Living with the Gift We Get: a story for adults Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 2:1-6; Isaiah 9:6-7
Rev. Noel Vanek December 8, 2019
We’ve all experienced it: you eagerly open a package on Christmas morning and out pops… a horrible tie, an ugly green Christmas sweater with red balls and white snow flakes that you’d only wear at a hunting lodge, the plastic praying hands that I’ve told you about before. If you’re my wife Linda you tactfully return the sweater for something more to your taste. I waited a couple of years and then made sure the praying hands disappeared from my office. But I still keep the tie because my brother in law Barry visits and I can pull It out and show him it’s on my tie rack!
And you know, over time, this tie has grown on me…. When I look at it I see Barry!
Kids of course grumble about receiving a nice pair of socks or something practical that they need but it isn’t a flashy toy… but they learn to live with those new socks. I learn to live with my tie. Ladies, you’ve learned to appreciate that appliance that your partner purchased for you rather than the shimmery jacket you hoped he’d get you.
Well, the birth of Jesus created the same sort of conflict and dilemma for the earliest generation of believers who gathered after his death and resurrection. Mostly they were Jews, like Jesus himself. They knew the scriptures promised a Messiah. If you consulted the Jewish scriptures they are clear that a Messiah must come from the line of David. Isaiah tells us when this child is born he will be restore the line of David on the throne and restore the kingdom of Israel. He would be a great ruler who would be blessed with both power and wisdom so that Israel would throw off it’s oppressors and establish justice and peace within it’s borders. The three Wise Men, astrologers from the East who came looking for an important child born, made the mistake of telling King Herod that this newborn baby would become the King of the Jews, a Messiah. Herod had no claim to Davidic ancestry, which was one of the reason Jews kept rebelling against him. The idea of a child growing up to challenge him threw him into a bloody tizzy. He couldn’t live with the gift God was sending.
Isaiah wrote down another prophecy a little bit later in his book. The line of David (the shoot from David’s father Jesse) will be restored and the Holy Spirit will bless this new ruler. He will not judge in an ordinary way, by what eyes see, but by a heart for the poor and an anger at the wicked. And this child from David’s line will establish a new kind of peace…. Not the peace of a powerful king, but the peace people dream about…. Peace between enemies, peace between the lion and the calf, peace that enables the leopard to sleep with the baby goat and the lion to graze next to the ox. Because this birth, this child, will fill the earth with the knowledge of God so that every heart will be changed.
Some people after Jesus was resurrected waited and hoped, and said, “He brings me peace and I believe he is the Son of God sent to redeem us, to forgive our sins and offer us hope.”
And others looked around and said, “Yes, but, look, the world hasn’t changed. The Romans are still ruling Israel and the wolf isn’t lying down with the lamb in peace. So if these things aren’t happening, Jesus couldn’t have been the promised Messiah.”
This debate continues really to this day. Some people look at Jesus the one Christians call Christ, anointed one, Messiah, and they see in him the face of God and the hope of the world and an invitation to follow his teachings and example to try to make the world more just and more filled with God’s love.
And others, today, look at Jesus and then look at hungry children fleeing violence and unjust rulers sitting on thrones and loved ones dying from disease, and they say, “I can’t live with a Savior who doesn’t obviously make things better.
Jesus is God’s gift to us, but he isn’t necessarily the gift everyone wants.
You decide what you will do with him in your life. You decide if he is enough of God’s love and Good News for you. Amen.
One Flesh: a Sermon about Marriage Genesis 2:22-25; Mark 10:2-9 Mother's Day May 12, 2019 Rev. Noel Vanek
Marriage is a difficult topic to talk about on Mother’s Day, or any other Sunday. But how we live together when we are married affects all our family relationships. So let’s look at marriage.
By the by, nothing we discuss need be thought of as pertaining only or exclusively to men and women. We now perform marriage ceremonies for two people of the same sex, thank God. They have been living together as partners for a LOT longer than New York State has chosen to recognize their union as marriage. Marriage equality is a very good thing. LGBTQ couples have some special pressures and dynamics unique to themselves, but it’s still marriage. Marriage is wonderful and at the same time very hard.
Well, who do you want to listen to about marriage? That strikes me as the first question. Do you want to listen to Noel Vanek on marriage? Probably not… I don’t claim to be wise. And oh, how I hate advice giving sermons!
How about listening to the Christian Church? Well, itss record on telling folks about marriage is, at best, mixed. We have wonderful wedding vows, but too often the church has said to women, in one way or another, you make it work. It’s your job as a wife to put up with stuff, sometimes the church even said shut up. That was never acceptable but in these times of the MeToo# Movement it’s even more outrageous. Marriage cannot be borne on
the backs of women.
As a little aside, let me say that while a marriage may well be filled with difficulty and sometimes we consider leaving it, no one should stay in an abusive relationship. No woman, or man, deserves the assault on their dignity and often their body that comes with abuse. If this is you, find support, find help, get out.
So shall we listen instead to scripture? How about the Hebrew scripture we heard from Genesis chapter two, which is the second story of creation. In the last twenty years I’ve been forced to think hard about the biblical passages used to justify discrimination and cruelty to LGBTQ persons, and to anyone who just didn’t fit into the accepted mold. The truth is, this Genesis passage is full of metaphorical language. Eve didn’t really come from Adam’s rib.
The metaphors here speak of an intrinsic, gut level oneness sensed between men and women. Well, that happens a lot of the time. Thank God. Except for when it doesn’t happen. And the truth also is, same sex couples often experience that intrinsic, gut level sense of oneness, Except for when they don’t. That’s the human condition, and that’s why marriage is difficult.
So maybe let’s turn to the New Testament passage instead and listen to that noted, experienced expert on marital relationships: Jesus… (TaDa!)
Yes, that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it? When it comes to listening to things Christ said and seeing they come from deep insight into human experience, marriage might be one of the last things I’d want to hear Jesus talk about. I’d maybe rather hear someone I respected who had a long and loving relationship give me some pointers.
In fact, that’s exactly what occurred earlier this week when I visited Maggie Skipper… you know, the woman who used to come to worship with the oxygenator attached to her so she could breathe? Well, Maggie can’t get out any longer so Asayo and I visit her. You get to know someone well when you sit and visit with them for an hour every couple of weeks. I know Maggie’s husband was in the military. He served on a submarine for many years and then transferred that skill into nuclear power plant engineering. I asked Maggie what she thought the secret to a happy marriage was. She thought for a few seconds. “I think both parties really must commit themselves to working hard at the relationship… pause… And I guess it doesn’t hurt if he goes off on a submarine for a few months every year!”
Ah, marriage! It’s always going to be the object of wisdom sayings (like Maggie’s) but also the butt of jokes. Marriage is hard.
But even though Jesus wasn’t married and had precious little personal experience to offer up, he does provide us with unique insight into the heart and mind of God. Listen again to what he says in Mark chapter 10, a difficult passage we often don’t go back to today. I think Jesus made two points, one negative and one positive.
Negatives are easier to see, so let’s look at Christ’s negative point first.
Divorce was common in Palestine, and in this respect the setting was not unlike our own. He was saying that perhaps divorce had become too common. In particular he was noting who divorce was most unfair to.
We must recognize the difference in the status of women then, and now. A man could divorce a woman on a whim, but a woman could not divorce a man for any cause. The Old Testament viewed a woman’s sexual infidelity more as property damage against the man or her father. This is a patriarchal world view through and through. The Pharisees pointedly ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
More than anything else, Jesus’ response cuts to the root of the patriarchal assumptions. Everything in his words point to an understanding that there should be a radical equality of the sexes. He first points out God’s intention: “the two shall become one flesh.” Then later in a private setting he explains to the disciples that adultery cuts both ways: against the woman as well as against the man. So Jesus told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” This is the first place in the Bible where sexual sin against a woman, against one’s wife, is acknowledged and men held accountable for it. Jesus is elevating the status of women. And whether we are talking about heterosexual or homosexual unions, the partners are to be equal. This is new thinking in scripture.
Marriage truly is to be an equal partnership between two people. Social distinctions and prejudices from the world around them should not enter into how they treat one another. And even if they do decide to divorce, they should do so in a way that is loving, and not penalizing one party more than the other.
Now for something positive. But I must approach it in a round-about way. Don’t you think one of his disciples, sooner or later, surely must have asked Jesus something about marriage more in line with how we feel today? I bet one sidled over to him at dusk and said something like, “Level with me, Teacher. I can hardly stand being in the same room with my spouse anymore. It didn’t used to be this way, but now I find it such a strain….Well, we’re like oil and water, we don’t mix. What do you advise me to do, Master. I can’t take it much longer!”
Notice how, instead of talking about excuses for failure, Jesus speaks about trying to live up to the ideal. He knew that God sees marriage as two people becoming committed to one another, learning to live in a covenant relationship, through good times but also through hard times. Jesus would tell his disciple that becoming one with our spouse is a goal for marriage. “One flesh” is the way the Hebrew scripture puts it. But this kind of one-ness isn’t romantic, it’s not emotional. Emotional oneness is an illusion. It fades. In marriage we fully recognize how different our spouse is from us. We see their warts and bags under their eyes, and they see ours. But marriage gives us the opportunity to learn o love them anyway, to love them as they are, and for who they might become. Marital one-ness is about building a future together that respects each party’s individuality, yet finds creative space for shared goals and dreams. This kind of One-ness isn’t an illusion. It’s the hard-won back and forth of a loving, covenantal, attentive relationship.
But there’s even more.
I think at some point in this chummy, intimate conversation, Jesus would look his disciple straight in the eye… can you sort of imagine him looking kindly but firmly into your eye…. And I think he’d ask, “Why bother? Why expend so much energy on marriage?” He’d especially ask this question of us today, because while you pretty much had to be married in Jesus’ day…. We don’t have to be married today.
After all, we no longer punish people for finding that they are better off going it on their own solo again. I think he’d say to his disciple, “Let those who have perfect marriages give you advice. I don’t judge you. And I am not here to give you advice.” I think he’d say: “That’s all right, Jacob or Joshua, or even that’s all right Martha or Mary. Being married is hard. Pray that God will give you the strength, but meanwhile, come follow me.” I am sure he would say to any of us today.
You see, being perfectly married is not a particularly noble goal for our lives. Being perfectly happy isn’t either. What are you really after? What matters most to you? Pursue your joy! And God bless you if your deepest joy in life can lead you closer to the God who gave you life and hopes to give you eternal life.
But what happens if we take Jesus at his word, and try out his prayer? “God give me the strength to live in my marriage, but meanwhile help me to follow Jesus… help me to follow my deepest joy and passions and do the things that make me feel I am following him and coming closer to you, Lord.”
The Christian Gospel is all about the mystery of human love and relationships being perfected and completed by being taken into the love of God revealed to us in Jesus. What often needs to happen first is for God to heal and re-invigorate our imagination. If we can imagine being faithful and loving with our spouse, though there may remain grave difficulties, we’ve given God a way in. Give God an inch and…. Well, you know the rest of that phrase. Once we pray for faith and start to live by faith, we find that God usually starts to work. By faith we begin to be transformed, And when we are different, guess what? Most of the time… not always… but most of the time our spouse will notice and begin to act differently too.
One of the ancient prayers of the Christian faith is a very simple one: “Kindle in us the fire of They love.” To grow in faith is to make room for the transforming love of God. To grow in love and faithfulness in marriage is to make room for the fire of God’s lo love to come and breathe fresh life into a relationship that seemed to be going in the wrong direction. To grow in faith in marriage is to allow God to bring us back together, to be renewed, to see the possibilities for a life together. A life moving toward oneness in commitment and reciprocal loving and shared joys.
Jesus would tell us, we don’t have to do this to be good. We don’t have to do this to be loved by God.
But we may….
This Mother’s Day, more power of loving, more joy in tackling the really difficult problems in your life and in your family. More grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother, who sees you warts and bags under your eyes, and all. And loves you anyway. Amen.
Feb. 24, 2019 “Callings”
Note: Pastor Noel interviewed four Members in Discernment, adults who are in the process of training and preparing for ordained ministry with our association of the United Church of Christ. These four interviews (“witnesses”) were read aloud by different members of the congregation, spaced throughout the worship service on Feb. 24, 2019.
Witness of Calling No. 1: Phyllis Coachman
I am a retired social worker, one year retired, but God put a call on my heart to speak out for social justice years and years ago. It’s a part of me, a burning passion. I think God put this passion in my mind and spirit. The real me that God create is who I am now that I am speaking out for and doing something about social justice. For me, it’s how I share the Good News of God.
I went to seminary when I was still working, not knowing exactly what I would do with a Masters of Divinity degree. Only I knew it was a way to find my voice, to speak about my passion for justice. I’ve been pursuing ordination in the UCC’s Member in Discernment process. It hasn’t moved quickly for me, but I am patient.
It bothers me that too few people seem to care about the suffering and inequality I see all around. I see what our criminal justice system has become, a mass incarcerator of black men. I see people pushing ahead to get what they want, but not caring about anybody else.
If we say we love God then our lives should show that. Our faith should lead to good fruit. The good fruit I feel passionate about is to proclaim Christ’s call for a kingdom where no one just gets put in jail for a small mistake and left there to rot. I want to tell people about the kingdom Jesus said is coming where the sick are healed and the prisoners are really set free.
One of the specific ways I work for justice is in developing my ministry of teaching about African American history, through my church (Safe Haven UCC) and really with anyone who will listen. African Americans have been here on this continent for 400 years. We literally built this country. We paved the way for other immigrants to come here. Against all odds we have been the inventors of new technologies and the finders of new scientific discoveries. We have made a community with its own institutions for care and nurture and education when we found ourselves left out of the white world. We have survived slavery, Jim Crow, the suppression of our right to vote, and we will continue to overcome! I made up cards that tell about African American history firsts and famous people. I give them out whenever I can.
Where will God lead me in the future? Truthfully, I don’t know. I’m keeping my mind open and hoping that the Lord will lead me the way forward. I am open.
Witness of Calling No. 2: Sam Kinsman
In some ways I am a typical Union Theological Seminary graduate student. I struggle with way too much student debt. I came to New York after growing up in a very conservative church in California. I remember back to my early teenage years when I felt God speaking to me, calling me to be a youth minister just like the one who touched my heart.
But then I grew up. After some soul searching I came out of the closet when I turned 19. There was no longer any room for me in my church; the Vineyard didn’t admit that God might have a plan for gay men.
So I ran to the theater, getting my BA and then my Masters in acting. I came to New York to follow my dream, but it’s tough to earn a living as an actor. I decided to make a career switch into health care. Just then a friend asked me to officiate at his wedding… you can get qualified to do this simply online these days.
But just putting together the elements of the wedding put me back in touch with my calling from God. But I didn’t know what to do about it.
One night I went to see a play and I got to talking at intermission with my friend, telling him about my sense of call but also my confusion. Suddenly the guy who was sitting right in front of us turned around and spoke: “My name is Fred Davy and I am the Executive Vice President at Union Theological Seminary, and we want you!” He gave me his card, I followed up, and everything from then on seemed to fall into place as if God was planning my life. I’ve worked my way through seminary.
Right now I work as the Director of Youth and Children’s Education at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. It’s a full time job but I feel God put me here to use my acting experience and sense of drama to really keep the kids interested. All along the journey I found time for the studies. I’ve graduated and at least I’m not awash in new student debt. I really feel called to serve in a parish ministry.
God works in my life in funny ways. I found the UCC while kvetching to another friend. I told him “I wish there was a church nearby where I could be out and be myself and be theatrical and also be on fire for God.” He smiled and said, “We’ll have to get you to Judson.” “What’s Judson?” I asked. Then he told me it was the first church in New York City really to accept gay people. And that’s how I got introduced to the United Church of Christ, a denomination where I can be myself.
Witness of Calling No.3: Ruth Shaffer
Sometimes a call is placed inside us in earliest childhood. I grew up watching my father, a teacher, receive a call into ministry when he was in his late 30’s. But he decided he couldn’t just leave his job and go to seminary, so he served where he could. He taught the men’s Bible study, he was active in church, but frustrated.
I tucked this knowledge away deep down in my consciousness, but proceeded to build myself a career as a psychologist. I developed a private practice. Over the years I noticed that patients with a living faith survived crises better than those who didn’t have one. Finally, when I was in my late late 50’s I wanted to learn more.
So I went over to New York Theological Seminary’s office to pick up an application, but I on the way I ran into my minister, then Jim Forbes. He asked what I was doing and he said, “No. You go over to Union Theological Seminary and pick up an application there!” The minute I walked into the main hallway at Union somehow I felt at peace, at home. “This is where I should be – home,” I thought to myself. It was. So I went to seminary when I was in my 60’s and was everyone’s “mom.” And I found myself growing and growing in faith and knowledge of God.
At this point I am pursuing ordination through the Member in Discernment process. I have developed a ministry to ministers. I advertise my services as a psychologist with a special interest in pastors, with free weekly consultations over the telephone. I minister to people as far away as the Midwest. And all this while I keep up with my private practice. One of the common afflictions I find in my patients is a severe sense of shame. So many people feel they don’t deserve God’s love or attention. I try to help them find that love, and to learn to love themselves.
I pray every time before I see one of my private clients, and before doing one of my phone calls sessions with a pastor. I pray, and I have learned that God works through me. God is still speaking. As time goes by I find myself praying for more and more people, even… especially the ones I don’t know personally. I pray for our politicians. I pray for our nation.
I’ve always felt God had my back. I’m not particularly courageous. Even when my original church decided they did not want to sponsor me for ordination, I knew God was there. Then I found a new church, Safe Haven, actually then, God sent me to Safe Haven, and we’ve had a good time together.
Witness of Calling No. 4: Chris Dieguez
Sometimes you outgrow your surroundings. That’s what happened to me growing up in a Baptist new church start on Long Island. It was a heady trip for my parents, who had been saved through the original Jesus movement, then settled down and became part of the leadership of this growing church. It was exciting but as I moved into my high school years I couldn’t help thinking, “but I’ve heard this same sermon a dozen times already.” I wanted more. When a big argument divided the congregation my parents left my home church. They have never found another church they like, and that’s sad.
I went to Vassar College and it opened up a whole new world of ideas to me. It was a very exciting time. I found the campus Intervarsity Fellowship to be a home away from home, at first, but then I got involved in their dialogue, or lack of dialogue, with the campus LGBT community. Neither side talked to the other and both stigmatized each other. I tried to be a moderating factor, but that just didn’t work. When a friend from Intervarsity finally came out as a trans woman, and the fellowship rejected her, I knew I had to choose sides. I told her I didn’t want to choose sides, but if I was forced, I chose friendship with her. I knew deep in my heart that Christian faith ought not to be destructive.
By my senior year I knew I wanted to go to seminary. I pieced together my call as a summons to ask “who is not included here and why?” I went to Duke Divinity School and finished an M.Div degree plus I got a certificate in Gender Theology. While in seminary I met and married my wife. We decided to return to Long Island. I found a job to help support us so I could take my time in looking for a church.
I learned about the UCC while at Duke. I feel fortunate to have found the Garden City Community Church. At first I was a volunteer with their confirmation program, then I went on some trips with them, then they hired me. And sponsored me as I became a member in Discernment. Now I need just a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education and to finish my ordination paper, and I’ll be on my way.
I feel fortunate. I am truly open to where God may lead me, either into full-time ministry, or I could continue my current job as an energy salesman, and find a part-time calling. We’ll see where God takes me, takes us. My wife is very supportive.
And no matter where I go, I’m going to ask, “who is not included here, and why?”
The Sermon: Callings Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 6:27-36
It’s important to remember that Jesus preached to ordinary persons when he said those hard things we heard from Luke. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” And so on. He was preaching to the crowd but he expected some people to step forward and hear his message as a personal invitation from God, the one he called Father. He told them do these things and you will be children of the Most High.
At the end of the passage we heard earlier, he sort of lets them off the hook just a bit. He tells them that God is kind to bother the ungrateful and the wicked, so presumably if they couldn’t do all the things he said to do, they shouldn’t think that God would not love them. For God is merciful, God is kind.
We know that some people did hear Jesus’ teaching and preaching as a personal call from God. And so they became disciples. They followed him. They changed their lives for his sake and for the sake of his Gospel. They had no idea where he would lead them. They only knew that they felt more alive when they were with him than ever before.
That’s what responding to your call does to you. It makes you a bit reckless. You want to be open and to follow God wherever God may lead you. Not everyone in your life understands what is happening to you. Not everyone wants you to follow God’s leading. It makes them feel insecure, uncertain, jealous even. But it brings you to life. And when you answer God’s call, when you hear a voice whisper to you, “You need to do this. I’ll help you. Follow me…” you know that you can never be the same again.
Isaiah experienced the most famous call in the scriptures. He already was a man of God. He served as a priest in the Temple, a position he inherited because of his family. He was like a prince among priests, but that doesn’t mean it all felt sincere. Then one day, in the time of crisis when the king died and all Judah felt the earth start to shake under its feet for lack of certainty about what would come next, it was Isaiah’s time to serve at the High Holy place. He must have entered full of questions, but then suddenly he saw it. Or saw Him. The Most High sitting on a throne, high and lofty, amid the seraphim. The Temple shook and the house seemed to fill with smoke, and Isaiah called out, “Woe is me.” He knew he was impure, a man of unclean lips. And worse, he knew the people he served were impure. “Yet my eyes have seen the King!” he exclaimed in wonder.
Then something totally unexpected and surreal occurred. He experienced one of the guardian seraphim flew toward him and touched his mouth with a hot coal. It didn’t hurt, or if it did, he didn’t remember for all he recalls is what came next. It told him his sin was blotted out. And then God spoke: Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And sore lips or not, Isaiah found himself responding, “Here am I; send me!”
You heard Phyllis, Sam, and Ruth describe their calls from the Lord. In a minute you’ll hear Chris talk about his. They each heard God’s call. But they were each listening. I hope you enjoyed their stories, their witnessing. It was as if each one experienced a seraphim coming straight into their life and piercing their hearts, unblocking their hesitations, reminding them that they too are God’s beloved. They didn’t all respond at once. Sometimes it takes time to shake your head, to shake up your life, so you can hear what God is saying. God always has a message especially tailored to fit you.
Note how God’s call to each one of them was just a bit different… unique to their circumstances, resonant with their lives, contextual to not only where they were but where society around them was. God needs people to do God’s work, and so God calls. I suspect God calls an awful lot of people, but not everyone responds. But each of these four persons, each in their own way responded. They said, “Yes. Here am I. Send me.”
So you know, don’t you, what I’m going to say in conclusion?...
Oh, PLEASE…! You don’t have to give up your job and go to seminary! That’s not the point here. Responding to a call isn’t necessarily about going to seminary. Responding to a call requires that we first and foremost listen for what God is saying us.
Jesus is still preaching to those who are curious, to those who want a Savior, to those who desire God’s Kingdom. He’s saying, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend and expect nothing in return. Do these things to be children of the Most High. But don’t worry. I don’t expect you to be perfect. Know that only God is perfect. Meanwhile do to others as you would have them do to you. And if these words come as Good News to you, why not try to follow me?”
Jesus preaches, whets our appetite, stirs our hearts and gets us thinking. Jesus invites us to share our burdens and to become his disciples. And he empowers us to look with new eyesight at the people around us who need our care.
But it is God herself who calls us! It is God who whispers into our hearts. It is God who understands that we don’t feel worthy, but who cleanses our lips and hearts and lives, and says, “I have something for you to do. Will you listen? Can I send you?”
How do you know if you are called? First, Listen to your life. That is where and how God speaks to us. Through your lived experiences. Through our questions, our hurts, our hard won insights, our desires, when they are true desires for goodness for others and not just for you.
Second, talk to others about your sense of something happening. Share your questions about feeling a sense of call with someone you trust. Get feedback, for God’s sake! Not every idea that enters our head is from God.
But some are.
Know this. God may very well be whispering, calling, preparing you for something powerful, something fulfilling, something life-giving. Something God wants you to do in your life.
God is still speaking to us today. The only question is: are you listening? Amen.
6/24/18 Terminal? I Samuel 15:10-11, 13-19, 24-28, 34-25; Mark 4:35-41
I’ve been preaching about God’s healing. This led me to think about the most tragic epidemic in my lifetime. How many here remember the aids epidemic of the 1980’s and the fear it spawned as the United States saw so many young adults perish? I wonder if we really remember it.
For to recall that time of ignorance, prejudice, and public panic is to invite us all to recall shame. The shame of asking someone with HIV to be the last patient of the day at their physician’s office, so that no one else would have to sit on the exam table after them. The shame of refusing to serve people with obvious lesions on their skin. The shame of family members disowning dying children. The shame of men passing along HIV to their female companions, and the tragedy of mothers giving birth to infants who contract the disease in utero. The shame that we recall, remembering the fear and ignorance that too easily combined with homophobia to explain that “gay people were to blame.” The hurtful lies people told themselves: “our kind” don’t get this disease.
Thank God we know more about HIV/AIDS today, and that we no longer treat people with this syndrome as pariahs. Thank God that effective drug therapies have been found to … mostly…. Keep the spread of the virus in check.
But of course, the shame lives on. Here in the United States we receive good treatment for HIV/AIDS, but the epidemic continues to kill in parts of the world where effective anti-viral medicines are not readily available or affordable to the common person. The shame lives on when villages continue to shun young children orphaned by aids. The shame lives on we hear of people in the United States who can’t afford their HIV medicines, even today.
Where is God in all of this? There is no one, always correct answer, and I hesitate to make pronouncements that trivialize someone’s suffering.
So I will wonder in faith with you as we ponder the scriptures, remembering as we read the hundreds of thousands who have died of aids, the millions who live with infection and fear.
The Old Testament lesson tells the story of god’s rejection of Saul as king over the tribes of Israel. This rejection is announced to Saul through the prophet Samuel, who previously had been Saul’s champion. Apparently, Saul disobeyed god’s direct command and spared some of the sheep and cattle owned by the Amalekite tribe. Going against god’s instructions, he brought the choicest sheep and cattle back to sacrifice to Yahweh, the god of Israel. Samuel the prophet announces with a broken heart that because of this disobedience, “the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”
Years pass by, Saul remains king, and then David is brought to the court. Saul sees the writing on the wall. Saul sends David out to fight Goliath, and then off to fight the legions of the Philistines, thinking he would surely die. But David is charmed and grows in popularity. Saul slowly descends into a kind of madness, knowing his destiny is sealed. Knowing that God is against him.
Why exactly God rejects Saul as king isn’t explained adequately, at least to our minds. But I want us to ponder the experience of Saul, feeling that god has rejected him, feeling that his fate has been determined. He is living with a death sentence, not completely understanding why. It weighs on him until in the later stages of the story with David he does appear to become mentally unstable.
Some of us, also, will be asked to live with terminal diagnoses … incurable diseases that will eventually overcome our immune systems, cancers that will grow and crowd out our organs, hearts that will sputter and beat and beat and sputter again. An Aids virus that multiplies, and even with medication, leaves one living with low-lying dread. How do we ourselves not go mad? Where is god when we feel rejected by God, rejected and condemned to die? Please, let’s try not to look at Saul with judgmental eyes. He’s a lot like us.
Ah, but then there is Jesus. The answer to the oft-asked question, “where is God in all of this?” Is to point to Jesus on the cross. God in Christ Jesus is present in our suffering because god experienced suffering first hand. But in mark’s telling of the story, there’s even a bigger claim.
The waves beat and splash and push the little vessel around till all looks lost to the fearful disciples. They awaken him with hurt in their voices, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Isn’t that exactly the same question we ask when we feel god-forsaken: God, where are you in all of this? We’re in the same boat as the disciples.
It helps to know that there are mythic elements in this story that everyone hearing it in Mark’s church would have recognized. In the Hebrew scriptures the forces of evil and chaos are personified by the sea monster and the deep dark threat of the sea roiling uncontrollably. No one can ride the leviathan, no one can tame the storm. But time after time in the psalms, God tames the storm. For example listen to:
“You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves rise, you still them.” Ps. 89:9
“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.” Ps. 18:16 and many other places.
Those early followers of Jesus were people like you and me, drawn to the gathering of people of faith. They knew that when they listened to a story about the waves rising up to swamp the boat and drown the disciples, they were hearing about the forces of evil at work. And they knew, too, that Jesus wasn’t asleep on the job. The one who trusts in God’s power to save is typically depicted in the Hebrew scriptures as calm and confident when others panic. And so, as the early church told this story over and over and asked the question that we ask still today, “God where are you in all of this?” … they thought they knew the answer. When the final sentence in mark’s story asks “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him,” they wanted to shout out the answer, all together.
Does this shout out about Jesus help you when the boat begins to rock in your life?? I hope and pray it does. It helped the people in Mark’s time. It helps people throughout the world today who struggle with injustice, persecution, and above all with disease. Believing that in Jesus God stills the waves helps many persons cope. “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” In faith I can tell you that with time, eventually, the Aids virus will too.
But please note, we shouldn’t end with this affirmation of faith, comforting and true as I believe it is. The Aids epidemic wasn’t only about human suffering amidst the evil of a deadly virus. Aids also tells the story of ostracism. Getting infected with HIV is a tragedy. Ostracizing people with Aids is a sin.
Recall that touching song "Will I?" from the early 1990's’s musical Rent: a young man with a full-blown aids infection attends a support group. Over a few months he sees member after member disappear. All that’s left are their empty seats. Finally, desperate, recognizing that he will disappear soon, too, he sings, “Will I lose my dignity… will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” What do we say to that person?
A friend shared this story with me. She knew a truck driver, Jimmy, a pretty rough guy who had lived a wild life in the 1970’s. Suddenly twenty years later he develops symptoms… goes for diagnoses… can’t believe his ears when he’s told he now has Aids. Apparently the only thing he can think of that could explain his infection is shared needle use back when he was a druggie. So he goes for treatment, it doesn’t help much, he gets weaker, in shame he hides his sickness from family and friends. In fear the hospital sticks him in a treatment room in the basement, out of sight, a room filled with reclining chairs for those receiving the slow drip. The only people around him are gay. He shrinks back in horror: “Get me out of this place!” He whispers to his friend. “I don’t want to be around homosexuals.”
A few weeks passed and he grows weaker. He was admitted to the hospital and again, stuck in a room out of sight. His two roommates are gay men. His friend visited the first day and he ignored his roommates, despite their overtures of friendliness. She came back three days later. He was much sicker. But now he and his roommates have become fast friends, sharing jokes, reminiscences, some songs. They shared life. No one else visited him but his one friend. And his new friends, who knew. Who knew what it was to walk in his shoes.
Where is God in all this suffering? Where was God in Jimmy’s death? There, I think. There in the room with him, in the person of his roommates, who were dying too. There with a man who needed comfort and who needed to grow in understanding. There with a man suffering as they suffered, with a man who slowly learned how not to ostracize.
Let’s learn how to be there in the room, too. Amen.
4/29/2018 Aloneness PS. 4; John 21:1-14
In 2014 then episcopal bishop Heather Cook killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo while driving drunk. It later came out that her diocese had been aware of her previous arrest for driving drunk, and that she’d been drinking heavily at a dinner before she was consecrated as a bishop. It was clear to those present that she didn’t have her alcohol problem under control. The church made her a bishop anyway. Her church enabled her. Why?
Why are we so afraid to ask probing questions? Why do we fear rocking the boat there’s a down side to living in the post resurrection time period of Jesus Christ? After the glow of hope fades, everything else seemingly hurts more. Jesus being raised from the grave doesn’t take away all my problems. We should feel wonderful, we should act bravely, we should all love and support one another, but… we must face our fears, not cover them up.
The disciples had to face their fears, too. “Come and have breakfast,” he told them; “come and have brunch” he might say to us this morning. In galilee by the sea Jesus re-established community among those he loves. It’s a mistake to think that the disciples are frolicking like frisky puppies in the gentle light of a spring fishing trip. Resurrection faith sometimes makes us feel that all is new, all is well. But not always. If you read this passage carefully you’ll see that the disciples are feeling lost, and I think, depressed. It’s fine to know that Jesus is risen, but after a while he’s not there anymore. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They feel an absence, a big hole in their lives. In short, they are still grieving. They feel… alone.
Deep in their hearts they are feeling alone, abandoned, afraid.. This is where I find my deepest connection to this scripture. Even though I know and believe that Jesus my lord is risen from the grave and waits for me to join him in his kingdom, I still feel a bit … alone. I suspect you sometimes do, too.
Grief for the absence of a friend or significant loved one, as I suspect the disciples were feeling, is one kind of aloneness. There are many others. We can be living together with a spouse and still feel lonely. Happy or unhappy, no marriage, no one beloved person can meet all our needs.
Sometimes we are lonely for a friend, a true blue companion, a soul-mate. The older we get the harder it becomes to make such a friendship. Will we find a soulmate? Maybe yes, maybe no. The old adage that if you want a friend then be a friend rings true. But there are no guarantees in life.
Many, many people live alone and they have done so for years. Never married, divorced and not-remarried, widowed, even married but essentially living separate lives. Living alone comes in many forms.
This isn’t the main point of my sermon, but it’s important to stop and think about the implications. When people who live alone come to join us at worship, when they come to see if there is a word from the lord and a spark of god’s spirit among us, what do they experience? So often churches are focused on families that are child-centered. So often churches are marriage-centered. Do we unconsciously make single people feel de-valued?
I heard a pastor who prayed after conducting a baptism in the midst of the worship service:
“And as we pray for all the families of the church, we also pray for those who live alone and for those who are family to them. We pray for parents and their children and for all who, having none to call their own, are welcomed and needed for what and who they can be in the lives of many children around them.”
Hearing this prayer, one woman reflected:
“I have been divorced since it was determined that my former husband and I could not have any children of our won. No one in the congregation knows that I was ever married. Can you imagine what that prayer meant to me?”
Do we forget so quickly that our lord Jesus in his earthly life was a single person living on his own, probably apart from his family? There must have been times when even Jesus felt “alone.” But he found purpose through the depth of his prayerful connection to his father in heaven and his welcoming openness to the others he encountered along his journey. He asks us simply to welcome everyone, and value everyone, and know that we all struggle with feeling “alone.”
Being alone is a huge part of life. In fact, being alone epitomizes the human condition. Increasingly most of us spend more time alone than coupled. And we all die alone. Like the disciples we may trust in our risen lord. But we still fear being left to our own resources to face life’s travails.
So… going back to the beginning of my sermon….why is it that church congregations frequently enable bad behavior?
We’re scared! Congregations fall apart, fight and divide until there’s nothing left. And if that happens then where will we be? How will we talk to one another on Sundays? Who will call us to see if we are still alive? Who will soothe our heart-aching loneliness? I think we know how fragile our life together really is, and we are afraid to do anything that would rock the boat! Who wants to feel even more alone?
Yet this is the human condition, even for disciples of the risen Christ.
“Lads,” he said to them. “You haven’t caught anything to eat, have you?” “Cast your nets over there, to the right, and you’ll find something.” Living with our aloneness is a lot like fishing all night long and not catching a thing. It hurts.
They were hurting. We can place ourselves into this story. We, too, can be sitting in the boat. We too can hear the strangely familiar man call to us from the shore. We can cast our nets and we can catch a haul and we can cook and eat, all the while staring at the one who can’t be there, but is. And we too can eat together, each of us aware of our aloneness, yet each of us strangely comforted. As we eat together, he blesses us, too.
Wouldn’t we like to hold onto this feeling forever? But instead he tells us to go spread the gospel, and then he disappears.
Perhaps there’s a part of being a human being that will just be lonely, even a bit fearful. Perhaps loneliness is even woven into the way we were created, placed there to make us know that this world, for all its splendor and goodness, is not our final home. Perhaps our aloneness is even a part of god’s grace. Saint Augustine wrote in his confessions, “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” O God.
The disciples, briefly, rested their aching hearts beside the risen Christ by that campfire on the shore.
That is why we gather for worship, too. To find a way to rest our hearts in god. It happens, sometimes, but briefly. The truth is, you aren’t going to solve my feelings of loneliness and neither I nor anyone else here will solve yours. Only god can do that. So don’t mistake the vessel for the living water. Don’t protect your church at any cost! Always hold us up to a high standard!
Rather let us be spurred on in those moments when we do find true rest in god… spurred on to do the right thing.
Welcome the stranger. Care for god’s world and speak up for those trampled by injustice. Encourage one another. And remember…
Above all remember and remind one other… of the fish we caught that dawn after the long lonely night. And how he fed us. Taste that roasted fish. Savor it. That’s what keeps us going. That’s what keeps us faithful. Amen.