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.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“Seeking, Shining, Shifting”

Sermon Text – Luke 15: 1-10

A few weeks ago, our three-year-old son had one of his first really vivid nightmares. He was walking from his room to ours in the middle of the night and took a wrong turn, getting lost in our hallway. He called out “Daddy! Daddy!” and when David found him, he was hysterical. He explained to us the next morning that he had been all alone, lost, and was looking for us everywhere but couldn’t find us.

I told him that the dream sounded really scary. And I reassured him that, in real life, I would never let him get lost. That I would always know just where to find him and that we would always be together. Of course, as I heard the words coming out of my mouth I suddenly realized that these promises are not within my power to make.

People do lose each other. Parents lose their children – just like those parents who lost their beloved children fifty years ago today in Birmingham. So as I started to tear up at the thought of anything ever separating me from my beloved children, I caught myself and tried to suck my waterworks back inside. The poor kid was already scared from his dream. The last thing he needed was me telling him that he actually COULD get lost, right?

I found myself relying on my Christian faith to bring me back from a full-scale panic attack. All these years of going to church and studying the Bible came to my rescue. And I was able to tell him something really true. I was able to make a promise that is not mine to keep, but that I know will absolutely be kept.

I told him that one of the truest things I know about God is that God is the Greek Seeker. God will never allow us to be lost. We are always found with God. We are never alone, even though we might feel like it sometimes.

And I told him this passage from Luke. I told him that one of the reasons I know God never loses a game of hide and seek is because Jesus teaches about the persistence of God with these two parables. The shepherd loses one sheep, but goes out to find that sheep and return her to the fold. The woman loses one of her coins, but spends all night sweeping and shining a light until she finds it. And that’s what God is like. Always seeking. Always shining. Never allowing us to be lost.

This is why I keep coming to church, folks. This is why I’m a Christian. Because when life gets big and scary and I realize just how little control I have over everything around me, I need stories like the ones Jesus tells today. They are what keep me glued together. They are the stories I tell myself so I can get out of bed in the morning and keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I am hoping that these stories will one day become my children’s stories, too. Because if my child – God forbid – was ever lost, I would want him to know – deep in his bones – that he can never be lost from God. That he is never alone. These are truths I want him to carry within his heart all the days of his life.

A God that seeks the lost. A God that shines a light in the darkness to find one who has gone missing.

This is the God we, the Church, are called to proclaim. It is the God that Jesus worshiped. It is our story to believe and to tell. More importantly, perhaps, it is our story to live.

We are called to be a church that proclaims the One who seeks and shines. But we are also called to be a church that actively seeks and shines ourselves.

On the Sunday when we celebrate the five-year anniversary of our communal commitment to being fully open, welcoming, and affirming these parables seem especially relevant to our shared work.

Being open, welcoming, affirming is about even more than welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people into our fold. For starters, it is about a much bigger group of people than those who identify as LGBT. Our covenant says, “we believe that God’s spirit calls us to embrace diversity fully in our congregation and community and to affirm the dignity and worth of every person without regard to race, sex, gender, age, sexual orientation, faith, nationality, ethnicity, economic or marital status, or physical, mental, or emotional disability.”

That’s a whole lotta folks, folks. It’s a covenant that commits us to living out a gospel of radical hospitality and extravagant welcome. I kind of wish our statement had an actual dot-dot-dot ellipsis in it, too, because I just know that the statement will have to expand someday.

Because when we are saying we are called to affirm the dignity and worth of every person – EVERY PERSON – that is a bigger group than even our well-thought-out laundry list of “without regard tos” can cover. We do not yet know who may become the “outsiders” of the future. We do not yet know who we may need to faithfully name and claim ten or twenty years from now. But we know that it will happen.

Being open, welcoming, and affirming is not a thing that happened back on September 14, 2008. It is something we continue to live into together every day of our shared lives. And it is a covenant that will continue to expand as long as we are intentionally seeking to understand which people society and the big-C Church have dismissed. And Jesus tells us this is where our energy should be: seeking that one sheep who was lost.

Now, I do need to say that when I first read these parables this week, my mind immediately went to what it means to be an open, welcoming, and affirming church. Because I do think that so much of what we do is invite those who are outside the fold for whatever reason to come in and join with us as Church. Of course, the actual language used in Luke’s gospel also talks about these lost folks as being sinners and I need you to hear me loud-and-clear when I say that I’m not saying LGBT folks or mentally ill folks or divorced folks or poor folks are sinners. Got it? Good.

I do think that, in Jesus’ time, labeling outsiders as sinners was a convenient way to “Other-ize” them. It was an easy way for religious leaders to wash their hands of these lost folks and put their energy elsewhere. This is, of course, what Jesus is trying to argue against in this passage. He’s trying to convince those around him to de-Other-ize those who have been kept out for so long. Now, I think we all know that the modern day Church doesn’t have this outsiders-as-sinners problem, right? Ha.

But even if we separate that loaded word of sinner out and remember that Jesus is talking about Outsiders, those “Others” in his time and place, we all still have so much to learn from these parables. Most of us are Insiders in one way or another. And even if we don’t call our society’s Others “sinners” we do have to continually work together as people of faith to de-Otherize all of God’s children.

“What on earth is the preacher getting at here? She’s lost me.”

Let me break it down for you with some real examples:

When we say we welcome GLBT people fully, that is a great start. When we shift the conversation to a broader one about human sexuality and gender identity, that’s better.

Because, of course, if “we” are welcoming LGBT people it means “they” are the Other. Of course, the reality is, all of us – gay, straight, trans, or cis – have a sexual orientation and a gender identity. By the way, I recognize not everyone here may recognize the term “cis.” Cisgender is basically when your gender identity matches up with your biological sex. So if you are biologically a man and you identify as a male then you are cis-gender because your sex and gender match up.

Vocabulary lesson over. But it’s an important vocabulary word to know. Understanding these words is just one important way we can shine a light into the corners. Make the invisible visible. We can only talk about things when we have the words to do so. And I, as a cis-person, operate from a position of great privilege. My reality is considered to be “the norm.” As a person of gender-privilege, I can do a great deal to de-Otherize those who identify as transgender, all-gender, or gender-queer by simply realizing and reflecting on the fact that I have a gender identity. Being cisgender is a thing. It’s one way of being gendered. It is not the only way. It’s not me and them. It’s all of us recognizing that we all have gender identities.

How else can we de-Otherize?

Well, let’s look at race. Mostly-white churches often find themselves stumped when they say aloud, “We wish we had more people of color here. We would welcome them with open arms!” and then no people of color show up. Or they do show up and they don’t stay.

But what many of these congregations fail to see is how they live within a culture that is still dominated by white-ness and sees white-ness as the “norm.” People of color are still Otherized. The message is often, “you are welcome here – as long as you are interested in appropriating our traditions, singing our songs, appreciating our art, doing things the way we do them.” It takes a lot of work for people of all races to work together to de-Otherize people of color in a society that still Otherizes them so very much.

But I think it’s work that is worth doing. Because I think that to step into the work of de-Otherizing is to take seriously what Jesus is telling us here. It is to take a risk of being transformed. It is to walk every more courageously towards a joy-filled life with a happy ending for those who are seeking and those who have been lost along the way.

When we take seriously Jesus’s call to seek the lost and shine a light into those dark corners, we discover that something deep within us begins to shift. Our community is changed from a place where Outsiders are welcomed in to a place where we are all Outsiders together. We all exist together outside the “norm” that others find comfortable. We become the misfits, the weird ones, the not-quite-good-enough ones.

I don’t know. Maybe this sounds scary to you. Maybe you really want to be a part of the in group. There are days when I feel like that.

But then I remember these parables that Jesus told. You know when the shepherd goes off in search of that one Other sheep – the lost one – he is putting the other 99 sheep at risk. They could have wandered off or been attacked. He risks the entire flock to go find that one sheep. It seems to me that God is wildly in love with that one sheep. God so values the Other that God is willing to risk those “normal” sheep to bring that one sheep back.

And when that one sheep gets back, I can only imagine that she has stories to tell. Wild and fantastical stories about what it was like to be lost. What is was like to be on the Outside looking in. And I can only imagine that those stories, if properly heard, would begin to change the majority. Those stories would shift the big group – ever so slightly.

In the Beloved Community – that ideal world that God continues to dream for all of us – I have to believe there are no in-groups and out-groups. No Outsiders to be de-Otherized at all. There are no found coins and lost coins. There’s just us. Together. Whole. Beloved and Loving. Sought and seeking. Seen and shining a light on others. Shifted and shifting those around us.

We’ll get there someday. God’s never yet lost a game of hide and seek.