Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sermon for February 24, 2007

Life in the Spirit
Ephesians 4:21-5:2

Most of this sermon comes from "Work in Progress", a sermon preached on August 13, 2006 by The Rev. John MacIver Gage, pastor of the United Church on the Green, UCC: New Haven, CT. He said what I wanted to, so I offer some of his thoughts and my stories to you with the prayer that God would make them holy for us.

Who among us has not been cornered by a more evangelically minded friend or associate or even a complete stranger and asked, point blank: “Friend, have you been saved?” It could come from a friend or a family member – even from a total stranger. I confess, I used to be one of those people – the stranger who approaches you at the mall and tries to save your soul in the name of Jesus. “Have you been saved?” Those words send shivers down my spine. “Have I been saved? You mean, is there a single moment I can point to and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it, August 13, 2006, 10:53 a.m., that’s the when it happened, that’s the when I gave myself to Jesus and everything changed forever’? The question assumes such a different understanding of the nature of our shared faith than we hold in the mainline protestant church tradition.

I’ve always wanted to have a snappy comeback. I’d like to, but, truth be told, I usually just chicken out and offer an awkward smile in response. It’s a common reaction—so common that entire books have been written about what to when so confronted. I heard a story about a CT UCC church that sent their youth on a mission trip to West Virginia. After some conversation about the differences between our UCC ways of believing and the local Baptist and Pentecostal traditions of the folks among whom they would be working, an absent-minded young man piped up to ask, “Ooo, I forgot: What am I supposed to say if somebody asks if I’ve been rescued?” We had our own experience like that during our own mission trip to Bay St. Louis, MS. Our host, a traveling evangelist, required mandatory nightly worship services with plenty of opportunities for us to be saved, right in the living room of the house in which we bunked. One of our teens actually fell asleep about an hour and a half into on of these nightly services. When the preacher saw the teen sleeping, he decided we were spiritually weak. It was like reliving a scene right from the Bible – the preacher praying like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane while the New England liberals fall asleep like the faith-worn disciples. “Can you not pray with me for one hour?” The evangelist went on for another extra hour and a half, exhorting the rest of us stunned Congregationalists to give our lives to Jesus.

“Have I been saved?” Well, what are we supposed to say? The calm, cool, and collected answer for practicing progressive Christians would go something like this: “ I am being saved every day by the grace of God in Christ through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for asking!” In other words, words we might actually explain that we believe salvation is not a concrete yes or no, now but not then sort of proposition. We do not believe we are damned before entering the waters of baptism and then handed a “Get Out of Hell Free” card and a towel on the way out. We believe that salvation—and we can use other words here, like redemption or liberation or healing or right-relationship with God—we tend to think of salvation as an on-going process, a quiet transformation of our lives unfolding through the deep movement of the Holy Spirit over our lifetimes. Our congregational ancestors called it responsible freedom. As individual members of the church, we are free to believe and act in accordance with our perception of God's will for our lives. But we are also called to live out that freedom in a loving, covenantal relationship with one another. We daily live out our salvation balancing freedom and responsibility,

So, how’s that salvation working out for you? We talk about the Holy Spirit being at work in our lives, gradually making us into the people God intends us to be, but sometimes it seems as though continents drift faster than we change.

The author of the letter to the Ephesians believed that if we follow in the way of Christ, if we are in Christ, then we ought to be able to touch and see and taste the transforming power of salvation in our lives. We shouldn’t just be seekers, but also finders of grace as we gradually break down and put away the pieces of our old, unhealthy selves and begin to clothe ourselves with something different . . . something new. Life in the Spirit means becoming who we were created to be, “in the likeness of God, truly righteous and holy.”

Our faith ought to make a difference in our lives -- not only over the long haul, but right here and now. Falsehood and pretension should be being overcome here and now with a renewed spirit of truthfulness. The desire for profit at the expense of others ought to be being replaced here and now by honest labor and a spirit of generosity. Anger should not left festering, but righteous anger should be allowed to burn clean, like a forest fire, and then pass away. The daily grind of gossip and senseless chatter that whittles away trust should stop right now. As writer of Ephesians urges us, we should “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you”

How are you doing against that checklist? It’s quite a tall order, this daily process of being saved. I’m glad we don’t get monthly progress reports to take home and have signed. On my not-so-good days, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander. After all, there are entire segments of our economy devoted to exploiting these human weaknesses. Soap operas and reality television seem to have the market cornered on wrangling. They don’t call it “drama” for nothing. But of course it’s not just a Hollywood problem. I have my own personal drama to deal with day in and day out, and it’s much less amusing than watching Simon and Paula argue about the next American Idol. I saw a perfect example of profiting at the expense of others over the weekend. I was trapped at my parent’s house during thee bad weather. I say trapped because my father was watching Fox News the entire time – and I’m not fan. Yesterday afternoon, Fox News got word of an airplane with damaged landing gear that needed to make an emergency landing in Miami. When the plane landed with no problems, it felt as if the commentators were disappointed. I even found myself struggling. Of course I wanted everyone to be safe. At the same time, the commentators geared me up to watch a live plane crash. We were conditioned to want catastrophe – or at least some sparks on the tarmac as fire trucks sprayed foam to stop the runaway plane. How strange – to be disappointed that everything turned out all right.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just my inner Calvinist acting up, but all in all, these sinful behaviors seem to be so ingrained in our lives as individuals and communities. They appear to be an essential part of our human nature. Our lives can seem awfully nasty, brutish, and short. How much transformation can we really expect?

I think the writer of Ephesians understood the way of the world. He felt the need to encourage others to be better because life in the Spirit is hard, hard work. He understands that he’s asking people to go against all their instincts -- against all their upbringing and habits -- and act like different people, like forgiven people. Real, deep transformation is an impossible task if we can’t trust that that God is committed to working on us, and in us, and with us through the Holy Spirit to bring it about.

That’s part of what it means for God to share our life in Jesus. In Jesus, who was tried, tortured, and crucified to satisfy our all-too human appetite for sin, God knows just how deep our addiction to sin runs. It runs right from our doorstep to the foot of the cross, the ghettos and barrios of our cities, to the not-so-quiet desperation of our suburbs, to the hushed lush boardrooms of greedy corporations, to the battlefields of Iraq and Lebanon and the killing fields of Rwanda and Darfur, and down through our whole bloody history. God knows all this. It’s as plain as the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet, and yet it is God’s great and faithful intention to help us break the cycle and change.

But as the old saying goes, we have to really want to change. It’s true that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. But we are welcomed here not only for affirmation of who we are now, but transformation into all we may yet become in God’s good grace. We come with prayerful hope that God’s Holy Spirit will enter our lives and make us new. Ultimately, being church is about opening ourselves to being changed by the experience of intimacy with the Spirit of God.

If we believe that the experience of salvation not just once and for all, but an on-going process, we need to ask ourselves how that process is unfolding in our lives day by day. We need to ask ourselves what kind of honest-to-God difference our faith is making in our lives on a daily basis. Just where is our faith? Where is our salvation? Where is our transformation? Sometimes smoothly, but more often in fits and starts, dragging our heels and kicking and screaming, God is changing us. We are learning to leave behind long-held sinful habits and instead embrace the practices of right-relationship.

But I think we could do a better job supporting one another in our common pursuit of holy transformation. We need to learn to offer one another more truth and grace. We need to offer forbearance and encouragement for this journey we’re making from what we are now to what we will be in Christ. We need to forgive one another our faults and failings as God has forgiven us and to encourage one another as in the safety and power of the Holy Spirit we join with God and one another to work out our salvation in the on-going transformation of our lives and our world.

Exercises in the Spirit-filled Tradition

Today’s sermon continues our exploration of practical methods for growing in our faith. Today we explore the Charismatic tradition. God desires that we spend time building our relationship with the divine. The Charismatic or Spirit-filled tradition enables us to create the space that God desires — and we need — in our lives. As we explore different traditions, you are asked to choose an exercise and practice it for a week. Don’t forget to keep your emphasis on God, not on the method. Feel free to modify the exercises to fit your needs.

  • Yield to the work of the Spirit. Spend an hour in prayer this week asking for the Spirit to begin working in your life in a new and powerful way. Make no demands. Have no expectations. Your only task is to surrender yourself to God.
  • Nurture the growth of the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22 lists nine virtues called the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, meekness, faithfulness, and self-control. Set aside some time to meditate on the list of fruit. Ask God to show you which of these virtues needs to be more evident in your life. The change will come with your sustained communion with God.
  • Discover your spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 lists nine gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues. What do these gifts mean to you? How do you think Paul understood them? Do any of them resonate with you? How might God foster these gifts in your life?
  • Read the Bible with the Holy Spirit. Find a passage in your Bible that you would like to reflect on. AS you read, pray that the Spirit will highlight a particular verse or word that is specifically meant for you to hear. Spend some time (ten to fifteen minutes) reflecting on why it has struck you and what it is you need to understand.
  • Listen to the Spirit when making decisions. Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:25 speak about being led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit provides guidance in our lives. Ask that you be given some direction, some insight, some leading in the mattes that concern you. Guidance may come as an intuitive sense, a word from a friend, or the opening/closing of a door of opportunity. In all decisions, test them out. The Spirit of God will never lead you in a decision that is contrary to the principles and commandments laid out in Scripture.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sermon for February 17, 2008

Life in the Word
Luke 24:44-53

We’ve all seen them – Email forwards of funny things kids mistakenly say in Sunday School. Here are some of my favorites:
· Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.
· The fifth commandment is humor thy father and mother.
· Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, and a ball of fire at night.
· When Mary heard she was to be the mother of Jesus, she went off and sang the Magna Carta.
· Holy acrimony is another name for marriage.
· The Pope lives in a vacuum.
· The patron saint of travelers is St. Francis of the sea sick.
· A republican is a sinner mentioned in the Bible.
· The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.
· It is sometimes difficult to hear what is being said in church because the agnostics are so terrible.
· The natives of Macedonia did not believe, so Paul got stoned.

These illustrations are funny, but at the same time, it portrays a painful truth of our culture. Many of us don’t live lives immersed in God’s Word. In fact, only one out of ten Christians is able to correctly identify what the New Testament teaches about the central principle relating to their life. Why is it that even Christian believers remain largely unexposed to Christian learning? Why do bankers, lawyers, teachers, physicians, scientists, salespeople, financial gurus and domestic goddesses -- people who carry out all kinds of complicated tasks in their work and home -- remain in a dreary, elementary school level in their biblical understanding? How is it that high school students can move easily into the complex world of computers, foreign languages, DNA and calculus, and can’t even get off the ground in interpreting a single text of Scripture? How is it possible one can attend Sunday School and Bible Studies for decades and still lack the interpretive skills of someone who has taken three or four weeks in an introductory course in the Bible at a university or seminary? This morning we are going to think about how we can live more in tune with what God’s word has to say to us.

Life in the word is like a three-legged stool. Today’s text gives us an indication of how these three legs can give us stability. Kick one leg out, and we fall to the ground. Place yourself on all three, and there is stability.

Leg #1: The Written Word
Try to picture the scene in today’s gospel account. The frightened disciples sit in the upper room, planning their next move now that Jesus is gone. Two disciples interrupt the gathering. They’ve just seen Jesus on a road outside of Jerusalem. As they breathlessly explain their encounter, Jesus appears in the room out of nowhere. The disciples are frightened out of their wits. Even after they touch his nail-pierced hands, even after they see him eat, they are distrustful. Then Jesus teaches, like he had so many times before. Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. It’s as if Jesus is saying to his disciples: “Look guys, everything I said came true. It was all written down beforehand in the Scriptures. Scripture told you I would come to suffer and die, and rise from the dead. The words unfold before you. Don’t miss out because you are too afraid to believe.”

The first leg of our three-legged stool is the written word–the Bible. The Bible is God’s written message to us. It points us to the truth. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It ‘s God’s way of getting us ready for life. Through Scripture, God prepares us for all the good things God wants us to do.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary football, was a fanatic for fundamentals. After a game where the Green Bay Packers lost to an inferior team, Lombardi called his team together and roared, “OK, we go back to the basics.” Then, holding a football high enough for all to see, he continued to yell, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

You know, the world thinks it’s quoting the Bible when it’s actually quoting Shakespeare. The Bible has become an unknown book. Many give restaurant menus and TV Guide a closer reading. It’s time to hold up the Bible and say, “Ladies and Gentleman, this is the Bible. This is life’s compass. Are you off course? Are your drifting in the dark sea of life? This is how you find life’s bearings.

A man in Kansas City was severely injured in an explosion. The victim’s face was badly disfigured, and he lost his eyesight as well as both hands. One of his greatest disappointments was that he could no longer read the Bible. Then he heard about a lady in England who read Braille with her lips. Hoping to do the same, he sent for some books of the Bible in Braille. Much to his dismay, however, he discovered that the nerve endings in his lips had been destroyed by the explosion. One day, as he brought one of the Braille pages to his lips, his tongue happened to touch a few of the raised characters and he could feel them. Like a flash he thought, I can read the Bible using my tongue. At the time this man was discovered, he had “read” through the entire Bible four times.

Taste God’s word. Read God’s word. Read it often. Fall in love with what it has to say, because its words are life. Allow the Spirit to help you understand the Scriptures.

Leg#2 -- The Living Word
This leads us to the second leg of our stool–the living Word. John’s gospel tells us that Christ is the living Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word and he was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is God’s message to us. Jesus communicates God’s love. He clearly demonstrates that God heals, and blesses, and understands. When we look into the face of Jesus, we see God. We see eyes that radiate compassion. We see lips that say, “God loves you.” We see God because Jesus is God.

Scripture, the written word, is supposed to point to Jesus, the Living Word. The point of the Bible is not to get people to believe the Bible, but to believe God. Scripture doesn’t say, “Believe in the Bible and you will be saved,” but “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

The Prince of Grenada, an heir to the Spanish crown, was sentenced to life in solitary confinement in Madrid’s ancient prison. Everyone knew that once you were in, you would never come out alive. The prince was given one book to read the entire time–the Bible. He read it over hundreds of times. The book became his constant companion. After thirty-three years of imprisonment, he died. When they came to clean out his cell, they found some notes he had written using nails to mark the soft stone of the prison walls. The notations were of this sort: Psalm 118:8 is the middle verse of the Bible; Ezra 7:21 contains all the letters of the alphabet except the letter J; the ninth verse of the eight chapter of Esther is the longest verse in the Bible; no word or name of more than six syllables can be found in the Bible.

This man spent 33 years of his life studying God’s written message to us. Yet, he could only glean trivia. For all we know, he never made any religious or spiritual commitment to Christ. He simply became an expert at Bible trivia. When knowing facts about the Bible comes over a living relationship with Christ, we lose perspective. The message is that the Messiah must suffer and die, and rise again from the dead on the third day. The message is that from the creation of the world, God’s plan has been revealed and carried through, so that we could have a relationship with the Living Word, made known to us through the written word.

Leg#3 -- The Spoken Word
The final leg of our stool is the spoken word. The disciples were not called to stay in the upper room, but to communicate the gospel to the world. Proclamation of the gospel is the heart of the word-centered life. We use words in order to have a relationship with another person; through words, we connect with each other. So, when we talk about our faith, we speak the written word, that tells about the Living Word, so that hearers can establish a relationship with God. This is what Jesus told his disciples: “With my authority, take this message [take my words] of repentance to all the nations. There is forgiveness of sins for all who turn to me. You are witnesses to these things.” We, too, are witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ. We use words to tell this good news to everyone–those who can read, those who can’t, and those who don’t.

On January 21, 1930, the name of Harold Vidian became synonymous with heroism. On that day, England’s King George V was scheduled to give the opening address at the London Arms Conference. The king’s message was to be sent by radio all around the world. A few minutes before the king was to speak, a member of the staff of CBS tripped over an electrical wire and broke it, cutting off the entire American audience. With no hesitation, chief control operator Harold Vidian grasped one end of the broken wire in his right hand and the other in his left, and restored the circuit. Electricity surged through his body. Ignoring the pain, Vidian held on until the king had finished his address.

I see in this as the challenge for Christians. The words of the King of kings must go to the whole world. But only as we allow the power of God’s Word to pass through us can the gospel be transmitted. If we are willing to serve as conduits, the good news will be known.

Will you be a channel for the King’s message? It begins by reading Scripture, and letting it lead you to a relationship with the living Word, Jesus Christ. Live your life in the Word, and I promise you will have something to talk about.

Exercises in the Word-Centered Tradition

Here are some ideas to try to put into practice this week:

  • Memorize a verse of Scripture. Here are some suggestions — Galatians 2:20; Romans 5:1’ John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8. Repeat the verse often as you go through your day.
  • Read one of the shorter books of the Bible out loud. Consider one of Paul’s letters, or the gospel of Mark. Imagine how the audience of Christians listening to it for the first time might have reacted.
  • Look for an opportunity to tell someone about your faith. Pray that God will put you in the path of someone who needs to hear about Jesus. Ask God that you will be given the means and words to speak about your faith I a way that does not judge or manipulate the other person.
  • Share your faith in your actions. Pray for insight to see your life as others see it. As you meet people, think about how your life does or does not reflect the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, February 10

The Life of Justice
Micah 6:6-8

Requirements? What are requirements? Requirements are absolute necessities. There is no way around them. You might as well get used to them because requirements are part of everyday life. For example, one of the most important rituals of American life is getting your driver’s license. Do you remember when you got your driver’s license for the first time? Or when you taught your children so they could get their first license? That was a great day in my life – Freedom . . .Movement . . . A sign of finally growing up. There are requirements to get that first driver’s license here in the State of CT. You must be 16 years old. You must have a learner’s permit for a minimum of 120 days. You need to pass the vision exam, and the written exam, and the road test. Those are the rules of the game. No arguments. No discussion. No wiggle room. These are the requirements if you want to get a driver’s license in the state of CT.

If you want to travel internationally to most countries, you must have a passport and visa. Even if you want to travel to Canada, you need a passport to get back into the US. If you travel to France, England or Germany; to New Zealand or Fiji, to China, Japan or Taiwan, you MUST have a valid passport and a valid visa. Don’t argue. Don’t fuss. Don’t wiggle. Don’t try to get around them. These are the requirements.

Life is full of requirements. The Bible even mentions some in today’s reading from Micah. Micah 6:8 is one of those highlight verses, one of those verses that stands apart from all the rest. What does the Lord require of you. Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.
Would you say these words after me:
Do justice. (all repeat)
Love kindness. (all repeat)
Walk humbly with your God. (all repeat)
Let us all say those words together:
Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.

Micah preached the end of the good times just before his nation fell apart. There had been forty years of prosperity and peace in Israel. During times of prolonged prosperity and peace, people often forget God, ignore God, drift away from God. In our scripture passage, God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. The charge? Israel has ignored her God. The people have forgotten how God saved them from the land of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. In choosing not to remember their own exodus and the struggles leading up to liberation, the people grow indifferent. On the stand, Israel comes up with a clever defense. The people ask, “What can we bring before the Lord to make up for what we’ve done? Maybe God would be happy if we took a valuable yearling calf and sacrificed it. No, God will want more. Maybe we should raise the value by sacrificing not one, but a thousand rams, and then smother it with rivers of precious olive oil. Then would God be pleased? What if we sacrificed our firstborn children to pay for the sins of our souls? Then would God forgive? Tell us the cost, and we will pay.”

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

If we think we can buy God’s forgiveness, then we have missed the point. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. Do what the Lord requires. These words of Micah 6:8 are so simple. What does the Lord require of you? Say them with me . . .
Do justice.
Love kindness.
And walk humbly with your God.”

Now take those words home. Stuff them in your pant pockets with your keys. Slip those words into your purse or wallet along with your credit cards and have them available all the time. Put those words into your heart and mind and carry them within. Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.

Think about these words with me for a few moments.

To do justice.
There are nine words that are associated with the word, “justice,” in the Bible. Widow, fatherless, orphans, poor, hungry, stranger, needy, weak and oppressed. In this list of words, you did not find the word, “rich.” Rich is often associated with injustice. You don’t have to worry about the rich, because the rich will be able to afford justice. Worry about the widows, the fatherless, the orphans, the poor, the hungry, the strangers, the needy, the weak and the oppressed. We are to work for fairness for the little people of our world. To do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Rather, justice means hard work. A life of justice asks us to work together, to truthfully critique the present unjust system and to find ways to change the system. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, break down, disarm, and transform the world when we dare to see what is really happening without growing cynical. Living a life of justice means being willing to risk seeing another person’s suffering as our own.

Charlie understood this. Charlie was one of those kids who the Sunday School teachers just could not get a hold on. When it came time for the Christmas pageant, the teachers thought it wise to give Charlie a simple part. Charlie would be the innkeeper. This would mean saying, “No room” three times. The night of the pageant two of the children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn. “No room,” said Charlie. The couple knocked on the door a second time. “NO ROOM!” Charlie repeated. Banging on the door even harder, desperately seeking space for themselves and their new baby, Joseph and Mary pleaded with the innkeeper, “Please, is there any room in the inn?” Moved with compassion, Charlie forgot his line. “OK,” he said, “why don’t you take my room tonight?” The pageant came to a complete halt. Some parents were upset that the tradition had been changed. But for many who had come in the spirit seeking the presence of God, Charlie’s words of kindness had taught them something about justice and compassion.

Love kindness.
We all know what kindness is. Compassion, sympathy, gentleness, benevolence, helpfulness. We see it every day and we are grateful. I remember a story about theological students at Harvard who were preparing for the ministry. These theological students were taking their final examination on the topic: Kant’s Moral Imperative. Kant was a French moral philosopher. The final examination for this class gave the students two hours to write their philosophy with a ten-minute break in the middle. The students wrote furiously for fifty-five minutes. Then the students all took a break and went out into the hallway. There in the hallway was another student, not part of their class, sitting humped up on the floor, disheveled, looking like a mess. The theological students were busy in conversation with each other, getting water, taking a bathroom break. After 10 minutes, they returned for the second hour of writing their philosophy of what it meant to be a moral human being. Weeks later, the theological students received their test results: they had all failed. That is, all the students thought that their test was what they wrote for two hours in the classroom. The professor meanwhile was standing out in the hallway during the ten-minute break and grading them on who approached the man humped down on the floor and spoke a kind word. Nobody did.

Kindness. Mercy. Gentleness. The ingredient that God requires from his disciples is fundamental human kindness…to family, friends, work associates, classmates, and strangers in the hallway.

Finally, Walk humbly with your God.
Focus on the word, “walk.” Walk implies a step that is slow and measured. Walking is the opposite of running. Walking is a deliberate pace. Focus on the word, humbly. Humility is sacrificing a part of yourself to listen to the needs of others and the desires of God. The key to worshiping God is to sacrifice your own thoughts, your own conversations with others, your own agendas and desires. To walk humbly with God is to ignore your rush and busyness of life and to focus on someone other than your self and your pleasures.

Justice. Kindness. Humility. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to buy God off. But new life in Christ means living in ways that make life better for others. It’s risky and uncomfortable. When I think of Justice, I think about a Chilean singer who was imprisoned in the National stadium in Santiago when the government was overthrown by Augusto Pinochte in 1973. The singer’s name was Victor Jara. While imprisoned, he wrote a poem about the conditions in the stadium. Let me read part of it.
We are 5,000 — here in this little part of the city
We are 5,000 — how many more will there be?
In the whole city, and in the country 10,000 hands
Which could seed the fields, make run the factories.
How much humanity — now with hunger, pain, panic and terror?

There are six of us — lost in space among the stars,
One dead, one beaten like I never believed a human could be so beaten.
The other four wanting to leave all the terror,
One leaping into space, other beating their heads against the wall
All with gazes fixed on death.
As the days went on, the singer stood among the frightened and demoralized prisoners, who had been rounded up for unknown reasons, and he began a solitary song of freedom. A guitar was passed to him. The spirit began to blow. Soon thousands were singing a song of peace with him. As usual, the authorities were threatened by the power of the spirit moving so freely. They seized the young man and took him away. When the authorities returned Jara, they dumped him in the crowd and threw a smashed guitar at his feet. Not only had the guitar been destroyed, but the bones in his hands and ribs were broken. Everyone watched as his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground. For a while the singer lay motionless, then he stood up and began to sing. Defiantly, Jara struggled to his feet and began to sing a popular song of freedom. Jara was taken out of the stadium. Days later, his bullet-ridden body was on a roadside on the outskirts of Santiago.

I'm not asking you to be a political dissident to do justice. Just look around you. See the world as it is. Listen to the cries of those aching for justice. You won;t have to look for long or listen very hard. The needs are all around is. The life of justice is a response to God’s goodness. It refuses to back down in the face of evil. It never relents shining the light of grace into the dark place sin the world. Do you want to experience God’s presence? Do you seek tangible evidence of the New Life? Then Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.

Angela L. Ying, “God Requires What?”(August 8, 1999), www.sermoncentral.com.

James Bryan Smith, A Spiritual Formation Workbook (New York: Harper, 1991), 54-55.

William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville: WMJK, 2004), 146-149.
James L. Mays, Micah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 142.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sermon for February 3, 2008

The Life of Prayer
1 Thessalonians 5:16-17
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying.”

It seems that that the powers of darkness are more visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever. Have you ever wondered what it’s going to take to survive our times? What is required of those of us who want to bring light into the darkness? What is required of those of us who feel called to enter fully into the agony of our times to speak a word of hope? It’s not too difficult to see that this is a fearful and painful time of history. And in response many become tired, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength?

Today we continue to investigate Christian traditions that can help us grow in our faith. Our job this morning is to look at the life of prayer, otherwise known as the contemplative tradition. I want to introduce you to some Christian contemplatives called the Desert Fathers and Mothers–hermits who lived in the deserts of Egypt during the fourth and fifth centuries. Their lives continue to inspire me and speak to us today in our own need.

As the fourth century unfolded, it seemed like Christianity was finally gaining some respectability. Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christians were no longer sought out and persecuted for their faith. At the same time, the fabric of society was being torn apart. The Roman Empire Outside enemies threatened the already tender Roman Empire. Taxes soared. Ever-increasing military service was demanded. Even thought Christianity was legalized, people became more secular and less interested in the spiritual life.

In response, devout men and women fled into the deserts of Egypt to escape this corrupting conformity of the world. In the desert they waged war against sin and evil, witnessing against the destructive powers of their times and showing forth the saving power of Jesus Christ. For instance, a man named Arsenius was a well-educated Roman nobleman who lived at the court of the Emperor.
It is said that while living in the palace, Arsenius prayed, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” A voice came to him saying, “Arsenius, flee from the world and you will be saved.” Having sailed from Rome directly to Alexandria Egypt, and having withdrawn to a solitary life in the desert, Arsenius prayed again, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” And again he heard a voice saying, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.” Flee, be silent and pray always. Three words summarize the spirituality of the desert.
In the desert, people learned to reject the false patterns of the world and flee to places of harsh seclusion. Once they found who they were in Christ, these men and women spoke back to the world with wisdom that confronted society’s evils. We call them the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Many of these women and men began their ministry by seeking God alone in prayer. Remember, this is how Jesus began his ministry. He fled to the desert where he fasted forty days and did battle with the devil. The same is true with many who have transformed the shape of faith. They hear God’s call, and then they find solitary time to do battle with the demons. A story is told of Abba Anthony, the grandaddy of the desert fathers. It’s told that when he was 35 years old he went to the local tombs for long period of solitary prayer. As he prayed, the enemy came with helpers and attacked. His biographer writes:
Now schemes for working evil come easily to the devil, so when it was nighttime the demons made such a crashing noise that the whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake . . .the place was immediately filled with the appearance of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions and wolves.
Anthony was struck and wounded by them, groaning in physical pain from their attacks. Then he addressed the demons and called upon the name of Christ. At that moment, it looked as if the roof was being opened and a beam of light came through. The demons instantly vanished and his pain disappeared. Anthony knew it was Christ, so he asked, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear in the beginning?” A voice came to him and said, “I was here Anthony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered, I will be your helper forever.” From this point on, Anthony was ready to minister to others in Christ’s name. He, and those who come after, show us the power of prayer. And their battle cry is the words of Paul: Never stop praying.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers showed us how to keep the world from shaping us in its image. They showed us a way to live in the Spirit during fearful and painful times. But how do we do it? How do we pray without ceasing in our own dark world? I think one of the great deceptions is to get into the habit of thinking that prayer is simply talking to God. This concept causes great frustration. If I present a problem to God, I expect a solution. If I ask God a question, I want an answer. If I ask for guidance, I want a quick response. To be honest, when I pray like this long enough, it seems as if I’m talking into the darkness. Sometimes I’m tempted to think that I must have prayed the wrong way because God’s not answering. Sometimes I’m tempted to feel cheated, and I quickly stop and find “real people” to talk to. Here’s where we get into a bind. We realize we should take time to pray–that prayer should be a priority in our lives. However, if there don’t seem to be any immediate benefits, we will begin to find reasons not to pray. The flesh becomes itchy. The world becomes alluring. Temptation is noisy and irresistible. There’s always one more phone call, one more letter, one more visit, one more meeting, one more book, one more party. One of the dessert mothers, Amma Theodora put it his way:
“You should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once the evil one comes and weighs down your soul through boredom, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness. . .and weakness of the knees. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray, But if we are vigilant, all those temptations will fall away.”
How do we pray always, according to the desert tradition?

1. Short prayer. They asked Abba Macarius, “How should we pray?” And the old man replied, “There is no need to speak much in prayer; often stretch out your hands and say, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me.” But if there is war in your soul, add, “Help me!” And because God knows what we need, God shows mercy on us.” The desert tradition teaches people to pray using a word or a short phrase which is quietly repeated. Even while we are talking, studying, gardening or building, short simple prayers can continue in our heart and keep us aware of God’s presence and guidance. Another Desert monk, John Climacus, said it his way:
“When you pray, do not try to express yourself in fancy words, for often it is the simple repetitious phrases of a little child that our Father finds most irresistible. Do not strive for verbosity lest your mind be distracted from devotion by a search for words.”
2. All life is a prayer. Every breath we take is a prayer. Abba Evagrius said, “Join to every breath a sober invocation of the name of Jesus and the thought of death with humility. Both these practices bring great profit to the soul”. Try it sometime. Sit still and quietly and begin to notice your breath. As you breathe out, confess sin. As you breathe in, let the air you take in be the breathe of the Holy Spirit. Breathe out the false self. Breathe in God’s presence. Breathe out that which keeps your from God. Breathe in holiness. Eventually you may be able to do this at all times, not just when you are sitting quietly.

3. Prayer is not doing but being. Abba Paul said, “Keep close to Jesus.” Abba Evagrius said, “You will pay glorious homage to God if, through virtues, you imprint God’s likeness on your soul.” Prayer is not one more thing to check off your list of things to do. Prayer has to do with who we are as God’s people, not what we do. Prayer has to do with being like Jesus. When we allow prayer to remodel us into living witnesses of Christ, we no longer have to worry about whether we are saying the right thing or making the right gestures. Christ makes his presence known even when we are not aware of it.

Do you really want a rich spiritual experience that will bolster you at all times? Do you think quantity or consistency is important? If you answered, “Yes”, then you must come to the place where you are willing to let go of the drives that propel you to be successful, better, richer or higher than someone else. You will instead to listen to the call of the Lord in your life–it’s the call to the desert where we do battle with all that keeps us from knowing God in prayer. “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus”

Exercises in the Contemplative Tradition
Today’s sermon continues our exploration of practical methods for growing in our faith. God desires that we spend time building our relationship with the divine. The contemplative tradition enables us to create the space that God desires — and we need — in our lives. As we explore different traditions, you are asked to choose an exercise and practice it for a week. Don’t forget to keep your emphasis on God, not on the method. Feel free to modify the exercises to fit your needs.
  • Set aside 10 minutes for prayer. The idea is simply to stop your busy activities and turn your attention to God.
  • Spend 5 to 10 minutes in silence. Pray without words or distractions, letting the peace of silence wash over you.
  • Read a selection from a devotional book. However, instead of just reading for content, read it with God, knowing that God is with you and will help apply what you read to your life of faith. There are many devotionals online. Or, try praying with a book of prayers like Guerillas of Grace by Ted Loder.
  • Pray, using a verse of Scripture for ten minutes. There is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church called hesychasm. It is the practice of repeating a simple prayer over and over. The idea is to focus our thoughts on God so that we may experience God descending from our mind into our heart. A verse from the Psalms is a good start. Try thinking on Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” or Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
  • Write our a prayer. Maybe write it as if it were a letter to God. Tell God about your hopes and dreams, what you’re worried about and what you need. You may want to confess sins and seek renewal. Like a diary, your prayer journal should be private in order to allow you the freedom to be honest.

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