Sunday, August 30, 2015

Inside Out

Preached August 30, 2015.

The best movie I saw this summer was Inside Out. It’s a Pixar film, and in true Pixar form, it’s imaginative and smart, appealing to adults and children alike. How many of you have seen it? It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that is more about what’s going on inside the people in the story than their actions on the outside. The main character is an 11 year old girl named Riley.  Inside Riley there are little people who live in the control center of Riley’s mind. These are her personified emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness. There is an elaborate system for what become Riley’s core memories, what goes to her subconscious, how she deals with disappointment and hurt, and the way Riley’s emotions conflict when her world falls apart. One of the things the movie vividly demonstrates is how the most significant things that are going on in our lives are the things we can’t see. They’re what’s going on inside us.

We often make the life of faith all about what we’re doing on the outside. It’s an old, old problem for people of faith. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is an ongoing back and forth between God and God’s people. The people think God wants them to jump through hoops by proving their faithfulness through rituals and traditions. But that’s not what God wants at all. Jesus reminds them of this by quoting from Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions.”

This is the scriptural theme Jesus is addressing when he encounters the Pharisees and teachers of the law in today’s reading from Mark. The presenting issue is hand washing.

Now, these days we know that there are sound health reasons for washing your hands before you eat. It’s a good thing to do. So, I don’t want any of you kids to go home today and tell your parents Jesus says you don’t have to wash your hands before you eat. Jesus wasn’t against hand washing here. He was speaking about something bigger than that.

The basis for the tradition of handwashing originated way back in the book of Exodus when Aaron and his sons were instructed to wash their hands and feet before entering the holy tent. That tent eventually became the Temple, where the practice continued. But then the Temple was destroyed, and everything changed. Still, the rabbis didn’t want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved the practice to the dining room table, or the home “altar.” This was an attempt to bring the holy into everyday life. And it was a beautiful thing. But somewhere along the way, what was meant to be a life-giving practice became a way of separating the insiders from the outsiders. From what we hear Jesus saying in today’s text, it also had become an empty ritual that no longer brought people closer to God.

This always seems to be the danger in religious practice. Something is put in place for a very good reason and it’s meaningful to people. But after a while, they come to believe that there’s only one way of doing things because this is the way it’s always been done. It may be that the reason for it has long since gone by the wayside, but the tradition lives on.

A number of wedding traditions are like this. There is the tradition of the father giving the bride away. It comes from a time when the woman was considered the father’s property until he gave her to her husband, and then she became the husband’s property. But why do people want this to be a part of their wedding ceremony in 2015? Or not seeing each other before the wedding. This came from a time when marriages were arranged and there was the fear that, if the bride and groom actually saw each other before the wedding, they might not want to go through with it. Then there’s the idea of a bride covering herself under a veil. People in ancient Rome believed evil spirits would be attracted to the bride, so they covered her face with a veil to hide her from the evil spirits. Why are so many perfectly rational people of faith so attached to such things?

Of course, this isn’t only true of weddings. It’s true of lots of religious practices. What we’ve done so many times, for so long, can lose its meaning. And even worse, it can become a way of separating people. If you don’t do it our way, then you’re not one of us. 

Many of us today equate our religious experience with particular outward expressions: particular types of prayers, a particular way of preaching, particular styles of music. You may revel in a Bach chorale, or a Gregorian Chant. You may connect with gospel music, or anything with a driving drum beat, or singing around a campfire with a guitar. We all have our own preferences, certain ways of practicing the faith that open us to experience worship in a meaningful way. And there are probably reasons for that. It’s good to understand why. But it’s also good to recognize that this stuff is all external. It’s part of the trappings of human tradition, and it’s not essential for faith. It’s certainly not a reason to judge the faithfulness of a person who doesn’t treasure the same practices you do.

There’s a theological word for stuff that is non-essential: adiaphora. I’m part of an ELCA Pastors group on Facebook that has been really helpful to me as a pastor, but I have to admit that sometimes it could be called, “Adventures in Adiaphora.”

I especially love it when we get into discussions about candles. “Do we extinguish the Christ candle on Transfiguration Sunday?” some newbie will innocently ask. And then she will have the benefit of ELCA pastors from all over the country pouncing on her. “It’s not a Christ candle, it’s a Paschal candle,” someone will say. “It shouldn’t be lit at all during the season of Epiphany,” another person adds. “You only light it at Easter.” Another poster writes: “A Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve right after the reading of the Epistle.” Someone else says: “The candle should be made of beeswax, it should be located on the gospel side of the chancel.” Then someone will disagree, and there are almost as many ideas about candles as there are pastors. It will invariably devolve into the personal. Someone will ask one of the posters what liturgical book they are using, where they went to seminary and who their liturgics professor was. People who disagree belittle one another. It just goes on and on and on. Finally someone in the thread will say, “Light whatever candle you want, however you want, whenever you darn well please.” I suspect that person is speaking for Jesus.

Jesus didn’t confront the Pharisees because he was against the traditions of his faith. His problem was with people who identified outward forms of religion with the life of faith itself. It’s easy to do that. It’s easier to keep to forms and practices than it is to look deep within ourselves. Maybe because when we look deep within ourselves, we need to be open and willing to change. That’s not for the faint of heart.

Jesus says, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

In the ancient world, the heart was the location of the essence of who a person was. The heart was the source of personality, thought, emotion. Even God is given a heart in Biblical poetry. Today, the heart is still metaphorically considered the center of what makes up our human identity. We talk about the heart being the source of positive emotions like compassion and mercy. But Jesus talks here about the heart as the source of evil, as well. There’s a lot going on inside us.

We spend the bulk of our time and energy worrying about what’s going on outside us. We get all caught up in planning our next vacation, buying a new car, studying, taking music lessons, playing soccer, working morning, noon and night at our jobs, watching our favorite shows on TV, volunteering in the community, keeping busy with a bazillion things we just have to do. And all that stuff on the outside keeps us from spending time on the inside.

When we come to worship, we may expect that by going through the motions, somehow we’ve made up for the ways we’ve neglected what’s going on in hearts all during the week. But the purpose of our worship is not to serve as a substitute for examining our hearts. At its best, worship directs our attention inward.

Today’s gospel from Mark raises a number of questions that we might want to ponder. Here are a few, to get you started:
  • Are there religious practices that have become so rote for you that they have lost their meaning?
  • In what ways are your religious practices used to keep people who don’t value the same practices you do at a distance?
  • How does the life you’re living on the outside keep you from looking at yourself on the inside? Why do you do this? Is there something you’re afraid of?
  • How might you enter into worship with a greater awareness of how outward rituals and traditions can draw you into a deeper understanding of your inner life of faith?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

When the Going Gets Tough

Preached August 23, 2015.

Have you ever entered into something that you thought was right for you, only to later drop out? When I was 20 I got a job cleaning rooms at the Holiday Inn. I went for my first day where they showed me how to clean a room and that was all it took. After one day, I became a Holiday Inn drop-out. I decided it wasn’t worth the money. I could make the same minimum wage elsewhere doing something that was a lot more fun and wasn’t nearly as hard.

I’ve had a number of experiences in my life where--after I got into something--I realized, this is not what I thought it was, and I dropped out. Have any of you ever done that? Whether it was a job, school, a volunteer position, a club, a relationship. After you saw what it really entailed, you bailed.

Well, that’s exactly what we read about a whole lot of Jesus’ disciples doing in today’s lesson from John. It comes at the end of a very long discourse in John’s Gospel that follows John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus has used this miraculous feeding as a teaching opportunity. What begins with Jesus literally giving bread to the hungry moves on to imagining life beyond the literal, beyond basic needs and survival. And what Jesus tells them is just too much for them to handle. This is not what they signed on for and they’re outa here.

John tells us that many of Jesus’ disciples walked away. They couldn’t accept the kinds of things Jesus was telling them about the abundant life God promised them by his grace. They just couldn’t bring themselves to go there. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe they were afraid. But it was enough for them to walk away.

In churches we see people walk away all the time. At Holy Trinity I’ve noticed that new people are sometimes so excited to be a part of our community, it’s like we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Some stick around and some don’t. After a time, there are those who suddenly evaporate into thin air, and I wonder why. Whenever possible, I try to have a conversation with them about this, but the conversation isn’t usually very satisfying. For one thing, I’m not sure they’re being completely honest with me. And for another thing, I’m not sure they’re being completely honest with themselves. By that I mean, I don’t know if people always realize why they’re walking away. It could be something as simple as we did something to offend them, or maybe I said something they couldn’t agree with in a sermon. In some way, being part of our congregation didn’t meet their expectations. It may be because they really didn’t understand what we’re about, or it may be because they understand exactly what we’re about. But there was something about this experience that was hard for them. So hard that they decided to walk away.

The disciples in Jesus’ time walked; they couldn’t enter into the kind of relationship Jesus was inviting them to be a part of. I suspect they were afraid. They couldn’t take that step, even though Jesus promised them that it was the way to real life, life abundant, what John calls eternal life. They couldn’t trust that Jesus was speaking the truth to them. They couldn’t risk who they were to become the people Jesus was calling them to be. And so they decided to play it safe. And they turned their backs on the life Jesus offered them.

Now, no doubt some of those same fears are present among us today. Fear may send us running from our God who only wants to love us. I know that’s true for some people. But today, following Jesus is vastly different than it was in the first century. Over the years, the gospel has become domesticated so that being a follower of Jesus has come to mean something more than simply accepting or rejecting the love God offers us.

For many Americans, religion has become a consumer experience. People are not seeking religion that challenges them with truth so much as they are seeking religion that meets their needs. They seek out worship experiences that entertain or at least make them feel comfortable. Should the preacher fail to bless their political agenda or their lifestyle of endless consumption, they move on to one who will. They’ll find a preacher who preaches no more than 10 minutes, tells funny stories, and leaves people feeling great about themselves.

And this is bailing on Jesus. We bail on Jesus when we fail to truly follow him.

There was a lot of tension in Charlotte over the past week as we awaited a verdict in the Kerrick trial. When it was all said and done, the verdict wasn’t satisfying to anyone. In the world around us, people have taken sides. Some stand on the side of the victim, Jonathan Ferrell. Others are taking the side of the police officer who shot him. So, which side do we take, as followers of Jesus? The Jesus I follow weeps for both sides and everyone caught in between. He weeps for the black community that has a long, painful history of experiencing police brutality and discrimination in our criminal justice system. But Jesus also weeps for a young man who was so frightened for his life that he felt it necessary to kill another young man who was only trying to ask for help. Jesus weeps for them both. While the world around us is demanding that we take a side, Jesus invites us to follow him to a different place. Guilt or innocence becomes irrelevant when we follow the one who calls us to show love and mercy to all, even our enemies.

Following Jesus isn’t about choosing the easy way, or the comfortable way, or the enjoyable way. It often means doing what’s difficult. Allowing ourselves to be open to an authentic relationship with the God who knows us and loves us, no matter how scary that may be. Doing the hard work of reconciling with one another before we meet at the altar. Sharing in the suffering of others, including people we’d rather ignore, by standing with them when the going gets tough—in a shelter, a prison, a nursing home. Quite bluntly, following Jesus means going where we don’t want to go.

You can stay in your safe place. If you’re straight, you don’t have to concern yourself with gay folks. If you’re white, you can leave the black folks to take care of their own problems. If you’re an American citizen, you can let immigrants fend for themselves. If you’re wealthy, and educated, and were raised with all the advantages a person could have… you can eat drink and be merry and to hell with those you view as “less fortunate.” You can do all of that.

But you can’t do any of that and follow Jesus. You can pretend to follow Jesus, you can use the name of Jesus, and you can call yourself a disciple of Jesus. But in reality, you’ve bailed on Jesus. Just as surely as the disciples we read about in John 6 bailed on Jesus.

That’s the way it goes when the going gets tough. But we also read in John 6 that after those who couldn’t fathom what Jesus was teaching walked out, a handful of his closest friends remained. Jesus turns to them and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter answers for all of them, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Nothing else was going to do it for them. No other way was going to bring them life. And so the Jesus way became their way, too.

I suspect that most of us who are in church on a Sunday morning have come to the point in our lives where we don’t worry a whole lot about deciding whether we’ll be Christians or not. That was decided long ago. But the question worth asking again and again, as people who call ourselves Christians is: Am I going to follow Jesus? That means acknowledging the truth about your struggles. It means acting in compassion when you’d like to lash out. It means loving the unlovable, sticking your neck out on behalf of someone who doesn’t look like you or act like you or think like you. It means following Jesus when it’s hard.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Practicing Love

On Monday nights during these summer months, I’ve been rehearsing with a wonderful chorus of over a hundred voices as we work toward a big concert on September 3 at Halton Theater. No one associated with the concert is receiving a dime and all proceeds are going toward charities that have the mission of preventing bullying: Time Out Youth, which we know very well at Holy Trinity after they made their home in our building for many years until they outgrew us, and the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

Some of you may remember the big concert last year that went to benefit the fight against breast cancer. This year, it is the fight against bullying. All the music deals with that theme, including the centerpiece of the concert, Tyler's Suite. Tyler’s Suite was just written this year, commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and it includes amazing new pieces from some of the best composers of our time-- all to honor the life of Tyler Clementi.

Tyler Clementi was a college freshman who played the the violin and rode a unicycle and loved life. His new roommate thought it would be fun to set up a hidden webcam in his room and record an intimate evening that Tyler had with his boyfriend. Then the roommate posted the video on the internet. A few days later, Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge, taking his own life.

His family will be at our concert and I don’t know how we’ll be able to sing after we meet them. Our chorus director, Kathryn Mahan told us that a few singers in the chorus decided this topic was too close to home for them and they had to drop out. And here’s what she wrote in an email to us:

“What's interesting about that... is that I think we all understand that something like breast cancer - which we sang about last summer - can be emotionally devastating. When someone ‘isn't ready yet’ to sing about cancer, we get it. But have we considered that something like bullying can be equally tragic?

“And unlike cancer, bullying is 100% optional. It is completely within our power as human beings to live in a world where each and every single person is respected. Where we deride no one. Where we make it our daily practice to listen and learn from one another. Where we meet intolerance with compassion and transform it into relationship. Where we look toward, not away from, the person who's vulnerable. Where we use the power of our voices not to harm, but to uphold.”

Bullying is a problem that particularly affects gay and transgender kids, and it takes far too many lives. More than 30% of LGBTQ youth report at least one suicide attempt within the past year. More than 50% of transgender youth will attempt suicide before they turn 20.

But bullying isn’t reserved for the LGBT community. We human beings have difficulties with tolerance, and forgiveness, and kindness. Jesus himself was a victim of bullying. He was derided by others right up until his dying breath.

Bullying, as I see it, is what happens when we lose our capacity for empathy. When we look at other people and we fail to see them as human beings who have feelings, just like us.

I like to think I’m above all that, but that’s only because I think I’m justified in the unkind things I have to say about people who deserve it. I’ve gone ballistic on that crazy dentist in Minnesota who killed Cecil the lion. And I’ve spent a lot of time railing against the police officer who arrested Sandra Bland in Texas. I’ve been all over Bill Cosby’s case, and don’t get me started on Donald Trump. I’ve derided them in a way that clearly shows I don’t see them as human beings who have feelings like me.

But the thing is, these are all human beings. Yes, they’ve messed up and there are consequences for their actions, but they’re human beings, created in the image of God and loved by God just as surely as I am.

And the fact is, I mess up, too. I’ve done stupid things that have hurt other people. I’ve been unkind. I’ve made passive aggressive digs at people. There are times when I’ve been downright mean. I’ve fallen far short of the person I know God created me to be.

Now, I have a suspicion I’m not the only person who struggles with this. And that’s why a passage like this week’s lectionary reading from Ephesians (4:25-5:2) smacks me right between the eyes.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The writer of Ephesians is describing what the new life in Christ looked like for the church. It wasn't business as usual. There was something that set them apart from the way people related to one another in the world around them. They were called to live in love, to love as Christ loved.

It wasn’t a call to be obedient to a new set of commandments; it was about a responsibility they had for building up the Body of Christ. So that, as they considered the way they treated one another, the question to ask became: “Is this building up the Body of Christ?” If behavior wasn’t building up the body of Christ, it had no place in the community.

It’s still a good question to ask. But I’d like to take it a step further. The way we treat one another in Christian community isn’t just something that sets us apart from the rest of the world and it’s not just for the sake of building up the Body. It also prepares us to engage with people outside the Body of Christ for the sake of transforming the world around us.

Back when I was a serious musician, I used to practice my flute for hours and hours. And I developed a habit that was something like a little temper tantrum whenever I messed up. I would be playing along, I’d make a mistake, and I’d stop and just play a bunch of notes in gibberish as a way to release my frustration. It was like a piano player who is playing along, makes a mistake and stops what they’re playing to bang on the piano in frustration. I did it a lot when I practiced.

When I was in high school, I played piccolo with a local symphony orchestra that had all the professional musicians and music teachers in it. It was a big deal to be doing this as a high school student. Well, we played one piece that had two piccolo solos that were runs that went soaring into the stratosphere. At the concert, I got the first one, no problem. When it came time for the second one, I was going up the run, missed a note, and lost my way. And do you know what I did? I went into my musical gibberish. It was just awful and probably the most embarrassing moment of my life. Why did I do that? Well, it’s what I had been practicing for years, and when I was in a moment of panic, that’s where I went without thinking. It was my default setting.

Loving the way it’s described in this passage from Ephesians isn’t something that comes naturally for us. We have to practice it. If we think we understand it and can do it when it’s important, but haven’t practiced it, when the time comes, we’ll do what we’ve practiced.

In our life together, it isn’t only important to practice love so that we can build up the body of Christ, it’s also important to practice love with one another so that when we’re away from our faith community, and we’re stressed and irritated and ready to lash out, and we automatically go to our default setting… that default setting is the one we’ve practiced over and over again with one another. Love.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The cost of a good bra these days

I was a late bloomer—the last person in my class to get a bra—or need one. When I was in gym class in 9th grade, and the other girls in the locker room saw me in my little undershirt, they thought it was hysterical. I was mortified.

Eventually, although not much was happening yet in the chest area, I mustered up my courage and asked my mother if I couldn’t have a bra. The truth was, I had been waiting for her to tell me when it was time, just as she had informed me when it was time for me to start wearing deodorant. (I suspect that my lack of deodorant had a direct impact on her and my lack of a bra didn’t.) I approached her tearfully and fearfully, afraid she would laugh at me because I didn’t have a whole lot to justify taking this big step. The emotion of the moment for me wasn’t lost on her; she was more than compassionate about it and apologized to me for not noticing sooner.  

My first bra was really nothing but a glorified undershirt. It was a size AAA, which meant that it was a piece of stretchy cloth with two straps.  My friends used to call their bras “over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders”; mine was more like an under-the-arms-rib-cage-cover.

I used to fantasize about how it would feel to be a big bosomed woman with a heaving chest being kissed passionately by Clark Gable the way he kissed Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. It just wouldn’t do to be kissed by Clark Gable without the heaving chest to go with it. By the time I got a chest worth heaving, Clark was dead and buried. I had to settle for heaving chest moments with lesser men, so it was a bit of a let-down—never quite as spectacular as I had imagined after seeing it on the silver screen.

But I digress. I believe I was talking about bras. And here’s the thing about bras. I have no doubt that they were invented by men, along with spike heeled shoes and spandex mini-skirts. Could they be any more uncomfortable? I have women friends who get miffed about the Victoria Secret models and their unrealistic portrayal of women. I think they’re unreal, too. But not just because they have bodies like no woman I know, with big boobs, no hips and a complete absence of cellulite, spider veins, moles or zits. They’re unreal because they’re standing around in bras... and they appear to be having a good time!

Walking around all day wearing a bra is sheer torture, which is one of the reasons why I would thoroughly enjoy the solitary life of a hermit. When I'm alone I don't have to worry about offending other people with my unruly breasts. Whenever I'm forced to endure the harness for my public hours with the masses and I finally arrive home at night, my bra is the first thing that comes off after I walk in the door. Often before I’ve even closed the door. No more pinching and squeezing and lifting and pulling. I can breathe again! Believe me, if I were still a triple A, I wouldn’t be wearing one, ever. Unfortunately, my AAA days are long gone. Now I'm what the bra manufacturers call "full-figured."

Back when I was Flatsy Nancy and dreamt of what it would be like to have big boobs, I never imagined it quite like this. I thought full-figured was synonymous with voluptuous (ala Marilyn Monroe), but that’s not a word I would use to describe myself. I’m not voluptuous; I’m just old. My big ol' DDD bra isn’t sexy. It’s just necessary to hold my puppies in place so they don’t go wandering off and bother people.

One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that bras are a lot like shoes in that you don’t want to pick up any old booby binder just because it’s cheap. No amount of savings is worth the resulting discomfort. If you want to come even remotely close to comfortable, you have to be willing to pay for it. So, this week I bought myself a new bra and it cost me $80. As in 80 freakin’ dollars! For $80 I could have treated myself to something truly comfortable, like a fancy massage with a mud wrap. Damn. $80. There seems to be a direct correlation with the price of bras and the level of their necessityinsofar as refraining from grossing the rest of the world out is a necessity. The older one gets, the more necessary a good bra becomes. So I pay the price. And y’all can thank me for that!

I remember back in the 60s when women were burning their bras. The bra was rightfully viewed as a symbol of oppression. Feminists were fed up and they weren’t going to take it anymore. The fires of freedom were stoked with Maidenform bras. Those were the good old days. If the movement makes a comeback, I’m so in.