Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reverence - A Sermon

For just a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and listen.  Imagine you’re with the disciples.  Maybe they’re sitting around a fire one night.  You’re all sitting in a circle.  The fire crackles, and someone throws a stick on it.  Jesus sits with you, and -- even in a circle -- he is the focus of everyone’s attention.

He asks, “Who do people say I am?”  (Eyes still closed?)

One says, “Elijah.”  Another says, “One of the prophets.”  

Jesus waits a moment, takes a deep breath and asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

There’s a long silence.  They all look at each other wondering what to say.  You look around, too and notice that the only person not looking around is Peter.  He’s staring at Jesus.  Hard.  You turn and look at him, too.  Look hard.  Look beyond the long hair and the beard.  Peer into his eyes.  What do you see?  Whom do you see?

You can feel their tension, but Peter and you remain focussed on Jesus.  You focus on his eyes.  The silence stretches on, but only one question nags you: Who is this, after all?  Finally, you decide and open your mouth to speak when Peter clears his throat and says, “You are the Christ, the son of God.”  

Keep your eyes closed.  Leave Jesus and the disciples and draw up another image.  Draw up the face you see when I say the word, “God.”  Sit there and look into the eyes of God.  Take your time.  What do you see?  Is it a kind face?  Angry?  Sad?  Joyful beyond words?  Or is all you see just those eyes?  Does God look happy to see you?  

You want to speak but can’t find any words.  You find it’s not necessary to speak, either.  You just feel.  How do you feel in the presence of God?  

Now, slowly, bow to God and bid farewell.  Slowly open your eyes.

What we’ve just done is an abreviated form of something called guided meditation.  Really, all it is is slowing down, shutting out the world around you, and focusing in on God.  It can be as simple as closing your eyes and being quiet for a few moments.

I wanted to give you that moment because the story of Jesus asking the disciples who he is requires it.  They sat in silence and wondered, “Who is this man?”  It was in silence that Peter finally understood and in silence that he was able to find the courage to speak.

We have a word for letting the world go so that we might sit in the presence of God.  Reverence.

It’s in reverence -- that quiet time with God -- that we can see God’s face, that we can hear God’s voice.  It is only in that intentional quiet space of reverence where we can recognize God and, like Peter, find the courage to speak and act.

Yesterday, we had a wedding here, and while everone was filled with happy and anxious electricity, I asked them to put down their cameras for a bit and remember that they were sitting in sacred space, involved in sacred time because everything we do is first and foremost worship of God.  It was a curveball for a lot of the attendees, and the mood shifted rather dramatically.  It went from being just a wedding to a sacrament.

We live in a fast-paced society.  Too fast.  We run around so frantically that we too often have no opportunity to sit in silence and look into the face of God.

Which is why this sacred space is so important.  It transports us away from all that.  It looks different and feels different.  That’s why we have this sacred time together.  It’s different from regular time.  Here is a place and time where you are free to sit and yes, close your eyes, in order to see the face of God.  Sit and luxuriate in his presence.

But to enjoy that, we need the space and time to remain sacred.  One of the more common complaints I get from people about worship here is that it’s just so busy.  Not noisy but busy.  We’re talking about budgets or boilers even as we’re sitting in the pew.  Sometimes before we ever get out of the parking lot.  At the passing of the peace, we’re chatting happily (saying things like, “Oh, how ARE you? I haven’t see you in ages!” which usually means someone hasn’t been to church for awhile).

These are all important things -- doing the business that keeps these buildings standing and checking in on each other to see how we’re doing.  All good.  But in their proper time and place.  Coffee hour, for example.

Here, before worship begins, give yourself the gift of sacred time and sacred space.  Close your eyes, sit in silence, slip into that place where you can sit with God.  Perhaps you will see Jesus, and he will turn to you and say, “You never got a chance to tell me before.  Who do you say that I am?”  Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Confessions of a Reject - Sermon

A few years ago on sabbatical, I wrote a book.  A novel to be precise.  When I returned, it was with an agent contract and visions of instant publication and J.K. Rowling-like fame.  Well, the agent disappeared, and what I have from other agents are slips of paper with words like, “Thank you for your query. I regret that I shall not be pursuing this further and wish you all the best in seeking representation for your work.” 

Some start with “Dear Author,” while others actually use my name.  But in the end, they all mean the same thing: I am a reject.  Usually, each time I get one of those I burst into tears and shout, “I knew it!  I can’t write!  It’s all garbage!  I’m no good!” (Incidentally, I had a similar reaction the first time I asked a girl out, and she turned me down).

That’s certainly how it feels, doesn’t it?  You try something, and someone says, “No.”   That’s it -- you have “Reject” stamped on your forehead.   Admittedly, in writing, there are ways around that.  Keep trying, revise the work, take a writing class.  It doesn’t say anything about YOU, just the work or the agent. 

But that’s not how it feels.  It feels like rejection of you as a person.  In fact, we humans tend toward fearing rejection and seeing it at every slight.  On the other hand, we tend toward DOING a lot of rejecting.  It seems we live in a “reject or be rejected” world.

What does Jesus say about that?

You would think, that Jesus would be the star witness against rejecting people, wouldn’t you?  He’s teaching the crowd about how it’s not who we are but how we live that counts -- when all of a sudden this woman -- a Canaanite no less -- bursts onto the scene and begs him to help her daughter.

The disciples want to toss her out because she’s making a scene, and Jesus -- politely -- tells her to get lost.  But she persists, and Jesus comes back at her with one of the cruelest sentences ever to cross his lips:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Is that rejection or what?  

But the woman is not put off by this bating, and you almost wonder if Jesus knew it ahead of time.  Instead of hanging her head and slumping off with “Reject” stamped across her head, she stands up to him and says, “OK, I may be a dog, but even  the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In other words, “It’s not important to me what you think of me.  But you still have what my daughter needs, and I’m not giving up.”

Remember, Jesus had just been teaching the crowd how it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles (Like the foods the Gentiles eat), but what comes out.  And when he hears what comes out of her mouth -- bold faithful wisdom -- he tells everyone that this woman is exactly the model of faith he’s been talking about.

You can see this idea of rejection in Pauls letter to the Romans, too.  Only here, Paul is writing to the Roman church which is already well established.  Even smug.  He has encountered the idea in Rome that God must have rejected the Jews because they have not accepted Jesus -- at least not as an entire people.  As if any entire people ever did.

Paul’s essential argument is something like:  “If God didn’t reject YOU outright when you didn’t believe in Christ, what makes you think he would reject his chosen people?”  And he assures them, “They’ll figure it out in due time.  In the meantime, leave the rejecting -- or refusal to reject -- to God.”

What can we take home from all of this?

Well, it’s very simple.  Over the course of our lives, we run into a lot of situations where we will feel rejected.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in love or work or if it’s our nationality or our race.  You will find plenty of opportunities to feel that giant stamp across your forehead.

It’s just that the one place you will NOT get rejected from is right here -- God’s family.  Neither because you belong to the wrong racial group -- like Canaanite -- nor because your belief system isn’t up to snuff -- like the Jews in the eyes of the Romans.  God’s love for us is so far beyond any of that.  

And OUR love?  Do we reject, too?  What happens when we do?  In Genesis, we see how Joseph’s brothers had rejected him -- only to finally find themselves dependent upon his forgiveness.  Perhaps we may want to be slower to reject? 

After all, J.K. Rowling received 35 of those rejection letters before somebody agreed to take a chance on a little book called Harry Potter. 

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Novel - Hiding Isaac

I'm reading a book by colleague Bruce Chilton called, Abraham's Curse about violence and sacrifice.  

I've been fascinated with  Abraham's Binding of Isaac for a long time.  That was the focus of my own sabbatical four years ago.  More on that later.  What I wanted to say about Fr. Chilton's book -- and most treatments of that bizarre incident known as the Akedah (or Aqedah) -- is that most of the time we tend to look at it on a spiritual or even symbolic level.  

You know:  It's the defeat of child sacrifice.  It's a foreshadowing of Jesus.  It shows how we must give up everything to trust God -- and our trust will be rewarded.  It justifies violence if commanded by God.

I'm a bit too concrete for that.  I have read and re-read that whole cycle and can only look at it on a human level.  What REALLY happened?  How did they feel?  Why do we gloss over the little details like Abraham leaving that mountain of sacrifice ALONE?  Or his NOT returning to Sarah in Hebron but going down to Beersheba to live instead.  

In reading this narrative -- one that doesn't even give a record of the conversation between Abraham and Sarah when he took their only son to kill based upon divine orders she did not hear -- I decided it needed a treatment that was not so much spiritual as human.  This is a great human story and needed to be handled as such.  

So, I spent my sabbatical writing a novel, Hiding Isaac.  I was pleased with myself, especially when I got an agent quickly.  But that relationship went sour, and after a couple of rejections from other agents, I stuck Isaac in a drawer and sort of forgot about him, dragging the manuscript out once in awhile to tweak it.  Finally, I gave it a complete overhaul (because it was pretty bad), and now I'm ready to start playing with it again.

Maybe it's still no good -- I don't know.  But it does tell a fantastic story from a unique perspective.  

Now, I'd like your help in making that story better and getting told to more people.  So, I am going to start printing Hiding Isaac right here on "Web and Church" in regular installments.

If you will read those installments, I'd appreciate it.  Even more, I'd love for you to give me CONSTRUCTIVE feedback.  While comments such as "very nice" or "I enjoyed it" are themselves nice and enjoyable, they don't necessarily help me make a better novel.  Please DO make positive notes about parts you feel are particularly strong/funny/poignant, but also please note areas that need strengthening, are boring, or confusing.  

Finally, PLEASE let me know if you will be one of those readers -- or if you like it and are in a professional position to do something about it.  Either way, I'm happy to hear from you.