Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 1, 2014 (First Sunday after the Ascension) Acts 1:6-14 “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

The story of the ascension is one of those stories that really strains credulity. Jesus has died, has been laid in the tomb, has come back from the dead and has had several interactions with the disciples at various locations. He has told them he is going to be with his heavenly Father, but will come back. We hear in the reading from Acts that he is carried up to heaven on a cloud, in the presence of a few of the disciples.

And, oh by the way, a couple of angels – those guys in the white robes – show up and tell the disciples “Why are you looking up? Jesus went up there, and he’ll come back in the same way.”

Then the disciples who had witnessed this whole thing go back to the upper room to tell the others.

Wild story, eh? Hard to believe. Not even Hollywood would green-light a script with a plot line like that.

And we people in the 21st Century who are all about provable scientific stuff hear a story like this and say “Nah…couldn’t be. Must just be a poetic image, a metaphor, something like that.”

And then we start to feel guilty, because all of our religious training tells us we are supposed to believe that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven.

Here’s the good news: you are not alone. Even the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ ascension were caught staring upwards as if they were hypnotize, wondering if they really saw what they saw. And we, who didn’t even get the benefit of seeing it, are supposed to believe.

I guess for some of us, we get the feeling that if we struggle with believing some of the stories of Jesus’ miracles – and this one is the big one – we aren’t very good Christians. And that leads to a downward spiral of “well, if I can’t believe this and that makes me a bad Christian, why do I even bother?”

Not a good place to be, to be sure.

I’ve got an antidote for you. It’s a song. Not a hymn, not a praise song. Not an oratorio. Not a motet.

No, it’s a piece of Tin Pan Alley and motion picture history…Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

In recent years there have been some beautiful covers of it: Eva Cassidy’s, one of my favorites. The slack key guitar Hawaiian version by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, which interwove “What a Wonderful World” with the “Wizard of Oz” favorite.

Yes, it’s a popular song. No, it wasn’t written as a song about faith.

And yet it is, at its heart, about the stretch for belief in something wonderful that seems beyond possibility for the singer.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.”

A land beyond our vision, a place we may have only heard of in stories, not somewhere we’ve been…

“Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue, and the dreams that I dare to dream really do come true.”

A place where strange and wonderful possibilities are real, even if they don’t make much sense…

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me, where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me.”

A chance for a different reality, a more beautiful way of being, in a place where we can go…

We hear the song and we are transported by it. The quotidian is put aside. Miracles can happen. We can be in another place.

We believe.

We think “why not? Couldn’t it just maybe be possible?”

Consider the notion that there are things that make no sense, and yet they happen. 

Consider the possibility that surprising events occur, and we suspend our disbelief in the face of those events. We don’t always demand scientific proof. Sometimes we are just amazed.

Like the disciples standing there staring up at the sky, wondering what just happened. Like the ones who were back in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, who heard about it second-hand.

Like the moment when we realize that we don’t understand why we believe our partner loves us…we just believe in that love.

Like the moment when we sense God’s presence, even though it isn’t anything like what we imagined it would be…we just sense it and believe in it.

Like the moment when we can imagine ourselves over the rainbow, not so unlike the risen Lord carried up on a cloud to the heavens…we don’t know why it seems possible, but somehow even though it is impossible by all the rules of science and our own experience, it makes a strange sort of sense.

Belief is hard, particularly when we try to use the tools of the modern world to prove things. 
But when we let our minds soar, over the rainbow perhaps,  we move to a place of openness to the possibility. We don’t have to believe perfectly, if there is such a thing. We just have to imagine believing, and we are transformed. Over a rainbow, beyond disbelief. Into the larger world that Christ inhabits, more than we can comprehend. And that is enough for now.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, May 25, 2014 1 Peter 3:13-22 “Them vs. Us”

 At first glance, our reading from Peter’s first letter seems like a bait and switch. Peter starts out by saying “who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”  

I hear that, and I think “Cool. I do good stuff, and I’m safe. Nothing will harm me.”

But no sooner does he say that, but he follows it up with predictions that bad things WILL happen if I do good stuff. I’ll be maligned. I’ll suffer. I’ll be abused.

What a sales pitch!

Sign on to do what Christ asks of me, and I suffer because of it. I don’t get special treatment because I’m a follower of Christ. In fact, I probably get worse treatment because I’m a follower of Christ.

Hand me that contract! Show me where to sign up!

Ummm, no thanks…

In fact, Peter is giving his audience some instruction. Who will harm you? Probably just about everybody…

…and you need to just put on your big boy togas and take it. Take it with grace. Offer a defense with gentleness. Reverence. Accept that this is part of the deal if you are a follower of Christ. Try to share the good news, in spite of bad treatment. Take it, because it’s part of what you signed up for. Take it – and here’s where Peter lays a little guilt on the reader – take it because Jesus took it, for us. And if Jesus, that wonderful perfect son of God could take it, we should take it as well, since Jesus did what he did for us.

A good psychotherapist might challenge us if we went and lay on the couch and said, ”I’m going to go out and spread the good news and people will probably treat me badly because of it, but that’s okay. In fact, I want to be treated badly, because that’s what Jesus did for me.”

But we’re not in psychotherapy and while it’s not a good idea to volunteer for martyrdom, we need to see that that isn’t exactly what Peter is preparing the listener for. He doesn’t say we need to desire punishment or suffering. He just wants us to be ready when and if it happens, and to avoid responding to maltreatment in kind. We’re supposed to give back with more kindness than we are treated. We don’t volunteer to be martyrs, but we do need to recognize a teachable moment in the midst of the pain and discomfort, and try to use that moment to turn things around.  Not any easy prescription, to be sure!

Usually, when we try to do something and get smacked down for it – the “no good deed goes unpunished” axiom that is so often quoted – we are not really in the mood to try and be gentle and kind with the one who was cruel or mean to us. We want to snap back with a sharp comment about how ignorant or stupid or cruel they are, even though we know that will not improve our situation.

But what would happen if, instead of that retort, we said, “wow, I see that really touched a nerve with you.” Or “I made you angry somehow – what did I do?” What would happen if you treated your tormentor as a human being, instead of your enemy? Hard to do, isn’t it? No one really volunteers to be maligned or abused or treated like dirt, and when it happens, our natural inclination is to fight back rather than to try to bridge the gap.

There is no moment when we are feeling less like entering into a relationship with someone than when that someone has been cruel to us. We want to demonize them. To name them as evil. To identify them as something other than us, something different. We want to protect ourselves from further hurt, and it is so much easier to do that when we view them as “other,” not like us.

Think about how it plays out in contemporary politics. Instead of disagreeing with a public policy stance on the merits of the proposal, we demonize the person who put it forth, often in ways that have no relationship with who the person is at all. Thus we have people saying that Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim terrorist who was planted here like a Manchurian candidate. We have people saying that John McCain is an irrational, hot-tempered war-monger with a secret interracial illegitimate child. This despite the fact that Senator McCain’s child was adopted from India, and his temper, while legendary, is usually well-founded. This despite the fact that Obama presented ample proof that he was born in Hawaii, which is a part of the US, belonged to a Christian church in Chicago, and was in charge when the most violent anti-American terrorist, a Muslim named Osama bin Laden, was killed. Don’t bother me with the facts, some commentators say. I’d much rather demonize someone as my enemy by saying how very different he is from us. Argue about policy? Why expend all that energy when you can simply make the leader of the opposing side seem like the antichrist?

And that is what we have been trained to do, and it is even what we have trained our children to do. “Oh, that boy who bullied you in the schoolyard? He did it because he is the son of a single mom. Don’t ever talk to him, because he isn’t like us.” “Hang out with that Muslim child? You’d better let me know if his family tries to get you to say any of their prayers when you’re over there. They all believe in jihad, you know. They’re not like us.” “Play with that girl who has Down syndrome? You’d be bored. She’s not very smart, not like you.”

What a shame, when being in relationship with someone who is different from you can be such a blessing to you both, even when that different person doesn’t always treat you well.

The child with Down syndrome might be the sweetest and kindest child you will ever meet, and your child might learn some of those qualities as she is blessed with the smiles and conversation with her new friend. Your child might be a helper to her as well – always a good thing to learn. The Muslim child’s mom might introduce your child to the delicious foods of their homeland, and encourage the two of them to go outside and play in the yard together. Hard to hate someone when you play with them regularly, right? Your child might one day have a conversation with that schoolyard bully and discover that he is, indeed, the son of a single mom who works two jobs and has no one to help him with his homework, and he is struggling in school because of that. It doesn’t excuse his bullying, but might open a door to an offer to help him with homework. It might evolve into a different relationship than the one that you’d have if you simply called the principal and said “I want that child expelled!”

What Peter is doing in this passage is twofold: first, he is warning those to whom he is writing that tough times are ahead, and that they may suffer for their faith. It’s believed that he wrote this letter shortly before the persecutions that were ordered by the Emperor Nero, and he wanted the people to be ready for what was the next predictable thing. He was right. Second, though, he is telling them that in the midst of suffering, there should always be a desire to reach out to the other person, the putative inflictor of such suffering. Peter could just warn his people “Hunker down!” But he doesn’t.

He says to live in a way that can stand a close look, to live righteously, and he says to provide a counter-narrative, in that great verse “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” He suggests that, in a strange way, the gift of suffering is the possibility that the way we live our lives is indeed the perfect counter to those who persecute us. It’s not just the words we use in response to those who inflict suffering upon us – it’s the way we live our lives that shows the hope that is in us, the very thing that our oppressors might so desperately need.

And that is why, in John’s gospel, we hear from Jesus that our first responsibility is to keep the commandments, to love God and to love each other, and then our second responsibility is to remember that Jesus is with us always. He says “I will not leave you orphaned.” We do not walk this difficult path alone.

Stuff happens. Life is hard. People are sometimes hard on each other, sometimes cruel. We don’t get a bye on all of that just because we follow Christ. But because we follow Christ we know what we need to do. We need to hew to the path Christ has laid out for us, a path of faith and truth and hope, and we need to always keep open the possibility of sharing that path with others, even those who frighten us, who hurt us, who think we are bad.  We need to be in relationship with Christ, and because we need that, we also need to be in relationship with everyone, not just those who are kind to us or who treat us well.

The hope that is in us dies if it is kept inside us, in a vacuum. It burns brightest when it is shared freely, in the open air, with all who need it the most, most especially with those who need it most. And if, in offering that hope to others, we suffer, isn’t it better to offer and suffer than to be afraid to even try?             


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, May 18, 2014 Acts 7:55-60 “Witness”

In  news stories about trials and in television courtroom dramas, often the turning point in the decision is based upon the testimony of a witness. Someone who was there. Someone who saw or heard what happened. Someone who was involved, perhaps. And more times than not, it is a difficult thing to get up on the stand and tell the story of what the person has seen.

You know how it goes on “Law and Order.” Just by naming the perpetrator or by saying what they did, the witness puts himself at risk. Friends or family of the perpetrator may threaten the witness. If the accused gets off, they may go after the witness and silence them forever. It’s a familiar plot device in such stories, this notion that serving as a witness carries a risk.

And so it goes in this morning’s first reading, from Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of a witness and the consequences of testimony.

“But wait,” you may ask. There’s no courtoom. There is no judge, no jury. It’s one guy. Stephen, and he’s preaching and then the people to whom he is preaching stone him to death.

Stephen is identified as the first martyr of the Christian movement. He is a follower of Christ, a deacon of the early church. He was pressed into service as a deacon in Acts chapter 6, to be of service to poor widows. And he is doing precisely what Christ instructed all his followers to do: to tell the story of the Son of God.

So Stephen is bearing witness to his own understanding of Jesus Christ, preaching to a less-than-receptive crowd, the Greek speaking Jewish population. Some of their leaders accused him of blasphemy, and challenged him. So he responded with a very long sermon about how Jesus was the Messiah and how they were wrong. He called them ‘stiff-necked,’ which seems to be one of the worst things you could call a person in those days, and they got pretty hot about it. As they prepared to take action against him, he had a vision of God in heaven – the words we heard this morning – and announced this vision to those who were getting ready to stone him to death, the prescribed punishment for blasphemers. Among the crowd that day was the Pharisee Saul, the same Saul who later became the apostle Paul. Stephen gave his testimony and got the sort of result that all witnesses fear – he died for speaking the truth.

There’s a long tradition of this sort of thing happening to Christians. Jesus Christ was killed for speaking the truth. Many of his disciples after Stephen died, for speaking the truth.

And so we call Stephen a martyr, someone who died because of his belief. But if we look at the word “martyr,” we see that it actually comes from a Greek word that translates as “witness.”

Now there’s a scary proposition. Being a witness can lead to death. Testifying for our understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ our savior can lead to martyrdom.

It offers a whole range of questions that we might ask in response to the situation.

Does this mean that Jesus isn’t going to help us if we try to tell his story?

Why would anyone want to become a voice for this church if it gets you killed?

Shouldn’t the bad people get smited, like in the Old Testament?

Wouldn’t it be better to just pray to ourselves and keep our mouths shut? Why take the risk?

They’re all good questions. We've come to equate the act of being a witness with risk. I expect that we have so internalized our protective mechanisms that we rarely notice that we never serve as witnesses to Christ in our lives. We rarely tell the story of how we have been changed by his saving grace. We rarely say that we have been saved, because we are afraid either consciously or unconsciously of losing our lives, or at the very least the respect of our friends or families or co-workers.

We may come to church on Sunday. We may wear a cross around our neck, or have a little fish symbol on our bumper, but those are such tepid signs of witness to the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our lives.

We don’t want to take the risk. We don’t want to face the fact that we are not able to step up and say what we believe. Why? Because someone might think we were ignorant or superstitious or silly because we believe?

It certainly isn’t because our own lives are at risk.

But then I think of other witnesses. Martyrs. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who went back to Germany in the late 1930s when he could have stayed safe as a professor in a seminary in New York City, because he felt he had to bear witness to the horror that was the Holocaust, and who was executed by Hitler’s regime. Like the Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who was vilified as a Communist because of her positions on pacifism and social justice, who now is considered a saint. Like Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered while he was celebrating Holy Eucharist because he opposed the oppressive regime of his country and preached against it. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated for continuing to fight for equal justice and opportunity for all. They witnessed for their faith and they paid the price.

Sounds like a great advertisement for the faith, doesn’t it? Join us and we’ll get you killed.

Why, then, would anyone follow Christ, knowing that Christ’s charge to us is to be witnesses, and knowing that being a witness is something that carries risk. The hearer of our testimony may not want to hear it. They may act against us because of it.

And yet, there is that compulsion, that drive to speak the truth. Jesus died but lives. Jesus has saved us. Jesus helps us understand what real love looks like and walks with us in all we do.

Not a message that many people hear these days, when they need it most of all.

Why would we share it? Because we can’t not say it.

We might not preach like Stephen. We might not have that vision of what heaven looks like – the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand – but we do have something. We have a sense of the final prize of eternal life.

So our witness might preaching – for some folks this is their gift – but for many of us, our witness is our life.

How do we live? Do we live in a way that is the embodiment of what Jesus Christ taught us, to love God and to love each other? Do we live in a way that shows the world that our values are not based on things like money or power or fame, but on service and simplicity and respect? Do we honor those whom society vilifies? Do we speak for those who have no voice? Do we imagine a world where the most beautiful thing is the peace of God, a meal and water for every child, safety and equal opportunity?

And then, most importantly, what do we do about it? Can we be witnesses who have slain our own fears so that the world can be rid of its brokenness? Can we allow our own egos to be martyred in service to a greater good? Can we imagine the place that Stephen saw, that Jesus spoke of in the Gospel, and can we help bring that to earth today and tomorrow and the next day?

Can we be speakers of truth and creators of a world that lives that truth, one word and one person at a time?