Archive for September, 2013

Pathos Unleashed

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

Jeremiah 8:18-9:2
September 22, 2013
Mary Hammond

I can’t begin to mine the pathos inherent in the text before us today. It is deep, wide, and raw. Jeremiah lived and prophesied in perilous times of social upheaval and impending catastrophe. While the Israelites of his day gave lip service to God, their lives did not reflect the covenant their ancestors made with the Holy One generations before. Nevertheless, they felt invulnerable. It was unthinkable to them that Jerusalem could ever be destroyed. God would never let that happen! Their denial was buttressed by disinformation disseminated by court prophets, priests, and kings alike.

However, Jeremiah knew better. He warned the people about the consequences of their smug complacency and offensive behaviors. He urged them to return to the covenant of their forefathers and foremothers. He stood alone amid a multitude of naysayers.

For all his efforts, the prophet was ridiculed, rejected, pursued, and dismissed. He was thrown in a cistern; he was jailed; he was threatened with death. With a grieved, vulnerable, and exasperated heart, Jeremiah both loved and persisted. He never gave up, even when he wanted to.

The passage before us today is poetic at its core, with a melange of voices woven together intricately in unbroken succession. Can we even tell who is speaking when? The text does not say. It takes some time and reflection to consider this. Even then, scholars disagree as to whether the primary voice is that of Jeremiah or God, so fused are their hearts.

As Jeremiah weeps for his people, the echo of God’s anguish can be heard. As Jeremiah fantasizes about retreating to a backwoods cabin far removed from the tragedies unfolding before his eyes, we touch the weariness of both his heart and God’s.

The contrast between the pathos of these voices and the impatience of the Israelites is striking. “Is God no longer in Zion?” they inquire, as if they can just command God to show up at their convenience. This is the story of countless humans over the ages who cry out for help when they are in crisis, but as the crisis abates, they are back to their old ways. The people wait passively for rescue instead of making changes in their lives that will lead them to a more viable future.

This passage reminds me of those today who actually say, “We can’t work for peace and justice, because the world has to get worse and worse for Jesus to come back! If we tried to make things better, we would delay the return of Christ!” These, too, are waiting for God to fix everything on their behalf as the world crumbles around them.

“Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there a doctor in the house?” Jeremiah cries out. “Can’t something be done?” he wonders. We, too, pose this question. A “balm in Gilead” most likely referred to the resin from balsam trees used in perfumes and medicines. In ancient times, it was a soothing substance applied to alleviate pain. But in reality, a balm was not enough in this situation. Instead of bandaids, the people needed heart transplants.

Like Jeremiah, we live in perilous times. God weeps, Jeremiah weeps, and we weep. We grieve with God over the destruction of this planet we call “home” as we seek more sustainable lifestyles. We sorrow over humanity’s propensity for war as we pursue the ways of peace. We agonize over the tragedies that accompany mental illness, as we try to pull back the curtain on these realities.

Several years back, an Oberlin College student shared her experience of being utterly overwhelmed by both the sorrows of the world and the limitations of what she, as one person, could do about them. She mentioned the phrase, “compassion fatigue,” which is familiar in non-profit circles that do direct relief work with vulnerable populations. The weary student continued, “It isn’t just compassion fatigue that I struggle with. It is compassion psychosis.”

Do any of you ever feel this?

This young woman was expressing a deep sense of helplessness and paralysis about the state of the world and her place in it. She was trying to figure out both how to love this world with the love of God, and yet how to live with the costliness of such love.

A couple weeks ago, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson spoke at Oberlin College. In their discussion with each other, the audience was reminded how important it is to keep asking questions for which no answers are readily available. Perhaps these are just such questions. They are worth struggling with.

A student recently commented about how comforting it is to read Augustine on the problem of suffering. “It helps to know that, nearly 2,000 years ago, he was wrestling with the same questions we have today. I stand in such a long line of people who have wrestled with these questions,” she said.

In our solidarity and identification with the heart of the Holy One, small seeds begin to bear fruit. Discernment comes gradually. Wisdom is forged through trial and error, step and mis-step. Compassion psychosis gives way to a sense of calling, making the path forward less paralyzing. Weariness is replaced by the strength to love.

The smoldering embers of hope cannot be extinguished by the destructive fires of disaster. Amid the patience of sustained faithfulness, grace slowly and relentlessly multiples. Day by day, bit by bit, step by step, we are empowered to emulate the tenacity of Jeremiah and identify with the pathos of God.

My Spiritual Director considers it a special calling and gift to carry the sorrows of the world with God. Can you imagine a world in which all of her inhabitants did that? It would soon be a very different place. Amen.

Looking for God in all the Right Places

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013
Steve Hammond

I lose things. I lost this, my Nexus tablet, earlier this week. I looked everywhere. Upstairs and downstairs. Under the bed and under couches and chairs. I took up the cushions from the sofas, twice. I was ready to go over to the Multifaith Center to see if I had left it there Sunday night, but was pretty sure I had used it at the house on Monday.

When Mary came in I asked if she had seen it. She started looking around and went over to the dining room table, where she picked up a sheet of paper and said, “Did you look under this sheet of paper? Because here it is.”

Mary often finds things I lose, but not everything. There’s a hearing aid somewhere in Salt Lake City that we retraced our many steps trying to find, to no avail. But there was the time I lost my hearing aid on a walk on a real cold winter evening. I retraced all my steps, in the dark, hoping to come across it. I didn’t.. But Mary found it on the porch steps.

Mary helped me track down a cell phone once. Well more than once, but this was particularly memorable. It was in the field behind the High School. We retraced my walk with the dog that morning and kept dialing my number with her cell phone. Finally, Mary heard it when it was just about out of batteries. Are we noticing a theme here?

I’ve never lost any of the kids, but have lost the dog on several occasions. Once was when I brought her over to church with me early on a Sunday morning to unlock the doors and turn on the fans. Irie managed to nose open the door and I went looking for her all over town, realizing I did have this 10:00 Sunday morning commitment. At 9:50 someone called from Phillips gym. I keep my phone number on a tag on her collar. It turns out she had joined the cross country team for their run that morning.

I lose lots of keys. Do you know how much it costs to replace the key fob for a Prius? I do. $300. I don’t know how many times I’ve lost my wallet.

I’ve even lost the car. One time when the kids were little, Grace must have been about 5 or 6, I took them to a Cleveland Indians game. This was back in the old stadium days and it was a night game. I usually parked at the cheap muni lot but it was too long of a walk for the kids, especially Grace. So I decided to park in a parking garage closer in. I have this habit of keeping the ticket for the car in the glove box, which I did that night. Unfortunately, I forgot which garage I had parked in. It’s one thing to forget which level you are parked on, it’s another which garage, especially with three young and tired kids in tow. We finally found the car, and I knew that even under normal circumstances, Mary would have been in bed, anyway, when we got back. So I suggested to the kids they not mention this to their Mom in the morning. The first thing Rachel had to say to her mother the next morning, “Mommy, daddy couldn’t find the car last night. We looked a long time.”

I like keeping these two stories, and the more famous one from this chapter about the Prodigal Son that we didn’t read, simple. You can do a lot with these stories, especially the Prodigal Son, but since losing and finding are things that I know something about, let’s just keep it at that level.

The first thing this story gets me thinking about is simply that search for God. Now any TV or radio preacher worth his or her salt will go off on these passages about how lost we are and our need to find God. I can go with that to a point, but Jesus kept telling us that is not as hard to find God as we imagine. He said we are surrounded by God’s Realm. That place where God lives is in our reach. We find God where there is mercy. We find God where there is peace. We find God where there is humility. We find God where the hungry are being fed, and the stranger invited in. We find God where the lowly are being lifted up and the mighty brought down. We find God where people decide they are going to love God with all their hearts and minds and souls and love their neighbors as themselves.

It took Mary about 20 seconds to find this tablet that I spent 20 minutes looking for. It’s not that I didn’t know that there may be some things in the way I needed to move to find it. I moved cushions and pillows. I got down on the floor. I actually moved some other things on that table. There were a couple of bags, a book, and a magazine that I picked up. But not that one sheet of paper.

It may take moving some stuff around in our lives, moving some things out of the way, looking under some things to find the important stuff we are looking for; God and God’s stuff. And sometimes the stuff we need to move isn’t as obvious to us as it is to others. That may be the repentance stuff Jesus talks about at the end of these first two stories.

I don’t know about you, but it’s as easy, sometimes, for me to lose God and God’s stuff as it is my keys. But all it takes is to look for God in the right places, and maybe a little help from someone like Mary.

Finding God is a good thing, but finding yourself is pretty good, too. One of the things that I have realized is a daily challenge for me is that I can so easily get lost in myself. Sometimes all it takes is something as simple as the printer that isn’t working, or what someone else is thinking about me that gets me so lost in myself. Each day I confront things like really being connected to others when I am at a meeting or talking to them on the street or worrying more about that email I need to get done or the sermon that needs my attention.

I have to say this was a tough week for me on that score. Lots of my time has been taken up on gun stuff this week, which just totally came out of the blue. And I was particularly aware of the fact that this sermon and service needed to get done. But as the week went on and the meetings piled up and the worry about getting done for today increased,

I remember asking myself what things I would have been willing to miss this week so I could have gotten my sermon done earlier. Dinner at Stevenson? No. Meeting with clergy on Tuesday morning? No. Lunch on Friday? No. The 9-11 Vigil? No. The meeting with other clergy and a couple of City Council people? Responding to a couple of really meaningful emails? The time with the grandkids? No, no, and no. The walk to Wellington yesterday with a bunch of folk to remember the Oberlin Wellington Rescue of days past, and the tragic death of Treyvon Martin in more recent days? No. The Saturday Peace Vigil? No. The great time here at church yesterday afternoon? No. Hanging out a little bit with Mary? No.

I could have made getting my sermon ready by a time more comfortable for me worth not doing some of these other things, but that’s just getting lost in myself. Jesus told us over and over again, though, that the way we find ourselves is getting lost in God and God’s stuff; where we get to connect with God, with each other, and ultimately, ourselves.

It’s always a joy to find what you have lost whether it’s your Nexus, your hearing aid, your phone, your wallet, your keys, your dog, your car. Believe me, I know. But what is more important is finding the stuff that really matters. And when you’ve found the stuff worth looking for, you understand why there is great rejoicing in heaven and on earth.

A Deep and Deliberate Surrender

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Luke 14:25-33, Psalm 139:1-6, 17-19, 23-24
September 8, 2013
Mary Hammond

I’ll never forget the first time I heard sociology professor and theologian, Tony Campolo, speak at a conference full of church folks. In his inimitable style, he bellowed out, “Congregations are always trying to fill the pews and get more people in church. But you’ve got it all wrong! We need less people in church, not more!”

A ripple of surprise ran through the audience after these words. Pastors glanced carefully at one another. “Where is he going with this line of thought?” we all wondered. Then Tony continued, “We don’t need more warm bodies in church. We don’t need beefed-up attendance statistics. Jesus is looking for one thing and one thing only–he wants disciples.”

Tony had seen plenty of churches in his lifetime where a few individuals, a well-connected family, or a powerful clique stymied the congregation’s forward movement at nearly every turn. Years ago, retired pastor George Williamson revised the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” His personal rendition began something like this: “Backward Christian soldiers, steadily you go. Clinging to the old ways, and the status quo…” We get the point.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is surrounded by crowds of people. Throughout his travels, he is teaching and healing. His popularity is increasing among the common folk. Word is getting out about him, and many are eager to see this man for themselves.

Here’s the clincher, though. Jesus would rather have a small band of authentic disciples than a horde of zealous followers tagging along for spurious reasons. If there are two, twenty-two, or a hundred and two, the numbers are immaterial. Like Tony Campolo long after him, Jesus winnows out the crowd with strong words about discipleship. “If anyone…” he begins. Do you hear that? He says “anyone!” That means you, me, your next door neighbor, the guy down the street, the crook, the religion scholar, the enemy, and the friend. “If anyone wants to come after me, they must let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, even their own selves–to be my disciple,” Jesus proclaims.

The Message translation softens the original Greek, which uses a word often translated as “hate” to describe the relationship between a disciple and their biological family. In first century society, “hate” was not an emotional descriptor but a matter of honor and shame in relation to the family. Family honor was to be protected and defended above all else. To put anyone or anything before the basic social unit of family brought shame upon the family. Jesus challenges anyone who wants to be an authentic follower to place himself before such primary, elemental attachments. This should weed out some people.

Jesus goes on to announce that anyone who won’t carry his or her own cross and follow him cannot be his disciple. Our images of the cross today are so sanitized. Crosses have been popularized as carefully designed ornamental symbols placed on altars. They are silver pendants hanging on necklaces of all shapes and sizes. In the Roman Empire, however, a cross was neither beautiful nor ornamental. It was a common and brutal method of execution employed by the State. The cross was to first century Rome what the electric chair is to our social system today.

Jesus carried his own cross because he was in a heap of trouble with the State which acted in collusion with the religious authorities. Not everyone clamored after Jesus. Others, particularly among the powerful and well-connected, deemed him a serious threat to the established order.

The more I ponder this brief challenge to carry our own crosses, the more I am struck by the “clash of kingdoms” this teaching evokes. There is a “line in the sand,” so to speak, and that line separates the Kingdom, or Realm, of Light from that of Darkness. It distinguishes between the Reign of Caesar and the Reign of God. It delineates the stark difference between the Way of Life that leads to more life and the way of life that leads to more death. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here” (John 18:36), Jesus confesses to Pontius Pilate before he is sentenced to execution. There are two potential loyalties available here. To carry one’s own cross is to decide for the Realm of God over and against all other attachments. And, in this world, that can mean getting into a heap of trouble.

Jesus is calling for a deep surrender. But that is not all. He is also calling for a deliberate surrender. We don’t “fall into” this spiritual life. At many points, it is surrounded by obstacles, distractions, and even, at times, obscurity. We seek union with God; we yearn for it; we cry for it; we long for it; we look for it. We count the cost, and weigh the price.

The home-buyer has to consider his or her resources before building or purchasing a home. The king has to review the size and skill of his army before going to war against an opposing army. It is obvious how foolish it would be to hastily make such critical decisions.

The same thing is true for the spiritual life. Jesus wants disciples who will go the distance. He’s not looking for part-time disciples. He’s not looking for fake disciples along for the ride. He’s not looking for short-term disciples that fall away when God is silent when they need God the most, or when the questions outnumber the answers. Jesus is looking for the real deal, and the real deal costs something.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “surrender” of late. It feels like my life has been one surrender after another these past few years, especially. Many of these surrenders have not come easy.

In the world, surrender is often deemed “weak.” Demeaned in the public square, it is equated with defeat. “Stay on your feet. Show your muscle. Fight to the end.” We are acquainted with these kinds of cultural messages.

But here’s the truth: we always surrender to something. What matters is who and what receives our allegiance. If Jesus taught us anything, he demonstrated the power of surrendering to love, not hate; to reconciliation, not vengeance; to hospitality, not exclusion; to life, not death.

Surrender is something we need to practice over and over again. False attachments form like barnacles on our souls, dimming the light of the Spirit within us. They cling to our hearts and numb our sense of what is most essential. Yet Jesus offers us the same invitation he gave that crowd so long ago—to walk in the Realm of Light, and leave behind the Realm of Darkness; to embrace the Reign of God and reject the Reign of Caesar, to follow the Ways of Jesus and let go of the Ways of this World.

This is not just an individual call. It is also a collective call for the Church. We are here to help one another with that Big Surrender and the many little surrenders of our lives. We are here to pick each other up when we fall. We are church so we can explore and pursue the path of discipleship together and become a blessing to the world.

As Jesus weeds out the crowd with his words, may we be found standing fast. Amen.

Pass the Mashed Potatoes and God

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Luke 14
September 1, 2013
Steve Hammond

Do you know what one of the main differences between Jesus and John the Baptist was? Jesus liked to party and John the Baptist didn’t. Jesus was always going to banquets and feasts. John hung out in the desert, gleaning what he could from the wilderness when he wasn’t fasting. Kind of Obie like, but not much fun. Remember that story where the followers of John confront the followers of Jesus saying we are fasting all the time and all you guys do is go to banquets. The Pharisees and the other religious establishment would never have had the nerve to invite John the Baptist to one of their gatherings. They knew he wouldn’t have come, anyway, and would have said some harsh things about them because they had invited him. That’s the kind of guy he was. But they weren’t hesitant about inviting Jesus, though the dinner parties never turned out quite like they imagined they would. Jesus was not really what you would call a polite party guest. You never knew what was going to set him off.

When you read those dinner party stories, you realize that one of reasons the religious types could put up with Jesus at their banquets is they were always watching him, hoping to catch him doing something they didn’t think was appropriate. And that usually happened. But Jesus was watching them, too. And he wasn’t as reluctant as they were to confront them right then and there, rather than grumble behind their backs like they did.

So today, we read one of those dinner party stories. They were watching and waiting for something to happen. And something did happen. Like other dinner party stories, this one got interrupted. This time it was a man with what we now call edema, or a swelling of the joints. People with edema can gain many, many pounds in a matter of days as fluids in the body build up. It’s not only very uncomfortable, but it is often the sign of a serious heart condition or perhaps something wrong with the liver. Jesus healed the guy and they got into this big discussion about whether it was okay to heal someone on the Sabbath. And once again, the religious types walked into their own trap.

These feasts and banquets are very important in the gospel stories because important things happen at those gatherings. They really are metaphors of the larger things of the gospel. These stories, it turns out, continue to be played out.

Most of us are aware that this week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Perhaps you heard bits and snatches of the famous I Have A Dream speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered in that pivotal moment in the United States Civil Rights Movement and, as it turns out, a pivotal moment in Civil Rights movements around the world. One of the fascinating things about the Civil Rights Movement is that it got its greatest support from the church and its greatest opposition from the church. And in our context, some of the key players on both sides of that divide were Baptists.

The Civil Rights Movement was, among other things, a story of Jesus at the banquet table again. The lines had been clearly drawn among the white religious establishment about who belonged at the Table and who didn’t. Who was clean and who was unclean. Who God loved and who God didn’t love. Who they loved and who they didn’t. And the people holding the feast were determined that nobody was coming to the Table who they didn’t think belonged there.

Back around 1975 when Mary was a graduate student in Piano Performance at the University of Alabama, the student newspaper had a picture of this big sign, it was on a pedestal maybe 20 feet off the ground, at a Southern Baptist church in Tuscaloosa. The name of the church was on the sign and in great big letters on that great big sign were the words, “God Loves You.” Standing at the base of that sign were the African-American students who had been turned away from that church when they arrived for worship that morning. It was the same battle for God that was being played out at that feast when Jesus healed that sick man.

I think we might have a clue about what things look like when Jesus shows up at the party in the end of this story. “Then he turned to the host. ‘The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.’” That thing about the resurrection of God’s people… remember the resurrection isn’t just about what happens at the end of the age. It’s about God’s people coming alive now and bringing the resurrection life to this world. And that life of Jesus comes when we do our parties in different ways, when our main concern is not who does or who doesn’t belong at the table, but how are we going to invite everyone to the party.

I also appreciate that thing Jesus said about taking the way back tables at the banquet, where nobody will really notice you. The point of the feast isn’t that people notice that you are there, but you notice you are there. You get the come to the party. Who cares where you sit or who you sit with? When people spend so much of time figuring out who doesn’t belong at the party, what they are really trying to do is show people that they are among those who do belong. There is no life in that. And that’s certainly not the party Jesus want to go to.

Notice, also, that part where Jesus said if you sit at the back of the room, you might find yourself getting invited up front? Maybe it’s implied, but Jesus never said anything about how you have to take that seat up near the head table. Maybe you would rather just stay in the back with the new friends you are making there. And those folk who thought they had earned a seat up front, but have to move for someone else. If they can open their minds and spirits a bit, they might discover the folk at the back of room are a lot more fun. Jesus seemed to think so.

Thinking about this kind of makes me wonder if we have missed the point of the Lord’s Supper, Communion, The Eucharist, or whatever you call it. By making it such a ritualized event in the life of the church I think we have missed the banquet part, the party part. It’s not like the only thing on the table that night was bread and wine. If Jesus were to walk in and join us for communion I think the first thing he would say is “you call this supper? And you name it after me?” I imagine Jesus would think a more worthy kind of meal to be named in his honor would be what happens downstairs when we get done up here. Or what happens in the dining hall or around our dining room tables.

“When you do this,” Jesus said, “remember me.” The this that Jesus is talking about may not be just that little bite of bread and drink from that little cup, but maybe the whole feast. Remember me when the conservation is flying back and forth around the table and you are dipping into the green beans, or the mac and cheese, or the desserts at the potluck. Remember this is what I said the gospel is about, this is what it means to follow me. Welcome everyone to the feast of God’s Realm. Don’t be surprised by the other folk who are there, but by the delight you get to join them.

It turns out, I think, that this is not the Lord’s Table, but our table. I don’t think we are going to have any trouble about receiving an invitation from Jesus to the party. The real issue is whether we are going to invite Jesus to our table and whoever he brings with him. And you never know what’s going to happen at that party.