Sunday, October 21, 2012

Power Struggles

This sermon was based on the gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Mark 10:35-45. This was also Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday with an element of healing during Holy Communion.

Equality. It’s a really nice concept. Really. Everyone on the same level, with the same opportunities. It's a great idea.
The trouble is, we aren’t wired for that. We continually try to outdo our neighbors. We want the better cars, salary, jobs, stories, history, fishing tales, etc.
Our society isn’t structured for equality either. Maybe society influences us, or maybe we influence society—you could argue that one either way. But either way, it’s true. Promotions don’t go to everyone…just the best or the most well-connected. Salaries for the same jobs/work vary depending on any number of things. Gender roles are still unconsciously observed and instilled in our children. People still go to bed hungry, while others refuse to take home leftovers from dinner at the restaurant.
This is nothing new…in our gospel lesson, James and John fall into this very temptation. They want seats of honor for their time with Jesus. These two have identified themselves as the most important people in Jesus’ life, and they want Jesus to say so.
Jesus doesn’t.
Jesus doesn’t buy into the power struggle. He says this right/left hand status is not something he grants. He won’t play the disciples off each other in a worldly game like that.
James and John are humbled go back to the group. That’s right! They’re not the only two disciples, either. The other ten hear about what James and John did, and they are hurt and angry, too. I can only imagine them whispering to each other about James and John’s request. Planning to kick them out, ignore them, make them pay for their arrogance.
Problem—that makes the other ten arrogant. Jesus won’t let that happen, either. Jesus understands the nature of humanity—there is nothing one can do to be kicked out of God’s group. Everyone is in.
Jesus checks the egos of the disciples. He reminds them what it truly means to follow him into greatness—be a servant of all. Having authority means using it to promote equality. The lowly are lifted, and the oppressors—those who would use their power for themselves at the expense of others—are overturned.
Jesus never tolerates abuse of power.
He overturns tables of profiteers at the temple, stands up for a woman about to be stoned to death, heals blind beggars, defeats the aspirations of a rich man, and today he reverses the egotistical tendencies in his own disciples.
Jesus never tolerates abuse of power.
So why do we?
Today we remember that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. We will have an element of healing for anyone who wishes to come forward. We lift up the services available here in Waushara County and remember those here and around the world who have been touched by this type of violence.
Here’s the thing: today we remember that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. …and we wouldn’t need to if domestic violence weren’t an issue.
We as a society look the other way all the time in this system—by allowing those who use power to get themselves ahead to advance, by ignoring the incidents in our neighborhoods, our culture, and our world that reinforce power dynamics in favor of the powerful rather than the oppressed and marginalized. These behaviors set up a pattern that allows domestic violence to even exist, and so we would need to remember and be aware of it.
Jesus never tolerates abuse of power. He also loves us. We are reminded that we live as broken people in a broken world. However, there is nothing too big or too awful that would ever ever make Jesus turn away from us or stop loving us. The love that Jesus shows is absolute and eternal. He works that all of us—all of us—would have life.
Whatever has happened to us, whatever has been done, Jesus still loves us.
We are not abandoned by God. Ever.
The disciples ask the un-askable—to have seats with Jesus in glory. Jesus doesn’t kick them out, doesn’t turn away. The ten other disciples become angry with James and John. Jesus doesn’t kick them out, doesn’t turn away.
Jesus never tolerates abuse of power, and he reminds us we are always loved. Jesus himself is the example of that level of selflessness. He who would be the master of all—God incarnate—becomes the servant of all.
If we are to follow Jesus, we must do that as well. We must realize where we are in the global scheme and how we are using what we have. If we have power, we must use authority we have to lift those who cannot lift themselves. To give up our power to effect equality. To stop the abuse of power by others.
And if we are oppressed or abused, then we ought to be lifted and liberated. We can realize that we are loved by God and should be treated as such.
Equality. It’s not easy, and it won’t always be happy, but it is good. It is the notion that life can be lived with love and without fear. That we are all deserving of that. Sometimes, that will mean realizing where we deserve better, and having the strength to claim that. Sometimes, it will mean realizing that we have more/better than we need, and working to bring others up, realizing we can afford it—even if it means we go down a bit.
As we said, we live in a broken world. It will never be perfect, but it can get better. Jesus came to bring up the low—to heal the sick, suffering, and sorrowful from all that burdened them. Today, we also ask for that healing. In a moment, we will have the opportunity to receive a prayer of healing along with the anointing of oil.
Whatever our cares, burdens, or obstacles to the world, we are invited to bring them with us, think on them, and pray on them. We ask God in Jesus’ name to help us give up those burdens and go over those obstacles. We hold on to the hope that tomorrow will be better than today—that we can heal. We will continue healing from everything from prejudice to physical ailments to mental and emotional hurts to systemic injustices.
Our hope is in Jesus, who sets our example, who holds on to us when we hurt, when we fail, when we try again. Jesus, who loves us and stays with us no matter what, came that we might have life. That life is our hope. AMEN.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Another Angle--Church and Society

This sermon is also based on the lectionary readings found here. As with Daniel and the Lions' Den a couple months ago, the different worship settings brought about very different sermons this week.

As we heard in the Children’s Sermon, there has been a bit of a shift in the last however-many years. Bible Studies are done online and phone calls happen with instant video chat. Birds are angry creatures that fly into bricks. Something that blows up on Facebook means it’s popular.

This video was shown at the recent ECSW workshop Faith Formation in the 21st Century in Plover, Wisconsin. It looks at some of the statistics that reflect the shift our culture has undergone in the past few years.
Ok, who understood everything in that video? Anyone feel overwhelmed? Anyone need to see it six more times just to catch it all? There are probably a few things in there that were unexpected or shocking, but they’re all true. They’re all reality. Getting confronted with reality is sometimes shocking and unexpected, but it’s there, and we need to acknowledge that if we are to understand our world and be able to function in it.

In the Psalm for today, the writer knows what it means to see the world and feel…overwhelmed. The universe is so big, the person so small. “What are human beings that you, O God, would notice them? Mere mortals that you would think on them?” The vastness of the world is almost unbelievable. The thing is, that is still true. The world is still vast and unbelievable at times.

What do we do with that—with something like this? We can’t reject it outright—it’s just facts. Data. If we run away and pretend it doesn’t exist, we’re really just fooling ourselves because really, there is no earth where technology doesn’t exist anymore. We can’t uninvent the internet.

Who would want to? We literally have the world at our fingertips now. We can be in dialog with people across the country and world in a matter of seconds.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus points to the people who would be discarded by society on a whim—the women and the children in his time—and says “You can’t do that anymore—you’re ignoring the importance of other human beings and what they bring. You're missing out here.”
That’s also true for us. We can’t ignore the life experiences and the skill sets of people who have grown up with this technology or the people who know how to use it—they’re the little ones who carry the future of the church—here and elsewhere. We can't miss out on that. Again—why would we want to?

Okay, let's look at the other side of this coin…What if we embraced all this new stuff? Used it? Made ourselves accountable as Christians with it?
(There are a lot of ways to stay morally accountable when it comes to technology--think of comment threads) 

I admitted to the children in the children's sermon that there were technologies even I didn’t understand, but they could help me. However, that only works if I listen and am ready to learn—if I open myself up to the change this new information will inevitably create in me.

There were two seminary professors I had who used technology to its fullest. One of them would tell us to go on Wikipedia or Facebook or Google to help us learn. The other said something I’ll never forget. “If I came to visit you in ten years, and you were still reading just 2010 theology books, I would be disappointed.”

That professor knew that there was constantly new scholarship, new ideas, and that to stay relevant, we needed to stay current—there may have been a lot of valuable information and good theology then, but 2010 wasn’t the final word in Christianity—neither was 1990, 1950, or whatever year—pick a decade.

Last question for now—anyone excited by this video? We are in an era that connects us in more ways than we could have imagined five or ten years ago. That’s how it works. Jesus didn’t say anything about the internet, but he did say that the world would be changing. This change, do we dismiss it, hope it goes away, or do we talk about it, use it, work with it to make ourselves better individuals? Better people? Better Christians?

There is something of great potential out there—it depends on how we use it. The world is changing. There is a whole new set of opportunities to learn, make connections, and network with the world. That sounds like good news to me. Our question isn’t if, it’s how we go forward with that. We’re already doing quite a lot—now we get to ask what else is out there.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mark 10 -- To Such as These

This sermon is based on this week's Gospel Reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Mark 10:2-6.

In Jesus’ time, women and children were disposable items. Men could divorce their wives for just about any reason from infidelity to gray hair to whatever. The reason didn’t really matter, and women were powerless against it. Similarly, children were at best an extra worker…once they were old enough to do something. Childhood mortality was high, so investing emotion or financial means in them was not really all that wise. It's just the way it was.

Jesus turns these cultural norms around in this reading. He says that no longer can a certain part of humanity cast aside another part on a whim. No longer can the dominant oppress the marginalized. Why? Because dominance, power, influence, status, and class are all human constructs. Guess what? This is God’s world. We’re all people worth the same as everybody else.

So what does that mean for us? Well, Jesus literally takes the little ones—these thrown out people—and blesses them. In today’s world, there are many who have no voice, who are marginalized, who would be thrown out or stopped from gaining equal status with the dominant people of the world. Yet we remember that these are the ones Jesus blesses. As we go through the litany of just some of the many scenarios that are out there, we'll end with the response “And Jesus said, It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”


A single dad stands in line at the food bank, wondering whether the electricity will work this evening. While volunteers help him pick out his groceries for the coming months, strangers on the street judge him for not being able to support his own family. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Ten-year-olds are sold to pay off the family debt. They work as shepherds, sleeping with the sheep in the barn and eating scraps from their owner’s house. As they turn eleven, their dreams diminish—last year they dreamed of a career someday, this year they dream of school, next year they’ll dream of freedom. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

A teenaged girl stares at a stick in a bathroom stall. She contemplates whether to watch her life become distorted and abused and judged over the next nine months, or to abort this invasion of her body. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she fears no one is out there to support her—to understand her, to love her. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

A husband and wife find themselves in a land where everything feels foreign, but they can live. Strangers stare at them in the grocery store for taking comfort in the last familiar thing they have—their native language. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

A teenaged boy limps home with garbage in his hair. The schoolyard isn’t safe anymore for someone who likes fashion, design, and other boys. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

An elementary school student comes to school with bruises. The teacher sees but doesn’t say. The child goes home to face more of the same…and to watch a parent suffer, too. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

A 22-year old receives their college diploma. Six months later, they still live in their parents’ basement. They were told that they could be anything, so they’re waiting for that job to open. They can’t afford to live on a fast food salary. Now society frowns on them for wanting to be what they learned and worked to be. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

An elderly lady sits in a nursing home. It’s been two years since anyone besides a nurse visited. She waits for death, hoping the insurance holds out long enough to go with dignity. And Jesus said,

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. This is a small snapshot of the sorts of situations that exist here—in this community, this country, and this world. These are the people who get discarded, silenced, and ignored by those around them who could speak up, but don’t. Like the little children Jesus blesses, these are the powerless of our world. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that we can’t ignore these people anymore. These are human beings—not concepts or categories.

I know that there is no overnight fix for this system—cultures, biases, and prejudice don’t disappear or radically shift overnight. But we do need to acknowledge that there are people in our midst that are excluded by the system of society. People who need to know they’re not forgotten—who need the love of God that Jesus spoke about so often to shine in their lives.

There may not be an overnight fix, but there is hope. Perhaps at some point, we can be light bearers, shining God’s love into the lives of those around us. As we come forward for communion this evening, I invite each of us as you are comfortable to light a candle for those without voices and place it in the sand there.

There is hope for this world and all the people in it. As our little lights fill up the boxes, we will see that none of us are shining alone. The light accumulates and shines together, and the more who shine their light, the brighter the space will be. Just like these candles that we’ll light in a minute, the more who shine their light, the brighter this little corner of the world becomes.

Imagine that spreading to the next corner of the world, and the next, and the next. This could be one amazing planet, filled with God’s light.

There is hope. There is most definitely hope.