Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sermon, "Unafraid: Fear and Failure," Exodus 3:7-15, 4:1-17, Joshua 1:5-9

Sermon 7/28/19
Exodus 3:7-15, 4:1-17, Joshua 1:5-9

Unafraid: Fear and Failure


I’ve been thinking about failure this week. It’s not the easiest topic to wrestle with. I don’t think we like to talk about or think about failure and failing. As soon as we poke that topic, it can expose some of our deepest self-doubts, fears, and insecurities. I’ve been thinking about how we do talk about failure. The first thing that came to mind was the category we call “Pinterest Fails.” Pinterest is a very visual site for sharing creative ideas, and lots of people use it to share recipes and crafts and decorating ideas, along with directions so you too can create these beautiful projects. Only, if you’ve ever actually tried one of these projects, many folks find they are not actually so easy in real life. So people have taken to posting their “Pinterest fails” online - a picture of what that awesome birthday cake was supposed to look like along with the clear disaster that happened instead. A Pinterest Fail. It’s a way of making light at our disappointment that something we spent a lot of time on did not work out at all. Laughing at ourselves. 
Usually, though, our real wrestling with failure goes a lot deeper. When I was in high school, my mom got a letter home from the guidance office stating that I was failing my physics class. My mom knew this wasn’t true. I knew this wasn’t true. Although I never particularly enjoyed science classes, and I took as few of them as I could get away with in high school, I did well in them, grade-wise. I didn’t really understand physics, but since it was mostly, at that level, memorizing formulas and I was good at math, I did just fine in physics. But when my mom showed me the letter, even though we both knew it was a mistake, I kind of freaked out. I insisted she call my guidance counselor right away. She did, and she confirmed that an error had been made - the student whose name was next to mine in the alphabet was failing physics, not me. But my guidance counselor wanted to talk to me anyway. He wanted to give me a message. He wanted me to know that if I had been failing a class, it would have been ok. If the letter had been right and I was doing poorly in a class, he said, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And he wanted to make sure I knew that. 
Of course, I thought he was crazy and wrong. Failing would be terrible. I didn’t fail classes. School work was always pretty easy for me, but I also obsessed over my scores on tests and the SATs and compared myself with my classmates and worried a lot about my class rank. One or two points difference in class grade could mess with your class rank, and it was really important to me that I hold a certain place in my class. Failing would be unacceptable. 
What kind of guidance counselor, I wondered, would tell a student that failing was ok? Surely that wasn’t what they were supposed to do, right? I brushed him off as someone who didn’t get me at all, and moved on. But as I look back at that incident as an adult, I think my guidance counselor was trying to offer me a gift. He was trying to extend a message of grace. I think he saw a young person that might be putting too much pressure on themselves, and wanted to make sure I knew before it happened that failing was not the end of the world. I couldn’t hear it then, though. I wonder, can I hear it now? Can we? Can we fail, or be worried that we might fail, and understand that nothing about our value as a person changes?  
In his book, Unafraid, Adam Hamilton writes, “The fear of failure - along with all the awful accompanying scenarios we imagine of shame, the inability to provide for ourselves and those we love, and the stigma of losing - is one of the most prevalent human fears. In our congregational survey, it loomed as the number one fear of those under fifty (and still tied for fourth among those over fifty.)” (86, emphasis mine) “Do you ever fear failure?” he asks. “What kind of impending personal defeat keeps you awake at night? … when the voice in your head said that you should give up, what [do] you do? [Do] you take the risk and keep going, or turn back while you still [can]?” (87)
Today, we read in the scriptures the story of a man who was convinced that he was and would continue to be a failure. That’s Moses. Moses, you probably remember, was a Hebrew baby born in a time when the Pharaoh was scared of the burgeoning population of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and had ordered male babies to be killed at birth. But Moses’ mother tucked him into a basket and set him in the river, where he was found by none other than the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses  was raised as her child, with status and privilege, his own mother serving as his wet nurse, in the strange way biblical events unfold. Of all the Hebrew baby boys, he had the best good fortune. 
But then Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster, when he saw the man beating a Hebrew slave. In fear, he fled. And for forty years, he’d been hiding out with his father-in-law and family, working as a shepherd. His status in life had gone way down. He was 80 years old, and he was a failure. 
And then God calls him. Our passage today opens just after Moses has noticed a spectacular burning bush out of which the voice of God speaks. After some introductions, God gets to the point. God says, “I’ve heard my people’s cry in Egypt, and I’m going to lead the Israelites to freedom. And I am sending you to rescue them from Pharoah.” In response, Moses immediately begins outlining to God all of the reasons why he will fail at this mission. It’s one of my favorite passages, because God is so patient with Moses, responding to every excuse with a path forward. Moses says he’s not qualified. God says not to worry - God will go with Moses. Moses says he doesn’t even know who to tell people God is. God gives Moses a name to share, and context: “I AM WHO I AM” is God’s name, but this God is the same God who was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people know God. “But the people probably won’t believe me,” Moses says. “They’ll say I’m making it up.” In response, God gives Moses some signs he can do with his staff, with his cloak, even with changing water into blood. And then Moses tells God that Moses is an awful public speaker - who’d listen to someone so slow of speech and slow of tongue? God says that God is the one who gives speech to mortals, and God will tell Moses what to say. And then Moses just says outright, “Please God, just send someone else.” No matter what God says, Moses knows he’s not good enough for this task. He’s a failure, not a leader. God is a bit annoyed, at last, at Moses’ continued reticence, but God still smooths the way for Moses, offering Aaron, Moses’  brother, as helper and mouthpiece for the tasks ahead. 
God uses people who “fail” spectacularly and who have failed in the past and who fail again in the future to do spectacular things. In fact, Moses only gets to see the “successful” fruit of his journey through the wilderness from a distance. And gosh - even after he says “yes” to God, after God assuages his fear of failure with all those promises of help - Moses still has a really hard time leading the Israelites to freedom. They struggle and push back at him and complain and rebel and Moses occasionally in turn pushes back at God and complains to God, and I have no doubt that Moses still felt like an utter failure more than once. But with God’s help, he did what God asked of him. He led the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in a promised land. And he is the one of the most important figures in Judaism and Christianity. Moses, the failure. Moses, who fled and hid for decades. Moses, who was not eloquent. Moses, who was filled with doubt. Moses, who wished someone else could be asked instead. Moses, who failed again and again. Moses was the leader of Israel, and through him, God set the people free.  
Here’s something that’s hard to say: Sometimes I feel like a failure. And sometimes, being sure that I will fail at something makes it hard for me to even try, even when I’m pretty sure God is calling me.  Sometimes, I’m not so different from the high school me who felt to her core that failure was unacceptable. Maybe sometimes you feel like a failure too, or you worry so much about failing that you think that anybody other than you would be a better choice to do the work of God. Adam Hamilton has felt this too. He writes, “More than once in my life I have felt called to do something that was clearly the right thing to do, but I made excuses to God or to my conscience or to other people. Why? because I felt anxious, certain I couldn’t do it, clear that it would be too hard, convinced I would fail. What I wanted most at those times was for God to send someone else.” (88-89)
Still, he concludes: “Failure can be painful, yet nearly every rewarding thing that we’ll experience or do in life comes with the chance that we might fail.” Our faith in God reassures us that “even the worst thing that could happen is not the end of the road … God still rules over the universe even if we fail, and somehow God can bring good even when we fail.” (90) 
Please hear this friends: God’s love for you is not contingent on your “success.” God loves you immeasurably even when you fail - and you will fail. And, God has just as much use for people who fail as for people who don’t (seem to) fail. In fact, maybe when we’ve failed, we’re a little more ready to hand ourselves over to God. So if failure is sometimes inevitable, how much better it is to fail when we’re a) trying to do what we’re called to do and b) trying to do what will bring us deep joy in doing rather than failing doing what makes us miserable. When we say yes to God, God equips us with tools so that failure at God’s mission is at least less likely than failure at our own endeavors, relying only on our own resources. Most importantly, when we say yes to God, God is with us.  
Another thing: Just as God’s love for you is not contingent on your “success,” so it is with true friends and loved ones on this journey of life. The best people to have as your friends and confidants are those whose love is, like God’s, not conditional. Who is still standing with you when your life has been an utter disaster and you’ve screwed everything up? These are the folks that are embodying Christ for you - the ones who will sit in the rubble of failure for you and help you get up again. 
Our second reading today was from the book of Joshua. As I said, Moses doesn’t get to the promised land himself - he just sees it from a distance. But his protégé Joshua gets to take the people into the land. And as they stand ready to end their years of wandering, God gives Joshua a blessing. Listen for the repeated words of encouragement in this short passage:  
“No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous ...  Only be strong and very courageous … Do not turn from [my law] to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go … For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful … I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” 

We may fail. We’ve done it before. Probably, we’ll do it again. But we can be strong and courageous, because God’s love never fails. And God is with us wherever we go, choosing us, always. Amen. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sermon, "Unafraid: Fear and Security," Matthew 5:43-47, 1 John 4:18-21

Sermon 7/21/19
Matthew 5:43-47, 1 John 4:18-21


Unafraid: Fear and Security

My mom gave birth to my older brother Jim when she was just 21 years old. She’s often joked that he was her “practice baby.” More seriously, she’s said that she thinks being a young parent meant she wasn’t afraid of making too many mistakes because she didn’t know enough to be afraid! And so she mostly assumed that things would go right, that Jim would be okay, and she wasn’t full of worry about how she was doing as a parent, and how Jim was doing as a baby. Of course they were ok! 
My brother and sister-in-law, on the other hand, were older parents when they had Sam, my nephew who is now 12 years old. They were old enough to be anxious, to be aware of everything that might go wrong in the blink of an eye. Collectively, as a family, I think we so loved and doted on and worried about everything being perfect for Sam that the poor child barely touched the ground for his first couple of years of life. And as a toddler, as a little boy, I could see the impact sometimes. He wasn’t very big when he could say “that looks dangerous!” about a slide or swing at the playground that he wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to try. I had to try hard, even in my Aunt role, to be a little less smothering-ly protective of him. I’ve told some of you this story: I used to take Sam often to the big carousel at the mall in Syracuse, and I would always ride with him, until he was old enough to kindly suggest to me that I could watch him from the sidelines like all the other grownups were doing. Reluctantly, I agreed. And he did fine on the ride, of course. But I found that I had to count the seconds that I couldn’t see him when he was on the back side of the carousel, out of my sight. Six seconds. Six seconds that I felt my heart in my throat. When I realized how brief a time it was, I willed myself to relax. 
Seven years later, Siggy came along, and as second-time parents, aunts and uncles, and grandmother, our whole family was more relaxed with Siggy. And as a result, I think, Siggy is daring and bold. She doesn’t hesitate to try much of anything. If she says something is dangerous, she says it with glee and then goes ahead and tries it anyway. 
Fear shapes us. It marks us and changes us. It isn’t just an emotion we experience that keeps us safe and alerts us to danger. When we’re fearful when we don’t actually need to be, fear can hold us back. We can miss out on vital experiences. We can close the door to new people, new places, new ways of thinking, because we’ll do anything to avoid the fear and discomfort and cling to safety. I’m thankful Sam is cautious and careful - he’ll need those traits to keep his sister out of trouble, I think. But I don’t want him to miss out on things that could bring him joy because we’ve taught him that everything risky is too unsafe to try. 
We’re starting a new sermon series today called “Unafraid.” We’re using Adam Hamilton’s book by the same title as our guide. Over the weeks ahead, we’ll be thinking about Fear and security, fear and failure, fear and loneliness, fear and change, and fear and death. We’ll be trying to take a closer look at what things make us afraid, and how we live as people of faith, courage, and hope in spite of the fears we sometimes have. 
What are you afraid of? When I was little, thunderstorms did me in. I’m pretty afraid of insects, particularly when they’re inside rather than outside where they belong, and most definitely if they come into contact with me. I’m afraid of flying on airplanes. These days, if I have a nightmare, it’s usually just that I’m on a plane. Nothing is even going wrong - I’m just on a plane, terror in itself. 
But the kind of fear we’re talking about in the next weeks goes deeper than that. Adam Hamilton writes, “We can hardly overstate the extent to which worry, anxiety, and fear permeate our lives. We worry about the future, about politics, and about our health. We fear violent crime, racial divisions, and the future of the economy. Deep rifts in our nation leave us with an increasing sense of uncertainty. Fear in the financial markets can wipe out billions of dollars of wealth in a single day. Our fears, in the form of insecurity, often wreak havoc on our lives and personal relationships. Google fear and you’ll find over six hundred million websites in .98 second.” (3) “Fear can imprison us, paralyze us, and keep us from experiencing a fulfilling and joyful life.” (7) Instead of being paralyzed by fear, Hamilton shares an acronym that captures his hope for how we might respond in the face of fear: Face your fears with faith. Examine your assumptions in light of the facts. Attack your anxieties with action. Release your cares to God. (27)
At certain seasons in our history as a people, and for us today, particularly since 9/11, some of our most significant fears are related to other people and violence. We are so very afraid of violence, desperate to feel safe and secure, and our fears culminate in intense distrust of others. We lock our doors. We have security systems. We monitor our children’s play in ways we never did years ago. We protect ourselves with weapons. We’re more isolated than we used to be. We’re suspicious of people - on high alert at airports, or when we’re walking alone, or when we see people who don’t look like us or act like us or come from where we came from. And it is exhausting to our spirits to be so afraid all the time! In reality, violent crime has been on the decline for a while. (49) In reality, you’re 120 times more likely to be struck by lightning each year than you are to be the victim of terrorism. But fear and reason don’t always keep company. 
We think we’re just being sensible when we respond with fear. I would tell you that I’m a pretty intuitive person. I “trust my gut” sometimes when I feel like there’s something off about a person or situation that I should stay alert. But we have to be careful. Remember last summer when we were talking about racism, we learned about implicit bias? That happens-without-our-even-being-conscious-of-it near instantaneous response to anyone we perceive as other? Our implicit bias makes it easier for our brain to categorize information quickly. But it doesn’t always tell us the truth. And helped along by an anxious, fearful culture, our brains are telling us to be afraid of everything that’s not just like us all the time. And our souls hurt because of it. It isn’t God’s vision for us.    
So what do we do? How do we break away from fear that has a grip on us individually and as a collective body? Adam Hamilton talks about being grounded in prayer and meditating on the scripture. In the Bible, we find again and again this message, in slight variations: “Do not be afraid. I am with you.” Fear not. Be not afraid. I’m with you always. Hamilton says the purpose of prayer and meditation on God’s word is not “to deny the thing you are afraid of or the difficult situation you might find yourself in; rather, it is to be aware of God’s presence as you walk through it. I'm reminded, he continues, “of that night in late January 1956 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Montgomery bus boycott following Rosa Parks's arrest for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man. The boycott had been going on for weeks. At midnight on January 27, King received a threatening phone call telling him to leave Montgomery if he didn't want to die. He wrote that he was ready to give up. Weary from the fight, anxious and afraid, he bowed that night at the kitchen table and prayed, confessing his fears and exhaustion to God. It was then that he felt God's presence and heard an inner voice, the voice of the Spirit, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” His fear immediately dissipated, and, he noted, “I was ready to face anything.” (52) It’s not that Dr. King’s fears were unfounded in the sense of him being safe, out of danger, free from harm. After all, he was assassinated by people who were determined to stop the Civil Rights movement. But his heart and soul were safe. His mission was safe. His purpose persevered. And he was deeply safe with God even as he experienced violence from others. 
We heard two short scriptures today that go together. First, in Matthew, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … for if you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Everybody can do that!” In our reading from 1 John, the author ties Jesus’s words explicitly to fear. He says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love … Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
It may seem obvious, but we can’t love people if we hate them. We can’t love them if we’re too afraid of them to know them. It is really hard to love our enemies if we’re so afraid of them that we can’t act, can’t reach out. When fear rules us, when fear drives us, when fear is leading us, there’s just no room for love. And likewise, the more we open ourselves to love, the more we’ll find that fear can’t find any space in our hearts. 
I started today by asking what you are afraid of. I want to challenge us now to dig deep and ask who we are afraid of? Are there individuals? Groups of people that make you feel afraid? Does your fear of others sometimes masquerade as hate or anger? What relationships in your life are ruled by fear? When we’re ruled by fear, we miss out on so much that God wants to offer us. God is love, and God’s perfect love can cast out all of our fear. We just have to make sure our fear isn’t casting out God’s love as our fear casts out other people. Our hearts, our souls - they’re safe with God. And safe with God, we’re set free to love with abandon, love with risk, love dangerously. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Laborers for the Harvest," Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Sermon 7/7/19
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


Laborers for the Harvest

We’re sort of between things on our worship calendar right now. We finished up our Holy Club sermon series last week, and in two weeks, we’re starting a series on Fear and being Unafraid that will take us through the rest of the summer. But with some schedule quirks, and adding a special Sunday later this summer when my childhood pastor will come and lead a special music and worship service for us, we were left with a Sunday in between things today. So, without a particular theme or series to guide us, I turned to see what was on the lectionary, the suggested schedule of scripture readings, for worship today. I’ve been serving here for three years now, and the lectionary is a three year cycle, and so the scripture in the lectionary today is the same as it was on my very first Sunday here! I’m sure you all remember my sermon from three years ago, right? Three years ago, I was remarking on how funny it is for new pastors to start their ministries in churches by reading about shaking the dust of their feet if a place isn’t welcoming to them and their message! 
But when I flipped to the gospel text this time, I got stuck right at the start of the text. Jesus sends out 70 followers to places he plans to go eventually too to preach and teach, and encourages these 70 to start sharing the good news that the reign of God has come near, building relationships with people, curing their sick. But before he sends them out, he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And I thought, “Yes. That’s it. Please God, we need more. The laborers are few. We need more.” 
I’ll be honest: I’ve been worried. Worship attendance has been down lately, and summer typically marks an even smaller crowd, as all of us, myself included, spend more time traveling for one reason or another in the summer. Giving to the General Fund, our “regular giving,” has been down. We’ve been struggling to meet out expenses earlier in the year this year than the year before. It’s a bit stressful. And between those two factors: lower giving, and lower attendance, I find that my mind is a swirl of questions: What’s changing? What’s changed? What do we need to fix? What are we missing? And although I also have lots of thoughts about how to answer those questions, still, when I read the opening verses of my text, my gut reaction was “Yes, God, please send us more. We need some more laborers. We need more resources and more people. Jesus said we should ask, and I’m asking: please send us some more!” 
In the midst of my anxious response to this text, I read a devotional reflection by David Lose about this passage on his blog, In the Meantime. You know he’s one of my favorite preachers, and he didn’t disappoint. He wrote, 
“Reading this passage nearly 2000 years after the Christian Church first got going, it’s easy to miss the rather shocking audacity of Jesus’ statement: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
“Really, Jesus? Earlier he talked about how he has nowhere to rest his head, all kinds of folks have made excuses about why they’re not joining him, he’s been rejected by a whole town, and he’s on the way to Jerusalem where he has already said – twice! – that he fully expects to be rejected again, betrayed, and handed over to death.
“So in what way, shape, or form, his companions might wonder, is the harvest plentiful?!
“But here again we encounter Jesus’ “kingdom logic,” a way of looking at life and the world that stands in such contrast to the usual measures and calculations that it seems nearly ludicrous by comparison.
“So why does Jesus’ say the harvest is plentiful? Simply because he sees people in need. Note his instructions to his disciples. They are to share in the hospitality of the homes opened to them and while visiting focus on the needs of those around them, healing their sick, proclaiming hope, and announcing God’s blessing.
“If we look around today we might make one of two assessments. If we look to statistics about church growth, we’re likely to despair and assume that the harvest has withered on the vine and that our best days are behind us. But if we look to statistics – and stories – of people in need, then we realize immediately that there has never been a better time for the church to be the community of Jesus, reaching out in blessing and good news to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and befriend the lonely. There are more people – quite literally – who need to hear of God’s grace and be touched by God’s love than ever before. And we are the people called to be laborers in this harvest.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2013/10/luke-10-1-12/)
I want to read that last part again: “There has never been a better time for the church to be the community of Jesus, reaching out in blessing and good news to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and befriend the lonely ... We are the people called to be laborers in this harvest.” (emphasis mine) Lose helped me be reminded of words that I have shared with you all before, what I know to be true: communities of faith that turn in on themselves, that start focusing only on themselves and what they need to get along are the ones in trouble. But when communities of faith stay turned out outward, focusing on serving others, they thrive, and what’s more, they’re fulfilling the mission and purpose of Jesus in the world. 
When Jesus tells his 70 followers that they need to ask God to send laborers into the harvest, he essentially immediately answers his own request, by sending these 70 folks in pairs out into the towns to do the work of the harvest: he tells them to eat with people, cure the sick, and tell them: “God’s reign has come near to you!” But you can see how urgent Jesus thinks the task is. It is so urgent that he tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” In other words, they need to get to their task more than they need to pack, more than they need to take a leisurely time getting to their destination, greeting everyone along the way. The most important thing is getting to the towns, meeting people, and telling them that they don’t have to wait to experience the closeness of God for death, for afterlife, for heaven. They don’t have to wait until they can get close to God’s home - God’s home, God’s reign, God’s way of things has come to them, if they’ll only welcome it. 
Jesus both wants to pray for laborers for the harvest, and he thinks they have plenty enough laborers already to do some pretty amazing work in the name of God. I think that’s true for us, too. I’m praying and wondering and planning and praying some more about laborers for the harvest, about asking God to show us how we can be best equipped with people and resources for the ministry to which God calls us. But I’m also giving thanks because of what God has already supplied us with as we harvest. We have generous congregants, even when we face challenges, who have, just in the last year, with folks from First UMC and North Gouverneur: put on benefits for those struggling with illness, collected donations from the community to buy school supplies, gathered and distributed school supplies to so many families, fed hundreds of people in the community on a weekly basis, gathered donations for people in recovery who feel like no one cares about them, built and kept filled a blessing box to meet some emergency food needs in the community, sent cards, given rides, and visited people who are ill and homebound, brought the good news about Jesus and God’s grace to people in prison, donated and volunteered for Vacation Bible School, provided scholarship money for kids to attend camp, bought Christmas presents for several families in the community, given Christmas and Easter offerings to support fire victims, support our local hospital, support relief efforts and community building in Haiti and Puerto Rico, supported Special Sunday offerings that help us reach beyond our local community to the world beyond, sung Christmas Carols to people in need of some cheer, and more - I know I’m forgetting things. It’s not that we need to brag on ourselves. It’s that we need reminding - at least I do - that we have laborers already, even if we wish we had more. 
The specific thing Jesus tells the 70 to pray for is that those laborers would be sent out. He doesn’t ask for more exactly. He just tells them to ask that the laborers get sent out. And then he sends them out! So we’re praying sometimes for more: more people, more resources. But I think Jesus is telling us that we are the resources. And he’s asking us to pray that our resources get put to use. And then he’s telling us he’s ready, right now, for just that to happen: he’s ready to put us to use. Because, as Lose reminded us, “there has never been a better time for the church to be the community of Jesus.” The harvest - the people so needing to be gathered up by God? The people who so need to experience the forgiveness and love and patience and challenge and hope and joy of God - they’ve never been in more abundance than they are right now. We are God’s resources. We are the messengers. We are the ones sent. We are the laborers. Sometimes we feel like we are too few. But Jesus sees enough of us to send out to change the world. Hurry! We’ve got a plentiful harvest to start gathering in. Amen. 

Monday, July 01, 2019

Sermon, "The Holy Club: A Matter of Time," 2 Peter 3:8-15

Sermon 6/30/19
2 Peter 3:8-15

The Holy Club: A Matter of Time

Today, we’re finishing up our series on The Holy Club as we look at the last in a set of questions that John and Charles Wesley and other members of their accountability group used to focus themselves and each other in their continuing spiritual growth. We’ve looked at some questions about trusting God and our own trustworthiness, and we’ve thought about what it means to have faith, and what faithfulness looks like. Today, we’re thinking about how we use the resources that God gives us to grow as disciples, and in particular, we’re thinking about how we use the gift of time. The Holy Club questions this week are, like every week, challenging and timeless: “Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits? Do I get to bed on time and get up on time? How do I spend my spare time? Do I pray about the money I spend? Did the Bible live in me today? Do I give it time to speak to me everyday? Am I enjoying prayer?”
I think questions about how we’re spending our time and what that has to do with our faith are some of the hardest for us to answer because we pretty quickly go on the defensive. Many of us - most of us - don’t feel like we have enough time, and we always feel like time is going by too quickly when it comes to the things we really enjoy and treasure. When we watch children growing around us, or when we’re saying goodbye to a person or a season in our life, time is rushing by. When we’re up against a deadline, there’s not enough time. And yet, despite how little time we feel we have, we also do a lot of things that on reflection seem like “wastes” of our time. When we’re asked to give an accounting of our time, we can be defensive, because we never seem to be perfectly at peace with how much time we have and how we’re using it. Remember when I told you about those journal prompts I use when I need a little help to start writing? That list of words like reading, needing, wanting, watching, where I can just fill in the blank and give a short response? One of the words on the list is thinking. What am I thinking about, what’s weighing on my mind on a given day. And almost every day that I use this prompt, the first thing that pops into my head is “my to do list.” My “to do list” is running through my mind constantly, and I bet yours is too. Sometimes I feel like I wake up immediately thinking about the tasks I must complete that day. Is that how it is supposed to be? How we’re meant to use our time? An endless running from one task to another in the futile hope that we will one magical day actually cross everything off the list?  
Last fall, when we were talking about time and stewardship, about how we use our time - a gift from God - as a gift we can offer back to God by how we use it, I shared with you some of the questions from John Wesley that are still asked to United Methodist clergy in preparation for their ordination. In his “Twelve Rules for Helpers,” Wesley writes, “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time.” (1) Sounds a bit exhausting, doesn’t it? And indeed, part of how we ended up being called Methodists was because of Wesley’s very methodical approach to everything faith-related. He seemed to thrive on carefully organizing his time in order to devote himself to God. He had high standards for himself and for others and expectations about the best way to spend nearly every minute so that we could do the most for God we possibly could. Still, even Wesley in his rigidness seems to be able to see that there is a big picture at stake. His 12 Rules also says, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.” Perhaps it seems like our time has to be spent accomplishing a million things. But for Wesley, all of those little things were just part of one big thing - helping others get close to God.  
Maybe, in our continuing struggles with time and how we spend it, we run into trouble when we don’t know what our “big thing” is. We don’t know what the focus is of our life’s work. Wesley knew what he wanted to do: get more people to experience God’s saving grace. And so he tried, diligently, to order his time around that task. What’s your “big thing?” If I had to spell mine out, I would say my big life task is to be a better follower of Jesus. I think that can include a lot of things, a lot of aspects of how I spend my time, including trying to grow as a pastor, and help others connect to God. But at the heart of it, that’s all part of following Jesus. If I make “being a better follower of Jesus” the guiding principle of how I spend my time, how might that impact how I spend my days? I’m not saying that we should never have a day off - God knows I couldn’t be a great follower of Jesus if I didn’t have time to rest mind and body and spirit. But when I look at that endless to do list - I want to find signs that the way I’m spending these precious seconds and minutes and hours of life actually have something to do with what I claim as my main thing.
Were any of you fans of the TV show Scrubs? There were a few standout episodes for me, and one that stands out is where JD, the main doctor on the show, was discussing what dying or heaven might be like with a patient. She, the patient, said that she envisioned a big Broadway production number, with her taking center stage. She dies in the episode, and JD envisions a complete show-stopping ballad, with this woman singing a Colin Hay song. These are some of the lyrics:
And you say, be still my love
Open up your heart
Let the light shine in
But don't you understand
I already have a plan
I'm waiting for my real life to begin
And you say, just be here now
Forget about the past, your mask is wearing thin
Let me throw one more dice
I know that I can win
I'm waiting for my real life to begin

The song and scene are beautiful. But the lyrics, though poetic, I find troubling. “Waiting for my real life to begin.” Sometimes, that is exactly what gets me into trouble, or at least, what keeps me from the real life I want: being convinced that I am just waiting for the right moment to start living as I really want to live, spending my life how I feel I’m meant to be spending it. Is there something you are putting off doing? A dream you have for your life? Something you’ve wanted to accomplish, but haven’t even started at? Some deeper purpose for your life that you want to reach for and explore, but for some reason, keeping telling yourself, not just yet? As you look over your days, is your “big thing” getting any attention, or do you keep telling yourself you’ll have more time for that later
      Our scripture reading today is from 2 Peter helps us think about time and waiting on God. The author - although the letter is attributed to Peter, it probably was not written by the disciple Simon Peter - the author, a leader of a faith community, knows that he is near death. And so he wants to leave behind a testimony, some words of guidance about how to be followers of The Way, one of the first names used for Jesus-followers. Particularly, in our reading for today, the author wants to address some issues of time. As you read some of the writings of the New Testament, like Paul’s writings, you start to realize that most followers of Jesus believed that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, that the world would end within their lifetimes. Jesus had talked to them about a time when he would come back to earth, about a final reckoning of all things on earth - and many - perhaps most - of them believed that they would live to see that happen. But as time marched on, some of the first followers of Jesus were dying, and still, Jesus hadn’t returned. Jesus-followers were starting to worry that maybe Jesus wasn’t going to come back at all.  
The author, then, writes to address this seeming conflict. He says, “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God’s time isn’t the same as ours, he says. It’s not that God is slow in delivering on God’s promise, but rather, the author argues, God is patient. It is God’s great desire that all of us should experience repentance, turning our minds and hearts and lives away from whatever else we’ve been chasing, and instead follow God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And so God is not slow. God is patient, giving us ample time to experience the salvation God offers. Christ will come again - but not yet. 
In the meantime, as we wait, we don’t wait passively. We wait and prepare. The author asks rhetorically: “What sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” While we’re waiting on God, how should we wait? he answers in the closing verses of our reading: While we wait, we should endeavor that Jesus will find us to be at peace in our hearts, as free from error as we can be, waiting on God’s gift of salvation. Those earliest followers of Jesus were learning that things were not unfolding as they’d expected. Apparently they couldn’t just wait for Jesus to show up again. He was taking a bit longer than they’d expected. Some of the faithful were even dying before getting to see Jesus on earth again. They couldn’t just bide their time, it seemed, waiting for Jesus, waiting for real life to begin, because while they were waiting, life was passing by, and still Jesus wasn’t back. The author’s words work to give them focus, hope, and purpose while they wait. 
What are you waiting for? Are you waiting on God? Do you know what your “big thing” is, and are you doing something about it? Real life is now. What are you doing with it? As I was writing this week, the late Mary Oliver’s famous poem The Summer Day sprang to my mind. She writes, 
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What will we do, friends, with this one life God gives us? God is not slow, as we might think of slowness. No, God is patient. God is so, so patient with us, with this world, with all of creation. God is willing to wait, because God really, really wants a relationship with us, and not just a relationship, God wants our whole hearts, our whole lives. And God wants all of us, not just some, not just the creme of the crop, not just the best of us. God thinks that a deep relationship with each one of us is worth a lot of effort. God is patient with us, and God is waiting for us. But God doesn’t wait passively. God is busy in waiting, reaching out to us, sending Jesus to us, offering us the Holy Spirit, heaping blessings on us, challenging us, staying right beside us in every challenge we encounter. 

God is patient with us, actively waiting on us. Can we do the same for God? With this one, precious life that we have, can we be patient with God, ourselves, and those around us, as we work out our salvation, as we struggle to be ready for life-changing repentance, as we try to find peace in our lives and in the world? Can we be patient? And can we, like God waits us on, be active in our waiting on God? Let us ask ourselves, along with the author of 2 Peter, what kind of living we’re meant to be doing while we’re waiting. Whether you’re waiting for God’s direction or answer, or waiting for some next stage, some next milestone in your life, whether you’re waiting for things to get better - for you, for your family, for the world, or waiting on the answer to a prayer, waiting on someone else to get what it’s all about, or waiting on Jesus to come in the flesh one more time: God has blessed you with these days, with this time, with this one, wild and precious life. What do you plan to do with it? Sometimes, I’m a little lazy, and I forget to be about the work of repentance while I’m waiting. And sometimes, I’m not so patient, and I’m trying to rush God ahead. But I’m seeking after the peace that comes with waiting with hope, waiting actively, waiting with God, instead of for God. God’s patience is our salvation. And that’s a gift worth spending all of my time on. Amen. 
(1) Wesley, John as quoted in “The Life of John wesley by John Telford, Chapter 14,” Wesley Center Online, http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-life-of-john-wesley-by-john-telford/the-life-of-john-wesley-by-john-telford-chapter-14.