Monday, March 28, 2016

March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday - Neither Winner nor Loser

If any of you remember Christmas Eve, I used to sermon to remind you that you are all losers; that Jesus was born a loser for losers like you.  I even had the congregation raise their hands if they could self-identify as a loser, which some did quickly and some did meekly and some just stared blankly at a pastor who would dare call me a loser.  Yet my assertion remains that in the Christmas story Jesus appears on the scene as a loser in stable with no room at the inn.  He goes on to be a very talented loser, doing wonderful things like healing the sick and walking on water but at the same time hanging out with the low-class sinners, the lepers, the tax collectors and the prostitutes.  He says loser things like blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich. 
                 But today of all days we might think that Jesus is definitely a winner.  He has risen from the dead.  The tomb is empty.  This is a day when we sing of victory.  This is a day when we sing of joy.  We talk about the destruction of sin, death and evil.  We speak of Jesus as a conqueror who sets us free.  Today of all days we have to proclaim Jesus as a winner.
                I won’t argue with that idea, but what I will do is suggest that in the resurrection Jesus transforms the meaning of winning and losing.  Sometimes I think that American Christianity over-emphasizes the resurrection.  I’m not saying it is unimportant.  It’s why we worship on Sunday.  It’s why we remember Jesus as Son of God rather than tragic teacher gone before his time.  It’s why we proclaim ourselves a resurrection people.
                But if most of our focus is on the resurrection, without encountering the cross and tomb, we will think that Christ’s victory looks like all the other victories we talk about, be they sports victories or military victories or the hard-won victory of finding a free parking space in Boston.  You or your team works very hard and with luck and skill, they win.  That is what victory looks like and what we often think about when we speak of winning.
                Now imagine another scenario.  The New England Patriots take the field against the Green Bay Packers.  (I say the Green Bay Packers because my grandmother lived in Appleton, Wisconsin and at one point had season tickets).  The Patriots play the worst game you have ever seen.  Brady drops the ball again and again.  The line can’t stop the blitz.  At various points you have to walk out of the room because Green Bay keeps scoring and scoring.  Tears come to your eyes as you hear the words, once again, “And it is a first down for Green Bay.”  The Patriots have been clearly trounced and utterly defeated.  There will be no parades in Boston.  There will be no confetti.  Countless bowls of guacamole sit warming in countless living rooms throughout the Bay State.  Countless slices of cheese pizza grow cold in countless boxes, appetites pulled away into the vacuum of loss.  You go to bed and sleep fitfully, pursued alternately by the Green Bay defense and a mob wearing cheese hats.
                The next day you open up the newspaper and the headline reads, Patriots win 0-84.  The sportscasters are talking about the Patriot victory.  But this makes no sense to you because you clearly saw them get destroyed and no one is saying that they scored any points, got any touchdowns, made any great plays.  They just keep saying that they won.  It slowly starts to dawn on you that something has changed about the nature of the game itself.
                The resurrection is like that but even greater.  In my football image suddenly the winners are losers and losers are winners.  Jesus does use that kind of language in the gospels when he points to the difference of the priorities of our world and the priorities of the kingdom of God, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”  Yet I think the resurrection points to something more fantastic.  The women at the tomb realized the moment the men in dazzling clothes spoke them saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead.”  What Jesus does in the resurrection is he pulls us out of a game where there need to be winners and losers, where we seek to define ourselves as winners as opposed to losers.   There is no longer holier than thou; there is no longer more blessed than thou.  As Paul talks about it later there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.  There is no longer Ivy League or State school or GED.  There is no longer Cambridge or Southie.  All of the distinctions that both defined us but also limited us are gone.  There is no longer winner or loser but simply children who have been made alive in Christ.
                Now you still get to have a heritage and you still get to be a gender, but those aspects of being human no longer define you at a fundamental level.  You still can be successful; you can still make great blunders, but success and failure no longer define who you are.  You don’t have to win because all the winning that ever needs to happen already happened on the cross and at the tomb.  You don’t have to succeed because all the success you ever need has already been granted through this good news.
                What we are celebrating today is the great freedom that is found when you realize that you don’t have to win the game of life because it has already been won.  You are guaranteed not to lose no matter what you try, no matter how you have succeeded or failed in the past or how you will succeed or fail in the future.   You get to play for fun.  You get to play for the simple joy of playing and trying to play well.
                For most of this year, I have been preaching on discipleship.  We have talked about hope and compassion.  We talked about growth in faith and generosity.  And sometimes people get leery about discipleship because it sounds like we are talking about works and being saved by what we do.  But you can be the worst disciple ever and still know that you have won the game.  Living as disciples is really God saying, “The game can be more fun.  Be generous.  It’s joyful.  Be compassionate.  It’s good.  It makes the game better for everybody.  Be grateful.  It’s fun.”   When Jesus died on the cross a whole bunch of shoulds and oughts and musts died with him and in their place is freedom to explore, to experiment, to love, to have fun.  It is the freedom to be open to the world and open with one another.  It is the freedom to look for God’s presence in all places, in all of our lives and all of our relationships.
                Now some people might say that this message is foolishness when there is all this terrible stuff happening in the world, that this message is just another escapist fantasy, to which I would say it is not, rather it is an escapist reality.  As I have said before, the promise of the resurrection does not mean that no bad things will ever happen to you again.  It means you can’t lose even when bad things happen.  The things we fear cannot take away the victory of the cross and empty tomb.  We aren’t playing that game anymore.  We are free, even when bad things happen, we are free. 

                So I say the good news of this day of resurrection is that you are no longer losers (but you aren’t winners either).  No, you have been set free from the boundaries of the game itself.  You are not winners; you are not losers; you are simply children of God made alive in Christ.  Go and live in the light of this resurrection.  Go have fun in this beautiful world.  If you want to honor this promise, this gift of life, go have fun.   Go and love someone.  Go and pay attention to the sea breeze.  Go and take notice of God’s good creation.  Go and show kindness to a stranger.  Go and feed someone.  Don’t play the game to win; play the game for joy.  Because the tomb was empty, you have been set free to play .  Go out in the light of the resurrection and have fun.   Alleluia.  Amen.

March 25, 2016 - Good Friday - It is finished

This afternoon I was present for a service on the seven last words from the cross and it reminded me that we tend to take all four gospel accounts and put them together, as though they can be read as a seamless story; the four gospel writers heard from different witnesses and those witnesses remembered different parts.  Yet each rendering of the story, though similar, presents Jesus in a slightly different way.  Only Luke remembers him in conversation with the thieves promising that “Today you will be with me in paradise”.  Only Matthew and Mark remember him crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Only John has the final words, “It is finished.”
                It is probably the least dramatic ending of the four gospels.  There is no crying out.  There are no questions to God.  Just those words, “It is finished.”  Yet, as with everything in John’s gospels, that simple phrase is loaded with meaning.  It is finished.  It is done.  It is complete.  What is finished?  His life?  The hard part of the story?  His role in this divine plan?  What is over?  Sin? Guilt?  Death itself?  Those are traditional answers as we view this story through the lens of atonement and reconciliation.   It is all part of the plan and it is finished.
                Yet Jesus in John’s gospel has this habit of saying things with multiple meanings and maybe there is more to this story than personal salvation, as beautiful as that is.  There are all sort of things that need finishing and the cross points to an ending for all them.  So often we hear about cycles of violence and abuse.  The pain inflicted on me gets inflicted on another.  The abused becomes an abuser.  The cycles keep replaying themselves and even though we can see them and name them, we cannot make them stop, until we look to the cross and hear, “It is finished.”  The cycles of hate and violence can be finished.  We can let go of the pain and the hurt and end it on the cross.  It is finished, says Jesus, be forgiven and learn to forgive.
                We are a society that looks to blame someone else for our misfortune.  It is the fault of the Jewish people.  No, it is the fault of the Black Lives Matter people.  No, it is the fault of the all the scary Muslims.  No, it is the fault of liberals.   No, it is the fault of the conservatives.  No, it is the fault of lazy people on welfare.  No, it is the fault of Wall Street bankers.  If we could just get rid of those people, drive them out, scare them away, our lives would be safer, wealthier, happier and more successful.  And in the process of labeling those people as the problem we imagine them as inhuman, monsters who are danger to society, whom it is both our duty and our proud service to combat and remove. 
                And Jesus speaks from the cross saying, “It is finished.”  The cross illustrates the foolishness of our scapegoats because that is exactly who Jesus is in this story.  He is the problem that needs solving.  His is a death of convenience, organized to make a few people feel a bit safer, pushed through to maintain a tense peace with the Roman authorities.  But it doesn’t work; it is broken; it should be finished, and as we look to the cross it can be finished and it is finished. 
                The crucifixion is a story that should end with us all saying, “Never again.”  Let’s not do this to someone again.  Let’s stop pretending that shaming and blaming others make us better.  Let’s stop pretending that violence makes us safer.  Let’s stop looking for people to hold accountable for our problems.  Let’s be finished with that way of life.
                And yet we keep finding ways to replay this story.  We hear stories of genocide and once again we say, “Never again.”  One of the most ironic things about John’s gospel is that for centuries people have read it and said, “It’s the fault of the Jews.”  The story that tells us it is finished ends up continuing the cycle.  We keep finding people and groups on which to focus our anger, people that should be banned, deported, exiled or locked away.  We keep finding reasons to justify torture and harm and murder so we can feel a little safer.           
                This is what happens when we celebrate Easter without Good Friday.  We end up pretending that the cross didn’t happen, or was a hiccup on the way to the story of triumph and glory.  But remember that Jesus doesn’t rise from the dead and say, “It is finished.”  No, he dies on the cross and says, “It is finished.”  This moment completes the plan; this moment fulfils the work.  What we will celebrate on Sunday is important, but it is important as a confirmation of the importance of what we are remembering today.

                Jesus looks to us from the cross and says, “It is finished.”  He says it to you and to me, to all of us and all the world.  As you leave tonight I challenge to consider what cycles you see in your life and the world that need finishing, that need to be done.  Jesus looks down from the cross where he takes our blame and our blaming of others; our shame and our shaming of others; our mistakes and the mistakes of others and says, “It is finished.”  Let them be finished.

March 20, 2016 - Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - We held a presentation of the passion story in the place of a sermon this Sunday

March 13, 2016 - Compassion for Christ

I began the season of Lent talking about compassion.  At the start I spoke about how compassion begins with God; that Jesus is God’s ultimate sign of compassion, experiencing and suffering along with us.  In Jesus there is an aspect of God that is just like you and just like me.
                Growing in compassion is part of the walk of discipleship.  It is growing more and more aware of how your neighbor, a stranger and even an enemy are just like you.  It is growing more and more aware of how the love of God in Jesus applies to the neighbor, a stranger and an enemy just as it does for you.  When we experience the compassion God has for us, we are then invited to compassion for those around us.
                Now today I want to extend this idea a little bit more as we come to the close of the season of Lent.  I have talked about compassion from God and growing in compassion for others.  I want to finish by talking about a source of that growth, namely, having compassion for Jesus.  This can be a challenging idea because we tend to associate Jesus with being above and beyond us.  We have a tendency to think about the Jesus story as something that Jesus did a long time ago, something that is over and done with and it becomes our job to tell it so it is not forgotten.
                In the scripture readings today we have examples of people participating in the passion story but outside of the timeline of that story.  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus comes a pours perfume on Jesus’ feet.  Now she may have shown up with the perfume simply as a way of honoring Christ, showing his importance to her.  Yet Jesus brings it into the story.  She is anointing his body for burial even though he is still alive.  Maybe she has a sense of where the story is headed, but, in John’s story, Jesus hasn’t even gotten to Jerusalem at this point.  This is the nature of compassion for Jesus.  Mary may not know what is happening, but she has a sense that Jesus is in need of care.
                Jump forward a few decades after the passion story and we have Paul writing to the Philippians and telling them, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”  This is not Paul starting some kind of suicide cult but rather this is language that is quite familiar to the mystic and the contemplative voice in Christianity.  The “All will be well” message that we focused on in the Advent season with Julian of Norwich came as part of a larger contemplation of Jesus’ death on the cross.  In the midst of imagining what it meant for Jesus to be crucified, she heard the gospel message in the words, “All will be well.”  Next week, Palm Sunday and into Holy Week, we don’t just tell the story of Jesus’ passion to remember it; we tell the story to connect with it, to experience what it means to take up the cross and follow, to at least symbolically, suffer with Christ which is the definition of compassion.  Jesus is the sign of God’s compassion for us and we are brought into the story with compassion for Christ.
                And it is important that we are brought into the story, that we are sharing in the suffering of the passion because the good news is that God can transform this suffering, this pain, this death into life.  Without the promise of the resurrection, the passion just becomes a tragic story, another innocent death , one among many throughout history.  Without the passion; the pain; the death, the resurrection becomes a really, cool trick, one that leaves us scratching our heads in wonder, but missing the point of its transformative power.    This does not mean that pain and suffering are good but that God can take pain and suffering and death and transform them into hope and life.  If God can do this with an innocent death, imagine what God can do with our mistakes and weaknesses.  And again this becomes a model for us.  Just as God’s compassion is given to us as a model for compassion toward others, so also this message of transformation from suffering to life is also a model for us.
Often stories of pain and abuse are circular, the one who is hurt inflicts pain on another; the abused becomes an abuser.  We have the old adage that “Misery loves company” and there is tendency that when I am hurt I want to pull someone down with me.  The modern day contemplative Richard Rohr puts it like this, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
Jesus invites us into the story of his death and resurrection to break the cycles of pain in which so many of us find ourselves.  He shows us forgiveness so that we can forgive.  He lets go of our sins and mistakes so that we can let go of our sins and mistakes and the mistakes of others.  He shows us compassion so that God’s compassion can extend through us and beyond us.
In our timeline, the events of the gospels happened 2000 years ago.  Yet we proclaim a God who is infinite, without beginning and without end, unconstrained by time.  So every time we gather for communion, we are at the last supper, and every time we look at the cross, we are at the passion, every time we gather on Sunday, we are at the empty tomb.   The story is happening now, here in this place.  We are sharing in the story of good news which is also the story that tells of suffering and death of Christ which is also the story that tells how pain and death are transformed by God into peace and joy. 

Mary prepared his body as though he were already dead.  Paul, years after that death,  encouraged the church to share in his suffering so that it might also share in his life.  And so today we are also called to have compassion for Christ, compassion that begins with God and grows to encompass everyone in the world.  May the transformative compassion of God be upon you and change your pain, your regrets, your mistakes into life.

March 6, 2016 - I was away this Sunday so there is no sermon to post

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

February 28, 2016 - Just Like Me

Life happens to us all.  In every life there are very good things that can happen and very bad things that can happen.  You can find a $20 sitting on the sidewalk and think, “This is good day.”  You can accidentally drop a $20 bill somewhere, probably the sidewalk and think, “This is a bad thing that happened to me.”  You can get a promotion at work.  You can come down with a serious illness.  In any group of people that gathers you will find people who have good things going on and bad things going on.
                The very human reaction is to put value, especially divine value to those good and bad things.  If something good happens to me it must be because I am doing something right.  God is rewarding me for a faithful lifestyle.  This is a very popular theology right now.  God rewards faith with good things, successful life.  But it is not something new.  Humanity keeps “rediscovering” the idea.  It was similar to the line of thinking of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.  Good things happen to faithful people.
                However, there is flip side to this understanding of God which is not everything that happens is good.  If good things happen, (success, wealth, what have you), to faithful people, then what is going on when someone is diagnosed with cancer or loses his job or has a tower fall on them out of nowhere as in the example that Jesus uses?  The implication is that there is a problem with your faith; you did something to merit that punishment or dropped your faith for a moment.  It is the dark side of saying that everything happens for a reason.
                It is this line of thinking that was part of the reason that it was so shocking that Jesus, the good teacher kept hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  Doesn’t he want to hang out with the good and successful people rather than the losers whose poverty and leprosy show that they are not good people?  Their difficulties taint them as morally suspicious.  Yet again and again Jesus connects with the people whom society rejects going so far in Luke’s gospel as to say, “Blessed are the poor” and “Woe to you who are rich.”
                Jesus challenges an understanding of God that says that God is more available or paying more attention to good and successful people than those who struggle.  In fact Jesus makes himself more available to those who struggle, breaking bread with them, breaking the Sabbath rules for them, offering forgiveness and healing, not because they were necessarily good people or better people, but because he had compassion for them.
                This is where compassion can enter into the discussion.  There is an exercise for teaching and learning compassion called simply, “Just like me.”  It acknowledges that we are often only a few steps away from a very different life, a few medical bills away from poverty, a few pain pills away from addiction, a few footsteps away from a tower falling on us versus a tower falling next to us.  Look at someone, anyone, pay attention to them and say, “Just like me, this person wants to be happy.  Just like me this person wants to avoid suffering.  Just like me, this person has known joy and sorrow.  Just like me, this person is trying to fulfil his or her needs.  Just like me, this person is trying to make sense of life.”  It does not matter the social class, skin color, age, gender, religion or nationality.  No matter how different, there are some respects in which this person is just like me.  Cultural differences may mean that the way they make sense of life is very different from how Id o, but we are still all trying to make sense of life.  Personality differences will vary the things that make us happy, but we are both hoping to experience happiness.
                The good news is that Jesus, God walking among us, played a wonderful game of “Just like me.”  Now we might protest and say that this impossible.  God is so far above us how can God be just like me.  God is far above you and beyond (but also in you and around you) and in Jesus chose to be just like you.  We are stepping into mystery here and I cannot explain it only to say that there is an aspect of God that is just like you. 
                I think this means a couple of very important things.  First, and this is challenging to hear if you really think about the implication, if there is an aspect of God that is just like you, it’s also just like your neighbor.  That sounds fine when we are talking about the people in the pew next to you or a friend down the street.  It gets more complicated when we are talking about the ISIS fighter in Syria or the illegal immigrant or just some random person you don’t like.  That person is not only just like you but also has this part of them that is just like God.  They may not acknowledge or like it.  They may vehemently deny it, yet as Christians who follow Jesus, it is how we are called to look at the world.  Just like God; just like me.
Second, the life that Jesus lived and modeled is not beyond us.  He calls us to compassion; he calls us to kindness; he calls us to love.  We won’t do it as well, but it is not impossible.  I believe that a life of compassion and love is part of the promise of eternal life but lived out now.  Compassion doesn’t merit us rewards but is part of the great reward that is abundant life in Christ.
                As we pray for healing and wholeness this morning, I know that some of you are going through some very difficult times and that some of you are going through some very joyful times.  God has compassion and is with you in both places.  May that compassion shape our community so that we can look at one another and say, “Just like me.”  May that compassion shape our lives so they might find the part in the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy that is just like me; just like God; just like me.

February 21, 2106 - God's Compassion for Us

Last week I began talking about the value of compassion, especially as compassion relates to the idea of growing as followers of Jesus.  Compassion literally means to experience with someone or to suffer with someone.  Compassion itself is not an act but an attitude or character trait.  But if I approach the world from a place of compassion, I may well be moved to action, caring for the other person with whom I experience or suffer with acts of love.

                For Christians, the idea of compassion doesn’t start with us.  Like so many things that revolve around the promise of grace, compassion begins with God’s compassion for us.  Many times when people talk about God, they talk about a God who is distant and separate, the old man floating on a cloud in heaven or typing out the destiny of our lives on a divine computer.  Now that image of God is not entirely wrong or without merit, we can find images of the magnificent and infinite God in scripture.  Periodically we do take time to praise the God whom we say made everything, that immortal, invisible God only wise who billions of years ago poked the fabric of reality with a Big Bang.  Some of our founding fathers in the U.S. were comfortable with idea of a benevolent God who set the world in motion and established the rules of physics and nature and then stepped back to let things play out.  This is part of the reason that in many of our documents you will find a number of references to God but few to Jesus.  From the Declaration of Independence.  “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”  This is not an image of a God who loves you passionately but is a God who is a bit hands off.

                The Christian story says something else about this God.  God chooses not to be the divine observer.  Instead in the story of Jesus we have a God who is ultimately compassionate, who wants to gather us under divine wings like a mother hen, who chooses to be God with us and not just God over us.  We have a God who looks at us and loves us and says, “I know what it is to be you.”

                When I was training for ministry, serving as a hospital chaplain, we were always strongly discouraged from saying things like, “I know what you’re going through” or “I’ve been there,” even if we had gone through a similar experience.  We could tell a true story if it applied and was appropriate.  We could share the experience, but we were frequently reminded that pain, illness, grief are very personal and although you might be able to imagine what a person is going through (a compassionate attitude) you have not gone through it as that person.  You may be able to relate to what they are going through, but you do not know what they are going through.

                God knows.  God knows what you are going through.  I do not believe that the good news is that God will deliver us from all pain and suffering and illness and disappointment and failure as a reward for good behavior.  There are some traditions today that preach this kind of idea and then end up a bit lost when, as a matter statistics, somebody gets sick.  The good news is that God is not absent in the midst of pain and suffering and illness and disappointment and failure.  God has not abandoned us but is with us.  The message of the cross is that God knows what it is like to go through such things.  Christ is with us in every temptation and failure.  Christ is with us through every embarrassing test and every chemo treatment and every side effect.  Christ is with us in the strained silences of broken relationships.  Christ is with us as we go through the difficult parts of what it means to be human.  God knows what it is to be you.

                But that is not the end of the message of compassion.  When we look to the cross we might see that God also understands how mistaken, misguided and messed up we can be, how we come to believe that violence does something other than beget more violence, how we think blaming someone else for our troubles does something other than creating different kinds of troubles.  Jesus looks at us from the cross as though to say, “I understand that you think that hate works, that revenge and scapegoating work, that violence works, but look at the son of God here and know that the way you look at world is messed up.”  God knows how we think and invites us to change it.

                But that also is not the end of the message of divine compassion, because rather than remaining an object lesson on our futility, Jesus transforms the cross into a message of hope.  Jesus rises and in doing so breaks the cycle that leads from violence to more violence and death to more death.  In the cross and resurrection he shows that God, and God alone, can turn death into life.

                We just don’t want to see it.  We don’t want to admit our limitations.  Society keeps going back and trying to turn death and violence into life and security.  We keep trying to turn segregation and separation into comfort and community.  We keep trying to turn the quest for material things into fulfillment and wholeness. 

                And God continues to have compassion for us, still is there as a mother hen trying to gather us under her wings.  God continues to have compassion for us, inviting us to see the world in a new way, where life begets life and peace begets peace and compassion begets compassion.  God invites us to look at the cross and realize that the cycle has already been broken and it never worked in the first place. 

                God has compassion, is with us in our struggles, knows our temptations, our mistakes and our failures, stands with us as we try again.  And every day, every hour, every minute is a chance to try again, to catch this gospel vision and look at the world with divine compassion.  God knows what it is to be you.

February 14, 2016 - 1st Sunday in Lent - Compassion

As is traditional, the first Sunday in Lent involves the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, tempted to use power and tempted to take power.  Now it is often the case that sermons and teaching about this passage end up talking about our responses to temptation, how we are tempted to do the thing we are not supposed to do or eat the food we are not supposed to eat. 
                If we could just be more disciplined, so much of our lives would be better, healthier and more productive.  We look jealously at those who seem to have it together, wondering why we don’t, wondering why we succumb.  It is very easy for the story to be about how Jesus is great and we are not. 
                However, this is not a story about how Jesus is great and we are not.  It is a story about how Jesus is great, but it is not a story about how you ate the last cookie or didn’t go to the gym or read People magazine when you could have read the Smithsonian. 
                On a careful reading of the gospel text, it turns out that Jesus doesn’t care whether you eat the last cookie (though he may want you to share it), doesn’t care whether you have washboard abs or have a graduate degree from an Ivy League University.  Jesus doesn’t seem to care whether you are successful as the world measures success.  The undercurrent in the text is that the failure to succeed may well put you in a better position to be receptive and aware of the presence of God in your life.
If Jesus isn’t all that concerned with whether I take the last cookie, give into temptation, fail, what is he concerned about?  One word that sums up what appears to be Christ’s greatest concern with how we go about the world is compassion.  Do you have compassion for those around you?  Can you look at your brother or sister and see a bit of yourself?  Can you look at your enemy and find a common denominator of humanity?  Can you look at a stranger of a different color, a different class, a different nationality and find Jesus looking back at you?
                For those of you who came to Ash Wednesday services, we began Lent by talking about the cry from Psalm 51 for a clean heart and a renewed spirit.  I suggested that, in early Hebrew culture, this was not so much about changing one’s heart in an emotional way (as we tend to think of it) but about changing the way that we perceive and go about the world.  Change the way that I look at and encounter the world.
                Compassion, which we will be talking about in the Lenten season, is one of the ways that we change how we look at the world, change how we look at those around us.  Literally, the word compassion means to experience with or suffer with another person.  There seems to be a base level of compassion that most people seem to have, or at least can access.  Charities that focus on hunger relief generally do fairly well in part because everyone can identify with being hungry.  It is a shared experience of unpleasantness where someone can imagine, if this is what it feels like when lunch is an hour late, it would be awful have days like this.   You are putting yourself in the place of the other person.  You are feeling compassion which hopefully will lead to actions of mercy and lovingkindness.
Along the way, in talking about compassion I have had several conversations with people about specific cases.  What about the enemy who wants to hurt me or someone I love?  What about the addicted person in my family who wants to take advantage of me?  What about the person who seems to have no compassion for me?  So here is another place where we can be compassionate with one another, because one thing we share is not having all the answers.  Unfortunately, although Jesus wants us to be compassionate, he didn’t give us a list of particulars.  He gave us an attitude, a characteristic to work with, but not the satisfaction of knowing we are right.  Yet if we change how we approach the world and start with compassion rather than fear and mistrust, rather than hate, rather than self-centeredness, we won’t go far wrong.  This is another place where being in conversation might be helpful as we share the struggle with one another.
It may not be easy.  Jesus comes among us as compassion incarnate and it leads him to the cross.  God comes in Christ to experience reality with us, to experience temptation with us, to suffer with us, to show us infinite compassion and some people are confused by it and some are frightened by it and some are transformed by it.  And here we are today, we are the group that continues to say that we have been or are being transformed by that moment of infinite compassion, that moment when God said I am with you and I am like you.  I am not above and beyond.  I know what it is like to be you.
So take a moment each day this week and consider how compassion might shape your plans and interactions.  Think about the person who annoys you or angers you or frightens you.  Most importantly take a moment each day to think, pray and give thanks for God’s compassion toward you.

We are beginning this season with a new quote to shape your days form the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness.  Only light can do that.  Hate cannot cast out hate.  Only love can do that.  Dwell in that light.  Dwell in that love.  Be part of God’s compassion for the  world.

February 7, 2016 - Transfiguration - Growth and Change

One of my pastoral pet peeves is when a colleague talks about having a conversational style of preaching.  This usually means that they are loose and informal, maybe working with a few notes or doing more storytelling, which is fine, but it is not conversational.  Conversation literally means “talking with” someone.  Preaching is almost always talking to someone or, at its worst, talking at someone.  It bothers me, because of who I am, that a preacher can give what is essentially a monologue and then call it a conversation.  If I haven’t had to listen then we haven’t had a conversation.
                I have had conversations about  sermons I have preached but it usually happens after the service, sometimes at fellowship, or during the week or online.  I think that conversation is one way for the church grow and when I talking about growth I’m talking about teeming masses coming to experience conversational worship.  I’m talking about this community growing more deeply as students of Jesus.   As a community, we need to be talking with one another about issues of faith and growth and struggle and joy.  And I know for some of you the idea of talking in church is uncomfortable.  You have been taught that it is the pastor’s job to speechify and your job to listen.  You have perhaps come to believe that you don’t have much to add to a conversation on faith or you are concerned that you might say the wrong thing and expose to the community that you are in fact a heretic.  I say, as long as you are willing to be in dialogue, heretics welcome.
                Here is the beauty of the good news viewed through the lens of grace.  It goes back to that saying from Suzuki Roshi.  You are perfect the way you are...and you can use a little improvement.  The stories of the Bible are not there primarily to tell us what we are supposed to be or how we are supposed to live.  They are there to tell us who God is and, in the gospels who Jesus is.  We have this wonderful moment in the transfiguration of the voice of God speaking from a cloud and saying, “This is my Son, my chosen one.”
                We don’t have to be perfect, because Jesus was and is perfect for us.  We don’t have to be perfectly Christ-like because Jesus was Christ already for us.  You are perfect as you are.
                And you can use a little improvement or as the voice from the  cloud speaks to the disciples, “This is my Son, my chosen one…listen to him.”  Listen.  Learn.  Be disciples.  You don’t have to be perfectly Christ-like but part of the gift of grace is that you free to seek to be Christ-like.  You don’t have to grow in faith but part of the gift of grace is that you are free to seek to grow. 
                I firmly believe that part of the way that we grow is through conversation, talking about faith together, the walk of discipleship together.  It’s great to come together and talk about football and snow amounts, but you can do that anyplace with anyone.  Here is a place where you should be able to about faith, this deep part of you.  So today we have shaped service to allow some time to experiment with conversation.  I don’t know how this will go, but we’ll try and we will try some other formats over the coming year.  I’ve been trying to get you to see the power of silence, now we will try the power of conversation.  So we continue the story of the transfiguration through a brief conversation:
                What does it mean to listen to Jesus?
                How can we as congregation help one another listen to Jesus?

                Where is Jesus in this community?  (That one’s rhetorical)  If Jesus is somehow in your neighbor, then listening to your neighbor is part of listening to Jesus.  While it is true that not everything I say or you say is this deep Christian sentiment, when we are gathered together in Christ’s name and allow ourselves to speak deeply and listen deeply, Jesus is present; Jesus is leading; Jesus is teaching.  Thank you for taking a little time to experiment and thank you for this gift of conversation.