Sunday, July 31, 2016

Let go my ego!

Ecclesiastes 1: 1-3, 12-14; 2: 18-23
Colossians 3: 1-11 (The Message) 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
July 31, 2016

Lord Jesus,

put us in touch with

the joy of your presence, mercy, and grace,

and let it disturb us to life.


          As much as an election or even a church can be about politics and policy, they can also about personalities. What if we took the word ‘vanity’ in the reading from Ecclesiastes and replaced it with the word ‘ego’?

Ego of egos, says the Teacher, ego of egos!  All is ego.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is ego and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?  Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is ego. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is ego and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is ego.


             Some of us might feel this way after watching either of or both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Certainly this Teacher identifies himself with a political figure and dynasty, the king of Israel. And throughout this short book of 9 chapters we see that he comes by his wisdom the hard way: by traveling down all the wrong roads of earthly pleasures and vices, material wealth and amassing power, sexual gratification, entertainment, but none of these satisfy. He has seen it all, the foolish things human beings do to be happy, to be fulfilled, and comes to the conclusion that all these things are fleeting, as is life itself. Wisdom comes from seeking after God and God’s ways rather than our own.


There once was a man who lived a similar journey, a very rich man, a millionaire by the age of 29.  He was a lawyer and businessman who built a successful life for himself and his family.  They lived in a beautiful home, owned cars, boats, a vacation home, and traveled to just about anywhere they wanted to.  The man worked long hours to ensure the success of his company, spending too much time away from his family. 

One day he came home to find out that his wife was ready to leave him.  In response to his wife’s wake-up call, he packed up his family in the car and they headed toward Florida.  On the way they met up with some friends in Georgia who introduced the man to Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms.  After having lunch with Clarence, the man and his family decided they would stay on the farm.  He then sold all that he had, gave it to the poor, and they lived on the farm for another 5 years.  After beginning a housing ministry in Zaire, the man and his family returned to the United States to begin a similar ministry called Habitat for Humanity.  The man was Millard Fuller.

Habitat became one of the most successful non-profits in the world.  From 1976 to 2003, Habitat affiliates worldwide had built over 150,000 homes and were active in 92 nations.  But in 2004 conflict developed over the future direction of the organization.  As it says in Ecclesiastes, it’s not easy letting go of something you’ve invested your whole life in and handing it over to others.  Both Millard and Linda Fuller had become identified with Habitat.  They were its voice and its face.  How does one entrust such a vital, important ministry into the hands of others?  How could our egos not get involved?

Writing about the ego is a tricky thing.  I feel more qualified to preach about its failings and tripfalls than how to avoid them.  Just saying that feels like a trap.  It seems like it would be a subject better heard coming from someone like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa.

We all know what an ego run amok looks like.  In his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul does a pretty good job of describing exactly that.  We know the diva, the narcissist, the self-destructor, the control freak, the bully, the destroyer of worlds.  We know what that ego looks like.  Just read any of the stories about the Greek or Roman gods.  These were indeed gods created in the image of human beings but with supernatural powers.  What we would look like on a case of Red Bull and Robin Williams’ version of the magic genie.

But our egos don’t just convince us that we’re more important than we really are.  The negative ego can do just the opposite.  It’s that voice inside us that tells us we can’t do anything right, that the job is just too big, too overwhelming, that we’re not enough, that we’ll fail, that what we do doesn’t make a difference, that we can’t live without whatever it is we’ve convinced ourselves of.

My ego can get hooked either way.  I’m a Leo, a pastor, and a soprano:  a lethal combination if ever there was one.  I’m a diva.  I love attention, most of the time.  I like being on the stage, I like performing, except when I don’t.  I know that sometimes I can come on like a locomotive.  Lucky for me someone had the courage to tell me what it’s like to be on the receiving end.  I try to be aware of these things most of the time, and so I make an effort to temper my voice, to listen more, to think before I speak.

It’s the negative ego that trips me up more than not.  It certainly didn’t make writing this sermon any easier.  We can all be beguiled by the notion that there’s one right answer to whatever it is we’re seeking after, and if we just do that, we’ll be successful, find the right path, that everything will be okay, and we’ll be alright.  If we just find the right way to be church, to be a good person, to be purposeful, to be secure; if we follow the rules and ensure that everyone else does; that the shaping of the future rests solely on our shoulders; that it’s hard to admit when we’re wrong.

We can be such ego addicts: overly confident or paralyzingly insecure, expect too much of ourselves and others or too little, blind to our faults or the faults of others or crushed by the weight of them.  All because each day we’re trying to figure out who we are, what’s our purpose, what’s the meaning of it all, and where are we headed.  Chasing after wind.  All is vanity.

But Paul says that’s our old life, our old identity, a way of seeing ourselves and our lives that is no more.  Now we have new lives, real lives, lived in and with Christ.  Our story is now part of the Jesus story, which is God’s story of salvation and transformation.  How we live in our bodies, now we also live in the Body of Christ.  Our lives are no longer lived solely for ourselves, not only for those we love, but for the unloved and those who think themselves unlovable, even for those who frustrate us and antagonize us, those who hate and fear, those who suffer with pain.  Now our lives are for seeking first the kingdom of God rather than only what’s in front of us.  What once led us away from God now has the power to lead us back to God and to God’s way of compassion, forgiveness, justice, and unconditional love.

When our egos run amok or can’t find their way out of the maze of “I’m not good enough”, we need an ego even larger and greater than our own, the Ego of egos, the Vanity of vanities that creates life in its own image.  But this ego emptied herself, lived among us, showed us true wisdom:  how to live and how to let go, and how to live again in Jesus.

Whether we realize it or not, each day we hand off all that we’ve worked for, everything that’s meaningful to us, all our knowledge, wisdom, and skill, all our loves—we let go of them when we lie down and close our eyes.  Which is why it can be hard to go to sleep.  And each day we are blessed to pick it all back up again, not only for ourselves but for the kingdom, for wholeness, for hope, for goodness.  There are no guarantees—only one day at a time to live life, to be who we choose to be, how we will be Church.

O God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Trouble me

Genesis 18: 20-32
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 24, 2016

           Before God went down to Sodom to see what grave sin they had committed, God visited Abraham and Sarah in the company of two men or angels. Abraham welcomed them as honored guests. While Sarah baked some cakes of bread, Abraham had water brought for them to wash their feet, ordered a calf to be slaughtered and prepared, served it to them with curds and milk, and invited them to sit in the shade and rest for a while. These holy visitors then informed Sarah and Abraham that they would soon be parents and the ancestors of a great nation.

            From there these guests set on their way to Sodom and Abraham sees them off.  Now God knows what God is about to do to Sodom and wonders whether to keep this from Abraham, but decides that because they share a covenant, Abraham should know what is about to happen.

            And so here begins where our reading takes off.  Sodom and Gomorrah, which derive from Hebrew words that mean “burnt” and “buried”, have committed grievous sins against God, and God plans to destroy them with fire and brimstone.  Sodom was once the jewel of what would become Israel.  It was green, lush with vegetation and mineral wealth and animals.  It was the perfect place to live.  Now it’s the Dead Sea, where nothing can grow, nothing can live.  Jewish ­­scholar Salvador Litvak says this is what happened:  Since the time of Noah and the flood, for a thousand years God let people alone and did not intervene.  Human beings thrived and flourished, and God was there for those who had eyes to see the goodness that God gave and to be thankful.  

            The people of Sodom wanted to keep for themselves the goodness that they had.  Didn’t matter that they didn’t create it; they claimed it and lived there, it was theirs, and no one else’s.  They didn’t want strangers or foreigners to come and live there; they didn’t even want anyone passing through because maybe they just might decide to settle there.  The people of Sodom were so convinced of this goodness belonging solely to them that they had laws to prevent people from being hospitable and charitable to travelers, strangers, and visitors, which was the code of the desert.  If you did extend kindness to one such as these, the people of Sodom would drag your guest from your home and torture them, rape them, kill them and come back for you, so that no one would ever want to help a stranger.  They created a system that forbade compassion, mercy, and hospitality.

            In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Greek word that Paul uses for hospitality is xenophilia:  love of strangers.  We know what xenophobia is and the people of Sodom had it bad.  It would be like a nation building a wall between itself and its neighbors.  Banning certain people from entering the country because “they’re all terrorists”.  Deporting millions of other people because of where they came from.  States and communities passing laws to make it illegal to feed the homeless.  Treating those who are thought of as different as less than, as other, as not deserving of the same rights, rooting that belief in one’s religion and enacting it into law.

When I closed my eyes so I would not see
My Lord did trouble me
When I let things stand that should not be
My Lord did trouble me
When I held my head too high too proud
My Lord did trouble me
When I raised my voice too little too loud
My Lord did trouble me

            So God feels justified in wiping out this city of horrible, selfish, vengeful people.  And yet what about the righteous, the innocent of Sodom?  Might there be a few good folk who would redeem the rest?  And so, like a lawyer arguing for an innocent client, Abraham engages in some bargaining with the Almighty, talking down the Creator of the heavens and earth to sparing Sodom if there are just 10 righteous people in the city.  And who knows?  Abraham just might’ve been arguing to spare his family:  his nephew Lot and his wife, their daughters and the men who would become their husbands.

            And yet it’s this image of a wrathful God that causes so many people to dismiss and reject the God of the Hebrew scriptures or at least those parts where God is angry with God’s people.  God forbid God ever got angry at human beings for the ways we denigrate and harm one another and the earth.  But we can’t cherry-pick, we can’t read one story in the Bible in isolation from all the others.  The book of Genesis begins with the idea that human beings were created in the image of God.  But more often than not, we create God in our own image.  A God who is ready to wipe a whole city off the face of the earth sounds more like a dictator who has an arsenal at their disposal.  Or a nation trying to end a world war.  And after the story of the flood it seemed as though God had turned over a new leaf.  How can God be both vengeful and compassionate?

            We might ask ourselves the same question.  Reading this through my own post-modern lens I wonder if God was showing us our worst image, mirroring the basest of human instincts, to destroy, to be punitive, to see just how Abraham would react.  Was God right to put faith in Abraham?  What kind of a partnership was this going to be?  Would Abraham merely be a yes-man, someone who would only look after his own interests, save his own skin?  Or would he be so troubled by the plight of others that he would risk the promises God made and dare to speak to God as though he was an equal partner?

When I slept too long and slept too deep
My Lord did trouble me
Put a worrisome vision into my sleep
My Lord did trouble me
When I held myself away and apart
My Lord did trouble me
And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart
My Lord did trouble me

Trouble is everywhere.  And we feel troubled whenever we open a newspaper or turn on the TV or radio or computer or phone.  How many of us have felt sick to our stomachs lately, suffered a headache, sat in the bathroom or the shower and cried, had trouble sleeping, maybe drank a little too much, tried to distract ourselves with something we enjoy, exercised or worked hard until we couldn’t think anymore?  When we are troubled, we feel it in our bodies.  We wish we could escape it, but the world is always there waiting for us, even if it’s just our small corner of it; our small corner that seems to grow a bit with each passing day.

Being troubled means we feel pain.  We feel the pain, the wounds of what it means to be human, to feel loss, to feel powerless, to ache, to long for better days, to desire healing and wholeness not only for ourselves but for everyone.  We can see how some people are dealing with their pain when they hate and are fearful.  Sometimes we tread down that road ourselves.  But that’s not why God takes the trouble to trouble us.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “[Pain] insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: [pain] is [God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  When we are troubled, when we feel pain, it means our hearts are working and that we hear God.  I believe we are feeling God’s pain at the world, incarnate in our own bodies, minds, and hearts.

The people of Sodom were defenseless against God if it were not for troubled Abraham bargaining for the righteous, innocent minority.  Abraham risked his future and used his privilege, his unique relationship with God to argue for those with no voice. 

God is going to continue to trouble us, to hold this stark mirror up to us and to this earth, to show us not only our darkness but also our light, that we would take pains, that we would take risks, in order that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Not by might, not by power, but by God’s Spirit:  the Spirit of justice and compassion lived out in our bodies, in our minds, in our hearts, in our actions, in our behavior toward everyone, especially those whose pain drives them to hate and fear.  And we all know at least one person like that, even if it’s us on some days.   

And so Jesus teaches us to pray.  Maybe it ought to sound like this sometimes:  Help us forgive others their sins the way you forgive us our sins.  And lead us not into the temptation to assuage our pain with hate or fear or violence or self-interest or indifference, but deliver us, all of us, from this evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

And of this I'm sure, of this I know
My Lord will trouble me
Whatever I do and wherever I go
My Lord will trouble me
In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song
My Lord will trouble me
To keep me on the path where I belong
My Lord will trouble me

Will trouble me
With a word or a sign
With the ringing of the bell in the back of my mind
Will trouble me
Will stir my soul
For to make me human, to make me whole
Make me human, to make me whole