Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon for May 31, 2015 / Trinity Sunday

It was in the year King Uzziah died that I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Attending him were mighty seraphim, each having six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. They were calling out to each other,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Heaven’s Armies!
The whole earth is filled with his glory!”
Their voices shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.”

Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”

I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
Isaiah 6:1-8
People often ask me how I got into ministry. How did I know? The question usually comes from new encounters at dinner parties. When guests find out I’m a minister, they start trying to figure it out – at least those who don’t avoid me. Being a minister is a familiar but uncommon occupation, after all. You’d think I’d have a pat answer by now, but the question still makes me stumble. How did I know? Well . . . I just knew. I’ve known since I was 12 years old. Picture a serious, 12-year old boy who hears the voice of God and begins ordering the complete set of John Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible so that he can get an early start on his clerical studies; a boy staying up late and reading theology by flashlight long after his parents have told him to turn out the lights and go to sleep; a boy so caught up in the bliss of biblical studies, he cannot focus on world geography and mathematics. Got the picture? Well, that wasn’t me. I was  loud-mouthed, 12-year-old who teased others relentlessly, watched Three’s Company and the Love Boat faithfully, listened to Toto sing Africa endlessly, and did not have much interest in reading anything. I was an average kid and an average student living in an average American household. That’s the kid God called into ministry. As I grew, I tried on different ideas for occupations.  By my college years, I talked myself into training to be a High School English teacher. But I could not shake the call to be a pastor.

I was ordained to ministry in 1997. It was a big worship service, concluding with me kneeling in front of the sanctuary as 15 or so ministers gathered around me. They were liberal and conservative; Black, White and Asian; male and female; younger and older. The ministers touched me head and shoulders, and prayed, and conferred the time-honored tradition of ordained ministry through the laying on of hands. Since then, I have enjoyed privileges and challenges that many others do not – I have baptized my children. I’ve been at bedsides as people take their final breaths. I have presided over funerals that have broken the heart of the community. I have more crazy wedding stories than I should. I have received death threats. I get to listen to people’s greatest joys and fears. Being a minister comes with a lot of enjoyment and a lot of heartache. It comes with the territory of partnering with people as we learn to become more compassionate, just, and peaceful. For me, it all began that first time I sensed God saying, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people?” – the first time I said, “Here am I. Send me”?

Do you remember the first time you sensed God calling you?  Because you are a minister too! In the United Church of Christ, we believe God calls each and every one of us to build a more compassionate, just, and peaceful world. It doesn’t take a seminary degree or an ordination service. Everyone gets to build God’s world. One of the responsibilities of a church member is to listen to and reflect on life's journeys in ways that help us understand how God prods us in a certain directions. Sometimes that process seems very clear and understandable. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to understand what God wants from us. But make no mistake, in some way or another, God calls each of us: “Whom shall I send?” When have you said, “Here am I. Send me.”

Those words of response actually come from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew it’s just one word: Hineni. We hear it a few times in the Bible. Like in the book of Genesis when God gets the attention of someone by calling out his name: “Abraham.” And Abraham says, “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.” On Abraham’s part, there is no surprise, no hesitation. God speaks, and Abraham responds as if the two of them were just sitting side by side, each fully present to the other.

We also hear the same phrase in the book Exodus. Remember the story of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush? The bush calls out, “Moses, Moses.” And Moses says “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.”  Just imagine what it must be like to hear God calling your name, and to be so familiar with God that it would not be unexpected. Imagine what it must feel like to be so open to the moment that not only are you assured that God exists, but that God knows you by name. Imagine what it must be like to be so at peace that when God’s calls you by name, your calm and comfortable response is, “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.”

Hineni. Each time this word is used, it is a pivotal moment. It’s as if God says. “Listen! Pay attention! Something important is about to happen! Something is about to change, but only if you can open yourself up.” If we are here in the moment, if we are open and receptive, then we can begin to see the hand of the Eternal all about us. “Hineni. Yes. God, I am here.” Our response opens us to the power of a sacred, imminent encounter with a new reality.

Hineni. We hear it in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. We sometimes refer to this story as Isaiah’s commission. Isaiah is probably in the Jewish temple at prayer. In a mystical moment, the heavenly realm penetrates the earthy realm. The Temple is filled with God’s presence, complete with a retinue of angelic creatures who flank God and sing praises. Isaiah falls apart. He knows he is not holy or wholesome enough to see God in all of God’s glory and live to tell about it. One of the angelic creatures takes a hot coal off the Temple incense altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips as a kind of cleansing ritual. Then God speaks. “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”

Isaiah has an instant response. Hineni. “Here I am. Send me.” In other words, “I’m fully present for you. I’m focused on you. I’m ready and willing to hear you, to receive you, to be present with you and for you, and to do your work in the world”

That’s really what it’s all about. Hineni means the ability to be present and receptive to the other. To say, “Here I am,” is one of the most important things we can say to God. It’s also one of the most important things we can say to each other. Too many of us are not really here for each other. I think we are losing the ability to be present and receptive to others. It’s getting worse in our society because of our electronic distractions—our smart phones, our tablets, our laptops, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. These things have us so plugged in that we are paradoxically tuning out. We are not there in the moment like we need to be. This is hard for me to admit, but I’ve noticed it in myself. Just one more e-mail and I’ll listen. Let me answer this text while we talk. I even find it hard to watch television without having some other device by my side. You know what I’m not doing as much? I’m not playing games with my kids to taking out my guitar and singing. I’m not talking to my wife about how our days went as much as I need to be. It is not what I hope for and expect from myself. I’m not as hineni as I need to be – not as fully present and receptive to others.

I can’t be alone in this. I know that far too many of us are telling ourselves we are multi-tasking, when the fact of the matter is, we are distracted, not paying enough attention to anything. We are becoming less present for others; less hineni.

Here is another problem. If we are less present for others, if we are not as ready to receive God, then we are probably less present to the Self as well. Remember, I said each of us has a call – each of us is a minister? We must listen to that which calls us to create a world in which each of us is secure enough to be unafraid to love and be loved. The world will not give us love. It will frighten, tease, confuse, seduce and dominate us. Hineni means we look at the condition of our personal lives and say, “Here am I. I am ready to love fully and be fully loved. I am focused, willing, receptive, and open.”

So how about it? What can you say "yes" to? Can you say Yes to God? To others? To your self? When have you be able to answer God's call with "Hineni. Here am I. I am ready. I am open. Send me”?

Listen closely, because God calls us by name. Listen, because it may be a still small voice. It may be a soft, steady heartbeat in the turmoil of daily events. It is there. When you hear it , know that you are experiencing a moment of grace. It may be God commissioning you to be part of our commitment to justice, freedom and love. God knows you.  God knows us. God calls us. Our response? Well, that’s our chance to be hineni – fully present to God and one another. Here we are. Send us.

Sermon for May 24, 2015 / Pentecost

Pentecost Doxology

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For the Spirit that God has given you does not enslave you in fear; instead, through the Spirit, God has adopted you as children and by that Spirit we cry out, “Abba!” God’s Spirit joins with our spirit to declare that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children, we are heirs as well and coheirs with Christ sharing in Christ’s suffering and sharing in Christ’s glory. Romans 8:14-17(Inclusive)
The Granby Gorge was one of the most dangerous places in town where I grew up. We all knew the stories about kids who dove into the gorge, broke their necks and never walked again. We heard the legends of heedless swimmers who jumped off the cliffs and were 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 that, it involved his foot connecting to my rear end, followed by weeks of hard labor on our family woodpile.

So, , there I stood, at the tender age of 16, toes curled over the edge of the rocks atop the Granby gorge, 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 fabled pantheon of gorge jumpers. I was about to have fame, 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. No more bullies. I would be unique and special, and people would finally appreciate the real me.

I took a deep breath and looked to the left. I loosened my neck as the underlings on the rocks below started to chant. “Jump! Jump! Jump!”  Then I took another breathe, looked to the right, and did a quick double take. There, watching the spectacle from the street, 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, intense, and mysterious about me. I wanted to be like The Most Interesting Man in the World, like in those Dos Equis commercials: “He once won a staring contest with his own reflection. His business card simply says 'I'll Call You.’ Once he ran a marathon because it was ‘on the way.’ 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. 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 cheering at the base of the gorge were not cheering for me. They did not care about me. They just wanted to see me jump. My need to belong provided their entertainment. This happens a lot in my life. I misinterpret some people’s support for care. I forget that some people have veiled motives behind their behavior, just like I do sometimes. 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 I say, “Look at this beautiful fire! Look at the stunning colors! I love red and orange, and the silvery greenish-blue in the flames; those are my favorite colors,” and then grab it, I would find a certain amount of suffering entering my body, right? If I thought about the cause of my pain, I would discover it was the result of having clutched that fire.

Now imagine that we don’t want to get burned, but we keep reaching for the fire. I know it will hurt. I know I will suffer. But I keep doing it anyway. It sounds crazy, but we do it all the time. Buddhists have a word for this kind of suffering. 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 cut a small hole in a coconut, just large enough for a monkey to put its hand in. Next, the hunter tied the coconut to a tree and filled it with something sweet. The monkey smelled the sweetness, squeezed its hand into the coconut, grab the contents, and found that its clenched fist did not fit back 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. Desires . . . attachments . . . cravings . . . they catch us 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 self-made pain. We tend to long for what we do not have, or we wish for our lives to be different than they are; we often fail to fully appreciate how wonderful life actually is.

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

In the reading from Romans, Paul writes about two ways to live. The difference between these two ways means everything. Earlier in the book of Romans, he talks about living, “according to the flesh.” To live according to the flesh is to live with ego at the center. My desire to be loved as an original man of mystery is a self-centered way of life. My impatient anger in the traffic jam is a self-centered thing. It is MY schedule that is supreme and MY destination that is most important. MY ego that needs attention. Everyone else should yield to MY needs. Paul thinks that this ego-driven way of living, this attachment to our obsessions, leads to suffering.

Paul says there is another way to live -- a way to overcome suffering. He calls it “living in the Spirit.” He means, simply, allowing the Spirit of God to lead us. We put God’s interests at the center of our lives. Instead of reaching into flames and getting burned again and again, we allow the fire of the Spirit to come upon us and control our lives. 

When we are captive to the suffering of the past, we turn inward, tempted to wallow in self-absorption. Injustice becomes the only measure of our attention. But the flame of God, the gift of the Spirit, turns us outward to the world, no longer alone. The Spirit is upon those 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 enjoy it without trying to cage it, control it, or own it. They seem to enjoy what many of us long for: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, and security.

I once read a story about a church deacon who decided she would serve God by taking the youth group to visit a retirement home. Once a month the youth group went to the retirement home and put on a little worship service for the people who lived there. One day, as the young people led worship, a resident 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. 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 the hall and entered the third room. She saw the gentleman in bed, close to death. She did not know what to do. Those moments can feel so awkward. Then, instinctively, led by the Spirit, she held his hand and said a prayer. And when she said “Amen,” the man squeezed her hand. The deacon was so moved by that squeeze, she began to weep. She needed 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.’”

There is 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 a hand and be Jesus for somebody. Our communities are waiting for us to be aware of our cravings, to learn how to stop living for ourselves and to be led by the Spirit of God. They are waiting for us to awaken them to the holiness and giftedness around us. 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 recognize failure and accept grace. We have shared in the suffering. Now it is time to live in the Spirit and allow God to transform the world by transforming us.

May the breath of God stream within you.
May the wind of renew you.
May the flame of God invigorate you.
May the Spirit of God embolden you to confidence into this day.
Let us go out in the power of that Spirit
to live lives like Jesus,
to cheer and restore  those are broken and forsaken.
The spirit is blowing. The future is waiting. Amen.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...