Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Compassionate Community

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | February 15, 2009 | Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-55

A couple of years ago, I did a rather odd thing. I strapped a folding chair to the back of my motor scooter, grabbed a Bible and a few books and rode on the back roads to Orinda where I drove part way up Happy Valley road. I parked, and then set up my chair on the side of the road and began to read while traffic whizzed by. After a while, police officers in cars and on motorcycles began patrolling up and down the road, clearing motorists and other obstacles out of the way. And not long after that, preceded and followed by dozens of support vehicles and sponsors' cars and a cavalry of motorcycle cops, there came a brief blur of bicyclists careening down the road twice as fast as I ridden up it on my motor scooter. In about five seconds, the blur of speeding cyclists was past as well as my reason for sitting alongside a busy country road.

I was, that day, witness to one of the first "Tours of California" … an American bicycle road race that is growing in popularity and significance every year. Yesterday, the 2009 Amgen Tour of California kicked off in Sacramento. And while every year's race is interesting, what makes this year's race particularly interesting are some of the racers who are participating. Lance Armstrong is back from retirement. He's the winningest rider ever of the Tour de France, having beaten testicular cancer. His "Live Strong" foundation and the little wrist bands are a testimony to his strength and his determination that he would live through his medical challenges. But he's also had to beat something else—and it's something that a number of other riders in this year's race have had to beat, as well.

In this year's race are a surprisingly large number of riders who have been accused and, in some instances, caught using performance enhancing substances or practices. Some, like Lance Armstrong, have been accused of cheating, but the accusations never proved. Others have been accused and caught, like Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso. They're also in this year's race. All of this has cast a huge cloud over the otherwise wonderful sport of cycling and it has made onetime stars into pariahs and virtual lepers and onetime "princes" of the sport who now are scorned by sponsors and former teammates and their once adoring public. In particular, 2006 Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, is now considered by many a pathetic figure, a laughingstock, stripped of his title and, like O.J. Simpson, forever in search of proof that will vindicate his not very believable claims. It will be interesting to see if Floyd can ever get rid of his "leper's bell" … the sense that he is "unclean" and to be avoided at all costs.

As with many things, the story is new, but the reality behind the story is very old. Societies and cultures and mores and religions creating boundaries that determine who's in and who's out, who's clean and who's impure, who's welcome and who's not. It's one of the ways that order is maintained in different settings. If you break certain rules, or behave in certain ways, or innocently embody certain feared diseases, you could lose the right to exist within your own community.

Two people in today's scripture readings exemplify this difficult reality. Naaman is the famous and courageous commander of his king's army, but that lofty position doesn't spare him the indignity of having a debilitating and disfiguring disease. His proved courage in battle is no match for the quiet efficiency of his disease. And in today's Gospel reading, an unnamed leper—because isn't "leper" all you need to know about someone in that pitiable state?—an unnamed leper approaches Jesus and requests healing. And we can be reasonably certain that Mark shapes and tells his story of the leper's healing with the story of Naaman and his healing in mind.

The story of Naaman's healing is a fascinating one for a host of reasons. It's not told about a lowly, cast-off soul seeking healing, it's about a man very close to the very seat of power. But the agents of healing in this story, by contrast, are the least of the least … the one who tells Naaman of the possible source of healing is a Hebrew slave girl who serves Naaman's wife … and the one who calls Naaman back to bathe in the Jordan is a servant. Perhaps even more than Elisha, the prophet, these insignificant, unnamed marginal figures are the agents of God who heals Naaman. And Elisha the prophet can't even bother to show up and meet Naaman, but offers his prescription of healing through his own servant. Everyone's got servants! And his prescription for healing is the oddest of all: wash seven times in the Jordan … and call me in the morning. Healing through marginal figures and marginal practices.

You know, someone has noted that CEO's—you know now there's a new developing class of pariah's and lepers who should probably wear leper's bells. But someone has noted that CEO's have begun to hang out with the lowest level employees, asking questions of those at the bottom who are the closest to the action. Maybe they've been reading First Kings and the story of Naaman.

In any event, for Mark, as he writes his gospel, the story of Naaman's healing is very compelling, very interesting, because the gospel he writes has a lot to do with people on the bottom and at the fringes of society receiving inordinate attention from Jesus. And ultimately they behaved more like disciples than Jesus' own followers.

Mark's gospel, as you may remember, is a bit like a race, especially a sprint … We'll recall that there's no birth narrative. Just God's man standing over his starting blocks, chomping at the bit, ready to get sprinting to Jerusalem and the cross. And before chapter one is even over, Mark has established Jesus' identity as the "Son of God" and as one who heals, preaches, exorcises, and teaches with authority in and out of the synagogue." In one chapter, Jesus has performed three healings and become a magnet for those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, and he's already put a couple of shots over the bow of the religious establishment.

For those who can catch the import of Jesus' final healing, it is as though Jesus has said to the religious authorities: "Bring it on!" Now there's a phrase that can get you in trouble. When you say it, you'd better be sure you really mean it. When Jesus orders the healed leper to return to the priests to show himself and make his offering—and make his testimony before a hostile audience, he is, in effect, throwing down the gauntlet.

There's more emotion and energy in this little story than meets the eye. We've always read and understood that Jesus healed the leper because, as Mark tells us, he was "moved with pity". This is how we read it in the New Revised Standard Version of our Bible. But earlier manuscripts than the ones used in this translation say that Jesus was moved with anger. There is a growing consensus that while Jesus likely felt pity for the leper, he was especially moved by his anger at his own religious tradition that had pushed the man away from his family, away from his community, away from the practice of his faith.

And if the prophet Elisha heals from afar through a servant, Jesus demonstrates how it really is when God's healing energies are set loose: He breaks the purity laws by touching the leper with his hand. The gulf has been bridged, the law broken, and in one moment of healing, almost as though his leprosy no longer mattered, the man is restored to all of the things he had lost. He is now "legit" … he's legitimately "cured" so that he can show the priest, make his offering and be restored to his faith and the purity laws that had once excluded him.

If this was a movie, you'd be saying to the man … "You're so close … come on … get over to the synagogue and you can have what you've been deprived of for so long." And Jesus sternly orders the man to do this. But he doesn't. Something even larger than his own personal healing has been revealed to him … given to him. Better than Jesus' disciples ever do in Mark's gospel, he sees and understands the healing power of God that is in Jesus and he can't simply keep this enormously good news to himself. He becomes the first evangelist of God's presence and power at work in Jesus. At the end of the gospel, some of Jesus' disciples are ordered to speak, but remain silent. The healed leper is ordered to remain silent, but nothing can silence one who has truly witnessed in his own being the good news of God's coming reign.

At some point in the hearing of these two stories of the power of God being set free in healing ways, the listener is bound to say: "Hey preacher, I'll have what he's having. Where I can get me some of that healing magic? Better yet, just heal me."

At some point we come up against an unavoidable observation. To whatever extent God's healing mercies resulted in literal "cures" in so-called "Biblical times", it's not greatly evident that God "cures" at all today … or at least in ways that are predicable or provable. Every single person in this room at this moment can think of a beloved one for whom we would love to be a humble servant bringing to our beloved delivery from their dreaded condition. "I don't know if you still work this way," we might begin our prayer to God, "but if you do, can you let my loved one be healed?"

I sat between two respected colleagues this week. One said emphatically: "God always heals." The other added: "But healing is not always curing."

As a pastor, I don't carry around with me in my mental satchel of stories any stories of miraculous "cures"—that is instances where an observable ailment was immediately and magically removed. This is not to say that I think I know all there is to know about the mystery of God and how God is real among us. It is not to say that I wish to attempt to place limits on the powers that brought life and breath to us each. It is to say that whatever else the stories of healing from the Bible have to tell us, it is less about the inexplicable, nearly magical cures themselves, than it is about the enormous mercy of the God who loves us and who calls us into communities of love and justice and support.

Now I know that sounds like a lot of 21st century sensibilities being laid on top of texts and cultures and practices that are thousands of years old, but I think a re-reading of the miracle stories of the old and new testaments will reveal that at the root of things, the miracles are nearly always about God and God's merciful activity among us and about the communities of compassion and Shalom that are meant to model on earth the divine realities of God's heaven—God's community.

As soon as this service of worship concludes, I will travel to San Francisco to be with a beloved member of our community—all members of this community, by the way, are beloved. This member is lying in a hospital bed and is dealing with new diagnoses that are very serious, potentially deadly and not easily treated and certainly not easily cured. And at her bedside and in our conversation and in our prayers, I will not speak lightly and easily in language that leads any of us in that room to think that I can call down from heaven curative powers for what afflicts her. But I can and will speak authentically of God's healing presence that is gently and powerfully present to her in her time of need. I will represent this community of faith and hope and love to her and in that place we will all of us, if not exactly physically present, be together as one body of Christ—wounded and healing. And who knows how God's gentle and powerful presence and the presence of her own faith community gathered round will interact with her own body's powers of healing against the very real disease that afflicts her. Will she be cured? I have no idea. Will she be healed—that is, will she discover a wholeness of person and hope and faith in midst of her serious medical challenges? I pray to God that she will.

Healing in any context, ancient or modern, is the restoration of the community of love and support that is essential to be human and whole, and it is the liberation from anything that would attempt to bind or limit it, the great tender, loving mercies of our God.

And so I pray also for your healing … and mine. That we may know fully the blessings of this community of faith, hope and love. And that we know past any need for cures or immortality, the great, tender, loving and eternal mercies of our God who is the God of all mercies, the God of all people, the God of Shalom.

The Compassionate Community of God with us.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

On Eagle's Wings

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter | February 8, 2009 | Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Scripture Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Langston Hughes was a writer whose named I learned in a college literature class. He was a poet and playwright, among things, and a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Langston Hughes wrote a poem that is memorable for many because of a phrase spoken by its narrator who says: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” The poem is entitled, “Mother to Son”.

Well son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And places with no carpet on the floor--
But all the time
I's been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light,
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
Cause you finds it kinder hard.
Don't you fall now--
For I'se still goin', honey,
I's still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

A long, long, long, long time ago—I don’t actually remember when or even where—for I am, you realize, quite old, I heard the Reverend Jeremiah Wright preach. You may remember that Jeremiah Wright is the fiery preacher whose words from the pulpit almost derailed a bid for the presidency. While I don’t remember when or where I heard Jeremiah Wright preach, I do remember that he preached a sermon entitled: “What Makes You So Strong?” If I remember correctly, Wright began by reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son. In his sermon he noted over and over again the many and deep wounds sustained by African Americans and then noted famous African Americans who had risen up out of that milieu of brokenness and pain. And the question was raised again and again: “What made these people so strong that they could rise out of the quagmire of their people’s pain to a place of greatness?” Wright said, at the end of his sermon:

What makes us so strong? God’s strength. David answered the question: “God is our refuge and strength.”[30] What makes us so strong? Isaiah answered the question: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.”[31] God is the source of our strength.

Our strength comes from the Spirit of God. This same Spirit of God will empower you as he empowered our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is what makes us so strong.

On a recent Saturday, Jan and I tackled a couple of projects in our backyard. We dug up some shrubs that had never quite gotten used to the wet, clayey soil of our back yard. In their place we put six of the prettiest little blueberry bushes you’ve ever seen. They’re beautiful to the eye and the fruit they produce should be tasty and nutritious … that is, if we can get to them before the birds do. After we finished planting the blueberries, we finished by adding another apple tree—a Pink Lady—to our miniature orchard.

When we finished our work, we sat out on our lawn chairs enjoying a bowl of soup and the beauty of the day. Jan noticed over our heads—directly over our heads, several turkey vultures gliding through the air. I looked up and at first I thought they were just passing through … continuing their endless duty as a part of death’s clean-up crew. But they didn’t pass through. Instead they began to wheel around in a circle. And more vultures came and joined their circle in the air until there were eleven of them, straight overhead, wheeling in this enormous gliding circle in the air. The sky was painfully blue and this dance of the vultures in the air overhead was a thing of exquisite beauty. And then it became clear to us that the vultures were slowly moving upward … they were not flying so much in a circle, per se, as much as it was an upward spiral. And then a red-tailed hawk joined their upwardly spiraling number. And we watched and watched as they spiraled up and up and up until they were nearly lost to our sight.

What was it that made these glossy black birds and their hawk fried rise up on an invisible elevator in the sky? These great-winged feathered friends had found a thermal—a warm current of air rising up, so it seemed, from our back yard. It was an upward current of air that pushed under their wings and lifted and lifted and lifted these eleven turkey vultures and one red-tailed hawk. They never flapped their wings, they simply stretched them out to receive the source of invisible support and uplift.

Someone else who appreciates the invisible, but very real support and uplift given by the very air we breathe, is a neighbor of ours who lives in Danville. He’s a man whose given name is “Chesley Burnet”, but you know him better as “Sully” … short for his last name of Sullenberger. On January 15th, Sully Sullenberger used the extraordinary supportive strength of the air around us to safely land a jet whose engines had ceased to function. Because he was able to turn a frigid Hudson River into a safe landing field, Sullenberger has become an international celebrity and a bona fide hero in the cynical city of New York. At a Broadway performance of “South Pacific” last night, the stars of the show ended the performance by noting Sullenberger’s presence and trained the spotlight on him. The crowd and the cast gave the captain a long, loud standing ovation. So much for cynical New York! All this because Sullenberger knows that even a multi-ton wedge of aluminum and steel full of passengers and cargo can be held aloft by the gentle strength of the wind. It is astounding to see how far the captain glided the engine-less jetplane as he sought a safe landing place.

You may remember that the Hebrew word for “wind” is the same word used to speak of the Spirit of God in the Hebrew scriptures. The word is Ruach … it’s a word that sounds like what it names and describes. Ruach is a breath-y, windy word that hints at the desert winds. And it’s not surprising that the animating, supporting, omnipresent wind that sculpts the sand and shakes the tents of nomads comes to be thought of as an analog of God’s own being—invisible, but powerful … soft and gentle at times, but still firm and strong and supportive and eternally present. What makes you so strong?, one could ask ancient nomadic Hebrews as well as a certain US Airways pilot, and they might both answer: Ruach.

It is the sometimes breezy, sometimes gusty presence of God’s own being that is the source of strength and sustenance to which the prophet Isaiah and the author of Mark’s gospel invite us to turn. It is as we wait upon God that God’s Spirit comes to us and give us the strength and the support and the uplift that we need. In our gospel reading this morning, it was time spent away from the crush of the crowds and their many needs, waiting upon God in prayer, that gave Jesus the strength and support and uplift to continue his ministry.

Strength … support … uplift. Anyone here in need of any of that? If you are at all like me, you know what a failing game, what a steadily downward spiral it is to try to go it alone, to try to make your way in this world on your own strength only. It has nearly become a modern, cultural cliché to speak of our drained and busy lives, to speak of the daily stress that corrodes our being and diminishes our primary relationships. We’d like to be more involved, we’d like to relate better, we’d like to care more and give more of ourselves, but our tanks are empty and our reserves are low. And our lonely, tired journeys of self-sustenance, self-support, self-strengthening continue down the sinking, darkening path. And in so doing, we become like desert sojourners who wander in circles around a reputed waterhole, not quit knowing or believing it is there. So close are the life-giving waters, yet there is a distinct reluctance to strike out toward them for fear that they may be yet another mirage … a promise unfulfilled and unfulfilling.

It was to such disbelieving sojourners in exile that Isaiah spoke: Have you not known, have you not heard? Isaiah asks in a tone of dismay.

Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is Yahweh, God, who sits above the circle of the earth … who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. … Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? The Lord who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because the Lord is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Israel is weary in waiting and weary in wondering if their exile should ever end. They wonder aloud if God has forgotten them … forgotten about them. They wonder aloud if the Spirit of God’s tender, loving being has ceased to blow. They are discouraged and losing heart. And they cry out to God’s emissary, Isaiah, with their frustrated questions.

I am reluctant to call myself “God’s emissary”—or at least any more than I would call any of us that. In our tradition we believe in the priesthood of all believers. We are each an emissary for God—for ourselves and for each other. But I have heard questions on many occasions similar to those rained upon Isaiah. Questions that agonize over personal pain and relational pain and pain in our cities and pain in far-off war-torn and poverty-torn places. Some of the questions have come from some of you. And some of the questions have risen out of my own struggling heart.

To us and to his own people, Isaiah asks: Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Clearly a pastoral word is needed for those are suggesting that God is unaware of them, fails to see them or attend to their needs.

But Isaiah isn’t finished. Isaiah has already countered the amnesia of faith that so often and so easily sets in when hard times do … the amnesia of faith that is the frequent companion of our life’s struggles. Isaiah has spoken of God’s being that is simply larger than our scrutiny, larger than our comprehension, larger than any earthly struggle, larger than any earthly thing or thought. And now Isaiah seems to be answering the question:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? He asks again. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

What makes you so strong? And the strong ones among us may well answer: “The Spirit of God’s own being that is the wind beneath my wings.” It is the Spirit of God’s own being that comes when we wait upon God, when we seek God patiently, when we commune with God with our whole being.

I have a wise friend that I speak with from time to time. It may sound odd, but I only see this wise friend at night. That’s because this wise friend is our church custodian … our janitor who empties our trash and cleans our toilets. Nasir is a tall, Fijian Muslim man with big hands and a hearty laugh and a powerful faith. And in recent weeks in our brief conversations in passing, he has been sounding the theme of “patience”. In my mind’s eye and my mind’s ear, there is Nasir standing outside the kitchen door with a trash bag in his hand, and with a deep voice saying: “Patience. It’s all about patience. We must learn to be patient.” And I take that as a word of the Lord to me and to us. As much as Isaiah’s word that they—US—who wait upon God will renew our strength … will rise up on wings like eagles … shall run and not be weary … walk and not faint. It’s all about patiently waiting for the Spirit of God to be made known and made real to us.

And when the Spirit comes, what do we receive? What do we get? A promise that nothing can hurt us? That God will protect us? That suffering and pain will bypass us? No. That’s not how God works. That’s not how God is among us. God has something more important to offer—it is the gift of God’s own presence … God’s own being … God’s own Spirit to strengthen, support and uplift us.

One of my mentors and heroes, William Sloane Coffin, suffered what no parent should ever have to suffer, but which too many sadly have. His son, Alex, drove off a wet road one night into the Potomac River and was killed. Just a month earlier Coffin’s mother had died. Ten day’s after his son’s death, he spoke to the congregation at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon, he said with all of the authenticity of someone who had been there: God offers us minimal protection, but maximum support. Minimum protection. Maximum support.

You who wait upon God will renew your strength … you will rise up on wings like eagles … you shall run and not be weary … you walk and not faint.

The question is do we have the time, the patience, the modicum of faith to wait until the Spirit comes? And do we even still hold to a sense of God that is vibrant and vital enough to have any meaning in our harried, pressured lives. Do we even believe in God in any lively and meaningful way? Perhaps we are in need of a spiritual “re-awakening”.

Former British PM, Tony Blair spoke at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast to an audience of political and religious leaders. In his remarks, he spoke of his "first spiritual awakening" when his father almost died when he was still a child. He said:

I was ten years old. That day my father – at the young age of 40 – had suffered a serious stroke. His life hung in the balance. My mother, to keep some sense of normality in the crisis, sent me to school. My teacher knelt and prayed with me. Now my father was a militant atheist. Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. 'I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God,' I said. 'That doesn’t matter,' my teacher replied 'God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return.' That is what inspires: the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken. And in surrendering to God, we become instruments of that love."

God believes in me. God believes in you. God loves me and loves you. And we needn’t fully understand what that all means in this terrible, wonderful world to yet receive from God, as we wait patiently upon God, the great gifts of God’s strength and God’s support and God’s uplift. Like the turkey vultures and the red-tailed hawk spiraling into the sky … like Captain Sullenberger laying the great silver bird upon the Hudson … like William Sloane Coffin laying his heartbroken soul into the gentle hands of his God … like the wise old woman who said, “Walk, children, and don’t you get weary.” … we are invited to lay our lives and our souls into God’s care … and there to wait for a holy breeze … a divine ruach from God to lift and renew and restore our weary souls.

We who wait upon God will renew our strength … we will rise up on wings like eagles … we shall run and not be weary … we walk and not faint.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Love that Listens

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | February 1, 2009

Scripture: I Corinthians 8:1-11

An adult came upon a child drawing on a piece of paper in the back of the church. With kindly curiosity, the adult asked the child: “What are you drawing?” The child looked up and said: “I’m drawing a picture of God.” “How can you draw a picture of God when nobody knows what God looks like?” The child puzzled on that one for a moment, then said: “Well … they will when I get done.” I love that young confidence.

If you had to draw a picture of God … what would you draw? Would you try to draw a face? Or would you try to draw … mystery? Maybe our Jackson Pollock Ordinary time Painting depicts the mystery of God. Or would try to draw some aspect of God that is significant for you? To depict a part of what you feel to be true and important about God. On the front and the back of the bulletin this morning are drawings of ears. If I had to “draw God”, I suppose one of my inclinations would be to simply draw an ear. God as a cosmic, divine, listening ear.

In the Bible, the words “hear” and “listen” and their variants occur over 1500 times. Hearing and listening are supremely important divine and human activities. Many of these hearing/listening references refer to human activity, but some of the most significant references are of God’s hearing and listening activity.

Here are the final words of the 2nd chapter of Exodus: 23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. Later, God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush, telling Moses: “I have heard the cries of my people.”

God is a LISTENER … God hears, God absorbs, God understands and, ultimately, God responds. But first and foremost: God listens.

It seems to me that our impulse to pray is based entirely on this understanding of God. God may not be a “giant cosmic ear”, but God is a cosmic heart that hears … a heart that is profoundly and compassionately open to the words and expressions and feelings of our own hearts: our sighs … our groans … our elation … our agony.

The familiar words of the psalmist express this for us: “God, you have searched me and known me …”. Hearing and understanding and knowing us are all important ways of God’s LOVING us. Really trusting or learning to trust at the core level of our being that God hears, understands and knows us is an incredible defense against the many assaults against our being in this life. You’ve probably seen the phrase on somebody’s refrigerator: “God, there’s nothing that you and I can’t face together.” It’s kind of a cute sentiment and … it’s profoundly true. Knowing that God “get’s you” and is “with you” is much of what it takes to sustain us and strengthen in the midst of great challenges and struggles.

It seems to me that God sets the bar very high when it comes to relating, one heart to another. If we take the Biblical portraits of God seriously, we understand God to be an active and earnest listener.

I’m sure Woody Allen must, at some time, have depicted God as a cosmic psychotherapist … a cosmic shrink … bearded and nodding as we lay on God’s couch pouring out our hearts. But it’s not the worst way to think of God. One of the most important therapeutic developments in the past 50 years is a practice known as “Active Listening.” It is a practice that was developed by Carl Rogers and often goes by the name: Rogerian listening. People joke that you have to have good ball-bearings in your neck because active listening is usually accompanied by a lot of nodding. And the nodding is indicative of the significant effort put forth by the listener. And in fact, the practice of “Active Listening” is hardly restricted to therapy. It has come into wide practice in the workplace and in the home. I imagine, Jodie, that active listening is at the very heart of the pastoral care you learned in your year of Clinical Pastoral Education.

Active listening consists of “positive encouragement” … “attentive listening” … “total listening” … “reflecting” … “demonstrating respect” … Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference for a time and suspending judgment for a time are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.

Perhaps most of all, active listening consists in an inner determination that mutual understanding is important … should exist … and is worth achieving even if it takes a lot of hard work to achieve.

I’m remembering a marriage and relationship enrichment seminar we had quite a few years ago … probably ten years ago. And, if I remember correctly, a couple of our couples were thrust into the not-to-be-envied position of having to role play the challenges of communication in a long-term relationship. And I believe that Karen and Richard were one of those couples.

Anyone who has ever been a part of any loving, committed relationship knows the great challenges of communicating well. Listening and hearing and understanding on the part of both parties is critical to the health and wellbeing and survival of any committed relationship. And it’s not only true of our marriages and long-term committed partnerships, it’s also true of our friendships. And it’s true of the relationships we make and sustain in places like your garden variety local congregation like Shell Ridge.

As much as any set of relationships, churches have struggled with communication … listening and hearing and understanding. For some folk, churches seem characterized especially by their inability to communicate well … characterized by their MIS-communication … by their inability to listen and hear and understand. And we do well to take the long view and keep a broad historical perspective: there ain’t nuthin’ new under the sun. The struggle of congregations to communicate well is an ancient virus that has infected the church since the time of its inception and afflicted communities of faith long before.

In Matthew 13, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him why he speaks in parables, in these dense, not-always-easily-understood stories. Jesus says:

13The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

So you see, even back to the time of Jesus, and before Jesus, back to the time of the prophet Isaiah, there was a tendency to struggle and fail in the essential task of communication. The prophet seeks to communicate the heart of God to the people, but they don’t get it … and they don’t seem to WANT to get it. They can’t be bothered to open up the ears of their hearts and can’t imagine that there’s any truth more important than their own, or any story worth listening to beyond their own story. Because they have become dull and non-understanding, their relationship with God foundered and failed. And great was their fall.

After Jesus’ words were spoken, but before they were written in the gospel, Paul was writing his own words down, hoping to gain a hearing with one of the congregations he founded. After his conversion, Paul had taken the gospel on the road and established new following of Jesus all over Asia Minor. One of the stops along the way was Corinth, a trading center and a place where a host of cultures and religions met and mixed and sometimes clashed. Corinth was not at all unlike the San Francisco Bay Area with our great mix of cultures and languages and faiths. We used to joke in seminary that every faith that was ever conceived likely had a practitioner in that city.

Paul went to Corinth preaching a message that was, in many ways, “trans-cultural”—it was a gospel or “good news” that was being freed from its culture of origin. It had its roots in Jewish soil, but it was flourishing and flowering and bearing fruit in cities and sensibilities far from where it started. By the time Paul wrote the first of the letters to the Corinthian church, it’s clear that the church reflects the diversity of its city—as every church should. There are, among others, Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians. Each group brought into the community different understandings of “how things are”. Each brought out of their old lives and faiths and associations things that were important—and they were often brought into the new life and faith and association. Jewish Christians, for example, felt that all men should be circumcised. It wasn’t a part of their past they want to let go of. They naturally projected it upon their new faith. But circumcision was completely foreign to the non-Jewish Christians and they resisted attempts to get them to belatedly comply with this bizarre practice.

Food was another area of potential conflict. You’ll remember that when we go to Congregation B’Nai Tikvah and share in the Winter Nights program, there are different dietary understandings to which we have to be sensitive if we are to be good partners in this ministering relationship. But clearly in Paul’s time a certain degree of sensitivity was lacking.

You see, in Corinth, most of the meat that was available for consumption was meat that had previously been offered to idols. For some members of the Corinthian church, eating this meat would be tantamount to acknowledging a god other than the God of Israel, before whom there should be no others. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Right?

Others in the congregation said: “Puhlease … who believes in those gods? … who believes in that claptrap?” And they ate the meat with no qualm of conscience and probably harangued those who wouldn’t. It would kind of be like Wendy and Elizabeth saying to Lisa and Jerald at B’Nai Tikvah, “Oh c’mon, get over yourselves. I’m bringing a lasagna with meat and cheese mixed together and you’re going to like it.” This is how international incidents get started.

Paul is like Rabbi Asher and me trying wade into where angels fear to tread, to cool the hot heads and to bring people around a table of conversation and deepened understanding. To the Church in Corinth, Paul is pleading for sensitivity. “It’s not ALL about YOU” he seems to be saying. “Having what you want when you want it no matter who might be hurt or offended does not help anybody.” “Yeah, but Christ has set us free from the law, you told us” they would counter. “’For freedom Christ has set us free!’ Your first sermon to us … remember?” There’s nothing a preacher hates worse than having her or his words used against them.

And now Paul is having to fill in the gaps that still existed when he moved on from Corinth to other places of mission. Paul now begins to talk about the importance of balancing freedom with responsibility … practicing freedom within the context of a diverse community where forcefully exerting your individuality can create enormous tensions in the community. Paul suggests that there is a certain sensitivity that is important to the fragile fabric of community.

It will be another five chapters before Paul’s words finally burst into their most creative form: the so-called “love chapter” that we heard read last week. Listening and hearing and understanding and developing compassionate sensitivity to one another are all critical ingredients of community of ANY size—whether a community of two in loving partnership or a community of many in a church or even a community of nations.

Yesterday’s Contra Costa Times contained a letter in the Reader’s Forum by my—and our—good friend, Rabbi Raphael Asher. Rabbi Asher is not only the Rabbi of B’nai Tikvah, but he is also the president of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. I can only imagine the difficulty of trying to lead a local interfaith community with so many challenges in the international community that center in the Middle East. And I can only vaguely imagine what it’s like to sit through meetings and public gatherings where the state of Israel gets repeatedly pilloried and pummeled. And while the words used to apply the verbal beatings may contain a part of the truth, they don’t contain the whole truth nor do they in any way bring differing understandings to a place where a common truth may be found. Here are Rabbi Asher’s concluding words:

We in this country are entering a period where opposing opinions can and should be aired and discussed, but argumentation that employs incendiary references to the holocaust or speaks of Israel's culpability in a repetitive, one-sided manner does nothing to enhance understanding of a tragic state of affairs.

Neither will such arguments nurture a concerted response to Palestinian misery and Israel's vulnerability.

I will not recite all the legitimate reasons for Israel's incursion into Gaza, nor will I list all the times that Israel's gestures toward Palestinian autonomy have been met with renewed opportunities for terror.

The time will come, and I hope sooner rather than later, when the real grievances of both the Palestinians and the people of Israel must be addressed in a serious, diplomatic format.

To achieve a comprehensive peace, the voices around that table must be more sober and less inflammatory than those that seek only to justify their own rhetoric.

Voices around the table. Out of Rabbi Asher’s heritage, the only table that really mattered was the family dinner table. It was a table of radical welcome and hospitality. It was a table where differences were never enough to keep you from sharing what the table and its fellowship had to offer. Of course, in our frantic, fast-food culture, who has time to join their family members at the table much less to linger there and there to absorb its subtler blessings. And it seems that inability to gather and remain at the table is a planet-wide curse … how hard it is to get opposing groups to sit together long enough to come to a meaningful understanding, each of the other. I see marriages where this is true. I see school boards and school administrations and unions where this is true. And I see it in the more often than not failed practices of U.S. foreign policy.

It is said that when Martin King used the statement I’m about to say, that it would be met with raucous, knowing laughter when spoken from the pulpit of African-American churches. King said: “It may be true that you can’t pass a law that will make a man love me, but you can pass a law that will keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

So maybe our times of speaking and listening at any one of a number of tables won’t put us instantly in the kissing and hugging mood … won’t force others to love us, won’t lead to any quick “kum ba yahs” … but if it leads to new understanding, new sympathy, new sensitivity, then it is time well spent and can be the first of MANY steps on the long, stony road to the only “peace” that has any meaning.

On several other occasions Martin King spoke words at which no one laughed, words that provoked only somber nodding: “We’ll either learn to live together as sisters and brothers or we’ll perish together as fools.” It is hard to imagine words that are more pragmatically truer than these words spoken by Martin Luther King.

I’ve heard, from many quarters this week, stories of struggle in relationships of all kinds. And the common theme, if there is one, is that the challenge to hear the other with empathy and compassion and understanding is still one that remains beyond the reach of so many. So many.

But in that same week, I have also witnessed quite the opposite. I have witnessed people in relationships of all kind, from the relationships with their own healing hearts to their relationship with the planet to a nearly God-given shift in the relational face of our nation’s foreign policy. And if you attend to what you are seeing, watch and listen with great intentionality, you will see something that doesn’t look at all like the flowery valentines hearts that are cluttering our stores, but you may be tempted to call it “love”. It’s a tough love, it’s an unsentimental love and it’s the truest and most hopeful thing in the world. About that love Paul said to his community and ours, to couples and churches and nations. And before I speak again these almost woefully familiar words. I want to remind you that this table that has been spreading before us is symbolic of everything I’ve said and symbolic of the words I’m about to say. And as I read the words, I invite you to imagine in your mind’s eye, a relationship of any size that needs the truth of Paul’s great words:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

When you go to the table of relationship, any relationship, remember: if you put in love, you will take out love. And your solitary, self-preserving “me”, will be transformed into a communal, creation serving and saving “we”. I invite you to do this … for our lives and our world and our future on this planet depend upon it.