Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Epiphany Sunday, Year ABC

Readings for Epiphany Sunday, 1/1/12:
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6:
  • On Epiphany Sunday, we use many light/dark images which correspond to good/bad, and sometimes, unfortunately, white/black. Make sure to double check your language for overtones that may be perceived as racist or convey a message that you don't intend!
  • "Lift up your eyes and look around." Sometimes things that we need/want/pray for/hope for are right in front of us, we just fail to see them because we are not looking. During seminary, I had the chance to travel to Ghana, West Africa, and walk across high-suspended canopy bridges in Kakum National Park. I had to remind myself to stop, breathe, and look around at the rainforest that I was crossing high above!
  • This passage is addressed to Israel, as the people have been permitted by the Persian King Darius to return to the Holy City Jerusalem. This is a homecoming story, an image of a big party thrown for Israel's return to itself.

  • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14:
  • Judgment and Justice - To me the word justice is so powerful because of its double meanings. We want to bring criminals to justice, to make sure they get what they deserve in terms of punishment, but we want to bring the oppressed justice, to make sure they get what they deserve: equality, shelter, food, health, etc. I'm reminded of the Newsboys song with the lyrics, "When you get what you don't deserve, it's a real good thing . . . when you don't get what you deserve, it's a real good thing."
  • This psalm is written as a sort of call for blessings on a king, perhaps at the beginning of his reign/coronation/special ceremony. In my NRSV translation, some of the phrases sound quite demanding of God. "Give the king your justice, O God." Are we willing to demand of God so boldly when we have wants/needs? When is or isn't this appropriate?

  • Ephesians 3:1-12:
  • "This is the reason": Paul has been writing in the previous chapter about how both the circumcised and the uncircumcised are now one in Christ, who has broken down the dividing wall. This is the purpose of Paul's ministry, to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.
  • "Although I am the very least of all the saints." When I was younger, before I came to better terms with my good friend Paul, these statements of self-debasing always irritated me to no end! :)
  • "Mystery", from the Greek musterion, a secret thing or secret rite. Not so much in a 'whodunnit' sense, but in an awe and intrigue sense.

  • Matthew 2:1-12:
  • Matthew emphasizes the importance of this event because the visit of the Magi (the Latin term) symbolizes recognition from non-Jewish figures of prominence who recognize the kingship of baby Jesus.
  • Note that there is no mention of 3 Kings. A lot of common thought about the wise men is something of Bible mythology, such as their number, their names (traditionally Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior), and their royal status. Of course, the wise men would not have arrived at the birth of the Christ child, as depicted in nativity scenes, but well after the birth, hence Herod's decision to kill male babies of two and under, to make sure the job was done.
  • What makes this story of the wise men the day of Epiphany? Writes Dennis Bratcher in this article, "The Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as "King" and so were the first to "show" or "reveal" Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ."
  • Saturday, December 17, 2011

    Aunt Clara

    My great Aunt Clara died yesterday, after a year long battle with lung cancer. The cancer was already pretty advanced when she was diagnosed, and she has been on a slow but steady decline all year. In the last few weeks, she became more confused, way too thin, and increasingly physically uncomfortable. After a week in the hospital, she died early Friday morning. 

    My aunt was the youngest of my grandmother's siblings - nine years younger than grandma, actually, who is herself a tough cookie, so we were all surprised, I think, to lose Aunt Clara at 77. 

    What can I say about Aunt Clara? She had some real ups and downs in her life, and whether she was living in a tiny apartment, or what I considered as a child as practically a mansion, she was always generous. You could not leave her home without her trying to give you something - cookies, clothes she actually loved, food, trinkets, whatever. Anything and definitely something. 

    One year for my birthday, maybe, Aunt Clara asked what I wanted. I told her I wanted a pony, jewels, and lots of money. She brought me a tiny box with a tiny horse figurine, some shiny pennies, and a fake jewel. She had such humor, and loved to joke and laugh.

    I have heard my cousins talking about how quickly Aunt Clara would welcome someone new into our family fold. She would make you feel comfortable and relaxed into our crazy family on first meeting. Over the years, we have introduced Aunt Clara to many important people in our life, and whether they were shy, or tattooed, or of a different color, or of a different sexual orientation, or whatever, it never seemed to matter to her. She could put people at ease. 

    One of my favorite and more recent memories is when Aunt Clara came to be a mystery guest at my church. We were doing a study with our Evangelism Committee on how to be more welcoming, so we set up some people to masquerade as visitors to the church, including Aunt Clara. She had so much fun, but was a horrible actress! She had a cover story that was way too elaborate, about her granddaughter and visiting her and wanting to find a church for when she visited. During joys and concerns she raised her hand and said how wonderful everyone was and how welcomed she felt - very untypical visitor behavior! But she loved every minute - she even made my mom drop her off a block away from church so she could walk in and look authentic. Then afterwards, she worried and worried that people would be mad at her for lying! But of course, everyone loved her, and enjoyed her theatrics.   

    I am a bit in denial that she has died, which I suppose is not unusual. She has just been such a part of all of us, my whole life. I don't know if most people know their great aunts so well, but I feel blessed by the closeness of my family. I miss her. 


    Wednesday, December 14, 2011

    Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent: Sing We Now of Christmas: Mary’s Song

    Sermon 12/11
    Luke 1:26-55

    Sing We Now of Christmas: Mary’s Song

    Today our scripture brings us three vignettes, woven together. First, Mary is visited by God's messenger Gabriel, who tells her that she is favored, and that she will give birth to a son, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who is the Son of the Most High. He tells her nothing is impossible with God. Mary has a couple of questions, naturally, but ends by saying, ʺI am God's servant – let it be with me as you have said.ʺ Next, we see Mary travel to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also pregnant. Elizabeth is pregnant with John, who we know as John the Baptist. Mary visits her, and when Elizabeth sees her, John in her womb seems to leap for joy, and Elizabeth calls Mary and the child she carries blessed. And, she concludes, blessed is she who believes that there will be a fulfillment of God's promises. Finally, we find Mary’s song, what we call the Magnificat, a joyful response at what God has chosen to do, through her, for all people.
    You know, of course, that I love music, but I must admit that the books of the Bible that are considered song – like the Psalms – are really not my favorite. The poetry, Psalms and Proverbs and Song of Songs, and the poems and hymns sprinkled throughout the scriptures – most books of the Bible contain some hymns or poetry – Paul’s letters, the law, the prophets, the gospels. So I love music, and it’s not that I don’t like poetry. I do, I really like poetry. I even went through some angsty times in junior high where I tried to write poetry! Bad poetry, that you could probably use to blackmail me with rather than me let someone read it, but poetry nonetheless.
    It’s just that, frankly, I don’t usually find the poetry of the scriptures particularly moving. I know that many people love the Psalms in particular, and I do have a couple of favorites, but if I were in charge, I might have cut the collection down to about 25 instead of a hefty 150 entries. My tendency when reading poetry in the Bible is to skim – quickly glance over the words. But I’m not sure poetry is meant to be read this way. Poetry is meant to be savored, word by carefully chosen word.
    But one song in the Bible I love – Mary’s song – this Magnificat – the first song in the New Testament – the first justice song of the gospel. I love Mary’s song. Mary responds to her visit with Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s words about Mary being blessed among women with a song – a song that today we call “The Magnificat” because Mary begins by saying that her soul magnifies the Lord. She sings about rejoicing in God because God has chosen her, even though she is lowly. She believes she will be called blessed by all generations because of what God is doing for her. Mary goes on to describe God as merciful and strong. She talks about God scattering those who are proud and powerful and rich in earthly things, and instead favoring those who are without all these earthly things. And she finishes her song by saying that God is helping her because God remembers the promise made to her people, the promise that lasts forever.
    “My soul magnifies the Lord.” That is how Mary begins her song. The word in this context means to make great, to exalt, but we most often use the word ‘magnify’ when we’re talking about making something bigger. We use a magnifying glass to help us better see something that’s otherwise too small. Something magnified is something that has been enlarged, made bigger, easier to see. In Mary’s case, she is saying that her soul magnifies God. In other words, Mary, her soul, her spirit, is making God larger, more visible. I think these are pretty daring things for Mary to sing about. She can clearly see herself, even though she is a woman in a male-centered society, even though she is very young, even though she is unwed, even though she is pregnant and in a risky situation, she can clearly see herself as a powerful person – made powerful by God’s action in her life and her willingness to respond – and a person who has the power then to magnify God for others, to make God more visible by serving as a vessel for God, a disciple for God.

    Mary trusts that God would choose someone like her because she sees that God is always using unlikely people. Throughout Mary’s song, she makes reference to God being a God who cherishes the weak, the lowly, the hungry, the otherwise overlooked. In fact, her song is similar to another song in the scriptures: the song that Hannah sings to thank God after she finally gives birth to Samuel in the Old Testament. Hannah was barren, and prayed for a child. When she finally had Samuel, she delivered him to the temple to serve God, and she sang a song of thanks where she talked about God lifting up the lowly and overlooked. Mary, like Hannah, understands that God who is her Savior is a God who turns the tables, who looks out for the weak first, giving power to those who are powerless, and humbling those who would exalt themselves. Mary believes that God has looked at her and seen faithfulness, looked at her, and seen a servant, looked at her, and given favor and blessing. Mary believes, trusts, that in her, God is fulfilling a promise long-spoken, a promise that God would redeem God’s people. Because Mary believes this, she doesn’t shrink or cower from the great, mysterious, practically unbelievable news that Gabriel brings to her. Instead, she rejoices in the news. She lives the news – sings it. Mary’s soul will magnify God – her actions, her carrying of the Christ child will make it easier for the whole world to see God, because through Mary, the whole world will have access to a God who is this close to us, close enough to touch, close enough to carry in our hearts. Mary magnifies God for us, and so we can see this larger-than-life God, contained in a tiny baby.
    We, too, are meant to magnify God with our souls. By our lives, by our witness, by our response to our experience of God, we are called to make God more visible to the world. That means that like Mary, we must understand the power that we have as human beings. A bit of prose from author Marianne Williamson: She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” We’re created in God’s image, born to “make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”
    That’s a powerful task we have in our hands. The question isn’t whether or not we have power, but what we’ll do with it. When God calls us, we should boldly respond, because God knows us, and knows how very much we are capable of, and we have responsibility and power given to us. Others, by our actions, can learn something about who God is, what kind of God we serve. What will people learn about God from you? You have the ability to magnify God – to make God larger for others, easier for others to know and see and draw near to. How big can you make God? How much can you let your life work to make God visible to others?
    Finally, it means that we must learn something about what can happen to the world if we really take Mary’s song to heart. As I was reading about the Magnificat, I discovered that during the 1980s, the dictators of Guatemala actually outlawed the public reading of the Magnificat because of its “revolutionary tones” – indeed, Mary talks about a change in the world order that would certainly upset the way things work. The words of a pregnant young woman, spoken two-thousand years ago, banned, because of the power, revolutionary power in them. What might happen if we speak the truths that we know with boldness? When we work together with God, when we let God use us, and when we trust that in us, God can fulfill promises, even in us – when we let others see God more clearly because of us, we can actually change the world.
    How big can we make God? My soul magnifies the Lord! Amen.

    Sunday, December 04, 2011

    Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent: Sing We Now of Christmas: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

    Sermon 12/4/11
    Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

    Sing We Now of Christmas: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

    O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of the oldest hymns you’ll find in our hymnal. The melody itself is a bit younger – written in the 15th century – but the words are much older – dating back at least to the 9th century, written in Latin. These verses are all based on prophecies from Isaiah, and you might recognize the verses as corresponding to some of the passages from Isaiah we usually read during advent. Actually, the original form of the lyrics is not the hymn itself, but is found in your hymnal on the right side of page 211, where you see what are known as the “O Antiphons.” Antiphons are a spoken response that would alternate between verses of a chant or hymn. And these antiphons, in Latin, make up a kind of word game – a backwards acrostic. See, each antiphon is a title for the Messiah – Emmanuel, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of the Gentiles. And if you take the first letter of each of these words (in Latin), and put them in reverse order (are you still following me?), you come up with another Latin phrase, Ero Cras, which means, Tomorrow, I will come. It’s meant to be Christ’s response – we say the antiphons, calling for Christ to come, and Christ responds, yes, I will come. We long for the Messiah, and the Messiah responds. (1)
    That’s the theme of both of our scripture lessons today. We long for Christ, or, even if we can’t name it is such, we are certainly longing for something. Hoping for something. Waiting. And we hear in the scriptures that something, someone is coming. The people are lost in a wilderness, and in the wilderness, a way is prepared, a path is cleared, and the Christ comes. That’s what Isaiah and John the gospel writer and John the Baptist are all talking about. We long for the Messiah to come. And he comes.
    It’s this idea of wilderness that particularly captures my attention in these texts. Our scriptures are filled with stories of Gods’ people finding themselves in the wilderness. We spent a little time talking about this at our Wednesday night Advent gathering at my home last week. Today we might think of a wilderness as being out in the woods, in nature, kind of a peaceful, beautiful retreat. That is in part because of our local geography, and in part because of our society. We live in bustling places and work indoors and spend most of our lives indoors, and then retreat to nature to draw close to God. But in the scriptures, the word wilderness means desert – a solitary place, a lonely and desolate place, possibly a dangerous place. It is not a place that many choose to spend their time, except maybe those like John the Baptist, and since he was dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey, he isn’t really a good example of typical behavior.
    We find this wilderness featured in the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus, as God’s people are led from a land of slavery to a land of hope and promise. In the forty years that it takes them to get from Egypt to the promised land, they spend their days traveling through the wilderness, the desert. These forty years bring them through some hard times with God and with one another and with Moses, their leader. The wilderness is a place of struggle for them, the in-between place they must traverse to get to their real destination. In the gospels, we read about Jesus spending time in the wilderness before he begins his preaching and teaching. It is there, in the desolate wilderness, that he is tempted by satan to reject God’s plan for his life and instead choose an easier path. The wilderness is a risky place to be in the scriptures. It’s a place where one is both alone, and exposed and vulnerable, this desert place.
    So no, we don’t live in a desert climate here in Central New York, but I think that in the midst of the season of Advent, it is not too hard for us to see ourselves in the middle of a wilderness, wandering in a desolate place. Christmas begins in just three weeks, and though we are in the midst of a season of preparation, journeying towards a season of joy, a celebration of Christ’s birth, sometimes, on the way, things can get overwhelming. We may – in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, in the midst of trying to buy presents, preparing our homes, finalizing travel plans, and planning and attending activities at home, school, work, and church – we might feel a bit like we’ve lost our way, and that we are just wandering in the wilderness, waiting for someone to show us the way out and beyond this exhausting season. The holidays may be meant to be a season of joy. But actually, people often experience them as a season of distress, a season of loneliness, a season of marked financial strain, a season of depression. Sometimes the holidays highlight people's pains instead of highlighting their anticipation. You know what personal wilderness you are facing, and you know it doesn’t pause just because Christmas songs on the radio are telling you to be jolly!
    It is just when the wilderness threatens to swallow us up that prophets are called to speak, to give a message of hope. Today, we read two passages, each with words from a prophet meant for people struggling through a wilderness, to remind them of the hope of the Messiah, the same promise we hear in our hymn: Tomorrow, I will come. Through the words of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist, we find messages meant for those who find themselves in the wilderness, wondering what to do. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people during a time in Israel’s history when the people had been taken from their homeland and exiled to Babylon, as the first verse of today’s hymn mentions – captive Israel. It was for them a time of deep pain as a people, when they were separated from their homes, when they were jumbled together and living in a foreign land under unfriendly rule. They longed for the day that they could return home and end this time of limbo, this time of waiting, this time of wilderness. Where was God? How would God get them out of this situation and to their destination – back home, back to the holy land and the holy city. And so God speaks to the prophet Isaiah and tells him, “Cry out!” “What shall I cry?” Isaiah wants to know what he could possibly say to the people. The response comes, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together . . . Here is your God, God will gather the lambs in God’s arms.”
    In our gospel lesson, Mark starts things in a hurry and maintains his pace through a short but packed gospel account. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right down to business. Who needs a nativity story when you can get straight to the point? Mark writes, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as his first verse, and in it he says who Jesus– he is the Christ, the Son of God. And his gospel certainly attests to why Jesus came. Of the birth of Jesus, Mark simply has no comment. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the way of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and announcing that someone was coming, the kingdom had arrived. Like during Isaiah’s time, again the people of Israel find themselves in a wilderness time. Israel was then under Roman occupation, and the Roman government was ruling over the people. Though the Jewish people were in their own homeland, still, they weren’t at home, because their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying forces. A wilderness time. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in anticipation of the one John said was coming, the one who would bring with him God’s kingdom.
    So what do these words from prophets say to those who needed (and need) to hear those voices? Let’s think again of the Israelites when they were wandering, led by Moses, in the wilderness. I think one of the reasons why the Israelites had such a hard time when they were in the wilderness is that they were always trying to get out of it, so that they could get on with their lives, reach their destination. Forty years is a long time to live in transition with no set home. And it certainly doesn’t seem that the Israelites tried to make the best of it. Forty years is a long time to live in transition, but it is a good amount of time to live. You can do a lot of living in forty years. But the Israelites seem only to have done a lot of wishing they were somewhere else, wishing they were already at their destination, in the Promised Land.
    I think the prophets’ message is to tell us that we don’t have to wait to find God at our destination points. If you are in the wilderness, good news: so is God. God is in the journey. God is in the wandering. God is with you in the desert. The words of our hymn equal the promise: I’m coming to you. John the Baptist says, “he is coming, I’m just preparing his way.” Isaiah cries, “Here, here is your God!” That, indeed, is the comfort that God seeks to bring to us, in the midst of a season that can fill us with so much anxiety. We don’t have to wait until Christmas to experience the God-with-us that will come in the Christ child. We don’t have to wait until we exchange presents. We don’t have to wait until the candlelight communion. We are waiting, waiting for the baby, but while we wait, God is already here. So let us prepare, right here, in the wilderness, for God to come, already, again, and soon. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Amen.


    Monday, November 28, 2011

    Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year B: Sing We Now of Christmas: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

    Sermon 11/27/11
    Mark 13:24-37

    Sing We Now of Christmas: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

                Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine all sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
                This famous Advent hymn was written in 1744 by, Charles Wesley, a prolific writer of hymns, many of which are still in our hymnals today, and younger brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Charles knew that most people might not learn and memorize complicated theological doctrines, but they would indeed learn the words to songs, just as we do today. So he laced his hymns with the theology, the ideas about God, that he wanted to make sure people knew. What does this hymn say?
    Well, you might notice, for one thing, that it doesn’t talk very much about a baby Jesus. Yes, it talks about why Jesus is born, and that he is born a baby, a child. But mostly, this hymn focuses on why we need Jesus to be born, why we long-expect this Jesus. Jesus is born to set his people free, to deliver us from fears and sins, so that we can find our rest in Jesus. Jesus is born to be our strength, our consolation, the hope of the whole earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every heart. Jesus is born to deliver his people, a child yes, but a King, born to reign, born to usher in the Kingdom of God, born to rule in our hearts, born to raise us up to God’s kingdom. For Charles Wesley, for this Advent hymn of longing, that’s the important message about what we need to know about Christ’s birth, why we should want Christmas to come so much. Why are you in such a hurry for Christmas to come? Are you?
    Have you seen those Hallmark commercials for the Christmas countdown ornament? In them, a little girl follows her parents around the house telling them exactly how much time there is until Christmas, information she knows because of her ornaments with a digital display that lets her keep track. Right now there are 27 days and 16/18 hours or so until Christmas, just FYI. You may remember feeling just like this child – so eager for Christmas to come. Maybe the children in your life are like this today. Counting down the days. Is it so bad to hurry Christmas along? Is it so bad to be anxious and eager and excited for Christmas to arrive? Why not wish for Christmas to come, for the Christ-child to arrive? Children usually get the point that we adults are too serious to see, and maybe we all need to be a little more excited and anxious for Christmas to come.
    Then again, during our stewardship emphasis we talked a lot about time – about wanting more time and wasting time. What time we have and what we do with it. The older we get, the more sense we have that rushing time ahead can be a dangerous thing. It already goes by way too quickly. I have told you that The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my favorite books. In the last volume, The Last Battle, some of the characters are talking about why Susan, one of the children from the first novel, has not returned to Narnia. Lady Polly explains, ʺI wish [Susan] would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.ʺ For a book first published in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis’s words remain remarkably timely. How many of us do this exact thing? We spend all this energy rushing to a certain age in life, and then the rest of life trying to figure out how not to get older, wondering at how quickly time is passing us by.
    So which is it? Should we rush to Christmas? Advent may be a time of preparation, but if all our songs are about how we want Jesus to come soon, aren’t we really just rushing ahead? Is that good or bad? Or should we rest in the waiting of Advent? Be content to let the days unfold, not wanting Christmas to arrive until we have savored each day?
    I think children are excited and anxious for Christmas to come, but I also know that young children have a very skewed concept of time. Take my nephew Sam. Anything past happened ʺa couple weeks agoʺ for awhile. Things that happened ʺwhen he was littleʺ could be things that were when he was an infant, two years old, or earlier this year. He does talk about growing up – he defines this as the time when his feet will touch the floor when he sits on a chair. And last year, he was perplexed over what had happened to his friend Alex – the same age as Sam – since he hadn’t seen him a while. Sam mused: I think Alex must be a teenager now! Sam is indeed excited for Christmas to come, as he is excited for most joyful things to take place in his happy life. But Sam isn’t rushing time by. Instead, I would say he is ready. He is ready for the excitement he knows is on the way. A day, a week, a month – they can all seem long or short to Sam depending on his mood. But he isn’t in a hurry. He is just happy, and ready for Christmas when it comes.
    Our task in Advent isn’t to rush the days by to Christmas, and it isn’t to drag our feet in an effort to slow down time. Our task is just to be ready. In Matthew, Jesus is talking about when he will come again to earth, and how the disciples should prepare. His advice? No one knows the time, the hour – not even Jesus or the angels – of when Jesus may walk the earth again. In that case, it isn’t anything we can count down to, or hurry to, or dread, or wait for, or whatever really. What we can do is what Jesus advises: Keep alert. Keep awake. Be ready. We are called as people of faith to be ready for God however God shows up on earth, wherever and whenever.
    Jesus, long-expected, is coming – born a child, and yet a king – in all his fullness, Jesus is coming. That is a promise we can count on. And so with faith in the promise, we can be filled with hope, longing, expectation, excitement. And we can be ready for his arrival. Amen.    

    Sunday, November 20, 2011

    Sermon for Reign of Christ, Year A: Fed with Justice

    Sermon 11/20/11
    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

                This time of year always brings us an interesting conjunction of church events: today we celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday – it isn’t really a liturgical holiday – Thanksgiving isn’t on the church calendar exactly. But it certainly makes sense that we focus on Thanksgiving in worship – being thankful for all we have is hardly something we do enough of! It is also the last Sunday of the liturgical year today. As the church calendar goes, next Sunday is our New Year's Day. Today is then sort of a liturgical New Year's Eve as far as Sundays go. And on the church calendar, today is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a day when we consider how Jesus is King, how Jesus is ruler of our lives. How is Jesus king? It’s kind of an interesting question for us to ask about Jesus, who shunned titles like king at every turn in the accounts of ministry. And yet we call him the King of Kings. There is a tension there. Not a king, and yet the most high king. On this Sunday, we explore that tension.
                For 21st century Americans, we have to figure out just what to do with kings anyway. Our own history shapes our views of course. In our history, people carried out a revolution to end living under the rule of a king that could make decisions for them without their input. We have never had a king. We want a say in who leads – not rules us – and how they lead. And if they don’t do it in a way we appreciate, we want the chance to elect someone new. This spring we observed with varying degrees of anticipation, indifference, distaste, or excitement as Prince William married Kate Middleton. Even in Europe, the royal family has limited power. They don’t rule, not in the absolute ways of days long past. And we aren’t quite sure what to make of it all, are we? What do we mean by saying that Jesus is king?
                We don’t often focus on readings from Ezekiel. You might be most familiar with the passage about the valley of the dry bones. But I find our text today particularly compelling for Reign of Christ Sunday. Ezekiel is writing in the time of the Babylonians exile. Babylon had invaded and occupied Israel and the people of Israel were scattered – what Ezekiel calls scattered sheep. Ezekiel spends the proceeding chapters of his prophecy criticizing the history of bad royal leadership Israel has had. When humans have tried to be king, we have done a pretty bad job at it. We are bad at being shepherds, Ezekiel says, and we aren’t even very good at being sheep. He writes, ʺYou pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.ʺ Without a good shepherd to follow, we aren’t even good sheep! In imagery that Jesus will draw on centuries later when he speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, Ezekiel speaks of how God shepherds us.
    Here is what God as shepherd-king does for us, says Ezekiel: I will seek the lost. I will bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice. This is how God is king. And if God is king by shepherding us better than any human leaders, God can draw out of us our best sheep-behavior. We are the flock when we hear God's voice and follow Jesus our shepherd-king. What would it look like if we partnered in God's work?
                God seeks us when we are lost. How can we help those who feel lost, in the many ways we can feel lost in this world? I can’t tell you how significant being a listening ear can be for people. In my years of ministry, some of the kindest words of thanks I have received are from people who I visit for one reason or another. I find myself always wishing I had more time to give, more time to stay, because it clearly means too much to people. People who are lonely, or depressed, or struggling in some way – they need to know that someone is with them in the midst of their pain. We rely on knowing that God is always seeking after us, always calling to us, always longing to draw us closer in relationship. So in turn, how can we draw closer to one another in faith, hope, and love?
                God brings back the strayed. You might think being lost and straying away from God are the same thing. To me it is a bit of a nuanced difference. Being lost is something that usually happens by accident. We feel lost and alone without knowing how we got there exactly. Straying from God – well, that is a little more purposeful. Have you ever witnessed or experienced this: a child is walking quickly and deliberately away from a parent who is yelling more and more loudly, ʺCome back here!ʺ Or a child is not supposed to walk too far ahead, ride a bike too far ahead of parents, but keeps pushing the limits, going just a little farther? That is straying, and I believe we do that with God. We don’t start out intending to disobey God or test God. But somehow one small questionable action on our part leads to one more and one more, and pretty soon we are living in a way that we aren’t proud of. God brings back the strayed. There is no distance – no distance that you can stray from God that is too far for God to close the gap. We are not very open in our society to others pointing out when we seem to be straying from God. And we try to mind our own business when we see others doing something that we know will be harmful to their spirits. We think it is between us and God, them and God. While we are called to not judge one another, we are also supposed to help each other keep from stumbling, and be open to someone else helping us stay close to God.
                God will bind up the injured. I believe God can heal us. I think we have all witnessed God's healing – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Some of us may have witnessed miraculous healing. Or we may have witnessed the slow and steady healing that God works over time. But Jesus was a healer – he was known far and wide for his healing, and it was the reason why people flocked to him at first, only to then find their souls were healing along with their ailments. We are in need of healing, aren’t we? We pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones. In fact, prayer is one way we partner with God in healing. How often is prayer our last resort, instead of a tool of healing that we use with intention and purpose? I pray for healing for you and me, for our congregation, for our nation, for our world. We so need it. God binds up our wounded hearts, and makes us whole
    God strengthens the weak and feeds them with justice. God is not into survival of the fittest. God is into the thriving lives of each precious child in creation. This week we focus on giving thanks, but we also might spend a lot of time focusing on what food we will have on Thursday (and Friday and Saturday), right? I have been part of very few Thanksgiving meals where we didn’t indulge and indulge some more. God says we will be fed with justice. What an image! In the scriptures, justice and poverty, concern for those who are weak or low in society often go hand in hand, as the prophets envision God's world as a place where all have enough and no one suffers at the expense of others. We can certainly be partners with God in feeding justice as we reach out in mission. Last night I had the true privilege of handing out food baskets to folks in need in our community. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy seeing the expressions of shock on people’s faces when they realize how much we will be able to give them. And it is just one way, one part of what we can do. It is to our human shame that we throw away about 50 million tons of food each year when 900 million people are hungry. We know something is wrong and needs to be corrected, brought to right. That is what God means by justice – bringing things to rights. How will you partner with God to feed justice until all are filled?
    This Jesus, God on earth, come to us, we celebrate as a king. But he is a king like no other – a king who seeks the lost, who protects, who returns strays to the right path, who heals, who strengthens the weak, who feeds us with justice. This is a leader worth following. Let us give thanks, today and always. Amen.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2011

    Non-Lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Consecration: The Steward and the Ship

    Sermon 10/30/11
    Genesis 9:8-15

    The Steward and the Ship: Consecration

    Today we wrap up our journey with Noah. We watched Noah build the ark, just as God commanded, then survive the flood, then leave the ark and give thanks to God. Today is God's response, you might say. Noah's response is to give thanks, and God's response is to make a covenant with Noah – a promise – and to share a beautiful symbol of that promise. God sets in the sky a rainbow – the very symbol that our baptismal liturgy referred to today. And God promises to Noah and his offspring never again to destroy creation. Of course, we know the conditions that make for a rainbow: they appear in the sky when the Sun shines on to droplets of moisture in the Earth's atmosphere. That’s the science of it. But the heart of it is that rainbows often appear after storms, perfect timing for a reminder of God's promise to us. The promise, and the symbol to remind us of the promise.
    The scriptures are full of God's promises to us, and symbols of God's faithfulness to the promises God makes. Abram and Sarai and Jacob all receive new names a symbols of God's promises to be with them and to bless their families. Circumcision becomes a symbol of that promise for Abraham. Jacob sees a ladder to heaven as a sign of God's promise to him. Moses and the Israelites receive the Passover meal as a symbol of God being with them and promising them and leading them to freedom. At Jesus' baptism, God shares a dove, the symbol of God's Holy Spirit, as a sign of his love for Jesus, a promise to be with him in his earthly ministry. Soon we will talk of a star in the sky, a symbol that guides people to find baby Jesus, the promised Messiah. And when Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples, he tells them of a New Covenant – a new promise – of God's forgiveness for all – and seals the promise with the reshaped symbols of bread and cup. The promise, and the symbol to remind us of the promise.
    We do the same in our relationship with God. We make promises, and we make signs of our promises. Covenants are two-party agreements. God promises to be with us, and we promise to follow God and only God. Sometimes we mess up on our end, but God is always faithful and forgiving. But we still try – because promises, covenants, are made in relationships, between parties that care about each other. When people are married, they make promises, and then use symbols – usually rings, to remember the promise. When we confirmed our young people last year, they made promises to God and this congregation, and we used symbols – stoles – with their personal choice of symbols on them – as reminders of their covenants. And today, we celebrated Carter's baptism, we acknowledged God's promises to us – unconditional love already at work in Carter long before this day, by promising that his parents, his family, and his extended family, this body of Christ, would be faithful to nurturing him as a child of God. A promise we seal with holy, blessed water. And because we are part of the whole Body of Christ, even though Carter lives far away from us, and even when his own family will be far apart from each other, we know the promise stands because we make it as the Body of Christ. His grandparents and great-grandparents are a part of us, and a part of Carter, and so we are a part of each other, and all part of Christ's body, bound by our promises to God and one another. The promise, and the symbol to remind us of the promise.
                Over the summer I shared with you about being a chaplain at Music Camp at Sky Lake, one of our church camps, and talking about Holy Communion as a place where we celebrate God's ability to make the ordinary holy. Remember? We talked about the parables of Jesus, and how he always used ordinary things to describe the kingdom of God – seeds and plants and bread and yeast and fish and water – the stuff of everyday life – to illustrate that God was in everything and everything can be holy because God is in our midst.
                Today we celebrate our Consecration Sunday, and that word, consecration, means something like this – making an ordinary thing a holy thing. It literally means to associate something with the sacred – con/with, sacre/sacred. When we offer something up to be consecrated, we are asking God to make it sacred and holy. When we celebrate communion, the last prayer I pray over the elements is called the prayer of consecration; I say, ʺGod, make these gifts be the Body of Christ.ʺ In other words, God, please make this bread, this juice, into holy stuff.
                Today, we are offering up our financial commitments to God, and we are asking God to make them holy commitments, not just forms we filled out. We are asking that God make them a symbol of our hopes and dreams, not just numbers in a budget. By consecrating these financial commitments, we are asking and expecting that God give them a weight and significance that goes beyond other bills we pay, even other charities we might support. More than business as usual – consecration is committing a serious act with God.
                Maybe I have made Consecration Sunday sound pretty serious all around! And it is! Not because I want to scare us all into giving more or less than we planned to give. As Anne mentioned last week, these commitments don’t represent binding contracts with the church that are burdens that can’t change if your life changes. But Consecration is serious because without Consecration, we can expect everything to unfold just as any income and expense report would. Money in, money out. Budgets and balances. But when we ask God to make the ordinary into the holy, we ask God to make it extraordinary. And then our financial commitments aren’t about dollars and cents anymore. They are about sharing God's love with as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible. They are tools that enable us to feed hungry people and clothe them. They are ways we support our children as they grow in faith and as they teach us about faith. They are symbols of the promise we make – to God, to one another, and to our community, about how we want to be together, serve one another, work together. The promise, and these little commitment cards that are the tangible reminders, the symbols of our promise.
                Today we consecrate our financial commitments. Today we make promises. Today we ask God to make our commitments sacred and holy. Today we trust in the promises of God. Today we can trust that God makes our ordinary offering into our extraordinary future. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Non-Lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Inspiration: The Steward and the Ship

    Sermon 10/16/11
    Genesis 6-7, selected verses

    Inspiration: The Steward and the Ship

                Today we switch gears from our focus on God-values, to focusing on stewardship, and how God calls us to car for all that we have been given. Or, I guess we could say, we begin to focus in depth on stewardship as one more God-values. This Sunday is Inspiration Sunday – next week is Gratitude Sunday, and finally, on the 30th, we will celebrate Consecration Sunday, as we offer our pledges to God for the year ahead. And this year our theme for our stewardship focus is The Steward and the Ship, (get it? Steward/Ship) which will focus on the story of Noah's ark. But we will come back to Noah in a few moments.
    As I said, today is Inspiration Sunday. Do you know what inspiration means? If you break down the word, it literally means to breathe in. Of course that root, spir- - is what gives us the word Spirit. Inspiration, then, is what breathes life into us. And as people of faith, it is the Holy Spirit, literally God's Holy Breathe, that is meant to breathe life into us. But hopefully many things work together to inspire us. When I was in junior high, I used to keep a list, actually, of people I found particularly inspiring. I called it my hero list. It wasn’t very easy to get on – it was reserved for people who really touched my life – who did something in a way, lived life in a way that really made me want to emulate their good qualities. No celebrities – all people I had met personally. They included a student who was two years older who had a confident ʺI know just who I amʺ way about her, my 8th grade science teacher and my 9th grade English teacher, a speaker from one of those life-lesson school assemblies, and a couple others. Who inspires you? Who breathes life into you, makes you want to do or be something more?
                Sometimes I feel inspired by what I see unfolding here at First United. I feel particularly inspired when I see people taking initiative, or acting out of their comfort zones, or making a little go a long way, remembering our abundance instead of feeling limited. Let me give you a few examples. I won't name names, although I am sure you can figure out who I mean in some of these cases. This year, while planning our carnival, someone had the inspired idea to make a phone call that enabled us to have our carnival fliers go home with children in the ESM school district. The result was that we had a ton of children at our event. Another carnival inspiration: one of our young people, new to the church, asked if she could run a jewelry and craft table at the carnival. I will be honest – I wasn’t sure how popular it would be. But I am no fool – I don’t turn down people with ideas who want to do things. It was a huge hit – the table was frequently swarmed all through the day. Many of you visit our shut-in members, but I am particularly inspired when, for example, I hear that one person and her family have gone above and beyond to help out someone during a difficult health crisis. I was told, ʺshe and her family are angels, they are just angels.ʺ I am inspired when you go beyond in your care of one another. I've been inspired by someone who has a vision for our physical space, this beautiful building, and who keeps coming up with creative ideas to make it warmer and more welcoming, including a completely transformed nursery. I am inspired by a man who is not a big fan of public speaking but got up here to tell you about his personal Giving Beyond challenge and how he hoped to inspire you, in turn, to give. I am inspired by a young person who stayed home from his family's weekend away because he wanted to do some volunteer work at the Rescue Mission instead. I am inspired by one of you who invited speakers to come talk to us about Haiti, that led to a successful and rewarding Dress Our People ministry. I am inspired by the man who almost every visitor to our worship services names as the person who greeted and welcomed them when they stepped in the door. There are some people working hard, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to breathe life into us, into this place. Who inspires you? Who do you inspire?
                 Inspiration, breathing in the Holy Spirit, having new life in us, and breathing new life into what is dear to us here – let me not give the impression that these are some magical, unrepeatable acts that we can’t all do. I believe we can all be inspirational. And we do it like this: we pray for help – that is what Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit being – our Advocate, our helper, who fills us up with God's Holy Breath. And then we act as good stewards of our resources. We take the tools God has given us, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and we act. And I firmly believe that when we do that – use the tools God gives us and rely on God's Spirit-directed guidance – we will be inspiring and inspired.
                So what are the tools we have? We could talk about it in any number of ways, but we are all stewards of at least these things: our time, our talents, and our treasure. Today we read about Noah and his ark. Noah might not be who pops to mind when you think about stewardship. But actually, Noah, for a tumultuous period, is made by God steward of everything! We have talked before about what stewards were in biblical times.  Stewards were managers of the property of wealthy men. The steward was usually a slave or a former slave, but they had a great deal of power, too. They were responsible for all the affairs of the master’s household. They oversaw all the finances, and had authority over all the other household slaves, and sometimes even over the children of the master. The Greek name for them is oikonomos, and that’s where we get our English word economy.
                Noah becomes the steward of all creation, and he uses his time, his talent, and his treasure to carry out what God calls him to do. Think about it. Imagine how long it would take to build an ark. Even today, with our technology and skilled workers, it takes a long time to build a large sea vessel. Noah must give an enormous amount of time to the task. And no doubt he is giving enormous financial resources to build the ship. Although we read about God describing just how the ark should be, we don’t read that God gifted Noah with any special fund to make it happen. And of course, Noah must have had the talent – the ability to construct an ark. Time, talent, treasure, as a steward of what is God's – namely, all creation.
                Noah's tools are our tools – time, talents, treasure. And maybe God isn’t calling us to build an ark. But we are called to be stewards of everything that God has put into our hands. If all that we have is from God, then we have to be stewards of all that we have, and take good care of what is God.
                So how do we do it? How are we stewards of time, talent, and treasure? I have more homework assignments for you. Three. But you can pick and choose – do one, two, or all three. But humor me, and try one this week, ok?
                You are a steward of your time. Time is such a precious commodity isn’t it? One of the biggest struggles churches face is helping people commit to the time that mission and ministry takes. We are so very busy, and we have so many demands on our time. What time do we give to God? How much of your day do you spend with God? How do you spend your time? Are you even aware of where your time is going? I think many of us would be surprised, if we mapped it all out. So that is your first assignment – I want you to keep a record this week of how you spend your time, in ½ hour or hour increments. You can make up your own chart, or you can use one I have for you. But I want you to write down everything you do this week. Don’t change your normal behavior. Do what you normally do. And then take a look – where is your time going? Are you spending it how you thought? Does it match up with your priorities?
                You are a steward of your talents. And yes, you have talents – gifts from God. Things that you can uniquely contribute. We talked about it a bit before summer and we will be coming back to all those little slips of paper I had you turn in with what you like and what you are good at. The apostle Paul talks a lot about spiritual gifts. If you read his words carefully, you will discover that Paul was most interested in gifts that could be used for building up the community of faith. What are your talents, and how can you use them to build up the Body of Christ? What Paul thinks is inspiring is when we use our gifts – whatever they are – and we find ways to serve others, serve God's kingdom with them. So assignment number too: I have here for you spiritual gift inventories. A way of figuring out how you are gifted, and how you can share those gifts. Take the inventory, and see what you find out about yourself. Are you using your gifts?
                You are a steward of your treasure. What do you spend? Why? On what? What do you save? What do you give? I want you to do the same thing for your treasure assignment as for your time assignment – keep track of every cent for one week. What did you make? What did you spend? What did you spend it on? Did you spend it how you intended? Does your spending match your priorities? I make myself a budget for every pay period. It is always filled with great intentions. But somehow, what I spend and what I meant to spend never quite match up by the end of two weeks. So I can tell you this is an assignment I will be doing. Start asking questions. Are you using your treasure how you want to be? In my own stewardship journey, I can tell you that I had a challenge giving what I meant to give to God – until I finally just had it directly withheld from my paycheck. When I left it up to me, somehow I never had enough. But when I put my tithe first, somehow I still managed to make ends meet. I just needed to give up a little bit of the control. Are you using your treasure how you want to be?
                Time, talent, treasure. These are tools. Tools that can help us inspire and be inspired. How are you using these tools? How will you inspire, be inspired?  In these coming weeks, I hope you will be spending some time in prayer, thinking hard, doing some homework, seeking inspiration – the Holy Spirit bringing us to life. We have everything we need. Noah built and ark. What we build together for God in this place? Amen.

    Non-lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship

    Sermon 10/23/11
    Genesis 8:6-22

    Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship

                This Sunday is Gratitude Sunday in our Stewardship focus. And we will continue with Noah and his story to look at exactly what gratitude means. So today we pick up with Noah where we left off last week. He and his family had built and boarded the ark and taken with them sets of seven of some animals, pairs of others. The floods came, and it rained for forty days and nights. Maybe that in itself doesn’t seem so bad until we realize from the passage that Jerry read today that they actually had to stay on the ark for ten month while the flood waters abated from the earth. Noah keeps sending out a dove to check for dry ground until it finally returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. And finally, he and his family and these animals can leave the ark.
                The first thing Noah does when he gets off the ark is build an altar and make sacrifices – gifts of animals – to God. Noah makes an offering. And the scent, we read, is pleasing to God, and God promises never to destroy creation again. I think this is a pretty profound action on Noah's part. Maybe we think nothing of it – Noah just survived with his family a natural disaster of epic proportions – of course he is thankful! But he also just lost everything he knew about his life and world. His home, his city, any family outside of those listed in the scripture – his immediate family. His neighbors. Whatever livelihood he had before ark-builder. A way of life that made sense to him. If you had lost all of that, could you still have gratitude be your first response, even if you walked away with the gift of life?
                Cultivating a life of gratitude is developing the practice of looking at what we have and seeing the abundance and giving thanks. It isn’t always easy, for sure. But what do we see when we look at what we have? Our situations? What we experience? A couple of weeks ago we talked about joy – deep joy – as being more than something that just made you happy or entertained – but that deep God-given contentment that rests in your soul – joy. I think gratitude is similar. I have a pet peeve that is a peeve against myself. I have picked up what I consider the annoying habit of responding Yup when someone says thank you. Thank you. Yup. It doesn’t quite work, does it? But I think it might reflect that culturally we don’t let our thankfulness go very deep. Is giving thanks just something that we go through the motions of? Is it too inconvenient to give thanks, and are we not really even thankful? I love the beauty of many languages, but I have to say English has it all over French or Spanish where the standard reply to Thank You is – It was nothing. In English, we are supposed to say You’re welcome. Short for you are well come here. In other words – it is a good thing, a pleasing thing, that you are here. Such a genuine response, isn’t it? Thank you. You are welcome. Gratitude – a thankful heart.
                Are you a grateful person? And again, like with joy, gratitude doesn’t mean closing your eyes to the serious and real painful situations you experience. But when you look at the whole of your life – are you thankful? Deeply? What do you see when you look at your life? Is the glass half full or half empty? Or can you see that God has filled it to overflowing? And how do you show your gratitude? 
                Here is what I think is the crux of it: We have gratitude only if we see what we have as a gift. If I go out and buy myself a pizza – I am not going to be grateful to you for it no matter how nice and thoughtful you are – because you didn’t get me the pizza – I did! But if you buy me a slice – not even a whole pie – just a slice – well, then I am grateful to you – because you gave me the gift. I am grateful for the gifts I receive. The question, when we come to faith and stewardship, then, is this: What do we see as a gift from God? Of course, we talk about everything being a gift from God. God gives us life, is our creator, sustainer, redeemer, giver of all good things. Everything is from God. But I wonder how much we really believe that? Or live into what we believe? 
                Everything is a gift. Last week, I gave you three homework assignments – a spiritual gifts survey, a time study, and study of how you spend your money. And I asked you not to change your habits to get the answers you wanted, but to honestly assess where you were. How did it go? Any surprises? Any eyes opened? Or just what you expected? Were you happy with what you saw? Talents, and time, and treasure.
                I think we are most easily grateful for the talents – the spiritual gifts – we've been given. But in this case, we have to be convinced that we have them. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. If you aren’t sure how to use them, we can talk. I am sure I can find some ways to put your gifts to use. But you are gifted.
                What about time? What did you learn about using your time this week? Are you thankful for your time? I suspect that a record of how we use our time would reflect that we aren’t always appreciative of it. We often say that we wish we had more of it. We don’t have enough of it. But sometimes I wonder if God doesn’t think our requests for more time are like asking for second helpings of food when we haven’t yet finished what is already on our plate. Are we asking for more time without even really using what we have? Oh, of course, it ticks by. It moves on with or without us. But what are we doing with it? Growing up, one of the worst things to say to my mom, but especially to my grandmother was: I'm bored. My grandmother was a depression-era baby and she just had no use for boredom. Saying you were bored was the ultimate form of ingratitude. And it would surely get you assigned a task or chore you would really rather not do. Rest is good – God rested, and asks us to rest, to have holy rest even! But wasting time is a whole different issue. We want more time? Are we really using what we have in a way that warrants such a bold request? Time is a gift. And unlike our talents, we always use it up completely. But how do we show we are grateful for it? Sometimes the way we use time is like taking our best linens and using them to wipe the floor. Using our best stationary as scrap paper. Wasting something precious. You have time. Show me time well spent, and you show gratitude for God's gift.
                Our money is a gift. Here I think we struggle a bit more to agree. Because we get a little confused. Didn’t we work hard for our money? Didn’t we earn it? And if we earned it, isn’t it ours to spend as we please? Isn't it our right to do so?  Sure, we put in work. We are laborers in God's vineyard. But friends, the vineyard always still belongs to God, and we may be the best stewards in the world, but we are always still stewards. If we earn money, I guarantee that we had to use several gifts from God in order to make what we have. If you find yourself thinking a bit too much about how hard you’ve worked, try to trace the source of what you have. For example: Did you get a good scholarship to college? How did that happen? Did you do well in school? You needed some intelligence for that. Where did that intelligence come from? Is it not from God? How do you earn your living? What gifts do you use that convince someone else to give you a paycheck? For example – I have learned to be extremely grateful for the gift of music I have. Carrying a tune, for the most part, isn’t something you can learn. Most people can either carry a tune, or they can’t. And while you can refine your voice with training, without something to refine to start out with, you can’t do much. Singing is a gift God gave me, and it has been more useful to me in my ministry than I ever anticipated. It helps me in my life work – and so what a build up to support myself from my ministry – it all belongs to God, and is shared by God with me. I try to use it well, but I know who it all belongs to.
                Are you grateful? We can only be grateful if we can look at all we see and see it all as gift. Our talents, our time, our treasure, our lives, our world, the love we share – all gift. And to show our thanks, we do what we are always trying to do – be more like Jesus. Follow his example. Do what God does. Give, give, give. To God. To your loved ones. To God's house. To strangers. To enemies and friends alike. Give, and give thanks. Thanks be to God for all our gifts. Amen.

    Saturday, October 15, 2011

    Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - God Values: Joy

    Sermon 10/9/11
    Philippians 4:1-9

    God Values: Joy

                This week we conclude our series on God Values – we took a pause last week for World Communion, so I hope you can remember what we talked about – forgiveness, fairness, or maybe unfairness, and authority. When I planned this series, I had a number of different ideas about today's theme. At one point, I planned to focus on the gospel lesson and the feast images in the scriptures. Then, I decided I wanted us to give some attention to Philippians – we have been hearing, but not focusing on these passages. This passage has been one of my favorites since childhood, especially this verse: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
                I guess, as a young person it caught my attention because of the word excellent. I grew up when the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was popular – and excellent was used frequently in a slang style to denote something pretty awesome. It isn’t a very common word in the Bible – sometimes a person is described as being excellent. When Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 13 about love, he calls it the more excellent way. And in this verse – well, Paul is telling us we are supposed to think about excellent things. That appealed greatly to my young mind. And today I meant to talk about the God-value of excellence. But all week, I kept coming back to a different verse in this passage:
                Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Such a simple verse. I knew it as camp song, a round we sang. But I never gave it much serious thought. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice. Excellent occurs a few times in the scripture – but joy and rejoice – these words occur several hundred times throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, think of some significant ways. When the angels announce Jesus' birth, Gabriel says, I bring you good news of great joy. Jesus says to the disciples after teaching them: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. His parables and teachings about the kingdom of God frequently mention joy. Certainly the resurrection story is marked with the word joy. Joy, joy, and more joy.
                Are you a joyful person? Is there joy in your life? Is there joy in the life of this church? Is it joy that marks your relationship with God? Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! For my mom, deep joy comes when all her children are together. She loves it when all four of us are at home, especially, but mostly when we are together and enjoying each other's company. Sometimes we will all be at home together for some reason or another, and my mother may be falling asleep on the couch late at night. But she is unwilling to actually go to bed. She will be half asleep, but with a smile on her face – she just likes to be around us when we are together and happy. It brings her joy.
                Children are experts at joy, aren’t they? They don’t need much to be joyful, in that relaxed, worry-free way that only children seem capable of. Last night we took my nephew Sam to Cackleberry Castle in Camden, the pumpkin farm we always visited when I was little. These days it is a bit smaller than it was when I was little, but it didn’t matter to Sam. He ran around looking at the display of spooky decorations and beautiful pumpkins and was having the best time, with a sparkle in his eye, and that practically out-of-breath voice he uses when he just can’t tell you fast enough about the great time he is having. Joy.
    Or maybe we need a more contemporary image than Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: This week I just finished rereading the Harry Potter series, books I enjoy enough to turn back to when I am between other new reads. I've been think a lot about dementors and patronuses. In case you aren’t familiar, dementors are these dark, hooded creatures that suck souls out of people, a fate worse than death. "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
    To fight off a dementor, wizards have to produce a white, glowing figure called a patronus, which takes an animal form and chases away a dementor. Professor Lupin describes it like this: "A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up... lose yourself in it... then speak the incantation "Expecto Patronum." Harry himself says: "Make it a powerful memory, the happiest you can remember. Allow it to fill you up… Just remember, your Patronus can only protect you as long as you stay focused… Think of the happiest thing you can." At first, he tries thinking of winning a Quittich match – that a wizard sporting event. But that isn’t the deep joy that the spell requires. Our experiences that are so powerful that they can drive away the things that chip away at our very souls – that is joy.
                When I talk about joy, I don’t mean some sappy feeling that masks what we are really experiencing. Even this week, I know we have lost some of our own church family; we have some who have lost someone dear to them. We have some who are critically ill and struggling. But joy doesn’t mean plastering a smile on your face when your heart is full of grief. In fact, I would suggest that we are capable of grief because we are capable of the joy our relationships bring us. Are you joyful? What in your life brings you joy?
                You know that my sense of humor is pretty sarcastic. I love a good snappy retort. My whole family functions with this kind of humor. I ran into a bit of trouble my freshman year of college, because two of my suitemates were from China. Humor is very cultural and it doesn’t translate very well. Sarcasm, I found, especially doesn’t translate well, and my roommates often thought I was just being mean. We actually had to sit down and talk about where I was coming from and what they were hearing from me. I tried to curb my sarcasm with my roommates, and they also learned more about my sense of humor, and eventually, things worked out pretty well. But we were on some shaky ground for a while. Really though, I must confess I like my sarcastic sense of humor. And it seems to be my gut reaction, with my sarcastic response sometimes out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
    The problem with my sarcastic outlook, though, is that sometimes it can serve as a wall between me and something I might more fully experience if I didn’t have my gut reaction of sarcasm. I’ve occasionally found myself unable to enjoy an experience that others might find moving, because I just can’t take it seriously – a performance, or a movie, or a story. Pastors sometimes have this trouble when we participate in worship instead of leading it. We spend so much time analyzing the worship services and how the pastor preached and what we would have done differently, that we kind of miss the worship itself, rejoicing in God, which is the whole point, isn’t it? I have a clergy colleague who, without fail, puts aside everything else and seems to be fully present whenever he is in worship – I admit I sometimes envy the joy and peace that seems to fill him when he opens his heart to God. What keeps you, prevents you, holds you back, lets you to hesitate from filling up with joy?
    What brings you joy? How is it that you rejoice in God? What brings you joy in this place, this congregation, right now, today, in this moment, among these people? I think I know a lot about what our struggles are – what people want to change, what frustrates us, challenges us. But I am less sure what brings us joy, deep joy, the joy that Jesus seeks to bring us to make us whole, complete. Next week we shift gears and we begin to focus on stewardship and giving to God. I invite you to start as I invited the children to start. I want you to make a list – make it as long as you can. I want you to carry a slip of paper with you this week, or keep a note on your cell phone, or a document on your laptop. And I want you to list the moments that you find joy this week. What brings you joy? If you find this assignment to be a challenge, if you find it hard to create a list of joyful moments, maybe you will need to ask some tough questions – why does so much of what we do fail to bring us joy? What are we filling up our lives with? 
    And then as we begin thinking about giving next week, I will ask you to first offer up your moments of joy to God, who is the source of all good gifts. You don’t want the children to show you up, do you? Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say rejoice. Amen.