Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sermon for April 22, 2012

April 22, 2012 Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48
1st Reading: Acts 3:12-19 2nd Reading: 1 John 3:1-7

In 1999, Time magazine named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross one of the “100 most important thinkers” of the past century. Maybe you know her name because of this book, “On Death and Dying” published in 1969. Even if you don’t know her name, many of you are familiar with her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You might be familiar with them because they are a part of how we are beginning to understand grief in our culture. And you might be familiar with them from having lived through grief with the loss of a close family member.

One important thing about her stages of grief is that they aren’t considered to be linear. That is, one doesn’t necessarily follow the one before it, and once you’ve gone through one stage, it doesn’t mean that you won’t return to that stage again. People jump around between the stages and there is no right pattern to follow through the stages. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ book goes against the notion in our society that you should just get over it, that you grieve and then you’re done, that you should be over your grief in a month or two or year at most.

Today’s readings focus on the stages of faith. There are three stages of faith that I see here. There is the old life. There is the experience of Jesus. And there is the new life. Let’s go through them one by one.

We start with the old life. The old life is characterized by sin, and shame, and doubt, and fear. The Disciples are still in the old life in the Gospel reading for today, locked in the upper room together, fearing for their lives, confused about Jesus’ crucifixion, terrified for the future. They must have felt guilty for betraying him. They must have given up hope. They were afraid that those who crucified Jesus were coming back for them. They didn’t know where to turn. They were living the old life of brokenness and separation from God and from each other. This is the part of the Acts reading for this morning about how the people rejected God and killed the author of life. This is the part in the second reading about committing sin and being guilty of lawlessness.

Another stage is the experience of Jesus, or God, or resurrection. This is the Holy Spirit of God with the people, with creation. Some of us had this experience in baptism, or among the poor in some of our travels, or through some physical or psychological healing we experienced, or through another type of mystical experience where we felt the presence of God or saw it or heard it. The reading from 1 John talks about God being revealed to us, and that can happen in any number of ways. In the Gospel, Jesus stands among the disciples and shows them his body and eats with them.

And yet another stage of faith is new life. In the Gospel, Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures. He offers them forgiveness. He makes them witnesses. In the book of Acts, Peter invites the people to repent so that God can erase their sins. And in 1 John, new life means being a child of God.
Some in culture would say that this must be in order, that one stage necessarily follows the last. You have the old life, then you meet Jesus, and bam you have new life.

Martin Luther would say that we live all of these stages at the same time. We are experiencing God in every moment. God is present in all the people we meet, in every leaf of every tree, in every sound and taste and smell, in every heartbeat, whether we know it or not. He would say that all we can do is sin and be broken from one another and from God. And at the same time, God has sent us Jesus who is actively saving us and bringing us back into relationship with God. Even though we are always in sin, we are also being cleansed and loved and valued by God. Martin Luther takes these stages of faith and collapses them together.

In our readings for today the stages aren’t in order. 1 John starts with the experience of God, then talks about new life, then goes into the old life. The Reading from Acts starts with the old life, then how God used that situation to bring us new life. And in the Gospel they are all thrown in together in good Lutheran fashion. The disciples are having an experience of Jesus, hearing him, seeing his hands and side, and eating with him. I love this part, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” They got it and they didn’t get it all at the same time. Isn’t that how life works! It is seldom one or the other, but a whole big mess, mixed up together.

I point this out because sometimes we might doubt our own journey of faith and feel it isn’t good enough. Shouldn’t it be going directly from old life, to encountering Jesus, to new life? Wouldn’t it be nice if it was so predictable? But instead our lives of faith take twists and turns. Sometimes we feel closer to God. And other times we only experience God’s silence. Sometimes in the silence we are doing everything to be faithful. And times when we pray and read our devotions and practice acts of love for those in need, we think we ought to feel the presence of God, and sometimes we’re just going through the motions. Our faith isn’t neat and tidy. It isn’t linear, but we don’t need it to be and God doesn’t need it to be.

I also say this because some of us get concerned about the faith of our loved ones. We know they believe. We wonder why it isn’t showing in their worship attendance. We get defensive about why they aren’t here. Sometimes their lives don’t reflect it in other ways. Their faith journey will also take them through many twists and turns and it isn’t going to be neat and tidy, but we can trust that God is at work. And we are witnesses to God’s love not to abandon them, but to live our life in an authentic way so that they can see God in their journey, in the silences and hard times as well as the times of rejoicing.

Some of you may have noticed at Sterling’s baptism that only I made the vows as his parent, not my husband. It may have struck you as somewhat unusual. Yet it was authentic to where my husband is at in his faith journey. I wouldn’t want him to pretend. And yet I never doubt that he has God’s love within him. He has love for other people. He knows his Bible inside and out and is familiar with God’s promises. He has been baptized. Maybe his faith life isn’t in order, but none of us knows where it will go next and I can’t imagine that God would abandon him because of the order of his faith life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, the Bible says.

In the time that 1 John was written, there was a controversy. People came to know Jesus and they figured it was all done for them, so they could party and sin as much as they liked and Jesus would take care of it for them. But the apostle John wanted the people to know that faith and new life wasn’t just something that Jesus gives us, but it is a way of living.

Today is Spiritual Gifts Sunday. We all have gifts and abilities to share. We can do that in an old life way. Sometimes we share our gifts out of fear that if we don’t no one else will and our church won’t be able to operate. Sometimes we share our gifts out of hope—we take a risk to learn something about ourselves, to enliven our community, and to see that downtrodden people know they are valued children of God, that a little more of the Kingdom of God will be able to break into our world. Usually our motivations are mixed. They don’t always go in the right order, and yet God is able to work through our faithful and faithless motivations to bring new life. We do hope our faith life will move more from faithlessness toward faithfulness, and with spiritual disciplines and a community of believers to help us, hopefully it will, not because God requires it, but because it means more life and less stress to us and those around us.

Just as God worked through the faithlessness of us who would kill the author of life to bring us new life, God works through our winding faith journeys to bring new life to us and to the world. God can use our gifts, no matter our motivations, to touch people’s lives and bring them hope.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Easter 2012

April 8, 2012 Gospel: Mark 16:1-8 1st Reading: Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

One of the joys of having Fridays as my day off is that I get to listen to Science Friday on NPR on the way to mom’s group at Providence Portland. A few weeks ago, Alan Alda was on to talk about his “flame challenge.” When he was 11, he asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She didn’t answer in a way that satisfied him. So now he is holding this contest that will be judged by 11 year olds. Over 800 people wrote in explaining what a flame is in a way that hopefully makes sense to an 11 year old.

I listened to one explanation by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman from the 1980s. He explained it this way. He said that everything is made up of vibrating molecules. When something is hotter the molecules are vibrating faster. Oxygen and carbon like to be joined together. When a tree takes them in, the energy of the sun jiggles them until they break apart. The tree keeps the carbon and releases the oxygen. So when a fire happens, the nearby molecules are really shaking around and they bump into the ones in the tree and the carbon and oxygen get slammed into each other and connect again and they emit the heat and light, the energy of the sun. That’s the fire.

All pastors I know went into the ministry so they could help other people. But we all a second reason. Some want to pick the hymns. Others get all geeky about the wardrobe. And then there are the pastors like me, who enjoy fire—the candles, the holy spirit, the life, the energy!

And that’s what this morning’s readings are all about. Fire.

We read about the spreading of the gospel from one person to the next, from one community to the next. It isn’t like my smart balance buttery spread where it has to become thinner in one part in order to cover the rest of the bread. This is a spreading that is not diminished by sharing. Instead it grows in intensity and spreads in all directions without anyone running out.

It seems like a really exciting time. Everyone was trying to figure out who Jesus was and what his resurrection means to each of us. People were arguing and discussing. They were trying to live out their faith in different ways. Some were living in community and sharing all things in common. Some were partying day and night in celebration. Some were keeping the Jewish customs and others were throwing them off entirely.

Everyone was jiggling like the molecules of a hot substance. They would bump into other molecules. One person would wonder why this person was so passionate about their religious experience. The one would share with the other what their faith meant to them and the faith spread, like fire.

I don’t know if faith is like this so much anymore—at least Christian faith. What has happened is that we have tried to contain the flame. Maybe we have taken some of the mystery out of it by explaining it to death. We’ve tried to contain it—a controlled burn. We’ve tried to say this is what faith is, what it should look like in your life, how it should be expressed, what you can do and not do as a person of faith. And it in trying to contain it, we’ve snuffed it out. The church has almost snuffed it out.

The message of the Gospel is one in which brings new life in the face of destruction. It is a message of hope in a hopeless situation. It shows that where we see death, there is still an ember of life there. There are still jiggling molecules even though we might not see them.

And this is a message that is true. There is reason for hope. If it weren’t for hope, we wouldn’t bring children into this world and get out of bed every morning and reach out beyond ourselves to give a hand to a stranger. We need hope, or we wouldn’t go on. There is a lot to be hopeful about. We’ve got the resources to feed everyone on this planet. We live in a place where we can practice our religion freely, where we can participate in a democracy, where we can speak our minds. Each of us has people who love us. We had enough health to get here this morning—enough food, transportation, energy.

And we’ve come to hear a story of ultimate hope—the story of Jesus. He came as a helpless person, although he held the power to create the universe. He lived a life like ours. He experienced strength and weakness. He sometimes felt overwhelmed and other times full of energy and life. He experienced love. He embodied love. He crossed boundaries of what was acceptable in his time and talked to people he wasn’t supposed to. He didn’t really care about the social order and all our stupid rules. They didn’t make sense to him so he chucked them. He was a molecule jiggling with love and he didn’t care who he bumped into and shared his energy with. He was an equal opportunity savior. Jesus’ fire would not be contained.

This is a greater hope than the world can offer. It is powerful. It is about love and forgiveness. And this power is eternal—it has no end but extends from this life, through death, and into the next life.

His jiggling and sharing his energy ticked a lot of people off and they moved to take the jiggle right out of him. They set out to stop him in his tracks. You know eventually the jiggling of molecules slows and that is why things cool off as long as they aren’t being hit by other jigglers. So for three days he lay in the tomb. But Jesus is the source of all life, all energy, all heat, all jiggling, all love and so he was raised and came back to continue to share life with those who wanted him dead.

This is a message the world needs to hear. People need hope right now. They don’t need to hear, “Oh it will be alright,” or “Don’t worry.” They need a reason to hope. They need people willing to help them. They need to bump into some people with some energy to share—food, clothing, money, help. The need to meet people on fire with the Gospel. It isn’t that they necessarily need us to tell them about Jesus. Remember, the women didn’t say anything to anyone. Instead, they need someone to act like they’ve met Jesus. They need to meet someone vibrating with new life and willing to bump into them and share some of that energy.

Fire is a lot of things. It is life. It is light. It is some little pieces of carbon coming together with oxygen. But most of all it is an event. It is a happening. I don’t know if most of us would claim that the gospel is happening to us, right now. But it is. We are creatures of new life. We got a new start this morning, a chance to try another day unencumbered by guilt and shame. We can see this beautiful earth all around us, the flowers, the birds, the trees, the mountain. We can meet all kinds of people who have gifts and skills to share that we might need and we have gifts that we can also share with them. Families are getting together to share food and love and laughter and maybe a good argument or two. The good news of new life is happening right now. If we could open our eyes to see it, we might dare to work to transform our world, so that the parts that aren’t hopeful and life-giving might be changed so that more people could be jiggled with hope and new life and get energy and light to keep going.

It says in the Gospel that the women were afraid. We live in a world in which fear is trying to keep hope in check. We fear rejection. We fear we won’t have enough. We fear that people will see through us. We are afraid we won’t do it right. The church has used fear to control the fire, the hope, the joy. Politicians use fear to keep our imaginations in check because they profit from us being powerless. The corporations use fear to sell things to us that we don’t need because we are fearful we won’t be enough without them. Jesus comes so that we can be fearless and break out of the chains of fear and bump into each other with hope.

It says in the Gospel that the women said nothing to anyone. Maybe it isn’t a matter of what we say, but what we do that shares the good news of new life. It is reaching out to someone we’ve hurt or who has hurt us. It is volunteering and helping. It is sharing what we have with others. It is sharing our feelings with other people and our compassion.

Maundy Thursday 2012

April 5, 2012 Maundy Thursday

John is a very interesting Gospel in a lot of ways and on Maundy Thursday especially. In John’s Gospel, there is no story of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion. In John’s Gospel Jesus never says, “This is my body,” or “This is my blood.” He doesn’t say, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

There is a last supper, but it is a supper like any other shared between friends who are saying goodbye. At this last supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.

Instead, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Passover lamb. He is nailed to the cross and killed on the day that the lambs were sacrificed in the city of Jerusalem. Being a vegetarian, I hate to dwell too much on the slaughter that day. Even meat eaters would probably prefer not to think of how that meat came to be on their plate.

Remember the Passover was celebrating God leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and safe through the Red Sea. The blood of the slaughtered lambs was spread on the doorposts so the angel of death would pass over that household and not kill the firstborn of the Israelites. The practice also goes back to an ancient ritual in which all the sins of a tribe or village would be placed somehow on a goat and this scapegoat would be driven out of the village or sometimes over a cliff so there could be a kind of starting over. So now Jesus becomes the scapegoat in John’s Gospel. His blood is on our doorposts so that God will pass over us and our sins and spare us.

Some of the pastors were having a debate about whether we could consider it forgiveness if God demanded that his son pay the price for us instead. If I owed a debt to you and someone else paid it for me, that wouldn’t be forgiveness. That would be somebody else paying my debt. None of us was too fond of the idea of God demanding payment and sacrificing his Son in an abusive, cruel way.

The Passover started out as a way of the Israelites marking their doors to distinguish themselves from the Egyptians. It was a way of saying who you belonged to—that you belonged to God. It was a way of getting God’s protection.

Then later the Passover became a meal of remembrance. It was a time of remembering and celebrating God’s saving action. God could bring the Israelites through that time of slavery into freedom. God is powerful and continues that saving action. It is a way of remembering the kind of God we belong to. It is a time to thank God for saving the people.

So this evening we are thanking God that we are saved. Betsy Belles asks this question about being saved: “Saved from what?” Are we saved from disease, trouble, betrayal, hell, or death? No. We still have to face those things. We aren’t going to have less troubles than other people. In fact Jesus invites us to go toward difficulties—to speak truth even when we’re ridiculed, to be with the hungry and imprisoned and sick. Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him into death. And Jesus even went into hell, according to the creed. We, too, may find ourselves in hell, as we go out to the most dismal places and meet with people who have no hope.

Instead, maybe we could ask on this Passover night, what are we saved for? If God saves and frees us, why, what for? The Gospel speaks to this quite clearly. We are saved to love and to serve. We are marked to love and to serve.
We are to love. We read this night that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” He loved them so deeply. He wanted to show them how much he loved them. He wanted to show them tenderness and care. He wanted to take time with each of them. And he wanted to show them how to love and care for one another as you would yourself.

Washing feet is very intimate activity. It is something you only do with those you are most intimate with. I wash my own feet. Nobody else washes them for me. And I wash my baby’s feet. I’ve never washed someone else’s feet so often and so thoroughly. I know his toe jam better than I know my own. I clip his toenails more often than I clip my own. What new mom has time to care for her own feet? I know each little piggy. I play games with his feet. I blow raspberries on the bottoms of them, eliciting squeals of delight. I doubt the last supper was anything like jammie time at our house. But there is a sense of intimacy—of closeness that only family shares.

We are to serve. We are to humble ourselves to handle the feet of our friends and neighbors—to take the lowest job, to be last in line, to know every wrinkle and callous and bunion and toe hair and ingrown toe nail. Jesus had feet just like we do. The previous week he gets his feet washed with perfume and dried with Mary’s hair. He humbles himself to learn from her what will be a fitting goodbye gift for his disciples. He listens to their stories. He looks in their eyes. He gives them a pedicure. He knows the texture and contours of their skin with the touch of his hand. He came as king, not to rule, but to serve and to show us how to serve.

So this night is about history—God’s history of saving the people. It is about thanking God. It is about remembering. It is about letting God claim us and touch us and transform us into servants of one another so that the Kingdom can come and bring hope to this world.