Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We Are the Moon and Stars

Moon and Stars
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Pastor Jonas got his bachelor's degree in English before earning his Master's of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. I appreciate having a literate pastor. It's easier for me to understand something if it's presented to me as a story. My eyes would start to glaze over and my mind would wander if I read a nonfiction book with lots of facts and statistics about illegal immigration in the United States. But I flew through Barbara Kingsolver's beautiful, compassionate fiction book, The Bean Trees. It's the same subject as the nonfiction, fact-based book, but it's told from the perspective of characters with stories to tell.

I get excited when Pastor Jonas slips a literary reference into one of his sermons. I'm nerdy that way. The time he mentioned Allen Ginsberg's amazing poem, "Howl" I nearly howled myself, sitting there in the pew, surrounded by lots of people who are, albeit sweet and kind and generous souls, the type of believers who sit quietly in their Lands' End cardigans and don't call out things like, "Praise Jesus," or engage in much howling. When the choir finishes singing, my knee-jerk reaction is to start clapping loudly, maybe even shouting out, "Woo hoo!" Nope. Not with these low-key Presbyterians. The most you'll get out of them is an occasional hand in the air, rattling a church bulletin.

Except at the early service. Those people are wild and AWAKE and full of the spirit. Beautiful singing. But a little too much energy for me at 8:50 in the morning. I'm generally pretty subdued throughout the day. In the morning I'm nearly comatose. I've attended a couple of the early services when Katie was singing with her kids' choir, but generally it's all I can do to get there by 10:00 for Sunday School, strolling in with wet hair and coffee breath.

A couple of years before I decided to join Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, my daughter Katie and I were invited to an all-black church called Bethel International Center for Worship. I never asked anyone, or found any literature about the denomination of the church, but from what I could tell by the handful of times Katie and I attended a service, the congregation believes in hugging, singing, praising Jesus, dancing, shouting out "Amen", and smiling like they're having the time of their lives.

I sat there in my Lands' End cardigan, smiling, bobbing my head to the beat of the music. I tried my best, but come on! Shrinks have diagnosed me with Major Depression. There's only so much jubilation I can take before my nerves begin to frazzle. When I get like that, when I feel like I'm going to throw up from the mixture of excitement and confusion, I have to isolate myself and recharge my battery.

The Presbyterians get me. They understand my need for calm, my need for subtle, my need for rest and reflection. I admire people who have the energy to dance and sing through a one-and-a-half hour service, but it's too much for me. I love you, Jesus, despite my sedentary ways.

I didn't feel like howling at Pastor Jonas' sermon last Sunday, even though he threw in a major literary reference. I was too focused on the story. The incredible way he weaves The Parable of the Wedding Banquet from the Bible, a scene from Dante's Divine Comedy, a quote from the Dalai Lama, an illustration about the ebola epidemic, and facts about the recent lunar eclipse into a story of how we can use our precious energy, psychic energy...to serve our higher calling."

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It started with a church member reading aloud in front of the congregation. She read this story:

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Then, Pastor Jonas lead us in prayer and began his sermon. You can watch it here:

Here are some highlights:

"Something beautiful, extraordinary, came to the sky early on Wednesday morning. Beginning at 4:14AM in Kansas City, the sun, earth, and moon started lining up to create a total eclipse beginning at 5:25AM and lasting until 6:25..."

"...[Jesus is] the one who is bold enough to enlighten and to journey through the darkness. We too, as children of God, we too are cast out into darkness, just like the moon waiting for a moment of eclipse and reflection, reaching new understanding which only light can give. And when the light shines behind us, casts a shadow of darkness, like an eclipse, I think that it can remind us and it exposes our sin..."

"...Jesus spoke more about money and possessions than any other subject. Perhaps because he wanted to warn us about the evils than can accompany our desire for things. Now, desire for things is not in and of itself wrong. Jesus' warning is this: we should not allow our desires to define us. Jesus knows how easily our desires, if unchecked, can fuel our precious energy, psychic energy that is meant to serve our higher calling. The danger is that our intense desire for more and more can zap our best psychic energies. In turn these desires become cravings, and cravings can turn into addiction.

"Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" by El Greco
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"The great Italian writer and poet of the Middle Ages was more than familiar with these human desires and tendencies. And it was as if the light from the sun flashed itself over the darkness of humanity when in the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the author descends into Hell and begins by feeling pity for the people he sees there who are writhing in pain. But his guide, the great poet Virgil, tells him that these suffering ones are getting exactly what they want. Hell is the state in which men and women are barred from receiving what they truly need because they're only focusing on what they desire.

Gustave Doré's illustration of Dante's Inferno
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"The inner enemy remains the same now just as it was in ancient times, and that enemy is fear, self-deception, vanity, wishful thinking, anxiety, violence, and a host of other foes too clever to recognize.

"Now all of this is what's exposed in our lives as the light of the sun passes over us. We see the darkiness--our sin--and it casts a shadow like an eclipse and it draws our attention.

"The kingdom of God is a process, and in the trajectory of our lives, God sends us out just as the innocent man in the parable to sometimes do things a little differently, sometimes unorthodox or off the beaten path, in order that we might reflect the light of Christ more fully and faithfully.

"It's amazing. When we watch the lunar eclipse, the whole process, we notice the moon, which is incredibly small, has the ability to block out the sun. But when it gets out of the way it reflects more of the light. And the moon continues to be a light source. By itself it is impotent. But in relationship with the sun it becomes a source of light and it becomes a source of beauty.

"We are like the moon. Sometimes we get in the way of the sun."

Carl Sagan tells us we are star-stuff.

Pastor Jonas says we are like the moon. I believe they are both right.