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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Missional: Needy," Luke 7:36-50 (Proper 6C, Ordinary 11C)

Sermon 6/11/16
Luke 7:36-50

Missional: Needy

We talk often about how Jesus goes out of his way to eat with sinners and tax collectors and other people who are on the fringes, who are disliked, who are rejected by well-mannered well-behaved folks. But Jesus also ate with people who were in the thick of it, right in the center of society. You have to give some credit to Pharisees who invited Jesus for a meal, because Jesus didn’t hesitate to say what he thought and stir things up, even if he was your guest for dinner! Would you want Jesus for a dinner guest? What might he say to you, to me I wonder?
Jesus is asked by Simon, a Pharisee, a religious scholar and leader in the community, to eat at his home, and he accepts. He takes his place at the table, and a woman, identified only as “a sinner,” learning where Jesus was, comes with an alabaster jar of ointment. We’re not told what her sin is. Although history has often called her a prostitute, there’s nothing in the text to suggest it. She stood behind Jesus, at his feet. He would have been reclining, almost on a sofa-type seat, the traditional manner of dining. And weeping, she begins to bathe his feet with her tears, kissing his feet, anointing them with ointment. Simon watches and thinks to himself, “If Jesus was really a prophet, he’d know that the woman he is letting touch him this way is a sinner.” Simon apparently knows her, knows her sins. Jesus speaks up. “Simon, I have something to say to you. A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answers, “I supposed the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” You can hear the reluctance as he answers, as he guesses he’s been trapped. Indeed, Jesus tells Simon he has judged rightly, and goes on to compare how he was welcomed by the woman versus how he was welcomed by Simon. Simon gave him no water for his feet, a courtesy for travelers on dusty roads, but the woman anointed his feet with tears, hair, ointment. Simon gave no kiss in greeting, but the woman is unrelenting in kissing Jesus’ feet, a sign of extreme humility. Jesus concludes, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and that her faith has saved her, and he sends her off in peace. Meanwhile, the rest of those at dinner grumble, wondering at a man who dares to offer forgiveness for sins.
“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Does this mean that the worse we are, the greater sins we commit, the more potential to love Jesus we have? Can that possibly be what he means? How much forgiveness do we need? How much do we need from Jesus? Yes, forgiveness. But as much as the woman in this story, who is known as a sinner? Has a reputation for it? If we’ve managed to get through life without having a reputation for being a bad egg, we can’t need as much forgiven as this woman, right? So then how can we ever hope to love Jesus as she seems to?
I started thinking this week about what it means to be in need of something, and how we talk about neediness, and how it makes us feel. Would you consider yourself a needy person, or not? We might call someone needy if they have financial need. Poor people are needy, we might say. Is that a positive or negative term? If we apply the word needy to other situations, the results suggest neediness is not value-free: it’s has a negative connotation. If someone is needy in a relationship, generally we mean that in a bad way. We mean that they’re clingy. That they demand too much attention, time, energy. I think that there are few if any areas in our life where we’d like to be classified as needy. Do you like being needy? How comfortable are you being on the receiving end of assistance? The receiving end of a helping hand? The receiving end of gifts when it isn’t Christmas, or your birthday, or your party? How much would you like to be considered someone who always needs extra attention, extra help?
“I want to do it myself!” Any of you that have experience with young children probably know that small children reach a point in their development where they are experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of their independence. When Sam was about three, he went through this period when no matter what the task was, Sam would refuse help of any kind. If he was trying to get dressed, he didn’t want your help, even though it took him forever to get his clothing on the right direction the right side out. Particularly frustrating was his desire to get in and out of his car seat in the car on his own – it would take him several minutes, when you, the parent or aunt or grandma knew that you could just pick him up and put him in the seat in five seconds. Sam has long grown past this particular stage now, but I can still perfectly hear his voice and tone and picture his expression, “I just want to do it myself!”
        Of course, adults aren’t much better, are they? Many of you know that my mom, who is slowly becoming a bionic woman, has been through many surgeries – rotator-cuff, two knee replacements, two ankle fusions. The ankle fusion, a surgery that failed the first time and had to be repeated, was particularly hard, as my mom was in a non-weight bearing cast for months, and with her previous shoulder injury, she also couldn’t use crutches. That meant she worked with a walker and a wheelchair. My mom, a nurse for 30 years, is a horrible patient, as folks who work in the medical field generally are in my experience! She wouldn’t let anyone help her up the stairs when she got home from the hospital, resulting in several of us hovering around her uselessly while she scooted up the stairs, sweating profusely with the effort. She fell in the bathroom the first morning after being home, because she was trying to do a little rearranging in one of the bathroom cupboards while balancing on one foot. And when I took her out to a craft show, and tried to push her through the crowd in a wheelchair, I realized it wasn’t working because she couldn’t stop trying to steer, even though I told her it was actually making it harder, not easier to navigate. Two people trying to steer one object works just about as well as it sounds. It doesn’t work. Mom, not unlike Sam, just wanted to do it herself.
I can’t claim that I’m much better. I much prefer to be the one helping than to be the one being helped. I’ve had times in my life, for example, when I’ve been able to offer financial support to others I care about, and times in my life when I’ve had to ask for financial help from others. I would much rather be able to be generous with my money than have to accept help from someone. I suspect it might be the same for you. I’ve tried to think about why that is. After all, when I give to others, I am not looking for their gratitude, although gratitude is nice. I’m not trying to make someone feel incompetent. I’m not giving with an expectation that I’ll get something back in return. I’m not giving so that I can hold it over them or have power over them. I’m giving because I love to give, I love them, giving because I can, giving because I have empathy for those who are struggling, or because I feel like I have the resources and I want to put them to good use, to do some good with what I have. So why is it so hard to be on the other side? To be the one receiving what is given in love? I think being needy makes us feel weak. Incapable. Small. It hits at our pride, our need to be self-sufficient. We can do it ourselves. We are self-reliant. Self-sufficient. It’s practically the American Dream. We make something of ourselves. Pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And not being able to do it - being needy - it’s failing.
When I did my doctoral work and the research project that followed it, I started my work in every congregation with an interview with each participant that would help me establish our starting point. And as I asked people about their understandings of charity and justice, what I found is that nearly every single person I interviewed spoke in terms of themselves as the giver, but never as the receiver. Charity and justice were described in terms of what we could give to them. What we might teach and offer them. The ones who are needy. Which is not us. The few exceptions were primarily from people who themselves had experienced significant periods of poverty as adults. We don’t like and don’t want to be needy.
Except...Jesus says that those of us who are self-sufficient and self-reliant and pulling-ourselves-up and making something of ourselves - those of us who are decidedly not needy - not needy of money, not needy of help, not needy of being lifted up, not needy of anything because we can Do. It. Ourselves. - Jesus says that we love little. Oof.  
I preached on this very text at the Greenhouse in Rochester this past week, the small skilled nursing homes where I’ve served as chaplain. I talked about how hard it is to admit we need help and to let others help us, but of course, I was preaching to the choir. They are experts in experiencing what it is like to need to depend more and more on the assistance of others all the time, and I know it is challenging in ways that are beyond my experience or understanding. Folks there over time need help with going to the bathroom, help bathing themselves, help getting dressed, help feeding themselves, help remembering even who they are sometimes. So needy. And with such great capacity to love. One of my sweetest ladies there - every single day that I saw her would say, again and again: “I am so blessed. I am so blessed.”
Friends, we cannot serve God, we cannot serve Jesus, we cannot truly give to others if all we have to offer is our own strength, our own wisdom, our own stuff, the work of our own hands. Simon loved little not because he was not a sinner too, or because his sins were less than hers, but because he believed himself to be better than her, less of a sinner, less in need of grace. He was so full of himself that there was no need that he could see for forgiveness. And so he had room for none.
Being needy is humbling. Which, as it turns out, is an attitude Christ commends to us. But being needy is only humiliating if we give to others with a sense of our own superiority, and if we believe ourselves to be above it - above need. We all stand in need of God’s grace. And God is so eagerly offering it to us. Can you receive what God is offering? Can you admit your need? Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Humble us, God. Amen.