Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Noah: Captain Sumeria

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 6:1-8, 13-14, 7:1-5, 19-22, 8:1-4, 10-12, 9:8-13:

If you were expecting a baby, or perhaps a grandchild, and you went to a store to buy decorations for the nursery, perhaps someplace like Babies-R-Expensive, you would be almost guaranteed that one of the motifs available to you would be Noah’s Ark.  And if you were to buy a children’s Bible for that newborn, that Bible would be sure to include the story of Noah’s Ark in at as well.  And that always puzzles me because the image we have of Noah’s ark is nowhere close to what the story actually tells.  Indeed, one of the complaints leveled against the movie Noah, by one TV commentator who I am going to keep anonymous in order to protect her ignorance, said in reference to the movie Noah, and I quote, “my memories of the story of Noah are very different.  I had my children’s bible which had these wonderful illustration, and you had the two animals walking side by side, and then you had the rainbow and the dove comes and then the sun comes out and everybody lives happily ever after.”  That’s a nice idea, but it’s not scriptural, because no one lives, except for eight people, and they do not live happily ever after.

Linda and I went to see Noah or we might say, Captain Sumeria, on Friday, sort of a Waterworld meets We Bought a Zoo (thanks to Jon Stewart for the jokes) and I thought it was okay.  While I don’t think it’s going to win any major awards, it’s not anywhere close to the worst movie ever made, and theologically its okay.  Now the writers and director did take some artistic license in telling the story, in order to more fully explore some of the issues that come out of this story, such as the battle within us between good and evil, and how we know if we are doing what God really wants us to be doing, as well as what God’s true intention was in bringing about the flood, was it to totally uncreate, or was it to have a new creation.  And to make sense of the beginning of the film you really need to be familiar with 1 Enoch as well as Jubilees, which are two non-canonical texts.  But I do want to say that a biblical movie, or tv show, taking artistic license to tell the story really shouldn’t surprise us because every movie using biblical stories takes great license in telling the story, and yes you heard me right every single one of them, and as a preacher I think everyone one of these movies and shows should be required to put a disclaimer about that at the front, but that takes us off topic.

The story of Noah is not a nice touchy, feely, cuddly story, full of cute bunnies, lions and giraffes.  When we really look at what this story is saying, this is the story of nightmares.  We are told that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.”  There are several people in scripture whom we are told are righteous or blameless, but I believe that the only one that gives the caveat about his generation, is Noah, and I think this is a telling comment about Noah.   It’s sounds good, but really it’s a backhanded compliment. It’s like saying someone is the most honest politician, or saying someone is the smartest person on a football team, or as was said to a friend who was being reappointed to Texas, that he was going to the most beautiful part of Texas.  When the level of competition is so low, what does it mean that you are a little above them?  One of the things I like doing when preaching out of the Hebrew scriptures is to look in Jewish commentaries, and in my study, the rabbis have nearly universal disdain for Noah.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter: Grasping the Ungraspable

Here was my sermon for Easter:

Have you ever had a resurrection take place in your life?  Maybe it was that houseplant that you thought you had killed, but somehow it came back stronger and greener, or maybe it was an appliance you thought for sure was a goner, but somehow it was able to be fixed and kept running.  Maybe it was a relationship or a job that you thought was over, but was somehow renewed and given new life and vitality.  Or maybe, like author and commentator David Sedaris, you’ve seen a more dramatic resurrection in your life.  He recounts the time when the family dog Duchess gave birth to a litter of puppies.  After all the puppies were born, one of them appeared to have died but Sedaris’ mother took the puppy arranged it in a casserole dish and popped it into the oven.  When Sedaris and his sisters reacted with horror, their mother responded “Oh, keep your shirts on.  It’s only set on two hundred.  I’m not baking anyone, this is just to keep him warm.”  “The heat revived the sick puppy,” Sedaris said, “and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.”

What these stories of resurrection remind us is that resurrection is only needed; indeed resurrection is only possible when things appear to be at an end.  You cannot resurrect something that is going well.  I know that some of you root for the Boston Red Sox, and that pains me in my heart, but one of the reasons why their world series win last year was so dramatic was because of how terrible they had been the year before, following their historic crash the season before that.    You cannot resurrect something that is going well.  Only relationships on the rocks can be resurrected.  Only careers and jobs that are lapsing can be resurrected.  Only failing health can be resurrected.  Only lives that have ended can be resurrected.  I say all this because while it might be obvious that death and resurrection go together, I think that sometimes we forget it especially in the midst of our celebration.  We come today and sing some of the greatest songs to be found in the Christian tradition, we hunt our Easter eggs and eat our chocolate bunnies and even though we remember the cross and we know it’s there we sometimes forget the bleakness and mourning at the tomb.  Death and resurrection are inherently linked.  Resurrections don’t occur when everything is already bright and cheerful, they occur when things appear their darkest and bleakest.

I also think sometimes we forget this link because often resurrections are hard to explain, even for houseplants or puppies.  What was it that really made the difference that changed everything around?  Was it something we did or was it totally out of our hands?  In an age of reason, it is this last question that haunts us the most because dealing with mysteries is not something we often want to talk about, and so it is with Easter Sunday.  I know that many of you struggle with what actually took place on the first Easter all so long ago and I have struggled myself, and I’ll be honest, if you ask me to tell you exactly what happened, I won’t be able to because I simply don’t know.  But here’s what I do know, something did happen.  Something happened which dramatically changed the lives of Jesus’ disciples and followers on that Easter morning and it continues to change lives today.  There was a resurrection that morning and it was more than just Jesus’ not being in the tomb. The disciples themselves were resurrected from just followers of Jesus of Nazareth to followers of Jesus the Christ,.  But to understand those resurrections we have to understand the darkness and the desertion which precedes the women arriving at the tomb.

Judas has turned Jesus over to the authorities, Peter has denied that he knows Jesus not just once, or twice, but three times and then, along with the rest of the disciples, he has fled in order to save his life.  When Jesus is beaten and tormented and crucified none of the disciples are there they have all abandoned him.  And  according to Matthew’s account, the only friends of Jesus present when he is hanging on the cross are many women including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples.  But they are not standing at the foot of the cross, instead, we are told, that they are looking on from a distance.  And then Matthew records that Jesus’ final words from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

No one at the time ever imagined that this was how the Messiah would die, that’s why they all expect him, and taunt him, to save himself, to call down his angels to release him from this punishment.  Everything the disciples and other followers had imagined that Jesus was and what he would do for the Jewish people lay in shatters and tears, everything they had believed was broken, and the community was left in disarray, if you could even say that there was a community left.  And then they had the Sabbath during which they could do nothing but sit and wait, terrified and mourning.  And then, Mary and the other Mary go to the tomb.  Unlike other gospels which give them a reason for going, Matthew instead says they go simply to see the tomb probably to remind themselves that Jesus is really dead, to give a reality check to their shock, disbelief and confusion over the events of the past few days.  Can he really be dead?  Did we really see what we saw? They must be asking themselves, and so they go to the tomb to be reminded and to give themselves a place where they can grieve and still be close to Jesus’ body.  In that they are not much different than many of us following the death of a loved one, as we spend time surrounding us with their belongings or going to the cemetery in order to be close.

But it is at this moment that something remarkable occurs.  The Maries are met by an angel and are told that Jesus is not there that he has been raised.  Now this resurrection story is a little different from the one told by author and preacher Max Lucado about a man in Arkansas whose wife was mistakenly declared dead by her surgeon.  When the nurse discovered that the woman was in fact still alive, she told the doctor that he needed to inform the family right away.  Unable to find the family in the hospital the doctor called the husband and said “I need to talk with you about the condition of your wife.”  “My wife’s condition,” the man said, “I don’t understand, she’s dead.”  “Well,” the surgeon said, “she has seen a slight improvement.”  That’s not what we’re talking about here.

We are told that as the women approach the tomb, there is an earthquake as an angel rolls aside the stone which covers the entrance.  As you might imagine, this causes fear to run through the witnesses.  The soldiers sent to protect the tomb quake and then they become like dead men.  Just at the time that the announcement that Jesus, who was dead, is now alive, the guards who were alive suddenly become like dead men, and then the women are told not to fear.  Most of us probably remember the Christmas story as told by Luke, in which angels are continually telling people “do not be afraid,” but that is not a phrase that Matthew uses until the resurrection story and then it’s used twice, once by the angel and once by Jesus himself.  The world has dramatically changed, nothing will ever be the same, and so the women are told do not be afraid, go tell the disciples what you have seen and heard.  And so they leave the tomb with fear and great joy.

That phrase always strikes me as incongruent, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.”  How can you be both fearful and greatly joyful at the same time?  On their face, those things don’t seem to match, but I believe if we think about it we can probably think of a time in which we have been joyful but also fearful.  Maybe it was in beginning a new job, or moving to a new city, starting a new school, buying a house, or at the birth of a child, these are significant times in our lives when we might hold both fear and joy in our hearts and minds simultaneously, and we realize the incongruities that resurrection holds in tension, death and life, fear and joy.
When Jesus says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, he is quoting from the first line of the 22nd psalm.  The psalm begins with that question and continues with a plea to God to notice the psalmist’s afflictions, but then there is a change, and the writer concludes the psalm this way:  “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”  And then concluding a few verses later, “Posterity will serve God; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it.”

The Psalm begins “why have you forsaken me,” and ends proclaiming that the good news of deliverance will be passed on to a people yet unborn, because God has done it.  In that, it perfectly mirrors the crucifixion and the resurrection, it is the fear and the joy rolled into one.  After the crucifixion the women and the disciples had to be fearing the worst as everything they had believed in in Jesus was gone, but then something miraculous happened and when the women go to the tomb, an angel tells them that Jesus is not here, that he has been raised, just as Jesus had predicted, and so they run to tell the disciples, filled with fear and joy, when they encounter the risen Christ, and they kneel at his feet and worship him before again running off to say that Christ is risen.

It is this event that has us here this morning, not just to celebrate that the tomb was empty, but more importantly to understand that without Easter, Jesus is just one more person with messianic claims whose disciples scatter to the four winds after his death, like the disciples of John the Baptist.  But instead, Easter gives us something more; it reveals to us who Jesus is.  Something happened on that Easter morning nearly two thousand years ago and the disciples did not scatter, instead they came back together after having scattered and went on to proclaim the good news to the world, and we are here today, as disciples of Christ, because of that news. That is the darkest moments of their lives, that in the darkest moments of our lives, that hope was possible, that new life was possible, that new futures and realities were possible.  That the cross was not the final answer, that hatred and evil and death and darkness were not the final answer.  That God can and will overcome all these things, and that God has done it.  We are an Easter people.  It is the resurrection of Christ that makes all the difference in the world.  It is that light which brings hope into the darkness of our lives.

Now as I already said, I can’t tell you exactly what happened that morning or how the resurrection worked, and maybe some of you think I should.  But to me, all the arguments of exactly how Jesus was raised and what his body looked like or how his body operated physically in the world after his death miss the point of what Easter is about.  Those explanations work hard to try and eliminate some of the mystery some of the miracle in order to make the event more understandable for us, but as a result we lose some of the mystery and the importance of the Easter moment.  Dick Hayhurst recounts once watching children play in a fountain in Springfield, Missouri.  The fountain was built flush with the ground and the spray of water came out seemingly at random through small holes in the pavement.

“If you walked on the path and stepped on the fountain at the wrong time,” he said, “it might squirt you, a scenario the kids thrived on.”  As he watched them play, the children ran, some anticipating where the water might come next, others just running around with complete joy, as only children can do, just being present in the moment.  “The jets seemed to play with the children,” Hayhurst writes, “ staying just out of reach or biting them from behind with playful nips.  The children kicked and swatted them, sometimes standing on them, sometimes shouting at them for escaping.  Around and around they danced, until the jets built to a crescendo and erupted in a steady fountain of water, drenching the children completely before coming to a stop….  When they fountain stopped,” Hayhurst said he wondered, “What would the children do if they caught the water?  Of course they never would.  They could never hold on to it,” he said.  The water would never come home as a trophy or a pet.  Catching the water was never the idea.  Experiencing it was.”

And so it is with Easter.  It is the combination of fear and joy, of darkness and light, death and life, mourning and celebration, denial and discipleship, loss and resurrection.  It is violence overcome by love, it is the birth of hope, the fulfillment of God’s promises, the assurance of eternal life, it is in fact the foundational event of our faith, and when we try and grasp unto it, to try and nail it down to say exactly how things happened, that is when we lose the meaning and experience of Easter.  Just like the children with the water, we cannot grasp the ungraspable.  Easter is not something that can be caught or explained, tamed or boxed in, it can only be experienced, and in experiencing it we can be overcome and let it flow over us so that we always remember that we can never be separated from God’s love, that no matter what is going on in our life, that no matter how dark things appear, that no matter if we cry out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” that Easter is always with us, that we are an Easter people.

We have been surrounded by death in this congregation these past few months.  Easter does not say that grief will not be present or that it will be removed, but Easter says that God can be found in it, that death is not the end, that hate does not win, that darkness cannot envelope us, instead we are shown that God will always triumph in the end, that God is always with us, that grace is always with us, that love is always with us, and the light of Christ is always with us, and light shines brightest in the darkness because God has done it, because love always wins.  Let the word go forth: Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Primal Scream

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Lamentations 3:1-24:

Today we complete our Lenten series on prayer, by tackling the one area that most of are not good at and the one that many of us want to avoid and that is lamentation.  We are certainly good at complaining and making a big deal out of little things, but that is not what lamentations are about.  While breaking a fingernail or our favorite sports team losing might be reasons to be upset, they are not truly lamentable.  Lamentations are about those things which touch us deep down in our souls, which bring us to the depths of despair, which put us on our knees, literally or figuratively, which have us not only questioning but even cursing our existence and sometimes even cursing God.

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” is how Lamentations begins, “How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations….  She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks...”  The she that is being referred to here is Jerusalem and her mourning comes in 587 BCE after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and taken the leaders into exile.  This was one of the most important and the most traumatic things to happen in Judaism, indeed the form of Judaism that we know, and that Jesus knew, probably would not exist without this event.  As destructive and traumatic as 9/11 was to us as a nation and to our psyche as a people, 9/11 does not really compare to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Picture that event and magnify it by a factor of ten, and you might begin to get a picture of what this meant.  All the promises that had been made to the people by God seemed to have been destroyed, wiped away, in one devastating act, and it left the people wondering what had happened, why it had happened, and what the future held?

Tradition holds that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, and Jeremiah is known as the weeping, crying or suffering prophet, and his writings certainly reflect that.  They are difficult to read, and thus not preached on very often, not only because they are sometimes hard to understand, but more because they are sometimes brutal in their message, as we heard from this morning’s passage.  Now while Lamentations is usually said to have been written about the time of the destruction of the temple and the exile, there is actually nothing which dates it to this period.  Instead, it is a lament that could just as easily apply to the Holocaust as it could to the time of Jeremiah, and it can also apply to the times in which we have needed to offer lament in our lives.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Make A Joyful Noise To The Lord

On Sunday in our series on prayer I talked about singing being part of our prayer life.  Besides for the Psalms, there are plenty of other songs found in scripture, and I said that it didn't matter whether you can sing or not that you should feel confident enough to sing to God.

This then brought up the inevitable question about who sings in the choir, and in particular in the praise band. If you want to join our praise band currently, there is not really an audition, but interested members are required to come and rehearse with the band for several weeks, without performing with them during worship, in order to see how they fit into the overall group, and to make sure their musical skills fit what is needed.  Some people think this is wrong, that we should take everyone, after all we are called to "make a joyful noise to the Lord," so we should take whoever wants to even if it's noisy.

Every time I hear this I wonder how far we are willing to push that analogy.  If we wanted to paint a mural would we let someone who can only draw stick figures do it because that's who wants to do it?  Or would we let someone who was a terrible public speaker, but wanted to preach, do so so they could make a joyful noise?  Or would we let someone who was a bad teacher take over a Christian formation class?  And if we aren't willing to do those, why wouldn't we apply the same to music?  Is music somehow fundamentally different from those things?

I believe that we are called to give our best to God, most especially in worship, and that means we are called to use our gifts in the best way possible, and so we find those with the best gifts for music, or teaching, or art, or preaching, or anything else, and put them in those places to give our best to God.  Not everyone has those gifts, and so we find out what their gifts are and utilize those for the betterment of the church and the community.  That is not to say that people who can't carry a tune shouldn't sing, because they should, but maybe not at the front, and those who don't have artistic talent can still paint, and should be encouraged to be creative, but maybe not be creative on the walls.

But at the same time I do struggle with this question to a degree because I don't want to stifle people in what they want to give to the church and to God.  In a large church this is easier because it's clear what those expectations are, but in a medium size church it's much harder.

Does making a joyful noise mean that we should allow anyone make that noise regardless of how noisy it becomes?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Meaningless Symbolic Actions

It was recently announced by the MLB and the Players Association that they are going to be strengthening the penalties for players caught using banded substances.  I'm not opposed to this and I think it was driven primarily by players who were upset at A-Rod, but I don't think it really will make a huge amount of difference.

The first reason is because players who have been caught in the past have continued to be given major contracts, and so their suspensions have not had any impact on their income.  That means that players will continue to take risks because the payoff is well worth it, just ask Jhonny Peralta and Melky Cabrera.  And the fans of the teams the players are on don't care, simply look at Ryan Braun's reception or the way the Red Sox support Big Papi.  If the player on the other team is doing it it's bad, but for our guy it's just fine.

And the second, although MLB does not want to admit this, but the testing program is really sort of a joke (and it's better than the other leagues).  Of the players who were suspended last year only Ryan Braun had failed a test.  Every single one of the others never tested positive for anything, and thus making suspensions longer for players who fail does nothing because players aren't failing. The only reason these players were caught was because of an investigative reporter in Florida. None one wants to talk about this, but MLB had nothing to do with them being caught, and if they think this is the only "anti-aging" clinic servicing professional athletes they have their heads in the sand more than I think they do (and the sleazy way MLB conducted it's investigation should make everyone sick).  And on the same topic, why are the press and the other leagues not investigating this clinic in regards to the other professional and college athletes whose names were also reportedly in the reports?

This was largely a meaningless symbolic action for both parties.  Bud Selig can continue to talk about how he is tough on drugs, when he isn't and wasn't, and how he cleaned up the game, when he didn't, and the players can talk about how they are cooperating and want the game played cleanly, even when it isn't.  For those stupid enough to get caught, the penalties are stiffer, but there is little other penalty facing them when they can still count on getting big contracts on the other side and so the potentials still far outweigh the risks.

And speaking of meaningless symbolic actions, the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry recently approved four actions to help increase the numbers of young clergy and to support them. (here is an article on the plans)  This all comes out of a young clergy symposium held two years ago to talk about young clergy, recruitment and issues facing young clergy, in which the vast majority of the people attending were over the age of 50.  That about shows the problem the church has in even talking about young clergy, they don't engage with them even when they are supposed to.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songs for the Journey

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 126:

Our Psalm today is part of a collection, extending from Psalm 120 to 134, which are known collectively as the psalms of ascent or the pilgrim songs.  They are called that, first because the superscription says “a song of ascents,” simple enough, but also because it is believed that these psalms would be sung as people made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to be at the Temple for the celebration of the most important Jewish holidays. Although nowadays as people make pilgrimages, as they are about to do to the Santuario de Chimayo to be there during Holy Week, people are just as likely to be listening to their iPods as interacting with the people they are traveling with, once upon a time they would spend their days talking or singing songs in order to pass the time.  It is more than likely that as Jesus and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for the final time that, along with the others they were probably traveling with, they sang these psalms in order to not only pass the time but also to be connected with each other and with the past and as a way to lift up their concerns and celebrations to God.  These are traveling songs.

Each of the psalms in this group is relatively short, meaning they would be easier to remember, and a wide variety of themes and types are represented.  In addition, many of the psalms talk about concerns of ordinary life, which are then juxtaposed with those that talk about national concerns; they also switch between individual and communal positions or references.  Several scholars have even postulated that they are in the order they are in because they follow the path of a pilgrimage with psalm 120 beginning with those who live outside of Jerusalem, and hence needing to make a pilgrimage, and ending with psalm 134, as a benediction, when they are leaving and heading home.

But it is more than just these psalms that would have been sung by Jewish people, it would have been all of them because the Psalms are the song books of the ancient Israelites.  We most commonly use the Psalms today as prayers, and so as a way of continuing our look at prayers through lent, today we are going to be addressing the issue of songs and singing as prayer.  We have no idea how the psalms were sung, but of the 150 Psalms 55 of them contain superscriptions that contain instructions relating to music.  If you have your Bible with you can turn to Psalm 4, or on the screen.  After the title of the Psalm, we have the superscription “to the leader: with stringed instruments,” which is obviously an instruction of some sort.  The problem is we don’t know what this actually means, beyond the obvious.  Did they normally chant the psalms, so only some would use instruments, were they normally sung using drums instead of stringed instruments, so you would need to know this, or were they usually sung accapella?  We simply don’t know.  But in addition to the superscription if you look at the end of verse two, you’ll see the word “Selah.”  I’m sure that some of you have seen that before and wondered what it meant.  Well, if you figure it out, please let us all know, because we don’t really know what it means.