Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Focus on the (Holy) Family"

Sermon Text – Matthew 1:18-25

I wonder what would happen if you went out and just started asking people this simple question: “Who was Jesus’s dad?”

Is it A) Joseph of Nazareth, B) the Holy Spirit, C) we don’t know, or D) something else entirely?

You might think, for a religion that has often been very focused on maintaining very specific rules about how families should be structured, that Christianity would have a much clearer answer to the simple question of “Who was Jesus’s dad?”

But we don’t. The fact is, there’s no easy way to answer the question.

Our earliest sources gloss over his missing father figure. Paul – who wrote our earliest Christian scriptures – says nothing about Jesus’s dad. Tellingly, he refers to Jesus as the “son of Mary.” Highly unusual, because in the Ancient Near East, you would have been referred to as the son of your father, not your mother. If Paul had known who Jesus’s dad was, he would have called him “son of Joseph.” Of course, Paul does refer to Jesus as the “son of God” but it’s unclear whether he’s talking about “son of God” as a theological statement or an actual statement of Jesus’s parentage.

Mark is our earliest gospel. As you may recall, it has no birth story. Jesus’s father is not mentioned and, just like Paul, the author of Mark’s gospel refers to Jesus as the “son of Mary.”

It’s not until we get to the gospels of Luke and Matthew, which were written late in the 1st century, that the character of Joseph is introduced. And, even then, we don’t really know much about him.

Matthew’s author goes to great pains to record a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his roots through King David and Abraham. Joseph, son of Jacob, is Jesus’s link to David. But Matthew is careful not to name Joseph as Jesus’s father. Instead, he calls him, “Joseph, husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” Did you catch that slight difference? Joseph is Mary’s husband. And Jesus is still the “son of Mary.”

As the stories about Jesus’s birth solidified, Joseph was said to have been there at Jesus’s birth. He claimed him as a son, gave him a name, and raised him as his own. In the Gospel of Luke, Joseph is with Jesus and Mary when Jesus visits the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12. But after that, he fades. That’s the last time Joseph is mentioned in the Bible. Joseph is not present during Jesus’s adult ministry. He wasn’t there at the wedding in Cana, when Mary gently pushed her son into a more public role. And he wasn’t there at the cross, when Mary watched her son die an agonizing death. And he wasn’t there when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross. If Jesus’s father had been around, that would have been his job – to take care of his child’s body – but, instead, a different Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea, takes on that role. In fact, Jesus’s dad doesn’t seem to be around at all. If he had been, Jesus wouldn’t have had any reason to give his mother, Mary, over to the care of his disciple John when he knew he was dying.

Where did Joseph go? Did he die? Did he eventually divorce Mary quietly, as he had initially considered? Or maybe he never existed at all and when people started telling stories about Jesus as a grown up, they forgot to add his dad back into the picture. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that Jesus does not seem to have come from a family that would have received a stamp of approval from Focus on the Family. He didn’t have a mom and a dad who first had love, then had marriage, then had a baby in a baby carriage. In fact, some people might even describe Jesus as having come from a “broken home.”

I put “broken home” in quotes because I just can’t bear to use that phrase without somehow designating it as being completely inaccurate and offensive. Of course, we call come from families that are broken in some way or another, right? Families are made up of people….people who are both wonderfully whole and utterly broken all at the same time. No one has a perfect family.

Some of us come from families that get labeled as “broken,” though, and that’s what really frustrates me. I grew up in a family that many would have labeled as “broken” – but, to me, it was wonderfully whole. I was affirmed, cared for, taught to love, challenged, supported, honored, cherished, kept safe. Sure, I got into arguments with my sister and drove my parents crazy when I forgot to do my chores. But my family was certainly no more broken than those of many of my friends.

My family of origin was unconventional. I grew up with siblings from both of my parents’ previous marriages. My mom and dad divorced when I was about 10. My teenage years were spent as the only child at home with a single mom. Before my parents divorced, I felt happy, secure, and loved. After my parents divorced, I felt happy, secure, and loved.

In college I struggled to reconcile my positive feelings about my family and my upbringing with statistics and studies and anecdotes from classmates who had their opinions about single moms and children of divorce. None of it resonated with me. My life was just my life. My family was just my family. It was all I had known and it had done for me what families are supposed to do….teach, care, protect, connect, show, encourage, challenge, love. It hadn’t done those things perfectly, but I never expected it to.

So when I read today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew introducing us to this Joseph character, my heart tingles because I see in Jesus a kindred spirit. We don’t really know where Jesus came from – in terms of his family background. But we do know that it was likely considered unsavory by the standards of his time and place.

If we take Matthew’s version of the story at face-value, here’s what we have. We have a woman who was betrothed to a man and found herself pregnant. It’s important to remember that although some translations say Mary and Joseph were engaged, that’s not really an accurate description of their relationship. Marriage was so different in Jesus’s time. An engagement wasn’t something that happened when a starry-eyed young man saved up three months income and bought a perfect diamond ring. When couples got married, it was because their families had come together and made a legally-binding contract to join their families.

After doing so, there was a period of time after the contract was made but before the woman moved in with the man. This was the period of time Mary and Joseph were living in. They were legally married, but not yet living together. So when Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” it was kind of a PR nightmare. People back then knew different things about biology than we do, but it’s safe to say they did know where babies came from. They knew that if Mary was pregnant, it meant a serious breech of the marriage contract had occurred.

Joseph knew this. And he knew what was expected of him. He was supposed to figure out who had fathered the child and then have Mary and the father stoned to death. That’s what was expected. So when the text says Joseph was “righteous and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace” it’s not messing around. Joseph was seriously going out on a limb here to protect Mary in this way. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Joseph was a jerk for wanting to divorce her. He was taking the high road when he contemplated filing for a divorce. The low road would have led to Mary’s death.

Instead, an angel intervenes, and Joseph is convinced that he has other options. He can choose hope over fear. He can continue in his marriage to Mary and they can make a life together. He can name the child – claiming his role as father. And when Joseph awoke from his dream, he did all of these things. He continued to live out his obligations to Mary, his wife, and he named the child Jesus, claiming him as his own.

I love the messiness of this story. I love that Jesus was not born into a picture-perfect family. There were complications, complexities, things that seemed insurmountable. And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus arrived. And with his arrival he did was all babies do – turned his parents’ lives upside-down.

Jesus has been the great world-upside-down-turner since his arrival. A rule breaker from day one. And the Holy Family, which we have sanitized and Hallmark-card-ized probably didn’t look anything like those millions of picture-perfect Nativity scenes we’ve looked at our whole lives.

They were real people with real lives. Real loves. Real regrets. Real triumphs. Real hopes. Real dreams. Real fears. Real weaknesses.  Real strengths. And they were a real family.

No matter what anyone says, they were a real family.

Family doesn’t have to look like that cleaned-up version of the Holy Family that we put on display each year. It doesn’t have to be a mom, dad, and 2.2 kids or whatever the average is these days. Family isn’t about matching up with some societal norm. At least not when God has any say in the matter.

Christ came into the world in the life of a newborn baby who was born into a family that no one would have put on a cover of a magazine. Christ was born into a home that many would have called broken. And Christ comes still in every type of family you could possibly imagine and some you’ve never even thought of.

See that single mom with her four young kids as they pack up the car to go to Grandpa’s house for Christmas? That’s a holy family and God is there.

See those two dads who are nervously and excitedly preparing to travel across the country to their grown daughter’s wedding? That’s a holy family and God is there.

See those two women who don’t live together but consider each other to be the only family they’ve got? They’ve been through the thick of it together. That’s a holy family and God is there.

See that young couple at the gym at 6:00am on Wednesday? They don’t have any kids. And please don’t ask them when they’re planning on “starting a family.” They might not ever have children. That’s a holy family and God is there.

See the two siblings in their 80s who live together after their spouses passed away? They fought like the dickens as kids, but in their golden years they have found their way back to each other. That’s a holy family and God is there.

Family is so much bigger than what the rules and conventions of our day would have us believe. I’ve heard folks joke about Jesus having two dads – ha! Two dads! Joseph and God! Get it? But the thing is, Jesus really did come from a non-traditional family. Any way you slice it – single mom, child of adultery, child of the Holy Spirit – any way you slice it, the Holy Family was not the norm.

In a time and place where society continues to disagree and argue about what holy families are “supposed to look like,” let’s rejoice in the good news that Jesus came from a family that did not fit the mold. I promise you, there is a whole world out there that is longing to hear this good news. The Church has, for far too long, pretended like it’s our job to preach some divine decree about what a family is supposed to look like. How on earth did we come to this conclusion when the very person we claim to follow broke all the rules at his birth?

It’s high-time the Church stop focusing on what we think family should look like and begin celebrating all the families out there who are nurturing human beings into the people God would have them be.

God blesses all families. God rejoices when families get it right. And God weeps with us when families get it wrong. God cheers from the sidelines as people in families try their best to offer love, care, safety, a sense of belonging, and a sense of rootedness and connection. God rejoices when reconciliation occurs and holds out hope of resurrection when relationships die.

Picture-perfect or dysfunctional, so-called-broken or so-called-normal….every family is wonderfully whole and terribly broken. Just like the family Jesus was born into so long ago.

May God bless each and every holy family this Christmas.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Prayer

Holy One who was born before time began – who is born again each year in the manger – and who will be born again and again wherever you see fit, we come before you and offer our whole selves in a spirit of thanksgiving and praise.

We wait – O, God. Not because we particularly enjoy waiting or because you are late, but because to wait is to practice a kind of holy watchfulness – a way of being that reorients our minds, bodies, and spirits to your presence. We give thanks for this period of Advent waiting which interrupts our regularly scheduled programming every December. We rejoice that our faith gives us an alternative to the hustle and bustle of the elven, candy-caned, gingerbread-latted Christmas that often gives us more stress than relief.

We wait because to wait is to rest. We come to you weary – tired of working, tired of worrying, tired of pretending to be people we cannot be, tired of finding little solace in the tiny rituals we perform to make ourselves feel better. We seek rest, O Holy Friend. And we know that rest can always be found in your presence.

And as we wait, we hear the faint fluttering of wings in the distance. Growing closer, closer still.

With Mary, we hear the words of your messenger, “Be not afraid. God adores you. You will be given the gift of a child who will grow in your innermost self. You are to name the child Jesus.”

With Mary, we hesitate. We question how this could be. And, finally, we admit that this news is too wonderful to understand, too wonderful to deny.

Christ will be born again this Christmas – born into a world every bit as broken and needy as Mary’s world.

And we will be both the mother and the midwife…..providing sustenance as the tiny secret in our belly becomes a kicking, crying baby who cannot be contained. Providing nurture and care to each other as we witness the dawn of life in our friends – whispering encouragement when the birth is difficult, preparing the way for a new life to come again and again.

Come, O God – Come, O Christ! We are ready to bring you forth into the world once more.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Showing Up"

Sermon Text – Luke 23: 33-43

I love Thanksgiving. I struggle, of course, with the revisionist history myth of the “First Thanksgiving” so I choose not to tell that version of the story at our table. But there is almost no place I’d rather be than in the kitchen with a giant pile of veggies that need to be chopped and my favorite santoku knife. Cooking is my favorite hobby, so an entire day devoted to pretty much nothing but cooking and then eating the fruits of my labor is right up my alley.

And what could be better than a holiday devoted to giving thanks? Anyone who’s ever read any pop psychology knows that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is one of the keys to cultivating a happier life. And I’m all for happiness.

For many of us in the U.S. Thanksgiving also marks the turn towards Christmas. And that season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a joy-full, too-full, nostalgic, messy, chaotic, peaceful, stress-filled, hedonistic kind of time. Office parties, sleigh bells, Black Friday sales, crowded airports, snuggled up to read by the fireplace, hustling to the post office to mail the Christmas cards…and on and on.

We are in influenced by the culture we live in. We may play along nicely with the culture or we may decide to make distinctly counter-cultural decisions, but one way or another we are constantly shaped by the world around us.

Of course, as Christians, we claim another culture, as well. Despite their Christian origins, Thanksgiving and Christmas have both evolved into holidays that encompass secular and religious traditions. I tend to celebrate aspects of both the secular and Christian versions of these holidays and I think that’s pretty common.

So as we sit here on the precipice of that long fall into the Thanskgiving-Christmas Sprint, I want to call us more deeply into the other rhythms that govern us: the rhythms of the Church Year. We have a long history as a people who straddle two calendars. Jesus, like Jews before him, followed the Jewish calendar in addition to the Julian calendar observed by the rest of the Roman Empire. As those early followers of Christ moved further away from their Jewish roots, they developed new ways of marking time and the Liturgical Year developed.

In the Church Liturgical Year, today is actually the end of the year. The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Church year. A period of new birth, anticipation, and the dawning of a new year. This Sunday, then, the last one before Advent begins, is the final Sunday of the year. It is celebrated in many churches as Christ the King Sunday. Other churches have updated the language and call it Reign of Christ Sunday. Whatever you call it, the idea is to take time to reflect on the concept of Christ as Ruler, Sovereign, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

I know that language makes some of us uncomfortable. Many of us are more into the concept of Jesus as Teacher, Prophet, Way-Shower, Truth-Teller. Most of us have probably spent our lives in societies that are governed democratically – at least in name – by presidents, not monarchs. There is a lot of baggage that goes with Reign of Christ Sunday.

And when you take a look at the Scripture passages in the lectionary cycle for Reign of Christ Sunday things get even more complicated. The texts selected for us on this last Sunday of the Church year are about end times, judgment, the wrath of God, promises of comfort, and Jesus’s crucifixion.

It always feels odd – having to come face to face with Christ’s crucifixion right when we’re getting ready to wait for his birth. Pondering a grown man languishing on a cross when I’d rather be thinking about a delicious-smelling baby wrapped up in swaddling clothes. There’s no way around it – Reign of Christ Sunday makes me squirm.

That’s probably not a bad thing. I’ve found over time that when I feel squirmy about something in church it probably means I have some work to do. And this is certainly the time of the year for doing our work – clarifying what really matters in our lives, figuring where our time and attention should be devoted. Our secular and religious calendars urge us towards a time of contemplation and clarification.

On the more secular side of things we kick off this season with a holiday that’s all about contemplating our blessings and then move directly into a season of consumptive frenzy. To live in the United States during the month of December is to feel the constant pull of many little gods constantly tugging us in myriad directions – “buy this, do this, you need more of this, that’s not enough, hurry up, slow down.” I sometimes say that we should start putting therapist referrals in the bulletin during Advent because it is just such a difficult season for many of us emotionally. Even nonreligious folks find it hard to get through December without doing some serious soul-searching.

Of course, on the religious side of things, we are more explicitly urged to use the upcoming seasons as a time of contemplation. It is a time to truly focus on doing our work – both as individuals and communities as we witness the re-birth of Christ in our midst and ponder the yet-unknown gifts of the coming year.

So it’s a season for pondering. And when I ponder the notion of Christ as Sovereign Ruler – I feel conflicted. On one hand, I see what we’re trying to do here: refocus our allegiances and re-frame the concept of ruling. We are trying to say, “God is God and our earthly rulers are not.” And we are being asked to reconsider what it means to be a ruler – is a ruler the one who comes with a sword and scepter? Or is a ruler the one who comes on a donkey and washes the feet of his friends? I like the idea of pushing back and playing with the concept of what it means to be a ruler.

But I also struggle because Jesus himself was not a big fan of being called King. And in some instances, like in today’s passage, he was called King in a taunting way. So I’m not sure Jesus would be excited about us having a whole Sunday called Christ the King, you know?

As I was reading commentaries on the Luke text this week, I noticed that D. Mark Davis has renamed this Sunday “Christ the Crucified” instead of Christ the King. He takes issue with the idea of calling Christ “King” for some of the same reasons I mentioned earlier.[1]

I think there is real merit to this idea of focusing on Christ’s crucifixion at this time of year. I have always thought the sudden appearance of the Passion narratives right before the Jesus’s birth felt awkward. Why do we have to focus on the gloom and doom of Jesus’s horrible murder right before we get to celebrate his birth?

But when I read Richard Swanson’s exegesis of Luke’s version of the crucifixion this week, I began to really see that thinking about Christ’s crucifixion right now, before Advent, makes a lot of sense.[2]

Swanson notices that, first and foremost, the story of Jesus’s death that we have in Luke’s passage today is a martyr story. In martyr stories, the martyr dies unjustly and is surprisingly calm in the face of great physical and emotional torment. Swanson says that “stories about martyrs are dangerous” because they govern the way people who are dying march towards death. People who are close to death know what is expected of them – that they are to remain calm in the face of great adversity – and they do their best to play their part. But it is a lot to expect of someone dealing with great pain and anguish.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Swanson chooses to focus his analysis of this text not on Jesus’s actions, but on the other players on the stage. Instead of holding up Jesus as a model for how to live and die – which certainly has its time and place as a teaching tool – Swanson argues that we should pay close attention to the faithful ones that accompany Jesus to his death and beyond.

Although this is not the case in all the Passion narratives, in Luke’s story, Jesus is surrounded by the Jewish faithful right up to the bitter end. Swanson points out that, “On the way to the torture site, the daughters of Jerusalem mourn for Jesus, claiming him as their brother, their son, as the grandson who reminded them of the hopes of their youth.”

And when Jesus arrives at the place of his execution, the faithful Jews are still there. Swanson writes, “[The Jewish faithful] look and they understand: Rome is doing what Rome does, and Jews are doing what Jews do in response: they gather, they bear witness, now and in every century.”

Jesus is crucified right there next to a faithful Jew who begs Jesus to remember him after they are both dead and gone. Swanson paints the scene for us: “As the narrative camera pulls back, we discover Jesus is surrounded by mourners, followers, family, women and others who have also followed him, and observant Jews even from those among the Jewish Council. Everywhere Jesus turns there are people of faith. Years ago the comic, Woody Allen, said that eighty percent of life is showing up. Luke’s storyteller appears to know that. No matter what happens to the messiah, the King of the Jews, the Jewish family shows up.”

The Jewish family shows up. It strikes me that this is one of the many things we are called to do this time of year. Show up.

We who claim to follow Christ in whatever way we claim him – teacher, prophet, rabble rouser, Messiah, Lion of Judah, Prince of Peace, King of Kings or Lord of Lords – we who claim to do our best to walk in the Ways of Christ are most certainly called to show up.

We move into a season of the year that is busy, busy, busy. We are pulled in every direction – family obligations, end-of-the-year projects at work, extra social commitments, a desire to make those perfect December memories, a desperate need to carve out time for ourselves to simply breathe and be. December will eat us alive if we let it.

And perhaps that’s the faint, yet powerful whisper of this Sunday. The last one of the Church Year: “Don’t allow yourselves to be eaten alive. You are witnesses to the One Who Shows Up and you are called to show up, too.”

Whatever the demands of the Season, we are urged to show up. It will look different for each of us. Some of us may be called to refocus our energy and attention on the birth of Christ in our midst as we move into a season of intentional spiritual contemplation. Others may be called to carve out time and space to serve others – giving of our time and money here at the end of the calendar year. Some of us are called into that great spiritual practice of letting our “yes” mean yes and our “no” mean no – seeking opportunities for Sabbath, saying “yes” to activities that redeem and fulfill the world, and saying “no” to those traditions that wear us down and suck the joy out of living.

I don’t know what showing up this December looks like for you. Heck, I’m not even sure what it looks like for me yet.

But I do know this: we walk alongside The One Who Shows Up. Christ has been showing up now for a long, long time, and promises to show up again this year. God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us.

And Christ is one of the best reminders we have of that promise: the One Who Showed Up in an unexpected barn in a little noplace town; the One Who Showed Up on a horrible horrible hill called Golgotha; and the One Who Showed Up even after death…even when there’s no way he should have been showing up at all.

As we move into this new Church Year, I invite each of us to risk showing up. And to celebrate the good news of knowing that we never ever have to show up alone.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Radically Reoriented"

Sermon Text – Isaiah 65: 17-25

“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…”

Today the prophet Isaiah speaks to us of transformation. Transformation is at the core of what it means to be a Christian. We worship a God who reaches out – time and time again – to transform individual lives, communities, and the world. We follow a teacher who – time and time again – spoke of turning the world upside-down….

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

And we are heirs. Descendents of people have professed – time and time again – that there can be no death without the transformative power of resurrection, that working together with God we can always “make a way out of no way,”[1] and that what it means to be Christian is to risk having your life so fully transformed that you no longer recognize it as your own.

It’s powerful stuff – this transformation talk.

For a month now, we have been talking about Mission: POSSIBLE during worship. I so appreciate that our Stewardship Committee has focused on the possibilities that we are invited into when we truly consider how we can each be involved in the life and mission of this congregation. I want to say a big thank you to all of the people from our Boards and Committees who have helped educate us about the work we do together and the resources that are necessary to make those ministries a reality.

A few minutes ago, we took a little time to think individually about the ways our own lives and the lives of those around us have been transformed by First United Church. It is my firm belief that it is the business of the Church to be about transforming lives – the lives of the people who fill the pews on Sunday morning, the lives of those in the immediate community that surrounds the church building, and the lives of people all over the world.

And this morning I want to talk about a spiritual practice that I have found to be immensely powerful. I have witnessed, first-hand, the life-transforming power of this spiritual discipline. I believe this practice has the power to radically reorient every aspect of our lives. In my own life, it has led to a greater sense of security, lower levels of stress and anxiety, and a much deeper sense of connection to God.

It is a powerful force for good in our world. It is an instrument of healing and transformation. It is a secret that is too good to be kept.

What is it? It’s tithing.

Oh, yes. I just said the “T” world. Tithing. Let’s talk a little about what that word means and get on the same page.

I know some of us grew up in churches where tithing was emphasized. Others of us may be hearing the word for the first time today. It’s not one we use a lot here at First United. We tend to talk about financial support, giving, stewardship of our resources, and generosity. Those are all good things. I am glad that we talk about them regularly.

Tithing is a form of giving and carries with it some additional connotations – or baggage – depending on how you feel about the word.

Tithing is truly an ancient concept in our faith. Way back in Genesis, we read about Abram tithing out of a sense of gratitude after a victory in battle. In its most legalistic sense tithing in the Bible was about giving away 10% of something. Since our Biblical ancestors lived in agricultural societies, they were often giving up 10% of a crop. It is important to note that it was 10% off the top – not the leftover 10% that wasn’t much good but 10% of the good stuff, right at the beginning.

Of course, over time tithing came to mean many different things. As economic systems changed, it was usually 10% of cash income instead of a crop. In some settings, it was compulsory – and I am not a fan of compulsory giving because I think the transformative power in giving is that we can make a choice to participate or not. In some instances it came to mean amounts other than 10% - sometimes less, sometimes more.

For the sake of being on the same page this morning, I want to define tithing as I mean it when I use the word. For me, tithing is a spiritual practice of giving away a substantial portion of what we have been given in ways that transform the world.

And the amazing thing about tithing is this: when we tithe we not only help the wider world by giving of our resources, but we literally transform our own lives through a radical reordering of our own priorities and attitudes about money. For me, it has been that second part that has been the most surprising and life-altering.

In 1999, Walter Brueggemann wrote an article in the Christian Century entitled “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.” The words are as true now as they were in 1999. Brueggemann writes of two conflicting narratives in our world: 1) the liturgy of abundance set unleashed by God in the creation narratives…the declaration that “we originated in the magnificent inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being.” And 2) the myth of scarcity…the fear that there isn’t enough to go around. Brueggemann confesses that he reads the Bible on a good day, but he watches Nike ads every single day. We live in a world that tries its best to get us to buy into this myth of scarcity and if we are to resist the gods of consumerism that wish to consume us, we have to anchor ourselves in spiritual disciplines that will radically reorient us to the truth of God’s liturgy of abundance.

I want to share a little about what this journey has been like for me. And I’m sharing it from my own perspective because that’s the story I know best. Please notice that this is meant to be descriptive, not PREscriptive. I recognize that we are all in different situations and not everyone’s story is going to look like mine.

I began tithing when I got married at the ripe old age of 20. I married into a tithing family. David’s parents had taught him the value of tithing and, to him, it was a no-brainer. I had to be convinced. When we got married we were both students – first undergraduate and then graduate. We had a combined income of something like $1000 a month. I’m not going to lie (especially from the pulpit) – I really could not initially wrap my head around the idea of giving away a full tenth of that small amount of money. It truly seemed impossible. I thought to myself, “Maybe we could just put this off until we are more financially stable. Someday in the future.”

But somehow David or the Bible or the Holy Spirit or all of the above convinced me and we gave it a try. Again – not going to lie – it wasn’t easy. Giving away 10% of our tiny income was really hard to do. But you know what else? And this really surprised me - it was kind of fun. We have always had a practice of giving a big chunk of our tithe to the church we attend but we also keep a bit of it aside to give to other nonprofit organizations or directly to people in need. Even though we were struggling students, we often felt rich because we would sit down every month and talk about how to give away some money directly to those who really needed it. We were living off of $1000 a month, but giving away our money made us feel rich. I don’t fully know how to explain it, but there it is. Each time we gave away our hard-earned money we worried less about scarcity and became more aware of the abundance available in our world.

The other thing that happened was this: starting out when we were struggling students made it so much easier now that we are giving away a much bigger dollar amount each month. If we had waited until we were making more money, I think it would have been so very hard to jump right in to giving away $400 or $500 a month. I am glad we started small, even though it was difficult at the time. It has made it much easier as the years have gone by.

Tithing is a spiritual practice of giving away a substantial portion of what we have been given in ways that transform the world around us.

In my own life, 10% has felt like a substantial portion of what I have been given. I don’t think it’s a magic number. I don’t think it works for everyone. And I think if you’ve never given away 1% or 2% starting at 10% can feel completely overwhelming. I do think there is some wisdom to 10%, though, and I don’t think it’s totally arbitrary. I think 10% is about enough that you really notice it’s gone. 10% is about enough to make you really question, “Is this sane? Giving away this much money? Will I really be able to do this?” And I think those two things – noticing it’s gone and wondering if I could really really do it – are absolutely essential parts of what make tithing one of the most powerful spiritual practices I have encountered.

Tithing has a way of radically reorienting the way we relate to money. We wonder – can I survive without this? And we discover that we actually can. That, in turn, makes us wonder what else we can live without and we discover that we live in a world that consistently tells us we “need” so very much more than we actually need. Tithing, for me, has been a way of exposing the lie that we can never have enough. It grounds me. It helps me feel safe. It keeps me focused on what my true needs are. It has completely transformed me as a human being. And it continues to transform me, month after month.

It is my job, as one of your pastors, to invite you to consider taking up spiritual practices that have the power to transform you life. I know it’s risky. I know it’s hard. And I hope you can see that I’m not up here asking you to do it in a “we need to make the budget” kind of way. I’m doing it because it is truly about so much more than making the budget. It’s about radically reorienting your relationship with money. It’s about transforming your relationship with the Holy.

And it is about resisting the forces in this world who clamor for our attention, day after day, begging us to buy into the myth of scarcity – the lie that there isn’t enough and that we must all snatch up what we can. It is about listening to the litany of the world around us, “You aren’t good enough. You need more stuff. You need more money in the bank to be safe,” and saying back the opening words of God’s great litany of abundance, “And God saw what God had created and it was good. It was very good.” It was enough. It is enough. We are enough.

I know that some of you already tithe. If you do, I hope you can reflect on the ways it is transforming your life. And I hope you can share what you discover with the rest of us.

I know that some of you are trying to get there. I encourage you to keep working at it – to ask yourself: am I experiencing my giving as a spiritual practice? Am I giving in ways that are truly challenging? And I invite you to be in conversation with each other and with Jack and me as you explore those questions.

And I know that some of you have really never considered that you might be able to do this. I recognize that this is a lot to take in this morning. Take it in. Sit with it. And then be in conversation with those who nourish your spirit as you continue to ponder what it might mean to live more fully into God’s promises of abundance.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. That’s why I don’t think 10% is a magic number. But I do believe sincerely that there is something powerful about making a commitment to give away a substantial portion of what we have been given in ways that transform the world around us. Tithing as a spiritual practice has the power to radically reorient us and to shape us in ways that will fully transform the world.

[1] The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Listening Matters"

Sermon Text – Luke 18:1-8

It doesn’t take much imagination to find contemporary parallels to the parable from Luke that we just heard. In fact, I kind of laughed out loud a bit when I opened up my Bible on Monday to look at the texts for the week and saw this story. Before I could stop myself, I found my brain updating the parable, “In a certain nation, there were lawmakers who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that nation there were many widows and orphans and convicted criminals and people dying of curable diseases who came to the lawmakers saying, ‘Grant us justice.’ For a while, they refused, but later they said to themselves, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because I fear the loss of campaign funding and what will happen to the stock market, I will grant them some measure of justice, so I can be reelected.”

Oversimplified? Yes, of course. But the parallels between Luke’s setting and ours can’t be ignored. The people in power then and now often care about the wrong things. And the people who are disempowered – like the widow – care so very much, but have an incredibly difficult, uphill battle to get anyone at all to listen to them. So they do what they can to make their voices heard. And, every once in a while, someone seems to actually listen. For whatever reason, there is a brief reprieve and they can breathe a bit, knowing that their immediate needs have been taken care of for a few days, weeks, or months.

I can imagine that’s what it must feel like for some in our country right now - those government workers who live paycheck to paycheck and are still scrambling to recover from the disruption in their lives these past few weeks. They are working to regain their footing, but they won’t soon forget the nagging feeling that many in Congress cannot be trusted, don’t seem to care, and don’t seem to have much of a clue about how most of their constituents live. We have stumbled back to some sense of normalcy, but I hope we won’t soon forget the weeks of uncertainty we just lived through.

I take comfort knowing that the Rear Admiral Barry C. Black is still praying with the Senate each day. As the Senate’s Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Black took seriously his responsibility to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” during the government shutdown. He prayed daily that the lawmakers could be saved from “the madness,” and begging God to deliver them from the “hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”

Rev. Black, unlike most of his colleagues in the Senate, knows what it is like to live in poverty. His mother was a domestic worker, his father a truck driver, and they made sacrifices to send their eight children to private Christian schools. One of those sacrifices was the ability to pay the rent. Black recalls coming home from school three times as a child to find they had been evicted from their apartment – their belongings on the street.[1]

So Black understands all too well the true cost for everyday people of the government shutdown. I feel confident he will not soon forget what has transpired these past few weeks. And I know he will not be silent.

The widow in Luke’s parable had that going for her, too. She refused to be silent. The Hebrew word for widow carries with it the connotation of someone who is silent – who has no voice. Legally, women in their culture had no voice. They were fully dependant on their male relatives to speak on their behalf. So a widow, who had lost her closest male relative, was silenced completely unless another male relative was willing to take her in and become her mouthpiece.

This widow clearly has not been this lucky. She is without voice – none of her male relatives are willing to care for her. If they had been, she certainly wouldn’t have been out in the streets yelling at the local judge. That type of behavior was a serious embarrassment for her entire family, if she had any left to care. But she is desperate – she has no where else to go, no other tricks up her sleeve, so she does the only thing she can think of – raises her voice and keeps on raising it until this unjust judge becomes so annoyed that he gives in and helps her out.

Is this a story about how to get what you want even when the deck is stacked against you and you are totally desperate? I guess you could say it is.

But I always tend to ask myself, “What is this story trying to tell us about God?” when I am looking at Biblical texts. And, in this case, the story is pretty clear in what it’s trying to communicate about God. God is not like the unjust judge. God does not have to be pestered and prodded and embarrassed into helping us in our hour of need.

So we don’t have to beg and holler and scream to get God’s attention. God pays attention to us even when we speak with a whisper. In fact, I tend to think that God is paying attention to us even when we don’t say anything at all. In God’s language, there is no such thing as a person without a voice because all are valued, all are heard, all are held closely and cherished.

Now I don’t think this means we worship what I like to call “the Gumball Machine God.” We don’t pop a quarter into the prayer machine and – pop! – out comes a gumball. I don’t think God works in that way. I don’t even thing God has the ability to grant us our deepest wishes and desires. God is neither a Gumball Machine nor a Genie in a Bottle.

What God can do, I believe, is accompany us. And what we can do is allow ourselves to be accompanied.

We can allow ourselves to be open to God’s presence – both in those mystical, mysterious otherworldly moments and in those mundane, everyday situations. We can allow ourselves to be fully aware of God’s accompaniment and we can take strength and solace in knowing that the One who is called Love never leaves us alone, never allows us to be silenced, never forgets our plight.

I think that – more than anything – this is a story about the power of listening and the miracle of being heard.

The widow lived in a society that told her time and time again, “You have no worth,” but she refused to believe the lie they were selling her. She knew she had worth and she insisted on being in relationship. She insisted on being heard. And the unjust judge – as shameless and he may have been – did eventually do the thing she needed him to do. He listened. Her case was heard.

I read a news story this week about a 15 year old named Davion Only who is insisting on being heard.[2]

Davion has been in the foster care system in Florida his entire life. He was born while his mom was incarcerated. He has never known his parents. He cannot count all the places he has lived. This past June, Davion sat down at a library computer and Googled his mom. He found her mug shot. And he found her obituary. That’s when he knew he had to give up on the idea that she was ever coming to save him.

And so he decided he would have to save himself. He began working harder in school, bringing his grades up. He began taking better care of himself physically and lost 40 pounds. He learned to control his rage and stopped lashing out at everyone around him who was trying to help.

When he was ready, he decided it was time to ask. It was time to take himself out into the world and raise his voice until someone heard him and answered his cries.

Last month, he walked into St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He had cold feet at the last minute, and told his case worker he was having second thoughts. But he sat through the service. As he listened to the preacher, he wondered what he could possibly say so that people would finally listen to his story. A lifetime of being unheard. A lifetime of feeling abandoned. And here he was taking a chance in a room of 300 strangers – just hoping someone would hear him out.

So after the sermon was over, the pastor invited him to the front and Davion did what he had come to do. He used his own voice to tell his story. He asked boldly that someone present might adopt him. His story has since been published numerous times online and in print media and the center where Davion lives has received hundreds of inquiries about Davion. I can only hope and pray that Davion, like the widow in Luke’s story, will get what he asked for – a second chance, a family, a hope for a secure future.

And Davion has that chance because a group of people listened.

The website for St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church says their mission is “creating a haven of hope, help and healing for Christ.” Sounds to me like they’re doing it.

They took time to listen to Davion. I don’t know if it will lead to justice for him, but I do know that there is power in listening. That 300 people would take time to hear his story? That has to mean the world to a kid who has rarely been given a chance to use his voice. In taking the time to listen, they were telling Davion, “We want to hear you. We believe you are important. We are taking seriously our call to listen as Christ would listen.”

Listening is where it all begins. I think that’s why Luke tells us that this is a parable about “their need to pray always and never lose heart.”

That’s an unusual thing for a parable to be about. There are 24 parables in Luke and only 3 have anything to do with prayer. But that’s what Luke tells us this parable is about. It is a parable about being in relationship. About taking the risk of raising our voices – to God, to one another – a parable about hoping to be heard. And it is a parable about the gift of listening – a story about the power we wield when we simply take the time to focus our attention on an individual who longs to be heard; the beauty of what can happen when we open ourselves to another person’s story and take it fully into ourselves.

I have found that, in my own life, I am best able to put on my listening ears and truly hear those around me when I am in a good place myself. When I am struggling; when I feel worthless; when I feel fearful or despairing? Those are the times I find it to be very difficult to hear people around me. But when I feel like I am worthy, like I am loved, like I am heard? Well, those are the times when I feel like I can listen and listen well.

I have to put the oxygen mask on myself before I can put it on others. And, for me, one of the ways I put that oxygen mask on is through prayer. For me, it’s not necessarily about sitting down and folding my hands to say an official prayer. Instead, it’s about trying to live my life in a way where I am fully aware of God’s presence in each and every moment. It’s about remembering I am accompanied by the One whose name is Love, no matter where I go.
Oh, there are so many days that I fail at this. But when I am able to get it right – when I am able to remember how important it is to “pray always and never lose heart” I am so thankful.
Because when I can remember these things, I begin to feel like I have been heard; like I have been found worthy; like I am loved. And then from that place of strength, I am able to open myself and listen to those around me.

Listening is where it all begins.

When we can rest assured that God hears us, we are better able to listen to each other. And when we listen to each other, we discover that we are in relationship – for better or for worse.

And if we can all just stay in relationship with each other – holding each other’s stories, seeing one another as God sees us – well, that’s not everything, but it certainly is a good place to start.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Jeremiah's Hope"

Sermon Text – Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15

In case you weren’t here, we had a pretty big celebration right about this time last week. Three people in our congregation chose to be baptized by immersion. It was a joyous day as Ivy, Max, and Shannon told us of their desire to be baptized and we, as a congregation, made promises to support them.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend who isn’t Christian about baptism and my friend said something like, “I have always thought dunking seems strange. I mean, why would you basically try to drown someone just to initiate them into your religion?”

I kind of had to laugh. Sometimes we are so close to our own rituals that we forget how bizarre they must seem to the rest of the world. To me, baptism is just a normal thing – part of being Christian. But to those who aren’t Christian, of course it seems pretty strange that you would celebrate God’s love and welcome someone into your faith system by dunking them deep in water.

Of course, baptism isn’t really about drowning people. At least, we never say that when we celebrate it. But, the truth is, in its historical roots, there is an element of baptism that is about drowning.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Or to use less-flowery language – we really do kind of drown and die when we are baptized. We celebrate a union with Christ – who died – in order to more fully realize the power of Christ’s resurrection. We die so that we can live more fully into new life.

I have heard stories from people who really did feel totally changed and new after their baptisms. I think that is really amazing. I don’t recall it feeling that way for me, exactly, but I do recall it feeling like a really big deal to my six-year-old self. I do remember feeling scared when the pastor prepared to dunk me under the water – and incredibly relieved when I bobbed back up to the top for air.

We all understand baptism a little differently. For you, this idea of dying with Christ may be totally abhorrent. I would understand if it was. That’s okay. I don’t agree with all of Paul’s ideas either.

But regardless of how we feel about the idea of dying through baptism, I think it highlights a couple of really important and true things about the Christian faith.

First: Christianity is a religion for messy times.

Throughout history, Christianity has flourished in times of despair and difficulty. Jesus and his disciples lived in a difficult time – oppressed by the Roman Empire, struggling to survive day-to-day, striving to make meaning and find hope. Those folks in the early Church had all of those same problems. And what we see over the course of history is that Christianity, as a religion, has gotten stronger and more crystallized during times of crisis.

When persecuted people struggle with their faith to find meaning and hope, their faith becomes clearer and stronger. When I am trying to figure out what is most important about my faith in God, I have learned that listening to people who are living through hard times – be it war, famine, persecution, slavery, condemnation, sickness, abuse, fear, anxiety, you name it – listening to those people has taught me more about Jesus and God than listening to people who are living the good life. And I’m sure many of you can identify with this because you may have had the experience of noticing your own faith gets much stronger and clearer in those difficult times.

Christianity is a religion for messy times. And the reason it speaks so clearly to people enduring horrible atrocities is because Christianity is all about death….and resurrection.

You can’t have one without the other, of course, and that’s where we get this idea of dying through our baptism. Because in order to truly experience the gift of resurrection, you have to have at least looked death in the eye.

And it’s not too hard to find opportunities to look death in the eye – if you’re paying attention.

Every week, Jack and I are invited into sacred places where people are looking death in the eye. People who are coming to grips with the finite nature of our bodies; people who are struggling through slow-and-painful or sudden-and-surprising deaths in relationships.; people who are caught unaware as one of life’s joyful transitions – like becoming a parent – pushes them into a whirlwind of grief they weren’t anticipating: fears of job loss, home loss, losing family members, losing ourselves.

You know that bumper sticker that says, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention” I’d like to add another one, “If you aren’t a little worried, you aren’t paying attention.”

Because there is just bad stuff happening out there all of the time. Some of it is close to home – and some of it comes to us through our computer and television screens. In a world with Syria, Nairobi, the Washington Navy Yard, global warming, and on and on….sometimes if I allow it all to get into my heart I become so worried that I feel paralyzed.

I tend to have a somewhat anxious personality and I find myself imagining myself or my loved ones in those situations. I become scared. I feel overwhelmed.

And I find that I need stories like the one we just heard from Jeremiah to ground me - to bring me back to reality. To soothe my soul and help me find the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other – allowing myself to be open to the pain and suffering in the world, but still finding ways to protect myself from it. Because I do so deeply believe that one of the most important things we can do as humans is be open to suffering without allowing it to destroy us.

I know I’ve said it before, but I just can’t help but say it again. Here’s another example of the Gospel – the Good News – calling out to us right there from the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes I hear people say that they can’t stand the Old Testament because it’s all gloom and doom, but not this story. It is full of hope and promise. It’s a keeper.

Unfortunately, it’s also a little difficult to understand at a first pass through because it starts in the middle of an ongoing story and refers to a lot of people and places that are unfamiliar to us.

Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in the 6th century before the common era. He lived in Jerusalem, just before its conquest by the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah was from a small town just outside of Jerusalem, called Anathoth.

As today’s story begins, Jeremiah is imprisoned in King Zedekiah’s court. Zedekiah was the king of Israel. His country was under siege by the Babylonians. They had been completely cut off from the world around them – including the farmland outside the city that they depended on for their food. His citizens were hungry, thirsty, sick, scared, and probably feeling pretty hopeless. The Babylonian Empire had conquered so much of the world around them and now they were coming for Jerusalem. The word siege comes from the Latin verb for “to sit” and that’s what they were doing. Just sitting. Waiting to be captured. Waiting to die. Waiting for things to get worse.

“If you aren’t a little worried, you aren’t paying attention.” Right?

The prophet Jeremiah has been telling the powers that be that this day was coming for a long time. And they didn’t want to hear it. That’s how he ended up in jail. They threw him into a dungeon for continually saying very uncomplimentary things about Israel’s rulers. But I have to think that, at some level, King Zedekiah knew he spoke a bit of truth. Why else would he have pulled him out of the dungeon and brought him up to the court, where he could easily bend the King’s ear?

Jeremiah knew that sometimes actions speak louder than words and he was kind of a showy prophet. He would often act things out – strange shows of symbolism – to try and get a point across.

And that’s exactly what happens in today’s story. In the midst of the siege of Jerusalem, “the word of the Lord” comes to Jeremiah in the form of his cousin, Hanamel. This cousin comes to Jeremiah, who is in jail at court, and says, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth. It is your right to buy it.”

In this particular time and place, real estate wasn’t just listed on a ReMax sign in someone’s yard. Instead, when someone needed to sell a piece of property, the privilege of buying it first went to close relatives. So Hanamel is asking Jeremiah if he will buy this piece of property in their hometown.

Now stop and think with me for a moment about the outright stupidity of even considering this proposal.

Number one: Jeremiah is in jail. He has no need to own a sweet little piece of property in his hometown. Number two: the entire city is under siege. Even if he wanted to buy the property, he wouldn’t be able to get there to take care of it. Even if he got out of jail, he couldn’t get out of the city. Number three: I’m no real estate agent, but I’m pretty sure markets crash out pretty hard during war, am I right? Nobody wants to buy or sell anything during a war. You have no idea if your land or money is going to be worth anything tomorrow You’re doing good if you can get somebody to take your Visa card and give you a loaf of bread. Buying land is not high on your agenda of things to do.

So what does our friend Jeremiah do? He buys the field of course. And he does it in a very public way – gathering everyone around him to watch him sign all the papers. And he seals the deed up and puts it in a big clay jar to protect it. And then he tells us why he is doing this dumb, foolish thing. He does it because he has received a word from God. The word is, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Houses and fields and vineyards…and cappuccinos, and engagement rings, and prom dresses, and books for college classes, and baby shower gifts, and airplane tickets for vacations, and warm winter coats for snowy days, and birthday cards for best friends….all of these things shall again be bought in this land.

In other words: resurrection is real. Hope is real. “If you aren’t a little worried, you aren’t paying attention,” true. But also “if you aren’t at least a tiny bit hopeful, you may be paying attention to the wrong things.”

Death is real. Pain is real. Suffering is real. I believe we are all familiar with that other bumper sticker…. “stuff” happens.

“But do you know what else is real?” Jeremiah asks us from these dusty old pages? Hope is real.

Even in the midst of a siege, Jeremiah held on to the hope that life would go on. That God would not abandon them. That they were all moving together towards some kind of future, even if they didn’t know what it would look like and they were all very scared.

Jeremiah proclaimed the good news that resurrection was waiting on the other side. Death might have to come first, but they were all held together by a God big enough to stand with them and in them and work through them to show all of us that death is never forever. There is always something more. Resurrection always has the final word.

Now I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of how this all works. I don’t know what will happen to me after I die. I don’t know how I will find the power within myself to survive horrible atrocities should they come my way. But I do know that my faith gives me hope. Hope in something beyond me that can move me to a place where I can find peace. Peace in the face of fear. Peace in the midst of chaos.

When I look at stories like this one, I am filled with resurrection hope. After all, if a guy like Jeremiah can so publicly commit an act of audacious hope like buying that field when he was in the midst of an outright siege? If God can do that for Jeremiah, then maybe God really can help me find hope when I am hunkered down in my own bunker, scared and overwhelmed.

“Seek hope,” Jeremiah says. “This isn’t forever,” Jeremiah says. “Go ahead, fall into the water. It will feel like you’re drowning for just a second but then the power of the water will push you back up and you will be resurrected,” he says.

The Hope of Jeremiah – for his day, and for ours. Thanks be to God.