Monday, February 28, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Transfiguration Sunday, Year A

Readings for Transfiguration Sunday, 3/6/11
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

Exodus 24:12-18:
  • "The Lord was like a devouring fire." How do you see God? How does God appear to you? The people in Ancient Israel saw God in such concrete ways. New Testament folks saw God concretely in a different sense: embodied in Christ. We still see God as incarnated in Christ, but how else do we speak of God, see God concretely in our world?
  • going up the mountain - we talk a lot about mountain-top experiences - places where we feel "high on life" and maybe high on God. What did Moses feel up on the mountain with God? What has been a mountain-top experience for you?
  • Forty days and forty nights! My mountain-top times rarely are so long. We forget being close with God and how God spoke to us so quickly, don't we? I think of The Chronicles of Narnia, as always, The Silver Chair this time (C.S. Lewis) where Jill is hearing The Signs from Aslan on the mountain. And Aslan's voice (he's the lion Christ-like figure) is always clearer on the mountain than on the ground. It is the same for us, isn't it? But like in The Silver Chair, the trick for us is to remember God's voice, God's instructions, God's presence, even when our mountain-top time is over.
Psalm 99:
  • "lover of justice, you have established equity" - this is definitely my favorite phrase in this Psalm. God loves justice. And we don't need to wonder what is meant by justice in this case. This is not God-lover-of-justice who loves to punish and condemn. The justice that God loves is the justice that brings equity. That's equal-ness. Fairness for everyone. God tells us what justice means. Let's not try to define it on our own when God already does it for us.
  • "you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrong-doings." An interesting verse. God who is both forgiving and avenging. According to dictionary.com, avenge means "to inflict a punishment or penalty in return for" Can God forgive us and punish us? I'm not sure. I always hesitate to think of or speak of God in terms of punishing us, because I think our theologically can get really out of hand when we go there - we like to point out how God is punishing others who are not like us, or we worry that everything that happens to us that we don't like is due to God's punishment. But does God punish? What do you think?
  • "Worship at [God's] holy mountain. For the Lord our God is holy". For the Israelites, the mountain was a holy place to meet God. For us, our sanctuaries are sometimes holy - what other places are those you consider holy places?
2 Peter 1:16-21:
  • "for we did not follow cleverly devised myths" (emphasis added) - ah, what a sentence. Most Christians will agree that Jesus Christ is not a myth, though prodding into how we understand Jesus might expose areas of disagreement. We're good at calling what others believe myths, while what we believe we call truth, right? human nature...
  • "we ourselves heard this voice." Peter draws on the power of personal witness. He was there!! That is the reason you should believe his message. Indeed, we're more likely to believe something that's from a more direct source. I think of the internet sites, like truthorfiction.com, that are dedicated to filtering the truth from the junk in email forwards. With matters of faith, it is more important, isn't it, that we can filter out truth and fiction, but we have no handy website to do so. What tools do you use to identify truth?
Matthew 17:1-9:
  • Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the three disciples witness Jesus' 'transfiguration' - Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is changed, dazzling and dressed in white. Transfiguration Sunday is generally under celebrated and underappreciated, I think, but there are lots of ways we can relate to this story.
  • Unlike other gospel accounts, like Luke's, where Peter, confused, offers to build tents for Jesus and company, here, the disciples' response to what they see is fear. Has an experience of God and who God is ever caused a response of fear in you? We often fear what our relationship with God might require of us. Seeing God and God's glory face to face in such an undeniable way would leave us with an undeniable responsibility to act, wouldn't it?
  • "tell no one" Why do you think Jesus wanted to keep the transfiguration hush-hush for all but these three? Perhaps he knew it wouldn't make as much sense to them until later? What do you think? What would cause you to keep a really awesome experience of God quiet? When and why would you tell or would you not tell what you saw? 

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, "Enough for Today"

Sermon 2/27/11
Matthew 6:24-34

Enough for Today


            Like our text from a few weeks ago, about being the salt of the earth and light of the world, today’s gospel lesson comes from the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve skipped ahead a bit, but this passage, like that one, comes from a huge chunk of Jesus’ teaching; these three chapters of Matthew that contain the Sermon could alone consume our time as we interpret and are challenged to live in the way that Jesus sets out for us. This passage is probably familiar to you. It’s a passage we characterize as being about “worry,” although there’s certainly a lot packed into this text. In this chapter, Jesus has just talked about giving alms, praying, and fasting, followed up by saying that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And then Jesus starts with today’s passage. Let me read it to you again from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
24"You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both.
25-26"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
27-29"Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.
30-33"If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. 34"Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."
Every time I come back and study this passage, I first think: How can Jesus say not to worry? Not only do I find it difficult not to worry myself, but how can you tell people who are hungry – truly hungry – not to worry about what they will eat? And how can you tell people who are poor and without not to worry about clothing? Telling people who have experienced true hunger, true fear about shelter and clothing that God will take care of things when their day-to-day life says otherwise – that’s a pretty hard sell. But, but – we always have to take what Jesus says in the context he says it in to understand what he means – and I think Jesus means something different than easy platitudes. Jesus is tying his words back to his opening comments in this passage today about having more than one master. We can tell this because of how this section about not worrying starts. In our New Revised Standard Version bibles, we just get “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” But the original Greek is even more specific. It says, “Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So the whole section reads: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other; or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So, in context, what does this passage mean for us?
            We’ve been talking about my goals for this year in ministry. One of my goals for us as a congregation this year is, as my covenant states, to “find ways to help [us] understand how stewardship relates to our relationship with God.” Our finance team has talked a lot about this, about what our hopes are for the congregation and how we can work together to educate about what stewardship is, what God calls us to do, about why and how we give and what our giving really does. One of my sincere hopes for us is that we can start talking about stewardship all year – and by this I don’t mean that I want us to feel strained all year by stress and worry about our finances. I mean quite the opposite, actually. What I mean is that I want stewardship, giving, to be such a core principle of who we are together, that we do it regularly all year, are stewards all year round. I find it distracting, in the midst of the season of Advent and Christmas at the end of the year, to be worrying deeply, to be stressed and absorbed with wondering whether or not we will be able to pay our own bills, when I would rather we be focused on, joyfully awaiting the birth of the Christ-child, and seeking out ways to offer gifts to others in need. I’m sure none of you would miss an end-of-the-year focus on paying bills. But to enable that to happen, we need a year-round deeper understanding of stewardship and giving.
            Sometimes we get ourselves all mixed up about giving, and then we’re confused by why our giving is always accompanied by stress and anxiety as a congregation. I think our text from Matthew suggests that we’re letting the wrong things drive us. For example – when we give out of worry or fear or stress – we’re probably on the wrong track. When we want to “get new members” in the congregation because we’re hoping they might contribute and help us meet the budget – well, that’s not exactly the good news that I think Jesus had in mind us sharing, the motivation which will really help us inspire other to be part of this body of Christ. When our mission and ministry has to be determined by our budget, instead of our budget being determined by where we see God calling us into mission and ministry, we’re in trouble. I know it isn’t just as easy as saying that our giving shouldn’t be laced with stress and worry. But we have to start somewhere, make a beginning. Just recently, we managed, in spite of the odds, to completely meet the budget we set out for ourselves last year. We didn’t think we could do it. But we did – and we did it with the gifts and graces that God has given to us – from our own resources, our own strength as a congregation. And we need to celebrate that. It’s hard for us to celebrate when we’re so used to being stressed and worried – I had to remind our finance team to take a moment to be proud of the hard work they’d done. But we should rejoice and give thanks for how God can work among us and with us and through us when we work together and open ourselves to God.
            I’ve been giving challenges to you, to me, each week, for our year ahead. Two weeks ago, I challenged you to invite and bring someone to worship with you in the year ahead, and to encourage that person to become involved in our congregation. Last week, I challenged us to become involved in a hands-on, face-to-face mission, or to go deeper in our efforts in a program we’re already involved in.
            This week’s challenge is harder or easier, depending on how you look at it. I thought about a lot of different challenges I could give related to stewardship. Members of my first church told me how one year, they were challenged to tithe for a month, and then, if they really found that they couldn’t or didn’t want to give that tithe, their money was refunded. A particular couple told me they tried it, and found it doable, and had been tithing ever since. That could be a challenge! But that’s not our challenge. Not now. That’s not what I think we need first. Here’s the challenge. Easy or hard. Every time you give to the church this year, or give to God through some mission or charity that serves in mission and ministry, I want you to stop and focus on giving from a place of thanksgiving and joy. Give because you give thanks to God. And give because of the joy that you get from giving. Maybe that seems like an easy challenge – it’s about a state of mind, an attitude. But, I think it’s harder, because it isn’t something you can just check off the list. You can’t just mark it as “done.” It’s ongoing – I want you to really think, every time you give, about giving from a place of thanksgiving and joy. I think, I suspect, I believe that if we truly start giving with joy in our hearts and thanksgiving on our lips, we will be on our way to transforming stewardship in this congregation.
             ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Amen.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, "Face to Face" (non-lectionary)

Sermon 2/20/11
Matthew 25:31-45

Face to Face


            We’re in a span of time right now that is the season after the Epiphany. It’s this time between Epiphany Sunday and Transfiguration Sunday and the beginning of Lent that isn’t really anything in particular, liturgically speaking. And it is a time that is shorter or longer each year, because it depends on the date of Easter, which then determines when Lent begins. So sometimes this non-season is as short as three weeks, and sometimes, it is as long as eight week before Transfiguration Sunday, like this year. Lucky for you, that gives me just enough time to spend a week on each one of my goals for the coming year for ministry in our congregation.
Last week, you remember, we talked about evangelism and being welcoming. You remember the challenge I gave you? Gave us? Our challenge in the year ahead, besides being God’s welcome wherever we are, is to invite someone, bring someone to worship with you this year and to see if you can help them become a part of this congregation.
This week, I want to talk to you about mission. That a church should be in mission seems pretty much a no-brainer. Who’s going to argue with that, right? And I’ve mentioned many times before that church studies show that churches that are outward-focused, focused on serving others, churches that continue to focus on others even when times are difficult – those churches are actually healthier and stronger than churches that turn inward in times of crisis.
We have a lot of mission happening in our church. To name a few: We collect food items for PEACE of East Syracuse and for food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have monthly collections for things like personal items, hats and gloves, school supplies, and so on. Once a month, we make sandwiches for the Samaritan Center. We host the East Syracuse Meals on Wheels program, which not only provides meals for some of our own members, but also can count many of our members in its volunteers. We volunteers in the Mailroom at the Syracuse Rescue Mission once a month, and regularly serve meals at the soup kitchen. We have a team of people who leads a worship service at The Crossings Nursing Home once a month. We have a huge group every year that participates in the CROP Walk to stop hunger, either by walking, or being part of the organizing team, or by sponsoring walkers. We ring the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas time. We carol to our homebound members and to an adult home here in East Syracuse. Our Sunday School students have put together boxes of toys for Operation Christmas Child, and they’ve raised funds for Heifer International to provide people with animals that help them make a living. We collected health kits and money for Haiti relief after the devastating earthquake last year. We host speakers to share with us important work that we support through our church – prison ministry, Matthew 25 Farm, here to share today, to name just a couple. And we have more ideas in store for the future. All these things I have listed are ways that we are in mission, and I know I have left things off the list, just skimmed the surface.
But, this year, I want even more. I want even more from us as a congregation, as individuals. One of my goals this year is for us to be a hands-on mission congregation. I am so proud of all the ways that we serve others. God calls us to go ever deeper in our discipleship. And so I want us to think about ways to be hands-on about our mission. All the other pieces that contribute to our total mission program are essential – we need to collect items and give money to support missions and help in behind-the-scenes ways. But I want us to particularly think about the hands-on aspect of mission. But maybe saying hands-on mission doesn’t help to get to the heart of what I’m driving it. What I want us to be about is perhaps more than hands-on – I want us to be involved in face-to-face mission.
What do we do when the demands of the gospel and the call for justice – what do we do when the needs of others are right there – when those who stand in need are right there, when it is all right there in our face? Face-to-face is what it is all about for Jesus. Think of the parable we just heard from Matthew’s gospel – the parable of the sheep and the goats. This parable is the last parable recorded in the gospel of Matthew, and it is the last thing Jesus teaches about before the passion – before the Passover, last supper, trial, and crucifixion. When the Son of Man comes, Jesus says, using a phrase to describe himself, the nations will be gathered before him, and the people will be separated like a shepherd would separate sheep and goats in a flock. The sheep, put at the Son of Man’s right hand, will hear words of blessing, and be invited into the kingdom. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and your gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The righteous or ‘just’ ones are confused – “Lord, when was it that we saw you,” they wonder? They don’t remember ever encountering Jesus. But Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This scene repeats in opposites with those who are like the goats. Jesus calls them accursed, unable to enter the kingdom, because they saw Jesus in need and did not respond. Likewise, the goats ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you . . . and did not take care of you?” Jesus responds in kind, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
            In this passage, the crux, the key, seems to be in that everyone expects that they would have had a chance to show their good or bad behavior to Jesus directly. They don’t ever remember meeting Jesus. But you get a sense that all of them, sheep and goats alike, would have tried to do kind things for Jesus if they’d met him face to face. We mess up a lot of the time, but we could at least treat Jesus himself kindly, right? But the sheep and the goats don’t realize that they’ve been seeing Jesus all along – in the people they meet, in the people they serve, or the people they’ve looked over. That Christ is within us, lives in each person, is key for us understanding this parable. 
            Whether a person is counted as a sheep or a goat in this passage hinges on how they treat others. That seems fairly simple. We all want to treat others kindly. But Jesus gets at something more than that. Being a sheep or goat hinges not simply on how you treat others who happen across your path, but on how important it is to you to make sure your path crosses with others who need you to treat them well! Just like we talked about with welcome last week, when we thought about how Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him, but went to where others were, when we thought about how we can’t wait for others to show up at worship, but have to go where people are and invite them to know God, so it is in this passage, this lesson. This passage is about being intentional – Jesus seems to focus us on not just being nice or kind to those who come into our lives, but purposely coming into the lives of those who need us, the “least of these,” who Jesus calls members of his family. In other words, whether you are a sheep or a goat depends on your relationships – how you relate to others, who you relate to, why you relate to them. This parable is about relationships with those who are the least of these. 
Nothing is riskier for us than relationships. Think over all the relationships that make up your life and your world. With our friends, family, loved ones, our relationships are usually some of the most valued things in our lives. But they’re also probably the source of some of the deepest pains we’ve known in our lives. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to be in a relationship. We have to open ourselves, to share ourselves. In any relationship, between friends, spouses, siblings, parents and children – we have to know that the person can bring us great joy, and great pain. And we have to risk that it’s worth it.
But the trouble is, because relationships are so risky, while we certainly do nurture relationships with close friends, family, we often play it pretty safe. We don’t open ourselves up to too many people. And we tend to form relationships with those who are like us, share a way of life with us. We tend to limit how much we interact with people who fall outside of our close circle of friends and family – at least how much we interact in meaningful ways, ways that go beyond the surface, ways that are more than exchanges of a “How are you? Fine, thanks” conversation. If relationships are risky, we tend to be pretty careful at limiting our risk to relationships we think are really worth our time and effort. Relationships are risky. But we’re very good at limiting our risk to only those most crucial relationships.
And then, into our carefully sheltered lives, breaks the word of God, and the example of Jesus, who was all about face-to-face relationships. Throughout his ministry, one of the things Jesus was most criticized for was who he spent his time with. The Pharisees challenged Jesus over and over for sharing meals, going into homes, healing those who were unclean, who were considered unfit for society. Jesus spent time – real time – with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, people everyone else hated. And though Jesus certainly had those who were close to him – the twelve – he also had other disciples – at least seventy who he commissioned for ministry, plus women who he made part of his ministry, plus children that were cared for, plus the crowds that followed him everywhere. He even spent time with the very Pharisees who so criticized him. When it came to relationships, Jesus was always taking risks, always making it face-to-face, always opening himself a little bit more, always willing to make himself vulnerable.
And so naturally, Jesus seems to expect the same of us. When we turn back to this parable of sheep and goats, we find that Jesus expects us to be face-to-face with him through being face-to-face with others. He expects that when we encounter others, we’ll see his face in them, and because of that, we’ll be ready to risk – ready to open ourselves up and make relationships.
My challenge for you today is that in the coming year you and I find at least one mission to be part of where we are spending time with the people we serve. If you’re already doing this – that’s great. But you’re still not off the hook. Find more way, or a way to take your involvement to the next level. Find a way to serve that puts you face-to-face with those you are serving. Find a way that brings you into relationship as you serve. Jesus is clear in this parable. We’re blessed when we feed, and clothe, and visit, and comfort. We’re blessed when we make relationships. When we risk. When we come truly face-to-face with the least of these, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Relaaaxxx

I have been spending these last few days on vacation at the Proskine Cabin at Casowasco. It is gorgeous and lovely and has been really delightful. 

I've noticed, though, how bad I am at relaxing. 

Now, before I elaborate, let me say that I really dislike the habit we have, that clergy have (maybe this is a problem for everyone else too, but I'm talking particularly about my colleagues here), of trying to "out busy" each other. Busy-ness is not next to godliness, I swear. 

What I want to say, though, is that I find it very hard to relax, and that it being so hard to relax is pretty sad, a sad reflection on ministry and culture and perhaps a statement about my need to more faithfully cultivate a practice of Sabbath. 

Yesterday, I had nothing on my agenda except having lunch with friends. But all day, I couldn't escape a sense of "should be." I should be doing this, I should be doing that. Was I in town away from the cabin too long? I really should be at the cabin so I can relax. Should I check my email? I would enjoy checking email, but shouldn't I be happy to not check my email? I have a couple of emails that I want to send, but I want to go for a walk before dark, but shouldn't I really get to those emails? 

The first day I was here I found myself a bit frantically wanting to do everything I had brought with me to do to relax. I tossed some 10 lb weights and my kettlebell in with me for exercise, a vegetarian slow-cooker cookbook to look at, some library books I've had out, some movies I rented at red box, my journal, which I've neglected writing in of late. And Monday night, I was stressed out because I was try to make sure I "relaxed" with all of those things right away. Even though I had the whole week to "relax" and even though relaxing should actually involve some joy, not more stress. 

The best vacation I ever had in my life was when I went on a cruise a few years ago. It was awesome, because I was cut off from so many things - it was expensive to use the internet for more than a couple minutes at a time, if at all. I could barely tax my mind enough to read a magazine while I was laying on the deck. Playing trivia games didn't count. But I can't afford to go on a cruise every time I need to relaaaxxxx. (Alas!) 

I'm trying to take a deep breath, and ask myself this week: What do I want to do right now? What would I most enjoy during this time? What would be really satisfying? 

My favorite Bible verse has been, since high school: I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10 b) That's what Jesus came for - for us to have abundant life. I'm trying to remember that, and let it guide my life. I'm trying to let it shape even my vacation, and I suspect if I let it guide my ministry more I would find the fruit of that endeavor as well. 

And now, I'm going to go watch some cheesy movie that I've seen 100 times already. And I think I will enjoy it. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Non-lectionary Sermon, "Welcome," John 15:1-12

Sermon 2/13/11
John 15:1-12

Welcome 

            As I mentioned last week, I want to spend the next few Sundays talking about my goals for our life together in the coming year. This Sunday, I want to focus on the area of evangelism and being a welcoming congregation. One of my goals for us is that we challenge and stretch ourselves to be even more open and welcoming as a congregation. There are many parts of “welcoming” that we do as a congregation.
We try to be welcoming when someone visits the congregation. Even if you’ve attended the church for many years, or even all your life, all of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of visiting another congregation for some reason or another. Especially if you’ve gone through the process of looking for a new place of worship, or trying for the first time to try out this thing called church, you know that it can be very intimidating to walk into to a service of worship for the first time. You are entering into a place where, at least in a congregation of about this size or smaller, people more or less know each other. You’re entering into a place where everyone else knows the way things are usually done. As regulars, we don’t always think about what we take for granted. For example, we assume that everyone knows to stand up when we sing the Doxology without it being announced. We assume that people know what we mean when we say “Narthex.” We assume that people know the words of the Lord’s Prayer. We have a familiarity with the life of the church that visitors don’t have, and sometimes I think we forget what a bold step, what a risk it is, what a brave act of seeking out God it is for a visitor to come to worship with us.
So we seek to be ever more welcoming to those who come to worship. Practically, this means we want to pay attention to visitors - we need to move out of our own comfort zones to greet those who are unfamiliar to us, to invite people to coffee hour, to help show someone around the church, to express that we’d love to have someone join us for worship again, to answer questions someone might have. Beyond that, it means thinking about how we can be welcoming in other ways – how is our building welcoming? How are our programs inviting? How is our worship welcoming? All of these are matters we can attend to in order to be more welcoming. For example, we just approved a project at Parish Council, dreamed up by Cee Cee Andrew, that will help us revitalize our nursery room, because Cee Cee feels strongly that providing a warm, clean, inviting space for parents to bring their small children can have a big impact on how welcome they feel.
We also want to make sure folks know we’re glad that they’ve been here. Our Evangelism Team has worked on following up with those who’ve visited us for worship. We don’t want to overwhelm people, but we also don’t want people to wonder whether or not we cared if they were here – we do! And then, when people make the decision either to become members of this congregation or to attend regularly, we want to help people feel that they can say, “This church is my church – this is where I belong.” That means we want to let people know that they are not only welcome but encouraged to become part of the work of the church – our mission and ministries. Last week we welcomed four new members, and I can share with you that already theses new members, Melanie, Jessica, Angela, and CJ, are getting involved. Among them you’ll find that already they’ve helped with the Christmas Eve children’s pageant, or brought in items for the food baskets and our personal items collection this month, or joined the choir. They’ve jumped right in. And I hope that we continue to help them be part of this congregation as they make this step of faith in their relationship with God.
There’s another step in being a welcoming congregation – and that’s actually what I would say is the “first” step. How do we encourage folks to attend worship or an event or function of our congregation in the first place? What brings someone here to worship for the first time? What brings someone into contact with our congregation for the first time? This first step is also probably the most challenging for us. If we only wait for people to show up here on their own, we will miss out on many opportunities for sharing God’s love with our neighbors, and we’ll limit ourselves in how we can grow or even maintain the body we have. We must actively be reaching out to others, rather than waiting for others to reach out to us. Jesus is our model – he certainly responded to the needs that people brought to him, but he also went out of his way to be in relationship with others and to invite them into relationship with God. We must do the same. Our evangelism team can help us – our carnival in September was a super example of reaching out and inviting people in. But the most powerful tool we have in inviting folks in is ourselves. There’s no more powerful invitation to come to know God than the one that comes from someone who is your friend, someone who cares for you personally. I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to invite and bring at least one person to worship with you this year. Imagine – imagine, if each person here helped one person this year become part of this congregation. Imagine if even each family unit here helped one person become part of this congregation – that would be amazing! If this work of welcoming sounds particularly compelling to you, I invite you to join the Evangelism Committee for a meeting on Thursday, March 10th, at 6:30pm, and help us dream new ways to open our hearts to all those God draws into this place.
            As I lay this hope for you, this goal I have for our work together, I must make it clear that all of this is undergirded by, grounded in, matters because of how God is in relationship with us and who God calls us to be. We are called to be welcoming because we are welcomed by God. The work of welcoming is what we call hospitality. Biblically, hospitality is an essential part of the identity of the people of God. In the Old Testament, the Israelites are called to be hospitable to strangers because they were once strangers in strange lands. For me, the deepest grounding we find for our call to be welcoming as we are welcomed by God comes from our reading from John’s gospel today. It is one of my favorite passages. We find here one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. Jesus presents us with an image that ties into the land and the people that were close to him. “I am the true vine,” Jesus declares. “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” God is the vinegrower. Jesus talks about how the branches – us – can’t have live if they are separated from the vine – himself. And as branches, we’re meant to be the bearers of much fruit – fruit that we’re able to grow because we abide in him as he abides in us. We literally take our life from the vine, and through Christ, we can become fruit-bearing disciples. And Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide – that word means literally “to stay at home.” So we can read it as, “Stay at home in me as I stay at home in you.”
             To abide in someone – to let someone abide in you – these acts suggest intimate relationships – being at home in one another. That’s what Jesus lifts up as how we are meant to be with God and one another. To offer abiding love is to offer deep hospitality. Think about getting ready for company. Sometimes, when you have company over, or you visit someone at their house, sometimes you are just that – company. But other times, someone will say to you, “please, make yourself at home.” And sometimes they truly mean it. And when they say this, what they mean is, “be yourself here. Act here as you would act at your own home. My home is your home.” What does it mean to make God at home in us? God grows us, shapes us, prunes us. So the message from the scriptures today is clear: God tells us repeatedly that we are meant to feel at home in God’s heart. We’re meant to be ourselves. To be welcome family. To be able to kick our shoes off and act like we’re not just visiting, but ready to settle in and stay awhile. And what God wants in return is the same welcome from us. God wants to be welcomed into our lives, our homes, our hearts too. God wants not to be an occasional visitor, but someone always there, remaining, always, within us. And further, as part of this family, this ever-expanding family, our relationship with God is never just about God and us – it’s never just the two of us. How we love God and how God loves us always involves our love for our brothers and sisters too. This house that we’ve invited God to stay in with us – God has taken the liberty of inviting over some guests – namely, everybody else.
Jesus says that we are part of the vine – we’re the branches, growing out of Christ, our common ground. That means that the same vine that nourishes and sustains me is the vine that nourishes and sustains you and is the vine that nourishes and sustains others. We’re connected. In fact, John argues, we can’t even claim to love God unless we first claim to love our brothers and sisters. We love God by loving others. God remains at home in us when we invite others to be at home in our hearts as well.
            Jesus is the best model we have for how to be welcoming, and the amazing thing about this is that Jesus didn’t have a home, or one place of worship he attended every week into which he could welcome people. He didn’t have a home that we know of where he could invite people over for dinner and make them feel at ease, and he didn’t only make sure to say hello when people showed up where he was. No, Jesus went where the people were. He was always on the move, always out and about, and yet, even though he was the stranger, he still seemed to be the person doing the welcoming. Because wherever Jesus went, he invited folks to be at home in him, and sought to be at home in their lives.
            We’re called to carry our welcome with us, to be inviting whether we’re the hosts or the guests, so that wherever we are, we are carrying the message that God makes us a welcome home in God’s heart. Welcome. God welcomes us. Let us be God’s welcome to others. Amen. 

Monday, February 07, 2011

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, "Salty"

Sermon 2/6/11
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

Salty


            Today’s lesson from Matthew, like the beatitudes we heard last week, comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s the largest chunk of Jesus’ teaching that is all together in one place – just lesson after lesson from Jesus, preached to crowds of people. Most of the Semron on the Mount you’re probably pretty familiar with, even if you didn’t know it where it was from. Today’s text starts with two images – salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” We use a salt a little differently today than in biblical times. Today, although salt is something that might be tasty, we tend to think of sodium and how we get too much of salt! But in Jesus’ day, salt was an additive acting as both a spice and as a preservative. Salt gave things flavor, and made them last. Still, though, the power of salt endures. You might have noticed that many cookie recipes call for just a quarter teaspoon salt. A quarter teaspoon in an entire batch of cookies – you might wonder why you’d bother? But just that little bit can help hold the cookies together better, help with flavor, and work with baking soda to help the cookies rises properly. Either way though, past or present, the puzzling thing about Jesus’ statement is this: salt doesn’t actually ever lose its flavor. Salt doesn’t expire. You can ruin salt by getting it wet – moisture can ruin salt – but it doesn’t go bad. It doesn’t lose its taste. Salt by definition just is salty. So what does Jesus mean by talking about salt losing its flavor and throwing it out and trampling on it? Salt is salty. That’s just what it is.
            Jesus’ second image is like the first. First salt. Then light. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory” to God. Have you ever tried to block out the light? For a while, my mom worked the midnight shift at the hospital, and would sleep during the day. We taped up poster board over her windows and covered the skylight and did all manner of things to try to block out the light so she could sleep during the day. But nothing really worked. At my apartment in Fayetteville, it would be almost completely dark in my room –but the light from the streetlight out front always seemed to hit my eyes as I would try to go to bed. And when I took my teeny tiny flashlight to read with at the young clergy retreat I attended earlier this week, it was still bright enough to be quite noticeable to my roommates. It often takes only one tiny nightlight to make the darkness seem less overwhelming for a child – or adult – my brother Todd insists on a nightlight too. One flashlight, one candle, one light – even the blinking light on your smoke detector, or the light from your laptop computer – one light makes the darkness significantly less dark, significantly more bearable. Light, the tiniest light – is extremely powerful.
Salt and light. What we might miss when we hear this passage is the significance of who is the salt and light, and how they’re the salt and light. This can be confusing, sure, because elsewhere, in John’s gospel for example, Jesus says clearly, “I am the light of the world.” But here, in this sermon, to the crowds, to us, hear what Jesus says: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You, you, you. Not someone else, not just Jesus. You. And not you will be. Not you-should-try-to—strive-to-become. But you are. And not just for some small corner, for your church, your family, some small-scale setting. For the earth. For the world. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.  You.
So? So – we heard that light is powerful and even a little bit can overcome darkness. We heard that salt preserves and flavors and holds things together and makes them rise – a little bit can make a big difference. And not only that, but salt can’t stop being salt. And light can’t not shine. You are salt. You are light. And you can throw salt out. And you can hide your lamp under a basket. But why would you? Why would you keep salt and light from doing what they were meant to do? And why would you not be and do what you are created for? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time talking about my goals for my ministry and for you, for us, as a congregation. But I have one goal that underlies everything. And goal isn’t even the right word – it’s deeper than that. I have a passion, a desire, that I could help you, as I seek the same for my own life, help you let your faith be the driving energy in your life, let following Jesus be the thing that shapes everything else, let your love of God fill your hearts and shape your souls and spill over into love for one another that inspires you to change your lives and change the world. Maybe that sounds like a lot. And it is – in some ways, it is everything! But it’s also nothing more, I think, than just having the full life that God wants for us. It’s just living life as it is really meant to be lived. And when we do anything less, when we give anything less, when we expect anything less, when we strive for anything less – well, it’s like salt trying to be something other than salt. Light trying not to shine.
Everything we do that takes us from God, that distances us from God, that distances us from the love we are meant to share with one another – it’s like trampling perfectly good salt under your feet, or hiding your bright lamp under a basket. Doesn’t make sense. Who would do something so foolish? And why would we want anything less than what God says we can have? Why would we want any less love in our lives, in the world, than God offers us? What’s it all about? Accepting and using the gift God gives us. Being what we already are. Living as we’re made to live. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Amen.  

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, "Requirements"

Sermon 1/30/11
Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

Requirements
           
Requirements. When I was in high-school, I knew I had really arrived, I was really becoming grown-up when I got to the time in school where I could start choosing some of my classes. By the time I was a junior, I no longer took math and science – I had taken the required courses for graduation already. And instead, during my senior year, I was taking a full load of five periods of music courses, ranging from choir and orchestra to theory and history. It was great. I loved it. Then, in college, my choices were even more wide-ranging. You got to choose an entire course of study. I got to choose a major and a minor. There were some core requirements of course – Ohio Wesleyan sadly required three sciences, much to my dismay. But I got to choose classes like Ancient Greek, Stage Make-up and Costuming, Shakespeare, and Adolescent Psychology. And then, I went to seminary. Instead of getting more choices, I had less than in college, it seemed – I had seminary requirements and requirements that were specific to the United Methodist denomination. I had requirements that our annual conference set all its own. And during my last year, the school was already moving to add one or two more classes to the list. I can’t say I didn’t have some choice in my courses, but it seems a seminary can’t let you go off to become a pastor without having classes in Old and New Testament, or courses on Preaching. And now that I’m working on my Doctor of Ministry degree, it seems things have come full circle. I don’t have a single elective class in my program. Every class I take is prescribed. I just take what I’m told to take. Zero wiggle room. The requirements are the requirements. And if you want to get out of high-school, you’ve got to take English. And if you want to get out of seminary, you have to complete the requirements necessary for ministry. And if I want my Doctoral degree, I have to take every single one of those classes. We might wish it worked differently, but ultimately, we know we must pay our dues if we want to get credit and move on.
Sometimes, I think we treat things similarly in our faith lives. We’re interested in knowing what our requirements are, and what part of faith is elective. We’re interested in knowing how much we need to believe and how much of our faith we need to practice to do what is necessary for us to reap the benefits. For example, how many times a month do you need to attend worship? Your answer and my answer to this question might be a little different! But we wonder – do we have to attend every week? Once a month? Three weeks on one week off? Or we wonder, how much do we need to give? What can we get by with? If we go to church, do we have to go to Sunday School too, or vise versa? What’s required for us to be good Christians? We wonder what we must believe too: did Jesus really mean we had to drop everything and follow him, like the disciples did in our reading last week, or is that just an elective part of faith, only for the really devout? When Jesus taught us to love our enemies, did he mean all of them, or just some? When we read about our neighbors and how we are to treat them, are we required to love every last one, make amends in every relationship, or does Jesus just expect us to give it a good try and then say, “Enough is enough!?” We want to know. Of course, I’m teasing a little bit – but I’m serious too – we really want to know what’s required of us. We love God – I’m guessing that’s why most of you are here. We want to serve God. We want to live rightly. We want to be disciples. But we know our limitations too – we’re not perfect. We’ve failed so many times before. How can we live up to the standards set by the disciples, who dropped everything to follow Jesus, or the Israelites, who wandered for years in the desert to follow God’s commands, or those like Paul, who were even imprisoned for preaching the gospel? We doubt we can live as they did – and so we want to know: what’s required of us? What must we do to please God?
We are constantly trying to figure out what it is we need to do to please God. We think of the heavens opening up at Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus hearing God’s voice saying, “with you I am well pleased,” and we want so much that same assurance of God’s love, even as we feel so much less deserving of it than was Christ. We are not alone in our wondering. We read in Micah today, the questioning Israel brings before God: “with what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Perhaps these suggested gifts don’t sound very meaningful to us, but the offerings, the calves, the rams, even the firstborn – these represent all that was important and of value to the Ancient Israelites – the offerings would represent the finest that a person possessed, the best of the best one had to give, or even one’s own child – the firstborn, who held all sorts of high positions in Hebrew society. We’re not much different when it comes to trying to please God. We know that we are sinful – we know that we’re often not doing what God wants – but instead of trying to change our behavior, to transform our lives, we wait until after we’ve made bad decisions, and then scramble to make bargains with God. “God, I swear I’ll never do X again if you’ll just do X for me.” “God, I promise I’ll do X all the time God, if you just forgive me for X.” We hope that our offerings will appease and please God, as Israel wonders if its guilt offerings are what God desires.
But Micah, the prophet, has some clarity to offer, and I can almost hear the “you know the answer” tone-of-voice he must have been using with the people. Micah answers, “God has told you, people, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We already know, Micah reminds us, what we are to do. God has told us. Maybe we haven’t been listening, or perhaps we haven’t believed what we’ve heard. But we know the requirement of faithful living: to walk humbly, to love kindness, or mercy as some texts read, and to do justice. These are the requirements – not the electives – but the requirements of faithful living, good living.
What does it mean, though? How do we do these things? What is justice, and mercy or kindness, and humility? To me, it can be overwhelming if we think about the nouns instead of the verbs. The nouns – justice, mercy, humility – those are some big broad concepts. What is justice? Well, we could spend a lot of time talking about that, and end up spending little time actually doing what Micah talks about. But if we focus on the verbs in Micah’s response to our question, I think we find a way to move forward. We have to walk humbly with God. We have to love mercy. And we have to do just or act justly. Walk, love, do/act. That gives us something to get our head around. What does God require of us? We have to walk with God. When we are figuring out our path in life, we’re to figure out where God is going, and go that same way. We’re to try to be where God is every day. It’s like going on a walk with a friend – you’re side by side, and where they go, you go. We walk with God. And we’re to love. That’s easy, right? We know how to love. We can get better at it. We can include more people in who we love. We can remove some of the conditions that we put on how we love. But what’s required is something we already know, that’s as essential to living as breathing. We’re to love. And finally, we’re to do, to act. We talked about this last Sunday – how being disciples involves reflection and action. It’s easy to see where God’s love is needed in this world, where grace is needed, where peace is needed. All we have to do is act in faith. That doesn’t mean we have to solve everything. But what’s required is that we don’t just do nothing! Taking action in the small ways we can is infinitely more effective than doing nothing because we can’t do everything.
Today we celebrate people who are engaging in the journey of faith Micah describes. As we install new leaders and we receive new members, we lift up those who are taking a particular step in their walk with God. We affirm our love for them as we welcome new folks into this part of the Body of Christ and as we encourage our leaders to work with love in guiding the congregation. And these celebrations are certainly actions, taking an active role in discipleship. As we celebrate, we also reflect on our own journeys, and seek to take steps in faith together.
What does God require of us? Just three things. Walk humbly. Love mercy. Act justly. We have a whole lifetime to complete the course. Amen.