Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sermon for March 30, 2008

The Best We Have to Offer
March 30, 2008
Philippians 4:6-8

You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet. The earth turns on its orbit for You. The oceans ebb and flow for You. The birds sing for You. The sun rises and it sets for You. The stars come out for You. Every beautiful thing you see, every wondrous thing you experience, is all there for You. Take a look around. None of it can exist, without You. No matter who you thought you were, now you know the Truth of Who You Really Are. You are the perfection of Life. And now you know The Secret. At least that’s what author Rhoda Byre would want you to believe. Her bestselling book called The Secret finally reveals the hidden knowledge of the universe that we need in order to be happy, healthy, and prosperous. She calls it the law of attraction. It goes like this: Know what you want and ask the universe for it. Feel and behave as if the object of your desire is on its way. Be open to receiving it. Her book claims to give us everything we’ve ever wanted, just through the power of positive thinking. Your thoughts become things. You are the most powerful power in the universe simply because whatever you think about will come to be. You shape the world that exists around you. You shape your own life and destiny through the power of your mind.

Let’s put it to the test. Ms. Byrne makes the unbelievable claim that food can only make you fat if you think it can make you fat. If you determine that food is unable to make you gain weight, you can eat as much as you want and never gain wait or suffer any ill effects. And all this time, we’ve been told that the key to weight loss was exercise and calorie reduction.

You are what you think. Do you think that’s true? Some people claim that it was the core of what Jesus taught. Well, I think the Bible talks about positive thinking, but not in the way that the new age self-help gurus would want us to think. Today’s reading from Philippians is a case in point. Paul does not seem to be in a very good situation. We learn almost accidentally that he is in prison awaiting a trial that could result in his death. Yet in this little letter, the words joy and rejoice appear 14 times, concluding with the declaration, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” These verses bear the marks of Paul’s own personal experience with God. Even in a place of distress, he can be calm because the Lord is near.

Paul had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “...with THANKSGIVING let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “...whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable... if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

We are not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens. To me, this is the difference between optimisn and hope. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that things are going to be better. If you’ve ever watched Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, you may remember the scene at the end of the movie where Brian is crucified. Next to him hangs criminal who turns to Brian and sings, “Always look on the bright side of life.” That’s optimism!

Hope looks at the world around us and says, “It doesn’t look good at all but we will make a leap of faith.” Optimism always reframes bad situations as good. Hope wrestles with despair and creates new possibilities. Hope gives us visions in which we against the odds with no guarantee what so ever.” Paul does not drown in despair. He does not put on a happy face and sing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Paul chooses to rejoice in hope. His attitude is a step of courageous action. Paul reminds me of Victor Frankel who said, “Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” In an act of heroic defiance, Paul encourages others to think on that which brings out the best of who we can be.

Traditional organizational development begins with the assumption that something is not working. Something is broken, something is messed up, something is missing. I suspect you have been with groups that huddle around a set of discouraging facts: giving is down, loyalty is waning, morale is low. Something is not working. A consultant is called in to fix it. The traditional approach begins with the premise that our life together is a problem to solve. It’s not a very encouraging start; it’s not a very energizing beginning.

Well, in the midst of my study and reflection, I learned about a tool called Appreciative Inquiry. It begins with the assumption that something is working. More than that, something good is at work, even when we feel stuck – even in hard times – even when we think that there is no positive change around us. So, let’s pay attention to that good. As Paul would encourage us, “Whatever is good and excellent and praiseworthy, think on these things.” We are going to start using this approach here at Trumbull Congregational Church.

In Appreciative Inquiry, we tell stories about peak moments in our life together – moments when we felt most alive, moments when we felt most connected, moments when we felt deeply loved – and we excavate these moments for all their worth. Why? Because the stories are good news, because they are the Word of God dwelling among us. Our stories have the power to propel us into possibility. They invite us to participate in the new life already emerging in our midst.

In Appreciative Inquiry, we take time to think about how God delights in us. We remember the times when we experienced the abundance of God’s blessings.

Sometimes we forget that. We begin to tell different stories. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard a dominant story told over and over again. It goes something like this: In order to be who God wants us to be, we need more members and more money. This story defines our reality here. It may have seemed true at one point in our life together, but let’s be honest – it’s not a life-giving story. When I hear those words, I don’t get excited about God’s future for us. These words do not inspire me to think on that which is beautiful and excellent. In fact, they sound like complaints to me.

And believe me, I know how easy it is to complain, -- to find dissatisfaction with a situation or circumstance. A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit.” Replied the monk’s superior. “You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”

It is easy to go the way of our monk and take all our opportunities to complain. And sometimes I’m the monk in that story. On my better days, I try to live differently. I try to tell a different story.

I think we could all use to hear some new stories – not about blind optimism but about our hopes and dreams. Some stories about how God has used our church in the past. Some stories about our traditions can have a positive impact on our future. Some stories about what we think God is calling us to do and who God is calling us to be. We could use some new ways to talk about why our church is here and how we see ourselves fulfilling God’s aims for the world.

Today I’m inviting you to join us in the exciting discovery. I believe that God can work more powerfully in this congregation than we have seen in a long time. But we need your help. Not just the person next to you. We need you. In our congregational tradition, we believe that every single voice counts. Every person’s story is important. When more people participate, we get a fuller picture of who we are and who God calls us to be. So, here’s what I’m inviting you to do:

1. Attend the All-church Potluck Dinner on Saturday, April 5 at 6:00 PM. Everyone is invited. Long timer. Long-time friend of the church. Casual attendee, or first time visitor. We are going to begin the process of appreciative inquiry -- telling our life giving stories – thinking about who we are when we are at our best.

2. During the month of April, I urge you to attend our weekly Cottage Meetings led by a trained team of facilitators: Wendy Ferencz, Carolyn Kalahar, Kirsetn Nestro, Ruth Wakely, and Paul Buttress. These meetings will help us to listen to the stories about who we are as a church when we are at our best and give us an array of alternate ways to experience our church identity. All ages are welcome to attend. Childcare will be provided. Meetings will begin on Thursday, April 10 at 7:00 PM.

3. We will share our findings at a final congregational gathering on Saturday, May 3 at 6:30 PM. We will gather and ask ourselves, "What are some creative and caring behaviors that sustain who we are as a church when we are at our best?”

You are an important person in the life of our church. Please make the time to participate in this significant project for the future of TCC. Your input will have a direct and immediate impact on who we are and how we do things here.

Thanks ahead of time for your participation. Please feel free to contact me with questions. Call or Email me with questions.

There are plenty of stories in the world about pain and blame and deficit. Following the leading of Paul, it’s time for us to begin another conversation – a holy source of life. God has been present and continues to be active in the realms of truth, justice, goodness, and excellence. Join us as we tell our stories, and trust that God is not done with us yet. Join us as we think through the best we have to offer – to one another in our church, to our community, and to God.

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008

I Have Seen the Lord
John 20:1-18

The First Story: It’s a starless night in 1944. A cattle train loaded with scared Hungarian Jews pulls into a depot. They are loaded off the trains by German guards who send women to the right and men to the left. The place is called Auschwitz. Flames, smoke, and guns greet the disoriented Jews as they are prodded to the registration area. The smell of death is in the air. A boy named Elie Wiesel is separated from his mother forever, as he follows his father and the other men. Talk of uprising is whispered among the men, as well as the advice of elders who say, “You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That’s the teaching of our sages.” After he survived the horror of the holocaust, Wiesel came to a different conclusion. In his book entitled Night, he writes, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke . . . Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever . . . Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

Another story: Two men carry a dead body to a tomb. A man named Joseph wipes the wounded face of the corpse, and with a soft towel, he cleans the blood that came from lashings and a crown of thorns. When this is done, he closes the man’s eyes tight. Another man named Nicodemus unrolls some linen, and together these two men lift the body of Jesus and set him on the aloe covered cloths. They prepare the body in a hurry, for the sun is beginning to set and the Sabbath is about to begin. Across the city, 10 men sit in a darkening room. The door is locked tight. Each man feels embarrassed and guilty. These are Jesus’ disciples. After all of their courageous talk, all but one ran away in fear when Jesus was taken away from them. After Jesus dies on the cross, these disciples appear in the upper room, too overwhelmed to go home and too confused to go on. Each has an anxious hope that it’s all been a bad dream. Each has betrayed the man whom they promised to follow with their lives. Now all seems lost and senseless, for the man who claimed to be one with God now lies dead and buried in a garden tomb.

These stories have a common thread -- people who began to lose faith when their God died. Wiesel and the Disciples mourned the death of God in their hearts. Each faced a crisis of hope; a feeling that all was lost and that not even God could make the future any better. I believe that we also face a crisis of hope today.

In the modern era, it was generally agreed that life was a steadily upward moving process. Education and science seemed to guarantee the moral progress and enlightenment of the human race. As time went on, we were confronted with world wars and military occupations. We faced the holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, ecological disasters in our own backyards, and wars throughout the world. These events shattered the dreams of moral growth, as we saw the consequences of our inhumanity. All the naive ideas about progress were eclipsed by the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Many of the people of my generation, the so called “Generation X-ers” grew up wondering, “Why hope in the future, if there’s no future to live for? What is there to hope in if nuclear Armageddon destroys us all? What kind of future do we have if the environment won’t sustain us?” We achingly asked, “Where is God?” These aren’t just the questions of the X-ers. I believe that the conclusion of many generations is the same as Elie Wiesel’s -- the same as the defeated disciples. We dare to think, “If God were alive, there would be no holocaust. There would be no Hitler, or Stalin or Saddam Hussein; no Jonestown, or Waco? If God were out there, we wouldn’t have to live in fear of what the future holds.”

I once read about a town that was to be flooded as part of a large lake for which a dam was being built. In the months before it was to be flooded, all improvements and repairs in the whole town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? Week by week, the whole town became more and more bedraggled, more decrepit, more miserable. As one citizen of the town said, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”

If there is no hope for the future, then there is nothing else to do but live for the moment. Our society trains itself to live for immediate good feelings and thrills. After all, God is dead. And if God is alive, he’s been very irresponsible. Or maybe God’s not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening. God can’t be trusted to heal. God can’t be counted on the bring justice and stop evil. If God isn’t there for us, then we only have one reasonable means of survival -- we will take care of everything ourselves. If the future is not sure, we will make here and now as pleasurable as possible. If we can’t hope in God, if there is no one greater then ourselves to believe in, then we will put our trust in our own abilities to make ourselves happy for the time being.

As this behavior continues, we will observe it’s destructive power. Can you see how cycles of self-gratifying behavior have left a void in people’s lives? We scramble for status. We seek the next rush of immediate pleasure. We dream of money and power. But our striving doesn’t seem to fill the lonely place inside of us that wants to believe that there is something greater than our own attempts at happiness-that there is a God who cares, and loves, and promises a future for us.

So far, I’ve presented the grimmest view of our natures, yet a view that’s embraced almost daily by world news. Rebecca West in her book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon makes an accurate statement in her observation of the Balkans, that trustworthy theater of hatred. I think it applies to us all. She writes:
Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live in our nineties and die in peace, in a house we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
It’s easy to fall into heartsickness when we have to rely on our own striving to make the future. Out of this turbulent swirl of hopelessness, I have heard only one thing that has helped me to know that there’s a God in this universe who cares. It’s a message that was spoken at a tomb in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. This is no time for sadness. This is no time to mourn. This is not the time to be afraid. Jesus is no longer in the grave! God is not dead. Jesus lives!

Today, the living Christ stands before us. He knows us and our fears. We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environ-mental 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. Easter is about none of that. Today we proclaim that God overcomes death and gives birth to a new hope. Jesus was raised from death so we would know that there’s something more beyond the painful and inhumane offerings of the world. Because Jesus has been resurrected from death to life, we have the hope of eternity. Those without hope ask, “Where is your God?” The answer is this: look in the place where you would never expect God to a cross. Look again in the places of pain and agony, and there God is, in the flesh. God isn’t stumped by the evil in the world. God doesn’t gasp in amazement at the death of our faith or the depth of our failure. We can’t surprise God with our cruelties. God knows the condition of the world, and God still loves it. God loves it enough to become one of us, to undergo the greatest kind of punishment imaginable, to die . . . and then rise above it. God doesn’t use the world’s ways against the world. Through the resurrection, God declares that worldly powers really have no power at all. We have a living God who knows our pain and offers us hope in the midst of it.

The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day , a hospital program teacher went to see visit a boy. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much.

But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. " We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live." Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He said it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"

There is hope beyond our suffering. God doesn’t leave us alone. Jesus comes remind us that we have a future. We see the effects of atrocity, genocide, and hate all around us. But God reaches beyond that and says, “I am greater. Don’t mourn a dead God. This is no time for sadness. I’m alive! And because I live, you also will live.”

That’s real comfort. That’s real hope. This Easter, my prayer for all of is that, with the women leaving the tomb, we can affirm a word of hope: “I have seen the Lord.”
I have seen the Lord and I refuse to be controlled by fear.
I have seen the Lord and so I refuse to dehumanize another.
I have seen the Lord and so I will tear down the walls of race, class, and sex.
I have seen the Lord and so I we love my enemies.
I have seen the Lord and so I’ll stand with the poor.
I have seen the Lord and so I’ll forgive those who've wronged me.
I have seen the Lord so I’ll resist the violence of the nations by acting for peace.
I have seen the Lord and so I’ll demonstrate the power of resurrection in our world!

Yes, after seeing the risen Lord, let's dedicate the rest of our lives to claiming and acting upon our good hope in Christ . . .

That when all our work seems useless, new hope blooms.
That in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs.
That in the midst of darkness, a light shines.
That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2008 -- Palm Sunday

Conversion: From Death to Life
Matthew 21:1-11 / Romans 12

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Lion in Winter. Peter O’Toole plays King Henry II who has locked his powerful wife in a remote castle prison -- the backstabbing Eleanor of Aquitaine played by Catherine Hepburn. Henry releases Eleanor so that she can visit the royal family for Christmas. Her visit begins the unraveling of this viciously devouring family. It’s a movie that exposes our own jealousies and the lengths we will go to preserve the facades of our own reputations. Historically, Henry II’s lust for power played out between him and his friend Thomas à Beckett. In the year 1162, Henry got into a quarrel with the bishops of his realm, and in a brazen attempt to gain control of the church, Henry decided to elevate his good buddy Thomas to archbishop. Once Thomas becomes the archbishop, however, he undergoes a sudden transformation. Instead of being the king’s crony with a miter, Thomas à Beckett becomes God’s man and, ultimately, a martyr. Henry feels betrayed. So, on a cold December evening, four of Henry’s knights hunt Thomas down and kill him at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral

Full of remorse, Henry eventually does penance imposed by the pope. He walks to Canterbury Cathedral in sack cloth and ashes and allows himself to be flogged by the monks there. It seems he also transformed by the death of his friend and given an opportunity to find a new life. Towards the end of his life, Henry began building religious foundations in England

I’m wondering if you’ve ever experienced such a change –a time when Jesus Christ called you to a new place in your life – a time when you sensed God leading you to turn your life around and to do a new thing. Maybe a moment like Beckett when God unexpectedly calls you to do something new, or an experience like Henry when you are faced with the repulsiveness of your sin and commit yourself to a new life in Christ. In other words, have you ever experienced a real conversion? Some people have some hang ups around this word. It literally means, “to turn.” Conversion is a change of perspective, not of who you are, but of how you experience life. Conversion doesn’t mean that you’ve turned into another form of protoplasm. You’re still human, but you’re not quite the same, either. You experience life differently. You hear God’s voice in a new way. The presence of God feels more real.

Some people think conversion is something that happens at a revival or a Billy Graham Crusade. Sinners are invited to come forward at the altar call to repent of their past life and accept a new life in Jesus. In the world of Evangelical Christianity, people speak of being born again. They are usually referring to the moment when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior . . . when they were, in effect, converted. There is a definite process involved in this conversion: stop sinning, express genuine faith, accept Christ, be filled with the Spirit, get baptized and join a church. A person who is a wastrel repents, gives his life to Christ, and becomes a preacher. A hell-bound teen druggie gets saved and gives up the fast and easy life for a new life of holiness. A chain-smoking, poker-playing grannie accepts Christ and begins a Christian aerobics class in the town. People get converted and begin signing their letters “yours in Christ.” This is how some people come into the church – In a crisis of faith, people hear the call of God, they leave behind their old life, and they became born again in Christ. Many people think about conversion in this manner. It is instant and identifiable.

There are others of you here today who were baptized as infants and raised in the church and you don’t have a conversion story that sounds anything like what I just described. You have never experienced a moment when decided to accept Christ and were “born again.” For many of you, there’s a sense of having always believed in God and always feeling at home in the church. The life of faith has not been defined by a moment in time, but rather by an ongoing process. An uneasy tension always arises in the church between those who have had a life-defining conversion moment with Christ and those who have enjoyed a slow and gradual relationship with God. The born-agains are seen by the traditionalists as pushy hurricanes who hammer religion down everyone’s throat. The traditionalists are seen by the born-agains as stagnant water in need of some serious stirring by God. Both sides say “My way is God’s way.” Both points of view refuse to believe that God will do anything other than what one’s personal experience dictates. Caught in the middle are those who are seriously seeking to turn, and change, and grow into Christ -- to be neither hurricane nor puddle, but filled with the life-giving water of Christ. Maybe we all need a conversion -- a turning – a change of perspective.

Here is the reality of my life. Even though I can pinpoint a conversion moment in my own experience, I don’t live a life of 24-hour peace, joy, and victory. I guess I committed my life to Christ with the expectation that Christianity would be like living in a new Eden. But, many times, my life feels like a dried up river bed. Sometimes I still get anxious. I still struggle with some bad habits and defeating attitudes. Much of my faith journey feels like wilderness time– struggling with temptation and trying to fathom the meaning of what life is throwing at me at any moment. I bet that for many of you people of faith, no matter how you got here, life may be the same. Life is lived in the neutral zone.

Our culture knows little of how to prepare us for the waiting involved in the neutral zone. We are eager to use medications and cure-alls, distractions and remedies, to help us avoid the pain and helplessness that the neutral zone imposes.

But, maybe our conversion comes from waiting, and reflecting, and even dying in this neutral zone. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation. Grief especially has unparalleled power to open our eyes and open our heart, but only over the patient long haul. After all, new beginnings come only after an ending. New life only comes after death. True conversion has to turn from something in order to turn to the life to which God is calling. If this is all true, then maybe conversion is a single moment and a process, but never just an end. Conversion is a beginning point, and a daily re-orientation to Jesus. After all, the cells of our body renew themselves every few days. Nature renews itself through the patterns of weather and seasons. Maybe God is continually renewing us and calling us to turn from death to life, and from old to new.

Maybe real conversion lies in admitting that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses. Maybe conversion is not a one-size-fits-all garment. Maybe Christian conversion is worked out by each individual within the community of faith.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of what I’m proposing. Some of you may be familiar with Paul’s conversion experience in the Book of Acts. On his way to persecute Christians, he is blinded by the light, comes to faith in Christ, and makes restitution for the wrong he has done. The book of Acts makes it sound as if Paul, following his conversion experience, went right to work after an instant transformation. But, after his conversion experience Paul traveled for a time, spending at least three years in his own neutral zone, rethinking and retooling himself. His change of perspective wasn’t achieved all at once. He had work to do. And that, it seems to me, is the real nature of conversion. Once you have the idea of the change of direction to where God is pulling, then you have to embrace it . . . and that will require some discipline. It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable, no matter what anyone tells you.

Palm Sunday symbolizes the kind of conversion I’m talking about. Gentle Jesus, riding on a donkey to the cheering of crowds, is about to enter the neutral zone. Jesus may have been uneasy with the cheering crowds. The word “Hosanna” does not mean “Hip hip hooray.” It means “Save us!” Some of the onlookers call out for Jesus to rescue them from Roman domination. Others egg Jesus on, hoping that he will overstep the limit. As soon as Jesus enters the city, he immediately attacks the Temple. Some people in the city see him as a trigger for their revolution against Rome. Others see Jesus as a threat to the order of the city. Others may be city dwellers who don’t understand why a yokel from Nazareth is entering the City of God as a war hero on the back of a donkey. In the midst of it all, Jesus rides on to death, going where God leads him, facing the neutral zone of Holy Week. He will be tempted to turn away. He will be falsely accused. His friends will leave him. He will die as Rome’s public example of what happens to those who disrupt the peace. And on cross, his arms will stretch to embrace the world. Jesus will die, and he will lie in the neutral zone of a tomb for three days. New life will come, but not right away. Easter doesn’t come without some waiting, and some suffering, and some reflection on conversion from death to life.

For us, life in the neutral zone is a life that resembles Christ’s. In our reading from Romans 12, Paul says it like this: if we are truly converted we will love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. We will be patient in trouble, and always be prayerful. We will help each other out when in need and show genuine hospitality. We will pray for those who persecute us, and we will do our part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible. We will feed our enemies, not letting evil get the best of us, but conquering evil by doing good.

What does it mean to be open to constant conversion by God? Kathleen Norris is a poet who has written powerfully about her return to church after a twenty-year absence -- her own gradual and painstaking conversion. She writes, “Conversion is seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classrooms, and on the job, in a new light.” Sometimes, God visits us with a light so dazzling that we cannot help but be changed. But often, God's light shines more dimly, in ways and places we will not see unless we're keeping our eyes open for them. Just don’t rush it. Allow God to work. Sometimes it takes a while to move from death to life. It takes time to go from seedlings that are being hardened off to the winds of the world to fruit-bearing people. We cannot create conversion in ourselves or in others. But we can keep our eyes open for the daily ways God invites us to see with new eyes.

Sermon for Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mourning Jerusalem

Luke 13:31-35
At that time some Pharisees said to him, “Get away from here if you want to live! Herod Antipas wants to kill you!” Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and healing people today and tomorrow; and the third day I will accomplish my purpose. Yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day I must proceed on my way. For it wouldn’t do for a prophet of God to be killed except in Jerusalem! “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned. And you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD!’”

Let me tell you about two people I have met in my life. I met one in a tropical paradise, the other at a blistering Boston shop. The first on a warm, sunny Christmas Eve. The second on a rainy March morning. What caused their differing attitudes I won’t pretend to know. There may be a host of reasons why the second person was so bitter, and much sympathy might be garnered by each one. But that isn’t the point, right now. Edification is the point, a Latin way of saying, “building up.” The power to build up other human beings or else to tear them down, no matter how humble the circumstance nor how quick the meeting–that is the power possessed by each member of the Body of Christ, and it’s a mighty power indeed.

Christy and I were on our Honeymoon. Bermuda at Christmas. I still remember warm breezes blowing palm trees festooned with Christmas lights. People were getting out of work early in Hamilton on Christmas Eve, and the streets were alive with excitement. We must have looked like tourists, as hard as we tried to be inconspicuous. Perhaps it was me looking at a map and feverishly pointing eastward that gave us away. We stood in the business district. A man walked up to us. Not imposing, but friendly. His presence wasn’t menacing to us paranoid New Englanders, because he was at peace. He said, “Hello. What are you looking for?” and a smile flicked across his face. He was no chill stranger, although neither of us knew him. When he spoke he looked directly at us, without fear or embarrassment, with neither judgement nor haughtiness nor threat. Just a smile. It’s as if everyone else on the frenzied streets disappeared. He was there just for us in that particular moment.

He was a Bermudian of African decent, balding, middle-aged, slightly over weight. A banker. He pointed us in the right direction. He mentioned other points of interest. Then, out of nowhere he asked, “Do you two have plans for Christmas?” Christy and I looked at each other, Yankee paranoia kicking in again, and we suspiciously said, “No.”

“Why don’t you plan on coming over to my house for Christmas dinner.” He offered. “No pressure, but I’m sure my wife and family would love to have you.” He gave us his number and address. After a few hours of contemplation, we accepted the invitation. The next day we called a taxi and spent Christmas day in his beautiful home overlooking a silver ocean, with great food and friendly conversation. This man did not solve our problems. He didn’t save us from disaster or fix some great problem. Nevertheless, he did something extraordinary. He took a risk. He walked up to some naive strangers on the street and shook our hands. He built us up. He edified us. We never spoke or talked to each other again.

I was silently praying that I would never have to see the second person again. I have mentioned him before. He was the general manger of a propeller repair shop in South Boston. The building smelled like hot metal and grease. Morris was smeared in dirt. His face was ragged. An inch of ashes clung to a cigarette that seemed attached to the corner of his mouth against all laws of nature. “What do you want?” He growled. “I’m here to apply for the job.” He looked me up and down, and walked away, shaking his head as if in disgust. The shop owner came out with desperate apologies. I wanted to run away at that moment, but we needed the money. So I took the job. The months ahead proved Morris to be the bitterest, most foul-mouthed, insulting person I ever met. I was put in charge of grinding the welds of off newly-repaired inboard propellers. Mind you, I never touched a power tool in my life, and I was being trained to make $500.00 propellers look like new. Morris was always looking over my shoulder. Let’s just say, my successes were not celebrated, but every failure, and there were many, was talked about for days. “How could you be so stupid? Were you born screwing things up or is it an acquired ability? Give me that grinder you moron and watch me do it again.” I spent hours looking over his shoulder in utter boredom, wondering when he would strike next. I found little consolation in the fact that he treated everyone this way. I never knew what to say until I went home at night and fantasized my revenge. Every time Morris opened his mouth, I stood frozen like a mouse pretending to be invisible to a prowling cat. Except for one thing: I smiled. Morris would get ready for another verbal volley, and I would look him in the eyes and grin, letting his words burst upon me. Then I would return home at the end of the day demoralized, smeared with shaft grease and bronze dust and adding a few new phrases to my lexicon of “Profanities I’ve never Heard.”

And it wasn’t just that Morris was the nastiest person I had ever met. He was pathetically sad. Empty. And his sadness had made me sad. Those early days at the propeller shop broke me down.

The Bermudian’s life spoke of a certain truth. Morris’s speaks to another. What truth does your life speak? You may say, “Speak? How can I serve the Lord? I’m not important. What I do is so common and of little consequence. Anyone can do what I do.” But I say to you: Every time you meet another human being you have an opportunity. It’s a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things. Either you will build her up or tear her down. Either you will acknowledge that he is, or you will make him sorry that he is– at least sorry that he is there, in front of you. You will create or you will destroy. And the things you dignify or deny are God’s own property. They are made, each one of them, in God’s own image.

You may say, “I don’t know what to say in order to share my faith with others.” And I say to you: There are no useless, minor meetings. There are no dead-end jobs. There are no pointless lives. Swallow your sorrows, forget your grievances and all the hurt your poor life has sustained. Turn your face truly to the human before you and let her, for one pure moment, shine. Think her important, and she will suspect that she is fashioned by God.”

As always, we Christians look to Jesus to show us how to do it. Jesus knew what it felt like to be demolished. In today’s text, he suffers the agony of spurned love. He knows of a day when the crowds will cry “Hosanna!” cheering him on with waving palms as he enters the city on a donkey. Jesus also knows that these same crowds will take the love he offers and spit it back upon him as they jeer him down his road to death. How interesting that in the face of his own demolition, Jesus edifies. Listen to what Jesus does the week before his death. It’s told in Matthew 20. As Jesus and the disciples left the town of Jericho, a large crowd followed behind. Two blind men were sitting beside the road. When they heard that Jesus was coming that way, they began shouting, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” “Be quiet!” the crowd yelled at them. But they only shouted louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” When Jesus heard them, he stopped and called, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord,” they said, “we want to see!” Jesus felt sorry for them and touched their eyes. Instantly they could see! Then they followed him.

Jesus sees the world as it is. He sees pain. He hears the cries of people who are isolated, cut off, and alone. Jesus reaches out to those who have been pushed aside and he reconnects them to community. He goes beyond our tragic history of exclusion and our outdated hostilities and liberates people with his compassion. Yes—take note of what Jesus does just before he dies. He touches the blind and reminds us that all people have access to the healing love of God. He weeps for his people in the city of God and reaches out to those who will reject him. He longs to protect and enfold everyone, even those who make themselves his enemies–even those who wait in Jerusalem with a crown of thorns, steely cold nails and a cross.

The tragedy of failure doesn’t end with there. We have also been offered restoration. The healing hands of Christ are there for us. And we repeatedly reject the offer. God has blessed us thousands of times, and what do we do? We often take them for granted; we fail to appreciate how valuable God’s blessings really are. We minimize them and we treat them as if they’re worth next-to-nothing. We sometimes even complain about God’s blessings senselessly, failing to realize what our lives would be like without them. We may even deny the fact that our blessings come from God—in a twisted, distorted way of false pride, we take credit for them ourselves. So, in a sense, God’s love is lost on us. Christ laments over our rejection of the love that he so consistently offers to us.

One could say that to live a life of faithfulness to Christ is to experience the hurt and pain of lost love; to lament in grief and sorrow over the world’s sad state of affairs. Out of that attitude of sorrow comes our commitment to build others up. When we see a world that rejects and denies the power of love, we can be living reminders of the people God loves. You know who they are? The surly boat propeller repairman who inhales the bitter ashes of life and blow their angry smoke on others. Do you know whom God loves? The rejected and despised, the prejudiced and those who challenge our prejudices, the disappointed, the insecure and the lonely, the violent and the hate-filled people of the world. Do you know whom God loves? Us – every one. We all belong to God. We find ways to encourage and build others up because God’s love never gives up. Not on you. Not on anybody

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus’ life spoke a story compassion. What truth does your life speak? How we respond to others is never inconsequential.
How do you say hello? Or do you say hello?
How do you great strangers. Or do you greet them?
Are you so proud as to burden your customer, your client, your neighbor, your child, your parent, with your tribulations? Even by attitude? By crabbiness, anger, or gloom?


Or do you look people in the eye and grant them friendship and peace? Does the truth that Christ is living in you edify others–reach out and grab them with love?


Morris and I became friends. All I can say is I never followed through on my revenge fantasies. I just kept smiling that dumb smile of mine. Every morning I would go to work and say, “Hi, how are ya’ ?” After a year or so, Morris’s defenses began to fall. He even began to smile back as he called me a moron.

So don’t forget to smile upon others, and encourage, and shine with love, even to the one who is a pain in the neck. You never know. Your smile, your kind words ...your encouragement might just reveal the face of Christ. You might bring some healing. And you might just find that as you show compassion, you will find some healing and liberation as you walk along the way.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2008

Who Is the Greatest
Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 20:17-28

In Jesus’ day, a child had no status at. The child was regarded as a second-class citizen. So, you might imagine the shock when Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever is humble like a child is the greatest in the Kingdom” This must have been a stunning statement to the disciples. Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last, like these children. The one who wants to be great must be willing to accept him or herself as being of little account–to be regarded as unimportant. Anyone who welcomes one of these despised little children welcomes me, and therefore also welcome God.”

Jesus’ words I got me thinking about our own children. What can our children teach us about faith? A Sunday School teacher named Mrs. Imogene Frost’s once asked her 10-year-old students to answer this question: “What’s wrong with grownups?” they came up with these complaints:
· Grownups make promises, then they forget all about them, or else they say it wasn’t really a promise, just a maybe.
· Grownups don’t do the things they’re always telling the children to do—like pick up their things, or be neat, or always tell the truth.
· Grownups never really listen to what children have to say. They always decide ahead of time what they’re going to answer.
· Grownups make mistakes, but they won’t admit them. They always pretend that they weren’t mistakes at all—or that somebody else made them.
· Grownups interrupt children all the time and think nothing of it. If a child interrupts a grownup, the kid gets a scolding or something worse.
· Grownups never understand how much children want a certain thing—a certain color or shape or size. If it’s something they don’t admire—even if the children have spent their own money for it—they always say, “I can’t imagine what you want with that old thing!”
· Grownups are always talking about what they did and what they knew when they were 10 years old—but they never try to think what it’s like to be 10 years old right now.
When it comes to following Christ, maybe we can begin by re-learning some of the basic lessons we teach our own children:

Lesson #1: Take responsibility for your actions. In 1980 a Boston court acquitted Michael Tindall of bringing flying drugs into the United States. Tindall’s attorneys argued that he was a victim of “action addict syndrome,” an emotional disorder that makes a person crave dangerous, thrilling situations. Tindall was not a drug dealer, merely a thrill seeker. My favorite illness is the famous “Twinkie syndrome.” After Dan White murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone, White’s attorneys blamed the crime on emotional stress linked to his junk food binges. White was acquitted of murder and convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter. Nowadays, nobody’s at fault for anything. We are a nation of victims. Yet, we teach our children to ‘fess up when they do something wrong. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame others. Admit your mistakes, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. People with great faith don’t hide from their mistakes. They take responsibility for their actions. It takes humility to do that. It also wins the respect of others.

Lesson #2: Keep your promises. When I was a child, I was invited to Bobbie Mueller’s birthday party. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I accepted the invitation. A few days later I got invited to an amusement park with some really cool kids. I said I would definitely be there. There was no way I could pass up a chance to be at a fun place with the popular kids whom I admired. There was no way, that is, until my parents found out about my plans. Guess where I ended up. I gave my promise to Bobbie Mueller. So I was marched by parental force to Bobbie’s lame old birthday party. We teach our kids has to make and keep realistic promises. When we keep our promises, we win influence with others. People know we can be trusted. Our ability to keep promises is a measure of our integrity.

Lesson #3: Be nice. How often have you said that to a child? I’ve actually heard parents say to a kid, “Be nice, OR ELSE!” Have you ever been to a park and watched a parent ruthlessly scold a kid for nothing? Sometimes I want to be just go up to the parent and say, “Be kind!” Refraining from being unkind when you are tired or provoked is perhaps the highest form of self-mastery. If we can’t restrain ourselves, we end up taking our frustrations out on others. If we can be emotionally generous during the tough times, we show courage, character, and dignity.

Lesson #4: Obey your parents. A story is told of a conversation on a cockpit voice recording. The tapes record a chilling scene: We hear the pilot’s children getting a flying lesson just before the Aeroflot jet crashed in Siberia. The transcript of the final minutes before crash reveal the captain shouting, “Get out! Get out!” More than a dozen times the pilot yelled at his son, who was in the captain’s seat when the plane began to plunge. The deciding act occurred when the boy asked, “Daddy, can I turn this?” as his foot “accidentally pushed the right pedal, sending the aircraft into an irreversible spin.” We tell children to obey, sometimes as a matter of life or death. We are also called to obey God’s expectations of us as interpreted by Jesus.

To make a point, let me give you a little quiz. Two, actually.
Quiz 1
1. Name the MVPs of the last World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup finals, and NBA finals.
2. Name the winner of the last Heisman Trophy.
3. Name the winner of the last Miss America contest.
4. Name five Nobel or Pulitzer prize winners.
5. Name five winners of this year’s Academy Awards.
6. Name the winner of the largest state lottery in history.
7. Name the winner of the last Indianapolis 500 or Kentucky Derby.
8. Name five winners of this year’s Grammy Awards.

Quiz 2
1. Name a teacher who has helped you learn and grow as a person.
2. Name five friends who have been there for you during good times and bad.
3. Name three adults who have been excellent role models for you.
4. Name two people who love you and pray for you regularly.
5. Name someone who makes you laugh.
6. Name someone who has given you something of great value.
7. Name a hero whose life story has inspired you.
8. Name someone has helped you through a difficult time.

If you’re like most people, you probably flunked the first quiz. Few of us remember the big names and headline grabbers of yesterday. These people are not second-rate achievers. They’re the best in their fields. You’d think they’d be easy to remember. However, when the lights go off, the applause dies down, and the trophies begin to tarnish, their achievements are often forgotten.

How did you do on the second quiz? It was probably much easier for you, wasn’t it? That’s because the people we remember most in our lives are not necessarily those who have the most money or the most awards or the most fame. Usually they are the people who care about us. Keep in mind that Jesus did not seek fame or fortune for himself. He sought humble obedience to God as a key value in his life. Just as Jesus obeyed, and just as we teach children to obey, we must model that same behavior in our own lives. The way you live has a big impact on the people around you.

There are more lessons. We tell kids to do the right thing, to be patient, to love others, and to be a good example to others. The truth about kids is that they need help seeing and responding to the real world. Maybe that’s what Jesus was trying to show us, too. He says, “If you want to be great, than be a servant. Instead of worrying about who is the greatest, think about those who have nothing. Think about how to help the weakest of all.” And then do you know what he did? He let himself be killed. If anyone took responsibility for his actions, it was Jesus. If anyone kept promises, it was Jesus. If anyone kept his dignity when falsely accused, if there was anyone who was obedient to the God, it was Jesus. And we, who are filled with the Spirit and called to follow, can do the same.

Jesus says that his priorities are different than others. If we want to be great, we need to be humble. If we want to be first, then we need to consider the last. Be responsible. Keep your promise. Be kind. Obey God. When we live out these basic lessons that we teach our own kids, and get in touch with the values of God.

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