Monthly Archives: September 2016

Sermon for September 18, 2016: Let us pray (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to sermon here:

 

The Olympics have always been a good source of sermon material.  Inspirational tales about parents who sacrifice for their children’s Olympic dreams, romantic stories about athletes finding love amidst the stress of competition, come-from-behind sagas about competitors defying physical and emotional handicaps to become champions – all of these are regular parts of the quadrennial international spectacle that serve to illustrate Christian values like grace, hope, and love.  Which is why I was surprised to read the following article in a Religion News blog:

“They prayed and prayed and prayed even more. Then they arrived at the Olympics and promptly lost every match. Did God have it in for them?

If the divine does play favorites in sports, the Argentine women’s handball team and the Mexican men’s volleyball team certainly aren’t the chosen.  Now the entire rosters of both teams are throwing in the towel on their Christian faith. ‘Six hail marys and six stinking losses,’ said Argentine coach Eduardo Peruchena. He estimated his handballers spent a combined sixty-six hours in meditation and prayer in the week directly leading up to their first match. ‘Since the prayers obviously didn’t make any difference, maybe less time on our knees and more practicing would’ve helped.’

 

…Mexican coach Jorge Azair agreed, but wanted to look to the future.  ‘When we compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, we’ll be competing as atheists.’”[1]

 

I could not believe it.  An entire team announcing to the world that they had lost their faith because of a losing streak?  Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t true.  I had failed to notice one crucial part of the article’s title – the part where it said, “Satire.”

But it says something that I believed it.  Because I know that it’s easy to lose faith when you pray and you pray and you pray and nothing changes.  It’s easy to get angry at God when you hear the news that the 28 year-old brother of a friend has suddenly died of pancreatitis. It’s easy to wonder if you are wasting your time when an entire congregation prays for the recovery of a beloved member only to have to attend her funeral a week later.  It’s troubling and, for Christians, hard to explain.  We not only feel like we have to deal bravely with what happened, but we have to somehow explain why God didn’t answer our prayers.  We’d much rather focus on examples of how prayer works.

That’s not necessarily the way it was for our ancient predecessors.  Far from making poetic “pretty please” prayers for non-specific things like, “those in need” and “those in positions of power,” the ancient Israelites poured their hearts out to God, expressing not only their deeply felt gratitude for all that God had done for them, but also their anger and fear when God failed to live up to their expectations.  “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt.  I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.  Is  there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why has the health of my poor people not been restored”?

Jeremiah’s cry to God on behalf of his people is just as resonant today as it was in the sixth century before the Common Era.  Perhaps the Babylonians are not at our borders, but our fear of terrorism is just as real.  Maybe the symbols of our religion have not been destroyed, but they have been perverted.  The cross that once stood only for love and forgiveness is now used as a club to promote exclusion and inauthentic moral rightness.  We, like Jeremiah, are sick at heart.

But unlike Jeremiah, we do not tell God how we feel.  We do not rage at the injustice in the world – at least not in church.  We have come to believe that lamenting is rude.  That’s too bad, because lamenting is a long and deeply-held tenant of our faith.  It’s too bad because lamenting together allows us to acknowledge that our prayers are not always answered in the way we hope.  It’s too bad because without mourning together we can never fully experience what it means to be a community of God.

Our ancestors knew the value of a good group cry.  About one-third of our psalms are classified as “lament psalms,” but we hardly ever hear those on regular church Sundays, toting them out only for funerals and global tragedies.  Today’s inclusion of Psalm 79, known as a “national lament,” is an exception.  Psalm 79 reminds us that we are allowed to question God.  We are allowed to be angry when things seem unfair.  We are allowed to tell God how we feel.

I think we often forget that.  We are so busy asking God to do things for us that we fail to tell God how we feel – and we fail to remember that our relationship with God has a context – the context of our lives.  All you have to do is look at how we pray to recognize the way we have taken prayer out of the day-to-day reality of our lives.  How many of us kneel and bow our heads on a regular basis?  When we pray this way, it tells us that prayer is a time to “withdraw into some otherworldly “religious” realm where all is sweetness and light.”[2]  But that is not what prayer is supposed to be.  Prayer is supposed to be an integral, expected, part of our lives.  Think about the person you are closest to in the world.  What would happen if you didn’t talk to that person for even one day?  But some of us only talk to God only once a week.

That’s what the author of Timothy was telling his people – that God wants to talk to us – that God sent Jesus into the world as a way for us to get to know him and as a way for us to be in dialogue with God.  Timothy’s letter tells us that when we pray, we have to open ourselves up to the possibility that anything can happen if you are in a relationship with a power beyond imagining.

Because you get what you pay for.  That’s the lesson of Jesus’s parable about the dishonest – or “shrewd” – manager, a man who’s already being fired for being dishonest who decides to ensure his own future by reducing the amounts people owe his boss so that they might take him in when he is tossed out.  Based on its completely unsatisfying ending, in which this scoundrel triumphs instead of being defeated[3], it would seem that Jesus is recommending that we “imitate the unrighteous behavior of the main character.”[4]  In fact, it sounds suspiciously like some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the campaign trail – that it’s okay to use laws to your advantage, that it’s okay to be greedy, as long as it works.  And in a way it is – because what Jesus is saying is that your success is measured according to your beliefs.  If you believe that the world is a vicious, competitive and unjust place, then you will act accordingly – and you will succeed based on those standards.  The “shrewd manager” put his faith in the greed of men and his faith paid off.  He was successful because he was dishonest in a dishonest system, and we can be too – if that’s what we want – if that’s what we choose.  But remember, when we put our faith in a community of greed, fear, and lies, that is where we must live.  If we want to live in Jesus’s kingdom – a world of love, acceptance and peace – we have to live by the rules of that system.

And the first rule of Jesus’s kingdom is to love God – and that means talking to God – talking to God honestly, emotionally, and often.  It means praying – praying in a way that acknowledges our desire to be part of God’s will for creation – praying in a way that is not about what we want God to do for us, but about how we can be in closer relationship to God.  That kind of prayer is hardThat kind of prayer is exhausting.  That kind of prayer works. 

And that kind of prayer starts not with asking for God’s help, but by asking for God’s forgiveness –because we cannot even know what to ask for without knowing who we really are.  And we cannot know who we are – we cannot love God or ourselves -without facing the enormous breadth and depth of our thoughts, words and deeds, of recognizing what we have done and what we have left done, of examining our efforts and failures to love with our whole hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Real prayer is not about winning things or getting things or changing things.  Real prayer is about living our entire lives in the presence of God.  It will transform us.  It will transport us.  It will take us out of this dishonest, grieving, sinful world and into a realm of true wisdom, true power, and true peace.  So, let us pray.  AMEN.

[1]Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons (2016). “Olympic squads lose every match – and their faith,” Satire/The Literalist, Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2016/08/16/olympic-squads-lose-every-match-and-their-faith/.

[2]Donald K. McKim, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[3]Helen Montgomery Debevoise, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

[4]Scott Bader-Saye, (2010),  Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY:Presbyterian Publishing Corporation].  Kindle Edition.

The Neuropsychology of Spirituality (presented at the Summer in the City Forum at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco on June 26, 2016 

Sermon for September 4, 2016: Mold me and shape me, Lord (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen to the sermon here: 

I do not enjoy crafts.  When my children were small and they needed parent volunteers to help with school projects, I would offer to do anything but “prep work.”  “Prep work,” for those of you who have never volunteered at Sunday school, generally means cutting about 50 circles or triangles out of construction paper to be used for young fingers to draw and glue on.  If you are me, not only do your circles come out looking like triangles, but there is also some kind of mathematical formulation that guarantees that my irritation level rises to that of my cutting incompetence.  Also, I have found that teachers of young children frown on tears and blood-drops on their project paper.

So when I attended a retreat and was given a ball of clay and the instructions to shape something that represented my ministry, I rolled my eyes, sighed deeply, and tried to get out of it.  Unfortunately, it was a small retreat and there was no escaping the dreaded spiritual craft project.  Since I was in discernment at the time, I decided to make a chalice to symbolize my desire to become a deacon.  However, I could not for the life of me construct a functional glass stem.  Every one of my attempts looked approximately like a hippopotamus sitting on a giraffe leg – and, without fail, the glass bowl part would completely flatten the delicate stem.  Needless to say, as the stem leg got flatter and wider I became more frustrated, which culminated in the creation of something that looked like a very round wine glass sitting on a flat plate.

When we got back together in the large group, people spoke movingly about their artwork and the process that led them to create it.  They drew lovely and thoughtful connections between what they had made and where they were on their spiritual journeys.  By the time they got to me, I was mortified.  What was I supposed to say? -that my primary spiritual reaction to the project was frustration – or that I couldn’t make my hands do what I saw in my head?  I felt both artistically and spiritually stupid.

Then, before I could even begin to make up something about how my stumpy glass with the separated stem represented my spiritual life, one of the participants who knew me -and of my struggles in discernment – said, “Oh Deb – Look!  You made a paten and lavabo bowl.  You really are a priest!”  I was dumbfounded – because when I looked down and saw what was in front of me, I knew that she was right.  I had, without any planning or desire, constructed what was clearly a lavabo bowl – a liturgical implement used to wash the hands of priests – and a paten – which is used to hold the bread that is blessed and distributed by priests.  God had taken my resistant fingers – and my resistant heart – and made me see that my true identity – an identity I had yet to embrace – was not that of a deacon, but of a priest.  And God did it despite my best efforts to resist it.  And God forced me to understand what I had done by speaking through the spirit of someone I loved.

That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to be God’s clay – to be molded and shaped as God wills – which is not necessarily what we want.  And God’s will is that we should be good – not just as individuals, but as nations, kingdoms – and worlds.  That’s what God sent Jeremiah to tell the house of Israel –that they were denying his will so she was going to take their miserable human lives into her creating hands and squash them like badly-made play-do people.  Because despite God’s best efforts, the house of Israel had become spoiled vessels – and God had decided to unmake the very shape of them and to rework them into something better.

That’s a scary idea – to think that there’s some kind of power out there that can simply undo you.  It’s the kind of idea that keeps people away from churches, that threatens our very American sense of autonomy and power.  It’s also kind of demeaning –to think of ourselves as simply being the raw materials of someone else’s art work.  We consider ourselves to be creative, generative, and talented.  We are the builders and shapers of the world – not the ones being molded and shaped.  We know what’s best for us – and for other people too.

Or so we think.  But maybe the truth is that the statues we have erected of ourselves and the things we love are not honors, but idols.  After all, it is easier to worship gods that represent what we already value than to question whether those values are worth honoring.

Philemon, the recipient of the letter from Paul that we heard today, valued his membership in the Christian movement – but he also valued his house and his slaves.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that he was angry and unhappy when his slave Onesimus ran off.  What is surprising is that Onesimus ended up becoming a Christian too -and that he was so beloved by Paul that Paul asked Philemon to choose not only to forgive Onesimus, but to welcome him back as an equal – not because slavery is wrong, but because Onesimus – once a useless and dishonest slave – could now be a useful and honest brother to PhilemonRejecting his claim of ownership of Onesimus and accepting him as his brother molded Philemon into a wiser and more forgiving Christian, just as Onesimus had been molded through Paul into a useful and beloved Christian – but both men had to allow themselves to be completely re-shaped by their growing Christian belief for it to happen.

I bet it hurt.  Because allowing yourself to be re-made in ways that you never imagined can be pretty painful – and messy.  Clay is, after all, nothing but fancy mud.  But if God is willing to get his hands dirty trying to make us better, shouldn’t we be willing to labor in the dust with him?  Isn’t that what Jesus has been asking us to do in gospel story after gospel story all summer long? – to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and relinquish our unwarranted pride.  Even so, in today’s gospel story Jesus goes even further.  He tells his followers that they have to give up everything – friends, family, home, safety – whatever it is they love most if they want to follow him.  There is no in-between – because not only do they have to give up what they love, they have to actually hate it.  That is the cost of discipleship.  That is what it means to be Christian – for all of us.

Or maybe you’re thinking that God doesn’t need you to give up anything for your faith.  Maybe you don’t have to change.  If so, you need to look again at the world around you – because whatever evil the house of Israel was doing has nothing on the people in this country who punish others for the color of their skin –who ostracize people for exercising their faith –who kill simply to make people believe what they think is right.  And while I am perfectly willing to believe that no one in this room is doing any of those things, I know that none of us is doing enough to stop it.  Because if every Christian in the world actually gave up everything that is opposed to the way of Jesus Christ, evil like that would disappear.

That’s what Jesus is asking us to do; not to renounce everything we have, but to hate anything that keeps us from God. And that includes, “our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more.  [We have to put away the possessions and obsessions] that keep us…from the Christ-like walk to which Jesus invites us…. [We must] place ourselves on an ever-treading potter’s wheel to examine our thoughts, words, and actions.”[1]  If we can do that – if we can divest ourselves of those things that separate us from God, then we will be good clay.  That’s all we have to do, because the good news is that it is not up to us to torturously mold and shape ourselves into what we think we should be.  It is only up to us to be what we were created to be – a marvelously made, lovingly fashioned, and intimately-known child of God.  God is the potter.  We are the clay.  Mold us and shape us Lord, that we may become the good work of your hand.  AMEN.

[1]Emily Townes (2010), “Theological Perspective on Luke 14:25-33,” in Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press], p. 46.