26 June 2013

Biennial Reflection

A few days ago I, and the rest of the First Family, returned from the hot and humid confines of Kansas City, KS.  Why were we in Kansas City?  We were attending the American Baptist Biennial, aka Mission Summit.  The name change made me highly suspicious, when Baptist churches change names to things it is kind of like trying to fool a kid into eating green beans by saying they are green energy sticks.  But it has been awhile since my last Biennial and I wanted to be with my peeps, so we sojourned down I-35.

And my impression?  It was the best Biennial I had ever attended.  So good in fact, that it was the first denominational gathering that I attended and NOT felt the need to start my own denomination!  And that is saying something.  (I am exempting the regional Rochester gathering).   I left proud of my American Baptist heritage and membership.

Why such jubilation?  I do not expect the denomination to reflect the image of Christianity that I practice and that is offered here at Judson Memorial Baptist Church, we are a liberal Baptist church, but I do hope to be heard and felt a part of the denomination.  And at this biennial I was heard, felt apart of, and present.  I do not want a denomination that is "pure" a ghetto of just the left (or the right).  I want to be a part of body that holds hands with the left, middle, and right.  And I felt that we all held hands at this gathering.  I felt that folk came with open hands and not closed fists.  We didn't fight, argue, or pout in the corner.  Instead, we focused on issues of ministry through the conversations, presentations, and worship services.

If the future of the denomination looks and feels like the "Mission Summit" then I think American Baptists are primed for a bright future.

09 June 2013

Spiritual & Religious

This morning about 65 people gathered for my first bandshell service.  Why only 65?  Well, it was 55 and rainy for one reason, the wind was blowing, the seats were wet, and it was just plain ugly out.  But the choir, the house band for the day, the time with children folk, and the pastor, yeah sure the pastor too, brought their A game and had at it.  

I wasn't for sure what to expect, it was an odd experience, but overall I liked it. Here is the sermon from the day.  if you use, for your own service, a version of my commercial, hey sermons are oral culture, go ahead, just give me some credit.  

Spiritual & Religious
Worship at Lake Harriet Bandshell—9.June.2013
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

         If we were to play a little free association game and I said Baptist what would come to mind?  Probably not the greatest picture.  Do folk naturally think of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, not yet but hopefully in the future they will.  So for those who don’t know anything about us, let me introduce us by what kind of people might find this place a home for their souls.

         If you’re from Minnesota and laugh at the jokes on Prarie Home Companion then Judson might be the place for you.
         If you’re not from Minnesota and after living here for a while understand the jokes even more from Praririe Home Companion then Judson might be the place for you.
         If you’re an oft centered person looking for an oft centered church then Judson is definitely the place for you.
         If you always looked for a church that is like that line from a John Prine song, the topless lady with something up her sleeve then your with the right people.
         If you think the Religious Right is neither religious nor right then Judson might be the place for you
         If you are a Democrat who hasn’t given up on Jesus, then may be your place
         If you are someone who wakes up in the middle of night with cold sweats after a nightmare that God cant handle your doubts or questions, rest assured, she can, and Judson may be a place to calm your troubling mind
         We are a Welcoming and Affirming Church and cannot wait till all in Minnesota have the freedom to marry on August 1st so if you are a GLBT person and have one ounce of Baptist in your blood, for sure Judson is your place.
         Or if you a GLBT person and your neighbor is a Baptist that’s close enough, call Judson your home.
         If you want to explore and appreaciate the musical subletities from Bach to Bluegrass this is your place.
         If you pine for more Johnny Cash and John Coletrane in yoru life looks up.
         If you would want to laugh on Sunday mornings (which by the way according to Karl Barth is the closest we can get to God’s grace and which G.K. Chesterton said is the only true test of religion, can it handle a joke, can it laugh at itself) then Judson is your place for if it is one thing we do well is laugh.  Or if you are drawn more to the smile of the Dali Lama rather than the scowl of Pat Robertson, then this is your place.
        If you want to be a part of a group of people who will laugh with you till your sides hurt, cry with you till your eyes are dry, who will sit with you in silence and not be freaked out, then this is the group to sojourn with.
        If you want to read the Bible and scruntize all 66 of its book, this is your place
        If you are tired of being told you are going to hell, this is most definitely your place.
        Finally, if you are tired of labels, if you are tired of the lies religious hucksters have sold you, if you simply want to live as a friend of God nothing more, nothing less, then try us out. 

        Trying us out will take, in an honest fashion will take a few weeks.  If after a few weeks you  like what you feel, see, hear and taste then let’s join hearts and hands and walk together.  If you don’t like it no problem because there are wonderful faith communities with talented and loving people I’d glad to recommend.  But let’s say you already have a place your soul calls home, no problem we only ask that every time at your house of worship you secretly wish you were here instead of there.  Furthermore, if you are simply passing through and stopped because your dog had to pee and you vaguely like what you’ve heard know this sometime in the future weeks, months, maybe even years from now something shakes your soul and on Saturday night you have the overwhelming need for to go tot church know that quirky, gracious, and loving folks of Judson will have our doors open and will welcome you. 

         I neither repeat that nor give you a copy of that list, it is too good and I know as soon as I do someone else will adapt it and call it their own.  So I boil it down to its essence.  When folk ask what kind of church is Judson it is both spiritual and religious. 

         The other day on MPR a discussion on retirement commenced and sure enough someone brought up moving to Florida.  As the discussion went on, especially after all of this gray, damp, cold stuff, the sunshine, white sands, & fresh citrus sounds pretty good.  But then the guest made an interesting comment, that more people are moving back to the northeast & Midwest from Florida then are moving to Florida.  The reason?  Not because of sinkholes, hurricanes, tasteless tomatoes and god bless ‘em the Marlins and Devil Rays but because of the benefits of higher taxes: more benefits and care for seniors. 

         Not exactly your everyday beginning sermon illustration but stay with me for a moment.  The fastest growing religious demographic in America is the Nones, people who choose not to affiliate with any religious qualification.  Most believe in God but not totally.  They are more than likely to dabble in the elements of Buddhist thought (think of all the times you recently heard of mindfulness), Judaism (is Madonna still practicing Kabbala?), and Christianity (especially if Jesus has business practice advice).  I have no problem with people drifting from religion to religion, from nibbling from the best of tappas bar of religious truth and practices.  The nones may be new but for years folk have been calling themselves spiritual but not religious. 

         And here is the great temptation to always be spiritual without putting in all of the necessary religious work.  Or in other words: Florida with all of the social service benefits of Minnesota. 

         I feel that part of my vocation as a pastor is to be as honest as possible with people about the religious life.  Yes, it is boring.  There are times when nothing much happens.  I pray and pray and pray, read the bible and works from the ages, I observe holy days, change my diet, fast, feast, mark time diligently with blessings and meaning, and still nothing.  A dry, thirsty soul.  But then a transcendent moment when a meal with friends is somehow the reenactment of the Last Supper, the maple tree in my back yard becomes the oaks of Mamre from Abraham’s journey eons ago, or after a pastoral prayer someone’s face has changed they are Transfigured like Jesus was.  These moments get us over the hump, onto the next day, they enlarge our hearts and make our capacity for reconciliation and mercy greater.  Then there was the one mystical moment when  I felt at one with the Universe, where the space between heaven and earth was membrane thin, when I knew a Love Supreme was fully present.

         Will I have another of those grand experiences?  Probably not.  I cannot control those moments, you cannot control those moment, they come without invitation or warning. But I’m more than satisfied with the transcendent moments that occur.  We can place ourselves in a routine and pattern of prayer, reading, self giving acts, that quicken our souls for those moments.  We can put ourselves in a readying position so that when they come, we are ready.  When we embrace both sides of the equation, when we are both spiritual and religious, we open our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to the working of the Living God in our lives. 

         We can see why folk would want and desire these experiences but not have to do the necessary work to get them.  I coach two baseball teams and every time I bring out the betting tee the kids start moaning, then I tell them Joe Mauer hits off a tee for at least two hours each day in the offseason.  A friend of mine while teaching in Dublin used to live with Christy O’Connor, the famous Irish golfer.  My friend said Christy never had a conversation or watched television without a golf club in his hand always working on his grip.  His greatest advice to all golfers, if you cant play 18 holes, play 9 and if you cant play 9 then get at least 60 swings in when you come home from work.  Always readying and preparing your body. 

         The same with the inner matters of the soul, you have to put in the necessary work to prepare yourself for the outward working of grace, justice, and mercy.  You have to feed yourself if you are going to help heal, transform and reconcile others. 

         And to be the spiritual person you have to a religious person too. 

         Reading the bible and praying are not easy acts.  But neither is eradicating racism, or ending war, or working towards a fair, just and living wage, or transforming from abusing the environment to blessing the earth.  All are spiritual and religious works.  All require ripe and blossoming souls. 

         In our gospel lesson we hear about Jesus healing a man with leprosy, a spiritual act if there ever was one.  And then, and then he retreated for a time of prayer, a religious act if there ever was one.  It’s a nice illustration of the circular relation between being religious and being spiritual.  In our second lesson we heard one of the most mystical and grace filled portions of scripture from none other than one of the most religious human beings in history, The Apostle Paul. 

         More than anything you a community to uphold, support, succor, and love you to a balanced human being, as someone who is both religious and spiritual, as someone who can laugh and cry their way to grace, as someone who can seek justice and sing the psalms, as someone who can offer bread and melt a heart, as someone who both heals and prays. 

         The world has enough religious people who never laugh and enough spiritual people who never think.  What the world needs most are not more of the same but some creative combinations of both, go and be the people this world desperately needs people who live at that intersection where God’s deepest desires for you meet the world’s deepest needs as religious and spiritual people.  Amen and Amen. 

03 June 2013

Why Read the Bible

Yesterday morning I offered my Bible sermon.  It wasnt the first time I had preached the sermon, although this was a reworked, almost brand new sermon.  Every year I change it.  Like next year I'll include the NYTimes Crossword theory.  The great part is that every year new stuff about the Bible comes out, in some ways it rewrites itself.  Hope you like it.  
Judson Sermon 20130602 "The Good Book" from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

The Good Book
text: “I will write them on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33)
Recognition of Graduates and Sunday School Teachers
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

            Two things you can always be sure of: death and taxes.  And I would like to add a third: that Americans will always buy bibles.  We are not content with the Good Book we keep on snatching them up.  I own at least 33, of which at least 8 are of the same version, the NRSV.  You can find bibles in all shapes and sizes: large print, thin line, red letter, green letter, water proof, fire proof, camouflage, denim, duct tape, neon green, leather bound, cloth bound, hard back, paperback, name the language and it has a translation of the bible, name languages that aren’t really real and they too have versions of the bible: a Star Wars phrasing of the Bible (Good News for the Warrior Class), and of course a Klingon translation, the Hippie translation, and the Pigdin translation.  There are bibles written in different formats: the 100 minute bible (developed by an Anglican priest, a flattened version of the bible which can be read in 100 minutes), the screenplay bible (lights, camera, action) and so on and so on. 
We hold the bible in high esteem in almost talismanic quality with magical powers: we ask our presidents and public officials to place their hand on it during the taking of oaths (which ironically the bible says don’t do), towns spend millions of dollars in court fees to publicly display the ten commandments on stones (which too is a bit ironic since the ten commandments forbids graven images), and we give them to others to mark the milestones of life (my kids love their King James Version white New Testaments, it blows my mind.  And even though I have 30+ bibles I covet the one my grandmother gave my sister when she graduated from high school: KJV, blue colored leather with her name engraved on it – do not covet your neighbor’s possessions, another one of those pesky ten commandments).  In April of 1862 in the battle of Shiloh Confederate solider Sam Houston Jr. was fired upon by Union troops but survived because a copy of the bible, a bullet with a bee line for his heart was stopped by the 70th Psalm  which reads:
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.   
O Lord, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and confusion   
who seek my life.

            And the paradox remains: we are awash in bibles yet, as a nation, we routinely flunk bible quizzes.  Name the ten commandments, the four gospels, the five books of Moses or the Torah, provide three of the prophets in the Old Testament, where was Jesus born.  16% of Americans think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. 

Suffice to say the book you have in your lap, in your pew, or on your shelf did not fall from the sky.  It has a thick, troublesome, and beautiful history thousands of years old, separated by cultures, languages, customs, seas, and worldviews. 
Cigarettes, alcohol, chewing tobacco and soft drinks in NYC all have surgeon general warnings on them.  But the bible does not, and if anything needs a warning label it is the bible.  So before offering my five reasons why you should read the Good Book allow me to offer five cautionary words.

1. The Bible is really old, from foreign cultures.  We are separated by vast expanses of time and geography. Nevertheless we can identify with the characters of the Bible quite easily. Therefore, we think we can just pick the book up and automatically viola, complete understanding. The Bible always has been, is, and will always be a communal book meant to be read and understood in community. The world has already experienced enough nut cases claiming a direct revelation from God, let us spare the world another. Read and discuss the Bible together, preferably with a person or two with whom you vehemently disagree with on almost every issue.

2. You will never master the Bible, it is bigger than our thoughts, more expansive than our imaginations and greater than the sum of all our learning. This book was cut and pasted, whittled down and added to, elaborated and edited. Despite all of our advancement and progress there are parts of the Bible that are lost to our understanding. We keep those parts but at the end of the day we throw up our hands and say I do not know, and that is okay. The Bible’s contents have stood the test of time again and again as a wellspring for saints and sinners.

3. The Bible is not perfect. It is in many ways still a work in progress as we evolving human beings are still a work in progress. The portrait of God, as a whole, portrayed in the Bible is not neat and tidy but is messy and unfinished. The Bible is a product where the best and worst of human beings and of God are on display, for all the world to see. Always remember the Bible is a fully human product, soiled with prejudices, biases and troubling thoughts of the authors who penned its words.

4. Finally, the Bible is not the end. The Bible is a helpful guide, the one guide that judges all guides and helps along the way for human beings. But it is not the teleological point for human destiny, God is. The Bible is an ambassador that points to God but it is not God. Do not treat the Bible as an idol to be worshiped, the Bible simply points to the One, The Living God, to be worshiped. Owning a bible, swearing on one, putting in a prominent place will bring no special powers (but keeping one close to your chest may be worth it).  The bible is only useful it is used, if it is read, marked, learned, heard, and inwardly digested. 

And the kicker principles.  Prove me wrong. 
5.  No Christian allows the Bible to teach as the authoritative word of God what is known or believed (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral.  & Every Christian finds what the Bible teaches as the authoritative word of God to be identical or congruent with what is known or believed (for whatever reasons0 to be true and right.  Thanks to Ken Cauthen (one of my theology professor at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, if you want the entire essay it can be found in his book, Towards a New Modernism.   
 So why read this ancient, difficult, heavy, and troublesome book?

1. The Tautology Argument. Read the Bible because the Bible says so! Happy are those (whose)…delight is in the torah of God, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1:1 & 2)

2. The Trust argument. Read the Bible because your parents, grandparents and your ancestors before you read it.  By reading it we are trusting our ancestors and strengthening our bonds of trust.  This book took a thousand years to compile, in the fourth century ce they were still debating what books to include in the canon.  Trust that they weren’t cavalier about what’s in here.    

3. The National Public Radio (NPR) argument. You cannot be an informed American or Global citizen without a basic knowledge of the stories, themes, and contents of the Bible. Read it because it is one of the important links in the chain that is Western culture and society. You cannot properly understand Shakespeare or the Constitution of the United States of America or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech or Prince’s song Controversy or Bob Dylan’s song Highway 61 or the News from Lake Woebegone without a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. 

4.  The Mirror argument.  This book pulls no punches about who we are as human beings: beautiful and ugly, nice and mean, crazed sexual beings and calm celibate folks, war mongers and peace warriors, vegetarians and carnivores, sober and drunk, separated and reconciled.  Like the old commercial line, it’s in there.  There’s nothing new under the sun, our problems are human caused and can be human solved. 

5. Finally, the Travis Norvell argument. Read the Bible because through song and story, history and imagination, and poetry and prose the great book of books tells a very particular story of what it means to be a human being, who God is, and how we are to live in a covenantal relationship with the God who created us, the earth that sustains us, and the people whom we call brothers and sisters.

The Bible stands as a vessel vacillating between humanity and God as an aide in our relationship. The Bible informs (builds up), critiques (tears down) and reconstructs our thoughts, experiences, and dreams about the relationship.

In conclusion, Brothers and Sisters, take this book and read it, treasure its contents, find a translation whose rhythms and cadences speak to you, and you will find the stories, songs, poetry and prose a resting place for your troubled minds and great source of strength and comfort for your homesick souls. These words will knock you off your pedestal by reminding who you are and your place in this world. These words will also pick you up and nestle you close to the bosom of God. View this book as a life long wrestling partner. View this book as living words which allow you to nurse from the breast of God as the Bible nourishes your starving body.

The Bible is not God, but reading it, studying it, chewing it and digesting it sure does put you in a place and peace of mind for God to knock on your door and spend time with you.

Take these words and move them from a mantelpiece to part of who you are and how you see the world.

When you open this book pray these words as offered by Thomas Cranmer when the Book of Common Prayer was first composed:
Blessed God, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that,by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of life, which thou hast revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.