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Isaiah 25:6-9, John 11:32-44 for All Saints' Day - "The Shroud Lifted"

225px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Day_of_the_Dead_(1859)I’m not much of a fan for dressing up on Halloween, but I love to watch.  I am a fan of the psychologist Carl Jung, who spoke to the power of the myths we live by, and the shadow selves that we bury deep inside, yet they slip out and become public when we least expect it.  So Halloween is a field day for me to watch and wonder.  I saw a family heading to a party, mom dressed and Peter Pan and dad as Captain Hook and a girl about five-years-old dressed as a darling Tinkerbell.  I’m sure these were loving parents supporting their daughter’s inner Tinkerbell, but I’m wondering why the parents are dressed as characters who are perpetually in combat with one another.  Downtown Northampton has been awash in the fake blood of ghouls, and zombies for a couple of weekends.  (With all this fascination with Halloween and ghouls, I’m surprised more people don’t come to communion where they can symbolically drink the blood and eat the body of Jesus.  Maybe we are really missing something here.)  On Halloween I prefer to watch from the shadows rather than projecting my own shadow out into the world.  I have worked too hard to discover an authentic self to put on a costume.  I’ve played too many false roles already.


I don’t like horror movies either.  Life can be grim enough.  I have survived a serious car accident, been held at gun point, and nearly died in the ICU with a burst intestine.  After counseling people coming out of prison, giving last rites and holding the hand of the dying and saying “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to tearful families, I don’t want to watch people fleeing evil.  Even worse, it really annoys me to watch helpless victims shrieking in terror as death nears.  For the love of God where are their survival instincts?  Come on, its fight or flight people!  It’s so pathetic, I’m ready for them to get whacked.  I guess even animals get frozen in terror – the squirrel moving bobbing back and forth with indecision in the middle of the road, the deer in the headlights. 


Actually horror movies may teach us something.  How often does evil and death draw near to us and we freeze up rather than chose life?  We are surrounded by life and death choices every day, and we mostly let them float by unaware.  Dante said that Hell is truth seen too late.  It is the small daily deaths that add up; the death of conscience in a momentary moral lapse, the failure to live fully and grasp a moment of joy, ignoring the poetic council of Dylan Thomas:


Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Oscar Wilde wrote Our Town to be performed on a blank stage without a set, leaving the audience with the impression that this could be anywhere, literally our town, our life.  I love the much-quoted speech in which the character Emily Webb returns to earth for a day after dying in childbirth:


"Goodbye to clocks ticking — and my butternut tree! And Mama's sunflowers — and food and coffee — and new-ironed dresses and hot baths — and sleeping and waking up! Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?

The Gospel Lessons are also meant to be a set for the stage where the drama of our lives play out.  Lazarus is not merely a fable of a long time ago, in a far away galaxy, but rather a summons to live by the narrative of life, death and resurrection. Lazurus is not a horror movie, but certainly a good Hallaoween tale, an All Souls Day reminder to not live shrouded lives, choosing to live in purgatory rather than the abundant life, the way, the truth and the life.


This is as far as I have come on Tuesday morning.  I plan to preach on the All Saints' Gospel text for Sunday morning.  

Election Thoughts - Christians Need to Speak with Distinctive Voice


I will be glad when this election is over, not because I hate politics, but because I am politically passionate.  I am a news junkie and the internet is a dangerous, time-sucking place for me.  I grew up in Iowa and I thought it was normal to meet Presidential candidates.  My mother has shaken hands with every Democrat running for President since 1968.  She has regularly called me with tidbits like “Joe Biden stands to close to people when he talks, he invades my personal space.”  My father, who was a Republican, ran an air charter business, and back in the 70s and 80s he regularly flew candidates around the state.  He loved Bob Dole and Tom Harkin, because they were both ex-Navy pilots.  Dad would let them sit in the pilot’s seat and give them flight instruction between campaign hops.  I was a reporter for my college radio station during the 1984 elections.  My press pass got me on to George McGovern’s jet in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with only five other reporters.  At the end of the press conference he turned to me and asked if I had a question.  I have no idea what I asked, but I remember his warmth and humanity. 

By age 21, I was completely jaded and cynical, and quit my reporting job.  I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to change the world, not report the play-by-play. 


As a pastor who believes in the Great Commandment to love my neighbor as myself, I find engagement with world and social activism to be an essential way to love my neighbor, and those who don’t want politics from the pulpit might as well cut out of the Bible the Magnificat, the Sermon on the Mount and all the major and minor prophets.  At the same time, I believe that too many pulpits have defined themselves within the narrow confines of transitory political positions rather than transcendent divine ideals, sounding more like the Republican or Democrat Party at prayer, rather than independent voices proclaiming God’s justice and reconciling love for all humanity. 


Last October 7, ironically on World Communion Sunday, a group of more than 1000 clergy joined in to the 4th Annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, for the purpose of endorsing political candidates, and to challenge tax laws that prohibit churches and other non-profits from engaging in electoral politics.  Now folks, I don’t think being a non-profit should constrain me from preaching as a prophet.  But I don’t see endorsing candidates as all that prophetic.  As the Christian Century lead editorial said last week, “When the church has nothing more to say than what could be said in a political stump speech, the church has surely lost its distinctive voice.  It also has forgotten that people come to church wanting and needing something quite different from the campaign speeches and ads they they’ve been hearing all week.”  I agree wholeheartedly.  . 


I was often asked to run for political office, but I always refused because I felt like it would limit my freedom as a change agent.  Throughout our nation’s history the pulpit has always been ahead of the ballot box.  The Beecher family, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who was the best preacher of the whole clan) were a decade ahead of Abraham Lincoln in forming the abolitionist movement.  Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist Social Gospel preacher in Hell’s Kitchen, was a generation ahead of Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching won the day for the Civil Rights movement, and Lyndon Johnson followed in his wake. 


I will be glad when this election is over because we need to move on to more serious business.  I am tired of a vision divided between red states and blue states, weary of candidates who think only in terms of black and white, but speak in shades of grey, while trying to convince us they are purple, when the color I really want is green.  Political debate in the America is like the argument of an old married couple.  Each side knows the others lines and once the argument begins it has logic of its own until it plays out.  When tempers flared my Aunt Ike would head for the pantry and Uncle George for door, each shouting their last words.  George would bang the door shut just as the first pot hit.  Aunt Ike would clear the pantry, and he would stand outside singing at the top of lungs until she was done.  That passes for political debate in America too.


Monday night’s Presidential debate on international affairs was like the conversation couples have after a big fight (like the second debate) where tough issues get avoided and swept under the rug, trying to seem reasonable.  I kept thinking, “When will they talk about Global Climate change?  What about the European debt issues?  There was a little lip service to women’s development issues, but it is pointless unless contraception is readily available and women can control their own reproductive health. 


Instead we were subjected to discussion who will keep us safe from Al Qaida?   Which candidate can make the US military the most cost-effective killing machine.  Oh, and jobs, jobs, jobs.  I can’t wait till those jobs assembling IPhones come home, so my children can live in a dorm room with 5 other people, work 12 hours a day, for a subsistence wage. 


We need to transform the conversation.  Let’s get creative and redefine the parameters.  This conversation is fearful and stunted.  For example, there is a non-military way to confront Al Qaida.  No one predicted the Arab Spring.  Six month ahead of the Tunisian uprising I read one hedge fund manager saying that global climate change and drought conditions, was increasing commodity and food prices.  He predicted that several governments would fall in countries where people lived near subsistence.  Islamic nations border on the most arid climates in the world.  Arab Spring was the tip of the melting iceberg, because these countries are most vulnerable to climate change.  No amount of aircraft carriers or Predator drones are going to make the world safe when the problem is food insecurity and crushed aspirations.  We need to proclaim the wise stewardship of God’s creation as the primary security to create peace and freedom from want.


Let’s also transform the conversation about women’s empowerment in the poorest and most populous nations.  Subjugation of women keeps birthrates high and wastes human potential.  Without sustainable birthrates, our planet’s resources will be overrun.  Technology will not save us as we reach the frontiers of sustainability.  Supporting women’s education and reproductive health freedom solves many problems at once.  If you want to stop militant Islam in a generation, focus on women’s empowerment.  I trust Islamic women to stop groups like Al-Qaida in its tracks, not the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  It will be a hard internal struggle much like women’s suffrage and equality has been in our own country, but I say put our policies and money behind Islamic women.


My first sermon hear on July 15 said that preaching needs to be a conversation between pastor and congregation.  What we do on Sunday morning is a holy conversation where we all listen to God.  My job is to be the discussion starter, and then listen carefully.  This is not just an internal conversation.  We need to change our community and global conversations about our future, and ensure sure God’s love and hope for the world plays a part.  The church’s worldly role must stop defending our turf and invite people step on our grass, and maybe plant a few trees. 


I want to celebrate efforts you are already making in this direction.  Several people on the Peace and Justice Committee registered 90 people to vote.  If even half of them vote, that is remarkable.  If 300,000 churches across America did that, there would be 27 million more registered voters.  Thanks for doing your part.


Last Wednesday, more than 50 people came to First Church’s Ballot Question #2 panel, and more than half the people were not from our congregation.  The panel was excellent and afterwards people from all opinions thanked us for providing a forum, because the issue is being lost in the wider election din.  Dr. Shaun Charest said afterwards this was the most enjoyable debate where he has spoken, because he did not feel under attack and enjoyed listening to the other side.  Let’s recover the Congregational Meeting House tradition and make our sanctuary a safe place of respectable discourse.  The congregational and Baptist church traditions are one of the last spaces where there is real grass roots democracy and problem solving.  Let’s be experts at creating real dialogue, model it in our behavior together, and for the surrounding community. 


We have 5 people going to Haiti this year.  We raise support for people in Haiti and show our love and solidarity by raising money for schools and other things needed.  But equally important, we need to hear the voices of God’s people in Haiti.  What can they teach us about God’s love, and about how we need to live God’s people in global community?  How will this mission experience change our conversation about being church?

Job 38:1-41 - Open Thread


Updated with new thoughts on Thursday, October 18, 2012


"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me."



I like order and find security in my routines.  I like to wake up with the sun and make strong coffee.  Then I write in my journal, read a little news, and pray.  Around 7:30 I start heating milk for oatmeal, wake up Jeanne and start her tea water to boil, and cut up apples.  Jeanne I talk for a while and I shower and I come to church.  I’m happy to do this same routine every morning.  I find security in my “to do” lists and my calendar and my idea files.  I try to put my whole week on one page so I can see what I’m about for the days ahead.  My day is filled with little rituals, many of them unconscious.  For example, at noon I ponder all the wonderful options of what I might eat, and in the end I walk down to State Street Deli, because I like it there.  Its my spot. 


My personality is crafted for a Newtonian universe-a world for which every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; where an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon, and an object in motion stays in motion unless something slows it down.  I would like a world where cause and effect can be seen like a pool table.  Calculate the angle, apply the right amount of force, strike the cue ball to get just the right back spin, and the “7-ball” ball goes in the corner pocket while I line up the next shot.  I like a world where people say what they mean, where people do what they say they will do, and their words and their action line up.  And I also like a world where there is justice, where people are treated fairly, where laws are written for the common good, and leaders have the best interests of all the people at heart.  Obviously, I am doomed to be an unhappy man. 


I am a Newtonian personality in an Einstein Universe.  In physics class I dutifully learned the “laws” of motion and calculated the formulas and I got an A.  And then I went to graduate school and learned the Theory of Relativity, Chaos Theory, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Life is clearly not only unpredictable, but also unfair and unjust.  I’m still getting over it. I have buried too many people who died too young, taken in their prime by cancer, a drunk driver smashing into them in the middle of the night, or the randomness of a careless act when sawing off a tree limb.  A few days ago I opened the paper and read about the plight of 14-year old Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban militant because when she was 11 years old she had the courage to stand up to them and say that girls can go to school too.  They waited two years to retaliate, and while she clings to her life in a UK hospital, they have vowed to attach her again. 


You can see why I like my routines, my habits, my “to-do” lists and rituals.  Routines are my reassurance that I can make some order in the chaos.  They are a mote of small details protecting my fortress where things can be predictable and make sense.  I stay busy, exhausting myself in too many tasks and details, because it protects me from the chaos and uncertainty out there.  But the book of Job will not let me get away with this way of life.  It is the most troubling book in the Bible, and also my one of my favorites.  I like Job because it is honest about reality.  The narrator refuses to wrap everything into a tidy wisdom saying that fits inside a Hallmark Card.  This is not a spirituality that can be reduced to a positive-thinking or a “dress-for-success” Gospel.  But it is a wisdom that can help us navigate Einstein’s world of relativity, chaos and uncertainty.


If you have heard of the book of Job, you probably connect it to suffering.  This is true.  Job lost everything important to him, family, health and wealth, and is left desolate.  But the book is about more than how to handle life’s suffering.  It is about the existential crisis that goes with suffering when we start asking why.  Why me?  Why did I lose my job, get cancer, or suffer a great injustice?  What did I do to deserve this?  And why do good people suffer terribly and some real jerks seem to breeze through life untouched by tragedy?  The existential questions about suffering, the anxiety of why, can be nearly as painful as the cause of suffering.  Sometimes people recover from the immediate effects of a serious blow, but don’t recover from the assault on their worldview.  I thought the world was safe.  I believed that God loved me.  I supposed that life was fair.  Losing our trust that life has meaning, that there is a loving God, and that life is fair makes our suffering worse.  These existential losses can last a lifetime.


Job and his friends spend many chapters discussing the reasons behind his suffering.  Their debate is rather narrow to the modern ear.  The major modern answer to suffering is simply that God does not exist, the world is random chaos, life isn’t fair so get over it and get yours where you can.  Materialism is all there is.  This didn’t occur to Job and his friends because God was a given.  Their discussion centers more on moral questions, specifically what did Job do wrong.  While Job’s friends loved him and had great sympathy, in the end they believed that Job had sinned, and they joined him in a great search to find where he went wrong.  What did he do to bring down the wrath of God on his life? 


How many times have you heard someone say, “What did I do to deserve this?”  Job searches his life and comes to the conclusion that nothing he did could warrant this suffering, in fact he is a rare person that can’t think of anything he did wrong.  Job’s friends just can’t accept this answer.  If Job had said he secretly embezzled money, had multiple affairs or killed a man in bar fight when he was young, his friends would have said, “Oh Job, that’s bad.  Now we understand why you are suffering, but we love you.”  But they could not accept that Job was blameless.  That wasn’t how their worldview worked.


This is the core to understanding the entire book.  Much of religion focuses on the need to be moral.  Do this, and don’t do that.  And if you do the right thing you will be rewarded, and you do the wrong thing and you will be punished.  The scriptures say this many times, most eloquently in Psalm 1, “The righteous are like a tree planted by a stream bearing fruit in season…and the wicked are like chaff blown around in the wind.”  We know the world does not work out that way, and sometimes the moral answer is that immoral people will get theirs in the end, we just have to be patient and endure because God will sort it out in heaven.  The book of Job is a rebellion against the conventional wisdom of the Bible, that proclaims that everyone will get what they deserve in the end.


Today’s reading is when God finally speaks to Job, and the answer may surprise us.  It may even seem a bit harsh at first. 

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?...Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— 9when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band.


  What is the meaning of this long discourse from God that goes on for two chapters of Job?  One answer is that God is asserting divine transcendence.  God is the one who set this world up, and gave us life, and don’t question things you can’t understand.  Just trust that God knows the right thing to do.  That is not an answer that flies very well in our individualistic, anti-authority culture.  We don’t like hearing that there are things we can’t understand.  But there are some philosophical merits to this answer.  Perhaps we need to recognize human limits more often, that we are not the source of all wisdom and knowledge.  We are not as smart as we think we are.  There are ultimate things that must be left to God.  At least this answer isn’t telling us life is fair when we know it is not, or that we are sinners and deserve everything that happens to us.  When I am suffering, I would rather hear “There are some things you cannot know in this life,” rather than “you are a sinner and this is a punishment to teach you a lesson.” 


Part of me can simply take this great leap of faith and simply trust God and say, “You know, O God, and I am just a mortal.”  As the Psalmist said, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  Sometimes that is enough for me.  But let me take things one last step.  If we are going to believe in God, and not become non-believers because of the problem of suffering and evil in the world, can we truly trust God?  Is God really good when there is so much suffering in the world?


I remember a time in my life when everything was in turmoil.  I was going through a divorce, people who I thought were my friends were choosing sides, and I was on my way to the airport to fly to my Grandfather’s funeral.  All of my grief and losses were piling up as I drove in the darkness of early morning.  As I reached the top of a mountain near West Point, NY, it was suddenly dawn.  Rose-colored light crackled across the sky, and I remembered reading Homer’s Iliad, who often described “the rosy-fingered dawn.”  It suddenly “dawned” on me that I was seeing the same wondrous first morning light, and my heart was so filled with joy that I wept.  I realized that no matter what I was going through, the sun was still going to come up every morning, and I remembered the Psalm, “God’s mercies are new every morning.”


I believe this is why God answered Job with a long discourse of the wonders of the created world.  When we struggle for answers and philosophy and theology fail us, take a hike.  The sunrise is God’s narthex, the deep woods are God’s sanctuary, Fall leaf colors are the Divine Doxology, and the mountains are God’s pulpit.  God’s self-help section is not at Barnes and Noble, or available on Google. Iit is by the waterfall or on the mountain top.  When you suffer, go sit by the Connecticut River or watch the tides of the ocean go in and out.  This is where we will find a God who is enough to wash away all our sorrows and move us to wonder.  We are surrounded and embraced by creative love.






Clearing the Tumbleweeds

TumbleweedLately Bloomingcactus has been more like tumble weeds.  Last week I surveyed my blog site and found the weeds had grown on it.  Spam was everywhere.  Apparently advertisers seem to think I have the perfect site to sell mail order psychotropic drugs, pain medications, knock-off purses and watches, and  various accoutrements to improve your sex life.  I had no idea there was so much synergy with a scripture lectionary blog site! 

So where have I been, you ask?  Last Spring I was busy with a pastoral search process that landed me in at First Churches in Northampton, Massachusetts.  It is a great blessing to be full-time in a congregation again.  The summer has been a blur of moving and getting to know people, figuring out where to get my hair cut, finding a good plumber, etc. 

Now I’m ready to blog again.  It is a sign of grace to me that words I wrote and forgot many months ago still blossom out there in “the cloud.”  The site gets quite a few hits on Saturday night, and I am glad to be of help to other clergy struggling to meet the constant demands of preaching.  This is meant to be a site from which you borrow.  Just give me credit when you quote, tell your friends to follow along, and make some comments when you feel moved.  Feedback keeps bloggers like me engaged.  (I humbly observe that ego always drives my writing.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit gets involved too.)  I am moving to more of a blogging format rather than trying to get my sermons out early.  I will post thoughts about the lectionary passage by Tuesday, probably in a messy stream of consciousness posting.  I will put up sermons probably after the fact with comments.  There is a big archive from previous years if you are looking around for something. 


I have worked on how to better interface with multiple ways of content delivery.  (What did I just say?)  You can now click on the bottom of the page to send out a posting you like to Facebook, Twitter, etc.  If you would like to follow along weekly, you can do so through Facebook and Twitter or click on the “subscribe” button and pick your favorite reader.  Enjoy the site and may you find blossoms in the wilderness along the way!