Monday, April 27, 2009

So What?

Sermon on the Third Sunday in Easter, 2009

Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

…so what?

I think our gospel this morning asks us that question: So what? Christ is indeed risen, yes. So what does that mean?

We have many accounts of the risen Jesus meeting his disciples, and they respond in a markedly different way than a resounding, “Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” They don’t seem to know what to do. Jesus comes and says, as always, “Peace be with you.” He brings them peace…and they’re afraid.

Hmm. Christ is indeed risen…? So what?

The disciples respond in such a way that’s natural. They’re afraid of the peace Jesus brings. They live in a world of fear of violence and peace is simply not something they know. It’s not their language. The disciples knew only fear and violence under an oppressive regime, Rome. Let’s put another modern spin on it – they knew fear and violence because they lived as people without rights in a land not their own, a land that was occupied.

Fear and violence was their language. They could understand how Jesus, who was wildly popular and also quite controversial, could upset the authorities – both religious and secular, both Judean and Roman – and, like any of the other radicals, experience Rome’s capital punishment: death by crucifixion. They could understand fear and violence winning out.

But they just could not understand how Jesus could defeat these powers, this death and fear and violence, so ingrained in their collective minds, and be raised from the dead. They couldn’t understand that peace could win. It didn’t register with them. They meet together in the wake of Jesus’ execution, speaking in the same terms they were raised on – fear of those who had come after Jesus, so, it seemed, they just as likely would come after them; and violence, both the violence they had experienced, and the violence maybe some of them thought about inflicting on somebody, anybody, in return.

And the disciples just could not understand how Jesus could come back and proclaim peace. How is this possible? And so they respond with fear, and trembling.

Christ is indeed risen… So what?

The risen Christ comes to proclaim peace in a world of fear and violence. Jesus appears before his disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus appears before his disciples and says, “The power of fear and violence is nothing in the face of the power of peace.”

This radical proclamation comes from the risen Christ, and it has so much more of an impact because of the fearful and violent world in which Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead. Jesus the Christ was fearfully rejected by those he loved (including the disciples, his very own inner circle), and violently betrayed, taken, beaten, whipped, spit on, mocked, made fun of, and put to death. And yet he responded – only and always – with peace. Peace and love.

This proclamation of peace is so much more amazing because of these circumstances. You might imagine someone who had gone through all this violence and betrayal, and then appears before those responsible for abandoning him when he needed him most, might say something more like, “Hey guys…I’m baaaaack! Remember me?”

That might be more understandable. To continue in the ways of fear and violence. Yet the risen Christ comes back after all of that, and says, “Peace be with you.”

Wow! Christ is indeed risen. And so what? What does that peace look like?

Does it look like the girl who was the first to integrate the school in Little Rock, AR? Everyday she walked into the school amidst taunts, sneering, jeers, spitting, and much worse – the face of pure hatred. Years later, a journalist looked at video of her walking, and noticed the girl muttering something under her breath. In an interview, the woman said that she was saying the same thing, every day: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Does it look like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? When I was there, worshipping with a community of Palestinian Christians who live under occupation – a wall stretches around the city of Jesus’ birth, to keep the inhabitants in, suffocating in extreme poverty and violence – and who were crying out to God. They weren’t crying for revenge, or retribution; they were crying for peace.

We know the disciples, maybe a little too well, don’t we? We live in a world just as driven and ruled by fear and violence as they did. And so when Jesus appears to us this Easter, saying, “Peace be with you,” we often respond with that same fear and trembling. Peace just isn’t the language we’re used to.

Yet, in the midst of wars raging around the world, and people who live in constant fear for their lives, Jesus appears to us and says, “Peace be with you.”

Alongside the 30,000 people who die every single day because of starvation and preventable diseases, such as the common cold, the risen Christ appears to us and says, “Peace be with you.”

Along with those who live under occupation, behind walls, with no rights, in the West Bank and Gaza, the risen Christ appears to us and says, “Peace be with you.”

In the midst of those in this country who are victims of domestic abuse, who cannot find peace even in their own home, the risen Christ appears to us and says, “Peace be with you.”

Next to those of us who are depressed, who suffer from addictions, who have scars in our lives, who are told by our society that we need more stuff to fill the void in our lives, the risen Christ appears to us and says, “Peace be with you.”

Whispering in the ear of those of us in this sanctuary, this Upper Room in which we are gathered, who don’t know exactly why we have come here today, but know that, in some way, we may feel fear, emptiness, or that we aren’t good enough, the risen Christ appears to us and says, “Peace be with you.”

Christ is indeed risen. And so what?

Jesus appears to us today and answers that question: “Peace be with you.” This Easter season, let us hear those words anew. Let us live as agents of peace, as the “peacemakers” whom Jesus calls “blessed.” In a world of fear and violence, let us stand and say that Christ is indeed risen, for us and for our broken world that continues to say that violence is the answer, that violence somehow brings peace. And Christ repeats, repeats, repeats, “Peace be with you.”

Fear and violence don’t bring peace. Christ brings peace. Christ is our answer. And the power of peace wins out. Christ is indeed risen.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Holy, holy, holy

We had waited for a long time for this, and it was finally here. Holy Week. For those who still think that all pastors really do is show up on Sunday, preach, and then go home, this week affords the opportunity to show up at the church on other days of the week, and see that – surprise, surprise – the pastors are still there!

The week before, I had finished my sermon series on “Rediscovering the Liturgy,” which, in my free-flowing vernacular, quickly became renamed, “Worship MEANS Something.” I wanted to encourage all of us in mainstream, liturgical Christianity, to understand that what we do when we gather is more than just stand up, say a few words, sit down, then stand up again, later. We are deeply interwoven with something greater than us, a great flowing river of words, actions, and rituals – spoken, sung, and celebrated, in one way or another – for the better part of 2,000 years. What we do together means something. It’s not just done to be done. In short, I wanted all of us at my internship church to be unabashedly, unashamedly Lutheran.

Then we entered Holy Week. I had never been so busy in my entire life, and yet, I had an opportunity to really be, to be a part of the body of Christ, to take part in this holy and ancient ritual. I walked the labyrinth. I fasted. I sat in our sanctuary, the late afternoon sun piercing the darkened space, stopping for a moment to enter through a stained glass window, then continuing on in a kaleidoscope shower of browns, yellows, and oranges.

I was washed in this light, thinking about all the things I had done, and things I had yet to do. Thinking about the real, complicated, broken, and beautiful body of Christ in this church in Central Florida. Considering how God loves us so desperately and unabashedly it’s almost embarrassing. God as my supervisor’s Jack Russell terrier who lays in my lap, licking my cheek, making me blush.

Then came worship. One of the many things I have learned this year is that it’s hard to worship AND lead worship at the same time – but there are always those moments, for this worship-loving boy, when I forget where I am or what I’m doing, and I’m just speechless. Those moments were everywhere during the Maundy Thursday services, as the haunting words of Psalm 22 echoed in the silence, blanketing the child of God as she slowly and methodically stripped the altar. Jesus being taken by the Roman authorities, violence seeming to win over peace.

The Easter Vigil service also poured out those moments for me, drenching me in this grace that comes from the One who created us, who continues to love us, who invites us to co-create this world of ours. Listening to the stories of our ancestors in the faith, I was amazed at how these stories wait there for us, rarely being read in their entirety, enticing us to listen with new ears, to hear how God saves God’s people.

Holy Week is past, and I’m still so exhausted I am daydreaming about my pillow as I type. And last week, two years ago, my Mom died. Easter had come and gone for a few weeks then, but now it’s still in the air. When we call out to a God who says that not even death itself can separate us, I remember Mom.

And I hope that, now, Mom can finally remember me, too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

God's Gettin' Messy

Sermon on Internship, February 15, 2009

I love stories. I really do. I especially love stories in which I can find myself; stories with characters with whom I can relate. And I can always relate really well with people who mess up. People who are imperfect and do stupid things. And the Bible is full of stories like this. Naaman and the Jordan is a perfect example.

It is in this story today that we learn that our God works through messy situations. It’s in this messiness that God works. No matter what obstacles or hard-headedness or miscommunication gets in the way, God overcomes them.

And this story is full of obstacles, isn’t it? It’s kind of a messy story.

There’s Naaman, a powerful general, not a Hebrew, has leprosy, and so he travels all the way to the land of Israel – where, by the way, his people had taken and enslaved at least one Hebrew girl, who served him – and then is offended when he’s not treated like a king.

There’s the king of Aram, who mistakenly believes that the king of Israel is the one who can cure his general Naaman, so he sends Naaman with an amazing array of gifts to win over the king.

There’s the king of Israel, who thinks the letter asking for a healing is a call to arms – interesting, since the writer of 2 Kings tells us that it was by the foreign Naaman, not the king of Israel, that the Lord had brought victory to Aram – and is probably mustering up his men for war by the time the message from Elisha arrives.

There’s even Elisha, who, with this powerful army just outside his front door, tells a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan. He can’t come himself – he’s a bit busy.

These are all characters who get in the way, who mess things up – they are obstacles to grace winning out, to a person being healed, to the glory of God being shown before all.

Yet God works in this messiness. God is at work even though people are messing up. And we can see it in the girl from the land of Israel. As fascinating as Naaman is, I think the award for most intriguing character goes to the girl from the land of Israel, the servant of Naaman’s wife. The phrase “girl from the land of Israel” is repeated, maybe to clarify that she is merely a girl; or that she comes all the way from Israel, a place way out there, much farther than U.S. 41 – I mean it’s far away. Or maybe the phrase is repeated because it’s a nameless girl – she doesn’t even have a name worth remembering.

Yet she is a complex, beautiful character in this already fantastic story. She refuses to believe that God’s work is over – even though she was taken captive – we call that ‘slavery’ – she continues the work of God. Forcibly taken from her home, from everything she knows, she continues to believe, to hope…to have faith.

God works in messy situations. Whether we are like the king of Aram, and too often misunderstand the situation, and do something, well, stupid. Or maybe we’re the king of Israel, taking something the wrong way and jumping to dangerous conclusions. We might be Naaman, letting our egos and prejudices get in the way.

It doesn’t really matter, though. Despite our best efforts, we’re going to mess up. We’re going to create obstacles. Maybe that’s why we can relate to well with the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures – they are flawed, imperfect human beings, just like us. Yet God overcomes those obstacles – every time.

It’s more than God working in messy situations, however. Even God starts getting messy, y’all. And it goes everywhere. It’s Grandma God, at the Thanksgiving table, with a huge bowl of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness, and she’s doling it out with a huge ladle, and she’s gettin’ messy.

It’s getting all over our Sunday-best, and there’s no amount of laundry detergent that can get these stains out. It’s staining us and our lives, forever. It’s not coming out.

And when this starts to pour out, when Grandma gets messy with her love and forgiveness, we see normal, everyday things, become holy and amazing. God’s mercy and grace is so messy, it spills out, drenching us and getting us messy, too.

When God starts getting messy, we see incredible things happening.

We see Naaman washing in the Jordan – anyone ever been to the Jordan? It ain’t blue and beautiful…it’s kinda murky and muddy. It’s a messy little river. Not the kind of place you’d pick to take a bath. Yet Naaman steps into it, and is healed. Normal, everyday water turns into a Word of healing.

We see a star in the sky becoming a bearer of the Most High God. We see our words spoken to loved ones who are in the hospital or sick become God’s own words of comfort, spoken to our ancestors, to God’s people throughout the millenia; spoken to us, today.

We see people doing everyday things that become holy and sacred with God’s messy grace getting on them forever. Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat, and her humanity, taking something simple and making it sacred. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks the words of the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C., and these words become more than just a hollow pronouncement – “All people are created equal.” They become holy words of a God of justice and equality.

We see ourselves come into this sanctuary, and speak words from a cranberry red book. Yet they are so much more – they are God’s holy words to us. It’s Grandma spilling out into our worship, shaking hands with us during the peace, calling on us to be her people, inviting us to her table.

God’s gettin’ messy, y’all, and it’s a mess I want to get into, too. It’s a word that spills out, a word of overwhelming grace and unending mercy.

And today, we see it everywhere look. Our God works in the messy situations. And when God gets messy, look at what happens: normal, dirty water becomes life-giving. Stars in the sky become bearers of the Most High God. Wine and bread become salvation.

God’s gettin’ messy, y’all.

Amen to that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Being Human

“I feel like a human being again.”

That’s what a parishioner – a small older woman with wispy hair and a soft smile – said to me in the hospital, after having just taken a bath. And by “bath,” I mean that she had a tub of hot water on her lap, and that morning she had taken the time to use a towel and wash her upper body.

Just something as simple as taking a bath, of cleansing herself, had given her back her humanity.

That morning, she had the ability to feel like a human being again. Maybe it was because of the attention she was able to give her body; maybe it was the lack of someone else helping her do something; or maybe it just felt so good to be warm and clean again, that she remembered who she was:

A beautiful child of God.

I visit people all the time at Trinity. Whether it be in hospitals, waiting rooms, hospice homes, actual homes, kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, or even prisons, I spend a good amount of time on my internship listening and talking to people.

And I live in south Florida, the home of all things retirement facilities and golf courses. I see a lot of old people. I’ve gotten to know them, learn from them, listen to them, and experience their humanity.

Too often that humanity is subtly taken away. And it’s not malicious in its intent. It’s just simple things – doctors talking to the nurses and family in the room, but never to the person in the bed. People who are ‘shut-in,’ stuck in their homes, in the same chair, in the same room, because they don’t have the ability to leave the house, whether it’s physically or mentally. 70-year olds, 80, 90, 106 year-old people who talk about the life they’ve lived and who seem to be preparing for it to end.

I’m 26, and I never talk like that. But I’m learning the power of that conversation. I’m learning the importance of regaining a sense of humanity in the onslaught of a culture who has a place, a prescription, or a ‘solution’ for the problem of old age.

“I feel like a human being again.” I hope that everyone, every day, can say that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Backstage Passes

I say it all the time to the kids at my internship church: It’s not Christmas yet. You, of course, wouldn’t know that if you paid attention to the radio or the TV. Christmas carols start before Thanksgiving, Christmas sales begin with the infamous Black Friday, and Christmas dwarfs what Christians are called to be: a hopeful, waiting people. When Christmas dwarfs Advent, Christians lose the very thing it means to be Christian.

And it’s in Advent where we meet John the Baptist – Jesus comes to the world through a half-naked lunatic who eats bugs. Here’s a guy whose sole purpose is to point to something beyond himself. He is, essentially, that really good supporting actor in movies that you love, but who never gets top billing. He’s Djimon Honsou in Gladiator, Philip Seymour Hoffman in 25th Hour, Zooey Deschanel in Eulogy.

And it’s just not like our society to reward those people. Nobody cares about the offensive lineman who helps LaDanian Tomlinson into the end zone – it’s only the running back who spikes the ball.

But Christians revel in our supporting role. We are John the Baptist, speaking the truth – “I am not the Messiah.” When society tells kids they must be the best, the brightest, the skinniest, and the coolest, Christians say, “I am nothing without God.”

This is not a limitation, however. It allows us to do amazing things, to love our neighbor, to work for justice in the world.

It was Oscar Romero’s words that ring true: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning - a step along the way. An opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.”

We are not all quarterbacks and leading actors. We are the backstage people, making the set ready for the main event. And there’s no shame in that; there’s no disappointment because we “should” be something more.

The New York Yankees are such a prolific baseball team, any year they don’t win the World Series, it’s considered a failure. Luckily we don’t have such high expectations.

We are just wandering around, searching, waiting. And then God’s grace enters and does the rest.

It’s not Christmas yet. All we can do is wait, in a society that never does.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Passion of Black Friday

There are some who mourn the loss of God in our schools (as if she couldn’t get in there without our help or something). Others decry the moral degradation of our nation, witnessed in such things as the Ten Commandments being refused public placement in courthouses across the United States. This is where we can see how much our country has fallen from its “godly” ways, they say. If only we could get back to that golden age when God was worshiped (and so was the United States of America).

I’m pretty sure, however, that the U.S. isn’t bowing down to the Christian God – I seem to remember that we were a nation of religious freedom, first off – and I’m pretty sure it never has. The nation we know was founded by deists, people who believed in a deity up there, in the sky, but no mention of Jesus Christ in the Declaration of Independence. (I think I would remember – I learned that document in our “godless” public schools, and it certainly mentions a Creator…)

But this nation has always bowed down to another god, and this has never gone challenged. It’s the god of consumerism, wealth, and materialism, and it is worshiped with such vigor and passion that Protestant Christians, for one, could learn a lesson.

I don’t think Jdimytai Damour would have ever imagined that his day would go like this. But, indeed, the son of Haitian immigrants died on the biggest shopping day of the year, a martyr to the god of consumer wealth that has certainly not disappeared from our schools, as well as everywhere else. Bum-rushed by more than 200 people at 5am, this guy’s only sin was to be the one to open the door that fateful morning.

That’s not the worst part. As he lay dying, and medics came to his side to revive him, people still rushed by, undaunted by this dismal scene. A dying man was not going to get in the way of their LCD flat-screen TV for $399, thank you very much. “Don’t even think about closing the store,” you could almost hear them saying. “That dying dude better not get in the way of my shopping!”

And so another innocent bystander dead in our obsessive worship of this god. There are those that may fight for God to ‘return’ to schools, but I think a much better use of our time is to rid ourselves of the god who infiltrates every aspect of our society…and its refrain is loud and clear: “Purchase me, and you will be a better person.”

This god is passively entertained – if not wholeheartedly endorsed – by our society. And someone died for it on Friday.

But, hey. Widescreen LCD flat-screen TV’s for $399! Wow, what a deal! I’d kill for that!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Defining Life

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you...
|Jeremiah 1:5|

I would love a coherent definition for “life,” because I just don't get it.

The pro-life camp wants to protect the rights of the “unborn,” or, basically, to defend innocent babies – human beings who can’t defend themselves. I know there’s some discussion over what constitutes a “life,” whether it’s at the moment of conception, or nine weeks later, etc…

God says Jeremiah was known before he was “formed in the womb.” This seems to clarify the definition of the beginning of “life” a bit more, at least from a Judeo-Christian perspective.

If it comes down to a definition of what constitutes human life in general, however, then the scope broadens.

I wonder about the thousands of human beings who die every day from hunger and other preventable diseases. Are they also innocent human beings who deserve protection against harm? What about the millions of victims of genocide and bombing campaigns in places like Darfur and Iraq? Are they deserving of life as well? How about the human beings (not “aliens,” no matter how many times you say it, CNN anchor Lou Dobb) who cross over national borders, trying to survive? Did God know them before they were formed in the womb?

The Bible has things to say about life across the board. For immigrants, legal or not, we are told to “love [them] as yourself, for you were [immigrants] in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). For those who are poor, or hungry, or naked, or imprisoned, we are told that “just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

For those who are imprisoned, Jesus says. Perhaps for those on death row who are overwhelmingly men of color, whose lives are scheduled to be taken away by a government that kills people in order to say that killing is wrong.

As a man, I can never know what it means to be faced with a pregnancy or possible abortion. I can never, ever understand what that’s like, and I’m very wary of male politicians making judgment statements on women in those precarious positions.

But I do know what ‘life’ means. And if it applies to defenseless unborn babies, then it must equally apply to defenseless born babies in Rwanda and Chicago, to teenagers in the rundown and neglected inner cities across the United States, to people wasting away in places ravaged by war, genocide, and AIDS.

If we’re going to use the Bible to defend a “pro-life” stance, then let’s please ask what constitutes life. If we’re just being “pro-birth,” then let’s call it that.

Because I just don’t understand how a view can defend to the death the right for babies to be born, but care less when it comes to those same babies who grow up in the crumbling homes and schools of the forgotten America; or the wretched lives struggling to eat from day to day across this world; or the lives taken by bombs for no other reason than that they happened to live in a place overflowing with much-needed oil.

I just don’t get it.