Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday After Pentecost, "Open Wide Your Hearts"

Sermon 6/21/09

2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

Open Wide Your Hearts

I feel like I should have been able to connect in with the gospel lesson from Mark this week, set in the midst of a windstorm and waves on the sea with the disciples’ boat being swamped, what with the nearly nonstop rain we’ve had this week, this month really. But I’ve been caught, as I mentioned in my newsletter article this month, by this final phrase in our passage from 2 Corinthians: “Open wide your hearts.” What a beautiful verse, and what a perfect focus for my last Sunday here.

As I began looking at this passage more closely, I realized that it was even more appropriate for my last Sunday with you than I thought. Paul was really the first itinerant pastor, serving in different faith communities for periods of time and then moving on to establish new ministries elsewhere. His time in Corinth? 18 months. If my time here seems brief to you, remember, I’ve got Paul by nearly half a year! Paul does visit Corinth again, while he’s serving in Ephesus, but this 18 months is the time he builds his main relationship with them. But of course, he continues to hold them in his heart, and continues to seek out the best for them as a growing community of faith. 2 Corinthians is written after he has spent his time in Corinth, probably while he’s serving in yet still another community, like Philippi or Thessalonica in Macedonia. They’re words of wisdom that he’s sending their way to keep them on the straight and narrow as they struggle to be faithful disciples.

Our reading from 2 Corinthians picks up immediately following our passage last week, about being made new creations in Christ when we start to see things not from our human point of view, but from God’s point of view. Paul starts by urging the Corinthians not to accept the grace of God in vain, not to accept God’s grace without, in a sense, putting in good work and reaping the benefits. “Now is the day of salvation!” Paul says, quoting from Isaiah. Paul then goes on to describe the suffering he’s been through for the sake of the gospel, which is where I lose my ability to compare myself to Paul(!), telling the spiritual means by which he has remained faithful: he’s been through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, treated as imposters, punished, and more: but Paul and his companions have sought to remain pure, knowledgeable, patient, kind, holy, genuine, and truthful by the power of God. Then Paul concludes this section saying, “we’ve spoken frankly to you; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also.”

I’ve been thinking about what Paul says here – that he and his colleagues have no restrictions on their affection – their hearts are wide open. He wants the Corinthians to do the same – to open wide their hearts. This is what Paul means when he speaks at first about not accepting God’s grace in vain. In order to get the full effect of God’s grace, God’s free love, your hearts have to be open wide enough to receive it. No restrictions. And so I’ve been wondering, how wide open are our hearts?

In my newsletter article, I told you about a young woman in my congregation in Oneida who was having a particularly hard time with my move. She was convinced that she would not like the new pastor, and that nothing would ever be the same again. But I knew she would like the new pastor, and I told her why: We are created by God, who is love, to love one another – to love and to be loved. And so, even though she would try to keep herself from liking a new pastor, I knew she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from loving yet another spiritual leader in her life, and letting yet another person into her heart. I can tell you that she’s spending this summer working as his intern. When I see her, I’m happy to say to her, “I told you so.” Our hearts expand like that, just as God’s heart has infinite room to expand to love and hold each one of us, flaws and all. Our hearts aren’t meant to function with restrictions. They’re meant to be wide open. Actually, you can even think of the medical, physical analogy when we think about our hearts: people get sick when their arteries are clogged, when their heart can’t pump blood through our bodies like it is supposed to. The heart works best when all the avenues in and out are free and clear and wide open.

So, the question for us, what we have to ask ourselves is: Do we have restrictions on our hearts, or are they wide open? In our ministry, here or there, in our faith journeys, in our discipleship, that’s the question to ask: are there restrictions on our hearts? What if, at the core of everything we do, every decision you make as a congregation, every choice we made as individuals, every juncture we came to, we asked ourselves: how would “opening our hearts wider” look in this situation? Are there any restrictions here? What could we do here to open our hearts wider?

Imagine what that might look like in different situations we encounter as a congregation. A new person or family comes to worship here. How do we respond? How would we open our hearts to them? Opening our hearts is more than just being friendly and polite of course. How do you open your heart? Look around you in your pews – who is it that you don’t know well, or haven’t met even. What does it mean to open your heart to them without restriction? What does it mean to keep our hearts open, after the Sunday they join the congregation, after they’ve been here a few months, but don’t know this community of faith yet like we do? Imagine what might happen if, in all of our outreach programs, with CUMAC, with the homeless shelter, with CROP Walk, with all of them, we asked ourselves: “How can we open our hearts, and remove any restrictions?” when we were thinking about how to get involved, how best to support these missions? Imagine what might happen to this congregation if there were never restrictions on our loving. Imagine what might happen in your life – to you, to me – if we never put restrictions on love but just opened wide our hearts?

To me, this is really what the journey of discipleship is about – we follow Jesus best when we work on opening our hearts wider and wider. I believe that Jesus was God’s son because Jesus most opened his heart to God’s love, God’s will, God’s plan. Jesus opened his heart so wide that there was room for everyone – everyone in his heart. And so if we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be like him, if we want to know what God wants us to do, it’s simple really: open your hearts. Wherever you find yourself, whatever you’re doing, ask yourself how you can be more open in your heart. Sometimes, we’ll find that opening our hearts is a risky thing. Paul certainly did. He literally put his life on the line to open his heart. He wasn’t always popular. He was run out of town more than once. He was thrown into prison. He made other church leaders mad. But Paul didn’t consider those things particularly important, because he wanted most of all to take full advantage of the grace given him by God.

Don’t you, too, want the full measure of God’s grace? Then open wide your hearts. It might be risky. Sometimes you’ll find it easier to put restrictions – subtle or explicit – on your heart, who you love, how you love them, when you love, how much you love. Sometimes, opening wide your heart will put you in conflict with others who aren’t ready for it. But I promise, an open heart is worth all the risk, because an open heart is something God can fill up again, and again, and again, when we realize our amazing, limitless capacity to love and be loved.

Open wide your hearts.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost

(Sermon 6/14/09, 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17, Mark 4:26-34)

The Eye of God
Point of view. I think it’s somewhere during late elementary school where you first start learning about different points of view in writing. There’s first-person narrative, where the story is told by a narrator, using the “I” pronoun – “I want to tell you about what happened to me last summer.” There’s a much rarer second-person narrative, maybe used in something like a choose-your-own-adventure book. “You find yourself in a big room with three doors and you wonder which one you should take.” And there’s third-person narrative, using pronouns of he/she or they. “He had something really important happen to him last summer.” There are some other aspects to narrative modes, as the chart shows, but these are the main ones we encounter in literature, and it’s what we usually call “point of view” – whose eyes, whose mind, whose perspective are we viewing a series of events through?
Point of view is important, of course, because we know that point of view dramatically affects the story being told. If you read five different newspaper accounts of an event, you’ll get five different perspectives. When detectives try to piece together what happened in a crime, several witnesses are interviewed because each one has a different point of view, a different perspective, on what happened. Even in our own scriptures, we see points of view at work: We have four gospels that all describe the same three years of Jesus’ life. But they are dramatically different gospels, aren’t they? Even the same events are told in starkly different ways by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And while it is hard to reconcile all the details together into one account, most of the time, their accounts are just emphasizing different pieces of the same story. Mark is brief. Matthew wants to highlight Gentiles. Luke wants to be comprehensive. John wants to be philosophical. Points of view are important. What’s your point of view? What shapes the way you look at things?
We have three scripture lessons to study today, and all three focus on how we look at things. Our passage from 1 Samuel focuses on the process of choosing a new king for Israel. God first chose Saul to be King, but Saul has turned away from God, and corrupted the office of king. So God sends Samuel, a prophet and spiritual advisor to the king, to anoint the new chosen king from among the many sons of Jesse. Samuel assumes that the oldest, best looking, tallest son will be anointed king. But God says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” So Samuel continues looking through all of Jesse’s sons, until finally, the youngest, a youth who is out tending the sheep, has to be called in to be presented to Samuel. And God says, “Rise, and anoint him; for this is the one.” We read that spirit of the Lord comes mightily upon David from this day forward. And so it is that David, the most famous and beloved of the kings of Israel, is chosen by God for the throne.
In our lesson from 2 Corinthians, Paul is talking about being “at home in the body” and “away from God” – in other words, Paul is talking about this human life, where we are away from God, in a sense, and the hope we have to be “at home” with God, when we will be away from the body. But Paul says that wherever we are, our purpose is to please God, urged on by the love of Christ. Paul wraps up the passage saying, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Paul argues that once we become followers of Christ, we start to see things not from our own point of view, but from God’s point of view. And from God’s point of view, everything is a new creation.
Finally, we turn to our gospel lesson from Mark, where we find Jesus in the midst of teaching a series of parables. He’s got a crowd gathered around him as he’s teaching by the lake, and he’s talking mostly, as usual, about the kingdom of God and what it is like. And specifically, in this passage, Jesus is talking about seed, talking about how the kingdom of God grows and moves in ways no one knows. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, he says, “is the tiniest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shades.” Here Jesus is exaggerating – the mustard seed in neither the tiniest seed nor does it grow into the greatest of all shrubs – Jesus is overstating, but he’s obviously trying to make a point – the kingdom of God can grow into something quite large, pervasive, even from the tiniest starting point. We might see a tiny mustard seed, of little use. But Jesus sees the potential of the kingdom of God.
I see these three texts as dealing with a similar theme – points of view – and more particularly, the difference between our point of view and God’s point of view. In our Old Testament lesson, through the account of the choosing of David as King, we’re reminded of our human tendency to focus on the surface things when we’re looking at someone. We only have to think of the recent rage about Susan Boyle, a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, to believe that we still tend to judge books by their cover. Boyle didn’t “look” like a singing sensation. And so when she opened her mouth, everyone was astonished at her powerful voice. We tend to look at the surface levels of a person. But God looks at heart and soul.
Paul, in Corinthians points out that looking with a human point of view is for those who don’t know our loving God. God looks and sees all things as new – new creations in Jesus Christ – while we tend to look and see the same old thing, without seeing new possibilities. Just this week in the news I read a story about a young girl who diagnosed herself with Crohn’s Disease while looking at her own intestinal tissue in her Advanced Placement science class. Her doctors had tried and failed to diagnose her for some time. Pathologists had missed the diagnosis using the very same slides that the girl used to discover her disease. In the article, one expert noted that sometimes you really need fresh eyes to look and see something new in the same old thing. The young girl brought fresh eyes, and was able to make a diagnosis that will help her get the treatment she needs. We look over our own lives sometimes with tired eyes that see the same old, same old. But God looks at us, and asks us to look, and see that in God, in Christ, all things are made new. Can we look with fresh eyes?
In Mark, Jesus teaches and preaches about something familiar but does it in a way that makes us listen in, and “look” at the picture he’s painting again. As I said, when Jesus talks about the mustard seed, he’s exaggerating greatly. And the crowds would have known it – they would know, as we might not, without googling it, that a mustard seed does grow into a good sized plant or bush, but it is certainly not the tiniest seed or the greatest of all shrubs. So Jesus’ first hearers would quickly tune in to Jesus’ exaggeration and ask what he meant by his hyperbole. The kingdom of God can come in life-changing ways with even the smallest of starting points. One of my pastor friends recently shared with me a project in her church where people were given $10 as “talents” like the parable of the talents to use however they wanted for the church. An 8 year old in her congregation asked his parents to help him organize a talent show with his $10, during which he gave a sermon on overcoming fear with faith. The event not only raised money, and garnered great publicity for the church, but it also touched people in the community in special ways. Can we look and see how much God can do through us with the things we see as so insignificant that we tend to overlook them?
These three passages are about our point of view in this world. Can we see beyond the surfaces? Can we see new plans and dreams made possible by our new birth in Christ? Can we see the kingdom of God in the tiny seeds planted in our lives? Jesus wants to change how we see. He wants us to see with God’s eyes. How do you think God sees you? Sees your neighbors? See your enemies? How do you think God sees this congregation? I hope if you reflect on those questions, you come to the conclusion that God can see more hope, more goodness, more potential, more life in us, in those around us, and in this congregation than we can. And so our aim, our challenge, is to start rereading our lives and our experiences from a different point of view – from God’s point of view.
After all, Paul reminds us that as followers of Jesus, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” It’s a different point of view. What might happen if we could let ourselves see as God sees? When Samuel saw like God saw, he anointed David as King. Because Paul sought to see as Jesus saw, the church at Corinth became a thriving community of faith. What can happen here if we see, as Jesus sees, that the kingdom of God can come where there are tiny seeds of hope? What can you do, what can you be, how can you live with God’s eyes as your eyes? Who do you see that you didn’t? What do you see in yourself or in this congregation that you didn’t see before?
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” What’s your point of view?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Farewell Party: "We're Really Gonna Miss You"

Today was my 2nd to last Sunday at Franklin Lakes UMC, and also my farewell party after worship. The congregation got me this gorgeous print of a work by He Qi, who has become one of my favorite artists with his beautiful pictures of scenes from the Old and New Testament.

The choir also sang me a song, "We're Really Gonna Miss You," written by member Roy Meyer, and sung, naturally, to the tune of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from Jesus Christ Superstar:

We're really gonna miss you,
Rev. Beth, you should know this:
We've been blessed, you are the best!
Yet it seems like only yesterday
Since you have joined our nest.

We're really gonna miss you,
For you not only preached here,
But you sang in Chancel Choir.
Plus you sang those gorgeous 'Mary' parts
From J.C. Superstar, the besty by far.

We were so concerned when at first we learned
That Rev. Dave would leave us after twelve long years
But then you entered all of our lives,
Easing all our fears.

Then there's the extra service
Eight fifteen Sunday mornings.
Plus the time you always spent
Meeting at Panera's Restaurant
To get to know us all, was heaven sent.

We have never seen such creativity
For the Children's Sermon every Sunday morn.
These are the things they'll never forget.
You should be so proud!

Then, there was your devotion
To the slides you created,
To enhance your messages.
Seems we'll ne'er forget what we have learned,
We truly pray for you 'the very best'!!!

Thank you, friends, for a wonderful and thoughtful time this afternoon!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Festival of Homiletics: Fred Craddock

Next up in my slowly-but-surely-coming Festival of Homiletics notes: Fred Craddock. Craddock is certainly a favorite at the Festival, with good reason. He has a sweetness and joy in his preaching and lecturing that is just so endearing that it is also quite persuasive.

Notes: Judges 13:1-7, Acts 14:8-18, What Shall I Do with the Gift?

What shall I do with the gift?

1) Deny it. “Gift, hell! I worked hard on that sermon!”

2) Give it back. “No thanks!”

3) Take the gift and divide it up among the members of the congregation. “Ministers: The Congregation.”

4) Take the ribbon off, unwrap it, and tell it what it is: necessity. Paul: Destiny, compulsion, summons, divine pressure. Trying to lay hold of the one who already laid hold of us. Paul: I can’t brag about it – it’s God. I won’t charge – I can boast about that Little ribbon of freedom. J How do you work it?

5) By just complaining. Jeremiah. “You enticed me and I was enticed.” God gave me too many gifts. Poor souls. “What a blow, to gag on your favorite pie.” Some complain because they get the call in impossible situations. “Sometimes God is too mischievous.” His complaint, “God did not speak loud enough. Speak up!” Quoting one of my favorite poems: “Batter my heart, three-personed God.”

6) Want everyone to know we have the gift. Saul.

7) Try to get rid of the gift. Samson. That God could still use him. Grace of God.

What shall I do with the gift?

Jesus: “I must needs go to Jerusalem.” “Must needs go.”

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Festival of Homiletics: M. Craig Barnes

Finally getting back to Festival of Homiletics notes. Another standout was Craig Barnes, Presbyterian pastor and faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I heard Barnes lecture and preach, and he was funny, pastoral (and grounded in pastoring, rather than some speakers that have been faculty only and out of the congregational ministry for long enough that they don't connect as strongly with everyday life), and inspiring. Notes below:

Lecture: “Finding Your Congregation in the Text”

Trying to give “application points” at end of sermon to reach each person’s needs actually not helpful. Sermon begins long before you step into the pulpit.

*You* are the one who has the authority to preach to your congregation – no one else! Because you are the one who knows them, who carries them, etc.

The holy spirit works on applications in people’s lives.

“Bad, bad dog” sermons. Only “golden retriever” congregations like that!

We’re trying to present conversations so that the sermon spirals between text and context. Text is what you are trained in. Context is what you know because you gave the congregation your heart. If you are talking about word of God without talking about how it *is*, you are violating incarnation. But if you only talk about how it is, you are wallowing in hopelessness.

Figuring out subtext all week – move to what is beneath the text. Preachers are parish-poets. See everything that lies just beneath veneer of ordinary, and can express this in ways received not only in brain but also in soul.

What is said and what is meant. Can’t find out what it means unless you find your congregation in text. It is kerygmatic – living word for this time in this place. TS Eliot – “Major poets” like Elijah, Augustine, MLK. Most of us are “minor poets,” making sense of the “Major poets’” poetry. Pastor-poet makes sense of words from our tradition in light of dust and grit of daily parish life.

What it means to be ordained: open the doors of soul to the pathos of people pastor has vowed to love.

Mixing of sacred visions and ordinary experiences. All week long, spinning the poetry.

Presenting issue is seldom the real issue. Vision.

Pastors get a “license to eavesdrop.” Collecting lines! And then when you approach text, you see congregation there. Must preach the narrative that you are given both from the congregation and the text.

Sermon:When Christians Are Embarrassing

Philippians 1:12-18a

Intolerant. Intolerant of intolerance.

Paul: Even if they embarrass the church, it doesn’t matter, as long as Christ is proclaimed.

Younger Paul might have complained, but not in later years. Has discovered that JC is the only Savior of the church, and he can use anything to bring about salvation, even those who distort the message. Rejoice that Christ is proclaimed at all.

The mission of JC is not thwarted by those who distort message, nor is it particularly helped by those who are right! It succeeds because JC is resurrected, ascended, and reigns!

“You will be my witnesses.” – Jesus. Mostly what witnesses do it witness! But we’ve turned witnesses into saviors/messiahs.

The witness just talks about what he/she sees. As a judge would say, the last thing you want is for a witness to get creative. Action, yes, throwing self into midst of Justice, KoG, of course. But we are not the ones creating the salvation.

Even when we get it right, we are not “all that necessary” to the work of Christ.

Some proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, says Paul, and some out of love.

We are more worried about being right than we are about being loving, and that is always wrong.

Why does the church not have the capacity to reflect the capacity for gracious inclusion of Jesus Christ? Jesus is dying to love those who nailed him to the cross. That’s what’s at the center. And when you know what’s at the center, you don’t have to worry so much about the boundaries. Which is our biggest focus, energy waster, in the church. But when you don’t know where church stops and world starts, that’s good. The church will hold by its center, and the center will hold, which is Jesus Christ, otherwise definitely would not still be around.

Sem prof – “If you want to be the light of the world, you have to expect to attract a few bugs.”

Pulling apart passion and conviction – that’s embarrassing most of all to Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Sermon for Trinity Sunday/First Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon 6/7/09
John 3:1-17

Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, Witness

Today, shortly, we’ll receive four new members into our congregation – Amanda, Sami, Lexi, and Steven. They will join a long list of those who have been members here at Franklin Lakes. They, like hundreds before them, through the years, have stood before you and said that they want to be part of this community of faith. These four young people took part in a confirmation program this year using a curriculum called “Making Disciples” – this program pairs confirmands and mentors together, and instead of meeting together as a class as the primary component, they met on their own with their mentors for the most part, supplementing that core piece with group sessions, assignments, and service projects. I especially want to thank Rose, Michele, Rachel, Meg, and Brian who have served as mentors – this program required much more of our mentors than programs we’ve done before, and they were willing to give it a try, and give of their time, and share their own stories with our youth without really knowing what they were getting into. I also thank those of you who were willing to be interviewed by our confirmands for their essay project – I loved reading about your faith stories through their eyes. In a little bit, these four young people will stand before you, and their mentors and families and I lay hands on them, I will say, “the Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and spirit you may live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”
“Born through water and spirit.” Hopefully this language rings a bell – these words, this language we use in baptism and confirmation is lifted right from our gospel lesson today, from Jesus words to the Pharisee Nicodemus. In our text, Nicodemus, a Pharisee leader, comes to Jesus at night to ask him questions. You get the impression that Nicodemus doesn’t want the other Pharisees to know what he’s up to – but it seems he is intrigued enough by Jesus to just need to have more information. Jesus tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus – he seems so sincere you have to smile, so earnest – asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Today we may be familiar with Christian language of being “born again,” but for Nicodemus, this was new and strange talk. So Jesus continues – “very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He continues to talk about flesh, wind, and spirit, the wind blowing where it chooses. Nicodemus seems even more confused. “How can these things be?” Jesus answers, typical in his response to Pharisees, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus wonders how Nicodemus will get heavenly matters, struggling so much with earthly matters. But still, Jesus concludes, the message he has is about love and grace, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Why? Because “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was a person who was an educated man, a religious leader, one known, as Pharisees were, for his understanding, command, and practice of the laws of the Torah, the laws the guided the Jewish people in faithful living according to the commands God has given them. And yet, despite all this, he couldn’t grasp what Jesus was talking about. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus points out with his question how little Nicodemus understands, though he is one who would claim to know everything that was needed for faithful living. Jesus tries to reorient Nicodemus. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” he says. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, though you can’t describe it, you know the wind is there and at work and you know what it does and what effect it has, as we talked about last Sunday. So it is with those born of the Spirit. So God calls us to be.
Among many other things, today is also Trinity Sunday, the day when, if we didn’t have so much else going on, my sermon might mostly be about understanding the Trinity, this God-in-three-persons thing that is unique to Christianity. We might talk about the doctrine of the Trinity – our Christian understanding of God that tells us God is our Creator, God is our Savior in Jesus Christ, and God is the Holy Spirit that Jesus talks about in today’s texts. I could tell you about the history of this doctrine, the technical language, how confusing it is to understand, how much fighting the early church did over “getting the doctrine right.” The Trinity is an important and central doctrine of the church. But our confirmands will be glad to tell you that they didn’t have some test on explaining the Trinity in order to be confirmed today. There is no test with scores and passing or failing in order to be a member of the United Methodist Church. I love for you to know and understand our doctrine and theology. I want for you to know what we believe as United Methodists. But that’s not the point.
For persons to become members of this congregation on the United Methodist Church, we ask them to take vows. We ask them not to declare doctrines and explain United Methodist theology, but we ask them to become part of the community, and to commit to a path of discipleship. Every time a new member joins the church, and every time a person is baptized, and every time a parent takes vows on behalf of a child when a child is baptized, they all answer this question, which to me is more important than getting the doctrines “right”: As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. And now, we’ve decided to add a new word to the list, that our young people will include today: witness. Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Responding to this question, committing to participate by your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness is, to me, is the spirit of being a United Methodist, a member of this congregation.
Will you pray? Will you be in conversation with God? Will you talk to God about yourself, your dreams, your fears, your worries? Will you listen to God? Will you be open to God’s leading in your life? Will you lift before God the joys and pains and celebrations and struggles of your friends, your family, this congregation, and those beyond it?
Will you be present? Will you show up? Will you be here, be in this place of worship? Will your membership mean that you are a part of the active life of the congregation? Will you be present in less tangible ways – will you be present in your relationship with God? Will you show up for God, and participate in a relationship with God? Will you do more than just go through the motions?
Will you share your gifts? Will you give of your money and resources? Will you give of your time and your talents? Will you give of yourself and use your gifts in service to God in this congregation?
Will you serve? Will you serve God? Will you serve this church? Will you serve your neighbors, near and far? Will you serve those you would otherwise call enemies? Will you serve even those who have done you wrong? Or those who are least, and last, and lost?
Will you witness? Will you share about God’s love with the world? Will you share God’s love not only in words but in action? Will others know about God because of the witness you make with your life?
In my mind, if you can answer these questions in the affirmative, or at least with an honest commitment to try to say yes to these questions, then I’m not sure it matters so much if you can recite the books of the Bible, or if you know who John Wesley is, or if you can draw a diagram of the Trinity. There is a place for all such knowledge. But our foundation lies elsewhere – in our desire for a deeper relationship with God, in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ. For “indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn us, but in order that we might be saved through him.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday B

(Sermon 5/31/09, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15)


As you may know, I recently had a bit of a significant birthday: I turned 30. Of course, turning 30 is probably not actually any more significant than 29 or 31 or any other age, but there’s something about a mile-marker age like that that causes one to stop and think about life – where’ve I been so far, what have I accomplished, and what’s been left undone that I’ve been meaning to do? What do I want to do in the year ahead? What do I want to accomplish? What are my hopes and dreams for the year ahead? This year, I decided to actually write some of my thoughts out, and posted some of them on my blog. I’ve been working on a list of 30 things I want to do in the year that I’m thirty. I’m only about ½ way through even making up the list, but I’m taking my time with it because I want to carefully think about what I want to accomplish, what’s within reason, and what I really have been putting off doing. The list includes things like getting back on a plane again in the next year – many of you know I have quite a fear of flying, but I’m trying to challenge myself to keep trying to conquer that fear. Another thing on my list is to try to gather together a large group of young people to attend an event for United Methodists interested in exploring a call into ordained ministry, because encouraging young people in leadership development, and particularly in responding to God’s call on their lives, is something I feel meant to do. Yet another item is to make sure I find some place to be in hands-on mission work once I move back to Central New York that stirs my spirit as much as I feel moved and compelled by the work we all share in at CUMAC in Paterson. These are just a few of the things I have in mind for the year ahead of me. Maybe I won’t check off every item on my list. But I want to be intentional, I want to have goals and a vision, and I want to be serious and thoughtful, always, about what God is leading me to do, how God can help me claim the abundant life Jesus promises in the verse from John I so love.

Today we celebrate another birthday – and this one is for all of us. In the Christian Church we celebrate Pentecost Day as the birthday of the church universal. And even if this church birthday isn’t a mile-marker year, it’s still pretty significant, because Pentecost is the biggest birthday celebration I can think of, next to that birthday we celebrate on December 25th. Today is the birthday of the Church. Not just our local church, not even our denomination, and not even Protestantism – today, we celebrate Pentecost, which is a day we’ve labeled as the birthday of the whole Christian Church. Today, we read about the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. Today we read about that strange experience where the sound of a mighty rushing wind broke into the house where the followers of Jesus were celebrating Pentecost. Today, we read about the beginnings of Church as we know it – where Peter steps up and finally does what Jesus had been preparing him and the others to do all along: he shares the gospel – tells the Good News about God’s grace to anyone and everyone he can get to listen. Today indeed is a day of celebration, this day of Pentecost.

Our text from Acts opens with the disciples already gathered together. They are gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost, a Jewish festival set out in the Torah, the law books for the Jews, which make the first five books of our Bible today. Pentecost was a celebration taking place fifty days after Passover, and was called also “the feast of weeks” or Shavuot. The festival celebrated the “first fruits” of the early harvest in spring. So the disciples were gathered together for this traditional celebration. Suddenly, we read, a sound like the rush of a violent wind came, and filled their gathering place, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, which seemed to them like divided tongues of fire. And they began to speak the gospel message to all who were gathered in such a way that everyone in the city could understand them. Many people from many places were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and it seemed that everyone could understand the disciples. Some were amazed at this, but others were a bit cynical, and accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter stands and raises his voice to the crowds: We’re not drunk – we are speaking as the prophets spoke – and he goes on to speak to them of visions and power that will come to all – young and old, men and women, slaves and free.

Today, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, but on this event we read of in Acts – the giving of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift that Jesus has promised the disciples they would receive, the thing that would be their Advocate, their Comforter, helping them to make the transition from followers of Jesus to those who would be leading and guiding and sharing with others. The Holy Spirit is the gift that helps them with all their other gifts, in a way. It’s the foundation for their work, the source of their confidence in their abilities. After all, being filled with the Holy Spirit is being filled up with God’s own self, right inside of you. God dwelling in you certainly should inspire you with confidence! On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is the gift that is available to each one of us.

But what do we do with this gift? What do we do with this Holy Spirit thing? Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as a helper, but how does it help us? The description of the coming of the Spirit in Acts is so strange, so unusual, how can we relate? Personally, after reading the text from Acts, about this very significant birthday, I wonder what we would find so appealing about this Advocate from Jesus: the wind described has a violet sound, “tongues as of fire” rest on each of the disciples, and though the artwork I find of this is event is beautiful, I still can’t think quite what that means, and the disciples start speaking out of their own control. What do we do with this unpredictable gift of the Holy Spirit? It’s a question Christians have been wondering over since this first church birthday, and you can even see it reflected still in books like the popular The Shack, where the narrator confesses the Holy Spirit has always been confusing, and the author has a Holy Spirit that can’t quite be pinned down. And so it’s to imagery used in children’s sermons that I find a little bit of understanding, although I chose a different, more tasty approach to children’s time today. The Holy Spirit is like wind in a sailboat – you can’t see it, but you certainly need it to make your boat go. It’s like batteries in your flashlight, or the electricity running through anything you need to plug in. It’s what gives you that juice you need to keep going, the energy that helps you sprint to finish a race, the midnight oil that helps you complete a task. With these metaphors, we dance around it, and get a sense of this Holy Spirit thing, even if we can’t completely define it.

It’s something we see usually see in the effects it has on something, rather than seeing God’s Holy Spirit itself. It’s what makes an unlikely group of uneducated disciples able to handle the loss, even back to God, of their teacher, and to go about changing the world and making disciples of others in a way that results in Christianity spreading beyond numbers they could scarcely even imagine. It’s the Spirit that enables a congregation like this one to pick up the pieces after a fire burnt down a sanctuary so many years ago, and to literally build a new place of worship stone by precious stone. It’s the Spirit that I’m certain you’ll feel at work next Sunday in the lives of four young people as they make their confirmation, even though you can hardly imagine how they became old enough to be making such a significant decision in their faith journeys, and the Spirit we’ll know for sure is present when we baptize baby Bradley in two weeks, even though he can’t speak for himself yet in a language we can understand! We start to understand the Spirit when we see the impact of the Spirit at work.

So how is the Spirit at work here today? When I think about my birthday list, I can tell you that if I can complete what I’ve set out to do, it will be with God’s help, with the movement of the Spirit in my life and in the life of those I’m working with, that will close the gap between what would be a reasonable list and what’s an ambitious, a bit extravagant list I’ve got going. My list isn’t full of things I know I can certainly complete with ease, but a list made up of things that, if completed, will give me one very full and rewarding year indeed. Maybe I’d feel better knowing that I would certainly end up checking off every item on my to-do list for the year. But I think I’ve been reasonable in my goals for too long. This year, I’m looking for ambitious. Extravagant. Maybe even inspired – a word that means literally “taking in breath,” which also then means, “taking in the Spirit.” Don’t we want to be inspired? That means to be infused with spirit – God’s Holy Spirit. This year, I’m hoping for inspired.

So how is the Spirit at work here today? How do we want it to be at work? How are we asking God for the Spirit to work at in-spiring us, filling us with God’s Holy Breath? We can set out to complete some tasks that make a reasonable list of expectations for ourselves. After all, we’re in transition, Pastor Juel is soon to arrive as I am soon to leave, the economy creates a sort of shaky environment, and we don’t know what to expect. So we can reasonably try to play it safe. But I hope that instead, we’re seeking after being inspired, spirit-filled. I hope we try to fill up on that abundant life Jesus offers. I hope we take the help we can’t even quite describe to be ambitious, a little bit extravagant in our plans for this congregation, this year, this ministry that we share in together, whether we’re working side-by-side or across the miles in the same one body of Christ.

This Tuesday night, from 6:30-8:30, members of the Administrative Council will meet for a process called Asset Mapping, a process that I hope will help us dream some extravagant dreams for the church, be inspired by some God-led movement in the congregation. I invite you to join us, if you feel ready to witness the Holy Spirit at work in a new way in your midst.

May it be for us as the prophet Joel spoke, and as the disciple Peter claimed for a new church, and as we can claim for today’s church: “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.” Amen.