Friday, August 17, 2007

Sermon for August 12, 2007

Sometimes We Need Snakes
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Do you like snakes? Not many do. I can think of no other creature on the face of the planet that so universally brings forth a sense of revulsion and disgust. When we used to live near Boston there was a woman named “the Snake Lady” She adopted sick and crippled boa constrictors and brought them on tour to schools and other groups for education where she would cuddle them and tell the stories of their previous abuse. She came to one of our church picnics once, causing one of the older members of the church to have a panic attack. True or not, many think of snakes as slimy and nasty. And as our Old Testament lesson reminds, snakes can also be dangerous.

It seems that the children of Israel, in the midst of their wilderness wandering, stumbled to a location south of the Dead Sea that was infamous for its lethal snakes. “Big deal,” they no doubt thought. “Why should we expect anything different? This trip has been one big fiasco from beginning to end.” In the Hebrew Bible, our book of Numbers is more accurately entitled, “In the Wilderness.” The account begins about a year after the Exodus. God tells Moses to take a census of the people to determine the NUMBER of men available for combat (thus the name “Numbers”). After the census, the children of Israel set out for the Promised Land.

It did not take long for mutinous muttering to begin. Their diet of manna was becoming stale. God has supplied those small round grains that appeared around the Israelites’ camp each morning. They were ground and baked into cakes or boiled into a bread called manna. But now they were weary of manna . The mumbled, “How about some MEAT, Moses? Egypt may not have been perfect, but at least we had some fish every so often...not to mention cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions, even garlic. Give us some meat.”

So Moses said to God, “Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’ I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.” (Numbers 11:11-15).

Poor Moses. God says that some help would be forthcoming Quail. God says, “Oh, You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.” (Num. 11:19-20a). So there!

The wilderness wandering continues. They arrived at the border of Canaan and were instructed to send in a spy squad for a 40-day reconnaissance run. The spies reported a land “flowing with milk and honey”, but also populated by menacing giants. Again, the weeping and wailing winds up. “All the People of Israel grumbled against Moses. The entire community was in on it: “Why didn’t we die in Egypt? Or in this wilderness? Why has GOD brought us to this country to kill us? Our wives and children are about to become plunder. Why don’t we just head back to Egypt? And right now!” (Num. 14:2-3) They wanted to choose a new leader to replace Moses, someone who would take them back to the Pharaoh.

By now, God is getting steamed. The LORD says to Moses, “How long will these people treat me like dirt? How long refuse to trust me? And with all these signs I’ve done among them! I’ve had enough—I’m going to hit them with a plague and kill them. But I’ll make you into a nation bigger and stronger than they ever were.” (Num. 14:11-12).
Once more, Moses steps in on the people’s behalf, calms God down and promises not to wipe Israel out. But there would be a price: the wilderness wandering would continue for 40 years.

The story doesn’t end there. More grumbling. One outright mutiny against Moses’ leadership ended up costing the lives of almost 15,000 people in a plague. And still the people complain. In today’s reading, the end of the long journey is near. The children of Israel have encamp in this desert region that is infamous for the snakes. The bellyaching begins: “Moses, why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable manna.” Their venomous tongues would be repaid in kind... with more venom. And people began to die. The Israelites come to Moses, finally admitting that they have done wrong: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Aha! All the twelve-step programs tell us that the only way to correct a problem is to recognize that you have it. They agree that their mouths have gotten them into this trouble. “Now Moses, please, please, please pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.”

So he does. Moses prays and receives this strange command about making a bronze image of a serpent and hanging it on a pole in the center of the camp. Then he is to inform the people that anyone who is bitten will survive if he or she will just cast their eyes toward the snake. Strange. Why not just get rid of the snakes? Was this God’s way of saying that healing will not come until we recognize the disease? So, the prescription was given - Look and Live - and they did. And the grumbling finally stopped.

Jesus recalled the story one night in a Jerusalem garden in a conversation with Nicodemus. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It was a wonderful word of love and grace. One might wish that this encounter in the desert with serious venom would have marked the absolute end of venomous complaining and criticizing among God’s people, but we know it did not. Complaining continues, even to this day, despite the fact that it does no one any good. Sometimes we might NEED snakes.

There is a story of three men who live on a ranch out West, the father John, the sons, Jake and Joe. They never had any use for the church until one day Jake is bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor is summoned, but the prognosis is not good. Jake is going to die. The younger son is sent to bring the preacher. When he arrives, the parson is asked to offer a prayer for Jake: “O Father God, we give you thanks that you have sent this snake to bite Jake. It has brought him to seek you. We ask, Lord, that you would send another snake to bite Joe and a really big one to bite the old man, so that they, too, might come to seek you. We thank you for your providence and ask that you send among us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen.”

Some years ago, an insightful watcher of the church by the name of Mike Yaconelli, wrote an article called “The Tyranny of Trivia.” Some of his observations remind me of our ancient desert wanderers as well as our own situation. Listen:
There is something wrong with the organized church. You know it. I know it. We all see that something is wrong -- drastically wrong. Just one semi-close look at the organized church - with its waning influence, its corruption, and its cultural impotence -- tells us that something has gone awry. But, the question is, what has gone awry? What IS wrong? I think I know . . .The problem is pettiness. Blatant pettiness.

Visit any local church board meeting, and you will be immediately shocked by the sheer abundance of pettiness. The flower committee chairman has decided to quit because someone didn’t check with her before they put flowers on the altar last Sunday. The Chairman of the Board is angry because a meeting was held without his knowledge. One of the elders is upset with the youth director because the youth director wants to take the church youth group to a secular Rock concert. The Women’s Kitchen committee is up in arms because, at the last youth group meeting (which has mushroomed from 15 kids to 90 kids in six months), the kids took some sugar from the kitchen. The janitor is threatening to quit because the youth group played a game on the grass over the weekend, and now the lawn needs extra work.
I can understand each and every one of the gripes mentioned above. I also understand that the same general argument is always made for each one of these gripes: “If you don’t have order, you have chaos. It sounds like a little thing, but if everyone was allowed to do ‘...,’ think what that would mean.”

Ah, yes, think what it would mean. What WOULD it mean? Probably nothing. And yet, in every church in this country, boards, ministers, and church members -- in the name of “what would this mean?” -- are running around trying to answer that very question. In other words, churches are so preoccupied with the petty, they can’t spend the time required to do what does matter. So, I would like to say what people in church leadership are apparently having a difficult time saying today: there is no excuse for pettiness in the church. Pettiness should have no place at all in any church for any reason. Petty people are . . . people who have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn’t matter...
Pettiness proved a problem for ancient Israel. Yes, they focused on the brass serpent when they were supposed to and found healing. They actually held on to that brass serpent for hundreds of years. And, as the years wore on, that brass serpent became an idol to which the people brought sacrifices. Finally, the practice became so outrageous that King Hezekiah smashed the thing to pieces. It’s easy to lose focus.

Time for the church to get the focus back. To Look and Live. And to remember how contagious that sort of thing is: look up, and everyone else wants to look up with you. What’s the point? This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.

Look up and live!

Sermon for August 5, 2007

The Ark Builders
Genesis 7:11-8:5

You have never heard the story of Noah until you’ve heard it from biblically illiterate Junior Highers. While I was at camp last week, we talked about the story of Noah’s Ark. Sure, we know about the flood and the rainbow, but did you know that there were mermaids and unicorns? When I asked the kids why God flooded the earth, one Jr. High girl told the group, “OK, so there were these evil men who built their house on some sand, and they wouldn’t listen to God so God sent a flood and everyone who built their house on the sand died but everyone who like built their house on the rocks lived, except the flood came over the whole earth, so they died too.” Bet you didn’t know that part! We see pictures of the animals going into the ark two by two that we don’t always pay attention to the details of the story.

I wonder what Noah must have thought after the flood–when he looked back on the months of awesome and fearful events. God gave Noah a surprise announcement that the whole creation would be destroyed by flood because it hadn’t turned out the way it was intended. In the olden days, people would settle any little disagreement with a rock to the head or a flint knife between the ribs. The times were filled with undiluted evil. The whole creation project was a wash out, so to speak, and God cleaned up everyone’s act with a bath like no one had ever seen. But the cure seemed as bad as the disease. God said to Noah, “Build an ark. Collect representatives from creation. Gather your family and you will be rescued. What’s not on the ark will be destroyed.” Noah thought about trying to change God’s mind, but God’s Voice sounded so sad, so very disappointed. It wasn’t long before the beautiful hills and valleys became nothing but dark water. After the fact, when new generations asked Noah how the long the journey lasted he would answer, “Forever.” To that day, when dark clouds rolled in and the smell of rain filled the air, the old feelings came rushing back..memories of being carried along like a single ship on an ocean of time stretching in all directions. He was filled with memories of being saved from death; being given a new chance by a loving God to be his people.

Let’s think about the disasters that surround us on a daily basis.
· We live in a world where people are desperate for spiritual truth, but they feel that they can’t find the answers they need from Christian churches.
· We live in a time when more than 30 million Americans who live in poverty–that’s more than live in the entire nations of Canada or Australia. Even worse, 40 percent of the American poor are children. For every dollar spent on ministries to the poor, a typical church spends 5 dollars on buildings and maintenance.
· In this nation, an overwhelming majority of teenagers feel disconnected from and devalued by adults.
· And we all know people are drowning in despair. Family members are fighting with one another. Our neighbors are isolated. People we know and love are broken, dying in the water, waiting for the next wave to crash upon them.
Thinking about it can give us a headache and a heartache. One thing hasn’t changed from Noah’s time until now. A drowning person can’t save himself. People need a Rescuer

Fortunately the situation is not hopeless. God never leaves people without a rescue plan! God’s solution for Noah’s day was to say, “Noah, build an ark, and be ready to gather those whom I have chosen to save.” Those ark builders did not just build a big boat. They were the vessels that brought life to a new generation. I believe God is calling us here at Trumbull Congregational Church to be ark builders. The God of creation is asking us to build vessels to rescue those who are perishing. I believe God is calling us to be modern day Noah’s–collecting God’s creation from the arms of death and leading them to life in Christ.

We are the ark builders for a new generation. My question this morning is this: What vessels can we use to bring the life of the gospel to a hurting world? What kind of containers can we use that will help people use the gospel to navigate the storms of life?

In the past the church has said, “Come on board and listen to our beautiful music. Hear an inspiring sermon. Talk with some people who care. Join a church board. Come to one of our classes. Become a church member. Come to us and you will find rest and peace.”

I think we got confused somewhere along the line. Don’t get me wrong. I love church. I’m the biggest church advocate you will ever find. But at some point we forgot that there are people around us who are dying. We got thinking that if people really wanted to get their lives together they would come to church. And when they get to church, they had better like organ music and hymns. They better like formality and liturgy, because that’s the way we do it. Where has it gotten us? We live in a time when people are more hungry for spiritual meaning than ever, yet mainline churches are losing members by the tens of thousands every year. The truth is that you can come to church for years and your life can still be miserable. You can sit in these pews week after week and still feel like you are dying inside. You can be sitting in a crowded sanctuary and be the loneliest person on the planet. The problem, as I see it, is that the church needs to cast off from the dock and get wet. Don’t expect people to just come here and get on board. Jesus calls us to weigh anchor and take off into the watery world around us.

Do you have a favorite cup? My favorite cup lately is this big, 30 oz yellow plastic tumbler. I like the way it fits my hand. The interesting thing about this containers is that I can pour water into my yellow tumbler, and the water will take the shape of the container. I can pour the same water into a different shaped cup, and the shape changes, but it’s still the same water–the recipe hasn’t changed. The containers change, but the content remains the same.
It’s the same when I serve communion. I can pour wine from one container to another, from pitcher to chalice. The wine takes the shape of the new containter, but it is still wine.

Every generation needs a container that fits its own hands and soul. Each person needs an ark to sail the storms of life. The truth is that your container might look different from mine. That’s OK. What matters is that the content is still the same. We are leading people to Jesus Christ, and He never changes. If we are serious about being ark builders, we need to be prepared to navigate the flood in vessels that we would never have considered seaworthy in the past. Our task is to offer the gospel to fill all shapes and sizes of containers. We tell the old story in new ways. Our calling is to be ark builders who help everyone, everywhere to negotiate the storm by using whatever it takes–whatever it takes-- to lead the dying to Christ.

As we come to communion this morning, we remember our Savior, Jesus, who emptied his human container so that we could have life. For those of us who have ever felt like we are drowning in the currents of life, let this meal serve as our re-introduction to our rescuer, Jesus Christ. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we respond in thanksgiving to by doing everything possible– EVERYTHING, to present the truth to the world. We are committed because we know that Jesus brings hope, healing, and life to those who are drowning.

Sermon for July 22, 2007

The Life of Justice
Micah 6:6-8

Have you ever heard someone say something like this: “There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone’s got to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?” That’s what might be called the “I’ve Got Mine” theory of social justice: I’ve got mine; let someone else take care of the world’s problems. It’s not much of a social justice theory, but I hear it a lot.

How about this one as an alternative? “Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mother Theresa. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t to that; I’m just an ordinary sort of person” That’s the Great Healer Theory of social justice: It takes a few great people to make a difference, and since I’m not a great person, I’ll wait for one to come along and follow that one. In the meantime, there’s not much I can do. Again, not much of a social justice theory. But I’ve heard it.

A variation on this theory is this: “There’s so much to do I wouldn’t know where to begin. I need someone to tell me. In the meantime, all I can do is wring my hands.” That one at least has the merit that it does not pretend to be anything but an excuse for not getting involved. Still, it has precious little to do with social justice. And it won’t heal any of the pain the world.

The church often uses guilt as a way to motivate people into action. “How can you possibly just stand there and do nothing? The world is falling to pieces all round you, from famine to racism. And if you don’t do anything about it, you are as guilty as those who perpetuate the pain, because your inaction allows the pain to continue and grow.” I know you’ve all heard some version of this. I’ve even preached it on occasion. It has the great virtue of getting a fair amount of social justice work started. Guilt really can motivate people. But there has to be something better, something that really will motivate people to get involved and touch the world with the loving compassion that Jesus demonstrated. This morning we will think about this as we read a word from a Hebrew Prophet.

In today's reading, God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. Israel has ignored God. The people have forgotten how God saved them from the land of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. In choosing not to remember their own exodus and the struggles leading up to liberation, the people grow indifferent. They are all too willing to bargain, to bribe, and to buy off their neighbor and their God. On the stand, Israel comes up with a clever defense. “What can we bring before the Lord to make up for what we’ve done? Maybe God would be happy if we took a valuable yearling calf and sacrificed it. No. . .God will want more. Maybe we should raise the value by sacrificing not one, but a thousand rams, and then smother it with rivers of precious olive oil. Then would God be pleased? What if we sacrificed our firstborn children to pay for the sins of our souls? Then would God forgive? Tell us the cost, and we will pay.”

The urgent cries of Israel don’t sound very different than our own laments today. We mess something up, and we have an urgent compulsion to clear our consciences. We want a sign that God forgives us and still loves us. We cry, “God, what do you want from me. What can I do to make up for what I’ve done? Will you be happy if I promise to go to church every Sunday for a month? How about a year? What if I make good on my stewardship pledge? I’ll even put a little extra in? Then would you be pleased, God? How much do I need to give in order to secure your love? Do I need to find the people and things that are most valuable to me and offer them to you, Lord? Then would you forgive? Tell me the cost, and I will pay.” WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?

Micah gives a surprise answer. If we think we can buy God’s love, then we have missed the point. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. God doesn’t require sacrifice of physical objects. God wants your heart. Micah says that if you want to experience God’s presence, then do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with your God. Let’s think about this for a minute.

First God says do justice or do what is right. God cares deeply about people and how we treat one another. If we could see the world through the eyes of God, we would be looking through eyes of compassion. God cares about our needs, our hurts and brokenness. In Micah’s day, most of the county’s leaders were caught up in their own comfort and prosperity. But Micah saw the suffering of the general population. He knew that justice would not come from the state or the power structure. Justice rises from people who dare to envision dynamic alternatives to their current unjust conditions. To do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Rather, justice means hard work. A life of justice asks us to work together, to analyze the present unjust system and to find ways to change the system. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, break down, disarm, and transform the world when we dare to see what is really happening without growing cynical. Living a life of justice means being willing to risk seeing another person’s suffering as our own.

Doing justice is hard because it means that life has to change. And many of us have a strong allergic reaction to change of any kind. We also have a strong revulsion to the church getting involved in politics. The important decisions in our time – whether there will be peace or war, freedom of totalitarianism, racial equality or discrimination, homophilia or homophobia, food or famine –all these are political decisions. Not every political issue of the day demands a decision from the churches. I don’t think churches should pursue political goals that are self-serving. I hate to see Christians try to legislate their convictions on divorce or abortion into sate and federal law. I hate to see Christians fight the ACLU to keep crèches on public greens, or prayer in schools, or evolution out of schools. I love to see Christian speak up and act up on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, to fight for housing for low-income families, for decent health care for the aging, for fair treatment of all people. Jesus pointed to the outcasts of the world—those who were handicapped, those who were poor, those who were in prison, those who were considered “the least”—and said, in effect, “Those people are just like me. If you love me, then you will also love them.” Anyone can love the healthy, the successful, and the glamorous. There’s little nobility or courage in that. But God calls us to a higher standard—to love and serve the world just as he does – to understand that when one suffers, we all suffer. When one person is given dignity, we are all brought a little higher. In these times that are neither safe nor sane, I love to see Christens risk maximum fidelity to Jesus Christ when they can expect to see minimal support from the culture around them. The churches have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But they also have to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity, but wholesale justice.

Micah also mentions kindness. Showing kindness means choosing to recognize and respond to the needy among us. In his book, The Power of the Powerless, Chris deVinck wrote about his brother Oliver who was severely handicapped, blind, and bedridden. No one was sure whether Oliver was aware of the world around him, although he did eat when he was fed. Though he lived to be over 30, feeding him was like feeding an eight-month-old child. He required 24-hour care, which his mother gave him until the day he died. Chris remembers it like this:

When I was in my early 20s, I met a girl, and I fell in love. After a few months I brought her home for dinner to meet my family. After the introductions and some small talk, my mother went to the kitchen to check the meal, and I asked the girl, “Would you like to see Oliver?” for I had, of course, told her about my brother. “No,” she answered. She did not want to see him. It was as if she slapped me in the face. In response I mumbled something polite and walked to the dining room.

Soon after, I met Rosemary—a dark-haired, dark-eyed, lovely girl. She asked me the names of my brothers and sisters. She bought me a copy of The Little Prince. She loved children. I thought she was wonderful. I brought her home after a few months to meet my family. The introductions. The small talk. We ate dinner; then it was time for me to feed Oliver. I walked into the kitchen … and prepared Oliver’s meal. Then, I remember, I sheepishly asked Roe if she’d like to come upstairs and see Oliver. “Sure,” she said, and up the stairs we went. I sat on Oliver’s bed as Roe stood and watched over my shoulder. I gave him his first spoonful, then his second. “Can I do that?” she asked with ease, with freedom, with compassion. So I gave her the bowl, and she fed Oliver one spoonful at a time.

Which girl would you marry? Today Roe and I have three children.

If you want to live in God’s forgiving grace, then walk in kindness, meeting the needs around you with the compassion of God.

Micah also mentions humility. A story is told about a doctor at a mental institution who made his rounds one evening. She heard someone shouting from one of the rooms. “I am the King of the Universe. I am the Ruler of the World! From now on everyone will do what I say because I am the Supreme Commander of the Galaxies!” The doctor investigated, opening a door to find a man in his underwear, standing on a chair, beating his chest and yelling, “I am the King of the Universe!” The doctor shouted, “Harry, get own off that chair! And quiet down! You’re disrupting people who are trying to sleep!” “I am the King of the Universe!” “Harry, your are not the King of the Universe!” “Yes I am!” he cried all the louder. “And just what makes you think you are the King of the Universe?” asked the doctor. “God told me I was King of the Universe!” shouted Harry. Just then, a voice erupted from another patient’s room down the hallway: “I did not say that!”

Humility means recognizing that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. In fact, it means serving others in a way that doesn’t even draw attention to the good deeds we do. It means that we do acts of justice and kindness with quiet simplicity.

Justice. Kindness. Humility. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to buy God off. But new life in Christ means living in ways that make life better for others. It’s risky and uncomfortable.

The life of justice is a response to God’s goodness. It refuses to back down in the face of evil. It never relents shining the light of grace into the dark place sin the world. Do you want to experience God’s presence? Do you seek tangible evidence of the New Life? Then live for God by living for justice, kindness, and humility.

Let me suggest some beginning steps in living such a life:
· Write a kind or encouraging letter, perhaps to someone who is struggling with a decision, or a failed marriage, or disappointment. Or write notes of encouragement to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world who are persecuted for their faith.
· Volunteer to help at a food bank.
· Guard the reputation of another person. Refuse to take part in discussions that focus on fault-finding or gossip.
· Look for injustice and address it. Ask yourself, “Am I doing something that oppresses someone else? Have I taken advantage of another person? By examining yourself, you will be able to see the injustice around you.
· Take a stand. All around is there is racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. You have the power to make a difference in Jesus’ name.

The life of justice is a life of sacrifice–but a much different kind than we may think. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. God has shown you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you. To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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