Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sermon for October 19, 2008 -- Stewardship Sunday

A Letter from Home
2 Corinthians 9:1-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All my love,
Aunt Georgia


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sermon for October 12, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Pronouncement—Christian Faith; Economic Life and Justice from Minutes of the 17th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sermon for October 5, 2008 -- World Communion

Core Values: Embracing Diversity
Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 5:1-5; 12:1-8

Imagine going to a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. As you listen for those familiar opening notes, you realize that there is no harmony. All of the instruments play the exact same notes just the same way. And all the instruments are - no offense, Adam - tubas. It would be awful. The fact is we love diversity. We want what diversity produces in something like a symphony. We love diversity when it comes to grocery stores and TV programming, and vacation options and restaurant menus, and of course, financial investing. Don’t forget to diversify that portfolio.

We are sometimes blinded to the fact that diversity is a fact of life, deeply embedded not only in humanity but in natural systems and in the very fabric of the universe. Diversity makes life interesting. If every house on the block looked the same, if every restaurant served the same food, if everyone talked at us for hours in a monotone about things we already knew -- well, then life just wouldn’t have much life at all, would it? Diversity makes whole systems possible: You need diverse parts to make a bicycle. A barrel of handlebars won’t do the job. An ecosystem needs diverse species, making up complex food chains and cycles that keep the whole thing going. Our entire economic system with all its different jobs and products and services and forms of exchange is all totally dependent on diversity.

Diversity is key to resilience. If all our corn is genetically identical, and a virulent bug attacks it, it may all be killed off. If our corn is genetically diverse, then some of it will succumb and some will survive. The survivors will reproduce, resulting in greater resistance to that bug. If everyone depends on one mega-corporation for a monopolized product... If everyone uses the same operating system for their computers... If all the production facilities use the single most efficient form of production... If all the commuter trains are put out of business so all commuters must drive... If we all get our electricity from a single grid with no distributed local energy sources.... we make ourselves vulnerable to the collapse of the single things we all depend on. This is what freaked people out about Y2K -- that it would knock out some basic central systems, triggering a catastrophic domino effect. This is a nightmare for terrorist emergency response planners -- that terrorists could knock out a vital link in some technological system that we all depend on, for which there is no good alternative. Alternatives, diversity -- even redundancy -- are key to resilience.

Among us humans, diversity is virtually infinite. Our diversity is a resource. In particular, we can tap our diverse strengths -- skills, aptitudes, forms of intelligence, experience -- in ways that make us much more powerful than we could ever be separately. This is a fundamental principle of modern social organization: Make a lot of diverse specialists, producers and consumers and then connect them up to exchange information, services and products.

In short, we need diversity. We thrive on diversity. We love diversity . . . except when it comes to life in church. We shy away from diversity when it comes to people. Some church growth experts will tell you if you really want to grow a church you’ve got to take into consideration what they call the homogeneous unit principal. It says that people like to be with people who are like them. Therefore, to grow your church, target people that are just like you. And build in a comfort zone in the church that will not be threatened by racial or cultural or socioeconomic diversity. We want people to look like us, think like us, believe like us, and behave like us.

Thinking about diversity brings up too thorny issues. One is that too much diversity can be a bad thing – at least when it come to civic engagement. Robert Putnam , the liberal social scientist of Bowling Alone fame, researched the effects of diversity on community life. As a self-professing liberal who favors diversity and multiculturalism, he came up with some surprising results. Putnam found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer. The greater the diversity in a community, the less people give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in settings where people are more alike. In more diverse communities, he says, there is a general civic malaise. Levels of trust are not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group. “Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”

On the other side of the issue, lack of diversity can lead to a pursuit of false purity. In extreme cases, those who are different will be excluded by elimination. If you don’t think this happens in churches, then you have forgotten despicable preachers like Fred Phelps who preach that all disasters in America are the punishment for tolerating gays. Phelps goes as far as to say God hates all gay people. I’m guessing there’s not a lot of diversity in his church. He’s an extreme example of the pursuit of false purity. It comes from a belief that the source of evil lies outside of a person. We sometimes forget that evil also lives inside a person in an impure heart.

One can easily be snared by the trap of exclusion. In fact, think about the enormous number of words in the English language that we have to describe exclusion: omission, segregation, apartheid, banishment, deletion, deportation, discrimination, elimination, exemption, expulsion, expurgation, rejection, and removal. We can ban, bar, blackball, blacklist, boycott, delete, drop, disregard, eject, excommunicate, expel, forbid, isolate, omit, ostracize, overlook, prohibit, reject, segregate, separate, shun, and shut out.

How many words do we have to describe inclusion? If we are talking about the inclusion of people, we have only a handful of words: embody, embrace, encompass, incorporate, and involve. Why is this the case? One reason may be that exclusion is simple. Once we reject others, we don’t have to deal with them any more. No change. No hassle. No worries. Inclusion involves a great deal of thinking, and listening. Inclusion requires time and energy. Inclusion requires change.

Here at TCC, our statement of core values declares that we want to grow a church family that embraces diversity within a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. We desire to move beyond simple tolerance toward genuine understanding. We recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys. In short, we are committed to building a diverse, loving community of believers in Jesus Christ. We are committed to diversity. Why? Because God is committed to diversity. Look at the creation out there. God has made petunias and porcupines. God has made mitochondria and mountains, rivers and rutabagas. God loves to display the diversity in creation. God is so committed to diversity that God’s own self is diverse too. We call it the doctrine of the Trinity The reason we have a doctrine of the Trinity is because of all these stories in the Bible that show us God being and acting in very diverse ways. In our first scripture lesson, Isaiah describes God as Israel’s King and Redeemer, the eternal LORD of Heaven’s Armies – unmatched in power and wisdom. In our reading from Romans, Christ brings us into a place of privilege where stand confidently and joyfully before a God of grace. In other passages, the Holy Spirit is sent by God to give us wisdom and comfort. Scriptures like these led our spiritual ancestors to say Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Yet, they have their own personalities, separate enough to interact with one another. Diversity lies at the heart of God—different persons in a unity of love.

The apostle Paul thinks that the church ought to reflect God’s unity and diversity. He talks about the church as a single body made up of excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts. Just like in the human body, every part of the church needs every other part. They are all interdependent. They need each other. Just like the human body, so it is with the body of Christ. There are different parts, they all play a needed function.

All this gets us to a place that might be somewhat troubling: God is not one single, solitary, self-sufficient monarch on a throne issuing orders that must be followed. If God is a Trinity, God’s being is community, and the different persons are dependent on one another. That’s why we try to use different kinds of language for God, when we pray, when we sing hymns or when we write all those words in the bulletin. It’s easy to get stuck with just one image, or one word even. Are we stuck thinking of God as the old grandpa in the sky – or a mean judge waiting to punish you? The doctrine Trinity helps shake us out of that sludge.

How do we embrace diversity in ways that honor God and one another? I think it begins by finding unity in diversity. We look for common ground, universal threads that bring us together without demanding that we all be the same. Today is a good start. One expression of openness to the presence of others is found in the Lord’s Supper. This meal is the time when we celebrate how God makes space for us by inviting us in. The Spirit who produces community is the Spirit of God. So, we must be transformed spiritually before we can sustain relationships that are healthy and empowering.

When God embraces us, we must make space for others by inviting them in – even our enemies. Today is World Communion Sunday. As we come to the table today with the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters in this world, let us envision Christ in front of us, leading us toward a greater unity that celebrates our diversity. We may celebrate in different ways, but we share the same meal. We are truly one loaf, and on this day, we all observe the breaking and sharing of that one loaf. As we partake in this meal together today, let us give thanks and pray for the restored unity of the church as we struggle to really be the diverse Body of Christ!

« “The Diversity of God,”
« “A Diverse and Loving Community”
« “Diversity is as big as the universe,”
« Volf, Mirosalv. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
« DeYoung, Curtiss Paul. Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1995.
« Law, Eric. Inclusion: Making Room for Grace. St. Louis: Chalice, 2000.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sermon for September 28, 2008

Core Values: Hospitality
Genesis 18:1-7; 19:1-3

When I think about hospitality, I think about the lessons I learned from my family. My Grammy Braddock always had people in her house. It was inevitable – she had 16 children. Every Christmas Eve we would go to her tiny apartment at the senior living complex. Every room would be stuffed with Braddocks. Our family overflowed into the sidewalks and parking lots. She never had much money, but she always put some food out – mashed potato salad with peas sticks in my memory for some reason. And she always had gifts for her 55 grandchildren – a pair of mittens or a box of chocolate covered cherries. She would go into her room and pick something from her stockpile of gifts, wrap it up, and hand it to you as if she had seen this gift in the store and thought only of you.

My mother’s mother was also famous for her hospitality. She had more money and lived in a bigger house. It was also stuffed with people – and animals. Holidays were not just for the family. Friends would come over. Friends of friends would come over. Friends of friends would bring their pets over. We would sometimes bring our elderly neighbor to my grandparent’s house, just so she wouldn’t be alone on the holidays. My grandmother welcomed anyone in and treated guests as part of the family. Even her annoying neighbors had a spot at the table.

My parents also had the gift of hospitality. I remember a bike rider stopping by our house. He was on a long distance ride, and he wanted a place to pitch his tent for the night. My parents offered our yard. They stayed up long into the night talking, eating, and laughing with this visitor. His trip became a yearly event – the biker in the back yard. I also remember how my parents hired unemployed guys to do odd jobs around the house, knowing full well that my father and brother and me could do it ourselves.

I remember the older woman who lived down the street. Mildred would walk by the house every day, deadhead my mother’s flowers by the mailbox, and then scream for my mother to come out of the house. “Debby. Deeeeebyyyyy!” she would screech. When my mother appeared, the Mildred would ask “Is your dog tied up.” Mildred was deathly afraid of dogs. Of course, all of her screaming would make Natasha, our 200 pound malamute, go wild --lunging for the mailbox until her chain yanked her back. Mildred became a member of the family – the strange spinster aunt who trembled and cried a lot.

Of course. Nothing at the Braddock house was ever idyllic. Our dogs reminded the neighborhood that they did not contribute to our famous Braddock hospitality. Our dogs would break into the neighbor’s rabbit hutch and eat the residents. We would come home and find a visitor perched on the hood of his car as a dog circled around the car like a hungry shark. It wasn’t wise to visit the house when nobody was home. One of our dogs backed a girl scout into a corner of the yard when she came to sell cookies. Even though our dogs had electric shock collars around their necks, they would break free of the perimeter and terrorize the neighborhood.

I like to think that I have inherited the famous gift of hospitality, but something may have gone wrong. I remember a dark, windy November night out in Western New York. Zoe was just a baby. Chris and I sat down for dinner in the parsonage when we hard a knock on the door. I opened the door to a young, scruffy man with Tourette ’s syndrome looking for odd jobs and a few bucks. There was no work to do – all our leaves had long ago blown over into the neighbor’s yard. We invited him in for dinner. Unfortunately for him, I was on my latest diet kick, and had cooked a disgusting casserole with turkey, artichokes, and cottage cheese. He ate it without complaint and, in between shouting out random obscenities, he politely declined seconds. However, when Chris offered him a peanut butter sandwich, he inhaled three of them down.

These stories remind me of the true meaning of the word hospitality. It comes from a Latin word, meaning “guest.” The same root word makes hospital, and host. It has to do with making a guest out of a stranger or an enemy. “Hospitality” is also connected to the Latin word hostio, from which we get the English word “hostility.” It means to give retribution or to pay back. A hostio is a victim – one who is treated with hostility.

Hospitality and hostility – they come from the same root. The first pays a stranger with kindness. The second pays back a victim with revenge. Our attitude is what determines whether a stranger ends up as a guest or an enemy.

Customs of hospitality vary widely, of course, from one culture to another and from one generation to the next. How the Bedouin out in the desert treat guests is different from how a white New Englander from Westport might do it or how a Latino family in Bridgeport might do it. How you entertain guests today may be quite different from how your grandma used to do it. The details may vary but what has remained constant across cultures and time is that most basic gesture of the host handing the guest food and drink. Hosts serve up meals. In the days before Burger King, travelers were dependent on the hospitality of strangers. If there were no people along the way to hand you a cup of soup and a hunk of bread, you would never reach your destination alive in the ancient world.

Handing food to a guest is basic Hospitality 101. When we pass bowl of turkey, artichoke, cottage cheese casserole, or that platter of peanut butter sandwiches, we declare to our guests, “I want you to live! Eat more. I want you to flourish.” The more we fuss, the more we tell our guests that we want to celebrate life with them. Think of the stereotypical European grandmother who keeps shoving food at you, even though you feel like you are about to explode. “Eat. Eat!” she’ll say as she scoops that fourth serving of eggplant parmigiana on your plate. You can’t NOT eat it. Her food is a sign of her fierce desire to see her family prosper.

The idea of biblical hospitality begins with today’s text from Genesis 18. In some ways this is such an ordinary scene. It was just another day -- a lazy, hot afternoon, maybe around 1pm or so. It was siesta time -- that time of the day when it is so dangerously hot, work stops. Sleep comes naturally after lunch on a hot day with a full stomach. I imagine old Abraham drowsing in a hammock under some big shade trees. As his head dips forward and then snaps back up (as so often happens at nap time), his eyes also pop open long enough to see three figures shimmering in the heat vapors from the hot desert sands.

Maybe he thought he was dreaming at first: who in their right mind would be out walking in the heat of the day like that? But as he shakes the mustiness out of his head he realizes this is no dream. Abraham rolls himself out of the hammock and moves toward the strangers as fast as his 100-old legs will carry him. “Please,” Abraham says, “you’re in danger out there. Let me get some cool water for your feet--they must be about burning up by now! Sit down and I’ll find some food. Just consider me your servant.” Abraham bursts into the tent. His ancient wife Sarah had just been drifting off into the delicious sleep of a well-earned nap. "I need you to bake some bread!” Abraham exclaims. “In this heat?!” Sarah no doubt wanted to reply. But she heaves her own antique bones off the cot and sets to work. Meanwhile Abraham dashes out to fetch some fresh veal, some yogurt, and some cool milk.

Sarah couldn’t grab a box of Bisquick and throw together some of those quickie dropped biscuits on the fire. Nor did Abraham scrounge around for the leftovers from their own lunch He literally put on the fatted calf. A person doesn’t slaughter, butcher, dress, and cook veal in fifteen or twenty minutes! Abraham and Sarah devoted their day to putting on a feast for these three people whom they didn’t know. And don’t think for a minute that they suspected these wayward travelers were really a gang of angels. Abraham and Sarah’s gracious hospitality to complete strangers speak volumes about their character. Abraham and Sarah are blessed for their kindness. They are promised a son, even in their advanced age. God’s promise to Abraham, made so long ago, will finally come true.

Abraham’s nephew, Lot, inherited the family’s famous hospitality. When visitors come to destroy the city of Sodom, Lot invites them in. They don’t want to stay, but Lot is so insistent, the visitors eat, and sleep. That night, the house is surrounded by the men of town. They are ready to hurt Lot’s guests and break the ancient hospitality ethic. Lot protects his guests, even at the expense of his own family. Biblical hospitality treats strangers as guests – more precious than one’s own children. Lot is blessed for his kindness. He and his family are allowed to escape before the destruction of the city.

In both accounts, the hosts become the guests. Human hostility is overcome by divine hospitality. God finds a way to sustain and nourish the life of every one of us, despite our living in a world where many see death as destiny. God declares a firm “No” to the idea that death will be the final and ultimate undoing of humanity.

Hospitality remains a core concept of Judaism. As a Jewish tradition insists, “Let the poor be members of your household.” This means that one should make poor guests feel totally at home by showing them a happy face and by giving them free reign of your home, just as you do with the members of your family. In this way they will not feel embarrassment through receiving hospitality.

Have you ever been with a people who are so full of themselves that they cannot be hospitable to you? Think about this for a moment. Let’s say there is a person who is so full of her own ideas, and so sure that her ideas are fascinating and correct, that her entire time with you is spent talking at you, convincing you, and directing the conversation, so that there is no hospitable space into which you can bring your own ideas.

Then there is the person who is so full of his own needs that he can’t greet you with the open, honest question, “Who are you?” but rather, “What can I get from you?” When you speak to him, you get the uncomfortable feeling that he is not listening to what you say. He only thinks about what he can do with it. You feel invisible, because you perceive that in his eyes you do not exist as a person for your own sake, but only as a means to his ends. Such a person cannot offer hospitality.

Contrast that with a description I read of an elderly Quaker man. “His gaze was not assessing, not suggesting, but completely even. His face was just there, beneath his wide-brimmed hat. He was so comfortable in his face. His eyes simply received me, like a lake.” The author wrote: “What if I were more like that? What if I suspended my reflex judgments, my endless impressions, and gave every person I met the spaciousness of the benefit of the doubt? What if I took time, made space, opened my heart, and invited them in?”

That’s hospitality. It’s a spiritual quality. It’s not just something we do. Hospitality is a way of being. It may end up with the concrete acts of offering food, drink, and shelter to a stranger, but it begins with a letting go of suspicion . . . a suspension of judgments . . . the cultivation of a spacious and welcoming heart.

Our core values here at TCC affirm that we encourage hospitality, extending a generous welcome to all our members, friends and visitors. No one is a stranger here. Church must provide an alternative to what we see in the world around us. We’ve got to feel comfortable and accepted here, even if we don’t have expensive clothes, perfect bodies, or white collar jobs. We’ve got to be accepted here even if we’re not entirely whole -- battling addiction or depression, self-esteem in the pits, so overwhelmed by life that we can’t do anything more than sit in a pew on Sunday and maybe shed a tear or two. We’ve got to be accepted here if we’re carrying unruly children, or bad luck in relationships or jobs, or a prison record.

Listen to me, and listen well. You are accepted here. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are part of us. We welcome you. We accept you. We want you. Strangers become our guests – no strings attached.


Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...