Sunday, October 31, 2010

Oct. 31 Sermon: It's Not a Costume!

Sermon Texts:
Psalm 139: 1-12
Ephesians 6: 10-20

Can you remember the costumes you wore as a kid on Halloween?  Perhaps you still enjoy dressing up?  Many were here last night at our annual Trunk or Treat.  You kind of made a costume for your automobiles, and many of you were dressed up too! 

It’s always fun to put on a costume, isn’t it.  We can pretend we’re something we’re not for a while. 

Halloween is a very old holiday, and probably the most enduring aspect of Halloween was there from the beginning, dressing up as ghouls and ghosts. 

In pre-Christian England, the people celebrated Samhain on Oct. 31.  Nov. 1st was the new year in the pre-Christian society, and on the night between the old year and the new year, spirits were thought to have free reign on the earth.  The “veil was thin.” 

So, people would dress up like spirits and other creatures that people couldn’t fully understand, in an attempt to “blend in” and not be bothered by the evil spirits. 

I remember some of my favorite memories of Halloween was going trick or treating with my best friend Matthew as a pair of nerds.  Steve Urkel was pretty popular at the time, and his rise to fame as a suspender wearing, oversized glasses on the tip of his nose, mega-geek gave hope to people like me.

We’d watch his show every week on TGIF while eating chicken sticks and French fries at the Mattox house.  My sister and I would bump into things in imitation of the great Urkel, and would do our best impressions of his “eheheh, Did IIIIIIIII do thaaaaaaat?” 

I think Urkel must be alive and well somewhere on TV, b/c on Friday when I was taking Wesley to school, a boy hopped out his car, and Damien said, “Look, he came as Urkel!”  I almost fell off my bike. 

So anyway, one of the problems you run into as a nerdy little kid deciding to dress up as a “nerd” for Halloween is that you will inevitably hear from some other kid, “Hey Nathan, where’s your costume?” 

What can you say to that?  Where’s the little quip that equalize the embarrassment?  There is none. 

In today’s passage, Paul is speaking to the Ephesians about “dressing up” too, but instead of talking about things we hope we aren’t, Paul is talking about the qualities that can define us in a struggle against the darkness.

 “Put on the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 

That’s quite a costume, isn’t it!  But that’s the thing—It’s not a costume.  It’s not putting on something that is making fun of what we aren’t, it is putting on something that magnifies who we are. 

Instead of utilizing the age-old principle employed by the ancient Celts, who dressed up like the demons and spirits to try and “blend in,” Paul had something very different in mind—stand out!  Put on your armor and prepare for the onslaught! 

Instead of skulking back into the shadows, Paul wanted the people of Christ to “stand their ground.”  He says it three times in three different ways, Stand your ground, after you have done everything, to stand.  And Stand firm!” 

And what is Paul wanting us to stand firm against?  Not the flesh and the blood, in other words, not our temporary struggles with vice or worldliness.  If that is what defines our Christian faith—that it is some kind of safeguard against loose morality, then Paul has something to say to us.

There is a menace against which we must stand firm—it is the rulers and powers and authorities that propagate evil in the world.  It is the darkness that seeks to defeat the church, and you know how that darkness is weaving it’s way into our lives in the most insidious and destructive way? 

Apathy born of fatalism, and a lie that we deserve everything we want. 

Do you see Paul’s Armor of Faith as a costume or your baptismal gown? 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oct. 24 Sermon: The Highlight Reel

1 Cor. 13: 1-3
Luke 18: 9-14

Sermon Notes:

Instead of watching the whole Razorback game yesterday, I just watched the highlight reel, because I couldn’t get the espn3 player to rewind while the game was in progress, and the game was in progress for quite a while since there was a rain delay.

The frustrating thing about highlight reels though is that, while it shows you the big plays of 20 yards or so, (of which Arkansas has quite a few) or big defensive plays like fumble recoveries or big sacks, it doesn’t give you the story of the in-between does it.

I remember seeing one highlight of us on the 20 yard line or so, and thinking, “well, how’d we get there in the first place?”

Watching the game this way reminded me of today’s scripture, with the way the Pharisee prayed to God, what looked more like a highlight reel than an honest to God prayer.

Jesus plays a little trick on us with this parable. In the story, the Pharisee points out the tax collector in his prayer. In contrast to the wretched tax collector, the Pharisee does all the right things. He’s a faithful tither, he

But, with his pride and arrogance, he certainly turns the listener off, doesn’t he? No doubt, we all say to ourselves, “well, thank God I’m not like THAT!

But that’s the rub. Just like the Pharisee would be better off if he recognized that he was a lot more like the tax collector than unalike-that is a sinner of God’s own redeeming—we would all no doubt do better to understand that we are a lot more like the Pharisee than we’d care to admit.

How often do our prayers look more like a highlight reel than an honest relationship with God?

Diane Bergant writes in a 2004 article in "America"

"We probably all have long lists of things we would never do. I would never rob a bank, or attack a helpless person, or run off with the pool man. It is beneath my dignity to cheat on a test or purchase clothing I intend to wear only once and then return for refund. God, am I good! But then, I have never been financially hopeless; I have never been under attack myself; and I have never had a pool man. I have never been desperate enough to feel the need to cheat or to finagle clothing. God, am I good? Or have I just been sheltered from some of the hardships that many others face?

How might I act if I were in their difficult situations?We would all benefit from reflecting on whether we are indeed as “righteous” as we claim. Are we genuinely virtuous, or have we been preserved from circumstances that might bring out the worst in us? Is our goodness tried and true, or is it simply the habitual behavior expected of “people like us”?"

The Jesus prayer, petition to God, that some who endeavor to live a life of “unceasing” prayer repeat over and over and over again. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Kyrie Eleison, Mr. Mister song. Loved it as a kid. Lord Have Mercy.

Today we are visiting a Benedictine monastery in Shawnee, where no doubt some of the monks there are formed by prayers like the Jesus prayer. The Jesus prayer in particular comes out of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but the sentiment is the same in the rosary, which many western monks like the Benedictines use for their own prayer life.
Wouldn’t you think that if any Christians had a right to brag to God, it would be those who devote their entire lives to prayer and service—who live in a way that is so outside the normal culture that they seem like a novelty?

And yet, I’ve never met a monk who at all fits the description that Jesus gives of the Pharisee, the “holy man” of his day. All the monks I have ever met are humble and cheerful and the first to admit their weaknesses or sinfulness. It must be that spending every hour of the day in Christian community must put one into very close touch with our need for Grace.

Instead of taking such a presumptuous attitude with God in our prayer life, thinking that somehow God missed out on things, so we have to give him a highlight reel, we should understand that our whole lives will be “under further review” on the day of judgment, and the only thing we can stand on is God’s ever abundant grace.

There was once a dervish devotee who believed that it was his task to reproach those who did evil things and to enjoin upon them spiritual thoughts, so that they might find the right path. [The dervish singled out a compulsive gambler, and each day the dervish placed a stone near the entrance of the house, to remind the gambler of his sin. The devotee enjoyed the pleasure of his 'Godliness' in recording the sins of his neighbor. This went on for twenty years.
Each day the gambler thought,] 'Would that I understand goodness! How that saintly man works for my redemption! Would that I could repent, let alone become like him, for he is sure of a place among the elect when the time of requital arrives!'

And so it happened that, through a natural catastrophe, both men died at the same time. An angel came to take the soul of the gambler, and said to him gently, 'You are to come with me to paradise.'

[The gambler protested, saying that the angel must have mixed up his instructions, for he learned that the devotee is destined for roasting on the fiery pit in hell.]
'Not so,' said the angel, 'as I shall explain to you. It is thuswise: the devotee has been indulging himself for twenty years with feelings of superiority and merit. Now it is his turn to redress the balance. He really put those stones on that pile for himself, not for you. … You are to be rewarded because, every time you passed the dervish, you thought first of goodness and secondly of the dervish. It is goodness, not man, which is rewarding you for your fidelity.'
-Idries Shah 1924-1996
Wisdom of the Idiots

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oct. 17 Sermon: Keep on Keepin' on. The Persistent widow

Practice Makes Perfect

          “Will he find faith in the world?”  Faith is exemplified by persistence. 
What is persistence, really?  It is keeping what matters in front of our attention—so prioritized that we act on what is most important every day.  What if the son of man came on a day that you were taking “off” from your life of faith.  Not really doing anything to exhibit your faith to the world.  Maybe it’s just being on your own. 
          The widow has an every day reminder that she is in need of protection—she was alone.  She had no one to depend on.  So she went the judge, even though he was corrupt and unjust, and she wore him down.  God is contrasted with that unjust, uncaring judge.  God is the one who “chooses” us.  We are his adopted children.
We should be intentional about that relationship.  If Jesus walked into our daily lives, would he find faith there?  Would he be able to see it in your life if he could not ask you what you thought.  Keep in mind that none of us would be able to understand what Jesus said if he walked into our world as he did 2000 years ago.  So, would he be able to see his teachings in the way you lived your life?  Would he see works of justice and mercy, of worship and devotion? 
Faith takes persistence.  It takes intentionality.  It takes keeping what is most important in our full view, not in the periphery.  ((((((((((((Elucidate on periphery))))))))))
You know one way we can keep our relationship with God in our full vision?  You know how we can focus on it?  We can pay attention to the relationships we have between us and others.  Do we really know each other?  I have the privilege of visiting you in your homes.  I have the privilege speaking with you about your spiritual lives, about your greatest fears and hopes. 
That privileged relationship is not just an aspect of the pastoral call, it is an aspect of the Christian call.  We are given the mandate on the most important day of Jesus’ life, that last night he spent with his disciples.  He told them, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”  Jesus paid attention to people, didn’t he?  He wasn’t an unjust and uncaring judge.  He was and is the judge who calls you child. 

God doesn’t just relate to us through other people.  He relates to us in the natural world and in all of creation, as I alluded to last week.  What’s one way we can be attentive to the relationship with God in the natural world?  What is one thing that sustains a relationship between people?  A commitment to listen is paramount.
I laid down on the cot on the porch for a few minutes to think about what I was going to say one morning this week, and as a few cars passed on the highway, it fell silent.  Then, like a hum in the back of my ear I could hear the crickets singing.  It was a new revelation for me.  I thought that crickets only sang at night for some reason.  I see that’s just when it gets quiet enough to hear them. 
Quiet enough to hear them………….
We all know the difference when we are being listened to and when we are just being heard.  The unjust judge hears the widow’s pleas, but he’s not listening.  It isn’t changing him.  He remains unmoved and simply acts out of his own annoyance with the sound of the lady’s voice.  By contrast, the judge who is our redeemer and friend also listens to us. 
Shouldn’t we devote the time to really listen to him?  To be intentional about it, as if what God said really does matter?  Paul diagnoses a problem that Timothy should be wary that he will find among God’s people.  Oftentimes we don’t intentionally listen for God’s voice. Instead we just listen to whatever is convenient, perhaps what makes us feel good, perhaps what dresses up and looks like Christianity—what poses as sound doctrine and teaching but is really just a veil for what makes us feel comfortable. 
Nothing makes me feel more comfortable than thinking that someone else was going to get the heat.  In my childhood experience of getting sent to the principal’s office (and I have a pretty good pool to draw from) I always felt a little more at ease if I was going with someone else, especially if that someone else, in my view, was more “guilty” than I was.  I imagined that the principal might have more ire for the other person.  I could always stand over to the side and say “I didn’t do it!” 
That didn’t always work with principals, but it certainly won’t work with our judge.  Did you love your neighbor as you loved yourself?  “I didn’t do it!”  Did you look for Christ in the least of my neighbors?  “I didn’t do it!”  Did you pay attention to your relationship with me?  “I didn’t do it!”  Well then, what did you do?  
1 John, you must love one another
James: faith without works is dead

Do you give like the son of man is coming again?  Do you forgive like the son of man is coming again?   Do you live like the son of man is coming again?  We are rescued from the dead by a God who loves us and calls us children.  And as the song goes, “Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity, interpreted by love!”  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Oct. 10 Sermon, Peaceable Kingdom

Genesis 1: 20-25
Isaiah 11: 6-10

St. Francis Feast day this past week.

Reminded of that, b/c of our wonderful visitors from the zoo. 

Always been inspired by St. Francis.  Great books I’ve read. 

Who was he and why should we care:

Known for preaching to the birds, brokering a peace accord between a wolf and a village, and founding a monastic order devoted to poverty and preaching, living within a community.

In case you think of him as kind of hippy-dippy head in the clouds kind of guy, he also was an ambassador.  Travelled to the heart of the Muslim empire in Egypt to persuade a great warrior, Saladin, to make peace with the Crusaders who had attempted to take land that he protected. 

He also persuaded a pope to accept practices that had earned excommunication in earlier spiritual leaders. 

But, he remains for us the patron saint of animals and nature.  Many churches have a blessing of the animals.

Always remember this argument in childhood, and maybe it’s something of a contentious issue in adulthood.  “Do all dogs go to heaven?” 

Of course they do.  God created them, and God’s heaven is coming to earth to redeem “all creation, which is groaning out for redemption.” 

I have heard the counter-arguments:, well, animals don’t have souls, so they can’t go to heaven.  Show me where it says that in the Bible in a place that does not also speak of the same fate for humanity.

Ecclesiastes3 . I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath [b] ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal [c] goes down into the earth?" 

As Ecclesiastes and Psalm ? say, God’s Spirit, God’s Breath, gives all things life. 

Instead, scripture frequently speak of animals being involved in the New heaven and the New Earth.  Isaiah speaks of the animals laying down with one another as they once had in Eden.

According to scripture, we’re the reason that animals too are subject to death.  It is mankind that caused the fall from grace. 

The good news for us, is that God redeems us (and the animals.)  Why would God redeem the creatures who caused all this mess and leave all the innocent animals behind.  The animals didn’t eat the forbidden fruit, the people did.

John Wesley had this same outlook on the animal kingdom.  In fact, it played into his decision to refrain from eating meat.  The only reason he, after years of being a vegetarian, resumed eating meat was because his bishop was suspicious that he may be turning into a radical, and Wesley wanted to prove that he wasn’t one.

Wesley’s conundrum echoes today for us.  It is easy to think of our pets as having souls, perhaps even wild animals as having souls, but then livestock comes into play. 

Does believing an animal have a soul get in the way of my diet?  This is an area where the “school of thought” prevalent at my seminary, Process Theology, gives me some tools to live.

In this system, creatures with greater comprehension of the world around them have a greater amount of input from God.  In a sense, humans have a “bigger” soul than a wasp or a fish.  So, when we choose to slaughter an animal and eat it, it is less offensive to the giver of that life-breath if we take care to “minimize the loss.” 

Cows and chickens have a relatively low comprehension of the relational world.  Horses seem to have a greater awareness, don’t they?  Perhaps this is the reason we bristle at the idea of eating a horse or a dog. 

They are more aware of our company, they seem to care for us more than a cow or a chicken. 

I think the practice you find in many of the records about native Americans of offering a prayer of thanksgiving before taking the life of an animal is commendable. 

It is a way to acknowledge the presence of God in the world around us that strengthens our own understanding of the relationship between God and us. 

That’s why we bless the animals.  Because the animals are a blessing to us.  It’s not really us giving some kind of perk to the animals that they don’t already have—it’s simply us acknowledging God’s blessing in relationship and in all life. 

I’m sure most of us have had relationships with animals.  Perhaps it’s a cat who likes to snuggle up over your bare feet because she knows you like it.  Perhaps it’s a dog who was protective of you as a child.  Maybe it’s a horse who carries you on his back and communicates with you in an unspoken language. 

In all things, we find God’s desire for a relationship with us.  And if we’re patient and observant, we might be blessed to see the relationship that God has with those animals and wildlife as well.  

Oct. 3 Sermon, World Communion Sunday Sermon,

Sermon Text

Today is World Communion Sunday. It is a yearly celebration of what we hold in common with Christians of all denominations around the globe. The denominations of Christianity are very different, yet we all confess one God, we all find God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and we all believe the Holy Spirit is present with us, especially in the act of Holy Communion, which we all celebrate. Some of us celebrate more often than others, but it is the common meal that we recognize together, at least on one day out of the year. 

World communion Sunday began in the 1930’s by the Presbyterian church as a testament to the times. As Nazi power grew in Europe and that continent was embroiled in the birth of another war that would eventually engulf the whole world, Christian denominations came together to provide an alternative vision for the world. During the 40’s, World Communion Sunday was adopted by the Methodist church and by other denominations involved in the Ecumenical movement as a symbol of solidarity amidst our worldly divisions. Gathering around the table as Christians, instead of as Methodists, or Baptists, or Episcopalians, became a hope for the future—a hope that we one day will be enfolded back into the family of Christ that knows no boundaries or divisions. 
In this day and age, with the Ecumenical movement on a budgetary respirator of sorts, and with its influence waning in favor of more divisive Christian voices, what does World Communion mean to us today? How many other churches in Morris are observing World Communion Sunday? Do you know? I don’t! Our community doesn’t have a ministerial alliance that would plan a community wide celebration like this. We now have a cross-denominational youth partnership, and we have worked with other churches on projects in the community, but we are certainly in a different mindset than what might have been envisioned by the pioneers of the World Communion Sunday movement. 
Today’s scriptures focus us on two similar accounts of the power of God manifested in those whom the “in-crowd” considered “unworthy.” The same kind of situation happens with Jesus’ crew. While Jesus is up on a mountain, his disciples are trying to heal people and are unsuccessful. Jesus comes down and, much like Moses, complains to God—“How much longer am I going to be stuck down here among these faithless people!” After Jesus heals those people that the disciples were trying in vain to heal, John comes back to camp with his chest stuck out—“Jesus, I saw some people casting out demons in your name, and I told them to stop because they weren’t one of us!” 
The disciples had seen a man casting out demons in Jesus' name; and because he did not follow them, they tried to stop him. More about this strange exorcist is not told us. It may even be that the name "Jesus" was nothing more to him than a magical formula that worked miracles. But if so, it doesn't seem to have been this that the disciples objected to. The problem, in their eyes, was simply that he wasn't one of them, and they were jealous for their rights and privileges.
You may remember that, as the story has come down to us, the disciples had just been debating that most momentous of all theological questions: Which of us is the greatest? They had rank, privilege and exclusive rights on their minds.
High fives are passed among the disciples. “John, you laid the smack down!” his brother James exclaims. “Wait just a minute,” comes a voice from the corner. Jesus has moved outside the circle of self-congratulations. “If they are using my name to cast out demons, they’re not speaking ill of me! Whoever is not against us is for us!” 
Jesus, in this story at least, is speaking of an inclusiveness that his disciples don’t understand quite yet. This passage is in marked contrast to what later comes from Jesus’ mouth in Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23: “He who is not with me is against me.” George Bush picked up on this last saying when he was speaking about attacking Afghanistan in November of 2001. I wonder what the world would look like if we adopted Mark’s version of the saying. 
Luke actually makes room for both sayings in his Gospel. Also in Luke 9:49-50. Most commentaries point out the seemingly obvious contradiction between these two lines of thinking: but I read one article that seems more compelling to me. B.A. Gerrish, a scholar at Union Seminary in Richmond, VA writes that “The first, "Whoever is not against us is for us," calls for generosity in our estimate of others; the second, "Whoever is not with me is against me," calls for honesty in testing ourselves. By the one, we accept the profession of others; by the other, we try our own profession. One says, "Judge not"; the other says, "Examine yourself."
Gerrish continues, “Why was it, in particular, that the disciples wanted to stop that other man? Not, apparently, because they were greatly worried about his loyalty to their Master, but because he wasn't one of them. And if that is so, then was it his profession of Christ's name that was in question, or theirs?
John told the Master, perhaps expecting to be praised, that he and his friends had stopped the man from casting out demons in Jesus' name; and Jesus replied, "Whoever is not against us is for us." But he might just as well have said: John, are you really with me? Or is there something you value more than loyalty to me? Are you more concerned for your group than for my name? He said: "whoever is not against us is for us." Might he not just as well have said, "John, whoever is not with me is against me"?
And so world communion Sunday reminds us how futile and perhaps how dangerous it is to take the words of Jesus, “either you are with me or you are against me,” and apply it to anything other than our own commitment to Christ. It is not a measuring rod to hold up to others. Christ gave us a different saying for that—“if you are not against us, then you are for us.” With how the world has changed since 2001 as well, I would venture to say that it is also not a good statement of foreign policy. I believe Jesus would have agreed much more with Abraham Lincoln’s question of national self-examination when he said, “I do not pray that God is on our side, but that we are on God’s side.” 
When we gather around this table to have fellowship together in remembrance of Jesus’ life and love for us, we can be assured we are on God’s side. When we confess our sins together and forgive one another, we can be assured that we are on God’s side. When we accept God’s work in the outsider—the person on the margins: we can be assured that we are on God’s side. If we draw a boundary line between “us” and “them,” we draw a boundary between “us” and God. 
Gerrish concluded his article by writing, “As one of my favorite theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher, wrote more than a century and a half ago: "All who start from the living word of the Saviour, and from living faith in him, stand on the same ground with us; and there can never be a reason for us to withdraw from fellowship with them." It has taken Christians a very long time to learn that lesson. And perhaps now we can take a second look at our many traditions and ask, not "Which of us is right?" but, "Have they seen something in their encounter with the Lord which we have missed in ours, or not seen so clearly?"