Monday, January 24, 2011

Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, "Report of the Pastor"

Report of the Pastor – January 23rd, 2011
“Where Do You Belong?” – 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23


            As you know, I spent last week in Ohio in my second semester of classes for my Doctor of Ministry degree. One of the two classes I took was about the Global Emerging Church. Christianity has been and continues to shift in center – no longer primarily a European and American religion, Christianity is bigger and growing in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. We studied the theologies of the third-world, particularly liberation theologies – theologies that focus on freedom from oppression and God’s preferential option for the poor. And a recurring theme in all that we read and learned was this: theology can’t be just about studying God, reflecting on God and the scriptures. Theology must be praxis. And praxis is the combination of reflection and action. Reflection that doesn’t require any action is useless theology. And in fact, inaction is a choice too – an action whose laziness or apathy speaks volumes! Good theology, meaningful theology involves reflection and intentional action.
            People of faith in all places are called to claim a theological praxis. We think, we study, we learn. But then we act. We live out. We respond in action to God’s calling on our lives. Our two scripture lessons today help ground us in that understanding. First, a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We’ve talked about the Corinthians a few times this past year. They were an early house church community of faith, and Paul had lots of very frank words for them about how to get along as this new body. Here, Paul is writing in response to what he’s heard about divisions in the community – specifically that people seem to be separating themselves based on who baptized them, claiming that they “belong” to Paul or Peter or Apollos – lining themselves up with the leadership of that particular apostle. Paul responds, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or where you baptized in the name of Paul?” He continues insisting that all Paul is about is proclaiming the gospel and the power of the cross. We belong to Christ, and we’re called to be united in the “same mind and the same purpose” – sharing the good news. You might say that this reading represents our grounding – our reflection. And so our reading from Matthew’s gospel, then, represents our call to action, our response.
            In Matthew we follow Jesus as, following his cousin John’s arrest, Jesus begins taking up John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he’s walking by the Sea of Galilee, he sees brothers Peter and Andrew fishing. He says, with no introduction, at least not one that’s recorded, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We read “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” This scene is repeated with James and John, sons of Zebedee. And our passage closes with Jesus teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news. This is a passage of action. Disciples are called, and they respond. This is not a time for solitary reflection. This is a time for them to choose, act, follow. They lay down their nets and they go with Jesus. Good theology, good discipleship involves reflection and action. And that’s what our life together as a congregation involves too – reflection and action.
            Last year at this time, I shared with you my goals for my ministry in the covenant between me and you, the congregation. Since I was still in my first year with you, my goals reflect my hopes for building relationships. That was my first goal: build relationships with the church family – and the second: learn about the community and establish connections. I began with an ambitious goal – to visit everyone in the congregation. That was a new year’s resolution of sorts. Like all good resolutions, I didn’t meet my goal 100%. Please don’t be offended if I didn’t make it to visit you this last year. But I did get to spend a lot of time getting to know many of you better, and of course my hope is that we will continue to build our relationships – me with you, and you with each other. Maybe one of your own challenges this year can be to get to know someone better who also attends this church, that you’ve seen sitting across the way.
            A second goal was to give attention to the youth ministry program of the church. Our children and youth ministry coordinator position launched just a couple of months after my arrival here a year and a half ago. We hired Derek Hansen as our youth coordinator, and he did a wonderful job of kicking of a youth group, but of course, you know that Derek followed a call to seminary, and is now partway through his program there and serving a church as a student pastor. Luckily, Lori Greabell stepped in as interim, and eventually a permanent replacement as the Youth Coordinator. Lori has been doing a fantastic job – she spends time here and at Collamer on Sunday mornings, she’s expanded our youth program by adding a junior youth group for our thriving younger youth, and she’s been working with youth groups from Fayetteville and Manlius to provide even more exciting opportunities for our young people. My personal best experience was in sharing confirmation class with several of our young people last year. They survived my quizzes and accepted my bribes of pizza, even if it was only Little Caesar’s pizza, and in turn, I got to lead young people through a sacred journey, even if sometimes it takes time for the preciousness of that journey to sink in. We often speak of young people as the future of our church. But youth and children are not our future – they are our present. They are an essential and vital part of the life of our church right now. Jesus said “let the children come” and I don’t think it was just words to him. In fact Jesus said that unless we became like children, we could never enter the kingdom of heaven. I hope that we continue to work for our young people to be a welcome part of all we do here. We can help, guide, shape, mentor them, and share with them the faith that together we follow.     
            Stewardship is another focus we’ve had this year. In fact, we’ve just completed our deficit buster campaign, and we can celebrate that through your generous giving we met our 2010 budget, when we began the year thinking it would be impossible. That was possible because of your giving – that was it – your giving, your generosity, your commitment and response to the need we shared. It reminds me that all things are possible with God, even transforming our struggles into blessings. Stewardship is reflecting on why and how we give. Why do you think God gives to us? Sometimes when we think about giving, we get caught up in budgets and spending and debt and making ends meet. Those things are important, for sure. But it’s not why we’re called to give, any more than God gives to us out of obligation. As I’ve said before, even if our budget was fully funded from some other source, we’d still be called to give because that’s what God does, and we’re called to be God’s agents in the world. It is God’s pleasure to give to us out of God’s abundant, endless love, and we’re meant to learn the pleasure of exemplifying this same giving heart.
            Finally, a goal this year, and every year, is finding ways for our worship together, our worship of God who creates us, to be rich, meaningful, and transformational. For me, at the center is keeping in sight always why we worship. We worship because God is God and we are not! We worship because God is love and we seek to love in response. And we worship because we want to know this God, encounter this God, hear from this God, be moved by this God. We’re a diverse body – we’re drawn to different ways and styles of worship, and yet we still seek to find common ground. I’m always eager to hear your thoughts about worship, and what would be meaningful to you. I’m always eager for you to be involved in leading worship. One of my favorite ways of worshipping with you is to take ancient practices and make them new again, as we learn and practice. I was deeply grateful for your openness to working with my on my World Communion Sunday project this year, where we got a taste, a small taste, of worship in the early church. We ever seek to praise the God who created us, just as people have been doing for thousands of years. We come with open hearts and minds to be filled by God’s Holy Spirit.
            As we move ahead in our journey together, my goals will transition, our goals will take shape as we respond to God’s call on this congregation. We reflect on where God has led us thus far, and we respond by following where God is leading us now. This year, I plan on shifting some of my focus to answer areas where I think we can really grow.
            Our focus on mission is a real strength and growing edge in our congregation. You’ve been engaged in mission always, but I’ve had a number of people note how much investment in mission has increased over the last few years. My aim is for us to specifically focus our attention on hands-on mission. Studies show that churches that engage in mission, that are outward-focused, are healthier, stronger in times of crisis, and more likely to be growing than churches that keep an inward focus. Jesus poured himself out in every way to serve others. If we are not about serving others, we’re in trouble.
            We’ll also focus on evangelism as a heightened priority this year – that is, sharing the good news with others, inviting people in, welcoming visitors, following up and making new folks feel at home here. Karen Dunn has done a wonderful job in leading in evangelism, and our carnival in September was a huge success in saying to the community: we’re here, and we want you here too – we have something we want to share. I loved the way the carnival involved nearly every person in this congregation, and showed us what we’re capable of when we are all invested in the work together.
            In the coming weeks, we’ll look at these goals in worship piece by piece. All of these pieces, I hope you will see, are ways of putting our faith into practice – combining reflection with action – not just what we believe about God, but how what we believe, what God has done in us, causes us to change our lives. I want this church to be a significant part of your faith journey, a place where you can learn to live out what Jesus teaches. You might remember me sharing after our Parish Council retreat this fall that my vision if for this church to be a place where lives are changed because of being transformed by the grace of our living God. That is my deepest hope, and all of my other hopes are pinned on this, expressions of this. I want you to find this church to be a place that changes your life, that helps you connect what you believe with how you live.
Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Amen.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Year A, "Well Pleased"

Sermon 1/9/11
Matthew 3:13-17
Well Pleased 

            The verses in the scriptures about Jesus’ baptism are very few in number – each gospel has an account of Jesus’ baptism, but all of them combined amount to just a couple paragraphs. And yet, I think it is such an important passage, and this day is one of my favorites in the liturgical calendar. I think it’s important, Jesus’ baptism, because of the questions we have to answer about it, and the main question is why? Why does Jesus get baptized?
            Why? That’s a question John also seems to have for Jesus. He seems surprised that Jesus comes for baptism, and would prevent it if he could, at least at first. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, John has been baptizing as a symbol of repentance – a symbol of turning back to God from our wanderings, and being forgiven and reconciled to God and one another. Why would Jesus need this? He hasn’t wandered off God’s path. He’s God’s child. He’s God made flesh! Jesus answers John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” By this answer John is convinced. He baptizes Jesus, and as Jesus rises from the water, the heavens open, the Spirit of God, like a dove, descends on Jesus, and a voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
            John is convinced by Jesus’ answer, but we might wonder what exactly he heard in Jesus’ words. Jesus says, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness is one of those words that shows up in the Bible hundreds of time, and yet, we don’t really actually have a good grasp of it. It’s a broad concept – you could write a whole book about what biblical righteousness is, but you can think of it more simply as “right relationship,” particularly with God – a person who is righteous is a person who is living like God wants them to live – their actions are just and justified, and their living is pleasing to God. One early English bible translator called it “rightwise” or “rightways.” Jesus is baptized because his baptism shows that he is doing what is pleasing to God, Jesus says.
            But I think Jesus’ baptism is an act of righteousness because it also establishes his right relationship as God-with-us. That’s what we just celebrated in Christmas – Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus’ baptism is an act of righteousness because it is a symbol of the new hope for our right relationship with God – Jesus is God with us, our relationship with God put to rights because Jesus comes to be one of us, with us. As we are baptized, so Jesus is baptized. He’s with us. Fully immersed in our human condition, one with in our grief, sorrows, joys, and triumphs.
            I think Jesus’ baptism is a scene that acts out what we believe about the sacraments. In our traditions, from our Presbyterian and Methodist foundations, we celebrate sacraments as acts that Jesus commanded we repeat that communicate God’s grace to us. The sacraments are symbols of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, at work. We use this language about other rites as well, the language that tells us that some of our symbols of faith represent to us God’s grace. In a wedding, when I bless wedding bands, I say that “these rings are an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Though marriage is not a sacrament, we certainly consider it sacred, and so I think we can use that language to understand the sacrament of baptism: Baptism is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, the free gift, offered to us by God. It’s the outward way we remind ourselves of what is always true, but sometimes forgotten by us: God loves us without condition and without end. Jesus is baptized because his mission is to make God’s love visible in our lives, and teach us to make God’s love visible to others by our actions, by our right living, by our being righteous.
            Today, the focus of this service is not my words, but our actions together. Today I invite you to renew the vows taken at your baptism, to remember that God loves you, that God is with you, and that we are called to partner with God to make God’s love visible to others. When I say today, “remember your baptism and be thankful,” many of you of course can’t remember your baptism – but I ask you to remember that someone already stood up for you to claim that God’s love was made visible in your very life – by the fact of your existence, others can see that God is love.
            We gather at the beginning of a new year together, in this church, this community, this world. It seems too easy to look at the world and only see acts of separation, of hatred, of violence, of selfishness at work. Somehow we forget what Jesus came to show us, that God is with us, what purpose Jesus lived and died and lives in us for. But what if, this year, we concentrated on making God’s love visible? What if our words and actions all pointed to God’s love? What if, in our relationship with others, we acted towards them, treated them in such a way, that what they got out of our interaction was an overwhelming sense of God’s love for them? Imagine how people might live differently if they never doubted God’s love.
            Following our time of renewal this morning, we’ll sing a hymn by one of my favorite hymnists, Ruth Duck – a hymn for baptism called, “Was, O God, Our Sons and Daughters.” As we prepare our hearts and minds, I invite you to hear words from the last verse of this hymn: We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born. By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform! Let that be our prayer – Recreate us God. Transform our lives. And let us make God’s love visible in our lives, and the lives of all whom we meet. Amen. 

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Rise and Shine"

Sermon 1/2/11
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

Rise and Shine


            When I was on staff at Camp Aldersgate when I was a teenager, the program director used to sing a little song to wake people up in the morning: “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine, breakfast is at eight and not at nine!” Of course, he was from England, and sang with a lovely British accent, but I can’t pull that off. And of course, we really didn’t feel much like rising and shining most of those early mornings. But I can’t hear the phrase “rise and shine” without thinking of those days. Another camp memory – a little song about Noah’s ark, and the chorus – which repeated through many verses, “So rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory, rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory. Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory, children of the Lord.” Ok, the song was of the variety that after a few years, you sort of never wanted to hear that chorus again. But I guess after enough years go by, you can get sort of nostalgic, or just hear with new years, and I’ve been thinking about the hopefulness, the energy of those words, perfect for new beginnings. Rise and shine and give God your glory, children of the Lord.
            That’s the message of Isaiah this morning: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah is writing this part of his prophetic texts when the Israelites have finally been given permission by the king of Persia, Darius, to return to their homeland. They had been living in exile in Babylon for so long – for most people, a lifetime had passed since they had been exile from Israel – more than 50 years had passed – many would not remember or not even have been born when the people were forced to leave their homeland. But finally, they can return, and begin again. And really, it was very much a new beginning – too much time had gone by to simply resume life as it had been. They would have to create new lives in Israel. But Isaiah writes with words of such hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth . . . but the Lord will arise upon you . . . Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
Today is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany day is technically January 6th – 12 days after Christmas day – making today technically the 9th day of Christmas – nine ladies dancing day. So we’re still in this season of Christmas, actually. But we celebrate the Epiphany on the closest Sunday before January 6th when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day, among other things, when we remember the arrival of the Wise Men or Magi, men from the East from a sort of priestly class, men whose religious practices included an interest in astronomy, to see the Christ-child. The Wise Men visit Mary and Joseph and the child sometime after Jesus is born – he was maybe already a toddler by the time they arrived at his home, even though we see many Magi in nativities. They brought gifts for the child, believing he would be a king – gold and frankincense and myrrh. Gold for a king, frankincense for priestly significance, myrrh, a perfume used at death in burial rites. There’s no mention of a number of Magi – but over time, of course, we’ve come to think of there being three Wise Men.
The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” You can see why our text from Isaiah is so perfect for Epiphany. Epiphany, in our faith context, is a day when we think of the light of Christ shining forth in the world – Christ coming to light, being revealed. This ties in with the Wise Men because the Magi weren’t Jews, and their visit to Jesus, recognizing him as a king, symbolizes that Jesus in the light of the whole world, not just of the then-very-small Jewish faith. Jesus comes to be light for the world – revealed to all of us – that’s what we’re celebrating on Epiphany Sunday.
Today Epiphany isn’t something we make much of us – at least not in the church in the United States. But in our church history, the feast of Epiphany used to be one of the great celebrations. Perhaps you also remember the Shakespeare play, "12th Night" - this refers also to the 12th night of Christmas, the eve of Epiphany, the culmination of the Christmas celebration. Nowadays, however, we do things a little differently. We barely make it to Christmas day without jumping the gun and celebrating during Advent. We certainly don't make our celebrations last for twelve days after, not unless you try to pass New Year's Eve parties off as the newest form of religious Christmas revelry. After all, what's so fun to celebrate in Epiphany, anyway? There's no presents left to exchange, the baby Jesus is already born, and though it's a feast day, we're really trying to get through at least the first week of January without breaking our well-intentioned resolutions!
But I think Epiphany is an important moment in our liturgical year, and actually just right for the new beginning that we all seek. Most of us know what the word Epiphany itself means in everyday usage. Epiphany means a sudden realization of the truth about something. It's the lightbulb moment, the "A-Ha" moment when the pieces fall into place and comprehension succeeds. It's the moment of recognition. And that meaning can help us understand what Epiphany means for our lives today. Today we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ – really – would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and let go and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always long for what others have, for example? And we never ask for support – we start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. It is Christ who is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: We don’t see ourselves very clearly. I think the apostle Paul was right on when he talked about how we “see in a mirror dimly.” So often, we look at ourselves and see our failures, our faults, our flaws. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been uniquely formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We just don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be.
Next Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when we will remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus. As part of our celebration, we’ll have a chance to renew the vows that we took or were taken for us at our own baptisms, to reaffirm our faith, and to begin again. Let the light of Christ fill your hearts as we begin again. Let the light wash over your life, that we might be ready to share the light with the world. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Amen.