Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon for November 27, 2011, Advent 1

What Are You Waiting For?

As we prepare our hearts for Advent, I invite you to listen to the Christmas Story.
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar, in August, that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing). As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”
The Christian Century magazine published that commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. In the article, the author, Michael Martin, asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?

The author suggests that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," or, possibly, the "Mercantile Messiah Motif."

Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away, and is only mentioned once a year. Actually, all mature people know that he doesn’t really exist; but he’s a convenient excuse for celebration.

The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone; he just lies there and looks innocent. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back on the shelf when the New Year begins.

The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about buying. The advertisements say “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else, and you will be saved.”

The challenge with Santa Christ, the Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never transform anyone. They don’t reveal much about God. They don’t bring the lasting hope, love, joy, and peace the world needs. Jeremiah longed for a different Savior. Jeremiah knew that the people needed to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that did not reveal the true nature of God. He proclaimed a costly coming of the Messiah. God says, “The day will come, says the Lord, when I will do for Israel and Judah all the good things I have promised them. In those days and at that time I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. In that day Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this will be its name ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’” Jeremiah 33:14-16

I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Mark. The disciples ask about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says,
“At that time, after the anguish of those days,
the sun will be darkened,
the moon will give no light,
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. Now learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches bud and its leaves begin to sprout, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that his return is very near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert! The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!” Mark 13:24-37
Stop for a minute with me and think about it. What does it mean when Jesus says to us that there is a day coming when the Son of Man will come to us in a cloud with power and great glory? What can these words mean in the midst of a busy life, a hectic life, a crazy life?
. . . a life where our kids expect to be driven here and there and ask for things that we may not be able to afford?
. . . a life where our employers expect us to work overtime,
. . . and our clubs, our church, and our sports teams ask for hours we don’t have?
What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present - what do they mean when we are struggling to live one day at a time - when we are trying to be all things to all to many people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue throughout the world; that crime and starvation and terrorism and war and earthquakes and floods abound and indeed seen to be increasing?

To me, they mean that I should rejoice, that I should arise and watch and pray.

The promise of Christ is that the future is not going to be like the present. On that day, evil will perish and that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us – a heaven and earth of everlasting peace and justice, joy and love. Sometimes I think, “What are you waiting for, Jesus? I am ready now. We need your loving justice. We need a new start. We need you to come and validate the work we do to make the world a more compassionate and human place.”

It can be easy to get so caught up in the worries of life that we are unprepared for the coming of the Savior. Let me ask you, what one or two things do you tend to be so focused on that lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, I was sure I was going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. As children, we asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age. By mistake or intention, someone launches their weapons, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Maybe I worried too much, but that anxiety provided the backdrop to much of my childhood and adolescent years.

Our worries may not be on a global scale. The toughest distractions are the personal ones. For instance, sometimes I become so focused on my work, I tend to lose sight of my place in the big picture. I can spend hours before the computer, and then rush around doing visits and getting ready for meetings and then going to them - that I forget what it is that I am proclaiming. I can miss my family’s joys and what it is God is actually doing all around me.

What about you? Do you ever feel lost in today -- lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate the wonderful things happening around you? Do you ever lose focus on what message your words and work are sending to others?

The world is filled with problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. Jesus tells us that things like warfare, floods, famine, and our crumbling creation are signs that point toward a better future. Jesus reminds us that personal worries can be more distracting problems around the planet. Those personal events are dangerous because they are subtle and sneaky. All of the sudden we're trapped, feeling sorry for ourselves, working harder, focusing on one part of life, that we miss the bigger picture.

That’s why Jesus tells us to be alert. To watch. To pray. To not be so caught up in the everyday things that we fail to look around and see the presence of God’s Reign with all its hope and promise.

Jeremiah and Jesus tell us about the signs of the coming of the kingdom so that we might ready ourselves for it. A righteous Branch has sprouted from David's line; and he will do what is just and right in the land. Look, listen, and prepare for Jesus to come. What are you waiting for? Let’s spend this Advent in hope, in righteousness and in love, knowing that just as so many of promises of God were fulfilled at the birth of Christ, so many more will be fulfilled as we watch, as we wait, and as we participate in God’s work. Rejoice. Watch. Pray. Arise.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sermon for November 20, 2011, Thanksgiving Sunday

Is Your Cornucopia Half Empty or Half Full?

In economics, there are some people called Cornucopians. A Cornucopian believes that continued progress and provision of material items for humankind can be met by continuing advances in technology. In other words, a Cornucopian believes there is enough matter and energy and human innovation on the Earth to provide for the estimated peak population of about 9.2 billion in 2075. They are definitely the optimists of the economic world. We could say that when they look at the world, their cornucopia is half full.

There are other economists whose cornucopias are half empty. Consider Nobel Laureat economist John Cairns Jr. He thinks we’ve reached an ecological tipping point where the earth’s resources can no longer sustain the population. In his future world, Cairns assumes:
  • No major remedial measures will be taken to reduce greenhouse gases until climate change is beyond human control.
  • The human population will not be stabilized by social action but will be by natural, limiting factors like starvation and disease.
  • Present resource wars will continue until at least 2015, using precious resources to continue fighting rather than sharing resources.
  • The environmental refugee problem will become severe, perhaps unmanageable, because of both inaction on climate change and inadequate prior planning.
  • A pandemic disease that disrupts global society for at least six months will probably disrupt human society.

Where do I stand on all of this? Well, I once read something from someone, somewhere:
Question: "Do you see your glass as half empty or half full?"
Answer: "I'm just happy to have a glass."
That's my sentiment exactly. This Thanksgiving, is my cornucopia half empty or half full? Honestly, I’m just happy to have a cornucopia at all right now My family has packed, moved, and unpacked twice in order to get to Maryland. In the process, Chris and I got worn out by the “clutter” of life. Stuff fills space, gets forgotten and a couple moves later we wonder: “Why did we get all this stuff?” I am blessed with a home in a safe neighborhood with plenty of room to fill, a car and money to fuel it, health benefits, food on my table, happiness and contentment. I don’t have all that I want. But I have enough. More than enough! Most of us throw away food and still there are people in our own towns who often go without food over the entire day. It breaks my heart.

There are more than 37 million people in this country who are hungry and food insecure. According to Marian Wright Edelman, right here in the United States, almost 1 in 4 children don’t know when they will have their next meal. Hunger isn't something they just think about during the holiday season. They live it every day. For many people, Thanksgiving dinner is the largest meal of the year — and by the time they’ve finished that last piece of pie, their stomachs are so full they’ll be physically uncomfortable. But, the UCC’s Mission:1 initiative, our canned food drives, and other pleas for donations this month are a reminder that for too many families, Thanksgiving will be like any other meal: not a time of plenty but a time of want. Several years ago, the Children’s Defense Fund’s pro bono advertising partner created a campaign that updated the moving words of Langston Hughes’s poem “God to Hungry Child”:
Hungry child,
I did not make this world for you.
You didn’t buy stock in my corporation.
You didn’t invest in my mutual fund.
Where were you when my company went public?
I made the world for the rich
And the will–be–rich
And the have–always–been rich.
Not for you,
Hungry child.
As we are giving thanks to God for all our blessings this season, is that really the message God wants us to give to America’s hungry millions?

Actually, from the perspective of national politics, I think it is. Have you been paying attention to the work of Congress’ Super Committee? The Super Committee is supposed to come up with a set of recommendations to reduce the national deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Their deadline is Thanksgiving. And, like everything in Congress right now, the Super Committee is at a stalemate between raising revenue and cutting spending. Many rich Democrats don’t want to give up government safety net programs. Many rich Republicans don’t want to increase corporate taxes. Take, for example, the recent remarks by House Speaker John Boehner who said, "Job creators in America basically are on strike." Businesses, Boehner said, have been, “antagonized by a government that favors bureaucrats over market-based solutions. They've been demoralized by a government that causes despair . . .” Yet again, we see that when the poor take from the rich, it’s called class warfare. When the rich take from the poor, it’s called an economic plan.

The problem with Boehner's speech is that corporations are doing very well. New figures indicate that corporate profits accounted for 14 percent of the total national income in 2010, the highest proportion ever recorded. The previous peak, of 13.6 percent, was set in 1942 when the need for war materials filled the order books of companies.

I have to admit, I used to think the same way. I had a “cornucopia-half-full” view of the world, I used to think that unlimited economic growth was possible if the government would get out of the way of entrepreneurial business. I didn’t matter that such growth might cause a greater rift between the rich and the poor. I used to wonder why government always taxes business innovators and tries to redistribute their wealth. Why should those who did not earn wealth get a share of someone else's? And why should government be involved in giving charity or offering entitlement programs? It’s just a way to hijack wealth and give it to those who don’t deserve it.

One day I looked around and realized that public good doesn’t automatically flow from private virtue. Just because a person is a moral, upright citizen does not mean he or she will serve the cause of justice. Good people do not always challenge the status quo. Moral people to not always take that which is legal and make it more ethical. Upright people do not always speak truth to power or take personal action against evil.

That is what our Scriptures teach us to do, though. Scripture encourage us to look at the world through the eyes of the poor. Consider these words from the Law of Moses. God says:
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 23:6-9)
Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah:
Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
The Law of Moses and the Hebrew Prophets clearly called for an institutional way of providing for the poor that did not depend on the good will of any individual. Not only was individual generosity encouraged. As a matter of law, part of everyone's produce or income was to be set aside to aid the poor. The idea is that a poor person does not have to rely on a rich individual for a handout. If I am poor, and I receive charity from an individual, then that person has more power over me. I am now beholden to another. I must abandon my dignity and give away my power in order to eat. When everyone contributes to giving food and justice to those in need, we can protect the worth and dignity of all. We all become beholden to our community, not to the whims of any one individual. As the Jewish Talmud says, “The world is dark for anyone who depends on the table of others.”

I am now at a point in my life where I'm tired of hearing this epic cop-out on the part of Christians who say "I wonder if Jesus meant for the government to feed the poor, or for us to voluntarily give to make sure all the poor people have food. Provision and care for the sick, the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the displaced, the marginalized -- is an individual mandate. Human institutions of government have no business worrying about such things.”

Jesus could not have been clearer as to the things which mattered most to him. The reign of Christ comes to fulfill the words of the Law and the Prophets. Nowhere does he exempt any human institution from his message. We finally come to today’s scripture reading from Matthew 25:31-46:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Jesus' commands to love and care for others were given as universals, without exempting any human organizations or institutions. Individual or private charity can never be enough or do enough. Yes, government programs are inefficient and expensive. But no other organization can relieve human suffering on such a wide scale. The need is great, and the need is growing.

Yes, we are individually held to account for our individual one-on-one acts of charity or the lack thereof, but we are also held to account for how the actions we take influence our society in its treatment of the "least of these.” No more excuses. Dedication to the poor and disadvantaged is a critical part of Christian social teaching, which ceaselessly invites the Christian community to overcome every form of exploitation and oppression. It is a question not only of alleviating the most serious and urgent needs through individual actions here and there, but of uncovering the roots of evil and proposing initiatives to make social, political and economic structures more just and humane.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. When all the nations gather within the reign of Christ, do you really want to hear Jesus say, “I was out of work, and you told me to get a job. I was homeless and you called me dirty. I was destitute, and you said unto me, ‘Helping you would only encourage a big government nanny state. Be patient, for surely my riches will trickle down unto you’ ”?

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we remember that to know God is to do justice. We remember that compassion and justice are companions, not choices. We find ways to help our brothers and sisters not depend on the table of others but rather to eat of their own so that both their bodies and minds may be at ease, and they may live with dignity. Being self-sufficient while also connected to a community is one of the highest forms of righteous living. When we do it unto the least, we do it unto Christ.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sermon for November 13, 2011

Worship and Mission: Meeting Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 7, 2011

Sermon for November 6, 2011

Worship and Mission: A Vision

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

How would you measure our congregation’s spiritual impact? Do we clearly demonstrate our church covenants in compelling ways? Is there an irresistible quality about us? Sometimes I think we have low expectations of what we can be spiritually. Sometimes we forget that there is are God-sized plans for us.

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

Here’s the challenge. People come up to me and say, “Pastor Matt, wouldn’t it be great if our church had a way to reach out to shut-ins or college-age kids, or unchurched youth, or people who are down on their luck, or those who are trying to explore and understand their sexual identity? And we could really use a way to greet and follow up on visitors, and reach out to new potential members. We could also use more adult Bible studies and new volunteer opportunities to engage our membership.” Many of you have great ideas for how to reach out with God’s love . . . to which my response is, “That’s a great idea! Go ahead and start your dream ministry, and I will do what I can to support you.” And the great, God-sized ideas remain a dream.

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

At those moments, I find it helpful to look at the life of Solomon. Solomon was heir to the throne of King David, and responsible for building a Temple to God in Jerusalem. Listen to this story from the book of 1 Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and married one of his daughters. He brought her to live in the City of David until he could finish building his palace and the Temple of the Lord and the wall around the city. At that time the people of Israel sacrificed their offerings at local places of worship, for a temple honoring the name of the Lord had not yet been built.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solomon worshiped. Solomon’s response to God’s goodness and generosity is to publicly praise God. Unbridled worship is what one does when one experiences the grace of God.

Healthy churches have an experiential quality about them. They use their varieties of gifts to live out the good news. So, if you feel like God is leading you into a specific form of outreach through this church, don’t be afraid. The ministerial staff and I are actually praying for it to happen. Amy, Nae, Sue and I want everything we do as a church to reflect a commitment to worship and mission. We hear the call, we respond to God’s aims, and we respond in worship. And I’m not just talking about Sunday mornings. We want everything we do as a church to be infused with mission and worship: every gathering, every board and committee meeting, and even our office work. Everything.

It is time for us, at CCC, to reclaim our place as the church that's known for it’s compassionate, prayerful response to the world around us. We allowed ourselves to become inward looking over the past few years. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not who God called us to be. It may have been necessary to do all that organizational introspection, but it’s not what we were put here for.

Perhaps you feel God calling you to begin a neighborhood support group, but every time you think about it, you get a nervous, queasy feeling. You feel like you don’t know how to talk about your faith to other people. Maybe you have felt the Spirit nudging you to get involved in a social justice issue, but you are afraid of the consequences. Maybe you have a great new of way of connecting church members to small groups. Do it! I want this church to be a place where you are resourced to fulfill your mission. I’m not going to do it all for you. God already has a big list of things for me to do right now. If God has given you vision for a way to reach out, then I’m guessing that God wants you to do something about it. Be strong and courageous, and follow up on it. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church this need to be.

Here’s what I recommend:

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

Pray and ask what God wants from your life. Ask specifically, because I believe God will answer specifically.

If you see God moving in your life, if you hear God speaking to you, or of you feel God calling you for a specific purpose, don’t do anything. As someone once said, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Before you plunge in, sit on it for two weeks. If, after a couple weeks, you are still thinking about what God would like to do through you, or if you need help discerning what God is saying, make an appointment to come talk with me or Amy and we will listen together

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

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

Be the church that’s not afraid of change. Be the church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join in. It’s a church where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . . the church that sends adds value to the lives of other people.

Be the church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained.

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...