Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Unlikely Audience

According to my friend, Mrs. Forster, there are basically only two kinds of people in the world.

Now, you have to understand, she was an unusual woman. She lived her entire life aboard cruise ships or in hotels, never owned a residence, never worked, was married once for a short time but enjoyed the attention of many beaus dabbling in numerous shipboard romances, she managed her own investments—a self-proclaimed “gold bug,” and was never outside the company of a small dog.

Consequently, for Mrs. Forster, there were two kinds of people in the world: dog people and all others.

She summed up a person by their attitude toward pets – dogs in particular but cat people typically made the cut—and it wasn’t one’s personal selection of a pet that mattered but rather their response to hers. Since she was rarely without her dog, the one that I knew was named “Loki,” she would carefully evaluate one’s reception to the pooch far more than the greeting she personally received.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 would be a person who nearly completely ignored her but dropped to one knee to greet and engage Loki – a quick scratch between the ears, maybe an admiring hand on the well-groomed coat, and then allowing the dog a flick of the tongue on a human face. Mrs. Forster would simply beam and know that she, and Loki, were in good company.

The other end of the spectrum would find the poor slob who attempted to ignore the dog, even going so far as to brush the canine away with one’s foot. For them, Mrs. Forster had little time but plenty of disdain.

Really – who doesn’t love a well-mannered, impeccably groomed, good-natured mutt? You don’t have to take one home – just appreciate and enjoy its company.

Yet, conversely, most have had experience with snarling, growling, frightening dogs that get our hearts racing and all defenses on “high alert.”

Some of us may consider ourselves to be “dog people” – but there are some hidden qualifiers: we’re fond of well-trained and completely tamed dogs – nothing wild, unpredictable or dangerous. We like our wild-life wholly under control!

Without making light of dyslexia, I’d say that we like our God the same way we like our dog: fully domesticated, carefully corralled, operating within clearly defined boundaries; nothing wild or on the loose.

Yet Peter was figuring out that God wasn’t ready for “Best in Show.” God was clearly off the leash by the time Peter uttered his show-stopping soliloquy about God’s distinct lack of partiality.

I suppose we might hear those words from Peter as though they’re good news to be shared, but I wonder and I think it might depend on which side of the kennel we’re on.

If we’re on the inside and God is partial to us, like a loyal-to-the-death Labrador, partiality is a good thing and knowing that we’re on the A-list gives us a blue ribbon. Seems as though when we have something special, that we’ve worked for, that is an accomplishment, a rare achievement that has great value to us; that if it subsequently becomes common and ordinary, we feel diminished.

Peter had worked hard for his partiality. A good Jew, who followed Kosher requirements, and who was scrupulous in his adherence to Torah. Peter limited his friends, his social engagements, even his travels to stay within bounds – never so much as testing a boundary. He earned his partial attitude from God.

Hear him declare then God’s impartiality as a loss, and something striven for and then devalued, a feeling Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai might recognize. Mutai won the Boston Marathon this week in 2 hours, 3 minutes, 2 seconds - the fastest anyone has ever run the 26.2 mile distance, but because Monday's race had a strong tailwind on a downhill course, Mutai's run is not recognized by track's international governing body as a record. A winning time forever with an asterisk that says, “not really as good as it seems!”

Peter is now a good Jew with an asterisk.

In Peter’s day the folks outside the kennel were the gentiles. Jesus was the one sent by God for the Jews – the chosen folks – and no one else. It made sense for after all, those gentiles lived a very different lifestyle, the Hebrew Scriptures had nothing good to say about them, and really wasn’t their full inclusion in the faith community a way of asking the church to acquiesce to a sinful people? Surely someone walked around in those days saying that being a gentile was a choice…

Maybe even Peter thought that.

No…I’m not so sure Peter made his proclamation with joy and thanksgiving, but to his credit, he didn’t stop talking, maybe he was thinking out loud or letting pieces come together as he spoke, a new way of seeing the events that were the bedrock of his life and faith. This one he followed, this Jesus of Nazareth, who preached and healed and taught and freed – this one was put to death – not just any death, but a shameful, hideous, offensive death – hung on a tree. But God took that cursed demise and transformed it to one of forgiveness and reconciliation. For on the third day, God raised him – and from that moment on, God’s love has broken free and is loose in the world!

God’s love is wild and unruly; it’s winning hearts and minds; it’s reversing conventional categories of “in” and “out”; it eats with sinners, and it upholds love of enemies as the new norm.

Better catch it and cage it up quick before it does real damage and tears up the roses!

Two last thoughts for a short sermon on Easter…

The first: in the midst of Peter’s change of heart, a drastic shift of thinking, he’s able to recount the essential details of the Gospel and hits upon his elevator speech to a very unlikely audience: Jesus is, Peter simply proclaims, “Lord of all.” On this High Holy Day for Christians throughout the land, a day when many churches are full of unlikely audiences, what might be your elevator speech about Jesus? In the time it takes to go a few floors, how would you summarize your faith?

Secondly, Peter doesn’t so much “proclaim” as much as he “catches up.” It’s clear from the story and our own experience that the Holy Spirit blew through that place way before Peter and Cornelius wandered in. The shift had occurred and society was just catching up. Bishop Spong made that same statement in this room a few years ago. We’re playing catch-up to the movement of the Spirit. It’s clear that God has moved ahead of the church to embrace all people – it was true in Peter’s day and it’s true in ours. Peter, the church, and we are playing catch up.

So…on a day when we celebrate resurrection it might be appropriate for the church and for us to consider how the Spirit may be moving amongst us in unexpected and challenging ways, and to ask how the reverberations of the resurrection continue to rattle our carefully constructed cages.

Ponder that, if you will, but do so always in the knowledge that like it or not, God truly shows no partiality for in God’s eyes, we’re all dog people!

Sunday, April 10, 2011


And the hand of God led Ezekiel to a valley, and the valley was full of bones. Bones bleached white by years in the blazing sun, an alabaster memorial to a battle long forgotten. It’s clear that Ezekiel had been set down amidst scores of bodies long ago picked clean by animals and birds –scoured by insects and bacteria. Nothing of the people these bones once erected remains, just life-less calcified timbers.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel, surrounded by chalky remains, is more struck by the inquirer than he was by his venue. “If you say so.” And to his response comes the command to preach to those dry bones. Ezekiel cried, “Dry bones—listen for the message of God!” For the Lord didn’t tell him to preach in a common way – but to prophesy to those bones.

And so Ezekiel did as he was commanded, he preached, he prophesied, and suddenly there was a noise – a rattling! And all around Ezekiel, as he sat in the midst of dem dry bones, all the sudden, and a great clammer arose – a rattling! And the bones started coming together!

All of those bones, thousands of bones, laid scattered on the valley floor, began to rattle – to shake and jump, lining up – connecting bone to bone. Ezekiel preaching, laying on the prophet’s strong words—the bones responding with a rattling! Soon the bones formed skeletons – rattling as the crisp dry bones bump against each other – no flesh to muffle their movements – skeletal wind chimes making a racket loud enough to wake the dead.

But that’s not enough – Ezekiel preached to the skeletons – over the din of rattling bones, The Lord tells him to prophesy and when he looks down he sees sinew connecting the bones – ligament and tendon and muscle forming around the bones – giving them movement and form. And Ezekiel keeps going and soon there is flesh on the bones – skin stretched and human features and the valley is no longer full of dry bones, but lifeless bodies, humans in every way, save one, they have no breath.

Then God said to Ezekiel, “prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breath upon these slain that they may live!” And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet and danced around, a vast multitude!

A story of bones re-assembled amidst a great clatter, strapped with sinew, clad with skin, animated with the breath of God—earthy, gritty, and dramatic – building to a show-stopping crescendo – breathless anticipation of the Spirit!

This story is one of the Bible’s great gifts to world of theater, song, art, and, of course, the pulpit.

From the vision of those resuscitated bones the preacher heads off to stirring sermons about new life where none thought possible, hope for the hopeless, regeneration of vitality in people and institutions.

Yet…let’s hold off and wait before we strap on the sinew and lace up those dry bones and commence the march to new life and vigor. It’s a strong temptation to get to the good part, vibrant new life, but that draws us away from the lessons buried in that dry, barren landscape.

Return to the valley floor where hope is bleached and memories calcified. Return to the valley floor to the disconnected and the brittle, to the wandering shards. Return to the valley floor, those spiritually dry times, that “dark side of the soul” where doubts, hopelessness, fear, and anxiety reside in prominence, for perhaps God’s question for us today is not, “mortal can these bones live?” but rather, “what can we mine about ourselves or our relationship to the world from the painful, difficult paths that we’re sometimes called to walk?

In a harsh region, a place where life is difficult, and the paths painful, a place today known as the Southern Sahara desert, archeologists discovered 200 graves of two successive populations from which they’ve learned that the region was not always an arid land but was rather quite lush and fertile. The initial inhabitants, known as the Kiffian’s, some of whom were six-feet tall, lived there during the Sahara’s wettest period. They were primarily hunter-gatherers who speared huge lake perch with harpoons. Later, a more lightly built people, the Ténérians, lived there hunting, fishing and herding cattle in what is today the Southern Sahara!

Not quite what scientists expected to find – and all the unexpected data came from bones--lifeless, dry bones without sinew, flesh, skin, or breath. Bones that nevertheless disclosed details, conveyed culture, illuminated lifestyle.

Amazing what bones tell.

What would an analysis of our spiritual bones tell about us? What would be disclosed about our maturity, or stature, or lifestyle, or diet of study, reflection, and prayer, of our practices?

Valleys of dry bones come upon us all—when we’re lifeless and hopeless, when our spirit has simply dried up and all of our enjoyment of life evaporated with it.

Dry bones first need sinew – connecting ligaments – bone to bone, the beginning of structure and form.

What words do we need to hear for our spiritual bones to be clad in sinew, to commence movement to invigorated life? What words do we need to say?

Who is God telling to preach to our bones so that they can be covered with flesh and skin?

How do we open ourselves to God’s breath from the four winds?

Perhaps the most difficult question of all is, “Can we envision our dry bones with sinew, and flesh, and breath – can we ever see ourselves dancing with new life?”

God continually challenges us to read the bones—the dry bones—and then offer them to God for the breath of restoration and resurrection.

So, mortal, can these bones live?


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Eyes for Beauty

Beauty, to paraphrase Plato, is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet, beauty is by no means that subjective. There are some things that are simply a feast of the senses that the vast majority of people would stipulate as to their inherent visual beauty.

For instance, the men’s group at church recently watched the movie, “A River Runs through It” based upon Norman Macleans’s story of two fly-fishing sons of a Presbyterian minister growing up in rural Montana. As we were ending our discussion, someone remarked, “It’s just a beautiful movie.” There was immediate ascent: the scenery, actors, language, music, and the pure majesty of the film were simply beautiful.

Human beings gravitate toward beauty: places, music, art, and people. Yet, we go a step further and often assign them complimentary characteristics, especially people, based purely on their looks.

A classic example is the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the first such televised event. Emerging from the 1950s, America was feeling renewed and energetic and sought a president who personified such confidence. It’s undisputed that JFK’s tanned and youthful appearance propelled him in the polls. Clearly age and vitality were factors in the last presidential election.

It’s not a stretch then to sympathize with the king-maker in today’s reading, the prophet Samuel.

A bit of back story: God asks Samuel, “how long before you get over that miserable failure of yours, King Saul?”

How long does it take for us to get over a blunder, a very public mistake, a faux pas of epic proportion?

Samuel is sill smarting from his selection of Saul, yet, really, he did everything right. Saul was big, he was tall, his face chiseled, a GQ man, a Jewish giant. If anyone ever looked the part of “king,” Saul was it! After all, this was new territory for the Israelites: they hadn’t had a king before and were more in love with the idea than the reality.

Saul was an unmitigated failure. Well, not right away. He started out as a war hero but soon let the accolades and power go to his head and eventually paranoia took hold. That appears to be a condition with Middle Eastern leaders that continues even to this day.

So, God dispatches Samuel on yet another anointing run. This one requires subterfuge and clandestine meetings as Saul remains on the throne and won’t cotton to Sam seeking out his successor.

Samuel skulks throughout the countryside, near Saul’s hometown, to a house belonging to a man named Jesse. Folks aren’t so thrilled to see Samuel, given the treasonous nature of his mission, and they’d rather he’d walk on by.

He arrives at the home, and after some opening banter and a bad day for a heifer, they start the parade of sons. The first one down the runway is Eliab – a good looking guy, the eldest boy – and Sam is immediately convinced that he’s the one! How often, when we had our hearts set on something (or someone) that falls through, don’t we grasp at the next warm body? Surely more than one church Pastor Nominating Committee has fallen prey…of course, I’d best watch my words as that’s probably how I got this job!

God intervenes, thankfully, and prods Sam to keep looking.

The parade of potential potentates continues and next up is Abinadab, and then, Shammah, and then 4 more – all of them rejected!

Wouldn’t you at this point be thinking, “Let’s go through the list one more time – surely one of those dudes has to be better than Saul!”

Samuel, like a desperate shopper asking a sales clerk, “Do you have more of these in the back?” wonders if there aren’t more sons somewhere.

Apparently there was one in the back – way out back in the lower forty with the sheep.

Send him in! We can wait!

Let’s remember, while we’re waiting, that Samuel picked Saul completely on looks and appearance. Let’s remember that he almost did the same thing a few minutes ago with Eliab but God intervened and said:
Looks aren't everything. Don't be impressed with his looks and stature. I've already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.

Jesse, his sons, and Sam wait. Finally, the youngest, David, walks in fresh from the fields. What’s the first thing we learn about him? He’s easy on the eyes, the very picture of health— bright-eyed and good-looking. Samuel completes his charge, anoints David as King, and then high tails it out of there!

We’re supposed to be delighted with the choice of David as we know how the story ends and how David is the King of Kings who saves and solidifies Israel, ushering in days of heretofore unknown wealth, prosperity, and security. Strains of “Happy Days Are Here Again” lifting in the background every time his name is mentioned.

Yet we also know that David’s beautiful eyes, or eyes for beauty, got him into no small amount of trouble. It was those same eyes that spied Bathsheba.

Eyes that appreciate beauty can also chart the course to downfall.

If we cannot trust the eyes of the prophets, or the vision of one like David, “a man after God’s own heart,” then we must learn to practice a certain wariness of all theologians and anyone else who claims to know God’s mind or discern God’s will.

Theology is made on earth, not in heaven! Accordingly it suffers from all the flaws and limits that characterize the perceptive capacities whose most stunningly nimble skill is self-deception.

This past Wednesday, I testified before a Senate sub-committee in support of the Civil Union bill in Delaware. I was asked to be one of the planned speakers due to my status as both a clergy-person and as the father of gay child.

Last July, our daughter, Madison, told my wife Walle and me, that she is gay.

All of my liberal gibberish came home to roost.

I love my daughter. I love all of my children and nothing about them could change that. My appreciation for Madison – her character and courage – soared to even greater heights, yet I was consumed with two emotions: I found myself both sad and angry.

Angry at the yet-to-be-identified person or persons who might attempt to make her life painful simply because of the way God created her -- a person who would utter a slur, or deny her a job, or make snide remarks behind her back. And I was sad that her life would have challenges and struggles that mine doesn’t.

You can imagine the comments and condemnation we heard from those who oppose the bill. Madison and Walle were in the gallery and heard all of the testimony, including pastors and preachers who pronounced her an abomination and who confidently predicted God’s destruction of our society because of providing her, and others like her, basic, fundamental, relational rights.

In those moments, I was reminded that we must learn to practice a “certain wariness” of all, myself included, who claim to know God’s mind or discern God’s will; of persons, including all of us, who make judgments and assumptions based purely on appearance; and we must be reminded over and over that God judges human beings differently than we do.

God sees what humans can never discern, including and especially, the hidden depths of our hearts.

Those who own and confess their blindness can see things to which righteous absolutists, who never question their own perceptions, remain stubbornly and dangerously blind.

So, tell me, what do you see?