Monday, February 22, 2010

Ode to Chocolate - A Sermon


I think that I shall never see,

A sight so yummy as Hershey

And also I shall never eat

A food that ever tastes so sweet.

And yet, I’ll take what I can get,

As long as it is chocolate.

Hershey, Snickers, even Lindt:

They all are just as heaven-sent

And M&Ms? Both plain and peanut,

I’ll eat them all, I really mean it.

Chocolate, chocolate, it’s so good,

It tastes the way that all food should.

Which is the very painful reason,

I’ll give it up this holy season.

This Lent, though I may plead and beg,

I won’t even eat a Cadbury egg.

Going without this little sweet

Is harder for me than skipping meat

And Lent is meant to help us see

What is and is not necessary.

And in my life, what I need most

Is Father, Son and Holy Ghost

Which is to say that all we need

Is God, the Holy Trinity.

I hope you liked that. Because, as you can tell, I’m giving up chocolate for Lent.

1. Now, giving things up for Lent is not required, not a religious act of obligation – but the act of self-deprivation does have benefits. If nothing else, it lets you face temptation.

2. That reminds us how Jesus faced temptation during that 40 day period in the wilderness. Temptations, really.

3. First it was hunger – 40 days is a long time. You may ask why he fasted in the first place. Fasting – deprivation – has a way of focusing you on where you are right now. Focus on the hunger, and you forget everything else. Then once you get past thinking about the hunger, lots of insights can open up to you.

4. Jesus’ first temptation then is to get past the belly – taking care of one’s own needs.

5. Next, after Jesus is done and really wants to get on with things, not to mention get some food, Satan comes along. This is that moment of clarification for Jesus, when he discovers what he came to the wilderness to learn.

6. What he learns is the purpose of his mission, and the manner in which he will achieve it. You might say, wait a minute, all that happened was that Satan came and tempted him.

7. Exactly. And what did he tempt him with? Food, Power, and Safety. The things we crave most.

8. Satan says, if you are really who you say you are, turn these stones into bread. You are hungry after all. And here, Satan sows that seed of doubt. What if this whole mission thing is just craziness? What if Jesus is delusional? He’d better prove it.

9. And he can prove it by food. Provide food. Not just for himself but for everyone. Why should the world endure hunger anyway? Why should people starve to death. What kind of God would allow that?

10. Jesus rejects this argument by telling us that food is not the thing by which we truly live. Not in the soul, anyway. He knows he is not here to feed the whole world eternally.

11. Next, Satan promises power. Jesus can come in and be the good king of the world everyone has been looking for, the one who will set all things right. Who hasn’t felt – at least from time to time -that they could do a better job of running the world than the clowns who are in charge right now? Just give me the chance, and I’ll make it all work.

12. Satan says, well, here’s your chance; all you have to do is pledge allegiance to me. But Jesus rejects that, too. He says, God alone is the king. He alone is to be worshiped and obeyed. So, he knows, he is not here to have that kind of power.

13. Then Satan offers safety. Throw yourself off the temple tower, and angels will protect you. In fact, if you’re the son of God, making people safe ought to be your priority. What kind of God lets people get killed and maimed the way we do?

14. Jesus rejects this, too. He says, do not put God to the test, but he could just as easily say, “Don’t play God.” We are created from dust – as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday – and we will return to dust. Safety is not all it’s cracked up to be. If we are eternally safe, then we do not live. If we try to avoid death all our lives – to play God – then we miss the roles we are meant to play on earth. God’s mortal but beloved children who leave this earth to return to the Father.

15. No. Food, Power, and Safety were never what Jesus came to provide.

16. Not that they are BAD in and of themselves, mind you. Jesus fed people, he displayed awesome power, and he even raised the dead. But they are inadequate if what you want is real life.

17. The temptation that Satan brought was to have Jesus settle for worldly stuff instead of the one most important thing he came to bring. A loving relationship with God.

18. He was tempted to take the easy route, because to love people is hard. But that was his goal. And it is ours.

19. Giving up things in Lent, facing little temptations, reminds us that they do not define us any more than food, power, and safety defined Jesus. So, I think, much as I love chocolate, I can do without it for a few days. Amen.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

God, Life and Everything - The Sporting Mind

I’m loving the Olympics. Of course, we don’t have TV at home, so the best I can do is watch some of the events in part on the internet. Still, we get to see some of the best moments, and I am particularly enjoying the men’s and women’s hockey teams, which are performing very well indeed.

Less enjoyable viewing has been the rancor that has infected our political system in recent years. Even here in Hyde Park, it feels as if cooperation is neither desired nor possible. Sometimes, it feels like our local politics is a hockey game. You know, “I went to a fight and a board meeting broke out.”

Wonder why that is? It’s complicated, but I suspect you don’t have to look much farther than the sports page. Yes, the sports page. David Brooks recently wrote a column in the New York Times on how good sports is, how it brings people together. At the same time, he noted that there have been four societies that have understood their moral code through the eyes of sports. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, the British Empire, and the United States. Each used sports as a metaphor for their way of life.

Now, I love sports, and David Brooks is right that our fascination with sports tends to draw us together, sometimes in bizarre ways. We watch the local school team, we root for whatever professional team is closest to us. And you know we’re rooting for Team USA in Vancouver.

You might also argue – as many have – that taking part in sports can teach positive values like sportsmanship, hard work and fair play.

But there’s a down side, especially with how Americans approach sports. Life is reduced to a win/lose proposition, a zero-sum game. You can win or you can lose, but there can’t be any in-between. We hate the in-between so much that even hockey and soccer are doing away with tie games. Now they have sudden death overtime and shoot outs. In our world, someone must win, and that means everyone else must lose.

That’s how we view politics here – as a game to be won. We don’t try to reach consensus on complex issues, we try to win the vote. The real reason we don’t have bipartisanship is because we see members of other political parties as opponents, not partners. It would be like the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints saying, “If we work together, we can get this ball across our goal line and then across yours. We can just keep racking up points for both teams because, hey, there’s plenty of them out there for everyone.”

Throwing the bums out or “sending a message” isn’t going to change things, either. That’s just beating the other team until the next game – er – election.

Business is often the same way. Competition is good. Beating the others by winning customers is what it’s all about. Granted, with the Chamber of Commerce, there is far more cooperation, but go to the higher levels of corporate life, and they’re trying to take each other down.

I’ve even seen different religions – different denominations within the same religion, for Pete’s sake! – trying to beat each other. We “win souls for Christ.” We tell people ours is the only way to heaven, and everyone else is out – a loser.

But what can you do? That’s just how things are. If you’ve ever played a sport you know that even when you’re ahead by a mile, there’s this irresistible pressure to get even more ahead. We can only understand life in terms of beating others or getting beaten.

Or can we? Most religious roots actually do not approach life as a competition – and Jesus certainly does not. The entire scandal of Jesus, in fact, was that he refused to set up an “us –vs- them” paradigm. For him, life wasn’t about beating the others, it was about loving even those who hated you. All it took to be at one with God was a heart filled with love for God and each other.

I still want Team USA to win the hockey gold, but if Jesus is any indication, that’s no way to live the rest of our lives.

Plugged in, Changed, and Back - a sermon

We went to go see Avatar last night – very cool, especially the beautiful 3-D. It’d like you’re almost there. Then I thought, hey! Let’s get some special glasses and do church in 3-D! That will bring people in!

It’ll be like you can almost touch people – everything will seem so real. Oh, wait a minute – everything IS real here. You can touch each other here.

There goes another brilliant idea.

But the movie had another connection with church. In a way, it was all about connecting with God – or at least the divine. In this movie, where humans invade another planet (called Pandora) and try to overwhelm the native inhabitants (who are giant blue people) so we can extract their resources, the natives can literally plug part of themselves into the planet.

When they do this, they are at one with their ancestors and their god Eywah.

The hero is a human who is given a native body to inhabit – an Avatar – so he can spy on them. He learns their ways and is finally granted the high honor of getting to plug into the planet. At that moment he has an eye-opening experience that changes him forever. He sees that what the humans are doing is wrong and becomes one with the Pandorans.

In a way, this is like the Transfiguration. The disciples aren’t spies, but they are plucked out of their daily lives and asked to follow Jesus around in a very different world than what they knew before. They spend months – years – learning a new way of life.

And then they are granted this powerful moment of plugging in to the divine in a way most of us can only dream of. They see Jesus illuminated. They see Moses and Elijah. The voice of God speaks to them from heaven. They are changed forever even if they don’t understand.

If the passage ended right there, you’d think, “Wow, they were really great.

But right after they come down from this tremendous experience, things fall apart. The disciples once again are unplugged from the divine. They are just guys who can’t figure out how to connect with God’s power to heal a boy.

You can see Jesus’ frustration – he wants them to finally get it so he can finish his mission here. I can only imagine him thinking, “Even after the transfiguration, they don’t get it? They have no faith?” He sees that they have not been changed at all, or at least not nearly as much as he would have hoped.

We are a slow and stubborn people.

I say we, because the disciples are pretty much like the rest of us. We also get these moments of plugging into the divine – maybe not as dramatic as the transfiguration or as direct and repeated as plugging our bodies into the earth – but we get them.

We get to see miracles in our daily lives if we look. Just last week I witnessed an improbable healing. Look back at your life, and I am sure you will see times when the veil between you and God has been pushed away if only for a moment. God is more real than ever before, and all things seem possible. WE are empowered to see and hear more clearly.

God is not as hidden as we want to think.

And yet, just like the disciples, once that moment is over we tend to forget about it.

We come down from that mountain and immediately get overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. You can call this our flip flop experience, where suddenly things don’t seem so clear anymore. Suddenly, very few things beyond the usual seem possible. We go from enlightened to in the dark.

Now, if we left the story at that, this would be depressing. And in fact, the Gospel does NOT end like a movie where the hero gets to permanently turn into a blue giant (and get the giant blue girl). It passes through the crucifixion and to the resurrection – another “plugging in” moment for the disciples – and keeps on going.

Where it goes is into the daily work of living as a child of faith – a child of God.

We understand how they had to deal with mundane organizational issues as well as internal and external conflict. We know how their story – our story – keeps going on.

And what we learn from this moment of transfiguration is that like those blue people on Pandora, we, too can plug in. We are doing it right now, right here. When we pray together, when we receive the body and blood of Christ. Christ is revealed here, and we are empowered. Here, now, we know that all things are possible.

This is your mountain top. You can return again and again – it’s better than 3-D. It’s real. Amen.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Inconvenient Truth – Do Over -- A Sermon

Remember when you were a kid and you were out playing a game with your buddies? Doesn’t matter what game, but sometimes you’d mess up and shout, “Do over!” As adults, we don’t always get a chance for a do-over.

But today I do. Because the sermon I was going to preach last week works equally well this week. In fact, I think the gospels for last week and this week should have been read together anyway because they are really one story arc.

Think about the story. In last week’s gospel, Jesus begins his earthly ministry at home in Nazareth by reading in the synagogue:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

How inconvenient for his listeners. They just didn’t realize it was inconvenient until TODAY’s gospel. At first they were thrilled by what Jesus read.

Let’s set the stage to see what happened.

The synagogue was the seat of learning in first century Israel. It’s where people studied the Torah, and where any educated man could preach. But Jesus wasn’t any educated man. The likelihood is that he had been away – presumably as a student with a wandering rabbi, as was tradition for the highly gifted.

And NOW he’s returning home as a rabbi himself – that is to say, someone capable of taking on his own students. [NOTE: rabbis back then were not the same as rabbis today, and the designation was much less formal. However, it designated someone highly educated and able to teach others.]

Even though any adult male could read and comment on the scriptures, a rabbi could read from the prophets, and a newly minted from the hometown would get a special hearing. This is a friendly audience, people ready to be proud.

And they loved this passage because when Isaiah wrote it, it wasn’t about the needy, it was about Israel. Isaiah wrote this when Israel was in exile. It is a promise that the down-and-out nation that it would be restored to its former glory.

And guess what? Israel NOW is down and out as well, suffering under Roman occupation. They are looking for someone to come in and restore their fortunes, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. From his audience’s perspective, Jesus is telling them, “God is going to whoop those Romans, just wait and see.”

But then, he has to keep talking in TODAY’s gospel. Because like any good preacher, he doesn’t know when to quit.

Not that he puts them to sleep. No, he tells them the truth, and it is a truth they don’t want to hear, a very inconvenient truth as it were.

He says, “This isn’t about you.”

It’s like a smack in the face. How can it not be about them? And if not, then who’s it about?

And what he tells them in essence, is that he really is sent here to bring good news to the poor, to bring sight to the blind, to bring release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. But not just a nation – to ALL the poor, blind, captive and oppressed.

His mission is not a national mission – nobody who follows Jesus will be holding up “Israel is #1” banners. His mission is a HUMAN mission. And to Jesus, it doesn’t matter where that person is – if they are hurting, they are his.

The inconvenient part of Jesus’ sermon – and remember, this is his first sermon, the one that sets the tone for his entire ministry – is that it says we are here to alleviate suffering. Not starting with our own – this whole “Charity begins at home” business is garbage to him. He says, “If someone is suffering, do something about it. If a person is God’s concern, then that person is your concern.”

Want proof? Notice how mad they get, mad enough to kill him. That’s because the examples Jesus gives for the type of people God reaches out to are specifically foreigners. Outsiders. People who are no good.

Worse yet, in just a few words, Jesus implies that, Not only is Israel NOT the center of God’s universe, but the people of Israel might want to quit playing “Victim” all the time because others hurt, too. Maybe they should get off their backsides and do something to help others.

The other inconvenient truth in this is that Jesus never just speaks to his biblical audience. He speaks to us, too. And although I think the message of reaching out beyond ourselves in love is pretty strong here at St. James’, I also know that we – like everyone else – still have the temptation to fall back into that “poor me” attitude, the attitude that says, “let’s just take care of ourselves.”

We’re little, we’re broke, the problems of the world are too big.

This isn’t the smack in the face that it was for Jesus’ friends and family in his first sermon. For us, it’s more a reminder. We are here to do more than keep a building up and running. We are here to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.

As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said back in World War II, The church exists for the sake of those outside it. And as long as there are poor, sick, captives and oppressed, we’ll be on the job. It’s not very convenient, I know, but it is God’s way. And it is good. Amen.