Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pulpitations: Jesus, Job, and The Sandman

You don't really get a choice, per se; there is an accepted liturgy called the Revised Common Lectionary that tells you which Bible passages are used for whichever Sunday, and the minister (or in this case, the Lay Worship Team I am on) bases the service on them.

Looking at the scriptures I would need to craft a sermon around, I became discomfitted to a fairly significant degree.  Compared to my previous outing back in 2013 which had involved the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek" etc), the tenth chapter of Mark made for some tough sledding, I tell you:

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”“What did Moses command you?” he replied.They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’[a]‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] and the two will become one flesh.’[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Wow.  So 'anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her', huh? Boy, considering how oblique Jesus can be in his parables, that seems surprisingly cut and/or dried...

The chapter goes on to talk about the very popular and crowd pleasing "Let the children come to me" anecdote, but coming as it does after such stern-sounding pronouncements from Jesus, it almost feels tacked on; a spiritual sorbet to cleanse one's palate:
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
The accompanying text from Job was no party either, describing a man whose resolute faith is tested by God and Satan:
2 On another day the angels[a] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish[b] woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
Even those not inclined to theological pursuits can see this is not, on the surface at least, the most uplifting of material to work with, especially for an amateur.  For a brief moment, I considered the possibility that our two regular ministers, privy to the liturgical schedule, had perhaps cunningly timed their own exits to coincide with the arrival of these readings, but dismissed such a notion out of hand as being logistically untenable.

I simply wasn't comfortable going in front of everyone and telling them that divorcing and remarrying was a ticket to the Hot Place.  First, because I didn't believe that to be the case.  Secondly, who am I to condemn people I know and love, people like my own sister, or our late friend Roger? On the surface, things looked kind of cut and dried, but thankfully, I was not alone in this task, and had two other people on my team to help me wrestle with them, especially the reading from Mark. 

We craft the worship service as a team, divvying up prayers and hymns and the various elements, with the rotating sermonator taking a slightly lighter load. We all agreed that we couldn't chicken out and ignore the passage from Mark, as tempting as that might be, and as unqualified as I felt to preach on it. Linda provided some excellent notes from a bible study, and Val, a former minister, helped we work out an angle to approach the topic of divorce.
We also had to find a non-scriptural reading to accompany the Biblical excerpts; sometimes this is a poem, sometimes a passage from a book.  When we got together to share our suggestions, I gave one that was adequate, but let my colleagues know that the one I liked actually came from a comic book.

Linda's ears pricked right up, since her husband is an avid comic collector. "A comic?" she asked. "Which one?"

"It's from 'The Sandman', by Neil Gaiman," I said, a bit sheepishly.

"Oh, everyone's heard of Neil Gaiman..." Linda asserted.

Val, a lady who retired from active church duties some years prior, just smiled and said, "Well, I'm not familiar with him at all, but let's hear it."

I cleared my throat and read:
“Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life...You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. " 

I can't even describe how gratifying their response was; the moment I finished, both ladies let out a simultaneous "oo" that made me think I might be on the right track after all. They both agreed we should use it, as it brought a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, without diminishing the debilitating effects of both love and its absence. 

In a perfect world, I would have strode into church that Sunday morning with a song in my heart and confidence in my spirit, but having gone to bed about half past three in the morning after another wonderful Geekquinox dinner, I ended up at the lectern a little worse for wear, with a bad case of drymouth and the leftover wheezes from an allergic reaction the night before. Seeing my divorced and remarried sister in the front row was reassuring and daunting in equal measure, and an odd sensation that was, I can assure you. Bound up with the intense trepidation I had regarding the potentially divisive subject matter, well, it made for an intimidating approach to the lectern, and sweaty palms throughout my delivery.

Still, the Lord hates a coward, or at least, so I have heard, so I sidled up and took my best shot at it.

(If you would rather read the sermon than listen (and I flatter myself with the very notion you might be interested in either), they did post the text on the St. Albert United Church web page.)

Overall, it went really well; no one fell asleep that I could see, there were lots of thoughtful nods, a few chuckles in the right places, a tear or two, and, I am reliably informed, a simply massive rolling of the eyes from my wife when I mentioned the Kobayashi Maru from Wrath of Khan.

Gaining confidence and momentum as I neared the end, I finished feeling I had conveyed the message Val and Linda and I had agreed on, but the real test would come afterwards.  Would I be thanked perfunctorily by people on their way home to write angry letters to... well, I don't know who actually. Would those people more steeped in scriptural knowledge than myself simply shake their heads of lament how close I got while still missing the target.  Worst of all, would those in the congregation who I knew had gone through marital breakdowns feel hurt or judged?

Thankfully, all the faces we saw in the receiving line after church were happy ones. Many people thanked Val and Linda and I for the cohesiveness of the service, something we amateurs can find hard to pull off. Some made a point of thanking us for addressing the more difficult of the two readings, as it hadn't always played out that way in their experience. Others thanked us for the research we did, and for taking the time to bring context to a passage that they found trying, or fraught with personal judgement.

Rev. Mervin's wife shook my hand with a wide grin, having heard her fair share of sermons on that text over the years, and saying we had done a great job. Some of my friends in the congregation shook my hand while laughing at the impertinence (maybe even chutzpah) of a comic book being quoted in church, and at my oblique Star Trek reference, and once again it was suggested that perhaps I had missed my calling, probably the highest praise I can think of.

I found myself wondering what Rev. James and Rev. Mervin  would think of it, if they got a chance to listen to it, or what reaction it might have prompted from our late friend Roger, a divorced and remarried minister. In the end, I was satisfied that the spiritual and emotional needs of those who had heard the message had been met, and the family and I soon had to leave church to attend the Pro Coro concert that Fenya and Cantilon were performing at that afternoon.

That evening, a former church board chair called to say he was sorry he had missed me, and wanted to thank me for making him laugh and think that morning, and how he had almost started applauding the way one might after a drum solo when I wrapped up my 'rebuking disciple' monologue in the midst of my sermon.  I told him the truth, that I was lucky have such strong and supportive colleagues in Lay-Led Worship, and that you can accomplish great things when you are on a Dream Team.

"You're on two," he reminded me. "Your family is another great team, and I hope you know how proud they are of you."

"I do," I confessed.

"Well, except for the Kobayashi Maru bit," he added. "I thought Audrey's eyes were going to get stuck up in her forehead, she rolled them so hard."

Most meaningful of all though, was an email I got from someone that I had I emailed the text of my sermon to, after they told me they had difficulty hearing it (probably due to the speed of my nervous delivery!).
As a divorced person, I can’t express to you how meaningful I found your interpretation of Mark’s passage to be.My spouse and I separated in [the mid-nineties], after 20 years together. They passed away [a few years ago], and until then I  lived with a sense of failure – and guilt for not being able to make it work.I have also felt embarrassed, and even now prefer to say that I am widowed rather than admit to failing in my marriage relationship. This has been fed somewhat by the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I assure you that I am not a literalist at all, but it still has an impact on how one sees oneself.Your thoughtful and extremely well-designed reflection was very much appreciated.Perhaps you have missed your calling???
I attended a workshop this past weekend and the facilitator said that he did not see himself as the originator of his stories, but rather as a conduit for them, and this email made me realize the truth of his words. There is nothing I could have come up with on my own that could have affected this person as much as the sermon I was able to wrangle out (with able assistance from my teammates!) from a thorny patch of the New Testament, despite how onerous I found the task to be at the onset.

I am grateful for the opportunity, and also for the great instruction Rev. James gave us when we started the Lay-Led Ministry program.

How humbling to be able to impact people in such a fashion! 

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