Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Saying YES and NO with Humilty

This week’s “reflection” immediately brought to mind U2’s break-through single, “With or Without You” from The Joshua Tree: See the stone set in your eye, see the thorn twist in your side: I wait for you. Sleight of hand and twist of fate, on a bed of nails she makes me wait: and I wait without you – with or without you, with or without you… I can’t live with or without you.

Some have seen St. Paul’s words of humility from II Corinthians 12:7 here: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. I think Peterson’s The Message offers added depth to the way humility helps us both discern God’s presence in our everyday lives and trust it: Because of the extravagance of the revelation (given to me), and so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, my grace is enough; it's all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

No wonder Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what has become known as the Serenity Prayer back in those pre-WW II days when hubris, fear, humility and potential met in a paradoxical way: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Perhaps we face a similar kairos moment as Barak Obama ignites both the optimism of JFK and the ideology-bending success of the One Campaign (my paraphrase of NY Times’ columnist David Brooks) among more and more Americans. I know that an old and cynical friend from Tucson, who lived through events from Nasser’s nationalization of the banks in Egypt to doing business in apartheid in South Africa, tells me that something new is happening right now.

Could it be shades of Bob Dylan: “Something is going on all around you and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Or the Eels: “God damn right it is a beautiful day?” Or dare I invoke U2 again where they claim Noah’s vision after the flood in “Beautiful Day” despite the wounds of this moment in time: You're on the road but you've got no destination – you’re in the mud, in the maze of her imagination; you love this town even if that doesn't ring true – you’ve been all over and it's been all over you. It's a beautiful day – don’t let it get away… Touch me, take me to that other place; teach me, Lord, I know I'm not a hopeless case. See the world in green and blue, see China right in front of you, see the canyons broken by clouds see the tuna fleets clearing the sea out, see the Bedouin fires at night, see the oil fields at first light – and see the bird with a leaf in her mouth after the flood all the colors came out! It is a beautiful day…?

Seems that way to me… here’s Sunday’s message:

When I was a young man – fresh out of seminary and serving my first church, I used to get tied up in knots about what people said about me – and I was especially wigged-out when church members would want me to fit my life into their emergencies. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about authentic pastoral care – acts of compassion, calls in the middle of the night to the hospital or carefully talking someone through a midnight attempted suicide – that work is among the nearest and dearest to my heart and a real privilege. No, what I mean are those phone calls – or complaints after the fact – that come when you are already with someone else and the caller demands that you drop everything and come right away… to their parent’s hospital room or nursing home – their child’s drug rehabilitation or juvenile detention center – the waiting room of the local hospice or even the city jail or morgue. Sometimes people act like they are the center of the universe when they are anxious – and they get really angry when you don’t or can’t respond to them right away.

And I have to tell you that in my early days, these complaints used to make me crazy. Let’s face it, most ministers are people pleasers, right? We like to help and want others to be happy – we hate to see another in pain – so in my early days, if I couldn’t respond to even the most unreasonable demand, it cut me to the heart and made me physically ill. What’s worse, I was certain that I was failing both God and my congregation. That’s the reason why most young clergy leave the ministry within the first five years, you know? They can’t deal with the fact that they can’t solve everybody’s problems… so they leave. As one of my counselors told me after about 12 years of this: ok, we’ve now determined the wrong reason that called you into ministry; let’s see if we can figure out the right reasons for you to stay because pleasing people ain’t working any more, right?

So I began the hard work of personally learning how to say “yes” and “no” with humility – and it has saved my marriage, brought me closer to my children and God and restored my sense of humor. Not without lots of struggle and ugly mistakes – oh my god I am such slow learner – and not without my fair share of relapses. But with time, practice, lots of prayer and grace, I have begun to live into God’s “yes” for my life by telling some people “no.” This morning’s scripture puts it like this in Christ’s teaching to those who wanted to become disciples:

Don’t say anything you don’t mean: this counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you’ and never doing it; or saying ‘God be with you’ when you don’t really mean it. And please remember this: you don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say “yes” and “no” for when you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.

Martin Copenhaver, of our sister congregation in Wellesley, has written that if we were to summarize the Christian gospel into one word it would have to be: YES! “The gospel is about God’s YES to us, first through creation – “Yes, it is good.” – then through covenant – “Yes I will walk with you: I will be your God and you will be my people.” – and then through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – “Yes I have come to you so that you may have joy and your joy may be full… even to the end of the age.” He concludes by saying that “implied within this affirmation, however, is another word – the word NO – and one of the most important truths a Christian can learn is how and when to say YES and how and when to say NO.”

I would add… “with humility” because this side of glory, my friends, all of us only see as through a glass darkly as St. Paul told us. “Later we shall see face to face, but for now… we’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist…so until our completeness we have three things to keep us on track: trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly and love extravagantly.” As I get it, humility is one of the ways we can make those commitments real, so let’s talk about practicing yes and no with humility, ok?

Paul tells us that there are three commitments – or practices – that will help us mature into humility: trusting God, cultivating hope and loving others extravagantly. And the prayer that has helped me most in my quest to trust God is the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.

It is no wonder that AA and other 12 Step groups have found such solace and wisdom in this prayer: it states in the clearest language possible that we can’t fix other people, we can only attend to ourselves and there are always aspects of our lives and the world that we can never make right so we have to learn how to accept them. Acceptance, it would seem, is key to trusting God; indeed, acceptance of life as it is, in all its joys and sorrows, seems to be part of how we say YES and NO with humility. Yes, I love my parents and can never cure them of their addictions no matter how hard I try all at the same time. Yes, I am a brother in faith to the President, united in Christian love with him even though I profoundly disagree with many of his decisions and yearn for a new commitment to peace and justice. Yes I weep and mourn over those I have lost through death while at the same time rejoicing that their suffering has now ended and they have gone home to the Lord.

Are you with me here? Embracing the reality that I cannot change some things no matter how broken they are – and at the same time owning that with courage there are changes I can make – is the pathway to serenity. Peace. Sanity – for at least one day at a time – for this is what it means to trust God: not affirming this or that doctrinal truth, but choosing to live each day as if God were in control and we were not. That is, saying YES and NO to reality with humility.

Now I don’t know about you, but this was something I had to learn – and practice over and over again – because it just didn’t come naturally to me. What do you mean ACCEPT that there are things I cannot change? I work in a church where people constantly ask me to help them change their lives? Or rescue them from their suffering or help them avoid the consequences of their mistakes? I live in America, for God’s sake, where my television is constantly advising me that if I just buy this cereal – or that deodorant – or this one special car not only will I change into a sexy, attractive man – with a younger and sexier wife – but I will have a happier and sexier family in a better and sexier America. What do you mean ACCEPT that there are things I cannot change?

The second insight into saying YES and NO with humility is practice – discipline – learning to trust that God is big enough and loving enough to handle and manage our mistakes, because if we are ever going to mature in acceptance, we are going to make mistakes. William Willimon, once the Dean of the Duke University Chapel and now a Bishop for the United Methodist Church, once met with a group of incoming students who wanted to talk about premarital sex.

In a word, they wanted to know why he advised them against being sexually active before marriage. So he told them, ‘In the grand scheme of things, having sex before marriage is not the most important ethical issue you will ever face. But it will give you practice in saying NO. You may make some mistakes in this realm – and they will hurt you – so we in the church teach that if you can learn to say NO to something like sex, then maybe you’ll be better prepared to say NO when you are asked to sacrifice your integrity for some corporation’s profits or when you are asked to fight in some unjust war. It takes practice to learn how to say NO – and sex seems as good a place as any to start.

I think those are good words. No judgment, right? No condemnation for those of us who have made some sexual mistakes in our time – and let’s face it – we have. Just the testimony of a humble elder who has learned from his own mistakes who wants to share the value of learning how to say YES and NO: the second insight is that this trust and humility takes practice. Do you remember what the old guy said to the young violinist who was lost in NYC and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, my dear, practice.

Which leads me to the third insight: humor – it is an integral part of humility – especially the ability to laugh at ourselves. I can’t imagine how many times St. Paul had to laugh at himself and his life – and how hard it was for him at first – before he didn’t take himself too seriously. I know it has taken me all my life and I’ve still got a ways to go, too. Nevertheless, I am coming to see how valuable it is to growing in Christ’s spirit to be able to laugh at myself so that I can learn from my mistakes.

So let me leave you with this – and I ask your forgiveness in advance – because it is the story of a pastor who was just too full of himself. Struggling to make ends meet on the salary of his small church, this pastor became livid one day when he confronted his wife with the receipt for a $250 dress she had bought. "How could you do this?!" he shouted in self-righteous indignation. “You know we have to pinch every penny! What were you thinking?” "Well,” his wife said, “I was outside the store looking at the dress in the window when all of a sudden I found myself trying it on," she explained. "It was like Satan was whispering in my ear, 'You look fabulous in that dress. Buy it!'" "Well," the pastor snorted as only a person of the cloth can, "You know how I deal with that kind of temptation? I say, 'Get thee behind me, Satan!'" To which his wife replied: "I did. Really! But then he said, 'It looks fabulous from back here, too, so… I bought it!'"

This is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Different Kind of King

The late French mystic, Simone Weil, once observed that, “grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it…” Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band, U2, said that,“grace finds beauty in ugly things and travels outside of karma.” And Jesus, according to Eugene Peterson’s retelling of the text, said that if you are depleted and alone – tired, run down and burned out on religion – he would fill your emptiness with God’s love so that you might live in the unforced rhythms of grace.

There is, it would seem, a connection between God’s grace and our emptiness. This is one of the counter-cultural trutths of the whole church calendar: from Advent and Christmas through Lent, Easter and Pentecost there is a proclamation that grace comes to us in the form of Jesus not only to fill what is empty, alone and wounded, but to actively seek out and strengthen those people and places where this void causes the most oppression. Anthony Bartlett writes in Cross Purposes: Challenging the Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement:

"(The challenge for us is) to change the governing metaphor of theology from height to depth. God enters the depth of our situation, deeper than we can imagine, deeper than we want, deep enough to change it beyond our imagining. That is why (God) is not understood or seen only by his back parts as Luther had it; not because of an impossible transcendence, less still because of an incandescent wrath, but because (God) is facing into a depth we turn from, a world-and-humanity-changing depth of love… If Christians were ready to dwell as Jesus did in the Hebrew depths of our world, rather than always planning their Greek exit strategy (by good works, private salvation, Armageddon) faith would look extremely different. Depths or the abyss are not just a convenient metaphor to return us to history… they change the very constitution of the self and world and God in relation to these. It is the work of creation at its seventh day climax. As Jesus said one Sabbath day: "My Father is still working and so am I …."

In other words, Jesus is a king with a crown of thorns: the Lord of compassion not conquest. And people all over the world – including those in the Church – are uncomfortable with this kind of king. To speak of the Word of God become flesh as grace entering the void means… we have to own our wounds – acknowledge our brokenness – accept the empty places within and among us.

Professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in New York City made this clear recently in his conversation concerning the Cross and the lynching tree at Harvard: until we can name and own our wounds about racism, he observed, they will continue to haunt and exert an unholy power over us time and again. And if any should think he exaggerates recall the recent rash of empty nooses left on the desks and doors of prominent African American leaders – or the twisted rhetoric about Barack Obama’s “blackness” – or the scandalous behavior of the Clintons in South Carolina re: race - and it will become only too clear that while grace fills the empty spaces with God’s liberating love, it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.

Which brings me back to the question: what kind of King is Christ? Now Americans don’t know much about royalty – and we have an almost pathological commitment to social amnesia and political naiveté – so some have urged us to start speaking of the culture of Christ rather than his kingdom. What kind of culture resonates with God’s grace and honesty? What values deepen our ability to live into Christ’s sacrificial love? What context promotes and even encourages us to live into the unforced rhythms of grace? Do you appreciate how this change from kingdom to culture clarifies the challenge?

To speak of a culture of Christ gives us the chance to compare the world as it is with the world as it could be, yes? It gives us the tools to see how we tend to create God in our image rather than risk ripening into the unforced rhythms of grace. And it invites each and all of us – personally and politically – to wonder what gets in the way of embracing Christ’s beloved community of social justice, racial and sexual equality and risk taking for love. You see, people like life to be clean: we want our emotions tidy, our religion structured, our civil society to play by the rules and everything that is messy and broken to be kept well out of sight.

I’m reminded of the story of the old Southern Pentecostal woman who happened to wander into one of our traditional, tall steeple Congregational churches in Boston: as the organ prelude began to swell, she started swaying rhythmically to the sounds of the music. During the first hymn, she held up her hand and sometimes flapped her hanky in joy. And when the preacher started his sermon, she just joined right in shouting: Amen, preach it brother or sometimes help him, Holy Spirit. Which, as you might imagine, was the final straw for the head usher who rushed over to the woman and said, “Madam, what in God’s name are you doing?” Without missing a beat, she said, “I’m just getting religion, brother.” To which the usher snorted, “Well, my dear, please, don’t get it here!”

Americans ache for the illusion of order and innocence – we hunger for life to be clean and tidy – which is why that damned Church calendar is so important; it rubs our nose in the fact that whether we want some messy, Jesus inspired grace and mystery or not, at least ONCE a year we are going to have to consider what kind of king and culture this Christ calls for!

So let me frame the challenge by reminding you of how Jesus responded to two very different people in their time of need: the rich young ruler of Luke 18 and the thief next to him on the cross in Luke 23. Let me summarize the biblical stories before teasing out a few observations about grace, emptiness and the counter-cultural kingdom of God because they have profound implications for our ministry together. First, in the story of the rich, young ruler we are told that while Jesus was teaching an influential young stock broker – or maybe it was a lawyer or even a rock star – came to him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Which is not a question about how do I get into heaven – although it has often been talked about in such manner – but an inquiry into that which gives life meaning? Ok? He is not talking about life after death but life in all of its blessed fullness before death, right?

After Jesus asks if the young man follows the rules – do you cheat on your wife, pay your taxes fairly, do your fair share with the United Way – he says: “There is still one thing lacking; you must sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor and follow me… then you will have a life of meaning” And those who know how the story ends recall that the young lawyer or stock broker or rock star just shakes his head in sadness and leaves because he was very rich.

Now be clear: Jesus is NOT telling us that money is bad nor is he teaching that we must all give away everything we own and become itinerant street ministers in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus to give away his fortune, right? What is at stake here is control: are we ready to let God into the void of our souls and existence, or, do we want to keep trying to do it ourselves? If we choose to act like God, then our emptiness will remain. Period. End of story. If, however, to use the words of Reinhold Niebuhr we let God into the void then we will be given the “grace to accept with serenity the things in life that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that must be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Story number one suggests that as long as we resist, fight, challenge or question God’s desire to enter the void by living like we’ve got it all together, meaning and joy will elude us. Story number two, while very different, proposes that when we allow God into our hearts to fill the void we entertain the very promise of Paradise. The story of the thief on the cross is simple but profound: Jesus has been executed as a common criminal. On either side of him are two revolutionaries who had robbed a local Roman garrison of weapons in the hopes of starting an insurrection. They have been crucified. They are baking in the sun and suffocating to death when one of the criminals taunts Jesus saying, “What kind of Messiah are you who can’t save himself in this horrible mess? You claimed to save others, do something, you idiot!” The soldiers also mocked and poked Jesus to increase his pain and shame. The other thief, however, said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus replied, “I tell you truly: today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Very different stories with very different results, yes? And the fundamental distinction is that one soul refused to acknowledge his wound and emptiness while the other owned it boldly. So one went away dejected, sad and perplexed about what brings meaning into life while the other was embraced by Paradise even upon on a cross. “Grace fills empty spaces, grace finds beauty in ugly things but can only enter where there is a void to receive it.”

This is counter cultural wisdom where Jesus is the king who comes down into the muck of our lives – who is not afraid of the dirt and shame of real humanity – who has no interest in punishing us for our failures – and who even brings Paradise to the cross of our broken existence. As this kind of king Jesus says we’re all in this together and I promise to be with you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full. "If you are tired and burned out on religion I am going to fill you with the unforced rhythms of grace. If you are alone and afraid, I am going to meet you and bring you peace." If you are wounded and oppressed, I am going to be with you every step of the way in the struggle for hope, dignity, justice and peace… and I will never, ever let you go. I am the light in the darkness and the darkness – no matter how real – cannot overcome it.

In our generation, to be disciples of Christ, this is the king and culture we must reclaim and embody: … the king who comes out of the Victorian pulpit and refuses to get trapped in the trappings of power and illusion… the king who embraces the wounded thief on the cross and tenderly but clearly corrects the rich young lawyer or rock star whenever they insist on playing God… the king who shows us his wounds – and teaches that there is wisdom in these wounds – even grace, serenity and courage if we learn the path of acceptance.

The good news is paradoxical: the blessings of grace are waiting to bring us hope, a measure of healing, community and solace once we own the wound... and many of us would rather walk away

Thursday, January 24, 2008

the subversive side of radical hospitality

For many the word hospitality sounds tame – domesticated – safe and not really all that interesting. But radical Christian hospitality is not only life-changing and exciting, it is also subversive in the best sense of the word. “People view hospitality as quaint and tame,” writes Christine Pohl, “partly because they do not understand the power of (recognizing and honoring)… those who are essentially invisible to the larger community.” She continues:
When a person who is not valued by society is received by a socially respected person or group as a human being with dignity and worth, small transformations occur. The person’s self-assessment, so often tied to societal standing, is enhanced… making the act of hospitality a genuinely countercultural witness to the larger community and a challenge to reassess its standards.

In a word, hospitality is all about compassion, dignity and recognition. No wonder the generosity of Jesus seemed anything but quaint: he chafed against the limits of social propriety by welcoming prostitutes and adulterers, crooks, outcasts and children into his gracious presence and open table.

+ He exposed the controversial and upsetting core of radical hospitality in his day – and celebrated the totally subversive side of God’s grace at his feasts – because for him true religion is always about sharing with others the same grace and welcome God always shares with us.

+ “Go and learn what this means,” he told people over and over. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice for I have come to call not the outwardly holy into God’s presence but the wounded and broken.”

Now let’s be clear that when Jesus speaks of mercy he’s talking about compassion not charity; and when he speaks of sacrifice it has to do with the letter of the law and looking good on the outside rather than the spirit of the law and a clean and loving heart. Are you with me here? This is important: Charity – while always relevant – is a top down action, right? The haves sharing gifts with the have-nots; it is kind but doesn’t change the status quo. Charity is NOT subversive, helpful and kind but not subversive. Compassion, however, from the Latin root word cum patior meaning shared pain is different. Compassion has to do with standing with another, sharing the fullness of blessings and trials, bearing the cross of another in solidarity for a time; or as one of my favorite hymns says: “I will hold the Christ light for you in the shadow of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear. I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joys and sorrows ‘til we’ve seen this journey through.”

Do you see the difference? Charity comes and goes. Cesar Chavez used to tell us back in my organizing days with the farm workers union that charity ends when rich people get bored – so you can’t count on it. That may sound harsh but that’s what it looks like from the perspective of those on the bottom; the voice of the forgotten and invisible is often ugly to our refined ears, but no less true: people get worn out, bored and tired of helping others whose woes never seem to end. Dr. King, whom we honor this weekend, put it more poetically but no less clearly: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. Remember: the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

So Jesus speaks to us of compassion not charity in his radical and subversive hospitality. He invites us to understand that we’re all a part of the same body and whatever wounds you also hurts me. St. Paul amplified this in I Corinthians:

"You can easily see how this thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts – limbs, organs, cells – but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ… we used to live independently, calling our own shots, but now we’ve seen the bigger picture with a large and integrated life… so that the old labels no longer work – labels like Jew or Greek, salve or free, male or female, gay or straight – they are no longer useful because we are part of something larger and more comprehensive: the body of Christ.

And of course old Jesse Jackson was spot on when he summarized Paul by telling us that: “We once may have come to America in different kinds of ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” That’s the first insight I want to share with you today: authentic Christian hospitality moves from the quaint to the subversive by deepening compassion rather than charity. From the ministry of Jesus to the early church fathers and mothers, from the Protestant Reformers like Calvin and Wesley to the contemporary advocates of compassion like Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day and Kathleen Norris the testimony is unanimous: when we share compassion we are making the image of God flesh in our generation.

How did Isaiah put it: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? It will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert… I will bring water to the wilderness and give drink to my people whom I formed for myself.” Compassion is the refreshing and tender side of justice – it restores dignity to the soul like water brings healing in the wilderness – so we need to talk about dignity as the second subversive insight into radical hospitality. And what is truly fascinating to me is how Jesus both practices his radical and subversive hospitality – and teaches his disciples then and now – about it in the most unexpected way: the feast.

Most of us don’t consider our table to be a place of radical protest or social transformation, but in Christ’s day – and in Christ’s way – the table became the place where beggars were respected as kings, social misfits were given the same honor as clergy and women and children – who began at the bottom of the social hierarchy – were elevated and celebrated as great and wise teachers. Remember these words: “Enter the kingdom of God as a child or you will miss it all for the last shall be first?” Jesus practiced what he preached first at the table.

There is an upside down logic in this kingdom which warrants further con-sideration and this morning’s gospel reading is illustrative. So let’s review the highlights which begin with a simple invitation. Jesus was walking past a tax collector – a collaborator with the hated occupation troops of Rome – and he invited him to come and see what was going on in the Jesus Movement. This was an invitation to simply check things out – test whether any of this stuff rang true – by just coming to see.

And this is also important for us to notice because Christ’s invitation is not a demand or even a commandment – that’s part of what restores dignity – Jesus honors each individual he meets by giving them permission to use their own unique story and experience as a guide into how they participate at the feast. Do you grasp what that means? It means there isn’t a one size fits all way of being spiritual. It recognizes that some of us are so wounded that it takes a long time to trust. It means that some of us are so used to getting our own way that we won’t comprehend what’s going on at Christ’s table for a while – maybe never. It means that everyone is equal – no one is better or more deserving of a place at the table than other regardless of our external status – and that we will never grasp what’s really going on in the kingdom until we go to the feast ourselves.

So Jesus says: come and see. Now also notice that he invites Levi – an outsider – because if you are going to subvert the status quo you have to be intentional, right? Dr. King said it so clearly: “there is nothing inevitable about the movement for peace and justice; when bad people plot, good folks must plan; and when bad people lash out, good people must respond with compassion and patience.” He could have invited anyone but Jesus makes a point of inviting the outsider, Levi, to check things out.

Which is instructive to you and me as we think about rebuilding and renewing this congregation: we, too, have to be just as intentional about welcoming and inviting and celebrating new guests – especially folk who have historically been shut out or dis-invited – to church as Jesus. I know that as I have learned how to be intentional about looking for those who are forgotten and inviting them to the feast, it isn’t always easy – but it is more often than not a blessing. One day, when I was doing inner city ministry in Cleveland, Ohio I had a feeling I needed to go see Caryl.

It was at the start of summer in Cleveland and I was trying to practice being prayerful in all my activities so for one month I tried walking to all my pastoral visits. That’s something you can do in a city sometimes and I found it very helpful to think and pray about the person I was going to see as I walked to our visit. Anyway, I hadn’t seen Caryl for about a month: I had buried her mother right after Easter and during that time it was clear that Caryl was an alcoholic going downhill fast. I hadn’t done much ministry with addicts yet so I didn’t know what to do; and if the truth be told, I really didn’t want to see her that day but it was clear that the Spirit was pushing me so… I went.

And when I got to her house she was a total wreck; she hadn’t eaten much in months and was drinking herself into oblivion. She was in so much agony I wanted to cry – I think I did. And then from beyond myself I heard myself saying: “Caryl, there is nothing I can do for you – it looks like you are killing yourself with booze – so let me go get my car and take you to the hospital right now where maybe… just maybe you can get clean. Ok?” There was a long hesitation – alcoholism is a bitch and it was doing a mean job on her head and body – but for a moment she found some clarity and said, “Alright, let’s do it.” So I flew home and took her to rehab that afternoon – and after 28 days of sobering up and working her program she began a new life – and thanks be to God has been clean and sober and reasonably healthy for 20 years. And every now and again I get a note from Caryl simply thanking God for leading me to her house and sharing with her that invitation.

Intentionality makes a difference – noticing who is missing makes a difference – so Jesus invites Levi. What I find really wonderful – and this isn’t just true in the Bible but also real life – is that after Levi responds to the compassion and dignity of Christ, Levi throws a party for Jesus.

I don’t know why this is true, but so often the generosity of the poor and discarded is so much richer than that of those who are used to living in abundance, right? It is humbling – but oh, so true. So Levi throws Jesus a part… but guess who he
invites? Folks just like him – broken, wounded, forgotten, addicted, confused, hurting souls who are grateful. And what do the leaders of the church – or synagogue or social club or madrasa – say? What is he doing eating with losers like those crooks and addicts and sinners?

In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus replies: Look, who needs a doctor… I am here inviting outsiders, not insiders to the feast so we can all experience new life from the inside out. Then, Matthew’s text adds: So do me a favor, all you insiders, go and learn what this means: I desire mercy – compassion – not sacrifice.

Not much has changed in 2,000 years and we are still trying to embrace compassion rather than charity – dignity instead of club membership – and justice rather than sacrifice. If you are anything like me, you get this radical hospitality thing wrong at least as much as you get it right. But when it comes together – when we find the strength, courage and grace to welcome the wounded and embrace the outcast – then there is really something to see – something the world can never offer. Because when that happens there is a little bit of the kingdom of God present and that, dear friends, is something blessed.

I am certain that the Lord is calling us to quit making distinctions about insiders and outsiders – members and non-members – winners and losers. I am equally convinced that God is inviting us to both practice and experience the subversive hospitality of Jesus because Pittsfield doesn’t need one more traditional church – it needs a clear parable of hope and radical welcome – a vision of the kingdom. And for some crazy reason, it seems that God has chosen us. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

this week's thoughts on radical hospitality

As some of you know, I was on the 10 year undergraduate plan because from time to time I would leave college to work with the Farm Workers union or some other social activist bunch; eventually I finished my studies and went on to seminary, but my parents were surely convinced that I would never get the job done given my commitment to the cause of peace and justice. So, in 1980 when I announced that I was going to Mississippi for three months to work among the black, rural pulpwood cutters – literally the heirs of share croppers and slaves – doing labor organizing in an aggressively “right to work” state, let’s just say that they were less than thrilled.

Funny what we do to our parents, isn’t it? And what’s funnier still is how God gets us back when we have children who often do to us what we did to them, right? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to say to our daughters, “What are you, nuts?” only to sense my own Mom and Dad looking at me in bemused irony.

At any rate, off to Mississippi I went to discern whether the Lord was really calling me to work in a local church or give my time, talent and treasure to more direct social justice ministries. It was a full and wild time, let me tell you, and I am grateful I went because it became clear to me in Mississippi that I belonged in a church. Perhaps I will say more about that at another time because what I really want to tell you is what happened one night when I was returning to a local Mennonite farmer’s place for sleep. Our daughter, Jesse, was with me – she was almost 5 years old – and we were coming back from visiting former share croppers around Philadelphia, Mississippi.

You might recall that Philadelphia was the place where Goodman, Schwerner and Channey – three civil rights workers in Dr. King’s movement – were run off the road, shot dead in their car one night by law enforcement officials in the Klan and then dumped in a nearby pond. As Jesse and I were headed home that night, we took a short cut and the car engine died – nothing I could do would bring it back to life – so we decided to walk home in the dark.

The stars were bright and the moon was full so we could see our way along the old country road and I didn’t mind walking the two miles back to the farmhouse with my daughter. We could always find a way to have fun – when all of a sudden – and this is the gospel truth – from out of nowhere we found ourselves surrounded by about 5 or 6 wild, barking vicious dogs. I’m not kidding – this pack of wild dogs formed a circle around us and was barking savagely at us – and I had visions of an ugly and violent death. Jesse whispered, “What should we do, daddy?” and I said, “Be very, very still” as I lifted her slowly onto my shoulders. “We’re going to try to inch our way out of this.” But as we tried that only seemed to make the dogs crazier… so I told her we were going to have to pray and wait and call out for help. About a quarter of the mile over the hill was a farm house – I can still see the lights on from the woman’s television – she was watching “Dynasty” – so I started calling out for help loud and deep.

Now I don’t know how long we were in that circle of fear with the dogs only inches away crying out for our lives – it felt like an eternity – but eventually the porch light came on and the woman came out with a broom to chase the dogs away. She asked us a few questions about why we were wandering that back road at 10:30 at night – and then she invited us inside to sit and rest and take a cup of tea before her husband got back who would drive us to our farm house.

In that strange and often hostile place, in a town broken by fear and polarization, two Yankee strangers met an angel of the Lord in that Southern kitchen and we’ve never been the same since: story number one about the power of hospitality. Story number two is from a time in the life of Frederick Buechner, a writer and Presbyterian minister, whose oldest daughter once did battle with the demons of anorexia nervosa. His words of that horrible and holy struggle are well worth the effort and I commend them to you all – part of which are these:

I remember an especially dark time in my life. One of my children was sick and in my anxiety for here I was in my own way as sick as she was. One day the phone rang and it was a man I didn’t know very well then though he has become a great friend since, a minister in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is about 800 miles or so from where I live in Vermont. I assumed he was calling from home and asked him how things were going down there only to hear him say that no, he wasn’t in Charlotte. He was at an inn about twenty minutes away from my house. He’d known I was having troubles, he said, and he thought maybe it would be handy to have an extra friend around for a day or two. The reason he didn’t tell me in advance that we was coming must have been that he knew I would tell him for Heaven’s sake not to do anything so crazy, so for Heaven’s sake he did something crazier still which was to come those 800 miles without telling me he was coming so that for all he knew I might not even have been there.

But as luck would have it, I was there and for a day or two he was there with me. He was there for me. I don’t think anything we found to say to each other amounted to very much or had anything particularly religious about it. I don’t remember even spending much time talking about my troubles with him. We just took a couple of walks, had a meal or two together, smoked our pipes, drove around to see the countryside and that was about it… (But) I have never forgotten how he came all that distance just for that, and I’m sure he has never forgotten it either. I also believe that although as far as I can remember we never so much as mentioned the name of Christ, Christ was as much in the air we breathed those few days as the smoke of our pipes was in the air or the dappled light of the woods we walked through. I believe that for a little time we both of us touched the him of Christ’s garment, were both of us, for a little time anyway, healed.

I love those words – so simple, so clear, so beautiful: what I make of them is that the practice of hospitality begins with simple acts of kindness – but not Oprah Winfrey’s random acts of kind-ness – these acts are intentional. They are commitments. And they are born of the conviction that faith becomes healing when our words become flesh. The writer, Dorothy Bass, of Valparaiso University, has noted that there are three key commitments that congregations must embrace in order to deepen our commitment to hospitality.

The first is that radical hospitality requires community – we really can’t do it all by ourselves – not only because caring for the stranger is sometimes dangerous, and it is, but also because left to our own devices most of us will get lazy, worn-out and resentful. We need one another’s encouragement, you see, if we are to practice real hospitality. Remember Abraham’s argument with the Living God? It was all about saving the community: will you sweep away the righteous along with the wicked? And tell me how many does it take to keep us whole? 50? 45? 40? 20? 10? For the sake of even 10, said the Lord, I will spare the whole community.

The same commitment to community is found in the story of the disciples who Jesus on the Emmaus Road. It comes at the end of Luke’s gospel and holds a host of fascinating insights. For our purpose today, however, let me just highlight this: the story takes place after Christ’s death on the cross. Apparently a few of the disciples have not yet heard or experienced the blessing of resurrection, so they are leaving Jerusalem in grief and confusion. And as they are travelling out of the city they meet Jesus – the resurrected Jesus – whom they don’t recognize. That is, they meet a stranger on a journey. As they walk and talk the disciples tell the hidden Christ their woes and Jesus speaks to them of the scriptures – how everything that has taken place is according to God’s word and will result in blessing and hope for those who have eyes to see.

When they get to a fork in the road Jesus says he must leave them – and remember they still don’t recognize him because of their broken hearts – but they ask him to stay for supper. And the Bible gives us these words – and they are crucial so listen carefully – and here is what happened: “he sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke it and gave it to them and at that moment, their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus and then he was gone.” Their eyes were opened to the Living God when they sat together at table and broke bread with the stranger. The story continues as the disciples rush back to their friends to share the good news they had found: they returned to offer encouragement and support – and the community grew in courage and faithfulness because of that broken bread. First, we need one another to help us grow in this commitment.

Second, a lot of what we need to learn and practice takes place around a table. Have you notice how important the open table of Christ’s feast is to the practice of hospitality?Around Christ’s table the community learns a new way of living by practicing the table manners of the Messiah rather than high society. “Gather us in, Lord, the lost and the lonely, the broken and breaking, the tired and the aching who long for the nourishment of your feast. Gather us in, Lord, the done and the doubting, the wishing and wondering, the puzzled and pondering who long for the company found at your feast. Gather us in, Lord, the proud and pretentious, the sure and superior, the never inferior who long for the leveling found at your feast.”

At Christ’s table we learn the table manners of God’s kingdom – what else happens around the table of Christian community? We learn and experience communion at the table, right? The reality of joy and forgiveness and hope and commitment all at the same time; and we learn about generosity, too, don’t you think? Some people don’t like church potlucks but I believe they are a sacred blessing because they let all of us share a little so that everyone can have enough. Potluck suppers teach us that we don’t have to do it all; if everyone does their part and brings one dish then the whole community can be nourished. And potlucks are full of surprises, too. That’s why old Garrison Keillor likes to say that the Three Wise Men or kings or Magi were really bringing covered dishes to the humble home of Joseph and Mary for the first Christian potluck supper.

Blessings abound, you see, when we gather around the Lord’s Table: we learn the manners of the Messiah, we are nourished and encouraged to become our best selves, we are surprised and delighted by the bounty of sharing and we come to realize that we don’t have to do it all, just our part.

And that is the third insight I want to leave with you: we don’t have to do it all – just our part – because, dear friends, God really is in charge and we are not and our part is really very, very simple. When my dear friend and mentor in ministry, Dolores Brown, died a few years ago in Tucson, her nieces found this note in her desk that brings it all together concerning doing our part for community and hospitality. Her wisdom continues to bless me from even the other side of the grave when she says:

Lord, thou knowest that I am growing older so keep me from getting too talkative. Release me from trying to straighten out everybody else’s affairs. Keep me from reciting endless details and give me wings to get to the point. Give me grace to listen to the tales of others pains, help me endure them with patience, but seal my lips as to my own aches and pains. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken. Keep me reasonably sweet; make me helpful but not bossy so that I may have a few friends at the end.

All I can add to that is: Amen!

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...