Friday, July 20, 2012

Children of God

I preached this sermon after the Arizona shootings in January 2011. Sadly, it still seems applicable. Peace, and gentle thoughts for sisters and brothers traumatized by today's shooting in Colorado.

Sermon for January 9, 2011 Texts:  Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Gabrielle Gifford, Child of God.
Gabe Zimmerman, Child of God.
John Roll, Child of God.
Christina Taylor Green, Child of God.

These four people, and 15 others, were wounded or killed in a horrific shooting in Tucson, Arizona yesterday.  It took place in one of the most ordinary places, outside the grocery store, on an ordinary winter Saturday.    These four people were doing that most ordinary of things:  their jobs.    They had each followed a call to public service, of one sort of another – Gabrielle Gifford, elected as a congressperson, Gabe Zimmerman hired as a community outreach director, John Roll, appointed as a federal judge, Christina Taylor Green, 9-year-old newly elected student council representative, who wanted to learn more about government.

“Here is my servant,” says Isaiah, says God.  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”    God calls us into relationship, and God calls us to service.   “Thus says God, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,…”
 And even so, those who give themselves to the people are not immune from suffering.    On the contrary, they sacrifice and suffer for it.  Sometimes, they pay the ultimate price.

The touchstones of our lives are, too often, the times when public figures who have answered the call to service, are cut down.   We differ in the details according to our generation, our geography, our culture, but the background sounds all too familiar.   The assassination of President Kennedy.  Bobby Kennedy.  Martin Luther King, Jr.   These are events marked with a before and an after.    They come out of times of turmoil, they leave us breathless, they stay with us forever. 

There are times in each human life that are inflection points, before-and-after times when your trajectory changes, where you can point back and say, “there, that’s where it all hung in the balance.”   There are times in each relationship.  There are times in the life of each community, where you can say the same:  “that day” or “that meeting” was the one where it all changed.   And there are times in the life cycles of nations and civilizations where you can feel the water rising, the current building, the stakes becoming higher and higher.   Times when you look around you and see things changing.   Times when humanity is rushing toward an inflection point.   I am convinced that we are in one of these times.   

We live in a time when words of division, words that incite hatred, dominate public discourse.  The violence increases.  There have been open calls for “Second Amendment solutions”, for revolution, for “taking our country back.”  Within the past year, rhetoric has been shifting toward action – there have been dramatic increases in the number and activity of hate groups; even before yesterday’s horror, elected officials’ homes and office have been targeted, and attacked.     With every speech, every broadcast, every internet posting, divisiveness is released into the air, floating among us, seeding destruction. 

And with each release, we accommodate ourselves a little more to this reality – some of us shaking our heads in sorrow, some of us withdrawing.  But the more we hear it, the more it becomes part of “normal” – even if it’s an unsavory, undesirable, “normal.”    Our thinking and our feeling becomes more and more polarized , more “us” vs “them.  We stand in the river of muck that is this new “normal” and watch it flowing by us and around us.  It saturates our clothes.  We get used to its stench.  We catch ourselves speaking its language, almost without noticing.  Blame, and distancing, and depersonalizing.    We stand hip-deep in the muck of this river of sin.  Yes, I used the ‘S’ word.   Sin.  There’s no other word for it.   Sin.  We stand hip deep in this river of us-vs-them, hatred and violence, and forgetfulness.  We forget who we are.  And we forget who we are called to be.   And we forget who is our brother, and who is our sister, and who all of our other relations are.  We forget that we are children of God – and we forget that that “other” person is, too.  That, my friends, is the very definition of sin. 

And so, I say this name too:  Jared Lee Loughner, Child of God.

Because Christ stands in the river with us and weeps, that we have come to this.  That one Child of God could have their soul so twisted, their senses so clouded, by the evil all around us, that it seemed somehow right to seek to end these lives.  That it seemed somehow an act of justice, an act of redemption for him to do so.  Christ stands in the river and weeps that there are others out there who believe he was in the right, and continue to believe that he was in the right.  Christ stands in the river and weeps that there are many who want to demonize Jared Lee Loughner, Child of God, this day - who make him a mere object, an embodiment of all they hate and fear.  Jesus Christ stands in the river of hatred and fear and division and ugliness that we have poured forth.  Jesus Christ, God’s servant, God’s child, agent of transformation.   Christ stands witness in this moment.  

Hear these words: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan [River], to be baptized by him. …And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove …"   John the Baptist, the prophet who preached repentance, who washed people clean in the river, is present in this moment.    The Prince of Peace, upsetter-of-the-status-quo is present in this moment.  The heavens have been ripped open.  Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are present in this moment. 

We are at an inflection point.  We are standing hip-deep in the filthy river, and John is pointing to it, saying, “What are you going to do? What word will you speak?”   And Christ stands next to us, in the river – because where else would he be? – he stands next to us, holding this moment open, holding the crack in the heavens open for a little bit longer, holding the opportunity open with all the strength that comes from knowing that he is a Child of God, offering us the invitation to reach out to heaven.  

The Creator stands ready to speak, and the Spirit stands ready to help us fly.    But we need to speak the words ourselves.  We need to be the covenant.   We need to be the light.    The world is waiting for this Word.  The nation waits for this teaching.   The Children of God are waiting, on the coasts, and in the desert, and the mountains.  Reach!  Speak!  Risk!   Help God do a new thing.  Live your call as Children of God! 

Oh, dear God, help us take this moment, is all I can pray right now.  Jesus Christ, I pray, transform us.  Give us the strength you had, to stand upright in the midst of violence, to see it clearly and to challenge the brokenness.   Spirit, breathe into us the holy promises.  Help us live as God’s servants, a gift of light and love to the world - so we can hear the voice of God speak once again from the heavens, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”   In the name of the One who transforms the most difficult situations, who calls us by name, and who calls us to serve.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

In Her Own Words: The Hemorrhaging Woman

It started about 12 years ago. I can’t really pinpoint the day things started going wrong. I was tired all the time. I felt like there was this constant drain on my life. It wasn’t like it was a huge, dramatic event. Life just got gradually got worse and worse. I hurt, I didn’t have any energy, I seemed to catch just about every illness that went through town.

When it got so bad that I couldn’t take care of my daily errands, I knew I had to do something. I called the doctor. He hemmed and hawed and said he needed to consult with colleagues. He suggested a certain medicine. I went to the pharmacist, and it cost more than twice what I was expecting. I was on that prescription for a few months before we decided it wasn’t doing anything. Hundreds of dollars down the drain.

I was getting used to being at home. It was far too inconvenient, and far too taxing, to travel around town. A small trip to the market sapped all my energy. I did make one big trip, to the city. Somebody – one of my neighbors, I think - suggested this specialist might be able to help me. That doctor said he’d have to research the literature, that I was a unique, and interesting case. After that trip, I gave up on Western medicine. I tried acupuncture. I did internet searches, staying up all night long. I found this website – there was a combination of natural supplements that might do the trick. I was running out of hope, so I ordered in bulk, even though it put my checkbook into the negative. I waited impatiently for the mail to arrive – about the only thing I could muster the energy for.

When I went out to the mailbox, the kids in the neighborhood would look at me, and point. I could almost hear them…”there’s that crazy lady”, they said. “Yeah, the one who never leaves her house!” “Well, she’s out there now! Don’t look her in the eye, it might be catching!” Let them think what they wanted. It didn’t matter. Days in front of the computer evolved into days on the sofa, weeks in bed. Somebody from church had groceries delivered every week, but I just let them ring the doorbell and leave the bags on the porch. I didn’t want any visitors. I’d spent everything trying to get better, and I only seemed to get worse.

Then, one day, when I cracked open the door to the porch, to bring in the bag of groceries that was my lifeline, I saw a note atop the bag, a note from my prayer partner. Inside the envelope was the following: “Dear Grace – there’s somebody new in town. Word is that people with all sorts of chronic illnesses have gone to him to be healed. They say he can change lives with nothing more than a touch! I’ve heard of people bringing handkerchiefs to him to be blessed, to give to people who are laid up in the hospital. I don’t know if you’d be interested, but they say he’s going to be at the fairgrounds this weekend. - J” And a little bit more… “ps – It’s all quite exciting. Everybody seems to know about him, there are crowds wherever he goes. Getting out might do you some good. Why don’t you call me?”

I shook my head. The last thing I needed was more false hope. I went to bed. Despite myself, I started wondering what it would be like to meet him. What would a modern-day miracle man look like? Would he have a magic wand? Carry an aura of power? Look like some earthy-crunchy leftover from an earlier decade? “Silly,” I said to myself. “Stupid. Pointless.”

But the idea kept growing. Saturday dawned clear and sunny. I got up. ‘Why not open the curtains,” I thought. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of my closet, looking for something to wear. When I stepped outside, I realized just how crazy it was. What in the world was I thinking? I walked down the sidewalk. As I got closer to the fairgrounds, more and more people joined me. Here I was, worrying about being conspicuous, and nobody even noticed one more person in the crowd.

I thought about going back home. It was so bright out, and all these people were so noisy! Way too much energy out here, too much hustle and bustle. My legs were getting shaky from the effort. This was more than I’d walked in years. Suddenly, I saw a knot in the crowd. A surge of excitement carried the people around me forward. My breath caught in my chest. I couldn’t turn around now, even if I had wanted to. We were packed elbow to elbow. I would have been trampled, if I slowed down, if I tried to go back home. I was almost lifted off my feet by the crush of people. This group up ahead looked important. “That must be him,” I thought. “Something big seems to be happening, I wonder what it is,” and the people around me kept exchanging their own thoughts, excitedly.

And then, the world stopped. Well, the people around me stopped. I stopped. He stopped. Time seemed to stop. You see, when the crowd slowed down, momentum kept moving me forward. I tripped, stumbled, fell forward on my shaky legs. And I landed – horrors – landed with my hand, outstretched, touching him!

As I bent there, on my knees, I could feel something different inside me. The pain, the tightness, the sense of not-right-ness – they were all, each and every one of them, gone! My plague of 12 years, my constant companion had suddenly, and without warning, stopped. I was tongue-tied with amazement. I had spent the past 12 years being painfully aware of every twinge in my body, every signal that my lifeblood was draining away, every piece of me that had stopped working properly as a result. I knew this body. And I knew, without a doubt, that this time in my life was over. I felt whole, for the first time in years.

 But then, I found myself afraid. He stopped, he turned around, he somehow knew, that he had been touched. A circle formed around us. It was like our own personal stage, like we were acting out something that had happened before. I started shaking all over. I started stammering, trying to explain what it was I knew. I’m sure I sounded like a total idiot to everyone there. And before I could continue, his words calmed me. ‘Daughter,’ he said – with so much love in his voice – ‘daughter, you have been healed, go in peace.’ And I stood up, and slowly walked back home, feeling like finally, I was alive, part of the human family once more.

Thanks be to God.

Text:  Mark 5:21-43 - Preached at McFarland UCC on 7-1-2012