Monday, October 30, 2017

Reformation - Big Time

Jeremiah 31: 27-34
John 8:31-36

Today we celebrate the 500th year of the beginning of the Reformation.  This sermon will be unusual in that it will focus more, therefore, on church history.  As you know, Martin Luther is known as the father of the reformation, though his work of reformation was continued by John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingly whom we name as the Presbyterian Founding Fathers.  Most years on Reformation Sunday I therefore have focused more on Calvin and Zwingly but because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, today I will focus more on Martin Luther and what was happening that began the Reformation 500 years ago.
Martin Luther’s was not the first attempt at reformation within the Catholic Church.  Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe all made significant efforts at confronting problems in the Church.  However, Martin Luther took advantage of the newly available Gutenberg printing press and with that at his disposal, he was much more successful where others had not been able to make significant strides in either changing the church or creating a new church movement. Martin Luther was a prolific writer and he used the printing press to quickly disseminate religious materials to the people. Luther had been a Augustinian Monk and a lecturer at the University in Wittenberg.  And his publication of his 95 theses was not for the purpose of starting his own break off denomination, but rather it was simply an attempt to reform the Catholic Church.  However, he was excommunicated in 1521 at the Diet of Worms.  After his excommunication, he translated the Bible into German (before that it had only been in Latin and therefore only the priests were able to read it). 
Martin Luther’s main issue with the Roman Catholic Church, as you may have read in the 95 Theses, was the sale of indulgences, which basically were “get out of purgatory with payment for sins” cards.   Luther stated, in particular, that the Pope had no authority over purgatory, could not grant people “get out of purgatory” tickets, and certainly could not SELL them.  That was his primary gripe.  However, he also confronted the idea of saints as people to whom we should pray in place of God.  He felt very strongly that this was not a biblical concept in any way.  As the reformation continued, there were several key points that he emphasized.  First, that it was the Bible and not tradition that should inform spiritual practices, or as we say it, “scripture alone”.  Second, that we find our salvation through our faith and not through works, hence, “faith alone”.  And third that salvation comes only from God through grace, not by anything we can do and certainly not by someone else speaking on our behalf, praying on our behalf or selling us a way into eternal life, (in other words, he challenged the idea of praying to specific Saints for them to advocate to God for us, confessing our sins to a priest rather than directly to God, and again, the priestly ability to grant people access to heaven) hence, “grace alone.”  These are the main points of the protestant reformation, though there were many other points made along the way. Since purgatory is not a biblical concept that was tossed out.  As I said before, the idea of saints was rejected by the protestants except in the global sense that all who die in the faith become the saints of God.  “The priesthood of all believers” meant that all of us are able to have personal and direct relationships with God.  We are also all able to read scriptures in our own languages and with our own interpretations.  Other issues that were important to Luther included a confrontation of the Catholic devotion to Mary, as well as the mandate for clerical celibacy.  More importantly, he presented a different idea in what constituted sacraments (as you know we only have two: baptism and communion), and what the sacraments really are (for example, do the communion elements become the literal physical body and blood of Christ or not), as well as whether or not they are considered necessary for salvation.  The reason we only have communion in most Presbyterian Churches once a month was a statement, for example, against the Catholic idea that it was necessary to take communion to clean yourself of sin so that you had to have it as close to death as possible.  For most Protestants, it is a celebration of community and the Church, it is a way to remember all that God has done for us, and most importantly, it is a way of participating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it is not necessary for salvation.  He confronted and challenged ideas about censure and excommunication, challenged practices of Christianity’s involvement in secular laws, and continued to challenge the authority of the Pope in many matters.  He also challenged which books of the bible would be considered “scripture” and as you know, protestants have fewer books than Catholics as a result.  Luther decided that what should be considered “canon” would be determined by practice, or what had been used most frequently and liturgically, theology and politics. 
Many of the issues that divided the Catholic and Protestant churches continue to do so: Protestants still do not focus on Mary, we do not pray to saints, we do not follow a Pope or even hold our pastors with too much authority, we still only have a few sacraments and our understanding of those sacraments remains different, we don’t believe in purgatory, we still stick to the three key phrases of the Protestant Reformation, “Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone.” 
        At the same time, as you know, these differences have become much less important than they once were.  For example, the idea of “faith alone” has been tempered by most Protestants with the understanding that if you really and deeply believe in the words Jesus gave us, works will be part of your faith.  As the book of James in our scriptures says so very articulately, “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.  It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear.  Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?...  As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.”  As a result of these statements in the book of James, Luther actually did not want to continue to include the book of James in the Canon.  He felt very strongly that our actions have nothing to do with salvation and so found these words offensive.  But, the people prevailed on this.  The book of James was very much in use and he was unable to strike it from the Canon.
Additionally, the problem that Martin Luther was most concerned about, that began the whole Reformation, naming the selling of indulgences, is no longer practiced in the Catholic church either.  The Catholic Church additionally now uses lay leadership to a much greater degree, recognizing that all of us have a call, and Bibles are translated into many languages and read in the native languages of the people in almost all congregations.   I think one of the greatest changes recently is that we are now working together, across denominations, more and more.  We no longer see those differences with the same sense of importance that we had before.
There were many results of the Protestant Reformation.  It led to a series of religious wars that culminated in the thirty years war which killed between 25-40% of the entire population of Germany between 1618 and 1648.  While many believe the Reformation ended in 1648 with the passing of the Peace of Westphalia (which declared that each prince could determine the religion of its own state but also allowed Christians of different denominations to continue to practice their own faith in peace), many others say it never ended since we continue to have different Christian denominations and splinters within all of those denominations continue.   Scholars credit the Protestant reformation as being the catalyst for a higher literacy rate, lower gender gap in school enrollment, higher school enrollment, more pro-market and pro-work attitudes, among other things.  In the negative, Witch Burnings were more common and witch hunts more active in communities that were torn between Catholic and Protestant believers.
While Luther was the founder of the Reformation, as you know, the forefathers of the Presbyterian Church: Calvin, Zwingly and later, Knox, took the reformation further even than Luther.  One of the phrases of our denomination is “reformed and always reforming” or “reformed and always being reformed” depending on the translation.  We believe that God is always at work among us, guiding us forward into new and deeper understandings as well as into change.  But we also know that change is hard, change is not comfortable, and if it is not intentional decision to move forward, the church will stumble. 
       Diana Butler Bass wrote, “Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. …In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion. After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest?  Yourself?”
       Bruce Epperly put it this way, “Reformation faith is forward, rather than backward-looking, evolving rather than static, at home in this world, rather than in a previous age or a heavenly realm.”
       But the unfortunate truth is that Protestant Churches have become “stuck” as well, in large part because we ARE the dominant religion, the religion of our culture.  Christianity began as a movement against the status quo: challenging the system that oppressed many and lifted up a few.  But now we are the dominant group, and that means we are part of the system that is oppressive.  So, as Diana Butler Bass wrote, do we protest ourselves? 
     Change is hard.  And we are not keeping “at home in this world rather than a previous age” with a great deal of success.  As a result, there is a new movement “out” of the Protestant Church just as in the Protestant reformation, there was a large movement out of the Catholic Church.  You know this, I’ve mentioned it before, you see it within your own families as your own children or your children’s children no longer value church or go to church.  And what is interesting is that they are right on schedule.  There has been some kind of major Reformation of the church every 500 years and as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we are right on schedule for another one. What will that look like?  We know, we trust that God is simply doing a new thing, but we do not yet know what that will look like. 
     In the face of all of this, what is important to take away?  Perhaps what is most important is what has always been and what always is most important: that our identity, worth, and well-being should not determined by our successes and failures, by our actions, by our virtuous living, even, but by God's gift of loving us into being.  It is, therefore, our relationships with God that matter.  We could argue theology and we could argue about how we do worship, what we emphasize, what the sacraments mean, who should have authority and who shouldn’t.  We could grieve the changing, diminishing Church, as I know many of us do.  And we could look forward towards where and how the Church will be newly reformed, what it will look like and how we will move forward. But I think all of these things are not ultimately that important.  What matters again is the relationship.  And as far as Church goes, the question should always be, when we come to see who Jesus is, does it matter to us, does it affect us? Are we changed in our encounter with the living Christ, are we challenged, moved by our presence in this place.  And if we aren’t, what is Church about?  What is the purpose in coming here if it does not change us and strengthen us to be the people God calls us to be in the world?  And perhaps what is of bigger question to us today as we reflect and remember the Reformation, what would make this place, now, a place that inspires growth, change and movement?  What reforms need to happen within the Church, big C and within this congregation, little c, that would make this a place of growing deeper in our relationships with God and in our commitments to live lives that challenge systems that oppress, that help people who are suffering, that change the world?  I encourage you to  think about this because in our fellowship hall we have sheets up that I would like to invite you to write on about Reformation – what do you value about who we are, both as Christians and part of the big Church, and as members of this little congregation.  But additionally, what changes, reforms, protests need to continue to happen in the large church; and what changes, reforms, protests need to happen within this congregation.
        Are we willing to let go of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and instead to be open to the path Jesus wants us to go, to follow in the way, in the path of a man who ends up dead before he ends up resurrected?  Does our faith, does our encounter with the living Christ make a difference for us?  The question on Reformation Sunday is: are we willing to give up what is comfortable and easy as a church to follow Jesus?  Are we willing to step out to hear what the people of God, God’s children, all of God’s people really need to experience God’s love, God’s grace and God’s presence in this place at this time?
That is the question that we are constantly called to ask as we continue to seek to be a church that is reformed and always reforming.  Amen.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Failure to Listen

Exodus 33:12-23
Matthew 22:15-22

               “Just listen”.  These are words we hear said, they are words we do say, often when we are simply in disagreement with another person.  And there is truth in them.  Sometimes when we are sure our opinion is right, we simply cannot hear any other view point.  When we know what we believe, we don’t bother to put ourselves in another’s position to hear how they see things or view things.  When we are certain we are right, why would be take the time to try to understand an opposing view?  Why would we even bother to listen?   I know I am guilty of failing to listen or seriously consider a differing view point at times, even when I try to be open-minded.  There are certain ideas that simply won’t get a hearing when run by me.  We simply fail to listen at times. 
In the children’s movie, “Brave” there is a wonderful scene about a mother and her teenage daughter.  They have just had a terrible argument, and the scene moves back and forth between each of them as they discuss the argument, separately, each with someone else.  It is a wonderful scene as each practices or envisions a conversation with the other.  But what is most relevant to today is that each one is certain that the other is simply failing to listen.  And as they practice what they will say to each other when they are next together, the scene moves back and forth between each saying repeatedly to the other, “if you would just listen!”  “I think you would understand if you could just listen!” 
               This is a familiar conversation, I think, that parents and teens experience.  Each has their own view point, and they either truly don’t listen to one another, or they are accused of not listening because they continue in their own opinions even when they do.  But as with the movie, Brave, in which the entire plot is centered around both the mother and daughter’s failures to listen, to respect or to even try to understand the opposing views, similarly, when we fail to listen, fail to hear, we tear rips in our relationships with others, we block true intimacy by blocking our ability to truly understand one another.  We can learn to disagree while still listening and helping others know that we hear and understand them, but this takes work, it takes effort.  And most of the time I think we simply choose not to really listen.
               So then when we look at the scriptures lessons for today, we can relate to the conversations that we hear, first between Moses and God, and second between Jesus and the Pharisees.  In the Exodus passage, God promises Moses that he will go with him to help him lead the people.  But Moses either doesn’t listen or doesn’t trust what God is saying.  Because right after God has promised, “I’ll go myself and I’ll help you,” Moses jumps in with “If you won’t go ….”  .  And even after God promises to do exactly what Moses has asked again, Moses pushes, “Well, show me your presence.”  He pushes and pushes, not hearing what God is agreeing to do, and failing to trust what God is saying.
               Then we come to the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about taxes is one in a long line of questions that they have asked him with the purpose of entrapping Jesus.  They know that if Jesus answers that they shouldn’t pay this tax, he will be accused of sedition.  They also know that if he says that they should pay the taxes, he will enrage many of his followers on religious grounds because he will be going against the religious laws of the time.  They ask him a question that they believe he can’t win as they try to undermine him in any way they can.  They continually ask him questions, this one just being the last in a series, whose sole purpose is to discredit him with the people.  But the point here is that they are so focused on trying to knock him down, that they, too, are unable to listen, unable to hear what he is telling them again and again, with every sentence, with every statement, with everything that he does.  They have an agenda, and nothing will dissuade them from that.  Their ears are simply closed to any new information, to any new vision, to anything that might challenge or change the mission they have set for themselves to discredit Jesus.
               It would seem every effort God made to get Moses to listen was met with resistance.  And it seems that nothing Jesus did could help the Pharisees to hear.  What helps us to hear?  When we are entrenched in our opinions and our beliefs to the point that we are unable to listen, to be open even to God’s movement or message among us, what moves us from that place to one of hearing? 
Sometimes, someone says something that can catch us in a way that nothing else has.  I’ve shared with you before about the movie, “The Color of Fear” which is a documentary about a weekend retreat for men on the subject of racism.  I shared it in the context of opening our eyes, of seeing.  Hearing is the same: it is hard, and we are called to do it, so I’m choosing to share the story again.  Men of all backgrounds and ethnicities came to participate in this conversation about racial prejudice.  They made a commitment to be open in their conversations, to trust one another, to explore the topic of racism.  But there was one white man who quickly became the center of the conversation.  He kept insisting that there was no longer any racism in this country and that the men who were sharing their experiences of racial prejudice, were in fact, just blaming others for their problems.  Some of the men of color, having heard these accusations, left the conversation saying that it was not their job to change this man, that his ignorance made him not worth their time.  But most of the men stayed with the white man, sharing stories, telling of their own experiences.  They stayed steadfast in their commitment to justice, and their commitment to care for this one man, even in the face of his anger, his denial, his rudeness, his accusations and his blame.  They calmly and consistently shared their stories with him while he continued to say that they were hurt, ignored, passed over, and much, much worse because of their flaws, not because of racism.  But despite their care, despite their calm and simply presence, despite the stories they told again and again, this man simply could not hear them.  And nothing they did was impacting that block to listening.  Finally, towards the end of the weekend, the leader of the retreat turned to this white man and said, “What would it mean for you if the stories you are hearing are true?  What would it mean for you if we really have experienced the racial prejudice, hatred and discrimination that we are sharing with you?”
This question caught the man off guard.  He became very quiet, for the first time all weekend as he reflected on these words.  Finally, he said, very slowly, very quietly, “It would mean that the world is not as beautiful as I need to believe that it is.”  He began to cry as he continued, “and it would mean that I was part of the problem.” For this man, a question helped him to listen.  He was caught by a moment that surprised him.
But we know that it can take even more for people to learn how to listen.  Sometimes it takes “hitting bottom” for us to be able to hear, to listen and to change.   It takes experience to change.  We know that this is true with people with addictions.  Often people cannot make the choice to hear what others are telling him or her about having an addiction and needing to do something about it until they hit some kind of bottom – become so ill they have to change, or lose their jobs, or lose a relationship.  The same is true for all of us who are stuck in a place where we are unwilling to listen, even when what we might learn could make our lives better, more full.  In the movie, “Brave” which I shared about at the beginning, it took a trauma that threatened to destroy their family for both mother and daughter to finally listen and hear one another.  It literally would have been the end of life for the mother if she had not listened, and the daughter would have lost her mom if she had not listened.  While it is a story, a movie, it reflects the truth that listening is hard.  And sometimes we just would rather not do it.  For many people, prejudice of any kind – against people of different cultural backgrounds, races, ethnicities, LGBTQ folk, people of different religions – the prejudice is not overcome until we really know someone in the category of those we would dismiss: a son or a daughter or a family member is often the most able to help us change because they are people we love already.  But we also know the experience of changing our opinions, of growing, is hard; and sometimes very painful.
A rabbi lived in a rural area with his son. As the boy grew, he began to take walks each day in the woods around their home. The rabbi thought it was good for him to explore on his own in order to build his self-confidence. He noticed, though, that the boy was gone longer and longer each day. The rabbi began to worry that his son was straying too far and might get lost or encounter danger. The next morning, he talked to him about his concern. "I've noticed how much time you are spending in the woods," the rabbi said. "What do you do there?"
"Oh," said the lad, "I go into the woods to listen for the voice of God."
"Ah," smiled the Rabbi, "that is a good thing, but don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"
The boy pondered a moment and then replied, "Yes, Father, but I am not the same everywhere."
There is life in the listening.  There is healing in listening.  Finding the best way for each of us to listen is vital. There is depth in being willing to strive for understanding of another view point.  For Moses, listening to God would have created in him a sense of peace, comfort, dimmed the anxiety, given him a strength in continuing even when the people turned against him at times.  Eventually Moses did listen, despite the challenges that posed for him, and so he was able to fulfill his call to the people, to do the work God gave him to do and to exit in peace.  But it took time, time that could have brought him peace sooner.  For the Pharisees, their failure to listen meant they missed out on God right there with them.  The Pharisees were the legal faith authorities of the day, the legal leaders, the church authorities.  And yet these men, these people who had dedicated their lives to God’s law missed out on God’s presence right there with them.  I can’t think of a greater tragedy for these people than to miss out on the very thing they were striving to be part of their whole lives.  We know that for some, even hitting bottom won’t be enough to help them to change, to grow, to move.
I also want to state the obvious here, that listening does not mean agreeing.  We can listen and still come out with very different opinions and very different understandings.  However, taking the time to listen, to say to someone, “This is what I am hearing you say…”, taking time to repeat in your own words what the other is saying and only then stating your own opinion – these are choices to listen, to be in relationship, to build bridges, and deepen communication. These are choices that state that the relationship is more important than the disagreements, and it can be a huge step towards reconciliation and healing.
Where, then is the Good News in that?  We see in both of these Biblical stories that God continued to be loving and faithful, even when the people wouldn’t listen.  God remained faithful to Moses, responded to Moses, gave Moses what he wanted, even when Moses was challenging God, even when Moses was unwilling to listen.  God remained steadfast.  The tender compassion that God has for God’s children continued no matter what.   Jesus similarly does not refuse to talk to the Pharisees.  He does not ignore their question even.  He stays engaged with them, even in his anger, even as he realizes that he is being set up.  He continues to be present and he continues to try to show them a better way.  He speaks to them in a manner they don’t expect, turning the question around  in a way that might, just might, jar them into actually hearing him.  He says, give to God what is God and to Caesar what is Caesars.  And he leaves it to them to figure out what that means.  He tries to engage their higher thinking and their higher listening for a deeper answer.  What does it mean?  Caesar’s face is on the coin, but ultimately doesn’t everything, including Caesar, belong to God?  Jesus throws it back as a question, as a challenge for the Pharisees.  What really belongs to God?  What really belongs to Caesar?  Who is ultimately the one in charge of everything? 

This passage is not meant to answer the question of taxes for us.  Instead, it is a story about Jesus, and therefore about God.  It tells us that even in those hard questions, those things we struggle to understand, God chooses to be present with us.  It tells us that we are called to think through things by listening with open ears.  It calls us to be present and to engage further with our questions, our thoughts, our hopes, our doubts, and ultimately all that we are.  To listen.  And when we can’t listen, to rest in the love of a very patient and very present God who will wait for us to be able to listen, and will still be talking when we are able to open our ears.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


     I've read a number of articles recently that have been talking about the ageist culture that we live in here in the United States.  Youth is considered the ideal.  Part of our definition of beauty includes having gray-less or white-less full heads of hair; smooth, unwrinkled and spotless skin; tight, flab-less, droop-less, and hair-free bodies; and perfectly white and straight teeth.  People who are older have a much harder time getting jobs, they are treated with less respect, and at some point they can even start to be almost invisible.  The needs and issues of the elderly are mostly pushed under the rug, hidden away.  Additionally, the images we have of older people on TV are mostly of people past their usefulness, past their meaning, past being contributing members of society.  If we do see them active, they are usually golfing with other older people; not volunteering, working, or giving back to the society, and certainly not teaching or mentoring or working with younger folk.We celebrate and idolize our youth.
     This is especially true for women.  My 17 year old took a drama class over the summer in which they actually spent time looking at what ages and what percentages of women and men are hired for differing acting roles.  Men, they found, tend to be hired for more jobs as they age, up to a point.  Women have, almost without exception, about a 5 year period in which they are highly sought after, after which they 'age out' and are no longer hired, especially for key and prominent acting roles.  The same is true in the church: older men's experience is valued, but without exception my female pastor friends are finding they "age out" at about 50 in terms of being able to get a new pastoring job.  The ads on TV mostly aim to make women look younger.  Men, with the exception of a culture that pushes for full heads of hair, do not need to pretend to be younger than they are by changing their bodies to look younger. 
      Again, there is article after article out there about this problem.  I don't need to repeat them all.  We know it to be true.  We no longer value the wisdom of age, the old images of the "wise woman" are no longer prevalent (though we still have a few of the wizened older man), and a huge portion of the advertisements we see focus on ways to make us look younger for longer, to try to hold on to our youth rather than to age with grace and even joy.
       Instead of repeating what we know, what I want to talk about is the change we need to make to confront this.  It will take courage and it will take intentionality to do so.  But I believe one of the ways we can fight this is to actively, publicly and with commitment and intentionality step into our own aging with delight and pride, rather than with despair and shame.  That means a number of things:
     1. Refusing to dye our hair when it starts to become white or gray, but instead choosing to see the different colors for the beauty, the variety, the signs of experience that they are.
     2. Stopping spending large amounts of money on "anti-wrinkle creams", botox treatments, anti-cellulite treatments and instead seeing every wrinkle, scar and age mark as the medals of having really lived.
     3. Sharing our age with a sense of pride and acceptance rather than shame. 
     4.  Talking about the joys and gifts, as well as the struggles and pains of aging, not in hushed whispers but in open conversations, both with others who are our own ages, as well as with younger folk. 
      5. Talking to potential employers about the gifts we've gained through experience and with the wisdom of our age. 
      6. Refusing to become stuck in our ideas and mind-sets as we age, but using the time we've been given to continue to learn and grow, striving to become better human beings. 
      7.  Seeing ourselves as mentors for younger folk and not being afraid to offer our wisdom, knowledge and advice.  Acknowledging to the world that we really do grow with time, we mature and learn through experience.
      8.  Be willing to turn to folk older than ourselves for advice, mentoring and wisdom: practice valuing the aging as well as the elderly and model that valuing for others.
       I know there are many other ways and I would love to hear your thoughts about them.
       I also understand that this is not easy to do within a culture that actively fights against aging and does not value our elderly.  I know this from my own experience.  The other day I pulled my hair back into a pony-tail and my son responded with "That makes you look older."  Without even thinking about it, I said, "Well, that's too bad," and I removed the pony-tail. 
        Fortunately, I've been talking about ageism with my kids and my eldest daughter called me on my response right away.  "Why is it too bad?" she asked.  "Isn't it a good thing to celebrate looking older? Isn't that what you are teaching us?  That you are okay with the growing gray?  That you celebrate the wrinkles and signs of age?"   
        "You are right.  There is that loud voice of culture still in my head and in my life, even as I fight against it.  Thank you for the reminder.  I need to step back into my intentionality of aging with grace and joy."  I put the pony-tail back in my hair.  But I could not deny that there was still a part of me struggling with the idea that I'm looking older.  It remains a part of me that I have to intentionally confront, regularly.
         I look forward to hearing your ideas about confronting ageism.  I look forward to seeing the ways in which we, together, can change a culture back to one that values the wisdom and experience that time give.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Winning Points by Being Mean?

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew 21:33-46

As I read through today’s passages, I was struck with the idea that sometimes people think that in being mean to other people or catty behind their backs, or expressing hate towards some people, somehow we end up more united with others.  We can “bond” over our criticisms of others, bond over our hatred of others, connect with some people by making someone else a common enemy.  I look at this passage from Exodus in which the people have been led out of slavery by Moses, have come to him for food and water; and God, through Moses, has provided.  Moses has done an amazing work through this people and as we read the scriptures we recognize the great leadership of Moses.  And yet, when Moses goes off for a time to pray, to recuperate, to reconnect with God, the people take the opportunity of his absence to bond with one another AGAINST him.  They wanted him to be everything for them, they wanted him to be perfect, to have infinite energy for them, to not need time away.  They wanted him to lead them into the promised land, into comfort, maybe even into a kind of luxury.  He can’t do that first because he is a human being and second because it isn’t God’s time yet, there are other things that must happen before they are led into the promised land.  But for all these reasons, for his failure to give them everything they want and because he has taken some time away from them to pray, to reground himself in God, the people feel he has failed them and they quickly turn against him.  “As for this man, Moses, we don’t have a CLUE what has happened to him. …so make for us gods who can lead us, instead.”  And his brother, Aaron, did NOT defend him, but joined them, doing what they asked him to do, my guess is so that he could remain a part of them, too, bonded together AGAINST his own brother, Moses.  I also think he was afraid of their angry wagging tongues and felt that if he stood up for his brother, he would just become the next victim of their attacks and critiques.
It was not only that they bonded with each other in their criticism and rejection of Moses, they also somehow believed that in that criticism and rejection of someone else, they would get more, that this would enable them to walk away with something better than what they would have had had they stuck with Moses and had they continued to follow in God’s way.  They thought that instead of this human person, Moses, they could get gods who would then lead them, made from the rings and gold objects that the people had.  Gods had to be better than Moses, right?  Moses had led them out of slavery.  Moses had made sure they had food and water.  But it wasn’t enough.  They wanted more.  They wanted more.  And it was easy to vilify Moses, to critique him, thinking that this would then get them that more.
Then we come to the gospel passages.  And in the first one we read of people invited to a wedding party who felt they had better things to do.  But again, they didn’t simply say “No, we don’t want to come”.  They joined together, grabbed the servants who had invited them to the party, abused them and killed them.  And we have to ask, what were they thinking?  Did they really believe there would be no consequence for this behavior?  That the king who invited them wouldn’t get angry and seek retribution for their killing of his servants?  But again, they seemed to believe that they would be closer to each other, more bonded with one another and maybe even somehow “get more” as they developed a common enemy.
In the second gospel passage I read for today it is even clearer that this is what is going on.  When the servants come to collect what is owed to the landowner, they kill the servants.  So the landowner sends more servants whom they also kill.  When the son comes they say to each other, “This is the heir.  Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.”  What kind of thinking is that?  That somehow if you kill all those the landowner cares about that he will then leave to you everything he has?!  From a distance, from our perspective, we can see that this is absolutely crazy thinking.  We can see clearly that those with that kind of thinking won’t survive long enough to inherit anything, but will be utterly destroyed by the landowner.  We see this, from the safe distance of reading about it in a story.  But what about in our own lives?
In our own personal lives, don’t we put down, criticize, condemn and sometimes even seek to destroy, at least emotionally, some people to other people?  And as we join together in criticizing other people, don’t we somehow feel more connected to those we are talking to?  Don’t we somehow believe that if we share a common critique against other people that we will be closer and more united with those with whom we share that criticism?  Don’t we sometimes even create friendships, build relationships over common complaints against someone else?  Sometimes I think we even believe that we will be more fully or thoroughly respected by those with whom we are bonding when we have a common critique of someone else, a common judgment, and especially a common enemy. 
Some time ago I was over at the house of friends when the husband in the couple received a text from a mutual friend.  His response in seeing the text was, “Oh no.  Not again!  These people are always texting us.  I’m just going to ignore it.”  His wife joined in on the conversation and critique, “Yeah.  We ignore his texts a lot but they don’t seem to get the message!”  They looked to me for my support, clearly hoping I would join in on this conversation, to agree with them for their decision to put down and fail to respond to this friend. To agree with them about how annoying our mutual friend was.  And again, perhaps the thinking was that we would then have this “bond” over being annoyed by this other friend.  But I found myself instead very upset by their comments.  I found myself wondering, and asking, “when you don’t respond right away to my texts then is it because you are feeling the same way towards me?  Annoyed?  Bothered? Are the two of you having this same conversation about me behind my back when I text?”  Of course they were quick to tell me, “Oh no!  That’s different!” But that conversation rang in my head from then on when a text I sent was not answered.
I have another friend who, when I am with her, is often criticizing her best friend, complaining about her best friend.  I understand that my friend may need to work out some of her annoyance or anxiety at times with her best friend.  But again, whenever she does this, whenever she criticizes her best friend to me, I cannot help but wonder what she is saying about me, who is not nearly as close to her, when I am not around. 
How many of you receive forwarded emails that express hatred towards groups of people? Christians are called to be “known by their love” but sometimes even the most well-meaning people seem to get caught up in hating behavior and my sense is that this is easier to do when they feel bonded with others in a crusade, even when it is a crusade of judgment or hatred.  Jesus is very clear that we are not supposed to judge and that instead we are called to love even our enemies.  Jesus is very clear that we will be known by how compassionate and caring and merciful and grace-filled and loving we are.  And the hate behavior of people who say they are Christian, especially when their hating is done in the name of God, tends to do absolutely the opposite of what they intend.  It does not win friends or convince people of any quality or ability to self-reflect.  It loses them respect, again, especially from those who are self-reflective, who are caring, who are seeing people.  Unfortunately, it also encourages people to lose respect for Christianity on the whole.  They are not spreading the Good News with judging condemning behavior.  They are not demonstrating a belief in a loving God who embraces the outcast, heals the wounded, and calls us to do the same.  They are turning people against Jesus, while missing Jesus’ message of love completely.
Not that any of us are completely beyond this behavior of trying to bond with one another by critiquing others.  While on a retreat one weekend, I kept receiving phone calls and texts from someone who knew I was on retreat and yet continued to demand my attention, and I found myself quick to criticize that person to those I was with.  I received an email right before writing this sermon, containing an article attacking someone that I quickly answered with “yep, I agree” without pausing to consider what I was doing.  We do this. Judging others gives us something to talk about.  Condemning others gives us something to complain about.  Being critical gives us a chance to “vent”. Criticizing others helps us to think through what we believe about certain issues or behaviors so that we can act differently, and behave according to our true principles and values.
But behaving that way is also, ultimately, against what God would have us do.  When we are judging others, we are failing to remember that Jesus said it was the one without sin who is called to cast the stones and that is not one of us.  We are failing to remember that it is God’s own children we are condemning since we are all God’s children.  When we are bonding in our animosity towards anyone else, we are failing to love our enemies.  And I think we have to ask how God must feel about that. 
The people I trust the most and the people I respect the most tend to be those who choose not to engage in this kind of behavior.  One of the things I love the absolute most about David is first that he is not a catty person, and that second, he calls me on it when I am.  And I respect this in him for so many reasons.  First, seeing that he refuses to gossip negatively about others, I am less concerned about him doing the same to me.  Second, all those who act in loving ways towards all people are so much easier to respect as people truly doing their best to follow in Jesus’ way. 
I want to clarify something here.  I’m not saying that we agree with everybody or everything.  There is room for disagreement, and when we see injustice, we are called to confront it.  Always.  But this is not the same as judging people, or talking maliciously about people.  It is not the same as gossip.  Denouncing unkind, unjust and unloving behavior is also not the same as judging people and condemning people.  We are called to stand up against unjust and unloving behavior.  We are not called to call people names, to attack individuals or to be hateful towards anyone, no matter how much we disagree with them.

But the Good News in this remains that when we fail to be faithful, when we do choose to be critical, God still is with us, God still provides.  In the Exodus story, while God was angry that the people had forsaken both Moses and God, God did not loose wrath on the people but still loved them, still provided for them, still cared for them.  The Good News also is that this God who loves us is ultimately the judge as well as the one who offers us grace.  It isn’t up to us to judge.  It isn’t up to us to critique.  But when we fail to remember that, even then, the choice of who deserves critique is up to God and not us.  We are freed.  Freed to love.  Freed to live in God’s grace.  Freed to be known as Christians, by the love that God calls us to exhibit.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"She will not be comforted, for her children are no more."

Jeremiah 31:15-17
Matthew 2:13-18

            “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.  Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.” 
This is the other side of Christmas.  The cloud behind the silver lining.  The systematic and senseless killing of every child two and under in and around Bethlehem.  A most horrible tragedy, as we know.  But we experience this as well, don’t we?  And especially this month, this week, as we reflect on all of the natural disasters, the hurricanes, the tornadoes, and, most lately, on the shooting in Las Vegas.  For every person who has died, for everyone killed in any of these losses, there were more parents, children, friends, relatives, anyone who was near enough to know and care; weeping and wailing for the senseless and absurd deaths of so many. “She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            We don’t want to think about this side of Christmas.  Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of joy, life, and love.  We don’t want to think about this side of life.  God’s world is supposed to be a place where we celebrate the beauty of creation, of life, or friends and family.  We don’t want to see death and pain, and it is very difficult to make sense out of tragedies, out of these awful events that are happening in our world.  How do we do it?  How do we move forward when there is so much loss and pain in our world?  How do we still trust and believe in a good God when nothing changes?  When the natural disasters get worse with each year and when people still are allowed to shoot at and kill others in this way?  When nothing is done to stop this, when we are owned and controlled by big money rather than the lives of those we love?
            But most of the time I think we still try to put it aside, still try to not think about it, not worry about it too much.  We have to get on with our lives and we are called still to celebrate the good…   
            Unless.  Unless a tragedy is so big and so horrible and so personal that we can’t put it aside for the day.  The event of Herod’s merciless slaughtering of all the young children in Bethlehem was such a tragedy.  The events in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands, in Texas, in Mexico, in Nevada… for the families and friends of all those who have lost loved ones, each one is such a tragedy.  Each is a lightning bolt striking down in the middle of a warm spring day, the shock of being thrown into ice water alone and isolated.  For the families and friends of those children in Bethlehem, there was no Christmas.  For the families and friends of those in the many places I’ve mentioned, there is no celebration.  For the people of Bethlehem, the birth of the Messiah seemed to be the cause of their tragedy.  There was no room for celebration here.  There was only weeping - “Rachel refusing to be comforted, for her children are no more.” 
The people of Bethlehem must have felt, and rightly so, that the birth of this one baby, Jesus, could not possibly be worth the killing of so many innocent children.  Their minds must have been filled with questions.  Why did this have to happen?  Why now of all times?  And why did God warn Joseph and not the other parents?  If God had the power to warn and protect, why weren’t all the parents with young children out of Bethlehem before the slaughter? “She will not be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            According to the Interpreter’s Bible commentary, this story was clearly not meant to be told as an historical event.   Instead, the story is a story about God’s divine intervention.  It is a story about God taking the initiative when it came to reconciling with humanity.  God initiated the coming of the Christ child, initiated Jesus’ birth and saw through to the fulfillment of Christ’s mission against all odds.  It is a story that shows God acting out of love on our behalf, even when we have not prayed for it or asked for it, or done the work that is necessary to bring healing and safety to the world.  It is a tale telling how God fulfills God’s plans of love, no matter what the obstacles.
            This understanding of the story may help.  It may help to believe that God didn’t really warn Joseph while allowing all the other children to be slaughtered.  This may help – until we realize that the story is true.  It is true, as we have witnessed this month.  It is true when we look at the world.  In our world at this point in time, 3% of the population use 80% of the world’s resources.  3% seem blessed by their wealth, success, and comfort, while many, many people in the world do not have homes, do not have the medicines they need, do not have food.  Most children in our privileged country live and love and have enough, but not all of them.  And in the rest of the world children continue to be senselessly slaughtered.  Girl children in some countries are killed simply because they are girls.  In other countries children are killed because it is war time.  Children die in the thousands from starvation because there isn’t enough food or water.  Our storms, fires, tornadoes are becoming worse in the face of Climate Change and many are suffering the violence of our weather. And sometimes, something happens and a person will snap, go on a rampage and kill people for no real reason at all.
            It can be hard to really grasp the depth of these tragedies.  But we sometimes experience them in other ways.  I have a friend whose oldest son of seven kids contracted Spinal Meningitis.  The child had an especially bad and quick attack of the disease and the doctors told my friend that he should not expect his son to live.  But at the last moment the child recovered.  A couple years later, however, another friend of mine lost her only daughter to the same disease in a matter of hours.  My friend whose son survived the disease swears that God intervened to save his child.  But then I have to ask, why did God save his boy and not my other friend’s daughter?  “She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            I know that the Christmas story to be real – both sides of it.  It is a true reflection of the world in which we live.  Miracles happen all around us, and at the same time, people suffer cruelties in abundance.  “She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            How can we live and celebrate the joy when we know in each moment that we are joyful that others are weeping?  How do we remember the less fortunate and live in the joy of the Good News at the same time?  How do we celebrate God’s love and presence in a world fraught with pain?
            The Christmas story is a whole.  The slaughter of the innocents cannot be separated from the wonderful birth of the Christ child. They go together. The celebration of God’s amazing love for us cannot be taken out of the real world which God loves and was born into and came to save.  Celebrating is good and right.  God celebrated.  Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine to celebrate.  The angels were so excited about Christ’s coming that they announced it to any who would listen, even shepherds in the fields.  The angels rejoiced as God rejoiced.
            But God also came to us, through Jesus, into the real world; a world torn with strife and senseless pain.  Jesus was born into life, even as the innocent children around him were being slaughtered. 
And so we, too, rejoice.  We celebrate and laugh and honor God’s glorious presence in our world.  But it isn’t enough to stay there.  We are called; we are called to be in the world and its pain as much as we are to celebrate its beauty.  Therefore we must use the joy God has given us to strengthen us so that we can enter the world, confront the world and CHANGE the world.  We cannot hide in comfort and celebration.  We must take the celebration and the love into the world and overcome the pain.  WE must stop the slaughtering of the innocents.  We are God’s messengers of love.  And we therefore must bear this good news to the world.  This is God’s calling to us.  Because, just as God laughs and loves with us, God cries with us.  God is suffering.  It is God’s children who are being slaughtered.  It is GOD who refuses to be comforted because HER children are no more.  And we are the soldiers and caretakers of the world.  WE are the ones who must bring God the comfort that She seeks.  We are God’s hands and we must bring life, love and justice to all God’s children.  The Magi tried to protect Jesus – after following the star to see him, they did not return to Herod to tell him where he lay.  We, too, on this day of Christian love and celebration, are called to follow the star – the star that shows us where God is coming and to protect that reflection, that incarnation of God. 
But we are also called to something more.  We reflect God’s sorrow and anger as well as God’s joy and WE must stop Herod from killing any more children, stop the privileged nations from allowing anymore children to starve, stop the gangs from destroying one another, and WE must pay enough attention to the hurting people in our world that we know when someone is going to lose it and WE must care for them and attend to them and get them the help they need before they go into another building and hurt or kill any more of God’s children.  But it is more than that.  Did you know that basic human psychology tells us that when we are angry, the judgement centers of our brains are disabled?  We literally and physically are incapable of making intelligent decisions when we are filled with rage.  It cannot be done.  When we allow people easy access to weapons in those moments when their brains are disengaged, is it any surprise that we end up with the situations we currently have?  We therefore must also work to change the systems that allow money to be more important than lives. We have to start paying attention to the statistics that show us again and again that countries that allow free access to these weapons are also countries where these tragedies occur again and again and again.  We have to look at countries that don’t have this issue and see what they are doing differently.  In the aftermath, we have to take responsibility and we have to work for change.  We have to educate ourselves and we have to act.
 There is a real need to take ownership over our part in allowing these terrible things.  We need to own that we have allowed money to set the conditions for climate change. We have to claim our part and work to change it.  We have to. 
              In the midst of these tragedies, where is God?  God is the mother crying for her children because they are no more.  And God is also the voice that tells us we must stop any more Herod’s from killing or allowing the killing of any more children.  God is the voice that says “enough”.  God is with the helpers.  God is with the healers.  And God is with those who would change systems of oppression and injustice. 

            God has given us much to celebrate.  Out of our gratitude let us help to end God’s weeping by bringing our joy to fullness and fruition, bring the good news of God’s love and presence to all the world.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A ramble on crisis, strength, and children.

           Recently, my kids and I were watching one of the many science fiction movies in which a father must choose between going out to save the world or staying at home to care for and raise his kids.  As always in these movies (because there wouldn't be a story if he chose otherwise), the father opts to sacrifice his time with his children in order to save the world, leaving them for years and sometimes life-times, to fulfill his mission.  And we all nod and agree that, of course, that is the right choice.  We don't give it a second thought.  And we see the man as the hero the story makes him out to be.  After all, he gave up so much for the sake of the world.
          So did the kids.  And they had no say about it, no choice about it.  There are victims in these stories, victims whose fates we don't see or acknowledge because, after all, the fate of the world is so much more important than a couple kids.  Right?
          Everytime I see one of these movies I find myself angry.  Why was it that it was only that person, that man, who could save the world?  And why was the cost the kids?  And why do we fail to see that or to care about the kids, except as losses to the hero?  Despite what these movies show us of strong and happy children growing up confident in the knowledge that their dads are heroes and that the kids themselves are loved and just have this little inconvenience, this tiny self-sacrifice that also puts them in the categories of heroes for giving up their dads in exchange for the salvation of the entire world; despite what the movies show us, the reality of kids growing up without a parent is very different.
        Here are just a few of the statistics:  taken from The Fatherless Generation
  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (US Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
  • 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average.  (Center for Disease Control)
  • 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average.  (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average.  (National Principals Association Report)

  • 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes – 10 times the average.
  • 70% of youths in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average.  (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Sept. 1988)
  • 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average.  (Fulton Co. Georgia, Texas Dept. of Correction)
       These are just a few of the many statistics based on many studies that show what happens when kids grow up without their fathers, for whatever reason.  While the heroes may have saved the world in one way, what harm have they passed on to the world through creating homes with fatherless children?  What radiating damage was caused by this choice?  
       As I watched this movie with my kids, I made a comment that I felt the choice the dad made was wrong.  I was surprised that my kids all disagreed with me.  They said they felt the dad had made the right choice.  I argued with them that it wasn't fair to the kids.  "Maybe, " was the response.  "But the kids will be stronger because of it."  Really? That's not what the studies show.  They don't show stronger kids, they show broken kids, damaged kids, kids ready to inflict the same pain on the world that the world inflicted on them. "Are you stronger?" I asked my kids who have lived without their father for the last 5 1/2 years.  
      "Yes,"  they all answered, "we are."
       No, they aren't.  That is a myth we tell ourselves so that we can feel better about the fate life has handed us.  That is the story we proclaim to make the tragedies of this life acceptable.  But as the mother who lives with the victims of their particular tragedies, as the one who cares for them and watches them every day, I can tell you about the wounds they carry in great detail.  Since I don't want to betray their confidences or tell their stories, I will name the one that is most obvious: the fortresses my children have built around themselves, thick and strong, are what they identify as personal strength.  But I see those walls for what they are: they are walls made of fear, they are a way to hide from the world, they represent a commitment to refuse to allow others into their inner sanctums so they will not be hurt again.  Those walls do not represent strength, they represent brokenness and fear.  And that truth is painful for all of us, every single day.
       I love our stories, our cultural myths, that say that we grow from trauma, that we grow and become better, stronger people because of the crises we've experienced.  But the truth is that I believe that growth and improvement in reaction to large traumas is rare, an exception that comes with a great deal of commitment, courage and intentional choice to bring good out of pain.  I see those people who grow and become better folk through their traumas, especially the huge ones, as the exception to the rule rather than the norm.  I've been blessed to know some of those people who have taken their traumas and allowed them to make them better people.  But I also know far too many people who have become bitter, or entrenched in their one-dimensional belief systems, or become fearful and angry because of what they have gone through. And even those people who have grown through their traumas still carry scars, still carry trigger points.  I don't know anyone who has gone through a substantial crisis who walks without a limp, who is not damaged in some way. When it comes to children, these traumas are especially difficult to work through.  The very fabric of who each child is becomes changed, becomes resewn, rewoven into a different tapestry.
       My kids are not who they would have been had they not gone through their experiences.  Kids in war torn countries, kids living with poverty, kids growing up in abusive homes or in terrible situations will never be who they would have been otherwise.  No amount of counseling or education or family support can give them back the childhoods that they have lost, or can take away that limp that defines them. These defining childhood stories change way too many kids for the worst, taking away from them a sense of hope or joy or possibility.  That breaks my heart.  
       And while I have always valued the stories of growth and change and strengthening, I wonder what we miss by repeating these stories to ourselves.  Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge the truth that these childhood traumas are severely damaging and that rather than believing good comes out of them, it would be better to work hard to limit those traumas in the first place?
       Life is hard, and we won't be able to stop all trauma.  But perhaps facing the true damage is a better choice than living in a denial bubble that says we are strengthened through the crisis, especially when it comes to our children.  Perhaps this has to start with the stories we tell.  Perhaps the next story I see about a father leaving to save the world will focus instead on the children left behind; on their story.  Or perhaps the next story will focus on the choice the parent (male or female) makes between saving the world and being with his/her kids.  Perhaps in the next story, the parent will choose to stay with the kids and to find someone without small children who can save the world in their place.  And maybe that next person will do a better job anyway.  And the parent who chooses to stay behind will be a hero to the kids for choosing the kids, for choosing to love and care for and raise them.  That is a story I would love to hear.