Sunday, May 2, 2010

Be strong, take heart.

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 32He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

“Be Strong, Take Heart”

“There once was a community whose rabbi was ageing and nearing retirement. The members of the community loved their rabbi, who had served them well for the majority of his long life. They understood the rabbi’s ways. They were used to his style, and they were content under his leadership. So it was with a heavy heart that members of the congregation took on the task of finding a replacement for their rabbi. The decision, however, was anything but difficult. They decided that upon the old rabbi’s retirement, they would hire his son. This, they believed, was the perfect solution!

As planned, the rabbi retired, and his son began working in the community. It wasn’t long before some of the congregants started to notice that this young rabbi’s manner was different from his father’s. He followed some customs differently, and he had a very different approach to solving problems. The congregation was confused.

The congregation elders decided that they needed to have a talk with the young rabbi. They needed to clarify the situation, straighten out some things. So they approached the new rabbi and invited him into the conference room. There, with little preamble, they demanded to know the answers to questions such as these; “Why don’t you behave like your father?” “Why do you do things differently than your father?” The young rabbi remained calm. He looked at the elders and replied, “I do exactly as my father does. My father never imitated anyone, and I don’t imitate anyone either.””[1]

I like this story because it is about a young person trying to find his voice, and standing up for himself. I know that for myself, that's hard to do! But can you imagine what it must have been like to be that young rabbi? It reminds me of going to the principals office, or the President’s Office-you’re getting called on the carpet of the real people in charge. I imagine the conference room dark and foreboding, not like the pretty conference room upstairs, full of light and chairs, but like on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice”, that they take him in there around a big oval table with black leather swivel chairs, all these powerful older people at one end of the room, (if it’s a typical congregation, its mostly powerful older women, and you do not mess with them) and here’s this young guy already up against the ropes. You’re just waiting to hear those words. “You’re fired!” But instead of getting scared or anxious, despite being surrounded by “the enemy camp” so to speak, instead of being afraid or concerned or any of the things that I would be in that situation, he remains calm! This young rabbi displays the most amazing courage, like he’s got absolute faith its going to work out alright. His challenges face him, literally across the table, and yet he’s completely at ease.

It’s as though he’d just read our Psalm from this morning. Now I love the psalms, and I’ll tell you why—they are the most fabulous cheat sheets for prayer in the world. As a chaplain I struggled with how to pray with perfect strangers in great pain, and I found that when we read and prayed the psalms together, the concerns of the heart just floated off the page. You could almost open the Bible to any psalm at all and find a beautiful gutwrenching prayer, the heart just fully open and exposed to how much we need God in our lives. Some psalms lament, some praise, and some, like 27, remind us of what we already know, the confidence we can have that God is with us. I'd like to read it to you again.

1The LORD is my light and my salvation;

whom shall I fear?

The LORD is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me

to devour my flesh —

my adversaries and foes —

they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me,

my heart shall not fear;

though war rise up against me,

yet I will be confident.

4One thing I asked of the LORD,

that will I seek after:

to live in the house of the LORD

all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the LORD,

and to inquire in his temple.

5For he will hide me in his shelter

in the day of trouble;

he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;

he will set me high on a rock.

6Now my head is lifted up

above my enemies all around me,

and I will offer in his tent

sacrifices with shouts of joy;

I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

7Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

be gracious to me and answer me!

8"Come," my heart says, "seek his face!"

Your face, LORD, do I seek.

9Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,

you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,

O God of my salvation!

10If my father and mother forsake me,

the LORD will take me up.

11Teach me your way, O LORD,

and lead me on a level path

because of my enemies.

12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,

for false witnesses have risen against me,

and they are breathing out violence.

13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD

in the land of the living.

14Wait for the LORD;

be strong, and let your heart take courage;

wait for the LORD!

When we first hear this psalm, we may first notice the bookends of the first and last verse, that “The Lord is my Light” and “My salvation” and “Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.” It’s easy to see how this psalm is labeled as one of confidence and trust. But dig just a little deeper, and you can see what the psalmist is really talking about. There is a lot of fear and anxiety hidden in this psalm, something most of us can really relate to.

Just listen to all the begging the psalmist does, “Do not turn away in anger,” “Do not cast me off,” “Do not forsake me.” This is a dark night of the soul. Please don’t do this to me, this which I have felt before. This is the feeling we have when we feel alone, perhaps completely bereft of God’s love. Those moments when things fall apart, when we cannot possibly see how this can fit into God’s plan for us. When the job ends, when the last paycheck comes. When the bills arrive. When you have to decide between health insurance and car insurance, or the heating bill and food. When you can not stop arguing with your partner, much less win the argument. When your lover leaves you, or worse yet, that lover has yet to arrive. When, try as you might, you cannot resist the temptation, that monkey on your back. When your parents die. When the cancer returns or the baby is diagnosed. When children die before their parents, when dreams are cut short. There are moments, however flashing and searing, when we feel pierced through the side and alone and the psalmist isn’t afraid to beg God’s presence into those places. It is suddenly our cry, “My god, my god why have you forsaken me?” The psalm cries Please don’t leave me! But there it is, Wait for the Lord. Be strong, take heart. The Lord is with you.

And the psalm does something we don’t often dare to do in prayer; it names enemies. Lots of enemies! Now, When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh” might not be the language we’d use. It sounds a bit like a zombie movie to me. “The army encamped against me” might sound a little foreign, I haven't been in battle but some of us have. “Adversaries and foes” gets a little closer; I have foes, I can name some foes. But enemies we do have, though we know we should love them, enemies we have whether we admit to it or not. Jesus knew he had enemies. “Go and tell that fox for me.” Jesus was well aware of the reality of enemies, and the psalm doesn't ask us to hide that brokenness.

I happen to think that its healthier to name the broken places, at least then they have a chance at healing. So there are the easy “enemies”, the ones that seem far off, like terrorists or telemarketers or the IRS, faceless people that somehow ruin our day. But it’s more honest to name “that one coworker I cannot stand”, or “my ex,” ex-husband, ex-wife, ex-friends or “my family”. The psalmist even mentions “if my father or mother forsake me,” there’s good cause to think that perhaps they did. Or perhaps these enemies aren’t worldly at all, but rather divisions of oneself, or even the demonic forces of evil in the world. But rest assured, enemies are out there, and the psalm admits this truth that sometimes we’d rather ignore. We’d rather not have enemies. Yet, the psalm reminds us, Wait for the Lord. Be Strong, Take heart. The Lord is with you.

But there is one place that the psalmist claims to find relief, to find hope, to find God. There is one place in the psalm where the enemies cannot touch you – in God’s temple. In God’s temple the psalmist lives, in God’s house we find solace, comfort and strength, for it is here that we are sheltered, here that we are concealed when we need protection and here that we find the comfort of other believers. And it is worth saying that while the psalmist might have meant the literal temple of God in Jerusalem, we know that there is a temple even here, today. Sure, yes, there is this building, and yes, there is the temple of your personal, physical body, but there is also the temple of the Body of Christ. In that I refer to the Body of Bound Brook Presbyterian Church. You, me, that person in the pew over, this body of Christ. And although the way isn’t always easy, although sometimes we see an enemy in each other, The Lord is With you. Wait for the Lord. Be Strong. Take heart.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a group of about 167 Scots imprisoned in the dungeon of a castle by the sea. And after they had endured torture and starvation, sickness and death, the remainder of that lot took heart, and made the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. (You’ve heard this before, right?) They landed in Perth Amboy, and traveled here, to Bound Brook. The first sanctuary of the church was on main street, but it was destroyed in The Great Flood and Fire of 1896. And then they built the church here, in this building. There was another fire in ‘72 that destroyed the Church School building, and two more floods, one in ‘99 and another in ‘07. From the beginning to now there have been countless lay leaders, elders, deacons, readers, women of the church, men of the church, youth, baptisms, marriages, funerals and more. Literally thousands of people have passed through the doors of this church, a whole host. And for this great flock there have been about 23 called pastors, give or take. In all our 300 plus years together, the church has existed not because of these walls, or because of those pastors, but because of the people. Because of you.

I haven’t been here very long, and as a seminary intern, I know I never have the full picture. But in that time I have come to know this congregation as loving and committed, which is obviously part of the legacy of this place. So when I heard this psalm, I also heard a call for this congregation, to Wait for the Lord. Be Strong. Take Heart.

Today is an important day, not just because it is Sunday, not just because it is Lent, but also because later today we will elect the Pastor Nominating Committee. At 5pm today is the Annual Meeting Potluck, and at 6pm is the Annual meeting, and there you will elect your PNC, pastor nominating committee.

See, what is interesting is your reactions when I say that. We were all going along very nicely, and then I went and mentioned church politics and ruined a perfectly good sermon. But perhaps that’s the point. There is a lot of anxiety, stress and fear wrapped up in this leg of the journey. Some of us aren’t ready to take the next step, others can’t move fast enough. What will the next pastor be like? Will it be a man, or a woman? Will he/she be a good preacher? Will she/he be open and inclusive, warm and friendly? Wise or funny or old or young? But what the Word of the Lord says to us today is “Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart.”

For all the enemies that seem to surround us, from all the anxiety and fears that we feel, especially when it comes to the places most important to us, know that God is with you. God is in this place, and moves within this community. Whatever the future brings, you are in God’s temple and this body will live on. The PNC is next step, and they will need your support, your love and encouragement as they take on the incredibly challenging role of discernment. But to those who are on the committee, be strong, take heart. The Lord is with you. For those of us who will NOT be on the PNC, fear not. “The Lord is my light and salvation, of whom shall I fear?” And it is also written, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.”

But don’t wait too long today, dinner starts at 5.

[1] Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, “Finding Your Own Voice”, in Three Time Chai: 54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories, ed. Laney Katz Becker (2007).

So my mother gives out the link to this thing...

...and I realize I really must update it more often. If for nothing more than a spotty record of this period in my life. I'm in a preaching class (assignment: preach) so here's one I did earlier this semester for no other reason than I had to. It's brief, but hey, I used a lightbulb.

Read Text: Mark 4:21-25

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed, nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear, the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For those who have, more will be given, and from those you have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

As I was preparing for today, I had an idea.

(I hold a light bulb over my head)

Where do light bulbs belong? (demonstrating) Do lightbulbs go in a drawer, or under a chair? (Play with putting lightbulb in silly places). No, they go in a lamp, to make light! And yet we keep light bulbs in a drawer or stored on a shelf before they are ready to be used. Light bulbs are stored and hidden away until it is time to reveal their light; light bulbs stay in a box until it is time to turn them on.

The Kingdom of God is like this lightbulb. It is here, and yet it has not realized its full potential. This light bulb is here in my hand, and we can all see it, but it is not yet on. But this light bulb will certainly be turned on, just as soon as I can get a ladder and put it in that lamp up there.

But listen to what I’m saying. You are in seminary and church. Listen carefully to everything you hear concerning the Word of God. For as much as you carefully listen, that is how much you will learn. Have you ever heard the phrase, “you get what you pay for?” Or, “You get out of it what you put into it?” As much effort as you put into learning about the Kingdom of God, you will understand that much, and then more. But if you don’t bother listening, if you don’t even try to learn, you won’t learn anything—in fact you’ll lose what little you know now! So don’t be discouraged. Don’t give up trying. You can do it. Keep trying to hear what God is saying, keep seeking the Kingdom of God. The light is about to turn on.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Twas three weeks till advent poem

Twas three weeks til Christmas, and all through my house,

Nothing was ready, including my spouse.

The gifts are not bought, the decorations still packed,

And all I could think of was what I still lacked

I’ve cards and letters to write, and laundry to do,

And cooking and cleaning and avoiding the flu,

And traffic is bad, and airlines are worse,

Not to mention the dozen new songs to rehearse.

There are parties, and sweaters, sales in the stores!

Snow to be shoveled and bills to ignore,

Guests coming early and work deadlines late,

The feeling there’s rather too much on my plate.

Then there’s the news, all sadness and crime,

And war, and economy and political slime,

And homeless and jobless and hopeless galore,

And the niggling doubt that we need something more.

I need a space of quiet retreat,

a chance to remember what makes us complete.

And I know its not jewelry or candy or toys,

But how do I block out all of this noise?

How do I hear that one lonely call

Up out of the wild, a message for all?

That somehow beyond the mountains of debt,

Through the valleys of fear and doubt and regret,

Past the culture that claims to know our whole worth

And tallies the cost to our death from our birth,

Beyond a world hell bent on a wealthy façade

To silence the voice crying out for our God,

Against the Caesar of power and the titan of greed,

The warmonger’s profit and progress’ speed,

Lies the whisper “repentance”, a confession-command

From the crazy-man John in the old holy land.

A call to remember our sins and repent

To open our hearts to the love that was spent,

And urge us to dismantle the wealthy façade

So that all may see the Salvation of God.

-by Marie Mainard O'Connell**

**yes, this poem may be reused, reposted. Please just cite the original author and let me know that you did it. Otherwise, feel free to share. May it do some good.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Curse Words

This is the text of the first sermon I preached at Bound Brook Presbyerian Church on Sept. 12, 2009. I'm trying to give myself impetus to use the lectionary, so I've included the two that were most important to this sermon.

James 3:1-13 NRSV
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (Jam 3:1-13 NRS)

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (Mar 8:27-38 NRS)

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

An old man goes to a wizard for help removing a curse he’s had for 40 years. The wizard agrees, but says he needs to know the exact words that were used to curse the man. He answers the wizard, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” It’s a terrible joke, I know.

But it does illustrate a point--what exactly is a curse, eh? It’s a good deal in the eye of the beholder. I found these articles in the news over the past two weeks. A Georgia man was arrested after slapping a stranger’s crying 2 year old in a Wal-Mart. The mother and child were walking in the aisles when a 61 year old man approached and said “if you don’t shut that baby up, I will shut her up for you.” A few moments later, in another aisle, he grabbed the child and slapped her across the face four or five times, then told her mother “See, I told you I would shut her up.” When police arrived, he admitted he had slapped the child but said that he had apologized to the mother. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

CNN reported that when President Obama recently visited Phoenix, Ariz. local pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful World Baptist Church, who strongly expresses hatred for Obama in many of his sermons, told his congregation that he wished him dead. The next day, at the rally, one of the parishoners arrived toting a semiautomatic gun. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

When I first read the lectionary for this week, I was dismayed. The first line of James reads, “not all of you should become teachers”; maybe I should just sit down. Added to that is Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (and I often find myself siding with Peter) and Jesus’ reply “get behind me Satan!” This weeks reading felt a little personal. The whole James passage is devoted to the evils spoken by the tongue. But it should be noted here that only modern readers first assume that the writer is talking about the individual person’s tongue—my tongue, your tongue—and not the tongue that is leading the congregation. What James may really be saying is that we need to support our teachers and preachers wisely—those that lead the congregation have a great responsibility to speak carefully and wisely. And in that case it would be me, Linda, Brooks, Tom, the lay readers, Beth, Sunday School teachers, Martha who prints the bulletins…and just about anyone in the church who admits they are a member here and talks about what this church does. We should all think before we speak. But that’s not exactly news, is it?

When I read the passages, I really noted the word “perfect”. Sure, the writer of James first says, “we all make mistakes,” but the rest of his rant makes it pretty clear that he’s not going to make excuses for us. Am I really meant to be perfect? Ah, no. Not exactly. The Greek word for perfect “Teleos” actually means something different than what we’re used to. Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I was quite surprised to learn that here “Perfect” of a person really means, a. full-grown, mature, adult or b. fully developed in a moral sense, perhaps “being on the right road and progressing nicely”. See, in light of the passage as a whole, perfection is a process of becoming, not a thing you automatically are. So there’s a little hope for me here. That in Christ I am in the process of becoming perfect, even if I’m not quite there yet. But then I read on to the gospel message of today.

I have to admit, I’m always biased in favor of Peter. I feel for Peter, I can get into Peter’s head. So when Jesus asks him who he thinks Jesus is, Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” See, that’s the sort of thing I think I would say, right? But then Jesus starts talking about what it will actually mean to be messiah, to die and be resurrected, and Peter rebukes him. I can see myself rebuking Jesus too. Because of course he doesn’t want Jesus talking like that! Not only is that kind of talk going to get all of them in heaps of trouble with the Pharisees, the Sadducees and maybe even the Romans, but he doesn’t want his friend to get hurt! Of course Peter rebukes Christ! Who wouldn’t? And then there is that little matter of the cross—only sinners die on the cross, and the worst kind. Murderers and terrorists, no good citizen dies in such a terrible way. It’s like imagining killing Christ by water-boarding him to death, or putting him in one of those old-school electric chairs. It’s a terrifying image, and one that completely defies the idea of Messiah.

And that’s when I realized that in the Mark passage, Peter blesses and curses Christ with the same tongue, just like in the James passage. Peter is blessing Jesus when he names him as the Messiah, and curses him in that he denies the reality of what it means to be the Messiah—namely, dying for the sins of humanity, and being resurrected to destroy the power of sin and death. See, Peter curses God by denying the Truth of the cross. He doesn’t have to say one dirty word or anything that any faithful, loving person might not say—all he has to do is deny the life-giving power of the cross.

I said that this lectionary passage felt personal. Back when I realized that the time had come for me to go to seminary, and to leave the life I’d built behind, it came as a real surprise for some very close people in my life. They didn’t even realize I was Christian, much less that I would go off to seminary and preach someday. Not because I didn’t act like a good, moral person, but because they’d never heard me talk about my faith. I was denying the cross without a word. I didn’t have to say a thing. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

Cursing with one’s mouth isn’t a matter of dirty swear words (as my mother might want me to think), or failing to speak the truth— this message is much the same as Linda’s a few weeks ago: it isn’t what goes into –or out of—our mouths that defiles us, but what is in our hearts. Anything we think or believe that doesn’t build up God’s creation or the meaning of the cross is a curse. And what, then, is the meaning of the cross?

While I was a hospital chaplain, I had one patient, about 35, who had a massive brain embolism, and the prognosis wasn’t good. She’d been there about two weeks with very little progress or movement. Only two days earlier she’d had three “code blues”, which is when your heart stops beating and the whole hospital rushes to save your life. She hadn’t really regained consciousness, or spoken two coherent words, since she’d arrived. So on this day I was talking to the patient’s mother, trying to get her to tell me more about her daughter. What would she say right now, if she could? “Oh, she’d be cursing up a storm” she tells me, she’d be so angry about the situation. I looked at the patient and thought, well, I’d be cursing too. Trapped inside your body, in pain and confused, unable to seek help or get the comfort you needed. I’d have some choice words about that situation too.

About this time the nurse comes in to do the daily physical therapy for the patient; takes off the big boxing gloves they use in the unit to keep neurology patients from writhing about and pulling on their tubes. She moves her arms and feet, her hands, and her eyes open. Trapped in her body as she is now, what is she feeling inside there? So I take her mom at her word, and introduce myself to her. “Hi, I’m your chaplain. Your mom says that if you could talk right now, you’d be pretty ticked off about this situation.” And her mom laughs, and agrees, yes sweetie, you look like you’d like to say a few good curse words right now.

And the look she gave me says “you don’t know the half of it.” So I tell her, “If I put myself in your position, I’d sure like to let fly with a few choice words right now. And I know a lot of good curse words.” Her mom is looking completely appalled at this. And so I do something a little dangerous—I curse for her. I tell her every curse word I know from the Bible, English and Hebrew, because hey, must be ok if you can find it there, right? (There’s even a curse word in today’s reading!) Her mom looks aghast.

And the patient smiles. Her mom says, “oh baby, you’re smiling.” And maybe this is the first time the patient actually heard her mother, but she looks at her. And then she tries to say something. We have to get the nurse to take off the air mask to hear what she’s saying—I stick around for a few minutes, watch the hubbub start—and decide it’s time for me to go. You see, I hadn’t really done anything; I’d just named her reality, said the words that she wanted to say. She had used that anger, that energy, to muster up her own will. The Chinese call anger “raising the chi”, and that’s exactly what she did.

I come back the next day, hoping the change was permanent, and with an assortment of birthday cards for her mother—it’s her birthday, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a card from her daughter? And she’s there, sitting up in bed, looking ticked as all get out about being stuck in a bed, boxing mitts on again, staring at the TV. I say hello, and ask her what she’d like me to write in the birthday card for mother, since she has those gloves on. And she tells me, softly but forcefully, “Write: I wish I could take off these damn gloves so I could sign this card myself.”

I laugh, because that’s funny, and write exactly that down for her—at which point she takes the pen from me and signs her name. While I’d been chuckling about what she had said, she had used that anger, that curse word, to get up the energy needed to pull her gloves off with her teeth—and sign her name as clear as if she were writing a check. I thanked her and went to show to the nurses—had they seen? Did they know? A woman who was dead three days ago was alive—did they know what this meant? No, they did not know. This was news. Someone had to testify to the healing in that signature.

I asked you earlier, what is the cross? The cross is Christ’s signature in the world. The cross means healing, forgiveness and salvation. Healing for a sin-sick world, forgiveness and reconciliation of for sins that should be unforgivable, and salvation—radical, ridiculous, amazing salvation for people that don’t deserve it. We Bless God when we say what we believe, when we speak on behalf of life and love—when we are willing to learn a new language (Spanish, anyone?) or do something daring. And yet we still curse God with what else we do: degrading others, jokes in poor taste, denying people that don’t meet our standards. Cursing God isn’t about the words we use, it’s about the reality we testify to. You can curse God with words, or thoughts: cursing God is when you fail to testify to the signature meaning of the cross.

When I read the James passage I heard the image of a spring giving forth either fresh or brackish water. This is important when you live in a desert and need springs that only give fresh water. But I don’t live in a desert today; I do know what Hot Springs look like. Like in Yellowstone National Park, Geysers can only give off boiling water or cool, not both. If I were a spring, I’d be a boiling spring. I boil with righteous indignation when I hear the healthcare debates, when I witness racism, sexism, homophobia. But will I use my anger, my boiling, to curse God—scalding and burning the Creation? Or will I use my boiling spring to make steam, and spin the turbines of change? Does that boiling water, like a geyser, point to the glory and majesty of God? The life affirming power of the Cross?

With the same mouth we bless God and curse God—my brothers and sisters this ought not to be so. But it is so. The question then is: how will you turn your cursing, into blessing? How will you speak to the meaning of God’s signature in the world?


The start of a new year!

Well, with the start of a new school year comes a new mandate: I'm now required to update my blog regularly as a part of my supervised ministry!

I'm working as an intern in Worship and Preaching as well as Outreach at Bound Brook Presbyterian Church. Check it out at!

At present, I know I'm preaching on Sept 12 (ok, yes, that already happened), both Sunday services on Oct. 11th, and again on Nov. 14th. And I think I'll be hopping into worship for the occasional liturgy and Children's Sermon too. On Wednesdays I'm watering the planted seed of a Mother's Group and ESL class starting at 10am. We'll do 45 minutes of parenting concerns and then another 45 minutes of English as a Second Language. This program is in conjunction with our hosted chuch Casa del Banquete, but the program is open to the whole community AND free of charge (ok, the language class is $10 for materials, but that's pretty darn close to free). This program is slated for a start-up of 6 weeks, after which time we'll reconsider what and how we want to move forward.

I'm really excited about it all! So the next post I'll have is the sermon I gave on Sept. 12th. I might be reusing a portion of it for the Oct. 11th sermon, maybe. I haven't decided yet. But here's to resuming a regular updating schedule!


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hebrew Exegesis/second sermon

I decided to make my second sermon on the same topic as my exegetical paper. I was torn which to post first, as the sermon was frankly better than what I wrote down, and I don't think my paper has been graded yet (although it's already turned in). So I decided to do the sermon, as the paper was 15 pages long. Maybe I'll do it later. Here's the gist!

Gen. 32:22-33

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.

Did you hear about the new translation of the Bible that suggest that only men can make beverages like coffee or tea?


Yeah, that’s pretty bad. But the Hebrews liked puns. :)

Let me try again: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was... Hebrew. By that I mean that the guy, that guy who was the Word incarnate, Jesus, well he was Hebrew, spoke Aramaic, read the Old Testament in Hebrew. The whole nine yards. And that the Word, when it was written down, it was in the language Hebrew. And the word was written for a Hebrew people, a group dependent only marginally literate. As such they needed their Word to tell a story, to paint a picture with the Word. Let me tell you a story.

It’s a dark and windless night; still dripping and cold from the swirling water of the Jabbok, Jacob struggles up the steep bank. Alone at last, his family safe on the other side, and away from whatever is lurking in the darkness. The crickets stop chirping, and even the water is hushed. A cloud sweeps over the moon and stars blot out. It is inky-black, and he is not alone. A moment, a crunch of sand, and he hears the whisper of flesh just before he raises his arms in defense. Suddenly he is engaged, wrestling for his life. It feels like a man, but who is it? A bandit? Is it Esau, come to get him? Or given where he is, here at the ford of the fabled Jabbok, is it a river god—or a demon? Is it angel? Is it an angel—if so, which one? The angel of death? Esau’s guardian angel, here to avenge his master’s stolen birthright? Is it Michael, comforter and helper? Is it someone else entirely?

Maybe it doesn’t matter, for the fight is still going on. Move for move, hand for hand—and suddenly, things get worse. Our Bible tells us that it is the man who saw he couldn’t prevail over Jacob, but that might not be quite true, for the original Hebrew tells another story.
See, in the Hebrew, most of this story is told without names or identifiers; its mostly undifferentiated masculine pronouns. In the Hebrew, the text reads “and when he saw that he could not prevail over him, then he struck him in the hollow of his thigh, and Jacob’s thigh was wrenched—or dislocated—as he wrestled with him.” To make matters worse, we don’t know who that first “he” is; maybe it’s the man, maybe it’s Jacob, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Cause it’s Jacob who gets hurt. Suddenly—POW!—his hip gives way. I should probably reveal at this point in the story, that ‘hip’ or literally “hollow of the thigh,” just might also mean ‘loins’.

They’re really close in proximity.

So here’s Jacob, struggling away, when suddenly he’s struck…in the tender bits…or if not the tender bits, then the bits next to the tender bits, which can be just as bad. And technically ‘wrenched’ is more literally translated ‘dislocated’…but the image of Jacob’s dislocated loins is pretty disturbing, and I’d rather not comment on it.

Let’s recap: It’s dark, it’s lonely, and Jacob is wrestling with someone when something goes terribly wrong and he’s got this searing pain shooting through his leg. Kind of like a schoolyard fight—it doesn’t matter who hit who first, someone is gonna lose an eye. Or in this case, leg.

So here’s Jacob, good ol’ tenacious Jacob, hanging in there, not winning but not giving up either. He can’t pin the guy now, or throw him, or do any ninja counter moves, because, well, he can’t really move the lower half of his body. But he’s hanging on with his arms, he’s got his hands wrapped around this guys’ neck and he is not letting go. Because if he gives up, who knows what might happen? He might be robbed! He might be killed! His family might be robbed and killed! So Jacob does the only thing left to him, which is hang on for dear life. And the man-demon-robber-angel-God person can’t seem to shake him. For all their grappling, Jacob is still there, bruised, probably bleeding, but still hanging on. He’s still there. And there, on the horizon, is light. The sky starts to grey a bit, and you can just see the outlines of shapes, shadows.

Somewhere, faintly, softly, a dove coos to greet the dawn.

And then suddenly, this person, this wrestling maniac asks to go free. “Because dawn is breaking”. What?? WHY? He’s WINNING, and HE’S asking to go? At least, we’re pretty sure it’s the other man, even though in the Hebrew, it’s all just a bunch of undifferentiated masculine pronouns. It reads, “and then he said, Let me go free, for dawn is breaking, and he said Not unless you bless me, and he said what is your name, and he said Jacob.” You can work backwards to figure out that it’s the assailant who asks to go free, but the text doesn’t exactly tell us that. The Hebrew text leaves it open. We’ve had to add our interpretation to the text. But ok, we’ll run with our traditional interpretation; the assailant asks to go free. Because of the dawn.

Why the dawn? Why not “cause I can’t get your grubby hands off from around my neck?” IS it a demon, who loses his power with the sun? IS it an angel, with a heavenly appointment to keep? Or is it God, whose face will kill you? Despite all of this, because I think Jacob has been thinking about all these possibilities, he doesn’t let go. Let me say it again—Jacob doesn’t let go, even when offered the chance.

Think about that temptation: your adversary, who really, rightfully has you beat, offers YOU the chance to honorably end the battle, offers you mercy by asking to let HIM go and walk away free. “Send me away already, let’s go our own ways” is what I hear, his opponent tempting Jacob to just let go of the fight, give up, take his losses and move on. Just give up. It’s easier. You can’t win, buddy! You’ll never pin him! Look at you, you can barely stand! But Jacob, good ol’ tenacious Jacob, knows better. Because Jacob has figured out one thing: this is no ordinary man. It’s not Esau. It’s not some shepherd or vagabond. It’s something…else. And he needs a promise that it’s not going to eat him or something if he lets him go.

“I won’t let you go unless you Bless me!” Bless me! And if you know who Jacob is, you remember where he came from, he’s been fighting for a blessing all his life. Despite the fact that his mother was told, “the elder shall serve the younger”, Jacob thought he had to live up to his name. That he had to buy his brother’s birthright. That he had to steal his father’s blessing. That he had to trick his uncle to get wives, get cattle. If we know Jacob, at every turn this guy has sought to be blessed—and now he hangs on for the same reason.

“What’s your name?” “Jacob”. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel. For you have struggled with beings divine and human, and have endured.” That sounds a bit different than our interpretation, but that’s an accurate translation. In this one sentence, at least in the Hebrew, we learn a lot. Here the name Israel means, “God struggles or Struggles with God”. And that reminds us of the word of wrestle, which sounds like the word for Jacob, which sounds like the word for Jabbok. I told you the Hebrews liked puns.

“For you have struggled with ‘elohim’”. Not God...exactly. Elohim is technically a plural word, and it might mean angel, it might mean a god, it might mean gods or The God, Yahweh. The text simply doesn’t tell us—not even later, when Jacob says “I have seen the face of elohim and lived.” The dawn has not spread, It is still night, and the only person we can see clearly is Jacob. Is Jacob. We know, I think we can intuit, that the other person is Divine, somehow, but the Hebrew text doesn’t tell us right out…because the Hebrew wants us to wrestle. The Hebrew text wants us to identify with Jacob, to put ourselves in his shoes. I know, I know, I keep coming back to the Hebrew. But it’s like the original language is trying to tell us something, like English just can’t quite do the words justice. It’s like the stories were written for a pre-literate society, who needs to hear pictures painted with words. It’s like we still need the Hebrew for a fuller understanding in English.

When we step back and look at this story, what happens? If we take out all the English interpretations we’ve added, and the intentional ambiguity in the Hebrew, what do we know? We know that Jacob is caught, alone, in a wrestling match with the unknown. We know he gets hurt—badly. We know he hangs on. We know that surprisingly, miraculously, he is offered mercy. He is blessed. And his new name commemorates his struggle. A struggle that truly is with God. A struggle that is ours.

The Hebrew is intentionally ambiguous to the point that we can’t know for certain anything except what happens to Jacob—much like in our own lives, we can’t really know much more than what happens to us. We can’t truly ever know who our assailant is—is it a man? A devil? An angel? God? Christ? All we know is that we’re wrestling, and that we’re going to get hurt, just like Jacob. We know that we’re blessed with a new name, one that commemorates that God Struggles with us, even when we’re hurt.

And we can know that we do not need to win the battle, simply endure it, and we shall be blessed. If we remember Christ as our model, we see this again.

"It is finished," he said, then enduring no more--only this time, we are the ones who are blessed.


Friday, February 27, 2009

first sermon. Sexy.

Song of Songs 7:1-6
How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O prince's daughter!
The curves of your thighs [are] like jewels, The work of the hands of a skillful workman.
Your navel [is] a rounded goblet; It lacks no blended beverage. Your waist [is] a heap of wheat Set about with lilies.
Your two breasts [are] like two fawns, Twins of a gazelle.
Your neck [is] like an ivory tower, Your eyes [like] the pools in Heshbon By the gate of Bath Rabbim. Your nose [is] like the tower of Lebanon Which looks toward Damascus.
Your head [crowns] you like [Mount] Carmel, And the hair of your head [is] like purple; A king [is] held captive by [your] tresses.
How fair and how pleasant you are, O love, with your delights!

I love the Gospel of Song of Solomon; it’s easily my favorite book in the Bible. I think it’s pretty rare that you find a gospel that’s simultaneously beautiful and awkward, wonderful and really hard to talk about in public. And its still a mystery in the greater church; I rarely meet someone conversant in Song of Songs like people are in the Gospel of Mark or Luke. But it is a Gospel: Martin Luther was fond of saying that the Bible is composed of Law and Gospel—gospel meaning good news—and that is exactly what this book is. Especially for me.

Song of Solomon was the first book of the Bible that I ever read. I was about 15 years old at the time, and it was a great kindness to call me a “late bloomer”. Let me describe myself. My hair was like straw, the color of strained carrots. My eyes were like Coke bottles, my teeth like the chrome grille of a Cadillac. My breasts were…non-existent, and my body was like a fourth grade boy; short and thin and mostly knees and elbows. Oh but my heart! My heart was like the heroine of a romance novel! Wild! Free! So when I decided that I wanted to read a book of the Bible (because even I wanted to know God better) I chose Song of Songs. Simply put, its one of the shortest books in the Bible, and it’s largely about sex. And it doesn’t mention Jesus at all. He and I didn’t get along at the time, so I wanted to avoid him. Or at least I thought so at the time. And what I heard from Song of Songs was this: God wanted me. God wanted me like I only dreamed of someone wanting me, like Romeo wanted Juliet, like every romantic song. God wanted me body, mind and soul. And in that order.

And I’m not the only one who has come to Song of Songs in this way. Biblical commentator Alicia Ostriker says this, “I first sat down to read the Song of Songs as a teenage, for a high school English class. I had no trouble understanding it. I was sixteen and in love with a boy two years older, whose eyes and laugh and body were so lovely to me that they appeared to contain and enclose the stars, and the spaces in between the stars. He stood with the grace of trees. He came leaping upon the mountains. Our kisses were sweet, playful, intense, almost unbearable, just right. Whatever phrases in the poem that eluded me did not matter. I understood the tone. Meeting and parting, parting and meeting—in love and playing at love in a state of entire confidence. I had no doubt that this experience, in the poem and in my life, was the most holy thing I knew.”

I think that the worlds needs to hear this gospel. AND I think that the world has heard a part of it, or at least American society thinks it understands: that the body is good. That physical love is good, that being in a relationship with physical love is amazing. What society doesn’t have is what the church has to say about this gospel. Because for many people in the world today, the closest they think they can come to God is between the sheets.

And why is that? I think part of the answer is the modern reality of the “emergent adult”. Emergent adults—as opposed to established adults—are those between the ages of 18 and 28, out of high school but not yet fully adult, unmarried and without kids. And this age group doesn’t have a clean definition of the relationship between their physical body to God and the church. I mean, this is a group isn’t IN the bible, because the Bible assumes you marry early and have kids right away. And right now, today, this is a group that saw a president of the United States lie about NOT having sex with his intern, that see reality shows glamorize sordid affairs—even the Presbyterian church is unsure of the definition of chastity. So what are we saying to our young people? What do they hear?

A good barometer might be the young Bristol Palin, who despite her sudden notoriety and whatever you might think about her mother, is a remarkably average young woman. Church going. Smart. Athletic. Fell in love with a boy and pregnant at 17. Recently Bristol gave an interview after the birth of her son—ok, that’s not so average—and this is her most notable quote: ““I think abstinence is, like-- I don’t know how to put it — like, the main — everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it’s not realistic at all.” I’m not saying that I agree with her; far from it. But I am saying that our lexicon, as a church, is failing to meet the people today in matters of physical attraction, the body and love. For if society understands (and if we too believe) that physical love is good and of God—which is a part of the Gospel of Song of Songs—then how do we share the rest of that gospel? That physical love is a gift from God in how it affects the soul. That desire in a relationship can bring us closer to the Lord, that sex isn’t bad—but good—in the right context. And that’s the key.

Our society isn’t perfect. That we must answer these questions at all is less than ideal and a testament to both our current ineffectiveness in society, and a current opportunity for our witness to society. That’s where we stand. Bristol’s mother had this to say during her interview: “Let me put it this way. I think Bristol’s an example of, truly, this can happen to anybody. It did happen to her (in) less than ideal circumstances, but we make the most of it.”
I think that sounds like a pretty good idea. We might not be able to change society, but we can change how we relate to it. I’m not suggesting that we change the gospel, but change how we speak of it. Song of Songs can be a gospel to the world today.

"the hair of your head [is] like purple; A king [is] held captive by [your] tresses.
How fair and how pleasant you are, O love, with your delights!"

That is, if you dare to talk about it.