Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.
Central United Methodist Church
The Times, They are a-Changing
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 18: 1 – 8
October 16th, 2016
“Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’
“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice — otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.'”
Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” – Luke 18: 1 – 8, The Message
Did you hear the news? This week Robert Allen Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, a bit of a surprise for all those who write real literature. As everybody knows, Bob Dylan’s most celebrated work is from the Sixties, in such well-worn standards as “The Times, They are a-Changing:”
“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.’” (1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music)
Last Sunday, we began a conversation about how the times are a-changing, especially in regard to the Church, including our church. We found that, increasingly, how we do Church is unsustainable, as we find ourselves living off more and more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older. Over the next twenty to thirty years, most of our people (including most of us sitting here today) will disappear, and the question becomes, “How will the Church survive?” The answer is, it will not, at least not in the form that we have known.
Given this, the future for us lies in figuring out what the Spirit of God is doing in our time, and – as Bob Dylan said in his song – not standing in the way of it but getting into the path of it.
As Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon say in their book, Weird Church: “Although sustainability is the buzz word right now; sustainability is not the critical issue; spiritual vitality is the critical issue. Where there is spiritual vitality, we can find a way for sustainability.”
In order to find out what God is doing, we have to take a look at what’s happening. While there are many changes in society that are affecting the situation of the church; I would like to briefly point out three of them.
First, cultural and demographic change. The Sixties: those years Bob Dylan sang about, were a time when thinking about many things began to change: race, sexuality, women’s rights, and environment, to name a few, but also religion. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom, in his massive A Religious History of the American People, says that the sixties were the time when the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment that had held dominance in America for over 300 years came to an end.
One significant event influencing this was the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system based on national origins that had been American immigration policy since the 1920s. What this did was open the door to immigrants, especially immigrants from South Asian and Asia. (Some of you and your families are likely here today because this happened.) Suddenly, down the block there was not only the Methodist or Baptist or Catholic Church or even a Jewish synagogue, but Mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples and Mosques, and people began to realize religion – and religious freedom – involved more than just Christians.
One of the most significant books of this election year has been that of Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America. He notes that for the first time the number of white Protestant Christians in America has dropped to 46%. So when I hear people talking about wanting to “Make America Great Again,” I think this “pre-sixties America” is the America they long for, and it is not going to happen. You know as your Pastor I am deeply thankful, not only for the diversity within our congregation, but within our country. Like the Stars and Stripes of our flag, it brings tears to my eyes.
But the second major change that’s affecting the church is generational change: our children and grandchildren practice religion and spirituality differently than we practice ours. It is true that a larger percentage of the younger generation are not religious (those who identify as Nones); it is more correct to say they are differently religiously. More people tend to be what we might call “free-agents,” people who are not tied to or dependent upon and perhaps not even interested in, traditional religious institutions or religious practices, including attending church at 10:30 on Sunday morning.
Robert Bellah, in his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, first called this different perspective on faith, “Sheilaism,” based on a young nurse he interviewed named Sheila:
Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” . . . “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic . . . I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” . . . In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”
Most of us would agree! Not only has “Sheilaism” become the dominant spiritual perspective across America, it’s also the spiritual perspective of most people in the church. As Bellah pointed out, this privatized way of thinking turns the church into something like the Kiwanis Club or some other kind of voluntary association that you go to or not if you feel comfortable with it, but otherwise it has no claim on you. Increasingly – especially among blue collar people and younger people – it has less claim. They see no need of a church or pastor to find God, which they do in nature, in community, in service; in short, in ways other than traditional church.
The third major change which has occurred more recently and which has amplified and accelerated the second is this: technological change, specifically the invention of the internet and social media. When Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1439, he enabled the faithful not to be dependent upon priests and the church, but to have a one-on-one relationship with the Bible and each other. In our time, the invention of movies and TV initiated a one-to-many relationship, in which a teacher or preacher – a talking head – spoke as one to many, whether in church or on TV.
Now, the invention of the internet and social media has created a “many-to-many” model, furthering cutting ties to established institutions such as church. As we are all still learning, social media is a platform for breaking news, sharing ideas, organizing movements, seeking support, gathering information, convening groups, and making money, not to mention watching the latest cat and dog videos.
As Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon put it in Weird Church:
“Why give money to support the overheard of the church when you can organize a meet-up group in the park or coffee shop on your schedule? Why sit through a sermon when you can listen to an inspiring TED talk while taking a walk or sitting on your back patio? Why drive in traffic to a meeting when you can create a Google hangout with friends from all over the world in your pajamas? Why watch a movie in a theater when you can access it on your TV at home?”
And so, here we are, with nobody beating down the door. And we wonder, if the stream of religion and spirituality (and almost everything else) flows outside the institutions we have built, what will happen to denominations, to congregations, to professionally trained clergy, to people sitting in pews on a Sunday morning? The days are growing short for denominationally based, neighborhood franchise churches like Central, awaiting our boxes of curriculum and offering envelopes from headquarters. What then shall we do? We shall go looking for where God is, by looking at where the problems are.
A model for us doing that today is the poor woman Jesus used in his parable, the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In fact, it says Jesus told them the story to remind them how it was necessary to seek and pray consistently, and never despair or give up. Considering what we face, that applies to us, doesn’t it?
This poor woman with no support or resources had a problem. Big deal, we might say, I know lots of women (and lots of people) with problems; tell her to take a number. (In fact, this week in particular we have heard more than we wanted to hear, at this time and date, about the problems women face, and from a presidential candidate at that.) As happens time and again, this woman’s rights – perhaps even this woman’s body – was being violated, and she was seeking justice. Time and again, she went before a judge who couldn’t have cared less, maybe he thought she was a liar or overweight or less than attractive. Time and again, she kept going back to that Judge – “My rights are being violated – I am being violated” – until that Judge was worn down, until – as Eugene Peterson puts it – he was “black and blue from her pounding.” Until he said, “This woman won’t stop badgering me, until I get her some justice.” And so he did.
And so Jesus said: “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, God will.’ Isn’t what Jesus is saying is this: look at what and where the problems are: because where the problems are, there God is.
So we are going to go looking for our problems. Like this poor widow, we are going to go to God in prayer about them, asking for God’s help and direction, but we are also going to turn and talk to each other. Like we did (so well) last Sunday, move around a little bit, and find another person to talk to. We’ve talked about some of the problems facing Church, but for about 3 minutes each, ask and listen to each other answer this question:
Like the poor widow,
what issues in your life,
in your neighborhood,
or in the world,
REALLY concern you?
These problems that we face – in our lives, in our church, in our neighborhoods, and our country – are the problems our children and grandchildren will face. Frankly, it is not them that should get on our bandwagon, but we who should get on theirs; learning from, adapting to, and supporting the ways they are not only practicing faith, but confronting the problems that confront all of us. May God lead us, that we might be humble enough to learn from them.
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin.’ (1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music)
Central United Methodist Church
Bloom Where We Are Planted
Pastor David L. Haley
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7
October 9th, 2016
“These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7, the New Revised Standard Version
Do you know that feeling you get when you have to do something you’ve never done before? Say, like go to a pool party when you know you are a lousy swimmer, maybe even afraid of the water? Go to an event where you don’t know anybody, when you are an introvert? Walk down the hall of the hospital in one of those backless medical gowns, before you have a procedure you’re also never had before? The feeling we get when we have to do such things is called “ANXIETY.” “EXTREME ANXIETY!”
Having inherited a good dose of anxiety genetically, one of the things I liked about being a fireman were the constant challenges to test such anxiety; I guess you could call it exposure therapy. Want to learn if you have acrophobia (fear of heights); climb a 100 ft. tower ladder. Want to see if you are claustrophobic? Crawl through a smoke filled maze with an air pack and a blacked out face mask. One anxiety-raising challenge I remember in particular was appropriately called a “church raise”: firefighters suspend a standing ladder with ropes at four corners; while they hold it upright, you climb up, over the top, and down the other side. Not only does it test your fear of heights, but also your trust in your colleagues.
In the church, however, – and I’m speaking for myself as much as for all of us – we don’t like anxiety. We liked the “tried-and-true”, the “way we always done it before,” unfortunately, even if it no longer works anymore. We are like the old joke about church Trustees: “How many Trustees does it take to change a light-bulb?” “Ten: one to change the bulb and nine to talk about how great the old light bulb was.” In the church, to try the new and different produces in us collective anxiety.
So it is with such anxiety that I begin a new series today, expanding the conversation begun at our recent Church Council gathering, about how the Church in general and Central Church, along with all other churches, is changing.
To do this, I want to use the Old Testament readings from the time of Israel’s time in exile, as our reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah today. What I’m suggesting is that we in the Church are now also in a time of exile, culturally and generationally, wishing for the way things used to be but are no longer, strangers in a strange land.
Appropriate to the experience of exile, I’m still unclear about exactly where this series and this conversation will go. Gil Rendle says it’s appropriate for a leader to propose a solution when we know clearly what the problem is; not so much when we not only don’t know what the solution is, but we don’t even know what the problem is. Then, he says, the best thing a leader can do is to lead the community to face into its problems. So that’s what we going to do. To have a congregational conversation about it, so that out of this conversation can come the adaptation and vision necessary for Central to remain a vital congregation into the foreseeable future.
I also want to tip you off that when I say conversation, this is exactly what we are going to have. It will not be a monologue, but a dialogue – a conversation – in which we do some talking among ourselves. And yes, I’m nervous about this too. It’s different than anything I’ve done for 42 years. I still like that old light bulb!
I wish I had begun this last Sunday, when we first read from the OT book of Lamentations, that lament written for and by people in living in exile: “How lonely sits the city (church?) that once was full of people.” Or Psalm 137 (my paraphrase): “By the shores of Lake Michigan, there we sat and wept, when we remember the fifties and sixties.”
Seriously, the situation at the time of Lamentations and Jeremiah was one of the most anxious and fearful times in Jewish history. Everything that could go wrong went wrong; in 587 B.C., Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The king, the priests, all the leaders and many of the people were taken away to exile in Babylon.
What happens when everything you believe in and live by comes to an end, as least for life as they had known it? In exile against their will in Babylon, far from their homeland, they felt as though they had lost their identity, their purpose, even their God.
What I’m saying is that we in the Church in the United States are a people in exile, both culturally and generationally, and find ourselves to be strangers in a strange land. Like that light bulb, the familiar ways that we have known and trusted for so long have ended. Yes, there are a few – like the false prophets in Jeremiah’s time, who say: “Just hold on, keep doing what you’re doing, if you build it they will come; be a “turn-around church,” but the signs are that what is changed in society and culture regarding religion and religious practice is not only going to continue, but to get worse. If so, what will become of this institution called Church, what will become of United Methodism, and what will become of Central United Methodist Church. What will – what do we want to be like – 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now?
Here’s a summary by Gil Rendle of some of the seismic shifts impacting all churches right now, but especially the United Methodist Church:
■ Our United Methodist denomination is increasingly unsustainable, living off more and more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older.
■ We are projected to close more than 10,000 churches in the next several decades.
■ We have fewer large churches because they are becoming mid-sized; fewer mid-sized churches because they are becoming small; and we have fewer small churches able to support the salary and benefit packages of full-time clergy.
■ Driven by generational patterns that are both constant and accelerating, people are increasingly not drawn to organized religion and do not resonate with congregational forms.
In the current mission field, we have two tasks to attend to, neither of which we do well:
■ Improve and do better what we do with the “affiliated”, those with a allegiance to Christ who are highly middle class in lifestyle, values or economics and who appreciate membership and institutions.
■ Create a whole new thing (which we have no idea how to do) with the “unaffiliated,” those with an allegiance to Christ, but who are other than middle class in lifestyle, values or economics and avoid member-ship in favor of participation and avoid institutions in favor of communities and movements. (Waiting for God’s New Thing: Spiritual and Organizational Leadership in the In-Between Time, by Gil Rendle (2015); posted on the website of the Texas Methodist Foundation, https://www.tmf-fdn.org/leadership-ministry/learning-resources/congregational-resources/
You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in religion or sociology to know this, we are seeing it here at Central. There was a time when membership was an important number; now very few people are interested in being a “member” of anything, it smacks of a country-club exclusivity. There was a time when attendance was an important number, but what does that mean now when people consider themselves active if they attend once or twice a month? For decades we have talked about tithing – giving a percentage of income to God and the church – except in rare instances giving has never exceeded more than 2%. Now, to most of the younger generation, it makes no sense to pay an institution or professionals to do what they can do for themselves, often online at that. Practically speaking, the younger generations – including all those who went through Sunday School and Youth groups – are gone from the Church. Even though many (but not all) still consider themselves Christian, they no longer feel a need for institutional church. They might agree with what Mae West once said about marriage: “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” What then shall become of congregations, including our congregation of Central United Methodist Church?
What shall we do? To those in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah assured them that no matter how despairing or how alien they might feel in their “new normal,” God was not done with them yet. So, while in a strange land, they should make the most of their time there. And so Jeremiah tells them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, find life, and work for the betterment of the people and the place where they found themselves:
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
This is what we are going to do to. Over the next four weeks, we are going to talk to one another and listen for God’s word to us. We are going to embrace our exile, as an opportunity to become deeply invested in each other and our neighborhood. This will mean getting to know one another and to understand the issues and possibilities our community holds, in order for us to seek peace and prosperity not only for ourselves, but for our neighborhood and community.
Today we would like to begin the conversation by inviting you to find a partner (one on one, if possible). This might mean moving around so you can sit with another person; afterwards you can return to where you are sitting. We’ll take a few minutes to share and listen to one another. (Remember, good listening skills include questions that begin with: How and Why). I’d like you to answer the following questions:
Why are you a Christian?
Why do you worship at Central?
Anybody want to share what you learned? I invite you to email me over the next week if they want to share more.
Let’s end with this: While we wait, work, listen, and pray, let’s bloom where we are planted, like cactus flowers in the desert. Cactus flowers grow in the adverse conditions of the desert, under the hot sun with little water. They bloom in the cool night, away from the day’s withering heat. Often they cannot even be touched because they are surrounded by prickles and thorns. And yet, they are one of the most beautiful of all flowers.
Like the cactus flower, let us bloom where we are planted. Even though we may feel ourselves in exile from the life and the church we have known for so long, even though we may not know what the future is going to be, let us bloom where we are, and – in the name of God – be the best and most beautiful we can be. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
What We Need is Here
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 17: 5 – 6
October 2nd, 2016
“The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.” But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.‘” – Luke 17: 5 – 6, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
“Give us more faith!“ Whenever I hear this request Jesus’ disciples make in today’s Gospel, I think of this scene from the 1975 movie Jaws. It’s what happens when Police Chief Martin Brody (as played by the late Roy Scheider) first meets the great white shark known as Jaws. (I apologize there is one mild expletive; you only need to watch the first 35 seconds.) [Video].
“We’re going to need a bigger boat.” That’s the way Jesus’ disciples felt in today’s gospel, except a bigger boat was not what they needed (although there were a few times on the Sea of Galilee when they could have used one). What they knew for sure was that they were going to need more faith. The reason why they felt they were going to need more faith was because Jesus continually challenged his disciples – not only them but all who would be his followers, including us – with high expectations.
For example, preceding this, Jesus has asked them to take up their crosses, to give away their possessions, not to harm in any way the least of these, and – just before this – to forgive all who wrong them, not just once, but as many times as it takes. No wonder then, that they have “a bigger boat moment.” They come to Jesus to say, “We’re going to need more faith.” We might note that out of all the challenges, it was the demand of forgiving someone (repeatedly) that finally brought them to their knees. Do you appreciate that?
In light of this, what’s wrong with seeking more faith? After all, isn’t that why we are here this morning? To keep the faith we have, and – if possible – to increase our faith.
There may have been a time in our lives when we thought we had enough faith; not too little, not too much. I have always liked how Charles Swindoll, in his book, Improving Your Serve, caricatured some people’s search for faith:
“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.” (Wilbur Rees, in Charles Swindoll’s Improving Your Serve)
But then, the day arrived when we felt our faith was inadequate not only for the demands of discipleship, but even the challenges we face in life. It was, quite likely, a “bigger boat” moment for us.
Maybe we’re struggling with health issues, and we feel that if we only had more faith – maybe someone told us– that if we only had more faith, we could be healed.
Maybe we’re worried about somebody we love, like our children, and we can’t seem to turn things around. Maybe somebody even said, “You gotta have faith!’ We thought we did have faith, but we worry it might not enough.
Maybe life is not working out like we hoped. Maybe we’re struggling with finances and jobs and working hard and just not getting ahead. Isn’t that the American dream? “Believe in (have faith in) your goals deeply enough, work hard enough and you will accomplish them.” There is even an enormously popular brand of American religion called the Prosperity Gospel. It consists of the idea that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and successful, if you only have enough faith that God will help you accomplish these goals. But so far it hasn’t worked out.
Maybe we even hope for a heroic faith, especially as we look at the world around us, a faith that makes a difference in the world that we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. After all, we look at what those who had great faith did, like Dr. King and all those who worked in the Civil Rights movement; like Desmond Tutu and all those confronting apartheid in South Africa; like what the people in Germany did, streaming out of churches singing hymns and holding candles in defiance of the Communist government, and walls fell. And yet, today there is talk of building more walls, and we often feel inadequate to the challenges before us. There seems to be more – not less – shootings, stabbings, injustice, hacking, and name-calling – and we feel like we need more faith, not only to make a difference, but sometimes just to get through the day.
And then – truth be told – there are those who have lost what faith they had. Just as we talk about the “nones,” (those who affiliate with no faith tradition), there are also the “dones”; those who once were active in a faith tradition, but are no longer. As a pastor, you’d be surprised how often this conversation comes up. When people find out I am a pastor, especially when I work with people outside the congregation for weddings and funerals, nowadays it seems like the first thing people want me to tell me is how they are either not religious, or no longer religious, that while they grew up in the church (especially the Roman Catholic Church), they no longer participate. It is true that the world we live in can be quite corrosive to faith, and many no longer feel the need to check that box.
So we’re all listening, all leaning in, to see what Jesus says, when his disciples ask for more faith. And what does he say?
“You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.”
What? If I understand it, what Jesus is saying is that there is no “more or less” in faith; you either have it or you don’t. Faith is not a dimmer switch, which you turn down to decrease and up to increase; faith is more like an “on/off” switch; you’re either sitting in the dark or sitting in the light. What Jesus seems to be saying is, faith is not a quantity, faith is a quality, an attitude of trust in God. You either have it or you don’t.
Think of it like this: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), one of the most important thinkers in religion and philosophy, said that faith is buoyancy in God. He said faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water (he didn’t say anything about sharks). No ocean is that deep, but his point is clear: if we are fearful and struggle as we float, we sink and drown. But if we trust that the water will keep us up, and we relax, then we float.
I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. I could have saved a lot of money going to school, I could have learned a lot more from relationships and less from books, I could have spent a lot less time trying to believe impossible things. I could have done what I am now trying to learn to do, in my old age, which is to relax, knowing that it doesn’t all depend upon me. Ultimately, it is not in my hands, it’s in God’s hands. We did not create the world, we did not bring ourselves here, and we have little control over how and when we shall leave here. But, because of what we have learned about God through Christ, we trust in God. And we float: we do what needs to be done, we respond to the needs of those around us, we care for the people who come our way. And when the time comes, we lay back and float on the great deep, like all the generations who have one before us.
One of the great things about this time of year is to look up and see formations of flying geese. As they fly in these formations, they are carrying out the plan for which God created them; which they do, not by thinking about it or taking classes or reading books about it. It’s implanted in them by God, like faith in most of us.
When I see them, I remember of one of my favorite poems, by Kentucky poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, entitled, The Wild Geese:
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
– Wendell Berry (Collected Poems 1957-1982)
So it turns out, we don’t need a bigger boat after all; the one we have is sufficient. You want faith? You got it; use the faith you have. What we need is here. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Cosmos Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Proverbs 8: 22 – 31; Psalm 148: John 6: 41 – 51
September 25th, 2016
Praise God in the highest heavens; praise him beyond the stars.
Praise him, you saints, you angels burning with his love.
Praise him in the depths of matter; praise him in atomic space.
Praise him, you whirling electrons, you unimaginable quarks.
Praise him in lifeless galaxies; praise him from the pit of black holes.
Praise him, creatures on all planets, inconceivable forms of life.
Let them all praise the Unnamable, for he is their source, their home.
He made them in all their beauty and the laws by which they exist.
Praise God upon the earth, whales and creatures of the sea,
fire, hail, snow, and frost, hurricanes fulfilling his command,
mountains and barren hills, fruit trees and cedar forests,
wild animals and tame, reptiles, insects, birds,
creatures invisible to the eye and tiniest one-celled beings,
rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, dark-skinned and light skinned,
men and women alike, old and young together.
Let them praise the Unnamable God, whose goodness is the breath of life,
who made us in his own image, the light that fills heaven and earth.
- Psalm 148, from A Book of Psalms, by Stephen Mitchell.
Perhaps you have had this experience: you have visited the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago or another planetarium some-where else and attended a sky show. You sat in a reclining seat in a darkened theater looking at a canopy of what appears to be real stars. If you didn’t pass out and go to sleep (admittedly it is difficult), soon the projector began to whirl, taking you on a journey through the stars, and I’m not talking about a light speed star cruiser. Even so, it is an awesome experience.
And humbling. First, because of what a privilege it is. As I have stressed repeatedly through our celebration of the Season of Creation, how privileged we are among ALL the people who have ever lived, to understand these things in ways not possible for them. And not only to explore earth and the seas, as they did, but space, the final frontier, only attainable in our lifetime.
It is humbling secondly, because of WHAT we now know, and how mind-boggling that is. We live on the single blue planet, the 3rd Rock from the sun, in a solar system of 9 planets orbiting our sun. Our sun is but a single star in our galaxy, known as the Milky Way. How many other stars are in the Milky Way? The Milky Way Galaxy is estimated to contain (ready?) 100 to 400 BILLION stars. How many galaxies are there in the known universe? The Hubble Space telescope reveals an estimated 100 BILLION galaxies, with that number likely to increase to about 200 billion as space telescope technology improves. I’m not even sure if I can do the math on how many stars – with possible planets circling them – that might be. In the light of this, almost certainly somewhere out there, there is a Yoda, and (as in Star Wars) a space bar with all kinds of creatures.
If that’s not enough, look at it this way: we’re riding a blue planet rotating at 1,000 miles per hour, traveling around the sun at 66,660 miles per hour, circling around in the Milky Way galaxy at between 420,000 and 540,000 mph and finally, the Milky Way is moving at 2,237,000 mph, traveling through a universe which is itself still expanding. Makes you want to hold on to the pew and fasten your seat belts (wait, we don’t have seat belts!), doesn’t it?
It seems fitting that we should end our three-year celebration of the Season of Creation with Cosmos Sunday, acknowledging that we are visitors here on the stage of time and space, in one tiny corner, for only a moment. And while we may view ourselves as the apex of creation – Masters of the Universe – in fact we are so small, so finite, and understand so little, especially when we look up into the night sky, the same as our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago.
When we look up – as our ancestors did – we see different things, depending (as they did then) upon what they believed, and now upon what we know. In the past, when people looked into the heavens they saw the realm of the gods. Humans lived on earth, the middle kingdom, and the dead lived under the earth; this mythology still informs many people’s thinking that heaven is above and hell below.
When others looked up, they recalled ancient stories, told in those groupings of stars we know as constellations. Isn’t it sad most of us still struggle to know those constellations, like Orion and even the North Star, not to mention the astronomical bodies they really are? (Polaris)
It reminds me of when Lucy and Linus Van Pelt were looking at the sky in the 1969 Charles Schulz film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown:
Lucy says: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
Linus: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there…gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
Lucy: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind. (A Boy Named Charlie Brown, 1969, Directed by Bill Melendez and written by Charles M. Schulz.)
Our problem is – when it comes to cosmology – there is so so much to understand beyond duckies and horsies! The word “cosmology” is from the greek word “kosmos,” which means “world,” and we use it to talk about “the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe.” Traditionally, before science, people thought about cosmology in mythological, religious, and philosophical terms, like the heavens being the realm of the gods, for example. It was not the function of mythologies to teach HOW God created the world, but why God created the world, which is entirely a faith proposition.
But now, there is physical cosmology, which is the scholarly and scientific study of the origin, evolution, structure, and fate of the universe, and the scientific laws that govern these realities. Modern physical cosmology – as determined by observational astronomy and particle physics – does indeed teach us HOW the world was created, and that theory is currently dominated by the Big Bang theory.
So now if you want to know about the universe, we do so less by reading ancient texts than by visiting astronomical observatories and particle physics accelerators such as Fermilab in Batavia, or the CERN collider near Geneva, Switzerland. There, the search is on for the Higgs boson particle – the “God particle -” believed to give mass to matter. This is the new reality, and this is why – students! – in your biology and chemistry and physics classes you will have to spend time memorizing electron orbitals, which, even though you will never see one – is what everything (including us) is made of. Not only are we tiny mortal creatures in a corner of infinite space, we are creatures of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and chemical reactions creating energy, which we call life. It is a good thing we don’t have to think about it or understand it, in order for it to happen, otherwise most of us would be in a lot of trouble
Given all this, we might ask the question we asked last Sunday, where is God in all this? That depends . . .
When some look at the cosmos, pondering what we know, they see emptiness and blackness, inhospitable to life, infinite waste, long millennia of evolution lurching toward life, a random progress positing no room for intelligent design, or a Creator.
Others look into the cosmos and almost certainly know there are other blue planets circling distant stars, with creatures like or unlike us; surely in such a vast universe, we cannot be the only intelligent life (and I use that term relatively.) Do they believe in a God like ours? Did a Son of God redeem them, or were we the only creatures in the universe who needed redeeming? Or the other unthinkable possibility, what if they are even more evil than us (hardly imaginable) and intend to slaughter or enslave us upon first contact? No wonder science fiction has been speculating about such things for some time now, as in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.
Others – likely most of us here today – look at the universe and despite the void and the waste and the randomness and death, feel the hum of energy, of the joy of life, the trace of a Creator who not only imagined the Big Bang, but continues to create in every moment, to whom the entire universe is an extension of being, and to whom we are beloved creatures. As Pope Francis put it last year in his work Laudato Si (2015):
“Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each . . . and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”
So, the evidence and information about the cosmos is neutral. It is possible to look into space, mostly lifeless, and conclude there could not be a god, as the first human in space, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin did, in 1961. But it is also equally possible to look at this universe and believe that it could not be without origin or design or purpose, and to praise a Creator who brought it into being, as the crew of Apollo 8 did as they orbited the moon on December 24, 1968. Either of these choices is not a matter of knowledge or reason, but a matter of faith. Most of us choose faith?
At the very least, in awe and humility it reminds us of our place in the cosmos, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, like this:
“If I can summon the energy to put on my bathrobe and go outside, the night sky will heal me — not by reassuring me that I will be just fine, but by reminding me of my place in the universe. Looking up at the same stars that human beings have been looking at for millennia, I find my place near the end of the long, long line of stargazers who stood here before me.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Walk in the Dark”)
I want to conclude by putting not only our knowledge, but our place in the cosmos into perspective, by showing you a video created by Dr. Danail Obreschkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Western Australia (UWA). He actually put the video online a few years ago, but it was only recently shared on Facebook, and since then has surpassed 30 million views, 620,000 shares, 140,000 reactions, and 20,000 comments.
The video starts with a woman’s smiling face, zooms out to show a universe view, then zooms all the way back in again. Says Dr. Obreschkow: “It’s generated a little bit of debate about religion and science, about our role in the universe.” “It makes people talk about both how small they feel and how big they feel at once.” Let’s take a look at the Cosmic Eye:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” – Psalm 8: 3 – 4
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Storm Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Job 28: 20 – 27; Psalm 29: Luke 8: 22 – 25
September 18th, 2016
“One day Jesus and his disciples got in a boat. “Let’s cross the lake,” he said. And off they went. It was smooth sailing, and he fell asleep. A terrific storm came up suddenly on the lake. Water poured in, and they were about to capsize. They woke Jesus: “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
Getting to his feet, he told the wind, “Silence!” and the waves, “Quiet down!” They did it. The lake became smooth as glass.
Then he said to his disciples, “Why can’t you trust me?”
They were in absolute awe, staggered and stammering, “Who is this, anyway? He calls out to the winds and sea, and they do what he tells them!” – Luke 8: 22 – 25, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
It was August 28, 1990. After living in the city of Chicago for 11 years, just two months earlier I had arrived in West Chicago, in DuPage County, 30 miles west of Chicago, to begin my tenure as pastor of First United Methodist Church. I was working in my office in the church that afternoon (with its large windows), when the skies began to darken and the wind picked up and rain began to fall in torrents. I still vividly remember thinking, “Wow – I am fair game again!”
What I meant was I believed what many believe, that a tornado will never strike the city of Chicago, due to the disruption of the buildings. In fact, I was wrong about that, because according to Tom Skilling, it happened once, on May 6, 1876, and Tom says it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Anyway, what I suddenly realized that day was that I was no longer shielded by the city, and fair game for tornadoes one again.
Does anyone remember why that day in particular is significant? That was the day of the F5 tornado that struck Plainfield, Illinois; 19 miles south of where I was sitting. It killed 29 people, injured 353, and caused $165 million dollars in property damage in the space of 30 minutes. To this day, it is the only F5 tornado ever recorded in August and the only F5 tornado ever to strike the Chicago area.
Perhaps this is why that day is still engraved in my memory. Imagine how much more so, for all those in Plainfield that day, who experienced its deadly destruction.
It is our experience with storms of all kinds – thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, hail, hurricanes, tsunamis, and even sandstorms (depending upon where we grew up) – that determines whether we are in awe and fascination of such storms, or scared to death of them, from the first moment clouds gather on the horizon.
I was one of the fearless kind; I loved to be out watching the clouds, feeling the wind blast and the first raindrops, at least until lighting started crashing. I used to work at the Fire Station at the DuPage Airport, which meant we had a mile or so vista to the west, and could watch the clouds and wind and rain roll in, literally like a wall, until it smashed into the west overhead doors, bowing them inwards, shaking the building.
But – like some of you – I have also seen the death and destruction caused by storms. When I was in grade school, a tornado swept through our county, destroying two of my classmates’ homes. Once as a fireman, as a member of a truck company, I helped retrieve off a roof in the middle of a thunderstorm the body of a roofer killed by a lightning. So though I have thankfully escaped myself, I can appreciate how people who have lived through such experiences, who lost homes or loved ones to storms, might understandably be terrified every time clouds gather on the horizon.
In a minor way, I understand that myself. Before I arrived here in Skokie, storms were a time to go to work. The second year after we moved here, during a storm the parsonage storm system failed and water began flooding downstairs, a few inches deep. We later learned the advice given by former pastor Bob Burkhart’s wife, Shirley, which was that every time it rains, put a bowling ball in the toilet! Since that experience, now whenever storms approach, I am filled with anxiety, and the first thing I check is the glowing red light on the sump pump switch, which means it’s working. Of course if the power goes out, I’m going to need that bowling ball. So now I get storm anxiety; pretty much like everyone else who lives in Skokie and most of Chicagoland. How many have experienced basement flooding?
Take our storm anxiety, and imagine how much more it must have been in the ancient world, where people knew nothing about meteorology, had no storm prediction or early warning systems, and were also less protected from the elements. No wonder as they looked up into the sky, experiencing the force of a storm, they viewed them as the vehicle or instruments of the gods, or in the case of the Hebrews, the One God.
For example, in the book of Job, we hear how God:
“gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
that God saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.”
In Psalm 29, the Lord is portrayed as a storm God, with some scholars even suggesting this psalm was originally ascribed to the storm god Baal and later applied to the God of Israel. In Psalm 29, the thunder of the storm is the voice of God. That voice is so powerful it causes waters to rage, the mighty cedars of Lebanon to splinter and the forests to be stripped bare. God’s thundering voice also causes lightning to appear as flashes of fire, a devastating power on Earth, as indeed lightning still is.
Even today, despite our scientific knowledge and understanding of storms as natural phenomena, some people still think of storms in this way, as instruments of God to demonstrate power, to punish and destroy and intimidate us sinful mortals?
For example, in 2015, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council interviewed extreme Messianic Jewish pastor Jonathan Cahn, who suggested that Hurricane Joaquin, which devastated the Bahamas, was a “sign of God’s wrath” against abortion and the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on same-sex marriage. (If this is the case, God missed pretty badly.) Perkins agreed, saying that while “those on the left like to mock these things,” American leaders have historically viewed hurricanes as signs that “God is trying to send us a message.”
This year, however, it’s a different story. In the recent Louisiana flooding, Perkins and his family had to escape their Louisiana home in a canoe, and – like many others – are living in a trailer for six months while their home is under repair. Would it be fair to ask what the message is? I’m not saying this is good in any way; I’m only cautioning we all need to be careful when we attribute moral messages to natural phenomena, especially when we want to apply it to others, but not so much to ourselves.
Of course it is understandable that after every natural disaster where people – possibly people we love – die, we should not only ask “Why?” but “Why me?” trying to find some kind of meaning in it, whether rational or spiritual. And yet, as much as we might want an answer, sometimes the only answer is that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, storms are natural meteorological disturbances that have rolled across the planet before humans even existed. When we build our houses in their paths (which could be anywhere), both homes and human lives are in danger. That’s why it’s always important to heed the warnings given, do all we can to rescue those in danger, and – failing the first two – aiding and assisting the victims of natural disaster.
We especially do this as Christians because the God revealed to us in the Gospels, in the life of Jesus Christ, is not a storm King, not a God of thundering power. The God revealed in Jesus does not blast away the evils of Earth with hurricanes and tornadoes and fires, nor does he strike the crowd taunting Jesus at the cross with bolts of lightning.
Rather, the God revealed in Jesus suffers for and with God’s people. Rather than riding the wind, this God revealed in Jesus is riding the waves with the victims of the storm, with his disciples in the boat but also with the fathers and mothers and children in the tsunami and the hurricane and the tornado. Jesus does not call down the storm; he calms a stormy sea. His role is to save lives and heal creation.
Even though storms are integral to the weather patterns of our planet and we as mortal creatures are subject to them, it is also clear that global warming and other human-related factors are making them worse, intensifying their frequency and severity, like the recent historic Louisiana flood, in which they experienced two feet of rain in 72 hours. Amid these ecological storms, could it be that the God we know in Christ is summoning us to calm the climate storms that threaten us, and to heal the people and creatures crushed by human greed and environmental pollution? Who else is going to do it?
Do you remember the story about the man in the flood, who climbed onto his roof and prayed to God to save him? As it began to rain, a rescuer came in a pick-up truck, which the man turned down, because he was waiting for God to save him. As the waters rose, rescuers came in a boat, but again the man turned them down. Finally, as the waters reached the roof, a helicopter came, but again he turned them down. The man drowned. He stood before God in heaven and said, “God I was waiting for you to save me, how come you let me drown?” God says, “Well, I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter, but you refused them. What else could I do?”
After the Plainfield Tornado, the people of Plainfield erected a Memorial not only to those who died that day, but to those who helped them in their time of need. It looks like this, and the inscription says:
“Thousands of volunteers came forward after the tornado and helped this area with its immediate needs and long-term recovery. We salute their spirit with this memorial. We will be eternally grateful for their helping hands.”
Where is God in the storm? God is not in the storm, but with the victim, and in the rescuer, and in all those who offer aid and assistance in every way. In the name of God, let us be among them. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Flora & Fauna Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Job 39: 1–12, 26-30; Psalm 104: 1, 14–23, 31;
Luke 12: 22-31
September 11th, 2016
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
“Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to which I have given the steppe for its home,
the salt land for its dwelling place?
It scorns the tumult of the city;
it does not hear the shouts of the driver.
It ranges the mountains as its pasture,
and it searches after every green thing.
“Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will it spend the night at your crib?
Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes,
or will it harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on it because its strength is great,
and will you hand over your labor to it?
Do you have faith in it that it will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?
“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is.”
– Job 39: 1 – 12, 26 – 30, the New Revised Standard Version
About a month ago, my Uncle Charles died at the age of 83. If there is anything I learned from my Uncle Charles, it is an appreciation of nature, and especially flora and fauna, plants and animals.
I don’t know how it happened, but my Uncle Charles loved exotic creatures, particularly birds. While other people had dogs and cats, cows and chickens, we had peacocks; one nested in a dead tree behind our house every night. Other pets included not just dogs and cats, but snakes and lizards and an iguana. Somehow Uncle Charles once came home with white and blue herons (don’t ask!), which he recruited my cousin and me in feeding. What this meant was we spent part of our summer days wading through creeks, seining minnows and fish, which we fed to the herons. Boy did they have a great life! I never see a wading bird in a lake but what I don’t remember that.
Today, in our celebration of the second Sunday of the Season of Creation, we remember the Fauna and Flora of the earth, all the plants and animals, with whom we share our planet. Where do we even begin?
As I was looking for graphics today, I was overwhelmed, because there are so many. What should I show you? Playful pandas in bamboo forests? “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night,” as the poet William Blake put it? Majestic elephants? Lions, king of the jungle? Wildebeest, as someone once said, which God made of parts left over? Dolphins? Whales? Eagles? And what about plants? Orchids? Rain-forests? Lilies? Roses? As one who came late to the botanical world, with a botany course in college, you flower-and-plant lovers will have to pardon my preference for fauna rather than flora.
Please note that I am also purposely ignoring snakes and spiders and such insects as mosquitoes, not my favorite part of creation. And who would want to have T-Rex’s still wandering around, even though some who still believe Adam and Eve rode them to church. Maybe there was no way for God to create the good without the bad; or maybe God just loved creating, and let it go in all directions. After all, how would you explain and defend an aardvark?
I am thankful that in my life – like some of you – these are not creatures I have seen pictures of in books. I have seen mountain gorillas in the Congo. I have seen lions and giraffes and elephants and wildebeest on the Serengeti. I have seen dolphins and whales in the oceans, and eagles soaring in the skies of the Boundary Waters. If you have had such experiences, you know the feeling of awe and humility it gives, that we our fragile creatures sharing the planet with them. Can we even imagine living in a world without such beautiful, awesome creatures?
Before I go on to talk about theology or science, or the perils the flora and fauna on our planet are facing, I want to go one step further about our favorite fauna on earth, our pets.
Even though you may appreciate and respect them, you may not feel that endeared to elephants and rain-forests and gorillas and stink plants and pandas and bamboo forests; after all, most of them would eat us or swallow us up without feeling. But who here has never loved and been loved by a dear pet, like a dog or cat, or iguana or goldfish, as the case may be?
I would have to say that, as children, there may not be anything that teaches us more about life and the mortality of all living things, including the life lessons of emotional attachment and grief, than pets. We get so attached to them; I have always felt it is one of life’s greatest injustices that we should live so long, and they so briefly. Why should God give a turtle a hundred years, and a dog or cat a mere 15? What’s up with that?
Growing up, we had dogs (I’m not sure cats would have stooped to live with us), but we also lived on a busy highway. Inevitably, the dogs would get hit by cars, which of course ripped our hearts out. After awhile, you get where you don’t want another dog, because it was too painful to lose them. I can’t help but wonder whether – especially when it happens at an early age – that this transfers over to our relationships with people? On the other hand, handled well, such life lessons with pets can teach us about the inevitable reality of love and loss and grief as humans, including with those we love the most. (Perhaps it’s time to go on to other things, before we all start crying . . .)
So let’s talk about the theology of our relationship with all creatures; that ought to dry any tears. Today we heard from the Old Testament, God’s interrogation of Job, a text likely older than Genesis, asking Job if he knew the intimate secrets of nature, such as the mountain goats and wild ass and ox and the hawks and eagles, implying of course not, not as God their Creator knows. We read Psalm 104, a song of praise to God – O my God how great you are! – especially as reflected in nature, including mighty Leviathan the whale, right down to the tiniest sparrow. We heard Jesus teaching us how to live, by looking to nature: consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Perhaps we should do more of this, including in church, since Jesus told us to. Perhaps you have heard of the Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon, when one day the Buddha gave a wordless sermon to his disciples, by simply holding up a white flower. No one understood except one of Buddha’s disciples, who subtly smiled, signifying the transmission of wisdom without words, simply by beholding a flower.
What we did not read today at is the Genesis account of creation, which – if it does not tell us how – tells us why we are related to all creatures. Really, there are two creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and if we summarize, there are three major points: (1) God was the Creator of all things; (2) humans and plants and animals were created out of the earth; indeed, that is Adam’s real name (‘Adam is also the masculine form of the word adamah, which means “ground” or “earth” or “clay”). And (3) according to the Genesis account, God intended humans to be “caretakers” of this beautiful garden, with all its plants and animals, with which the Lord has entrusted us. We’ve not done a very good job, have we?
Without the theological overtones, science tells us a similar but different story, not only in theory, but through archaeology and chemistry and even DNA mapping. Science tells us that all life came from a single origin, evolving through billions of years, with all living things united in biochemistry, but different in complexity and diversity.
One significant difference is that while – in the Genesis account – we see ourselves as the stars of the show, toward which all creation is leading and around which it is centered; in reality we it remains to be seen whether we humans are a work in progress, or dead-enders, who foul our own nest and finally do ourselves in. Maybe dinosaurs felt they were pretty cool, too. In the long term, it remains to be seen whether cockroaches will succeed us all. And then where will all our theology be?
BTW, if you are interested in exploring this further, on Monday evening, September 19th, at the Skokie Public Library, from 7 to 8:30 pm, there will be a conversation moderated by my colleague Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler, entitled, “Where Do We Come From? Religious and Evolutionary Perspectives.” It is presented as a part of the library’s current series, “Exploring Human Origins.” And to think that I thought I came from Kentucky!
To return to our assigned role as caretakers of the planet and the flora and fauna in it, how are we doing? Not too good. According to the UN Environment Program, the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the “natural” or “background” rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65m years ago.
The World Wildlife Fund lists 19 critically endangered species, included gorillas, orangutans, and tigers; 45 species that are endangered, including elephants, whales, chimpanzees; and 10 species that are near-threatened, like the tuna, monarch butterfly. Might the threat to the creatures, like bees, for example, be like the parakeet in the coal mine: if they go, then how long do we have before we do too? (www.worldwildlife.org)
While there are many examples I could use to illustrate the plight of the world’s wildlife, here’s one: In Kenya, in east Africa, three rhinos graze on the grassland of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Most of the world knows that the rhinoceros is threatened, but these animals are in another class. They are the last three northern white rhinos on the planet. None of the three of them are capable of breeding, so the Northern White, which once roamed Africa by the thousands, is in effect extinct. The three rhinos – named Sudan, Najin, and Fatu, are the last of their kind. Isn’t that just so sad?
Soon, a group of scientists from the US, Germany, and Japan will attempt what has never been attempted before: to rescue the northern white from extinction by removing the last eggs from the two females and then – using advanced reproductive techniques – including stem cell technology and IVF, create embryos that could be carried to term by surrogate rhino mothers. It this succeeds, it would be a first, but a technique that might be used to rescue some of earth’s other threatened species. (www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/14/northern-white-rhino-bid-to-save-extinction-threat#img-1)
Given this, what can we do about it? First, we can join such organizations as the World Wildlife Federation or the Sierra Club, through which we can become informed and active, making a difference before it’s too late.
Second, we can travel responsibly, by choosing travel agencies that contribute to endangered species protection and causes, not simply treating them as existing for our sport or entertainment.
As I said before, to see such magnificent creatures in the wild is one of the greatest experiences of life, increasing our respect and gratitude not only for them, for our own lives, as one of God’s creatures.
Thirdly, without traveling to exotic places, what we can do in our own backyard is this: be mindful, of the plants and animals that grow there. I would invite you to come and see the beautiful goldfinches whose ecological niche are the daisies that grow in our backyard. It’s not hard to imagine Jesus standing there and saying, “Consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.” Stop, look, and listen, for even in the city, flora and fauna are all around us, waiting to make us appreciative and grateful of God’s wonderful creation.
Just last night, for example, taking my own advice, around 9 pm, I went outside, to take a look at the moon and the sky. I looked over toward our Log Cabin, and here came a big opossum walking down the walk. Just as on cue!
So I guess that even though I didn’t know at the time, what a gift it was from my Uncle Charles to grow up with a peacock in the backyard. It was a portent of things to come, of how I would one day travel the world seeing some of God’s most magnificent creatures, and eventually stand here before you, asking you to do the same. Because out there in the world, among God’s flora and fauna, there is more beauty and wonder than we can even imagine.
As Cecil Francis Alexander put it:
“All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
the Lord God made them all”
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Ocean Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Job 38: 1 – 18; Psalm 104: 24 -34; Luke 5: 1 – 11
September 4th, 2016
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal, and it is dyed like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked, and their uplifted arm is broken.
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this. – Job 38: 1 – 18, New Revised Standard Version
Today as I talk about oceans, let me be the first to admit I am out of my depth. As a boy growing up in Kentucky, in the middle of the country, the first ocean I saw was the Pacific, when I was 20 years old and spent a summer in California. For the first time in my life I tasted the salt water and felt the force of the waves, and I have loved the ocean ever since, trying to visit as often as I can.
Those of you who grew up near an ocean likely have such love for the sea as well, but an equal mixture of awe and respect, which all of us have to learn. For example, on a trip to Kenya in Africa, I rode the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, on the coast. Dying to get into the water, I waded out until I was up to my chest, put my goggles on, and dove in. I found myself face-to-face with a large tiger moray eel. I stood back up and thought, “Maybe I ought to learn more about this before I jump in.”
In subsequent years, I went scuba diving in Cozumel, and gained an even greater appreciation of the world beneath the surface, of which most of us have little appreciation or knowledge. There, on the edge of the reef, at about 100 feet depth, you could look down into the dark blue abyss of the deep. Most of us have come to appreciate the wonders of the ocean just by walking along the beach, but there is oh so much more beneath the surface, a deep and deadly wonderland we know little about.
Indeed, all of us who have experienced the ocean – the sea breeze, the sight and sound of the crashing surf, the feel of the sand beneath our feet, the salty taste of the water, the frightening ease with which those waves can toss you around – all who have experienced this will know that anything and everything I say today is nothing compared to that experience. There is something about that experience that stimulates feelings very deep and primal in us.
When we read the Bible, we get the sense that our ancestors were as awed and as scared of the oceans as we are. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the creation of the world is expressed in mythological terms: the earth was formless and void (tohu wu bohu) are the Hebrew words) and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God (literally “wind from God”) brooded over the face of the waters. And God began to create, dividing the waters, until finally, in verses 20- 23:
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.”
In most ancient understandings, the realms of nature were under the control of gods (as for, example, in ancient Greece, Neptune was the god of the sea) and part of that understanding is present here. What the Hebrews were claiming is that their God – Yahweh, the one God, Creator of all – was greater than all those lessor gods. Even so, there was always a war between deities going on, and that is why there are such verses – as in Psalm 29:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
As far as I can tell, the Hebrews were afraid of the seas, perhaps that is why they were never a sea-faring people like the Phoenicians (the sea peoples) or the Greeks. The Hebrews were not the only ones to fear the seas: up until the invention of modern air transportation, seafaring explorers and sailors often feared for their lives, describing monstrous storms at sea at which they feared for their lives. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was one of them; it even played an instructive role in his spiritual life. (And of course, let’s not forget the Titanic or Gilligan’s Island!)
Isn’t it interesting, that even according to a modern scientific understanding, the seas were most likely the primordial soup, leading to the birth of those organic compounds that – over the course of billions of years – would lead to life on the planet? Did you know that one theory why we humans are the only hairless ape (relatively speaking) is that our primordial ancestors may have lived for a time in an aquatic environment. Could that still be why the seas and oceans have such a fascination and attraction to us, because they literally are in our DNA?
What is the status of the world’s seas and oceans? The oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water. Less than 1% of the Earth’s water is fresh water, and another 2 to 3% is contained in glaciers and ice caps. In an amazing number, the oceans contain 99 percent of the living space on the whole planet; just not for us, unless you have gills and fins.
As we should all know by now, despite their enormity and importance to the planet, earth’s oceans and the life in them is endangered by the irresponsible actions of one Homo Sapiens (often more unwise than wise.) I did not have the time to do the research I wished, but global warming is leading not only to a rise in atmospheric temperature, but also ocean temperature, leading to a host of ominous consequences, such as a rise in ocean levels, which could lead to massive population migration. (If I were you, I wouldn’t be buying any beachfront property.) A rise in ocean temperatures has also led to changes in aquatic environments and migration of species, like whales for example, but also toxic algae blooms along coastal areas, deadly to both aquatic life and humans.
Another global danger to the oceans is pollution, not only from petroleum or toxic chemical spills by corporations, but through such things we contribute daily such as plastic or non-biodegradable material, which gets washed down rivers and streams into the ocean, where it accumulates. For example, did you know there is one called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive dump of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean, parts of which are said to be twice the size of the state of Texas. If you are interested in finding out more about how our oceans are endangered, there are far more resources online.
The last thing I want to talk about in regard to oceans and seas is that while we may be at the same time both attracted to and fearful of them, even though we are distant from them, they still serve powerfully as metaphors of our spiritual lives.
Think of all the Scriptures in which the seas and sea imagery plays a role: from the opening verses of Genesis, to the escape of the Israelites from the Egyptians through the Red Sea, to such psalms as Psalm 130 (Out of the depths, O Lord, I call to you), to the story of Jonah and the whale, a Sunday School favorite. And let’s not forget all those stories about Jesus as Lord of Nature and Master of the Sea, even though it was no ocean but a rather small sea at that, the Sea of Galilee. Even though today you see more windsurfers than fishing boats, even that small sea was a metaphor of raging winds and tossing waves, threatening to overwhelm Jesus’ disciples if not for Jesus’ intervention. And also of him also always knowing – to their consternation and amazement – where the fish were, and thus where the best place to throw the nets was. Like those incompetent fishermen who were his disciples, we’re been throwing the nets on the wrong side for a long time now, and even though we’ve never done it that way before, maybe it’s time to throw them on the other side.
Even watching the waves is not only comforting to the soul but enlightening, as to the spiritual nature of life. Like a molecule of water rising and falling with each passing wave, the molecule of water is not destroyed, it only becomes a part of another wave. As the French philosopher, theologian, paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Much like that drop of water in the wave.
My favorite yet is the meditation attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Her heart is full of joy with love
For in the Lord her mind is stilled.
She has renounced every selfish attachment
And draws abiding joy and strength
From the One within.
She lives not for herself, but lives
to serve the Lord of Love in all,
And swims across the sea of life
Breasting its rough waves joyfully.
Don’t you love that image? It is one of my favorites. We are like surfers, entering the waves. Along comes a massive wave, and – what do we do? – we jump to break through it with our chest. Says Teresa – who must have gone surfing somewhere, sometime – this is what we do we do in life, as it throws its massive waves at us: “We swim across the sea of life, breasting its rough waves joyfully.”
We have come from the ocean, and whether we love earth’s seas and oceans or fear them, they are a vital and beautiful part of our planet. Let us care for them and learn from them, as they teach us about God our Creator and ourselves as God’s creatures. Want to play with Leviathan, anyone?
Central United Methodist Church
Mind Your Manners
Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
Pastor David L. Haley
August 28th, 2016
“One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.
He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.
“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.” (Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)
Etiquette: what is the state of it today? Where I grew up, we didn’t know it as etiquette, a word borrowed from the French, which is ironic that we should borrow such a word from a people who resisted bathtubs and invented perfume as a substitute. Instead of etiquette, we knew it more simply as manners, as in “Mind your manners,” which assumed that we had some to begin with. Although I was taught some manners, I can’t say Emily Post was a standard reference in our house.
Briefly defined, etiquette is “a code of behavior that defines expectation for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group.” Given this, what is right and polite changes according to time and place.
Since they change over time, it has always been the job of older generations to lament a lack of manners among the young. As one elder put it: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” That was Socrates, in 4th century B.C.E. Greece. Substitute “devices” in place of “chatter,” and it would fit today. Although I have to say I was impressed recently when I said “Thank you,” to a young woman, and instead of responding with the usual “No problem,” she said, “My pleasure.” Let’s hope this catches on!
Perhaps no place are manners (or the lack of them) more observable than at the dinner table: whether we eat alone or together, who sits where, when to eat and when to wait, which spoon or fork to use or the rudeness of using none at all, and now – when to put the iPhone away.
If that isn’t difficult enough – as I noted before – all these rules also vary according to place. In France, you sit so close to strangers it is unsettling, especially for us Americans who love our space. In China, I looked around to see how people eat shrimp with shells and head on; the answer is not with chopsticks, but with your fingers. In India, you only eat with your right hand, the left is used for personal hygiene. I’m sure, you could tell me many more, from where you grew up. Not knowing what the table manners are in any particular place, how are we to know other than by observing?
Such observation is exactly what is going on in the Gospel of Luke today, when Jesus is invited out to eat. Not only were they watching his every move, he was also observing them.
As we have seen over and again in the Gospel, the everyday activity of home and marketplace, farm and fishing boat provided Jesus not only insights into people’s character, but also opportunities to reveal life in God’s kingdom. Nowhere was this more true than around a dining table.
In Jesus’ world, table fellowship was laden with religious, social, and economic meaning. And so Jesus used such times to clarify kingdom etiquette; how we should behave in the Kingdom of God, not a kingdom to come but here on earth right now. And so Jesus has lessons for guests and lessons for hosts, which – at one time or another – all of us are.
When we are guests, whether in God’s house or someone else’s house, the appropriate virtue is humility. When Jesus observed people jockeying for the best seats at the head table, he warned them of the risks of inflated ambition. In a shame/honor culture such as theirs was, there was considerable risk/reward either way. The status and rank of individuals is legitimated by their inclusion on the guest list and their location on the seating chart. So how embarrassing would it be to sit at the front and be publicly called out. Instead of “moving on up,” you’d be “moving on back.”
As Jesus put it: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Eugene Peterson renders it this way: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
As for us, we may know such exaltation/deflation more from airline seating than lavish banquets. Father Dan Costello is the pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church here in Skokie. When we had our Thanksgiving Eve Service here at Central 2 years ago, Dan – who was our preacher – shared a story about getting on a plane. Being a priest, he hinted to the stewardess as he boarded how wonderful an upgrade would be, you know, for a man of the cloth. So he was thrilled when she came back a few minutes later invited him to first class, but less than thrilled when she added, “We’re having some weight distribution problems with the plane, and we’d like you up front to even it out.” I’ve rarely heard more prolonged laughter in our sanctuary. “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Done with the appetizers, Jesus now turns to the entrée, a word to the hosts of the dinner; which – as a church and as families and as individuals, we are. In this case, the recommended kingdom virtue is not reciprocity (what they can do for us in return), but hospitality:
“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.”
According to Jesus, both synagogue and church are constitutionally committed to the care of the poor and the disabled. However, please note that here, Jesus is not calling us to provide for the needs of the poor and disabled, as he is calling us to invite them to dinner and eat with them. Nor does it mean sending food to someone; rather it means host and guest eating together. In God’s kingdom, the clearest sign of acceptance, of recognizing others as equals, of heart-to-heart fellowship, is eating together. Do you suppose Jesus was serious about opening church halls, homes, even our hearts in this way?
I’m still learning. A week ago Saturday, Mae texted me to say someone was coming to my door. I thought it was her, so I was surprised when I opened the door and a man was standing, there, a fast and loud talking man who greeted me like an old friend. He said his father lived on the corner, named his name, said I’d probably seen him out walking the dog. While I’m racking my brain, he said that his father had had a stroke and was in the hospital, could I do him a favor. I’m thinking he wants me to go see him, but he says that his car has been towed, they want $120 and they only take cash, and he’s got $100, could I loan him $20. Soon as he gets his car and goes to the ATM, he’ll pay me back (those words again) in an hour. Guess what, I’m still waiting! Did I show hospitality, or was I just scammed? That’s grace, says Jesus. Giving to people, even invited them to dinner, when you know they can’t pay you back. After all, isn’t that what God has done for us?
So what starts out as a breach of etiquette at a dinner party ends up as an agenda for radical spiritual and social change, initiated by God, modeled by Jesus. Jesus’ word still speaks clearly to a world, to a church, and to us as individuals, as an enduring vision of God’s Kingdom, of life the way God desire it to be.
Long before I went into the ministry, a movie which had an impact upon me was the 1955 movie, “A Man Called Peter,” the story of Scots immigrant Peter Marshall, who was the Pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. from 1937 to 1949, until his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 46. Can you believe there was a time when they made movies about preachers?
One of his sermons which I read afterwards is a sermon called, “By Invitation of Jesus,” based upon this text, which I’ve never forgotten. In this sermon, Marshall imagined a rich man in Washington who read this text, and decided to put it into action. So he had a card made which read:
Jesus of Nazareth
Requests the honor of your presence
at a banquet honoring
The Sons of Want
on Friday evening, in a home on Massachusetts Avenue
Cars will await you at the Central Union Mission
at six o’clock
When the time, came he sent cars to the Mission, to pick them up: the unshaven, the disabled, the hungry and homeless. Once they arrived, the host stood and said, “My friends, let us ask the blessing.”
“If this is pleasing to Thee, O Lord, bless us as we sit around this table, and bless the food that we are about to receive. “Bless these men. You know who they are, and what they need. And help us to do what you want us to do. Accept our thanks, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
As they ate – for they were hungry – their host looked around and reflected what an amazing thing it was that he didn’t know the name of a single man! His guests had no credentials, no social recommendations, no particular graces – so far as he could see.
As he sat there, the stories in the Gospels kept coming back to him, and he could almost imagine that the house was one in Jerusalem. It seemed to him that these men would be the very ones that Jesus would have gathered around Him – the legion of the world’s wounded, the fraternity of the friendless, pieces of broken human earthenware.
After the meal was over, someone came in and sat down at the piano, and they begin to sing, old favorites, men who had not sung for months. After the singing, the host said
“I know you men are wondering what all this means. I can tell you very simply. But, first, let me read you something.” He read from the Gospels stories of One who moved among the sick, the outcasts, the despised and the friendless, how He healed this one, cured that one, spoke kindly words of infinite meaning to another, how He visited the ostracized, and what He promised to all who believed in Him.
“Now I haven’t done much tonight for you, but it has made me very happy to have you here in my home. I hope you have enjoyed it half as much as I have. If I have given you one evening of happiness, I shall be forever glad to remember it, and you are under no obligation to me. This is not my party. It is His! I have merely lent Him this house. He was your Host. He is your Friend. And He has given me the honor of speaking for Him. “He wants you all to have a good time. He is sad when you are. He hurts when you do. He weeps when you weep. He wants to help you, if you will let Him.
“I’m going to give each of you His Book of Instructions. I have marked certain passages in it that you will find helpful when you are sick and in pain when you are lonely and discouraged, when you are blue and bitter and hopeless and when you lose a loved one. He will speak a message of hope and courage and faith.
“Then I shall see each one of you tomorrow where I saw you today, and we’ll have a talk together to see just how I can help you most.”
When they had gone, the man sat again by the fire and looked at the dying embers, until the feeling became overwhelming again that there was Someone in the room. He could never tell anyone how he knew this, but he knew that He was smiling and that He approved. And that night, on Massachusetts Avenue, a rich man smiled in his sleep. And one who stood in the shadows smiled too, because some of the least of these had been treated like brothers for His sake.” (Peter Marshall, “By Invitation of Jesus, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and prayers of Peter Marshall, 1973)
To “mind our manners,” what are we supposed to do? In this case, let’s not look around us, but to these words of Jesus, and then we shall know what to do. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
The Problem with a Partial View
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 13: 10 – 17
August 21st, 2016
“Jesus was teaching in one of the meeting places on the Sabbath. There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her over. “Woman, you’re free!” He laid hands on her and suddenly she was standing straight and tall, giving glory to God.
The meeting-place president, furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the congregation, “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”
But Jesus shot back, “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and redfaced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” – Luke 13: 10 – 17, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
As an entrance to today’s story of the “Woman Bent Over,” I would like to use an idea suggested by Alyce McKenzie, Professor of worship and preaching at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Professor McKenzie has suggested that one way to think about the “Woman Bent Over,” is as a woman with a “partial view.”*
All of us who are theater or concert goers and especially Cub fans know what I mean by a “partial” or “obstructed” view. Week after next, my son Chris and his family are coming to visit and in the tradition of my baseball-loving family, 3 generations of Haley’s are going to a Cubs game. As you know, with the Cubs doing well right now tickets are ridiculously expensive, and I agonized to find a balance between decent seats and reasonable price, especially when one of us – at 4 1/2 years old – is likely to lose interest before the end of one inning. My concern is that I am going to discover I have bought seats with a “partial” view, meaning one of Wrigley Field’s support pillars will be between me and home plate. How can I yell at the umpire, if I am as blind as he? In the old days you could always start in at partial view seats and later move to more “front row” seats, but now they don’t allow that anymore.
On the other hand, sometimes “partial view” seats can be a good deal. When Michele and I go to see Chanticleer at Fourth Presbyterian Church each December, our choice seats are the reduced price balcony seats, which – though they are partial view – are so close that the sound is excellent. Who needs to SEE singers sing, as long as you can HEAR them sing?
Understanding this concept of “partial view,” we can appreciate the plight of this poor woman in the synagogue, who – due to her physical condition AND resulting social status – was restricted to a partial view, not just occasionally, but ALL the time.
Reflecting the understanding of the time, the text uses the strange expression “spirit of infirmity,” interpreting her condition to be a physical effect of a demonic power. In reality, who knows whether it was a congenital deformity, degenerative arthritis, the result of back-breaking labor, or even physical abuse. I have seen – in Africa and India – women like that, bent over carrying heavy loads on their backs, which over time takes its toll on your body.
Whatever it was in this unnamed woman’s case, it controls her, burdens her, bends her like a human pretzel, and blocks her. Such that for 18 years this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For 18 years she has been accustomed to looking down or slightly ahead but never up, not without difficulty. For 18 years her world has consisted of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with a glance. For 18 years she has lived a life with a partial view.
Though the text doesn’t say so – given what people believed then – that physical infirmity was connected to moral and spiritual failure – quite likely her condition also relegated her to a back seat in the synagogue as well, perhaps behind a wall or a pillar. After all, women couldn’t worship with men (as they still can’t in orthodox synagogues or mosques), and her physical condition likely made her more marginal, easy to exclude and ignore.
Given the woman’s status, don’t you find it incredibly revealing that out of all the people there that day, Jesus sees her, calls to her, invites her to come to him? She does not approach Jesus nor make any request of him; nor does Jesus say anything about repentance or faith. All Jesus says, is: “Woman, you’re free!” The text said he laid his hands on her; how do you think he did that? Do you think he put his hands on her back, or do you think he got down on the floor on his knees, to look her in the face, the only way she’d easily be able to see him?
Suddenly, the woman stood up straight and tall, giving glory to God. The Greek word for “raise up” is also used for the rebuilding of a house. That is what Jesus does; he raises people up, restoring them to their original beauty. She must have felt like I feel in the morning when I get the kinks out of my back and stand up straight, although I can’t say I always remember to give God the glory. Not only was her posture changed, but also her perspective on life: “Thanks and glory be to God!”
Truth be told, most of us thank God alright, we thank God we’re not like that poor woman. But if not physically deformed, don’t many of us feel like we are bent out of shape? That the burdens we bear in our hearts and minds, show in our bent backs and furrowed faces. Like this poor woman, we too, need to hear the word of Jesus: “Stand up straight and be free!”
And what of those who may be deformed or disabled in body or mind, or – if not deformed or disabled – still know the pain of being marginalized and alone. As often the case, do we exclude and avoid them out of our own fear and anxiety, or do we do as Jesus did to this woman: acknowledge them and pay extra special attention to them, treating them with compassion and respect, even if it means we have to deform ourselves, and get down – as Jesus may have done – on our hands and knees.
You’d think everyone there would have been thrilled at this miraculous turn of events; after all, they were in a synagogue, where a woman was praising God after being miraculously healed after 18 years of suffering. Who could have a problem with that?
Well, it turns out there was one (there always is), the leader of the synagogue, who as it turns out is a poster child for people with a partial view. (Did you see the picture I posted in the weekly email, by the Rev. Glenda Skinner-Noble, an ordained Elder in the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church: “Jesus, The Woman Bent Over, and the Leader of the Synagogue as painter Edward Munch’s ‘The Screamer.'”) If you think the woman had a partial view due to her physical condition, he had an even worse one due to his limited perspective, his tunnel vision. Even though a woman who had suffered for 18 years was miraculously healed, his problem with it was not that it happened in synagogue, but that it happened on the Sabbath. It was a scheduling problem (as if you can schedule a miracle). “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath,” he said. Makes you wonder if there was a sign on the wall, saying: “No Healing Here, sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.”
In some ways, we get it, don’t we? After all, for those of us who try to follow the rules, keeping the Sabbath is one of the 10 commandments, or at least it used to be, before malls were open and school sports were scheduled on Sunday. While we may barely observe it at all, we should remember some still take this rule very seriously. When we were in Jerusalem a few years ago, driving a rental car, it was important to not to accidentally drive into Mea Shearim, a haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood on the Sabbath, unless you want to literally be stoned. (Don’t want to take your rental car back in that condition!) Even here in Skokie you see them, observant Jews walking to temple on the Sabbath. Sometimes – when I see them – it makes me feel irreligious.
Rules are important, but sometimes – for the greater good – rules must be broken. The trick is the moral discernment to know when to FOLLOW rules, but also when to BREAK rules; again, for a greater good.
For this, Jesus had not a partial view, as did the woman and the leader of the synagogue, but a FRONT ROW SEAT. For Jesus, the rules of the Mosaic Law and the Jewish social holiness code were important; after all, he was an observant Jew in a synagogue on the Sabbath. But in the end, this was what made him trans-formative: all those laws were subordinate to the greater VALUES of justice and mercy. So if helping a stooped woman in synagogue on a Sabbath creates a crisis, then crisis it has to be.
And so he says to the protesting synagogue leader, in a “play on words” which Eugene Peterson captures:
“You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
I like how Eugene Peterson translates what happens next: “When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” What the text does not say is this: at the end of this story, the woman walks out of the synagogue erect, dignified, and joyful, to the cheers of the crowd.
Let’s face it, all of us have a partial view, and we should acknowledge that. We are products of our upbringing, our history, our culture, even our white privilege; we are also sometimes victims of our own pessimism and cynicism. Sometimes we get stuck in the rules, so stuck in the tall grass that we fail to see the amazing things God is doing in the “BIG PICTURE,” right before our eyes.
So today – through what we have learned from this story, let us move – even if a few rows at a time – from partial view seats to front row seats with Jesus.
- Even though people are imperfect, poor, rude, rough, and sometimes even objectionable, Jesus receives them.
- Even though people are on the fringes of society, even though they are non-elite/working people, or foreigners ordinarily avoided, Jesus receives them.
- No matter their background or status, Jesus receives them with the same equanimity, respect, and concern.
And so Jesus notices this woman and respects her, he deals with her tenderly and lovingly. He summons her out of the isolation into which she has withdrawn, out of a sense of shame, and sets her free – both physically and spiritually – such that she stands upright and praises God.
So it turns out – for Jesus and for Luke and for us – that the best way to celebrate the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day – is to raise up men and women to their original form, to delight in our divine dignity and to praise God, the creator of human dignity. When we do this, we all go on way more upright.
So it turns out, a partial view seat might not be the best bargain after all. Not when it obstructs our view of God’s desire that all God’s children be restored to dignity and community, whatever day of the week it is.
*Alyce M. McKenzie, “Partial View Seats: Reflections on Luke 13:10-17,” Edgy Exegesis, August 15, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Partial-View-Seats-Alyce-McKenzie-08-16-2013
Central United Methodist Church
Fire on the Earth
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 49 – 56
August 14th, 2016
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
“father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12: 49 – 56, the New Revised Standard Version
Fire? Did Jesus say fire? How have I missed this before? I know something about fire; no wonder it caught my attention.
My guess is that – for most of us – as we look back at our lives, we shake our heads in wonder at the twists and turns they make, which – in retrospect – seem providential. That’s the case with me and fire.
One of those twists and turns for me was a day in the late eighties, when I was pastor of Berry Memorial UMC in Lincoln Square in Chicago, living on Winnemac Street. One day my son Chris – around 6 years old at the time – came in the house and said, “Dad, there’s a fire out back.” I went out to look, and sure enough, one house away across the alley, the rear stairs of a two flat were on fire. We called 911 and heard the siren of Engine 110 on Foster Avenue start toward us, about 6 blocks away. Soon there were engines, trucks, and fire hoses all over the street. And there was also a guy standing there in a white coat and fire helmet, with a cross on the front. It was Father Tom Mulcrone, the Chicago Fire Chaplain. I thought, “They have people who do that?” I decided if I ever moved out to the suburbs, I would do that. And so, in 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I did that, and have been doing it ever since, now as the fire Chaplain in Des Plaines and also at NIPSTA (Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy.) As the saying goes among firemen, “I’m not saying I want anybody’s house to burn down, but if it does, I want to be there when it happens.”
Like water, fire is one of earth’s most basic elements. While fire has served us humans well – providing light, keeping us warm, and cooking our food – fire out-of-control can be the “red devil,” both destructive and deadly. I hope none of you have ever been through a house fire, and I pray none of us ever do. Your whole house is trashed from ceiling to floor, from soot and smoke and fire. Many if not most of your possessions are ruined, if not from the fire from the water used to extinguish it, which runs through your house in waterfalls. Plastic objects like phones and light fixtures are melted, pets are dead in their cages or under the bed (where they try to hide); and yes – sometimes people die, sadly, including children. As a Chaplain, when I stand with someone in their front yard watching this – as long as everyone escaped and no one got hurt – I try to gently help people keep things in perspective, as devastating as it may sometimes appear. The house can be rebuilt (sometimes better than before); things can be replaced; but the people you love cannot. Thank God nobody got hurt and everybody is safe.
Do you think any of this was in Jesus’ mind when he said he came to bring a fire upon the earth? Surely, in his life he had sat around fires and seen grass fires and brush fires and maybe even house fires. Perhaps he had seen children burned by fire, a common occurrence in poorer countries where food is cooked over open fires. Did Jesus think about any of this before he said he came to bring fire on the earth? So let’s be clear here, Jesus is not saying anybody should be literally getting burned.
Please note, the clues and the context make it clear Jesus did NOT mean this literally, but metaphorically, as we must interpret much of the Bible. Remember, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and he has a pretty good idea of what will happen there. At this point, he is seized with anxiety and urgency, in the sense of “let’s get on with it.” Just as we might resort to colorful and exaggerated language at such an anxious time, so did Jesus.
And if – as I believe – Jesus used images such as fire this way, he did so based not upon what’d he seen, but what he knew, which was that there was plenty of precedent in the history and Scriptures of ancient Israel to do so. For example, was he thinking of fire as God is a pillar of fire, leading God’s children out of bondage in Egypt and through the wilderness, as in Exodus? Was he thinking of fire as the fire of God’s judgment, which destroyed the false altars of Baal at the prophet Elijah’s God contest on Mt. Carmel, as in 1 Kings? Was he talking about the refiner’s fire, as Malachi spoke about in the book of the same name, burning away the chaff of sin or fruitless branches? And – yet to come – what of fire as the sign of God’s Spirit, and the tongues of fire that would dance over the heads of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost? Were any or all these the fire Jesus was talking about?
Jesus resorted to what we might call prophetic hyperbole, using images such as fire and baptism and division and even the weather, to express the fear and urgency and determination he felt to change the world, to shake up the status quo, to bend the moral arc of the universe God’s way, even if it cost him his life. I’ve always liked Albert Schweitzer’s image of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a young man who threw himself on the wheel of history in an attempt to stop it from turning, but instead it crushed him.
So the reason speaks in this exaggerated way is because for him it WAS a time of crisis – not in the sense of emergency – but in the sense of a time of truth and decision; not just for him, but for everybody. I think it is true to say that still – even on a sunny Sunday morning – how we hear and respond to the words of Jesus presents a moment of crisis for us, a moment to hear and decide and act, like sparks falling in kindling, either igniting a fire or dying out.
For this reason – because it brings about a crisis in our lives – the words and work of Jesus can go either way for us. He can show mercy, or he can bring judgment. He can immerse us in the comforting waters of baptism, or he can light a fire in our hearts. He can be a peacemaker, or he can be a divider. He can be a Gentle Shepherd or the Conquering Lamb. As Julia Ward Howe wrote in the Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1861, “In the beauty of the lilies he was born across the sea,” but he is also the one who “sets loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.”
Not that this is something we want to hear. In fact, if we were to list the ten hardest sayings of the Gospels, this one would undoubtedly be on the list. The statement that Jesus came to bring fire, a distressful baptism, and division – even among families – are hardly welcome words for any congregation. We are far happier with Jesus as peacemaker than as home breaker. (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C).
And what are we to make of the divisions about which Jesus speaks, in families? One could say that what he says is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. That is, it was not Jesus’ purpose to set children against parents or parents against children, but that these sorts of divisions can result from the changes Jesus brings, in lives and in families. It brought disruption in Jesus’ own family, when they came to get him, seeking to take him home, thinking he was “beside himself.” Remember, also in Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Prodigal Son, a parable about a father and a son estranged from each other, who were reconciled. But even that reconciliation causes disruption between the elder son and his father. Keep this in mind: even a ministry that reconciles long-standing enemies will inevitably rend relationships, if those relationships depend upon the old status quo. Ready to let the fire of God burn in your life? Get ready for the disruptions it will bring. I will warn you right now; somebody is going to throw a bucket of cold water on you, and hopefully nothing worse.
I remember the day I came home and told my parents I was switching from medicine to ministry. I was pre-med in college, for the first two years. I was working in the local emergency room. I had respected doctors who had spoken for me. And now I was going to throw it all away to become a Methodist preacher, which is I think the way they put it. (It took them awhile to come around, but after they did, they supported me all the way.) Some days, I wish I had listened to them. Maybe these were the kinds of things Jesus was talking about, when he talked about a fire being kindled, a baptism to undergo, and divisions that would arise, even among people with whom we are close. Something we might want to keep in mind, in this election year.
As difficult a saying as fire on the earth may be, our consolation is this: as painful as both real fire (I wouldn’t wish burn injuries on anybody) and metaphorical fire may be, in the end, it can sometimes be regenerative. There are certain seeds that can germinate only through the high heat of forest fires, resulting in new growth. Sometimes when your house burns, you get a bigger and better house (Don’t even THINK of torching it!)
In ancient Greek mythology, the Phoenix was a bird of colorful plumage that was cyclically reborn, by dying in fire and then arising anew from the ashes of its predecessor.
Like the Phoenix, today the church is going through a “fiery trial” (some might even say death), and we are waiting to see what will be born. As our friend Vivian Mathews once put it (or something to this effect): “We know what we HAVE been; we just don’t know what we’re GOING to be.”
Some of us may feel like we are going through a fiery trial or purification at this time of our life, and we don’t know yet what’s going to emerge; what we’re going to be like on the other side.
But what we know is this: Jesus fiery baptism is followed by a resurrection; entering into the fire with us, he emerged as the Risen Christ. May God be with us through the fires of our life, with the hope that out of the ashes will arise healing and new life.
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
So may it be.
- 24 Hours That Changed the World Series – 2010
- Advent 2010 – A Life Giving Christmas
- Advent 2011
- Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood Series – 2009
- Church at the Passages of Life Series – 2007
- Conversations with Jesus Series – 2008
- Eastertide Sermons from the Book of Revelations Series – 2010
- Fearless: The Courage to Question Series Lent 2011
- Five Practices of Fruitful Living
- Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes
- Heewon Kim – Pastoral Intern 2013 – 2014
- Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse – John Chapter 6
- Kelly Van Pastoral Intern 2011-2012
- Lay Sermons
- Lessons in Practical Christianity Series – 2009
- Lizzie Sherfey Pastoral Intern 2010-2011
- PoWeRSuRGe Series – 2009
- Psalms Series – Summer 2013
- Qualities of Jesus – 2015 Lenten Series
- Roll Down, Justice! A Lenten Biblical Seriew
- Season of Creation Series 2014
- Sermon on the Mount – 2011
- Stories from the Family of Faith Series 2014
- The Journey – Walking the Road to Bethlehem Series Advent 2013
- The Story of Job Series – 2009
- The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
- Worship Series – 2008