Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, "Hope: A Thrill of Hope," Mark 1:1-8

Sermon 11/26/17
Mark 1:1-8

Hope: A Thrill of Hope

            Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Is the glass of life half empty, or half full? My mom and I have gone back and forth about this a bit over the years. She’s wildly optimistic about most things, and sometimes I would say her optimism, her hopefulness borders on the irrational. If the weather forecast says there’s a 70% chance of a snowstorm coming, my mom will focus very seriously on that 30% chance that it is going to be a nice day after all. I, meanwhile, will begin adjusting my travel plans and making a backup plan for the day. My mom says I’m a pessimist, but I would argue that I’m simply a realist, trying to prepare for the thing that is most likely to happen, whether I like that thing or not. My mom, however, says she doesn’t want to be disappointed twice, both by thinking something bad is going to happen, and then by having the bad thing actually happen. She’d rather be hopeful, and enjoy her state of hopefulness, even if it doesn’t work out that way later on. How about you? Pessimist? Optimist? Realist? Are you a hopeful person?
            Each week, our themes in worship – hope, peace, joy, and love – will be matched with a familiar snippet of a Christmas carol. This is lucky for you all, since I tend to be a stickler about singing Advent carols during Advent and Christmas carols when it is finally Christmas. But this year, we’re mixing it up a little, and using the familiar carols, along with the moving, more somber hymns of longing for Advent, to help us prepare for the season. This week, we’re thinking about hope, and what it means to be hopeful in this season of Advent, and our song snippet is “A Thrill of Hope,” taken from the classic “O Holy Night.” “O Holy Night” was written in 1843. In the town of Roquemaure in France, the church organ had recently been renovated, and the priest asked a local writer, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem. He wrote what we know as O Holy Night – “Cantique de Noël” (Song of Christmas) in French – and composer Adolphe Adam wrote the familiar lilting music. A few short years later, Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight wrote the English version of the text, much more a paraphrase than a translation.[1]
            But the phrase “thrill of hope” appears relatively unchanged in both French and English. In our familiar version we hear, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” The text tells us that the world was waiting, longing, pining for something, as it sat mired in sin and error. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling – when you know that your life is off track, when you know you’re going the wrong direction, when you know that you aren’t living either as you or as God wants you to live, when you know that life seems unfulfilling – you don’t relish staying where you are. You are longing, hoping, pining for some way to get out of the pit. This is the state of the whole world, waiting on God-in-the-flesh in Jesus Christ. And then – a thrill of hope. We’re weary, but rejoicing: morning is breaking, and light is canceling out the darkness. Advent is a season of hope. But I believe we’re called to something more than a passive  hope, something more than a vague feeling, as we sit at the bottom of that pit, that something better might come along eventually. So what kind of hope are we meant to cultivate in this season?
            Let’s look at our gospel text for today. Mark’s gospel sometimes seems like a surprising place to start when we’re beginning Advent. After all, we know that at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but when Mark begins, he skips any mention of how Jesus is born, and jumps straight to Jesus as a thirty-year old, embarking on the beginning of his ministry. Matthew and Luke are the gospels that treat us to the stories of angels and shepherds and Wise Men and mangers that we love, and even John’s gospel, with its image of a light in the darkness feels appropriately like a Christmas story. But Mark gives us nothing more than this at the start of his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Boom. And he’s off and running.
            But I love it. I love Mark’s gospel. He is so intent on making sure you know about Jesus and the good news Jesus brings that he can’t slow down long enough to give us more than what he considers the essentials. And Mark isn’t so much concerned with how Jesus was born as he is with the fact that Jesus is here, and we need to be ready, and we might want to do some self-reflection and some changing of our lives, changing our heart and minds because of Jesus’s presence.
            So, as Mark opens his gospel, he centers us in words from Isaiah: God is sending a messenger who will prepare the way for the messiah, the voice of one who crying out in the wilderness, calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and “Make straight” a path for God in the world. These may not be nativity words, but they are definitely Advent words. Prepare. Get ready. Someone is coming and we need to get ready.
            John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness, calling people to repent, so that their sins might be forgiven. To repent means to change the direction of your life, to change the direction of your heart and mind, to get off the wrong-way road you were traveling on, and turn back to God. John tells people to do this – to repent – and they do. Mark says that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were coming to John, confessing their sins. John tells them: someone else is coming, and I’m just his servant. I’ve baptized you, cleansed you with water. He will cleanse you by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
            John the Baptizer tells the people to get ready, help is on the way, and the people respond by getting to work at once, so that they are ready for this arrival of this hopeful good news that is coming. They’re repenting. Confessing. Being cleansed in baptismal waters. When Jesus arrives, they want to be ready for what is next, ready to live into the hope that John has given them.
            How about you? Are you a hopeful person? What are you hoping for this season? How are you longing, pining for God to be at work in your life right now? And what are you doing because of that hope? Mark describes a whole people filled with expectation about this one that John was describing to them, but they didn’t just listen to John’s words and sit passively, waiting for Jesus to show up. They were filled with hope, and so they got busy. They were filled with hope, and so they started repenting now, not waiting for Jesus to arrive. They were hopeful, and so they let John cleanse their spirits as they confessed their sins, so that they would be ready to do whatever Jesus wanted them to do. They were full of hope, and their hope led them to act, because they had faith that their hope in God would not disappoint them.
            I think how we hope is important. Sometimes we know why we’re hopeful, but we don’t let that hope spur us into action. Deep hope, built on faith and trust in God, is an active longing that starts working right away to embody and enact the very things for which we are hopeful. This summer I read a book called Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In it, they write, “The longer we pray, the more we are sure of this: Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.[2] That’s sort of how I think about hope: we hope for the possibility of God’s work in the world, and then we get to work as God’s laborers in the world, trusting that God will do what God promises, and getting started on our part as soon as possible.
            So, as we begin this Advent season, what are you hoping for, when you think about God coming to us in-the-flesh? What is your Advent hope, and what are you going to do about it? Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove write: “Often when Christians talk about “eternal life,” we mean life after death. That’s not all bad. We’re both pretty excited about life after death (though neither one of us is in any rush to get there). But we’ve been asking together with our communities whether there is life before death. What we’re really looking for in our life together and in the church is what [1 Timothy] calls the “life that is truly life” … We have to stop promising people life after death when what we are all really asking is if there is life before death. And the good news is – there is. Eternal life begins now. It is living in the presence of God.”[3] “What really excites us is the way our God stirs up the ruins, always eager to give new life. The world will not believe that the gospel is true because we struggle hard enough to save a sinking ship. The world will believe when we practice resurrection where we are because we know the joy of new life.”[4]
            This Advent, I’m hopeful – even if I still expect snow when the forecast tells me it is likely! I’m hopeful that Christ is continually born into our midst, continually reminding us that God is with us. I’m hopeful enough that I want to prepare my life, my heart again. Hopeful enough that I want to make sure that I’m going in God’s direction, not the wrong direction. And hopeful enough that instead of waiting passively, I’m going to wait actively, working to carry out the good news right now, because my hope is built on faith in God’s promises, which never disappoint us. We’re waiting, yes. But with a thrill of hope in our hearts, let’s get to work while we wait. Amen.

[1] All notes on the song “O Holy Night” are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night.
[2] Claiborne, Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, 11.
[3] Ibid., 71, emphasis added.
[4] Ibid., 88. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon, "Theology at the Theatre: The Sound of Music," Philippians 4:4-13

Sermon 11/19/17
Philippians 4:4-13

Theology at the Theatre: The Sound of Music

I’ve talked to you before about the first sermon I ever preached, back when I was a college student, and I preached at my childhood church on the parable of the rich fool, the parable where the wealthy man decides to build bigger barns to keep all of his stuff, where Jesus warns us against believing our lives are all about our stuff. But although that was the first sermon I ever preached, it wasn’t the first sermon I ever wrote. I had a written a sermon a few years earlier, while I was in high school. That same pastor who nurtured my call to ministry and let me preach while I was in college had also allowed me to plan an entire worship service a few years before for the youth of the church to lead. I organized everything, and assigned all the parts, and I wrote the sermon – I just assigned the sermon to someone else to preach. I was far too nervous to do the preaching myself. So I wrote the sermon for my friend Becca to deliver. I don’t have a copy anymore, I don’t think, of that sermon, which I remember was handwritten, not typed, unless I tucked it somewhere in the pages of my journal from that time. But I remember my text: It was this passage that we’ve shared today from Philippians 4. And I chose it in particular because I was so taken by verse 8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” See, I grew up in the era of the great movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the word “excellent” was used frequently in a slang style to denote everything that was particularly awesome and wonderful. And the idea that the Bible was telling us we should spend our time thinking about “excellent” things was very appealing to my young mind.
Indeed, Paul does tell the Philippians to be grounded in thinking about excellent and praiseworthy things in their lives, and his short letter is our focus for today as we conclude our series “Theology at the Theatre” with a look at The Sound of Music. The apostle Paul visited Philippi, a city in what was the Eastern part of Macedonia, now Greece, during what we call his second missionary journey, somewhere around the year 50 AD. The church in Philippi was one of the earliest established Christian communities. Paul’s letter to them is written some ten years after his first visit to them. The letter is written while Paul is in prison, although since Paul was imprisoned many times during his ministry, it is hard to determine during which time in custody he wrote these words.[1] Some scholars, however, point to the awareness of his own mortality in Philippians to suggest that Paul wrote this during one of his later imprisonments before he was executed.
            The word “rejoice” appears 7 times in the four short chapters of Philippians, which is a pretty high rate of frequency, especially compared with the rest of the New Testament. It isn’t just a nice word choice, it’s a definite theme that Paul chooses – he calls us to rejoice. This call is notable because Philippians is also filled with a deep awareness on Paul’s part that the span of his life is probably short. He reflects on his sufferings, on his work in Christ, on his love for the Philippians, and on the aim and purpose of his work. While some of Paul’s others letters are instructional, chiding, teaching, Philippians is more of a letter to loved ones whom Paul misses and from whom Paul receives comfort and encouragement as much as he gives it.
            He tells the Philippians, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (2:8b-9a) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (2:14) Grounded in this sentiment, in this longing, and in this reflection on his suffering in service to sharing the message of Jesus, we come to our reading for today.
            “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul does not mean his words to be meaningless or trite, not filler or fluff. Truly, despite the adversity he has faced as a follower of Jesus, he is full of joy, and calls others followers of Christ to the same deep joy. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
            Paul says he rejoices because of the consistent concern and support the Philippians have shown for him. Indeed, they are one of the few places from whom Paul has accepted financial support for his work in ministry. But, Paul concludes, he has learned to be content with whatever he has. He has known what it is to have little, and known what it is to have plenty.  And in whatever circumstance he finds himself, Paul concludes, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
            Today we turn our attention to The Sound of Music to think about a life of rejoicing in the midst of great struggle. The Sound of Music is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The story is set in Austria on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938, the annexation of Austria by Germany on the brink of World War II. The musical opened in 1959, and it was adapted into the classic movie in 1965.[2]
At the start of The Sound of Music, Maria is a postulant (questioner) at the Nonnberg Abbey, preparing to become a nun. She sings about regretting leaving the beautiful hills where she was brought up. She doesn’t seem to be fitting in to life at the Abbey. She and the Mother Abbess speak together, talking together about the things that bring them joy when life is difficult. (“My Favorite Things”) Mother Abbess tells Maria that she should spend some time outside the abbey to decide whether she is really ready for the monastic life. She will serve as governess to the seven children of a widower, Captain Georg von Trapp. He and Maria grow close and fall in love, even as she helps him heal his relationship with his children. But she’s frightened by her feelings, and heads back to the abbey.   She says that she is ready to take her vows and become a nun, “but the Mother Abbess realizes that she is running away from her feelings. She tells her to face the Captain and discover if they love each other, and tells her to search for and find the life she was meant to live.”[3] Of course, as all this is happening, we also see the rise of Nazism in the background, and watch Maria and the Captain resist being caught up in Austria becoming a part of the Nazi regime, instead fleeing the country secretly.
The song that Betsy sang for us today, “Climb Every Mountain,” comes both at the beginning and the end of the musical, words that encourage Maria to follow her true calling, even if that means not become a nun, and words that reflect the von Trapp family’s calling to resist the rise of Nazism, even if it means leaving their homeland. The lyrics are simple but poignant: “Climb every mountain. Search high and low. Follow every byway. Every path you know. Climb every mountain. Ford every stream. Follow every rainbow 'till you find your dream: A dream that will need all the love you can give every day of your life for as long as you live.”
The real life Maria von Trapp reflected in her autobiography that she was sometimes mad at God, even on her wedding day, because she truly had felt called to become a nun, and it was hard for her to reconcile the new path of life she was taking with what she first believed to be God’s call. But, she said, she ended up experiencing more love than she had ever known, and she believed that she was following God’s will for her life.[4] Her years at the abbey, she said, "were really necessary to get my twisted character and my overgrown self-will cut down to size."[5] The Sound of Music is a fairly light-hearted musical, but the real-life events on which the musical is based were times of true hardship and struggle for Maria, her family, her nation, the world. Maria remained grounded in her faith, committed to following God’s will, and able to find deep joy in life in the midst of everything she experienced.
            What about you? Is your life filled with joy? Paul calls us to rejoice in the Lord always. How can we manage such a thing? This past week in our Disciple Bible Study, we talked about the book of Galatians and the freedom we experience in Christ that enables us to live a life of love and service, not out of obligation, but in response to God’s love and grace at work in us. I shared with the class words that are a part of the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy. We don’t often use the full formal liturgy, but the language in meaningful and insightful. We pray, “Free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord.” That phrase “joyful obedience” can seem to be a contradiction. But actually, it is so descriptive of the life in Christ of which Paul speaks. Despite challenges of every kind, Paul lives a life full of rejoicing because he has such confidence that he is following God’s will, living out the gospel of Christ, and grounding his life in the most meaningful things he can. He knows his true purpose, his true calling, and that brings him a deep satisfaction, a deep joy that transcends the sufferings and struggles he encounters.
            This week, we celebrate Thanksgiving. I hope that we are giving thanks, rejoicing for our life in Christ in ways that are deeper than giving thanks for the delicious food we might eat, as yummy as pumpkin pie might be. May our hearts be filled with the joy that comes from knowing that our lives are built on the solid foundation of a life of discipleship in Christ. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”


[1] “Epistle to the Philippians,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Philippians.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sound_of_Music
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/winter/von-trapps.html

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon, "Theology at the Theatre: Fiddler on the Roof," Mark 7:1-15

Sermon 11/12/17
Mark 7:1-15

Theology at the Theatre: Fiddler on the Roof

            What are some of your family’s traditions? With Thanksgiving approaching and Advent and Christmas fast on its heels, we’re entering a season that is often steeped in traditions – cultural traditions, religious traditions, and family traditions. Have you had to create or recreate or bend or break traditions in your family? This year in particular, I’ve been thinking about how our Christmas Eve patterns have changed through the years. When I was little, we’d eat dinner at my grandparents, and then attend worship together. And then, we’d go back to my grandparents’ house to open presents. Eventually, the tradition changed because my family started going to church in Rome, and they had two Christmas Eve services, and it was too hard to go to service, drive to Westernville for worship, and drive back to Rome for the last service, and we were all involved in the choir and bell choir and reading and it was just too much. The tradition had to change, and it was hard to make that change, hard for my grandparents in particular, but it was the right thing to do, to fit our changing lives, and our deepened relationship with our community of faith. Of course, then I became a pastor, and my Christmas Eve traditions have changed again, and remain flexible each year to accommodate my schedule! But I’ve had one constant every year in ministry on Christmas Eve: my brother Todd has performed monologues during worship for me. He’s my brother who is a professional actor and a theatre professor, and every year for the last 14 years he’s been Joseph or a Shepherd or King Herod or Wiseman and helped me bring the Christmas story to life on Christmas Eve. This year, though, Todd is a serving for a year as a professor at the University of Idaho, and he’s not sure he’ll be able to make it home at Christmas time. I’ve been feeling sad, both about not having Todd at home for Christmas, but also for the gap he’ll leave on my Christmas Eve worship experience. This year, my tradition of Christmas Eve will have to change again.
            What are some of your traditions? Ideally, our traditions help us make meaning, help us experience more fully the meaning of whatever event our traditions are attached to, like Todd helps us more fully immerse ourselves in the Christmas story. But sometimes traditions can also keep us from moving forward, from growing in ways we want to, even if the tradition in itself isn’t a bad thing. I loved Christmas Eve at my grandparents – but it wouldn’t have been right for us to hold on to that tradition instead of becoming more involved with our faith community.
Today, we’re talking about Fiddler on the Roof. It’s the musical in our series that I know the best. Although my brother Todd is the professional actor of the family, I love theatre too, and twice I’ve been in community theatre productions of Fiddler, playing small roles like the hat maker, or more recently being typecast as the town gossip in the little village of Anatevka. Fiddler tells its main theme in the very opening monologue and song. In the opening scene, Tevye, the lead character, a poor milk man, asks the question and gives the answer that frames the whole story. He says,
“A fiddler on the roof ... Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition! Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”[1]
Throughout the musical, three of Tevye’s daughters marry in turn, but each match poses a challenge to Tevye’s sense of tradition and how things are meant to be done. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks her father to be let out of the arranged match for her, so that she can marry the man she truly loves, Motel, the tailor. Tevye groans and complains, but finally agrees that they can marry for love. Then his second daughter, Hodel, wants to marry revolutionary Perchik. When they approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye refuses at first, but finally gives in. And then finally his youngest daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian man, Fyedka. She, too, seeks to change her father’s heart about her match, but Tevye says “enough” – he has bent enough and let go of too much tradition. Near the end of the story, he does, at least, pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka, even if he cannot fully come to terms with the marriage.
As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as lighthearted as it is at times, the questions asked are serious ones, important ones. How far should you change traditions to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? How far is too far to bend? When do the traditions hold us to what is good and important, and when do they keep us from moving forward, from growing and changing in healthy ways? What traditions are based on simple habits that have extended over generations, and when to they represent the unchanging truth?
            Today we take up the gospel of Mark, as we look in on a conversation between Jesus and a group of scribes and Pharisees. If you are at all familiar with the Bible, I think it is easy to come to a scripture text and see the Pharisees and think: “Aha! The bad guys!” whenever you encounter these religious leaders. But the Pharisees, of course, didn’t view themselves as bad or faithless or villains. They were, in fact, religious leaders, devout Jews, who tried very hard to follow the law of Moses carefully and interpret it for daily living. They emphasized upholding the rituals, the traditions. They insisted on using oral tradition as well as written tradition, and in that way were viewed as quite liberal by other Jewish sects. For example, they added qualifications to laws like "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" so that executions were less frequent. On the other hand, however, their additions to the law through oral code sometimes added many new requirements for people to follow, like around issues of observing Sabbath, for instance. And their learning and education began to set them apart from the rest of the people, making them a kind of aristocracy.[2] These kinds of practices, all these additional rules and looking down on those who didn’t follow them all, these were the practices of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus most often criticized.
            The Pharisees have noticed that some of the disciples of Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Their concerns weren’t about hygiene, but about ritual cleanness – an act of spiritual purification before eating. Mark notes for us that the Pharisees have elaborate washing rituals that they engage in before eating, traditions handed to them by the elders. They question Jesus: “Why aren’t your disciples following the tradition of the elders?” And Jesus responds with very pointed words: He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ And then, to the crowds he says, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus indicates that somewhere along the way, the Pharisees stopped being concerned with carefully explaining God’s law, and started being concerned with doing things a certain way because that’s how they’d always been done. Somewhere in there, actually following God’s commandments got lost, in favor of human tradition. But what matters to God is the shape of our hearts, the state of our souls, not the nitty-gritty of these outside practices we adopt to practice our faith.
Jesus says that the Pharisees – and since he’s talking to religious leaders, we can assume he’s speaking to us, too – he says that we add so much stuff to the list of what we have to do to be a good and faithful person, and then get so worried about doing this little stuff, that we miss the main point, the core stuff, that Jesus asked us – commanded us – to do in the first place. And when we start worrying more about the stuff we’ve added on than the stuff Jesus told us to do, all that extra stuff becomes a form of idolatry, which is anything we make more important to us than God. In our Disciple Bible study, we’ve been reading through the writings of Paul, and Paul repeats Jesus’s theme frequently: he warns us very sharply several times against doing anything that puts obstacles in between us and God, or especially between others and God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that all their traditions have become obstacles between them and God, between those they teach and God. 
            Rev. David Lose writes, “Jesus is challenging [the Pharisees] as to how their traditions contribute to them fulfilling their mission.”  “You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many Lutherans [substitute your community] does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!” We love our traditions. I love our traditions. They have helped to mediate the faith to us in countless ways. But what if they’re not doing that for the emerging generation? What if we’ve come close to worshiping the traditions instead of the God they were supposed to point to? And what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission – whether to care for our aging parents, feeding the hungry, opening our doors to the homeless, making our building available to after school tutoring, sharing the Gospel with folks much of the church rejects, partnering with the community to care for more of God’s children, whatever – what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions? What then?”[3] As a community of faith, we have to be continually examining our hearts, our spirits, our practices, and our traditions, and making sure we never lose sight of our mission, never let anything get in the way of our primary task: sharing the good news about Jesus and God’s reign with others.
            At Ohio Wesleyan University, where I went to undergrad, we had a tradition, one that I know other colleges have as well. There was a big rock outside the main dining hall, and different groups on campus would make a bonding activity of painting the rock, a practice allowed by administrators, I might add. Different groups would either sign their names in paint, or paint it in school colors, or do something creative, like make it into a giant ice cream cone. But I’ve always been curious: how big is that rock, really? I’m not sure how long the tradition of painting the rock has been around. But it’s been a long time. And if you peeled away all the layers, chipped away all the paint, would that rock be so small you could actually just carry it with you? Jesus told us what the greatest commandments were: to love God with our whole selves, and to love one another. Have we added so many layers to these tasks that we’ve made them into boulders that no one can carry with them?
            I want to be clear. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. Having traditions isn’t bad. I love some of the traditions, old ones and new ones, that my family shares. Jesus himself participated in the traditions of his time and place and culture. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following Jesus, can never become more important than actually following Jesus. Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is a heart that is seeking after the way of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Bock, Jerry and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof, script located at: http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/fiddler-on-the-roof-script.html
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees
[3] Lose, David, “Pentecost 14B – Tradition!,” In the Meantime,

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Theology at the Theatre: Wicked," Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon 11/5/17
Matthew 5:1-12

Theology at the Theatre: Wicked

            How many of you are familiar with the musical Wicked? It’s the newest one on our list, and the one that was the least familiar to me personally, although some of the music from the show has become so popular that you may know a few of the songs from the musical, like the one the choir sang, without even realizing where they were from. Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz is a musical that first opened in 2003. Written and Composed by Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz, and based on the 1995 book by Gregory Maguire. Of course, Maguire’s work is an alternative telling of the classic The Wizard of Oz.
Wicked opens with the people of Oz celebrating the death of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Someone in the crowds asks Glinda, the Good Witch, if it’s true that Glinda and Elphaba were once friends, and the question prompts Glinda to share the story. We flash back in time to when Elphaba and Glinda – then Galinda – both arrive at school, along with Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. Elphaba, who is born with the distinctive green skin that we see in The Wizard of Oz, is smart and skilled, and generally disliked by father and her classmates, especially the very pretty and popular but not-so-magically-skilled Galinda. At the start of the musical, then, Galinda and Elphaba do not get along, but after Galinda tries to make a fool of Elphaba by setting her up to wear a big black pointy hat, something no one else is wearing, Galinda feels bad and tries to make up for her mean behavior. Slowly the two young women become friends.
This lasts until Elphaba and Galinda meet up with the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard reveals himself as the man behind the curtain, and Elphaba realizes that he’s not a magician at all, and is in fact behind some of the horrible policies that have been taking over Oz. When it comes time to choose sides, Elphaba flees from the Wizard, but Galinda – who has changed her name to Glinda – becomes the public front for the Wizard’s regime. Ephaba becomes known as the Wicked Witch, and Glinda has become known as Glinda the Good. Many plot twists and turns unfold, including the appearance of a girl from Kansas named Dorothy, but finally, Glinda realizes the evil that is unfolding because she has been a part of the Wizard’s plans. She tries to stop harm from coming to Elphaba, but it is too late, and when the women finally meet again, they know that they will never see each other again. With this one last chance to talk, they forgive each other, let go of grievances, and talk about how they have changed each other’s lives.
In the song “For Good,” which we shared together today, they sing these words to each other: “I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason. Bringing something we must learn and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return. Well, I don't know if I believe that's true, but I know I'm who I am today because I knew you.” “Who can say if I've been changed for the better? But because I knew you I have been changed for good.”
“It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime so let me say before we part: So much of me is made of what I learned from you. You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend.”
“And just to clear the air, I ask forgiveness for the things I've done, you blame me for. But then, I guess we know there's blame to share and none of it seems to matter anymore.” “Who can say if I've been changed for the better? I do believe I have been changed for the better. And because I knew you, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”[1]
It’s a powerful song. On this All Saints Sunday, I’m wondering, who are the people, those who have come before, and those who are a part of your life right now, who are changing your life for the better, for good?  And I’m wondering, too, whose lives are you changing for the better, for good, by your presence, your actions, your love, your gifts shared with them? There are a few lines from the traditional committal liturgy of a funeral, words I say at the graveside as part of a prayer that I find particularly meaningful, each and every time I say them. The prayer says: “Eternal God, you have shared with us this loved one’s life. Before she was ours, she is yours. For all that our loved one has given us to make us what we are, for that of her which lives and grows in each of us, and for her life that in your love will never end, we give you thanks.”[2] The words of this prayer express our certain belief that we are shaped by the people in our lives, and that we continue carry them in our hearts and have our own futures shaped by their lives long after their time in this life is over, because truly, in God’s love, we believe that their life never really ends. We continue to change, continue to grow, continue to become the people God is calling us to be because of the people who are the saints in our lives, just as they, by our role in their lives, become or became who God was calling them to be. We have the opportunity to bless one another beyond measure through our loving impact on each other’s lives. What an opportunity for good we have! So I wonder – who has changed your life? And whose lives are you changing? 
Our scripture reading from Matthew is a passage known as the Beatitiudes, a word that means “blessing.” Jesus shares these words at the very beginning of his longest chunk of teaching in the gospel of Matthew, a teaching we call The Sermon on the Mount. As he begins his teaching, the first things out of his mouth are these blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, people needed reminding that the most meaningful blessings in life were not the racking up of accomplishments and distinctions. The most significant blessings that we give and receive are those that demonstrate loving, serving, compassionate hearts. Those are the blessings that change our lives, and transform our world, and demonstrate that the spirit of Christ lives within us.
Today, as we remember the saints, we share together in the meal of Holy Communion. One thing we celebrate when we come together for Holy Communion is just that – communion, small “c.” Communion. A community – a joining together of the whole Body of Christ across all times and places. We believe in the communion of saints – that is something we say every time we recite the Apostle’s Creed. Since we believe in resurrection, since we believe that God has the power of life over death, since we believe that all those who have died are at home with God, forever in God's care, we believe that we, Christ's Body, are united at the table across even time and space. When we come to the table, we come together with those who have gone before us, who shaped us, who shared in the faith with us, who have changed us for the better, for good, and who remain, with us, the Body of Christ. Communion is a holy place where we experience the limitless ways of God, time collapsed and space drawn together into one table. At the table, we are blessed to be in communion with all the saints.
            As we worship, as we remember, as we share in the holy meal together, and as we leave this place and go into the world, let this be our prayer: Eternal God, you have shared with us the lives of these, our loved ones. Before they were ours, they are yours. For all that they have given us to make us what we are, for that of them which lives and grows in each of us, and for their lives that in your love will never end, we give you thanks. They have changed us for good, God. Let us go and do likewise. Amen.