Saturday, July 23, 2011

What Are We Going to Say About Labels, Supermodels, Seeds, and Pearls?: Sermon, July 24, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Giving all glory and honour to God.

So what are we going to say about these things? That’s the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman church that is one of our readings today, but he could be talking about our three selections from the Bible. What are we going to say?

Paul continues, if God is for us, who is against us? Who will condemn us? In Paul’s letter these words are meant to be reassuring, comforting, because he answers these questions. But in our lives, when we ask, who is against us, who will condemn us, we don’t always get these calming, soothing responses. Sometimes we know who it is who is against us, and we can name them, or we know that it’s a whole society. And we feel condemned.

In our first reading, we’re continuing last week’s story of Jacob, on the run from his brother. Jacob finds his uncle, Laban, and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, and works for Laban seven years so he can marry her. But Jacob, who is on the run in the first place because he fooled his father into giving him his brother’s inheritance, is fooled himself – tricked by Laban into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. And he works another seven years so he can marry Rachel too. Men could have more than one wife back then.

The writer of this book of the Bible states that Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Rachel is the hot one Jacob and all the other guys fall for when they see her. Leah is pawned off by her father because she isn’t pretty; the writer says that she has lovely eyes – which sounds like the words of someone trying to be kind. The only way for her to get a husband is to trick a man into marriage. Jacob marries her because he has to, but the story makes it plain that he doesn’t love her.

Who is against Leah? Who will condemn her? The people around her who judged her by the beauty standards of her society, in a story that is set nearly 40 centuries in the past, and things haven’t changed much since then. Magazines and movies and TV shows and websites still favour the Rachels over the Leahs. And we want to be Rachels, because who wants to be a Leah, unloved and unwanted? So we go beyond just using makeup and hair styling, and turn to cosmetic surgery and even extreme dieting or steroids as we try to look like supermodels and beauty queens and muscle men. There is an epidemic of unhealthy weight loss and anorexia among teenage girls because society gives them the message that they will be unattractive unless they are thin.

I’m interested in this as I have a disability. When our society looks at disability, it focuses on what one can’t do; the idea is that the body or mind aren’t working properly. This thinking leads to labels being given to people with disabilities, descriptions like cripple, handicapped, retarded. And these labels convey with them the idea that people with disabilities are worth less than able-bodied people. It’s only a short step from saying that people with disabilities have a problem, to saying that they are a problem. Advocates for people with disabilities call this thinking ableism, a set of stereotypes like racism and sexism.

And I need to add ageism here, as beauty in our culture means youth. Just as people with disabilities are given the message that they are worth less and are a problem, society gives the same idea to seniors, that the hair and skin and ability and health of elderly people are less than ideal.

It’s hard to be labeled crip, loser, geek, ugly. We may hope that these labels stop after high school, but they last as we go through life, particularly in this Internet age when anonymous people comment viciously on anything they find online. We may be saddled with the names and insults heaped onto anyone who has a disability or whose face or hair or body type or clothing, or speech or mannerisms or sexuality, isn’t what our culture considers fashionable and good-looking and normal.

Our world judges by superficial standards just as much as, and probably more than, the world of Leah, Rachel and Jacob. Our culture may pay lip service to everyone being equal no matter what they look like, but it tends to put down authenticity and and degrade anyone who doesn’t look like the ideal. The singer Pink has a song on the radio, called Perfect, and sings about how her critics don’t like her jeans and don’t get her hair, yet she does it too to other people, all the time. We know how we make snap judgments based on appearance.

Yet, in fact, sisters and brothers, we are all Leahs. It is impossible for us to meet the criteria of our fashion and beauty-obsessed culture 100 percent of the time. We can’t all be celebrities, and they can’t measure up to their media images continually either. The perfect people we are compared to, forever young, athletic, beautiful, sexualized, exist only in the imaginations of the media and advertisers. All of us - no matter how young or old we are or what we look like - all of us know at some point in our lives, maybe most of our lives, what it is like to be labeled, criticized, degraded, unwanted, to feel that we are worth less.

Paul writes to another church, the one in Corinth, and tells them, brothers and sisters, by ordinary human standards not many of you were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. He could have said, not many of you were Rachels. Most of you, maybe all of you, were Leahs. And Paul continues, but God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God chose what the world considers unattractive to shame the beautiful. God chose what the world considers to be nothing to reduce what is considered to be something, to nothing.

Into this world of superficiality and unachievable standards comes Jesus with his good news. In five little stories this morning he talks about the realm of God, where God’s love and justice and peace break into our world of shallowness and selfishness. Yet God’s realm is like something that is considered like nothing, worthless: a mustard seed. Yeast. So common in the time of Jesus they weren’t worth thinking about. Or so the society of the time, and our society today, would think. But God chooses what seems insignificant, and ordinary, to shame what the world considers famous and beautiful.

Jesus talks about the mustard seed, thought in his time to be the tiniest of seeds. Yet from that miniscule seed come mustard plants that become shrubs eight to ten feet tall. The contrast would have been obvious to his listeners. Tiny seed, huge plant.

Jesus is saying that the greatest things have the least auspicious beginnings. What is ordinary, looked down upon, dismissed by society, brings God’s realm.
A little seed becomes a tree. A few grains of yeast cause a whole loaf of bread to rise. God comes in human form as a crying baby, Jesus, born in an unimportant place in a backwater of the Roman Empire. Jesus, who always identified with anyone suffering and shut out by society, is telling us that small things count, as we sang in our hymn; small things count as big things in God’s mind.

God does not judge as we and the world judge. God has different ways to measure beauty. God sees potential where we write off ugliness and disability and old age. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.

Brothers and sisters, God sees each one of us as unique treasures. To God we are pearls, pearls of great price. It doesn’t matter to God what we look like, whether we are graceful like Rachel or the best anyone can say of us is that we have lovely eyes like Leah. It doesn’t matter to God what labels people attach to us. We are pearls, and God will search for us, and find us, and sell everything to buy us. And God has done that, as Paul tells the Romans: God gave up Jesus, God’s Son, for us all. Pink sings in her song, if you ever, ever feel like you’re nothing, you are perfect to me, and that could be what God is whispering to us.

If God is for us, who is against us? Who will condemn us? Well, lots of people may try condemning us for our looks or our ability or our background or our beliefs. But Jesus helps us discover our value as unique creations of God. When we feel beaten down by criticism, when we feel small, then we can remember that small things count. We count in God’s mind. We may feel as Paul describes, quoting Scripture, as if we are being put to death all day long, treated like animals for slaughter. Yet Paul continues to tell the Roman church, and us: But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor present things nor future things, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor any other thing that is created, can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Church for the 21st century: Family structures

Carol Howard Merritt has a great, and challenging, post about family structures in the 21st century church. Looking at her questions, I admit that my congregations are falling short - most of our singles are elderly widows and widowers, and we don't have many younger singles and families (and we still won't have many unless we become more hospitable). I am trying to place a priority on broadening our programming for children, teens, and young families. The Ingleside church building is full of young parents and children when we have special family events at Christmas and Easter.

Carol asks, 'If a young couple is living together (this is often a financial necessity), do our churches welcome them?' This reminds me of a conversation we had at one of the local ministerial meetings, which brings together clergy from various denominations. We were discussing preparation for marriage, and one of the evangelical pastors stated that when he finds out that a couple is living together, he tells them that they must live separately until their wedding or he will refuse to marry them. I responded that if I didn't marry people who are living together, we would have no weddings at all. When I look at our marriage registers, the bride and groom's addresses are the same in nearly every case. And if some Christians see living together as a sin, wouldn't they want the wedding to go ahead so this state of wrongdoing can cease?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Biblical Outlaws: Sermon, July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-19a

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Our reading this morning is from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Long story short, twin brothers Jacob and Esau have a big falling out, and Jacob runs away, and he sleeps with a stone under his head, which sounds very uncomfortable. And Jacob dreams that he sees a ladder, or stairway, or ramp, reaching to heaven, and angels going up and down on it.

We ‘re going to sing the old spiritual “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” later. I’ve sung it before in ministry, and the older folks tend to get nostalgic for their days at camp. My generation would get nostalgic thinking of another song, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, which was always the last song at dances in high school.

There’s lots to think and talk about in this story, but one thing that stands out for me is that Jacob is on the run. His brother wants to kill him. The story takes place when there isn’t really any government or legal system, just families enforcing their own codes of honour, but Jacob is an outlaw.

Now, we have kind of a conflicted relationship with outlaws. When my mother was growing up in Aylmer, Quebec, the entertainment for teenagers was going to the movies, and for a dime or whatever it was 70 years ago you got a newsreel, a cartoon, a Western, and the movie. My mother saw all the Westerns. And in that era of Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, the outlaws were the bad guys. They wore the black hats, so you could tell who they were. The white hat guys might be falsely accused and be outlaws for a while, but they always came back to the side of law and order.

But by the time I was a kid the movies had changed. I just bought a set of spaghetti westerns on DVD, on sale for $5, Westerns that were made in the 1960s and 70s. And in this era, Clint Eastwood and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, the movies were about the outlaws.

After all, the outlaws tend to be the most interesting characters, and not just in Westerns. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are about the pirates, not about the Navy enforcing the law. We love these colourful eighteenth-century pirates, but not the 21st century ones who are capturing ships off Somalia.

I just watched a movie about Jesse James and his gang, called American Outlaws, and the viewer is intended to root for the James boys against the army and the railroad. The movie glosses over unpleasant aspects like their support for slavery in the Civil War. If you watched The Brady Bunch, you may remember the episode where the parents are very concerned that Bobby has written a school essay about his hero, and he has chosen Jesse James. So they let him stay up late and watch a movie about Jesse James, hoping that he will see his hero robbing banks and murdering people and get turned off. But the movie is edited so that Bobby sees none of this. Our outlaw stories can be like that too. We like the bad boys and the bad girls, at least in fiction, but they’re romantic and thrilling only if they’re not too bad.

Jesse James is certainly far from a perfect character, but at least a part of us still roots for him, especially when he’s played by Colin Farrell or Brad Pitt. In this story we root for Jacob, the outlaw. And he is far from perfect, too. He may not murder anyone – although later his sons kill everyone in a city - but Jacob is on the run in the first place because he fooled his father into giving him the blessing that was the right of his brother Esau. He’s a tricky guy, and his mother eggs him on.

Yet even though Jacob is a trickster and lies to his father, even though he’s an outlaw on the run, God speaks to him in this dream of the stairway to heaven, and makes a promise to protect him. And later Jacob gets a new name – Israel. And in turn the new nation of God’s people is named Israel after Jacob, for the tribes of Israel are descended from Jacob’s children. God is known in the Bible as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Pretty good for an outlaw.

Look at the characters of the Bible. There are more than a couple of bad boys and girls in there. Moses killed a man in Egypt and was an outlaw in the desert. Rahab was a prostitute who helps the Israelites. David was an outlaw fleeing the king. Elijah fled another king and hid out. Jesus himself, although he never did anything wrong, had to escape from angry rulers and live on the run, saying 'foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' He was put to death as a criminal. And he predicted that his followers would be dragged before rulers and courts, and they were frequently on the run too, run out of town.

I think the point here for us is what Jacob says when he wakes up from his dream, and looks around at the desolate, rocky place where he had been sleeping in his escape. He remembers how in the dream God has promised to stick by him, and he says, “Surely God is here in this place, and I didn’t know it.” God is in this place, even among outlaws. God knows that none of us is perfect. God promises to stick with us no matter what, even in our wanderings, even when we are outside the acceptable boundaries of society.

And God’s people aren’t necessarily respectable, well behaved people. The Bible tells us over and over that to follow God, as God is shown to us in Jesus, means that we have to do what Jesus did and break the rules of society from time to time. Proclaiming the good news of Jesus in our lives results in us offending comfortable people. We have to love people whom society doesn’t want us to love. We have to work for love and justice and peace at times when society prefers fear and injustice and violence. God’s people in every time and place have found that there are times when the law violates God’s justice and our faith requires us to disobey the law. And so Christians in the southern United States in the 1960s broke the laws that discriminated against black people. They were outlaws. That American Outlaws movie said sometimes the wrong side of the law is the right place to be, and that's true.

It’s not something we do lightly, it’s not something we do without a lot of prayer and questioning, but sometimes we must be outlaws too, whether pushing against the boundaries of society or going beyond them and breaking an unjust law. We won’t all agree on when God is calling us to be an outlaw. There are consequences for disobeying the law. And that’s scary.

But God is in this place and all places, even if we don’t know it. And we have God’s Spirit for guidance and strength, and we have Jesus, who knew what it was like to live on the run, and is different in one crucial way from all the outlaws of movies and books – he would rather die for us all than draw a gun on any one of us. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fasting for Change

This will be one of our activities this fall in the Ingleside and Newington United Churches. Fast for Change is an initiative of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, supported by 15 churches and church agencies, to respond in a Christian way to global hunger. We are invited to fast and pray, fast and give, and fast and advocate.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Thinking About Methodists

Our denomination, The United Church of Canada, was formed through a merger of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in Canada in 1925 (the Evangelical United Brethren came in later). We live near the living history museum at Upper Canada Village; many of the houses in the Village, moved there to escape the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway, were known to people in my congregations in their original locations.

Providence Chapel in the Village is meant to recreate the rough log Methodist chapels of the 19th century. I wonder about the faith and courage of those Methodist circuit riders, traveling through all weather conditions to lead worship in these simple buildings. And their simplicity reminds me that we don't need PowerPoint, photocopiers, and Twitter to worship.