Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sermon: "The Isaiah Sutra," or, Jesus' Dharma of Delight

"The Isaiah Sutra, or, Jesus' Dharma of Delight"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Webster, New York
Third Sunday in Lent
3 March 2013

Day Texts: Isaiah 55.1-9
Psalm 63.1-8
1 Corinthians 10.1-13
Luke 13.1-9


-“Why do you spend your money for that whcih is not bread, and your labor for that whcih does not satisfy?”

-These exact words jack-hammered into my brain as the dentists’ drill descended into my teeth to seal the first of thirteen cavities.  Why, exactly, have I been pouring my spare change and my appetite into Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper, and French Fries, and Starbucks Iced Chai - with soy mind you! - when all they will bring me is further craving, increasingly uncontrollable and distorted desire, and an empty wallet?

-Strange as it might seem, much of my spiritual nourishment this Lent as come from journeying with the Buddha.  I’m still a firm believer in the salfivific power of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Trinity, etc etc.  But I like to imagine that, every time I attain an insight via the dharma into the fullness of the shalom of salvation, somewhere in the infinitude of the cosmos, the Buddha and Jesus are giving each other the ol’ high-five.

-See, Buddha, along with many Christian contemplative monastic masters like St. Anthony of the desert, St Gregory of Palamas, St John of the Cross, and so forth, taught that the first step towards living fully in God - and also, btw, cavity-free! - was to enter into a struggle for right appetite and desire.  Namely, towards sensual things.  Towards food items of various sorts.  Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, who I had the honor of meditating with when I lived in Denver, has this to say:

Much of our suffering comes from not eating mindfully.  We have to learn ways to eat that preserve the health and well-being of our body and our spirit.  When we smoke, drink, or consume toxins, we are eating our own lungs, livers and heart.  If we have children and do these things, we are eating our chilldrens’ flesh.  Our children need us to be healthy and strong.

-Now look.  I’m no about to go imposing unneccesary or unreasonable dietary standards on anyone.  We are loved and claimed by God because of the cross of Christ, regardless of who we are, or what we eat.  Period.  End of story.

-And yet, I cannot help but be compelled by the logic of our Buddhist brothers and sisters.  The more I study their works and pray their prayers, the more I am convicted.  That spiritual practices - like Lent, for example - are given to us.  As gifts of our baptism. Not to make us miserable, or to lead us into times of mortification.  But are in fact presents.  Gifts.  Guideposts.  That lead us into a more healthy, a fresher, a more full and “shalom”-orietned way of being in the world.  A pathway to walking in the light, as He is in the light.  Not just to say “don’t be bad.”  But also, as an offering.  “Try this.  Be alive.”

-See, the prophet Isaiah doesn’t just exhort us today to avoid messing up or dying.  So much of our culture is fear-based like that.  Just drive down Ridge Road or 490 and see all the billboards promising us a better future, or, at least, a more protected one.  No, Isaiah says, quite clearly: “incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you might live.”  It seems to me that Isaiah is proclaiming a different way to God than just “not messing up.”  Than just “ be pure and holy and a good moral example.”  Isaiah, like the Buddhists, is calling us to a different way of being.  A pro-active way of being.  A way that is not just putting off or avoiding death.  A way that is actively cultivating, seeking, and living, an abundantly life.  God’s promised new creation.  Here and now.

-I don’t know about you, but I desperately want such a new creation.  I don’t have a baker’s dozen cavities for no reason.  If you’re like me, you’ve probably experienced living life controlled - dare I say, enslaved - by some compulsion or other.  Deceived by the false promise that, somehow, fulflling this desire or want instantaneously will, miraculously, fulfill your longing, your craving, your deep-yet-deranged desire, completely.

-And maybe it doesn’t take the form of food or appetite.  Maybe its that needling in your mind that says to take on just one more 60 hour week.  Maybe it says to suspend your deepest ethical values just one more time so that the company may flourish - and with it, your vested stock options.  Maybe it begs you to give up just a little of whatever you hold dear.  Because safety, and success, and security, are worth the price of your integrity.

-And yet, as Isaiah the prophet of two millennia ago proclaims, this will not satisfy.  Because, in the end, we live this basic lie.  That somehow, we need to pay for and climb towards and even compete for a prize which has always already been given to us, free of charge.  Listen to these insane words of the prophet:

-“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

-See, God is calling all people to come, and simply receive.  Not to manipulate.  Not even to consume, in order to “support the economy” or increase GDP or prevent a fiscal-cliff or whatever.  God does not sequester God’s abundant gifts from God’s people.  God subverts the dynamics of sensible human economy, saying “my gifts are free and for all, and especially for those who are most needy.  For those who recognize, rich or poor, that they are nothing and cannot survive without me.”

-For someone enslaved to their compulsions and their fears - someone like me - this is very good news.  Because, see, it means that God is not primarily concerned with what we give up.  The God of Lent, the God of Jesus Christ in the wilderness, is less concerned with making us miserable through fasting.  Instead, the God who is Incarnate in Jesus Christ and who speaks by the Spirit through the prophets, also cares deeply about our health.  Our wholeness.  Our freshness.  Our being-alive.

-The God of the universe is not in this thing to make us miserable.  This God goes to the cross in Jesus Christ, shedding Godself of health, wholeness and community, taking only bitter vinegar wine as God hangs from the cross, so that we as humans might be given a new heart capable of living into the fullness, the SHALOM, the new creation, of a world where God is king.  Where we no longer have to believe the lies of compulsions that lead us to spend our time, our money, our best selves on that which does not satisfy.  A world where there truly is enough for all.  And where the promise of abundance surpasses our wildest dreams and deepest understandings.

-When I served my internship in Denver, I had the privilege of being in community with a number of alcoholics.  I was always amazed to hear their testimony converge upon a single moment of clarity.  A moment in which they recognized: “I can have a better life, starting today.”  A life where we are not merely controlled by compulsion, but drawn by desire.  A desire for the very marrow of life, transfigured by the Spirit of the Living God, to drink deeply of the goodness of creation.  See, we fast in Lent and in all times, not to deny the evils of the flesh, but to remind ourselves of just how powerful the pleasures of the present life can be.

-And its all free.  Not a result of the money we make, or the justice we do, or the good person we strive to be.  Its a free gift.  Given when we realize that we are unhealthy slaves to compulsion, and we know we need help to be something different.  Given when the dentists’ drill bores down on the first of many fillings.  Given freely, to those who trust the Word of God that indeed, we are beloved children of the Creator of the Universe, given every good and perfect gift of a loving parent, who longs that we be, not just holy, but also whole, and healthy.  Fully alive.  And so, fully capable of experiencing the joy of gratitude, thanksiging, and peace.

-Come, all who are without the money of achievement.  Whose dreams have failed.  Whose good intentions have left them bankrupt.  Come those with addictions and compulsions.  Come, all those in the universe - ALL those in the universe - who have been claimed by the cross of Christ to receive the gifts of God for the children of God.  Come, and discover the freshness, the healthiness, the wholeness, which is the free, the unshakable, the unquenchable savor of the love of God, in Christ Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.


Sermon: "Under the Sigil of House Jesus, or, Beyond Throne Games"

"Under the Sigil of House Jesus, or, Beyond Throne Games"


Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Fourth Sunday of Easter
21 April 2013

Day Texts: Acts 9.36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7.9-17
John 10.22-30


-Some of you know that I kind of have this thing for Doctor Who.  But last week, I took a break from the Tardis and started reading another popular series: George R.R. Martin’s massive saga, Game of Thrones.  It’s not exactly PG, so I can’t formally recommend it to you.  You know, as a clergy person.  But as a medieval studies minor in college and someone who’s always loved castles and knights and so forth, it definitely hits the spot.

-So the grossly summarized story of GOT is that there are these seven houses, all vying for the throne recently vacated by the now dead king.  Alliances, treachery, intrigue, warfare and such ensue across the island of Westeros.)  And each of these houses has a symbol on their coat of arms, called a sigil, and a set of “family words” that both guides them and also helps describe them.  

-So, for example, the protagonists, House Stark, fight under a Direwolf and have the words “winter is coming,” since they are the tight-knit pack of rugged northerners. House Targarayen who once ruled the kingdom under the power of their dragons now go under a dragon sigil with the words “fire and blood.”  And so forth.

-Now, tonight after service, we’re meeting up at Little Venice to continue our conversations together about who we are as a community.  One thing we’ve discussed recently is potentially changing our name.  And as a visual person, I keep thinking that along with a name, there should be some kind of a sigil (nowadays they might be called icons or logos).  

-Left completely up to me, I’d choose a lion.  Brave, noble, fierce, a leader.  Jesus was called Lion of Judah. And one of our community heroes, Frederick Douglass, was known as the black lion.  

-But the lion would not suffice on its own.  First off, its the symbol of House Lannister, the wealthy, proud, conniving incestuous villains of GOT.  But even more importantly, in the book of Revelation where our reading is from tonight, the one described as a lion is not Jesus.  In fact, dragons, wolves, and lions are all used in connotation with Satan, the antichrist, and the Roman Empire.    

-We do get an animal, presented sigil-like in the reading.  It stands at the head of a vast army.  But not of conquering warriors bearing swords.  It stands, slaughtered, before a host of martyrs - innocents slaughtered by the Empire, washed white in the blood of their leader.  And their leader is a crucified lamb.

-A lamb.  Not even a full sheep.  Hardly something that strikes fear into our enemies, right?  In fact, when I think of sheep, I think immediately of growing up in Fairport.  Yes, it is a suburb.  But right smack in the middle of several developing areas is this massive old farm, filled with sheep.  And its affectionately known to all as “the stinky farm.”  Because it stinks.  Because it is full of sheep. 

-Along with reading epics filled with sex and violence, I’ve also been enamored of my daughter’s kids‘ Bible, the Jesus Storybook Bible.  Perfect compliment, right?  Well, the author, Sally Lloyd-Jones, also wrote a kids‘ devotional, called Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing.  And here’s what she writes about sheep:

-What animal does the Bible say - four hundred times! - that people are most like?

Oh dear. It’s sheep.

Sheep aren’t clever at all.  They’re foolish.  For instance, sometimes they just topple over and can’t get themselves back up again. They just lie there!  And they’re constantly falling off cliffs.  Or going to unsafe places and getting stuck.  Or eating poisonous things.  Or getting hurt.  Or running off and getting lost.  Or not finding their way home again - even if their fold is in plain sight!

-Oh dear indeed.  The sigil for House Jesus is a sheep.  A stinking, stupid, let’s you steal the clothes off their back, sheep.  Not a strong adult ram with horns.  Not even the one that won the county faire.  It’s a lamb.  A crucified lamb.  A dead lamb.

-Not exactly what most of us often hope for in times like this, no?  Times when we read in every other post and tweet about people disbelief about “how vulnerable America is,” “how messed up humanity is,” where bombs terrorize finish lines and fertilizer plants explode during routine operations.  If you’re human, I’m guessing that in the midst of such a shit storm, like me, you’re looking for some comfort.  For something that promises safety.  That promises security.  Something powerful.  

-We want the direwolf, or the dragon, or the lion.  Or the sigil of stars and the stripes.  And the family words, “let freedom ring.”  And a shepherd who will “hunt these terrorists down.”  In the confusion of emotions, we follow after a media that somehow magically develops psychic powers to narrate not only every second of events, but even, psychically, what the fugitives must be thinking before they even know it themselves.  Because knowledge is power too.  It’s security.  Gives us a sense that we are most definitely not that crazy Muslim dude.  Somehow, the insane immediacy of information allows us to put a safe distance between us and the terror.

-See, we want our kings, and our kingdoms, and our sigils, and our words, to give us security.  To keep us from suffering.  Or to make someone else pay so we don’t have to.   We want them to lead us to green pastures, and feed us with grass that sustains.  

-And what makes us foolish as sheep is not so much that we are loyal to our country, or that we want to work for justice, or even that we are afraid of being vulnerable.  What makes us foolish as sheep is that we follow shepherds who promise what they cannot deliver.  They promise peace, and prosperity, and progress, and protection. But millennia of human history says otherwise.  They cannot give us the crown, or the kingdom, or salvation.  They may feed us and lead us.  But not through the valley of the shadow.  Not to a feast in the presence of our enemies.  It is, after all, their games of thrones that have helped make those valleys and enemies.  

-But thank God, this is not the sigil or the king revealed in scripture today.    

-Our house words are different.  As members of Christ’s body the church our house words are “salvation belongs to our God and to the lamb.”  Our house anthem is not “bombs bursting in air,” but “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow.  In the presence of mine enemies.  Not IF I face suffering, and vulnerability, and death.  But when. 

-It is the sigil of a shepherd who willingly becomes a sheep.  Becomes like us, in our weakness and stupidity and lostness, and is sheered of dignity and power and would rather be slain than lift a finger of violence or vengeance.   And descends into the valley of the shadows of death and hell.  And then this lamb rises from the dead.  And washes the fallen victims of violence in his own blood.  And promises to wipe away every tear.

-And see, that’s ultimately the meaning of our sigil.  It is a promise.  Of true provision.  And of true hope.  Because this lamb, this Jesus, is not an ideal or a program that must be defended with violence, or explained by social media, or even be believed to be true.  This lamb, the one slain by the Romans, was also the man, Jesus Christ.  God Incarnate.  The only one who can keep his promises.  Who can feed us, his enemies, with a feast of his own body and blood.  The one, the only one, who makes broken things come undone.  Who alone has power to deliver on His promises.

-This lamb, this king, this God, is not toppled by the blasts of bombs.  He stands at their epicenter.  He does not run from the valley of the shadow.  He leads his followers into it.  He does not avoid death.  He faces it, experiences it, becomes vulnerable to it.  And then crushes and defeats it by love and peace alone.  

-Which means that we are never NOT vulnerable.  We are never NOT unsafe.  Because following this lamb will mean following him into the war of the lamb, the war of peace and love and reconciliation (and besides, an armed sheep is kind of an absurdity, right?)  

-See, the sigil of our King is not one that promises security at all.  There are many who lament that our nation feel more vulnerable than ever. The followers of the Lamb know that we have always already been called to be vulnerable because of who our Shepherd is,  Christ leads us through the valley of the shadow, not because suffering is good but to bring the good of companionship and love to all who suffer. Our vocation is to follow
and do likewise.

-We are called to follow him into the valleys of the shadow.  Places in the world where, for women and children denied education and rights, every single trip top school or the well is a Boston Marathon of terror.  Into the dark secrets and difficult struggles of others where there is no answer, but where we are called to walk together anyway, receiving and protecting one another’s vulnerability.  Not if we walk through the shadowlands.  But when.  

-And this God will provision us.  Feed us.  Care for us.  Promises to give us what we will need.  He gives us liberation from effectiveness, so we might be free for faithfulness. Challenges us to let go of everything else.  And he arms us.  Not with swords, guns, bombs or information.  But with God’s promises already coming true in the resurrection light of the new creation.  The Spirit of hope.  The ways of peace.  And lives of love.  

-We are called to lay down all other weapons and forsake all other shepherds.  And to march boldly into the shadowlands.  To the tables of enemies.  And to the place where the hope that all tears be wiped away will come true.  Under the sigil and the words and the promises of the Lamb.  Who promises, not that we will be safe.  But that he is for us.  And that he will never leave or forsake us.

-Oh dear.  Amen.