Saturday, May 30, 2015

Endarkenment (Sermon - John 3)

When I was a new mother, my husband and I took our three-month old twins to Florida to see my grandparents, to whom I was very close.  My husband spent several days in Orlando for a business conference, and I took the babies to visit my grandparents.

At the time, my grandfather was extremely ill – dying, in fact, of kidney failure.  He and my grandmother had gone to Florida for the winter, but he had taken a sudden turn for the worse after their arrival around Thanksgiving.  By the time we arrived in mid-December, my grandfather was house-bound and cared for by round-the-clock nurses, as my grandmother was herself too frail to do much of the physical work.

My grandfather was experiencing something with which many of you are no doubt familiar. It’s called sundowning, and it’s characteristic of dementia.  My grandfather was often up and about during the day, coming to the table for breakfast and lunch, completely lucid, aware of who my children and I were, and delighted to spend time with his great-grandsons.  But as evening fell, he would lose his bearings.  His behavior became increasingly erratic, and his sense of who and where he was evaporated in the night.

I was particularly aware of his situation because I was up much of the night with my babies -- in a guestroom next to my grandfather’s room, so that I could hear him talking. Talking and talking, all night long, to his nurse companion.  And during those late, long nights, my grandfather slipped back into the 1930s, into the Depression, into the years in which he and his father and brother were trying to make a go of it in business.  He thought, night after night, that it was Christmastime in 1930 or so, and he was frantic that he did not have Christmas presents for his young family.

I learned so much during those nights, about the cycle of life, and about dementia, and about my grandfather.  I saw life at both ends, with two babies at the very beginning of theirs  and my grandfather in the last month of his. I l learned about the trials of dementia, not in a textbook or classroom sort of way, but in a real-life experience kind of way, spending time with someone I loved as his mind failed him.

And I learned about my grandfather, who he was and what was important to him.  You know the old saying – that no one at the end of life ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office?” My grandfather was a perfect example of the truth in that.  In those long nights, a month before he died, he never once talked about his business.  It was all, all of it, about his family.

These were not things I could learn in the light of day, when all seemed well and fairly ordinary.  These things required me to attend to my grandfather’s experience of the night as he neared the end of his life.

What about you?  Where else do we learn things in the night?

Hospital corridors are among the first nighttime places that come to mind. If you’ve ever spent time with a seriously ill loved one, then you’ve probably experienced the lonely, bewildering sense of mystery that one finds in a hospital at 2:00 or 4:00 am.  Deathbeds are another place at which we often find ourselves in the night.  And crises seem to come at night – the police at the door, the ambulance in the drive, the phone call alerting us to an accident.

None of these are night time places we would choose, but they are all places in which we grow, aren’t they?

Now, those are tangible, concrete night times of our lives. But there are also intangible night times – times after a death, after the loss of a home or a job, times of anxiety over a struggling child, or finances stretched too far, or choices gone bad.  In Cleveland, the Brelo trial has been such a metaphorical night time.  While the events of the case – the chase, the shooting, the deaths – all took place during the literal night, the trial and judgment have felt to many like a continuation of  night time.  It’s clear that while Officer Brelo’s actions may have been within the bounds of the law, as the judge decided, that does not mean that they fall within the bounds of acceptable behavior for a police officer.  Brelo’s case falls within the context of a long night time of injustice, of misjudgment and reckless behavior by police officers in communities across our country, the consequences of which fall disproportionately on black shoulders.

Night time seems to be a time for confusion, for struggle; a time in which things go wrong.

Might it also be a time, however, in which knowledge and understanding come our way?  Knowledge and understanding not available to us in the daytime

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and preacher-writer – we studied one of her books last winter -- suggests that we need to focus more on what we might learn in the night.[1]  As we all know, we tend to emphasize light as a symbol for learning, for finding clarity.  We even call a great historical period of learning and philosophy and literature in Europe “the Enlightenment.” In fact, much of what we understand as cultural norms today first say the light of day during the European Enlightenment.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests offers us a new term to describe how we might learn differently.  Her term is “endarkenment.”  We need, she says, more of endarkenment rather than the enlightenment toward which we tend to gravitate.

This morning our text offers us a night time story.  Nicodemus: what’s he doing out late at night.

The usual explanation given is that Nicodemus, a skilled lawyer and debater, a leader in is community, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s visiting Jesus.  He’s drawn to Jesus, this compelling rabbi who performs signs and wonders, and he’s curious – but he doesn’t want word getting around about his attraction to this mystery man.  And so he seeks Jesus out at night.

And does Nicodemus ever get more than he bargained for!  He can’t get a straight sentence out of Jesus, but he gets an earful – about being born “from above” (or, “again”) about relationship, and about the love of God.

Oh – and about the Trinity.   This is one of the few episodes in the Bible in which our understanding of God as Trinity makes an appearance.  The idea of Trinity is very confusing, as most of our most learned theologians have been quite willing to admit.  Nicodemus is merely one of the first in a very long line of confused people.  The Bible does not, after all, have a chapter entitled “The Trinity.”  The Bible is not a textbook on the geometry of three-in-one.

What the Bible offers us, as Jesus does Nicodemus, is a series of hints; of clues.  In this little story of the night, we are told that God sent God’s son, and that we must be born of water and spirit.  Not exactly clear, is it? Poor Nicodemus -- supposed to make sense of all this information coming at him in the night.

What’s important here, though, is not the complicated math of the Trinity, of God.  What’s important is who God is, and what God wants.  What’s important is what Nicodemus learned during his night of endarkenment:

That God so loved the world.  That God SO loved the world.  That God so LOVED the word  . . .  that God gave God’s Son . . .

That God so loved the world that God sought not to condemn -- but to save.  After a whole history of human foolishness and error and destruction, all God really wanted was to save what God had begun.

That God so loved the world that God wanted to endure that we would not perish, but that we would have eternal life.  That we would flourish, that we would grow into the people God always wanted us to be, that the whole world – not just us, but all of creation – would be born anew.

We don’t know much about what happened to Nicodemus as a consequence of his nighttime encounter with Jesus.  The Bible leaves out a lot of the detail.  It’s not like Oprah – no blow-by-blow description of crisis and growth.  But we DO know that this nighttime meeting with Jesus changed Nicodemus.   We know this because toward the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus makes another appearance -- this time in the light of day – to assist Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus after the crucifixion.    Whatever happened to Nicodemus in those three or so years, he was transformed – transformed by what he learned about the love of God, the God who saves and promises eternal life.

What about us?  What do we learn in the night? What do we learn about God in the night times of our lives, whether in the company of a dying loved on or in the midst of a crisis – do we discover a loving, compassionate, attentive God who, we might not encounter in the light of an ordinary day?  

What about great community challenges which make it seem as if night has fallen? Because of the Brelo case, and because of Tamir Rice, and because of other catastrophes in the same vein, our city is learning about and committing itself anew to justice – the work of God, who tells us over and over through the prophets that justice matters.  Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that what we discover of good in these situations justifies the cost, paid in young lives – not at all.  But it is a reality that our own individual experiences of endarkenment teach us to see with new eyes – we discover things we could not have learned in have learned in the daylight, just as Nicodemus did.

Is it possible that in the night, we, too learn of the extravagant, saving love of God?   A couple of months ago, at Easter, we talked about how the story continues – about how the post-Resurrection story in Mark, which ends with everyone filled with fear and running away, is a story which we are called to continue.  Perhaps the same is also true here, with another story which does not really continue, but picks up later with a changed Nicodemus  – perhaps, again,  we are the continuation of the story.  That God is loving the world into salvation and eternal life, and that we are called to carry that love of God forward, each of us in our own way, each in our own darkness, so that God’s dream is realized.   

Frederick Buechner,  Presbyterian pastor and writer, tells us that “all we’re asked to do is to take a step or two forward through the darkness and start digging in.”[2]  That’s what Nicodemus did; maybe we should do the same.  Look for the love of God – the presence of Jesus – and the persistence of the Spirit – in the nights of life.  Amen.





[1] Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014).


Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Do Penguins Have to Do With It? (Sermon)

“Once upon a time a colony of penguins was living in the frozen Antarctic on an iceberg near what we call today Cape Washington. The iceberg had been there for many, many years.  It was surrounded by a sea rich in food. On its surface were huge walls of eternal snow that gave penguins shelter from dreadful winter storms.  As far back as any of the penguins remembered, they had always lived on that iceberg.  ‘This is our home,’ they would tell you . . .  ‘and this will always be our home.’”[1]
I’ve just read to you the opening words of a book entitled Our Iceberg is Melting!  This is a little book to which I was introduced at a ministry conference last fall, and it’s a book that our session read this past spring.  You may have heard some folks referring to “the penguin book” – this is the book we’re talking about.  You may even see some pictures of penguins floating around – because of this book.
Our Iceberg is Melting! is a charming and humorous little fable about a group pf penguins who live on an iceberg which, as a particularly curious penguin named Fred discovers in his wanderings one day, is in danger of breaking apart.  Fred returns to the penguin colony with this bad news, and the penguins launch an effort to figure out what to do next.
Penguins trying to figure out what to do about their melting iceberg bear some surprising similarities to Presbyterians trying to figure out how to transform their congregational life.    Some of the penguins are curious and adventurous, and want to get as much information as they can about new possibilities.  Others are in denial, and insist that the iceberg has always been their home and that they can never change their home.  One penguin in particular is named No-No, because his response to every new idea is, “No no, we can’t do that!” Eventually, the penguins decide to send out some scout penguins, to look around the ocean for other iceberg homes.  And they also get to work on developing new ideas for how they might live in the future.
The penguin book was actually written by a couple of business professors, who wanted to explain, in an easy-to-understand and quite delightful story, how it is that a community faced with a crisis goes about creating deep change. Sound like any community you know?  Sound like any process you knw? In fact, the leadership of this congregation has made great use of the book as we have worked out a framework and structure for meeting our own iceberg challenges.  
I think that perhaps my personal favorite chapter in the book, and the chapter which happens to connect with our epistle reading today, is the chapter in which the teacher of the kindergarten penguin children expresses her dismay about the proposed changes, and then undergoes a compete transformation herself.
As the process the penguins are going to explore begins to unfold, the kindergarten teacher weeps.  “’With all the change,’ she says, ‘the colony may not need a kindergarten. It, it. . . may not need a teacher who is a bit too old to adapt.’”
But the penguin in whom she confides, a friend named Buddy, responds, “No.  The little birds will need to learn even more in a world that will be ever changing.  A kindergarten teacher will be even more important.”
I wonder if some of you might feel much like the kindergarten teacher.  When things change, sometimes they seem to move so fast that perhaps you think, “I am too old to adapt, and perhaps the matters to which I’ve given my time aren’t important to anyone anymore.”
But Buddy is right.  When things change, your gifts and skills are needed more than ever.  Your wisdom, your years of experience on this earth and in the church, are essential to the success of a new future.
Our Scripture passage from Corinthians today reminds us of the value of our many and varying gifts.  The people of Corinth, to whom Paul was writing nearly 2,000 years ago, were something of a cantankerous lot.  Corinth was a busy port city on Greece, a place through which all sorts of people passed and in which all kinds of folks worked, people with all sorts of religious beliefs.  The fledgling church in Corinth was itself a struggling, divided congregation, and Paul’s letters reflect his efforts to counsel them on their many quarrels.
One of debates in Corinth had to do with spiritual gifts.  What are the gifts of the Spirit – these gifts of wisdom, of knowledge, of faith, of healing, of miracles, of prophecy, even of speaking in tongues?  How should they be used, with both humility and effectiveness? How might we respect and encourage the gifts of each, rather than argue over who is going to do what, and how?  Moving from Corinth ro rhw present, what gifts are in evidence here at Boulevard?  And how are those gifts going to be ignited?
And, most importantly, where do these gifts come from?
Let’s start with that last question.
Our gifts come from God.  From God.  It’s important that we remember the source as we investigate how to use our gifts in the future.  Our own gifts did not just spring from thin air, nor are they  something we ourselves created. They come from God, which means that they are treasures given us to develop and hone for God’s purposes.  They are not gifts given to us just for ourselves and for own objectives; they are given to us for the world.
And how are these gifts ignited? Paul tells us clearly: They are activated by the Spirit.  It’s the Spirit of God who generates all of our ideas, all of our activity. 
Wesley White tells us that “[g]ifts are activated by a common good (a holy spirit moment) that senses a turning tide and shifts gears to a next gift, already present, even as we momentarily shift away from a previous gift. This activation process . . . calls for a gift of humility to let go and humility to step forward.”[2]
All right – that was a lot of words. Let’s think about them for a minute.  Gifts are activated by a holy spirit moment – a moment in kairos time.  We’ve talked about that before – about how chronos time is chronological time, the time we measure by our watches, but kairos time is opportune time, special time, time in which something new is emerging.  And this time we’re in, this time of transition and transformation in our church life, is most assuredly kairos time. It’s a time not to be squandered, it’s a special God-time in which gifts are activated for something new.
And, as Wesley White says, in kairos time, a turning time, we shift from previous to next gifts.  Or, at the very least, kairos time shifts the ways in which we use our gifts – if we respond to the “gift of humility to let go and humility to step forward.” 
As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts this past week.  And here’s what I’ve concluded, at least at this point, about Boulevard Church gifts:
First,  you all have a great gift of hospitality. It’s evident in those who help in so many ways with worship – preparing and greeting and ushering and serving as liturgists and communion servers and Powerpoint operators coffee hour contributors and hosts.  It’s evident in our community meals and in Grandpa’s, both of them projects in which many of you participate in long hours of preparation and  then in greeting and serving our neighbors.  Hospitality.  A tremendous gift in this congregation.
But here’s a second conclusion I’ve reached: That your gift of hospitality has not even begun to be exercised to its fullest capabilities.  That your gift of hospitality has been awaiting this kairos time to be ignited and expanded by the movement of the Spirit.  That there is so much more potential here than has been unlocked at this point. 
I want to tell you a bit more about the penguin colony as an example.  Remember the kindergarten teacher and her tearful worries that she would be of no use in a new colony? Here’s a bit more from the penguin book:
“The penguin kindergarten teacher responded to the challenge set before her by developing a new curriculum.  She realized that the little penguins needed to learn how to help as their colony made big changes, and so “she gathered her young students together to tell them tales of heroic action to help others under difficult and challenging circumstances.  She found some great stories.  She told them with enthusiasm.  She explained that the colony would be needing heroes to deal with new challenges, and that anyone, including the youngest of them, could help.”  Imagine the enthusiasm of the little penguins, as they began to realize that they were called to be heroes, and to help the grown-up penguins be heroes as well!  Those little students became some of the most effective change agents in the colony!
What do you think of that?  That penguin was one very fine teacher, able to adapt to a new summons, a new call, with tremendous energy and creativity.  If the penguins had not realized that their iceberg was melting, she would have continued with the same old same old for the rest of her life, and never had the opportunity to renew and enlarge upon her considerable gifts.  But faced with the call to move forward in a kairos moment, she rose to the occasion, and brought the little penguins right along with her.
What about you?  Can you meet the challenges of the future like a penguin?  Can you respond to God’s call as the Corinthians did?
What might a new iceberg mean for us? Maybe we host weekly meals instead of monthly meals; maybe we open a food pantry.  Maybe Grandpa’s begins to run special days, such as a filled-backpack day for kids in August, or gift days for new parents.  Maybe we find a way to offer basic health screenings in a non-intimidating environment.  Maybe we welcome the Waterloo arts community to host an energetic day of creativity for all ages on our front lawn?  I promise you, we have not even begun!
We don’t know what the future holds, any more than either the penguins or the Corinthians did.  Perhaps we will start a new congregation in the Beachland building.  Perhaps we will do it here.  Perhaps we will do something altogether unknown at this point.  Whatever happens, there will be big changes, changes whose success depends on our response to the movement of the Spirit -- to the call of the wild, restless Spirit of possibility, that we use our gifts to bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
Do not squander this kairos time, my friends.  Do not fail to recognize the grace of God dancing in our midst.  There are gifts sparkling all over the place. Remember that you are people of the resurrected Christ and of the creative Spirit.  You are people gifted for God’s future!

[1] John Kotter and Helger Rathgeber, Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

[2] Wesley White on the Lectionary., 2007.

Image: "Falkland Islands Penguins 41" by Ben Tubby - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sunday Morning Musings

It's a little after 7:00 a.m. and I am doing what I usually do on Sunday mornings -- getting ready to leave the house for church.    And thinking about others who are and are not doing the same thing.
For some, the next few hours will be a time of deep, rich engagement with God, through communal music and prayer and scripture and preaching.
For others, the same outward activities will conceal an inner experience of busy-ness and preoccupation, or hassle and nuisance, or turmoil and unrest, or boredom and irritation.
For others, the morning will be a time for social connection, in the hallways before worship and at the coffee hours after.
And for many, many others, whatever is taking place in houses of worship this morning remains completely irrelevant to their conscious lives.
Having been all of those people at various points in my adult life, I find myself now unable to pinpoint what it is that makes the difference. 
I don't believe that God calls some to worship and others, not, so it isn't God. 
I don't believe that the entire responsibility lies with those who lead worship, whether pastors or musicians or liturgists, who on any given day may be more or less well prepared, more or less aware of the movement of the congregation as a whole, more or less attuned to individual nuances in behavior or response. 
And I don't believe that it all falls on the congregation or the individuals who make it up ~ or don't ~  and who bring to worship, or to whatever else they are doing with their morning, whatever it is they have to bring.
I do believe that I should have a better handle on this, though.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Time . . . and the Church

An endless stream of commentary and counsel on the current state of the mainline church crosses my desk and computer screen on a daily basis.  As the pastor of a small church which has been in a freefall decline for the past two decades, I am, naturally, interested in what everyone has to say. 
How to reverse attendance and giving numbers?  What happened to all the young (under 50!) people? How do we become a "missional" church?  Should we add a contemporary service?  Should we add a contemplative service?  Will renting space to another enterprise resolve our financial issues?  Would a different pastor pull them in? 
Yesterday, I enjoyed a long breakfast with a friend who is a few years (five) older than I am, who has lived without one of her children for a few years (seven, for a total of fourteen) longer than I have, and who is ahead of me in the delight category (a new grandchild!) by five months.  If you had to summarize our wide-ranging conversation, you might say that the theme had to do with finding ways to live out this period of life (which I sometimes refer to as the third third) as fully and deeply and even joyously as possible, given what we were handed in the second third.
This morning as I lay in bed for a few minutes after waking up, the word that came to mind was:
A question applicable to both the congregation and the sixty-something person. 
To what do we want to give our limited, precious time?   What is of such great value as to make it worth hours, weeks, months, even years, of our time?
It seems clear that numbers of people who might have been participants in the life of a mainline congregation a generation, definitely two generations ago, no longer believe that what the church has to offer is worthy of their time. 
I wonder: Do we, we who are pastors and leaders and participants in the life of the church, do we ourselves understand what it is that the church has to offer?    Do we understand what it is that we are doing there?  Do we have any inkling of  how to communicate why we are drawn there?
What claim does the church have to our time?