Friday, September 24, 2010

Let It Rain

Sermon preached September 19, 2010

Text: Zechariah 9:16-10:1

Play “Name That Tune”:
Duke Ellington, Take the “A” Train
Bill Haley and the Comets, Rock Around the Clock
The Bee Gees, Night Fever
Prince, 1999
Eric Clapton, Let It Rain

Let It Rain, youTube

Familiar songs bring a measure of joy and comfort to our lives. There are days when simply hearing the first familiar notes or chords brings a smile to my face.
I think it is a good thing to have some simple pleasures like familiar songs in our lives, for the world we live in can be difficult, challenging, confusing. Bob Johansen, past president of, and now a distinguished fellow with, the Institute for the Future, in his book Leaders Make the Future, argues that we live in a VUCA world – a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. “If you are not confused by current events… you are not paying attention” (xiv). I think he is on to something.
Tuesday the winner of a primary election for governor in the state of New York said in his victory speech, “we are mad as hell” and he promised in his campaign to “take a baseball bat to Albany” (Carl Paladino, New York republican nominee for governor). Anger and fear have a place in the repertoire of human responses to the world, but I know when I react mostly out of anger and fear, my decisions are not their best. But that can be part of the VUCA world. So, too mistrust. Friday’s newspaper contained an article about a recent survey conducted of Americans (Associated Press National Constitution Center). “Glum and mistrusting, a majority of Americans today are very confident in – nobody.” When asked about their trust in people running major institutions, 43% said they are extremely or very confident in the military. That tops the list. 39% expressed confidence in small or local business leaders; the scientific community came in at 30%, and next, at 18% organized religion. Anger and mistrust are some responses to living in a VUCA world even when they are not the healthiest reponses.
So if the world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, should we be counter-cultural and offer a simple faith message? Didn’t Jesus speak of becoming childlike? There are some in the Christian community who would argue for a faith that is counter-cultural in being simple. I agree, to a point. Some matters of faith can and should be simply stated. We are about loving God and loving others. We are a Christ-centered community that welcomes all people, is guided by the teachings and unconditional love of Jesus, and is inspired to live as disciples of Jesus. There is something to be said for stating who we are and what we are about simply. And we should be counter-cultural, though I would argue that the focus of our counter-cultural stance should be kindness when the world is callous, reconciling when the world is divisive, thoughtful when the world is simplistic.
There’s the rub – sometimes focusing only on the simple in one’s faith can become simplistic. It is simple to say, “love,” but what love requires in a complex world can be complex. Most would say that loving and lying don’t mix, but how about if you know the location of an abused spouse and her husband calls asking if you know where she is? We speak of the Bible as the Word of God because we trust that God’s Spirit still speaks to us through those words. But we also know something of the human authors and the human construction of the text. We know something about the nature of language - - - All human language changes in meaning and reference over time (Sandra Schneiders, IDB)
While I believe Christian faith is often counter-cultural I also believe Jesus invites us to a faith in God that incorporates complexity and understands ambiguity. One of the gifts of this church is that we seek such a thoughtful faith in God and in Jesus. We are not afraid, even in a VUCA world, of asking questions, of seeing the full complexity of issues, of grasping ambiguity. We want to nurture here a thoughtful and compassionate Christian faith.
But Christian faith in a VUCA world also needs to be authentic and passionate. There are many reasons, I am sure, why only 18% of the people surveyed by the Associate Press expressed confidence in organized religion. We have not always been good at being thoughtful, compassionate, authentic and passionate all together. People want to see in people of faith authenticity – a genuine concern for and understanding of the complexities of being human. People want to see in people of faith passion – a deep desire to see the world be a better place and a willingness to do something about it. People want to see a faith that makes a positive difference in people’s lives.
We need, in this VUCA world a faith that permeates our whole lives. We need to be people who soak up Jesus, soak up the Spirit of God like a dry sponge soaks up water.
Over the summer I thought a lot about this church this coming year. We have a lot of good things going for us. We have some understanding of the kind of faith in Jesus Christ that is going to make sense in a VUCA world. But we are not fully where I think we can be. I have felt this inarticulate yearning in my heart and soul for us to be even more of who we are. This summer, during my own formational reading of the Bible (distinct from “professional reading”), I was reading Zechariah, and I came across this phrase – “ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain.” Kind of a strange verse to preach on in September, but it gives words to my prayer for our church for this year. Ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain. It is a prayer for what is needed when it is needed.
My prayer for our church, for our life together this year, is that God’s Spirit would soak us like rain, and I believe this is the time for that to happen in some deep and profound way. My prayer is “let it rain.”
My prayer is that everyone of us will risk asking those profound and uncomfortable questions that move our faith and our church forward. Let it rain.
My prayer is that everyone of us will go a little bit deeper, a little bit further in our relationship with Jesus. Let it rain.
My prayer is that everyone will develop a new energy for prayer and worship. Let it rain.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's He Doing?!

Sermon preached September 12, 2010

Text: Luke 15:1-10

Note: The printed text of the sermon will always be different from the preached text. Sometimes those differences are relatively small and sometimes more significant. I did not share the final story in preaching this sermon for no other reason than concern for time.

Kathy Myers of Niles, MI, age 41, has no health insurance. She has also been suffering from an increasingly painful shoulder injury, but because she has not health insurance she is continually turned away from emergency rooms because her injury is not life-threatening. She decided to take matters into her own hand. She shot herself in the shoulder hoping that the wound would be serious enough for ER treatment. She missed major arteries and bones and was sent home again. Sad, but you do wonder, what was she doing?
August 2004, St. Louis, MO: Police were summoned to an upscale office building on a report of a man roaming the halls with a gun, and on arrival, officers found some workers hiding under desks and in closets and others having fled the building. Police concluded that two lawyers, Gary Burger and Mark Cantor, were once again playing their game in the hallways, stalking each other with BB guns and occasionally firing. Most workers did not know that the men were playing, but one did because she had been shot in the finger and shoulder after walking into a previous battle. Police said that they would file gun charges, and one officer said the men would be tried “as adults.” What were these guys doing?
Labor Day in San Francisco, a man was arrested after he had been climbing near the top of a skyscraper in downtown. The building was 58 stories high. The man wondered what all the fuss was about. “I’m just trying to raise cancer awareness. I am not a terrorist. I am not trying to commit suicide.” What was this guy doing?
First century in Roman-controlled Palestine. A wandering religious teacher is seen by the religious authorities cavorting with some strange folks – tax collectors, sinners, the impure, the suspect. They can hardly believe it. “This, this… what’s he doing?! He welcomes sinners and eats with them.
The story probably seems a little overblown to us. Why get your tunic in a bunch just because of who someone chooses to eat with. I was at the State Fair last Monday. There were people eating all over the place, and who could tell who you were eating with? But Jesus eating practices were significant in his culture. They were central to his mission. Jesus was concerned that people were fed, to be sure. Meals often celebrated healings. Meals were often occasions for teaching, as this one will turn out to be. So we have a lot of stories about Jesus eating. But beyond sustenance, and celebration and teaching, meals at that time were about social inclusion. To eat with somebody was a deeply symbolic act. (Borg, Jesus, 157ff) Some of the religious leader of Jesus time were very careful about whom they ate with, concerned for their purity before God. Jesus leaves them almost speechless by his wild disregard for their concerns. He eats with those who had not been included, with the social outcasts, with the marginalized. He not only eats with them, he does so with joy and laughter. To justify his actions he tells wonderful and humorous stories – stories about frantic searches for a lost coin, of shepherd wandering away from 99 sheep to find one. No shepherd in his right mind would really do that. And who after turning your house upside down to find something you’ve misplaced really calls all the neighbors to tell them – “you know that coin I lost, well, I found it, let’s have a party!” The frequency of such stories in the gospels should tell us that there is something vitally important here for Christian faith and life. There is. We call it hospitality.
For Christians hospitality is not an industry concerned with meals and lodging while you travel. For Christians hospitality is not simply being nice to guests. Hospitality runs deep in our tradition. Welcoming is part and parcel of who we are as followers of Jesus.
An early Christian traveler recounts an experience of monastic hospitality in Egypt. As we drew near to that place and they realized that foreign brethren were arriving, they poured out of their cells like a swarm of bees and ran to meet us with delight and alacrity, many of them carrying containers of water and of bread…. When they had welcomed us, first of all they led us with psalms into the church and washed our feet and one by one they dried them with the linen cloth they were girded with, as if to wash away the fatigue of the journey. What can I say that would do justice to their humanity, their courtesy, and their love? (Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity, 64)
Hospitality. Welcome. These should be the hallmarks of the church, the community formed around Jesus and the stories of Jesus. That churches often fail to measure up is deeply sad. We should be places of astonishing welcome, sometimes leaving people stammering for words.
What might that mean for us? It means being intentional about being warm and welcoming to any who come our way – on Sunday, but also on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It means saying “hello” to the person you don’t know. It means offering coffee, or directions with warmth and a smile. Such acts are actions we can never be too good at.
But Christian welcome and hospitality go beyond that. If we are deeply welcoming, we will not just welcome people into our church just as it is. We will welcome people into a full participation which welcomes their ideas, and that can mean change. True Christian hospitality is an invitation to others, to any and all others to join us on the journey of faith, a journey that involves growth and change and mutual transformation in love. Mother Teresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging” (in Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, 11) People yearn to be connected and the church should be a place where people find that sense of belonging. If you are here today, whether for the first or the five hundred and first time, know that you belong. Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ. Welcome in joy.
That sense of hospitality is so pervasive in Jesus and Christian faith that it spills over into other areas of our life. It is not only about the kind of community we are, it is also about how we deal with our selves, our inner lives. To know we are loved by God and accepted by Jesus means that we can offer hospitality to ourselves. Psychologist Carl Rogers once wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” (in Brach, Radical Acceptance, 24) The person I am most impatient with in my life is me. When I’ve disappointed myself I can either spiral down by beating myself up, leaving little energy for reflection and positive change, or I can say, “o.k. It’s not what you wanted. You haven’t quite finished with that issue in your life. How do we move forward.” That usually serves me better. Change begins with hospitality towards oneself.
And hospitality extends beyond the church community and the self. It is meant to extend to the world. We who name the name of Jesus should be among the best people in the world at seeing the humanity of all others, even those who are different. What I have found so deeply troubling about Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, Florida and their plans to burn copies of the Quran was that it was such an act of hostility, reflecting nothing of Christian hospitality. Unfortunately it is not without precedent in the history of Christianity, but it is without precedent in the spirit of Jesus.
Jesus openness to others, his astounding hospitality, left some around him almost speechless, barely able to say, “What’s he doing?!” What Jesus did, he is still doing – reaching out with joy and laugher and love – trying to reach out through us to a humanity looking for acceptance and belonging. Awhile back a travel article in The New York Times about pubs in Oxford commented, “a good pub is a ready made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.” The church is meant to be such a place.
A seminary professor and pastor tells the following story (M Craig Barnes, Christian Century on-line): I was sitting at a bar. My wife and I were meeting for dinner after a hard day at work. She'd had demanding clients; I'd just wrapped up a difficult committee meeting at church. I noticed a disheveled and unshaven man in his early fifties a few barstools down from me. Something about him seemed uninviting. He was watching the baseball game on the bar's flat screen while smoking a cigar that was now a smoldering butt. Soon an attractive 40-something woman arrived in a crisp little black dress and perched on the stool next to him. She seemed nervous.
"Ah, there you are," he said without looking at her.
"Sorry I'm a little late," she offered. "I had to wait for the babysitter." He said nothing.
"You look nice," she lied.
He raised his eyebrows and smiled faintly. The silence hung between them until the bartender came by to ask the woman if she would like a drink.
The bartender said, "Mr. Smith, would you like a fresh cigar?" He responded, "No, Bob. I don't want to offend my date."
The date interjected, "Oh, that's OK. My late husband used to smoke cigars. I still have the humidor I bought for him in St. Bart's. He just loved it when we went anywhere he could buy Cubans."
Her date barked back, "Cubans are overrated. Only guys who know nothing about cigars keep talking about Cubans."
She smiled painfully and adjusted a bra strap. "Well, it's not important," she whispered as she took a sip of her cosmopolitan.
For the next 30 minutes the painful liturgy unfolded as if Woody Allen had written it. She kept trying to make herself appealing to him in desperate, fumbling ways, and he kept acting as if he were beyond finding appeal in anything. She asked questions about his work, to which he gave short evasive replies. She tried commenting on the baseball game, to which he gave a grunt or two.
Maybe Mother Teresa was right. Our biggest disease is lack of connection – not belonging.
What Jesus did, he is still doing - reaching out to the beleaguered, the battered, those longing to belong, to have their humanity recognized – reaching out to you and me – reaching out with joy and laughter and love. We join him. Amen.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Counting Blue Cars

sermon preached September 5, 2010

Text: Luke 14:25-33

Play the first two minutes of “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla

Counting blue Cars youtube

This song is about someone walking with a child, playing childhood games and listening to children’s questions. The games and questions move from simple to profound. While walking they avoid cracks in the sidewalk. Any of you ever play that game? They count only blue cars. The child asks about God. Simple to profound. We would do well to listen to our children’s questions.
One counting question that children ask with some frequency, at least when they begin to understand something about money, is “How much?” “I would really like that game.” “We don’t have enough money today.” Well, how much is it?” How much – counting the cost. In our lives, the question of how much, of the cost of something, can become quite far-reaching. The other day I heard the president of St. Scholastica talk about the coming year at the college. Enrollment is up, they will be doing some new construction at the school. He said that things may, at times be busy, chaotic, and messy but that this was “the price of progress.” At the end of the video series, “The Beatles Anthology,” George Harrison says about the group and their fans: “They gave their money and their screams. The Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems which is a more difficult thing to give.” Counting the cost.
Jesus speaking to a large crowd lets them know that following the way can be difficult. It can create conflict, even in one’s most intimate relationships – father, mother, wife, children. He uses stark language – exaggeration, hyperbole – to make his point. He is not really encouraging hate, but encouraging deep thought. Following Jesus, following the Jesus way has its costs. We take up our cross, which is to say, we find how we can use our best gifts in the service of God and others – and this can lead to trouble sometimes. In yesterday’s Budgeteer, I was labeled a “deceiver” – not by name, but that’s what a paid advertisement said about any religious leaders who don’t unequivocally condemn homosexuality. I don’t consider “deceiver” a term of affection. Sometimes following Jesus means we step out of the economic mainstream – again Jesus uses hyperbole, there is no indication that every follower of Jesus even then gave up all their possessions, though some certainly did and some still do. Following the way may cost us our nervous systems sometimes in order to create beautiful music in the world – the music of peace, love, reconciliation, hospitality, justice, compassion.
Following Jesus has its costs. For some, it cost everything, their very lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer followed Jesus and was killed by the Nazis for his opposition to Adolf Hitler. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador followed Jesus and was killed by a right wing death squad for his advocacy for poor Salvadorans. Recently in Afghanistan ten medical missionaries, inspired by their Christian faith to help Afghanistan’s people, were killed. Some of those killed had been there for over thirty years, including Dan Terry, a United Methodist mission worker. (The Christian Century, 9-7-2010, p. 15) There are other costs to following the way. Ardell Graner, a United Methodist missionary who our church has supported for 18 years, visited here on Tuesday. As she discussed she and her husband’s work in Bolivia, one of the things that struck me was the cost. Their children live in a world where they are neither Bolivian nor American, and that can be a difficult place – the cost of the important work the Graners are doing.
Following Jesus can cost. There is a suggestion in the reading that Jesus is telling the crowd this so they can consider whether or not they want to be followers. But that seems kind of odd. Is that really how faith in God and following Jesus works? Do we really sit down and calculate a cost/benefit ratio? Are you going to, when the invitation for communion is given begin to think – well, Jesus just might do something kind of crazy to me when I go up there and I have a really busy week so I think I’ll skip communion today? That doesn’t seem to be how it works. Instead, God’s love grabs hold of us and we respond. Jesus touches our lives, and we respond. Things might get busy, chaotic, messy, our nervous systems might get a little jangled sometime, but we have decided to follow Jesus.
The people Jesus was talking to had decided to follow. For some it had meant being estranged from their families and communities. For some it had meant economic dislocation. For some it had meant ridicule. They did not need to be reminded that there was a cost to discipleship. They were paying it. The same would have been true, maybe even more so, for the original audience of Luke’s gospel later in the first century. I think maybe something else is going on here, then. If the price is being paid, you don’t need to remind someone of the cost.
Maybe what is going on here is an acknowledgement that following the Jesus way can be difficult and with that acknowledgement an encouragement to continue even so. Maybe what we have here is something like what Scott Peck does at the beginning of The Road Less Traveled. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. When you are experiencing something as difficult, it helps to have someone acknowledge the difficulty. When you are experiencing something as difficult, how do you feel when someone says, “it shouldn’t be that hard”? But if someone says, “yes, this is hard,” don’t you feel better, more energized to keep at it? Maybe that is more of what is going on here – a shift from “how much?” to another question – “is it worth it?”
Following Jesus can be difficult, but it is worth it. Following the Jesus way of caring, compassion, hospitality, the way of the changed heart and changing the world will not always be easy. It will always be worth it.
Let me probe even a little more deeply into this new question raised by the text – “is it worth it?” Life has costs, all life costs. In fact, life costs itself, it spends itself until there is nothing left to spend. That is a rather convoluted way to say we all die. It is the price of life. The question is, how do we live, and do we live so life is worth it.
This question has pressed itself upon me this week. Monday I found out that a former neighbor and parishioner of mine on the Iron Range had died. I called her husband of over sixty years to express our sympathies. Tuesday is the first time in my twenty-five plus years as a minister that I have dealt with three funeral on the same day. In the morning, Bell Brothers called looking for a Methodist pastor to officiate at a funeral Thursday. Knowing what families are going through when death comes, I try to say “yes” when I can, and I could make this work. That afternoon I had already planned to meet with Loren Nelson who many of you know has been battling cancer. It is not going well, and so Loren wanted to talk about his funeral when that time may come. Loren was my candidacy mentor when I was going through the ordination process. When I checked phone messages in my office later in the afternoon, I had two messages from an old friend, Sharon. Sharon’s family and my family grew up in Lester Park. Our families both were part of Lester Park UMC. I graduated from high school with Sharon’s brother. Sharon’s mother has been quite ill and when I first heard her voice, I though perhaps she was calling to tell me her mother had died. Instead, it was to tell me her younger sister, Kris, age 46, had died and would I be willing and available to officiate at her funeral on Saturday. I did. The cost of life is life itself, and the question isn’t whether we will pay that cost, we all will, the question is will we live so that life is worth it.
I love the line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day” where she poses the simple question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Maybe that’s the deepest question of all posed in this text from Luke. Life costs itself – how are you going to spend it? Trying to avoid every adverse cost within life, trying to avoid every conflict, every risk probably means that you will not spend your life well. The Jesus way – the way of caring and compassion and hospitality, the way of the changed heart and changing the world – that way is a good way. That life is a life worthy of life. Sometimes it will be hard. We may disagree with those closest to us. We will make choices on a larger calculus than that of economic security. We open our eyes and our hearts to the hurting in the world. The Jesus way invites us to see life as a gift to be lived wisely and well. The Jesus way calls forth our best gifts and asks us to use them wisely and well in the service of God and of others. The Jesus way calls us to caring and sharing.
The question in life is not so much “how much?” but rather “is it worth it?” Those of us on the Jesus way say “YES!” Count on it. Amen.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Waltz or Polka

Sermon preached August 29, 2010

Text: Hebrews 13:1-7, 16

What do these things have in common?

Newspaper and an embarrassed skunk – black and white and red/read all over
Cars, trees, elephants – all have trunks
Men and mascara – they both run at the first sign of emotion
Harold Stassen and Brett Favre – they keep coming back
Jack Dempsey, Mick Fleetwood and me – same birthday, June 24
Waltz and Polka – three step dances

Well, like the waltz or polka, one can think of the Christian life as a three-step dance, each step necessary if you are to have the dance. Where might one get an idea like this? From the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews.
The writer of Hebrews, who goes unidentified throughout the essay, assumes that his audience is comprised of people who have begun the Christian journey. They have already decided to follow Jesus, to trust God’s grace known in the Jesus faith. In the words of our baptismal vows, the people to whom the author is writing have already confessed Jesus Christ as their savior, put their whole trust in his grace and have promised to serve him as Lord in union with the church.
The book of Hebrews is mystifying in many places, but by this point in the writing the author is trying to speak in very down-to-earth terms to Christian communities still figuring out what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian. And it is here that we encounter the three step dance of Christian life – its waltz, its polka. All three steps are required if you want to have the dance. If that image doesn’t grab you, how about the image of a check-up. When you go see your physician for your annual physical exam you would find it strange if all he did was examine your feet and asked you to walk around, telling you you seem to get around fine, and then do nothing more. Good health is more than mobility. We want our eyes checked, our heart listened to. The writer of Hebrews is giving us a check-up list for a healthy and vital Christian faith and life. If you like that image, I hope it helps; I’m sticking with the dance image today.
Step one of the dance is paying attention to what is happening within and in our closest relationship. A healthy Christian faith and life is one in which we are being changed inside, and demonstrating that in our most intimate relationships. Let mutual love continue. Keep your lives free from the love of money. When we open our lives to Jesus, to the Spirit of God, we are being changed. Our hearts are becoming more loving. We are being freed from compulsions that can harm us and damage our lives.
In one of her books Anne Lamott writes about one change of heart that was part of her journey of faith. At thirty-four, she became pregnant, and the relationship she was having with the child’s father ended badly. Anne gave birth and kept the baby, Sam. “I didn’t even think to trying to find John” (Plan B, 34). When her son, Sam, asked about his father she would tell him a little something about him. “I told him I had two photos of John he could see if he ever wanted to, and that I’d help him if he ever wanted to try to find him. And I really, really hoped he’d never want to” (35). But Sam eventually wanted to and Anne prayed – prayed to find John and prayed for what might happen if and when she did. She did, and here are her reflections on some of her inner change. Things are not perfect, because life is not TV and we are real people with scarred, worried hearts. But it’s amazing a lot of the time. Where there was darkness, silence, and blame, there’s now a family, and that means there’s mess and misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and sighs. But it is a family.
Inner transformation – transformation toward love, transformation away from those inner compulsions which can do harm. The language of Hebrews is a little disconcerting. “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” The message we often get is the exact opposite. Don’t you want a new car, new home? Aren’t you up for an exotic vacation? Want to have some fun and pursue a little extra cash? Yet I don’t think the author of Hebrews is telling us that following Jesus means complete disregard for our economic well-being. What I think he has in mind is balance. Writing about desire, therapist Mark Epstein says, “This seems to be one of desire’s primary functions; to keep us off balance, in between, on the verge, or just out of reach.” (Open to Desire, 61). Desire, including desire for an economically better life is not wrong in itself, but we don’t want to live enslaved to that, we don’t want to live off balance, with life always just out of reach. Christian life should be filled with times of gratitude and rejoicing for what is, because God’s grace is a part of what is.
And the inner transformation which is a part of the dance of Christian living is meant to show itself in our closest relationships. “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled.” The Christian life asks us to pay attention to our closest relationships because God cares about our well-being, and those relationships are vital to our well-being. Christian faith here is not prudish or priggish or scolding or moralistic. It is recognizing the deep hurt that can come when our closest relationships are frayed or fall apart. Elin Nordegren, the former Mrs. Tiger Woods has said she has been through hell in the past number of months as her marriage has come apart.
Inner transformation toward love and away from runaway desire. Tending to our closest relationships. How are you doing? Is that first step of the Christian dance a smooth one?
But Christian life is not only inner transformation, important as that is, and it is more than caring about our closest relationships – parent, spouse, partner, friend – important as those are. Christian life is life lived with others in a new kind of community. A couple of years ago when we read through the New Testament, I was deeply struck by the community focus of the writings that were grappling with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Hebrews is no different. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Following Jesus means opening our lives to God’s Spirit so we are different, and it is coming together with others to create a new kind of community – one characterized by mutual love and hospitality.
In another one of her essays, Anne Lamott writes about why she makes her son go to church. I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want – which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith…. When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home. (Traveling Mercies, 100)
It is not enough, it is never enough, in the Christian life to simply be working on our inner life or our closest relationships. We are also to create community with others. That’s what God in Jesus has brought us together to do here – create a place of mutual love and hospitality, a place where we can share a little light, a place where we can tie a knot in the end of the rope for each other when that is needed. We are called together to create home.
So how are we doing? Are we bouncing up and down on a pogo stick, just one step in our dance of Christian life, or are we getting some one-two action? And in our own lives we need to be asking how it is we are helping make this place a place of hospitality and love and care and light.
But the Christian life is not just one-two. It is one-two-three. The communal values which we build here cannot really stay contained here. They are intended to change the world, even if a little. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers… Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have. As followers of Jesus we not only concern ourselves with inner transformation and our closest relationships. As followers of Jesus we are not only about creating a new kind of community within the church. As followers of Jesus, we work with God’s Spirit to make the world more loving, more caring. We seek to do good and to share good things with others. These are not simply wonderful words. They challenge us as we look at a world filled with hurt and hostility. What might it mean to share in a world with a Haiti still recovering from an earthquake and a Pakistan reeling from flooding? What might it mean to show hospitality as we debate immigration policy or the building of an Islamic center? Are we gliding well into the third step of the dance of Christian life?
But maybe this is the step we do best – reaching out into the world, feeding, caring, giving. If so, we cannot neglect the other steps. In his book Money and the Meaning of Life Jacob Needleman writes, One can “do good” with such agitation, violence, and hidden egoism, or with such dreaming self-satisfaction, that in certain essential aspects one’s life proceeds no differently than that of an individual caught up in the most degrading or trivial of activities. (271) Inside, together, in the world – the journey with Jesus makes us different in all these ways. It teaches us to dance to the tune of God’s music. If our dancing is a little awkward, well, there is always room to grow and improve. We do that by getting into the dance, and I hope we dance. Amen.