Friday, April 27, 2007

Sermon for April 29, 2007

Where is God When Evil Abounds?
Matthew 5:1-11 / Mark 15:33-37

I hear the same question all the time. “Where was God?” Sometimes people ask the question because they felt abandoned by God when they needed God the most. People come to me and want to know WHY God didn’t protect them from the abusive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know WHY God would allow such things to go on -- The woman who was beaten as a child for something as senseless as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his alcohol-crazed father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide, or cancer, or a fatal accident.

“How could any God let this happen?” The more we think about it, the more we question God’s influence in the world. I look into eyes that are overflowing with pain and confusion and grief and rage - and they demand an answer. Why a holocaust, God? Why do few get to eat while many more go hungry? Why do you allow people to suffer, God? Why September 11? Why were thousands of innocent men, women, and children were destroyed in senseless acts of violence? God, how could you allow dozens of people to randomly hunted and gunned won by a homicidal maniac this week?

The new face of terrorism gradually emerged for us on Monday as we heard about the massacre at Virginia Tech. Tuesday and Wednesday we heard about human cost of the killings in stark detail. We began to put faces with the numbers, and we wept at the senseless and brutal loss of life. We have now all seen the pictures and learned some of the stories of the beautiful, talented, motivated and hopeful people whose lives are now over.
We heard about Ryan Clark, the fun-loving, 4.0 triple-major, whose greatest joy in life was leading music at a conference for mentally handicapped children and adults. Prof. Kevin Granata had established himself as a leader in the field of reflex response especially as it related to the problems faced by those with cerebral palsy.

We mourn those who had established careers and were leaders in their fields, but our mourning is intensified when we realize that almost all the others who died in the bud of their promise. They were supposed to be living the college life that we, who are older, glorify as we look back -- they are the ones who would learn to paint broadly on the canvas of their lives as they loved, lost, laughed and listened to life. But Austin Clark will not be able to do that; nor will Caitlin Hammaren, or Emily Jane Hilscher, or Peruvian exchange student Daniel Cueva or Brian Bluhm.
The voices of pain and anguish echo across the centuries back to the days of Jesus and before...back to the dawn of time. And they always ask the same question...WHY? It’s probably the hardest question that has ever been asked. Jesus tells us that we’re in for rough times...that in the end there will be wars and earthquakes and famines and plagues and dreadful omens and great signs from heaven. Sometimes it seems as though those times are here. Just pick up the evening newspaper and its all there -- terrorism, wars, starvation, population-killing diseases, and on it goes. So why won’t a loving God do something about all of this mess? Didn’t God become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth to make things better redeem us from our sin and restore us to the loving arms of the God?

Try to imagine the scene that Mark depicts in today’s gospel lesson. We read about the Lord’s final frightening moments on the cross. The land is covered with darkness–a symbol of the darkness that is invading the world. Deserted and betrayed by his disciples, rejected and condemned by the nation’s leaders, taunted by the crowds, Jesus now experiences utter despair. At this moment, Jesus is fully one with us. At this moment, Jesus faces evil, pain, and death, and shares our human despair to the fullest. It’s as if Jesus is crying out with us, “God, WHY? Where are you when I need you?” And with a final cry of anguish, Jesus dies. Then something amazing happens. A Roman centurion–one of the executioners looks at the dead man and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In Mark’s Gospel, no human being utters these words until this point. Now, a Roman soldier who was used as an instrument of evil, sees the truth, and acknowledges Jesus as God’s Son.

Here’s the point. Jesus knows all about suffering from evil and pain. He tells us that we will face violence. But he also tells us that we won’t be alone when evil abounds. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God. Jesus won’t be standing idly by when our hearts are breaking. Where is God when evil abounds? God is with us, reminding us that he sent his Son to fill our suffering with his presence.

In the days ahead, you will hear the news pundits shift their talk from empathy to action. Politicians will start calling for tough gun control laws. Security will tighten once more. Presidential candidates will try to exploit our fear for votes. In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others and move into self-chosen exile. When we pull away from one another, evil festers. Any time we are torn apart from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who an get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God and reach out to others who suffer. Peacemakers are those who have suffered with Christ, just like Christ as suffered with us. Because of their connection with the suffering of Christ, they have compassion, humility, and the desire to root out the weeds of evil.

Let me tell you about some peacemakers. Think back to the last school shooting in October, 2006. A deep sadness stretched across the rural landscape of Pennsylvania as the news spread that five Amish school girls were attacked by a neighbor in their one-room school. A 32-year-old milk truck driver shattered the innocence of Lancaster County’s Amish country when he attacked that schoolhouse. The sadness snaked along the backcountry roads with the parade of black buggies, as Amish families followed plain wooden caskets to church cemeteries. In the aftermath came a renewed call for better school security and gun control laws. But the greater story surrounding the Amish tragedy was the quiet grace of a deeply faithful and forgiving community. The Amish community really wanted the world to know that they forgive the shooter. They grieved for him and his family along with their own fallen daughters. In a day and age when civility seems lost and grace is in short supply, the Amish showed us what is meant to be peacemakers. One newspaper reporter write, “If only the grace that followed -- the faith that overrides pain, the generosity of spirit that inspires forgiveness, the goodwill that binds a community -- would also spill over, the world would be a much better place.”

Peacemakers are spiritual activists. They turn the world upside down by radically living out the Good News that God has not abandoned us. They do crazy things like forgive others. They allow themselves to mourn. They stand up for justice, and compassion and equality. They do it with humility, and sacrifice, and grace.

Listen to the story of another peacemaker. Liviu Librescu, was born in Romania only to be interned in a labor camp when Romania joined forces with Nazi Germany in the Second World War. He was then sent to a ghetto, and somehow avoided the fate of hundreds of thousands of other Romanian Jews killed by the collaborationist regime. He later found work at a Romanian aerospace company but his career was stymied in the 1970s because he refused to swear allegiance to Romania’s Communist dictator. On April 16, 2007, Liviu Librescu found himself pressed against the door of the classroom at Virginia Tech while shots were fired in the corridor and surrounding rooms. He stood firm, attempting to barricade the door, while his students clambered out of the windows. The professor e-mailed his wife to say that he had prevented the gunman getting into the classroom. However, the next e-mails received by the family were from students in the class informing them that Dr. Librescu had not survived the shootings.

Hard to imagine isn’t it – you live through a Nazi concentration camp only to be gunned down at random in a place that is supposed to be safe. But Dr. Librescu new pain. He knew suffering and sacrifice. He knew what it was like to be the victim of violence. So he stood between his students and a gunman and took a heroic stand – the stand of a peacemaker.

There are many peacemakers around us today. Can you be one of them?
Peacemakers learn to love those with whom we are in conflict. This is a challenge for most of us. First, we need to love, forgive and accept ourselves before we feel good enough to love our neighbors and our enemies. I really believe that a mind full of love cannot hold fear and anger at the same time. Perform a small, loving act toward an adversary. Act with compassion even if you feel rejected or offended.

Peacemakers see the image of God in everyone.

Peacemakers pray. We pray for ourselves for strength, patience and intelligence. We pray for guidance and wisdom to say and do the right thing as we walk on this path. We pray for each other, our leaders, our nation, all life, and the planet. We pray for our adversaries. Holding negative thoughts about others is counterproductive. It leads to polarization and alienation. Pray for their well-being, guidance and a positive resolution of any differences between us.

Peacemakers are alert for fearful or angry images that others want us to focus on. We can transform our consciousness by lifting our thoughts out of fear, anger and negativity by affirming the highest God-given qualities and virtues for ourselves and others.

Peacemakers let go of the obsession to dominate and always be right. They focus on the issues rather than attacking the opposition.

Peacemakers are not isolated from the pain and suffering of the world. As we let the pain in, we become transformed, compassionate and motivated to action.

Peacemakers commit to non-violent direct action as an appropriate way to demonstrate our protest to harmful and unjust practices. When evil abounds, we stand and say that God has not abandoned us and that God can be found among those who establish for the values of God’s Kingdom – love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness.

Where is God when evil abounds? God is with us because God has faced the darkness has shown us the way to the light. And God is with the peacemakers, for they are the children of God. Our hearts go out to those who have lost much, and we pray the comfort that friends and a suffering Christ can provide.

Sermon for Jazz Sunday

I don’t know how many of you men have succumbed to Gillette’s latest shaving innovation, the outlandish six-bladed Fusion razor. Where will it all end? How many blades are enough? 8? 15? 20? To counter the Fusion frenzy, Cory Greenberg, new technology editor on the Today Show, ironically did a segment on what’s called wet-shaving. Wet-shaving uses an old school single blade safety razor, a badger hair brush and high-end English cream and lots of hot water. He says that wetshaving delivers not only the greatest shave you can possibly imagine, but it brings back the pleasant, gentlemanly Cary Grant ritual that you can only get at old-time barber shops. Millions of people all over the world watched the Today Show segment, and as ridiculous as it sounds, the ensuing rush on razors, brushes, and creams created a worldwide shortage of shaving goods—vendors who’d been beseeching the masses to throw down their Fusions, their Quattros, their Mach-3s, and pressurized cans of goo reported doing a year’s worth of business in a few days. Overnight, funky vintage razors that used to go for a few bucks on eBay suddenly began climbing to well over $100.

Fusions and Mach-3s and Quattros are safe, but ultimately they make life very boring. But isn’t that how we do it today? We don’t really want adventure. We don’t want risk. Oh, we dream about it. But our tidy lives show that we are more interested in safety and propriety.

Do you ever wonder what it might sound like if Marvin Hamlisch or John Williams or Philip Glass composed a soundtrack for your life? What would your love theme sound like? How about your victory anthem? What music plays in the background when you roll out of bead, or play with the kids, or drive to work in traffic, or cook supper? What if you were at Karaoke night, and had to pick the song that best fits your life? What would you sing?
For a lot of us, our life would be lived on the downbeat. The downbeat is the impulse that occurs on the first beat of a measure of music. So, if your song has four beats, the downbeat emphasizes beats one and three. " Lórd, Dismíss us wíth Thy Bléssing ," or "O sáy ,can you sée by the dáwn's early líght ." One, two, three, four; left, right; left, right; this systolic-diastolic beat is as familiar to us as life itself

Downbeats are nice. They’re steady and predictable. Downbeats help us march through life with some regularity. No surprises. Just a steady beat.

Sometimes we live faith on the downbeats. We are such planners. We decide how God must come into human affairs. We treat it all with a public relations twist. We pick the time and place. We insure that the right people are there to meet God. We get the news release so everyone knows what to expect. We have some scripted ways that we want to hear from God. God becomes steady and predictable. We like it that way.

But what if God’s not safe? What if God is less like a Neil Diamond song and more like Duke Ellington. What if God doesn’t always work on the downbeats of life? What if God sings on the backbeat? The backbeat emphasis the second and fourth beat. The offbeat. It makes music exciting. Jazz musicians play on the backbeat, and wild things begin to happen.

My favorite Jazz singer -- St. Francis. Read his biographies, you can just hear his soundtrack. “Who can describe the fervent charity which burned within Francis? Like a glowing coal, he seemed totally absorbed in the flame of divine love. Whenever he heard of the love of God, he was at once excited, moved and inflamed as if an inner chord of his heart had been plucked by the plectrum of the eternal voice.” So writes one of Francis’s biographers in the year 1260.

So often I have a tendency to view the saints as people who were super heroes; men and woman of respectability and decorum. In other words -- totally unlike me. My problem seems to be not so much that I can’t do the right thing, but that more often than not, I'm not certain what the right thing is! Saint Francis wasn’t like that. He lived on the offbeat. Throughout the course of his life he steadfastly refused to join the ranks of the wise an. learned--of those, who were certain of the right thing. He remained a fool for God, and as such, was always open to rethinking the Holy Spirit’s inspiration

In Italy there is a little town where they still tell the story of the time long ago when the village was being continually terrorized by a ferocious wolf. So terrible had been the toll on the local chicken coops, and so huge, so clever, and so vicious had this wolf become in local legend that the villagers had decided to track down and kill the fearsome beast lest it slaughter them all some night in their sleep. A jittery militia armed with clubs and pitchforks had been assembled, and was just ready to depart on its mission of destruction when who should appear in the village square but St. Francis. Francis was able to persuade the villagers to temporarily set their weapons aside. Then he went out into the forest and had a long talk with the wolf. The wolf, was willing to leave his chicken dinners behind him in order to save his life, and all lived in peace. Francis had seen killing. He knew what it was like to suffer in prison, and to see people massacred around him. But, he also knew the peace of Christ, and showed us how to be instrument of peace to all creation.

Over the past several months I have been listening to the intensifying drumbeat of violence from around the world.. The wolf his howling around us–scaring us and looking to devour. Terrorists haunt air terminals, and blow themselves up on crowded street corners. Hostages are taken, assassins lurk in the shadows, and angry nations commit themselves to years of ruinous war. Wars rage in other places as well. Churches fight with one another. Families come to ruins out of anger. Lifelong friends now hate each other. It is always easier to get people to take up the sword than it is to get them to put the sword down, easier to inflame passions than to cool them off.

Who sings on the offbeat? Whose voices do you hear singing a song of peace and love and justice? I gotta tell you, I don’t usually hear the church. But shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t Christians be the first one’s to stand up and confront the evils and pains of the world with an alternative – with a song of hope that expresses God’s passionate and unpredictable love?

It might help a lot if we would allow ourselves to envision the world as Francis did. It’s the same way Jesus saw the world, by the way. They did not march through the world in conventional steps. They lived on the two and four.

Every day is ripe with potential for generosity, courage, mercy, transformation and freedom. There is something in us that responds profoundly to gentleness, to sacrifice, to tears and laughter – something that longs to reach out to others in generosity, openness, and trust. If anyone ever expressed that need, it was St. Francis in his offbeat prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Divine Master, grant that I may seek not so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned, and in dying, we are born to eternal life.

Go out there and take a risk. Be a fool. Hear the call to be an offbeat Christian. Live on the two and four.

Living on the two and four means that we don’t just focus on the 16th century event that brought this church into existence
and rather follow the call to bring freedom and salvation to people through the insight God gave us through that event.

Living on the two and four means that we will identify the forces today that enslave people to this world's guilt and indulgence peddling
and bring them the gospel of grace in their context, religious or not.

The world doesn't need us singing the same old songs to ourselves
in the same old places.
It is time to sing the world a new song.
It is time to sing the world a love song:
To sing a lament where there is pain;
To sing a protest song where there is injustice;
To sing a lullaby to the lonely.
These are the offbeat songs that the Spirit sings.
May we have ears to hear and eyes to see. And voices to sing.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sermon for April 8, 2007 -- Easter Sunday

A good part of this sermon was taken from Rev. C. Wayne Hilliker from Kingston Ontario:

What Brought You Here?
Luke 24:1-12

So, what has brought you here? Crowds sure are larger on Easter than any other Sunday of the year. The truth is, many people don’t bother with Sunday morning worship. Willow Creek Community Church, a mega-church near Chicago did a door-to-door survey asking: If you don’t go to church, why? The five biggest reasons: 1) Church is boring, 2) Church is irrelevant, 3) They’re asking for money all the time, 4) I’m too busy already, 5) I feel awkward at church. Let me add another reason: It’s just easier to stay home on Sunday. You only get two days off. Sometimes it’s hard to get the kids fed and dressed and your spouse to cooperate. Isn’t it better, on your day off, to sleep in and read the paper, or get up and hit the tennis courts or the golf course and enjoy a leisurely day?

Middle-class Protestant denominations have lost millions of members over the last 30 years. Nobody knows why, although Sociologists, theologians, congregational consultants, pollsters all have different ideas. I found a website that chronicled some of people’s excuses for not going to worship on Sundays. Do any of these sound familiar?

« I'm still allergic to my religion

« I thought they kicked me out after I said "Jesus Christ" when they passed the collection plate

« I don't like going to church because the priest is too loud, the choir can't sing, and the man behind me keeps coughing!

« I don't want to go to church because my kids don't want to go and I can't find a babysitter for them. I might as well not go.

« I'll go to church when I start smoking. If I don't start smoking then I'll go when I stop.

« The last time I went to Church, the pastor told us about someone who was burned at the stake for believing in God! I don't want that to happen to me now do I?

« Veni, Vidi, NoN-Velcro. (I came, I Saw, I didn't stick around.)

« This parish is too politically correct.

« That much church can kill a person.

« I can't go to church, my name is Judas.

« I have to wash the car. I need to mow the yard.

« I don't go to church cause I have a feeling that God doesn't like agnostics.

« My cat is a prophet, I get all my godly advice straight from the cat's mouth. If the cat doesn't tell me to got to church, I consider it great wisdom of the prophet.

« Three words: Church On Line

« God made Football . . . doesn't that cover it?

« I don't go to church on Sunday because getting the kids dressed in their Sunday Best first thing in the morning makes me cuss and curse the Lord . . . very loudly.

« Nobody notices when I'm not there.

« They don't sing the songs I like.

« The organ is too loud.

« I should be able to send in money if I want without having to put money in a plate.

« There aren't any good-looking guys there.

« It's too stuffy, why don't they open some windows.

« There are too many sinners in church.

« There are too many hypocrites in church.

« The sermon is too long.

« The service is too long.

« I don't do anything bad, so I'm going to heaven anyway.

« I have nothing to wear.

« I work six days a week. The seventh day belongs to me.

« I'm not good enough.

« I'll go when I'm too old to have any more fun.

With all that said, for some reason, each one of us chose to be ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there’ this morning. I just want to say, I’m glad you’re here. Some of us have come here because we are always here, even when it’s not Easter. Some of us are not usually here on a Sunday, but we’re here because it’s Easter, after all! Others of us have come because someone invited us, or someone forced us, or bribed us, or somehow made us feel guilty about not coming to church. No matter what, I am so glad you’re here. I want you to know that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, no matter how you feel about church, no matter what your faith background, no matter your hurts, pains, or emotional baggage, you are welcome here. And I want to offer the hospitality of our congregation to you. If you are visiting with us, or if you are checking us out, would you please fill out a pew card or sign your name in the guest book in the narthex – or at least make sure to introduce yourself to me? In a few weeks, our church will be hosting a Sunday morning breakfast before church, and I want you to some as my guests. I want to get a chance to know you some more, and learn about who you are, and listen to your feelings about churches, so please do me the honor of somehow introducing yourself.

I say all that because, on Easter Sunday, something brought you all here. So,what’s going on in here, that’s better than what’s going on out there today? I want you to think about a time when you felt God was close and you were in the presence of the Holy. Some of you might be thinking that you felt God

…when you recited a creed,

…or when you sang a favorite hymn,

…or when a sermon spoke to you with power,

…or when you read scripture

…or when you prayed.

A lot of people will say things like,

« “It was when my first child was horn, and I held this flesh of my flesh close to me”,

« or, “When I hear the sound of’ a gentle summer rain on a tin roof at night”,

« or, “When I am walking in an open field by myself on a winter day and millions of absolutely perfect snowflakes are falling all around me”,

« or, “When I lay on my back on a perfectly clear night and see millions of stars shining their light from millennia past’.

People connect with God outside of the church all the time. So, what’s going on in here?

If you travel to the seminary at Princeton University, you will see a beautiful little Greek revival chapel where students and faculty worship. 80 years ago that little chapel was not located on the main campus. The building was actually moved there. Workers jacked the church up, put wheels under it and pulled it to its present location with a tractor. It evidently attracted a lot of attention in Princeton. People stopped along the sidewalk to see this little church bouncing along behind a tractor to its new home. One of the people who stopped to see it move was none other than Albert Einstein. As he watched the little chapel bounce along the lawn to its new spot, he began to smile. And then he said something -- ‘That little box is too small to hold God’.

Those words ought to be inscribed over the portals of every Church in the world ...whether it’s a small congregational church or St. Peter’s Basilica,

’This little box is too small to hold God’.

…’This little creed is too small to hold God.’

…’This little bible is too small to hold God.’

I don’t think we come here to find God. God does not live here. It’s not as if when you leave the church you are isolated from God’s presence. We can find God everywhere. I think we are here for something else. We are here to listen to the account of the God whose costly death-defying love embraces the whole world. We come here to be reminded that we have not been abandoned, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, or what our circumstances may be. Easter declares a merciful God knows us by name, and loves us, and forgives us, and embraces us, and never lets us go. That is what we tell in here, …and sing in here...and believe in here. We come into the sanctuary to hear the Story of the great generosity of God. And then hearing that Story—

« we see what we could not have seen otherwise,

« we imagine what we could not have imagined otherwise,

« we hear what we could not have heard otherwise,

« we do what we could not have done otherwise.

And it then becomes our duty and delight to say, “Thank you, God. Thank you.”

A graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, told a story about his days as a student there. The President of the Seminary was an austere Puritan by the name of Dr. James McDowell Richards. The students respected Dr. Richards but kept their distance from him. People admired Dr. James McDowell Richards, but no one was intimate with him. This student graduated from Seminary and eventually became the chaplain in a church-sponsored retirement home. Imagine how he felt when he learned that the newest resident of the home was the now retired Dr. James McDowell Richards.

He was in awe of the man still and now he was going to have to be his chaplain. He did the best he could. One evening he went into the dining room and saw Dr. Richards seated in his wheelchair at his table having supper. A nurse was standing guard over him. The former student, now chaplain, went up to Dr. Richards. They had some conversation together and then the chaplain started to leave. On a last-second impulse, he turned to Dr. Richards and said,

‘Dr. Richards. I’ve always wanted to ask you something’

‘What is it?’

‘You and your wife were the parents of sons, weren’t you?’

‘Three of them. Yes.’

‘Did you ever tell your sons that you loved them?’

‘No. I didn’t need to . . . Well, once I did. I was in intensive care and I told one of them but it wasn’t a regular thing mind you.’

‘I just wondered. You know my father never told me that either. I wondered if fathers ever said that kind of thing.’

The meal was over. The nurse pulled the wheelchair away from the table and the chaplain watched Dr. Richards go. When Dr. Richards got to the door, he said something to the nurse. She turned the wheelchair around and brought him back. Then he got close and reached up and touched his former student’s cheek …and said ‘Bill, I love you.’

“I had known it all along,” the chaplain commented later, “but to hear it, sealed it in my heart.”

There is something we get today in here that you can’t get out there. What brought us into this worship space is to hear something from God and to have it sealed on our hearts. Have you heard it yet? It’s the unbelievable word that declares we are loved by name with a costly, unconditional and empowering love, rooted in the very being of God, and that never lets us go, not even when we die. On this Easter Sunday, we gather in this place to have sealed in our hearts a truth -- a living truth that does indeed move us to say and to sing alleluia.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sermon for April 1, 2007 -- Palm Sunday

Is This a Joke?
Luke 19:28-44

Since Easter is right around the corner, many of you will be entertaining guests for dinner. I've found there are two ways to prepare dinner: The Martha Stewart Way, and My Way.

Martha’s way: Stuff a miniature marshmallow in the bottom of a sugar cone to prevent ice cream drips.
My way: Just suck the ice cream out of the bottom of the cone, for Pete’s sake, you are probably lying on the couch with your feet up eating it anyway.

Martha’s way: To prevent egg shells from cracking, add a pinch of salt to the water before hard boiling.
My way: Who cares if they crack, aren’t you going to take the shells off anyway?

Martha’s way: To get the most juice out of fresh lemons, bring them to room temperature and roll them under your palm against the kitchen counter before squeezing.
My way: Sleep with the lemons in between the mattress and box springs.

Martha’s way: To easily remove burnt-on food from your skillet, simply add a drop or two of dish soap and enough water to cover bottom of pan, and bring to a boil on the stovetop.
My way: Have your Easter Dinner at Chili’s and let them do the dishes.

Martha’s way: If you accidentally over salt a dish while it’s still cooking, drop in a peeled potato and it will absorb the excess salt for an instant ‘fix me up’.
My way: If you over-salt a dish while you are cooking, that’s too bad. My motto: I made it, and you will eat it, and I don’t care how bad it tastes.

Martha’s way: Wrap celery in aluminum foil when putting in the refrigerator and it will keep for weeks.
My way: Celery? Never heard of the stuff.

Martha’s way: Don’t throw out all that leftover wine. Freeze into ice cubes for future use in casseroles and sauces.
My way: Leftover wine?

Martha’s way: Potatoes will take food stains off your fingers. Just slice and rub raw potato on the stains and rinse with water.
My way: Mashed potatoes will now be replacing the anti-bacterial soap in the handy dispenser next to my sink.

Speaking of Easter, I know in my house my wife and daughter have already been shopping for Easter outfits. A poor widow with three young daughters lived near the UCC church. The pastor went to visit and invited them to Easter services. “We would love to come,” said the woman, “but we don’t have any Sunday clothes.” The pastor went back to the church and talked to some of the deacons in the church who bought and delivered a nice Sunday outfit for the woman and each of her three daughters. On Easter Sunday, the whole congregation watched for the family, but they never showed up. Disappointed, the pastor went to their house after the service and asked why they did not attend church. “Well,” the woman said, “we got all dressed up in our new clothes, and we looked so nice that we went to the Episcopal Church instead!”

One day the Pope got a phone call from God. God told him that he had some good news, and some bad news. “The good news,” said God, “Is that I have decided to convert the whole world to one religion.” “The bad news, is that I am calling long distance from Salt Lake City!”

How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?
Change! My grandmother donated that light bulb!

How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?
1 to change it and 3 to stand around talking about how much they’ll miss the old one.

Top 10 signs that you are in the wrong church:
10. The church bus has gun racks.
9. The church staff consists of senior pastor, associate pastor and sociopastor.
8. The Bible they use is the Dr. Seuss version.
7. There is an ATM in the lobby.
6. The choir wears leather robes.
5. The only song the church organist knows is Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida.
4. The Women’s Quartet are all married to the pastor.
3. The pastor regularly attends meetings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
2. The ushers ask, “Smoking or non-smoking?”
1. There’s no cover charge but communion is a two-drink minimum.

Struggling to make ends meet on a first-call salary, the pastor was livid when he confronted his wife with the receipt for a $250 dress she had bought. “How could you do this?!”
“I was outside the store looking at the dress in the window, and then I found myself trying it on,” she explained. “It was like Satan was whispering in my ear, ‘You look fabulous in that dress. Buy it!’”
“Well,” the pastor replied, “You know how I deal with that kind of temptation. I say, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’”
“I did,” replied his wife, “but then he said, ‘It looks fabulous from back here, too!’”

How often does it happen that Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day both fall on a Sunday? It won’t happen again until 2012. By the way, Easter will fall on April Fool’s day in 2029. Today we stop to remember two things. One, there are hard things in life like death, divorce, disease, warfare, feminine, poverty). Two: when life is hard, it’s OK to laugh. I want to reassure visitors that we rarely laugh this much in church on Sundays. We usually try to keep it down. Today is different. Today is our chance to prepare for the divine folly of the Easter surprise. Easter is the morning when the Lord laughs out loud, laughs at all the things that snuff out our joy, all the things that pretend do be all powerful like cruelty and madness and despair and evil, and most especially that great pretender, death. Jesus sweeps them all away with his wonderful resurrection laughter.

On Palm Sunday, we get a little glimpse of the laughter to come. In front of us is a week of reflection on death, torture and suffering. We will spend a few days in morbid thought, trying to come to grips with the awesome love of a Lord who would willingly lay down his life so that we might be saved. But today, Palm Sunday, is the day I remember to let the air out a little -- to take a deep breath, and laugh at myself. Palm Sunday has always been a kind of spiritual check up day. How are you doing? Are you happy? Do you believe you can live your life with joy, even when the future seems dead serious? It is so easy to get caught up in causes, to be scheduled to a frenzy, to have such important things to say, we can forget that what really upset the Pharisees the most about Jesus was that he seemed to enjoy people and life and celebration, and all those things you can’t do when you are serious.

When I think of Palm Sunday, I think of people like Annette. Annette was a stick of a woman. Her skin was shriveled and nearly black from so many hours in the summer sun. Annette single handedly kept an entire town in potted flowers, flowerbeds, and whiskey barrels exploding with annuals. When the paper decided to do a feature story about her, she stunned the photographer who came to take her picture. He told her to look at the camera and she said, “Don’t take a picture of my face, no one will know who you are talking about. Take a picture of my rear end. Then they will know its me.” And so he did.

Annette never stopped. If she wasn’t planting, she was crafting, if she wasn’t crafting she was cleaning. People loved to have Annette decorate the sanctuary of their church for weddings. She was a veritable storehouse of ivy, and ribbons, and birdcages painted to match with twinkle lights. Annette was also fighting cancer. The remission, recovery, and the chemotherapy were always intermingling. In spite of her health, she kept going, kept doing for others, and mostly she kept smiling. You would always leave a better person after visiting with her, even when she was at her lowest. She just had a way of laughing and crying and smiling all at the same time that made people want to go home and hug their families and slow down and be sure to be a good person.

During her cancer, Annette was asked to decorate for a wedding. She agreed, even though her chemotherapy brought her as low as it can take a person. She said, “I’ll just go slow and start early in the week. Do it as I can and hope for the best.” And that’s what she did. Each day something would be different in the sanctuary, some ribbons would appear, the next day the ivy would be trailing off the chancel. However, two days before the wedding, everything was gone. The janitor had come in that morning and assumed the wedding had already taken place since the decoration had been there the last time, so she took them all down and threw them in the garbage. When Annette found out she said, without missing a beat, “Well, what can you do?” And then she smiled, laughed, rolled her eyes and went to the dumpster, took all the decorations home, ironed the ribbons, straightened out the ivy and put them all back the next day. No shouting, no blaming, no need to say serious things to people. No one knew it had happened, no one heard of it. The gift was the beauty not the toil.

There are moments in life that demand we take them serious. Yet, if the truth were told, we try to make too many moments serious so that we can feel in control or in charge. I have met many people who believe it is their responsibility to be serious, when in fact what they are truly being called to be is careful or caring.

Let me put it this way: in the dozens of funerals I have led or attended, I have never heard a eulogist say, “You know what I admired most about this person? His serious side. I’ve never heard someone say, “If my mother was anything she was serious.”

Palm Sunday is for me the day I set aside to check my spiritual wellbeing. Have I convinced myself that I need to worry about something? Can I look at everyone I meet and see them as beloved, or have I let hate find a place? Do I still trust the steadfast love of God working mercy or am I looking for real change right now and somebody better be looking busy? Is life exhilarating or exhausting?

Today, I want to be able to smile and laugh and cry all at the same time. If I grieve, I want it to be deep in the truth that I loved much. If I suffer, I want it to be faced with dignity and assurance. Today I want to remember that, yes . . . Easter laughter is coming. But joy can be found on both sides of the cross.

Sermon for the Ordination of Jenn Gingras

Patrons, Peasants and Pastors
For the Ordination of Jennifer Gingras
March 24, 2007
Matthew 20:1-16

Let’s begin with a quiz. Are you ready? We’ll begin with a practice question:
Q. How many animals of each type did Moses take on the ark?
A. Zero. Moses didn’t have a boat, Noah did!

OK, how did you do? Are you ready for the real test?
Q. Is there a Fourth of July in England?
A. Yes, it comes after the third of July!
Q. Some months have 31 days; how many have 28?
A. 12, all of them!
Q. Is it legal for a man in California to marry his widow’s sister?
A. No - because he is dead!

Are you ready for the math portion?
Q. Divide 30 by 1/2 and add 10. What is the answer?
A. 70, (30 divided by 1/2 equals 60! Takes some thinking . . .)
Q. If there are 3 apples and you take away 2, how many do you have?
A. 2. You took them, remember?
Q. How many two-cent stamps are there in a dozen?
A. Twelve, there are 12 two cent stamps in a dozen!
Q. A rooster sits on the VERY TOP of a barn roof. If he lays an egg, which side will it roll off?
A. Roosters don't lay eggs.
Q. You have a match and you go into a house and there is an oil lamp, a stove, and a fireplace all ready to be started. What do you light first?
A. The Match!

Did anyone get a perfect score? Sometimes we assume we know the right answers to questions. But our assumptions can betray us. This was just a practice exercise to get us ready to hear a parable. Not a Jesus parable. We’ll get to him in a second. Listen to this modern parable. The Kingdom of God is like a courtroom in a small town. The town attorney called his first witness to the stand. She seemed like a sweet, elderly woman. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”

She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. You’ve become a huge disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a hotshot lawyer, when you haven’t the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”

The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”

She replied, “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to baby-sit him for his parents. And he’s also a real disappointment. He’s lazy, bigoted, never has a nice word to say about anybody, and he drinks like a fish. He’s been divorced five times, and everybody knows that his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.”

The judge rapped his gavel, to quiet the tittering among the spectators in the courtroom. Once the room was silent, he called both attorneys to his bench. In a quiet, menacing voice, he warned, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, you’ll be jailed for contempt!”

How would you interpret this parable? Who does the prosecuting lawyer represent? How about the judge? How about the elderly woman? Does one of those characters represent God? Do you relate to one more than another? To interpret the parable, you need to reference your assumptions—what you know about the character of God and the nature of humanity. Given time, I bet you all could come up with a great interpretation of the story that compares it to our modern lives.

When we read the parables of Jesus we also need to be in touch with our assumptions. The lesson from Matthew 20 is a case in point. We meet a vineyard owner, and some day laborers who get the same exact wages for varying amounts of work. Centuries of commentary tell us that the moral of the story is about the grace of God. The vineyard owner seeks to include everyone by freely giving equal wages to all the workers so that they have what they need. In the same way, God gives equal access to the Kingdom to all humanity. This makes sense. It sounds nice, mostly because it fits our freethinking assumptions about justice and equality and solidarity.

But, what if our assumptions are wrong. What do we know about peasants, really? Most of us have everything we need and want. What do most of us know about the lives of migrant workers and day laborers? What if I were to change the context on you and ask you to listen with new ears? As I retell the story, I invite us to take everything we know about the parable and turn it on its head. Maybe we can hear a fresh word from God’s Spirit.

God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. The vineyard owner had great wealth. When he first invested in his vineyard, he pumped money into the operation for years. It took five years of outlay for the vineyard to bear fruit good enough to make wine. He had plenty money to pay mangers and servants and to hire day laborers to work in his fields. He was a good man. He saw himself as a fair man -- even a moral person. So when it came time to hire workers, he paid them a denarius -- a dollar a day. It was not generous. It wasn’t stingy, either.

Some workers took the job in the vineyard. What else could they do? They needed the money and unemployment was high. Day laborers were vulnerable people. Their survival was a bitter struggle. During planting and harvesting seasons, the work was plentiful. But in the off-season they faced malnutrition, starvation, and disease. As peasant clients, they depended on the patronage of the landowner to survive. The laborers gladly took the work and began harvesting the vineyard first thing in the morning. A buck a day was the most they could expect with the oversupply of workers.

At about 9:00 AM, a manager saw some more unemployed men hanging around the town square. He told them to go to work in the vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. The manager did this every three hours. Right before sundown, the vineyard owner went to the marketplace to find even more workers. At 5:00, he saw some unemployed men who were older or infirm – less capable of manual labor. He asked them, “Why have you been standing idle here the whole day?” The laborers replied, “No one has hired us” They had no safety net. As outsiders in the patronage system, there was no protection for these vulnerable members of society. So, the landowner hired them and promised a fare wage.

When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his supervisor, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.” The landowner was, after all, a law-abiding citizen. He followed the expectation that workers were to be paid in the evening after they worked. Those hired at 5:00 came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw how much the old guys were paid, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same paycheck – one dollar apiece.

Remember, the landowner saw himself as a law-abiding, compassionate, and charitable man who hired the unhireable. Not to brag or anything, but he prided himself on being a just and righteous person. The problem is something unfair just happened. The wages were not equally distributed. The workers became irritable. One group of workers began to resent the others. Some of the laborers muttered against landowner. In equalizing the payment, the landowner devalued the work of those who labored longer and under conditions that were more difficult. True equality and right relationship had not been achieved. The landowner kept his great wealth, and even benefited from the work of the peasants as he paid them with a subsistence-level wage.

Taking their dollar, the workers complained angrily to the manager. “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.” The owner of the vineyard replied to representative of the workers saying, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” And so, many of the first ending up last, and the last first.

So, let’s question our theological assumptions. All theology serves someone. The question is whom does it serve? Who benefits and at whose expense? When we are finished cooking up our interpretations of the text, who reigns and who suffers? In this case, the landowner retains his wealth, the peasant workers are destabilized, and biblical justice is not achieved. Does this landowner really sound like the God we know through Jesus Christ? Not to me. The Jesus I know told us to love God with all our heart and strength and to love your neighbors as ourselves. The Jesus I know reminded us that the neighbor was not always who we would like her to be. He taught that the one non-negotiable thing was forgiveness. He taught that tolerance of enemies was not sufficient: they must be loved. He taught about money more than anything else, about the fair and just redistribution of wealth. The Jesus I know touched the untouchables. The Jesus I know ate with the sinners. The Jesus I know argued with the religious leaders when they put principles before people. He welcomed strangers, valued the lower classes, and made ordinary moments holy. The Jesus I know trusted God’s promises, even when all he could experience, as he was being tortured as a traitor, was God's silence in the face of great injustice.

If we question our assumptions, then the parable of the vineyard owner challenges us to identify with the wealthy landowner -- to realize our own blindness, our own participation in the injustices of our day, our own self-deceptions that tell us that we are good, just, and righteous before God. This is a reading for those in positions of power. This is a reading for those of us in first world countries who think they get to call all the shots. Any interpretation that suggests God receives some and rejects others does not reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ. Our message is not that God brings instability and chaos, pitting people against each other by withholding blessing. This is something people do, but not God. No, our message declares that freedom in Christ is freedom in life – all are welcome at the table.

To all of us gathered here today, this is my charge: Always question the assumptions. At one time in my life, I thought I had Jesus all figured out. I knew who God loved and who God rejected. My system went something like this. Jesus loves straight people who go to church; and people who don’t lie, steal, or cuss, or do drugs. Jesus loves people who pray and suffer silently. Jesus tolerates gays who don’t ask and don’t tell, Baptists, Methodists, and some Pentecostals, and people who don’t come to church because they have to work on Sunday. Jesus also tolerates pastors who cuss occasionally and congregants who don’t join the 21-day Lenten fast because of health reasons. Jesus detests openly gay people, Muslims, Catholics, and people who don’t go to church, addicts, nonconformists, and everyone who is different than the rest of us. And telemarketers.

The question is, what part was Jesus, and what part was me using my assumptions from my culture and tradition to validate my beliefs? I once believed that God receives some and rejects others. But let’s question the assumptions. Somewhere in the midst of all this junk is the real Jesus, and I suspect we are most likely to meet him where we least expect him.

Jenn, as you enter into ordained ministry as a pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ, this is my charge to you. Always question the assumptions. Sometimes you will feel like you did some good, that your counsel was helpful, and that you life is a good example to those around you. You will look for God’s presence in the people you see everyday. And I’m sure you will see God in those people. We need you to live a parabolic life. Parables challenge the status quo. They startle us wit the truth and sometimes make us uncomfortable. We need you to remind us that sometimes we look for God in all the wrong places. God also dwells with the invisible people on the margins of life. God is the beggar, the nuisance, the exile and the refugee. As you enter ministry, remind us to question our assumptions so that we can read life around us with new eyes, flee from self-deception, and join all of our brothers and sisters around God’s table.

Murray Bodo, The Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone (Cincinnati OH, St. Andrews Press, 1995).

Mary Kay Dobrovolny, “Who Controls the Resources? Economics and Justice in Matt 20:1-15” presented to the Society of Biblical Literature, San Antonio, Texas, November 20 – 23, 2004.

Yvette Flunder, Where The Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (Cleveland OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005).

Bruce Malina, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 2003).

Sermon for March 25, 2007

An Outpouring of Love
John 12:1-11

Lately, we have heard stories of controversial antiquities being discovered in the Holy Land. I’m sure many of you have heard the story or seen the TV special about the Lost Tomb of Jesus on the Discovery Channel. Today I share with you a religious artifact. Be warned, what I’m about to share is of dubious origin. It is a letter, apparently written by a man named Lazarus who lived in the suburbs of Jerusalem. According to legend, Lazarus was the brother of Martha and Mary Magdalene. He was a Pharisee, but because of his association with Jesus, he fled for his life to Cypress where he lived another thirty years. The Sunday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Sunday in some churches. The gospel of John records an episode in which Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is dead. In the presence of a crowd of Jewish mourners, Jesus has the stone rolled away from the tomb and calls to Lazarus to come out. Lazarus rises from the dead and hobbles out of the tomb, still wrapped in his grave-cloths. Jesus then called for His followers (friends and family alike) to remove the grave-cloths. It is the last we hear of him in the gospels, until now.

I’m a dead man. Yeah, you heard me right. I’m a dead man. At least I was. Certified, and mummified. Buried in the family tomb. I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to be dead. I just don’t have colorful enough words in my vocabulary to paint it for you. I can tell you this: There was nothing romantic or beautiful about it. Death is an offense to beauty. No matter how hard you try, a corpse is never attractive. No embalmer’s art can change that. So, maybe your wondering how a dead man gets to stand up here and speak to you. Let me tell you what happened. This is going to blow your mind. There I was - lifeless in a dark crypt for four days (Not that I had any concept of time passing). It was just dark...until I heard that voice–familiar, anguished, and inviting. It was like I heard a whisper in the back of my head saying, “Lazarus, come out,” and I just couldn’t help it. I got up and walked out of the crypt right to Jesus. And let me tell you, did that freak people out! I can just imagine what it must have looked like to others–this linen-wrapped mummy-man lumbering out of a dark tomb into the hot Mediterranean sun. I remember seeing my sisters, Mary and Martha, gape-mouthed and weeping for joy. Most of all, I remember Jesus’ tear-soaked, enraptured face.

Well, as you can imagine, we had a BIG party. When the power of God raises you from the dead and gives you a new lease on life, you don’t just shake hands, go out for a drink, and say, “Thanks man, I owe you one.” Especially when it all happens to someone like me. I mean, I’m not a well-known person in this town. I’m not a politician or a priest. Just a regular, hard-working, religious sort of guy. But, Jesus, my friend, came to me and gave me my life back. No, you don’t let that go without having a big celebration.

All kinds of people were there. I’m kind of a people watcher myself. So I just took everything in: Jesus and the disciples, some friends and neighbors. Others were gathering outside, trying to get a peak at me and Jesus through the windows. And my sister Martha was bustling around as usual. Martha is a practical woman. She’s one of those women that shows love by keeping busy. Always cooking and cleaning. She gets extra frantic about details when we have parties, especially when Jesus is here. Everything has to be just right. Usually she’s bossing me around. “Lazarus, go get some more water. Don’t forget to start up the barbecue. Make sure everyone has enough to eat.”–Things like that. Everything has to be perfect. She wasn’t bossing me around at this party, though. I was the guest of honor. I sat at the head table with Jesus and his followers, just watching everything happen.

My other sister Mary is just the opposite of Martha. She’s not really a detail person. I’ve never known Mary to have emotional outbursts. She’s a level-headed woman. But you should have seen her at my party. She came out of the back room with a clay pot, about the size of a pint jar. She broke the cap off it, and the luxuriant fragrance of perfume filled the air. This was not cheap Syrian toilette water, either. It was her bottle of spikenard. The stuff cost $10,000, imported directly from India. It was the most precious thing Mary owned.

I was taking a drink from my cup when she broke the jar and poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet. I was so shocked I practically showered everyone with the water in my mouth as I choked on it (which, by the way, wouldn’t have made Martha happy. I can hear her now, “Lazarus, I swear you live in a barn. Use some manners. We have company.”) Anyway–Mary could have splashed a couple of drops of perfume in Jesus’ direction as a token of thanks. I have to say, though, my sister Mary doesn’t do things halfway. She went and poured the whole bottle over the Lord’s feet. Not his head, like I expected, but his feet. The odd thing was, she wouldn’t even look Jesus in the eyes. It’s almost as if she didn’t want to be recognized. She just poured out the perfume and then began to rub it in with the hair on her head.

Now you have to understand, in my world, women don’t go around in mixed company with loose hair. When a girl is married her hair is bound up, and it’s never seen flowing loose in public again. Only immoral women appear in public with unbound hair. So, here’s my sister, acting like a cheap floozy with the guy who saved my life.

Now that some time has gone by, I realize that Mary didn’t really care what the rest of us thought. It reminds me of when two people are really in love–they are in a world of their own. Remember, I’m a people watcher. I see how people act when they are captivated with each other. They steal quick hand touches and eye glances. They rejoice that the world sees their love. Or have you ever seen a child who is free and uninhibited? She just loves what she’s doing at that moment, no matter who is watching. On the other hand, there are always people who are so worried about what others think that they never let loose. Not Mary. You could tell that she loved Jesus so much that it was nothing to her what others thought. At that moment, it was only she and her Lord.

Looking back on things, maybe Mary was the only one of us who had her focus adjusted correctly that night. I remember how irritated Judas was. Judas was always critical of others. Hey, that reminds of a joke I heard: While traveling separately through the countryside a Hindu, a Rabbi, and a Critic were caught in a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours.” The farmer told them. “You ought to spend the night. The problem is there is only room for two in the house. One of you must sleep in the stable.” “I’ll be the one said the Hindu, a little hardship is nothing to me.” And he went to the stable. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry he said to the others, but there is a cow in the barn. Cows are sacred creatures and I cannot impose.” “Don’t worry said the Rabbi, make yourself comfortable. I will go sleep in the stable” A few minutes later there was another knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother,” he said, “but there is a pig in the stable. In my religion pigs are unclean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping near a pig.” “Oh, all right said the Critic, “I’ll go sleep in the stable.” A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the pig and the cow. All right, it’s a corny joke, but I’m a dead man, remember? Cut me some slack.

The point is, nobody likes a critic. So we all rolled our eyes when Judas opened his mouth. He didn’t disappoint us. “What a colossal waste!” he cried out. “Lady, you could have sold that perfume and given the profits to us so we can help the poor. Instead you just dumped it out.” There was nothing but silence in the room. Mary paused only for a moment before she went back to wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.

We didn’t know why Jesus let Judas hold the group’s money. I guess Jesus saw something in that guy that the rest of us didn’t. Well, Judas was seeing dollar signs. In a sense, I guess I was too. I thought to myself, “Laz, Judas has a point. There are better things to do with valuable perfume than pour it on someone’s stinky feet. It’s really not rational. How are we going to live if Mary is going to do this with our treasures? It’s not responsible to our family. Why not sell it, and give a percentage of the proceeds to charity? We could feed a few poor people. We could buy a few things we want around the house. We could put it away and send the nieces and nephews to school.” Mary kept wiping the Master’s feet with her hair, almost hypnotically. As I watched her my thoughts were filled with a list of ten more things we could do with $10,000. Then Jesus spoke. “Leave her alone,” he said. Jesus bent down, and lifted Mary’s head up to met her eyes. Jesus looked right at her with discerning eyes and a knowing smile, but he was talking to the rest of us. “She was saving this perfume for this moment. She’s getting me ready for my death. There will always be poor people to give to. Let’s worry about them another time. You don’t always have me here.”

We had no idea what the man was talking about. We said things like, “Jesus, you’re not going to die soon. Knock it off. You’re going to bust up the party.” It turns out that as we were overprotecting Jesus, some of the men from my religious order were plotting how to kill him. I heard they even put a hit out on me. I guess they were a little jealous over the competition. At any rate, Jesus knew he was going to die. Kind of ironic, huh? He raised me to new life, and the price for it was his own life.

Here I am, a man who has the chance to start everything new. Jesus gave me an opportunity to set a new life in motion. Nothing has to be the same. A new world of possibilities is unfolding before me. You know, there are some things we can do almost any time; and there are some things that we will never do unless we seize the moment when it comes. I have so often been captured with the desire to do something that is big-hearted and generous, and then I put it off until tomorrow. But when tomorrow comes, the impulse is gone, the passion has burned out, and the opportunity is lost. If I’ve learned one thing from being a dead man, it’s that life is uncertain. We are moved to jabber some words of thanks, or praise, or love, but we put it off, and who knows if that person will be around tomorrow to hear it? It’s like what Jesus said. The poor will always be around, but he wouldn’t. The night of my party, Jesus gave us the opportunity to love him. Mary knew it.

Mary’s generous act of devotion gave me a new perspective on this whole new life of mine. As much as I thought Mary’s actions were irresponsible, I was also confronted with the beauty of the faith it takes to make such a costly sacrifice.

I guess it’s really not about the money. It’s not the amount of the gift, but it’s what we give. Mary gave more to Jesus than a pint of remarkably expensive perfume. The most costly, the most extravagant thing she offered was her devotion to Jesus. Her love and awe of Jesus made the costly perfume seem cheap in comparison. When I realized how I was holding back, I felt cheap in comparison, too.

So, here I am. I owe my life to Jesus. And what do I have to offer him? What’s my most extravagant offering? My money? My time? My expensive gifts? Mary taught me that those don’t mean a thing if I can’t also express my gratitude through love. The offering Jesus wants is the forfeiture of myself. He raised me to life so that I could waste myself on him. That’s what Jesus did for me. He offered his life because he loved me

Well, I best be signing off. By the way, I still smell that perfume in the house. Every time I walk into the front room, my nostrils are satisfied with a sweet reminder of what Mary did to show her love for Jesus. It always reminds me to do things now, for the chance to do them might never come again, and the failure to do them–especially the failure to express love, brings the bitterest remorse of all.

Sermon for March 18, 2007

Faith-filled Prayer
James 5:13-20

There once was a minister who grew tired of tending to the needs and demands of his congregation. Once Sunday he decided to play hooky. Instead of showing up to church, he headed out on the hiking trail. Towards late afternoon, as the preacher was walking along an old logging road, he finally began to feel relaxed and refreshed. As he turned a corner, however, he came face to face with a bear. The bear was huge, and it as eying the pastor as if he was a tasty afternoon snack. Not knowing what to do, the preacher dropped to his knees, bowed his head and began to pray. “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. I have done wrong. But if I could ask just one thing of you, Lord, please make this bear a Christian. I know that I was wrong to abandon my flock today. I thought ill of those who have put in my charge. But please, Lord, make this bear a Christian.” The preacher suddenly heard a strange thump. He lifted his eyes to see the mighty bear on its knees in the dirt. Its massive paw came together in a prayerful attitude. The great bear bowed its head, and then it began to speak. “O Lord, bless this meal we are about to receive. . .”

In today’s second scripture reading, James says that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. But how many of us here today feel like our prayers make a difference? When as the last time you felt that God heard your prayers, or that your prayers had an impact on your life and the lives of those around you? Like the preacher in the woods, many of our prayers consist of occasional begging to God when we are in trouble. This is genie-in-the-lamp praying – asking God to make your wishes come true without asking you to put any effort into it.

James talks about prayer differently. Prayer is not meant to be something that helps us escape our responsibilities. It’s also not supposed to be something that bores us. Prayer is supposed to be a practical part of our lives as Christians. Today we are going to think about how we can know if our prayers really work.

One of the first things we need to learn is how to be in contact with God so that God’s life and power can flow through us to others. Sometimes we assume that we are in contact with God when we really aren’t. Think about it like this: As I speak, dozens of radio, TV and wireless signals go through this room. But we can’t pick them up because we’re not tuned in to the proper frequency. The only one you can hear is the frequency from my wireless mic. Often we pray with all the faith we can muster, but nothing happens. Perhaps we aren’t tuned in to God. We let God know what we want, but we tune in to listen to what God wants from us. We do a lot of talking, but none of the listening.

Effective prayer reminds us who God is. We know our prayers are working when God taps us on the back and reminds us what kind of God we are praying to. Earlier in his letter, James tells us what kind of God this is. He writes, “Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures (1:17-18). Effective prayer restores us to a proper posture before God. In prayer, we remember that we are not the creator. We are the creation. It’s not our job to tell God what must be done to make us happy. Rather, we pray that God’s will be done and that we have the courage to accept it. Our prayers are effective when we finally get a sense of who God is: faithful, generous, compassionate and just – a loving companion who promises never to leave us or forsake us. To this God we pray in times of trouble. To God we sings songs of praise. To God we call out for help with the knowledge that God is greater than all of our circumstances.

Here’s another characteristic of effective prayer. Effective prayer leads to confession and repentance. James says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.” Confession stirs in us an awesome sense of God’s forgiveness.

During WWII a pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. He was arrested for running an underground church that opposed the Nazi regime. On the day of his execution, April 9, 1945, the camp doctor saw Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor of his cell, praying fervently to God. At the place of his execution, Bonhoeffer again said a brief prayer and stepped up to the gallows brave and composed. The camp doctor later reflected that in 50 years of medicine he had rarely seen a man die so serenely. Bonhoeffer was in touch with the effectiveness of prayer. In his underground church days, he wrote a book entitled Life Together. Listen to what he wrote about confession. “In the confession, the break through to new life occurs. Where sin is hated, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made . . . In confession the Christian begins to forsake his sins. Their dominion is broken.”

Some Christian communions interpret this to mean that we need to confess our sins to a priest. This is not our protestant understanding. We believe that God gives us the certainty of forgiveness through our brothers and sisters in Christ, not a religious official. Anyone who has been horrified by the effects of sin in his or her life and knows God’s forgiveness is qualified to listen to another fellow sinner with compassion. When we are willing to listen to each other with grace and respect, mutual confession can help us bring our sins into the light of God’s forgiveness.

Effective prayer reminds us that we sinners together. Effective prayer also reminds us that we are also healers together.

Effective prayer also leads us to pray for others. James says, “Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet.” Effective prayer calls us to look beyond our own needs and leads us to pray for others who need God’s touch.

There’s actually been a lot of controversy about whether intercessory prayer works. A study published in 2006 divided heart surgery patients into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers. The study insisted that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. Not only that, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications.

A new article is about to be published arguing that prayer does indeed work. The researcher analyzed 17 major studies on the effects of prayer offered for the benefit of another person among people with psychological or medical problems, including the one I just mentioned. In all, he found a positive effect. The researcher says, “Overall, [data] indicates that prayer is effective. Is it effective enough to meet the standards of the American Psychological Association’s Division 12 for empirically validated interventions? No. Thus, we should not be treating clients suffering with depression, for example, only with prayer.” That makes sense. What if you went to the doctor complaining of chest pains and she said, “Go home. I’ll pray for you. Call me in the morning.” I bet you would find a new doctor. I would, too.

The point of praying for others is not just to aid their physical or emotional healing. Prayer reminds us that God restores wholeness to life. God forms us into new creations. I performed a funeral last week for a long time church member. I was struck by the words of the burial liturgy – words that I have said often. “God, you have designed this world, and know all things good for us. Give us such faith that, by day and night, in all times and in all place, we may without fear entrust those who are dear to us to your never-failing live in this life and the life to come.” Prayer reminds us that our friends and family do not belong to us. They belong to God.
So, effective prayer reminds us who God is. It calls us to confession and new life. It leads us to pray for others. According to James, effective prayer compels us to put our faith into action. Effective prayer doesn’t stop with our asking. It leads to our giving. As Martin Luther once said, “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” In his poetic prayer entitled Likrat Shabbat, Jack Reimer expresses how our actions need to accompany our prayers:
“We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
for we know that You have made the world in a way that man must find his own path to peace within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
for You have already given us the resources with which to feed the entire world if we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, too root out prejudice;
for You have already given us eyes with which to see the good in all men if we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair;
for You have already given us the power to clear away slums and to give hope if we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
for You have already give us great minds with which to search out cures and healing if we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God, for strength, determination, and
willpower to do instead of just to pray, to become instead of merely to wish.”

James says that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. Prayer is not the petty invention of weak humanity. It is not a dreary performance. Prayer is God’s enabling act for humankind. It is contact of the living soul with God. It fills our emptiness with God’s fullness. It fills our poverty with god’s riches. It fortifies our weakness with God’s strength. How is your prayer life? Does it remind you of the true nature of God? Does it lead you to a greater awareness of your mistakes? Does it lead you a greater understanding of God’s total forgiveness? Does it motivate you to put your faith into action? Is your prayer powerful and effective?

Remember what James offers us. At all times, pray to God. The prayer of faith will make people whole.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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