Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon for March 26, 2017

Who do you say I am?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
“Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”
Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” Then he sternly warned the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:1-20

A man was looking for a job and he noticed that there was an opening at the local zoo. He asked about the job and found that the zoo had a very unusual position to fill. Apparently, their gorilla had died, and until they could get a new one, they needed someone to dress up in a gorilla suit and act like a gorilla for a few days. The man was to just sit, eat, and sleep. His identity would be kept a secret, of course. Thanks to a very fine gorilla suit, no one would know the difference. The man tried on the suit and sure enough, he looked just like a gorilla. They led him to the cage; he took a position at the back of the cage and pretended to sleep. But after a while he got tired of sitting, so he walked around a bit, jumped up and down, and tried a few gorilla noises. The people who were watching him seemed to really like that. When he would move or jump around, they would clap, and cheer. So he jumped around some more and tried climbing a tree. That seemed to really get the crowd excited. They cheered some more. Playing to the crowd, he grabbed a vine and swung from one end of the cage to the other. The people loved it. Wow, this is great, he thought. He swung higher and the crowd grew bigger. He continued to swing on the vine, and all of the sudden the vine broke. He swung up and out of the cage, landing in the lion’s cage that was next door. The man panicked. There was a huge lion twenty feet away, and it looked very hungry. So, the man in the gorilla suit started to jump up and down, screaming and yelling, “Help! Help! Get me out of here! I’m not really a gorilla. I’m a man in a gorilla suit. Heeelllp!” The lion quickly pounced on the man, held him down and said, “Will you shut up! You’re going to get us both fired.”

Sooner or later we all get found out. It’s only a matter of time before who we are becomes obvious to everyone. Why is it that we find it difficult to be who we really are? Sometimes I wonder if we are ashamed. Shame is an experience of the eyes. If I were to trip and fall flat on my face in the privacy of my home I would not feel ashamed. If I fell flat on my face in front of you all, I would be embarrassed. Shame is a dreaded, deep-seated, long-held terror come true; what we have feared has actually happened. We’ve been found out. We are frauds in a gorilla suit. The dark secrets of our lives have been exposed: compulsive behaviors, hidden struggles the humiliation of being abused, of being taken advantage of in a way that takes the light out of our humanity. Who we are and what we do comes into the light and makes us vulnerable to others’ opinions.

We tend to blame wounds to our self-image for most of the pain in our lives. We were called lazy when we forgot to make our beds, ugly when we failed to get a date, stupid when we did not excel in school. Each comment attacked our worth. We felt exposed and undesirable, and then we began to hate whatever part of us caused the pain. If it’s our nose, then we will hate our face; if it’s our voice then we will whisper; if it is our past then we will hide it away and run the opposite direction.

Many of us have a fear that if our undesirable secret is revealed, we will never be enjoyed. No one will want us. There's a scene in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest where he's telling the story of how the people in his book move from making telephone calls to video calls. A strange self-awareness develops as the people go from listening to one another, to seeing one another, especially seeing their own face reflected in the video calls. They don't like the way they look. So they begin creating masks for themselves. David Foster Wallace writes:

“… most consumers were now using masks so undeniably better looking on videophones than their real faces were in person, transmitting to one another such horrendously skewed and enhanced masked images of themselves that enormous psychosocial stress began to result, large numbers...suddenly reluctant to leave home and interface personally with people who they feared would seeing them in person suffer...the same illusion shattering aesthetic disappointment that women who always wear makeup give people the first time they ever see them without makeup.

Why is it that we're drawn to share only the beautiful, successful parts of our lives online? Because we don't trust that anyone can handle the reality of our lives, with all its struggles and imperfections.

Does shame have to govern our lives? Today we heard a scripture in which Jesus asks an identity question. Who do you say I am? I listened to that question, and began to wonder, do we take time to really know one another, or do we hide, ashamed what will happen if someone gets to know the REAL you? Look around you today. Each person here has a story – heartaches, wounds, summits of great success and valleys of defeat. There are stories of victory, stories of rejection, and stories of trying to make it through each day, one day at a time. Everyone here has done something that he or she has regretted – each of us has times when we wish we could turn back the clock and get a do over.

Imagine yourself in the scene from today’s Gospel reading. You are on the road between Jerusalem and Galilee with Jesus and the disciples. Peter is leading the way, as usual. You are bunched together with the followers of Jesus. Jesus is a little way behind the group, walking by himself. You decide to drop back and walk with him for a while. You slow your pace, and soon you and Jesus are walking side by side. Take time to notice what Jesus looks like to you. What do you think his voice might sound like? What color are his eyes? What does he wear? What does he smell like? What would you want to say to him?

As you walk along, Jesus speaks. He calls you by name and asks what’s on your mind. You remember a prior conversation between Jesus and the disciples when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say I am?” You decide to ask the same question of Jesus. Even though it sounds strange, you ask it anyway. “Jesus, who do you say I am?”

Imagine what Jesus looks like when he smiles at you. He says, “That’s an excellent question. Listen very carefully to my answer. All that I am about to say is true. I want you to pay special attention to the words I use to describe you – the ones you really like as well as those you have trouble believing. Remember, every word I say is true of you. Now listen with your heart, as well as with your mind and ears.

You are chosen and dearly loved by God.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
You are God’s own, prized and treasured by God.
You are my friend.
You are forgiven – past, present, and future.
You are and always will be held in God’s love.
You are a temple of God – God dwells within you.
You are a new creation – a new person.
You are God’s coworker.
You are God’s masterpiece, unique in the entire world.
You are flawless.
You are the chosen one of God.
You belong to God and God belongs to you.
You are a source of delight to God.

I did not make these affirmations up. They are not my inventions. They are the words of the Bible. In all my studies of the Bible, I have never seen Christ say, “You are fat and ugly and people hate you.” I have never heard Jesus say, “God thinks your lazy, and stupid and you have a big nose,” or, “You will never amount to anything.” You may have heard those things, but never from the mouth of Jesus. What do you think? Is it difficult to believe that the breathtaking things Jesus said are true about you?

You may have been taught that you have to meet certain standards in order to feel good about yourself. Jesus says something different. You are completely forgiven and fully pleasing to God, and you no longer have to fear failure.

You may have been taught that you must have the approval of others to feel good about yourself. Jesus says something different. You are totally accepted by God. You no longer have to fear rejection.

You may have been taught that those who fail are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished. Jesus says something different. You are deeply loved by God. You no longer have to fear punishment, and you do not need to punish others.

You may have been taught that you are what you are – you cannot change – you are hopeless. Jesus says something different. You have been made brand new and complete in Christ. You no longer need to experience the pain of shame.

Remember. Remember. You are a source of delight to God, and God counts it a blessing to have you around.

Jeannie Oestreicher & Larry Warner, Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry (El Cajon: Youth Specialties, 2006).
Robert McGee, The Search for Significance (Houston: Rapha, 1990).
Rick Marshall: Life Connections (Claremont: P&F Publications, 2004).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sermon for March 19, 2017

Orienteering 100: Mitzvah
Hillel said: The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more worry; the more servants, the more thievery. The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more charity, the more peace. Pirke Avot 2:8
Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” Matthew 9:35-38

 Let’s do a little compassion exercise together. Participate as fully as you feel you are able to. I invite you to become aware of yourself: Be aware of your own body and how you feel at this moment, aware of the people that sit near you, aware of this building, its particular smells and sounds, and if it helps you to become more aware I invite you to close your eyes.

I’m going to give to you a series of people and situations that I want you to feel in your body. I’ll invite you to say a phrase in the quietness of your own mind, after each of these situations:

Think about Aleppo, Syria. An article in the New Yorker told the story of Omar Dawood who was sleeping in a second-floor bedroom in eastern Aleppo with his wife and three children when a rocket hit their building. Dawood and his family remained trapped until friends climbed up the rubble and helped them out of a window. No one from the apartment above Dawood’s survived.  “It was a smog of dust. If we had stayed inside for five more minutes, we would have suffocated,” Dawood said. “I have been close to death so many times,” he said. “I have outlived my own life. I should have died six years ago, when the regime was shooting us with bullets, and we were bare-chested in front of them, just shouting for our freedom, six years more than we were meant to live—not just me but all other Syrians who live around here. Say to yourself, “Like me, people in Aleppo also know deep sadness and fear.”

Imagine another situation: Maria is a 15 year old who lives in Honduras where she works 12 hour days without any overtime pay. She is paid 50 cents an hour to make jeans, unprotected from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Maria is trying to avoid suffering in her life.”

Think about a politician with whom you have very different views. Say, “Just like me, he or she is human and learning about life.”

Think about a friend, a family member, or a colleague with whom you find yourself in conflict. It could be a recent conflict or a past argument. With that person in mind say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking joy and meaning in life.”

Think about the person next to you, either left or right, front or back, and with your focus on that person say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking happiness in life.”

I wonder for whom is it easier to feel compassion -- those farther away from us or those closest to us? Even within our own church family, so many people are suffering. It seems that there’s not enough room in the world to hold all the pain we experience. Each of us holds the pain of the world in our bodies, just as Jesus held the suffering of the world in his body.

As we think about compassion, there’s is a word from the Jewish Tradition that I’d like to explore today. The word is mitzvah. Mitzvah is a Hebrew word, usually defined as a commandment, a good deed or religious act. A mitzvah is an act of goodness or religious observance. However, mitzvah is much more than that. Mitzvah means human capacity. Mitzvah is how you feel when your sick kid wakes up in the middle of the night and you have to get up the next morning to go to work. You take care of your child, no matter how tired you are. We all need mitzvah in our lives, or life becomes shallow. We want to be there for the people we love. We hold the needs of the world in our bodies. Instead of offering pity or charity, we offer a mitzvah. We say, “I am present, I am fully here, how can I use my life and gifts to help you be whole?”

I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church. I’d been there for about a year when I met Jennifer, a 17-year old mom with a baby girl. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors around town said the boyfriend was abusive. Chris, my wife, invited Jen to a mother’s group to get her out of the house and meet some people in the community. That afternoon, when I came home from work, Jen was sitting at our kitchen table with Chris. Jen decided to leave her boyfriend who was verbally and emotionally brutal. She was like a prisoner in her own house and she wanted out. Since she was still 17 and a minor, her decision posed some unique challenges. Jen quickly learned how to navigate “the system”: social services, WIC, welfare, and family court. We gave her grocery money to help her get by. Chris watched her baby for free. The church deacons bought Christmas gifts for Jen and her baby. Family Court eventually awarded her full custody. When she wasn’t living with a family member, she and her baby stayed at a meager motel room, funded by Social Services.

After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. She would have rather lived with the abuse than have tolerated the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund what we considered a reckless path. When we heard she moved back in with her boyfriend, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was it a mitzvah? Was Jen ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing?

Pity or empowerment? I also learned the difference from Bart. One Sunday morning, right before the beginning of worship, a mom pulled me aside and told me that her stepson Bart had tried to kill himself again by jumping off a three story building. Two weeks later I visited Bart at a hospital in Buffalo, right after the last of his extensive reconstructive surgeries. Bart was a handsome, 22-year old whose eyes told the whole story. He was broken. His body was crushed. His emotions were tormented by depression and loneliness. His spiritual life was non-existent. As it turned out, Bart had not tried to kill himself. He was running away from a drug deal gone bad, and tried to leap off the roof to get away. In these situations, there is really nothing to say. I can’t lecture the guy on his bad decisions. He has family for that. No need to heap guilt or to be manipulative. I wanted him to know that God wants him to know a sense of belonging, total love, and full acceptance. What do we do when we’re moved with compassion but we don’t know how to show it? What do we do when we get one chance to say the right thing, and we end up just sitting silently listening, trying to be a friend, trying to how some understanding? Could Bart be empowered to change his life? To be a better person? A healthier member of our community?

Jesus knew about mitzvah. He could hold the needs of the world in his body, and say, “Here I am. I am present, I am fully here. How can I use my life and gifts to help you be whole?” He had a way of seeing potential in people: Street women, tax collectors, lepers, and those marginalized by society. Jesus saw value in each of them. There is an important phrase in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus, “had compassion on them.” We hear it again and again. Jesus offered life with new possibilities. Can I do that? Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving some of that which I value?

I’ve learned something important through those two situations. I had not gone on my own inner journey. I had not worked out why I wanted to help. I had not been honest about my own needs and motives before I offered to fix someone else’s mess. So the compassion I offered was more like pity. Whether it helps the other or not, offering pity makes me feel better, but it only addresses symptoms, not causes. Compassion is much more profound if we can offer a mitzvah out of a deep inner mindfulness. “Here I am. I am present, I am fully here. How can I use my life and gifts to help you be whole?”

Consider what your faces of compassion are. Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be tough love. Compassion can be receptive and listening, or it can be active and practical, or anywhere on that spectrum. Compassion can be deeply patient, or recklessly impatient. Compassion can be sitting with someone, or to taking someone’s hand and leading. Compassion can be neat and clear. Compassion can be messy and clumsy. Above all else, compassion is about presence. How do you show it?

Truth be told, this is really my stewardship sermon. As we take time to consider our financial giving to CCC, I hope our giving can be a mitzvah. I hope we can give out of compassion. Sometimes the biggest stumbling block for people is that the church, in its hour of prosperity, does so little to alleviate the suffering of the world. We are trying to change that here. I hope you know that as you give your time, talents, and treasure to this church, as you learn about your gifts and how to practice spiritual activism, you empower us to do great things. Yes, we pay staff, operate and upkeep our buildings, pay utilities, mow the grass and pay for air conditioning. We also educate our children in values like love, social justice, faith, and service. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We serve our community and extend our hospitality. We try to make the world a healthier place, a more loving place, a more equitable place. Your gifts, given with compassion, empower CCC to give back to you – to help you to be a healthier parent, a better partner, a compassionate member of the community, a good friend, a healing child of God. Our giving is a mitzvah. It helps us realize that in Christ there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one nature, one flesh one grief, one hope. We are here, with each other, using our lives and our gifts to empower one another.

I know, we worry about money. We think of all the things we can’t do. Ancient Rabbis taught that many of the things we spend much of our lives attempting to acquire come with a price tag. We hear it in our reading from Pirke Avot: the more possessions, the more worry. We often assume that money, status and pleasure will provide us with happiness. These blessings will not last beyond the grave — and may very well take us there much sooner.

The more compassion, the more peace. Peace comes when we are fully engaged in our community and world.  Peace comes when we share what we have with others who are in need.  Peace comes when we know who we are – one of God’s children who knows sadness and fear; one of God’s children who wants to avoid suffering and find happiness; one of God’s children who is learning about life and trying to find joy and meaning. We do not have to worry about compassion. It exists in abundance. Wake up to it. Reach out and share it. Live it. Become it. Hold it in your body. When we can, we will be part of the transformation of the world through service, justice and compassion.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sermon for March 12, 2017

The World Needs our Feet

Here are some of my favorite bumper stickers . . .
· I’m not gaining weight, I’m retaining food!.
· I brake for no apparent reason.
· Forget about World Peace. Visualize using your turn signal.
· He who laughs last, thinks slowest.
· Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math.
· Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
· I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you.
· Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let him sleep.
· Hard work pays off in the future. But laziness pays off right now.
· It’s lonely at the top, but you eat better.
· Always remember you’re unique, just like everyone else.
· There are 3 kinds of people: those who can count & those who can’t.
· Do you follow Jesus this close?

Some bumper stickers are funny, some are informative, some make you think, others make you mad. In any case, they’re usually a reflection of direction the person in life is traveling. When it comes to bumper stickers, the words on the outside of a car are often an indicator of the kind of person on the inside of the car. In the same way, the words that come out of our mouths are often an indicator of what kind of person we are in the inside.

From the Bible’s point of view, our feet are the indicators of what we believe. I know it sounds weird, but listen to how the Apostle Paul puts it in the book of Romans

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. ”But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!” Romans 10:9-15

The world needs our feet. I need to tell you, I’m surprised I’m even saying this to you, because I think feet are disgusting. I definitely have a foot hang up–a piece of information, which, is probably more than you wanted to know about me. I can think of several words to describe these appendages on the ends of my legs. The words ugly, hairy, smelly and grungy are a few that I would choose. But despite their flaws, the world needs our feet.  Paul is quite clear on this in Romans.

“ . . . how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent?

Our feet to carry us to the grieving and hurting, the needy and lonely, the friendless, prisoners, the poor and oppressed, anyone who needs to experience healing transformation Our feet bring us into contact with those who need to know how God’s grace and our faith can make a difference in life. So, the world needs our feet. There are, however, some problems with this. First and foremost, I don’t want to my feet to bring me into contact with friendless, with prisoners, with the poor and oppressed. I would rather my feet bring me to my comfy chair while I relax and read a good book. I would rather have my feet bring me somewhere where I don’t have to think about the pain and suffering in the world. Life is easier if I let my feet lead me to places where I can deny the reality the world is filled with pain.

And anyway, if I were to go to the suffering and poor in spirit, I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know what to say. What in the world am I actually going to say or do once my feet carry me to the difficult places of life?

And there’s another problem --The term “congregational evangelist” sounds like a contradiction. Maybe we should let the Baptists, Nazarenes, and Pentacostals put the gospel shoes on their feet. Anyway, if God has already predestined everything, as our Puritan ancestors taught, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

All of this assumes we have some good news to share. Let’s face it, many of us have a hard time talking about the gospel as clearly and succinctly as our evangelical siblings. Sophisticated, well-educated Christians like us want to say that the gospel is too complex to reduce to two or three sentences. We’ll spend thirty minutes on caveats and qualifications. We’ll try to convince others why we are not the kind of Christian that is intolerant and inhospitable before we even dare say something simple and straightforward about what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We’ll tweak our language and justify the details before answering the question: what is the good news?

I am not interested in my feet bring me door to door, spreading belief in a story about a resuscitated corpse that somehow is still walking the city streets today, scaring people into proper behavior. Instead of hellfire and damnation, the good news from places like CCC is the realm of God, where compassion rules, is here now. The  good news is there are places like CCC where we try to put self-interest in the service of radical love. Following Jesus does not simply mean repeating what Jesus said. It involves taking the stories and principles of Jesus and of the movement founded in his name and into new and challenging contexts. It means speaking words of truth to brokers of power who advance unholy agendas. It means being active and visible in the face of bigotry and sexism. It means embracing the blessings and challenges of radical hospitality as we worship with marginalized communities. It means continuing our dedication to safe, nurturing space for LGBTQ+ persons. I’m not talking about flinging wide the doors of the church and saying, “We are nice people, and we have the lawn signs to prove it. Won’t you come and check us out?” The Scripture says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Isaiah actually writes this: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:7, NIV). The world needs our feet. They are beautiful feet.
It’s important to understand that in Biblical times they didn’t have email or phones. In order for leaders to relay messages to their hearers they sent messengers. Often times the messenger would travel by foot for miles to get the message to his hearer. The ancient Greek myth of Phidippides is an example. In 490 B.C. Persia’s fleet of 600 ships loomed off the Greek Shores not far from Athens. According to legend, the general of the Athenian troops sent his fastest runner, Phidippides to ask for help from Sparta. Phidippides ran for two days and two nights to reach Sparta, about 140 miles away. He gave the message to the Spartans. The Spartans agreed to send troops, but not until after their religious festival was completed in nine days. Phidippides ran back to Athens, but the general couldn’t wait that long, so he ordered his troops to advance on the Persians. The Persian army was no match for the Athenians and 6,400 Persians were slain. The general then ordered Phidippides back to Marathon to spread the good news. The distance between marathon and Athens was approximately 25 miles. Phidippides made the distance, managed to gasp “Rejoice!” before he collapsed and died. That reminds me of another bumper sticker: “Walk, don’t run.”

You can imagine what people and communities would be thinking when word got out a messenger was bringing word to them? Their hearts would pound not knowing if the news was going to be tragic or good. When the news was good, the messenger became the most popular person around. People would say the messenger’s feet were beautiful. Now the word beautiful here does not mean lovely in appearance—thank goodness. It means “in time” or “timely”. It was as if the people were saying, “your feet brought you just when I needed to hear something good.”

There are people all around us in desperate need of some Good News. They are going through a trying time. They don’t need to hear “suck it up buttercup” or “hang in there” or “our church has great music.” They need to experience Good News. Jesus shows us just how much God loves us and cares for us. Sin and death are defeated, here and now. As much as I resist going to those tough places, I love it when I hear someone say, “Your feet brought you just when I needed to hear something good.” Where our feet bring us shows the condition of our heart. How you walk and where you walk to is an indication of the health of your relationship with God.

The desires of our hearts, the words of our mouths, and the actions of our hands and feet are all connected. Our heart gives us the will to go. Our feet respond and bring us. Our mouths speak the Good News and our hands do the work of compassionate justice. An active heart leads to an active mouth, which also shows itself in active feet. And active feet are beautiful to God. Or, to quote another bumper sticker:
Dance With Your Heart and Your Feet Will Follow!

I find that there is a prayer that God always answers. I will say, “God, lead me to someone who needs to know your love today.” I have prayed that prayer, and then promptly forgotten what I said. At some point in the day, usually my most hectic day, someone will call – someone who is hurting and needs help. At that point I have a decision, be patient with the interruption and take time to listen, or brush the person off. Even before I became a minister, I would pray, “God, lead me to someone who needs to know your love today,” and people would bare their souls to me in the strangest of places. Once I was in a restaurant, ready to order my dinner. The server came and said, “Hi, I’m Ashley. How are you all?” “Fine, how are you?” I asked. I didn’t really mean it. It’s just what you say, right? Before I knew what was happening, Ashley was sitting in our booth, telling my family and me about all her problems at work. I’m thinking to myself, “Can I just order my pizza now?” But I prayed that God would help me walk to the places and people who need to know God’s love. I have had the same thing happen at the grocery store check out line and school events. It even happened on my honeymoon. Chris and I became acquainted with an older couple who were vacationing in Bermuda at the same place we were staying. From our perspective, it was a superficial relationship – small talk and shallow chat. Somehow, weeks after we went our separate ways, the wife of the other couple tracked us down and called us to tell us how bad her life had become. I was not a minister. I was not even in seminary. Chris and I were just out of college. We just showed some compassion – the ability to listen, and the willingness to stay put so that we could listen and respond with love.

I must admit, I am not always proud of where my feet take me. At times, my feet and I have chosen the path not lit by the Word of God. However, my prayer is that I can be described as follows:

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.”’

I would be thrilled people thought of me and said, “Matt is a man with beautiful feet.”

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sermon for March 5, 2017

Orienteering 100: Collaborative Compassion

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another,
God abides in us and God’s love is perfected in us.
1 John 4:12

The pavement swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. Thousands of Russians gathered to witness a procession of some 20,000 German war prisoners through Moscow’s streets. The crowd was mostly Russian women with hands roughened by hard work and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with disgust at the generals who marched in front, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their enemies. “They smell of perfume,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and police had all they could do to hold them back. But then something happened to the crowd. They saw German soldiers, heads down, thin and unshaven, wearing dirty, blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of companions. The street became silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches. Then an elderly woman in broken-down boots pushed herself forward and touched a policeman’s shoulder saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the prisoners and took a crust of black bread from inside her coat. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. Then, from every side, women ran toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people. And that’s how revolutions of compassion are born.

We live in revolutionary times. All over the globe, people are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression. People are coming to understand that the purpose of government is not to gain capital through the wholesale disenfranchisement of peoples. They are coming to understand that the role of religion is not to exclude, dominate or threaten those who go against systems of oppressive purity. Just this past week, we’ve seen people in our own community coming together in compassion. Facing hate mail and bomb threats, Jews and Muslims now have each other’s backs. Following the desecration of hundreds of graves at Jewish cemeteries and wave after wave of hoax bomb threats against Jewish community centers and day schools around the nation, Muslim veterans are offering to protect these sacred places. One of the Muslim veterans said, "If you truly want to establish peace in the world, you have to learn to look at the world through the realities of the oppressed. If we want to establish peace and live in a country of values and principles of the constitution, we have to engage in dialogue and efforts to hear out one another."

We call it compassion.

We live in revolutionary times. If we've learned anything from world events over the past year it’s that strong and loud public protest helps protect those who are most vulnerable. And churches like CCC are in a great place to lead the struggle. Forces are flowing together and breaking apart life as we have come to know it. We will not be pulled under by suspicion. We can be good to all as we protect our deepest values. At CCC, we have the opportunity to lead others in the days ahead, but we must be careful. I don’t think we are fully understood yet by the community at large. Yes, many people see us as good, as involved, as caring and concerned. Others mistrust us. Some are holding off on their rave reviews. They are waiting to find out if we at CCC are ego-tripping. Are we full of pretentious talk? Will confusion and insecurity hold us back from risking true compassion? Are we going to just talk about how to repair the world, or are we going to join the oppressed and reclaim healing as a form of public protest? These are revolutionary times, which call for dedication. These are alarming times, which require dedication. These are radical times, which demand we lead by example. We will be known by our deeds.

All of this takes great teamwork. I’d go as far as to say no one can be an individual without collaboration. No one stands alone. When people draw energy from each other, we do everything better. Compassion is not just an individual activity. For compassion to be revolutionary, it must be done in community, with humility.

I believe our most important work is to live the values in community with others. CCC is a place where we can imagine what it means to live in an interdependent web with all of existence. Here we learn how to protect human rights. Here we use the democratic process to respect each other’s dignity as much as to advance our own goals.  Here we learn about cherishing the whole lives of all people, and offering that experience back to a world which needs to learn how to live as an undivided human family.

That powers and principalities of this present age do not want us to live as a united family. They want to play with us, to tease and entice us, to entertain us.  If we are caught up all the excitement produced to sidetrack us, then we won’t show up together to resist hatred. They want to absorb us with the glaring lights of fun and fantasy, and distract us with a stage show that turns our attention away from atrocity.

That powers and principalities of this present age want us to be envious, so we will fight and kill. They create enemies and then parade them to the middle-of-the-road, hoping we will unite in our feelings of common anger and victimhood. But we have a secret operation going on; a counter-insurgency of compassion.  In the middle of the parade, someone breaks ranks and shares her bread with one who is supposed to be the enemy. Then, one by one, we all join the parade of the oppressed. At CCC we provide healing for the brokenhearted, rest for the weary of spirit, comfort for the suffering, courage for the fearful, and wisdom for the struggling. Here we remember and celebrate that life has beauty and joy, meaning and purpose. We do not ever face the task alone. We know that we are stronger together, better together.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

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