Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Long Enough," Luke 13:10-17 (Proper 16, Ordinary 21)

Sermon 8/21/16
Luke 13:10-17

Long Enough

            Sometimes, we create really complicated systems that are meant to help us do something good, but the very system meant to help ends up making things harder, not easier. My older brother Jim works for the ARC as a manager in vocational services, helping people with special needs find and maintain employment. He told me, once, about all the rules in place that had to be worked around for a particular young man to stay working, which was the goal. This young man couldn’t work too many hours, or he wouldn’t qualify for certain programs that were really helping him thrive. He couldn’t work too few hours, or he wouldn’t make enough money to survive. He couldn’t make more than a certain amount per hour, or again, he wouldn’t be eligible for benefits. While at work, he wasn’t allowed to complete his work too quickly, because he was required to be in a supervised setting for a certain number of hours a day, and if he worked too quickly, even if he did his work well, again, he’d lose out. To help this man work, all sorts of rules have to be followed. The aim is to help him work, but sometimes the process is so complicated that it feels like the rules are making things harder, not easier, moving him farther from his goal, not closer.
Today, we’re skipping ahead a little bit in the gospel of Luke, and find another story of something being made harder, more complicated, until Jesus steps in. Jesus, we read, was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And he sees there a woman “with a spirit” that has caused her to be crippled for the last eighteen years. She is bent over, quite unable, Luke tells us, to stand up straight. The text doesn’t tell us she was coming with the hopes of being healed, or that she was seeking out Jesus in anyway. Instead, he calls to her. When she comes over, Jesus simply says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Jesus lays his hands on her, and immediately, she stands up straight. She begins praising God. And in fact, the phrasing suggests not just a one-time prayer of thanksgiving, but that rather, from this point on, she begins praising God. It’s a turning point in her life, and her relationship with God. But that’s not where our story ends.    
            One of the leaders in the synagogue is indignant. Jesus has just healed a woman on the Sabbath. Healing would be considered a form of work – the job of a healer, performed on the Sabbath – was considered breaking the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. And so the leader begins his own teaching to the crowd, reminding them: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He’s right, of course. It can be our tendency to think that everything the synagogue leaders and scribes and Pharisees do and say in the scriptures is bad, because Jesus argues with them so often, and we’re smart enough to know we want to be on Jesus’ side. But technically, what the leader says is right. He doesn’t say that the woman shouldn’t be healed. Instead, he asks why, of all days, Jesus had to heal her on the Sabbath. Why not on any of the other days? The Sabbath is a day set apart. Why break it, when what Jesus did could have easily been done the day before or the day after?
            In response, Jesus calls the man and his colleagues hypocrites. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” he asks. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” At this response, Luke tells us, Jesus’ opponents are put to shame, and the crowd rejoices at the wonderful work of God they see in Jesus.
            We have a remarkable talent for taking gifts that God gives us and turning them into burdens, when we misuse or abuse, or simply ignore what God offers to us so freely. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus teachers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not the other way around. Sabbath is a gift from God, enjoyed by God, and shared with us. There are two main “sources” of Sabbath in the scriptures. The first, of course, is in the very first story, the very story of creation. God created the heavens and earth and all living things, and then God, creator of the universe, rested. And so we rest, because God demonstrated to us that rest and renewal are a precious part of life. We honor God and God’s creative work when we set aside time to rest in God. Sabbath also finds roots in the story of the Exodus, when Moses leads the Israelites to freedom, as he helps them escape from captivity to their Egyptian masters. Sabbath-keeping, keeping a time of rest and making it a holy time is good news to slaves who had been working relentlessly to serve their keepers. And the gift of Sabbath was for all in the community – all economic classes, all ages – even animals got to rest on the Sabbath. (1) Sabbath is rest in God, aligning ourselves with the rhythm of our creator, and Sabbath is a sign of our freedom, the freedom that comes from following the ways of God. 
            That’s why Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite. Because when Jesus heals this woman who has bound, been captive to her own body for so many years, the way for her to experience rest, the way for her to experience freedom is for Jesus to heal her and to heal her at once. Eighteen years is long enough, and Jesus sees no need for her to wait a single day, a single minute longer to experience the true gift of Sabbath. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, Jesus says, is making something simple and freeing into a complicated burden that tries to negate the gift of God.
            I wonder, do we understand Sabbath any better than the synagogue leader. The leader and his colleagues tried to keep Sabbath by making so many rules for observing it that it could actually be more difficult to experience it as a gift, as rest, as freedom. And ironically, I wonder if our very opposite approach to Sabbath has resulted in the very same consequences. In our world today, Sabbath, real rest, real time set aside to soak in God’s spirit is nearly unattainable. How free do we feel? We’ve let go of the rules and regulations that made it hard to practice true Sabbath, but we’ve also let go of the gift that God so desires us to have. From both sides, I think we’re in danger of being more bound up than set free.
So we have a few questions to ask ourselves, I think, in light of this text. First, I think we need to ask ourselves if we can receive the gift of Sabbath. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” I don’t know about you, but I hear that phrase “weary and heavy-laden,” and I know Jesus is talking to me. God invites us to rest, to rest in God. To rejoice in the freedom we find in Christ Jesus. To treasure our time and to treasure time we immerse ourselves intentionally in growing our relationship with God. I encourage you to look over your days and ask yourselves where you can find moments and minutes and hours – and maybe even a whole day of resting in God, honoring God’s creation, treasuring God’s gift to us, rejoicing in the freedom we find in God.
Next, we have to ask ourselves how we are bound, like this woman Jesus healed. How are we bound? How do we need lifting up? From what do we need to be freed? Sometimes we’re bound by things that we can’t get free from on our own, and we need help – from our friends, from our church family, from our community, from God, to find freedom. Sometimes, we can begin the process of loosening our bonds when we finally realize or admit or acknowledge that something about how we’re living is keeping us in bondage. How are we bound? 
And then, finally, we have to ask ourselves: how are we like the synagogue leader? How are we getting in the way of someone else experiencing freedom in Christ Jesus? What boundaries and limits have we been inadvertently, or, I’m afraid, sometimes purposefully putting on how others receive the gift of God? Who is it that we’d keep from healing, keep bound and bent because we don’t want to break any rules to find the freedom God offers? We have the opportunity – the responsibility – to help others break free of the chains in their life as they embrace the freedom God extends to us.
Jesus said, “’And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Prince of Peace?" Luke 12: 49-56 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C)

Sermon 8/14/16
Luke 12:49-56

Prince of Peace?

            Some of you may have seen on facebook a funny meme I posted. It was a picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, which as the title suggests, takes a hard look at what it means when we commit to truly following in the footsteps of Christ. Only this particular picture of the book was a copy of The Cost of Discipleship was at a bookstore – right next to a price tag that said $16. The Cost of Discipleship? Well, pretty cheap at Barnes & Noble!
            What do you think, though? What is the cost of following Jesus? Is there a cost to being a Jesus follower? Shortly after my facebook post, I came across some powerful words from Bonehoeffer. He wrote, “If we water down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands, then the cross is an ordinary calamity.” For Bonhoeffer, writing and preaching and teaching at the height of Nazi power in Germany, the gospel made very costly demands. He found no way he could follow Jesus completely without his obedience to the gospel making him willing to offer his own life. Indeed, he was executed by the Nazis for his actions attempting to remove Adolf Hitler from power. What does it cost to follow Jesus?
            There are places in the world today where it is risky to be a Jesus-follower, where people who follow Jesus are arrested and persecuted and killed. Most of us never have to experience that. Not that being a Christian is never challenging, not that we never had to make tough choices. But I wonder – what does it really cost me to follow Jesus?
            Today, our gospel lesson continues in Luke Chapter 12. Remember, last week, Jesus was telling us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He was telling the crowds that it is God’s good pleasure to give us God’s kingdom, God’s reign – and that’s what we’re meant to strive after, to work for – God’s reign on earth. After Jesus finishes talking, Peter, one of the Twelve Disciples, asks Jesus to explain his words a little more. Our text for today picks up in the middle of Jesus’ response. He says, “I came to bring fire to the earth … I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Jesus goes on to say that father will be set against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and so on.
            Last week, as I was starting to prepare for tomorrow, I had my brother read this text to me aloud as I was driving us somewhere or other. After he finished the passage, he said to me, puzzled, “Jesus said this?” I knew why he sounded surprised. We love to celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace! And indeed, Jesus speaks in the gospels of bringing peace to us. But here, we are getting a very different message. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!” My first reaction is: Wow. What the world really doesn’t need any more of is division. We have that in abundance! We look around and wonder – have we ever lived in a world more divided? Over everything? Why would Jesus say he’s coming to bring division? Why would we need that? What does he mean? And what about this part about being divided – parents from children, children from parents? And that brings us back to our first question: What does it cost to follow Jesus?
For the first followers of Jesus, the cost was very, very steep. Sara Dylan Bruer helps us imagine. She writes: “Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law [after responding to Jesus’ call on the beach to “follow me”] and [he] says, ‘Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you.’
“How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes … When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true … if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows.” (1)
Suddenly, Jesus’ words make a little more sense to me. Sometimes I forget that for the disciples who literally followed Jesus, they were leaving more than their fishing boats to go where God was calling them. Sometimes, following Jesus doesn’t bring peace – not if we’re thinking of peace as the absence of conflict, and everyone just getting along. Sometimes, Jesus brings not peace, but division, because choosing to follow Jesus should have consequences. What does it cost to follow Jesus?
Our temptation whenever we read words like this from Jesus – and he says stuff like this more often than our minds want to remember – our temptation is to try to find a way to soften their blow, mute their impact so it doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. But in this case, I think that’s exactly what Jesus is warning against. Do you think I come to make things easier, Jesus asks? Nope – I come to make them more and more challenging! That’s my paraphrase at least.           Listen to the verse just before today’s passage: Jesus says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” In other words – we’ve received a lot – God’s blessings, God’s love, God’s unfailing grace, limitless second chances. But God expects a lot from us, too. And foremost, what God expects, what Jesus expects, is that if we choose to follow Jesus, we actually follow Jesus. It’s both that simple of a request and that hard of a request. Because following Jesus means choosing one path and not the other, and we’re very much a people who want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to take the path of Jesus, but we also want to make our own choices, choose our own way, and go our own direction when it suits us. Jesus says that he comes and brings division – and we must choose our way or Jesus’ way, and they are not always going the same way, friends!
Years ago, I heard Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, one of our now-retired United Methodist bishops, preach on this text at General Conference. She was using the version that appears in Matthew, where Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” I can still picture her preaching, wielding this imaginary sword. She asked, “When we say we are born again, aren’t we saying there is something distinctive about our life before and after Jesus? The dividing line is dividing what we leave behind and what we take up … If the world is not different because you and I have come here, then it’s because you and I have put something other than Christ at the center of our lives. Jesus comes with a sword. The sword cuts to purpose, to results. And I believe that Jesus is extremely impatient for the results. He is impatient for the results because he is passionate about people. It is a divine, consuming love that cuts to the results … You know, even more, Jesus says he brings a sword, but perhaps Jesus himself might be a sword, cutting us free from the past, from our weaknesses, our errors, opening us to a new future, reborn. Jesus is calling us to himself, to the edge of transformation, inviting us to enter into a new reality that God is creating.” (2)
Friends, if we are not different because of following Jesus – then maybe we better check and make sure we’re actually following him, going where he goes, living as he lives. If we are not different, if our world is not different, if those with whom we come in contact are not different because of what we do in the name of Jesus, then perhaps we have put something else, something other than Jesus at the center of our lives.
Sara Dylan Breuer gives us two more scenarios to imagine. “Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing … Here's another one:
“Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer.”
What does it cost to follow Jesus? It means we have come right up to the dividing line and must choose a path. Which way will we follow? Amen.

(2) Swenson, Bishop Mary Ann.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Treasured," Luke 12:32-40 (Proper 14C, Ordinary 19C)

Sermon 8/7/16
Luke 12:32-40


            Last week many of you had the pleasure of hearing someone’s first sermon, as Amber shared with you in leading worship. It’s a special experience, the first sermon. Last week also happened to be the 18th anniversary of the first time I ever preached, a sermon I gave at my home church in Rome, NY. I had used the lectionary text from the gospel for the week, and because it was my first sermon, that scripture passage has been forever burned on my mind, and I find myself thinking of it often. It happened to be the same lectionary year as we are in right now, and so the text I preached on came just before the one we just heard this morning from the gospel of Luke, chapter 12. In the text, a man who is part of a gathered crowd asks Jesus to make his brother divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus sensibly wonders why on earth this man would think it Jesus’ job to arbitrate this kind of dispute. Still though, the man with the request probably gets more than he wanted from Jesus, because Jesus tells him a parable about a man who had so much stuff that he couldn’t fit it into his barns anymore. So he tore them down and built even bigger barns, and rejoiced to himself that he could now eat, drink, and be merry. But God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. And these things you have stored up? Whose will they be?” Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” and chastises: “So it will be with those who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich towards God.” Oof. These words have really stayed with me, as I’ve tried to ask myself the twin questions through the years: What am I storing up for myself? And am I being rich toward God?
Have you ever had to answer one of those scenario questions like, “If you could only save one thing from your house, if you had to leave your house forever and you could only take one thing, what would it be?” Assuming, of course, that you already have all your people and pets from the house, what would be that one thing that you’d want to take? For me, it’s my journals. In this scenario I cheat and count them as one thing, when in actuality, it’s like 4 hefty boxes full of the journals I have been keeping since 5th grade! Most of the time, when people answer a question like this, the answer reveals that the most valued things we have are not the most expensive things we own, but rather the things that are most tied up with emotional value. Things that represent who we love. Things that are from our most cherished life experiences. If we only got to keep one thing, that’s what we’d choose.
            The thing is, though, rarely are we in situations where we really have to choose one thing, the most important thing. And so I wonder – what are we really storing up? Our text for today comes just a bit later in this same chapter of Luke, and continues on the same theme. Jesus has talked to the gathered crowd about not being full of worry. He urges them not to strive for the things that the rest of the world strives for, the things God already knows we need. Instead, says Jesus, strive first for God’s kingdom. With that aim first, everything else can come after. Jesus says it is God’s “good pleasure” to give us God’s kingdom. That’s a double positive, a strong emphasis – God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom of God. Sell your possessions, Jesus says! Give to the poor! Seek unfailing heavenly treasure. Because “where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I’ve always loved thinking about this verse, not just because of what it says, but because of what it doesn’t say. What it doesn’t say is: Where your heart is, that’s where you treasure is. No, but rather where your treasure is, there you will find what you really love. I think the order matters. Jesus is telling us that it is the evidence that determines where our hearts are, not whatever we pay lip service to. So, if we claim our hearts are with our families, for example, but what we “store up,” what we spend our time thinking about and worrying about and spend the bulk of our time doing is making sure we have enough money or stuff or status or power or security or whatever – well, what we “treasure” is actually where our heart is, no matter what we say, and not the other way around. So what do you treasure? What do you store up? What takes all of your time and energy? What are you giving your life to? What do you treasure?
When I think about treasuring something, two images pop into my head: First, I think of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, obsessed with, consumed by the One Ring – “my precious.” That’s treasuring something – the ring is the only Master Gollum serves, and indeed, his heart is with the ring, no matter how much he struggles to put his heart elsewhere. And, although maybe it seems a bit out of season on this beautiful August day, I think about my favorite line in the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth: When Jesus is born, and the shepherds hear the angels and arrive to greet the baby and they tell Mary and Joseph all that had happened to them, we read, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” What Mary treasures in that moment is every precious word and experience and part of the process that has brought her child – God’s child – God-in-the-flesh – God’s hope for us in human form – into the world. And so indeed, because of what she treasures, her heart is full of love. What do you treasure?
            Jesus tells us that what it is God’s good pleasure to give us is God’s kingdom. We’ll talk more and more and more about what Jesus means by “the kingdom of God.” But in essence God’s kingdom, God’s reign on earth is the realizing of God’s hope, God’s plan for our right relationships with God and one another, God’s dreams made real in the here and now. And it is God’s good pleasure, God’s deepest desire that we would experience this – the joy of living fully into God’s kingdom, now and for eternity. Jesus seeks to share that vision with us. He tells us about God’s reign, God’s kingdom, in story after story, in parable after parable. And Jesus says it is this – God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s vision for the earth, for us, for you and for me – this is what we should strive after. This is what we should treasure. What does God want us to treasure? Our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other, and making real and concrete God’s vision for the world. Building up God’s kingdom now and for eternity.
            Our text closes with Jesus talking about a household that is ready for God’s kingdom. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” says Jesus. Be like the servants of the household who are ready to open the door for the master as soon as the master arrives. And then Jesus says something astonishing. Jesus says that the master will be so pleased at the readiness of the household that the master will serve the servants! All the hearers would have known this was NOT true. No master would really do this, not in real life. No master but one. Jesus would. God would. Because that’s what the kingdom of God is like – where the master is willing to serve the slave, where the centers of power are flipped upside down, where an enemy is beloved, where the humbled are exalted, where the last are first. Friends, God has put us in charge of one of God’s treasured possessions – this world, and God’s vision for this world. God has made us responsible for carrying it out, living into it, building up God’s kingdom, God’s reign, with God’s help. We are the staff of God’s household – only the way God runs things? God is delighted, indeed, it is God’s good pleasure to give us the whole thing. What a treasure indeed! Imagine if we invested all of our time, and all of our energy, and all of our heart and soul into God’s household? Let’s get dressed for action. Let’s make sure our lamps are lit. And let’s make sure we know exactly what we’re working for. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Are You There God? It's Me, Beth," Luke 11:1-13 (Proper 12C, Ordinary 17C)

Sermon 7/24/16
Luke 11:1-13

Are You There God? It’s Me, Beth*

            In my years of pastoring, I have witnessed people put to use so many different gifts that God has given them. I’ve seen people develop and implement Sunday School programs, lead people on mission trips near and far, preach sermons, conduct or sing in or play in great works of worshipful music. I’ve seen dinners coordinated that feed hundreds of people. I’ve seen capital campaigns undertaken that have raised thousands of dollars for church projects. I’ve been blessed by seeing parishioners in my congregations step forward to do some truly amazing things with God’s help. But there’s one area in our spiritual life together where I’ve sometimes experienced deafening silence. And that’s when I say, “Would anyone like to close us in prayer?” Not everyone, of course, is hesitant to offer prayer. But I would say that of all the things that make people react with that kind of look students get when they don’t know the answer and the teacher is looking for someone to call on? Offering a prayer tops the list.  
            I’m not sure exactly why this is, but in part, I think we must have this collective belief that prayer involves finding just the right combination of words in order to be acceptable to God and the gathered community of faith. Maybe this is because pastors too easily slip into the role of professional pray-ers, and we pastors spend too much of our time in churches and church meetings and church books, so that church-y phrases just roll of our tongues with ease, and everyone else starts thinking they have to pray in just the same way.
            I can tell you that you’re not alone. When I was first guest preaching, and in seminary, and in my first years of ministry, leading congregational prayer and other prayer times was on the list of things that made me most nervous. Only habit – doing it over and over and over again – eased me of my anxiety. Prayers in my childhood came a bit easier, though. When I was in elementary school, and I was having a hard time with questions about God, my mother told me that I should pray by telling God about my day. I took her at her word, and did exactly that, in a very literal way. “Dear God” – always ‘Dear God’ as if I was writing God a letter – “Dear God, today I got up and had cereal and went to school and at lunch and had recess and came home and did my homework and played outside and . . .” If I made it through this recitation, I would then do my “God blesses” – “God bless my mom and dad and Jim and TJ and Todd, God bless Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill and Aunt Shari and cousin Becky and Ben” – and then, if I made it through all of that, I would end with the Lord’s Prayer, because, well, we always say the Lord’s Prayer! Usually, though, I fell asleep somewhere between telling God about my day at school and telling God about my evening. But it was a daily routine that I stuck to faithfully for a long time. My personal prayers have always retained this form though – something like a diary entry, or a letter to a friend, only directed to God. How about you? How do you pray? Is prayer easy for you? Challenging? Nerve-wracking? As easy as when you were a child?
            We’re not alone in wondering about how we should pray. Even those in Jesus’ innermost circle sought direction about the best way to speak to God. Today, our gospel lesson opens with Jesus praying. He does that a lot in the gospels, often seeking out time and space for conversation with God. When he’s done, his disciples ask him to teach them to pray like “John taught his disciples.” We don’t know how John – who we know as John the Baptist – taught his disciples. But we do have Jesus’s teaching on pray. Jesus responds with what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer,” although Luke’s recording of it is a bit more simple than the way most of us have memorized it: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Simple. God, you are holy. Bring your reign to earth. Give us what we need for each day. Forgive us our sins – and we are forgiving those who have sinned against us. Keep us safe from harm. Boiled down, this prayer captures the heart, the essence of many of our prayers, doesn’t it?  
            Then Jesus continues with a story: Imagine that you needed some bread immediately because company has come unexpectedly and you have nothing to serve, and all the stores are closed. So you go to your friend at midnight, asking for some bread. Even a friend might be likely to respond: Hey, It’s midnight, we’re all asleep already, leave us alone! But, Jesus says, not because of your friendship with this person, but rather because your friend JUST WANTS YOU TO GO AWAY AND LEAVE THEM ALONE, your friend might give you what you ask for! Because of your “persistence,” says Jesus, your friend will respond to your need. Jesus tells us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Finally, Jesus says, if we humans, who are sinful and faulty and imperfect, can still give good things to our loved ones, imagine how much more God, who is Love, who is goodness, desires to give to those who ask!
            I am struck by the word “persistence” in this text. Is getting God to answer our prayers really just a matter of asking enough times? Can that possibly be the case? God will answers our prayers if we ask enough times that God gets sick of us asking and gives in? That word that we read as persistence – this is the only place it appears in our scriptures. And I’m afraid “persistence” is a kind of softened-up translation. It actually means something more like shamelessness or unembarrassed boldness. Those words actually help me understand better what Jesus is saying.
            When I think of people who are shameless or unembarrassed in their boldness when it comes to asking for what they want, I think of the way very young children ask for things. Did you fix yourself a nice plate of something to eat? Most children will not be afraid to ask you to give them something off your plate. And they might not just ask for one bite. They’ll boldly ask for and accept as much as you’ll give. Did you just buy a child a pile of gifts for their birthday or Christmas? They won’t hesitate to ask for the thing you didn’t buy! Most children aren’t afraid to tell you what’s on their wish list. When I think of unembarrassed boldness, that’s what I think of. No fear. No hesitation. No tentative, “maybe, if it isn’t too much trouble, might you consider listening to my request?” Sure, we learn to temper our requests as we get older, or if we get in trouble for our shameless requests, or when we learn about things like what’s rude and what’s polite. But I don’t think we start out that way.
            And the crazy thing is: Jesus tells us that when it comes to talking to God, we don’t have to be afraid to be shameless. We can be unembarrassedly bold. We can ask for exactly what is on our heart. Because prayer is our conversation with God. It’s building a relationship with God. And what God desirpes is that we will lay our hearts bare, with no fear, no hesitation. What God desires is that we’ll show to God everything about ourselves, every hope and dream, every longing. If what we’re seeking isn’t what God hopes for us, God can work that out with us. If God wants to shape us and mold us and form our hearts so that we long after the things that will bring us abundance and joy, so that we’ll long for the things that make for peace and wholeness, God can do that with us. But it starts with us knowing, trusting that God so wants us to be shamelessly honest when we open our hearts to God.
            I think Jesus teaches us to be persistent, shameless, bold with God not because our repeated prayers are simply a way to change God’s mind, as if God, who is goodness itself, doesn’t already desire to give us good things. Instead, I believe that one of the purposes of prayer is to change us, to change our hearts, as through prayer, through conversation with God, we draw closer to God. We build our relationship with God. And because of that, we’re changed. One of my favorite preachers, David Lose, writes this:     
What if prayer isn’t simply a petition I send to God but rather is part of a more active and full relationship with God. Prayer, from this point of view, is less like putting a message in a bottle – or, for that matter, in an envelope or email – and setting it adrift in the sea and more like the regular conversation we have with others with whom we are in relationship  … [Imagine] our whole lives – our thinking and acting and very being – offered to God as a prayer … How would we act if our prayers were offered to God confidently, trusting that God will respond so much more generously than any earthly parent? Perhaps I wouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to answer but would start moving, get to work, actually start living into the reality of what I’ve prayed for. So rather than pray for someone who is lonely, maybe I’d go visit. … At times prayer is words we say alone in moments of thanksgiving or desperation. At times prayer is words we share with others, gathered in the sanctuary or around a hospital bed. And at other times prayer is action and work as we try to live into and even bring about those things we’ve prayed for. All of this can be praying shameless, praying, that is, confident that the God who came in Jesus understands our hurts and disappointments because that God took them on. (1)
            I know this: my best relationships, the ones I can count on, the ones that last – they’re the ones where I’ve been able to be the most honest. I’ve been able to share my griefs, and ask for help, and share my celebrations, and share the dreams that I’ve barely let myself hope would come true. God’s desire is that our very best relationship would be with God, that we would know that we can knock on God’s door at midnight, and always find God ready to let us in. As I read through the scriptures, I’m struck by the frank conversations between God and God’s people. From Abraham and Sarah to Moses, and the psalmists, through Jesus’s prayers on the night before he was crucified – the scriptures are a testimony to people shamelessly, boldly bearing heart and soul to God. And then, friends, we find those same people, trusting in God and God’s goodness, getting to work, ready to work with God to bring about the world for which they prayed. Jesus describes a pray-er who is taking action: asking, searching, knocking. How much more, how much more does God want to give us? Ask – and be ready to find out! Amen.

(1)   David Lose, In the Meantime,
* - A nod, of course, to Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Although the content of my prayers were different than Margaret's at that age, my prayer style was similar!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "The Better Part," Luke 10:38-42, (Proper 11C, Ordinary 16C)

Sermon 7/17/16
Luke 10:38-42

The Better Part

Sometimes I get frustrated that we have such little snippets of the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus walked on earth for more than thirty years. Even if we look just at his recorded ministry, he was busy teaching and preaching for three years. And out of that time, we get a scene here and a scene there – maybe a month’s worth of stories, if we’re generous in our tally. I want to know what Jesus was doing and saying on all those other days! And then, out of all the things the gospel writers might have shared with us, I’m sometimes confused at their choices. Take today’s text, for example. This is such a short little scene. Just a few verses. A quick vignette of Jesus hanging out at the home of Mary and Martha. Yes, there’s a brief teaching, but mostly it seems like Jesus is settling a mild dispute between sisters. I can’t help but wonder – why, out of all the things the author might have included – why did Luke choose to tell this story?  
            Our gospel lesson picks up right where we left off last week. This happens right after Jesus had finished speaking with the lawyer who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” After that scene, Jesus and his companions went on their way, and they come to a town where a woman named Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. From other gospel texts, we identify this woman as Martha of Bethany, sister of Mary and Lazarus. So Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. Luke tells us that Martha’s sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Martha, though, is “distracted by many tasks.” She comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus, though, doesn’t see things her way. “Martha, Martha,” he says in a gentle chide, “you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” And that’s it. The whole passage.
            My first reaction is that Martha gets a really bad wrap, a really unfair reaction from Jesus in this story. Jesus has come over for dinner, and Mary isn’t helping at all, leaving Martha to do all the work. It reminds me of family Thanksgiving gatherings. You know – there are some family members that work hard preparing the meal and setting the table and dishing everything up. And then there are some people who sit in the living room and watch football while everyone else works, and then happily come in to eat the fruit of your labors. Isn’t this what Mary is doing to Martha? So why is Jesus criticizing her? Yes, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him, and sure, wouldn’t everyone like to be able to just sit and relax? But then who would take care of the household? It feels like Jesus isn’t being fair, and isn’t honoring the work that Martha has to do. And yet, this text takes place just after Jesus has finished talking about how it is the one who shows mercy, the one whose actions are loving and welcoming, the one who goes out of their way to help who is the true neighbor. Why, then, is what Martha is doing wrong?
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, wrote that when we try to interpret scripture, and something we read seems like it contradicts something else we’ve read, a way we can figure out what is meant is by thinking about what he called “the whole scope and tenor” of the scripture. What is the main message we read in the scripture? Wesley used the example of the text from the book of Malachi, where the author records God saying, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” If you took that verse alone, you could conclude that God hated Esau unequivocally. But, Wesley argued, the whole scope and tenor of scripture, the main message, the predominant message is God is love. He points out text after text that show God to be a God of love and mercy. (1) So, for us to understand and interpret the particular verse, we can understand it only in light of the message of the scripture as a whole. 
I’ve found this to be a helpful guide when studying texts like ours from Luke today. Jesus consistently honors those who serve others in the gospels. In fact, he says of himself: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” He repeatedly speaks about humbling ourselves, putting ourselves last. He lifts up the role of the servant again and again in his parables. So, we can gather that Jesus is not devaluing the role of service with his words about Mary choosing the better part. So what is he saying?
Like with our text last week, it can be easy to read here what we expect to read. I can’t tell you how many images I’ve seen depicting this text (like the one I’m showing here) where Martha seems to be working on dinner and Mary is at Jesus’ feet. But as I was struggling with this text this week, I came across a suggestion that transformed my reading of this passage. (2) Mary Hanson suggests that Mary was, in fact, not at home (or not necessarily at home) in the passage we read. Instead, Mary has been on the road with Jesus, and is out with the other disciples, sharing the good news. Martha is not upset because of a one-time event where Mary wouldn’t help Martha get ready. Rather, Martha is upset because Mary has gone to follow Jesus, leaving Martha at home to manage the household. When I first read Hanson’s interpretation, I thought it was impossible. But I looked again at the text: When Jesus enters the house, it only says that Martha welcomes him. Then it tells us that Martha “had a sister Mary,” a sister who would sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. This phrasing, these actions describe someone who is a disciple. A disciple, literally a student, would sit at the feet of the teacher to learn. So the text tells us that Martha has a sister named Mary who is a disciple of Jesus. But Martha is not a disciple, because she’s distracted and worried by many things. We’re not told what these things are, but we’re also not told that Martha is talking about housework, or that Martha is fixing dinner for Jesus, or anything so narrow. When Martha asks Jesus to make Mary help her, what she says is that she has been “left behind” by Mary. But Jesus won’t send Mary back. Mary is a disciple, one learning at the feet of the teacher. She’s become a Jesus-follower. And that won’t be taken away from her.
Finally, things click into place. Rather than chiding Martha for showing hospitality as would be expected, I think Jesus is telling Martha that Mary’s place is with the disciples – and Martha’s is too! Whatever she feels she can’t let go off, can’t leave unattended, whatever has filled her heart with worry and distraction – the priority must be following Jesus and sharing the good news of God’s grace. Instead of this passage reading like Jesus putting Martha in her place, I realize at last that actually Jesus is inviting Martha to join Mary – they can be disciples. They can follow Jesus. They’re invited to sit at the feet of the teacher and live their lives serving God. Jesus has made possible for Mary and Martha what was typically seen as a role only for men. He’s both expanded their realm of what’s possible and eliminated any excuses for discipleship at once. Mary has already taken Jesus up on the invitation. She’s a disciple. But Martha isn’t there yet, and rather than plunging ahead to follow Jesus, she’s hoping she can pull Mary back to the safety of what she’s known. Understandable. But not what Jesus has in mind. Better, Jesus says, to follow him, to be a disciple, to take the risk, to see what happens when you pin all your hopes on God.  
What is it that’s got you distracted and worried? What is it that’s holding you back from giving your life and your heart and your service to God? What is it that God’s calling you to that you keep insisting isn’t for you? What role, what mission, what adventure do you keep insisting is for someone else better qualified, better equipped, with more time and resources? God is calling, inviting us to be disciples, inviting us to follow Jesus. What holds us back?
      I would follow Jesus, except – what? I have this dream for the church, for the community, but I can’t do it because – what? We’re invited to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn. It’s a gift to us and a responsibility. We’re invited to let Jesus take away the limitations we’ve put on ourselves, invited to let Jesus free us from our distractions, free us for service. And we’re invited to invite others – to let them know that’s there’s room for them, too, at the feet of Jesus, room for them to learn and serve in Jesus’ name. Mary chose the better part – because Jesus gave her a path of discipleship to choose! Mary chose the better part – and Martha was so distracted and worried she didn’t realize there was a place for her too. Mary chose the better part – and now it’s our turn. What part will we choose? Amen.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Neighbors," Luke 10:25-37 (Proper 10, Ordinary 15)

Sermon 7/10/16
Luke 10:25-37


            I don’t always preach using lectionary texts. Sometimes, especially once I get to know you better, I like preaching sermon series on particular themes we’re thinking about as a congregation or particular issues that are facing our congregation or community, or some other special focus we might want to stay with for a while. But I’m amazed at how often the lectionary texts, the suggested scripture readings for a particular Sunday, speak so well to our current reality. This week, two African-American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were shot and killed by white police officers. This week, during a Black Lives Matters protest, a man named Micah Johnson killed 5 police officers. These events have unfolded shortly after the horrific shooting in Orlando killed 49 people. The shooter was a Muslim-American man. The victims were predominately LGBT people and friends. We are in the midst of contentious national, perhaps global concerns about guns and violence and racism and politics and who will lead our nation and how we will relate to others in the global community. And into the midst of the fear and pain and anger, the lectionary gives us this story from the gospel of Luke that we know as The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Our passage is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, which I think always puts us in danger of not being able to learn anything from it, because we come convinced we already know what it is all about. In fact, we start off by calling it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But the titles we give parables don’t come from the scriptures. They’re what stories in the Bible came to be called over time, traditionally. And the title, “The Good Samaritan,” implies that a good Samaritan was something unusual. Not what you’d usually call a Samaritan – good. Yet, the phrase “Good Samaritan” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the scripture. Even just by the way we title the story, we’re telling ourselves we know what it’s about: Shockingly, a Samaritan was a good neighbor. So we’ll try hard today to listen with open hearts and open ears! This parable is a story that Jesus tells in response to a question he gets. In the gospels, Jesus usually tells parables to tell us about what the kingdom of God is like – what things are like when God’s reign gets to take full hold. In this case, it’s a parable Jesus tells in response to a question from a lawyer. Lawyers were experts in the law of Moses – religious scholars who knew the facts of the law inside and out. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As he often does, Jesus turns the question back to the man: “You tell me! What does the law say?” The lawyer quotes the laws that are the center of the Hebrew scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Every faithful Israelite would know this response. And Jesus says, “Yep, you’ve got it. Go do just that, and you’ll really live.” But the lawyer wants to “justify himself,” we read. He wants an answer from Jesus he can debate, or he wants to get affirmation on his behavior, perhaps permission of sorts from Jesus to interpret the law in whatever way he’s been applying it in his life. “And who is my neighbor?”  asks the man.
Jesus responds by telling the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead on the roadside on the way to Jericho. A priest and Levite pass by, but they don’t stop. But a third man comes by – a Samaritan. Now, Jesus’s hearers would have been expecting him to say that the third person was an Israelite. Because “priests, Levites, and Israelites” were the three groups in society. (1) It would be like saying “Larry, Curly, and” – and you all know the next thing is Moe! But instead, Jesus says the third man is a Samaritan. Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews. They had a common heritage, but over the centuries, came to disagree on matters of culture and religion in deep ways. Jesus says the third person to come along is someone that the crowds would have identified not just as an outsider, but as someone they actively disliked. A Samaritan. And Jesus tells us that when the Samaritan saw the man, he was “moved with pity.” That phrase, “moved with pity”, is from my very favorite Greek word in the Bible. It’s splagnizomai. It means something to the effect of: your guts are tied up in knots with the level of concern you have for someone. You are physically moved with emotion for the person you’re considering. It’s typically translated as compassion. In the gospels, this word is used frequently to describe how Jesus feels about the crowds. In fact, this word is used more times about Jesus than in others instances combined. When Jesus sees people, his guts twist with the deepness of his concern. Compassion. His intestines twisted in knots in deep concern for what he saw. And here, Jesus uses this same word to describe a Samaritan, an enemy, and how he looks at a Jewish man who is injured: with gut-twisting compassion. He treats and bandages the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, pays all his expenses, and plans to come back and check on him again later. “Which of these,” Jesus asks the lawyer, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” And the lawyer answers, (not even saying “the Samaritan man,” unwilling, perhaps, to admit that it is this particular kind of man who proves to be in the right in Jesus’ story) “the one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says simply, “Go, and do likewise.”
It’s fascinating to look at the questions Jesus asks others in the scriptures, and equally fascinating to look at the questions people put to Jesus. Our questions for Jesus are so revealing, so telling, if you read between the lines a bit. The lawyer says, “And who is my neighbor?” But I think he’s really wondering this: “Who is not my neighbor?” In other words, who can I get away with scratching off my “neighbor” list? So often, boiled down, the questions we offer up to Jesus are questions where we’re looking for the least we can do, the smallest part of our hearts we can give to God and still be considered on the “straight and narrow.” I wonder, who was the lawyer hoping he could get away with not counting as a neighbor? How about us? What person, what type of person, what group of people comes to mind when we ask Jesus "Who is – and who isn’t my neighbor?"
In response, Jesus does two important things: First, the parable he tells gives an answer that is not broad, but specific. You might expect that Jesus would just say something like, “Well, everyone is your neighbor of course!” That’s how we might summarize this parable. Everyone is our neighbor! (In fact, it’s pretty much how I talked about it to the children this morning, because that’s a simple answer.) But Jesus doesn’t say that. Instead, his answer gets very specific, rather than very broad. He zeroes in on perhaps the very group of people or the very type or the very person the questioner had in mind when he asked “who is – and who is not – my neighbor?” This Samaritan man, Jesus says to the lawyer, is your neighbor. If you asked Jesus this question, who would Jesus name in his version of the parable for you? Who do you have in mind when you ask Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Who are you hoping, secretly, that Jesus say is not your neighbor? I believe, friends, that we need to do some serious soul-searching, some very honest self-reflection to answer these questions. And we have to confess, to pour out to God the truth we find in our hearts. What person, or kind or person, or group of people are you hoping is not your neighbor? When we can honestly answer that question, God can get to work with us on making room in our hearts for new neighbors.   
The second important thing Jesus does in his answer to the lawyer is turn the question back around to the lawyer. The lawyer acknowledges that the one who shows mercy, the one who is moved with pity, the one who is compassionate, twisted-up-in-knots over the plight of the man who was beaten and robbed – that man, that good man, that good Samaritan man – that one is the true neighbor. And Jesus simply says, “Go, and do likewise.” The lawyer asks who is neighbor is, and Jesus is much more interested in whether or not the lawyer is a good neighbor. Are we good neighbors?
            It seems like we’ve witnessed a considerable dearth of mercy and compassion in these days, friends. It’s heart-breaking. It’s scary. It makes us want to respond in-kind sometimes. And maybe we’ve got all sorts of good reasons why someone shouldn’t have to be on our list of neighbors. I bet that Samaritan man had a whole slew of reasons, as the priest might have, as the Levite might have, why he wouldn’t want to stop for a Jewish man, someone with whom his people were forever at odds. And yet, he was moved with pity to act. Being a neighbor isn’t a state of mind. Having compassion isn’t just a way of thinking. To be a neighbor, Jesus says, we must demonstrate mercy, even as we stand in need of the mercy God showers on us.

The lawyer asked “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus prompted him to answer his own question: “The one who showed mercy.” Friends, let us go and do likewise. Amen. 

(1) Amy-Jill Levine talked about this at Festival of Homiletics one year, and transformed my understanding of this text.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "First Impressions," Luke 10:1-11 (Proper 9, Ordinary 14)

Sermon 7/3/16
Luke 10:1-11

First Impressions

It so happens that fairly often, when this scripture from lectionary cycle – a three-year schedule of scripture readings for worship – comes up, it falls on the first Sunday in July, which is also typically the day that United Methodist clergy around the connection are beginning their appointment, starting out in new congregations. It seems a kind of comical coincidence that for many pastors in new pulpits, their very first gospel text, as they make their first impressions and take their first impressions of their new congregation is about journeying to a new place to share the good news, and being prepared to either receive a warm welcome, or to shake the dust from their feet as they get out of town fast if things go poorly! Thankfully, I can tell you that even though it is my first Sunday here, I can already tell you that as I bring you greetings of peace, I’ve already found those eager to share in that peace, from former-Pastor-Beth’s warm words about how much she’s enjoyed her ministry with you, to the hard work of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee to care for the details of transition, to being hosted by the Schuesslers while I wait to move into the parsonage, to folks connecting with me on facebook, to meeting people at Vacation Bible School on Friday. I’ve been blessed by your warm welcome, and I’m ready to share the good news with your help – the kingdom of God has come near!
One of the challenges of reading small snippets of scripture in worship is that we can sometimes lose track of where we are in the larger story. The gospel writers try to help us keep track, if we pay attention to some of the helpful words and phrases they use. Our passage for today opens with the phrase, “After this.” Our first question, then, should be, “after what?” If we flip back to chapter 9, we’ll see that the last thing that happens before today’s passage is that Jesus talks to several people who say that want to follow him – after they do just one more thing. They say, “I want to follow you Jesus, but first” I need to do these other things. Jesus isn’t impressed with their offers though. He says to them, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, if you want to follow Jesus, Jesus wants you to be ready to actually follow him, without reservations. Challenging words! 
So that’s the “after this” where our lesson for today begins. There are apparently at least seventy – seventy beyond the twelve disciples – who are willing to do just what Jesus asked: they’re being sent out. Jesus pairs them up and sends them out to all the places where Jesus plans to go. He says to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Jesus says he sends them out like “lambs into the midst of wolves.” He tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; greet no one on the road.”
He tells them that when they arrive and find a place to stay, they should enter the home with words of peace. “Peace to this house!” If they find people who share in that peace, good: stay in that house, eat and drink whatever is offered. Don’t go about looking for nicer digs, but stay where you are. Where they are welcomed, do the work of God: heal those who are sick, and announce the good news – the kingdom of God has come near. This good news meant that people could experience God’s way of things, God’s hope and vision for the world right here and right now. But, Jesus said, if there’s no welcome extended, then shake even the dust of that town from your feet as you leave. Nonetheless, they are still to share the news: The kingdom of God has come near.”
So what can we learn from the instructions Jesus gave to these seventy, as he sent them out into the world? Maybe we’re not sent on the exact same kind of mission as this group was. But I do think we are all sent out to share the same message as they were – the message of hope and joy that God’s reign is here, that we can live and work in the world God dreams of right now, that God’s love and grace is offered to us freely right now. And if the message we have to share is the same, maybe we can use the same traveling advice Jesus gives the seventy: Be vulnerable, and travel light.
            When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Austria with a group of orchestra students, to play some concerts as part of Austria’s millennial celebration. It was a fantastic trip – one of my favorite trips even still. It was my first big trip like that – a little more than two weeks – the first time I’d been away from home for so long. And I tried to think of everything that I might need for such a trip. I was at the age and of the mindset then that one could not possibly repeat an outfit in such a short amount of time – which meant that I needed to have more than 14 changes of clothes with me. Plus, of course, I might need fancier clothes or warmer or cooler clothes or so on. By the time I was done packing, I think I had two large suitcases and a carry on backpack. Nothing had wheels. It was totally unmanageable. And although I had a wonderful trip, I spent the two-plus weeks struggling every time we changed locations to haul around my ridiculous luggage. I couldn’t do it without help. I vowed, then, never again to pack for a trip in such a way that I couldn’t easily manage my own bags.
            Jesus sends out the seventy by telling them to make themselves intentionally vulnerable. All that stuff he doesn’t want them to bring – they might think of it as exactly what would be sensible to be prepared. Who goes traveling without extra money and proper footwear and an extra bag of supplies? Who wouldn’t move to new accommodations if the first place wasn’t satisfactory? Who wouldn’t want to be a little selective about what they ate while they were traveling? But Jesus tells them to be like lambs among wolves – the most vulnerable creatures possible! All of those things that might help them be prepared and protected can also be layers of defense, layers that would keep the disciples from relying on others and relying on God. As much as the idea of being self-reliant might appeal to us, it actually isn’t what Jesus has in mind! These pairs of disciples have each other, and they have what Jesus has taught them, and they have the message Jesus has sent them with: God’s kingdom has come near. Everything else will just weigh them down.
            To really follow Jesus, we have to be ready to be on the move. So we have to look over our lives and ask ourselves what things we’re trying to drag around with us while serving God that are really just keeping us from giving our whole hearts and lives to God. What is it that’s weighing down your suitcase? What fears are you packing in your bags? What priorities that you find yourself putting before your life with God are you trying to tuck into your suitcase? What worries do you insist on taking with you everywhere? What prejudices that keep you from seeing Christ in others are you lugging along with you? What restrictions are you putting on giving your heart to God? Jesus says we don’t need all that stuff with us to go where he’s sending us. It will just slow us down. And our message is too good to keep people waiting on us while we try to manage all of our suitcases. 
            Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” In Tully, New York, not too far from my last congregation, there’s a non-profit farm called the Matthew 25 farm. Based on the text from Matthew’s gospel about feeding Christ when we feed the “least of these”, the Farm grows crops on ten acres of land, and gives all of it to area food pantries. Or, if you need it, you can come and pick food and take it home for yourself, your family, your neighbors. I’ve enjoyed volunteering there from time to time, and I’m on their email list. Occasionally, I’ll get emails saying that they have tons and tons of food ready to be harvested, but they’re having trouble getting people to come and gather in all that good food. If they don’t get enough help with the harvest, all those delicious fresh vegetables will simply rot, unused. What a waste!
            Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful! I’m not sure we always see that – the plentiful harvest. Jesus says that there is a world that is ripe, waiting for some good news. It’s not that the harvest is small – God’s harvest is ever abundant. It’s that the laborers are few. The laborers are few because we’re looking for a safe way of following Jesus, and Jesus is telling us he’s looking for lambs to send out among the wolves! The laborers are few because we’re too busy trying to cram one more thing into our bags before we’re ready to get to work, when Jesus has been trying to tell us we won’t need all that where he’s sending us. We can’t get out into the fields to gather in God’s harvest if we’ve packed everything we own into our suitcases and are trying to drag them through the fields with us!
            The harvest is waiting. Will we be God’s laborers? Over the next weeks, I’m going to be doing a lot of unpacking. And I hope to spend that time reflecting on what else in my life I need to unpack, what I’m carrying with me that’s weighing me down as I try to follow Jesus. I hope you’ll join me in that soul-searching, and then join me in heading out to the harvest. Amen.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Missional: The Journey," 1 Kings 19:1-18 (Proper 7, Ordinary 12)

Sermon 6/19/16
1 Kings 19:1-18

Missional: The Journey

Today we pop into the Hebrew Scriptures to the book of First Kings. We’re coming in kind of in the middle of a story here, but nonetheless, this reading from the lectionary just grabbed at me as I thought about everything happening in our world and everything happening right here at Apple Valley. We come into the story here in Chapter 19, but things have been unfolding for several chapters already. First and Second Kings chronicle a period in the history of Israel and Judah when a line of kings, starting with King Saul, ruled the people, after they had long clamored for an earthly king - not just God as ruler - so that they could be more like other nations. First and Second Kings testify to the fact that having a king is not all that God’s people hoped it would be. Some kings are faithful servants of God, but others “do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” according to the author. And among those evil kings is King Ahab. In fact, back in Chapter 16, we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” He marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. We know almost nothing about where Elijah came from, who he is, other than that he’s a prophet of God and he seems set on countering Ahab, Jezebel, and the false idol they worship. He starts by causing a drought to come upon Israel. We heard a brief mention of Elijah in our gospel lesson a couple of weeks ago when Jesus was pointing out how it was a widow who was not an Israelite that Elijah stayed with during the drought - this is that occasion. Elijah causes the drought to try to force Ahab to reexamine his life and actions, and while the drought is taking place, Elijah stays with the widow of Zarephath. After three years of this, Elijah presents himself to King Ahab. In the meantime, Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation - he is alone left among the prophets of God, and there are hundreds of prophets of Baal. He tells Ahab he must choose once and for all who he will follow, asking, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” No one answers. So, through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. But Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, and she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today finally begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness, a desert place, and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die, saying, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his 40 days journey to the mount of God.
He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He sounds weary, doesn’t he? Forlorn. Exhausted. Out of ideas and out of energy. God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” The particular phrasing - when God passes by like this in the scriptures - it means that God and God’s glory is going to be revealed in a special way. There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
I have to tell you, when I first looked ahead to the lectionary for what I knew would be my last Sunday here, to see if I wanted to use a scheduled text, or choose one of my own, I dismissed the chosen passages immediately, not seeing anything that spoke to our theme of Missional Apple Valley, our own context here in transition, or the broader real-world situation. But last Sunday, early in the morning, a gunman attacked Pulse Orlando, killing 49 people, injuring another 50 beyond that. The victims were primarily people in the LGBT community and their friends. The man who committed the murders was a Muslim man, possibly connected to or at least supportive of the extremist ISIS regime. And the crime was committed with recently purchased semi-automatic weapons that do great damage in an incredibly short amount of time. This horrible tragedy came less than a month after the close of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, where delegates decided to study possible solutions to our seemingly insurmountable conflict over human sexuality and the church and how we will include - or limit - the full participation of all people in the life of The United Methodist Church. I don’t know about you - but the combination of these things, combined with the hateful tenor of our current electoral cycle in the United States, combined with my upcoming move - it has had me feeling pretty weary. Pretty overwhelmed. I know others feel the same. I’ve seen people quoting Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” In the face of tragedy and in the face of injustice upon injustice and in the face of a journey that seems too long and too hard, it is easy to feel like we’re losing ground, not gaining it, when it comes to our mission, our purpose of announcing the good news of God’s vision of love and justice and right relationships for the whole world.
With all this in my heart, suddenly the text from 1 Kings seemed perfectly placed. Elijah is so weary. He’s so weary of fighting against evil and on God’s behalf, of staying faithful to God’s call - so weary that he asks God to let him just give up. He’s done enough, after all. And people are literally chasing after him so they can kill him, like they’ve killed all the other prophets. It’s too much. He sits under a lonely tree, ready to die. But God finds him there, as God always does. Elijah is just one of many folks in the scripture that wind up at their wit’s end under a tree, and God always sends aid. He gets food, strength for the journey. And he makes it up the mountain to talk to God. God is in the fire sometimes, and the earthquake, and the raging wind. But this time God comes after the sound of sheer silence. Elijah repeats his weary woes to God. And God responds. There will be a new king - Ahab and his reign of evil is finite. It seems unending, but he will not be king forever. Elijah will anoint a new prophet. Elijah has worked hard for God, but he is not God’s only prophet. He is one in a line of prophets, working for God, and that line of prophets will continue after Elijah is done. God always raises up people to do God’s work. And finally, God reminds Elijah that no matter how bad it seems, there are many, many people who remain faithful to God. We know what God can do with the smallest amount of things. Imagine what God can build out of seven thousand faithful people. After our reading for today, Elijah is able to finish his work with less fear and more hope in his heart, because God has reminded him that even though we see but a part, God is relentless in working for justice, in spreading love, in offering grace, in cultivating new life.

Friends, that is my prayer for us too, in the world, here at Apple Valley, in our hearts. We are all on a journey, even if I am the one moving away. We’re on a journey of faith and discipleship as we seek to shape our lives to reflect ever more clearly God’s hopes and dreams for us and for the world. And sometimes that journey is so hard. It seems like everything is uphill and parched dry ground and we are so weary. God gives us a gentle reminder, spoken out of the silence: we are not the center of the universe, and that’s a good thing. We are a part of the body of Christ. But we’re a part. We have our place in line in the great cloud of witnesses whom God has raised up before us and who will surely come after us, as we each carry out the call, the task the God has set for us, in our place, in our time. I am so thankful that for this precious time, these two  years, our journeys were in sync. You have been like food for my empty stomach, a cold drink for my parched soul, and you have given me strength to follow God on the path that unfolds before us. I know that you will continue to be that - you can’t seem to help but be the loving, grace-filled, open-armed people that you are - even as you set off in new company, on your own new path. Here, and there, God is with us always. Amen.