Saturday, October 24, 2009

unpreached sermon #3

Pentecost 21 (Year B) * October 25, 2009

Job 42:1-17
Psalm 34
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

I wasn't going to write a sermon this week. I didn't like the lectionary, and the daily lectionary wasn't helping, and I don't have the grounding in church history to want to preach Reformation Sunday, and I'd already written a vision of the church earlier in the week.

But then, before Wednesday night church service, I heard Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" -- which I've heard enough times to recognize at about the second note -- and as I listened, I was particularly struck by the line, "It's a cold and it's a broken alleluia."

Love is an utterance of rejoicing, even when we don't appear to have any reason to, even when we ourselves don't want to. There is something in us, deeper than all that pain, deep in our bones, in our souls, in whatever it is that makes us "us," or maybe even deeper than that, the Ground of Our Being as Tillich would say, that KNOWS this love, even when our minds cannot fathom it and our hearts cannot feel it.

I've been reading Emil Fackenheim for class this week. He's writing in 1987, about What Is Judaism after the Holocaust and after the establishment of the State of Israel.

One of the first things that really struck me in his book is that our source text for the Christian hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" comes from the book of Lamentations. If I were crafting the worship service to go along with this sermon I'm not preaching, I would have us sing that hymn -- because it's been in my head recurrently since I read that passage in Fackenheim's book.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
The thing that has stuck with me even more, though, is his discussion of that part in the Exodus story where we read: "And God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." (Exodus 2:24) This begs the question: Did God forget? Fackenheim mentions various attempts to make meaning out of those four hundred years of suffering, assorted Midrash and such. And he talks about reading the story as a Jew today, in the wake of the Holocaust. He says that for such a Jew (and I apologize for Fackenheim's male-default language):
all talk about meaning in those grim four centuries is wiped from his lips. Instead, as he reads the Tanach itself, he has nothing but that bold, powerful, magnificently anthropomorphic phrase: "And God remembered." That and nothing else.
"And God remembered."

I think sometimes that the only message I have to preach is that God is with us always. That God loves us and abides with us -- from before our conception through beyond the grave.

Our lectionary passages this Sunday are on the greatness of God -- the powerful greatness of God; God is great and greatly to be praised. With a problematic implication about our inherent unworthiness. At least, that's how I summarized them when I reread them Wednesday night. But on rereading them, I realized there was a lot I was eliding.

Let's recap the lectionary:
  • Job says to God, "You're right. I know not whereof I speak. You win." And God turns to Job's "friends" and tells them: "You have not spoken of me truly -- as Job has. Make some sacrifices, and Job will pray for you, and then we'll be okay." And God restores Job's fortunes umpteenfold.
  • The Psalm praises God -- for providing for and comforting the righteous.
  • We continue to read in Hebrews about the blameless high priest.
  • And we read in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus healing a blind person, saying, "Your faith has made you well."
In trying to summarize the Job passage, one thing struck me. Hear again God's words to Eliphaz:
"My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept Job's prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done." (v. 7-8)
And my servant Job shall pray for you.

For I will accept Job's prayer.

God won't listen to their prayers, but God will listen to Job's.

Which presages the Hebrews passage, the high priest whom God will listen to.

But my first thought wasn't that connection -- it was the call to pray for others. Including (and perhaps especially) those who have wronged us. These three told Job that Job's suffering must be because Job had displeased God. Which is not only an untruth about Job's righteousness but also an untruth about how God operates.

If you were sick and in pain, and all your worldly possessions were gone, along with all your family, would you want to hear anyone suggest to you that you somehow "deserved" this? Of course not. And if someone with power was upset at how these people had spoken, would you intercede and say, "No, do not deal with them according to their folly"? Okay maybe you're a better person than I am, but I suspect I would feel like, "Yeah, see how it feels now! Does it comfort you any to know that you deserve this? Doesn't it just suck?"

But God calls us to intercede. God says, "Yes, justice would demand that I punish these people, but there are things that trump justice. And to help you internalize that message, I want you to pray for these people, to pray for grace and mercy rather than justice and punishment for them."

And God also calls those who have offended to offer sacrifice -- you don't just get to rest secure in the knowledge of God's grace. Just as the one who has been wronged is called to let go of desires for vengeance and extend a hand of reconciliation, so the one who has wronged another is called to sacrifice from one's own abundance -- both to be in solidarity with the one who has not and also to be reminded that all that we have is not ours but rather is entrusted to us by God.

"And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends."

Job is still suffering when he prays for these people. I first read the timeline differently -- that Job's fortunes had already been restored when this event happens, but no.

The last thing Job has said to God is, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (v. 5-6), so we don't know if Job even expects to be rewarded by God at all. I mean, he had called God out, and God gave him a long long speech reminding him how tiny and finite he is compared to God, so if I were in Job's position I don't think I would be particularly expecting much of a reward.

It's much easier for us to be gracious when we're doing well -- even if we have been wronged, we can feel much more kindly to those who have wronged us if other forces have helped to heal the effects of that wrong.

But this passage tells us that before we receive any comfort we are called to pray for mercy for those who have wronged us.

I would argue that it in fact implies that in order for us to receive any comfort, we must pray for mercy for those who have wronged us.

We talk a lot about the Kindom of God -- that Kindom we are called to help bring forth on Earth. That Kindom at which ALL are at table together. That Kindom in which ALL of Creation is redeemed and restored. Really truly accepting that "All means all" is HARD, though. But the work bears fruit.
And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and God gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to Job all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that God had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. (v. 10-11)
Now the relationships are restored. Job's relationship with his friends has been mended, and his family has come to his house and is sharing a meal with him and offering him sympathy and comfort (those things his friends had failed to provide) and also offering him tangible goods. For God does not magic things into our possession but rather works through human beings. We in the world are called to be God's helping hands, and marching feet, and shoulders to cry on.

Now let us turn to the Gospel.

Jesus' statement that "Your faith has made you well" can be really problematic because it implies that if you are NOT well you just don't have faith.

But I like to think that it suggests that we can find healing in our faith.

Hear again the Gospel:
They came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, child of Timaeus and a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. Hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, Bartimaeus began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Child of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Child of David, have mercy on me!"
     Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called Bartimaeus, saying, "Take heart; get up, Jesus is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.
     Then Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?"
     Bartimaeus said, "My teacher, let me see again."
     Jesus said, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately Bartimaeus regained sight and followed Jesus on the way.
I believe it was Bartimaeus's faith that enabled him to be so bold as to cry out to Jesus, even as those around him were telling him to sit down, shut up, and not make a scene.

If someone comes into our lives whom we know can offer us healing, we are called to, well, call out to that person -- rather than merely hoping that they will see us, will see our need, and will stop to help us.

And it is in these interpersonal connections that we can find healing.

I've encountered a number of times recently the reminder that "credo," from whence our "creed," means "to give one's heart to." We give our hearts to God. I've read Marcus Borg on this, and I still can't explain it. I can say, however, that it makes me think of a poem by e. e. cummings, which opens:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
I love this imagery of interconnectedness, of at-one-ness. We don't always like the word "atonement," with its implications of a requirement of blood and death and suffering in order to effect reconciliation, but the word itself sans all baggage is simply at-one-ment. God desires to be at one with us.

That Leonard Cohen line I quoted at the beginning? The full line is: "Love is not a vict'ry march. It's a cold and it's a broken alleluia."

Love is not a victory march.

God is not about defeating people by force but rather is about reconciliation, is about joy and trust even in the midst of pain.

Go now, to love and serve God.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

this is not an epic prose poem

I want a radical, queer, church, which is rooted in the Bible (and tradition), and which is engaged -- with the text, with the tradition, with the world -- and which doesn't make assumptions.

I want a church that has a (radical, prophetic) vision of the Kindom of God and is working to bring it forth on Earth.

I want a church that beloves me and that challenges me.

I want a church that is radically welcoming.

I want a church that proclaims its affirmation of GLBT persons. I want a church that welcomes and affirms all sorts of marginalized people -- poly, kinky, furry, immigrants, homeless, addicts, those who have been in prison, those who don't speak English, those with illnesses and disabilities both visible and invisible, those who do not fit the gender binary, persons of color, fat people.

I want a church that doesn't make dismissive comments about people with differing beliefs.

I want an ASL interpreter on standby. I want the physical space to be accessible to persons with physical handicaps. I've grown into the idea of optional nametags. I want greeters at the door. I want newcomers to be greeted and welcomed -- and to feel safe sitting in the back if that's what they want.

In this church, people will feel free to sit in the back as long as they want. And at the same time, people will reach out to newcomers, will get to know them, will help them to feel at home. When people stop attending, members will reach out to them.

No one will be pressured to participate in anything, but people's gifts and graces will be recognized and nurtured, and people will be invited and encouraged to share those gifts and graces in the service of the church.

It will be clear, both printed in the bulletin (or projected onto a screen) and articulated by the worship leader, what we are doing next at each point in the service.

I want people to be named when they receive Communion. I want an option to cross your hands over your chest and receive a blessing instead of partaking of the Elements. I want people to wholly abstain from the ritual if they so desire and to not feel uncomfortable doing so. I want wine and grape juice. I want vegans and persons with gluten intolerance to be able to partake of the Bread of Life.

I want our Communion liturgy to reflect and articulate (and embody) what we believe.

I want the Passing of the Peace to be a time when we encounter each other face to face, when we share peace with each other with personal contact (including, as people are comfortable, physical touch -- a hug, a handshake, a high-five) because we are Christ's body in the world.

If there is a Receiving Line after service, it will not be rushed through.

During Prayers of the People, congregants will lift up aloud and in the silence of their hearts all the joys and concerns they bring with them. People will make themselves vulnerable in their openness, knowing that this is a Safe Space. Some people will cry, and some people will comfort them with touch or a word or simply their strong presence in the seat next to them.

When the Offering is received, people will be encouraged to give generously and joyfully -- and it will also be explicitly acknowledged that money is but one of the many gifts and graces we bring with us, and that all are equally welcome and valued regardless of the gifts we have to share. (I also like the explicit articulation that first-timers need not put anything in the basket as their presence is gift enough.)

I want hymnals so that those of us who can read music but aren't so good at just following a tune played on an instrument can join in comfortably.

We will not sing songs in foreign languages just because we want to be diverse. We will sing songs from the cultures and traditions of those in our congregation.

I want the Fellowship meal after church to contain more than just desserts. I want vegan and gluten-free options. I want the food to be purchased with awareness of environmental concerns. I do not want congregants to talk about how they are trying to lose weight.

In my dream church, no one will have to miss part of the worship service to help prepare the Fellowship meal or anything else.

I want Bible study/book study. I want the church's theology to suffuse the life of the church -- in word and deed -- and I also want opportunities to dig more deeply in a more formal setting.

I want congregants who bring their passions and share them with the church. I want a church that not only supports those congregants in their work but also works with them.

I want a church that takes the liturgical year seriously.

I want a church that is aware of the calendar outside of the church -- National Coming Out Day, local festivals, etc.

I want a church that follows the lectionary, except when it doesn't, and which takes seriously our inherited Scriptures.

I want a church that preaches Good News, that knows the Church is called to speak a word distinct from what one might hear in a secular group of similarly minded people -- is called to proclaim the message of Christ.

I want sermons that inspire me and challenge me -- that are rooted in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I want a pastor and a congregation I can argue with and who will listen to me and take me seriously -- who will push back when I am resisting something they know to be True and who will receive me with grace and love, who will tell me when they are hurting and cannot listen to me in that moment. I want a church that teaches and encourages me to speak with love and grace and generosity and also with passion and prophetic wisdom.

I want a church that takes seriously Jesus' call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit and care for the sick and imprisoned. (Food drives? Prison ministry? Visiting the shut-in?) I want a church that takes seriously the call to give up everything we have and Follow.

I want a church that trains and strengthens its members to be Allies -- Allies to GLBT persons, Allies to people of color, Allies to people with mental health issues and physical disabilities, Allies to all who are suffering.

I want a church that takes language seriously.

I want a church that address the Triune God with a variety of names, pronouns, and metaphors. I do not want a church that tries to pronounce the Tetragrammaton.

I want a church where we don't say things are "lame" or "crazy," where we don't say "you guys," where we don't assume people's preferred pronouns.

I want a church that is attentive to the world outside its doors -- to its local community and to the global community.

I want a church that knows the other houses of worship in its neighborhood and which works together with them.

If this church has a denominational background, I want it to draw on the strengths of that tradition -- not at the expense of denigrating other traditions. I want ritual and liturgy that is thoughtful and organic to the congregation -- that acknowledges the pain and joys of human life and the True Fact that God is with us always.

I want a church that starts on time. And where people are welcome to come in late, even to come in at the very end and join us for Fellowship meal, and where people feel safe to leave early. Where children and pets and strangers and "enemies" are ALL welcome. No matter their dress, their history with church, their politics, their ease with social interaction, their education, their income, or anything else which sometimes makes people feel Other.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

unpreached sermon #2

[Pentecost 20 (Year B) - October 18, 2009]

Job 38
Psalm 104
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Can I just say how much I love that the semi-continuous Old Testament reading is from Job? Job is HARD stuff. God and the Devil are having a beer, and the Devil says, "Betcha I can make Job give up on you," and God says, "Betcha you can't." And the culmination, the great theodicy (justification of God in the face of human suffering) is: "Were you there when the world began? Yeah, I didn't think so."

But this simplified version of the story elides a lot of the richness.

God's speech to Job begins: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" God is greater than we are. God knows more than we do. I'm not invested in whether God is entirely Omniscient or Omnipotent, but I think we can agree that God is vaster than our comprehension can encircle.

"Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band." Even in this modern age when many of us have flown over oceans and through clouds, it's still difficult for us to really grasp the immensity of the oceans and the lands and sky that bound them, nevermind the God whose hands formed all this.

This Job passage tells us over and over again that God does great and beautiful and generative things. As does the Psalm.

I read the Epistle and thought, "Wow I don't know what to do with this Hebrews reading." And then I read the Gospel, and I had a way in. Both of these New Testament readings are about submitting oneself to the will of God, even at the risk of injury or even death to oneself. And about how doing the Will of God often leads to suffering and even death.

But lest we fall into believing that we are CALLED to suffer, the Old Testament readings remind us of God's creative energies. (How's that for irony? The New Testament readings are doom and gloom, and the Old Testament readings are life and abundance.)

Let's start with the Gospel. Some of Jesus' followers say, "We want to sit on either side of you when you come into your glory." When the Kindom of God breaks through and this broken world is redeemed, we want front row seats. We want to sit at the high table and say, "We saw this coming. We were on the front lines. You thought we were crazy, but look, we were on the right side the whole time."

And Jesus says: Wait a minute there. You don't know what you're saying when you talk about being on the front lines with me. You think it's all going to be like when John baptized me, when the Holy of Holies breaks open the sky and declares the Truth in a shining moment. It's not gonna be like that. You're going to have to work. And you're going to have to work for people you don't like.

"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Child of Humanity came not to be served but to serve, and to give her life a ransom for many."

The writer of Hebrews says, "And one does not presume to take this honor [this high priest honor], but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was." I'm not so sure I wanna be called by God.

We all know what Jesus says in that passage in Matthew 25 -- "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me." Feeding the hungry and thirsty. Clothing and sheltering the naked and homeless. Caring for and visiting the sick and imprisoned.

When's the last time you did any of that? When's the last time you saw someone hungering and thirsting for justice or for mercy and did something about it? When's the last time you saw someone wounded or oppressed and cared for them? This is one of those passages that does not get easier when we make it non-literal.

We are called to be servants. Servants of God and servants of the world.

And this servanthood doesn't always look like what we want it to look like.

A woman anointed Jesus, and one of Jesus' disciples cried out, "But we could have sold that expensive ointment and given the money to the poor." Sometimes we are called to radical acts of generosity that seem to make no sense.

And we do these actions out of a powerful conviction of love.

I was talking to my friend Megan while I was writing this sermon, and I said that I was mentally running through stories of how Jesus served others, and that the first thing that really struck me was actually a story about someone serving Jesus. Megan said, "In a way, though, that was Him serving her. He gave her the honor of feeling important, as if her attention to Him was valuable. Because nothing sucks quite so much like being politely rebuffed by someone you are wildly desperate for."

How often do we act out of a desperate love for God? Not a desperate craving for approval or acceptance or salvation, but a desperate love. Do we have a desperate desire for a deep and abiding connection with the one who Created, Redeemed, and Sustains us?

Jesus is constantly exhorting us to give of our abundance to care for the poor, and yet in this story, Jesus rebukes the disciple who says, "But what about the poor?"

I think this is because the woman acted out of love for Jesus, and God cares most about what is in our hearts. Now to be sure, God gave us brains for a reason, and our good intentions should be matched by a thoughtfulness, with an attention to unintended consequences and all those other important pragmatic concerns -- but the driving force should be love.

In the Gospel lesson last week, a rich man who had followed all of the commandments asked Jesus, "What must I do to share in everlasting life?" and Jesus said, "Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me."

The rich man had followed all of the commandments, but rules are not sufficient for life -- life requires relationship. And there are so many things that keep us from relationship with the One who calls us to follow Her, to walk with Her through all that life has to offer. And so we are called to let go of those things -- those things that tie us down when the Spirit is calling us forward, those things that pull our attention and energies away from the Kindom of God.

We are created in the image and likeness of God, and we are called to be co-creators with God.

The Psalmist says, "You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart." (v. 14-15)

We are beloved of God, and God wants to bless us abundantly.

And we are not the only beloveds of God.

The Psalmist also says, "Yonder is the sea [...] There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it." (v. 25-26)
The Leviathan is a big scary monster. It is not spoken of fondly elsewhere in the Bible. And yet we hear that God formed it specifically to sport in the sea.

We are called to live in peace and abundance with ALL of God's creatures -- with the people we don't like, with the people we don't see who are affected by our consumption, with all the links in the food chain, with ALL of Creation.

As the song says: "God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy."

Go now, to love and serve God.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

National Coming Out Day (unpreached sermon, 2009)

So, a couple weeks ago I was helping my best friend revise a liturgy for a "Service of Healing and Hope (on the occasion of National Coming Out Day)," and I looked up the lectionary readings for that (this) Sunday.

Job 23
Psalm 22
Hebrews 4:12-16

I find this passage from Job fascinating.

Job is angry with God. And God is absent, so Job can't even get redress in a court of law. Job hasn't done anything wrong -- "But God stands alone and who can dissuade God? What God desires, that God does." There is no court Job can appeal to. And so the passage wraps up with Job's terror and dread of God.

Just the sort of upbeat passage you wanted for National Coming Out Day, right?

"But God knows the way that I take; when God has tested me, I shall come out like gold." (Verse 14)

Leaving aside the problematic issue of suffering as testing, hear what Job is saying.

But God knows the way that I take. And I shall come out like gold.

God knows the way that I take.

This is the core of the Incarnation, isn't it? "We have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are," as Paul writes in the letter to the Hebrews.

How many times have we cried out -- "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Psalm 22:1. Matthew 27:46. The words of David. The words of Jesus.

But Psalm 22 ends -- as so many of the Psalms do -- with an affirmation of the greatness of God. "The poor shall eat and be satisfied [...] future generations will be told about I AM, and proclaim God's deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that I AM has done it." Just as Matthew ends with the Resurrection. Okay, actually, I looked it up to be sure, and Matthew ends with the Great Commission. (Matthew 28:16-20)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Creator and of the Christ and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
"I am with you always, to the end of the age."

This is the Good News that the Christian story proclaims -- that God will never leave us. That God loved us so much, that God Incarnated, became flesh and dwelt among us, and even now, the Church struggles to continue to embody Christ for the world, guided by the Holy Spirit. To deliver people from that which oppresses them.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these. [...] And I will ask the One who sent me, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you." (John 14:12, 16-17)

We are called to a continual process of coming out -- of living more fully into the life that God wills for us, of drawing ever closer to God.

In the song "For Real," Bob Franke sings [lyrics and chords, YouTube]:
Some say that God is a lover
Some say it's an endless void
Some say both, some say she's angry
Some say he's just annoyed
But if God felt a hammer in the palm of his hand
Then God knows the way we feel
And love lasts forever
Forever and for real
Jesus has a coming out story, too. "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." (Mark 6:4) Jesus knows what it is to be called to something far different from what is expected of us, knows what it is to choose a new family from the one we were born into.

We are called to be allies. Allies to persons who are marginalized because of their gender identity or gender presentation. Allies to persons who are marginalized because of their sexual activities between mutually, meaningfully, consenting persons. Allies to persons who are marginalized because of the language they speak, or don't speak; because of their country of origin or their citizenship status. Allies to persons who are marginalized because of their political or religious beliefs. Allies to persons who are marginalized because of their physical or mental health.

All those to whom society said, "You don't belong," Jesus said, "Yes you do. Come join the feast at my table. In my family’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:2)

I heard a Reflection earlier this week about taking Communion as an act of coming out to God. In the act of taking Communion, we open ourselves to receive the very life of God into our own bodies, allowing the love and the Call of God to transform us.

So go forth, to be transformed and to transform the world.

Happy National Coming Out Day.