That the Times We Are in Today Will not Remain as They Are

July 4, 2016

Preached July 3, 2016
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
Text: Gospel of Matthew Chapter 9:18-34

Sometimes it seems like nothing will ever be okay.

We look left and there is pain and hatred.

We look right and there is violence.

We look at our own homes and lives and see the ways that we fall short of the life we long for, the life we thought we would have.

Sometimes it seems like we are just going through the motions.

There are days for many of us when ask ourselves quietly, “What more can we do? What does all of this even mean? What are we even doing here?”

We scramble like little rats in those mazes where they do experiments, we scramble to try to make it better, to get to the end of the maze where we can rest and where everything is okay, we’ll get our treat.

If only we would make a little more money, things would be better. We could relax.

If only our spouse would love us a little more, things would be better we tell ourselves.

At each age, each life stage, we have our own set of if-only’s….

There have been and will be the big things – If only the cancer would be healed, we wouldn’t complain about the small things anymore.

If we could feel better. Our bodies. Our hearts.

If only we would find a job, then it would be okay.

If only we could stop drinking.

If only people would quit being selfish and violent.

If only people would vote for reasonable people.

There are so many if only’s.

For those of you who have ever struggled with acute or chronic illness, you probably can especially relate to this. Life seems tough until you are sick all the time. Or until you are facing death. And then you think, “Wow. I didn’t know. I didn’t really realize how hard it could be or how good it was before this happened.”

When you have those good days, you feel light and think, “Ah I will never stop appreciating this.”

I was chronically ill from the time I was in my mid-teens until I was well into graduate school. I went to doctor after doctor and got mostly sort of guesses at what it might be, but no one really knew. I was exhausted all the time, walking to my car from my house was a big undertaking. Some of my teeth fell out and my fingernails detached and fell off.

And I will always remember this day in college – it was in April and I was worn down from years of doctors and feeling bad and trying hard and nothing working.

And I woke up feeling okay. I remember standing up and walking to the bathroom that morning and feeling light. I could breath easily, my head didn’t hurt.

I hadn’t eaten so I wasn’t sick to my stomach yet.

And I took a shower and got dressed and was walking on campus in the warm spring sun and I remembered. I remembered what life was like before I was sick. I remember literally there was a bounce in my step. I thought, “Oh what did I do to make it better today? How can I catch this feeling? This calm.” I remember wiggling my fingers and moving my neck back and forth.

Nothing was hurting.

I remember thinking, “I wish I could put this in a bottle. This feeling of being okay. This feeling of things being. I want to keep it. I want to hold on it.”

And we have these moments, maybe some more pronounced than others, but we have these moments of wanting to capture the present moment and hold onto it, the times when things seem good and okay.

But of course, no matter if it a good day in the midst of sickness, or a good day in the midst of a stressful life, or a day without bombings on the news, or a moment of connection with someone whom we love but we struggle to make things work with, we cannot capture these moments when things feel okay and keep them or hold onto them.

We are always in a back and forth time, in between holy moments and seasons and the ordinary time of existence when we bump up against the limits of human compassion, the limits of human bodies… the reality is that day in and day out we bump up against the limits of love and care and peace.

Our topic this week is about healing, and I am struck by the deep need we all have for healing – both physically and psychologically – individually and as a society. Yet, we make shockingly little progress on it.

Many of us face what some people call “first world problems” – the car is broken, air conditioning is not working, the car in front of you isn’t going fast enough and you want to get where you are going right now, the sound system at church isn’t working right, put our foot in our mouth, we send the kids to school with mismatched shoes, or forget the birthday of beloved.

And it is not that these are not real challenges, but wham – all of our daily struggles end up feeling pretty minor when we face the really hard stuff.

For those of you that have lost a loved one, perhaps you know this too well. If only we could see her one more time. If only we could hold his hand, kiss him, or sing to her again.

In the face of great pain, all of a sudden previous pain seems kind of minor or trivial.

In times of great pain or desperation – our own illnesses, facing death in a more imminent way, facing the loss of someone we love, in our come to Jesus moments  – thing seem clearer, priorities obvious.

But man is it hard to live that on a day to day basis. It is hard – really impossible to hold on to the clarity of a moment.

And so we try hard to try to figure out how to make things be like the should.

I want to say that again because that at the heart of what I want to talk about today.

We try hard to figure out how to make things be like they should.

And frankly, for most of us, that doesn’t really go very far. Because once you get things like you thought they should be – maybe you improve your marriage, you figure out how to heal from abuse or addiction, you finally get your house clean and yard mowed and closets cleaned out, your business set up, you are not longer sick, or your finances in order – there is something else.

Sometime that something else is that you realize that the color of your carpet doesn’t really look right, or the car you thought you wanted is looking a little old. Sometimes it is realizing that you thought that getting the right job and the working really hard and making enough money would make things be like they should, you thought getting married would help, or when you had a child then life would be like you envisioned it.

We live in a culture and a time that says always, “More.” More more more. Try harder, work harder, get more and do better. The grass is always greener! You thought you were doing well because you were feeding your kids brown rice and vegetables? Well come to find out your brown rice has high levels of arsenic in it and the organic vegetables you bought from Kroger’s that are shipped in from California are using up all the water in California.

There is always something else we can do better and we live in this if-only culture that always whispers to us like a siren, “A little more. Try a little more. Get a little more. Do a little more. You aren’t quite good enough yet.”

And what we are really trying to do with all these things is to heal. We are trying to make ourselves whole, complete, well. We are working hard to make better the things that are broken because we live in a broken world.

We are taught often that we can get to healing like it is a line on our productivity to-do list. Healing of our bodies, our relationships, our hearts, our minds through check-lists.

We are lured by the call of our to do lists and our pinterest boards and productivity hacks that if only we get the calculus right, get the right app on our phone or right plan, things will finally be better. The right mix of hard work, insight, good tips, clean closets, healthy food, and better elected representatives and we would be set.

It is a tempting story.

Yet, even when we do all the right things, we still get sick.

We do all the right things and people we love still die.

We try to do all the right things and we still face pain.

We still have that secret we haven’t told that eats at us.

We still feel shame. We still make terrible mistakes – sometimes on purpose and sometime by accident.

And this is not because something is wrong with us – it is not that we haven’t come up with just the right mix of How to Be in the World but it is because we are in a world where wounds and pain are just part of what we have to face from birth until death.

It doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of good – joy and love and connection and beauty and healing and hope – but it means that we will never find a way to get out of the hard stuff. We won’t be able to check off enough boxes for everything to be okay.

As we see Jesus in chapter 9 of Matthew, for him too it is just one thing after another.

He is going to the girl who died and on the way meets the bleeding woman who needs healed.

He gets to the girl who died and brings her back to life, moves right onto the blind men, and then to the person who cannot speak.

One thing after another.

And as we read the story of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, it never stops. He does slow steady work, healing here, healing there, but in fact he does not fix it all. He did not wave his hand or a magic wand and make it all better, rather Jesus life and death and resurrection created the space for a new kind of healing.

He lived among the people, in the mess of this human existence, slow and steady, in a very little corner of the world doing what he did. His acts of healing, his preaching, his love, and his speaking hard truth about things that undid the way it had been done before.

His hard work and hard love in the face of dogma and imperial power brought his life to an end very early, but he knew this too and prepared for it.

He lived into his death by the very human act of gathering folks around him that loved him and whom he loved, teaching them slowly and patiently, inviting them to walk with him. Knowing that his time on earth was limited, he says later in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Some have interpreted this as telling the disciples to convert people to Christianity by saying a particular kind of prayer or, as some Christians have seen it, as pressuring or forcing people to convert. But when I read this, I hear “baptize them” – tell them that they can die to their old selves and be renewed!

Teach them what I have taught you – to heal people, to walk with people where they are, to hope together that the times we are in today will not remain as they are – that there is another way than the violence of occupation and violence imperial power and ways of being religious that are dogmatic and exclusionary.

There were fifteen miracles where Jesus healed people in Matthew.

He attended to one after the other, knowing that he would never check off all the boxes. It would never be completely okay, but it would a little better. For today. And tomorrow he would do the same thing again.

Our culture thrives on the idea that you can have it all, but in his commitment and reality of his full humanity, Jesus showed with his life that you cannot have it all and your work will never be done.

He knew that in his lifetime he could not fully heal the world and be true to his divine nature and his human nature.

His life provided an example, a new way forward, a new paradigm for God that was not the God that sends down fire and brimstone on cities and towns, but a God that rides to his death into Jerusalem on a little donkey.

A God that goes to the sick among us, those on the margins of society, and calls his people to do the same.

In Luke we read how Jesus sends the disciples out to heal, bid them to travel light, and then later sends out 72 to heal in his name. No one went out with a grand hurrah or weapons or pomp and circumstance, “We are here to save you!” He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.”

The amazing thing about Jesus as the person on which our faith is based is that he was not some magical sorcerer who waved his wand and fixed things, but he was with his people doing what he could.

The stories of miracles in the bible call us to a life of healing, but not a life where we can do it all or have it all.

The stories of healing in the bible remind us that it will be one pain after another. Among those we love. In our society.

So as we go out to the world, hurting like we will hurt, watching the hurt flash before our eyes on the news and in our neighborhoods, tell yourself that our journey is long and there will always be something else.

We can endure this, we can do the work we can do, little by little, by keeping perspective. “I will be with you always,” he said. Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Our call is not to be all okay ourselves, and not to make the world all okay, but it is do to the incredibly hard work of healing day in and day out when things are a mess, not giving up on ourselves as we mess up over and and over, and not giving up on others as they mess up over and over. Not giving up when things don’t go how we want them to, when the hurt seems unsurmountable.

The story of Jesus birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension is a story of long, hard slow work, where Jesus teaches us to do what we can with what we have, knowing that we cannot do it all, or have it all, and we must get up every morning and face the world and try to make it better even if that costs us everything.

So let us keep up this slow hard work, my friends, in a world that desperately needs patient, forgiving healing people.

May it be so.

.

This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.

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Finding Our Way to Sunday

April 4, 2015

Holy Week can be a lot of things. It can be a time when people who are not Christians or religious feel sick of seeing things in their Facebook feed about religion. It can be a time to color eggs and get dressed up. It can be our one visit to church this year. It can be a reminder that loss is excruciating and painful. It can be an invitation to remember the kind of lives we are called to, where even when you try to do the right thing, sometimes people betray you and bad things happen. And it can be a reminder that even after bad things happen, there are often ways forward that you we can’t yet imagine, that don’t even seem possible.

Holy Saturday is especially important to me because it reminds me of all the people in the wake of loss, in the midst of unbearable hopelessness. On that Saturday after Jesus was killed, no one knew what was to come. For the disciples, for the people who believed that Jesus could renew faith and perhaps renew the world, for Mary who loved her son so dearly, they sat on that Saturday in anguish. Shock. In the numb that often follows death. It wasn’t yet Holy Saturday. It was just a sad, horrible Saturday for people who thought things were maybe going to be better.

This Saturday, may we not run too quickly to the hope, the stone rolled away, the miracle, and remember all of those people who are sitting in shock, in trauma, in aloneness, and in fear. Who hope that there will be new life, somehow, in the midst of death, but don’t yet see a way. May we remember how important it is to be with folks who are in that long Saturday. Who long for love, who need our care, and who need us to be patient with them and welcoming to them as we all try to find our way to Sunday.

Holy week can be a lot of things. This is the beauty of the incredibly rich Christian tradition. It can be coloring eggs and visits to church once a year, it can be an invitation to live a different life, and it can be a reminder of the rough world we live in and the possibility that it might be different. It can be all these things and a thousand more. I am thankful for a God that wants us all where we are at. Let’s widen that circle. Build a bigger tent. Come in and let’s figure it out together.

Amen amen amen.

p.s. A good book on Holy Saturday is Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.


On Radical Hospitality at The Journey

November 20, 2009

The Journey is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist blogs. Lots of wise and fun and interesting stuff (and some very sad, hard stuff too). For some reason, this post struck me as particularly poignant, especially as our congregation thinks about the sort of church we want to be as our minister retires:

I want the radically inclusive church. I mean, really radically inclusive.

A few years ago, the big buzz you heard at all the UU things was “Radical Hospitality.” I went home from GA or Fall Conference or wherever it was, and looked on half.com for a book about radical hospitality. Found one. Bought it.

Boy, was this NOT the book all the UU’s were talking about.

Puhleease, we talk about radical hospitality and often what we mean is “don’t ignore people when they come into your church.” That’s not radical anything.

This book I picked up was written by some missionary-type Christians. They talked about picking up homeless folks and taking them home with them. And that, my friends, is radical hospitality. Not that I’m recommending you (or I) do the same. Just don’t pat yourself on the back because you engaged someone in conversation and think that you’re radically hospitable.

I am pretty sure our church is somewhere in between “don’t ignore people when they come into your church” and “pick up people who are homeless and let them live with you.” I’m afraid though we are closer to the first than the second.

That’s the thing about church, right? You like knowing people, you like it being familiar, and safe. But when you get too much of that all of a sudden you are a club of everyone who knows each other and it is hard for new comers to break in.

One thing that stands out to me as the difference between more hospitable and less hospitable churches is if you consider your church to be more like a social club or a good place for all the liberal people in town to get together, or if you consider your church to be, you know, a religious and spiritual home where people come to nourish hearts and souls, love each other, and do the hard work of love and justice in the world as a community of faith. If it is the first (social club) it is harder be radically welcoming because hospitality is sort of hard and takes work and energy, especially if you are just fine with the friends you already have at church and all the committees are filled. If it is the second (spiritual home, community of faith), it seems like it is easier to welcome people into that because nurturing others, reaching out, and caring for people who are seeking and/or hurting, seems like it is part and parcel of growing a spiritual home and community of faith (but not so much part of a social club).

I should think this out more and write on it more clearly. But to be honest, I often blog when I am putting off pressing work, like studying for my general exams, for instance, and so I really should get to that. But I hope to return to this.


The UUA Presidential Election and The Point of Our Faith

June 3, 2009

Well, it is a rare case when I read the always thoughtful and usually (self-proclaimed) conservative UU blog of Joel Monka and agree with it. I learn a lot, but at the end of most posts I am thinking, “Wow, I so don’t agree with that.” But, his most recent post on the UUA Presidential Election has really helped to clarify a lot for me. Interestingly, his post is titled “Something Clicked,” and it helped something click for me. I shall explain.

For the few short years that I have been giving sermons (and blogging), I return to one theme over and over. You know, they say that each preacher has one sermon that he or she preaches over and over in different forms and this is SO true for me. In large part, it is because it is the struggle of my life.

The gist of my sermon that I give repeatedly in different forms is that we (and I very much include myself in this) don’t live out the values that we proclaim in our own lives. We say we believe x, y and z, but our actions don’t often enough reflect this when it gets really hard. My sermons are not so much about “do better” (although that is part of it) but more “how do we come to terms with this?” since, by my estimation, we are (I am) never going to do THAT much better at living out our values. Part of this is that we must necessarily focus our energies of love and justice at the expense of letting other injustices stand. We cannot do it all – we cannot save the world. How do we learn to live with this, and choose how and where to put our energy? (I won’t expand on this, but if you want to read my writing about this you can go here, here or here.)

Back to Joel’s post, he quotes UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski in her post about why she supports Rev. Morales for UUA President. She writes,

I believe we do offer much to a hurting world, and through working with like-minded individuals and alliances can be part of “saving” it — and in the process save ourselves and this faith we love.

Joel argues that this is backwards. He writes,

Religion isn’t about changing the world; it’s about changing the man in the mirror- if you can save him, the world will follow.

Gender exclusive language aside, I think this is what I am often getting at in my sermons and blog posts. It helps me clarify to me how I understand Unitarian Universalist faith, and also helps clarify to me an underlying current I was working against in my sermons and blog posts: that somehow the world needs what we have to offer it. Rather, I would like to reorient our reflection to how WE come up short far too much and it isn’t a matter of “fixing” ourselves and our world, but that we need to be more honest and real about coming to terms with the fact that we are not ever able to fully live up to our values.

While I tend not to be a fan of the idea of original sin, or talk of sin in general, I hear Joel’s point about how it might make sense to focus on living our lives better – dealing with/coming to terms with our weaknesses, imperfections, and brokenness (that some might call sin) – rather than always looking “out there” in the world and thinking WE can save THEM or IT. It reminds me of charismatic ministers that think they have so much to offer the world and their church that they don’t deal with their own life and end up making huge public, damaging blunders because they thought the good they do in the world/church somehow makes up for not doing such a good job in their own lives.

I often feel so frustrated at the sense that we (Unitarian Universalists) somehow have what the world needs – like, somehow Christianity or Islam or Buddhism isn’t cutting it. For me, it is that Unitarian Universalism is where I need to be. And I welcome others in joining me and my fellow Unitarian Universalists in the journey to try to do the hard work of love and justice. This is where I am, but it isn’t because other religions somehow aren’t good enough. I could digress on this, but, bringing it back to Joel’s post and the post by UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski about endorsing Peter Morales, I can see how this relates to Morales’s take on things and the tone and approach he may bring to our association. In the sermon announcing his candidacy, (click here for a pdf of the sermon) he said:

We live in a new world, a world in which once isolated religious traditions are in constant contact. We desperately need new religion for a new world. The old religions lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. We need a religion that transcends divisions, religion that unites enemies, religion that points to a new future that includes everyone.

While I have no doubt that he did not intend any harm by this statement, I really feel rubbed the wrong way by the idea that “we need a new religion for a new world” (which is, apparently, Unitarian Universalism) and that the “old religions” (by which he seems to mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. Like somehow we’re going to get it right whereas others just don’t have what it takes. He writes

Today Judaism, Islam and Christianity, especially the more conservative parts of them, have become what they first opposed: narrow, rigid and reactionary. They look back and seek to recapture a fantasy of the past instead of embracing a vision for the future.

Aside from the fact that I am not really sure that all three of these religion “first opposed” narrowness, rigidity, and being reactionary, I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that we are what the world needs – at all – and especially over and against “old religions.”

I am not endorsing a candidate in the election. For me, this isn’t about Peter Morales, but rather about how we envision our faith: are we Unitarian Universalists because it is the context in which we can connect with the divine, become the people we want to be, serve humbly, doing the hard work of love and justice or, are we Unitarian Universalists because we think it is the best religion for our time – because it is what the world needs – what they need. Of course, for me it is the former. Unitarian Universalism is what I need. I think when it becomes the latter we fall prey to the very better-than-thou-ness of other religions who think that they have “it” and others don’t – one of the qualities that so many Unitarian Universalists do not appreciate from other faiths.

I think if we are so worried about growing and being “the religion for our time” we lose sight of the forest for the trees. We are not saving the world. We are not in a contest for the best or fastest growing faith. We fail so often to live up to our visions of our own best selves. Rather, I hope that before we go about telling other people that they need what we have, we take the time to attend to ourselves, our congregations, our hearts, our lives. I think when we do this, we will create healthy congregations and a healthy association that will draw in others who wish to join us on the path.

(Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that we somehow descend into deep navel-gazing. The point is that the outreach work of love and justice grows out of coming to terms with our own lives and grows out of community and spiritual practices that we do in our congregations. It is not the point of our congregations or faith, but some of the the fruit of it.)

Edit: I just want to be really clear here that I am not endorsing – or somehow campaigning against – a particular candidate for the UUA Presidential election. I just don’t know enough about each of them to feel like I can make a good decision – I have been too caught up in pregnancy, birth and raising our new sweet baby to give this election the attention it deserves. There are a lot of issues at hand – many angles to consider – and this is just one of them. For all I know, I have totally misread Morales’s overall thrust and vision – this is just a little sliver of a big and complex picture. If you are going to be voting or endorsing, I encourage you to do  more reading at many different sources and talk to others you trust about this. Peace, E


Checking In: Congregations, Cats, Anti-Racism Class, etc.

February 28, 2008

Ah, school and work are setting in. I’m dying to jump into the conversation on Unitarian Universalist-identified people who are not part of congregations, the limits of Unitarian Univeralist congregationalism, the exciting possibilities for broadening our vision of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, and the ways that this could expand our reach and ministry. Ms. Theologian links to the various posts here and also eloquently writes about why she is Unitarian Universalist but does not go to church. But, alas, I just don’t have the time to craft something worth putting out there – a lot of important things have already been said. (Come to think of it, I will refer readers to a 2006 post – A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World – about my call to community ministry and how I struggle with how that fits into a congregationally-based movement. Slightly longer. Written in third person – why? I do not know. Maybe just how I was feeling that day….)

In other news, our cat Murray is hanging in there. He changes all the time. But seems to not be getting worse (as of the past two days – but who knows).

I am teaching OWL (a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum – Our Whole Lives) and loving it. I was never a huge fan of working with teens. Not so much that I was against it, but I just never understood how people could think it was so awesome. Not that I am clamoring to be a youth minister now, but I “get” it much better how one could consider that as a career option or long-term volunteer option. I’m sure all people who work with young people and really like it think that they are working with especially impressive teens, but I actually think it is true in my case. And my co-facilitator is great too.

I have started five posts relating to the sexual purity movement, a NYTimes article on meat, “the hard work of being a peaceful presence”, and the GA brou-ha-ha (as Philocrities put it) but none have gotten done enough that I want to put them out there. I guess I will just have to resign myself to things being slower while classes are going on and chiming in on discussions a little late in the game.

Speaking of classes, I am taking one called Racializing Whiteness with an excellent instructor who presents ideas, but does a great job of not making everyone feel guilty and horrible (which was my fear of what it would look like) and leaves room for the exploration of issues rather than preaching some sort of party line about the only and right way to be anti-racist (again, this was a fear of mine). I am learning a lot. And now fear less nervous of saying something “wrong” about anti-racism work, since it can be (lest we all forget the brown bag controversy last year) a sensitive subject in our denomination. I think it will help me be more anti-racist (or, framed more positively, more just) in my own life and inform (in a positive way) my ministry and scholarship. Somehow it is a huge relief to me that it is a really helpful and meaningful class and that we have room to learn and grow and grapple with hard questions.

That’s all for now.

p.s. I just read Chalice Chick’s reasons she does go to church. It is super-good. A great compliment to Ms. Theologian’s post about why she does not go to church.