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.