Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sermon for May 23, 2010 / Pentecost

Sharing in Suffering, Sharing in Glory
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Romans 8:14-17
I’ve always worried that there is a fatal flaw in my life. If people see it, they won’t want to be near me. I will feel abandoned. People will reject me. Growing up, I concluded that dancing on the lips of an abyss can move a person from insignificance to importance. When edged between hope and despair, why not throw caution to the wind? I think that’s how I ended up perched atop the Granby Gorge.

The Granby Gorge was one of the most dangerous places in town when I grew up there. We all knew the stories about kids who dove into the gorge, broke their necks and never walked again; or unaware swimmers who jumped off the cliffs and got pulled into underground caves by the currents of the waterfall. I remembered the words of my father, who told me what he’d do to me if he ever caught me swimming at the Granby Gorge. Let’s just say it involved his foot connecting to my rear-end, followed by weeks of hard labor on our family woodpile.

So there I was, toes curled over the edge of the rocks, hands in the air, ready to perform a record-breaking cannonball to the cheers of my high school friends. One well-placed leap could put me in the pantheon of gorge jumpers. I’d have friends, and fame, and respect, and girls who liked to go out with risk-taking daredevils like me. Yes, I was about to have it all in one 30-foot jump. No more feelings of abandonment. No more snubs. I would be unique and special, and people would see me for who I really am.

I took a deep breath and looked to the left. I loosened my neck as the teens below started to chant. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” I looked to the right, and did a quick double take. There, watching the spectacle from the road, was my father in his Chevy Silverado half ton pickup. Let’s just say, I never jumped the Granby Gorge that day, but I learned a lot about splitting and piling wood.

I didn’t really want to jump the gorge. I really wanted to be popular and liked and accepted. I really wanted people to see something heroic, and intense, and mysterious about me. I wanted to be like The Most Interesting Man in the World, like in those Dos Equis commercials. “The police often question him just because they find him interesting. His blood smells like cologne. When he orders a salad, he gets the dressing right there on top of the salad, where it belongs . . . where there is no turning back. If he disagrees with you, it is because you are wrong. Dicing onions doesn’t make him cry . . . it only makes him stronger. He’s against cruelty to animals, but isn’t afraid to issue a stern warning. Who is this man of mystery? Matt Braddock!”

Much later I realized that those people cheering for me at the base of the gorge did not care about me. They just wanted to see me dive. They would use my obsessive need to belong for their own entertainment. This has happened a lot in my life. I misinterpret people’s support for care. I forget that people have veiled motives behind their behavior, just like I do. In the end I feel embarrassed. Used. Hurt. Betrayed. It is a kind of suffering -- a craving to be unique; a need to be needed; a desire to be desired. But life doesn’t always work that way.

Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp at fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If we say, “Look at this beautiful fire! Look at the beautiful colors! I love red and orange, and the sliver of greenish blue in the flames; they’re my favorite colors,” and then grasp it, we would find a certain amount of suffering entering the body, right? If we thought about the cause of our pain, we would discover it was the result of having grasped that fire.

One would think that we would then let the fire go. We’ve been burnt once. Let’s not let that happen again.

Now imagine that I don’t want to get burned, but I keep reaching for the fire. I know it will hurt. I know I will suffer. But I keep doing it anyway. Sounds crazy, but we do it all the time. Buddhists have a word for this kind of suffering. I think they are on to something. They call it attachment, or craving. Craving is like a fire that burns everything with which it comes into contact.

In the South of India, people used to catch monkeys in a very special way. Actually they let monkeys catch themselves. A hunter cuts a small hole in a coconut, just large enough for a monkey to put its hand in. Next, the hunter ties the coconut to a tree, and fills it with something sweet. The monkey smells the sweet, squeezes its hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and finds that the fist does not fit through the hole. Here’s the trick. The last thing the monkey will think of is to let go of the sweet. The monkey holds itself prisoner. Nothing could be easier for a human who comes and catches it. Desires . . . attachments . . . cravings . . . they arise again and again. Trying to fulfill our desires is like reaching for an alluring treat and getting caught rather than letting go. It’s like reaching for the fire again. You get burned. This is life: full of suffering from our self-made pain. Humans tend to long for what they do not have, or to wish for their lives to be different than they are; they often fail to fully appreciate what they do have.

I think this is what’s happening in the Upper Room on Pentecost. Here sit the followers of Jesus. They are afraid. They are afraid they will be found and persecuted, ridiculed, exposed, tortured, and killed. They are afraid they’ll be given the same treatment that the government gave to Jesus. They are confused. They are powerless. They are still attached to old behaviors and worn-out understandings, obsessed by the presence of Christ’s absence. They have never really understood what Jesus was teaching them about a new kingdom. So they tremble in secret, trapped. They live for their selves -- their safety, their protection, the comfort of their beliefs. And they suffer. They long for what they do not have: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, security.

In the book of Romans, Paul says that there are two ways to live and that the difference between these two ways is everything. Paul says that we can live, “according to the flesh,” or we can be, “led by the Spirit of God.” To live according to the flesh is to live with self at the center. My desire to be loved as an original man of mystery is a self-centered way of life. My impatience in the traffic jam is a self-centered thing. It is MY schedule that is supreme and MY destination that is most important. Everyone else on the road should yield to MY needs. Paul thinks that this self-centered way of living, this attachment to our obsessions, leads to slavery and death.

Paul says there is another way to live. There is a way to overcome suffering. For Christians, it happens when we stop living according to the flesh and begin to be led by the Spirit of God. This puts God and God’s interests at the center of our lives. Instead of reaching into flames and getting burned over and over, we allow the fire of the Spirit to come upon us and control our lives. If we look closely, we can see those tongues of flame resting on people around us. The Spirit is upon people who realize that craving does not make life better. They have a purpose beyond self-protection. They appreciate the world around them because it’s God’s world. They can enjoy it without unrealistically grasping at it. They can be part of God’s world and not try to control what it offers. They can be authentic selves among others and they seem to have what many of us long for: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, and security.

Instead of being burned by the flames of false attachment, we are ignited by the Spirit of God.

I once read a story about a church deacon. The pastor tried to get the deacon to open up and let the spirit of God lead her. The deacon concluded that there was one thing she could do. She could take the youth group to the old folk’s home. Once a month the youth group of this church went to the old folk’s home and put on a little church service for the people who lived there. Once she went with the youth group and she stood in the back of the room. The young people were performing and this old man rolled his chair over to where this deacon was standing, took hold of her hand and held it all during the service. The man did the same thing the next month, and the next month, and the next month, and the next month, and the next month. Then they went one Sunday afternoon and the man wasn’t there. The deacon asked the nurse in charge, “What happened to that man?” “Oh,” she said, “He’s near death. He’s just down the hall, the third room. Maybe you should go in and visit him. He’s unconscious, though.”

The deacon walked down and went into the room. You know how people are when they are just about gone and lying there? It was a horrible scene. The deacon went over and held the hand of the gentleman in the bed. She did not know what to do. Those moments are so awkward. Then, instinctively, led by the Spirit, she said a prayer. And when she said “Amen,” the old fellow squeezed her hand. The deacon was so moved by that squeeze, she began to weep. She shook a little. She tried to get out of the room. As she was leaving, she bumped into a woman who was coming into the room. The visitor said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said he did not want to die until Jesus came and held his hand. I tried to tell him that after death he would have a chance to meet Jesus and talk to Jesus and hold Jesus’ hand. But he said, ‘No. Once a month Jesus comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold the hand of Jesus once more.’”

To be ignited by the Spirit may bring you into doing things as awesome as that. When you live in the Spirit, there’s something very important that God wants to do in you and through you. It might be just as simple as this: to go some place and to hold somebody’s hand and Jesus for somebody. That’s what Christ wants of us. Not just to have us believe in him, he wants us to be people who surrender to the Spirit, people who are transformed by the Spirit.

People are waiting for us to stop living for ourselves and to live in the Spirit. They are waiting for us to awaken them to their holiness and their giftedness. In the Spirit we move away from the attachments that trap us. We move from isolation to unity. We go from oppression to liberation. We are freed from insignificance and find importance. We recognize the failures and accept grace. We have shared in the suffering. Now it is time to share in the glory. We live in the Spirit, and allow God to transform our lives.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sermon for May 9, 2010

Reflecting the Image of God

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
— 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

In a large temple north of Thailand’s ancient capital, there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha. Over a period of five hundred years, violent storms, changes of government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the statue endured. At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack. It would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took a light and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. Now uncovered, the golden Buddha draws throngs of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand. The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.

What might happen if we trained ourselves to see beyond our cracks to the shimmering beauty that lies beneath? Paul describes this experience in 2 Corinthians 4 as “treasures in clay jars.” He says the treasures are in clay jars so that you won’t get attached to pride. You will keep a proper and restrained view of yourself. You won’t treasure a particular version of yourself that might not be true — for example, the self who stops traffic with youthful good looks, or the self who fascinates the world with middle aged charm, or the self who dazzles the world with senior wisdom. These stories we tell about ourselves are not reliable measures of self worth. These various “selves” we masquerade aren’t so unique. We are all just slight variations on a theme. The real measure of worth is what Paul describes as “the all surpassing power of God” — treasures in jars of clay. Think about it as beauty beneath the cracks.

You won’t ever see the beauty beneath the cracks in others or in the world, until you can accept the cracks in yourself. You won’t learn to see the image of God in others until you learn to see it in yourself. Think of yourself in a new way. Do not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world, especially what the media or other people tell you about yourself. Think of your body in a new way. Look at the wrinkles on your face and see only character lines. Look at your spare tires and see bay windows with a panoramic view of life. Look at the stretch marks and see a road map that tells the story of your journey. Look at the extra flab on your arms and see wings that can soar like eagles. Learn to recognize the image of God in yourself, and then you will be ready to see it in others.

I once heard a story about a young kid named Jake who always wanted to be just like Billy Widdledon. He walked like Billy walked and talked like Billy talked. But then Billy Widdledon began to hang out around Herby Vandeman. He walked like Herb, and talked like Herb. It messed with Jake’s head. He was walking and talking like Bill Widdledon, who was walking and talking like Herby Vandeman. Then it dawned on Jake that Herb Vandeman walked and talked just like Joey Haverlin, and Joey Haverlin walked and talked just like Corky Sabinson. Jake thought to himself — Here I am walking and talking like Billy Widdledon’s imitation of Herby Vandeman’s version of Joey Haverlin, trying to walk and talk like Corky Sabinson. And who do you think Corky Sabinson is always walking and talking like? Of all people, Dopey Wellington - that guy who walks and talks just like me!

A lot of us, myself included, fall for the trap of seeking change at the surface and then feeling surprised that we don’t feel any better at a deeper level. If you want to lose weight, but start from the assumption that your extra weight is an imperfection, then you are bound for disappointment. If you use Botox, but start from the assumption that your blemished skin is ugly, then you are bound for disappointment. If you begin a workout regime but start from the assumption that you are not good enough without it, then you are bound for disappointment. If you dye your hair, but start from the assumption that your natural color is not beautiful, then you are bound for disappointment. Now, here is a liberating truth. If you have come to see the constant and beautiful image of God within, the masterpiece that is you, then you can work at changing the surface effects with freedom. You can celebrate the lost weight, the toned arms, the smooth skin, the died hair, with a great sense of achievement, but all the time knowing that this too will pass and when it does you are no less of a person.

Here’s something we might want to try: What might happen if we stop all our self-loathing. Put aside everything you see in yourself that you hate. Seek the image of God first, then worry about smoothing out the wrinkles, if it even matters to you anymore. Maybe once we see the image of God, we will spend our time and money elsewhere.

Maybe you have a head full of impossible goals. Maybe they have been in your head since you were a child. The media creates an image of what beauty looks like, and it is an impossible image, reflected by none other than those touched-up and photo-shopped into perfection. We know they are fakes, right? Those imperfectly perfect models with the blemish-free skin and stretch-mark free abs. Their waists have been slimmed, their heads enlarged, their rear ends slimmed. We know the pictures have been retouched. But advertisers know we aren’t going to buy magazines with blemished cover models. On the February cover of British GQ, actress Kate Winslet looks absolutely terrific. So who’s complaining? Kate Winslet herself, who says these were not her thighs that appeared on the cover. The worst thing is this. We know that’s not her. We know that advertizers altered her picture for the cover. But then what did they write in the ad line? That’s what’s pervasive and horrible. “Kate Winslet looks sexier than ever. Slim, elegant and self consciously flirty.” The editors are saying that the reason Kate Winslet looks sexier than ever is because she’s slim. Kate Winslet actually has a curvy, real woman’s body. But we get the message loud and clear: you are only sexier than ever if you’re slim. That’s insane

In another story, Self magazine, which champions accepting one’s “true self,” published a thinned-down photo of the singer Kelly Clarkson, with a headline pushing “total body confidence.” Self magazine’s editor, defended the photo as “the truest we have ever put out there.” Did you get that? It’s not a true image, but it’s getting there.

People don’t look like this. People are flawed. It’s why we’re people. We’re flawed.

Imagine if beauty was measured according to the image of God. What percentage of people in the world might recognize the image of God within, no matter how they define or experience that image of God? Don’t fall for the beauty myth. You are so much more valuable than the media would have you believe.

I came across a Washington Post article on the beauty myth, written by a blind man. The man describes the way he experiences beauty:
Occasionally, I allow myself to imagine that I see the . . . faces that we all suspect lie just below the surface. But in any event, I know you differently than do your hand mirrors or photographs. One thing I won’t know is whether you are, in the ocular sense of the word, beautiful. It’s not that I’m inured to beauty. Imagine that you’re talking to a woman who is sitting across a table from you. When you look at her, all you see is a shimmering cloud of light . . . You are able to observe people as mystical emanations of divine radiance . . . I get turned on by your accent, your fragrance, your laugh, your enthusiasm for almost anything. Strictly speaking, I don't even know what my wife looks like. Instead, I live for the thrill of the touch of her lips, and my hands are privileged to see her. My wife lives in a luminous blue corona of light, and that is good enough for me.
Isn’t that marvelous? He senses “mystical emanations of divine radiance.”

When we realize that we are created in the image of God, cracks and all, we can experience salvation. The idea of salvation rests on the notion that there is a rupture between God and us. We live in the world of the rupture, where every creature walks alone, feeling split off from the Whole, cut off from holiness and goodness, severed from the Source of life and power. Where is the all-surpassing power of God that Paul talks about? Let’s listen a little earlier in 2 Corinthians. Paul writes these words:
For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (3:18).
The Greek translation of the word image is eikon. God longs to restore cracked eikons into glory-producing eikons. To be saved is to be renewed in the true image of God, as women and men in Christ. To be saved is to have our relationships restored between God, others, and the self. We are free to be new creations – people who sparkle and shine, and reflect God’s glory. And don’t you worry. God’s light shines through you. Through cracks and wrinkles, through spare tires and stretch marks, through faults mistakes and regrets, God’s light shines through you.

So get rid of some self-loathing today. Look beyond the masks and the false images of your self that you think will win admiration from others. Look beyond the beauty myths and ridiculously unreachable standards. Look beyond any poor estimations of yourself. You may be surprised to find God in a place where you never thought God would be. You might just see the image of God shining through you. Then you will also be able to see the image of God in the world around you.

• Reflecting the Image of God.
• Austin Garrett Ward. .

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sermon for May 2, 2010

Tattooed by Christ

Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:1-5

I was a teenager, sitting at the counter in my family’s kitchen, grabbing a snack. My father came in the room and we began to speak as only and fresh-mouthed teen and his father do. I don’t remember how the conversation came up, but I remember the conclusion. My father got right in my face and said in no uncertain terms that if I ever came into his house with an earring or a tattoo, he would not let me back in. All ties would be severed from that moment and forever. I believed him, too. Uncharacteristically, I chose not to bring up the fact that he had a tattoo on his arm from his days in Vietnam. As a child, I remember staring at the dark green ink of the paratrooper’s emblem on his arm, wondering where and how that icon became an indelible part of his skin. That night at the kitchen counter just didn’t seem like the right time to mention it. So, being the oldest and ever obedient son, I have complied with his wishes, even after all these years. No tattoos. No piercings. My brother is a different story. I assume he got the same lecture. He promptly went out and got himself an ear ring and a tattoo. Nothing was ever said about it. He lived with my parents for years and years.

I remember talking to a teenager who had a tattoo plan. When he turned 18, he has going to get a tattoo of Yoda on his arm. That’s right, Yoda, the little green Jedi Master from the Star Wars movies. I think the teenager was hurt when I started laughing. I know, we need to support our teens’ fragile egos, but I couldn’t help myself. I pictured this guy as a 90-year-old, looking at the wrinkled ink blob on his arm, not knowing for the life of him what it was or how it got there. The teen didn’t see the humor in it.

If you get a tattoo that you don’t like, you can always change it to something else. Like Angelina Jolie and her famous tattoos. Angelina has gotten three different tattoos on her stomach, but one was a cover-up of another. She claims she used to have a blue dragon on the left-hand side of her stomach, the result a night of drunken fun in the city of Amsterdam. Apparently, she had no recollection of getting that tattoo and had the proverbial “How did that get there?” experience. Dissatisfied with the design, she chose to have it covered up with a large, solid black cross. Her second stomach tattoo is a Latin phrase that can be translated “What nourishes me also destroys me.” If I ever got a stomach tattoo, I would have it say, “Live without regrets.” But with my luck, someone would spell it wrong. I’d have a giant “Live without REGETS” on my chiseled abs for the rest of my life.

Here’s my question: are they crazy? My thinking was challenged about when I read a web article from Next Wave Magazine about Christians who wear body art as a means of spiritual expression. One Christian tattoo wearer had this to say:
Is it possible that in our pain we can worship God? As a society, we have been taught the road of least resistance is most desirable. But is this road most honorable? In our pain, we physically grieve the fall of humankind and turn to God, dependent and hopeful for a world to come-- beyond the physical limitations of death. We too share in the crucifixion of Christ. We too are able to touch the scars. In the mystical act of Communion, we share in his blood and body-- the eternal scars of grace.
In today’s Scripture reading from Revelation we hear John’s final remarks about what heaven is like. Verse 4 struck me as I read the passage: Jesus’ name will be on their foreheads. As a sign of belonging to the kingdom, Christ will put his indelible mark of belonging on all who are his. In a sense, the citizens of heaven will be sporting spiritual tattoos which identify them as the children of God. This morning I’d like us to think about what it might mean to be tattooed by Christ.

I can’t get away from the idea of Baptism as I reflect on this passage. John writes about flowing water, fruit-bearing trees, and marked followers of the Lamb. You could say that Baptism is our spiritual tattoo – our mark of inclusion into the covenant community of God. Congregational theology teaches that Baptism is the sign and symbol of inclusion in God’s grace and covenant with the church. Baptism is the identifying mark signifying faithfulness of God, the washing away of sin, rebirth, being sealed by the Spirit, adoption into the covenant family of the church and new life in Christ. No matter how old you were when it happened, no matter what church on denomination did it, we recognize that Christian Baptism is a once and for all sign that you belong to Jesus. No ifs, ands, or buts.

So, Christians are marked people. It seems to me, however, that our baptismal tattoos don’t always but seem to make a big impact on us. And people outside the church don’t care much about them, either.

A sociologist noticed that this is a time of great spiritual hunger in our country, perhaps greater than ever before. At the same time the church is having less impact on people’s perspectives than ever. A growing number of people have dismissed the Christian faith as outdated and irrelevant. The researcher concluded that our failure is not the content of our words, but our failure to practice those truths. His research shows that professing Christians think and behave no differently than anyone else. The same numbers of Christians and non-Christians give to the poor and volunteer their time. The same numbers of Christians and non-Christians donate money to non-profit organizations and visit Internet chat rooms. Equal numbers of believers and non-believers watch reality TV. Both groups discuss moral issues and see themselves as good people who treat others as they want to be treated. And I found this very interesting: Christians are more likely to spend their money in lottery tickets than are non-Christians (38% Christian, 10% other faiths, 12% atheist and agnostic). The point is, if some one was to put the average Christian and the average non-Christian side by side, one would not be able to tell them apart by their day-to-day behavior.

If we wear the mark of Christ, shouldn’t others should be able to see it -- not as a physical mark, but as a set of behaviors that distinguish us as followers of Christ? God has given us the promise of a life that is new and fresh – a life of ultimate joy, holiness and peace -- and for some reason, many of us hang back.

Perhaps this situation is most painfully illustrated when we look at our covenant children. These are the people who have been baptized by this congregation. We have been given the responsibility of raising them in the faith. We are painfully aware that many of the covenant children of our church don’t continue in a life of community worship and service to Christ. It can hurt when we baptize our children and nurture them in the faith community, and when it comes time for them to make their own faith decisions, some of them wander away, unconnected from any kind of formal faith involvement.

This not only happens in our congregation. In the big picture, we can’t escape the slow and steady demise of mainline churches like the UCC. In a 10-year span, the UCC lost close to 230,000 of its 1.25 million members (1994-2004). The United Church of Christ has experienced larger percentage declines in membership and average weekly worship attendance than the other mainline denominations. Members of our covenant community are leaving the denomination in record numbers. Baptisms are way down from levels a decade ago.

Many people leave the church and go nowhere. These are our covenant children. They carry the mark of Christ. And many of them just leave and sink so easily into the patterns of the world.

My message today is, “Fear not!” We are not left without the consolation of the promises of God. Based on my understanding of Scripture and my father’s convictions about tattoos, let me offer two reminders.

First, tattoos are permanent. John reminds us that in the end, the name of Christ will identify the faithful forever. Jesus’ spiritual mark, imprinted upon us in Baptism, is permanent. It might seem to fade at times. The picture might get blurry around the edges. But the mark is still there. You all belong to Jesus Christ! He will not let you go. The work started in Baptism will be completed. You may wander away. You may take a vacation from following God, but you are never forgotten. God doesn’t say, “Oh, she’s hopeless. I guess I’ll just try harder and do better on the next one. You win some and you lose some.” If you’ve been marked by Christ, you belong to Christ. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness needs repeated renewal, but God’s faithfulness is constant and sure.

Secondly, tattoos are a choice. Tattoos don’t just magically appear on your skin by having casual contact with another tattoo owner. You have to make some effort to get one. The covenant of Baptism is the same way. Inclusion in the covenant is not automatic. It is not hereditary. Now I understand that many of you didn’t make the choice in your Baptism. For most of you, your parents made that decision for you. But you have a choice of how you live it out. It doesn’t matter if you chose the mark or someone put it on you before you were too young to know. It doesn’t matter if you were sprinkled, dunked, or sprayed. What matters is how you make good on the promises.

Celebrated preacher Fred Craddock tells of an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. “I’m from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”

“What’s your name?” Dr. Craddock asked. He answered, “Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper.” Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.

When people make good on their Baptism, we are encouraged to identify ourselves with the work of Christ. We bear God’s resemblance. We proclaim good news. We find the lost. We feed the hungry. We bandage the wounds of the world. We offer hope to those who live in fear. We wear the mark of Christ. Do you do it in shame, or do you wear it proudly? Do you choose to live for Christ daily, or do you hope that if you don’t call attention to yourself, maybe you will be able to hide your mark from others?

Listen to the questions asked at our Baptisms. I want to ask them to you, and as I do, I want you to think about what your answer is:
• Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
• Who is your Lo Savior?
• Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?
• Will you be a faithful member of the church, share in it’s worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

We, the church, wear the forever mark of Christ. In other words:
We take responsibility for our own actions and allow others to do the same.
We celebrate God’s faithfulness.
We proudly wear Christ’s tattoo and let the world identify us by the quality of our caring and the exuberance of our love. We remember that Jesus’ love will not let us go. So, we don’t give up on ourselves or others.

Sermon for April 18, 2010

Trading My Sorrows

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. -- Revelation 21:1-6

Three women die together in an accident and go to heaven. When they get there, St. Peter says, “We only have one rule here in heaven: don’t step on the ducks!” So they enter heaven, and sure enough, there are ducks all over the place. It is almost impossible not to step on a duck, and although they try their best to avoid them, the first woman accidentally steps on one.

Along comes St. Peter with the ugliest man she ever saw. St. Peter chains them together and says, “Your punishment for stepping on a duck is to spend eternity chained to this ugly man!” The next day, the second woman steps accidentally on a duck and along comes St. Peter, who doesn’t miss a thing. With him is another extremely ugly man. He chains them together with the same admonishment as for the first woman.

The third woman has observed all this and, not wanting to be chained for all eternity to an ugly man, is very, VERY careful where she steps. She manages to go months without stepping on any ducks, but one day St. Peter comes up to her with the most handsome man she has ever laid eyes on ... very tall, long eyelashes, muscular, and thin. St. Peter chains them together without saying a word.

The happy woman says, “I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all of eternity?”

The guy says, “I don’t know about you, but I stepped on a duck!”

According to a NEWSWEEK Poll, 76 percent of Americans believe in heaven, and, of those, 71 percent think it’s an “actual place,” but after that, agreement breaks down. Nineteen percent think heaven looks like a garden, 13 percent say it looks like a city, and 17 percent don’t know. In the peaceful, prosperous West, visions of heaven are increasingly individualistic. Consider the best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones, narrated by a 14-year-old girl who has gone to heaven. Her paradise contains puppies, big fields and Victorian cupolas. For more than 2,000 years, theologians and children have been asking the same, unanswerable questions: Do we keep our bodies in heaven? Are we reunited with loved ones? Can we eat, drink? Can you go to my heaven? Can I go to yours? How do you get there?

The New Testament’s fullest descriptions of heaven were also battle cries. After the Romans crushed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Middle Eastern cities teemed with festivals honoring the Roman emperors. The earliest Christians had a dilemma. “To what extent do we join the mainstream culture?” they wondered. “Do we attend without participating, participate without believing, or believe without embracing?” The Book of Revelation drew the battle lines. Revelation’s descriptions of thunder and lightning and burning torches, as well as its promises of pearl gates and jeweled walls, were warnings to the earliest Christians: Do not worship the Roman emperors. Stay faithful to your God and Jerusalem will be restored and you will live in a magnificent city forever.

What is your vision of Heaven? Some people find it difficult to think realistically about Heaven. And it’s little wonder we feel so indifferent about it all. The image most people dream up about Heaven is anything but appealing -- some bright place tucked behind a galaxy where birds chirp and organs play with heavy tremolo and angels bounce from cloud to cloud. By the way, this image is used by advertisers to sell items as unremarkable as cream cheese – a beautiful women wearing a size-two angel outfit and a tilted halo enjoying a bagel and cream cheese atop a fluffy cloud. Now for some this may be a remarkable vision of things to come. For me, though, it’s remarkably boring.

Why even worry about Heaven right now? There are people dying, starving and killing each other in our world. We face depression, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis. We are too busy to think about some future promise like Heaven. But, if the idea of Heaven doesn’t have some day-to-day impact on the suffering we go through here and now, it is useless.

What if Heaven could touch us today? What if Heaven isn’t just some future eternal bliss, but a reality to our Christian lives here and now?

If I had to define Heaven I would say something like this: Heaven is the destination of ultimate joy. This is how I understand the vision of John the Seer: Heaven is a place where there is no more pain, no more sorrow, no more tears, no more crying or pain. All the evils of the world are wiped away. And the Lord makes everything new.

Heaven, I suppose, is the greatest blessing – the greatest gift. Heaven is the destination of ultimate joy. By the way, when I say joy, I don’t mean the leaping-up-and-down enthusiasm of a game show contestant who has just won an all-expenses-paid-two-week vacation to Europe. I’m talking but the deep, sometimes tearful appreciation of the “ordinary” pleasures of life. Wouldn’t even a taste of that in our lives today be wonderful? Just a little joy in the bleak moments...a second of spiritual comfort in the midst of turmoil...peace in the thick of our hectic lives? How do we get to experience even a little bit of that ultimate joy here and now?

We get a glimpse of joy when we find time to celebrate and remember what God is doing in our lives. But let me say this as well: Blessing doesn’t assume joy. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? You would assume that if someone’s received a blessing she’d be elated. I know plenty of blessed people who spend their lives complaining about how rotten life is. I see people who are healthy, people with strong families, people who live in comfort who see something wrong with in everything and everyone. Have you ever someone say grace over a meal and then promptly gripe about it? Someone cooked that meal. Someone prepared the ingredients. His hunger is about to be satisfied. His body is about to be nourished. And all he can do is complain. The meal is not really a blessing. It brings no joy.

But look around. Take stock of life. We are blessed. And joy? Joy is a choice.
We don’t have to wait until we die to experience the kind of joy promised in Heaven. I think we can get a little foretaste of Heaven on earth right now. So, the question is, when we are tempted to sit back and itemize everything that is wrong with the world and in our own lives, where do we find that heavenly taste of joy?

Let me offer a few strategies for focusing on the joy of Heaven here and now:

1. Choose joy through obedience.
Joy is a sign that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in your life. Joy begins to bloom when obedience to Jesus works its way into the fabric of our daily lives.

Imagine that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. The President says to you and the other trusted employees, “Look, I’m going to leave. And while I’m gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I’m away. I will E-mail you regularly and I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip.” The boss leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time the boss writes often, communicating her desires and concerns. Finally she returns. She walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is a mess -- weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the secretary at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered massive loss. Without hesitation she calls everyone together and barks, “What happened? Didn’t you get my messages?” You say, “Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your Email. We’ve even printed your messages and the bound them in a book. You know, those were really great letters.” I think the president would then ask, “But what did you do about my instructions?” No doubt the employees would respond, “Do? Well, nothing. But we read every one!”

Do you know anyone like that, a person who knows God’s expectations? That person might have even read the Bible from cover to cover, but doesn’t live it out. There’s no obedience, and therefore no joy. Living out God’s word can bring joy.

2. Choose joy by trading your sorrows
There is something to be said for disciplining yourself to be positive in the midst of life’s difficulties. I read a story about Jerry -- the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!” He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.

Seeing this managerial style, a curious observer approached Jerry and said, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?” Jerry replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Jerry, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it . . . Life is all about choices . . . You choose how you react to situations . . . The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

Several years later, Jerry did something you are never supposed to do: he left the back door of his business open one morning and was held up at gun point by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand slipped off the combination. The robbers panicked and shot him. Luckily, Jerry was found quickly and rushed to the local trauma center. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Jerry was released from the hospital.

About six months after the accident, when people asked him how he was, Jerry replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” Someone asked him what went through his mind as the robbery took place. Jerry replied. “The first thing that went through my mind was that I should have locked the back door. Then, as I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live . . . When they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes I read, ‘He’s a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action. There was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me. She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘I’m allergic to bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.’ Jerry lived thanks to the skill of his medical team, but also because of his amazing attitude.

Every day we have the choice to live against the odds. Choose joy by trading your sorrows for the joy of the Lord.

3. Choose joy by choosing to persevere.
Let me tell you the story about Clint Courtney. Clint never came close to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a legend in his own time -- not even in his own mind. But a few die-hard fans were inspired by his tremendous perseverance. Clint played catcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. During his career he earned the nickname of Scrap Iron. Clint was weathered and tough. Old Scrap Iron broke no records -- only bones. He had little power or speed on the base paths. As for grace and style, he made the easiest play look rather difficult. But armed with mitt and mask, Scrap Iron never flinched from any challenge. Batters often missed the ball and caught his shin. Their foul tips nipped his elbow. Runners fiercely plowed into him, spikes first, as he defended home plate. Though often doubled over in agony, and flattened in a heap of dust, Clint Courtney never quit. Without fail, he’d slowly get up, shake off the dust, punch the pocket of his mitt once or twice, and nod to his pitcher to throw another one. The game would go on and Clint with it -- scarred, bruised, clutching his arm in pain, but determined to continue. Some made fun of him, calling him a masochist. Insane. Others remember him as a true champion. What kept him going? I guess he really loved baseball.

The lesson? Persevere. Hang in there, even when life gets really tough. And make no mistake, life will get really tough. Curve balls come. We get knocked down. The wind gets knocked out of us. Live with purpose. In the midst of it all, do what you love. Follow your heart. In obedience, with a positive attitude and with perseverance, there is an opportunity to choose joy.

I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a letter by Fra Giovanni Giocondo . Giovanni was an architect, engineer, and classical scholar who was born in Verona around 1433 and died in 1516. This letter was written to a friend on Christmas Eve, 1513. It’s words are ancient but still meaningful.
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take joy.
May we all find a way to take joy and know heaven on earth, here and now.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

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