Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Paul, Paul Simon, Nixon, Augustine, Uncle Kracker

I preached this sermon on Sunday, the first in four on "Intentional Discipleship," and this one was "Connection." The text is Luke 13:10-17. At the end, I read the Roman text (not in the lectionary) and invited people to move about with a prayer and a kiss of peace. It was amazing. Really, really amazing.


Maybe you feel like the woman in our gospel lesson for the morning—or have felt like her—this “daughter of Abraham,” Jesus calls her, who has been crippled for 18 years, unable to stand-up straight or look the world in the face. And if you don’t feel like that orthopedically, maybe you feel like that spiritually—have felt like that: bent, warped, withered in your mind and heart, deeply crippled, and maybe you would love to come to Jesus, would love for Jesus to see you and say to you that you are “freed from your ailment,” whatever your ailment may be…

But there are so many things that stand between you and Jesus, regrets, hurts, even people stopping you from connecting with Jesus and his power, and maybe even people in the synagogue itself, “church” people looking down at you for looking down, leaders in the church fussing about how you come or when you come, or where you come from.

Is that the way you have felt in the church or feel: you want is to be well, connected to God, but you have come to the sad conclusion that the church is not only not a help but even a hindrance to your faith. Lots of people feel that way, sad truth to tell—that the church does not help them connect with God, but in many ways, keeps them from connecting with God.

Easier to keep your distance, remain disconnected, even if it means you stay stooped, hobbled, alone. Have you ever felt that way? Wounded? And not least by the church itself?

Preachers feel that way, too, sometimes, have to work to keep their faith in spite of what they have experienced in the church. What their kids have experienced. What has been said to them or done. I think if we all had the right kind of glasses we might all look at each other, pastors and people, and see lots of crippled folk, lots of hurting folk, lots of folk who wish the church was always and only a place of blessing and peace…

No surprise when pastors leave the ministry, when people leave the church. Too many arguments. Too many hard feelings. Too many rules. Too many grievances, petty grievances.


Does anyone remember the Nixon Administration? Some of you do. I remember once hearing a kind of epitaph pronounced on Mr. Nixon’s presidency, that it was characterized by “grand vision and petty grievance.” Grand vision, and petty grievance. He went to China, virulent anti-communist though he was, and turned enemies into friends. And he went crazy, too, kind of, paranoid and self-absorbed, and turned even his friends into enemies.

Ever since I first heard that description, “grand vision and petty grievance”—and the point was that the grand vision was ultimately destroyed by the petty grievance—I have thought it sounds a lot like the church, sometimes, a lot like some Christians, who in spite of the grand vision of our faith are brought down by petty grievance. The weight of glory replaced by a chip on the shoulder.
No surprise when people stay away.


Sometimes, when I read this story and the part about the leader of the synagogue, who does doubt the healing Jesus did, but fusses about the way it all went down, I find myself thinking of my junior high school math teacher, who did not seem to notice that I got the problem solved, which was unusual thing, miraculous, really, and she should have been happy for me, and for her a little (the miracle occurred in her classroom, after all!); but no, she only noticed that I did not do the problem the way she had outlined it on the board, step by step, and she pointed that out in front of the whole class, humiliated me in what should have been a moment of triumph.

Shaking her head… and listen, y’all: nothing unfocuses your eyes like shaking your head. Shake your head and you may not be able to see at all…
That is the leader of the synagogue, too. Shaking his head. Unable to see what is happening before him. He is not unhappy the woman has come back to church after all these years, and yes, it is good that she got healed—but there are ways we do these things, tested and proven over time, prescribed by God, really, and proven over and over again by our ancestors. These are the ways we gather and worship, this is when and how.

I can imagine that for the synagogue leader there was power, even healing, in the structure, the stability, the consistency of Sabbath and the synagogue service, in undisturbed liturgy…

I can hear myself in the voice of the synagogue leader, have said that kind of thing, too. Lots. This is the way we read the Word. This is the way we sing our songs. This is the way say our prayers, so early in the morning. I have outlined it on the board, just like that! Follow the steps!

I have felt my own head shaking and my eyes unfocusing at experiences outside the norm.

Just like some folks shake their head at the norm, at the form. Folks who have had powerful experiences, don’t want church or religion; they want the Spirit!
Well, I want the Spirit, too, but I trust the historic forms of worship, the same forms that framed the experience of Jesus and Paul and Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley and my grandmother.

So what shall it be? Form or power? Power or form? Shall the twain shall meet?


I find myself wondering what might have happened if the crippled woman and the leader of the synagogue had talked… shared, told their stories and asked their questions. She might have said that she needed Jesus’ touch, an immediate experience of grace to heal her body…but that she was grateful Jesus had come to the synagogue, that it was his custom to attend synagogue for prayers and the liturgy…since Jesus always went to church, she knew where to find him, and she was going to start back herself. If that is what Jesus did, that is what she wanted to do, too.

He might have said that he loved the scriptures, the prayers, the certainty of synagogue service, and especially in a world as crazy and fragmenting as the world can be; that the synagogue was his oasis, his city of refuge, his sanity in a crazy world. But he was glad too when there was energy as well as form, lest it all become dry rote, and even kind of glad that Jesus, good Jew that he was, could shake things up and straighten things up, and her not least.

If they had connected, in other words, both of them frightened, wounded, crippled souls, they might have seen that both of them needed healing, that both of them found healing, one in form, one in power, that they weren’t so different after all, both of them hungering for real worship, real connection with God, and maybe for connection with each other, too.

She had been alone for 18 years! He had be barricaded inside the rules.

If they had quit shaking their heads at each other, they might have found connection with each other in their common desire for connection with God.

See how it goes? Connecting with God, connecting with each other; connecting with each other not just in the ways a new directory or phone tree, can help us connect, a newsletter or webpage—but in deeper ways, hard as it can be.

It is hard to find connection with one another. Not least because We are so used to hiding, so practiced at keeping ourselves safe, or so we suppose, and solitary.

This week I found myself thinking about an old Paul Simon song:

They got a wall in China/It’s a thousand miles long./ To keep out the
foreigners they made it strong./ And I got a wall around me/ that you
can’t even see.

Yep. Lots of walls up in these walls. And lots of times people in here just crack-off each other like billiard balls… think of the green felt as the church, and sometimes folks drop off the table and sometimes they bounce… but rarely do they really connect.

No surprise. It’s hard. We’re hard. So why even try?

I could answer theologically: that the church is the Body of Christ, and that when we are together, together we each of us become and all of us become what God has meant us to be.

I could answer musically: maybe you remember that great line is Uncle Kracker’s song, “Smile”:

“Don’t know how I lived without you, / Cause every time that I get around
you, / I see the best of me inside your eyes…”

That is the gift of the Spirit, y’all, or can be.

God knows not always: sometimes when we get around each other we see the worst in each other, but it need not be that way.

We really can’t live without each other, because Jesus has called us together, and the Holy Spirit has given each of us gifts that are intended to be shared with the rest of us—and so it is when we are together that we any of us can find ourselves, see the best of who we are in each other's eyes, can know who we are.

If we isolate ourselves, though, keep our distance, disconnect –even though all of us have good reason at times—as long as we do that we will have this nagging sense that we are incomplete, that something is missing, that something is wrong… and it is.

God saw that it was not good Adam, or any of the rest of us, to be alone, and so God made us for connection—connection with him (remember how Augustine prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest till they rest in you.”). And God has made us for connection with each other…

And connection with our neighbors, too, but I am going to hold that for three weeks. Just remember, connection with God; connection with each other; connection with our neighbors. That is the way God made us…for connection.


Connection… is the first step of intentional discipleship. Connecting with God, in worship; connecting with each other, in spiritual friendship, hard as that can be, and it is hard… and if you ask me how to do it, how to connect, that I will point to you a bicycle wheel. Consider Jesus the hub, and each of our lives one of the spokes. As we move closer to Jesus, we also move closer to one another. The farther away we move from Jesus, the more disconnected we are from each other.

Romans 16: 3-16. I invite you to look around and see who is here that is a partner with you in the gospel--that you see the best in them because of what they have been to you and your faith. And I invite you to move to that one and give them a holy kiss...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Watch Your Feet

I have been thinking about feet. I am not sure why.

It may have started when I was at the doctor’s office. A woman came in wearing sandals designed to catch the eye—there was a HUGE daisy on the strap—and when I looked, I noticed that each of her toenails was painted a different color. Okay.

A bride-to-be came to discuss her wedding. She had stars tattooed on the side of her foot. “Tell me about that,” I said open-endedly, hoping to unearth a nugget of psychic ore we might smelt me in our counseling sessions with her fiancĂ©.
“It’s pretty,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. EOD.

Last week, when my wife went to the dermatologist to have a mole examined (it was nothing, thank God), he said that the moles she (and others) really needed to keep a watch on were the moles on her feet! Who knew?

Anyway, I have been thinking about feet, remembering how, when God called Abram to leave his father and homeland and work in Ur, to start with his wife Sarai toward a land and a future and a heritage they could not possibly imagine, God said, “Go, and I will show you…”

Abram could not wait for clarity before he mustered his courage. He could find the way ahead only by taking it. Abram did as he was commanded, of course, and Sarai too, and ever since their first obedient steps tired and calloused feet have been a sign and symbol of our faith—outward and visible expressions of hope and trust and grace.

When Jesus called his disciples, whether by one’s or two’s, their feet took them away from home and family and work to traipse after him first in Galilee, then into Samaria (where few Jewish feet willfully ventured), and finally south into Judah and Jerusalem. Later, Jesus declared that with the Spirit’s help their feet would take them back to all the places they had been and to more besides—into all the world—and not just as his followers this time but as his representatives. Their thick-soled feet, as much as his ruined ones, would prove to be beautiful on account of the lengths to which they went to spread the Good News of the Gospel.

Used to, preachers would say if you want to know who you really are, as opposed to who you think you are, take a close look at your calendar and your checkbooks. In other words, look closely at how you spend your time and money. These days preachers should tell folk to check their BlackBerrys (lest they prove what many of their people already guess, that preachers and their counsel are behind the times, hopelessly obsolete).

Frederick Buechner suggests, on the other hand, that people to check their feet, not dermatologically but theologically. Want to know who you really are? What you really value? Just see where your feet take you in a day, or a week, or a lifetime.