Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sermon for December 19, Advent 4

Doing the Right Thing

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn't know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God's angel spoke in the dream: "Joseph, son of David, don't hesitate to get married. Mary's pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God's Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—'God saves'—because he will save his people from their sins." This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for "God is with us").

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God's angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus --Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)

These reflections were part of a service based on a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina. We listened to Matthew 1:18-25 three different times, and I offered three various perspectives on the passage after periods of rest and silence.

--Part One--
It was a few days before Christmas. That morning, a woman woke up and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" Her husband replied, "Oh, you'll know the day after tomorrow."

The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! And the book's title was How to Interpret Your Dreams.

Advent is a season of dreams. What have you been dreaming about lately? Some of us are dreaming about wonderful possibilities. We're dreaming new possibilities, new toys, and new beginnings. I hope all those dreams come true! During my regular sleep time, when I’m not on cough medicine, my I dreams fall into two major categories. The first I call worried dreams. In these dreams, I am stand in a pulpit, for instance, with nothing to say. Or I’m late and the service is running an hour over, and I can’t get the buttons to my robe together. In another dream I’m back in college and I show up to a college class unprepared, or I can’t register for the one class I need to graduate. Another form of this is the chase dream. Someone is out to get me – hunting me down. Sometimes there is aircraft involved, but I think that’s from the new furnace fan that drones all night long under our bedroom. These are nights that I spend wrestling with my spirit.

Sometimes my dreams are refreshing. I dream about reconciliation. I dream that my enemies and I are living at peace. I dream of flying through the air or swimming like a fish. I dream of new opportunities. These are nights where my hope is renewed.

What is the reason for dreams, those strange stories that bounce along our brain waves? We wake suddenly, and reality itself seems like a different world. Today's gospel lesson is about a dream -- the dream of Joseph. Not Mary's dream, but Joseph's dream. Today we get to consider his point of view. Joseph dreams something wonderful. God will enter the world. God will be born to his fiancée, as crazy is that was to understand. Joseph has some serious trusting Joseph has to trust that the voice of God is speaking to him. Joseph has to trust Mary is telling the truth. Joseph has to believe in dreams and then get out of the way.

I want us to consider a gift that we can give others this season. It’s the gift of believing in someone else's dreams. The greatest gift you can give is to have faith in someone else. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dream of your husband. Believe in the dream of your wife. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dream of your hero, your leader, your friend. Believe in their dreams! Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear.

-- Part Two--
A young boy was in big trouble with his Dad. The boy was sent to his room, where he stayed for an hour. When the Dad came in and found the boy packing some of his clothes, his teddy bear and his piggy bank. The boy said indignantly, “I’m running away from home!”
“What if you get hungry?” the father asked.
“Then I’ll come home and eat and then leave again!” said the child.
“And what if you run out of money?”
“I will come home, get some money and then leave again!” replied the child.
“What if your clothes get dirty?”
“Then I’ll come home and let mommy wash them and then leave again,” he said.
The Dad shook his head and exclaimed, “This kid is not running away from home; he’s going to college.”

Christmas can be a time that brings the worst out of us. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the stress of maintaining traditions. Maybe its all the added stress we put on ourselves to shop, and bake, and entertain, and party. Maybe it’s time with family or the in-your-face consumerism that stands in stark contrast with global suffering. Something about Christmas brings the realities of life into new focus. Some of us would like to run away from Christmas. So let me ask a question: What are you looking to get from the Christmas story? Are you looking for a Disney style story that helps you run away from the realities of life or are you looking for an affirmation that life is tough and God is with us? Are you looking for the romantic myth of a virgin birth or the stark reality of a young couple trying to make the best of a confusing situation? Are you looking for the sugar-coated story of angels with golden wings floating in from outer space with divine messages, or the reality of a frightened couple trying to follow their instincts and discern some meaning in their struggle?

Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story that is often presented offers little to the harsh reality of our lives: teenage pregnancies, loveless relationships, global poverty, religious rivalry, family betrayals, personal demons and workplace anguish.

The historical context which paints a more accurate backdrop to the beginnings of Jesus’ life says something profound to the realities of life. From the time Mary became pregnant, to the decisions of a family struggling to make ends meet, to the life of a struggling revolutionary, the Christmas a story is the beginning of a tale about survival against the odds. The real-world Christmas story names the struggles of your life and the horrors of our world. In the raw, the real, the radical, earthy struggles of the family of Jesus, we hear echoes of life as you know it to be. You don’t need to run away. You have all you need right here and now to live fully and survive against any odds, and to be an angel of compassion in the world.

-- Part Three --
Joseph. A decent man. A righteous man. A good man facing an impossible choice. A man wanting to do the right thing. A man caught on the horns of a dilemma—torn between his love for Mary and his lifelong habit of living by the law of God. When he hears that Mary is pregnant, Joseph does the best he can. He resolves to let her go quietly so she doesn’t have to face the law’s punishments for pregnant unmarried women. And then, in the midst of a restless sleep, an angel of God comes to Joseph and asks him to take Mary as his wife and to name her child, claiming that child as his own. We know the story. Joseph says “yes”—yes to God. That’s often where the story ends.

But there’s so much more to Joseph’s yes to God. In naming Jesus, Joseph claims him as his own and raises Jesus as his own son. Joseph will watch over Jesus. He will listening in the night. He will worrying about him. He will do all he can to keep that baby safe. Joseph will love Jesus and teach him his trade. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. Imagine what Jesus learned from Joseph.

Imagine the two of them at the carpenter’s bench . . . Joseph teaching Jesus how to use tools . . . Joseph telling stories from the Bible, sharing the parables of old . . . singing the psalms . . . singing of a father’s love.Imagine Jesus watching Joseph . . . seeing how Joseph treats the people others ignore . . . noting Joseph’s kindness . . . how Joseph goes out of his way to make others feel welcome . . . seeing the tenderness Joseph shows to Mary.

Imagine Joseph telling Jesus stories about the Romans. We can almost hear him muttering about the way the Romans treated the Israelites — the heavy taxes, the hillsides crowded with crosses, the arrogance of power. Imagine Joseph instilling in Jesus a passion for justice. Imagine him sharing his longing for peace with Jesus. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. After all they were together almost thirty years.

And think of the role Jesus played in Joseph’s life. Think of how Joseph’s yes to God rearranged his life; think of the richness it brought him; think of how that yes to God stretched Joseph into new possibilities, new relationships, new ways of being in the world. God comes to us as God’s angel came to Joseph, inviting us to take God’s child into our homes and into our hearts. Inviting us to claim that child as our own and to live as Joseph did into the fullness of God’s dream for us. God gives each of us an opportunity to say “yes”—to say yes to God.

Maybe we can live a little more like Joseph did. We do our best to live our faith out, in word and deed—in the little things we do, in the way we lead our daily lives.

Sources:
Thanks to the following pastors and thinkers who inspire my thoughts and lead me to think about Scripture in different ways:
http://day1.org/1070-believe_in_the_dreams_of_the_person_you_love
http://www.c3exchange.org/archive/running-away-from-christmas/
http://www.trinitysonoma.org/Sermons/Sermon-Dec23-2007.pdf

Sermon for December 12, 2010

Choosing Life

Advent is a time of waiting. Preparing. But what are we waiting for? For what are we preparing? For happier times? A better world? For our longing for peace and justice to be stilled? Advent is a time of waiting and wondering, looking back and looking forward. Advent is a time of hoping and searching. Advent is the time of light shining in the darkness, peace overcoming conflict and war, and warmth entering the cold of the world we live in. Advent is a chance of new beginnings – often small, but almost always significant. Keep this in mind as we hear today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.

John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.’” As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way before you.’
“I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is! -- Matthew 11: 2-11

Christmas excitement is building up in the Braddock house. Two more weeks to go and it is Christmas again. Two more weeks to get everything done. We make plans with friends and family. We decorate the house. I look for strange gifts for my family and friends. We do all this because we are supposed to remember what this season is about: joy, peace, light and happiness. These are God’s gifts to us. But they don’t come to us easily. We all know that this time of the year is not necessarily a happy one for everyone. This can be one of the loneliest times of the year for some. It can be awful and cruel and painful. Memories of deaths, of hurt, of broken relationships and lonely journeys through times of darkness ask to be taken seriously, as we start this journey through Advent.

We prepare. We wait. We are get ready. And we don’t want to miss it… the joy that is promised and the joy available, when we eventually grasp that Jesus comes in a different way than the one we’d expected.

Our Gospel lesson today leads us right in the middle of all that: waiting, hoping, working for God’s purposes in this world. We hear this story about John the Baptist. It’s a lot different than last weeks story. Last week, John the Baptist burst on the scene with fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty. He announced the coming of Jesus with great hope and expectation. But, today, John reminds us about another side of Advent. In today’ story, John is tired. He is discouraged. John the Baptist is like us. He has questions. He even has doubts. He even has doubts about Jesus. He isn’t sure Jesus is the one he prepared the way for. He needs to find out. As he sits in prison, he struggles. He questions. He doubts. He wonders.

He might have been thinking, "Lord, where did I go wrong? I did what I thought you wanted. I said what I thought you wanted me to say. You told me that the Messiah was coming. But where is he? Where’s the fire? Where’s the judgment he’s supposed to bring? And why, if he’s here, would he let me stay in this dungeon? I’ve heard rumours about Jesus. I thought I knew him well. I remember that glorious day in the Jordan when I baptized him. I knew it was all beginning then. God’s whole plan was being put into play. But, where is he now? Why isn’t he doing what I said he would do? Is he really the one or should I look for another?”

Questions. Wondering. Doubts. Is that all okay? Are we afraid to doubt? Who of us have not cried out with John,” Are you the Christ, or shall we look for another?”

…when life gets tough and we see innocent people suffer.

…when the bad so often succeed while the good fail.

…when we face a world locked in the death grip of one meaningless war after another;

…when we witness the destruction of nature as greed and desire for comforts drain the earth of her natural resources;

…when we choke on pollution and stumble over wrecked lives of people struck down by drugs and alcohol?
Is it not tempting to cry out, “If you are the Messiah, why this? Are you the one who can change all this, or shall we, look for another?”

No, John is not so far away from us, is he? Sometimes we wake up and realize that faith does not have all the answers. Faith is a risk. Faith is a life of trust, not of certainty and security. God never promises answers to all our questions. God never promises life without stress. God only promises to give God’s self to us, with all the dangers and risks and blessings that come with it. I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was disintegrating, those are the times I grew the most.

In so many ways, doubt can be good for us. It can motivate us to study and learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters.

John had his doubts. He questions. He wonders. But, he does not stay with those doubts. He seeks answers. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one. Listen again to the answer Jesus gives. He says:

Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.

Jesus did not come with just the grim news of repentance, fire and judgment. Jesus responds with a love that says you are forgiven, you are to be made whole, you are good just as you are. Jesus says, "Look around, see what happens, and decide for yourselves. What does the evidence show? What do you think? Is Jesus the one?”

Jesus does not fit John’s expectations. In his actions, Jesus shows that he ‘s the Messiah …that the world is changing, that God’s great plan of salvation unfolds. Only John did not really understand. John’s whole life had been focused on his belief that he was the herald, preparing the way for the one who was to come to fulfil the promises and affirm the faith of the people. Now he sits in prison. He must know that his chances of getting out alive are slim.

Behind John’s question was nothing less than the search for the meaning of his whole life. I hope John, just shortly before his beliefs cost him his life, could see and understand that his life was not in vain, that Jesus was the one he’d been preparing the way for. I hope John could see that Jesus fulfills the highest expectations of human values,. I hope John could accept the outstanding, and the wholeness Jesus brought to people, the healing of body and soul, the forgiveness and the new self-respect to the sinner, the dignity and acceptance to the outcast… All that and so much more.

I hope that John could hear the voice of Jesus inviting him and claiming him and all of us as God’s beloved children. I hope that John could hear what Jesus did not express in straight forward words: I am he… I am the one to whom your unrest points. I am he – the one to come. I am the one for whom you and so many have hoped. I am the fulfillment of the promises given to generations of people living in fear and dark, holding fast to the dream of salvation.

I hope we all rise from our questions and doubts and believe this good news. Jesus Christ comes to release people. He releases us from our inner prisons of fear and meaninglessness, and shows us where to go!

May he come to each one of us on our journey through Advent, through this season. May this be the time when we transform the way we live. May this be the time when we transform the world into a place where power is shared, and all have what they need, a world in which people can live in relationship, in celebration, in joy and in peace.

As we see the brokenness of our world, may we also see the unexpected chances of change and healing. May this allow us to continue to work for justice and peace in our world – bearing John’s questions in mind and affirming Jesus’ answers by the way we choose to live: waiting and wondering, hoping and searching, and making a difference.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sermon for November 28, 2010

Reflections

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again -- rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God's peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, let me say one more thing as I close this letter. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and heard from me and saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:4-9

I’ve been struggling this week to find the right words for today. I have a lot I want to tell you before I leave TCC, and I have also dreaded having to stand in front of you all to say my goodbyes. Instead, let me tell you some stories. I want to tell you about two of my grandparents.

My grandfather was named James Elton Hudson, and he was born in Jerico Springs, MO to a farming family. Sick of the country life, he enlisted into the Navy and fought in the submarine service in WWII. He left MO at 18 years old and vowed that if he lived through the war, he would not return until he had made a success of himself. After the war, he and one of his Navy buddies moved to CT and started their own contracting business. By the time I came along, their business was quite successful. He built condos and office complexes. After he made a success of himself, he did return to MO. He actually got his pilot’s license and flew out there in his own plane, landing in the bumpy cattle fields with his new bride beside him. The new bride didn’t know that while my grandfather was visiting, she would have to stay inside with his mother and learn how to cook big farm dinners in the sweltering Summer heat. She made meat, ‘taters, and pies while James Elton was out in the fields doing “man stuff” with his father.

My grandfather was a mysterious man to me. He never said too much, but when he did speak, we listened. I’ll never forget the time he caught my cousin and me on the roof of his barn. When we finally came down, he was ready for us. He told us that if he ever caught us up there again he would kick and blister our behinds. I believed him. His care could be ferocious. But he could also be tender. In the face of family tragedy, he would stop and listen to his kids. He was also a stubborn man. Every carpet and blanket in the house had cigarette burns, which attest to his bad habit of falling asleep while smoking in bed. Mostly, I remember him sitting at the head of the dinner table for hours, listening to the chatter and laughter of his family, smoking cartons of cigarettes (True Blues), drinking coffee with two saccharine tablets, eating Velveeta and smoked sausage, and looking impassive.

He never took care of himself, and when his health deteriorated, we all took turns begging him to do something. He waved us off with shake of his head and a pass of his hand – always with the lit cigarette that made long wisps of smoke curl around his head. He said he was fine. So, in 1993, when Grandpa died of a sudden heart attack on the front steps of his house, we realized that he wasn’t as fine as he thought. In the pain-filled weeks after his funeral we realized that his business wasn’t as fine as we thought, either. He left the family a half a million dollars in debt. Banks started foreclosing on all his properties, including the house. To make it worse, it was discovered that some of the debt was from the financial support he gave to the family of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

All these years later, there is still so much I don’t know about Grandpa’s life. I do know that I had many chances to try to make it right with him while he was still alive, but it never happened. Maybe it was his nonchalance. Perhaps it was my fear of him. It doesn’t matter. The moment is gone. He died when we weren’t ready for him to go, and I never really took the chance to say goodbye.

My grandmother was named Lorraine Teresa LaRose Hudson, the daughter of French Canadian immigrants. She never enjoyed robust health. She and her siblings faced cancer and other health problems throughout their lives. But that never stopped them from enjoying their weekly poker games. She grew up near the tobacco fields of northeastern CT to a poor, stern parents. Her mother was a fierce lady who was always old to me. We called her Meme. I’ve confessed before, everyone was terrified of Meme. I still remember meme beating my cousin for making a runny bowl of tuna salad. Meme died at 103 years old. Despite her meanness, she lived with my grandparents for as long as I can remember. Even though Meme could make life difficult, my grandmother still managed to find some joy in it all. My grandmother was a nurturer. In fact, I never called her grandma. I called her Mom. We all did. There was my mother, and then there was Mom–my grandmother. Mom just seemed to understand me. Sometimes she was sympathetic. Sometimes we disagreed, especially on politics. The wonderful things about Mom was that she always welcomed people into her home. She functioned as a Mom to all of us. Her kids, grandkids, neighbors, family friends. Her house was always busy, and always full.

Mom died on October 31, 2002. With congestive heart failure at 72 years old, she was told that she needed surgery or her heart would eventually shut down. She elected for the open heart surgery. Her heart pumped fine after the operation, but other organs began closing down and she was eventually put on life support. By the time I got there she was unresponsive. In a drug-induced coma, she laid on the hospital bed, swollen beyond recognition, surrounded by machines and tubes and weeping relatives. With her children and grandchildren standing by her hospital bed, Mom was taken off life support. 15 of us were there in her room, holding her and each other, crying, and praying as she died.

And yet, at her death I felt some peace. I had been with her two weeks earlier, and I extended my stay because I just knew that this was my last time with her. As I drove her to doctor appointments, we talked about her family and her memories of her sisters and brother who had died before her. I asked her if she had the choice between dying on a hospital table or dying at home surrounded by her family, which would she choose. She chose surgery and she knew the risks. We shared our appreciation for one another, and found some strength in one another. So when she died, as sad as I was, I knew that I could let go. I new she was going to die, and I had a chance to prepare. And I said what I needed to say. I made peace with her death because I can look back on Mom’s life and see all that was good, and beautiful, and praiseworthy. I am thankful that we were part of each other’s lives. I still think about her a lot, and I hope that all the good and wonderful parts of her life live on in me.

I guess I’ve been getting in touch with my own grief as I begin to say goodbye to you all. I’ve been allowing myself to experience sadness and anxiety over my decision to resign. And I’ve been thinking about Mom and Grandpa – my grandparents. I think about death. Letting go. Saying goodbye. In a sense, my departure feels like a kind of death to me. Not a sudden death where a loved one is suddenly snatched away, but the kind where you’re told how much time is left before the end arrives. And knowing that, I want to make sure that I say what I need to say before I go.

I have been changed by knowing you. I have been transformed by a church family that has been warm, generous, and loving. I have been changed because we took the risk of being vulnerable with each other. At least I know I did. There was a point in my ministry – a number of years ago – when I thought to myself, “Matt, you can keep professional distance and be effective but aloof, or you can invest yourself in relationships.” I chose the second option. I chose to get to know you and let you know me. I did it because I think that’s how we allow ourselves to be transformed by God. We give each other all the respect and love it takes until we can see the image of Christ in one another. Vulnerability is about sharing our woundedness with one another. That’s what Jesus did for us. Of course, when you share such love and vulnerability it makes it harder to say goodbye. But I would rather leave knowing that we shared significant relationships rather than having treated you as my professional clients and you have treated me as a figurehead.

You have let me into your lives – to mourn with you, to party with you – just to live life together with all that life throw at us. Thanks for laughing with me – or at me – when I forget to let the choir sing or skip something in the bulletin. Thanks for putting up with my scatterbrained forgetfulness. Thanks for not taking it personally when I’ve done something that you didn’t like. Thanks for helping me learn – and for learning with me along the way.

I am thankful to our God, and I will continue to reflect on all that is good, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy about you all. In some of my sadness over leaving, I am learning to make peace. I can look back on our life together and see all that was true, honorable, and right. I am thankful that we were part of one another’s lives. I think about you all a lot, and I hope that all the good and wonderful parts of you will live on in me.

I will miss this sanctuary. In this sanctuary I have wrestled with God and wept and laughed. I have preached and listened. I found solace and have felt my heart break. I have been filled with joy. I have felt scared and stretched and ill at ease. I have been welcomed. I have been blessed. I have met God here, so many times and in so many ways. I have sat in silence in here. I have blessed marriages and said many final goodbyes. I have taken — and offered — the bread and the wine here I have felt the presence of Jesus here.

I will miss the people who make this place special. II have made mistakes and said the wrong thing and hurt people. I have been forgiven. I have felt stretched to my maximum. a times I’ve felt frustrated, misunderstood, and attacked. Other times I’ve felt nurtured, supported and encouraged. No matter what, I’ve found that my heart has grown bigger.

One of the reasons we’re leaving TCC is because Chris and know that we need a different kind of community in which to raise our family. There is another reason. Over the past few months, I’ve become convinced that there is something especially sacred for me to do in Silver Spring, MD. I have some more learning and growing to do as a pastor, and I need to be responsive and responsible to that calling.

I think the sadness of leaving is worse when we become afraid of saying goodbye. I know that’s how it is in my life. I think life takes on a new quality when we are able to let go of our fears. I would rather have a place for us to be able to continue to share our wounds. I think when we do, we begin an important process together. As we do, I think God’s presence and peace with come.

If you have things you need to say to me, give me a call or come visit. I want to know what you are thinking and what you’ve observed. If you are sad or angry and you want to tell me, please do. If you are overjoyed you can tell me that, too. Say what you need to me. Ask questions. And I promise I will just listen without judging or getting angry or hurt. I’ll give you honest answers and be a friend.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sermon for November 14, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Boundaries

Would you ever eat a snake? There’s a story in the Bible about the apostle Peter and a snake. God shows Peter a vision of a banquet coming down out of heaven. In the vision there’s a snake and a bunch of reptiles on a picnic blanket and God tells Pete to kill himself some and have a bite. I don’t know if anyone here has ever eaten snake before. Some people say it tastes like chicken. In case you’re interested, I scoured the Internet and found a recipe for an East Texas fried rattlesnake dinner that contains all four food groups.

1. Bake a chocolate cake. This is the 1st food group.

2. Fry two pounds of bacon in a cast iron skillet. Bacon is the second food group. Leave ½ pound on the drainboard to munch on while you’re cooking, and put the rest in the fridge.

3. Go outside and find a big rattlesnake. Kill the snake. Nail its head to a tree.

4. Go in the house, skin and boil six large potatoes. Go back outside and cut the snake down the middle being careful to not ruin the rattles. Cut the skin away from the head. Pull down hard and steady. Lay the skin in the sun to dry and instruct the dog to leave the snakeskin alone. Slice the snake meat into half-inch thick patties. Pour a lot of flour onto two plates, and scramble three eggs in a bowl.

5. Put black pepper and some cayenne pepper into the plates. When you think you have enough pepper, add some more. After all, you’re about to eat a rattlesnake. Dip the meat into the plates of flour and then gently lay the battered meat into the hot grease. If done correctly you’ll not get burned. If done wrong, you’ll learn.

6. Leave the meat in the grease until it’s brown on the bottom, then turn it over. Meanwhile, fork-test the potatoes. If they’re done, drain off the water, add a stick of butter (3rd food group) and some milk.

7. Put two cans of peas in a big bowl with a half stick of butter. Put the bowl in the microwave and nuke them.


8. Leaving the fire low, slowly sprinkle the left over flour into the left over grease and scratch it around until the flour is cooked. Slowly add whole milk, while squishing out the lumps. Don’t add too much milk. The final consistency resembles grayish-brown wallpaper paste. This process takes some practice, but eventually you will scratch through the lumps and have the fourth food group: gravy.

9. Take the peas out of the microwave and the bread out of the oven. Put everything on the table. Call everybody to eat. Feed them fried rattlesnake while you eat mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and chocolate cake.

The outdoorsmen of the world tell us that snakes, alligators, racoons, possum, squirrels -- all that stuff is tasty when it’s prepared correctly. I’ve only had the raccoon, and I wasn’t a fan. Kind of slimy. Apparently, Peter was disgusted by it all. Maybe Peter just didn’t have a good recipe.

In the first century, the great question facing the church was about boundaries. Who could be in and who must stay out? Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not? Believers assumed that God’s recipe was limited to those who followed the commandments and rituals of Judaism. The first great learning of the early church was that God’s recipe had more ingredients in mind -- it was more inclusive than even the most devout believer could imagine

The church started out as a Jewish sect. Its members were men and women who called themselves Jews. They worshiped like Jews, and they had an encounter with a Jew named Jesus Christ who expanded their ideas of who God was. The early followers of Jesus didn’t hang out with anyone who was not Jewish. It was against the law to be in contact with Gentiles. A Jew considered it unclean and idolatrous to eat a gentile’s food. The early Christians kept kosher homes and obeyed the Jewish laws, and the law said that no Jew was allowed to eat things like pigs, or reptiles, or certain species of birds or shellfish. So, you can imagine how horrified Peter must be when he receives a series of messages from God. First he is told to eat unclean animals. Then he’s told in a vision to go to the home of a man named Cornelius who is a gentile AND a Roman army officer. Cornelius is doubly defiled. Peter goes to this man’s house and tells him the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Cornelius and his entire household are immediately filled with the Holy Spirit and they convert to Christianity. This blows the minds of the good Jewish followers of Christ. It is unbelievable to them that God’s love would actually reach out to unclean, heathen gentiles. Peter is called to task before the other Apostles; and this is what he says. His speech comes from Acts 11.
“I was in the town of Joppa, and while I was praying, I went into a trance and saw a vision. Something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners from the sky. And it came right down to me. When I looked inside the sheet, I saw all sorts of small animals, wild animals, reptiles, and birds. And I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.’

“‘No, Lord,’ I replied. ‘I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure or unclean”’

“But the voice from heaven spoke again: ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’ This happened three times before the sheet and all it contained was pulled back up to heaven.
“Just then three men who had been sent from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry that they were Gentiles. These six brothers here accompanied me, and we soon entered the home of the man who had sent for us. He told us how an angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, ‘Send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He will tell you how you and everyone in your household can be saved!’

“As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as he fell on us at the beginning. Then I thought of the Lord’s words when he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?”
When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”
This episode changes the course of history. The church is no longer for Jews only, but for all people. God reminds people that the boundaries of the Kingdom reach farther than they could ever dream. This is why we can sit here and call ourselves Christians today. Sometimes, though, I feel that we’ve gotten into the habit of excluding others from the work and ministry of the church. Sometimes our anger towards others gets in the way, or people come into the church who make us uncomfortable or afraid. I think we all need a reminder of who the church is, and what we are called to do.

Healthy churches learn to expand their boundaries in order to include people in what God is doing. People need to know that they are loved, even when they are unlovable. One way to do this is to tell people the simple truth that God loves everyone. This doesn’t mean that God just loves those who are popular, or good looking, or the ones who have it all together. It means that God loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. For the early church, God’s love was extended to those who were seen as low-lifes; the poor and oppressed, the lame, and even the Gentiles. You see, the church is not supposed to be a club for people who have it all together. The church is for “rejects.” It is a place where people who have been isolated from God can come and hear life-saving news. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. This place is here because all of us have been unfaithful, unworthy, undesirable and unsure, but because of Christ we have never been unloved.

An inclusive vision of the church means that we commit ourselves to preaching and teaching the message of God’s love restlessly. We don’t do it out of pride. We don’t do it to swell our membership roles or bank accounts. The message that people both inside and outside this church need to hear is that God loves you and every person with equal passion and devotion -- that God has made the immensity of divine love known in Jesus Christ. People will never hear this life-saving message if we don’t tell them, and we can’t tell them if they are not welcome among us. Who will invite others in and tell them just how much God loves them? It can’t be just me, or just a few individual random people. If we want to see the church have an impact in our families and in our community, it can begin with each of us being personally committed to telling others about how God changed our lives, and how God longs to include all people in transforming love.

God needs us not only to tell, but to show God’s love. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel to all the world, and if necessary, use words.” Words alone can be empty and meaningless, unless they are backed with actions. For instance, what does a visitor see when he or she attends worship here? Do we look bored and fidgety, or do we show that we are engaged in actively worshiping our Savior? If we look like we can’t wait to get out of here, then our actions might show that we are here just out of mere routine. If we act like we love God and enjoy the presence of God and one another, we confirm that our faith has actually had an impact on our lives. The truth is that our neighbors, our families, our children, and even complete strangers are watching you, and they want to know if all this talk about Jesus and church really makes a difference in your life. The church can become an inclusive community when we back up our words with integrity-filled actions.

In 1999 a little church in Decatur called Oakhurst Baptist Church was ejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention for a variety of issues having to do with Biblical interpretation and inclusiveness. In the 1960's this congregation had taken a stand against segregation and had lost two-thirds of its members. In the 1980's the church opened its doors to the homeless, who have been welcomed and have worshiped there ever since. In fact, the pastor tells of the time when he and his young son were visiting another church facility and his son asked, “Dad, where do the homeless live here?” He assumed that you could not have a church without a place for your homeless friends. One day, when the congregation was much in the news, a member of the church, a developmentally disabled young man named John, saw a TV camera and hurried over to offer to be on television. The reporter extended his microphone and asked, “Tell me, John, what do you like about this church?” John grinned and answered, “They love everybody here.”

I have visited similar churches. I think of a church I know that regularly opens its doors to the homeless and developmentally disabled. On any given Sunday you may have business professionals, professors, group-home residents, and homeless people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another church I know sends out what it calls its “Worship Wagon” to drive to the homes of elderly people and others who can’t get to church. They are driven to the worship service and returned home afterwards. Churches like these realize that we are not fully the body of Christ until everyone is included.

Don’t you want to be part of a church that changes the lives of others by modeling love and devotion? Who will invite others in and show them the love of Christ? Who will seek out those who are different from us, those who are disabled or lonely, or hurting, or socially diverse, and show them that we care, that we love, and that we believe in them, because God cares, loves and believes in them?

Do we want to see the church to have an impact on the culture around us? Do we want to see people’s lives touched by God? If so, it means being committed to living God’s vision of an inclusive church. It means more than mere friendliness or hospitality. It means being personally responsible for telling all people about God’s love, and showing them love in action, even if it stretches our comfort zones . . . even if it challenges our faith.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sermon for November 7, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Nurture

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. Galatians 6:2-6

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 sometimes 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. When I think about nurture, I think about Eddie.

I met Eddie in a Boston suburb. He was sixteen years old. His hair was dyed raven black and his nose, lips, and ears with festooned with silver rings. His personality deflected all happiness. 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. Not only that, the mother had a new boyfriend. Not only that, the mother and the new boyfriend lived in the same house with Eddie, and Eddie’s siblings AND Eddie’s father. Eddie told 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 rarely saw Eddie’s parents. Eddie was in charge of taking care of his siblings. 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 a lot of 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 Death Metal 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. 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 became 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 believes that it was best to let kids make their own choices when it comes to their faith. Meg is part of our country’s non-practicing Christian culture. She believes in God, but couldn’t tell you what God means to her personally. She believes people should go to worship, 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 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 at risk of compromising themselves to find 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 Galatians reminds me of what it takes to be nurtures in an age where many are left as spiritual and emotional orphans. There is more to life than just taking care of our own needs while ignoring others’. In Galatians Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). Paul’s assumption here is that we all have burdens that God does not want us to carry alone. You know, some people try to. They think it is a sign of stoicism not to bother other people with their troubles. The Bible says that the opposite is true. You and your problems are not a hardship to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Lightening another’s load is an act of truest love which requires involvement in the troubles of others. The fact is, sometimes there are burdens which are too heavy for one person to bear alone. I think our nation is waking up to this fact as we struggle through the effects of terrorism in our country. Nurture means loving enough to help someone carry their load. Nurture also means we need to accept the help of our sisters and brothers when it comes.

Nurturing the children of God means not running away from the messy, uncomfortable situations we see around us. The truth is, as many of you know, there really is no escape. Nurture means that I’m going to do what I can to help you claim your identity in Christ. Part of being a nurturer means that I’m going to give you every resource you need in order to know the saving love of God. It also means that I’m going to do whatever I can to help equip you to live out your faith in the world. Think about it. What would it look like if the church showed God’s love to the Eddies, Megs and Jasmines in our midst, and put them in touch with the Life-giver? What would it be like if we helped one another put on the armor of God for the daily battles ahead? We would declare to the community that we are a vital church that values abundant life over slow, spiritual death.

Healthy churches nurture people. For instance, at TCC, we nurture our children and youth 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.

Do you kids and grandkids see you pray? Do your kids observe you worshiping from your heart? Do they see you as a person of compassion? Do they see you asking for forgiveness when you’ve blown it? 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.

We also need to ask ourselves: How do we nurture one another as we live our lives together as the church? A lot of people here today are hurting. Your burdens are heavy, but no one will ever know. It is hard to risk vulnerability. We don’t want to be pitied or looked down upon as weak. It is our job to care for one another. How about making a commitment to reach out to one person today with a warm greeting and a smile of caring? How about, going up to someone and saying, “I’d like to pray for you today. Is there anything I can pray for specifically?” How about praying for someone live and in person? How about a hug, a letter of encouragement, a random act of kindness? Paul reminds us to do good to all, especially to the family of believers.

How do we nurture people whom we wish would just go away? A holy man was engaged in his morning meditation under a tree whose roots stretched out over the riverbank. During his meditation he noticed that the river was rising, and a scorpion caught in the roots was about to drown. He crawled out on the roots and reached down to free the scorpion, but every time he did so, the scorpion struck back at him. An observer came along and said to the holy man, “Don’t you know that’s a scorpion, and it’s in the nature of a scorpion to want to sting?” To which the holy man replied, “That may well be, but it is my nature to save, and must I change my nature because the scorpion does not change its nature?”

There is always going to be someone in the church who stings you. It part of living in community. Paul reminds us that we don’t have to sting back. We live by the law of love, not retaliation. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Don’t be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position.

I could tell many more examples of people who need the nurture of the Body of Christ. I could also tell you stories of people who have come through incredible hardship by relying on the support of the church. The point is, we have something real to offer each other. When we are attentive to how we nurture, we create a church home where people meet Christ, and are given what they need to follow him. I encourage us find ways to nurture one another, and also to take the risk of being nurtured by others. We need it right now. And the world needs us.

Sermon for October 31, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Experiential

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have.1 Cor. 12:4-11

Did you know that God gives us the equipment we need when we are called into service? Today we are going to talk about how God equips us with everything we need in order to join God at what He’s doing around us.

A man named Carl Bates wrote the following words: There came a time in my life when I earnestly prayed: “God, I want your power.” Time wore on and the power did not come. One day the burden was more than I could bear. “God,” I asked, “Why haven’t you answered that prayer?” God seemed to whisper back this simply reply: “With plans no bigger than yours, you don’t need my power.”

How would you measure our congregation’s spiritual impact? Do we clearly demonstrate our core values in compelling ways? Is there an irresistible quality about us? Sometimes I think we have pretty low expectations of what we can be spiritually. Sometimes we don’t realize that God has a God-sized task for us to do. So much of what we do around here has been going on for so long, it’s almost done automatically. It’s natural for us to become content with the programs and ministries that we’ve always participated in.

I’m sensing a new wind blowing at TCC. I’m getting that sense that some of you who’ve been coming here for years want more out of church than a place of Sunday morning worship and education. It’s not so much dissatisfaction with the church, but a yearning for something more. People are committing themselves to acts of service. People want to release worship from its strict formality. Hearts want a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted. They want a church that calls every single person, young or old, man or woman, single, married or committed, to be equipped and sent out to impact our community for Christ. People want a church known for its quality of caring, and its uncontainable eagerness to reach out to those in need. I think it’s exciting.

Here’s the problem. People come up to me and say, “Pastor Matt, wouldn’t it be great if our church had a way to reach out to shut-ins or college-age kids, or unchurched youth, or people who are down on their luck? And we could really use a way to greet and follow up on visitors, and reach out to new potential members. We could also use adult Bible studies and new volunteer opportunities to engage our membership.” Many of you have great ideas for how to reach out with God’s love . . . to which my response is, “That’s a great idea! Go ahead and start your dream ministry, and I will do what I can to support you.” So the great ideas never get started. Instead of being a church that is a ministering community, we often settle for being a community gathered around the minister.

I understand people’s frustration. It’s not just an expectation that the leadership is supposed to do all the work. I think some of you have a gnawing desire to reach out to others. God has placed a certain person or a certain group on your heart and mind. You can picture the God-sized transformation that can take place. You just can’t get it out of your head. But, at the same time, many feel unprepared or unequipped. Insecurity and doubt creep in, and the fire gets extinguished until someone more experienced or talented comes along to light it up. I feel the same way sometimes. I get into situations where I feel way over my head, beyond my expertise and knowledge–beyond my life-experiences. Yet God still asks me to minister to people in those situations. It can be scary. We have all these spiritual gifts that Paul talks about, but we don’t have the skill to use them. In our congregation, there are people with gifts of wisdom and knowledge. There are some with gifts of faith and others with gifts of healing. There are some with the gift of generosity and others with a talent for taking prophetic stands for justice. And many of us are too uncomfortable to put these spiritual gifts to use.

It may be helpful to look at the life of Solomon. Listen to this story from his life.

Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and married one of his daughters. He brought her to live in the City of David until he could finish building his palace and the Temple of the Lord and the wall around the city. At that time the people of Israel sacrificed their offerings at local places of worship, for a temple honoring the name of the Lord had not yet been built.

Solomon loved the Lord and followed all the decrees of his father, David, except that Solomon, too, offered sacrifices and burned incense at the local places of worship. The most important of these places of worship was at Gibeon, so the king went there and sacrificed 1,000 burnt offerings. That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!”

Solomon replied, “You showed faithful love to your servant my father, David, because he was honest and true and faithful to you. And you have continued your faithful love to him today by giving him a son to sit on his throne.

“Now, O Lord my God, you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom. So God replied, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies— I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life! And if you follow me and obey my decrees and my commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.”

Then Solomon woke up and realized it had been a dream. He returned to Jerusalem and stood before the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, where he sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings. Then he invited all his officials to a great banquet. -- 1 Kings 3:1-15

I get the sense that Solomon must have felt the same way we do. In this story, Solomon has a God-sized task to do. He’s called to rule with justice over God’s chosen people, succeeding his father David, the highly popular and adored king of Israel. Leadership is a God-sized task that Solomon feels totally unprepared for. What does Solomon do? Let’s look more closely at the text.

Solomon acknowledges his need. He’s honest about his limitations and his lack of human ability to properly fulfill what God had calls him to do. At this point he could have given up, “Thanks, but no thanks God. Maybe you should find someone else more capable. It’s not that I’m unwilling. I just don’t know what to do. Call me in a few years.” But Solomon never backs down from his responsibility to obey God. Instead he does something decisive...

Solomon prays according to God’s will. In a dream God says, “Ask whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” Solomon was given carte blanche by the hand of God. He could have had anything. “God, give me money so I can expand my influence. Give me power so people will respect me. Kill all my enemies so we will have peace.” But no, Solomon says, “Lord God, please give me wisdom to govern your people and lead them in doing right.” Solomon prayed for exactly what he needed to fulfill the God-sized task he had been given. As a result...

Solomon received what he needed from God. And because he aligned himself with what God wanted from him, God gave him the money and power as an added bonus. And then something important happened...

Solomon worshiped. Solomon’s response to God’s goodness and generosity was to publicly praise the Lord. Unbridled worship is what one does when one has experienced the power and grace of God.

You may be saying to yourself, “So what?” What does this have to do with me?” Well, let’s make it practical. Healthy churches have an experiential quality about them. They use their varieties of gifts to live out the good news. So, if you feel like God is leading you into a specific form of outreach through this church, don’t be afraid. I am actually praying for it to happen. Perhaps you feel God calling you to begin a neighborhood Bible study, but every time you think about it, you get a nervous, queasy feeling. You feel like you don’t know enough about the Bible or you don’t know how to talk about your faith to other people. Maybe you have felt the Lord asking you to get involved in a social justice issue, but you don’t know where to begin. Maybe you have a great new of way of connecting church members to small groups. I want this church to be a place where you are resourced to fulfill your mission. I’m not going to do it for you. God already has a big list of things for me to do right now. If God has given you vision for a way to reach out, then I’m guessing that God wants you to do something about it. Be strong and courageous, and follow up on it.

Here’s what I recommend:

Like Solomon, acknowledge your need before the Lord. Don’t be afraid of your limitations. You are a human, and you are limited, but God can do awesome thing through you as you yield to the Spirit.

Pray and ask God what he wants from your life. Ask specifically, because I believe God will answer specifically. If you need help discerning what God is saying, make an appointment to come talk with me, and we will listen together.

If you see God moving in your life, if you hear God speaking to you, or of you feel God calling you to a specific outreach, don’t do anything. As someone once said, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Before you plunge in, sit on it for two weeks.

If, after two weeks, you are still excited and eager about what God would like to do through you, talk to me or a member of an appropriate Board or Committee, and we will help get it moving.

And if God is moving in your life in the way I’m describing, I’m going to be excited with you, and celebrate God’s goodness to the church.

On this All Saints / Reformation Day, 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 this need to be.

Be the church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go. Be the place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Be the church that experiences the Spirit equipping you for service.

Be the church that’s not afraid of change. Be the 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 families and communities. Be the church that gives people tools to raise their families in faith . . . the church where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . . the church that sends adds value to the lives of other people.

Be the 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

A healthy church is an experiential church -- a church whose people understand that life is a journey, characterized by experience, learning, personal growth, opportunity, challenge, success and failure, joy and sadness. An experiential church appreciates the opportunity rest and renew their energy and strength, but they always move on to embrace the next phase of their life, whatever those may bring. An experiential church trusts God to equip all God’s people with the gifts of the Spirit!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sermon for October 24, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Independence and Community

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. Romans 12:1-8

Did you know that the actions of one affect all? There was a bumper sticker around a few years ago. It reads, “Commit senseless acts of random kindness.” This saying ties in with a branch of science and mathematics called chaos theory. In a nutshell, chaos theory says that the tiniest changes in one small area of the world can cause massive changes in other, distant parts of the world. In 1961, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz had been working on theoretical models about how tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes develop. He came up with an idea that was called the “butterfly effect.” The small eddy of wind current made by a butterfly wing can change the weather on the other side of the globe. One small change leads to a larger change, which leads to an even larger change, and so on. Of course, if a butterfly fluttering by can add to a hurricane, more butterflies fluttering by can change the course of that hurricane entirely. In the same way, initial conditions of acts of kindness can also cause small changes that ripple out, and eventually change the world.

In reality, the actions of one affect all. This law of connectedness reaches to the subatomic level of our universe. For instance, we now know that once two electrons have connected or touched in some way, they can never be the same again. No matter how far apart those electrons go, what happens to one happens to the other. We inhabit a universe in which everything is part of everything else. No matter how far apart we may be, we are all one.

This is hard for some people to accept. Especially in churches. Most churches aren’t known for their go-with-the-flow-live-and-let-live-be-and let-be attitude. Throughout history, churches have been known for the ability to control, restrict, contain, narrow, purify, define, and restrain. We Congregationalists are especially susceptible to thinking that we can over control people and situations. The Puritans who founded this church and settled this area were not known for their tolerance and open-mindedness. The Puritans created strict rules that that governed everyone’s behavior. For instance, in 1648, a law was passed ordering all playhouses and theaters be taken down, all actors were to be captured and whipped, and anyone who was seen watching a play had to pay a fine. But guess what? There's a loophole! In Puritan law, someone convicted of a crime could plead “Benefit of Clergy.” If convicted person could read a passage from the Bible without one mistake, the sentence would be reduced.

We have a long history of over control. Our church tradition values independence and autonomy. Every person is a law unto him or herself. And every church is a law unto itself. At the same time, we tend to micromanage others. We expect people to conform to our image. We want them others to dress a certain way, to behave in certain ways, to talk in acceptable ways. We still try to control others. And our desire to control can get out of control. Left unchecked, people try to dominate or marginalize others. We create insiders and outsiders. The goal of the church has been to find the outsiders and bring them in. But not without some cost. We demand transformation, right? We want people to clean up heir acts, live new lives. Break old habits.

Old habits die hard. Even for the church. Do you know how outsiders see Christians? Here are some stereotypes:
  • Christians are known for what we oppose: anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-thinking, etc.
  • Christians are viewed as angry, mean, judgmental, wanting to convert everyone and generally are not peaceful people
  • Christians are judged as hypocritical and inauthentic in our faith and lifestyle (we say one thing, do another or act like we have it all together)
Today, I want to suggest that one habit of healthy churches is to give up some control. We need to submit to the collective subconscious of the people in order to better fulfill our mission. And to do that, to tap into the wisdom of the community. At the same time, we need to act more individually and instinctively. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve been reading about swarm theory. Scientists are looking at the behavior of ants, bees, locusts, schools of fish, and crowds of people. They are learning that these swarms and crowds organize around some simple rules. Each individual member of a swarm, acting individually, will impact the behavior of others. The actions of a few members of the group affect the actions of all.

No one tells the group what to do. There are no orders or commands from the leader at the top. Groups organize spontaneously, following simple, basic rules. One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no top-down management at all—at least none that we would recognize.

Or consider bees. What commands a hive of bees to swarm? Scientists know it is not the queen bee. When a swarm pours itself out through the front slot of the hive, the queen bee can only follow. By choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote. The hive commands. The queen follows. A mob, thousands of bees united into one, directs itself to swarm. The Queen Bee is not the leader. In fact, there are anonymous leaders within the swarm called “streakers.” The streakers direct from within the swarm by flaying faster and straighter than the other bees. The swarm has no center, but rather thousands of autonomous individual bees engaged in parallel actions, interacting with one another and influencing each other.

Relationship. Connectivity. Interactivity. Collaboration. These are the processes from which every living thing is created, survives, and prospers.

Almost any group that follows bees' rules will make itself smarter. Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups. Maybe even churches that want to follow God’s aims for the world. It turns out the group is smarter than the individual. If members of the group are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting to reach a group decision, they will reach a correct answer more with greater precision than any single expert.

A fascinating National Geographic article says:
Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.
Science confirms something that some religions have taught for centuries. Selflessness. Losing the ego. Being a part of something bigger than yourself. Becoming a drop in the spiritual ocean.

One habit of healthy churches is to learn to tread the line between individualism and community. Leadership is less about controlling people than releasing them. In our tradition, every person must be given every decision-making power and boost to rise to the top. Creativity must be given free reign. Boards and Committees must be encouraged to self organize. Power and authority must be shared by everyone. When we drain complexity and chaos from our work, we snuff out the system. We limit our ability to learn and grow.

To me, this means we need to be defined less by what we reject, and more by what we select. For a healthy church, we need to focus less on control and more on collaboration. There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and inviting them to help lead it. For instance, some churches will welcome a gay person into their church as long as that person joins a group or class designed to straighten them out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a minister say, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” It’s not just gays. We put qualifications on all kinds of people: single moms, people living together, people who are going through a divorce, and any number of social choices. What would happen if we got rid of the “buts” and simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You are welcome. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.”

And it’s not just a liberal thing. Tolerance is not just for Unitarians anymore. It’s not just tolerance either. It’s true acceptance. I think people are starting to see that they can keep their beliefs, liberal or conservative, without watering them down. We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. We are all in the same swarm and we have work to do. We work independently, and we work as a community of faith. We trust our collective wisdom, and we rely on our collective compassion.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. May it be so.

Sources:
“Swarm theory supports spiritual independence,” at “http://hinessight.blogs.com/church_of_the_churchless/2007/07/swarm-theory-su.html”
“My Swarm Theory,” at http://theagnosticpentecostal.com/2010/04/19/my-swarm-theory-synchroblog/
"Swarm Theory" at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/07/swarms/miller-text
The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller
The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher
Aqua Church by Leonard Sweet

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sermon for October 10, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Meeting Needs
October 10, 2010

As the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.” [Everyone liked this idea, and they chose seven men, including Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit).] These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them. So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. Acts 6:1-7

I recently read the following story from a sales clerk: At the clothing store where I work, I make it a point of pride to give customers my unvarnished opinion. One day, when a man emerged from the fitting room, I took one look at him and shook my head. "No, no," I said. "Those jeans look terrible on you. I'll go get you another pair." As I walked away, I heard him mumble, "I was trying on the shirt."

A shopper tells her customer service story: During a shopping trip to a department store, I was looking around for a salesperson so I could pay for my purchase. Finally I ran into a woman wearing the store's ID tag. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm trying to locate a cashier." "I can't help you," she briskly replied, barely slowing down. "I work in customer service." And she walked away.

Listen to this experience from another shopper: Late one night I stopped at one of those 24-hour gas station mini-marts to get myself a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. When I picked up the pot, I could not help noticing that the brew was as black as tar and just about as thick. "How old is the coffee you have here?" I asked the woman who was standing behind the store counter. She shrugged. "I don't know. I've only been working here two weeks."

We know when we’ve had great customer service and when we’ve been treated poorly by a company. Service is as important in the church as it is in the business world. Healthy churches are committed to meeting needs: serving people within our church as well as the meeting the needs of the broader community.

In our reading from the book of Acts, the apostles actively serve others. In fact, they’re so backlogged, they can’t perform their other duties. Like good church people, they form a committee to help out. Seven people are set apart to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the community. This is the first Board of Deacons. The word Deacon comes from the Greek word used to describe what these seven people do. The word is diakonia. It means “service.”

I don’t want us to think that the deacons are the only ones who are supposed to serve. In healthy congregations, it takes everyone working together to do the work of the church. When I think of people working together, I remember some of the great concerts I’ve been to in my life. Imagine the best concert you’ve attended. There is usually an energy that takes over the venue. At the end of the night, the artist performs his or her signature piece. The audience becomes unified in their thoughts, words, and actions. The audience sings and moves together with energy and power that is greater than any one person. Imagine the potential that humanity has if we could unify like that for longer, on a bigger scale. What would we be capable of? What can we do together as a church – what heights could we achieve if we stop thinking of ourselves as small little individuals in a hostile world and take charge of meeting needs in our church and in the community? What can we BE if each of us joins together to work for good, fully awakened to God’s power working through us.

When we closely examine Acts 6 we see that there’s a two-fold service problem. In the early church there were two distinct Jewish groups, each with their own language and culture. Some members of the church were Jews who were born and raised locally. Their mother-tongue was Hebrew or Aramaic. Other members of the church were Jews who were born and raised abroad. Their mother-tongue was Greek. Each tended to stay within their own group. The first problem is when it comes time to hand out food, someone is ignoring the Greek-speaking widows in favor of the Hebrew widows. Now there are insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots within the church. Jealousy and envy erupt between the two groups. There is also a second problem -- a management problem. The 12 apostles are in charge of the daily distribution or food. The job takes up so much time and effort that the apostles neglect their main jobs of prayer and preaching. The apostles find themselves spending so much time looking after the widows that they don’t have time for their first responsibility.

The apostles propose a division of labor: seven men to do the meet the needs of daily food distribution, while the apostles meet the needs of prayer and preaching. They choose helpers, seven deacons whose task is to wait on tables and make sure that everyone gets food. There are no social welfare programs, no food stamps, no Aid for Dependent Children (ADC), no WIC (Women, Infant, Children) program. The early church has a soup line. The hungry show up at meal time and the deacons serve them.

As the church grows, different kinds of service develop. As more people help, the church realizes there are varieties of ways to meet needs. The apostle Paul will say, "There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:5). There’s the service of the seven – to wait on tables. There’s the service of the apostles and pastors – to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. There’s the service of the elders – to keep watch over the flock. There’s the service of the members – to serve one another. Within the church must be different ways to meet needs so no vital area of ministry is neglected.

The idea here is that diverse people with individual talents come together to serve the greater needs of community. Since no further mention is made of the problem, we can assume that the early church does a better job of looking after the Greek widows and the poorer members. We can also assume that the apostles are better able to concentrate on their prayer and preaching, on spreading the Good News of the Kingdom. And because everyone helps out and does his or her job, something amazing happens. Luke says, “God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too”

At TCC, leaders often talk about how we want to grow. We want people to grow in maturity. We want the church to grow in members. We want families to grow in their stewardship and their active support of our ministries. The experience of the early church suggests that one way to keep growing is for everyone to do his or her part to serve. Each of us finds a way to use our time, our talents, and our financial gifts to meet needs.

From the beginning, the church feeds people. We feed hungry bodies. We share our food with others. We nourish hungry souls. My question is, are we wasting our resources. Are we using our resources to spread God’s message and meet needs?

I ask this because I know that Americans tend to be wasteful. We don;t always use our resources wisely. Especially when it comes to food. Hunger and malnutrition are the number one worldwide risks, greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Over 9 million people die world wide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children. Rich countries waste around half of the food supplies annually. America throws away 40 % of the food while UK throws away from 40 to 50 %. I recently watched the movie The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington travels through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in order to follow a mission from God. In the movie, people fight for water, food and survival. Denzel’s character remembers what it was like before civilization crumbled. In one scene, remembering the old ways, he says, “People had more than they needed, people didn't know what was precious and what wasn't, people threw away things they kill each other for now.” How true. 38 billion US dollars worth of food is thrown away every year.

The model of the book of Acts is for people to make voluntary contributions so that needs are met, pains are shared, and joys are amplified. Sometimes we get off track. We start thinking that the end goal of the church is to survive. We mean well. but sometimes we get caught up in the very patterns that repel us. The job of the church is to meet needs. The job of the church is to serve. The job of the church is to give, even if it means risking its own security. The church that meets needs will share with compassion so that no one shall be pushed to the margins of our compassion.

Meeting needs does not come cheap. The church that meets the needs of others practices a basic principle of Jesus’ teachings. If you want to gain life, you have to lose it. Put another way, if we want to gain, we must be willing to lose. If we want to get, we must give. Giving helps us grow. It leads to resurrection. Meeting needs helps people heal. Communities that practice resurrection are communities of healing and hope, places where individuals torn and tattered by the pain of this world can come and have a soothing balm of love and care applied to their hurt.

Let’s keep working to be a gathering of people who are so intent on meeting needs, we live and work and pray together until the lives around become richer, until individuals who feel excluded are healed, until we model together the possibility of healing hope for the world.

God help us to live with the grace, enthusiasm, and serenity. Help us to know that living and dying are one that life is precious, and beautiful, and limited. That nothing good is ever lost. Help us become the church you envision for the world. Amen.

Sources:
http://www.trinitycrc.org/sermons/ac06v01-07.html
http://www.lectionary.org/Sermons/Butler/Acts/Acts_06.1-8_7.55-60_Healing.htm
http://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-affirming-peace/poverty-wealth-and-ecology/sharing-food-sermon-at-the-ecumenical-centre-morning-prayers.html
www.wfp.org/hunger

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sermon for September 26, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Diversity

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13

The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us of these words: For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven (3:1). I think it should say, “For everything there is a nut, bolt, nail or screw, and a correct tool for every activity under heaven.” Do you know people like that -- people who have exactly what’s needed for any home repair job that needs to get done? I’m not like that. I’m the kind of person who grabs whatever is around and tries to make it work. I’ll bang wood screws into place with a hammer because I don’t feel like getting a screwdriver. I had a landlord who covered an unused stovepipe hole in the wall with a piece of copy paper. He painted over the paper to blend with the wall, and then rolled the stove in front of it so no one would know.

Then there are those people who do the job right. They have saved every nut, bolt, screw and washer they’ve ever met. Each fastener is sorted and categorized according to size, use, head shape, thread count, drive type, or diameter. Wood screws, machine screws and metal screws are all separated. Flat head screws are divided from round, oval, pan, hex, button or truss heads. Whatever you need for any job, they have it. They know where to find it, and they know how to use it.

The sorting system I grew up with was organized chaos. My father saved every piece of threaded metal he could find, but they were unsorted. If he wanted a certain bolt, he’d send me to dig around for it in a giant wooden box. I can still smell the rusting metal and grease as I imagine myself sorting through that old wooden container.

There is a different fastener and a different tool for every job. A wood screw just can’t do the job of a machine screw. So, in this case, we like diversity. Trying to get a good result with the wrong tool is frustrating. If you don’t believe me, just try putting IKEA furniture together with the wrong tools. All the parts work together to make a complete project. Skip one step, or use even one wrong-sized bolt, and you will pay with hours of mounting anger. The project may even become dangerous. We want diversity when all the parts create something like a loft bed or a table. We love diversity when it comes to grocery stores and TV programming, and vacation options and restaurant menus, and of course, financial investing.

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

Diversity is key to resilience. If all our corn is identical genetically, and a powerful bug attacks it, the crop may all be killed off. If our corn is genetically diverse, then some of it will succumb and some will survive. If it’s not genetically modified, the survivors can reproduce, resulting in greater resistance to future attacks. If everyone depends on one mega-corporation for a monopolized product . . . If everyone uses the same operating system for their computers . . . If all the production facilities use the single most efficient form of production . . . If we all get our electricity from a single grid with no distributed local energy sources . . . we make ourselves vulnerable to the collapse of the single things we all depend on. This is what freaked people out about Y2K: that it would knock out some basic central systems, triggering a catastrophic domino effect. This is a nightmare for terrorist emergency response planners: that terrorists could knock out a vital link in some technological system that we all depend on, for which there is no good alternative. Alternatives, diversity -- even redundancy -- are keys to resilience.

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

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

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

On the other side of the issue, lack of diversity can lead to a pursuit of false purity. In an effort to stay the same and maintain traditions, groups tend to get rid of those who are different. Churches are notorious for this.

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

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

Here at TCC, our statement of core values declares that we want to grow a church family that embraces diversity within a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. We desire to move beyond simple tolerance toward genuine understanding. We recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys. In short, commit ourselves to building a diverse, loving community of believers in Jesus Christ. We want diversity. Why? Because God wants diversity. Look at the creation out there. God has made petunias and porcupines. God has made mitochondria and mountains, rivers and rutabagas. God loves to display the diversity in creation.

The apostle Paul thinks that the church ought to reflect God’s unity and diversity, too. In today’s reading, he talks about different people using diverse gifts in order to share the faith. Some are apostles, while others are prophets. Some are the evangelists, while others are pastors or teachers. All work separately, and all work together to make Christ known. Health churches realize their diversity and find ways to use it to heir advantage. Healthy churches recognize that God gives different gifts to different people.
Some, a passion for peace;
Others, a passion for political freedom.
Some, a passion for life and its sacredness,
Others, a passion for forgiveness and mercy.
Some, a passion for a literal interpretation of the Bible,
Others, a passion for a more open interpretation of the Bible.
Some, a passion for evangelism,
Others, a passion for justice.
All of these people use their diversity to work for the common good. Each and every one of these people are inspired by the same Spirit, the Spirit who gives each of us a unique and different perspective.

How do we embrace diversity in ways that honor God and one another? I think it begins by finding unity in diversity. We look for common ground, universal threads that bring us together without demanding that we all be the same. When God embraces us, we must make space for others by inviting them in – even our enemies.

We were created to be a wondrously variegated church, a delightfully diverse community, a people of differences and of relationship. Look around at who the Spirit has brought here.
It’s pretty incredible. Go forth and discover more of those marvelous differences. And may just a little of God’s own Spirit be in each one of our relationships with each other.

God: Mother and Father; Savior and Friend; Unity and Trinity; Lover and Judge; Wind and Whisper; Liberator and Captivator; Lamb and Lion; Suffering Servant and Almighty, enable us, to celebrate our oneness in you and the shared inheritance of your world. Prosper our work as we seek to build bridges of love, understanding and cooperation, that, transformed and renewed by your Holy Spirit, we will be no longer strangers to one another. Together, as diverse members of your world, we always give you glory. Amen.

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...