Monday, February 26, 2007

Lent 1 Sermon-- "A Pregnant Pause"

Jeremiah 18:1-6
John 3: 1-8

Let me begin this morning by simply thanking you. Thank you for being who you are in this community. Thank you for embracing our family and shaping my ministry. I want to share with you today some of our journey to and through ministry in part because you are part of that journey. But I also want to tell you how you have shaped my ministry because this is one of the essential themes of Lent—for us to examine and understand how we have been shaped and molded in faith.
There is a passage of scripture in Jeremiah where he visits a potter’s house. The potter is busy at the wheel, and at some point the clay is distorted, so the potter simply moves his hands and keeps spinning the wheel until the clay has resumed the shape that he wants it to be in. Jeremiah hears the voice of God saying, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” You’ve heard this scripture recently in this church, but it spoke to me again this week—so you get it again, okay?
Lent is a season of introspection, of attentiveness to prayer and discipline. It can be a time of great re-molding. In our church tradition, it is the time when we seek to mirror the time that Christ spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying. It is a time to come to terms with who we are, and what has made us what we are.
One of the events that I experienced while youth minister a few years ago that really contributed to my sense of “who I am” happened on a trip we took with the youth to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. We had spent the whole day there. Lara and I and some parents had taken a group Jr. and Sr. High youth as a reward trip for having the most consistent attendance at Sunday school. We had spent the day riding roller coasters…but the real roller coaster was waiting for us on the highways of Kansas. I was driving a van with a shell top, so don’t have to crouch down to get to the back seats.
Unfortunately, I’d always noticed the shell on the van caught the wind like a sail, and it was unsettling to drive if there was any wind at all. Heading west on the interstate in Kansas, I began to notice the sky in front of us was dark, and the wind that I dreaded was picking up. 18 wheelers were careening in their lanes, trying to stay within their bounds, and many cars were beginning to pull over as sheets of rain began to pummel my windshield.
I glanced from my white knuckles to the rearview, amazed to see my youth laughing and carrying on and flirting with each other, oblivious to the torments that I saw ahead of me. On the radio, I heard the distinctive beeps that proceeded a weather alert. It was a tornado warning—but I had no Kansas map, and the locations of touchdowns meant nothing to me.
In the middle of Kansas, there aren’t many places to seek shelter in a storm, but I found a gas station and pulled in to see. I remember the big plastic garbage cans at the gas station flying around the parking lot as I ran back to the van. I knew the ramshackle old gas station wouldn’t do anything to shelter us from the approaching storm, and the kid’s parents would already be waiting an hour or two past our estimated time of arrival because the hard rain had slowed our travel down significantly.
We were pretty close to being able to make it to our highway going south before the tornados made it to us. My prayer was more a demand than a petition. “These are your children God, and I’m the only one you’ve got to get them home safely. Now I need you to show me that you’re with me!” I pulled out of the gas station, back onto the interstate and toward our southbound highway. Not 5 minutes after I’d said the prayer, a lightning bolt crashed into a tree out in a pasture 100 yards outside my driver’s window. The tree exploded into flames, and my hair stood up on my arms.
A resounding “coooooool” was mixed with shrieks of fear voiced by the teenagers in the seats behind me. It was like I had not been riding in the van all along, my mind had been racing with possibilities of all the things that could go wrong. After I witnessed my own “burning bush” though, I had a new sense of confidence in God’s presence. The rain didn’t let up, the wind still rocked the van, the wet road continued to slow us down, but now my grip on the wheel relaxed, the blood rushed back into my knuckles, and I was able to feel the road better because I had loosened up enough to actually feel it.
We made it home safely. The sign of God’s presence that I had prayed for was actually presented to me in an unmistakable way. Though God had been answering prayers in a more subtle way for me for my whole life, this particular instance gave me a renewed sense of purpose and promise as a steward of God’s church.
If I am a chunk of clay being molded by God, then this experience is part of my spinning wheel. This is one of those things that contributed to who I am. God used this experience to mold me into the form that He has in mind. Lent comes from an Old English word “Lencten” which means “Spring.” Spring is a time of new growth, a time of taking shape, of coming into bloom. It is a time of preparation.
We observe Lent for 40 days for the most part because it was the early church’s custom to observe a total fast for 40 hours proceeding Easter morning. On the morning of Easter, new initiates into the faith were baptized and were allowed to take the sacrament of communion for the first time. The whole community of faith would participate in the 40 hour fast to prepare for this event. The number 40 carries great significance in the scriptures—The Israelites are in the wilderness for 40 years, the flood in Genesis begins with a period of rain for forty days and nights. Elijah sits on Mt. Horeb waiting for the voice of God for forty days and nights. Moses spends forty days on Mt. Sinai with God, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry.
Now, why 40? Did the Hebrew people consider it a holy number? Did God just like to do things in 3’s 7’s 12’s and 40’s? I’ve heard a compelling reason that the number 40 is Biblical literature. We hear the number so often because it is also the number of weeks that a baby is in gestation in her mother’s womb. Forty weeks is the amount of time that women are pregnant. It takes 40 weeks to shape us into who we are—and at the far end of 40 weeks, we are born!
This puts a new perspective on the stories in the Bible that feature the number 40. The Israelites were indeed re-born at the end of their journey in the Promised Land. They were a new people, they were no longer slaves, but free. Noah saw the whole world re-born through the floodwaters, which themselves are reminiscent of birth. Elijah, Jonah, Moses—all needed to go through a gestational period before they went on with their mission.
Jesus emerges from his forty days in the wilderness proclaiming, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news!” Lent is indeed a time of Spring. It is the pregnant pause before the exclamation of the empty tomb. It is strange for me to begin thinking of Lent in this way—I have always thought of it as a somber time, a frame of darkness that accentuates the unbelievable light of Easter.
Viewing Lent as the gestational period for our new birth in Easter brings a new meaning to the season for me—it recasts the agony of Good Friday as the birthpangs of Easter. It re-molds the sorrowful Last supper as that reluctant sadness women sometimes feel at the end of pregnancy, knowing that soon they will give up the intimate bond of carrying their child within them.
And so I invite you to view these 40 days with me as a period of gestation, when we focus on the fact that we are “wonderfully made” and the things that go into making us who we are. I shared with you one story of how my ministry in the church shaped me and my calling—the truth is that my calling is like a string of Christmas lights—moments throughout my life all connected along a tangled and luminescent string, that together shed light on my decision to enter ordained ministry. This church is responsible for a number of those Christmas lights.
What are some of yours? In what ways has God shed light on your purpose in life? Sometimes our understanding God’s activity of shaping us takes continued and disciplined focus. This is why I would encourage you to use the Lenten season as one of insight and meditation and prayer. You may find a spiritual practice that involves “giving up” some kind of creature comfort. Perhaps you have given up chocolate or soda. If you have decided to take this course, you may remind yourself of God’s presence and activity and shaping presence in your life every time you have a hankering for a coke or a kit-kat.
But perhaps you have never been that successful at making this kind of practice stick. If not, why not trying to add something to your life. A couple weeks ago, we received a letter from a lady at the Bartlesville church asking us to write a letter for a woman that would support her during her Emmaus walk.
I so enjoyed writing a letter and having the opportunity to write the letter to her that I thought—why don’t I just do this? Why do I need a “reason” to write a letter to someone letting them know what they’ve contributed to my walk with Christ? Well, perhaps this could be a Lenten discipline! Simply putting a pen to paper once a day and writing to someone we want to thank or acknowledge.
I left instructions for you on our church website on the practice of Lectio Divina—which is “Divine Reading,” a monastic practice of intentionally reading a passage of scripture and then re-reading and re-reading until a particular word or phrase jumps out and grabs us, and then sitting with that word in silence and contemplating why it is that God would have us hear that particular word or phrase. It can be a very powerful practice.
Perhaps you are attracted to the labyrinth—I’ve also posted an online Labyrinth on our church website that you can utilize as a devotional tool. Lent is a journey toward the center, and a Labyrinth can be very helpful for those of us who find it difficult to find silence and solace in our busy heads. I’ll never forget the time that I walked the labyrinth with the youth I mentioned before, and an 8th grader came up to me after he walked and said with wonder and gratitude, “For the first time in my life, my mind was quiet.”
Lent can be a Springtime for our souls. It can be a gestational period when we are formed and molded into the people whom God would have us be. God carries us in the womb of life, hoping for that day when we experience the second birth—the Spiritual birth when we open our eyes to the world around us and see God’s handiwork, when we look at the people next to us in the pew or the people who annoy us at work and we see brothers and sisters. When we look at ourselves in the mirror and see purpose and potential and promise.
This is the Lenten journey—a period of gestation as we await the new birth of humanity at the empty tomb.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Welcome to the world Trent!

Congratulations to Ken and Karen Morris, who now have a baby grandson, thanks to son Jonathan and his wife Alyssa. Trent Wesley Morris was born on Monday, February 19, 2007 at 11:19 am, weighing in at 8 lbs and 13 oz and 20 inches long. Isn't he great!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Transfiguration Sunday Sermon--Living the Transfiguration

2 Cor. 3:12=4:2
Luke 9: 28-43

I don’t know about you, but when I read this scripture, I am intrigued by Peter’s idea of setting up three tents. What is the meaning behind this seemingly ridiculous act? Mark was evidently as confused about Peter’s actions as his modern day readers—he comments on Peter’s idea by saying, “he did not know what to say, because he was terrified.” Luke shortens Mark’s comment simply to “not knowing what he had said.” Matthew seems to be the only gospel writer to think Peter is up to something worthwhile, because he leaves out commentary entirely. So, in the spirit of Matthew, I assumed that Peter wasn’t a complete fool, and looked for his meaning.
I believe that these tents in some ways symbolize our impulsive response to the divine. When the divine becomes apparent, we try to build it shelter. Instead of basking in the light of the transfiguration, we want to put it under canvas. Sure, we think this is best for the divine. God is in need of our protection!
We want to protect God under the tents of our dogmas, our customs, and our explanations. Douglas John Hall writes in a book I have been reading, The Cross in Our Context….“One suspects that our Western concepts of God are the answers that we give to depth experiences that are too basically unsettling to remain undefined, unnamed. Better name it straightaway—otherwise what control can we claim?”
The tents that we build as a response to the divine experience are our attempts to define and name the divine. Our human tendency is to feel uncomfortable with the divine. We can’t just stand with our mouths agape. Though ignorance breeds fear, the inverse is true as well: We are afraid of our ignorance—or at least I am anyway. I don’t like to think that “I don’t know.”
A friend of mine named Belden Lane is a teacher and author on the Spirituality of Landscape. IN a book titled The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, he writes about visiting Mt. Tabor—the traditional location of Christ’s transfiguration—and soaks up his surroundings. Lane is also perplexed by Peter’s idea. He writes:
“The disciples had been asking Jesus to reveal his glory as coming Messiah. They chafe under his resistance to declare openly before others that hidden truth. Peter rebukes him for predicting instead the suffering and death he must endure (Mark 8: 27-33). IN what seems to be a sudden reversal of Jesus’ reticence to display his grandeur, he takes a handful of disciples up the mountain and shows them a vision of his messianic glory to come. Everything they had longed for appears in dazzling splendor before them. The mountain is flooded with light.
Lane goes on to say……But their response is no better than those who built the golden calf after Moses’ theophany. Peter’s impulse, like theirs, is to reach for the knowable and speakable, wanting to preserve the experience artificially in a monument, building a cluster of shrines to commemorate a lost memory. He longs to sustain this display of mind boggling power that will forever demand the respect of others. Lost on him entirely is the deeper unspeakable significance of what happened on Tabor.
Finally, Lane says….This is the hardest truth for the disciples to bear. Their vision has no permanence. It can not be preserved in stone. Its ultimate fulfillment lies only on the far side of suffering, a suffering which inescapably awaits their Lord—and themselves. The way to glory is unavoidably the way of the cross, the path toward emptiness.”
This is why we celebrate the Transfiguration the Sunday before we begin our observation of Lent. Glory and striving are tied together in our expression of faith.
Christ isn’t waiting for us to put a box around him so that we can define him and control him: the Christ of the Transfiguration grabs our hearts and wrings them out. Sometimes Christ approaches us with arms open—other times Christ overturns our tables. Christ doesn’t ask us “Who do you say that I am?” so that we can define him for the world—he asks us so that we might profess him to the world.
When the disciples respond to the Transfiguration as we might, God appears in a cloud. Throughout the scriptures, and especially in the Exodus story, God is portrayed appearing in a cloud—and that is one reason we have this image in the Transfiguration. But Perhaps it is best for us to picture this cloud as a visual ignorance. A veil of missed comprehension. Christ stands before us transfigured, and all we can do (through Peter) is to suggest our tent-building. God doesn’t seem to be too interested in our tents. God seemingly interrupts Peter without justifying his idea with a response. Instead, God is bubbling over with adoration. “This is my son, IN whom I am well pleased.” Should we make a tent for him then God? No---“Listen to Him.” Listening to him entails us confronting our fears. Are we afraid to live our lives the way that he perceives is possible in us? IN other words: He asks us “Do you mind if I always love you?” Most of us know that being loved by someone means yielding ourselves to them and allowing them inside our lives. We talk a lot about “loving Jesus.” Perhaps the real difficult thing to do is being loved by Jesus.
Christ’s love is a transformative love. I can’t open myself to Christ’s love without being transfigured myself. The transfiguration burns our worldly eyes. IN a later experience of the transfigured Christ, Paul experienced this transformation as so reformative that it blinded him. After seeing a bright light and being questioned by the Risen Christ, Saul “could see nothing, and had to be led by the hand to Damascus, where he was healed by Ananias and scales fell from his eyes. Our eyes are burned by this vision as well. The love of Christ transcends our worldly vision.
. Are you afraid to live your life the way that I perceive? That’s how Jesus enters our hearts: that introspection that causes us to see what Christ perceives is possible in our lives. “Do you applaud fear?” Christ challenges us to do all that he has done. He perceives greatness in us when we perceive weakness. Christ is the fulfillment and potential for all humanity. Paul writes about the transfiguration in 2nd Corinthians “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Christ perceives Christ in our hearts, and that’s how Christ enters. The law is written on our hearts. Christ taking hold of our hearts is not an act of filling an empty space, it is an unveiling of what is already there.
Belden Lane has this unveiling experience of being included in the transfiguration when he visited Mt. Tabor. He writes,
I wandered into the ruins of a Benedictine monastery. There I opened my Bible to Matthew. A harsh, cold wind rustled the pages, making them hard to hold. Dark clouds were gathering. But the words of the gospel went right through me as I stumbled over the passage. I heard them spoken by God not only to Jesus, but also, it seemed, to me. “You are my son,” the voice was saying, “the one I love.
I’m pleased with you; I take pleasure in who you are. Listen (and attend carefully)…to my glory within you.” There were no lights flashing at the time, no extraordinary vision. God knows, I was half freezing to death. But I couldn’t get away from the embarrassed, almost heretical feeling that in all my ordinariness—a foreigner with cold feet and anxiousness about the weather—I was somehow in that moment included in the transfiguring light once revealed in that place. A father was saying words I’d been longing to hear all my life.
Lane continues….While such a reading of the text may seem presumptuous to Western ears, I’d learn later that it follows exactly the Greek fathers’ understanding of the transfiguration event. The disciples’ vision of Jesus’ deified human flesh on Mount Tabor revealed to them not only the glory of God, but also what it means most fully to be human. Part of their amazement at the transfiguration was that, in seeing Jesus, they also saw themselves anew. Summarizing John of Damascus and Gregory Palamas, John A. McGuckin says, “When the disciple comes before the mystery of the Transfiguration he sees an image of his true face that he has known but long since forgotten.”
Jesus shows the disciples the glorious nature of the Christ. Even though we are disciples of Christ, we can never quite wrap our minds around the simple light and beauty of the transfiguration. It is out of the ordinary. Right when we think we have the right answers to the question “Who do you say that I am?” the reality of the Christ melts our minds and envelops us like a cloud.
We try to build appropriate shrines, and we don’t even begin to get it. The cloud forces our knees to buckle. What is this grand vision? This awe inspiring light? Is it a taste of some transcendent deity? No—it is pure humanity. It is fearless, unbounded love. Christ never lets us disciples off the hook—He asks us if we would like to join him on Golgotha. He tells us that we will do all he has done and more. Christ’s radiant face is the potential for all creation.
Now I’m going to play a song by Thievery Corporation. This is secular music, but I agree with Madeline L’Engle that “nothing is so secular that it can’t be sacred.” Imagine the words of the singer coming from the mouth of Jesus on the ascent of the mountain of transfiguration. Can you see the transfiguration in the mirror, as Paul asks us in 2nd Corinthians? If not, what are the things that are holding you back? Where do you see Christ’s face changing into something unexpected? What metamorphosis must you undergo to be the face of Christ in this world for others? What have you built in an attempt to shelter God? If you wish, you may come and light a candle as a sign of reverence and prayer. As the chancel begins to be filled with candlelight, perhaps we might see our own purpose as God’s children to be reflections of that magnificent light which give us hope. How can we be lights to this community. Come and light a candle in hopes that we may be transfigured to this purpose.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Feb. 11 Sermon: Rooted by the Water

Sermon Texts:
Rooted by the Water
I told you last week that there was a pond down the street from my house where I used to go fishing. Well, at this pond there was also a beautiful, flowing willow tree. There was a big rock under the willow tree, and I have fond memories of walking through the curtain of branches into the “room” created by the tree. I remember the sense of comfort and contentment I experienced under that willow tree. The willowy branches spread out over the pond a bit, so a bit of the water fell under the curtain of willow branches.
Those branches would also come in handy when taking shelter under the willow tree during a BB gun war. Nestled under the protective fingers of this motherish tree, I knew whatever BBs came my way would be somewhat deflected.
Whenever I read the passage we heard from Jeremiah this morning, I always think of this willow tree. This tree that “put down roots by the water.” It’s a comforting image, isn’t it? Perhaps there are trees in your experience which have provided similar sanctuaries for you.
The Psalmists and the prophets use trees to describe our spiritual lives. Throughout the ages, Christian mystics and theologians have also described who we are in relationship to God by referring to trees. Brother Lawrence, a French mystic, wrote of himself, “That in the winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul.” A very wise man I have met named Satish Kumar wrote of a similar experience in the company of a tree:
“The churches, cathedrals, mosques and synagogues, shrines and temples are not the only holy places, but the whole of creation is divine and sacred. My pilgrimage is in every moment and in every place. Sometimes I come a cross a tree which seemed like a Buddha or a Jesus: loving, compassionate, still, unambitious, enlightened, in eternal meditation, giving pleasure to a pilgrim, shade to a cow, berries to a bird, beauty to its surroundings, health to its neighbors, branches for the fire, leaves to the soil, asking nothing in return, in total harmony with the wind and the rain. How much I can learn from a tree! The tree is my church, the tree is my temple, the tree is my mantra, the tree is my poem and my prayer.
Standing under a tree by the Gapping River, I realized that the law of nature is to create energy and life by uniting. A seed united with the soil creates a tree; water united with the earth produces crops. When man and woman are united in love, they create a child. Wherever there is unity, sacred and positive energy is generated.”
Once, I was given a vision of how a tree is a mirror of our human connection with God. In my imagination I saw a tree as the community of faith. We were rooted and grounded in the creator, with our roots being our tradition and especially our holy scriptures. The trunk that gave us a connection to the Creator ground was Christ, our branches were the different cultural and denominational expressions of the Christian Church, some bisecting and branching off into many smaller branches, and the individual believers were the tiny sprouts that spring out of each small branch. The fruit that we bear—the actions in which we give life to our faith, were represented by leaves, and the movement of the wind through the tree, which caused the leaves to shimmer, was the Holy Spirit.
Now, I suppose you could also find the presence of some aspect of God in the sunshine that gave the tree nutrients and causes the leaves of the tree to produce life giving chlorophyll for the whole of the tree—perhaps the sunshine could be God’s grace, since it is by and through grace that our works have any effect on the tree as a whole.
Also, using today’s narrative to further elaborate on the tree motif, I would say that the water by which this tree is planted would also be the Holy Spirit—since Spirit is commonly pictured as Wind and Water. If our tree, if our faith life and community, is planted near the water, near the life-giving resources of the Holy Spirit, then not only will the Spirit move through our branches in the activity of the Spirit’s presence now, but we may also draw on the Spirit’s presence through the roots of our faith—particularly, as our liturgical tradition puts it, through the voices of the prophets.
The presence of the Spirit, especially through the prophets, gives our tree a source of freshness and coolness even in the heat and dryness of draught. Even when it seems the breeze doesn’t stir our branches, we can still tap into the wellsprings of the spirit if we are planted by the water. Now, how and why does this matter? How is this information intended to help you mold your life in the Way of Christ or help you live your life in the light of Christ? It is simply intended to be a visualization—a way for you to see our connection to the creator and our place in the life of God. We have something to give—our fruit that we bear in our lives, the fruits of service and love and compassion and kindness and joy and hope—these are the leaves that bring energy to the tree as a whole. We’re not intended to simply be connected to the tree—God intends for us to contribute!
Relationship with God is intended to nurture and inspire creativity and action, rather than passive acceptance of the status quo. God needs partners not puppets in healing the world. This blessed interdependence inspires grace toward our fellow creatures as a response to the grace we have received.
Jeremiah points to something rather curious—it is a motif that he uses quite a bit in his message to Israel—it is the distrust of the human heart. This may sound like an odd passage to read right before Valentine’s Day, when we typically celebrate the action of the human heart. But as we know, and perhaps have experienced in romantic love, the human heart is fickle. It is finicky. It is frustrating! Jeremiah says, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?” Some of us this Valentine’s Day may say a resounding “Amen!” to that sentiment! Why is that? Why doesn’t Jeremiah trust the heart?
Perhaps Jesus knew why! Jesus came down from the mountain and began ministering to the people—He was sharing his power with the crowd, Luke puts it, “Power was going out from him.” Now here was a man rooted near the water—IN fact, here is a man who is so closely attuned with the water and the ground that he becomes the source and connection for millions upon millions of people throughout the ages to that water and that ground! Here is a man from whom a whole tree sprouts forth! Here is a man who embodied the Logos—that Divine Word “through whom all else came to be!”
But, here too is a man who knows the hearts of people. Jeremiah says in the Spirit, “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”
Jesus begins preaching to the people there on the plain. He says, “Blessed are those….” And here is where things go a little counter to what we would naturally think—“Blessed are you who are poor—for yours is the Kingdom of God!” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
You see, this is where our heart gets it wrong sometimes, because you know what...I really want to be rich. My heart would rather that than be poor. And, there is nothing quite as filling as a full stomach, now is there? And, my heart hurts when I weep, and when others hate me. God gave me a heart for a reason, right? Shouldn’t I feel this way!
That is difficult. That is counter-intuitive. That doesn’t seem like Good news to me! Especially when Jesus goes on—he doesn’t end there! He says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
You see, I told you that my heart would love to be rich—that I can feel that desire pulling from my guts—from my chest. And perhaps that is the problem—you see, I am rich! Compared to ½ the population of the whole world, who live on less than $2 per day, I’m a millionaire! And yet, in what country is the desire for wealth, the intense grabbing, and groping for the trappings of wealth so gluttonously gobbled than in our own culture, which is rich off the backs of others to begin with?
We lavish ourselves with stuff and then hesitate to give to others. We keep up with the Joneses while walking over the poor. “Might as well make the most of this life,” we tell ourselves, “because it’s the only one you’ve got!” “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”
Perhaps Jesus simply saw how wealth and fullness and popularity tend to turn us in on ourselves. They tend to make us preoccupied with the satisfaction of our own hearts rather than being life-giving to the whole tree. This is why he says, “They have had their reward.” Wealth, and power and popularity don’t have to be our reward. Even for those of us who possess these things, they don’t have to be our “endpoint.”
This type of life Jeremiah compares to the hot, salty desert. If we put our trust in the things of this world, if we bank on the things that eventually come to an end, then we are dwelling in an ultimately lifeless place. This is why Jesus praised the poor, the hungry, the hated, the mourning. These people have had the distractions of this world stripped from them by society, and are left only with God to cling to.
God’s blessing echoes in the heart of those who have lost much, who have nothing transitory to stuff into their hearts to begin with. God’s preference for the poor, the hurting, the hated, the mourning, is apparent in the ministry of Jesus. If we don’t find ourselves in any of those camps, perhaps we too can be blessed by Christ by helping him minister to those people.
If we find ourselves planted in the desert—if we wake up one day and see that we have put our trust in things that don’t last—then the good news for us is that we can be transplanted. The Hebrew verb used in this passage is “transplanted” not “planted.” The truth is that we are all at some point withering out in the desert. The good news can be opened up in our lives when we turn from putting our faith and trust in money and power and everything else that doesn’t last, and decide that instead we should put our trust in God. That means turning our lives over to be transplanted by the water.
Once we are transplanted by the water, we will be nourished by the Spirit, we will be strong and fresh in the heat of the hardships which face us, we will be a haven for the world around us, and as the old song goes, “Like a tree, planted by the water…we shall not be moved.”

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Effective Ministry in the Small membership church

Are we considered a small membership church? Actually no, but some of the lessons at this conference would probably prove helpful for us. IF you are interested in attending, let us know and your way is paid.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Feb. 4 sermon--Out of the Depths

Sermon Texts'
Psalm 130
Luke 5: 1-11

One afternoon when Lara and I lived out in California, I decided to take up an offer by a guy I had met recently to teach me how to surf. We drove up to Santa Barbara that morning, and met the guy at the beach. He was a student at UC Santa Barbara—the home of the Banana Slugs—where you can surf in the morning before class because the school is right on the beach. Lara sat on the beach as the guy pointed to a longboard and said—“those are easiest to learn on, lets go.” Let me tell you, surfing is a sport that the pros (and even those who have the hang of it) make look easy. Just paddling out into the water is a challenge! Speeding up with the wave enough to actually catch it exausts the arms. And then there is the matter of standing up!
Also, there is the hanging around to wait for the wave. You see, breakers are caused when the natural wave movement of the ocean comes into contact with the shelf of land we call the beach. Surfers (and yours truly) have to get used to hanging out on our surfboards, or letting our legs dangle off the boards into the deep blue below us.
I love the ocean—but I think it is jarring to just about anyone to swim out to that point where the water begins getting cold on our toes, and things unknown whip past our feet. I remember as a kid going to the Gulf of Mexico and trying to balance the desire to swim far enough to make my mother nervous and jumpy with my own terror at the seaweed licking the bottoms of my feet.
There in Santa Barbara, leaning on that surfboard, It took some getting used to knowing that the shelf plunged down into an abyss just yards from where I was waiting. The Santa Barbara Basin, an oddity of oceanography, is a deep channel between the mainland and the channel islands just off the coast. Its reaches depths that usually aren’t found so close to the mainland.
The depths can be terrifying to us, can’t they? They represent our fears, our pain and suffering, or the unknown. The Psalmist this morning uses the imagery to articulate his suffering. This beautiful Psalm is often used in the funeral liturgy, where it is a fitting song of lament for those who experience the fear and bewilderment that surrounds the loss of a loved one.
Our comprehension of Hell and suffering is inexorably tied to the idea of a pit, a deep crevasse, or at the very least somewhere “down there.” Our archetype for pain and suffering indeed provokes us to cast our eyes downward. We have the sense that the power of these difficult emotions is under our feet, unseen, troubling. Perhaps it is that sense we get in our stomach, that overwhelming feeling of discomfort and disorientation, when our toes come to the edge of a canyon, and our end is a footstep away.
Yes, the Psalmists love the metaphor of the depths—and it is used often in those songs of our faith to speak of the incomprehensible powers of fear and darkness and hopelessness. In Psalm 88 we hear, “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, 2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, 5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. 6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.”
But into the deep, dark waters of our woe and misery, Christ comes with a boat. Into the world of the disoriented and despairing, Christ throws out a net. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch!” Christ, the great fisher of people, has a particular catch in mind. He goes to the depths—God incarnate goes first to the shadowy depths of our most hidden vulnerabilities. Christ throws down his net into the depths and enfolds all of us in the strong net of his all encompassing love.
It is as if Christ gives his mission to his disciples. Go to the depths—go to the sinning world—go to the castaways, the dregs of society. Go to the lame and the suffering. Go and suffer with them!
Even in the abyss of our hopelessness and the fathoms of our sin and despair, we also find the “Depths of Mercy” that resounds in the mysterious heart of God. You’ve heard that sometimes it takes someone hitting “rock bottom” before they seek out help and community and love and healing. In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, he tells of a “thorn in his flesh” that kept him from dwelling on the heights of a divine encounter. He writes, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power F46 is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. I’m not just preaching to people who feel like they’ve done something wrong and are in the depths of guilt, or have experienced great loss or difficulty and are in the depths of despair. I’m preaching to all of us this morning. I’m preaching to myself this morning too!
I tend to place a lot of confidence in my own profession of faith and my exemplification of spirituality. I find it hard to find fault in myself, and I end up coming across to those I love most as bull-headed, proud, and unconscious of my own faults. Why don’t I see that God’s presence and power are expressed in my weakness! Why don’t I see that the doctor is making house-calls, and I’m disguising a cough while pretending I don’t hear the doorbell.
The depths aren’t only despair in our tradition—they also convey the unfathomable mystery of God. God’s grace is sufficient for all of us, for power is made perfect in weakness. We can be most filled by God’s power and presence if we empty ourselves of the notion that we have any power or control to begin with. The more we empty out, the more grace can be put in.
John Wesley, founder of our tradition, found comfort in the following German Hymn that he translated into English as the following.
1 O GOD, thou bottomless abyss!Thee to perfection who can know?O height immense! What words sufficeThy countless attributes to show?Unfathomable depths thou art;O plunge me in thy mercy's sea!Void of true wisdom is my heart;With love embrace and cover me:While thee, all-infinite, I setBy faith before my ravished eye,My weakness bends beneath the weight;O'erpowered I sink, I faint, I die.
The mystery conveyed in this poem is certainly an apt description of the table that will be prepared before you this morning. The depth of this sacramental meal is unfathomable, but by the grace of God, we are given a taste of Christ’s real presence with us. Our God, that bottomless abyss, comes to us and swallows the depths of our sin and death and shame and suffering. The incomprehensibility of God becomes tangible flavors—everyday flavors that we typically encounter—and in so doing, we believe these elements, this simple bread and juice of the grape, nourishes our spirits in a literal communion with God.
The mystery of the Lord’s table is given to us in the context and remembrance of the unimaginable and irrational story of how God achieved the salvation that we could have never deserved. We hear a story where a betrayal, an executioner’s cross, and an all but unbelievable story of an empty tomb conquers the reality of our sin and brokenness and estrangement. Jesus pours out his life for us in the meal we are about to receive.
But finding Jesus isn’t just about being pulled up from the depths by the graceful nets of God. It is about being a fish and allowing ourselves to be caught up in the grace of God, but our call of faith doesn’t end with the image of us being fish flopping around in a boat, it is also about helping Jesus with those heavy nets.
Jesus calmly suggests to his new friends that they row out to the deep waters and cast out their nets. Though they hadn’t caught anything all day, they obliged him his ridiculous request. Astonished, they began hauling in so many fish that they had to call their friends from the shore to come and help take in the catch. Helping Jesus catch fish sometimes requires our obedience and determination in the face of repeated failure. It is from the places of unease that great things may come.
Peter stands and looks at Jesus after he makes his request. “Master,” he says “we haven’t caught anything all day, but I will let down my nets.” So many fish were caught by Peter and James and John that the two boats began to be swamped. Peter fell to his knees in devotion. “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus pulled him back up. “From now on, we will be fishing for people.”
Christ is pushing out to the deep waters, he is fishing for people who are in the depths. May we be swept up in the nets of this Gospel—so that we shall know the greater depths: the depths of mercy which can bring joy and wholeness to our lives. Let us not stop there—may we bring this hope to others. May we make this hope real in love and fellowship and service.