Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sermon, "Summer Days: Picnic," Mark 6:30-44

Sermon 7/26/15
Mark 6:30-44

Summer Days: Picnic

            Maybe you’ve had an experience like this: you are exhausted. It has been a long week at work. Some things have gone wrong. And all week, you’ll been looking forward to a quiet Saturday at home, where you can sleep in and spend down time alone or maybe with your family or closest friends. But you’re just going to hang out. No agenda. No schedule. No plans. And then, there’s a knock at the door. Or the phone rings. And suddenly, that time for rest and relaxation has vanished. And it’s not even that whoever interrupted your time is not a friend, a person you enjoy. It’s just that you were so exhausted, and you so needed a break. Has this ever happened to you?  
            That’s what I imagine when I hear the opening of our text today from the gospel of Mark. The apostles have gathered around Jesus, and they tell him all they had done and taught. See, he had sent them out to preach and teach and heal on their own. He’d told them to pack lightly, stay where they were welcomed, and shake off the dust where they weren’t. They’d been sharing the good news about the kingdom of God. And they’d returned, and wanted to tell Jesus about everything they’d experienced. Not only that, but Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, had just been executed by Herod, beheaded. It is in the context of these events that Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” Mark tells us that it was so crazy in their lives that they didn’t even have time for a meal. They need this time away. So they get in a boat and head out to a place they think will be deserted. But the crowds are paying attention, and realize where Jesus and the disciples are headed, and hurry on foot to greet them, so that by the time the boat arrives, Jesus and the twelve are greeted by a crowd of people in their supposed-to-be-deserted place. You and I might respond to this in any number of ways. I can imagine my groaning, my shoulders slumping, and the feeling of being overwhelmed, spent.
            Jesus, we read, has compassion for them, because they’re like sheep without a shepherd, and he immediately starts to teach them many things. That word, compassion, is my favorite Greek word. The Greek is splachnizomai, and it means something to the effect of your guts are tied up in knots with the level of concern you have. You are physically moved with emotion for the person you’re considering. In the gospels, this word is used frequently to describe how Jesus feels about the crowds. In fact, this words is used more times about Jesus than in others instances combined. When Jesus sees people, his guts twist with the deepness of his concern. His response, despite his clear need for some rest and renewal, bowls me over. I’m not convinced I have the same response all the time!
            Nonetheless, Jesus teaches late into the evening. The hour is late. And the disciples, who, you’ll note, have not been described as looking at the crowds with compassion, come to Jesus and tell him to send the crowds home to get some dinner. They clearly are not feeling the twisted guts thing. I think of classic movies that are about life in high school, and inevitably, there’s some scene in the cafeteria where the new kid, or the nerdy kid, or the kid who people have suddenly decided to hate enters the cafeteria and tries to find a place to sit down. And one by one, you see them rejected by different groups of people. Maybe there’s one table of misfits that will let them sit down. Maybe eventually they make their way to the cool kids’ table. But the message is pretty clear: in school, which table you sit at, where you eat, is extremely important. Was your school like this? Maybe my high school wasn’t quite so dramatic. But still, in junior high and high school, everyone mostly had a table that they always sat at. There was very little movement between the tables. People generally sat with the same set of people every single day.
            See, for better or worse, we learn early on in life that who you eat with is important. Who you eat with is an intimate act – it suggests relationship, affinity, similarity between you and your table companions. I’ve mentioned before I think that one of the things people get so upset about in the gospels is who Jesus chooses to eat with. The religious folks are always complaining and grumbling that Jesus eats with sinners and low-lifes! And if he eats with them – well, maybe that means Jesus has something in common with them. Maybe he likes those people. Maybe he even loves them. And the religious leaders, in all their dignified ways, essentially react like kids in movies about high school: “Ew, gross!”
            I think we’ve learned to expect this reaction in the gospels from some of the religious elite. They usually seem to be arguing with Jesus about things like this: who is in, and who is out, and according to what set of rules – theirs, or God’s. But I don’t think we expect the same reaction from the disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, his closest followers. Still, where Jesus reacts with compassion, the disciples can’t wait to be back in their own group. It’s one thing to preach and teach people. But when they want to sit down to eat, they want to be back in their own group.
            Jesus isn’t having it though. He says to them, “you give them something to eat.” The disciples respond, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread to get them food?” Notice, the text does not say that they don’t have 200 denarii available among them. For perspective, later in the gospels, the costly perfume Mary of Bethany uses on Jesus is valued at 300 denarii. Both are high sums, to be sure. But we get the idea it isn’t really the cost that’s bothering the disciples. It’s the effort. They want everyone to just go home now. They want to be on their own. They’ve dealt with the crowds like Jesus wanted, but dinner time? That’s going to be just the group of them, right? Jesus and the 12 cool kids?
            Instead, Jesus orders them to gather what food the crowd has. They come up with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus gets everyone to sit down, and he takes the food, blesses it, and passes it out. And we read, “all ate and were filled” and there were twelve baskets of food leftover. This story of the feeding of the 5000 is generally counted as one of the miracles of Jesus. Scholars debate: Did Jesus multiply the food? Did he just inspire people to share what they had with them? What’s the significance of the event? I think there’s a lot of interesting things we could discuss here, but maybe first, we need to understand what we think about miracles. Miracles are events that cause wonderment. Surprising events that are welcome and not easy to explain, considered the work of God. To learn more, we turn to a scholarly source: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
If you aren’t familiar with the book, or have forgotten it, Charlotte’s Web is about a pig named Wilbur who is the runt of his litter. He is saved from death by the pleadings of a young girl, Fern, who raises him herself. When he gets too big, he goes to live on a farm, where he again faces death – they want to eat Wilbur, if you can imagine such a crazy thing! He is saved by the handiwork of a spider named Charlotte, who weaves words about Wilbur into her web. Fern’s mother is very concerned about everything, and goes to see the doctor, which is where our excerpt begins: 
“It’s about Fern,” [Mrs. Arable] explained. “Fern spends entirely too much time in the Zuckermans’ barn. It doesn’t seem normal. She sits on a milk stool in a corner of the barn cellar, near the pigpen, and watches animals, hour after hour. She just sits and listens.” Dr. Dorian leaned back and closed his eyes. “How enchanting!” he said. “It must be real nice and quiet down there. Homer has some sheep, hasn’t he?” “Yes,” said Mrs. Arable. “But it all started with that pig we let Fern raise on a bottle. She calls him Wilbur. Homer bought the pig, and ever since it left our place, Fern has been going to her uncle’s to be near it.” “I’ve been hearing things about that pig,” said Dr. Dorian, opening his eyes. “They say he’s quite a pig.” “Have you heard about the words that appeared in the spider’s web?” asked Mrs. Arable nervously. “Yes,” replied the doctor. “Well, do you understand it?” asked Mrs. Arable. “Understand what?” "Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider's web?" Oh, no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle." “What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle – it’s just a web.” “Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian. Mrs. Arable shifted uneasily in her chair. “No,” she replied. “But I can crochet a doily and a can knit a sock.” “Sure,” said the doctor. “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?” “My mother taught me.” “Well, who taught a spider? A young spider knows how to spin a web without any instructions from anybody. Don’t you regard that as a miracle?” “I suppose so,” said Mrs. Arable. Still, I don’t understand how those words got into the web. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.” “None of us do," said Dr. Dorian, sighing. "I'm a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don't understand everything, and I don't intend to let it worry me.”
Maybe Jesus helping everyone to get fed isn’t the miracle in this story. Or at least, the specific nature of how it happens isn’t the part we need to worry so much about understanding. After all, today I mostly find it amazing that in a world that has more than enough food, somehow people are still going hungry. If what we describe is nothing more mysterious than people being moved by Jesus to share that they actually had more food than they first wanted to admit to share with others, than that’s no small welcome act of wonder in and of itself. If we could be moved by Jesus to start seeing how much we have, not how much we lack, I’d call that a miracle. If Jesus changed our lives so that our impulse was to share instead of keep, to open our hands instead of grasping tightly, I’d call that a miracle. But the miracle for which I give deepest thanks in this passage is that Jesus sees us with such compassion, again and again. That despite our giving God many reasons to be exasperated, we follow a Christ who gazes upon us with such love and hope as to be twisted up in knots over it. That’s a miracle. And if in our following of this Jesus, we can learn to look with the same compassion, with the same love, the same hope, so that we’re making room at our lunch tables, and opening the doors of our heart to those who are knocking: that would be a most welcome act of God in our lives. Fortunately, we serve a God of all kinds of miracles. In fact, these welcome surprises of God happen so often, I think our biggest danger is in failing to recognize them when they happen. Thankfully, God invites us to participate in miracle-making, giving us front row seats to the amazing things God has in store. “But Jesus answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’” Amen. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Lectionary Note for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 11, Ordinary 16)

Readings for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 7/22/12: 
2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

2 Samuel 7:1-14a:
  • David feels bad that he's living in a nice house while God travels via tent in the ark. So he offers to build God a cedar house. And God says, "who says I need a house? I've been doing just fine without one!"
  • I think David's impulse is ours - wouldn't it be nicer if we could put God somewhere where we would always know where God was? But we get into trouble when our wanting to know where God is turns into wanting just to control God - period.
  • What would it mean if you would just led God travel through your life, and not try to restrict God to only a part of your life?
Psalm 89:20-37:
  • Says Chris Haslam, "Overall, a king, on behalf of the people, laments some disaster and blames God for it, but our portion of the psalm recalls what God “spoke in a vision” (v. 19) to Nathan and/or David."
  • Our part of the Psalm focuses on God talking about the power and anointing that he gives to David.
  • If God was to write a promise out like this for you and what God has planned for your life, what do you think it would say? What do you hope it would say?
  • "forever I will keep my steadfast love for him" - God's promise not just to David, but to us too.
Ephesians 2:11-22:
  • "For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." Yes, yes, yes!! Oh, what a message we need to hear and live into in this time, this country, world, church, denomination...
  • "one new humanity in the place of the two [groups]" - Why do we still live as if Christ had never eliminated the groups we've put ourselves into?
  • "peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near" - throughout, Paul is speaking about Gentiles and Jews. But we can always self apply. Do we always see ourselves as "those who [are] near" and everyone else as "far off" from Christ? He brings peace to both.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56:
  • This scene takes place immediately after last week's text where John the Baptist is beheaded. Retreating, then, seems to be in response not only to the disciples returning, but also to John's death.
  • "compassion for them" - the theme of Jesus' reaction towards the crowds throughout his ministry, even when he wants to be getting away. I wish I could say I always reacted the same way when I'm trying to get away and someone comes to me in need. The Greek word here for compassion is  from splanchnizomai, which means literally to "feel bowels of pity" - it is a physical, gut reaction of the insides - your stomach literally turning over in compassion. That's what Jesus feels when he sees the crowds.
  • "like sheep without a shepherd" - wandering, aimless, lost, without purpose. That's us at worst, isn't it?
  • "rushed about the whole region" - imagine how excited they must have been to have an opportunity to meet with Jesus, considering the communication available to them to let people know he had arrived.
  • relentless. The people were relentless in their pursuit of Jesus. Mark even indicates this in the pace of his short but relentlessly paced gospel. Very little rest in this account of Jesus.

Lectionary Notes for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 10, Ordinary 15)

Readings for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 7/12/15:
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19:
  • This is a strange passage, and in it, Michal, one of David's wives, and daughter of deceased King Saul, comes out looking whiny and moody. But make sure you know her whole story. She was in love with David, and he married her, but eventually when he and Saul came into conflict, Saul gave Michael to another man to be married. When David wanted Michal back, he had to tear her away from her new husband, who followed after them crying. It is not surprising that she isn't thrilled to see David prancing around in his ephod (decorative ritual underwear!) Chapter six unfortunately ends with noting that Michal remains barren, not able to continue her family bloodline. I think she gets a bad deal.
  • That aside, the heart of the text today is in David's full body, soul, and heart dance before the Lord. He literally puts his whole self into giving thanks to God, dancing "with all his might." We are rarely so free and uninhibited when it comes to putting ourselves before God. What's holding you back?
Psalm 24:
  • What belongs to God in this psalm isn't limited to humankind - we too often act like that's all that's meant by God's creation!
  • Check out Chris Haslam's notes for background on this psalm.
  • "clean hands and pure hearts" - A mix of motherly and godly advice?
  • This psalm ties directly to the Advent hymn, "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates." The psalmist prepares for a triumphant arrival of the deity.
Ephesians 1:3-14:
  • "adoption as his children through Jesus Christ" - The language of adoption in terms of our relationship to God stirs mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, it is such a loving image of God choosing to make us part of God's family - going out of the way to make us children of God's own. On the other hand, I hear a lot of the biblical witness saying that as creatures of God, created by God's hand, that fact alone makes us God's children. Are we or aren't we all God's children? I think we are…
  • "The Beloved" from the Greek agapema, meaning, an object of love. Here Christ is called the beloved, the same word God speaks to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan. Elsewhere in the scriptures, we are called beloved. One of my former bishops, Bishop Violet Fisher, always opened her letters by addressing us as The Beloved. Amazing comfort in little words.
  • "having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will" - predestined, from the Greek prooristhentes, meaning "to determine beforehand". Are we predestined to be adopted or not adopted by God? To heaven or hell? If we believe that God has plans for our lives, which I do, how is that different than believing that God has determined already our final salvation/non-salvation, which I don't believe?
Mark 6:14-29:
  • This text is another one that has dancing in it - a strange connection for texts.
  • Foolishness - King Herod, walking the line with a chance of making a right or at least better decision, perhaps even somewhat intrigued by John, winds up, as the result of a drunken promise, beheading him. What is the most foolish thing you've ever done? How might things have been different in the long run if Herod had not been so foolish?
  • How do you think John's disciples felt? The gospels tell us that they interacted, of course, with Jesus' disciples - do you think they were disillusioned? Went to follow Jesus? What do you think they did?
  • Following news of these events, Jesus tries to withdraw from the crowds, but that's the text for another Sunday...

Friday, July 03, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 9, Ordinary 14)

Readings for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, 7/5/15:
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10, Psalm 48, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10:
  • "bone and flesh" - it must have given David great comfort to hear these words of commitment from the tribes, even after they had served under Saul. We don't always have such great success at transitioning leadership in the church, do we? Of course, with Saul's death, this transition wasn't exactly smooth either...
  • In verse 2, the people say it was David who "led out Israel and brought it in" - tasks of a shepherd. This imagery sticks with David throughout his life - it is how he views God (Psalm 23) and how God has called him to be.
  • "30 years old" - Wow. At 27 as I write this, I can't imagine being King of such a messed up country at 30. Impressive.
Psalm 48:
  • This psalm focuses mostly on the beauty of Jerusalem, the holy place, and Mount Zion, a holy and loved place in Jerusalem. Perhaps the biblical equivalent of "America the Beautiful," which happens to be my favorite patriotic song - focusing on what we love about our homeland and our thankfulness for it, as opposed to focusing on our superiority over others.
  • Still, perhaps this psalm is a little "Star-Spangled Banner" - we do get a bit of enemy talk in here (what is a psalm without it, right?)
  • What's your favorite holy place? What's your favorite convergence of home and God?
2 Corinthians 12:2-10:
  • "caught up to the third heaven" - Paul clearly has a different understanding of cosmology than do we today - check out Chris Haslam's notes on the topic.
  • "thorn in the flesh" - I think we can all relate to Paul here, even if we'll never know exactly what Paul considered his "thorn in the flesh." We all know our thorn or thorns. What's yours? How do you deal with it?
  • "boast" - Someday I have to count the number of times Paul uses the word 'boast' and the number of times he is writing about how he's really not boasting!
  • "whenever I am weak, then I am strong" - a very Jesus-like paradoxical statement
Mark 6:1-13:
  • Jesus' experience of going home and finding people less-than-welcoming is not unusual. Things are never the same when you leave and go back again, are they?
  • The disciples here make an initial transition to apostles - ones sent. Christopher Moore, in his hilarious and poignant Lamb, has this conversation between Joshua (Jesus) and his disciples: “Okay, who wants to be an apostle?” “I do, I do,” said Nathaniel. “What’s an apostle?” “That’s a guy who makes drugs,” I said. “Me, me,” said Nathaniel. “I want to make drugs.” “I’ll try that,” said John. “That’s an apothecary,” said Matthew . . . “Apostle means ‘to send off.’” . . . “That’s right,” said Joshua, “messengers. You’ll be sent off to spread the message that the kingdom has come.” “Isn’t that what we’re doing now?” asked Peter. “No, now you’re disciples, but I want to appoint apostles who will take the Word into the land . . . I will give you power to heal, and power over devils. You’ll be like me, only in a different outfit. You’ll take nothing with you except your clothes. You’ll live only off the charity of those you preach to. You’ll be on your own, like sheep among wolves. People will persecute you and spit on you, and maybe beat you, and if that happens, well, it happens. Shake of the dust and move on. Now, who’s with me?” And there was a roaring silence among the disciples . . . [so] Joshua stood up and just counted them off . . . You’re the apostles. Now get out there and apostilize.” And they all looked at each other. “Spread the good news, the son of man is here! The kingdom is coming. Go! Go! Go!” They got up and sort of milled around . . . Thus were the twelve appointed to their sacred mission.”
  • Think of how detailed our preparations for traveling are these days. Itineraries and packing and repacking and maps and GPS - could you go out as unprepared as Jesus sent the disciples? And yet, they do it, prepared in the ways that count, as much as they can be.
  • How prepared can you really be, anyway? Before actually starting my first day as a pastor, I still felt unprepared. Trained, equipped - but nothing can totally prepare you for the real thing. You just have to do it. So it is with being sent by Jesus. We just have to do it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 8, Ordinary 13)

Readings for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 6/28/15:
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27:
  • David laments the deaths of both Jonathan, who he loved dearly, and Saul, who spent a lot of time trying to kill David. Could you give someone like Saul such a lament? Apparently, David was sympathetic to the obvious psychological distress Saul seemed to be in over David's rise to power.
  • "greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" David and Jonathan are constantly expressing their love for one another. What was their relationship like, do you think? Today, we don't encourage such emotional expressions from men, especially directed at other men.
Psalm 130:
  • A favorite Psalm. My favorite musical setting of this Psalm is the John Rutter Requiem.
  • Out of the depths - what are the depths from which you call to God? Do you remember to call to God from your lowest low?
  • This psalm shows a great faith and hope in God's grace and forgiving mercy, unlike some psalms that are more bent on vengeance: "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord , who could stand?" It is a nice change.
  • wait, wait, wait the psalmist says. I've read statistics before about how many years of our life we spending waiting in line for things. How much of your life do you spend waiting on God? Are you more patient about waiting in line for concert tickets than you are about waiting for God? 
  • Relate this Psalm to the text from 2 Samuel. They are both laments. Do you lament to God?
2 Corinthians 8:7-15:
  • Paul 'butters up' the Corinthians, telling them they excel in everything else already, so no doubt they will excel in following the teachings he gives now.
  • :11 "finish doing it" - Good advice for the church. How often do we get fired up with new ideas, new hope, new visions for our church, only to run out of steam and energy and creativity before we follow through?
  • Paul is talking about a deep generosity - "your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance." Fair balance - do we have much of that today in terms of abundance and need? Hardly!
Mark 5:21-43:
  • Synagogue leaders weren't always welcoming to Jesus and his teaching - and yet Jairus humbles himself and turns to Jesus in need. When was the last time you had to humble yourself?
  • The woman knows just being near to Jesus, touching him, will bring her healing. Can you imagine her faith?
  • The KJV of the Bible calls the young girl in this passage a "damsel." I just can't picture Jesus saying damsel, can you?! :)
  • "something to eat" - the eating in passages like this is a sign confirming she's really alive and really human, not some spirit.
  • The little girl's perspective is one we never get - we hear from everyone else. What do you think she was thinking when she was raised? Have you ever had a near-death experience?

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 7, Ordinary 12)

Readings for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 6/21/15:
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-40, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-40:
  • What's your Goliath? I read this passage, and see such a cartoon childhood-Bible-story image. But for the Israelites - terror. What would be a comparable image of terror for you?
  • :39 - David removing the armor reminds me of a scene from the movie Contact - Jodie Foster, traveling in the machine, is strapped to a chair that wasn't in the specifications, for her safety, supposedly. But eventually she realizes that the chair is only holding her back, and once she unstraps herself from it, she floats calmly and safely. What kind of things do we try to add into our lives that are only holding us back?
  • appearances - David's early story is all about appearances. Goliath thinks he knows what David is all about because of how he looks. What would your appearance say about you? Is that who you are? When do you let appearances influence what you think about others?
Psalm 9:9-20:
  • "a stronghold for the oppressed" - God is the safe place for those who have no other.
  • Not my favorite psalm - a lot of "I hate my enemies - get 'em, God!" talk.
  • "let the nations know that they are only human." What a timely reminder, eh? Someone needs to remind the nations today of this truth - not God, but humans.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13:
  • "an acceptable time" - God's time and our time don't always seem to mesh. We're so rushed, we rarely seem able to wait for God's action. But when the acceptable time comes, when God acts, we don't always seem ready to respond! Jesus was all about the time being now, the kingdom being at hand - here, arrived. Do we miss the message? Are we late?
  • :4-:10 - What a description from Paul, and how he has sought to mold himself and his ministry. Can you apply these descriptors to yourself? What would your 'list' look like?
  • "no restriction in our affection" "open wide your hearts also" - beautiful. It is hard to live without putting conditions on our love of others. How open are your hearts?
Mark 4:35-41:
  • "Have you no  faith?" If I were the disciples, I admit, I'd be on Jesus' case too! After all, early in the gospel account, maybe they don't know him well enough yet.
  • Still, aren't they fisherman, many of them? And Jesus a rabbi? What exactly were they expecting of him? A miracle performer only?
  • I imagine Jesus wasn't thrilled, either, that they accused him of not caring. Why, in crisis times, do we sometimes throw out the most hurtful things we can think of to say?

Sermon, "Apple Valley Dreams: Fruitful," Matthew 7:15-29

Sermon 6/21/15
Matthew 7:15-29

Apple Valley Dreams: Fruitful

            Many of you are probably familiar with the musical My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle, the unrefined flower seller with a heavy Cockney accent is taken on as a project, by a snobby professor, Henry Higgins, to see if he can convince others that she is an upper-class educated woman. Along the way, though, a thoughtful suitor named Freddy Einsford-Hill falls in love with Eliza, and serenades her outside her door. Freddy sings, “Speak, and the world is full of singing/And I am winging higher than the birds/Touch and my heart begins to crumble/The heaven's tumble/Darling, and I'm …” but what he is, we don’t find out, because Eliza, frustrated with the men in her life, cuts him off, singing: “Words, words, words! I'm so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars, burning above/If you're in love, show me!/Tell me no dreams, filled with desire/If you're on fire, show me!” Eliza Doolittle has had quite enough of words. She wants to be able to really see if Freddy loves her.
            Today we’re wrapping up my part of our series on Apple Valley Dreams. I’ve told you that I hope we are: prayerful, invitational, and missional. Today, I want to talk to you about what holds them all together, these dreams. I dream that we will be a fruitful people. In our text from Matthew, Jesus says we are known by our fruit. Good trees can only bear good fruit, not bad. Bad trees, conversely, can’t bear good fruit. We’re meant to bear good fruit, and not be people who call on the name of Jesus, but don’t actually do any of the things he commands us to do. If we do that – listen to his words, promise to follow, but then do our own thing, producing bad fruit, we’re like a person who builds a house with no foundation, which cannot stand against a storm.
But this text from Matthew is just one of many that I could have chosen for our “fruitful” focus. Aside from the gospel text we already shared today, the gospels are full of Jesus talking to us about being good fruit. When John the Baptist arrives, preparing folks for Jesus’ arrival, he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance … Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Speaking to the  chief priests and elders, after sharing what we call the Parable of Wicked Tenants, Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” At the end of the Parable of the Sower Jesus says, “These are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” He tells this short parable in the gospel of Luke: “‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”” In John’s gospel, we read about Jesus saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In one of his vivid “I Am” statements, Jesus teaches, “‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Jesus declares, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Beyond the gospels, the writers of the letters and teachings of the early church echo Jesus, emphasizing the aim for young congregations to bear good fruit.
            Do we have good fruit to show? Many churches are struggling with how to be in this 21st century climate. How do we exist as church in a society that is deeply changed from the culture in which many of us grew up and first started following Jesus? In the midst of these cultural transformations, not just individual churches, but the whole the denomination is struggling with clarifying our mission, our purpose, our direction. As a denomination, we’ve been focusing a lot on “church vitality” – what makes a church vital? Church leaders have been working hard to see if they can figure out what makes some churches thrive and others struggle. Are there commonalities among vital churches? As part of this push, some church leaders have pushed for better metrics – better ways of measuring what churches do. Churches have been encouraged to keep track of – and focus on increasing numbers of – visitors, new members, worshippers, baptism, people involved in small groups, people involved in outreach ministries, and so on. By certain measures considered meaningful by the denomination, then, churches can see how healthy they are, how vital they are, just like you might figure out if a child is in the right height and weight percentile for their age-group. There are parts of this that make sense to me. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to see what is healthy or unhealthy in a congregation, without really doing some close examination. But sometimes I wonder about what the best things are to measure. Are all churches that have more people worshipping than they did before healthy? Are all churches that are smaller than they used to be unhealthy? Probably not.
            What I wonder, then, is if we can start figuring out whether or not we’ve got good fruit. Jesus is really interested in our fruit. Jesus wants to know what we’ve produced with our life’s work, with our ministry, with our faith, with our community. After all we’ve put in, what do we have to show for it? Are we producing fruit at all? Is it good fruit? Or do we keep planting and planting and planting, but whatever we’re doing is resulting in nothing that grows, or nothing that’s good? I think those are the metrics, the measures, that Jesus comes back to again and again. I think that’s both simpler, and more challenging, than other measures we might use.
I've had on my mind this week my first time at General Conference, the global decision-making meeting for United Methodists that takes place every four years. I attended in 2000, when I was a lay delegate from our annual conference. That year, we participated in an Act of Repentance for our history of racism as a church. If you don’t know our denominational history related to African-Americans in this country, I encourage you to do a little research, or ask me about it. Unfortunately, the church as a whole was not leading the way to say that slavery and racism and segregation were wrong. Some African-American leaders, fed up with being told to wait, to be patient, to be happy with what place their white brothers and sisters in Christ were willing to give them, started their own Methodist denominations. The African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal are Pan-Methodist churches connected to us that were formed in response to racist practices perpetuated by the church. Representatives from these historically black denominations were invited to our Act of Repentance Service in 2000, and at the end of the worship, Bishop Clarence Carr, from the AME Zion Church, said that folks from these denominations were not set up to be our judges, as they watched to see how much our Act of Repentance really meant; rather, they would be "fruit inspectors." What I heard in those words wasn’t someone saying they were going to be “checking up” on us, waiting for us to fail. What I heard was: “Please, please, please, don’t let this whole service, this whole act, all these words, amount to nothing. Show us your fruit, and then we’ll know you mean it.”
These words have been on my heart and mind this week, as I was preparing my sermon, and reading about the horrific act of racism committed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where a white man shot and killed nine black men and women on Wednesday. I can’t help but feel like we, as a society, don’t have much to show to our fruit inspectors. What can it say for us, for this atrocity to happen – and for us to be unwilling to talk about violence and weapons? For us to be unwilling to look at the ways racism exists today? For us to be unable to look into our own hearts at our prejudice and stereotypes and yes, racism, without getting defensive? For us to be unable to really want to build relationships that break down walls and cross boundaries? For us to be unwilling to be uncomfortable and ill at ease if it means we might have fewer massacres born of hate? Can we produce some fruit, here? Any fruit? Some good fruit? I know that we can. But I also know that it takes work, beyond words. An unwavering commitment. Serving, rather than being served. Following Jesus, as he invites us to join him out of our comfort zones. Prayer without ceasing. We can bear good fruit. God knows it. 
Friends, I have such hope for this congregation and community. Such hope, such dreams for you and for me. And I believe that every dream God has for us can absolutely come true. But too often it is easier to just keep on keeping on than to actually follow in the ways of Jesus. It’s easier to say we’ll pray than to pray. It’s easier to come here and be with people we know and love – and we do know and love each other – than to push ourselves into unfamiliar places and move among strangers in order to share God’s love. It’s easier to give a little bit of help without asking too many questions about why people are poor and hungry and homeless. Easier to worry about what we like, what we want, what we need, than to work for others first. Easier to plant seeds and hope for the best, without working the field, without watering, without weeding, without pruning. Easier to let our dreams be the stuff of imagination and fairy tales. Friends, please, please, don’t let the dreams God is planting in our hearts amount to nothing. Please, please, don’t let us build a house on sand, only to have it wash away after the first storm. In everything we do, Jesus calls for us to bear fruit. To have something to show. To mean what we say. To actually practice what we preach. We’re disciples. Followers of Jesus Christ, seeking to do the will of God. Right? Let’s show it, do it. We’ll be known by our fruit. Amen. 

Sermon, "Apple Valley Dreams: Missional," Mark 10:35-45

Sermon 6/14/15
Mark 10:35-45

Apple Valley Dreams: Missional

We’ve been talking about my dreams for Apple Valley over the past couple of weeks. The first week, our memory verse was, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you, Search, and you fill find, Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” And I shared my dream that we are a prayerful people. That we’re comfortable praying. That we’re persistent, and full of expectation that God loves to hear what we have to say, and has something to say back. That we’re praying, everyday, for ourselves, and our congregation, and our community, and God’s vision to come alive in us. Last week, our memory verse, from the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, was, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,” and I talked about my dream that Apple Valley is Invitational. Not just that we wait for folks who cross our paths, but that we live out in the world an expression of the welcome of Christ, who is always on the move among the most vulnerable.
            This week, I want to talk about my dream for Apple Valley to be a missional congregation. Mission is one of those words we can use in a lot of ways. Sometimes we talk about people going on a mission trip – this could mean going to build homes or schools, or just going to a different community or country to build relationships. In our jurisdiction, the Northeastern body of United Methodists in the United States, for example, young people go every year on a Mission of Peace, a mission trip with a focus on breaking down walls of misunderstanding and separation between people. But sometimes, especially historically, and still today, a mission trip meant a trip where missionaries would try to convert people to the Christian faith. Historically, Christians have sometimes confused sharing the faith with sharing a culture, insisting that new Christians needed to adopt a new language, new dress, new traditions to be Christian. When we engaged in the Act of Repentance at Annual Conference this year, part of our repentance was remembering and rejecting the ways American Christians insisted native peoples must abandon their culture to follow Jesus, often forcing native people to do so. The result is that today people are sometimes very wary of the word “mission.” In congregations today, you might find that there is a “mission” committee. Usually, this is the group of folks in the church who think about how to best serve others on behalf of the church. They do the work of outreach through service. And finally, mission can mean “purpose” – the reason for something’s existence. We have, for example, a mission statement for the denomination. It’s “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s what United Methodists claim as our purpose, the reason we’re in existence. More broadly, our book of order, The Book of Discipline says that the mission of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world” and further that that mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.”
            When I talk about wanting Apple Valley to be missional, I mean primarily this last thing: I want us to be a people who are clear about our purpose, and clear about the way in which we are meant to live out our purpose in the world. What’s our purpose, and how do we get it done? I believe that our purpose is to share in the task of communicating Jesus’ message – his good news – and to be a people who are working hard, together, to bring our lives into line with the transformed set of values that Jesus offers as an alternative to the values of power, money, and position that the world claims most important. I believe that our mission is to change our lives so that our values match God’s values. My dream is for us to be a missional, justice-seeking congregation full of servants of Christ.
            So what does that mean exactly? Our key verse today is from our gospel lesson, and we have to commit it to memory even without a children’s sermon: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Like I said last Sunday, when Jesus tells us so clearly what his purpose is, our best bet is to do likewise. Jesus comes to serve and to pour out his life for others. We’re meant to do likewise! Just before our text in Mark’s gospel, a man approached Jesus asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus talked to him about the commandments, which the man said he kept, and then Jesus told him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the men went away grieving, since he was very wealthy. Jesus then talked about how difficult it was to enter God’s kingdom, and the disciples wonder how anyone could enter the kingdom. Jesus tells them that with God, nothing is impossible, but that the last will be first and the first will be last.
            Somehow, just after this, apparently not absorbing the previous conversation, we encounter James and John saying to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus presses them, asking if they could really handle all that is implied – if they could face what Jesus will face in order to claim those honored seats – and they insist that they can. Naturally, their claim to seats of honor causes a fight among the twelve, who are mad at James and John. But Jesus says to them, ““You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
            Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about these role reversals, about flipping things upside down in the expected order of the world. The exalted are humbled, and the humbled exalted. Last first and first last. And here, Jesus, the teacher, the master, comes not to be served, but to serve, to give his life. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, he says. This past week in our Clergy Book Study Group we talked about the gospel lesson from John where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. It has some parallels to our text for today. Listen: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”
            One of my colleagues was talking about how hard it is to do the right thing as pastors when people come seeking help. We’re a bit out of the way here, but in more urban churches, often people seek help from the local church, and it is hard to know what to do, what to give, how to help, how to help in ways that will really transform people, rather than leave them in the position of needing to ask, to beg really, again and again. We talked about how it was hard to serve others well in these situations. And I began to wonder why Jesus never seemed to run into struggles like this. We never see him trying to decide whether or not to help someone. And then I realized why: Jesus never had to make these kinds of decisions, and didn’t have folks asking him for the same kinds of material help, because Jesus had already completely poured himself out as an offering to others. He’d opted out of having the power of giving or withholding charity. He’d decided already that he would be the one relying on the welcome of others, rather than being the one with the power to invite or not into his home. No one asked him for things because Jesus kept no things, nothing, for himself. Jesus tells us that to be great, the way God sees it, we must be servants, not those who seek to be served, seek to be masters, seek to have power. We must be servants. Jesus does this to the extreme – he gives his life as a ransom for many. He even gives away his very life. We’re called, too, to give our very selves away as we serve others. The less we hold onto, the less we’ll struggle with how we’re best supposed to serve, because what we’ll have to give will simply be ourselves, and that’s the very best we have to offer.  
            I’ve been working with folks from Apple Valley and other churches for some time on understanding the differences between charity, where those who have possess all the power over those who are in need, choosing when and what to give, and justice, which is God’s vision, God’s dream, for relationships that are set-right, that reflect God’s love for wholeness for humanity. Justice is when God’s reign, God’s kingdom, God’s dream is made a reality on earth. Justice is the work that’s involved in making God’s dreams come true now. When I talk about our mission, being missional, that’s what I’m hoping we can do, in our corner of the world: work with God to make God’s dreams come true for all people. We’ve been thinking in particular about hunger and poverty and how we can have an impact on the need in our community. We’ve talked about knowing what skills we have to offer – like teaching classes on canning, or gardening, or maybe evening putting a community garden in right in our backyard. We’re meeting with Barb K from PEACE at the end of the month to learn more about the needs in our own neighborhoods. I hope we will develop some clear and specific plans for seeking justice, carrying out our mission of getting ourselves in line with God’s values. But to be a missional church, we start with our hearts. We need to seek servants’ hearts, not seeking out what can be done for us, but how we can offer even our very selves to God and neighbor. I dream of a missional church, full of servants, giving even their whole hearts to the work of God. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Amen.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 6, Ordinary 11)

Readings for Third Sunday after Pentecost, 6/14/15:
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17, Mark 4:26-34

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13:
  • What does it mean for God to be sorry God did something? I hope God is never sorry/disappointed over something done in relation to me! What weighty words.
  • This is a classic story of God calling an unexpected person. David seems to be the last choice of all the brothers - except to God.
  • "how long will you grieve?" God asks Samuel. Sometimes we can get bogged down in bad decisions, plans gone wrong, etc., that distract us from following God. God says - Get on with it. There are other plans. Other ways I can work. You just have to keep moving, keep being open to God's creativity.
  • "for the Lord does not see as mortals see" - THANK GOD for that!!! God sees insides, not outsides. God sees potential, not past.
Psalm 20:
  • This is a psalm that is a prayer of blessing for someone else: "May God do ____ for you." Do you pray blessings on others? Do you let them know you are doing so for them?
  • "May [God] grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill all your plans." - What is your true heart's desire?
  • "Some take pride in chariots, some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God." Well said. Where does your pride come from - what do you put your pride in?
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17:
  • "we walk by faith, not by sight." I've played trust-building games at camp when I was little, where one partner would be blindfolded, the other leading the blindfolded one on a "faith walk." For those who have the gift of sight, this kind of play is a real challenge. God asks us to make our whole life plan based on where God leads, not the road that we may see ahead of us. That's a challenge!
  • "we make it our aim to pleas God." Sometimes when I've struggled to know what was right or wrong in a situation, I've reframed the issue: "What action would be most pleasing to God?" Looking at it this way has helped - something may not be wrong per se, but I can sometimes figure out what might please God the most.
  • "well known to God." Ah, Paul and his ego. Are you well known to God? I hope so, but I'm not always so confident of myself as Paul ;) "to boast about us." Paul uses the word boast more than any other person in the scriptures. This has always been my struggle with Paul. I know what he's saying, but the way he says it...
  • "we regard no one from a human point of view" - instead we're called to see each other through Jesus' eyes, through God's eyes. How does that change how you see people?
  • "new creations" - a new chance in Christ. Clean slate. Fresh hope.
Mark 4:26-34:
  • What's this first section of parable about? Chris Haslam says that Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God will continue to grow even if we don't see it, and even if we do "not know how", like the planter here. Still, the kingdom arrives and harvest comes. Don't miss it! It happens with us or in spite of us.
  • "greatest of all the shrubs"? Hardly! Sure, the mustard seed will grow into a hardly plant, but not enormous. But Jesus' point is that the kingdom of God is deceptively pervasive! He exaggerates the analogy to make the point - bigger than you can imagine!
  • "explained everything in private to his disciples." What's the benefit of not explaining the parables to everyone, do you think?

Sermon, "Apple Valley Dreams: Invitational," Luke 19:1-10

Sermon 6/7/15
Luke 19:1-10

Apple Valley Dreams: Invitational

            Last week I started sharing with you my dreams for our congregation. Do you remember the first one? Yes, I hope we will be a prayerful people – a deeply and thoughtfully and powerfully prayerful people! A second dream I have for you shouldn’t be too surprising: I dream of an Apple Valley that is full of invitational people. I want us to be inviting. This shouldn’t be surprising, because I’ve given you homework assignments before – invite someone to church – and at Advent and Lent I’ve handed out cards about our worship times for you to use to invite others to church, and I’m constantly asking you to share our facebook event invitations with others for whatever we’ve got going on in the community. So I’m sure you’re not too surprised that I think a lot about us being an invitational people.
            But today I want to tell you about my big dreams about being invitational, and why it is so important to me. When we talk about being inviting or invitational, we say this in a few ways. One way of being inviting is in the sense of being appealing, welcoming. We might say that a room looks inviting if it looks comfortable and warm and like you’d want to spend a lot of time there. And so sometimes we think about our churches being inviting in this way – how does our space look? How easy is it for people to come to worship here? If they visit, will they stay? Will they come back? Will people be able to find important things like the sanctuary, and the snacks, and the restrooms? Part of the focus of being inviting as a church is on being welcoming, offering hospitality. The scriptures, particularly the Old Testament writings, stress the importance of being welcoming to the stranger, the foreigner. God reminds the people again and again to welcome others because the Israelites, too, were once strangers, and relied on the welcome of others. They were meant to remember what it was like to need a warm, hospitable welcome. People were commanded to welcome whoever might show up at their door needing shelter, whether they were family, friends, or complete strangers. And people also had a sense that in welcoming others, they were possibly welcoming God into their homes, entertaining the divine in disguise. They had to be welcoming, because you never knew when God might show up at your house for a stay.
At Annual Conference this year, Bev and Dot attending a workshop on being A Welcoming Congregation, and I know that they have things to share with us from that experience. For example, you can set up a “mystery guest” to come to worship and then give feedback: did people say hello? Introduce themselves? Sit with them at coffee hour? Complain that a newcomer was sitting in their pew? We implemented this program at one of my former congregations, and learned a lot about what kind of first impression we made.
So, one part of inviting is thinking about drawing people in. But that’s just a piece. If that’s the only way in which we seek to be an invitational congregation, I just get this picture stuck in my head of a Venus Flytrap. Do you know what that is? It’s a carnivorous plant, a predator plant. But obviously, plants can’t get up and move to catch flies! So, they try to look very alluring and inviting, bright and eye-catching, and then snap, they’ve caught their dinner! Most of the time, though, the plant just has to wait, and wait, for someone to come by. It’s a very passive way of being invitational. And as I look at the life and example of Jesus, I’m reminded that there’s nothing passive, nothing “sit back and wait” style about how he practiced being invitational.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus is on the move, going into new places and into homes and into neighborhoods that were considered “shady” and among people who were considered sinners and outcasts and rejects and unclean, and Jesus was even on the move among the wealthy and elite and the scholarly. And everywhere he went, he was inviting people, offering hospitality, even though he wasn’t the one at home, but the one who was the guest. Jesus carried his welcome with him, and from nearly his first interaction in the gospels, he’s calling disciples: “Come, follow me.” And he just keeps on inviting people.
That’s what we see happening in our gospel lesson today. This is story that is etched on my brain from childhood, when we sang about Zacchaeus climbing the tree to see Jesus, complete with hand motions. Jesus is passing through Jericho, and a crowd is pressing in on Jesus, as usual, including a wealthy man, a chief tax-collector named Zacchaeus. Tax collectors were despised – more so than we might joke about IRS agents today – but despised because they were Jewish people working for the Roman government, who was the occupying force controlling the lives of the Israelites. So Zacchaeus and other tax collectors were essentially working for the enemy for their own financial gain. Zacchaeus, we read, is short in stature, so he climbs a sycamore tree so he can get a look at Jesus. We don’t know what his reason for wanting to see him was – if he was curious, or wanted to keep an eye on him, or was interested in his message. But Jesus spots Zacchaeus immediately, and calls out to him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus has just invited himself over. And Zacchaeus responds with joy, happy to be able to welcome Jesus. Others start grumbling though, upset that Jesus is going to eat with a sinner. Such an action would make Jesus ritually unclean, but the real issue is simply that people look down on Zacchaeus, and they can’t believe Jesus would associate with such a lowlife. Zacchaeus seems unfazed, no doubt use to such grumbling. But he looks only at Jesus, and offers to give half of his possessions to the poor, and offers to payback fourfold anyone he’s wronged. It’s above and beyond the requirement of the law, by far. But this is the impact Jesus’ invitation has on Zacchaeus. It changes him. It changes everything. And Jesus says to him that salvation has come to Zacchaeus, and that Jesus’ purpose is to “seek out and to save the lost.”
When Jesus tells us a piece of his purpose, part of what it is he came into the world to do, I think our best strategy is to help in that task. We don’t have to do the saving part – Jesus has that covered. But seeking after the lost? That’s what it means to be invitational.
Whatever Jesus says he came to do, our best plan it to help Jesus in that task. That means to seek out others, not for us to save, but for Jesus to save. My dream is for us to be more and more like Jesus in the way we move in the world. I don’t mean we have to travel from town to town. But I mean that I dream that our impulse is to seek those who are lost, who are on the fringes, who’ve been hurt or excluded or others have written off, who people consider in some way beyond redemption – I dream of us being people who see and seek and invite and love and share God with those whom we encounter.
My dream for Apple Valley is that we keep asking ourselves, with whom can we share this? How can we share it? When we think about our church and inviting, inviting, inviting people, I’m not compelled by asking people to come to church because we are worried about surviving. Surviving is not a very inspiring dream. I don’t remember one single time Jesus talked about simply “continuing to exist.” My dream is that we’re invitational people because what we experience of God’s love is too good not to share. Too hard to contain, and keep to ourselves. This spring I read a book called Exponential by Dave and Jon Ferguson. They’re church planters who function on the principle of multiplying everything they do in ministry. If you start a small group, you immediately identify a leader in the small group who will eventually form a second small group. If you find a gifted worship leader or musician, that person immediately starts to find another gifted worship leader to be an apprentice. Each pastor is always mentoring someone else to be a pastor. Each disciple is always seeking a group of disciples to guide. There’re parts of the book that frustrate me, but the way they write is so full of enthusiasm and joy and confidence that I couldn’t help but imagine what Apple Valley would be like if every time we had a Bible Study, the expectation was that some person in the group would be preparing to teach one of their own with different people, or if every lay leader was recruiting another person to become a lay leader and every new worshipper was immediately sharing the good news with someone else, because it was all too good not to share, about this God who seeks and seeks and seeks after the lost and broken-hearted.
I dream of being invitational people. And I think we can do it. And I want to be clear – sometimes we confuse being invitational with being extroverted, door-to-door type people, charismatic, bold people, and those of us who are shy and reserved start to panic. I get that. Since I’m up in front all the time, people often assume I’m a confident extrovert, but I’m actually very shy in social settings. I think of my Uncle Bill, pastor and district superintendent, who I hope to get here to meet you all someday, and he’s pretty incredible to watch in action. He’s about 150% extrovert, and he’s charismatic, and people just follow his lead. We’re lucky he uses his powers for good, because he’s a charmer! And he just can’t stop inviting people to follow Jesus. He talks to everybody everywhere we go. That is one way to be invitational. Maybe it is your way. But I think, too, about my grandpa, my Uncle Bill’s father, my mom’s father. He was a much quieter kind of guy than my uncle. Not shy, but quieter. But he always wore this clip on his sweaters that said “Jesus loves me.” Pretty much always. He went through so many of them though. He worked after he was “retired” as a gas station attendant. You might think that was a “nothing” kind of job, but he loved it, like he loved most everything about life, and he made it something special. If people asked about his clip, he’d hand it over to them. A small gesture of the big love he wanted to communicate.
All of us can share God’s love. All of us can be invitational. All of us can value the lost and look at people through Jesus’ eyes. Some of you might remember filling out some time ago an information sheet for me called, “Apple Valley is Talented.” I asked you questions about what you were good at and what you liked doing. I asked you about whether you liked to read scripture in worship or if you played an instrument or if you would be in skits during worship if we had them. And I asked you one question that might have seemed a bit strange: I asked you to tell me about the last thing you invited someone to do with you. When did you last ask someone to come with you to something? What was it? Here’s how you responded: You invited someone to go to dinner, to go for a bike ride, to go to the movies, to have a girls night, to go out to lunch, to drive together to a work function, to go on a house tour, to come over for dinner, to hang out together, to knit together, to go to the theatre together, to go to Buttermilk Falls, to go on a Senior Citizens trip to the Catskill Mountains, to come meet a new nephew, to attend a concert, and yes, even to go to church or Bible Study. I asked you this question in part, so I could share with you all what I think you might doubt: You are already an invitational people. You know how to invite people to do something! You invite people to do things all the time! My dream is that we channel what we already know how to do. That we make it a part of our discipleship. That we remind ourselves that we’ve experienced something, or are learning to know something in our walk with Jesus that’s too good to keep to ourselves. And that we seek out the people who most need to receive an invitation. We need company in our faith walk. We need companions on the journey. And there’s a world around us, just waiting to be asked. Amen.   

Friday, June 05, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Ordinary 10, Proper 5)

Readings for Second Sunday after Pentecost, 6/7/15: 
  • 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 
  • Psalm 138, 
  • 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, 
  • Mark 3:20-35

  • 1 Samuel 8:4-20:
    • The people, who have been governed by Judges, demand of Samuel, the last of the Judges, a king. They want a king just like other nations, and thing Samuel is too old to continue leading them. God wants the people to understand that God is the ruler. 
    • Even so, God acquiesces to the demands of the people, and offers them a king, but warns them of the cost that come with getting their own way. I find it interesting that God is willing to give the people what they want. Things will not go smoothly, but God will still work with the people, even when they choose a path that is less than the best for them. 
    • How has God worked with you anyway, even when you have made less-than-the-best life choices? 
    • What kind of warnings has God given you when you were on the verge of making a bad decision? Did you change course? Do it anyway? What happened? 
    Psalm 138:
    • Not surprisingly, another psalm that ends with talk of the psalmist's enemies and God's protection from them!
    • This psalm is in thanks and praise for God's faithfulness, for answered prayers, etc. It's good to remember to thank God for our gifts. We remember to turn to God in need - turning to God in blessings is easier to omit.
    • "The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me." I believe that free will is one of God's greatest gifts to us. And yet, I also take comfort and strength from knowing that God has purposes to see fulfilled in me. But for this to happen, I think, we have to take an active part. God works with us.
    2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1:
    • Paul writes with a personal voice about suffering and persevering through affliction, faith deepening rather than wavering in times of trial. What times of affliction have you experienced? Has your faith wavered? Strengthened? 
    • How is your inner nature renewed? 
    • Paul tries to show our afflictions as "momentary" when you compare them with the weight of eternity. We know we perceive time as moving fast or slow depending on what we are experiencing in the moment. Paul encourages the faithful to put our struggles in perspective. In light of eternity, suffering is a temporary moment. 
    Mark 3:20-35:
    • Jesus' family tries to restrain him when the crowds think Jesus has gone mad. We don't know if the family restrains him for protection, or because they agree with the crowds, and we don't know who in his family this text refers to. However, these interesting details don't seem to be the point of the passage, rather, Jesus' authority is the main topic. 
    • Jesus says that a house divided against itself cannot stand. We often quote this verse in the context of strife in our family/church/etc. But here, Jesus specifically means it to show that his good actions cannot be of Satan.
    • Check out Chris Haslam's comments on blaspheming against the Holy Spirit for some helpful comments. 
    • "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." We all have an opportunity to be in the immediate family of Jesus when we resemble him, imitate him in our actions: following the will of God as he does. 

    Sermon for Local Pastors Licensing School, based on John 15:1-12

    I had the opportunity this week to preach and talk about preaching at Upper New York's Local Pastors Licensing School. I really enjoyed thinking about my preaching process and figuring out what I would most have wanted to know about and ask about as a new preacher. 

    Sermon LPLS
    John 15:1-12

    My grandfather was a gardener. He had a huge garden in his backyard, and in the garden is one of the easiest places for me to picture him, in his jeans and denim shirt, with a red handkerchief to wipe his forehead, and his garden hoe in hand, carefully tending his rows of vegetables, even on the hottest of days. As soon as I was old enough, my grandfather gave me a little corner of the garden for my own, where I would plant a mix of flowers, like my grandmothers, and a patch of vegetables, like him. And my garden always did well. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood, and had pretty consistent failure with my own gardening attempts that I realized how much work on my little plot my grandfather had done. No doubt, he was tending and weeding and carefully cultivating while I wasn’t paying attention.
                For several years, I’ve tried to have a successful small garden, but I have a tendency to be eager at first, and then forgetful, or I wait too long to plant, or too long to transplant, or I forget to let newly-outdoors seedlings harden before giving them too much sun, or I let one setback make me give up the whole project. This year, I’ve kind of done a combination of all of those things. But what’s surprised me is that, despite my apparent best efforts to destroy my plants, they are remarkably resilient once they’ve got strong roots and a strong stem. I’ve lost some where a stem has snapped altogether. But if I’ve just lost some leaves, wilted and withered, the plant, eventually, with some sun and rain, will produce new leaves. It sooo wants to be a strong and healthy fruit bearing plant. A couple of years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus by a thoughtful parishioner who didn’t realize my bad tracker record with plants. I kept it in my office for about two years, not really close to a window, and remembering to water it once a month. It didn’t exactly bloom, but it didn’t quite die either. Finally, I brought it home, and it has grown new leaves – segments – whatever you call them – at nearly every possible juncture. Like it was just waiting for a little care, and now it can’t stop growing. And as it grows, near the base of the plant, the segments of cactus get more and more like a tree trunk, closer to bark, stronger and stronger, as they support more and more segments.
                I’ve had all this on my mind as I’ve mulled over this text from John 15. This passage features one of Jesus’ many “I Am” statements in John. This is one of my favorites. Jesus tells us that he is the vine – the true vine – and God is the vine-grower. In that role, God removes from the vine branches that don’t bear fruit. And God prunes healthy branches. Then, says Jesus, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” He tells us that when we keep God’s commandments and bear much fruit, we abide in his love. We’re commanded, in fact, to love one another, as Jesus loves us, with this deep, abiding love. And Jesus tells us that he shares all this so that his joy may be in us and so that our joy may be complete.
                We don’t use the word “abide” very much in our everyday conversations – but it appears over and over in this chapter. It means literally “to remain at home” or “to stay at home,” “to wait at home.” It’s like we’re being told by Jesus to make ourselves at home, and to understand that God expects to be at home within us. It’s an extremely intimate verb. Although we might tell guests to “make themselves at home” when they visit us – we don’t often mean it. We don’t want them to stay too long or get into our things too much or see the messes that we didn’t quite get to clean up yet. And when we’re visiting someone, even if they tell us, “make yourself at home,” in most situations we still want to be a good guest – making sure we leave nothing out of place, not opening cupboards or helping ourselves without asking, careful not to break or damage, not relaxing completely. To really feel at home someplace, to be comfortable enough to act at a host’s house the way you would act in your own house? To really make yourself at home somewhere, or mean it when you ask your guests to make themselves at home? It suggests the closest of relationships. Family. Our closest, dearest family. Best friends. And that’s pretty much it, I think. And that’s the level of intimacy of relationship between the vine-grower and the vine, between the vine and the branches, that Jesus wants us to aim for, to be so close we can say, “you’re at home” to Jesus and mean it. To hear God saying, “Make yourself at home,” and to believe it.
                Jesus uses this language – being at home – to describe, of all things, the relationship between vine-grower and vine and branches in the vineyard that is the kingdom of God. Thankfully, God is an infinitely better gardener than am I. And thankfully, in this garden, in God’s garden, we can’t damage the vine. But, friends, just like in my garden, the vine Jesus describes doesn’t rely on the branches the same way the branches need the vine. The branches grow from the vine, not the other way around. The leaves are so delicate. Fruit is so susceptible to damage, to attack, to going bad. New leaves that grow strong and healthy can replace leaves that are shriveled and more fruit can grow to replace what’s been lost. God the vine-grower is going to grow a vineyard with Jesus the vine. And God longs for us – longs for us – to be a part of the vineyard. To be intricately, irreversibly, completely woven into the vine. But God will work with us – or without us, if we’re not able to make ourselves at home with God, to make God at home within us.
                I think for pastors, it can be so tempting to forget what role we play in the vineyard. God is calling forth leaders – but we are never going to be the vine. We can’t be our own vine. What we’re called to do is to be like the vine – as like the vine as we can. We can aim to be those parts of the plant that get so strong that it almost seems like they’re becoming part of the trunk. That’s a good aim. But the part of the vine is already taken, and we don’t need to do that. Just this week I was talking with a colleague in ministry who reminded me that it wasn’t my role to provide the entirety of spiritual life for the whole community. We agreed to continually remind each other of this. There’s one vine, and it isn’t me. It isn’t you. Be relieved and be thankful!
                We’re also tempted to try our hands at pruning. We can see the branches that need to be cut away, trimmed off, that we deem beyond repair. We see the bad fruit – not us, of course. And if we were given the opportunity, we could really fix things up. Only we’re not the vine-grower either. Branches aren’t in charge of other branches. Leaves aren’t responsible for other leaves, for any fruit but that which we produce ourselves. Branches never have the job of cutting off other branches. Only the vine-grower knows what will produce the best fruit, no matter how many names pop into your head when you think about bad fruit and weak branches! But branches that are worrying about the fruit produced by other branches are diverting energy that should go into their own good fruit. And there’s only one vine-grower, and it isn’t me. It isn’t you. Be relieved and be thankful! 
                So what is our task? Actually, this part is simple. First, we give thanks: God wants us on the vine! God is growing things with us or without us – but God has made it crystal clear that the preference, the deep-longing of the heart of God is to grow with us. With that going for us, we’re off to the best of starts. And then, we seek to be as much like the vine as is possible. And Jesus told us the not-so-secret secret to that. We love like Jesus loves, and make ourselves at home in God’s heart. When we do that, we won’t be able to help but to produce beautifully good fruit. When we do that, Jesus promises, his joy is in us, and our joy is complete. Amen.