Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sermon for July 29, 2009

The Limits of My Love
Romans 7:14-25; Luke 10:25-37

I need to tell you something about me. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I might as well be up front with you right from the beginning. It’s a sickness, really. And as much as I hate it, I can’t do anything to cure it. I begin to feel the pains of it about five minutes after I wake up – if it’s a good day. The malady affects me throughout the entire day. Occasionally it even bothers me in my sleep. Sometimes I barely notice it. Other times I can ignore it. Most of the time I just feel numb from it. Well . . . enough stalling. What you need to know about me is that I am a sinner. It seems like the harder I try to fix it, the worse it becomes. I’ll do something that I regret, say something when I should have kept quiet, keep quiet when I should have spoken, or fail to act when I think comfort is more important than risk.

I wouldn’t ordinarily share this during on a Sunday morning, when we are all here trying to look and behave our best, but I have a wild hunch that I am not the only one suffering from the effects of this condition. In fact, I’m going to guess that some of you here today might also be fellow sinners. It’s nothing we’re proud of – we’re not bragging about it. But, for the sake of full disclosure, you should be aware that there are some sinners sitting with you in your pews today. I don’t think they’ll hurt you or anything. In fact, most prefer just to keep their sins to themselves

If you are a sinner like me, by the way, you are in good company. The Apostle Paul described our condition perfectly. He was one of us. He says that it all begins when we try to do good by following our interpretation of the Bible to the letter. We make a list of all the things we should and should not do so that God will be pleased with us. And then we begin our day checking the items off. “OK, God, today is a new day. I am not going to lie, and I’m not going to swear and drink – at least not too much. I’m going to eat well and exercise, and find some volunteer service to do. I’ll return my overdue library books, and I won’t yell at my kids when they drive me crazy. Today is the day I act like an angel.” Then what happens? As I brew my morning coffee, the kids start arguing, the dogs are barking frantically out the window at something ridiculous like a blowing leaf, then someone calls to ask if I want to re-mortgage my house, my wife and I have double-booked some meetings on the calendar, and the overdue library books are lost. Welcome to the first 20 minutes of the day. This is the point where I make my first bad choice of the day. I’ve decided to behave one way but then I do something completely different. I am resolved to do good, but I can’t really do it. I’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to get me on track.

I think the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading might know what I’m talking about. If anyone knows what God expects of one’s behavior, it is this man. His job is to copy Scripture by hand. Unlike the general population at the time, he can read and write and he’s familiar with every detail of the Hebrew Scripture. He’s a scholar and a teacher – he’s esteemed as an authority in the interpretation and application of the law. One day this expert in religious law approaches Jesus. He’s actually trying to test Jesus. He thinks to himself, “If I can ask Jesus a trick question, he’ll mess up the answer. He will say something that goes against the law and then we’ll have him.” Even more, it seems like this law expert is trying to prove something. Scripture says he wants to justify himself. For some reason, he needs to establish that fact that he’s righteous. He wants Jesus to know that his knowledge and wisdom and law-keeping are enough to make him acceptable to God.

So he says, “Jesus, what do I need to do to have eternal life.” And Jesus says, “You are the expert in the law. You tell me.” The lawyer responds with a good answer. He quotes Scripture: Love God and love your neighbor. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that the Lawyer has a moment of insight here. Almost every Jew could summarize the law exactly as the lawyer has done. You could have stopped anyone on the streets of Israel and asked the same exact question and you would have gotten the same answer. The Lawyer is really just repeating stuff he learned as a child: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a good answer. And Jesus agrees. But then the lawyer does something that we sinners like to do. He looks for a loophole. He asks, “But who is my neighbor?” In other words, “OK, Jesus, I know I’m supposed to care, but what are the limits of my love? When can I quit?”

I‘m right there with you, Mr. Teacher of Religious Law. I do the same thing. I want to know the minimal obligation. Tell me what the rules are, and I will make sure to meet all the requirements with as little effort as possible. And if I can’t meet the minimum standard, then I will try to redefine the command in order to arrive at the lower limit. For instance, God says to love the Lord with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I know I can’t love God perfectly. So I will reinterpret the command to mean that I’ll love God to the best of my ability. That way, if I mess it up, I don’t have to confess or repent. I’ll just rely upon my own self-righteousness. I can see what the law-expert is up to. He’s trying to define the limits of love. He wants to make a list of his neighbors so he can love those people and ignore everyone else. He’s really asking Jesus, “Who can I serve, and who can I bypass? What’s the least I can do to still be considered a good person?”

But Jesus knows something the religious expert doesn’t. Jesus knows the difference between heart religion and works religion. Works religion wants to put a box around what God expects of us. It says, “God requires this much of me – no more and no less. If I do these things I’ve satisfied my obligation to God.” It’s an ego--focused religion which is concerned not with the needs of others but with meeting my quota of good deeds. Jesus says to the lawyer, “If you think you can get eternal life by fulfilling love’s minimum requirement, go for it. If you can keep the law perfectly, then do it and you will live.”

And then Jesus blows apart the lawyer’s narrow vision of love by telling a story of a poor traveler who has been robbed and beaten on the treacherous stretch of road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Stripped, clobbered, and left for dead, he is a random victim in a randomly violent world. Then, who comes along but a priest. If anyone could be expected to stop and help it would be a priest. But wait. The priest is not only not coming over to help; he’s passing by on the other side of the road. No reason’s given. Some suggest that, as a priest, he feared being defiled by a corpse, but the truth is if a priest on a journey found a corpse, he had a duty to bury it. Perhaps it was fear. Those who beat the man in the ditch might be lying in wait to beat him as well. Perhaps it was simple revulsion. Have you ever come upon someone after a bloody accident? It’s ugly. Whatever the reason, he passed by on the other side. Some hero! No matter. Here comes a Levite...an “assistant” priest. Maybe he will come through with some help. The text says he came to the place and saw the bloodied Israelite, and he too passed by on the other side.

Enter character number three - a Samaritan. The GOOD Samaritan! Nowhere else in the Bible do we find the words “Good” and “Samaritan” next to each other. For those folks who first heard this story, the phrase “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron - the only GOOD Samaritan would have been a DEAD Samaritan. No hero here. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans centuries old. Samaritans were seen as half-breeds who had perverted the Jewish race and profaned the true religion. By the time of Jesus, the bad blood toward Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid even walking on Samaritan soil. The hatred between Jew and Samaritan in Jesus’ day was at least as deep as the feeling between some Jews and Arabs today.

So, a Samaritan sees the Israelite, but instead of distancing himself, he comes closer. He’s moved with pity. The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds. Then he brings the Israelite to an inn and makes sure that he has all the resources needed for healing. End of story. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question about the limits of love with a fable and then he turns the question back to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” The concept of a GOOD Samaritan is so distasteful that the lawyer can’t bring himself to even speak the name.

And what does Jesus say? “Go, and do likewise.” We are left with the feeling that the one who is admired for his grasp of religious law won’t be able to do it. Jesus nudges him towards heart religion. It is different than works religion. In heart religion, God’s acceptance isn’t granted on the basis of what we do and don’t do. In heart religion, right-standing with God is not claimed. It is given. I will never achieve perfection by my own hard work. In fact, I don’t have to. God exposes my inability, cleans me up, and gives me a new chance. I am no longer bound to the brutal tyranny of trying to always do good in order to make God smile.

What have you been doing to justify yourself before God? What might be keeping you from accepting the fact that God’s love for you and everyone else is flooding over us at this very moment? What’s going on in your life that tempts you to limit your experience of God’s grace?

Some people will justify their behavior by bargaining with God. How many times have we said, “God, if you only do this one thing for me, I promise to be a good person.” As if God could be manipulated by a promise of good behavior that we will never be able to keep.

Others will justify their behavior by counting the cost. We are afraid that when Jesus ups the ante, the new requirement will be too hard and too costly. So we decide to stick to our plan. We like to figure out in advance how much we have to give up – how much our mercy is going to cost us. But real love isn’t planned out like a trip itinerary or a balanced budget. Real love isn’t downsized when the costs creep too high.

There’s another option. It’s the model of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan isn’t concerned with what is required or what is proper. The Good Samaritan isn’t thinking about meeting obligations. That’s works religion. The Samaritan focuses on the injured person. Believe me, there are plenty of injured people around us: men and women with deep wounds and deep needs, friends, acquaintances, even enemies, who suffer more than they let on. Jesus is saying that it would be better if there were more people who showed love without limits . . . if only there were more people who would think of the victim instead of the rules.

By the end of Jesus’ story, we learn something that is critically important to our faith journeys. The kingdom of God belongs to those who admit their weaknesses. It belongs to the sinners, to the small, to the broken and the imperfect, to the lost and the last, to those who realize that our self-righteous behavior keeps us from loving God and loving our neighbor.

God’s new and abundant life has nothing to do with defining the limits of love. It’s for those who wake up in the morning and know that we will mess it up, but who also appreciate new chances to practice unbridled, limitless love. Afterall, it’s the same kind of love that God shows us in Christ.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sermon for July 12, 2009

Running on Empty
1 Peter 2:21; 1 Peter 4:1-13

I once read about a woman who described her prayer life as glorious. She was constantly aware of God living in her. She loved to spend days locked alone in her room, enjoying the presence of God. She felt joy, peace, and a certainty that God would never leave her. One day, her comfortable life in Christ exploded. She lost the secure feelings she had about her faith. She lost the sense of God’s presence and felt dead to God’s influence. It seemed that God had vanished like last night’s dream. The only thing she thought about was her sin: how she must have been doing everything wrong; how she had forever lost her clean, joyous life with Christ. After a very long period of dryness and emptiness, she suddenly found Jesus again. Or maybe Christ found her. She had a profound experience of Christ’s loving presence. But she soon found herself complaining, “Lord, where were you when all those foul images tortured my mind?” Christ said to her, “All during your temptation, I have remained with you in the depths of your heart. Otherwise you could not have overcome them.” At that moment of realization, the woman was able to let go of her old concept of the presence of God. She realized Christ’s presence was something deeper and holier than she could imagine or feel. The woman’s name was Catherine of Sienna. She died in the year 1380. History reminds us that Catherine of Sienna was a woman who devoted herself to prayer, a nurse who undertook to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the sick; an activist; a reformer of Church and society who took a strong stand on the issues affecting her world and who never hesitated “to speak truth to power.” We remember her as an adviser and counselor who always made time for troubled and uncertain persons who told her their problems.

I tell this story because I think many of us have something in common with Catherine’s story. I’ve heard variations on it over the years. Someone will come to me and say,

• “Matt, I’m a Christian. I have faith – it’s not lost. It’s just that God seems so distant. My prayers seem hollow. The ways in which I used to approach God aren’t working anymore, but I don’t have a new way to do it yet. I feel kind of lost.”
• I’ve heard others say, “I see all kinds of problems around me, and when I pray the situations don’t change. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not praying the right way. Maybe I don’t have enough faith. Where is God right now?”

Maybe you have felt this way: like a new way of being in God’s presence is coming but you don’t know what it looks like, or sounds like. So you wait. And you feel empty. Your faith feels like it’s sagging. Your prayers seem ineffective. The old words and the old ways of doing Christianity aren’t working, but a different way of encountering Christ has not yet emerged.

In each of our live we can probably remember periods of fervor when we could almost touch the goodness of God. Bible studies, prayer meetings, retreats, and worship times were important. It was pleasant to think about a God. It was comforting to speak to God. Perhaps all this has changed. Some may feel that they have lost Christ and fear he will never return. So, as night closes around, we ask, “God, where are you now when I’m running on empty?”

Perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that this is a path that many have walked before. The longed for growth in faith is not far away. God’s love and mercy have not abandoned us. Clouds may shroud us in darkness, but even if we can’t see it, God’s bright light still shines. The period of darkness is actually the beginning of a deeper life faith. It’s a spiritual process that brings us to a deeper understanding of Christ’s presence. Allow me to explain the process as I understand it.

It begins when we are thrown off guard. We see or hear something that has the power to make us question where we stand with God. September 11 had the power to throw many off guard. So does any death or tragedy or act of violence. Raising children or learning to be in relationships can also throw us off guard. We want to find ways to express our faith in these circumstances, but we no longer have adequate ways to do it.

Out of this experience comes an opportunity for connection with God. Nothing says that our moments of vulnerability have to end up with a connection with God. For instance, how many times have see ourselves or others turn to someone other than Christ in a moment of spiritual pain? No matter where we turn, though, God is there, reaching out to us to connect our lives to God’s eternal life. At that moment of realization, we get a glimpse–a murmur--of what God wants from our lives.

The process doesn’t stop there, though. The next part of the process of renewal is turning away from authorities. So often we try to be Christians according to someone else’s expectations. The extreme form of this is legalism. Legalism happens when an authority tells us that real Christians don’t behave a certain way. Real Christians don’t dance, don’t smoke, don’t swear. Real Christians don’t drive ugly cars. Real Christians don’t show pain, don’t doubt, don’t waver. We let others mold us, usually with negative rules: “Don’t do that!” When we are young in faith, this can be a positive thing. It sets up boundaries. Unfortunately, many of us get stuck there, afraid to question, afraid to step out and try something new within the Christian tradition. We want more, but are paralyzed. We become afraid of what someone with authority will think of us. Or, we fear what we will become if we follow that inner still-small voice that calls us to something deeper.

Finding a new authority has to do with asking ourselves if we worship God, or someone else’s experience of God? Do we worship God, or someone’s idea of God? I have relied on what other’s say about how to follow Christ, but what is Jesus Christ, the Lord of the conscience, asking of me. What is God asking of me -- not family or friends, not religious traditions or theological concepts, but God?

You know, Jesus went through his own darkness. We can only begin to understand the depths of pain and loneliness that Jesus experienced when he hung on a cross and cried, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Betrayed. Abandoned. Mocked. Killed. The death of Jesus was what it took to shake humanity out of its comfortable patterns. Suffering and pain are part of our spiritual growth. This is what Peter is getting at in our NT reading. Peter does not say, “Jesus suffered so you don’t have to.” Peter really says, “Jesus suffered so you will know that it can be done.” He says that the suffering of Jesus frees us to love. Christ’s suffering is our healing. But the healing only comes as we suffer through the spiritual process of allowing God to strip away the old so that he can clothe us with the new.

The good news is that something awesome is coming, if you are open and ready. On the other side of the cross and the grave is resurrection. Jesus is not afraid of your woundedness. He understands it. He reaches out and touches it. Where is God when we are running on empty? God says, “All during your temptation, I have remained with you in the depths of your heart. Otherwise you could not have overcome them.”

How do we participate in the wounds of Christ? We do it by suffering with Christ, knowing that the offer of something new is coming. When life gets hard, don’t give into the temptation of thinking that God is gone. No, you are going through the same kind of suffering that Jesus did. And glory is just around the corner.

Sources:
• Brennen Manning, The Signature of Jesus, revised edition (Oregon: Multnomah, 1996), 137-158.
• Jack Clark Robinson, “Franciscan Spirituality” (1996), www.franciscans.com/docs/oef_crtaik.html.
• Richard Rohr, OFM, “Grieving as Sacred Space”, Sojourners Magazine (January February 2002).
• Catherine of Sienna, Reformer and Spiritual Teacher 29 April 1380 , http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/04/29.html

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sermon for July 5, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness
Based on the sermon “The Pursuit of Happiness” by Ian Lawton
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Matthew 5:3-10
Lately I have been having some discussions with people that center around what kind of congregation we should be. There are some here who want members to adhere to one strict rule of faith and practice. At the extreme, these people believe that the church’s job is to colonize the life-space of others. They promote the idea that if you believe what you’re told to believe and if you live your life according to a prescribed rule based on a narrow interpretation of scripture, only then can you be one of us. I’m tired of that kind of church – the kind that wants you to check your mind at the door, along with your doubts and pains and struggles. I want something else: a church that celebrates independence – a place where there is no one elite group of leaders watching over you, telling you what to think or say -- a place of deep faith but no prescribed creeds to which you must adhere in order to participate in the life of this community – a place of discernment where our members and friends order their lives around a set of mutually agreed upon values and principles. My deep hope is that TCC is transforming into a place where you can be free to pursue happiness -- in your life, in your relationships, in your work, and in your play. With no guarantees that you are going to attain it, and without too closely defining what it will look like if you get it, my hope is that this community will be a place where we inspire each other to pursue happiness, and offer each other life and liberty as a gift.

Imagine this scenario: You have your choice. In one hand, you can pick a lottery ticket. In the other, a set of water-skis. Which of those options do you think you would take? If you took the lottery ticket and won, you could buy all the water-skis you would ever want. You could travel around the world and ski in every lake you find. On the other hand, if you didn’t win the lottery you would be left with nothing. So you may be better off taking the water-skis. If nothing else you will get to take one good ride on your new skis. Of course, as you are pulled through the water by a high speed boat, you run the risk of suffering a terrible accident and becoming a paraplegic, so maybe the lottery ticket would be the safer bet. However, research suggests that one year after winning the lottery, people are no happier than they were before they won. So maybe the lottery ticket is not the better choice. Then again, some researchers suggest that one year after becoming a paraplegic, people are no more or less happy than they were before the event.

So, one year later, people those who win the lottery or those whose mobility is tragically altered have the same level of happiness as they had before those events occurred. We’ve been deluded to think that events make us happy or unhappy. We think that if we get possessions and property that we will be happier. But, some studies have shown that when people move from living at a survival level, where only their basic needs are being met, to having a roof over their heads and a small income, the increase in happiness is huge. But beyond about $12,000 per year, happiness levels begin to plateau. The difference between earning $50,000 and 50 million dollars a year does not equate to greater happiness. Happiness does not come from great wealth or possessions. Money might make misery easier to live with, as Twain said, but it cant buy happiness.

Think about another scenario: Imagine being left at the wedding altar. Imagine standing where I stand now, on your wedding day, and having your partner flee from the church. Imagine how you’d feel if that happened to you. Would you not say that was the worst day of your life? Anyone who is honest would say this is the worst day of their life. And yet, some testimonies suggest that one year later, many people who’ve been dumped at the altar claim that it was the best thing that could have ever happened to them. We have a tendency to magnify the significance of events, when in reality they are unlikely to be giving us any more or less happiness than expected.

I’m reminded of a story about a farmer who was completely dependent upon one horse for his livelihood. The horse eventually died, and the farmer’s neighbors all said “you are so unfortunate.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” Sure enough, a few days later, one of his neighbors had great compassion on the farmer, and bought him a new horse. The neighbors said, “You are so fortunate.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away, and the neighbors said, “You unfortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” Sure enough, two days later the horse came back with another horse. For the first time in his life the farmer owned two horses. All the neighbors said, “You fortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the farmer took his son riding for the very first time now that they two horses. The son fell off and broke his leg. All the neighbors said, “You unfortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” Sure enough, two weeks later the military came to the town to gather all the young men for war. They ignored the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbors said, “You fortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

If only we could take more of a “we’ll see” approach to life, we might find ourselves in a lot less misery. No event is an end point. No incident is the last word on life. One of the ways we can pursue happiness is to allow life to ebb and flow all around us, and not grab onto it too tightly. Whatever you are going through right now is not the end of the story. There’s always more. There will be mysterious twists and turns that we cannot predict.

So what is happiness? The World Database of Happiness keeps track of how nations subjectively appreciate life. Their survey asks two questions. The first is, “Are you happy right now?” The second goes a little deeper and asks, “All things considered, are you satisfied in life? Are you content?” Right now, Iceland is the happiest nation in the world. Mexico is number 5. The United States ranks somewhere between 27 and 31. The countries with the lowest levels of happiness are Rwanda, Benin, Iraq, Ethiopia, Chad (four of those countries are in Africa).

All things considered, taking a broad view of life, are you satisfied? Are you content? I wonder if this is what Jesus was speaking about when he gave the beatitudes to his disciples. People gathered around Jesus and he began to teach them by using a poem. Most of you will recognize the traditional translation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The word in Greek is makarios. Makarios is used in Greek literature to describe the bliss of the gods who were not affected by the changes of life. Another translation of this verse could be, “Oh the unending bliss of the poor in spirit.” Jesus says that the poor in spirit can be content, because they know what it is to come within an inch of having their hope taken away from them. Because they know how it feels to be on the edge of spiritual devastation, they hold on to things, and perspectives, and people loosely. Satisfied are those who know that what goes around comes around.

Jesus then says, “God blesses those who mourn.” Oh the bliss of those who mourn, because they go deep within themselves to embrace sadness. It’s because they’ve embraced sadness they know what it is to embrace gladness. Oh the bliss of those who mourn because they know that life is too short – that it ebbs and flows and cannot be taken for granted.

God blesses the meek. Oh, the bliss of knowing your minute place in this gigantic, unthinkably large cosmos that we’re part of. Oh, the bliss of knowing how microscopic you are and yet how significant you are all at the same time.

Blessed are those who have a vision for justice. Blessed are those who know that when someone else suffers they suffer too. Oh, the bliss of those with a sense of mission concerning God’s love-filled justice and who will not be stopped from their mission no matter what criticism comes their way. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Happy are those who have a strong sense of authentic calling in life. No amount of persecution can stop them from pursuing that vision. Righteousness means a thorough seeking of justice and peace for all people.

Our country was founded with a mighty vision: a vision of life and liberty for all. It has had many false starts over the last couple of hundred years. There have been many groups in this country that have not enjoyed life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. So, the words of the beatitudes have been ringing in my ears on this Independence Day Weekend: God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. That sounds like the kind of country where I want to live. It also sounds like the kind of church at which I want to worship. The pursuit of happiness, whatever it looks like, and wherever it takes you, is about affirming life and humanity in its brokenness, affirming liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.

A spiritual teacher was once questioned by his students who asked, “Why are you so happy? You are surrounded by suffering and loss, so why are you so happy?” The teacher picked up a crystal glass and she said, “I love this glass. I love the way it sounds when I touch it. I love the way it glistens in the sun. And yet one day, no doubt, my elbow will knock it off of the table and it will break. I love this glass because I know that it’s already broken.”

“All things considered, are you satisfied? Are you content?” Our lives are like broken glass. Our humanity glistens in the sun and chimes with the sound of shared love. Yet, Jesus suggests that we seek happiness in the broken places of our lives. When we understand our brokenness, we won’t grab life too tightly. We might stop striving to save it by putting it in a bottle or storing it on a shelf. We let life come and go around us without clutching it. We stand alongside each other and together we take one step toward greater life, greater liberty, and greater happiness. Can it happen? We’ll see.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...