Do You see what I see?

This sermon was preached on February 5, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 7: 1-17.

Last week in our Scripture reading, we had the story of two different Sabbath days with Jesus pushing the boundaries of what it meant to observeSabbath in light of changing circumstances. Today, we have two towns, two healings, two very different circumstances.  In the first healing, the healing comes to one outside of the people of God, to a slave of a Roman centurion.  The Jewish elders sent toJesus appeal to him and declare the centurion worthy for he has helped the Jewish people, even built their synagogue. This was a man of means and it seems a man of faith, for while others call him worthy, he knows his own unworthiness and asks Jesus not to even come to his house but just to say the word and he knows his beloved servant will be healed.  A man of deep faith who was not a Jew. And Jesus heals the servant, expanding the boundaries yet again of who belongs in the Kingdom of God.

The second story is much different. No one calls the man who has died or his widowed mother worthy.  There is no indication that they are a family of means.  The man is not sick but already dead.  But when Jesus comes across the dead man’s mother, it says he sees her and has compassion on her.  As a widow with her only son now dead, she is a woman without hope.  Women at that time were dependent on the men in their lives for survival and she is now a woman without husband or son.  She is doubly vulnerable.  Jesus sees her and has compassion  on her and so raises her son from the dead and in that act she has now been restored to community and survival.

This word compassion is important in Luke.  Compassion is not to intellectually understand that someone is suffering, it is to feel for that person on a visceral level.  The word in Greekcomes from  the word intestines.  Jesus feels for this woman on a deep, gut-wrenching level. Two other times we hear this word compassion in Luke.  Once when the good Samaritan has compassion on the stranger in the ditch and cares for him and again when the father sees his prodigal younger son returning and has compassion for him.

The compassion that Jesus felt, that prompted him to resurrect this widow’s only son, is the call to suffer with the powerless.  Henri Nouwencalls Jesus life of compassion a life of “downward mobility”.  He says “Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation.”  “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in  the condition of being human.”

To see those who are suffering and to feel compassion towards them is not always easy.  But it is what the example of Jesus calls us to.  In our own time, we might asked to view someone on the other side of a political argument with compassion.  It might be a woman who has  gone back to her abusive husband again and again.  It might be a teenager who is giving you nothing but trouble.

Jesus sees the grieving widow and has compassion on her.  Who do we need to see that we might overlook?  Where is there suffering?  How can we build a home there?

Dropping Sophia off at school on Friday, I noticed the flag was at half staff.  I didn’t know what significant person had died recently so I looked it up which is how I came to hear about the incredible story of the four chaplains. George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington died on this date in 1943 when their troop ship, TheDorchester, was torpedoed. There weren’t enough life jackets, so the four men helped soldiers to the lifeboats, then gave up their life jackets, linked arms, sang hymns, and went down with their ship.  These four men showed the ultimate compassion, the ultimate downward mobility for their soldiers.

To have compassion on another child of God.  To feel a deep, gut-wrenching sympathy and desire to alleviate their suffering. This is the way of Jesus.

After Jesus had given the dead man back to his mother, it says that the crowd was seized by fear and that they glorified God.  Jesus welcomed the worthy and the unworthy,the rich and the poor, he had compassion on those often overlooked and he offered healing to the suffering.  And he asks us to do the same.  Fear and glorifying God seems an appropriate response. 

Jesus became poor and suffered with us, to the point of death so that we might be restored to community with God and one another.  In the communion meal we will soon share,Jesus offers his very self to us and asks us to remember him.  May we do so, we receiving Christ’s compassion and extending that same compassion all.  May it be so.  Amen.

Sabbath Mystics

This sermon was preached on January 29, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 6: 1-16.

It doesn't seem like Jesus was trying to make friends, does it?  As we read through Luke, Jesus is provoking all those he encounters and today's passage is no different. On two different Sabbath days he does something that he knows will anger those who care about religious tradition. He plucks grain one day and heals in the synagogue on another. He does both these things knowing it will anger some and he does it to try and suggest that the rules are changing. The understanding about how it is to faithfully follow God is changing. The rules about Sabbath observance were good rules made by faithful people. But Jesus is telling them that the Sabbath traditions might need to change. After all, the lord of the Sabbath is now among them. I read in a commentary this week that suggests that the real question in these texts is this: How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances? How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances?

And boy is that ever our question, too.

The world is changing at a breakneck speed. Headlines come every day or every hour that seem to signal big shifts in our world. The religious landscape in our denomination, our country and our world is changing more rapidly than we can even fathom. The church as an institution's identity and mission is in flux. Even on this Sunday when we look back at what the church has done and been in the last year through our congregational meeting, we continue to look toward our future as well, knowing that our circumstances are ever-changing. How do we do what church's do when the world seems to be so different, when what we do seems less relevant all the time to a lot of people? This is the question I've been wrestling with this week.

Then I saw that Dr. John Vest, whom I know and respect, who is the Visiting Professor of Evangelism at my seminary, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, shared a blog post by Richard Rohr, the well known Franciscan author and speaker.  And Vest shared the blog saying, "This perfectly captures what I think Christianity ought to be encouraging today. This is what I think churches ought to be focused on. This is what I'm most interested in."

The idea that Richard Rohr was writing about as a way forward for the church was to recapture our role as mystics. That's an unfamiliar term to some of you, it's a scary one to others. To be a mystic is to be one who has moved from mere belief to actual inner experience of God. Now this is an idea that Presbyterians have often been wary of. Theologically we affirm that we are flawed, flawed creatures and so we can't fully trust our experience of God. We are more comfortable putting our trust in our interpretation ofScripture, the traditions found in our confessions, in the life of the mind. And Those are good.

But If our faith stays only in our heads, if it's only about the rules and traditions, what Calvin had to say about it or Barth or Brueggemann, then it is much less likely to transform our hearts.

Here is what Rohr had to say: Christians speak of the “paschal mystery,” the process of loss and renewal that was lived and personified in the death and raising up of Jesus, as the pattern of transformation. We Can affirm that belief in lovely song and ritual, as many Christians do in the Eucharist. However, until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative. It is a mere liturgical acclamation.

This congregation has been through this process of losing your foundations and discovering that God was there for you in the midst of it all, transforming you so that you might come out the other side more alive. I know this has been true for me personally and I know that most if not all of you have stories of transformation because of God's presence in your life. This experience of knowing God is what helps us keep going when times get scary, it's what can give us courage when we need to stand up for what Christ stood up for - feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, healing the broken. 

That is the kind of transformation that experience of God, or mysticism, helps create. How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances? I would like to suggest one way is to invite others to experience God. Not to recite a set of beliefs about God, not to teach them into love of God, but to invite them into an experience with God. This is what Jesus did. He asked people to look less at the rules of faith and get to know more the God that the rules were meant honor. After teaching and provoking and healing, he went away to talk to God. He sought out direct experience of God before he continued with his work. Diana Butler Bass, a historian who focuses on the history of Christianity suggests that “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.”   

I would like to suggest that this is something that the world needs from us. Forming relationships based on love and service. With our many divisions, with our 24/7 nature, with our emphasis on doing and creating and achieving, the worlds needs us to offer another way.  An experience of God so that they know that they are loved not for what they do but because of who God is. A transformative experience of God that makes them more alive, move loving, more giving. These mystical experiences can come when we are marching or when we pray, when we are out in mission or even in church on Sunday.

And so, I'm not going to talk to you anymore about Sabbath. I am going to invite you to experience Sabbath, a brief Sabbath, just 2 minutes of silence. To be quiet before God, to know that your worth comes not from what you can achieve, a chance to breathe in and breathe out. My hope is that this experience will give you a little more peace, a little more strength as you head into another week in our fast-changing world. May you experience God.

 

Review of Cross-Examined by Bob Seidensticker

ImageEvery once in awhile, I review a book for Speakeasy.  The description for this book intrigued me, "Cross Examined challenges the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity and invites the reader to shore them up  ........ or discard them.  Take the journey and see where it leads you." Enticing for sure.  And the book does what is promised - it definitely challenges some intellectual arguments for Christianity.  But Ican't say I recommend it, for several reasons.

First, it's an apologetics text masquerading as a novel.  The writing is fair if not eloquent, but the story is pretty simple and the long stretches where the story is interrupted for teaching are awkward.  Second, the biased nature of the story is not helpful.  The atheist is good.  The Christian pastor is bad.  The Christian parents are old-fashioned tyrants.  The Buddhists are nice.  There is no nuance, every character is fairly one-sided.

Finally, I find the apologetics to be tiring.  Full disclosure, I am a Christian and a minister.  But the intellectual debate around Christianity has never held much sway for me.  I'm not interested in proving my faith, I'm interested in living it.  There is enough in following Jesus, trying to love as he loved and proclaiming resurrection - light in the midst of darkness for me.  Arguing philosophical points doesn't make or break my faith.

Maybe this book is for others for whom these arguments are energizing.  I had hoped that the novel would help to make the process less annoying for me.  Unfortunately, I did not find that to be the case.

www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/

Beloved

Reflections on Wild Goose West 2012

I came to Wild Goose West not knowing what to expect. I left feeling more hope for the future of faith than I have felt in a really long time.

The whole of Saturday at the festival felt like what church is supposed to be. We started the morning with worship as a family. It was simple. It was heartfelt. And most importantly my kids could wander around and I didn't feel the need to corral, shush or correct them.

Throughout the day I got to hear people share about their thoughts on church and faith and be challenged, be uplifted, have my mind opened to new ways of thinking. I got to hangout out with old friends. I got to watch my kids make new friends. At the end of the evening, I got to hear 7 people passionate about church and their denominations share what they love and like least about their faith traditions. And then we held hands and sang "And together we'll proclaim the news that God is in the land. And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they'll know we are Christians by our love." I got to close the night by meeting new people, hearing good music, and laughing.

It was organic, open, genuine, relaxed, thoughtful. I felt no pressure to proscribe to anyone else's thoughts on faith. I felt invited to live my own faith more genuinely.

There was an openness about the thing - an intangible presence of good. Some might even call it God.

I often have a hard time picturing what faith communities will look like in the future. I feel like, at Wild Goose West, a got a glimpse. And I'm excited to get there.