Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Keep Calm and Follow Jesus

During the second World War the British government began a campaign to encourage their citizen’s resolve in the war effort. There were a variety of posters with simple messages that all had a drawing of a Tudor era crown above them. The most memorable of them read, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. These were all discarded after the war and would’ve been forgotten if a trunkful hadn’t been found, quite by accident, some 40 years later. 

At first the phrase was re-introduced as “Keep Calm and Shine On” – a phrase that can mean anything from “be brilliant” to “be deceitful,” depending on which website you trust. Now you can find it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers with “Keep Calm” followed by anything from “and Carry Guns” to “Presby On.”

I’m not too sure about either of those, but given the range of emotion being expressed over current events it seems to me that we do need to take a collective deep breath before someone else gets hurt. Even as I say that I am painfully aware that while friends and family of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC considered the amazing grace of God four separate African American church buildings were burned by arsonists in NC, GA, and SC. 

And although this may beg the question of whether or not anything has changed since the 1960’s, it is undeniable that we are living in a time of deep and meaningful change. In some ways the events of the day are the product of these changes. In some ways the events of the day are creating changes in the very fabric of our society. That may sound threatening to some, but I believe that it can all be used to move us toward something better. For better or worse, we are moving toward a “new normal”.

Same gender marriage is now legal. The use of the Confederate Flag in governmental installations is being challenged through due process (mostly), and its distribution is being limited through supply and demand. War continues to rage in the Middle East, and we continue to wrestle with our level of responsibility as a nation of power. And even as we fight terrorists on other shores, we continue to experience the terror of school shootings, of violence between and within racial groups, and at the hands of extremist Christians. The ethics and standards of policing are being questioned, and our racial and ethnic diversity continues to shift in our cities – but not so much in our congregations. 

All the while, new technology is changing the way we do business, communicate, and function at levels unseen since the Industrial Revolution. As we become more empowered by our shiny toys the middle class continues to shrink, and those who have more resources are becoming more connected to those who have less. New business models are becoming centered on relationships. Some businesses are asking what people need to survive and thrive rather than determining how to pay employees as little as possible and still get the maximum product from their work.

The interesting thing is that every single phrase in every single sentence of the last two paragraphs will be celebrated by some and absolutely offensive to others. Loss and victory seem unclear as the very earth seems to shift underneath our feet. Into this confused space of opportunity and loss we hear the voice of David cry out. David – who was the anointed successor of Saul, the anointed King of Israel – cries out in anguish over the death of Saul, who was his pursuer, and Jonathan, whom he loved like no other. 

In his song and in our Psalm today we find many of the so called stages of loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I say, “so called,” because we do not go through these stages neatly and orderly. Sometimes we double back because we have not truly finished being angry or feeling bad. It’s also because I think we often confuse acceptance with agreement. Acceptance is not the same as agreement. Acceptance just means that you fully realize that there is no going back – whether you like it or not.

Acceptance means a willingness to move forward. As followers of Jesus, I think there is yet another step that we can add to the way that we understand the changes all around us – and that is expectation! Paul speaks with expectation to the church in Corinth about their relationship to the churches in Jerusalem and Macedonia. Essentially this is his middle of the summer push to remind people about their pledges, but it’s not about money. It’s about recognizing their connection to each other through Jesus Christ. Paul wants them to see that faith creates expectation! 

The expectation of faith is that God is working in and through us, that God is active and present, and that we are to give in ways that empower others and in ways that encourage our own faithfulness. We talk about this a lot in Presbyterian circles. We call it “connectionalism”, and yet our experience of being connected to other congregations in the presbytery is usually limited to meetings that no one wants to attend. 

Yet this Summer I experienced a week of camp with children and youth from at least 10 of our congregations that was hosted by adults from at least 5 of them. Even now there are members of our Presbytery preparing for another trip to Cuba. Even now there are communities in the disappearing wetlands finding hope in the work of our Young Adult Volunteers who plant switch grass and educate communities about the care of God’s creation. Even now there are representatives gathering to create a web of awareness and care for food insecurity in families across the state. Even now there are congregations sharing ideas to become stronger in their public witness of a God who redeems and restores in the midst of every struggle.

And as good as that sounds, we still find ourselves reaching out expectantly with our own hopes and fears. Maybe we are like Jairus, the established religious leader who suddenly became interested in Jesus when he realized that his daughter was ill. I wonder, was he annoyed when Jesus stopped – knowing how sick his daughter was? As Jesus looked to the woman – an outcast who had asserted herself – was Jairus tugging on the other sleeve? 

Or maybe we are like the woman herself, desperate and willing to risk rejection – she would’ve already been seen as unclean. Yet it was her faith, her expectation that God was active and present, that made her well. And Jesus called her “daughter,” and proclaimed that she was clean. 

Or maybe we are like the onlookers who saw the little girl get up and heard Jesus dismiss the miracle as unimportant next to the need to give the girl something to eat. 

Or maybe we are like the girl herself, and we are waiting for the call of Christ to tell us to get up and get moving.

Wherever we find ourselves in the story, I believe we are being called to “Keep Calm and Follow Jesus.” We are being called to stiffen our resolve, not to close our minds. We are being called to place our trust in the hands of the one who brings healing and wholeness – the one who restores communities through their own faith and trust. 

We must expect that Jesus offers restoration, even to us. We must expect that the restoration we want may not happen the way we want it to happen. And we must expect that the most miraculous thing we can do is to care for the one that Jesus has touched and claimed as beloved. 

That will probably put us in some uncomfortable relationships, but it will also give us the opportunity to hear Jesus – in the midst of the radical changes all around us – call our names and say, “Little child, get up!”

Keep calm. Follow Jesus. Amen.

Life is not fair

This sermon was delivered by Leigh Rachal on July 21. Based on Mark 4:35-41.

Life is not fair….
Ever heard that before?
This phrase was told to me by various adults throughout my childhood.

“But Jenny’s mom is letting her go to the party. It’s not fair that my friends get to go and I have to stay home….”  “Sorry. Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”
My mom didn’t tolerate whining. So I learned to stop whining out loud. But I’ve never truly stopped whining. Because I still find myself whining (silently) to God…. And usually, my whine is: But, It isn’t fair….

For example:
Sometimes I whine to God when I hear the news of the day…. “God, it isn’t fair that people were shot and killed while they were faithfully attending a church gathering….” “God, it isn’t fair that people in some places in YOUR world can not walk down their neighborhood streets without worrying about bombs or guns.”

And almost daily I whine to God while I’m at work… “God it isn’t fair that some people do not have basic things like a safe place to live and the opportunity for purposeful daily activities. 

It isn’t fair. I stand by this statement. I have never “gotten used to it”… nor do I anticipate that I ever will.

When I was a child and I felt particularly gutsy, I would demand that if someone “REALLY cared about me” then they would make the world fair…. “If you really loved me, you would let me go to the party with Jenny….”

And as much as I don’t like to admit it out loud, I occasionally (ok, pretty often), get this gutsy with God…. “God, if you REALLY cared about YOUR people, you would…. make the streets safe. All of them. You would stop the bullets and bombs…. You would provide safety and security for all of YOUR people.” 

Come on, God. Don’t you care? Don’t you love your people?
Pretty gutsy, I know…. Or pretty childish, perhaps…. But that is where my faith is most days…..

And, this morning, I find myself in pretty good company. In Mark’s gospel today, the disciples say this same thing to Jesus: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing???” 

They are in the boat and the storm starts up. And the boat is being swamped… And Jesus is asleep. 

And sometimes when I’m observing all the chaos of the world today, I conclude, with those disciples, that God is asleep at the wheel and obviously does not care that we are perishing down here on earth.

For here we discover the age-old problem – coined “the problem of evil” – the problem Christians (and people of all theistic faiths) have had to wrestle with.
It is often termed as a duality:

Given the amount of evil in the world, either God is not all-powerful and CANNOT get rid of the evil.
–OR– 
God is all-powerful, but is not particularly good because God CHOOSES NOT to get rid of the evil.

Is God All-powerful? Or is God Good? It is hard to see God as both. For some, the answer has been: There is no God. For others, the answer has been that God is an Angry God or a Vengeful God. Still others maintain that God exists, but that God is somehow absent during evil. That evil is the result of the absence of God.

For me, none of those answers to the “problem of evil” are acceptable, partly because my understanding of God is not that of a Being that either exists or doesn’t. 
My concept of God is more like Paul Tillich’s The Ground of all Being. That is, that God is not A Being, but rather the Essence of Being. The Is-ness of all that IS – seen and unseen, like we say in our creeds. 

Or to use words from Scripture: God is the great “I AM”  in which we live and move and have our being. God IS Emmanuel. “God is with us.” Always. The God of our creeds, the God of our Scriptures, is not an absent God. 

So when faced with the problem of evil or how to respond when the world does not seem fair and the storms of life overwhelm us (and we are certainly faced with that, plenty!), we might, with many throughout history, turn to the book of Job. 

When bad things happen, we struggle between the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to whine that God must not care and the “faith” of Job that refused to give up the concept that God is Good and Fair and could be trusted – despite mounting evidence to the contrary. 
Just before today’s passage, in the story of Job, Job has suffered tremendous personal and financial loss. And he finally gets up the guts to whine to God that it isn’t fair that he has been so good all of his life and that God is allowing all kinds of bad things to happen to him. And Job sort of demands that if God really cares about him, God will at least explain Godself.

And the answer from God sounds a bit like, “don’t you take that tone with me, young man.”

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!” This slightly sarcastic God goes on and on and on, really making His point. God sort of reminds me of the mother, whose son gets a little too big for his britches, putting him back in his place: “I carried you around for 9 months and then changed your diapers. If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be alive” And depending on the level of anger, I’ve heard this exchange include a line about how that “being alive” part could easily be reversed! This exchange is usually enough to remind a child that they are not in control. There is a more-powerful being in control of their lives. This is usually enough to get the child to back down a bit.
God’s words in Job seem pretty clear: God created the world and doesn’t need any mere mortals questioning God’s work.

Or maybe God is even saying, “Yep, the world isn’t fair. Get used to it.” But just a couple chapters later, when God’s rant is finally concluding, we get a larger picture:

God tells the story of two creatures – monsters, really – creatures that even God has a hard time controlling. And yet, God controls them. God says “I made this world. But I didn’t JUST make it, I made it safe and inhabitable for humans. I put a limit to how far the tides of the seas can go, created light for the day time, and  brought rain to deserts.”
God even created those monsters – that so-called-evil – that came from God, too. 

The author of When Good Things Happen to Bad People, Harold Kushner, argues that the monsters in the story of Job are symbols – symbols of powers and principalities that are capable of good, but also capable of evil. Like every aspect of Life. Like you, like me, like every person on earth – with Good and Bad in us. All humans. All institutions. All of the created world, including nature and all of its forces. Fire, is perhaps the best example of this. Fire can be warm and life-sustaining, but it can also be destructive. 

Life, it turns out is not a series of either good or bad event performed by either good or bad people. Life is just not that clear cut. Are guns evil? Are people who shoot guns evil? Is this particular person evil? Were these other particular people good? Are we good? Are we bad? What about our thoughts, are they good? Bad? Do we even know the answers? Might the answer be yes and no? I think all things are both good and bad. I believe God created the world, with so much potential for both good and for evil, and yet God declared it Good.

But that potential for evil – in the world and in ourselves – is scary.
And back on the sea with his disciples, when the storm has been calmed, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “why are you afraid?”

And I wonder if they were more afraid of the storm or of Jesus’ power to control the storm. But regardless, fear seems like a perfectly rational reaction to either. As I identify strongly with these disciples, I want to respond: “Jesus, why are we afraid? Are you kidding? Storms kill people. Don’t you watch the news? Storms kill people, and bullets and bombs kill people – and yes, people kill people. Shouldn’t we be afraid? Isn’t that a reasonable response? What do you want from us?” Jesus’ response: “Have you still no faith?”

And indeed, have we no faith? Can we not proclaim along with Paul that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”?

Do we not know when faced with what feels like chaos or evil – when it seems like the good guys are losing and the forces of evil are taking over – do we not know that God is in control? Do we not know that none of the created things can separate us from the love of Christ? Do we not know that no matter the level of evil that is contained in our world – or even in our own hearts, that God is big enough and loving enough to contain it? 

Do we not know that God is big enough and loving enough to take all that is evil in us and in the world into Gods own self and to forgive it? Do we not know that God has the final word – even over death, even over the death of many, even over tragedies that we cannot make any sense of – even when we do not understand or see the Good at all? 

Even then, God is the One in whom we all live and move and have our being. All of us. Those who are shot and those who shoot. Those who attack and those who defend. Those who praise God and those who curse God. Those who believe and those who doubt. All of us have, as the Ground of our Being, the same God. This God who is an all-consuming, all-powerful force described by Ken Wilbur as a “love so fierce that it adoringly embraces both light and dark, both good and evil, both pleasure and pain equally.”

Don’t we have faith?
Sometimes. 
Sometimes we can see this so clearly.
Other times, the tragedies and the storms overwhelm us. And we join the disciples in asking if Jesus even cares.
But when faced with the cross, even Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
So we are in good company in our faith and in our doubt.

And the Good News is that God is with us in both.