Friday, April 28, 2006

First Wednesdays on May 3

I hope you will join us for our last "First Wednesdays" of the Spring. The evening begins with a short Vespers service at 6:30 in Fellowship Hall to be followed by "Radical Conversations" in the Barn Chapel at 7:00.

The Radical Conversations theme this time is "Generational Identity". How is a Boomer different than an Xer? What is the Silent Generation? Who are the Busters? What comes after Generation X? What do Generations have to do with Church? I will lead participants in a series of exercises on Generational Identity and then we will have the Generations speak to one another.

I hope to see you next Wednesday!

Monday, April 17, 2006

Introducing you to PeaceBang

Peacebang is a UU colleague of mine who writes about everything from theology to Hollywood gossip, from the sublime to the banal, from the solemn to the hilarious on her blog.

Her entry yesterday about Easter Sunday is worth reading! While my theology may be different, I appreciate the integrity she brings to both her own theology and to her ministry.

Sermon: "The Resiliency of Community" (Delivered 4-16-06)

Reading -- Mark 16:1-8, Shorter Ending, and Longer Ending verses 9-14

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very larger, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Shorter Ending: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

Longer Ending, verses 9-14: “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from who he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”

Notes on Reading

Now, how many of you knew that Mark had three endings?

The Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four gospels, was likely composed in 70 A.D. making it also the earliest of the four. However, the fact that it was written first does not mean that it is the most historically accurate. In fact, it is perhaps the mostly overtly theatrical and stylized gospel. There are all sorts of literary conventions that it follows. One example of this is that in Mark, like in the other gospels, the Passion is told in a way that is modeled allegorically on rituals related to the observance of Passover. (This was something that John Shelby Spong taught me.)

Mark is believed to have been written right at the time of the destruction of the second Jewish temple – the gospel references this devastating event, is conscious of it. Yet another feature of Mark is its stylized secrecy. New Testament scholars call this “the Messianic Secret”. Which makes Mark a coy text. There is suspense as we watch the characters act amidst a secret that is concealed from them.

The last thing that I might say about Mark is that it actually has three different endings. All three of the endings are included in the Bible. What are we to make of this? Do we read it as a “choose your own adventure”? Or would that be a “choose your own resurrection”? The normal ending is abrupt and does not offer any resolution. A shorter ending tries to tie it all together in two sentences. A longer ending takes a bit more time to tie it all together, and then offers a bit of apocalyptic sermonizing including mention of snake-handling, poison-drinking, faith-healing, and speaking in tongues. (Which we won’t get into today.)

As it turns out, New Testament scholars believe that the early Church struggled with the abrupt, unresolved original ending of Mark and tacked a longer ending onto it. However, this morning I am interested in what the multiple endings may suggest. In the first ending, nobody says anything, for they are afraid. In the shorter ending, they tell it “briefly.” In the longer ending, the news of the resurrection spreads in fits and starts to the entire community.


Whatever happened to telling the truth?

Just take a look at the headlines from this past week. Here in the Kansas City metro-area we had a teenage girl in Independence fake her own abduction. Even more bizarrely, we saw the unraveling of a sympathy scam when it turned out that a couple over in Grain Valley had not actually given birth to sextuplets. Both scams were certainly born out of a desperation that it may be difficult for us to imagine.

On the national level this past week we saw the pending perjury charges against baseball player Barry Bonds. We also saw the ongoing trial of former Enron honcho Jeffrey Skilling. These may be examples of larger-scale liars, or, even more astounding, perhaps Bonds and Skilling are examples of people with a seemingly infinite capacity for self-deception and self-delusion.

Writ-large, self-deception is something we all live amidst, to one degree or another, is it not? If this were not so, Iraq and Darfur would be leading off the nightly news, not Barry Bonds or the sextuplets scandal.

The truth is a difficult thing. Emily Dickinson advised telling it slant. We can all, in our minds, think of an example where someone’s decision to speak the plain old ugly truth – as they saw it – did not bring anyone any closer to resolution. Honesty in its absolute forms can impede.

Here the example that comes to mind is one that I share with you reluctantly and with much trepidation, because it is such a groaner of a story. It is a story that I heard told at a ministers retreat, which elicited from me a response of embarrassment and horror. This story involves a particular Unitarian Fellowship, maybe fifty years ago, a Fellowship that was a true stronghold of humanism and a bastion of reason. In this story, the religious education program at the Fellowship is run by volunteers and one of the volunteers is duplicating what was done in her Methodist Sunday by teaching all of the children of the Humanist Fellowship to sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The minister, so the story goes, happens to be walking down the hall that day and hears the singing. He enters the class, interrupts the singing, and explains calmly and dispassionately to the children that Jesus, in fact, does not love them because Jesus is dead.

I need to qualify this story by stating emphatically that this story is not representative of the substance or attitude of our religious education program. As a church, our theology is much more developed. Thankfully so. But the point is: the meaning of things is often different than the fact of things. Or, as one great Biblical scholar put it: “The stories of the Bible are not literally true – just eternally true.”

I want to see this morning if I can offer a way of reading the Gospel of Mark, and a way of understanding the Easter event, that shines a new light on it. I offer this interpretation, I hope, not for cleverness’s sake and not for the sake of being novel. No, the reason I share this is because I want for this wisdom to be available to us, I want us to have resurrection as something that is available, meaningful.

First, I want you to imagine that you are a person who would have been reading or hearing the Gospel of Mark in around Year 70 of the Common Era. It is not a good time for you. The 60’s were a time of tremendous persecution at the hands of Nero. Christians were made scapegoats for a fire the broke out in the city Rome and the authorities used that disaster in order to encourage violent retribution against Christians. In the year 70, the Roman armies leveled the entire city of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Temple. The destruction of the Second Temple was a particularly traumatic and devastating event. The symbolic meaning of the Temple’s destruction was destabilizing. That’s the context in which the people who heard the Gospel of Mark understood it. A community in the midst of loss, grief, devastation.

It is only natural that they would have looked back to the story of the empty tomb, imagined themselves amidst and amongst the women who discovered that the stone had been rolled away, and identified with the three women’s experience of first disappointment, then devastation, then surprise, and finally hope. “Tell no one.” “They fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them.” “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” And you can imagine that glimpse of hope spreading, but spreading slowly, as they uttered their astonishment at the unthinkable when every instinct was to say, “It’s over. It couldn’t be.” So, one of them tells another and is not believed. Then two more hear about it and pass the word along, but the rest do not believe them. Then, finally, all of them learn, are upbraided for not believing.

I want to suggest, and this is the crux of my message this morning, I want to suggest that resurrection is not a personal / individual phenomenon. I want to suggest that it is rooted in community, grounded in community, takes place in the midst of others, and has fundamentally to do with resiliency in the midst of hardship, commitment in the midst of frustration, and transcendence in the face of disappointment.

It is not surprising to me that in all of the gospel accounts the empty tomb is not discovered alone, but rather in fellowship, in community. There is an inherently transpersonal quality to it. Its essence is almost social. That is the great truth: The resilience of community.

When I discuss theology like this, a frequent source that I cite is the book “Proverbs of Ashes” by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock. Parker is a minister dually ordained with the United Methodists and Unitarian Universalists. She is the President of our seminary in Berkeley, California. Rita Nakashima Brock is a feminist theologian. Their groundbreaking work, an expose of the theological shortcomings of traditional Christian doctrines of redemptive suffering and sacred violence, again and again and again indicates that it is the community that gathers in the midst of devastation – the ability of people to tend to each other’s pain and loss – that is the true source of salvation. Community is the place where resurrection works its magic.

Yesterday, nineteen of our members went to work with Habitat for Humanity. They joined a dozen members of a Baptist Church, working to make livable a house in Kansas City. Community rebuilds.

Last weekend, I went on a retreat with the members of the Preaching Practicum. You’ll hear them in the pulpit this July, sharing from a place of personal authenticity and deep investigation about an issue of importance to them. Community evokes.

On Friday night some of us gathered here in Fellowship Hall for a Good Friday Tenebrae service where we meditated on loss, bore witness to the victims of violence. Alone, people are only able to mourn. Together, they can grieve. Community heals.

In my ministry I constantly run into people for whom this community, this church has brought something out of them they did not know they had. Helped them be someone they didn’t know they could be. Community abets creation. It is the locus of new life, of life renewed.

For me, one of the most powerful and instructive Holy Week images is the image of Jesus’ crucifixion flanked on either side by criminals. The way this gets talked about is always interesting to me. Some people have been known to refer to this aspect of the story as being somehow degrading to Jesus to be crucified “as if he was just a common criminal.” On the flip side, we learn in the gospels that Jesus is mocked by those two, who make fun of him and taunt him. What I find so instructive about this is the degree to which it is possible to deny community, to deny our common humanity. How often it is that one is right next to us who shares our common fate and we find a way to reject them. We find a way to think that we are somehow better, somehow different, somehow special.

As one theologian writes: “Is it possible that the real significance of resurrection might be, not that weakness can become power, but that the only real power is the power born of weakness?… And the only glory that born of dishonor? Is it possible: that the meek will inherit the earth not because of their meekness but because the highest sovereignty is that born out of meekness? And the highest good that born out of evil?”

This past week Liberal Religion in America lost one of its great prophets. His name was William Sloane Coffin, who died at age 81. He was minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. You will most likely hear more about this man’s great, great life in a sermon at a later date. As a civil rights worker, a leading war protester, an organizer for nuclear non-proliferation, Coffin was a prolific leading figure of Liberal Religion.

Coffin once said, “Honesty does not come painlessly. The truth may make you free, but first it makes you miserable! That God is against the status quo is one of the hardest things to believe if you are a [person of faith] who happens to profit by the status quo… There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse – to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies – is not only more tolerant but far more [faithful].”

Do not mistake certainties for sympathies. (That minister of the Fellowship might benefit from this lesson.) Certainties and sympathies: Resurrection, life again, I am convinced has to do with the latter.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sermon: "Playing with Fire" Delivered 4-2-06

[I am indebted to one of my favorite UU blogs - "Peacebang" - for two aspects of this sermon. Peacebang told the story of the embarrassing error on her blog and also related the experience of the "Playing with fire" sermon illustration, an idea I adapted for this sermon.]

Every couple of months I receive one of those humorous email forwards containing embarrassing “errors” from church bulletins. You know this email, right? It’s the email in which misplaced modifiers, double entendres, ironic juxtapositions, misspellings, and various “sic” render printed announcements in the church bulletin unintentionally hilarious.

“Pastor is on vacation. Massages may be given to the church secretary.”

“Please pray for those sick of our community.”

“All members interested in sinning are invited to join the choir.”

“Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education Class will meet this afternoon. Please use the parking lot behind the building for this activity.”

“This afternoon there will be a meeting at the North and South ends of the building. Children will be baptized at both ends.”

“Next week our Pastor will preach his farewell message, after which the choir will sing, ‘Break forth into joy.’”

I’ve always wondered. Do these embarrassing blunders actually happen? Or, are they just urban church legends? Recently, a colleague of mine told of a mistake that, according to an elderly member of her congregation, had happened many years ago. The announcement asked the congregation to pray for a member who was recovering from illness. The exchange of one intended letter for an unintended one rendered the announcement so crude and base that… well, I can’t mention it from the pulpit. (Maybe if we reach our pledge goal.) But even this example offers no hard evidence. “A colleague of mine said that a parishioner of hers said...” It could be an urban legend.

And then, the other day, it happened. Every morning I take Shawnee Mission Parkway to work and I always pass that great big Lutheran Church at the corner of Nall, the one with the electronic sign that flashes Bible quotes and pithy sayings. Well, it just so happened that as I was on my way to work a couple of weeks ago, the electronic sign was malfunctioning. A segment of it wasn’t lighting up, rendering most of the Biblical passages nonsensical. That is, until they flashed up a quote from the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. Matthew 25:35.” With part of the sign broken, the quote they now flashed was, “For I was hungry, and you gave me Matthew 25:35.”

OK, so that is not nearly as funny as, “Next week the sermon will be ‘What is Hell?’ Come early to listen to our choir rehearse.” But at least it actually happened. I saw it with my own two eyes. “For I was hungry, and you gave me Matthew 25:35”. There’s a sermon somewhere in that…

Did you know that we are the most dangerous church in America? At least, that’s what we’ve been called. Are you interested in how we got called the most dangerous church in America?

This was back in 1999 when the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly met in the Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to our arrival, officials from the Unitarian Universalist Association had a meeting with officials from the Church of Latter Day Saints. The previous year the Southern Baptists had had their convention in Salt Lake City, and Southern Baptist missionaries had passed out Bible tracts to Mormon missionaries in Temple Square calling the Church of Latter Day Saints a cult. And let’s just say that the whole thing had gotten rather tense and touchy. The Southern Baptists had not been gracious guests. Leave it to them to turn their general convention into Smackdown.

So, in light of that ugly fiasco, there was this meeting with UU and LDS leaders to talk about how we could be gracious guests, but something interesting came out of those meetings. The Mormon leaders told us something. They told us they’ve been studying you. And that we are the most dangerous church in America. Well, we would be the most dangerous church in America if we could get all of those people who agree with what we stand for committed to working for it. Most churches would envy the number of visitors who come to our churches. If they got committed, then watch out. And then, somewhat dismissively, the Mormon leader said, “We’re not too worried though.”

I want to talk about commitment. That’s the difference between giving food, and giving a verse from the Bible.

Earlier in the service this morning Dave sang the wonderful song, “The Fire of Commitment.” The lyrics were: “From the lights of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear, guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear. When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze. When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way, When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within, then our promise finds fulfillment and future can begin.”

The Fire of Commitment. We say those words every week don’t we when we extinguish the chalice. What are the words we say? “We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.” We say it every single week!

We’re playing with fire when we say it, right? Because this is not an easy faith when it is done right. Because this is not a low commitment faith when it is done right. Every week, we light our chalice and we’re playing with fire.

Who wants to play with fire? Who is committed enough to come up here and hold the chalice?

I’m going to do something silly right now. It is silly, but it is serious. This is unrehearsed. I don’t have any plants in the audience. This is playful; but it is playing with fire. I’m going to tell you about some people from our tradition who exemplify the fire of commitment. And as I talk about them, I’m going to invite one or two of you to come up and stand and hold the chalice and feel what it feels like to hold the fire of commitment.

As I call up the first person, I want to tell you about how the chalice come to be as our symbol. The symbol was originally drawn by a refugee named Hans Deutsch who escaped from Nazi Germany. The symbol was used by Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp who made two trips to World War II Europe to help evacuate Jews and intellectual and political enemies of Hitler. The Sharp’s were responsible for the rescue of between one thousand and three thousand people, including many children, from the Nazis. Posthumously, they were honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.” These two Unitarians embodied the Fire of Commitment. With their faith they were playing with fire.

As I call forward the next person, I want to tell you about somebody else who played with fire. His name was Theodore Parker. He was a transcendentalist who preached a bold theology. He was also active in the abolitionist movement. He used to write his sermons in his study with a gun right by his hand. This was because at any given time, he was likely harboring runaway slaves in his home and was helping them get to Canada. He was clear that he would defend them, and his morally rooted decision, with his life if necessary. He embodied the Fire of Commitment. With his faith, he was playing with fire.

Let me call up our third person while I tell you about Susan B. Anthony. You know she played with fire. We all know her right? The leading woman’s suffragist. A pioneer for equality. Who went to jail for her audacity. Prison cell and dungeon vile did not deter her. The fire of commitment kept her warm. A Unitarian, playing with fire.

While I call up our fourth person, I want to talk about someone many of you don’t know about: Francis David. For a brief time in the 1500’s Transylvania had a Unitarian King. The King’s minister was Francis David. The King issued the Edict of Religious Toleration, declaring that none shall be harmed because of their beliefs. David taught that “We need not think alike to love alike.” The next King did not agree and had David imprisoned for teaching a dangerous religion. He rotted away in prison until his death. But his life taught us about the fire of commitment.

So far, I’ve talked a lot about stuff that took place a whole bunch of years ago, but as I call up our fifth person, I want to talk about something more recent. In the early 1990’s a report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health revealed that high school kids who did not identify as straight were often not safe in schools. The Governor formed a commission to recommend changes and one of the answers the commission came up with was the starting of Gay / Straight alliances in high schools. This happened and it soon became normative for there to be Alliances in Massachusetts high schools. But that is not the end of the story. How did these alliances get started? As it turns out, it was UU high school youth at church youth conferences who were developing leadership and training leaders in a grass roots fashion. UU high school youth were working to start many of these groups and strengthening them. At Youth Cons, you had basically one hundred or more Unitarian Youth from various towns and fourteen and fifteen year olds were training each other and teaching leadership skills and youth would go back to their schools and make it happen. This is something my friends and I were doing when we were in high school. Fire of commitment. Playing with fire. I do not doubt that lives were saved as a result.

I do not doubt that lives were saved by the Sharps or by Theodore Parker, or that lives were made better by Susan B. Anthony or Francis David. No wonder we could be the most dangerous religion in America.

I’m talking about the Fire of Commitment. Playing with Fire. For I was religiously oppressed and you gave me... For I was a fugitive slave and you gave me... For I was denied the right to vote, and you gave me… For I was becoming a victim of genocide and you gave me… For I was at risk, and you gave me. The difference between commitment and faith is the difference between “For I was hungry and you gave me food” and “For I was hungry and you gave me Matthew 25:35.”

The idea of commitment is something that I’ve been spending a lot of time weighing recently. It is something I grew up with and didn’t, was part of my own religious upbringing as a Unitarian Universalist and wasn’t. It was something I really, truly, honestly believed – that we could be the most dangerous church in America, or that at least through taking some risks that we could change the world, start as we may by changing the entire high school experience for an entire segment of teens – make their schools a bit more civilized, a bit more tolerable, a bit more hopeful.

And so in my life I’m stretching in new directions with this idea of commitment. I don’t know if I should do this, but recently I’ve been reading a book by an author named Brian McClaren. It is a book about constructing a new kind of faith and the book involves an evolving fictional friendship between a young disillusioned pastor named Dan Poole and a man named Neil Oliver. Neil is a former minister who quit his pastorate and became a high school science teacher and becomes sort of a mentor to Dan. Neil’s name is sort a play on words: Neil Oliver… Neo Liver… New Life. The relationship transforms Dan, who is finding ministry in a conventional church unfulfilling, who feels as though the life he is familiar with has sold him a false bill of goods.

And I want to read from this book, because it will shock you. To set the scene, Neil has a family emergency and has to leave town. They stay in touch by email and Neil sends Dan to his home to send Neil some things that he needs. Neil is kind of a mystery and so Dan is kind of in his space, sort of figuring out his life and what makes his mentor tick. This is Dan’s voice (paraphrase):

“I had never gone through anyone else’s personal and financial papers before. It was a strange feeling. One of the things that struck me was Neo’s generosity. The number of organizations to which he sent money, and the amount he sent, was to me beyond all proportion. Along with the money he sent, it became apparent that he had visited many of the organizations he supported financially. His files were full of personal notes and expense reports from his travels. It was as if he had this secret life going: on the surface, Dr. Neil Oliver, mild mannered science teacher, but behind the scenes, international philanthropist with connections to an orphanage in Guatemala, a care facility for drug addicts in New Hampshire, a new church in Moscow, a Seattle-based organization trying to liberate children from the most horrible kinds of exploitation in Bangkok, to name a few.

“My estimate was that he was living on 70% of his salary, saving 5% and giving away about 25%. I couldn’t help myself so in one email I made a remark to him about his generosity. He replied back that giving was simply one his greatest joys in life. He had learned it in his church growing up where 10% was the expectation. But through the years he had found even that to be personally no big stretch and the percentage had just kept creeping up as he found other commitments and passions.

“If the new kind of faith we are building is not radically generous, it is a waste of time. We live in the most affluent culture in the most affluent period of human history. If in the midst of so much we can’t experience the joys of generous living, I think we are an embarrassment to the gospel.”

My response to this, after reading it, was right on. That is the kind of reaction that is necessary (and not just from me) if we are to become the most dangerous church in America… if we’re going to play with fire, the fire of commitment.

Something Entirely Unrelated to Ministry

During the month of March (and February, if truth be told) I read David Foster Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest. At 1,079 pages (including 100 pages of footnotes in what must be 6-point font) I feel justifiably proud in having finished it.

Infinite Jest has been described as an "entertaining book about entertainment, and addictive book about addiction, and a long book about longing." And although it contains about a dozen of the most grotesque images I've ever encountered in print, for the most part it is simply hilarious and thought-provoking.

But check out some of these reactions from readers:

"Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace is the worst science fiction novel ever written. The truth is it might be the worst novel ever written, or at least published..."

"I stared at the bookmark, winced at the thought of all of this work being for little more than the accomplishment of some esoteric goal. I went out for Vietnamese food, bought groceries, enjoyed an hour or so at a coffee shop reading the newspaper and checking the college football scores on the cell phone. All the while, I knew what had to be done. I made some strong coffee." [This person includes an epic reading journal charting the progress of her reading.]

"So how better to end the novel than to refuse to entertain you, to pull up short, thus spurring you to actively contemplate its implications? Fine. You got me, David Foster Wallace. You also just lost a reader."

"Whew! I'm finished reading Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace is a genius. Definitely. Absolutely. No doubt about it."

"Infinite Jest is the greatest piece of literature ever penned in the English language... I'm only just now, a year after finishing it for the first time, finally starting to wrap my head around the depth and complexity of [it.]"

The other thing to know about DFW is his use of intense vocabulary. Consider the following:

anfractuous, fulvous, strabismic, saurian, ephebe, extant, papular, sallet, caparison, carminative, apical, Actaeon, parturient, antinomically, strigil, effulgence, inspissated, sinciput, felo-de-se, nystagmus, Eschaton, parget, pules, ablative, pedalferrous, ascapartic, semion, spansules, fremitic, omnissent, lalating, votaried.

Having also read David Foster Wallace's essay collections, "Consider the Lobster" and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", I must say I'm a big fan.