Sunday, December 09, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: Always Winter, Never Christmas," Romans 8:18-25, Isaiah 55:1-5

Sermon 12/9/18
Isaiah 55:1-5, Romans 8:18-25


Advent in Narnia: Always Winter, Never Christmas


Last week I mentioned that Lucy’s older siblings eventually make it to Narnia too, and that’s true. But I sort of skipped over just how her brother Edmund arrives in Narnia. Edmund is the second youngest sibling. In the opening chapter of the book, we find that Edmund frequently seems to be at odds with his siblings. He seems to resent Susan and Peter when they tell him what to do and make him feel like a baby, and in turn, he also seems to enjoy lording his age, his “wisdom and knowledge” over Lucy, wanting to make her feel silly and immature. Stuck together without parents present for days on end, the four Pevensie children are not exactly models of kindness to each other. We talked at our Advent study this week about sibling relationships. How many of you have at least one sibling? I shared that nothing can make me feel so much like I’m 12 again than the arguments that I’ll sometimes still get into with my siblings. They’re usually over nothing, when you really get down to it. We just, after so many years of practice, really know how to push each other’s buttons.  
Edmund certainly knows how to get at Lucy. The narrator tells us that Edmund can sometimes be spiteful, and that after Lucy claims to have visited Narnia, Edmund’s spite comes out full force. Edmund “sneer[s] and jeer[s] at Lucy,” we’re told, “and [keeps] on asking her if she’d found any other new countries in other cupboards all over the house.” (23) Lucy is crushed. One day, though, the children are playing hide and seek on a rainy day, and Lucy just wants to look at the wardrobe again, not expecting, after not being able to find Narnia there again when with her siblings, that she’d be able to get back to the magical land. But this time, the door to Narnia is open again. Edmund follows her into the wardrobe without her knowledge. We read, Edmund “at once decided to get into [the wardrobe] himself - not because he thought it a particularly good place to hide, but because he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country.” (24)
Except Edmund finds himself in Narnia. He isn’t filled with the wonder Lucy is though. Edmund is very disappointed when Narnia turns out to be real, because he knows that he will have to tell Lucy that she was right and he was wrong. He describes Narnia in his mind as strange, and decides he doesn’t like the place, and makes to go back home. That’s when he hears bells in the wood, and eventually a reindeer-pulled sleigh approaches, carrying a dwarf, and a tall lady, dressed in white fur, carrying a golden wand and wearing a golden crown. Her skin is snow white - not figuratively, but literally. She looks proud and cold and stern. She introduces herself to Edmund as the Queen of Narnia, and demands to know who Edmund is. She is very severe with him, and we the reader can tell that she’s seconds away from smiting him with her wand. But instead, when Edmund reveals he is one of four siblings, the Queen - who we already know from Lucy’s earlier visit to Narnia is actually the White Witch - is suddenly very interested. Again, to us, it is clear that she now begins to manipulate Edmund, lulling him into a sense of safety, but Edmund doesn’t seem to notice, because she is doing and saying everything he wants in his secret heart.
The White Witch asks Edmund what he’d like to eat the best, and he responds without hesitation: Turkish Delight, a kind of jellied treat made dates, pistachios, and hazelnuts, covered in powdered sugar. By magic, she produces a box containing several pounds of Turkish Delight, and Edmund immediate digs in. He shovels down as much of the treat as he can, hardly realizing that he’s giving the Witch lots of information about his siblings as he answers her questions between bites. After eating all of the candy, Edmund just wishes for more. The narrator tells us that the candy is enchanted: “anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” (33) The Witch does not allow this though. Instead, she insists that Edmund go back and retrieve his siblings and bring them to Narnia with him. When he does, she says, Edmund will be gifted with roomfulls of Turkish Delight, and made Prince of Narnia. His sisters and brothers will be made courtiers and nobles, but not a Prince like Edmund. The Witch is perceptive to know that Edmund would want to think of himself in a higher station than his siblings. After giving directions to her castle to Edmund, she leaves him.
Lucy then finds Edmund, delighted that he’s made it to Narnia. But then Lucy tells Edmund that this woman who called herself a Queen is known to the whole land as the White Witch, and that she has made it endless winter in Narnia. “Always winter, but it never gets to be Christmas.” We, who continue to experience winter long after the end of our Christmas celebrations, can relate in a deep way, can’t we? Edmund doesn’t disbelieve what Lucy tells him about the Witch. He believes she is dangerous. And all the enchanted Turkish Delight has made him sick. But, we read, “He still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight again more than he wanted anything else.” (38, emphasis mine.) When Lucy and Edmund leave Narnia and find Susan and Peter, instead of owning up to Lucy being right, Edmund decides to “do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.” He tells them that he was just playing pretend with Lucy, and that there is no Narnia. Lucy is devastated. When all four children finally do make it to Narnia, and it becomes clear that Edmund has been lying, when the children hear about Aslan, the great lion, the Savior of Narnia, the Christ-like figure, Edmund, already in the thrall of the Witch, leaves the others to join forces with the one who has promised him endless power and endless indulgence.  
What’s your Turkish Delight? In this season, it might be easy to come up with any number of special treats that you enjoy. If you come to my Open House tonight, you can have one of the hundreds of sugar cookie cutouts I made. After the Open House is done, and after I set aside cookies that will go to our cookie sale next weekend, I’ll have to wrap the rest up and put them in the freezer until Christmas otherwise I will eat them all. But when we think about how Edmund wanted Turkish Delight, we’re talking about something that goes beyond craving a sweet treat. He wanted it more than he wanted anything else. Later, the narrator tells us that when Edmund has dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in Narnia, he doesn’t enjoy it, because he’s thinking about Turkish Delight the whole time, and that “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.” (85) He starts to desire Turkish Delight in an unhealthy way. It consumes him. And we get the sense that in general, Edmund’s priorities are out of line. He’s pursuing what benefits him the most, to the detriment of others, and even what he wants for himself is not actually good for him.
So, again I wonder - what’s your Turkish Delight? What is it that you’re chasing after, that gets in the way of how you care for others, that might seem good for a moment, but you know isn’t really so good for you actually? What is it that, when you get a hold of it actually leaves you feeling, like Edmund, a little sick? What do you end up spending energy pursuing that results in you compromising your values, who you are, who God calls you to be in order to have it or experience it?  
These questions bring to mind our text from the prophet Isaiah, one of my very favorites. Isaiah writes, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good … Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Isaiah’s question rings in my ears: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why? Why? Why do we do it? Why do we spend so much energy on what leaves us feeling so very empty?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, but I’m sure we’ve been doing it since time immemorial. We get a sense of that in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The creation is waiting for God and God’s children with eager longing, because the whole creation has been subject to futility, has been in bondage to decay, groaning in labor pains. Don Schuessler suggested at our Advent study this week that we keep trying to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives with things that aren’t God-shaped. We keep hoping that metaphorical Turkish Delight will meet all of our spiritual nutritional needs. But it never does. And it never will. Only God can fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. Only God offers the Bread of Life which satisfies. Only laboring for God and God’s way in the world brings us true contentment. Paul says that God sets us free, redeems us, body and spirit.
Edmund eventually experiences redemption too. At first, even when it becomes clear to Edmund that the White Witch is no Queen and is up to no good, he can still only think about getting some more enchanted Turkish Delight. But finally, when in their travels to find his siblings so that the Witch can try to keep the prophecy that signals the end of her rule from being fulfilled Edmund witnesses her turning a whole group full of animals into stone for insisting that Father Christmas had shown up at last, Edmund begins to feel regret and compassion. Eventually he’s rescued, because his siblings won’t give up on him, and Aslan won’t either. Edmund has a serious talk with Aslan, and after coming face to face with the true ruler of Narnia, the great lion, Edmund is never the same. Sure, he still fights with his siblings sometimes. But he seeks their forgiveness, and they give it. He knows that despite all of the wrong choices he’s made, he’s reconciled to his family and to Aslan, he’s redeemed. He knows it. He never forgets it. And he tries to live like a person who remembers it every day.  
My hope for us is that we, too, can experience the forgiveness Christ offers when we realize how off course we’ve gotten. My hope is that we too can live as people who remember that we were welcomed back, forgiven, reconciled. Let go of chasing the Turkish Delight that you’re sure if you heart’s desire, and remember instead the taste of the Bread of Life that satisfies. If you have caused some harm - to yourself, to others, to God - in your quest for things that have left you empty - God can redeem your life. We can seek forgiveness. We can repent, return to God. God longs to welcome us back, longs to work out our reconciliation. Friends, God’s redeeming love is breaking through the cold of endless winter. This Advent, let’s claim the promise of forgiveness and new life. Amen.

(Page numbers in this sermon refer to C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.)

Monday, December 03, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: The Wardrobe and the Lamppost," Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 7:13-14, John 1:1-9

Sermon 12/2/18
Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 7:13-14, John 1:1-9


Advent in Narnia: The Wardrobe and The Lamppost


Today is the First Sunday of Advent. And this year, we’re spending Advent in Narnia. How many of you have read the book or watched the movie The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe? The book is the first in the series of seven books called The Chronicles of Narnia, written by theologian C.S. Lewis for his goddaughter Lucy. Lewis wrote the books in the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s. Lewis is the author of Christian classics like Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, but in his Chronicles, written for children, he shows a whimsical imagination and a more grace-centered theology than we find elsewhere in his works (in my opinion at least!) The Chronicles can be read with a secular worldview, but the books are laden with Christian imagery, heavy with meaning. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, set during a long winter in the magical land of Narnia is the perfect setting then to help us enter into the spirit of Advent.
Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are English school children who have temporarily gone to live away from their parents during World War II to be kept safe. They’re sent to live with an eccentric man who is a professor, and they have lots of fun exploring the big old house full of antiques and treasures. In one room, they find there is only a large wardrobe with a long mirror on the door. Most of the siblings aren’t interested in the room or the wardrobe, and turn to leave as quickly as they entered, but Lucy, the youngest, is curious. She’s sure that the wardrobe door will be locked, but she just has to try it to see. It isn’t locked, and so she steps in, being careful to leave the door open behind her. She pushes through lots of winter coats, only to find that the wardrobe is larger than she expected. And suddenly, it isn’t a wardrobe at all, but tree branches that she pushes through, emerging in a snowy wood with a tall, bright street lamp lighting the scene. She meets there a faun - a creature who is half man, half goat - named Mr. Tumnus, and she discovers that she has somehow found her way into a land called Narnia through the door of the wardrobe. We’ll talk about what unfolds there more in the weeks ahead, but today, we’re thinking about two of the first things Lucy encounters in relation to Narnia - the wardrobe, and the lamppost.
The wardrobe is the entrypoint to Narnia. Later in the book we hear mention of the fact that there are other doors into the world of Narnia - the wardrobe is just one of them, and later in the series we find out that the wardrobe is a door because it is made from the wood from a tree that grew from the seed of a fruit that was from Narnia itself. We discover, too, that the children can’t just get into Narnia when they want to. Getting to Narnia involves something of a sense of call. The children can get to Narnia when Narnia needs them. When Lucy first returns from her visit to Narnia, and she tries to show her brothers and sister what she’s found, they find nothing - just a regular wardrobe. They think Lucy is telling stories, that she’s let her imagination run wild. It’s only after Susan and Peter, the older siblings, talk to the professor (who has been to Narnia too, though he doesn’t share that with them just yet) about Lucy’s Narnia’s stories and he encourages them to have an open mind that the rest of the children also find their way to Narnia through the door of the wardrobe.
I’m wondering - what are the doors you’ve encountered in your life? When has there been a path, a way that was opened to you? Did you go through the door? What opportunities have you taken, and what ones have you missed? What door are you standing outside of, while God is calling to you from the other side? Are you like Lucy? The first to fling the door open and step through to what God has waiting? Or are you more like the older siblings, doubting that God has a Narnia-place to show you?
We heard two short verses from Matthew’s gospel this morning. Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Sometimes, God’s way is hard, isn’t it? Sometimes following Jesus takes everything we’ve got. Sometimes, it would so much easier if we could just tune out Jesus’ voice and hit that nice, open road, with the big, wide gate at the end. But we know, we know that we’ll wish we chose the other path - the narrow path, but the path of life. In our Advent Study this week, we remembered that Jesus told us how to stay on the path that keeps us in God’s way. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is Lucy like, that leads her to find Narnia? What are children like? Lucy is curious, and kind-hearted, and unafraid. Her heart and mind are ready to receive unexpected things. Brave Lucy has to go all the way into the wardrobe and push through all the coats, and traverse the temporary darkness before she gets to the trees and to Narnia.
I think of the children in our own community of faith. When we share in the Children’s Message during worship, it isn’t just so we can be entertained by the kids and the sweet, sincere answers they give to my questions. First, foremost, of course, that time is so that they can learn, so that they can be more fully a part of our worship services, and so that they know that whatever we’re talking about in the sermon time is for them, too, even if we need to talk about it in different ways for it to be clearer for children. But after that, that Children’s Time in worship is so that we can learn from them. I think of asking the kids what the world needed a few weeks ago, and how quickly they listed so many ways they could see that we could be working for change, caring for our planet and its peoples. I think about talking to them about how God might call to them, how God speaks in dreams, and Alana sharing how God spoke to her, no big deal. I think about how eager they are to help, however we’ll let them. How they always know that choosing kindness and love is the way of Jesus, even when it is hard to put into practice. And I know that if they found a room with a wardrobe, they’d go through the door and find Narnia. Can we let them lead us on God’s path, right into the heart of God?
If the wardrobe is the entry point to Narnia, then the lamppost is sort of the symbol of the place, the home base for Lucy’s (and eventually her siblings’) visit to Narnia. It is at the lamppost that she learns where she is, and where she meets her first friend in Narnia. It is the light from the lamppost that she sees while she is still trying to push through the wardrobe that keeps her going instead of turning back to the spare room. And when she emerges from the branches, it is the light that she still follows to bring her into the clearing.
What light are we following? Our other two scripture texts for today draw on themes of light and darkness. From the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah writes, “There will be no gloom for those who are in anguish.” For “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.” “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”
The gospel of John doesn’t include a nativity story, not if you’re talking about shepherds and angels and baby Jesus. But John does talk about Jesus’s origin: He is the word, who is and who was in the beginning, and is made flesh, God dwelling among us. John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
Are there places in the world that seem filled with darkness? No doubt, it won’t take you long to list places and situations and circumstances where you’ve witnessed darkness. We experience it as a people, a community, a nation, a globe. And most of us know darkness in our own lives, our own families. This season can be particularly challenging, in fact, when we’re wrestling with the darkness in our lives. There are literally less hours of light, and the long nights seem to match our moods when we’re wrestling with pain, with anger, with doubt, with grief, with hopelessness. Amazingly, though, no matter how much dark there is, it only takes the tiniest bit of light to cancel the power of the darkness. Think about it. Children who are nervous because of the dark when they head to sleep are often comforted by  just a little night light. It hardly sets the room aglow. But it makes such a break in the darkness!
The light of Christ is a break in that darkness that feels like it will suffocate us, and it is never extinguished. Christ is the true light, and the darkness will not overcome it. If you can’t see the light, call out - call out to God. Call out to a friend. Call out to your pastor. Call out to someone you can trust. The darkness may seem unrelenting, but there is someone who sees the light, who can take your hand, and help you find your way again. The darkness will never overcome the light.  
This Advent, be on the lookout for doors that need opening and stepping through, doors where it seems like a light is shining on the other side, and something is luring you, calling you, drawing you through. Know that choosing that door might take you on a narrow path that is difficult to navigate and full of challenges. Sometimes you have to push through a lot of coats before you step into Narnia. Sometimes others will be skeptical that the path you feel God wants you to take leads anywhere at all. Be as bold as Lucy stepping into the wardrobe anyway, until you find your way to Narnia. And this Advent, look for places that you can shine the light in the darkness. There are a lot of people who feel like they are in darkness. But Jesus, who is the light, also says that we are the light of the world. Let your light shine. Be like Lucy, keeping her eye fixed on the lamppost. Because she did, she was able to show others the way to Narnia.
We’re spending this Advent in Narnia, friends. God is calling you to step in through the wardrobe, and follow the light. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sermon, "Whole-Life Stewardship: Treasure," Luke 12:13-21, 32-34

Sermon 11/18/18
Luke 12:13-21, 32-34

Whole-Life Stewardship: Treasure

We’ve had a small group of folks participating in a book study using Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Hamilton’s study first came out nearly ten years ago, but it’s been updated and re-released. Last Sunday night, as we watched the video for the session, which includes segments of Hamilton’s original sermons that created the book, we were surprised at the way things unfold: Hamilton was talking about wildfires that were ravaging California. It certainly made our ears perk up to listen with extra attention to his message.  Hamilton said,
“Large areas of California were ravaged by wildfires. Dozens of people were killed, and tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes. As I watched the tragedy unfold via television news coverage, it struck me that this was a moment in which so many people were being forced to think about their relationship to material possessions. So many people had very little notice that the fires were coming their direction. Thousands had just minutes to grab everything they could take from their homes and flee. Time magazine's online edition asked people who had been moved to emergency shelters: “What did you save from the fire?” Andrew saved his pillow. Shervi saved her family pictures and books. Angel saved the saxophone he had been learning to play. Karen saved her two cats and important documents. Michelle saved her Bible, purse, shoes, diploma, and cell phone. What would you save? Imagine a wildfire is headed toward your home and you have 10 minutes to grab what you can and flee. What will you take with you? Natural disasters remind us that everything in this world is temporary. If our stuff is taken away by bankruptcy or plundered by thieves or blown away by a tornado or burned in a wildfire, we must remember that material things are only temporary. When I'm gone, most of my stuff will be outdated, worn-out, or simply of no value to anyone else - either hawked in a garage sale or thrown in the trash. This is why I can say with Jesus, “[My] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” I believe that ... But there is a problem. Everywhere I turn, the world is telling me that it's not true. The world continually tells me that my life does consist in the abundance of my possessions. I am bombarded with messages such as, If you had a little bit more, you'd be happier. If you had this thing that you currently do not have, you'd find more satisfaction in life. If you had a bigger house or a nicer car or more fashionable clothes, you'd be happy - at least happier than you are right now.” (64-65) You may have heard me share before that I read somewhere of a study that revealed that people are convinced they would be happy with just a little more. Not tons more - we’re not greedy, right? But if we could have just 20% more than we do now, we’re sure we’d be quite happy. Then we’d really have enough. The trouble is, it’s always 20% more. When we get 20% more, we start feeling like we just need 20% more than that. We always want just a little more. What we have is never enough. Just a little more, and we’re sure we’ll finally be happy.
I shared with the study group that when I don’t feel like journaling, but I still want to journal, want to have done some journaling, I used a little checklist of one-word prompts. There are about a dozen categories. “Today I’m... Watching, Reading, Thinking, Feeling” and so on, and then I just have to fill in the blank - either with a lot of detail, or a few words, depending on my mood. Two categories on this list are “Wanting” and “Needing.” What did I want? What did I need? I found that while I often had things to list under the “want” category, I often would just write, “Nothing, really,” in the “need” category. I could think of lots of things I wanted. But I didn’t usually need any of them. Writing this down in my journal regularly has helped me, both in realizing how often I am caught up in the rhetoric of more, of consuming, of being discontented with what I have, and how truly I have everything I really need. Hamilton calls our propensity to always want, and always want more “Restless Heart Syndrome.” He says, “Perhaps you've heard of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), a condition in which one has twitches and contractions in the legs. A condition I called Restless Heart Syndrome (RHS) works in a similar way, but in the heart - or soul. Its primary symptom is discontent. We find that we are never satisfied with anything. The moment we acquire something, we scarcely take time to enjoy it before we want something else. We are perennially discontent. This is the nature of RHS, and it is a syndrome that, if left unchecked, can destroy us.” (66) Do you have Restless Heart Syndrome?
Our gospel lesson today comes from Luke 12. Remember, two weeks ago we talked about how we use our gift of time and we heard Jesus talking about worry, striving for God’s reign on earth, and being ready for God to be at work in the world. Our text for today takes place just before Jesus’ words about worry, and we conclude again today with words we shared then: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In today’s passage - which I think I’ve told you holds a special place in my heart since it was the first I ever preached on - someone in the crowd asks Jesus to tell this person’s brother to divide the family inheritance with him. We don’t know any more details - was the person a rightful heir? Were they asking for a bigger cut, or just their fair share? Most of all, we don’t get the answer to this question: Why on earth would someone think this was the question they most wanted to ask Jesus? What had they seen of Jesus that would make them think he would answer such a dispute? Indeed, Jesus seems to agree, as he says, “Friend, who set me as a judge or arbitrator over you?” Instead, Jesus tells a parable, and perhaps the questioner gets more than they bargained for. Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He then tells a parable. A rich man has lands that are producing an abundance of grain, such that he doesn’t know where to store all that he’s accumulating. So, he decides to build bigger barns. And he reflects to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But then God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus wraps up his parable saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
I got to hear theologian Walter Brueggemann preach on this text when I went to the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference, in May. His name probably sounds familiar to you as someone I frequently quote, and I soaked up every minute of hearing him preaching in person. Brueggemann said, “The man had extra grain. He could have shared it. Let the land lie fallow. But instead he stores it up. He wants more. He doesn't have enough yet. He congratulates himself. And then he died. He was about to do good. About to share. About to be generous. But he died. He could not fend off the holy reckoning in the night." Neither can we, friends. What are you about to do, when you get enough? Brueggemann says that Jesus tells us: "Get out of the anxiety system [Brueggemann’s label for our culture of never enough], because it will kill you. You will pursue the goal of more until you die because more is an illusion. It is a system meant to keep us frightened that someone will get yours. It keeps us dissatisfied, keeps us busy, because if you are busy, you won’t think any dangerous thoughts."
Thoughts like: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions … these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” These words have been ringing in my ears and tugging at my heart over the last year as I have served as the executor for my Aunt Joyce’s estate, and as I have continued to sort through her things. As I make an accounting of every cent that she had, and every possession that she owned, as I find myself in the role of determining what is treasure and what will be thrown away, I’m mindful that someday someone will make an accounting of the things of my life too. What does my life consist of? What are “the things I have prepared” that make up my life? Jesus warns us against “all kinds of greed” - a phrase that stuck with me in this passage. It’s easy to dismiss this parable as not about of us if we’re sure we’re not greedy for bigger barns. But I think Jesus asks us to look deeper, to question places of discontent in our lives, any areas where we just want more of whatever it is, any areas that are keeping our hearts restless, somehow dissatisfied with our lots in life.
  In the scriptures, we find an example of contentment, of a heart settled in Christ in the apostle Paul. He wrote the letter to the Philippians during one of his many imprisonments. And while there in prison, he shared these words: “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
Have we learned that secret - of being content with whatever we have? Adam Hamilton suggests some strategies, practical and spiritual, that we can use to actively, intentionally cultivate contentment. For example, when we’re collecting more of something - more money, more stuff, bigger barns, ask yourself, “how long will this make me happy?” (72) “So often,” Hamilton writes, “we buy something, thinking it will make us happy, only to find that the happiness lasts about as long as it takes to open the box.” We can develop a grateful heart. (74) Remember the journaling list I told you about? One of the categories is “thanking,” and each day I complete the prompt I make sure I can list at least five things for which I’m thankful. When we feel discontent, we can ask ourselves what we can do to serve someone else. This is something I’ve tried to start focusing on on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when all the pressure to have a perfect holiday, and all the focus on consuming, whether food or things, can leave us feeling empty. What acts of kindness can I do? Maybe I can write a note. Or maybe I can be one to clear the plates off the table. Or I can pick up the wrapping paper. Or call someone I know is feeling down and alone and let them know they have a friend in me. I can cultivate that behavior until it is my default. We can ask ourselves: “Where do our souls find true satisfaction?” (75) Deep contentment comes from deep trust in God, which in turn we experience when we commit our lives and our hearts, our time, our talent, and our treasure to God as servants of Jesus Christ.
I’m really thankful for the folks who shared their testimonies this morning, sharing their wisdom and insights about generosity and giving, using their treasure to serve God. They’ve helped us to reflect and prepare, as next week we have opportunity to offer an estimate of our giving to the church for the year ahead. It’s one way we express our gratitude and thanksgiving among many, one expression of generosity, among many ways that you demonstrate that you are a thankful people. I had the advantage of hearing Annetje’s words ahead of time, as I transcribed them for her. One part particularly touched me, when she said, “We overthink our [estimate of giving] and there are things that might happen [in the future] and before we know it we have so many negatives on our “might happen” list that [we’re convinced] there is nothing we can spare, we give so little.” But “everything we have belongs to God” and “generous people are willing to look with brutal honesty at what they have to spare … They will not hold back” but be “joyfully generous.” Deep contentment comes when we say “we will not hold back” from God and one another - we will not hold back our hearts, our gifts, our generosity, our love, or our joy, but instead offer it all to God.
Jesus said that it is where our treasure is that our hearts dwell. We have to make sure then, that what we’re accumulating on earth, what we’re storing up, what we’re spending our lives gathering is eternal, not temporary. That’s what we want to spend our lives on - treasures that last, not things we can’t take with us anyway. Your life consists of so much more than we keep building bigger barns to store. We do want to be rich - rich towards God. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: Mornings with Bonhoeffer - 100 Reflections on the Christian Life by Donald K. McKim

I received a copy of Mornings with Bonhoeffer: 100 Reflections on the Christian Life by Donald K. McKim to review. I've previously used Ron Klug's 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a devotional and really enjoyed it, so I was definitely intrigued by this resource. 

McKim's book is divided into two sections: Believing as a Christian and Living as a Christian, and further divided into categories like "Christian Beliefs" "Church," and "Living in the World." 

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I read at least a few entries in every section to get a good feel. 

As opposed to 40-Day Journey, which included a significant  the excerpts from Bonhoeffer's writing (collected from his complete works) are very short. Sometimes only one or two sentences of his writing is included, so you often can't really get a full picture of what he's saying. The "meat" of the content here is from McKim, not Bonhoeffer. After the Bonhoeffer excerpt, McKim includes a brief reflection on or explanation of Bonhoeffer's words. I found it frustrating that the entire excerpt from Bonhoeffer's writing is included again within McKim's brief reflection. This redundancy seems to leave very little room for McKim to expand on what's just been stated. His reflections are insightful, but they are so short when reiterating Bonhoeffer's just-printed words that most of the entries left me wanting more.  

The structure, rhythm, and depth reminded me of The Upper Room daily devotionals, and indeed, I think readers of that style of devotion might be a perfect audience for this work. I envision this is an excellent introduction to newcomers to Bonhoeffer's writings. This is a very accessible book of reflections, and most of my parishioners would find Bonhoeffer's depth more manageable in this format. In fact, I shared with my church secretary one devotion on being interrupted by God, which she immediately turned into a poster for her office and used as the centering time at a church meeting later that month. 

I enjoyed McKim's work, and I feel like getting this resource into the right hands - new-to-Bonhoeffer readers who want to add something accessible to their daily devotional life - is a worthwhile effort. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon, "Whole-Life Stewardship: Talent," Luke 9:10-17

Sermon 11/11/18
Luke 9:10-17


Whole-Life Stewardship: Talent

Are you talented? What comes to mind when you hear that word - talent? Maybe the TV show America’s Got Talent springs to mind, the game show where contestants come with all sorts of performing talents - singing, dancing, acrobatics, magic tricks and more - and go before a panel of judges, hoping to make it through several rounds of cuts before taking home the big prize. Have you ever been in a talent show? I think my first appearance in a talent show was in third or fourth grade, when my friend Sharon and I did a whole miming act for the elementary school talent show. We were still just young enough not to be teased mercilessly by our friends. I was in a few more talent shows - at camp, for girl scouts once, and even once in college. But for the most part, I started to get more and more self-conscious about putting myself out there in such a way. Being in plays felt different to me - a director had to think you were good enough to cast you. But being in a talent show was usually something you just got to sign yourself up for. You had to think you had talent, and be bold enough to let others know you thought you had talent. And that was something I couldn’t do. Somewhere in elementary school I started to equate feeling like I had any talents with bragging. I knew bragging was wrong, and I really didn’t like it when I felt like other people were bragging. I was always a good student though. I was almost always getting one of the best grades in class. But I would never tell my classmates my score unless they asked me directly. But then, once I did tell them, they were mad at me anyway! In my head, I think bragging and putting yourself out there and acting like you were talented all started to roll together in my mind. I didn’t want to be arrogant, and I wasn’t really so great anyway. Better just to fade into the background if I could.
Over my years of ministry, I’ve never had such a hard time getting folks to respond to questions as when I’ve posed some variation of this question: What are your talents? What skills do you have? What are your gifts? What are you good at? I can get folks to tell me almost anything about themselves. People are amazingly ready to share with someone who wants to listen. But when I ask people to say positive things about themselves, when I ask people to tell me that there is something they’re good at, a skill they’ve acquired, that they are talented, that God has given them gifts and they know it and claim it, people clam up. What do I make of this reticence? Partly, I know we’ve been conditioned to be wary of boasting, bragging, and arrogance. But I think it goes beyond that. We seem unable to look at ourselves and see what others see, much less what God sees. We never feel like we’re enough. When we count up what we have to offer to ourselves, to our families, to the world, and to God, we total up what we have, and we feel we’ve come up short. Are we talented? Maybe some of us believe it. But many of us would answer with a resounding, “no.”
Today, in this second week of our series on Whole-Life Stewardship, as we continue to think about how we’re called to be caretakers of all that God has given to us, we’re reflecting on what it means to be good stewards of the talents God gives us. You might think that the parable of the talents would have been an obvious scripture choice for today. Talents are the name for a unit of money in biblical times, and remember, there’s a parable where the master gives his servants 5, 2, and 1 of his talents to watch over while he’s away. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents double what they’ve been given, but the one who received only a single talent just buries his in the ground. There are a lot of metaphors ripe in the text for thinking about how we make use of what God gives us. But I think we’ve so come to associate using our talents for God with that parable that we stop really digging deep, both into what more the parable might mean, and into the reasons why we’re prone to be reluctant to use recognize and use the talents we have.  
Instead, we’re looking at a miracle story, one recorded in all four gospels - the feeding of the five thousand. We studied this miracle using Matthew’s gospel in the spring when we talked about strengthening our core with acts of service. Today, with Luke’s version, we’re taking a different look. Jesus and the disciples head to the city of Bethsaida. They mean to go privately, a retreat of sorts. But the crowds find out and follow Jesus and the disciples anyway. Jesus welcomes them, Luke says, he talks to them about the reign of God, and he heals those who need to be cured. As evening falls, the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away, so that they can find lodging and food in the surrounding towns and villages. “This is a deserted place,” they remind Jesus. But Jesus says to them, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples insist that all they have with them is five loaves and two fish, unless they go out and buy some food, which they clearly don’t want to do. Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He tells the disciples to get everyone seated and into manageable groups, and then he takes the five loaves and two fish, and he gives thanks to God, bless and breaks the bread, and instructs the disciples to share the food with the crowd. We don’t get any details on how it happens. But somehow, all ate and were filled, and then the leftovers - yes, the leftovers - are collected, there are twelves baskets of food still remaining. A miracle. But what is the miracle here?
I don’t know how Jesus multiplied the food - naturally or supernaturally gathering such abundance. But abundance and Jesus always goes hand in hand, so we shouldn’t be surprised. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. I feel like we should just repeat that statement over and over until it sinks into our souls, because we always act like this isn’t true, like we don’t know it. Listen: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Say it with me even: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity.
I think maybe we’re practically wired to not believe this. Maybe it’s part of our biology, our hunter/gatherer, survival of the fittest, survive-at-any-cost mentality. Maybe there won’t be enough some day, so we better make sure to secure what we can now. It reminds me of my first church, whenever we’d have a potluck meal. They always brought so much food. When I mentioned it, they told me that years ago - maybe decades ago - they had a church dinner where they ran out of food. And they were terrified that it would happen again, so they always made too much in the future. They could not dispel the moment of scarcity from their memories.
As I read this familiar text, though, trusting, at least as much as I can, that God is a God of abundance, not scarcity, I’m particularly interested in the reaction of the disciples. The crowds are bystanders in this scene - we don’t hear anything from them. But the disciples are the ones who want the crowds to go away. They don’t think that they, even with Jesus, can provide enough sustenance for five-thousand people. And surely, that’s a huge group of people. But, what’s important to note is that the reason they were about to head out on a private retreat with Jesus is because they’d just returned from being sent out by Jesus to heal, to cast out unclean spirits, and to preach the good news of God’s reign. When Jesus sent them out, he gave them these explicit instructions, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He sent them out with nothing - and yet, they thrived. They shared God’s message. They demonstrated that as students of Jesus, they too could preach and heal with God’s power. They could do miraculous things in God’s service, starting with very little. They’ve just returned from a trip that demonstrated God’s abundance, God’s generosity, God’s ability to do the impossible. And already, they’re back to thinking that their resources are too scarce to figure out dinner for the crowds.
When do we start believing in God’s abundance? What has you too afraid to trust in God’s abundance? What is it that keeps you from sharing what you are, who you are, what you have, what you’ve been given? It’s that set of questions that we have to get answers to if we want to be good stewards of our talents, if we want to trust in God’s abundance, if we want to demonstrate true thankfulness for God’s gifts to us. What’s keeping us from sharing what we are and what we have? What kept the disciples from offering up the food they did have before Jesus asked them for it directly, and despite the amazing things they’d just finished doing with hardly any resources except their faith? We’re afraid of running out - sure that any talent we do detect in ourselves is a limited quantity item. We’re afraid, I think that God will ask too much of us. It seems like God always wants more of us, doesn’t it? We give God a corner in our lives, and God just takes over the whole place. I can’t deny that this is true. I can only encourage you to trust that God is always with you, even when what God asks you to do seems like too much. I think sometimes we’re waiting for someone else to do it, to offer their gifts and talents and resources. We might have a loaf of bread, but we’re pretty sure the other person has three loaves, better than our one, and so instead of giving up our one loaf, we wait for them to lead with three, and what we end up offering out of four total loaves is zero.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do the miracle. Jesus does do that part. God will transform what we offer into something beyond what we give on our own. But notice that Jesus didn’t just feed the crowd out of thin air. However he did what he did, he didn’t create food out of nothing. Jesus multiplied what was offered, what the disciples already had with them. He took what they would give, and he made it into abundance. God takes care of the abundance, but we have to take care of offering our gifts and talents to God. I once read about a Canadian man named Kyle MacDonald who decided to see what he could end up with if he took a seemingly worthless thing he had and kept trading it for something better. He started with a red paperclip. And he ended up with a two-story house. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_red_paperclip) The gifts God has given you - the talents with which God has created you - they amount to more than a paperclip! If an ordinary person can get a house from a paperclip, then Jesus can get food for five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and through you, with you, in you, God can do anything. But you have to offer God your paperclip. You have to take who you are, your skills, your talents, what you’re good at - whether you are an expert musician or athlete, or whether you are a skilled listener, or whether you are great at organizing, or whether you have the willingness to clean up messes, or whether you bake an excellent chocolate chip cookie, or whether you are always on time, or whether you are a great driver with room in your car for people and things, or whether you are willing to say hello to strangers, or, or, or - if you will offer that talent, small as it seems to you, to God, without reservation, God will do amazing, life-changing things because of you.
You all know how much I enjoy singing. But I didn’t always realize I could sing, at least not well. I was always in chorus in elementary school because everyone was. It wasn’t optional. But I was never singled out. But the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I went to Creative Arts Camp at Aldersgate, where we prepared and put on a little musical at the end of the week.  You could audition for solos and duets and trios, and my friend Sarah convinced me to audition for a duet with her. I was scared, but I didn’t mind singing as long as someone else was singing with me. But after we auditioned, the director of the camp, Bobbi, pulled us aside and asked if we’d be willing to sing solos instead of a duet. She liked what she heard in our voices. I’d never been told I was a good singer before, except by my mother, but here’s a secret: she thinks I’m good at everything. Having Bobbi encourage me like that was nothing short of life-changing. She identified a gift in me that I didn’t realize I had. Bobbi had many talents, and one of them was encouraging the gifts she saw in others. It was maybe a small thing in her mind - picking out some soloists among 11, 12, and 13 year-old singers. But her willingness to serve God at camp had a big impact on me and others I’m sure. I’m so thankful for the role of music in my life and in my ministry today.  
What do you have? What do other people tell you they see in you? What talents do you see in others that they need help realizing? What skills and talents, big or small, has God blessed you with? How will you use them? Whether you have one loaf of bread to offer, or five, or maybe you even feel like you have just a slice, or crumbs - will you give them to God? Because, hear this: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. That doesn’t mean that what God will create with what we offer to God is always, or even often what we expected or asked for. But God will take your heartfelt offering, your talent, your skill, what you’re good at - you and your life. If you’ll give that to God, God will make miracle of it.
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them … And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets.” Thanks be to God. Amen.