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.