Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sermon For June 21, 2009

Be of Good Cheer
June 21, 2009

It’s been twenty-one years since my own High School Graduation. Twenty-one years ago, I (like most high school graduates) saw an unlimited future ahead of me. A new chapter was beginning. An old one was ending. I wasn’t completely sure of what was ahead of me but that really didn’t matter, for I had graduated. There were all sorts of opportunities ahead of me . . . too many, in fact, to imagine at the time.

Soon enough, our High School graduates will be off on their own adventure. And every adventure has anxiety. It wouldn’t be an adventure if you weren’t required you to get outside of your comfort zone. It would only be a vacation. Sot his morning, on the eve of this great adventure, I wanted to take some time to give you some survival tips – some proverbial advice -- some things I’ve learned along the way. This is not just for the grads. These are a few life lessons for all of us to ponder. My first piece of advice is to get a life.

Anna Quinlen, novelist and former NY Times writer, dishes out the some good advice in her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Anna writes:

“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are. So I suppose a piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?

“Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes . . . Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger. Turn off your cell phone . . . Keep still. Be present. Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time I look at my diploma, I remember that I am still a student, still learning every day how to be human. Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around.”

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past 21 years since High School:
· I’ve learned that we are responsible for what we do, unless we are celebrities.
· I’ve learned that the people you care most about in life are taken from you too soon and all the less important ones just never go away.
· I’ve learned that the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.
· I’ve learned that God does not propose to judge us until we die. So why should you?
· I’ve learned that time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
I’ve learned that that just one person saying to me, “You’ve made my day!” makes my day.
· I’ve learned that that being kind is more important than being right.
· I’ve learned that the only substitute for good manners is fast reflexes.
· I’ve learned that I can always pray for someone when I don’t have the strength to help him or her in some other way.
· I’ve learned that that no matter how serious your life requires you to be, everyone needs a friend to act goofy with.
· I’ve learned that sometimes all a person needs is a hand to hold and a heart to understand.
· I’ve learned that under everyone’s hard shell is someone who wants to be appreciated and loved.
· I’ve learned that the Lord didn’t do it all in one day. What makes me think I can?
· I’ve learned that when you plan to get even with someone, you are only letting that person continue to hurt you.
· Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
· I’ve learned to quit griping about church. If it was perfect, we couldn’t belong.
· I’ve learned that brain cells come and brains cells go, but fat cells live forever.
· I’ve learned that you can’t have everything. Where would you put it?
· I’ve learned that 42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.
· I’ve learned that one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire.
· I’ve learned that all generalizations are false, including this one.
· I’ve learned that life is tough, but I’m tougher.
· I’ve learned that opportunities are never lost; someone will take the ones you miss.
· I’ve learned that to never mess up an apology with an excuse.
· I’ve learned never to miss a good chance to shut up.
· I’ve learned that when you harbor bitterness, happiness will dock elsewhere.
· I’ve learned that I should keep my words both soft and tender, because tomorrow I may have to eat them.
· I’ve learned that that I can’t choose how I feel, but I can choose what I do about it.
· I’ve learned that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while climbing it.
· I’ve learned that to be nice to my kids. They’ll choose my nursing home.
· I’ve learned that a closed mouth gathers no foot.
· I’ve learned to borrow money from a pessimist. They don’t expect it back.
· I’ve learned that duct tape is like the force, it has a light side and a dark side and it holds the universe together.
· I’ve learned that the less time I have to work with, the more things I get done.
· I’ve learned that happiness is a journey, not a destination.
· I’ve learned that if you don’t pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.
· I’ve learned that he who laughs last thinks slowest.
· I’ve learned that money will buy a fine dog, but only kindness will make him wag his tail.
· I’ve learned that blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they are sticking to their diets.
· I’ve learned that if you can remain calm, you just don’t have all the facts.
· I’ve learned that time may be a great healer, but it’s also a lousy beautician.
· I’ve learned that a clean desk is a sign of a cluttered desk drawer.
· I’ve learned never to do card tricks for the group you play poker with.
· I’ve learned that if you think nobody cares, try missing a couple of payments.
· I’ve learned that your worst humiliation will only be someone else’s momentary entertainment.
· I’ve learned that the noblest revenge is to forgive.
· I’ve learned that two people can look at the exact same thing and see something completely different.
· I’ve learned that God accepts you the way you are, but loves you too much to leave you that way.
· I’ve learned to be of good cheer

Do you ever wonder why people seem to take life so seriously? I once read an Associated Press story about how Americans are carrying more stress than ever, and we’re not carrying it very well. Some of the most common responses to stress are to work harder, sleep less, worry more, and deny ourselves the opportunities for recreation that would provide a measure of relief. The flip side of that is to mask our depression with a restless pursuit of entertainment and distraction. I recently heard this statistic: adults laugh, on average, 30 to 40 times a day, and children laugh 300 to 400 times a day.

I have met many people who believe it is their responsibility to be serious, when in fact what they are truly being called to be is careful or caring. Let me put it this way: in the dozens of funerals I have led or attended, I have never heard a eulogist say, “You know what I admired most about this person? His serious side!” I’ve never heard someone say, “If my mother was anything she was serious.” So my final advice is this: be of good cheer. Keep a smile on your face. Never lose your sense of humor.

Graduates- if you haven’t already figured it out- this church is proud of you! We love you and we want all the best for you. We give thanks for what God has already done in your life, and for all that God has planned for your future. We hope that you will always abide in the love of Christ, knowing that you are a beloved child of God. We, your church family, want you to know that you always have a home here always. But we also understand that it’s time to say, “Go, for we expect good things from you.” After you have experienced all the world has to offer, we know there will come a day when we will sit at your feet, listen to your advice, and learn about the ways of God.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sermon for June 7, 2009

A Midnight Meeting
John 3:1-17

Today I want to ask us a question. Do we take the bible literally, or do we take the Bible seriously? You can do both, of course. But what about those who do not read the Bible as the literal, word-for-word voice of God. What about those who struggle to understand it – those who doubt and ask tough questions and seek to live faithful lives. Can we still take the Bible seriously?

Biblical literalism goes something like this: “The Bible says x, therefore we must believe and/or do x." Today’s scripture is a perfect case in point. John 3:16 has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses of those who take the name Christian. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life." Taken literally it suggests that those who do not believe in this Son will perish. It is difficult to overestimate the harm, hurt and abuse that has been encouraged by this literal rendering of John's Gospel. I think part of the problem is that we make these words a new creed – a test of faith and an absolute statement about whom God loves and whom God rejects, who is in and who is out.

The irony is that of the four Gospel writers, John was the least literal of them all. All of the Gospel writers take great liberty with the actual events of Jesus life and the things he said. They were not historians. They were seeking to communicate a faith. But, John takes the greatest freedom in retelling the story of Jesus. It is particularly ironic that in today's Gospel John's Jesus rejects the very literalism that has so often dominated the reading of this text. Jesus offers the metaphor of birth to speak about spiritual growth. Jesus says that followers must be born of the Spirit, born of the wind, born a second time. Nicodemus takes a literal approach to Jesus words. "How can one be born a second time from your mother's womb?" Amazed at Nicodemus' literal understanding of this evocative image, Jesus says, "You are a teacher of faith and yet you are unable to understand what I am saying?" Jesus would be equally amazed at how his invitation to deepen our encounter with God through a rebirth of the Spirit is still used today as a literal basis for exclusion, rejection, dominance, and judgment. If the life and example of Jesus gives us reason at all to be literal in our reading of Jesus words it would not be John 3:16, but rather John 3:17 "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."

I believe that Jesus was not interested in establishing a belief system to be the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. He was, however, very interested in the question: how does one come to have faith? How can we take these words seriously? We need to struggle with the same questions. Do we have faith because someone tells us what to believe? Do we have faith because we are scared that if we don’t say the right words and show up at the right events, and live approved lifestyles, and associate with the best people, that God will punish us? Do we have faith that can tolerate doubt, faith that can grow and change – faith that relies on the work of the Spirit moving through the gathered people of God?

Congregationalists have always struggled with these questions. The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, asserted:
The United Church of Christ . . . claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.
This means that Congregationalists believe there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. Christ alone is Head of the church. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the faith. We take the Bible seriously. We listen to the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith. In other words, our faith is founded on the Bible, and informed by the Church of the past. But it can never stay frozen in the past. We must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved.

In general, Congregationalists are not a creedal people, in the sense that we point to a detailed statement of faith that we can say all Congregationalists believe. I’m always amazed when people want to take their personal values and interpretations of Scripture and make them tests of faith upon all. Their reasoning goes something like this: “If you believe what I believe, think like I think, and live as I tell you to live, you are acceptable.” This is not who we are. Our congregation affirms that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys. I think people sometimes forget the diversity represented here. Today, Trumbull Congregational Church includes people from all walks of Christian faith and practice – Old-time New England Congregationalists, as well as those with Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Evangelical backgrounds. Some people who worship here have Jewish backgrounds. Some are agnostics. We’re a diverse bunch. While we are all united in our common belief in the basic tenets of the Christian faith, there is diversity of opinion among us with regard to some issues. This has been the case in Congregationalism almost since the beginning.

So, as with our forebears, our church’s stress is not on creeds, but on a covenant. Most Congregational churches have written covenants as their foundations. The covenant expresses the church’s reason for being. Our church covenant is found in our by-laws. We are going to recite it later on in the service.
We do covenant with the Lord, and with one another, to walk together as followers of Jesus Christ, and to devote ourselves to the study, the practice, and the spread of Christianity. We do endeavor to be loyal to this fellowship and to help one another in the Christian life. According to our abilities and opportunities, we give support for the work, attend the meetings of this church, and share in the common worship of God, God being our helper. Amen.
We repeat this covenant together whenever we receive new members into our church family. It expresses what we are about as a church: our intent, as fellow-members of the body of Christ to walk together in the ways of the Lord as faithfully as we know how, led by the teachings of Scripture and particularly the teachings of Jesus Christ, as Spirit of God illumines them for us. Such intent transcends whatever theological differences may exist between us, and unites us in a common goal under the lordship of Christ.

Today we will confirm some young people who challenge us to grow and evolve. We will bring them into the full membership of the church and extend them the hand of fellowship. As we do, we need to remember that they have something to bring to us. I’m not talking about serving on boards or committees, or showing up for Trustee work days. That’s all fine, but their presence here is more than volunteer labor. They bring us a fresh perspective on what it means to follow God and be part of the church in this day and age.

We embrace them as part of this community. And like all of us, they will discover something: When you begin to scratch our surfaces, you'll find we are not solid gold. When you stand too close for us for too long, we begin to smell like human beings. You see, we are not all wonderful all the time. We're not all tidy, and caring, and charming and all the other things we like in people. Some of us are even a bit coarse. A couple of us have bad habits. Several of us take ourselves too seriously, and don't always tell the truth. And yet we are part of a community. We work together. We share common goals. We seek to live out our faith, and take the Bible seriously. That means today we can affirm John 3:16 in a new way. God so loved the world that He sent his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Rather than creating a belief system that saves some and rejects others, John expresses the depth of God's love. How do we grow in faith, how do we grow in our encounter with this God who so loved the world?

I don't know about you but it has been my experience that my faith is strongest, I feel most close to God when I participate in community, when I care about others, and when I let go of my certainties and remain open to the guiding of God's Spirit.

Sermon for Sunday, May 24

The Return of the Church
May 24, 2009

Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days. The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon, as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon. There the LORD will display his glory, the splendor of our God. With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.” And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will sing for joy! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will water the wasteland. The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived. And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the LORD will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. -- Isaiah 35:1-10

Isaiah says, when the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom. I say, forget about the deserts. I need the Messiah to return and help my tomato plants bloom. I have the worst luck with tomatoes lately. I planted these from seed. I had visions of growing food, and feeding my family and sustaining the earth with my simple organic home agriculture. I bought reputable heirloom seeds. This one is called “Silvery Fir.” It is an heirloom from Siberia, bred to grow in cold climates with a short growing year. I figured, if they can grow them in Siberia, than I can grow it in Connecticut. I’ve tended to them, watered them, and transplanted them. I even sing to them (they like Russian opera). Look at these things. They are small, leggy, spindly, and wispy. But I have not lost hope.

These little Siberian tomatoes have a lot of competition. There are bigger, sexier, tomatoes on the market that make mine look puny -- like the Burpee Best Boy. Best Boy was born to be a star in the garden. Best Boy’s maturity produces large, firm fruits on a compact plants, with excellent uniform coloring disease resistance. I had a landlord who used to buy these beautiful hybrid plants. We lived in a two-family house near Boston, Chris and I living above our landlord’s family. The landlord and I shared a garden patch in his yard. Every Memorial Weekend, I would plant my tender seedlings. He would come home from a garden center with a two-foot tall hybrid tomato, small green fruit already forming on thick vines. He was competitive like that – a vegetable bully. He had to have the biggest and best tomatoes in the garden. Both he and his tomatoes were show offs.

So, what would you rather have – a giant, fruitful, reliable, uniform, hybrid tomato, or this spindly little heirloom. Before you answer, let me give you some information. Hybrids are bred with an emphasis on yield at the expense of hardiness and resistance. New hybrids do not last long. They eventually succumb to pest attack after a few years and have to be replaced by another newly bred hybrid. New seeds displace the old. When once hundreds of old varieties were grown, now there’s only a couple of varieties that need constant replacing. Hybrid tomatoes are bred primarily for their appearance and their production abilities. Taste has always been secondary and has been largely neglected. The worse part is that Best Boy cannot reproduce. I know, it’s sad, but once Best Boy has ripened, his future is gone. You cannot save the seeds and grow it again next year. If you want to grow Best Boy, you need to buy the seeds from Burpee, who protects Best Boy’s lineage as a close-guarded company secret. This is the price you have to pay for a beautiful tomato.

When my leggy little heirloom grows, it will certainly have challenges to face. But it will have a well-documented history. It will bear fruit with unique shapes and colors. I will be able to save the seeds and grow the plant again next year. And the taste! Silvery Fir will grow into something wonderful – robust and fruitful tomato plants – the pride of my garden. You wouldn’t know it now, but these tomatoes are going to do great things!

So which one is for you – the heirloom or the hybrid. What if I told you that everything we need to know about church is found in my tomato plants? What if I told you that the survival of the church is like picking between an heirloom or a hybrid tomato? Which church would you want? Over the past few weeks, I have preached on the challenges the church faces as Christendom declines in the West. Where once the culture relied on the church as a moral compass and center of community life, American churches now find themselves pushed to the margins in the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. We struggle to find relevance in a culture than is less interested in organized religion.

We are not the first ones to experience a seismic shift in our religious practice. In the Bible, the people of Israel went through something called the Exile. God’s people were taken over by the armies of Babylon and deported from the Promised Land. Babylon’s armies killed the monarchy and smashed the temple in Jerusalem to the ground. Some Israelites remained in their devastated homeland, but most were forced to live as defeated prisoners in Babylon. Everything they relied on to define their spiritual existence was taken from them: the Temple, the religious establishment, the monarchy, their sense of entitlement, their self-assurance of God’s favored blessing.

I think that our churches face our own modern-day exile. We can’t imagine living without our church buildings, our denominational structure, our preeminent place in the culture, our belief God will favor us and our nation forever. But those things are changing. Our buildings are so expensive that they compromise our witness. Our denomination seems to be fading away. Christianity is no longer the unofficial state religion. Sometimes it feels like God has withdrawn favor toward us. In other words, we are being forced to live in a land and a church that is far different from what it was when most of us grew up.

Some churches respond by becoming hybrids. They try to become the religions Best Boys in the religious garden. They market themselves as a commodity in the religious marketplace. In fact, some churches try t brand themselves. They know that today’s consumers define their identity and construct meaning by the brands they buy. Think of the commercials that feature a trendy young man who introduces himself saying, “Hi, I am a Mac.” Standing to his right is a pudgy, bespectacled, middle-aged man in an outdated brown suit. He stiffly says, “I am a PC.” The message could not be clearer. Purchasing a Mac means you are young, hip, and friendly. Nothing in the commercials states that PC users are dullards, but the power of branding triggers the imagination. Apple is not selling computers,. Its selling an identity. Some content that this is also happening in some churches. Two generations ago, when loyalty to denominations was high, a church was chosen because of its doctrinal beliefs. Today some churches market image over substance. They have rock bands, high-tech lighting, multi-media projectors, coffee shops in the foyer, and a vibe that says, “We are hip. We are relevant. We look good.” They feel like this is what they need to do to capture the heart of the next generations. They value, appearance, production value, and external transformation. But can these Best Boys reproduce? Can they sustain their brand, or will they keep devising new pitches, new looks, and new branding to look good?

Facing the decline of the Western Church, some congregations will respond by becoming heirlooms. They will remain steady and reliable oddballs – variegated, diverse, slow-growing beauties. They will be able to reproduce. The results will be small but steady.

And then there are churches that will do nothing. Their life will become monotonous and routine. Locked into a faith is safe and predictable, they will only be able to express themselves within the established patterns of tradition. They will not look for new experiences and will not expect anything new or different to happen. So, of course, it nothing different will happen.

Which version of the church will survive? The hybrid? The heirloom? The inherited church? A combination of all, or none of them? Like the biblical exiles of old, we know that God has something planned for us, but we are not exactly sure what it will be. The biblical exiles believed God’s promises that they were not doomed to extinction. God would not leave them. God would not forsake them. The deserts would bloom as God carved a pathway through the wilderness and lead them home. In Isaiah’s prophetic vision, parched land springs to life, announcing the glory and majesty of God. Those who are weary, enfeebled or fearful can take heart because God comes to save. God gives sight for those who are blind, hearing for those who are deaf, speech for those who are mute. The lame now leap and those who are speechless now sing. Isaiah’s prophecy promises restoration to a people who have been pushed to the margins.

I think the church will survive, and we will survive by reclaiming our role as pilgrim people. Back in England in the 1600’s, when Christianity was the established religion of the kingdom, every citizen in England was a member of the Church. A group of Christians believed that God called them out of the national church. They dreamed of transforming the church from within. They were called Puritans. They thought that if they practiced their faith, they could reform the government. Some reformers were not content to wait. They were called Separatists. They were willing to separate themselves from the state church and establish congregations of their own where they could worship freely. Some of these separatists made their way to the new world. They were the Pilgrims who eventually landed at Plymouth Rock. A few years later, the flood tide of English Puritans flowed toward America and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims and Puritans eventually united into what we now call congregational churches. Those Separatists knew the promises of Scripture, and they were ready to die to make their point. If Christ promised to be present to ordinary believers, then that was the kind of church they were determined to be.

Pilgrim people are those who understand that life is a journey, characterized by experience, learning, personal growth, opportunity, challenge, success and failure, joy and sadness. Pilgrim people appreciate the opportunity from time to time to rest and renew their energy and strength, but they always move on to embrace the next phase of their life, whatever it may bring. Pilgrim people dare to dream and to vision for the future! Pilgrim people trust God to equip all God’s people with the gifts of the Spirit!

I think we are ready for our own reformation. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church we need to be. We are a vibrant family of faith that is beginning to dare to dream of new possibilities with God’s guidance.

Let’s be a church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go . . . a place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Let’s be a church a church where the real presence of the Holy Spirit is renewing and refreshing us. Let’s be a church that doesn’t have all the answers but asks the right questions.

Let’s be a church a church where worship is joyful, exciting, and expectant, as well as reverent . . . a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted in this place. It’s a church that suffers when you are not here with us. It’s a church where people gather to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven.

Let’s be a church that’s not afraid of change, but a church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join in. It’s a church that calls forth men and women, parents and grandparents, single people, youth, and children who are equipped and sent out to revitalize our families and our communities. Let’s be a church that gives people tools to raise their families in faith . . . a church where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . .where we are all sent out to add value to the lives of other people.

Let’s be a church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained

This is the church of the future. It may be a leggy, pathetic home-grown heirloom. But with nurture and patience, with strategic plans and humble faith, the church will bear fruit. It will be unique, odd-shaped fruit with a distinct taste and the ability to reproduce. The church will return – not to it’s old glory days, but to a new resilient state where we enact the love of a God who embraces all.

· http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2173
· The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani

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