Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Drawing Near

Sermon on Luke 21:25-36

Rasputin thought it would be August 23, 2013. Isaac Newton suggested sometime in 2000. Some interpretations of the Mayan calendar led people to select December 21, 2012, while broadcaster Harold Camping staged a large publicity campaign about his chosen date of October 21, 2011, although his previous three predictions had flopped. Christians just love trying to predict the exact date of armageddon, the apocalypse, the end of the world. So far, every prediction has been wrong, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from trying.

Whipping people into an apocalyptic frenzy is big business; in the 1970s, the book The Late, Great Planet Earth garnered a great deal of attention with its comparisons between biblical descriptions of the end-times and then-current events. In the best-selling work, Lindsey concluded that the Christ would return to usher in God’s kingdom around 1988. Later, the Left Behind series imagined a world in which all the faithful Christians have been snatched up into heaven, leaving behind all of the atheists, agnostics, non-Christian religious people, and liberal Protestants like us (seriously; I wrote a paper about this in college). Seven books in the series reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and there have been four movies, graphic novels, video games, and more inspired by the books in the hopes of cashing in on Christians’ fascination with the apocalypse.

While this obsession with the end times may seem like a phenomenon exclusive to contemporary culture, and specifically to conservative Protestant American culture, predictions of the date of the eschaton - the end of days - are nothing new: as I prepared this sermon, I spent an hour enthralled, scrolling through a chart on Wikipedia of well over one hundred doomsday predictions, ranging from Jewish zealots’ predictions of the end of time in the late first century through scientists’ forecasting of the heat death of the universe about ten to the one-hundredth power years from now. (Merry Christmas, everyone!) It turns out that people from many eras and many faith traditions have played this game of reading sacred scriptures, watching for global events and astrological signs, and making their best guesses of when the world will end.

Most liberal Protestants, though, tend not to participate in the end-times guessing game. If anything, we find the whole thing a bit embarrassing and try not to talk about it too much. After all, Jesus did say that no one knows the day or the hour! But perhaps we’ve gone too far in our reluctance to talk about the apocalyptic passages in scripture and our theology about the last things. But today our calendar of readings guides us to consider some of Jesus’s apocalyptic words.

It seems a little odd to focus on the apocalypse on the first Sunday of Advent. During Advent, we prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ on Christmas day. However, while the secular world gears up for Christmas with an orgy of sugary treats, saccharine music, and consumerist frenzy, the church’s approach is a little bit different. During Advent, we turn our focus toward the practice of waiting in darkness for the coming of light into the world. We notice how far our world is from God’s dream for us, attend to our need for Christ, and try to practice hope, which is, according to Vaclav Havel, “definitely not the same thing as optimism. It's not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” And as we do these things, we remember that while Christ has come into the world, his work is not complete. For two thousand years, Christians have lived in the gap between Jesus coming into the world, and the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And so, as we start our Advent journey toward the manger, we read these dark and difficult words from the Gospel according to Luke.

In today’s passage, Jesus has been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, in the final days before his death. His teachings have gotten more challenging as he approaches the cross, and this passage’s ominous apocalyptic imagery is some of the most jarring of his words. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” he says. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

We tend to hear texts about the apocalypse as dark and frightening - and there are dark and frightening words here: distress among the nations, the roaring of the seas, the heavens shaking. And it is very human to fear change, to want things to stay the way they are, to hear texts about the end and say “no, thank you, I’m very comfortable right here.” But ultimately, this is not a word of doom, but of hope: “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” As Christians, we are invited to see texts about the end of days not as a threat, but as a promise: one day, Christ will return in glory, putting an end to violence and destruction, wars and disasters. When we look at the world around us, it’s no wonder that the end-times are so often predicted: the world is already full of the pain and fear and turmoil that marks scriptural words about the apocalypse. The promise is that one day Christ will return and set it all right.

Many generations of Christians have waited for that day, though, and it has yet to come. Does this text have anything to say to us besides “keep an eye out, eventually Jesus is coming back”? Perhaps it speaks not just about the eschaton, the last things, but also about living in this everyday, in-between world. Biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright have observed that Luke’s gospel was written shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple — a cataclysmic event for Jews and early Christians. Scholars have suggested that for the earliest Christians, Jesus’s descriptions of terrifying events may have spoken to this massive act of destruction by the Roman Empire, helping them to see the darkest and most terrifying events in their lives as signs of God’s presence and Christ’s imminent return.

So is this passage about the end of time, or is it about disastrous events within history? Perhaps it’s both. After the ominous and foreboding imagery of the heavens shaking and the sea roaring, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. ““Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” While the earlier teaching seems to point toward the end of time, the parable Jesus uses to explain the teaching suggests something very different. Trees, by their nature, are cyclical. One phase follows after another, over and over, year after year. And when we look at the world around us, we see that disasters and tragedies, while less predictable than fig trees, are cyclical as well. From natural disasters to wars to public health crises, disasters seem to crash over us like waves. Political assassinations, the AIDS epidemic, September 11th, the Syrian refugee crisis, and all of the others before and after and in between. Perhaps Jesus’ words are not only about the once-and-for-all end of time, but also about all those moments when it feels like everything is being torn apart, turned upside down and shaken, shattered irreparably into thousands of pieces. Perhaps that is what Jesus was suggesting with his parable of the fig tree - perhaps he is reflecting on the seemingly endless cycle of violence and destruction that make us look toward the day when God will set things right. And in the face of the world’s constant cycle of disaster and tragedy, he speaks of the big story of God’s love. “When these things begin to take place,” he says, “…your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus does not say that God brings terrifying events upon the world. Rather, Jesus promises that when things seem darkest, God will draw nearest.

A few months ago, my two-year-old Abel fell and cut his face on a piece of furniture. The cut was very deep, and very close to his eye, and we spent hours in the emergency room, where they wrapped him in sheets to immobilize his arms, held him down, and gave him dozens of shots of novocaine and several layers of stitches to close the cut. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't much, but he had never experienced so much fear and pain in his short life. That night, he fell immediately into a deep sleep, but I lay awake, reviewing the day’s events, wracked by guilt, worrying that his tylenol would wear off and he would wake up disoriented and in pain. Over and over, I tiptoed into his room, double- and triple-checking that he was asleep. Finally, around four in the morning, I lay down beside Abel’s crib and fell asleep, knowing that I would know the moment his eyes opened. It gave me a new perspective to see my child in pain and know that I couldn’t fix it, that all I could do was hold him and stay close as he endured the pain. Maybe some of you have been through something like that with a child, or a spouse, or a friend. Perhaps that kind of love is a bit of a glimpse into God’s love for us: God cannot always protect us from pain and fear. But when we are in pain, God draws near. When we inflict violence on each other, or on ourselves, when nature turns on us, when the heavens shake and the seas roil, when there are wars and destruction, when creation cries out in fear and panic, God’s heart breaks for us, and God draws near, holds us close, and offers us comfort and strength to endure.

When refugees are fleeing from Syria and our nation is in the grips of reactionary xenophobia, God draws near. When terrorists bathe the streets of Paris and Mali in blood, God draws near. When gun violence takes life after life after life, and we are paralyzed, unsure what to do or how to change it, God draws near. When a domestic terrorist rampages through a Planned Parenthood, God draws near. When every week brings yet more stories of unarmed black men, women, and children killed by police, and stories of cover-ups, and stories of white supremacists shooting at protestors, and we cannot even remember all the names we have heard, let alone the ones who never made the news, God draws near. And in our own lives, when we face our darkest moments, when we are in the grips of grief, depression, illness, turmoil, grief and despair, God draws near.

As we begin this season of watching and waiting, we hear Jesus’ words about calamity and destruction, words that promise that we have nothing to fear, that indeed we should “stand up and raise [our] heads,” because redemption is drawing near, the reign of God is drawing near. The work that Christ began will be completed, God’s promises will be fulfilled, and God will wipe away every tear. We hear these words and we remember that one night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, in an occupied nation, in the midst of abject poverty, under the thumb of a violent and oppressive empire, creation cried out and God drew near. God drew near, as the Word took on flesh, and dwelled among us. So no matter how dark things seem, Jesus repeats the biblical command, “Fear not!” He invites us to stand up and raise our heads, to be courageous and loving in the face of the very worst the world has to offer, and to know that, no matter what happens, God will draw near. God has drawn near. And even now, God is drawing near. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Other Sheep

A Sermon on John 10:11-18

One of the strangest things about being a minister is that I get to hear everyone’s opinions about Christianity, and I don’t even have to ask. All I have to do is walk out of the door in a clerical collar, or answer the phone at church, or hand someone a business card with “Rev.” in front of my name, or have someone say, “this is Emily, she’s a pastor,” and the floodgates open - people have all kinds of thoughts and feelings about our faith tradition, and I get to hear them all. I hear opinions about Christianity on airplanes, at cocktail parties, in waiting rooms, and around the Thanksgiving dinner table. I hear opinions that are very well-informed, and opinions that seem to be based almost entirely on Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code. I hear opinions from Protestants and Catholics, atheists and agnostics, Muslims and neo-pagans. I hear opinions from people who are fervently devout, people who’ve never set foot in a house of worship, and everyone in between. It can be maddening sometimes, but it’s also an incredibly fascinating and moving thing to hear all the ways the Christian tradition has been transformative in people’s lives and all the ways it’s been toxic, the ways it’s healed people and the ways it’s hurt people, the ways it’s been communicated and miscommunicated to society at large.

One of the things I hear most frequently from Christians and non-Christians alike is how troubled people are by their perception of Christianity as an exclusive faith tradition. People say to me things like, “I like the things that Jesus did and taught, but I just can’t understand how Christianity could say that people are going to Hell unless they believe exactly what you believe. If you think that God is love, then how could God condemn so many people to Hell for choosing the wrong religion, or the wrong denomination, or no religion at all?”

I sometimes wish I could say, “Oh, Christians don’t believe that, you must have misunderstood. Whoever told you that must have been wrong.” But the truth is, much of Christianity has taught, and does teach, that only Christians – and only a particular kind of Christians, at that – are included in God’s love. Much of Christianity has taught, and does teach, that God’s redemption is contingent upon our orthodoxy – our believing the right theology. So when people express hurt, anger, and frustration at Christianity’s exclusivity, their impressions are based not on misinformation, but on the real teachings that are prevalent in much of the Christian faith. Fortunately, though, I get to tell them that the Christian tradition is deep and rich and multivocal. I get to tell them that there are many possible ways of thinking about those issues, and today’s Gospel reading speaks to another way of thinking about who is in and who is out.

Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we ponder scriptural images of God and Jesus as shepherd. We hear the familiar and reassuring words of the 23rd Psalm that speak to God’s provision for us - guiding us to nourishment in green pastures, offering us rest and peace by still waters, accompanying us through the dark and frightening places of life. We hear Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd - the one who knows each of us, who lays down his life for us, just as shepherds would risk their own lives to protect the flock from predators and thieves We hear of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who shields us from danger and guides us toward abundant life. Tucked away in the midst of these familiar words are some words that are a bit surprising: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

“Other sheep that are not of this fold.” Those words are full of both promise and mystery - who are these other sheep? Could it be that Jesus is suggesting that God’s flock is bigger than Christianity has often taught? As I pondered these questions, I started to wonder whether it would be typical for shepherds in this time to have “other sheep.” While I was able to learn a fair amount about shepherding practices in biblical times, I haven’t been able to find a direct answer. But everything I’ve encountered has suggested that sheep require constant care, as they were prone to wandering off, and susceptible to predators and thieves. They bonded with their shepherd, responding to his voice alone. Shepherds would typically have stayed with the flock all day long, tending to them while they grazed in pastures during the day, then herding them into an enclosure - a sheepfold - at night, and sleeping with their bodies blocking the entrance of the fold so that the sheep couldn’t wander out, or predators come in, without stepping directly over the shepherd. If all of this is true, it’s hard to imagine that it would have been a common practice for a shepherd to have multiple flocks. Watching one flock was an all-day, all-night commitment; a shepherd likely wouldn’t have had time to tend more than one flock. I think Jesus’ words about other sheep would have been a surprising and thought-provoking thing for the disciples to hear, and it should be surprising and thought-provoking for us as well.

Who are these other sheep? Christians have offered a wide variety of interpretations. Progressive Christians tend to read this verse with an eye toward non-Christians, suggesting that the “other sheep” are faithful people of other traditions: Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, who encounter God’s truth and God’s voice in another form. (Incidentally, while this interpretation is beautiful and helpful, it is not always especially welcome in interfaith dialogue. People of other religions are often rather offended at the suggestion that they are worshiping Jesus without realizing it, just like I would be offended if someone told me I was actually worshiping Thor.) Another interpretation suggests that Jesus’ words were meant to prepare his Jewish disciples to welcome Gentiles into the early church. Yet another common interpretation of this verse encourages Christian unity, as interpreters suggest that each denomination or congregation is just one of Jesus’s flocks. This interpretation urges us to set aside our theological bickering and denominationalism and acknowledge that whether we are UCC or Catholic, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, all of us are drawn to Jesus’ flock, united across our difference by our Shepherd’s love for us, and our love for him.

I think, though, that we miss the point if we try to get too specific about the identity of these “other sheep.” Perhaps the point is not to help us discern more accurately how far God’s grace extends; perhaps Jesus is not helping us improve and refine our judgments about who is in and who is out. I think that in telling the disciples that he has “other sheep that are not of this fold,” Jesus challenges them, and us, to let go of the desire to make those determinations on God’s behalf. Jesus challenges us to encounter every neighbor, no matter how different from us, as if they might be a sheep in his flock.

For us UCCers, you would think it would be easy, wouldn’t you? From our congregation’s efforts to include those who might not normally feel welcome in church, to our denomination’s collaborative relationships across denominational lines, to our commitment to interfaith learning and dialogue, we think of ourselves as a pretty inclusive and accepting bunch. And I think we often are. Where we tend to struggle is in our attitudes toward Christians who are less inclusive than we are.

Every week I hear stories that break my heart and make me fume with rage about what others are doing in Jesus’ name. I hear stories of people who think their Christian faith means they are called to refuse service to gay customers. I hear stories of churches that object to women’s ordination; churches that not only declare that women can never be called to serve as pastors, but can never stand in a pulpit, and can never speak out loud in a church meeting that includes men. I hear stories of people who believe that the United Church of Christ is not a part of Christ’s church at all, but is part of a Satanic plot to lead believers astray. (It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.) Sometimes I want to say those people aren’t Christians – that they are not part of Jesus’ flock at all. I mean, they can’t be, can they?!

But Jesus tells us that there are other sheep in other pens, and that they are his too, and he does not tell me how to figure out who they are. There is a world of difference between saying someone isn’t a Christian and saying that your own Christian faith leads you to believe something different from them. There is a world of difference between attacking someone else’s faith and sharing your own.

Jesus tells us that there are other sheep, and he does not tell us how to recognize them. And so our challenge is to let go of our quest to determine who is counted in the flock, and who is not. Our challenge is to embrace the mystery of a God whose love and grace are far beyond what we could ever imagine – a God who loves us when we are narrow-minded and petty, when we are stubborn and selfish, when we are judgmental and exclusive, and when we are just plain wrong. The good news is that we are loved and cared for and guided by a Good Shepherd who loves us, not because of our regular church attendance, or our well-formed theology, or our acts of Christian mercy and justice. We are loved not because of what we have done or failed to do, but because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and Jesus is God, and God is love.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Fishing for People

Photo credit: Miemo Penttinen
Sermon on Mark 1:14-20


“Come with me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. What does that mean? He’s certainly not talking about that silly dance move that people do at weddings, where you pretend to “hook” and “reel in” another dancer. He’s talking about what the church has come to call evangelism: telling people about God and about Jesus, hoping to “catch” them into Christianity in general, or your own church in particular. Is he talking only to those first disciples, or is he talking to us as well? Is he asking us to fish for people, to practice evangelism?

When I think about evangelism, I sometimes remember a project I did in college. For a class on religion and media, I spent hours watching conservative and fundamentalist Christian television shows, analyzing their theology and the ways they used the medium of television. One of the shows I watched was sort of a “how to” for conservative Christians, providing step-by-step instructions in converting strangers to their particular strain of Christianity, paired with videos of the host converting passersby on the street. The secret to effective evangelism, this show claimed, was to make people feel really, really bad about themselves, and to make them feel very, very frightened. You were supposed to ask people about various sins they might have committed, and read them bible verses showing that these were sins. Then, you should ask them whether God was fair, and whether it would be fair for people to be punished for their sins, and they were supposed to say yes. You were supposed to tell them about hell, and the terrible torments that awaited there. You were supposed to make them feel as bad and as frightened as possible about the depth of their sins and the horrible punishment that awaited them. Then you were supposed to tell them that Jesus had already taken the punishment for their sins, and all they had to do was accept Jesus and they could be saved.
Is it any wonder that many progressive Christians think of “evangelism” as a dirty word? In many churches, we are frightened to even mention the word “evangelism” because it reminds us of pushy and pious fundamentalists, judging and condemning those outside their particular sect.

I have good news for you, though: that is not the only way to do evangelism. In fact, I don’t think that’s a good way to practice evangelism at all. It certainly isn’t like the kind of evangelism we see in our gospel reading today! Our Gospel lesson today picks up after Jesus has been baptized and has gone into the wilderness to be tempted and to prepare for ministry. Now, he returns from the wilderness and finds that John, his cousin who baptized him, has been arrested. He begins to preach that the kingdom of God has come near, and to invite people to repent and believe in the good news. What he is doing is “evangelizing” – literally, in the Greek, “evangel” means “good news,” and in this passage the word appears twice. Do you hear how different Jesus’ actions are from what that television show did? He begins with the good news of what God is doing – he opens with hope, with possibility, with promise. He doesn’t start by making people feel frightened and ashamed and guilty. He shares promise and hope, and then he invites repentance, invites people to turn away from whatever in them is harmful and hurtful, selfish and small-minded, and invites them to walk in a new direction.

Jesus’ evangelism then takes a more direct turn, as he starts to call disciples. Walking along the shore of the large lake that is known as the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes upon two brothers, Simon and Andrew, and he says “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” In the Greek, what Jesus actually says there is “I will make you become fishermen of humans” – it isn’t about what they will do (“I will force you to fish for people”), but about what they will be (“I will cause you to become fishers of people”). It sounds like a very odd sort of command, but Simon and Andrew can tell there is something special about this man, because they follow him, leaving their nets behind. A little farther along, Jesus sees two more brothers, James and John, mending nets, and he calls them as well. Leaving their father behind, the two of them follow him without hesitation.

We have in this gospel reading three little scenes of what the modern-day church calls evangelism. First, we see Jesus preaching – sharing the good news with anyone who will listen. Then we see him inviting Simon and Andrew to be disciples: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” and then again inviting James and John.
What he does here is not much like that evangelism I described earlier, is it? There’s no guilt, no threats, no terror. But there is this commandment: follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.
I think a lot of us are here because we have decided to answer Jesus’ call to follow him, and here we hear him telling those of us who would be disciples that we are to become fishers of people. What would that look like? What would it mean?

I think that as we see Jesus sharing the good news and calling the disciples, we start to see a little bit about what it means for us to do the same. First of all, the good news is supposed to be just that – good news. There are a lot of people out there preaching bad news, friends. There are people on the subway shouting about eternal damnation. There are voices on the television trying to convince us all that we won’t be good enough unless we get thinner and richer, with smoother skin and a newer phone. There are people telling LGBT people that they are unlovable as they are, telling undocumented immigrants that they are worthless, telling people that they are destined for eternal torment unless they conform to one specific and very narrow version of religion. Evangelism is supposed to be good news: the good news that you are good and beautiful, created in the image of God. The good news that you are loved, just as you are. The good news that you are invited to be part of a new and wonderful thing that God is doing.

Another thing about evangelism: Jesus calls the disciples with this promise: I will make you become fishers of people. Jesus doesn’t tell them that they need to be architects, or rabbis, or midwives. They are fishermen, and fishermen is what they will be – but what kind of fishermen they are will change. Jesus invites us to use what we already are in the service of sharing the good news of God’s love. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, a poet or a mathematician, a gentle soul or a firebrand, God has made you who you are, and you don’t need to change into some other kind of person in order to follow Jesus, or to share the good news about Jesus. Jesus tells the fishermen, as they become disciples, that they will become fishers of people – that their identities and gifts are good enough for God, and don’t need to change in order to participate in God’s kingdom. We are invited to share the good news in ways that feel true to ourselves, in ways that use the gifts we have.

But we are not called to remain exactly as we are. Following Jesus will change the disciples, and it will change us. This change is not like a New Year’s resolution; it doesn’t come through diligence and perseverance and hard work – as lovely as those things are. This change comes through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. The life of faith starts with a single decision, a single tentative step. And as step builds upon step, we are astonished to find that we have been changed – we look into our own hearts one day and find that an old grudge has been replaced by forgiveness. We find an old fear replaced by a new trust. We find an old prejudice replaced by a new acceptance. We find that we have been changed, equipped with our own story of what God’s love has done in our own lives and communities, and can do in others lives.

So what is evangelism? Does it mean standing out on the street, telling strangers that they are sinners doomed to hell? I think not. Not if we’re going to do it Jesus’ way.
Saint Francis is quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” That is to say that words are only one way that we can show God’s love, and the good news about Jesus. We can speak powerfully of God’s love through our actions, through how we live in the world. We can show people what a blessing it is to follow Jesus by following Jesus ourselves. And perhaps, sometimes, we will find it necessary to use words.

There was a viral video on the internet a few months ago. Lea Delaria, one of the stars of the television show Orange is the New Black, happened to be riding a subway car when a hellfire-and-damnation preacher got on the train. Delaria self-identifies as a butch lesbian, and is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ issues. When she objected to this man’s subway preaching, he began to shout about Sodom and Gomorrah and eventually used a homophobic slur. Delaria’s surprising reaction was to quote the words of Jesus. “Read your Bible,” she shouts over the preacher, “and you’ll learn that this man is not doing anything that Jesus asked him to do.” She goes on to say, “Jesus said, ‘pay no attention to the men who make a show of their religion, because they do it for themselves and not for God.’” “That’s a direct quote from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount,” she notes. I do not know what Delaria’s faith identity is. Perhaps she sees herself as a follower of Jesus, perhaps she doesn’t. Regardless, I see that as a moment of evangelism. She responds to religious hatred by sharing the words of Jesus, inviting people to read the Bible for themselves, and declaring that hatred and exclusion are not Christian values. What else can I call that but evangelism - telling the good news about Jesus?

Jesus calls us to be fishers of people – to follow him, and to invite others to follow him as well. But he calls us each to do that in a way is natural to us, a way that flows from who God made us to be. For some of us, that might be talking with strangers about our faith; for some of us, maybe not. For some, it might be inviting a friend to church; for others, maybe not. For some of us, it might be through art. For some of us, it might be through social media. And for some of us, evangelism might be quieter and more subtle, as we lead by example, quietly and persistently following in Jesus’ way of love, grace, and forgiveness.

The good news, friends, is that God loves each and every one of us created and beautiful people. God loves those of us who evangelize with words, and those who evangelize without words, and those who can’t even fathom using the word evangelism. God is transforming each of us, day by day, into fishers of people. And that news is too good for us to keep to ourselves.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

God Is Coming

A Sermon on Mark 13:24-37

Outside the church doors, the Christmas season is at hand. Twinkling lights decorate street corners and shop windows. Christmas songs play on radio stations. Television commercials count down the shopping days. Santa has arrived at Macy’s. Even our Starbucks cups have turned a jolly red. Inside these church walls, though, we are not in the Christmas season yet.

Instead, we are in the Advent season – a time of watching and waiting, hoping and longing, preparing our hearts and minds for the birth of Christ. Inside these walls, we will not tell the Christmas story or sing carols of Jesus’ birth until our Christmas Eve services. Inside these walls, we observe a time of stillness and silence, following the ancient tradition of the church that teaches that waiting expectantly in the darkness prepares us to rejoice at the coming of God’s light into the world.

Perhaps, like me, you live with a foot in both of those worlds. Perhaps, like me, your moments of meditation on hope and peace, your moments of holy anticipation, are mixed and mingled with the chaos of getting Christmas cards out and Christmas cookies made. Perhaps, like me, you seldom experience darkness without the glow of an electronic screen. We live with a foot in each world; one foot stands in the frenzied, commercialized, materialistic Christmas of the secular world. The other foot stands in the lovely, but perhaps idealistic, church world with its call to slow down, wait, and watch in the darkness.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Forgiving and Forgetting

A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

I can’t believe I’m about to start a sermon this way, but here we go…

The scripture reading for today reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a rather nerdy sci-fi show which I watched regularly throughout my childhood.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Wrestling with God

A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

I do not like to watch people fight on television. I do not like wrestling, I do not like boxing, and to be perfectly honest, I routinely mix up wrestling and boxing, which horrifies my husband. I am told they are entirely different sports, but I can’t stand watching either one long enough to learn the difference. Recently, despite my distaste for televised fights, I’ve been hearing a lot recently about yet a third kind of fighting, MMA, or mixed martial arts. Apparently, there is an MMA competition coming up where amateurs can compete to win a big pot of cash.

A man I know from my neighborhood who sometimes attends my church’s sandwich line is certain that that prize has his name on it. He’s been telling me for the last couple of weeks about his training regimen, his potential competitors, the friends who are coaching him. He’s told me how many push-ups and pull-ups he can do and described MMA techniques in exhaustive detail.

Finally, a few days ago, I couldn’t take it anymore. As he continued to wax poetic about roundhouse kicks and chokeholds, I told him that I thought it was a sin and a shame that people relax by watching other humans do violence to one another on television. I told him that I hoped things worked out, and I wanted the best for him, but that the world has too much senseless violence already, without people hitting each other for money and other people watching for fun. I got on my high horse, and I declared the whole endeavor ungodly and evil.

And then I read the scripture for today. It would appear that my personal distaste for wrestling is not actually reflected in all of Christian scripture and theology.

Whoops.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Testing Faith

A Sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

I took my first SAT was when I was thirteen years old. Wandering the stacks of my local library, I happened across the test prep section, where I found row upon row of books about preparing for the SAT, the PSAT, the MCAT, the LSAT, the GED, and on and on the list went. I hadn’t heard of most of them, but as a homeschooled student, I had heard over and over again that it would be essential that I get a high SAT score if I wanted to get into a good college. I checked out Ten Real SATs, and one Saturday afternoon, I sat for three hours at the desk in my bedroom and self-administered the test. In retrospect, the very fact that I wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon taking a practice SAT for fun should have told me that I had nothing to worry about.

I sometimes read articles bemoaning our education culture of high-stakes testing and test-driven teaching. I meet parents of toddlers who are busily preparing for preschool entrance exams, and parents of middle-schoolers who are stressed and anxious about the tests that will place them into high schools. I hear of schools where test prep has to be emphasized to the exclusion of not only art and music, but also reading novels and writing essays. There are lower-stakes tests as well: every time I log on to facebook, I see that my friends are taking tests for fun: “I got House Lannister. Which Game of Thrones house are you?” their posts query. Or: “78% of Americans will get this math question wrong. Can you find the answer?” Our culture finds itself in a new and troubling relationship with testing. But I would argue that this obsession with tests and testing is nothing new.

Our First Testament reading today speaks of a very different sort of test. It comes from the book of Genesis, which has been following the patriarch Abraham, whom God promised to make a great nation and sent out to a land unknown to him. The text has made its way through many stories of Abraham: the birth of his son Ishmael by his wife’s concubine Hagar; the promise of a son to Sarah even though she was well beyond her child-bearing years; the birth of Isaac, and Abraham’s subsequent rejection of Ishmael and Hagar; all interspersed with journeys all over the Ancient Near East. Now we come to these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham answers with the prophetic response ‘hineni,’ which is not exactly translatable, but we typically render as “here I am.”

God then commands Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Of course, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son, Abraham has another son, Ishmael, whom he sent away with his mother, Hagar. The Jewish tradition offers an interesting take on these words: in Hebrew, the word order is “take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.” The rabbis argued that there must be a reason God uses so many words, and so they imagine Abraham playing dumb: “take your son,” says God. “Which one?” replies Abraham. “Your only son,” says God. “Isaac is the only son of his mother, and Ishmael is the only son of his mother,” Abraham responds. “The one you love,” God says. “I love both my sons,” asserts Abraham, although he has sent one of his sons into the brutal desert. “Isaac,” God finally clarifies.

The text proceeds in grim and excruciating detail, describing Abraham’s preparations, his journey with his son and two servants, then the last leg with Isaac only. Isaac questions where the lamb is, and Abraham tells him “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” They arrive at the place that God has appointed, and Abraham builds an altar, lays the firewood, binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and raises the knife. At the final moment, an angel calls out to him to halt, declaring, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram, which he sacrifices instead of Isaac.

What are we to make of this troubling story? Traditional interpretations tend to praise Abraham’s unswerving obedience to God’s command. Perhaps you have heard interpretive statements like these: Abraham follows the path God has set out, even though it is painful and horrible, and lo and behold, at the last moment, God intervenes and provides. We, the listeners, are urged to be like Abraham, following God’s will even when it is painful, difficult, or confusing. Here’s another one: Abraham is willing to risk everything for God, and is richly rewarded. We, the listeners, should be willing to give it all up for God. Christian interpreters have pointed out the resonances between this story and that of the crucifixion: the sacrifice of an only son; the “lamb of God” who is ultimately sacrificed.

Here’s the thing, though: I find those interpretations terribly unsatisfying. Certainly, we should follow God’s will for us even at great personal cost, even when it is difficult and hard and frightening; certainly we should be willing to give up what we hold dear if that is what discipleship demands of us. Should our faith make us willing to cut the throat of another human being, let alone our own child? Do we believe in a God who would demand such a thing? Is that the God we know, the God we worship?

With questions like these in mind, interpreters have wondered whether this text might originally have been a story that spoke out against the sacrifice of human children (which was, in fact, a religious practice that sometimes happened in the cultures of that time and place). Perhaps as scripture took shape over the centuries, different traditions melded and merged, mixing themes of a God who rejects human sacrifice with themes of faithful obedience, ultimately forming the story the tradition has wrestled with ever since.

Other interpreters have asked this question: if God was testing Abraham in this way, did Abraham pass the test?

In the 1950s, the world was deeply shaken by what they had seen take place in Nazi Germany. How, people wondered, could so many people have been led to participate in such evil? A psychologist named Stanley Milgram designed an experiment, hoping to learn about what kinds of people would participate in harming strangers, and under what conditions. Were people with lower IQ’s more susceptible? Younger or older people? People from wealthy or poor backgrounds?

Here is what you would have experienced as a participant: you enter a room where you meet another participant, a middle-aged man. You randomly select roles: you will be the teacher, the man will be the learner. You watch as he is strapped into a machine with electrodes. You go into another room, where you can hear him over a speaker and speak to him over a microphone. In front of you is a machine with voltage levels and a button. You teach him a series of word pairs. Then the experiment begins: you give him one word, and he responds with its pairing word. If he gets it right, you move on. If he gets it wrong, you give him a small electrical shock with the button. After a few mistakes, you increase the voltage. After several mistakes, he starts to complain of the pain. “Ouch! That hurts! Stop!” Perhaps you look at the researcher, who assures you that everything is fine and you have to go on with the experiment. Soon his complaints get more strenuous: “Wait! I have a heart condition! I don’t want to do this anymore, let me go!” A few more wrong answers, and you turn the dial up again to a voltage marked “Danger: Severe Shock.” The learner begins to bang on the wall separating him from you, begging for mercy. If you hesitate, the researcher says, “You must continue.” You turn the dial to a setting marked “XXX.” You push the button. Then there is only silence.

About two thirds of all subjects were willing to administer that final shock four times. Two thirds. Humans, it turns out, are shockingly, devastatingly willing to harm each other because someone who is perceived as an authority figure tells them to do so. We care deeply about being approved of, being found adequate, meeting the expectations set before us, passing tests. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son may not be such a remarkable show of faith as we have heard. Most people would be willing to do something similar.

Did Abraham pass the test? I kind of hope not. I imagine God waiting and hoping for Abraham to come to his senses, and finally intervening.

I do not believe in a God who rejoices in violence, whose will for us is that we should harm – or threaten to harm, or be willing to harm – other people, be they friends or enemies, strangers or our own kin. Perhaps one way to understand this story is as a reminder of how dangerous blind obedience can be. A reminder that our desire to please authority, to measure up, to pass the test, can overwhelm our own inner compass, our own sense of personal integrity. If we think that God is calling us to harm others, perhaps our response should be not “Here I am,” but “Why?” or “Did I hear you right?” or “No!”

Tragically, these questions are not abstract theological quandaries. Over the centuries, Christians have thought they heard God’s voice in scripture seeming to condone slavery, domestic abuse, sexism, and homophobia. In their zeal to follow the scriptures, churches have been willing to inflict harm on women who were thought to be witches, on unmarried mothers, on Jews and Muslims, on gay and trans* teenagers, and on and on and on. And today, as the LGBT community and allies of our city gather for Pride celebrations, we remember all the harm that has been done to that community, as we declare that God rejoices in human diversity and calls the church to bless and not to harm.

The good news of the Gospel is this: there is no test set before us; we do not need to prove we are good enough, faithful enough, smart enough, or brave enough. We are loved with a love that cannot be broken by our failure to measure up. We are loved with a love that loves us despite our obsession with measuring up. Jesus came not to test us, but to show God’s love for us. The work before us is not to pass a test, but to live in faithful gratitude.

The life of faith is not a test. The life of faith is not blind obedience that harms God’s beloved children. Living faithfully means bearing witness to God’s love, living our way toward God’s vision for the world. Living faithfully is speaking out against injustice and violence. It is doing justice and loving kindness. Resisting misinterpretations of scripture that condone violence and prejudice, classism and sexism and homophobia. Standing up against bigotry and hatred. Declaring our faith in a God who calls us to do good and not to do harm. Living faithfully means knowing that God may call us to sacrifice wealth and possessions, or prestige and position, or even – sometimes – our own safety, but will never call us to sacrifice our integrity or the wellbeing of others.

So wherever this road of faith leads us, let us follow with faith and trust in the God who is always at work to bring peace and healing, justice and mercy, to all people.

Amen.