Sunday, September 27, 2009

Backlash of Love

Psalm 124

This is a hard sermon to write. I'm tired. Not just the sleepy kind of tired at the end of a day, but my mind and body are weary. My body and my soul have been working together in crisis management mode for close to three months now. My body feels like it is working a little off kilter, like an engine that is out of tune. I am short tempered, even more so that usual. I have less patience with irrelevancies, and more and more things are falling under the umbrella of irrelevant. I haven't missed the newspaper. I have to fall back on my professionalism to make myself concerned about church paperwork.

I need a break, and there is not one coming. Because of the way I love, and what is happening to two of the people I love the most, there will be no retreat from what's coming, no running and hiding from the hurt that loving well can cause. My mind wants to rebel--to run away to some high mountain cabin, where there is no phone, no internet and a full refrigerator. There are plenty of warm blankets to sleep under, plenty of warm clothes to go walking through the woods in, and all of the videos and books are comedies.

But I can't go there. I won't go there. I want the evidence clear to the end for her and for him that God's love is paramount, that it is ever present, that there is truth in God. And for someone facing an illness, even a dire one, the concerns become very few--am I loved? Am I being taken care of? Are the people I love and feel responsible for going to be OK? I will do everything I can to make sure that she knows that to the very end.

Since Donna has been sick, Justice Sonja Sotomayor has been named, has been interviewed by Congress, and has been approved and seated on the Supreme Court. Michael Jackson died. People have started losing their minds in public life, even to the point of heckling the President of the United States during a joint session of Congress. I try to keep Donna up on these things, and she does watch TV, but none of it is sinking in. It just doesn't matter.

She wants to know what Joe is doing. She wants to know how his grades are going. She loves seeing pictures of our new chosen family niece, born in Boston three weeks ago. She could care less about Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, but she'll tell you the baby's name is Yaela quick as lightning.

In the end, the final concern is love. They don't care where they will be buried, in the end. They may not even care about the pain they suffer. In the end, they want to know if their child will have every chance to grow into a fully realized, ethical and compassionate human being.

She is being attacked by an enemy that is swallowing her up whole. She is being swept away by a flood. Physically, it will win. There is no avoiding that truth. This is a particularly virulent and stark version of the monster. There will be a time, maybe even soon, when she will be no more. That is true of all of us, by the way. I've come to dislike the term terminal illness, as in, "oh, that's what she's got? So she's a terminal case, then." We're all terminal, and no one has ever given me the location of a line that separates the time frame between terminal and not terminal.

Physically, it will win. Emotionally, it has already lost. The presence of some diseased cells in Donna's brain has caused people to gather together, over 550 strong, to demonstrate their love for her, and her cup runneth over to such a degree that Joe and I are blessed by it, we who are not even sick. It was visible. These sick little cells have caused such a backlash of love that one can't help but marvel.

Blessed be to the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.

There's a quote by Irving Greenberg, a scholar, that goes like this;

"The Holocaust confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children."

It's a fair line to have hovering over your shoulder as you write, because it is a warning against traveling down a path that leads to separation and mistrust and ignorance--and from ignorance comes hate and fear.

But the line could be changed very easily to read:
"Cancer confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of those who suffer it."

It would seem to be the height of foolishness, the unfortunate stretching of credibility, to claim what this Psalm claims, that God is with us and that we have been victorious. 12 million people died in the Holocaust. Since I have been here at the Center Moreland charge, a fair number of people whom I have helped to memorialize and funeralize have died of cancer. It has been called the plague of the 20th Century, and nothing in the 21st century has shown that it has slowed down.

But out of that, love has been very strongly in evidence. In every case, the wider community, even people who did not know those who died, could see very clearly that people cared, people loved and people supported both the one who was ill and their families. God's love was seen in each action, in each word, in each covered dish and donated check, no matter the amount. It was seen in the participation of people who may not have even known Aimee, but went to Nay Aug Park two weeks ago. It was seen by the need for folding chairs, and in the end a standing room only crowd, for Dave James' memorial service. It was seen in people who may have never met Donna, but came to eat chicken and biscuits.

God did not give Donna cancer. If there is a cause for it, it is much more likely to be some man-made substance or environmental source than God. God has, however, make considerable use of Donna's cancer. Through her being ill, people have changed their minds about each other as they come together to work. I am sure I am not alone in marveling in the outpouring of love and support from far and wide, and acquaintances and long ago friends who have come to mean a lot to me and to Joe in a short time.

It's a paradox, but cancer has caused an increase of love in our lives.

2if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us,
4then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
5then over us would have gone the raging waters.
6Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.
8Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's Who You're For

Mark 9: 30-37

It has been a long day. The casting out of demons is hard work, the press of crowds makes it hotter, and Galilee isn't exactly Northeastern PA in the almost-fall.

Jesus had something to say to the disciples, and he wanted the time to be able to teach it properly, so he wanted to keep it secret that they were back in Galilee. He was teaching them that Jesus was not like any other prophet. He had not come to lead Israel to freedom from the Roman occupation; he had come to lead humanity to freedom from everything. But it's a hard task to try to open the minds of people who have been born and raised to understand one thing, and then be taught that what they know is too small for God.

So he tells them, as an opening that the Son of Man is going to be killed by human hands, but that death will not take him; he will return in three days. The Disciples have no clue what he is talking about, their minds are still in the places where they were raised--here is a prophet, he may be the one we've all been waiting for, and isn't going to be great when he pulls it off, and we've been with him the whole time? This if all the prestige! Think of all the honor! Think of the better life we will have when we are helping to rule Israel!

Of course, when such thoughts occupy someone's mind, they are not alone, because also accompanying that thought is this--how much power and prestige will I have? I should have more than that guy; I'm closer to the man, after all. Hm. He's a little closer than I am, Jesus talks to him more, so maybe I should make better friends with him. Be of help, you know what I mean.

Now, as a storyteller, I can't imagine that they are having this argument with Jesus right there in the midst of them, so he must be some distance ahead, far enough that the Disciples are comfortable with the discussion they are having about just who will have the most power next to Jesus in the coming kingdom.

But he knows. Just like little kids who don't know how far their voice carries, Jesus can hear them. He knows, but says nothing, but he starts to think.

At the house they are staying in, he gathers the twelve around, and asks them what they talked about when he was out in front of them. Well, they're busted, and don't say anything. Jesus doesn't try to embarrass anyone, but instead he catches the eye of one of the little ragamuffin kids, one of the sort that are always hanging around Jesus, and brings her into the center of them. It's hard to think of a human being that is farther from what these disciples value than this child, because there is nothing this child can give do or be that can add to their power and prestige.

And then Jesus says; "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." He hugs the child warmly, the child smiles and laughs, and Jesus lets go and the child runs off, her day made. "Whoever welcomes one little kid like this, all dirty and with no value in our society, whoever decides to serve ones as worthless as that little one, serves me. And the one who serves me like this serves not me but the one who sent me."

I have no illusions about this idea. In our world, taking the side of the poor, of the bullied, of the distrusted and "sinful" among us doesn't make us popular with our fellow Christians. We surround ourselves with all of the language of Christianity, listen to all the proper opinions and take all the stands that our upbringing and our families have given us, and expect that it will put us in good stead with Jesus. And then Jesus puts a situation or a person in our midst who challenges all of that, and makes clear that his preference is not that you shun them, but that you choose them over everything you've ever been taught, and it's hard.

It is hard, but it is clear. There are people there are situations in this world that need love, that need defending. People who are killed for who they are, for what they believe. Jesus is telling us here that our place as followers of him is standing with them, standing in front of them, standing between them and their attackers, even to the point of the ruination of all the ambitions we hold for success, prestige and comfort in this world.

Sometimes that even means standing as a believer, a follower of Jesus, against those who use the language of our faith to maintain their own prestige and lifestyle. Sometimes that means standing as an American against those who use the language of patriotism to defend their own privilege.

It doesn't require angry words. It doesn't require political maneuvering. All it requires is simply standing with someone. All it takes is a quiet word of correction or rebuke with someone who has said something mean or hard.

Jesus is our model here. In our story today, he has just finished telling them that he is about to die. Lose his life, and in an ugly, public way. And these doofus disciples behind him are counting all the chickens they're going to have when Jesus becomes King. Does he turn around and blow up at them? No. Does he have the right to? I think so. But he doesn't. He waits for the "teachable moment". He speaks softly. He illustrates his point in love. He doesn't embarrass anyone by calling them out individually. And still one of those twelve eventually get angry enough with his teaching, angry enough with who Jesus chooses to stand with, that he eventually runs to the authorities and betrays Jesus.

One does not accrue power by standing with the weak and the bullied, the demonized and the misunderstood. If those are your goals, being a follower of Jesus is not the way to get there. But if you want to be Christlike, if you want to be like Christ in this world, if you want to witness to his love and grace, then it's clear--it's not who you are against.

It's who you're for.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thank You

Colossians 3: 12-17

It's one of my favorite movies, and one that I can count on seeing every Christmas. It's part of the list; hit Hallmark for the cool ornaments, drink at least one glass of egg nog, listen to The Waitresses' song Christmas Wrapping, and watch It's a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart.

You remember the story; a man named George Bailey is born and raised in a small town. On his way to college, he hears that his father has died. He returns to town, doesn't go to college, and inherits his fathers' little building and loan. Other folks go on to seemingly great accomplishments, after they leave town; his brother is a war hero, and a school friend becomes a millionaire. And there's old George Bailey, still running the building and loan. He marries his high school sweetheart, and moves into an old house that they refurbish to a living loving home.

He makes loans to new immigrants to the town so they can become permanent parts of the community. He slips a little help to a woman who needs to leave town to start a new life, where she doesn't have a reputation. He struggles against the towns' rich guy, who is constantly trying to take over the town so he can run it his way. When there is a rush on the banks in a financial panic, the building and loan survives because George convinces his nervous customers to withdraw just enough money to get them through till the panic is over.

One Christmas Eve (this is the only reason, I think that this is considered a Christmas movie), his uncle, who helps out at the Building and Loan, loses the day's deposit. The uncle has the bad timing to lose this deposit just as the Building and Loan is being inspected by regulators, and it begins to look like George may have been skimming funds. George is desperate, he is in despair, and he decides that his life has been wasted in Bedford Falls, and he jumps off the town bridge into the river.

An apprentice angel named Clarence, who needs his wings to become an official angel, jumps in after him and pulls him out of the river. George tells Clarence it would have been better had he never been born, and so Clarence shows him what that world would have looked like had he not lived; the woman George married would never have been married or have kids, the immigrants are discriminated against, the woman with the reputation gives up and begins to live up to her image, the town would have been taken over by the mean old millionaire, and becomes a sort of Las Vegas.
Convinced of his worth, George is returned to reality by Clarence, and runs back home to apologize to his wife and family for having snapped and yelled at them. There, the town hears of the distress George has been placed in, and turns out en masse to cover the amount of the deposit. People come into the house, on this Christmas eve, and drop off a few coins, a few dollars, but more importantly, celebrate who George has been to all of them. A wire comes from the old school friend--he can have as much as needs. The war hero brother, who George saved from drowning in an icy river when they were kids, comes back and instead of being honored by the townspeople, joins in happily honoring his older brother.

Even the bank regulators toss in some money!

I've never had cause to think about what it felt like to be George, standing there as people kept coming into his house and giving him money. I have been thinking about that, though, this weekend. I think now that while the money was important, it helps him to not go to jail, the story isn't about the money only. What the story is about is the outpouring of love and respect and regard. Donna may not remember what happened Friday night, but as her best friend Nancy says, all of that love has been deposited in there somewhere, and at some level, she is drawing on it for strength and courage.

We've lived in Pennsylvania for less than five years. Donna's worked at Wyoming Seminary the same amount of time. I've only served about two and a half years at each of the appointments I've been sent to. We were not raised here, we are not from here. In some cases, Donna's and my political choices or theological beliefs differ greatly from your own.

All of that is irrelevant; you have shown me the truth and the possibility of how people can live together, and how people can gather in time of need; the words of Colossians ring true; you have clothed yourself with compassion, kindness, and love. You have the peace of Christ ruling in your hearts, to which we indeed have been called.

And I am thankful.

I am thankful to mom for all of her little behind the scenes jobs over the past two plus months; I am thankful to Meg for all of the organization that she has put together for last Friday nights' event. I am thankful to Doug for all of the cooking and the food planning; I am thankful to Northmoreland Volunteer Fire co for the donation of the hall; I am thankful to all the guys at Franklin/Northmoreland Ambulance Co. for making the Donna delivery project a volunteer effort. I am thankful for all of the cooks and servers, the raffle organizers, the cake bakers, and of course to all of the people who came and ate and loved on Donna when she was there.

The money you have donated will come in very handy as Donna's treatments continue, and as she still needs care after radiation and chemo are done. It will be put to good use. But the greater part is the love that you have shown for us, which will sustain us through the tough times that are coming.

With gratitude in my heart, I thank you for reminding me yet again through that dinner Friday night, that the love of God does have hands, faces, and feet, and eats chicken and biscuits!

Thank you.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

That's Why They Call Them Miracles

Mark 7: 24-37

Today marks 2 months since Donna went in for surgery. What was supposed to be an overnight stay, and me assisting her in her fight against brain cancer, has become two months of hospitals, rehab and skilled nursing homes, seizures, medications, injections, with her incapable of many decisions, and me making the majority of decisions for her.

This is not how it is supposed to be. Profoundly, I say that this is not how it is supposed to be.

I live in watchful expectation of the signs of the grace of God, and in these past two months, I have seen so very much. I have seen the love of God come from so many people, shown in their love for Donna and for us. Even people who are not explicitly Christian have raised us up in the language of their own traditions--An old friend from high school who now works for the State department sent us a prayer wheel and beads from Tibet. The first clergyperson on site in Philadelphia when Donna suffered her hemorrhage was a rabbi. People I haven't seen or talked to for years, have barely thought about since we all went to high school together, even elementary school together are following us on One friend that I hadn't talked to for some 15 years before this started, and who I just recently reconnected with on Facebook, sent us cookies yesterday.

Two other boxes came as well, holding a prayer shawl, and a box of homemade baklava, both from Commerce, Texas, the last town we lived in before moving to Pennsylvania. People from every previous church I served have made contact. Donna has 6 prayer shawls, scarves, or knitted squares, a couple from churches we've never been to. People of every faith tradition, and who have no faith tradition have helped us, sent us cards and food, loved us, side by side with the people we share a faith with. It has been glorious, it has been awesome, it has been divine.

I am aware of how this event in our lives has been such strong evidence of the love of God for his people as you and so many others have shown us love. You have been the face of God for us almost constantly for two months. You have lifted me up and helped me continue with your prayers. But I am sure you understand what I mean when I say that I would rather have not seen any of that. I'd rather just have Donna sitting in her usual pew, to my left and 4th row back, in the 11:00 service, trying to settle Joe down.

It is with great interest that I read the gospel text assigned for today. Not the first part, where Jesus may or may not have changed his mind after possibly being corrected like a little boy by the Syrophonecian woman. That is a good conversation to have over lemonade in the backyard of someone's house on Labor Day, but it isn't where I gravitated.

No, I went straight for the healing miracle. The story of the deaf man with the speech impediment. Now, when he says speech impediment, I think Mark refers to the sound that a person's voice makes when they have been deaf all their lives, who have never heard the proper ways words are formed in the mouth and throat in any language. The way that the actress Marlee Matlin sounds. So, Jesus performs two miracles on this man, a foreigner in the foreigners' own land. The first is to restore his hearing. The second is to change his speech to what someone who has heard all their lives would sound like.

We are a people who believe in miracles. We have stories that tell us that Jesus was able to work these miracles because of the belief of the people around him, almost as if he channeled their power into the miraculous act. We have stories of miracles that Jesus couldn't do because of the lack of belief of the people standing around. We have stories of Jesus healing people without any help from the people around him, both of his own ethnicity and nation, and stories like this one of people who are healed despite Jesus foreign status and the distrust the people around him have for this unclean Galilean. We are a people who believe in miracles.

So why is it that I do not believe that Donna will be miraculously healed? Why do I not expect that when we get a post-radiation-and-chemotherapy MRI in late October, they will find nothing there, just healthy brain tissue? Why don't I believe that she will return to full function, and be able to remember people after they have visited, and remember where we live now? Why don't I believe that when Donna comes home, it will be to grow old with me?

What do you think the family of the man the Jesus healed believed? He was an adult. There is no mention of his wife or children, or even of a mother or father. He was an adult, so someone had to have taken care of him. But everyone around him knew who he was, knew his handicap. They did not expect him to be changed. He had adapted to being deaf over the course of his life, and had fit into a role that the community had made for him. No one expected him to receive his hearing. No one expected to be able to understand him plainly when he spoke. No one expected the miracle.

We throw that word, "miracle," around a little too easily. It is a great, glorious, and terrible word, and we use it for basic biological acts like the birth of children to healthy parents. Beautiful yes, worthy to meditate over, marveling at the gloriousness of the design of God, yes, but not a miracle. We use miracle for the catch that David Tyree made that helped the New York Giants in the Super Bowl two years ago. We use it for Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception some thirty years ago.

A miracle is a scientifically unexplainable and unexpected event that shows evidence of the love of God. By definition, we never see them coming. That's why they are called miracles. So I'm going to play my part. I am going to put my trust in God by how the doctors and the nurses care for Donna (with watchfulness, of course), I am going to continue to witness the love of God by seeing how you and so many others from so many places in our lives come together to care for us, to love us. I am going to try my hardest to be the face of God for Donna, to show the strength and love of God to Joe, and sustain both through the grace and the stamina and the power of God. But I am not going to expect a clean MRI at the end of October.

That's why they call them miracles.