Monday, June 24, 2013

Sermon for Lauren

I thank David Lose at Working Preacher, as is so often the case, for the inspiration for this sermon.

Text: Luke 8:26-39

Dear Lauren,

Today is God’s good day.
A good day to baptize you.
Unconditional love, declared for you
God crossed all boundaries to make this day happen

To call you Lauren, my child, beloved
You are Mine

God made you, Lauren Lyn
And says, “She is good”
Gave you a sweet smile
Calm demeanor
A big sister who likes to teach
Though some days you won’t want to learn
You’ll challenge, stretch and bless your family
Your parents will ask, “Why us?”
Some days this will be a pleading question
When you pace them to exhaustion with questions
Sticky furniture, whiney dissatisfaction and nap-neglect
At the same time they ask, “Why us?”
With awe and reverence for the girl you are
All of you—your quirks and blessings
Created and claimed by a loving and faithful God.

God in Jesus did the same, long ago
Crossing the sea to Gentile land
For one act
To meet and free a man
Called Legion
Named after the demons who possessed him
At least 6,000
No one knew his real name anymore
They spoke for him
Ran from him
He was trapped in the tombs
Wandering in a graveyard
No clothes to protect him from scorching sun or sandy wind
Breaking the shackles with great, heaving seizures
Running frantically into the wilderness to spare others his sight
Empty, devastated, no one
Dangerous, separate
Bound.  Chained.

Bound. Chained.
The world tells us:
We’re never good enough
Skinny enough
Smart enough
Organized enough
Joyful enough
Rich enough
Talented enough
Friendly enough
Strong enough
Nice enough
Happy enough.
Worth enough.
Worth anything.

We tell ourselves
I lack.
I’m deficient.
I fail.
I’ve failed a lot.
I disappoint.
I can’t.
I’m not.
Legions of issues.
On medication.
Screwed up.
Let go.
Broken up.
Aren’t I worth keeping?

The world may tell you
Convince you
Worse yet--
You’ll convince yourself
You’re nothing but a patchwork
Of what you lack
Mistakes you’ve made
Talents you don’t possess
A body that doesn’t fit the right type
You’ll say, I’m Legion
Identified by my 6,000 problems and wrongs
You’ll ask
Aren’t I someone?
Aren’t I worth keeping?

Oh yes.
Jesus crossed the waters for you.
JUST for you.
He takes your sin and perceived lack and throws it into a herd of swine, 
hurling themselves off a cliff, 
shattering your chains, 
removing bounds
We don’t lack. 
Abound in God’s love
Child of God
Washed clean and cherished

So much more than our failures and disappointments
So much more than our addictions and health issues
So much more than our insecurities and egos
Not more, but through
Not lacking, but whole
God taking our weakness, our sin, and making something good out of it
For God knows how to work with weakness and make it powerful.
You are good.
All of you.

Clothed in a warm robe of righteousness
Grafted onto the tree of life so we grow from God like branches from a Redwood
Sturdy, ancient
Part of a long, long story
Rooted in our identity as children of God

When you’re lost
Forgotten who you are
Think of this warm, rainy, sticky summer morning
When the waters of baptism flowed over your head
When God drew you into God’s community
Sealed you with the Holy Spirit
Marked you with the cross of Christ

Ground yourself in the ancient tree of God
Deep roots
Nothing can shake you
Nothing else has the last word
The bonds are shattered




Only God's voice left to tell you through the sheer silence:

You are beloved
Child of God
Blessed and claimed for all you are
Abundant and full

Let your light so shine!


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Power of Apology

Sermon for 6-16-13
Text: Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Let us pray:  God of grace, help us to admit our need for your grace and forgiveness, and to receive your forgiveness with gratefulness that leads to transformation.  Amen.

This morning, Luke gives us a beautiful story of forgiveness and transformation.  Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon.  Simon’s role as a Pharisee means he's part of the religious elite.  This dinner is a formal affair.  It’s a gathering of powerful men in the community for conversation and debate. That’s what makes the entrance of the bold woman so surprising—even though privacy was different then and people were used to strangers coming in and out of their homes.  She clearly doesn’t belong.  She’s identified as a sinner.  We don’t know her specific sins, but that’s not important.  What’s important is everyone seems to know about her sins.  Her sins have become her identity in the community.

Her actions are shocking.  She intends to anoint Jesus’ feet with oil, but first she washes them with a river of her own tears.  She wipes them with her hair, which meant she had to take her hair down—another politically incorrect move.  She covers his feet with kisses, and finally gets out her oil to anoint them.  Her actions—inspired by her overwhelming gratitude—are absolutely outrageous!

This story provides a wonderful sense of balance.  Simon is the woman’s counterpoint.  For every appreciative gesture she makes, Simon makes an equally cynical move.  She shows gratitude and he shows judgment.  He can’t believe Jesus is allowing a sinner to act in such a way—in his home!  Why isn’t Jesus admonishing her?  Simon says to himself, “If Jesus really knew what she has done, he wouldn’t let her near him—much less touch him.”

Some interpret the woman’s actions as a plea for forgiveness and think she is anointing Jesus out of repentance.  But I tend to agree with those who think she anoints him because he has already forgiven her.  This changes our view of her actions, and we are left with her sheer and total gratitude.  Her gratefulness knows no bounds. She’s so overwhelmed by what Jesus has done for her that she can’t hold back.  She breaks all the rules about politeness and manners to express her thanks.

Simon, her opposite, sees himself as the righteous one. We often judge Simon as the bad guy in this story.  We like to think of ourselves as more like the woman--but we relate to Simon.  We know Simon’s hardness of heart, for how can we live life without a developing a few callouses?  Often we can’t see our own need for forgiveness.  Jesus turns all of Simon’s (and our) assumptions upside down. The woman had a great need for forgiveness and so she feels the most gratitude.  Someone who knows no need for forgiveness loves little.

This is what got Jesus in trouble.  Not his healing acts or teaching or feeding thousands.  It was his forgiving (or more accurately, his boundless forgiving).  His willingness to touch known sinners and those who thought forgiveness was out of reach is what stirred up controversy.  He identified with the lost and that is what led him to the cross.  Those in power didn't want to look deeply at their own hearts and actions, and Jesus forced them to time and again.

The themes of apology and forgiveness still ring true today.  There was an powerful story about forgiveness in sports news a few years ago. Umpire Jim Joyce blew a call that cost pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Yet the amazing part happened after the game—Joyce actually admitted he was wrong and asked for forgiveness. Bill Geist covered the story on CBS Sunday Morning.  He tells it like this:

…It was looking like just another depressing news story when something shocking occurred:  the umpire admitted his mistake and … and apologized.  “It was the biggest call of my career and I kicked the s--- out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game," he said.  He didn't make up excuses, didn't say the devil made him do it, didn't announce that he was going into umpire rehab.  How old-fashioned!  Nobody takes responsibility and sincerely apologizes anymore (often on advice of their attorneys).  But what about the victim?  The wronged pitcher?   He forgave the umpire, saying, "Nobody's perfect.  You don't see an umpire after the game come out and say 'Hey, let me tell you I'm sorry.' He felt really bad," said Galarraga.  Such an act of grace, class and maturity is so rare in these contentious times no one quite knew what to do! General Motors presented Galarraga with a Corvette.

Before the teams' next game, Joyce and Galarraga met at home plate, the umpire wiping away tears, and many Detroit fans cheering them both … even the fans were showing sportsmanship! One man admits his mistake, the victim forgives him. That shouldn't be news … but these days it is.

It may be a stretch to compare Jim Joyce with the woman in our story from Luke, yet when is the last time you saw a MLB umpire cry? His display of emotion, regret, and gratefulness at being forgiven by Galarraga hits us in the gut.  

As Christians, we feel pressure to forgive and often feel guilty when we can’t muster up a truly forgiving heart.  But we don’t talk much about the transforming power of apology.  The Jewish faith lifts up the power of apology and claims forgiveness only happens after a heartfelt apology.  When an apology is perceived to be honest, forgiveness is mandated.  Rabbi Shraga Simmons says, "It is usually excruciatingly difficult for people to admit explicitly that they have done wrong. We excuse ourselves. We refuse to admit the truth. We shift blame. We deny the obvious. We excel at rationalizing. But the person who wrenches from himself the unpleasant truth, 'I have sinned,' has performed a great and meaningful act."

Maybe our gospel text speaks to our hardened hearts—hearts that refuse to see our need for forgiveness.  I’m don’t want to confuse this with shame—thinking you’re bad to the core.  Rather, I hope apology opens up acceptance of yourself and transforms you.  There is power in apology.  AA certainly tells us apology and taking responsibility for one’s actions are essential for transformation. 

So I ask you all to participate in an experiment with me.  Throughout the next week or two, think of someone who needs an apology from you.  It may be God or someone living or dead—only you can identify that person.  If you can, act on that apology and tell me about it.  I don’t need any details, but I’m interested to know how the act of apology transforms or changes you.  I want to know about the experience.  I’ll take your stories and include them in some future writing so you can see the thread of apology weaving through our community and beyond.     

The first step to knowing God is knowing we need God.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Ocean-side Faith

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the magical little town of North Wildwood, NJ.  Granted, I may love the town because I spent my time there with dear friends I haven’t seen in person in three years.  We spent our time together talking (and talking and talking), reading for hours at the beach and exploring the local delights.  We found a bagel shop where local residents (and those who’ve owned vacation homes there for years) could walk in on a quiet morning, sneak into the kitchen, and dress up their own bagel.  While playing trivia at a local establishment one evening, the local handyman haggled us from the opposite corner of the bar.  Everyone was friendly as we walked down the street or on the sea wall next to the ocean.  The conversations with strangers rarely stopped at hello—they all seemed to genuinely want to know about us and introduce us to their beloved town.  Their extraordinary friendliness almost made me wonder if I’d return home to a new slew of Facebook friend requests and wedding invitations.  Not to be, although I’m sure if I crashed their parties they’d welcome me in without any questions.

And oh, the ocean.  Our first morning there it was sprinkling and windy, yet I pulled on my shoes and set out for my first-ever ocean-side run.  The waves were active while I ran, crashing against the shore with insistence while whitecaps waved frantically.  A ship settled far off the coast in the fog and seeing it made me feel lonely as it sat in the vast empiness.  The ocean’s power is in its ability to make us feel simultaneously frightened and calm.  There’s peace and comfort to be found along with a reminder we’re only a small part of God’s good creation.

One of my friends kept saying, “The people here love it so much, and they want us to love it just as much.”  Their passion was contagious.  I’m still thinking about North Wildwood as I enter back into my patterns of leading worship and talking about the mission of the congregation I serve.  I know mission and evangelism are about more than hospitality and getting people into the building.  I know it’s about listening (and listening again) to the community around us as we look to reforming for the present and future.  I know it's not about making our congregation welcoming enough.  Even if we built a perfect building, others may not come.  I know it's about finding our unique mission.   

Yet I can’t get North Wildwood out of my head.  The people there drew me in by their passion and their genuineness.  As we walked past a neighbor of the condo we rented, each time he’d tease us about helping him wash his driveway.  A man sat by us as we watched the ocean, talking about the recent rise of the tide.  The people noticed us and treated us like we were worth a bit of conversation.  Their friendliness was contagious and heartwarming.

What if we, people of God, displayed such unabashed passion for our faith and our congregations?  We may not have a beautiful ocean-licked town, but we do have a bigger-than-the-ocean God who claims us at a font full of water made holy.  We want people to walk into our church kitchen to dress their own bagel (or coffee) as they talk with local friends and neighbors.  Our faith brings us such joy, peace and comfort.  We can speak of our faith the way the people of North Wildwood talk about their little piece of the ocean—with pride and welcome, hoping people will become part of our community and come back again and again.  Day-to-day life is different than a vacation at the ocean, yet we need to remember people are at a congregation for only moments--a vacation from and for life each Sunday.

I don't have answers, but I know my experience of hospitality was powerful enough that I'm still thinking about it.  So I'll continue to ponder what hospitality will look like in our changing churches and culture.   

                                            The view from my first ocean-side run.