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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sermon for January 29, 2012

January 29, 2012 Gospel: Mark 1:21-28 Psalm 111
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

When I was in High School, our Sunday School teacher was Mike Fish. Each Sunday my mom would ask us what we learned in Sunday School we’d tell her that we didn’t do our lesson. Instead we went out for donuts. My mom thought we were taking advantage of Mike. Certainly it cost him a few bucks to buy us all donuts. This was hardly Christian Education in my mother’s mind. But if I had known my Bible better, I would have been able to quote to her what it says in 1 Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Our outing to Dunkin Donuts was more than just an exercise in poor eating habits and more than just taking advantage of poor Mike Fish—it was a time of building relationships. Mike wasn’t just driving us across town, he was conversing with us about our week. He was helping us make the connections between our lives and our faith. He was helping us to see that our faith helped us make decisions in school and at home. He helped to see and name God’s grace in our lives. And he was showing us that he cared and that didn’t take any kind of curriculum at all. We didn’t know it, but we had learned something in Sunday School on those days we went out to donuts with Mike Fish and he was building us up with his love for us. I have to say, I think he was as relieved as we were that he wasn’t teaching that boring curriculum.

I want to encourage you to share a time someone built you up. Maybe it was a compliment or some assistance of some kind or just someone loving you. Please turn to someone near you and share a time when someone built you up. Would anyone be willing to share with the whole group?

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning, he tells us that what matters most is what builds people up, and what builds up the body of Christ, the community of believers. Even though all things are lawful and God will love us no matter what, we still need to be careful of what might lead another astray. We need to love one another and do what is best especially for the most vulnerable members of the body who might misunderstand. Thankfully we don’t have this issue anymore about eating food offered to idols because it sounds a little contentious. Much of the food in the marketplace would have been first offered to idols. There was also the issue of eating in the temples of idols. You and I and Paul know that these idols don’t exist and don’t have power, but a new believer might not know that and might follow the example of a more experienced believer and get led astray.

Even though we don’t have this specific problem in our context, we can still learn something from this reading and that is that all our actions ought to be based on what is loving, especially to the most vulnerable. The loving thing to do for someone who is just coming to faith or weaker in the faith is what is going to be most helpful to them to help them keep on track. It isn’t just about my faith, or what is lawful or helpful for me, but we have to look out for others.

This reminds me of how young people often fall away from the church, but when they have kids, sometimes they come back. They look at these new little people and want to share something of what they had when they were a kid. They want to give these vulnerable little children a foundation for their faith. Even though they didn’t choose for themselves for several years to go to church, for these little ones, they go out of their way to go to church and often take what they learn there into daily life—into prayer, into service, into interactions with the homeless or elderly. Sometimes we get to put aside our own preferences in favor of love and relationship.

In the Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus finds himself in the Synagogue. This is one of the first things he does in the Gospel of Mark. Suddenly there was a man with an unclean spirit. If Jesus hadn’t been there, certainly the people there would have thrown the man out. That seems like the right thing to do because it is what is best for the community. This man is disruptive. No one can hear or pray because he’s interrupting the service. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t just go right on with his teaching, either. He stops and acknowledges the man and the spirit within him. But he thinks creatively. He needs to value the man—he is one of God’s children. He is one of the vulnerable that needs protection. But he also has this unclean spirit. It may be disruptive to the community, but think what this poor man is going through. The spirit is ruining every minute of his life, not just during church hour. So Jesus uses his authority to separate the man from his demon and get rid of the one causing the problem.

When we read this, we may believe that this man had schizophrenia or another mental or physical illness. It might mean addictions. It is hard for us to interpret “demons” on our own context. There are evils in this world that we can name—oppression, injustice, greed, etc. Maybe Jesus cast them out. Maybe the man was a victim of other people’s rumors and bullying. Maybe Jesus cast that out just by valuing him with his time and helping him. What bad things could other people say about him after that?

We, the church, believers gathered together, are Christ’s body in the world. Jesus had the authority to value and love people and so do we. He had authority and he used it to help people, especially the most vulnerable, and that’s our job, too. We are so used to a majority-rules perspective, but God’s way is counter-cultural so that we are especially called to look out for the minority and the weak.

On Reconciling in Christ Celebration Sunday, we remember our welcome statement that we welcome all people regardless of any differences. It is written there at the beginning of your bulletin. A couple of years ago we added “regardless of sexual identity” to our list. Fifty years ago, race was a bigger factor in what divided us. Today, perhaps income is one thing that is dividing us. So many things can divide us. But God commands that we love, that we be united, especially with people we might especially like not to be. It isn’t just about feeling good, but about being honest about how we participate in oppression and how we do let our prejudices keep us apart. A word from God isn’t always easy to hear, but we can be sure it is based in love and all about building up which is good for everyone. If we are members of the body of Christ, we want the weakest members to be strong, too, because that is good for everyone.

What is Jesus casting out of your life? What is Jesus casting out of our community? Are we ready to let it go? What is life-giving in our world? What is death-dealing and how do we participate in it? Let us instead participate in Jesus’ building up work of love.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sermon for January 15, 2012

January 15, 2012 Gospel: John 1:43-51 Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1st Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

When I was growing up, we lived in Albany and my grandparents lived in Lebanon. It is about a 20 minute drive between the two. About once a week we’d go to my grandparents’ house for dinner. What a blessing to live that close to family! We’d drive home at what seemed like late at night but was probably more like 8 pm. It was so dark on Highway 34. My dad always made us feel safe, driving us carefully home—our car full of sleepy children. I always wondered how he did it on those dark nights. He always kept his eye on the white line on the side of the road. But even better was when he could get behind another vehicle and let them lead the way.

Jesus said, “Follow me.”

In today's Old Testament reading, Samuel is called to be a leader. Sometimes we might be reluctant to call ourselves leaders—at church or in our communities. We are humble. We can think of a hundred reasons why not to be. Many people feel uncomfortable speaking in public. In fact, that is one of the greatest fears people face. We’re afraid of letting other people down—that maybe we can’t meet their expectations or we might not be able to get everything done that we’re committed to. No one can anticipate every possible situation we might face, so it isn’t possible to be prepared for anything and everything. Being a leader means thinking on your feet.

But I would argue that we are all leaders. Some of you serve on church Council or Mutual Ministry or Endowment Board or one of our committees. I would count parents as leaders, too. And grandparents are leaders. There isn't one of you that I haven't seen being a leader at one time or another.

Some people have used the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” I don’t think it could hurt anything to think of that phrase when making decisions. Maybe it got thrown around a little too much and may have become a little trite. I started seeing jewelry with it written on there, “WWJD?” I thought to myself that if you want to ask what Jesus would do, you could start with Jesus certainly wouldn’t wear that bracelet!

I could never have become a pastor if I thought I’d be expected to do what Jesus would do. There are probably some people that expect that of me. And I think of that sometimes when I see someone asking for money on freeway overpass and other times I am not as generous as I’d like to be. It is an expectation that I will never live up to, not even for a moment.

If we could do what Jesus did, why would we need Jesus? And Jesus doesn’t ask us to be him. But he does ask us to follow him.

I think there is a difference. For one thing, he’s already been there, so we’re not alone. Jesus probably felt alone at certain times in his life, especially as he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“WWJD?” comes a little close to works righteousness. If we could just do as Jesus would do, we might think we could save ourselves—from regret, from despair, from the fires of hell. But Jesus did as Jesus would do, and he still endured suffering. He descended into hell according to some. He even occasionally had regrets. If we could just do as Jesus would do, we might think we could save others—from hunger, from suffering. Jesus did as Jesus would do although he did some miracle healings and casting out demons, he did not eradicate disease and pain. That was one question that Dick Morris asked me plenty of times. If Jesus said, “You will do greater things than these,” why can’t we just go cure hospitals full of people? He was really grappling with this gift of healing because he’d seen it working in India, but it wasn’t always immediate or complete like he thought it would be. Instead of eradicating all diseases and pain, Jesus promised to accompany us on our journey through pain and disease and suffering. Jesus promised to be with us through that and to bring us through that to new life.

Maybe a better question would be, “What would Jesus have us do now that we have new life because of him?” Or Martin Luther would put it this what, “What are we freed for? Now that we are free because of God’s gift of love and grace, who are we freed to be?” We are partly freed to be a follower.

Freedom was a word that meant a lot to Martin Luther King, Jr. The slaves had been freed long before, God had freed Christians through Jesus death and resurrection, and yet the freedom he experienced, as an African American was limited because of unjust laws in this country. Some call him a prophet. We would all think of him as a leader who took this country forward toward justice and equality.

But I think he was only doing what Jesus asks this morning, following him. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was unable to do what Jesus would do. We know he had affairs. He hurt his family. He sinned. He took advantage of people who respected him. He put himself above the rules.

But despite his shortcomings and failures, Martin Luther King, Jr. did follow Jesus, experience God’s grace and forgiveness, and become a leader who I would say walked with Jesus as his follower. It was because he was following Jesus that he took a non-violence approach. It was because he was following Jesus that he wasn’t afraid to be arrested for standing up for what was right. It was because he was following Jesus that he took risks to go where he wasn’t welcome and to say what wasn’t popular to say. He faced the authorities and he wasn’t alone, because he was following Jesus.

When you are following someone, you don’t always know where it will lead. Jesus says later to pick up our cross and follow him. As a follower, we don’t know what that cross might be. For Jesus it was literal. For the rest of us, we won’t be sure what our particular cross is until we find ourselves carrying a heavy burden and great suffering. Following Jesus also means following him through the grave to eternal life, to great joy, and to relationship with him and all of God’s Creation. Maybe we focus on the cross too much, but certainly Jesus experienced great joy in life and satisfaction and pleasure, too—he liked a good party as much as anyone, especially when he was providing the good wine.

Phillip also extends an open-ended invitation. He says, “Come and see.” He doesn’t tell us what to expect. He doesn’t say what a life of faith looks like because it is different for every person. He just extends the invitation and leaves it open so that whatever happens happens. A life of faith means coming and seeing and being open to whatever happens. And it means extending the invitation to others. It might mean inviting people to church, but more than that it is inviting them into relationship and connection, just as God has invited us into relationship and connection. That’s what I often think of as I pass those people holding signs by the freeway off ramps—not about the money I’m not giving them, but about the conversation I am not having with them and the relationship I’m not building. But there are other places where I can build those connections in a safer environment, like the pantry or with folks that call the church asking for help and maybe that it is more appropriate.

Jesus calls us today to follow him. He is saying to you, “Follow me.” As we leave this church this morning, Jesus is saying to you, “Follow me.” I can’t tell you what that looks like, because he’s saying it to you. It is your life. It is your particular context. But know that when you’re driving those back roads, your stomach full from the generous table God provides, and your hearts full from time with family and friends, to give thanks to God. And when the night is dark, and you’re afraid you might go off the road, to let God light the way home and to be the kind of leader that is also a follower.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

January 1, 2012

January 1, 2012 Gospel: Luke 2:22-40 Psalm 148
1st Reading: Isaiah 61:10-62:3 2nd Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

This has been an interesting year for me, pregnant most of the year and now a new mother. I’ve really enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories. The book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” has a little advice to parents who receive too much advice, to either just ignore it, or if someone is being especially obnoxious, and repeatedly tearing you down, you might need to say something. I have received very little advice, a few sideways looks about being a vegetarian, but what else is new? Instead I got to hear about a part of people’s lives that most people hadn’t told me about before. Through the years I’ve heard many of your faith stories, stories about growing up, about work and family and illness and loss and marriage and divorce. This year I’ve really enjoyed hearing pregnancy stories and birth stories and parenthood stories, which make up a big part of people’s lives. I discover this as I’m acquiring stories of my own and have very little else I care to talk about than boast about my happy, genius infant. It has really been a privilege to hear these stories and now to share the raising of my son with you as I bring him to church and activities and pass him around so that you too may eventually be part of his memories.

At this point we don’t have too many expectations of our baby. We hope he tracks objects around the room and spend much of our time with him trying to evoke a smile or a coo. We certainly have hopes for him. In not too much time he will be able to grab on to things, toys and hair and glasses. We look forward to him scooting and crawling and pulling himself up and eventually walking. Of course along the way he’ll fall a few times, there will be bruises and scrapes and tears from his injuries. We can picture him putting on his own socks, feeding himself, using the toilet, using sentences, going to school, riding a bike. We anticipate he will get his heart broken one day. He’ll do a lot of embarrassing things. He will get sick. He will get frustrated. Who knows what he’ll be when he grows up or what kind of professions will exist in 20-30 years or what kind of world we’ll live in.

Jesus, too, gets a trip to church. So take these stories and these expectations and insert baby Jesus. Insert Messiah. Simeon and Anna have been waiting their whole lives for this. Simeon can now scratch it off his bucket list. Anna never left the temple and as a result she didn’t miss the arrival of the Messiah there. Her devotion had been of one who was invisible, but here he was visible, in her presence. I’ve seen some people excited to see a baby, but this was more, this was seeing God.

I often think when I look at Sterling that I am seeing a miracle, the way that all the things I ate were reorganized by his DNA to make his little blood vessels that feed all his cells, the way my body makes all he will eat for six months—the perfect food for his needs, the way he develops a little more each day, now able to get his fist in his mouth on a regular basis, now able to vocalize pleasant sounds, now able to realize that when he hears our voices we are nearby and he isn’t alone, when all those things were impossible last week or even a day or two ago.

How much more of a miracle did this Messiah seem? Was his every move considered evidence of his wisdom, his holiness, his godliness? Did his parents look deep into his eyes to see God there—to see if they had heard right at his birth?

The miracle of Jesus is that miracles we might have ordinarily missed are brought more to our attention. Miracles happen every day right in front of us, reasons to be thankful and joyful. An old man lives to see his dream realized. An old woman devotes herself to God. A child is adopted into a new family. A slave is freed. People share a vision of hope. A sick person receives a transplant. A family who loses a loved one, knows that loss was not in vain but that someone was given new life because of a gift of an organ. Cancer is in remission for three people in our congregation. Grandchildren are born. Some find jobs. Some find purpose and hope. Some help each other. Some learn to care for others and to give of themselves.

There is a darker tone to Simeon’s prophecy, too. Jesus would do a lot of great things but he was destined for the falling of many nations, too. He will be opposed and a sword will pierce the soul. This is one way to know that Simeon isn’t just flattering them. He is telling a deep and scary truth. The Messiah has a lot of good things going for him, but no life is without controversy and trouble. That’s part of what it means to be human.

Sterling had a little cold last week. I was surprised how calm I felt—I guess I thought I might panic. He never had a fever or more than just a sniffle and cough or I might have been more upset. I told him that this was the first of many colds he’d have. There would be plenty more illnesses and most worse than this one. Our struggles shape us as much or more than our successes. We need the challenges so that we stretch ourselves, so that we learn to strive, so that we learn to appreciate when things go well.

Even God has challenges and struggles and God will take all these and make something good out of them. Certainly Jesus had difficulties, illnesses, scrapes, and embarrassing moments. I’m sure he learned from them that they aren’t the end of the world, to pick himself up, dust himself off, and keep going. So when the Pharisees started questioning him, when the disciples were particularly trying, when his mother didn’t understand him, when the centurions mocked him and told him if he was the son of God to get down off the cross, he didn’t falter and lose hope. Instead, sure of who he was and centered in God’s love, he endured and didn’t lash back in anger. He did what he needed to do, even submitting to torture and death to show us the way through to eternal life. Showing us that life’s difficulties don’t mean we’re alone, but instead, we’re in good company—God has been there after all. Our friends and relatives and even enemies have all been there—in times of suffering. We’ve all been there.

Simeon and Anna show a level of enthusiasm for this child that God has for all of us. In my new mom’s group there is one mother who has adopted a little baby girl. She and her husband waited a year and a half for this child. They had a few hours notice that this would happen. There are many proud mothers at this group. Can you guess who wears the biggest smile? It is that adoptive mother, of course. God had one of God’s own, Jesus Christ, and had big expectations for him, but prepared him well for his task. And God has also adopted the rest of us and is just as proud, with many hopes and expectations, calling us by name, wanting the best for us, raising us in God’s “forever family,” and loving us as if we were God’s own, because we are.

We get a lot of messages from the people around us about our value. Some people treat us with disdain as if we are less than. They thrive on tearing other people down. Others encourage us. Most of us have both kinds of people in our own biological family. Those encouraging, loving ones are the voice of God in our lives, the voice of adoption, the realistic voice, the positive voice of Simeon and Anna. I encourage you to find the Simeons and Annas in your life and to be the Simeons and Annas in the lives of those around you.