Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21 2008

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.


Sermon

There’s a popular Christmas song called “Mary Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. In the song, Mr. Lowry wonders if Mary knew, when Jesus was a baby, all the things that the child she was holding would do in his lifetime. Did she know that he would walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead?

I don’t think she did. In today’s reading we hear the angel Gabriel telling Mary that the child she would soon bear would be “holy” and would be called Son of God. He would be given the throne of his ancestor David and reign forever. But there was definitely a lack of specific details, things that would have told Mary more about what was to come. Mary was given information on a “need to know” basis.

And this was definitely a gift. As much as we might like to know the future, if we did know it, we would not act in ways which would bring it about. We would do everything differently.

One of the saddest things I have ever heard was an older woman expressing regret for the path she had chosen in her life. “If I had it all to do over again,” she said, “I would not have gotten married nor had children. I would have pursued my career instead.” This, in spite of the fact that she had more than fifty years of marriage under her belt and had raised two successful children. Yet, apparently if she had known the amount of suffering and unhappiness in store for her within the life she had chosen, she would have chosen differently.

And the sad thing was that chances are that this woman would not have had less sorrow or suffering if she had chosen differently. “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus said in John 13. We are all bound to have trouble and the woman I am talking about, if she had chosen a different path, would have just had different trouble than she ended up having. It is much like the fable where the people in a village are complaining about their problems and how they wish they didn’t have them. The magical visitor in the story tells the villagers to lay all their problems on the ground in front of them, then invites them to take someone else’s problems instead of their own. The villagers look around, then pick up their own problems again.

It would be nice to know, though, what is going to happen next, wouldn’t it? People today read their horoscopes and consult psychics, all with the hope that they will be able to figure out what is going to happen next. But God has expressly forbidden this, in the book of Deuteronomy, when he says, “You shall follow God with perfect faith [and not] hearken to astrologers and diviners.” (Deuteronomy 18:13-14)

God doesn’t want you peeking into the future for many good reasons. If we knew what the future was, we would act differently than we otherwise would have and we would definitely bolux everything up. This ignorance of the future is a gift to us, just, as I told you in my last sermon, that the ignorance of the day of Christ’s second coming is a gift. If we knew too much about what is to come, we would not act in ways that God wants us to act. We would procrastinate, act to change things to our own advantage and generally, stick a monkey wrench in the plans that God has for us. This is the power of the one of God’s other gifts: the gift of free will. We have the power to change things by the choices we make. It’s a dangerous gift and armed with the knowledge of what the choices we would make will do to the future, we would not have enough wisdom to choose as we should. Therefore, the gift of free will had to be accompanied by the gift of ignorance.

However, if we can’t know everything about what will happen to us, it still would be nice to know a little bit more about what is to come, wouldn’t it? God speaks to many people in biblical history, with angelic visitors as in Mary’s case, and through the prophets. Why doesn’t God do that for everyone?

If you think about all the people who received such announcements, for instance Zachariah in the verses before the ones in today’s reading, or Old Testament folks like Abraham and Sarah when they are told what is going to happen to them, you realize why God isn’t all that forthcoming with specifics. These folks simply did not believe God, did they? They got the word right from the source and they still did not believe. We don’t have the greatest track record for listening to God and believing what he tells us, even when those bringing the news have impeccable credentials. God, as he said in the book of Deuteronomy, is looking for perfect faith. And the Bible is a log book of people who do not have that faith, people who were given many hints, announcements and even explicit plans and directions and disregarded them. Very rarely does God find that perfect faith, people who acquiesce to God’s plans without a murmur or a “Why me?”

But here in our reading we do find that perfect faith: Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Her only question is not WHY this is happening but HOW it’s going to happen. Mary is one of the very few people God entrusts with such knowledge who simply says, “Yes, I will.” And that makes it clear why she was chosen for such a wonderful gift, yet such a heavy burden. God gave her just enough information to be going on with, without burdening her with the whole knowledge of what was to be. Because if Mary would have known all the wonders that Jesus would perform in his life, she also would have to had known the ignominious death filled with hideous suffering that was also in his future and the anguish she would suffer herself watching him die. It was God’s gift to her, the ignorance of all that was to come.

While we have only gotten the bare bones of the story in Luke’s gospel and we may never know all that Mary knew ahead of time, we can all strive to duplicate that perfect faith that she had. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said in John 13, but went on to say, “But take heart, for I have overcome the world!” Take heart. Have faith. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent Year B December 7 2008

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

`Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,'"

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."


-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Talk about job security. Enter John the Baptist, preaching. Obviously, here is a man who knows who he is and what he is supposed to be doing. John is one of the few people connected with Jesus who has this firm sense of identity, a supreme sense of focus on the job at hand. He not only knew who he was, he also knew just who he was NOT. I feel a bit of kinship with John, simply because my name, Janine, is the French female equivalent of John.

But that’s as far as my kinship seems to go. I go through life, trying to figure out just who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. By contrast, John had probably been told since he was a small child that God had a job for him to do…one of these days. Did John fall right into line with the plan, right from the start? Or did he spend some time during adolescence rolling his eyes at Elizabeth every time she said, “God has a special purpose for you! Remember what I told you about when I met your Aunt Mary and felt you leap in my womb?” Did he rebel against this foreknowledge of his destiny? I’d like to think so…I don’t know many people who haven’t been dragged kicking and screaming into the purpose for which God has destined them. I know I have.

My first jolt of reality came soon after I was married. Maybe it’s not as mind-bending for men, but I think women experience a jolt when their maiden name gets changed to their married name. I can remember having a melt-down one day and tearfully telling my husband, “I don’t know who I am anymore!” Suddenly, my identity depended so much on how another person defined it. I was done making it all up myself as I went along. I probably should have gotten used to it, because discovering that I’m not who I thought I was has happened regularly ever since.

Most of us have this happen. We go through life as our parent’s child, our mate’s spouse, our children’s parent, our company’s employee. In my life I’ve been Tom & Betty’s Janine, Dan’s Janine, Laurel, Emily and William’s Mom, and at the different places I’ve worked, I’ve been their Janine or Ms. Tinklenberg, depending on how formal they liked to be.

But all of these people did not and do not define who I really am. Who I really am is something entirely more. Who we are is more than the sum of our parts.

In the novel “The Stand” by Stephen King, a story very loosely based on biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, there is a character called Tom Cullen, who is known for spelling everything, “M-O-O-N”. In our politically correct world, these days, we would call Tom “mentally challenged”, but as some mentally challenged people do, Tom had a wisdom that occasionally came out at the most unexpected times. Towards the end of the novel, Tom is being prepared to go as a spy into the area controlled by the Antichrist by the people who oppose him. They decide that it would be best to hypnotize Tom, to better implant the directions that he would need to follow and to prevent Tom from inadvertently letting something slip that would give him away. Tom is amazingly perceptive about the reasons for this once he is under hypnosis, which startles the group. One of them asks him, “Are you the same Tom that Nick met in Oklahoma?”

And Tom answers: Yes. No. I'm God's Tom.

God’s Tom. When it comes right down to it, that IS who we are. I am God’s Janine, just as Karyn is God’s Karyn, and Pete is God’s Pete. As much as other people might lay claim to us, we are ultimately responsible most for being and becoming the person that God wants us to be.

And the truth is that we can’t be truly happy until we find out just what that is. When we bought our house, my husband and I had been married for 7 years. We had always said that we would not have children until we bought a house. All of a sudden, with the purchase of the house, the question of having children was now right in front of us. I also began to feel that, at the place where I worked, I was not valued or important. I realized that if I left, that I would be talked about for a little while, replaced quickly, and then forgotten. Was the company's Janine really who I was? I felt that my life was empty and purposeless. I spent two years struggling with depression, because I didn’t like the identity I had, but was frightened to become anything else. Finally, I decided not to decide. I would let nature decide if we would have children and I would no longer prevent it from happening. Having a child, I felt, would provide me with the purpose that was missing in my life. Once we had that child, we decided that I would leave work to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.

But by trading my employee badge in for my Mom badge, I avoided the whole question of who I really was. I traded one identity, one depression for another identity and another depression, effectively sidestepping the issue. Because once I had children, I suddenly discovered, again, that I was not who I thought I was. Motherhood was not enough for me and I was left groping for an identity that seemed ever more elusive.

When we consider the stereotypical middle aged man having an identity crisis, older couples suffering from “empty nest syndrome” or someone who has just retired from his job trying to find ways to redefine himself from “a company man” to something new and different, we see that it is very common for all of us, at different stages of our lives, to have to search for who we really are. Lily Tomlin said, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.” If we really want to be specific, we should want to be God’s creation. Because we won’t be truly happy until we start moving towards that end. While having children brought joy to my life, it did not fill the void in my life that I desperately needed to fill, the knowledge of who I really was.

It wasn’t until I turned my life over to Christ in 1997 that I began to discover just who I was and I’m still in the process of discovering it. Unlike John the Baptist, I am not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be doing, but I know that I must be moving in the right direction. I find that the closer I get, the more the activities and things I used to find essential to my happiness become less essential. I find the grip that these things have on me grows weaker as the grip that God has on me grows stronger.

I am, like we all are, a work in process. Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” But the new doesn’t always come as fast as we might like, does it? Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus sounds much easier, sometimes, that our struggle to make sense of what God means for us to become. John had such certainty in his mission; why can’t we have that too?

However, unlike Paul and John, God usually chooses to do his work on us gradually, conquering the strongholds that sin has established in our lives, easing us out of the lives that sin has scarred and pushing us, sometimes gently, but sometimes roughly, towards the realization of the destiny that he holds in trust for us. Paul, observing this process in the churches that looked to him for guidance, wrote in his letter to the Philippians "For I am confident in this, that He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus"

By opening ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves changing to become God’s people first and foremost. Our certainty and confidence in who we really are will grow. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” By following the Lord’s plans for us, we will discover our true identity, our hope and our future. We will still be our parents’ children, our children’s parents, our mate’s spouses, and, until we retire, our companies’ employees. But when we put God’s purpose first, we’ll find that these other roles become much more fulfilling than they ever were before because they will work through his purpose rather than against it. By becoming God’s people, we truly prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, for his Advent into our world. May we all make his paths straight.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent Year B - November 30 2008

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It is something I have observed on many occasions, as I am sure many of you, as parents, have also observed. You tell your children that there is a task they must do. You give them a time that it must be done by in order for something good to happen, perhaps, a visit to the library or a trip to the zoo. Then you leave them to it, walk away and get busy with tasks of your own.

You may walk back a little while later, just to check on how it’s going. To your dismay, your children not only have not started the task, they are playing a game. “Aren’t you going to do what I asked?” you say. And they reply, “Don’t worry! We’ll do it as soon as we’re done playing this game! We have lots of time!”

And of course, twenty minutes before the allotted time, you again return to see if the task is done and in panic, they look at you, look at the clock and start doing the task in a big hurry, because they have left it way too late.

Perhaps this is why the Father did not tell us, through Jesus, just when he would return. Precisely because we, as a human species, tend to put things off until it’s too late. Not everyone procrastinates as badly as children do; quite a few of us learn that putting things off until tomorrow the things that should be done today is not a good thing. So we spend a great deal of effort to try to do things that need to be done when they need to be done. But none of us are perfect at it. If we knew the time of the Master’s return, we might simply choose to do what we wanted to do, rather than those things which God wants us to do; to choose our own way over God’s way, much of the time.

But, the point is, that we don’t know precisely when Christ will return. Because God knows humans better than we know ourselves, the gift of not knowing the hour of Jesus’ return is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received. Because we do not know, we should feel the need to work at preparing for his return as if it were going to happen tomorrow, today, next week. We shouldn’t put off sharing the gospel with our family, friends or with strangers either, because tomorrow it might be too late.

The early Christians operated under this principal. That is why we see them sharing everything in common in the book of Acts. Why keep anything if the Lord would be returning at any minute? Surely there was no need to save for tomorrow, since likely tomorrow would bring the glorious return of our Savior! Didn’t Jesus say that this generation would not pass away before his return?

But their generation DID pass away and we have come to know that when Jesus said “this generation” that he didn’t mean it the way his original listeners thought he did. It is more probable that he meant that the generation that would not pass away before he returned was the generation that would see the signs of the end that Jesus gave us. Have we ceased to watch for the signs of his coming? Have we grown lax in our watchfulness? Have we forgotten the signs?

There is an interesting, though probably unintended, parallel in the the book “The Silver Chair”, one of the series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In the book, one of the main characters, Jill Pole, is given signs by Aslan by which she and Eustace, her companion from our world, will recognize the lost Prince Rillian of Narnia when they find him. Aslan tells Jill, “But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.”

As you might expect, what ends up happening is that Jill eventually forgets to repeat the signs to herself. She lets the physical concerns of cold, hunger and sleeping on the ground get in the way of remembering the signs. A warm bed, a place out of the wind, and a full stomach become much more important to her. The signs are forgotten, only to be remembered when it is almost too late.

How about us? Have we spent too much of our time concerned with earthly problems like how we are going to pay the bills, mow the grass or repair the roof? How can we know when we are getting close to the return of Christ? Do we even know or remember what the signs are?

I’d like to share this, from the April 1989 edition of the devotional, “Today in the Word”:

"Biblical prophecy provides some of the greatest encouragement and hope available to us today. Just as the Old Testament is saturated with prophecies concerning Christ’s first advent, so both testaments are filled with references to the second coming of Christ. One scholar has estimated that there are 1,845 references to Christ’s second coming in the Old Testament, where 17 books give it prominence. In the 260 chapters of the New Testament, there are 318 references to the second advent of Christ—an amazing 1 out of every 30 verses. Twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event. For every prophecy in the Bible concerning Christ’s first advent, there are 8 which look forward to His second!"

The most amazing prophecy of the second advent has already taken place: it is the reformation of the nation Israel in 1948 as was prophesied in Isaiah 66:8, in Ezekiel 37 and in our own reading today when Jesus said, "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” What is hidden in Jesus’ words for us is that the fig tree was, and still is today, a symbol for the nation of Israel.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that before his return that the gospel would be preached to all nations, something which we are very close to achieving, if we have not already achieved it. He tells us that there will be wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence and earthquakes. Granted, these things have always been in the world, leading some to look for Christ’s return in every generation. While there may not be more of these things today, I believe what Jesus meant was that we would be more aware of them. And as anyone can see, the increasing power of the media today to report these sorts of news stories to us allows us to be aware of more of them than we ever could before.

These signs, and more that I don’t have time to mention today, were given to us, that we might know when we were getting close. Therefore, we really do need to heed the words of the reading: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

But even though we may be approaching that day, we have no need to be afraid. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, we have no need to fear the return of the Master. It is what we have been, in what has seemed a very slow and grinding process, working our way towards for the past 2000 years.

Now, more than ever, we must be awake. Any procrastination we may have been indulging in must be forgotten. While it may not happen today or tomorrow, next month, next year or ten years from now, we should be working as if it will happen at any moment.

In this season of Advent, as we await the symbolic coming of the Christ child, let us not forget the more important waiting that we have done for centuries: the wait for the return of Christ. “Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Proper 28 Year A November 16 2008

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

It’s amazing what fear can keep us from doing. In the slave with one talent’s case, it kept him from using the talent and making any money with it. Instead of trading or investing with it, he hid it in the ground.

I have read commentaries on this parable that suggest that the slave with one talent was just making excuses by saying that he was afraid. But I don’t think he was. I don’t think he was afraid of the master, even though he said that he was a harsh man. I think he was simply afraid of failing.

It is interesting that this particular passage echoes another one:

So he said, 'I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

Fear was the first result of the original sin. Because when Adam and Eve gained the knowledge of good and evil, they gained the ability to be afraid, because they knew the worst that could happen.

Fear is the voice of the Enemy. Being afraid of what might happen causes us to be silent when we should speak, to keep our wallets closed when they should be open, to not risk being made fools of when we should use the talents God gave us in his service.

John White, 17th century rector of Holy Trinity and St. Peter’s churches in Dorchester, England wrote this:

Anytime we are engaged in a work for God, we are likely to encounter the poison-tipped arrows of ridicule. A barrage of truth mingled with lies, innuendo, malicious gossip and implied threats is the normal experience of leaders. Malice arises from fear. And fear is a common response to someone else’s success. So expect to have your faults thrown in your face, your folly mocked and your real progress belittled. When this happens, by all means allow yourself to be cut down to size, but do not let yourself be dismayed or intimidated. Remember that the chorus of contempt has a diabolical conductor whose aim is to make your knees buckle. He likes tongue-tied, ineffective Christians and plays on your secret fears and inferiorities to make you one of them.

We must not confuse these sorts of fears with the fear of God. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. If the slave had simply been afraid of the master, he would have been wise enough to do as his master expected. Instead, he was afraid of failing, afraid to take a risk with what was entrusted to him. And because he chose to bury his talent, he chose to bury himself.

The master gave each slave talents according to his ability. The master knew that this particular slave didn’t have a lot of ability, but he did have enough to use the one talent that the master gave him. But the slave’s fear of failure led him to bury that talent and lose the opportunity the master gave him.

God gives us the gifts he gives us in expectation that we will use them in his service, most often, service to other people. Service to others is not a popular notion anymore, is it? We are conditioned early on these days to look out for number one and that charity begins at home. Service to others is the true meaning of using our talents wisely and bringing the increase of that use into the Master’s storehouse.

So how do we overcome this voice of the enemy? How do we stop listening to the voice that tells us that nothing we do will matter, that nobody notices, that no one will care if we stop serving at church, in our community or at home?

John White continued his sermon on fear with this:

I am full of fears and chasms of inferiority. Whenever I have listened to the enemy pointing them out I have stopped working for the kingdom. Yet in those moments when I have refused to listen to him and have feebly walked in obedience, I have been astonished at what God has done with my feeble performance.

Faith is the answer to fear. Faith is trusting God, fear is lack of trust in God. Fear damages our relationship with God, faith builds it.

Dr. E. Stanley Jones, Methodist Christian missionary, said this:

I am inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not my native land; faith is. I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. I live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath—these are not my native air. But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely—these are my native air.

A John Hopkins University doctor says, “We do not know why it is that worriers die sooner than the non-worriers, but that is a fact.” But I, who am simple of mind, think I know; We are inwardly constructed in nerve and tissue, brain cell and soul, for faith and not for fear. God made us that way. To live by worry is to live against reality.

The wonderful thing we have to remember is that when we step out in faith, as the slaves with five and two talents did, God rewards our efforts by increasing our abilities, but only if we are able to drown out the voice of fear.

Paul said in his second letter to Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” Listening to that spirit, which is the Holy Spirit, is the only way to drown out the voice of fear.

By trusting in God and listening to the Holy Spirit, we can truly inherit the kingdom meant for us from the beginning. I’d like to end with this interesting piece I found online by an anonymous author:

Fear paralyzes, faith empowers
Fear discourages, faith encourages
Fear sickens, faith heals
Fear makes us useless, faith makes us serviceable
Fear feels hopelessness, faith is full of hope.
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental
To reach our for another is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self
To place your ideas, your dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To hope is to risk despair
To try is to risk failure
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing
The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, and is nothing
They may avoid suffering and sorrow but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live
Chained by their certitudes they are a slave, they have forfeited their freedom
Only a person who risks is free,"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Saints Sunday Year A November 2 2008

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The internet is an amazing place, isn’t it? I remember back in 1996, when we first got online, there was a book you could buy called, “The World Wide Web Yellow Pages” that was supposed to list most of the sites online and what they were for. And it was only about an inch thick! Today, no one could afford to buy a Yellow Pages for the internet because it would probably have several volumes! You can find a site for just about anything on the internet, both serious and funny. I am addicted to a website that is called “Icanhazcheeseburger.com.” If you’re not familiar with this site, it is a site that has mostly images of cats, though there are some other animals represented in the photographs hosted on the site. The sole purpose of the site is to put funny captions on these photographs, captions that are written in a silly version of English called “LOLspeak”. There are some captions that get used over and over again in many different ways. One of my favorites is the caption that always ends, “Ur doin’ it wrong.” For instance, here we have:

“Baby Blanket – Ur doin it wrong”

“Facebook – Ur doin it wrong”

And “surfin the net – ur doin it wrong”

As funny as these are, I have to wonder if somewhere, someone one day might end up with a picture of me that says, “Christianity – ur doin it wrong.” Because, unlike the saints that we celebrate today on All Saints Sunday, I certainly have not been persecuted in any big way. And being persecuted is a sign that you are “doin it right.”

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first part of which is our gospel reading for today, Jesus enumerates the qualities of those who can be counted among his followers, commonly called the Beatitudes………:

Poor in spirit – humble, acknowledging that they are not worthy to enter the presence of God

Mourning – filled with sadness for the sin of the world, both their own and others

Gentle – in control of their emotions, not judging others since they are aware of their own sins

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness – knowing that they cannot achieve the kingdom on their own and desiring to become righteous

Merciful - helping others who are suffering, forgiving those who sin against them

Pure in heart - sincere and open before God and man

Peacemakers - freely sharing the peace of God with those who seek it

Courageous – willing to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness

Jesus ends this list with the extraordinary statement "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The people listening to this statement might have been nodding their heads up to this point, thinking, “Yep, that’s me…mmm hmmm, me…uh huh, me again…” and all of a sudden, “WHOA NELLIE! I don’t want that to be me!”

This last statement is a bit of a shock for most of us, who were told as children that treating others with kindness and compassion would assure the same in return. The Golden Rule, originally found in the book of Leviticus and repeated by Jesus on different occasions, including this one, has been taught to many children, even those who aren’t Christian. I can hear the voice of my mother saying, “Just be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you!” Most people who say they live by “The Sermon on the Mount” think that the Golden Rule is what it’s all about. It’s not. It’s about living the Christian life and how hard that is going to be for us. And, most importantly, how the rest of the world will react to us when we live the way we are supposed to live.

If you are “doin’ it right”, you’ll have the qualities listed in the beatitudes. And persecution will come, because darkness is offended by light. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow it throws.

Before I became a Christian, I started attending a group for mothers called “MOPS”, or Mothers of Preschoolers. It’s a wonderful Christian group with chapters all over the country and I learned a lot while I was there. One thing I was struck by was the woman who was the moderator of the group. She possessed the qualities listed in today’s gospel reading. She was gentle, humble, merciful and pure in heart. I remember thinking to myself that she seemed a little too “good to be true.” Have you ever noticed that about some Christians? She was so nice, so sweet, that it made me feel a little angry, to be honest. How could anybody be that nice? Didn’t this person ever stumble? Didn’t she ever feel angry or upset with people? Especially people who were just plain stupid or nasty?

That was the darkness within me trying to find fault, trying to tear down someone who was “doin’ it right.” And now that I’m a Christian, I often see the world doing the same thing to other Christians that are “doin’ it right. Sometimes I see people who start out “doin’ it right” who end up stumbling because the world is so offended by their light that the world sets out to put stumbling blocks in their way.

I think of Mother Teresa, now passed to glory. You’d think that this wonderful woman would be universally admired, but amazingly, there were people who didn’t like Mother Teresa and attacked her in print, such as Germaine Greer, noted feminist and Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist. Greer wrote in an article in Newsweek, “I first met Mother Teresa 25 years ago, when we were both being flown first class to collect awards from the Kennedy Foundation for services to humanity. I knew I didn't deserve any such thing and felt very awkward. Mother Teresa was right at home. She took not so much as a sip of champagne or a bite of caviar 'but sat, head bowed, motionless in her enormous seat, while the cabin staff knelt to speak to her in reverently hushed tones, ignoring the rest of us, who were too embarrassed by our un- regenerate sensuality to dare to ask for extra champagne. She was wafted from the aircraft on a tide of obeisance, a celebrity of celebrities whose feet did not seem to touch the ground. She lugged no luggage. God, a.k.a. the Kennedy Foundation, was providing.” Here is a prime example of how light offends darkness, how darkness will do anything to tarnish and dim the light shining from those who live a Christian life.

So, where does that leave us? Maybe we need to ask, as a former mayor of New York routine did, “How am I doing?” Are we “doin’ it right?” A good measure of that might be how many people who treat us badly because of our faith. If we’ve gotten some of that negative attention, Jesus says, we should rejoice, because we’re “doin’ it right. And if we haven’t made someone mad because of our faith, if we’ve never upset anyone and if we seek to fade into the woodwork instead of standing up for our faith, we’re not “doin’ it right.”

One brave Christian in China is Pastor Zhang Xinghuan, also known as Pastor Bike because he travels across China to preach the gospel. For the past 22 years, Pastor Bike has been persecuted by the Chinese government. Recently he and his wife were imprisoned just before the Olympics started and were only released after thousands across the world signed a petition for their release. Since then, his oldest son was badly beaten by the police. Those who know Pastor Bike say that “the love of Christ is evident in his outreach”. Pastor Bike is “doin’ it right”.

It is this type of courage in the face of adversity that draws people to Christ. Leighton Ford, in his book, “Good News is for Sharing” relates this story:

From boyhood, one of my favorite stories has been the forty martyrs of Sabaste. These forty soldiers, all Christians, were members of the famed Twelfth Legion of Rome's imperial army. One day their captain told them Emperor Licinius had sent out an edict that all soldiers were to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. These Christians replied, "You can have our armor and even our bodies, but our hearts' allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ."

It was midwinter of A.D. 320, and the captain had them marched onto a nearby frozen lake. He stripped them of their clothes and said they would either die or renounce Christ. Throughout the night these men huddled together singing their song, "Forty martyrs for Christ." One by one the temperature took its toll and they fell to the ice.

At last there was only one man left. He lost courage and stumbled to the shore, where he renounced Christ. The officer of the guards had been watching all this. Unknown to the others, he had secretly come to believe in Christ. When he saw this last man break rank, he walked out onto the ice, threw off his clothes, and confessed that he also was a Christian. When the sun rose the next morning, there were forty bodies of soldiers who had fought to the death for Christ.

It is precisely this willingness to endure persecution, yes, even to the point of death, that makes our faith ring true for those who witness it.

But we aren’t called to that kind of martyrdom, because we do live in such a free country. So how can we know we are “doin’ it right?” While we don’t risk our lives, we are called to risk our friendships, jobs and family relationships. Perhaps it’s because these risks are nothing compared to imprisonment, torture and death, that it makes it harder for us to sacrifice them to God. It’s easy to reason away our reluctance to share the gospel with friends or our turning away from a family member’s hospital bed with the words of God unsaid on our lips. The lack of persecution takes away the sense of immediacy that we should share the gospel NOW, speak those words of God NOW. We can do that another time, we tell ourselves. But, if life teaches us nothing, it should teach us that there may not be another time.

We’re not meant to sit comfortably in our churches, waiting for people to show up here in church so we can tell them about God. We’re meant to be pedaling our bikes out, being bold in the face of persecution, telling everyone we meet about the truth of God’s love. If we aren’t, we’re not “doin’ it right”. That’s not to say we have to be obnoxious about it. Timing can be everything. By opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s leading, by listening for that still, small voice that prompts us to “tell the greatest story ever told” we will know when we are “doin’ it right”.

I’m going to end with a beautiful poem by Amy Carmichael, who was a missionary in India for 55 years. It’s called “No Scar?”

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land;
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star.
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers; spent,
Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned.
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierc├Ęd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Proper 24 Year A October 19 2008

Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Nobody likes to pay taxes, as the current “hot story” in the news these days shows. Whether we are Joe or Josephine the Plumber, we like to keep everything that we work hard to get. Giving the government our hard earned money seems to be so wrong, when we look around and see that a few of the people who are receiving that money don’t seem to deserve it at all.

I find it kind of funny that the story of Joe the Plumber and the question he asked Senator Obama about taxes should occur just before we read the story of Jesus and the question asked about taxes by the Herodians and the Phariesees. While Joe the Plumber is understandably concerned about whether, if he is successful in purchasing the business he is thinking about buying, he will have to give more of the money he earns to the government under Senator Obama’s plan, the Herodians and the Pharisees had something entirely different in mind: putting Jesus in between a rock and a hard place.

We don’t hear much about the Herodians in the gospels. They are mentioned only three times: once here in Matthew and twice in the book of Mark. To understand the dilemma that Jesus was presented with, you have to know that the Herodians were completely supportive of Roman rule in Israel.

So by bringing the Herodians along when the Pharisees wanted to ask Jesus about paying taxes, they wanted to trap him. If Jesus said it was not lawful to pay taxes to Rome, he would be incriminating himself with the Herodians, since he would be rejecting Rome’s claim of authority over Israel. If Jesus said it WAS lawful to pay taxes, then he would be losing the support of those who opposed the Roman subjugation of Israel.

But Jesus confounded these aims by simply saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." This reply, the gospel narrative says, amazed both the Herodians and the Pharisees. Why?

Listening to these words as our translation reads would make you think, initially, that Jesus had pretty much said that it was lawful to pay taxes. However, though “Give therefore” is what our translation says, the actual words of the gospel translate into something more like, “Give back”. Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give back to God the things that are God’s.” To the emperor belonged the shiny gold coin with his picture on it, since to obtain that coin meant that you had dealings with Rome. At some point, Rome will want its coin back. Give back to God those things which belong to Him. It was a brilliant answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians; foiling their aim in discrediting him before the crowds that followed him so avidly.

“But,” you argue, “Doesn’t everything we own come from God anyway? So giving money in the form of taxes to the government would be diverting that money from God, wouldn’t it?”

Not necessarily. The Pharisees, for instance, would have thought as much, and scrupulously paid all the tithes required by Levitical law: tithes that would amount to as much as 30% of their income. In the eleventh chapter of Luke, verse 42, Jesus rebukes them: "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

Jesus’ kingdom, as he pointed out on another occasion, is not of this world. Money is not the coinage traded there, but justice and the love of God. What God wants most is we ourselves. We belong to him and we should give ourselves back to him.

So where does that leave us and our money? Obviously, God is aware that we must submit ourselves to government and that taxes are as certain as death, as Benjamin Franklin said. But what about tithing? Does God want our money too?

You can spend a lot of time online, investigating the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of the idea of tithing in the church today: some sites will blithely tell you that tithing is what God requires of you in order to obtain “favor” and some sites will give you strong scriptural evidence that tithing was meant for Israel only under the Law and that we, as free Christians, do not owe our church anything whatsoever.

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. We are not, indeed, required to tithe to the church as the Israelites were required under Levitical Law. We live under grace and do not need to give a scrupulous 10% of our income to God in order to obtain favor. If a church implies that, there is something very wrong and you should hang onto your wallet tightly as you back slowly out there door. God’s favor is not something you buy in church.

I don’t think God is up in heaven with a calculator, watching our incomes with a gimlet eye, making sure we tithe exactly 10% of our income. But God does want us to give back to him that which is his. And that would definitely include ourselves, in the form of worship and praise performed in this building.

So here we are in this building, our church. It is a good building, comfortable to sit in. It gives us a place to gather together to worship. Certainly, we don’t need anything elaborate to do that, but it is a beautiful space in which to worship our Creator. Unfortunately, it costs money for the electricity to keep the lights on and, as we are all very much aware of in the summer, the fans running. In the winter, it costs money to heat it. It costs money to mow the grass in the summer and plow the snow in the winter. It costs money to buy the candles for the altar, to have the building cleaned, to copy the pew bulletin and to pay the musicians who play the hymns we sing each Sunday.

This is the time of year we begin to think about our pledge and how much we can afford to give to the church. Some of us can afford to pay 10% of our incomes. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us struggle to find something to give each week. Some of us give generously with our money and some of us give generously with our time and effort: serving at the altar, setting the liturgy, paying the bills, pulling the weeds, and something that will be very important in about 20 minutes: making the coffee and baking muffins or buying donuts. Some of us do both, giving time and money. It is that giving of time and money that makes our church community work, that keeps the lights on and the heat piping out of the registers, that keeps this space comfortable and beautiful for us to worship God in each Sunday.

And I have to say, as Scottie said in Star Trek: The Voyage Home, “Is that worth somethin’ to ye?”

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Proper 21 Year A September 28 2008

Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, `From heaven,' he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, `Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, `I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."


---------------------------------------------------------------

In music, ironically enough, it’s called “soul”. You can have all the chops, licks, and technical skill in the worlds, but if you ain’t got soul, your music will sound flat. If you were asked to define what soul is, you might say, “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I hear it.” Soul is the indefinable ability to transcend the rules of music and inject emotion and feeling into it. People who stick to the rules, playing each note exactly when they should play it in rigid time, can’t achieve soul. They will only ever be proficient players, without making anything that we can listen to with pleasure, without making music that will touch our emotions. They hold something back of themselves, relying on the skill of their hands to create music, but never achieving the true aim of music.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is talking about something very similar. He provides an illustration of two brothers, one who refused to go work in the vineyard as requested by his father, but later relented and went and another brother who agreed to go, but didn’t. It was an illustration of the difference between true faith and religion. The Pharisees followed all the rules, but never opened themselves up to be truly changed by their relationship with God. They felt that if they could just live each day, following along the course that had been laid out by other Pharisees, that they would please God. But it doesn’t work that way.

As Christians, we also have a set of rules that we follow. We have liturgy and ways of doing things that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And we can get very hung up on following those rules. Like all humans, we love rules and traditions. They allow us to feel comfortable and safe in a world that can be anything but. Our problems come when we start leaning on the rules, instead of leaning on God. We become the son that agreed to go work, yet did not.

The 19th-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard described two kinds of religion—Religion A and Religion B. The first is “faith” in name only as described by Paul in his second letter to Timothy: “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” It’s the practice of attending church without having genuine faith.

Religion B, on the other hand, is a life-transforming experience. It’s a firm commitment Jesus Christ, which creates a permanent relationship between ourselves and a gracious and forgiving God.

For many years British author C. S. Lewis had great difficulty in becoming a Christian, which can be attributed to the difference between the two religions. Religion A had blinded him to Religion B. His brother Warren wrote that his conversion was “no sudden plunge into a new life, but rather a slow, steady convalescence from a deep-seated spiritual illness—an illness that had its origins in our childhood, in the dry husks of religion offered by the semi-political churchgoing of Ulster, and the similar dull emptiness of compulsory church during our school days.”

God wants relationship. He wants us to let down our guard and let Him in. He wants to change us, to heal us, not lock us into the same place we were when we found Him.

We resist the change that God wants to make in us because it’s not safe, because it’s not comfortable. We like to feel safe, we like our rules. How can we get past being a religious rule follower and break free to become all that God wants us to be?

Throwing out all the rules is not the answer. Linda Brown Holt, an independent scholar in the field of comparative religious literature, said this:

Ideally, spirituality emanates from religion, religion creates a safe, encouraging environment in which spirituality emerges and grows. Religion is form: tradition, doctrine, rites and rituals. Spirituality is content: communion with the divine, seeing the holy in all creatures and objects. In reality, this is not always the case. Religion gone bad results in the triumph of form over content resulting in rituals without meaning and the exaltation of dogma. Spirituality at its worst is mindless drivel, the egotism of the individual believer, even madness.

Clearly, we need a place where people can feel safe to explore their developing relationship with God. Our forms of worship can provide that safe place. But we are not meant to stay safe. We are meant to change.

David Roher provides this illustration about change:

The motor home has allowed us to put all the conveniences of home on wheels. A camper no longer needs to contend with sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking over a fire, or hauling water from a stream. Now he can park a fully equipped home on a cement slab in the midst of a few pine trees and hook up to a water line, a sewer line and electricity. One motor home I saw recently had a satellite dish attached on top. No more bother with dirt, no more smoke from the fire, no more drudgery of walking to the stream. Now it is possible to go camping and never have to go outside.

We buy a motor home with the hope of seeing new places, of getting out into the world. Yet we deck it out with the same furnishings as in our living room. Thus nothing really changes. We may drive to a new place, set ourselves in new surrounding, but the newness goes unnoticed, for we’ve only carried along our old setting.

The adventure of new life in Christ begins when the comfortable patterns of the old life are left behind.

Is your faith like the motor home, allowing you to stay safe and comfortable? Or has it changed you, challenging you to become more than you are, greater than the sum of your parts, more like Christ? How can we tell if we are?

Our primary measuring tool for spiritual transformation is this: has our faith brought us more joy? Has it enabled us to be kinder to those around us? Have we found peace despite our struggle with the burdens that weigh us down? Can we praise God, even in the midst of all the bad things that happen to us? If we can’t say yes to these questions, we probably haven’t grown much as Christians.

So how do we go about putting “soul” into our religion? Just as in studying music we train ourselves by playing scales and arpeggios, we have to train ourselves in the sorts of spiritual disciplines that allow us to overcome the sins that is our primary obstacles in the process of our transformation. How do we do that?

Dallas Willard wrote in The Spirit of the Disciplines (Word, 1988) that spiritual disciplines can be divided into two corresponding categories: disciplines of engagement, like worship or study or prayer; and disciplines of abstinence, like fasting or solitude or silence.

Sins of commission, such as gossip, need a discipline of abstinence like silence. Sins of omission, such as not making an effort to find the joy that God meant each of us to have, require the discipline of worship. By praising God daily for all that he has provided for us, we can find that joy.

I’m sure that we all know what the sins that we each need to work on, those areas that give us that uncomfortable twinge in our conscience, the ways we have grieved God “by we have done and by what we have left undone”. Sound familiar?

There is an interested story called the “Musgrave Ritual” by Arthur Conan Doyle, which was one of the stories he wrote featuring his famous character, Sherlock Holmes. The story was about a missing butler, who had been very interested in a family ritual of his employers that had been handed down from father to son for hundreds of years. The family faithfully taught this ritual to the oldest son to be repeated when he inherited. This was how it went:

"'Whose was it?'
"'His who is gone.'
"'Who shall have it?'
"'He who will come.'
"'Where was the sun?'
"'Over the oak.'
"'Where was the shadow?'
"'Under the elm.'
"How was it stepped?'
"'North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.'
"'What shall we give for it?'
"'All that is ours.'
"'Why should we give it?'
"'For the sake of the trust.'

The family had repeated this ritual faithfully for many years, even though they no longer knew what it meant. Sherlock Holmes, with his superior powers of deduction, was able to figure out, as the butler had, that this cryptic message was meant to keep the memory of where the royal crown of Charles I had been hidden on the family property when that monarch was fleeing from the armies of Oliver Cromwell.

Like the Musgrave Ritual, the words of our liturgy hold the keys to the treasure we seek. The danger we face is in investing too much into the ritual of repeating them, without really getting to the reason why we say them to begin with. By really listening to those words as we say them, by allowing the Holy Spirit to invest them with meaning and reality, and then by moving that reality out of the church building and into our daily lives, we can train ourselves to build up our spiritual “muscle”. And instead of a cage that traps us, our liturgy becomes a cocoon that nurtures the spiritual life growing within us, so that it eventually emerges as the butterfly that God meant it to be: changed, free, beautiful.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19 Year A September 14 2008

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

God designed our bodies in miraculous ways. Not only did he give us the capacity to remember the hurts we experience in every day life, he also gave us the capacity to forget.

It’s easy to take this capacity for granted. I am reading a book right now called, “The Woman Who Can’t Forget” by Jill Price. Ms. Price’s memory is unique. She has exact literal recall of every day of her life since the age of 14, and exact recall of most or many days of her life from the age of 2. She not only remembers what happened on any given day, she can tell you what day of the week any particular date fell, what she was doing on that day and any significant events she may have heard of on the news that day. But not only that, she remembers how she felt about what was happening to her. All of it. For her, memory is like rerunning the movie of her life and reliving it. She remembers exactly how she felt when someone hurt her. It is as fresh in her memory as if it had just happened. Think about that. Imagine what that must be like.

Ms. Price describes it as hell and wonders what her life would be like if she would be able to forget things. She finds the idea both tremendously appealing yet also very horrifying. She doesn’t want to be able to forget, yet she longs to forget. Her happy memories are havens for her, allowing her to live the best moments of her life over again. Yet the memories of times that brought her pain and sadness are impossible to remove. One of the features of her memory is that she cannot control the flow of memories into her conscious thinking. So she simply cannot avoid remembering every slight, hurt, and argument she’s ever had. It makes it even harder for her to forgive.

According to the latest medical and psychological research, forgiving is good for our souls—and our bodies. People who forgive:

  • benefit from better immune functioning and lower blood pressure.
  • have better mental health than people who do not forgive.
  • feel better physically.
  • have lower amounts of anger and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • maintain more satisfying and long-lasting relationships.

“When we allow ourselves to feel like victims or sit around dreaming up how to retaliate against people who have hurt us, these thought patterns take a toll on our minds and bodies,’ says Michael McCullough, director of research for the National Institute for Healthcare Research and a co-author of To Forgive is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past (IVP, 1997).

Jill. Price volunteered her time to physicians who spend their time researching how memory works and in the process learned a lot about memory herself. She relates how one of the mechanisms of memory is persistence: that is the tendency of some folks to replay negative memories over and over again. It is a major mechanism in post-traumatic stress disorder. People who spend their time replaying negative memories are called “ruminators”. This mechanism can be extremely damaging to our emotional health. People who are depressive tend to be ruminators. Ms. Price writes: “A horrible irony about this finding is that ruminators often think that their intense attention to whatever bad experience they’re dwelling on will help them gain some valuable insights, when in fact, rumination tends to undermine critical thinking of that sort.”

Because we are able to forget, it is clear that God designed us to be able to forgive. But that can be so hard to do!

When I first became a Christian, God made me aware of my list: that is, my list of people that I had to forgive. Some of you may have a similar list. It wasn’t a very long list, thankfully, because as a “baby” Christian, a long list would have been overwhelming and would have seemed impossible to even start, much less finish.

However, it was a list of about five people that I had had a hard time forgiving. I ruminated over the wrongs they had done me. In the cases where I was still in relationship with these people, my constant replaying of the memories of how they had hurt me damaged my relationship with them. Even if they weren’t aware of how I resented their actions, the small things I did to exact revenge on them must have been apparent in a subconscious way. God made it clear that if I wanted to be a Christian, I had to stop doing that, that it hurt my relationships with those people.

For people that I was no longer in contact with, the work of forgiving was even harder. I found myself amplifying and magnifying the wrong that was done by them to me, because I had nothing new to replace it with, no subsequent good feelings about them to water down the poison of my unforgiveness. Forgiving these people was hard work, sometimes I had to go through the process of forgiving them over and over again. Corrie Ten Boom, the author of “The Hiding Place”, once related a story about how she was not able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven, but she kept reliving the incident in her mind. Corrie cried out to God for relief from her rumination over the incident. She wrote:

“His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor,” Corrie wrote, “to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.” “Up in the church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

“And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force—which was my willingness in the matter—had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.”

I found this to be true when dealing with my list. I could choose to forgive, but completing the process took asking God for help. Over time, my rumination over the wrong that those people on my list had done to me ceased. I was able to let go of the wrongs that had been done to me. And in the process I discovered something amazing.

The amazing thing I discovered was that the wrong that had been done to me was sometimes caused by something wrong I had done myself. Isn’t that amazing? By dwelling on the wrong that had been done to me, I had lost perspective about what I had done to cause that wrong.

Of course, there are people who do wrong to us despite the fact that we never wronged them. Perhaps these people are the hardest to forgive. But we still must forgive. Because holding onto the wrong, the hurt, only damages us. It does not damage the person we do not forgive nearly as much, if at all. Often people who make a habit of hurting others are oblivious to the fact that they have done something wrong. Holding on to the hurt and pain they have caused does not cause them any pain whatsoever. The only people it hurts is ourselves.

And there are also people in our lives whom we endeavor to forgive, but we have to keep forgiving over and over, because they keep on doing the same hurtful things over and over. That’s why, in our gospel reading today, Peter wanted a limit, a place to draw the line. And Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Seventy times seven, or 490 seems to be a finite number to us, but in reality, for the Jewish people of the time, it represented infinity. It had a historical link to the Babylonian exile, as seen in the book of Daniel:

Dan 9:20 While I was still speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and presenting my request before the LORD my God concerning his holy mountain —
21 yes, while I was still praying, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen previously in a vision, was approaching me in my state of extreme weariness, around the time of the evening offering.
22 He spoke with me, instructing me as follows: "Daniel, I have now come to impart understanding to you. 23 At the beginning of your requests a message went out, and I have come to convey it to you, for you are of great value in God's sight. Therefore consider the message and understand the vision:24 "Seventy weeks have been determined concerning your people and your holy city to put an end to rebellion, to bring sin to completion, to atone for iniquity, to bring in perpetual righteousness, to seal up the prophetic vision, and to anoint a most holy place.

During the period of exile, once a year the High Priest would offer an atonement to God for the forgiveness of Israel’s sin. God forgave them every time. Every time. If the exile had lasted longer, God still would have forgiven them every single time.

So when you ask, “Where can I cut the forgiveness short? When can I stop doing all this work, which clearly isn’t doing any good because they keep on doing what they are doing, Lord? “the answer is we can’t stop. We have to keep forgiving, because that’s what God keeps doing for us.

We’re supposed to be more like him. So we have to forgive…like him. We have to love…like him. Because we were designed to forgive, we were designed to love.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Proper 17 Year A August 31 2008

Matthew 16:21-28

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

"For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."

Sermon

It’s a famous experiment conducted in the 1960’s: a group of four year olds are given a marshmallow and told that if they can delay eating it for 20 minutes, they will get a second one.

Some of the four year olds could wait to eat the marshmallow…others could not. The researchers then followed these children for some years and were able to demonstrate that those who were able to wait fared better in many ways, including when they took their SAT’s. They had demonstrated something psychologists call “delayed or deferred gratification”, that is, the ability to wait to obtain something one wants. People who have this ability are more successful than those who don’t. It is an ability that increases as we get older, though some people never get much better at it than the four year olds in the study.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus gives us the ultimate chance at showing how good we are at practicing delayed gratification. Those who are successful at denying themselves, taking up their cross and following Jesus will find their life. Those who wish to save their lives; that is, the pleasures and safety of their lives as they exist without Christ, those people will lose their lives.

One of the problems that we all have with this is that we have a hard time imagining the goal which we are all working towards: eternal life with our Father in heaven. It’s so hard for us because, for the most part, we don’t know what it will be like, since those who get there don’t come back to tell us about it, at least, not usually. We have to imagine it. The four year olds in the experiment had the example right in front of them: the marshmallow. They could see it, smell it and touch it. Probably almost all of them had eaten a marshmallow before, so they knew what it would taste like when they got it.

But as for us, we have only a vague concept of what heaven might be like: streets paved with gold, heavenly choirs signing praises to God…stuff like that. Some of us have been told stories when we were children about getting white robes, halos and harps.

Quite a few people I know find this idea tremendously boring and frankly, if that was all that heaven would hold for us, it would be. But luckily, this scenario is pretty unscriptural. Yet if we don’t know what heaven will be like, how will we willingly chose our cross, take it up and follow Him?

It seems to me to be vital for Christians to KNOW as much about the hope that God promises us, the hope of eternal life with Him. If you do not know what it is you are delaying gratification for, you will have a hard time delaying it. By studying scripture, we can glean much information about heaven: it will not be so much a place, but a person: God. We will be in his presence always. There will be no pain, no death or dying, nor sorrow or suffering. We will know for the first time the answers to questions we could never answer ourselves. We will be doing the things that we spend our time doing in church now: worshiping, learning, and serving. And these things will not be a burden, but a joy.

This is a book that I have bought more than once: 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. I have bought it more than once because I end up giving it to people who I think would get comfort from it. In it, Mr. Piper, a Baptist preacher, tells the story about the car accident that almost took his life. He was, indeed, pronounced dead on the scene and amazingly, revived 90 minutes later. He tells about his experience of going to heaven for those brief 90 minutes, describes meeting those loved ones who had gone before him, the sound of the music outside the gates. He writes: "I felt loved--more loved than ever before in my life. They didn't say they loved me. I don't remember what words they spoke. When they gazed at me, I knew what the Bible means by perfect love. It emanated from every person who surrounded me.

"I stared at them, and as I did I felt as if I absorbed their love for me. At some point, I looked around and the sight overwhelmed me. Everything was brilliantly intense. Coming out from the gate--a short distance ahead--was a brilliance that was brighter than the light that surrounded us, utterly luminous. As soon as I stopped gazing at the people's faces, I realized that everything around me glowed with a dzzling intensity. In trying to describe the scene, words are totally inadequate, because human words can't express the feelings of awe and wonder at what I beheld."

This is the hope that God holds out to us. It is going to be more awesome than we can imagine. So when Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him, we have to “keep our eye on the prize” as the old spiritual says. Are you willing to delay gratification for the ultimate reward? Are you going to choose your cross over your life?

Because it is always a choice; God does not compel. He does not violate the gift of free will He gave us in the beginning. God allows us to make the choice to pick up that cross. We are free to refuse. But by refusing, we will lose that hope he holds out to us: that death need hold no fear for us, that something better awaits us.

What is your cross? Is it turning away from fame? From riches? From comfort and ease? Is it learning to overcome your fear, your dislike of some people, your shyness? Probably it is all of these things and more. Because a cross, I will remind you, is not made of one piece of wood: it is composed of several pieces, large and small, wood, nails and maybe some rope. Your cross will probably not be just one thing, but all the things that get in the way of your being what God wants you to be.

Even Don Piper, having been shown a glimpse of heaven, found it hard to pick up his cross. The book is not just about the sweet, brief glimpse of heaven he had, but goes on to detail his struggle with the pain of his injuries, the depression which weighed him down, the agony of learning to walk again. His life did not become easier because of that brief glimpse: in fact, in many ways it became harder. Having glimpsed what awaited him beyond death, it was hard for Mr. Piper to return to this life, so full of pain and suffering, having experienced just a taste of what heaven will be like.

Yet he did take up that cross, as must we all. Just as Mr. Piper’s experience, written and shared in this book, has inspired and encouraged those of us who are Christians and perhaps even brought new people to Christ, our own experience may be an inspiration and encouragement to those who witness it. We may never know in this life who we have helped by bearing our cross, but we will surely be greeted by them outside the gates of heaven.

So pick up that cross. It’s heavy, it’s rough and it’s going to make us use muscles we didn’t even know we had. We’re going to get some splinters in our hands. We will get tired and we will have sweat running in our eyes. We will stumble as we drag it along and sometimes we will fall to our knees. But if we keep our eyes on the prize, it will all be worth it.