Friday, December 21, 2007

Sermon for December 16, 2007

Joy of Mary
Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 1:26-38

There was a perfect man who met a perfect woman. After a perfect courtship, they had a perfect wedding. Their life together was, of course, perfect. One snowy, stormy Christmas Eve this perfect couple was driving along a winding road when they noticed someone at the roadside in distress. Being the perfect couple, they stopped to help. There stood Santa Claus with a huge bundle of toys. Not wanting to disappoint any children on the eve of Christmas, the perfect couple loaded Santa and his toys into their vehicle. Soon they were driving along delivering the toys. Unfortunately, the driving conditions deteriorated and the perfect couple and Santa Claus had an accident. Only one of them survived the accident. Who was the survivor?
Answer: The perfect woman. She’s the only one that really existed in the first place.
A Man’s Response: So, if there is no perfect man and no Santa Claus, the perfect woman must have been driving. This explains why there was a car accident.

The longer I’m married, the more I realize that there are some real differences in the ways my wife and I go through life. There seem to be some differences between Mary and Joseph when they first receive the news of Jesus. The first is given in the Gospel according to Matthew.

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancĂ©, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’

I can imagine how Joseph must have felt. The poor guy comes home from a hard day’s work at the carpentry shop. He cleans up a little and goes out to see his wife-to-be at her parent’s house. When he gets there, she pulls him aside to a private spot and says, “Joe, I’m pregnant. This angel appeared to me and told me I’m going to give birth to God’s Son. Then the Holy Spirit came and put a child in my womb” . . . I don’t know . . . I guess if I were Joseph, I’d be a little upset. My first thought would be that my fiancĂ©e was fooling around behind my back. Of all the excuses, this one would have seen most pathetic. Notice that the text calls Joseph just, which probably means he was careful to observe the law. According to Jewish law, if a virgin promised to a man had sexual relations with another, she and the other man could be punished by death. But not wanting a public scandal or a harsh punishment, Josephs decided just to divorce her. He would publicly declare that she had been defiled, and the marriage contract would be annulled.

It’s not until the angel appears to Joseph that Mary’s bizarre story is confirmed. The angel then tells Joseph to take the woman home to be his wife. Good News is about to be proclaimed to the entire earth. The long-awaited hope of a Messiah will be fulfilled.

Joseph models one that people act when they are confused and uncertain. Mary offers another response to the situation.

Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

I have a difficult time relating to Mary. Her unselfish attitude makes me uncomfortable. Here is a young lady, maybe as young as 15. She is pledged to be married to a working man. Her future seems to be shaping up well. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, this angel appears and tells her that she is going to give virgin birth to God’s Son.

I would not have been happy with news like that. As a matter of fact, I would be scared out of my wits. I would have complained. I would have said , “You know, I’m really not worthy of such an honor, sir. Maybe you should find someone else. I’m sure Sarah down the road wouldn’t mind giving birth to the Son of God. Maybe you should give her a try. If you need anything else, though, don’t hesitate to call.” Because of this news, she would be outcast from society. People would accuse her of adultery. If she told the truth, people would think she was crazy.

Mary’s real attitude confirms my own selfishness. She doesn’t try to get out of it. She doesn’t even sound uncomfortable. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said,” She later praises God saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” These are not words of disappointment. They are acclamations of praise. I am humbled by her acceptance of duty. Her faith and willingness leave me astounded.

There’s something different between the reactions of Mary and Joseph. Joseph tries to find a way out. God has to send a messenger to get him to change his mind. Mary’s obedience is marked by instant joy. Her excitement bubbles out in splashes of praise. She goes a step beyond obedience. In the midst of uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety, she expresses her trust in God. She had the faith to understand that the world would be changed through her.

On the surface Mary and Joseph’s story may seem far removed from us. After all, not many of us can claim to have had a virgin birth induced by the Holy Spirit. But think about the feelings and reactions that lie underneath. How do you react to troubling or confusing news? What do you do when everything seems to be going wrong? How do you respond when the future seems uncertain?

Some of us react like Joseph at first, trying to run away or avoid the problems. It may very well take something miraculous to help us regain focus.

There is another attitude – a posture like Mary’s – trust that God has something wonderful planned for your life. It’s the knowledge that God wants to do great things through you, just as you are. In the midst of our despair . . . our fear . . . our uncertainty, we know that God can transform us. God turns fear into courage. God transforms uncertainty into assurance. God can take despair and turn it into a song of praise.

During Advent, we remember that there is who shows us the full scope of God’s love. His name is Jesus. When we hear and believe the Good News that God has come to bring wholeness and new life to all, our lives will be transformed. Jesus Christ, God With Us, has come to mend fractured lives. We are changed when we meet Jesus. This is cause to rejoice and sing!

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are a typical man or a typical woman . God looks at the heart. God is searching for those who can look upon the future with joy.

I hope you can find the joy and hope of God this Advent season. In the face of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty, may you know peace.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sermon for December 2 -- Advent 1

The Radiance of Christ
December 2, 2007

I learned about Jesus' birth while wearing a bathrobe. Each Advent season I got a part in the Christmas pageant, generally as either a shepherd or a wise man. At the appropriate moment, I shuffled into place and said my line—usually only one, occasionally two -- “Let us go to Jerusalem!” or “We have seen his star shining in the east.” The idea was to show Jesus' birth as history, but effort at historical authenticity never went too far. I always thought we should have real sheep and camels in the pageant. My ideas were always overruled by the Sunday School superintendent.

There are troubling parts of the Christmas story that were never told. Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents doesn’t get a lot of stage time in Christmas pageants. But it’s part of the story. We are not even aware of another violent subplot to our Christmas story. It comes from the Hanukkah story. Hanukkah is not the modern Jewish alternative to Christmas. The holiday actually began 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is the story of the survival of the Jewish religion against impossible odds. It is the story of a bloody fight for Jewish independence. It was a world suffering from political and religious stress, a world more like modern Afghanistan or Iraq or Israel than anything I learned by wearing my bathrobe during a Christmas pageant.

After Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided into different regions. Israel and its surrounding countries were ruled by a dynasty called the Seleucids. Our story begins with the reign of a Seleucid king named Antiochus IV. He decided that all of his territory would become unified under Greek language and culture. He sent messengers to Jerusalem, instructing Jews to stop practicing their religion and to adopt his national unity religion. Antiochus banned sacrifices in the temple. To make his point, he sacrificed a pig on the temple altar and erected a statue of Zeus in the holy place. The Jewish religion was outlawed. Anyone who resisted was executed cruelly.

In reaction, the priest named Mattathias and his sons led a bloody guerrilla uprising against Antiochus and his successors. They mostly succeeded, winning some independence for the Jewish state. On the eve of battle, the troops prayed to God for victory. They fasted, they read the Law. They were pious, devoted Jews. They were also courageous and ferocious Jews whose bravery ultimately defeats their enemies. The greatest hero was Judas Maccabeus, an outstanding general who led his outnumbered army to victory upon victory.

Hanukkah began when the victorious Jews returned to their desecrated Tample and rededicated it to the worship of God. That’s why Hanukkah is sometimes called the Feast of Dedication. We read about Jesus attending the Feast of Dedication in the Gospel of John.

In Jesus' day, 200 years later, the political situation remains strikingly similar. Instead of the Seleucids, the Romans now Rule. Instead of Antiochus, Jesus faces King Herod, the vicious puppet King of Rome. Instead of The Maccabees, Jesus is born to a world where a group called The Zealots oppose Rome through violent resistance. There were other groups who chose peaceful responses like Saducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. They all defined themselves by answering two crucial questions: "What do we do about Rome?" and, "What kind of people should we be?" These are the same questions asked today by Kurds facing Iraq, by Palestinians facing Israel, by Basques facing Spain. They are, by their nature, highly emotive questions, and they frequently lead to violence.

The birth of Jesus inaugurates a new way to answer those questions. He is called the Prince of Peace. He is a new king, born in humility. In his adult life, Jesus does things that anger almost everybody. To the Zealots he is not enough of a revolutionary. Jesus rejects the way of the Essenes by mixing with and ministering to society. He horrifies the Pharisees in his disregard of ceremonial purity. The Sadducees call Jesus a blasphemer.

Jesus is also anti-Maccabean. Understand the impact of this. It’s the same as saying that an American is anti-George Washington – against the revolutionary heroes who defined our nation. But Jesus resistes the ways of the Maccabees. When someone strikes you, he says, turn the other cheek. When someone forces you to carry a load for a mile, give him another mile. Love your enemies. Judas Maccabeus could not have followed Jesus without giving up the way of revolt and taking up his cross.

Against the backdrop of Jewish History, Jesus changes the terms of Israel's faith. The natural tendency is to accentuate our differences with our enemies, to draw clear lines and to assault the foe head on. That’s part of the story of Hanukkah. Jesus, however, does not follow the script. Jesus suggests that the truly evil empire is not headquartered in Rome. The power to do good or evil resides in human will. We can choose to hide our light, or we can choose to let our light shine. For some, it may shine like a beacon – like a Christmas star. For others, the light may shine like a humble Hanukkah candle. Either way, light shines in the darkness and exposes the places where evil intentions lurk.

Hanukah is time to remember when the Jews took back their Temple and rededicated it to the worship of God. They relit the temple torches, celebrating that the light of God had returned to the people.

Our second gospel reading tells the story about Jesus being transformed into radiant light on the mountaintop. We usually read that story right before Lent. But imagine if this is really a Hanukkah story. I think Matthew wrote his gospel as a collection of Jesus stories for Jewish worship. The earliest Christians were still considered themselves Jewish. They wanted to hear the stories of Jesus during their important holidays. The synagogue had a liturgical year in which the great moments of Jewish history were relived. Matthew’s gospel allowed worshippers to remember Jesus in the context of their own worship. And the text for Hanukkah would have been the story of the transfiguration.

In this story, Jesus becomes the new temple on whom the light of God rests. Jesus becomes the new meeting place between God and human life. Hanukah celebrates the light of God being restored to the Temple. Transfiguration celebrates the light of God resting on Jesus.

Well, up to this point you put up with a lot of history and theological thinking. Here’s the point. The radiance of Christ does not shine upon you. It shines from within you. We need to go only as far as our own hearts to make contact with the divine. Life might be better if we can remember that this Advent season. The light of Christ can transform our lives and the lives around us. But in doing so we will be challenged to change. The radiance of Christ challenges us to see who we really are, and love each other not just because of what we know but also in spite of what we know about each other. We very easily choose to live in darkness if it were not for the light of Christ that calls us, and compels us to live a new way as co-creators of a new life of peace and justice. We are challenged to help create a world where the meek will come out on top; the hungry go to the front of the food line; the powerful wash the feet of the homeless; where children are protected and life is cherished. We work for justice, seek peace, give ourselves away in service to others, love our enemies, show respect to the elderly, honoring one another and ourselves.
Take some time to reflect this Advent season about who you are. Even as we live our lives in this world, we don’t belong to it. We belong to God. So let God’s light shine.

I close with poem from Marry Oliver called “When Death Comes.”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sermon for November 18, 2007

Who do you say I am?
Matthew 16:13-23

A man was looking for a job and he noticed that there was an opening at the local zoo. He asked about the job and found that the zoo had a very unusual position to fill. Apparently, their gorilla had died, and until they could get a new one, they needed someone to dress up in a gorilla suit and act like a gorilla for a few days. The man was to just sit, eat, and sleep. His identity would be kept a secret, of course. Thanks to a very fine gorilla suit, no one would be the wiser. The man tried on the suit and sure enough, he looked just like a gorilla. They led him to the cage; he took a position at the back of the cage and pretended to sleep. But after a while he got tired of sitting, so he walked around a bit, jumped up and down, and tried a few gorilla noises. The people who were watching him seemed to really like that. When he would move or jump around, they would clap, and cheer, and throw him peanuts. So he jumped around some more and tried climbing a tree. That seemed to really get the crowd excited. They threw more peanuts. Playing to the crowd, he grabbed a vine and swung from one end of the cage to the other. The people loved it. Wow, this is great, he thought. He swung higher and the crowd grew bigger. He continued to swing on the vine, and all of the sudden the vine broke. He swung up and out of the cage, landing in the lion’s cage that was next door. The man panicked. There was a huge lion twenty feet away, and it looked very hungry. So, the man in the gorilla suit started to jump up and down, screaming and yelling, “Help! Help! Get me out of here! I’m not really a gorilla. I’m a man in a gorilla suit. Heeelllp!” The lion quickly pounced on the man, held him down and said, “Will you shut up! You’re going to get us both fired.”

Sooner or later we all get found out. It’s only a matter of time before who we are becomes obvious to everyone. Why is it that we find it difficult to be who we really are? Sometimes I wonder if we are ashamed. Shame is an experience of the eyes. If I were to trip and fall flat on my face in the privacy of my home I would not feel ashamed. If I fell flat on my face in front of you all, I would be embarrassed. Shame is a dreaded, deep-seated, long-held terror come true; what we have feared has actually happened. We’ve been found out. We are frauds in a gorilla suit. The dark secrets of our lives have been exposed. Who we are and what we do comes into the light and makes us vulnerable to others’ opinions.

We tend to blame wounds to our self-image for most of the pain in our lives. We were called lazy when we forgot to make our beds, ugly when we failed to get a date, stupid when we did not excel in school. Each comment attacked our worth, we felt exposed and undesirable, and then–get his now–we began to hate whatever part of us caused the pain. If it’s our nose, then we will hate our face; if it’s our voice then we will whisper; if it is our past then we will hide it away and run the opposite direction.

Many of us have a fear that if our dark soul is revealed, we will never be enjoyed. No one will want us. We will be unloved and unlovable. Have you ever had a fight with your spouse or a good friend that ended with sharp words and angry accusations? You’re mad, and you turn away from the person you love in fury. You are so distant, the other person might as well be on the other side of the universe. After a while, you realize that your words were immature and cruel. And you think, “I wonder if this person will ever talk to me again.” You want to say you’re sorry, but it seems empty. Something holds you back. Shame fills your body like cold water rushing through the hull of a sinking ship. You are afraid of rejection–scared that the person you love will be disgusted with who you are.

Does shame have to govern our lives? Today we heard a scripture in which Jesus asks an identity question. Who do you say I am? I listened to that question, and began to wonder, do we take time to really know one another, or do we hide, ashamed what will happen if someone gets to know the REAL you? Look around you today. Each person here has a story – heartaches, wounds, summits of great success and valleys of defeat. There are stories of victory, stories of rejection, and stories of trying to make it through each day, one day at a time. Every one here has done something that he or she has regretted – each of us has times when we wish we could turn back the clock.

Imagine this scene with me. If you are comfortable, I invite you to bow your heads and close your eyes. This may be the only sermon you ever hear where the preacher actually tells you it’s OK to close your eyes and relax. Take a deep breath. Feel the air coming into your nose, your mouth, your lungs. Let your body relax a little. Breathe deeply. Be aware of your body, any feelings you may have. Let any thoughts or feelings go, and just focus on the moment – on the breath. Now I want you to imagine yourself in the scene from today’s Gospel reading. You are on the road between Jerusalem and Galilee with Jesus and the disciples. Peter is leading the way, as usual. You are bunched together with the followers of Jesus. Jesus is a little way behind the group, walking by himself. You decide to drop back and walk with him for a while. You slow your pace, and soon you and Jesus are walking side by side.

Take time to notice what Jesus looks like to you. What do you think his voice might sound like? What color are his eyes? What does he wear? What does he smell like? What would you want to say to him?

As you walk along, Jesus speaks. He calls you by name and asks what’s on your mind. You remember a prior conversation between Jesus and the disciples when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say I am?” You decide to ask the same question of Jesus. Even tough it sounds strange, you ask it anyway. “Jesus, who do you say I am?”

Imagine what Jesus looks like when he smiles at you. He says, “That’s an excellent question. Listen very carefully to my answer. All that I am about to say is true. I want you to pay special attention to the words I use to describe you – the ones you really like as well as those you have trouble believing. Remember, every word I say is true of you. Now listen with your heart, as well as with your mind and ears.

You are chosen and dearly loved by God.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
You are God’s child, prized and treasured by God.
You are my friend.
You are a saint.
You are forgiven – past, present, and future.
You are and always will be an object of God’s love.
You are a citizen of heaven.
You are a temple of God – God dwells within you.
You are a new creation – a new person.
You are God’s coworker.
You are God’s workmanship – a masterpiece, unique in the entire world.
You are righteous and holy – in you there is no flaw.
You are the chosen one of God.
You are dearly and uniquely loved by God.
You belong to God and God belongs to you.
You are the one who will always be with Christ.
You are a source of delight to God.

When you are ready, you can open your eyes.

I did not make these affirmations up. They are not my inventions. They are the words of the Bible. In all my studies of the Bible, I have never heard Christ say, “You are fat and ugly and people hate you.” I have never heard Jesus say, “God thinks your lazy, and stupid and you have a big nose.” I have never heard Jesus say, “You will never amount to anything.” You may have heard those things, but never from the mouth of Jesus. What do you think? Is it difficult to believe that the wonderful things Jesus said are true about you?

Jesus speaks a new message of love to us. You may have been taught that you have to meet certain standards in order to feel good about yourself. Jesus says something different. You are completely forgiven and fully pleasing to God, and you no longer have to fear failure.

You may have been taught that you must have the approval of others to feel good about yourself. Jesus says something different. You are totally accepted by God. You no longer have to fear rejection.

You may have been taught that those who fail are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished. Jesus says something different. You are deeply loved by God. You no longer have to fear punishment, nor must you punish others.

You may have been taught that you are what you are – you cannot change – you are hopeless. Jesus says something different. You have been made brand new and complete in Christ. You no longer need to experience the pain of shame.

This time of year, we are always reminded to count or blessings to be thankful. So, while you gather with family and friends, and eat turkey and potatoes and stuffing, we give thanks. I want you to remember something. You are a source of delight to God, and God counts it a blessing to have you around. God is thankful for you.

Sources:
Jeannie Oestreicher & Larry Warner, Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry (El Cajon: Youth Specialties, 2006).
Robert McGee, The Search for Significance (Houston: Rapha, 1990).
Rick Marshall: Life Connections (Claremont: P&F Publications, 2004).

Sermon for November 11, 2007

Well, I thought I’d do something a little different and share with you a letter from my family in Jericho Springs, MO. You might enjoy hearing about some of the happenings at the Jericho Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about them before. My Great Aunt Georgia is a long-time member there. In fact, my family has been attending there for generations. Anyway, it’s a place like most other home churches–muddling through the same old issues and made up of the same old wonderful people, with a few colorful characters and one or two certifiable nut cases thrown in–my family excluded, of course. Anyway, here’s the letter.

Dear Matthew,
I woke up a few days ago craving apple butter, and I don’t know why. It’s not like I eat the stuff, ever. But it was a powerful hankering, and I figured I’d better not fight it. You go around fighting hankerings, and you’re just begging for trouble. By the next day, I was standing in my kitchen coating two slices of Wonder Bread toast with the stuff. And it was good. I’ve been flat-out eating it. Every morning I wake up and think, “Who am I? How did I get here? Hey, I have apple butter!” Within minutes I’m prowling downstairs, looking like a rabid wolverine with apple butter foam smeared all over her mouth. How does a person just suddenly desire obscure condiments? I remember a similar situation years ago with deviled eggs. I just couldn’t get enough of those tasty little suckers. Your Uncle Slim nearly had to perform an intervention during that one.

I like to mix my food together. Even as a kid, I’d routinely shove everything into the middle of the plate, and toss it like a salad. It made for an unpredictable and often delicious surprise. I’m a natural born mixer.

My sister Molly, on the other hand, would see this happening and react like she was viewing a grisly crime scene. She is the type who requires at least an inch-wide barrier between every item on her plate. If, through some unforeseen series of events, a green bean happens to flirt with the gravy, the meal is ruined. May as well just toss it all in the garbage.

Your cousin, Daryl Bob Broadfoot, would become ill if he saw you put cream in your coffee and didn’t stir it in right away. He’d sit there with beads of sweat popping out on his forehead, then finally crack beneath the pressure: “Stir it! For the love of all that’s holy, stir your coffee!!”

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess it’s good to know a little about your family history.

Do you remember Sunny from the Jerico Springs Progressive Church? Her real name is Sunshine. She always acts like the whole world is constantly putting her down with their eyes. She decided to change her image, so she’s been strutting around the county wearing a Hillary Clinton jumpsuit o’ power, hoping to get some respect. She comes over to the farm every now and again, and we watch the stories together in the afternoon. One day we began seeing commercials for the so-called KFC “Famous Bowl.” It was a mixture of mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cheese, and chicken, I thought: yum. When Sunny saw it, her lower jaw retracted and she hollered, “Dangit, that’s disgusting I wouldn’t feed that slop to a starving mutt.” I guess she’s not a food mixer.

That’s been several months, and I never found myself in a situation where I was able to sample that delicious-looking bowl of “slop.” There are only two known KFCs in our area, and both are pretty far off the beaten path. They’re in parts of the county you only visit when you need a propane tank filled or a cow butchered.

To be honest, I’ve never felt a strong urge to visit Kentucky Fried Chicken. Until last week, that is. I was out running errands one day, and the commercial suddenly began playing inside my head. Without realizing what was happening, I’d whipped the steering wheel violently to the right and was headed for KFC in Chigger Falls.

I was under the impression there are now two bowls: one with chicken on the top, and another with country fried steak, or somesuch. But the KFC in Chigger Falls only offered the chicken variety. Not a problem, since I’d planned to go with the classic version anyway. But where’d I get such a notion? Had I dreamed it? Sweet fancy Moses, please tell me I wasn’t dreaming about country fried steak bowls!

A teenage girl met me at the take out. She looked like Mortician Adams in a visor hat and she wore the expression of someone smelling gym socks that’ve been suffocating under the laundry pile. She passed my lunch to me through a window and thoughtfully included a packet containing a wet wipe and a spork. I peeked into the sack with anticipation. The plastic dome over the bowl was fogged-up and dripping with the condensation of brown gravy.

When I got home our dog Loverboy sniffed the bag of food and his eyes almost popped out of his head. I’d never seen such a reaction from that hound. He began prancing on his tiptoes and turning tight circles in the middle of the floor, shaking like Janet Reno on a hayride. I hoped he wouldn’t just give in to the chicken frenzy and make a leap for my throat. But he was right, that thing was putting off one spectacular aroma, and I couldn’t wait to get at it. I sat down at the dining room table, broke the seal on my spork bag, and lifted the dome off my lunch. That’s when my stomach sank like a cement row boat. The Famous Bowl appeared to have already been eaten at least once. It looked like a pipin’ hot bowl of Alpo covered in cheese. No wonder Loverboy wanted it so bad.

But, of course, I ate it anyway. The chicken was tender and tasty, not the kind with the hard breading that tears holes in your gums, or anything like that. The gravy was delicious, and there was so much salt and fat, my heart is still cutting in and out – and it’s the arrhythmia of love.

I got thinking about all my food cravings and then I began to wonder if Jesus was a mixer or a divider. Pastor Sanford at the progressive church read a strange gospel lesson the other day. Jesus had just been bickering with the Pharisees about what makes a person unclean. The Pharisees had a problem with people eating unblessed food with dirty hands. Jesus said “Ya’ll listen and get this straight. It’s not what goes into a people’s mouths but what comes out of it that debases them. What comes out of the mouth springs from the heart.” Right after that, Jesus meets up with a woman who’s not from Israel. She’s a gentile, and Jesus is not supposed to be talking to her. She wants Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus just ignores her. The disciples gather ‘round Jesus and say, “Tell her to scram.” I expect Jesus to ignore them, and reach out, and fix her problems all up. Instead Jesus says, “I was only sent here to fix my people. It’s not right to take bread from children and throw it to a hound dog.” She’s a pushy woman, though. She’s not giving up without a fight. She says, “Yes sir, but even a hound dog gets some scraps from the table.” Then Jesus says, “Ma’am, you’ve got a lot of faith. You may have whatever you want.” The gentile woman’s daughter is healed in that instant.

Now what do you make of that? Is Jesus a mixer or a divider? We all know people who are dividers. They think religion is all about keeping themselves pure and holy. They want to make their faith about giving to the church and being a member of the Bible reading circle and serving on the church board. That kind of religion is far too easy.

I think Jesus caught on to that lesson when he was learning what it meant to be the Savior. Yeah, you read it right. I don’t think being a mixer came to Jesus automatically. I don’t think Jesus had his act all together right from the beginning. He had to learn like the rest of us do. That’s part of being human. Jesus was changed when he met that pushy woman. He chose to act in compassion when no one would have faulted him for moving on. He chose to listen and to heal, and to change his mind.

It’s hard to love the unlovely and the unloveable. It’s hard to help the needy at the cost of ones own time and money and comfort and pleasure.

Maybe this woman taught Jesus something about heart-stopping passion. Maybe when she was done, Jesus felt the arrhythmia of love. And when he felt it, he learned a little bit more about what it would mean him to be the Savior of the entire world. I dunno. Just a thought.

There will always be dividers. And I’m not talking about food anymore. Most politicians are dividers. They thrive on discord. Makes it look like they’re actually doin’ something. If people started getting along, they would be out of a job. Divide and conquer. It happens in families. It happens in our village. It even happens at the Jerico Progressive Church. I’m so glad Jesus learned a different way. Without his gamble on grace, we would never be challenged to be mixers like he was. You know I’m not a gambler, but it’s the best phrase I can think of. When we open our arms to others, we take a risk. We don’t know whether the other person will understand, or whether our actions will be appreciated. But embrace is grace, and grace is always a gamble.

I’m done preaching. That’s your job, anyway. I think I’m going to turn in early. Last night around midnight my phone rang. It was one of those sounds that sends a tiny chill up your spine. If a person’s calling that late at night, something must be wrong. Visions of dead relatives danced through my head. Massive heart attacks, head-on collisions, hot water tank explosions . . . my mind cranked up in a hurry. It was just Sunny, wanting me to help her remember all five members of the Brat Pack. And if you think I’m joking you’d be terribly wrong. For the record, I could only come up with four. I always have a mental block on that British lady’s man – Lawford was it? Anyway, It’s been my experience that a person needs to be wide awake before she’s able to pull names of entertainers out of thin air.

Write back soon. Love,
Aunt Georgia

With thanks to Jeff Kay at The West Virginia Surf Report for making me gut laugh!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sermon for October 28, 2007

The Confident Sinner

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
-- Luke 18:9-14

I used to have real problems with church people. About 15 years ago I had an experience that changed my spiritual life. I became what some might call a Bible-believing Christian. I converted into a person who was really serious about Christianity. I mean REALLY serious. I not only took my Bible to church with me every Sunday, but I normally carried one with me wherever I went. I had a Bible at work. I carried it in the car with me. I read it every chance I could get, and it didn’t matter who was watching. In fact, it was better if a lot of people saw me so that they would know I was serious about being a Christian.

At that time the faith was new to me and I was enthusiastic and eager. Winning souls for God was important to me, prayer was important; enthusiasm in worship was important. And, while I was being a very good Christian, I began to feel that I was some kind of minority within the church.

During worship services I would look around, and I saw that many people there did not read their Bibles, they did not sing the hymns loudly, they did not seem to pray, nor did they like fellowship with their brothers and sisters afterwards over a cup of coffee.

Have you ever done that, by the way -- you know -- check out what other people are doing during worship? Looking to see if they are singing, or if they close their eyes during prayer time or doodle on the bulletin during the sermon, or if they are putting anything in the offering plate when it goes by. Well, I did it.

I noted that many in my congregation seemed more concerned that the service was over exactly one hour after it began so they could get home and eat than they were about the actual worship they were involved in. I also noted that only about 10% of the congregation ever bothered attending the weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings and that most of them had never really grasped the fact that the gospel message is one of grace - instead of works – that Jesus died not to reward people who act good all the time but so that sinners can approach the throne of God and find a welcome that they do not deserve.

I had real problems with some of the people in the church. To my eyes the church was full of hypocrites . . . full of people who could barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk.

One of the biggest issues I had at worship services in those days were the prayers of confession that were often printed in the bulletin – just like the one printed in our bulletin this morning. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I still have a strong reaction to the words that I find in prayers of confession that have been written by other people. The fact that those prayers were prayers of confession didn’t bother me. I knew I was a sinner. What bothered me were the kinds of sins that were often listed in the prayers: things like neglect of the poor, selfishness, ingratitude, racism, and similar offenses. I found it hard to pray some of those prayers because I knew in my heart that I had not done any of that stuff. I was not especially selfish or neglectful of the poor. I wasn’t a racist. I wasn’t ungrateful for all that God, and indeed other people, did for me.

All things being equal, I was on the right track. I gave a substantial amount to the work of God each year, a tenth of my income in fact, and that tithe was more than most others in the church gave, even though they had far more income. I went to prayer meetings every Wednesday night, and I worshiped almost every Sunday morning, even if I had company coming over for lunch. I even went caroling at Christmas at the homes of shut-ins, and helped out whenever I could with church suppers and special events.

Not bad, huh? I know that many of you out there have had a similar journey. You have been faithful. You have been generous. You have worked hard and asked nothing in return. Like me all those years ago, you too have realized God needs many workers to make the Kingdom grow. Like me, you knew too that your efforts have made a difference both to others and to you.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisee acted kind of like I did. Pharisees were really good people. They were respected. People looked up to them as an example of pure devotion. Pharisees were super-religious men who were extremely careful about obeying the all of the religious laws. When the Pharisee prayed, everyone listened up. And those listening might say, “I really admire that guy’s commitment to religion. If anyone is going to heaven, it’s that Pharisee over there.” The tax collector was at the very bottom of the religious food chain. If you had been a good Jew listening to Jesus, when he mentioned the Pharisee you would have cheered, “Yeah! Hurrah for the good guy!” When He mentioned the tax collector, you would have booed. But Jesus is always full of surprises. If we were listening to Jesus, we might expect him to praise the impeccable faith of the Pharisee. Instead, he holds up the sinner as the model of real faith. Something is not right here.

I invite you to hear today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel once again – but let’s put it in a different context. Hear now a reading from the Gospel According to Pastor Matt:

As Deacon Proud walked into church one Sunday morning, he was disgusted to see Lenny Lowlife there. Lenny was a drug pusher who had just gotten out of jail. Deacon Proud warned some of the ushers to keep a close watch on Lenny because he was a no-good loser. Before the offering, it was Deacon Proud’s time to pray. He walked with an air of importance to the microphone and began to pray using his religious tone of voice, “Heavenly Father, I thank Thee that I’ve been a deacon in this church for 30 years. I even remember when my grandfather built this holy edifice with his own two hands. And I thank Thee that I haven’t missed a single Sunday for over ten years. There were times, O Lord, when I was sick, but I came anyway. And Father, thou knowest I used to sing in the choir, until I was persecuted by the song leader who wouldn’t sing my style of music–but I can endure persecution just like Thou didest. Thou hast blessed me financially so I’ve been able to give unto you much more than 10 percent. I thank thee that I’m morally pure for I don’t drink much, and I don’t cuss on Sundays, and I don’t smoke unfiltered cigarettes and I don’t use drugs or sell them like someone who is among us today. Lord, we need more people just like me in our church. And, Lord, help everyone to come out tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at Oak Park field to watch our church softball team beat the Baptists again, and bless the gift and the giver. AMEN.”

After napping through much of the sermon, Deacon Proud strolled out of church feeling good about himself because he made it through another Sunday.

Meanwhile, Lenny Lowlife was slouched on the back pew. After hearing a message about God’s forgiveness, he slipped to his knees, and began to pray. Holding his face in his hands he sobbed quietly, “God, I’m the dirtiest sinner in this town. I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve it, but is there any way you can wash away my filthy mistakes? Please, God, I need you!”

I tell you, it was Lenny, not Deacon Proud, who went home that day right with God.

It’s one thing to be thankful for what God does for us -- for the blessings we see all around us. It is quite another thing to compare ourselves to one another and to thank God for the differences, as if somehow we are better than that poor miserable tax collector over there, better than that druggie who’s wasting his life, better than that single mother who drinks too much, or that clumsy idiot who is our fellow worker, or the parishioner who sits next to us and seems to have no real faith at all.

But we still do I, don’t we?

While we have breath, we must fight the temptation to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to someone else. How do we do it? Eastern Orthodox Christianity uses a prayer called the Jesus prayer. It comes straight from this passage in Luke, and it goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Words to live by. Words to cultivate in our minds and hearts that we might know the true joy of salvation. There is a beautiful promise in today’s Gospel lesson: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Christ’s words are also a challenge -- a challenge because it’s very hard not to exalt ourselves. It’s hard not to think that I am better than that person over there: that tax collector, that sinner, that arrogant person, that cheat, that hypocrite, that klutz, that liar, that domineering person. It is very hard, but it’s not impossible.

We do not have to think that we have the one right answer; that because we do this or that thing better, or more often than others, we are somehow better people, wiser people, or holier people than those who do it poorly or less often than we. We do not have to think that because we are more diligent at serving God inside the church and out, or attend worship more often than most other people, that we are somehow more important, or more faithful, or more loved by God than they are. There is an old Hasidic saying that goes like this: “The person who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the person who thinks that others cant live without him is even more mistaken.”

As it turns out, it is actually damaging to our faith when we come to God and pray like the Pharisee: “O Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people: like John or Suzi, like my parent or sibling or my fellow worker.” No, I think God is looking for confident sinners – people who know they have blown it and still have enough faith to come before the throne of grace and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sermon for October 14, 2007 - -Stewardship Sunday

Why Are You Afraid?
Matthew 8:23-27

Nine hundred miles out to sea a sail was sighted on the horizon. As the ocean liner drew closer, the passengers saw that a boat. A small sloop flying a Turkish flag had run up a distress signal and other flags asking for its position at sea. Through a faulty chronometer, the small vessel had become lost. For nearly an hour, the liner circled the little boat, giving its crew correct latitude and longitude. Naturally, there was a great deal of interest in all the proceeding among the passengers of the liner. A boy of about 12 standing on the deck and watching all that was taking place, remarked “It’s a big ocean to be lost in.” He’s right. It is a big universe to be lost in, too. And we do get lost - we get mixed up and turned around. That’s why ships and boats are ancient symbols of the church. It’s carries us across storm-tossed seas, finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of humanity.

The Church is a boat. But what kind of boat do you think we are?

Some may say we are a cruise boat. It is fun. It’s entertaining. It takes you to interesting places. The crew is paid to keep the passengers comfortable and entertained.

Others may say the church is a battleship. A battleship is full of people who are committed to a task and highly trained to do their part in its accomplishment. Crew members give up comfort and security for the privilege of serving the commander-in-chief. They may complain about not enough sleep, lousy food, and close quarters, but they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They follow their captain wherever they are led, even to death, if that is what it takes to accomplish the mission.

I know people who might say the church is a Submarine. Church members submerge six days a week and resurface on Sunday.

Still others think of the church as a trawler, navigating the waters as we fish for human souls, praying for a good catch.

I often think of the church as a Lifeboat. Like Noah’s Ark, the church is full of rescued victims – people who know that they need God in their lives our they will perish.

No matter how you view this church ship, the fact is that it serves a purpose in your life. The common denominator is that we want to keep it buoyant. We want our ship to sail.

In today’s reading, the disciples set sail with Jesus. As Jesus takes a nap, a storm comes and threatens everyone’s safety. The disciples are not alone, but they act as if they were. The world around them suddenly becomes an enormous storm of wind, waves, and rising water. Jesus still sleeps in the back of the boat, a picture of quiet confidence in the power of the God who made both land and sea. The disciples wake Jesus up and criticize him: “Don’t you care about us?” Jesus hands it right back saying, “Why are you afraid?” So he stills both the storm and the fears of the Twelve.

That’s what I want in a church – a place where I can go and find some safety in the storms of life – a place where I can hear a word of peace -- a place where my family and I can find a calm center -- a place where my fears are defied. How many of us came here with fears this morning? Fear of failure, fear of losing a job, fear of illness, of responsibility, of losing a loved one, of being left alone on the shelf, of growing old, of death. A woman recently said to me, “I really don’t know what I’m afraid of. I have this nameless, shapeless anxiety that hovers over everything I do and say. It is robbing me of my energy. I feel helpless and hopeless.”

At the core of our being, I think we are afraid to die. We live in a culture that tells us that we can avoid death if we have enough money or power or control. Consider what we spend on products that help us look good, bring us comfort and help us avoid pain: Americans spend $22 billion on cosmetic products; $3 billion on cigarettes, $17 billion on movies and video rentals, 100 billion in alcohol with many a hangover afterwards; $33 billion in weight loss products and services; $100 billion on consumer electronics, $68 billion on gambling, hoping to catch that lucky break. And since it’s October, Americans spend 1.9 billion on Halloween candy. These alone equal $343 billion

Guess how much Americans give annually to churches and other charities? It’s a lot of money, but far below what we spend on other $260.3 billion -- about $.86 per American. I am not saying we should totally refrain from luxuries. But here’s what gets me riled up. Afraid of sinking into the turbulent waters around us, we desperately cling to anything that will help us feel secure. Awash in anxiety, we turn to products that, we are told, will guarantee health and happiness. And if the stuff we but doesn’t help us live longer, then at least we will be comfortable.

Then we come to church. Some people won’t think twice about buying a $100 Ab Lounge or the Yoga Booty Ballet videos for $52.95. Then they complain about giving more to support their church where they worship every week, where they baptized their children and brought them to church school, where their families got married and where loved ones were taken care of during funerals. I make no apologies for asking for financial support for the church. The Church has a just claim on your active, practical, and financial support if for no other reason than that your home is better, your community is better, and your nation is better because of the existence of the Church. With all of its faults--and it certainly has them--the Church is a strong resource to help you live life at its best.

Places like TCC are ships in the storm. We are responsible for one task above all others--to be a container of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything else must come second. This is a place where we try to think, speak, and act in God’s way, not in the way of the fear-filled world. This is a place for love, a safe place for brothers and sisters to dwell in unity, to rest and be healed, to let go of their defenses and to be free – free from worries, free from tensions, free to laugh, free to cry.

It takes about $250,000 to keep our ship afloat. As you prayerfully consider this, make your financial commitment--not to me, not to the officers, not even to the Church, but to GOD. Make it so that you would be unashamed to stand in God’s presence and present it to God personally.

I’m asking us not only to give money, but also our time. Our church needs everything from regular attendance to letting people you meet know how deeply you feel about this congregation. We need willing people to come and sing, and teach, and rake leaves, and serve on committees, and support the Past and Presents Shop and then to give the Power of God’s Spirit a chance to change your life and make you what you have never dreamed you could be. The church took us in as babies, before it knew who we were, what we might be, what we might have. It called us children of God and received us into its arms; it walked besides us in good times and in bad times. It prays for us when we go astray. It welcomes us back as a loving mother when we need embrace. It is with us in sickness, sorrow, and death. Every other organization we join first asks us who we are, what we have, what our social standing is -- if we will 'fit in', what we have to offer, etc. We are different. We say, “I don’t care who you are, what your background is, what you have. You are a child of God and I welcome you without reservation.”

We like to think we have something special to offer you, your family and our community. Don’t ever take it for granted. We keep on sailing with your support. Pray for TCC. Work for TCC. Give to TCC.

Sources

"The Things That are God's," by Martin Luther King, Jr., http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/papers/vol4/571106-000-The_Things_that_are_God's,_Article_in_the_Dexter_Echo.htm

"Faithful Fears" by Eugene Winkler, http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/winkler_4404.htm

Credo by William Sloan Coffin

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sermon for September 30, 2007

The Prophet Without Honor
Matthew 13:54-58

The following sermon draws heavily upon remarks by James Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago: http://www.fourthchurch.org/%202000/04.09.00.html

Remember Junior High romance? I do. There was a girl. And there was a school dance coming up. Not just any dance – our fist middle school semi-formal dance. I was sure this girl would go to the dance with me. I thought she was pretty and fun. But mostly, I knew she would say yes. So, I did what many self-respecting 6th graders do. I had my best friend to ask the girl if she would go to the dance with me. As I saw it, there was only one slight glitch in my plan. My best friend always tried to convince people that he was a Martian who was left on earth as an orphan child. In hindsight, putting my romantic future in the hands of an orphaned Martian may not have been a good move. We all sat on the bleachers in gym class -- the girl and her friends on one side, my best friend and I on the other. He slid over to her, held up his hand in a sign indicating that he came in peace, and he said, “Ya Yaaa! Grok! Dee Doba Pukee Tolba. Reeta bah Flootah Matt” As he said it he pointed at me and smiled. I buried my head in my hands. She looked confused. She apparently did not speak Martian. My best friend then leaned over, cupped his hand over his mouth and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and smiled. My friend quickly shuffled back to me, grinning. She said yes.

That next week, I was so nervous I got sick. My mother and I bought a wrist corsage at the hospital flower shop while visiting a relative. As I picked out my only tie. I knew my date would wear the white dress with the little red polka-dots. It’s the only one I ever saw her wear. I knew it was going to be a good night. Little did I know, It would be my first date with rejection.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt the stinging pain of rejection. We’ve been turned down dozens of times. Parents told us no. We’ve been rejected in romance. We have received rejection letters from colleges, or rejection from job applications. Many of us have stifled our life by heeding some misguided critic who implied we were not good enough. Beethoven’s music teacher called him a hopeless composer. Albert Einstein’s parents thought he was sub-normal. At his first dance audition, Fred Astaire was told that he was balding, skinny, and can dance a little. In the dead of night, Charles Dickens sneaked off to mail a manuscript, petrified that his friends would find out and ridicule him. The manuscript was rejected. More rejections pierced him before he won the hearts of millions with classics like Oliver Twist.

Part of what a family is for is to help individuals deal with rejection. A pioneer in family therapy at Chicago Theological Seminary used to say that a family is where you know you will never be turned away; where you will always have a place. Your family is supposed to be the group of people you can count on being on your side. Sometimes we have to find other families when our own doesn’t work. At its best, the Church is a family for us all. And sometimes it does work, at home, the way it is supposed to.

Mel White, an evangelical pastor, professor at Fuller Seminary, author, consultant and writer for Jerry Falwell, husband and father, after years of struggle, announced that he was gay and that he was leaving his marriage and profession. Rejection is a mild word for what happened to him. Former colleagues would not speak or return calls. He was picketed, called names, publicly berated and told that he should be stoned to death, that he would die of AIDS, that he was going to spend eternity in hell. In the middle of it all, White’s parents were caught by a TV interviewer who asked on camera, “You know what other Christians are saying about your son? They say he’s an abomination. What do you think of that?” “Well,” the mother answered in a sweet, quivery voice, “he may be an abomination, but he’s still our pride and joy.”

Family is where you know you have a place. The night of my junior High semi-formal, my family dropped me off at the school. I met my date there. She was a vision of beauty in her white dress with red polka dots and red carnation wrist corsage. We went and sat on the bleachers. As soon as the music started, I knew there was going to be trouble. I’ve always been too self-conscious to dance. I think my date wanted to dance, but I was terrified. I just sat on the bleachers and cracked jokes, hoping to compensate for my fear. Finally, she told me that she had to use the ladies room. She went in with a gaggle of her friends. A half hour later, she was still in there. Over the next hour, her friends would run out of the ladies room and ask me what I did to my date. She was in there sobbing out of control. I didn’t do anything. My poor dancing skills certainly should not have made her cry. She never came out of the restroom that night. I found a pay phone and called my parents to pick me up. I held it together until my father came to get me. I jumped into the front seat of his old silver pick-up, slammed the door. All my father had to do is look at me and ask, “What happened?” I cried all the way home that night. I had felt the first sting of rejection, and didn’t know what to do. I was so glad my father came to get me and bring me to the comfort of my home.

Sometimes the best antidote to rejection is a family that knows how to be a family.

Part of what is going in today’s story of Jesus is that outsiders become insiders, and people who should be insiders become outsiders. The people rejected by religion and society get special treatment from Jesus. Pharisees, scribes, religious officials, don’t get it. They won’t budge. They won’t leave the safety of their rules, regulations, and assumptions in order to entertain a new idea.

The most devout, the most committed, the most pious, are the very ones who hound Jesus, question him, accuse him, berate him, oppose him and ultimately kill him. There is an obvious warning here—not to the overt sinners of this world, but to people of faith. The faith community proved to be Jesus’ toughest audience. And the warning to the church today is contained in that deceptively simple but devastating conclusion.

Jesus moved on. He left. He didn’t have time to waste on people so certain of themselves, so rigid, so arrogantly exclusive that they could not hear, let alone believe, the good news of God’s unconditional love.

One of the reasons they rejected Jesus was their own rigid religiosity. But the other reason was that he was just Jesus. He was the carpenter, Mary’s illegitimate son. He didn’t look like a Messiah. He certainly didn’t act like the Messiah they expected. He didn’t look like or sound like a Word from God. He was just Jesus, an ordinary man, their old neighbor. Jesus cannot force them to believe in him or love one another, and so nothing new happens, no miracles, new birth, no Kingdom of God.

The good folk of Nazareth, in order to get it, are going to have to change the way they think. They will have to live more loosely with their traditions and be open to something new as it comes to them in the ordinary . . . the everyday . . . the commonplace.

How easy it is to miss goodness and beauty and truth—because we think we already know where and how to find it.

Martha Beck wrote a book, Expecting Adam: a True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic about the birth of her son, a little boy with Down Syndrome. The Beck’s Harvard colleagues advised them to terminate the pregnancy because of the hindrance the child would be to their academic career. But Adam was born and changed the way his parents see life. Martha had to accept Adam’s difficulty in speaking. It was frustrating to him and heart breaking to her. At a particularly low point, she was in the grocery store with both of her children and told them they could each pick out a treat at the candy counter. Katie chose Lifesavers and a chocolate bar. But Adam went to a basket of red rosebuds and picked one out. His mother put it back and said, “No, honey, this isn’t candy—don’t you want candy?” Adam shook his small head, picked the rosebud out again, and placed it on the counter. At home the incident was forgotten.

But the next morning, there Adam was in her bedroom, with the rosebud in a small vase. Martha wrote: “I looked at him in surprise. I didn’t realize that he knew what vases were for, let alone how to get one down from the cupboard, fill it with water, and put a flower in it. “Adam walked over to the bed and handed the rose to me. As he held it out, he said in a clear, loud voice, ‘Here.’”

Sometimes goodness and beauty and truth come to us in unexpected and ordinary ways. Sometimes people close to us—children, parents, teachers, students, tutors, husbands, wives, lovers and friends—convey the truth and grace of God and God’s love in Jesus Christ.

He will be rejected, not only on this day when he read and spoke in the synagogue in his hometown, but officially by his religion and by the Roman governing authorities. He will be rejected dramatically by scribes and Pharisees and Priests and by common people caught up in a public spectacle. He will die alone, publicly humiliated.

He will give new meaning to ancient words written by one of his people centuries earlier—
“He was despised and rejected by others: A man of suffering and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)

It is the deepest mystery of our faith that God’s love was expressed through rejection and crucifixion. It is the deepest mystery of our faith that in his rejection we behold God’s deepest commitment and love for us. Whatever else happens to us, whatever rejections scar our hearts and mark our spirits, we are forever welcome and safe in God’s strong love. “Surely,” the ancient prophet said, “he has borne our infirmities he was wounded for our transgressions and by his bruises—by his rejection—we are healed.”

Sermon for September 23, 2007

The Unforgivable Sin
Matthew 12:22-37

Three ministers and their wives got into a car crash and died one day. They found themselves standing at the pearly gates together before St. Peter. St. Peter opened his big book, pointed to the first minister, and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

“What? Why?” cried the minister.

“Because you lusted after money. You never actually stole any money, but in your heart, you were constantly thinking about money. You had money on your mind so much that you even married a woman named Penny. So you’re going to Hell.” And in a puff of smoke, the first minister disappeared. St. Peter flipped a few pages in his book and pointed to the second minister. “You are also going to Hell,” he said sternly.

“Why?” said the anguished minister.

“Because of your love of alcohol. You never actually drank any alcohol, but you constantly yearned for it in your heart. You thought about it so much that you even married a woman named Brandy. So you’re going to Hell. “And in a puff of smoke, the second minister disappeared.

The third minister turned to his wife and said, “Well, Fanny, it’s been nice knowing you.”

Here’s something for us to think about today. Is God really like that? Does the God you worship enjoy the thought of damning you because of your faults? Does God ever get tired of our mistakes? Will God ever stop loving us? Can we ever move ourselves beyond the boundaries of God’s forgiveness?

Imagine this scenario. You come to worship and have a transforming experience. You make a decision to change some aspect of your life – to turn something around or do something better. You day to yourself, “This week, I’m going to be good.” It’s easy to be good in church, right? Walk out the doors into the so-called “real world” and what happens? If you are like me, then you blow it. Some dimwit upsets you and you lose your patience. Someone betrays you and you plot revenge. Someone hurts you and you want to hurt that person back. It’s not that we didn’t take our life-transforming commitments seriously. We meant them with all our heart. We want a new and changed life. But something gets in the way and trips us up. And so we go back to church, recommit ourselves to godly living, and then we go home and mess it up again.

How do you think God feels about this scenario? Does God lose patience? Will God punish us for not fulfilling our commitments? I grew up with a faith that said, “Yes, of course God will punish us!” My faith told me that all of us are guilty before God. All of us deserve to be punished. God does not allow certain kinds of behavior even if everyone does it. If everyone breaks the law of God, God holds everyone accountable. God would not be God if He (God was always “He”) allowed the punishment to be suspended. This means that sin must be punished. I was a very worried teenager and young adult. I just knew that God was terribly angry about the sin I was born with as well as the sins I committed. As a just judge, God would punish me, and all sinners, now and in eternity. We ourselves cannot hide the filth of sin; but we could be washed clean by grace. The Savior, Jesus Christ, stood between me and the awesome judgment of God. God sent Jesus to take my place. Jesus received the awful punishment for sin that you and I deserve. It is in Jesus that we see God’s justice and God’s mercy being displayed at the same time and in the same person. This is what I was taught. This is what I believed.

I was also taught that there was sin and there was unforgivable sin. If I ever did anything to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, I would earn a non-refundable one-way ticket to Hell. But what was blasphemy? I was taught to equate blasphemy with doubt. I was told that the original sin was doubt. The only way to reverse it was to have faith in Jesus. There was no doubting that Jesus died the death I deserved. It was sinful to doubt that Jesus performed miracles. I questioned how Jesus could be the one and only way to get to heaven, but I kept those thoughts to myself. I was taught that if the temptation of doubt troubled me it was because Satan was messing with me. But I always felt tortured. The more I tried not to think bad thoughts about Jesus, the more they flooded my mind. I had doubts. I was sure that I had committed the unforgivable sin.

I realize that not everyone has this problem. For instance, The Blasphemy Challenge continues to play on YouTube. People are encouraged to submit online videos saying their names and the words “I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit.” Some of the videos get right to the point. Some are quite vulgar. I saw a video of a man named Jim who filmed himself standing in the doorways of various local churches. At each church he proudly said, “My name is Jim. I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit and I’m not afraid.” He figures if there really were a God, he would be instantly punished for saying such callous words in a church. Since Jim is still alive, there must be no God.

What do you think? On the surface, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading sound clear: whoever blasphemes the Spirit will not be forgiven. Will Jim’s public blasphemy send him to eternal punishment? Can we ever do something that puts us beyond the reach of God’s love? Let’s take a moment to revisit our Gospel story.

A man is brought to Jesus. The man is blind and he cannot speak. People assume that demons have taken up residence in him. Jesus has compassion and heals the man. Jesus enters that which others see as unclean or defiled, and he brings new life. As soon as he’s done, the criticisms begin. Those who are in power—those religious leaders who feel that Jesus threatens their positions -- accuse him of healing in the name of the devil. It’s an insult. They think that they are the only one’s allowed to represent God. They insist that they alone have the full and complete accounts of reality. They leave little room for debate or difference of opinion. They expect unflinching loyalty from their followers. They try to discredit Jesus by saying he’s in league with the powers of evil.

But Jesus has come to clean house. Jesus leads the revolt against the powers that keep people trapped. Jesus turns things around on the religious leaders. Jesus says, “Ignorance can be forgivable. Failure can be turned around. However, using religion to turn human liberation into something odious is not pardonable. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to see when God does something real before your very eyes.”

Jesus engages in a battle of one-upmanship. His opponents are the ones who are against God. They are captives to their need for power. They smother God’s effort to make broken people whole. And when you intentionally do that, you bypass the grace of God.

Think again about the faith commitments you have made – and perhaps failed at. Maybe we fall short in our quests for transformation because we are looking for Jesus to take something bad in us and make it good. Jesus did not come to make a bad people good. Jesus came to bring dead people to life. We can be good but not alive. There are a lot of people who are morally pure, but they have no life, no joy, no celebration. If our faith is not marked by raw, passionate love, then we are no better than the close-minded religionists that Jesus corrected.

Author Shane Claiborne tells a story about living in intentional poverty with some friends in Chicago. He headed out one night to get a loaf of bread in an area notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle. He walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a tattered and cold woman on crutches, selling herself to make some money. On the way home, he saw the woman again, crying and shivering. He knew he could not pass her by. Shane stopped and told her that he cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks in an alley. He brought her to the house he lived with his friends. As soon as they entered the house, the woman wept hysterically. When she gained composure, she looked at everyone in the house and said, “You are all Christians, aren’t you?” Up to this point, no one had said anything about God or Jesus. There were no crosses in the house – not even a Christian fish on the wall. She said, “I know you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky. But it’s a cold dark world, and I lot my shine a little while back. I lost my shine on those streets. She asked these people to pray with her. They did. They prayed that this dark world would not take away their shine.

Weeks went by, and they did not see the woman. One day, there was a knock on the door. On the steps was a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. Shane stared at the woman, not recognizing her. She finally spoke. “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again. I’m shining.” He finally realized that she was the same woman he pulled off the streets. She talked about how she had fallen in love with God again and she wanted to give him something to thank him for his hospitality. She said, “When I was on the streets, I lost everything, except this.” She pulled out a box, confessing that she smoked a lot and always collected Marlboro Miles points from the cigarette packs. “This is all I have, but I want you to have it.” She handed Shane the box filled with hundreds of Marlboro Miles. Shane says, “It’s one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.” He uses them as bookmarks in his Bible. Every time he sees them, he is reminded of all the broken lives that have lost their shine.

When people tell me that they have rejected God, I say, “Tell me about the God you have rejected.” They usually describe a God of condemnation, of laws and lightening bolts, a frowning, gray-haired God who enjoys boring committee meetings. You know what? I have rejected that God, too.

The bottom line is that piling guilt upon ourselves does nothing to correct the source of our real problem. Know this and believe this. God wants you to shine again. You are guilty of nothing. God loves you. God loves you more than any of us can even begin to fathom. You are a bright and clean spirit in God’s eyes and the only one who sees this differently is you. God already accepts you for who you are, and God is not going to punish you while you struggle to live the life of faith. Jesus Christ shows us that God makes broken people whole, and that there is nothing you will ever do that can put you outside the boundaries of God’s love.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sermon for September 16, 2007

The Unforgivable Sin
Matthew 12:22-37

Three ministers and their wives got into a car crash and died one day. They found themselves standing at the pearly gates together before St. Peter. St. Peter opened his big book, pointed to the first minister, and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

“What? Why?” cried the minister.

“Because you lusted after money. You never actually stole any money, but in your heart, you were constantly thinking about money. You had money on your mind so much that you even married a woman named Penny. So you’re going to Hell.” And in a puff of smoke, the first minister disappeared. St. Peter flipped a few pages in his book and pointed to the second minister. “You are also going to Hell,” he said sternly.

“Why?” said the anguished minister.

“Because of your love of alcohol. You never actually drank any alcohol, but you constantly yearned for it in your heart. You thought about it so much that you even married a woman named Brandy. So you’re going to Hell. “And in a puff of smoke, the second minister disappeared.

The third minister turned to his wife and said, “Well, Fanny, it’s been nice knowing you.”

Here’s something for us to think about today. Is God really like that? Does the God you worship enjoy the thought of damning you because of your faults? Does God ever get tired of our mistakes? Will God ever stop loving us? Can we ever move ourselves beyond the boundaries of God’s forgiveness?

Imagine this scenario. You come to worship and have a transforming experience. You make a decision to change some aspect of your life – to turn something around or do something better. You day to yourself, “This week, I’m going to be good.” It’s easy to be good in church, right? Walk out the doors into the so-called “real world” and what happens? If you are like me, then you blow it. Some dimwit upsets you and you lose your patience. Someone betrays you and you plot revenge. Someone hurts you and you want to hurt that person back. It’s not that we didn’t take our life-transforming commitments seriously. We meant them with all our heart. We want a new and changed life. But something gets in the way and trips us up. And so we go back to church, recommit ourselves to godly living, and then we go home and mess it up again.

How do you think God feels about this scenario? Does God lose patience? Will God punish us for not fulfilling our commitments? I grew up with a faith that said, “Yes, of course God will punish us!” My faith told me that all of us are guilty before God. All of us deserve to be punished. God does not allow certain kinds of behavior even if everyone does it. If everyone breaks the law of God, God holds everyone accountable. God would not be God if He (God was always “He”) allowed the punishment to be suspended. This means that sin must be punished. I was a very worried teenager and young adult. I just knew that God was terribly angry about the sin I was born with as well as the sins I committed. As a just judge, God would punish me, and all sinners, now and in eternity. We ourselves cannot hide the filth of sin; but we could be washed clean by grace. The Savior, Jesus Christ, stood between me and the awesome judgment of God. God sent Jesus to take my place. Jesus received the awful punishment for sin that you and I deserve. It is in Jesus that we see God’s justice and God’s mercy being displayed at the same time and in the same person. This is what I was taught. This is what I believed.

I was also taught that there was sin and there was unforgivable sin. If I ever did anything to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, I would earn a non-refundable one-way ticket to Hell. But what was blasphemy? I was taught to equate blasphemy with doubt. I was told that the original sin was doubt. The only way to reverse it was to have faith in Jesus. There was no doubting that Jesus died the death I deserved. It was sinful to doubt that Jesus performed miracles. I questioned how Jesus could be the one and only way to get to heaven, but I kept those thoughts to myself. I was taught that if the temptation of doubt troubled me it was because Satan was messing with me. But I always felt tortured. The more I tried not to think bad thoughts about Jesus, the more they flooded my mind. I had doubts. I was sure that I had committed the unforgivable sin.

I realize that not everyone has this problem. For instance, The Blasphemy Challenge continues to play on YouTube. People are encouraged to submit online videos saying their names and the words “I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit.” Some of the videos get right to the point. Some are quite vulgar. I saw a video of a man named Jim who filmed himself standing in the doorways of various local churches. At each church he proudly said, “My name is Jim. I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit and I’m not afraid.” He figures if there really were a God, he would be instantly punished for saying such callous words in a church. Since Jim is still alive, there must be no God.

What do you think? On the surface, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading sound clear: whoever blasphemes the Spirit will not be forgiven. Will Jim’s public blasphemy send him to eternal punishment? Can we ever do something that puts us beyond the reach of God’s love? Let’s take a moment to revisit our Gospel story.

A man is brought to Jesus. The man is blind and he cannot speak. People assume that demons have taken up residence in him. Jesus has compassion and heals the man. Jesus enters that which others see as unclean or defiled, and he brings new life. As soon as he’s done, the criticisms begin. Those who are in power—those religious leaders who feel that Jesus threatens their positions -- accuse him of healing in the name of the devil. It’s an insult. They think that they are the only one’s allowed to represent God. They insist that they alone have the full and complete accounts of reality. They leave little room for debate or difference of opinion. They expect unflinching loyalty from their followers. They try to discredit Jesus by saying he’s in league with the powers of evil.

But Jesus has come to clean house. Jesus leads the revolt against the powers that keep people trapped. Jesus turns things around on the religious leaders. Jesus says, “Ignorance can be forgivable. Failure can be turned around. However, using religion to turn human liberation into something odious is not pardonable. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to see when God does something real before your very eyes.”

Jesus engages in a battle of one-upmanship. His opponents are the ones who are against God. They are captives to their need for power. They smother God’s effort to make broken people whole. And when you intentionally do that, you bypass the grace of God.

Think again about the faith commitments you have made – and perhaps failed at. Maybe we fall short in our quests for transformation because we are looking for Jesus to take something bad in us and make it good. Jesus did not come to make a bad people good. Jesus came to bring dead people to life. We can be good but not alive. There are a lot of people who are morally pure, but they have no life, no joy, no celebration. If our faith is not marked by raw, passionate love, then we are no better than the close-minded religionists that Jesus corrected.

Author Shane Claiborne tells a story about living in intentional poverty with some friends in Chicago. He headed out one night to get a loaf of bread in an area notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle. He walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a tattered and cold woman on crutches, selling herself to make some money. On the way home, he saw the woman again, crying and shivering. He knew he could not pass her by. Shane stopped and told her that he cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks in an alley. He brought her to the house he lived with his friends. As soon as they entered the house, the woman wept hysterically. When she gained composure, she looked at everyone in the house and said, “You are all Christians, aren’t you?” Up to this point, no one had said anything about God or Jesus. There were no crosses in the house – not even a Christian fish on the wall. She said, “I know you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky. But it’s a cold dark world, and I lot my shine a little while back. I lost my shine on those streets. She asked these people to pray with her. They did. They prayed that this dark world would not take away their shine.

Weeks went by, and they did not see the woman. One day, there was a knock on the door. On the steps was a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. Shane stared at the woman, not recognizing her. She finally spoke. “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again. I’m shining.” He finally realized that she was the same woman he pulled off the streets. She talked about how she had fallen in love with God again and she wanted to give him something to thank him for his hospitality. She said, “When I was on the streets, I lost everything, except this.” She pulled out a box, confessing that she smoked a lot and always collected Marlboro Miles points from the cigarette packs. “This is all I have, but I want you to have it.” She handed Shane the box filled with hundreds of Marlboro Miles. Shane says, “It’s one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.” He uses them as bookmarks in his Bible. Every time he sees them, he is reminded of all the broken lives that have lost their shine.

When people tell me that they have rejected God, I say, “Tell me about the God you have rejected.” They usually describe a God of condemnation, of laws and lightening bolts, a frowning, gray-haired God who enjoys boring committee meetings. You know what? I have rejected that God, too.

The bottom line is that piling guilt upon ourselves does nothing to correct the source of our real problem. Know this and believe this. God wants you to shine again. You are guilty of nothing. God loves you. God loves you more than any of us can even begin to fathom. You are a bright and clean spirit in God’s eyes and the only one who sees this differently is you. God already accepts you for who you are, and God is not going to punish you while you struggle to live the life of faith. Jesus Christ shows us that God makes broken people whole, and that there is nothing you will ever do that can put you outside the boundaries of God’s love.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sermon for September 16, 2007

Reviver of the Dead
Matthew 12:9-14

This morning, I invite us to hear, with fresh ears, a story about Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew says, “Then Jesus went over to the synagogue, where he noticed a man with a withered hand.”

I went to High School with a girl who suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. She rode a scooter from class to class because she could barely walk. Her body was frail and tortured. I always remember her hands. They were usually bandaged. However, on the rare occasion her gauze wrappings were off, we saw her swollen, blistered, and twisted hands. I’m embarrassed to say, we were not kind to this girl. She was ridiculed and mocked without mercy. She was different. She was an easy target. School must not have been a safe place for her. She was one of our schools outcasts, excluded by those of us who felt that she did not belong among us healthy and robust teenagers.

I imagine life was hard for the man with the withered hand in today’s gospel reading. In Jesus’ day, a person’s deformities were seen as a symbol of that person’s sin, or the sin of the family. He was treated like an outcast. His physical deformity made him unclean, polluted, out of place.

I’ve learned something since High School. We all have withered hands. We all face those moments in life when we are down and out. We all face times when we feel out of place and out of reach. We all face moments when we wonder if others really know us. Sometimes we wonder if we are loved with our faults and not despite them. Devastating event traumatized us. Our hearts shatter because of a loved one's infidelity or a role model's hypocrisy or a friend's dishonesty. We swell with fear when we hear about cancer or other illnesses. For some, this is the beginning of cynicism. Cynics stand back in contemptuous criticism, no longer surrendering their trust to others. But no one is born a cynic—we become cynics, shaped into being by our wounds. Inside the most jaded cynic is a tender idealist who cannot bear this world’s brutality.
Yes, at some point, we all have withered hands, withered hopes, withered relationships, and withered lives. You would think that we might be able to turn to religion to help us out. But sometimes, all religion gives us is withered faith. Listen to what happens when Jesus begins to heal the man with the withered hand.

The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)

Every religion has them. They are the people whose dominant concern is to keep the faith pure. When I was ordained to ministry 10 year ago, I made a promise to promote the peace, unity, and purity of the church. What an impossible task! When I promote peace and unity, I open my arms wide in unquestioning acceptance of another. When I promote purity, I need to filter out any who might defile or contaminate our traditions. We can’t have it both ways. One side of the boundary is embrace -- the will to give ourselves to others, to welcome them, to readjust our identities, and to make space for the other. On the other side of the boundary is the struggle against deception, injustice and violence.

People like the Pharisees tried to enforce purity in others. However, enforced purity is really a form of exclusion. It stems from a belief that the source of evil lies outside of a person without taking into account that evil also lives inside a person in an impure heart.

Exclusion is alive and well in religious life. Historically, religions excluded others through elimination. Christians had crusades and inquisitions. Muslims had Jihad. I wish this was still history, but we still see the shameless brutality of religious elimination in places like Darfur and Iraq. The more benign side of exclusion by elimination is exclusion by assimilation. This happens in churches all the time. We say, “You can survive, even thrive among us if you become like us. You can keep your life if you give up your identity.

Religious purists also exclude through domination. They will think of others as inferior and then exploit them. Another form of exclusion is called abandonment or indifference. In the name of purity, we keep a safe distance from those who are beneath us so that they won’t contaminate us.

Exclusion and purity rules expose our withered faith. We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs the boundaries or disturbs our identities. We want to remove the dirt and restore a sense of propriety in the world. Is this what we really want -- scrupulously and tenuously clutching a shriveled faith system that gains strength only by making distinctions between us and them, insider and outsider, righteous and sinner?

How would Jesus deal with this – the Pharisees in and among us who want to focus on rules rather than relationships? Well, here is how Matthew continues the story . . .

Jesus answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.”

Jesus knew the answer before he asked it. He knew that unless one’s life was in danger, it was absolutely forbidden to heal on the Sabbath because it was regarded as an act of work. But Jesus was wise. He said there is no time so sacred that it cannot be used for helping someone in pain. In the eyes of Jesus, there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one—one nature, one flesh, one grief, and one hope.

Harold Kushner writes, “Life is not a trap set for us by God, so that He can condemn us for failing. Life is not a spelling bee, where no matter how many words you have gotten right, if you make one mistake you are disqualified. Life is more like baseball season, where even the best team loses one third of its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. Our goal is not to go all year without every losing a game. Our goal is to win more than we lose, and if we can do that consistently enough, then when the end comes, we will have won it all . . . But at the end, if we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in another’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know.”

Jesus was brave enough to love, strong enough to forgive, and wise enough to show God’s love. Listen to what he does next.

Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one!

If you were here last week, I said that Matthew wrote his gospel as a liturgical text. Jewish Christians wanted to hear stories about Jesus during their worship services, so Matthew took stories about Jesus and lined them up with events in the Jewish calendar. The next event on the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. It starts Friday at sundown. In Matthew’s church, this reading from Matthew 12 would have been read at Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is day that reminds worshippers of their alienation and their need to be right with God and other people. Yom Kippur is the day when God is reconciled with creation. It’s a day for God to be merciful, to pardon, to cleanse and to forgive. It’s the day when God revives the dead.

Early Christians understood Jesus through the lens of Yom Kippur. Jesus enters that which the world deems as impure and restores the victims to wholeness. Jesus walks into the realm of sickness. He cleanses and redeems withered people who need a touch from God.

I just need to ask you – are there any withered-hand people out there today? Outcasts who feel out of place? Any who feel rejected or misunderstood. Any who have been made to feel like dirt? Is there anyone here who is hurting? Are you sick? Are you unsure of the future? Are you tired of being asked to give up who you are in order to become what someone else wants you to be? Are you living a life of withered hands? Withered hopes? Withered relationships. Withered faith?

If so, then I invite you to come. This morning, I offer anointing with oil as a symbol of God’s love, forgiveness, and blessing. As we sing the hymn, you are invited to come forward and receive the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. We use oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit who us here in this place, bringing us to wholeness and unity. You can receive anointing and a word of blessing, or just one. If you choose to remain in your seats, I ask that you do so prayerfully.

We all need a touch from Jesus – the Reviver of The Dead. Jesus revives dead hands and dead religion. Jesus gives us life. If you would like to receive anointing and prayer as a statement of your desire for healing, wholeness – if you would like to have tangible symbol of God’s love, please come.

Sermon for September 9, 2007

“Therefore You Shall Choose Life”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 11:1-6

In a tiny house lived a mother and her two children — a girl and a boy. The mother loved her children and worked hard to support them. Their house was very small — barely big enough for the three of them — but it had a little yard. In that little yard, the family had a modest garden that provided some food. They had a couple of chickens that gave them eggs. And in that small yard they had a duck. The duck was precious. The duck would one day be dinner for the little family.

On one spring day, the boy was in the tiny backyard throwing rocks, as little boys like to do. His young hands were barely as big as the rocks he threw, and his aim was not as sure as his desire. For a while, he threw them at a mark on the fence, missing it nearly every time. Then a voice from somewhere inside him told him to throw a rock at the duck. He threw the rock, and for once his aim was true. He killed that duck.

The boy was horrified. In panic, he began thinking about how to cover up his mistake when his sister came out from behind the chicken coop. “I saw you throw that rock,” she said, “and I saw you kill that duck.” The boy looked at his sister with fear as she said to him, “I won’t tell Mama what you did, but you have to do something for me. You have to pull me around the neighborhood in our wagon this summer.” And the boy, conquered by fear and shame, agreed. All summer, he pulled his little sister around in the wagon. Around the yard. Around the house. Around the neighborhood. He would be playing with his friends when his little sister would appear and say three words, “Pull the wagon.” And he would. Or he would be reading on the back steps when he’d hear those words, “Pull the wagon.” And he would. All summer he bore the weight of his guilt and his shame in that wagon.

One particularly hot August day, the boy had been pulling his sister around in the wagon all
day. In a spare moment, he went into the house for a glass of water. He saw his mother standing at the sink, washing the dishes. She greeted him warmly, and returned to her work. He sidled up to her quietly as she stood at the sink, and leaned his little body against hers, his head barely reaching her waist.

“Mama,” the boy began, tears beginning to stream down his face. “I killed your duck. I killed him, Mama. I didn’t mean to. I was throwing rocks and I hit him. I know it was wrong. I am so sorry, Mama. I am so sorry.” The little boy could barely stand, so deep was his grief and his shame, so strong was his sorrow. The mother looked down at the boy. She wiped her hands on her apron, and knelt down and drew her son into her arms. “Son,” she said. “I know you killed that duck. I was standing here at this window when it happened. And I’ve watched you pull that wagon all over creation this summer. I have been waiting for you to tell me. I love you. I forgive you. All is well between us.”

Well, the boy felt so freed up that his feet rose off the ground and the top of his head nearly touched the sky. Just then, his little sister came in, looking for him. When she saw him, she barked the words that had kept the boy imprisoned all summer: “Pull the wagon.” The boy turned to her, looked her squarely in the eye and said, “Little sister, I have gone to Mama and I have gotten my duck business fixed. I am not pulling that wagon anymore.”

Are you pulling a wagon load of something around this morning? Does shame weigh your feet down and prevent you from full life? Has your heart been deprived of dancing?

We all need some healing. Every one of us needs forgiveness in order to take on new life. However, just because we need it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard to come to God -- not humiliated but with humility -- and to admit our failings. Our deep difficulty with repentance makes it almost impossible for us to feel forgiven. Repentance is probably one of the bitterest words in the lexicon of manipulation. Churches and church leaders have used this word to shame, divide, hurt, and cast out. This word has been used to plant the corrosive idea that our very beings are not good -- that God created us bad and we’ll never be good enough. That’s not what we’re talking about today.

Let me be clear about this: carrying around guilt and shame is not about God. It is about us. Like Mama in the story I told, God waits at the window, watching, hoping. As long as we pull the wagon, as long as we decide to haul our heavy burdens around, we cannot accept that love. We are the ones holding onto the troubles. We are afraid that if we admit we did something wrong, we will give up our last shred of pride and we won’t have anything left. So we get stuck. You have to give up your old comfortable life of pain to get the new uncomfortable life of joy.

There is a Jewish holiday coming up this Thursday at sundown. It’s called Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. The holiday begins with the blast of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The blast calls worshipers to a period of eight days of self-examination known as “The Days of Awe.” This time of reflection and repentance prepares worshipers for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is a season to examine the hearts to see if one is truly living for God as we should.

We could use a little Rosh Hashanah in our lives – some time to think about our dead ducks and the wagons we pull out of fear, or shame or embarrassment -- to think about how we have devalued our selves, and our fellow human beings -- to prepare ourselves for the task of asking forgiveness and making things right. It’s about choosing life.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear something about the call to new life by giving up tired ways of living. Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe or teacher who wrote to a group of Jewish worshipers who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. The people who first heard Matthew’s Gospel would have known all about Rosh Hashanah. They would have been listening for the blast of the shofar. In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist is the human shofar who calls people to new beginnings. Imagine this scene: a group of early Jews who have become Christians. Its about 100 AD. Their lives are knit into the Jewish calendar. When they go to their churches, they want to hear stories about Jesus during their Sabbath services. So Matthew may have written his gospel to be read during the Jewish liturgical year. The reading for Rosh Hashanah in Matthew’s church would have been this episode from chapter 11. In today’s reading, John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the One – the expected Messiah. Jesus answers by quoting Isaiah. “The blind see, the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!” This is the Rosh Hashanah message. When you look to Jesus, you will see the signs and know that the kingdom of God is at hand.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, God says these words: “Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you Life and Good, Death and Evil. Choose life so that you and your children will live.” What else can we do?

What else can we do when we run out of gas? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when life seems barren and drained of color and taste, when the landscape that used to thrill us with its beauty, now lies before us flat and dull? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when we finally admit to ourselves that we really don’t care about the things we used to care about anymore? Yet here we are in the life or the job or the marriage that we got into when we did care; here we are, daily required to promote feelings and principles that we once fervently believed, but which we now no longer believe. What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when we are daily afflicted with a sense of having sold out-- of going through the motions, of doing something we don’t really believe in? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when our life becomes characterized by a sense of meaninglessness, by a loss of passion, by fatigue and depression? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do, that is, besides drink ourselves into oblivion, drug ourselves insensate, drown ourselves in shopping or television or sports, or try to simulate passion for objects instead of relationships? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when our religious life begins to feel this way; when we avoid God out of fear or shame. What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when worship no longer brings us into a sense of communion with God? What else can we do when the words of our prayers no longer mean anything to us, but rather, grate on us? What else can we do? Choose life.

And what if we tell God what we’ve really done and how we’re really feeling and God gets angry? Or shames us? Or exposes us as nasty fakers? If you’ve ever been shamed by parents, or spouses, or teachers, or coaches, you may not deeply, honestly believe that God is like no one else. If you’ve been the tool to someone else’s pride, you may not believe that God can love you and expect nothing else in return.

Listen to the good news. God is fully invested in you. Jesus has come to give sight to those who cannot see their way to wholeness. Jesus speaks a word of love to those whose ears have become deafened by the abuse of others. Those who feel crippled by life can get up and walk. Those who feel dead can now choose life so that they may live.

God forgives you already. It is up to you to make room and receive that love. If you want healing, you have to admit you are broken. If you want God’s grace and love, you have to admit you need it. And your God, who loved you since before you were born, your God who is standing at the window watching you pull your wagon, your God is waiting for you to be loved, forgiven, and healed. Trust God to love you and forgive you like no one else can, for God in Christ loves even you, and nothing will ever change that.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...