Sunday, October 16, 2016

The immortality of love

This week I'm posting the sermon I am preaching for the hospice memorial service, rather than the Sunday morning sermon, because A) I like it better, and B) I don't have a manuscript for Sunday morning and pulling it together after the fact is a lot of work I may or may not do. So, enjoy!

Revelation 21:1-4

Most of our lives are spent tiptoeing around death, sometimes pretending like it isn’t there, sometimes putting other things in its way, and sometimes intentionally minimizing it, as if any of those options put death to death. This is true of our own mortality but even more-so when it comes to those we love. Parents, brothers and sisters, friends, even our children. We tiptoe around it because we’re scared of it, because we absorb messages in our lives that tell us life is always good, death is always bad, so best to flee from it however much you can. When J.K. Rowling was crafting her primary villain for the Harry Potter series she could think of no better name to give him than “Vol-de-mort” which, in French, means “flees from death.”
            So, it is at first jarring, sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately a tremendous blessing to have people—nurses and social workers and retired people, as well as people who have vocations that don’t seem to have a thing to do with end of life care—who nonetheless give of themselves, their time and energy, to those whose life is ending, who do not flee from death out of fear but who stand alongside the dying, because that is what human beings are called to do. These people are the hands and feet of Jesus, it is most certainly true.
            Last month I was eating with a friend whose son had recently died unexpectedly—not a hospice situation, more of the tragic accident type—and during the course of the conversation we were talking about the ways that we face our mortality or flee from it. We talked about how Ironman triathlons are overrun with people in their 40s and 50s, trying desperately, it seems, to remain young forever. Perhaps if they do just a little more and just a little more they will never get old. We talked about regrets and living with grief, figuring out how to truly live when the imagined future is gone and we are confronted with a real-present that isn’t what we imagined. We talked purpose and what the good-life looks like. We talked about love, without using the word.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Just have faith

Exodus 32:1-14

            Moses was gone for like two hours—that’s my bias, we have no idea how long he was gone, but it feels to me like two hours before the people start thinking God has abandoned them. God, the God who parted the Red Sea for them to walk across; God, the God who sent plagues on Egypt, the God who gave Abraham and Sarah a child in their old age, who saved Joseph to have him rise to power in Egypt. This God who can do all things: They lost faith in this God in about two hours. OK, maybe it was days, a week even. How long would it take to lose faith in this God?
            Because I think that’s the big question before us today: What does it take to lose faith in God?
            In order to get at that question I want to talk about a different question that is part of the inventory I do with couples who are getting married. It goes like this: “Agree or Disagree: Nothing could make me question my love for my partner.” Couples who have never been married previously, and especially those who are young inevitably agree with this statement. It’s not 100%. Of course it’s never 100%. But most do agree. This falls into the category of romantic answers that people want to believe in. We want to believe that the person we are marrying—the person to whom I am giving my heart—will never let me down and that there is nothing that will happen between us that could lead me to be any less in love. This is romantic. It’s less romantic to start to name some realities of things that happen in the world: adultery, domestic abuse, change in personality, or addiction. In our most romantic moments we believe that love trumps all those things, and truly, it does. Just not always our love. Just not the kind of love we are capable of most days of the week. Our love is more fleeting than we tend to imagine.
            But you might be wondering what that has to do with faith, less still with the golden calf.
Well, I think we are frequently that person who runs headlong into faith, just as we do love, and we believe that nothing could possibly make us question our love of God. So, we practice faith like we enter into love, which is to say we do so naively. This is because faith is romantic, too. Faith takes us to a place of idealism and hope and peace and all sorts of things that are good and true but maybe not as easily earned as we imagine. Faith, like marriage, is tested and refined not in the mountaintops but in the valley-bottoms. Faith is not strengthened by virtue of results but of resolve, and this is often the same with love, though in a different way. We fall in love with an ideal but slowly, over time, we begin to love a person; a person who is not perfect. Faith is like this too, except the process works backwards. We begin our relationship with God by trying to make ourselves perfect, by taking on the biblical command to conform ourselves to God’s image, then our faith is strengthened over time as we begin to let go of our need to save ourselves and settle into trusting God to do what we cannot.
            But this process will show our faith for what is truly is: Is it something that exists to make us feel better about ourselves—a surface-level kind of assurance that things will be OK in the end that is always looking for validation? Or is our faith that deep reminder that we are not God and though the world quakes and our lives appear just as broken as before there is that great soul-peace of trusting in something much bigger than myself so it is not incumbent on me to fix it?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Passover people with a Pharaoh complex, or why we need ritual

Exodus 12:1-13, 13:1-8

The plagues of Egypt. What a story! Moses goes to Pharaoh, saying, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh turns his nose at him. Then the water turns to blood, frogs come up from the water, gnats and flies overwhelm the air, livestock die, people become covered by festering boils—that’s just the worst—that is until the thunder and hail and fire rains down from the sky and then the locusts, finishing off the rest of the crops, and lastly (or almost lastly… pen-lastly?) the darkness. Nine plagues: In some ways each more terrible than the last but nothing compared to the tenth.
It’s hard to imagine exactly how devastating the death of every firstborn in the land would be because losing one child is something like losing the world. For everyone in the country to lose a child at the same time is beyond imagining. This was a terrible time in history. The Egyptians put the Israelites into slavery out of fear that they would rise up. There were too many of them in the land. The Israelites had the numbers but the Egyptians held the power. So, in addition to holding them captive as slaves Pharaoh had ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill Hebrew boys and this is how Moses famously ends up in the reed basket in the Nile. It’s also how Moses ended up in Pharaoh’s house, saved by one of his daughters.
In one sense these plagues culminate in the eye for an eye kind of justice that pervades the earliest stories from the Bible. Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people and ordered that their boys be killed so God frees them from slavery by way of killing the first-born of the Egyptians. This is fair. It’s horrible, but it’s fair. More than that, the plagues set Israel apart from other people. These are children of Abraham. Nobody messes with children of Abraham.
So it is that the Israelites are commanded by God to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood over their doorpost to mark their homes so that when the tenth plague hits the Lord may “pass over” their house. This all happens just as promised and the Israelite children are spared; it was a terrible kind of miracle. The Passover is so important it must be remembered and celebrated. Thus, the festival of the unleavened bread was born.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Forgiveness is power: The story of Joseph and his brothers

Genesis 50:15-21

Power. The story of Joseph comes down to power. You may remember this story from Sunday School or from watching Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at some point along the way; it’s familiar but in case the details are fuzzy I’m going to run through them quick. Israel, whose original name was Jacob, had twelve sons. Now, Jacob was married to both Leah and Rachel at the same time because of some trickery done by his father-in-law and uncle, Laban. By the way, this is one of the reasons to be skeptical of anybody who says there is one singular biblical definition of marriage, because marriage in this time was wacky. Jacob has two wives and at least two mistresses and nothing was the bother with it.
Of Jacob’s twelve sons, the first four were from Leah; the next two with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah; the next two were with Leah’s maid, Zilpah; the next two were again with Leah; and then there was one daughter with Leah as well. Then, in Genesis 30:22-24 it says, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” Some time later, Benjamin is born to Rachel and we have our twelve tribes of Israel—a hodgepodge of mothers, a strange accumulation of brothers—and, as usual, God elects one we would not expect to rule over the others.
There’s a long scriptural tradition of choosing the unexpected one, so maybe it’s not as unexpected after all. Joseph was the second-youngest, the child of Israel’s old age. But Joseph was the first son of Rachel, the one wife Israel loved most. We’re told that Joseph was destined for great things and had the dreams of one whom God favored. But this is not how power was established in those days. The eldest had the claim to the inheritance. Israel knew this; after all, it was he who stole the birthright and the inheritance from his older twin brother, Esau. To all rights Reuben, the eldest son, should have been the blessed one here, but Israel held a special place for Rachel, the wife he had always wanted first of all, and so it is Joseph who is chosen and set apart.
Now, that’s a lot of names to keep straight if this story isn’t particularly familiar to you. Suffice it to say, Joseph was 11th of 12, but in his father’s eyes he was greatest of all. So we come to this story. And power. It came down to power.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Abraham; God's capacity to make something from nothing

Genesis 15:1-6, 17:1-8, 15-22

God does things with extraordinary people—you know this. He takes Abram and makes him ABRAHAM! He takes Saul and makes him PAUL! He takes Moses and makes him MOSES! I like that last one most of all because that’s me. I mean, like Sarah, my name change could be more subtle—you know, changing that last letter in your name but not really changing the pronunciation—like FRANQ! Of course, the names have more to do with ancient meanings we mostly don’t understand today. For example, Abraham means “father of many” in Hebrew. Paul means “humble” in Latin, which was such a big change precisely because Saul had been quite the opposite of humble.
            The point here is that Abraham is so great because God made him so. Same with Paul. Same with Moses—who never changed his name, I’m just messing with you. All these guys just had the fortune (or misfortune) of having God show up and meet them face-to-face. This is the only difference between you and me and Abraham; he had God show up at his door. And he did what most human beings do when confronted with God: He laughed. It’s not that “O-M-G. Wow. I can’t believe it’s you” laugh either. It’s honest to goodness, you’ve got to be kidding me, I DO NOT BELIEVE YOU laughing. Same with Sarah. They are pretty sure that God is out of the freakin’ divine mind here.
            You see, in spite of having a song about him now Abram was not so different from you or me. He spent one hundred years of his life doing nothing of importance. Well, I mean that’s maybe not fair. Perhaps he was the homecoming king, maybe he was a really fast runner, maybe he could grow a mean fig tree, but history was going to forget him. He was did nothing we would remember for 100 years. We can probably relate to that. By all odds Abraham should have died a nobody. The fact that Abraham was around at all by the time God came calling was something of a miracle. The idea that he and Sarah could have a child? Ridiculous.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Breaking Promises, Building Relationships

Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-17, 3:1-8

            It begins with shame. Have you ever noticed that? The first thing that happens to Adam and Eve after eating the fruit from the tree is that they become ashamed. Their nakedness becomes something needing to be covered. Shame is a powerful thing. It’s one of the most powerful things. It’s so powerful that the fear of being outed as a fraud or being considered anything less than an upstanding citizen tends to exceed the judgment of actually being as bad as you imagine you might be. We are paralyzed by shame, afraid of what the neighbors are thinking; afraid to live in our own skin—private, too private--and our relationships suffer because of it.
            Shame is the harbor of gossip; it’s the dark cave that you live in even as you pretend your life is spent in the light. Shame is powerful. And shame shatters promises and kills relationships—with others, in your work, and even with yourself. Shame is the thing that begs us to put on fancy clothes and to not let anyone—even those closest to us—know us on anything other than the surface level. To risk more than that is terrifying.
            The church is rightly criticized for its hypocrisy on the topic of shame. The church will forever be filled with people who are not perfect—this is fine. You aren’t perfect people. The problem comes when the church is the safe harbor for the same kinds of practices that break promises and shatter relationships everywhere else in the world. The church needs to be the place where all those broken promises are strengthened by one another.
           This is the interconnected web of relationships in which we live and it is built on the foundation of trust with one another. This comes about by being honest with one another, by sharing our experiences and our stories, by not imagining the worst of one another but by sharing our misgivings openly and honestly and explaining the actions of others in the kindest ways. In short, trust comes through vulnerability, and vulnerability is the path out of shame. It’s actually the only way out. If you imagine what is the opposite of shame you might think of honor or glory—this is true—but the path out of shame is paved with vulnerability. You can’t walk from point A to point B without taking that road. And being vulnerable with one another is the only way to have authentic relationships.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Prayer makes us uncomfortable, and that's why we need it.

Luke 11:2-4

Do not bring us to the time of trial
            Deliver us not into temptation… do not bring us into the time of trial… I don’t know about you but to me those sound like very different things. Before this week I’m not sure I ever thought about the difference between those two versions of the Lord’s Prayer and I never really even considered the reasons why they exist. I mean, sometimes we assume that new things in the church—like, for example, versions of the Lord’s Prayer—are for cultural reasons when, in fact, it has everything to do with debates around what the Bible says. I’m guessing most of you probably prefer the temptation version because it is the version we pray here every Sunday, but rest assured that you could also say “save us from the time of trial” without feeling as though you are selling Jesus short, because both translations are grasping at the meaning of one Greek word.
But before we get to that I want to quickly talk about the “time of trial.” For me, when I hear that phrase the religious sphere of my brain kicks in and I think, “Oh, Jesus must be talking about judgment and eternal salvation—those kinds of things.” But, here, that’s not the case, because the Greek word Jesus speaks is πειρασμς (peirasmós), which means “to put to proof by experiment” (in other words, to “try” as in “trial”) and it also means “temptation.” Again, those seem like two different things—trials and temptations. So, in order to understand this word you might have to imagine a temptation as a test between two things—one right and one wrong—and the trial is the decision of which one to choose.
            But here’s where this gets interesting, because the trial and temptation language highlights something about what it is that Jesus is having us pray; namely, Jesus is telling us to pray to take choices away from us. The prayer is not “lead us through temptation” or “keep us from giving in to temptation” but instead “do not lead us into temptation” at all, which is subtly, but importantly, different. Jesus implies that we need prayer not to summon enough self-control to overcome something but instead we need prayer to keep us away from that situation completely. We need to pray that Jesus removes temptation, because we are not as strong as we think we are. The things that truly tempt us function like depression or anxiety or PTSD to a person with mental health problems. These are things that seem on the surface like they can be controlled if only a person can internally muster enough courage and willpower to overcome them, but the truth is that none of those, or anything that truly tempts us, can be defeated by strength or willpower. We aren’t strong enough; we just pretend we are. We triumph over things that didn’t actually tempt us very much. It’s like the man who is alone on a desert island for years and proudly proclaims, upon being saved, that he didn’t cheat or steal or commit adultery once in those years. For some, that’s what it takes.
So, we are told to pray for total removal from those situations—for a safe space from ourselves.