Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "Home for Christmas," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/2015
Luke 2:1-20

Home for Christmas

I will admit to you that although some of you have heard me preach many, many times, I really only have a small repertoire of sermons. No, I don’t preach the same thing week after week of course. But I think if you boiled them down, you’d find the same themes running through my sermons again and again. God loves you so much, and God gives you this love and grace freely, without price. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, and nothing you can do to lose it. That’s one sermon. Or there’s this one: what God wants from you is everything! Your whole heart! Your whole life! Or another: God can do amazing things in you and through you if you open your life fully to God. Another: God wants you to have abundant life. Stop settling for stuff that doesn’t really satisfy. It will never work.
I don’t feel too badly about this though, my repeated themes, because Jesus did the same thing in his preaching and teaching. When asked to sum up all of what God says to us, Jesus said that it came down to the greatest commandments – love God, and love neighbor. Jesus said that everything in the writings of the law and the prophets could be summed up in these two commands. Perhaps if we could do those two things well, consistently, completely – love God, love neighbor, we could move on to more advanced topics.
I’ve been thinking about how we have these repeated themes – these stories we like to tell. And even though we have thousands, millions of books and movies and plays and TV shows and fairy tales in our world, we can really boil them down to a handful of tropes, a handful of themes that we like to hear and tell, just with different names, a different setting, different costumes – but the same story.
Two people meet. They fall in love. Some conflict arises and their love is threatened. The conflict is resolved, and love conquers all! A dark villain arises, threatening to conquer the world. An unlikely person, who doesn’t seem to have any special powers at all, is able to conquer the villain in some unexpected way, using smarts instead of strength, and saves the day. And then there are stories about getting back home again: somehow, people are separated. Someone has left home for some reason, and all they want to do is get back home. And the whole story is about their journey home, through trials and tribulations, and the story ends when people are reunited.
Think of it: Dorothy is a little discontent with her humdrum life in Kansas. But somehow, without meaning to, she gets caught up in a great adventure in Oz. Nearly as soon as she’s there, though, she begins to long to go home. She faces many trials and dangers, and finally, she learns that home was in her grasp all along. She returns home with some clicks of her heels, and discovers that everything she needed and loved was right where she started.
Chance and Shadow and Sassy, two dogs and a cat, get separated from their family and travel across the country until they find their way home again.
Hobbits Frodo and Sam and a fellowship set out to carry a powerful ring across Middle Earth so they can save the world from evil, but eventually, they make it back home to the Shire.
I’ve been thinking about these stories of home lately – our deep desire and longing to find home, be it a physical place, or a group of people we want to get back to. I think at Christmas, when we have all these emotions and expectations swirling around the holiday, all tied up with family and relationships and how everything should be, these stories are particularly powerful.
 I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams. Kim Gannon wrote this classic made famous by Bing Crosby in the 1940s. He wrote it thinking of all people who couldn’t be with their loved ones at Christmas, and of course it was particularly poignant for those serving in World War II who were separated from their families and longing to make it home. Home for Christmas. It’s a powerful image.
This story – journeying home – is the story of the whole Bible, in fact. God creates humanity, but they turn away. Adam and Even leave the garden. God’s people wind up as slaves in Egypt. And Moses spends decades trying to lead them to a new home, renewing their relationship with God. Jesus tells us of a prodigal son, who took his family inheritance and ran off, and found himself with nothing. He makes the journey home – and finds that he is welcomed back with open arms.
It’s the story of our favorite songs of faith, too: “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, that saved a wretch like me – I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” We sing, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” It seems we are always seeking home, seeking God, on this journey of life, encountering trials and tribulations, longing for something more than we’ve found in all the other places we’ve been looking.
Tonight we read of another journey – Mary and Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem. Once there, because the inn is full, Mary delivers Jesus and lays him in a manger. We read of shepherds, watching their flocks. An angel appears and tells them there is “good news of great joy for all people,” and sends them to see a child, Jesus, who the angel calls Savior, Messiah, and Lord. The shepherds make the journey, find the baby, and praise God as they return to their fields. And Mary, we read, keeps all that she hears and sees and ponders it in her heart, treasuring all of it.
This, too, is a story about home, even though we find Mary and Joseph far away from theirs. Instead, it is a story about God announcing to us that we are home – with God – that God is home with us, and in us. And to show it, to prove it, to convince us that God is home with us and we are home with God already and always, God gets as close to us as possible by becoming one of us. Can we understand, can we glimpse the depth, the magnitude of God’s love for us? Can we comprehend the lengths to which God will go to make a home in our lives?
I have a cat, Ella, and when I’m home, Ella is usually in arm’s reach of me. When I’ve been away for a few days, she’s so clingy when I get back that I’m afraid I will step on her, because she’s always underfoot. And if I’d let her, she’d most like to sit right here. She wants to be as close to me as she possibly can be.
Studies are increasingly showing what many have known intuitively for generation upon generation. If it is possible, one of the best things for newborn babies is to have skin to skin contact with their parents. Even babies who are preemies, who need extra attention – if they can have that skin-to-skin contact – there’s healing and strength in the touch.
I’ve talked with my mom about a pattern I’ve seen in my family, immediate and extended, and maybe you’ve seen it in yours too. My older brother always talked about getting out of our hometown. He couldn’t wait to get away from Rome. And he finally did – when he was an adult, he moved out here to the Syracuse area. Not far, but not Rome. And I moved out here. And my brother Todd was living out here. And eventually, my Mom moved out here too! And by the time she moved out here, my older brother, who was the most anxious to move away from home, was most anxious to get Mom to move as close to him as possible. She lives about 3 minutes away from him, and sees him nearly every day, much to everyone’s joy. I’ve seen this in my extended family, where my cousins slowly moved to Arizona over the years, and finally my aunt and uncle moved there too – to everyone’s delight. So maybe everybody left home. Maybe no one moved back to their hometown. But they brought home to where they had moved!

This is how God loves us: so much God wants to be even closer than in arm’s reach. So much that God gives us life and strength the closer we draw to God. So much that God will find us and bring home to us wherever we go. The story of Christmas is a story of a journey, and a story of home. We keep telling it again and again. And maybe each time we tell it, we’ll know it a little better, understand it more fully, believe more deeply. God creates us. God loves us. We love God. We turn away anyway. God loves us. God loves us. God loves us. God helps us find our way back. But God is with us when we start out. And God is with us even when we’re trying to journey away from God. And God is waiting for us with open arms when we return home. Because God will do anything to make a home with us. That’s the story of Christmas. God-in-the-flesh to be God-with-us. Always. Home for Christmas. Amen. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence," Luke 1:26-45

Sermon 12/13/15
Luke 1:26-45

Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence

Last month, noted biblical scholar J. Ellsworth Kalas died at age 92. He was a prolific author, and I’ve used many of his resources in my years of ministry. He wrote a whole series of short studies on the scripture that were called “From the Backside” – the Parables from the Backside, the Old Testament from the Backside, Beatitudes from the Backside. Each book took a very relatable, straight-forward approach to drawing out themes from the scriptures, but by looking at the scriptures in a new light, from a different angle, focusing on minor characters or small details. My favorite is Christmas from the Backside, and I have had a particular chapter on my mind as I’ve reflected on Mary and Elizabeth this week. Kalas includes in his book chapters like “The Scandal of Christmas” and “Three Votes for an Early Christmas,” and he also includes a chapter called “Christmas Comes to a Back Fence” that focuses on the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth and the significance of women to the birth story of Jesus. He imagines the sharing between Mary and Elizabeth of the extraordinary happenings both are experiencing, juxtaposed against the common, ordinary setting of Elizabeth’s home.
We can envision this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary in a place where women might comfortably talk together. In the time when Mary and Elizabeth met to share and talk over their life-changing news, there weren’t many public places where women might gather for conversation. This conversation, then, is one that might take place in the kitchen, in the yard, by the fence, certainly a conversation that took place at home. And it is here, likely at Elizabeth’s home, in this ordinary place, talking about ordinary and extraordinary things, that we read of Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit, the first time in the gospels this happens. We usually think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, falling on the disciples as they began the work of the church. But it fills Elizabeth first, as she rejoices in what is happening in both Mary and herself, saying, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” They both believe, Mary and Elizabeth, ordinary though they may be, that God is doing something extraordinary in and through them.
There are, of course, many miraculous things about the birth of Jesus and the connected stories as told in the scriptures. There are God’s messengers, the angels, popping in and out of the lives of everyone from Mary, mother of Jesus to shepherds in fields, and a sky fully of heavenly host. There’s Jesus, born in a stable, a star that guides the way, and eventually Wisemen from the East who perhaps practice astrology and bring strange gifts to the baby. There’s Elizabeth, pregnant beyond the known age of child-bearing. There is, of course, the very fact that Gabriel tells Mary her child will be the Son of the Most High God, conceived through this overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The birth of Jesus is extraordinary.
But there are far more things about the birth of Jesus that are entirely typical. Mary experiences the limitations that unexpected pregnancies place on young women. Elizabeth feels her baby moving around in her womb. Mary wants to share her news with her cousin, and be with someone else who is experiencing what she is. Above all, we know nothing about Mary or Elizabeth that leads us to believe that they are in any way different from any other women of their time and place. We don’t find anything to suggest that they were especially pious or holy or spiritual or devoted or faithful. Perhaps they were, but the biblical writers don’t bother to share that if that’s the case. And this child, Jesus, who will be born, will not be of noble birth, will not be born in a palace, will not be born into luxury or status. He is not going to be born a prince or a king – not by standards his world will recognize. Despite God’s host of messengers, despite the shepherds that will come, despite the star, despite the visitors from the East, I think the normalcy of Jesus’ birth is just as, maybe more important than the attention-getting uniqueness of it. After all, this is God-with-us, and God can only be with us if God is really with us – born like us, born among us, born to experiences that most of us, not just a few of the elite of us have, born to a regular young woman, like any number of other children would have been born on the very same day. The birth of Jesus is ordinary.
We so often look at the world around us and divide what we see into two realms – sacred and secular. There are holy things and holy people and holy place – cross and altars and clergy and churches and sanctuaries – and then there’s ordinary stuff – our homes, our workplaces, our stuff, our food, and all the regular people. But that’s not what we see in the Christmas story. That’s not what we see in Mary and Elizabeth. That’s not what we see in scriptures. Instead, we find again and again that God shows up unexpectedly in our ordinary place, and by God’s very presence, by God’s showing up in our regular old lives, they are made holy. That’s what God does in communion – ordinary bread and cup become extraordinarily the living body of Christ. In baptism regular old water becomes a sign of new life, rebirth. Fishermen and tax collectors become disciples. Children become keys to understanding God’s reign on earth. And two ordinary women become the mother of the Christ-child and the mother of the prophet who will prepare his way. That’s what happens when God shows up in our ordinary – what God touches becomes Holy.  
I think sometimes we spend so much effort seeking out what we think is holy and sacred so that we can draw close to God. Instead, I wonder if we can start looking for the ways that the holy is all around us when God shows up in the ordinary stuff of our lives. Perhaps you’ll notice a holy moment when you are in the midst of the chaos at a busy shopping mall in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Perhaps you can make note of the holy in our midst when you see the kind of gifts children prepare for their loved ones with such care and creativity. Maybe you’ll experience a holy moment as you roll out the dough for Christmas cookies, or when you hear a carol on the radio as you drive to work. When you see examples of God-with-us in the everyday of life, you’re seeing something holy.
Kalas writes, “I’m trying to say that Christmas shows us that no part of life is unimportant to God, and that none of it is beyond God’s interest. And if that be so, not one of us is beyond God’s care and concern … So if you’re wondering where Christmas will happen this year, I’ll answer with a question: Where do you expect to be?” Because Christmas happens where we are. Christmas comes right to our homes, and right to our hearts. God loves you, God loves me, God loves us enough to become one of us, to show up in every part of our world, in every aspect of our lives. The gift that we can prepare for God this Christmas is to offer to God every bit, every piece, every part of our ordinary lives. And then, get ready: Because everything God gets to work on can becomes something extraordinary, something holy. And blessed are we who believed that there will be a fulfilment of what is spoken to us by God! Amen.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Prepare Him Room," Luke 3:1-18

Sermon 12/6/15
Luke 3:1-18

Home for Christmas: Prepare Him Room

If you go into my eight-year old nephew Sam’s bedroom, much of the time you might find a path from the door to the bed, but not much else. I imagine he’s in good company. We all love Sam, and we love giving him things, but when he was about 2 or 3, if someone would come for a visit, Sam would say, “What did you bring me?” He was so used to getting gifts from people that it had become an expectation. If you didn’t have a present for him, Sam wondered what was wrong with you! My brother and sister-in-law work hard to make sure Sam is kind and generous and not hung up on stuff, things – and yet Sam has so many toys – and that’s not counting ones that are stored away – so many toys that there isn’t much floor left in sight in his room. Our focus this second Sunday in Advent is Prepare Him Room. The phrase you might recognize from the hymn Joy to the World – we sing: “Let every heart prepare him room.” We’re meant to make room for the Christ Child, room for the Prince of Peace, room for Jesus. And as I mull over this phrase, I just keep imagining that all of us are engaged in trying to prepare our hearts for Jesus like an 8 year old trying to clean his room when “clean” means “a path from the door to the bed is visible.” Let every heart prepare him room!
Last week I talked to you about people having to move into smaller apartments – folks adjusting at the retirement community where I work to having less space than they were used to. I lived in parsonages during my first two appointments as pastor, and then started at a church with no parsonage. For a while, I rented an apartment, and it was smaller by half at least than any house I’d ever lived in. I felt like I had no room for anything. The biggest challenge was my Christmas tree. I have an artificial tree that I store in about 5 plastic bins. And at the apartment I lived in, I felt like no matter what closet you opened, you’d find at least one bin with part of the Christmas tree shoved in side. There was just not enough room. I had to find creative ways to squeeze everything in. Let every heart prepare him room!
            When I was in high school, I went to Austria a group from my school orchestra. It was my first international trip, and I packed ridiculously. I couldn’t manage my own luggage. I needed to get help with it, on and off buses, in and out of hotels, on and off planes. And I vowed to myself never again to pack for a trip in a way that I couldn’t easily manage my own stuff. When I was in seminary, I had the chance to go to Ghana in West Africa, and I packed like a pro, and while I was there, I only bought souvenirs that I knew would fit in my bags easily. Some of my friends were not so wise, and I wondered about all the extra fees they would have to pay at the airport. But then I witnessed something strange – at the airport, where you could only have a certain number of bags – the airline staff would help you shrink wrap several of your bags into one, so that your four items of luggage were turned into one item – one gigantic item – but just one. This seemed to me to be missing the point of the luggage restrictions – making room by squishing everything in, sucking all the air out of it. Let every heart prepare him room!
            My Uncle Bill has shared with me that when he and my aunt were expecting their second child, he went to my grandfather in distress, and said, “I don’t know how I can do it. I love my daughter so much, and I don’t know if I have room to love a second child as much as I love her.” He was so worried that he wouldn’t be able to show child #2 the same kind of total love he had for child #1. My grandfather, father of five children, all of whom he he loved with all his heart, assured him that he would find his heart expanded quite nicely to love with all his heart a new life. Your heart expands and expands and expands and you find you have quite enough room for your heart to be completely filled again with this new life, this new child. There’s no competition, no struggle to divide love. Love multiplies. Let every heart prepare him room! 
Today we find ourselves in the gospel of Luke, encountering one who the scriptures tells us was sent to help the people – help us – prepare some room for the one who would come after him. We meet John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus. Luke tells us that the word of God came to John, and that he began preaching a baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. To repent means literally to change the direction of your mind, to change the direction of your life back to God’s direction. Baptism – cleansing with a water ritual – was not a new practice to Judaism – and something about John’s message was drawing people in. Luke tells us that John embodied the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of one who would prepare the way of the Lord, that all might see the salvation of God.
So crowds show up to hear John and get baptized, but he doesn’t exactly thank them for coming. He calls them a brood of vipers, and warns them against claiming their faith heritage, thinking they’ll be safe from needing to bear good fruit because of their good religious pedigree. Everyone, John says, needs to bear good fruit. Hopefully that language should sound a bit familiar to you. Someone bravely asks John, “Well, what should we do then?” And John says that if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have enough food, share what you have with someone who doesn’t. If you are a tax collector – and remember in John’s day, these were Jewish folks who worked for the hated Roman governments, so they were considered greedy and corrupt – John urges them to collect no more than is due. For soldiers – and again, here he is probably addressing Jewish soldiers working for the Romans – John tells them not to extort money, not to make threats, not to make false accusations, and finally, to be satisfied with their wages. Preaching scholar David Lose writes of John’s message, “Hey, wait a second: share, don’t bully, be fair. These sound like the rules of kindergarten. That’s right. “Fruits worth of repentance,” it turns out, aren’t located at the top of some spiritual mountain; rather, they are right next door, in our homes and schools and workplaces and community.” What John says isn’t complicated. We just have to actually do what he says. Our repentance – our changing direction – has to look a lot more like we turned back toward God and a lot less like we’re still going in the same direction. After hearing all of this, which Luke notes to us is the good news – we read that the people are filled with expectation. Let every heart prepare him room.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a children’s sermon where I showed the children, using a jar and some stones that if you put God in your life first, instead of trying to cram God in last, make room for God after everything else, you’ll find that you have room for everything. Seek God and God’s kingdom first, and everything else after. That’s the promise of abundant life Jesus shares with us – he wants us to have life, abundant life, full life. And yet, I have to confess that my children’s sermon is also a little bit of a myth. God wants us to fill our lives with every good thing, starting with our relationship with God. We’ll find that our hearts keep expanding and expanding to receive God’s blessings as we fill our hearts with more and more love, more hope, more peace, more joy. There’s always room in our jar for more of that. But when we try to give a part of our hearts to things that really need to be thrown out, we make a part of our hearts inaccessible to anything God wants to give us. And we just can’t prepare room for Jesus if we won’t budge on some of the other stuff we’re keeping there. There are some things that don’t belong in our jar, that don’t belong in our lives, that don’t belong in our hearts. That stuff needs to be cleared out to prepare the way. John suggests we clear out from our lives some of our excess – if you have more food and clothing, more stuff than you need, there’s plenty who could use it. Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that most of us have not two tunics but fifty, or a hundred! If you’ve filled up your heart with greed and envy, clear it out, John says. If you’ve filled it up with the need for power over others, with anger, with pride, clear it out. Let every heart prepare him room.
In ninth grade English class, we had to read the lyric ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I can’t say I loved it, but my English teacher would be happy to know that some of the most famous phrases have stayed in my mind all these years. In the poem, sailors are stranded in still water in the ocean for some time, and they are dying of thirst, having run out of water. The narrator remarks, “Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The high salt content of seawater makes it impossible for your body to process, so if you drank nothing but saltwater, you'd die from dehydration. Water everywhere, and yet so very thirsty. I believe that this is the tension, the crux of our faith journey. We live in the tension of this paradox: some things fill us up to overflowing, and seem to expand our hearts and our capacity to love and serve and give, while other things leave us filled up to the point that we’re empty and starving, thirsty in the middle of an ocean full of water. Our task, our discipleship is the process of learning how to know the difference between these things, and choosing again and again to fill ourselves with things that satisfy, things that expand our hearts, instead of closing them off. 
This is a season of waiting and longing and hoping for the Christ Child, the Prince of Peace. We are filled with expectation. We have been called to repentance, to clear out some of the junk that is closing off corners of our hearts. We have been called to make a path, a highway, a wide-open road to our souls, ready for Christ to enter in. Let every heart prepare him room! Amen.

            (Hymn: Joy to the world! The Lord will Come)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season of Christmas - Tune: Adestes Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)

A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season of Christmas:
O Come, All Ye Faithful
O Come, all you faithful, gather at the table
O Come, lift your hearts up and give praise to God
Come and be welcomed; Come and be filled with life
We come now to the table,
We come now to the table,
We come now to the table
of Christ the Lord.

God, our Creator, set us in the garden
God offered to us all our hearts’ desire.
We turned away, convinced that we knew better
Yet God would not forget us
Yet God would not forget us
Yet God would not forget us
Thanks be to God!

All through the ages, God still sought to reach us,
Through prophets and poets, through leaders and law,
Yet, we kept wandering, yet we kept falling
The people walked in darkness
The people walked in darkness
The people walked darkness
O save us, God!

Just at the right time, God sent us the Christ Child
Born to redeem us, Prince of Peace
Jesus: God with us, Word made flesh among us
O Come, Let us adore him
O Come, Let Us adore him
O Come, Let Us adore him
Christ, the Lord

He called us to follow, he preached to us repentance
He ate with sinners; he taught and he healed.
Sharing the good news, he showed us salvation
Our savior walked among us,
Our savior walked among us,
Our savior walked among, us
God with us!

With his disciples, he sat down to supper
Broke bread and shared it; his life for us
Cup of redemption, new covenant God gives us
He calls us to remember
He calls us to remember
He calls us to remember
Give thanks to God! 

God, pour out your Spirit, on these gifts before us
May bread and cup become Body of Christ
Transform us too, God! We are your people!
Redeemed by your love,
Redeemed by your love,
Redeemed by your love
in Christ the Lord.
Prayer after Communion:
O God, we thank you, for this holy mystery
In which you give yourself for us
Send us forth now, Send us in your Spirit,
For we are Christ’s Body
For we are Christ’s Body
For we are Christ’s Body
Thanks be to God!
Text: Beth Quick, 2015.
Based on “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” John F. Wade, trans: Frederick Oakeley.
A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season of Christmas by Rev. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Moving Out, Moving In," John 1:1-14

Sermon 11/29/15
John 1:1-14

Home for Christmas: Moving Out, Moving In

            Have you moved much in your life? Have you had the opportunity – or challenge – or however you’d describe it – of packing up all your stuff, and moving it to a new place? Did you move across town? Or to a new town? A new state? Pastors in our conference are encouraged each year to take a health assessment that examines stressors that you might have experienced within the last year. One significant stress factor, according to the assessment, is whether or not you’ve had to move in the last year. Of course, for United Methodist pastors, who often move to new locations at the leading of the bishop, there are many of us who have to check that box every year! (And no, please don’t panic. This is not me telling you that I’m moving!) I’ve been thinking about this – the stress of moving – because as you know, I serve part time as chaplain to a retirement community. Folks come to live at The Meadows for a variety of reasons, but for some, the move is because of declining health, or the loss of a spouse, or to be near children – some situation that makes moving more of a requirement and less of a choice. I often speak with newer residents who are struggling with the significant change that moving requires. People who have lived in large houses are suddenly in small apartments. They’re very nice apartments. But they are significantly smaller than what folks have been used to. Moving, settling into a new space, a new home, a new community, a new pattern of daily life – it’s stressful. Leaving a place that has been home is so very difficult. And yet, often the most meaningful experiences we have in life are attached to a move. Children head off to college. Couples move in together. A family buys its home for the first time. A new job opportunity means a move to a new place. Leaving home is hard. But often, we build a new home in a new place, in a new season, in a new expression of family, at a new stage in our journey.    
Our Advent theme this year is “Home for Christmas.” I wrestled with a few ideas to focus our worship this year, this Advent. I felt a strong tug towards spending the whole season thinking about the theme for this week’s candle: Hope. We could use some huge helpings of hope right now in our hurting world. But this idea of Home for Christmas just wouldn’t let me alone. I’ve been thinking about the number of losses we’ve had as a congregation recently, and thinking about how I hope we take comfort in the idea of being eternally at home with God. I’ve been thinking about my folks in Rochester and their different family situations – how some would be able to be with loved ones for Thanksgiving and some would be on their own. I’ve been thinking about refugees, and the journeys they have taken – driven from one home by violence, wondering if they would find a new home, and where that might be. Home is such a powerful concept, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about how whatever home means for us, whether it is our hometown, or an adopted hometown, a biological family, or a group of dear friends – I’m guessing we’ve all experienced at one time or another a sense of homesickness – this kind of longing to go home. You all know how much I loved going to camp as a child. I loved Aldersgate, every minute of it. But I would often be mystified by my crying friends who were so sad about going home at the end of the week. I loved camp – but I was also always ready to go home.
            I’ve been thinking a lot about where we’re headed this Advent. Some of you may have seen a question I posed on facebook a couple weeks ago. I shared a confession: Sometimes, at the end of Christmas Day, I feel a sense of let-down. I'm sure part of it is because of the energy it takes for church leaders in worship and planning throughout Advent and Christmas, combined with a lack of sleep and a different rhythm and routine in the season. But I also think it has something to do with the unrealistic expectations of what the day is supposed to be like that come from all around us during this season. Expectations that we don't need to buy into, yet somehow still do. I've been thinking a lot about how to make Christmas more meaningful for me and my family this year. I asked people to think about and share the practices and traditions in their families that make Christmas particularly meaningful. And I want to help us – to help you and to help myself, frankly – remember where we’re heading this season. Advent is a journey of patience, and longing and hoping. But if Advent is the journey, I want us to remember in our mind all the time the destination. I want us to arrive Home for Christmas. I want us to arrive at the manger-side of the Christ-child, and find that the Christ-child has arrived and settled at home into our hearts.       
Our gospel text today comes from the gospel of John, the very opening sentences of the gospel of John. Of our four gospels, just two, Matthew and Luke, contain what would sound familiar to us as part of the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus. Mark contains no mention of Jesus’ origins at all. He’s moving too quickly, and points simply to Jesus’ baptism as the significant starting moment of sorts. But John – he does his own thing, as usual. The gospel of John is the most different from the other gospels. They are referred to as synoptic gospels, which means literally “together with one eye” gospels – they look at the life of Jesus in the same basic way, although each has its own flavor and some unique scenes. But John is different. The gospel of John was written a bit later than the other gospels, and Christian theology was starting to develop in some different ways – farther out from the life of Jesus, as faith communities were becoming more established, thinkers in the faith had time to explore the deep meanings of God’s actions in Jesus beyond the most concrete. We see this in John, and this prologue of sorts to his gospel. It isn’t a historical record – it’s poetry and philosophy. It is a creation hymn that resonates with the themes of Genesis 1. “In the beginning,” John starts like Genesis. But he goes on: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John wants to make sure that we know that that Christ – the Logos, the Word – is not a regular person. Jesus is God, existing from the beginning with God, co-creator with God, life and light of the universe. Pretty awesome stuff. And it is this God, this Christ, this very life and light and word of the universe – this very Christ – who comes into the world to be with us. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.” John wants us to grasp the importance – this is God, the Creator of the universe, incarnate, embodied, poured into humanity in Jesus. God became flesh. Word made flesh. God-with-us. One of my colleagues in ministry was fond of saying that God had “stepped out of eternity” into our world. I kept thinking, as I read this text, of words from the book of Revelation – near the very end, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. John of Patmos writes, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” Eugene Peterson translates the verse, “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God.” God has moved into the neighborhood, and is living amongst us. That’s what John wants us to know. That’s what we’re preparing to celebrate. God has made home with us. That’s Christmas.
This Advent, in order to get Home for Christmas, we’re all going to have to do some moving. We have to journey ever closer to the heart of God, and sometimes that means leaving some things behind – old ways, old behaviors, old beliefs, old excuses. The journey may be stressful, painful sometimes. But the good news is this: even as we set out to journey close to the heart of God, God is already moving in with us, moving right into our neighborhood. Home for Christmas. Amen.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Thanksgiving," Matthew 6:24-33

Sermon 11/22/15
Matthew 6:24-33

Prayerful: Thanksgiving

My mother will tell you that in some ways, I’ve been a worrier since I was a little girl. When I started kindergarten, I went through a stretch where I kept asking my mother “what if” questions about starting school. What if I couldn’t find my bus? What if I got locked in the bathroom and no one heard me calling for help getting out? What if no one was home when I got off the bus? What if the teacher didn’t show up? What if I wore a dress on a day I was supposed to wear pants for gym? What if I didn’t have my money for milk? These were apparently serious concerns on my 5 year old mind, and my mother did her best to help me relax, to know that I would be safe and that someone would be there who could help me no matter what I encountered. I don’t even remember having all these questions myself, so she must have done a good job in calming my anxieties.
But I’m still a worrier. I might put on a good exterior show, if you think I am always calm, cool, and collected. But I am worried about matters large and small every day. There was a study that came out at the end of last year that said people who worry a lot might have higher intelligence, and I rejoiced, because it is certainly about the only benefit worrying might produce. Everybody, it seems, worries about something sometime. Are you a worrier? Do you experience stress? How do you cope with it? We’re going through a period of global fear and worry just now, aren’t we? Our minds are filled with images of violence people have been experiencing in the Middle East, in Europe, in Africa. We’ve experienced acts of violence in the US in the past year. At my job in Rochester we had to watch a video about what to do, how to respond, should someone come into the building and start shooting. It is hard not to be afraid, to be worried, and then to let our lives be ruled by our fear and worry.   
And in the midst of this, we find this scripture passage from the gospel of Matthew. 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. He says that one cannot serve both God and wealth. This statement is a springboard for Jesus to speak about worry. Don’t worry, Jesus says, about what to eat, or drink, or wear. Life is more than these things. The birds of the air don’t work or worry, and have plenty to eat, and we are more valuable than birds. And the lilies are clothed with great beauty, but they only last a little while. Won’t God take even greater care of us? So why worry? God knows what we need. So strive for the Kingdom of God, not these other things, Jesus concludes. Strive to live righteously, and everything else will come as well.
In some ways I love this passage – it is beautiful, comforting. But my other reaction is: Is Jesus serious? How can he be? Most of the time when reading the gospels, I’m struck by the deep wisdom of Jesus. By his perceptiveness, his way of seeing right to the heart of the matter. By the way he makes things so clear. It is one of the many reasons I choose to follow Jesus – his ability to trim away all the meaningless stuff and get to the core in a world that so needs that, when my life so needs that. But then sometimes there’s a passage of Jesus’ teaching that comes along like this one and my reaction is, “Yeah, but Jesus…,” “Jesus, you’re pretty naïve, idealistic, you really don’t understand how stressful my life is.” “Yeah, but easier said than done Jesus. Have you seen my to-do list? Have you seen the news?” A first read of this passage tells us that Jesus says we’re not supposed to worry. And perhaps some of you are like me, then, walking away from the passage worried that we worry too much.
            As usual, when we really examine the text, Jesus says something much more compelling than “Don’t worry.” He doesn’t offer easy platitudes – this isn’t “hakuna matata” or “don’t worry, be happy.”  Jesus is tying his words about worry 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, that because of not being able to serve two masters, Jesus tells us not to worry?
When Jesus talks about worry, the word used is merimnate, which means more literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” (1) When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is equating worry to something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Worried? Preoccupied? Absorbed? Not only is your stress hard on you, it’s also putting your very soul at risk, because your worry is just another form of making idols. That’s why Jesus talks about worry and serving more than one master. If we don’t want to end up serving a master other than God, we must stop worrying, stop being absorbed by and preoccupied by things that aren’t God.
Instead of being naïve, Jesus is, of course, being extremely wise. He calls our worry out for what it is – a way of distancing ourselves from God and God’s plan for our lives. We worry because we’re striving for the wrong things, or striving, at the least, in the wrong order. So what do we do? How do we change? How do we give up this striving, our obsessive anxiety, our stress, our worry, our fear? How can we just “not worry” like Jesus says? He gives us the answer: We still strive, we’re still preoccupied, we’re still consumed – but all that energy is given to striving for the kingdom of God. We do that first. Strive first for God, and God’s way, God’s justice, God’s reign. Strive for God, and we’ll find that we’re too filled up with God’s abundance to be consumed by worry and fear. Strive for God, and when we live a life that is focused on serving others, we won’t find much time left over to worry for ourselves.
Does seeking God’s kingdom free us from worry? Does seeking God’s kingdom clothe us and feed us? Maybe not in the ways we’d expect. But I think striving for God’s kingdom ultimately turns our view from ourselves out to the world God has created. So striving for the kingdom lead us to feed others, to clothe others, to fill others. I’m reminded of the folk parable about heaven and hell. In hell, everyone is given huge amounts of food, but the spoons they are given have such long handles that no one can actually eat. Everyone is miserable. But in heaven, everything is just the same – except that people in heaven are feeding each other, and everyone shares in the feast.

As we draw near to Thanksgiving Day, I am meditating on the verse from 1 John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” We’ve been thinking about being a prayerful people, and giving thanks to God is one of the primary ways we are called to pray. Last week we heard the psalmist say, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” The prayers of the psalmists are filled with praise. We can give thanks more fully when we take all of the stuff that absorbs our minds and hearts, and lay it down at the feet of Jesus, who we follow. In fact, until we do that, lay down our burdens at the feet of Jesus, I’m not sure we can really thank God like we intend to. But when we cast out the fear and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us, we make room in our lives, in our hearts, in our world for God, and for each other. We make room to be filled up with thanksgiving. We make room to focus first on pursuing God and God’s reign on earth, God’s justice, with our whole being. My beloved: I don’t think Jesus expects us to never have a worry or care. But I do think Jesus challenges us not to be absorbed by our worries and fears, not to be ruled by them. We claim one ruler of our lives only. We can truly serve one ruler only. So let us choose to strive after God. Let us choose to pray for hearts that are learning to cast out fear and instead be filled up with love. And let us give thanks to God, who answers our prayers. Amen. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Praying Like Jesus," Matthew 6:5-13

Sermon 11/8/15
Matthew 6:5-13
Prayerful: Praying Like Jesus

            We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a prayerful people. We’ve talked about being confessional, and being persistent in our prayers. And we’ve talked about how we’re bound together in prayer in the act of communion, bound together across time and space in the body of Christ. Next Sunday, we’ll practice praying through music. In two weeks, we’ll be focusing on prayers of Thanksgiving. Some of you have had experiences, even over these past few weeks, of the power of prayer, as you gave thanks to God for some prayer answered. Some of you have offered prayer at one of our meetings or studies – I’ve really been encouraging everybody to feel comfortable offering a prayer to God on our behalf. And so far, everyone has survived the experience! Today, though, I want to spend a little time thinking about Jesus, and how Jesus prays. Jesus does a lot of praying, and it seems like we can’t find a better example to mold ourselves after, right? So what can we learn about praying like Jesus?  
            I found this to be a more challenging question than I thought. The scriptures mention Jesus praying often, but they don’t always, or even usually, tell us exactly what Jesus is praying about, which makes complete sense, because most often, when Jesus prays, he has drawn away, by himself, away from the crowds, away from even his disciples, often. We know he does it frequently. And we know it seems to be a way he gives himself fuel, strength, for the work before him. What does it mean to pray like Jesus? I asked this question on facebook, and got some good answers:
            “I have always been struck by the fact that Jesus went away to pray; away from the crowds, away from the disciples, all alone with God.” “To pray like Jesus is to love each other through our daily trials and joys and to never judge each other.” “To be one with God.” “To pray without ceasing...to know that Your Father hears you and knows the desires of your heart. Talking to (sharing your heart with) someone who KNOWS you.” “Pray without ceasing...why is that is so hard to do sometimes? Like the disciples drifting off in Gethsemane...” “Pray with our sacred Story and Tradition so often and deeply that it becomes a part of who you are: the Story becomes my story. I am struck by the way [Jesus] has the sacred Story as his own vernacular (as did his mother, see the Magnificat and Hannah's song in Samuel). Perhaps also to pray the word so completely that you/I become the wordless living word-we incarnate and live the word/Word. And the quiet contemplative going apart from the noise to simply be with God.  “Praying with your mind, body and soul.” “Becoming one with the prayer.” I’m blessed to have some thoughtful facebook friends! What about you? What do you think it means to pray like Jesus?
            Jesus teaches about prayer a few times – and we’ve shared in some of those passages in worship – Jesus teaching us to pray persistently. Jesus teaching us to pray for forgiveness and offer forgiveness to others. Jesus teaching us to ask, and search, and knock, and expect answers in our prayers. In passages we haven’t read together in worship, Jesus talks about praying like a tax collector, who prays for mercy, rather than like a Pharisee, who tries to load up his prayer with telling of his good deeds, in order to somehow impress God. And of course, in our text for today, we hear that rather than trying to pray with the fanciest, most eloquent words we can find, actually, a good prayer to pray is quite simple. It’s the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer. Most of us pray it by rote – we pray the same exact words, probably one of the first prayers we learned. And often, without realizing it, our informal prayers cover many of the areas the Lord’s Prayer does: praising God; seeking strength to avoid evil; asking for forgiveness; asking for enough to get by each day. And, without realizing it, I think we see throughout Jesus’ life his embodiment of the prayer he teaches us.
            So what does it mean to pray like Jesus? Although we may not know the whole content of Jesus’ prayers, his most intimate conversations with God, between what he teaches and the discipline of prayer he demonstrates, I think we glean a lot.
            First, prayer is a pattern of his life. It’s necessary to him. He’s compelled to pray. He needs to pray. Jesus needs to spend time with God in serious conversation, and he needs to do it regularly. And the more full, the more packed the rest of his life is with the relentless needs of those around him, the relentless demands, the more Jesus prays. He doesn’t get too busy to pray. In fact, he can sustain his pattern of life because of the way he is grounded in his relationship with God. I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make in our life with God is when we view our time for prayer, for reading the scripture, for deepening our faith, for talking to God as optional, or extra, the first thing that gets “cut” when we are feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. It’s tempting, and easy to do. But the pattern of Jesus’ life tells us that immersing our life in conversation with God needs to be first, not last.     
            Jesus teaches us here and elsewhere to pray not for show, but for God. Not to try to impress God, but with humility. We don’t need to explain to God how good we are. God doesn’t listen to one prayer more than others based on our goodness. Our prayers are for God, and we don’t have to worry about impressing God. But all the same, we see that Jesus prayed always with confidence. His confidence was not in himself, but in God, and his relationship with God. Praying with confidence is different than praying with the belief that God will do everything we want, like filling all the requests on a giant wish list. Praying with confidence in God means trusting that God knows us, knows our hearts, loves us, and wants us to experience good, abundant, deeply satisfying life. That’s what we have confidence in. And we have confidence that nothing is impossible with God. That God can do anything. Knowing that, we pray with confidence in God.
            What did Jesus pray for? We don’t know everything. But we know a lot. He gave thanks to God many times. He asked for what he wanted and needed, for comfort, for God to make things easier. He prayed for his disciples, for the people he saw all around him who seemed lost and vulnerable. He prayed to ask for forgiveness for others He prayed that others would forgive each other, that they would experience unity and reconciliation instead of brokenness. He prayed for new life to come where it seemed death had won the day. He prayed again and again for God’s kingdom, God’s reign to be realize on earth. He prayed that he and his followers would be able to carry out God’s vision for the world. And he prayed, finally, that what he wanted most was for God’s will to be done on earth, even when it was so hard that it would cost him his life.
            I think we can, should, do pray for the very things Jesus prayed for. We can always ask God for just what we want and need. We pray for one another, and especially for those who seem lost, who are searching, who are vulnerable. We pray for forgiveness and that we might be more forgiving, that we might reconcile with each other. We pray that God’s reign is realized on earth – that God’s kingdom is made visible right here at Apple Valley – that we embody God’s hope for the world in this place, as much as we are able, as much as we can respond to God’s call. We pray for clarity about just what is God wants for us to do. And we pray, ultimately, that it is what God wants, God’s will, that is carried out.
            As much as we can, let’s pray like Jesus: with thanksgiving; with confidence; with hope; with constancy; with listening ears; with open hearts. Amen.


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Communion," Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16, 23-40, 12:1-2

Sermon 11/1/15
Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16, 23-40, 12:1-2

Prayerful: Communion

How would you define a Saint? What does it mean, to be a saint? I’ve been reading a little bit about different religious traditions and what they understand by the term “saints.” Some traditions understand the term saint in more formal ways – there’s a process to be officially named a saint. And others have a more fluid understanding of what it means. How about you? How do you define a saint? What is a saint? In most any tradition, the folks I encounter are sure of at least this: A saint is something other than themselves. I can’t say I often hear people identify themselves as a saint. Are you a saint? And yet, regardless of tradition, if, instead, I ask folks to name those who have been saints in their life, those who have died, those who are living, people can usually quickly tell me people they view as saints.
            There are many ways to define the word “saint,” but here’s what I’ve found most compelling. A saint is a person who has an exceptional degree of likeness to God. Or, a believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. I imagine that might well describe the people you’d call saints in your life. People who make you feel like you’ve drawn a little closer to God from being around them, from knowing them, from loving them. People who you interact with and think, “I caught a glimpse of Christ today.” Is this not what it is to be saint?    
             Today, we reflect in particular on the communion of saints in the body of Christ. When we say the Apostles Creed, we say that we believe, among other things, in “the holy catholic church, [and] the communion of saints. Here, catholic, with a small c means the church universal, literally “according to the whole” – the whole collective Christian church, the body of Christ in the world. And the communion of saints means the spiritual unity of the whole body of Christ, living and dead. It acknowledges that our connection to our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ doesn’t break with the barrier between life and death. They are still a part of the church, still a part of the body of Christ, just as are we. The communion of saints means that we are bound up together with all who came before us, in our own individual lives, in the life of this congregation and its predecessors, throughout Methodism, throughout church history, throughout our biblical heritage. Their story is our story, still. We’re just part of a later chapter of this one great story God is writing with creation.    
            In our book study, Bearing Fruit, we were talking this week about congregational creation stories. Apple Valley has a creation story. Not just our beginnings a decade ago, but our creation story includes our predecessor congregations. Why did Navarino and Cedarvale and South Onondaga and Cardiff become churches? What events led to their creation? What vision of ministry did the leaders of those faith communities have? Each generation of faithful disciples tries to live out the promises of God, tries to express, to realize God’s reign, God’s kingdom on earth, in their corner of the universe. That’s what we see in our reading from Hebrews. The author crafts this beautiful litany that is the story of God and God’s people. It’s a story of generation after generation acting in faith that God fulfills the promises made, that we may catch glimpses of God’s promises fulfilled, even as they are still unfolding, still expanding, beyond what any one person, any one generation sees. Even as we bear good fruit for God today, we plant seeds that won’t bear fruit in our own time, but in the generations yet to come, who also will seek to be faithful to God’s promises. It’s our story with God, and it makes us – you and me – part of this communion of saints – as much as we seek to live into God’s promises, as much as we seek to fulfill God’s vision for the world as much as we can, in our time, in God’s way for our lives. When we do this work, when we, by faith, like all the people in our reading from Hebrews, when we live into and live out of God’s promises, we are part of the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.
A saint, I said, is a person who has an exceptional degree of likeness to God. Or, a believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. I don’t think this happens by accident, like you might accidentally be someone’s doppelganger. If we are to have a “likeness to God” – if we are to be people in whom Christ dwells, I think we practice. We work at it. That’s what it means to be disciples – students of Jesus, who are trying all the time to be more and more like their teacher. And so I have a task for us, to practice our discipleship this month. Last year I asked you to count your blessings during the month of November. I asked you to think about, every single day, at least 5 ways in which you are blessed, by posting on facebook, or writing it down, or keeping track in some other way. I have them here – your scrap papers, your notes, printouts from online, even a calendar page with blessings filled in on every square of the month. So we know we are blessed.
            I also asked us to think, last year, about how we are called to be blessings to others. God is the source of our blessings, but we also have the opportunity to offer blessings to others through our actions, through our love, through building each other up, through our words of affirmation. And that’s what I want us to focus on this year. Every day, I want you to think of a way you can bless someone, a way you can build up the community – not just the community of Apple Valley, but your work or school community, your family, your neighborhood, your global community even. I’m challenging all of us, each day of November, to bless someone else’s life. And I want you to be on particular lookout for people who might not usually get blessed by someone else. People, perhaps, that might not usually get blessed by you. People who are in some way not valued very much by society’s standards. Perhaps you’ll take this month to particularly seek after the sick and homebound, those who are living in nursing homes. Maybe you might focus on ways you can bless people who work in all sorts of customer service jobs – the person working at the convenience store, or at the fast food place. How often are they blessed by someone? Praised for their good work? Prayed for? Maybe you’ll bless some single parents. Some parents who stay home with children. Some local politicians – maybe even the ones you didn’t vote for. Maybe you’ll think of people you know who are struggling with addictions, or who have been in trouble. Maybe you’ll find that you have the power to bless someone who you’re usually fighting with. Even if you know there’s no way they’ll offer a blessing in return. Perhaps especially when you know that. You can choose the best way to do this, to offer your blessings. You can tag someone on facebook and tell the world how blessed you are to know them. You can write them a note, or make a phone call, and just tell them how much you value them, and God values them. You can do a task for them – help them with the dishes, or run an errand for them. Find someone’s boss and tell them what a good job their employee is doing. Tell a parent how great their child is. Every day, for 30 days, I want you focus on how you can be a blessing to someone else. We’re writing our part of the story, our story with God, our story of the communion of saints, of which we are part, and which we are growing into, the more and more we model our lives so that others see in us a likeness with God.
            Aside from the communion of saints, the other time we think about communion is of course when we share in the sacrament of bread and cup together. There are a few names for this holy meal. Some call it the Lord’s Supper. We sometimes call it the Eucharist, which means literally the Thanksgiving or more fully, thanksgiving for the good gift of grace. Sometimes it is called simply the Breaking of the Bread. But we most often call it communion, which means, “sharing in common.” This word for communion comes from Paul’s writings, in 1 Corinthians, when he says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (the sharing together in) the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion (the sharing together in) the body of Christ?” It is in this holy meal that we find that we have communion in so many senses of the words. We commune with God, and with the real presence of Christ as we embody Jesus in the meal and as we are sent forth from the table into the world to serve. We commune with our brothers and sisters in Christ too – across time and space. On World Communion Sunday, we particularly focus on our connection across space, meditating on how we are bound together by the sacrament with Christians all over the world. But on All Saints Sunday, we focus on how we are bound together across time. We come to the table just as our forefathers and foremothers in faith came to the table. Just as the early church did. Just as the disciples came together with Jesus. As we come to the table, we are bound together, sharing in common with them this holy meal, not just by remembering the past, but as we reflect on how we are bound together in the present, and how even our futures are bound together as we work for the fulfillment of God’s reign. And so as we share in this common meal, we are bound together with the very people who we have lifted up today.
            We’ve been focusing on being a prayerful congregation. And the whole service of communion is prayer. The special prayer we share in as we ask God to bless our communion is called the Great Thanksgiving. And indeed, our thanksgiving is great, as we reflect on the fullness of God’s grace in our lives, grace that binds us together in the body of Christ, with all the saints of God, past, and present, and yet to come. Thanks be to God for this communion. Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Persistence," Luke 18:1-8

Sermon 10/25/15
Luke 18:1-8

Prayerful: Persistence

            What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Christian values” or “Biblical values”? Maybe faith, hope, love, joy, peace? Some of those fruit-of-the-spirit words Paul talks about? Of course, those things are in there, in the scriptures. Lots of good lessons about all that good fruit we might cultivate in our lives, just like we talked about over the last several weeks. But there’s also several stories that seem to highlight values, personal characteristics, that we don’t really know what to do with. Jesus commends to us in one parable a household manager who deceives the master of the house for his own benefit, and he’s labeled as shrewd, something, apparently, we’re meant to admire. In our Bible Study last spring we read several stories about women who were tricksters, finding sneaky ways to exercise some control in a society where they had little power. And these trickster women become, in fact, part of the family tree of Jesus himself. And today we’re looking at a parable that lifts up what is nicely called persistence, but is more commonly known as nagging.
            Jesus tells a parable, and Luke tells us that it is meant to show us that we’re to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus tells us a story about a judge who neither fears God nor respects people. There’s a widow who keeps coming to him day after day saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” A widow would be among the most vulnerable in society – a woman, no husband, no standing in society. Typically women were not even allowed to be in court, part of the proceedings. But here she is, demanding justice. The judge refuses. But eventually, even though, as he himself knows, he doesn’t fear God or respect anyone, he decides to grant the woman justice so that she will JUST QUIT BOTHERING HIM. And Jesus says, won’t God grant justice to you who cry to him day and night? Won’t he help you? I tell you, he will grant them justice quickly. And yet, when the Son of Man comes – will he find faith on earth?
            This isn’t the only story like this. We read another text from Luke, not long ago, that is fairly similar. In this story, Jesus says, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked … I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” And Jesus concludes saying, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
            Persistence. The word means “shamelessness” or “unembarrassed boldness.” Nagging. Asking again and again and again. There’s two categories of people that have this quality down to a T, I think: children, and parents. My mother often tells my brother about the saying: nags are not born, they’re made. When she’s reminding him, again, to do something that he has forgotten, again, to do, he might get frustrated, but she knows what brings about results. Children have their own special techniques when it comes to nagging. How many pets are part of households because of children nagging for a kitty or a puppy? How many second helpings of dessert are granted because of nagging? 
            Persistence. Of course, maybe it isn’t that unusual of a value to admire. Rather than calling it nagging, though, we might talk about endurance. Determination. Perseverance. Relentless pursuit of a goal. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The little engine that could. There’s a runner determined to build up to a marathon, or to beat their fastest time. A musician practicing the same measure over and over until they get it right. Scientists testing theory after theory until they get it right, searching for a cure for a disease that seems untouchable until a breakthrough comes. We value that kind of perseverance through obstacles, through adversity, right?
            Still, why exactly would we need to show persistence in our prayers offered to God? Why would God answer our prayers because of persistence? After all, perseverance against challenging obstacles implies we have to get beyond something that has been put in our way. Are we trying to wear God down? Change God’s mind? Do we have to convince God, persuade God, to answer our prayers? I struggle with such a concept. And yet, why else would persistence be so valuable?
            I think persistence in prayer is more about us and the changes persistent prayer works in us than it is about God. It impacts us, speaks to our needs more than what God might need from us. Persistent prayer reveals our truest heart to God, our heart’s desire to God. Imagine if a parent said yes to every single thing a child ever requested, if a parent granted every single request that passed the lips of a child. Yet, when we long for something, when we ask again and again, when we are relentless in our need for something, things are different. When a child has asked for the same thing again and again and again – not just in five minutes, but over five months – a parent knows the child is expressing sincere, heartfelt desire.
            More than that, persistence in prayer is more about us than about God because it shows our commitment, our faithfulness. I think we have some pretty short attention spans sometimes. I think of our constant, instant news cycle. Something is headline breaking news today, and the next day we’ve forgotten it ever happened. I think of the story of Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical CEO who increased the price of an important drug in the treatment of AIDs and cancer from $13 a pill to over $700 a pill overnight. His name and his story were everywhere for a few days, and he announced that he would lower the price of the pill. But he hasn’t – not yet anyway. And I wonder if part of his strategy is to just wait until we forget about it. Wait until the spotlight is off of him. Wait until we’ve moved on to some other story. We speak often about “15 minutes of fame.” Sometimes I wonder if that’s how much time we spend bringing what we claim are important concerns before God. 15 minutes. Maybe less. One mention, and we’ve moved on. What does it mean if we can’t even be bothered to hold something before God in prayer consistently? Persistently? Our persistent prayers are acts of faithfulness, to God, and to one another as we lift each other up in prayer, as we seek for justice through prayer, as we hold up the marginalized, the suffering in prayer. Can we keep the needs of our friends and family and community and world on our hearts for more than just a few minutes? Or have we forgotten our prayers just after they’ve passed our lips? I know God has not forgotten. But do we? Our persistent prayers are prayers of faithful commitment.
            And ultimately, I think persistence in prayers aligns our hearts with God’s heart. It is God who is ultimately persistent, persevering, in seeking after us. It is God who is relentless, who never ceases to seek after us, who never stops searching for the lost sheep, who never stops hoping for the prodigal child to return, who never ceases in calling our name. If persistence is unembarrassed boldness, then certainly God is ever the most persistent of all. And when we persist with our prayers that we offer to God, we find ourselves in fact on the same page. We find God already laboring to bring about peace and healing and justice in the world, seeking to change hearts, and open minds, and transform souls. I think sometimes when we pray with persistence, God isn’t suddenly hearing us. Instead, we are suddenly hearing God. I think of the long and relentless work of the Civil Rights movement, and all the prayers offered to God to change hearts and break down the walls of racism and hate in our nation. I don’t believe for a moment that God needed to be convinced to created change. Rather, we needed to realize what God had been saying all along, when we realized our voices crying out to God for justice were in fact in harmony with God’s cry for justice through the ages. With persistent prayer, our hearts sync up with the very heart of God.
            And still sometimes, our persistent prayers just make a space for God to enter into our pain, our struggles. Writes Peter Woods, “The [suffering and struggling] of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable.”
To pray with persistence is to make ourselves so very vulnerable. To pray with persistence is to come before God with unembarrassed boldness. That’s not a phrase I’d very often use to describe myself. Unembarrassedly bold. Not quite me. But for God? To be faithful? To be vulnerable to God? To have God share in my suffering and my struggle? To find myself working alongside God for justice? To show God my heart? Maybe for all that, I can, with boldness, bring my prayers to God. Again. And again. And again.