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The Converted Community

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The names of other gods got worked into the Hebrew religion. How’s that for the most boring sermon lead in ever? The names of other gods got worked into the Hebrew religion, for example the Canaanite word El, which we find not only in titles like Elohim and El Shaddai, in place names like Bethel and Israel, but also in people’s names like Daniel and Michael, names that in the original Hebrew spoke of the person’s relationship to God. But the oldest name for God seems to be Yahweh, a name connected with Israel’s time in Egypt, connected with the Midianites. You see, that wicked revolutionary Moses lead his small rag-tag band of slaves out of Egypt, and in the process Moses came to know the name of the God of Abraham, of the Patriarchs. In Hebrew it is something like the letters YHWH, and we have interpreted this ancient unspeakable name, this name without vowels, as Yahweh, and we dare speak it, we sophisticated modern folks who don’t believe that names have magic.

This ancient name, Yahweh, has been interpreted into modern languages. We refer to God as “I AM,” or maybe as “I AM WHO I AM.” This is a statement of being. But while I was in divinity school, some scholars suggested that in ancient times it could just as easily have been read “I AM BECOMING.” Because of complexities of tense and case in ancient Hebrew that are far beyond my understanding, these scholars argue that the verb is progressive. God is not static, God is becoming. And when I first heard this I thought “well all right then… this is a theology I can deal with, this is a God I can love.” Not the static scary god concept we stole from the Greek philosophers and tried to shove down on Yahweh, nope, this was a living God. “I AM BECOMING.” Well God, so am I, through your grace, so am I. Continue reading →

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Funeral Sermon for My Father

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Note: Dad died on January 25th, 2010. It was the first funeral sermon I ever delivered.

Protestant Theologian Karl Barth once wrote about the difficulty of the preacher’s task. According to Barth, before the preacher sat the Scripture, the Word of God, mystery beyond all understanding. And just past the Scripture sat the body of Christ, the congregation, mystery beyond all understanding. I wonder what Barth might have made of the funeral sermon, where the mystery of the Word and the mystery of the congregation contemplates the mystery of eternal life.

For it is eternal life that we are here to contemplate. The Christian pilgrim has completed his earthly journey and has gone home, to the source of his life, to the source of all life. And it is worth reviewing that life as we consider our own journeys.

Dad’s early life was not easy. While he was still a child his father, a Norfolk police officer, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The entire family was uprooted and moved to New Mexico. There was grueling poverty, many nights Dad had only a piece of fried fat back and a single potato to eat. It was all to no avail, for his father would never recover. After Dad’s father died the family moved back east… times were still tough, and there were more moves. As soon as he was able to he escaped, enlisting in the Army. He had been promised he would not be sent to Korea, so of course, that is exactly where they sent him. During one firefight he was shot through both legs while his buddy, standing next to him, was killed. Dad was young and angry and refused the Purple Heart. He was patched up and returned to combat, surviving the war and returning to Tidewater. Continue reading →

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Feltboard Jesus

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Let me begin with a confession of sorts. Like many of our lectionary texts, this readings starts rather abruptly. I have taken the liberty of adding some of the context to verse 30. It actually reads “they went on from there,” but few of us would have remembered where “there” was, though we might have guessed about the “they.” I point this out because details are important, context is important, and I will be starting from a seemingly small detail.

But before I get there, I want to stir up some memories. How many of you remember felt-board Jesus? Of course, there was also a felt-board Pharaoh and Moses, a felt-board Paul. The felt-board was a common Sunday School teaching tool of an earlier age… today its Powerpoint Jesus, DVD Jesus! And how many of you remember the paintings of Jesus that hung on the Sunday School walls? If you were raised in the Roman church the images might have been of the Sacred Heart, scary in its own way. For many Protestants you had either creepy Jesus or wimpy Jesus. Creepy Jesus had long flowing hair that looked like it belonged in a shampoo commercial, and blue eyes, eyes that followed you no matter where you went in the room. Then there was wimpy Jesus, sitting on a hillside surrounded by children and lambs. This Jesus didn’t confront Empire, overturn the human-made systems of oppression. This Jesus clearly ran a daycare and petting zoo! No wonder generations of boys fled from the church at the first opportunity, continue to flee from the church! I have no idea when these tropes worked their way into Christian culture… maybe it was when we went from being the subversive outsiders to being the establishment, though that seems too easy of an answer. But there it is… Jesus with the children… just like in today’s reading. Continue reading →

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Despicable Me

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A Sermon delivered on the 11th of July, 2010

I hope you are comfortable, for this morning I plan to preach for 22,369.36 miles, give or take a few hundred miles. For this morning I have been asked to preach about environmental bumper stickers. You’ve seen them around, and if you haven’t there are a few on the cover of your order of service. They are completely familiar to me, for I spent three years in Cambridge, home of Harvard and M.I.T., and a place where our on-going destruction of the planet is the greatest of concerns. Of course, Cambridge is the home of many bumper stickers, half of which make no sense outside of the academic world. Bumper stickers like “Heisenberg Slept Here… Maybe.” One of my favorites, suitable for our mathematicians, says “Don’t drink and derive.”

In all seriousness though, one cannot preach on the subject of our relationship to the rest of God’s creation without noting its immensity. The distance I cited is in fact the distance the earth will travel in its orbit during the length of the average sermon. Never mind that our Solar System is moving within the Milky Way, or that the Milky Way is itself hurtling out into the cosmos from the source, from the moment and place of creation we can only guess at, but that we call the Big Bang. At the other end of the scale we have the beauty and fragility and sheer mind-blowing mystery of life itself, the evolution of new traits, the development of species. And smaller still we have the atomic, Newtonian Quantum mysteries of the atom and the sub-atomic, and it is mind-blowing too. Continue reading →

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Room for the Spirit: A Newsletter Article

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Some of you will already know that I am a disabled Army veteran. Others will know that I was a top manager with a Manhattan multimedia firm. I am a man of action, I like to get things organized and done. In fact, I can be so task oriented, so set on checking off every single box on my task list, that I can bulldoze others. I like to call it being directive, though others have called it being bossy.

Of course, this isn’t how the Kingdom of God works. With congregational polity we have the outward appearance of a democracy, debating and voting with the majority getting its way. But that is just the outward appearance. In reality, we engage in the spiritual practice of discernment. Much like democracy, this involves discussion and sometimes even a vote. But we believe the Holy Spirit, that Christ himself, is present when we prayerfully meet, when we prayerfully decide.

This is why ministers are advised to do nothing when they first arrive at a new congregation. We need to get to know our new congregants, to carve out space for the Spirit, to discern the way forward. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should do literally nothing… there are worship services to lead, visitations to make… but we are encouraged to make no major changes, to implement no major programs. Continue reading →

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Semi-hemi-demi-Pelagianism

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Okay, I have tattoos and earrings. And one of my two undergraduate majors was art, I’m a painter. So I guess this makes me a pretty funky guy. But even by my standards English comedian Eddie Izzard is strange. Yet I find him to be very funny. I especially enjoy his description of the Italians. Izzard, in one of his stand-up routines, takes on that brief ugly moment in Italian history, the rise of Mussolini and the Fascists. He wonders about this anomaly, claiming that his experience of Italians is not really like that. As Izzard describes the Italians, they are all on scooters, no helmet, hair flowing, all cool, suave… ciao, bella!! He says it’s true, it’s just like the film “Roman Holiday.” Sadly, most of you will not have seen that film… Gregory Peck at his most dashing… Audrey Hepburn embodying elegance and charm…

Izzard’s description matches my own experience of Northern Italy. I’ve been from the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily to Milan and Venice, I love Italy! But it is Tuscany that captures me. The region is a singular example of God’s amazing creativity, it is the region that gave birth to the Renaissance, and with good reason. From the towers of San Gimignano to the ancient fresco spotted down an alley way, the region is beautiful. And the land, the lush land, the canvas of sky. But there’s more! The people of Tuscany, the people of Florence, are beautiful too. From the lowest street-sweeper to the most elegant grand dame, when they walk out the doors of their homes, they look marvelous. The woman comes out to wash the windows on her shop… “Look at me. I’m beautiful!” Even the smallest child, running out the door with the ball… “Look at me. I kick the football. I’m beautiful!” It’s true… from Audrey Hepburn on a “Roman Holiday” to the runways of Milan to the average Florentine, there is a certain grace about Italy, despite the moments of collective insanity like Fascism, like Savanarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Continue reading →

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The Widow’s Mite

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Castles of Stuff, Mountains of Things
Sermon by Pastor Gary Brinn
November 15th, 2009

Sermon Text: Luke 20:45 – 21:6

In the hearing of many people Jesus said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of these rich; for they have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
When some people were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Sermon

We know the numbers. Less Americans are going to church than ever, less identify as Christians, and the children we do manage to raise in our congregations stop going to church the moment they leave the nest.
If we ask the “un-churched” what Christianity means, we might get a glimpse into the cause of our decline. Non-Christians will tell you that our faith is made up of obsessed busy-bodies with lots of rules, that the greatest purpose of this religion is to stamp out homosexuality. Other non-Christians might mention the televangelists, with their prosperity theology. This is the God who will make you rich just as soon as you give it all away, checks payable to Pastor Osteen please…
This is not to say that all Christians behave in this way. In fact, we can point to many Christians who do real good in the world, who have chosen the prophetic tradition… who feed and heal and visit and clothe and who proclaim the right and real Kingdom of God, women and men who have rejected the priestly trajectory and have chosen to follow Christ. But even in our best churches, even at our best, this is difficult and rare.
Christianity as commonly perceived and as commonly lived has mostly ignored the teachings of Jesus. For example, how much energy is spent arguing about sex? Yet Jesus rarely speaks on the subject, and when he does all he says is “the person you are sleeping with is not the person to whom you are married. Go and sin no more.”
What Jesus does speak about, again and again, obsessively, we’d rather ignore. Jesus spends his entire ministry denouncing legalism, self-righteousness and greed. Sure, Satan shows up in the gospels… sure, the end time, the eschaton, takes up some text. But again and again it is everyday human conduct that Jesus condemns. Continue reading →

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Crazy Art Dudes- A Sermon

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“Crazy Art Dudes”

I was sharing a household that academic year, living with my best friend and her husband. And it was a very, very small freezer, but we rarely overlapped in our shopping, so it was okay. Then there was that day. Ruth had come back with groceries, then headed back out. I came home with groceries and found a freezer that was jam-packed. So when Ruth returned for the second time she found me on the kitchen floor with all of the frozen foods, sorting. She looked at me a moment, then I spoke in exasperation. “You had square stuff on top of round stuff,” I sighed. “How is that supposed to work?” She chuckled and said “OCD man does the freezer.”

You see, I like things neat and organized. I love things that start on time. I straighten the papers on my desk, even if they represent tasks I am avoiding. People who know me can be trapped into believing that this desire for neat categories represents the real me. They’re often surprised to find out I was an art major. And not a neat carefully controlled and drawn perspective sort of art major. A big sloppy expressive painter sort of art major.

So how do these parts of me, the controlled and intellectual, and the expressive and emotional, fit together? They fit together in my faith, in my theology, in the words of the psalmist.

“There is no speech, nor are there words … Yet their voice goes out through all the earth.”

An aesthetic theology? Or a theology of aesthetics? What is it that makes art “art”? I’d like to begin by suggesting that all of the theories about symmetry and color balance and even about content are just that, human attempts to explain the inexplicable. Neurons firing? What a bunch of hooey! Okay, well, maybe, but oh so much more. Art is art because it is a part of something larger. In the visual arts, the art points to something that is beyond. Now, lest you miss it, let me repeat. Art is art when it points to something beyond itself. It cannot “capture” the subject; all it can do is gesture towards it. I can paint a tree, but my painting won’t be a tree, it might, hopefully, evoke “tree-ness.” In the words of the post-modern theorist, we might think of an artistic object as having infinite regress. It cannot be tamed, and there is nothing neat about it. Our hearts soar or ache or leap to our throats because something about that image, that Lucien Freud grotesque or Mark Rothko smear, connects to something else, to our experiences and to this amazing beautiful terrifying creation. Continue reading →

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Contagious Cleanliness

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On Mark 5:21 ff 
The last few days have been absolutely lovely. I’ve been out and about, Inman Square where I live, Harvard Square where I meet friends and where my Ecclesiastical Council was held on Thursday night. Everyone getting out, the sun shining, dozens of languages, and a mix of the well-to-do, the vastly over-educated, and the just-hanging on. I suspect this is a bit what it was like in the scenes recounted in today’s gospel. Galilee was in some sense a rural backwater, reclaimed by the Judeans only a century before Jesus. But in other ways it was a thriving cosmopolitan region. The Roman cities of the Decapolis, trade routes, Greek culture… and of course the various sects of the Judean religion.

There’s a lot going on in this particular reading just as there was probably a lot going on in the streets on Galilee’s shores. Jesus already has a band of disciples and already has a reputation as a healer. A leader of the local synagogue asks Jesus to heal his daughter, making us question what we think we know about “the Jews.” The scare quotes were on purpose, because there was no such thing as Rabbinic Judaism, and the Judean religion was complex and far from unified. And a woman who is well-to-do enough to have consulted many physicians without relief, who is willing to grasp at any straw, any cloak, for relief. And notice that Jesus doesn’t say “I know who touched me” as those who over-emphasize his divine nature would have him. No, he has to ask, and the disciples don’t wither before their master. “Please, look around you. How are we supposed to know?” And the little girl, did she die because Jesus was delayed or would she have died anyways? Does he leave most of the disciples behind so he can move faster? And of course, there’s the whole secret thing Jesus does. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. Continue reading →

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Great Thanksgiving

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This coming Sunday I will officiate from the Invitation to Communion through the Words of Institution. Below is the material I’ve put together for the service. Sometime next week I will post the Ecumenical Maundy Thursday service I’ve been working on for the campus setting.

Invitation to Communion

Officiant: Jesus broke through barriers of race and tribe, through class barriers and gender barriers, through human-created barriers of clean and unclean, holy and sinful. Jesus broke bread with all who came to him. In the same way, the early Christians violated social custom by breaking bread together, rebelling against all that would divide.

All: We come to the table of Jesus, ignoring those things that would divide us, united in our love of God and our salvation in Christ. We join this morning our sisters and brothers in this congregation, down the block, and around the world, that rejoice and that celebrate.

Officiant: This table is open to all that love God, to all that follow Jesus. Are you ready to come to the table of our Savior?

All: We are ready to come to Christ’s table, lifting our hearts and voices in thanks and praise.

The Great Thanksgiving Continue reading →

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