Sermon- Advent 1B

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Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Where do we pin our hopes?

 

When we’re looking for the light in the darkness, where do we shift our focus?

 

The reading from Isaiah opens and closes with petitions to God. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! It’s a lament, a string of emotions and not necessarily a coherent and rational argument. There’s a strong invocation of justice – the God’s eye view of justice that flattens our false inequalities.

I spent last Monday night watching the news on Ferguson about a grand jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown. I read so many articles online and watched on social media as my friends responded, many with anguish and heartache. I too, wondered: Why? Why do a swath of my fellow citizens feel so powerless that they see rioting as their only outlet for a voice? Why do authorities request peace while withholding the necessary ingredients of their own repentance and reconciliation? Why do so many look to the few looters so they can dismiss the many nonviolent protesters? Why does a narrative of fear and mistrust drive a wedge between neighbors and citizens? Why are certain important parts of our nation’s history with race swept under the rug and conveniently forgotten about?

These questions have been swimming in my head all week and my search for answers has only brought more frustration. Perhaps the best conclusion I’ve found to give you this morning is this: We need Advent. Advent is about the reality of the darkness in our world and the need for a savior and that need remains with us to this day. When we’re in literal darkness, what do our eyes do to adjust and help us see? (The pupils dilate so they can take in more light) Perhaps our practice in Advent is about widening our spiritual pupils, taking in more of the world around us and seeing it. Seeing darkness that still plagues the earth in systematic injustice, in cyclical poverty that we turn a blind eye to, in ignoring the humanity in those we can label as ‘other.’

But if we’re willing to open our pupils wide enough, perhaps we’ll find that darkness isn’t so much a force ‘out there’ but something rooted in our own sin. I’ll stand up here and be the first to tell you, I did well in U.S. History, and I am about a 12th generation Kentuckian, but it took some time to add two and two together. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago, I sat down with an aunt who had done extensive genealogy work for our family and she had so many interesting stories to share, but also, she showed me some wills that our ancestors drafted in the 1830’s “bequeathing” their property which included some ‘negro boys’ in their estate —  in no uncertain terms, my own ancestors’ livelihood, which was the foundation for my great-grandparents and my grandparents and my parents and ultimately for me, was built on the broken hearts and broken backs of slaves.

What do I make of this? These sins are not mine to confess, but if we take seriously the call to justice from Isaiah, these are my sins to repent. I love my family, and I’m grateful for the wonderful qualities I’ve inherited from them, but when my family narrative forgets the reality of the inhumane cost involved, we are diminishing justice.

What are the stories and narratives that bind us as families and as communities and as nations? Do these stories perhaps diminish justice? How do these stories inform our understanding of our selves and our role in the world? Where do these stories try to ignore or even justify collective sin and where does that collective sin manifest itself today?  I may not know Darren Wilson or Michael Brown, but as the author writes in Isaiah, we have all become like the unclean and our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

This Isaiah reading comes from the time of the return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. It should have been a wonderful time. There were great expectations for favor and blessing in this time. But God’s absence is deafening. There’s anxiety and distress and they invoke God to act as warrior and champion for justice. They want a messiah and they want their Messiah to drive out the Romans and rebuild Jerusalem to its glory days. They want the muscles and the strength and the decisiveness and action. Remember that image in a little over 4 weeks when we meet an infant born in a manger.

The hope, the savior, the messiah that we’re preparing for this advent, he won’t return us to our glory days. Instead, he ushers in something new — the Kingdom of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  Let us remember that network of mutuality in our own work to build the kingdom of God. Let us find the courage to listen with empathy to the difficult stories happening in our nation today.

The savior comes for all nations and peoples. The savior comes for the Michael Browns and the Darren Wilsons, the grieving mothers and the unsympathetic observers. The savior comes for the ones who know they need saving, and the ones who can’t recognize their own limits. For the slaves and the slave-owners.

The two petitions that open and close the reading from Isaiah?  The second one is this: Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

We are all your people.

 

(Many thoughts here were inspired by a myriad of bloggers who’ve written well on the subject. One of particular note is Christena Cleveland, who you should check out now.)

Sermon- Lent 2B, March 4, 2012

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Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

“They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go”

Before rumors get started, let me clarify, these words aren’t mine, but the catchy refrain from that soulful hit by Amy Winehouse. This song won her a Grammy for best song of the year in 2008 and last July, Amy died of an overdose. It was tragic and unsurprising and tragically unsurprising.

It seems like a common story among all sorts of addicts, famous and normal alike. Don’t get me wrong, rehab really works wonders for some, but for others, something in the process of fixing their addiction seems worse than the addiction itself and all its sever side effects. Somehow no matter how far, how low they sink, sobriety’s just not worth it. It’s perplexing.

This morning we heard Jesus called to both the crowds and the disciples about becoming one of his followers. He asks them to take up their cross. He probably knew about our tendencies as humans to avoid what is hard, what is painful, to grow comfortable with our dependencies. And he also knew that following him would at some point require simply getting over this. The Christian walk asks more for us.

So when I hear those stories of Amy Winehouse and other addicts and their struggles with rehab, I have to catch myself before I get a little smug or judgemental. I stop and remind myself, I’m not so different. None of us are so different. Maybe my dependencies aren’t chemical in nature, but I still struggle daily, and go to great lengths to resist looking my demons in the eye. I’m just as prone to run away from my cross instead of towards it.

Suffering is as much a part of the good news as resurrection is. Peter is the one who gives voice to how unjust this sounds. His indignant reaction speaks a little too well to my own heart. I like my grapes seedless, my chicken boneless, and my savior painless. They tried to make me take up my cross, but I said no, no, no.

Come this May, it will have been five years since I graduated college and as it turns out because of my vagabond tendencies, each of those 5 years marks a different community that I’ve come to love, worship with, share my heart with and then leave. The leaving part never gets easier and for me has resulted in a number of nights spent crying in my pillow, dealing with the grief. Leaving South Africa was especially hard, and I tell people my memories of my last month there are literally a blur because of the tears that seemed to well up in my eyes almost constantly.

Each time I’ve gone through this grief, there’s a brief moment of cynicism where I remember, “Cortney, you could’ve avoided this all together. You could’ve rejected whatever call or nudge it was that brought you here.”  It’s a fleeting thought, because I quickly realize that there’s nothing I would trade for the relationships and experiences these communities brought me.

This suffering isn’t for naught. Here in 2012 we get the luxury of hearing this gospel passage knowing good and well that the Jesus story doesn’t end on Good Friday. In fact, the story doesn’t end at all. Our suffering, our losing our lives in the name of the gospel, won’t be the end of us, either.

It’s a question we get to ask ourselves every day: “They tried to make me take up my cross but I said…”

Amen.

Sermon- December 18, Advent 4B

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The writer E. L. Doctorow once described his art like this: he said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your own headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has been the image I keep in mind for Advent.  Our narrative is still unfolding. God’s work in the world is still unfolding. But we can only live it day by day. I know for me when times are harder and I feel tired and cranky, sometimes the best prayer I can muster is “God, are we there yet?”

Once as a kid I was travelling somewhere with my cousins and my uncle Buz was driving us. Our destination wasn’t more than an hour away but, I’m sure as soon as we hit the highway, we started the litany of “are we there yets”. Finally my Uncle had enough. “Did you know every time you ask if we’re they’re yet, you’re actually adding 10 minutes to the trip?”  Silence.

I’m pretty sure that it’s in that same line of thinking that the church decided to relegate Advent to these four weeks before Christmas. Get it out of our system.

So? I’ll ask it this Sunday: Are we there yet? Like the church answers a lot of questions, our answer here is one of paradox and mystery. Yes and no. Yes, Jesus has already come and no, he hasn’t come again. Already, but not yet. We’re almost there, but we’ve just gotten started.  
There once was a Christ shaped hole in our world, a savior needed for God’s lost people.  That hole was first filled when an angel visited a young virgin and she uttered what I believe to be the two most courageous sentences a human can speak: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” If you listen today, two millennia later, you can still hear the echo of that young woman’s words.

And still today, we find ourselves continually faced with Christ-shaped holes in the world. It took a lot of nerve to bring the prince of peace into the world the first time- why should it be any different this time around. I’ve lately become convinced that God chose Mary not despite the fact that she was so young, but because she was so young. Have you hung out with any young teenagers lately? They can be chock full of nerve. Just enough to say crazy things like “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Adults aren’t completely hopeless here. We just have to pay attention and muster up that courage that we forgot we had. If we pay attention, there are still many Christ shaped holes in this world that God calls each of us to fill.

I don’t know if this is just me, but because I grew up in this tradition, I developed a certain Pavlovian response to the advent wreath in church. I see these four lit candles and somewhere in me is a child beaming with joy about what the near future holds. And most appropriately, the gospel mirrors this excitement. We remember that time when the world was literally pregnant with the Son of God. We can end our litany of worrying “are we there yet?” They’ll soon give way to awe that made us wonder why we ever worried in the first place. We may only see as far as our headlights let us, but we can make the whole trip that way. AMEN.

Sermon- November 13, 2011 Proper 28A

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Matthew 25:14-30:

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Though the words I speak are mine, let the word we hear be thine. Amen.

Poor, poor third slave. Can we call him Bob? Where did Bob go wrong? Did he mishear the instructions for his master’s treasure? Was he jealous of the previous slaves’ larger shares? Maybe he thought his single talent was too small to be important. Like most of Jesus’ parables, I’m a little unnerved at how easy it is to relate to the one who got it wrong. The one who ends up in the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Poor Bob.

Tina Fey got her start in comedy working for the Second City improv troupe. In her memoir Bossypants, she talks about the rules of improv and how these rules have shaped the way she lives her life. The first rule, she says, is to AGREE. If someone in improv says “Freeze, I have a gun.” and you reply “that’s not a gun, it’s your finger.” you are breaking this first rule of improv.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

Remember our friend Bob from this morning’s gospel? I don’t think Bob understood these rules of improv. Fear, jealousy, something paralyzed him into thinking he had nothing to offer this scene. Yes, I know improv is a comedic performance where one’s goal is to be as whimsical or ridiculous as possible, but really, as a Christian community living in 2011, ‘improvise’ is the best word for what we do. We create spontaneously, figuring out where the mysteriously good news from a cross meets the world at 821 South Fourth Street, Louisville, Kentucky. “Yes, and…”

God entrusted every last one of us with a piece of his treasure. Small or large, it’s important. Like the slaves in our gospel reading, we ask ourselves, what do we do with it? Do you fortify it? Keep it under lock and key? Hold on to it so tightly that your fingernails leave marks in your palm? Or do you share it? Invest it? Give it to the world as freely as God gave it to you? Do we use it to answer the world with “Yes, and…” The day will come when you, too, will be held accountable for your piece of the treasure.

If that sounds apocalyptic, it’s because it is. A chapter previously in the book of Matthew, Jesus had been asked “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” We well know, he did not respond with May 21, 2011.  Instead, Jesus’ reply is a long rant including two parables, one of which is our gospel reading. These talents aren’t ours to lose, but God’s to invest.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to give you a little homework for this week. : to look for moment’s of “yes, and…” It might be at work, or with family or friends, or some other variety of people you get to interact with. It might be something spontaneous, or planned or something you’ve done out of habit for years now. Something- “yes, and…”

The Jet Age

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Has anyone else gotten into the new ABC show Pan-Am? I love it. I love historical stories with female leads. (Thank you, American Girls) The series focuses on the complex-but-still-mild-enough-to-show-on-television stories behind the clean and girdled air hostesses galavanting across the globe in 1963. How glamorous. 


That’s what everyone says that the airline industry used to be: glamorous. I’m too young to know. But it’s my understanding that in the beginning, the airlines had to be glamorous. It was a marketing strategy to help customers get over the idea that they were, in fact, getting in a tube to hurl through the sky at 500 miles per hour. 


Maybe it’s a testament to how adaptable humanity is, that now, just a generation later, flying involves sweatpants and sleeping pills. Getting in a tube to hurl through the sky at 500 miles per hour becomes a chore. Whatever. 


For me, it’s easy to let my relationship with God go the way of the airline industry. To let myself get comfortable and forget that God is first and foremost a big and powerful God. To let worshipping something to large and grand feel more like a chore. I get used to God. Whatever.


Maybe the fix is to opt for whatever the metaphorical window seat is and absorb the full view of this greatness. Maybe the fix lies in seeing my ginger ale and honey roasted peanuts as a makeshift communion. 


Whatever the fix is, I draw the line at wearing a girdle. 

St. James the Far-sighted or “I see the Messiah”

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Matthew 13:53-58 “53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.”


A friend of mine told me about a study about small airplanes that have to make emergency landings on roads toavoid crashing. It was a neuropsychological study on the people in the cars onthe roads where the planes are landing. They never see the plane, not untilwell after the incident is over. Time and time again, they don’t see the plane.Our brains seem to create a blind spot around what we couldn’t possibly expect,or maybe even assume to be impossible. We just can’t see it.

This morning we celebrate the feastof St. James, first bishop of Jerusalem, likely brother of Jesus and possibleauthor of the epistle that bears his name. James the righteous, James the just,James Adelphatheos, and, let me coin a new one today, James the Far-sighted. Hegot to live beside Jesus his whole life, probably shared countless meals, grewup together, hung out with him during his ministry, but never really jumped onboard with the whole ‘son of God’ part.  Well, not never. Because after Jesus was crucified  and resurrected, he then saw hisbrother for who he was- a savior. Thesavior. St. James the farsighted.  

If we were to have a movie madeabout Jesus’ life as told through James’ point of view, it would have to bedirected by M. Night Shamalan. Do you know who I’m talking about? His moviesare known for having a huge twist at the end where the audience learnssomething really big that was true for the whole movie. You go back and watchit again and it’s so clear: of course Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time.And for James, of course Jesus was the Messiah the whole time.

The gospel reading today would bean important scene in the movie. Jesus up there preaching and all his townspeoplecan see is that kid they knew, maybe an acne-ridden teenager clumsily trying tolearn to be carpenter like his father. Messiah? Son of God? Ha! They don’t seethe plane.

I’m reluctant to put any blame onbrother James because I know how easy it’d be to make the same mistakes myself.God works so seamlessly, sometimes I don’t see it until all is said and done.That’s okay. Perhaps God’s dreams are so big and perfect that our tiny brainscan only begin to maybe understand it with our proverbial ‘20/20 hindsight’.

What does that mean for today?Are  there any spiritualoptometrists for our far-sightedness? Let me know if you find one, but untilthen, we have this not-so-easy thing called faith. We hold close to faith andlet go of the expectations and assumptions of how God works and what Jesuslooks like. And trust. Trust that God’s grace is enough. Amen. 

St. Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch and Cinderella’s ugly step-sisters

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Today was the feast of St. Philip and the new testament reading comes from Acts when Philip went out and shared the gospel with the Ethiopian Eunuch:
(Acts 8:26-39)

   “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,    
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,      
so he does not open his mouth.
 In his humiliation justice was denied him.    
Who can describe his generation?      
For his life is taken away from the earth.’ 
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”


This Ethiopian eunuch heard something in the gospel. Something worth rejoicing over. Rich, educated, but powerless and an outsider, the eunuch related to Jesus particularly. The butt of some jokes turned out to be the Son of God. How beautiful. The Ethiopian eunuch went on his way rejoicing and today, Africa is where Christianity thrives the most. They still see something in the gospel worth rejoicing over.  It’s something like the underdog story. The messiah that was beaten, downtrodden, humiliated and then… resurrected. 

If Jesus is the ultimate Cinderella story, it can be easy for us (read= American Christians) to play the role of ugly step-sisters. The prize is ours. We deserve it. The prince is ours for the having if we just say what we’re sure he wants to hear. Tell us differently and we’ll scrunch our noses in entitled disbelief. 


(Emphasis on the ugly)


Fellow Americans, (particularly fellow white, English speaking, economically viable ones), this is a good news, bad news situation. The bad news is- we might not really grasp this perspective of the eunuch, the outsider. Ever. There’s a good chance you’ll spend every day of your life only knowing cultural privilege. The good news is, and I know this for sure, this eunuch’s rejoicing is highly contagious. Make yourself prone to it, somehow, and you’ll be all the better for it.