Monday, October 27, 2008
Stepping Stone #5 – (Mission)”Beyond”
Stepping Stones- markers along the way of our journey with God. Baptism, The Book, Belonging . . . as Christians who are taking the journey of faith, these are milestones for each one of us. This morning we are talking about the step Beyond our selves, stepping out in love for God and neighbor by doing Mission.
This is not just another step in our personal development or faith formation. This is the heart of the Christian life. This is what Jesus our Lord places at the center of our relationship with God.
Look at the passage - - Episode of folks trying to get Jesus in trouble. This is a test of the depth and breadth and clarity of Jesus’ teaching. Sadducees have failed to trip him up, so here come the Pharisees:
These guys know and love the law. They understand the law as God’s gift to them, to help them live lives pleasing to God. They adore the law. Their goal was to obey all the commandments of the Old Testament. When we think of the law, we might think of the Ten Commandments. But the perfect ten is just the beginning of the law the Pharisees loved. By some count, there are 613
Well, there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament. There are 365 negative commandments in the Old Testament, “Thou shalt not!) and there are 248 positive commandments (You shall!!).
Daniel Clendenin (one Presbyterian pastor) notes :
Nearly every aspect of human life is touched on by these laws: Birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, agriculture, jurisprudence, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behavior, and even ethnicity. (Gentiles like us were automatically considered impure.) Everything from menus planning to tattoos is covered.
The Pharisees’ intent was to trap Jesus into saying something disrespectful or something nonsensical. Those were really the choices: If he held up one law as more important, he’s be disrespecting the rest, and disrespecting God who gave ALL the laws. And if he didn’t – if he said here as he had before that he had come to fulfill ALL the law – then the easy follow up question would be, “So getting a tattoo is as bad as murder?” Trying to rank sins . . . that’s a no win conversation, let me tell you.
It’s no surprise that Jesus wasn’t tricked. He responds to this test out of His own love – not only for the law, but for God who gave it and the people who receive it in faith.
The first part of His answer comes from the Shema - the most often repeated statement of the Jewish faith: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
And, Jesus went on, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This command, too, comes from the law the Pharisees loved. It comes right between rules against slander, rules for having sex with a slave, and rules about how long a fruit tree should be planted before you eat of its fruit. In fact the whole verse is:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against anyone, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Just like that, our Lord and Savior, God’s own Son linked love of God with love of neighbor. On these two, he said, hinge all the law and all the other sacred writings. I’ve heard it explained (Edward Marquart – Sermons from Seattle) that these two commandments function like hinges for a door. When you look around at doors – cabinet doors, interior doors, all old doors, there are two hinges. The door doesn’t work, it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, it isn’t any good to anybody as an entrance or an exit unless it has two hinges. Not one. You can’t hang a door on one hinge. It takes both hinges to hang a door. And Jesus makes sure we know that love for God and love for neighbor are both essential to a right relationship with Him.
The New Testament makes clear that this connection between professing to love God and showing actual loving actions toward our neighbors is central to the Christian faith. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus saying this exact same thing. The Apostle Paul repeats the commandment in several of his letters. So does James – emphatically! And the letters of John – especially the first one – are like dissertations on this theme. Our affirmation of faith this morning comes from the same place that John writes, “If people say, “I love God,” but they hate their brothers and sisters, they are lying. Those who don’t love their brothers and sisters cannot love God. Whoever loves God must also love their neighbors.”
I guess here is where we could ask “Why?” Why do I have to love my neighbor in order to love God? God is so good, and my neighbor is a pain in the neck. God is always with me, but I can shut my neighbor out. God loves me, but my neighbor doesn’t think I’m so hot. Why does loving God mean I have to love my neighbor?
Jesus doesn’t get into the “why” questions. He just says, these two commandments are vital, do them and live. He doesn’t say think about them, or sing about them, or memorize them, or recite them 5 times a day. He says DO them. These are not the two best suggestions. They are the two greatest commandments. And they go together.
The question for us isn’t why – it is “how?” And for that question, there are answers:
Each of us has many opportunities to treat others in a loving way every day.
We can do kind things for members of our family. But we can do more:
We can consider the well being of those with whom we share our schools, our communities, our workplaces, the roads we drive on and the stores where we shop. But we can do more.
We can purge our closets and our pantries of coats, and clothing and cans of corn that poorer folk could use. But we can do more.
We can be the church in mission. The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. Mission is just a church-y word for love. It isn’t even the more au courant word. To be hip now, Presbyterians have to say the church is “missional”. Whatever. Mission means that
As a church, we can pool some of our resources with brothers and sisters in the church and extend help to homeless women by furnishing a room for them. That how we love. We can send our young people to work with impoverished children in Benton Harbor Michigan. That’s how we love. We can help underwrite a medical team’s trip to Honduras to surgically repair children’s with hare lip and cleft palate. We do it for love. We can provide cleaning supplies and construction materials to victims this year’s floods through Presbyterian Disaster Relief. Because we would need those things if it happened to us. We can set aside part of the crop from our church farm to help farmers in Armenia get established. Because love of others is Jesus’ command.
These are some of the steps that we take as members and friends of Philo Presbyterian. Our Board of Deacons are so excited to tell you about these projects at the luncheon following worship today. Love is exciting and this is all about Love.
We love our neighbors by stepping beyond our selves, beyond our church walls and our church family. By stepping out in faith and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Shall we take that step together?
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
So last night I got up and looked through a New Yorker I hadn't had time to read. And I found the best article - "Late Bloomers" by Malcolm Gladwell. (Just his last name should have tipped me off that I'd be happy to read it.)
It's all about how some artists and writers show genius early on in their lives, and others build their craft over many years, producing their best work beginning in their forties or fifties and extending from there.
The well known examples of Picasso (early genius) and Cezanne (late bloomer) are interesting. But so are two writers - Ben Fountain, whose first critical success came 18 years after he quit his job as a lawyer to write - and Jonathan Foer, who had a best selling novel he wrote while in college.
The article goes on to explore how the late bloomers managed to stick with it. Without exception, they had "patrons" or supporters who believed in them and encouraged them to continue their work, even when it did not appear to be producing fabulous results.
(Fountain's "patron" was his lawyer wife, and the article talks about how they made this decision to have him stay home, raise the kids and write together. That was cool.) I just have to quote the penultimate paragraph of the piece:
Late bloomers' stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We'd like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it's just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.
That insight, to me, is worth waking up for and waking up to.
So I start out the day at four in the morning, saying, "Thank you, One-Who-Never-Sleeps, for the occasional blessing of insomnia."
Friday, October 17, 2008
New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.
Apropos of nothing. Just a thought I want to post somewhere so I don't forget it.
Have you seen "Amazing Grace" - the movie about the abolitionist movement in England?
Thursday, October 16, 2008
The current economic news has gotten me thinking about my favorite scripture - the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. I got out a sermon I preached on that text a long time ago and decided I'd like to preach it again. It feels good to get to use a sermon a second time. At least if you loved writing it and preaching it the first time, it does.
It feels like finding another occasion to wear your prom dress or something. You know?
The first time was so fun, but you felt a tiny bit guilty for having something so expensive you were only going to wear once. And now . . . you can wear it again, so it was only half as expensive as you thought. (I calculate clothing costs per wearing, do you?) Guilt is relieved retroactively, which makes remembering the original occasion even more enjoyable than it was the first time around. It's just all good.
Of course, even in that thrifty and beautiful gown, you still are not arrayed as spectacularly as the lilies of the field. Still. God provides.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
To each is given a bag of tools,
a shapeless mass, a book of rules.
To fashion then, 'ere life is flown
A building block or stepping stone."
I love it when people quote poetry! Isn't that wonderful? I was so taken by the verse that I looked up the poem, which is by R.L. Sharpe. Here's what I found:
Isn't it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.
Masperpieces of Religion Verse, edited by James Dalton Morrison (Harper, 1948).
AND, there's also a ??Grateful Dead?? song called "Book of Rules" that's based on the poem. Here's a cover of it by a group called Inner Circle posted on YouTube:
It has kind of a reggae beat. Very uplifing. Enjoy.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Caleb and I spent a couple of hours sanding woodwork and patching nail holes in the recently installed trim. We were supervised by David Kay, who has put in COUNTLESS HOURS (unless maybe he's counted them!) on this project. He's still cheerful and optimistic. What a blessing!
The house is beginning to take it's final shape. The floors are in. Walls are painted, cabinets installed, etc. Still no plumbing fixtures and the power hasn't been hooked into all that wonderful new wiring Kirk did. But things are certainly moving along.
Just thought you might want to know.
The parable Jesus tells in Matthew 22:1-14 speaks to what it means to accept God’s invitation to participate in his kingdom.
Confirmation is a stepping stone that many of us have taken or will take around the age of 12 or so. In some churches, professing one’s faith comes much earlier. In some churches, it is usual to wait until 16-18 to choose one’s faith and step into the privileges and responsibilities of discipleship. Whenever the step is taken, we say that we “belong” to a church. Belonging – a sense of connection to a larger group and participation in a larger purpose – is one of the deep human needs that is met by God through the church. In most churches, including ours, people who are confirmed, or who join through other means, have a different sense of “Belonging”.
What does belonging – being active members - mean? Matthew, writing to the early church, was quite concerned about helping people understand what it meant to belong to the church . And Matthew connected belonging to the church with what he’d heard Jesus say about belonging to and participating in the Kingdom of God. According to Matthew, belonging to church is like attending a great big festive party, thrown by a King in honor of a significant occasion. Active, engaged membership is participatin in a party. What’s the last great party you went to? Wasn’t there a joy, a deep sense of satisfaction in enjoying your relationship to the host and to the other guests?
Matthew’s story –
1) the King makes every effort to include the “A” list. When Jesus first told this story, it was clearly a big old spit wad aimed at the religious establishment of his day. He likened them to rude and mean subjects in a Kingdom. Their refusal to participate in the King’s Son’s wedding party is a slap in the face of the King. This is an active statement of non-support. It is a rebellion against his Rule.
2) the King changes the plan and opens the banquet hall to all sorts of folks who wouldn’t expect to be invited? God’s grace is abundant. He spreads a great table. He welcomes even the likes of us. The unlikeliest one is included. Maybe you think you don’t belong. But you’d be wrong. God thinks you do. And God thinks that unlikely person you know but wouldn’t mention church to belongs, as well.
3) God sends his servants out to beat the bushes. Do we beat the bushes? This is the part in the story that I think Matthew was aiming right at the church. If we are God’s servants, shouldn’t we be out in the highways and byways, extending the invitation to the big event God hosts? Shouldn’t we be urging, inviting, encouraging, giving incentives? God wants everyone to belong!
Belonging is, in large part, just a matter of accepting the gracious invitation to the party. Woody Allen famously said, “80% of success is just showing up.” A large part of it is just doing the right thing by showing up. People who specialize in studying such things actually have a list of seven things people who belong to churches have in common. And three of them are pretty much just showing up:
2) Worship participation.
3) Financial support –
5) Show some care for the less fortunate outside the congregation.
The Gallup Organization – polled members and found that as many as 82% of people who belonged to a church recognized these expectations and fulfilled them. But. And this is a big but. . . more than half of that group said they did these three things and still did not feel that they belonged to the church in a way that brought them closer to God or closer to one another. They didn’t experience the rewards of membership, even though they considered themselves to be paying the cost. Clearly, belonging means something quite different than just showing up and getting in the buffet line. They were at the party. But they weren’t feeling the PAHR-TAH.
That’s because belonging goes deeper than anything that we may think of as “doing church”. Belonging is about “Being church” in heart and soul. I think that is what Matthew’s story about the wedding guest without the wedding garment is meant to convey -
The Host spies someone at the table who hasn’t bothered to change his clothes. Now, I know this part of the story is rather jarring. Dress codes are not a big issue with us. The last time I remember clothes being this big an issue was when I couldn’t stand with Sarah Fink and Elaine Dunagin at 6th grade recess because I wasn’t wearing a Ban-Lon polo shirt. That caring about clothing is sooooo superficial. Getting kicked out of a group for not having the right clothing is so . . . junior high. (And, in this case, I don’t mean in a good way.)
OK. So here is a picture that, on the surface, makes God look superficial, mean and snobby. That can’t be right. And sure enough, it isn’t. Here’s where faithful reading requires us to do some further study, and find out what the wedding garment was and how it functioned in Jesus’ day.
When people came to a wedding, they always changed out of their dirty workclothes and into something clean and . . . if they had enough money – white. They might borrow or rent a longer, cleaner robe. Or, it is also possible that a very affluent host – like the King, you know – might provide a robe for his guests who might not have one on hand. Like at some really nice restaurants, they have sport coats for men who didn’t wear them. At Catholic churches, they used to have little lace-y hats for women who didn’t cover their heads. Well – it’s quite likely that the Host in this case, since he had invited so many people who were not wealthy or prominent, would have provided a wedding garment for those who didn’t have one.
Wearing the wedding garment was an outward sign of one’s happiness to participate in the occasion. It was an acknowledgement that belonging is a joyous state. It was saying “A party! Yes! Count me in!”
Remember that Gallup poll of aspects of belonging? The ones that members do just by showing up are important. But they turn out to be insufficient to a real sense of belonging. The joy and satisfaction and growth and connection that we hope for when we JOIN the church comes from deeper, more heart – centered participation. Think “Less Doing. More Being.”
1) Being on a journey of spiritual growth –participating in a prayer or study group that promotes reflection and growth, and where we encourage one another to mature in faith.
4) Being committed to the congregation’s mission and vision. This begins with an emotional investment in the church’s future. Evident in our words, attitudes and actions.
6) Being hospitable: making friends, offering forgiveness, expressing encouragement, sharing a meal, inviting someone out for coffee, or doing a simple kind deed. This makes a huge difference to our sense of belonging.
7) Being in prayer for the church and the people in it.
(Source – The Parish Paper, October 2008, Cynthia Woolever)
These deeper, less quantifiable yet very real characteristics are what make belonging rich and full and fun.
The guest without the wedding garment didn’t belong. And the Host asks him, “Friend (there’s nothing ironic or sarcastic here – this is as nice an opening as one could hope for when being greeted by the KING) - “How did you come without any regard for the occasion?” And the person looks at the king and says not a word. No apology. No excuse. No sheepish story about hoping no one would notice. Stony silence. The guest gives God the silent treatment. This person thinks so little of the host that he doesn’t even bother to answer when addressed directly.
This is an unacceptable breach of the invitation. And he throws the bum out.
Please note that the other guests aren’t involved in this conversation. This is between the guest and the host. The King is the only one who has any right to question the worthiness of one of the guests. Only God can judge. And God does not want the judgment to go badly. “Friend?” he says. “What’s going on with you? Why aren’t you celebrating? Why aren’t you happy to be here?”
This part in the story is . . . a challenge. But it is not a call to do more. Not a call to attend some function, or mend some bad habit, or perform more good deeds. This is a call to examine our attitudes and our hearts.
“Am I gorging myself at the banquet table, but unwilling to speak with the Host?”
“Am I taking my invitation to belong for granted?
“Have I clothed myself, have I put on the grace and love and joy that God has provided for me? “
“Is my heart wearing the wedding garment?”
And, to be honest, I’ve preached this passage a couple of times in this pulpit, and I’ve always just lopped off this last part. Because this is the party! You are the people who have answered the invitation! You are trying to be good guests, right? And the last thing I want to do is make you think there’s some detail you’ve neglected that’s going to send you to the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing your teeth. My fourth grade class had some rowdy kids in it, and my teacher ended up yelling a lot. And when she yelled, it was the geeky, quiet kid in the back row – me - who felt bad and cried. Because the weird thing about texts like this is that the people who ought to squirm don’t. And those who are trying really hard to be good guests think that they ought to try harder.
So - if you are worried about behaving in a way worthy of your invitation, then you just concentrate on the first part of the story. Don’t worry! Be happy! God’s event planners have been working overtime, decorating and cooking and hiring the band. The hall is ready. The feast is on the table. Come on in! God’s grace wants the banquet hall filled with those who are willing to celebrate with His Son.
Belonging to a church as an active member is about showing up – but so much more. It is about being a joyful guest. It is about not just putting our butts in the pew and our backs in the work. It is about putting our heart-y in the party! It’s about putting our dancing feet on the path that leads to God’s throne. That’s what belonging is about!
Belonging is one of the stepping stones of faith. Shall we take that step, together?
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
about how repentance can be grace-based, rather than shame-based. It gave me quite a bit to think about. How about you?
Luke 24:28-35 (The Road to Emmaus)
Several of the stepping stones are like mile markers we’ve been thinking together about along the journey of faith – we see as milestones on our path. Baptism is like that. It is a stone that we encounter once in our journey of faith, so that we can ever after remember God’s first step toward us. Next week we’ll talk about confirmation. Other stepping stones, like learning the Bible, are more like stair steps. Hopefully, we keep climbing, getting more and more understanding and wisdom as we go. Communion, however, is a stepping stone that is really a home base. Like in a child’s game, of tag, maybe home base is the place where you go to tag up, to get a breather from running around, to get reoriented somehow. Communion is the stepping stone that we come to, if we are lucky we come to it early and often.
The premise of this sermon is that we all have times in our lives when it’s especially appropriate and helpful for us to seek the table of our Lord as our home base. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper once a month. But I’m not talking about a set time – what the Greeks called “chronos” time – that can be measured with a watch, or a sundial or a calendar. The Greeks had another word for time: Kairos. And Kairos meant – the right time. A good time. A fitting time. I want to talk about times of our lives in which we especially need to return to experience this stepping stone of faith as part of our walk. The times when we need to pause at home base before – metaphorically speaking – getting back in the game.
One of those times is When we need to remember how very much God loves us. How precious each one of us is in Jesus’ sight. “This is my body, broken for you” – Jesus was willing to be broken in order that you might be made whole. Breaking the bread and pouring out the cup are to be done remembering that Jesus made this sacrifice out of love for humanity. When we need to remember the greatest love the world has ever known, it is time to come to the table.
Another right time is when we have run into a stretch of road full of dangers and difficulties. Maybe the difficulty is illness. Maybe it is an injury to body or soul. The danger may come from people who are trying to hurt us. Or who just don’t care whether we live or die. I think of walking in some pretty rough urban environments, in which getting mugged was a real possibility. I was pretty young, and remember asking my citified friend, “Why would anyone want to hurt us?” She said, “They don’t want to hurt us. They just care about what they need. We don’t even exist to them.” That’s scary. When you are walking through a dangerous place, your very existence is in peril, it is natural that a person would long for the security of knowing that God is present in the midst of the tough times.
As a chaplain in a hospital, and as a pastor now, who goes to the hospital – one of my most important “jobs” was just to embody God’s presence to people whose lives were in peril. In that situation, communion is a powerful sign of God’s presence. Take this bread . . . means that the doctor may be beside you, the nurses hover around you, your family may watch over you. But Christ’s love and peace are INSIDE you. God is really with you, in your struggling body in this wilderness place. The 23rd Psalm captures this experience so beautifully with the image of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and finding there that God has spread a table there, in the midst of the enemy, at which one may be nourished and sustained. When danger and difficulties arise, we are welcomed at the table where we can receive grace and courage to face whatever lies ahead.
Times of illness, difficulty and danger are not the only times we may have a special need to return and touch base at the Table. In fact, sometimes we may need to come to the Table because our daily routine has become so . . . daily and so . . . routine. Get up, go to school or go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch a little TV, and go to bed. Next day – the same thing. And you think, “Gee. Is this the wonderful plan God has for my life?”
When tedium of routine threatens our sense of calling, we may need to get back in touch with the joy of life. The Eucharist is one way God has given us to do that. Here’s how: Eucharist means Thanksgiving. It’s used very early in the church – in the Gospels and even in Paul’s letters, to mean this sacrament. The joyous acts of thanksgiving that permeated the observance of this rite undoubtedly caused the second-century Christian writers to use the term Eucharist as the standard name for this meal.
Thanksgiving – consciously being grateful – is to take a break from boredom and opening our eyes to the blessings and gifts that have been showered upon our lives. Paul and the Gospel writers knew something that has, in recent times, been proven by scientific studies: The act of gratitude- of thanksgiving - lowers stress, boosts the immune system, eases depression, and improves a person’s perspective. It just makes us feel better, too. We have so much to thank God for in the stories of Jesus, the love he showed his disciples in their everyday walk, his care to give us this meal to share. There is so much for which to be thankful. Eucharist – thankfulness – brings us back into God’s presence and allows us experience the blessings of God in new and surprising ways. As we focus on thanksgiving, we notice that God is among us in ways so ordinary they might escape our attention were it not for the stepping stone we encounter at this Table.
1) When we are in danger,
2) when we are caught up in the boring details of living, and
3) when we feel alone and lonely. Loneliness is a big part of our experience in this culture because we are taught “self” reliance, independence and individual initiative. And those things are good. But the Bible gives us a much more balanced picture of who human beings are. Each one of us is part of “us” And the Bible teaches us that this “us-ness” was a huge part of the meaning of what we do at this table. It is called “Communion” – “Koinania”. This word is variously translated as “ Sharing” , “Fellowship”, “Partnership” as well as “communion” . It is the word from which we take “community” - and the understanding clearly is that what we do at this table is a community business.
When you are lonely – and think that you walk alone. Touch base with the table as a tangible reminder that you are drawn here with brothers and sisters. Some of the brothers and sisters you see. Here we are. A body of believers. And some of the brothers and sisters you will never see. But the ties that bind you are not imaginary. God has drawn us into His family and this is the family table. Close your eyes and see some of them: Zion Lutherans who sang in the choir, Zach LeCrone whose steel guitar makes “Precious Lord” rock. They are around the table this morning, too. Tolono Presbyterians who do mission with you, Sue, whose house is decorated with Bible verses, the African American congregation in Benton Harbor. They are around the table this morning, too. Think farther . . . The Disaster assistance teams working in Galvaston, and Houston, and Cedar Rapids. They are taking communion this morning. The Synod of Livingstonia, in Malawi, that works year round to bring clean water to villagers there. The staff of the Beit Jala Boarding Home, who show Christian love to boys in Palestine. They are gathered around our family table. Everyone that God has called in love and made his own – God has joined us together and made us One family and today we are having a virtual family reunion. Wherever we are, we stop what we are doing and spiritually join hands across the miles, across the oceans, across all the racial and ethnic and political and economic differences that divide us, and we share this meal with Jesus Christ sitting at the head of the table, smiling at all of us in love.
Wherever we may be in our spiritual journey, we are invited and encouraged to come to the table for nourishment and strength to go on. It is a way God has given us to touch base with him and with one another at important times in our lives.
Let’s have a good time as we take this step of faith together.