Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary), Point of View: Who Do You Say That I Am?, Mark 8:27-38

Sermon 2/26/12
Mark 8:27-38

Point of View: Who Do You Say That I Am?

Our theme for Lent this year is Point of View. Every story is told from a point of view. I shared with folks on Ash Wednesday this week that I have been reading a book series called A Song of Fire and Ice. In each book, each chapter has a different point of view, focusing in on one of the characters and what they see happening. The series is still being written, and one of the “spoilers” that the author releases first while fans are waiting for the next book to come out is a list of the chapters and which points of view will be featured. Even this bit of information gets people excited because they can start speculating about how the story will unfold, based just on points of view. Because of course, a story unfolds a little differently according to each person's point of view.
It is hard, for example, to even have textbooks that are objective. When humans record history, it is always from a point of view, and even if we try, it is never completely objective, but is subjective, dependent on the point of view of the author. For example, if you read an account of the Revolutionary War, it would read differently written by a British author than by an American author, right? Different points of view aren’t necessarily true or false. Our subjective perception of something isn’t meant to be a malicious mischaracterization of events. It is simply that we all see things differently, interpret what we experience differently. If you and I were both to describe how a certain meal tasted, we would describe it differently, because we are different! No one person can see the whole picture. We can only see from our point of view.
That is a fact we have been trying to keep in mind as we've studied the scriptures together in our Bible 101 class. Whose point of view are we hearing the story from? Whose point of view do we never see from? And what can that help us learn? For example, we read the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis, and discovered that although we heard from her attacker and his father, Dinah's father, and Dinah's brothers, we never hear from Dinah herself. Of course, this reflects the time period of the Bible – women's voices were often overlooked. But what might Dinah have said about all these events? We can wonder, and try to put ourselves into the story.
You all know already that Jesus Christ Superstar is my favorite musical. I started going to see Superstar when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have seen Superstar on stage in various settings about 30 times. I love Superstar. And I have asked myself why. I love theatre, I love many musicals. But with Superstar – the main thing is this: Jesus Christ Superstar makes me want to be part of the story. Watching and listening, I just want to be part of it. As a teenager, nothing drew me in to the gospel story quite like Superstar. Holy Week and Easter came alive for me in a totally new way through the musical. I wanted to know what made each character tick – what motivated them and what did they see in Jesus, I wondered? I asked myself where I would be in the story. Would I be a disciple? Would I be on the sideline? Would I be one who wanted Jesus put to death? Superstar simply drew me in, and my fascination with the musical led me to a love of the season of Lent, a curiosity about the passion story, and a deeper faith.
For me, the heart of the story of Superstar is an identity question in two parts. Who is Jesus? And who am I? Superstar focuses on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, but it is less about the events and more about the people. What were the people closest to Jesus thinking in the week leading up to the crucifixion? Why did some choose to become disciples? Why would some give up everything to follow him? Why would Judas betray Jesus? Why was Mary so devoted? Why did Peter’s faith waver? Why did the priests want him dead? Why did Pilate cede his authority? Why? These are the questions I wonder about when I read the scriptures.
Today, our scripture text is from the gospel of Mark. Jesus has been travelling and teaching and healing, with his disciples accompanying him. And on their way to Caesarea Philippi, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer “John the Baptist,” and “Elijah,” and “one of the prophets.” But Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers boldly, and for the first time, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus begins to tell them that the Son of Man will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before a resurrection three days later. Peter, who has just made such a bold proclamation, rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Peter could see who Jesus was – the Messiah. But he hadn’t yet learned what that meant – couldn’t see what being the Messiah would mean for Jesus – or perhaps, more accurately, couldn’t accept it.
Jesus calls the crowds together, along with the disciples, and makes things very clear: “If any want to become my followers, than let them deny themselves, and take up the cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Very simply, you can’t claim Jesus is the Messiah without knowing what that means, without consequences. For Jesus, it’s a simple if-then logic statement. If who Jesus is is the Messiah, then it follows that there will be a certain response from us. If we believe he is the Messiah, then we will deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. And in reverse, if we aren’t denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus, how can we claim him as the Messiah?
            What is your point of view: Who do you say that Jesus is? And what difference has that made in your life? Who are you? And how is who you are related to who Jesus is, or who you say he is? In the next weeks, we’ll look at the points of view of Mary, Peter, Judas, Pontius Pilate, and more. We’ll find out who they thought they were. Did they change who they were because of who they thought Jesus was? Did who Jesus was change who they were? Some, we’ll see, try to make Jesus into who they wanted him to be. Some knew exactly who Jesus was, and feared him for it. Some were plagued by doubts and questions, and could never figure out who they were without understanding who Jesus was. Some knew who Jesus was, and learned how it had to change their lives, their very identities, knowing who Jesus was.
What is your point of view? Who do you say that Jesus is? How do you see him? As a prophet? A teacher? A healer? A miracle-worker? A work of fiction? A historical figure to admire? The Messiah? And who are you? How do you see yourself? As a student? A skeptic? A believer? A questioner? An enemy? A child of God? A disciple? This Lent, this season, these forty days, the questions before us are the most important we can ask, about our very identity. Every day, we’re asked to define ourselves, to identify ourselves. We give proof in Driver’s Licenses and social security numbers and ID cards. We answer the question: I’m a mother. I’m a doctor. I’m his brother. I’m a banker. But this Lent, this season, these forty days, we only have one person to answer to. Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” And who does that make you?
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Ash Wednesday ABC

Readings for Ash Wednesday, 3/22/12: 
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17:
  • "Rend your hearts and not your clothing." This verse ties into Psalm 51's theme: it is our heart, our inside, our soul that God wants us to worry about most - not sacrifices, not outward signs. (theme of the gospel as well) Inside, not outside.
  • "[God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." I like these descriptions, especially in the midst of the Old Testament, which can have a different image of God.
  • "Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast." Joel urges the people to gather together, to plead to God as a community for forgiveness. When do we do that? Gather as a community and ask God to have mercy on us?

  • Psalm 51:1-17:
  • Ah, a favorite psalm. And like Joel, an element of confession. This psalm is one I'm mostly likely to use if I'm feeling the need to come before God in a confessional mode. Do you have a confessional prayer in church every week? We do not, and I think as Protestants, we sometimes get nervous about confession, even corporate. But even if we don't share sins with a priest, confession is a necessary part of our relationship - any healthy relationship, really. 
  • Where I disagree with the psalmist, (thought to be David writing after the sin with Bathsheeba) is in his claim: "against you, you alone, have I sinned." Rarely do our sins only affect God - that's the worst about them - our sin hurts others. David's sin, for instance, resulted in a man's death, and a child's death, according to scriptures.
  • "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Inside, not outside. Rituals are meaningless to God if they are not accompanied by real change in who we are and how we live!

  • 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
  • "an acceptable time" - The Greek word here is one of my favorites, one I learned during my freshman year of college when I felt like I had just uncovered one of the great mysteries of the world: kairos, or "God's right time for action" as Dr. Emmanuel Twesigye taught. This is as opposed to chronos, regular ol' time.
  •  Paul describes a paradox/contradictory state - imposters yet true, unknown yet know, dying yet alive. Sometimes being a disciple can feel like this: pulled constantly between to states of being you never thought could go together.
  • Paul gives himself quite a list of things that make him and colleagues "servants of God." Stuff like this is always what makes me think Paul has such a boastful side. Oh well, I guess he's entitled a fault...

  • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21:
  • Again the Lenten theme: God wants our insides, not our outsides.
  • Interesting, isn't it, to compare Jesus' words to our current practices of worship - we still like to "sound the trumpet" when we give, we like to pray with fancy words in long winded ways. We like to be rewarded, preferably instantly, for our good and holy behavior.
  • "Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also." Notice that it is not where you heart is, there you will find your treasure. But first look to what you treasure - and that's where your heart, your whole person is. So what do you treasure? Possessions? Then that is what you are: your things.
  • Sermon - Life Together: Love Builds Up (Based on text for Epiphany 4B)

    Sermon 2/19/12
    1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (text for Epiphany 4B)

    Life Together: Love Builds Up

                Once there was a rich man who entertained himself by collecting things.  One day in an antique store, he was intrigued to discover what appeared to be a large, full-length mirror.  He couldn’t be sure because all he could see was the frame.  A heavy canvas covered what was most likely a mirror.  A faded piece of paper pinned to the canvas read “Do Not Remove.”  He called for the store owner.
    “What is this and why is it covered?” he asked.  He was used to getting his way. “You won’t believe me,” came the reply. “Tell me anyway,” he demanded.  Again, he was used to getting his way. “Well,” continued the clerk.  “Under the canvas is a mirror.  The story is that this mirror will only reflect the part of you that is alive in God.  I keep it covered because it’s bad for business.  Too many people don’t see what they expect to see.” “You let people look if they want to?”   “Not usually but some people insist.  Mostly they are the ones who don’t believe me.  Once they take the canvas off and look, they tend to leave in a hurry without buying anything.  As I said, it’s bad for business.” “May I look?” “If you must.”
    The wealthy man thought for a moment.  Then, reassured by the knowledge that his accountant kept his church pledge up to date, he peeled the canvas aside and stood full in front of the mirror. “I don’t see anything!” he shouted, wondering immediately if the light was bad. “There’s always been something before,” responded the owner.  “Look again.” He looked up and down the mirror.  Sure enough something was there.  Down in the corner near the bottom, like a lonely radish, was his big toe. “My toe,” he mumbled.  “That’s all there is.” “That’s all for now,” replied the clerk. “You mean it can change?” “So some say.”
    “Name your price for the mirror.” The store owner wasn’t all that unhappy to see the mirror go. The collector took the mirror home with him.  Many times each day he stood in front of the mirror, but nothing ever changed.  Only the big toe of his left foot was visible.  He tried everything to alter this one annoying fact.  He stood in front of the mirror in a $2,000 hand-tailored suit.  He stood there with all his bank and stock broker statements.  Nothing.  He stood there with his award from a service club for his help during their last fund raiser.  He paraded in front of the mirror holding a certificate of dismissal from a well-known and highly respected psychotherapist.  He went to church every week - sometimes twice! - and always saved the bulletin to show the mirror.  Zip.  Zero.  No response - nothing but that single big toe.
    At last he gave most of his money away.  As he stood before the mirror, he thought he detected a small change in the image of his toe, which gave him some hope.  A closer examination revealed that it was only that his toenail had grown longer.
    Finally there was nothing left of him to pursue.  He had no new ideas, nothing more to offer the mirror.  Still he could not stop looking at it and thinking about it.  In his helplessness he broke down in front of the mirror and cried.  He wept for his weakness and his emptiness.  He wept out of frustration, and he wept for reasons he couldn’t begin to explain.
    Then in the next moment, he let go.  He let go of his need to be in control of everything.  He let go of his need to figure out how the mirror worked.  His heart opened not to how he desired to know the Mystery of the mirror but to how the Mystery of the mirror desired to be known.  His eyes were so full of tears that he did not notice, dimly at first, and then with greater and greater definition, his other toes, foot, feet, legs, arms, torso, shoulders, neck, and head filling up the mirror. (1)
    “Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by [God.]”
    Paul writes his letter to the Corinthians as a set of teachings and guides to the congregation he founded. Paul built up the church at Corinth, but then travelled on to plant a new congregation of followers of Jesus in Ephesus. However, Paul heard a lot about what was happening at Corinth, and he writes his letter to them to correct, encourage, and challenge them to become the Body of Christ in that community.
                 In this particular passage, Paul is writing about the issue of whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols of the local pagan religions. Some Christians, new converts to the faith from these same pagan traditions, believed that since the gods these meats were sacrificed to were not really gods at all, then what did it matter if you ate the meat? It was just good food. Paul agrees with this concept – in theory. But, he says, some new Christians struggle with this idea, and feel they are doing something wrong when they eat this food that was part of another religious ritual. Paul says that it is right for them to abstain from the meat if they feel eating it compromises their faith. And to those who know better, Paul says they are really acting not like mature Christians, but like know-it-alls, who simply end up hurting those who are weaker in faith by their superior attitudes. Paul concludes: “I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” No sense of being “right” is worth it to Paul, if it makes it harder for others to follow Jesus in the process. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Throughout his letter, Paul is concerned with the Body of Christ learning how to do, and only do the things that build up the whole community of faith.
                We have been looking at our goals for our life together. Two weeks ago, we talked about moving from a focus on membership to a focus on discipleship, seeking to serve and follow Jesus. Last Sunday, we talked about getting to know the community we serve better, and understanding their needs and how we, First United, can uniquely meet them. My question to challenge us this week is this: What is holding us back from doing and being what we want to be? What gets in our way of being what we want to be? Remember a few weeks ago I suggested to you that if everyone agrees things should be different, should change, but things stay the same, then we have to seriously consider why that is. Why are things staying the same, and how are we benefitting from things remaining just how they are?
                I suspect, like with most things in life, we can be our own worst enemies. When we are not becoming the church we want to be, we can look to the economy, and we can look to changes in society, and we can look at demographics, and so on, but probably, we need to look mostly at ourselves. What are we doing to hold ourselves back? Anne Coughenour said recently something like, and sorry Anne, if I am paraphrasing: We need to be a team. We need to be united in our purpose as a church, and be one team that works together. I think Anne is right. We are not a huge congregation, but we aren’t a tiny congregation either. And among a group of this size, you are likely to have as many opinions and interests as you have people. Just take, for example, the songs we sing on any given Sunday. The very songs that one person loves to sing are the last favorite of another. Which is natural, and good, truly. How boring it would be, otherwise. But if we cannot agree on our basic purposes, and if we can’t agree that we will and are all trying as best we can to carry out our basic purposes, we are sunk before we even start. 
                Our task, before we can serve in the way we have talked about serving, is to build each other up in love in the Body of Christ. Paul wants us to do some serious self-examination as a community. Are we building each other up? Or are we puffed up on how right we are and how much we know what everyone else should do? Of course, I don’t think, and I think Paul did not think, that we start out intending to become puffed up by our own smartness. But sometimes we have to stop and take stock. Are we building up or puffed up? And if we can’t tell, if we aren’t sure, we need to measure ourselves by the impact we seem to have on others: If you set out intending to build someone up, but the other person seems to feel torn down by your actions or words or attitude, perhaps we have not been acting with love. Love builds up. Paul says that when we tear others down, even when we are in the right, when we know the best answer, when we are the stronger believer – and perhaps especially in these cases – when we tear down, we are sinning against members of our family, and against God. Paul says he would rather never act in ways he believes are perfectly ok to act if it meant causing another to stumble in faith. That is how committed he was to building up the community in love. How committed are we?
                I feel like God is calling this congregation to serve, and I feel some movement, some momentum, with people who are trying new things, serving in new ways, asking new questions, hearing anew God's voice, listening and responding in some creative ways. But we cannot respond to God only as individuals and still be the Body of Christ. When we try, we are just a big toe alone in the mirror. We must build each other up, and build each other up in love.
                Building each other up in love means practicing the kind of humility that lays our hearts and souls bare before the Mystery of God. It requires practice and patience, and being honest with one another and honest about ourselves with God. It will require communication – really talking to each other. In the months ahead I have some plans to help us do some of that hard work, including working with a colleague of mine who helps congregations figure out what makes them tick, so to speak. But it will take a commitment from all of us – a commitment to fully engage in the hard work, a commitment to God and one another, and a commitment that we want to be guided by love in all that we do.
     “Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by [God.]” Friends, let us build each other up in love.

    (1) from The Carpenter and the Unbuilder: Stories for the Spiritual Quest by David Griebner

    Monday, February 13, 2012

    Lectionary Notes for Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

    Readings for 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/19/12:
    Isaiah 43:18-25, Psalm 41, 2 Corinthians 1:18-22, Mark 2:1-12

    Isaiah 43:18-25:

  • "I am about to do a new thing . . . do you not perceive it?" The church and its people sometimes have a hard time doing new things. We like, generally, to do the same things in the same way. But our God is always doing new things in our lives - don't you know? God says, "get with the program!"
  • "the wild animals will honor me" - Great imagery. If humans are too busy to honor the God who chooses them, wild animals will do what we're supposed to be doing.
  • "you have . . . not satisfied me with . . . your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins." Don't we often do this? Try to appease God with bargains, instead of giving what God really wants: our repentant hearts?
  • "I am [the One] who blots our your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins." Beautiful. Why does God forgive? For God's sake! God doesn't desire to punish us, but to love us. This is a great God-as-parent image - wanting, always, to love and heal relationship with wayward children.

  • Psalm 
  • "happy are those who consider the poor" This is one of few Psalms I can think of that has a care-for-others theme to it. What are other Psalms like this one?
  • "all who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me" The psalmist sounds like a picked-on child. We've probably all been in this place - feeling totally alone and ostracized. It is a lonely place to be.
  • "even my bosom friend . . . lifted the heel against me." Have you ever been betrayed by a friend? What pain! The words bring to mind Jesus and Judas and the pain Jesus must have felt to know that one of his companions would be the one to turn him over to authorities, no matter how necessary or expected such an action was.

  • 2 Corinthians 1:18-22:
  • "yes and no" - Compare this passage with Matthew 5:33-37. We tend to want things both ways - yes, and no. Paul calls on us to be clear. God is always Yes - always faithful. We can trust that. Can we be always Yes as well?
  • "his seal on us" An image of a seal - stamped with authority/approval. Or think of a seal that would close a letter - the seal was the symbol of authenticity - you would know by the seal that the letter was truly from a  certain person.
  • "his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment" Nice - the idea is that there is so much more to come, much more that Christ offers, when we're ready to accept.

  • Mark 2:1-12
  • I would call this a "Sunday School passage" - a story that I distinctly remember hearing as a child, so vividly, picturing a man lowered through a roof!
  • "so many gathered around" - The huge number of crowds pressing in on Jesus constantly is a theme in Mark. Everywhere Jesus goes, people are wanting to see him, needing to be with him. What a pressure for Jesus! But we see how much people were eager for him, to soak him up.
  • "Which is easier" - Jesus will work with the complaining scribes - if they'd rather see miracles than authority - fine - but Jesus reminds them that he does have authority, even if they don't like it.
  • "We have never seen anything like this" - Another theme in Mark - Jesus' ministry is unique - unlike anything people have seen. Jesus is doing a new thing in a new way, and it doesn't go unnoticed.
  • Sermon: Life Together: All Things, All People, using Epiphany 4B text

    Sermon 2/12/12
    2 Corinthians 4:3-6

    Life Together: All Things, All People

                One of the best movies I’ve seen, one that is on many people’s lists of best movies, is the film Schindler’s List, the Steven Spielberg film about a man named Oskar Schindler, who worked to rescue Jews from being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust by employing over a thousand workers in his factory. His motives begin with profit for himself, but eventually his mission becomes one of compassion and urgency. In the end, in one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Schindler expresses his deep despair that he could have done more but did not. He says:
    “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more.” Stern, the man to whom he’s speaking, replies: “Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.” But Schindler goes on: “If I'd made more money... I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just...I didn't do enough! This car. [He] would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!”
    As church leaders, as people of faith, trying to make faithful decisions, I think perhaps we can relate to Schindler’s words. No matter what we try to do, it seems it is never enough, and that we always carry the burden of knowing that we should be doing more. This burden is a tremendous weight to bear, a sometimes immobilizing weight. We know we should be doing more that we aren’t doing, and so somehow we end up doing nothing at all. And then we come across passages of scripture like this reading from Paul, and my first response is to feel even more of a burden placed on my shoulders. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” All things to all people! How can we live up to such a standard? All things to all people? I can’t do it. Trying to be all things to all people seems like the surest way to burn out physically and spiritually that I can think of. Paul may have had the dedication and the drive, but just thinking about trying to be all things to all people makes me feel overwhelmed.
    And yet, the sentence is there. Woe to us if we don’t preach the gospel. All things to all people. So what do we do with it? It is finally in reading some of the words in the middle of the passage that I start to get the picture. Paul writes, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s love but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. It is then that Paul concludes with his “all things to all people claim.”
    I think that when we hear the phrase “all things to all people” we get the idea that we’re meant to be everything to a person: teacher, pastor, servant, leader, parent, friend, confessor, and even savior. If we try to be all these things to people, we are no doubt going to fail. In fact, when we try to do things this way, we end up feeling so inadequate that we end up doing nothing at all. But when Paul talks about being all things to all people, he talks about doing this by becoming one with the people he is trying to reach. Instead of trying to take on a million different roles, Paul’s strategy is to meet people where they are at, to experience life through another’s eyes, and so to share the gospel in the most authentic way possible, by embodying it in community with others. How better to show others the depth of your concern for their souls than by being with them, living with them, working alongside of them? Paul’s plan doesn’t call for us to meet all of people’s needs, but for us to meet the most basic of needs – the need to be loved as whole people, unique and important people. And so to the Jew, Paul is a Jew. To the Gentile, he is a Gentile, and to the weak, he is weak. Paul’s plan of action, though, isn’t an original idea. He’s simply modeling his ministry after that of Jesus Christ. God, to reach us with love, took the most direct approach. God became one of us. To reach us, God became us, lives with us, dwells within us.
    We are in the midst of talking about our goals as a congregation, and last week we talked about shifting from a membership model of ministry to a discipleship model, a model that moves ourselves out of the center and brings those we seek to serve into focus. Today that is where we focus our attention: What are the needs of our community and how can we meet them? It is so tempting to just exist as a church and hope that we strike at something that interests others, so that they come here and fit in. It’s the “If we build it they will come” model. But that keeps us firmly at the center, and it doesn’t seem to be what Paul has in mind. He says that he has made himself a slave to all, so that he might win more people to Christ's gospel. If Paul is a slave to all, serving others, it means he puts the other in the role of the master, the other as the center of attention. Paul's message doesn’t change – he wants to share the good news about Jesus, or he wouldn’t be bothering with this all things to all people stuff. But how he connects with people – Paul connects deeply with those he serves in ways that are important to them in order to reach them. He builds deep relationships.
                Our challenge, then, has two parts: What do the people in our community need (here in East Syracuse and in the wider community we connect with) and how can we meet these needs? There are many ways we can answer the first question. I can pull up some demographic data, and share figures and statistics about who we serve, but that doesn’t really help us know people. We can’t know about the needs of the community without knowing the people, building relationships, making connections. In the coming months, I have some ideas about how we can stretch ourselves to get to know our community better, and our Evangelism Committee will engage in some of that work as well. But in the meantime, let me just share with you this information (from slide) about how people end up becoming part of a community of faith. More than double any other reason, people connect with a congregation because of a relationship they have with someone who belongs to that congregation already.
    The second part of the challenge is: once we feel like we know what our community needs, how can we meet them? I have heard some church leaders say that a critical question congregations have to ask themselves is: Who would notice, besides church members, if your church closed today? In other words, what measurable impact is your church having on the community? What void would we leave in the community if we weren’t here? If we have a hard time answering that question, it means we need to start doing some serious soul-searching as a congregation. How we answer that question now can help direct us into using the gifts and resources God has given us to reach people in need. For example, if we realize that one way we would be most missed if we weren’t here is because of the physical space we provide to groups in the community, like Meals on Wheels, or Scouts, or the Red Cross, maybe we learn that our physical space is a huge asset in the community and we can challenge ourselves to offer our space in new and different ways too, to meet needs in the community. What do you think? What would people most miss if we weren’t here? And what do you wish they would miss? If you wish the answers were different, then how can we become the place we dream of being? We are the First United Church of East Syracuse. And there is only one of us, uniquely called for this place and this time to serve this community. A blessing, and a challenge.
    How do we do it? Like Jesus, we are called to give of ourselves for others. We become one with those we serve, one in the Spirit, one in God. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

    Monday, February 06, 2012

    Sermon: Life Together: Membership or Discipleship? (using Transfiguration Year B text)

    Sermon 2/5/12
    2 Corinthians 4:3-6

    Life Together: Membership or Discipleship?

                Every year, we spend some time reflecting on where we have been together over the previous twelve months, and then we turn our eyes to the path ahead of us, the choices laid out before us, and we wonder where God will lead us and how we will follow. Two weeks ago, as part of our worship and our annual meeting, we talked about what we have done and experienced in this past year, and we answered some challenging questions about where we go from here. I told you that we would spend the next few weeks thinking about our goals for the year ahead. For the past few years, we have had a set of goals that haven’t changed all that much in nature: we have been focusing on growing our youth program, stewardship education, enriching worship experiences, increasing our commitment to mission, especially hands-on mission, and being welcoming and hospitable as a faith community. And as I mentioned last week, I think we have a lot to celebrate in all these areas. We are blessed by our young people. There are an abundance of mission opportunities so that surely everyone can find a way to serve that is meaningful to them. We know our financial struggles, certainly, but we also know exceptional generosity in this congregation. I have found you to be willing to try new things in worship and try new experiences, especially during Advent and Lent as a way to deepen our connection with God. We have newer faces that are already invaluable parts of our church family. We have much to celebrate.
                But I also know we feel challenged, and frustrated, and we know that we struggle. We find ourselves up against some walls, facing barriers to being the kind of church we would like to be.  So, I think if we are meeting the goals that we set for ourselves, but we are still not being the congregation we want to be, it means we need to start thinking differently about our goals. We have outgrown them maybe, or perhaps need to look at even more foundational pieces of who we are. This year, my goals for us are not so concrete. They are goals that come with questions before we can give any answers. But I believe that we are on the cusp, at the tipping point, where we will either move beyond where we are to where God is calling us to be, or not. I hope that these goals will help stretch our minds and spirits in ways that push us in God's direction.
                This year, I want us to wrestle with three challenges. First: How can we move ourselves out of the center of the picture? Jesus was about turning things upside down, and he said that the last would be first, and the first is last. We are called to serve, not to be served. How do we focus not on being members but on being disciples? How do we push ourselves to put our needs second, and the needs of others first? Second: How well do we know the needs of the people of East Syracuse and the surrounding areas? How can we meet the actual needs of our community, instead of doing what best serves us? How can we become better listeners in the community? Third: What is holding us back from being the community of faith we want to be? How are our relationships with one another doing? How can we be united in our purpose, a team, working together to serve?
                Today, we look at our first goal – we want to be disciples of Jesus, not club members. How can we move ourselves from the center of the picture, and put those we serve in the center instead? Sometimes, I think the fact that you can become a member of the church confuses us about what the church is all about. We can be members of the church because we are members of the Body of Christ – literally the limbs – the hands and feet of Jesus – in the world. But somehow, over centuries, our idea of membership in the body of Christ has meant that we are less like the serving hands and feet of Jesus and more like the gatekeepers of the church. We are out of sync with the work of Jesus! Jesus called us, in the Great Commission, to make disciples, not members. We exist not for ourselves, but for others, and the needs we seek to meet are not our own, but the needs of those who have yet to hear the good news of God's boundless love.
                Pastor Michael W. Foss is author of a book that my Bishop when I served in New Jersey had all pastors read, and Foss╩╣ vision of discipleship rather than membership has stuck with me. He says, “Let’s think of the membership model of the church as similar to the membership model of a modern health club. One becomes a member of a health club by paying dues (in a church, the monthly or weekly offering.) Having paid their dues, the members expect the services of the club to be at their disposal. Exercise equipment, weight room, aerobic classes, an indoor track, swimming pool – there for them, with a trained staff to see that they benefit by them . . . Many people . . . have come to think of church membership in [similar] ways.” (Power Surge, 15) Foss continues, “In that model, ministry focuses on the membership of a particular congregation . . . If the members╩╣ perceived need are adequately met, if they are happy with the services provided . . .and if conflict is avoided or minimized, then the membership can be counted on to do their part.” (16) “Membership is about getting; discipleship is about giving. Membership is about dues; discipleship is about stewardship. Membership is about belonging to a select group with its privileges and prerogatives; discipleship is about changing and shaping lives by the grace of God.” (21)
                In an amazingly short amount of time, in just two and a half weeks, Lent will begin, and we will follow Jesus again on the road to the cross. And I am struck that Jesus welcomed and embraced people not by inviting others in, but by pouring himself out. I think that’s what he meant by denying ourselves and taking up the cross if we want to follow. Not waiting for others to come to the safe place we have already found, but stepping out into the risky world where others are already, needing us, needing God. Disciples don’t stay in one place. They are on the move, following Jesus, and moving out of the way so that others, too long pushed to the margins of society, can finally be at the center of the love God offers. The church is this incredible body that exists not for itself, but for those who are not here first. Discipleship, not membership.
                Today and the next couple weeks we will look at scripture from Paul's letters to the Corinthians. The people of the church of Corinth struggled, as a developing faith community, to live out the gospel, and to find ways to be faithful to the message they had and the God they served. Today, we hear Paul reminding the Corinthians of their purpose: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.” If what we do together is about us, and meeting our own needs, and making sure we are happy, then we have forgotten who we are proclaiming here, and we are without purpose. But when we get out of the way, when we serve, when we proclaim Jesus, we are disciples. And what's more, I think we will find a faith that is so much richer than we knew before. Are we members, or disciples? Are we at the center? Or on the edges, on the fringes, following the path of Jesus? Amen. 

    Lectionary Notes for 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

    Readings for 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/12/12: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

    2 Kings 5:1-14

  • Naaman wants the benefits of a connection with God - he wants God's healing, and wants it from Elisha now. But he doesn't want to do what is required to get what he wants. Are we like that? Do we connect what we want from our relationship with God with what we give to our relationship with God? Of course, God blesses us in spite of ourselves, as God heals Naaman, but what could we do to make it easier?
  • Also, Naaman wants to see magic done, not healing, in his life. He wants a quick fix - to be better. He doesn't want to go through the healing/wholeness process - it's timely, it takes effort. I feel that we are the same with our own health sometimes - we want to be thin and perfect - just don't ask us to change our lifestyles to see the results! We want to be cancer free. But don't make us quit smoking! On a deeper note, we want to end hunger - we'll give a can at Thanksgiving time. Don't ask us to change consumer patterns to have sustainable living!
  • Process vs. Product - which is more important? Naaman says product. God says process!
  • "Wash and be clean." Why is grace, repentance, forgiveness, so hard for us? Why do we make it so difficult for ourselves? Why is it hard to admit our wrongs and try again?

  • Psalm 30
  • This psalm appears three times in the lectionary cycle - not sure why it makes it in the lectionary so much, since it's not, in my mind, particularly moving/deep, in comparison with some others... Hm.
  • Eesh - not a favorite psalm. All these images of God are terrible - pleading with God to care and act, trying to convince God to act by appealing to God's desire to have more people to worship God (v. 9). Not a very flattering picture of God. But I guess it's more about where the psalmist comes from than about who God really is...
  • "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning." The youth of my CCYM love the praise song "Trading My Sorrows", which takes this verse as a line of the song. These words comfort and give hope - but how do we speak to those who feel like this morning of joy never really comes?
  • "You hid your face." - Ugh - to think of God turning God's face from us. Devastating - like an eclipse?

  • 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
  • Compare this passage with Paul's similar "prize" sentiments in Philippians 3:12-16 and 2 Timothy 4:6-8. Paul seems to like and be personally motivated by thoughts of life as race, a prize at the end - the crown of righteousness.
  • In this particular passage, Paul's race metaphors talk specifically about the discipline required to race with the goal of winning. But instead of physical discipline, Paul speaks a spiritual discipline with an aggressive (if not somewhat self-loathing) edge.
  • What goal have you achieved through careful discipline? I have enjoyed running - my maximum comfortable distance was 4 miles at a time. But working up to the distance of 4 miles was certainly much harder and more painful then running the 4 miles when I got to that point in my training.

  • Mark 1:40-45
  • I love this passage. A leper approaches Jesus and boldly says, "if you choose . . ." And Jesus responds, "I do choose." Jesus chooses to act in our lives.
  • "moved with pity" This phrase is from one of my favorite Greek words, splanchnistheis, which literally has a sense of one's insides or womb or innards turning over. Physically moved with pity.
  • "show yourself to the priest" - this would be the way to 'officially' be termed clean again by the community.
  • "but he went out and began to proclaim it freely." And no wonder! But when was the last time you couldn't be kept from telling people what God was doing in your life?
  • "and people came to him from every quarter." - a theme so far in Mark - the constant and overwhelming need/demand of the people for Jesus and his message.