Friday, January 26, 2007

Sermon for January 21, 2007

The Lord’s Prayer: Give Us Our Daily Bread
Matthew 14:13-21

Imagine the bread aisle at your grocery store. When you think about it, there’s a lot of bread there. In a major grocery store, the aisle is probably 45 feet long with 6 or 7 shelves. Think of the variety of starches in that bread aisle: light and flaky croissants; solid and sturdy bagels, thin a baguettes, wide flatbread, twisted or braided, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. You will see hot dog and hamburger buns in many shapes and sizes. And rolls. There are hard rolls, French rolls, sour dough rolls, dinner rolls, and crescent rolls. Then there are the actual loaves of bread. We have twelve-grain breads, nine-grain breads, eight-grain breads, and the numbers of grains slowly decline until we get to the Wonder Bread – that miracle of modern refinement in its whitest of wrappings. Wonder Bread itself comes in three varieties: Big, Small, and Thin slices. Make sure you notice all the other varieties of bread; Rye – with our without the seeds, Pumpernickel, Sourdough, Italian, French, Raisin, Whole Wheat, Irish Soda, Pita and Potato. And there’s the strangest of all – lo-carb bread. I just don’t get that one. Lastly comes the best and most dangerous part of the bread aisle: the boxed cakes like Ring Dings and Ding Dongs and Twinkies and Zingers; Brownies, and Freihofer’s and Entenmann’s Cakes. Thus ends forty-five feet of the bread section in our family superstore and we are reminded of the fact that America is often called the “breadbasket of the world.”

Next time you walk down that bread aisle, I want you to look at the abundance we have, and turn it into a prayer. I want you to think of the petition in the Lord’s prayer when we ask God to give us this day our daily bread, and I want you to give thanks to Jesus who says that he is the bread of life. Jesus, with his abundant love for ALL people, is so good. His love and way of life are so satisfying. I want you to give thanks that the infinite, compassionate love of Jesus tastes good.

We have a reminder of Jesus’ goodness in today’s scripture reading where he does a miracle with bread. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle repeated in all four gospels. The day Jesus fed the multitude was the day that some learned what it meant for God to supply their daily bread. Let’s listen to the passage and reflect on how God provides our needs.

Think about the feeding of the 5000 from the disciple’s point of view. They are tired. Crowds have jostled them around all day long. They’ve accompanied Jesus as he preaches and heals people with tireless energy. When evening comes, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away. “Jesus, tell all these people to go out to eat somewhere – to go home and get some rest. A little peace and quiet would feel so good.” That’s when Jesus pulls out the most disappointing statement of the day. He looks at his disciples and says, “These people aren’t going anywhere. I want YOU to give them something to eat. Now the excuses begin to fly. The disciples complain, “But, but, we only have five loaves of bread and two fish. How can WE food 5000 people?”

The complaint of the disciples is the response of the ages. It’s what people say when they feel overwhelmed by the world around them.

It’s the response of the parent worried about her child. The child has so many peers who exert so much pressure. The child’s friends seem to have more power and influence than the family. The child has so many temptations to face. Sometimes, parents are afraid to send their kids to school. We feel helpless when we realize that we can’t ensure the safety of our children, and we ask, “What are we to do? How are we going to raise our kids with such limited resources?” Like the disciples of old we cry, “This seems impossible. It’s as if we have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.”

It’s the response of the spouse who desperately tries to make a troubled marriage work – a spouse who grows weary of feeling like the only partner in the relationship. The spark is gone. The couple doesn’t talk anymore. Their bodies might be in the same room, but their minds are always somewhere else. Hungry for a rekindling of passion, the couple is left saying, “We don’t know where to go from here. We feel limited and we don’t know how to make this work. This seems impossible. It’s as if we have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.”

It is the response of a teen who finds life at school so demanding that he or she no longer knows how to cope. A while ago, a teen wrote a letter to Ann Landers, responding to someone who had lived through the Depression and had described how hard it was to live in the 1930’s. The older person thought life was easier for teens today. The student responded by writing, “Are your parents divorced? Almost every one of my friends comes from a broken home. Where you thinking about suicide when you were twelve? Did you have an ulcer when you were sixteen? Did your classmates carry guns and knives? How many kids in your class came to school regularly drunk, stoned, or high on drugs? What percentage of your class also graduated from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center? Did your school have armed security guards in the halls? You talk a lot about being dirt poor and having no money. Since when does money mean happiness? The kids at school who have expensive cards and designer clothes are the most miserable. When I am your age, I won’t do much looking back. I’ll just thank God I survived.” What are teens to do in schools that are battlegrounds? How can they cope when they feel as if they don’t have the resources to survive in the world? They cry out “This seems impossible. It’s as if we have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.”

If we look hard enough, I think we’ll discover a place in each of our lives where we don’t feel like we gave to ability to do what God asks of us. We lack energy. It’s hard to muster faith. Yet, we wait for God to do something remarkable with our struggles. We hunger for God to sustain us with daily bread and give us what we need to make it through life.

“Lord, we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It’s a good excuse. We can’t make something out of nothing, no matter how hard we try. The good news for us today is that God can. Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” They ask, “How?” And Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” He looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples, and the disciples feed the crowds, and everyone eats until satisfied.

Some commentators like to spiritualize this passage. They say it has to do with Jesus breaking the bread of communion, or God meeting our needs for spiritual nourishment. I say, why go that far? The people were hungry, and when it looked like they were going to go without food for the night Jesus fed them. He supplied exactly what they needed at that moment. Jesus knows our needs. Jesus knows that we have groceries to buy, rent and mortgages to pay, clothes to purchase, and bills of every sort to pay. Jesus reminds us that God knows us – our desires and hungers, the daily pains, the thousands of trifles that dampen our spirits. God knows the numerous little joys by which we keep on going. Jesus comes to meet us right here in the midst of everyday life. He gives us our daily bread, and he does not demand that we approach him only when we have managed to rise above the trials of day-to-day living. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray for the help to rely on God for all of our needs. God gives us what we need in order to flourish in this life. God provides it all.

What good news for you moms and dads who wonder, “Do have what it takes not only to be an adequate parent, but a good one?” The answer is no – you don’t have what it takes. At best, we only have five loaves and two fish. But we have a Savior who says, “Bring them to me – your skills and your weaknesses, your strengths and your fears, your children and their futures. Bring them to me, and I will help you meet the daunting task of parenting.”

This is good news for the spouses in troubled marriages, and for the students who feel like they are always swimming upstream. It’s good news for people of conscience who feel called to take a risky stance on an unpopular issue. It’s good news for the person who wants to change the world but doesn’t know how it’s ever going to happen. Christ says to all, “Bring them to me – your hopes, your dreams and convictions, your burdens, your challenges and responsibilities.” The One who fed the multitude with someone’s lunch can do it again – even with the meager resources at our disposal. When life get s the best of us, maybe it’s because we focus on how little we have instead of how much Christ can do.

God gives us what we need. As Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.

Jesus instructs us to pray saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We can pray knowing that God is ready and willing to give us all we need. Jesus looks at our five loaves and two fish and says, “Bring them to me.” Through Christ, God multiplies our resources and makes our lives abundant. The weary find rest, and the hungry are fed. God gives us what we need, and asks us to share the abundance of our blessings with everyone.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sermon for January 14, 2007

Thy Kingdom Come
Matthew 7:12-27

Have you ever prayed to get something that you thought you wanted more than anything else? Maybe you’ve pondered how much happier your life would be if you could have a certain item, or maybe be in a relationship with a certain person. Maybe you’ve stayed awake at night thinking how fulfilled you’d feel if you had the object of your heart’s desire. Now picture a time when you actually got what you wanted. Have you ever been sorry that you got what you asked for? I remember when I was a little boy. All my friends seemed to have exotic animals like snakes and iguanas. I decided that I needed a turtle. For days, I asked my parents if I could have a pet turtle. Well, one day my dad came home with a cardboard box, and inside was a little painted turtle. Now you’d think I would have picked it up and taken it for a walk, or played with it, or fed it, or something. The moment I laid eyes on that creepy-looking, hard shelled menace, I started screaming in fear. The day before I begged and pleaded for that turtle, and the moment I finally got it I was terrified. My father let the turtle go near the brook in our back yard, and I cried all night long.

I got thinking about prayer and the lives of lottery winners. Have you ever bought a lottery ticket and prayed to God that this be your moment to win a life-changing amount of money. Did you ever think that your life might change for the worse of you win? Evelyn Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice, to the sum of $5.4 million. Today the money is all gone and Adams lives in a trailer. Adams says, "I won the American dream but I lost it, too. It was a very hard fall. It's called rock bottom. Everybody wanted my money. Everybody had their hand out . . . . I wish I had the chance to do it all over again. I'd be much smarter about it now," Adams lost her money at the slot machines in Atlantic City. You think, “That wouldn’t happen to me. But, for many people, sudden money can cause disaster. Winners worry about robberies after spotting strangers gawking at their homes. Calls get screened to weed out lawyers, financial advisers and car dealers with sales pitches. And family, friends and strangers beg for cash to fix their problems. One Southeastern family won $4.2 million in the early '90s. They bought a huge house and succumbed to repeated family requests for help in paying off debts. The house, cars and relatives ate the whole pot. Eleven years later, the couple is divorcing, the house is sold and they have to split what is left of the lottery proceeds. The wife got a very small house. The husband has moved in with the kids. Even the life insurance they bought was cashed in. The lottery was not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

When we pray, we don’t think about the consequences of our requests. Some of us desire to be more like Jesus, but we aren’t so sure when it means taking up our cross and following him. Some of us want to be more loving, but we forget that it means reaching out to the unlovable and loving our enemies. Another example is when we pray the words, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” We mumble those words every week in church, but do we think about the crucial impact tat these words can have on our lives? What does it really mean to ask God for the kingdom of heaven to come to earth?

We might as well start with some clarity about just what God’s Kingdom is. Jesus talked about God’s Kingdom a lot. In fact, Jesus began his public ministry by saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus wasn’t talking about forming an earthly empire. Jesus proclaimed his sovereignty in the hearts of God's people (John 18:36). God’s kingdom could only be entered by making a 180-degree turn from the old life -- believing in Jesus’ words and following his example. The Kingdom of God is not a stagnant concept. It was established by Christ, and continues to grow until Christ returns. The Kingdom of God is here at this moment in the Church, in the hearts and lives of those who are true followers of Christ. The true kingdom has always been made up of those in whose heart Christ dwells through faith.

Nothing can compare with being part of God’s rule on earth. The problem is that when something is desirable, we often want all the benefits without having to put in any effort. It’s that genie in the lamp syndrome. We fantasize about how great life would be if God would simply answer our wishes without us having to do any of the work to achieve our goal. Jesus recognized this problem in his own day. There were teachers who wanted all the benefits of God’s kingdom. They wanted to be able to claim God’s love and salvation. They wanted to call themselves Christians, but they didn’t want to do what it took to align their lives with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus says that these people are going to stand before him one day and cry out, “Lord, Lord,” as if it’s a secret password into the Kingdom. They’ll say, “Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God sponsored projects had everyone talking.” You’d expect that Jesus would say, “Great work. You’re in.” However, Jesus surprises these fakers. He says, “Yeah, that’s all fine. You did a bunch of great things, but you never took the time to know me. All you did was use my name to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit.” Their words are impressive but their words don’t match their actions. On the outside, they look and sounded like respectable Christians. On the inside, something is missing.

We can’t pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” without also praying, “Thy will be done.” We are actually asking God to increase the kingdom through our obedience to God’s will. I heard a story about a farmer who noticed a sign by the local airport that said: Experience the thrill of flying. The farmer thought to himself, “Tomorrow is my wife's birthday. I’d love for her to experience the thrill of flying.” The pilot went into the airport and found a pilot who would take the couple on a plane ride. He owned a small open cockpit plane that would certainly give the farmer’s wife a thrill, but the price was too high. The farmer bartered with the pilot for a long time. Finally, the pilot agreed to lower the price on one condition: the farmer and his wife had to promise not to say a single word during the entire flight. One word spoken aloud, however small, would increase the price to the pilot’s original fee. The farmer’s determination to give his wife the thrill of flying was only surpassed by his determination to spend as little money as possible, so he agreed. The next morning the three of them took off. The pilot knew if he did a few dips and turns the couple would soon speak. With that in mind he dropped, turned, climbed, dived, and even did a few loops. Not a sound was uttered from the couple. Not a scream. Not even a whimper. Just silence. As they were landing the pilot was amazed at his passengers’ determination. He said, “I can't believe you didn’t say something up there. I guess you win.” The old farmer shouted back, “Well, you almost won. I sure felt like hollerin’ when my wife fell out.”

The old farmer was determined to get what he wanted on his own terms. We can be a lot like that. We let pride and stubbornness get in the way of doing what is right. We say, “Jesus, we hear you calling, but we’re determined to do it our own way. Just tell us where we need to end up, and we’ll draw our own map. We'll consider your advice, though, and if we think it’s any good, we might just follow your suggestions.” It sounds so silly, doesn’t it? Is this how you’re supposed to approach the God of the universe? We think we can dictate the terms of our obedience to God. God has already drawn up the terms, and his expectation is always obedience. Jesus says, “You follow me! I'll do the leading.” The Gospels repeatedly insist that the members of Christ’s Kingdom are those who obey him. It does no good to hail Jesus saying, “Lord, Lord,” to honor God’s name in doctrine, hymn, and prayer, if you don’t match your life up to your words.

If we are going to pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” then we need to be willing to be led where Christ leads us.

Growing number of people who are sensing some inconsistency between what we proclaim and how we live. Let’s call them conflicted idealists. They have a vision of making he world a better place, but they can only see the destination without any idea of a route. I talk to people who are looking for another way to live life—those who want to shout the gospel with their lives, but aren’t sure what to do. How do you live as a responsible Christian in the world? How do we bring the values of God’s Kingdom to bear in our personal lives, our families, and our culture? They ask, “What is the cost of obedience?” They want to see their prayers in action, but realize that the work is hard and the cost is great. They also realize that doing nothing is more costly.

I want to begin astudy group of people who struggle with these issues as I do. I'm thinking of a group that will meet once a month to reflect on issues like simplicity, social justice, humane living, and spiritual activism. We will study, share, experiment with living out our values and ideals, and then share what did and didn't work with the group. If you are interested in being part of this Simplicity Study Group, please let me know.

The Kingdom of God is where Jesus Christ is. And Jesus Christ lingers in the darkest places in the world. Jesus sits with the lonely and dejected. He holds the isolated and depressed. He grieves with those who suffer loss. He understands the plight of the homeless and the refugees. The Kingdom of God appears precisely at the place where there is blindness, leprosy, lameness, and death. This is what makes obedience so difficult. We are called to follow Christ, but Jesus stands with those whom we typically don’t associate. He is loving them with unconditional acceptance, and calling us to demonstrate God’s kingdom by doing the same.

We can have great programs and smooth words. We can stand before Jesus and say, “Lord, Lord, wasn’t I a deacon, or a trustee, or a Sunday School teacher, a minister? Didn’t I give my money, and get involved in the community? Didn’t I try to be a good-natured Christian? Didn’t I put a Christian fish, a yellow ribbon and an American flag on the back bumper of my car?” There’s nothing wrong with any of these positions in themselves, but the Kingdom of God is more than having titles on a resume. It’s following Christ to the places where no one else wants to go, and loving others with clear words and meaningful actions. We don’t do it or to win a popularity contest. We don’t do it to gain the admiration of others. Like the women at McDonald’s we need to be obedient so that God may work through us to give another person hope.

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” What challenging words. I’m not going to pretend that the values of Christ’s kingdom are easy to uphold. Obedience is hard. I struggle with it every day of my life. Each new day presents itself with new opportunities, new choices. I will have contact with a dozen people, and every word that comes out of my mouth is coupled with a choice to be there for me or to be there for someone else. I need to decide, will I do what I want, or what Jesus wants? Will I serve God or myself today? And to be honest, many times I choose myself. Sometimes I’m more comfortable following my own way and feeding my own desires. Maybe it’s the same with you. May God save us from just talking about all the impressive Christian things we do if it is at the expense of actually meeting Christ and the people he chooses to associate with.

"8 lottery winners who lost their millions at

Jim Davis, “The Nature of Christ's Kingdom,”

Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993),21. 2

John Bright, The Kingdom of God (New York: Abingdon, 1953), 218, 219, 220, 223.

Russell Metcalf, "Entering the Kingdom,"

Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father (New York: Harper& Brothers, 1960),60,61. 5

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sermon for January 7, 2007

The Lord’s Prayer: Hallowed Be Thy Name
Matthew 6:5-9

Have you ever noticed that the biggest impact is often made with the fewest words. For example, the Lord’s Prayer has 66 words, and it is the model for all Christian prayer. The Gettysburg address has 286 words and it’s considered one of the most eloquent documents of American history. The Declaration of Independence has only 1322 words. The United States Government Regulations on the Sale of Cabbage as 26,911 words. Think about it.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus says do not babble, thinking that if we say just the right words, and a lot of them, then God will answer our prayers. Sometimes the biggest impact is made with the fewest words. However, for many of us the problem is not our long prayers. I think the problem is that we don’t pray much at all. In the hurry of our lives, it is hard to quiet down and spend time in silent reflection and adoration of God. Sometimes we become restless and agitated. The duty of prayer loses its importance in our lives. We need to pray more than ever before, yet in our business it does not become a priority. So, how is your prayer life this morning?

Quite often, people tell me that they don’t know how to pray. They don’t have the right words. They don’t know where to go to learn the language of prayer. Jesus addresses this problem in today’s Scripture reading. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he responds by teaching them a prayer that we now call the Lord’s Prayer. It could also be called the model prayer or the disciple’s prayer. I don’t think that Jesus intended his prayer to be a ritual of meaningless repetition. Jesus taught this prayer as a guide or a model rather then a prescribed set of words that need to be repeated exactly. Over the next few weeks we are going to examine the Lord’s Prayer in detail and look to this model prayer for some ideas on how our own prayer lives can be revitalized.

Jesus begins his model prayer with the words, “Our Father in Heaven.” Jesus has only uttered a few short words and we are already in a storm of controversy. Isn’t this word Father just another patriarchal concept alleging that God is a male and not a female deity? It’s important to realize that the God of the Bible incorporates and transcends our sexual categories. We have many male images of God, but we also have female images of God. In Isaiah God suckles Israel like a nursing mother. Jesus says to Jerusalem, “How often I would have gathered your a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” How you choose to address God in prayer is entirely up to you. I really don’t think you will offend God. More than how you address God, here’s what I want to know: Are you secure in God’s love for you? Jesus called God his Abba. It’s an Aramaic word that’s best translated as Daddy. Jesus approached God with that kind of affection. You have to realize, people in Jesus’ day did not think about God as a warm and approachable parent figure. They thought of God more as a king, sitting on a throne on the most majestic mountain in Jerusalem. God was always worshipped, but not always loved. When Jesus starts his prayer with “Daddy!,” he says, “God is ready to listen to you. Draw near.”

I once read about a man named Frank who could not pray. Frank felt like his words thudded against a brick wall. He couldn’t remember God ever answering his prayers. As he reflected, he realized that when he thought of God he saw the face of his earthly father – good and honest but also quiet and shy. Dad was a man who rarely spoke to his children and never told them that he loved them. Frank’s story resonates with some of the comments I hear. Some of the saddest conversations I have are with people who day, “I can’t pray these words, “Our Father” because of the kind of person I had as an earthly father. He belittled me. He didn’t have time for me. He abused me. How do you expect me to pray “Our Father?” When Frank admitted that his earthly father was weak, and that he even failed the family, Frank was able to forgive and accept his dad. This recognition opened up a completely new dimension in his relationship with God. He had more faith to pray because he realized that God did hear him. Frank soon sensed God’s presence and guidance in his life.

Jesus says that God, as our heavenly parent, knows what we need even before we ask. So often we don’t know our deepest needs. How many times have we prayed for foolish things when we need something very different? We are naked, and instead of praying for clothing we pray for comfort. We are imprisoned by passions and sinful desires, and we pray for wall-to-wall carpeting for our cells. Jesus says, “You can talk all you want in your prayers. You can chatter on, and argue, and put on a good show for others. But, not for one second will God be diverted from the one theme in your life from which you keep running. Not for one moment does God lose sight of the real need in your life – the one thing you don’t like to talk about. God knows what you need, and God knows what is good for you. So, be calm and confident. Be at peace and know that as you pray, God knows what’s best.

God knows us, and hears us, and calls us into communion. Prayer is the way we respond to these gifts. When we begin to pray, we don’t inform God about the important matters of our lives. That comes later. First, Jesus encourages us to worship. Jesus modeled this by saying, “Hallowed be Thy name.” “Hallowed” is one of those words that we grow up saying in church, but we never use it in daily conversation. It means to greatly honor, to treat as holy, or to hold set apart with reverence.

When I think about things that are hallowed in our society today, I think about the Declaration of Independence. If you go to the National Archives today, you’ll walk through dimmed lights across a marble hall. There is a hushed silence in the room. At the front, there’s an altar to the Declaration. We are told that every night, the founding documents of our country are lowered into a vault designed to withstand an atomic blast. But do you why the lights are dimmed? It’s because the Declaration of Independence is fading. For the first eighty or so years, the thing wasn’t really taken very seriously. In 1824, somebody wanted to make a copy, so a guy used a technique that stripped much of the ink of the paper. After that, it hung on a wall at the U.S. Patent Office, in full sunlight, dimming it even more. Even today, in many places the ink is gone.

But do you know why we venerate that document today? It’s because of Abraham Lincoln. At the height of the Civil War, when he needed to show that emancipation was a good thing, he decided to take people back to their roots. He reminded them of a single line in the preamble to the declaration: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He had to re-familiarize America people with their own idea of their identity. So, on a cold November morning, on a field at Gettysburg, Lincoln urged the country to take an increased measure of devotion. Those who fought at Gettysburg – living and dead – did so in order to preserve the union that afforded them rights -- That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People began to see the Declaration as important again. Not as a laundry list of demands on a dead king, but a reminder of our relationship to a God who endows us with grace.

So today, we spend millions of dollars to preserve what few drops of ink are left on a now hallowed piece of paper – because they fix our relationship to that which we believe comes from above. If we revere a simple piece of parchment, how much more should we respect the God who formed us out of the dust, and gave us his own blood? We pray that God’s name will be hallowed – respected, revered, and set apart from any other name.

Every single phrase in the Lord’s Prayer can be summed up in one thought. God is God, we are not. There is a Parent / Child Relationship. There is a Heaven / Earth Relationship. There is a Giver / Receiving relationship. But there is not one phrase that says God needs anything from us.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a role. God does want something from us. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father in heaven,” because God wants our love. Jesus teaches us to pray “Hallowed be thy name,” because God wants our respect.

I heard that Arlington Cemetery does not have enough buglers for all of the funerals that need to be performed. Somebody came up with the idea of a bugle that would play “Taps” automatically. Some folk were, understandably, a bit upset. I mean, if you’re going to do that, why not just bring a stereo and play a CD, right? The military was trying to balance two things. They wanted to give personal attention to the dead, and they wanted to respect the dead with their best.

Our prayers can fall into the same trap. Sometimes, I wish I could just play a recording to make sure all my prayers are said. But where would the love be? And sometimes, my love for God gets so out of hand that I forget God’s holiness. That very balance defines what our prayers should be – a one-on-one relationship that gives and takes. It is a personal thing. It can’t be replaced with a mechanical recitation of words. God uses our words in prayer, but that’s not what God is after. Before anything else, before we even open our mouths, God wants our hearts.

E.M. Bounds, "Purpse in Prayer," in The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds.
J. DAvid Hoke, "Beginning in Praise,"
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew
Floyd McClung, The Father Heart of God
Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father
Chalres Allen, The Lord's Prayer, An Interpretation
The Heidelberg Catechism

Friday, January 5, 2007

Sermon for December 31, 2007

To all five of my faithful readers: Have a wonderful New Year!

Here is a transcription of my latest "Letter from Home" from my Aunt Georgia:

Dear Matt,

It was nice of you to finally write back to me. You know, most people return letters after a few weeks. It’s called good manners. When you write back it shows that you care enough to think of someone else beside yourself, bless your heart. Even though you can’t manage to write a proper note, I hope you and your family had a good Christmas. I bet your kids was excited to unwrap presents. And if history repeats itself, I bet you took a long nap on Christmas day.

I spent Christmas with Willa Broadfoot and her family. I really shouldn’t call them her family. They aren’t blood family. After she left her husband Roddy a few years back, it came out that Roddy had a first wife that he never told Willa about. And didn’t that just crack her yaller! Her name is Nadine. I guess Roddy met her in his old wild-oat-sowin’ days when he worked as a sheepsherder in Texas. Roddy brought Nadine back up to the Ozarks where they set up a home in Chigger Falls, the county seat. Some people think Nadine is about as strange as a three dollar bill. Roddy left her after she claimed to see Santy Claus on a Christmas many years ago. Roddy claimed she was crazy and dangerous and he left her. Truth was, he was cheating on her with Willa, but neither Nadine nor Willa never knew the truth about each other. Well, one day Willa was shopping in Wal-Mart with Roddy, and as they was turning out of the hunting and camping aisle, they ran into Nadine. Nadine started throwing hugs on Roddy, and Willa couldn’t figure why this strange woman was grabbing at her husband in the test-line aisle. I guess it was all a little awkward. Roddy lives by a simple philosophy: Don’t complain, don’t explain, and for sure, don’t never confess! But standing there with Nadine huggin’ on him and Willa lookin’ on in a disapproving sort of way, Roddy realized that he would be better off trying to cross Hell while walkin’ on quicksand. He finally ‘fessed up and blubbered to Willa that Nadine was his ex-wife. If Willa was shocked, she never showed it. Being a woman of good manners, who always thinks of other people first, she invited Nadine over for coffee the next day while Roddy was at work carving walnut bowls in the factory. They got talkin’ about Roddy, and why he left her.

Well, wouldn’t you know, Willa and Nadine really hit it off. Nadine might be crazy, but she sure is fun. Well, Willa and Roddy eventually split, for reasons I won’t get into right now. But Willa and Nadine stayed friends. We’ve all been meetin’ and eatin’ together on Christmas day now for 15 years. I haven’t seen Santy Claus, but we sure have fun, Willa, crazy Nadine, and me. They invite me, the old widow along out of pity.

Christmas day is the best time of year for us. Dinner is always a turkey. The past few years I’ve brought a roast or ham to eat with it. Nadine’s mom and brother come over with her brother’s three kids. Roddy, the common ex-husband has not been welcome for 5 years now because of past hurts and problems, but this year I think Willa and Nadine may be on the verge of getting past all of that. Roddy and his new girlfriend and her kids may be invited to a New Year’s bash to try to mend some old fences. At Christmas we all converged on Willa’s house like the circus coming to town!!! Then the fun starts. We cook all day, with occasional breaks for beer, tea, stories, and general tomfoolery. We feast on turkey, roast beast, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, home made cranberry sauce (the canned stuff just won't do), Nadine’s famous Fig Newton salad, fresh rolls, followed by coffee and at least 2-3 desserts. It's generally ready by mid-afternoon, giving us plenty of time to relax for awhile before we start cleaning up the kitchen. Dress is ALWAYS casual. I wear my pants with the elastic stretch waist so’s not to suffocate after dinner.

There are times I really miss your Uncle Slim and the rest of my blood family, you know, my parents and sister, my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, and my nieces and nephews. So many are gone now. Died or moved away. I’ve had to learn to find another family out here in the country. After dinner, we're all fat, dumb and happy. Willa’s Christmas tree looks beautiful. We dim the lights so’s the room is lit only by the blinking tree lights. Then we listen to Nadine tell the story of how she saw Santy Claus while we all flop out on the floor, couch, chairs, where ever there's room (and there's not much with that many people so we tend to lay/sit real close to each other). She tells it the same every year:

I tried to wake up Roddy, but he was arranged on the bed like he was sleepin’ the sleep of death. Except he was snorin’ so loud, he could raise the dead. So I took matters into my own hands. I grabbed Roddy’s shotgun and went out the back door of the trailer. I looked up at the roof an’ I'll be darned! There was an old fat man and his munchkin friend climbin' into a big ol’ sled that was hooked up to a bunch of elk or caribou or somethin’. I mean, them suckers was a lot bigger than them stuffed ones that I seen at the Bass Pro museum in Springfield, and their antlers was huge. I think one of 'em might-a-been sick, though, cause his nose was all swollen an’ red. An I’ll be darned if didn’t think, “That big guy and his little friend are trying to rob us.” Jes' as I was raisin' the ol' 12-gauge to draw a bead on ‘em, ol' fatso started a hollerin' at his elks -- "On Dancer an' Prancer an' Donna and Quicken," or somethin' like that, anyhow – an’ then they done started flyin' off my roof!!! Now I ain’t no rocket scientist or nothin’, but I’m a educated lady an’ I know that stuff like that just ain’t s’posed to happen. But sure enough, them dudes was a flyin’ away like it was nothin’. It was a purty amazin’ sight, to tell ya’ the truth. With ol’ fatso an’ the munchkin an’ all them elks all flyin’ away there wasn’t nothin’ much else to see, so I done gone back inside to try to figure this whole situation out. I got to cogitatin’ about it over a glass Pepto Bismal on the rocks and fingered it might be best if I jes’ kept my mouth shut about it to Roddy. I mean, I jes’ fingered that he’d tell me I been drinkin’ too much (not that he don't do that a might already). An’ jes’ as I was figurin’ on convincin’ myself that maybe I jes’ had a little too much Pepto to drink an’ that maybe I jes’ imagined the whole thing, I swear I heard ol’ fatso say somethin’ off in the distance – “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” That’s when I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. So I woke up Roddy and told him what happened. I guess I spooked him, ‘cuz he left a few weeks later, shakin’ his head and tellin’ folks that I ain’t got all my cups in the cupboard, if you know what I mean.

After hearing the story, and belly laughing for a few minutes, nobody wants to move, but eventually we have to clean that darn kitchen!!! Then we all go home with another day of warm memories to hold in our hearts until the next time. That’s Christmas with my Ozark family. Probably more than you wanted to know but you DID ask when you bothered to write me last.

Of course, we always take time to tell the real story of Christmas. The Bible says in the fullness of time Jesus was born into a difficult world. In other words, at just the right time, when God knew best just what we needed, God sent a Son. Pastor Sanford at the Jerico Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks teaches that the Jewish people was expecting a Messiah –– someone to rescue the people. They was pregnant with hope that someone would step onto the scene to save them from day-and-night persecution and troubles. I guess it wasn’t easy being a Jew in those days. They was subject to Roman authorities. They was always kept a little bit apart and always treated like second class citizens or outcasts. But their faith told them that it was not always going to be like that and God was in the process of saving the people of Israel. The new Messiah, powerful and strong, would send the Romans running away with their tails between their legs

Can’t you just picture this Messiah? I would doubt that anyone had given much thought to the Messiah’s beginning, and if they had it would be like this: The Messiah would come with an army and wipe out the enemies of God. But God thinks and acts in ways that we can’t even imagine. A little baby to be the Messiah! Who knew? A child who would depend on his mother and father for all of his needs, for life itself, for the first several months of life, as all human babies do? A little ankle-biter who could not even be born in a room of a hotel, but in a barn full of animals?

Jesus came to the low folk. He came to plain ol’ ordinary people, like us. I guess that’s why I like to spend Christmas with run-o-the-mill folk like Willa and Nadine. They remind me of God’s grace. Being with them reminds me that when God sent us Jesus, we also gave us a chance to be part of a new family. Being with Willa and Nadine reminds me that God gave us a chance to forgive one another, and celebrate new life together. I don’t always have to be with my blood family, because God has put me in a new family. You see, Matt, baby Jesus is God’s free gift of love. The Savior was born, lived and died, and rose again so that we might be able to go right up to God and call him our Daddy. That same free gift of love claims each of us as God’s own children. Isn’t that amazing? God calls us part of His family. At times this is still too much to understand. So God sends the Holy Spirit to remind that we are children of God. We are part of the new family.

Anyway, you probably know all this. Send my best to your family from their crazy old Auntie in Jerico Springs.

Aunt Georgia.

Sermon for Christmas Eve

I stole the idea for this sermon from John Shea, "Have A Defiant Christmas, preached at

Some Christmas I am going to send out a Christmas card that will look like this. On the cover there will be three images. The first image will be a star brightly shining but it will be surrounded by darkness. The second image will be an evergreen but it will be surrounded by trees without leaves. The third image will be the traditional one, it will be a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, but the child will be surrounded by a ramshackle stable. When you open the card, it will say in big bold print, “Have a Defiant Christmas!”

I assume my friends and family will call me up and say, “Matt, what is this about?” That will give me a chance to explain my insanity.

The first image is a light shining, but shining in the darkness. I love to drive around and look at Christmas lights. When I lived in Western NY, my favorite display was right across the street. In their yard was a plastic light-up nativity scene – the holy baby, Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph’s color was faded, but they still did the job, vigilantly watching the Son of God. Their glowing nativity tableau, however, did not have the usual shepherds and wise men. Instead, the manger was flanked by toy soldiers, Rudolph and Santa. They all looked comfortable together, a mix of Christmas symbols whose garishness caused me to chuckle every year.

You know what else I like to do? I’m going to do it tonight – it’s one of my Christmas traditions. I turn off all the lights in the house. The kids are in bed, the presents are wrapped, and there is nothing else to do but turn on the Christmas tree and watch the lights illumine the silent darkness of our home. Christmas is not just about light. It's about light in the darkness. Like the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it.” Light has defiance as part of its character. It pierces the darkness but the darkness cannot overcome it.

The second picture on my Christmas card is an evergreen tree surrounded by lifeless trees. The image evokes a story from the Cherokee tradition called Why Some Trees are Ever Green. In the beginning the Great Mystery gathers all the plants and animals together, and the Great Mystery wants to give a gift to all the plants and the animals, but the Great Mystery does not know what gift to give to which plants and which trees. The trees and plants are gathered together and the Spirit says, “Try to stay up all night for seven nights.” Well the first night the young plants and trees, even if they wanted to, could not fall asleep. They were so excited. On the second night some dozed off. On the third night, in order to keep awake, the plants and trees began talking to one another. On the fourth, fifth and sixth nights, though, many fell asleep, until finally the Great Mystery arrived on the seventh night. The only plants and the only trees that were awake were the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel. The Great Mystery said, “What great endurance you have. Because you have stayed awake, I will give you the gift of being ever green, so that even in the dead of winter, when all the other trees have lost their leaves, your brother and sister creatures can look into your leaves and know that life is protected.”

So it is down to this day. In the dead of this season, when all the other trees lose their leaves, the evergreens stay green and stay awake. The evergreens are defiant. They live and they give us a sense of life.

My third Christmas picture is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. It is an image of love. The child wrapped in swaddling clothes means that the child is loved. The child is not abandoned, but enfolded and taken care of. The child is laid in a manger, a feeding trough, which symbolizes that this beloved child will be food for the world and give his life to all people. It all happens in a world where there is no room for them at the inn -- in a place where there is no hospitality, where they are not welcomed, where there is rejection. There is a defiance to the love of that baby. His is a love that beckons is from a land that lacks hospitality.

Three images: the light shines but it defies the darkness; the tress is green, but it defies the the death of Winter; the child is beloved but He defies a sense of rejection and inhospitality. I thought with these images on the cover of a Christmas card, people would understand the sentiment, “Have a Defiant Christmas.” But I suppose we really don't want a card like that. We want a card that is all light or all greenness or all love, but I do not think it is always the condition we are in when we celebrate Christmas.

There is a lot of darkness, barrenness and inhospitality in our lives. At Christmas time, we have a chance to defy them. The question is, how do we celebrate in a world that is not perfect? What might we have to do to defy them? Perhaps our health is not good. Maybe the ones you love and care for are failing. Perhaps you are waiting for test results over the holidays. Perhaps our finances are not where they should be. We need more money. Who doesn’t at this season? Maybe some of our relationships are difficult and in need of repair. Perhaps our job is not secure. Will we wait until there is all light, till there is all greenness, until there is only love in order to celebrate? Or can we defy that and celebrate in the midst of darkness and barrenness and lack of hospitality?

It seems to me the Christian tradition is powerfully consistent on this. We proclaim that our souls are deeply united to God. If we can get ourselves in tune with our souls, we may find a place where we can defy all that tries to tear us down and destroy us when the circumstances of our lives that are not completely where we want them to be. The problem is we are often not in touch with this deep, interconnectedness to the God.

There was once a German theologian named Meister Eckhart. He once said that each person has a vintage wine cellar but they seldom drink from it. We have to find the wine cellar in order to drink from it. A man once heard this quote and said to me, “I think I know what you were talking about. Let me tell you my story. I was a school teacher and at Christmas the kids always brought me gifts. They brought them in different types of boxes but after a while I was pretty savvy about what the gifts were. There would be a thin handkerchief box. I knew it was a handkerchief box and so instead of opening it, I usually just put it in the closet and then when I needed a handkerchief, I went and got it and opened it up. Well, one time I needed a handkerchief and I went and opened up a thin handkerchief box but there was no handkerchief inside. Inside instead was an antique pocket watch. I had an antique pocket watch all this time but I didn't know it because it was wrapped in a handkerchief box.”
We all carry treasures around like that in our ordinary lives and average bodies. Don’t be fooled. God’s light is in you. By God’s Spirit, you have the greenness of new life. It defies the adverse circumstances of our lives.

I do not know if I will ever send that Christmas card out. Knowing me, I will probably put it off. In the meantime, I leave you with a blessing this Christmas -- one that was written in 1513 by Fra Giovanni. “I salute you and there is nothing I can give which you have not, but there is much while I cannot give it, you may take it. No heaven can come to us unless we find it in our hearts today. So take heaven. No joy can come to us, unless it comes to us in this present moment. Take joy. No peace can come to us, unless we find it right now. Take peace.” And so at Christmas time, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...