Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon: Chasm.



A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church Grosse Pointe, MI
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
The 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year C)
25 September 2016

May the words of my mouth and the meditations
 of all our hearts be always acceptable 
to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Since his 1954 debut on the cover of Mad magazine[1], Alfred E. Neuman’s face has adorned the cover of all but a handful of the Mad’s 500 issues.  Alfred E. Neuman’s face is distinct: the jug ears, the missing front tooth and one eye a bit lower than the other eye. Neuman’s face that doesn’t have a care in the world, except mischief, and the publisher routinely combines Neuman with another character, such as Darth Vader or George Washington, or even Agent Smith from The Matrix.  After the first few years of publication, Mad magazine added Neuman’s now-familiar signature phrase, “What, me worry?” written below his face.

Intellectually uncurious “What, me worry?” captures the 8th century BCE life-of-faith run amuck that Amos critiques in today’s reading.  This apathy pervades the lifestyle that Amos condemns, which accompanies the decadent feast of revelry by privileged and powerful people, enjoying indulgences they can afford without a care in the world. What, me worry? Is at the crux of Amos’s rant. 

The people, “at ease in Zion,” claim to belong to the Lord and feel secure. They don’t care about the ruin of an entire population – the people of Israel…For context, think the clich├ęd image of Nero who fiddled while Rome burned, or Marie Antoinette who said “Let them eat cake” while the rebelling people starved. These people “at ease in Zion,” instead of using their power and privilege for the welfare of God’s people used their privilege for their own good.  What, me worry?

pause
I don’t really like Amos. He’s speaking to me. To us. He makes me wonder about my / our privilege: In what ways do my choices numb me from worry? How do I, too, participate in systems that ignore the oppression of people? 

When I turn on the lights, do I care about the connection of that electric usage to mountain top removal[2] happening in West Virginia? 

When I buy cheap mangoes from S America, do I understand the connection between my exotic tastes to the destruction of small farms at the heart of community life, whose downfall now forces those farmers to find work on farms in North America?

When I speak up in a meeting, do I notice the connection that some people will (sometimes) listen to a priest and silence their own important perspectives from a conversation – do I notice my power and privilege?

These choices that I make – that we make – around how we use our wealth and privilege have connections, have effects. Amos calls me – us – out with his prophetic voice to choose life.

This choice the core of the now familiar “This is Water” talk by David Foster Wallace, to which both Rev. Areeta and Fr. Drew referred in in previous sermons.  This is the core of awareness that is so real and essential but hidden in plain sight, like water in which fish swim: my wealth & privilege can numb me from worry. I don’t like Amos because it means I need to stay awake and aware.  Do you see what I mean?

The gospel offers warning about the cruel world of inequality.[3]  Jesus’ talk portrays a rich man who might have wondered, “What, me worry?” during his life on earth. 

His wealth & privilege prevented him from even seeing Lazarus or relating to Lazarus as a fellow child of God.  (Just for clarification, this was not the same Lazarus heard in other stories with Jesus.  Lazarus was a common name derived from the Hebrew, Eleazar, “God is my help.”)

In death, the rich man spoke to Lazarus without concern and assumed Lazarus would do his bidding even in the hereafter. The rich man was lost. His riches had stunted his compassion and created a chasm in his heart from the needs of others.  And so it may be for us – when we become complacent, without concern of how systems in which we participate affect others and especially those who are oppressed or marginalized already.  Luke and Amos call us, today, to stay alert – to choose to care – so that wealth and privilege does not insulate those around us.

Both these prophets’ message warn of a chasm forming around our heart.

To help remind us to take seriously Jesus’ point, we already have a handy device that most of us carry around in our wallet.  Could you please take out a bill from your wallet – any bill will do.  Or a coin, if you have no bills.  If you look closely on each bill or coin, there inscribed you can read four simple words of that reminder, “In God We Trust.”  Look at those words, imprinted in our currency during the civil war, inspired by the Star Spangled Banner during the war of 1812. 

If we do actually trust God, then we will take seriously God’s command to have compassion on those around us, to be vulnerable to each other, to see the face of Christ in our neighbor’s need. This week, I invite you to spend the bill you hold in your hand. Spend it with awareness, with choice, with concern, with compassion.

How does it reflect your trust in God?  Maybe this tangible sign can be less a “transaction” in your head and more a “transformation” of your heart.[4] Later this week, post on the Christ Church face book page or write me an email or note about how this spending opened you up to the needs of others.  How was your heart transformed by God as you entered into that need?

What is at stake today is the connection of our whole lives – our own wellbeing to that of others.  Jesus is calling us today: take care that our wealth, our privilege, our power, does not numb us to the need of our neighbors. 

We cannot say we have no need of you. 
We are not sufficient unto ourselves. 

Here’s a warning: As we become more responsive to the hurts, hopes and needs of others, we will become more aware of our own humanity- our own longings, vulnerabilities and insufficiencies.  At that point, we may also recognize God’s offer of manifest grace in Jesus Christ, the one who took on our human longings, human vulnerabilities, human insufficiencies in order to show us God’s profound love.

We, too, have Moses’ law and the prophets to teach us to care for our neighbor’s needs. And, we are confronted and become known by Jesus Christ each week at this table.  In that meal, when we see and know the One who died and rose for us, may we be shook awake from our numbness. 

And once awake, may we know how again and again God chooses to draw us back into relationship. God chooses for us life everlasting.

Amen

.


[1] Cited in Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_E._Neuman  on Sep. 22, 2016
[2] See tool at this website: http://ilovemountains.org/maps
[3] Ched Meyers, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Warning Tale and Interpretive Key to Luke”
[4] Inspired by a personal conversation with Rev. Areeta Bridgemohan on September 23, 2016

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sermon: Lost-ness



Sermon Preached on
September 10th and 11th, 2016
5:30pm and 8:00am | Proper 19, Year C
If found return to The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them,
take our lips and speak through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.[i]

Have you ever been lost? 
Of course, we all have at one point or another. 

I remember a time of being lost.
Having arrived by taxi
at my new apartment in Brussels,
met with my new boss and
gotten my company car,
I drove to the airport to pick up
my (ahem) lost luggage,
I faced the Belgian roads. 
All the signs helped me with the 20’ trip
– direction Airport. 

I got my things and headed back. 
Hey, where are the signs to say
“direction home”? 
Non existent. 
2½ hours I drove around Brussels.
Multi-lingual sign.
Confusing cobblestone streets.
Metric speed limits.   I was very lost. 
Until I stopped and
breathed into the cadence of the city. 
This experience that I reflect on,
26 years hence,
demonstrates not only
an outer lost-ness
but also inner lost-ness. 
And, because I still get
outwardly and inwardly lost sometimes,
the following poem by David Wagoner
holds deep meaning for me.[1]

Lost[2]
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
pause
Lost-ness arises in our gospel today:
the lost sheep, the lost coin. 
These two parables seem to distinguish
between the sinner and the righteous. 
Perhaps there is more …
I wonder:
can you be righteous and also be lost?[3]

Jesus begins with “which of you…”
Projecting onto the listeners
an assumption –
“of course you will act this way.”

In the first parable,
the shepherd is supposed to find
the lost sheep.  But think about it –
the shepherd leaves 99 at risk,
in the wilderness, with no protection,
just to find the one that was lost. 
Then when finding the one,
the shepherd rushes the whole flock home
to have a celebration. 
Normal?  Hardly. 

In the second parable,
the woman loses a tenth of her value. 
She turns on all the lights,
she sweeps and mops, cleans and digs in. 
Then when she finds the lost coin,
she has a party with food, drink and celebration
that costs as much as she recovered.
Normal? I don’t think so.

The outrageous celebration that follows
reflects the character of God.
The ridiculously expansive generosity and joy
springs from God’s own heart and
spills out into creation in response to being found. 
Being found - choosing Love, aka "repenting." 

But what is repentance?
As we teach in the baptismal preparation,
repentance, or “metanoia,”
means “transformative change of heart.”
A turning around, a change in perspective.
Or as we say in 12-step groups:
A willingness to become willing
to see things differently.

But can you be righteous and still lost?
Yes, of course.  Yes, I think we are at times. 

We may have our issues, our mistakes,
but for the most part
we don’t really identify with
the “filthy sinners.”
Most of us simply are trying
to live into our baptismal covenant. 
And we can still be lost.  How?
Maybe we were at the peak of our career,
just hitting stride,
having spend 7 ½ years in Europe
building the business
and we get laid off.
Maybe we are parents who
desperately want our children to succeed,
so we schedule or over-plan
our whole lives around
hockey games and dance recitals.
Maybe we have worked all our life,
have a substantial and solid pension plan,
but have little sense of meaning
since our retirement.
Maybe … maybe we seem to have it all together
and we are just plain lost.

Being “righteous” only goes so far
in the “who we are” department…
being “righteous” connects our identity
to “what we have done.” 

And so today’s good news,
reflected in these parables,
is that God grants us a found identity
and locates us in a place way beyond
what we have done,
are doing –
may someday do. 

Although we may feel lost,
this church, this sacred community,
is a place that we can
admit our lost-ness, and
confide our hopes and fears to God. 

For when you turn (or re-turn) to God,
just willing to become willing to see things differently,
God extravagantly and joyously celebrates
with all the angels in heaven and on earth. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
shortly before his execution,
wrote a poem called “Who am I?”
The poem addresses
that existential question of lost-ness
that haunts our human condition:
Here is an excerpt[4]:

"Who am I?  …
… They [also] tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to winning.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick,
like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, …
thirsting for words of kindness,
for neighborliness,
…powerlessly trembling
for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying,
at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once?
A hypocrite before others…
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."

My sisters and brothers,
These parables are
partially about sinners & righteous folks.  
partially about being lost and then found. 
These parables are totally
about the character of God –
a God so crazy in love with God’s children
that this God will do anything to find them. 

To find us.
And in finding, to outlandishly celebrate
with festive joy
any teensy, tiny turn or re-turn toward Love. 

Jesus asked, “which of you…”
Truthfully, none of us would. 

But God would.  God does, even now.
God is recklessly searching and finding us
in the depths of our righteous lost-ness. 

And in that celebratory finding,
pours out mercy, grace and love.
Forever and to the end of the ages.

Thanks be to God. 
Amen


[1] Inspired by Parker Palmer’s blog at OnBeing, cited here http://www.onbeing.org/blog/lost-in-the-wilds-of-your-life/6717 on September 8, 2016
[2] Poem “Lost” by David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976
[3] Inspired by David Lose at Working Preacher, cited here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2737 on September 8, 2016
[4] Offered by Author Rev. Mark F. Sturgess Sr. Pastor, Riviera UMC Redondo Beach, CA on his blog at http://www.marksturgess.org/blog/who-am-i-a-poem-by-d-bonhoeffer
and quoted in Douglas John Hall, Waiting for the Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant "Establishment" (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012), 94; translated by J.B. Leishman, and reproduced in G. Leibholz's 'Memoir' of Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 15.