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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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On the Death of Batman: A Newsletter Article

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The news media has recently reported that DC Comics will be killing Batman in a coming issue. This might not seem like a big deal to you. After all, while Batman has become an icon in the American Media Culture, our children no longer read comic books. Only a handful of adults continue to care about this medium, with its mixture of the visual and textual, of archetype and narrative. This has resulted in books with an adult aesthetic, with gritty, violent and profane stories, which in turn makes the books less accessible to children. An excellent and recent children’s novel, Mascot to the Rescue, bemoans the state of comics while still showing how the books create meaning in the life of one little boy.I should be upfront and say that I am part of that small group of adults who still cares about comics. To be fair, I stopped collecting when I entered Divinity School, but my collection covers three of decades and thousands of issues, the majority of which feature Batman. Continue reading →

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A Pastoral Prayer

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Let us join together with the people of God in all nations, in all places, as we offers our prayers of praise and petition:Loving God
We are on a schedule
We are a temporal people
Chained to our watches
In control

And then there is you
Your time surprises us
Like a thief in the night
Like the pangs of birth

We thank you for your time
For your kingdom
For the Son of Man

Bless this day the church
Millions who are committed to your time
Who let go for moments
Who sit before you in prayer
Bless especially those who serve the church
Fill them with Spirit
Fill them with love Continue reading →

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Borderlines

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Jeremiah. 23:5-6 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

You might have noticed that the two scripture readings don’t seem to go together, that in fact they seem to contradict one another. Now, in case you were momentarily distracted, let’s recap. In the first reading, taken from the First Book of Samuel, the loose confederation of Israelite tribes come to Samuel, judge and prophet, and ask for a king. They have good reasons, the Philistines have moved into the region with advanced technologies and are putting pressure on the western border. Samuel warns them that a king is not God’s plan for the people, but they insist. Even though this text was written in the centuries after a monarchy was established, it records the uneasiness the people still felt about loyalty to anyone other than God.

The second reading was written five centuries later. The United Kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon had been torn in two. The Northern Kingdom called Israel had fallen, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was at risk, with invaders at the gate. In this reading, God promised through his prophet Jeremiah to raise up a new king for his people. Monarchy had become the theological model from which the Judeans operated. So when the people were in trouble, it was up to a great king, an anointed one, a messiah, to rescue them. Unlike the people of the exodus, these people believed that God worked indirectly, through others, through chosen kings.

The readings suggest that God changed plans, though we have adopted from Hellenism an unfortunate notion of a God that cannot ever change. The truth is that the Israelite religion is a trajectory of change. God creates a covenant with one small tribe through one man, Abraham. Then God creates a new covenant with that tribe through all members when he frees them from bondage, a covenant mediated by Moses but executed by the people. Then God changes models again and creates a covenant with a single household through one man with the Davidic covenant. We could fall back on the oft repeated trope “God planned it all that way,” but that would leave no room for human freedom, only a puppet-master God, one that seems less than worthy of our love. So what are we to make of all of this change? Continue reading →

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