Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sheepishly, I Post the Last Sermon I Wrote

April 13, 2008
Good Shepherd Sunday
John 10:1-10

BAAAA! Good Shepherd Sunday comes around every year and I know your paaaaastor’s name is Shepherd, so she always likes to make a big deal of it.
But, people probaaaably don’t like to be likened to sheep. I think it’s a simple matter of a laaaack of information that puts people off. And I can remedy that, if you will RUMINATE with me on being a sheep.
The first thing people think they know about sheep is that sheep are stupid. Let me tell you – someone has been pulling the wool over your eyes! there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Sheep are quite bright.
Want proof? Do you know what a cattle guard is? As you can guess from the name, it is designed to keep cattle and other hooved animals out of certain areas, but allow vehicles and people to cross. It consists of a grid of bars or tubes, usually made of metal, firmly fixed on the ground with a depression underneath. The spaces between the bars are wide enough that a hoof would slip through, but narrow enough that a vehicle's wheels will not. A cattle guard will allow wheeled vehicles to pass through the entrance, but will keep animals out, because they will refuse to step on the grid.
At least that’s what humans in Yorkshire Moors, England thought. But hungry sheep foiled a cattle guard to raid villager's gardens. According to a witness, the sheep would lie down on their sides (sometimes their backs) and keep rolling over the grids until they were clear. Pretty smart!
Sometimes churches, and the people in them, encounter an obstacle, like a cattle guard, that keeps them from getting where they need to go. And, from one sheep to another, the question is . . . how creative are you willing to be to get there?
Of course, that is just anecdotal evidence of sheep’s intelligence. But there’s some solid science to back it up: few (or seven) years ago, National Public Radio reported this story:
“…the lowly sheep may have gotten a bad rap. That’s the conclusion of a new study on sheep behavior by British scientists, who say the easily herded creatures may be smarter than originally thought.A study published in the Journal Nature describes research at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, southern England. As it turns out, the sheep quickly learned to recognize the face that produced a reward, and discriminated between that face and other sheep faces that didn't produce a reward. The research showed that sheep can get it right eight out of 10 times -- and the research showed the sheep remember faces for an extended period of time. Some sheep could remember up to 50 images for two years.
The study concluded that, like humans, sheep have special systems in the brain to discern between faces that are very similar in appearance. The results also suggest that sheep have remarkably good memory systems and are extremely good at recognizing faces. Both are signs of higher intelligence, says Dr. Keith Kendrick, one of the authors of the study.
Kendrick says the reason sheep may have a reputation for little intelligence is that they seem to be scared of just about everything. ‘Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, they don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behavior,’ Kendrick told Reuters.”
National Public Radio. All Things Considered. November 7, 2001
Maybe that is why Jesus was always telling his followers not to be afraid. Jesus knew that fear confuses people as easily as it confuses sheep, and both species of us are likely to rush off in the wrong direction when we are afraid.
The researcher is wrong when he says that sheep are afraid of everything, though. Sheep are afraid of anything new. They are “neo-phobic” – that’s an actual clinical term that veterinary researchers have for sheep. They are afraid of anything new. This fear is a big factor that has to be addressed when doing any kind of research with these animals. A new sheep introduced into the research group, a new handler, a new procedure, all these things produce such a strong physical response in the sheep that any experimental results do not even apply to normal sheep.
New things are hard for people, too. Change puts us under a certain amount of physiological stress. You’ve probably seen those “stress” inventories – where you can gauge how likely you are to come down with a cold by how many stressful events you’ve had to deal with in the past year. Moving is worth 20 points. A new mortgage is 31. With the economic trends in the headlines, I note that foreclosure is 30 points of stress, actually less than getting the mortgage. That’s sort of a surprise. Marriage is 50 points. Increase in arguments with one’s spouse is 35. Job change is 38. You add up all the stressors you’ve experienced in the last 12 months, and get a score that predicts how likely you are to get sick in the year to come.
Some of the stressors are good things. Some are unpleasant. That doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they introduce something new into our lives. When we have a lot of these stressors, we are advised to be extra careful, to be on the lookout to avoid unnecessary risks.
It might be worth thinking about – how many new things, happy and sad, have come into your life in the last year. If their have been a lot, it might be especially important to add healthful counterbalances to your life as well. Prayer and meditation have been shown to balance the effects of stress on health. A devotional routine, like Bible reading, using These Days, just a few minutes a day is likely to reduce the risk of stress making you sick or crazy.
On Friday, I went to a continuing education event on writing as a healing practice. A scientist from the University of Texas has done research that shows that 15 minutes of expressive writing a day – writing how you think and feel – helped college students get better grades, avoid depression, stay healthier and even drink less. And there are also studies that show that regular church attendance helps. I’m not kidding. We can’t avoid new things. But we can pay attention to the things that can make us healthy and strong.

What’s true for us as individuals is also true for this group. As a flock, we suffer stress sometimes. One of the biggest points that church officers learned at our officer training event in January is that a church making a transition from a familiar state to an unfamiliar one is full of anxiety and doesn’t - in fact can’t – behave “normally”. Even if the new state is something really good – like members, for instance, or something we think is small – like the new lot behind the church. These things can be . . . scary.
And, our church life specialist told us, we are in an unstable flock size: between small and medium now, too big to operate the way we’re used to, and not quite big enough to have gotten comfortable with more appropriate ways of doing things. And it makes us a little edgy. We sense the need to move, but the way isn’t clear yet. Some of us are headed one way, others off in a different direction. Like sheep, sometimes we run into someone headed in the opposite direction and it throws us into a tizzy. Yet we know that sheep, and people, need to keep moving. A healthy grazing flock quite naturally covers a distance of mile or more a day. It’s really bad for sheep to be confined where they can’t move. And it’s impossible for a people to stay healthy and strong without some change and some movement. If you’re not living, you’re dying.
We have to move, as individuals and as a church, even though we are afraid of anything new. That’s why we need to listen especially carefully for the voice of our shepherd. And I don’t mean me, though I am certainly trying my best to take care of the flock God has called me to tend. The real shepherd of this flock is Jesus, of course. He is the came, lived, died and rose again so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
It is Jesus who is our security in times of fear and change. We trust him because we know that he is the one who has led his flock to green pastures and through dark valleys. The good Shepherd knows that He calls his own – by name – did you hear that little part of the scripture? He knows us so well that each of our names leaps to his lips. He recognizes and knows us, even if sometimes we fail to recognize him. ( Remember how, when Mary Magdelene met the Risen Christ on Easter morning, at first she didn’t know him. But then he spoke her name – “Mary” and she knew who he was.)
If you don’t hear anything else this morning, I want you to hear that Jesus knows your name. When you get ready to fall asleep tonight, I want you to close your eyes and hear him say your beloved name. He knows you by name.
That kind of knowing . . . there is a particular word for it in Greek – ginosko- that means knowing in a personal and particular way. Jesus knows us this way – intimately and personally – and he clearly teaches that we are capable of knowing this way, too. “Even sheep do not blindly follow a stranger, but run away from him because they do not know the sound of his voice” but Jesus’ followers listen carefully – we swivel our little sheep ears forward and pay attention – to hear if the one calling us is our shepherd and our friend.
And when we hear Jesus’ call us, we freely and calmly follow him. “He goes ahead of them and they follow” with full faith and assurance that he will not lead us astray, but guide us through danger, into the joy and the security of his very own fold. Amen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Tell Tale Heart - Easter 3 - April 6

Acts 2:36-42 (cut to the heart) Luke 24:13-35 (road to Emmaus) I Peter 1:17-23 (love from the heart)
This week I’ve been thinking about Edgar Allen Poe’s wonderful short story “The Tell Tale Heart”. In the story, told as by a madman, a murderer, an old man is brutally murdered, his body hidden beneath the floorboards of his room. The police, having been called by a neighbor who heard a scream, arrive to investigate. The killer invites them in, so sure of his cleverness and ability to deceive that he sits with them, directly above the spot where the victim’s body is hidden. He chats politely with the officers, but, soon, he hears “a sound, like a watch wrapped in cotton, growing louder and ever louder. It was the old man’s heart!” The harder he tries to stay calm, the more the pounding grows. “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder, every instant.” He is sure the police must hear it, too, “I felt that I must scream or die! -- and now -- again -- hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER! --
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"
and he becomes so unnerved that he blurts out his confession.
It’s a great story. Although it is about a madman and a murder, when you read it, you cannot help but feel that the central truth of the story is as real and believable as your own address. It’s true! The heart always tells. What the heart tells cannot be buried or hidden or stuffed under the floorboards, away from prying eyes. It will come out. The heart will tell its tale.
The scriptures got me thinking of this, because, buried, almost hidden in each of the lectionary passages for this Easter season Sunday, is a heart. In Luke, it is a burning heart: “didn’t our hearts burn within us?” In Acts, Peter’s listeners are “cut to the heart” by his sermon. And in I Peter, the church is admonished to “love one warmly, from the heart.”
These, too, are tell-tale hearts. What tale do they tell?
In the Gospel, we find a tale of hope restored on the road to a little town called Emmaus.
Two disciples – Cleopas and – maybe his wife, seek to escape the confusion and pain in Jerusalem following Jesus’ execution. Their teacher is dead. The disciples are at a loss. And now, the body is missing and there are rumors about that. They wearily recount their troubles to a stranger who joins them on the road. In what is one of the saddest statements, they say, “We had hoped that he was the Messiah.” Hoped. Past tense. Had hoped. Past perfect. Finished. Complete. The hoping is over and done.
What does losing hope do to a person’s heart? What happens when hope dies? Proverbs 13:12 says, – Hope deferred makes the heart sick.
This last week we marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King. Even as a child, I experienced that death as the dying of a dream. And the violence that followed, the difficulty for different parts of America in finding a way forward together, those were symptoms of a loss of heart. When dreams die, people become discouraged and lose heart.
The two men walking along the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday had a dream that had died. They had been followers of Jesus, and their hopes were shattered. A stranger began walking alongside them. When he asked why they looked so disheartened, The stranger proceeded to make them look at their situation from a different perspective. Maybe everything that happened wasn't a terrible mistake after all, he suggested. Maybe God had a plan all along. And, maybe God wasn't yet finished with Jesus' followers but was just beginning with them. Later, when they looked back at that conversation, they said, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as He opened the scriptures to us?”
The burning was hope being born again in their hearts. We know, because of the risen Christ, that we are never – really – without hope. God is not finished with us yet. In fact, he is just beginning. When we listen to Jesus our hearts burn with a tale of hope restored.
When they got to their destination, the stranger broke bread before them, and they saw him, too, in a new light, recognizing him as Jesus himself. Then their hearts had a tale to tell! They hurried back to Jerusalem with a new message of hope for Jesus' other companions.
Will our hearts tell that tale?

The heart in the Acts scripture is a heart in which faith is kindled. Peter’s sermon reaches the hearts of the people in Jerusalem. And they say, “What shall we do?”
Another great female preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, captures that moment:
"Every now and then, if you are really, really
lucky, you hear something so right and true that it pierces through all
your defenses and goes straight to your heart. It can make you drop to
your knees. It can make you laugh until you cry, or cry until you laugh,
but it is not a mental thing at all. It is a physical thing that requires
a physical response. You have to do something about it; and sometimes you need help figuring out what that is." - -Barbara Brown Taylor
It’s not a mistake that the question the people ask is “What shall we do?” The heart is the seat of action. When we read the Bible we need to keep in mind that in the language and culture in which the Bible was written, the heart was thought to be, figuratively speaking, the source of intention, will, action. In our language and culture, we speak of the heart as the seat of emotion. In the Bible, feeling, emotion comes from the gut or bowel. The heart is where purposeful action arises. So Peter’s listeners asked to join the church, and then to study, worship, serve and share with one another and the world. If those four areas of action are not part of your story, then maybe it is time to give your heart a better tale to tell.
When faith is kindled in our hearts – it motivates action. I becomes a drum beat by which we march into faithful action. We want to DO something. What tale do our faithful hearts tell in the living of our lives?
(Write your faithful action on a paper heart (passed out during the children’s sermon) and offer it to God during the regular offering.)

The heart in the reading from Peter’s first letter is a heart filled with warmth and love.
Peter writes that in Christ we are able to “Love one another warmly, from the heart.” Love for one other shows. It shows in our attention to one another’s needs, our loyalty to one another, in slowness to take offense, and quickness to forgive. The love of church members for one another is a very nice thing. People notice that. But what people outside the church really notice is when we love them. When we extend God’s love to the world out there – like Jesus did – our hearts tell a tale that the world is waiting to hear.
Friends, in a few minutes we will come to the Lord’s Table, to remember and to recognize the Risen Christ in our midst as we break bread and share the cup. This is a heart healthy meal. This meal nourishes our hearts to share the tale of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It is not possible to silence the human heart.
In Poe’s story, it wasn’t the dead man’s heart that gave the killer away. It was his own heart that told the tale. Each one of us has a tell tale heart. Our hearts must tell a tale.
We come to the table of our Lord praying that by His power, our tell-tale hearts will, with every beat,
tell a tale of hope restored,
of faithful action,
of warm and sincere love.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Slowly Dawning Easter - Easter 2 - March 30

This sermon owes (a lot) to PeaceBang. And my lectionary group.

John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas) & I Peter 1:3-9 & Psalm 16
Slowly Dawning Easter

Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. (2x)
What’s the next line?
The weeks after Easter we grapple with what resurrection means for our lives in the aftermath of that great event. Easter is easy – a big whoop-la with the surprise ending that isn’t an ending at all – and then we look at each other and wonder – what next?
In this peculiar moment, when the victory cry of God - He is not here. He is risen! – is still ringing in our ears, the Bible directs our attention to a set of passages that seem to recognize our difficulties in dealing with the aftermath of Easter.
The Psalm declares – “God has set us on the path of life.” The path? Why doesn’t he just whisk us to the destination? But no, he set us on the path, orients us in the right direction, and then we to figure out whether or not to walk.
Peter writes to the early church: “by His great mercy, God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” “even if now, for a little while, you have had to suffer various trials”. The new life is not without suffering, the victory is not yet complete, the salvation of our souls, though won, is not fully realized.
In John - - - the disciples experience the risen Christ, and a week passes, when they do What? One thing they don’t manage to do is to convince one of their own comrades – Thomas, the Twin – that what they have seen is true. A week later they are still gathering in the same house, shutting the doors and trying to figure out their next move.
Rather than being discouraging, these texts offer encouragement to those of us gathered on “Low Sunday” because they take seriously our experience of resurrection: sometimes Easter dawns slowly, and resurrection takes some time. We live in hope of the resurrection to eternal life in Christ Jesus. But in the here and now, resurrection is always accompanied by ambiguity and takes some time to work itself out.
One does not have to look far to find examples of how the difficulty of resurrection plays out: For instance, I heard a doctor on WILL radio this week. He tells about this man who suffers a heart attack and a near death experience, and who comes back more than a little regretfully. He was gone, and now he’s back. And instead of peace and joy and light, he’s got to deal with a new diet, and cardiac rehab three times a week, and a regimen of medications that have to be remembered morning, noon and night. And it’s several weeks before he looks up and sees his grand daughter’s face, and manages to be glad he is alive to see her growing and to be a part of her life.
When we experience resurrection, it is at the places in our lives where a death has happened. And even resurrection doesn’t completely close the wound. Like for this couple from the church I grew up in in Kansas. Louise and Jim were part of a whole group of very active adults. I suspect that the genesis of this group was the Presbyterian Mariners – a young couples group that flourished in the 50s and early 60s, but I’m not sure of that. They were adults while I was a child of the church. And while I was away in college, Louise’s husband got very sick and died. The group rallied around Louise and grew even closer. Then, while I was in seminary, I think, another woman in the group was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Louise knew what needed to be done and she, along with others, did it. She cared for her friend and supported the friend’s husband when she died. And then, quite to the surprise of Louise and Jim, they found that they were falling in love. And the grief of their losses was messily mingled with the slowly dawning Easter of their new love. The wound was still there, even though something in them was resurrected, too.
It’s the same when we suffer other, lesser losses and even less spectacular resurrections: getting fired and finding some new work. Did you read about Marta Carrerra, the news reader from Channel 3 who got fired along with her news anchor husband Jerry Slabe? They were so mad! Do you remember the bitterness? And now they live in Chicago, and Marta is a lawyer, and chief counsel for some big company, travels to Latin America, gets to use her Spanish. That’s got to be better than reading the news in Champaign, Il. It wouldn’t have happened without what she still feels was an unjust firing. And it didn’t happen over night. Easter dawned slowly in that life, too.
Just as it does for someone getting sober after years of crippling addiction.
Getting back on track after a false friend’s betrayal.
Getting free of an abusive relationship.
Getting over an emotionally difficult childhood.
It would be nice if we just woke up one morning and said, “Oh. I’m glad that painful experience is over.” But that doesn’t happen. Easter dawns slowly. Transformation takes time.
The great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection after three days in the tomb is the basis for our faith, and the foundation of a Christian’s attitude toward the future – and attitude that the Bible names “A living hope”.
Say it again: The promise of Easter is that the sin and pain and wounds of the past do not have the power to defeat the love and mercy of God.
One more time: Because of God’s great love, the future opens up for us in ways we didn’t ever imagine.
And yet it takes us a while to rub our eyes and adjust to the light before we are able to move, with joy, into the future.
So that’s how we live as Easter people – rubbing our eyes, trying to take in the truth that lies just beyond our ability to see. Remember the whole point of the Thomas story is what Jesus said, not about Thomas, but about believers like us:
Blessed are those who do not see, and yet come to believe.
Jesus said that for our benefit and encouragement, that you don’t have to see BEFORE you believe.
God means good for us, that, in the words of the Psalmist, God is always before us, making a way where the path is obscure. Easter people hope and expect that God is beside us, keeping us company as we walk along the way, even where we don’t yet see it for ourselves.
In the aftermath of Easter, the scriptures remind us we have “a living hope,” so that “even though you don’t see Jesus, you believe in him, and rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy at the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
In the aftermath of Easter, I beg/encourage/invite/charge you to LOOK for signs of Easter in your life,
for resurrection places,
for unexpected renewal,
for swells of hope.
NOTICE where the fullness of joy, (indescribable and glorious joy!) touches your wounded heart.
When your heart is glad,
when your soul rejoices,
when your body dwells secure,
exclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and My God!
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen Indeed.”