Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon: "Recalulating"—Acts 9

For First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich 

I hate to brag (well, maybe I don’t.), but I was sort of a big deal in college.

I attended a very small Bible College in the South suburbs of Chicago, affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.

I loved this Bible College… and it loved me.
·       I was hired on-on-the-spot by the Admissions Department to be a Road Recruiter my freshman year.
·       I was elected Freshman Class Chaplain.
·       The same school year, I became a licensed minister, which means that at age 19, I was able to perform legal weddings in the Church of the Nazarene.
·       And, by my senior year, I was asked by the Dean of Students to join the university’s Judicial Council. Of course, I accepted.

I was a rising star in this small, religious world. But, unbeknownst to me, I was on my own road to Damascus.


Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Do not dance.”

But my tiny Bible College frowned upon dancing… as something that might lead to licentious behavior.

Dancing wasn’t the only societal ill my Bible College fought against.
·       There was also going to the movie theater, even for G-rated movies.
·       Visiting dorms that housed the opposite sex (or if we absolutely needed to, we had to sit a Bible’s width apart from each other in the common area.)
·       No drinking.
·       No gambling.
·       No playing games that involved decks of cards if they had faces on them…. Including “Old Maid.”
·       No piercings.
·       No tattoos.
·       No open-toe sandals.
·       Men were encouraged to keep their hair off their ears.
·       Women were encouraged to keep their hair and their skirts as long as possible.
·       We received discipline and fines for not attending chapel.
·       And curfew was at 10.

So basically, I went to college in the 1940’s.

All of these rules were enforced by a “lifestyle covenant” that each student signed.

And I, being a member of the university’s Judicial Council, enforced all of these rules.

·       I took part in the suspension of students who came in after curfew.
·       I took part in the suspension of students who “struggled with homosexuality.”
·       I took part in the suspension of students who drank champagne at a wedding.
·       And I took part in the suspension of students whose cars were seen parked at a movie theater.

In my mind, at that time, I was waging war against what I thought was a worldly empire… but as I reflect upon my time on the Judicial Council, I realize that I was part of another empire—equally as cruel and unjust.

As I look back at these experiences, I can’t help but think about Saul—breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. And Jesus asks me, “Why do you persecute me?”

(Defeated) When I graduated from Bible College, I also left that denomination—and searched for years outside of Christianity—until I joined this church last year.



(Matter-of-fact) After my mother died tragically in an automobile accident, my father met a wonderful companion who was also widowed.

For most people, the day was a celebration of this new marriage.

(Suspicious) But I couldn’t help but notice… there was a table of Nazarenes, located next to the bar. “This can go one of two ways,” I thought to myself.

(Background) By the time my dad got remarried, I had already been out of the Church of the Nazarene for about a decade, and I had lived another life apart from my zealotry as a member of the university’s Judicial Council.

But these were familiar faces from my childhood. I greeted them warmly and thanked them for coming to the reception.

I was thinking to myself, “Wow, this is really magnanimous of Nazarenes… to be at a reception where there is an open bar… and people are going to dance!”

I thought to myself, “If I were still on that Judicial Council, I wouldn’t be here… Well, maybe I would, and then leave when the dancing began—to show my disapproval of the dancing.”

But here they were. They came. I wondered if Nazarenes had perhaps evolved.

// // //

(Disappointed) So it shouldn’t have surprised me.
I shouldn’t have let it hurt me.

But when the music started playing, and people started dancing—even before the meal—the Nazarenes got up together and left. They left my father’s wedding reception… just because it involved dancing.

It was difficult for me to experience this boycott at a family member’s wedding reception… Because I saw myself in them.
- To my shame, I might have done the same thing 10 years earlier.
- To my shame, I saw with my own eyes… religious zealots inflicting upon my family the same spiritual trauma I must have inflicted upon others.
- And scales fell from my eyes.



At the early stage of my life, I was like Saul,
o  the righteous,
o  the defender of empire,
o  the slayer of Christians—before his conversion:

OK, maybe I’m not a murderer.
o  But I’m not perfect.

I have been the perpetrator of spiritual violence against other humans. And not just spiritual violence, but I have been selfish, self-righteous, malicious, rude, stubborn, hateful, unforgiving, and just plain wrong.

I wonder… if anyone here today can resonate.
·       Has anyone here ever been self-righteous, malicious, rude, stubborn, unforgiving…?

I wonder if we are able to look at this story about Saul—and not sit in judgment of him… but instead, consider how we have been just like Saul.
·       How easy it is to bad-mouth the other political party…
·       How we take for granted our own privilege…
·       How we have turned our backs on people in need…
·       How we have aligned ourselves—not with the love of God—but with the empire.

//

But, hear the good news:

God didn’t give up on Saul—the murderer.

God saw that Saul was going in the wrong direction, and God sent him in a new direction.

Might God not also do the same thing for me and you?



(Casual) Speaking of going the wrong direction… When I first moved to Connecticut, I wanted to see all the historic sites.
·       So I get the address, punch it into MapQuest, print out the map, and I’m on my way.

I’m driving down the streets of New Haven, and every three blocks or so, I would see a street sign, indicating where I was. And usually, by the time the next street sign was in view, I would realize that I had already passed the street I was looking for… two blocks ago.

Then I move to the Greenwich area where the residents pride themselves on concealing their street number. I even saw a segment on News 12 about a prospective city ordinance requiring that all homes display street numbers at least 4” tall.
o  Apparently, Ambulances and Police were unable to find their destinations, and people were dying because of it… but nope, the people of Greenwich don’t want house numbers on their homes… Which makes getting around difficult for Midwesterners like me.
o  So I finally cashed-in my credit card rewards and got one of those GPS devices, and I was able to get where I need to go, and in a timely manner!
o  I just punch in the destination, and it takes me there.

(calm) And it is so forgiving, too.
·       A few times, I have been unable to get into a turning lane, so I have to keep going straight. So I miss my turn.
·       The woman’s voice—I call her “Claire”—says in a very sweet sound… “Recalculating.”

(anxious) Of course, I’m flailing myself in agony because I missed a turn.
·       I’ve probably just added another three minutes to my travel time.
·       I am about to go bonkers, I’m so mad at myself.
·       (calm) But my GPS speaks understandingly to me, and with a single word, erases my anxiety: “Recalculating.”

(still calm) And my GPS takes me back around the block.
·       It never gets angry with me.
·       It never adds to my misery.
·       That voice is like salve to my bruised ego: “Recalculating.”


(Matter-of-fact) Friends, it doesn’t matter if we are headed in the wrong direction…
o  Nothing looks familiar anymore.
o  Nothing feels right.
o  We are filled with dis-ease.
o  We are unhappy.
o  We may even be so wounded that we begin wounding other people.

Because there is a God who pursues us.

God seeks after us.

And we are left on our own road to Damascus—about to do or say something we regret.
·       And we lose our senses.
·       We are paralyzed and recognize our own hunger.
·       Our lives are turned upside-down.

(Miraculous) And then grace appears.
·       Someone, like Ananias, decides he will put himself in harm’s way—for us.
·       Someone believes in us to give us another chance.
·       Some twist of fate opens doors that weren’t open before.
·       And the hate and fear and selfishness fall like scales from our eyes.

It’s as if God is whispering to us: “Recalculating.”


Some of us can relate to Saul in this story; I know I can.
But some of us might relate more to Ananias—who went out of his way to help a murderer. And to those people, I would say this:

//

I was reading an article in The Humanist. It talked about how religious progressives really blew it recently on social media.
·           There was a news article about a gentleman who had called 911 because he was engaged in a dangerous, private activity.
·           The gentleman calls 911 because his life is in danger.
o     I think everyone should have a right to call 911.
·           But the comments under the article indicated that some people should not have that right.

·           Interesting. This use of language suggests to me that the behavior was somehow less of a problem than the gentleman in question—who must be a part of a group that is targeted, somehow.
·           So, to whom was the article referring when it cited “these people”? It was a Roman Catholic priest.

So, with the whole vow of celibacy thing, I get it: perhaps he was not living into his highest values.
·           But the comments on this news article were scathing:

The point of the article was not that this priest is a great person.

No, he is probably on his own road to Damascus.

The point is that we can and should get angry when we discover hypocrisy… but anger is different from hatred.
o     These comments were hate-filled.
o     They failed to recognize how much in need we all are.
o     They turned this gentleman into an object—not a complex human being just like each of us.

This priest probably shouldn’t have been the target of the media. And this article probably shouldn’t have gone viral. But it did, and it did. And here, in religious community, we need to talk about what this means for us.

Just as I am a spiritual refugee of the Church of the Nazarene, perhaps some of you here are refugees from the Roman Catholic Church, or another denomination.

We have trod our own roads to Damascus, and each of us (I’m hoping) was greeted warmly by a smiling Ananias.
o     We are here in this Christian community because we were welcomed and shepherded and nurtured and, by the grace of God, made whole.

(Emphatic) This gentleman (who happens to be a priest) needed an Ananias.
·           He needed someone to feed him and clothe him and love him.
·           But he did not find an Ananias from Christians—from anyone—in the comments section of the news page.

Love is our responsibility.
It defines who Christians are to be.
Who else is commanded to love whomever they see?


I want to close by telling you a story about one of my hospice patients. Her name is Patty.

The first time I visited Patty, she shewed me from her room.

“What?”
“I said I’m a chaplain.”
“I don’t have time for this. Well… are you coming back?”
“Only if you’d like.”

My first several visits to Patty were just like that. She was a very hardened woman who had to have a fascinating story—most people do.
·       I communicated to her by white board, since she couldn’t hear.
·       But she could talk, all right.
·       And she kept shewing me from her room but asking me to come back.
·       She was ambivalent about me, for some reason.

Then one day, after I slowly earned her trust, she began sharing with me that she is distrustful of religious professionals because she had bad experiences with religion.
·       She told me that she had children out of wedlock, and since that time has been unable to partake in Communion in her denomination.

“How long has it been?” (I’m looking at her; she’s in her 80’s.)
“It’s been decades,” she said.
“Would you like me to bring you communion?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t take it.”
“In my church you could.”

So I talk with her nurse, and they approve the sacrament can be taken orally. And the next time I saw her, I brought with me bread and wine.

And I blessed the body and the blood.
And we took the elements together.

This hardened woman in her 80’s… began to soften.
·       Her voice changed from a harsh, raspy whine… to a lighter, freer hum.
·       Her tense body began to relax.
·       Her eyes filled with gratitude.
·       And her countenance became radiant.

“Recalculating.”

(Abrubt) Then she shewed me out of the room…
(Serious) … and said “thank you, Father.”

That was the last time I saw Patty awake.

//

Sometimes, God’s love is incomprehensible.
·       It is foolish.
·       It is counter-intuitive.
·       It is like casting our nets on the other side of the boat.

And God pursues us.

(Intense) God—who worketh through us—
·       Gives us grace.
·       And gives us peace.
·       And gives us mercy…
…to do God’s work “in earth as it is in heaven.”

All of us have been Saul at one point or another.

And all of us can be an Ananias.
·       We’re not all called to welcome murderers into our home, like Ananias…
·       But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic.
·       In fact, doing God’s work is usually very simple.
·       We can certainly break bread together—as equals—with people the church has traditionally rejected.
o  Spiritual refugees like me
§  … and all the people I wounded in my previous life
§  … and my hospice patient…
·       And we can be renewed by God, and allow the scales to fall from our eyes, and be made whole again.


That is the promise of Eastertide. May it be so.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon: "Church at our best"—Luke 15:1-32

For First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich 

What is church when we’re at our best?

There was a time when the church needed to be a “bulwark never failing.” That time… is no longer.

From Goss and West’s book, Take Back the Word:

Jews have long been subject to rejection, torture, and death on the basis of the witness of the New Testament texts; [American Indians], Africans, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders had their lands and cultures ripped away by Christian European colonizers in the name of taking the “Word of God” to the heathens of the world; African Americans were kept in slavery by pious Christians who believed that the Bible’s view that “slaves should obey their masters” justified the abomination of owning another human being; and generations of women have been abused, burned at the stake, subordinated, blocked from education or leadership by men quoting biblical passages as the reason for their religiously legitimated acts of oppression and victimization.

It is inconceivable to me that any morally conscious person who has taken even a few moments to review the history of Christianity’s use of the Bible could fail to feel extreme discomfort in the seemingly easy complicity of the Bible with regimes of violence and death.

Of course, the Bible itself does not kill people; groups of readers of the Bible do that in its name.

And yet, this book remains—must remain—at the center of our Christian faith.

How can we learn about “who we are” and “whose we are” by turning to a scripture that has been so corrupted by our violent forebears?

How can we be faithful to God and to the world… when the world no longer has ears to hear any message that purports to be even remotely “biblical”?

What if we resemble our ancestors more than we care to admit, and we discover that we must confront our own religious violence?

Let us pray.

[Prayer]

In my high school years, I was one of those youth who got involved in everything. It doesn’t seem remarkable now, as we have busy kids and busy parents of kids who are identified by the activities in which their children participate.
·       We have soccer moms
·       Coaching dads
·       PFLAG parent
Well, back when I was a youth, it was unusual for high schoolers to get involved in so many activities.

I did debate, speech, drama, orchestra, choir, show choir, Model United Nations, Student-Faculty Senate, track and field…

My church activities were just as extensive: prayer ministry, missions team, puppet ministry, Bible quiz, choir, praise team… and Promise Keepers.

You remember that, right? Promise Keepers.

Ah, I attended those Promise Keepers rallies many times—including the “Stand in the Gap” event on the National Mall in 1997.
·       You know, the White Christian response to the Black Muslim “Million Man March.”
·       When Promise Keepers were not attending huge worship services, these “men of integrity” would browse the exhibition halls.
o  There were advertisers there like Bibles for the World… the Christian Coalition… Christian colleges and universities… and then organizations that wanted to reach out to people who suffered from unhealthy addictions or “sinful” lifestyles: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous… and then this group called Exodus International.
o  Does everyone know what that is?
o  Exodus is one of those ex-gay ministries. Parents would send their children to Exodus International in order for them to “pray the gay away.”
o  From my view, now, it is the epitome of spiritual violence.
·       Let me back-up even further.


I was one of those tall, gangly third graders who towered above everyone in my class—except Maria Gross. Somehow, Maria beat me by a few inches. I think eating Brussels sprouts really helped me in this part of my life, kids, because I was also the fastest runner.

That year, our family ended up going on a vacation. We took the train from Indiana to New York City to visit my aunt who lived there.

It was the most eye-opening experience. I experienced the Rockettes, the subway, my first taxi ride, going to a black Pentecostal church, seeing two men hold hands, looking into the eyes of the first homeless people I had ever seen…

But something about seeing those men hold hands…

It was sweet. It wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t gratuitous. It wasn’t flamboyant. It wasn’t gross… My heart beat faster, and I had this sense of recognition. It felt like home.

That whole train-ride back to Indiana, I thought about this thing I had no words for. But, as an 8-year-old 3rd grader, I knew that I wanted to hold hands with another boy. A lot.


And so, back to that exhibit hall at Promise Keepers. I remember I had heard about Exodus International before. I had heard my pastor say things like “hell awaited for homosexuals” and “God made Adam for Eve, not Adam for Steve.”

When I heard these things, my heart beat faster, and I had this sense of recognition. It felt like… prison.

That’s what church became for me: prison.

·       Where people would ask me questions like, “So, do you have a girlfriend?” and feeling I had to hide.
·       Where Scripture was read at face-value, without regard to Biblical scholarship.
·       Where Jesus, the one who touched lepers in the Bible, was made into a pious Pharisee by defenders of heterosexuality.

As an 8-year-old 3rd grader, as a high school-age Promise Keeper, I knew where I stood as in conservative Christianity.

It became apparent to me that I would have to compromise all of who I was in order to remain within conservative Christianity—which was the only Christianity I knew.

There were no models of “Reconciling” or “Welcoming” or “Open and Affirming” churches where I came from.

And so I left.

I left Christianity.

I became non-Christian.

And I lost my entire ground of being.



I’ll ask again: what is church when we’re at our best?



Luke 15:1-32

15Now all the tax collectors and “unclean” were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven when “one who was lost” repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who “were never lost.” 
I’m fascinated by the II Corinthians passage in 5:21, which says, “21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Why would Jesus be made “sin”?

This is one of those things that ancient readers would have understood, but it goes over our heads now.

There’s a word in the Hebrew Bible, which I’m sure you’ve heard before: abomination. It means ceremonially unclean.

So, Jesus, by talking to tax collectors, became ceremonially unclean—an abomination.

Jesus, by talking with woman on the street, became ceremonially unclean—an abomination.

Jesus, by touching the leper, became an abomination.

Jesus, by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, became an abomination.

Jesus, by dying on the cross, became an abomination.

There weren’t many lines Jesus didn’t cross in order to reach the unreachable.

And, as II Corinthians says, he was made to be sin itself.

Where is the good news?

The good news is that Jesus invites us to become a part of him:
·       If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
o  Meaning: we can become new because of the model of sacrifice Christ offers us.
o  Meaning: Exodus International doesn’t mean anything
o  And ex-gay ministries don’t mean anything.
o  Christ made himself an abomination, and behold, all things are new!
·       But that’s not the good news:
o  II Corinthians 5:19 says, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them!!!”
·       Why?
o  “And trusting the message of reconciliation to” WHOM?
·       To us!
·       To us!
·       We are the reason Christ became sin, but we are also the ones to carry forth the mission of Christ here in earth.

You know, in the evangelical world, where I come from, there is such a great emphasis on remembering how Jesus suffered.
·       People say such melodramatic things as “his suffering was worse than anyone has ever known or will ever know.”
o  Have you heard that before?
o  It makes Jesus… almost inhuman.
o  When the whole point of the suffering was to show precisely how human he was.
·       I don’t know what you see, but the Jesus I see in the Bible was fierce.
o  He knew exactly what kind of trouble he was getting himself into.
o  He knew that he was breaking the rules of cleanliness.
o  He knew that, by touching lepers, he was becoming an abomination before Jews.
·       That is what Christ’s death means for us.
o  It is not about some poor soul being victimized on the cross.
o  No, it is about a relentless do-gooder who died for what was right—and sticking it to the oppressive political and religious establishment.
·       What does this mean for us?
·       Let me read II Cor 5:19 for us again, and you tell me:
o  in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
·       What does this mean?
o  (audience response)
·       It means the church is responsible for reconciling with American Indians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
·       It means the church is responsible for making things right with women have been abused, burned at the stake, subordinated, blocked from education or leadership by men quoting biblical passages as the reason for their religiously legitimated acts of oppression and victimization.
·       It means the church must be the one to heal the wounds it has inflicted through the “textual harassment” of Bible study materials, Sunday school materials, sermons, liturgy, ex-gay ministries, demon exorcisms, and general discussions that have been obsessed with an 8-year-old longing to hold the hand of another boy.

We are ambassadors for Christ.

God is making the divine appeal through us.

God is entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

// But that’s not the good news, either:

Here’s the good news:

For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin… so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God.

·       If the parable said the shepherd left the flock of sheep to gather the one lost sheep, what does that mean for us?
o  Are we reaching out to the ones the church has rejected?
·       If Jesus became an outcast to reach the outcasts, what does that mean for us?
o  To whom are we reaching out—that society has rejected?
·       This is the righteousness of God:
o  To become sin in order to reach sinners
o  To break religious teachings in order to reach those outside the church
o  To welcome people of faith or of no faith
o  To welcome the outcasts of society
o  To celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and intergender individuals
·       The righteousness of God commands us to break our allegiance with religion and politics, especially when religion and politics asks us to exclude rather than include.
·       The good news is that the lost sheep will be included.
o  The outcast will be restored to community.
o  And the one who was hurt by us…
§  The one who was hurt by people of God… will be reconciled to God through the people of God.

Because that is who we are when we are at our best.

May it be so.