Monday, October 31, 2011

Consider the Lily

One of our lay leaders very ably preached yesterday's sermon at Open Table.  Therefore, I'm posting today a sermon I preached a couple of Sundays ago as guest preacher at Cornerstone MCC in Mobile.
Sermon text:  Matthew 6: 25-34.

         I bring you warm greetings from Open Table United Church of Christ.  We want you to know that we are holding you in all prayer as Cornerstone transitions to the next chapter in your brave and proud history as a congregation.  God is surely guiding you. But interim periods can be anxious times, even for courageous congregations.  Open Table, a brand new congregation, also knows something about being on a journey into the unknown.  Maybe this is a time in the life of both congregations to follow Jesus’ advice and “consider the lilies.”
         Or maybe we need to consider “the Lily.”  Lily, you see, is my dog, and she is my role model for living nonanxiously.  While I’m stewing over a problem, my pampered pet is usually dreaming doggy dreams at my side, not a care in the world.  Sometimes it helps me just to curl up beside her on the carpet and become her student for awhile.  I watch her chest rise and fall in a regular rhythm.  I match my breathing to hers.  I dig my fingers through her thick fur and make her layers of muscle and fat ripple at my touch like batter being poured into a cake pan.  “Mmmm,” she rumbles her deep, growly thanks from some imperturbable place in her soul.  “Mmmm,” I echo.  “Mmmm” is sometimes the best prayer I pray on an anxious day.
         Lily—with her wide-set shoulders, thick neck, square head, and heavy coat—looks more like a bear than a lily.  No delicate flower, she.  But Lily was already named when we adopted her 14 years ago.  And despite her age and girth and wide-set gait, she has her own loveliness: an ease of being in the world, a comfortableness in her own fur, a patience with what is.  She doesn’t worry—as I do—that her days on this earth can’t be much longer.  And the simplest things delight her:  guests arriving at the front door, every move I make, and especially her dinner bowl.  Just the mention of “dinner” turns the old girl into a whirling dervish.  Dinner time, for her, is like winning the lottery--every day of her life.  

         And so I regularly try to do a little of what the Sermon on the Mount teaches:  I try to “consider the Lily.”  At points this week I was strongly tempted (or inspired—depending on your perspective) to bring “The Lily” with me this morning so that you might likewise “consider” her yourself.  We’d have learned more about living non-anxiously by watching her sleep for 20 minutes than we might from this sermon. 
         But you graciously invited me to provide a sermon, so a sermon you shall have.  It’s always risky to preach to folks whom you admire but don’t know all that well.  So I have no idea if this interim period at Cornerstone is making anyone here the least bit anxious.  I don’t know if the current state of the economy has given any of you the jitters.  I don’t know if national and international events concern you.  I don’t know if conflict among friends or heath issues for you or loved ones have beset any of you with worry.  But I do know that even people of great faith have moments of anxiety.  Perhaps you need, as I do sometimes, a chance to consider the lilies.
         So let’s sit at the feet of Jesus and do that.  Notice that Jesus’s sermon touches upon perhaps the chief cause of anxiety:  money.  Not much has changed in that regard in the last 2000 years.  Whether you think of yourself as a “have” or a “have not,” you can probably trace a great deal of stress in your life to the task of surviving financially or striving financially.  Jesus’ sermon clearly says that we can pursue God’s purposes only when we are not possessed by our possessions.
         But as I look further into this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I find something troubling.  I agree with his point that materialism is not the way to serve God and is good a way to increase stress.  But to be honest, there is a part of this scripture passage that doesn’t quite ring true.  I want to push back against the text in order to go deeper into it.  I want to question Jesus’ assumption that the God who clothed the lilies so resplendently will clothe us, too.  That’s what Jesus suggests.  But is it true?  I want to call to Jesus’s attention that there are plenty of ragged or naked people around the world God forgot to dress.  Further, Jesus’s sanguine observation that the heavenly Father feeds the birds and so will feed us makes me want to object:  “But, Jesus, birds go hungry sometimes. Sometimes birds go hungry.  And so do children.”  Others might worry a bit that telling people blithely that God will feed and clothe them could encourage laziness and freeloading.  Besides all that, this passage seems to praise brainless plants for their lack of a concept of the future.  Of course the lilies don’t worry.  They lack that capacity!
         When I was 5 years old, my family vacationed in Key West.  One day my parents left my younger siblings and me at a day care center while they went deep sea fishing all day long.  I’m sure we received good care that day.  But this vast facility was on a military base, and the setting was so institutional, so large, and so military it seemed they were warehousing children.  I cried the entire interminable day.  The uniformed woman who kept telling me to stop crying just intimidated rather than calmed me.  At one point she gestured to my 1-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister, playing contentedly nearby, and tried to shame me into cheerfulness by saying, “Look how nicely they’re behaving, and you’re a big 5-year-old crying like a baby.”  I replied: “Well, they’re just too stupid to know to be scared of you.”  I have “considered” that the contented confidence of wild flowers and wild birds—and a domesticated dog—is likewise misplaced. 
         So I want to tell Jesus that, though I really appreciate his attempt at assurance, the worst way to calm a worried soul is to tell her not to worry.  I mean, it’s the worriers of the world like you and me who work hard enough so the rest of the world doesn’t have to worry, right?  Rather than decreasing my anxiety, this text—that has gentled many an anxious heart—kind of agitates me. 
         Until I read it poetically.  And indeed there is scholarly evidence that in this beloved section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoting from an ancient Aramaic poem. 
         Here’s how I think this poetic passage is meant to operate.  Readers see the birds of the heavens and wild flowers of the field as symbols of God’s graciousness.  We’re to image the iconic wild bird or wild flower and in a sense to meditate on that image until, like a repeated mantra, it calms the spirit.  We’re to treat these symbols, not as scientific evidence of providential care, but as conveyors of a felt truth of God’s goodness.  It is not a literal fact that all birds are fed.  But based on the fact that these creatures have no worries—fears, maybe, but no worries—Jesus tells a deeper spiritual truth: that lives aimed at ushering in God’s reign of peace are not anxious, that taking one day at a time is the best prescription for sanity, and that worry never helps matters anyway.  Sometimes I need to let the images rather than the words speak to my heart.  Sometimes I need to turn off the worrying part of my brain—and just meditate on the flowers, the sparrows.
         Then at other times I need to turn to other sources for practical advice.  Note that Jesus is speaking this warning against worry to a crowd that is, in effect, his congregation.  He was talking about the effect of anxiety upon groups.  Much recent research explores the role of worry in systems of relationships. Let me share some insights based on family systems theory, which recognizes that anxious people affect the groups to which they belong in different ways.  Churches in particular can be negatively affected by anxiety.[i]
         You may have noticed how some members of a congregation get anxious over the littlest thing.  Others take just about everything in stride.  Those who carry around a lot of anxiety know it is a very uncomfortable feeling.  Anxiety is more uncomfortable than fear, because fear is a reaction to the known; sometimes we don’t even know why we’re feeling anxious. Anxiety is a physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual response to feeling out of one’s comfort zone, out of place, out of control.  Change always brings some degree of anxiety.  Changes in church staffing, for example, can bring on anxiety.  But change is happening in all areas of our life.  We live in a time of rapid change.
         When we first start to feel anxious, we may need to do some simple self-assessment.  What are we worrying about?  If it’s something we can change, we can decide upon a course of action. If it’s not something we can change, we need to find ways to deal with the anxiety.  Or it may kill us.  Anxiety can have harmful physical effects on us.  Sometimes there are physical means of reducing anxiety by, for example, exercising or meditating or getting more rest or improving our nutrition.  We may need to seek counseling, to pray, to find other healthy means of dealing with stress. 
         But groups get anxious, too, and this scripture presents churches like yours and like mine with an opportunity to learn together about organizational anxiety.  Every organization is anxious to some extent.  A few churches have such a high level of anxiety that they see everything as threatening.  A critical ingredient in churches that have lower levels of anxiety are those with leaders (official as well as unofficial leaders) who remain calm, who can take things lightly, who don’t overreact, who keep a sense of humor, who assume the best of others, who relish change and new ideas and different perspectives.  Nonanxious individuals can create nonanxious groups.  Anxiety, you see, is contagious.  Worried people, in seeking to relieve their anxiety, “pass it on.”  And so it spreads.  Anxious individuals then can feel a little bit better because once someone else is worried, too, they feel they don’t have to hold all the worry.  Unfortunately, others then feel worse.  One individual can change an entire congregation, for better or worse, by changing his/her behavior. 
         Let me name a few negative responses to group anxiety and then share healthier responses.
1.   Avoidance/denial.  Sometimes a family or a congregation has a pattern of avoiding issues that make us anxious, pretending a problem does not exist, or refusing to discuss an issue that needs addressing.  Churches in particular avoid conflict.  Christians sometimes think conflict is wrong, but conflict is inevitable and it’s only wrong when we deal with it in harmful ways.  But often in a church the majority give in to a few people who are going to get upset and who need to have things their way.  When that happens, we empower these people out of a mistaken notion of Christian kindness or selflessness.  In fact, that is dysfunctional behavior that hurts the growth and health of the entire group.
2.   Sometimes groups will jump toward a “quick fix” without understanding the root of problem.  Congregations can be so anxious about a problem that they leap to the first solution that comes to mind. 
3.   Sometimes groups scapegoat an individual; they blame and label one person or one group in the church.  Systems theory says there’s always a complex network of influences on the group so there is never a single “cause” of a problem.  Often a church needs to feel the pastor is entirely the problem so there can be a convenient way to locate the source of their anxiety.  Again, the problem in a group is never the result of just one person’s behavior.
4.   Some anxious people overfunction in a group.  That is, they give unsolicited advice, worry excessively about someone else, micromanage, take on too heavy a load, criticize, take responsibility for others’ feelings.  They have control issues.
5.   Other anxious people underfunction. Their worry causes them to avoid decisions, not take initiative, constantly seek advice, adopt a “helpless” persona, believe others are responsible for their feelings.  They have self-assertion issues.
The greater the anxiety, the harder it is to make good decisions.  Emotion can always trump reason.  Groups usually make decisions based on perception, not reality; on emotion, not information.  Handling anxiety in a congregation is important.

Let me now suggest 4 healthy ways to manage group anxiety when it inevitably develops in any church:
1.    Take stock of the level of stress YOU are carrying in your life.  Are you carrying that into your church?  Try not to pass it on.  That does not mean don’t share your needs and concerns!  Not at all.  Do share honest feelings and thoughts and prayer concerns and needs--but without sounding an alarm that others need to panic and get worried together. 
2.   Be self-aware (of your own motives, feelings, needs) but also be other-aware.  That means to be compassionate without being engulfed by others or determined by them.  We remember that we can empathize without being responsible for others’ feelings.  We focus on fixing self, not others.  We cannot fix others.
3.   Be clear about your church’s mission:  Cornerstone comes together for something more than mere self-preservation.   Your mission is not simply to survive as a church.  You have a unique and important purpose in our city.  Mobile needs this congregation.  Your mission requires that your members remain strong in your bond with one another under the bond of Christ’s love.  Your purpose goes beyond yourselves.  Any congregation that is focused just on surviving . . . won’t. 
4.   Appreciate that friction is a part of life.  If we didn’t have some anxiety, we would not learn and grow.  Relish different points of view.  Embrace change.  Hear different ideas without getting defensive.  Keep growing.
         Having strayed into a very practical mode just now, let me return to a poetical perspective and close with the image of the non-anxious lily.  I share this in the spirit of Jesus’s simple poem.  This poem is titled “The Lily” and it is written by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, Mary Oliver.


[i] This information comes mainly from a presentation by Dr. Dan Bagby at a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Memphis in 2008.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lesson #1: How To Die

Lectionary Texts
Deuteronomy 34: 1-8
Psalm 90
Matthew 22: 34-40

        Some months ago a friend I hadn’t seen since high school emailed to ask a favor.  Although he now lives in another part of the country, he had kept in touch with one of his former teachers who had once supported him through a difficult time.  Now she needed help.  She was declining in health and was not close to her family.  He asked if I would visit her in the nursing home here.  She was lonely.  She had not been in church in many years and had no pastor.  I readily agreed. 
         I visited “Jane” a couple of times in the nursing home and found her to be a kind-hearted, intelligent woman struggling with depression.  Then almost overnight her health declined precipitously and she was hospitalized.  Multiple medical issues, including diabetes, complicated her treatment.  Her kidneys began to fail.  She was told she was dying.
         At my next visit—in the ICU—Jane was at turns distraught and listless.  As I held her hand, she looked at me anxiously, searchingly, and said to me an extraordinary thing:  “I don’t know how to die.”
         That statement and her gaze pierced me.  “How do I die?” she seemed to be asking, as if she needed instruction to do it properly or successfully.  “I don’t know how to die,” she said again at my next visit, as if Death might wait until it she’d mastered the skill, though her frail body was clearly having no trouble moving toward that end.  Indeed, she died by the end of the next week.
         How does one learn to die?  What would have been your response to Jane?  And is learning to die a lesson we want to postpone until our last days?  How would you—how do you every day of your life—prepare to die? 
         The novel A Lesson Before Dying explores some of these questions.  Set in Louisiana in the late 1940s, this book by Ernest Gaines tells the story of an innocent young black man wrongly convicted of murdering a white man.  As if an unjust death sentence weren’t hard enough, Jefferson must also bear the weight of the words of his own defense attorney, who, during the trial, called him a hog in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the jurors he was no more responsible for his actions than a dumb animal.  Jefferson’s mental condition deteriorates further as he awaits execution.  He first refuses visits from his beloved aunt, he insults others, he eats his meals—when he eats at all—with his head in the bowl like an animal at the trough.  And he refers to himself as a hog, a hog being fattened for slaughter.  Jefferson’s aunt begs the local school teacher to teach her nephew to become a man again so that he may die a man and not an animal. 
         Reluctantly, Grant Wiggins, the cynical teacher, visits Jefferson.  Zealously, Jefferson’s minister visits, too.  But Jefferson seems hell-bent on playing the role of a hog and grieving his aunt and everyone else in the African-American community in the process.  Over time, however, the agnostic school teacher’s growing sympathy and the minister’s unswerving faith allow Jefferson to care about others in the midst of his own pain.  At a time when he has every right to be bitter and self-absorbed, Jefferson eventually finds compassion for others.  And so regains his humanity.  He walks toward his execution in the fullness of his humanity.  How he does that is related, I think, to our scripture readings for today, which on this day force us to put together those eternal themes of death and love.
         The lectionary has been guiding us these last weeks through stories about Moses.  This evening we heard how Moses faced his death—within sight of the Promised Land.  In the fullness of his humanity, Moses led his people by thinking first of their needs. 
         This evening we also heard the Psalmist tell us life goes by swiftly—even if you, like Moses, live to be 120.  In the fullness of our humanity, we live fully in each moment knowing our lives are brief. 
         And on this evening we heard Jesus’ key to living well from Matthew’s Gospel, which just might be the key to dying well, too.  In the fullness of our humanity, we love.  Jefferson was not fully human until he, who had NOT been treated compassionately, could find compassion for others.  Literary critics have called Jefferson a Christ-figure in that literary sense.  What it means to be truly Christ-like is spelled out in Matthew 22:  to love God, and to love neighbor as self. 

         When a lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest, this man who wallpapered his world with laws might have been asking:  “How should we live—and how should we prepare to die?”  Jesus creatively put into play two laws from his tradition and placed them in dynamic tension.  “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  AND love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Everything depends upon this.”
         Remember that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus defined neighbor as the Samaritans, the despised foreigners of his day.  To love another as if that neighbor IS myself is perhaps the way toward fullest intimacy with God.  When we really see neighbor as self—when we fully appreciate that my neighbor’s fate is not simply bound up with mine and we all sink or swim together but recognize we ARE an interconnected creation—then we are on the path to living in union with God. 
         We also can see in this love commandment how the inner journey and the outer journey are mutually reinforcing.  “How you love God is how you love your neighbor, and how you love your neighbor is how you love God”[i]  The command to love neighbor as self should challenge all Christians to recognize the political or social implications of their faith.  Likewise, the foundational mandate to love God should remind “social justice” Christians that actions for justice must be rooted in love of God and in a mature, authentic spirituality.  Love takes us deeper into our journey with God even as it takes out farther in our relationship with neighbor.  Learning to love like this takes a lifetime. 
         But a key to this lesson is the Christian paradox that we must lose our life to find it.  Each new day is a lesson in dying.  Each new day we once again relinquish our claims on being the center of the universe and instead center ourselves in Love.  Loving is about letting go and becoming vulnerable.  Love is a lot like dying to an older self.
         “I don’t know how to die,” Jane said, as she was dying.
         Some pastors would have responded to Jane differently than I.  They’d have been at her bedside testing her orthodoxy, shoring up her beliefs, eliciting her confession, and perhaps determining if she were “saved."
         That is not the way Jane and I prepared for her death.  She talked, when she was able, about a ruptured relationship with a sibling.  She worried that God would abandon her because she had abandoned the church years before.  A good and caring and, of course, a flawed person, she doubted whether she deserved whatever goodness might follow this life.  She rehearsed her regrets while I prayed she would be able to release them.
         To die—that is to die well—this former teacher needed time to learn a lesson about love—the love of God and the love God gives us for others and for ourselves.  I don’t know if she had enough time and I was not with her in the moment of her death.  Jane’s story is not the stuff of novels and though I’ve changed her name, I won’t reveal more of her sacred journey.  I do believe that, ready or not, God’s love was merciful and that Jane is now enfolded in a love that she fathoms better than I do.      
         As for Jefferson, the fictional character in “A Lesson Before Dying,” he learned to die.  That is, he learned to live.  Because his aunt, the children in his former one-room school house, his teacher, his minister, his community needed him to be fully human, he walked to his death bearing their love and hopes.  He gradually allowed himself to care about them.  And that allowed him to live.  The state of Louisiana was forced to murder a man rather than kill a hog. 
         You and I prepare to die each day—by truly living—with passion and eternal purpose, by giving up all the small stuff that tries to claim us, by letting go of our false images so that a truer self may live, by being aware of WHO we are and WHOSE we are: God’s eternally beloved ones, by dying to the need to be right or in control, by becoming fearlessly vulnerable.
         “I don’t know how to die,” she whispered. 
         “Who does—and lives to tell about it?” I thought.
         But surely we die as we live—by love.  Marcus Borg has called these two commandments Jesus fused together the "great relationships" and remarks on the "remarkably simple vision of the Christian life” which is “not complicated, though it is challenging."  Maybe it really all comes down to this:  love of God and love of neighbor and the right kind of love for self that happens only when we accept God’s love for us.  This biblical love is not a warm and fuzzy emotion but a commitment to something beyond self.
         I doubt that any of us has fully learned to love in the Jesus way.  I don’t want to leave that lesson for my final days because it’s a lesson that takes a lifetime.  It’s the #1 lesson in life rather than the final lesson.  And the church, a community of faith like ours, is the ideal classroom where we help one another in these lessons before dying.  Thanks be to God!

[i] Richard Rohr. “    "We Have Not Yet Begun to Love: Religion and Immigration" by © Richard Rohr, OFM, Radical Grace, Fall 2011, Vol. 24, No. 4

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Hidden God

Exodus 33: 12-23
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” 17The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

This feminine image of the Spirit is taken from artist Doris Klein's website:  Ruah, the title of the painting, is a feminine Hebrew word meaning breath, wind, inspiration or spirit. This image portrays God as an older, wise woman who breathes spirit and life into a figure gently supported in her hands.

What kind of God do you need?

The reading from Exodus tells us what kind of God Moses thought HE needed.

Although in some respects the Moses story is a narrative about Moses and the people he is leading, at its essence, the Moses story is about Moses and the God who leads him, even as that God remains somewhat hidden from him.  You’ll recall that, according to the biblical story, the Moses-and-God relationship began when God spoke to Moses in a burning bush and Moses responded by asking for God’s name.  God replied evasively:  “I Am Who I AM.”  As the Moses story nears its conclusion and Moses nears the end of his life, Moses asks, according to today’s reading, to SEE the one whom he has never been able to name.  Again, God slips from Moses’s grasp.  “I’ll be present to you,” God assures him (verse 13).  “And my goodness will pass before you” (verse 19).  “But,” he says, “you will never see my face.”  Moses wants to name God and to see God.  Instead, God promises to be present with Moses and to give him evidence of God’s goodness.  But Moses’ God will never be definitively namable or fully visible.  Moses’ God is bigger than a single name or image.  In fact, in the Ten Commandments God had given Moses, near the top of the list, are restrictions on the use of God’s name and the creation of God’s image. 

Like Moses, we often want to summon and relate to God on our terms.  We often think the part of God we have been shown is the totality of God.  But over and over again, God says, “You cannot reduce me to your words and images.  What you DO experience of me is only a small part of the Divine Mystery.”  Yet we keep forgetting that God—the “I Am Who I Am”—is always more than what we imagine God to be.  We freeze God into familiar poses and lock God into little boxes of our creation.  And whenever we convince ourselves that ONE name for God captures God’s totality, we construct a false idol rather than experience the presence and goodness of God that can never be contained.  We worship the Father-God, believing that one image IS God.  When we rely on one or a few names for God, we commit idolatry and prevent ourselves from a fuller experience of the Sacred.  In God’s basic ground rules, conferred from Mt. Sinai, God is saying, “To fully experience my presence and goodness, you can’t reduce me to your culture’s idea of who I am.”

And yet we verbal, visual creatures need words and images to process our experiences.  Perhaps what we can try to do is simply remember that our God Talk and God Pictures are incomplete.  So we keep reaching for more expansive and inclusive ways of expressing who God is—and who God’s people are.

God’s people, I believe, come from all ages, races, cultures, physical abilities, socio-economic levels, sexual orientations . . . and genders.  The United Church of Christ ( considers it a matter of justice to speak about people in inclusive ways, and since gender inclusion has presented a particular challenge for reforming Christian discourse, let me specifically lobby for gender-inclusive language.  Until 30-40 years ago, masculine pronouns were the default pronouns in the English language.  That practice is no longer considered grammatical--or just.  The word “men” at one time was used to represent men and women; the word “mankind” was used to mean “all people."  But those terms sometimes did just refer to men, leaving it up to women to try to figure out through the context if they were really included in a statement.  Using gender-inclusive language is a way to make God’s welcome explicit.  Besides, gender-inclusive language is often more true to the original Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible.  For instance, in the original Greek the angel greeted the shepherds with the Christmas message of “peace on earth, good will to all people”—rather than “good will to men”—as the KJV later translated those originally inclusive words.  We’re sometimes more biblical in using words that explicitly include both genders.

The fact that grammar handbooks for the last 30 years have prescribed gender-inclusive language shows how mainstream is this expectation—in the academy, in commerce, in law.  To say “people" rather than “mankind“ is not a matter of political correctness; it is a matter of simple justice.  Because words matter.  Language not only reflects our world—it shapes our world.  If the children of Open Table grow up believing that male is the norm—they will understand their place in the world differently than if they hear in the words and images around them an equality between men and women—not a sameness, but an equality.  We can use language that does not privilege one gender over another.  We can create a culture that supports women and men equally in their spiritual growth and access to church leadership.  We don’t have to anxiously police one another’s speech any more than we need to police other ways we try to act with justice in an imperfect world.  But we can become more aware of ways our word choices affect our relationships and roles.

As society became increasingly aware of the way harmful attitudes about race or physical difference or sexuality or other differences are forged and perpetuated through language, theologians have been showing us that our language about God has also been in need of expansion. 

Did you recognize the chorus from an old hymn we sang after the Hebrew Bible reading?  How did you feel about altering the words “He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock” to "SHE hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock”?  Did you find it irreverent to change the pronouns from male to female?  If so, why?  Is God a particular gender for you?  Does God have male anatomy—or any anatomy?  (time for silence)

Radical feminist Mary Daly came to believe that Christianity was irredeemably patriarchal.  She did not see how women could remain Christian and so she exited the Christian camp with this shocking explanation: “If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.”

But other feminist theologians acknowledge that while women have often been excluded and limited by the Church, Christian theology is inherently inclusive and loving—even if it hasn’t always been practiced so inclusively and lovingly.  Like these feminist Christians, I find myself hopeful that the Church is reforming.  And one way to do so is through an awareness of our worship words and images for God and humanity.

In 1995 the United Church of Christ published the most thoroughly inclusive hymnal to date.  It has been lauded for the addition of many new and beautiful lyrics to expand our images for God—such as the hymn “Bring Many Names” we sang at the start of our service.  The New Century Hymnal also altered many traditional hymns to eliminate “any suggestion that God is king, father, or lord”—images of God that are not only exclusively male but also, for some, troubling with their connotations of domination over others.[i]   The responses to this hymnal have varied.  As important as inclusive language is to me, I agree with some critics that some of the revisions are “clunky”.  But the songs we sing and the words we say are important—maybe more important than the cozy feeling we have when we sing a familiar hymn.  Maybe we are learning new songs now so that the ones who follow us will have familiar and inspiring words that include all people and that let God out of the box we’ve kept “him” in.

I may be the poorest of preachers, but one thing the children of Open Table will know is that God’s earthly representatives can come in female form.  Our little girls and boys will understand God and themselves differently because they have seen women and men serving God equally.  Christians have hidden the fullness of god behind masculine nouns and pronouns for God, but scholars are now rediscovering “rich feminine imagery for God and God’s people in scripture”[ii].  There are rich resources we have yet to mine.

Wittgenstein said that “the limits of our language are the limits of our world”[iii] .  Perhaps it is also true that the limits of our language are the limits of our God. 

If you have never imaged God as mother, I would encourage you to try that for just a moment.  And if that feels uncomfortable, then all the more reason to sit with that image for awhile.  Picture in your mind’s eye not your mother, but Mother God-- who blesses, who cares, who feeds, who nurtures and guides, who holds you and heals you.  (time for silence)

Moses thought he needed a God he could name and hold and see and control. 

I don’t want a God I can put in my pocket.  I don’t need a God I can call like a dog on command.

I need a God who holds me.  I need a God who summons me. 

God told Moses that he would never see God’s face.  I suppose you and I will never know if that divine face is feminine or masculine.  But I doubt that God is a physical being.  What we can see is OF God, not God.  What we see is what God leaves in God’s wake: goodness and glory.  We see God’s back, according to this story, as God slips on ahead of us, trailing behind goodness.  That’s how we experience God, says the Moses story.  If you try to pour concrete around God, you’ll realize you’ve built a garden variety idol.  For God is on the move: a force for good, an energy of life and love.  We feel God’s presence.  And wherever goodness is found, we catch the faintest glimpse of God.  For me that glimpse is sometimes aglow in shades of palest pink.

Benediction:  May the blessing of God go before you.  May her grace and peace abound.  May her spirit live within you.  May her love wrap you round.  May her blessing remain with you always.  May you walk on holy ground.  (Miriam Therese Winter)

[i] Sokolove, Deborah.  “More Than Words” in New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views.  Eds. Mary Hunt and Diann L. New.  Woodstock: Skylights Path, 2010, pp. 186-187.
[iii] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Qtd. by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza.  “Critical Feminist Biblical Studies” in New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views.  Eds. Mary Hunt and Diann L. New.  Woodstock: Skylights Path, 2010, p. 89.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Telling Stories with Joy

Lectionary readings in Isaiah, Philippians, and Matthew are printed after the sermon. The sermon followed a weekend retreat for Open Table UCC. The retreat was led by Karen Lee Turner and Nevin Trammel, who teach storytelling as a spiritual practice (

            The Bible often seems a somber book, maybe because we tend to read the words with respectful but grim seriousness or detachment.  But I hope that today you caught the bright note of joy singing its way through each of today’s lectionary passages.  I hope you noticed that Isaiah the prophet imagines God inviting us to a sumptuous banquet where every tear will be wiped away.  I hope you overheard Paul tell the church at Philippi to “rejoice always”—in what many consider to be Paul’s most joyful letter.  I hope you observed that the Gospel reading for today retells one of Jesus’s many parables about a wedding feast—his culture’s most extravagantly celebrated occasion —and in this particular wedding feast story even the lowliest are included in the joy.
            G. K Chesterton was right to highlight the role of mirth in religion.  He said, “Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be.  You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion) you must have mirth or you will have madness.”
            We’ve not trained our ears to hear it, but scholars tell us there’s not only joy and celebration in the Bible—but there’s also humor we miss because of cultural differences.  After all, what is considered funny in one culture might get you arrested in another.  But we found it easy to laugh at the story of Tamar in Genesis—when the pompous Judah is made to look the fool as his henchman wanders the town seeking to pay his master’s prostitute with a bleating, randy goat. That, my friends, is a Saturday Night Live skit. 
            The word “comedy” means something different in literature than it does in television.  Biblical comedy is not necessarily of the LOL—Laugh Out Loud—variety.  Comedy in the Bible is often used to ridicule the arrogant, to let the fools and underdogs triumph.  But biblical comedy is rooted in a “comic vision” that is transformative (J. William Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision, pp. 4-5).  So comedy in the Bible is often a tool for coping with the harshness of life.  But biblical comedy also opens up an entire vision of life—and that vision is hopeful.  The simplest way to differentiate comedy from tragedy—in the classical sense (think about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies)—is that a tragedy usually ends with a funeral and comedy ends with a wedding feast.  Each and every Sunday, we are invited to God’s feast for us—where we remember Jesus’ death even as we celebrate his love and his living presence among us.  Comedy is not a silly escape from life’s harsh realities; Biblical comedy shows us an alternate reality of hope and joy. 
            I was thrilled when Karen Turner accepted our invitation to lead our first retreat—not only because she’s a dear friend and a wonderful retreat leader, but because she uses storytelling in her ministry.  I understand my own life as a story.  I think of the Christian faith in terms of a story.
            Elie Wiesel says that “God made [humanity] because [God] loves stories.”  I would clarify that humans are not characters God manipulates, but co-creators in life’s ongoing story.  If I think about Divine activity as storytelling, and humans participating in Life’s creativity as co-authors, then our goal is to continue constructing and living into a story unfolding with hope.  Hope, after all, is the storyteller’s gracious capacity to imagine what is not yet.  Our other human purpose is to connect, and that is also the storyteller’s goal: to create a bridge from one being to another, to construct a mental framework that connects life’s pieces meaningfully, to imagine someone else’s situation and empathize, to understand one’s self in community, to relate . . . to love.  To live a life of faith is to participate as a story teller in this unfolding love story.
            Jesus preached through stories.  But Jesus also revealed God’s saving love in his life story and his Passion Story.  The Jesus Story is the master story for Christians.  Through Jesus we understand that God enters human history to suffer with the suffering, love the unlovable, and bring hope to the hopeless.  Renouncing a system of violence and domination, Jesus showed us a creatively different way to write the Story. 
            I believe Jesus gave us a storied way of knowing God—not the only way, but the best way for me and countless others.  Jesus’ crucifixion was never God’s plan, but was a consequence of self-giving love, a tragic event transformed by hope.  You see, it was God’s gracious gift of hope that allowed Jesus’ followers to see their resurrected Lord, through the eyes of faith, and to begin narrating the horror of his death into a saving story of life, a story we believe today through faith.  The cross, a consequence of Jesus’s choice to embody selfless love, generated the story.  The God-with-us story “saves” as hearers choose to engage and enter the grace-filled construct Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection offer.  Had the crucifixion been a human tragedy, the story might have lingered on while Jesus’ followers continued to follow his precepts.  But the Jesus Story lives on because we do not simply follow Jesus’ teachings but in fact enter into his very way of being.  His disciples act within his story instead of simply retelling or understanding a story.  We walk alongside Jesus, we participate in his story, we enlarge upon and modernize the story, and we partner with Christ to work toward the empowering and peaceful kingdom of God.  When we partner with the Jesus of the story, we receive the saving grace of the storyteller: to imagine what is not yet, to create a vision of God’s hope and love, to re-author our own lives in healthier ways, to live purposefully into that ever-developing God-authored/Jesus-enacted/Spirit-inspired story.  We are telling with our very lives a story of hope.  This story is a comedy, in the older meaning.  And I suppose that makes us all a bunch of comedians.  If you were at the retreat this weekend, you know that is true.
            What this joy looks like in worship is not what comedy looks like on television.  There’s a big difference between joy—and entertainment. Entertainment depends upon certain conditions and circumstances.   Joy is above circumstances.  You may recall that Paul wrote to the Philippians while he was in prison—yet his letter brims with joy.  Entertainment is escapism.  Joy is transcendence.  Entertaining worship manipulates our emotions.  Joyful worship gives expression to the full range of the human experience. 
            But joy needs to be expressed—as it was at our retreat.  In her memoir, Annie Dillard urges readers to express their joy.  Dillard recalls being an exuberant 10-year-old in love with the world.  One day, as she was walking down Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh, her body craved a way to express her joy so she decided to try to fly.  Now she was old enough to know people can’t fly—but “just once [she] wanted a task that required all the joy [she] had.   She’d noticed that if she waited long enough, her “strong unexpressed joy would dwindle and dissipate inside her, like a fire subsiding.”  Just once she wanted to let it all out.
She tells the story this way:
            “So I ran the sidewalk full tilt.  I waved my arms ever higher and faster; blood balled in my fingertips.  I knew I was foolish.  I knew I was too old really to believe in this as a child would, out of ignorance; instead I was experimenting as a scientist would, testing both the thing itself and the limits of my own courage in trying it miserably self-conscious in full view of the whole world.  You can’t test courage cautiously, so I ran hard and waved my arms hard, happy.
            Up ahead I saw a business-suited pedestrian.  He was coming stiffly toward me down the walk.  Who could ever forget this first test, this stranger, this thin young man, appalled?  I banished the temptation to straighten up and walk right.  He flattened himself against a brick wall as I passed flailing—although I had left him plenty of room.  He had refused to meet my exultant eye.  He looked away, evidently embarrassed.  How surprisingly easy it was to ignore him!  What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish, in his eyes and in my own.  Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being.  How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?
            I was flying.  My shoulders loosened, my stride opened, my heart banged the base of my throat. . . . .
            A linen-suited woman in her 50s did meet my exultant eye.  She looked exultant herself, seeing me from far up the block. . . .  Her warm, intelligent glance said she knew what I was doing—not because she herself had been a child but because she herself took a few loose aerial turns around her apartment every night for the hell of it, and by day played along with the rest of the world and took the street car.  So Teresa of Avila checked her unseemly joy and hung on to the altar rail to hold herself down.  The woman’s smiling deep glance seemed to read my own awareness from my face, so we passed on the sidewalk—a beautiful upright woman walking in her tan linen suit and a kid running and flapper her arms—we passed on the sidewalk with a look of accomplices who share a humor just beyond irony.”        
            Dillard then explains that the joy multiplied as she ran, even as she slowed bumping to a halt.  And regarding those other dignified witnesses to her wildness on Penn Ave., she concludes:  “I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity, ever" (Dillard, 107-109).
            We are storytelling creatures.  We can tell stories to others—but simply by living we are composing the stories we tell to ourselves that shape our lives.  These stories can be joyful. Although our past stories have already been written, our "preferred stories"--to use Karen Turner's term--are being composed.  We can choose to retell ourselves the story others have written and are writing about us—or we can re-author the stories of our lives in collaboration with the freeing Spirit of Love.  Often unconsciously, we live out a scripted life.  We have accepted an unhealthy or limited story about ourselves and we keep living according to that story’s implicit parameters.  Some tell themselves the story of their lives as “the rebellious son” or “the dutiful daughter” or “the class clown” or “the hard worker” or “the one who bottles up his feelings.”  We get locked into those narratives.  It is true we cannot control circumstances that might suggest or reconfirm for us our role as “silent sufferer” or “angry avenger.”   But we CAN rewrite our part in those circumstances—by God’s gracious gift of imagination.  There is a different and more complex and gracious story we hear first in our own hearts about our belovedness—and then we tell that story with our lives—not with words, but with moment by moment choices and intentions.  There are always plot twists. And characters are always imperfect and inconsistent.  But over time we can collaborate with the Spirit in a new and freeing story of our lives.  Maybe you are ready to compose a life that is freer and truer, a story more consistent with the Jesus Story.  Rewrite that script you were handed.  Jesus told us, with his words and ways, that a new story is possible.  Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Storytelling God, free us to compose a joyful life worthy of you.  God who experienced the indignity of the cross, save us from our false dignity so we may let loose our joy.  May we continue hearing and creating stories of joy and hope, interweaving our own stories with the great story of your love.  Amen

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. , . . Let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.   Isaiah 25: 9-10

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.   Philippians 4: 1-9

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  . . .   8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.   Matthew 22: 1-3, 8-10