Saturday, August 31, 2019

"By Request: Prayer as a Way of Life” - September 1, 2019

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Luke 5:11-21

Shelly Pennefather was a basketball phenom.  She grew up in a big Catholic family and played basketball with her brothers.  By the time she was a teenager, she was unstoppable.  Her high school team in Denver won 70 games without a loss in her first three years and won three state championships. When the Air Force transferred her dad to New York before her senior season, nothing changed. Utica's Notre Dame High went undefeated, too.  She never lost a high school game and won four state championships.

Pennefather played college basketball at Villanova.  Over her career she broke Villanova’s all-time scoring record for both women and men. This was before there was a 3-point shot, and her record still stands today.

In 1987, she won the Wade Trophy, given to the best women’s college basketball player.  There was no professional women’s league in the US when she graduated from college, but professional basketball overseas offered good money.  She signed with the Nippon Express in Japan, the place where her whole life would change.

The pace in Japan was much slower -- the Express played only 14 games in four months.  Away from her college teammates and the chaos of her large family, she felt homesick and alone in a faraway city.  Her second season there was especially tough.  She did everything she could to keep busy, reading books, learning Japanese, teaching English.  But she still felt a deep emptiness. 

Until while doing volunteer work that next summer, at a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  She went to a retreat and was asked to read a Bible verse that spoke of communion with God.  And suddenly she knew that she was not alone, that God was with her and had always been with her, even in the lonely times.  This experience of God’s presence led to her decision to become a nun.

But she did not join just any order.  She joined the Poor Clares, one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray.  They never rest more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours a day, except for one hour when they walk around the courtyard in sandals.

The Poor Clares are cut off from society.  Now Sister Rose Marie, she will never leave the monastery unless there’s a medical emergency.  She gets two family visits per year, but has to visit with her family through a see-through screen.  She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, at a ceremony marking the renewal of her vows, she can hug her family.

That service was held this summer.  The Mother Superior allowed her college coach and three teammates to sneak into the line of family who had the chance to hug her.  Her mother, who is 78, will be able to hug her again is she lives to 103.  

The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.

But why would someone with so much to offer the world lock herself away and hide her talents?  Who, looking at one of the biggest professional contracts in their sport and at the top of their profession, would subject herself to such strict isolation and sacrifice?

I read this story of Shelly Pennefather, now Sister Rose Marie, and found it fascinating and moving.  (You can read it on espn.)  And I thought of this story as I read one of the topics suggested for a sermon: “Prayer as a Way of Life.”  Another wonderful suggestion.

When we think of prayer as a way of life, completely separating oneself from society and devoting one’s life to prayer like the Poor Clares is one way to do it.  And to live that kind of life certainly shows an absolute devotion to prayer.  You don’t just make that kind of choice on a whim.

For most of us, however, if prayer is going to be a way of life, it will have to be understood differently.  To think about prayer as a way of life, we have to first think about what prayer really is.

The psalms offer us a picture of prayer.  And it is a multi-faceted picture.  People cry out on behalf of themselves, their loved ones, their community, their nation.  They cry out for justice.  In pain they curse their enemies.  In lament they mourn losses.  In joy they offer God praise and adoration.  In worship they speak of God’s glory.  In confession they ask for forgiveness.  In confusion they try to discern the ways of the Holy.  In hope they pray for the nation, for the future, for children.  Pretty well every human emotion is shared with God.

We can sometimes reduce prayer to a kind of take-out order.  “I would like this and this and this.  And make that to go.”  As it turns out, that is not the Biblical understanding of prayer.  Prayer is much bigger than that.  

Prayer is essentially a connection with God.  An ongoing relationship and conversation with the Holy in which words may be used. 

Toward the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul gives some assorted final instructions.  In the passage that Rita read, Paul says “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  How are we to “pray without ceasing?”  I mean, you have to cease praying at some point in order to go about living, right?  You can’t do your job, you can’t go to class, and you can’t have your Fantasy Football Draft if you are praying all the time, can you?

If prayer only means to close your eyes and bow your head and talk to God, then, no, you can’t do that 24/7, even if you are a Poor Clare.   

In our scripture from Luke, Jesus is going about his ministry of teaching and healing.  He heals a man with leprosy, and the growing crowds become even greater.  For his part, Jesus seems to want to limit the crowds and tamp down his fame, telling the man he had healed not to say anything about it - but to no avail.

And then, what is most pertinent for us today, he goes away to a quiet place to pray.  And it wasn’t just this one time; it was a regular practice.  We see Jesus doing this in other instances; the verse says, “He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.”

For Jesus, there was a regular rhythm of prayer and action, of worship and service, and it was his life of prayer that made the action possible.  Prayer was the fuel that got him through.  He lived a life of prayer.

I had a weird thing happen this week.  I’m working on this sermon about prayer on Thursday afternoon, and the phone rings.  Janelle, our office manager, had just left for the day.  I answer the phone and the person asks if there is a pastor around.  I said, “You’re talking to one,” and she says she has a question about prayer.  It’s about a verse in the Bible, 1 John 5:15: “and if we know that God hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”  But she had been praying and was wondering when those requests were going to be obtained – when her prayers would be answered.

The verse does make it sound pretty simple.  I quickly looked up the passage and noted that the verse just before speaks of asking God anything according to God’s will.  So it is not just a blank check.  You don’t pray for a million dollars to arrive in the mail and it shows up the next day.  The passage is speaking of praying in a way that aligns with God’s will.  And then she mentioned she had been praying for a long time for another person to change.

That is especially difficult, and many of us have prayed those kinds of prayers.  The Bible speaks of persistence in praying.  But there is also the reality that God does not force any of us, even toward a good purpose.  We all have free will.

The answers to our prayers might be yes or no, but a lot of times it is maybe or eventually or give it time.  Or maybe the answer is, I want that as bad as you do, but it’s not entirely up to me.  Or not infrequently, we’re not sure what the answer is.  Or maybe there are those times when an answer, as we think of answers, is not the main point. 

I asked this person how she had come to call our church, and she said she was new around here and didn’t have a church and just wanted to talk to a pastor. 

Once in a great while I get a call like that, but the timing of it – while I was thinking and sermonizing about prayer – was really curious.  But that short conversation was a reminder of how complex prayer is.  And how important it is to us.  And it was a good reminder that prayer is not so much a transactional enterprise. 

Prayer is not a matter of we ask and God delivers.  Prayer is much deeper than that.  It is about cultivating a relationship; it is about immersing ourselves in the ways of God so that the things we hope for and dream about, and the things we work for and strive for – the things we pray for - are aligned with God’s ways.  It is about transforming our hearts toward love and justice and compassion and truth and being aware and open to God’s work and presence in the world around us.  It is about sharing the depths of our souls with God.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen captured what it means to think of prayer as a way of life:

To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God.

As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.  Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone (as Jesus did), prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of God.  Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue.  This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation.  The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.  (Clowning in Rome)
Prayer is about thinking and living in God’s presence.

Now it is important to set aside time both for personal prayer and for prayer as part of a community.  Nouwen also said that without community, individual prayer becomes self-centered, but without individual prayer, the prayer of the community becomes a meaningless routine. So we need both individual and community prayer - one without the other is problematic.

Both personal and corporate prayer are essential, and when we are mindful of God’s presence throughout our daily activities, then prayer become a way of life.

For me, a time when this happens more easily is as I walk our dog in the morning.  Taking in the beauty of the morning, noticing the trees and flowers and sky and clouds and sunshine.  It is a time to be mindful and grateful for the blessings around us.  I may think about the day ahead or concerns that I have, or maybe I am totally in the moment, maybe I'm more focused on Rudy's adventures as we walk, but I can be mindful of God’s presence in the midst of it.

When we think of prayer in that sort of way, it can change things.  We are able to simply be in the presence of God.  This may be what Martin Luther had in mind when he said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” 

And so, our singing can be a prayer.  Our work can be a prayer.  Our activities can be a prayer.  Our study can be a prayer.  Our drive to work can be a prayer.

Anne LaMott wrote this wonderful little book that we used for a Lenten Study a couple of years ago: Help, Thanks, Wow.  She says those are the three essential prayers.  When prayer becomes a way of life, we go through our day in a kind of conversation with God, as Nouwen describes it, and as the day unfold, we can be quick to ask for Help, quick to give Thanks, and quick to exclaim Wow.

Most Sundays, we pray The Lord’s Prayer as a part of worship.  Part of what we pray is, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  If that is truly our prayer, then we will also be working toward those ends.  And those things we do to help our neighbors, to work for a more just society, to build community, to care for God’s earth, to visit the sick, to nurture children, all of these activities are a kind of prayer.

Prayer is more – it can be more - than periodically having a talk with God.  That is very much a part of prayer, to be sure – it’s an essential part of prayer.  But prayer as a way of life is an ongoing awareness and attitude of God’s presence with us – through the good and the bad, through the joys and pains of life and through our day-to-day living.  May it be so.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

By Request: “A Scientist (?) Looks at Life from a Faith Perspective” - August 25, 2019

Text: Genesis 1:1-28, 31

Can I talk about Fred Borgen this morning?  Would that be OK?  Fred is one of the most positive and encouraging people that I know.  And he has a tremendous interest in people.  You will often see him speaking to students after the service.  He is especially interested in vocation and careers.  I have noticed him putting students in contact with people out there who are working in the field that they are studying.  Fred was into social networking way before there was an internet.  Aside from the cat videos, Facebook is almost superfluous to Fred.

His interest in people is a good thing because as most of you know, Fred is a psychologist.  His professional interests include personality and college majors and careers. 

This is all background for today’s sermon, believe it or not.  Our sermons this summer were requested by church members.  Worshipers had the chance to drop their ideas into the sermon suggestion box.   I’m operating on the theory that at least one person in the church will be interested in each sermon.

The suggestions were given anonymously, except for one (although a number of people have come forward to ‘fess up).  One slip of paper just said “Borgen,” but I knew which one.

Here is Fred’s suggestion: “A scientist (chemist) looks at life from a faith perspective.”  While my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, I would not describe myself as a scientist or a chemist – that’s where the question mark in the sermon title comes from.  But Fred, with more respect than I deserve, was calling me a scientist.  Now I will say: it’s an intriguing subject.  I took Fred’s suggestion as really asking for both something about my personal experience – of the journey from chemistry to ministry, and something about the relationship between the two – between science and faith.

Gerald Kirkman was my high school chemistry teacher.  He was a big athletic guy with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor.  He played college football at Indiana State and was a PE major, not taking it very seriously, until one day an assistant coach pulled him aside and said, “Kirkman, you are a decent player but you are not going to make a career of this.  You are a smart guy and you need to find yourself another major.”  (No offense to any PE majors out there.)  That assistant football coach was also Indiana State’s head basketball coach, a guy named John Wooden.  Yes, the John Wooden who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA championships.

So I can say that Johnny Wooden had an influence on my life, because Mr. Kirkman decided to become a chemistry teacher.  He was a great teacher and was elected president of the National Science Teachers Association.  North High School offered a second year of chemistry, Advanced Chemistry.  We had to come in an hour early, before school started, to have time for the labs.  Mr. Kirkman was a great guy and I loved it.   

I went to college in my hometown, at Evansville, and majored in chemistry with a minor in environmental studies.  I did well and became president of the American Chemical Society student affiliate.  I worked two summers at Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in town. 

But other things were happening in my life through those years.  I became involved in campus ministry and began to feel a call to ministry.  And eventually that was the path I took.

I don’t think it really occurred to me that the scientific approach to life, if there is such a thing, could not mesh with a spiritual approach to life.  And in fact, I felt like I was better prepared for seminary than some of the students who had gone to Christian colleges and majored in religion. 

A background in chemistry helped me to think analytically.  It helped me to ask questions, to consider possibilities.  And if someone were so inclined I would encourage them as a pre-theology student to major in chemistry or biology or a similar field as a good preparation for seminary – and to take some psychology and sociology and religion courses along the way.

I also remember as a seminary student coming home and preaching at my home church.  Sitting there in the congregation was my chemistry professor and research advisor, Dr. Beckman.  Some of the chemistry faculty felt like I had squandered a promising career and kind of disowned me the spring of my senior year, after I had applied to seminary.  I think this was Dr. Beckman’s way of giving her blessing on the choice I made.  A progressive Presbyterian who came to hear me preach as a then-Southern Baptist seminary student, she had this sense that faith and ministry and science could all be toward the end of making for a better world.

Years later, after coming to this church, I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities.  My thesis project involved university congregations.  Basically what I was doing was Sociology of Religion – a scientific approach to a question about faith communities.

I’m kind of embarrassed by talking about myself so much this morning, but I guess you can blame Fred for that.  But it strikes me that my background is similar to many of you.  I think about our church - we have students and professionals in agronomy, soil science, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, plant science, agricultural science, forestry, food science, animal science, dairy science, veterinary science, computer science, and other sciences – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out - along with all kinds of engineers.  And then we have social science people in our church as well, including Dr. Borgen.

With all of these sciences represented, the question may be, which is the highest science?  Which is the most “sciencey” science?  You might think of a progression from less exact to more exact sciences – from biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics.   But centuries ago, one science stood above all others.  Do you know what it was?  It was Theology.  Theology was known as the Queen of the Sciences because it dealt with ultimate matters.  And sciences – discovering natural phenomena, solving mathematical equations, working out the laws of physics – science was understood as thinking God’s thoughts after God. 

Well, it has been a long time since theology has been thought of as the Queen of the Sciences.  But some today go so far as to see faith and science as opposed to one another.  This view comes both from secularists who see no place for matters of the spirit and from religious fundamentalists who see science as the enemy. 

The Tom Troeger hymn we sang, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” speaks of the way that science and faith need each other and complement each other.  The hymn ends, “Blend, O God our faith and learning till they carve a single course; till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, the Source.”

Now, there are a number of folks here today more qualified than me to speak on “A Scientist Looks at Life From a Faith Perspective.”  I found myself thinking about Bob McCarley.  For those who did not know him, Bob was a chemistry professor and chair of the department chair at Iowa State.  Five years ago, on the Sunday before school started, I sat with Bob and Jenna at a table during fellowship time.  I remember Bob having this engaging conversation with a new student.  And then, two days later, Bob was gone.  I looked up something I shared at his funeral.  I was talking about some of his family’s memories of Bob and I shared this:

Kyanne (Bob’s daughter) told about one of those epic family trips.  They made a palette in the back of the station wagon and the four kids would lie down and go to sleep, but one was supposed to ride shotgun and keep Bob awake.  One night Kyanne was riding shotgun.  It was a beautiful night, the sky was filled with stars, and Bob talked to her about his work.  Talked to her about chemistry.  He described the intricacy of molecules and the beauty of the way things worked and fit together in the universe.  He said that the world was so beautiful and so amazing, there had to be a higher power.

That is a chemist looking at life from a faith perspective.  And interestingly, for Bob, science actually pointed toward faith.

His views were essentially captured by the Psalmist who wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  If the ancient world had known what we know, the writer could have just as easily written, “The atoms are declaring the glory of God and the molecules proclaim God’s handiwork.”

Our bulletin cover artwork this morning is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  It captures the wonder and awe of the stars in the sky.  At its best, science and art and faith all involve wonder.  Science is about being open to new possibilities.  There was an article in the Des Moines Register recently about Parkinson’s Disease, which I took note of because of Elizabeth Stegemöller’s research. 

Dr. Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic was participating in RAGBRAI.  If you are new to Iowa, this means riding your bicycle across Iowa for a week with thousands of other people - and eating lots of pie.  Alberts was on a tandem bike with Cathy, a Parkinson’s patient.  The ride was intended to bring attention to the need for funding for Parkinson’s research.  But Alberts and Cathy stumbled onto an important finding: Cathy’s physical abilities improved after a day of pedaling, and then improved more after another day.

Alberts knew exercise was important, but how important was driven home to him on RAGBRAI.  On a tandem, Cathy was forced to go at his speed, which was significantly faster than hers.  On the bike, Cathy didn’t feel as stiff.  She was pedaling faster, and her brain function was better.  As she wrote postcards and mailed them to her family from across Iowa, her handwriting became more legible.  “It was a serendipitous discovery,” Alberts said. “Science can happen anywhere, even in the cornfields of Iowa.”

Science is about trial and error, about experimentation and observation.  It is about paying attention.  And it involves being willing to change your assumptions.  Basically, if you are doing science right, one needs to have humility.

There is something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was a physicist looking at subatomic particles, and the Uncertainty Principle says that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured at the same time.  You can know exactly where something is, or you can know exactly how fast it is going, but you can’t know both at the same time.

I think it is awesome that science has a principle about uncertainty.  Isn’t that beautiful?  And my goodness, that certainly translates to faith.  There is plenty that we don’t know.  There is plenty we are not quite certain about.  And an approach of humility is essential in faith, as in science.  The notion that the way I interpret the Bible, the way I understand the world, the way I think about life and about God might need to change, that there just might be room for growth, that the Spirit might speak to me, that God might lead me in a new way, is essential to faith.

Our scripture this morning is the story of creation.  God painstakingly creates the world, working all day, calling it quits for the day, looking over what had been created and calling it good.  The light, the dark, the waters, the plants, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, fish and sea life, wild animals and cattle and creeping things of every kinds, and finally human beings.  Human beings, created in the image of God.  And then God said that it was very good.

It is a wonderful, powerful account of creation.  It is beautiful and poetic.  God takes great care with this creation and God regards it all as good.  It tells us that the universe and this planet and all that is in it is created by God and loved by God.  It gives us a sense of our place and our value in this world.

I don’t know about you, but I do not read the story of creation and think, “Oh – this negates carbon-13 dating.”  To me it would be ludicrous to read this and understand this as a 21st century science text.  Instead it inspires wonder and joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging in God’s world.

Science can answer the question of how, but we need faith to answer the question of why.  Science can collect data and tell us what is, but faith has something to say about what should be.  And so science and faith need one another.

Faith that ignores the world out there is shallow.  We need the very best scientific understanding, just as we need the guidance of spiritual understanding.  When faith tries to control what is true in the realm of science, it is never a good thing.  The earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the Church has a history of condemning people who did not believe those things, based on its understanding of scripture.

The world of science also needs the influence of faith.  We need sensitivity and concern.  We need compassion and integrity toward the end of applying science to help build a better world.

Think about all of the issues our world is facing:

  • Nuclear weapons
  • Clean water and equitable water distribution
  • Natural disasters like flooding and wildfire and our response and prevention
  • Medicine and new therapies and bio-medical ethics
  • Artificial intelligience
  • Cybersecurity and information systems and privacy
  • Genetics
  • The use of scarce resources and protecting the environment
  • Energy policy
  • Policies around natural areas and land use
  • And looming over all of these, global climate change
In every single instance, science and faith need one another to address difficult issues.  We don’t inhabit a world of the spirit, with another natural world out there.  It is all one world.  It is all God’s world.  And God said that it is good.

Too much religion is concerned solely with individual salvation.  Which is important - and very much a part of our Baptist tradition.  We need lives committed to Jesus Christ.  But when we are committed to the way of Jesus, we cannot ignore the world out there – the world that God loves.

These are some thoughts from a scientist, of sorts, viewing the world from the perspective of faith.  Or maybe they are the thoughts of a person of faith viewing the world from the perspective of science.  Or maybe the two are pretty well the same. 

The word religion literally means to bring back together – re–ligio (think ligaments).  Re-ligamentize.  Your religion is the way you make connections with God and people and the world out there – the way it all holds together.  At its best, our religion brings together scientific understanding and the power and understanding of our faith as we serve God and Love our neighbor and God’s world.  May it be so.  Amen.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

By Request: “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” - August 18, 2019

Texts: Job 38:1-13, Romans 8:26-28, 31-39

Dion Green lives in Dayton, Ohio.  His world has been turned upside down.  In May, the Ku Klux Klan came to town, spewing hatred directed at people like Dion.  Counter-protesters dwarfed those there for the Klan rally, but such open hatred was shocking.

Later that same week, Dayton was hit by a total of 12 devastating tornadoes.  One came right through Dion’s neighborhood, tearing the roof off of his house.  Blue tarps cover roofs and missing siding on houses not yet repaired.  Pieces of insulation from a neighborhood school are still on Dion’s property, and his house is not yet completely repaired.

Two weeks ago, another disaster struck.  This was the kind that cannot be fixed.  Dion’s family was celebrating a birthday when a gunman appeared and shots were fired.  Dion’s fiancĂ© tried to run but fell.  So she played dead as the shooter stepped over her.  A bullet hit Dion’s father.  Dion, who had been getting tacos just a few feet away, held his father until he died. 

In his grieving, Green said he wondered what he and his city did to deserve this.  “I have questions for the person up above,” he said.  

Dion Green voiced what countless people have felt.  When we face suffering and tragedy – as we all do at some point – there is that question of why.  Why did this happen to such a good person?  How could something so awful, so horrific happen?  Why do innocent people have to suffer?

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” was one of the questions that showed up in the sermon suggestion box.  It is a question that people have been asking from the beginning of time.  In fact, this may be the most difficult question of faith. 

Last week a mother and little boy came up to our front door and rang the doorbell.  Susan spotted them as they were coming down the street.  “Jehovah’s Witnesses!” she said.  Sure enough, she was right.

This boy was at most 7 years old.  He wore a tie and had a little hat on.  He was as cute and as sharp as he could be.  And he was the one who did most of the talking.  “Do you ever wonder why God allows so many disasters in the world?” he asked. 

I said, “I actually wonder about that a lot.”  I probably overstated how much I wondered about it, but I did have this sermon and this question in mind.  And then he read a verse from the book of Job.  I remembered the gist of it and looked it up in the New World translation – the Jehovah’s Witnesses translation of the Bible.  It was Job 34:10:  “So listen to me, you men of understanding: it is unthinkable for the true God to act wickedly, for the Almighty to do wrong!”

And then this kid asked if I would like to discuss this.  His mom is standing there, of course.  I said that I was a pastor and I would actually be preaching from Job next week.  She said it was nice to meet somebody who believed the Bible and to have a nice day.

Job is essentially a drama with several characters.  It begins with God and Satan having a conversation about Job.  They agree that he is completely righteous and upright.  But Satan says, “Job only loves and serves you because he is so successful.  He would not serve you if his life were a mess.”  So God and Satan strike a bargain – they kind of have a bet going.  Satan can do whatever he wants to Job short of killing him.

In short order, enemies raid Job’s flocks, carrying off or killing his livestock and killing his servants.  A storm came along and a house collapsed, killing his children.  Job’s health is attacked and his body covered with boils.  Job’s wife tells him to go ahead and curse God and die.  But Job says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

That is the opening of Job.  The majority of the book is made up of speeches by Job and his friends as they debate the ways of God.  The general consensus on how life worked was that riches and good health and success were God’s reward for living righteously, while poverty and sickness and struggle were a sign of one’s sinful condition.  And so his friends know that Job is sinful.     

For his part, Job knows deep inside that he is not a bad person and that if this is punishment for some wrong he has committed, it is all out of proportion.  He questions and complains to God, he wishes there were an umpire to judge between him and God, but he refuses to curse God.

Job’s friends lecture Job about his sinfulness and God’s judgment on him.  It is Elihu, one of Job’s friends, that my little Jehovah’s Witnesses friend was quoting to me.  That doesn’t mean that statement is wrong, but Elihu is not a completely reliable source.  I could have told this boy, “Are you serious?  You’re going to quote Elihu to me?"  But that would have been really poor form.  (And I didn’t actually know it was Elihu until I looked it up later.)

While his friends are sure Job is being punished, Job himself winds up feeling that God is so powerful that perhaps God doesn’t have to be fair.

Our reading from Job this morning is God’s response.  It is an answer but not a very satisfying one.  “Were you there when I created the world?  Do you tell the sun to rise each morning?”

Does it mean that God is so powerful that God doesn’t have to give an explanation to the likes of Job?  Or that our problems are not really that big a deal in the larger scheme of things?  Or is it saying that God is so far above us and beyond us that we could not possibly understand?  One Jewish commentator understands this as God saying, “You think it’s so easy being God – why don’t you try?”

In the end, Job’s fortunes are restored, and doubled.  He has 14,000 sheep, 6000 camels, and ten more children.  Job is vindicated. 

Job is maybe the oldest reflection we have on the problem of evil.  The story of Job argues against the idea that doing well is a sign of God’s favor and that trials in life are a sign of a person’s sinfulness.  Beyond that, however, we don’t get a very satisfying answer.  And what about his children who are killed just to make a point? – who are just pawns in a game?  Well, it does help when you think of Job as a drama, a once upon a time story, a big parable.  But still. 

The problem of evil – the question of why bad things happen to good people – can be stated in this way.  There are three statements we all want to believe, that can’t all be true at the same time.

1. God is all-powerful.   2. God is completely good.   3. Evil exists in the world.

If God is all-powerful, controlling everything, and God is all good, only wanting what is best, then how can there be evil?

Some deal with this question by denying evil.  Suffering is just an illusion.  Or what look like bad things are actually for our good in the end.  Or there is a good and loving purpose behind it that we just cannot know or understand.

I would have a hard time telling Dion Green that his father’s death is not really evil and that God has a good purpose behind it.  We see terrible suffering in our world, and we can’t just can’t say that it is an illusion , or there is a greater purpose behind it all.  What greater purpose was behind the Holocaust?  No, evil is real.

And it is hard for me to say that God is not good.  The scriptures tell us that God is love.  We look at Jesus and we see one who is motivated by love.  Speaking of the problem of evil and suffering, James Howell writes:

Here is a good starting point: God is not sadistic.  God is love.  A God who childishly gets even, lashes out, strikes back is no God.  Such a god we should refuse to believe or serve… God could have created a perfect world, with perfect people, no illness, no evil, no flaws.  But God is more interested in love than in perfection.  Robots cannot love; love for God, love for each other, can never be ordered up.  God runs the risk of pain and suffering, hoping for love. 
To me, part of the answer is that God gives up some power and becomes vulnerable.  I mean, God came to us in Jesus as a baby, and that is the picture of vulnerability.  And you don't get much more vulnerable than being nailed to a cross.  

God does not control everything.  God does not control human beings.  Without the ability to say no, our yes means nothing.  We can choose good or evil.  We can choose love or hate.  We can make choices, and our choices have consequences. 

One of the memories etched in my mind is of a time when I was a junior in high school.  We were coming home from a church basketball game – we played at a gym downtown.  The coach and a couple of players who lived near each other were in the car.  We got close to home and the road by the airport was blocked off.  We actually had a hard time getting home.  And then came the news, the reason the road was blocked: the entire University of Evansville basketball team had died in a plane crash in the ravine just past our neighborhood.  How could something so terrible happen?  How could God allow this?  The Aces were to Evansville like the Cyclones are to Ames.  The whole community went into grieving.

Months later the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the plane attempted to take off with the rudder and right aileron control locks still installed.  This was not God’s fault; somebody had failed to do their job.

A large amount of suffering and tragedy and evil can be explained by human choices.  There is no other way; without real choices, we would all be programmed robots.  But what about natural disasters?  What about hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and earthquakes?

It is generally accepted that the existence of life on this planet depends on a very delicate balance.  Scientist and theologian Andrew Pratt notes that if the structure of the earth’s crust was different from what it is - if it was not constructed of tectonic plates moving constantly and inevitably causing eruptions and earthquakes, then there would be no life here at all, at least not as we know it.  The movement of the earth’s crust has generated mountains and valleys, which make for the possibilities of rivers and seas and oceans.  It was in these seas that we believe life began.  Somehow, the existence of life and the possibility of earthquakes are linked together.

Now, we certainly can’t find an explanation for everything.  There is just a randomness to life.  The tree in our front yard was struck by lightning last summer.  It fried most of the electronics in our house.  The power of the lightning strike was so great that pictures fell off the wall.  One photo frame fell on our dog’s crate.  It shattered and pieces of glass were all over the place in the crate.

We were gone at the time.  Rudy is always in the crate when we are gone.  99% of the time.  But this one time, we weren't going to be gone long so decided to leave him out, which saved him from serious injury or worse.  Why did the lightning hit the tree in our yard?  I don’t know.  Why did we decide just this one time to not put Rudy in the kennel?  I don’t know.  It seems random. 

You may have had the experience of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s random, it’s a fluke.  Or maybe you barely avoided tragedy – if that car had pulled out a split second sooner, it would have been a catastrophe.

Why does cancer strike this person and not that person?  Why does a good person suffer while a truly awful person seems to proper?  I don’t know.

Rabbi Harold Kushner had a son named Aaron who was born with a condition called progeria, or rapid aging.  When Aaron was 3, Kushner and his wife were told that Aaron would not grow much beyond 3 feet tall, he would have no hair on his body or head, he would look like a little old man and die in his teens.  A couple of years after Aaron’s death at age 13, Kushner wrote a book on the problem of suffering.

I read it years ago and in my memory, the title was Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  But that wasn’t right.  The title is When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  And that is important.  We can’t necessarily come up with a good answer to why.  But we can talk about what happens when.

Our scripture from Romans is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  But the translation of Romans 8:28 is difficult and the Greek is not entirely clear.  The more familiar translation – because at one time people grew up memorizing the verse in the King James - is “Everything works together for good.”  Which sounds like, whatever happens, it is for the best.

Many translations, including the NIV, which I read from, have this as in all things, God works for good.  This also fits the context of the passage, which speaks of the work of the Spirit on our behalf.   To say that in whatever happens, God is working for our good is very different than saying everything that happens is for good.  Because we know that is not the case. 

As much as we would like to, we don’t get an explanation for everything.  But what we know is that God does not send trials and tribulations our way.  When they come, for whatever reason, God is working for our good.  When we face trials, God can give us strength.  When we are searching, God can give us wisdom.  When bad things happen, God is there to stand with us and beside us.

In the face of pain and suffering, God can work miracles in our life.  Sometimes it is the miracle of healing and sometimes it is the miracle of strength and fortitude and sometimes it is the miracle of community and love to see us through.  And we have the promise that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Along with the question I found in the suggestion box was a follow-up question: is God still in control?  Well, as we have examined, God gives us free will.  And there is a randomness to life.  Right now, God does not control everything.  But ultimately, God’s kingdom will come in its fullness.  The witness of scripture is that ultimately, love will win.  For now, we can choose to follow Christ.  We can make ourselves open to the leading of the Spirit.  We can be a part of that coming kingdom.   

When bad things happen, we are called to stand with each other and to care for each other.  At Dion Green’s father’s funeral, his uncle, Jeffrey Fudge, was the first family member to speak.  He begged everyone to practice more love and togetherness because love, he said, is undefeated. 

When bad things happen to good people, God is there, and God calls us to be there, in love.  In this world God has created, that is our choice to make.  Amen.

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.