Thursday, April 17, 2014

"The pivot of hope," Walter Brueggemann

On reading 1 Samuel 16:1-13 on Maundy Thursday, Walter Brueggeman writes:

This day of dread and betrayal and denial
causes a pause in our busyness.

Who would have thought that you would take
this eighth son of Jesse
to become the pivot of hope in our ancient memory?

Who would have thought that you would take
this uncredentialed
Galilean rabbi
to become the pivot of newness in the world?

Who would have thought that you--
God of gods and Lord of lords--
would fasten on such small, innocuous agents
whom the world scorns
to turn creation toward your newness?

As we are dazzled,
give us the freedom to restate our lives in modest, uncredentialed, vulnerable places.

We ask for freedom and courage to move out from our nicely arranged patterns of security into dangerous places of newness where we fear to go.

Cross us by the cross, that we may be Easter marked. Amen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday from Jan L. Richardson

So let the ashes come
as beginning
and not as end;
as the first sign
but not the final.
Let them rest upon you
as invocation and invitation,
and let them take you
the way that ashes know
to go.

May they mark you
with the memory of fire
and of the life
that came before the burning:
the life that rises and returns
and finds its way again.

See what shimmers
amid their darkness,
what endures
within their dust.
See how they draw us
toward the mystery
that will consume
but not destroy,
that will blossom
from the blazing,
that will scorch us
with its joy.

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord's face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

There's a Psalm For That -- Psalm 2

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Full disclosure—in preparation for this sermon, I believe, was the first time I ever read Psalm 2. I’ve nothing against the psalter, don’t get me wrong. I’m hip to other psalms like 8, 13, 16, 23, 24, 34 and even some triple digit ones like 100, 105, 118, ultra-lengthy 119, 139, 142. (Shout out any numbers you love that I missed. I mean numbers of psalms, not just like, numbers. Cool, a lot of psalm fans out there today.)

Well, because the world is great, I’ve figured out a way to, once again, tell the story of the Old Testament project that Gretchen and Maria and I did, first year. It was an obviously amazing infomercial that played off the Apple marketing campaign “there’s an app for that”—but, rather, there was a psalm for that. There’s a psalm for your sorrow, your revenge fantasy, for gentleness, for you the oppressed or you the oppressor, for justice, for celebration, for anguish, for fear, for joy.

Sojourners contributor Kari Jo Verhulst writes that “the poetry of the psalms preserves the immediacy of human experience…void of the broader perspective that we get well after the moment has passed….the psalms preserve the heart’s cries in language, images, and movements spacious enough to find our own experiences.”

And John Calvin, guy I don’t usually quote in sermons, called the Psalms “the anthology of all the parts of the soul.” And he meant all parts.

David Tuesday Adamo, a religion professor in Nigeria, classifies Psalm 2 as a therapeutic psalm—specifically for stomach pain. I have to admit that yesterday, when I realized I was preaching the day after Jim Lobdell, I had some stomach pain. The African Indigenous Churches, Adamo explains, regard these words as “potent” when read as part of a healing ritual, which includes the drinking of water made holy by these words.

While we wouldn’t classify our baptism as cure for stomachache necessarily, we do know a little something about water made holy by word. While you may be a better biblical scholar than I am and have included Psalm 2 in your life before now, you may have just recognized the words “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” as bearing a striking resemblance to the words that thunder from heaven during Jesus’ baptism.

We as Christians have a specific understanding of the term “God’s son” and we mean Jesus, the Christ, when we say that. But we’ve also learned, probably from Steed Davidson, that earthly kings often claimed to be the son of a particular god, in order to lend themselves that god’s authority. Some interpreters say that this psalm could have, liturgically, been used in royal rituals—and it makes perfect sense that it would appear in the story of the baptism of Jesus, as told by Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Matthew, greatly concerned with the establishment of Jesus’ authority, and Luke, greatly concerned with social location, would have called upon this familiar, royal phrase to underscore the baptism of Jesus.

And Jesus has more power than any earthly king—and he hasn’t amassed an army or oppressed a people. Rather, he has emptied himself of that power through “suffering, humiliation, despair” and death on the cross.

In Psalm 2, it’s written that God has established a king to bring order to the world, but that all the other kings are running away with it. God has established a rule of law, a coming kingdom, and humans who would even claim the best of intentions are failing miserably to fulfill it.

When we hear the words of this psalm in our world—big and messy—we may wonder if God can really make order out of our chaos. If you read or watched any news today, you’ve been long-distance witnesses to the upheaval in Venezuela, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Uganda, Mexico, the Central African Republic, Somalia…

There are death tolls in the dozens and the capture of a drug kingpin and re-imprisonment of musicians and anti-gay legislation and drone strikes and civil wars and disappearances and protests and crackdowns and unchecked abuse of power.

And, in the midst of it all, there’s a psalm for that.

I told a non-religious friend of mine I was going to preach today, and he asked what I was planning to say, and so I, sort of flippantly, said that I was going to talk about how everything is awful and the only reason we don’t give up is because God has promised to make order out of our chaos. He just sort of said, “oh” and we moved on to talking about something else -- but isn’t that the thing? Isn’t it just that the world is constantly in uproar—with earthly kings plotting against that which will engender the kingdom of God—and yet somehow, here we are, week after week, being read to about that chaos, and responding, “Thanks be to God.”

The last line of this psalm made me laugh. Its contrast to the rest of the psalm is so typical. Wrath, fear, trembling, wicked, perishing, warning—people are going to be dashed to pieces like pottery, it says!—but happy are they who take refuge in him.

Mic drop.

As though that’s it. And as though all the folks who are going to be broken with a rod of iron are simply unhappy. I think they’re probably more than unhappy. I think they’re probably dead.

But the thing is, the people of God know who has the last word. The people of God know that this king—earthly or otherwise—is from God and will, therefore, lead them toward happiness.

And since I’m so fond of bringing my horrible jokes full circle, there is, in fact, an app for your happiness! I stumbled upon it earlier this week and am interested to see how I’m able to use it, going forward. The app is called “happier” and basically is an electronic journal of moments of happiness, gratitude, etc. So like, on Monday when I went to Café Yesterday to read like a million pages for homework, Josh, the guy who runs it, put my coffee in the giant Disney Princess mug, knowing without knowing that that would make me happier. I posted a picture of it to the app, and got notifications that it had made other users smile—the “happier” version of the Facebook like.

What I like about “happier” is not just that I post little positive things that occur in my life, but I peruse the moments that have made strangers happy. For other folks, it’s a visit to their horse’s stable, a great grade on an assignment, managing to be on time to yoga class, noticing blooming trees on their way to work. Knowing that people out there in the world are experiencing little bursts of happiness helps me know that there’s a way out of our chaos. In the midst of the trauma and terror of human life, there is also happiness. There is goodness, and there is love, and there is life.

The words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu have been made into a song that we’re going to sing in just a moment, because their simplicity is built on the same confidence as Psalm 2:

“Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours, through God who loves us.”


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

We like books and we don't care who knows.

It's been an unintentionally long while since I've written anything of substance, here. Being back at school last semester was really exhausting, word-wise, and I think that's the excuse I'm going to stick with. I'm back at school for the spring, again, so no guarantee you'll be hearing from me on the regular again. But I read a fantastic piece today about reading, and my imagination responded so strongly that I had to put pen to paper. Err, finger to keyboard. Not as romantic a notion.

The piece is called "28 Books You Should Read If You Want To" and it's not actually a list of titles, but rather ways in which one comes across a book (if you didn't click that link, go look and come back) just by living one's curious life.

Thinking about how I've come to know and love the stories that I cherish brings the beginning of tears to my eyes. Y'all know how much reading is a part of my identity. I love, in the totally great chick flick You've Got Mail, when Kathleen talks about how the books you read (especially as a child) help you to become who you are. I don't think this ever stops, but I think the rate at which we read and subsequently become tapers off rapidly in our adult lives and so we think that reading just isn't as necessary as it once was. Many of my peers (non-students) maybe slog through a book a year or something, or maybe read the latest series that's become films so they can get the whole story. Most adults don't sit, mystified, deep in the world that these words and their imaginations have formed for them somewhere "other" than themselves, like they did as children.

Even if the writing and printing of books stopped right this minute, so many have been penned that you could never read all of them in your life! And new books are published every day! New books worth reading can be in your hot little hands (or your ears, if you're of the audiobook persuasion) practically instantly! There's no end to where you can go and who you can be and what you can feel.

I hear out of the mouths of teenagers and young adults and adult adults (whatever) all the time that they "just don't like reading" or that "there's nothing really worth reading out there right now" AS THOUGH they've scoured every possible choice and come up empty? Please.

Janet Potter, the author of the piece I told you to go back and read (I'll wait) didn't give you actual titles -- she gave you room to imagine what there is out there in the world to experience, based solely on the happenstance of who you encounter in seemingly mundane situations that can be UN MUNDANED (whatever) if you bring a book along.

Lemony Snicket, whose books I'll admit I've never read (haha) is quoted as saying that he doesn't trust anyone who didn't bring a book along. Man after my own heart. During the semester, I bring homework everywhere I go, just in case I get a free minute. When I know I'll have many free minutes and not a lot of homework (cross-country flights) I bring leisure reading, too. Sometimes, I bring two books, out of sheer anxiety that I'll finish one and be stuck, bookless, for even the shortest duration of free time. This is a shining example of my being a classic Enneagram 6 as well as a word nerd (unsurprisingly, a characteristic of sixes).

I scoped the hefty lists that Janet Potter links to at the beginning -- full disclosure, I'd already compared my catalog to the Amazon list, and have read more than half of them (and of the remaining titles, have little interest in completing) and so I'm not going to say that those lists  have absolutely no merit. But what bothered me about all of them, and about anonymous book recommendations in general, is that I have no clue what's good about those books. I don't know what made the person who compiled that list love them enough to include them -- of all the novels ever written!

YouTube awesome person John Green posted a video today in which he recommends 18 books he loves that aren't super popular. I watched it, and I've never read any of them, and was only familiar with like two of the authors. Here. Watch it.

What's great about this video is that John tells you (very rapidly) precisely what is so great about these books you've yet to encounter, and why you might like to encounter them. Some of them are by well-known authors, and yet more than once he says that their other book is more famous but that this one is better. Just because it's a "bestseller" or a "classic" doesn't mean it's the end all be all! One time, I bought a book that had won a Pulitzer and it bored me half to death and I stopped reading like a quarter of the way in.

And when it comes to recommending classic novels, I kind of barf, because some of those are classic because no one wants to be the one to say "we can be done with this one now" and be shamed out of the literature nerd club forever. Or whatever. Certainly, there are some "classic" books that I've loved. I'm above averagely willing to read Shakespeare. I loved Heart of Darkness and The Stranger and Old Man and the Sea and Crime and Punishment when we were assigned them in high school. But y'all can take your Jane Austen and shove it. A thing I say a lot is that not everything has to be for everyone. (Except The West Wing. I don't want to know if you can't appreciate the best television show ever made. Full disclosure, I think that's actually MASH, and also I've never seen Breaking Bad, which a lot of people really liked. So.)

I have written a lot of posts about books. Maybe scope them, if you've got nothing better to be doing and want to linger inside my brain a while longer. If you don't do that, at least go back to this one. I could edit it or expand it or something but it's truth as it is. I like books, y'all.

Please read.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fear/Hope -- Matthew 2:1-12

Grace and peace from God our creator, hope in our redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Today, the eleventh day of Christmas, is the Sunday on which we celebrate the holy day that teeechnically takes place tomorrow—the Epiphany of our Lord! Epiphany is about two things. Two small words with big consequences.

First, let’s talk about fear. Your fear can take you a lot of places you don’t want to go—or hold you back from great things. In the Christmas story, a few people are afraid—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds—but the story goes that angels come to them, proclaiming, “do not fear!” Wouldn’t that be helpful, if you got into a serious predicament and an angel would just hop in and remind you not to fear? Although, I’d probably be a little more like the shepherds and be afraid of the angels, on top of the fear I already had. So much for that.

King Herod, in our story this morning, is squarely in the fear category. He has heard through the grape vine that a baby has been born that may or may not be a king of some kind. This is confusing and surprising, so Herod called his favorite wise men for some assistance. They told him when and where this child had been born; Herod sent them to see this baby king and report back. Out of fear, Herod feels that his kingship, his power, his glory, is going to be usurped, some day, by a child who has just been born.

I’m not totally sure what the minimum age was for the King of Judea, but even if we wager conservatively that it’s 15 years old, Herod has about 14 years and 364 days to figure out how to keep his crown, and, frankly, he’ll probably die by some other force in that amount of time anyway, since he was almost 70 years old when Jesus was born. Spoiler alert: he dies of kidney failure like five years later.

But! When the wise men do not return—influenced by yet another angel in a dream, who tells them to go home by a different road, luckily—Herod is debilitated by fear, again. So afraid of his power being usurped a generation later, he has every child around Jesus’ age murdered, just to be safe.

I don’t think that you’ve ever decided, out of fear, to have your nation’s children murdered—I don’t think any of us in this room have Herod’s authority on that kind of thing. But what have we allowed ourselves to do out of fear? What rash decisions have we made that, upon further reflection, were far outside the scope of what was necessary? What accusations have we wildly thrown? When have we come to not even recognize ourselves? Fear is very real.

There’s a Presbyterian preacher named John Buchanan who deeply inspires me. My favorite thing he ever wrote has a lot to say about fear. He says that the reason the Bible talks so much about fear (the shepherds fear the angels; the disciples fear the consequences of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; and in this morning’s Isaiah text, the prophet speaks of weak hands and feeble knees—his people are afraid) is because “fear is such an enemy of life. It’s hard to love when you’re afraid. It’s hard to care passionately about anything when you’re afraid. It’s impossible to be joyful about anything when you’re afraid. Fear limits life, constrains life, pollutes life.”

In last week’s Gospel, from the story according to John, we heard it proclaimed that a light has shined in the darkness! It hearkened back to when God’s voice moved over the waters, over the chaos of the deep, and when there, too, a light shined. But just before that light, and surrounding that light, there is, of course, darkness. We do not turn on a light in an already well-lit space. The light of Christ does not come into a world already saturated by brightness, but instead comes into an immeasurable darkness.

There is plenty to fear in the world around us, and we do a good job of living in fear, scarcity, and hopelessness. But the other small world with big consequences that shows up on this the Epiphany of our Lord is hope. We might think of hope as being passive—we say that we hope something for someone when the situation is beyond our control: hope you do well on that math test! Hope you like your new haircut! Hope it doesn’t rain on your beach day! But hope is not passive. Hope is living and breathing and working hard. Hope is what carries us through. This story of the hope of the life of a child is what carries us through.

There’s a movie out right now called Saving Mr. Banks—it’s the story of the complications that surrounded making of the film Mary Poppins. I won’t spoil anything for you, I don’t think, by mentioning this beautiful line said by Tom Hanks, who plays Walt Disney. He’s talking to PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, explaining what’s so important about telling her story. He says that his job is to create hope with imagination because, “That’s what we storytellers do. We instill hope again and again and again.” That’s why we tell this same story year after year—the story never gets old because our need for hope in the midst of our despair never ends.

Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are seasons that pay particular attention to the relationship between darkness and light, despair and hope. Christmas proclaimed the presence of the light. Epiphany calls us to spread the light on the journey.

And how? The best way I have heard it said is through the words of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, one of my favorite civil rights activists. He wrote a short, powerful poem called the Work of Christmas, and I’d just like to read it to you.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

That’s where we go from here. There’s something in this call for everyone. You have the gifts and skills required to either find the lost, or heal the broken, or feed the hungry, or release the prisoner, or rebuild the nations, or bring peace among brothers, or make music in the heart.

If you thought about it long enough, you probably already work toward more than one of those things. It is because you have been filled with the light of the Christ that you can go forward, hopeful, into a world full of people who feel defeated. Our ability to hold on to hope actually, physically, literally, deeply, fully shapes the options we have for the future.

If we do not have hope that our participation in the life of this world has any bearing on its improvement, why would we ever act? Why would we ever consider the consequences of our actions? It is our call to live in the hope of the birth of the child, the life of the man, Jesus, the death and resurrection and ascension of the Christ. “The future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.”

John Buchanan writes that, “to live hopefully is to work hard; to hope relentlessly is to throw yourself into the struggle for the realization of hope. To hope for justice and peace is to work for it. To hope for a time when all the children are fed is to do more than complain about the irony of hungry children in this land of abundance, it is to find some children to feed. Peace, we are regularly reminded, is hard work. Hope lives in the midst of darkness in every age. It will not be defeated, silenced, or extinguished. The light that is coming into the world shines in the darkness, after all, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it.”

Thanks be to God! Amen.