Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sermon: "Shut Up and Listen, or, a Sermon for Frederick Douglass Sunday"

"Shut Up and Listen, or, A Sermon for Frederick Douglass Sunday"

Preached at: South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Frederick Douglass Sunday/Second Sunday in Lent
24 February 2013

Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School
Rochester, New York
CRCDS Social Justice Fellowship Chapel Service
26 February 2013

Day Texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3.17-4.1
Luke 13.31-35

Frederick Douglass died on February 20th, 1895.  He was a resident of Hamilton St in the South Wedge Neighborhood of Rochester, New York.  We chose to honor him on this Sunday.  The Episcopal Church offers this collect for his commemoration:

SWM's Frederick Douglass open space station,
where quotes from his life were written on links
of chain.  We broke them off, one by one, and
wrote them on prayer flags, which will become part
of our worship space, and our hope for our community.
Almighty God, 
whose truth makes us free: 
We bless your Name 
for the witness of Frederick Douglass, 
whose impassioned and reasonable speech 
moved the hearts of a president and a people 
to a deeper obedience to Christ. 
Strengthen us also 
to be outspoken 
on behalf of those in captivity and tribulation, 
continuing in the Word of Jesus Christ our Liberator; 
who with you and the Holy Spirit 
dwells in glory everlasting. 


-Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.-The Pharisees, as you may know, are basically Jesus main antagonists throughout the Gospels.  The Daleks to his Doctor Who if you will.  And yet, for some strange reason, today we find them actually warning Jesus about King Herod.  Who is not such a good guy. 

-Now maybe they're first-call Pharisees, or seminarian Pharisees, and so, have been confused by an overly political vision of religion.  Or maybe the Pharisees are just trying to scare Jesus off.  Though if I were them, talking to my enemy, I'd probably say, "YES! GO to Jerusalem, it's all good there!  No death or dying for you!  It's NICE in Herod's palace wink wink!"  Or maybe they’re delivering a message for the tyrant.  Making Jesus an offer he can’t refuse.  Church authorities being corrupted by political power.  Never happens in our time, right?

-But Jesus fires back with a message of his own.  “Go and tell that fox” – in the Greek, its actually feminine, almost like Jesus is undermining the psuedo-masculinity of the threatening – “go and tell that vixen of a king: listen.” Listen.  Cease your posturing.  Quit hiding behind your minions, and your privilege, and your power.  And check it.  “I am casting out demons and rocking the healing circuit.  And I’m not going to stop until I hit Jerusalem.”  Listen Herod.  Something else is going on.  I’m the Jesus.  I’m coming.  You're on the wrong side of the cross.  And there’s not much you can do stop me. 

-And yet, Jesus’ prophetic action, the beginning of his response of speaking truth to power, is to tell them, essentially, to shut up and listen.  And he makes this demand, in order to point the powerful to the true miraculous power happening, not in palaces and temples, but down below, on the ground, amidst the powerless and forgotten.  Where demons are being cast out.  Where sickness is being eradicated.  Where God is happening.  Among those with whom Jesus is in solidarity.  Those for whom the prophetic Jesus is speaking.

-And that’s a hard place to go.  To have to listen.  To release the feeling of control that comes in words, and privilege, and power.  Because it first of all means an unmasking of ourselves.  It’s one thing to reveal that the emperor has no clothes when it is an emperor like Herod or Caesar.  But I wonder if there’s not a dash of Herod in each of us too.  Even in our best moments, that wants so badly to dictate the terms of engagement.  Trying to keep Jesus from coming to Jerusalem.  Where he might actually confront us.  Change us.  Force us to discover all that we do not know and cannot be.  Order us to silence.  Or to suffering. 

-Being cast down from your throne is not fun.  When I was in seminary at Duke Divinity, I was elected co-president of the Divinity Student Council.  As a leader of the student body, I had all these ideas and ideals about how to cultivate community, and work for reconciliation among a student body grappling with the open wounds of race and gender discrimination.  I had read all the right books, had all the right intentions.  Now, to prophetic action!

-And so, I gave speeches, and rolled out plans.  And continued to try to promote programs and initiatives throughout the year.  But nothing seemed to change.  Towards the end of my term, I found myself in the Women’s Center, talking with my friend Brandy, who was also the head of Sacred Worth, the GLBTQ alliance.  I was lamenting to her about how frustrating the year had been.  “I feel like people think I’m a privileged asshole,” I concluded.  And she said, “yes Matthew, they kind of do.” 

-Ouch.  Why, I wondered?  Wasn’t I trying to help the marginalized and all that?  And she said, “I know you care, and you have great ideas.  But caring’s not enough.  You never came to our meetings.  You never showed up to be with us. You never really took the time to listen.”

-Double ouch.  But also thank God.  Thank God that Brandy played the Jesus to my Herod.  Drove me from a place of playing at being a prophet, to a place of sitting at the feet to learn from those whose suffering was already prophetic.  Because she was willing to speak a hard truth to me with love and a desire for my transformation, Brandy opened me up to a whole world.  Of hearing the stories of African American students, and gay students, and women seminarians, who had fallen between the cracks of the blind spots of my own need to “be the change.” 

-And hearing this was hard.  Not only because I had to face the fact that I was more privileged than prophetic.  But also because it forced me, who as you may have noticed loves to talk, to listen.  To stop talking about the injustice.  And instead to experience it.  To be exposed to and by it.  To suffer it.  See, in hearing Brandy’s pain, I began to feel pain too.  Pain for her, and the suffering she had undergone at the hands of good intentions like mine.  Pain that led me, not only to listening, but to lament.

-And see, that’s the even more powerful bit to me about Jesus’ way of being prophetic.  Jesus is not afraid to cry out.  Not merely in heroic rebellion against the powers and principalities.  But also to take on himself the suffering of the community he loves.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries out.  “You who are so bound to endless cycles of power, and privilege, and willful blindness and violence! How I long to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing!”  Standing at the very heart of the rift between brothers and the rupture of injustice undergirding the powerful, Jesus lets his rage becoming something more.  He weeps.  He laments.

-See, that’s the other thing that can happen if we listen.  We might not just have to change our minds.  We might end up bearing the terrible pain and the heartbreak of the stories of others.  I know for me, it’s much easier to look at a moving photograph, or read an account of human suffering, than to have to look into the eyes of someone and receive their scars.  Ideals and good intentions feel safer. 

-But Jesus is the one who, even though he is God Incarnate, willingly abandons the safety of privilege and power.  Jesus listens.  And Jesus weeps.  And Jesus suffers with.  Which means that God listens.  And God weeps.  And God suffers with too.  And such suffering with, such compassion, such solidarity, leads this God to take on the suffering, and the sin, and the failures of power, and the schemes of humanity, and to carry them to Jerusalem. To Calvary.  Where the ultimate act of prophecy can take place.  The non-violent overthrowing of the violent.  By the solidarity of the cross.

-I think it’s quite fitting that, having risked listening to and weeping with the poor, having allowed himself not to get even, but to be moved with compassion, Jesus here also uses a very powerful feminine image of God.  It’s almost as if, in his listening compassion, Jesus purposely seeks to expand the picture of God we have.  From the (em)masculated fox, Herod.  To the fierce and powerful love of the Mother hen.  That’s the power of listening.  And of lament.  They change the game.  Where hens are stronger than foxes.  And prophetic compassion trumps the violence of privilege.  And where our tiny visions of a God-like-us might give way to a conceptions we never imagined.  God as woman.  God as black.  God as gay.  God as not-quite-like-us.  

-Crazy what happens when you listen.  Today is Frederick Douglass Sunday here at the Mission, and I think on the great South Wedge Abolitionist, because his journey of justice also began with a listening.  In his groundbreaking autobiography, Douglass recalls his first encounters, while a slave, with the “wild songs” of the slaves, which “revealed at once “the highest joy and the deepest sadness.”  He writes:

Bust of Frederick Douglass
from outside the chapel at CRCDS
The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.  I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them…to those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.  Those songs follow me, to deepen my heart of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

-Douglass’ deep compassionate listening to the pain of his people led him into a long, suffering battle, not only for the slaves, but also, for others whose humanity was being violated.  In 1848, just down the Erie Canal at the Seneca Falls Convention, he was the sole African American man to attend the convention to pass a resolution demanding women’s’ suffrage.  And when most of the other men came out opposed, Douglass alone stood fast, and put the powers of his mighty oratory into the service of those to whom he had deeply listened, drawing on the prophetic energy of compassionate lament, undoubtedly forged in the fires of the suffering of those wild slave songs, enough were moved to pass the resolution.

-Crazy things can happen when we listen.  The suffering of the world will break our hearts.  Our souls may just end up crying out under the weight of a compassion we’d rather run from.  We might even find ourselves following Jesus on that lonely prophet’s journey to Jerusalem, and to the prophet’s fate upon Calvary’s hill.  But that is the way that God Incarnate has set forth for us.  Listening.  Letting go.  Lamentation.  And, if we are so blessed, a love that is stronger than hate, more powerful than privilege, and impossible to deny.

-That is my prayer for myself this day.  And my prayer for this family of God at the South Wedge Mission, and at CRCDS.  And my prayer for each of us.  That we would listen.  Let go.  Lament.  And so love, truly, deeply, richly, prophetically.  

-In the name of our Mother God, the gathering hen, the great listener. Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sermon: "The Spring Revolution: A Manifesto, or, How the Grinch Stole Lent"

"The Spring Revolution: A Manifesto, or, How the Grinch Stole Lent"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
First Sunday in Lent
17 February 2013

Day Texts: Deuteronomy 26.1-11
Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16
Romans 10.8-13
Luke 4.1-13

I continue to engage in an "experiment" of my own in my preaching.  Namely, trying on an extemporaneous style.  This adapted from the original MSS and the audio, which wasn't clean enough to post.  Thanks for having solidarity with me in this!  

I always enjoyed Lent growing up.  I loved the minor key German chorales that sang of sacred heads now wounded and going to Dark Gethsemane.  Loved actually living the stories of Holy Week, as we journeyed liturgically with Jesus from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the heartbreak of Good Friday.  As far as ways to reflect on such easy topics as, you know, sin, suffering, mortality, failure and death, there’s definitely worse ways to go about it.

But this year, its feeling to me like the Grinch has stolen Lent.  Because for once in my teutonic existence, I’m not actually really feeling the whole existential angst thing.  Maybe it comes from returning home to a city where its cloudy and grey pretty much every day.  Or maybe it just feels like there’s enough suffering in the world already.  

Or maybe, Lent’s not all it was originally cracked up to be.  Because back in the day, in the early early church, before the Dark Ages brought the dark to the ages, the 40 days leading up to Easter wasn’t primarily focused on guilt and sin.  Rather, it was focused on identity.  Namely, our identity in Christ.  And initiation into a new community, a new family, as a new creation.

See, this time marked the final home stretch for folks seeking baptism and inclusion into the people of Jesus.  These catechumens, as they were called, did go through some fasting, and penance, and public scrutinies and even exorcisms.  But these were in the service of deepening their experience of the mysteries of faith, a way of building anticipation for the moment, at the Easter Vigil, when, having seen their old self buried with Jesus, they would enter naked into the baptismal bath, be immersed in the waters, and arise to be anointed with oil.  Like Jesus at his baptism.  To be called, like Jesus, beloved sons and daughters of God.  

It makes me wonder about how I’ve always read our Gospel lesson for today.  Because I think I’ve always read it through the Grinch’s lens of a miserable Lent.  And so always thought, “man, Jesus is baptized and told God loves him, and then is sent to starve in the sand for 40 days?  What a raw deal.  That’s tough love.”  

But I wonder: perhaps Jesus might have enjoyed his time of sojourn in the desert.  Now granted, the whole fasting thing is not exactly cake.  But maybe Jesus spent his time communing.  Living into his newly declared identity of beloved child.  Maybe he took the time to bask in the beauty of stars at night in a cloudless desert sky.  Discovered and explored hidden caverns.  Drank deeply of the cool of the shade.  Living into being a community, a Trinity, with the Father and Spirit, and so, growing deeper into his truest identity and self.  A sureness of intimacy with God that no voice of temptation could ever shake.

And see, I think this might be what St. Luke’s after here in his telling of the story.  Because Luke’s is the only Gospel that says that Jesus was led into the desert WHERE he was tempted.  The others say “TO be tempted,” as if that were the point.  But for Luke, the temptation is secondary.  Its the being led - by the Spirit - that is central.  

And see, if Jesus’ desert sojourn was really about knowing himself more deeply as God’s beloved child - and if the purpose of the early church’s practice of Lent, and even our Lent, is about knowing ourselves as God’s beloved children - then its no wonder to me that Satan assumes the mantle of Grinch, and tries to disrupt Jesus from the path.  Trying to make this time more about the lack of food, or the lack of power, or the lack of security.  Taking the focus off of God and identity, and onto practices and failures, lack and unworthiness.  Questioning again and again, “if you really ARE God’s Son...” while dangling the carrot of achievement and success in front of the one seeking grounding, not in the doing of things, but in the being of someone.  God’s someone.

Now, regardless of what you think about El Diablo - whether you think he’s a little red guy with hooves or the spiritual equivalent of a monster truck rally - this Lenten temptation is very much real.  The Grinch that tries to steal Lent from us, again and again, is the nagging, whispering, satanic voice trying to steal the gift of knowledge of God’s love for us by focusing us on our lack of love for ourselves.  The goal is a disrupted communion.  The goal is a heart ten sizes too small.

I’m not going to write the rest of this message in Dr. Seuss rhyme.  Lucky you.  But what I would like to do is try on an old preacher trick.  The infamous three-point sermon.  I’d like to explore three different ways we could try to view and so live Lent as a time of internalizing, exploring, and deepening our identity in Christ.  A time of taking the words “you are God’s beloved child” and letting them sink from our heads into our hearts.  A re-orienting time of initiation, or re-initiation, into the desert adventure of companionship with God.  

So here goes.  A draft of a manifesto for a Spring Revolution.  Because Lent means spring.  And God’s after what Dorothy Day called a revolution of the heart.

First, off, what if we viewed Lent as an experiment?  Much to my mother’s chagrin, I’ve been learning a lot from the Buddha recently.  And one of his main teachings is that truth is something that we do.  That we learn.  Not just think.  What if Jesus went out into that desert, not so much to contemplate the knowledge that he was God’s beloved, as much as to live it out?  To experience it?  To practice it?

It reminds me of my dear friend Marcus from Denver.  Marcus was part of a subculture known as “crust punk.”  Basically, a bunch of kids who dropped out of high school and ride the rails, or hitch-hike, all across the country, learning how to make things and survive and explore.  Modern day Beats, scruffy Jack Kerouacs.  Magnificent beards too!

Well, Marcus also happens to be a Christian.  And he and a bunch of his friends travelled, specifically to live into their faith in God’s promises.  To try out what it might be like to have nothing except God, and be utterly dependent upon God’s providence and promises for survival.  Their life on the road was a grand experiment.  And oh the stories he had to tell!

What if life with God in Lent was more like On the Road? A time to set out on a journey, to try things, to live the Beat life...which, at its root, means “beatified?”  If we stopped trying to achieve or manufacture some sort of identity, and instead, clothed ourselves in nothing but our God-given identity, and then, see what happens?  

Might it look like a 40 day trip in the desert, putting on the practice of prayer and fasting?  Perhaps.  Or maybe it looks like trying to fast just once.  This week.  Seeing what its like.  Taking a baby step.  A first endeavor.  And then, reflecting.  Conversating.  And then, figuring out a next step.  Life as an ongoing process of discover, experimenting with what being God’s child means right now.  Not as we imagine we’re meant to be.  But as God tells us we are.  Right now.

Takes away some of the pressure, right?  It can be more of a time of wonder, and less one of fear.  In the Gospel, Satan tries to disrupt Jesus’ experiment, praying on his hunger, offering him an easy closure in the form of a quick fix.  Just turn the stones to bread, and its all over.  But Jesus resists.  Like Marcus, decides to live by the Word of God alone.  

What a life of freedom it would be to live our spirituality as an experiment.  Lent’s a great time to try out the little experiments (and the grand ones too) that you’ve always wondered about.  Test it.  Try new things.  Make mistakes.  Fail!  And then explore a different angle.  What would Lent be like if you knew you couldn’t fail?  Because you already know who you are.  Now its just a matter of living into it!  

I wonder if we might live differently.  Able to engage in a second way of looking at Lent - that of resistance.  Satan quite clearly tempts Jesus with the promise of power.  In exchange for idolatry.  Worship me, and you’ll have complete control, whispers the Grinch.  And Jesus, being the Son of God, has all the power in the world to zap him out of existence.  And yet, Jesus does not.  

Jesus knows who he is.  And whose he is.  And whose he is not.  And because he is secure in himself, he does not need to use violence or force.  But he does resist.  Throws idolatry and false worship and false promises into the abyss.  Turns down the offer of power, and also the promise of miraculous attention, just as he will, years later, when he is being raised upon a cross.  Because God, in God’s love for us, would rather forgive than raise a finger of force.

But he does resist.  Gandhi called his great nonviolence work “experiments in truth.”  Rebellion against the empty lies of the devil and the empty promises of violence, this is part and partial of our true identity.  Perhaps it will mean giving up things the world offers, refusing to believe their empty promises, just as catechumens are called on to renounce “the devil and all his empty promises.”  It might mean re-examining our idolatrous complicity with the powers and principalities of this earth.  It might mean suffering, and losing control. (Hence why we’re participating in the Season of Non-Violence! See link here for more)

But as children of God, experimenting in truth and love, freed from failure, and made alive by the Spirit, we are given the time to be faithful.  We are given the promise of love to give us hope.  And we are armed with weapons of love in the war of the Lamb, which is to smash all lies, disbelieve all falsehoods, doubt our doubts, and to live our callings.  It will bring us into conflict with the world.  And it is a rebellion worth undertaking.  

And we do not engage it alone.  Because Lent is also a time of solidarity.  We do not experiment alone, but as part of a great workshop, a lively laboratory, of colleagues, dead and living and yet to come.  And resisting and rebelling against the death-dealing idolatries of the world will mean coming into relationship with those who have been oppressed by them.  It will mean walking with the poor, the marginalized, the betrayed, the beaten, and yes, even the damned.  It will lead us into the wilds of human suffering.  And into the ecstasies of human community.

And it will lead us to one another.  In this community, here.  We will journey together, and we will discover together, and hold one another, and guide one another to oases.  And we’ll also fail one another.  We are companions with one another, and fellow travelers with Jesus.  We will face dangers, just as Satan tempted Jesus to leap from the roof of the temple.  Jesus was promised angelic companions, but Jesus knew that he already walked in the fellowship of the Spirit.  We are sometimes tempted to go it alone.  But Jesus has left us, not only with the Spirit, but with each other.  

This is a time when we will delight in discovering together the wilderness.  Sharing observations.  Supporting one another’s experiments.  Carrying each other in the resistance.  Remembering, like the ancient Israelites, who we were, as slaves, and so knowing we are meant to be, as the liberated, and the being-liberated, and the liberating.  And, helping each other remain capable of being surprised, able to wonder, able to adventure.  Its a time to grow deeper together, and to fail forward.  Together.  All of us.    

And of course, this manifesto is not complete.  What new ways of living Lent, of being children of God, can you devise?  I look forward to exploring them together. I look forward to receiving them from you, here, in this flourishing, beautiful oasis in the midst of the desert of the world.

And best of all, as John Wesley once said, best of all, God is with us.  If Lent, if Christianity, is just about achieving, if its just about misery, if its just about struggle, then by all means, let the Grinch have it.  But maybe, just maybe, we can steal it back.  By refusing to live any other truth about ourselves than the truth declared by God and sealed by the blood of the cross.  The truth that we are God’s children.  That we are claimed and beloved of God.  That we belong to one another.  That we are free to live fully and explore broadly and fail miserably.  And that we are never alone.  We never walk alone.

So.  Welcome to the Spring Revolution.  Welcome to Lent.  Welcome to life.  Welcome to who you really are.  Amen.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sermon: "The Normal is Narnia"

"The Normal is Narnia"

Preached at St. John's Episcopal Church
Honeoye Falls, New York
Feast of the Transfiguration
10 February 2013

Day Texts: Exodus 34.29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2
Luke 9.28-43


-Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

-So you may have noticed that, in the past couple days, its snowed.  Just a little bit, right?  The South Wedge neighborhood where I'm the pastor of a new mission start, the South Wedge Mission, looks for me, literally, like a dream come to life.  Like one of those Dickens' Villages, with the tiny English cottages and fake snow that my mom used to set up around the Christmas time.  It's magical.

-And see, I kind of secretly always wanted to live in one of those cottages in one of those tiny English villages.  And the South Wedge, it kind of looks like one of those villages.  Come to think of it, it kind of looks like here, Honeoye Falls.  Growing up, my cross country friends from Fairport and I would come down here all the time.  Mostly to hang out with the HFL cross country girls!  And I always loved the water falls, and the mill, and the taverns, and the friendliness.  So it's an extra joy to be here on a morning when the world has been, quite literally, transfigured.

-And if that sounds cheesy, it's almost like God is daring us today with today's Gospel and this cloak of white that has been draped over the world.  How can we not recognize the obvious set up here as we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration?  And why would we not want to?  When the ordinary world of normal, ordinary things, suddenly changes, and becomes for us a kind of dream scape?  I was especially delighted by a photo I saw online, I think from the New York Times, delighting in the fact that all the street signs are covered, the names, obscured.  "We could as well be in Narnia as New York," the caption mused.  Indeed.

-Its awesome to live inside the magic.  To take a break from reality.  I could sit inside all day, taking the invitation of the piled snow drifts, and just watch the flakes fall and dance in the wind.

And I don't really want the sun to come out.  Which is saying something, living up here in one of the cloudiest places in the country.  Partly because the sun is a complete liar here.  It gets colder when the sun comes up, unlike in Denver or North Carolina where I've spent the past few years.  But also, because it means that the play has ended.  The snow plows come out to sweep the stage.  And as you know, the snow gets dirty.  Disgusting.  You all know what I'm talking about!  

-And we can't avoid shoveling anymore.  I'll go out and shovel all morning.  And then the damn snow plough comes by, and chalks up all that slush from the road, and I get splattered, and my driveway gets re-covered, and the magic evaporates to the dirt and messiness of ordinary life.  And it's bittersweet.  Not only do we have to go back to work or school.  As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "when the cold rains came kept on and killed the spring, it was as if a very small child had died for no reason."  So too, with the snow, and the snow ploughs, and snow shovels of death.

-Now, there's one thing that's good about all this.  See, in the Wedge, when winter hits, people hit hibernation mode pretty hard.  Everyone's holed up in their houses.  And having moved there just before Christmas, it's been a challenge to meet people.  But any time there's a snow fall, everyone comes out.  To shovel.  Like a crazy Minnesota block party, we're all out there, doing work.  It's on those days that I'm driven by the dirtiness and the disappointment into wonderful conversations and new connections with my neighbors.  As we all move on from the "mountain top experience," it's kind of neat how an ending gives way to a new chapter, of work yet to be done, community yet to be remembered.  The drudgery of the ordinary retains a dim recollection of the magic of yesterday.

-Like I said, I feel God totally tossed us a softball regarding today's Gospel.  Because I wonder if having lived through the highs and lows this week helps live through the Transfiguration with Peter, and John and James.  Now, for those dopey disciples, ascending Mt. Tabor with their teacher was not some pre-manufactured, pre-parketed "mountain top experience."  They almost fall asleep for Pete's sake!  If anything, my money's on the possibility that they do this quite frequently.  I hear them grumbling, "oh man, climbing another dang mountain so he can pray again.  Why can't he just pray in a valley for once?  Or a nice level plain?"  It's par for the course.  An ordinary everyday experience.

-They're probably itching to go "back down into the valley," as the well-worn spiritual idiom runs.  Given that the disciples are always falling asleep when Jesus prays, maybe those of us who aren't so good at charismatic prayer can have some hope.  Maybe Mr. Messiah wasn't the world's most thrilling pray-er.  Or maybe it's just a routine.

-And then, in the midst of just another prayer meeting with Jesus, he goes radioactive.  Lights up.  Glow-in-the-dark Jesus.  And beauty floods the whole scene.  And minds are positively blown.  And then dead guys show up.  Moses and Elijah, the heroes of the Jewish faith.  Dead heroes.  Talking.  With Jesus.  At the prayer meeting.  Talking.  Dead guys.

-And not just talking about glory.  This is not a "hey, haven't seen you since you got Incarnated, how's it going with those dopey disciples," kind of talking.  But St. Luke tells us they are discussing what Jesus is about to do in Jerusalem.  About the cross.  About death.  About the sacrifice that Jesus will make for the love of God's children.

-It's a crucial pivot point in the drama of the Gospel.  When we shift from the romance of a promising, exciting ministry of healing and revolution and proclamation.  To the dark truth and hard reality of what is to come.  Bittersweetness.  As if a very small child was to die for no reason.  Everything is, quite literally, down hill from here to Jerusalem.  The magic's going to end.  The snow is going to get dirty.

-And of course, Peter picks up on this.  I can just see him, stirring from his sleep. And even more persuasive for him than radioactive dead guys is the sudden echo of that word.  Cross.  Jesus.  Death.  And so Peter does what Peter does best.  He tries to dissuade Jesus from dying.  "Um, master, you know we could just stay here, right?  I'll make you a nice house.  A hermitage.  Be your butler.  James can get you groceries.  Keep Moses and Elijah around if you want to.  This place we didn't really want to be?  It's looking like prime real estate right about now!"

-We know what Peter is feeling, right?  Who wants to go down into the dirtiness?  Where failure after failure awaits the disciples.  Where torture and death and separation and betrayal await the fellowship.  Where there's hard work to do.  Where we might have to actually die too.  Remember, the very next story in the Gospel is of the disciples utterly failing to cast out a demon from a little boy.  It's a messy world ahead.  The magic doesn't work there, in the valley of the dirty snow.

-To be fair, maybe Peter's also trying to protect Jesus.  Maybe we all want to stay in these magical moments, because we're with Jesus.  We're actually with Jesus.  Miracles and magic happen here.  And suddenly, compared to climbing the Mount of Calvary, the same old prayer meeting on Mount Tabor becomes pretty enchanting.  A place where goodness could still prevail, a happy ending is possible, where people don't have to get scarred and nailed to trees.  We want safety for our family and our friends, and we want stories where we can dwell as little children full of life and wonder and surprise and delight.  And also the familiar.

-And to all of this, Jesus says: "it's time to go down."  And ironically, at the point where Jesus calls for the scene to end, there's actually a lot of Gospel.  A lot of hope for the next chapter.  Because Jesus is not going down alone.  And neither are the disciples.  Just as he had to lead them like little children up to the top, now, he must also lead the little children down.  But it is Jesus leading the way.  And it is Jesus, walking with us, towards Jerusalem, into the dirty snow, and back into reality.

-But I wonder if we have to see it as a dragging.  Perhaps it's less like a nagging parent pushing a stubborn child out to shovel snow.  Maybe it's more like that poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Where he says that "Christ plays in Ten Thousand Places."  Maybe that little talk with Moses and Elijah, maybe it charged Jesus up.  Maybe the light remained sparkling in his eyes, along with the tears.

-And maybe, just maybe, the descent was more like a game.  Of tag.  Or hide and seek.  Like David Tennant's Doctor Who, maybe the Doctor of our souls, Jesus, said, "Allons-y!" or "catch me if you can!"  And so, strengthened and cheered their souls as they went back into a world still glowing faintly with the radiation of the transfiguration.  A world, as Hopkins noted, that is "charged with the grandeur of God."

-And just as Doctor Who keeps coming back to delight in the people of earth, just as the Pevense children desire again and again to return to Narnia, so Jesus desires to come back into the world.  Jesus joys and delight in rejoining us, down below, in the ash and the dust and the dirty snow.  Because you see, Jesus' glory, even on the mount of transfiguration, is not a clean, separate, set-apart glory.  It is a glory that includes talk of the cross.  And so can find glory, and beauty, and magic and enchantment, not just in spite of suffering and loss and failure and brokenness, but actually, in the failure and brokenness.

-That's what we Lutherans call a "theology of the cross."  That this crazy Time Lord of a God, this dancing lion CS Lewis called Aslan, this Jesus, brings us down to play the game.  Of hide and seek.  And delights in hiding most in the shadows.  Where we will have to follow to discover him.

-Its obvious that Jesus believes that descending back into the mission, the mission of healing and proclamation of Good News about the grace of God is more important than remaining in private ecstasy.  But there's more to mission than that.  Maybe the mission of Jesus, and the mission of God's people the church, isn't just to go and tell the News about Jesus.  Maybe it's also to go out and discover where God has been playing hide and seek all a long.

-Because, you see, the blessed radiation of the Transfiguration enables us to see the secret we were never quite able to find.  That in fact, the world is charged with God's grandeur.  That Jesus is hiding in cracks and ashes and failures and ugliness, as much as in beauty and sunsets and all that hippie stuff.

-That, in fact, when we forget the names we thought we knew of the streets we walked every day, we discover: the normal is now Narnia.  It has always been Narnia.  And it is ours to discover.  And ours to enjoy.  And ours, as the place, the story and the stage where we play with Jesus, and discover, hidden in the shadows, unending and blinding light.

-I wonder if we can believe that.  That the Good News is not only just that Jesus appears in glory and reveals his divinity.  But that the glory Jesus reveals involves the cross.  Involves dirty snow.  Involves going out to fail again and again at the hard work of suffering, and shoveling, and trying to do miracles that are ultimately beyond us.  And discovering in all that, that in fact, the glory is rising up.  That when we shovel away the mud and the grime, there is rich soil under neath.  Just waiting for spring.  Waiting for new life to grow.  In our world.  And in our souls.

-The normal is Narnia.  Narnia is not without pain.  Narnia is not without failure.  Narnia is not without dirty snow, not without endless winter and never Christmas.  But it is Narnia nevertheless.  It is the world that God loves.  It is Christ's playground.  It is the place where Jesus is hiding, eagerly waiting to be discovered.  Eagerly desiring to be followed.

-So let us go out into the normal Narnia.  To Honeoye Falls, and Fairport, and South Wedge, and to Beechwood and Calcutta and Khartoum.  Seeing the shadow of the cross that leads us into the dirty snow and broken places where God is hiding.  But also, remembering, that the shadow is cast by the light of a greater glory that is charging the world.  And changing us.  And maybe, just maybe, bringing us a little bit of magic.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Sermon: Uncondition-ing Cliffside Romance, or, On Two Kinds of Love

"Uncondition-ing Cliffside Romance, or, On Two Kinds of Love"

Preached at St. John's Lutheran Church, Victor, New York
South Wedge Mission, Rochester, New York
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
3 February 2013

Day Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10
Psalm 71.1-6
1 Corinthians 13.1-13
Luke 4.14-30

"You shall love, whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling. You shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You feel your love has died. It is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each women. Know each other in that love which never changes.” - Kierkegaard


Note: I've been experimenting with trying to move towards a more extemporaneous-manuscript hybrid style as of late.  The text below is a partial transcript, partial manuscript from Sunday.  As such, slightly longer than usual.  

Audio for the proclamation at South Wedge Mission can be found here.


-Grace, mercy and peace is yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

-Re-reading the beautiful passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is a cool experience for me today.  Because we actually had that read at our wedding.  Which was one of the very first times I ever preached in public – because of course, you know, I had to preach at my own wedding.   And I remember being so excited to preach about this passage – to tell many of my gathered family and friends, many of whom had been hurt by the church, about God’s unconditional love for us.  It’s a great text to read at weddings.

-Except that it wasn’t actually written to be read at a wedding.  It was actually written to a community of people who hated each other’s guts.  (Which might be true at some weddings you’ve been to.)  It was written to enemies.  Who were not loving each other unconditionally.  Who were ready, perhaps, to throw each other off of a cliff. 

-Not unlike the scene we stumble upon at the end of our Gospel lesson today.  I can’t forget that last scene.  Its downright painful.  Jesus is dragged out of his home synagogue, and led to the top of a high cliff.  To be chucked over the edge.  By a mob most likely comprised of people he knew well.    People he grew up with.  Who knew him as a kid.  A little league coach.  A next store neighbor.  His father’s customer.  A best friend’s mom.  A Sunday School teacher.  Maybe some of his relatives.  His family and friends. 

-Because something Jesus said to them filled them with rage.  A rage fiery enough to consume them with enough violence to take that little boy from Nazareth, now a grown man, and bring him to the precipice.  Moments ago, he was their hero.  A real-life prophet, homegrown in their village.  He’d made them all so proud.  They had all spoken well of him.  This was Joseph’s son.  They’re ready to put his face on the billboards welcoming people to town.  “Nazareth: Home of Jesus Christ – State Champion!”

-What he said must have been something that made them feel very betrayed.  Like saying, “I’m that Messiah.  I’m here to proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, and Good News to the poor.   But I’m not here just for you.  And God is not just for the people of Israel.  God has sent me with the Gospel of God’s love to the whole of creation.  And that means, for those foreigners too.  Those Gentiles.  Alien widows.  And enemy generals.”  You know, like those Roman centurions who regularly rape and pillage our town.

-And part of me can feel their pain too.  The deep pangs of betrayal.  After all, aren’t the people of Nazareth poor too?  Don’t they have their share of widows, and aren’t they the slaves of enemy generals?  And God’s promised Messiah, the liberator – he’s being sent to them, too?  And won’t even do a miracle for us, the ones who made him?

-I feel like we all throw around language of a loving God so often that we’ve lost a real sense of how terrible and scandalous this news actually is.  Because I wonder if, like the people of Nazareth, we haven’t also been conditioned by a world of conditional love to have certain expectations of God.  If, somehow, we believe that more of God’s love for the rest of the world might mean less of God’s love for us.  I wonder if we too feel betrayed, and angry, when our expectations are not met. 

-See, when we are going by strictly human love, we’re generally going to see the world, not as it is, but as we are.  Human love, in a broad sense, doesn’t love things in themselves.  It looks for objects to meet its conditions.  And only then, when it’s found its expectations met, does it give its love.  So, for example, when Jesus fails to meet the expectations his listeners have for a Messiah, for their little hometown superstar, for “Joseph’s son,” well, they feel betrayed.  And they withdraw their love.  And they’re ready to chuck him.

-This week, I was reminded how conditioned I’ve been by conditional love in my life.  Not one but three different friends confronted me, telling me they’d noticed that I’d been rather negative, cynical and bitter.  After the third go around, I was able to admit a certain amount of resentment I’d been harboring towards a dear friend.  Someone who I felt had shown me conditional love, and who had wounded me deeply.  My colleague Chris helped me to see that I was wounded because this friend had not lived up to my expectations and conditions for her.  And so, I was returning the favor by placing conditions on her.  And, pushing other people away too.  Thank God for friends who care more about telling us the truth than about our conditional acceptance. 

-Because even at its best, human love still creates conditions and expectations.  We have them of God, and then, we start to imagine God has them of us.  And then, we start to imagine our conditions for ourselves are also God’s conditions for others and…well, you see the point, right?  It’s a tangled web of unfulfilled desire, endless disappointment, frequent betrayal, and unbridled resentment.  Human love says, “do this first, climb this ladder, meet these stands…and then you’ll be loved in return.”  So much for human love.   

-And yet, there is another kind of love.  There is, after all, God’s love.  And we know what God’s love looks like, not by projecting our own human love onto God.  But by looking into the face of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ.  Who says to his family, uncontrolled by a need for their acceptance, that “look, what y’all are about, that’s not God’s love.  That’s that human love again.  It’s limited by your fear and pain. And I get that.  But let me show you a more excellent way.”

-When we look into the eyes of Jesus, we see a love that is led to the edge of a cliff by family and friends.  That values truth and love more than acceptance and accolades.  That doesn’t lift a finger in violence or anger or reactivity or resentment.  The same love that, many years later, will be led to the top of another cliff.  Bearing a cross.  And when the whole weight of the conditions of merely human love was piled upon him, when it was utterly rejected by human expectations, still refused to fight back.  But said, I’d rather die than that you miss knowing the truth of how much I love you.  The unconditional love of God, you see, is found on the cliffside and on the cross.  And it is for you, and it is for me.

-But God’s love does not stop there, merely with acceptance.  While human love only accepts that which it finds beautiful, God’s love first finds the ugly, the utterly unlovely.  It reaches out to the distorted faces of enemies.  And then forgives them.  And seeks reconciliation.  And then, it starts to transform them.  And make them people who are not only loveable, but also, capable of love.

-See, God’s unconditional love, it un-conditions us.  And then restores us to our truest selves.  It doesn’t just leave us to continue in blindness.  Because when we see the love of God in Christ Jesus, the more we gaze upon it and accept its acceptance, the more we are able to discern.  To tell the difference between merely human love, and God’s unconditional love.

-God loves us so much that God will not allow us to stay the same.  God’s love teaches us to let human love be human love.  To acknowledge that, in some sense, there are some things human love will never be capable of.  And so to have realistic expectations towards others, and towards ourselves.  And to not be surprised when it causes us suffering.  A suffering God shares with us. 

-God’s love is not like any human love you’ve ever received.  Not like the love that comes when you achieve success and hear the thunder of applause.  Not like the love that comes when you meet all of the expectations and conditions of your parents, your children, or your friends.  Not like the love that is withdrawn because you made a mistake, or because you spoke the truth in love, and hit a nerve.  God’s love is not like facebook love, contingent on the number of likes you receive or the number of friends you can boast.  God’s love is never unspoken, never unfelt, never kept inside because of embarrassment or weakness.  God’s love never fails to make itself known, never fails to do what it desires, is never stopped by weakness, or fear, or resentment, or failure. 

-God’s love, you see, is the love St. Paul writes of in that famous poem from 1 Corinthians today.  It’s not human love, but the love of God, the love that created us, redeems us, sustains us, and fashions us into its image.  God’s love is patient.  God’s love is kind.  God’s love is not envious or boastful or arrogant.  God’s love is not irritable or resentful.  God’s love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.  God’s love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Even death on a cross.  Even our conditions and expectations.  Even our hatred and our resentment and our rage.  Even our failures.  And God’s love, God’s love in Christ Jesus - it never, ever ends.

-And this love, promised by St. Paul and given in Christ Jesus, it is like a mirror.  We look into this mirror, into the eyes of Jesus, and we see God’s love for us.  And we also glimpse who God is making us.  We are given, as Paul writes, permission to believe all things and hope all things.  To be patient and kind.  Not to react to the hard truth or the heartbreaking failure.  But to bear with it, to ask questions, to consider all angles, to be free from reactivity.  Not to have to throw it over a cliff.  It will still hurt us.  True love always does.  But it will be the hurt of human love being transformed more and more into the love of God.

-Returning to that cliff side, I wonder if that’s how Jesus got away.  I wonder if the people holding Jesus down looked into his eyes.  Looked into the very heart of the universe, into the love vortex of the Incarnate Trinity.  And saw mirrored back to them, not their own hatred and resentment.  But forgiveness, and grace, and a power more beautiful than they could have possibly imagined.  And for a split-second, felt themselves beloved by this power.

-And so they let go.  And Jesus gazed around at them.  At his family turned enemies.  With that gaze of heart-breaking, heart-broken love.  And walked silently through their midst.  And back to his work of ministry.  Back to proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love.  No matter what the cost. 

-I’m not sure I’d be as cool under pressure as Jesus.  I don’t have the Buddha-like ability not to react.  But somehow, Jesus’ love, revealed in vulnerability on the edge of a cliff, changes those around him.  It releases the tension.  Frees from anger.  Heals the heart.  And transforms the world.

-As a good friend of mine is fond of preaching, nothing and no one else get to tell us who we are.  And no human love gets to define God’s love.  Some day, St. Paul promises us, we will understand this fully.  We will look into the face of Love, and see ourselves as we truly are.  And we will see others as loved too.  And it’s gonna be great.  But for now, we look through a glass dimly.  Thank God, the loving gaze of Jesus, and not the image of our own expectations, our own conditions, our own failures, or our own self-hatred, is looking back.  Unconditionally.  And always.