Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Keep on Growing

 Sermon preached December 28, 2014

Texts: Luke 2:22-40

            Derek and the Dominoes, “Keep On Growing”
            I am thinking I could not have chosen a worse sermon title for today – “keep on growing” – really!?  I don’t know about you but a lot of the growth that happens to me this time of you is not necessarily positive.  How many clothing returns do you suppose are of items that would have fit the person when they were purchased, but now after Thanksgiving and holiday parties, well, they just don’t fit now?
            However, growth in girth is not what I am talking about this morning.  In Luke we read of Jesus, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”  In his Notes on the New Testament, writing about Luke 2, both verse 40 and 52, John Wesley wrote, “It plainly follows, that though a man were pure, even as Christ was pure, still he would have room to increase in holiness, and, in consequence thereof, to increase in the favor as well as in the love of God.”
            The Christian life is one where we are encouraged to keep on growing.  There is always room to grow in grace. There is always room to grow in wisdom.  There is always room to grow in faith.  There is always room to grow in hope.  There is always room to grow in love.  There is always room to grow as a person of God and as a human being.  I like to use the phrase, grow as “a person of God” better than “child of God,” because though I like that phrase in some ways, in other ways it might perpetuate the idea that we are always children when it comes to faith, and that is not the case.  Recall that in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends” (15:15).  Paul speaks of Jesus as “the firstborn within a large family” (Romans 8:29).  Jesus is like an elder brother with whom we grow up.  The writer of Ephesians writes, “we must grow up in every way… into Christ” (4:15).
            The Christian life is one where we are encouraged to keep on growing.  We can all say “yes” and “amen” to this easily enough.  At the same time it is good to be reminded what it really means to grow, what it really means to learn, what it really means to mature.  Growth is sometimes easier to say yes to than to actually accomplish, and that’s because learning and growing is not always easy.  I want to say three things about this.
            One, learning and growing involves change, and change is not always easy or comfortable.  Edgar Schein is a well-respected management consultant, and professor emeritus of the Sloan School of Management at MIT.  He is considered an expert on corporate culture, and in one of his books on that topic, Schein writes about change.  “People resist change because unlearning is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing” (The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 115).  I am guessing that we may not need an MIT management consultant to tell us that we tend to resist change.  Schein digs a little deeper.  He says that for change to take place, we need to keep two principles in mind.  Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety, and learning anxiety must be reduced through increasing a sense of psychological safety rather than increasing survival anxiety or guilt. (124)
            Schein is arguing that change is uncomfortable.  We’ve experienced that.  To motivate change, we have to introduce another measure of discomfort, some dissatisfaction about the way things are.  That dissatisfaction must be higher than the discomfort of learning.  We could keep raising that dissatisfaction level, but that also produces defensiveness, and so becomes counter-productive.  It is better to provide some sense of safe space for change.  And if all this is not complicated enough, Psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, write that even when we want change there are also things in us which resist that change.  “We are a living contradiction” (38)
            Learning and growth require some change, and change is messy and complicated.  Nevertheless, we are invited to keep on growing.
            Learning and growth also mean taking some risks.  In the passage for today, Simeon takes some risks.  Yes, it says that Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit, but God’s Spirit is often a whisper in our lives, and to try and follow the Spirit may mean that we miss the whisper sometimes.  Had Simeon shown up on other days at the Temple, looking for the Messiah?  We don’t know, but learning and growth often require taking some risks, following whispers of the Spirit knowing that we may not hear clearly sometimes.
            Learning and growth involve some risk taking.  We take risks when we ask tough questions of our faith, not settling for the answers we were given in Sunday School.  One of the things I appreciate about the Adam Hamilton book many of us have read, Making Sense of the Bible, and by the way, there are a couple of copies still available, is that Adam invites our deeper questions about the Bible.  I admire the kind of risks Adam took in his own journey of faith, and the kind of risks it took for him to write this book.  Not everyone will agree with him that there are places in the Bible that never really reflected God’s purposes, passages, for instance, that regulate slavery rather than speak against it.
            Learning and growing involve taking some risks, asking some questions, trying spiritual practices that may not always work well and then have to be changed.  How many of you remember our experiment with monthly Sunday evening meditative worship?  When the fourth session came around and I was there alone, it seemed that maybe we were not meeting a need with this, and discontinued it.
            A third thing about learning and growing that makes it challenging is that it often happens through difficult moments, and we learn from such moments when we can lean into them.  In today’s Scripture reading, Anna is a woman who was married for only seven years, and has now been a widow a long time.  At age 84 she fasts and prays often.  You get the sense, here, of a woman who knew difficulty and loss and learned from it, grew through it.  Mary is told that her soul will be pierced along the way.  What a difficult message.
            Parker Palmer, in his book, Let Your Life Speak, writes about the seasons of life.  In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here, people spend good money on warm clothing so they can get outdoors and avoid the “cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the long frozen months. If
you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear.
Our inward winters take many forms – failure, betrayal, depression,
death. But every one of them, in my experience, yields to the same advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.”  Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them – protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or
inner discipline or spiritual guidance –we can learn what they have to
teach us. (102-103)
            In her book Necessary Losses, Judith Viost echoes something similar.  The road to human development is paved with renunciation.  Throughout out our life we grow by giving up.  We give up some of our deepest attachments to others.  We give up certain cherished parts of ourselves….  Passionate involvement leaves us vulnerable to loss….  Losing tends to be difficult and painful.  Let us also consider the view that it is only through our losses that we become fully developed human beings.  (16-17)
            Learning and growth often involve loss, or getting out into our loss.  We all experience difficulty and loss.  I don’t think God does things to us for our growth, causes us pain and loss.  That’s just there.  It’s part of life, like the season of winter.  God, however, walks with us as we get out into it, so we can become fully developed human beings, more mature in Christ.
            We want to learn and grow, but it isn’t easy, and we are tempted to stay put, to stay static.  How do we manage the courage to learn and grow?  We know we are not alone.  God is with us through it all.  That Jesus presented at the Temple is a reminder that God is always present to us.  And we are there for each other.  And we know we are loved by God in Jesus.

            Because we are known and loved and not alone, we can grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; with God’s favor on us.  May it be so, otherwise our faith can feel a lot like a dead shark.  Keep on growing.  Amen.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hopes and Fears

Sermon preached Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

            Those who know me know I really like music.  You know that I often use music to start a sermon, playing a cd or my i pod. But it’s Christmas Eve, and playing an i pod, well, it just seems like I could be a little more traditional today.
            But I so want to begin with a song, and I have been working on one the past few weeks.  The lyrics have been changed to reflect our interesting December weather.
I’m dreading a gray Christmas
With all the fog I’ve come to know
Where the gutters drip
You slide and slip
In all the slush that’s on the roads.

I’m dreading a gray Christmas
With every sermon note I write
May the weather become a delight
And may the moon shine bright on Christmas night.

            Let’s be honest, not about my singing – please, but let’s be honest, the world in which we live inspires some dread in us.  The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, at a poetry reading in Minneapolis in 1996 was explaining a poem he was about to read, and how it contained an image of childhood dread, “that sense of omen that a very young child can have, a sense of the possible dangers of the world, when you don’t actually have content for your dread, but you know it’s there.”  He then went on, “and of course experience gradually supplies you with the content.”
            When we are children, things that go bump in the night may frighten us, though there is nothing there.  As we grow, we don’t need things to go bump in the night to know fear and dread.  Experience supplies us with the content.  All we need to do is turn on the news: think Ebola, think police shootings – shootings by police and shootings of police, think ISIS, think North Korea.
In this week’s Duluth NewsTribune Mitch Albom, a columnist from Detroit, printed letters from children in the Detroit area to “Santa’s helper,” in this case an organization in the Detroit area started thirty years ago by a school secretary who noticed that some kids were coming to school without coats or socks in the winter.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It has been a hard year for me and my parents because… We have lost our home two times…. My Mom couldn’t pay the storage bill so we lost everything.  My Mom has been in and out of the hospital.  We have spent the night in our car, shower in fast food places, lakes and so forth.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It has been a hard year for me because… My father stopped talking to me after my parents got divorced.  He said I was dead to him.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It’s been a hard year for me because… It’s hard to live in a motel.  You would think with my Mom working two jobs a day we wouldn’t be in this situation…. For the first time since I was little, I cried in front of my Mom….  None of my friends want to hang out with me because I can’t do the stuff they want to do….  We never did anything wrong.  Why did we get this lifestyle?
And I know that some of you here have had a year when your heart has been broken, when some of the things that evoke fear and dread have happened in your lives.
One of the things that kind of amazes me is how many Christmas songs give a nod to fear and dread and difficulty.  In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan.  Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone (“In the Bleak Midwinter”).  And ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow (“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”). The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”).  Even secular Christmas songs chime in.  I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.  Have yourself a merry little Christmas, may your hearts be light.  From now on our troubles will be out of sight./ Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.
Fears, dread, difficulties, muddling through.  The people walk in the darkness.  Emperors order people to be registered, even if it means traveling for days and for miles.  Here’s the bad news.  Our fears, our difficulties, will not magically disappear during the hour or so we are here together.  Our singing won’t be so loud as to chase all our troubles away.  The difficulties we fear will not just vanish with the lighting of candles.
But tonight is not about that news.  It is about good news, but we hear this good news is a realistic context.  The good news doesn’t come served on a silver platter in a mansion.  The good news comes to shepherds in a field – cold and smelly.  The good news arrives like the messiness of a birth amid the hay and small of animals.  Here’s the good news.  The world may not magically and instantaneously change, but we can be different, and even a little different just because we are gathered here.  We can be different because we can know hope, a hope that is strong, powerful and tenacious.  We can know the kind of hope Anne Lamott writes about.  Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff [shit] anyone can throw at us. (Plan B, 275; Small Victories, 231 “Falling Better”).
Hopes and fears meet, and hope is stronger because love is stronger, and love is stronger because that’s God’s very nature.  Here’s more good news.  Because we can be different, the world can be different too, maybe not in an hour or overnight, but the world can be different.  No wonder this is such good news.  The word “good news” in the gospel reading is the Greek word used to describe news which affects an entire community, news brought by a runner to a Greek city to share, for example, news about a victory in battle. (John Howard Yoder, in Watch For the Light, December 11)  Because we can be different, the world can be different.  The world can even be a little more like that world described in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb live together, the leopard and the kid, the lion and the calf, the cow and the bear, and little children are safe – no hurt or destruction, no more letters to Santa’s Helper about why it has been such a tough year.
This is what Christmas is about, about a God who enters our fearful, messy world and touches our lives with all their difficulties, a God whose love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us.  It is about hope and fear meeting, and about hope being stronger, bigger.
I think we get that.  Even in our non-religious cultural artifacts of Christmas, we get that it is about hope, and the strength of hope.  Think of some of your favorite Christmas movies or stories.  Aren’t they about hope?  Unless your favorite Christmas movie happens to be “Bad Santa” or something like that.  Dickens “A Christmas Carol” is about a man set in his miserly ways who is able to see his life more honestly, and make changes toward kindness and generosity.  It’s about hope.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about an ordinary person who realizes just how many lives his life touches even in the backwater town of Bedford Falls.  It’s about hope.  The story “The Gift of the Magi” is about the deep love of a couple, the wife who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her husband and the husband who sells his watch to buy lovely hair combs for his wife’s beautiful hair.  It’s about hope. “Elf” discovers his family, and eventually finds acceptance.  It’s about hope.  “The Santa Clause” has that wonderful line – “Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing.”  We can see different.  We can be different.  It’s about hope.  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is about misfits, many consigned to the island of misfit toys, finding a place.  It’s about hope.  “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” is about a scraggly tree coming to life when given love and care.  It’s about hope.
But hope needs to be more than a movie plot and a story line, and it is.  Recently Anne Lamott posted a Christmas reflection on Facebook.  There was a cartoon in the “New Yorker” decades ago, that I’ve never forgotten, of two men chained at the wrists and ankles to the wall, off the ground, in a jail cell, in a cave.  One man turns to the other and says, “Okay, here’s my plan.  When the guard comes in to bring us our meals…”  That’s how I feel about the last two weeks of holidays, the days of death by cookie, bad nerves, tight smiles and overwhelm.  Doomed, like a prisoner, or space alien, but you know what?  Also full of hope.
Lamott goes on to share the story of her last reading for her recent book tour.  She was not feeling well. She had been given an injection that she said made her face puff up like an apple pie.  But at that reading she encountered close friends – a friend since age six, old friends of her fathers – “People who still show up to rally for justice and peace, like poets and do-goods always will, against the myriad endless wars, and oppression, for civil rights and women’s rights and the environment….  They fill me with hope….  Because we are people who show up for peace and each other, this gives me hope and faith.”
Then Anne Lamott remembered how, at this same bookstore, thirty years ago, she got to have tea with the poet and writer Wendell Berry, who was signing books during a mid-December storm.  Berry looked out the window and said, “It gets darker and darker and darker; and then baby Jesus is born.”
It gets darker and darker and darker and then baby Jesus is born.  The hopes and fears of all the years meet at Christmas. Our hopes and fears meet here tonight. And hope is stronger, because love is stronger and love is stronger because God’s nature is love.  Hope is stronger, because the God of love is with us, and when we need God to draw especially close, God just does – even when its messy, even when its inconvenient, God just does.
By the way, those heartbreaking Santa letters, well they go to that foundation started by that school secretary, and the foundation selects the kids it can help, and provides funds for the most needed items like food, clothing, car repair, and educational assistance.  Such things speak to me of Christmas – small acts of hope in a fearful world, small acts of kindness and love that remind us that hope is believing, then acting on that belief, that love is bigger than any grim bleak stuff in life, hope and love made real in the messiness of life.
It gets darker and darker and darker, then the baby Jesus is born.  Hopes and fears meet, and hope is stronger because love is stronger and the God of love is with us.  Know hope, no matter how many fears have touched your life.  Know hope.  Know that you are loved.  Share love with others, because sharing love and hope only increases them.  Tonight, it’s about hope.  Merry Christmas.

Ever Present Past

Sermon preached  December 21, 2014

Text: Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

            Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmas Time”:
Paul McCartney, “Ever Present Past”:
            Paul McCartney sings about how quickly time goes, but the title of his song hints that the past stays with us, the things we did as a kid.  In that sense he echoes the famous line of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, 80, voice of character Gavin Stevens).
            The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.  We carry the “whens” of the past into our “now” - - - now and when - - - just as thoughts of the future lure us forward, having an impact on the present – now and when, our Advent theme.
            The past is “massively present” in the phrase of theologian Gordon Jackson, who goes on to write, “the past is not deterministic, but it is determining; that is, it is a vast flow of reality to which every present experiencing moment does conform in effective or powerful ways” (Creating Something of Beauty, 27).  A couple of weeks ago, Pat Miller introduced some of us to Judith Viorst’s book Necessary Losses.  In that book Viorst writes, “our past, with all its clamorous wishes and terrors and passions, inhabits our present” (17).
            The past is massively present, and we cannot change it.  What we can do, however, in the present, is create something new around it.  When I was a boy, I had a basic set of Lego toys.  This was before the Lego toys got as fancy and complex as they currently are.  My Legos had a couple of gray square pieces that could serve as a base for building.  Then I had a few blocks of different sizes that I could use in different ways.  There were limits to what I could build, given the materials I had, but I could still use those materials in more or less creative ways.  Of course, one could always add some new blocks.  That’s what working with our past, our whens, is like.  We cannot change some of the blocks, but we can re-arrange them in different ways and we can add to our set of blocks in the present.
            So let me suggest three things we can do with our past whens in our present nows that open us up to creativity, and that has something to say about the God of Jesus Christ.  My sermon was not simply inspired by Paul McCartney and Pat Miller, but by the gospel reading.
            In the Gospel reading, the story of Mary links past and present, not just Mary’s past, but a longer, wider and deeper story.  References are made to Abraham, to Jacob and to David.  Something is happening now that fits into that longer story of God’s relationship with these important figures from the Bible.  She sings a song which celebrates God’s grace and mercy “from generation to generation.”  God is one who shows strength with God’s arm, who scatters the proud – letting them get caught up in the thoughts of their hearts.  God is one who brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  God fills the hungry with good things but the rich have to fend for themselves.
            Mary’s soul rejoices in the present because she remembers the grace of God in the past, in the long story of the past.  We are invited to do the same.  We keep telling these old stories from the Bible because we believe they are also a part of our story, a part of our long and broad past.  And the story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is a story about grace, about creativity, about covenant, about love.
            In our own stories, there will be times where we remember that we have not always lived up to who God would have us be.  We have turned away from others.  We may have hurt others.  I can still remember things I said years ago that were not well said, and they hurt, and I regret them.  I can’t change them.  I can’t change the times when I did not live up to God’s creativity, covenant and love.  But then there are the stories of Abraham, who lied about Sarah being his wife, and Jacob who stole his brothers birthright, and David who slept with another man’s wife and had that man sent into the most dangerous part of battle.  And what is God’s response – grace.  Remembering the long story of the past, we can be more creative in putting together the past in the present.
            In remembering the past, remember moments of grace.  These need not be wonderful, thrilling moments.  Sometimes grace is just getting through a hard day.  One grace from this week’s Ruby’s Pantry was just that, we made it.  The truck broke down and arrived at 5:30 instead of 3:30.  I was not feeling particularly good, and I ran a fever all day Friday.  Part of the grace of the evening was just making it through.  We all have days where grace comes in the form of just making through the day.
            But grace can, and often is more.  We should remember not only grace in our personal stories but in our cultural stories.  We need to remember the picture of the white police officer hugging a twelve-year old African-American boy who had been holding a sign that said “free hugs” at Portland protest over a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. (  We need to remember the story coming from Australia.  As a gunman held people hostage in a cafe in Sydney, thousands of messages of support have been posted online for Muslims in Australia who are afraid of an Islamophobic backlash.  The spark was a Facebook post by a woman , who said she'd seen a woman she presumed was Muslim silently removing her hijab while sitting next to her on the train: "I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u'. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone'.  It started a whole #illridewithyou  social media movement.  (
            So here’s a moment of grace for me.  Earlier this month I was traveling to make an evening presentation about the Minnesota United Methodist Church effort called “Reach, Renew, Rejoice.”  The presentation was to be made in a church outside of St. Cloud, so I figured I would pick up a meal on the way.  I stopped for some fine dining at the McDonald’s in Mora, disappointed that they were no longer serving the McRib.  While I was sitting there, I saw a woman, her husband, and two children come into the restaurant.  She looked familiar.  She looked like a woman who had attended the church for a year or so a few years back.  Interestingly, this woman had called me earlier this fall to talk about some concerns in her life.  You know the rest of the story – it was this woman at the Mora McDonalds. We talked, we hugged, there was a tear in her eye.
            I need to remember such moments of grace, moments like meeting my wife Julie for the first time.  I was with another girl that night.  I need to remember moments of grace, like the birth of each of my children.  When I mentioned birth stories a couple of weeks ago, it allowed me to think again about the birth of David - six weeks early and with health issues, Beth who arrived on a Sunday morning and I missed worship that day  - the SPRC chairperson gave my sermon, and Sarah born at Baylor hospital in Dallas six years after Beth.
            To make the most of the past in the present, remember the long, broad past.  remember moments of grace, and remember that grace is also the power to create anew.  I admire the wisdom of Jack Kornfield.  Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25).  While I would argue none of our pasts is without grace, we should never paper over how utterly terrifying the past is for some.  Some of us carry deep wounds from the past – things we have done, things done to us.  We cannot change the past, but grace is the power to take the Lego blocks of the past and build them into something with a certain beauty.  One of the stories that I have always been amazed at is the story of Betty and Gene Halvorson of this congregation, both now deceased.  Betty and Gene lost three sons on a single night, three sons washed into the treacherous waters of Lake Superior.  I can’t imagine the pain, the heartache, perhaps the self-blame.  Betty and Gene were among the most gracious and caring people I ever knew.  Every time they came into this church, a chapel reminded them of their tremendous loss, yet they were always here.  They took hurt and pain and tragedy and created something beautiful.

            We cannot change the past.  It is ever present.  We can remember that God, in grace, was with us in that past.  We can, in God’s grace take that past and create something more beautiful, knowing that God also invites us into a future that is more just, more compassionate, more caring, more peaceful, more beautiful, and more loving.  Now and when, but then every so often, something happens that amazes, that changes everything.  God’s grace enters our world stunningly and profoundly – but that’s Wednesday’s story.  Amen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Back to the Future

Sermon preached November 30, 2014

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

            Late last week I received a mailing from the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of The United Methodist Church.  This is not surprising as this is the group with which I have my pension.  I expected it to be general information about the Board or about my account.  So imagine my surprise when I began reading.  Dear David Bard:  According to our records, you are eligible to retire in 2015.
            Yikes!  I need to let you know that I don’t have any plans to retire in 2015.  I am not near ready to do that.  The Board of Pension is doing its job, though, in letting me know that I need to be preparing for that time when I do retire.  I need to be thinking about the future, and that will have an impact on the present.
            The theme we are working with in worship during the Advent season, those four Sunday prior to Christmas, which begins today, the theme we are working with in Advent is “Now and When.”  Today, I want to explore with you the “when” of the future and how it touches us in the present.  We are going back to the future today.
            We are going back to the future because our texts for today are about the future, and about the present.  The Gospel of Mark reading begins, “in those days.”  It is a reference to a future “when.”  It is a bit of a frightening future.  After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  In the midst of these calamitous events, then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory.  Some translations are now using the term “the Human One.”  The Human One is a wonderfully deep and rich image that Jesus appropriated as a term of self-identification.  In Jesus, true humanity, which is linked somehow to the image of God inside of us, in Jesus that true humanity comes into the world powerfully and decisively, but the Gospel of Mark acknowledges that all is not made immediately well.  There is something yet to come.
            Because of this future, our lives in the present need to be different.  Learn the lesson of the fig tree.  Look for the signs of the Human One and know that “heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of the Human One will certainly not pass away.”  So “watch out” and “stay alert.”
            Earlier than Mark, Isaiah also imagined a difficult time, a time in which we would want to cry out “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  The prophet looks around and sees only people straying, people spending their efforts on things which “fade like a leaf” or blow away with the wind.  We cannot read this passage in isolation from others in Isaiah, which, while not negating the difficulty of the present, imagine that future where indeed God does tear open the heavens and comes down.  For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth….  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth….  For like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands….  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like and ox; but the serpent, its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17ff, selected)
            These texts take us back to the future.  They provide glimpses of a horizon of hope even when the present is difficult.  This future hope rebounds into the present.  In the words of theologian Lewis Ford, “Future influence is different.  It is the still small voice that calls the world into being out of practically nothing” (Transforming Process Theism, 18).  God is that voice in the future calling us forward (Ford, 234 – God as future creativity).  It is a call from the future to the present.  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts this idea of the influence of the future this way.  The God of hope is himself the coming God.  When God comes in glory, God will fill the universe with God’s radiance, everyone will see God, and God will swallow up death forever.   This future is God’s mode of being in history.  The power of the future is God’s power in time….  By virtue of the hope for the coming God, the expected future acquires an inexhaustible ‘added value’ over and against present and past in the experience of time.  Moltmann, The Coming God, 24).
            We live in a horizon of hope, even when we know the full difficulty of the present, and the present is difficult.
            No matter our particular opinion on the justice of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, the fact remains that an eighteen year-old young man is dead, and a young police office has to live with the fact that he shot and killed this young man, no matter how justified he believes his actions to be.  The world is not yet right.
            In Cleveland this week, a twelve year-old is dead, shot by police who thought the toy gun he was carrying was real.  The world is not yet right.
            Heroin is making a comeback, draining the life out of some, ending the lives of others.  The world is not yet right.
            Last week, two Palestinian militants armed with guns, knives, and axes hacked and shot worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed.  Five people died in the attack.  The world is not yet right.
            A self-declared Islamic State engages in brutal beheadings.  It is encouraging children to witness killings - what happens when someone thinks differently from the Islamic State or defies it in some way.  The world is not yet right.
            After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.  The Bible is not pollyanish.  This kind of literature, which is called “apocalyptic” is frightening, yet it has a purpose.  Scholar Walter Wink, The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendence (The Human Being, 159).  Into a world that is not yet right, a voice speaks to us from the future, inviting us to something new.  The Human One will come.  Here is a reflection from Walter Wink about that.  To be in the image of God is to be of the same stuff, the same essence, the same being, masculine and feminine.  But we humans are clearly not “like” God in our mundane existence.  We are selfish, contentious, brutal, indifferent, vicious, and vindictive.  If we are like God, then, we are so only potentially.  Perhaps someday we might become more fully human.  For now, we are only promissory notes, hints, intimations. (Just Jesus, 105).  Yet the promise is that the Human One will come.
The world is not yet right, but still we live in a horizon of hope, for God is a God who continues to appear, calling to us from the future and present with us now.  Our lives are not yet right.  We still struggle to be more fully human, yet we live in a horizon of hope, for God is a God who continues to appear, calling to us from the future and present with us now.  In words written by Walter Wink, “the Human Being wants to happen in and among us” (The Human Being, 170).
We are a people who live in a horizon of hope.  Nurture that hope.  In this season of Advent, nurture hope.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

            This week, I have nurtured hope in a couple of ways.  On Wednesday afternoon, we opened the chapel, then the sanctuary up for prayer for anyone who wanted to come and pray or meditate or reflect on the events in Ferguson.  Not many came.  I wanted to do something during that time.  Once an hour, beginning at noon, I went either into the chapel or the sanctuary and rang my prayer bowl.  Earlier in the day, I had decided that I would offer a brief prayer service at 4 p.m. if anyone was present.  No one was, but I offered the prayer service anyway.  I rang the bowl.  I used the United Methodist morning prayer, slightly revised.  I read “The Magnificat” from Luke 1, Mary’s powerful words about the horizon of hope in which we live.  I prayed a body prayer.  Then I sang.  I was a little self-conscious about this, but I did it.  I sang “We Shall Overcome” and the last first of “We Are Called” – Sing, sing a new song.  Sing of that great day when all will be one.  God will reign, and we’ll walk with each other and sisters and brothers united in love.  We are called to act with justice.  We are called to love tenderly.  We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.  All this was an act of hope, a living in a horizon of hope.
            This week I also celebrated an acquaintance of mine.  Lowell Gess is a United Methodist pastor, who is also an eye doctor.  Lowell and his late wife Ruth established the Kissy Eye UM Clinic in Sierra Leone.  It has had its ups and downs over the years, but it has been a labor of love and compassion.  This week the story broke that Lowell, age 93, is going to return to Sierra Leone on January 3 to do what he can for the Ebola crisis.  He is taking $100,000 worth of medical supplies with him.  Lowell has been quoted as saying, “When you’re at a certain age, you just keep your fingers crossed you won’t have a stroke or heart attack before January 3.”  He has also said that if he contracts Ebola, he will not return to the United States for treatment.  This week I have shared Lowell’s story and I have meditated on him as a sign of hope, a life lived in a horizon of hope.

            The world is not yet right, but we are people who live in a horizon of hope, people with a future that speaks to us, people with a God, who, as the Human One, continues to find ways into our lives and into our histories.  We are a people who hold fast to dreams.  Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Long and Winding Road

Sermon preached November 23, 2014

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

            The Beatles, “The Long and Winding Road”
            O.K.  You would have expected this song from me today.  No surprises.  I bet you would have been surprised, though, had I taken the advice of some of my colleagues and friends and posted on our sign outside, “Pastor David and the Ten Virgins.”  A group I meet with weekly sometimes asks me what’s on my sign, and they kiddingly suggested that with this week’s text, I could post that.  I replied that this would be too edgy even for me.
            So what about this story about the ten bridesmaids, or, more accurately in the Greek, the ten virgins?  Maybe a good beginning place to think about the story is with the words of Frederick Buechner about the stories of Jesus.  It is too bad we know Jesus’ stories so well, or think we do.  We have read them so often and heard them expounded in so many sermons that we have all but lost the capacity for hearing them even, let alone for hearing what they are really about. (Frederick Buechner web page)
            So let’s see if we can hear this story in some fresh ways.  Let’s see if it can speak to our hearts, our lives.
            The outline of the story is familiar enough.  We have ten bridesmaids, or ten virgins.  It may have been the custom of the day that bridesmaids were virgins –and, frankly, I am not sure I want to say any more about that.  Actually, we are not very certain of how much of this story reflects wedding customs of the time.  Anyway, five of the bridesmaids are foolish and five are wise.  In many weddings I’ve attended, if you can get half the wedding party to act wisely instead of foolishly, you are not doing too badly.  So these bridesmaids need to take oil lamps with them, and the wise ones take an extra flask of oil, while the foolish ones don’t.  Things get long.  They all fall asleep.  The bridegroom finally arrives.  The foolish bridesmaids discover they are running out of oil, and ask to borrow some from the wise bridesmaids, but the wise bridesmaids know they don’t have enough to share – otherwise none of the lamps will stay lit long enough.  The foolish bridesmaids head out to the all-night lamp oil store, but arrive to the wedding banquet after the doors are closed.  How awful, first they had to buy new dresses that they will only wear once, and then they had to buy oil, and now they can’t get into the banquet.  The ending lines are rather cryptic.  “I do not know you.”  How can that be?  “Keep awake” – but they all slept.
            So what’s this story about?  It is about the long and winding road of life.  It is about missed opportunities.  It is about readiness.  It is about responsibility.
            The story is about missed opportunities.  It ends on a sad note.  Five young women who had been planning on attending a wedding banquet are left out.  The truth about life is that we cannot go backwards, only forwards, and the truth about life is that sometimes we miss opportunities.
            When I was younger, I did not take music lessons.  I did not learn to play an instrument.  When I share songs from my i pod – that’s my musical gift.  I do sing, and sang in choirs quite a lot when I was in school, but I never learned to play an instrument.  I wish I had.  While it is never too late to begin, I will never make-up for time lost if I do decide one day to play something.
            One other thing I did not do when I was younger was learn a foreign language.  Along the way I have had to do some work in foreign language.  I did some rudimentary work in Hebrew and Greek in seminary, but if you were to hand me a Bible in Hebrew and Greek, I could not read most of it.  For my Ph.D. I had to pass reading exams in German and French.  I can make a bit out of such texts now, but I could not make my way in either of those languages day to day.  With a more multi-cultural world, I wish I had taken advantage of the opportunity to learn another language when I was younger.
            On the long and winding road of life, there are opportunities to do good that we miss.  Inevitably, we cannot do all the good that needs to be done in the world, but here I am talking about opportunities that we might well take easy advantage of, but don’t – the small courtesy we might offer, the friendly hello we might give, the encouraging word.  Sometimes we are too preoccupied with our own stuff, and sometimes that’s o.k., but not all the time.
            We will miss opportunities to learn and grow and do good on the long and winding road of life, but we want to be ready to make the most of as many opportunities for learning and growing and doing good as we can.
            One way we can be ready is with a little help from our friends.  It must be “the Beatles’ day here!  It should disturb us, a little that in this story wisdom seems on the side of not sharing.  Someone has said they are really glad that this isn’t the only parable Jesus tells about the Kingdom of God, and I agree.  Here the wise bridesmaids don’t share their oil.  There may be times when that is the only way forward, the only way to make the best of a difficult situation, but more often than not, we need to be there for each other.
            Sometimes we miss opportunities for learning and growth because we lack confidence.  We need others to help give us some encouragement.  Sometimes we don’t reach out to others because we have lost our sense that it makes a difference.  We need others to help remind us of our power, our strength, of that fact that God works through us – yes, even us.  We are in this faith thing together.  God has brought us together so we can help each other be ready when opportunities for learning and growth and doing good present themselves.
            Yet, there is also a truth in saying that there are some things no one else can do for us.  I recall an episode from Seinfeld where George has lost his job and is pondering with Jerry, his career options.  He could do something in sports, like be the general manager of a baseball team, or be a sports color commentator – except he has not training in broadcasting.  He likes movies, perhaps he could be a projectionist, except he doesn’t know how to run the projector.  No one could do the things George needed to do to get him ready for these careers.  He would have had to do them for himself. (
            I remember as a boy that my dad had records by the Kingston Trio.  The Kingston Trio was a folk singing group from the late 1950 to the mid 1960s, and one of their popular songs was called “The Rev. Mr. Black.”  The chorus of the song was, “You got to walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself, oh, nobody else can walk it for you, you got to walk it by yourself. (  Finally, there are some things that no one else can do for us.  As a student you can copy someone’s homework, but no one else can learn for you.  Much as I wish it were possible, no one can exercise for us, we have to do that for ourselves.  We can pray for each other, but we really cannot pray instead of someone else – that is, the growth that happens with prayer cannot be shared.  In Romans 12, in The Message, we are encouraged to “keep yourselves fueled and aflame,” and there are some things only we can do to make it so.
            Only we can do some of the things that need to be done to ready us for learning, growth and doing good.  There are certain kinds of oil that really cannot be shared.
            This is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a time for gratitude.  I am grateful for moments in my life when I have been ready to learn, to grow, to do good, to see beauty, to create beauty, to love. 
I am grateful to getting help from my friends along the way, help in being ready to learn and grow and love and give.  My family has been a tremendous help to me, and it is such a joy for me that they are all here this morning.  You, my faith family, have helped me learn and grow in countless ways.  Thank you.
I am grateful for the grace of God.  Today’s story is a story Jesus tells about the Kingdom of God, but it is not the only story Jesus tells, nor is it all the Bible has to say about God.  I don’t think God really ever gets to a point where the doors are shut and God says, “who are you?”  Rather, God is a God who speaks the words in Isaiah 43: I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you….  I am the Lord your God….  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

On the long and winding road of life, there will be times when a door will be shut, when we will lack the resources needed to make the most of an opportunity to learn or grow or do good.  Then I think God in grace comes looking for us, puts an arm around us, and shows us where we can find some oil for our lamps so we can once again become fueled and aflame.  For that, I am grateful, and in gratitude I want to go share a little of that light with others.  Amen.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Sermon preached November 16, 2014

Texts: Exodus 6:1-11; Galatians 5:13-26

            Richie Havens, “Freedom” (live at Woodstock)
            Freedom.  The idea runs deep in our national psyche.  In the “Declaration of Independence” we read that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The Preamble to our Constitution says that the constitution was written to, among other things “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  In New York harbor we have a Statue of Liberty.  This past week, as our nation commemorated Veterans’ Day, we often heard phrases about “defending freedom.”  Freedom.
            Freedom is more than a national concept, however.  The idea of freedom is deeply embedded in our faith.  “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, o baby, let my people go.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”  The God who told Moses, “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be” is a God working for freedom.  Author and public theologian Brian McLaren in his new book We Make the Road By Walking writes this about the Exodus story.  The story of Moses and the escape, or exodus, from Egypt glows at the core of the whole biblical story.  It makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of the slaves, not the slave owners!  God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future can come. (39).  A story that glows at the core of the entire Bible is a story about freedom.  God is on the side of freedom.
            There are political dimensions to this part of our faith, and we need to keep asking questions about that, about the meaning for our politics that God is a God who frees for a newer world, for a better future.  Those discussions are for another day, however.
            Freedom certainly has political dimensions, but its meaning goes beyond politics.  Freedom is a rich idea.  Paul, in his letter to the early Jesus communities in the region of Galatia, the New Testament book we call Galatians, addresses a different dimension of freedom.  “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.”  In the words of the theologian Ernst Kaesemann, “Jesus gives freedom.”  He goes on to write, “Jesus’ gift is Christian freedom and we live by that gift and grace of his” (Jesus Means Freedom, 155).
            Freedom here is more than release from bondage or captivity, though that remains important.  Freedom here is more than having certain rights, though that is vitally important as well.  Freedom here is being free to love, free to give, free to grow, free to live.  Considered in this way, there are many kinds of slavery and bondage beyond being slaves in Egypt.  Patricia Adams Farmer: “We’ve all felt trapped at some point in our lives, and it feels like hell” (Embracing a Beautiful God, 95).  Brian McLaren, in We Make the Road By Walking, writes: The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery.  On  personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority, or control (41).
            Paul seems to have understood this.  Jesus gives freedom.  Sisters and brothers, we are called to freedom.  “Only do not use your freedom for an opportunity for self-indulgence.”  We are set free, but it is not a permanent condition.  It is a wilderness journey.  We can use our freedom in such a way that we are led back into enslavement.  We can use our freedom in ways that lead away from love, generosity, growth, life.  Paul even offers some clues to tell us if we are on the right road, the paths of freedom.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  These are qualities that enhance freedom.  When we use our freedom to nurture these qualities in our lives then we are more free to love, to give, to grow, to live.
            What we are about as a church, a Jesus community is being freed by Jesus from whatever enslaves us, is sharing the good news that Jesus means freedom, and is walking freedom’s paths.  What we do can be framed in these terms.
            Worship.  We worship to hear freedom’s story again and again.  We come to be reminded that Jesus gives freedom.  Here we are reminded that we are loved, that we are valued, and that in our lives we can love, give, grow and live.  We connect with God here, the God whose work is freedom, the God of the exodus.
            Prayer.  Prayer is another way we connect with God.  Prayer is also a technology of freedom.  Sometimes what traps us is the working of our own minds.  We can be driven by our compulsions.  We can be plagued by our own negative thoughts spiraling downward.  Prayer slows us down, helps us get a better grip on the working of our minds.  And prayer connects with God’s empowering Spirit.
            Yet prayer can contain traps of its own.  Last week I mentioned I had a nice opportunity to share a plane ride from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis with Tom Albin, Dean of the Upper Room Chapel.  One of the things we chatted about was prayer.  Tom shared with me some of his thoughts about prayer. He thinks that many people, clergy included, are dissatisfied with their prayer life.  It is filled with guilt and should-be- doings.  We begin to feel inadequate and who wants to keep revisiting that?  I told Tom that one of the best things I ever read on prayer was a book that the Upper Room had published many years ago, Prayer and the Everyday Life, and one of the quotes from that book is that we should pray as we can pray, and not pray as we can’t.  Freeing prayer is prayer that honestly begins where you are.
            The Bible.  The Bible is a book filled with stories of freedom, yet it has often been a book that makes us feel trapped.  It is dull in some places.  It is just plain difficult in some places.  People have used it as a weapon sometimes.  It is placed on such a pedestal that we are afraid to make a mistake with it.  I think the Bible becomes a more freeing book when we are free to ask our questions about it.  One of the things I deeply appreciate about Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible is that he helps free this book for us so that it can become a book that frees us because we hear God through it.
            One of the most helpful ideas Adam discusses in his book is the idea that the material in the Bible might be considered in three buckets.  In one bucket, we have Scriptures that reflect something of the timeless purposes of God.  I think that Paul’s writing about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 fits that very well.  I would think God has always wanted us to cultivate in our lives love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  In another bucket, there are Scriptures that may have reflected God’s purposes for a particular time, but not for all time.  Adam suggests much of the ritual law in the Old Testament fits this description.  The third bucket would be those Scriptures that reflect the historical circumstances in which they were written, but never reflected the best of God’s purposes.  Passages which provide directions for owning slaves could be among such passages.  For instance in Exodus 21, slave owners may be punished if they beat a slave and the slave dies immediately, but not if they beat the slave and the slave lives for a day or two (Exodus 21:20-21).  (Making Sense of the Bible, 273-274).  Thinking in terms of these three buckets frees the Bible up for our reading, helping make it again a book that can free us.
            Acts of Compassion and Justice.  The paths of freedom become very narrow if we are not helping others become free.  We share good news, we work for a better future simply because it is part of the freeing work of God which we are invited to join in Jesus.  But engaging in acts of compassion and justice also enhances our own sense of freedom.  Giving of ourselves  - with our time, with our energy, with our resource – adds to our lives.

            You were called to freedom brothers and sisters.  It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life (The Message).  The free life to which we are called, the freedom given us as a gift of God’s grace in Jesus is freedom to love, freedom to give, freedom to grow, freedom to live.  Together we help each other stay free.  Together we walk freedom’s paths.  Together we are, in the words of Martin Luther King, jr.,  “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”  Amen.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Long Run

Sermon preached November 9, 2014
Text: Matthew 25:14-30

            The Eagles, “The Long Run”
Here’s the story (Cotton Patch Version):  The God Movement….  It’s like a businessman who was leaving town for a long time and called in his assistants and turned over his investments to them.  He made one responsible for about five hundred thousand dollars, another two hundred thousand, and another a hundred thousand – according to each one’s ability – and then he left town.  Right away the man with the five hundred grand got to work and made five hundred more.  The man with the two hundred grand did the same and made another two hundred.  But the guy with the hundred G’s went and rented a safe-deposit box and put his boss’ money in it.  After a long time the boss returned and called his assistants together for an accounting.  The one with the five hundred thousand brought his other five hundred thousand and said, “Sir, you let me have five hundred grand; look, I’ve made another five hundred.”  The boss said, “Splendid, you good and responsible worker!  You were diligent with the small sum; I’ll entrust you with a larger one.  You’ll be a partner in my business.”  Then the one with the two hundred G’s came and said, “Sir, you let me have two hundred thousand; look, I’ve made another two hundred.”  The boss said, “Splendid, you good and responsible worker!  You were diligent with the smaller sum, I’ll entrust you with a larger one.  You’ll be a partner in my business.”  Well, the hundred-grand man came up and said, “Sir, I know you are a hard-nosed man, squeezing pennies you haven’t yet made and expecting a profit before the ink has dried.  I was plain scared to take any chances, so I rented a safe-deposit box and put your money in it.  Look, you’ve got every cent.”  But the boss replied, “You sorry, ornery bum!  You knew that I squeeze pennies I haven’t yet made, and expect profits before the ink dries.  Then you should have turned my money over to the bank so that upon my return I would get back at least my principal with interest.  So then, y’all take the money away from him and give it to the one with the million.  For it will be given to everyone who has the stuff, and he’ll have plenty, but the man who doesn’t have the stuff will have even what he has taken away from him.  Now as for this useless critter, throw him in the back alley.  That’ll give him something to moan and groan about.”
            Jesus could tell a colorful story, and it’s kind of enjoyable to hear it re-told in an equally colorful way.  But what is he trying to say with this story?
            It would seem that one focus of the story is on the guy who was given a single talent, the hundred grand man.  He gets called “wicked, lazy and worthless” (NRSV), a “play-it-safe” (The Message), or “a sorry, ornery bum” and “useless critter.”  He ends up in the back alley, in utter darkness.  It is clear from the story that this guy has lost his way, that he lives “in the dark” so to speak.  But why?
            The man lived completely out of fear, with little trust in either himself or in others.  He didn’t trust his boss, seeing him only as a harsh, hard person.  He didn’t trust himself, didn’t even trust his limited abilities to do something good.  His fear and anxiety distorted his perception.  If he really thought of his boss as a hard-hearted, penny-pincher, you would think he would have found at least a bank in which to earn some interest – though this was before the FDIC guaranteed deposits up to $100,000.  The boss is gone awhile, so some interest would surely accrued.
            Without trust, we don’t see life as accurately as we might.  Fear narrows our perception.  Without trust we become unwilling to invest ourselves in that which is lasting, in that which makes sense in the long run.  Without trust we play it too safe with life.  We focus on short-term safety and not on growth in the long run.
            This is a story about investing in what is lasting.  It is a story about putting ourselves out there.  It is a story about the long run.
            The philosopher and psychologist William James once wrote, The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.  The long run.
            The philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche wrote, The essential thing “in earth and in heaven” is, apparently… that there should be a long obedience in the same direction. (Beyond Good and Evil, ch. 5, #188).   The long run.
            Part of what we do this month in our church is focus on stewardship, and part of that is asking you to consider making a financial pledge for the work of the church.  But stewardship, considered broadly, is about what we do with our time, our attention, and our resources.  It is about risking investing in the long run, that which lasts, and to do that over the long run.
            Yes, it is, in part about financial giving.  We are about long run stuff here.  We are about connecting people more deeply with God through the ups, downs, pains, joys, boredom and adventure of life.  This is a long run project.  The spiritual practices we encourage work in the long run, shaping our lives slowly, like water smoothing stones, liking gentle breezes changing the contours of a landscape.  Over time we would like our lives to be more joyful, genuine, gentle, generous and just.  We want to develop a faith that is thoughtful, passionate, and compassionate. We are about God’s work in creating a newer world, a world that is more just, peaceful, compassionate, kinder, gentler, more beautiful.  Talk about a long run project.
            We are about long run stuff here, and we need your investment of time, energy, passion, vision, thought, and yes, money.
            Another part of developing our lives in the long run is engaging with the Scriptures of our faith.  The Church Council and I are encouraging you to read Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible this fall and early winter.  There will be a couple of discussion sessions about it following worship – November 23 and January 11.  I hope other groups will also read and discuss this work.  Why?
            We often hear that there should be more Bible study in the church.  We often hear people talk about increasing their own Bible reading.  We also find that when we try and organize Bible studies, they are often hit and miss.  And for some of us the Bible has become a closed book of sorts.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  Let’s be honest, some of the Bible is dull, boring.  That we find that hard to admit is also a problem – such honesty seems, well, almost sacrilegious.  Being more honest about the Bible, however, is a necessary starting point if we want to engage this book for the long run.  We have also, many of us, seen the Bible wielded as a weapon.  Last week I was on a plane, seated next to Tom Albin, Dean of the Upper Room Ministries.  We have met a few times before so I knew who he was and he knew who I was.  We talked about spiritual growth and spiritual disciplines, and I shared with him a story about a Bible study I led in one of the churches where I was the pastor.  I told him that the group really did not do very well until a woman who was a fount of Scriptural quotes decided to stop attending.  She was intimidating to the rest of the group.  Experiencing the Bible as a weapon, we are reticent to grab hold of it for our own lives.
            I hope we can get beyond our fear and anxiety here.  I hope we can trust that struggling with this difficult book over the long run allows us to hear the voice of God in new ways.  I think Adam Hamilton’s book can help us with this.  I love this book… and I wrestle with it.  There are parts, if I am honest, that I have questions about.  There are statements on its pages that I don’t believe capture the character and will of God. (3) 
            I appreciate how Adam tells us what the Bible is not (chapter 1).  It is not an owner’s manual.  Some have used the letters for Bible to say that it is: basic instructions before leaving earth.  “The Bible is neither basic nor simply instructions for what you do before you die” (8).  It is not like a Magic 8 ball.  It is not systematic theology.  It is not a science textbook.  It is not simply a book of promises from God.
            I appreciate how Adam suggests we engage with the Bible for the long run (chapter 32).  It’s okay to wrestle with the Bible (301).  He offers eight suggestions for engaging this enigmatic and enlightening text: see yourself in the story; discover the situation in which the scripture was written; ask three questions: what does this passage say about humanity, about me, and about God?; pray the scriptures; memorize; study with others; bring the scripture into your life situation; imagine what might have been.
            Next week I will also discuss Adam’s book as a part of the sermon.
            For now, I hope you will prayerfully ponder two things.  Prayerfully consider how you will invest financially in the long run work of this church in the coming year.  Prayerfully consider another part of your stewardship, how you will engage with the Bible in new ways in the coming year.

            Above all, do these, and live your life, trusting always that we are embraced in love and grace of God for the long run.  Without trust, we are lost.  Amen.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Family Affair

Sermon preached November 2, 2014

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17

            Sly and the Family Stone, “A Family Affair”
            Today may be the kind of day where apologies should be given to you who are visiting.  It is a family day here today.  We are glad that you are here.  We welcome you today.  We are an open family here, and there’s always room for more.  We are glad you came, and it remains a family day for us – a day to remember with gratitude.
            The family of the church is an open family, always with room for more.  We are also a big family.  I was gone all this past week.  I was part of two meetings for The United Methodist Church – The Study of Ministry Commission in Nashville and The Committee on Faith and Order in Oklahoma City.  I really got to see and be with our extended church family – persons from Germany, the Congo, Cote ‘d Ivorie, Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, Hawaii, Russia, the Philippines, Texas, Zimbabwe, and more.  You were remembered in those gatherings.  This service was prayed about and for in those gatherings.
            Today, though, we are remembering family members nearer to us.  In just a bit we will be lighting candles for and reading the names of family members who have died since last All Saints’ Day.  This morning I am remembering another person as well.  The stole I am wearing belonged to United Methodist Bishop Wayne Clymer, bishop in Minnesota 1972-1980.  Bishop Clymer retired as a bishop from the Iowa Conference in 1984, and that year, he preached the sermon at the worship service where I was ordained.  Bishop Clymer became our “Bishop in residence” here in Minnesota, and I had the privilege of sharing some meals with him, or of being with him in worship.  Bishop Clymer died late last November.  Bishop Clymer is part of my family of faith, as are those we will be lighting candles for in just a bit.  I’ve thought as much about each of them and their families.
            I would like to share a poem with you that speaks to me about this All Saints’ Day.  “The Death of a Parent” (Linda Pastan)
Move to the front
of the line
a voice says, and suddenly
there is nobody
left standing between you
and the world, to take
the first blows
on their shoulders.
This is the place in books
where part one ends, and
part two begins
and there is no part three.
The slate is wiped
not clean but like a canvas
painted over in white
so that a whole new landscape
must be started,
bits of the old
still showing underneath - -
those colors sadness lends
to a certain hour of evening.
Now the line of light
at the horizon
is the hinge between earth
and heaven, only visible
a few moments
as the sun drops
its rusted padlock
into place.

            With every loss to our family of faith, there is a tear in the fabric of our community.  This is the place in books/where part one ends,/and part two begins/and there is no part three./The slate is wiped/not clean but like a canvas/painted over in white.  With every loss each of us takes on a slightly different role in our community: a whole new landscape/must be started.  But we do that building on the gifts given by those who are gone - bits of the old/still showing underneath - -
            We celebrate gifts given today, even as we mark our loss.  Our prayer is for God’s Spirit to give us wisdom, courage, and love to continue to create a community of compassion, love and care.  We pray, and trust God will answer our prayer.
            We pray and trust that there is something more to this family of ours.  We are a family that affirms that we stay connected, even after death.  We affirm as a community that we are a family whose great reunion is up ahead.  After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  Some of the imagery here may feel a little strange, but this is a reunion, a joyful family reunion.  The people for whom we will light candles in a bit live on in our hearts, in the marks they made in our lives, but they also have life in God and remain a part of this family of faith.
            We are also a family whose work is God’s work – God’s work of working toward a world without hunger or harm, a world where the waters of life flow freely, a world where tears are dried, a world of song and dance and joy.

            Those who have gone were an integral part of our family and that work.  Thanks be to God.  They remain part of the family even as the work is now ours to continue - a whole new landscape/must be started/bits of the old/still showing underneath- -.  The work is ours to continue inspired and enriched by those who have gone before.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Moves Like Jagger

Sermon preached October 26, 2014

Texts: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-40

            Maroon 5, “Moves Like Jagger” (Note: This is not a Christian song, but it was popular and has a good beat)
            Maybe you would like to be able to move like Jagger.  Maybe you would like to sing like Streisand, or Sinatra, or Pavarotti.  Maybe you would like to play like Ellington, or Armstrong, or Yo Yo Ma.  To want to emulate the talents of a well-known and successful person can be a good thing.  Most of us will never achieve the kind of fame of a Jagger or Sinatra or Pavarotti.  Most of us will never play in a World Series, or a Super Bowl or the Masters.  Some from among us may play Carnegie Hall someday, but most of us will not.  All of us, though, can develop the unique gifts that we have.  Each of us can make the most of our experience, of being who we are in this time and place.
            Perhaps we do that, however, by looking at others who made the most of their lives.  We may not have the moves like Jagger, but we can have a faith like Moses.  We need not strive to be a Moses.  That may be impossible.  Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.  He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.  (see also Numbers 12:3 – “Moses was very humble”)  Yet these words come just a few verses after Moses is told by God, “I have let you see it [the land] with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”  Why? We may wonder.  We are told just a chapter earlier.  “You shall die there on the mountain that you ascend and shall be gathered with you kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites” (32:50-51) Moses was not perfect.
            We can move like Moses, have a faith like Moses.  What is that like?  I want to describe the faith of Moses in terms of four faces.
            Moses faced himself – his fears, his shortcomings.  Do you remember the story of Moses calling in the wilderness?  (Exodus 3)  Moses is in the wilderness, tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro.  He is a long way from his upbringing in the household of Pharaoh.  In fact, he left in disgrace.  He had killed a man who was beating another man, and he had little respect among his people, the Hebrews.  God calls to Moses out of a burning bush, calls him to be part of freeing the people from slavery in Egypt.  Recall Moses’ response.  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (3:11)  Moses objects for a number of reasons.  He is not eloquent (4:10).  Moses has fears. 
Moses knew himself.  He explored his inner depths.  He did some inner work.  There is something about the life of faith that invites us to know who we are deeply, to reflect on our gifts, to know our fears, to do the necessary inner work so we can grow, so we can serve.  Moses knew himself, and trusted God.  We can do that to.
            Moses knew God face to face.  He is one “whom the Lord knew face to face.”  Last Sunday we read that beautiful and tender story of God walking past Moses, covering Moses’ face until he had passed by, then giving Moses a glimpse of God’s backside.  There follows a short time later another lovely passage in Exodus that describes Moses and his on-going encounters with God.  Moses came down from Mount Sinai.  As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God (34:29).  Whenever Moses went it before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, an told the Israelites what had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining (34:34-35).
            So the skin of our faces may not shine, but we, too, can know God intimately.  We can spend time with God, “face to face” as it were.  We do that in praying – praying in all its forms.  We do that in reflecting on the stories of our faith.  We do that in worship together.  We do that as we see the grace and goodness of God in the world.  We do that as we join God in creating grace and goodness.  When we pay deeper attention to our relationship with God, something may just shine through us – something like love, something like compassion, something like joy, something like resilience, something like courage, something like peacefulness.
            Moses faced his people and he led them.  An important part of his leadership was hanging in there with his people – Moses knew how to hang with his peeps.  Throughout Exodus there are a number of wonderful places where God and Moses discuss the people that have been liberated from slavery in Egypt.  They are an interesting bunch.  They complained quite a bit – about provisions for the journey: bread, meat, water.  They wondered if it would not have been better to still be slaves in Egypt (ch. 16)  They gave into their fears sometimes.  When Moses was gone too long, they decided that they needed a new god, a golden calf (ch. 32).  That last one caused a stir.  The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once.  Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….  I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”  But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, who does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand.
            One of the things God seems to be about is bringing people together.  We grow as we live our faith together.  We support each other.  We question each other.  We challenge each other.  We walk with each other through difficult times.  We share our joys together.  Moses was willing to hang in there with these people, even when they were frustrating and exasperating.  He understood God was up to something with people together.  We can hang with our peeps in faith.
            Finally, Moses faced the future with courage.  At some point in the story, Moses is told that he will die before the people enter the land.  He will not go with them.  What does Moses do?  He sings.  He blesses.  I cannot read this story of Moses, looking over the land to which he has led his people, knowing that he will not go with them without thinking about courage, and without thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr.
            The night before he was killed King spoke.  Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.  And I don't mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight.  I'm not worried about anything.  I'm not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
            With God, there is hope as we face the future, and because there is hope, there is courage, and because there is courage, there is the strength to love.  Like Moses, we can have courage as we face the future, and we can love.
            This Moses seemed to know something about love, and that’s what it’s all about.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He [Jesus] said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
            The Power of Love.
Our children are hearing that song, from “Back to the Future.”  They are learning stories from our past, faith stories that bolster us for the future – stories about the power of love.  In hearing these stories, God’s Spirit encourages our faith, our hope, our love.

            And we can move like Moses with the power of love.  Amen.