Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Years and New Lives

I'm not a huge fan of New Year's resolutions.

Never have been.  Probably never will be.

I can't stand the mentality that comes from "failing" to meet your resolutions, which inevitably happens.  There's about two months where we're all really good.  We eat better, we laugh more, we go to the gym, we save well, we cook more, we spend more time with family, we volunteer, we stick to our resolution.

Then something happens.

There's a crisis.  Or not.  For whatever reason, we decide that it's ok to go out to dinner, just this once.  Or maybe, I don't have to go to the gym today cause I'm not feeling well.  Or whatever.  Our "just this once" or "not today" soon becomes the new habit.  One day turns into two, turns into months.  Then we wake up one morning and realize it's Christmas and we haven't made progress on our resolution since April.

And so, after "failing" for another year, we decide we're just going to put it off, because New Year's is just around the corner.  We can take care of it then.

Instead, we just create this cycle where we improve ourselves for a few months, and then backslide into our old habits.  Instead of actually growing and changing, we create a self-perpetuating and self-affirming cycle that helps us stay the same.

The New Year's resolution problem, for me, is that once we slip up, that's it for the whole year.  I think, "Man, I didn't go to the gym yesterday, so I don't have to go today, maybe I'll go tomorrow."  Or "Well, I already ruined the not eating out thing, so why not grab dinner with some friends tonight too?"  There's no grace.  There's no second chance for keeping the resolution.  When you fail, you fail.  So you better just start again next year.

Yet, the good news that is proclaimed time and time again in churches (and probably synagogues and mosques and temples, etc) is a message of grace upon grace.  That we believe in and are transformed by a living God of second chances and redemption.  That, no matter how badly we mess up, God is still there reaching out to us, pulling us up, and setting us on the road again, telling us, "Ok, you can be better this time."  And then we might make another step forward, and we fall again.

And because it's easier, we take our New Year's resolution mentality.  "Well, I sinned again.  Guess I'll just wait til God shows up at the end to fix me and make me perfect.  Which means I can do what I want til then."  We ignore the fact that every single time we fall, God is there to pick us back up.

Every single time.

Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism that "every day we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ through our baptisms."

Every day we die to sin.
Every day we are raised to new life.
Every day, God reaches to pick us up, set us back on the road, and encourages us to be better.

Perhaps, it's not just every day, but every minute, every second, every time we mess up, or make a mistake or sin.  Every time we fall, God is right there to reach down to us and pick us up.  Always providing a second chance.  Always providing grace upon grace.

However, it's not cheap grace.  Nor is it easy to receive.  For us to fully appreciate and understand just how frequently God reaches down to us, we must be honest with ourselves.  And that's hard.

We have to be honest with the fact that we made a mistake.  We have to confess the fact we fell short.  We have to be able to look around us, and see that we have, in fact, fallen.  We have to be able to admit that we need help picking ourselves back up.

That's a mentality that's pretty foreign to the Western culture we live in.  We are proud.  We want to do for ourselves.

Do we need help?  Absolutely.
Will we admit it?  Never.

Despite our stubbornness and pride, God still reaches down to us.  God still offers to pick us up and help us.  We just have to be willing to swallow that pride and let God help us.  We have to be willing to die to the sin that keeps us down, so that God can raise us up.

We have to die to sin, not every lifetime.
Not every year.
Not every day.
But every moment.
And every moment we can be raised to a newness of life.   We can be raised to restored relationships with God and with one another.  We can experience second chances.  We can know grace.  We can know peace and wholeness.

So, if I had to have a New Year's resolution, and I might, it would be to allow myself to experience grace.  To be honest with my own shortcomings and allow God to raise me up through them.  To admit that I need help and let God help me, especially through those around me.  To allow myself to die to sin and be raised to new life. To let each setback be another opportunity to be a leap forward instead of an opportunity to continue to go backwards.

So maybe it's not really a New Year's resolution, but a New Life resolution.  Or maybe, a New Day resolution or New Moment resolution.  It's not a measurable goal; it's a journey.

And it's a journey that I'm not walking on alone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What's the Word?

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on December 22, 2013.  The text for this sermon is John 1:1-18.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
- John 1:1

It seems a little strange to go back to the beginning, now that we are about halfway through our faith journey.  We’ve seen creation, we seen the faith of the Patriarchs, we’ve seen guidance in the wilderness, we’ve seen kings and temples, and seen grief in the time of exile.  And now, as we get ready to see the Messiah, we take a slight detour.  We go “back to the beginning.”
Now while this seems a little disjointed, it shouldn’t surprise us. I think that we love the beginnings of stories best, especially when we’re little.  We love the rhythm of the “once upon a time” or “in a land far away” or “a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.”  This familiar rhythm helps us get immersed in the story, and this text from John isn’t any different.  It opens like the familiar story from Genesis, “In the beginning…” But then John immediately shakes things up.
John doesn’t follow that next part that we know so well, the “...when God created the heavens and the earth…” instead he says “In the beginning was the Word.”  Right off the bat, John hints that his story isn’t going to be the familiar one that his audience grew up with, instead this story is new.  This story has a different ending.  
In the Genesis story, creation ends with exile from the Garden and being cut off from a relationship with God. That story ends with so much of what we see when we turn on the tv or read the newspaper.  It’s a story that ends with tragedy, disasters, violence, and hate.  It’s a story that requires competition to be successful.  It’s a story that says the lion eats the lamb.  It’s a story that has oppression and darkness.  It’s a story that we have found ourselves in time after time, even as we long for the “happily ever after” ending of the stories from our childhood.  
John’s story is different from the Genesis story though.  John’s story ends with the coming of the light, but not being overwhelmed by the darkness.  John’s story ends with the Word breaking through the darkness of the world that does not know him and still brings light and life to all the world.  John’s story ends with grace upon grace, which reveals God for all people.  John’s story gives us our “happily ever after.”
Our “happily ever after” comes when we hear that the Word is Jesus Christ.  That Jesus is the Word of God, and brought us grace upon grace.  That even though there was darkness, the light of Christ could not be overcome. The light of Christ will fill everyone and shine through everyone, out into the world.  Yep, that sounds like “happily ever after” to me.
Except, we look out into the world, and it still looks like the end to the Genesis story.  We see lives plagued by addiction, loneliness, mental illness, brokenness, violence; lives plagued by darkness.  We look into our world and it seems that “the world does not know him.”  We feel like the light of Christ has been overcome by the darkness.  And so, to find hope in the story we currently see, we push this text from John into the future.  We read it and hope that when Jesus returns, then all of these things will happen.  That’s part of why we celebrate Advent after all, we prepare ourselves for the time when we will get to see things work out “happily ever after.”
Yet, why not prepare the way for Christ’s return now, in our own lives and in our own hearts?  Why not let Christ’s light shine in the darkness through us?  Why do we focus on the Bible as the Word of God, when the Word of God was really flesh and blood?  Why do we shy away from pouring out grace upon grace, so that we can make God’s presence known?  Why do we “testify” or “witness” to the light, when we have become a source of the light through our baptisms?
One of my favorite authors, Peter Rollins, tells a parable about a woman who lives as this light, and as a faithful witness to the Word of God.
There was a once a young and gifted woman who set herself the almost impossible task of setting up a printing press so that she could translate and distribute the Word of God to the people.  Yet such a job would require a great deal of money, and so, almost as soon as she had conceived the idea, she sold the few items that she possessed and went to live on the streets, begging for the money that she needed.
Raising the necessary funds took many years, for while there were a few who gave generously, most only gave a little, if anything at all.  But gradually the money began to accumulate.
However, shortly before the plans for the printing press could be set in motion, a dreadful flood devastated a nearby town, destroying many people’s homes and livelihoods.  Without hesitation the woman used all the money she had gathered to feed the hungry and rebuild lost homes.
Once the town began to recover, the woman silently went back to the streets in order to start all over again, collecting the money needed to translate the Word of God.
Many more years passed, with many cold winters that caused great suffering to the woman.  Then, shortly before the target amount was reached, disaster struck again.  This time a deadly plague descended like a cloud over the city, stealing the lives of thousands.
By now the woman herself was tired and ill, yet without thought she spent the money she had collected on medicines and care for the sick and orphaned.
Then, once the shadow of the plague was lifted, she again went onto the streets, driven by her desire to translate the Word of God.  
Finally, shortly before her death, this faithful woman gathered the money needed for the printing press and completed the project she had set herself many years before.
After she passed away, it is rumoured by some that this godly woman had actually spent her time making three translations of the Word, the first two being the most splendid of all.
I love that line, the first two being the most splendid of them all.  This nameless woman was incredibly faithful and had the light of Christ shine through her into the darkness of the tragedies she found herself surrounded by.  And the darkness could not overcome the light shining through her.  Despite her witness, I cannot help but wonder if this woman also missed the point.  Was she so focused on the literary Word of God, like so many of us, that she couldn’t see that her actions were in fact, the best possible way to translate the living Word of God shining through her?
Did she see her actions, that were filled with grace upon grace, made God known more clearly than any book could ever do?  And even ifher head might not have ever understood it, her heart was transformed by the light.  This light that brings life, and grace, and truth.  The Word is flesh and lives among us.  That “in the beginning” of this woman’s story, the Word was there, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and this woman came into being through the Word.  And God was made known through her.
And so, as John reminds us, this isn’t our Genesis story.  Rather it’s a story that happens at the beginning of time, when all things were made.  It’s a story that happens when Jesus first comes into the world.  It’s a story that happens when our lives are joined to Christ in our baptisms.  It’s a story about how things will be when Jesus comes again.  But mostly it’s a story about “grace upon grace” breaking into this world, shining in the darkness, and illuminating our lives and the lives around us, so that God might be revealed.  And in our own translations of the Word, we can demonstrate exactly how things end.  We can show people what it means to live “happily ever after” now.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent Week 2: A Photographic Review

This is my second week of participating in UMC #rethinkchurch's 
Photo-a-Day Advent Challenge.

"I know that I know nothing." - Socrates. I will keep learning though.
Day 8: Wisdom
Playing with Legos makes me feel like a kid again.
Day 9: Delight
"Be still and know that I am God!" - Psalm 46.
Day 10: Holy
Saint/Sinner Ambigram started as an idea, and now it has become a part of me.
Day 11: Steady/Steadfast
Reminders about humanity's greatest strength - its capacity for hope.
Day 12: Hope
"and righteousness flow like an everlasting stream." - Amos 5:24b
Day 13: Justice
"...Where three or more are gathered."
Day 14: Gather

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Walking Dead

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on December 8, 2013. The text for the sermon was Ezekiel 37:1-14.

They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God:I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
- Ezekiel 37:11b-12a, 14a

It’s hard to read our passage from Ezekiel and not think about zombies.  It’s even harder to do this now, when zombies have captured the popular imagination of America over the past 5 years or so.  Zombies have popped up all over the pop culture board recently. We’ve always been zombie horror movies, but over the past few years, it zombies have branched out.  We’ve seen a zombie romantic comedy, in Warm Bodies, and this past summer we saw World War Z, a zombie action blockbuster starring none other than Brad Pitt.  There are books about how to survive the zombie apocalypse, and entire websites dedicated to the feasibility of a zombie outbreak.  And then, there’s the show that, I think, really kicked off America’s fascination with zombies: The Walking Dead.
Now, this popular show on AMC is based on a just as popular graphic novel series by the same name.  And for those of who you might be unfamiliar with either of these works, the story follows a group of humans who have banded together in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.  As the series progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the zombies are not the only walking dead from the title - it also refers to the ragtag group of survivors as well.  These normal humans lose bits and pieces of their humanity in their struggle to survive.  They too become like Walking Dead.
Now, like most good science fiction, our popular zombie literature satirizes how many people in America live day to day.  There’s a sense that we’re just “going through the motions,”  or just working to get by.  There are people that just walk through life without any hope, or without any sense of life.  We feel disconnected from each other and from God.  People might blame social media, technology, or those kids today, but we cannot deny that it’s a feeling that encompasses most of the Western world.  The culture we live in is full of people who might not realize that they are eerily similar to the walking dead of the popular zombie movies that they watch.  
This is not unlike the Exiles that Ezekiel is called to share this bizarre message of hope we see in our text this morning.  The people are complaining that their bones are dried up, that they are cut off - that they are dead.  Zombies.  Creatures just going through the motions because they feel dead inside.  These people are eerily similar to our walking dead
But this isn’t the end of the story.
God comes to Ezekiel and shares with him this message of hope for a future filled with life.  God brings Ezekiel to a valley - one of the lowest points in the desert of Israel and shows him the bones of fallen warriors.  These men, and quite possibly women and children, who fought to defend their homeland and lost.  It’s a horrific sight - reminiscent of some of our scarier zombie movies today.
God doesn’t leave it at that.  God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to these bones that they might live, to share with them God’s active and living Word, that even these bones might experience a fullness of life.  This powerful image is one that brings hope in the valley of death that Ezekiel where he finds himself.  The bones come together as Ezekiel shares God’s word with them.  Bit by bit, the bones become connected.  Eventually they can stand and move as if they were alive.
Something is missing.  These people are what we would traditionally think of as zombies.  There’s no life, there’s no spirit. They might be able to move, but they aren’t alive.  They might be put together but they aren’t whole.
This is where the exiles find themselves and it’s where too many of us find ourselves today.  We are put together.  We can move.  We can work.  We can go through the motions.  But there’s no spirit in it.  There’s no life.  There’s no wholeness.
And yet, this isn’t the end of the story.
Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy once more.  To share again, the living Word of God, and again Ezekiel obeys.  This time, the spirit enters the bodies.  The spirit creates life.  The spirit creates meaningfulness in the people that have been resurrected by God working through Ezekiel.  And it’s here, in the valley of death, that God brings forth a newness of life.  It’s here, that God promises to do these things and more for the whole people of Israel.  To bring them life, so that they might no longer feel like members of the walking dead and instead rejoice because they are once more joined to one another, to their homeland, and to God.  It’s here, in this valley, that God sends Ezekiel once more to share with the people in Exile God’s living Word, and restore their hope, and give them life even when it feels far removed from them.
And Ezekiel does, the Israelites hear this message of hope, and share it with one another, time and time again as they continue to spend their time in exile.  Trusting in God’s promises.  Sharing in the prophesy, the living Word of God that brings hope.  And in that hope, a renewed life for these people appears.
And still, that’s not the end of the story.
Because Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, comes down to earth.  Jesus Christ - God’s living Word dwelling and living among us.  Breathing with us, talking with us, eating with us, teaching us, creating a newness of life in us.  Jesus’ desire to heal all peoples, so that they might have life, not just go through the motions as a member of the walking dead even though this ultimately leads to his death on the cross.  And even there, Jesus comes back, not as a zombie, but as a person who has life through his relationship with God and with all of creation.  
And still that’s not the end of the story.
Because of Jesus, we get to participate in those relationships now.  We are baptized by God’s Spirit - the one that gives us life by joining us to Christ and the Creator of all things.  We gather around to share in the messages of God’s living Word, as we teach and learn from one another.  We eat and drink the holy meal with the Word made flesh.  And through God’s power, we are given life because we gain and develop relationships with God, and with one another.
Someone who models what it means to truly live this kind of life is Nelson Mandela.  He was a man, who sought out the life in those who are oppressed and struggling to get by.  He went to these people that many might shy away from as the walking dead and embraced them as Children of God.  Mandela worked hard to show all of creation that God’s life is present - he shared the message of God’s living Word through his words, through his deeds, and through his suffering.  He eagerly waited for the coming of the Kingdom of God by trying to embody Christ everywhere he went.

So this Advent, we take comfort in the fact that we are not zombies, that God is present in our deep, dark valleys, and that Christ has been there to bring forth life.  And we celebrate our status as living, breathing Children of God, not as the nameless walking dead we see reflected in contemporary culture.  And we wait like Mandela waited, by eagerly working to bring forth the Kingdom of God in all we say and do.  We can share God’s Living Words with others like Ezekiel and Mandela did, allowing our actions to speak louder than our words.  And in our work, we join thousands of God’s children around the world as we all wait to hear the end of the story.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent Week 1: Photographic Review

My advent devotional has been to participate in the United Methodist Church's RethinkChurch Photo-a-day Advent Calendar.  So here's the first week of photos in review.

Day 1: Go

Day 2: Bound
"So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin."
- Romans 7:25b

Day 3: Peace
Coffee. Good music. Thought-provoking book. 

Day 4: Time
"It's time to begin isn't it?"

Day 5: Flood
"...and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."
- Genesis 9:11b

Day 6: Awake
"Feeling my way through the darkness...don't know where my journey will end,
but I know where to start...so wake me up"
- Avicii and Aloe Blacc

Day 7: Ready
"Dad, let's play, I'm ready for fun."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Nothing Lasts Forever

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on November 24th, 2013.  The scriptural text for the sermon is Jeremiah 29:1,4-14.

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
- Jeremiah 29:7,11

You ever have one of those days when nothing seems to go right?  When no matter what you do, it all feels like it’s for nothing?  Your friends and family feel disconnected or distant?  It feels like you’re all alone, that even God has abandoned you?
This is how the majority of people who suffer from depression go through every single day of their lives.  They feel isolated and alone.  They feel abandoned and cut off from the people they care about.  They feel that even God has left them.  
And this is how the people of Israel feel when we find them in the text from Jeremiah this morning.  They have been conquered by the Babylonians, even though they have tried to fight and pray to God.   And, to make matters worse, the Babylonians have taken the royal family, the priests, the prophets, and the entire upper class off into exile in Babylon.  The people feel isolated.  They feel alone.  They feel abandoned by God.  
And like many of us who have days where we feel abandoned or isolated, the Israelites have started to chase after false visions of the future.  These visions of the future are ones that we can sympathize with, perhaps all too easily.  
They are visions of a future that’s all about me - that I no longer have to worry about other people.  Visions that tell me, that because I am isolated and lonely, other people do not actually exist and I don’t have to interact or deal with them.  That whatever I do is fine, because I’m in such pain at this moment, that I can’t even begin to develop a concept of another person.
And these visions of individualism and loneliness in turn lead us to chase after other false visions of the future.  Visions of the future that speak of monetary wealth, or physical health.  Visions of lustful sexuality or escapism into the alternate reality provided by drugs.  Or perhaps these visions cause us to just give up.  We might find ourselves chasing after the delusion that we are incapable of making any lasting changes, or that we can mistreat the earth because, “it’s all going to end, eventually.”  Our mantras in this loneliness are that “nothing really matters” or “nothing lasts forever.”
As the people in exile chase after their own versions of these false futures, Jeremiah writes to them encouraging them that “nothing lasts forever.”  And when Jeremiah says this, he really means “This feeling of nothingness, this feeling of loneliness and isolation, this feeling of being abandoned by God will not last forever.”  He offers these people in exile words of hope, words of comfort that even though this pain might last for a long time, the seventy years he mentions in the text, that seventy years is not eternity.  
Jeremiah does not deny the pain and suffering that the people are going through.  He does not pretend that life is going to be easier, that the feeling of nothingness will just fade away, as quickly as it overwhelmed them.  He does not pretend to have all the answers to the questions that they have, questions that make them wonder about why they feel the way that they do.
Instead, Jeremiah offers them God’s vision for the future.  Jeremiah reminds the people of the dream that God has been sharing with them since Adam and Eve were in the garden.  God’s dream is that of the people’s welfare.  
However, our word that is used in the translation isn’t quite accurate.  The Hebrew word for welfare that we see used throughout this text is actually shalom.  More often than not, when we come across shalom in the Bible, it gets translated as peace.  And yet, the true definition of shalom lies somewhere in between these two definitions.  Shalom conveys the emotional feelings and calm that come up out of being made whole in God.  It’s being healed of physical and spiritual maladies.  It’s being made new as part of the kingdom of God.
And so, as part of Jeremiah’s message of hope, this message of shalom, of God’s kingdom, he offers the people in exile some baby steps on their journey to healing and wholeness.  He encourages them to build houses, to plan gardens, to marry, to have children, to live their lives in such a way that they start to recognize the fact that other people are in the world.  More importantly, Jeremiah encourages the people to seek shalom for Babylon - to seek healing and wholeness with the very people that have taken them into exile in the first place.
Now our reaction to this is similar to how the Israelites reacted, I’m sure.  We look at Jeremiah’s words and think, “You’re crazy.  There’s no way that I can seek to be reconciled with the very people who have hurt me.  I’m not going to be able to look at them and see them as part of God’s kingdom when they’ve brought me into exile. They’ve created these feelings of isolation and loneliness within me.  I’m not going to be at shalom with those people.”
Even here in America, where we aren’t in exile, nor are we isolated or cut off from our loved ones or our communities, we share in this message with the Israelites.  We live in a culture that is dominated by individualism, that very feeling that happens in depression - the uncanny feeling that no one else matters.  We might let one or two people into our high walls that protect ourselves, but we tend to overlook or ignore people who are outside of those walls.  We want to keep them out, because we think “nothing really matters” and “nothing lasts forever.”
And that’s true.  “Nothing does last forever.”  Well, it’s almost true.  God lasts forever.  God’s kingdom lasts forever.  But these feelings of nothingness, that nothing matters - those things will not last forever.  
They might not disappear overnight.  They might take five years, ten years, seventy years, or a thousand years, but they will disappear eventually.  These feelings will vanish in the presence of God’s light.  There is no room for the anxiety that these thoughts and feelings produce in the kingdom of God.  Instead, there is only room for shalom.
And like the Israeli people in exile that Jeremiah encourages in his letter, it is in bringing about shalom for those around us that we will find shalom for ourselves.  It’s in building up, planting gardens, creating families, feeding the hungry around us, caring for those who are ill, spending time to understand one another, to really listen to one another, to be a presence of shalom for the people we come across day after day, that we will truly understand what Jesus talks about when he tells us that he leaves us with “Peace, but not as the world gives.”
Jesus’ peace is shalom.  It’s being comforted and welcomed with our sisters and brothers around the world into the kingdom of God.  It’s learning from one another and being made whole in what we learn.  It’s feeding the hungry and then in turn being fed.  It’s about losing that “It’s all about me” feeling and gaining a “We’re all in this together” feeling.  It’s about imitating Christ’s love for us in all that we say and do.  And I honestly cannot think of a better future than that.  Amen.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Finding Works of Living Art

This is part two on my series on art and theology.  For part one, click here.
I want to revisit the piece of art done by Banksy that I talked about in my last post.

This image is from Better Out Than In

This piece tells a story.  It is shouting at us to see this man waiting for his lover by the club door.  We don't know why he's waiting.  We don't know who he is.  And yet, in this waiting man we are able to see more than just the man.  We see his love.  We see his grief over the absence of his lover.  We see parts of ourselves in this work that we can relate to.  

This picture tells a story of the human condition.  In this man we see our neighbors, our friends, our family.

In this man we see ourselves.

We are drawn to portraits like this one because in the subject of the portrait we can see a glimpse of ourselves.  In their portraits we see their humanity.

And in their humanity, we see art.

There is precedent for looking at humanity as an art.
"So God created humankind in God's image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them." (Genesis 1:27)
The image of God.

Images.  Icons.  Photographs.  Portraits.  People.

All of humanity is created in the image of God.

Do we stop to take the time to seek this image of God in our neighbor?  Do we only see the image of God in icons, or photographs, or portraits?  Do we listen to what God says outside of scripture?

We look people who surround us, at the theater, at the coffee shop, at the bar, at work, on the side of the road, but do we see them?

Do we stop to talk to them? Do we see their faces?  Do we listen to stories?

Do we find the image of God in them?

Or do we need someone to take their picture like Brandon from Humans of New York? Someone who is willing to stop, look at these women and men who get passed by day after day, listen to their stories, and then take their picture?  Someone who shouts that we might stop, look, and listen ourselves?

"I'm homeless, and I'm an alcoholic.  But I have a dream."
"What's that?"
"I wanna go fishing."

"It's kinda weird having a child of my own, because I'm seeing all the things that my father missed."

Stop.  Look.  Listen.

It doesn't seem that hard, but we miss these opportunities all the time.

We make excuses. We tell ourselves we don't have time to stop.  We tell ourselves that we have already seen our neighbor.  We tell ourselves that we can't talk to the stranger.  We say we're doing it to protect ourselves or our families.

We tell ourselves anything to avoid someone who is different from us.

How many different encounters of God are we missing when we do this though?

I've already talked about the "cacophony of voices" that Scripture uses to help us understand bits and pieces of God.  But what about the beautiful collage of images that God has created in each and every people that we encounter each and every day?

In this guy?

Or these children?
Or this woman?

All of these people, and many more reflect God in their appearance, in their actions, and in their lives.  They all have families, friends, hopes, dreams, fears, joys, griefs, trials, tribulations, and celebrations - stories that are important and powerful.  They live complex and complicated lives that mirror our very own.  They walk the same journey that you and I will walk every day.  

But we get so caught up in our journeys that we simply walk past them, even though we're all walking through life together.  We miss out on hearing and being a part of their stories, that are just as delightful, terrifying, or heartbreaking as our own. 

"If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."
When we don't stop, we walk past God.
When we don't look, we miss seeing God's face.
When we don't listen, we deafen ourselves to God's story.

Let's stop making excuses.
Let's stop looking at people as objects that are either in our way or are a means to an end.

Let's start looking at people as subjects worthy of the same care, attention, and devotion that any artist puts into their work.
Let's start looking at people with the same awe and reverence we give to works of art such as the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel.
Let's start appreciating the living art that God creates and places in our lives every day.
This image, and the ones above taken from Humans of New York

Let's start looking at people the way God sees them - through lenses of compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and most importantly love. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning to Pay Attention

This is part one of a two part series on art and theology.  

Last Thursday, I joined Instagram.

I'm not really sure why I did it because I use Facebook to share my pictures and Twitter to participate in instantaneous communication.  Being on Instagram seemed a little excessive to me.  

Yet, even though I've only Instagramed one picture (as of writing this), having Instagram on my phone helps me start paying attention to things.  I'm able to start noticing things that I see every day and frame them in such a way that they say something.

This picture, for example.  Every night I walk my dog and I usually notice the moon, stars, clouds, etc.. But when I took the picture, I was paying attention to just how the clouds interacted with the light of the moon.  I was paying attention to how the moonlight created shadows with the branches of the trees.  I was paying attention to something that I see every day.

I've noticed this happens with many photographs that appear on Instagram.  There are tons of pictures of food, pets, family, friends, trash, and so on.  Sometimes it seem foolish or ridiculous.  When I would see these photos on Facebook, my first thought was, "Nobody cares what you had for lunch today!"

Not anymore.

Instagram's greatest strength is that everyone can become a photographer.  Everyone can take an ordinary object and frame it in such a way that people to notice it.  That people pay attention to it.  That people truly see it.

Frederick Buechner, in his book Whistling in the Dark, says that this about art.
Literature, painting, music - the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.  In a world that for the most part steers clear of the idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Stop.  Look.  Listen.

Three simple commands.  Why do we have such a hard time with them?

We pause, but rarely stop.  We look, but seldom see.  We hear, but hardly listen.

We need artists from all walks of life to shout, "Look over here!  See what great mystery is present! Listen to the holy rhythms of life!"

About a month ago, I stumbled on to the blog done by the NY Graffiti artist Banksy.  While not strictly legal (as evidenced by some of the posts related to being pursued by the NYPD) I admire what this mysterious artist is trying to do.  An anonymous figure quitely encouraging people to stop, look, and listen to the life of the city; to see something in a new and exciting way that might have scared them before.
Check out more of Bansky's work here.

This piece tells a story.  It is shouting at us to see this man waiting for his lover by the club door.  We don't know why he's waiting.  We don't know who he is.  And yet, in this waiting man we are able to see more than just the man.  We see his love.  We see his grief over the absence of his lover.  We see parts of ourselves in this work that we can relate to.

And yet, people walk by this beautiful story without a second glance day after day.

I'm not sure I would have noticed it if I hadn't come across it online. I'm not sure I would pay it any attention.  I would have passed it by without a second glance. I needed a "frame" to encourage me to stop, look, and listen.

Instagram and Banksy's Graffiti give us opportunities to stop, look, and listen to the extraordinary aspects of our lives that are extraordinary only because of their ordinariness.

Too often we let these extraordinary moments go by without noting them.

Holy moments of creation slip by without a second glance.

We expect God to swoop down with a smartphone and Instagram these moments for us.  We want God to put a frame around what God has done.  And we do get these experiences occasionally.  We have moments where we see God's presence in nature - in our "mountaintop experiences."

And yet.

I have a sneaking suspicion that God works more like our Graffiti artist, Banksy.  God is subtly working within creation to quietly encourage us to stop, look, and listen.

It's never anything fancy or "loud" but it's quiet, subtle, and simple.

And yet.
Its quietness draws us in, closer and closer.
Its subtlety allows it to speak to us time and time again.
Its simplicity allows us to see this message of creation again and again and again, everywhere we go.

So it's up to us to frame some of these quiet moments for one another.  It's up to us to shout on their behalf.  It's up to us to ask people to stop, look, and listen to these holy moments where God has created beautiful works of art that have been passed without a second glance time and time again.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blurred Lines

This sermon was delivered to the people of The Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday, November 10, 2013.  The text that the sermon is based on is Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24.

What is justice?

Merriam-Webster defines justice as: the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.

That seems a little lackluster for our text from Amos.  I mean, Amos’ words are full of what we might call “poetic justice.”  It’s language that is rich in imagery and meaning.  It’s full of passion and energy.  Merriam-Webster doesn’t seem to be doing the text much justice.

So then, where can we turn?  What about the justice that we see in movies and television shows?  Is justice something akin to what Robin Hood and Batman do?  Where people get their “just deserts” for lying, cheating, or stealing their way to wealth and prosperity.  Is God’s justice like that of a vigilante, who makes sure people get what’s coming to them, especially when the law fails?

A Batman-esque God seems to work.  Thinking of Batman Gotham City with it’s great disparity between the 1 percenters and the rest of the population is very similar to the Israel that Amos is speaking to in this mighty proclamation.  For both Batman and Amos, we see how the rich and wealthy are crying out because of the “filth and poverty” that surround them.  The wealthy in both cases seem to miss the fact that their misuse of power and money has caused the great disparity in both landscapes.  And both Batman and Amos work to bring about a justice that is comforting for those who have been oppressed, but is anything but comforting to those who have been oppressing the lower classes.

And this view of justice really speaks to us in our society today.  Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” and “I am the 99%” from a few years back?  We see in our very own country a wealth disparity that happens, typically at the expense of the middle and lower classes.  People in these lower classes that have been neglected by society turn to violence, drugs, and crime as a way of making ends meet because it looks like all other doors have been shut by them.  Voices cry out for justice all over the country - those who have money are discouraged by the violence and crimes of those who don’t have money.  And those who don’t have money cry out for a little more equality in the status quo.

This is exactly why heroes like Batman, Robin Hood, and others who “rob from the rich and give to the poor” are so popular.  We all want justice and we see it in Batman and Robin Hood.  

And yet, even this heroic view of justice seems to fall a little flat when we try to understand God’s justice.  God’s justice is filled with mercy and grace.  I’m not sure the last time I saw Batman be merciful to a bad guy.  

So, then what is God’s justice?

This “feels” like an important question.  We see the prophets in particular focus in on living justice.  Amos and Micah in particular focus on the fact that God doesn’t desire people to gather together and worship in a particular setting or by saying a few “right words.”  God doesn’t desire sacrifices.  God isn’t even looking for good singers or beautiful music.  God desires justice.

And if God desires justice, shouldn’t we know what that means?  Shouldn’t we have an idea what it is God is asking of us?  We don’t want to let God down?  

As I’ve been wrestling with this over the past week, trying to pin down an answer to what it means to live God’s justice I realize that it’s not as simple as coming up with a step-by-step guide to living a godly life.  I can’t live out a justice rooted in mercy and grace if I write it down into some sort of moral code or law, because as soon as I think I’ve got it phrased just right, I will immediately run in to some situation that breaks every idea of justice that I’ve just codified.

Try as I might, I will never be able to pin down exactly how to make justice roll down like waters.  I cannot describe how righteousness will flow like an ever-flowing stream.  I can only dream and imagine.

I can dream like Amos dreamed, of a day when the lines between the wealthy and the impoverished will be blurred.  Of a day when there will be no way to distinguish between those who had money and those who have never had money.  There will be no way to distinguish between the 1% and the 99%.  Amos dreamed of a day when no person would go without.  Of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away all of the walls that the wealthy have built to keep the poor out.

I can dream like Susan B. Anthony dreamed, of a day when the lines between male and female will be blurred.  Dreams of a day when we no longer look at a person’s gender to make decisions about their strengths and abilities.  Anthony dreamed of a day when no person would be turned away because of their gender.  Of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away the walls that men build to keep women out.

I can dream like Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, of a day when the lines between black and white will be blurred.  Dreams of a day when there will be no way to distinguish between the two races.  Dreams of a day when there is no distinguishing where someone came from.  King dreamed of a day when no person would be excluded based on the color of their skin.  Of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away all of the walls that whites built to keep those who are of a different race out.

I dream the dream that women and men have been dreaming for thousands of years.  I dream of a day when we no longer say, “me vs. you” I dream of a day when we no longer exclude someone based on how much money they have, how they look, or who they love.  I dream of a day when no one is turned away because they are “different” or “weird.”  I dream of a day when God’s justice will come rushing down over the world, wiping away all of the walls that we build to keep the “others” out.

I dream the dream Jesus dreamed when he said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  Or, to say it better.  “I dream of a day when those who carry my name do their part to tear down the walls that we have built around me and you, so that no matter who they are looking at, they see a brother or sister in the family of God. That those who truly worship me, come to the holy table, are swept up by the waters of justice, grace, and mercy, and flow into the world, creating new rivers and streams and waterfalls wherever they go, that all the world might experience the gift of new life found in the removal of these walls.”

Maybe we can define justice after all.  Maybe justice is being able to welcome our sisters and brothers in Christ all over the world back into the family.  Isn’t that what God wants?  God wants us to all be able to look at one another and no longer see rich or poor, male or female, white or black, straight or gay, Christian or Muslim, but rather to welcome the person we see standing there as a child of God.  To embrace their differences so that our differences might be embraced. To embrace their flaws so that our flaws might be embraced by them. To embrace and be embraced so that we might all find God’s healing and righteousness.

I love Amos’ dream, Susan B. Anthony’s dream, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, the dream of all of us who are dreaming God’s dream.  This dream of justice that overflows with compassion.  This dream that tears down walls in the name of God’s love for all people.  This dream of righteousness and relationships that allow all men and women, you and me, to become an “us” that lives in to the grace-filled life we experience in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.