Saturday, August 25, 2012

Little Miss Sunshine (All You Need Is Love)

August 19, 2012
1 Corinthians 13
Highlands UMC, Denver

Thought for Meditation:
Whatever happens, we’re a family. And what’s important is that we love each other.
— Cheryl Hoover, Little Miss Sunshine 

Today we’re continuing the Summer Movie Sermon Series
with Little Miss Sunshine --
the 2006 independent film, not the children's book --
about a dysfunctional family driving across the southwest.
You may have heard this saying,
from a poem by Robert Frost:
Home is where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in.
At the beginning of Little Miss Sunshine,
that’s about the nicest thing you can say
about the Hoover family.

Cheryl – divorced and remarried, mom of two, secret smoker,
too busy to cook so she brings home KFC for dinner every night –
is on her way to pick up her brother Frank
from the hospital.
On the phone as she drives,
she defends the burden by reminding her husband,
“He has nowhere else to go.”
Frank, a professor and Proust scholar,
has attempted suicide,
after losing the man he loves to his professional rival,
losing his job and his home, and learning
his rival has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Frank now has to room with his teenage nephew Dwayne,
Cheryl’s son,
who reads Nietzsche, hates everyone,
and has taken a vow of silence
until he achieves his goal of becoming a test pilot
with the air force.
The first night that Frank stays with him,
Dwayne writes him a note that says,
“Welcome to hell.”

Cheryl’s husband, Richard,
is a motivational speaker,
with a Nine-Step Refuse to Lose Program
that is just on the brink of getting the investors he needs
to take it to the big-time.
For now, his audience is limited to 10
less than enthusiastic students
in a night school classroom.

Living with them,
is Richard’s father, Edwin,
whom everyone calls Grandpa.
He swears like a sailor,
advises Dwayne to sleep around,
likes adult magazines,
and is generally grumpy and bitter.
Grandpa recently got kicked out of his retirement home
for taking up a drug habit (heroin) in his golden years.
Again, Home is where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in.

And then there is Olive,
Richard and Cheryl’s 7-year-old daughter,
who has recently been introduced
to the world of beauty pageants
thanks to her aunt in California.
The movie opens with Olive watching,
and carefully imitating,
the facial expressions and gestures
of the successful Miss America contestant
being awarded the crown.

It is Olive’s hopes and dreams
that propel the family to take a road trip together,
800 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico,
to Redondo Beach, California,
in an ancient yellow Volkswagen van,
so she can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
Now, Olive is a charming, loving, and confident little girl,
but she does not quite fit the image
of the typical beauty pageant contestant.
She’s… chubby, with thick, out-of-date glasses,
long brown hair that is always well brushed
but never styled,
and a heart that embraces all of her eccentric family.
Grandpa has been coaching her
on a dance routine for the talent competition,
but no one has actually seen what they’re working on.
(That becomes significant later on.)

They are quirky, complicated, dysfunctional characters.
Kinda like most of us.
And at the beginning of this journey,
most of them don’t really like each other.
Only Olive and Grandpa really want to go to the pageant,
but for various reasons, the others all have to tag along.
When Dwayne agrees to go,
he writes on his notepad,
“Okay. But I’m not going to have any fun.”
And Frank commiserates with,
“Yeah, I think we’re all with you there.”
Which is why Cheryl’s statement to her children,
today’s Thought for Meditation,
that what matters is that we love each other,
is more than just a sappy cliché.
It takes 800 miles and a mixture of grief and absurdity
to get them to that point.

As they travel across the mostly desert landscape,
things keep going wrong.
The clutch on the van goes out,
and because it’s old there are no parts available.
The mechanic who gives them the bad news
also explains that they really only need the clutch
to get to 2nd gear;
if they can park on a hill and just coast
until they reach about 30 miles per hour,
they should be fine from there.
But there are a limited number of hills
conveniently located on their route.
So each time they have to stop and then start again,
everyone has to get out and push,
then one at a time, run alongside the van
and jump inside while it’s moving.
Frank reminds his sister as they push,
“Did I mention that I’m the pre-eminent Proust scholar
in the country?”

Richard and Cheryl are so angry leaving one rest stop
that they actually forget Olive,
and have to circle back to pick her up,
not daring to slow down too much
as they cruise through the gas station parking lot
and she runs alongside.
Later on in the journey,
the horn gets stuck,
drawing angry glares
and causing a motorcycle cop
to pull them over,
with hilarious results.

In the interest of not spoiling
some of the major plot developments,
I won’t describe all the things that go wrong.
I will say that in everything,
from minor irritations
to major losses,
there is absurd, awkward, sometimes painful,
ultimately hopeful humor.

Richard, the father,
has based his motivational program
on his frequently-repeated belief
that there are two kinds of people in the world:
and losers.

The irony is, of course,
that every member of this family,
at some point during this weekend road trip,
looks an awful lot like
what society would call a loser.

Both because they are not “winning” in life
according to most external definitions of success,
but also because they each experience loss,
especially the loss of a cherished dream.
Frank has lost love, employment, prestige,
and hope.
Grandpa has lost community and independence.
Cheryl is losing patience with her family.
Richard learns his motivational program
will not get the investors he needs.
Dwayne learns he is colorblind,
and will not be able to fly jets.
And because this is not a Disney movie,
Olive doesn’t win the trophy
or the title of Little Miss Sunshine.
In fact, she is banned from ever again
entering a beauty pageant
in the state of California.
(As a side note, and without giving too much away,
I’ll just say that Olive’s talent performance
makes everyone really uncomfortable,
but it also sheds light
on why beauty pageants for 7-year-olds
should make us uncomfortable in general.)

To lose, to fail, to make mistakes:
these are part of the human condition.
We are all losers in that sense.

But what makes the difference
in the face of loss
is not some motivational mantra
about the will to win
or even having tried your hardest.
What makes the difference for the Hoovers,
what leads them out of the hell they start in,
is finding their way back
to loving each other,
and being family.

St Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth
is known for the chapter we read today
on the spiritual gift of love.
Of course, it’s the most frequently chosen Scripture
for weddings,
but it wasn’t written with romantic love in mind.
It is part of a bigger point that Paul is making
about what matters in the community of the church.
And what matters, Paul says,
is not which gift you have,
or whether your gifts are better or more important
than someone else’s.
It’s not a competition,
with winners and losers.

In the previous chapter he tells them,
you are all members of the same body;
together, you are the Body of Christ,
and none of you can be winners
without all of you.
Which means that the greatest spiritual gift,
the one that gives all the others meaning,
is the gift of love.
Not sappy, Hallmark-card, flowers and chocolates,
sentimental feelings.
(Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
But fierce, strong, hardworking love:
Genuine care for the wellbeing of others.
Investment in relationship
through the disciplines of patience and kindness.
Willingness to put the best interests of others
as equal with your own.
None of your talents or sacrifice or knowledge,
not even your faith,
has any value or meaning
if you do not have love.

Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.

One of the things I love about this movie
is that the members of the Hoover family all mess up
in one or another of these ways.
And don’t we all?
But when the rubber hits the road,
they stand by one another.
They comfort each other in times of grief;
they support each other’s hopes and dreams.
They want to protect one another from heartache,
but when heartache comes,
they would rather get up and look foolish together
than silently allow others to pass judgment.

By the time they leave the pageant,
it seems that even Richard may have realized
that there are not two kinds of people in the world.
There are not simply winners and losers.
Rather, everyone figures out along the way:
you win some,
you lose some.
And what matters is having family
to accept you as you are,
to celebrate or mourn with you,
whatever the journey brings.

For those of us who follow Jesus,
part of the good news is that family is not limited
to the people we’re related to by blood and marriage.
All of us who do our best
to make up the Body of Christ:
we are family, whatever happens.
And what matters is that we love each other.
Even when the going gets tough,
even if we don’t always agree
or even like each other very much.
Even when society calls us losers.
After all, Jesus said that the first will be last,
and the last will be first.
And he showed us the face of God
by loving and living among those society called “losers.”
So perhaps there’s hope for us all of us
who don’t quite measure up
in the beauty pageants of life.
Hope, and faith, and above all else –
if we’re willing to keep pushing the bus together
and making sure nobody gets left behind –
May it be so for you and for me.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Witness, Acts 17:22-31

May 29, 2011
Note: The assigned lectionary text is Acts 17:22-31, but I feel the verses before and after add helpful context to Paul's message, so I included those in the reading as well.

This all took place a long time ago,
in a galaxy far, far away…
Okay, it was actually on this planet,
but sometimes the stories in the Bible
feel so distant from the reality we know
that they might as well have taken place
in a whole other universe. Right?
It’s hard for some of us to imagine a culture
where everyone is religious,
no one has heard of Jesus of Nazareth,
and it was against the law to promote foreign gods.

In today’s reading, I imagine I am not the only one
who struggles with some of Paul’s message:
I am inclined to affirm, not judge,
religious traditions other than my own.
I’m uncomfortable with the idea
that God has planned out the times and places
for all nations –
we live in a world where borders change
and people emigrate all the time,
and nations regularly inflict violence on one another
over the idea that one group has a God-given right
to live in a land that belonged to a different group
for centuries.
And while I agree with Paul that God is not “needy”
or psychologically dependent on human service or praise,
I believe that God is deeply relational,
and that God’s purposes are accomplished
only with human cooperation.
Finally, I’m skeptical about the concept
of an appointed day of judgment,
and frankly, I’m surprised that the only time in this speech
that Paul refers to Jesus
is as the one who will judge humanity
and who has been resurrected as proof of that.
There’s a lot about Paul’s sermon
that doesn’t make much sense to me.

And at the same time,
there are some aspects of this story
that I really appreciate,
and that still ring true
nearly 2000 years later.

First-century Athens is a pluralistic context,
as is true of 21st-century American society.
People follow many different spiritual paths,
today as then,
and there is room for them to coexist
more or less peacefully.
The people of Athens are intellectually curious,
interested in learning and discussing all the latest ideas.
And they’re spiritual seekers,
open to the likelihood that there is more to the Divine
than has yet been revealed to them,
offering a shrine even to the God they don’t yet know.
They value poets and philosophers,
and Paul acknowledges the wisdom of these writers
who are neither Jewish nor Christ-followers,
but who have nevertheless expressed truths
that Paul affirms as valid theological statements.

I love that God is described as the Creator of all,
“the One who gives everyone life, breath—everything”
and “the One who is not really far from any of us—
the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
These phrases are among some of the most beautiful, generative, and perhaps some of the most universal claims
that Paul is described as making.
Whole theological systems have emerged from reflection
on the idea that “we live and move and have our being”
in our creating, life-giving God.

It takes a bit of reading between the lines,
but I appreciate that Paul presents the God of Israel
as God of the whole earth.
God is not nationalistic, says Paul,
but above and beyond national boundaries.
And of course,
when Paul quotes an Athenian poet as saying,
‘We too are God’s children,’
what is most striking to me is that word “too.”
We’re used to hearing this idea,
which is repeated many times in the Hebrew Bible.
But to hear the phrasing coming from the lines
of an unknown Greek poet,
responding to who knows what original statement,
there is a sense of defensiveness
or urgency
about being included in the family of God
along with whoever is already sure of their status.

But perhaps what I appreciate most in today’s reading
is Paul’s approach to sharing his faith
with the people of Athens.
First of all, we know he’s not shy.
His boldness in preaching the Gospel
gets him in trouble on several occasions,
and I admire people who are willing to take those kinds of risks
to stand up for what they believe in.

But what’s really striking about this particular sermon,
preached in front of the Council of the Areopagus—
the Latin name of which translates to Mars Hill—
is how carefully he tailors his message
to his audience.

Now, you may know from other readings,
but Paul is a Jew,
a member of the community of Pharisees,
someone well-versed in Jewish law and tradition,
and strictly observant of all that God required.

But when he’s invited—or possibly dragged…
maybe even arrested? we’re not really sure—
and called to give an account of his teaching,
he doesn’t start with Abraham and Moses and Elijah.
He doesn’t start with the passages in Isaiah
that speak of the coming anointed king, the messiah,
who will redeem the people of Israel
and initiate God’s reign on earth.
He starts with the people he’s speaking to,
what he has observed about them,
the spiritual needs and passions
he wants to affirm in them,
and then connects those with the story he knows.
Still, he doesn’t focus in on where he comes from,
but stays with what makes sense to them:
The God who created the world and all that is in it,
the nature of God,
the nearness of God,
the relationship of God to all people,
and finally,
the response that God asks.

The content of what Paul says?
I have to do at least half a dozen theological
and cultural translations in my head
to affirm or agree with most of his message.
But you know what?
He wasn’t speaking to me, to us,
to 21st century North American Christians
living in a city called Denver.
Paul was a bright man,
and he wrote many wonderful, God-inspired,
Holy-Spirit-led things,
as well as some that seem a little less Spirit-given,
but he was mortal.
He was formed by the time and place in which he lived.
Sure, he learned to adapt,
to “become all things to all people”
in order to share the Gospel with them,
but that just points all the more to the fact
that no single message,
no single messenger,
can effectively communicate in all times and places.

Which is why the Bible is not enough
for introducing people to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Now, I know this is going to make some of you
a little uncomfortable,
because this is a church that affirms pluralism,
that does not teach that people must accept Jesus
as their personal Lord and Savior
in order to receive God’s love or mercy.
Stay with me, because I still believe
that there are many paths to God,
and that God is not contained to my religion alone.
But I am also convinced
that we who follow Jesus
are called to bear witness to our faith.

First, let me be clear about what I am not saying:

I am not saying that you need to stand on a street corner
shouting “Repent! Judgment day is coming!”
The Christians who believe everyone else is going to hell
have turned a lot of people off
by telling them just that.
When I was in college,
my campus minister used to say,
“I don’t believe anyone really gets to heaven
just by having the hell scared out of them.”

I am also not saying that you need to go door-to-door,
trying to convert people to Christianity.
That’s called proselytizing,
trying to make people believe the way you do,
and in this neighborhood especially, I’m pretty sure
it would be not just ineffective, but disastrous.
Everyone is on their own spiritual journey,
and while I wouldn’t say that every path is equally valid,
because some are truly harmful,
either to the individual, their family,
women, the environment, or whomever,
but giving the same sales pitch to each person
doesn’t take into account the variations
in their experience, interests, needs,
or readiness for something new.

And I am not saying
that you need to be able to prove anything
or even convince anybody
who doesn’t want to be convinced.
In some of Paul’s letters,
he engages in the practice of apologetics,
a kind of reasoned defense of faith,
usually based on Scripture and logic.
In today’s world, our understanding of science,
psychology, sociology, and history
have changed dramatically from Paul’s time.
There are still many who feel called
to the work of apologetics today,
but I don’t know how much success they have
at reaching those who are not already Christ-followers.

What I am saying
is that if our faith has any meaning for us,
it is worth sharing in some way with others.
When you think about a witness called to testify in court,
they are not asked to prove
a complicated logical argument,
or to scare the jury into submission,
or even to convince the judge of a particular view.
The witness is called to speak about
what they personally have seen and heard:
what they have experienced firsthand.

When you bear witness to your faith,
all you need to do is speak honestly
about what difference a relationship with God
makes in your life.
Why you come to church on Sunday
instead of sleeping in,
or going to brunch with friends,
or hiking in the mountains.
[And I know you sometimes make those other choices too,
but if you show up here at least some of the time,
there must be a reason.]
How you live, the quality of your relationships,
your character and integrity and generosity,
may all testify to something good at work in you—
like St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times,
and if necessary, use words”—
but if someone asks why you do what you do,
I think it’s helpful to have thought about the question,
to know what the “good news” is to you.

For me, the Gospel first began to make a difference in my life
when I was in high school.
I didn’t attend worship regularly,
preferring to care for the toddlers in the nursery,
but I still considered myself  a Christian,
someone who believed in God and Jesus.
What I particularly remember was one day at school
when I was struggling with some difficult friendships,
feeling betrayed and left out,
suddenly realizing,
“Jesus went through this—on a much bigger scale—
when Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him
and all the disciples fell asleep in the garden,
so he knows what this feels like.”
I wasn’t really raised in the tradition of
“a personal relationship with Jesus,”
turning to Christ in prayer in difficult and joyful times,
so that was kind of where the thought ended,
but it made a difference to me in that moment
to know that I was not alone,
that not only did God care about me in an abstract way,
but that Jesus had actually gone through
what I was going through.

Another time my faith made a difference
was my freshman year in college.
I was already active in the United Methodist campus ministry,
and I attend the United Methodist Student Forum,
a gathering of hundreds of students from across the country,
Memorial Day weekend, fifteen years ago.
I was still very much figuring out what I believed
about many different things,
but I attended a gathering of students
who called themselves “MoSAIC,”
Methodist Students for an All-Inclusive Church.
The focus was on the welcome and affirmation
of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people,
and though I wasn’t sure yet where I stood on the issue,
I listened to people’s stories
and thought a lot about what I heard.
A few weeks after I returned home for the summer,
the MoSAIC leaders sent out an email
to all who had attended the meeting,
inviting us to further action and involvement.
The email ended with a poem called “Fear,”
by Joy Harjo, a Native American poet,
a poem about giving fear back to those who instilled it,
about not being afraid any more,
about releasing fear and being loved,
about claiming life in all its fullness.
It was a poem I had written a paper on
just that spring semester.
And I experienced that email message
as God nudging me,
whispering to me,
“Give back your fear,
your fear of those who are different from you,
your fear of being wrong,
and join this movement for life and love and justice.”

Now, when you think about “witness,”
maybe you think of the 1986 movie with Harrison Ford,
or the Witness Protection Program.
Both of those suggest that being a witness
carries a certain amount of risk.
And unlike the Witness Protection Program,
we church leaders cannot guarantee
that you will not experience some consequences
of talking about your experience.
Because telling your story,
and how you understand it as part of God’s story,
is a powerful thing—
for you, and for those listening.
Just ask anyone in a 12-step recovery program.
It can help you to know and name who you are.
It can help others to find hope.
It can remind all of us
that we are not alone.

Because while some may see Christianity
as just one more vendor
in the spiritual marketplace,
offering religious goods and services
in competition with other religions,
I believe our faith is more about an invitation to relationship
with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ.
When I think about the dating world,
it can be a good thing to meet and get to know
several different potential partners.
But just as most of us hope for one person
to whom we can commit deeply,
in the same way, choosing one faith tradition
can give us a depth of grounding,
a rootedness, and an intimacy with God
that brings with it a new kind of freedom:
the freedom to trust God for the results of our actions.
So that when we do bear witness to our faith,
when we are open with others
about why we give regularly to the church
and to those who are in need,
when we are clear about why we show up here on Sunday
why we speak out for justice and compassion,
and how our lives are formed
and transformed
by the God revealed in Jesus Christ,
we don’t have to worry
about whether we convince
or convert that person.
We can trust that the One
in whom we live and move and have our being
is also at work in the life of our neighbor,
drawing them ever closer
to the Source and Sustainer of life.

And if this whole question of religion
is more about relationship
than consuming goods and services,
then who shares the message
is as important as what the message is.
I think that’s why those printed evangelism tracts
aren’t particularly effective.
They’re one-size-fits-all.
When we witness to our faith,
we share how our story
is connected to God’s story.
And it makes a difference who we are as the storytellers,
as well as when, where, and to whom we’re speaking.
Knowing the person we’re speaking to,
what they value, where they’ve been,
what they hope and long for,
how they struggle and when they celebrate,
gives us the opportunity to speak more meaningfully
about how they, too, are part of God’s story.

I want to leave you with some words of wisdom
from a nun named Carol Francis Jegen,
of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
“As a human being, Jesus was limited in many ways.
He lived on this earth in a certain culture
for a certain period of time.
In his great compassionate love
Jesus really needs us to carry on his work
of bringing about the reign of God’s love
in every culture and in every period of history.”

Much of that work requires our actions,
our energy, our resources, our intentionality
and integrity in relationships and labor.
But part of the work
of bringing about the reign of God’s love
is telling what we have seen and heard,
proclaiming this good news,
boldly or humbly,
carefully and meaningfully,
so that others have the opportunity to understand
how their story
is part of God’s story,
and so all may know
what a difference it makes
to draw near and get to know
the Unknown God. 

May it be so for you and for me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nic at Night, John 3:1-17

March 20, 2011
Highlands UMC
John 3:1-17

The Gospel of John sometimes reads like
the United Methodist Book of Discipline
crossed with Shakespeare –
like a committee whose membership changed over the years
and continually revisited what had been written down before,
was charged with explaining who Jesus was and is,
and then every other chapter
they got the really wordy member of the group
to write down some long, drawn-out soliloquy
with philosophical and mystical implications.
I mean, who knows,
it’s possible that’s how it happened.

Today’s text is like that:
I must have read it a hundred times this week,
just to try to get a handle on what it’s about,
and I still feel like it’s about 6 different things.
Maybe more.

And then, in the midst of a monologue,
Jesus speaks the words that millions have seized on
as the essence of the gospel,
the good news that “God so loved the world,”
and that eternal life is available
by believing in the only-begotten one.

Some of you, I know,
find that verse meaningful and comforting.
Others, perhaps many others,
get kind of squirmy or irritable
when you hear or see references to John 3:16,
maybe because of what it says,
but probably more so because of how it’s been used.

I hope you brought your theological waders,
because it might get a little deep in here today,
and more than a little messy.

So last week we kicked off Lent (as usual)
with Jesus going into the desert to face his temptations. 
This year, the bulk of Lent – weeks 2, 3, 4, 5 –
brings us stories from the Fourth Gospel
about people who encounter Jesus in different settings,
and the various ways they respond to him:
from Nicodemus in the dead of night
to the outcast Samaritan woman
at the well in the middle of the day;
on to the Pharisees wanting answers
about the man born blind
and finally Mary and Martha in their grief
over their brother Lazarus’s death.
Each of these stories –
and the following conversations and monologues by Jesus –
can be seen as answering the question,
What does it mean to meet Jesus,
to know him truly,
to embrace the way he reveals God’s work in the world,
into our lives? 
Of the characters in these stories,
Nicodemus is neither the most villainous
nor the most saintly.

He is unusual in that he comes to Jesus by night.
Not much else happens by night in the gospels,
until we get to the garden of Gethsemane,
where the crowd, led by Judas,
comes to arrest Jesus while he’s praying…

One of the preachers whose comments I read
in preparing to preach this week
describes the scene as Gospel noir –
Just like in those old movies,
it’s a dark & stormy night,
and Jesus is just getting home from a long day
teaching and performing signs and wonders.
Nicodemus is waiting in an alley doorway,
fedora lowered and trenchcoat collar raised.
As Jesus reaches the door of the house where he’s staying,
Nic steps out of the shadows to offer a seemingly casual
but coded
“You seem to be a stand-up guy,
a teacher who has come from God;
maybe you’re the kind of man
who should be part of the organization I represent.” 

“You don’t know the half of it,” replies Jesus. 
“The organization I’m part of
requires a whole other set of qualifications than yours.
First of all, that you start from scratch.
Not just as an apprentice scholar or teacher’s assistant,
but as an infant, being born all over again.” 

“What are you talking about?
You think grown men like us get second chances?
You trying to say we get to crawl
back inside our mother’s bodies
and come out brand-spankin’-new?
Not likely.”

Okay, I’m throwing some interpretation onto the dialogue here,
because to read it straight makes it sound like
Jesus answers a question Nicodemus didn’t ask,
and then doesn’t answer the questions he does ask.
Which, now that I think about it,
actually does kind of sound like Jesus.

And we can’t tell from the text
exactly why Nicodemus has waited until darkness
to approach Jesus;
perhaps he’s afraid of what other members of the Sanhedrin,
the council of leaders, would think
if they saw him associating with the upstart from Nazareth;
perhaps he doesn’t want anyone to know
that he doesn’t have everything all figured out,
and is still asking questions;
perhaps he is trying to gather dirt on Jesus
to trip him up later in public,
or maybe he just can’t get these questions out of his head
and goes to see the famous Rabbi
when his racing thoughts won’t let him sleep.
The timing doesn’t reflect very well on him;
in this Gospel, including the 4 verses
right after the end of today’s reading,
Jesus uses light and darkness as symbols
of those whose lives are in tune with God’s intention,
on the one hand,
and those who are at cross-purposes with God.
Nicodemus does show up twice more in this Gospel,
both times more or less as an ally of Jesus,
but not quite as a wholehearted disciple,
or someone who “gets” who Jesus is.
He seems to be a man stuck on the fence,
hesitant, uncertain, weighing the possibilities,
full of questions, trying to figure things out
without saying anything too definitive
or controversial.
Maybe he’s a little like you and me.

And although the words themselves don’t seem to connect,
I have to believe that Jesus is not pulling off
a total non-sequitur
when he responds to Nicodemus’s compliment
with an obscure statement on what it takes
to see the kingdom of God.

The language Jesus uses,
about being born from above, or born again –
both are legitimate meanings of the Greek word
anothen –
is confusing to Nicodemus,
and perhaps all too familiar to us 2000 years later.
It is a phrase that doesn’t make much sense
the first time you hear it, out of context;
but today it is a catchphrase
for a certain branch of Christianity,
the criterion, according to some,
to know who’s in
and who’s out.
Those who call themselves “born-again Christians,”
or at least those who claim to speak for them,
are often the same ones who lift up verses 16 and following
to explain why everyone needs Jesus
to avoid eternal damnation.
Some claim the name “evangelical,” others “fundamentalist,”
while others might not care for the labels,
but know they are included
and others are excluded.

Over the past month,
there has been a theological firestorm in cyberspace,
as a prominent evangelical leader,
one Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church,
announced the release of his new book,
called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell,
and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
And the people who thought he was one of them,
people who call themselves evangelicals,
conservatives, Bible-believing, born-again Christians,
are calling him a heretic.
Because he implies that there might be some people in heaven
that Christians don’t expect to see there.
Because he suggests that God loves
not just the worthy, not just the baptized,
not just the linear, logical, literal, or law-abiding,
not just the church-attending, Bible-reading,
educated, successful, middle-class American Christians,
but the world
the whole entire world
and what’s more,
that it isn’t up to us to say who gets into heaven or not,
it’s up to God.

Well, we could have a whole other discussion on heaven,
on what happens after death,
but I think some of you have lunch plans!
But it’s very interesting to me
that the act of saying,
“We humans don’t know who’s in and who’s out,
so we should leave that whole question to God,
who by the way, loves everyone,”
has provoked such a reaction,
such a widespread response of,
“You’re wrong.
We do know who’s in and who’s out,
and by questioning the rules,
you are now out.”

So let’s come back to Nicodemus
and his midnight chat with Jesus.

Did you know that at night,
when there’s very little light,
the reason you can’t see much color
is that the “cone photoreceptors” in your eyes,
which are responsible for distinguishing
the different wavelengths of visible light
that create color perception,
don’t function very well,
and the monochromatic “rod” receptors take over.
So, in the darkness,
pretty much everything seems black and white.
Houses, people,
old TV shows,
theological questions—
you name it,
it’s harder to see the complexities that make up
the beauty of our world
when we come at something
without enough light.

It’s not clear what Nicodemus believes,
or what relationship he ends up having with Jesus,
if any,
but it seems to me
that asking questions is a good place to start.
If we don’t ask, we don’t learn as much.
And yes, we risk looking foolish,
or getting an answer (or non-answer)
we didn’t really want,
but it’s at least the start of a journey.
And when Jesus responds to the questions
by saying, “Are you a teacher, and yet you don’t understand?”
I have to admit,
I find myself shrugging and nodding sheepishly
along with Nicodemus.

But what I think I hear Jesus saying is,
“The Spirit blows where it chooses,
and you don’t know its origin or destination –
and nor can you control it.
Entering God’s kin’dom,
the reign of God’s love, the life abundant,
the heavenly realm just the other side of the veil,
doesn’t require being a teacher with all the answers.
You have to be born of the Spirit,
and guess what?
You don’t get to control that either.
God loves the world.
Not just Israel,
not just the ones who follow all the rules,
but this same world that seems hell-bent
on opposing God’s will for love and justice and mercy.”

In the same story that some have used
to say, “Answer this question
so we know whether you’re in or out,”
Jesus seems to be saying,
“It’s not about knowing who’s in and who’s out!”
Jesus’ mission isn’t about judgment and condemnation,
it’s about bringing more light
to the human race,
light enough to see the image of God
in our sisters and brothers,
light enough to distinguish more than black and white,
light enough to see all the colors of the rainbow,
all the nuances of story and parable and metaphor,
all the possibilities of relationship
with God and with our neighbor,
all the ways in which we are all included
in the circle of God’s love.

And what does it take for that to happen for each of us?
We have to be born again.
Born anew.
Born from above,
by water – the waters of physical birth,
the waters of baptism –
and the Spirit.
But I don’t think that’s a one-time deal,
like a lightning strike you have to sit around
waiting for it to happen to you,
and then you can check it off your list.
Although some of us experience flashes of insight,
moments of assurance,
perhaps even the feeling of having your heart
strangely warmed,
as John Wesley did,
I think even John Wesley would say
that the new birth is part of a continual, lifelong process.

Because it turns out that in this gospel,
the phrase “eternal life”
doesn’t mean “unending life after death”;
it doesn’t seem to be about
“where you go when you die,”
but it is about participating in God’s abundant life
here and now –
bringing God’s kin’dom to reality,
bringing heaven to earth.
That’s why we have to be born from above,
to begin our spiritual lives at the beginning—
to open ourselves to relationship with the Holy,
to say yes to God’s grace.
I love this definition of grace from Richard Heitzenrater,
a Wesley scholar from Duke Divinity School:
“'Grace is what God is doing
at the depths of your life
by the power of the Holy Spirit.'

Being born from above
is letting the Holy Spirit do
what God wants done
at the depths of our life."*
We don’t have to understand that logically
to say yes to the invitation.
We don’t have to know
whether others have already gotten there,
or threaten them with eternal torment
to invite them to join us in the grand adventure.
We only have to look to the one
who dedicated his life to proclaiming the love of God
who was lifted up in shame and punishment
only to reveal that the kingdom of God,
life eternal and abundant,
the power of God’s love at work in the world
is greater than all the powers of fear and death
that hold us captive.

If you have caught even a glimpse
of the kingdom of God,
you have already been born from above.
If you long to find a chance to start over,
if you have more questions than answers,
if you are seeking a connection
with the God who loves and seeks to save this world,
you have come to the right place.
God will meet you here –
and not only here,
but throughout your whole crazy,
beautiful life,
to work within you,
to bring about the new birth,
to draw you into the light of the kin’dom.
May it be so for you and for me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Visitor

The Visitor
(part of a movie sermon series)
Rev. Kerry Greenhill
Highlands UMC
August 9, 2009

Hebrews 13:1-3
Let mutual love continue.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that some have entertained angels
without knowing it.
Remember those who are in prison,
as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured,
as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Walter Vale is a man
who has forgotten how to live.
I mean, he continues working,
teaching economics at a college in Connecticut.
He cooks dinner for himself at night.
He is trying to learn to play the piano.
But there is no energy, no enthusiasm or passion,
or even really much interest
in what he does.
At the beginning of the school year,
he just changes the date on the syllabus.
He tells people he has a lighter course load
so he can work on his next book,
but he never actually writes anything.
He has had five piano teachers
and still cannot play the piece he practices daily.
He is sleepwalking through his life.

As the movie opens,
we see the latest piano teacher
attempting to help Walter make progress.
But her methods are better suited to children
than grown men,
and when they say goodbye,
he tells her he won’t continue with their lessons.
She lets him know that learning an instrument
at his age
is difficult,
especially if you don’t possess a natural gift for it.
And she lets him know that if he does give it up,
she would like to buy his piano.

We come to find out that Walter was married,
that his wife was an accomplished classical pianist,
and that she died some years previous.
It is clear that grief and loneliness
lay heavily upon Walter.
The piano lessons are an effort to hold on
to what he has lost,
maybe even to keep the clock
from ticking endlessly forward.

But time does tick on,
and Walter’s department chair comes to him one day
to tell him he must go to a conference in New York City
to present a paper he co-authored with a colleague.
Walter protests, he can’t,
he would really rather not go,
he didn’t actually write the paper…
but there is no getting out of this obligation.

So he drives to the city, alone.
But when he enters the apartment
he has owned for more than 20 years,
he is startled to discover
a young couple living there.
After about a minute of mutual panic and confusion,
they realize that they are the intruders in Walter’s home,
and not the other way around.
The man’s name is Tarek,
and he is from Syria;
his girlfriend, Zainab, is from Senegal.
They have been living there for a couple months,
having been rented the apartment
in what turns out to have been a scam.

They immediately pack up their things and leave,
wanting no trouble,
but as Walter watches them from his window,
it becomes clear they don’t have anywhere else to go.
He invites them to stay,
at least until they can get on their feet,
and they gratefully, if hesitantly, accept.

Over the next few days,
the young couple build a tentative friendship
with Walter.
They eat dinner together in the apartment,
and Walter accepts their invitation
to go to a jazz club
and hear Tarek play djembe,
a kind of African drum.
On his lunch hour,
Walter eats in the park and discovers
two young men playing a frenzied beat
on two upturned white plastic buckets.

The next day,
Walter seeks out the drummers in the park
and you can see the rhythm is starting to get under his skin
by the way he moves his head and shoulders to the beat
while eating his lunch.
That evening,
after finding Walter tapping experimentally
on the drum in his living room,
Tarek gives Walter a lesson in djembe.
He says to him,
“I know you’re a very smart man,
but with the drum,
you have to remember not to think.
Thinking just screws it up, okay?”
And keeping a steady beat,
Tarek encourages Walter to start playing,
until Walter’s look of utterly serious concentration
softens to something like enjoyment.

Within a day or two,
Walter and Tarek have made such progress
that Walter joins in a drumline at the park,
and the spirit of the rhythm
and the energy of the beat
has people of all sizes and skin colors dancing,
their whole bodies moving with the joy of the music.
They joke about playing drums
in the subway station together—
something Tarek has always wanted to do,
because it’s supposed to be good money.

But on their way back to meet Zainab,
Tarek and Walter run into some trouble.
There is a glitch with the swipe card Tarek is using,
so he hands the drum to Walter and climbs through.
And is stopped by police
who accuse him of jumping the turnstile.
In spite of Walter’s assurances that he didn’t do anything wrong,
the officers arrest Tarek and take him away.
Walter comes back to the apartment
to tell a worried Zainab what happened.
“It was just a misunderstanding.
They said he’d be released later tonight,”
he says.
But her fear only increases:
“How could this happen?
He knows better,
he wouldn’t do anything wrong.”
“No, he didn’t. He didn’t.
I’m sure it’ll be okay.”
“No,” she tells him,
“it won’t be okay.
We are illegal.
We are not citizens.
And when they find out—”

And of course, they do find out.
Tarek is held in a very nondescript detention facility
in a run-down part of Queens,
and Walter goes to visit him there.
Zainab cannot visit,
because she would be putting herself at risk
of discovery by the authorities
and deportation.
Walter hires an immigration lawyer
to try to help Tarek,
and learns some more about his past:
when he first came to the U.S. with his mother,
their request for asylum was denied.
They appealed, and were turned down,
but Tarek never received orders
to show up for deportation.
We also learn that Tarek’s father
was a journalist in Syria,
imprisoned for seven years
for something he wrote,
and released so sick and weak
that he died just two months later.

Tarek asks Walter if he has been back to the drumline,
if he is still practicing,
and encourages him to demonstrate
what he’s been working on.

Zainab moves out of the apartment,
going to stay with her cousin.
Tarek’s mother shows up at Walter’s door—
surprised to find a more-than-middle-aged white man
who claims to be sharing the apartment with her son.
She has come to New York from Michigan
because she has not heard from Tarek in several days
and she is very worried about him.
Walter takes her in,
insisting that she stay
because he feels responsible for Tarek’s arrest.

Life in the detention facility is not easy,
and Tarek’s usually sunny mood
grows increasingly anxious
as other detainees disappear without warning,
moved from the facility
with no notice of where they have gone.
“What do they think? I’m a terrorist?
There are no terrorists in here.
Terrorists have money, support.
This is not fair.”
“I know.”
“How do you know? You’re out there.
I’m sorry.”
[Tarek gets choked up, tries to compose himself]
“I keep thinking about Zainab.
I just want to live my life and play my music.
What’s so wrong about that?”

Mouna, Tarek’s mother,
meets Zainab, and likes her;
spends time with Walter,
and grows fond of him,
as he does of her.
Although he is worried about Tarek,
Walter has come alive
through the drumming
and these new relationships.
He goes back to Connecticut briefly,
sells the piano,
and arranges to take a leave of absence
from the college
in order to spend more time in New York.

But there is no happy ending.
There is no Disney ending,
no loophole in the system,
no tough-as-nails judge
whose heart is softened
by some persuasive storytelling.
Tarek is deported,
very suddenly, without warning,
early one morning
before Walter and Mouna
can get to the detention facility.

Mouna decides she must go back to Syria
as soon as possible,
for Tarek’s sake.
Her farewell to Walter is tearful
and reluctant,
both of them having found something in the other
they had never expected to find again.

In the final scene,
Walter is takes the djembe down to the subway
where he sits on a bench in the station
and plays.
A few people turn to look
at this older white male,
college-professor type
playing the African drum,
but Walter just keeps playing
without seeming to notice or care
if they are listening.

There is no real hero in this movie,
and no real villain.
Just the story of these people,
connected for a short time,
before their lives take them separate ways.

The movie begs the question,
who is the visitor in this story?
Mouna, in New York City?
Zainab and Tarek, in the apartment?
All of the immigrants,
whose life in the U.S. has no guarantee of permanency?
Walter, when he sees Tarek
in the detention facility?
Walter, in his own apartment?
Or Walter, who starts out a visitor
in his own life?

Of course there’s not just one right answer.
But what stands out to me
is how, in Walter’s life,
the decision to extend hospitality
to two strangers,
becomes a source of rich blessing.

The verse from Hebrews today
reminds us of the story of Abraham and Sarah,
who were visited by three strangers
who turned out to be angels:
not glowing, cherubic figures with wings,
but messengers from God,
dusty from the road
in need of food and shelter,
yet carrying the gift of blessing:
the good news that Sarah
(who was so old
she didn’t take offense at the word “old”)
would bear a child,
that together Abraham and Sarah
would become the ancestors
of multitudes,
of nations that would spread God’s blessing
over the earth.

Amazing, isn’t it?
That’s the thing about biblical hospitality:
although it starts with the assumption
that it is the host who acts benevolently
toward the guest,
it often ends with the host’s realization
that the guest has given more than they received.

Just look at the stories of Jesus
in the homes of Zaccheus,
or Mary and Martha,
even the home of Simon
(the leper or the Pharisee,
depending which gospel you’re reading)
when a woman comes in
to anoint Jesus with costly perfumed ointment.

Because while Walter does what he can
to help Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna,
in the end he cannot fix
any of the problems in their lives.
But what he gains from building a relationship with them
turns his own life around.
From sleepwalking
to dancing.
From a life based in the mind—
and a life half-lived, at that—
a life isolated and lonely
transformed to a life fully embodied,
connected to others,
reenergized by discovering a new rhythm,
a beat that exists within his heart.

The point is not, of course,
that African rhythms are superior
to Western classical music,
that drums are better than piano—
or harp!
Mouna has expressed her enjoyment of classical music,
listening to a CD of Walter’s wife playing piano.
There is nothing wrong with classical music
if that is what stirs your soul.

There is something wrong
with holding onto the past
in such a way
that you cannot take a step forward.
Or with shutting down your hopes and passions
because you are afraid of the pain of grief.

Because the heart of the gospel,
in my understanding,
is the promise that Jesus made
of life abundant,
not just life that goes on forever after death,
but life that is here and now
infused with the Spirit
of love and joy and laughter,
life in all its fullness
where pain and grief are fully felt and acknowledged
in order for healing to be possible,
life centered in God’s love for all people,
all creation,
life in sync with the very heartbeat
of God.
Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our routines,
to have a new kind of experience,
an encounter with a stranger,
to realize there is still more possible
in this life.

May you be ready to receive
The Visitor who comes to your door.