Sunday, November 27, 2011

Heaven Can't Wait for Hope

Advent #1  - Hope Can’t Wait
Isaiah 64, Mark 1, 13

Advent is a time of waiting.  And if there is anything that is harder to do than wait, it is to wait in the dark. Nights are so long. the sun goes down at 4: 32 and doesn’t show it’s bright little face until 6:50 in the morning.   Add to that the fact that the short days we do have this time of year are often overcast with thick clouds. 

The darkness isn’t just meterological, is it?  Did you read the paper yesterday? On Black Friday (see - dark) there was incident after incident of bad behavior on the part of bargain hunters.  People trampled, robbed, pepper sprayed by PS3 video game seekers.  Yeah, take that! Christmas Spirit! 

And, the stories that weren’t about bad behavior were about people who had sacrificed Thanksgiving dinner with their families in order to stand on line to get into a temple of consumerism - like Walmart or Best Buy or the mall. 

It’s pretty gloom and doom out there in the big cold world.  Economic uncertainty.  Political unrest.  Social polarization.  Environmental disasters.  It’s a dark time on planet Earth.

If we pay any attention at all, it is easy for our hearts to resonate with the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who cried out this prayer:   “O Lord!  Would that you would tear open the heavens and COME DOWN!”

It’s easy to think of God sitting up, beyond the clouds, in majesty and glory upon His throne.  And what we need is for Him to rip a hole in the clouds, and descend with power and might to remake the world one more time.  If God would do that he would set things right!  He’d teach those nasty shoppers a lesson.  He’d shine a light on the rats and roaches that are ruining our country and our world.  He’d rescue the little guys, upside down in their mortgages, and put to work the restless, purposeless young people who see no future for themselves.  O!  Would that you would tear open the heavens and come down! 

That isn’t our Advent hope, though.  Not because it couldn’t happen.  But because it has already happened - God has already torn open the heavens and come down.  The very first section of the very first account of Jesus’ life - the Gospel of Mark - uses that very image to describe the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry:  He says that the heaven were torn open - literally ripped - like a cloth, and God’s Spirit descended on the Christ. 

The Gospel of Luke traces the rip in the heavens all the way back to the night of Jesus’ birth, when the skies over the shepherds opened and the good news of great joy was announced by a heavenly choir. 

God ripped open the heavens and came down in the person of Jesus Christ.  Since that happened, hope has changed.  What he did, how he lived, who he touched, what he said - all of that means that what we hope and wait for is qualitatively different now. 

Our hope is deeper and more profound because it is based on the knowledge that God was not content to sit in the heavens and tsk tsk over human suffering and sin.  God ripped open the world and entered our darkness whole heartedly, taking on all our limitations and pains and problems.  God couldn’t wait for conditions to be right, or the world to be a promising place.  He couldn’t wait until everyone and everything was ready.  He jumped right in, in a surprising place, and at a surprising time.

I think that is one of the reasons Jesus, when he is talking about the future of the world, says that God’s coming is when the sun is dark and the moon has lost it’s light and the stars have fallen from the sky.  Because God comes when things are dark.  When we have lost our ability to see the future, God comes to bring us a bigger and better future than anything we could have imagined. 

This is hard to see in the macro world of economics and politics.  I’m not at all comfortable naming this development or that one as a sure sign of God’s future working itself out among us.   It is too soon to say if our country will become a better one because of these difficult days.  I’m not sure what is going to come out of the European debt crisis or the popular uprisings in the Middle East.  Something better?  I hope so.   But I don’t know about that.

But I do know that it is sometimes, often, the darkest areas of a person’s life are precisely the place where God’s tears into our lives to re ignite hope and open a future.
It’s not just that we hope that God comes down from heaven or that at the end of this messy life we get to go up to heaven.  It is that somehow the best part of heaven - God - is making us new even here and now, as we wait in the world’s darkness and our own.

This has happened to me.  This has happened to many of you. But I want to tell you a story that comes from another community about how God works to bring people in darkness the light.  (Shane Claibourne - Irresistable Revolution, p. 183)

This story is about a couple who couldn’t have children.  (Kinda like some couples in the Bible.)  And about a teenage girl who was having a baby for which she wasn’t prepared. (Kinda like Jesus’ mother.)  The couple invited the homeless girl to come and live with them, and after the baby was born, she stayed.  The couple helped her raise the baby, while she pursued her dream of going back to school to become a nurse.  They have been living together for over a decade now.  They are a family.   And the baby is a teenager.  And there is a heart-wrenching twist to this story, because the older woman in this family is very ill now.  But she has a nurse in her home to help take care of her, just as she once took care of the nurse.  Out of darkness - there is a profound and beautiful hope. 

So - how do we hope given our faith that God has torn open the heavens and come down?  Jesus says we hope and wait expectantly.  And the best image I’ve come across for that kind of expectation is that it is like being a kid, waiting for a parent to come and pick you up.  (Lifted from commentary by a PCUSA prof. at Luther Seminary.  After school, a music lesson, soccer practice.  You remember that feeling?  And sometimes mom or dad was late.  Now I guess kids can text to find out where mom is.  But back in the day, that wasn’t a possibility.  The best we kids could do was to do whatever we could think of to shorten the time and the distance between us.  We’d walk to the corner we knew mom would drive around.  We’d stand there, leaning out into the street to look for the familiar car.  We’d listen for the sound, watch the place it would appear. We’d wait expectantly, not passively, but moving in the direction of the one we hoped to see. 

Advent Hope is like that. It is the kind of hope that looks alert for opportunities to move in the direction of Jesus Christ.  God couldn’t wait to bring us hope, and we can’t wait to do whatever we can to share that hope with others.  We know God is with us when we do.  One of the things we do as a congregation is provide opportunities to reflect the light of Christ.  This week you’ve already heard about two:  The Outreach team’s “Creches and Carols” event is a way for you to invite a friend or neighbor to get to know our community, and sense the love of God.  And the Deacons have provided a way for you to feed a hungry family at Christmas time by shopping for food baskets.   In our lives, I pray that we will be alert for chances we have to move in God’s direction as we hope this Advent season. 

The days may be short.  The darkness may be all around us.  But as people of God we never lose hope.  For, as we’ve been saying for centuries: 

Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again.

Right here, right now - heaven can’t wait for hope.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon notes - 11/20/11

Nov. 20, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46
The Final

I had a teacher in high school who would give us the answers to the final exam before the final exam.  Not just the questions, but the answers.  It was very helpful.  She said, “I don’t want anybody to flunk.  I want everyone to learn the material and be able to do well on the test.  It just makes sense to give you the answers, so there is no reason in the world why any one should fail.”  And . . . that was nice.

Our Gospel lesson this morning seems to indicate that Jesus, like my teacher, also does everything in his power to insure that when people face their final examination, they do as well as they possibly can. 

Does all this final exam talk make us a little nervous?  Well, it does me.  I think when we hear this our natural first thought is that this is about who gets into heaven and who goes to the other place.  And Jesus, who we all know is a forgiving kind of a guy, doesn’t seem to cut the goats in the story much slack.  This seems like a not very funny version of a St. Peter at the pearly gates joke (and, having searched my internet sources for an appropriate example to share with you, I must say, there are some funny ones, but not many a preacher can tell from the pulpit.  Want one anyway?  A nice little old married lady died and met St. Peter at the pearly gates.  St. Peter says,  Everybody has to answer a spelling question to get into heaven.  You’ve been married for 47 years, always good to your husband . . . can you spell the word “LOVE?”  Of course she can and she comes right in and makes herself at home.  A few years later, St. Peter asks her to watch the gate for him while he runs an errand.  As she’s sitting there, who should come up but her husband.  She’s so glad to see him!  “How’ve you been?”  she asks.  “Couldn’t be better, he says.  The last three years have been the happiest of my life.  I married Vicky, the nurse who took care of you during your last illness.  She’s a real ball of fire.  We’ve traveled all over the world.  Had the best time.   Why, today we were water skiing and my ski slipped off, hit me in the head, and here I am.  So how do I get in?”  “You have to spell a word.”  “What word?”  Czechoslavakia. 

Getting into heaven jokes are . . . iffy.  But the evidence is that Jesus’ story, is not so much about individuals getting into heaven when they die, as how the church that he was leaving behind on earth could fully and faithfully participate in the Kingdom that Jesus the Christ had brought into being on earth.

If it is true, that the Kingdom of God is at hand in Jesus’ life, and that Jesus has invited us to be a part of His Kingdom  -  then how do we exercise our citizenship in this divine new order of things?  How do we show that we belong and we long to remain where Jesus’ love is the ultimate rule?

Maybe this is more like a citizenship test.  Where does our love, loyalty and future lie? 
In some countries, passing a citizenship test is really hard.  You have to be born there, or be of the right ethnic group, or prove that you can speak the language.  But the test that Jesus tells us the answer to here (4 times in 10 verses! ) is really remarkably lenient. 

It isn’t asking us to do or know anything really hard.  We don’t have to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, or repeat the words of institution for the Lord’s supper.  We don’t have to quote a Bible verse, or show our sunday school attendance record. 

All we have to do is these things: 
Feed the hungry.
Give water to the thirsty,
Clothe those who need clothing.
Welcome the stranger.
Visit the sick and those in prison
It’s not asking for something that takes incredible skill, or courage, or massive amounts of time.  Or cooperation.  Or politic power.

He doesn’t say, “End world poverty”  “Design a water distribution system that meets the criteria of equity and fairness.”  “Heal the sick.”  “Free the prisoner.”  Just feed those who are hungry.  Give water to the thirsty.  Give clothes to those who need them.  Be nice to the new person in the neighborhood.  Simple, doable things that fit into anyone’s life.

And the world is full of hungry, thirsty, needy, strange, sick people.  You don’t have to look very far to find someone who needs your compassion, who needs your help.  Maybe the new mom down the street, maybe the child who doesn’t seem to have a coat.  maybe the mumblin, confused person on . . . The question isn’t “what should I do, but where should I start?”

It’s like we’re in the group of soldiers who set up camp in a forest at night.  They weren’t sure exactly where the enemy was, so they sent out a scout to find the location for their morning escape.  He was gone a long time, and when he came back, they gathered around.  “Great news!” he said, “We’re surrounded!  We can attack anywhere.”

There are opportunities everywhere to be loving, helpful, kind and generous people.  To serve Christ the King by serving the his brothers and sisters and ours. Praise the Ruler of All - the Good Shepherd - our Soul’s Teacher!  We know the questions, we know the answers!  We need not fear the final exam.  PS   It’s already started. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ready? Set? Burn!

This is what I THINK I'm preaching tomorrow.  Spirit willin' and the creek don't rise.

The Parable of the Ten Maidens and Their Lamps -

I count among my few friends a wedding planner.  What a high-pressure, responsible job! One of the biggest moments - one of the great events in any person’s life - When I read this parable this week, I couldn’t help but think right away of how the wedding Jesus talks about in this story could have used the services of my friend Gwen.  I mean REALLY!  The groom is late.  The guests fall asleep.  Half the wedding party fails to perform their assigned duty.  Then the groom locks out 5 of the bride’s best friends. . . What a disaster! And you know I am planning a wedding myself. In my current nuptial state of mind, I’ve had wedding nightmares this whole week.

But finally, I had to say to myself what I’m saying to you this morning:  Jesus isn’t talking about weddings.  The wedding stuff is just an analogy.  It’s just a narrative device.  So I’m not going to spend alot - heck, I’m not going to spend ANY time talking about first century wedding customs or explaining the whys and wherefores of wedding customs through the ages. 

Jesus is talking about Big Events - Once in a Lifetime Moments - Experiences that Change LIves Forever.   This parable is about Once in a Lifetime chances and whether we are able to rise the occasion.  So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

And the first truth about moments like that - God moments in our lives - is that moments like that don’t happen according to OUR schedule.  We can’t write the really big events on our calendars with the time and the place in pen. 
In Jesus’ story - the groom does not arrive when he is expected.  He is delayed, and doesn’t show up when everyone is waiting and ready.   He shows up way late, in the middle of the night, when everyone has fallen asleep. 

This is the way God moments happen in our lives.   Week before last, Tim was gone all week.  From Monday through Friday he was in Phoenix, and Friday evening, when I expected him home, I was really looking forward to seeing him.  He pulled in the drive and I walked out to meet him, but as I did I saw a neighbor, someone I have known casually since moving to Philo, walking down the street.  I waved, and this person walked straight toward us.  “Cindy, do you have a minute?  I need to talk to you.”  Something had happened to that person that day that caused them to need to talk about God and life and death and the big stuff. I’d wanted to talk to this person about their faith, and share my faith in Jesus for ten years.   And this was the moment.  This was the time when the door was finally open and we finally got to share and pray together.  Was it on my calendar?  My schedule?  No.  It was not.  It happened when it happened.  And by the grace of God, ready or not, I was there.  That’s how God- moments occur. 

How can we loosen our grip on our schedules, our control, our goals and objectives just enough to be able to be there, ready and expectant, when a Big, life-changing moment comes too early, or too late to fit into our plans?

Some of the people in Jesus’ story managed to do that.   Some didn’t.  But some did.    Here’s the mark of the successful bridesmaids - They were packin’.  Not guns.  But flasks of oil.  They had the resources to deal with the unexpected at the ready.  Now, those other bridesmaids might have had plenty of oil in great big barrels at home.  Olive oil is hardly a scarce resource in Palestine, then or now.  But they didn’t have it with them.  They couldn’t pull it out and use it when the need arose.

What about our faith?  Are we packin?  When we face a “Big Event” - whether it is the chance to share our faith, or do an important service for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters -  Do we have what we need close at hand? Do we have a relationship with Jesus that is close enough, solid enough that we can describe it to someone who needs to know him?  Do we know how to pray well enough to do it if someone asks?  Have we thought deeply enough about the big questions to at least know how to phrase them should the occasion arise?   When it comes to faith, are we packin?  Having a Sunday go to meetin faith is good.  It’s like having a big barrel of oil at home.  But when someone is hurting - and they need a light for their darkness - it often isn’t enough to say, “My church has services on Sundays at 10.  That’s where God can be found.”  When it comes to faith - each of us needs to carry it with us.  We gotta be packin’. 

Which takes preparation.  Cause here’s the thing - each one of us needs to be prepared to meet God and to walk into the Once in a LIfetime moments God puts in our lives one by one.  There’s no such thing as faith by association.  That’s why the bridesmaids who have oil can’t share it with the ones who do not.  Your mother’s faith may be great.  But it isn’t your faith.  Your grandfather’s generosity may have been legendary.   But that doesn’t make you generous.  Your brother, or your sister or your best friend may be the most compassionate person ever.  But their compassion doesn’t make you a loving person.   To be the person God is calling you to be means that YOU have to respond to the call.  Nobody can trust God or serve God or meet God for you.   Each one of us has to decide what kind of person we are going to be and practice being that person for ourselves. 

Preparation is about habits and practice.  Part of Tim’s success is that he’s one of the best lighters around.  Putting the best light on a situation - literally - takes time and a certain amount of trouble. Sometimes people say to him, “Oh, we don’t really need to take the time to do it right for THIS shot.  It’s not important enough.   Not enough people are going to see it.  Nobody will notice the difference.  Nobody really cares.”  And he say, “That’s true.  This shot doesn’t really require great lighting.  But if I don’t do good lighting on this shot, then when the really important shot comes, I won’t know how.” 

The habits of faith - prayer, worship, giving, Bible study, building up the church, speaking the truth in love, forgiving one another, trusting God - are like that.  Most times whether we do them or not doesn’t seem to make much difference.  But if we don’t do them on a regular basis, they don’t become part of who we are, and when we DO need to do them, we find that we don’t know how.  The Big Event comes, a loved one dies, a child is in trouble, a opportunity to make a difference or to make a big mistake comes and we are clueless as to how to respond. 

The Big LIfe changing events happen and if we are ready, willing and able to answer the summons, we become part of the celebration of God and all those other invited guests.  We stand on one side of the door and enjoy the party.  But the door has another side.  And there are eternal consequences for not preparing, not being ready, not being able to respond. 

I don’t think Jesus was trying to scare people.  But I think he was trying to motivate people to be ready for the Big Opportunities for faithful living that God puts in each believer’s life. 

Let’s get ready for the moments that come whether we are ready or not.
Let’s get set by practicing our faith every week, every night, every day.
Let’s let our lights shine for Jesus.  Ready? Set? Burn!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jesus' Version of "Getting Things Done"

I’m going to do something stupid up here.  I’m going to start a sermon with a confession.  Which is stupid because who really cares about somebody else’s problems?  Be that as it may - here is my confession:  I struggle with organization.  Especially in my office.  I have lots of important stuff, which I half remember is there, but I can’t put my hands on it.  Like a couple of Sundays ago.  When the scripture was about the king inviting everybody to the banquet and people give all kinds of lame excuses about why they can’t come.  Carol Erb had given me a copy of a really funny old song about that.  I remember the chorus:  I can not come to the banquet, don’t bother me now, I have taken a wife I have bought me a cow, I have fields and possessions that cost a pretty sum, so don’t bother me cause I can’t come.  I thought that would be really fun for us to sing.  But I couldn’t find it. 
I looked everywhere for it.  But I didn’t find it.  What I did find was a journal that had directions for an art project that I really really really wanted to do during Lent last spring. 
I pulled that thing out of the piano bench, looked at it and just about cried. 
I struggle with organization.  So I signed up with a life coach to take a course on organization.  And I bought a books  - "Getting Things Done".  And I’m working on it.  I’m seeing some progress, but if you walked in my office right now, you’d be hard pressed to tell.  But there’s one difference now:  I have a filing cabinet.  That is the first and most important thing to do for office organization:  have a filing system that you can put things into and take things out of when the occasion arises.  Or you are sunk.  You are always looking at piles of paper and you have all this information and it is useless to you.  You have to have some organizing principle or all the paper is just . . . trash waiting to fulfill its destiny, which is to be thrown away.
OK.  Most of you don’t have disorganized offices.  Or linen closets.  Or pantries.  Or clothes closets.  OK.  Good for you. 
But what about our understanding of God and especially the handle we have on scripture - which we affirm is one of the most important ways God communicates his will for our lives.  How do you organize all the things between the covers of this book and make sense of it for your life?
Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and Pharisees in our own day (and I’m not using that term derogatorily - well, maybe I am) look at this book and pull out all the laws.  There are 10 Commandments.  Those are the law God gave through Moses.  10 is just quite a few.  OK.  Well the people in Jesus’ day had not 10, not 100 - but closer to 1000- 613 to be precise - laws that they had drawn out of God’s Word and tried to follow to the letter everyday of their lives. 
So, they come to Jesus, with a question about those 613 laws that they feel will be a stumper.  (It’s just actual fact that they were not asking out of intellectual curiosity - but malice toward our man, Jesus.)   “Which is the most important commandment?”  It’s like asking a mother, which is your favorite child.  Or an art collector, “Which is the best painting?”  or a banker, which is your favorite hundred dollar bill?  The right answer is, ‘All of them!”
But Jesus doesn’t take the easy answer.  Why are we not surprised by that?  Jesus doesn’t mouth the pious platitude.  Instead he offers an honest answer.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Boom.  A one-two punch.  He said, Those aren’t just two of my favorites.  Those are THE two , on which hang all 611 of the others. 
In other words - he wasn’t just answering a question.  He was offering an organizing principle.  He was revealing the filing system for understanding and accessing God’s intent for our lives.  God’s intent for us is LOVE.  Love of God.  Love of humanity. 
He was saying that living a Good - God blessed - life means organizing it around these two things:  Love of God.  Love of neighbor. 
Those are the two drawers in the filing cabinet of your life.  Everything that comes into your life, and every action you take while you live each and every day should go into and come out of those two categories.  Purpose #1 - To Love God.  Purpose #2 - to Love Neighbor as Self.  And if something doesn’t belong in one of those two drawers, then it belongs in the circular file.  The trash.  Both the drawers are labeled love. 
Here I”m gonna quote a Biblical scholar, Michael Hare, (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) who writes:
In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. [p. 260]

Let’s take that first drawer.  Loving God with all our heart, and soul and mind:  How do we do that?  Prayer.  Worship.  Stewardship of time and talents.  Taking care of God’s gifts to us and returning a proportion of those gifts to God’s work in the world. This is how we show our commitment to God.  By putting God first.  Not money. Not family, not heritage. not country. God.  
David Foster Wallace:  Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. Worship power -- and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.
That’s the first file drawer of life. 
And the second organizing principle, the second file drawer is love of neighbor - taking the needs  of other people (not just friends, or relations or fellow Christians, or Americans, but neighbors as Jesus defines it  - everyone who has need and who doesn’t?) as seriously as you take your own needs.
In this file drawer goes how we talk to others with whom we disagree.  How we understand our place in the community.  How we respond to power.  How we exercise the power and influence that we have.  How we treat customers in our stores, people who wait on us in restaurants, students in our classes, people on committees, migrant workers who pick our food, people who cut us off in traffic, everybody.  We pay attention to their needs and treat them as equal to our own.
This is the second drawer of life. 
Now, my two drawer analogy breaks down a little, because the Love God drawer and the  Love Others and Self drawer aren’t really two separate drawers. 
Martin Luther, I think, once said that God is perfectly sufficient unto God’s Self.  God doesn’t need anything that we have to give.  God is God.  The Creator of the Universe isn’t waiting for our prayer to act, or our worship to feel good about Himself, or our gifts to make Himself complete.  So the only way we can offer something to God is to offer it to our neighbor.  Love of God is not something apart from loving neighbor.  It is the reason for loving our neighbor.  That is what God desires from us and for us.  So the drawers get cross filled.   What belongs in one belongs in the other, too.  And what comes out of one can be found in the other. 
But rather than that making things more complicated and confused, it really makes things more simple.  Love is the only thing that matters.  All the rest of details.  Which the God of LOVE we know in Jesus Christ invites us to work out with fear and trembling in our own lives.
 I would like to invite you to briefly experiment with letting LOVE organize your thoughts.   Listen for how God is inviting us today to choose love.
Open your heart. Be attentive for any particular word or phrase that stands out to you:
Jesus said, You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Show Your I.D. - Deacon's Mission Sunday

Show your I.D.  - A long long time ago, I used to be asked for to show my I.D. when I bought a six pack of beer.  But that hasn't happened for a while now.  Now, the only time I get asked to show I.D. is when I cash a check.  Or when I use a credit card I haven't signed.  In some countries, and even in some states in this country, folks are asked to show I.D. more frequently, to prove you are who you say you are.
So what identifies You? What are our identifying characteristics as a church?  How do people know that we are who we say we are? 

If someone were to “check our I.D” to make sure we are put together by God, to make sure we are the Church we say we are, what would they be looking for?  or that each of us is the Christian we say we are, what would they be looking for? 

Scripture has a pretty good “check list” of ways to identify things put together by God: It’s “Faith, Hope and Love” .  This is Paul’s first use of this trio of Christian virtue, but you may already be thinking of how he puts it much later - in the great I Corinthians 13 passage we hear often at weddings:  “So faith, hope and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.”  Here he talks about the work of faith, the labor of love, and the patience of hope that leap to mind when a vital church is mentioned.  This week, anticipating the Deacon’s Mission Dinner, I’ve been thinking about how the work of faith, the labor of love and the patience of hope show up on our “I.D.”. 
The first is the Work of Faith -
    At it’s most basic - the work of faith may be found in feeding people.  Deacons feed people.   In fact, that’s how Deacons got their start.  The earliest Christian church, which is described in the Book of Acts in the New Testament - faced a problem.  Some of the church members were hungry and feeling neglected.  So the church appointed a few of its members to give special attention to these folks and make sure that they got fed.
    Our deacons are still feeding people.  When someone is sick, or in special need, it is the Deacons who organize meals to be taken to them.  Have  you ever gotten a meal from a deacon?  I have.  It is a way for us to show the church’s love and care for its members.
    The Deacons are feeding all of us this morning after worship.  They’ve all made their favorite casserole, salad and dessert and brought them here to share with all of us.  When we sit down and share, we are taking part in a tradition of the church that goes back to the very beginning. And I’m not talking about Jello salad, though I specially requested one, out of respect for historical accuracy. 
    This summer, our Deacons expanded their feeding role by whole heartedly participating in a food distribution partnership with the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.   This was a project that a couple of elders suggested, and I took it to the Deacons, I’ll have to tell you, with a certain apprehension.  It would require what might be a substantial committment of resources and time.  Would the Deacons want to use their funds?  But my hesitation was groundless.   All five of them immediately leapt at the idea, and saw it as an opportunity to be part of Christ’s work.  So early one Saturday morning, they were there to help unload a truck of pantry boxes and produce and other contributions that the congregation had made - and to meet the people who had needs in Southern Champaign County.  We were truly blessed to be able to share Christ’s love with young moms who were wanting healthy food for their children,with older folks whose Social Security was being stretched to the limit, with folks unable to find work in the bad economy. 
    You’re going to hear a little more about this project at the Dinner this morning, and many of you were there to see this work of faith.  So I won’t say too much more.  But I will say that the hard work and the sweet spirit of the event reminds us of what Scripture says: It is clear to us, friends, that God not only loves you very much but also has put his hand on you for something special. 
    The Work of Faith is part of our church’s I.D. 
Labor of Love - Kemmerer Village 
    I can’t help it.  When I hear “labor of love” I think of childbirth.  Labor is the hard work of delivering a child into the world.  But the labor of loving just keeps going.  There is the physical labor of carrying them around and dressing and feeding them.  There is the emotional labor of putting their needs before your own.  There is the spiritual labor of praying for them and with them and teaching them that God loves them and that following Jesus Christ is the very best way to live life.  Love is laborious. 
    Several of the ministries that the Deacons support have to do with loving children:  Crisis Nursery, Women in Transition, Juvenile Diabetes Association, Camp Scholarships.  Let me lift up just one: the Presbytery’s Children’s Home at Kemmerer Village. 
    I’m reading from one of their newsletters:  Many of the children who come to our residential program have complicated personal histories.  The children’s experiences often include severe family conflict, educational probles, childhood mental illness (such as depression, axiety, suicidal behaviors, aggressive outbursts, mood swings) and parental mental illness or substance abuse.  In order to work effectively with these young peole, we require around the clock supervision with staff well trained to provide significant external structure along with nurturing guidnace.  On an average day 45 children are cared for on the Kemmerer Village Campus ranging from ages 12-19, while 72 children from infancy to age 21 reside in 36 foster homes that Kemmerer Village licenses and oversees.
    That’s a lot of numbers.  But what the Deacons try to remember is that each of those numbers is a child.  A child like the one I heard speak at Kemmerer Village at a Presbytery Meeting.  He was 18 and had just graduated from High School.  He was beginning community college that next year.  And he said,  “I want to thank you for Kemmerer Village and the 5 years I have spent here.  When I came to live here, I was full of anger.  I didn’t feel that I belonged anywhere.  I acted out often, because making others feel bad was the only way I knew to get out how bad I felt inside.  But my cottage parents, and Chaplain Mulch and all the staff here showed me that they really cared for me, and that even God loved me.  I had some rough times, but that love changed me.  I began to learn at school, and think about the future. Now I have graduated from high school and I know that I can live a good life.  I will never forget the folks who helped me.  They are my family now. And it is good to have a family who loves you.”
    Raising children is a labor of love.  The labor of love is part of our church’s I.D.

Patience of Hope - addressing intractable problems with the wideness of God’s mercy. 
The Malawi Well Project.  In the face of intractable poverty and disease in Africa, it is an act of outrageous hope to build one well.  And so, every year, we do.  We do one little thing.  And that one little thing means that 200 or so people have clean water to drink, and their babies don’t die of dysentery.  And their women can have healthy babies.  And their children aren’t so weakened with parasites that they fall victim to every little infection that comes along.  We do one little hopeful thing, year after year after year.  And we join with churches and individuals from Illinois and all over the world and do one little thing.  And to date 13, 561 wells have been dug and over 2 million people have clean, safe water to drink.  Are we finished?  Is the problem of poverty in Malawi, Tanzania or Zambia licked?  No.  But for 2,000,000 people it is.  And our hope grows and grows. 

The patience of hope is part of our church’s I.D.

So the words of our scripture are true - they apply to us today, just as Paul wrote 2000 years ago:

The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master's Word. The news of your faith in God is out. We don't even have to say anything anymore—you're the message! 
    Because your lives display the work of faith, the labor of love and the patience of hope,  it clear your I.D. confirms that you are who you say you are  - the church of Jesus Christ.

So this is our benediction: 
From God the Father and Christ our Master To you who are assembled here: Amazing Grace!  Robust Peace! 

Thanks to the Deacons of our church - those who have served, and those who serve now:  Marlene Evans, Jan Siders, Betty Lauchner, Terry Pratt and Karen Talbott.  It is clear that God not only loves you, but has put his hand on you for something special.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Showing Up

This is a short sermon (for me! :-))  We are taking the Congregational Life Survey at the end of the service, and I wanted to leave at least 20 minutes out of the hour. 

The text is Matthew 22:1-10  - The Parable of the King's Banquet.   I'm not reading the part about the man without the wedding garment.  THAT's another story, my dears!

Woody Allen said “80% of success is just showing up.”

This is certainly borne out by the parable Jesus tells in our scripture today:  The big mistake is made by those who choose not showing up to participate in the King’s celebration.  And the big success is achieved by those from the highways and byways, not by strenuous effort or massive preparation or surpassing worth - but just by showing up to be there when the celebration began. 

Just showing up doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to set before God’s people.  Just show up.  Just be present.  Just attend. 

But how often we miss the celebration by failing to be present in the moment that God has so carefully prepared.  How often we walk right past the feast the God has spread before us, too preoccupied with other concerns to even notice the brimming cup, the lavish table,  too busy, way too busy to pause for the anointing that soothes and heals.

Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what's past.  (Quote from a site on the internet)

God is eternal.  We sing it every Sunday - as it was in the beginning, is not and ever shall be - but the words and glorious music fly past us, out of our mouths without ever entering our hearts, so anxious are we to get on with the service - get to our favorite part  - the benediction  haha - and go on with the rest of our busy busy day. 

God is eternal.  Past Present and Future all belong to Him.  But the only time that we can experience his presence, and partake of God’s goodness is in the present time.  Now is all we have.  It is our opening into eternity.  The present is a gift that we too often take for granted and refuse to open, or to open ourselves to experience.

One of the things I love most about Jesus is that he is incredibly present to those he encounters in his life. He pays attention to the fishermen beside the Sea of Galilee.  He notices the beauty of the lilies of the field.  He isn’t in a hurry to get the children to go sit down so that he can get on with the task of preaching to the grown ups.  He takes them in his arms and blesses them.  He rises early in the morning to go off to pray - to give to God his undivided attention. 

How would our lives look if we, too, practiced being present to people in our lives and in the present with the God we say we love?  You can’t do that all the time - you may say.  Well, of course.  But what if we spent this hour every week with our eyes and ears wide open to God’s love?  What would we see in this present moment? 
A couple of Sundays ago, when the service was over, one of you said, Did you see, there was a nice little moment, when one of the Sunday School teachers invited a child who was here alone to sit with her.  Did you see it?  It was just a moment, but it was full of grace.

Do you notice the glow on the face of new parents, or the beauty of an older couple holding hands?  Do you see the kindness in the manner the elders pass communion, or feel the power of our voices raised together in song?  Does the familiar sound of a friend’s voice calm your heart? 

These things happen and we could experience them every time we gather, for when we are gathered in His Name, our Lord and Savior is present with us.

And it is not just on Sunday that God invites us to show up at the banquet of life.  Far from it!  Our moments and our days are full of the gracious love of God, who invites and invites and invites us to be part of the celebration He has prepared. 

This week, my prayer is that we will show up for the banquet.  That we will actually be alive to the moments that nourish and sustain us. 

Maybe a bedtime story for a child.  Maybe a quiet dinner with a loved one. Maybe an honest conversation with a friend, or a stranger.  Maybe a few minutes of gratitude before the day begins. 
There will be a knock on the door of your heart and  you will sense the invitation to come to God’s banquet.  You will know that all is prepared and it is time for you to come.  You will feel the urge to make excuses for yourself and be too busy to attend the party.  But what a shame it would be to miss it! 

Because the largest part of success is JUST SHOWING UP.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Changing Your Mind - Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

What we think has a powerful effect on what we do.  Here is a mind-blowing example:    How you see isn't just about how good your eyes are - it's also about your mindset, according to a study published in Psychological Science. For example, in one experiment, if someone was told that exercise would improve their vision, they saw better after doing an athletic activity - jumping jacks - than an unathletic activity with the same effect on heart rate.

What we think influences our behavior.  In our scripture this morning, Jesus tells a story and then gives a lesson from it.  Both point to the necessity of changing one’s mind and therefore behaving differently in order to realize the blessing of God.

So, being the practical preacher that I am.  This month.  I thought - OK.  What’s the practical application here?  What do people need to know?  How to change our minds was the obvious answer.  Of course, in order for that to be a helpful topic, we’d have to have some change that we wished to make, or thought we OUGHT to make in order to live better lives.  We’d have to want to change.  Which reminds me of the lightbulb joke:  How many psychaitrists does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one.  But the lightbulb has to really want to change.  Or of a hat a certain pastor acquaintance had that read, “Let’s CHANGE - - - You go first” 

In general, most of the time, change is not something people want to do.  I get that.  And nothing I can say can make you want to change.  But I can remind you of something you already know:  If you want the world to change - if you want something in your world to change - if you want a situation to change - the only thing you CAN change is yourself.  So maybe if you don’t want to change yourself - your behavior, your ideas, your life in any way, you will just hear me out and file these ideas in the back of your mind in case you ever DO find that you want to change something.  Because here’s something Jesus says is possible - even blessed - you can do:  You can change your mind. 

One way to change is to think yourself into a new way of acting.  This works like the experiment with the eyes that I talked about before.  You convince yourself that a new course of action is possible, and you gradually live into that possibility.  Let’s take something mundane.  Like controlling your tongue.  Or being organized.  Or exercising regularly.  If those things are aren’t problems for you, then think of something that you do struggle with, that limits your life in some way - being isolated.  not saving money. Failing in school.  Hating your job.
Let’s work with controlling our tongues, since that is a Biblical mandate.  The book of James says, “Watch your mouth, for the tongue is a raging fire.”  So that’s a behavior that we need to repent.
The first step in changing your life by changing your mind is to become aware of all the times and all the ways you think negative things about that.  
I say things without thinking. 
I am not tactful.
I say things that hurt people.  Maybe I say things TO hurt people.  I gossip about folks.
I don’t think before I speak. 
You write those things down on a piece of paper.  With your hand.  Not the computer.  (I’ don’t know why that matters, but apparently it does.)  Then you fold the paper in half and on the other side, you write positive statements that correspond:
I think before I speak.
I am becoming more tactful (you don’t say “I’m trying” to be more tactful, cause trying focuses on the effort, not the success.  In the immortal words of Yoda, “There is no try!  There is only do or not do.”)
My words foster better relationships.
I consider the impact of my words befre I say them.
And you put those affirmative statements where you will be reminded of them often.  Every time you see them, you say them.
Every time you notice thinking the negative thing, stop it and think the positive one instead.  You don’t have to believe it in any deep way.  You just say it to yourself.

And then, you will start to notice that instances in which the positive things are acted out.  You notice when you think before you speak.  You notice when instead of cussing you remain polite.  You notice when you say the right thing - the thing that makes a situation better instead of worse. 

And it will happen more and more.  If you do this, it will change your mind and change your actions.  Your words will become like a healing balm - that turn away wrath and sooth the soul - both yours and others.  This is true. 

You have thought your way into a new way of acting. A way that is more full of the grace and mercy of Jesus. 

The other way of changing your mind is to act your way into a new way of thinking.  Let’s say you have fallen out of love with your spouse.  Or your church.  Or Jesus.  You just aren’t feeling it.  Let’s say it is your best friend. 
To change the relationship, you change some actions on your part. 

You compliment your friend on some aspect of their character that you appreciate.
You choose to spend time with them.
You call them up just to ask about their day.
You tell them a joke they’ll like, or send them a song or an article they’ll enjoy. 

Two weeks of this behavior and voila!  Your relationship takes on a different, more joyful tone.  A month - you look forward to hearing from them and you no longer have to pretend that they enrich your life.  It will be true.   

You have acted yourself into a new way of thinking and felling about them.

These techniques work in mundane matters, and in spiritual matters as well.  When they are spiritual, we call them “repentance”.  Changing one’s mind is one way of understanding repentence - which does not mean felling sorry.  It means to change one’s direction.  And to change the direction of thinking also changes our ability to do the right thing  - to answer God’s call, to live the life that God has invited us to share in Christ.

Jesus told this great story about the two sons - both asked to go and work for their Father (God) and both of whom changed their minds between the answer and the action. They repented. 

In one case the change was for the good.  In the other, not so much.

What’s interesting when you look at the Greek is that the change here is not quite the same as just changing one’s mind - which is what is translated as “repentance” elsewhere in the New Testament.  Here Jesus uses a slightly different word that means changing how we feel, or changing our Heart, not just our mind. 

What scientists are beginning to discover is the physiological truth behind Jesus’ choice of words.  For there is now research on-going which has discovered what Jesus already knew - that the heart has a mind of its own.  There are actually a rather large group of nuerological cells in the heart, which both react to messages from the brain and the rest of the body AND send messages to the brain and the rest of the body through electrical and chemical pathways.  So it is quite literally true that the heart sometimes knows and communicates truths that the mind doesn’t. 

How to change your mind is only half of the story.  What we really need is a change of heart.  And the good news is that we can change our hearts - train our hearts - in a way that makes it possible for us to be more Christ-like.  One heart training technique is called Freeze framing.  But that’s because scientists named it.  If theologians named it, they would call it something different.  Like prayer.  Here’s how it goes - when confronted by anger or frustration, which the heart recognizes even if the mind doesn’t, for instance if someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do and you feel that tight feeling in your chest, quickly put your hand on your heart (literally at first - when you get good at it you can do it without the hand) and pray, “Christ have mercy. Open my heart to feel compassion for this person who has asked for my help.”  Feel your heart opening to the other person and let God’s love govern your response. This doesn’t mean that you will have to always say “yes” to the request.  But you will be able to respond in a way that is in concert with the divine Yes we have heard in Jesus Christ.   You will act with the wisdom of an open and loving heart.

You can change by acting your way to a new way of thinking
You can change by thinking your way to a new way of acting.
But this scripture also points out that the changing that God desires from us and for us is not just about changing our heads but changing our hearts.

No matter how we have answered in the past - whether we have said yes or no - to God’s will for our lives, 

God has gifted us with the possibility that we can change our minds, and if we allow him to, he can change our hearts. 


Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Right Time to Forgive

When to Forgive
Matthew 18:21-35
Sept 11, 2011
Rally Day

    This week we start “Feasting on the Word” and the word for the day is “forgiveness”  It may not appear to be the best appetizer -  because when we have been injured, insulted, messed with / messed up, lied to or laid into - maybe the first thing we think of is not “Oh.  I bet a little bit of forgiveness would be good right now.” 
We we’ve been hurt or pained by the deed of another, what’s the dish we want to feast upon?  Revenge!  The dish best served cold. . . . 
    So my hope this morning is that I can give you just a little taste of how sweet forgiveness can be.  That when you leave here this morning, you will be inclined to order it up off your life’s menu and make it part of the feast we share in God’s Word.
    So when is the right time to try forgiveness?
    When is a bad time to forgive?  When all you want is the way things used to be.  Evil changes things.  As our nation observes the 10th anniversary of the devestating attack of 9/11, we acknowlege that our world has changed.  Americans don’t feel invulnerable, like we did before.  We know our lives, our peace, our economy our place in the world is fragile.  There isn’t always a happy ending to heroic stories.  The first responders who headed up the stairs and into the fire on that life changing day gave their lives for others taught us a hard lesson that takes time for us to digest.  Things have changed.  America has had a rough ten years growing into a new understanding of our new place in the world.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  But I am hopeful that we are strong and resiliant and that we care about each other enough to make the adjustments we need to once again lead the world toward a brighter future.

The trespasses and debts we owe each other also change our relationships and change us.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean going back and believing in the fairy tale even stronger.  It means letting ourselves and our lives be transformed by God so that we can see and deal with what is - not what we wish was. 

    When is a bad time to forgive?  When you misunderstand the nature of forgiveness and think it means you have to continue being abused.  God doesn’t want you to be crushed, for your spirit to be broken, for your body to be injured.  And if you think that forgiveness means you have to continue in a relationship that hurts you or someone else, then don’t forgive until you figure out that forgiveness means doing things differently.  . . .  Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you.  It means loving them and loving yourself enough to hold them accountable and quit being part of abuse. 
    When it a bad time for forgiveness?
        when you haven’t ever accepted forgiveness  
            if you are carrying around a load of guilt and shame and the mistakes that you have made seem to close off your future.  When you can’t imagine that anyone, especially God, could love and cherish you because of all your shortcomings, faults and failures. 
    If you have never accepted the grace of God, and allowed God to open up new possibilities, new hope and promise in your life,  If you have never woken up in the morning and prayed, “Thank you God.  Another chance to live a better life.”  Then maybe it isn’t the right time for you to forgive.  Maybe it is the right time for you to go to God and accept the grace and love and second/third/forth seventy seventh chance holds out to you though Jesus Christ his Son.  If it is the time to be forgiven - to say “Yes” to the cross which redeems the failures of the past and makes possible a beautiful future - then do that first.  Get the guilt gone.  Believe in your own forgiveness. 
THEN you will be able to forgive others.

So when IS a good time to forgive? 
    When you are ready to let go of the pain of the past, while holding on to what it can teach you.   Forgiveness means giving up any thought that someday the person who owes you is going to pay you back.  Forgiveness mean the books are never going to be balanced.  Forgiveness means never getting even.   Because better than getting even is getting free.

    When you are ready to get healthy in your body and soul.  It's been documented in many a medical journal as to the ill effects that arise when forgiveness is withheld, how when people decide to stew and wallow in bitterness and anger their blood pressure is negatively affected as is the lining of their stomach and their entire cardiovascular system.   (sermon by Richard Zajac at
    To be forgiven by God is to become a new creation.  Jesus is pretty clear, and the whole of scripture is pretty clear, that you can’t get transformed with out letting go of what ever ties and bonds keep you hooked into old behavior, old patterns, old life.  Be new!

Latest Newsweek magazine, as part of its coverage of Sept 11 Anniversary, featured an article by a 17 year old named Nicholas Lanza, who, as a seven year old, watched the TV in horror as the Twin Towers, where his mother worked, collapsed.   In the days after the tragedy, he was the subject of a documentary film called “Telling Nicholas” about how the family finally broke the news to the boy that his mother was dead.  Nicholas’ world fell apart that day.  He became withdrawn, angry, depressed.  For years he struggled with the horrible pain of his loss and the aftermath. 
    " . . . .The summer before high school, I went to a church camp. It turns out that it was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. You see, I was still carrying thing that was wearing me down and leaving me broken.
During one service, one of my good preacher friends and a few other ministers gathered around me, and they began to pray for me. My preacher friend told me that it was time to let everything go. Throw it all away. For a moment, I didn’t know what was going on; all I could see was this blinding white light. A voice began to say, “You belong to me, my child. You shall no longer be burdened with these chains that you wear about you. You are free.”
    It was then that I realized I was in my own prison, bound with the thick iron chains of depression, wrath, unforgiveness, and—the thickest and strongest of all chains—my own mother. I can recall being deathly quiet for several moments. Then words came into my head. They weren’t really spoken, but it was as though they were there all this time: I love you. Now go and tell 5others the same.
After I was redeemed at the church camp, I had a new desire. I wanted to be able to tell bin Laden that I forgave him for the hideous crime he committed against me. When I heard that he had been killed in the spring of 2011, I was crushed, because that dream would never come true. Forgiveness is essential to really moving on from any tragic happening. I came to learn this through studying the word of God, prayer, and real-life experience.
Looking back, I see just how hate-driven and how mentally distorted I was. Is this what everyone else affected by 9/11 feels? I couldn’t tell you. Do they need to be that way? Absolutely not."
When is the right time to forgive? 
When you have accepted God’s forgiveness and are ready to live anew. 
When you need to let go of the pain that holding a grudge causes you. 
When you are ready to get healthy in body and soul.  
This is the time to taste forgiveness.  My prayer is that as a nation, as a church, and as individual members of the body of Christ we may come to Feast on the Word of forgiveness.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sermon Notes for "When Love Gets Tough"

These are the preaching notes for the sermon on Matthew 18: 15-20 & Romans 13:8-14.

So the fresh faced young thing is visiting her granny and says, “Granny, have you ever heard of Tough Love?”  And Granny says, “Baby, there isn’t any other kind.”

Relationships are tough.  They are what make life worth living - our relationships with friends, parents, members of the opposite sex, folks at work, on our teams, our children, even our brothers and sisters in Christ.  These relationships make us who we are, connect us with God’s purpose for our life, give us satisfaction and pleasure.  And sometimes drive us crazy.  How do we handle relationships when they get tough?

There’s something very comforting in just knowing that our Lord and Savior - who was all about love - recognized and acknowledged that relationships get tough.  In Matthew, Jesus gives the disciples and us a way to resolve conflicts between people who love each other and are bound together in Christ.

Lots of churches, including the Presbyterian ones, use this framework in their foundational documents as the right way to handle conflict:  Step One - Go to the person you are having trouble with and try to resolve it.  Step Two  - take some people with you to help witness the process.  Step Three - get the church involved.  These are good, healthy steps.  But I love that even Jesus acknowleges that they don’t always provide a satisfactory conclusion.  If those steps don’t work, he says, then there is a fourth one - Treat the person like a tax collector or a Gentile.  I think lots of organizations misuse this step, badly.  Sometimes it is justification for shunning the person and ending the relationship with them.

But think for a minute about how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles!  Over and over in his life and ministry he forgave them, invited them to new life, healed them, included them, and generally continued to love them to pieces!  We are reading this passage in a Gospel written by a tax collector - Matthew - who was called out of his tax booth and became one of Jesus’ closest friends.  Jesus opponents shun tax collectors and Gentiles.   But Jesus and his followers are called to a higher standard in relationships.  Even relationships that get tough tough tough.  That standard is love.

How does love act when the relationship gets tough?  How do we say what we have to say to people we love in a way that heals and grows the relationship, instead of breaking it to pieces?  How do we avoid doing more harm than good when we disagree amongst ourselves.

I have found the work of marriage and relationship specialist John Gottman to be very helpful in thinking about this.*  He’s studied hundred and thousands of couples trying to resolve difficulties and  he has come up with what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” which applies not just to couples, but to any time love of any kind gets tough.

He says that there are four things that can happen when people disagree - these are the four horsemen  - and that if they characterize the disagreement, then the end is near.  It toally connects with Paul’s linking the end times with the law of love.  It totally connects with Jesus’ putting this conflict resolution talk in the context of eternal salvation.  Love and how we handle its tough parts has important consequences in this world and the next.

OK.  When two people who love each other fight, they want to avoid riding any of these horses:

1 ) Criticism:
Attacking your partner’s personality or character.
Generalizations: “you always...” “you never...” 

2 )Contempt:
 - Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery - Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip

3 )  Defensiveness:
Seeing self as the victim,
- Making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way) “It’s not my fault...”, “I didn’t...”
- Cross-complaining:  “That’s not true, you’re the one who ...” “I did this because you did that...”
Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing -  Whining “It’s not fair.”

4 )  Stonewalling:
Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. People need time to cool off, but this is more than a cooling off period.  It is consistent cooling off.  stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, - Stony silence - Changing the subject - Removing yourself physically - Silent Treatment

These strategies for being in conflict within relationships will get you and the relationship into more and more trouble.  They are the horsemen of the apocalypse!  Don’t ride them!

Love finds another way:
Instead of criticism - love finds the way of “gentle complaint” - of making specific and personal observations.  “When X happened, I felt Y”  Instead of “You are a lazy no good jerk” say, “I want some help with picking up the living room each night.”

Instead of contempt - love makes the effort to express appreciation for the partner.  It lets the other person know that we value them and value the relationship.  Love respects a partner and never dismisses them.

Instead of defensiveness - Love claims responsibility. It asks, “What can I learn from this?”  and “What can I do about it?”  It listens to the complaint to try to understand what is underneath the words instead of instantly refuting them.

Instead of stonewalling, Love makes the effort to remain engaged, even if the terms of engagement shift - Jesus said, “Treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile.”  Don’t be expecting brotherly or sisterly treatment from them.  But you remember that they are related to you in love.

None of these strategies are easy.  None of them can happen when our hearts are in turmoil and full of fear.  Relationships are so important that when love gets tough, and we are hurting, we sometimes panic.  It is fear that motivates us, instead of love.  We feel so threatened that in our hurry to protect ourselves, we get on the apocalyptic horses and ride, ride, ride!

But love casts out fear.  Jesus gives us a huge gift when he reminds us, in the context of talking about conflict, disagreement and relationships in trouble:  “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”  Jesus’ very real presence can help to calm and soothe us when love gets tough.

In just a few minutes we are going to come to the table of our Lord and receive the gift of his real presence that abides with us always.  There is a place in scripture that says, “if you are on your way to the alter and you remember that your relationship with your brother or sister isn’t right, then go and fix the relationship and then come to the alter.”

But in actual fact, the times when love is tough may be the most important time for us to first come and receive the assurance offered here that Jesus himself is with us.  His love and presence is the calming and soothing gift we need in order to then go and deal with the relationships that need fixing.  I invite you to examine your life for those relationships where love is tough, and then come to the table praying that Christ’s presence will strengthen and nourish you to address them.   When love gets tough, it is imperative that we remember Jesus’ promise:  Whereever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by John Gottman.  1994

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Say them over again to me - Wonderful Words of Life!

Peacebang said this in a conversation about ceremony and ritual on her blog:
I find it incredibly brilliant.  Read the whole thing.  But this is, IMHO, the best part: 
Church is not a product that one chooses and then purchases, and worship is not an event that one attends as a spectator and then reviews as one would a movie or play. We need to preach covenantal theology, a theology that proclaims that we have been called by the Spirit out of the self-absorbed shallows of the consumer culture to become a people, God’s people, if you will. The covenant tradition teaches us that it is not we who choose to attend worship services based on the program, but we who are chosen by God to embody and incarnate the shalom, wholeness, peace, and mutual love. In Humanist terms, we might say that it is life’s longing for itself that draws us out out of our separate dwellings to take strength, solace and inspiration from gathering around the common hearth fire. In this covenantal framework, people do not merely tolerate the readings, hymns, dances, and rituals that constitute one week’s worship and wait impatiently for their favorite flavor or worship to appear back on the menu, they consider each Sunday a sacred hour of spiritual expression to which they obligated to bring their most generous heart and mind.

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Mary Magdelenes

Sally at challenges:  List five people who inspire you to dare to step out into becoming more.
1. Maya Angelou
2. Anne LaMotte
3. Oprah Winfrey
4. My Mother
5. My Daughter

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sermon on The Sower Parable

Matthew 13:1-9

In Amsterdam, the first thing I did when I got there was head to the Van Gogh museum.  Vincent Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, and probably one of yours, as well.  He was Dutch, lived in the 1800s and continues to fascinate us, both because of the beauty  of his work and the tragedy of his life. 
At the museum, which was several floors filled with his work, and that of artists who influenced him, we started at the top floor, which contained his earliest work, and worked our way down, to see how his vision and art evolved through the many tortuous episodes that marked his short path.
He was a Preacher’s Kid - a PK - who early and often experienced the pain of not quite fitting in with his parents or the strict Dutch Reformed Church of his day. His earliest ambition was to become a clergyman, like his father.  But that didn’t work out.  He flunked out of one seminary, and failed the entrance exam of another school.  He took a position as a Methodist missionaries assistant.  After 6 months, he was sent home.   He entered another school for missionaries, and was assigned to a coal mining town.  There, he slept on straw in the spare room of a parishoner, and lived as the people lived.  They didn’t like it.  His superiors scolded him for tarnishing the dignity of his office, and when he didn’t turn it around, they dismissed him. 

He fell in love, several times, with the wrong woman.  Multiple marriage proposals were rejected. No. Never. Not ever. 

He learned to draw while a youth, and worked in an art gallery briefly, but he didn’t start to paint until he was in his mid to late twenties. He died at 37, and one of the amazing things about walking through the museum was to see 5 floors full of incredible paintings that were all produced during a brief, ten year career. 

Van Gogh aspired to become an artist while in God's service, stating: " try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture."

One of the images that I saw over and over, one that clearly fascinated Van Gogh, was the image of the sower.  It was not originally drawn from life, but from another work of art - a painting by Millet which is also called, “The Sower”.  In that work, the figure of the Sower takes up almost the entire canvas.  At the time, the art world was scandalized by the heroic depiction of an ordinary peasant, and thought the artist was somehow adding fuel to the fire of social unrest among the peasant class, which was threatening the land-owners and elite of that society.   But what later art historians have remarked upon is how very Biblical the painting is.  The artist was extremely devout, and the painting is actually a study of God, as God is portrayed in the parable we read this morning. 

Van Gogh took that image, with its religious theme and the parable source and worked and reworked in numerous times over the years.  In some of his paintings of the sower, the central figure dominates the picture.  Some are light and happy paintings.  Others picture the same figure as the sun is setting.  Night light, and what it did to color, was one of Van Gogh’s passions.  Think of his “Starry Night” pictures.  In other sower pictures, the figure is seen farther away and other elements of the picture come to the fore. 

As I wandered through the museum, I wondered what it was about the figure of the sower that so fascinated Van Gogh and compelled him to return to it again and again.  So this week with the scripture that inspired him has been an opportunity to think about that.  And I think I know.  Because what Jesus was dealing with in this scripture is also one of the central experiences of the artist’s life.  And part of all our lives, if we take time to notice.

Hold “Van Gogh” in the back of your minds as we turn to more wordy interpretation of the passage we read. 

We can’t understand this parable without looking at the situation in which Jesus preaches it.  It comes about mid way in Jesus life and ministry.  It comes at a point where his early popularity and success is now resulting in opposition and emnity.  The first verse of chapter 13 is tied to what came immediately before.  And chapter 12 is full off troubles and rejection. 

In verses 1-8, thePharisees now debate Jesus directly.
In verse 14, They plot his death (12:14),
In verse 24, they accuse him of being in league with Beelzebul (12:24).
Jesus responds with a few choice words of his own.
They are not bearing the good fruit because they are bad trees --
a "brood of vipers" (12:34a).
They are "an evil and adulterous generation" who ask for a sign (12:38-39).
For Christians, from Matthew’s first readers through those of us sitting in these pews this morning, one of the most puzzling and disturbing set of questions is:
Why do people not believe? What is going on here? How can God's Son meet such a fate? Is there any explanation for the fate we have arrived at by the end of Matthew 12?
What’s the answer.  Well, Jesus offers one.  The answer is: Yes. The explanation begins with simple words: "A sower went out to sow." [p. 114]

In this parable,  Jesus likens God to a sower.

Now, I think it is worth remembering that New Testament theologians tell us about parables: 
Parables don’t have a point.  They have a punch.  They are told to knock us off balance and make us reevaluate our assumptions about God and the world. What was Jesus telling us we need to reevaluate.  What assumptions might we need to re think? 
And one possibility is our assumptions about control and efficiancy vs. waste in how God works. and how we are called to live as we follow him. 
The focus on God as the sower shows God to be generous, indescriminate, bountiful.   He plants the seeds of love and grace all over the place, not making any attempt to give special attention to the most productive, nicest dirt and not neglecting the least promising parts of the field.  This is not how people farm today.  It probably isn’t even how people farmed in Jesus’ day, though they came closer. 
What is shocking is the amount of waste.  Does this point us toward some deeper understanding of God?  It fits with much of what we know about God from the Old Testament.  Including the whole concept of the Sabbath, which is CENTRAL to what our Jewish forebearers insisted was faithful living.  The sabbath is a long time to do no work. 
Sacrifice was a ritual and the whole animal was to be burned.  Brian Stoeffregen, one of my favorite fellow preachers, points out that you didn’t pull out the best steaks when they were medium rare.  What a waste! 

Jesus’ picture of this gracious, generous, incredibly abundant God squares up with Jesus’ own ministry and his own outreach to any and everyone whose path he crossed.  He ate with religious folks, and outcasts.  He greeted rich men and poor men.  He healed well connected men and isolated women-folk.  He spread out God’s love over the whole human race.  Thanks be to God for the salvation that is so freely given that we can be assured it is offered to each and every one of us.

Wasteful - this parable is followed by the feeding of the 5000, the last line of which records how many baskets of left-overs were collected after everyone was fed.  12 baskets of unnecessary food, in case you are wondering.  What a waste!

So what does that mean for us as we live out our calling to be “in the image of God” or accept the invitation to follow in Jesus’ steps?  As individual Christians and as a church, doesn’t it mean that we should also be  "recklessly throwing out the seeds of love, grace and mercy” in our lives? 

Every once in a while Google makes a terrible mistake and sends me an article about business. 
 "Be sure to generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes." Another book, (Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, by Robert Kriegel & David Brandt) offers these quotes:

"Says former IBM chairman Tom Watson, 'If you want to succeed, double your failure rate'" [p. 97].

And "Said one executive, 'If you aren't making mistakes you aren't doing anything worth a damn'" [p. 99].

Why is it that so many people in the church, which is to be centered on forgiveness, find it so difficult to risk making a mistake -- for the sake of the gospel? 

Examples of “efficient” uses of time and resources-
mission trips, 
Presbyterian disaster relief,
partnership with the food bank.

The effect of Jesus’ parable is to get us to quit asking, “How can we know this is going to work, or be an efficient use of time and resources?”  or at least ADD the question, “Am I, are we, acting out of the abundance and grace of a generous God, being faithful to the best of what we know about Him.” 

In my favorite of Van Gogh’s “Sowers” the figure is in the mid range of the picture, not central.  The rising sun is central and it’s bright yellow, in fact the entire sky is yellow, rays of that powerful sun.  The sky is the top 1/3 of the canvas, and the bottom third is this vast field, stubble covered and daunting, and you get a sense of the huge task that the little sower faces that day.  But I think what makes it my favorite is that at the bottom of the canvas, where the viewer stands, is a little path that leads into the field.  When you look at the painting, you feel that you are being invited into the field, into the vision, into the task of the hard working sower. 
 Those who have eyes, let them see. Those who have ears, let them hear.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - Saturday's Draft

I am so glad I read a book this week! 

I Peter 2:19-25
Living Example
May 15, 2011

I have a young friend who recently reported a rather remarkable result on her math test.    Just a little background here - my friend does not spend a whole lot of her precious time on schoolwork.  I am convinced that she is learning and experimenting and drawing conclusions about the world and the ways of people in it constantly.  I’m not saying she’s not curious or that she’s slow to pick up on things.  But I don’t think she’d argue with the statement that school is not her thing.  Especially English.  Or science.  Or Math!  Especially math.  So it was with great glee and not little bit of amazement that she reported that she had gotten an A! on her last math test.  Wow!  An “A”! 
How did that happen? 
Did you study for the test?  No. 
Was it a chapter on something you understood?  Not really. 
Did you cheat somehow?  No, I didn’t. 
How did this incredible event occur? 
Well - at the beginning of each section of the test, I just went up to the teacher’s desk, and said, “These kind of problems . . . I don’t quite remember . . .  Can you maybe . . . ” and the teacher would do an example of one of those kind of problems.  And then I’d go back to my seat and do just what he did, only with the different numbers from the problems.  When I got to a different kind of problem, I did it again.  And he showed me another example.  I did that the whole test.  And I got an A!

Now, please, let’s not get all caught up wondering why the teacher didn’t seem to get it through his thick head what she was up to.   And let’s not worry our pretty little heads about whether or not she really learned any math, OK?  I almost think it doesn’t matter.  Because what she learned is what Peter wants the church to get through their pretty little heads and/or thick skulls:  The power and the value and the undeniable utility of having an example to follow when problems and tests come your way. 

The passage we read is all about following Jesus’ example. 

Look - Peter writes these early Christians - Jesus left you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  Peter is talking specifically about how Christians are to behave when confronted by people or situations which put them to the test - which test their comprehension of life and of God.  (that’s not quite right.  - But you know how all these standardized tests are supposed to gauge mastery of concepts and the ability to use what has been learned to think about, maybe even come up with an answer in a new situation?  Well - Peter is writing to folks who were facing a whole new predicament as Christians in a pagan world.  How to face the persecutions?  The injustice?  The uncertainty?  Well - how do we face the situations in our lives?  Do we, who call ourselves Christians, bring any special tools or techniques or concepts to the tasks of living?  If we don’t . . . then we haven’t let our faith penetrate very far into our hearts and lives.  We say with our mouths, “Lord, Lord” but we don’t give Jesus Lordship over anything important in our lives.  And that shows up when?  Every time we face a test.  Which is pretty much everyday, in my opinion.)

And Jesus’ example is one of bearing the sins of the other - bearing them all the way to the cross.  It is the love that bears an other’s evil that, somehow, someway transforms the Christians from death to life - commutes our sentences from a death sentence to a life sentence.  It is what Jesus did in facing death out of love for living that changes us from sheep that have gone astray to members of God’s own flock, safely under the watchful eye and loving care of the Good Shepherd.

And being a Christian is less about believing that that is true (with our head or our heart or our guts) than with following the example that Jesus has set. 

Followers of Jesus’ example - who take his radical beautiful impossible life as their pattern for living - do radical, beautiful, impossible things in this world, which we claim as the best part of our inheritance.  The only part of our inheritance, I would argue, that it makes any sense to hold on to as we head into the test that is our future. 

Let me give you a story from the very very beginnings of our story as Christians in America - a story about John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:  (I got this from a very fun and interesting book I picked off my son, the Americanist’s bookshelf when I was out there in California, where he’s working on his dissertation.  The book is called The Wordy Shipmates  and it’s about that colony of proto-Presbyterians that we call “Puritans”.)   OK.  John Winthrop - the governor of this group, who coined the term Ronald Reagan was so fond of “The City on the Hill”, as an expression of what they aimed to create over here in this continent when first they came - John Winthrop tells his fellow colonists “We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus said, “love your enemies and do good to them that hate you.”  He also cites Romans 12:20:  “If thine enemy hunger, feed him.”  Our aim in this new land?  Two words:  Justice and mercy. 

 The author (Sarah Vowell) elaborates, “The colonists of Massachusetts Bay are not going to be any better at living up to this than any other government in Christendom.  In fact, nobody can live up to this, but it is the mark of a Christlike Christian to know that he’s supposed to. 

At least some of Winthrop’s ongoing difficulties as governor of the colony is that his charges find him far too lenient.  For instance, some of his fellow magistrates in the new colony accuse Winthrop of dillydallying on punishment by letting some men who had been banished continue to hang around Boston.  Winthrop points out that the men had been banished, not sentenced to be executed.  And since they had been banished in the dead of winter, Winthrop let them stay until a thaw so that their eviction form Massachusetts wouldn’t cause them to freeze to death on their way out of town.  “A community of perils,” writes Winthrop, “calls for extraordinary liberality.”  Love your enemies. 

Here’s another Winthrop story, from Cotton Mather’s history of the colony:  One extremely bad winter, Boston was low on fuel and one of its citizens filed a complaint that a “needy person” was stealing from his woodpile.  Winthrop expressed outrage at this violation of the 6th Commandment and declared that it must be remedied.  He requested that the thief be sent to see him immediately, presumably for well-deserved punishment. Think stocks, cutting off ears, Puritan punishment was not easy stuff.  Well, confronted with the thief, Winthrop tells the man, “Friend, it is a severe winter, and I doubt you are but meanly provided for wood:  wherefore I would have you supply yourself at my woodpile till this cold season be over.”  The Winthrop merrily asked his friends whether he had not effectually cured this man of stealing his wood.

Here is what Winthrop told those first Americans, clinging to survival with the thinnest of margins for error:  “If your brother be in want you and you can help him . . .if you love God, you must help him.  There is a time also when Christians must give beyond their ability.”

This is our inheritance - this is the example - of someone who was doing his utmost to follow the example of Jesus Christ. 

Followers of Christ’s example have left us with a rich legacy.  Let me give you one more expression of where that comes from and where it leads:  Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded one of his most important sermons (November 17. 1957 - Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL) like this: 

“So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the yes of all my brothers and sister - all over Alabama and all over America and all over the world - I say to you, ‘I love you.  I would rather die than hate you.’” 

I’m gonna say that again.  “I love you.  I would rather die than hate you.” 

That’s following (very closely) Jesus’ example.  He choose to die rather than to hate.  That’s the example our teacher has shown us. 

The author of Peter urged his persecuted congregations to use that example as a template for working out the problems during their time of testing.

John Winthrop used that example, plugged in the perils and the possibilities of living on the American continent, and came out with a somewhat different, but equally correct answer.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used Jesus’ example, to work out and work through the question of obtaining civil rights and equal justice for all people in these United States.  I hope you would agree that his use of the example also deserves high marks.

You and I face different problems.  Our test - our achievement exam - is unique to our time and place and life situation.  But we have what it takes to do well.  With each set of problems, we need only to go to the Teacher’s Desk and say, “I need a little help.  Can you maybe . . .”   And sure enough, our loving teacher will remind us that we already have a fully worked out, complete and clear example of love and life in the living example of Jesus Christ.

And what makes it even better - and worse - but mostly better - is that we are taking our test as a group.  We can work together.  So, hey guys, Let’s Ace this one!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Couldn't help noticing

When the sounds of celebration at Bin Laden's death came over the radio, it brought back the horrible memory of the sounds of mobs celebrating the falling of the twin towers almost 10 years ago.  C'mon, people.  We're better than that, aren't we?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Resurrection is for the Living

Matthew 28:1-10
Easter 2011

We are gathered here this morning because
Love is stronger than hate,
because the Power of Life trumps the power of death,
because all the evil in the world
cannot stop God’s grace from Raining Down,
because God’s Forgiveness never Fails.

This week a woman told me that when her husband died, a friend came by to sit with her and weep.  And the friend then said the most profound and beautiful thing, “You know,” he said, “Resurrection isn’t just for the dead.  It is also for the living.” 

That’s an earthshaking message!  On the first Easter morning, that shining angel descended, rolled back the stone to prove the tomb is empty, and told the women, “Jesus is alive!  He’s going to meet you where you live.” 

The women were from Galilee, you see.  As were most of the disciples.  That’s where they had linked up with Jesus.   It was home.  And when Jesus rose from the dead,
when he defeated all the evil and pain
and sorrow and sin
that the powers of this world could throw at him, 
he left the message that those women and their “brethren”  could meet up with him where they lived
and worked
and raised their families
and confronted their own challenges to faith and life.

Christ is alive!   We may encounter him where we live!

On Easter my job is so easy, because I don’t have to explain the resurrection, or make sense of all the details of each of the four Biblical accounts.  You don’t need to be reminded of the disciples’ psychological processes, or their stages of grief, or whatever.  Or told what you have to believe about the how and wherefore of resurrection. 
I like what theologian Rowan Williams said about the church’s job  -

“For the Church does not exist just to transmit a message across the centuries about what people must believe; it exists so that people in this and every century may encounter Jesus of Nazareth as a living contemporary.  Everything the church does – celebrating Holy Communion, reading the Bible, baptizing believers, (even raising butterflies, I might add)  – is meant to be in the service of this contemporary encounter. Our every action ought to be transparent to Jesus, not holding back or veiling his presence.” – Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Easter Sermon excerpt, (2008?)

All that we have to do together this morning is to point out and to celebrate the amazing presence of the living Christ in our lives. Resurrection is for living, and we are living it - some in dramatic ways, some in more subtle transformations, some in individual lives, some in reconciled relationships and resurrected families. 

Some of the resurrection is visible when we look around the church, especially when we baptize and welcome new members into the life of faith. 

You want to see new life in the church?  We can point to Brenna, and Clay and Lexy and Henry and Madeline.  They asked to be baptized and confirmed.  They wanted to take this step and publicly join the family of God.  New life for them.  New life for us.  Hallelujah! 

The resurrection is being lived in our choir.  You don’t know how long that choir loft stood empty.  And now, songs of praise rise from willing voices!

I look at this congregation and see people who have met the risen Christ in the pages of scripture. “Human words with divine energy behind them.” (Rowan Williams, again.) 

I see people in Recovery.  New Life emerging.  People who have taken hold of a second chance at health, a second chance at love, a second chance at a life of meaning and purpose. 

And I see those who wait in faith and trust as Jesus wipes the tears of grief and sorrow from their eyes.  The Risen Christ is living each day with those who face the uncertain future with the certainty that Christ will somehow be there.

How is the Risen Christ alive in us and among us?  Let me count the ways!

But it’s better if YOU count them, and count yourself among those who live life with the friendship and support of the One who rose from the grave to share His life with you. 

If you are longing for his presence in your life, Easter morning is the perfect time to let the angel’s message shake your world and open whatever stone is blocking the entrance to your heart.  Easter morning is the perfect time to put aside your fears and encounter Jesus, the Savior.  There’s no better time than Easter morning to spiritually fall at His feet and worship one who wants, more than anything, to live with you and through you, now and forever. 

The poet Rumi wrote,

The Risen Christ runs down the street
Knocking on every door
Come out!  Come out! he calls,
I want to resurrect somebody!