Archive for May, 2011

On Beyond Zebra

Monday, May 30th, 2011

A Sermon for May 29, 1011
Scripture: John 14:7-21

A long time ago, when I was still a volunteer Director of Christian Education, I took training in an unusual form of adult Christian education called Lifetext. Its core belief was that “the student is the curriculum” and a growth in faith could come about simply by the leader asking simple questions that spiraled down deep, until a person’s thoughts and feelings surfaced.

Since “the student was the curriculum,” the trainer claimed that a Dr. Seuss book would work for a study text just about as well as the Bible! He proceeded to show us by teaching a class using The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental book. Surprisingly, it was a meaningful, faith-filled session!

Don’t you love Dr. Seuss? I read his books as a child and then read them to my own boys. The best things about Dr. Seuss books are his rhythmic use of language and his wonderful made up words, like “Grickle-grass” and “Truffula trees.”

The Seuss book that is apropos to today’s gospel passage is On Beyond Zebra. (Leonard Sweet was the first to link this book with this text) Conrad Cornelius O’Donald O’Dell, who is learning his alphabet, tells his friend, “So now I know everything anyone knows. From beginning to end. From the start to the close. Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”

But no! Conrad’s friend never “stops with Z:”
“So, on beyond Z! It’s high time you were shown
That you really don’t know all there is to be known.”

He takes him on a guided tour of all the weird creatures that begin with the letters on beyond Z, such as Yuzz, Wumbus, and Glikk.  Here’s one I especially like: “And Nuh is the letter I use to spell Nutches, Who live in small caves, known as Nitches, for hutches.”

Although this book was written in 1955, it’s very relevant to today’s crazy pace:
“And way, way past Z is a letter called ITCH
And the ITCH is for Itch-a-pods, animals which
Race around back and forth, forth and back, through the air
On a very high sidewalk between HERE and THERE.”

The message is pretty simple, but profound: the traditional alphabet pins down boring old “reality,” but if you explore further afield there are more interesting worlds to discover, new words and beings limited only by the imagination.

You might say that Jesus was an “on beyond zebra” person. He gave his disciples new words to learn and even new identities. In an ancient culture where slavery was the norm, Jesus considered his disciples friends and not servants, devotees or even rabbinical students!

Instead of buying into Roman addictions to wealth, power and knowing the right person, Jesus favored the poor and the marginalized; and the sick and the differently-abled.

Roman faith was held in a large number of gods and goddesses who possessed human frailties, and who were angered if just the right rituals were not performed. Devotees often had to pay to be initiated, and buy special clothes. But Jesus said to his disciples, “You know what I know.” There is no need for arcane knowledge or secret rituals, or as Jesus said in today’s reading, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.”

Romans also worshiped the Emperor, but Jesus referred to God as his Father-Mother. In fact, early Christians were persecuted, not because they believed in Jesus or the God of Israel, but because they were considered atheists because they would not worship the Emperor.

Christianity is an “on beyond zebra” kind of faith. For instance, in Thessalonika, according to the Book of Acts, an angry mob tried to capture the Apostles Paul and Silas, calling them the people who had “turned the world upside down!” (Acts 17:6.)

Jesus lived, and taught, and died for, a religion of loving kindness which was unique in the ancient world. Unlike members of pagan Roman religious societies, who collected money for their own feasts, Christians contributed to a common fund for the support of widows and orphans. They also brought food and medicines when they visited prisoners in the mines or in jail. Tertullian, an African Christian apologist of the second century, wrote, “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, 2003, pp. 7-10)

“Love one another, as I have loved you. Abide in my love.” Love, not fear is the center of Christianity; love is our deepest, most fundamental core value. It is the measuring stick of all Christian behavior.

Christian love is not just an emotion—a welling up of affection like we often experience when thinking of our families or close friends. The love we share for each other in Christian community is different. Frederick Buechner reminds us that rather than merely a warm feeling, the love we share in community is an act of will; it is intentional. Sometimes we have to deliberately form that intention of the heart every day, or we can lose it. Love in community must be practiced and kept limber and flexible by the kindness with which we speak and act towards each other; otherwise it can be stretched too thin, become brittle, and even break. That is how we abide in his love like Jesus asked us to. And that intentional, practiced love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Love begins with God…circulating from Father-Mother to Child to Holy Spirit and back again. Never-ending. Love so abundant, so full, so abiding that it spills over into the world, in a creative flood that generates new life. Love so complete, that God would enter human life, to live and die as one of us, to show us how to be fully human and fully divine.

Love so deep, that we can rest in it, and let it permeate our very cells; love so strengthening, so challenging, that we are propelled out into the world with courage and grace to share that love with one another.

Christian love, particularly sacrificial love, is very on-beyond zebra in this splintered modern world of violence and divisiveness, just as it was in the Roman world.

The United Church of Christ is very “on beyond zebra”—we were the very first to ordain women, African Americans, and GLBTQ folks. Sojourners was created and named to be an on beyond zebra church in the city of Charlottesville, which is untraditional in some ways and hidebound in others. All people, no matter who they are and where they are on life’s journey, are welcome at Sojourners United Church of Christ. May all who come here, and all who interact with you and those who just hear about you say, “’Only look—see how they love one another.’ See how they love and care for the world like Jesus taught. See how they abide in God’s love.” Amen.

Loss’ Gain

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Rev. Marcus R. Ingram
A Sermon for May 15, 2011
Scripture: Luke 15: 1‐10 (The Message)
The Story of the Lost Sheep
1‐3By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
4‐7″Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety‐nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety‐nine good people in no need of rescue.
The Story of the Lost Coin
8‐10″Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”

President John F. Kennedy.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Princess Diana.
Michael Jackson.
And now, Osama bin Laden.
The death of these echoes through the halls of history. Details of their life infiltrate our contemporary memory. And, if we were of age at the time of their earthly departure, we likely
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remember where we were when we heard the announcement. Without much work, we can return to those moments, running the fingers of our mind across the tapestry of emotions that characterized these losses.
Shock.
Disbelief.
Sadness.
Judgment.
And, interestingly enough, jubilation has been seen in recent weeks.
Today, I don’t intend to critically engage what a particular reaction to death signals about an individual or society. Rather, I am intrigued by the loss process that clearly inspires a range of emotions. And, if there are lessons, how might I (perhaps we) be open to these teachable moments?
Our text from Luke’s Gospel shares a couple of stories about sources of loss, en route to the fairly well known narrative of the prodigal. First, readers are invited to consider a shepherd’s career. One day, one member of the flock goes missing, and a question emerges: does it make sense to leave the group to search for the lone wanderer? Scripture insists that, of course, the good shepherd would go.
In a different scenario, the writer of Luke’s gospel asks us to think like someone who has done the good work of saving money. The traditional avenues of banking haven’t been used to secure the funds, and some of the money is lost. Again, scripture holds that the committed person will not be settled with loss, so the saver seeks after the absent currency.
Both of these stories seem to be prologue for the dramatic human story of two children with different degrees of maturity, and how a loving parent cares for them both. In many
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congregations where I have heard Luke 15 used as the sermonic text, each of these stories is used as a way to illustrate how God loves even the most questionable of characters. Certainly, the group gathered around Jesus described in verse one seems to raise the eyebrows and blood pressure of the religious leaders in his day; their presence, however, also increases the hope of those who believe that this text is about the redemptive love of a savior who cares just as much about our heart as our behavior.
The usual handling of this text suggests that these parables teach the religious leaders that it’s okay for Jesus to hang out with sinners. In fact, it’s where his best work is done because he came to reach even the worst of us. If I were interested in entertaining that tradition of thought today, I would encourage us to contemplate a broader focus for Jesus’ message. Perhaps those who needed his scandalous love the most were not just the self‐aware, publicly known sinners who gathered in verse one. Maybe it especially included those who didn’t seem to know they were akin to sin, like the religious leaders, for example.
That, however, is not my assignment today. Rather, I would like to explore with you some parameters of loss from the text that fascinate me. Let’s go. In each of the aforementioned situations, two things are consistent: (1) the individual who experiences the loss is confident enough to acknowledge it; and (2) that which is lost is deemed valuable enough to warrant finding it again. As I bear in mind that this may be the last time I stand before this congregation and preach, these notions of loss haunt and compel me. I am over the moon about my transition to South Africa in a couple of months, but I am acutely aware of other, less welcome implications of this journey to be with my partner. To aid my loss process, I decided that today should be a tribute to you and my favorite things about worship at Sojourners, which to me, point toward additional distinctives about the congregation.
When I moved to Charlottesville in the summer of 2007 from North Carolina, I believe I knew less than five people who lived here. Having lived in Winston‐Salem for twelve years at that point, I had established a significant community that in many regards, functioned as family.
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My vibrant academic and professional life at Wake Forest University was well complemented by my relationship with Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church. This charismatic congregation of nearly three thousand was a space of spiritual nurture and served as the site of my ministerial ordination in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ denomination. While I had no deep interest in finding a replica of my then “home” congregation, I knew that I needed to find a meaningful worship community.
During my first few months in Charlottesville, I would sometimes attend as many as three worship services on a given Sunday. If I mapped it correctly and the traffic light gods favored me, I could be on time for an eight o’clock, nine thirty, and an eleven o’clock service. As I began to tire in the marathon that became my Sundays, I found myself intrigued by a peculiar gathering that met in the middle of the morning and encouraged beverages and snacks in the sanctuary. I don’t know whether to credit my height or my sports coat, but on my first visit, I was warmly greeted as a visitor by staples to the congregation, including Becky and Bob Garrity whom I had met hiking. Interestingly enough, it couldn’t have been more than maybe visit two when Enid Krieger and Marie Coles Baker shared with me in their uniquely confident manner that my church searching would eventually yield me settling down at Sojourners. In retrospect when I note the differences in size, theology, and worship style from my Winston‐Salem church, I might be moved to say, who knew that I would end up here. I guess Enid and Marie did.
Over the past few years, I have come to learn how unique and empowering Sojourners is in the way it inspires community. I couldn’t quite understand it when I first arrived, but I knew there was something attractive about the way I was embraced by the congregation. It was one of the few places I had visited in my relatively short life where I was not on the hook for introducing myself. Rather, then strangers made their way toward me for the purpose of sharing themselves. Now that I am more known, this give and take happens even with the children. A few weeks back on Palm Sunday, I arrived at church during the time devoted to children. The adult congregants were receiving palm branches, and I ended up with two
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because Silas saw me come in, realized he was out of palms, ran to the supply at the altar area, and made sure I was included.
That palm branch‐turned‐cross now travels with me in my car wherever I go, and I plan on it accompanying me across the Atlantic. Silas’ sweet gesture will remind me of the good conversations he and I have shared and the general goodwill I have experienced in this congregation. An additional example is the way new members are received. When I had been around long enough to see people officially join the church, I was impressed by each new member’s introduction by a current member of their choosing. And, let’s not forget the tying of a chosen piece of colorful fabric into the collection of other swatches that, I believe, represent the eclectic collection of Sojourners. What a warm message of welcome and inclusion!
But I shouldn’t have been surprised at the approach. Other experiences with the congregation in hindsight made this ritual of connecting to the congregation logical. I will not soon forget my surprise when the congregational prayer following the sermon wasn’t rendered in only the voice of the pastor. The invitation to openly share prayers, joys, and concerns was unexpected to my private Self. I must admit, though, a deep appreciation for the courage and commitment it takes to offer such safe space to a gathered community. You won’t often hear my voice during this portion of worship, but I wish you could witness what’s going on in my soul. In my best attempt at explanation, I believe I am strangely being made simultaneously more human and eternal. Listening to the challenges of others reminds me of the frailty inherent in our common humanity. Relishing the joy of challenges overcome or the experience of good fortune seem to point toward what the promise of heaven may mean.
These community notions of mine find further resonance in our ritual of communion and the ever spirited closing circle. As we are invited to table or to join hands around the room, I sometimes feel this organic Presence that signals a beauty best found in simplicity. A meal of
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bread and beverage. A blessing confirmed by linked limbs. Individual and collective. Words spoken and sung. All of us from each of us. Plain. And oh so profound.
I believe that I will carry these memories with me to South Africa, complemented by one more thing. Without doubt, my theological horizon has been extended as a result of my connection to Sojourners…but not just through the expected source of exposure to responsible, reflective preaching and service. I believe that I have learned how to more rightly speak of God because of the intentional inclusion of silence in our worship. In a world that readily borders on overstimulation, finding and cultivating places of quiet is countercultural. It is in these spaces that I believe I have learned to hear God more clearly. Initial discomfort eventually gives way to a different way of being in the world.
My theological sojourner Howard Thurman says this: “…can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself? There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing the rumble and the traffic, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough – not quiet enough – still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment.”
And it is this assignment that has encouraged me to consider the concept of loss during this last sermon of sorts. To be sure, I have spent much of my time today reflecting on the many things I have gained from my experience at Sojourners United Church of Christ, but in a couple months, I will be transitioning away. Like the figures in our scriptural text, something I have come to cherish will soon show its absence. While I believe that my loss will be a custom, irreplaceable one, I know that I will seek to find essential elements of the community that has helped sustain me while here in Charlottesville.
Interestingly enough, I, too, find this message to be salient for this congregation during this time of leadership transition. There are lots of noises and echoes and sounds, poised to
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distract from the noble priority of choosing a new pastor. To be sure, the task is largely not about the candidates, but this congregation. Can the search committee and subsequently the members of Sojourners get quiet enough, still enough to hear the sound of the genuine in this place? “I don’t know if you can, but this is your assignment.”
Amen.

Ants in the Pants

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2011
Scripture: John 20:19-31.

If you were in Fort Worth, Texas over Christmas of last year you might have seen some dueling messages on the city streets. One ad on the side of a city bus proclaims: “Millions of people are good without God.” Right behind that bus is a van bearing the message, “I still love you.—God” with another line on top saying “2.1 billion Christians are good with God.”

The bus ad was purchased by Metroplex Atheists, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, and a coalition of local businessmen arranged for the van to follow the bus around town. Atheists in New York City came up with a similar effort, a large billboard near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel that bore the message “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason!” (James C. McKinley, Jr., The New York Times online, 12/13/10)

As a young adult, I also thought I was an atheist, not because I wanted to celebrate reason, but because I couldn’t believe that a good God would allow such suffering in the world. Now older and wiser, I realize that things aren’t that simple any more, and that God is always at work to bring good out of suffering. It was my childish “Sunday School” view of God that had to die, not my faith in a loving God.

Years ago, atheists often explored similar questions of theodicy before concluding that God must not exist. Some, of course, celebrated reason above all else. But in general, atheists of my generation and previous ones were respectful and thoughtful in their arguments and conclusions. Some of them regretted that they could not participate in a faith relationship with a divine being.

Not so today! The new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often employ mockery, scorn and ridicule instead of thoughtful arguments. I am no expert on the new atheism, but from what I have read they seem to set up straw men only to demolish them with joy. The only religion they debate is fundamentalist Christianity.  Dawkins remarked that when he read Darwin, he found his god! It seems to me that they are just as fundamentalist as the Christians they denigrate. Instead of idolizing the Bible, they idolize reason, science and/or evolution. They do not examine the foundations of their beliefs any more than fundamentalist Christians do. (Spiritual Envy: Michael Krasny’s Agnostic Quest, Interview by Lisa Webster, December 2, 2010, www.religiondispatches.org)

Have you noticed the comments that appear after most religion-based stories or blogs in the secular media? They are often very polarized, even hateful, almost equally divided between fundamentalist Christians who say the blogger is going to hell, and atheists who say he or she shouldn’t be writing about stupid myths!

In this atmosphere totally fraught with tension, it seems almost quaint to consider the story of Doubting Thomas, but here we go….

Don’t you think Thomas has gotten a bad rap, being named “Doubting?” When he first appears in John’s gospel, Jesus has narrowly avoided being stoned, and they all escape from Judea across the Jordan river. Jesus decides to return to Judea because his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, and the disciples protest, afraid of the threat of stoning. But not Thomas! He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

Then, right after the last supper, in what must have been a highly emotional scene, Jesus says goodbye to his disciples and gives them their final teaching before his death. He emphasizes that he is going on ahead to prepare a place for them, and says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Only Thomas has the courage, the honesty, to break the tension and speak up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5) Only Thomas is brave enough to admit that he doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We’ve all been there—in classes or conversations, not knowing what’s going on, but lacking the courage to say we do not know!

After Jesus’ death, the disciples must have been demoralized. They were hiding behind locked doors, fearful that they, too, could be arrested and crucified. Despite the empty tomb, they probably had not grasped the significance of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus appeared first, perhaps had not been believed since women were not considered trustworthy witnesses in those days.

“Peace be with you!” said Jesus as he walked through the locked doors of that room. He breathed the gift of the Spirit on the disciples and commissioned them, authorizing them to go out into the world, to forgive sins.

Poor Thomas! Why did he miss all this? Perhaps he was grieving alone, or maybe he slipped out of the house to get food. At any rate, he missed Jesus appearance. Disappointed, he replied to the disciples’ excited story, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and… put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Today we have a word for people like Thomas, and it isn’t Doubting. He’s what’s called a sensing type, a Meyers-Briggs “S,” who learns best through his senses, by seeing and touching rather than imagining or thinking. The world is full of sensing types—witness all our expressions, like “I’ll believe that when I see it!” “Show me the money!” “I’m from Missouri!

So Thomas, courageous, honest, sensing Thomas, got his wish. Jesus appeared to him and offered Thomas the ability to touch his wounds. We don’t know if he did or not, but we do know that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” In terms of a confession of faith, Thomas is way ahead of the other disciples. They only rejoiced at the sight of Jesus; but Thomas confessed that Jesus was not only his teacher and leader, but also his God.

Why has such a courageous and thoughtful man acquired the nickname “Doubting?” Perhaps it’s like family-of-origin nicknames! You may win the Nobel Prize, but at home with your parents and siblings, you’re still the eight year old who fell out of a tree!

Perhaps it’s because he reminds us of ourselves. Everyone doubts at one time or another, but we may not feel it’s appropriate. Some may have been told at an early age that it’s wrong to question or doubt, we should just “have faith.”

How mistaken that is! Questioning God is an honorable tradition that goes back to the time of Moses. When God told Moses to go to Egypt and rescue his people from Pharaoh, Moses didn’t say, “Sure thing! Right away!” No, he argued and dithered and doubted until God had reassured him sufficiently, even going so far as to change God’s plans. The disciples were no strangers to doubt, either. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the New Testament: “This is a hard teaching, Lord, who can accept it?” Christian writers throughout the centuries have had doubts—from St. Augustine’s confusion about the Trinity, to C.S. Lewis’ faith that became a “house of cards” when his beloved wife died. Even Jesus on the cross had his doubts—according to Matthew, he said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God created us as whole persons—with spirits, yes, but with bodies that need to see and smell and touch—and minds that need to think. God doesn’t ask us to check our brains at the door when we enter worship or read the Bible. God isn’t afraid of our doubts and questions anymore than God is afraid of our anger—God can take anything that we can serve up!

You may have heard it said that doubt is the enemy of faith, but it’s not. Doubt is the servant of faith. How else can we come to faith, but to use our minds to understand? And what better way to understand, than to ask questions and wonder? Doubt is, in fact, faith seeking understanding.

Biblical scholar Frederick Buechner said it best: “If you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the paints of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

I’ve decided to rename Doubting Thomas Trusting Thomas. He trusted in himself enough to admit he didn’t understand everything he heard. He trusted Jesus enough to accompany him to Judea, at the risk of being stoned. Like Moses, Thomas trusted God’s love enough to argue and doubt. Like Thomas, we can entrust all our uncertainty to God. Such trust is not an end to doubt, but a deep peace underneath our restless questioning; a peace that draws us nearer to the risen Christ even though we have not seen or touched his wounds. I’d like to close with the words to an old hymn that reminds us to call on God, who is as near as our own hearts…

We walk by faith, and not by sight;
no gracious words we hear from him
who spoke as none e’er spoke;
but we believe him near.

We may not touch his hands and side,
nor follow where he trod;
but in his promise we rejoice;
and cry, “My Lord and God!”

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near,
and seek where you are found:

that, when our life of faith is done,
in realms of clearer light
we may behold you as you are,
with full and endless sight.

Amen.