Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, November 16, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever heard or said something like this:
“There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone’s got to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?”

How about this one:

“Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mother Theresa. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t to that; I’m just an ordinary sort of person.”
I’ve thought things like that myself. It’s a problem, because if Jesus reaches out as God’s loving Giver, and we are supposed to follow in his steps, the excuses don’t really do much but to perpetuate the brokenness of the world.

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermon for Sunday October 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...