Sunday, October 15, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Redeeming Our Broken Selves"

James 3:4-12

 Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. 5 In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. 6 The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

7 People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8 No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! 11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either. (Common English Bible)



“Reconnecting with a Loving God: Healing Spiritual Wounds,” Week Five

I still remember that worship service like it happened fourteen days ago rather than fourteen years ago. I was in Atlanta, Georgia, for our denomination’s International Christian Youth Fellowship, the quadrennial general assembly (of sorts) for Disciples of Christ youth in the United States and Canada, with several other teenagers from my home congregation’s youth group.

In what I believe was the first worship service of the conference, a pastor got up onto the stage to perform an altar call—and it was unlike any other altar call I had ever seen to date. In my childhood congregation, an altar call was used to invite forward people who wanted to formally join the church, and in fact I participated in one when my family joined that church when I was six years old.

This was different. This was an almost violent altar call. The hellfire and the brimstone came out. We were promised exclusion from God’s grace. We were told that this was an imperative for our very souls. And all I could think of were people like my own dad, back home in Kansas, who was and is one of the very best people I know, even if he is what I call a CEO (a Christmas and Easter Only) churchgoer.

A number of my friends from my youth group were huddled together, hugging and crying, very clearly moved by this altar call. They beckoned me to join them. I tried to. I wanted to.

In the end, though, I wound up walking out.

I share this story with you because it is exactly the formative memories like these that can shape a person’s relationship with God for good or for bad, and it has a lot to do, I think, with why my generation has largely chosen to eschew a God who compartmentalized them in church and told them that they were not good enough for God or for Christ. It is a lesson that we carry with us still.

This is a sermon series for the autumn season of our church calendar that takes us all the way to Advent. Earlier this year, my friend and role model, the pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt, released her latest book, entitled Healing Spiritual Wounds. She wrote it from a place of vulnerability that I rarely see from any writer—Christian or otherwise—in print, and she did so, I think, in order to give her readers permission to be vulnerable to the singular reality that sometimes, church hurts.

If that sounds like a depressing premise upon which to base a book, much less a sermon series, it ought not be. As Jesus says in John 8, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. The truth is that the church can do a better job caring for, and ministering to, each other and the vulnerable, yet so often, we choose not to. Acknowledging that fact ought to be liberating to us because it means that a) we do not have to pretend otherwise, and b) we can actually get down to the sacred work of doing church better than we have before. Which is what we should have been doing from the off—always working on being better and doing church together.

We began this series with a passage from Carol’s first chapter, “A Tree Grows in My Bedroom,” and then we heard passages from the following chapters: “Finding Shalom,” “Healing Our Image of God,” and “Recovering Our Emotions.” Today, we arrive at the fifth chapter of her book, “Redeeming Our Broken selves,” in which she writes in part:

As the decades went on, I worked with more people…who felt cut off from God and unworthy of love…The denigrating images our religious traditions can inflict on people can move us to imagine ourselves as lowly creatures, undeserving of God’s love. Small children sit in pews, with combed hair and swinging legs that cannot touch the ground, and are suddenly told that their little bodies will burn in hell for eternity. Much of this belief system was designed to highlight the grace of God, but it is unnecessary to make a creature look bad in order for a Creator to look better.

People who have been wounded by religion have often been given messages that they replay in their minds constantly. They instantly recall a hurtful sermon that they heard when they were small children thirty years after the fact.

In a scriptural context, we can think of these messages as a blessing or a curse. There was a sense in ancient cultures that our words had power, and a blessing or a curse seemed to be weighted with a bit of magic. We have lost that mythical understanding, but the power of the blessing and the curse still remain.

Even without that mythical understanding of words that Carol speaks of here, the admonition of James 3 to tame the tongue is just as applicable to us today as it was nearly two thousand years ago when this letter bearing the name of the younger brother of Jesus was penned.

The taming of the tongue is typically associated with an eschewing of swearing, which to be completely honest, I’m awful at. I really am. You don’t hear it from me here because I believe in edifying my speech before you in God’s house, but I am by no means above it in other contexts. For instance, when the men’s national team proceeded to disqualify themselves from the World Cup this past week.

But even more than swearing, James is speaking of cursing, and that has an additional meaning that swearing simply does not. We may use those words interchangeably to describe cussing, but cursing includes the definition of actively wishing evil or calamity upon a person.

And by that definition, telling someone that they are going to hell if they do not repent and believe in whatever doctrinally specific version of Christianity you are shouting at them is, well, cursing them. Because you can claim you do not enjoy it all you want, but if that is what you take meaning from, and claim is a calling, then you wish it to be real. Which means you are wishing a reality of hell upon another human being. Claiming that you are not is a version of talking out of both sides of your mouth that James likewise is condemning here.

If it seems at all strange to consider preaching as a form of cursing, remember what it is that we are up against: the image—popularized by the sensationalism of the news stories themselves—of preachers and Christians spouting forth all manner of hate, rage, and bile towards anybody: LGBTQ people. Women. Muslims. Jews. Left-handed Jeopardy aficionados with hyphenated last names who were born during a gibbous moon.

Our threats of hell are a cudgel that go hand-in-hand with that sort of demonization of others based purely upon the identities we are born into. One tends to follow the other. And eventually, when you reach the point of “everyone outside this particular church/tradition/denomination” is subjected to such threats of hell, then the message of your Christianity that you are broadcasting to the world has stopped being a blessing.

Healing from spiritual wounds necessarily involves acknowledging that spiritual wounds are being inflicted in the first place. It is inherent in the process. You cannot heal from that which is not acknowledged to even exist.

That is partly why cultures of secrecy tend to dominate around sin—if you do not acknowledge it, if you continue to lie to yourself, to the world, and to God about it—then you do not have to confront it.

That is how the church often operates and has operated—look no further than the Roman Catholic priest scandals across countries and across decades, or the many megachurch and televangelist scandals that have rocked American Protestantism time and again.

But that was not how Jesus operated—He did not heal a single leper by pretending that leprosy did not exist—and it cannot be how the church operates now. We cannot live in denial or in secrecy over the ways in which we wound others, or over the ways in which we ourselves have in turn been wounded.

Those wounds, if we have learned nothing from, say, the deep layers of despicableness to the Harvey Weinstein story, can be carried for decades after being inflicted upon very young people—including children—before being fully aired, wrestled with, and struggled over in an attempt at catharsis. Time, as it so happens, does not heal *all* wounds. More is required of us to reach that catharsis.

May that catharsis come, individually for you if need be, but collectively for all of us, within and outside of the church, and soon. Truth is needed today as much as ever, for lies and the covering up of all manner of wounds and conceits are similarly curses that we employ with our words.

That sermon I heard as a youth in Atlanta affected me, badly. But it was just that—one sermon. Being told, or shouted, that your entire childhood…that’s going to leave an impression.

We are still able to choose impression we leave upon those who encounter us and see our faith proclaimed by our choice of words.  And we make that choice every single day when we decide whether to abide by the example of Jesus and, here, his young brother James…or not.

Let us choose wisely, then, in pursuit of the love and truth that Jesus Christ reveals to each of us.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
October 15, 2017

Sunday, October 1, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Recovering Our Emotions"

Galatians 5:16-25

 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. 26 Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. (Common English Bible)



“Reconnecting with a Loving God: Healing Spiritual Wounds,” Week Four

“Tell everyone on this train I love them.”

The dying words of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche continue to be audible in my ears, like the waves-like sound inside a seashell or a tune that has taken up residence in your head.

Namkai-Meche was one of the two men killed on a MAX train in Portland earlier this year by someone who had been harassing a young black woman and a young Muslim woman. Namkai-Meche and Rick Best stepped in to defend them and were stabbed to death. By a man whose last name is Christian no less.

Being a bearded, olive-skinned man whose family came here from a tiny country sandwiched between Turkey and Iran, I wrestled like Jacob with God for a long time afterward with my anger at what had happened in Portland—and in Olathe, Kansas, where my childhood congregation was, and in Kent, and in Salem, and in so many other places where men and women who share nothing in common with me but a perceptibly exotic complexion faced down violence and death.

I read those stories and wanted to react from the pulpit, and in the classes I teach, and on my online platform, with the righteous fury of God’s own wrath. But…as we talked about last week, that seldom makes things all better. Anger is cathartic, but it must lead to something else. And for me, it needed to lead to a reconciling myself to my own emotions, and letting them exist but not dominate.

In turn, then, ideally, the core of me that is love may be free to dominate. Although I can scarcely imagine that my core compares to that of a young man in Portland whose dying words after being murdered for doing what was right—not what was easy—was to say “I love you” to the world.

This is a new sermon series for the autumn season of our church calendar that takes us all the way to Advent. Earlier this year, my friend and role model, the pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt, released her latest book, entitled Healing Spiritual Wounds. She wrote it from a place of vulnerability that I rarely see from any writer—Christian or otherwise—in print, and she did so, I think, in order to give her readers permission to be vulnerable to the singular reality that sometimes, church hurts.

If that sounds like a depressing premise upon which to base a book, much less a sermon series, it ought not be. As Jesus says in John 8, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. The truth is that the church can do a better job caring for, and ministering to, each other and the vulnerable, yet so often, we choose not to. Acknowledging that fact ought to be liberating to us because it means that a) we do not have to pretend otherwise, and b) we can actually get down to the sacred work of doing church better than we have before. Which is what we should have been doing from the off—always working on being better and doing church together.

We began this series three weeks ago with a passage from Carol’s first chapter, “A Tree Grows in My Bedroom,” and then two weeks we heard a passage from the second chapter, “Finding Shalom.” Last week we listened to an excerpt from Carol’s third chapter, “Healing Our Image of God,” and this week, we arrive at her fourth chapter, “Recovering Our Emotions,” in which she writes in part:

Whatever the motivation, the problem with denying the events or inhibiting feelings is that there are two types of emotion. There are core emotions such as anger, sadness, and joy. And there are inhibitory emotions such as guilt, anxiety, and shame. When we experience core emotions, we also experience the release that follows. But the inhibitory emotions block a person from feeling core emotions and thus from feeling the release.

Religion can be an especially powerful inhibiting force, because religious messages so effectively produce guilt and shame. For Bruce, the constant reminder that joy was a fruit of the spirit and good Christians ought to be happy created shame around his depression. For me, the cycle of abuse, disbelief, and admonishment took away my access to a full emotional life. That shard of me had been lost, so I wasn’t able to fully love myself. I needed to reclaim it.

As Christ bearers, we have a suffering God. In order to witness Jesus’s pain, we must be able to whisper the truth of our own torments and bear witness to one another’s agony. I needed to rip off that emotional callus, feel my anger, and allow God to heal me.

The “a fruit of the spirit” phrase from Carol immediately conjures to mind, for me anyways, this passage from Paul in his often cranky letter to the Galatians (or, to “the foolish Galatians,” as Paul refers to them). One of my favorite-ever Bible studies occurred over this exact passage in seminary as we read Paul’s convicting language and, in the pregnant silence that followed, one of my classmates helpfully piped up, “Okay everyone, let’s go around the table and say which sin is your favorite!”

But Paul—drawing not just upon his own violent past as a persecutor of the Way and a murderer of Jesus followers but also upon the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition of Stoicism that demands self-restraint and abstention from excesses—does one more than simply list off a series of “do not’s.” He follows that list up with another list of “do’s,” which he calls the “fruits of the spirit:” Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-Control.

For Paul, to use Carol’s language, these are meant to be core emotions—things like love and joy are meant to come from our core. They are not meant to inhibit us. Quite the contrary, they are meant to liberate us, to set us free from the inhibited states of being of shame and guilt.

What the church does so often, though, is use these core fruits of the spirit as inhibitive fruits of the spirit. We shut down any pursuit of justice in the name of encouraging peace, even as Martin Luther King Jr. warns us that peace without justice is not peace. We tamp down questions or doubts by exhorting only faith, as though faith can be injected into us as easily as a vaccination.

No, what is important about the fruits of the spirit is that they can come naturally to us—some perhaps more than others, or some we may struggle with more than others—but they also require constant care, upkeep, and work in order to more finely hone. It is not enough that we have patience or kindness or goodness, it is what we do with them. If we are so selective with such fruits that our harvest of spiritual fruit is shared only with an arbitrary few, then we are not abiding by the spirit as Paul would have us do.

Trees which bear fruit do not make lists of who is and who is not allowed to take from its branches. A tree is incapable of allowing the saint to pluck an apple from its branches whilst barring the mass murderer from doing so.

Such is grace, if we truly believe that God has made it available for all to choose, to reach out for like the apple upon a branch. From, by, and through that grace, God is capable of healing us and binding up our spiritual wounds.

But, much as fruit takes time to grow, so too does God’s divine work of mending those wounds.

It takes time to mend the wounds caused by hate crimes, murders, assaults. And that process is surely not helped by news that the widow of the Indian man killed in Olathe now faces deportation without her husband’s visa status. There continue to be reminders of just how unimaginably cruel we can be to our people who are hurting and suffering right next to us.

Those reminders angered me—and continue to do so. But instead of pretending not to be angry, or to use inhibitive emotions to suppress a core emotion like anger, the emotions of the spirit ought to enable and empower us to not be afraid of our cores. Our fear of ourselves seldom does any good, and is capable of doing very real harm.

Paul, like many a Stoic, urges all things in moderation. What if one of those things to be kept in moderation is our need to block out our own emotions, and to paper them over instead of being honest with them and about them?

I know it does not always do to have a pastor preach about how angry the world has made him—that tends to carry with it imagery that has loads of negative baggage…and for good reason.

Far worse, though, to deny that I am incapable of anger, or to pretend that I am some sort of porcelain plaything to keep upon its pedestal simply because I am a pastor. On the contrary, part of ministry—for both me and you, as you minister to people in your lives—is knowing exactly what your darker side is capable of.

Because I could have given that sermon about how angry the world has made me. That sermon is definitely inside me somewhere. I need to be honest about that reality.

But again—that should not be so sinister to hear, or so depressing. It ought to be liberating. As long as we live in fear of our core emotions, our id, uncensored and unfiltered though it is, that fear controls us. And, as a great minister named Yoda once said, fear leads eventually to the dark side.

Cut loose from your emotions that which must be loosed. Hold fast to that which must be kept close at heart. And be honest—to God and to yourselves about where your heart is leading you.

Do that, and the church may yet be what we want it to be, and need it to be, anew: a place to say, even as we exit the world that has hurt us, banished us, or even killed us: tell everyone on this train I love them.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
October 1, 2017