Friday, August 28, 2009

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon 8/23/09, Ephesians 6:10-20

Dressed for Success

I have to admit to you that when I first read our passage from Ephesians, when I first skim this text again after not having considered it for some time, my first response is always a bit of a cringe of dislike. This is the closing passage of Paul’s letter to the community of Ephesus, the last chuck of major teaching for this new community of faith before he signs off with some personal words and a benediction. And here we find a sort-of “dress code” for the Christian believer. The imagery is vivid, certainly, painting bold pictures as we hear and read about putting on the whole armor of God. We read, “Put on the whole armor of God . . . our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul then continues by describing six pieces of this armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. These pieces of armor, donned by the Christian believer, are to guard against evil, and provide strength.

I cringe at this passage because I struggle with such an image of a Christian warrior. For example, we as Christians in the United States don’t feel the same kind of threats against our faith that the early Church felt. Whatever we might feel about the place of Christianity in the US, we are not persecuted in a way that compares with that of the early church, not threatened systematically, not martyred and tortured if we won’t renounce our faith in Jesus. Do we need these warrior images? And, in the midst of all that is happening in the world today, with civil war in regions of Africa, with men and women from this country serving in the military, stationed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where lives of the military and civilians alike are at risk, where whole nations are indeed caught up in a time of chaos and disarray, what are we to make of an image of a Christian warrior, dressed in God’s armor?

If anything, it seems we as the church have been trying to move away from such image, trying to disassociate ourselves from images like this one that unfortunately have described us all too aptly in the past. True, the earliest Christians had to worry about persecution by the Romans and other groups, but once Christianity started to spread, Christians were too often the perpetrators of violence and war against non-Christians. Is this what is meant in this letter to the Ephesians? I wonder, what kind of warriors are we meant to be?

So what is Paul saying in this passage from Ephesians? Let’s return to the text and listen closely to the words. We read, “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Actually, after reading these words more closely, when we dig into them, it sounds like Paul here is actually offering a counter-image of a warrior to us, the readers. This is no regular warrior described. This warrior carries no harmful weapons, has no deadly equipment. This suit of armor is one that is equipped for proclaiming the gospel of peace. This is a different kind of warrior – not one who seeks to conquer or who seeks victory, but one who seeks to spread God’s word, the word of peace, love and grace. What Paul does here completely subverts our normal concepts of a warrior’s armor, and creates for us a whole new understanding of what it means to be dedicated to serving Christ, providing a sort-of instruction manual for us: as people of faith, we clothe ourselves in truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Spirit and Word.

In Paul’s day, people would have been very familiar with the image of a soldier. The Jews and these early Christians lived under Roman military rule. I wonder if they, too, would start to read Paul’s words and wonder at what kind of armor he was encouraging them to don. Was Paul going to urge them to fight back against occupation? Seek revenge? Many would have wanted to. But instead, Paul is reminding them that their biggest struggles were not about dealing with these “enemies of blood and flesh,” not about dealing with the Romans, or those who ridiculed their beliefs, or even those who would commit violence against them. Their biggest struggle would be against the forces and powers of darkness, anything that acted to put a wedge between them and God. Paul wanted them to equip themselves carefully, dress themselves carefully, so that they were prepared for the spiritual challenges they would face. So that meant dressing themselves with truth, peace, and faith, rather than with armor, shields, and weapons.

So what can this mean for us – for 21st century Christians, living here in Central New York. What are the threats that we’re facing? What’s our equivalent struggle today to the “rulers,” the “authorities,” and the “cosmic powers of this present darkness?” As I read Paul, I see him as trying to turn our attention from the outer struggle to the inner struggle, from worrying about equipping ourselves for living in the world, to worrying about equipping ourselves for living as disciples in God’s world. If we’re worried about the outer struggle, equipping ourselves, preparing ourselves for a world that’s business-as-usual, we’ll find ourselves focused on different things than Paul has in mind. We’ll be protecting ourselves with possession, money, and anything that seems like it brings us security and safety. We’ll be focused on getting ahead, even if it means someone else is falling behind. We’ll be looking out for self first instead of neighbor. And we’ll be accepting the false promises of happiness from things other than God, things that really leave us empty, because those things are sometimes easier than the path of discipleship that God calls us down. But Paul has a different vision of what it means to be equipped – equipped for the inner struggle, the spiritual struggle. How can we equip ourselves for that?

To me, making disciples, calling disciples, encouraging people to begin a path of discipleship, a journey of following Jesus, is, of course, our primary work as a community of faith. We’re here to make disciples – that’s the mission God calls us to. But in order to be disciples, and especially in order to grow as disciples – which is, actually, just a word that means students – so to grow in knowledge as students of Jesus our teacher, we have to be equipped. We have to take advantage of the tools that we have to be able to be the best students we can be.

How, then, do we seek equip ourselves with truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s presence in word and Spirit? My hope is that this congregation will make efforts to help people, to offer opportunities, for equipping disciples. This can happen in so many different ways. We worship through words and songs and prayers and more, praising God and being equipped with truth and salvation. If you need to equip yourself with faith and God’s word, I hope that you will commit to participating in a study or small group – we already have some active groups, and I will be leading some new studies this fall. We have Sunday School, and are investing in a youth program, and sponsor our children for camping programs because we are in the ministry of equipping them too – they are disciples, students of Jesus. If you need to be equipped for peace and justice, there are an abundance of ways that you can push yourself, stretch yourself, to engage in service here, in the community, and in our global neighborhood, and there are resources from two denominations just waiting for us to take advantage of.

The point is this – we know we’re called to be disciples. But sometimes we forget that God puts right in our reach so many tools to help us prepare for being workers in God’s kingdom. If we’re seeking to grow in our faith, we need to make sure we’re ready, prepared, equipped, trained. My challenge to you in the coming months is that you find at least one new way that you can equip yourself for discipleship. Paul certainly followed his own advice, and made it his life’s work to seek after the very truth and peace and justice and faith he speaks of in this passage, and so equipped, he was able to share the good news of God’s grace and love with boldness, just as he prayed he would be able today.

That’s my prayer for us too – I pray that we can be a bold congregation, bold in sharing the gospel of peace, the mystery of God’s unfailing, life-changing love for us. Let’s prepare ourselves well for the task. Amen.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In honor of Exploration 2009: My Call to Ministry

Today many UM Young Clergy are writing about their call as part of an encouragement for young people who are attending (or still thinking about attending) Exploration in November, which is a discernment event for 17-24 year olds thinking about ordained ministry in the UMC.

I think sharing my own call story can be both frustrating and encouraging for others considering a call to ministry. Frustrating and encouraging, because for me, everything about hearing, responding, and following through with my call to ministry went well. I have very little in the way of discouraging horror stories about people trying to prevent me from seeking to become a pastor. I have a story about what happens when everything goes like it is supposed to.

As a small child, I attended Westernville United Methodist Church, in a little, two-road town. Somewhere at about age 5, I thought I wanted to be a pastor, and started collecting the bulletins after worship each Sunday. I kept them in a pile on my corner shelf in my room, so they'd be all ready for me when I was the pastor. Of course, that desire went away, as I soon wanted to be a truck driver, ballerina, actress, and other things. But the huge benefit I received from that tiny church was that I had, by the time I was in 6th grade, experienced at least 3 clergywomen. Women often got appointed to little churches like that - appointments, I learned as I got older - that no one would want - it was part of a three-point charge and must have drained the energy out of every pastor that went there. But for me, it meant that I had no idea at all that it was unusual in any way for women to be pastors. So I am very grateful for that. I also have pastors in the family - including one uncle who is still active in ministry. They didn't all love the ministry in the same way, or model pastoring in the same way to me. But again, the idea of being a pastor was just not unusual to me in those early years, and I can't imagine how much they contributed to my call.

In addition to those foundational pieces, I also grew up believing that I was called to something. That God would call me, and I would have to listen for what that was. Thanks Mom! So, I had the advantage of being on the lookout for God's call from the start.

It was really during my time at Rome 1st UMC that I heard and answered God's call. The pastor during most of my time there was Rev. Bruce Webster, now, unfortunately, retired. Bruce was so encouraging and supportive - not just of me, but of everyone who had something they wanted to try. He was very permission-giving in his leadership. I had been thinking about camping ministry, working at our church camp, Aldersgate. When that wasn't clicking quite right, I was thinking about youth ministry instead. Bruce let me plan and lead a youth service at church - and he really just let me run with it. People started making comments about me attending seminary, which I brushed off. I was *not* headed for seminary. Obviously.

Searching for a college to major in youth ministry was where that plan fell apart. I was, even then, aware that I was theogically - well, I guess I wouldn't have used the word liberal or progressive then - but I was finding it hard to not to feel totally - wrong and out of place - in some of the Christian colleges that offered youth ministry. Bruce helped me again - pointing out some UMC-affiliated schools, including Ohio Wesleyan. Ohio Wesleyan didn't have youth ministries, but it had a pre-theology track, and by the time I started in the fall of 1997, things had just fallen into place, and I was sure I was called to be a pastor. It's hard to recount exactly when and how that shift happened. But once it did, I hardly cast a backward glance.

My journey through the ordination process and accompanying schooling was a positive experience for me, with only the occasional paperwork mix-up. I had a supportive home congregation, who affirmed me and gave me chances to work and learn and experience and preach. Just before I was appointed, I was filling in for a then-very ill new pastor, and the same folks that saw me as a 6th grader were willing to let me preach to them week after week. My first congregation was a bunch of people practically made to support a candidate through the provisional-member process. And here I am, somehow in the blink of an eye, in my 7th year of pastoral ministry.

And so, my call may be frustrating or encouraging. Frustrating if it hasn't been so clear to you. Encouraging to know that sometimes things do fall into place and go smoothly.

What I would most like to lift up though, is that while God might be calling you into ordained ministry (or not,) God might also be calling you to show someone else that they're called. Helping someone see that God is calling them - that's a ministry that is so essential. Who do you see God calling? Can you help them hear?

Thank you, to so many people who helped me hear, and then encouraged me on my journey: Mom, Bruce. The clergywomen who served Westernville UMC: Polly Burdett, Jody Watson, Gail Eddy, and Crystal Markowski. Freddie Stanulevich, and Rich Hartz, my Sunday School teachers. Ruth Dietrich. Jane Butters. Dave Hays. Tom Weiss (whose frequent-flyer miles sent me to Exploration in 1996) and Beth Benham (who talked about Exploration at Annual Conference that year.) Bertha Holmes. Uncle Bill, Uncle Bob. Rev. Van. Rome 1st, Oneida St. Paul's. Thank you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, "Wise Up"

Sermon 8/16/09, Ephesians 5:15-20

Wise Up

Some of you may know that one of my responsibilities for the extended-church – the church-beyond-the-local-church, is my role as Conference Youth Coordinator for the youth in the North Central New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. I oversee the youth programming for 7th-12th graders on the conference level. This past week, I spent some time planning for one of our upcoming events: A small group of young clergy will be leading interested youth and young adults to an event in Texas in November called Exploration. Exploration is an event for young United Methodists who are considering whether or not they are being called into ordained ministry. It’s an event to help them figure out, or at least dig deeper into the question of how God is calling them. It’s an event I went to twice myself – when I was in high-school, and then college – and it was so exciting for me to see hundreds of other young people thinking about becoming pastors.

The event, Exploration, is all about discernment. Discernment, in regular use, means being able to figure out, to comprehend, understand, something that seems obscure. And in a theological sense, it means essential the same thing – to discern is to figure out what God’s will for our lives is, something that sometimes seems obscure and hard to grasp, certainly! Discernment is the process of figuring out what God is calling you to do. It isn’t always easy to talk about what gifts and talents we think we have, but I can tell you that I think discernment is one of my gifts, and one of my passions. I love being able to help someone figure out how God is calling them, love helping a person see where God is leading them. I’ve certainly had to decode God’s call on my own life, and I love seeing God’s plan unfold in the lives of others. I have a passion for working with young people, as you know, but one of the main reasons I love working with youth so much is because I so enjoy being there at a time of life when they are doing so major discerning. I don’t believe God ever stops calling us – God has a call for each one of us in this room, right now! But I think young people, because of all the changes going on in their lives in such a short time, tend to be more open for listening to God’s call, more open to believing God has a purpose that they can fulfill if they choose to follow.

Today in our Old Testament lesson, we find some words about discernment. After some weeks of following King David, this week we hear of David’s death, after 40 years as King of Israel. He is succeeded by his son, Solomon. We read that Solomon “loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David,” and that Solomon was devout in offering sacrifice and praise to God. During one such sacrifice, God speaks to Solomon, saying, “Ask what I should give you.” In other words, what blessings do you want from me? Solomon responds that he knows God showed steadfast love to his father David because of David’s faith. And Solomon says he is like a little child, not knowing “how to go out of come in,” and that he has been chosen as God’s servant to govern many people. So Solomon asks for “an understanding mind to govern [God’s] people,” and the ability “to discern between good and evil.” God is very pleased with Solomon’s request, and because Solomon asked for this, the gift of wisdom and discernment, and not riches or victory over enemies, God will grant him wisdom and discernment, as well as riches and honor and long life, as long as Solomon walks in God’s ways.

When we think of Solomon in the scriptures, if we know anything about him, we’re likely to think about him as someone with wisdom – “the wisdom of Solomon” is famous – he’s known for being just and fair and knowing what is right in difficult situations. But I believe that more particularly, what Solomon asks for and receives in this passage is not just the gift of wisdom – not just knowledge, or good use of that knowledge – but Solomon actually asks for and is given the gift of discernment. He’s given the ability to understand situations, to discern between good and evil, and to know what God would have him to in a given situation. Solomon gets the gift of discernment, and I think his wisdom comes from knowing to ask for such a powerful gift.

I hope discernment is something I can teach you and help you to seek after as Solomon did. I told you that I see discernment as one of my gifts – it’s a gift from God, but I believe that it’s also a gift God shared with me through my mother. All my life, my mother instilled in me and my siblings a sense that God calls each one of us. We might have to figure out what God was calling us to do, she said, but she made it clear that God would call each of us, have something in store for each one of us, if we would follow. So I grew up believing, confidently, with certainly, that God would call me. I searched for God’s call on my life, listened for it, and tried to prepare for it. My search led me to consider camping ministry and youth ministry before I found my spot in pastoral ministry, and it led me to different work experiences and educational plans before I made it to seminary and then my first congregational appointment. But never in the process, even when I wasn’t sure of the details, did I consider that I might not be called by God to do something.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and leading a congregation of my own and trying to help people hear God’s call in their lives that I realized that not everyone grows up with the same understanding about being called that I was raised with! Many people, too many, it seems, really don’t feel that God has called them, or don’t even believe that God will call them, to anything in particular. Maybe when we talk about being called by God, we tend to think of it too exclusively as something that it meant only for calls into pastoral ministry. But if that’s our understanding, we need to broaden it. God calls us to be disciples – and that’s a call that is extended to each one of us. And because we are unique, individual, each one different – God’s call to us is unique too. What is it that you are called to do?

Frederick Buechner , a theologian with a great sense of humor, has written about God’s call in a way that I like. He says: [Vocation] comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren't helping your patients much either . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. (1)

So where does your deep gladness meet with the world’s hunger? The process of figuring out that answer – well, that’s discernment. And it’s my passion. And it’s my plan, my intention while I am here with you to help you understand first, that God is calling you, and then, how God is calling you, and of course, how to actually answer that call.

So what are you called to do? What is God asking of you? What has God got planned for you, if you are ready to follow? If you don’t know how to answer those questions, I suggest that first, like Solomon did, you pray for God to give you an understanding heart and mind. And second, I suggest that if you happen to know someone who has the gift of discernment, that you talk with that person if you’re struggling to hear God’s call, and listen for what they see in you, how they see God moving in your life. You should pay attention when someone points out your strengths and talents and wonders if you’ve ever thought about doing such and such thing – God speaks through us – and I had a number of people encourage me right into God’s call for me. And finally, if you have the gift of discernment, or if you think you can see God’s plan for someone else, I urge to speak up. You might be the voice of God’s call for someone else – God can use you to encourage someone who can’t quite understand where God is leading them.

God is calling. Let’s wise up, and figure out what God is trying to tell us. Amen.

(1) Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Building Up"

Sermon 8/9/09

John 6:35, 41-51, Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Building Up

Some of you may know that as a part of my ministry here with you, the Transition Team and I have been working on a covenant – a commitment on my part and your part to talk about our goals, our hope and dreams for this congregation, and to outline, in some broad strokes, what we’ll need to do together to live into God’s plans for us. Together, we’ve identified a few areas of focus – for example stewardship, and working with young people, especially at the start of our new endeavor with our new Children and Youth Ministries Coordinator. But today I want to focus on my goals over the next several months at least: Building relationships and Connecting with the Community. These might seem like pretty generic ministry goals. Of course I need to get to know you and the community in which we do ministry, right? But as “general” as these goals may be, they are also essential – not just for me, but for all of you as well – to be in the ministry of disciple-making, which is what we’re all about. Today I want to speak to you a little more about these ministry goals and what they mean to me.

But first, I want us to look at this passage from Ephesians. A covenant is a promise made by two parties about how to live with one another. In the scriptures, we usually see covenants between God and God’s people, and while God never breaks covenant with us, the scriptures are full of stories of the people breaking their part of the agreement – they worship other gods, when they’ve promised to worship God alone, or they make false idols, or forget what God has done for them, and end up wandering away from God. Fortunately for us, though, God is always extending a new covenant for us, giving us second chances. But here in Ephesians, the apostle Paul is putting forth a sort of covenant for how this new faith community in Ephesus will function. This is a community covenant for living with one another, with this section in particular probably directed at new converts to the faith, where the parties in the covenant are members of the congregation, you might say. It’s a covenant, an agreement for a way of living together, that Paul is helping them to establish.

This passage is filled with words from Paul that seem both simple and deep at once. Let us all speak truth to our neighbors, says Paul, for we are members of one another. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Work so as to have something to share with the needy. The only kind of talk you should speak is that which is useful for building up the community, that your words give grace to those who hear them. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit. But put away bitter thoughts and instead be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, as Christ has been with us. And to sum it all up, be imitators of God, like beloved children, and live in love, as Jesus loved us. Paul’s words are so straightforward, and so powerful, and they’re all about relationship, and community: how people of faith live and work together, and more than that, how they love and support one another.

Paul starts this passage with one of his major themes, a theme we see in his other writings, when he writes that we speak truth to our neighbors because “we are members of one another.” Hopefully, that language – “members of one another” – sounds familiar. Thinking of the church as One Body of Christ of which we are members is a foundational theme of Christianity. You might be familiar with the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12 in which Paul compares the body of Christ to a human body, saying that we can no more function without each other than a human body functions without its various members – a nose can never be an eye, and an ear can never be a hand. “If one member suffers,” Paul says, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” As members of the One Body, what each of us does affects every other person in the body. So, in today’s passage, Paul reminds us – we’re members of one another. You are a part of me, and I’m a part of you. And if you turn in your seats and look around the congregation today, and if you think about those who are part of our church family who aren’t here today, an underlying principle for our covenant is remembering that we are members of one body, members of one another, and what we do impacts each other person in this little piece of the body of Christ. With that in mind, Paul has started us with the idea that since we are so very intertwined, we will want to take extra care of how we treat one another.

Skipping ahead a few verses, Paul shares my favorite words in this passage, the words that kept catching my attention as I was preparing my sermon: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Only what is useful for building up, so that our words may give grace to those who hear. I just love this verse. Grace, which is God’s free gift of unconditional love – well, there’s not much of a better thing for us to communicate to others. Even though grace is free and offered to all, many people, for many reasons, have a hard time accepting God’s love. So what if, by our words, and by the actions that go with them, we could finally help God’s grace sink into a person? Words are amazingly powerful – the can hurt and devastate, and they can heal and, as Paul says, build up. Last year at a district day in New Jersey, our speaker, Lovett Weems, really encouraged us as pastors to spend more time in our congregations verbally building up our people. He said he knew that pastors and congregations got frustrated with the problems they faced – declining attendance, or inactive members, financial problems, conflicts within the church – but that if we, as pastors, spent more time on affirming what was going well, more time on lifting up ministries that were supporting our mission and vision, we’d find that some of those other problems would start to turn around.

Perhaps it sounds simplistic, but I’ve found many instances when this is true in my ministry. Words are powerful, and so often, too often, we use them to hurt one another, or to threaten, or tear down. Think of world leaders, and how we analyze every word they say, how nations can imply so much to each other by the words their politicians choose in speaking to one another. Or think over your own life – there are some exact, detailed scenes I can recall where I said something I wished I hadn’t, or where someone said something that was hurtful. Out of the millions of experiences we have over the years, for something to stick in our minds so exactly tells us that words, even words spoken carelessly by us, can have a huge impact on those who hear them.

Because of this, then, Paul urges us to imagine the good power we can have when we speak in ways that build one another up, so that we can actually share God’s loving grace simply in the way we engage one another. Words can change lives for the better, too. Think of the powerful positive words you have spoken or heard. I can think of words that encouraged my journey to seminary, words of love, words of comfort when I experienced loss. How can we live together, be in relationship in the congregation, and with the community, in a way that we are building each other up by our very words? This week, I want to challenge you: I want you to find three people in this congregation that you don’t interact with as much, or spend as much time with as others, and find words this week to speak to them that will build them up. What can you say to remind them that they are a precious child of God? What can you say to affirm the gifts that God has given them? And I want you to do the same in the community. Find three people in the community – at work, at the gym, at the store, wherever – that you wouldn’t normally spend time in conversation with. And find a way to build them up with the loving words you say. If you’re a little shy, write a note. Send a card or an email. But take the time to speak grace. I think you’ll be surprised at how much your words can communicate God’s love to one another.

Finally, Paul concludes this passage saying, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” You know the expression, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” In other words, there’s no better way to show someone you like and admire them than by trying to copy them and do what they do. Paul asks us to imitate God, like children do. Most of us have probably had a young child copy us doing something, sometimes to the point that will drive you crazy! Just this week, my nephew Sam was following my brother around so closely, matching his every step, wanting to do everything he did, and loving every minute of being around him. That’s how Paul hopes we are with God, as we follow Jesus, and seek to imitate him. Paul hopes we take the attitude of beloved children of God, as we are, and not seek to imitate Jesus in a way that makes it a burdensome task for us, a hardship to be a disciple, but that we try to imitate Jesus because we love him and want to be like him and just can’t get enough of spending time in his company. Imagine how our congregation would be transformed, and how we could help transform the world, if we approached following Jesus with the same joyful abandon as children do.

Friends, when I think about building relationships as a goal for ministry, or think about how I will invest myself in the community I’m serving, I see more than just learning names and learning my way around town. I dream of the kind of community that Paul laid out for the Ephesians. A covenant community, where we are members of one another, deeply affected and enriched by the lives of each other person in our midst. A covenant community, where our words and deeds build each other up, here in this building, and out in the world where we live. A covenant community, where we all take joy in following Jesus wherever he leads us.

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Amen.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, "Changing Directions"

Sermon 8/2/09, 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Changing Directions

During undergrad, students were required to take two semesters of a language as part of our core requirements, and since I already knew I was going to go to seminary, I decided to study Ancient Greek, the language of the written New Testament of the Bible. Unfortunately, Ancient Greek bears little resemblance to Modern Greek, so after several semesters of study, I still can’t actually use my language skills to speak to another living person. But I absolutely loved learning Greek, because reading the New Testament in the Greek truly deepened my experience of reading the scriptures. Take the word repentance. We’re probably all familiar with the word – in the Bible, in the New Testament in particular, we’re called to repent. It’s what both John the Baptist and Jesus himself say they’re all about when they begin preaching. Jesus says, “repent and believe the good news.”

When you hear the word “repent,” what do you think? What are we being asked to do? Typically, repentance is understood as admitting that we’ve done wrong, that we’ve sinned, and then asking for forgiveness for our sins, and promising to try to sin no more. We might think of Jesus as a Savior particularly in that he saves us from the consequences of our sins. But while that might be a pretty typical understanding of what it means to repent, somehow, we’re still not very good, as human beings, at saying “I’m sorry,” either to one another or to God. When we do something wrong, we’re much more likely to say that we’ve made a mistake, that hey, we’re only human, rather than saying that we’re sorry, and that we’ve sinned.

That’s why we make confession a ritual, a part of our worship service almost every week – because we need to remember, to say out loud, to say it right in front of each other, that we’re sinners. That we don’t listen to God. That in fact, we do the very opposite of what God asks us sometimes. We need to admit, out loud, that more than just making mistakes, we sin, and hurt one another, and try to put distance between each other and between ourselves and God. So together, in our prayers, in our worship, and especially in our preparation to come to the communion table, we confess – not that we’re just faulty humans who can’t help ourselves. But that we’re sinners. And we have to let ourselves experience the weight of that before we can more on.

In my first congregation, I was teaching a Bible study on the Old Testament, and I was trying to get the class to describe King David based only on his negative qualities. How would they describe David based on the sins that are recorded in these chapters in 2 Samuel? Well, they just couldn’t do it. They couldn’t speak two sentences without trying to throw out some of David’s good qualities too. I was trying to teach that class that God chooses us for service not because of our goodness, but because of our willingness to follow God. But the class was sure that David must be good because he was chosen by God to be King. Even when it is not we who are doing the sinning, it seems we have a hard time sitting with our sin. But we have to own up, ‘fess up, to come to the point of repentance.

That’s where our text for today comes in. Last week, we listened in as David lusted after a married woman, committed adultery with her, and had her husband killed in battle as a cover-up. Our scene today picks up right after that, and we read that after some appropriate time of mourning, Bathsheba moves to David’s house, marries him, and bears his son. Yet, we read, “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Nathan, the prophet, comes to David and paints a scenario where a rich man takes a poor man’s lamb for his own use. David is enraged at this act of injustice and says this rich man who took what was not his deserves to die. And Nathan says, “You are the man!” Nathan goes on to confront David with his adultery and murder. And finally, our text today closes with an act of repentance, as David confesses at last: “I have sinned against the Lord.”

But, back to the beginning. You might have noticed, if you were following me closely through all this, that I never told you why I loved that Greek word for repentance. How my understanding was deepened. It’s the literal meaning of the word that I find so compelling. The word in Greek for repent is metanoia, which means literally “a change of direction of the mind.” In other words, it’s taking our life, whatever path we’re on, and doing a 180° turn. It’s turning away from sin, away from selfishness, destructiveness, and whatever else has separated us from God, and returning to God who waits for us with forgiveness and open arms. It’s not just being sorry about mistakes we’ve made, repentance is committing to whole new outlook, a whole change of mind that will take our lives in new directions. If repentance is really repentance, our life shouldn’t look the same after the fact as before it, because we’re going a totally different direction than we were before. Repentance. A change of direction of mind, heart, soul.

My mother is known by her friends and family for having a simply awful sense of direction. For years, my mother would get distressed when she was travelling on the thruway, trying to figure out whether she wanted to go towards Albany, or Buffalo, which as you know, are usually the two signs posted if you get on the thruway around here. For my mother, unless she was actually going to Albany or Buffalo, these signs were useless. She had no idea which way to go if she wanted to get from Rome to, say, Rochester, because that wasn’t one of the choices listed. Now that she’s travelled more, she’s learned to navigate a bit better, but mostly she has just memorized directions. She doesn’t actually know where she is, and it isn’t shocking for her to accidentally end up in the wrong state. But this past Christmas, my little brothers bought my mother a GPS for Christmas – that’s a global positioning system that uses satellites to figure out exactly where you are and tell you exactly when to turn in real time while you’re driving. Now, my mother isn’t very tech savvy either, so it has taken her a while to get the hang of it. But she’s getting there, and I feel so much better knowing that if she gets lost, she’s got something to help her find her way back to the right path. Because the nice thing about a GPS is that when you take a wrong turn and get off the course it has mapped out for you, it immediately readjusts, recalculates, and gives you a new way to get back on the right path. Of course, you have to turn your GPS on for this to work. And you have to give it a destination – you have to know where you want to end up. But if you do that – the GPS will eventually get you on the right path, even if it takes a lot of twists and turns to make it happen.

If “to repent” means “to change the direction of our minds” and our lives so that we’re going on God’s path, rather than our own path, we have to remember that like a GPS works, God will always, always provide us with a path to come back to God’s way for us. Whatever wrong turn we take, however far we get from the original plan, God can always help us correct course and find a way back. We just have to know that back to God is where we want to go – we have to know that into God’s waiting embrace is our destination. King David wandered farther and farther off course, as we saw between our lessons last week and this week. Each step he took away from God, there was a point where David could make a decision to repent and return to God, or keep going down the destructive path he was creating. For a long time he kept sinking deeper. But when he finally was ready to turn back, repent, and change direction, and return to God, God was ready with a way back. The last verse from today’s lesson is the first verse in David’s journey back to God’s path, and it starts with repentance, which is always coupled with God’s forgiveness.

As we celebrate communion today, we come as people who have confessed our sins, and been reconciled to God because of God’s forgiving love. As we celebrate, God is calling us together to this table. And when we come to this table, we’re coming back onto God’s path, if we’ve lost our way, turning back to God’s direction for ourselves and for our congregation. We have sinned. We have wandered away. We have been sure we could do it better on our own. But today, in the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, and found. Thanks be to God! Amen.