Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sermon for December 21, 2008 (Advent 4)

Birthing a Promise
Luke 1:26-38

Advent begins in darkness. Sometimes I think the world wishes it was different. Around this time of year, the world asks us to rush into the light. Just hours after we finish the leftover turkey and trimmings from Thanksgiving, the bells start ringing, the carols start playing, and the lights blink in our neighbor’s windows. The malls have been “Christmased” since October. With a world that resists the darkness, it’s even more important to stick to God’s plan. Advent begins in darkness.

And in that darkness, God asks us to do some things that are not part of our nature. Take it slow and steady. Savor the journey. Be honest and acknowledge that how we feel inwardly does not always match how the world insists we feel outwardly. No amount of tinsel or lights can take away the aching loss of a loved one. No amount of caroling can erase a frightening diagnosis or an impending surgery. No person can make you feel merry and bright when the real worries of the world darken your life. Perhaps it is fitting, even healing that Advent begins in darkness. The only place to go from here is toward the ever-increasing light.

For the last couple of months the days have been getting shorter and the nights have been getting longer. But today is the Winter Solstice. That means after today, the days lengthen and the nights get shorter. Advent gives way to Christmas. Darkness gives way to light.

The ancients had many metaphors to explain these cycles of the universe. The ancient Greeks the pull between darkness and light by telling a story about the seduction of Persephone. She was the daughter of Demeter, the Earth Mother. Hades, ruler of the underworld was a lonely bachelor and he wanted a wife. But what woman would marry a man whose kingdom was populated by the dead? Hades resorted to trickery. As Persephone was gathering flowers in the fields in Sicily, Hades suddenly appeared, thundering across the plain in his four-horse chariot. Hades swooped down upon Persephone and scooped her up with one arm. The earth opened up before Hades' chariot as he drove the jet-black horses down into the chasm. Hades and Persephone disappeared into the depths as the hole closed up behind them.

Mother Earth soon came looking for her daughter, but she could not find a trace of Persephone. Distraught and desperate, Mother Earth searched high and low for her daughter. She traveled to the farthest corners of the earth, searching for nine days and nights without ever stopping to eat, drink, bathe, or rest. She was in a fury. She destroyed crops and livestock as she lamented the loss of her daughter. After a full year of famine had plagued the earth, Zeus realized that if he allowed Demeter to persist, all of humankind would starve.

Meanwhile, Persephone had not eaten a single thing since her arrival in the Underworld —whether from sorrow, loss of appetite, or stubbornness. Hades urged Persephone to appease her hunger by eating a single pomegranate seed. Sadly, this apparent act of kindness was a trick. Anyone who tastes the food of Hades must remain in the Underworld. By the rules of etiquette, she had to stay with Hades as his wife for six months out of every year and then return to her mother for the other six. Some claim that Persephone was not happy to be married to Hades. Others wonder whether she ate the pomegranate seed deliberately as a way of breaking free from Mom and her bad temper.

Mother Earth mourns for her daughter during the six month she is in the Underworld and nothing grows during that. But Mother Earth rejoices when Persephone returns to the land of the living and the earth blooms and brings forth its fruits. Until, of course, Persephone has to return to her husband, Hades.

Darkness gives way to light. Winter to Spring. Death to life. The winter months take us into the warmth of our own caves, into the darkness, where only a candle lights our way; into our dreams where visions are formed. Beginning today, as the light begins its slow return, we enter a new phase. Having taken time to prepare a way for the Lord, we now take time to join with family and friends to honor this important turning point. We gather at Christmas time and set the wheels of joy, love and peace into full motion. We light candles, ring bells, sing, spiral and dance to the awakening of joy and enthusiasm in our hearts. We tap into the potential of our souls and create our dreams with confidence. Beginning today, we celebrate the return of the Light!

Christianity doesn’t typically think of history like this. Christian theologians preferred to think about history as having a beginning in the Garden of Eden and an end at the Second Coming of Christ. All of our metaphors and stories focus on this linear view of time. We even think about Christmas that way. Christ comes within a specific chain of events -- in the fullness of time, a savior is born to rescue humans from their sin.

Let’s think about the story another way this morning. Let’s celebrate the cycles of life. After all, life has no meaning except in a pairing with death. Summer has no meaning except in a pairing with winter. Male has no meaning except in pairing with female. The only way any of these terms has meaning is in union with its opposite. The ancients understood that. That is why their metaphors for the Divine, always include both male and female.

Mainstream Christianity removed the female element from the Divine, giving us only half the picture. We ended up worshiping an exclusively male image of God -- a "God of power and might" glorified in our liturgies and creeds. What kind of world could we live in now if the founders of Christianity had acknowledged that the dynamic between male and female and female perspectives.

The birth of Jesus is not just an interruption in chronology. The baby in a manger begins a a new cycle –a new creation. But it’s not all about angels bending near the earth singing songs of joy and peace. Before Mary births a promise, she will go through her own darkness. Mary had to wonder about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” occurred in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman engaged to each other had had a baby and the village knew it, they were considered to be married. It was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications. If Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and the man who slept with Joseph's fiancée and gotten her pregnant, if his identity were known.

So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, there are the words the angel Gabriel speaks about this child: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” If others heard that, odds were against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, would not have been supportive of a challenge to his throne and title. And Roman emperors claimed the title “son of god”. Anyone else heralded as a “son of god” was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. The paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.

All to say, advent begins in darkness. And in that darkness, God asks us to do some things that are not part of our nature. As we wait for the light, maybe we can think about what it means for us to give birth to the promise – what it means for us to be mothers of God. After all, what good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace but I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to a Son if I do not also give life to him in my time and my culture?

Today we can all think some more about what it means to be mothers of God. A theologian named Sallie McFague thinks about a God who keeps vigil with us through our times of darkness and does everything to bring us some peace. For her, God is like a mother who gives life to the world, nurtures our precious and vulnerable lives, and desires the growth and flourishing of all.

One very modern rabbi, Margaret Moers Wenig, wrote The Book of Women’s Sermons in which she played with the metaphor of God as mother. She imagined: “God is a woman, and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now, sometimes she has to strain to hear, her smile no longer innocent, yet she remembers everything. God sits down at her kitchen table, opens her Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages. There are pages she would rather skip, things she wishes she could forget: her children spoiling the house she created for us, brothers putting each other in chains. She remembers the dreams she had for us that we never fulfilled, remembers the many times she sat by our bedsides weeping that she could not stop the process that she had set in motion. God sits at her kitchen table: ‘Come home,’ she wants to say to us. ‘Come home.’ But she won’t call. She is afraid we will, again, say ‘No.’”

I hear God inviting us all to live and respond to the promises today. Will we say yes or no? Like Mary, we may freely and willingly respond to the Good News and we bear the promise of light, hope, and peace. Be aware this season. God appears more often as a whisper than a shout, in the shadows rather than the flash of light. God comes to us in the simple things, in simple ways, that so often go unnoticed. God appears on the margins where we would never think to look, in a place meager enough to receive the light of the world. As the light comes, so dawns the hope that the coming of the child will rekindle our fragile spirits.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Sermon for December 21, 2008 -- Advent 3

Finding Joy in the Season
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In an early October evening in 1843, Charles Dickens stepped from the brick-and-stone porch of his home near Regent’s Park in London. The cool air of dusk was a relief from the day’s unseasonal humidity as the author began his nightly walk. Dickens was deeply troubled. The 31-year-old father of four had thought he was at the peak of his career. The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby had all been successful novels. But now the celebrated writer faced serious financial problems. Sales of his the new novel were not what had been expected. It seemed his talent was being questioned. Dickens supported a large, extended family and his expenses were already nearly more than he could handle. His father and brothers were pleading for loans. His wife, Kate, was expecting their fifth child.

All summer long, Dickens worried about his mounting bills, especially the large mortgage that he owed on his house. He knew that he needed an idea that would earn him a large sum of money, and he needed the idea quickly. But in his depression, Dickens found it difficult to write. On one of his nightly walks, he ventured from his upscale neighborhood and neared the Thames River. Only the dull light from tenement windows illuminated the streets, now litter-strewn and lined with open sewers. The elegant ladies and well-dressed gentlemen of Dickens’s district were replaced by bawdy streetwalkers, pickpockets and beggars. The dismal scene reminded him of the nightmare that often troubled his sleep: A 12-year-old boy sits at a worktable piled high with pots of black boot paste. For 12 hours a day, six days a week, he attaches labels on the endless stream of pots to earn the six shillings that will keep him alive. The boy in the dream looks through the rotting warehouse floor into the cellar, where swarms of rats scurry about. Then he raises his eyes to the dirt-streaked window, dripping with condensation from London’s wintry weather. The light is fading now, along with the boy’s young hopes. His father is in debtors’ prison, and the youngster is receiving only an hour of school lessons during his dinner break at the warehouse. He feels helpless, abandoned. There may never be celebration, joy or hope again...

The nightmare was no scene from the author’s imagination. It was a memory from the impoverished days of his childhood. Fortunately, Dickens’s father had inherited some money, enabling him to pay off his debts and get out of prison -- and his young son escaped a dreary fate. Now the fear of being unable to pay his own debts haunted him. Wearily, he started home from his long walk. As he neared home, he felt the sudden flash of inspiration. What about a Christmas story! He would write one for the very people he passed on the black streets of London. People who lived and struggled with the same fears and longings he had known, people who hungered for a bit of cheer and hope.

But Christmas was less than three months away! How could he manage so great a task in so brief a time? The book would have to be short, certainly not a full novel. It would have to be finished by the end of November to be printed and distributed in time for Christmas sales. He would fill the story with the scenes and characters his readers loved. There would be a small, sickly child; his honest but ineffectual father; and, at the center of the piece, a selfish villain, an old man with a pointed nose and shriveled cheeks.

As the mild days of October gave way to a cool November, the manuscript grew page by page, and the story took life. The basic plot was simple enough for children to understand, but evoked themes that would define the meaning of Christmas for the next 150 years: After retiring alone to his cold, barren apartment on Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly London businessman, is visited by the spirit of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Doomed by his greed and insensitivity to his fellow man when alive, Marley’s ghost wanders the world in chains forged of his own indifference. He warns Scrooge that he must change, or suffer the same fate. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come appear and show Scrooge poignant scenes from his life and what will occur if he doesn’t mend his ways. Filled with remorse, Scrooge renounces his former selfishness and becomes a kind, generous, loving person who has learned the true spirit of Christmas.

As he wrote, something surprising happened to Dickens. What had begun as a desperate, calculated plan to rescue himself from debt soon began to change the author. As he wrote about the kind of Christmas he loved, his depression lifted. A Christmas Carol captured his heart and soul. Dickens grew excited and impatient to begin the day’s work. “I was very much affected by the little book and was “reluctant to lay it aside for a moment,” he later wrote a newspaperman. Dickens told a professor in America how, when writing, he “wept, and laughed, and wept again.”

The first edition of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. Despite the book’s public acclaim, it did not turn into the immediate financial success that Dickens had hoped for, because of the low price he placed on the book. Nevertheless, he made enough money from it to scrape by and A Christmas Carol’s popularity revived his audience for subsequent novels, while giving a fresh, new direction to his life and career.

Although Dickens would write many other well-received and financially profitable books, nothing would equal the soul-satisfying joy he derived from A Christmas Carol. Dickens popularized many aspects of the Christmas we celebrate today, including great family gatherings, seasonal drinks and dishes and gift giving. Even our language has been enriched by the tale. Who has not known a “Scrooge,” or uttered “Bah! Humbug!” when feeling irritated or disbelieving. And the phrase “Merry Christmas!” gained wider usage after the story appeared.

Dicken’s life story and his famous Christmas story have familiar plotlines. We hear it in most Christmas stories, including the original from the Bible. A person, poor in wealth or poor in spirit, desperate and hopeless, encounters the true meaning of Christmas, finds joy and is changed. How about you? Is this your story this Christmas? I mean – it’s Christmas, after all. We are supposed to be happy. This is the season when the themes of joy and happiness are trumpeted at their loudest. It is also a season of commercialism, greed and debt. This year people are losing jobs, losing homes, and unable to feed their families. For many, this is a season of fear, a season of sadness, a season filled with anxiety, a season of loneliness. How dare we trivialize their aches by offering joy as a cheap antidote!

However, maybe there’s something to be heard in those worn out plotlines of joy, peace on earth and good will to all. Instead of becoming indifferent to our pain and the hurting world around us, we take some time to gain perspective. Christmas is a time of joy, not because we receive and give gifts or because we get to eat our favorite foods, but because in it humankind's deepest yearnings are fulfilled. Advent is about the hopes and fears of all the years, the triumphs and tragedies of all the years, the joys and griefs of all the years and in all of our lives... coming into a healing focus in the person of God’s Messiah. The great images of Advent are of darkness giving way to light, grief to faith or even joy, the barrenness of a desert to the beauty of paradise - paradise restored, longing to hope and the arrival of God’s salvation - especially in the advent of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, then and now.

It’s all here in our Isaiah text. Jerusalem had been leveled to the ground in 587 B.C. by the armies of Babylon. The victors marched the captive Israelites into exile where they lived for the next fifty to seventy years. When Cyrus of Persia came to power, he granted the opportunity for the people of Israel to return home. As the grown grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original exiles arrived at their homeland, the mood turned gloomy. They returned to a forsaken and abandoned city in ruins. With limited financial resources, meager food supplies and harsh weather conditions, the people found the task of rebuilding their homeland next to impossible. God felt distant. God promised a new beginning for the people and they believed it. Their new life fell far short of what the prophets had promised. Israel had no word from God and nowhere to go. Then comes the word of hope that they need.

God speaks a word of faith, reminding them that God has actually come into humanity’s situations of misery and pain and grief.

God speaks a word of justice for the oppressed and for captives -- ‘good news’ that those sold into slavery through war or debt can legally be freed, those with confiscated lands can have them back; a gift of hope that the future is as secure as God’s promises; that a covenant of justice will prevail between God and God’s people

God speaks a word of mercy -- God comes with tenderness to bind up the broken-hearted, comfort those who mourn, giving joy to God’s people like that of a bride on her wedding-day. We still rely on those promises today. Our message insists that Jesus sets us free, and when God sets us free, we can respond with joy. We could use to let some of that joy into our hearts at this time of year.

Try to imagine this picture. It is a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who pioneered modern photography as an art form. He was known for photographs that left mysteries unexplained He shot one of his famous photographs in a poor section of Spain in the 1930s. Peering through a hole in a concrete barrier, we see a run-down alley surrounded by decaying walls, strewn with thick piles of rubble and riddled with bullet holes dotting gray walls. The setting evokes feelings of sadness and despair. But then the contradiction. Within the grim alley children are playing. They wear dirty and tattered clothes, as one might expect, but like playing children everywhere, they laugh with carefree joy. In the foreground, a tiny boy on crutches hobbles away from two other boys, his face lit up with a broad grin. One boy is laughing so hard he has to hold his side. Others lean on the cracked walls, beaming with delight. It is easy to spot the contrast -- and the point. Joy amidst the rubble of life. Laughter among its ruins. We cannot avoid pain, however hard we try. But we can avoid joy. We cannot escape hardship and trouble, but we can miss much of life’s joy and laughter.

If your heart aches this Advent season for any reason -- the loss of love in a marriage, the memory of someone you love who is now with God, concern about a child, concerns about your health, worries about money -- don’t let despair defeat you. Take a moment and really appreciate something this season . . . anything. Let it soak in. Breathe in, breathe out, be thankful. Let yourself laugh a little. I know it’s difficult. It may be hard to see any goodness around you. But there IS goodness all around you, I promise!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, December 7 (Advent 2)

Messengers of Hope
Mark 1:1-8

More housecleaning will be done at this time of year than any other. You know it if you have a live Christmas tree, because you’ve already vacuumed the floor about 6 times this morning. We clean because holidays mean company. Company means you have to move the stacks of gifts, fold or hide the piles of clothes, and clean or hide the stack of dishes in the sink before anyone comes over and finds out what your house looks like most of the time. When people come, we like to prepare for them–we clean, we cook and serve food, we decorate, and do what we can to make the visitor feel welcome. In the ancient Middle East, there was a practice much like our own: people would clean and to get ready for the visit of a dignitary. When the dignitary was a king or emperor, the cleaning included improving the roads leading to the city. It was kind of like an ancient New Deal. All kinds of jobs were instantly created, and the citizens of the area would be conscripted into service filling potholes, moving stones out the way, and smoothing out the road. The Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer refer to this practice.

Isaiah offers these words of comfort as he thinks about preparing the way for God, who is coming like a king. God the King is going to lead the people of Israel out of their captivity and back home to the Promised Land. Listen to what Isaiah says:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)
Mark quotes Isaiah when he talks about John the Baptist. Mark writes:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” ( Mark 1:2-3).
I’m wondering if there are some road improvements to be done in our hearts this Advent. I wonder if the desert places in our lives need to be made ready for God to come into our lives.

Robert Frost’s poem entitled Desert Places reminds us of where our work needs to begin:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
I appreciate his words after I took a little walk this morning in the snow. White Plains Road was deserted. The blanket of snow muffled all sounds, except the cry of a seagull looking for food near a dumpster. I know soon enough, the traffic will start and people will make their lives busy -- some to escape the emptiness that they feel inside of them. The desert places exist inside our own lives. They aren’t out there some place. We inhabit our desert places in our hearts. If we quiet ourselves and let ourselves think, we know that the place where the straight highway must be built is in our own hearts, in our own lives. We know that it is in our own desert places that we must do some road work:
· Leveling the potholes of sin with the filling of newness
· Straightening paths that we made crooked by our bad decisions
· Moving the stones and barriers out of the way that we put in our hearts to keep others out.

If we can stop and listen, the voice of John the Baptizer will sound as loud and clear as ever. His is the voice speaking out in the lonely wilderness of our hearts saying, “Repent!”

Let me tell you about what I do when I’m feeling called to get serious about straightening up my spiritual life. I get swept up in the moment. I plan major improvements in my life. I say “I’m going to read a chapter of the Bible every day. I’m going to set time aside to pray. I’m going to study, and journal and I don’t even like to journal. But I’ll do it for you, God.” I really do it, too–for three or four days. Maybe you do the same thing. In a burst of sincere commitment, we may actually read the Bible; we may actually find the time to say a few prayers (and, because we are Congregationalists, if we can’t think of any on our own, we read some that somebody else has written already – it’s OK.). And what happens? Well, if you are like me, nothing happens...nothing at all. We try it for a week and nothing seems to be happening. Where’s God? We’re building this highway ... where’s God? We want some action! We want things to go fast! Where’s God? We want to hear the voice from Heaven; we want the choirs of angels to sing; we want our souls to soar! But it seems to take so long ... things go so slowly!

Having lived in New England most of my life, I can say that the roads are torturous if you are trying to get somewhere quickly. The pavement is in good condition, but it is very hard to find a straight path from point A to point B. The roads meander along rivers, or through crooked valleys and small villages. If you drive around long enough, you begin wishing for a straighter path, or a wider road, from point A to point B so that you don’t have to continually be wandering behind congested traffic on winding roads. But the roads don’t change. It would cost too much to change. It would use to many resources. The highway department would actually slow traffic down. When travel becomes too inconvenient, people get angry! Some people shout! Some people honk their horns! Some people curse! Some people do some mighty interesting things with sign language!

The same is true in our spiritual lives. We recognize the problem, we recognize the need for a straight path to God. We begin the process of spiritual growth. And then we think of the risks and costs. Bible study and prayer take too many precious minutes out of our busy days. There are no immediate results. We are determined but we are not patient. We’re ready to go and we want to see some results, even when what we’re doing is responding to God’s call for change. We decide how we’re going to respond ... set aside this amount of time to read our Bibles, schedule these minutes to say our prayers ... and then say, “I’ve read my Bible readings, I’ve prayed my prayers, I read my meditation from The Upper Room, and I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer. Why isn’t anything happening?”

OK, you worked on Jesus...but did you allow Jesus to work on you? That’s the question. Did you allow Jesus to work on you? Did you let the Word of God move in you unhindered? For the call to repentance is more than just a call for us to recognize the need to say, “I’m sorry,” and set aside a few minutes a day to engage in “spiritual stuff.” The call to repentance is the call to turn our lives around, to change directions. Repentance begins by turning from the crooked way and walking the straight highway that connects us with the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit begins the process by inviting us to join in the unhurried process of building a better and stronger relationship with God, a straight and level highway allowing the two-way traffic of love.
Repentance, the turning around of our life is not a quick fix. The construction team headed by Holy Spirit does not do careless work. It takes determination on our part, to be sure...it takes a plan! And it takes patience. God works in God’s time, not our. We must be patient as God works within us to bring our construction projects to a new level of completion.

Road construction can last a long time...it’s even been known to take all of one’s life. But far better for you and I to be even the slowest of construction than dejected wanderers in the desert. God has already taken the first step to building that two-way highway. When you sense God’s work in you this season, you will become a messenger of hope – one who senses God’s presence and proclaims that God is here, straightening crooked lives and preparing hearts for God’s reign.

I opened with Robert Frost’s poem about Desert Places. Let me close Hank Anderson’s poem entitled The Glory Road.
Remember what Isaiah and John had to say,
About building the Lord a straight highway.
But how’s a poor poet to make every hill low,
And exalt every valley, I’d like to know.
We’ll write poems with the faith of the mustard seed,
To move all the mountains we’re apt to need.
We’ll fill every pot hole with poems and prayer,
And have it smooth as silk when the Lord gets there.
Ours will be a Glory Road never needing repair,
bringing joy to the needy and those in despair.
And while we’re at it, let’s make it plenty wide,
‘Cause there’s lots of us that want to walk by God’s side.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, November 16, 2008

Our Core Values: Children and Youth
Romans 12:3-16; Proverbs 22:6

Train children to live the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray from it.

Let’s talk about the ostrich. Did you know that the ostrich doesn’t sit on her eggs to incubate them? She will lay them in desert, kick some sand over them, and then run away to insure her own safety. Not what we would call a nurturer. The mother ostrich, in fact, has become the symbol of the careless mother. The book of Job says this about the ostrich: “She forgets that a foot may crush them, or that a wild beast may break them. She treats her young harshly, as though they were not hers; her labor is in vain, without concern, because God deprived her of wisdom, and did not endow her with understanding.” [Job 39:13-18]. Yet, despite all this bad mothering, the ostrich lays the largest, most beautiful, and perfect egg of all. I got thinking about ostriches and I began to wonder if some times we see ostrich syndrome in our culture. We look around and see members of God’s beautiful creation, left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. Let me explain by telling you about Eddie.

I met Eddie in a Boston suburb about seven years ago. He was sixteen years old. His hair was dyed raven black and his nose, lips, and ears with festooned with silver rings. His personality absorbed and deflected all happiness, just like his black clothes rejected light. Eddie saw the world through dramatic and disturbed eyes, and he carried around with him a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. He was living in a divorced home, and he had little daily contact with his parents. He would tell me that his parents didn’t care where he was or what he did, as long as he wasn’t dead. You might think this is typical teenage exaggeration, except for the fact that I never saw Eddie’s parents. Eddie was in charge of taking care of his siblings. He protected his siblings like a mother lioness. It’s not that he cared about his siblings as much as he was afraid of what his father would do to him if anything bad happened to one of the younger ones. Eddie’s father was a violent man who believed that the best way to raise a kids was to smack ‘em every once in a while. Even though Eddie carried total responsibility for his and his family’s well-being, he had no conscience when it came to his own actions. Like his dad, he wouldn’t think twice about hurting another person who got in his way. He was always worried about betrayal and rejection, so he excluded himself from gatherings of his peers. He preferred to spend his precious little free time listening to the band Nine Inch Nails and fantasizing about what he would do when his court probation was over. His plans included getting revenge on all who hurt him, beginning his parents. Eddie’s only ambition in life was, “to get out of here.” I asked him once what his siblings would do without his care when he graduated from high school. He answered with a deadpan growl, “If I graduate, that’s their problem, not mine.”

It’s mother ostrich syndrome. The parents are too busy beating each other up to think about their obligation to raise their young. So, lack of nurture continues the cycle. Eddie will likely become part of the rhythm of non-nurturing parents who allow their children to be eaten alive by bad choices. Psychologists say that parents with low-control and low-acceptance of their children, like Eddie’s parents, produce children who struggle with problems like delinquency and drug abuse. How does the church nurture Eddie? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Eddie and help him experience abundant life in Christ?

Maybe Eddie’s story is too extreme. Let me tell you about Meg. Meg is a widow with four grown children. She loves them fiercely and would give them the world if she could. As a mother, she believed that it was best to let kids make their own choices when it comes to their faith. Meg is part of our country’s nominal Christian culture. She believes in God, but couldn’t tell you what God means to her personally. She believes people should go to church, but she herself won’t go and sit with all the hypocrites. She firmly believed that when her children grew to adulthood, they would choose their own spiritual path, and she didn’t want to bias them or shove religion down their throats. Do you know what her children believe today? Nothing, really. They are mirror images of her own religion, finding importance but no personal meaning in church. They feel awkward, uncomfortable, and unwanted in church services, so they participate only rarely. Now Meg’s children have children of their own, and the cycle continues. I sometimes wonder of Meg is satisfied with the choices she made.

How does the church nurture Meg and her family? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Meg and help her experience abundant life in Christ?

Is the church a mother ostrich sometimes? Jasmine might think so. Like many teenagers, Jasmine got caught up with the wrong crowd. Her language was vile. She smoked and drank and loved the weekend party life in the basements in town. Many of the troubled kids at school could sense Jasmine’s street smarts and wanted to hang out with her. Jasmine had one friend who was different. Teresa was always friendly to Jasmine and seemed to glimpse the real person beyond her bad-girl vices. Jasmine eventually started attending worship services at Teresa’s church. They went to youth group together, and Jasmine loved it. She even started going out with a guy from the youth group. Life was starting to look good for Jasmine. But she had a very hard time giving up her old habits. One night Teresa called Jasmine crying. “What’s the matter?” Jasmine asked. Teresa sobbed, “There are a bunch of people at church who don’t want you coming to youth group anymore. They think you’re a . . . bad influence.” “Why, because I smoke,” Jasmine defensively replied. “It’s more than that. They say it’s how you dress. They think it’s too suggestive. Some people have complained about your language, too. Even my parents are concerned about our friendship. Really, Jasmine, some of the people you hang out with are kind of scary.” Three weeks later, Jasmine dropped out of church and youth group, and started behaving worse than before. Sometimes the church is so concerned with outward appearances, we forget that God nurtures the heart and changes the inside first. We become like parents who are authoritarian figures: high in control and low in acceptance. Psychologists say that this kind of parenting can produce offspring who are socially inadequate and lacking in confidence. They are at risk of compromising themselves to find the acceptance from anyone with a better offer. How can the church nurture Jasmine? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Jasmine and help her experience abundant life in Christ?

Today’s reading from Proverbs reminds us of what it takes to be nurturers in an age where many are left as spiritual and emotional orphans. God’s word reminds us that there is more to life than just taking care of our own needs while ignoring others’. Paul says in Romans, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves (12:9-10). We also hear the call to pay attention to other’s needs in Proverbs: Train children to live the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray from it. How, are you and I supposed to raise our kids faithfully? Let me give you a one-word answer: Hanukkah. That’s the actual Hebrew word in this verse for “train”. The literal definition of Hanukkah is “dedicate”. It means that you and I have a duty to pointing our children toward God.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had a Great Dane puppy. I remember one day seeing the Dog thinking that my grandparents had played a cruel trick. The dog had clothespins on his ears and they were taped up. Then I learned that that was what you do to train a Great Dane’s ears to stand straight up. They don’t do that on their own. They just flop down. They don’t stand up straight by accident. Well, our children most likely aren’t going to have a relationship with God by accident. Hanukkah. Intentionality. Train them. Dedicate.

What does all this have to do with TCC’s commitment to nurture youth and children? First of all it means that we have a first-rate staff or people who are here to help you train your children. I hope you picked up on the word “help.” It is not our job to ensure that your kids know God. Our Christian Education program is only meant to be a support system for what you are doing at home. Your home is the number one influence in the life of your child. The average church has a child for 1% of his or her time. The home has him 83% of your kids’ time and the school for the remaining 16%. This does not minimize the need for churches and schools, but it establishes the reality your home is 83% of your child's world and you only a brief amount of time in life to make the most of it.

With that being said, TCC is committed to assisting you in the training of your children. This happens in a number of ways. First, we want our children to be part of the worship life of our church. I don’t believe the children and youth of our church are the future of TCC, they are the church now, and we seek to find ways to have them be active in our worship.

Secondly, we are committed to providing the best Church School and Youth Ministry possible. Selina is fabulous. She loves your children and wants to see them flourish. She has a great committee of people to back her up. My children actually enjoy coming to Church School. That says something.

Nurturing our children and youth means becoming role models for them. They’re looking for models. They need to experience adults who demonstrate faith and love. Do your kids see us pray? Do your kids observe you worshiping? I’m not talking about going to church, the two can be totally different things. Do they see you worshiping from your heart? Do your kids see you as a person of compassion? Do your kids see you asking for forgiveness when you’ve blown it, especially if you’ve blown it with them? Do your kids ever hear you openly and honestly talk about your own faith journey with the living God.

Do our children see us modeling compassion with each other? Do they see us taking care of our community and being stewards of the earth? Let’s model these basic behaviors to our children. Take the first step today. What would happen if our children saw us reach out to one person today with a warm greeting and a smile of caring? What would happen if you asked your child, “I’d like to pray for you today. Is there anything I can pray for specifically?” How about letting your child hear you actually pray for his or her needs and for those around us? How about letting your children see you reaching out with compassionate care to others?

The Henry Street Hebrew School finished its lessons for the day and Mr. Goldblatt always ended with a question and answer time. It was his favorite time. Little Joey said, “I’m in a big dilemma, you’ve got to help me with this perplexing dilemma I’m in.” Mr. Goldblatt said, “Fire away, Joey.” “Mr. Goldblatt, isn’t it true that the Bible says that the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea?” “Yeah.” “Does the Bible say that the children of Israel fought the Philistines, beat ‘em up pretty bad?” “Well, yeah, that’s what it says.” “ Does the Bible say that the children of Israel erected the temple in Jerusalem?” “Joey, you are really learning your lessons well, yes!” “Well, does the Bible also say that the children of Israel fought the Egyptians, that they fought the Romans and that anything important that happened in the life of Israel, the children of Israel were involved in it?” “Yeah, what’s your dilemma?” He says, “I just want to know what were all the grown-ups doing?”

What are all the grown-ups doing at TCC? I’d like us to be able to say that we are committed to we dedicating, training, and pointing our children’s feet into the loving arms of Christ.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2008

Our Core Values: Outreach
Luke 4:16-21
Nov. 9, 2008

Predators seem beautifully designed to catch prey animals, while the prey animals seem equally beautifully designed to escape them. So, whose side is God on? I was thinking about this when I read a story: In the middle of a forest, a hunter was suddenly confronted by a huge, mean bear. In his fear, all attempts to shoot the bear were unsuccessful. Finally, he turned and ran as fast as he could. The hunter ran and ran and ran, until he ended up at the edge of a very steep cliff. His hopes were dim. Seeing no way out of his predicament, and with the bear closing in rather quickly, the hunter got down on his knees, opened his arms, and exclaimed, “Dear God! Please give this bear some religion!” The skies darkened and there was lightning in the air. Just a few feet short of the hunter, the bear came to an abrupt stop, fell to its knees, folded its mighty paws together, and owed its head. Then the bear began to speak: “Thank you, God, for the food I’m about to receive.”

People always claim that God is for them and them alone. Whose side is God on? Is God a Democrat or a Republican? Male or female? A warrior or a peacenik? A Yankees or a Red Sox fan? Does God say “to-may-to” or “to-mah-to”? We all like to think that God is on our side. When we ask God to be our personal cheerleader, it must that we are also asking God to jeer those who oppose us. After all, God can’t be on everyone’s side. That would not make sense. In our righteousness, we insist that God’s opinions match with ours. We sift through the Bible for nuggets that justify our claim to God’s favor. In the process, we present a vision of God that is fragmented, partisan, divided. We divvy God in little divine pieces among us.

Think about the Pharisees, both ancient and modern They will tell you that you have to follow all of their rules and rituals to the letter in order to be acceptable to God. Except they never show you the small print on the membership contract: you will never be good enough to join, so just stay away. So, whose side is God on?

Rich or poor? Married, single or divorced? Gay or straight? Patriarch or feminist? Child or adult? Whose side is God on? One way can find out is on is to look in the Bible and read about with whom Jesus spent his time. To whom did he reach out? With this question in mind, let's turn to today's Gospel reading.

When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”
Whose side is God on? I think this passage gives a clear answer to our question. Jesus unrolls a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and read a passage that talk about how God is going to restore the Israelite exiles. God will renew the people by being present with those who have been forgotten by society. The poor. The blind. The prisoner. Jesus takes that mission upon himself. He goes where God goes and does what God does. God is revealed as the loving Giver. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these categories of people.

The poor are mentioned first. As in our day, the poor were not influential people. They often had to sell themselves or family members into slavery to pay off debts. Jesus was filled with compassion for the poor, not only the spiritually poor, but also those who were socially and economically poor. When you realize how contemptible poor people were, you will understand how revolutionary Jesus was. In the Greek, the verb “I spit” is ptuoh. The word for poor or beggar is ptochos. I poor person was literally a “spit upon one.” Jesus seeks out these spit upon ones and says, “I have good news for you. The day of abundance has come.”

Then there are Prisoners. Some commentators think Jesus may have been referring to imprisoned debtors. If so, these people were behind bars because they owed something to someone. Prisoners are contemptible people. Jesus says that part of his mission is to proclaim freedom for prisoners and forgiveness for debtors. Jesus cancels debts. He forgives the offenses that shackle people. They have wronged us and are being punished. Jesus committed himself to speaking words of courage and peace, love and justice. Jesus knew that words of faith spoken with compassion have the power to bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by situations of life.

A while ago, a prison inmate wrote the following account:
In the summer of 1987, I had just finished my third year on San Quentin’s death row. I was getting ready to spend my time exercising when the guard told me, “You’re going to miss Mother Teresa. She’s coming today to see you guys.” Yea, sure. I thought this is just one more of those designs they have on us. But after awhile I heard the commotion and the bells went off, and I realized maybe this was true. “Don’t go into your cells and lock up. Mother Teresa stayed to see you guys, too.” So I jogged up to the front in gym shorts and a tattered basketball shirt with the arms ripped out, and on the other side of the security screen was this tiny woman who looked 100 years old. Yes, it was Mother Teresa. You have to understand that, basically, I’m a dead man. I don’t have to observe any sort of social convention; and as a result, I can break all the rules, say what I want. But one look at this Nobel Prize winner, this woman so many people view as a living saint, and I was speechless. Incredible vitality and warmth came from her wizened, piercing eyes. She smiled at me, blessed a religious medal, and handed it to me. I wouldn’t have walked voluntarily to the front of the tier to see the Warden, the Governor, the President, or the Pope. I could not care less about them. But standing before this woman, all I could say was, “Thank you, Mother Teresa.” Then I stepped back to let another dead man come forward to receive his medal. Then Mother Teresa turned and pointed her hand at the sergeant. “What you do to these men,” she told him, “you do to God.” The sergeant almost faded away in surprise and wonder.
I think that’s what Jesus did. He reached across the social barriers and touched prisoners. And most of us are prisoners, from time to time. We are trapped to jobs, to circumstance, to children, to spouses, to singleness, to childlessness, to the economy, to addictions, to infirmities; prisoners of expectations, hopes, fears, regrets, uncertainties, and griefs; we are prisoners of out worn ideas and of futures that have not arrived; prisoners of our own shame, of our own apathy, of regrets for the past, of hopes for the future, of our own greed. There are moments when it breaks into each of our consciousness with a terror that chills. To the prisoner, Jesus offers a simple message. “I have good news for you. Today can be your day of freedom.”

Jesus spent a lot of time giving sight to blind eyes. For that matter, he spent a lot of time with sick people. Jesus was a healer who spoke words of wholeness. He prayed for healing for the blind, sick and lame -- people who were looked upon by society as liabilities. Jesus always found ways to be a healer of broken emotions, broken relationships, and broken communities. He knew that when you take care of the physical problems, it allows people to accept new spiritual realities. To the blind Jesus says, “I have good news for you. The day of a new, healing vision has come.”

Jesus also talks about Release for Captives. This phrase can also be translated as “forgiveness for the downtrodden.” Jesus committed himself to speaking words of forgiveness to those who needed to know the grace and mercy of God. And, realizing the great injustices suffered by outcasts, he treated all people with fairness, and compassion.

Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he had been asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old child whose next-door neighbor was an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old man’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Compassion is about opening people up to the reality of God’s love. Compassion has to do with suffering along with the downtrodden. Who is oppressed in our community? What about the grieving parent who is told that it’s time to get over the death of a child? What about those who work for a wage they can’t live on without going into debt, but who cannot get another job? What about those living in sub-standard housing but they can’t afford to move? What about those who may be earning big money, but who have to work every hour otherwise they won’t get the bonuses or they won’t have the job security, and they won’t be able to pay their huge mortgage? Jesus is saying, “I have good news for you. The day of your release has come.”

God is on the side of the people who lay down their loves sacrificially. God’s on the side of the child, regardless of nationality, searching for a family in the rubble that was once home. God’s with the grief-stricken, the lonely, the desperate and the broken-hearted. Our God, who knows suffering so well, is with those like the disgraced criminal dying on a cross beside Christ. Our God, it seems, is rather passionately on the side of these so-called “losers.”

The real question is, whose side are we on? At TCC, we have identified outreach as one of our core values. We desire to extend God’s love, through service and outreach, to those in the community and the world, as best as we are able. Who are the targets of our outreach? Are we reaching out to those who have captured God’s heart? Where are the weak and the powerless? Where are the ones that can’t defend or speak for themselves? Where are the ones who are trapped and can’t find the key to freedom? That’s where God will be. And that’s where we need to be.

Have you ever heard or said 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?”

How about this one:

“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.”
I’ve thought things like that myself. It’s a problem, because if Jesus reaches out as God’s loving Giver, and we are supposed to follow in his steps, the excuses don’t really do much but to perpetuate the brokenness of the world.

I may not be a Ghandi, but all that means is that I am not called to lead a movement. It does not mean that I am not called to love compassionately. When our love becomes truly compassionate, then we begin to understand what to do. We begin to see what’s happening around us. We notice those who are already doing outreach, and how they’re doing it. We begin to see what people really need, and we begin to have the courage to make that thing happen. And that begins to change the world, even if it is only a small part of the world.

Of course, you can’t do it all. Most of these problems took generations and millions of people acting badly to create. One person cannot solve any of them acting alone and for only a lifetime. You can’t do it all, but you can do something. You can hold one weeping person in the circle of your love. And that kind of outreach has power to change the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sermon for Sunday November 2, 2008 -- All Saints Day

Core Values: Honoring Our Workers
Matthew 9:35-38; 2 Timothy 2:14-19

Another Halloween has come and gone, and how well did we do in making it All Saints’ Eve? What did we notice as the little ones with smiley faces gave cheery “Trick or Treat” greetings as their hands greedily dove into bowls of candy? Beyond the joy of giving out candy, did any of you keep track of the kinds of costumes the children wore?

It depends on the fads of the year, of course, but you can always count on scary, dark characters: murderers from horror movies, Grim Reapers, vampires, skeletons, ghosts, and monsters. There are bound to be warriors of one sort or another: Power Rangers, ninjas, and superheroes, as well as football players, soldiers, and pirates. And don’t forget the animals: This year I saw dog, a rabbit, a lion, a giraffe, and a few black cats. There are always happy characters, too: fairies, princesses, cheerleaders, clowns, ladybugs, pumpkins, ballerinas, and brides. Sometimes there are costumes of real people – I didn’t see any of them on the streets, but I’m sure plenty of McCain and Obama masks were sold this year.

How many children come dressed as something we would identify as religious? Angels, maybe, but that’s about it. After all, wouldn’t it be naive to expect our children to dress as saints – those famous Christians of times gone by. And besides, where would you buy a saint costume? Would we have to resort to designing flowing robes and halos or something that looks like the way we think people dressed in Jesus’ day? Here are some ideas from saints who have inspired me:

How about dressing as a monk in black robes and a wide-brimmed black hat, with a Hawaiian lei and bandaged hands? This would be Damien the Leper, the only priest willing to minister to the 800 lost souls and crushed bodies in leper colony on the island of Molokai. His love for the Gospel was so great, his desire for the worth and dignity of the people was so passionate, he stayed there for years, eventually acquiring Hanson’s Disease and showing his oneness with his afflicted flock.

How about wearing a plain white shirt with a stethoscope and a big white handlebar mustache? This would be Albert Schweitzer, a saint who gave his life as a missionary and doctor in Africa, even though he could have remained in Europe, living in luxury and fame.

Why not dress in a black suit and simple tie, with a dark mustache, carrying a Bible? This would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a saint who gave his life trying to end racial discrimination in America.

How about going out wearing rags with stuffed animals and toy birds attached to them? This would be St. Francis of Assisi, who loved all God’s creatures as brothers and sisters.

How about dressing up as a Southern Baptist Preacher who writes his own translation of the New Testament. In the 1940s, biblical Greek scholar Clarence Jordan started a Christian Community on a farm in rural Georgia. This Christian community welcome people of all races who sought to live a Christian life in the non-integrated South. The interracial nature of the community made it a target for persecution in the 50’s and 60’s. Out of this community grew the Habitat for Humanity ministry which helps needy families work their way out of poverty

How about dressing as a woman with dark circles under her eyes and rough hands from being up nights caring for a sick child and working days at her job to put food the table -- a single, working mother giving herself away to make a better life for her family.

How about a man who was just been fired from his job. He doesn’t know how he will pay bills or feed his family. He has lost everything. But he still finds joy in going to his kids games, connecting to the community, and finding ways to live out his faith in the most desperate of times.

Maybe a trick-or-treater could dress up like an elderly person who has touched our lives – someone who may not even be related to you but she has prayed for you and with you for years, given you wisdom, told you her courageous stories, and inspired you with her deep and simple love for God.

Maybe a trick-or-treater could just go dressed as a regular child, such as the boy I read about who went to a scouting contest for homemade pine racing cars. It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much. At one of these toy car derbies, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands. The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations. Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until, defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer. Before the championship race, the boy asked the director to wait a moment so he could pray. The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving.
After the boy won the race and was given a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it is a good thing you prayed, so you could win.”

“Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood. “I didn’t pray to win. That would have been wrong. The other scout had as much right to win as I did. I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose. I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

There is, of course, something more important than how children or adults dress up for Halloween. When we imitate the saints, we can become saints too. We can become faithful followers of Christ, following the saints who show us the way. Isn’t that why we remember the saints, some of whom are publicly known and recognized in the light of history, and others, like the Boy Scout, whom we come across in the obscurity of ordinary struggles? All Saints’ Day celebrates what we can be at our best. The stories of their lives remind us of who we are, what we believe, and what we can become. They remind us how closely a human being can follow the example of Jesus. They draw us forward, give us courage, strengthen us to do God’s will, and lead the way. Their good examples remind us that God reaches out to us with grace and love and care.

They have gone on before us to the nearer presence of God, but they are also connected to us. Those who know rest from their labors help keep us from growing weary on our often difficult Christian pilgrimages.

Saints remind us that the fields are ready for harvest, and the workers are few. But what a difference those few workers make!

They inspire us not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: Jesus’ command to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. They remind us of the qualities that make a godly worker – workers who present themselves to God as those who correctly handle the word of truth. They are people whose words we can rely on.

All Saints’ Day is a time when looking at the good examples of those who have come before us can enable us to think beyond our limitations and to believe that we have the potential to respond to God’s gracious love with active love for others -- with commitment and caring and giving. The saints remind us of the fullness of life that God intends for us all.

I understand why the Protestant reformation put the saints up on a shelf, but I feel it is time to dust those saints off. There’s an old hymn that says, “A world without saints forgets how to pray.” You know we live in difficult times just as those saints did. And often times we feel threatened or discouraged by the troubles we face. So, we pray to Jesus to come and deliver us and encourage us and give us faith. I can almost hear Jesus responding, “Where are the approved workers I gave you? Where are the witnesses and heroes I gave to inspire and encourage you? Where are the stories of lives lived in faith that I gave to strengthen your faith?” Who are the saints in your life? What have they taught you? How do their examples give you wisdom for today? How do they help you dream of a different world? And what are we going to do about it?


Sermon for Sunday October 26, 2008

Our Core Values: Dealing With Differences
James 4:1-12

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. What do you think the Scriptures mean when they say that the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy? But he gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.”

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?

James can be difficult. He’s so confrontational. He knows us too well. He understands that humans stumble through life, make mistakes, and behave sinfully. If you question this fact, James says, then just listen to your words. What if I asked you to carry a voice recorder with you and to record every word that you speak in the next week, and then bring the recording here next Sunday so we can replay your words for everyone to hear? I wouldn’t do it. I’d be ashamed at what you might hear. Every fault of my life would be revealed in my words. James says that our words express our thoughts and the true feelings of our hearts. As James laments earlier in his letter, “We can tame all kinds of animals, but we can’t tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Mark Twain agreed. In one essay he wrote the about an experiment he performed. “In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately. Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results . . . there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and fleshnot a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.”

Twain concluded that we fight because we have, what he calls, a Moral Sense that actually enables us to do wrong. In other words, because we know the difference between right and wrong, because we have consciences, we will always tempted to do wrong and live in a state of conflict.

We tend to think that all conflict is bad. But that’s not true. Living together as a church family does not mean there will never conflict. But there is healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict – words that hurt and words that heal. Healthy conflict is the responsible exploration of our differences. In fact, we can thrive on differences of opinion, differing approaches to life and different ways of thinking. It is possible to courageously learn what makes us different from one another and then recognize how these differences can be used to serve God. Being human means that we will face times when we are angry, confused, or blind. When we are faithful to God, opposition can be turned into collaboration.

As we think about our core values here at TCC, we affirm that we are a congregation of people who want to listen attentively, seeking others’ opinions and understand that differing values do exist within our church family. We deal with disagreements constructively, communicating with others in a direct, caring, and responsible manner. The good news for us today is that while disagreements can hurt, disagreements can also bring us together. Remember that next time you are locked in a conflict with someone. Words can hurt, and words can heal.

Let’s think about the three qualities of how to disagree constructively. First of all, we must deal with conflict directly. James puts it this way: Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. That means facing a person one-on-on without dragging others into the dispute. Let me ask you, do you have a problem with someone you know? Does this person have bad manners, bad hygiene, or annoying habits? How about inconsiderate neighbors with noisy pets? Do your pleas to get help for alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse or other addiction? Wouldn’t you love to tell off your tyrant boss without him knowing who did it? Now your confrontation problems are over. I once found a website called SincereSuggestions.com. For $5, Sincere Suggestions would send a politely written letter to notify people about their problems while you will remain completely anonymous. The sender would just choose a topic, fill out the information and an anonymous letter would be sent right away. I don’t recommend this approach, of course. I believe if you have something to say about someone, than you should say it to his or her face. But we live in a society whose rules say that direct confrontation might hurt another person’s feelings. So instead of being honest, we will find a third person and tell her everything wrong with another person. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a person say, “You know, I wish someone would trash talk me around town today. I wish someone would call me a crook, or a liar or a weirdo behind my back because confrontation makes me uncomfortable.” Nope, I’ve never heard it from one person. So let’s do everyone a favor. If you have a problem with someone, go deal with it directly with that person alone.

Another quality of healthy disagreement is caring. This means that we use words express high value. Healing words say, “Even though I don’t agree with you, you are important to me. You are a person of worth and I’m not going to cheapen you with bad thoughts or careless words. I value you as a person, and I will honor you by what I say.” The theologian and activist Thomas Merton once wrote these words. They come from the book entitled Seeds of Contemplation. I offer them for all of us to contemplate.
“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.

“Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God. For it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith”

Our job is to see the face of Christ in those with whom we disagree. Until we can look at the most revolting members of the human species and see the face of Christ, we are imprisoned by prejudice and hatred. And that’s not the way Christ wants us to live.

Healthy disagreement is also responsible. We grow together when our differences are valued and when people learn to practice civil and patient boundaries with one another. We use our words to express a special future. We encourage an atmosphere where every person here can talk honestly about his or her convictions. When we take time to listen to everyone, even when we disagree, we will find shared meaning together. And the more shared meaning we find, the deeper our relationships will become.

I read a story about a grandmother who cuddled her new grandson in her arms. The new father was grinning by her side until the woman looked at her son and said, “How could anyone as dumb and ugly as you have such a good looking child?” Her words might have been brushed aside as a bad joke, but they instantly brought tears to the new dad’s eyes. He replied, “It’s taken me years to believe I’m not ugly or dumb. Why do you think I haven’t been home for so long? I don’t ever want you to call me dumb again.” The woman sat in stunned silence. She had meant her words as a joke. For years, without realizing the impact of her words, this woman teased her kids about being stupid, fat and ugly, just as her mother had teased her. How often have we said something without thinking, not realizing the harmful impact of our words? Healing words picture a special future for others. I’m not just talking about sappy sentimentalism here. I’ve seen the power of words. I’ve said things I regret, and I’ve been on the receiving end as well. I suspect most of you are the same. We need to remind ourselves that people have a deep need to know they are loved, accepted, and created by God for a purpose. God can use our words as a source of encouragement and new beginnings for others.

So, how do we do it? How do we speak directly, caringly, and responsibly? James says pray for wisdom that comes from heaven, wisdom that is pure, peace-loving, considerate, sincere, and full of good fruit. Ask God to make you aware of your harmful words and thoughts. As they come to mind, confess them, ask for forgiveness, and walk in step with the Holy Spirit. Make amends to those you’ve hurt. This week, before you open your mouth, ask yourself, “Does God want me to say what I’m about to say?” If the answer is no, then show some self-control, and make a choice to honor others with your words. May God help us control our tongues. May God forgive our sinful thoughts and words. May God empower us to use our words to depict high value and special futures to others.

Our goal is to be at peace. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is a way through it. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of Christ in our midst. Because we humans are always going to be in conflict in some form or another, making peace means actively addressing conflict and injustice – not running away from it — using nonviolent methods. So remember, words can hurt and words can heal. Disagreements can tear people apart, or they can help us work together for a shared future. The choice is up to us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sermon for October 19, 2008 -- Stewardship Sunday

A Letter from Home
2 Corinthians 9:1-15

Dear Matt,
Tragedy struck The Jerico Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks last Sunday afternoon. It was the day of our church’s monthly potluck. We were looking forward to some of our favorite recipes: Adelaide’s Tuna and Sardine Casserole, Bea Jimsons Baked Frito and Velveeta Pie (You remember Bea Jimson, Woodchuck’s wife?), Lucille Collins’ Squash and Ritz Casserole, and Willadoll Broadfoot’s Baked Peekabeef Muffins. I was planning on fixin’ my usual recipe – your Grandma Beydler’s famous Honey Lamb Biscuits. But, I decided that Sunday was a day for change, and I had a hankerin’ for green bean casserole. I guess I wasn’t the only one. As we arrived for Sunday dinner and uncovered our dishes, every one of ‘em to the bowl was a green bean casserole. Marilyn Perkins, supervisor of the potluck committee, watched in horror as family after family arrived with the same side dish in tow. By the time grace was said over the meal, there were over twenty-five green bean casseroles lining the buffet table with no meat dish in sight.

Marilyn Perkins was shook up real bad. She gave a report about it to our local paper the Jerico Pioneer. Through her tears she said, “I keep my mind on scary stories from other churches about excess country chicken or johnnycakes, but you never think it’s going to happen to your church. All I could think at the time was, ‘Why us, Lord… why us?’” Aftershocks from the church disaster were felt throughout the community as Schnuck’s Supermarket reported a shortage of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and French’s french fried onions. A few brave church members weathered the green bean avalanche by using large amounts of sweet tea to wash it down, while others, dazed and hungry, fled to their homes. A small posse of survivors, led by Jimmy Perkins, found shelter at a nearby McDonald’s. Jimmy doesn’t usually that clear headed. I was proud of him. He tripped while helping other members cross the parking lot to the golden arches. I’ll never forget him lying there in the dirt parking lot, screaming, “Save yourself!” Pastor Sanford plans to hold a special service next Sunday to help his congregation deal with the emotional toll of “green bean incident” as it’s now being called. Pastor Sanford was quoted in the Jerico Pioneer saying, “This is a hard time for my flock and I’m not sure the Bible has all the answers for a tragedy like this. I mean, come on! That’s a lot of green bean casserole, even for the Ozarks.”

Theories abounded as to why this catastrophe took place. It’s likely due to the 25 cent sale on Libby’s green beans at Shnuck’s. The main theological issue under debate is whether this is all part of God’s sovereign decree or the tragic outcome of people’s free will exercising the right to bring a side dish to church. Bea Jimson, of course, thinks it’s God’s judgment. At women’s circle the other night she just kept sayin’, over and over, “I’ve told them for twenty years they shouldn’t be calling it pot-luck. That’s an affront to an Almighty God who doesn’t deal in luck. I just hope this egregious sin against God doesn’t ruin my chances to win the lottery. I’m feeling pretty good about my numbers this week. Cross my fingers.”

The good news is that phase two of our building project is finally finished. Took longer than a Texas Highway, but it’s done. Remember how I told you about our church renovations a few years ago? Pastor Sanford decided we needed more room so as we could put together some programs for children and families. Well, the old building never had any indoor plumbing, neither. Us old timers got wearied of trekking like the Israelites through the wilderness to use the facilities. The new building got indoor plumbing. Some say it’s an extravagance. I say it’s an amenity a long in coming. We held the ribbon-cutting ceremony for their brand new indoor facilities the Sunday before the green bean disaster. Throughout the sermon, people would take turns hurrying to the restroom whether they had to go or not. It was a new thing that needed to be enjoyed while it was fresh and exciting. Bea Jimson thinks that our new facilities will usher in a new era of superiority for our church. I’m just happy to have a sink indoors.

Church attendance was up 10 percent that day. Once word got out that indoor plumbing can boost church attendance, some of the other churches in town started planning their own building improvements as a way to lure new members to their pews. This kind of thing had happened before, of course. A few years ago, the Church of the Amalgamated Brethren across town implemented their own “church growth initiative” when they were the first church in town to install air conditioning, otherwise known as “a box fan in the window.” Not only did their attendance increase, but a few members from other churches (including The Jerico Progressive Church) changed allegiances and joined the Amalgamated Brethren. Suddenly religion had a purpose during the long hot summer.

Of course, now we have to pay for all of these improvements. Which means that Pastor Sanford has been speaking a lot about money lately. He wants people to think about how they spend their money – what’s most important. A few weeks ago he used a visual demonstration to add some emphasis to his sermon. He found four worms and brought them into the church. The worms were placed in four separate jars. The first worm was put into a jar of whiskey, the second worm was put into a jar of smoke, the third worm was put into a container of chocolate syrup and the fourth worm was put into a jar of good, clean soil. At the end of the sermon, Pastor Sanford reported the following results … the worms in the jars of whiskey, cigarette smoke, and chocolate syrup were all dead – but the worm in the good, clean soil was alive. He asked us asked us, “What can we learn from this demonstration?” Without even raising her hand, Bea Jimson called out: “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won't have worms.” Now Bea Jimson doesn’t like our Pastor at all. She says Pastor Sanford caters too much to everyone else. Of course, it’s not in Bea’s nature to like a preacher. I doubt that Jesus would have been hired if she were on the search committee. I’m sure he would have disappointed her somehow. The Apostle Paul would have definitely given her fits. I once overheard her tell the preacher “If God were still alive, he’d be shocked at some of the changes you’re making!” Pastor Sanford doesn’t back away from Bea. He says a church that never asks for money is a church that is either dead or dying. A church that does nothing needs nothing.

Bea isn’t what you’d call a cheerful giver, bless her heart. I don’t think God wants us to give in order to get something back. That’s not how Jesus did it. Jesus said that the secret of life is very simple. Those who want to hoard life will lose it, and are already losing it. Those who are willing to risk life will gain life. When you hoard your life, it means you hardly dare live. To give up your life, means to go outside yourself – to love, to spend yourself. Giving is one way of expressing our enthusiasm for life. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the Apostle Paul said it, and it is worth repeating – God loves a cheerful giver. One Bible I read says it like this: God loves a hilarious giver. Some churches want you to “gives until it hurts.” In my estimation, that’s a terrible thing today. After all these years, I’ve found that the person who gives until it feels so good – until it’s great, until it’s fun, until it’s a real joy – that’s the person who finds great satisfaction in life.

I’ll never forget a story I heard about Cletus Simms. Cletus was considered to be of no account. I know for a fact that the only truck he ever had was the 1967 Ford F-150 that was given to him by his daddy Lemuel Simms as he lay gasping on his death bed after being runned over by the very same truck twenty three years ago. Cletus used to some bushhoggin’ around the pond for me from time to time. But he couldn’t make it on the farm any more – ended up moving to the city of Lickskillet to find work. He lived in rented room at the YMCA. He had one set of clothes, shoes wrapped with rubber bands to keep his soles from flopping, and a thread-bare overcoat. He spent his mornings napping in an old metal chair by the heater in the back of the Police Station. Two of the deputies took an interest in Cletus, occasionally slipping him a few bucks. They found out that Max, over at Max’s Diner, gave Cletus a hot breakfast every morning, no charge. The deputies decided to have Cletus over as their guests for Christmas dinner one year. Cletus carefully unwrapped the presents they gave him with a big smile on his grubby face. As they drove him back to the YMCA, Cletus asked, “Are these presents really mine to keep?” The deputies said yes. Then Cletus had a bright idea. He said, “Just bring me over to Max’s Diner before I go home. With that, Cletus began rewrapping his presents. When they walked into the diner, Max was there as always, cleaning counters and making coffee. Cletus went up to Max and said, “You’ve been good to me, Max. Now I can be good to you.” No Account Cletus gave all his presents away on the spot.

Kind of reminds me of what your Grandma Beydler used to say, “We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.” It applies to giving too. We think that the easy way is to worry, and strive, and have fits when we don’t think that we have enough. But that sounds hard to me, don’t you think? The hard way is being so consumed with worry that we make empty promises, or cut corners, or make bad decisions based on bein’ scared. I find it’s a whole lot easier to give cheerfully and generously. That’s what God has done for us. God is good to us when we forget God’s even there. God just gives and gives and gives, and invites us to give in return. God loves a cheerful giver. It’s not just a cliché. It’s a reminder of the commitment God shows us, no strings attached. Does that mean we quit our jobs and sit around singing Kum Ba Yah while we wait for God to drop gold from the sky? No. We still work hard and show some good judgment. We put our faith in God, we remember that God’s reputation is one the line because there’s a promise out there that God will give us everything we need. That’s what Paul meant when he said we got to believe when we give. God can pour on the blessing in astonishing ways so that we are ready for anything and everything – more than just ready to do what needs to be done.”

There I go a-preachin’ again. Say hi to the little ones for me. And remind those Yankees up in Connecticut how good God is. I gotta go – have a little job to take care of. I’ll tell you about it next time. All I’ll say is this – a general rule of thumb -- If somebody tells you to come look in the sink, don’t.

All my love,
Aunt Georgia




Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sermon for October 12, 2008

Our Core Values: Generosity
2 Corinthians 8:1-9

Whatever happened to the African killer bees? Remember during the mid-1990s, television news reported on the looming invasion of aggressive killer bees that would come from Central America and Mexico to take over the Southwestern United States. A few headlines from the Arizona Republic and The Arizona Daily Star told the story: “Africanized Bees Found at Interstate 8 Rest Stop.” “Killer Bees Blamed for 3 Attacks.” “Pit Bull Dies of Nearly 2,000 Stings; Killer Bees Blamed.” Hollywood produced a made-for-TV horror movie about the bees -- A small town sheriff grapples with a swarm of killer bees in an effort to protect his town and family. We don’t hear much about them anymore. After September 11, we all forgot about the killer bees. Instead, we heard about Al Qaeda terrorists, anthrax, dirty bombs, avian bird flu, global warming, Iraq, high gas prices and a sluggish economy. Some of these issues were legitimate concerns. Others began as legitimate concerns and grew into hyped-up media inventions. Fear gets great ratings.

I can understand why. Fear is hardwired deep inside our brain. We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We’re afraid of the hurt between men and women, between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Fear grips the institutions that contain our lives. Every one of them, from the family to the corporation, has a built-in hierarchy of fear. Students fear teachers, workers fear their bosses, children fear their parents, patients fear their doctors. When there is no equality in a marriage, wives fear their husbands (or husbands their wives). We are even told to fear God. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:30-31).

We are afraid today, aren’t we? We face the worst economic times since the Great Depression, so we are informed. A few of weeks ago, a somber president stood before the nation to beg for $700 Billion and told us, “The market is not functioning properly.” I’m no economist, but I tend to think that the market is doing what the market should be doing. We are not functioning properly. We are afraid. And fear hurts us.

People experience the bad economy in different ways. Some are so insulated that the state of the economy does not really touch them at all. Sure, their investments may be losing money and their home or homes may depreciate in value, but their personal connection to the economy is only seen on a computer screen that tells them this is the case. The rising cost of gasoline, utilities, travel, and food is not felt. A gallon of gas could cost $40 or $400 and there are people for whom that would not cause a dent.

There are people who live on a solid financial footing. They are positioned to face a job loss or a medical emergency. Bad luck won’t bankrupt them. The economy has caused people in this group to make some basic changes, but nothing drastic. The volatility of the stock market has inspired them to set aside extra savings. They might delay a major expenditure such as home remodeling or buying a new car. Vacations might be scaled back. They are cautious about how they dispose of disposable income.

On the opposite end of the economic spectrum, those who are hurting the most are those who were already not making it in America. If you were dependent on social services and charities, you face the dual reality of those services and charities being cut back while you face growing competition for those very resources and services that you depend on. More people seek a slice of limited resources. For the poor whose every cent goes to the basics of food, shelter, and transportation to and from a job, a dramatic increase in the price of food and the price of gasoline means that an already unsustainable budget is now impossible.

In the middle, between those who are making it in America and those who were never making it, lies a vast economic stratum impacted in all sorts of ways by the state of the economy – the famed middle class we’ve been hearing so much about lately. One hard-hit group is retirees whose savings are being drawn down more quickly because of an increase in prices and a flagging market. This generation is among the most vulnerable in a tight economy. The another vulnerable group is those in Generation X or Y. Those of us who are forty-ish and under may have the distinction of being the first generation in American history expected to enjoy a lower standard of living than their parents’ generation.

Ups and downs in the market, in the value of the dollar, in the rate of inflation, and in the price of consumer goods are things that always occur in capitalist systems. The ability to adjust, adapt, thrive and survive the valleys is linked to the pre-existing health of those in society and to the quality of the safety nets created by society. Think about the financial situations of millions of Americans before the price of gasoline skyrocketed and the stock market tanked. Rates of personal savings declined for years, to the point where there was a negative savings rate in our country. Levels of debt rose with more of this debt concentrated in high interest credit cards and other forms of bad debt. These financial practices are unsustainable, but on the surface they didn’t seem like a crisis when the economy was soaring. Combine the dangerous personal financial practices of millions of Americans with a moth-eaten security net and you are inviting disaster. All of this is in an economy where job changes are more frequent, health insurance is often not portable and people find themselves going through stretches of vulnerability and risk.

Biblical economics gets us to think about our responsibility to take care of one another. In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, we hear about an economic bailout package. The Jerusalem church, the mother church, is in trouble. She has filed for Chapter 11. She can barely pay the light bill. The members of the church were well off to begin with. Boycotts and persecutions have accelerated their poverty. So Paul calls on the Corinthian church to step in and to help out. In verse one we learn that he has already hit up the churches in Galatia, and that they are starting to respond faithfully. In verses five and eight he says, “I am going to head over to Ephesus and Macedonia and I’m going to get them to be part of this ‘jump start Jerusalem’ campaign.” He says, “I want you Corinthians to come on board as well.” He wants them to see, with all Christians, that they have a responsibility to make an impact on the world for the realm of God that goes far beyond their immediate situation.

Some of our fears about the market and the changes in our country are not really fears about how will we survive. They are fears that we won’t have life exactly how we want. Well you know what? We won’t. We never will. Life doesn’t really work like that. In God’s economy, all are taken care of as long as all share what they have with others. It’s called generosity. We give, knowing that our ultimate allegiance is not to TCC, as important as the welfare of this church is. Our allegiance is not to the UCC, or even to the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. Our ultimate allegiance is to God, the author and giver of life. The church is called to do its work even at the risk of losing its own life. As we do, we point beyond ourselves to the new reality in Christ.

Some of you here have already lived through enormous financial and economic hardships. Some of you may remember a speech that FDR delivered as the United States financial ruin at home. Or, you’ve heard a line from it on David Letterman’s “Great moments in Presidential Speeches.” Facing the Great Depression, FDR began his first inaugural address with maverick words. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Taking over a country with its economy in shambles, Roosevelt named the fear that gripped the hearts of Americans. That line -- “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” -- is the most famous line of that speech, but Roosevelt hammered his message home in the seventh paragraph telling the citizens of the United States,
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
Reading his words, it strikes me how they disarm fear. They disarm fear by calling on people to act as a part of a larger, shared effort. Fear breeds and multiplies in the distances that separate us from one another. To the extent that we can come together, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart to heart, to the extent we can meet together and share some purpose together, we can unbind the grip of fear.

Last night, I heard financial guru Sue Ormond say that the economy will rebound in eight years. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do know is that at a time like this, the church matters in people’s lives. You will need the church. And in turn, the church will need you. Don’t be afraid. Let’s remember that the church never exists simply for itself. The difficult times ahead mean that homelessness, hunger, and despair will increase. We have something to say to that. We have something to offer that a bank can’t. Our ministries of outreach are crucial. There will be justice concerns and acts of charity in which we will all need to engage.

I want us to remember that an investment in the church is an investment in the community and in the future. Next week we will be collecting pledges for our 2009 budget. More than ever, your financial giving to the church is a faith commitment. Please consider how your giving will position our congregation to do the work of Christ. Bring your completed pledge cards to worship. If you don’t have one, blank cards are available as you leave today. Next week we will turn those in and celebrate God’s goodness to us and in us.

I know that there are some of you who can give more. Others can’t. Some of you may not be able to pledge at all. Those who can’t keep up on a pledge need to know they are still welcome! We still believe that no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here. We also believe that as we generously share our resources with one another, we more closely live out the mission and ministry to which we are called – and we do it fearlessly.

  • http://revthom.blogspot.com/2008/08/sermon-making-it-and-faking-it-in.html
  • http://revthom.blogspot.com/2008/09/sermon-economy-of-fear-delivered-9-14.html
  • http://www.forrestchurch.com/writings/sermons/freedom-from-fear.html
  • Pronouncement—Christian Faith; Economic Life and Justice from Minutes of the 17th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.
  • http://www.congratstothewinners.com/2008/10/really-what-is-maverick.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maury_Maverick

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