Monday, January 24, 2011

Wesleyan Covenant Renewal

John 15: 1-8
Colossians 2

The sermon isn't really an hour and a half long--just forgot to turn it off till well after church was over. oops!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon: Out of Date

Micah 6: 6-8
Revelation 21: 1-5a

One thing I’ve taken to doing since I started noticing that having young kids is tough on the knees of your jeans (I seem to only have a pair for a year or so before they get worn out in the knees) is to shop for jeans at the Salvation Army. At $1 per pair of jeans, I just can’t seem to entertain the notion that paying 30 or 40 times that for a pair that is going to last Just as long is a good idea.

One thing became apparent to me the last time last time I was in the salvation army on Brookside in Tulsa. I noticed that there were several long rows of women’s jeans, but only a quarter of a rack or so of men’s jeans.

I asked the check out clerk if they were expecting a shipment of men’s jeans anytime soon, and pointed out that there was quite a disparity between the men’s and women’s selections, and she laughed and said “you guys just keep your clothes forever!”

I suppose that’s partially true—and something else I’ve noticed is that women’s jeans seem to go out of style a lot faster than the plain cut of men’s jeans. I wonder why that is?

I also came across this list about all the things that would be unknown to a baby born in 2011.

Yes, things go out of date. And in the scriptures it seems to reiterate this trend. In the passage from Revelation it says that “Behold, the old things have passed away, and I am making all things new.”
You see, in God’s opinion, There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Those things are out of date, according to God, they are like a landline telephone or a encyclopedia Britannica.

God has a new order of things, and it includes justice and peace.

The way we are to honor this new order of things too, is a bit different than what we might expect. The prophets Amos and Micah both speak to God getting a bit fed up with sacrifices and purity practices, and instead craving the deep and lasting justice that might roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. In Micah, it is put quite plainly for us, He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.

The out of date character of the pretenses we so often substitute for the real thing weren’t lost on Martin Luther King Jr., and if you listen to his “I have a dream” speech on the Washington mall, you can hear it clearly.

He states that the leaders of the civil rights movement will “never be satisfied” while injustice prevails.

You see, he had glimpsed a vision of the New Kingdom that John alludes to in the revelation passage. He had faith in what was possible, and so the present situation he found himself was clearly and definitely out of date. Only, he saw the out of date character of his own present situation not as a slightly out of style pair of jeans or even as a land-line connection in a world of DSL and wireless connections—the injustice that he witnessed and had perpetrated on him was more like the out of date quality of a gallon of milk down on the bottom shelf of the fridge with an inch of milk left at the bottom of the container that you leave there on vacation and by the time you get home the gas in the carton has expanded the plastic container, and the lid pops off with the pressure, and it is just putrid. You try not to breathe in and you have to GET RID OF IT!

Thank God he stood up and decried the injustice, and said NO! the injustice we feel is not just something we can tolerate, it is like that disgusting milk. It has to be thrown away!

injustice and racism and sexism are not vestiges of a bygone era, like rental stores or watches or dial up internet. They’re not just inconveniences. They are sin, and as repulsive to God as that out of date milk.

We can either treat them like inconveniences, or as people of God we can rise up and confront them for the disgusting rotton filth that they are.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jan. 9 Sermon: Specks and Logs, Rocks and Sand

Sirach 27: 4-9 and Luke 6: 37-49


I have always loved the saying that Jesus gives us about seeing the “log in our own eye” it’s such a ridiculous image, isn’t it? I mean, Jesus is comparing a speck of wood in someone else’s eye, so he doesn’t just stop at a “stick” in our own eye, it’s a full on log. That’s a funny image.
It’s a pretty glaringly obvious to others when we can’t recognize our own faults. So, with that in mind, since this is a new year, and we may have the inclination to “set out on the right foot,” let’s talk about what those “logs in our eye” might be. I spend a lot of time talking about what makes our church a great—but we also need to spend some time addressing our weaknesses. Otherwise we are blind to them and we’re more like the blind leading the blind.
But, I know there’s all kinds of pressure that we experience about voicing these kinds of things. We don’t want people to think we are being critical, we worry that we may not be able to word things right. So, instead of just raising your hand, I’d like to give everyone a chance to write down what they perceive to be the “log in our own eye” as a congregation.
Take a few minutes and think and pray about this, and then put something on paper to put in this basket, and then I’ll pick a few out and read them, and maybe respond to them or add to them. I want everyone to write something, so that it’s not apparent who is actually writing and who is not. If you don’t have anything to say, just actually physically write down “I have nothing to say,” and then sit with that sentence for a few minutes and see if it stays that way. If this takes a personal turn, you don’t need to identify yourself to everyone, but you can share what that personal log is that you are able to see in your own eye. But, if something comes across to you that is more a “log in our collective eye” as a church, then write that.

Let’s meditate on it, as Jonny Cash might say. And I pray that whatever comes up for discussion, we may have the Spirit-borne gift of receiving those words and truly hearing them. This is what happened at Pentecost, when the Spirt blew into the room, and something like tongues like flames became apparent to those who observed. What was spoken in strange tongues was heard and understood by the masses. So, let us go to hearing and seeing.
At the end of this passage, Jesus speaks about building your house on the rock rather than the sand. The rock is God’s grace. It is the bedrock understanding in your soul—deep down there you know that God loves you and forgives you the faults that you can identify or not. But, healing of those faults is possible through this love that we know is there.
You are connected to a deep wellspring of life that is implanted deep in your own being. We might get lost in the haze of what life has become in this country of wealth and prosperity. But deep down within us there is a light that pierces through the haze. It’s not only a house built on a rock, it’s a lighthouse built on a rock, and the beacon of God’s love that shines out from it guides others who are on the stormy seas.
You also have the opportunity to build your house on the sand. You have the choice to build a beach hut (remember MoonDoggie’s beach hut in Gidget? Sometimes I have the fantasy of cashing in my chips and going to live in one of those and spend my days surfing and my nights) on the sands of our culture’s “Gospel.”
We can stake our claim to the impenatrible rock that is right below the surface of reality, or we can build it right on top of the sand—on the ideal of the “good life” that includes all the amenitites we could hope for, and goals that extend as far as upgrading to HDTV and coordinating our clothes in some perfect ensemble.

Christmas 2 Sermon: What's the Word?

John 1: 1-18

In the beginning was the word. Here at the beginning of another year, I'm thinking about this statement and what it means to us. This past year I went to a worship conference where Rob Bell was one of the featured speakers, and he used the 1-2 hours of time he was allotted during a very full schedule to speak to the 2 or 3 thousand of us about what we say in worship. What we say, what language we use, what names we have for God. Why does this matter? Because "in the beginning is the word." What we convey about God in this hour of worship patterns what we convey about God by what we say during the week, in our places of business, in our family gatherings, in our friends homes, and out in the streets. So, what do we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is the "Word made flesh?" This whole "prologue" to the narrative in John's gospel is as perplexing and mysterious as it is beautiful. In the words of the Old Interpreter's Bible commentary, "This author gives the impression of thinking much faster than he can speak or write; with the result that the reader's mind is overwhelmed by a ruche of staggering assertions, at each of which he would like to be given time to pause, and try to begin, at least to think this out; but none is allowed him and at once he is swept on and on. The whole thing has the effect more of a piece of lofty music than of literature. It stirs strange feelings and emotions in us that surge up out of the deeps. It creates an atmosphere in which one reads, awed and tense, and with held breath. We know that we are face to face with something august, tremendous, illimitable. But the impression left upon most readers' minds, one fancies, is indefinite and vague; a sense of something very big and very real, but indescribably, which will not go into words. This is a passage best to be understood by that additional faculty with which the mystics credit us, which sees much further than reason and intelligence, and knows much more accurately than they ever can; and yet it cannot tell others what it sees and experiences." Don't you think so? I've always loved the prologue to John, but the interpreter is right, it says something that is a bit foreign to us, but we sense is of ultimate importance. The "words" used to convey this deep truth about Jesus are beautiful and poignant, but are they understood--do they really have any meaning for us? I remember a line from one of my favorite movies, Donnie Darko, that brings up that many linguists throughout the past two centuries have declared that the most beautiful word in the English language is "cellar door." The character in the movie loves that assertion, because there is a certain amount of ridiculousness attached to the idea that something so technically beautiful should mean something so mundane and ordinary. Is the "Logos," the Word made flesh, merely a cellar door in our Christian vocabulary, or is there meaning for these ideas in our daily lives? In 1932, William Funk, of the dictionary Funk and Wagnalls came up with a list of the most beautiful words in his opinion--they were "dawn, mother, and lullaby." There's something more there for most of us, isn't there? Likewise, the light that's spoken of in the first chapter of John is not exactly as nebulous as the idea of the "word" but it is still a bit mysterious. Let me ask you this, when is this candle most effective? With all the lights on, or with all the lights off? That's why John speaks of a light coming into the world to dispel darkness. "The light that is Christ means something only when the attempt is made to dispel the prevailing darkness."
Likewise, the words we say only mean something if they are spoken with conviction and only if they mean "Good News" to the world around us. As the light dispels the darkness, the Word dispels desolation and chaos. In the creation story we said to each other in the call to worship, God speaks creation into being, God creates order out of chaos by uttering the creative Word, who is Christ

Christmas 1 Sermon: Born to Run

Matthew 2: 1-11
Matthew 2: 13-23

IF you’ve ever been to the parsonage, you have probably had a difficult time leaving.

Though I’d like to say this is because our hospitality is so charming, but the truth is that you probably have a hard time leaving because we have these confounded plastic things on the doorknob that make it difficult to open the door. You have to squeeze this plastic sleeve that fits over the doorknob at these pressure points, and they grip the actual doorknob.

It’s one of the ways that we’ve “babyproofed” our house. One of the many ways! When I was about Julianna’s age, I sleepwalked right out the front door of our parsonage in Pea Ridge, AR. I scared my parents half to death, and was headed right for the highway (which, granted, was not very busy in that tiny old Civil War battle sight in the Ozarks.

The story of that experience frightens me now that I am a parent, and I can imagine the fear and dread that my parents must’ve felt on that evening when they startled awake in the night to hear the front door opening and closing.

Perhaps our Holy Father knew a similar sense of parental fear and dread when He sent his only son into the world to bring true light and salvation into it in a new and radical way.

The story of the angel’s repeated warnings to the magi and to Joseph are sort of Divine babyproofing, except while I’m concerned about front doors and cabinet doors, Our Divine Father was worried about scheming kings.

The story is itself a foil to those who say that Jesus was “born to die.” (Which is a phrase I think is quite shallow and simplistic, and reduces the life of our savior to the act of sacrifice we believe is so important to our salvation.) Jesus life has something to do with our salvation too, you know—and the things that this Rabbi, born in a manger, has to say to the world are as integral to our salvation as the fact that he was crucified.

After all, if Jesus was “born to die,” then why would God go through all the trouble of sending warnings to Joseph to escape the murderous psychopath who ended up killing all of Jesus’ peers in Bethlehem. If his life really only had some metaphysical effect on the universe, then why not just let the thing play out and let his death occur not long after it had started? God could use his angels instead to instruct the right people as to what had happened, and then set the wheels in motion for the saving grace that was to come about by the murder of an innocent baby who happened to be “Emmanuel: God with us.”

So, please don’t use that phrase, “born to die.” As the carol we just sang goes: “Jesus Christ was born for this!” There are other things mentioned there, “He has opened Heaven’s door, and we are blessed for ever more,” “Now ye need not fear the grave. Peace, Peace, Jesus Christ was born to save. Calls you one and calls you all to gain his everlasting hall,”

You could say from the texts today that Jesus was “Born to Run” as the old Bruce Springsteen song goes. He is born on the run, and he has many obstacles to overcome just by being alive.
And as Joseph will find out, in the words of the Boss, “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.”

Jesus is the one person in the history of the world who was NOT born to die. He was instead born to LIVE and to offer LIFE to us all! I don’t know what kind of sentimentality is intended with that phrase, Jesus Christ was “born to die,” but it isn’t true—this story today proves it.

Was Christ’s ultimate death part of God’s plan to bring us all on his back to redemption? Jesus knew it to be, so I don’t doubt it—but it wasn’t “THE PLAN” it was part of the plan. It was the comma before the exclamation point of the empty tomb.

And, if we only paid attention to punctuation marks, we would miss the content of the sentence! The message conveyed to us in the meantime, between this beautiful story of a birth in desperate circumstances, to the surprising tribute of three strange foreigners, to the life that was preserved by God’s angels so that he could instruct us in the Way, the Truth, and the Life—that’s the content of the sentence. It’s not just a story about salvation—it is a story that is salvation. It’s a story that can be lived out by you and by me.

It’s not a story that ends in death—it’s a story that ends in true life.

Advent 4a sermon: The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

Psalm 27: 1-4, 11-14
Matthew 1: 18-25

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to have an incredibly meaningful Christmas is to pay close attention to the words & phrases in the Christmas carols. There is so much inspiration & meaning in Christmas music.
Now there are a few questionable lines here and there . . .
"Away in the Manger" says, "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." That’s not biblical, realistic, or helpful! And "We Three Kings" is a bit off, since they were Magi, advisors to kings, but not kings themselves.
Christmas is for poets, because only the expansive, wondrous mind of a poet can begin to put words to it all. The phrase that has come to me most often this Christmas is from "O Little Town of Bethlehem," where it says, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."
What I love about poetry & song lyrics is also what I struggle with the most -- it’s that you can never be 100% certain about what the author is truly saying. You can only have a hunch. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."

What are you afraid of?

When I was a kid, I was deathly afraid of aliens. I can remember laying in bed worrying that if I were to get up and peek out the blinds, there would be an alien right on the other side of the window trying to peek in at me.

Something about that immediacy, being right there in front of my face, still gives me chills down my spine.

Perhaps it’s easiest to speak about the fears of our childhood—what we can so easily see were unfounded, or at least embellishments of reality.

it’s harder to talk about the fears that I and perhaps you too have. I fear that I won’t know if the decisions I make or have made the decisions made on my behalf are the right ones. I fear that the tension my kids sometimes feel in my household will scar them. I fear that I won’t really end up contributing anything for posterity’s sake and remembrance. (I fear that if I plumb the depth of that particular fear, an outsized ego is at the root.) I fear that I’m not compassionate enough or sensitive enough to be a pastor. I fear that my children and wife will suffer because of a calling that I sometimes seriously doubt I even have. I fear that I the feeling of drive and resolve I was once animated by has gone and will never come back. I fear.

But, I used to hope that I would hit a home run when I was playing baseball. I was a good hitter. I rarely struck out, and I usually got on base. I hit a lot of runs home. But I always hoped for that glory watching the ball sail over the fence. It only happened a few times in several years of playing baseball.

I played in every game with that hope firmly lodged in my solar plexus.

It’s also, perhaps, harder to speak of those hopes that have continued to stick around in my soul. Are they signs of naivity? Are they “foolish hopes” that aren’t built for the “real world?” Are they simply products of my own privilege, or are they something that can attract people of all kinds of backgrounds?

Barak Obama wrote a book when he was a presidential candidate called The Audacity of Hope. I always liked that title—and it was sure something to see how the “hopeful candidate” invigorated an electorate and how his speeches based on that audacious hope seemed to really capture the imagination of a lot of different people.

Hope can be a powerful thing—but can it survive the onslaught of our cold, hard fears. You can probably divide the world into two camps by asking the question, “Is ‘hope’ or ‘fear’ more rooted in reality.

We have seen what has happened to the “hopes based politics” that catapulted Barak Obama into the White House. He charged right in with big plans for big hope filled programs like “Health care for all people” and the fears that are attached to achieving that hope won out. There was a backlash to that particular hope, and now he’s trying to get his own party to ratify the tax cut program that his predecessor dreamed up. A compromising hope is a lot more easy to stomach than an audacious hope, after all.
Well, I’m not intending on getting into politics—but I think it is helpful for us to ask ourselves, if the unabashed hopes that we claim to subscribe to are worth their salt. Will they hold together and keep us afloat in the midst of the crashing waves of calamity and violence and schemes and jealousy?
The story we hear today says yes. The nativity says that “hope floats.” Hope endures. Now, that’s not to say that “fears” should be disregarded. After all, the angel warns Joseph about things that he should fear—like a scheming Herod out to kill the Christ child, but the angel also says “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” I have a good friend who wrote about this phrase, and she says,
“n the Bible, God--or sometimes God's messenger--often implores freaked-out men and women not to be afraid. It's a standard divine greeting, a nicety to allay the pulse-quickening shock of receiving a message from heaven. Frequently the commandment stands alone: Fear not, period. Sometimes it's stitched to an object or person: Do not be afraid of _____.
Only twice is the would-be scaredy-cat encouraged not to be afraid to do some specific action. Following his family's near ruination by famine, Jacob sets out for Egypt to be reunited with his long-lost son, Joseph. God speaks to Jacob in a nighttime vision: "Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there." The New Testament Joseph's message also comes by night, in the brume of a dream. "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife," the angel enjoins, and discloses the controversial mystery of the child's conception.
Jacob is also promised the favor of God's presence. "I myself will go down with you to Egypt," God whispers into the night air. Meanwhile, the angel explains that the holy child in Mary's womb fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah; this child is the Emmanuel, God with us. And there is truly no better reason than this to sacrifice our anxieties at the altar of faith. We are not alone.
A lot of clergy think that the "Footprints in the Sand" poem is pretty schlocky, but there's a reason so many people prefer it to our most learned exegesis. People yearn to know that God is with them. The heart of Joseph's dream is the promise of divine presence: in Mary's womb, in Jesus's bloodstream, in a good man's shame. Fear and death and sin are trounced by love and life and salvation, all on account of the Emmanuel.

The text says that Joseph awoke and did as the angel told him. In time-management parlance, that's called "eating your frog"--taking on your hardest task first thing in the morning. I hope that as he quietly married his scandalous, sacred bride, he did so without an iota of fear--perhaps even with a tender heart. I hope, too, that we can encourage our parishioners to be so bold as they plumb their own dreams and confront their own trials, always and ever in the saving grasp of Christ.
It’s good that Joseph is who he is and pays attention not only to his hopes, but his fears as well. The angel didn’t just have peaches and cream for Joseph—he was telling him about some pretty dreadful stuff. He was going need to take this pregnant girl for his wife—and he was going to be the guardian of the Messiah! Then he was going to need to become a refugee because King Herod wanted to kill the boy. That’s a lot of weight! Where was the dream that said, “Take a load off, Fanny!” Well, you know the rest of that line right—“and… put the load right on me.”
Joseph was a “just man,” the scripture says, but he didn’t fear the law. He knew when it deserved an injection of hope too. The law called for Mary to be stoned to death. And yet, Joseph left room for something more. He did as the angel said—he did not fear, and he did not let fear guide his actions with regard to Mary and the baby she carried. Instead, he let them in. Marriage was about ownership in that day and age. It’s not to our liking, or our sensibilities about love, but it’s true. In taking Mary as his wife, Joseph was taking ownership of a problem. He was putting his family inheritance on the line for what could have been another man’s child.
Those were the rumors, after all, about the origin of the Christ child. Very early on in the Christian church—before the church had these stories about his birth, in fact, were the rumors that this great man Jesus Christ was born to a woman that had been raped by a Roman soldier, in an attempt to discredit what Jesus had said.
We bring all that to the Christmas holiday—our hopes and fears, our joys and our frazzled, overwrought selves. We bring it all to the only one who can take it all because He is the redeemer of it all. He is the one who deserves it all, and he asks for it all. And we bring it with the utmost humility and the utmost shame because at this time of year we remember that at one time he was just a little vulnerable baby. He was so out of place in this world that there wasn’t even room for him in an inn to be born, so his parents had to take him out to the barn.
Fortunately for us, he didn’t hold a grudge. Though there was no room for him, he made room for us and all we have to turn over to him.

My parents always taught me that most fear is rooted in ignorance, not reality. So, I guess you can figure out which camp I’d be in. But, you can’t really dismiss “fears” altogether, can you? The song says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”