Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sermon for October 14, 2007 - -Stewardship Sunday

Why Are You Afraid?
Matthew 8:23-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Credo by William Sloan Coffin

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sermon for September 30, 2007

The Prophet Without Honor
Matthew 13:54-58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for September 23, 2007

The Unforgivable Sin
Matthew 12:22-37

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

“What? Why?” cried the minister.

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

“Why?” said the anguished minister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...