Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jesus Flips

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday January 19, 2014.  The text for the sermon comes from John 2:13-25.

There once was a cat that would find its way into a synagogue on Saturday morning and meow loudly, distracting those in attendance from worshipping.  So one Saturday morning, the eldest rabbi began to tie the cat to a tree outside before worship, so as not to distract the worshippers.  Eventually this rabbi passed, and his sucessor began to tie the cat to the tree.  Eventually the cat died, and so the rabbi found another cat to tie to the tree.  Many generations passed, with cats being replaced as they died until eventually the tree died.  The eldest rabbi planted another tree so that the cat could still be tied to the tree before worship on Saturday morning.  Eventually people began to write books about the significance of tying a cat to the tree before worship.
It’s a little absurd isn’t it?  This practical act, tying the cat to the tree as a way of keeping worshipers from being distracted, soon becomes a ritual in and of itself.  To the point that books are written about how important this small act is for this worship community.
And yet, how frequently do our practical acts become ritualized.  Brushing our teeth when we wake up and when we get ready for bed are done so that we can keep our teeth cavity free - and to make our dentists happy, but this act soon becomes part of our morning and pre-bed rituals.  
Or, here at Nativity, we have Children’s word time.  This started as a way to make visiting parents with small children feel welcome.  They didn’t have to worry about their child making noises or distracting those around them during the sermon.  And now it’s become a part of our Sunday morning ritual.  And, if the preacher were to forget to invite the children to leave, it would throw off the Sunday morning groove.  It doesn’t take much for a practical act to become ritualized.
So when we get to the temple in our Gospel text this morning, we need to remember that the scene we find ourselves in has it’s roots in small practical acts that have become a part of the worship experience.
The temple was divided into many parts, there was the innermost Holy of Holys where God dwelt, then outside of that was the place where the priests would stand and offer up the sacrifices of the men who presented them stood below.  Beyond the men, stood the women and children, who weren’t permitted to stand with the men.  And past the women and children was the outer portico, where the Gentiles were invited to come in and experience God.  And it’s in this outer portico, or porch that we find Jesus in the text this morning.
Even though this outer portico was where the Gentiles were supposed to worship, it was also the only place that men, women, priests, children, and outsiders could all gather together.  And so, as people began to come from further and further away, bringing with them foreign currencies and maybe not unblemished animals, it made sense to allow Gentiles to exchange denarii for shekels so people could pay the temple tax, and for locals to sell unblemished animals so that people could offer up pure and holy sacrifices.  This becomes more and more common until Jesus enters and sees this absurd circus that has become commonplace.
And Jesus flips out when we sees this circus.  I can imagine Jesus walking through the outer porch taking in the moneychangers exchanging coins, and the men haggeling over the price of a particular bull, and the doves cooped up in cages around this sacred space - this place that has been intended so that outsiders might be able to worship God.  As Jesus passes through, his rage builds until finally he can’t take it anymore.  He snaps, grabs a bunch of cords, and starts shaking things up.  He kicks out all the animals and these people who are preventing the Gentiles from being able to worship.
His act tells us that these rituals are no longer practical.  God doesn’t need animal sacrifices at the temple anymore because God dwells in the body of Jesus Christ.  God dwells among the people, not in a heaven light years away or in a stone temple, but in flesh and blood among the living.  These rituals are keeping the Gentiles out, and are no longer helping the Jews experience God wholly.   
Jesus’ anger at these ritualized sacrifices isn’t exactly new.  We have heard the prophets say similar things just a few months ago.  Amos says, “I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies and your sacrifices.”  God has already told the chosen people that what is important are our interactions with one another, not stuffy rituals to “get on God’s good side.”
So Jesus flips out, tangibly reminding those who can see him that God doesn’t care about temple taxes or animal sacrifices.  God wants women and men to be invited to experience God in the flesh and blood.  Not through priests, but through the Incarnated Word made flesh.  
Seeing Jesus flip tables in the temple makes me wonder if he wouldn’t do the same thing if he were to come into our sanctuary.  Would Jesus be angry that our understanding of worship was to come in on Sunday mornings and sing hymns from a hundred years ago and recite words to a creed that were written almost 2000 years ago?  Would Jesus come in, and flip our tables, telling us that there is more to worship than just these rituals that we have been reciting for most of our lives?  Would Jesus say, “Where are you worshipping in the world?  Where are you worshipping at the Welcome Table?  Or at ABCCM?  Or at the pub?  Or in the movie theater?  Where is your living sacrifice?  Your spiritual worship?  Where are you inviting people that are different from you to experience God in their lives?  In the places that God has given them to be sacred?  Why aren’t you there?”
Elie Wiesel tells a story about how ritual is lost in favor of true spiritual worship.

When the great rabbi Israel Bal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.  There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen!  I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.”  Again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Moshe-Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forrest and say, “I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune.  Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest.  All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”  And it was.

Isn’t it enough to tell the story of God’s love and grace on the cross?  
Can we hold on to our rituals as long as they help us tell the story of God’s love and grace?  Of course we can.  And we should.  It’s why we continue to baptize, to share in Eucharist, and to share in the words that have shaped what it means to be a Christian for almost 2000 years.  
But, can we let go of rituals that keep us from seeing God in the presence of those outside of our church building?  That’s harder.  It’s harder to see where God is present in a conversation at a pub that can never be repeated and is beautiful and spiritual because of it’s one singular moment.  It’s harder to see where God is present in the ramblings of a homeless man standing on the street corner, how by offering to feed this man, we feed God.  It’s harder to see where God is present in someone whose life looks so different from ours, whose faith seems so strange and foreign.  But then, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be called a sacrifice would it?  Amen.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mirror to our Culture

I recently finished Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  His book is an amazing glimpse into the culture of pre and post 9/11 America, and America's reactions to the attacks on the Twin Towers in the global arena.

The book's plot itself is the story of a young man from Pakistan who finds himself in America before and after the attacks on September 11, and chronicles how his life is transformed by American reactions.

The other part of the book chronicles his relationship with a woman who is depressed following the loss of her boyfriend, and how she slowly loses her grip on the present as she chases after the past.

Both storylines are interesting because they provide non-Western insights into the thoughts and ideas that pervade much of American culture - how to deal with mental illness and our understanding of fundamentalism.

Starting with the easier of the topics first - mental illness.  There's a line from the book that comes after Changez (the main character) finds out that his girlfriend has checked herself into a mental institution:
...hers was an illness of the spirit, and I had been raised in an environment too thoroughly permeated with a tradition of shared rituals of mysticism to accept that conditions of the spirit could not be influenced by the care, affection, and desire of others. (140-141)

What strikes me about this sentence is the idea about "shared rituals of mysticism" and how they can and should relate to conditions of the spirit.  That rituals have power, and mysticism provides connection to something greater than oneself seem to be important components about how humans work that we've lost in the West.

We are so focused on our individualism and belief that we can solve our own problems (producerism) have so permeated our culture, that instead of becoming independent and interdependent, helping one another and being able to live in real relationships with one another we have become isolated.  Our focus inward prevents us from being shaped by the real people we come across in our daily lives.

Instead, our lives are shaped by books we read, the leaders of political parties we'll never meet, and the storybook plots of many movies.  We use these people and ideas to build walls that isolate us and prevent us from actually being transformed by other living breathing humans we meet.

And, these walls also isolate us and prevent us from being transformed by the mystical - by God.

The key to "shared rituals of mysticism" is that these rituals destroy the walls that we have built around us.  These rituals allow God to break into what is happening in our lives and transform the story that we are writing behind the walls - opening us up to something new.

And because these rituals are shared, other people come in with God through these walls. They burst in to remind us that regardless of what we want to believe, we are not alone, that we are not isolated.  And that they are capable and want to care for us, and want us to be transformed.

Typically, however, instead of allowing God burst through the walls during the "shared rituals of mysticism" we reinforce the walls by participating in the "individual rituals of secularism."

For Changez in the book, these rituals are the fundamentals of capitalism - to make sure that the profit is greater than the cost.  For much of the book, these rituals create walls that protect him from the pain of true connection and true pain and true love.  Much like our own rituals create the same barriers in our lives, regardless of what we pursue.

The fundamentals of capitalism that Changez pursues brought to my attention just how pervasive and easy fundamentalism actually is.  Typically, we think of religious fundamentalism, and how "crazy" their rhetoric sounds to our "refined sensibilities," yet it's deeper than that.

I think that humans have an innate desire for things to be simple and understandable.  And we will pursue simple answers because we think that they must be the most correct.  Occam's Razor (when presented with multiple solutions, the simplest one is correct) is the principle by which we live most of our lives.  We will avoid complicating things unless we absolutely have to, which means that we will seldom question the status quo because that makes things messy.

It's why we've allowed slavery for many years.  It's why we allowed women to be kept from having an equal voice for so long.  It's why racism still permeates much of our culture, even though we would never admit it.  It's why LGBT rights have to be fought for.  Changing these things required questioning the status quo.  It requires complications.  It requires tearing down the walls that we have built to keep others out.

And ironically, many of these belief stem out of a "religious fundamentalism" to some degree.  Some unquestioning belief that these are the way things should be.  And whether it's the God of Abraham or  Jesus Christ or money, we tend to keep things simple.  We want our God to keep things neat and orderly.

Which is more than a bit ironic because God doesn't exactly do neat and orderly.  God invites us time and time again to "get our hands dirty" to make a mess of things, so that we might truly understand one another and God more clearly.  Anytime we become devoted to one particular idea or fundamental, we build another wall to keep ourselves isolated and protected.

We need "shared rituals of mysticism" to help us overcome and get through these walls.  We need to allow God to break into our lives and transform our stories.  We need other people to be just as vulnerable as we are, so that we might find healing in each other.  And maybe, we need to start participating in "shared rituals of mysticism" with those of different faiths and backgrounds, to keep us from becoming fundamentalists to whatever idea seems to be good at the time.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Check this out!

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on January 5, 2014. The text for the sermon was John 1:35-51

“They said to him, ‘Rabbi, (which translated means teacher where are you staying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Come and see.’” - John 1:38b-39a

My friend Sarah and I love to share music with one another.  At least once every couple of days I’ll text her or get a text from her with a song to look up online as soon as possible.  Sometimes these songs are silly, because we know they’ll make the other person smile, like when I texted her “Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities a couple of months ago.  Or maybe it’ll be a deep song, like “A Drop in the Ocean” by Ron Pope, because we’ve been thinking about each other.  Just a couple days ago, Sarah texted me “Farewell December” by Matt Nathanson for me to look up.  I know that I look forward to sending these texts, because I love sharing whatever earworm has been stuck in my head for a few hours.  But really, I think I look forward to sending these texts because it’s a way for me to share one of my passions with a close friend.  
It makes me think about some of my other passions, good food, good movies, good books, good beer, and how frequently I share them with the people I’m close to, whether they want to hear about it or not.  What are your passions?  What are those things that you love to share with the people in your life?  How long was it since you shared one of those things with someone?
If you’re like me, I’d guess it hasn’t been too long since you’ve shared your love for something on whoever’s closest.  We love inviting people to participate in something that we are passionate about.  We’ve loved it since show and tell when we were in elementary school and now that we’re older we love sharing with whoever, whenever.  We can’t resist talking to our co-workers, family, friends, strangers in line at the grocery store about whatever book we’ve just read, whatever movie we’ve just watched, where we had dinner last night, what particular craft has our attention, or which political ideology we align with.  We even share online, using with the heading, “Check this out!”
And that’s exactly what happens in this text this morning.  Philip has been waiting for the Messiah.  And he figures the best place to wait for the Lamb of God is with a prophet, John the Baptist.  And sure enough, Jesus walks by and John proclaims that “here is the Lamb of God.”  So Philip goes to Jesus to find out more.  It only takes Philip the better part of an afternoon to realize that he has, in fact, found the Messiah that he’s been waiting for.  His life project, his passion, has appeared right in front of him, and he runs back home to tell his friend Nathanael about it.
He goes to Nathanael, saying “I’ve found him!  I’ve found the Messiah!” And Nathanael, understandably says back to him, “Really?  I don’t believe you.”
Nathanael reveals the greatest flaw in our strategy to invite people to share about our passions.  We don’t actually want to pick up other people’s hobbies.  We don’t want to have to invest time and energy into something that we don’t really care about.  We’d much rather just talk and talk and talk about whatever we’re really excited about.  We don’t want to have our everyday lives disrupted with something new.
As much as I love swapping songs with my friend Sarah, I must confess that I’m not always as good about listening to her recommendation as she is to seeking mine.  I know that her song for the day is going to be wonderful and awesome and prophetic for a given moment, but I always seem to find an excuse for why I can’t listen to it when she invites me to.
Like Monday, when she texted me about “Farewell December.”  It was completely appropriate for the end of the month, and the beginning of the new year.  But I was playing video games, and so I texted back that I’d check it out later.  It was closer to 3 or 4 the next afternoon before I finally listened to that song, though.  Everytime she’d text me, I’d think…Oh, yeah, I need to listen to that song.  But then I’d have to go into a meeting.  Or I’d have to finish up whatever I was working on.  Or I’d have to take my dog for a walk.  Or I’d have to cook lunch.  Or whatever.  I managed to keep her good taste in music from disrupting my daily life.  
Like all of us, I kept refusing an invitation into something new and awesome by making excuses.  We avoid accepting an invitation when we know that it means our lives are going to be disrupted, even if it’s momentarily.  Even Nathanael makes an excuse when Philip invites him to come see where God is working.
We especially avoid accepting God’s invitations to experience something new, because God’s invitations are the most disrupting.  When we accept God’s invitation to come and see, we learn where God is staying, or to be more faithful to the Greek, where God is abiding.  As we will see through the next few months, where God is abiding is in us, with us, and through us.  God abides with us from the moment we have been baptised like Cleo/Davis were not that long ago.  
And there is nothing more disruptive than having God abide with us all the time.  You see, God has a way of pulling us out of the routines of our day-to-day life and inviting us to come experience God’s work in our lives and the lives around us.  We become invited to participate in God’s work in our neighbors, and very seldom are our neighbors our friends.
When God abides with us, we suffer when we watch the injustice of those whom we would like nothing more than to ignore.  God cries out to us, pleading for us to go to the homeless person and help them get treatment for whatever physical or mental illness is keeping them on the streets.  God cries out, begging for us to go to the person who lashes out in the workplace, to help them cope with whatever’s been going on at home.  God cries out when entire peoples are persecuted because of the color of their skin or because of their religion.  God cries out to us when people are reduced to objects, used by those in power.  God cries out to us time and time again, asking, begging, pleading for us to allow our lives to be disrupted so we can experience another place that God abides.  
But instead, we tend to make excuses.  We say, “It’s not my fault, I don’t have to fix it.” Or “I’ve got to go to work now, I’ll get to it later.” Or “There are hundreds of people nearby, why can’t one of them fix it?”  Or my personal favorite, “I’ve got my own problems to deal with, and no one is helping me with them.”  We keep saying our excuses over and over again, and eventually we believe them.  We let the sin that ruins our relationships with each other and with God drown out God’s shouts to “check this out!”  And we let the fear of having our lives disrupted get in the way of actually experiencing for ourselves where God is abiding in us, and those around us.
And we should be afraid.  God’s disruptions mean experiencing something new.  God’s disruptions mean dying to sin.  God’s disruptions mean being raised to new life on the cross.  But, even though it’s scary, it’s worth it.  It’s worth it to recognize where God abides in our neighbors, in the strangers, in that person we can’t stand.  When we start to pay attention to where God abides in those people, our lives become transformed.  It becomes exciting.  It becomes a passion that we can’t wait to share with the people around us.  And it becomes easier to see that God has been abiding within our hearts the entire time as well.  Amen.