Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sermon for March 28, 2010 / Palm Sunday

Even Stones Will Cry Out

Jesus went on toward Jerusalem, walking ahead of his disciples. As he came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he sent two disciples ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying that colt?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So they went and found the colt, just as Jesus had said. And sure enough, as they were untying it, the owners asked them, “Why are you untying that colt?” And the disciples simply replied, “The Lord needs it.” So they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it for him to ride on. As he rode along, the crowds spread out their garments on the road ahead of him. When he reached the place where the road started down the Mount of Olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen. “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” But some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, “Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!” He replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!” Luke 19:28-40

(A stone is held reverently in attentive silence. It is carried to a worshiper or two, to whom the pastor asks, ) “Do you hear it saying anything?”

I haven’t heard any joyful, ear-drum piercing, contagious shouts for joy this morning -- yet. I kind of hoped that this stone would begin to sing or shout, maybe something like: “ Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven! “ or, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Didn’t we just hear Jesus say that if his followers were silent, the stones would burst into cheers? When was the last time you joyfully praised God with such a loud voice that someone had to tell you to shut up? Let’s listen carefully to the stone again.

Jerusalem has stones everywhere. We hear a lot about the holiness of the rocks in Jerusalem, especially when it comes to the adoration of ancient stones. Jews pray at a stone foundation called the Western Wall -- all that’s left of their holy temple. Muslims pray at the Dome of the Rock -- the third holiest site of Islam that sits atop the old Jewish Temple. Listen carefully to these stones. Are they singing the praises of God? The stones of Jerusalem have witnessed so much bloodshed, cruelty and atrocity. It’s part of the ancient city’s history. Jerusalem today still hangs on the edge of destruction. As the stones are thrown by Palestinians at Israelis and by Israelis at Palestinians, those stones may be whispering echoes of Jesus’ words. On a visit to Jerusalem, Jesus looks at the stones of the city and says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Lk. 13:33).

It’s as true right here in our lives as it is in the Holy City. That’s what we do, sometimes. We throw stones. You know it. You’ve thrown some stones in your life. I’ve done it, too. Stones of inadequacy – stones that say, “Go away. I’m not worth your time or love.” Stones of arrogance – stones that say, “My way is better.” Stones of isolation – stones that say, “I can do this all by myself. I don’t need you.” Stones of fear – stones that build walls instead of a home in which all are welcome. Stones of immaturity – stones that say, “I don’t want to grow. I don’t want to take responsibility. Just let me play by myself.” Stones of prejudice – stones that say, “You’re different from me. You’re not wanted or needed around here.” Stones of defensiveness – stones that say, “Don’t change or challenge me. Let me stay in my narrow little world.” Stones of violence that deny another’s dignity and humanity.

Listen to these stones. Are they singing praise?

This stone in my hand is not from Jerusalem. It’s not a holy stone from a shrine. It’s an ordinary Connecticut field stone. It’s job is to be part of a wall in my garden. Sometimes I hold it and listen. But it hasn’t said anything to me yet.

Poet Annie Dillard writes about a neighbor who lives alone with a stone. He is trying to teach the stone to talk. He spends time each day at their lesson. She writes: “He keeps it on a shelf. Usually the stone lies protected by a square of untanned leather, like a canary asleep under its cloth. Larry removes the cover for the stone’s lessons, or more accurately, I should say, for the ritual or rituals which they perform together several times a day.” Some, of course, laugh. They laughed at Jesus, too. God only knows which parts of creation are filled with messages for us. I suspect the problem is that we do not have the ears to hear. Or maybe it’s not an ear problem. Maybe it’s a heart problem.

When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s often used as a symbol. The heart refers to our emotions, thought or will. The biblical writers saw the heart as the seat of moral responsibility. The problem is that from the beginning of human existence, the place that controls our desire and will to follow God has been diseased. The Bible talks repeatedly about the various spiritual heart diseases:

There’s the condition of an unclean heart. Hear the words of King David after he sleeps with another man’s wife and has her husband killed. He cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God . . . “ (Psalm 51:1).

There’s the condition of a deceptive heart. These days the popular assumption is that the heart is basically good. The prophet Jeremiah thought differently. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Then there’s the disease of a stony heart. A stone is dead. It has no feelings. Talk to it; it will shed no tears of pity, even when you tell it your saddest tales. No smiles will gladden it, even when you tell it the happiest story. It is dead. It has no consciousness. Prick it and it will not bleed. Stab it and it cannot die. You can’t make it wince or show any emotional response. Tears are lost on it. You can try to threaten it, but you might as well be whistling into the wind. All these efforts fall hopelessly to the ground because a stone is dead, and hard, and cold.

As we look at our own spiritual lives, I think many of us could be diagnosed with a stony heart. Love for God has grown cold. Vision has died. Maybe at one time it was a joy to seek God’s presence. You found hope in reading God’s words. You sensed God’s compassionate presence as you prayed. And then one day you got really busy and decided to skip prayer. Just for a day. It won’t hurt, right? And then a couple days later you got busier, and your time with God got bounced. And then it happened more and more until your regular time with God became like a memory locked away in a cluttered closet.

And it’s not just that you don’t spend time with God anymore. As you strayed from that life-giving connection, you started losing perspective. You yielded to the desires of YOUR heart instead of God’s. You decided that the desires of your own heart weren’t so bad. What’s the big deal with fantasizing about having our neighbor’s house, or stock portfolio, or spouse? It’s just innocent fantasy, nothing serious...right? People eventually act out the will of their hearts. So while our culture tells us that fantasizing about having other people’s stuff is harmless, Scripture warns us that over-focusing on our own desires will overcome us. Untamed self-focus can explode into harmful actions. We alienate ourselves from our God who is always willing to take us back and melt our hearts of stone.

As we approach holy week, we remember a Sunday that began with the waving palms and cries of celebration turned into stony silence by Friday. Jesus rides to the cross. Friday’s stone-cold darkness will swallow up all the joyful shouting that rang in the streets on Sunday. No palms waving. No disciples shouting. The open mouth of the stone tomb is sealed with a stone. And we wait for the stone to speak.

You know how today’s story ends: Once, long ago, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women found the stone rolled away from the empty tomb. They were frightened. I get it. When there’s a Palm-Sunday-type parade or a party, we might be willing to shout and sing. But when God mixes that celebration up with suffering and death, we become awkwardly silent. Our hearts grow fearful and cold. Even when we know the end of the story is good news of life, joy and peace, it can be hard to wave our branches and cheer. How can we shout our joyful praises of God in the midst of a world that seems so stony, so cold, so violent, and so far from the peace of Christ? How can we wave our palms when we realize that we have let our hearts become hard as rocks?

(Addressing the stone) I’m waiting for you to cheer. I’m waiting for you to tell me the hidden things that make for peace and joy. Listen! Can you hear this stone’s cries? Listen, and listen, and listen.

I may never teach my stone to speak. But it may teach me to listen. The stones we stumble over, the stones we throw, the stones that others may throw at us, the stones rolled away from the tombs of our lives . . . they all have a message. We may discover that we do indeed have ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us. This time we might hear and recognize the time of God’s visit.

This time God’s peace may not come in the tears of a rabbi entering Jerusalem on a young colt. It may not come with fanfare and waving palms. This time God’s peace may arrive in your neighbor – the crazy one teaching a stone to talk, the caring one who bakes you cookies, the lonely one waiting for an invitation to anything, or the angry one taking you to court. Learn from the stone. Listen to it. Don’t let God’s visit pass you by.

Listen. Listen to these stones speak. Listen and recognize God’s presence in them. You may just find yourself shouting joyful praises.

Sources:
• http://www.motherflash.com/sermons/range/palmpassionc4.html
• http://interruptingthesilence.com/2010/02/28/the-road-to-jerusalem-is-paved-with-the-stones-of-rejection/
• “The Stony Heart Removed”, A Sermon Delivered on Sunday Evening, May 25th, 1862, by C. H. SPURGEON, At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0456.htm

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sermon for March 21, 2010

Jesus, Lifter of the Dead

These reflections were part of a service based on a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina. We listened to John 12:23-26 three times, and I offered three different perspectives on the passage after a time of rest and silence.

-- One --
As Holy Week approaches, the scriptures bring us near to the reality of death. Jesus has been predicting his own death and now reflects upon it:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The truth is parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. Each of our bodies lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, just a many cells are being reproduced in a healthy body. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years. This is an enormous relief to me. It’s the cells that refuse to die off that pose the real problem to us. These cells are related to diseases like cancer. Cells often destroy themselves if they carry a mutation. Or the cells might be recognized by the immune system as abnormal and killed. This means most precancerous cells die before they can cause cancer. The one’s that don’t die continue to mutate. They get in the way and block healthy development of the body. I am always dying, with each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second and the hundreds of thousands of cells that are dying off to make room for more. I keep dying so life may abound.

The healthy rhythm of existence goes like this: Life leads to death. Death brings new life. I believe this is true in the spiritual and emotional lives as well. Our failure to let go and let some things die is a primary spiritual disease, for new life can’t come without some death. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit like a cancer. Holding on to regrets strangles hope before it can lift us to new life. Trying to control events and other people leads to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. Let the anger go. Let the rage die. God has something new to take it’s place. I read about a study in which subjects were told to imagine forgiving those who offended them, The subjects experienced heart rates and blood pressure two and a half times lower than when they thought about holding a grudge. It appears that forgiveness could be a powerful antidote to anger, which is strongly associated with chronically elevated blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease. Forgiveness is about dying -- letting go of rage and bitterness and disappointment and revenge so that new life may abound. Today, there are emotions that are holding you back from living fully and well. It’s time to let these harmful emotional responses go. God has something better.

-- Two --
Salmon are amazing members of God’s creation – especially Pacific salmon. Leaving their fresh-water birthplaces they journey out to sea where they roam the salt-water oceans of the world. Studies confirm that the Pacific Salmon return to spawn near the exact spot they were born years—and thousands of miles--earlier. These powerful creatures may travel up to 4,000 miles per year in a primarily counter-clockwise orbit through the North Pacific. They stay at sea from one to five years. It is not uncommon for a fish to swim 18 to 30 miles per day without rest during its homeward migration. Some salmon born in central Idaho will make their way over 900 miles inland, and climb 7,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean as they return to spawn. How do they navigate their way home—and why? We aren’t completely sure. It may have to do with smell, or the stars, or some combination of these and other navigational cues about which we know little. Once they return to fresh water and spawn, their condition rapidly deteriorates, and they soon die. I’m sure most of you have seen the dramatic scenes of Chinook and Sockeye salmon making their way up roaring waterfalls to their native pools against tremendous odds, including foraging Alaskan Brown bears. Much more than food for bears, or ravens and eagles, or humans, salmon are in fact a metaphor, a parable of a deeply mysterious, complex, and life-giving set of inter-woven relationships. DNA from Pacific salmon has been found in groves of Aspen at the top of the continental divide. The trace minerals from their ocean journeys, such as nitrogen, feed the ecology miles inland. Over 137 species of animals in the Pacific Northwest rely on salmon as part of their diet. When salmon die they generate the most biologically diverse forests on earth, honoring future generations with the gift the journey that is at the heart of all they are. In a sense, salmon are born to die. They live to nourish others.

This gets me wondering . . . how might our lives change if we viewed our deaths the same way? How might life change if we knew our deaths could change the world? How would you feel if you knew for sure you were going to die this coming Friday, six days from now? In the few days that you had left, would the thought consume the rest of your life? Would you live to make a difference? Would you become philosophical about death?

In the passage for today, Jesus knows he only has six days left on the earth. He knows how he is going to die. He knows when he is going to die. Only six days left. It is Passover time, and hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Jerusalem. In this wild mass of humanity, there were a couple of Greeks in the crowd. These Greek travelers listen in on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. As they listen, they notice that one of the disciples has a Greek accent. And so they approached this disciple, Philip, and ask him in Greek, “Can we see Jesus?”

You would think that Jesus would have answered them directly, but he didn't. Jesus was distracted. Preoccupied. He was thinking about his death in six day. He says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.”

That’s a weird answer? All the Greeks wanted to do was to see Jesus, but Jesus was preoccupied with his death. But maybe there is a connection: That is, to see Jesus is to see the importance of dying in order to live.

There is a Cherokee saying, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Most of us don't know when we are going to die. Oh, it will happen. We just don't know the details. So, with the time I have left, whether it's many days or many decades, I have an intense desire to make my time on this planet count for something. I want the world to be a better place because I lived here, and loved here. I want to think that I had some influence, that I will be remembered, that I make a lasting impact. I want to know that my spirit goes on to nourish others – that my body will return to dust and feed this weary earth. Death will certainly come upon you at some point. You neither know when nor how. Life on the other hand is a choice to live each moment with intention. It’s an invitation that many people decline. If you accept the invitation to live fully and abundantly, your life will be worth dying for and it will survive you.

-- Three –
W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” That’s our culture in a nutshell. Talking about death is uncomfortable. So we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. The note to someone who is dying never gets written, the call never gets made, the visit is repeatedly put off. Or we do write the note, we do make the call, we do take the time to visit, but the anxiety is too much for us. Nervous, we say things like, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Don’t talk that way. Think positive. It will be OK.” Those who are dying want to know that they are still the person they always were to us and that we still love them. Instead, we may get fidgety in the presence of the sick, talk to others in the room like they are not there, stand or sit a little too far away. Those who are dying want a taste of normalcy in the midst of all the craziness. They want to talk about the weather, talk about politics, talk about neighborhood gossip. In our state of upheaval, we try to force heavy conversations about life, the universe, and everything. We just don’t know any better.

What might happen if you open your heart to your own death? Invite the thought of death in. Will it bring sadness. Absolutely. The thought of all the loss, the thought of leaving; how this will impact the people depending on us, how the party will go on without us. Inviting the thought of death will bring sadness, and it will also trigger fear: fear of losing control, fear of the unknown, the fear of the caterpillar who cannot possibly predict the great metamorphosis that comes next. As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” To the degree we allow ourselves to live with the thought of death, to sit on our very own grave and see ourselves from that perspective, our understanding and appreciation of what we have and of the life that is before us grows.

Sometimes I imagine how I might respond if I were told that I had a terminal illness. I think about how I would react if I were caring for my wife, refusing further treatment for my mother, saying goodbye to a friend. I think how I might feel, whether I could act, and what I might regret. I walk through the process, and as I do, I get very sad. This usually happens at night when I can’t sleep. Lying in bed, listening to my wife breath (very heavy breathing, I might add), hearing the little ones on the monitor in the other room, feeling the house creek. I roll onto my side and see the bright red numbers on my clock. Sometimes I go into the other room and turn on the TV, trying to avoid these thoughts – there’s nothing like late night television to numb deep thoughts. But sometimes, I creep upstairs, going from one room to another so that I can gaze upon my sleeping children. I listen to their rhythmic breathing, pull up the covers, rub their cheeks, and draw in their scents. Then I go back to bed, oddly fulfilled. Cold from the trek, I snuggle close to my wife, feel her warmth, love her enormously, and fall asleep. Here is my reminder that the end gives meaning to all that comes before. Even in the face of death, people’s worth and dignity remains. We affirm our worth and dignity by trusting the rhythm and flow of the life we are given. The poet May Sarton puts it this way:
But I am learning to trust death
As I have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment,
And a sweeter grace—
Learning to let go.
I am not ready to die,
But as I approach sixty
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open up to a far horizon
Over the floating, never-still flux and change.
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters….
There are no farewells.
Praise God for His mercies,
For His austere demands,
For His light
And for His darkness.
Jesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.”

Sources:
• Science Watch, March/April 2000 http://www.sciencewatch.com/march-april2000/sw_march-april2000_page3.htm
• http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2006/03/john_122033_lea.html
• http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_if_a_seed_dies.htm
• http://www.c3center.org/archive/life-and-death-in-perspective/
• http://www.uuca.org/making-peace-with-death

Sermon for March 14, 2010

Disappointment with God

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! So Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” -- Luke 15:1-3, llb-32

It is said that Alexander the Great conquered Persia, but broke down and wept because his troops were too exhausted to push on to India. His grave marker reads: A tomb now suffices for him whom the world was not enough.

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the U.S. – perhaps not the greatest president, but a decent leader -- wrote in his diary: “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers that something would be the result of my existence beneficial to my species.”

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote words that continue to delight and enrich our lives, and yet what did he write for his epitaph? “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.”

These men would be great candidates for some Positive Affirmation Therapy. Can you just imagine Alexander the Great with Doctor Phil: “Alexander, I want you come up with a set of sentences to repeat to yourself, or, for a small fee, you can repeat some of mine. Next time you feel like you have not conquered enough of the world, I want you to say over and over again to yourself, “Every day in every way I’m getting better, better and better. Everything is coming to me easily and effortlessly. Everything I need is already within me. I love and appreciate myself just as I am.”

Sometimes, we disappoint ourselves. We want to make a bigger impact. We want to achieve more. We find parts of our lives that we don’t particularly like, let alone love. We also become disappointed with others. People fail to meet our expectations. They won’t do what we hoped they would.

Have you ever been disappointed with God. I know, we don't like to talk about THAT. I think this is part what's going on in this familiar story from Luke's Gospel. We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son. While some of us can relate to the lost, wasteful son who came home to his father, I believe that many of us see ourselves in the child who felt like his faithfulness was being ignored. How do we handle it when God disappoints us? What are we supposed to do when God doesn’t meet our expectations, or even worse, when we feel that we have not been fully appreciated by God?

We tend to focus a lot on the younger son in this story. Many of us are familiar with this parable: the young son takes his share of the family inheritance and goes to the big city to squander his money in the fast lane. Yet, all this time, a responsible older son works at home. He obeys his father. He stays at the ranch, contentedly caring for the family farm and waiting patiently for what’s due him. He is respectable. People depend on him in tough times. Then one day, without a word of notice, little brother comes back home. He’s dirt poor and looks like one of his father’s servants. He smells like he has been living with pigs. I can imagine the older brother thinking, “Finally, this squanderer will learn some responsibility. Maybe he’s hit rock bottom and he’s ready to learn his lesson.” But the black sheep of the family is treated more like royalty than a wayward son. Dad throws a feast in his honor. Everyone joins the party -- except for big brother. If I were the big brother, I would be angry, too. He works day in and day out, honestly and devotedly. Suddenly, this rebellious waste of a brother comes home, and they throw him the party, complete with a fattened calf. Is this how you thank hard work and devotion? I would feel that all this undue attention on the brother was just a slap in the face. I would be disappointed and angry with my father. The older son says as much. “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you,” he says to his father. “I’ve never given you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me or my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on prostitutes shows up, and you go all out with a fattened calf. You have never even given me an old goat to celebrate with.” He sounds resentful, and hurt that his father has not fully appreciated who he is or the sacrifice he has made for the family.

Here’s a story about a daughter’s disappointment with her father. Grace says:
By the time I was ten, I was totally ashamed of my father. All my friends called him names: Quasi-Moto, hunchback, little Frankenstein, the crooked little man with the crooked little cane. My father was born with something called parastremmatic dwarfism. The disease made him stop growing when he was about thirteen and caused his body to twist and turn into a grotesque shape. It wasn’t too bad when he was a kid. Soon after my birth, things started getting worse. Another genetic disorder took over, and his left foot started turning out, almost backward. His head and neck shifted over to the right; his neck became rigid and he had to look over his left shoulder a bit. His right arm curled in and up, and his index finger almost touched his elbow. His spine warped to look something like a big, old roller coaster and it caused his torso to lie sideways instead of straight up and down like a normal person . . . I hated to be seen with him . . . By the time I was seventeen, I was blaming all my problems on my father. I didn’t have the right boyfriends because of him. I didn’t drive the right car because of him. I didn’t have the right jobs because of him. I wasn’t happy because of him. Anything that was wrong with me, or my life, was because of him(Candace Carteen in God Allows U-Turns, Promise Press, 2001, 19).
Have you ever felt like the older son whose been upstaged by the wastrel? Ever felt like Grace -- like someone else was intentionally or unintentionally causing all your problems? Imagine a window in your heart through which you can see God. Once upon time that window was clear. Your view of God was crisp. The glass was clean. You were certain that you knew how God worked. Predicatable. No surprises. You saw God’s will for you, and you followed it. Then the window cracked unexpectedly. A pebble of pain broke your vision. Perhaps the stone struck when you were a child and a parent left home forever. Maybe the rock hit in adolescence when your heart was broken. Perhaps it was a midnight phone call that woke you up with shivers up your spine. Maybe it was a letter on the kitchen table that said, “It’s over, I just don’t love you anymore.” The pebble could have been a diagnosis from the doctor who said, “I’m afraid our news is not good.” Maybe it was the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a reputation. Whatever the pebble’s form, the result was the same -- a shattered window. Suddenly God was not easy to see. The view that had been so crisp had changed. You turned to see God and the figure was distorted. It was hard to see God through the pain and through the fragments of hurt. You were puzzled. If God is really in control, why would these bad things happen? Why didn’t God heal him? Why didn’t God let her live? What didn't God punish the evildoer? Why do those people get to live happy, perfect lives, and I don’t?

Most of us know what it means to feel disappointed with God, and most of us have a way of completing this sentence: “If God is God, then...” Each of us has unspoken yet definite expectations about what God should do. “If God is God, then . . . "
. . . There will be no financial collapse in my family.
. . . My children will never be buried before me.
. . . People will treat me fairly.
. . . My prayer will be answered.

These statements define our expectations of God. When pain comes into our world and splinters the window of our hearts, our expectations go unmet and doubts may begin to surface. We look but can’t find God anymore. Broken glass hinders our vision, and we’re not quite sure what we see anymore.

I don’t think these feelings are bad. The struggle is real. The question is: how do we deal with them? The older son in Jesus’ parable took it too far. He became critical and unsatisfied with his father. Disappointment does that. It can make us bitter and isolated. You begin to lack joy. You focus on your abandonment instead of your blessings. It can make you critical of a God who chooses to make others happy while you wallow in pain. It can cause you to be angry with a God who would throw a party for “sinners” rather than rewarding the efforts the “righteous.”

Grace, the teenager who was disappointed with her crippled father, happened to talk to some of her friends. “Grace,” Jane said, “you have the greatest father.” Grace's face fell. “What?” Jane smiled and grabbed Grace's shoulders. “Your father’s just the best. He’s funny, kind, and always finds the time to be where you need him. I wish my father was more like that.” Grace began to try to understand her disappointment with her father. She started seeing her father in a new way. She finally came to a place where she said, “Father, I owe you a big apology. I based my love for you on what I saw and not what I felt. I forgot to look at the one part of you that meant the most, the big, big heart God gave you.”

How can we overcome disappointment with God? How can we see God more clearly, even though the window of our heart has been shattered? God’s message of good news is this: God is for us. Jesus says, “Behold the greatness of God’s love for lost children, and contrast it with your own joyless, loveless, thankless, critical lives. Cease your bitter, isolated ways, and be merciful. The spiritually dead are rising to new life. The lost are returning home.”

Jesus says that when we feel dumped and left behind, God is for us.
When we feel embarrassed or ashamed, God is for us.
When we've prayed our hearts out and get no answers, God is for us.
When we get bad news, God is for us.
When we feel abandoned by God, no matter what we feel, God is for us.
When we grieve . . . when we feel alone . . . when God doesn’t meet our expectations . . . even when we feel disappointed with God, God is for us.
God loves the sinners and the saints alike, and calls us all to be as close to God and to one another as possible.

Chris and I used to drive a van full of youth from Boston to Georgia for a summer camp. We would drive twelve hours each day. I told everyone right from the beginning, “We are stopping every four hours. Not two, not three; but four hours. I am not pulling over unless it is an extreme emergency.” It was easy for me to keep driving, because I knew the destination. Warm water, fresh air, bright sun, and a week of nonstop fun awaited them. We just had to get there without pulling over every twenty minutes. It was not as easy for the teens in the van. They were uncomfortable. The wanted to stretch. The hours were long. It was hard for them to fix their eyes on a goal that they had never seen.

For some of you the journey has been long. Some of you have shouldered burdens that few of us could ever carry. You have been robbed of life-long dreams. You have been given bodies that can’t sustain your spirit. You have spouses who can’t tolerate your faith. You have bills that out number the paychecks. And you are tired. It is hard for you to see the destination in the midst of the journey. The desire to pull over and get out entices you. You want to go on but some days the road seems long. When you feel disappointed that the journey is so long and hard, I want you to remember that God is for us. God is for us. And if God is for us, no one or nothing can stand against us.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sermon for March 7, 2010

Who Is the Greatest?





An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For the one who is least among you all— that one is the greatest." "Master," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you." -- Luke 9:46-50

In Jesus’ day, a child had no status at. The child was regarded as a second-class citizen. So, you might imagine the shock when Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me . . . one who is least among you all— that one is the greatest.” In other words, the one who wants to be great must be willing to accept him or herself as being of little account – to be regarded as unimportant. Anyone who welcomes one of these despised little children welcomes Jesus, and therefore also welcome God.

Jesus’ words get me thinking about our own children. What can our children teach us about faith? A Sunday School teacher named Mrs. Imogene Frost once asked her 10-year-old students to answer this question: “What’s wrong with grownups?” they came up with these complaints:
  • Grownups make promises, then they forget all about them, or else they say it wasn’t really a promise, just a maybe.
  • Grownups don’t do the things they’re always telling the children to do—like pick up their things, or be neat, or always tell the truth.
  • Grownups never really listen to what children have to say. They always decide ahead of time what they’re going to answer.
  • Grownups make mistakes, but they won’t admit them. They always pretend that they weren’t mistakes at all—or that somebody else made them.
  • Grownups interrupt children all the time and think nothing of it. If a child interrupts a grownup, the kid gets a scolding or something worse.
When it comes to following Christ, maybe we can begin by re-learning some of the basic lessons we teach our own children:

Lesson #1: Take responsibility for your actions. In 1980 a Boston court acquitted Michael Tindall of flying drugs into the United States. Tindall’s attorneys argued that he was a victim of “action addict syndrome,” an emotional disorder that makes a person crave dangerous, thrilling situations. Tindall was not a drug dealer, merely a thrill seeker. My favorite illness is the famous “Twinkie syndrome.” After Dan White murdered the mayor of San Francisco and supervisor Harvey Milk, White’s attorneys blamed the crime on emotional stress linked to his junk food binges. Even though White hid the gun under his jacket, evaded metal detectors, brought along extra bullets, killed the mayor and others, the jury bought the defense. White was acquitted of murder and convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter due to "diminished capacity." Yet, we teach our children to ‘fess up when they do something wrong. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame others. Admit your mistakes, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. People with great faith don’t hide from their mistakes. They take responsibility for their actions. It takes humility to do that. It also wins the respect of others.

Lesson #2: Keep your promises. When I was a child, I was invited to Bobbie Mueller’s birthday party. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I accepted the invitation. A few days later I got invited to an amusement park with some really cool kids. I said I would definitely be there. There was no way I could pass up a chance to be at a fun place with the popular kids whom I admired. There was no way, that is, until my parents found out about my plans. Guess where I ended up. I gave my promise to Bobbie Mueller. So I was marched by parental force to Bobbie’s lame old birthday party. We teach our kids to make and keep realistic promises. When we keep our promises, we win the trust of others. Our ability to keep promises is a measure of our integrity.

Lesson #3: Be nice. How often have you said that to a child? I’ve actually heard parents say to a kid, “Be nice, OR ELSE!” Have you ever been to a park and watched a parent ruthlessly scold a kid for nothing? I want to be just go up to the parent and say, “Be kind!” Shutting your mouth and controlling your temper when you are tired or provoked is perhaps the highest form of self-mastery.

By the way, if you’re not nice, you will gain weight and grow old before your time. It turns out that being mean isn’t easy. You have to be calculating and always watching your back. You have to train yourself to be paranoid about the people who will get you next. All this stress releases cortisol from your adrenal glands to prepare your body for what lies ahead. And how does cortisol make us heavy and old? Cortisol leads to something called “central obesity” -- a fancy phrase for belly fat. This is your body’s way of preparing for stress-induced fights and flights. Cortisol messes up your sleep patterns. Being a chronic mean person will make you sleep fewer hours with unproductive quality. So now you’ve got dark circles under your eyes and you can’t fit into your jeans anymore. But that’s not all. Cortisol makes you get sick. Cortisol also dampens immune function. And to top it off, cortisol dries your skin. So now, your habit of being mean will make you look dry, splotchy and fragile. Is anyone else feeling itchy right now, or is it just me?

Now it’s time for the quiz portion of our worship service. I actually have two quizzes for you. Ready?

Quiz 1
1. Name the MVPs of the last World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup finals, and NBA finals.
2. Name the winner of the last Heisman Trophy.
3. Name the winner of the last Miss America contest.
4. Name five Nobel or Pulitzer prize winners.
5. Name five winners of last year’s Academy Awards.
6. Name the winner of the largest state lottery in history.
7. Name the winner of the last Indianapolis 500 or Kentucky Derby.
8. Name five winners of this year’s Grammy Awards.

Quiz 2
1. Name a teacher who has helped you learn and grow as a person.
2. Name five friends who have been there for you during good times and bad.
3. Name three adults who have been excellent role models for you.
4. Name two people who love you and pray for you regularly.
5. Name someone who makes you laugh.
6. Name someone who has given you something of great value.
7. Name a hero whose life story has inspired you.
8. Name someone has helped you through a difficult time.

If you’re like most people, you probably flunked the first quiz. Few of us remember the big names and headline grabbers of yesterday. These people are not second-rate achievers. They’re the best in their fields. You’d think they’d be easy to remember. However, when the lights go off, the applause dies down, and the trophies begin to tarnish, their achievements are often forgotten.

How did you do on the second quiz? It was probably much easier for you, wasn’t it? That’s because the people we remember most in our lives are not necessarily those who have the most money or the most awards or the most fame. Usually they are the people who care about us. The way you live has a big impact on the people around you.

There are more lessons. We tell kids to do the right thing, to be patient, to love others, and to be a good example to others. The truth about kids is that they need help seeing and responding to There are more lessons. We tell kids to do the right thing, to be patient, to love others, and to be a good example to others. The truth about kids is that they need help seeing and responding to the real world. Maybe that’s what Jesus was trying to show us, too. He says, “If you want to be great, than be like a child. Instead of worrying about who is the greatest, think about those who have nothing. Think about how to help the weakest of all.” And then do you know what he did? He let himself be killed. If anyone took responsibility for his actions, it was Jesus. If anyone kept promises, it was Jesus. If anyone kept his dignity when falsely accused. And we can do the same when we are filled with the Spirit. If we want to be great, we need to be humble. If we want to be first, then we need to consider the last. Be responsible. Keep your promises. Be kind. When we live out the basic lessons that we teach our own kids, and get in touch with the values of God.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

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