Sunday, September 08, 2019

Sermon, "The Story, Part I: Creation," Genesis 1-2

Art by Alana Correa, 2017. 
Sermon 9/8/19
Genesis 1-2

The Story, Part I: Creation

Today, as we begin a new season together - back to our “regular” worship time and space, back to school, back to Sunday School, returning to some of the rhythms that drive our congregational life together, we’re starting a new sermon series that will be our focus for most of our fall. It’s called, “The Story” - and the story is the The Story, the story that unfolds in the scriptures, the story of God and God’s people. We’ll be looking at this story from Genesis to Revelation, beginning - at least the recorded beginning - to one writer’s vision of an end. Of course, since the Bible is thousands of pages long, and includes 66 books, we won’t get to stop at every plot point. But we’re going to see if we can draw out the major themes of the Bible. 
Our first stop on this journey through the text is right at the start, word one, page one, book one, chapter one, verse one. Today, we’re thinking about Creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” One thing I often hear people say is, “I feel close (or closer) to God in nature.” I’ve probably even said something like this myself at one point or another. Sometimes when people are saying this, they’re trying to describe whether they’d rather go for a hike or hang out on the lake than attend a worship service, and I’ve got some opinions about that, of course, about what we miss out on when we miss out on the fellowship of being a community of faith, calling on and worshiping God together - but that’s for another sermon! What I’m interested in today is thinking about why it is that we feel that way. Why, when we head outdoors, when we gaze at the sunset, when we see the fall leaves, yes, even when we see the beauty of the first blaneting snow of the season - we feel something unwind in our spirits and we feel, indeed, like we’re not very far from God at all? 
Sometimes, I think our souls just long to get back outside, to eliminate, perhaps, one more wall that stands between us and God, or seems to, at least. I remember travelling to an event in Dallas in high school, and the event was at a hotel right near the airport. And there was a tram that departed from inside the airport and arrived inside the hotel. And the whole event was inside. And although others took a chance to go out in the evening, I only attended events that took place in the hotel. And then I got back on the tram and went back to the airport and flew back home. I was never outside. And by the end of that weekend, I felt boxed in, longing for the fresh air, the great outdoors. I think our souls long to be closer to a place where we remember that God created us. 
Sometimes, though, we forget too. We forget that we are the ones who are created, and we are not the Creator. We’re not in charge. As disappointing as it might be, we’re not in control of the universe!  Some years ago, I was walking at beautiful Green Lakes State Park near Syracuse, and I spotted two teenage girls sitting near the water, enjoying the view. As I passed by,  I heard one of them say to the other, with utter seriousness as she looked at the lake, “It looks just like a computer screen.” I remember going to see the Natural Stone Bridge and Caves while we were on family vacation in Lake George. I had found out about these caves doing a little research for our trip, and had convinced my mom and brother to go. It was taking a while to get there. A bit out of the way. My family was complaining a little bit about the drive, sure that this tourist site couldn’t be someplace so remote from all the main streets. And just then we started passing signs put up along the road that said, one word per sign: “Can’t move the caves closer to the road.” I think, though, that we’ve come to have this (often foolish) belief that we can control creation, and we’re surprised again and again when it is beyond us. We want nothing to keep us from the crazy rhythm of life we have established. And so we try box ourselves in and build up walls, literally and figuratively, between us and creation, sometimes preferring to view it from our window, or maybe even a computer screen. We’re surprised when wild animals crash into our wild-free world. Frustrated when we can’t keep our life at a consistent 70 degrees no matter what season it is. God knows – seriously, God knows that I am thankful for air conditioning and heat. Can we remember that we are the created, and not the creator?  
The Bible gives us two creation stories back to back. We spent some time chatting about them at Bible study this week, and I asked some questions that I think will help us with most every Biblical text we approach. Why is the author of this text telling us this stuff? What are they trying to tell us in the words we read? What was so important that they wanted us to know? And so if we look at Genesis 1 and 2, we can ask why does the Bible contain these creation stories? Why do we need this repeated first day, second day stuff in Genesis 1? Why do we need to know about Adam and Eve? 
Genesis 1 and 2 aren’t trying to give us a scientific account of creation. If we try to use these passages like that, we’ll end up making strange conclusions about how the earth works that put us at odds with what we learned in science class pretty quickly. But the Bible isn’t trying to teach us about matter and mass and evolution and biology and chemistry. Remember, it’s a story of God and God’s people. The Bible is virtually always trying to teach us about who God is, and who we’re supposed to be in response to who God is. And so in Genesis 1, which reads almost like a poem of creation, we find out about God that God was around before anything was, that God is the creator, that God speaks and stuff happens in response, that God rests, and that God created everything that is including us, and that God thinks that everything God created is very good. In Genesis 2, we find out that God sometimes sets limits and gives direction, and says, “do this, but don’t do that - that’s off limits.” We find out that God shares the work with us - God puts us in charge of some things instead of God controlling everything. We find out that God creates us by breathing God’s breath, God’s spirit into us. And what do we learn about ourselves in these stories? About who we, God’s people are? I think we learn two of the most important lessons in scripture right here in chapter 1: We are created - all of us, every single one of us, in the very image of God. The pattern, the template for our design is the Creator of the Universe. Wow. That’s a pretty awesome being to be patterned after. And we learn that God sees us and thinks “good.” At our core, intrinsically, woven into our existence is the fact that we - you and me and every single person - what we are as God’s creations is good. We’re not “bad” by default. And we’re not even just “neutral,” blank slates that can go either way. What we are, intrinsically, is good. We are created in God’s image, we have sacred worth, and God thinks we are very good. In Genesis 2, we learn that we’re meant to be stewards of everything. God puts us in charge of the rest of creation. We’re supposed to take care of everything else that’s here. Are we doing a good job of that? And we find out that we’re created to be in relationship with each other. We touched on that briefly when we talked about loneliness this summer. God names a lot of things “good” in creation - but under “not good” is that we would be alone in our existence. We’re meant to build relationships with others. 
I’ve been reading a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber called Shameless, and she frames her writing about Christianity and sexuality using the creation stories, and I really love her retelling of these texts, and I want to share the first one with you. Here’s her take on Genesis 1: 
In our beginning, God was maybe bored and a little lonely, so God created a terrifyingly vast universe, which included the earth. The earth, our speck of life, was just a void, and this great nothingness was super dark. Before creation, all there was was God, so in order to bring the world into being, God had to kind of scoot over. To bring the world into being, God chose to take up less space - you know, to make room. 
So before God spoke the world into being, God scooted over. God wanted to share. Like the kind-faced woman on the subway who takes her handbag onto her lap so that there’s room for you to sit next to her. She didn’t have to do it, but that’s just who she is; the kind-faced subway lady’s nature is that she makes room for others. 
And the kind-faced subway lady could have made this universe in any manner she chose - she could have brought the universe into existence fully formed - but she’s a gardener by nature, so she grew it from seeds knowing it was going to be a process. And the first seeds came in the form of four words from the mouth of God. 
Let there be light. 
God’s words do what they say. So, from the bread of God, the world came into being. Bang! Oceans, land, heaven, sun, moon, stars, plants, and things called sea monsters. 
It all took some time. It was a process, and a strangely collaborative one at that. Rather than God doing everything, God shared the work with creation. Calling the earth to bring forth vegetation and the seas to bring forth sea monsters. God was obsessed with the idea of seeds, and made a self-sustaining system in inside of the life God was creating. Like Russian nesting dolls of life. Inside of life makes more life. 
Then God has an absolute explosion of creativity and made animals. Amoebas. Chickens. Crickets. Orangutans. And God blessed them by saying, “Be fruitful and multiply…” 
Then God said, “Let us create humans in our own image and likeness.” 
Wait … who exactly is God talking to? Was God talking to all the animals? Was God talking to Jesus and the Holy Spirit? Was God talking to God’s self in the first-person plural? Hard to say. 
God the community, God the family, God the friend group, God the opposite of isolation, said, “Let’s do this together. Let’s create humanity in our image and likeness. Let there be us and them in one being. (29-30)

I really like this picture of God making room for us, scooting over with love to make room for us in the universe. Why did God create us or anything? It will always bit something of a mystery to us, but I think that a Creator probably has to create, and if God is Love, then God has to have a direction for that love to go, and we, each of us, are blessed recipients of that creative power and loving grace. And even better, God invites us to be part of the very work of God. We’re called to participate in creation by caring for all that God has given us - animals, plants, and land - and we’re called to participate in God’s love by loving each other - God gives us into the care of each other too. 
So, this week, I want you to think about how you sometimes feel closer to God out in nature, but I want you to go beyond that. I want you to think about how you can tear down some of the walls that we build up between us and God, and revel in the gift of God’s creation. We’re caretakers of the earth. How will you go out of your way to embrace that responsibility this week? How will you actively treasure the gift of the earth and all that’s in it? God looks at us and calls us good, and we’re meant to see each other with God’s eyes. It is God’s breath that gives life to you and the person next to you and the people that drive you a little crazy. How will you cultivate relationships this week, even challenging relationships, in celebration of the fact that God has created us and called us good? You are made in God’s image. Woven into the fabric of your being is the pattern of the divine. When you look in the mirror this week, when you talk to yourself about what you see there, when you think about how you feel about yourself and who you are, how will you remember that you are created in God’s image? How will you help other people who aren’t seeing themselves so clearly remember that they are reflections of the Creator?   

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and all that was in it. And God created you, and you, and you, and me. And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. Amen.  

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sermon, "Unafraid: Fear and Death," 2 Corinthians 4:7-15, Isaiah 40:27-31, Psalm 46

Sermon 8/11/19
2 Corinthians 4:7-15, Isaiah 40:27-31, Psalm 46

Unafraid: Fear and Death*

We’ve been talking about fears for the last several weeks. We started about thinking about fear and security, our need to feel safe and the ways we can let that need close us off from anyone and anything too different from us, if we forget that God’s perfect love casts out fear. We talked about fear and failure, and the pressure we put on ourselves when we mistakenly believe that our value as a person is derived from our supposed successes. We thought about fear and loneliness, and how we can perhaps best fight off our sense of isolation by focusing instead on making sure others are not lonely. We talked about fear and change, and how change sometimes feels like grief, but though weeping lasts for the night, the joy of God comes in the morning.
Today, we’re concluding our series by talking about fear and death. I know, a light-hearted wrap-up to this series! But that’s the thing - we human beings have a lot of different experiences, different hopes, different fears - but death is a common experience that every single one of us will face. Everybody dies. And yet, despite the universality of our experience, despite the fact that everyone dies - no matter how healthy you are, no matter how rich you are, no matter what country you live in, no matter what, your journey on this earth, this plane of existence, will one day end in death - despite that common bond we have - humans, plants, animals, all of us - in our culture we tend to shy away from talking about death. Sometimes, when I’m meeting with a family to plan a funeral for a loved one, the family can’t answer any questions for me about what their loved one wanted in a service. And they can’t easily answer questions about what they want in a funeral service - because they’ve avoided thinking about it, avoided talking about it. I get it - I do. I’m in the process of making my will right now, and making sure I’ve communicated in writing the kind of decisions I’d want someone to make for me if I was in the hospital, on life support. I told my Mom that I was doing this, and that I’ll make sure to communicate with her and my siblings about where important documents are. It’s not a light and easy conversation to have. And I’ve always teased with my Mom that we don’t need to talk about these things for her because she is not allowed to die - ever. Of course we don’t want to talk about death when it comes to our loved ones because despite whatever hopes we have for eternal life, we know the loss and grief we’ll experience right now when we lose someone we love is the worst kind of pain we’ll experience in this life. 
But I think it is more than that - our fear of death. I think we especially fear the unknown, and what happens in death is the great unknown. No matter what we learn about the process of death, no matter what we read about visions of eternity, we can never really know what death is like until we experience it. Death is an unknown, and that is what is most frightening about it. I think about a poster I had on my wall in junior high. It was an image of our galaxy, with an arrow pointing to a tiny spot on the image that said, “You are Here.” I can’t remember where I got it - something from school probably. I thought it was pretty clever. But the more I looked at it over time, the more uncomfortable it made me. I could get pretty lost in my head thinking about the size of the universe - how either it having an edge or not having an edge - both possibilities seemed impossible and baffling. And then to think that I was a tiny speck on a tiny planet in one solar system in one galaxy out of that whole perhaps infinite mess - it was just too much to consider. I had to take the poster down. Sometimes I think ours fears about death are kind of the same. There’s too much that’s unknowable about death, too much that is beyond what our minds can really take in, and so it’s hard to look death in the eye too often. 
So we do it in snippets. On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, we start by remembering that we’re mortal, literally marking ourselves with ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And at funerals, at the graveside, the prayer of committal says, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” When someone else has died, for a little bit, we have to face our own eventual death. 
Adam Hamilton spends time in his book Unafraid reflecting on the fear of death as he studies the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. By the time Paul writes this letter to the young church at Corinth, things aren’t going so well. There’s been tension between the young faith community and Paul. He’s had to correct some of their beliefs and behaviors, and in turn, some of the Corinthians call Paul’s leadership into question. Paul’s a bit on the defensive. He and his co-workers have been through a lot. He so wants the church at Corinth to thrive, because he wants the gospel message to thrive. And he’s given heart and soul to make it happen. You can hear the weariness in his tone: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Adam Hamilton picks up on Paul’s metaphor of the clay pots. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes. Hamilton says that our bodies are the clay jars, and clay jars of Paul’s day weren’t meant to last forever. They get crushed and broken and destroyed. But they hold a treasure - the real, essential us. (211) 
I’m struck particularly by Paul’s words starting at verse 10. Paul says he and his co-workers carry in their bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be visible in their bodies too. “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” Paul seems to say that we can only fully reflect the life of Christ when we embrace the sacrificial death of Christ as part of us too. After all, something can’t be resurrected unless it has first died. So how can we embrace new life without first embracing death. Since Paul was pretty hopeful and intent on continuing to preach the gospel, we know Paul didn’t mean he was signing up to die - although he did eventually give his life for his faith. No - Paul means that we die to self - we die to “me first” so that we can embrace “Christ first” if we want to embody Jesus in the world. The unknown of death, the grief and sorrow of death - they can be scary things to contemplate. But when Paul talks about his life making Jesus visible to others - I want that! I want others to be able to experience the life of Christ through me and my work. I think we’re called to that. If that means we have to also carry the death of Christ with us, in us, are we ready to do that too? I recently saw a post on facebook talking about people speculating on what they might do if they knew they had one day left on earth. Maybe we’d eat our favorite foods. Visit our favorite places. See our dearest loved ones of course. And the post said, “Jesus knew he had one day left on earth. Jesus washed feet.”    
Hamilton notes that the Bible has many different images of heaven - from the beautiful images in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, to the streets of gold in Revelation. Hamilton thinks of these different descriptions as ways of saying, “‘Think of the most beautiful and treasured things you can in this life - the next life is even more beautiful than these!” And then he shares this story, an illustration that is more than 100 years old. There’s a man, dying alone at home. “His doctor, traveling by horse and buggy, came to make a house call. He went everywhere with his faithful dog, whom he left on the front porch as he entered the home of his patient. The patient, lying in bed, said to the doctor, ‘Doc, I’m scared. What’s it going to be like on the other side?’ At that moment the doctor’s dog began scratching at the door and whining, hoping to be let in. The doctor said, ‘Do you hear my dog scratching at your door? He’s never been in your house. He doesn’t know anything about the inside of your home. Here’s the only thing he knows: His master is on the other side of that door. And if his master is inside, it must be okay, and it is where he wants to be. That’s what heaven is like.’ Believing this about death changes how we face our mortality.” Hamilton says. “It doesn’t mean we have no fear, only that we’re not controlled by fear. It means that, despite our fear, we can live with real hope.” (219) 
I find hope in this: In facing death, we don’t experience anything that God did not experience in God’s own self. Jesus died. His death was at the hands of enemies. It was painful, violent death. It was not something Jesus did easily, not something he faced without fear and anxiety and wishing there was a different way. He was crucified. He was put to death. So I find comfort that we follow a savior who faced death head on - washing feet the night before with his servant’s heart, trusting in his Parent, ready to embrace death to demonstrate the abundant life God promises us. That gives me hope.  
I find hope in the fact that whatever aspects of the unknown await us in our experience of death, whatever different pictures of heaven, of eternity we might conjure, whatever metaphors the scriptures use, there’s a consistent theme: we’re united with God forever, God who created and loves us. Being with God who is goodness itself can only be good!
And I find hope in this - hope, and challenge: We can only experience resurrection if we experience death first. Eventually, death of this body, this life. But we’re always being called to face the death of some part of ourselves, our old selves. To have room for my resurrected life, I have to put to death everything in me that isn’t of Christ. That’s maybe as hard and as scary as facing physical death. But isn’t resurrection worth facing death? 
As we come to the end of our series, of this go-around with wrestling with our fears, I return to 1 John, where we started out weeks ago: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as God is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” We aren’t perfect. Sometimes, we’ll be afraid! But God is perfect. And as we let God in, as we put aside everything but God, God’s perfect love casts aside our fears. Fear not! God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

* All quotations are from Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. New York: Convergent Books, 2018. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sermon, "Unafraid: Fear and Change," John 5:2-9

Sermon 8/11/19
John 5:2-9

Unafraid: Fear and Change*

How do you feel about change? Do you like change? Dread it? What changes have come your way that have brought pain - or joy? Most everyone knows the saying, “The only constant is change,” suggesting that things are always changing. But change - especially significant change - is also an incredible source of fear and anxiety for some folks, maybe most of us at one time or another. Fear of change connects with our fear of failure, our fear of disappointing other people. 
I’ve been thinking this week about significant changes I’ve experienced in my life, and how I reacted or how others around me reacted to that change. I think about changes in technology that have happened in my lifetime, in yours. I grew up with computers - even if they were Ataris! I first had a computer in my classroom in 3rd grade. But my mom, a retired nurse, never used a computer herself until she was in her 30s. Suddenly, it seemed, computers, which she’d mostly avoided, came to her workplace. She couldn’t dispense medication to patients unless she used a computer to do it. And she was terrified. She was so sure if she hit a wrong button, everything would break on the spot, irreparably. That didn’t happen, of course, but it wasn’t until I went away to college and she realized she could email me that she really pushed herself to get over her fear of the changing technology. 
Or - I remember during my first appointment, I had been keeping a blog - they were kind of new and trendy at the time - and on my blog I was talking about this emerging social media thing, and facebook, and how social media might impact the church. And another pastor from across the country who I’d never met called me at my church office to tell me how dangerous social media and the internet were and that, as a pastor, I shouldn’t advocate for folks to use it. It was evil. He saw coming change in our world as a very bad thing indeed. I wonder, sometimes, what he thinks about it now? Did he become less afraid, or more convinced he was right? 
I think about my work with youth - with our Conference Youth in particular. People often believe that young people love and embrace change. But I was the coordinator for the youth of our annual conference through our transition from North Central New York into the new and larger Upper New York Annual Conference. To go through that merger of conferences, we had to change a lot about our youth programming, and at one point, I had something of a mutiny on my hands, because the youth were so upset about having to change the way they did things. They weren’t any less attached to the way things were than adults were. It’s just that youth graduate after a few years, and institutional memory is shorter - eventually, no one remembers the way it used to be. It takes a lot longer for that to happen with adults. But it turns out the refrain about change is true across generations - when you’re trying to create change, even much needed change in an organization, you’re likely to hear the refrain: “But we never did it that way before!” (144) It’s a caricature of church life - that resistance to change. But it’s a caricature based on the real struggle the church and its people has when it comes to reaching new people, trying new things, existing in a new way for a changing world. 
Our fear of change often is actually a confrontation with grief. I remember, vividly, still, what it was like when my mom drove away at the end of college orientation, and I was left at Ohio Wesleyan for my freshman year, and I felt devastated, and afraid, and like everything had changed - and it had! - and I just wanted to go home. I didn’t, but at first, staying at college was one of the hardest things I ever did. I felt like everyone else got over being homesick way sooner than I did, but truthfully, they were probably feeling the same way, at least some of them. Adam Hamilton recounts weeping the night before his daughter left for college. “Danielle gently said, ‘Dad, I’m not dying. I’m just moving to Kansas State.’” They laugh about it now, but Hamilton says, “I was grieving the ending of a part of my life I so very much enjoyed.” (148) Fear of change includes “grief over what we’re leaving behind.” “Change means a kind of ‘death’ to what [is] familiar, comfortable, known, and often loved. The fear of change … is often the result of anticipatory grief.” (148) 
How many of you’ve seen the 90s film You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly gives a great monologue about grief and change in the film. She’s the owner of a small bookstore that ends up closing when Hank’s characters large chain bookstore Fox Books moves into town. Reflecting on what’s happened, she says, “People are always saying that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all... has happened. My store is closing this week. I own a store, did I ever tell you that? It's a lovely store, and in a week it'll be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap. Soon, it'll be just a memory. In fact, someone, some foolish person, will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it, or something. I know because that's the sort of thing I'm always saying. But the truth is... I'm heartbroken. I feel as if a part of me has died, and my mother has died all over again, and no one can ever make it right.”
It is very normal to feel anxious about change. It would be more surprising if you weren’t anxious when a major change was ahead. The problem comes in when we let that fear or anxiety about change keep us stuck in one place, when we keep waiting for the perfect moment to embrace change, only that moment never comes, when we’re paralyzed from our anxiety or anticipatory grief or outright fear. (145) 
That brings us to considering our gospel lesson for today. Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for a festival, although we’re not told which one. And while he’s there, he comes to a pool, a pool called Beth-zatha, which means “Sheep Pool.” Scholars think it might be so named as the place where washing took place after a sheep was sacrificed. It was a popular belief that when the waters of the pool were stirred, the first person who entered into the churning waters would experience healing. Some people attributed the stirring of the waters to the movement of water from one pool to another next to it. Others gave it a more spiritual origin, claiming that an angel, a messenger of God would periodically come and stir the waters. At any rate, people believed that the first one in would experience a miraculous healing. And so near the pool, all around, are many invalid persons: people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, the text tells us, all waiting for a chance at healing.
And when Jesus arrives, his eyes are drawn to one particular man. This man, we’re told, has been ill for 38 years. Has he been waiting at the pool the whole time for healing? We’re not sure how long he’s been there, but are told that Jesus knows he has been there “a long time.” Jesus asks him, without preamble, “Do you want to be made well?” My first reaction to Jesus’ question is something like, “Sorry Jesus, but that’s a really dumb question. He’s been like this for 38 years! He’s lying at the side of a pool where people go to get healed. Of course, he wants to be made well.” 
But the man doesn’t seem offended by the question, and simply answers Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” So my second reaction is to feel empathy for this man’s isolation. He’s on his own. No one is with him, no one is helping him down into the water. Many of the others at the pool would be alone too. People who were ill or diseased in some way would often find themselves on the fringes of society, vulnerable. We might pity this man.
Then Jesus says to this man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And the man is at once made well, and he takes up his mat and begins to walk. And that’s where our passage for today ends. And it is then, after taking in the whole thing, that I begin having my third reaction. Ok. Maybe this man wasn’t lying there for the whole 38 years of his illness. But Jesus knows he’s been there for a long time. And in all that time, he couldn’t figure out some way to get to the pool first? He couldn’t work out a deal with one of the other people at the pool? You help me one day, and I’ll help you the next? He didn’t ask for help from anyone and everyone who went by? He had no one in his life that could assist him? Really? And now I imbue Jesus’ question to the man with a different tone: “Do you even want to be made well? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it, what with your lying here for years and years!” I see a man who was afraid to experience the healing change of the waters. He could get himself so close - but never quite take the final plunge, so to speak. He stays hovering on the edge of the water for decades. What kind of life is that? His life is unbearable as is, but his fear, or his anxiety, or his procrastination, or whatever it is that is really keeping him out of that pool is worse
Jesus, though, doesn’t seem to actually use the tone my head supplies. Jesus says nothing about excuses or inaction or reluctance to change or any other words that I am tempted to put into his mouth. He asks, “Do you want to be made well?” When I reread the text through the lense of Jesus’ compassionate gaze, I hear Jesus asking about wellness as an alternative to the more straightforward healing people are seeking at this strange pool. I think what Jesus is offering to the man is something more than he would have received if he had made it into those pools. In the chapter just before this one in John, Jesus speaks with the woman at the well about living waters, the water of life that Jesus offers that truly quench your thirst. I think that’s what he’s offering this man. The word in Greek that we read as “made well” has a sense of completeness. Do you want to be made whole? Entirely well? Jesus can offer this man so much more, if he’s ready. The man doesn’t have to heal himself. He has to put his life into Jesus’ hands, and let God bring about the deep healing. After 38 years, this man’s life is changed forever. 
Change is hard. But there are “new joys on the other side” of painful seasons of change. (149) Listen to these words of praise from Psalm 30: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name ... Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning … You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” (emphasis mine) 
Change is so hard. It is so hard that sometimes we freeze in dread. It’s so hard that sometimes we’ll avoid it at all costs, and things and people we love are hurt in the process. It’s so hard, sometimes, that change feels like grief, like we’re experiencing a death. But there’s no way to repent, no way to turn back to God’s way from our sometimes wrong ways without change. There’s no way to experience resurrection without change. There’s no way to be made well without change. No life, without change. Thankfully, God is with us. Thankfully, though our weeping might last all night, joy comes in the morning, waiting for us on the other side of change. What changes have you waiting at the edge of the water, friends? How many years will you wait? Jesus has a question for you: Do you want to be made well? Let us say “Yes!” Amen.  

* All quotations are from Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. New York: Convergent Books, 2018. 

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Sermon, "Unafraid: Fear and Loneliness," Psalm 139:1-18, Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 4:9-12

Sermon 8/4/19
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 4:9-12, Psalm 139:1-18

Unafraid: Fear and Loneliness*

The chapter on loneliness in Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid begins with this quote from Sue Borne, the producer of a documentary called The Age of Loneliness: “We’re all a bit scared of loneliness - of being alone. Of being left. Of not being loved. Or needed. Or cared about. “Lonely” hits a spot of fear in all of us even if we don’t acknowledge it.” Hamilton describes loneliness as “the feeling of sadness that comes from a sense of social isolation - from feeling alone as though we have no real companions with whom to share our life.” (115) Are you a lonely person? Sometimes? Often? Does thinking about being alone, lonely, make you anxious and afraid? Loneliness, and an accompanying fear that we will always be alone and feel alone is something many struggle with, and it isn’t always a fear that’s easy to assign to people. What I mean by that is that sometimes it is the people who seem like they’re never lonely who are actually struggling most with feelings of isolation. You can be surrounded by people and feel deeply lonely. 
I remember, once, being at Camp Aldersgate as a senior high student. I was at Creative Arts Camp, a camp I had gone to for a few years in a row. Some of the girls who were campers with me I’m actually facebook friends with today, twenty-five years later. And yet, for some reason, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of loneliness during camp that week. I’d been having a great time, but then I got in my head a little bit, and I had half talked myself into thinking that no one really liked me, and suddenly, though I was surrounded by people I called friends, I felt very lonely. I felt very separate from everyone else, and I was really struggling with my sense of worth. 
Being lonely, an abiding sense of loneliness isn’t the same thing as just being alone, as solitude. (115-116). People can be introverted or extroverted, can recharge better by being alone or being with others. Personally, I enjoy many things about living alone, traveling alone - most of the time. After I’ve spent a week with my dear friends, part of me just can’t wait to get to my house and just be alone for a little bit. I enjoy solitude. I appreciate quiet. When we talk about loneliness, we’re talking about something deeper. 
The 17th century poet John Milton wrote, “Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.” (116) “It is not good for humans to be alone,” God said. Our fear of being alone begins when we are but infants. (117) A crying baby often most just wants reassurance that they haven’t been abandoned, and being able to trust that someone will come and care for them if they cry is a major part of the essential attachment that newborns need to adjust as healthy humans. 
Indeed, sustained loneliness is a matter of health. Long periods of loneliness - not being alone, but lonely, can have “the same impact on your physical health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.” (12) And yet, we’re in a societal loneliness epidemic, because of the changing rhythm of our lives. These days, unlike generations ago, many people move an average of 11 times during their lives. Everytime we move, we lose meaningful relationships. And people are much more likely to change jobs multiple times, rather than working at one or two places throughout their working days. When we change jobs, we lose some support networks. People experience divorce at significant rates - friendships are lost and family connections severed. Our dependence on technology sometimes disconnects us from others, even from physical touch. (120-121)And of course, there are the things that always happen in the course of life. We retire. Loved ones die. Loneliness is a particular challenge for folks as they age. On losing a spouse, a widower asked, “Now what? Was I going to have to endure this empty feeling the rest of my life?” (120)
To complicate things, when we fear and dread being lonely, we start to jump to conclusions about our friendships and relationships, which in turn, actually make us more likely to experience loneliness. “People who fear loneliness tend to interpret social interactions in the most negative way possible. If someone doesn’t respond to my e-mail within an hour or a day, it can’t be because they were busy or missed the e-mail; it must mean they don’t like me. If someone walks by without talking to or looking at me, it can't be because they are preoccupied; it must mean they are mad at me. If someone is in a bad mood, it can't be because they have other problems; it must mean they don't want to be around me.” (122) 
So, what do we do with our loneliness, and our fear of being alone? How do we respond, as people of faith, to our fear and loneliness? First, for us, we turn to the scriptures, and we find that loneliness is something folks in the Bible experience too, even if it isn’t spoken of in the way we’d talk about it today.  Our first reading comes from the book of Ecclesiastes. You probably know the book’s most famous passage. Chapter 3 begins: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,” and goes on from there. It’s classified typically as one of the books of poetry in the Bible, and certainly, some of the passages are written in a poetic form. But I think it is best described as the writings of a wealthy philosopher, ruminating on the meaning of life. Some have suggested that King Solomon is the author, although that’s likely not true. But the author is a person of privilege and status. They have a lot of material means at their disposal. And they go by a title that means something like “Teacher.”  
Despite all the seeming advantages the author has, he spends much of the book thinking about the meaning of life - or more accurately, the seeming lack of meaning. In chapter 1, the author laments, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? … All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing … there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.” Oof. The author can’t seem to find meaning in anything he’s experiencing. He’s weary, dissatisfied, and feels like his life is so insignificant that eventually, no one will remember him. Despite having what many are sure makes for happiness - wealth and power - the author seems to be utterly alone. 
Most of Ecclesiastes strikes a similar tone. It’s not a very long book, and if you’ve never taken the time to read it, I encourage you to do so. In the midst of what seems to be mostly a dreary reflection on the meaningless of everything, though, we find a few standout verses in chapter 4. There’s no lead in or lead out that makes them “fit,” no way we can see how the otherwise pessimistic author gets to this way of thinking. But we find these powerful words in our second reading from Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Even if the author seems mostly alone and separate from others, he has a vision of what it is like to have true companionship. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” These words are often read at weddings, but it speaks to more than romantic love. Together, with someone else by our side, as a friend, as a partner, as a co-laborer, what is impossible or difficult is transformed.  
Our reading from the Psalms gives us yet another perspective. Psalm 139 is one of the most well-known Psalms, for its beauty and comfort and hope. It is attributed to King David, and begins, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” In this Psalm, it is clear that God is our perpetual companion. We are never alone. God never leaves us. God knows us inside and out, and what’s more, God likes what God sees, and wants to be with us always. As the psalmist says: knowing that God feels that way about us is nearly too wonderful, too incomprehensible. And yet, it is true.  
But how do we get from reading about how much God loves us and is always there for us to believing it? I think I’ve told you before that I had some times in older elementary school when I was very much picked on by other kids. I was pretty miserable for a good chunk of sixth grade especially. And I remember, even then, knowing that Jesus was supposed to be our friend. We sing songs like that, even, right? “What a friend we have in Jesus!” And yet, I didn’t feel that at all. A friend was someone you could talk to, who was there for you, who you could hang out with and do things with. I love Jesus, and I believed he loved me, but I didn’t feel like he met all of these qualifications! Jesus couldn’t sit with me at lunch. How do we bridge the gap between knowing with our heads that we’re never alone because Jesus loves us, and knowing it with our hearts? 
The only thing I can figure out is that the way we can fend off loneliness is by making sure that others aren’t lonely. Remember, Jesus says that the first are last and the last are first, that he comes not be served, but to serve, and we’re called to do likewise. So the best way we can ensure we aren’t lonely is by focusing on making sure that others aren’t lonely. Because if Jesus can’t sit at the lunch table literally with a sad sixth grader, then we have to make sure that actual sixth graders who love Jesus can be Jesus for their classmates. Maybe that sounds like a huge task - and it is! - but that’s exactly what we’re called to: We are the body of Christ, and so we get to embody Jesus for others, represent Jesus in the world.  
We struggle with many things as the church, finding our place in an ever changing world, but supporting people who are lonely is one of the things we can get right. According to studies, people who are connected to a community of faith are 40% less likely to report being deeply lonely than others. People who are part of faith communities are happier, healthier, and they live longer. (125) And why? Because together, building each other up, we can remind each other that God is with us, that God loves us, and that we are never alone. 
If you are lonely, I want to encourage you to think about how you can serve others. There are folks who are a part of our congregation and broader community who are lonely too - folks who are confined to home, or in the hospital, or in a nursing home, or in prison, or who are just feeling disconnected - who would be overjoyed to have a visit, or a phone call, or an email, or a note. If you talk to me, I will gladly connect you with some people who need encouragement. You might already be thinking of people in your life who would just love to hear from you. Make it a point - this week - to reach out to them. Ease your loneliness at the same time as you ease theirs. Boldly be Christ for them - the hands and feet of Jesus for them - as you find that you see Jesus in them too! Or come talk to me about how you’re feeling. I promise, I can relate, and I want to hear from you. Or I can help you connect with someone to talk to. And as much as you can, stay connected here. As I said, being a community is one of the things we can do well, if you’ll invest your heart and soul and time with us. You’ve got a whole bunch of people here trying to learn how to best be Jesus in the world, and we do it so much better with all of us than with just a few. And don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a few stumbling tries to fight of our fears of being alone. That’s ok. Just try again. We’ll support each other in the journey. 
God loves you so very much that God could never leave you alone, even in the moments when you wish God would! Sometimes, that news is so good, it’s unbelievable. So our task is to help each other believe, by being the best Jesus we can be for each other. We have to show up for each other, comfort each other in our loneliness, be the visible Jesus, the hands and feet of Jesus for each other. The more we do that, the more we practice living our faith like that, the less room there will be for loneliness. The cords of love, friendship, and community are not quickly broken. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

* All quotations are from Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. New York: Convergent Books, 2018.