Sunday, August 24, 2014

dunker punk baptism challenge

Sermon 8-24-14
“Do Not Be Conformed”
Romans 12:1-8
Manassas Church of the Brethren

How many of you have seen the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that’s happening all over the internet this summer?

How many of you have DONE the “Ice Bucket Challenge”?

If you haven’t done or seen it, the Ice Bucket Challenge is an internet phenomenon that started back in May to raise money for research for ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Essentially, you are challenged to either dump a large bucket of ice cold water over your head or donate $100 to the ALS Association. You take a video of dumping the water over your head, and in the video, challenge several friends to either do the same or donate. Many people are choosing to dump the ice water on themselves AND donate.

As of Thursday, donations related to the Ice Bucket Challenge have totaled over $41.8 MILLION dollars. That’s more than the Association’s total Revenue for fiscal year 2013. But it didn’t stop there. This phenomenon has gone viral. On Friday, Ice Bucket Challenge donations totaled 53.3 Million. And yesterday, the total was up to 62.5 Million. Talk about exponential power of social networking - 10 MILLION dollars each day!

Some people are wary of the impact that good works based on social media can have - they call it “hashtag activism,” or “slacktivism,” chiding others for not doing more, being more deeply invested, giving to organizations equally as worthy and perhaps more in need as the ALS Association. To be honest, I’m pretty skeptical myself about how well our online activities correspond to the rest of our lives: does tweeting about something really mean I’m invested in it? Does posting a silly video on Facebook make me a supporter of ALS research? But, financially at least, the Ice Bucket Challenge is having a very non-virtual impact on research for ALS. Something about the Ice Bucket Challenge has caught on and taken root. It went viral, grew exponentially for some REASON. There’s something to this combination of doing good, practicing joy, and challenging one another.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in a context of this kind of exponential growth. The gospel was spreading, like wildfire. And Paul, in this letter, was issuing his own joyful challenge - the challenge to live up to the adventure of baptism, to live a transformed life.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is different from most of his other letters. Paul KNEW the people in the churches of Corinthians or Galatians or Philippians - he had founded some of those churches, and visited them all. Those places were all on the far Eastern side of the Roman Empire, and the gospel was expanding westward from the backwater region where Jesus had lived and taught.

But the church in Rome was not familiar to Paul. He didn’t found that church, and he’d never visited them. The gospel was spreading so quickly and so exponentially that Paul, the original circuit-riding preacher, couldn’t keep up with it. He couldn’t get to every church community to encourage them and teach them and challenge them to live out the gospel in the way of Jesus. So he wrote. He wrote to the Roman Christians.

That the story of Jesus - his life and teachings and healings and trouble with the law, his death and resurrection - that this story had made its way all the way to Rome, the center of the universe, seat of government and capital of empire, well, that was no small thing.

The writer of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts, and the book of Acts describes this exponential spread of the gospel challenge all the way through Galilee and Judea, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece and right up to its arrival in Rome. The book of Acts ends when the gospel reaches Rome, as if to say: Finally. Legitimacy. The end.

But the storyteller of Luke-Acts doesn’t know - or, at least, doesn’t let on - what Paul knows: that to live out the gospel in the middle of Empire is a seriously difficult task.

I had dinner with Carl and Roxanne Hill this week, missionaries recently back from Nigeria who led us in worship last Sunday. They are great people, and we had really interesting conversation. We talked about Nigeria, and how hard it is for the people of the churches there, living with daily violence and persecution. And we talked about the US, how hard it is for the people of the churches HERE, living with so many opportunities for distraction and materialism and gluttony. “Living the gospel is hard,” Carl said, “EVERYWHERE.”

I think Paul knew about the ways living the gospel would be hard for these Roman Christians, living in the way of Jesus in the belly of the beast of empire - how hard it would be to:

To practice enemy love in the place where enemies are plotted against;
To refuse to build bigger barns and resist storing up earthly treasures in the place where the economy is burgeoning, where currency is created, where treasures are cheap and wealth is easy;
To welcome strangers, immigrants and aliens in the place responsible for the policies that regulate those people’s presence;
To practice forgiveness and radical grace in the place where systems of penal justice are created and maintained;
To live peaceably with all in the place where battle strategies and war departments are housed;
To not be haughty or claim to be exceptionally wise in the place that runs on knowledge and power.
To live the peculiar life of Christian discipleship in the place where blending in and falling in line are how to get ahead.

Paul knew that it would be hard to follow Jesus in Rome. So he wrote this letter, full of crazy theological twists and turns (which, I think, he knew those sophisticated Romans would understand in ways that his churches back in the Galilee might not), and then he moves on to tell them what all that crazy theology means.

“So, brothers and sisters,” he tells them, “because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice...Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is - what is good and pleasing and mature.”

“Look,” Paul is saying, “I know who you are, and I know where you are. You’re followers of Jesus. We both know what that means, we both know who he is. And you are in ROME. You’re right there where everything comes together, where the government is situated, where the military is commanded, where the economy is centered, where the thinkers and philosophers and writers and artists and temples are all furiously creating and writing spinning out new ideas and new possibilities. You are followers of Jesus and you are THERE. Let’s take a moment, together, to contemplate what that means.”

And then, Paul says, “don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.” Don’t let all that power and culture go to your head. Remember who you are, whose you are. Remember the example of Jesus, who did not consider himself better than anyone but knelt down to serve. And let that example transform you - so that you will be able to discern, even among all the noise of empire, what God’s will is. Not the will of the emperor. Not the will of the Pantheon. Not the will to power, not the will to riches. Let yourselves be transformed, let your minds be renewed, so that you will know the will of the God who brought you here - the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

And, here’s the thing, you guys: we live in Rome. We are followers of Jesus smack-dab in the middle of empire. The Washington DC metro area has eight of the eleven U.S. counties with the highest median income. It has the highest concentration of post-graduate degrees of any other area in the country. Concentrated power is harder to calculate, but just take a minute to survey the jobs of people you know - in government, in law enforcement, in policy-making, in intelligence. We are a powerful people. We’ve got cathedrals and universities and libraries to rival any other city in the world. We live in Rome.

We are the people Paul is writing to. We are Romans. So it is especially important for us to listen to what he’s saying. We are followers of Jesus. Paul says earlier in the letter, in the midst of all that theological intensity, that in our baptism we have died with Christ and been raised with him. That means that we are a different kind of people, called to live differently than the culture of the empire around us. Baptism into this kind of community includes that kind of challenge.

Back to that Ice Bucket Challenge. Did you notice how like baptism the whole phenomenon is? People getting dunked, people being challenged, the joy of community and mutuality and service spreading as quickly as wildfire? Maren Tirabassi, a UCC pastor and poet, saw the connection and wrote a poem about it. She shared this on her facebook page this week:

Ice Bucket Challenge
Maren Tirabassi, UCC Pastor & poet

Of course, they’ve borrowed
our sacrament,

the one we let become warm
and small and personal and private
and cheap.

They got it right –
a big splash in front of everyone,
for the sake of those
living with ALS,

a wild, re-jordaned,
cold compassion, soaking --
holy defiant dove and all
to heal
lou gehrig’s disease.

Amen to the
celebrities and CEO’s,
the politicians and techies
and ordinary folks
who may not be our go-to saints
but teach us something
about our fonts,

and our old three-holy punch –

a bucketful of icy and shocking,
of public and embarrassing,
a bucketful
of siding with the healing
of someone else,

a bucketful of awkward
possible rejection,
wet and turning
to someone we love saying –

I challenge you to live baptized.

That challenge of baptism,
to side with the healing of others,
to consider others just as important as ourselves,
to live a life that refuses to conform to the patterns of the age and the place in which we live and
to learn - through God’s transforming grace - to figure out the will of God and to respond by DOING IT -
this is not a challenge that comes to us once and for all when we leave those the waters. Living out our baptism is a constant challenge, something we get to aspire to and reach for in each moment.

Our youth heard that challenge recounted to them this summer at NYC, when Jarrod McKenna called us to live like “Dunker Punks.” Jarrod challenged us to find one or two other people and pray together daily, and he challenged us to memorize the Sermon on the Mount. These are ways to respond to the challenge. Maybe you’ll hear yourself being challenged in other ways. What does it mean for YOU, to refuse to be conformed to the world, the empire, around you and to BE TRANSFORMED?

In the spirit of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and in an effort to do good, practice joy, and challenge one another to live transformed lives, even right here in the midst of Empire, here’s your invitation:

Monday, August 18, 2014

what's up, midwifery?

A couple of weeks ago, I got to spend an evening with Julia Dinsmore, a woman full of grace and medicine stories whose book you should go buy, read, and share with someone else who can’t afford it. Julia talked about being poor, about living without safety nets, about the genius instilled and necessitated by poverty. She chastised those of us (me) who’d been apologetic about coming from a middle-class family. “Don’t be guilty about that! Middle-class is good! Use it!” Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her what that meant. What should I DO with all my privilege? Is there some way I get to use it to clear space for other people, to make way for those stories to get through? She thought about it for a while, and then said, “Yes. It’s a midwife thing.”

The week before that happened, I was with a bunch of my youth at a big conference in Colorado. In his sermon on the last night, Jarrod McKenna challenged all of us there to commit to radical obedience wrapped in sincere belief in God’s active presence – to live out our heritage as “dunker punks.” The sermon sparked something – or, maybe it’s more accurate to say tapped into some fire already ignited – and people have been working at being present, obedient Dunker Punks in a bunch of interesting ways these last few weeks. My friend Josh works (like I do, but only 1/4 time, you know, so I'm wayyyy less implicated, right?) for “the man,” in the denominational offices in Elgin, and we’ve been talking about what it means for an institution to support a movement. He wrote a blog about a conversation where we stumbled into the idea that the role of a leader in current power structures is to be a midwife, to help birth that new thing, to recognize which pain is the pain of new life and which pain is the pain of something amiss.

In the last week, I’ve had two more conversations about midwifery, neither of which I instigated, both of which caught me off guard. What's up, midwifery? Got something to say to me? And why are you such a fun word to say?

The old is passing away, y’all. Do you feel it? It’s happening in the church. It’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s happening in Gaza. It’s happening every place the cheap veneer of respectability is being torn away from the scarring realities of injustice, irrelevance, racism and greed.

We live in Rome. We live in the Capitol. We live in the center of power, distracted by bread and circuses, hunger games, institutional shuffling of deck chairs. We live in the center of empire, comforted by security systems, cushions of wealth, platitudes of certainty. We live in a constructed reality meant to coddle us into complacency.

When the fabric of these illusions begins to unravel, when something unavoidably horrific happens, we try hard to avoid it, to explain it away, to maintain our delicate balance of ignorance and avoidance. But those moments are irruptions of the real – slivers of what’s true breaking in, breaking through, reducing our arrogant cries of “peace, peace” (when there is NO peace) to what they actually are: pitiful cries for mercy, cowardly refusals to acknowledge reality.

We live among the ruins of every security system we’ve attempted to erect. And the thing is, I think: all this ruination is GOOD. All these lies getting burnt away are part of that process of refining. If we die with Christ, we will also live with him. 

I am not a midwife. I don’t understand childbirth. Heck, I’ve only got one remaining ovary and a rather shady uterus as it is. But I’m beginning to suspect that all this pain, all this destruction of certainty, all this ruination of worldview, all these painful revelations may in fact be the pain of new birth. Could it be? Could it be that we’re being uprooted and upheaved in order to usher in some tiny, screaming bit of new life?

That’s the hope I land on after this week of grief and lament. That God might, in fact, be doing a new thing. And this, this right here, is my pitiful attempt at being a midwife. God is doing a new thing. Do we not perceive it?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

grinning in place (of sacraments)

For a low-church, priesthood-of-all, non-sacramental, ambivalent-about-ordination lady, I sure do love "presiding" "over" "ordinances."

This summer has been relentless in its event-heavy travel responsibilities. I’ve trained college ministry interns, driven the giant church van filled with middle-schoolers all over Brooklyn for our workcamp week, prayed prayers and passed polity at Annual Conference in Columbus, packaged rice and beans and chicken and peaches with our Jr. Highs during Bible School, ridden insanely intense coasters at King’s Dominion, and successfully took 14 high school youth all the way to Colorado and back for National Youth Conference. The ridiculous thing is, the summer’s not even over. I head to Minnesota for a writing workshop on Monday, then spend some days with BVSers at their orientation on the Eastern Shore next week. Summer is relentless.

Along the way, in the midst of the insanity, the not knowing what day it is or which time zone I’m in, I’ve run headlong into some sacred moments. I daresay some sacramental moments. Except we’re Brethren. We don’t do sacraments. Those are for the ruling high church oppressors, eh, the ones wanting to fence people out and compel their allegiance. We’re Brethren – no force in religion, no real ecclesial offices, priesthood of ALL believers. We don’t do sacraments.

Which is just fine, you know, except that we DO.

We call them ordinances, and we’re pretty serious about the fact that they can be led by anyone at any time – no need for a special priest or consecration ritual. But we’ve got rituals, kairos-time practices, set-apart traditions…whatever you want to call them, we’ve got them in spades.

And I fell headlong into a bunch of them this summer.

I got to perform the wedding of some of my favorite people in May, people whose sense of spiritual intuition and careful worship made for a wedding ceremony more filled with joyful presence than many others I’ve been a part of. Minister is by far the best gig at a wedding – best seat in the house for the processional, the vows, the first kiss; no need to buy an expensive bridesmaid’s dress you’ll never wear again, the opportunity to bless people you love and stand there in that space where love is pouring down and around and among and between, where covenants are being spoken and consecrated, where relationships are burgeoning, emerging, binding. There’s an ineffable thing that happens in that space, a power that is more than the sum of the ceremony’s parts, and I got to stand there, smack in the middle of it all. I could not stop grinning.

At our Brooklyn workcamp, we got to wash one another’s feet on the last night. Footwashing is a tried and true tradition for us Brethren, as weird as it may be for all y’all others. We do it at least twice a year – a sign of service, of humility, of the blessed ties that bind us together in mutual mercy and care. We’d spent the entire week in Brooklyn serving through congregations and clothing closets, senior centers and salvation armies. Washing the feet of our fellow workcampers was one more way to kneel down in presence and prayer. Plus, they’re junior highs. There is no better age group for setting spiritual significance in stark relief. The boys were boys, giggling and whispering through the singing and washing – but giggling and whispering while they kneeled; refusing to allow the obvious awkwardness of the moment to prevent them from participating fully; they giggled, and then they invited their neighbors to have their feet washed. I was the last to sink my feet into the basin, and it was the dirtiest footwashing water I have ever seen. The workcamper next to me knelt down and washed my tired feet in that nasty water, and for the life of me, I could not stop grinning.

A couple of weeks ago, our congregation baptized three people, outside, in Broad Run. I’d never baptized anyone before, and the outdoor thing was a new twist – it had been a while since the congregation had done anything outside of the baptistry. The stream was much cleaner and prettier than I’d anticipated. Kids waded in and sat on rocks as people gathered. Fred and I walked in, and, one by one, dunked three people three times each. The first guy had to pause a bit between the dunk “in the name of the Father” and the one “in the name of the Son” because a train rumbled by on the trestle not 50 yards away. They held their noses, washed their souls, and we prayed over them. It was all very Brother, Where Art Thou, missing only the sirens and the banjos. Forty people stood on the shoreline, ready with towels and hugs as the newly dunked climbed out of the water. They covenanted to be the church, together, walking in the light of this new covenant with God, living as Christ’s body on earth. Dipping those precious heads under water again and again, I could not stop grinning.

And last week, during one of the massive coliseum worship services, I got to anoint dozens of people. I touched their heads with frankincense-scented oil, looked into their eyes and reminded them that they were beloved children of God. I anointed them in the name of the God who created them, in the name of Jesus who gifts them with an abundant grace, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who boldly stirs them to follow in the calling to which they have been called. Among those dozens were fellow clergy, BVS volunteers, young adults, and some of my very own youth group. That they are beloved, created and called is EXACTLY what I want these kids to know, EXACTLY what I want to be saying to them, in whatever words come out of my mouth. Anointing is, I think, of the highest order of ordinances. It makes space for simple truth – we are created and beloved – and asks for us to claim our identity, to grasp onto that calling and live into it. There are lots of crumpling faces and tear-washed cheeks during anointing. People hold so much so close to the surface, tamping down so many emotions and so much deep-seated tenderness. Anointing makes room for them to surface, asks us to allow them to peek out, invites us to be our real selves and touch – for just a moment – something even more real than we are. The kids kept coming forward, the tears kept seeping out of eyelids, heavy burdens kept appearing in front of me and for the life of me, I could not stop grinning.

Only slightly inappropriate.

I haven’t done the research or read the theological essays to write what I want to write about all of this, yet. But this summer has been relentless, and part of that unending pressure has been this realization: God may be ever-present, above all and in all and through all; all of life may be sacred and ripe with the possibilities of divine action; we may live in an enchanted and spirit-suffused world…but there is something seriously significant about the ways in which these ancient, scriptural, Jesus-led practices open us up to that Presence, the ways that they clear the space and shrink the distance, open us up and invite God into the most tender places of our lives.

It’s not about me, not about all those inadequate verbs: “presiding” and “officiating” and “performing.” It’s something more like “tending space” or “surrendering self” or “falling headlong into that space where ever-present grace bubbles up and over and cascades over all of our heads.”

The words aren’t right – they’re flimsy and lame, inadequate for what is really happening here. They make me sound like I’ll be pulling crystals out of my pocket and weaving them into patchouli-scented dream catchers at any given moment. I will not. I’m Brethren, after all, traditionally free of sacraments, ornaments, hierarchies and buttons (symbol of too much prideful selfishness, you know). But you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be accepting any invitation that comes my way to stand in one of those places and feel a room fill up with swirling Spirit.

And for the life of me, I will not be able to stop grinning.