Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Run The Race Before Us

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Hebrews 12:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Tonight many of the athletes will gather once again will gather for the closing ceremonies of the Olympic games, not including those who fled the country with the police on their heels.  At tonight’s ceremony, the head of the International Olympic Committee will declare that the Rio games are officially closed, and then the flag of Japan will be hoisted up in the stadium, as they will be the host nation of the next Olympic games, and the race to the next Olympics will be begun with stories of cost overruns, of the inability of the city to host the Olympics, of the worries of terrorism, and as we get closer the reality that many of the facilities are not yet completed, just like we hear every single time the Olympics come around.  We move from what has just happened, and we move forward to the next games. In some sense this is just one big relay race, one nation passing the baton on to the next, and on to the next, with everyone hoping the baton doesn’t get dropped, or perhaps with a little glee at the spectacle hoping the baton does get dropped.  But regardless, the athletes and Tokyo are now all working hard to prepare to be ready come back in four years to do it all over again, to run the race that is before them.  And so today we conclude this series looking at what we can learn from the games about our faith in how we run the race that is before us.

Last week when we looked at wrestling, I said that it was believed to be one of the oldest sports in the world and one that is found in every culture.  But, since walking is an Olympic sport we would have to go with walking as being the oldest sport, something we have been doing for some 4 million years, but running probably comes in as the second oldest sport in which we undertake. Although my guess is that the earliest races were not about being the fastest person, but instead only about not being the slowest person, because when you’re being chased by a wild animal intent on killing you, you don’t have to be the fastest one, you merely have to outrun the slowest person in order to survive.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Wrestling With God

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Genesis 32:22-31:

We are now one week down in the Olympics, with one week to go. Some of the things that were expected to happen, happened, and some things not expected to happen, also happened, just like life, and so we continue looking at what the Olympics can teach us about our faith, and today we look at one of the oldest of the sports, wrestling.  Wrestling was one of the original sports found in the ancient Olympic Games, as well as those of the Isthmian Games, which took place in Corinth. But, of course, the sport is even older than that.  It’s said that wrestling has been found among every culture in the world, and thus may be one of the original sports in which humanity participated. Since somehow walking is also an Olympic sport I’m going to have to say that it’s probably the oldest.  There is a Sumerian wall carving from around 3000 BC which depicts a wrestling match, along with what appears to be a referee overseeing it.  In a carving from the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptahhotep, around 2300 BCE, it shows six different wrestling holds, five of which we still use.

Wrestling also has had spiritual ramifications as well. According to Shinto legend, the ownership of the Islands of Japan was established when the thunder god Take-mikazuchi defeated his rival in a wrestling match, and in Greek myth, Zeus and his fellow Olympian gods wrestled the older Titan deities for ownership of the universe, ending with Zeus defeating his own father Kronos.  So perhaps it should not be surprising that we also have the story from Genesis we heard this morning of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger, whom we come to see as God. But perhaps, because of its prevalence and apparent importance in the ancient world, we should be surprised that wrestling is not found more often as a theme, or an event within scripture, but what is even more striking that of the places in which wrestling does occur, all of them, except one, which is a passage in Colossians about Epaphras wrestling in his prayers on behalf of the Colossians, all of the other references are found in the story of Jacob.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Opening Ceremony: Celebration

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Philippians 4:4-9:

For the next two weeks, a large majority of the world is going to have their eyes turned towards Rio and the Olympic games taking place there.  This is the first time the Olympics have been held in south America, which is like America, but south, and also the first time the summer games have been held in the winter. And so I thought it might be a good time for us to turn our eyes to the idea of sport, and Olympic sport in particular, of what it can teach us about our faith, or how we might apply what we see in the games to our faith.  Now this idea is not really as far off as it might seem, because, in fact, there are several different illusions to sport to be found in scripture. Jacob wrestles with God, something we will grapple with next week. Moses served in the courts of the Pharaoh, so there is tennis, and of course baseball, the greatest sport, is mentioned twice when we are told that God did things in the big inning.  But on a more serious note, we do see this specifically in the writings of Paul.  While we are much more familiar with the ancient Olympic games, which also took place every four years, they were not the only games taking place in the ancient world.  There were also the Isthmian games which were held the year before and the year after the Olympic games. The Isthmian games were named after their location, which was on the isthmus of Corinth, a city in which Paul spent plenty of time.  And so when we hear him say to the Corinthians, run the race before you, that is not just some generic statement, he is making a reference to an activity with which they would have been very familiar.  So as Paul used the games for his illustrations of living a Christian life, so we too are going to use the games for the same purpose, and we’re going to begin with where the Olympics begin and that is with the opening ceremonies.

Now I am aware that there were actually some games that started even before the opening ceremonies started on Friday night, but that is really seen as the kick-off, the beginning of the Olympics. It draws the largest number of people both in terms of participants who will be there, but also in drawing the highest television ratings of any of the events that will take place at the Olympics. Consider that for a moment. The biggest event, the biggest celebration, the thing everyone wants to attend and to watch is not the celebration at the end, but instead a celebration at the beginning. A celebration to begin things. That’s sort of the opposite of how we normally do things. We normally have a party at the end of events as a celebration that it’s all over and to celebrate what was accomplished. I was trying to come up with some other things that we celebrate before they actually begin. I think the first would be Christmas, which we celebrate on the 25th of December and then act as if Christmas is over, when really it’s only just begun as it runs for another 11 days. But I think that’s more out of ignorance than an intentionality of celebrating at the start. There are New Year’s Eve celebrations, but those really end with the stroke of midnight, so we’re celebrating the start of something, but also, and maybe to a larger degree it’s the saying good-bye, and perhaps good-riddance, to the prior year.  We celebrate ground breaking for new buildings, but those usually still pale in comparison to dedication celebrations.  There are baby showers, celebrations before the baby comes, but I think that’s because new parents need the items to be ready, and also we know they will be too exhausted to do anything after the baby comes. There are bachelor and bachelorette parties, but that’s more to mourn the loss of singleness to a degree, then to actually celebrate the wedding. Perhaps the wedding itself is one area where we truly celebrate an event when it begins, to kick off the marriage rather than celebrating some other time.  But again, that is by far the exception to the rule. Is there some other event I’m missing where the celebration at the beginning is bigger than the celebration at the end, or at least the same?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Okay, Group Hug! You Too Anger.

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

We continue in our series on the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Inside Out.  Another film where the lead character is female, and really four of the main characters are all female.  The main lead is Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father has gotten a new job. But while it’s about Riley, it’s also about a lot more than Riley because what we actually see going on for most of the movie is what’s going on in Riley’s head, and how her emotions function together and operate her life, and the lives of others around her as well.  Although we have many different emotions, for simplicity sake, the Pixar team narrowed it down to five. There is joy, who is designed to look like a star, sadness, who is designed to look like a teardrop, disgust, who looks like broccoli, and fear, who is tall and thin, supposed to be like a nerve, and my personal favorite, anger… These emotions live and work in the central complex, headquarters, pun intended I am sure, and control what is going on in everyone’s lives. Rather than trying to explain this to you, take a look at how this works….

As it turns out, Riley is miserable with the move, the moving truck hasn’t arrived with their stuff, and her dad’s job is not going well, but to make matters worse is what happens to joy and sadness.  As Riley has an experience, the memory comes into her mind as a round ball, and it is color coded according to what emotion is associated with it, red for anger, yellow for joy, blue for sadness, etc.  These balls then get moved into long-term storage at night where she can recall them and the emotions associated with them. But, it turns out, the emotions associated with them can also be changed, and so when sadness touches one of these memories, it changes from what it was to a memory of sadness. This of course makes joy very upset, and she seeks to try and control sadness, at one point drawing a circle for sadness to stand in so that she can’t touch anything or bring any more sadness to Riley, which is what Joy doesn’t want to happen.  In trying to keep sadness in her place, or where joy wants her to be, both joy and sadness get sucked into the brain where all the other memories are stored, leaving only anger, disgust and fear in control, which sends Riley’s life into turmoil leading to anger making the brilliant suggestion that Riley’s life was happy and great in Minnesota and so she decides, or they decide, that Riley should run away, while joy and sadness are desperately trying to get back to headquarters.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Speed. I Am Speed.

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42:

Today we continue in our series in the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Cars. Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen, whom we just say, a racecar who is trying to become the first rookie racer to ever win the Piston Cup (He did what in his cup?) In the last race of the season, McQueen has a huge lead on the last lap when his tires blow allowing the two main competitors Strip Weather, also known as The King, who is in his last season, and Chick Hicks, the racer who is in perpetual second place, to catch up and there is a three way tie to end the race. McQueen’s tires blow because he has fired three crew chiefs and refuses to listen to the rest of his team, because, as he says, he is a one-man show, which then causes the rest of the team to quit. It is decided that to resolve the tie that there will be a three car race in California the next week, but on the way to California, Lightning accidentally comes out of the truck he is riding in, and in his confusion, ends up in a small town by the name of Radiator Springs, the cutest little town in Carburetor County, along Route 66, and while being chased by the police for speeding ends up tearing up the main street, where he is then arrested and sentenced to pave the street before he will be allowed to leave. While in the town he encounters a strange collection of characters that includes another former piston cup racer who has become the town doctor, but who has hidden his true identity from everyone else.

Up to this point, McQueen has seen racing and life as a zero sum game, as he has just said, there is one winner and 42 losers. One person is at the top, and everyone else is a loser in both senses of that words, of not winning the race and also not winning at life. Lightning has confused the idea with winning with being a winner, the same mistake that Chick Hicks will make at the end of the film, and we often do the same thing. There are some things in life that really are races, but not many, or certainly not as many as we would like to make them, especially when we turn life into a race and want to declare winners and losers. Seth Godin has said, in a competition in which the point is to win, you’re not supposed to enjoy the ride, learn anything, make your community better, slow down for anything, you’re supposed to win. It also justifies the use of any means in order to reach that end, winning. And when we treat life as a race, with winners and losers, then we end of cheating, literally and figuratively, everyone, most especially ourselves.  And so what Lightning has to do is to come to the realization that that is what he is doing with his own life.  He has equated “I won the race” with “I am a winner,” and he realizes how he has treated everyone else in his life, that he doesn’t have any real friends, that everything and everyone is a means to an end, just as others, like his agent Harrv, only see him as a means to an end.  As a result he is rushing through life, and life is rushing by him, and he’s never getting the time or taking the time to stop and learn how to smell the roses, as it were.  This becomes clear to him when he has an afternoon off from paving the road, and Sally, the owner of the local motel, the Cozy Cone, takes him for a drive…

Monday, July 11, 2016

Mend The Bond Torn By Pride

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Ephesians 4:25-5:2:

We continue today in our series on the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Brave. This is the first Pixar film to star a female lead, a redheaded female at that, and it is also the first in which the entire story real centers on and focuses around two female characters, Merida and her mother Eleanor.  It is also the darkest of Pixar’s films, in that it resembles some of the fairy tales we all know, although Merida doesn’t need any gammy boy to come to her rescue, she can do things quite fine all by herself thank you very much.  Eleanor is trying to raise up Merida to be a proper princess who will be able to lead the kingdom along with her husband in strength, just as she has done. Merida, however, doesn’t want to be the person her mother wants her to be, this is another example of the sense of identity that runs throughout Pixar films. Eleanor invites the other clans and their first born sons to come and compete to claim Merida as a bride, but Merida has other plans, and first subverts the contest that is to decide who she will marry. Then she gets a witch to cast a spell to change her mother, which Merida hopes will convince her mother to change her mind on forcing Merida to get married, but instead gets her mother changed into a bear. Merida is then told that if her mother isn’t changed back to a human by sunrise of the second day that she will remain as a bear for the rest of her life. As it turns out this is not the first time this curse has been laid on the kingdom, and to overcome it, to change her fate, the witch tells Merida that she must “look inside, mend the bond torn by pride.”

I already told this story a few weeks ago, but at annual conference this year, Bishop Cynthia Feirro Harvey told a story about her husband. She kept telling him things, but he said he didn’t hear them, or was acting as if he didn’t hear them, and so, getting a little older decided to get his hearing checked out. At the end of the appointment the doctor asked him why he had come in and so he told her, and the doctor said, well you’re hearing is just fine so perhaps it’s not your hearing but your listening that’s not working. We hear but we don’t listen. Merida and her mother are encountering exactly the same problem in that instead of talking to each other, they are talking at, or around each other, or not even to each other…..  Does that seem like a familiar story? Each of them have something to say, each of them have reasons for doing what they are doing, but neither can express that to the other, perhaps because even if they do they think they won’t actually be listened to.  And there is that moment, when literally and metaphorically Merida feels like she is being stuffed into something that is too tight, that constrains her too much, that is not who she is, and for a brief moment both of them appear to let down their guards, and are going to be honest and open, but then Eleanor can’t do it, and Merida can’t do it, and they go right back to their own positions.

Monday, July 4, 2016

He's Loyal To The End

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was John 15:9-17:

Today we continue in our series on the gospel in Pixar, and a reminder it’s not the gospel of or according to Pixar, by looking at Toy Story 3. It’s very rare to have the third film in a series be as good as the original, especially if there was no plans to make a third film when the series began, but Toy Story 3 is one of those films.  This film also holds a special place not only because it was the first film we took our daughters to see in the theater, but also because it totally ruined me and fills me with guilt anytime we get rid of a toy, especially a broken toy that ends up in the trash.  But, Toy Story 3 tells the continuing story of Woody, a cowboy doll, and Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, and the toys they live with, although now diminished in numbers as Andy, their owner has grown up, and no longer plays with them. Andy is leaving for college, and in cleaning up his room, in a mistake by Andy’s mom, the toys, except Woody, end up out on the street as trash. Woody, who had been put into the box to go to college with Andy, knows the truth and risks himself to go out to save them, but they don’t believe what Woody has to say, and are happy to instead jump into a box of other toys to be delivered to Sunnyside Daycare.

When they arrive everything seems great, but they don’t know that the facility is actually run by a dictatorial toy, by the name of Lotso Hugging Bear, who smells like strawberries, but who controls things for his own interests and protection. Woody, still trying to get the other toys to understand that it’s a mistake that they belong to Andy, can’t convince them to go with him, so Woody leaves the daycare and ends up at the home of Bonnie, a little girl who loves to play with her toys, while the other toys remain and are ravaged by the toddlers who don’t know how to place with them nicely. As Woody is preparing to leave Bonnie’s house to go back home, he is told that Sunnyside is a place “ruin and despair,” and so Andy goes back to rescue his friends and bust them out in order to get them back to Andy’s house before Andy leaves for college, and in doing so Woody risks his own freedom, and perhaps his life in defense of his friends.

Monday, June 27, 2016

You Are A Toy

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Galatians 3:25-4:7:

Today we begin on a journey that will take us through the next six weeks looking at the gospel messages we can find in the movies of Pixar.  Now notice that I am not saying that we are looking at the gospel of Pixar, or the gospel according to Pixar, but instead the gospel in Pixar. I think that distinction is important because we have four gospels already, and last I checked Pixar was not one of them. But we can find important themes and messages in these movies that resonate with us and our understanding of the Christian life, they have things they can teach us. Indeed, one of the things that makes Pixar films so special is not just their attention to detail and storytelling, but that there are so many things going on in them that are so true to life, even if they are normally told through non-humans. And so my disclaimer here is that I have no intention of looking at everything that might be seen or discussed in each movie, but will only be focusing on specific ideas.  We start, perhaps appropriately enough with the first feature length Pixar film, Toy Story. Not only was this their first film it was also the first feature length film created entirely with computer animation, also known as CGI, and it forever changed animated films, and it also has lots of Star Wars references in it.

Toy Story, in case you are not familiar, tells the story of a collection of toys that belong to a boy named Andy, and when humans are not around, the toys come to life and interact with each other. The head of the toys, and Andy’s favorite, is a cowboy doll named Woody, and his world is turned upside down when Andy receives an action figure by the name of Buzz Lightyear. Woody becomes jealous of Buzz, and in trying get Buzz stuck behind a desk so that Andy will play with him instead, Woods accidently knocks Buzz out a window and Woody and Andy get stuck in the home of the next door neighbor inhabited by Sid, a terrible kid who destroys toys for fun, and Woody and Buzz begin an adventure to try and get back to Andy before he and his family move away. Now one of the biggest problems for Woody is that Buzz believes himself not to be q toy, but instead to be the actual Buzz Lightyear. Check out this scene set after Woody has knocked Buzz out the window, and they find themselves lost in a gas station….

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Sins of Omission

Here is my sermon from Sunday:

One of the advantages of going down to Sacramento Methodist Assembly is that because it’s in the mountains there is only very limited cell phone coverage, and their Wi-Fi access is not very good, so even if you want to be distracted by the world, it’s very difficult. And so last weekend we were cut off from the world. My phone will occasionally get a good enough signal that I would get an update on the final score of the Yankees game, they won once and lost twice, which about sums up their season, but that was about the extent of our knowledge of the outside world.  So it wasn’t until we stopped for lunch coming home that we were able to do anything online, and Linda went onto Facebook, and saw a bunch of posts asking for prayers for Orlando, and so I looked up on my phone to see there had been a shooting that had killed 50 people.

I’ve said before that one of the things with which I struggle as a preacher is when to change my message versus when to lift something up in prayers, but still say what I was going to say. Unfortunately, there is not any hard and fast rule that can be applied to this situation, and the truth is I could talk every Sunday about some tragedy or even triumph that had occurred in the last week.  Just two weeks ago when reporting on Annual Conference we brought a request from the mayor of Roswell that we pray for his city and the violence they are experiencing, and so it wasn’t just the shooting in Orlando, there was also the shooting in Roswell in which a man shot and killed his wife and four daughters, ages 14, 11, 7 and 3. Every day in the United States an average of 39 people will be killed by guns and another 76 will be injured. Every day.

But simply dealing with guns won’t do anything unless we also try and deal with our obsession with violence in this country, we might also call it hyper masculinity. The need to strike back if we feel victimized, or strike out against someone has attacked us, or even to just call us a bad word.  And unless that begins to change, and we actually hear what Jesus says to us about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, and I do think he was serious about that, then we aren’t going to change anything. But even more importantly than our obsessions with violence, we also need to move past this obsession we have with making people the “other”, someone different, someone not like us, someone to be looked down upon, or deemed or to be less than human, or perhaps even not human at all, because when we do that then it becomes really easy to strike out and attack and kill.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

As Long As Those At The Top Don't Get In Trouble...

Earlier this week I wrote about what has been happening at Baylor University and their cover-up of sexual and domestic abuse claims against athletes at the university (including retaliating against at least one victim), and I wondered why Ken Starr wasn't showing the same moral outrage on this as he did against then President Clinton.

The results of the report submitted to the Baylor board of regents came out today, and while there were firings the people at the top were largely not included.

This included Ken Starr who, while he is being removed as president, will now become chancelor of the university on terms "still being discussed." I'm guessing that means he will be getting a raise?  He will also still be a professor of constitutional law at the law school, because nothing says you can teach constitutional law like overseeing people covering up law breaking.

This includes the athletic director Ian McCaw who has been "sanctioned" and put on "probation" but will still be retaining his job, because why would you remove someone who oversaw programs that lacked institutional control?

Art Briles, the head football coach, is being suspended with the intention of seeking his dismissal "according to contractual procedures." Does that mean he might still be retained? Or is it another way of saying he will be dismissed but with a nice compensation package on the way out? Since they are a private institution they are under no obligation to report any compensation package unless they want to, which they are clearly not going to want to do.

Now there were some firings that did take place from the administration and the athletic department, but they say "Neither these individuals nor the disciplinary actions will be identified publicly." That's even though they did just say what the disciplinary action was, they were fired, we just don't know who they are. Which means these are people way down the totem pole, people that were clearly expendable, people not covered by million dollar salaries and contracts, so people that are easy to scapegoat and push out into the wilderness.

So, once again, we all learn the lesson that if you are at the top and things go badly, rarely is the buck going to stop with you.  Instead it lands on those way down at the bottom. What does this teach anyone, and what does this say about our understanding of leadership? Or, I might ask again: Where, Mr. Starr, is the moral outrage?