Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, "In the Fullness of Time"

Sermon 12/20/09, Luke 1:39-55

In the Fullness of Time

When my older brother was a freshman in college, I had a really hard time adjusting to all the changes happening in his life. I was a 7th grader at the time, and my brother was a philosophy major, who was suddenly enlightened, and would come home and try to engage me in debate about the meaning of life – or the lack thereof, depending on my perspective or his! He was just too much to take – Jim, and the sudden epiphanies of understanding that he wanted to share with us. Six years later, when I started college myself, I somehow didn’t see the same behavior in myself, when I actually took to photocopying pages of my freshman Christian Ethics textbook and sending them home to my mother and pastor. It was just that I was reading about things I was pretty sure no one else had really thought about before, and my mind was expanding with the fascination of this new knowledge. I still remember vividly one of the first things I learned about – the theological concepts of time – chronos and kairos – and sending home highlighted pages of my text book to explain this all to my pastor, who very graciously did not laugh at me.

All these years later, I still love these concepts though. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen.

This Advent, we’re talking about time. We’ve talked about the time of God’s kingdom drawing near. We’ve talked about what to do in the time in between. We’ve talked about John’s urgency for our repentance, his message of “time’s up.” And certainly, as Christmas draws ever closer, but we hover here at the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re thinking about time. Christmas is just 5 days away. It seems like we were just lighting the first Advent Candle. Really, it seems like we were just starting back-to-school! But already, Christmas is upon us. And so, we are very aware of time, and how it passes, quickly and slowly all at once, at this time of the year. But this week in particular, we are talking about the fullness of time.

When we’re talking about God’s right time, the fullness of time in which God moves and acts in our lives, I think about all the images in scripture that describe us as vessels – alabaster jars, clay pots, these vessels that are waiting to be filled up by God. And there are images too that talk about being filled to the brim – I think that is God’s aim for us – to fill our lives to the very brim. But sometimes God is filling us with a gushing hose, and sometimes God is filling us drip by drop. What is God’s right time for action?

Think of how many things have to happen in just the right time. I love to bake, and I just recently baked probably a couple thousand cookies, between cookies for my family, cookies to mail to friends, and cookies for our cookie walk yesterday. I’m in a new apartment this year, with a new oven to get used to, and I certainly had some adjustment difficulties in my baking. I couldn’t figure out just the right amount of time to bake batches of cookies. You know that most recipes call for things to be baked for a range of time – something like 6-8 minutes for a tray of cookies. But sometimes the difference between the 6 and the 8 means the difference between doughy undercooked cookies and burnt-to-a-crisp cookies. They have to be baked for just the right, perfect amount of time to turn out the way you want them. Think of fruit that has to be ripe to eat and enjoy to the fullest. Fruit eaten a few days too early just doesn’t have the right flavor or consistency. Fruit past its prime can quickly turn squishy and bad. You have just a small window that is the right time for truly fresh fruit.

I’ve been thinking about time and how the ‘right time’ plays into events in the course of our history too. Next month we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve been thinking about time and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was especially frustrated with his white clergy colleagues, because they kept telling him he shouldn’t push so hard, so fast for change. They wanted to wait, to go more slowly, to take things baby step by baby step. But King knew that the time was right just then – the time was now – the time was full and ready and just right for major change to transform the United States. It was certainly God’s right time for action – just the right time for God to act.

Today, our gospel lesson brings us an encounter between two women who might have questioned God’s sense of timing in their lives. We have Elizabeth, who the Bible describes as “getting on in years,” and barren, conditions that make her husband even doubt the angel Gabriel when he tells him Elizabeth will bear a son, and she is here several months pregnant with a child we know will be John the Baptist. And we have Mary – probably a 13 or 14 year old, who is engaged, but not yet married, also suddenly found to be with child – the child Jesus. These two women could have, might have, wondered about God’s timing in their lives. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have become pregnant 20 years earlier? Would it have made a difference if John were 20 years instead of a few months older than Jesus? Why couldn’t Mary have become pregnant after marrying Joseph? For a young unwed woman in Mary’s day to be found pregnant could carry the penalty of death by stoning. Why put Mary at such a risk?

Beyond Mary and Elizabeth themselves, the whole people Israel might have wondered at God’s timing. They’d been waiting for the messiah for literally hundreds of years. The prophet Isaiah wrote some 500 years before Jesus’ birth. Micah, whose words we heard in our Call to Worship this morning, is an even older voice – more than 700 years ago he wrote the words describing one who would be “the one of peace.” The people had been through war and destruction of their temple. They’d been through exile from their home. They’d been through foreign occupation of their holy lands – more than once. They were longing, waiting, and hoping for a messiah. Not everyone, to be sure. But there was a deep sense of need, of waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Why was it so long for them to wait? And why then did God come in Jesus when he did? Why not come in 2009 when you could easily spread the gospel message with a text message and an email, rather than with the burden of oral tradition, travel by foot, and following a star in the sky to figure out where this new child might be?

It is sometimes very hard for us to understand God’s sense of timing – God’s right time to act – when we wish God would move faster, or God would move slower, or that God would stop time or skip over certain times in our lives altogether. But as people of faith, our hope and trust is in knowing the story of a God who always fulfills the promises made to us, even when we aren’t so good with keeping up our end of the covenant. I love the verses from our gospel lesson today – Elizabeth and Mary find God acting in their lives at what could be called inconvenient times. But they respond with joy. In fact, Mary bursts into song, singing words that we today call the Magnificat, words that we sang in our hymn just before the sermon – “My soul magnifies the Lord.” God moves at just the right time, and Mary rejoices.

And I find myself dwelling on one verse in our passage: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." These are words that Elizabeth speaks to Mary. She tells her that Mary is blessed because she has faith that what God has promised will come to pass. Of course, Mary has faith that as the angel told her, she will bear a child. But it's not just any child, so it's also not just any promise. Mary has to believe – more than just her own story – she also has to believe that in her, in her life, God's promise of a messiah will be fulfilled as well, God's promise to a whole people, God's promise of centuries upon centuries, God's promise that was written about by countless prophets. All this will be fulfilled in this right time, in this child that Mary is carrying, as incredible as it sounds. Most incredible of all, Elizabeth rightly recognizes, is that Mary believes what the angel told her - Mary believes that God is using her to fulfill these wonderful promises.

Mary believed that a promise made long ago would be fulfilled in her, as much as the prophets of long ago had to believe that the promise of a messiah would be fulfilled even though they would never see it in their lifetime. This kind of faith to me is remarkable. The truth is, though many of us believe in God's promises, we have a hard time waiting a week, a month, or heaven forbid, a year, for God's plans for us to be fulfilled, for the promises to come to fruition. How could we wait our whole lives and see no response, but still have faith and trust that God's plans would hold their course through our children or grandchildren's lives, or their grandchildren's lives? If God promised that great things would be done through us, through me, through you, but that we would never see any evidence of this promise coming true, could we maintain our faith?

We are a people so bound by time – we live by clocks and schedules and timers and alarms. We’re not so good at waiting. It all sounds like an impossible task, and yet, in a way, this is what the entire account of our scriptures is all about - the promises of God and how, over generations, through time, in God’s time, they came to be fulfilled. The stories of the ones who faithfully did their part to make God's plan take place, even though they would never see the results. This is the story of faith, the story of God's children. Our story. We read about the promise made to Noah, sealed with the sign of the rainbow. We hear about the promise to Abraham to make his descendents fill the lands. We listen to the story of Moses, who was told of a promised land where he could lead the Israelites. They didn't always find their promises from God completed in ways they could see - Moses himself died before the Israelites entered the promised land. But they remained faithful, and so did God, completing in God's right time all things promised.

And so it is with Advent. Advent is a promise, a promise made for centuries upon centuries. For hundreds of years, people mulled over the words of the prophets, words about a child being born that would be the one of peace, words about a young women that would bear the promised one. They heard these words and believed. But finally, finally, after so much waiting, after the longest advent, the longest coming, after the ultimate buildup of anticipation, finally the child was born. God became human and dwelt among us. We stand on those promises. We stand hovering at the top of the roller coaster. Before we take the plunge and feel the joy of the celebration of Christmas, let us take a deep breath. In a few days, God's promise will be fulfilled in our very midst. Our forefathers and foremothers waited for generations, and we are lucky enough to see the promise fulfilled year after year. Take a breath. Get ready. Believe in the fulfillment of what God has planned for you, for us, for this very time, and stand firmly on the promises of God. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Time's Up"

Sermon 12/13/09, Luke 3:7-18

Time’s Up

Perhaps by now you are wondering if Advent will ever bring a text that sounds like we’re preparing for the baby Jesus. After all, we started out with Jesus talking about the signs of the times, and images of disaster. Last week things sounded a little more advent-y, but really we were talking about a grown-up John the Baptist. And now, this week, we get more John, only this time he’s yelling about broods of vipers, fleeing from the coming wrath, and how Jesus is going to be throwing things into an unquenchable fire. Can John really be preparing people for Jesus, born a sweet babe, prince of peace, tender and mild?

Our text picks up where it left of last week, and if our question last week was, “What are we waiting for?” today there is no missing the urgency in John’s tone. Crowds are coming out to him to be baptized. But he’s not exactly warm and welcoming when he sees them: “You brood of vipers!” he hells. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He goes on to say that the crowds should next expect to rely on their Judaism, their families, their history, their cultural identity, to give them a free pass from responsibility. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, yes, God has had a special relationship with the people Israel. But that doesn’t give you the freedom to do anything you want. You still have to hold up your part of the relationship. John continues forebodingly: “Eve now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John obviously catches the attention of his audience – they begin asking him what they should do. He replies to them, to tax collectors, to soldiers – whoever has two cloaks must share, whoever has food must share, whoever has power , whoever has money must be fair and just. The people are filled with expectation at John’s words, and they wonder whether John himself might not be the messiah they are waiting for. But he insists he is not: “I am not worthy to untie his sandals,” John says. But, he leaves them, and us, with a compelling images of the messiah. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” A winnowing folk was a farming tool used to toss wheat into the air, so that the wind would catch the good grain and separate it from the useless chaff. Our passage concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Is what John is saying “Good News?” There’s such an underlying tone of threat, between the vipers, the ax, and the winnowing fork – it hardly makes us as eager for the messiah to come as John certainly was. But John is sharing with the crowds, with us, his vision of what the messiah will be. As I mentioned before, John will eventually have to send word to Jesus to find out if he really is the messiah, because Jesus certainly acted differently the John was expecting. John does see judgment, just as surely as Jesus comes with salvation. So John has a picture of the messiah that is his own – but the good news still comes because of the core of what John is preaching, as we read last week: Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John is preaching, at heart, is that all this preparation is for one who is coming who has the power to free us from the consequences of our sins, one who has the power to cancel out the results of our messes. And that, certainly, is good news.

What John does is tell us how we’re to prepare for this good news, and this messiah, no matter how this messiah exactly ends up coming. First, he says, it’s your responsibility and no one else’s – your behavior, and your relationship with God. Many of John’s hearers were lifelong Jews, raised in families that were “children of Abraham” for generation upon generation. They had rituals and laws and customs and practices that were all tied up in practicing their Judaism. But John is saying that none of that matters – not in terms of preparing for the messiah, not in terms of repentance and forgiveness, not in terms of being open to embracing the good news. What matters is whether or not each individual person is preparing for the messiah’s coming.

So it is for us. Preparing for God moving in your life is your responsibility and no one else’s. This year, we have a group of young confirmands going through a preparation process for becoming members of this congregation. But it’s also more than that – it’s a time – probably one of many steps in a process really – of taking a faith that has been a family faith – the faith of their parents or grandparents or other adults in their life – and determining whether or not it is a faith that is their very own. Because ultimately only they are responsible for what they believe, and how they life, and what they do with God’s call on their lives. We can help and assist and encourage. But the choice is theirs.

It’s not much different with us – attending church, serving on committees, claiming the title, “Christian” – these things can be expressions of our discipleship. But they don’t make us into discipleship, create our discipleship, or relieve us from the responsibility of discipleship. We can only be disciples by following Jesus, by following God’s path. There’s no substitutes, and the only one who can make you a disciple is you. And, by the same token, the only one you can make a disciple is you – no one can follow God for you, and you can’t follow God for anyone else. We encourage, we support, we work together. But you must decide, and act, or not, for you.

John also tells us that preparing for the messiah, preparing for this good news, is actually easy to understand, clear, and easy to do. That claim might surprise us. Discipleship is easy? But listen again to his responses to the crowds who wonder exactly what they’re supposed to be doing to prepare. John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collector he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldier he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” What John is describing isn’t hard to do. There’s nothing complicated about what he’s saying, nothing difficult to understand, is there?

Somehow, though, we manage to make it complicated. If John says that whoever has two coats must share one with the person who has none, we can’t seem to take it at face value. We wonder if it is fair that we have to give up one of our hard-earned coats. We wonder what the person without a coat did to end up that way. They must have been pretty foolish, or lazy, or ignorant to end up without a coat. And if we can be convinced to part with our second coat, we’d rather not have to give it to the person face-to-face. We’d like to set up a program for coat-giving, making sure that the person receiving the coat is properly credentialed, and making sure that we can get some sort of credit for giving the coat – a thank-you note, a tax write-off, a welcome-gift, something. Suddenly, giving away a coat to someone without one has become very time-consuming and complicated, and really, who has time for all that? Of course, I’m being a bit facetious – but my point is this: John is pretty clear about what we need to do to prepare our hearts for the messiah. And in fact, he’s not telling us anything we don’t already know, really. But if being a disciple feels complicated and hard, it’s because we’re making it so, because we’re not actually ready to commit, all out, to following God. “What then should we do?” we ask with the crowds. John has the answers for us – we just have to decide if we are ready to listen.

Finally, John tells us that whether or not we’ve actually prepared, repented, and changed our lives to follow God is something that is measurable. He says that essentially, what he’s looking for, what he thinks that the messiah is looking for, is that we are bearing fruit – a tangible result of our health, our growth, our nourishment, our discipleship. What do we have to show for ourselves? Are we full-grown wheat that is ready to be gathered in by the messiah? Do we have good fruit? What is the fruit of your life?

I’m terrible with proverbs. I never remember them correctly. I once asked my mother, all serious, why people said, “close, but no potato.” It made no sense to me. Of course, she explained that the saying is actually, “close, but no cigar,” and its origins. So I try to double-check on proverbs before I use them. You know the saying, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s actually a shortened version of the full proverb, which makes more sense. It’s actually "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." In other words, "the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it's put to use." (1) Have we prepared? Have we repented? Are we ready for the messiah to come? We can only know by putting our discipleship into action, by putting our repentance into action, by actually carrying out the words of promise that are easier to speak. John wants to see our fruit, and thinks that Jesus will want to see it too. Because if you witness people enjoying the delicious pudding, you’ll have no doubt that the pudding was very good. If you look at the fruit, you can tell something about the quality of the source of the fruit. And if you see discipleship in faithful action, you can get a look right into the good heart of the disciple. John calls us, as Jesus indeed will, to bear good fruit.

John was getting awfully anxious for the messiah to come. Time’s up – that’s the urgency, the energy of his message. Act now. Repent now. Bear fruit now. I think I’m just about ready too – ready to stop counting down, and start welcoming the messiah. Time’s up. Are you ready?

Amen.


1) Ask Yahoo!, http://ask.yahoo.com/ask/20020903.html

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "The Time In-Between"

Sermon 12/6/09, Luke 3:1-6

The Time In-Between


As a child, I considered there to be two important seasons in my year. The season of Christmas, of course. And the season for summer camp. I grew up attending Camp Aldersgate every year – the counterpart to Casowasco, located in the foothills of the Adirondacks. I watched my big brother head to camp every summer with acute jealousy, until I was finally old enough to attend myself. I *loved* it, every part of it. I could attend camp for just one short week during each summer, until I was older and finally could afford to pay for a second week on my own, and eventually even work on staff. But as a child, all my longing for camping season was rewarded with one too-short week of camp. So I had to turn my energy, my love of camp, into something that would last me a little longer. Waiting for my week at camp was a period that lasted from sometime in late January all the way until the week itself in July or August. I didn’t wait idly. First, I waited for the camp brochure to arrive – usually in by the middle of February. I would scour the brochure for a few weeks, debating back and forth over which camp to attend. There were certainly fewer choices then than now, but I still occupied a lot of time choosing between swim camp and creative arts, an on-site camp or an adventure camp in the wilderness. Then, I would start making lists. I would make lists of what I needed to pack, focusing on what outfits to wear, complete with ideas on how to coordinate clothing, what shoes to go with said outfit, and of course, how to accessorize. By May, I was seriously already starting to pack. I would have a small bag or two in tucked away in my closet with items for camp already folded and sorted and ready to go. I would eventually do my shopping for camp, a sure sign that my waiting was almost over. And then, after the hour-long car ride that seemed like an eternity, I would finally be at camp again, for 6 short days, where lifelong friendships could be made in time that always seemed to short.

We’re talking about time, this Advent, and this week we’re thinking about “the time in-between.” If Christmas is what we’re waiting for, with the coming of the Christ-Child, what do we do with the time in-between now and then? We certainly must wait – we can’t make the time go any faster or slower than it will. But you can certainly spend the time in-between now and then in ways that will prepare you better (or not) for Jesus’ coming, that will enrich (or not) your experience of God at work in your lives this Christmas. So, how are we waiting? How are we preparing in this time in-between? How are you getting ready for Christmas?

When we talk about preparation in the church, preparation for Advent, preparation for the birth of the Christ-child, it turns out that this process of preparing isn't so different from the way we would prepare for the birth of a baby anyway. Think about all the things that you do to get ready for a child. Of course, we might immediately think of the baby showers, the diapers and the cribs and strollers and bibs that need to be purchased. But of course, we know that preparing for a baby involves much more than that. Those are just the surface matters, the material ways that we have to get ready for a baby to live in our midst.

At a deeper level, we have to prepare in other ways for a baby to come. Getting ready for a baby might require a change in lifestyle. If a parent smokes or drinks, these are habits that will probably change for the health of the child. A mother is more careful of what and how she eats, because what she does will affect the baby. The family must make sure that the home is ready for a baby, that the house and rooms are safe for someone who cannot judge for themselves, that there is a space, a room, for the newborn. The mother goes to the doctor to check and see how the baby is growing, if the baby is healthy. The family might outline an emergency plan, so that everything is ready when the moment comes. Parental leave must be arranged from work, child care plans are negotiated, health insurance is calculated. A family expecting a child has to determine how the finances will change once a new person is added to the household. Finally, more attention is given to another human life than is given to one's own life. All of these concerns have to be measured, planned, calculated, determined, well in advance of the actual birth of the child. They don't work out as well when planned last-minute. In between confirming a pregnancy and delivering a health baby, nine months of waiting take place. But it’s busy waiting, because the arriving newborn will depend completely and entirely on others for his or her very life.

In the same way, we can prepare for the Christ-child on many levels during this season of Advent. There are the surface things - and they are important, just as the basics of buying baby clothes are important. Our shopping, our parties, our caroling - these things truly are important for Christmas. We feel the community, the fellowship that comes from being together. We certainly don't shop only because we are consumers, but because we truly do love to give to others. These parts of preparing for Christmas aren't to be neglected. But like with a newborn, preparing for Christmas hopefully involves deeper levels, deeper life-changes if we are truly to be prepared, if we are truly to use the in-between time wisely.

John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus, wanted people to ready themselves for the coming of the Messiah. John wasn’t even sure himself who exactly the Messiah would be until he laid eyes on him, until he confirmed for himself that Jesus was the one. Later in the gospel, he even sends his disciples to Jesus while he is already in prison to make sure that Jesus is the one. But John believed the Messiah was coming, and believed that he needed to prepare for the arrival, and believed that others would need to prepare as well. John believed that preparation meant repentance – he called on people to repent and be forgiven for their sinfulness. He didn’t think people should just sit around waiting for the Messiah to show up – he believed that while they were waiting, people had some serious work to do. I’ve explained before that repentance means a changing of the direction of the mind – a turning around of your life so that you are leaving the path you are on and taking a new course, a new direction, that goes in the direction that God is going with you.

Repentance means we need to identify how we’re off course – identify our sinfulness – ask God for forgiveness from our sins – and get on the right path, no longer engaging in those actions or inactions that have led us on a different course than God. Sin has a pretty simple and clear but compelling definition –sin is being disobedient to God. When we disobey God, we’re sinning. That’s pretty simple, and perhaps we’re thinking that we know at least that much already. But I’m not sure we’re letting the magnitude of such a definition sink in.

If sinning is simply disobeying God, then that means that I sin every time I don’t do something God wants me to do. That makes sinfulness a lot more complicated then just breaking a standard list of thou-shall-nots. It means that if God is challenging us, calling us to go where we’re not ready to go, and we say no, or not right now, or I’ve got a different plan, we’re being sinful. And it means that sin for you and sin for me might not always look exactly the same. It means that the very same actions or inactions may not always have the same consequences for us. What is most sinful for me to do might be something very different than what is most sinful for you to do. That goes a little bit against our impulses as Americans who pride ourselves on our love of equality. It sounds awfully unfair to us at first, to think that God has different expectations for each one of us. But actually, I think it is a gift to us. God, who in love for us created each one of us as unique and precious individuals, this God takes the care to have specific hopes and dreams for each one of us. God knows us enough to want something special and specific for and from each one of us. So, what God wants from you and from me will never be exactly the same, just as what God gives to you and to me will never be exactly the same. What is the same is that God gives the same unconditional love to all of us, and hopes for the same complete commitment from all of us.

So John was calling for repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Luke tells us that John called for repentance as a sign of preparation, as a way of getting ready for something that was about to happen – the coming of the Lord, the time when all people would see and experience God’s salvation. Advent is a time of preparation, and so it is a time for repentance. It is the perfect time for us to examine our lives, see where we have been sinful, disobedient, and commit to turning in God’s direction.

Christmas is just 19 days away now. What are you doing to prepare in-between now and then? Have any of you seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction? This movie is all about what you do in-between. The basic premise: Will Farrell plays a straight-laced IRS agent who finds that his life is being narrated by some voice, and the voice says his death is just around the corner. He tries to find the author and persuade her not to write his death. But when she doesn’t take him seriously, he starts to begin to live differently - in a way that the voice doesn't predict – while he is waiting for his predicted death to happen to him. The narration of his life makes him realize how mundane and unsatisfying his life has been so far, and he tries to outsmart the narration by living how he’s never lived before, living to the full. Once Farrell’s character changes what he’s doing in the time in-between, while waiting for his tragic end, he actually changes the direction his life is headed. The film has a basic message of 'carpe diem - seize the day.' Stop putting things off and start living the life you’ve been meaning to live now. It isn't necessarily a profound message or a new one, but I guess like all such life lessons, we need to keep hearing it until we're living it.

An article in Relevant magazine, a favorite of mine, a magazine for twenty/thirty-something Christians that I really enjoy – posed a similar challenge in an article that asked, "what are you waiting for until you really start you life?" What excuse do you keep putting out to yourself or to others that goes like this: "I'll get around to [the thing I'm really called to be doing/meant to be doing/passionate about/convicted about doing] as soon as [this other life thing happens/falls into place/gets settled.]" I'm very guilty of this. I'm very guilty of saying to myself that I'll start doing things the way I think I really should be after I go back to school someday, or once I have more money, or when things in my life feel more settled, or even just after the new year. The point is - what are you waiting for? This is it already - this is your life. It has already started, is already well underway, and if you keep waiting for the perfect time to act, your life will be well over before you get anywhere. If you are waiting for something to happen, consider that the time in-between now and then is just as important, can be just as life-changing, as whatever it is you are waiting for.

Advent is a time of preparation. The time to prepare is now because the coming of the Christ-Child is so very close – the kingdom of God is already near, already here! What other time are you planning to use to prepare? What are you waiting for to repent? How long will you travel down a road you know is not the road God’s calling you to before you will turn around? Or how long will you simply live at a stand-still, doing the same things in the same way, waiting for some day that’s never coming to get started doing what you’re really meant to be doing? Whatever you’re waiting for, in this in-between time, the message from John, the message of Advent is that the time is here already. Prepare now for God’s coming, because this is it.

In the first year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, when Paterson was governor of New York, and Schumer and Gillibrand were Senators, and when Danny Liedka was mayor of East Syracuse, during the time when Beth was pastor, the word of God came to the people of the First United Church. And they went out into all the regions, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Prepare the way of the Lord.

Amen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Introverts Can Make the Best Leaders

Somewhere in my blog subscriptions I was led to this article by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, "Why Introverts Can Make the Best Leaders." I can't for the life of me remember or find who wrote about it, so my apologies - please let me know if it was you!

As a pastor, I'm always fascinated by information about introverted leadership. Sometimes I envy my extroverted clergy colleagues and the ease they seem to have in settings which cause me such internal agony! But this article made me feel pretty good about ways in which I can and do use my introversion to my advantage in ministry.

(I'm posting this using Google Sidewiki for the first time - I'm hoping using it might help me actually blog again occasionally. We'll see!)

in reference to: http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/30/introverts-good-leaders-leadership-managing-personality.html (view on Google Sidewiki)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, "The Time is Near"

Sermon 11/29/09, Luke 21:25-36

The Time is Near

Lucky Charms used to be my very favorite cereal. All those yummy marshmallows! Tragically, I can’t eat Lucky Charms anymore, because marshmallows are made with gelatin, which I don’t eat. I’m still hopeful that eventually they’ll change their recipe. But until then, I can just reminisce. When I was little, I used to pick out and eat all the marshmallows first, and be left with all the regular old cereal. I just couldn’t help myself. But as I got older and matured as a cereal connoisseur, I reversed my order. I’d eat all the plain cereal first, and leave all the marshmallows for last, finishing with the very best part. And in fact, I even came to really enjoy all that plain cereal in its own right.

Sometimes, when I think about the season of Advent, the season of preparing and waiting for Christmas, I feel a bit the same way I used to feel about Lucky Charms. There have been times, especially when I was younger, where I just couldn’t make Christmas come quickly enough. The weeks of Advent seemed like an eternity. My childhood pastor stubbornly had us singing Advent hymns and I wanted to be singing Christmas Carols. The days until Christmas Vacation from school seemed endless. I wanted to hurry to the good part. Advent, all the waiting, was certainly not the good part. But as I’ve gotten older, as happens to most of us, I have a sense of time already going faster and faster on us, not going too slowly. Already, Christmas is just 26 days away, and Advent has only just begun! It goes too quickly, not too slowly. I want to savor this time. I want to enjoy the waiting and longing for Christmas. But I don’t want it to be Christmas until it is Christmas.

Are you in a hurry for Christmas to come? Or are you trying to slow things down, and savor the time? Hurrying, waiting. Rushing, slowing down. Anticipating, longing. This season, our theme for Advent is, “It’s About Time.” We’ll be thinking about exactly these issues – thinking about time and what this time of Advent means for us as people of faith for the next four weeks. And today, in particular, we’re thinking about the nearness of the appointed time. The time is near.

Today is the first Sunday of a new liturgical year in the church calendar. Our Christian year begins with Advent, and so we turn from the gospel of Mark to Luke’s gospel with our lesson today, a text that should catch our attention for sure. We find Jesus in the middle of a conversation about “the signs of the times” – he’s talking about signs in the sun, moon, and stars – distress on the earth, roaring seas, waves, shaken heavens, and then, the Son of Man coming with power and glory. When these things happen, Jesus says, “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He talks about knowing that summer is about to arrive when the fig trees sprout leaves. So to, he says, you will know that “the kingdom of God is near.” Finally, Jesus concludes, we should be on guard, so we’re not taken by surprise, not caught unexpectedly. “Be alert,” he says, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these thing that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Why are we in such a hurry for Christmas to come? Or perhaps, the real question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we actually want this long-expected Jesus to come or not? Jesus talks about these signs happening to let us know that the kingdom of God is near. But it sounds a bit terrifying, doesn’t it? Maybe we want baby Jesus to come again – to hurry to the birth of the precious Christ Child. The cute baby in the nativity. Jesus who can’t exactly talk and preach to us yet. But are we really in a hurry for this coming of Christ that Luke describes? We like to think about the baby Jesus coming, meek and mild. That’s the Jesus we’re ready to hurry here. But what about this Jesus of Luke, who can’t seem to arrive without turning the world upside-down and creating chaos? Do we want and long for this Jesus to arrive? Is this the Christmas that is drawing near? And if so, why are we in such a hurry for Christmas to come?

To answer that question, we have to consider what exactly we believe is drawing near. And I think it comes down to a decision between judgment, and redemption. Do you believe that what is drawing near is judgment, or redemption? American culture today certainly has a clear answer. We believe – and also fear very much – that judgment is coming. Just look at yet another apocalyptic movie phenomenon right now – people have become obsessed with this idea that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012 – the title of the latest end-of-world flick. Thinking about the end of the world fills us with dread and fear – think of the atmosphere in 1999 when we stood on the verge of the year 2000, and many were stockpiling provisions for an anticipated apocalypse. We can’t read about these signs that Jesus is talking about without being filled with dread, fear, and anxiety. And so though Jesus spoke these words more than 2000 years ago, people have looked around them for all this time at the crazy things happening in the world and have said: surely these are the signs of the times. And they’ve been afraid. And the fear comes certainly in part from an end of what we know, but also of the link we place between the end of the things we know and the beginning of judgment for the things we’ve messed up so badly.

As people of faith, though, I wonder what has happened to us to think of Jesus’ drawing near to us as an occasion for fear and panic. The idea of the kingdom of God drawing close fills us with terror. But Jesus doesn’t speak about judgment in today’s passage. In fact, he even says that he wants us to be on guard so that we’re not weighed down with the worries of this life. Instead, he talks about redemption. To be redeemed is to be rescued, delivered, saved and set free. Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The coming of the kingdom of God doesn’t mean punishment and judgment that is meant to harm us. God drawing close to us is to save us, to rescue us, to redeem us from the mess we’ve made. What is near is our salvation, not our condemnation.

This season, the Christmas carols you’ll hear mostly focus on the tiny baby Jesus, asleep in the manger bed. But our Advent hymns – they embrace this Jesus who comes preaching redemption – our redemption, the redemption of all the earth. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” The time is near – not for our end, not for destruction, not for judgment. The time is near because God is near to us – always. The time is near because the kingdom of God is in our midst – always. A Savior comes to us – a baby, yes, new life. But also the Prince of Peace. A precious child, and a strong champion of the down-trodden and oppressed. A helpless newborn, and God-with-us. The time is near. Amen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, "All Gathered In"

Sermon 11/22/09, Matthew 6:24-33

Giving Thanks: All Gathered In

What, if anything, do you worry about? That was a question posed to me in an interview about blogging that I did a few years back, and my response was something like this: “What don’t I worry about?” I was still serving my first congregation at the time, and my response expanded mostly in relation to pastoral ministry. I said, “I can be a worrier. I worry about my congregation, and whether I am serving them well, and if the church is growing numerically and spiritually, and if I visit enough people often enough, and if my prayers are too long, and if a new worship service will work, and, and, and . . .”

This interview response came to my mind because I was also thinking of another blog-related item about worry – a post I wrote about how I handle stress and worry. Sometimes, I can worry as that stress, anxiety, in the pit of my stomach. But sometimes, I’m stressed and worried and I can’t even remember why. I have that anxious, gnawing feeling, but I don’t know what about. This makes it feel even worse, even more worrisome. I recounted on my blog that I’ve gotten better, though, at stopping, when I feel this dread, and working to identifying the cause of my stress or worry so I can confront it and move on. One time I was feeling very anxious, and so I worked hard to find the source of my worry. Finally it hit me. I’d been reading news articles on CNN, and become worried over and article about the melting of the polar ice caps. That was my cause of stress! Now, I take issues of environmental justice very seriously – but my worrying about the ice caps wasn’t really accomplishing anything – it wasn’t helping me act with more care for the earth – it was just filling my stomach with dread without even remembering why I was so upset! What do you worry about? How does all that worrying make you feel?

Today, our text is about worry. It seems like an odd text, at first, to flip back to, after all these passages about discipleship in the gospel of Mark. And it seems like a strange Thanksgiving text, which is its primary purpose. Certainly it is maybe an odd choice for a text for Consecration Sunday – a day when many of us are thinking about pledges and giving and budgets and hoping things work out for the church financially. But as I think about our own life together as a congregation, I think it makes perfect sense – before we can move forward, before we can get out there and be in ministry, we have to make sure we aren’t so weighed down with burden and worry that we can’t function, can’t be disciples.

And so, I think this text is perfect for us today, because I think, as a congregation, we’ve been carrying with us a great deal of worry, and stress, and anxiety. I feel it, and I think many of you feel it as well. A long time of pastoral transition, from a pastor who was here for 28 years, to an interim ministry, and finally to a new permanent pastor, a sense of being in a suspended mode, waiting to see what would happen next, waiting to see how things would turn out, where things would go, how things would move forward, how things would or wouldn’t change – I think all of these things can cause stress, worry, and anxiety in a congregation. And in particular, we, like many churches, have been worried about money – our financial situation. We’ve been worried about keeping the lights on, keeping the bills paid, supporting our staff, supporting our denominational connections, keeping our ministry here going. We’re worried about our future, about how people will respond to our needs, about how we will take care of this faith community. And we can carry this stress, this burden, this worry with us everywhere – into every church meeting, into every gathering, into every decision we’ve been making. And I worry – I worry about what our worry does to us! I worry that with all our worries, we don’t have much energy left to do the work that Christ calls us to do. And into the midst of all this worry, comes our perfectly placed passage for the day.

This text comes as part of what we call from Matthew “The Sermon on the Mount.” It’s part of a long set of teaching by Jesus preached to crowds of people gathered with him on the mountainside. He’s just shared with the crowds a way to pray that we now call The Lord’s Prayer, and he’s been telling them that where their treasure is, there will their hearts be also. And today we hear Jesus saying that one cannot serve both God and wealth. This statement is a springboard for Jesus to speak about worry. Don’t worry, Jesus says, about what to eat, or drink, or wear. Life is more than these things. The birds of the air don’t work or worry, and have plenty to eat, and we are more valuable than birds. And the lilies are clothed with great beauty, but they only last a little while. Won’t God take even greater care of us? So why worry? God knows what we need. So strive for the Kingdom of God, not these other things, Jesus concludes. Strive to live righteously, and everything else will come as well.

In some ways I love this passage – it is beautiful, comforting. But I have to share with you my other reaction: Is Jesus serious? How can he be? Clearly he has no experience with financial stress or other worries. How can he be so naïve? How can you tell people who are hungry and homeless and without clothing or work not to worry? Sure, our own situation is not that bad – we’re abundantly blessed even though we’re facing these hard times. But how can you tell people who are going without not to worry and that everything will be ok? Is Jesus just an idealist? Is he exaggerating? Is he just out of touch?

For me, the key to understanding this passage is to consider what Jesus is really saying when he speaks of worry. The Greek word here is merimnate, which means more literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” (1) When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is equating worry to something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Worried? Preoccupied? Absorbed? Not only is your stress hard on you, it’s also putting your very soul at risk, because your worry is just another form of making idols.

Instead of being naïve, Jesus is, of course, being extremely wise. He calls our worry out for what it is – a way of distancing ourselves from God and God’s plan for our lives. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, writes about it this way: “Does not every man see, that he cannot comfortably serve both [God and wealth]? That to trim between God and the world is the sure way to be disappointed in both, and to have no rest either in one or the other? How uncomfortable a condition must he be in, who, having the fear but not the love of God, -- who, serving him, but not with all his heart, -- has only the toils and not the joys of religion? He has religion enough to make him miserable, but not enough to make him happy: His religion will not let him enjoy the world, and the world will not let him enjoy God. So that, by halting between both, he loses both; and has no peace either in God or the world.” (2) Wesley knew that by trying to strive for what’s important in worldly terms at the same time we strive spiritually would only make us miserable in the world and miserable in our relationship with God.

So what do we do? How do we change? How do we give up this striving, our obsessive anxiety, our stress, our worry, our preoccupation with so much that has nothing to do with God, faith, discipleship, ministry? How can we just “not worry” like Jesus says? He gives us the answer: We still strive, we’re still preoccupied, we’re still consumed – but all that energy is given to striving for the kingdom of God. And we’re able to do that when we recognize that our lives are covered already by God’s love. Our lives are given value already by God who created us, and if this God who created us even gives value to birds and lilies and grass in the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, how can we doubt the value given to us? We’re precious to God, of such value to God. The value we get elsewhere isn’t real. The things we worry about only define us if we let them define us. But if we choose otherwise, if we strive after God’s kingdom instead, we’ll find our real value as children of God.

Does seeking God’s kingdom free us from worry? Does seeking God’s kingdom clothe us and feed us? Maybe not in the ways we’d expect. But I think striving for God’s kingdom ultimately turns our view from ourselves out to the world God has created. So striving for the kingdom lead us to feed others, to clothe others, to fill others. If the whole world strives after God first, I think we’ll find that Jesus is right – all the rest is added to us as well. We face some difficult times ahead as a congregation – we always will, as we struggle to exist in a world that is full of worry, ever torn, as John Wesley described, between more than one master, never being satisfied by either. Our life together can be so much more than we sometimes settle for. Strive first for God, God’s kingdom, God’s justice. If we do that together, God promises that the rest will come to us as a gift to God’s beloved children.

Today, we’re consecrating our gifts to God, our pledges, or our hopes for what we can give to support our ministry in the year to come. This very Sunday and all the responsibilities that come with it can be a source of stress and anxiety for us. Will it be enough? Are we giving enough? If there’s not enough, what do we cut? What do we go without? What do we not pay? But today is also Thanksgiving Sunday, and God always means giving thanks to be an act of joy, giving to be an act of love and hope and promise from God to us and from us to God. God seeks for us to give and receive with thanks, hope, and holy anticipation in the same way that we would feel about waiting for a loved one to open the carefully selected treasure we’ve chosen just for them. Today, then, as we consecrate our gifts to God, I’m seeking to let go of my worries, which take my energy from seeking after God and God’s kingdom. And instead, I’m letting myself be filled with Thanksgiving for the signs of the kingdom I see everyday, right in our midst.

This very week, I am thankful for Derek and Becky Hansen and the energy they’ve instilled into our young people for participating in the life of the church. I’m thankful for the youth that tried something new this weekend and went to learn about God with hundreds of other young people of faith. I’m thankful for Dale and Lori who stepped in to support our youth coordinator in his time of need. I’m thankful for your outpouring of support for the refugees over the past month in response to a plea for help, and for the people you will feed over the next weeks through your support of our Thanksgiving baskets. I’m thankful for those of you who consistently reach out to our homebound members, so that when I visit, they can tell me that they’ve already heard from one of you recently. I’m thankful for a congregation pulling together a church dinner that could go on while I was on vacation. I’m thankful for those who have been working hard to find ways to make our church more welcoming who those who come here seeking a closer walk with God. Our church is overflowing with blessings and riches that will help us as we seek to draw close to the heart of God, as we strive after the kingdom of God.

Today, as we offer our gifts to God to be consecrated, my prayer is that we ask God to use our gifts in ways we can’t even imagine yet. That God can transform our worries into thanksgivings. That God can turn our dollars into lives touched by God’s love through our congregation and beyond. Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” May it be so for us. Amen.

Monday, November 02, 2009

My Road-trip Route Map

Here's a basic map of my route over the next two weeks, in case you are interested in seeing where I will be for my vacation, and for my attendance at Exploration 2009. Sorry Kansas and Missouri - I'm making a giant circle around you. Maybe some other road-trip....

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Giving Thanks: For All The Saints"

Sermon 11/1/09, Mark 12:28-34

Giving Thanks: For All the Saints

All Saints Sunday is not a day I remember celebrating as a child in my congregation. In fact, I really don’t remember celebrating this special until I got into seminary, although I’m sure we did at my childhood church. But I was lucky enough not to have experienced much in the way of loss and death until I was in college, and so I don’t think I was very tuned in to a day to remember those who had passed away. But since seminary, All Saints has become one of my favorite celebrations in the church – a precious day when we remember – remember our loved ones, remember members of our church family, remember so many lives who have shaped us, over the years, through our lifetimes, even through the centuries, through history. To our Protestant ears, perhaps we perk up a little, in confusion, when we hear talk about saints. Do we have Saints?

But, as soon as we ask the question, a million possible responses pop into our heads, as we think about the people who have touched our lives. In a time of pastoral transition, All Saints Sunday is unique – I don’t know – never knew – the people whose names we will read today – I have met family members, and heard stories, but I did not know these people personally. And today, in churches in Franklin Lakes, NJ, and Oneida, NY, people’s names will be read whose funerals I conducted, who I knew well. But in some ways, that hardly matters – because All Saints Sunday is a day when we can enter into the story together. These names here because my names, my people, my loss, and my celebration, just as they become yours, even though you may not know all of these names either. All Saints Sunday is a celebration in the community of faith, of the family of God, as we remember lives that have shaped us in different ways.

Who has shaped you that you are missing today? Probably, we all have that individual who we still miss dearly, who we hold up in our hearts and minds. For me, this person has been my grandfather, Millard Mudge. Grandpa wasn't a leader. He didn't start any great movements, he didn't make headlines very often. But when he died – can it be eleven years ago now? – over 500 people showed up for his calling hours and funeral, a friend of my brother's asked with awe, "Who was your grandfather?" Who he was, to me, anyway, was something like a saint. He was not perfect, certainly. But it’s hard now to remember anything not-wonderful about him. Today, the best compliment I can give anyone is that the person reminds me of my Grandpa Mudge. He simply was a faithful servant, a living witness to the power of God and the love of Christ working in his life. Though he worked most of his life at Rome Cable, when I was little he was retired and working as a gas station attendant, trying to make ends meet financially. And even there, he was a witness, always wearing his "I love Jesus" pin, always trying to share a word of comfort and love, and somehow transforming a job like that into a place where he made people feel loved every day. He loved God, and he truly loved his neighbors, all of his neighbors.

Who is the saint in your life? Who have you looked up to, and what was it that made you admire them? Today we remember our members, the gifts their lives were to their friends, to their families, to this congregation and community. And we also take time to remember those who are connected to this congregation in other ways – those who are sisters and brothers and children and parents and grandparents and loved ones of yours, those whose names you carry in your hearts today and everyday. And we celebrate the lives of those we have lost as a community, as a society. We celebrate those who have gone on before her, working for peace and justice in the world – treasures like Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa. We remember treasures that are lesser known – perhaps someone in the history of your family. And we celebrate and remember the lives of the saints that fill the pages of our church’s history. We remember the first disciples who followed Jesus, and the women whose names are lesser known but who also responded to the call. Today we call to our mind the early church figures who helped Christianity grow from a small sect into a worldwide faith. We remember those who gave their lives to make it so. We remember our Protestant history, and celebrate those who helped reform the church. We celebrate our Methodist heritage – John and Charles Wesley – and our Presbyterian tradition– with names like John Calvin and John Knox as leaders of the church. As we sit in these pews today, we stand on the faith of so many others – those in the long ago past and those in the all too recent past. These are the ones who have shaped our lives. These are the ones who have impacted our faith, whether we recognize it every day or not.

And so as I love to celebrate All Saints Sunday, I also approach it with caution. As soon as we name someone as a saint, we tend to put them into a category other than where we place ourselves. They are saints, so we can expect them to be good, kind, and to change the world. But we’re just regular people. Everyone can’t be Mother Teresa, right? God hopes and expects a lot for us, but we’re not really all meant to be like her are we? We’re not expecting to be put in the history books, are we?

And so we turn to our text for today. In our gospel lesson we hear Jesus reminding us of the greatest commandments, after being questioned by one of the scribes. This time, instead of so many scenes where a religious leader is trying to entrap Jesus in his teaching, the scribe seems sincere in his questioning, and Jesus tells that man that he is not far from God's kingdom. The scribe wants to know which commandment is first of all. Of course, Jesus tells us as he tells the scribe that the commandments we must follow are ones that the whole community in Israel knew by heart, and that most of us Christians today know by heart as well. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself." The scribe responds, “You are right Teacher,” saying that following those commandments are much more important than making the proper sacrifices and appropriate offerings. Jesus sees that he has answered wisely, and says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one else dares to ask Jesus questions, at least not for the time being.

We are commanded, above all, to love. When I think of the lives of the saints – saints of the church or saints in my life – I can see how love was at work in their lives. Mother Teresa loved those others considered untouchable. Gandhi loved those who were oppressing his people, and loved those whose faith and beliefs were completely different than his own. My grandfather, imperfect though he was, loved freely, in spite of the prejudices he was raised with. He always acted in love. Jesus says that following the commandments to love brings us near to God’s kingdom. And to be in God’s kingdom is the best way I can understand sainthood.

That means, though, that we can’t shove sainthood off as a title only for those who have passed away, or as a title we use to get ourselves out of the responsibility God has placed on us in discipleship. Because loving is something we can all do, if we choose to open our hearts. You can bring in a thousand cans for our food drive, but if you do it without love, you’re missing the point. When you speak, do you speak with love? When you see those who don’t look like you, or dress like you, of live like you, do you look with loving eyes? The first commandment tells us that we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Catholic Worker Dorothy Day once said, "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." We can only love God if we love one another. We can love that which God has created, and love God through our actions toward others.

When we talk about saints in the life of the church, we’re not talking about those who have completed some special tasks, or those who have gained world-wide renown. We’re talking about those who leave a legacy of love, those who take Jesus seriously when he reminds us that there’s nothing better we can do in life than loving God, and loving others. If you think about those saints in your own life, or even those saints in the scriptures and beyond, I think you’ll agree that these saints weren’t perfect. St. Peter denied Jesus three times in the hour of Jesus’ greatest need. St. Paul spent years of his life persecuting those who followed Jesus. Much has been made in recent years of letters showing the Mother Teresa had periods of struggle and anguish in her life, as we all do. John Wesley had times of great despair in his faith journey. And so we celebrate on All Saints Day not a class of perfect Christians, unfaltering disciples. To me, a saint is someone where you can tell that their life has been transformed by the love of God they carry with them, and so share freely with others. You can tell that they are living in a new way because of God’s love for them.

Today is All Saints Day. And you are meant to be counted in that number. Don’t count yourself out, and let yourself off the hook. We all know what it means to love. “Hear,” Saints of God, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “you shall love you neighbor as yourself.” Amen.

Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, "Take Heart"

Sermon 10/25/09, Mark 10:46-52


Take Heart


This week, my mother found out that she will need to have surgery on her ankle in January – surgery to fuse together the joints which have collapsed on her through the years. My family and I have been trying to put together a plan for her post-surgery – she’ll be in a cast for three months at least, and her house isn’t particularly friendly for a person who has a hard time with stairs. As we’ve been talking about plans for her recovery, one thing has become clear to me: my mom is in a bit of denial about the extent of injury to her ankle and about the extent of recovery time she will need. (And yes, I did let my mother know I was preaching about her today!) Somehow, my mom has seen her bad ankle as a minor problem that she should be able to get over with a better pair of sneakers. She’s embarrassed when the pain makes her limp. Although she was granted permanent disability from work, it is only just recently that she finally accepted that it would be smart to get a handicapped parking permit. She went to the doctor this week and seriously was expecting him to send her to physical therapy, when it has been clear to her family that her ankle is very far structurally past any non-surgical means of repair.

I’ve been wondering about her reaction. I tease her about it, to be sure. But it’s really not so unusual. I’ve been there. Most of us have, in one way or another. Mostly, we value our independence, and self-reliance. We hate having to ask someone else for help. But why? Since we usually don’t mind helping others, why are we so reluctant to accept help ourselves? I think that needing help makes us feel weak, and we’re certainly taught, from a very early age, to value strength over weakness in all things.

But I think it goes even deeper than that. I think, although we might not always think we do, or put it in just these terms, and regardless of what we think of Charles Darwin and his theories as a whole, we deeply believe in a practical application of the survival of the fittest. We deeply believe that the strong survive. That weak equals worthless. That to be worthy is to be the best. That we have to play to win, always – that losing is never an option. That mindset is pervasive in every area of our world – in school – from academics to sports; in the military and government, where political victories so often outweighs the costs; at work, as we seek promotions and climb the ladder and wind up putting ambition ahead of whatever it is we actually do; in our social circles, where even our closest relationship are layered with unspoken competitions about who has more, whose lives are more ‘together’, who can claim more success.

Of course, the trouble for us comes in that this mindset is in extreme opposition to the mindset, the teachings, the message of Jesus Christ. They just don’t line up, these points of view. We struggle and struggle to reconcile this world view with Jesus’ world view, but they just don’t fit together, and the only way we can make them fit together is by making Jesus about something he wasn’t. Our texts from last week and this week set up the perfect juxtaposition of these views. Remember last week, James and John had requested to sit at the right and left of Jesus in God’s kingdom. Throughout Mark, we see the disciples as the group that is sort-of failing to get it, failing to understand Jesus, no matter how clearly he seems to speak. They just can’t seem to let go of their expectations that Jesus will fit into the role of a typical leader, king, revolutionary, celebrity, or something else equally exciting. They seem to be in it for the rewards, at least a little. Maybe they’ve finally started focusing on rewards in God’s kingdom rather than earthly ones, but they still want a prize for following Jesus so well. And so they ask, with an amazing lack of embarrassment, for the seats at Jesus’ right and left.

Jesus explains that not only was this not possible for him to grant, but their asking missed the mark: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” he said, 44”and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” A completely opposite point of view – not about greatness and places of power, but about service, being “slave of all,” certainly a role of weakness and powerlessness.

Following this scene, we find Jesus and the disciples departing after a stop in Jericho, mixing in among a large crowd also at the city gates. A man named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, is sitting by the roadside. We’re told that he is a blind beggar. When he realizes it is Jesus passing by, he begins to shout to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many people, upset by the outburst, try to silence the man, ordering him to be quiet. But he just cries out even more loudly and persistently, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops and tells the people to call them man over to him. They say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart, he is calling you.” Bartimaeus throw of his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus. Jesus asks what the man wants Jesus to do for him, and he responds, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus replies, “go; your faith has made you well.” And immediately the man’s sight is restored, and he follows Jesus on the way.

Why this story? It’s a miracle, of course. A healing. Another act of compassion by Jesus. But what’s special about it? What does it mean? Because some details of the passage make it clear that Mark finds this instance of healing of particular importance. First, Mark name this blind man – Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Most of the people Jesus heals in Mark, or in other gospels to an extent, are unnamed. It’s just, a blind man, a hemorrhaging woman, a lame man, a young girl. Bartimaeus has a name, and that let’s us know he’s important. He also stands out because of how he calls out to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David.” That title, “Son of David,” shows that Bartimaeus sees Jesus as the messiah. In Mark, very few, including the disciples, have correctly identified Jesus as such. And finally, when Bartimaeus is healed, it says he follows Jesus on “the way.” That phrasing, “the way,” is the name the early Christians used to describe themselves. They were followers of the way. Bartimaeus is a follower of the way. So this passage shows that though blind, this is a man who sees clearly, who is on the right track. How he behaves, what he does, is probably being held up as an example for us to follow.

So, what does Bartimaeus do? Well, immediately following two of Jesus’ disciples asking for places of honor, we have Bartimaeus, asking for mercy. We have disciples who have argued about greatness, and we have Bartimaeus, a beggar, blind, pleading, humbling himself before an entire crowd of people. We read that Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, and springs up when Jesus calls him over – and almost always when Mark talks about leaving behind a garment in his gospel, the symbolism is about leaving behind and old way to embrace a new way. So Bartimaeus is leaving behind whatever has bound him, and coming to Jesus. And it is to Bartimaeus, the one who asks nothing of Jesus except for mercy, that Jesus speaks these words: “What do you want me to do for you?” When Jesus heals Bartimaeus, it is not his goodness that makes him well, his position or status, not his achievements or successes. It is his faith, Jesus says, that makes him well.

In the end, the message is simple here, as simple as my children’s sermon – but we have such a hard time living it out. If we are already full - no matter what the quality of the stuff is that we’ve filled our lives up with, what can God possibly give to us? The gospels are full of Jesus interacting with people that are on the margins of society – the blind, the sick, the unclean, the shunned by society, those sinning in ways that got them rejected from the community. But I don’t believe Jesus kept company with them because they were any more sinful than the others – the Pharisees, the disciples, the elders. Jesus kept company with them because they were the ones who were ready to admit that they needed help. They were the ones who had enough space in their lives for God to actually move and breathe. They were the ones who knew that they needed mercy more than they needed seats of honor.

If we are so strong that we can do everything ourselves, what need could we have of God? If we are always right, what could we need to learn from the one Bartimaeus called teacher? If we must be first, best, winners in every aspect of life, how will we build a relationship with the Christ who has put himself at the end of the line? Take heart; Jesus is calling you. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us: we pretend we are so strong. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us: sinners. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In honor of Ella, my cat

So, I haven't blogged in forever, and all I give you is this graph? But it made me laugh out loud - I couldn't help it. Also, Graph Jam is hilarious.

song chart memes
see more Funny Graphs

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Challenged"

Sermon 10/11/09, Mark 10:17-31

Be Challenged

I’ve been thinking, over the last several weeks, in light of some of the powerful lessons from the New Testament that we’ve focused on in worship, that it’s amazing that we even read the Bible aloud and pretend to like it. I wonder why our very reading of the words of Jesus and his closest followers doesn’t offend us. I wonder how we can even bear to hear what Jesus says sometimes, if we believe that he’s the Messiah, if we believe that we’re supposed to try to practice what he preaches. I think this because sometimes I’m struck with such force at how much distance there is between what Jesus teaches and what we do. Jesus challenges us. More than that. Pushes us. Tells us we’re getting it wrong. Quite wrong. Tells us we have to completely change what we know, how we live, what we do.

I recently happened on one of my favorite quotations, by 19th century philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. He writes, "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."[1]

The Bible is easy to understand, Kierkegaard says. But we have to pretend it’s hard to understand, because following it – well, that would mean too much of a change in our way of life to be able to stand. There is, I think, a sense of humor, a facetiousness in his tone – but also a powerful truth. How can we read this Bible, if we believe it to be the word of God, and go on living as we do? This week’s gospel lesson is a prime example of what Kierkegaard writes about, and of what I mean by wondering that we even dare to read Jesus’ words in a public setting. Did you know that fully 40% of what Jesus teaches about in the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are about money or use economic metaphors? We hate talking about money, don’t we? Or at least, talking about our personal money. How much we have, how we spend it, how we use it, how much we need, how much we don’t have. How is it that we like to spend so little time talking about our money, when Jesus focused on money and faith so much? As Christians, we seem to get ourselves all tangled up in three or four verses that talk about homosexuality, or a few passages that talk about women’s roles, or that speak to some other controversial social issue of the day – we make these issues so important, but we like to stuff all the money talk in churches into a few weeks when, by necessity, we must have a stewardship campaign. And we don’t even like to talk about it then very much. And yet, almost half of what Jesus says has something to do with money, our stuff, how we share, or don’t share our wealth, and what all this means about our relationship with God.

Our gospel lesson today is a challenge. Everything that Jesus says is challenging – but this is a standout lesson for sure. As Jesus is setting out for a journey, a man falls on his knees before him and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers strangely: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” He then continues, listing several of the ten commandments to the man. The man tells him that he’s done this already, kept these commandments since he was a child. Jesus looks at him and loves him, the text says. And he responds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man is grieved and shocked, and walks away thinking of his many possessions.

Jesus then turns to his disciples, and tells them it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. At this extreme statement, everyone is astounded. They ask who can possibly be saved if these are the standards. Jesus replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter seems to want to show that he and the other disciples have done what the rich man seems to be struggling with: “Look,” he says, “we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus says then that there’s no one who has left someone behind to for the sake of the gospel won’t receive a hundredfold back both now and in eternal life. But he, concludes, with often repeated words: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” A challenging text. What do we do with it?

As Kierkegaard expected, many of the commentaries about this text try to find some way to soften it. Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And as soon as he says it, we try to unsay it for him. One pastor writes, “Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage’s demands.”[2] Another[3] writes that he had come across two ways to interpret the metaphor of the camel and the eye of the needle that might make Jesus’ metaphor more bearable. First, he shares, “some interpreters of the Bible suggest that apart from the large gates into Jerusalem, there may have also been one small gate. This narrow gate, [easier to use than opening the big city gates, and] just high enough for human entry, was called the “Needle’s Eye.” Maybe a camel might be able to squeeze through if the beast hobbled in on its knees. As you can see,” he explains, “this tames the words of Jesus a little, and would suggest that a rich [person] humbly on [his or her] knees might be able to enter the kingdom of God.” However, there’s simply no evidence for the existence of such a gate. It’s totally speculation.

So he shares a second possible interpretation: “A second interpretation hangs on the undisputed fact that in the Greek of the New Testament the words for camel and thick rope cable are similar. Camel is “camelos” and rope cable is “camilos”. Maybe the later copiers of the New Testament got the words mixed up. This is a plausible theory. But it does once more blunt the words of Jesus.” Of course, a thick rope cable might be easier to fit through a needle eye than a camel – but I guarantee that thick rope cable isn’t going to actually going to make it through either.

Even if we take Jesus’ words at face value, some of us still don’t feel worried by this text, because we figure Jesus isn’t talking to us. He’s talking to someone else – someone who is tied to their possessions. Someone rich. We’re not rich are we? I’ve served three very different congregations now, and I have yet to run into anyone who actually considers themselves rich. The way I figure, as long as we know of someone who has more than we do, we figure that they may be rich, but we sure aren’t. It’s understandable. It’s hard to think of ourselves as rich if we struggle to make ends meet. But consider this – in my family, between me, my three brothers, my mother, my sister-in-law, and my nephew – that’s 7 people – we have 6 televisions, 5 computers, 8 telephones, 6 cars, two houses and an apartment, a swimming pool, probably 1000 DVDs and 3000 CDs, thousands of dollars worth of musical instruments including guitars, a piano, violins, and drums, 3 mp3 players, some gaming systems, 3 well-fed and pampered pets, at least a hundred stuffed animals, and at least 25 bins of “storage.” This comes from a family of workers that would consider themselves thoroughly middle class. But if we’re not rich, what’s rich? What’s the standard?

A good rule to follow when reading the scriptures is this: If Jesus is talking, he’s talking to us – to you, and to me. He’s not talking to someone else, about someone else. He’s talking about us. Jesus was really emphatic about tending to your own struggles rather than pointing out the sins of others. So if he’s talking, he’s talking to us. We might try to shed the label as best we can, but when it comes to being rich, there’s probably only a small handful of people in this congregation who could argue that this text isn’t really applicable. But if that list of stuff I shared sounds like a list of stuff you might rack up in your own family – Jesus is talking to you. Somehow, in the end, we have to come to terms with that – Jesus is talking to us. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to follow him, to listen to him. But if we do decide to follow, then Jesus is talking to us.

So now what do we do with this text? To me, it’s a question of before and after. In this passage, we have two sections that talk about following Jesus. First, the rich man wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life, and he tells Jesus he’s been following the commandments. Jesus tells him one to do – one thing – sell his stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We don’t know if the man decides to do this or not. But we know he was grieved at the prospect. At the end of the passage, we have Peter saying to Jesus, “we have left everything and followed you.” In other words, the disciples have already done what Jesus was asking the rich man to do – left everything to follow Jesus. And Jesus says they will ultimately receive a hundredfold because of it. I think the rich man was hoping that he could be a follower of Jesus without having his life after he met Jesus be too different from his life before he met Jesus. He was hoping he could be a follower, be a disciple, but not have to change anything about his life. But if your life as a disciple doesn’t look very different from your life before being a disciple of Jesus, what’s the point? What’s the purpose? Following Jesus changes us – or is supposed to – making our life after significantly different from our life before. The rich man said he followed the commandments – but really, can’t most of us say we’ve done those basic things? Following Jesus is more of a commitment, more radical of a change in our lives. In fact, a complete change. We’re new creations in Christ. But so often, from trying to interpret Jesus’ words to make them easier to bear, to trying to convince ourselves Jesus means someone else and not us, we try to minimize what Jesus is asking of us, rather than trying to change ourselves.

When Jesus speaks these challenging words to this rich man, we might over look the powerful beginning of verse 21. Just before he tells the man to sell everything and give away his money, we read, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said.” Jesus loves this man. And what he says to him comes out of that love. If you love someone, you want the best for them. So Jesus is convinced that if this man does as he advises, he will have the very best life he can have, the fullest life that Jesus can offer, which comes from letting God fill us up, rather than trying to be the source of our own blessings. Jesus challenges us, asks the impossible from us, asks us to turn our lives upside down. He does it not to make following him a task we can never perform, but because he loves us, and wants us to stop settling for an imitation of real life.

The disciples themselves are overwhelmed by the uphill task of following Jesus. “Then who can be saved?” they wonder. Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Alone, we’re in trouble. With God, we have grace, unconditional love, unlimited second chances. We spend too much time hoping God will lower the expectations placed on us. In doing so, we diminish the perfection of what God offers us. Instead of lowering the standards so we can meet them, God offers grace and forgiveness, and the help to do what we never dreamed we could. So let’s hear what Jesus is really asking of us. And despite the difficult road ahead, we can give thanks: With God, it’s possible to change our lives, change the world, and to fit a camel through the eye of the needle.

Amen.



[1] Kierkegaard, source unknown.

[2] Skinner, Matthew.

[3] Prewer, Bruce. http://www.alphalink.com.au/~nigel/doc/20031012.htm