Monday, April 29, 2013

Sticks and Stones

15 minute sermon for preaching class:

It doesn't take a lot for someone to hurt you. One of my earliest memories is of riding in a car with my mom; I couldn't have been more than six or seven. As we rounded the corner of our block, there were these two girls standing there, maybe a few years older than me. They looked at us through the window, then pulled at the corners of their eyes, the way kids do when they're pretending to be Asian, and they screamed, "Chinese!" and then burst out laughing. Even at that young age, I knew that what they had done was wrong. I knew it somehow in my gut, even if I didn't understand it in my head.
I had a similar experience a few years ago. I was working for a medical supply company, and I had gotten a patient's wife on the phone. I can't remember exactly how the conversation ended up going where it did, but she ended it by saying, "Okay, gay guy!" and hanging up on me. I was a little shocked, and I yes I wondered if I was sounding especially gay that day, but I had never experienced anyone saying anything like that to me before. I was so stunned, that I actually left my desk and started walking around the office telling everybody about it. But, the interesting thing was after each time I told the story, the person I was talking to would say, "Oh my gosh! Are you okay?" And each time, I would say, "Yeah, I'm fine." I thought it was weird that they all kept asking the same question, because the only reason I was telling people the story was because it was so crazy, and I actually thought, at least at first, that it was a funny and shocking story to tell.
After I had made my way around the office, I was telling one final person, and again, after I was done telling her about it, she said, "Oh my gosh! Are you okay?" Only that time, I wasn't. I walked out of that office so fast, and I sat down in the lobby and I just burst into tears.
Labels. We love labels and we love labeling things, especially people. I'm guilty of it; we're all guilty of it. And, as our passage shows, we have been doing this for a really long time. Circumcised and uncircumcised, Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. It's so easy to lump people into a group, and slap a label on them letting us know that they are different. It's a world of us verses them, a world of tribes, a world of othering, where we turn people into "others." It helps us to feel more secure in our own positions, to know that we belong, as defined by the fact that others do not. And as we can see in this passage, it even happens within the family of God.
When Peter comes back from Caesarea, the other disciples kind of give him the side-eye, because they had heard some things about what he had been getting up to over there. Hanging out with the wrong crowd, sitting down with them for dinner, the uncircumcised! And, the passage makes it very clear at the beginning, that the disciples knew that these "uncircumcised" were believers! These were people who had accepted the word of God! But apparently, that didn't make them acceptable company for one of their own.
Human beings have a tendency to form tribes. If you want to look at it in evolutionary terms, the people that were the most tribalistic were the ones who survived. They looked out for each other, gathered together for protection, made sure that everyone had enough to eat, even if it meant that anyone outside of the tribe wasn't going to make it. The people in the tribes, the successful ones, were the ones who passed down their genes. Every single one of us is in this room here today because our ancestors survived. They were part of the tribe, and we are their legacy. Tribalism is part of our genetic structure, part of who we are, and as much as we try to fight it, as much as we try to tell ourselves that it's wrong, it's something that we all do, even if it's only a little. Even if we try and hide it deep down inside.
It almost seems like the whole of human history can be boiled down to us vs. them. We have Christians fighting Muslims, Israelis fighting Palestinians, even Catholics fighting Protestants. Republicans and Democrats. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, this gang fighting against that gang, lines being drawn around geographic and ethnic differences. Male and female, gay and straight, the 1% and the 99. A lot of people really don't like the idea of original sin, but, if there is such a thing, then I think this is it, or at least part of it anyway. We have this deep, ingrained need to turn people into others, just to make absolutely sure that we aren't the ones that don't belong.
I like to tell people that I am from the Chinappines, because my dad is Chinese and my mom is Filipino. It's my own little tribe, and I'm actually kind of proud of it, plus it's fun to say, and I love the look of confusion that people get when I say it. It's a tribe that I wholeheartedly embrace and love.
But, I know what it's like to be pushed out of a tribe. I was raised in the PCUSA, and for thirty years, that was the church that I belonged to, proudly belonged to. But, when it came time for me to start thinking about ordination, it suddenly didn't matter that I had been Presbyterian for thirty years, that I was baptized in a Presbyterian church when I was a baby. All that mattered was that I was gay, and gay people weren't part of the tribe. I wasn't part of the tribe.
Since I was born and raised in Southern California, I didn't have to deal with a lot of this. The two stories I told earlier are the only two "name-calling" incidents that really stick out in my mind besides the silly schoolyard stuff that most kids have to unfortunately deal with. But, what really stands out for me when I think about those two times when it did happen, is the types of words that were used: the first one being "Chinese" and second one "gay." These are technically neutral terms, neither positive nor negative, so it wasn't the words themselves that were cutting. It was the intention behind them that made the words so hurtful.
In the case of the girls calling me Chinese, those girls weren't making an observation about my ethnicity. They were reducing me to a single descriptor, as if that was all that I was, and not only that, but mocking it, because it was so beneath them that mockery was okay. You don't have to use slurs to hurt someone. You just have to let them know that who they are is insignificant, and the simple descriptor of "Chinese" accompanied with some childish laughter is all it takes to do that.
Now, the woman that I was talking to on the phone when I worked for the medical supply company, even though I'm sure she didn't put very much thought into what she was saying, affected me more in three words than all of the hateful speech I had ever heard. "Okay, gay guy." In those three little words, she managed to convey the fact that she thought there was something wrong with being gay, that she didn't agree with what I was trying to tell her about her husband's medical equipment, and that she didn't need to listen to me because I was gay, and therefore, not worthy of consideration or respect. It was probably the most condescending and dismissive thing I had ever heard, will ever hear, in my entire life.
When I try to explain this incident to people, the only way I have to describe what it felt like is that she stabbed me with a psychic knife to the heart. It was so swift and awful and devastating, that it's hard to think about even now. But she felt entitled to use such a horrible weapon because I wasn't part of her tribe, and furthermore, the tribe that I did belong to, in her eyes, was so far beneath her own, that it didn't matter what happened to me. That is the nature of tribalism, of othering. When someone is an other, they are suspect, unacceptable, and dangerous.
Which is why the disciples confront Peter about his activities, when he returns. He was consorting with others, people who were not part of the tribe, and they were worried that Peter was going to be contaminated somehow, that they would be contaminated. So, Peter tells them this story: He tells them that he had a vision of a sheet coming down from the heavens, and upon that sheet was every kind of unclean animal, and a voice from above told him to kill and eat. He protests, saying that nothing unclean has ever passed his lips, but the voice says that what God has made clean, he must not call profane.
And after that, three men from Caesarea came and brought him to a man's house, who told him that he had seen an angel who said him that Simon Peter had a message for him by which his entire household would be saved. And as Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit descended upon this man's household, just as the Holy Spirit had done with the disciples.
The Holy Spirit has descended upon each of us in equal measure so that no one can claim that anyone is not a part of the tribe. No matter who we are, or where come from, or how much money we have, or how we vote, or even what faith we profess, God loves us. We belong to the human tribe, and God's grace is big enough for all. Come, be part of the tribe. Open your arms and welcome everyone that you see. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Double Rainbow

There's a phenomenon in nature known as the double rainbow. Regular rainbows happen when water in the atmosphere, usually rain, reflects sunlight back to the viewer. That's why you always have to look away from the sun to see a rainbow, because the light is actually bouncing off of the water, and then back to you. The color of light that you see from each raindrop depends on where the raindrop is in relation to you and the sun, so you'll see red from some raindrops, and blue from others, and so on. And when you see the light bouncing back at you from all of those millions of raindrops, it forms a rainbow.
When the conditions are right, you will sometimes see a second rainbow over the first one. It won't be as bright, and the colors will be reversed, but if you're ever lucky enough to see one, it's an amazing sight. This secondary rainbow is formed when light is reflected twice inside of the raindrop. You need a lot of sunlight and lots of water in the air for this to happen, so it's pretty rare.
A couple of years ago, there was a video on the Internet that everyone was talking about that featured a double rainbow. Now, the reason that everyone was talking about it wasn't because of the double rainbow. Though double rainbows are rare and beautiful, the fact that this man had captured one on film wasn't what everyone was all excited about. No, the reason this video had gotten so much attention was because of the reaction that this man had to seeing the double rainbow. As the camera pans across the sky, you can hear him reacting to it. He is ecstatic, he's laughing and crying, and he keeps asking, "What does it mean? What does it mean?" You can hear him sobbing. I mean, he really kind of goes over the top. The first time I tried to watch it, I couldn't even finish the video because I was having too much secondhand embarrassment. I just thought this guy was making a fool of himself.
Which is kind of what I thought Peter was doing when I first read today's lectionary. Jesus appears to the disciples on the shore, and Peter is out on a boat with some of the other disciples, trying to catch some fish. One of the disciples on the boat says, "Hey, that's Jesus!" And, without any hesitation at all, Peter, puts on some clothes, because I guess they sometimes fished naked back then, jumps in the water, and swims to the shore, while the other disciples, much more calm about the situation, bring the boat. Was Peter wrong to do this? I'm going to say no. But, did he have to do this? Did he have to kind of go crazy, throw on some clothes and jump into the water in his excitement over Jesus showing up? I'm going to say no to that, too. I don't think Jesus needed him to be quite that enthusiastic, or expected him to put on quite a show when he appeared, but I'm willing to bet that it brought a smile to Jesus' face.
I have to admit that when I first started looking at this text, I had a hard time with it. This image of Peter, hearing that Jesus was there, and then getting all excited about it, throwing on some clothes and jumping in the water; bless his heart, the poor guy literally didn't know what to do with himself. Swimming to the shore while the others brought the boat in, I mean the guy literally went overboard. It's too much! Some people think that maybe he decided to put the clothes on because he didn't want to greet Jesus naked, you know, as a sign of respect, or maybe it was a special type of clothing that would help keep him dry, although if I had to guess, I'd say that clothing technology probably wasn't quite that advanced back then.
I actually kind of like this image of Peter, just kind of flipping his lid, running around like a chicken with its head cut off, saying, "Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness! Jesus is here! What do I do? What do I do? Uh, throw on some clothes and jump in the water!" I mean, this is Peter we're talking about! "Fly by the seat of his pants" Peter, "cut off some guy's ear with a sword" Peter. This is Peter's M.O. The "acting before thinking" Peter, the "guy who screws things up, but still somehow manages to wind up being the rock that the church is built on" Peter, and I think this is why so many people just find him so endearing. He's not perfect. He's expressive! He's exuberant! He loves Jesus, and he's not afraid to show it! Except for that one time…with denying Jesus three times and the rooster crowing…
But, we get it, right? We know Peter! We know that person who gets too excited about things, overly enthusiastic about things, that person that's the life of the party. We love that person! And sometimes, a lot of us wish we could be that person.
Like I said, when I was first looking at this text, I had a hard time with it. Usually, the first thing I do when working on a sermon is try to think of a personal story that I can relate to the text. That's my M.O. I like using the stories from my life as illustrations because I can be the most authentic when I'm telling one of my own stories as opposed to when I'm telling someone else's. But this time, I just couldn't think of one. As I sat there at a loss, trying to figure out what to do, I suddenly realized that the reason I couldn't think of a story was because I am basically the complete opposite of Peter! I couldn't think of a story because I don't have an equivalent "throw on some clothes and jump in the water" moment in my life. So far, I've just been too reserved, too cautious, too worried about what people might be thinking of me.
For example, I really like praise music, and a lot of times, when people are singing praise music, they'll lift their hands into the air. Even when I am in a setting where everyone is raising their hands to God in response to some really awesome praise music, I'll only raise up one hand, and I'll only raise it about halfway. I'm too self-conscious, too worried about what I look like. Even when I'm in a situation where it's totally okay, and I know, rationally, that no one is going to look at me weird, I still can't do it! And now that I think about it, it makes me sad. I want to get excited for God! I want to know what it feels like to just let go and not care if I'm making a fool of myself! I don’t even know where this hang-up comes from, but it is so deeply ingrained in my character that I don’t know if I'll ever be able to shake it, and I'm guessing that some of you might be able to sympathize with me.
The first time I saw that double rainbow video, I was a little judgmental. I mean, I had been primed for it; the only reason the video was making the rounds was because everyone was making fun of it. People couldn't understand why this guy was making such a big deal out of seeing a double rainbow! I mean, it was just a matter of physics, right? Light coming into contact with water and bouncing off of it, no big deal. People were ridiculing him; video responses kept popping up making fun of the things that he said and the way that he said them. I actually felt bad for him, and like I said, embarrassed because of his grand display of emotion that he was making and all of the horrible things that people were saying. I mean, what possible reason was there for this guy to be gushing over the Internet like that, laughing and crying and carrying on, trying to find some deeper meaning to this perfectly natural display of rain and sunlight.
Only, it turns out there was a reason. I didn't know it at the time, but right before he saw the double rainbow, he had just finished writing an email to a friend saying how he felt like he was Noah, because he was trying to live off the grid and how he was growing his own organic food. He was feeling separated from the rest of humanity, and he thought that maybe that was what Noah might have felt after the flood, after the waters had subsided and he had to start making a new life for himself without all of the social structures that he had lived with all of his life. This double rainbow guy had been seeing a lot of rainbows, and he had been wondering if it was some kind of sign from God. And after he sent his email, all of a sudden, his room was filled with color and light, and he went outside, and there was this amazing double rainbow, right outside his front door! He said it looked like God's eye, because only God could have an eye that big. He was having a God moment, an experience with the divine, and unless you've been there, unless you've felt the presence of God for yourself, then there is no way to understand it. There are literally no words. All you can do is laugh and cry and humble yourself before the presence of God and look in awe and wonder at the glory of the Spirit.
Peter wasn't afraid to love Jesus, to love God and love God extravagantly. I want to get excited for God, like that! I've had too many God moments in my life to not have a "Peter jumping in the water" experience. How can I, as a Christian for basically my entire life, not have a moment like that? I want that! I want to get so excited that I can't even handle it and do something so crazy that people have to write it down and still be talking about it 2,000 years later! We should all dream like that. There's a reason Jesus said that Peter was going to be the foundation of the church. He wasn't afraid to love God!
I watched that double rainbow video again, so that I could prepare for this sermon. And, I have to say that I didn't feel like it was embarrassing this time. Maybe it's the three years of seminary that I had between viewings, or maybe it's because I've been working with this image of Peter jumping into the sea with his clothes on, but when I watch that video now, I feel inspired. I hear the voice of a man who isn't afraid to tell the world that he loves God. I want to be like that. I hope that we all have the chance to be like that, to fill the world with goodness and love, hope and joy, tears and laughter. May we all get the chance to be that excited over God. And, may our lives be filled with rainbows. Amen.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hope Is Not a Plan

12 minute sermon for preaching class:

The disciples were afraid. Their leader, their teacher, the man who had taken care of them and loved them and showed them the way of God, was dead. Jesus was dead. And, for all they knew, they were going to be next. And, so they barricaded themselves into a room and locked the door.
Can you imagine what it must have been like in there? That paranoid feeling, jumping at sounds? How were they supposed to move forward from this? I imagine they spoke in hushed voices about the different possibilities that lay before them, fear piling upon fear, their worries feeding upon each other until eventually one of them was gonna snap. It wasn't good.
Michelle Walker always used to say, "Hope is not a plan!" I think most of you knew her.
Well, as far as we know, the disciples didn't even have hope. We don't know if they really had a plan beyond locking themselves up in that room. They were afraid, and their situation was looking a little grim.
But suddenly, suddenly, Jesus was there! And, they were so happy to see him! He showed them is hands, and he showed them his side, and he said, "Peace be with you." "Peace be with you."
I was doing a Lectio Divina with my youth group last week on this text, and that was the phrase that stood out for me. "Peace be with you." I kept seeing this image in my mind of Jesus looking at the disciples, with his hands held out in this kind of claming manner as he said it. "Peace be with you." "Peace be with you." My understanding of this image was that I was worrying too much. I needed to put my faith in God, and allow God to do what God was going to do. And when I realized that, this feeling of peace just welled up inside of me. I was able to let go.
And, I really needed that peace. Jesus, holding his hands out like that, that was the exact image that I needed to see. Because, as graduation draws near and I keep thinking about all of the things that I need to do, it just freaks me out! I think about it, and I honestly don't know how I'm supposed to do it all, and I get stressed, and my blood pressure goes up, and in all seriousness, I really think that all of this worrying might, at least in a small part, be why I ended up in the emergency room three weeks ago. My blood pressure had gotten so high that I had to be hospitalized, pumped full of drugs to bring my blood pressure down to a safe level. They ran all kinds of tests, it was nuts. I don't want to go through again.
Which is why I need what this text is telling me so badly. That Jesus is with us in the midst of our trouble, and our worries, and our anxieties. Jesus is with us, his arms open and welcoming, and he is saying, "Peace be with you." Right now, I need that peace almost as much as I need air.
Most of you know that I am currently trying to finish a 34-foot tile mosaic mural in Holy Grounds before I graduate, as part of my Spirituality Concentration. It's mostly done; I'd say maybe a good 70-80%. But, that leaves, at the very least, 20% of the mural to go, which I calculated out to be about 200 hours worth of work. Now, I have a history of over-extending myself and of procrastination, but this situation that I've gotten myself into might actually be the winner. So, of course, I've been worrying about this, and add to that the classes I have to take and church things and ordination, and it's no wonder I have to worry about my blood pressure.
But, an interesting thing happened last week. I mentioned earlier about the Lectio and this image of Jesus, standing there holding his hands out, but the next day, the day after the Lectio, I was sitting in Holy Grounds, not working on the mural 'cuz I was still getting over this cold and I just didn't feel very well, when this horde of people just descended upon me, insisting that we have a mural work party. None of these people had ever helped me with the mural before, and I had no idea that they were coming. We blasted some music, broke some plates, and stayed up late into the night, some of us not leaving until past three in the morning, and all together, we must have put in at least 20 work hours into that thing. It was amazing! It was beautiful, and it reminded me of why I love being here so much. The kicker though, what made me really realize that this was not just some coincidence, but really a God moment, was the fact that one of the people who came to help was a prospective student. I had only met her earlier that day, shaking her hand after chapel, and I honestly thought that I was never going to see her, ever again. But, there she was, pretty much a complete stranger, smashing plates with a hammer and gluing the pieces onto the wall. I didn't have a plan for how I was gonna finish the mural, other than last minute, extreme crazy panic, and at this point, I don't even know if that was gonna work. But, God had a plan. God always has a plan.
I think I needed this little reminder about the ways in which God can work in our lives. I had gotten so caught up in thinking that I had to do it all by myself, that I had to figure this out, make a plan, execute it. Little did I know that God was gathering a group of people together to help me, and maybe I should have been asking for help all along. Being part of the church means being part of a community, part of a family. And, we need to be open to the ways in which God is working through us and through community to bring wholeness and healing into our lives.
This isn't to say that we shouldn't make plans. Michelle was right. Hope is not a plan. We can't just walk through life, aimless and wandering. God wants us to do things, to help people. Plans give our lives structure, so that we can actually get things done. But, sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where a plan just isn't going to cut it. And, we have to have faith that God is going to help us. Because the choice is either to keep trying, to work through it, trusting that God will see us through, or to fall into despair and hopelessness, where we can't really help anybody. Where we can't even help ourselves.
But, I also want to add that planning does not mean a rigid adherence to a set path. No matter how carefully we plan, no matter how many contingencies we have, life will find a way to mess things up. Life is complicated, and we have to allow for course correction. And, we need to have the humility to understand that our plans won't always be God's plans, and that to stand in the way of God's plan is the way of folly and futility.
As for the disciples, we know a bit about happened to them. Their lives weren't easy. They were ridiculed for their belief, persecuted and killed. But, they lived their lives doing God's work. And they were filled with joy and love, knowing that their purpose was God's purpose. And, while I'm not going to say that I'm an advocate for martyrdom, I will say that I am an advocate for living into God's will. Hope is not a plan. But, hope should be a part of every plan that you make. And, my hope is, that in whatever plans you make for the future, you will take a moment to look and listen for God. Because, while hope may not be a plan, God's will certainly is, and we can have hope in that. So, make your plans, and try not to worry. And, peace be with you.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Flood

The Flood section of the mural is finally complete! Just two more sections to go!!! XD

The Wages of Love

One of my dad's favorite things to say is, "When it's your time to go, it's your time to go." He says this phrase anytime someone dies, whether we knew them or not, it could be someone on TV, a celebrity, politician, whatever. He also says it whenever the subject of death comes up. So despite the fact that even though to this day, my siblings and I have had very little experience with the people in our lives dying, we all grew up with morbid personalities. We think about death, a lot!
I remember these conversations that I used to have with my sister. We would talk about how if our parents ever had to fly anywhere, we would have to make sure that they flew on two different planes, just in case one of the planes went down. That way, we'd only lose one of them. I mean, we'd kind of say it in joking a way, because we never actually thought our parents would die in a plane crash, but jokes almost always have a kernel of truth. Death is part of the world. It has a way of creeping in, and reminding us that it is there.
Which may be appropriate, given today's text. We're coming up on Good Friday and Easter, so our text today is setting the stage. Jesus has just been whipped, tortured, and despite the fact that he's innocent and has already been punished for his alleged crimes, the crowd continues to demand his execution, and so Pilate decides he has no choice, and sends the soldiers away with Jesus to crucify him.
As they made their way to the hill, a large crowd of people was following, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. Jesus was their teacher. He was kind and wise and took care of them. They loved him. And now, he was gonna die. But, Jesus doesn't turn to them to offer words of comfort. Instead, he says this is just beginning. It only gets worse from here. What he says, as written in the gospel is this: "For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' … For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"
Here, Jesus is referring to himself as the "green wood," as a living tree that is healthy and capable of producing fruit. He's not dry, seasoned wood that's dead and ready for the fire. He's the last piece of wood that you would reach for to stoke your hearth, and yet he had been marked for death. How much worse for those of us who are dry, dead, not as perfectly good as Jesus is?
We live in a world where death happens every day. Here in good old the 21st century US of A, a lot of us have actually managed to push that fact out of our minds. We have Microsoft and Apple, The Food Network (don't get me wrong, I LOVE The Food Network!), Jersey Shore,  all glittering lights and glossy photo spreads telling us that if we just have this, we'll be happy, if we could just look like this, we will be fulfilled, and we believe it! Because, if we can just focus enough on something else, then we won't have to think about the real problems in this world. These are the false promises that tell us that the only consequences of our actions are our own happiness or sadness. The false promises that tell us that we don't have to think about how our actions and our greed have warped the planet into something that God never intended it to be.
Romans 6:23a "For the wages of sin is death." This isn't because God has decreed it arbitrarily, or because God is vindictive, but because it's the nature of sin. We see it every day: pride, greed, envy, sloth, sin is killing us! And we, in our sin, are killing each other. "For the days are surely coming when they will say, "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.'" How bad would things have to be for mothers to wish that their children had never been born? We can ask the mothers of the Native Peoples who were here when the Europeans first colonized this land, and disease and war obliterated their numbers and destroyed their way of life. We can ask mothers had to watch their children being born into slavery, into a life where they would be treated as less than human. We can ask the mothers who experienced the holocaust and had to watch their people being rounded up like animals, starved to death and slaughtered by the millions. We can ask the mothers of wartime and genocide, things that should not be, but are still happening today. We can ask the mothers of famine and plague, injustice, and inequality. The world is filled with sin, and the wages of sin is death.
But, there is good news! God is stronger than sin. Jesus came down to dwell among us, to become one of us so that he could divert those wages onto himself. He saw us standing on the train tracks and he shoved us out of the way before the train could hit, but the only way to save us was to be hit himself, because that train was gonna hit something. Jesus died an unjust death, so that we wouldn't have to die a just one. Jesus died so that when he was lifted up, when he was brought back to life, we would be brought back with him. God is a God of love, and Jesus has thrown in his lot with ours, because the wages of love is life.
We no longer have to fear death, because in Christ Jesus, we have love, and we have life. And, with the Holy Spirit inside of us, we are empowered drop the false promises of this world, to take action, to be the people of God and be a force for good. We don't need to listen to the lies anymore, because Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Praise God, and Amen.

Baking for Ghosts pgs 6 & 7

It only took about 3 or 4 months, but I finally finished pages 6 & 7 of Baking for Ghosts!