Sermon: Sunday, February 23, 2014, “Grounded in Grace”

 Grounded in Grace

A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 23rd, 2014

Matthew 7:24-29, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

                Our first passage comes from the very end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life.  Here Jesus has finished telling the disciples that when someone strikes them on one cheek, rather than retaliating, they should turn the other. He’s told them to give more to those who take from them.  He’s told them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, to not draw attention to themselves through their prayers, and to not judge other people, lest they be judged.  He concludes his sermon with this:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

                Our second scripture lesson is from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers he helped found in the ancient Greek port city of Corinth.  The passage I read and preached on last week spoke of how he called them God’s field, God’s building.  Listen for how he speaks of his work among them.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’, and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

              Today is a very special day. Any day we get to celebrate a baptism is a very special day. What a delight it is when we get to celebrate the baptism of a baby.  It’s a visible sign and seal of God’s invisible grace. It’s a reminder that God’s love for us as human beings comes before we are ever able to respond to it. It’s an acknowledgement on the part of parents, and family, and friends and a whole community of faith that the God whose love was and is embodied in Jesus Christ— and through the Spirit also in us— has laid a foundation for us on which to build our lives. And Annie did great today, didn’t she?

              Several months ago, Annie’s mom Bizzy was the worship leader here. One Sunday morning she was standing up front, doing what Sallie Casto is doing today, doing a marvelous job, as she always does. When the time came for the offering, Bizzy went down to receive it and handing her the plates were the ushers for that day: John and Janet, her mom and dad.

               A member of Immanuel related to me to this week how deeply touched he was by watching that scene unfold that morning.  “It was like seeing, in a concrete way, how one generation passes the treasure of faith and leadership on to the next—but more than that, it was a testimony to how John and Janet, had laid a foundation on which their daughter was building.

               Of course, that’s part of the task of parenting, is it not? To help lay the foundation for a child on which to build his or her life. To help them learn right from wrong; to teach them kindness and respect and reverence for life and awe at the wonder of creation and a sense that we belong to each other and that there is something beyond us that calls us out of ourselves and into service.

               But here’s a secret.  That’s not a one or two person job.  It takes a village.  Grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and, get this, congregation members and Sunday school teachers. That’s why there are so many people here today for this occasion.  That’s why we all made promises a few minutes ago.

              Whenever we have a baptism, we celebrate the work of laying a foundation. When the Apostle Paul talked about his work among the early Christians at Corinth, a congregation which believed they were very wise indeed, he talked about it in terms of having laid a foundation for them. In fact, he said, “No one can lay a foundation other than the one which has been laid, Jesus Christ.”

              Now we know, in the strictest sense, that this is not true. There are billions of people in the world who are adherents of other religious traditions and some who follow no tradition at all and some who, though they are wonderful, kind, remarkable people, deny the existence of God at all.

              They would not claim to be building their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Yet they are no less a part of the human family, no less loved by God, no less a part of the beloved community than you and I are. They just build their lives on other foundations, or none.

              But baptism, if it is to mean anything, if it is to be anything more than a cute little ritual, means that we are committing to build our lives on the foundation of Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ, Messiah. On the stories about him, on his teachings, on his Spirit, on his invitation into loving God and one another— on his living embodiment of the truth that sin and death and fear and evil get a word, but they don’t get the last word, in this life or the next. That foundation has already been laid, but each time we baptize another infant, child, youth, or adult, each time we celebrate another soul under construction (to quote from my sermon from last week), and that we are God’s building, we commit ourselves again in community to remember that.

              You don’t start constructing a building without laying a foundation. Well, maybe you do, but it’s not terribly wise. Without being on solid footing, the building isn’t likely to stand up to the wear and tear of wind and weather. That’s what Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount are meant to point out:  Build on rock, he says, not on sand.

               But what does it mean to build on the foundation of Jesus? What are we committing or recommitting to, today?

              First, to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ is to build on something solid. Something, and someone, upon which you can count, when the winds and rains of life come—not to prevent them from coming, but to hold you fast when they do, like arms wrapped around the stump of your legs.

               The beauty of Christian faith to me is not that it promises that everything will go well in life, that all will be smooth sailing.  The beauty of Christian faith is that it is centered in the message that God cared and cares enough about human beings to get involved in the world, to be made manifest in a love that was and is willing to challenge injustice, that was and is willing to suffer for the sake of another, that was and is willing to endure the worst that life can throw at us and not run and hide or go anywhere.

               One way of reading the story of crucifixion is to say that Jesus hung in there with humanity.  He didn’t bail.  A life based on the foundation of Jesus hangs in there in the midst of suffering—and recognizes that God can be counted on in the middle of it all.

               Friday night I had the opportunity to meet a real hero.  Aaron Alonso is the nephew and cousin of members of my former church in North Carolina.  He is a Marine who had his legs blown off by an IED in Afghanistan earlier this month, February 8th.  I conducted his grandfather’s funeral, years ago, and his cousin’s wedding, but I’m not sure he really remembers me.

               Here’s part of an email I wrote to his Aunt Donna yesterday:

 It was my sincere privilege to be with Aaron, Kimberly, and Debbie for a couple of hours last night at Walter Reed.   (His wife Jess was not around while I was there—resting, I think).   I delivered hugs from you and your family to Debbie (his Mom, Donna’s sister)—Aaron’s not quite in shape to get one right now…    

 Debbie is very strong, but all of this is wearing on her (as you’d imagine).  Kimberly is such a treasure—her tender heart and her obvious love for her big brother shines through so warmly.  Aaron, who was being tended to much of the time I was there, looked meaningfully at me and mouthed thank you.  He also showed me a picture of his daughter Riley on his phone!  What a cutie!  (And Riley, by the way is 5 months old).

It is so clear that Aaron is a good, brave, strong man.   I prayed for him and all of his family and friends with Debbie and Kimberly and I think they felt the Holy Spirit surrounding them with support.  Those prayers will continue.

There is a long road ahead.  There will be setbacks and bumps in that road.  It will be daunting and, I suppose, without any guarantees, but I do know this:  that love—first of all God’s love and, tied to that, all of ours (family, friends, and faith communities)—will carry Aaron and those close to him.  Debbie has my cell phone, and I’ve told her that she can call me any time, that I’m her pastor on the ground here and Immanuel is her congregation here. 

               There are no guarantees for any of us in life, save this:  that Jesus’ life means that God will not abandon us in the storm and that we are called as followers of Jesus to embody that truth for others.

               Second, a life built on the foundation of Jesus is a life based in grace.  The grace of God, grace for others, grace for ourselves.  The kind of grace which can say from a cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” And from a mountain, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Anne Lamott never spoke truer words than when she wrote, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.”

               But the world in which we live is not big on teaching grace.  McLean is not the greatest place to learn about grace. Our world thrives more on shame, the sense that we are somehow fundamentally ‘not enough.’  So for many of us, our sense of identity and self-worth is somewhat driven by the approval of others, what we produce, and how we are regarded by others – whether people think we’re smart enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough (God help us from that), or wealthy enough, or at the right station in life.  The question is, do we have the right clothes, the right cars, the right resume?  And we can’t be vulnerable, can’t let our guard down, because we’re always comparing ourselves to others, because we think we’re not enough.  If you don’t have a foundation centered in grace—and the knowledge that God and other people will love you even when you’re not at your best—then you face a big crisis, when you retire from work, or you lose your independence, or you go through middle school for God’s sake, or you don’t get into the school you think you’re supposed to, or you get laid off from a job you thought you’d have forever, or  if you even just have a bad hair day.  If you don’t have a foundation in grace, well then you’re in trouble. 

               I think Marilyn Monroe, that beautiful, talented, and very bright starlet whose life ended too soon, was speaking to something important when she said, “My work is the only ground I’ve ever had to stand on. I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation but I’m working on the foundation.”  Baptism is about laying the foundation now, and learning to build on it, now.

               The final thing about building on the foundation of Jesus is that it empowers us for the work of going outside of ourselves for others and it regularly reminds us of God’s call to that work.  We are shown grace, but it is not a cheap grace.  It is a grace that calls us to go beyond ourselves in care for others.

               That’s what makes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount so challenging and compelling.  He outlines a way of living and then says build your life on this way, these teachings.

               Elouise Chase, one of the wonderful old saints of Immanuel, died this past week in the facility where she was living in Connecticut.  I’ve been in conversation with her niece, and she will be talking with the rest of the family about having a service not just at Arlington Cemetery, but here at Immanuel.  She will be laid to rest alongside her husband John at Arlington.

               Elouise and John, for those of you who didn’t know them, really lived out Christian faith, particularly through their involvement in projects that were meant to serve others—especially our Dreamer Program.  They undeniably built their life on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

               I was telling our confirmation class just this last Sunday night that I’ll never forget what I’d heard about a conversation that took place between two Johns.  John, who was a Rear Admiral, and my predecessor John Sonnenday.  The Admiral, veteran of several wars, told the pastor, “Do you know what is unique about Christianity among world religions?  It’s the call to love your enemy.”   

               Now, I’m not a scholar of world religions, so I don’t know if that is in fact completely correct.  But here’s what I do know.  I know that it is just exactly the kind of thing somebody might say if he built his life on the foundation of Jesus Christ. 

               Welcome aboard, Annie!

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Sermon: Sunday, February 16, 2014, “Living in a Construction Zone”

Living in a Construction Zone

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 16th, 2014

               This morning’s scripture lesson is from the 3rd chapter of the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the church at Corinth, a congregation filled with people who considered themselves quite knowledgeable and wise to the ways of the world.  People, in other words, very much like us.  In the first couple of chapters of his letter, Paul differentiates between human wisdom and divine wisdom, suggesting that the message about the cross—the message of vulnerable love—is foolishness to many.  But it is in fact the divine wisdom, the power of God seen in what many would interpret as weakness.  And the Corinthians were having none of it.

                A colleague of mine writes, provocatively: Paul confronts these would-be wise Corinthians Christians with the executed Christ, who shows that God is not to be seen as the projection of male fantasy about power and control, but as the compassionate one who confronts human foolishness and invites relationship for change.[i]

                In the passage I’m about to read, Paul tells his hearers, who have divided into factions (striving to feel superior to one another due to what they believed or whose leadership they followed), that as long as they are doing that, they still have a lot of growing up to do.  They aren’t even close to getting the message.  Now, let me hasten to say that I don’t think this kind of internal bickering is really a problem at Immanuel, thank God.  Where we disagree we can by and large agree to disagree agreeably.  But, true confession, I can from time to time look at others in the larger body of Christ and think I’m wiser, more theologically astute, more intellectually honest, more socially conscious and more politically correct than they.  It happens on both sides of the aisle.  Maybe you feel that way, too.  If so, then this passage may speak to you.  And listen for what Paul returns again and again to the idea of growth, as if to say, don’t feel you have arrived.  God isn’t finished with you yet.

  And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

  What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

                  Late Wednesday afternoon, after conducting our monthly worship service for the residents at Chesterbrook and sticking around to visit with a few of our Immanuel members who live there, I headed over to Sibley Hospital to meet the newest addition to our Immanuel community, little Laina Victoria Hancock.  She’d been born earlier that day. Her mom Barbara is a frequent attendee of our Immanuel in the Evening services and her grandparents Dan and Barbara Krabill are over the moon with joy at having their first grandchild.

                It’s one of the real perks of pastoring to be able to hold and bless a newborn on the very day they arrive in this world. Looking down at little Laina, as I cradled her in my arms, I couldn’t help but think of doing the same thing with my elder daughter Rebecca, a day short of 21 years before.

                I thought of how quickly those 21 years have passed and how much growing and changing she has done over those years, and the growing and changing that lies ahead for her. I also thought about how much growing and changing Barbara and William— little Laina’s parents— have in store for them, as they become used to being parents. And I thought of my time earlier that afternoon with our Immanuel members over at Chesterbrook and the sorts of growing and changing,  adjusting and adapting to circumstance and challenge, the holding on and letting go they’ve had to go through over the past 90 or so years as they raised children of their own and said goodbye to spouses and homes and coped with aging bodies and minds.

                 At the kick-off event we have every year for our confirmation process I always talk about how the life of faith is a journey, and that confirmation is just one of the earliest steps on that path. God isn’t finished with any one of us yet, I go on to tell them. But what does that mean?

                Well, Paul in today’s passage uses a number of metaphors to get at that question. He compares his hearers to infants who aren’t old enough to be weaned and move to solid food—there are stages to spiritual growth. He likens them to a field of vegetables or grain that is seeded and watered by others, Paul planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but it is God who helps the plants to grow— nurturing is important.

                 And then, at the end, Paul claims that they are God’s building, which calls to mind the idea of being under construction. All of us together, and each of us individually, are being built by God. We are under construction.  Our souls are under construction. Little Laina’s soul, your soul, my soul. Ours, and the souls of the ones we love,  and the souls of the ones we struggle to love, the ones with whom we disagree. That’s what I want to focus on today.

                 The first thing to say about being under construction is that it takes time and persistence.

                 Three mornings a week, I take an early morning exercise class that meets in Tyson’s Corner.  Over the past couple of years, as I’ve come out from the mall to Rt. 123, I’ve seen the Metro Silver Line go up.  I’ve seen the station take shape, and a hotel right on the corner seems to gain a floor every other day. Although it seems like these things have gone up rocket fast, just like my daughter turning twenty-one seems like it happened in no time, in reality, there was a lot of time that went into that construction. To expect it to be finished, fully developed right away with the snap of a finger would be unreasonable.

                 So it is with the spiritual life—our own and others— once we are committed to the idea that we are under construction we can’t think that we’re going to be a finished product right away. It takes time.  Like the seed being planted and the plant being watered. We don’t spring full grown from the ground. There are things I only recently became ready to hear. I am a better husband now than I was. I have a deeper prayer life now than I did.

                Community, church, change in culture, grows that way, too. It doesn’t happen overnight. But day in day out work pays off. Learning the stories, sharing with each other, praying and singing, working together to make a difference in the world, putting in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours[ii], this is what builds a soul.

                I think of the people I know whose lives of faith I most admire and they’ve put in the time in Bible study and support groups, in service to others, in prayer and meditation, in reflection. It takes persistence.

                  David M. Bailey, the singer-songwriter, God rest his soul, who fought a courageous battle to live and to love fully the days he had left after being told he only had six months to live, continues to inspire me.  I was reminded of David this week and a song from one of his earliest albums.  He called it Rome.

 Lisa wanted to become a writer/ Change the world with each stroke of her pen/ After 10 years she still had not been published/ It took everything she had to start again/ I saw her on a curb in New York City/ She said ‘David, there must be a better way’/ I said ‘Come on, let’s go buy you a notebook ‘/Cause Rome wasn’t built in a day

Stuart wanted to become a doctor/ Change the world by making people well/ When he learned he could not fix his broken heart/ He slowly sank into his private hell/He showed up at my door one Sunday morning/  He said ‘David, I need somewhere safe to stay.’/ I said ‘come on in and have a cup of coffee’/ ‘Cause Rome wasn’t built in a day

William wanted to become a singer / Change the world one song at a time/ But the world did not pay attention to his words, melodies, or rhyme/ I saw him in a bar one night last summer/ He said ‘David, I don’t know where I belong.’/ I said ‘you better write that down on your napkin’ / ‘Cause It sounds like a great line for a song…’

…I suppose I should practice what I preach/ But patience has never been my way/ It’s not the same thing as an empire/ But your dreams should be rebuilt every day.[iii]

                 I don’t know whether we have to rebuild our dreams every day. But I do know the soulwork of intentionally viewing ourselves as a house for God, takes time and commitment. To hold on to the vision of a deeper, fuller, more peaceful and compassionate life individually and together as the scaffolding goes up and the project seems to be delayed, to remember that we are under construction and are not complete, this is key.  So we must take heed to what Teilhard de Chardin wrote,  “We must trust in the long, slow work of God.”

                 The second thing to say about being under construction is that it can be messy and inconvenient.  Those of you who have had renovations done in your home, or have watched your home being built from the ground up, know what I mean.  The contractors, the different specialists, etc. But you don’t need to have had work done on your own home. All it takes really, is being around road construction with the orange barrels and cones and trucks and cement dust, and so forth, to understand about messiness and inconvenience. 

                The kind of work God’s Spirit, God’s Love, does on us and in us involves rearranging priorities, installing or instilling values and perspectives, and it takes a certain amount of trial and error.  That is messy and inconvenient.  Love can be messy and inconvenient.

                This is how the children’s author, Lemony Snicket, who wrote the Series of Unfortunate Events books that my kids loved when they were younger, put it in his book Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid.   “Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby.  Awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.”[iv]

                You can have a carefully constructed theology, which helps you sort who is in and who is out, but then some real human person comes along and messes everything up.   You can talk about loving your enemy all you want, but then somebody comes along and hurts somebody close to you and all you want to do is get him back, and the process of wrestling with that creates a mess.  You can think you have life all figured out, that your system is working just fine, and then some tragedy happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

                Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang members in Los Angeles, is the founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion.  If anybody knows about how messy and inconvenient God’s construction project is, it is Father Greg Boyle.   He quotes Mother Teresa, who he says diagnosed the world’s problems by saying, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  Here’s how Boyle’s speaks of what God is building in him and his community.  After telling the story of how a gang member named P-Nut called him from jail after he heard that he’d been diagnosed with leukemia, Boyle writes:

 No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”  The prophet Habbakuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to its fulfillment and it will not disappoint.  And if it delays, wait for it.”[v]

               I think that’s what Paul was urging on the community of believers at Corinth, and on us as we live and work in a world alongside people with whom we don’t always agree. To trust in the long slow work of God and in the meantime to practice the messy, inconvenient discipline of love for each other and the world.

                And here is the final point.  What God is building in the world and in us is love lived out, not a theoretical framework or an interesting intellectual construct. A member of the Sojourners Community penned these words on Sojonet at the God’s Politics Blog this week:

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I’m sick, and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.

When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.

When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.

When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.

When you’re kind enough to shovel my parent’s driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.

When you give my friend a lift when their car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.

When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.

When you protect my kids from getting hit by a car when they’re running across the street, I don’t care who your favorite theologian is.

When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.

When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.

When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways — nothing else really matters.

But when you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion.

You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.

The practical application of your love is just as important as the theology behind it. Our faith is evidenced by how we treat others. Does the reality of your life reflect the theory behind your spiritual beliefs?[vi]

               What God is building in the world and in us is a messy, inconvenient love lived out.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[i] William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary” Bill Loader’s Home Page.)  You can find the link here:  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpEpiphany6.htm

[ii] This is a reference to an idea advanced in Malcolm Gladwell ‘s book  Outliers. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc, 2008. Print.

[iii] David M. Bailey, “Rome” from his album Love the Time.  Please go to his website and buy his music!  David, who died several years ago, came to sing at Immanuel in 2006 and his music has touched many of our lives.

[iv] Snicket, Lemony. Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Aviod. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. Print.

[v] Father Greg Boyle  Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York, Free Press, 2010), p. 190.

[vi] Stephen Mattson, “When Christians Love Theology More Than People”  God’s Politics: a blog by Jim Wallis and Friends (January 22, 2014)   Here is a link to the full article http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/01/22/when-christians-love-theology-more-people

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Sermon: Sunday, February 9, 2014, “Wisdom, Vulnerability, and Despair”

“Wisdom, Vulnerability, and Despair”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 9th, 2014

 

Isaiah 58:1-9 and I Corinthians 2:1-12

               Our first bit of scripture is the Old Testament lesson for today.  It is from near the end of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Scholars believe that this particular portion of Isaiah may have been written after the return from Exile, when they had settled into what might be called “the new normal.” Notice how Isaiah decries the way workers are treated and calls for the practice of justice, the end of oppression, the sharing of bread with the hungry, the giving of shelter to the homeless poor and clothing to those who are destitute. You do that, Isaiah says, and God’s light will shine on you. Listen carefully.

Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
   they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

               Our second scripture lesson is from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  Corinth was a seaport city, a melting pot, filled with people of various cultures from across the known world, bringing various thoughts and ideas.  Not surprisingly, the church that Paul helped found had its share of tension.  The congregation in Corinth makes every church I’ve ever served, especially this one, look positively harmonious by comparison.  Every time I read about the church at Corinth, I think, “Thank you, God, for sending me to Immanuel!” 

                As we begin in the second chapter, it’s important to hear a couple of verses from the first chapter.  Earlier Paul had written of his message among them in terms of how Christ was God’s wisdom:  we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

               We pick up now in the second chapter.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

               It has been a tragic and distressing week in this larger community.  Those of us who are attuned to the problems and possibilities of teenagers because we are teens or were teens or know teens—or  because our children are in their teen years or have just finished them or are about to enter them—have been jarred again with a reminder of life’s fragility.  That uncomfortable knowledge has hit some in this congregation even harder because you knew one or both of the young people, seniors at Langley High School, who ended their lives this past week, or because you know their parents, or because you yourself have had the experience of a loved one, a relative, or a friend committing suicide.  Statistically, you’d be surprised at how many people know this pain very close to home.                 

               There is a temptation in the church, when it comes to painful topics like this, to avoid addressing them at all.  The pain is too raw, even years later.  Or it feels too soon.  We know too well how people speaking in God’s name have heaped shame and guilt on families rather than helping them deal with their grief over lives ended too suddenly.  Bringing it up might scrape the scab off of a deep, not fully healed wound.  Or worse, give someone a thought or nudge them in a direction.  Best to leave it under the rug, then.

               But if we can’t talk about something like this in the church, for God’s sake…  If the Gospel of God’s love embodied in this complicated, too often painful, world doesn’t somehow speak to the reality of teen suicide (or for that matter, to the fierce grip of addiction that led a brilliant talent like Philip Seymour Hoffman to die with a needle in his arm), then I’m not sure the church is good for all that much.

               Seven weeks ago, from this pulpit on Christmas Eve, I said “It is okay to admit the darkness tonight as well.  Acknowledging the darkness doesn’t stop the power of the songs we sing.  It just makes them deeper and richer because it lets them rub up against the real world in which we live.”

               Acknowledging the pain in the world, the depths of despair into which people fall, the icy clutch of addiction, the fact that people die too soon, doesn’t nullify the truth of God’s embodied love.  It puts it in real conversation with life.

               Ironically, the first thing to say when it comes to the pain of such loss is that there are really no words.  No words adequate to the sheer depth of pain that close friends and loved ones feel; no words sufficient to plumb the mystery of why.   Although there are always people who ask that question,  “What led them to do something so harmful to themselves? And to others who will carry that pain forward? What led them to foreclose on their future?”

                “Who is to blame?”  That’s what some people want to know.  And why, if there is a God, did God allow them to get to that point and not somehow intervene to try and stop them?

               There is great wisdom in standing mute before that mystery.  We don’t know.  We don’t finally know.  We can’t know.

               Words can be used so carelessly, so unhelpfully, in times like this.  I love what I read somewhere about Job’s comforters, the three friends who sat with him on the ash heap, where he was picking his sores with a potsherd after he lost everything: his cattle, his lands, his house, his children.  Then they started to try to explain why these things happened to him.

               “They were doing just fine,” this commentator said, “Until they opened their mouths.  They should have left their traps shut.  Because until they tried to explain why it all happened, they were doing all right.  They blew it when they opened their mouths, particularly when they tried to explain how it must have been Job’s fault that all of this occurred.”

               There is a place for silence.  But there is also a place for speech.  And the church, I would argue, is not just a place for silence, but for speech.  So let me tell you a few things I do know, a few things I do trust, even in the face of the mystery.

               One is that God was and is present with Timmy and Alex and Philip.  Those individuals may not have been able to access that love in that moment, they may have been too deep in despair to see and to feel it, but God was there.  There is nowhere we can go, is the testimony of scripture,  that God is not present there, whether we feel God or not.  Read Psalm 139 and tell me any different.

               And there are times when people can’t feel it.  If you haven’t read William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, you really should.  It’ll give you a glimpse into how cut off people can feel, if you haven’t felt that cut off yourself.  There are times when we can feel cut off, but God does not give up on us.

               A second thing I know and trust is like unto the first, and that is what William Sloane Coffin said in his sermon on the occasion of his son Alex’s death.  Alex, who’d probably had a few too many cold ones, ran his car off the road and into Boston Harbor one foggy night and drowned.

               In a sermon a few weeks later, Coffin said, “When Alex’s car sunk under the waves, God’s was the first of all of our hearts to break.”  God wants us to live and love fully.  God wants us to move beyond separation and isolation and preoccupation with self into fully embracing life and possibility and others.  And God’s heart breaks, when we don’t, when we give up.  But God does not ever abandon us.

               And the third thing is that God’s embodied love is stronger than death. That is the Gospel message in a nutshell for me. That’s what the cross and resurrection of Jesus is about. God not letting death get the last word, or sin, or hopelessness, or grief, or despair, for that matter. Death has a word, and it is a powerful word, don’t get me wrong.  Somebody after the morning service told me that her high school friend committed suicide 52 years ago and she is still dead.  Oh, death has a word.  But the power of the life that comes from God, the life that is eternal and unshakeable and willing to stand with us and for us, is stronger still than anything death can bring.

               When the Apostle Paul was writing to that conflicted church he helped found in Corinth, he wrote these words, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”      

               It’s not that Paul didn’t know lots of other things.  Disagree with his theology all you want, disagree with his attitudes towards women, his first century view of how relationships should work, all you want, Paul was quite a learned man.  He knew a lot of things.

               But knowledge is different than wisdom.  And the kind of wisdom Paul had access to and calls us to is the divine wisdom that Jesus understood and embodied: the wisdom of vulnerability.  That’s what Paul was talking about when he said he decided “to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

               It is a wisdom that is willing to be vulnerable for the sake of another, willing to stand up bravely for love and life even in the face of great pain, willing not to run from the possibility of pain, or to numb out to avoid it, but to experience it and to live through it.  It is in that sort of vulnerability that hope lies.

               That sort of wisdom involves a choice.

                It is the choice to reach out to the hurting.  It is the choice to look beyond the blinders that we have on us from time to time that keep us from seeing beyond our despair into the hope that comes with a longer view, a view that goes beyond the next moment that seems so impossible to face.  It is the choice to live and to love.

               One of my favorite writers on vulnerability and its power is a woman named Glennon Doyle Melton.  If you aren’t acquainted with her blog Momastery, please, particularly if you are a mother, look it up.  What she writes is so wonderful for all of us of any gender or circumstance.

               Here’s a portion of a letter she wrote to her son as he was beginning to start his first day of third grade[i].  Glennon wrote to him that she wanted to make sure he didn’t make the same mistake that she did, because she had a classmate named Adam to whom she never really reached out.

                She wrote:

               Adam looked a little different and he wore funny clothes and sometimes he even smelled a little bit. Adam didn’t smile. He hung his head low and he never looked at anyone at all. Adam never did his homework. I don’t think his parents reminded him like yours do. The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower. I never teased him, but I never told the other kids to stop, either.

And I never talked to Adam, not once. I never invited him to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. Instead, he sat and played by himself. He must have been very lonely.

I still think about Adam every day. I wonder if Adam remembers me?  Probably not. I bet if I’d asked him to play, just once, he’d still remember me.

I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.

So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.

Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heartache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heartache. That heartache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion — be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.[ii]

               God trusts you and needs you.  Every single last one of you.

                Hear that, and make me a promise.  Do not forget it.

                 In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 


[i] Glennon Doyle Melton, Carry On Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed ,(New York: Scribner, 2013).   You can also read the letter here:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glennon-melton/letter-to-kids-before-school-starts_b_1828204.html  The title of the chapter where she relates her letter to Chase is appropriately called “Brave is a Decision.”

[ii] Ibid.

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Sermon: Sunday, February 2, 2014 “Better Than Happy”

“Better than Happy”

A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean

On February 2nd, 2014

Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

           Our first scripture lesson for today is the Old Testament lectionary reading from the book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6, verses 6 through 8.  Micah, in this passage, attempts to answer the question of what God desires from the ancient Israelites, against whom God has lodged a complaint. This is Micah’s answer for what God wants for them. Listen for the answer; it is an answer that is timeless, an answer that holds true for us today.  Pay attention to the word justice.

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

          Our Gospel reading for today is from the very beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew.  Listen now for what Jesus taught the disciples on that mountain right at the start of their ministry together.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

          The word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God. Let us pray.

          O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our rock and our redeemer.  And may the Gospel be more to us than mere words.  May the Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction.  Amen.

          This past August, a writer named Mark O’Connell penned a clever little piece for The New Yorker about the proliferation of what has come to be known in the journalistic world as the “listicle.”[i]

          A listicle is an article presented in the form of a list of similar or related elements. A few days after O’Connell’s piece was published, the word listicle was added to the Merriam Webster open-source online dictionary.

          O’Connell poked fun at how ubiquitous these “listicles” have become on the internet and in print media. Ten Things I’ve Noticed as I Get Older. Top Five Signs You Probably Have Pancreatic Cancer. 37 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Pit Bulls and so forth.

          You’ve seen them on the net or at the grocery store newsstand; in the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping or Cosmo or Men’s Health; on the Huffington Post, or Salon or Buzzfeed or Pinterest.

          Name your favorite online site. 12 Tricks for Decluttering Your House This Holiday Season. 35 Kitchen Hacks. 99 Life Hacks. 7 Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage. 10 Phrases People Probably Need to Stop Using on Twitter. 15 Things From The Seventies That Never Should Have Died. 12 Most Popular Biblical Boys Names.  (Aaron is not on the list!)

          “Lists,” suggests O’Connell, “are our way of trying to impose order on life, a culture, a society, a difficult matter, a vast and teeming panorama of cat adorability or nineties nostalgia.”[ii]

          “Umberto Eco put it dramatically,” O’Connell says: “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.”[iii]

          I don’t know about you, but it’s the listicles about happiness that always grab me. Happiness can be so elusive, and there’s something in me that just wants to pin down how to attain it and keep it.

          Gretchen Rubin, on her blog The Happiness Project lists The 8 Splendid Truths of Happiness.  You can look them up.

          Just a cursory search this week showed me that you find listicles about The Twenty Happiest Countries on Forbes.com. 10 Ways to Pursue Happiness on How Stuff Works blog.  You can find 30 Happiness Tips and Six Secrets to a Happy Marriage. Nothing like a listicle to try to nail down how to get happiness. Oh, we’d like that easy answer, wouldn’t we?  Just give us the list.

          If you read some translations of Jesus’ Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, the words typically rendered “blessed are the” are written instead “happy are the.” And happy is certainly one way to translate the Greek word Makarios.  So I suppose the Beatitudes could be repackaged as a listicle- 9 ways to be happy that you need in your life right now.

          But you get right down to it, and the things Jesus is calling blessed, saying would lead to a happy life, don’t seem like they’d make the typical happiness list.

          Happy are the poor in spirit, or otherwise? Happy are those who mourn? Happy are the meek? Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Happy are the persecuted? Huh?

          William Barclay, that great Scottish Presbyterian bible commentator of the twentieth century, grasped that there is something about the English word ‘happy’ that doesn’t quite get to the meaning of the Greek word it is intend to translate.

          You see the word happy has in its very root, hap, the idea of chance. Perhaps.  Happenstance.  Hapless.  Whatever happens.

          But what Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes, says Barclay, is a state of mind and being that is centered in something deeper than the circumstances of life. A blessedness that cannot be buffeted by the vicissitudes of life. A blessed consciousness that gets that all of life won’t fit into neat tiny boxes, no matter how many lists or ideologies we put together to try to tame it.

          A blessedness that understands that you will face your share, and sometimes it seems more than your share of hardship and pain, right, whether or not you are a “good person” who comes to worship every Sunday and contributes to the needs of the poor and not always but more often than not stands up for the right and just and loving thing.  It will happen. Hardship and pain will happen. What Jesus understood is that sometimes you’ll face hardship and pain precisely because you stand for the right thing.  The kind of blessedness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with feeling comfortable and everything to do with being compassionate.

          Jesus needed to tell his disciples that at the beginning of their ministry together before they really got going in earnest because he wanted them to be prepared for what they would face. He wanted them to know that they were doing Kingdom work, whether they had hammers and bells or not.  The work of reaching out to the outcast, caring for the poor, working for peace and to make the world better more just place more like a God of love would want it and that that wouldn’t be easy.

          So he told them blessed are the poor in spirit (those who know they don’t have it all figured out, who, when encountering oppression and hardship sometimes feel alone and afraid and not enough,  who know they need God) for theirs is the kingdom of God—now.

          Blessed are those who mourn (the ones who notice and grieve over the pain and injustice in the world), blessed are the meek (the humbly God-led whose voices sometimes get drowned out), blessed are those who hunger and thirst to do what is right, those who do justice and love kindness as Micah said, who show mercy in a world that is not always kind, who are pure in heart, who do the things that make for peace, and because of this, not in spite of it, but because of it, are persecuted and reviled.  The disciples needed this kind of encouragement before they headed out on the road, because it wouldn’t be easy.

          Pete Seeger, the great activist and folk singer, whose music helped fuel the Civil Rights movement, died on Tuesday at the age of 94.  John Nields already led us in singing one of his songs.  It was just what Pete would have wanted- not one voice, but a whole choir.

           I have a colleague in ministry, a commissioned lay preacher in a presbytery south of here, who sent me a message the other day asking if she was crazy to be thinking about talking about Pete Seeger in the context of a sermon on the Beatitudes. After all, she wasn’t sure he was even a Christian.

          I told her, “I don’t know whether Pete would have claimed to be Christian in any orthodox, traditional, sense of the word (although he was a member of a Unitarian church for a while), but I do believe that he was a follower of Jesus and his way.”

          You see, it seems to me that Pete understood about blessedness, about makarios. He had a kind of indomitable spirit to him, an infectious joy, and a happiness, yes, but that didn’t mean he didn’t undergo hard times. In the 50’s, during the height of McCarthyism, Pete was dragged in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and if you haven’t read his brave testimony on that occasion, it’s worth reading.  He stood for what he believed, he didn’t back down or betray others, and he kept singing and leading others in song as they stood for a better more just, more loving world. And the congress could tell him that he couldn’t sing there, but we can’t tell him that he can’t sing here.

          I can’t help but think of Paul and Silas singing at midnight in a Philippian prison. I can’t help but think of Pete standing on the rock where Jesus stood. Singing and leading others in singing, “Mary Don’t You Weep.” “Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome some day.” Pete sang and led marchers in singing before they faced attack dogs and the spit and fury of angry opponents who were trying to protect their way of life. “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn,” Pete sang and lead others in singing, lamenting what everyone knows, the tragic cost of war.

          Pete’s was a message based in Micah’s call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. It was a message that understood that the blessed dream of God can’t be summed up in a listicle. It’s not about being comfortable, it’s about being compassionate. It’s not about being secure, it’s about being unafraid. It’s not about seeking revenge, it’s about being merciful. It’s not about the despair of present circumstances; it’s about hope for a better world. And that kind of blessedness, friends, is better and deeper than what we call happiness. That kind of blessedness is worth singing about. And that kind of blessedness is what we celebrate at this table. And we do it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[i] Mark O’Connell, “10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now,” The New Yorker (August 29, 2013).  You can find it online here:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/10-paragraphs-about-lists-you-need-in-your-life-right-now.html

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

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Sermon: January 26, 2014, “Net-work, Love-mischief, and the Call of God”

“Net-work, Love-mischief, and the Call of God”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On January 26th, 2014

 

Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

               Our first passage is the lectionary’s assigned reading from the book of Isaiah.  It’s a passage that is sometimes read on Christmas Eve, and it will be echoed in our Gospel reading for today.  The portion of Isaiah I’m about to read was written probably about 700 years before the birth of Jesus, around the time of (or just after) the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel to the conquering Assyrian armies, and its words speak of a light to come that will go out to those in the Northern Kingdom who had been oppressed and overrun by the conquering Assyrians.  Galilee, in the north, would continue to be a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth, ethnically diverse place in Jesus’ day as well.  Listen now for God’s word through Isaiah:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian.

                The Gospel reading for today, from Matthew’s gospel, shows us Jesus going back to Galilee where he’d grown up, after John the Baptist is arrested by Herod.  And while he’s there, Jesus calls some fishermen to come and follow him.  Note how this account of the calling of the first disciples differs from the one we read last week in John’s gospel.  In that account, Andrew encounters Jesus because John the Baptist points him out, probably in the Judean desert, and Andrew tells Simon, who gets renamed Peter by Jesus.  In this account, Andrew and Simon Peter are in a boat by the shore of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus calls them to come and follow.  Listen now for God’s word to us:

 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

                If you have read the NYT bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (and a number of us have), you know that Aslan spends a lot of time describing the social, political and economic realities of the little corner of the world in which Jesus grew up.  Aslan does a good job, sifting through research, of imagining the anger that surely infused the peasantry of Galilee, as they struggled to make ends meet under high taxes and watched the priestly class collaborate with Roman occupiers.  Aslan writes of how new cities like Sepphoris and Tiberias would have impacted their simple “live off the land” existence and fueled hostility among the common people.

                And the corruption and exploitation that was going on in Temple worship to the south in Jerusalem, which they would have encountered at religious festivals, would have added more fuel to the fire.

                Galilee was a place of unrest, sure enough, as was evidenced by the number of violent revolutionaries that hailed from there in Jesus’ day and in the years before his birth and after his death.  The people wanted change, and they wanted and expected it now.  So when somebody came along and claimed that the Kingdom of God was coming near, the day when the world would be ordered the way God wanted it to be—that there would be justice for the oppressed, and that, ostensibly, Roman occupation would end—well, it’s no surprise that there were people willing to sign up to follow a leader with the kind of authority and charisma that Jesus possessed.

              Although I don’t agree with all of Aslan’s conclusions in his book, I think we do well to understand Jesus’ call of the four fishermen in the context of the unrest of their place and time.  Because surely Jesus and they were influenced by it.

               The call of God, which I see as the summons of Jesus to a life of loving God and neighbor (and thus working to realize God’s kingdom on earth), always comes in a context.  And it’s rarely a “one-off” kind of thing.

                The Gospel reading from John last week showed us Andrew as a disciple of John the Baptist, following Jesus after John pointed to him, not in Galilee, but out in the Judean desert where Jesus had been baptized.  And Andrew ran and told his brother Simon about this man he called the Messiah.

                This week we have Matthew’s version of Andrew’s call, based closely on the account Mark’s gospel gives of the same event.  This one occurs a three day’s walk north of where John the Baptist had been baptizing.  This time he’s in Capernaum, a fishing village in Galilee, sitting in a fishing boat with his brother.  And Jesus tells them both that they are going to be fishers of people.

               Well, which one is it?  John’s version in the desert or Matthew’s version by the sea?  Are you a desert person or a lake person?

                The story of the call of the four fishermen provokes a lot of responses among those who read it.  In fact, when I noticed several weeks ago that it was coming up in the lectionary, I sort of slumped in my chair.  I thought, “My goodness, I must have preached about twenty-five sermons on this text, and I’ve only been in ministry for twenty-one years!  What is there to say about this passage that hasn’t already been said?  What fresh insights can emerge from this text?  How can it come to life in a new way?”

                One of the ways people react negatively to this story is is to say, “Well, that’s well and good for those guys, but I’ve never had a dramatic experience of God calling me like that.  In fact, I’ve never had an experience of God calling me at all.  And if following Jesus means that I have to leave behind everything that I’m doing, count me out.”  

                To that, I always want to say that maybe the call of God doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic.  And surely it’s not one-size-fits-all, or a one-off moment.  Some people are desert people.  Some people are lake people.  Maybe it happens in the desert, maybe it happens by the sea.  Maybe the call you receive from God is dramatic.  But it could simply be a nudge; a flash of insight; a feeling of solidarity with those who are in pain and need—a sense that they matter, too; a sense that this is what I’m supposed to do, maybe not with my entire life, but perhaps just in the next moment.

                Perhaps the call of God comes when you see somebody, when you really see somebody, for the first time.

                You’re sitting in worship last Sunday morning and during our time of sharing celebrations and concerns, you hear Dean Silverman share a concern for all of the unseen people in the world, the ones who don’t visit the resorts in the Antilles, but who live around the edges scraping to make ends meet.  And you put that together with how Jesus went to Galilee, filled with people who surely felt unseen, and he saw them, he really saw them, and he enlisted them in the project of bringing God’s kingdom.  He saw them:  poor, uneducated, fishermen.  Angry, yes, but ready.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have felt unseen. And that happens, even here in McLean, in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where so many live high-profile lives in a place where we are more likely to get seen than elsewhere.  Maybe you are seen all the time, but you don’t really feel seen.  Perhaps if you’ve felt unseen, you might feel like, in this moment, God might be seeing you and your pain, too.  Regardless if you feel seen or not, you know -you have to know- that Dean is right, that there are some who are ignored, discarded, and unseen in our society. 

               You don’t have to go on a vacation to encounter the unseen.  There are plenty around here.   Like the young women and men who are part of human trafficking, the modern day slavery that goes on right under our noses.  Like the man you pass by on foot or in the car nearly every day on the way to work.   He’s the one holding the sign that says, “Will Work For Food.” And you pass by, thinking, “Head down, got places to go, don’t make eye contact.”  You don’t want to hear the story, because you’re sure he’s playing some kind of game, right?  Or how about the Certified Nursing Assistant who takes care of the basic bodily needs of the elderly and gets paid the same amount of money as somebody who flips burgers at McDonald’s?  Or the man who picks up your garbage, or the cashier who deals with you in the check-out line?  There are people everywhere of whom we can fail to take notice—or to try to understand.

                In an effort to try to be better about seeing, and living in the moment, about really being present, I’ve taken in this new year to being more intentional about engaging in a quiet time of meditation and contemplation in the mornings.  Sometimes we can act like we’re too busy to do that.  Even those of us who are professional Christians, like me.  We can think, “I’m too busy.  I’ve got things to do.  People to see.”  But this year I’ve begun to take more to time just to be quiet, to meditate, to commune with and attend to the divine.  A prayer has grown out of that time, one that my spiritual director shared with me.  It is inspired by something that the Persian Sufi mystic Hafiz wrote in a poem.  This year I’m trying to come back to these words again and again. “God, this is Your day with me, and my day with You.  Let’s see what kind of love-mischief we can get into today.”

               What sort of love mischief can we get into today?  And how might that turn the world upside down?  How might I begin to see the unseen?

               I don’t know, maybe Jesus’ call of the disciples indeed started in a sense of anger and frustration at their Roman overlords and the corrupt religious authorities.  Maybe it started with a concern just for the Jewish community and a pure religion.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  Because before it was all through, Jesus himself would acknowledge that the kingdom which had drawn near was about love of God and love of neighbor – a love of neighbor that went well beyond just the people who were in his in group.  And it involved a way of loving that was marked by love.

               Another reason people reject and dislike this text about the call of the four fishermen is that it has been used to prop up a proselytizing approach to people of other faiths and faith traditions.         

              People who understand themselves as fishers of men and women have approached me and my children as if we were game fish that they had to somehow haul in and bring to their particular church and their particular understanding.  It didn’t matter that I told them that I was a Presbyterian minister, or that my daughters said, “Our Mom and Dad, they work at the church.”  No, these fishers of men and women were going to bring us in.  It can make following Jesus feel like being part of a fishing tournament. 

               There is a difference between proselytizing and evangelism.  Proselytizing is trying to get a notch on a belt, to haul in one more fish.  Evangelism is sharing good news of God’s love for the entire world.  It is indiscriminate. 

               The friend who taught me to pray, “God, this is Your day with me and my day with You, let’s see what kind of love mischief we can get into today,” was telling me about flying home from Buffalo through Philadelphia after the holidays.  She and her family were delayed in Buffalo.  Not a surprise.  When they arrived in Philadelphia they were delayed and delayed some more, and flights were canceled.   She looked around the gate and there were people everywhere melting down.  And she said, “You know, in the past, my family might have been among those who melted down.  But not this time.  This time, she said, we looked around, and we listened to people’s stories.  We told a young woman who desperately needed to get home to her family several hours drive away, “We can rent a car help drive you where you need to go.  We can pay to get you on another flight if need be.”  They listened to and heard story after story, and met person after person, and seeping out from her and her family were peace and love.  People were being drawn into the net: the gospel net, the good news net of the kingdom, a reign of peace and unconditional love where everyone is valued.

               When people tell me, “Aaron, you know that call of the four fishermen, that’s fine, but I myself have never had an experience of the call of God.”  Here’s what I want to tell them, “Stop lying to yourself. “

               God is calling – always – calling you and me to care, and to love, and to catch people in the net.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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Sermon: January 19, 2014, “What Are You Looking For?”

“What Are You Looking For?”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On January 19th, 2014
 

Isaiah 49:1-6, John 1:29-42

                Our first passage is from the Book of Isaiah.  Like last week’s passage from Isaiah, it is another of what have come to be known as the Servant Songs—poetic words from and about an unnamed servant of God.  The servant spoken of may be the people of Israel returning from exile, one member of that community, or a future Messiah to come, but Christian tradition has come to understand this figure in light of Jesus and the community formed in his name.  Listen for how the words servant is used three times—a servant in whom God will be glorified, a servant God formed in the womb, and a servant who is expected to be a light to the nations.

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’


And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

               Our second passage is from the Gospel of John, the 1st chapter beginning with the 29th verse.  This is John’s gospel’s account of what happened after Jesus’ baptism.  Listen for how John the Baptist describes Jesus, and for what Jesus says to two of John’s disciples who begin to follow him. 

 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).”

                I really love the question Jesus poses to the two disciples of John the Baptist who start following him after their leader has told them, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” 

                Well, these followers of John hear this, and they decide to leave John behind, to switch horses in midstream as it were, and take off after this new person.

                Jesus turns around and sees them tagging along behind him, (who knows how close or how far they physically are from him at that point, but they are in hearing distance) and he turns and says to them, “What are you looking for?”  What do you want?  What are you seeking?”    

               It’s a profound question, really.  And I think John’s gospel means for us to hear it that way.  For it to hang in the air a while to let it do its work on us.

                You see, if you do any reading at all of the Gospel of John you know that Jesus and the people to whom he is talking always seem to be speaking on different levels.  He speaks in metaphor, they understand literally. He speaks in depth, they understand on the surface.

                Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born anew, from above, and the imagination-challenged Pharisee wonders how he can enter a second time into his mother’s womb.  Jesus says to the woman at the well that he can give her living water springing up to eternal life so that she’ll never be thirsty.  And she tells Jesus, “Where are you going to get that water?  You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep!”

               When Jesus asks John’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” he’s asking them a deep question and he’s asking it in a context.  They’ve begun to follow him, just the first steps, but they’ve begun to follow him, and he wants to know why.   I think he’s asking them what they are looking for out of life.

                What are YOU looking for?           

               There is a lot of literature out there trying to figure out the magic key for bringing an increasingly unchurched and skeptical population into Christian faith communities.  I know that Bruce Douglass today talked about the rise of the NONEs, (not the nuns, the NONES), the people who when asked, on a survey, what their religious affiliation is, respond by indicating, “None.”  In an effort to reach that group, and those who perhaps grew up in the church and perhaps feel some sort of connection to the church but don’t come very often,  we often ask ourselves, “What are they looking for?”

                Our Immanuel in the Evening service is in part an effort to respond to that group.  In a culture that increasingly has activities that interfere with Sunday morning worship we want to give a Sunday evening option.  In a culture that has shifted, in terms of technology, we want to provide something a little more visually and experientially oriented.  We want to provide something more informal, more ‘come as you are.’  It’s centered in trying to respond to what people who aren’t or can’t be here on Sunday morning are looking for in a worship service. And I think that’s a really good thing.

                But when Jesus asks the question of John’s followers, “What are you looking for?”  it is not with the idea that he’s going to somehow change his message about what really matters in life.  Or to change who he is. That’s going to stay the same.  It does say the same, morning and evening: what really matters, that is.

                I think when Jesus poses the question, “What are you looking for?”  It’s a way to get those first disciples and us to think.   What are you looking for—not just out of a church service, but out of life?

               One of the ways I have introduced the idea of faith and crafting faith statements to confirmation classes in the past is by telling them that however you answer them, there are certain big questions in life that you just don’t get to avoid answering in one way or the other. 

               You may ignore the questions, but the way you live provides your answer to them.  Is there a higher power at work in the Universe, beyond just you and me, or are we it?  What ultimately brings your life meaning? Anything? Or nothing?  What are you looking for in life? 

               If you’ve watched the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, and I haven’t done so yet, you know that the people depicted in it show by their lives that they have a certain answer to the “what are you looking for?” question. 

               The real-life daughter of the man who is the self-described wolf, who wrecked many people’s lives through his pursuit of wealth and what he considered to be fun, well, his real-life daughter wrote an open letter to Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese denouncing the film. Here’s just a portion of the letter. 

               She writes:              

 You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.  And yet you’re glorifying it.    

Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.[i]

                Glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior…

                That word glorify is an interesting one.  To give something glory.  GLORY has roots in the Hebrew.  It comes from the Hebrew word KAVOTH, which literally means heavy, weighty.  When we glorify something or someone we give weight, mass, to it or to them.

                I am quite sure that we don’t want to glorify the Wolf of Wall Street and his actions.  But the question we must all face is what do our lives glorify? What our lives testify is important.

                In the Servant Song we read from the Book of Isaiah, the Lord says to the one who was formed in the womb to be his servant, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel.”  That’s not heavy enough.  I’m going to give you to be a light to the nations.

               In other words, I’m going to give you a little heavier than just your own self-interest, your own pleasure, to be about here.  I’m going to ask you to care for the whole world.  Not just your own pleasure, not just your own career, not just your inner circle, not just the people that you like, not just the people who make you feel comfortable.  I am calling you to show my glory, to be a light, to the whole world.

               Jesus understood himself in light of that servant.  And he calls those who would follow him to understand themselves in light of that servant as well. 

               When Jesus asks those first disciples, “What are you looking for?” it’s his way of seeing what they think is important, what matters?  Because if they are going to follow him, they are going to have to get on board with what matters to him.

                Their response, simply because they don’t seem to grasp that he’s talking on a higher level, is to ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Literally, where do you abide?  They are willing to learn.  They are willing to spend time with Jesus.  And when he says, “Come and see,” they go and stay with him.  And they learn from him what really matters. They learn from him what it means to be a Lamb.

               It is Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday tomorrow.  So it is fitting that we reflect on what his life taught us about what matters as well.  And what his life taught us about what matters goes beyond us and them.  What matters is the unity of humanity and creation.  What matters is love.

               So he said, in the words that adorn the front of our bulletin today: 

“Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”

               But he also believed in taking a stand and making a difference even if it came at a cost.  So he said in words that one of my favorite writers, reposted this week.  Parker Palmer quoted Martin Luther King Jr. saying this about love and power:

 Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. 

 We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.  It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.

               So what are you looking for in life?

                The disciples followed Jesus and went to where he was staying and they learned from him.  They learned about power.  They learned about love.  They learned it from the Lamb.

                                                                                           In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

 

Charge at the End of Service:

 

So what are you looking for?  In life?

That’s what Jesus asked the disciples of John who followed him.

What are you looking for

I’m not sure precisely what the answer to the question is for you

But if what you are looking for is a life of meaning

A life that really matters

A life centered in love

Love which uses power and is not used by it

Then you can find it and have found it in the Lamb.

Go from this place to live that truth out in Jesus name.

 

 

 

 


[i] Christina McDowell, “An Open Letter to the Makers of the Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself” LA Weekly, Thursday, December 26th, 20134.  http://www.laweekly.com/informer/2013/12/26/an-open-letter-to-the-makers-of-the-wolf-of-wall-street-and-the-wolf-himself

 

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Sermon: January 12, 2014, “Baptism and Standing Your Sacred Ground”

 “Baptism and Standing Your Sacred Ground”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On January 12th, 2014

 

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

                Our first scripture lesson is the assigned Old Testament lesson from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the 42nd chapter.  It is one of what are known as Isaiah’s Servant Songs—poetic tributes to an unnamed servant of God.  In speaking of that servant, Isaiah may originally have been speaking of the whole people of Israel returning from exile, or of a particular person within that community, or of a yet to come Messiah, but in Christian tradition the passage I’m about to read has come to be understood as a description of Jesus.  Listen now for how Jesus might have understood himself through those words, how we might understand him through them, and how we as part of the community of Jesus might live them out as well.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,  who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it  and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,  I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people,  a light to the nations,  to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,  from the prison those who sit in darkness.

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

               Our second lesson is just five short verses from the Gospel of Matthew, the first gospel’s account of the baptism of Jesus.  Notice how John responds to Jesus’ request to be baptized–and notice what Jesus says back to him.  This interchange is unique to Matthew among the different gospel accounts of the baptism.   And listen, of course, for echoes of Isaiah 42.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

               Every year we schedule our confirmation process so that it begins on the same weekend on which we commemorate Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan.

               We start with a kick-off event on Friday evening.   The event goes from 7-9, before the lock-in begins (and by the way I didn’t stay all night for the lock-in this year, but I did win the ice cream eating contest again!  I’ve still got it!).   Anyway, from 7-9, before the lock-in, our eighth-graders, their parents, their faith mentors, and our Session members (elders) gather and our time with one another focuses on the meaning of baptism.

               One of the activities we do together is to respond to “reaction statements” that Dan Thomas posts on newsprint all around the Assembly Hall of the Meeting House.  These are statements with which you are supposed to agree or disagree. They always lead to some good dialogue in the groups.

               I love the conversation that occurred around one of the statements this year.  “Baptism defines your identity.”  Agree or disagree?  Well, what do you think?

               Well, yes and no, the discussion went.  Being baptized is certainly a way to identify yourself with the Christian faith if you are a person who was not baptized as a little child (or to have that done for you if you were baptized as an infant).  It’s a way of publicly claiming that the one who is baptized is a child of God.  And that that’s how God defines him or her.  It’s not that the person isn’t a child of God before that; it’s just that baptism is a sign and seal of that status. 

               But baptism isn’t the only thing that makes up our identity, we agreed.  We are all of us lots of things.  I, for instance, am Judith’s husband, Rebecca and Martha’s dad, Ike and Mary Alice’s son, Tim’s brother. I’m the senior pastor of this congregation.  I’m an American citizen, an athlete (or at least I fancy myself one), a Packers and Cubs fan, an alum of my college and seminary, a friend, a writer.  I am or have been a member of several groups and teams.  And I’m part of the whole human race.

               I could argue that there are lots of things that define me, that go into making me who I am, that identify me.  And you could do the same for and about yourself.

               That reaction statement about baptism defining identity is an important one to mull over, however. It’s important to think about. What is it that ultimately defines you, that is most important about you,  that gets to the very core of who you are?  Huh?

               Because I can guarantee you, there are forces at work in our world that will want to define you in other ways, not all of them very helpful.

               Some will treat you as if the most important thing about you is that you are a consumer.  So they’ll want you to feel like you are not enough as you are.  Not cool enough, not attractive enough, not secure enough, not thin enough—the better to sell you products, goods and services.

               On either side of this highly polarized political spectrum, they’ll seek to whittle you down into a caricature of your views, to ridicule you and treat you like anything but a child of God or  to control you and to ensure your vote at the ballot box.

               There will always be people, (and middle-schoolers know this better than anyone, right?) who, wanting to make themselves feel better, will put you down, and exclude you.                              

               Some of you may be familiar with the work of Brene Brown.  She’s a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and a nationally known speaker on the topics of shame, worthiness, vulnerability and courage.  Brown is probably best known for her TED talks, including one called the Power of Vulnerability.[i]

               What Brown realized in her work on shame, which she thinks is epidemic, is that it underlies most of the dis-ease, the addiction, the violence, the anxiety and meanness, in our society.

               She defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[ii] Brown distinguishes shame from guilt (and guilt, she says, can actually be productive) in this way:

               Guilt is focused on behavior.  It is to know that you’ve messed up, that you have done something bad or wrong.

               Shame is feeling or believing that you are bad.  That whatever you are is not enough, that you are not worthy of love and connection.

               Guilt is about specific behavior.  Shame goes to the core of our identity. And it causes us to want to disconnect from our true selves and from others. It keeps us from wholeheartedly embracing who we really are.

               The antidote to shame, Brown says, is experiencing love and belonging, which can only happen through being vulnerable, through letting ourselves, our imperfect yet wholly worthy of love selves, be seen.

               Her shame resilience mantra is “Don’t shrink, don’t puff up, just stand your sacred ground.”   Don’t shrink.  Don’t run away and hide, don’t be less than who you are, don’t sell yourself short.  Don’t puff up.  Don’t get arrogant or rude or mean or try to pretend you are more than you are.  Just stand your sacred ground.  Claim your identity as a worthwhile and wholly worthy of love person who has gifts worth sharing.  In other words, I’d say, remember that you are a child of God.

               It seems to me that Jesus, who lived out in his life the role of the servant that Isaiah described in the passage we read this morning, understood a little something about this mantra.  And so should we.

               Don’t puff up. Be gentle. Gentle enough, Isaiah says, not to break a bruised reed or to quench a dimly burning wick.  Gentle enough not to meet evil with evil, to seek revenge, or to crush the tenderhearted.  Be humble enough to know and admit that you make mistakes.

               But at the same time, don’t shrink. Don’t sell yourself short.  Don’t let yourself faint or be crushed or be cowed. 

               Stand your sacred ground.  Remember that God loves you down to your very core—that you are a child of God.   Bring your gifts to bear and speak up for justice and peace.

               The fact that Jesus came to John to be baptized was a bit of a scandal for some in the early church.  There was concern that John’s disciples might take that as a sign that Jesus was somehow inferior to him.  There was a worry that it might make him seem somehow less than perfect, at least at that point.  As if Jesus, like the crowds, needed to have some pre-baptismal sin washed away.

               So Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers, includes a dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist. “You ought to be baptizing me,” John responds to Jesus request for baptism. “John, let it go.  Allow it to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus shoots back.

               Righteousness is being in right relationship with God and others.  You might say: Not shrinking, not puffing up, standing your sacred ground.  Maybe that’s why Jesus came to John, to show that he understood that.

               When Jesus comes to John for baptism, the sky is opened and a voice comes from heaven, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”

               I like to think that maybe Jesus had to be baptized by John In order to hear that, so that it would help him stand his sacred ground in the work ahead of him.

               Wouldn’t it be great if the sky opened up like that whenever we had a baptism, and that babies (or people at whatever age they are baptized) would hear and know and remember down deep in their soul that God loves them.

               Wouldn’t it be great if whenever we had an ordination or a confirmation service, the sky would open up and a voice from heaven would come down “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”

               But rarely are our experiences that dramatic.

               Yet even without such dramatic experiences, there are people who show us what it means to stand our sacred ground.

               Somebody from Immanuel recommended that I read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath[iii].  It’s worth the time.  A little uneven in parts, but worth the read.

               I came across an article by Gladwell[iv] this week in which he talked about going to interview a woman in Winnipeg, Canada, while he was writing David and Goliath.  The woman’s name was Wilma Derksen. 

               “Thirty years before, her teenage daughter, Candace, had disappeared on her way home from school. The city had launched the largest manhunt in its history, and after a week, Candace’s body was found in a hut a quarter of a mile from the Derksen’s house. Her hands and feet had been bound.

               Wilma and her husband Cliff were called in to the local police station and told the news. Candace’s funeral was the next day, followed by a news conference. Virtually every news outlet in the province was there because Candace’s disappearance had gripped the city.  “How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens. “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said. Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”

               Imagine that:  A family who had been through that kind of trauma who could even be willing to consider extending love and forgiveness to the person who murdered their child.  Wilma Derksen told Gladwell they could do this because they were Mennonites, who had endured persecution in Europe, and the Mennonite response to persecution was to take Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness seriously.  “The whole Mennonite philosophy is that we forgive and we move on,” she said.

               Talk about standing your sacred ground.

               Please dear God, may none of us have to go through what this family did.  But we all have opportunities to stand our sacred ground every day of our lives.

               Don’t shrink.  Don’t puff up.  Just stand your sacred ground. 

                In Jesus’ name.   Amen.

 

 

 


[i] Brene Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability” TED talk.  You can access it here:  http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html.  It is also worth checking out her books and audio recordings, most especially The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Are Supposed to Be and Embracing Who You Are. (Perseus Distribution, 2010), from which I gleaned her precise definition of shame.

[ii] Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.

[iii] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Batlling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

[iv] Malcolm Gladwell, “How I Rediscovered Faith” Relevant Magazine (Issue 67: January/February 2014).  You can access the article online here: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/how-i-rediscovered-faith

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