Sacred Soil

Buried Alleluias
October 28, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Reformation Sunday

October 28, 2012

Jeremiah 31:31–34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19–28
John 8:31–36

Three years ago, on this very day, a beautiful bunch of Lutherans gathered at the corner of 24th and Harvey to celebrate their final service in that place. I’m sure it was a day of complicated emotions as they sang the familiar Reformation tunes, remembering the many saints that had been raised up in this place. The weddings, baptisms, funerals. The quiet simplicity during lent, and the joyous and lush celebrations of Christmas. The service ended with procession out, as these beautiful Lutherans left this place with the clinging to the hope that death would lead to new life.

Though I was not there, I will forever cherish the image of Ray, carrying the chalice out. Carrying forward the promise we have in the cup of salvation.

In the coming weeks and months, this group of Lutherans cleaned out building, sorting through decades of cherished items and forgotten projects… cleaning the place out until the building oddly echoed, hallow and empty.

They did a good job–except for that safe that took uncommon strength to open. And for a box stashed away several years ago, forgotten to the bustle of change and other agendas. A box holding banners announcing Alleluia.

They were intended to come out at Easter. I’m not sure if we know which Easter. If you remember, it’s our tradition to put away Alleluia for the 40 days before Easter. The season of Lent. It’s a more solemn season, a time of deep reflection, and so we put away this more jubilant word, so that when it returns we’re once again in awe of its power.

I’m moved by this forgotten box, because I know that for some of us in this room, it has seemed that Lent has lasted a very, very long time. Years. Perhaps for some, decades. Alleluia is unbridled joy. Ebullient and passionate. And there are times where this kind of joy is not possible. Times when Alleluia seems buried far away, sealed with more than just a box.

And there are reasons for this that stretch far beyond the immense difficulty of leaving a sacred home. There are all sorts of reasons that our Alleluias get buried. Grief and loss, frustration, depression. For many of us, alleluia feels strange in our mouths, awkward and stiff. Too many l’s. Too many syllables. Too foreign.

The thing is, the challenge, is that we are tempted, when those Alleluias are buried, we are tempted to believe and behave as if we have failed. We are tempted to lose our identity, allowing ourselves to be swallowed up in grief and despair. Tempted to act as if Alleluia never existed.

Martin Luther himself actually struggled with this. I’m told that at his last sermon, mere months before he died, Martin stood up to preach in his church to an audience of 5. His words echoed around the room, falling coldly on stone and wood. In despair, he wondered, have we failed? Will this reformation pass as a minor page of history? Will people understand what we have tried to do? Who are we?

And yet, we know the story went differently. 500 years later, we gather here inspired by the good work God did through Martin.

And this is why we utter Alleluia, even when the word is awkward in our mouths. Alleluia points to a promise- not something earned or learned. Alleluia points to the promise written on our hearts by our God: the assurance that God will always be our God, and that we will always be God’s people.

  • This is the promise God made to the Israelites as they headed toward a dark and uncertain future.
  • This is the promise God made to the disciples, as they struggled to find their way forward.
  • This is the promise made to you and to me, as the waters of baptism flowed over our heads.

We are first God’s beloved. Called by name, we are God’s beloved before any other identity we might have. Before we are woman, man, mother, father, widow, child, BULC member, First member, Presbyterian, none of the above. Before we are any of these we are God’s beloved. This is what defines us. We are no longer defined by our limits, but by God’s joyful claiming of each of us as a beloved child of God.

On those days, in those years, and decades when our mouths cannot form the word, when Lent has gone on too long, our God who utters the Alleluias. The broken, whisper of alleluia, uttered as an echo of promise. A reminder that possibility is always ahead. The assurance that life wins. It is the song of hope that plays quietly in the background, ready for that moment when our ears can tune to it, when we can hear it.

There is a dissonance in this, a dissonance for we who hold that alleluia beside our grief, along side our pain. It is an odd harmony that we don’t always want to hear–trying to purify our emotions, making them simple and understandable. Yet, if we give into this, such a dissonance risks encouraging us to burry that alleluia, and keep it hidden. To forget about it.

But our God will not let us forget. We cannot forget, for it is written on our hearts. The love of God has claimed us, wholly and holy, for all our complications and doubts. And so we unearth that word, letting it form on our tongues, in fertile hope and the sure promise that God’s love will always raise us to new life.

And so today, we gather here, in this place, at the corner of 31st and Euclid, listening for the harmonies of God’s Alleluia lifting up in this place, letting them resonate against the grief and the hope that rise within us. Grateful also, that this day, on the corner of 24th and Harvey, once again the cries of Alleluia have been released from their box, free to echo through the hearts of a new community as a new day begins for all of us.

Alleluia. Amen.

Ode to a Ditch
October 21, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 29

Isaiah 53:4–12
Psalm 91:9–16
Hebrews 5:1–10
Mark 10:35–45

In my early 20’s I was part of a group of people working on a community housing project. We were a bunch of idealistic folks who somehow managed to create homes for 29 families. We invested our whole selves into the project, and a lot of our own money.

There came a time, when the architect sat down with us and explained that the sewer system would need some complicated work that might mean diverting the stream that ran through the property. She began talking about angles, ditches, and culverts, and my head began to spin, and my eyes glaze over, until I saw Bob, slowly and steadily working himself into a boil. Finally, he burst out—“I’ll do it. There is no need to sacrifice that stream for your incompetence!”

Bob had a way with words.

I had not, to that point, taken any courses on the fine art of ditch digging. Nor, would have even known to question the architect. But Bob did know what he was talking about. Bob knew his ditches. Well.

And over the course of the next few weeks, Bob, and a few helpers came out to the site, and with graceful skill, he traced out a new path for the sewer, hand digging the trench, skillfully measuring the angle (for with sewers it is especially important that gravity be your friend). I remember those days filled with the fine mist of an Oregon Spring, muddy and damp. Bob was sopping with muck–but his ditch was beautiful and pristine.

His gift and his skill saved the creek, and several thousand dollars. We celebrated him with poetry, and raised a glass to this great gift in our midst.

I must say, I’d never had thought that a ditch digger would be so important. So honored. To that point, I’d never given a passing thought to ditch digging. I would have never named this job as glorious.

I suspect the disciples would have thought similarly. I love this story of the petulant Zebedee brothers demanding of Jesus that he give them a bit of his glory.

“Jesus, we want you to give us whatever we ask”… to which Jesus says, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

They respond that they want Jesus to grant that one have the right hand side and the other the left when Jesus comes into his glory.

I’m not sure what the disciples had in mind when they were imagining Jesus’ glory. Perhaps they’d imagined themselves rulers of a vast land, or greatly wealthy with servants and glorious wine. Whatever they imagined, I’m sure that it had nothing to do with ditch digging, and even less to do with what God had actually called them to do.

But ours is a culture that seeks glory. This hasn’t changed since the first century. We are compelled to gather up glory for ourselves, collecting it with stories of close encounters with famous people, achieving for achievements’ own sake. A culture duty-bound to find our 15 minutes of fame–as if this would make our lives meaningful. As if this would make us matter, give us a little power.

We do this in insidious ways—this seeking our own glory. Often we don’t even realize that we have done it. A few years ago, friends of mine, who ran a soup kitchen wondered about this, “how are we unwittingly seeking our own glory?” And in seeking their own answer, they noticed two lines, divided by a serving table. One side was the side of power, the other of powerlessness. The server, and the served. And they were convicted.

And so they mixed everything up. Changed it from a soup kitchen to a community meal. They asked everyone to serve, to clean, and to eat. And it was transformative. And in changing these things, they shared in the glory–the joy of community and mutual relationship, and the recognition that we all desire meaningful work; we all desire real connection. And they even found glory in the shared work of doing the dishes.

Jesus responded to the Zebedee brothers, letting them know that indeed, they would experience all that Jesus was to experience, but this would not be glory they imagined. There would be no regal throne, but rather the life of a servant. No grand army overthrowing Rome, but rather death at the hands of those who sought their own glory.

Which brings me back to Bob’s ditch. There is this temptation with this text, to believe that we should seek servile work and distance ourselves from the joy of a job well done. There is this temptation to believe that we should strip ourselves of passion about our work, and subject ourselves to meaninglessness. Which then gets us to a two sided coin, on one side glory seeking, the other joyless.

But I don’t think that Jesus is asking the disciples to slip into meaninglessness when he tells them to be servants of all. No, rather I think that Jesus is calling us to a third way, to rethink what is glorious, what is good, what is better, what is powerful. I think that he is calling us to see that the ditch digger and the lawyer are to be servants to one another, that we are to live mutually connected, as one body in Christ. All needful of each other. All children of God.

And so it seems good and right that we celebrated Bob that night. That we cherished that ditch. Cherished the Good work God had done through Bob. And it seems to me that we have this opportunity to celebrate all ditches in this manner, to celebrate all the good work brought about by people, just as us, who seek meaning in their lives, whether we are inclined to see it as glorious or not. For in so doing we do not seek our own glory, but rather we seek the glory of God in our sister and brother in Christ, people beloved by God.

For at this table here, God has welcomed us all. Ditch diggers and Wall Street bankers. God has called us each by name, joined as brothers and sisters. Servants of one another. The only glory we’re seeking here is God’s.

So come, let us gather at this table as equals, cherishing the good work God does through all of us. And may we have the grace to be servants to one another, honouring the great glory of our God who loves us beyond comprehension.


Painting a Picture
October 7, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 27

Genesis 2:18–24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1–4; 2:5–12
Mark 10:2–16

In my mother’s living room, prominently displayed right next to her chair is an enormous coffee table book of Norman Rockwell paintings. I think it claims to have everything he ever did–which is fairly impressive, given how prolific he was.

Most of us would know these paintings –we actually have a print of one here in our office hallway. It’s a rendering of people from many faiths, many nations, with the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rockwell is known for affectionate images, images of hope and idealism.

As I read the texts for today, it’s Rockwell’s thanksgiving image kept creeping into my mind. The actual title of the painting is “Freedom from Want.” It’s an idealized picture of a white family gathered around for a turkey dinner. Grandmother is setting out the bird, as grandfather prepares to carve. They look perfectly content, even proud, as the rest of their family sits eagerly smiling, leaning in toward each other. The image is so familiar, so vivid, that I feel as if I can smell the turkey now. (I may need to make stuffing for dinner tonight…)

But as I delight in this image–a searing emptiness and dissonance gets at me. For this isn’t how such family gatherings have usually gone for me or for that matter for many of us. And even when we do have those beautiful moments, so often the smiles mask pain unspoken, an uneasiness, and heartbreak that bubbles under the surface. Doubtless, at almost any family gathering, there is someone whose smile is an act of will, their eyes betraying their own brokenness, hopelessness.

Our reality is never quite as pretty as our ideals. Rockwell knew this, his own life marked by divorce, depression, and the death of two spouses. And Jesus certainly knew this, he being the one who died on a cross. Though, strangely, we seem to forget that when we read these passages.

So often, we read these passages as a script, a rule book, an instruction for how to paint this portrait of grandmother and the turkey. As if we might be able to paint-by-numbers and fill in a picture of righteousness and happiness.  If only we follow the steps, if only we try to get it all right, keeping within the lines.

But it turns out; this is exactly what Jesus wanted the Pharisees to avoid. Wanted us to avoid.

So, it’s important, first, to understand a few of the things that have changed since the 1st century. 1) Back then, if a woman were divorced she had no means for livelihood at all. Without a household, she had no way to support herself. Divorce equaled utter devastation. It was a cruel thing to do to a woman, to children. 2) Adultery, well back then when a man committed adultery, it was a sin against the woman’s father. You see, she was property, so the law didn’t consider it a sin against her. Women had no rights. That’s just how society functioned. And there wasn’t much room or quibbling with that.

So, when Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her…” well, that was sort of extraordinary. Note, he did not say it was a sin against her father, it was a sin against her. The woman. The one who has no power at all. Jesus, names what we know is true–we are all hurt by broken relationships. We are all devastated when promises are broken. All of us.

In other words, it’s not ok to hurt others. Ever. Men, women, or children. It is not ok to use the law to make someone to be less than you.

Jesus was speaking a radical word, dignifying women and children as part of God’s beloved reign. A radical word that declared there were no insiders, and no outsiders, declaring that no human being is disposable. No matter how hard our hearts are. He wasn’t willing us to fit into an unrealistic picture of human happiness—he was asking us to name that we all matter. All of us.

But the truth is we continue to try to find ways to make people disposable, to exclude them from our idealized images, for reasons we can name, and reasons we would prefer to keep silent. We continue to try to pain this Rockwellesque picture, carefully painting in happy faces, excluding anything that looks different, out of place, or honest.

And then we do worse, dehumanizing those who don’t fit into our pretty pictures, making them disposable, and mere tools. When this happens, children are forced into sex-trafficking, factory workers are not allowed a bathroom break in their 14-hour work day, and the homeless are ticketed for loitering for simply sitting on a park bench.

I could make a longer list. A more horrific list. There’s no limit to the ways we humans have treated other humans as disposable. Perhaps you’ve personally felt that way… like your being was a problem. Like you could be sent a way with a simple certificate of dismissal…

So, as beautiful as Rockwell’s painting is that Thanksgiving image makes me uncomfortable. Because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be welcomed, pretty sure lots of us wouldn’t be welcomed. At least not if we brought our true selves, our whole selves. Broken people that we are.

Which gets me to wondering… You see, in the lower right corner of this picture is a man looking out. His eyes are inviting, they seem to be looking at the viewer, as if there were more room at the table. Room for you, and for me, suggesting that the image is incomplete. And it is.

For the complete image would welcome us all, would have us all gathered around the table. Those whose smiles come easily, and those whose grief and uneasiness overwhelm. Those who look different, those who act different. The complete image would have people of other ethnicities, nationalities, who are disabled. The complete image would have poor folks, young children. The complete image would be filled with real people—broken people—people who long for wholeness and welcome.

Turns out that we have that real image. Right here. And it’s not just an image. It’s this very table. Where Christ is the host. And there are no numbers to paint, no pretty pictures to create. This is where we come, those who have been broken by divorce, adultery. Those who have been made to feel less than human. Those who long for a family gathered, around a meal that is filled with hope, and joy. This is the only table I know that can offer such a welcome; the only table I know, where we are truly beloved for who we are. Each of us saints and sinners.

So come, come to this table, welcomed as a beloved child. Welcomed as Jesus welcomed the least of these, welcomed as one made whole in the love of God. Come and make this picture whole, and real.