Sunday, August 26, 2012

Holy Uncertainty (Proper 16B)

Proper 16   John 6:56-69

I had a professor in college who said something that has stuck with me for now over 25 years.  It had to do with the character of faith.  He said that once we are SURE of our faith, our faith was dead.  The essence of a living faith is what he called “Holy Uncertainty.”
Holy Uncertainty is that internal gnawing that pushes us forward.  It is the questioning that keeps us unhappy with the answers that just seem too easy.  It is those questions that we ponder just as we drift off to sleep.  Holy Uncertainty may not give us an easy faith, but it gives us a depth and profundity of faith that we cannot get just from accepting the easy answers and the hard and fast rules.
My professor would say that once we become assured of our faith, we cease to grow in faith.  We have all the answers and we have everything nicely placed in its box.  We don’t have to think any more.  We can just say, “Oh, that person is lazy; they are bad.”  Or, “That person is greedy; they are bad.”  Or even, “That person is a Cubs fan; that person is totally delusional!”  We can become pretty smug concerning our judgments of other people.  When we have lost our Holy Uncertainty, all we have to do is make our judgment and move on.
But Holy Uncertainty does not let us get by so easily.  Holy Uncertainty pushes us toward understanding and away from judging.  It moves us to search deeper in life than just accepting what we can see with a quick glance; Holy Uncertainty drives us to compassionately search for answers.
Holy Uncertainty is definitely not easy.  It asks us to sit in those gray places in life.  It can cause us to lose sleep at night.  Holy Uncertainty can make us very uncomfortable.  And it is the discomfort that drives many people toward black and white understandings of God and the world.  Black and white may be easier to understand, but black and white views often deprive us of the richness that surrounds us.
In our gospel reading for today, the people are becoming uncomfortable.  Jesus has been teaching about being the Bread of Life and about how people need to eat this bread to find everlasting life and forgiveness.  This was (and still is!) some radical teaching.  It did not fit nicely into The Law as the Jewish people knew it.  The teachings that Jesus was giving the people were introducing a while range of gray to the established, cut and dried, system.  Suddenly the people who were listening to Jesus were thrust into the realm of Holy Uncertainty.  Many, possibly for the first time in their lives, were caught in the gray area. And with the laws changing, Jesus noticed that the big crowds were dwindling.  People were leaving.  The discomfort of the new teaching was just too much for them.
I think we often feel this way, too.  As I said, Holy Uncertainty is uncomfortable and we really don’t like discomfort.  But I am not so sure certainty is so comfortable, either.  Certainty may feel like comfort, but it can leave us feeling torn.  We see people we love being judged harshly and many of us know that under different circumstances we could be in that position of being judged.  But instead of questioning the law, we question the person.  The law cannot be wrong, it has been there forever and why would we need to change it now?  So we assume the person is bad and we go on.
But Christ was offering forgiveness.  He was saying that just because someone went afoul of the law doesn’t mean that they are forever damned.  Jesus was saying that people can be forgiven and redeemed.  But instead of rejoicing at the news, people began to leave, they began seeking another teacher.
When I was a kid, I had really bad feet.  I had to wear these funky shoes and had to have various kinds of supports placed in them.  When the supports were first placed in the shoes, they hurt!  But eventually my feet would conform to the supports and I would find relief.  That transition time was not the most pleasant time, but the finial result was being able to sleep through the night without ankle and foot pain.  I could have ripped the supports out, I would have had immediate relief, but the chronic pain would have continued.  In dealing with the pain of change, I was able to sleep more soundly.  Holy Uncertainty involves living through the discomfort and finding the relief that Christ has promised.
Changes are occurring on all levels of life.  Some of these changes can be scary and downright painful.  The Episcopal Church is making all kinds of changes that some feel are just too much.  We have an election happening that is promising to be all kinds of uncomfortable.  In our lives, there is the possibility we are being asked to open ourselves to new teaching that can be uncomfortable. 
It is easy to turn away when a teaching feel too difficult.  Jesus acknowledges this.  He acknowledges that what he is teaching is difficult and opens the opportunity for the disciples to leave.  That is part of human nature: Leave when the going gets tough.  But Jesus does not want the disciples to leave; he wants them to stick around, work through the discomfort and to grow.  He reminds them that they have been through difficult teachings in the past and not to lose heart.  But Jesus also knows that some will fall away but asks us, his followers to continue to press on, to continue to persist through the uncertainty and to grow.
One of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church is that Holy Uncertainty is build right into our system.  We are able to deal with uncertainty because we have our points of stability.  We believe that God is Almighty.  We believe that Jesus is God’s Son.  We believe that through Christ’s death and resurrection we have received forgiveness and new life.  And we have our worship where we can gather as a community and place ourselves at Christ’s feet.  Many of the other points of faith are open for discussion.  We still disagree on things like ordination of women and more recently the ordination of gays, lesbians, and transgender people, but those things do not stop us from worshipping together.  At each of these times, there was much discord and people declaring the demise of the church. But you know what? We are still here!  We keep the vision of what is important, God is Almighty, and then work together through the details.
I believe that as long as we continue to work together, Christ will be present in the process.  As long as we look to our Savior, we will find the teachings we need.  As Simon Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  And as long as we continue to search, with Holy Uncertainty, for the leading of the Holy Spirit, I believe we will find it.
There will always be changes. Even something we hold as dear as the church will have changes.  Even our interpretations of the Bible may change. But we are not to turn our back on the community.  We are not to turn our backs on those who disagree with us. Christ calls us to keep our faith in him and to not turn our back. Christ calls us to hold fast to our faith, even though we may be uncertain as to what is happening. But as long as we remain faithful, and as long as we keep working to understand, as long as we remain engaged, we can trust that Christ will be there.

Drunk on the World (Proper 15 B)

Have you ever seen anyone who was drunk?  I would be willing to guess that we all have seen at least one person who was, as they say, “under the influence.”  There are a couple of things that I have noticed; for one, they are VERY sure they are right.  Arguing with a drunken person is an exercise in futility.    No amount of logic or reason seems to work.  The drunken person is absolutely sure that he or she has the truth and no one else is going to tell that person any different.
And if one drunken person isn’t bad enough, when you start putting drunken people together, it gets even worse.  It is kind like they develop telepathic skills.   Even though they could be totally wrong, they will continue to tell each other that they are right.
Eventually, the people sober up.  And when the influence wears off, the truth sinks in:  “Wow, what have I done?  Did I really just get married at a drive through chapel in Las Vegas?”  And with sobering up comes the reality that life has changed; what seemed like a good idea while intoxicated now doesn’t look so good.  What sounded good while under the influence now means you now have “Mother” written across your biceps for the whole world to see.
So if being drunk can lead to such problems, why do people go out and get drunk?  Well, I am sure if we asked, most would tell you that while being drunk, it is a lot of fun!  The feeling of invincibility.  The feeling of being all powerful.  The feeling of being almost a god.  That feeling can be very addicting.  And while it may feel real while the person is under the influence, eventually the truth will break in and the person will have to realize that he or she is not a god.  And quite often, what happens then is the person returns to being intoxicated to once again feel that power.
Now, you may be wondering why I am going into such depth on the subject of addiction; it may seem like a far shot from the gospel reading with Jesus saying he is the bread of life, and you might be right.  But I was captured by the Ephesians reading where the people are told not to get drunk with wine. 
The writer of Ephesians contrasts being drunk on wine to being filled with the Spirit.  I hope we do not take that contrast literally because there are many things that can get in our way of being filled with the Spirit.  We can become drunk on power.  We can become drunk on money.  We can become drunk on fame.  We can become addicted to religion.  Yep, you heard me right.  Religion can make us drunk and can prevent us from being filled with the Spirit.
Paul so often reminds the recipients of his letters to be in the world but not of the world.  He wants us to live in our world but not to be consumed by the world.  This has been a problem for a long time; obviously since Biblical times.  But I think it is even a bigger problem now since we can communicate around the world as easily as we communicate with our neighbors.  Actually, it may be easier to communicate with people on the other side of the globe.  Also, we may never need to hear another opinion other than the ones we agree with.  I have my computer set to send most of the political messages to a separate file that I can choose to look at or ignore.  If I want, I need never see what those who are opposed to my opinion think.  I can become quite drunk on my own thoughts and my own logic.  Without anything to counter my thoughts, I can begin to think myself quite godlike.
Paul knew that this was dangerous.  He knew that when we get intoxicated with our own worth, we begin to forget the way of God.  We become rigid.  We become less willing to look out for the good of others.  When we become intoxicated with life.  We think we are doing wonderful things, but in fact, we may be causing problems.  We are drunk on life.
But this is not how we are to live.  Paul tells us something different.  We are to live as wise people.  We are to be filled with the Spirit.  And, like we talked about last week, we are to be kind.  We are to be on the lookout for how we can be the hands, the heart, and the mouth of Christ in the world.  We are to be on the lookout for how we can bring Christ’s love into the world.  In effect, we are to be open to the leading of God, not only in our own lives, but in the life of the congregation.  And not only in the life of our congregation here, but the Church (with a capital “C”) throughout the world.
Striving to live life with wisdom and Spirit can be difficult!  When we surround ourselves only with people who think the same as we do, and speak the same as we do, and respond the same way we do, we can begin to think that OUR way MUST be the way of God.  Our way must be God’s way because it surrounds us!  When we see nothing else, we have nothing to compare our beliefs to.  We are not bad for thinking and feeling what we do, but when we are only surrounded by people like us, we can become limited.
But Christ calls us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  He calls us to join him at the table.  But he does not call just us.  He does not just call the people who look like us or think like us.  He calls all people; he calls the whole Church (with a capital “C”), he calls all of creation.  He calls us to sit down with each other, to tell our stories, and to get to know each other.  He calls us to see beyond our own reality, and to experience the reality of those who are different than us.  To experience the reality of those who disagree with us.  To experience life larger than we thought possible.
The first way we do this is by realizing that we may, in fact, be intoxicated by the lies of the world.  We may have closed out so many of the other voices in the world that we really cannot see what is truly happening.  We may have settled on what we are going to believe and we are not going to budge.  We may say that this is faith, but it is not.  This is idolatry.  This is not the worship of what God has planned for us; it is the worship of our own ideals.
What we need to do is to trust in the Holy Spirit.  We need to trust that when we open our hearts and our minds to the leading of the Holy Spirit that we will find the guidance of God.  We need to trust that when we gather around Christ’s table, that the story of the person sitting across from us is as real and as IMPORTAT as our own.  And we need to be as ready to help that person as we are ready to have someone help us.  The table of Christ and all who are seated around us are the ones who fill us with the joy of the Spirit and keep us from being under the influence of the world.  This influence, the intoxication of our world can be very difficult to see, just as it is difficult to see logic while one is drunk.  But this is the place of worldly influence is where we need to trust in Jesus the most.  We need to trust that the one who came to save us will, in fact, SAVE US!
When we travel alone through the world, or travel with those who are drunk on the promises of power, wealth, or esteem, we can get drawn away from God’s plan for the world.  But when we gather together, when we share the table with our brothers and sisters from around the world, when we look into the eyes of those with a different story, when we gather to Eat the Bread of Life, it is then that we come to know, through Christ, the will of the Father.  It is when we are gathered together that we can break free of our own desires and discern what God has planned for us.
Are we drunk on the promises of wealth, power, and recognition?  Or are we living in the wisdom that we receive through Christ?  It is a question that is as old as Christianity and a question we each need to answer, as individuals and as a congregation.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Can We Just Be Kind?

Be kind.  That seems so easy, doesn’t it?  Be kind.  Be nice.  Treat other people the way we would like to be treated.  It seems really easy.  I am sure we all can imagine how wonderful the world would be if everyone would just be kind to each other.  If we all were kind, things would just be so much better!
If it is so easy to be kind, why do we have to be continually reminded about it?  Why do we have to have people tell us to be nice?  I hear mothers telling their kids, “Now be nice!”  Shouldn’t it just be something that we do?  It SHOULD be, but obviously it is not.  We can look at the big things like the murders in the Sikh church last Sunday and know that people are not being kind to each other.  We can look at the theater in Aurora and know that people are not being kind to each other.  We can look at these big things and KNOW that people are not being kind.
But these are the big things, right?  And these are people who are probably not quite hitting on all cylinders, right?  Yes, these are fringe people, but to attribute all the unkindness in the world to the fringe people is to stick our head in the sand and ignore the problem.
Be kind.  Our epistle reading gives us this command.  I generally don’t like the word command, but I will use it here.  We are commanded to “be kind,” period.  This is not, “be kind to people who are kind to you.”  It is not, “be kind to your friends but forget about everyone else.”  It is not, “be kind to the people who look like us, act like us, and believe like us.”  It is a simple, direct, command:  “Be kind.”  And, you know, we really seem to have a hard time with it.
Now, this is not to get down on our world, our epistle reading comes from 2000 years ago.  People have been having difficulty with this whole “kind” thing since before then.  You would think we would have it figured out by now, but we don’t.  We keep walking about through life missing all sorts of opportunities to be kind.  I would say that, quite often, we do not even intend to be unkind; it just sort of happens.  We get caught up in the routine of life and the next thing we know, we find ourselves being rude and pushy.
One thing we need to remember is that kindness is not just some kind of knee-jerk reaction.  Kindness is not something that we do innately, it is something that we must work on.  Kindness means moving outside of ourselves and looking around at those who inhabit this world with us.  Kindness means that we move beyond our unthinking reactions and taking time to RESPOND to the situation.  Kindness means that we stop and consider the needs and wants of others along with the needs and wants of ourselves.
In the epistle, we are told to be kind, tender hearted, forgiving.  I see these things as removing the stumbling blocks from the path of those around us.  When we see someone struggling through life, we are called to help remove those things that are getting in the way.  We will not be able to remove all the stumbling blocks, but maybe we can remove some.  Tenderhearted means that we are to empathize with the other person and find a way to give them rest.  It seems as if society keeps looking for ways to put more roadblocks in peoples’ way instead of looking for ways to decrease the roadblocks.  We seem to look for ways of getting more for ourselves instead of looking at ways we can assure enough for everyone.  Keeping the best part for ourselves my be totally human, but it is not what is required of us as Christians.
Some may consider what I am saying to be some kind of liberal communism, maybe it is.  But I find it sad that people will weep over the death of a dog and turn around and scream that a starving person is “getting what he deserves.”  Where is the kindness in that?  Or when people say that the poor and homeless are lazy; we never take the time to look at how we may have deprived these people of a chance to thrive.
We really need to thank God that God does not judge us by our sins.  We need to thank God that God, for the sake of Christ, HAS forgiven us and continues to forgive us.  We have been forgiven in our baptism and that forgiveness continues through our lives.  Now, just because we have received this forgiveness does not mean that we never sin.  Just a quick question to prove this: How many of us would like to have people from church go through our house, our bank accounts, or our computer files?    See, we all fall short; it is just the way of life.  We are not as loving as we could be.  We are not as kind as we could be.  We are not the perfect people we would like to project to the world.  But even thought we are not perfect, we are still forgiven, and that is what we need to remember.
This forgiveness that we find in Jesus is the basis of our desire to be kind.  Even in the face of evil, we are called to be kind.  Even in the face of nasty drivers who we have to wonder if they even passed the driver’s test.  (Because, of course, I am the BEST driver EVER!)  We are called to be kind.  In the presence of those that have hurt us, we are called to forgiveness and to be kind.  To all people, to one another, we are to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,” and be kind.
What makes me sad is when I look at the world today, I have a hard time finding kindness.  I find lots of fear.  I find lots of hatred.  I find a lot of people doing all kinds of verbal gymnastics trying to dress up evil as kindness.  I find people getting angry when their lack of kindness is exposed.  I find people segregating themselves into smaller and smaller groups.  I find so many people looking at “them” and responding with fear.  Maybe it is unkind of me to say anything about what I see around me, but I find it difficult to keep quiet.  
Wow, who would have thought that something as seemingly simple as “be kind” could be so difficult?
So how do we make a change?  How can we turn the tide of fear and hatred that we see throughout the world?  It seems so big!
I had someone say to me, “If you can’t fit it into a wheelbarrow then you need to shrink it down.”  So taking on all the extremists would be just too big.  But we all can do smaller things.  We can smile at the cashier.  We can thank the grocery bagger.  We can be patient if the lines are long.  We can let someone merge onto the highway.  We can stand so someone may have a seat.  None of these things cost us anything!  (And as someone who has worked with the public, a kind, smiling, face can make the whole day better.)  We might choose to not pass on that snide Facebook post.  We can be compassionate to the plight of others.  We can assume that people are trying to do their best, just as we are trying to do our best.  (Why do we assume that others are slackers?)  It is NOT hard!  However, it does take presence of mind and involves responding as opposed to reacting.
We can forgive.  I think this is one of the hardest things to do and could be a whole sermon unto itself.  We can present our feelings of hurt and being wronged to God and ask God to heal them.  We can realize that the people we strike out against are often not the ones who hurt us.  The man in Wisconsin may have felt that he was hurt by Sikhs, but even if he was, it is more than likely that he was not hurt by the particular group of Sikhs that he attacked.
Hate and fear create more hate and fear.  It is when we RESPOND in kindness instead of REACTING in fear that things begin to change. 
Now, this could end up sounding like some kind of new-agey, self-help thing unless we remember what Christ tells us in the gospel reading.  Christ is the bread of life, and it is through this bread, through this promise that we are give the strength to persevere.