Friday, December 31, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again

Sermon preached December 26, 2010

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas. I hope you were with people you enjoy. I hope the food was good. I hope you gave a gift someone really appreciated and that you received something that brought some joy to you.
Part of my appreciation of the season for me is in the music. I love the hymns we sing this time of year, and I love how people tend to sing out a little more. I enjoy many of the more secular songs of the season. I have fond memories of the Goodyear Christmas albums of the 1960s. I remember them around our house growing up.
I find that some of my favorite Christmas songs are tinged with a certain sadness – sometimes in the tune, sometimes in the words, sometimes both. Christmas Time Is Here from “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special” is beautiful and melodic but with a certain sad undertone, and the lyrics wistfully hope for a better world – “oh that we could always see such spirit through the year.” I’ll Be Home For Christmas is a delightful reminder of some of the small things that make Christmas special – snow and mistletoe, and yet there is sadness because the singer may only be home in his or her dreams. The song was copyrighted in 1943, during World War II when many could only be home for Christmas in their dreams. The lyricist says he first penned the words as a homesick college student. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, likewise combines a beautiful, haunting melody and lyrics both hopeful and sad. There are references to troubles that may someday be out of sight and to muddling through somehow.
Maybe I have grown in appreciation of these songs because in the last few years I find that I am making more peace with sadness in my life. It is partly a function of age, but it is more than that. It is a part of my spiritual journey. It is part of the work of the Spirit in my life trying to deepen my humanity. I remember encountering these words from Elizabeth Lesser a few years ago, and they rang so true to me: The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy. From my own experience and from observing many others, I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). That has been something of my spiritual journey for a number of years, working with the Spirit toward a more open heart, a heart open to my own sadness and a heart open to the pain of the world. I am working with the Spirit to weave into my spiritual life the sadness, disappointment, discouragement I have known and to keep my eyes and heart open to the deep sorrow and pain in a world where there is too much hunger, too much violence, too much oppression, too much injustice.
I appreciate this difficult story we read today. I don’t necessarily like it, but I appreciate it. It is not the best story for the day after Christmas. No shepherds. The wise men have left (and oddly we will come back to their story next week). Angels don’t announce good news, only warn of danger. Joseph, Mary and Jesus have to flee in fear to Egypt. Herod, fearful for his power seeks to destroy all potential rivals, going so far as to eliminate children.
I appreciate this story for its realism. The world is sometimes a dangerous place. The powerful abuse their power. Children suffer unjustly and mothers weep inconsolably. The journey of Jesus’ family reprises the journey of his people so many years before. Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to a place of great pain for the Israelites, the place of their enslavement. Sometimes the spiritual journey of our lives requires that we, too, revisit places of difficulty, pain and sorrow – not to wallow in them, not to be perpetual victims of our pasts, but to weave all of our experiences into our hearts so our hearts can be more open and tender.
Jesus returns to Palestine, but he returns different. Though he was a boy during this time, he would have experienced exile in Egypt, even in his young life. He would have known displacement and wandering. He goes home, but he is different, marked, changed. You can’t go home again. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it this way: You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on. (Fr. 21; Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 71) Jesus returns to Palestine, but different. He has experienced something of the suffering of his people. He has probably experienced some sadness himself – leaving the familiarity of Egypt for a home he has not seen to years.
I appreciate this difficult story because it invites us to be open to all of our experiences, the highs, the lows, the triumphs, the disappointments, the joys, the sorrows, the pain and the healing. Take our experience and weave it more deeply and creatively into our lives. Take our experience and use it, use it to create a better world.
This story invites honesty. Life is not easy, nor perfect. Joan Chittister puts it well. When we manage to create for ourselves the perfect living space, uninterrupted and uninterruptable, we can be sure that we are no longer living life (Living Well, December 21). There are disappointments and sadnesses in our lives, and if we ignore them our lives shrink and our hearts harden. There are tragedies and sorrows in the world, and if we ignore them we abandon others, we leave weeping mothers inconsolable. We need to begin where we are in life to move forward. We need to see the world as it is to change it. We begin where we are, and we meet God there.
We begin where we are and we make choices about our lives and our world. C. S. Lewis penned these powerful words in his work Christian Behavior. Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing into one state or the other. (Mere Christianity, large print, 154-155) Every moment we choose. Every moment, God invites us to choose toward well-being, to weave all that we experience into a healthier whole – our joys and sadness, our accomplishments and disappointments. Every moment God invites us to create deeper peace in the world.
Friday night I shared some of the story of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a Presbyterian pastor and prolific author. Friday I shared with you some of his struggles with his anorexic daughter and where he experienced the love of God in that struggle. Buechner’s story has even more sides to it. [Listening For God, I] One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him. (40) Buechner was raised by a mother who did not want to discuss what had happened. “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” were the rules of the family.
Buechner writes about his father’s suicide, his mother’s emotional closure, his daughter’s anorexia not to air depressing family facts, but because his story might help others be more honest in their lives and in that honesty connect more deeply with God, with others, and with themselves. My story is important not because it is mine… but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually. (52-53) He goes on to write: The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of strength and wisdom for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later. (54)
Even this sad story from Matthew offers a Christmas message. God meets us in the midst of life, even when it is difficult, painful, sad and worse. God meets us. God is with us. We can’t go home again, but we can work with God to create a newer home, a newer world. God invites us reweave our live so that they are more whole. God invites us to work with God to create a world with fewer tyrants, less misuse of power, fewer children dying before their time, and fewer mothers weeping. God invites us to begin where we are to create with God peace on earth and in our hearts. That, too, is from a wonderful Christmas song (by Sheryl Crow). In the end, that song plays most forcefully in my life, in our lives. And God invites us to sing along with the whole of our lives. Amen.

Blue Christmas

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 63:7-9; Luke 2:1-20

Christmas music. I am going to begin this sermon and Sunday’s sermon with Christmas music stories.
At our house, Christmas music season begins November 1, and there is some history there. Julie really enjoys Christmas music, and that love has been shared with our children, especially with our daughter Beth. But the November 1 start date has a more recent origin. In 1998 we moved from Pengilly to Alexandria, and the move was not an easy one for Beth. At age 11, Beth broke her hip and some of her activities were restricted. She was not very happy with moving from a community that had surrounded her with care during a difficult time, and the first couple months of school in Alexandria proved trying. So Julie, with a certain genius, came up with the idea that come November 1, we would start playing Christmas music at our house. A tradition began.
I am not the family’s biggest fan when it comes to this tradition. I like Christmas music and have fond memories of the Goodyear Christmas albums that used to come out. My mom and dad had a few of those. But November 1 is just too early for me. Nevertheless, I admit that my appreciation for Christmas music has grown through the course of my married life. So I get to listen to some things I really like, I have burned a few Christmas CDs over the years – sort of my version of Goodyear’s great songs of Christmas. There are some surprisingly good songs by unexpected artists. Who could imagine Bing Crosby and David Bowie combining on a powerful version of The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth? Bruce Springsteen does a great “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” There are also some Christmas songs that just don’t resonate. I am a big Bob Dylan fan, but Bob Dylan “Christmas in the Heart” - thank goodness the money went to charity! I am also not a big fan of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” It has just never done anything for me.
Yet when you looked through the bulletin tonight and saw a sermon entitled “Blue Christmas” I bet that’s where a number of you went.
But maybe some others of you went someplace else. “Blue Christmas” has more recently come to mean worship services that acknowledge how difficult a time of year this can be. If a family lives apart, Christmas can be a painful reminder of that distance. If family or friends are separated by hard feelings, Christmas can remind us of that, too. At Christmas we remember loved ones lost. Julie’s dad was born on Christmas and loved the holiday, and our celebrations are different without him. If economic hardship has struck, Christmas can be difficult. Life’s difficulties don’t take a holiday. Blue Christmas has those connotations, too, and it is important for us to remember and be sensitive to those who struggle with a blue Christmas. That may be some of us here tonight.
But I want to go someplace else with the idea of a blue Christmas. Avatar. How many of you have seen the 2009 blockbuster movie, Avatar? It is a story set in 2154 about human exploration of a place called Pandora, human exploration and exploitation. A corporation is mining for unobtanium on Pandora, and while they are doing this scientists have found a way for humans to interact with the local population – the Na’vi. The Na’vi are tall blue human-like creatures, and humans interact with them through Avatars – genetically-engineered Na’vi/human hybrid bodies. The scientists want to do research, other humans are interested only in exploiting whatever relationships might develop with the Na’vi through the use of the avatars. One kind of life taking on the form of another.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. Joseph went to be registered with Mary…. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. A birth, the birth of a boy amidst the hay and smell of animals, born to a family far from home. But there was something special about this child. He grew into a powerful teacher, a remarkable healer, a bit of a renegade. It cost him, cost him his life, but his followers claimed that his life came back, that he was present even after execution. Though we tell the story of the birth of Jesus, we need to keep in mind his whole life – including his death and resurrection. Bands of cloth which swaddle him at birth will later be grave clothes which will not hold him.
And those who experienced this Jesus alive and alive again, they dug into their religious texts to try and understand who he was. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us… and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [Isaiah 9] And they wrote new words about him. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [John 1]
Jesus was born, and like most babies he was probably a little blue at his birth. I bet you wondered how I was going to get back to the blue. Jesus was born, and in his life people knew God. God drew near in Jesus. A bit like the avatars, God comes close – to share our lives, to let us know that God understands, to share something of God’s life with us. Unlike the avatars, Jesus is not interested in exploiting us. God does not draw near to use us, rather God draws near so that we might have life. God draws near in order to foster peace and good will, joy and well-being. The red and green of Christmas, the blue of Christmas, the lights of Christmas, are meant to tell us that God is near. God is for us. God loves us. God desires peace and good will and well-being. God becomes like us so that we might become more like God.
And this is good news – good news of great joy for all. Do not be afraid. God draws near to us to give us life, hope, joy, love. A child has been born for us. To you is born this day a Savior. Good news.
This is good news for a thirteen year old, whose hip was broken, whose heart was broken. You are not alone. There can be music in your life to heal your heart.
This is good news for the young woman I spoke with on the phone the other day. She was a student in my on-line class “Religious Perspectives on Living, Dying and Grieving,” and when I phoned her for our final conversation and asked her what she learned, she told me that she felt better prepared to handle grief in her life, and it was especially helpful because her grandmother had died that morning. She is not alone, but there is one to comfort her.
This is good news for my friend Bill. Bill is a retired United Methodist pastor from New York state who I met while serving on a denominational commission. A few months ago, Bill informed us that he had been feeling poorly for quite some time and had now received a diagnosis – MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, sometimes called preleukemia. He has just found out that out of 15 million in the transplant registry, he has no adequate stem cell donor match. Bill has heard the good news of Jesus and shared it in a recent e-mail. I offer you a “be joyful always… living life as prayer (not a separate activity – my life-long personal practice)… and giving thanks in all circumstances kind of Christmas. Makes celebrating the birth of the one many of us choose to follow in our lives, Jesus of Nazareth, real and always exciting. Always this season brings hope that more and more will finally come to know the Christian journey as about this life’s vocation on the love-compassion-kindness-forgiveness continuum and NOT about a life destination. Jesus’ message to us was clearly about behavior, not belief. Whoops, didn’t mean to almost preach but it sure felt good there for a minute. Let’s just leave it at this: our Christmas peace is great this year because of you. This is a man who knows Christmas as good news and I may just have to write him to let him know he got to preach a little on Christmas Eve here tonight.
This is good news for Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and prolific author. He has known difficulty and tragedy. One of his daughters was anorexic. My anorectic daughter was in danger of starving to death, and without knowing it, so was I. I wasn’t living my own life any more because I was so caught up in hers. If in refusing to eat she was mad as a hatter, I was if anything madder still because whereas in some sense she knew what she was doing to herself, I knew nothing at all about what I was doing to myself. She had given up food. I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly. To be at peace is to have peace inside yourself more or less in spite of what is going on outside yourself. In that sense I had no peace at all…. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter. Buechner needed to give her some room, offer her some space, and it finally happened when his daughter was hospitalized three thousand miles away. A judge hospitalized her and it taught him something about God’s love. The power that created the universe and spun the dragonfly’s wing and is beyond all other powers holds back, in love, from overpowering us. I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was. Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air – God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us. (Listening to God, I: 49-50, 51-52) God is with us, gently, quietly, like a baby born on a long ago night in Bethlehem.
This is good news for us, for all. It is good news that comes with no strings attached. Yet it is good news that changes everything. Good news received is good news meant to be lived. If God comes to us in this way – for peace, good will, well-being, shouldn’t we be in the world for one another in that same way? Theologian Walter Wink states it succinctly. Jesus incarnated God in his own person in order to show all of us how to incarnate God. And to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human. (The Human Being, 30) Hear the good news. Be the good news.
Columnist Jean Brody tells this story. I once knew a woman who had very little in the way of material possessions. Her clothes were clean but faded. She ironed other people’s clothes to make money for her children. There was no car so she walked to work everywhere, and thus her shoes were worn and cracked. She and her two children lived in a tiny corner house that had once been white and they all slept in one bedroom. I met her through her little boy who used to come into my pet store after school. He love animals and I would pay him to “help me” by sweeping the floor. He brought mom around to see me one wintry day and I liked her and, since I was nice to her child, she liked me. Mothers are like that. When Christmas came, she appeared in my store, smiling and red-cheeked, with a gift for me. Wrapped in a newspaper were three things – a red candle never lit, four dimes wrapped in tissue and a magazine. She asked if I could open it so she could explain it to me. Blinking back tears, I listened as she said that the red candle would bring light in my life. The four dimes were to be distributed to my four children, and, in the magazine was an article she’d found about the true meaning of giving and loving one another. Jean hugged her new friend and accepted her heart-felt gifts graciously, and every year she puts that red candle, four dimes and magazine under the tree to keep the meaning of Christmas in sight. Good news lived and shared.
The good news is that Christmas is avatar blue – God comes near to bring us near to God. This is good news – God is with us working for peace, healing, well-being, good will, love. Tonight and all nights, hear this good news. Tonight and all nights, live this good news, be this good news for others. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Urgent Advent

Sermon preached December 19, 2010

Texts: James 5:7-10

This morning I want to begin with two items from this past week’s newspaper, and I have a power point slide for one. A postal worker in the small town of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, eight miles north of Milwaukee, was arrested at the North Shore Post Office last Thursday for wearing an unsanctioned uniform while making his rounds. That is, no uniform at all. The 52-year-old man allegedly walked into an office building to deliver mail wearing only a smile. According to Whitefish Bay Now, which cites a town police report, the man has since admitted the nude delivery, saying “he was sorry and it was a stupid thing to do.” The Associated Press reports that the postman was hoping to cheer up a woman working at the office, who he said seemed stressed. The AP also says the woman “dared him to do it,” but Whitefish Bay Now says the woman has denied encouraging the delivery of any sort of special package. Still, she says she doesn’t believe he intended any harm. Slide please. Oh, this is the second story. Here we have the cartoon Non sequitur which appeared in Friday’s newspaper. The caption reads “The Modern Iconoclast.” We have a scene of people frantically scurrying around, fearfully shouting, and in the midst of them is the odd looking man carrying a sign that reads, “Calm Down, Things Will Work Out.” It is often that same man in other cartoons who carries a message of doom and gloom, “The End is Near.” It says something about our time that this cartoon makes sense to us.
Advent is drawing to a close. It will end Friday when we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve (worship services at 4 and 10 – invite a friend). This Advent we have been working with the theme “waiting for God.” It is a thought-provoking theme, really, as we believe God is always present in our lives, moment by moment influencing us toward our good and the good of the world. But God’s influence is often quiet, and sometimes the pattern for that influence takes some time to discern – so we “wait for God.” We wait for God and are ready for the unexpected. We wait for God and are open to the unusual. In this final Advent sermon I want to say that we wait for God with an attitude that can be described as urgent patience.
I came across this phrase “urgent patience” in a book by Bob Johansen called Leaders Make the Future. Johansen argues that among the enduring leadership skills needed in a changing world – a violent, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – is the skill of urgent patience. He took the idea from Bill Walsh, successful coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Urgent patience means understanding when we need to take on new challenges, when we need to get moving, and when we need to be more patient, persistent, steady. (15-16)
There is a time and a place in our lives, in our church, in our world for a calm, steady presence. There is also a time and place for urgency. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, a recognized expert on leadership and change, writes in response to the question “What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change?” – they did not create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction (Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, viii). Yet Kotter also recognizes that urgency can be false. With a false sense of urgency, an organization does have a great deal of energized action, but it’s driven by anxiety, anger, and frustration, and not a focused determination to win (x).
Urgency and patience are both important at the right time as we seek to be God’s people, as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ, yet both have their shadow sides. Patience can edge over into complacency and passivity. “Calm down” may often be good advice, but things won’t necessarily be all right unless we act. Urgency can edge into panic, frenetic activity, frantic activity, impulsiveness. The mailman in Whitefish Bay probably wishes he had been a little more patient and a little less urgent.
As God’s people, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to live in the balance and tension of urgent patience. It is right there in the New Testament. James encourages disciples of Jesus to “be patient…. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” But the author also adds a sense of urgency – “the coming of the Lord is near.” God is up to something – always active in the work of renewal, and we need to be ready to follow this active, adventuresome God. And any good farmer knows that it does not help just to wait for the rain to get a decent crop – you have to till the soil and plant the seeds and tend the weeds. James even seems to think this urgent patience lends itself to certain behaviors – strengthening the heart, not grumbling against one another.
While the modern iconoclast with his sign “Calm Down. Things Will Work Out,” may not have it exactly right, may not quite capture urgent patience, this attitude of urgent patience is deeply needed in our world, and it is often hard to locate.
As I think about our national life, I wonder if we are lacking in this sense of urgent patience. Two years ago, we elected a President promising hope and change. Two years later, we sweep that President’s party out of power. And if the complex problems of healthcare and budgets and environmental concerns and energy are not solved in the next two years, will we do another about face? I cannot help but wonder if we have lost something of the balance of urgent patience in our national life. The problems we face require some urgent action, require forward movement, but many are complex enough that the solutions require long-term patience along with urgency. Could Christians develop this Advent attitude deeply enough to share it with others and be a leaven in our national life?
But the church is not immune from its own imbalance when it comes to urgent patience. Dan Dick is a United Methodist minister who works for the UMC in Wisconsin. Prior to that he worked for a national United Methodist agency. About a year ago he wrote the following on his blog: We’re old. We’re dying. We’re decaying. We’re declining. We’re ineffective. We’re irrelevant. Doesn’t that motivate you to do better? Come on, be honest. Don’t such messages just fill you with energy, vigor, passion and hope? Sure they do, otherwise why would we dwell so constantly upon them? Why waste time envisioning ourselves as God is calling us to be when we can wallow in all the things we aren’t? Doom-and-gloomers eat this stuff up. The United Methodist Church will be gone in 40 years. The average age of United Methodists is 104. We’re closing 24,000 churches every year. It’s like crack. Once we taste the bad news, we simply can’t get enough of it. He is writing tongue in cheek, but he is not far off the mark in depicting what we hear. The United Methodist Church is declining in membership in the U.S., and our members are older than the average U.S. population. We are closing churches – in many communities where there is no longer any school or hardware store or maybe even post office. We have issues to be concerned about – there is need for some urgency. But are we too often edging into the frantic, the panicked, the frenetic? Our issues require action, but thoughtful, well-considered action and a willingness to try things that may take time to develop. How ironic that we who should know urgent patience well seem to be missing it.
This congregation is part of the trend in our denomination. In 1984 we had just over 1,000 members, today we have about 600. Worship attendance that year averaged 350, now we are closer to 200. We should feel a sense of urgency in seeking ways to turn this trend around. I believe we feel that. We know our situation. Yet we, too, need to be thoughtful, reflective, patient as we try out ideas, as we seek to be faithful to who we are and to who God is inviting us to be. We will need to let go of some things along the way. We will try some things that don’t work. Some things we will need to give sufficient time – early and late rains. Together we need to figure out when to welcome new challenges and when to be more patient.
Urgent patience is needed in our personal lives, as well. In every life, there are moments of significant decision. We may be faced with a health crisis. We may confront an economic hardship. Our relationships may hit crisis points. Our spiritual lives may have moments of crisis. These may require urgent attention. Often, however, the urgent action is only a first step on a much longer road to change. Changing health habits and becoming healthier is a long journey, requiring patience, even when it begins in an urgent moment. Repairing a torn personal relationship takes time and patience, even if it begins with a crisis point. Some social scientists theorize that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to become an expert. We shape our lives in response to God’s Spirit over the whole of our lives – urgent patience.
It is Advent, even if only for a few more days. Jesus is near, always near. Change is needed in our lives, in our church, in our world. Strengthen your hearts. Let go of the grumbling. May we be urgent when we need to be in following our adventuresome God, but may our urgency never be without patience, and my our patience never become complacency. And if you ever get the urge to deliver the mail naked, be a lot more patient. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I did not preach on December 12. It was our children's and youth Christmas program. Next sermon post will be sometime after December 19.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ain't That Peculiar

Sermon Preached the Second Sunday in Advent, December 5, 2010

Texts: Matthew 3:1-12

Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion have the Emerald City in their sights, just across a field of flowers. Unfortunately, the flowers put Toto, the Lion and Dorothy to sleep. A spell cast by the Wicked Witch of the West. To the rescue comes the good witch of the North – she causes a refreshing snow to fall. Upon waking, the Lion, in only the way he can, utters one of the classic lines of the film “The Wizard of Oz: “Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it?” This time of year, it becomes a little more difficult for us to consider snow as refreshing because snow is anything but unusual for us.
Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it? Last Sunday I said that a part of waiting for God was being ready for the unexpected. Waiting for God also has something to do with being open to the unusual. God seems to take delight in the unusual. We might say God takes a certain peculiar delight in it. In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea…. Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. John is an unusual figure, peculiar, odd. Yet God uses John to get us to Jesus. John has an essential role to play in the good news of God’s love come near in Jesus. God seems to take peculiar delight in the unusual, the odd. John is not alone in this regard. He stands in a long line of Hebrew prophets. Hosea took Gomer, a harlot, for his wife. Unusual. Isaiah walks around naked for three years to teach and preach (Isaiah). Makes the whole camel’s hair and leather belt thing seem more sane. Odd, isn’t it.
Last summer, at our Annual Conference session, our Bishop, Sally Dyck said that as Christians we are “awed” and “odd.” “Odd means that our worldview is shaped by Jesus. But for some reason as Christians in our American culture, we have lost that sense of being odd—being salt and light and yeast—in the world. We’ve lost pride in being different, being odd, being counter-cultural in the way Jesus has called us to be.”
Waiting for God. Willing to be odd. Open to the unusual. Last Sunday evening, some of us gathered together to watch the film, “Amazing Grace.” It is the story of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a person of deep faith who dedicated himself to the abolition of the British slave trade. There is this wonderful scene in the movie which, in compact fashion, depicts a deepening of Wilberforce’s faith. A household servant finds Wilberforce lying in the grass. “I’ve been even more strange than usual lately, haven’t I?…. “It’s God.” “You’ve found God sir?” “I think he found me. Do you have any idea how inconvenient that is, how idiotic that will sound?” God seems to have a fondness for the peculiar, the odd, the unusual.
Wilberforce, with a bright career in politics contemplates a life of solitude and prayer, but a group of people thinks perhaps he has another calling. Presented with some of the heinous facts of the British slave trade – the chains, the cramped quarters on slave ships (4 ft x 18 in), the branding of human beings as property, the question of his future is posed to him. “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.” “We humbly suggest that you can do both.” Both – how peculiar, but Wilberforce’s tireless work over many years led to the elimination of the slave trade in the British colonies.
In Acts 10, Peter is confronted with a dilemma. Can God be at work in the life of a Gentile? He dreams a peculiar dream about all kinds of animals, animals unclean to him, are lowered on a giant sheet and he is told to kill and eat. Unusual, odd, peculiar – but it is clear in the story that this dream is God’s way of getting him ready to see that God can be found in unusual places, in unusual people. The authors of the study book on Acts we are using write this: “Peter… finds himself led where he has not thought or chosen to go” (Robinson and Wall, Called To Be Church, 162).
Waiting for God, open to the unusual. I think about my own life, sometimes, the places I have gone trying to be a follower of Jesus, trying to let my life be carried on the winds of the Spirit. Over the years I have spent five weeks of my life in a little town in Texas – Robstown – a predominantly Hispanic community outside of Corpus Christi, with a small impoverished African-American population. Not all that exotic, I know, but not the place I ever imagined when I was growing up in Lester Park. I have spent time on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Earlier this fall, while at a denominational meeting in Nashville, a couple of the people I serve on a committee with wanted to experience a bit of the Nashville music scene. So there we were, a Russian, a German, an Alaskan and a Minnesotan walking into a honky tonk – ain’t that peculiar.
I think about the peculiar resources that have strengthened my faith. Growing up in Lester Park United Methodist Church, who would have ever thought that Buddhist texts or psychoanalytic writings would have helped me grow in my faith in Jesus Christ? How odd, yet they have.
Waiting for God. God offers creative influence in every moment of our lives. God is always seeking to persuade us in the direction of our good and the good of the world. God responds to human action. Yet in God’s responsive love, perhaps God also paints with broad brush strokes, and waiting for God can mean waiting for that bigger picture to become clearer as God continues to work in our lives in response to all that is going on in the world. If we are to detect those patterns for our lives, we need to be open to the unusual, the peculiar, the odd. To follow God in Jesus Christ is to be open to being odd in a world often at odds with God’s purposes.
In a world that often encourages us to say “me, me, me” we often ask about “we.” Ain’t that peculiar?
In a world where Sunday is often no different from any other day – working, shopping, busyness, we still gather, taking time from a busy world to slow down, to worship. Ain’t that peculiar?
In a world good at putting up barriers, erecting walls between people, we follow a Jesus who breaks down dividing walls and works against hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Ain’t that peculiar?
In a world that often wants faith to be purely private, we seek to live a life of faith that says we can praise God and work to change the world. Ain’t that peculiar?
So where might God be leading us next? What peculiar places are we headed for? What unusual resources will we find strengthening our faith? What odd people will God bring our way so we can be God’s odd people ourselves? What kind of people even ask such questions? Ain’t that peculiar?
Unusual people, ain’t we? Ain’t we peculiar!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ready For What?

Sermon preached First Sunday in Advent November 28, 2010

Texts: Matthew 24:36-44

What kind of “waiter” are you? I am not talking about waiting tables here. I am not asking if you are good at remembering beverage orders or recommending the daily special. How well do you wait? Are you patient when you need to wait or do you tend to get frustrated? Do you look forward to times when you have nothing else to do but wait, or do they seem like a waste of time? Maybe it depends on the circumstances. If it is an expected wait, then maybe we do better with it – bring a book along, listen to music. When I have to fly someplace, I don’t really mind getting to the airport early and reading. If the wait is unanticipated, like getting stuck in traffic, that may be a different matter. For me, I have to talk myself into being a more patient waiter in those situations.
Waiting. Advent begins today, that season in the church year when we anticipate Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ. In our culture this tends to be a busy, stressful time, a frantic and frenetic time. Here the church is counter-cultural, inviting us into a more reflective and deliberate time. For our reflection during Advent, I have chosen to focus on the theme “Waiting for God.”
Waiting for God? It is a rather odd idea, really. Don’t we believe that God is always present in our lives? Yes we do. In every moment of our lives, God is there. God seeks to influence us for our good and the good of the world, and God continues to respond to the actions of the world with new influences. God is a God of creative and responsive love. This God never leaves us nor forsakes us. How can we speak intelligibly about waiting for God?
God offers creative influence in every moment of our lives. God is always seeking to persuade us in the direction of our good and the good of the world. God responds to human action. Our relationship with God is a bit like a dance. When it is going well, there is a graceful flow. When it is not, we are stepping on God’s toes, trying to lead off in unhelpful directions, and God responds by seeking to gently move us in a better direction. But God is not just dancing with us individually, God is dancing with all others simultaneously. God has to respond not just to our actions, but to all that is going on in the world – a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
In that multi-faceted responsiveness to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, there may be times when God seeks to move us in broader direction. Think of it like this. If I need to lose weight and become healthier, there are the moment by moment decisions – about what I eat, about how to stay active – but there is also the general direction of being healthier, and it is helpful to see that bigger picture. If I want to pursue a particular vocation, there are the moment by moment decisions about school and studying, but it is helpful to keep the bigger picture in mind. Waiting for God can mean waiting for that bigger picture to become clearer as God continues to work in our lives in response to all that is going on in the world.
So we wait. When we are good waiter, we wait looking for signs that what we are waiting for is coming. If we go to pick someone up at the airport, we pay attention to the schedule. We watch as people come out into the waiting area. We look for a familiar face, listen for a familiar voice. So what should we look for as we look for while waiting for God, while trying to understand more clearly how God might be trying to influence our lives and our life together as this church in response to who we are and what the world needs? In being ready for God, what should we be ready for?
“If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” Jesus uses these words in Matthew 24 to tell us that perhaps we would do well to look for God in the unexpected, in the surprising.
Now not all that comes to us in life that is unexpected is good. Joan Chittister tells the following story. It was Christmas Day, an unlikely time, when it happened. He was driving across town from his brother’s home to ours for Christmas dinner. The ice storm that came up suddenly during the day left the streets empty and slick. Every road was a rink of danger. Dad’s car spun on an empty street, jumped a curb, cracked a telephone pole, and came to a befuddled stop, askew and confounded but not really very damaged, not smashed and crashed and crumpled. It was, at most, to the casual bystander, a kind of comic scene…. And yet Dad died in that moment’s slippage…. We were not prepared…. As the years went by, I began to understand that “preparation” is more hope than reality. Who is ever really prepared for anything life-altering…. How is it even possible for us to prepare for such a thing even when we want to, even if we tell ourselves every day of our lives that we must “be prepared”? (Gospel Days, 136)
I believe we need to look for God in the unexpected, but not all that is unexpected is God’s doing. We need to discern, to think, to ponder. God did not cause Joan Chittister’s fathers accident, but I believe God was there for her. When the unexpected is tragic, I believe we wait for God and look for God in signs of healing and growth. Joan Chittister learned about life from this tragedy and passes the lessons on. Grief grows us up. When we come to understand that whatever we have we can lose, we begin, first, to hold everything lightly and, second, we learn to squeeze happiness dry (Nov. 1). Be grateful for grief. It is an infallible sign that we have loved something deeply enough to miss it (Nov. 22). Lucy says it all the time: “Good grief, Charlie Brown.” Now what do you suppose that means? Maybe it means that those with lamps burning are prepared for anything – even grief – and that’s the real good in life (Nov. 30)
Waiting for God means being as ready as we can be for the unexpected, even when some of the unexpected is not what we, or what God, wanted. When the unexpected is tragic, we wait for God’s direction for healing, for care, for learning.
But sometimes the unexpected is just what God has in mind, and if we want to listen and follow the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, we need to be ready for that kind of unexpected.
For the past couple of years, maybe even longer, I have had a sense that we as a congregation needed another opportunity for service. I sensed that there was something more for us to be engaged in in our community in the name and spirit of Jesus. We have people active in the community doing good in all kinds of ways. That is part of the ministry of our church. Our work with Lake Superior Elementary is significant, and your generosity with change for change has been amazing, as has been all the wonderful mentoring. I sensed there was something more for us.
Late last spring, Barb Hill began to talk to me, and then to our church council about a food distribution program. She arranged for a presentation from a group called “Jesus Delivers” to our council. We liked the concept they presented, a generous amount of food for a minimal donation, but there were some thing about their particular method that left us with some questions. Barb found a second organization that operated in a similar way – Ruby’s Pantry. I was cautious, but open. Things kept moving forward. Barb has told me that she never really saw herself as leading these kinds of efforts, saw herself more as a strong supporter, a good worker. But this unexpected role was what was needed. We were hoping for a Saturday distribution date, but Thursday was what was available – another unexpected twist. After August it became clear that when the weather got colder, we would need to put all the people coming for food someplace, and the sanctuary was really the only alternative. That was an unexpected turn of events, an unexpected use of this space, but it is working.
While it is not unexpected that our church should be involved in this kind of ministry, in fact, it fits who we are very well, there has been a lot here that has been unexpected. A year ago, who could have imagined this ministry in our midst? Yet I believe we are involved in this ministry in response to God’s creative-responsive love in Jesus Christ. God in the unexpected.
About two years ago during this season of the year, my dad got sick. He ended up being diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and died in March of 2009. I know that I have mentioned that my relationship with my dad was not particularly close. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t close. As an adult, my dad was unchurched. I became a pastor. My parents divorced when I was in seminary. I remember being in college and becoming politically interested. I subscribed to Mother Jones magazine, and my dad couldn’t understand that. I remember overhearing him talking to my mom about that, but he never talked to me about it. While my dad was dying, I visited him regularly. I will never forget one visit in particular, and the unexpected turn it took. As I was leaving, my dad said, “Pray for me.” Almost before I knew it, coming out of my mouth were the words, “Would you like me to do that now?” And so we prayed. Unexpected, but part of dancing with the creative-responsive love of God. I don’t believe my father’s unexpected diagnosis was God’s will for that time, but I do believe that unexpected moment of prayer had something to do with God.
Keep awake. Be ready. We hear these a lot at Advent. Waiting for God, we are awake to the unexpected. We are as ready as we can be for life and for God’s direction in it. Amen.