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 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.