Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Butt of Silence

I was on the verge of my tenth year of life. My stepfather, through his work, rented a big cabin next to the Lake Mead for next to nothing. Several families joined us for the week together. The parents filled us children with images of fishing, swimming and boating. Only later did we understand the visions filling the imaginations of the adults, nearby Las Vegas. It was the seventies and we kids were not the center attraction, but a sideshow that had to be accounted for. My family plied into Datsun B210, and headed out from the desert heat of El Paso, our home, to the desert heat of Lake Mead, the place of imagination and fun. Other families would join us there.

On our way to the lake, I -remember the drive through the desert wilderness. The path seemed to have a puddle of water just ahead. The black asphalt and the blasting heat played ticks on your visions. I would count the green mile markers and listen to the endless playing of the pop hymn, American Pie.
“…and good-old boys drinking whiskey and rye, singing this will be the day that I die, singing this will be the day that I die…”

When we arrived at the lake, it was hot. The whole week the temperatures were above a hundred and ten degrees, but, like I said, the lake was the excuse for the trip. The cabin brought the possibility of gambling, partying and drinking. They would go off in groups of four and five to pay homage to the myth of becoming big winners. Sometimes, the grownups would be gone for whole days at a time. They just had to make sure that one couple stayed and watch all the kids. This became a point of struggle among the adults. Everyone wanted to gamble and the children were the liability no one wanted. The fight over the kids issue almost led to fistfights, until someone found what seemed like the final solution to the kids problem. We would all go to Las Vegas. In their thirst for the neon life, the adults made a mistake.

The kids were to stay in a hotel room by themselves for the night. We had money for pizza. We had sodas and chips. We had candy and sugar in various forms. The plan: one of the parents was supposed to come every couple of hours to check that we were being kind to our surroundings. The children had the phone numbers (yes before cell phones) to the casinos were our parents fed money to the machinery of Las Vegas.
They thought that we would be okay, if they gave us second thought at all. We, four boys and three girls all under eleven years of age and the two teenage girls who forcible volunteered to control the party, were alone for the night. The predictable disaster followed. The parents left before the sun fell bellow the horizon. We saw none of them until they all returned with the sun at five or so in the morning.

We, before their return, went into a large chocolate and sugar frenzy. We jumped on the bed. We went swimming until the night watchman kicked us out of the hotel pool. We appointed leaders, not the parent anointed teenage girls, to create our fun. Chris led the boys and I forget who led the girls. Bobby, the smallest boy and Chris’s cousin, joined in our revelry. We threw food at each other. Powered by sugar, we laughed, fought, and cried. The room was a mess, but it was, for the most part, undamaged until the parents returned to fetch us back to the cabin by the lake.

All of the parents were angry with the mess they found, but Bobby’s Dad the most. Drunk, he surveyed the sea of chip crumbs, slipped sodas cans, and chewed up pizza slices. He knew was going to have pay for his share. He grabbed his boy by his superman underroos. Bobby looked like an insect waving its tentacles. Bobby’s underwear stretched to its limit. The father started spanking and then punching his child, repeatedly. Bobby pleaded for him to stop, and then Bobby started to speak in something that sounded like tongues at a revival meeting. Bobby screamed and screamed, then he just stopped, as if he ran out of voice. He was awake and silent. His eyes looked straight ahead as if he was at church. He then made eye contact to all of the other children. His mouth clinched tight. Some of the other adults after awhile stepped in, but too late.
“It’s enough,” they told Bobbie’s Dad. As if “hell” and “enough” belong together.

It was an era when people let TV raise their children. His dad’s anger from losing at the blackjack tables and at his failed life discharged itself onto Bobby’s body. Bobby took it, as he always must have. Bobby could not sit down without pain for the rest of the trip.

“Serves you right.” was the bitter balm for his pain.

The anger, violence, and disappointment with life passed from father to son. None of us kids said anything about the beating. I felt for Bobby, but I said nothing to him or to anyone else. I believed in the lie of silence in the face of violence. Throughout the storm of fists and slaps, Chris and I just sat in the quiet out of our fears. We tried to remain invisible, for dread of facing a similar beating. Everything and everyone was silent except the screams and the slapping sounds of pounded young flesh, and then just the beating sounds. After the severity of the beating, none of the rest of us saw punishment from our parents.

Yes, we heard small lectures about our irresponsibility, but that was the extent of it, no grounding, no spanking … nothing. I realize that Bobby took the beating for the rest of us. The other parents seeing the beating of Bobby could not expose us to any more hurt. The built-up anger had dissipated into Bobby’s body and for the moment, violence was silent. Our punishment and suffering, we witnessed Evil and were forbidden to speak of it. Our punishment was more than enough for our crimes.

I have come back to this event many times. I have tried to understand what Bobby went through, even though I know I can never really understand. Why was he silent? Knowing his father was an alcoholic, what must have Bobby gone through is unfathomable to me. Later in life, Bobby retained his sense of silence. In his dark brown eyes, there is an italic phrase of if only you knew. He would not say anything, but in his slight unexplained smirk, he would say everything. His wounded self became a women magnet, but no woman could penetrate into his eyes. He would either abandon or torture them. Movie stars, models, and so many women tried to enter his eyes, but they were helpless to penetrate his silence. An artist and professional musician, no amount self-expression could release the tension around his mouth. Other people became a hell for him. Once he offered to go out into the desert and fry our brains with whatever drug he could find. I declined. I do not think he was not being serious, but the emotional pain he long to flee from was serious. He wanted to escape from himself. Suffering is a nation. Bobby was born a citizen of this nation, and his life became a search out of this country or an exploitation of suffering’s landscape, never his home, but always his place of residence. He showed me the limits of my ability to help another.

I have considered Bobby’s dad as well. He was boisterous. He was a born entertainer. He was a drunk. He always dreamed of being an opera singer in Germany. He had the talent to make it. He would only make it as far as the chorus of a small German company. He was too fond of partying to ever have the commitment that his dream needed. He was the kind of man that when you met him you like him, but knew he would fail in his dreams. This made him angry. Like Achilles, his anger busted out in fits of violence.

Once, he came with my mother and stepfather to visit me in Vail. I did not expect him, and was not to please with the surprise. I was in my mid-twenties. He was in his late fifties. There was no way at this point for his career to succeed; he was an official failure. He had the alcoholic’s contempt for life, though he was still skilled at entertainment. I had gotten a free room from the hotel I was working at, and the three of them: my mother, stepfather, and Bobby’s day proceed to make an impression. Bobby’s dad answered the door naked, his big belly almost hiding his genitals. The girl working room service nervously laughed and handed him a tray of eggs and bacon. He hit on her. What she told our coworkers about this incident I can only imagine.

I took them to hear folk music at the local hot spot. There a couple of guys recycle old Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, and the various songs from the sixties and seventies. Bobby’s dad asked them at the break if he could do a set. He then filled the little place with his big voice, and at the end of the set, he turn his back on the crowd, and pulled down his pants, and filled the room with his bigger mammoth cheeks. The crowd cheered, as I quietly try to remain silent. He needed the audience and at the same time he hated them. He was violent to the world and world still only laughed at him. He failed even in his hatred. The bridge between him and his life is too big to cross.

Thinking back to that night of the beating. We, children were forced into the silence. What could we do? The silence forced me to contemplate Bobby and violence. The other children, because of the silence, became part of the conspiracy of suffering. Sitting ridged, I could feel the ridgedness of Chris’s being. Bobby dangled in front of us, and we stared. We were not the oppressor. We were not the oppressed. We were the crowd with a big butt in our face.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Judgment Day

Sermon given 5.22.11 The Hang Church 
1 Peter 3:13-22 and John 14:15-21

The good life! Yes, imagine a life fill with adventure. Imagine living a life revealing its newness, each moment having the potential of meeting another human beyond fear, and with a deeper connection. Could we begin to live again? Each moment meeting our own lives as it unfolds! Imagine. Can we be with our lives so powerfully?

Unexpectedly, a chance encounter becomes a place of where love, the fullness of live, reveals itself. Can we live life as we did as children, with each moment full of hope, with each moment full of joy and passion, with mystery and discovery? Could we, despite our how many years have flipped on our calendars, befriend life again? Live.

There is an old fable that goes like this: Once a preacher started predicting the judgment day would be on this certain date. He proposed that all who believed to come on that date and join him on the roof of the church to get a better start on meeting the Lord in the air. At first few believed, as the day approached, those who believed in the preacher started to swell. On his predicted day, the preacher went straight up to the roof. Thousands joined him. As the last person made it on the roof, the combined weight on the roof was too much and roof collapsed, sending everyone with the preacher crashing down. For those who had joined the preacher, judgment day had indeed come.

As many you know Harold Camping, a retired engineer and radio personality, predicted yesterday to be judgment day. Not to make light of this, because many of his followers have to face judgment today. Many will have to answers the mocking of friends and family. Some had spent all their money and ran up their credit in anticipation that they would not be here today. Hearing some of them interview in the last few days, many were motivated to follow Camping out wanting to escape burdens of this life. One said that believing in the rapture on May 21 relieved his stress about the possibility of losing his job. Another poignant family had sold everything and had timed their money to run out on the 21st. They moved from friends and family to Florida to pass out tracts and prepare for the end. They have a two year old and expecting another in June. Pregnant, broke, far from home, disillusioned and with no family close, today they do face judgment day.

As it happens, today’s text has a bit of controversy over eschatology as well. Eschatology the theological term for end times doctrine. John 14.2 is a topic of debate among
Scholars. When Jesus says he is preparing a room in his father’s house, is this realized eschatology or is it future eschatology? Or in other words was Jesus speaking of Easter or was he speaking about his second coming when he told the disciples that he preparing a place for them? Far from a technical point of theology that only matter among Scholars, the question can get us to heart of the Gospel.

Many people I talk this week hearing about May 21, played the parlor game of what would you do if you knew the end was on that day. Many said they would go to Vegas, run up their credit, and buy what they wanted. In short, they thought the best use of their time, if they knew their times was limited, would be to indulge their desires. The teenage daughters of another one of Camping followers told the NY Times that her parents believed they would be going without her. Camping claimed that yesterday only 200 million people would make the cut to meet Jesus. Have you ever notice how much glee that many prophets of doom have in saying others will suffer? They indulge their desires to get even with the world. In a very real way, they want to judge the world not by the cross, but by the violence in their own hearts. To live with such revenge in our hearts really real living?

John 14 continues the after last supper conversation before Jesus’ trail and crucifixion. It is before God gets even with us, but by his own blood by the cross. Our getting even has to do with revenge, Gods getting even is about love.

What he says in John 13-15 is his last testament to his followers before the cross. So, we should pay close attention to Jesus use of the metaphor of the house and house building. What does Jesus mean? St. Augustine thought Jesus meant by the preparing the room in house meant building the church. This makes sense with other passages in the bible, especially our other text from 1 Peter.

Indulge me in a bit of explaining ancient building practice. Today, when we build a house, we start with concrete foundation and build up. In the ancient world the started with a cornerstone and built out and up. The cornerstone was the key to make sure the building stood. Archeologist have found human remains under cornerstone, and from other sources we know that blessing animal and human sacrifices were given in order to make sure the cornerstone would keep the building up. The rebuider of Jericho Hiel in 1 Kings 16:34 sacrifices his oldest son to the cornerstone of the city and his younger to the cornerstone of the walls. The cornerstone is what everything dependent on to stand.

For Peter, Jesus is the living stone that is the source of our becoming living stones. Jesus makes us live. This is echoes John 14 in our passage. Peter also gives us advice about living. Be young and alive he says. Be driven by living with Jesus. I think that is the greatest tragedy of Camping’s prediction. His followers stop living for fear and lust for revenge. Jesus told us to live as if today might be the day of Judgment. He meant us to prepare for judgment day, but what does it mean to prepare for judgment day? What does it mean to live understanding that we have limited time? Jesus gave us the best answer, Love God and love neighbor, even if neighbor may be enemy.

Today is Judgment Day. When two or more gather in Jesus’ name, he is here. Today we gather in his name and he is here. Yesterday was Judgment day. Tomorrow is judgment day. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not denying future eschatology, I am not denying the second coming. What I am saying that living, loving our children, loving Jesus drinking this spiritual milk is how we prepare. When we start loving Jesus, we start loving others. When we start loving others, the church starts building around the real cornerstone. We start growing. We start living. Live.

The reality is that any one of us could die today. This fact should draw us back to our lives and not to Vegas or the streets to pass out tracks.

A famous quote attributed to Luther goes like this, “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree.” Today, we live. Today, we love Jesus. Today, we love each other. Today, we plant a church. Today, we plant a tree. Live.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Okay Easter, But Now What?

Sermon 5.01.2011 The Hang
John 10

I want you to listen to today;s bible story from your life. To hear the story as if that problem or struggle you are dealing with is about to be answered. As if today's story will make you see it in a new light.

What if you would live your live as if it were a series of firsts. I wonder what it means see the world with eyes of the first. Last Sunday was my son’s first Easter egg hunt. He had fun picking up the eggs and shaking them for the sound. He would bang together exploring rhythm he is beginning to learn. Then one egg split in two like the temple’s curtain revealing its surprise, chocolate. He was filled with wonder at this. His face was soon messy with chocolate. He ran away as mom tried to clean him up. He knew where the good stuff is.

Today we are going speaking about the first Easter and we started with the ending scene of Homer Smith leaving the nuns after he built them a church in 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. I am using if the video to point to the power of firsts and how to build the church. It was the first time an African American won an Oscar. Another man before Sidney Poitier was awarded the Oscar before him and in 1939 Hattie won one for Gone with the Wind, but this is the first time it was won for a lead, and what a lead. It helped to humanize African Americans and help build support for the Civil Rights movement in the early sixties.

Sidney plays Homer smith. Homer was a traveling handyman down on his luck when he stumbles on a group of Nuns that had escaped from Communist East Germany. Sidney’s Smith helps the Nuns out of a sense of compassion. They, especially Mother Superior Maria, pushes Homer to bigger and bigger projects, until she demands him to build them a chapel. He has to come up with the materials, and with no promise of payment. The movie then shows Homer going through a series of firsts. He then has to learn to have others help him, and through all the trials and tribulations, the chapel is built. The church is built. We then learn his deepest desire had always been to be an architect. In living a life of deep compassion, he finds an outlet for his own deepest desires. While he thought he was doing the Nuns a favor, it is he who is most blessed.

The text for this Sunday is the doubting Thomas story in John. When this text is usually preached the focus is on doubt and over coming doubt. Lets look at the story with fresh eyes. The text is fascinating because it is also a founding text for the church as it describes the first and second Sundays of the first Easter season. It should tells us what is next after Easter, and the story does, indeed tell us what's next. There are four major characters to the story. Three of these characters drive the action  in the story, and interestingly Thomas is not one of the three. So, it would be good for us to look at those other three: Jesus, the church represented by the disciples and the Holy Spirit.

The first Sunday started with fear and uncertainty. The disciples are huddled in a dark room fearing for their lives. For good reason, they are strangers to the city; their leader has been brutally killed by the authorities, and the Romans have shown no mercy to those perceived as enemies. They right feared for their life. Then Jesus comes among them. He brings them peace. They are suddenly energized and they are given their mission for the rest of their earthly life. Jesus is sending them out. Then they are given the gift to make their sending out successful, Jesus, in a reenacting of genesis 2 breathes life into them. The Holy Breathe, the Holy Spirit moves into them, and fear has no room in them. They can see the world as a first. They are born again. It is best to remember the Tanak, the Old Testament’s of the Holy Spirit. The spirit brought us life, and it did it continuously. God is always breathing into you nostrils new life.

They go out and share their experiences. Thomas, their friend, is not buying it. He looks at them and gives them the answer that I am sure many of you here have heard. Unless x, I will not believe. Why? They share the mysterious that is hard to believe. Now, they answer with the best evangelical technique ever devised, they say fine, but come and be with us. They stay in relationship with him. Belief, for them, is not the admission ticket to church, relationship is.

They say to him, we have a great worship band, the music is best in town and the treats are so yummy. Sometimes the sermon is not too boring. So, he goes because his friends are there. Then Jesus shows up and it is he who does the hard work of converting. I think we sometime think the admission cost for coming on Sunday is a test of belief. We miss the purpose of worship, which is encountering Jesus. For when two or more gather in his name, he is here. These are not empty words. I have experienced Jesus in the music, in the ancient words repeated, and yes a few rare times in the sermon. But mostly in the meal of wine and bread. We miss the purpose of evangelizing to share our experiences, our firsts we experience in our life together with Jesus. Jesus is the one that calls the sheep. We are called to love the fellow sheep. I cannot convert anyone, and neither can you. And that is good news.

Church is a place to encounter Jesus and not a place of rules and agreement. When we encounter God, God changes us. The spirit leads us. The Holy Spirit leads us into life of first. Of seeing new possibilities not the same old. Of finding the sweetness of chocolate, when we go about making music.

The Good News is that Jesus has called us to a new life. One were we can see the world new again. Feel the breath flow through you now. And he has given us a purpose to find and fulfill our deepest desires. To build a church. To build his church. We are sent out, and this is the greatest gift of all, to experience the world as love, life and new life, a series of firsts.

Theology lesson time. Repeat after me.
“I build the church.”
“You build the church.”
“We Build the church.”
“He builds the church.”