Friday, August 9, 2019

By Request: “Feminism and the Bible” - August 11, 2019

Text: Genesis 1:26-27, Galatian 3:26-28


("By Request" series of sermons requested by the congregation)
How many grew up in a church that had clear limits on a woman’s role in the church?  (Perhaps women were not deacons or ushers or didn’t pray in church.)

How many grew up in a church where women were not allowed to teach men in Sunday School?

How many of you grew up in a church with a female pastor - at least one ordained woman on the ministerial staff?

Well, I’m just asking.  Just curious.  Both society and the church have changed over the years, but change can come hard.  And the Church has 2000 years of tradition behind it.  But tradition can become traditionalism – holding onto tradition just for the sake of tradition. 
   
One of the very interesting topics suggested by members for this series of messages was “Feminism and the Bible.”  Of course, like many of these suggestions, it is a pretty broad topic.  But as a way of getting at it, it seems like maybe we need to talk first about what feminism is before we talk about what the Bible has to say about it, and then perhaps what it all means for us and for the church.

So: what is feminism, anyway?  Marie Shear famously said that feminism is “the radical notion that women are people.”  I have to say that I love that definition.  A basic understanding of feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.  It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

Shouldn’t everybody have equal opportunity and be treated equally?  Why wouldn’t everybody be in favor of that?  Well as it turns out, there are those who want to paint feminism in dark and diabolical tones.  Rev. Pat Robertson, for example, has argued that feminism leads to the destruction of the family and indeed the destruction of our entire society.  He said, “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”  That’s Pat Robertson for you, but there are plenty of people who oppose feminism in more subtle ways.  Hence, the need for us to consider this question today.

Let’s just think of feminism as the idea that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.  What does the Bible have to say about that?  And how are women viewed in the Bible?

The answer, as usual, is that it depends on where you look.  To begin with, the cultural setting of the Bible, which was written over hundreds of years and reported on a span of over 1000 years, is thoroughly patriarchal, whatever time and culture a particular book of the Bible might have been written in. 

Legally, women were essentially property, controlled by the male head of household.  Women generally could not own property, testify in court, or make legal decisions.  A daughter belonged to the father and was then given to her husband.  There were all kinds of rules regarding ritual purity, and many of these rules focused specifically on women.

Polygamy was common in the Old Testament and some of the patriarchs had multiple wives.  Jacob, for example, married the sisters Leah and Rachel and also took Rachel’s servant Bilhah and Leah’s servant Zilpah as concubines.  The extreme, of course, was King Solomon, with 700 wives and 300 concubines.  A lot of people talk about Biblical marriage, but it is hard to think of a marriage in the Bible that anybody would actually want to emulate.

There are, however, other voices and other stories in the Hebrew scriptures.  Among these are Jochebed and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses, who work against the power empire to preserve Moses’ life.  Later Miriam leads the Israelites in worship after they have escaped from Egypt.  There is the story of Naomi and Ruth, a mother and daughter-in-law who face long odds but work together and overcome the customs of the time to secure a future.  In the Book of Judges there are strong and independent women including Deborah, who is the Judge and ruler of Israel.  There is the woman of Proverbs 31 who not only takes care of the home but invests in real estate.  There is the prophecy of Joel, who proclaimed that through the power of the Spirit both sons and daughters would prophesy.

By the time of the New Testament, these examples of women as leaders, as taking on roles that were far beyond what was common in the culture, are found quite frequently.  There are Philip’s daughters, who all prophesied – in other words, they were preachers.  Several weeks ago we looked at the church in Antioch, as reported in Acts.  Paul and Barnabas started this church, and it was there that followers of Jesus were first called Christians.  Lydia, a merchant in purple dyes, was the key person in the church.  After Paula and Baranabas moved on, she is in charge of the church, which meets in her home.

In Romans chapter 16, Paul mentions leaders in the church, beginning with Phoebe, a deacon or minister, and including Junia, who is called an apostle.  There are a number of other women listed here who are significant leaders in the church.

In a more philosophical and theological framework, in the very beginning of creation, In Genesis chapter 1, both male and female are created in God’s image.  There is equality and partnership.  And through the scriptures, there are both masculine and feminine images of God.  As we know, there are a preponderance of male images, perhaps in part as a contrast to the gods of Israel’s neighbors, which were often related to fertility and were generally feminine.  But to call God Father, for example, is metaphorical language.  God is not a gendered being.  God is not a boy.  The Holy Spirit in particular is sometimes represented as feminine, as in the hymn we sang a moment ago, and the Hebrew word ruach, or spirit, is grammatically feminine.

In the New Testament, one of the great texts regarding the role of men and women is Galatians 3:28 – “there is no male and female, for you are all one on Christ Jesus.”

The role of women in the early church was radical by standards of the day.  Particularly in the life of Jesus – he counted women among his good friends and followers and there was a group of women mentioned in Luke who provided for Jesus’ ministry out of their resources.  Women were funding the whole operation.  Jesus’ public conversations with women, which would have been considered completely inappropriate, and the way that he listened to them and took them seriously was nothing short of radical, and at its best, this openness extended to the early church.

What is interesting is that those texts that speak of women keeping quiet in church and not exercising authority over men come in Paul’s later letters.  The same Paul who commends women as deacons and apostles later says women should keep silent in the assembly.  It seems that the leadership exercised by women in the early church caused a huge stir – I mean, nobody had seen this before.  In the wider society, the church was accused of antinomianism – of lawlessness – and of trying to ruin society, which to be honest sounds somewhat familiar (if you still have that Pat Robertson quote in your head).

There is this balance between freedom and order, and at times Paul comes down on the side of order.  He encouraged churches to tone it down and for women to adhere more closely to cultural norms.  Which was easy for him to say, of course.

So, we have various models and various teachings in scripture regarding the role and place of women in church and society, often in response to very specific local situations.  But for me, what is most important is Jesus. 

Dorothy Sayers was writer known for her detective stories.  She was also a lay theologian and Christian apologist and a contemporary and friend of C.S. Lewis.  She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, but she didn’t really talk a lot about feminism.  She was more interested in just being human and pursued her goals whether or not they were considered feminine.  To give you an idea of her point of view, she wrote,

I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of magazines to say something about the writing of detective fiction “from the woman’s point of view.”  To such demands, one can only say, “Go away and don’t be silly.  You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle."
Sayers wrote a wonderful little book called Are Women Human?  And she talks about Jesus and women.  She said,

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross.  They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another.  A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.
There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.
Jesus encouraged the full humanity and full possibility of every person, man or woman.  He taught that we were to love God and love our neighbor.  He encourages us to serve others, to act in love, to make a difference, to share the Good News.  To put up roadblocks to keep a person from serving in a particular role or vocation because of their gender was not Jesus’ style at all.

Our text says, “There is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”  God does not call us as groups or classes of people; God calls us as individuals.  The question is not whether a woman can be a doctor or lawyer or engineer or pastor or stay at home mom; the question is whether that calling and that choice is right for any individual.

The world of the Bible is vastly different to our culture.  But scripture gives us examples of leading the culture, stepping beyond the culture, transforming the culture, as well as conforming to the culture.

American Baptists are not generally thought of as wild-eyed radicals, but at our best we have been a part of leading the culture.  The first woman ordained in America by any denomination was Clarissa Danforth, ordained in 1815 by Freewill Baptists in New England, a group that is today part of the American Baptist Churches.  You probably wouldn’t have guessed that Baptists were the first to ordain a woman.  In 1921, Helen Barrett Montgomery was elected president of the Northern Baptist Convention, the first woman to so lead a denomination in the U.S.   An educator and social reformer, in 1924 she was the first woman to translate the New Testament from the Greek, and I read from her translation this morning.

In our own church, we established the office of deaconess in 1936, which in time merged with the board of deacons.  We happen to have a male worship leader and male preacher today, but women serve in all areas of church life.  A year ago, our region called Jackie Saxon as the first woman to serve as Executive Minister for Mid-American Baptist Churches.

Now as I said, this is a broad topic, and we can’t address everything in one sermon.  But let me say just a quick word about language.  When it comes to feminist concerns – and we might just call that concerns for equity and fairness and wholeness – language is a huge issue.  Anna Sarkeesian, a media analyst and critic, said that when she was 10 years old she had to campaign for months to convince her parents that the “Game Boy” was not in fact just for boys.  Words matter.

In many cases, English translators of the Bible have used the word “men” when the original Hebrew or Greek in fact has the meaning of “humanity.”  In other words, some of the male language in the Bible is there because male translators put it there. 

Our hymns can be particularly difficult in regards to inclusive language.  Newer hymnals are better at this, but I often find myself substituting words as I sing older hymns.  We sang “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” a couple of weeks ago.  A beautiful hymn, a wonderful hymn, but if you had never heard it before, walking in off the street and singing “Brother love binds man to man” just doesn’t sound right.  We can talk more about language another time but it is an important concern.

One other thing: feminism is not just a thing for women.    Men also benefit from a world in which all people are free to use their gifts and in which all people are valued equally.  And as a parent, I certainly want a world in which our daughters are valued, just as our sons are valued.

I began by asking a few questions about the church you grew up in.  I am one of those people who grew up in a church in which women’s roles were limited.  In fact, women’s roles are more limited in that church today than was the case when I was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s. 

But it is interesting.  Many years ago now, that church’s minister had left for another position and so the church elected a pulpit committee.  According to the by-laws, a woman could not be a deacon and by tradition only men were ushers.  But pulpit committees did not come along that often and they had no set rules about it.  And so my mom was chosen to be chair of the pulpit committee.  At that point, this was the most important office in the church.  Even when the tradition may limit who can serve in what way, I think we implicitly know that God is more interested in all of us employing the gifts we have been given than in limiting our opportunities because of our gender or age or background or anything else.

This reminds me of one of my favorite church stories.  Many of you know Molly Marshall.  Molly has preached here and is president at Central Seminary in Kansas City.  While she was a seminary student in Kentucky she was pastor at a little rural church, Jordan Baptist Church.  The kids in the nursery liked to play church – one would be the preacher, one would be the song leader, and so forth.  One Sunday they were playing church in the nursery and a little boy wanted to be the preacher.  The girls, who had only known Molly as their minister, knew better than that.  You can’t be the preacher,” they said.  “Only girls can be preachers.” 

I think that is all I need to say today.  Amen.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

By Request: “Finding Joy” - July 28, 2019


Text: Psalm 30, John 15:9-15

This morning we continue our series based on ideas that were placed in our Summer Sermon Suggestion Box (and in case you were wondering, here is the actual box).  The congregation had the chance to submit questions or topics or scriptures that they would like to hear a sermon about.  Our suggestion for today is “Finding Joy.” 

You would think this would be an easy one.  I mean, we talk about joy a lot.  We sing about it.  There is “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” “Joy to the World,” and “How Great Our Joy,” as well as “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, down in my heart,” which I remember singing as a little kid.  CCLI, the licensing agency that allows us to print hymns and songs in our bulletins, lists 3579 songs on the theme of joy.  (I didn’t count, I took their word for it.) 

We all want to experience joy.  We talk about going on a Joy Ride, but nobody talks about going on a Misery Ride.  We jump for joy; we don’t jump for despair.  And while Beethoven composed the Ode to Joy, it turns out that he did not compose an Ode to Despondency.

The interesting thing is that people do not necessarily associate joy with the church.  Church is serious.  Peter Gomes, who for many years was the chaplain at Harvard, said that in the tradition that he (and many of us) grew up in, joy seemed almost frivolous.  He grew up in the First Baptist Church of Plymouth – where the Pilgrims landed.  They were grim people, he said.  You didn’t laugh – it was unseemly.  You rarely smiled – that suggested your mind was elsewhere.  The deacons at communion looked very sober – nobody ever smiled at the Lord’s Supper.  Prayer meeting – that was grim.  He thought that if heaven was like that forever, he wasn’t sure that was where he wanted to go.   

Very serious Puritanism had an influence in Plymouth, of course, but there is plenty of religion out there sorely lacking in joy.  I’m not sure why that is, because we are called to be joyful.  Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.  And joy is a fairly central theme in Christian faith.  In 1 Thessalonians we read, “Be joyful always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”

The problem, of course, is that you can’t just command a person to be joyful.  If that were all it took, you wouldn’t have to command it anyway, because who doesn’t want to be joyful?  But you can’t command joy in somebody else, and you can’t just will yourself to joy.  So finding joy is not necessarily an easy matter.  And just a casual perusal of scriptures about joy might make a person have second thoughts about whether joy is actually worth the trouble.

The text we read from Psalm 30 is a wonderful psalm.  “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning…  You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”  What you might notice is that you have to go through weeping and anguish before you get to the joy.  Similarly, Psalm 126 says, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

In the Book of Esther, we read that “for the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor.”  Of course, this came only after they were within an eyelash of mass execution.

These downcast and sometimes harrowing conditions for joy are found just all over the place.  In John 16:20, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”  Jesus says that signing up for the Joy Train is not going to be an easy ride.

And then James writes, “My brothers and sisters,” whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” - because these trials lead to growth.

Well, you get the idea.  We hear about no pain, no gain.  The Biblical message is almost “no pain, no joy.  “For the sake of joy that was set before him Jesus endured the cross.”  I don’t know about you, but getting yourself killed does not exactly sound like a recipe for joy to me.

So if we are looking for joy, we might expect right off that it is not always an easy road.  Yet we have all experienced those moments of joy, and of course we want to have joy in our lives. 

If you think about those joyful moments in your life, it is often true that they come after difficulty or trying moments or at least some measure of personal investment.

What comes to mind when you think of a time that you really experienced joy in your life?  A lot of people might say, “When our son was born, when our daughter was born, it was pure joy.”  Well, for the mother in particular, it wasn’t pure joy; there was a lot of pain mixed in there.  And there were those nine months of waiting and hoping and praying – then came the joy.

Or maybe when your child graduated or got married, or perhaps just to see a child thriving and doing well, that can bring joy.  Again, that can come after ups and downs and much effort and various heartaches.

Children can bring joy, but if someone asks how to find joy, we are certainly not going to answer, “Have a baby.” 

I don’t know that we can necessarily create joy.  We can work to create happiness.  Happiness is more of a human achievement.  It has to do with contentment and satisfaction.  It tends to be brought on by outward experiences and things.  A vacation or shopping trip or a nice dinner might bring happiness, but it won’t exactly bring joy.

Joy is something deeper.  Frederick Buechner says,

We never take credit for our moments of joy because we know that…  we are never really responsible for them.  They come when they come.  They are always sudden and quick and unrepeatable.  The unspeakable joy sometimes of just being alive.  The miracle sometimes of being just who we are with the blue sky and the green grass, the faces of our friends and the waves of the ocean, being just what they are.  The joy of release, of being suddenly well when before we were sick, of being forgiven when before we were ashamed and afraid, of finding ourselves loved when we were lost and alone.  The joy of love…  (in The Hungering Dark)
Joy comes when it comes.  But it comes when we are open to it, and it tends to be related to our personal investment. 

If you are a sports fan, seeing your team win the big game can bring happiness.  If the Cyclones beat the Hawkeyes, there will be a lot of happy people in Ames, no doubt about it.  If the Cardinals somehow win the World Series and if they sweep the Cubs in the playoffs to get there, I would be happy. 

But joy would be to coach a team of little leaguers or kids playing soccer or gymnasts, to work with a them, get to know them, see them grow, see them come together as a team, watch them overcome obstacles and just give it their all.  There is already joy at that point, and if they win, that is just the icing on top.  It is the personal investment and relationship that makes for real joy.  The outcome of the game can be almost incidental.

I think about something like our Music Camp.  We worked hard all week to learn a musical, to literally get our act together.  And we got to spend time with a special group of kids.

Several of them were not the most popular kids at school.  There were kids who were a little different.  There were former campers who came back to be counselors, and some of them are kids who have trouble fitting in.  To see all of these kids be a part of something and to see the excitement they had as they performed in the talent show – and then to see the campers all give each other a standing ovation – that brought real joy.  To know that all of the hard work really made a difference for kids who may need a bright spot in their lives – that brought joy. 

All of this to say that joy is not necessarily easy.  There is no magic formula.  And it sometimes takes pain to get to joy.  Because it is hard to get to joy without personal investment.  Without vulnerability.

In preparation for this sermon, I turned to that great source of Biblical interpretation and Christian commentary – ESPN films.  I hesitate to use a sports reference more than once in a sermon, but I’m making an exception today.  There is an ESPN series called “Basketball: A Love Story.”  What a beautiful title, right?

Well, it has a lot of has to do with the history of basketball.  It’s filled with stories of friendship and sacrifice and a lot of cultural commentary, not simply sports per se.  One segment got my attention.  It looked into what basketball coaches felt when their team won a championship.  Was it joy, or was it more like relief?

It was surprising how many said “relief.”  Some had been to the big game, to the Final Four or NBA championship more than once, but they hadn’t won.  One coach said, “If you get close a couple of times and don’t win it, you’re going to carry that with you the rest of your life.”  They were worried about their legacy.  And there was a significant amount of fear.  Pat Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers, and he said that in 1985, if they had not won, he knew that he would be fired. 

Other coaches talked about the pure joy of it.  They were so thrilled for their players, who had worked so hard.  They had overcome adversity.  Some had never expected to get to that place.  Some thought about their own humble beginnings and all that had led to this point.  And when the time came, they were just living in that moment.

One coach said, “The day after, when you are sitting having a coffee by yourself, you realize the importance of every single guy, because it’s not a one-man band.”

The coaches who were primarily focused on the team, who talked about highs and lows and heartbreaks along the way, they were the ones who talked about joy.

Vulnerability, investment in others, being a part of something bigger than yourself, overcoming adversity together – basically it is about love.  You cannot have joy without love.

The scriptures speak of the joy of the cross – which sounds crazy when you think about it – but what led Jesus to the cross was love.  Love, at some level, is a prerequisite for joy.

In our scripture reading from John, Jesus says, “I have told you these things so that you might have joy.  And this is the main thing I am telling you: love one another.”  Love is the path to joy.

I was a bit surprised, to be honest, by how complex and complicated the whole phenomenon of joy really is.  Joy can come even in the midst of adversity, in the midst of pain, in the midst of struggle.  “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Pastor Lillian Daniel wrote:

Joy can occur even in unhappy situations, such as in the midst of a sacrifice.  Joy springs up in that odd moment when despair turns madly, unexpectedly, against all odds towards hope.

Joy can take place on either side of the hospital waiting room door.  Joy allows us to see the brilliance of life even as it is slipping away from us.  Joy is pure grace, a gift that is bigger than our human imaginations and sneaks up on us like a silent friend with a soft shoulder to cry on.  Joy is big enough to contain our deeply felt tears.
In just the last couple of weeks, I have received plenty of bad news.  A trusted colleague, a family friend, and our own church family have been touched by cancer, and I learned that my mom has breast cancer.

These are not easy times.  The political news gets meaner and harsher and more cruel every day, and it is all deeply troubling.  So this did not feel like a great time to write a sermon on joy.  These do not feel like joyful times.

And yet, this is exactly when we need joy.  And joy so often comes where there has been pain or hardship or disappointment or worry.  This is wonderful news because it means we are up to our ears in opportunities for joy to break out!

Now, as far as a recipe for finding joy – I’m not sure I have one, because it seems to be more of the case that rather than our finding joy, joy finds us.  Maybe the best we can do is to try and put ourselves in places where we can be found.

We can’t manufacture joy, but we can invest ourselves in relationships.  We can attend to meaningful work – we can be a part of things that really matter.  We can love God and we can love our neighbors.  We can be thankful and we can be attentive.  We can look for beauty.  We can spend time in nature, in God’s creation.  We can be a community that encourages joy, even as we are honest about the pain around us.

Jesus said, I give you a commandment: love one another.  When our journey is focused on love, we can find joy along the way – joy in the journey.  Maybe even right here.  Maybe even right now.  Amen.


By Request: “How Should the Church Handle People with Grief, Illness, and Sadness in the Congregation?” - July 21, 2019

Text: Romans 12:9-15

I had a conversation recently with someone who had moved to a new city and was struggling with finding a church that was a good fit for her – a church where it felt like she belonged.  She was looking for a church where she agreed more or less with the theology, where the worship did not have to perfect but was engaging and authentic, and where there was a sense of community.  A place where she would find friends.

She told about visiting a church in her new city.  It was very high-tech, very efficient, it had upbeat soft-rock style music, and a message that was pretty simple, but fine, she said.  The thing about this church that was an issue for her is that nobody spoke to her.  Not a soul.  And as far as she could tell, they didn’t speak a whole lot to each other, either. 

Now I know that for some people, that might actually be a positive.   The idea of a church where nobody notices whether you are there or not can be appealing.  But most of us want church to be a community.  A place where we can find support and encouragement and understanding and help when we need it and a place where we can be a part of something bigger than us.

One of the questions in the Summer Sermon Suggestion Box was “How Should the Church Handle People with Grief, Illness, and Sadness in the Congregation?”  How do we relate to those in the church who are hurting?  It’s a good question, another excellent question.  And this question gets right at the heart of this issue of community.

I remember being at a pastor’s conference a number of years ago.  Dr. Molly Marshall, the president at Central Seminary in Kansas City and a longtime friend of Susan and me was the speaker.  She was talking about ecclesiology – that’s the theological term for our understanding of the church.  She was being purposely provocative, but she questioned whether the idea of the church as a family was actually a good image, a helpful way to think about the church.

I mean, think about what family means – about all that family entails.  If you are hurting financially, you might ask mom and dad to help out.  If you are sick, family members will be there for you.  They might come and stay with you after surgery.  They help you move in at school.  If you get arrested, they may or may not bail you out, but family is who you are going to call.  Your family will put up with your weird habits and eccentricities and even if you have serious differences – differences of opinion, differences of politics, differences of religion – you are still family.  You are still connected to one another.  Family members might drive you crazy, but they are still family.

Molly questioned the idea of the church as family because it may create unrealistic expectations.  If we think of the church primarily as a family, it may lead to disappointment. 

Well, Molly was playing devil’s advocate a bit, but some at the conference were upset that she dared to question the idea of the church as a family.  We talk about our church family and it carries great meaning.  But Molly was asking very important questions.  When we speak of the church as a family, what does that mean and what kind of expectations come with that?

I thought about the question that was suggested for this sermon and it occurred to me that we could really just shorten the question to, “How does the church deal with people?” - period.  Because at some point, we are all grieving.  We all face illness.  We all have times of sadness.  It is just part of life.

Following the death of his wife many years ago, Martin Marty wrote a wonderful little book that was a reflection on some of the Psalms called A Cry of Absence.  He speaks of two kinds of spirituality – a summery spirituality, characterized by happiness and praise and a warmth of spirit.  The summer season of the soul is a time of joy and hope and certainty. 

But there is another kind of spirituality, which Marty calls a wintry spirituality.  He notes that about half of the Psalms fit with this season of the spirit.  When death comes, when absence creates pain, in times of discouragement and worry and fear and foreboding, in times when God seems to us to be absent – these are winter times of the heart.  And Marty notes that we are all subject to these times.  They can come suddenly, without warning.  And for some people, the wintry season of faith is an especially long season.

So maybe the first thing to acknowledge is that when we ask this question – when we ask how should the church relate to folks who are hurting – is that we are not just talking about other people, we are potentially talking about ourselves.

We would all prefer those summery times of the spirit, but I am afraid that we have tried to normalize those times, for lack of a better word.  Or to set them as God’s ideal so that we can be a bit uncomfortable when others are not experiencing happy and cheery times in their lives. 

I think that whatever we are hoping for from the church, we want church to be a place where people are real.  Where we can be ourselves and where authenticity is valued.  That means that we are going to have to understand that at any given moment, a number of us are facing those wintry times of the soul.  Church should not be a place where we feel like we always have to put on a happy face.  It takes way too much energy to do that.  And if we can’t be real and honest with one another, then what’s the point?

Our scripture this morning is from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  He says, “Love one another with mutual affection.”  The Common English Bible translates this as, “Love each other like the members of your family.”  It’s no wonder we hear all the talk of church family, because it is a Biblical image.   And Paul goes on to say, and I want to focus on this, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”

As we think about how to relate to one another – those who are hurting, those who are experiencing a wintry season of the soul as well as those who are in that more summery season – these are helpful words.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, celebrate with those who celebrate, laugh with those who laugh, but also weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, hurt alongside those who are hurting.

The question, I think, is “How can we best do that?”  The question of how to relate to folks who have experienced grief and illness and sadness seems to me to be asking for such practical guidance.  How do we go about the nitty-gritty work of being church to one another, particularly when people are hurting?

I think about Jesus’ relationships.  Jesus was not afraid to show how he felt.  The shortest verse in the Bible in many English translations is a very powerful verse.  Does anybody know what it is?  “Jesus wept” in the King James - John 11:35.  The setting is that Lazarus had died.  Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus.  We read about Jesus spending time with them in their home.  Jesus had received word that Lazarus was ill but arrived at their home after he had died.  And when he saw Mary crying, he began to cry.  He was weeping with one who was weeping.

One of the things I often hear when a person has experienced a loss, or is facing a difficult diagnosis, or has lost a  job, or gone through a breakup, or is deeply concerned for a friend or family member, is “I just don’t know what to say.”

When Jesus went to see Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death, his tears said everything that needed to be said.  They expressed the concern of his heart.  I can think of occasions when my family has experienced hurt and loss.  I don’t remember much of what anybody said.  But I do remember folks who were there.  Maybe you have had that same experience.  Simply acknowledging what someone is going through and not acting as though nothing has happened communicates a lot.

“I’m sorry” is sometimes all that needs to be said.  I’m thinking of you.  I’m praying for you.  A nod, a smile, a simple acknowledgement of the pain.   A card or note or email can be express our concern, and it doesn’t need to be wordy.

You may have the opportunity to tell the spouse or child or parent of the one who is hurting that you are thinking of that person, but it is important to also express this directly to the person.  In other words, it is always better to talk to someone than talk about someone.  Rather than asking somebody else how Bruce is doing, ask Bruce.  When others don’t address your hurt directly but talk about you, it can add to the feeling of isolation.

Now, I know a lot of us feel awkward in dealing with difficult stuff.  We may be worried that the person will not want to be bothered, that they are too busy or that it will be too painful to bring it up.  Well, people have a way of letting us know what they need and letting us know if they really don’t want to have a conversation about it. 

If someone is grieving, to say the name of the one who has died lets the person know that their loved one is remembered  – people have expressed to me that they appreciate when others bring up their parent or spouse or child or other loved one in conversation.  To just say the name means that they are held in memory and continue to be important in the community.

Another way to care for those who are hurting is through practical acts of love.  Tangible expressions of concern.  Many years ago, as a Southern Baptist campus minister, I was informed that my job was being eliminated in budget cuts.  It was painful.  In retrospect it was probably a blessing because we were lousy Southern Baptists, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.

The day after I received this news, George Davis called.  He was an older minister, a wonderful guy.  He took me to lunch.  I don’t remember a thing he said but he there just to be there, just to commiserate.  This happened 28 years ago and George died 15 years ago, and I still remember it.

When there is illness or death, tangible things like bringing food or picking up somebody at the airport can mean a great deal.  We had a next door neighbor named Bill Dillon.  He was a Methodist but he was an OK guy anyway.  Bill had an illness and was in the hospital a couple of days.  I was mowing our yard anyway and Bill and Carols’ yard wasn’t all that big so I went ahead and mowed it.  It was a small thing, no big deal.  But I learned that to Bill it really was a big deal.  Such small acts can have a big impact.

This week Susan and I were talking to a friend who had lost her husband.  Susan asked her about things others had done that were meaningful.  She mostly just talked about people being there, about expressions of love, about people who brought in food.  And it was very interesting: she said she really appreciated when people brought a casserole along with a note saying what it was, because you don’t always know what it is.  I wouldn’t have thought of that, but that really is making concern tangible.

A couple more things.  First, there really isn’t necessarily a timeline on this kind of thing. Expressing concern a year after surgery or a cancer diagnosis or through a chronic illness or a death in the family is still a good time.   

What is said when a person has suffered grief or loss or a personal setback may not matter so much.  But what isn’t said really can matter.

Minimizing loss is not helpful.  “You’ll get over it in time” or “Don’t worry, there are plenty of other fish in the sea,”or other attempts to make the loss less than it is are best left unsaid. 

And likewise, attempts to explain the unexplainable are not helpful.  “God needed them more than we did” is not what a grieving person needs to hear.  It doesn’t make God look so good, either.

And then, we don’t need to know every detail about what a person is going through.  One way to care for those who are hurting is to respect their right to keep things private if they wish.  We don’t know everything about our family member’s health situation either.  Along these lines, we always ask if someone would like to be included on our prayer list.

Now going back to Molly’s argument: it is true that the church will not fulfill our every need.  The church is a human institution made up of flawed, imperfect people.  But it is also true that for a lot of us, the church can be closer than our blood family.

And here is the thing: I have observed that our actual families are not perfect either.  They can also disappoint us.

When we in the church can be real with one another – when love is genuine, as Paul puts it – and when we rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who are weeping – we as a church can truly help to see one another through those wintry times of the spirit.  And we can truly be family to one another.

How do we relate to folks who are hurting, knowing that is all of us at least part of the time?
With honesty
With compassion
With love
With grace, knowing that we are all imperfect and our efforts to care for one another are imperfect
With words and tangible actions – which are the only way people will really know that we care.

Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  Amen.   

By Request: "Explain Grace” - July 7, 2019

Text: John 1:14, 16-17; Ephesians 2:8-10

When I was in the eighth grade, we were having lunch in the school cafeteria.  I was sitting with Brian and Phil and Bob – we usually hung out together.  Some 7th grade girls were sitting at the next table.  I don’t remember exactly how it got started, but these girls threw some stuff at us and we returned fire.  It escalated a bit.  We’re talking food here.  It wasn’t an absolute no holds barred food fight – I mean, this wasn’t movie quality - but it was headed in that direction.

It was pretty well over, and I was taking my tray to the window to turn it in, when one of those girls came up behind me and whacked my tray from below and then ran.  She was trying to knock my plate and its contents to the floor.  I managed to keep it all from going everywhere, and I responded with righteous indignation.  It is possible that a still half-full milk carton went flying toward their table.  I can neither confirm nor deny that.

By this time we all realized it had gone farther than we really intended for it to go.  I looked around and hoped the teacher on duty had not noticed, but to be honest I wondered how she possibly could have missed it.

We went on to our next class – it was Industrial Arts with Mr. Elliott.  Shop class.  We were working on a project of some sort when a voice came over the loudspeaker.  “David Russell, please report to the principal’s office.”

This never happened.  Students just didn’t get called to the office like this.  If it did happen, it couldn’t be good.  Of course, all of the guys in class – this was shop class, I guess the girls were in home ec – everybody was, “Ooh, Russell, you’re gonna get it!”  I’m sure Mr. Elliott grinned too.

Now Oak Hill School, was a K-8 school.  For my first 8 years, Edgar C. Schiffer was the principal.  But in 8th grade, we had a new principal, Mr. Merchant.  Because he was new, he was a bit of a question mark.  But I could imagine him having a temper.  Throwing food in the lunch room is not something he would take lightly.  I made the long walk to his office, wondering how bad this might be.

Corporal punishment was still a thing.  Mr. Elliott, the shop teacher, and Mr. Jones, the math teacher, would give you an N (for needs improvement) on your report card for bad behavior, or you could take 1 swat with the wooden paddle instead.  If your behavior merited a U for unsatisfactory, you could take 3 swats instead.  Mr. Merchant seemed to be in the Mr. Jones-Mr. Elliott school of discipline and possibly tougher.  Of course, any number of swats would be preferable to calling my parents.

So I was seriously worried as I entered the office.  Miss Elsie, the secretary, was at her desk.  I expected an ominous and sober reception from her, but she was very happy, almost bubbly.  She announced the reason I had been called to the office: I had been chosen as a winner in the Ohio River Arts Festival poetry contest, and I would get to read my poem along with winners from other schools on the public TV station, WNIN channel 9.

I was stunned.  Not that I was a winner in the poetry contest, which was nice, but I was stunned that I had been summoned to the principal’s office and somehow my life had been spared.

I did not think of this episode in theological terms at the time, but this was an experience of grace.  I had received far better than I deserved.  I had received an amazing gift.

A few weeks ago, I asked for suggestions and questions and sermon ideas for this summer.  The very first slip of paper that I pulled out read simply, “Explain Grace.”  I don’t think you could find a more important word, a word more central to Christian faith, than grace.

Just think of all the words and phrases that are related to this word.  I know very little Spanish, but in Puerto Rico I found that just one word can go a long way.  That word is gracias.  It is a powerful word.

We say grace before meals, giving thanks for God’s gift.  We are grateful for someone’s help.  We are gratified by good news.  We offer congratulations to those who have done well.  We try to be gracious and offer welcome and hospitality to others.  If you want to express appreciation for good service, you leave a gratuity.  When our lives have been blessed, we may feel a deep sense of gratitude.  In each of these words there is a hint of this sense of receiving a gift.

There is a lot more.  If you are a musician, you may find music that contains grace notes.  They are not really essential – you might say they are gratuitous – but they add so much to the music.  And then there is a grace period.  If you are late with a payment or your library book is overdue, you may get a couple extra days.  Well, maybe not at the Ames library.

Publishers sometimes have a policy of gracing.  You subscribe to a magazine for 12 issues and they throw in an extra month or two for free, or gratis, hoping you will resubscribe.

There are also those words that speak of the opposite of grace.  If a person is lacking in grace, we might call them an ingrate.  Public figures who go through a scandal may experience a fall from grace.  A truly despicable person has no saving grace – they may even be thought of as a disgrace.  And then when someone is completely unwelcome, that person is persona non grata – literally a person without grace.

The idea of grace as a gift, as an unearned gift, is found all over the place in language and conversation.  And all of this hints at the theological meaning of the word.

The request this morning was to explain grace, which as it turns out is not an easy thing.  The more I thought about this, the more this seemed like it may as well have been a request to explain something like quantum mechanics.

Philip Yancey wrote an excellent book with the title, What’s So Amazing About Grace? In the foreword, he wrote,

Grace does not offer an easy subject for a writer.  To borrow E. B. White’s comment about humor, “[Grace] can be dissected like a frog, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”  
Yancey said that he would be mostly telling stories, that he would rather convey grace than try to explain it.

The theology to try to explain the concept of grace can be tortuous.  There are atonement theories that try to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross provides salvation, the mechanics of grace if you will.  As far as I am concerned, many of these theories do more harm than good, and they certainly don’t look like the God we see revealed in Jesus.

By the Middle Ages, Christian faith had come to be very transactional.  In terms of salvation, a person needed a sufficient amount of merit, based on good works, and the Church at times exploited the uncertainty people felt about whether they were good enough.  Martin Luther reacted to this and helped to set off the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformers focused on faith, not works.  “For by grace are you saved by faith, not of works.”  (And to be fair, the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed turned more toward faith.)

The bywords of the Reformation were sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura.  Faith alone, grace alone, scripture alone.  We are justified solely by God’s grace.  We do not earn our salvation.

Some of the theological underpinning of the Reformation came from John Calvin.  Among other things, Calvinism speaks of total depravity – we are completely unable to do any good at all by ourselves – and irresistible grace.  Don’t you love that?  If a person is among God’s elect, they will not ultimately be able to refuse God’s grace, said Calvin.  Not everyone agreed with Calvin’s views, of course, and a competing theological system that places greater emphasis on human free will, on our cooperating with God’s work of grace, is called Arminianism. 

Well as I said, the explanations can kill the thing.  I’m guessing that few if any here are wondering about atonement theories and Reformation theology, but I could go on and on about this stuff, so if you are actually interested in it, let me know.  We could have a theological discussion group or we could just go get pizza.

But I suspect that this may not be what someone wanted to hear when they wrote, “Explain Grace.”  So let me share what seems most important to me.

Maybe the best story in the Bible to think about God’s grace is the prodigal son.  You probably know the story.  The son asks for his inheritance – which is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead.”  The father for some reason complies.  The son runs off and spends it all on wild living.  When the money was gone, so were his friends, and he winds up with a job feeding pigs to survive, which is as low as it gets for a Jewish kid.  And then we read that he comes to his senses.  He decides to go home and beg for forgiveness.  Knowing he is unworthy to be called the man’s son, we will ask to work as a servant at his father’s house.

But before he even gets to the house, the father throws all propriety aside and runs out to meet the boy to welcome him home.  Before the son can apologize, the father says, “My son who was dead is alive!  He was lost and now is found!”  And he throws a huge party to welcome him home.

That is God’s grace, loving us and welcoming us no matter what.  The grace of God means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.  And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.

How many people are starving to hear that?  How many people are thirsting for that kind of grace, that kind of love and acceptance?  How many people are facing difficult lives and long to be offered just a bit of grace?

Grace is a free gift, an undeserved gift.  But like any gift, it is up to us to accept it.  There is one theological term that may be helpful.  There is something called Prevenient Grace.  Basically, it means grace that goes before us, grace that was there before we even knew it.  Everything is a gift, and even the ability to accept the gift is itself a gift.

Our mission team arrived in Puerto Rico on a Saturday.  We got to the church where we were staying that evening.  The people at that church were very nice, very gracious, and we thought we would worship there the next morning.  I mean, it would be a short commute, about 30 steps.  But we were told that we should go to the church where we would be working, maybe 15 miles away.  So we did.  The music was lively and although I didn’t understand many of the words, I enjoyed it.  Then came the sermon, and it was translated.  The pastor had a very different theology than me, but I decided to overlook that and take it in as a sociological learning experience.  But the pastor and the whole congregation were clearly so happy that we were there.  They were so welcoming and they prayed for our team during the service.

After church we were going to go out to eat and then go to a beach.  It was our free day.  We were asking the worship pastor about a good place to eat.  We wanted to go to the kioskos, a collection of food places by the beach, but we thought it would be too crowded on a Sunday at lunchtime.  He said, No, I’ll take you there, follow me.  We followed him.  We got there and it was packed.  He got out of his car and said, you can park right here.  It was in the grass, beside a little garage.  I was driving the 15 passenger van and after 3 or 4 attempts I backed into the spot.  And then he took us to this open air restaurant.  It was very nice.  We asked but he said he was busy and couldn’t stay and eat with us.

The waiter was so helpful and so attentive, explaining everything.  The owner was very appreciative that we were there on the island to help.  It was a little pricier than I had envisioned, but we all had a very nice meal, a wonderful meal.  Some of us had mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish that is both delicious and fun to say.  We lingered and visited and it started to get to where we were not going to have much time at the beach.  I asked the waiter if he could bring our checks.

We were all floored when he said, “There’s no charge.  It’s all taken care of.”  We had arrived wanting to work, wanting to give, wanting to serve, but this church that had been without power for close to 6 months, that had suffered from the storms and had many members move away and not return had paid for our lunch, and it was not an inexpensive lunch.  It was an expression of grace, and as we each offered grace to the other, our differences seemed a lot less important as the week went on. 

Offering grace to another person is more than giving them a break or trying to be understanding toward somebody who is going through a tough time.  I mean, it is that, but it is more.  It is realizing the gift we have received and sharing that gift with others.  It is knowing that at some level, we are all broken people.  It is living not by a ledger sheet, figuring out who owes whom, but living in God’s wild and wonderful economy.

Grace is when fraternity guys just show up to help us rake leaves.  Grace is having a family emergency and your professor says, you need to be home, we’ll figure it out later.  Grace is having a brother-in-law you disagree with, and you love him anyway.

Grace really can’t be explained fully, because it is not a completely logical idea.  Our explanations can make it transactional, and it’s not.  For me, grace means that God’s love follows us and finds us and embraces us.  Our calling is to live in God’s grace and to share the gift.  Amen.