Thursday, August 27, 2015

Finding a Direction

You may have noticed that I have stopped posting lectionary notes recently. Life has been a little crazy, and for a couple of weeks, I forgot. And then, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with this online space. 

I have lectionary notes on here for the whole three year cycle - you can find them for whatever text you need by searching the blog, using the archives, searching by tag. I will continue to post my sermons each week. 

But for now, other than that, I'm thinking things over. I'll keep you posted!

Sermon, "Summer Days: The Great Outdoors"

Sermon 8/23/15
Genesis 1:1-2:4

Summer Days: The Great Outdoors


            When I was in Sunday School in about 5th grade or so in Westernville, NY, my class didn’t have to be in any of the skits for the Children’s Sunday pageant. Instead, we each got to pick and read our favorite passage of scripture. I already had lots of favorites, and I hadn’t yet discovered my current long-lasting favorite – “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” But out of my favorites, I decided to go with the creation story found in Genesis 1. I thought it was so beautiful. And I loved the part about how we’re created in God’s image. I’m not sure, looking back, whether my questions about creation came first, and then I chose to read this text in worship, or it is was the other way around. But near the same time, I asked my Sunday School teacher Mr. Waldo how it could be that God created the world in seven days if dinosaurs lived and became extinct all millions of years before people came around. I had learned the first thing at church and the second thing at school and both sounded right to me until I tried to put them together. Adults can respond in a lot ways, sometimes not so helpful ways, when kids are asking faith questions. But Mr. Waldo just said that God’s time might not be measured like our time, and he thought they could go together just fine – both what I had learned at church and what I had learned at school.
            I’ve never forgotten his response, and I always give thanks for it when I remember, because it really enabled me to always see the way we describe the world in faith language and the way we describe it in the language of science as things that go hand in hand – two ways of talking about the same thing. When I read Genesis 1, I’m not looking for the science of how the earth got here – and I don’t think that’s why the author was writing. The author wanted us to know some essential things about God, the world, and our relationship with God. And the author wanted to communicate in a particular literary style. It’s poetry. It’s a hymn. Genesis 1 is practically a piece of liturgy – it’s a call to worship. I still find it beautiful.
I read about a neat activity for Bible study that I’ve since used with study groups or prayer stations – and I will hopefully try here sometime with you. It’s called Bible Blackout. You take a passage of scripture and print it out on a sheet of paper. Then you read the text and circle all the words that stand out to you. And then you take a sharpie and black out all the words except the ones you’ve circled. And you’re left with a kind of poem that you’ve created out of the scripture passage. When I did this with my youth in Liverpool, I worked with the creation text that we read today, and this is the poem I came up with:  
“God created deep waters. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. So God created humankind in the image of God and blessed them. God saw everything, and indeed, it was very good. And God rested.”
Boiled down, that’s the message of creation I get from Genesis 1: God created. And God saw good, good, good. And humans are created in God’s image and blessed. In God’s image. When God created us, God made us reflections of God! Each one of us! A sacred gift. And God saw it all, and saw us all, and saw that it was very good indeed. Good enough that God felt ready to take a bit of rest. That’s a good story, this hymn of creation, that tells us a deep truth that we’re still struggling to accept. I think most of scripture answers a question, and figuring out the question can help you understand the text. I think the question, in this case is: are we inherently good or bad? People? The world? Good or bad? Theologians have actually debated this – created new religious movements because of their beliefs about this – for thousands of years. Are we inherently sinful and bad? Or, at our core, despite what we might become or how we behave, or how we choose that which is not what was intended for us, are we, in fact, good? The author of Genesis 1 has a pretty straightforward answer to that: good.
I don’t know if, in ancient times, people felt closest to God in places other than the great outdoors. I’m sure some people especially felt God’s presence in the Temple. Certainly, though, even the writings of the poets and prophets in the Bible – the Psalms, Job, Isaiah – it is clear that even though ancient peoples spent much, much more of their time outside than we do, still they were filled with awe and wonder and a sense of closeness to God as they observed the world around them. Still today we’re filled with wonder when we head outdoors, and for many, it is easier to find God in nature than elsewhere. Maybe outdoors, maybe in the midst of creation, it is a sliver easier to remember that God is Creator and that God chose to create us, and that God called us good. And yet, we’ve become such an indoor people, that I wonder how often we forget what would otherwise come so naturally to us.
I was walking one day a few years back at beautiful Green Lakes State Park and spotted two teenage girls sitting near the water, enjoying the view. And then one said to the other, “It looks just like a computer screen.” I remember going to see a set of caves one time while we were on family vacation in Lake George. I had found out about these caves doing a little research for our trip, and had convinced my mom and brother to go. It was taking a while to get there. A bit out of the way. My family was complaining a little bit about the drive. And just then we started passing signs put up on the road that said, one word per sign: “Can’t move the caves closer to the road.” I think, though, that we’ve come to have this foolish belief that we can control nature, and we’re surprised again and again when it is beyond us. We want nothing to keep us from the crazy rhythm of life we have established. And so we try to box ourselves in, try to build up walls, literal and figurative, between us and creation, sometimes preferring to view it from our window. We’re surprised when wild animals crash into our wild-free world. Frustrated when we can’t keep our life at a consistent 70 degrees no matter what season it is – God knows – seriously, God knows that I am thankful for air conditioning and heat. And we don’t even think about how crazy it is that we have access to any kind of food we want from any part of the globe at any time of the year.
            Sometimes, we forget about the hymn of creation. And we forget that God created us and called us good. In fact, another creation story is in our scriptures, right after the first, and it recounts, in Genesis 2 and 3, a story of Adam and Eve and a paradise, a garden where God walks. And then there’s this snake, this serpent. And then we see the beginning of the forgetting that God called us good, the beginning of the walls – between us and God, between us and creation, between us and each other. Walls and layers that we think protect us but in actuality hide us from God’s truth.
            David Erlander is a Lutheran pastor who’s written some of my favorite stories for adults, called Tales of Pointless People. This is the creation story from his perspective, adapted by Barbara Lundbald:
I am telling you that in the beginning, God created not one or two but a whole bunch of us. Lots of us. Because God knows that we love to play. So we did play all day and into the night. We splashed in the rivers. We rolled down the hillsides. We ran with the wind.
Until one day the snake came. At least they told us it was a snake. It might not have been a snake. It might have been someone in a three-piece suit with a cellular phone. Or it could have been a theologian with a very fat book. But what they told us was that it was a snake.
And the snake came to us, to all of us who were playing on the hillside and splashing in the water, rolling and playing and tumbling, and said, "This is foolish! You are wasting time. None of this makes any sense unless you learn to keep score."
We had no idea what the snake meant. But then the snake said something really interesting. The snake said "Whoever gets the most points will get this apple!" But we had no idea what points were. So then the snake said "I will teach you. . . ."
And so the snake did teach us how to keep points with our running and our jumping and our climbing. And so that whoever climbed highest got points, and whoever ran fastest got points, and whoever could roll down the hill fastest got points. Some things however, like frolicking, were too hard to score. So we gave them up all together.
Soon we were keeping score for everything we did. We chalked up the points for everywhere. We kept track so that we would know who had the most points because surely all of us wanted to get the apple.
Soon we were spending so much time keeping score that we didn’t have time to play.
Then God came into the garden. And God was wroth. God was very, very wroth. And God told us that we would have to leave the garden. Not only that — God told us that we were going to die.
Well, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s God who didn’t understand things! My cumulative lifetime score is now 12,263. By the time I die, it will probably be even more! We were like God’s slaves in the garden. We had to do everything that God told us to do. It was the snake who taught us to keep score, and now I’m teaching my children to keep score. I think they could reach 15,000. Maybe 20,000. Now we are free to make as many points as we can, to keep making points till the day we die and to teach all our children and our grandchildren how to make points. I’m really grateful to the snake. . . .
We know, friends, don’t we, that there is no end of ways in which we’re given the message that we are not, in fact, good enough. Not, in fact, good at all. Only by believing that we’re lacking, that we’re without, that we’re not enough can be convinced that we need to buy any number of things that promises is contains goodness itself. Enough points for us perhaps not to win the snake’s game, but at least to stop losing so badly.
Sometimes, I think our souls just long to get back outside. I remember travelling to an event in Dallas in high school, and the event was at a hotel right near the airport. And there was a tram that departed from inside the airport and arrived inside the hotel. And the whole event was inside. And there was no scheduled free time. And then I got back on the tram and went back to the airport and flew back home. I was never outside. And I felt boxed in, longing for the fresh air, the great outdoors. I think our souls long to be closer to a place where we remember that God created, and saw us, and saw good. I think we long to remember a time when there were no points, and no keeping score. Fortunately, the snake doesn’t get to tell the end of the story. Here’s how the rest of it goes:   
And then an ordinary fellow appeared from Nazareth - we said to ourselves, did any winner ever come from Nazareth? … And … do you know what he did? He went up to people like fishermen and whispered in their ear, "You don't need points!" And he sat down beside a Samaritan woman at the well and told her everything about her loser sort of life and said, "You don't need points either!" Then he sat down with Nicodemus, a teacher of the Law, and said to him, "You don't need points, Nicodemus." To Mary and Martha, to Joanna who was married to a very high official, to Susannah, Mary Magdalene, to Zacchaeus, to all of them he said, "You don't need points!" And those who gathered around him, listening to what he said about the kingdom of God being in the midst of them, soon looked at each other and him and said, "This kingdom is pointless!" Well, he didn't say a thing except to smile. They had pointless banquets where the guest lists were thrown away. They had pointless picnics on the hillside where everyone got plenty to eat, and there was still some left over. They even had a pointless parade into the city with children leading the way and people waving palms instead of swords. How pointless can you get!
But the snake, or the one in the three piece suit, or the theologian with the heavy book - I can't remember who it was, but it was someone with friends in high places - said, "This will never do. This will never do." And so shortly after that parade, they put him on trial. And they stopped him good as dead. And they sealed the place where they laid him to rest with a huge stone so that not even a whisper could escape that would ever say to anybody "You don't need points." And that was that. Except this morning-- This is strange. This morning some women came running to us, breathless, yet somehow full of breath. And they said to us, "You don't need points!" It was enough to make us think that that word had never died. But we said, "You've got to be crazy!" And we sent them away. And as they left, they were frolicking. I am not kidding - they were frolicking! Did you see where they went? (1)
Amen.


(1) http://www.cosepiscopal.com/sermons/2010_10_31_A_Pointless_Story.pdf

Sermon, "Summer Days: Water Break," John 4:5-42

Sermon 8/16/15
John 4:5-42

Summer Days: Water Break


Over the years, I’ve tried several times to stop drinking Diet Coke. In high school, my senior year, I had a bout of kidney stones. The doctor wasn’t sure what caused them, but they suggested I try backing off the caffeine, and I would have agreed to anything they recommended to ensure no repeats of the kidney stones. So I just switched to caffeine free Diet Coke. But eventually, I started drinking it again – I had a become a vegetarian in my first year of college, and vegetarians are at less risk for kidney stones, so I felt like I could make the trade. And I’ve been pretty addicted to Diet Coke ever since. And several times, I’ve tried to give it up. One year, I gave up soda for Lent. I did really well all through Lent. I passed through the headache phase, that painful process where your body doesn’t respond well to missing out on caffeine. I still wanted Diet Coke when I saw it, but I managed to survive without it.
            Of course, without having soda, I needed to replace my soda with something else to keep hydrated. Soda actually isn’t a good hydrating beverage. Between the sodium and the caffeine, soda can actually make you thirstier than otherwise. So I drank a lot of water. I actually got my recommended eight cups of water a day. I learned to really enjoy water. And I found that the more I drank of it, the thirstier I was for it. It quenched my thirst, yes, but it also created in me a need for it – it satisfied my thirst, and so I actually thirsted even more for it. And anyway, when I am the most thirsty, and the most in true need of something to quench my thirst, I would never or rarely reach for a soda. After a hard workout, or being active on a hot day, it is cold, thirst-quenching water that I would reach for.
So why am I so reluctant to give up the soda? Why am I so reluctant to make a change that can only be for my benefit? Good for my health? There’s nothing beneficial about Diet Coke, except the taste, and if I could go long enough without it, even the taste is not as compelling as it once was. I wish I could say I kept my Diet-Coke free lifestyle after Easter came last year. But you know better. Recently, I’ve been trying again to kick the habit. I did really well for a couple weeks, and then had just one – just one Diet Coke. But of course, that led to just one more, and you guess the rest.
I’m guessing we all have our Diet Cokes. Not, I mean, that you all drink Diet Coke. But we all have these things that we do, even though we mean, we plan, we commit, we resolve not to anymore. We promise and swear that we’ll do differently, we’ll be different. We’re in good company in this. The apostle Paul writes about it in his letter to the church in Rome. He says, “7:15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul gets it. We keep doing the very things that bring us at best, momentary satisfaction, but in the end, leave us more empty than when we started. We’ve talked about dreams and we’ll keep talking about dreams and you’ll probably get sick of hearing about dreams at some point. But the crazy thing is that so many of the things we dream about are entirely possible. We know how to accomplish the things we dream about. We know what it would take to do what we dream about doing with all our heart. And we still just don’t do it. Why is that? Why don’t we do what we want to do, and instead do things that take us farther away from our hopes and dreams? Why do we do things that undermine our heart’s desire? I’m not just talking about messing up on our diet plans. I’m talking about ways that over and over again we make choices and decisions that result in us feeling empty inside instead of filled up, things that make us feel far from God instead of close, things that make our dreams seem impossible instead of reachable. Why would we do the very opposite of what we mean to do if it is within our power to do otherwise?
One of my favorite verses from Isaiah asks these very questions. Isaiah writes, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why? I think that we don’t believe we’re capable of meaningful transformation. Actually, that’s not quite right. I think, at the heart of it, we’re scared of meaningful transformation. We’re scared of new life, as much as we crave and long for it. I think that we don’t believe we’re worth the results of meaningful transformation. If we sought after deep and meaningful lives for ourselves, instead of the unsatisfying substitutes we let become our existence – I think it would mean that we care for ourselves enough, love ourselves enough to consider ourselves worth the struggle. Worth the hard work. Worth the time pursuing your dreams takes that quick, unsatisfying fixes do not. And so, scared of what change might bring, what change would mean, and not thinking we’re worth it, we choose the diet coke over the water again and again.
That’s the woman – a woman just like most of us in fact – that I think Jesus meets at the well in our text today. The gospel of John is the only gospel where we find this passage, and it marks the longest single conversation Jesus has with an individual in the scriptures. Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. Remember, a couple of weeks ago I told you that in fact they were enemies, Jews and Samaritans. They had common religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have deeply different religious beliefs.
But, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well. A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. She’s surprised. She’s a woman and a Samaritan, two huge reasons for Jesus not to speak to her. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jacob, their revered forefather got water from a well with the help of God. Can this man Jesus do that? Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself, her history. She’s been reaching for Diet Coke over and over again. She’s had relationships with many men. The woman asks if Jesus is a prophet. They debate a bit, about their different religious views. But Jesus tells her, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the truth worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
But that’s not the end of our passage. The disciples show up, surprised at Jesus’ conversation partner, but wise enough apparently to keep their thoughts to themselves. Jesus says something to them about food to eat, and they, like the woman, are confused by his talk. But Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to proclaim his work.” He talks about the Samaritans being ready for the harvest, ready to receive the good news. Indeed, the passage closes with the woman bringing others to meet Jesus, who believe that he is the savior because of her witness.
I want to share with you a poem, a monologue really, by Chris Kinsley and Drew Francis that gives us the voice of the woman at the well. Listen to her story:
I am a woman of no distinction
of little importance.
I am a women of no reputation
save that which is bad.
You whisper as I pass by and cast judgmental glances,
Though you don’t really take the time to look at me,
Or even get to know me.
For to be known is to be loved,
And to be loved is to be known.
Otherwise what’s the point in doing
either one of them in the first place?
I WANT TO BE KNOWN.
I want someone to look at my face
And not just see two eyes, a nose,
a mouth and two ears;
But to see all that I am, and could be
all my hopes, loves and fears.
But that’s too much to hope for,
to wish for,
or pray for
So I don’t, not anymore.
Now I keep to myself
And by that I mean the pain
that keeps me in my own private jail
The pain that’s brought me here
at midday to this well.
To ask for a drink is no big request
but to ask it of me?
A woman unclean, ashamed,
Used and abused
An outcast, a failure
a disappointment, a sinner.
No drink passing from these hands
to your lips could ever be refreshing
Only condemning, as I’m sure you condemn me now
But you don’t.
You’re a man of no distinction;
Though of the utmost importance.
A man with little reputation, at least so far.
You whisper and tell me to my face
what all those glances have been about, and
You take the time to really look at me.
But don’t need to get to know me.
For to be known is to be loved and
To be loved is to be known.
And you know me.
You actually know me;
all of me and everything about me.
Every thought inside and hair on top of my head;
Every hurt stored up, every hope, every dread.
My past and my future, all I am and could be.
You tell me everything,
you tell me about me!
And that which is spoken by another
would bring hate and condemnation.
Coming from you brings love, grace,
mercy, hope and salvation.
I’ve heard of one to come
who could save a wretch like me
And here in my presence, you say
I AM He.
To be known is to be loved;
And to be loved is to be known.
And I just met you.
But I love you.
I don’t know you,
but I want to get to.
Let me run back to town
this is way to much for just me.
There are others: brothers,
sisters, lovers, haters.
The good and the bad, sinners and saints
who should hear what you’ve told me;
who should see what you’ve shown me;
who should taste what you gave me;
who should feel how you forgave me.
For to be known is to be loved;
And to be loved is to be known.
And they all need this, too.
We all do
Need it for our own.

For to be known is to be loved and To be loved is to be known. And you know me. You actually know me; all of me and everything about me … And that which is spoken by another would bring hate and condemnation. Coming from you brings love, grace, mercy, hope and salvation. Friends, we’ve got Diet Coke. And we’ve got Living Water. The choice seems so simple. It is simple, when we remember that God knows us and loves us. Knows all about us and loves us. And still wants to give us Living Water. God knows us and loves us and think we’re worth a deeply satisfying life abundant. God knows us and loves us and says we’re worth it. May we come to know, to believe what God knows already, and may we drink deeply of the living water springing up from the heart of God. Amen.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sermon, "Summer Days: Gone Fishin'," John 21:1-19

Sermon 8/9/15
John 21:1-19

Summer Days: Gone Fishin’


            This summer, we’ve been playing around with some of the fun summer themes we can draw from the scriptures: Eutychus and sleep, a picnic and the feeding of the 5000, (and a potluck of our own, of course,) a road trip with the Good Samaritan. Today, we’re going fishing with Jesus and the disciples. But I hope in the midst of these summer days, you’re thinking about our dreams at Apple Valley, God’s dreams for Apple Valley. I hope you notice that it’s been in the bulletin each week – a reminder of the dreams will be thinking about in more focus in the year ahead – an Apple Valley that is fruitful, and prayerful, and invitational, and missional.
            This summer I’ve been working with another church in our conference helping them put together a strategic plan for their outreach ministry. We’re using a process called Asset Based Community Development – a way of planning for the future that starts by focusing on what you have, instead of on what you don’t have. It’s really easy in the life of the church to get caught up in what you don’t have. We don’t have enough money, or people, or a new enough building, or good enough facilities, or enough children, or enough volunteers, or enough activities, and so on. And pretty soon, despite our proclaiming that we have a generous God, we feel like we don’t have enough to do anything with at all, and we’re in big trouble. But in Asset Based Community Development, you start out by thinking very carefully about everything you do have – the people you have and their gifts. The space you do have. The finances you do have. The connections you have to other organizations and institutions. And pretty soon, you’ve got a huge list of things that are tools for ministry. And suddenly it begins to seem pretty silly to suggest that there is anything that, with God’s help, you can’t accomplish. It’s kind of like learning to see 5000 people and see them and the fives loaves and two fish and see such abundance, instead of panic-inducing scarcity.
            What do you see, when you look at the assets we have here? Does it feel like we don’t have enough? Or like we have so much that there’re possibilities everywhere you look? When it comes to dreaming with God, I think we get from dreams to realities when we see how much we have already been given to do the work that God calls us to.
            Today, as I said, we’re going fishing with Jesus. This is one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Remember, way back in the season of Easter we spent one Sunday looking at all of these appearances together – times that Jesus was present with the disciples after his resurrection, before he returned to God, in this forty-day span of time. This is one of my favorite post-resurrection scenes. There’s a small group of disciples gathered by the Sea of Tiberias, another name for the Sea of Galilee. They decide to go fishing, but they catch nothing. But then, at daybreak, Jesus stands on the beach. The group doesn’t recognize him. Why? We can’t be sure, but several of the post-resurrection stories suggest that Jesus is hard to recognize – at first. Jesus tells them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat, since they haven’t been catching fish. They don’t question him, but do as he says. And suddenly, there are so many fish that they can hardly haul them in. One of the disciples recognizes Jesus just from this – the abundance that suddenly comes where they thought they had nothing – it’s a sign that Jesus is in their midst. We read that Peter, upon realizing that it is Jesus, puts on his clothes, and jumps into the water to see him. How many of you have seen Forest Gump? I can’t help put but picture that scene in the movie where Lieutenant Dan comes to work on Forest’s shrimping boat, and Forest is so excited, so overwhelmed to have him there, that he jumps off his moving boat and into the water to get to him just that few seconds faster. That’s how Peter feels and acts when he realizes he’s in the presence of Jesus. Eventually, the rest of the disciples catch up too with the fish, and they come ashore.
            They find Jesus waiting with a fire and fish and bread. He tells them to bring some of the fish they just caught. John, the gospel writer, tell us that there were 153 fish. For thousands of years, scholars have tried to figure out the significance of this number, to no avail. My personal take is that it is pretty simple – 153 is a lot of fish! Most people I know who fish know exactly how many they got. And the disciples: they got a lot of fish. John tells us that the net was not torn, despite the large haul. And Jesus invites them to have breakfast. They don’t ask “who are you?” Because they know now. It’s the Lord. It’s Jesus.
            After breakfast, Jesus and Peter talk. Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter answers affirmatively. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” This happens three times in a row. And with each exchange, Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs,” then, “Tend my sheep,” then, “Feed my sheep.” A few verses  beyond our text for today, the gospel concludes, with John saying that the world itself could not contain the full account of all the things that Jesus said and did. He’s offered, it seems, what is most significant in his mind, what we most need to know.
            I’m wondering if some things about this passage seem familiar to you, seem similar to you to other stories that we find in the gospels. I notice a lot of things in this scene that we’ve seen before. There’s Jesus and the disciples at the seaside, of course. There’s the disciples not recognizing Jesus until he does something special, so Jesus-like that they know it’s him. There’s Jesus, the carpenter, telling the group of fishermen what to do. There’s these fishermen who don’t catch any fish at first, and then catch so many it is beyond what they expected. That’s happened before around Jesus. There’s Jesus and fish and bread, again, like before. There’s Peter, having three opportunities to commit or deny his connection to Jesus – only this time he responds affirmatively, where once he denied even knowing Jesus. This whole encounter is echoes of former scenes from the gospel.
            I don’t think it’s accidental, all these parallels. I think what we’re seeing is an intentional before and after. Think of all the things that are marketed with dramatic before and after pictures. This is your life without this essential product, and this is your life afterwards. What’s changed in the gospels from before to after? Jesus has been crucified and resurrected! Death has been conquered in life. And in this, in the resurrection, the disciples have the hope, the strength, the trust they need to start seeing assets instead of needs. From here on out, not without bumps and challenges, but from here on out what the disciples will do in the world is astonishing, as they go out into the world in the name of Jesus. Before and after, the results are convincing. Aren’t they?
            Friends, we are already resurrection people. But sometimes I think we’re still living our faith as people in the “before” frame, instead of the “after” frame. Like we’re waiting for something that will make our dreams real possibilities. Instead, I think God is waiting on us! God is waiting for us to recognize Jesus, calling to us. Waiting for us to put our net out into different waters, if they keep coming up empty where we are. Waiting for us to sit down to breakfast. Waiting for us to say “Yes” where before we said “no.” God is waiting for us to get to the after, so that we can live into God’s dreams.
            We’ve been blessed to have Laurel here today talking to us about imagining a world with no malaria. That’s no small goal. But people like Laurel and others who have been working diligently on this campaign have not let the magnitude of malaria stop them from acting, with such powerful results. Laurel is the kind of person that throws herself into whatever she’s doing with such heart, and I have admired the way she’s believed that an annual conference that often sees itself as without can do amazing things and commit themselves to a cause, a passion they didn’t even know they had until Laurel got to them! I think about this little congregation, and Liz challenging us to support our young people in going to camp – a challenge we will return to in September to tally our offerings – and beyond my wildest expectations we raised more money in a single special offering than we often do in several months at a time of mission offerings. I think about my garden, and plants that will take up as much room as I can give them. I’ve been surprised by some plants that will just get bigger and bigger and bigger if they can, bigger than I was expecting. Sure, sometimes space considerations require containers and small plots. But what does it tell us that our garden will grow into as big a space as we’re willing to give it? 
            Are we living as before people, or after people? Are we people with assets, or just needs and deficiencies? How much space are we willing to give to God’s dreams? We are blessed to serve at God who is a God of second chances. A God who will remind us with another feast about being the body of Christ in the world. A God who believes in trying and trying again, until we really see the difference that Jesus makes in our lives. God is dreaming for us, with us. I want you to help me not make the dreams we’ve been talking about just nice words for the bottom of our bulletin. I want us to live in the after. I want us to know, to believe, to trust, to act as people who know that this congregation can do all that God has called it to do, because our nets are full to overflowing, and our hearts are full of love, and God is calling our names. Thanks be to God. Amen.  




Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Sermon, "Summer Days: Road Trip," Luke 10:25-37

Sermon 8/2/15
Luke 10:25-37

Summer Days: Road Trip


            Generally speaking, I love to drive. Lately, my commutes to Rochester have tested the boundaries of my love. But it’s more the length of my work day that’s the challenge, and not really the driving itself. I inherited a love from my grandfather of just going for a drive in the area to no place in particular – just taking a random turn and seeing where the road leads. I didn’t always appreciate these drives as much as a child, finding them boring, but my grandfather loved to look for dear, or pussy willows, or the highest, windiest road. But eventually, I came to enjoy this too. When I have the time – and the gas to spare – I like to take a drive on a sunny day over some country roads. This area is pretty good for drives like that, isn’t it? Seeing where the road might take you? Driving down a road that you’ve never been on before?
            Of course, sometimes going on roads we’ve never been on before turns things from a nice drive to being lost really fast. Sky Lake, the conference camp of ours where I was chaplain at Music Camp a couple of weeks ago, is a little bit out of the way, and when I first started going there, I would frequently take a wrong turn. A couple of those roads, late at night, make you feel like you’ve just entered the plot of a horror flick. There are places, roads we might travel where our senses tell us: unsafe. Sections of town, neighborhoods, places where you just don’t want to go.
That’s the kind of road we encounter in our text today: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. As the text says, the road, about 15 miles long, literally went down, a hilly, dangerous descent into Jericho. It was a road where many people experienced violence and crime – being robbed on the road to Jericho wouldn’t have been uncommon. The road to Jericho wasn’t unlike the places today where we know to be on high alert if we have to travel there. Our passage is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, which I think always puts us in danger of not being able to learn anything from it, because we come convinced we already know what it is all about. We’ll try hard today to work against that! It’s a parable – and remember, Jesus usually tells parables to tell us about what the kingdom of God is like – what things are like when God’s reign gets to take full hold – it’s a parable Jesus tells in response to a question from a lawyer. Lawyers were experts in the law of Moses – religious scholars who knew the facts of the law inside and out. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As he often does, Jesus turns the question back to the man: “You tell me! What does the law say?” The lawyer quotes the laws that are the center of the Hebrew scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, “Yep, you’ve got it. Go do just that, and you’ll really live.” But the lawyer wants to “justify himself,” we read. He wants an answer from Jesus he can debate, or he wants to get affirmation on his behavior, perhaps permission of sorts from Jesus to interpret the law in whatever way he’s been applying it in his life. “And who is my neighbor asks the man?” Who exactly am I supposed to love?  
            Jesus responds by telling the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead on the roadside on the way to Jericho. A priest and Levite pass by, but they don’t stop. The law would have discouraged them from doing so, actually. They’d become ritually unclean, and unable, temporarily, to perform their religious duties. But a third man comes by – a Samaritan. Now, Jesus’s hearers would have been expecting him to say that the third person was an Israelite. Because “priests, Levites, and Israelites” were the three groups in society. (1) It would be like saying “Larry, Curly, and” – and you all know the next thing is Moe! But instead, Jesus says the third man is a Samaritan. Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews. They had a common heritage, but over the centuries, came to disagree on matters of culture and religion in deep ways. Jesus says the third person to come along is someone that the crowds would have identified not just as an outsider, but as someone they actively disliked. A Samaritan. And Jesus tells us that when the Samaritan saw the man, he was “moved with pity.” And that phrase, moved with pity, is from a Greek word that might sound familiar in its strangeness if you were here last week: It’s splagnizomai. Compassion. His intestines twisted in knots in deep concern for what he saw. As I mentioned last week, this rare word is usually applied to Jesus, and how he looks at the crowds. And here, a Samaritan, an enemy, is looking at a Jewish man with gut-twisting compassion. He treats and bandages the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, pays all his expenses, and plans to come back and check on him again later. “Which of these,” Jesus asks, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” And the lawyer answers - not even saying Samaritan – “the one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says simply, “Go, and do likewise.”
            Are we merciful people? The dictionary defines mercy as “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.” Mercy is when we choose compassion and forgiveness over punishment or harm. Are we merciful? Are we good neighbors? To our enemies? Who are our enemies, anyway? My first appointment as a pastor was to Oneida. Like Apple Valley, that church, too, was near a Native Reservation. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Turning Stone, and SavOn gas stations, and many of the businesses of the Oneida Nation. Because of the casino, and because of the ongoing land claim issues related to the Oneida Nation, there was significant tension between the Oneidas and the neighboring communities. It was taboo, to some, to even be seen buying gas at a SavOn. One of my dear parishioners there said to me once that she would never “hurt her neighbor” by buying gas at a Nation-owned gas station. I was too timid in those first years to say “and who is your neighbor?”  
            Immigrants to this country – documented and undocumented – are they our neighbors? People of others faiths – Muslim men and women – are they our neighbors? Or atheists? Are they our neighbors? The person you can’t believe is crazy enough to vote Republican – or Democrat – are they our neighbors? Or what about prisoners? Addicts? Are they our neighbors? Homeless people? Teen moms? What about the leaders of North Korea? Or ISIS? Or white men who gun down black people in churches? Or who shoot school children? Are they our neighbors? Are we neighbors to them? I can keep going. Jesus just doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question. He cuts to the chase, to the quick, and says: perhaps your worst enemy is, in fact, your neighbor. What does it mean, friends, to be a neighbor? Jesus says the one who is merciful is the neighbor, even if we have called them enemy. Are we good neighbors?
            Remember, back when we were talking about forgiveness, and Simon Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone who wrongs us? Boldly, Peter had said, “Seven times?” I think expecting Jesus to be impressed with his mercy. But instead, Jesus said seventy-seven times, pushing Peter to understand that as long as he was concerned with the rules of how little he could do and still get away with it, he was missing the point entirely. This passage of the Good Samaritan is similar, as are so many of the passages where someone asks Jesus a question. Again and again we come before God asking, is this enough? Is this enough? Have we done enough? And we doubly miss this point! Because, first of all, what we really seem to be asking, implied in our question, in the lawyer’s question is: Is this enough for you to still love me God? Is this enough for me to get the reward? Is this enough for me to still get into heaven? I think these questions that we ask - and we all do ask them – break God’s heart, because it means we don’t understand that God loves us, already, completely, unchangingly, freely. So our question is wrong because we don’t need to do anything to earn God’s love. But our question is also wrong because if we want to know what’s the minimum God wants from us, then the answer is also everything. God requires nothing to give us the free gift of love. But God asks us for everything as we seek to respond in discipleship. How much mercy does God want you to show others? Do you honestly think God is going to reach a point and say: enough! You’ve been too forgiving! You’ve loved enough! You’ve reached your quota of neighbors! It sounds pretty unlikely, doesn’t it? How much does God demand in exchange for unconditional love? Not a thing. How much of your heart does God want? Every last nook and cranny.
            If we’re wondering about the minimum we can do, we’re saying our heart isn’t in it. We’re not moved with pity, twisted up with compassion, if we are asking what’s the minimum that will suffice. Maybe there are situations in life when the minimum is ok – when our heart is truly not in something, and doesn’t need to be, when something doesn’t need our energy. But minimum requirements are for things you don’t care about. Minimum requirements never work for our relationships with other people, and it never works in our relationship with God. For anything that matters to us, we can’t ask the question of “how little can I do and still be ok” and be even in the right ballpark. What might happen to our world, our communities, our own lives and hearts if we reordered everything to put merciful, compassionate, loving action for one another at the center of how we live? Do we want eternal life? Jesus says living a life of compassion is real life right now.
One of my personal pet peeves is when someone says “that’s between me and God.” Americans tend to prize individuality and privacy, and our heritage of religious freedom has also resulted in religious isolation – we don’t like to talk to others about what we believe or why, and we tend not to ask others about their beliefs. And so when it comes to many questions of faith – how much we give, how we pray, what sins we have to confess, what we believe about controversial issues – we tend to plead, “that’s between me and God.” I would argue that there’s no such thing. No such thing as “just between me and God.” Jesus and the lawyer alike both knew that the greatest commandments were love of God and love of one another. One without the other isn’t complete. It’s never just me and God – it’s always me and God and my neighbor. This was a key argument of John Wesley’s, the founder of the Methodist movement. Hew wrote: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness . . . This commandment have we from Christ, that [the one] who loves God, love [neighbor] also." (2) It is never just between us and God. It is what – and who – lies between God and us that tells us about our faith. What lies between you and God? Jesus’ parable tells us that what lies between God and us is the Jericho Road, and who we find there. The lawyer asked “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus prompted him to answer his own question: “The one who showed mercy.” Friends, let us go and do likewise. Amen.

(1) Scholar Amy-Jill Levine transformed my understanding of this text at the Festival of Homiletics one year with this imagery.