Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sermon -- 'Replaceable'

This is a sermon that I gave for Wesley Seminary's Wednesday Night Chapel Service last night, based on Deuteronomy 18:9-20. The sound on the recording is a little bit wonky but I think it's understandable. My sincere apologies to Beyoncé.



            I want you to imagine something.
            I want you to imagine that you’ve been asked to preach on Sunday morning.
            You’ve been asked to preach in a church that you know loves you and cares about you. You’ve known the folks in this church for a long time, and you love them, too. But you also know that the church is having some problems. You know the type. Attendance down. Not enough young people. Not sure of their mission or vision. Not sure how to break out of old habits and “we’ve always done it this way”ism.
            You’ve been asked to preach in this church, and because you’ve been to Wesley Theological Seminary, you know that what you say is important. You know that over the past decades much preaching in churches has been subpar. You know that biblical literacy is low and that solid theological reflection is rare. You know the importance of adaptive leadership, of preaching and modeling stewardship, of inclusive and diverse language for God. You know that the church in the U.S. is struggling, some might even say dying. You know that there is a lot riding on your leadership and on your preaching.
            And you can’t, for the life of you, think of a single thing to say.
            And now, I want you to imagine that it’s Saturday night. That you have been banging your head against this sermon all week and all you have is a couple of scattered words in an otherwise blank Word document. You’re way past the procrastinating-on-Facebook stage and you’re into the pure panic stage. You have reached a place of true desperation. And finally, you fall on your knees, and you cry out to God, “God! If you want me to preach this sermon, you are going to have to tell me what to say!”
            And here’s the amazing thing: God answers! God speaks to you!
            I don’t mean any of this wishy-washy heart-strangely-warmed nonsense. I don’t mean you happen to glance over and see a vase of flowers on your desk and that reminds you of how your grandmother always had a vase of flowers on her desk and that reminds you of the importance of remembering our traditions and that gives you a sermon idea. I mean God speaks to you, speaks actual words, in a voice that somehow you know is God’s.
            God tells you exactly what to say!
            And what God tells you to do is to get up in front of the congregation and say: ‘Church, someday I’m going to die. But don’t worry about it. I’m pretty replaceable.”
            And that’s it.
            Not exactly the word of God that you were hoping for.
            That feeling you’re imagining? I have the sense that Moses is feeling just like that in tonight’s passage. The text that Monica read for us is part of the Deuteronomic law book. Moses is reviewing the law before the Israelites enter their new land. Leaving aside for the moment the ambiguities inherent in a promised homeland that involves displacing other nations, and leaving aside for a moment the likely historical context of the Deuteronomic redactors, the goal of Moses’ recitation in this passage is to delineate the sort of community that God desires, a community that is meant to be substantially different from those who surround it.
            And twice, in the course of this relatively short passage, Moses tells the assembled people that he’s received a direct message from God, telling Moses to tell the people that God will raise up another prophet like Moses.
            Now, biblical commentators, and the biblical redactors themselves, are clearly uncomfortable with this. Nearly every single commentary that I looked at for tonight made sure to clarify that “a prophet like Moses” means a prophet in the tradition  of Moses, not a prophet exactly like Moses. Moses, after all, is a pretty special guy. A prophet extraordinaire – the original, the one-and-only. And when the Deuteronomic editors wrote Moses’ epitaph, they made sure to include the statement, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10).
            This made sense the first time I read it, but after the third or fourth time, it was starting to sound a wee bit defensive. I mean, is Moses’ ego that fragile that we need to rush to assure him that he’s the most special-est of all the special prophets? The more that I read that Moses was way more prophet-y-than-any-other-prophet-that-ever-did-prophesy, the more it seemed to me that the words “I will raise up for them a prophet like you” must have really carried some weight. The words seemed less and less like God’s comforting promise to the people, and started sounding more and more like the words of my favorite United Methodist theologian, Beyoncé Knowles:
            “You must not know about me / You must not know about me
            I can find another you in a minute / Matter of fact, he’ll be here any minute”
“Moses,” I could hear God saying, “don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.”[i]
            In fact, tonight’s text argues for replaceability as a key characteristic of the prophet. Moses is describing the continuation of the prophetic office in the Israelite community. And if you were to hear the lectionary text from Deuteronomy 18 in church this Sunday, that’s all you’d hear. But tonight, I had Monica read from verse 9 instead of verse 15 so we can hear that Moses isn’t just talking about prophecy for the sake of prophecy. No, prophecy is a contrast, a counternarrative, to the way that the surrounding nations deal with divine reality.
            Prophecy, in this passage, is the opposite of magic.
            Prophecy is the gift that God offers to the people, and is to be distinguished from sorcery, divination, consulting the spirits of the deceased, or, you know, digging through bird entrails or Pew Research Forum[ii] results to discern the future.
            Now, depending on what sort of faith community you grew up in, you might have heard this sort of text being used to warn you away from Ouija boards or Dungeons and Dragons or magic shows. And then maybe you grew up and realized those sorts of things are really pretty harmless, and so you forgot all about the warnings about sorcery. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
            You see, what all the sorcerers and the magicians and diviners have in common, which prophecy stands in contrast to, is that they claim to have the right kind of expertise, the right kind of power, to manipulate the divine reality to achieve the results that they desire. They know the right words and the right gestures, the right spells, to get what they want. Or, if you’re willing to pay them enough, to get what you want. They’ve got the secret formula to success.
            Unlike the magician, the prophet relies not on the secret formula or the right spell ingredients but on the word of God. This isn’t to say that a prophet is just a divine ventriloquist, verbally transcribing messages from God. One Jewish commentator puts it this way: “In the Bible, a prophet is not someone who tells the future, stealing knowledge from God and sharing it with the people. A prophet is someone who tells the truth.”[iii] The prophet is the one who responds to God’s call and interprets that call within the context of a particular community. The truth that the prophet tells is not reliant on the special skills or hidden knowledge of the prophet, but rather on the faithful activity of God in the midst of the people. In fact, tonight’s passage spells out a sort of divine death penalty for anyone prophesying on their own behalf or out of a sense of their own importance. A bit extreme, perhaps, but a clear indication that the prophet doesn’t get to dictate the activity of the divine.
            This is an important reminder for us as seminary students and as future ministers, whatever form that takes. Seminary plays a good and important role in teaching critical knowledge, best practices, and effective methodologies. We should learn all of that, and we should certainly put it to use in our ministry. But if we’re not careful, it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking of ourselves as sorcerers. As magicians. As diviners of the future. It’s easy to start seeing ourselves as manipulators of divine reality, people who have learned special skills that will allow us to achieve desired results – to save the church from dying, perhaps; to grow vital ministry; to secure our own relevance.
            But if Moses is replaceable, than you better believe that we’re replaceable, too. That the point isn’t really our special talents, as wonderful as those may be; the point isn’t really our specialized knowledge, as helpful as that might be at times; the point isn’t really our best practices, as important as those are to learn. The point is that God is up to something, here, in our midst, in the midst of the church, in the midst of God’s world. God will work through our talents and our knowledge and our best practices; and God will work outside of our talents and our knowledge and our best practices. We are learning to be servants, not sorcerers – and certainly not saviors.
It is not, ultimately, about us.
And that is very, very good news.
See, I imagine that many of you are like me in that you have two voices yammering on in your head most of the time.[iv] These two voices seem to be in competition with each other, but in fact they are ingeniously collaborating to undermine you. One says, “You are irreplaceable. You are the center of the universe. Life is a story about you.” The other one says, “You are totally useless. Anybody else could do this job better than you. You’re the worst.” Those sound like opposites, but they’re not. They’re part of the same lie. The lie is, “You are alone. You are not part of a community. You are not surrounded by God’s grace. You must do it yourself. You must justify yourself.” Sure, one voice is trying to tell you that you are way better at that than anyone around you, and the other is telling you that you’re way worse at it, but neither of them is telling the truth. The truth is, we can’t justify or un-justify ourselves. We can’t perfect or un-perfect ourselves. That’s what God’s up to. That’s what God’s promising to do.
What we are supposed to do in response is summed up in tonight’s text by the Hebrew word tamim. It means “whole” or “complete” or “undivided.” The NRSV translates it as “completely loyal,” as we heard tonight “You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” But I like Robert Alter’s translation: “You shall be wholehearted with the LORD your God.”[v]  I love that word. “Wholehearted.” Here’s a definition provided by the sociologist Brené Brown:
“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.[vi]
Maybe that’s not what the Deuteronomist meant by, “You must be tamim,” but if prophecy is all about counternarrative, about contrast-community, then what a counternarrative that would be. What a contrast that would be to the voices that say, “It’s all about me…and I’m total shit.” What a contrast between saying, “I am the one who has the special skills and the special knowledge to manipulate divine reality,” and saying, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” I am enough, because I know that my worth and my relevance and my effectiveness ultimately derive from the grace and love of a God who longs deeply for the healing and redemption of the cosmos.
And that God calls us to be prophets, not prognosticators. Ministers, not magicians.
That God has two messages for us, a counter to the two voices droning on in our minds.
The first message is, “You. Are. Enough.”
            The second is, “And don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.

[i] From the song “Irreplaceable,” by the irreplaceable Beyoncé Knowles. For the tragically Beyoncé-challenged:

[ii] I should clarify that I find the Pew Research Forum, the research of the Barna Group, and other survey data very useful in my own ministry. Social science is an invaluable tool for understanding the context of a community; it’s just not the crystal ball that some church researchers seem to wish it to be. For a great take on this, check out Patrick Scriven’s article “I just left the funeral for the church...
[iii] David L. Lieber, et. al., editors, Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1999),
[iv] Anne Lamott refers to these voices as “Radio Station KFKD” in her marvelous Bird By Bird (New York: Anchor, 1994).
[v] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), 970.
[vi] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham, 2012), 10.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Meditation -- "The Treasures of Darkness" (inspired by a cool book by Barbara Brown Taylor)

This is a short meditation that I gave in the Kay Chapel at American University last night. It was inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark. The scripture reading is Isaiah 45:1-8. At the end of the reflection, we handed out paper and crayons and people drew pictures of experiences of night/darkness in their lives. Feel free to grab crayons and do the same!

Some of you will recall that last semester the panel that controls the lighting in our lovely Kay chapel got broken. And perhaps some of you also recall that, because of this lighting panel incident, we had one Thursday night healing service in which all of the lights in the chapel were on. Painfully, blindingly on.
            Now, if I am remembering this correctly, Tori was preaching that night, and she did a wonderful job, and we had communion, and time for prayer, and the service in general was everything that I’ve come to expect from a healing service.
            But those lights were on. And they were sort of…hot. And everything felt just a bit…off.
            There’s just something about gathering here, late at night, with the lights lowered and the music reflective, which lends itself to an atmosphere of contemplation and reflection. With all the lights up, I found it a bit harder to relax back into the healing presence of the Spirit. So I was pretty relieved when we got the light panel fixed (or at least sort-of fixed).
            I say all of that because I think that our gathering here every Thursday, with the lights lowered, gives some insight into part of the Christian faith that is oft-neglected: the importance of darkness.
            It wouldn’t take a newcomer to Christianity a very long time to notice that Christians love to talk about light. Scripture describes Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12); and tells us that “in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5). The latter is quoted in a popular hymn called “I Want To Walk As A Child Of The Light,” and the Christian community is supposed to be a light to the world as well (Matthew 5:14).  The images pile up after a while, leading to an obvious conclusion: light is good, and dark is bad.
            It’s not just Christianity, of course. We have some cultural hangups about darkness.: I went to see a movie the other day, and the trailer for the next Star Wars movie came on. There are only a few words in the trailer: an ominous voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? The dark side…and the light.” And I bet folks in the theater, even if they had never seen a Star Wars movie, knew which side we’re supposed to be cheering for. Dark Side equals bad. Light Side equals …well, it equals Mark Hamill, which isn’t so good, but he’s the guy we were supposed to root for, anyway.
            The metaphor makes sense in a lot of ways – there is something about our faith that tends us toward language about illumination, about being able to see or to understand in a new way. But there are some unintended consequences to the ease of our metaphorical preference for light. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things….To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it ‘full solar spirituality.’”[i]
Ironically, the movie that was preceded by the Star Wars trailer was Selma, a particularly powerful representation of one of the more obvious side effects of the “light-good, dark-bad” dichotomy. Of course there is more to our ongoing struggles with racial prejudice in this country than metaphors about light and dark, but it can’t possibly help with the unconscious biases of our society that we so often associate darkness with evil or pain. And Jesus himself has to deal with his own disciples making assumptions about a man with impaired vision when they ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Our preference for light and sight can lead to some problematic stuff. 
            Tonight’s scripture, from the prophetic literature of Isaiah, challenges our usual understanding of dark and light as they relate to our faith in God. As with all of our scriptures, this text emerges from a complicated social and political situation, marked by unrest and uncertainty. In it, the prophet speaks God’s word to Cyrus, the ruler of the Persian Empire. God calls Cyrus “his anointed,” which, if we were more familiar with biblical Hebrew, would startle us good Christians a bit. “Anointed” is the English translation of the word mashiakh, Messiah. In Greek, the word would be translated khristos, which we anglicize as “Christ.” So this passage opens with the line, “Thus says the LORD to his Christ, the Persian Emperor.”
            Why would the prophet Isaiah refer to Cyrus as Christ? Well, as with much of the Hebrew Bible, the scrolls of Isaiah take their final form during the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonian Empire, though, is weakening, and the star of Cyrus II is rising. Cyrus, it seems, might represent the Israelites’ best hope of returning to their homeland and rebuilding their beloved temple.
            So in this passage, we have a theological interpretation of sociopolitical events. And what the text says, again and again and again, is that, while Cyrus of Persia might be very strong, although he might represent the people’s best earthly hope for a return from exile, it is only because God is the God of all the world, in fact of all the cosmos, that such a thing could come to pass. That a foreign king could be hailed as a savior is characteristic of the universalistic message of the Prophet Isaiah, a message that is not always well received by people who are used to thinking of themselves as the sole recipients of God’s grace.
            And to communicate this comprehensive sense of God’s presence, to relativize the sovereignty of even the most powerful of kings, the text says things like:
“From the rising of the sun and from the west”—that is, where the sun goes down—“there is no one besides me.”
            Or, “I form light and create darkness.”
Or, “Let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up.”
What makes God, God, instead of just another powerful figure like the Babylonian and Persian kings, is that God is in the sunset as well as the sunrise, the dark as well as the light, bad times as well as the good times, springing up from underground as much as making decrees from on high. It’s God as comprehensive, universal, all-embracing, that distinguishes the God of the Hebrew Bible from the more particular deities of the surrounding nations and tribes. The God of the Bible is not one-dimensional. 
            Which makes me think, again, of Barbara Brown Taylor’s words: “full solar spirituality.” She says, “You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”[ii] She adds, “There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season….All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.”[iii]
            Much to my delight, though not to my surprise, Barbara Brown Taylor credits her university chaplaincy with opening her up to a spirituality more comfortable with uncertainty and with questioning, with waxing and waning experiences of God – a version of Christianity more comfortable with the dark.[iv] And so here we sit, in a darkened university chapel, somehow, I think, seeking an escape from too much light. Mark spoke about seeking silence last week and he used the term, “negative space,” like the rests in a piece of music. And with all of the artificial light in our lives – fluorescent overheads and smart phones and screensavers – maybe we need some visual negative space, as well.
            Our passage from Isaiah tonight recalls God saying, “I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, who calls you by your name.” The treasures of darkness. I like that. The gifts that are waiting for us in the places where we can’t see.
            What have been the treasures of darkness in your life? I think the question bears some reflection. I’ve got some paper here, and some pens and some colored pencils. And I’m going to ask that we spend a little bit of time tonight thinking about our own stories of darkness. Maybe you remember your parents calling you inside when it got too dark to play. Maybe you remember the power going out and your family playing games. Maybe you used to be scared of the dark. Maybe you still are! If so, why? What did you imagine was hiding there? Think back over your life. Think about your experiences with darkness – take that as literally or as metaphorically as you like. And write some thoughts down, if you’d like; or draw a picture of an experience of darkness, if you’d like; move around if you’d like or stay still if you’d like. But I want to invite you, now, to take some time. To search for riches hidden in secret places. To uncover your own treasures of darkness.  

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 7
[ii] Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 7. Emphasis mine.
[iii] Ibid., 8-9.
[iv] Ibid., 43.