-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

       What on earth happened in Nazareth?  What turned a nice bunch of synagogue folks into a murderous mob?  There they were all cleaned up and dressed in their Sabbath best sitting in their accustomed places in the synagogue, just like you all here.  But by the end of the service they were mad as hornets, intent on hurling this young man raised in their church over a cliff.  What on earth happened in Nazareth that day?  I’ll tell you what happened.  Jesus read from the scriptures and then told them what it meant.
       The good folks of Nazareth came to praise God for their blessings and pray.  The mothers may have taken a little extra time with their daughters’ hair that morning.  Jesus was back in town.  That nice young man who was always to kind to everyone.  He was a skilled carpenter, he could support a family.  Not a bad match if Jesus married your daughter.  “Remember how he loved the Torah?” the men smiled and nodded.  He was such a studious young man.  “I hear he’s a pretty good teacher.”  “Have you heard the stories about him?” the young people watched him with awe.  People said he had cured the sick in Capernaum.  “Do you suppose he’ll do that here?” they asked one another.  “My father says that’s nonsense,” from one.  “My brother says it’s true.  He was there when it happened,” from another.  
       And then the head of the synagogue began to pray.  When he took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from its place and handed it to Jesus, you could hear a pin drop.  Jesus read the beloved words of Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . . .   
       And then he rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And then he said something strange and wonderful.  He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He announced Jubilee.  And he looked into their faces and he knew.  Right then and there, he knew.  They expected him to make them proud, to do whatever they asked him to do, and to fit neatly back in their community.  And then he heard the words, “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?”  Only moments ago he had accepted the mantle of the prophet speaking Isaiah’s words.  He had identified himself with God’s vision for a healed world.  He had claimed God’s anointing for the transformative work of setting people free from poverty and oppression.  He had powerful work to do, but his neighbors saw only Joseph’s son.  
       And so using their own scriptures, Jesus explained why he could not be a prophet in Nazareth.  They couldn’t see past his past and into his future.  They couldn’t see God in him, only Joseph.  They wouldn’t hear God’s desire for freedom for all of humanity from him because they taught him how to be a good son and a good Jew.  These scriptures, these promises, this young man belonged to them—and he refused to go along.  Jesus chose the stories of the prophet Elijah and the gentile widow at Zarephath in Sidon and the prophet Elisha who healed the Syrian Naaman of leprosy to reveal God’s greater vision of salvation.  God cared not only for the poor in Nazareth, God cared for the poor in Zarephath.  God’s wholeness belonged to the people of Syria as surely as to the nation of Israel.  And suddenly they hated him.  Who did Jesus think he was?!  They were filled with rage and they literally drove him out of town intent on murder.  
       Why?  Because Jesus identified himself and the Spirit of God with work outside of the congregation instead of inside.  He named the woundedness and brokenness in the status quo and claimed God’s desire for the healing that comes from the end of poverty, blindness, and oppression.
       Who does Jesus think he is?  Son of Joseph or Son of God?  The answer makes people angry—furious.  That’s not a bad question for us either.  Like Isaiah before him, Jesus was rethinking the mission of God’s people.  What if we rethink what it means to be church?  What if church was something that we did during the week instead of a place that we go on Sunday?  What would happen if we claimed God’s anointing and announced Jubilee?  What if we had news that really was good for poor people?  What if we worked to release people from captivity?  What if we helped people see a new way?  What if we freed people by ending oppression?   I’ll tell you what.  We’ll make some people very angry.  You can’t do that kind of work and not make people angry.  You can’t change the status quo without disturbing some people’s sense of peace.  The young prophet Jeremiah heard that he would have to break down before he could rebuild.  But you already know that.
What amazes me is that accepting God’s anointing allowed Jesus to look into angry faces, continue to love them, and walk into a new reality.  He didn’t let other people’s disapproval change his mission.  He remained true to God’s vision and his mission.  Can we follow Jesus with such boldness?  I don’t like disappointing people or making them mad, so it’s often easier for me to stay within the status quo—to stay within the parameters of safe expectations, to keep the peace.   How did Jesus remain a person of deep peace in a volatile situation?  He knew he had God’s anointing.  He met anger with an expansive, healing love.  By the time the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he had learned the same thing.  Rejected, hounded, and beaten, he knew that love is the antidote to every negative emotion.  Listen to this familiar chapter.  Because you’ve heard it so many times, listen in a new way.  Listen to hear the way that God loves you—and your enemy.  Listen for the way that we are to love ourselves and one another.  Listen for the action words, not for theory.  Because love is not a feeling.  It is a decision and an action.  Love only exists in action.  
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
And love, my friends, brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. . . . Jubilee!  I invite you to visit the United Methodist web page on the cover of your bulletin to see the many ways that we can rethink church in terms of spirituality, creation care, racism, education, hunger, immigration, restorative justice, worker’s rights, malaria, global health, humanitarian relief, and meeting basic needs.  May we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, Jubilee, with the patience, kindness, gentleness, hope, and boldness of Jesus.