Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Girl Before a Mirror

A Shell Ridge Sermon by Rev. Angela Yarber (preached 2/25/2007)
First Sunday of Lent--Gifts of the Wilderness: The Gift of Life
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Text: Luke 4:1-13 Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Child of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Let’s be honest. The question we’re all wondering: was Jesus on the Atkins diet? “One does not live by bread alone.” Was it the insatiable need to count carbs that led Jesus into the wilderness, escaping the temptation of sandwhiches, pita pockets, tortillas, and sourdough bread bowls? Or was bathing suite season lurking just around the corner and Jesus wanted to retreat into the desert for forty days of “hot yoga,” certain that the sun, heat, and plow position, combined with utter starvation, would burn off those extra unwanted pounds?
Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Jesus didn’t struggle with such things! How dare we apply our contemporary struggles, our American and privileged concerns onto the Christ, Jesus, Messiah, Co-Sufferer. Jesus wasn’t concerned with such things…was he?

Today we enter into the season of Lent, a time when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness: 40 days of fasting, heat, temptation, and perhaps fear. At Shell Ridge we are focusing on the Gifts of the Wilderness in the days to come, a time when we recall our own days in the desert, what we learned there, what we needed there, and what provided strength there. Have you ever been in the wilderness? Do you recall spending time in the desert? And, no, I don’t necessarily mean the literal desert or wilderness, though trading stories of camping and hiking is something I love to do. I mean those metaphorical times in the wilderness, the symbolic days in the desert. What did it feel like? Were you hungry, hot, tired, tempted, and a little afraid? What was it that gave you strength during those dry days, your symbolic stream in the metaphorical waste land? We’ve all had our times in the desert, and so did Jesus. Perhaps it was a time when you lost your job, or went through a divorce, or moved far away from family and friends, or watched a loved one suffer and die. These wilderness times are hard and often painful to remember. But we’ve all had our times in the desert.

This morning I would like to share with you some of my wilderness time. Like your time in the desert, it was hard and often painful to remember. One of my heroes in homiletics, Barbara Brown Taylor, describes preaching as “spiritual exhibitionism,” where you lay it all on the line, when you are spiritually naked in front of eager and hungry hearts. And so, at the risk of “baring it all,” so to speak, will you journey with me into the wilderness? It may be hard, painful, or uncomfortable. As we journey, however, remember that we do not brave these desert roads alone: we are on this path together and have a Co-Sufferer by our sides.

Today is, not only the first Sunday in Lent, it is also the beginning of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Did you know that 80% of women in America struggle with a sub-clinical eating disorder? This may not be a word with which you are familiar; we hear about anorexia and bulimia and binge eating and over eating, but what’s a sub-clinical eating disorder and how on earth do the majority of Americans have it? You see, a sub-clinical eating disorder is when an individual is constantly worried about food, eating, appearance, calories, exercise—when food and appearance consume one’s thoughts. For me, this notion is best illustrated in Picasso’s painting Girl Before a Mirror. I remember looking at a picture of Picasso’s painting with a child. The child said that there are two girls in the picture. Interesting: the title is Girl, not Girls, Before a Mirror. One girl. One reflection. But her reflection does not really seem to mirror what she looks like, does it? Rather, the girl, like 80 % of American women, looks into the mirror and cannot clearly see her reflection, but a distortion of it—one that is not pretty enough or skinny enough or good enough. Perhaps the girl Picasso was painting compared herself to all the models that grace the covers of magazines, or television, or movies. Perhaps the girl before Picasso’s mirror looked at her reflection with tears in her hungry and wanting eyes and wondered, “Why can’t I look like _______?” Maybe she was struggling with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. At one point or another we’ve all been Picasso’s girl, Picasso’s person before a mirror, where our eyes could not see our reflection clearly, but instead saw one that was less than, worse than, unworthy to see beauty reflected in the mirror. Such was the case for the majority of my adolescent years.

I’d like to share a story with you, a story that stems from one of my days in the wilderness. A story of a time when I was convinced, like Jesus, that “one does not live by bread alone.” Once upon a time there was a college cheerleader named Angela. Now before you pass judgment on this chipper cheerleader, allow me to elaborate. She was not your typical cheerleader—ditsy and airhead were not a part of her vocabulary. She was actually a star student. 4.0 in the religious studies program. That’s right: religious studies. Not only was the cheerleader a good student, but she was a youth minister at a local church, leading bible studies, mission trips, and camps for teenagers. I suppose it’s safe to say that this cheerleader was an oxymoron. However, despite her paradoxical tendencies to defy stereotypes when it came to the brains or morals of the typical cheerleader, this college student found herself struggling with her reflection, much like Picasso’s girl before a mirror. She had always been a dancer, gymnast, and performer, living her life in a leotard…surrounded by mirrors…on stage for all the world to see…every flaw visible for critique. So, maintaining weight was always an issue for the college cheerleader. In fact, she’d battled anorexia for many of her middle and high school years. But now she found herself in college: studying to make straight As, serving as a minister at the “wise” age of 20, and battling to balance on the quivering hands of her bases that threw her tiny body into the air in cheerleading stunts. The smaller you are, the higher you fly. So, the I cheerleader counted calories and exercised, aware that her 5’5” frame probably did not need to weigh so little. To make matters worse, the cheerleader was a perfectionist. As a performer, her life was always on display and her new-found faith taught her to imitate Christ, to be perfect as her Heavenly Father is perfect, to deny herself, take up her cross and follow Christ. And so, she did. Perfectionism and self-loathing are recurring idioms in disorder eaters. Like the female monastics that lived hundreds of years before her, she denied herself, took up her cross and followed Christ.

In Michelle Lelwica’s stirring book, Starving for Salvation, she quotes a young anorexic’s words, “The whole life is like you are carrying a cross—something heroic, something that is very difficult and demands admiration. I felt [that] doing something that was not hard was quite inconceivable; it would be lazy and despicable.”

So, the cheerleader took up her cross and followed a path that led only to emptiness, hurt, hunger, and a countless number of emergency room visits.

On game day, the squad was required to eat a meal before the game. “You can’t cheer on an empty stomach,” coach said. So, the college cheerleader polished off 6 Saltine crackers and a glass of water. Like, Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, she stood in front her reflection, running her hands over her bony ribcage and protruding hipbones. She did not see an emaciated body staring back at her, but instead saw arms that needed toning, obliques with too much fat, and a waistline that could use some more sit-ups. She saw a hypocrite: “how can I preach to my youth that they are made in the image of God, beautiful and beloved, and struggle so much with what I see? I am not worth the space my body takes up. Furthermore, I am succumbing to patriarchal and materialistic trends that I find oppressive. Why won’t this go away? A girl who was raised in the projects was not made to deal with such a privileged problem. This is my choice, my disorder. Just make it go away,” she thought. So, as she did after every meal, the cheerleader retreated to the bathroom to hold back her hair and force her finger down her throat. When she was finished she brushed her teeth, smoothed out the pleats on her uniform, wiped the tears from her eyes, and smudged cherry-red lipstick across her mouth. As she gathered her thoughts before walking to the gym, she glanced over to her dorm room bed to see her Greek homework laying unfinished and sighed at the thought of post-game studying. She closed her notebook, and reached for her Greek New Testament. And the words of Ephesians 2:10 caught her eye: αυτου γαρ εσμεν ποιημα. “You are God’s workmanship, God’s ποιημα.” This word for “workmanship” in Greek is the word ποιημα from which we derive our English word for poem. You are God’s poem, Angela.

The college cheerleader returned to the bathroom, reopened her cherry-red lipstick and scrawled across her mirror in large letters: αυτου γαρ εσμεν ποιημα, promising herself and the God who created her that she would get help for her disorder. Strength in the wilderness. A stream in the desert of disorder.

You are God’s workmanship. One day, God wrote a beautiful, magnificent poem and titled it Katy, Greg, Eliot, Maura, Willis, Frances. As an artist creates a masterpiece, imbuing each detail with handiwork and care and intentionality, so God has created each of us. God’s fingerprints are all over you. Whether you see your reflection in the mirror and smile, or whether you look, like the Girl Before a Mirror, and see a distortion of that reflection, God looks at you and cries out, “If you could only see yourself through my eyes, you would marvel at the sight.”

So, one does not live by bread alone…but a little bread sure does help.

During this time of year, let us be mindful of those who may still find themselves in the desert. Let us remember that there are those in our world and perhaps here in this place that are struggling in the wilderness, even today. May we be a people that offer streams in dry lands. May we be a church that provides strength in the midst of heartache. If you are in a dry and hungry place, we invite you to take heart. Here is a place where you may find refuge in the wilderness. Here is a place where the living water never runs dry, no matter your situation in the desert. The road may not be easy, but it is one that we commit to taking together. And as we walk hand in hand along these desert pathways, let us remember that One has gone before us and walks beside us still, giving hope and peace and strength for the journey. During this season of Lent, let us be refreshing agents of hope in wilderness, a source of rest in the desert. During this week, may we be mindful of the concerns of struggling men and women around us, who look at their reflections, like Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, and are unable to see the beauty with which they are created.

As Tony Morrison reminds us in her novel Beloved, may we learn to love our flesh, no matter how others perceive it. As Cele proclaims in Alice Walker’s novel turned musical, “I am beautiful!” And even as pop icon Christina Aguillara sings, may we recall that “we are beautiful no matter what they say.” You are beautiful, beloved, and worthy in the wilderness and in the promised land. As the one who created us and sees us wholly tells us, “you are made in my image and that is good.”

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Serious Work of Sacred Silliness & Holy Hilarity

A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter (preached 2/18/07)
Transfiguration Sunday/Mardi Gras Sunday

Who could have possibly predicted the Sarah’s birth announcement? Who could possibly have grabbed an angel by the wing and pulled him down out of the sky and contrived for him to give such astonishing news? It all happened not of necessity, not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God. What could they do but laugh at the preposterousness of it, and they laughed until the tears ran down their face. The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforseeable.
--Frederick Buechner
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale

SERMON TEXT: Genesis 18:1-15

1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ 13The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” 14Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’


So, God and Jesus are playing a round of golf … no wait … if we are trinitarian, maybe it’s redundant and a bit problematic to say it that way … OK … Jesus and Moses are playing golf and … no wait … golf is a modern game and why would Jesus and Moses be playing it? OK … Moses walks into a bar … “Ouch!”

Preaching has often been described in shorthand as three points, a joke and a poem.

Now my sermons don’t always contain the requisite three points … in fact I’ve heard they’re sometimes pointless, so that means the poem and the joke better be pretty darned good. A zinger of a joke that rips the laughter from you and a poem to make you weep or make you knowingly nod at the great, wise truth of it all.

There is a line in the Koran which, I suppose, if you looked has a counterpart somewhere in the Hebrew scriptures … the line asks: "The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?" Annie Dillard quotes this line in her classic “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and she follows it up by saying: “It's a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction?”

But it seems to me that a slow walk or a quick ramble through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures reveals God as, among other things, a great cosmic comedian full of divine wit and a certain wise and loving folly, and one who takes a wily delight in surprising the world and all there is within it with unearned and unanticipated grace.

Sometimes God’s jesting is against us … or actually FOR us in the long run … but it is God who evokes laughter and mirth and cheerfulness from us … who startles our settledness with possibilities and outcomes beyond our wildest imagining (Sarah’s birth announcement … the Prodigal Son) … or seeks to puncture our anxious self-absorption with a bit of satire and levity (Jonah … Job … many of Jesus’ parables [the judge and the exhausting woman]) … or seeks, simply to delight us with wonder so that we laugh in joyful spontaneity along with the creator of all things (Psalms 8 or 19 or 139 or 150).

If you put on the right set of filters, the right set of lenses when reading scripture, you will find that comedy is all around … comedy and wicked satire and absurdist contradiction and wily middle-eastern eye-twinkling humor.

One of the ongoing difficulties of reading the Bible in English as citizens of the 21st century is that it is nearly impossible for us to “get the joke” … to get all of the comic, wry, double-jointed nuances that were plain as day to the original hearers of those words in the original languages of their telling.

Mark Biddle is a professor at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He says that there is a great deal of humor hidden in the pages of scripture, but he says that “many are subtle and you need to tease out the Hebrew or Greek a bit," A prime example he offers is the story in Genesis 24 that traditionally recounts that Rebekah "dismounted from her camel" after seeing Isaac "meditating in the field." But, Biddle says, a strong case can be made that Rebekah "fell off her camel" when she saw Isaac "relieving himself." Mark Biddle says: "Since we are created in the image of God and we have an innate sense of humor, could that mean God has a sense of humor too?”

How do we respond when we hear things like this? Someone has said: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Scowl and someone will ask, ‘Are you a Baptist?’”

Apparently the church over the ages has been pretty thoroughly Baptist … think of all the classic religious art you’ve ever seen (excluding the most modern depictions) … did you ever see a painting of Jesus or any of the great figures of the Bible smiling? Laughing? Leaning together and weeping because of the hilarious punch line of some wonderful story? No … there seems to have been a two thousand year long sense of “gravitas” … this great serious gravity that has pulled the long faces of the painted into scowls and dark, heavy brows full of the unshakeable burdens of living.

As early as the 11th century, the influential church leader John of Chrysostom insisted Jesus never laughed. The Second Council of Constance in 1418—I’m sure you all know it well—considered the question: “Can those who would be Christ-like laugh and still not sin?” That medieval Christian council assigned to hell any minister or monk who spoke "jocular words such as provoke laughter."

But this is at such odds with what we read and experience in scripture. Someone has said that survival in the ancient context out of which our scriptures and faith traditions have come was one where a certain wiliness and foxiness and guile were essential survival skills. And all of these things could evoke laughter and be sources of humor for people who understood what was going on.

You may remember the story of Jacob and Laban. Laban was a dessert sheik who had two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob finds Rachel beguiling and asks Laban for her hand in marriage. But the story has a bit of a cruel twist—because Laban felt it was necessary to insure the survival of his elder daughter Leah who may have run out of prospects. So he deliberately plants the wrong daughter in the dark marriage tent, giving Jacob a wife he had not sought. Jacob confronts Laban who shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘here in our land, we do not give our younger daughters before our older daughters … whaaat, did I forget to mention this seven years ago? Silly me. Ah well, ‘tis a trivial thing … if you agree to work seven more years, I will also give you Rachel.

It is said that by the time of the Greek and Roman era, stories like these, in their crude desert guile, had become embarrassing to the Rabbis.

But if we remember the kind of wily character Jacob was, cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright … and if we knew what Jacob’s father’s name meant in Hebrew, none of the comic and absurd twists and turns of his life should take us completely by surprise.

Jacob’s father is, of course, Isaac and the name “Isaac” you might be interested to know means “laughter” … and indeed, Isaac is the “son of laughter”.

If you’re really up on your Old Testament characters and their stories, you’ll remember that laughter and how it came to be. There was a man named Abram and a woman named Sarai. They were happily settled in the land of their ancestors, the land of Ur, until God called them to hitch their wagon to God’s star … God made some outlandish promises (may be spoken in a bad imitation of the comedian, Jackie Mason, here) “your offspring shall be as numerous as … the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” … and so they followed. And those offspring … hmmm … well … “numerous” is not quite how you’d describe them. Non-existent was a bit more fitting.

One day, God appears to Abram, now Abraham, in the form of three men, but certainly not three ordinary men. Abraham senses the importance of these visitors and rushes about to see that they are offered the finest hospitality that he can muster.

In Genesis 18, beginning with verse 9, “They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Anyone who had heard me snore while sleeping alone in my tent will know that tents block no sound whatsoever. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
I am always amazed at how much “real life” humanity can shine through these ancient tales that were first told thousands of years ago around a dying campfire in the deserts of the ancient middle east. “I didn’t laugh!” “Oh yes you did laugh.”

Well … God gets the last laugh, for Sarah does conceive a child, the child’s name is Isaac and Isaac’s name in Hebrew means “laughter”.

The other promise of God to Abram, that has become a sad joke—is made in the same breath as the promise of numerous offspring: “for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever.” I can see God as Homer Simpson realizing that these were fateful words that should never have been spoken and upon immediately realizing the implications of such a promise, God slaps his forehead and says “Doh!” (Alex keeps telling me that I’d better never quite my day job to play Homer Simpson).

And of course, as we can so easily observe ourselves, the forces of Divine Comedy and the draining realities of tragedy are always in contention … both beyond us and within us. Every day of our existence is full of opportunities for hearty guffaws and for gales of tears. It is into that kind of world … that kind of existence that GRACE is always seeking to insinuate itself, seeking to find rootage, seeking to grow that more grace may be propagated still.

Today is Mardi Gras Sunday … and if you’ve been around a while, you’ll know that we’ve never done a Mardi Gras Sunday before … though we have celebrated Mardi Gras in our own sober Baptist way before But this is a first. And now I’ve just learned that there is an old tradition that is now experiencing a bit of a revival …

Apparently for centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant countries, the week following Easter Sunday, including "Bright Sunday" (the Sunday after Easter), was observed by the faithful as "days of joy and laughter" with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Churchgoers and priests and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. Those were some crazy times. And now a number of American churches are resurrecting this old Easter custom … they’re calling it: "Holy Humor Sunday" celebrations of Jesus' resurrection on the Sunday after Easter.
The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. "Risus paschalis - the Easter laugh," the early theologians called it.

In 1988 the Fellowship of Merry Christians began encouraging churches and prayer groups to resurrect Bright Sunday celebrations and call it "Holy Humor Sunday," with the theme: "Jesus is the LIFE of the party."

Here’s how I sort of imagine the beginnings of Mardi Gras: having barely survived yet another brutal winter, the average citizen of the European dark ages was just beginning to enjoy the promise of spring when around came a dour priest announcing that the next forty days were to be spent in a time of sober repentance and fasting and renouncement of earthy and fleshly pleasures. It’s a wonder any priests survived Lent. Mardi Gras was the natural outgrowth of it’s placement between winter and Lent. it came into being between winter hardships and the beginning of the Lenten season of austerity and served as a means of providing a brief respite … providing relief.

The old country comedian, Jerry Clower, tells a story about his best friend, a fellow named Marcel Ledbetter, who was out “coon hunting”* one night with his friends. I am quite a bit sorry to say that hunting raccoons was probably a beloved and even sacred activity among my mountain-dwelling, moonshine-making Tennessee Ledbetter ancestors. [* I use this phrase reluctantly as the term “coon” has a had long, shameful racist associations in our nation’s history.]

Anyhow, one night they were out raccoon hunting and they thought they had treed a raccoon. They shook the vines in the tree but they couldn’t get the raccoon to come down. So Marcel, he’s not a terribly wise fellow, he decides he would climb the tree and shake the raccoon out. He gets to the top and he discovers when he got up there that it was not a raccoon … it was a bobcat. And the bobcat caused him untold harm and he started yelling down from the tree to the fellows below him on the ground, “Shoot him! Shoot him!” The fellows on the ground started yelling back up, “We can’t shoot up there, Marcel, because if we shoot, we’ll hit you!” This goes on for some time with the most awful sounds of yowling and spitting and scratching and fighting going on up in the darkness of that tree. Marcel keeps calling down for them to shoot and they keep begging off and so he finally says, “Just shoot up here amongst us. One of us has got to have relief!”

And you see, that’s just it. From time to time and perhaps much or even most of the time … we are in need of relief. ‘Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulders of a weary world.’”
It is God who evokes laughter from us … and the laughter God evokes serves a number of purposes for us:

The laughter of JUDGMENT … seeks to puncture our anxious self-absorption with a bit of satire and levity (Jonah … Job … many of Jesus’ parables)

The laughter of GRACE … who startles our settledness with possibilities and outcomes beyond our wildest imagining (Sarah & Abraham … the Prodigal Son … hidden treasures in the field)
The laughter of DELIGHT … seeks, simply to delight us with wonder so that we laugh in joyful spontaneity (Psalms 8 or 19 etc. … Paul: “rejoice in the Lord always”).

One night, over a dozen years ago, made the dubious decision to take our boys to the evening worship service at the Pacific School of Religion’s evening worship service. Alex was 3 and Jordan was not quite 8. The service ended with communion and Jordan determined he would partake of the elements and WOULD NOT BE DISUADED. In our inestimable parental “wisdom”, we determined that he would NOT partake of the elements and we WOULD NOT BE DISUADED. The joie de vivre of the evening suddenly came to a screeching halt and we ended the evening stomping out into the dark, none of us blessed by the gifts of table, and Jan, Jordan and I each silent and FURIOUS. We unlocked the car, settled into the car that immediately filled with a thick, angry silence. Into that silence, from his spot in the car seat, Alex suddenly sneezed. No one said anything. Then from the darkness, a tiny voice: “Bless me!”
And we laughed … we laughed the laughter of judgment … and the laughter of grace … and the laughter of delight. It was the sneeze and the blessing that saved our lives … and gave us the relief we needed.

This is serious work we are about … the serious work of sacred silliness and holy hilarity. We do well to laugh … to laugh often and to laugh hard. We are wisest when we laugh with others and at ourselves. We are encouraged to laugh the laughter of judgment … allowing God to puncture our self-absorbed seriousness. We are encouraged to laugh the laughter of grace … allowing the God of glad surprise to shower us with blessings and goodness and grace. And we are encouraged to laugh the laughter of delight … to allow the child within to never die, and to allow our sense of wonder at God and God’s creation and God’s goodness to remain fresh and alive. Hey, whaddya know … three points!

And as we laugh alone and as we laugh together, let it be that we know our laughter to be the hand of God on our shoulders and the shoulders of our weary world.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Surprising Catch

Click Here for This Morning's Texts
A Shell Ridge Sermon by Gregory H. Ledbetter

A Surprising Catch … I love that phrase and its evocativeness … in the quiet of your mind, what might it evoke?

1982 … Candlestick Park … 49ers vs. the Dallas Cowboys … NFC Championship game the 9ers are down and practically out … Joe Montana to Dwight Clark … it was the catch that turned around the long dismal fortunes of the

McMinnville … 1979 … meeting Jan while applying for a job … it was a “catch” that would change my life forever …

Alaska … 1981 … “casting” the net … pulling the “sock” out of the water, nearly tipping the boat over it was so full … we made about a fifth of our season’s income in that one day

We’ve heard another “fish story” this morning … it is a story from the early days of Jesus’ ministry when he was just calling his disciples out of the crowds that clamored around him.

The background of Luke’s story of the early ministry of Jesus goes like this: … in short order … Jesus goes into the wilderness and demonstrates his utter dependence on God alone (temptation in the wilderness) … then Jesus returns to his home community and announces his ministry and its shape … he also notes that people will always try to turn that the power that animates him to their advantage and it shakes up the community, so much so that they try to throw him off a cliff (welcome home, Jesus!) … Jesus survives this attempt on his life and takes his power and his message on the road (it’s a traveling salvation show) … he heals people and frees them from spirits that possessed them … entrapped them … and then he seeks solitude by the lake … but the crowds follow him … so Jesus borrows the fishing boat of a man whose mother-in-law Jesus had healed.

The people then, as now, were possessed by so many things … be it “demons” … evil spirits … or the spirit of the age … or even “self-possession.” It seems that Jesus’ message was to offer people an alternative … a chance to be “God-possessed” … to be enfolded in God’s care … to be snared by the love of the Creator … to be held close to the heart of the universe. In offering people a chance to be possessed by God rather than anything else, he was offering to them a wholeness and an integrity and a power that cannot come from human strength alone.

After the sermon, Jesus takes Simon fishing … with astounding results … to say that it’s a “surprising catch” is an understatement. Two boats can’t even hold all that the net has caught in one single cast. Something is brewing out on the lake and Simon isn’t sure that he wants in on it.

You see, Simon seems to “get” that such a display of power is not going to happen without something being demanded of him … like so many of God’s servants before him, he declares his utter unworthiness. Jesus tells him to fear neither the power … nor his sense of unworthiness … nor the road of ministry ahead: “Don’t be afraid … no longer will you fish for creatures of the sea, now you will fish for people.”

Fishing for people … for many years, Christians have put a strong “missional” slant on this fishing story … Many of us learned to sing: “I will make you fishers of men” … but if we push the “fish for people” analogy too far, we end up with certain difficulties … among other things, the fish are unwilling occupants of the net … they are “rounded up” … caught against their will … and we know what becomes of them at the end of the story.

Unhappy historical events like the crusades are, in part, a result of taking the story of the surprising catch a little too far. To suggest that it is God’s desire that we make the whole world Christian at all costs is a misunderstanding of the “Good News” … a misunderstanding of what it was that Jesus saw as his mission and the mission of those who followed him.

When Jesus told a story or enacted the message, such as in the story of the surprising catch … neither the story nor the enactment on the water were meant to taken to its absolute extreme …

If we wish to continue to use the story and use the metaphor of net-fishing and our being “caught” in those nets, it might better for us to say that we are “caught by God’s mercy and grace” … surrounded by God’s mercy and grace … enfolded in God’s mercy and grace. Might it be that the net of entrapment and endangerment can be transformed into a safety net of compassion?

There are many ways in which I think we get this. [MLK … single garment of destiny] Largely, we do not see the human beings us around as lost, hell-deserving sinners who need to be tied up and beaten with the gospel. We most of us look around and see a common humanity who, in so many ways are like us … who share our hopes and dreams of a world where individuals are healthy, loved and loving and societies and cultures and nations that create and protect these opportunities.

The Good News is that the Shalom of God that has been promised for every person and throughout the earth is not a “fish story” … it is not a wild exaggeration to say that in many ways this is being fulfilled in our time, in our lives, in our world. The Good News is that the energies of hope that poured out of Jesus’ mouth and ministry were then … and are now … ALIVE! They are real. Even the horrific reality of market bombings in Baghdad cannot destroy the other truth of loving, compassionate sacrificial goodness that has been loosed in the world. Jesus’ own horrific death on a cross was not enough to kill God’s love … as Bill Coffin has said, and I have repeated: “You can kill love, but you can’t keep it buried!”

So … that’s a part of our pedigree … that’s a part of the message that we have witnessed and are called in our lives and words and ministries to bear witness to. Every one of the roughly 6000 days that I have been privileged to walk and work with you, the members of this congregation have, in manifold ways, lived out the good news of Jesus to the world around us. As Jesus said:

Yet … yet sometimes we can grow weary … even with some of the surprising catches that hint at the power of God that is present, we can still grow tired … we can still despair … we can still ponder giving it all up.

Simon Peter speaks for the church, which, in the New Testament, is often symbolized by the boat … after Jesus has used Simon’s boat as a floating pulpit, he tells Simon to row out to where the water is deeper and to let down his nets for a catch. And Simon says: “Jesus … we are tired … our work has exhausted us and we don’t see the fruits of our efforts … we have toiled long and hard in the darkness of our times … and when we pull up our nets from the water, they are empty.

It’s not easy being the church. It’s not easy trying to bring salve and bandages and hope to the world’s hurt. It’s not easy to stay on the path of peace, following the footsteps of the Prince of Peace.

I think of ABCUSA … a good denomination with an influence far beyond its size in our world … the incredible work of its missionaries in all corners of this globe … sat and listened to our general secretary, Roy Medley …

I think of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America … painfully small and fragile … yet with an enormous heart full of enormous hopes for peace with justice for all the people of this world … I had lunch with one of its board members last week and we commiserated over how difficult the work of peacemaking is …

I think of Shell Ridge Community Church … a modestly sized community of faith with a uncommonly large heart. As we talk about the future and the challenges that congregations like ours face as we look ahead … it is tempting to just sit down on our “blessed assurances.”

I think of many individuals I know … common people … humble people … people with big hearts and willing spirits … I think of parents … and partners in love … and teachers and nurses and managers and accountants and laborers …

Simon is a stand-in for all of us in the church and in our real lives who are “weary and heavy laden” by it all: “Jesus … we are tired … our work has exhausted us and we don’t see the fruits of our efforts … we have toiled long and hard in the darkness of our times … and when we pull up our nets from the water, they are empty. I don’t know if I have the strength or the hope to throw my nets into the water another time. “

And what is Jesus’ response to us? To our weariness? To our despair? To our desire to turn back?

Be not afraid. Go … go out to where the water is deeper … and let down your nets.

I talked with my Dad last night … he’s just back from New Orleans … Habitat for Humanity is building 82 houses … he said, “I’d go back immediately if I could.” I said: “So there’s a couple more weeks worth of work to be done?” “A couple of WEEKS? They estimate it will take TEN YEARS.” Mentally, I staggered under that figure … just one broken spot on this earth amidst many dozens … perhaps many hundreds that need rebuilding and healing … TEN YEARS.

And we in the church … and we in communities that seek to wage peace with justice near and fear … we are huddled in our little boat and Jesus, the prince of peace speaks again to us: “Be not afraid. I AM WITH YOU. Go … go out to where the water is deeper … and let down your nets.”

Bill Coffin said of this long, tiring journey … what is asked of us is not that we be successful as much as we are asked to be faithful. BE not afraid, I am with you.

We prepare to come to the Table of the Lord. Here we will take into ourselves, not only bread and wine, but the promises of hope and love that they represent. I like to think of the bread and wine as food for the journey … nourishment for the LONG journey that is ahead. What we take into ourselves may not be enough to sustain us all the way … and so we come back to the table again and again. To be faithful in the journey, we not only need food to sustain us along the way … we need perspective.

Martyred El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero speaks to our weariness and the long journey that is ahead and our need to engage in that journey with some perspective:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

My dad said something else last night … he said that his faith in Americans … in humanity was being restored … day after day he witnessed new volunteers pouring into that broken, but building city … people who, like himself, have heard Jesus’ call to go out to where it’s deep … and to let down the net of their lives … the safety net of compassion and mercy and grace.

Paul, once a persecutor of the church and maybe not even a very nice guy, told the Christians in Corinth: … by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain. (I Corinthians 15:10a)

When you brushed your teeth … did the person looking back at you in the mirror look like someone through whom God could do something GREAT?

People of God’s loving and blessing: By the grace of God, you are what you are … and God’s grace toward you has not been in vain.

Meanwhile, I urge you to get your nets mended and ready for a surprising catch.