Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sermon for November 18, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you are ready, you can open your eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for November 11, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write back soon. Love,
Aunt Georgia

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

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sermon for October 28, 2007

The Confident Sinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we still do I, don’t we?

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

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

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

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

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