Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sermon for September 26, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sermon for September 19, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Energy

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” Luke 6:46-49

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. 1 Cor 15:58

A few days ago, I was talking with someone about the worst job I ever had. I paid my way through seminary by fixing boat propellers at a shop in South Boston. It was hard work. In those days, to fix a damaged prop, one worker would hit it with a sledge hammer while another worker held the prop against a cast iron pitching block. I was the guy who held the prop in place for the guy with the hammers. It was a backbreaking, dirty, painful job, with a lot of sore fingers.

It could be worse! British man Jon Hanson had what he describes as the worst job in his entire life: quality control on cat food. He described several tests he had to perform. Test 1: Bury face in a huge tub of cat food and sniff it to make sure it's fresh. Test 2: Plunge arms in it up to the elbows and grope for bony bits and take them out. Test 3: Scoop up huge dollop of it, smear it flat on surface and prod it with fingers to test how much gristle is there. Uggghh!

Some jobs are obsolete now. Some of you may remember when there were icemen and milkmen who delivered goods to your doorstep. By 2005, less than half of one percent got milk deliveries..

Switchbaord operators are becoming a job of the past. Switchboard operators used a "cord board" to connect callers by plugging incoming lines and metal pegs into the corresponding hole on the board to connect with the correct caller. Long-distance callers were routed through operators, but with only a limited number of lines. If all circuits were busy, operators took the caller's number and called them back when a line was available. Now, with the advancement mobile phones and long-distance plans, there are fewer operators.

Even show business is hitting a professional slump. Thanks to reality TV, talented actors are becoming unnecessary. These days, if you can launch your acting career and rise to success quickly, you must try to fizzle out by 2012 so that you are eligible to participate in the 2014 season of “Kickboxing with the Stars.” Film actors are in equal jeopardy. Right now, humans can be replicated on screen with computer generated animation, and audiences don’t really seem to mind. It won’t be long until studio execs realize that a digital version of Angelina Jolie, slightly altered for legal purposes, will work for free. Not only that, but CyberAngelina won’t have weird demands, like a dressing room scented with gardenia and 2 liters of organic Peruvian yak’s milk.

There’s another job in a slump: The work of the Church. Across the country, congregations of all sizes and denominations are struggling with issues of faith and finance as the tough economy grinds on. Churches are scouring their budgets for wasteful spending. While the collection plates no longer overflow, churches see an increase in requests for support. I have gotten more calls for financial assistance from people who need money than ever before. I’ve had to start turning people away. Funds are low. In the past, houses of worship did OK during recessions, even as other institutions struggled. But the magnitude of the current downturn has caught up with places of worship. The economic climate for religious organizations is the worst in at least 30 years, forcing membership drives and construction projects to take a back seat to balancing the budget. This is THE topic of conversation for congregations. All other conversations have ceased.

Churches are not known for their ability to adapt to change. While the world around us transforms at lightning-fast speeds, churches are often satisfied to maintain traditions. The expectation is that churches don’t need to change. Churches expect others to change when they walk in our doors. We like to think of ourselves as a safe haven from the world around us. A place of timeless tradition. A place of peace. A place where the novelties around us are kept at bay.

Here is the challenge: It sounds good, but in reality, it doesn’t work. To upcoming generations, our obsolete attitudes can sound grumpy and irrelevant. Kind of like my Mémé. As a kid, I had a 100-year-old great grandmother. I remember her knitting and her soap operas, her root beer barrel candies and her ways of showing love by yelling at you until you cried. She lived in the basement of my grandparent’s house, and I was afraid of her. All were afraid of her. My great grandmother (we called her Mémé) had an anxiety-inducing presence. The worst words one could ever hear was, “Matt, please take this to Mémé’s room,” as my grandmother handed me a tuna fish sandwich for delivery to Mémé’s lair. If I heard those words, a chill would run down my spine. It was easier to avoid her.

Is the church becoming Mémé to a new generation? Is the church an old-fashioned, mean-spirited, rigid or fearful presence that’s best avoided? To play a role in American life, to do our part in the renewal of American Christianity, mainline churches like Trumbull Congregational Church need to go back over their history and ask if we’ve lost the ability to inspire new generations with the gospel of God’s love.

I have heard some culture watchers say that the Church is a generation away from extinction. The first time I read that, my knee-jerk reaction was denial. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. This can’t be! The Church is forever.” As I thought about it some more, I began to see the power of these words. God is forever. Church is ephemeral. The church is the temporary expression of what God intends for humanity. We aren’t meant to last forever. While we are here, the church is supposed to align itself with God’s aims and show the world what, new, free and abundant life can be. And as members of the church of Christ, we are responsible for equipping the next generation of disciples. Jesus left the future of the Church in our hands. The future of our faith depends on our ability to pass it on. When I watch the news and listen to conversations, I often hear about the plight of our country and the older generation’s lack of trust in the younger. We see school shootings and work shootings, broken homes, and many other examples of disgruntled, misguided youth. What is going on? The more appropriate question is, “What is not going on?” What are we NOT providing to this rising generation? Why is Christianity not important to so many people?

Churches respond to these questions in different ways. Some churches decide that they need a new way to BE. Instead of opening their doors and expecting people to come to them, these churches have decided to take church to the people. I’m talking about traditional, protestant churches like ours. They realize that they have a God-sized task: to bring God’s good news to the next generations. To use Jesus’ metaphor from Luke’s gospel, these churches are building a house on a solid foundation. They seek to do God’s will in the world by looking outward and practicing their faith in a public way. They build a firm foundation by carrying out the teachings of Christ.

Other churches build themselves on shakier footings. Some churches think the solution to the shifting sands around them is to get more people to do more stuff. They focus on getting people to serve on church committees. They think that if more people serve as part of the governance of the church, if more people understood what it takes to keep the place going, the church will become a solid, healthy organization. Sometimes this strategy works. Oftentimes it does not. Some people find meaning serving on church committees. Others face burnout, sabotage, and frustration. Some people serve the church with energy and love. Others are turned off when it seems that church members are protecting their interests. They ask, “Where’s the common goal? What’s the God-sized task? What’s our God-sized vision?”

Maybe churches need to do less with our energy and more with God’s energy. Maybe churches like ours need to prayerfully realize our God-sized task that takes God-sized energy. As Paul tells the church in Corinth, “Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” The question is, what kind of work should we do?

Here is a good indication that you are serving the church for the wrong reasons. If you are doing something out of guilt, then you are spending your energy in the wrong place. If you are doing something because there's no one else to do the job, then you are spending your energy in the wrong place. If you are doing something to please people or because you are afraid to say NO, then you are spending your energy in the wrong place. If you are doing something for power and prestige then you are spending your energy in the wrong place.

You can always tell when people are doing things for the wrong reasons. You can see it in their energy level. Just ask my kids. If I say to my kids, “Can you pick up your rooms and then come downstairs and drink a glass of milk and eat a plate of broccoli?”, they move as slow as dead snail. At dinner time, limp, boiled-to-death broccoli really is the bane of childhood. Ask my kids to eat broccoli, and they suddenly lose their appetites. Five minutes ago, they were famished. Faced with a side dish of broccoli, they lose the will to live. While my kids are pushing their slimy broccoli around the plate, pretending to eat it, I will mess with their minds. “Who wants desert?” I’ll offer. Notice how the energy changes. Nothing feels better than broccoli amnesty! Now kids are laughing. Their appetites come back. There’s a party at the Braddock house. They have new hopes.. New goals. New vision. It’s exciting and refreshing.

I know, I know, broccoli is good for you. I know, it’s the king of lo-carb veggies. It’s full of vitamin C and antioxidants and calcium. But I don’t know a lot of people who get excited when told, “Eat your broccoli. It’s good for you.” This sounds more like a threat. It sounds like something my Mémé would say to make me cry.

New times demand a different attitude from the church. No more boiled-over broccoli when we have the sweetness of God’s love to offer. We need a God-sized task. We need God-sized vision. We need God-sized energy. Energy is ours, not when we hoard our strength, but when we devote it willingly and joyously toward living out the Good News. Faith and energy go hand in hand. If you have deep faith in what you are doing, you can move mountains. Energy is always highest when one’s cause is just. The greater one’s faith, the greater one’s will power. And the greater the will power, the greater the flow of energy.

Do you know what? This is a great time to be in the church! So what if we have no money, our membership is down, we run a deficit budget, and can’t do repairs. So what if people claim to be spiritual but are leaving churches in record number. So what if Christianity seems to be less and less relevant to our culture. This is a great time to be in the church! Unless we can say that with enthusiasm and passion and energy, I don’t think we will be able to communicate the good news to this changing world.

I refuse to let the Church to grow obsolete or extinct. How about you? Can we show others the love of God? Can we communicate the love of Christ to a world that’s waiting and hungry and starving to know God’s delicious presence? Will we use our energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to lead the church in this time of transition? In your own life, what keeps you from being all that God is calling you to be? What keeps our church from reaching out and communicating the love of Christ? These are in many ways the worst of times for the Christian church. But they can also be the best. The promise of the Scriptures says that no matter how difficult life is, God is good. Our good God has some good work for us to do, and the energy to do it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sermon for September 12, 2010

The Habits of Healthy Churches: Devotion

When the crowds heard him, they were astounded at his teaching. But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” -- Matthew 22:33-40

I have some questions. They are some of life’s unanswered questions:
Do cemetery workers prefer the graveyard shift?
Do Lipton employees take coffee breaks?
Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?
Can you be a closet claustrophobic?
If 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year why do they have locks on their doors?
If a parsley farmer is sued, can the court garnish his wages?
If aliens are smart enough to travel through space, why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on earth?
If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?
If you throw a cat out a car window, does it become kitty litter?
Who’s cruel idea was it to put the ‘s’ in the word lisp?
Why do doctors call what they do practice?
Why do fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing?
Why is it you get a penny for your thoughts but have to put in your two cents worth?
Why is it that when our kids are naughty we ask “do you want a spanking?” What are they going to say, “Yes, please. May I have two?”
Sometimes, when I’m reflecting on life and work, I ask some questions of the church, too.
Why are people more spiritual than ever but leaving the church in record numbers?
How does the church get people’s attention in a fast-moving world?
What are we here for and what do we do?
Can we love without changing others?
What if we are wrong about thinking we are the only ones who have the complete truth?
Who is left out of our churches? How has that served us? Who is our neighbor?
Why is there so much controversy in churches? Why can’t people of the same faith get along with each other better?
I think church controversy began with the church founder himself. Jesus constantly debated and confronted religious people who believed that they knew the word and the will of God. People of his own faith tempted, tested, and questioned Jesus.

In today’s reading, we hear some of this conflict. It’s a conversation between Jesus and his “pastors.” It’s actually the last time there will be conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. On this, their last conversation, they ask Jesus a question. “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” It’s a trap. Hebrew Scripture has 613 commandments to follow. Obeying all 613 at once is virtually impossible. How can anyone even remember all 613 commandments? So they ask Jesus, “If all 613 commandments could be summed up in one or two sentences, what would you say?” The religious leaders feel threatened by Jesus’ authority, so they ask a question designed to publicly humiliate and belittle Jesus. To them, Jesus is a simple, unlearned, working class teacher from the backwoods town of Galilee. His followers don’t have a semester’s worth of theological credits between them. The religious leaders, on the other hand, are professionally trained leaders of Israel’s spiritual life. They are learned practitioners of every detail of Jewish law. They try to push Jesus into a corner by asking that he pick one commandment out of all Jewish law as being the most important.

Jesus’ answer takes us to the essential core of religion. Out of all 613 commandments, he picks two verses from Scripture, and combines them into one: “It’s about the love!” ”‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else in scripture,” Jesus says, “Relates to these two things.” His answer to the religious leaders is a way of accusing them of breaking the greatest commandments. Those who claim to be the most committed law keepers of all are guilty of missing the heart of Israel’s faith! Jesus and his religious leaders had two different visions of the purpose of their religion.

We shouldn’t be too harsh on the religious leaders. At one time or another, all of us get all tangled up in the web of “little things” and miss the “big picture.” Churches do it all the time. We get so wrapped up in our traditions and our programs and our property, we can lose sight of who we are and why we’re here. It’s easy to lose focus. Vision becomes blurry. Sometimes churches realize what’s happening, and they regain their sense of purpose. Others get stuck in the pattern of worry and anxiety. If something goes well, the church gets credit for it. But if something goes bad, the church system is not at fault. Instead, an individual or group gets blamed for the problems. If a person voices problems with the church, that person will be marginalized, put down and discredited. We sense the same pattern happening in Matthew’s gospel. When put on the spot, the religious leaders attack Jesus instead of examining their own traditions.

I want to suggest one question that can help us determine where we are as a church. Finish this statement: “Our church is best known for ______________ .” What would you say?
  • Our church is best known for our beautiful building?
  • Our church is known for its worship services?
  • Our church is best known for our programs for children and youth?
  • Our church is best known for keeping traditions alive?
  • Our church is best known for managing money and resources?
  • Our church is best known for the quality of its caring and outreach?
If we are on target as a congregation, the completion of this sentence will relate directly to what Jesus identifies as the greatest commandment of all. I think first and foremost, a healthy church will say, “Our church is best known for our devotion to God and to one another. It’s all about the love.”

One of the crucial lessons in this passage is that getting lost in the nit-picky details of religion can cause us to miss God entirely! If my heart is not open, if my mind is already made up, if there is no room for me to challenge my assumptions, I put myself in the very precarious spiritual position of missing where God is going and what God is doing. The point is simple. Healthy churches love God with all we’ve got and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

This is Jesus’ challenge to us when we are tempted to give our first love to people and things other than God. Jesus confronts our competing devotions. Some Christians think that our job is to protect the Bible and the reputation of historic Christianity. We’ve seen a great example of this with Pastor Terry Jones of Florida and the media frenzy over his threat to burn the Qur’an. I hope you can see this story for its utter craziness. Not the crazy pastor. No, the crazy media and how they promote a silly local town story to blanket our national media reality. In one corner, we have an unknown, swivel-eyed Pastor of a tiny church in the swamps of Florida. In the other corner, we have the Commander in Chief, his Secretary of State, and his top US and NATO Commander. Who really cares what this mini-church does? Somehow, someone wanted the world to see America as a Qur’an burning, Islam-hating nation of bullies. If he wakes up in time, Pastor Jones might realize he and his 50 members were being used to make a statement on behalf of all 350 million Americans to a watching and waiting Muslim world. He was manipulated into making a statement that America is not saying at all. And now he’s being used as a pawn in the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” debate. Someone noticed a trivial and stupid act that should have been ignored and elevated it to a national policy debate. The story should have been nothing more than the local town news. It’s the same as reading about the Sheriff’s daughter who comes in third at Garlic Queen Pageant, or the minister who locks himself in the church steeple and won’t come down until the church raises $8000. Here is the story: “Crazy Pastor Jones is at it again. After the success of Qur’an fire, he promises to burn Catcher in the Rye next week. Bring your copy. Free hot dogs served in social hall after the bonfire.”

For me the issue is that Pastor Jones feels he has to protect Christianity, actually Christian America, from an outside menace. He threatens to burn a Qur’an because of THEM, as if he has few other choices. His faith needs to be protected from outsiders and infidels. He wants the church to be best known for its devotion. But devoted to what? To purity? To the authority of the Bible? To his interpretation of the faith? To the elimination of competing ideas?

Pastor Jones forgot what Jesus said just before he was murdered. Jesus didn’t scream “Someone has to stand up to this abomination.” He said something far more provocative “Father, forgive.” Now that is a story all of us still haven’t come to grips with. Don’t burn the Qur’an. Burn the hatred, burn it and bury it. Let love rise in its place. It’s all about the love.

More than devotion to purity, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to judging others, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to doctrine, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to eroding traditions, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to our congregation, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to the bible, we devote ourselves to love.
In other words, we are to do the impossible. But we can at least keep trying.

On the day that we meet Jesus, all of our arguments will end. That which we thought mattered the most will be put into proper perspective. We may have to answer a couple of questions.
1. Did you, the church, abandon yourself to love?
2. How did you make the love of God and the love of your neighbor the center of your life together?
Devoted love to God and neighbor. This makes healthy churches. This makes healthy lives.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Sermon for September 5, 2010

The Complications of Long Division

A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!’ Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down with his counselors to discuss whether his army of 10,000 could defeat the 20,000 soldiers marching against him? And if he can’t, he will send a delegation to discuss terms of peace while the enemy is still far away. So you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own. Luke 14:25-33

There are a few things I really hate. Maybe hate is too a strong word. But let’s just go with it. You know what I hate? Buffet Anarchy. The food buffet is a lawless frontier. Anything goes. I was at a buffet the other day and serving myself was like being a contestant on a Japanese game show. I’m accidentally splattering myself with food, dropping string beans on the floor and dripping my chicken marsala sauce into the tray of roasted potatoes. Meanwhile, packs of pre-teen boys cut the line, shoveling doughy fistfulls of rolls into their orthodontically altered mouths and swiping all the deserts the end of the table. There is no peace for me at a buffet table.

You know what else I hate? I hate it when I used to go to the gym and I had to use a piece of equipment after someone else. I mean, obviously I can bench press, you know, a whole ton of weight. And as for reps, don't even talk to me about reps. I can do anywhere between 3-5. I thought I could certainly lift more than the gangly high school sophomores or the rugged old grannies in their velour workout suits. I would saunter over to the bench press machine after they were done, and they always had the weight set quite high. Higher than I could lift. So, I had to go through the elaborate charade of pretending to raise the weight while actually taking it down to around the 3 pound level. I’d push out my 3-5 reps and then put the weight back really high for the next person to see. Pretending was more exhausting than the actual workout. So, I stopped going to the gym. It’s working well for me, isn’t it?

You know what else I hate? I hate my mother’s recipe for Beet Loaf. Yeah, you heard me right. BEET loaf. She cooks it in a crock pot for 8 hours and serves it up with a swell of pride. Delicious? I think not.

Like I said, hate is a strong word. These are all trifles, really. Annoyances. I mean, it’s not something serious like saying I hate my parents. It’s not something really bad, like if I confessed to detest my wife and children. But it seems as if that’s what Jesus wants me to do. He says: If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison — your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. I can’t go that far. In fact, I hate that Jesus would ask me to hate my loved ones and even my own life.

Have you ever met a family that fractured over of a spiritual teaching? I knew a lady who joined a very strict, fundamentalist Christian sect. She tried to get her husband to join the group and he wanted nothing to do with it. The spiritual leader of the group convinced the wife that her husband was going to hell, that she should get away from him and his evil doubts, and she should get the kids away from their unbelieving father. Of course, she gave this group a pile of money. Her family was devastated. The husband still wonders how and why this all happened. These groups work through division -- malicious mathematics that promises a better life if only you believe, disconnect yourself from family ties, and write a big check.

Hate my parents? Give up all my possessions? Isn’t this the demented preaching of Jim Jones and David Koresh? Hate my wife and kids to follow Jesus? If anyone comes to me and demands that I choose between him or my wife, the choice is simple. I choose my wife. I choose my kids. I choose my family. I choose my beloved friends. I choose the connections that help me find support, survival, courage and love to get us through this complicated life.

But wait, it gets worse. I hate the examples Jesus uses to illustrate “discipleship.” Jesus talks about a builder thinking about money and a king preparing for war. Jesus implies that these two have it right and that his followers are to be more like them. Here’s the problem. In our day, building developers and war planners are not moral standard bearers. Think about some developers who cut corners that make money while imperiling others. During this Atlantic Hurricane Season, many remember Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that left a blotch on the psyche of America. Among the revelations in the aftermath of Katrina, the flooding uncovered the negative impact of floating gambling casinos on the Mississippi River. The huge casino barges became battering rams in the storm surge, washing ashore and destroying many homes and cheap developments that sprang up to support the gambling industry. The destruction became symbolic of how greed had destroyed lives along the Gulf Coast. All to say, I have a hard time accepting real estate speculation as a symbol for faith. In the same way, I have no empathy for the struggle of a king who wants to go to war and needs to make sure that he has enough soldiers to overcome the enemy.

I know that I’m supposed to ask myself how I can love God a lot, and what I am willing to give up to show it — at least that’s how this Gospel story has been explained to me dozens of times. However dividing the family, managing real estate for outrageous profit, and acting like a warmonger are qualities I need to leave behind in order to follow Jesus. I’m a peace-lover. I don’t want to divide.

You know what I really, really hate? Mathematics. Math gives me the hives. They’re not called math problems for nothing. I have a special moral crisis with division. Especially long division. I like addition. I LOVE multiplication. These operations are about increase. We tend to think that if something is good, than more must be better. So I’ll stick with arithmetic that supports growth and abundance. Division is different. When I was young, I’d tell my 9th grade algebra teacher, Mrs. Bach, that division was evil. It was subtraction on steroids. We should have serious problems with doing math that creates separation and scarcity. Mrs. Bach didn’t buy it. Division is just so . . . negative. It comes from two Latin roots that mean to separate apart. Many of our English words beginning with the letters d-i are from a mean-spirited little Latin preposition known as dis. The English language has a lot of ways to talk about how to exclude and separate. And many of the words begin with those two or three little letters: divide, disrespect, divest, dispose, disable, discord, discard, destruction, disadvantage, discipline, discomfort, disenchant, disagree, disappear, disappoint, disarray, disaster, disconnect, discredit, disgrace, distort, discrepancy, discriminate, disengage, dishonest, defeat, dysfunction. Here we go again with the malicious mathematics. You just heard a list of the worst kind of complicated long division there is.

Malicious mathematics is quite simple to perform. Once we divide and discard others, we don’t have to deal with them anymore. Once we discredit and disgrace those with whom we disagree, we allow ourselves to believe that we’ve done our divine duty. Division seems to be a desirable decision when it comes to dealing with people who are different. My heart tells me that this is not what Jesus had in mind for his people.

You know what I really wanted for this sermon? I wanted some alternative interpretation of the text. I wanted a trustworthy biblical scholar to tell me how I misunderstood the story. After a better understanding of the life and times of Jesus, I would learn that he really wants us to embrace our parents, hug our lovers and our children, bear some modest burdens, and follow Jesus the best we can. Do you know what scholars say? Out of all the sayings of Jesus, this is probably among the most genuine lessons from the lips of the Lord. I’m not going to try to domesticate Jesus. He says something that I just don’t like. In his passion to uphold the simplicity and sacredness of his ministry, Jesus wants something I just can’t give.

Jesus says, "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison." Seriously, Jesus? Yes, seriously, because anything else is idolatry.

Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Seriously, Jesus? Yes, seriously. Because following Jesus is serious business.

I like a challenge as much as anyone (as long as it doesn’t involve a quadratic equation). But I'm not ready to answer this challenge with an unqualified yes. What about a definitive maybe? How about a sincere I'll think about it? What if following Jesus is less of a denial of all I love and more like a work in progress? What if following Jesus is more like deciding each and every day how we can be disciples?

Following Jesus is not about what you can’t do or won’t do. It’s not as if those with strong faith give up everything, and everyone else is a coward. Discipleship is more about how we define ourselves. Are we solely defined by our relatives? Are we solely defined by our belongings? Are we solely defined by our shortcomings? Are we defined by our willingness to go with Jesus into some difficult places? How often do we stress ourselves out for the wrong person’s approval? How frequently do we sweat for the wrong kingdom’s treasure? How often are we willing to give something up to make life better for another? If we are going to die – and we are – will we die for a worthy cause? If we are going to invest our lives in something – and we will – will it be something that matters?

In the end, it’s not about the complications of long division. Jesus proposes a new equation:

Recognition + Consideration = New Life

Recognize or identify that which holds you back from living a full and vibrant life.
Add the cost of holding on and the cost of letting go.
Find your balance as a new future emerges.

In the end, we consider how far each of us can go to keep company with Christ. Do the math. Count the cost. Listen to the Spirit. Follow. Live.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...