Sunday, November 27, 2011

No Man Upstairs

Sermon preached November 27, 2011

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

Tuesday evening Glen Avon Presbyterian Church, Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. It was our choir’s turn to sing – and people kept coming and coming up. A pastor colleague of mine whispered, “How do you get so many people to come out for this?” I just smiled with a deep sense of gratitude. The choir sang beautifully. I was busting my buttons and had not yet had one bite of turkey. Something seems to be happening here at First UMC.
Twice in recent weeks people have commented on worship, on the energy, on the attendance. Something good is happening here. To a few people I have been saying, “God is up to something here.”
You need to know I use that phrase cautiously, carefully and with a great deal of humility. I do that because a great deal of “God is up to something” talk is puzzling.
When our son David was born, he was six weeks premature and he spent the first three weeks of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit in St. Paul. I was a seminary student and Julie was working part-time. It was a scary, uncertain time for us. A year or so later, when things were better for us and I was in my first pastorate, a woman we knew came to tell us about her sister who had just had a baby and while there was some concern because the baby came early “God had answered her prayers and everything was just fine.” We were happy for this family, but couldn’t help wonder what had happened to us and our son a year or so earlier. Where was God then?
Then there are the parking spaces stories – you may have heard them. A person wants a parking spot in a busy mall near the door, offers a prayer to God and lo and behold a parking spot opens up. God is up to something, including finding convenient parking spaces if only you ask and believe.
I want to say this clearly. I believe God has something to do with human healing. I believe that God cares about every aspect of our lives. It was Jesus who said of God, “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Matthew 10:30). I consider it one of my tasks in life to help make God’s job easier. I believe that God cares about every aspect of our lives, yet to claim too much about healing leaves others puzzled and confused, and why would my parking needs supersede the parking needs of others. I usually like to park a ways a way because I can use the walking.
We have a bit of a quandary. Some “God is up to something” talk creates problems, issues. One solution to this dilemma is to make God “the big guy in the sky,” “the man upstairs.” God is, in this view, mostly uninvolved in our lives, except for the occasional tearing open of the heavens in some miraculous way. The man upstairs God is a God who wound the clock of the universe and then pretty much leaves it alone, leaves us alone with some general directions for being nice. The man upstairs God got the ball rolling and now watches from afar with varying degrees of interest. We hear God talked about like this, don’t we?
But the man upstairs God, this is not the God of the Bible. When you read the Bible, God is active. One need not understand every biblical story literally as God acting in this way or that. Yet there seems something critically important in understanding God as an active and involved God, not the clockmaker God. Mark 13 presupposes a God who acts as it advises us to learn the lesson of the fig tree and keep alert and awake. Isaiah 64, read when we lighted the first Advent candle, speaks of God’s awesome deeds and hopes that God will “tear open the heavens.”
We believe in a God who cares and who acts, not in some semi-absent “man upstairs.” When I say that I think God is up to something here in our life together, I really believe that God is up to something in our life together here. Asking what it means to affirm that God is up to something is going to be our Advent focus, with two more sermons exploring different aspects of what it means to say that God is up to something.
After affirming that God acts in our lives and in our world, the question for me becomes, “how.” How does God act? If I believe God acts in the world, but am skeptical that one important activity of God in the world is finding me parking spaces, then how does God act?
Some attribute to God only the obviously miraculous or the utterly stupendous. There are some great production values in Mark 13 and Isaiah 64 – a darkened sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, the heavens shaken, the heavens torn open, quaking mountains. Insurers label things like hurricanes, tornados and other storms – acts of God. With our understandings of climate and weather, we know what causes stars to shoot across the sky or tornados to form or hurricanes to strengthen or the earth to quake. We don’t need God to explain how these happen, though when is still a bit of a mystery.
But Isaiah 64 has this other image in it of the God who acts. “As when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.” I don’t know about you, but I have tried to light enough fires from kindling in my life to know that it is often a pretty slow and quiet process. If you have ever tried to heat one of those big kettles of water in our kitchen, you know that it is slow going. I believe these are better images for God’s action in our lives and the world – quiet, persistent, steady. I appreciate the words of Patrick Henry in his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, too quickly, to the grace of God…. I trust God’s grace but hesitate to identify it in particular cases. It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face. When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward (2).
God acts – but in the quiet manner of water boiling, in the manner of the gentle breeze creating small ripples in the pond, in the manner of the still, small voice. Yet such activity has a profound impact on our lives, if we let it. We do things like pray for healing because it can make a difference. God is not the only factor influencing health, but God is a factor. The analysis offered by Marjorie Suchocki, in her book on prayer that some of us read last spring is helpful. Suchocki begins by acknowledging that all prayers for healing occur in the context of human life, which will end. We cannot change that fact. She goes on to write: God wills the well-being of this world, even in the midst of its fragility and mortality, and not every illness is terminal. Prayers for healing make a difference in what kinds of resources God can use as God faithfully touches us with impulses toward our good, given our condition (In God's Presence, 59). We should rejoice in every healing, in the normal course of healing in our lives and in those times when the healing seems remarkable – both are miraculous in that God is always sending impulses toward our good into the world. God creatively uses the resources of love we offer to increase the good that can be done in the world.
In another one of her books, Suchocki offers this image of God’s action in our lives. God’s creative word… is felt within the depths of the self… [it]comes to us as a whisper, it is not loud, like a clanging cymbal, nor is it boisterous, calling attention to itself and insisting on its own program. To the contrary, it is a quiet word, a suggestive word, , an inviting word, not always easily noticed. How awesome that the word of the living God should come to us quietly, like a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 4) Our God is an awesome God not because God’s activity is loud, raucous, overwhelming, stormy, but because God’s activity is quiet, creative, inviting, persistent. God’s grace is God’s persistent presence in our lives – a presence of creative-responsive love.
We people of God who follow Jesus don’t believe in a “man upstairs” God – a God who mostly leaves us alone but on occasion rips open the heavens to do incredible things – like finding us parking spaces close to the mall entrance. We believe in a God who cares about every aspect of our lives and is always active – the whispered voice of creative love. We believe in a God who comes into our lives again and again and again. That’s what Advent is all about, remembering this God who comes into our lives always, remembering that grace is God’s persistent presence.
God never leaves us alone. God is always up to something in our lives, yet we can affirm that there are special times and unique moments in our journey with God. For First United Methodist Church, we may be in the midst of such a special time. God is always up to something in our lives and in our life together as a church, yet there is a sense in which this may be a special time for us. But if it is a special time it is not God’s doing all alone. This is a special time for us because together we are opening ourselves to God in some deep and profound ways. We may be listening more intently to that whispered word of God. We may be offering God more of our prayer resources which is using in God’s creative love. We are connecting with each other in new ways. God is always up to something, and God seems up to something special here and now and we seem to be working with God’s creativity.
God is up to something in our church, and God is also always up to something in our lives. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to listen more carefully – keep awake. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to trust more profoundly – God is always working for our well-being. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to know deep in our hearts and souls that we are not alone. There is One with us to share our joys, to weep our tears, to calm our fears. Thanks be to God – not a man upstairs but a companion on the journey. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Here Comes the Judge

Sermon preached November 20, 2011

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Play part of Shorty Long: Here Comes the Judge

Here comes the judge. Can we speak helpfully about God as judge, about Jesus as judge. The language is there in our Christian tradition. The Apostles’ Creed has the statement about Jesus that he “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Seems pretty inclusive.
The language is there, but is it meaningful? Is it helpful? Often I think not. Here is a portion of an e-mail I received on November 12: I just saw your church listed as a GAY friendly church on To accept sexual deviancy as normal is a sin. You put your soul in danger of eternal damnation for welcoming unrepentant homosexuals into God’s house. You blaspheme the Name of God. Homosexuality should be criminalized. Homosexuals commit crimes against God, against nature, and the Holy Bible and against the human race. This was followed by a couple of Scripture quotations and a prayer to be prayed. The sender’s e-mail address was When I read something like that, with judgment dripping from it, I am not sure that we can speak of this concept very helpfully at all. Even less extreme statements of faith make claims that leave us feeling uneasy about the concept of judgment – like the statement of faith of the national Vineyard Church which affirms “the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.” Eternal conscious punishment – how wicked does one have to be for that to be a justifiable judgment?
Over time the church has perhaps lost credibility in speaking about judgment. The kinds of wickedness that the church has held up as leading toward eternal conscious punishment are things like dancing, watching movies, having a glass of wine. When we hear language about eternal damnation, eternal conscious punishment, judgment, well, we may cringe. I think that is why we avoid the topic. We hear “judgment” in a church and we think about judgment as passing judgment, as criticism, as censure. We think of people being “judgmental.” The word “judgment” in a religious context evokes images of an angry God ready to pounce on our least mistake – a “gotcha God,” and when you are “got” the consequences are dire – eternal conscious punishment.
For those of us who don’t think this is the God of Jesus Christ we just avoid the concept of judgment. If we can’t speak helpfully, better not to use the concept at all.
But what if there is something here that we would do best not to lose? What if the concept of judgment might be helpful to us in our lives as people of God who follow Jesus? There is a text from Paul’s letter to Roman Christians that may help us. “So then each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12). What is remarkable is that this paragraph begins with cautionary words about “judgment”: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister” (v. 10). Maybe that is the beginning of redeeming the concept of judgment – get away from constantly worrying about others, constantly judging others. Maybe that really does not bring glory to Jesus.
What if we begin with a sense that in our lives we are accountable to God? Could we then translate the idea of judgment into ideas like thoughtfulness, self-reflection, listening for the still, small voice of God within? When you consult a dictionary about “judgment” you don’t simply get ideas such as criticism, or censure, or passing judgment on others, you also find ideas like “think,” or “form an idea.” Maybe this is more the essence of judgment for Christian faith – thoughtfulness, self-reflection, listening for the still small voice of God within. And if this is a more helpful way to think about judgment in the Christian faith, it also changes the time frame for thinking about judgment. Now is the time for us to think about faith, ponder our lives.
So how might we think about our lives now? Matthew 25 is meant to help us out. Jesus tells a story about a future judgment – tells a story, a story following a story about ten bridesmaids, a story following a story about three servants and their money management. Jesus tells a story about accountability. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Does he tell this story to evoke fear? I don’t think so, just as fear was not the point of the last story he told about the guy who buried his single talent. Jesus tells this story to invite, even provoke self-reflection, thoughtfulness – to invite judgment in the now of our lives.
As people of God who follow Jesus, how might we know we are on the right track? As people of God who follow Jesus, what direction should we be going in our journey of faith? I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
For five plus years, I have been convening an “interfaith book group” sponsored by the Oreck-Alpern Interfaith Forum at the College of St. Scholastica. The group reads fiction with religious and/or cultural themes from diverse perspectives. The book we are now reading is called Breakfast With Buddha. It is the story of a man from the East Coast whose roots are in North Dakota. His parents die and he has to return to the Dakotas to care for their estate. The man, Otto, has a sister whose life is very different from his. She has been a seeker, perhaps a bit on the fringes. She does Tarot and palm readings. Anyway, she is supposed to travel with Otto to North Dakota, but instead sends with her brother a monk, tricks him into it really. The book is their travel story from the East Coast to North Dakota. The story is funny, tender, and even a little enlightening.
At one point in the journey Otto has been flipping through radio channels and he listens to Christian talk radio for awhile. But when I listen a bit longer to the so-called Christians, it sounds to me as if their cure for what ails us is more and stricter rules, more narrow-mindedness, more hatred, more sectioning off of the society, and it has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness (153).
Just a novel, just a story, but like Jesus’ story the bottom line seems to have something to do with kindness. Or if you like your theological reflection more, well, theological, here are some words from theologian Robert Neville. In his book Symbols of Jesus he writes these words: Christianity is first and foremost about being kind. (xviii) Neville admits that what constitutes kindness can be open to debate. Yet he writes that we know something about the nature of kindness – being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent…. To be kind is also to be courteous. (xviii).
As Christians, we want to be able to give an account of our lives in terms of kindness. There is, I think, a place for judgment in our lives as people of God who follow Jesus, as we translate judgment into attention, self-reflection, and discernment.
Judgment is about seeing the world with new eyes. We look for kindness, and celebrate where it is found. We consider the meanness in the world, and ask how we might do better. Unfortunately, there is a lot of meanness in the world. I think our economy has become meaner. I helped officiate at a funeral a while back for a person who had been a mining executive in Chisholm. One story I heard about him was that there was an employee whose son really wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately, the only way this young man could go to college was if he had a job. My friend, the mining executive said, “I will find him something.” He did – found him a custodial job, and if the young man’s school schedule made getting to work difficult on occasion, my friend the executive, would begin to do some of the young man’s work. I don’t think there is enough of that kind of kindness in our current economy where the bottom line is calculated so carefully that there are no jobs to be found for someone.
Even so, whatever the meanness in the world, we look for and celebrate acts of kindness and beauty, affirming that the Spirit of God might be at work, even when those being kind don’t think in those terms. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. I think of all the acts of kindness, large and small, engaged in by members of this congregation – volunteering at food shelves and care facilities and hospitals, bringing animals to first grade class rooms, Ruby’s Pantry, mentoring. We have two people in our congregation who have been leading groups at CHUM for ten plus years. See. Celebrate.
Judgment is new eyes. Judgment is self-reflection. How are we doing as a church? How am I doing as a person? Where can I grow in kindness? What disciplines will help me in my life be kinder, gentler – disciplines of prayer, meditation, study, action? How can a cultivate a heart of kindness?
And in our deep self-reflection we discover another voice that speaks to us, the voice of God heard in the voice of Jesus encouraging our kindness – judgment as discernment. God’s voice of judgment is not a “gotcha” voice, but the voice of kindness itself. At times the voice will identify places where we need to grow in kindness. At times the voice will rejoice in kindness in our lives. If we listen carefully, we may even hear the smile of God in our lives enjoying our kindness, and when we hear that we will want to hear it again.
So there is this guy named Otto, entrapped by his sister into driving across the country with a guru, a monk – Volya Rinpoche. And along the way he thinks about Jesus. It has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness. I think he is on to something, something Jesus, too, told a story about once upon a time.
Judging by that standard, there is beauty to celebrate. Judging by that standard, there is room to grow. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Whadya Got

Sermon preached November 13, 2011

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

Did you know that we are in the process of producing a guide for small groups in the church. We want to encourage our groups, and encourage people to consider forming new groups and thought it might help to have a resource for getting a group started and keeping it going. The guide is in its final editing stages.
Among the suggestions in the guide for group building are some questions that you might use to get to know one another better. One suggested question is, “what did you first want to be when you grew up?” Try that question some time.
The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a policeman. And I remember my Cub Scout den mother telling me that you had to be a certain height to be a policeman. I still recall the puzzlement and disappointment I felt when she told me that. I remembered her words again when a couple of years ago a story hit the news – research indicates that taller people make more money. These reports, issued in 2009, stated that taller people are presumed to be more intelligent and more powerful. One estimate was that persons earned $789 per inch per year more, though I could not find the baseline height. A few years ago when I was a candidate for bishop in The United Methodist Church, one of the voting delegates to Jurisdictional Conference asked a colleague of mine if I suffered from short-man syndrome – compensating for a lack of height by seeking power. I wonder if some of the taller candidates had that asked about them?
Being vertically challenged could provide me another opportunity to ask “if… only” questions. If only I were taller, how might my life be different? We are good at if… only questions and musings. Sometimes we can laugh about them.
Did any of you see the AT & T commercial where the husband goes and tells his wife he has signed the family up for unlimited mobile to mobile minutes. Her reaction is not pleasant. “Where’s that money coming from, Steve. Don’t you think you should have consulted your wife before spending that kind of money. Mother was right, I should have married John Clark.” If only… Turns out the service did not cost Steve anything – except now an awkward moment with his wife. If only she had been a little less impulsive.
I think we are often very good at the “if… only” stuff. We are good at looking at what we don’t have, at what we lack. Parts of our culture bombard us regularly with messages about what we lack, about what life could be like if only…
In thinking about the church, we are not immune to looking at what is lacking, at wondering “if only.” If only we had more money. If only we had more members. If only our building had a view – what were they thinking anyway? If only our building was a little smaller. If only there were less competition for Sunday morning time. Think what we could do then!
Into our “if only” thinking comes this story Jesus tells. Like last week, it is a story with some problems. The ending saying of Jesus does not fit some of the most important parts of the story. In the end, someone gets left out again, and this time treated even more harshly than bridesmaids not allowed to attend a wedding as in last week’s story. Yet like last week’s story, this one can teach us if we wrestle with it.
As I was doing just that, I could not help but think that this story would need to be re-told today. If I was the third guy, the guy who buried the money, all I would have to do would be to say – "have you seen the market lately, do you know how pitiful the interests rates are, you should thank me that I buried this money and remembered where I buried it." The investment environment in Jesus’ time must have been less volatile.
So three servants, three “slaves” are given money to manage while the master is away – a lot of money actually. A talent was the equivalent of fifteen years of wages for a day laborer. They are given differing amounts, depending on the evaluation of the master as to their ability to manage the money well – one person receives ten talents, another five, and the third, one. The five and ten guys make money, the third buries his, afraid to risk losing any portion of it. His choice is derided in the story. The master reacts badly, gives the one talent slave the boot.
So the moral of the story is be afraid, be very, very afraid. You don’t want the master coming back to find you buried your talent, do you? Be afraid. And what if this master is just like God – be very, very afraid.
Except, I think the story is trying to say just the opposite. Jesus is telling a story, but because it is in the Bible we kind of assume that God must be the master. I don’t think Jesus thought of God as a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed. The important contrast in the story is not between reward and punishment, it is between adventure and fear, between using what you’ve got well, or living in constant fear that you will lose. The irony is that in the end, fear loses out.
If only thinking is often anxious and fearful thinking. Look at what we lack, and because we lack, we really can’t do much. Some other time, maybe, when we have what we need, when we are more together in our life, in our church. Someday maybe, watch out, but not so much now. If only we had the ten talents or the five talents, we might be willing to risk a little, to strike out more in the adventure of following Jesus, but with one talent, well, we better be very careful.
Jesus is suggesting in his story that this kind of thinking, this perspective that begins with if only, with lack, with fear, is not the way of God. The way of God is a way of adventure. The way of God begins with asking, whadya got, and being amazed that a single talent is a lot. The way of God begins with looking at strengths and assets and trusting that God wants to use who we are right now to do some amazing things in our lives, our community and our world. Look first at strengths, assets, not at what is missing, what is lacking. Ask “what now?”, “what next?”, rather than bemoan with “if only.”
There is a place for if only thinking, for realistic assessments of weaknesses and threats (SWOT analysis), but if we don’t begin from what we’ve got, we are likely to be more anxious and fearful than adventuresome. We begin by trusting that we have what we need in our lives to do what God would have us do, to be who God would have us be. New opportunities will arise, change will come and be required, but we best begin with a deep conviction that God is with us that where we are is a good beginning.
I think this is true for our individual lives. Meaningful change begins with a sense that with God and with the other people in our lives, we have what we need to begin the change process. It is true in our financial giving to the church. No gift is ever insignificant. Don’t ever think, if only I could give more it would make a difference. Every gift makes a difference, and you have something to give. More importantly, you have yourself to give to the ministry of this church.
And I think this perspective is important for our church. God invites us to be about God’s work in the world as we are, from where we are. We have what we need to do what God is calling us to do as First United Methodist Church. Is there room for aspiration – yes. Do we desire to grow and change – yes. Yet we begin with being our best now. We use who we are and who and what we have to do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. God is calling us to be the best we can be right now, and we have what we need to answer that call. As we do that, new people will want to be a part of this. New challenges and opportunities will arise, but we will approach them trusting in the God who is leading us on this adventure.
A couple of years ago, a man named Dan Dick, who does a lot of thinking and writing about the church noted how good we are at discouraging ourselves with statistics in The United Methodist Church – we are growing older, aging, declining. If only things were as they once were for the mainline church, say in 1956. Then I can say "if only I was born earlier!" Dick points out however, that in 1956, with the US population at about 170 million there were approximately 170,000-220,000 churches/communities of faith. In 2009, with a population at about 308 million, there were 1.1 million churches/communities of faith – double the population, five times the number of faith communities. Dan Dick ended his reflection with these words: Until we do a better job with people who already like us, we won’t do very well with those who don’t yet know us. It’s up to us. Continue to wallow in our anxiety, fear, and frustration or work with God to build something beautiful?
The question isn’t whether we have ten talents, five talents, or one talent. The question isn’t even whether we once had ten talents but now only have five. The question is whether we want to wallow in anxiety, fear and frustration, making "if only statements," or if we want to work with God to build something beautiful, beginning from who we are right now. Whadya got? A good thing going with God. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Sermon preached November 6, 2011
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

I don’t really like the gospel reading for today. Can you say that in church? I guess I just did. The story has a sad ending that does not seem justified by what precedes it. Five bridesmaids, foolish though they are, are refused entry into the wedding party. It seems an overreaction to their foolishness. And the “we’ve got ours” attitude of the wise is troubling too.
I am not alone, though, in my feelings about this story. None of the other gospel writers in choosing which of Jesus’ stories to include in their gospels included this particular story. Only Matthew uses it. Some scholars argue that its details mirror wedding customs of Jesus’ time, but there is debate about that. Even so, that does not help me much. I still feel sorry for the five bridesmaids left standing holding their now oil-filled lamps.
Just because I don’t like the story does not mean it is not worth grappling with. In fact, just for that reason, I need to struggle with the text. Maybe there is something in here that I just don’t want to hear, but need to.
So what’s the story trying to tell us? Basically, the story is about continuing to grow in faith. Wisdom is continued growth in faith, hope, and love and the good works that flow from them. All the bridesmaids sleep, the keep awake ending of the story does not fit the story very well. What distinguishes the wise from the foolish is that the wise had a sufficient store of what they needed when the time was right. The foolish simply slept. And even more pointedly, the story wants to say that if we don’t have the resources we need when the crucial time comes, we risk missing out. Missed opportunities cannot always be recovered. Timing matters.
That is something we don’t always want to hear, but need to hear. We continue to grow in God’s Spirit, we continue to grow in faith, hope and love so that when occasions arise that call for loving response, we have what we need to respond. And sometimes if we don’t respond, it can be too late. You procrastinate buying your concert tickets until they are sold out then your friends tell you it was one of the best concerts they ever heard. The opportunity was missed. As a relationship deteriorates, you refuse to ask for help, or ask for forgiveness, and there comes a point of no return, a point where the relationship will never be what it might have been – too many harsh words, too many moments of neglect. You can’t buy enough of the oil of kindness to light the way forward. You meant to send that letter, make that call to a friend who is sick, and then they die before you get it done. In many contexts of our lives, opportunities missed cannot be recovered. The good news of the gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is that God continues to make new ways for forgiveness and restoration in our relationship with God, but that does not change the fact that in life, there are points of no return, that there are missed opportunities and we want to continue to develop the inner resources and wisdom to make the most of life.
So there is an important message in this story, even if there is a tragic dimension to it. But the story does not convey the whole truth of Christian life. My main problem with it is that in the story the wise do what they need to do, but are no help to the foolish. That part of the story has wisdom, but not all the wisdom there is. Yes, there are things in our lives we have to do for ourselves. No one can develop our hearts, our souls for us. Yet the Christian life is not intended to be solitary. In another reading from the New Testament suggested for today, from I Thessalonians 4, we read – “encourage one another” (4:18). In the next chapter of that same letter we read – “encourage one another and build up each other” (5:11). I don’t see a lot of encouraging in this story from Matthew. The truth of the Matthew story is important, but partial, and that is particularly evident on an “All Saints Sunday.”
Saints are those people we think of as wise, to some degree. They are wise in that they have continued to grow in their faith, their hope, their love, continued to grow in God’s Spirit. But there is another quality to saints as well. Saints are not just those who are wise enough to plan for themselves, saints are those who often wonder if others have enough, wonder how others are doing in their journey of faith, in their growth in grace. Saints shine brightly and always seem to have light to share.
If saints are those who shine brightly to help light our way, who ask if we have enough oil to shine, who are your saints? Who are those people who have helped you on your journey of faith. I am going to give us two minutes to remember them, and give thanks for them.
Christian faith is personal and individual, and there are some things no one else can do for us. But Christian faith is not solitary. How are you opening yourself to God’s grace and working on your own faith so that you can be a saint for others, so you can shine to light the way for others?
And to take a lesson from the parable, NOW is always the time to grow, NOW is always the time to shine, NOW is always the time to be there for others. Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Love and Bread

Sermon preached October 30, 2011

Text: Matthew 22:34-40

Sara Miles was born in 1952. Sometime next year she will turn 60. I have no idea how she might feel about that, but we do know something about Sara. At age 46 she came into Christian faith and the church. She has written about this in two books – Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. A number of us are reading Take This Bread and I used some themes from that book last week in my sermon. I will do that again this week, but let me begin with a few words from Miles’ Jesus Freak book.
I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread…. Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. (xi)
The story of this conversion is the story Miles tells in Take This Bread. We can learn from her story. She teaches us things about the journey of faith, about our lives with God and Jesus. Last week I said that she teaches us three important things about our faith: that Christian faith is a power that transforms our lives, that conversion is an on-going process – or the journey of faith is a journey, and that following Jesus may take us into uncomfortable places. I believe Sara Miles also has something to teach us about love, and that matters.
Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, encouraged by a larger group of Pharisees, Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” According to Matthew, the questioner did not really want to know the answer, but asked only to put Jesus to the test. Jesus takes the question at face value and offers and answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Torah in the Hebrew Scriptures have been codified into 613 Mitzvoth or commandments. While the number is not uncontroversial, you get the picture that there are a lot of commandments. So the Jews of Jesus time were curious about what was most important. There is a Jewish story from the time of Jesus that a Gentile asked two of the most famous rabbis of the first century, Shammai and Hillel, to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai refused, saying that the Torah could not be summarized in such a simple way. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 70) To a similar question Jesus responds that love is most important – love God with your whole being, love others as you love yourself.
But what does that mean? What does that look like? The word “love” gets bandied about in so many contexts. We love chocolate, and we love our spouses, and we think there is probably a difference in those kinds of love. What does love mean? What might it mean to love? The Bible itself encourages us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (I John 3:18). In other words, “Let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love” (I John 3:18, The Message). Reading Sara Miles helps me grab hold of what it means to practice real love. She recalls the words of Paul, that what matters is “faith working through love” (161)
In an interview at the back of her book, Miles is asked what she recommends for Christians who want a faith that is something other than the narrow, judgmental Christianity that is often portrayed in the media. First, do something. Feed, heal, help…. Second, pray for your enemies. Don’t pray that they become different, or start doing what you want them to do. Just pray for them. (289) Love in action – feed, heal, help, pray.
In Christian faith, to love is to pray. Miles shares some powerful stories about love as prayer. For fifteen minutes, I’d try to actually listen to another person, letting myself be whatever was needed: the bowl of soup, the forgiving mother, the magic minister, a warm body…. I’d sit down next to people and let them talk or cry; I’d listen and put my hands on them; at some point, I’d pray aloud; without really knowing where the words were coming from. (132) Love as prayer includes love for self, and prayers for one’s own life. During a particularly difficult time in her life, Miles would pray: God… Thank you for healing. For new life, after all. And thank you especially for the dark years. Thank you for everything that works in the dark. (133) While for Miles praying at her food pantry made some uncomfortable, others who had been burned by religion found her prayers the only ones they could receive. (133)
Prayer is love in action – love for God and love for others. When we pray we offer our whole lives to God – heart, soul and mind. We offer the lives of others into God’s love. Prayer opens new avenues for love.
While prayer is one lesson we learn from Sara Miles about love in action, about faith working through love, a focal point for Miles faith and life is her work at a food pantry she establishes at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. Early on she asks, “now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?” (97) Soon enough a “vision” comes to her: It was communion… but with free groceries instead of bread and wine. With the “everyone” of “Jesus invites everyone to his table” extended so that more sinners and outcasts could share the feast. With the literal bread of life served from the same table as the bread of heaven. This is it, I thought, what I’m supposed to do: feed my sheep. (104)
That food pantry, with it struggles and successes, with the cast of characters Miles encounters, is the centerpiece of the story in Take This Bread. Miles comes to Christian faith through taking bread and as she comes to understand a faith that is supposed to work through love, she discovers her work of love in feeding others. She has come to know something of God’s love and this is her way of loving God and loving others, loving God through loving others. But faith working through love: That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer. Whatever else, I could at least keep working in the pantry, feeding as many people as I could. (162)
Jesus tells us that what matters most is love – love God, love others as you love yourself. The writer of I John reminds us to love not just in speech, but in truth and action, to practice real love. Sara Miles helps us get even more concrete – pray, feed, heal, help – that’s what love can mean. Her book helps me think about faith working through love. To love God is to pay attention and that is prayer. We seek to love others as God loves them, reaching out even to those we may find difficult or challenging. We seek to love ourselves as God loves us.
When asked in the interview in the back of her book what Miles hopes people will take from it she replies: I hope that readers, whether or not they’re religious, will be able to take away Jesus’ message: Don’t be afraid. That they’ll find ways to act; to feed others, to accept being fed by others; that they’ll be willing to open up to people very different from themselves. (290) To love God is to pay attention, to love others as God loves, and to trust that when we open ourselves to others we will be loved and fed.
I am glad to be reading Miles’ book after we have been engaged in our own food distribution ministry, Ruby’s Pantry. It has helped me understand more deeply how it is truly faith working through love. Miles book has helped me reflect on some of the on-going conversion experiences involved in this work. It has helped me give thanks for the ways I have been fed by this ministry. Love and bread.
But we miss something of the power of Sara Miles story if we think that we have to imitate her in expressing love through bread. What matters is love – of God and others. What matters is faith working through love. What matters is a love that goes beyond words to actions. But the actions will vary. You may not have had the opportunity to work with Ruby’s Pantry. I hope you will give it a try sometime. But if you can’t you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and give up. Find another way to let faith work through love. Tuesday night you are invited to go to St. Scholastic and hear Shane Claiborne. Shane has worked with Mother Teresa. He established the Simple Way, a small monastic community in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. He is going to talk about how his faith works through love in action. But we are not all called to be Shane Claiborne, just as we are not called to be Sara Miles.
Each of us needs to find ways to love – love God and others, to let our faith work through love, to love in action. Prayer is a part of that for everyone, but we can pray differently. Action is not optional, but faith working through love takes many forms. Find some: Love and bread as we seek to feed others literally; love and listening as we give the best gift we can to others – the gift of our time and attention; love and tears as we cry with someone; love and hands – hands that hold or arms that hug; love and smiles; love and hammers – repairing a roof or building a house or digging a garden; love and song – joining together with others to sing of our faith and sing our way into deeper faith. There are all kinds of “love ands…”. Sara Miles reminds us that we need to find our “and.”
Where does Christian faith begin and end: love God, love as God loves, let yourself be loved, find your love and… Amen.