Sunday, March 31, 2019

3-31-19 “Living Light”

3-31-19 Sermon “Living Light”

   So this past week my older sister came up from Madison to help us out and to be with Lynn while I worked and we had a good visit. At one point I gave her an envelope full of old photos that I had set aside for her as I was cleaning and organizing my basement while I was on leave. In fact, I was so proud of how the basement looked that I took her down there to see it - something that would have struck terror in Lynn before because of the clutter that had overwhelmed that room for so long. As she saw the space, with all of my remaining books neatly shelved by category rather than taking up floor space in boxes, bags, and piles, and as she saw pictures and other things neatly displayed on the walls and shelves, her eyes fell on a shelf containing a long, tall bottle of 15 year-old Scotch that I’ve had for about 25 years. 
It’s a unique bottle with a dome in the bottom where at one time, before it was broken during a move, a little figure of a Scotsman in a kilt would dance up and down to the music played by a music box that made up the based of the bottle. 
   Now, I don’t drink whiskey; I like neither the taste nor the smell. I have this bottle because my mother gave it to me sometime before she died and I’ve kept it as a keepsake, a remembrance of her, and I have a difficult time parting with things that were hers. Well, my sister saw the bottle and asked me where I got it, and I told her that it had been Mom’s, that Mom had given it to me, and that I believe that Dad had bought it before he died. Dad died in 1966, so if he had bought it, and it was 15 years old then - as the label on the bottle says - then that bottle of Scotch would be nearly 70 years old. And while I don’t like or drink Scotch, my understanding is that it gets better, and perhaps more valuable, with age. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself.

   My sister smiled, and then told me that the bottle of Scotch had not come from Dad, but that it had actually been hers - she’d won it in a raffle at some bar in our hometown - and that she had given it to Mom. All of the sentimental value that I had attached to that keepsake, the belief that it was a direct connection to both my mom and my dad, the sense of loyalty that I had felt for keeping it for a quarter of a century, lay in tatters on the floor. The bottle of Scotch had, in mere seconds, become just another piece of clutter in my house that had, for years, handcuffed me with a sense of guilt or disloyalty to my parents at the idea of parting with it. When I expressed my suddenly sunken feelings about the bottle, my sister asked, “What? Because it was mine you don’t want it any more?” And I responded, “Not because it was yours - because it wasn’t Mom’s. It had no sentimental value to you, you won it in a raffle and then you gave it away. The sentimental value I had attached to it was based on a myth that wasn’t true. So, no, I really don’t want it.” And now, at least, I guess I have no reason to feel bad about getting rid of it.

   Maybe you have a story like that as well, about something you sentimentally hold on to - an object or a belief - that may or may not hold true, but that in one way or another binds you through a sense of obligation or guilt. That bottle is representative of many of those types of things I’ve misguidedly clung to in the course of my life. Having and keeping those kinds of things somehow give us a feeling of security, of family stability, a sense of safety even, which is likely exaggerated and unrealistic, but yet there they are. Sometimes, those things we possess… actually possess us.

   Father Richard Rohr speaks and writes about what he calls “the two halves of life.” The first half is that part in which we learn and grow, seek and accumulate, and where, in large part, we define the nature of our lives through our careers, education, homes, families, and the accumulation of wealth and possessions in one form or another. These are the things that help shape our safety, security, accomplishment, success, and ultimately, our self-worth.

   The second half of life, on the other hand, is when we come to realize and accept the idea that our self-worth, success, security and all those other things don’t come by what we do, what we own, where we live, what kind of car we drive or anything like that, but that they come from our identity as the beloved of God. And I say realization and acceptance because, for many of us, it’s easy to say that we accept those things in church, in our prayers, in our bible studies, with our church friends or the pastor, while at the same time we hedge our bets. President Reagan once said, when asked how we could know Russia was keeping up its side of a weapons treaty, “we’ll trust and verify.” Sometimes, we think about God in much the same way, we trust and we verify, or we trust and we hold out a bit, we hedge our bets. We say we trust God with our lips, but our lives, our actions, tell a different story. And that story holds us captive.

   In our reading today, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they’re going to eat, drink, or what they’re going to wear. Worrying about those, and other things, are what people of the world do, he suggests, not people who trust in God. Strive for the kingdom, he says, and those things you need will be given to you as well, because God knows you need them. And then he says this, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 
   And as David Lose suggests,    
“This long and fairly well known passage hinges on this one verse. 
If you believe this, everything else falls into place. 
If not, then it becomes remarkably challenging to believe any of it.”

   So the question this poses to us is simply this: do we believe that God desires to give us the kingdom or don’t we? If we do, then we should have no qualms about giving away those things that possess us, about being generous with those things upon which we rely for our sense of safety, security, and self-worth. And if we don’t believe that about God, if we don’t believe that God loves us and that our self-worth comes from our belovedness from God, and that God desires to give us what we need for our safety, security, and self-worth, then what does that say about us and about our faith? And further, why are we here?

   The Lake Institute of Faith and Giving, part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, reports that 55% of Christians say that their charitable giving is largely influenced by their faith. While the Bible instructs us to give a tithe, or ten percent of our income to support the work of the church, their research reveals that the average Christian gives only 2.43% of their income to the church or to church-related charities. And when broken down by denomination, United Methodists are even lower than the average, hovering at around 2% over all. So, what does that statistic say about our level of trust, of our faith in God, and of how we hedge our bets? And what does it suggest about how we define or where we obtain our sense of safety, security, and self-worth?
   Many of us live with what Marcia McFee calls, “the tyranny of measuring up that keeps us weighed down.” When we allow our self-worth, our self-value, to be determined by outside factors, by our possessions or our wealth, when we allow our self-esteem to be shaped by the “shoulds” that are imposed upon us by others or by the world at large, rather than by our faith in God as God’s beloved children, then we get overloaded with expectations that lead to fear, insecurity, and a sense of scarcity. If our sense of safety, security, and self-worth are based on the accumulation of things then we will never have enough - we always fear running out. And when our lives, our homes, and our hearts are cluttered with all of these perceived “security blankets” born of scarcity, we lose sight of the promise of God, as spoken through the life and teachings of Jesus, that what God most desires is to give us the kingdom, and with it, all that we truly need. God’s economy of abundance is lost on us as we hoard the trappings of the false gospels of materialism, consumerism, and exclusivism. 

   So how do we create space to flourish in the ways God intends? How can we “minimalize” our possessions so that they don’t possess us? I think it begins with decluttering; decluttering our lives, decluttering our minds, and decluttering our homes. I recently watched an episode of the show Grantchester on PBS. Have you seen it? It’s a murder mystery set in 1950s England with an Anglican priest as the main character. And the contrast between life then and life now was striking -  there were no cell phones ringing or beeping all the time, no internet or Facebook to spend time on, very little television to watch, and very few possessions. The simplicity of that life stood in stark contrast to my own, where an app on my phone tells me that, on average, I pick up and look at that same phone 3 times an hour and spend 2 and a half hours a day - 10% of my life -  looking at a screen, which is still 1 hour and 46 minutes below the national average; where even after bringing 9 cases of books from home and moving 3 more cases from my office, I still own more books than I can possibly read in my lifetime, and where I own a couple of hundred 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm records, and have for decades, even though I don’t own a working turntable on which to play them. While I spent hours and days trying to develop a healthier relationship to my stuff - and I daresay I’m likely not alone there - the characters Grantchester, on the other hand, focused their time and efforts on building and furthering relationships with others and with their vocations. What a contrast!
   That kind of simplicity is really appealing to me at some level, and it brings home for me our scripture reading for today, where Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” We live in a world where there are so many things clamoring for our attention that it’s easy to lose track of what’s truly important. In this text from Luke, Jesus is calling us to prioritize activities that give eternal life. Such a call to center (or re-center) our lives on God, to trust in God’s promises, might seem extremely difficult in our world, but they’re essential for our lives as Christians. Because the thing is, there are some people who do not have enough clothing or food or other things they need. And when we see that, we sometimes fall prey to the false narrative of the world; the story that seeks to tell us that there is not enough to go around and so we should toil and worry and scheme and covet and hoard.
   But if we truly believe that God really does want to give us the kingdom and all good things, then a worldview of scarcity evaporates, replaced by a sense of abundance. (or at least, of “enoughness.”) Trusting God’s provision, not only do we discover that we have enough for ourselves but also see that we are equipped and able to share with others. Hunger in the world, for example, is not a problem of scarcity - there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet - it’s a problem of distribution, of waste, and of some storing up while others go without. Most of us, I would venture, have more food stocked in our cabinets right now than over a billion people on this planet will consume in the next year - maybe even two.

   Trusting in God’s provision, we realize that the reason that some do not have their basic needs met is, it turns out, not that there is not enough, but that too many of us, dominated by a sense of scarcity, don’t share what we have.
   Trusting God’s provision, we recognize that worry really is a waste of time. Not only does it not add an hour to our life as Jesus correctly points out, but – as recent medical research shows – it actually decreases both the length and quality of our lives. When trust replaces worry, we in turn discover all kinds of time and energy to devote to building relationships and serving others.

   Shifting from a scarcity outlook to one of abundance takes time. We’ve been fed, and have believed the lie of scarcity that our culture preaches for so long that we may find it hard to believe that it’s not true. At these times, remembering and repeating Jesus’ warning about our hearts and our treasure may help, but so also will practicing abundance by sharing a little more of what we have with others. Generosity and trust are like muscles, and by exercising them we grow in these traits.

   Typically in Scripture, the words "Do not be afraid," are the prelude to an announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds and is the starting point and anchor for everything else in the passage. It is God's good pleasure - God's intention, plan, and delight - to give you the kingdom! If this is true, and I believe it is, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of the pursuit of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the coming of the Son of Man.
   The point of charitable giving is not to elevate poverty, but rather to extol generosity as a mark of the Christian life. What Jesus is commending is faith - faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates in us confidence about a future secured not by human effort or achievement but by God alone.
   Jesus, however, doesn’t simply hold out faith as a model and goal, and certainly not as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves her children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the fruits of the kingdom. Some have put it this way: Think of the most loving person you’ve ever known in your entire life, and know that their love pales in comparison to God’s love for you. Promises create a shared expectation about the future and binds together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises create faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life - whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, love of neighbor, and more - are anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
   And so anchored by the promise that God wants to give us all good things, we can hear Jesus’ commands and injunctions differently. God wants us not to be weighed down by worries, to keep our priorities straight, to not be consumed by greed or love of those things that do not bring real happiness. Rather, God wants us to have and enjoy and share the abundant life that comes from authentic community and right relationship with God and with each other.
   As for being on the lookout, being ready for the coming kingdom, Jesus isn’t trying to scare us, he just doesn't want us to miss when God comes in ways that might surprise us, that are different from what we might have expected -- in generosity instead of in accumulation, in building community instead of looking out for ourselves, in vulnerability and relationship rather than in strength. It's easy to miss the God who comes in love and grace, you see, when the story we tell ourselves or that the world tells us, is to expect law and punishment.

   But even when we recognize that God's gracious motivation changes the way we hear these commands, we have to admit that they're still hard to keep. Why? Maybe it's because so much of the rest of our lives are filled by demands both great and small: like the demand to accumulate more and more in order to appease a false sense of security. Or the demand to prove our worth day in and day out. Or the demand to worry about innumerable things because we’ve been convinced that we’re always at risk. In this kind of climate, it's hard to trust God's promises and give over our worries and live more fully and generously.

   The bottom line is, we all choose to trust in something. We can either trust the promises of the God who created us, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, and who loves us enough to come and be one with us, to live our life, to face our fears, and to die our deaths, or we can trust the promises of those of the world who sow fear and death and mistrust as false gods. We can let go of the things and the ideas that darken our days, clutter our heads, our hearts, and our homes and scream a story of scarcity at us, or we can live lightly and embrace the God who embraces us in love and generosity and share God’s message of overflowing abundance, love, and hope. If we can have the faith to trust in the promises of the God of Jesus Christ, then we have no need to worry, no need to fear, because that God desires to give us all that we need. What more could we ask? Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

3-24-19 “Tuning In”

3-24-19 Sermon “Tuning In”

   I had a small, battery-powered, pocket-sized, gray Radio Shack AM/FM transistor radio when I was kid, and it came with an ear plug - how cool was that?  And in those days everything you wanted to listen to was on the AM side of the dial; FM was a dark, broodingly mysterious place that played deep dark cuts of guitar and synthesizer-heavy music called “hard rock” that only hippies listened to. Everybody else listened to AM and its over-caffeinated jabbering DJs who perfectly timed their patter over top of the intros to the latest Top 40 Hits to end just as the song’s vocals began. 

   Our local radio station in Madison, WORX, was what might be called an adult-contemporary station I guess. During the day they broadcast news on the half hour, had a daily farm report, Paul Harvey’s commentary, and music by Dean Martin, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and the like. At night they moved to less news and more contemporary soft rock and pop music. My mom listened to WORX - I didn’t. Like most of the other really “cool,” non-parent types, 
I listened to a station out of Louisville, KY, WAKY - wacky radio - with DJs like Bill Bailey in the Morning, the Weird Beard, and Gary Burbank. They played a mix of Top 40 hits, oldies - which back then were almost exclusively from the 1950s - and did funny comedy bits, keeping listeners glued to the station. I was glued. 

   Except, that is, at night. At night, when I could find a strong enough signal, I could listen to the New York Yankees broadcast on WABC out of New York - that is, if the weather was good, the cloud cover was just right, and I was in the perfect location or holding the radio in the correct position. Tuning in to the AM signal from New York was only possible at night, when the signal would “bounce” from the far away from the New York metro area. There were times I had to sit in my closet, or go outside, or even sit on the roof of my house in order to pick up the game. And even then, I had to hold the radio just right and listen very intently, focused on what the Yankees play-by-play announcer was saying. When I was older and could drive, I would sometimes pull to the side of the road if I was able to tune in to the game on the car radio, because I knew I might lose the signal if I kept driving. 

   Tuning in to stations from New York or other faraway places was a way of connecting to something bigger than myself, bigger than my world as I knew it then, in community, if you will, with thousands and thousands of people I didn’t know from places I’d never been, but with whom I had something in common. Tuning in meant connecting. And like listening to those bounced radio waves from the roof of my house, it meant focusing very intently. There could be no distractions, nothing else going on, or I might inadvertently move the radio and lose the signal, or I would chance falling off the roof. Paying close attention - being fully present to what I was trying to do -  was vital to a successful and clear connection.

   In our story today, Jesus has just begun his journey to Jerusalem when he comes to the town where two sisters, Mary and Martha, live and they invite him into their home. The writer Luke tells us that Martha was very busy and distracted, but that Mary sat attentively at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach. Now, I don’t know about you, but as I shared at Dinner with Friends last week, I used to struggle to keep Mary and Martha straight - which was the busy one and which the mindful one. At some point it, though, it dawned on me: Martha was busy in the kitchen, like Martha Stewart would be, and Mary paid close attention to Jesus, just like his mother Mary would do. From then on I never got them confused again. 

   There’s more to this simple five verse story than meets the eye. Luke provides a narrative here that is reflective of ancient Mediterranean customs around hospitality and inhospitality. At the same time he challenges some stereotypes about the “proper” role of women, and also suggests that Jesus is not always a very polite or kind houseguest. So let’s look at each of these ideas a little more closely.
   The travel narratives in Luke begin late in chapter 9, following Jesus’ transfiguration and the feeding of the five thousand. It is then that Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem, displaying a sense of urgency that he pushes onto his disciples and other followers as well. Sending out seventy to do ministry, he instructs them to take nothing with them and to not waste time in a city or home that isn’t receptive. When two other people engage with Jesus and he invites them to follow him, they agree but say they have other things they need to take care of first, including burying a recently deceased father. Jesus rebukes them for these distractions, for putting earthly things - like burying the dead and family - ahead of kingdom priorities. Jesus has a laser-like focus on the work ahead and expects the same of those around him.

   And then immediately before today’s passage is the well-known story of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus presents to his followers the expectation of a level of hospitality and love that greatly exceeds what many were willing to provide. The radical hospitality provided by the hated Samaritan for a man beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the road - who was previously ignored by two religious people - is lifted up by Jesus as the model of love of neighbor expected within God’s reign. It is in this context, in the midst of Jesus’ strong-willed, laser-focused, expectation-busting determination that our story unfolds. 

   When Jesus’ entourage arrives at Martha and Mary’s house, Martha extends the customary hospitality to a stranger that their society and culture calls for and expects. She does what one does when encountering a stranger or a traveler; she invites them in and provides for their needs. Hosts were expected to give food, shelter, amenities, and protection to traveling strangers, who, as the story of Abraham in Genesis reminds us, sometimes turned out to be gods or angels in disguise.  

   So to look at this section of Luke more broadly, this series of stories portrays a broader Christian social ethic of hospitality and care for others, both those who are like us and those unlike us. For those within our community, Luke says, our responsibilities for care and hospitality are limitless - there is nothing that we are not called to do or provide, if possible, for the believer in need. 
For those unlike us in faith, nationality, ethnicity, or any other differentiating characteristic, or those in immediate crisis, we are called to provide Christian hospitality to the greatest degree that we are able. So Christians, as followers of Jesus, are called to extend hospitality both as hosts and guests, and to believers and non-believer alike. And this hospitality calls us to a level of personal and intimate engagement that a mere tolerance for the “other” does not. We are not called to simply “tolerate” or “endure” those not like us; rather the ancient “Christian virtue” of hospitality demands that we engage and interact with the Other, whether we are guest or host. So in our story today, Martha, we come to understand, is between the proverbial rock and a hard place - finding it difficult to both serve and provide hospitality AND engage directly with her guest.

   Mary, on the other hand, is credited with having “chosen the better part,” by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach. While Martha has assumed the expected role of host when Jesus arrives, Mary asserts herself into a role not normally given to or shared by women in this period: that of disciple. Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus, tuned in and having assumed a position of learning and devotion, on par with Peter, John, James and the  Twelve. So, the key to understanding this passage comes down to what Jesus means by the “one thing.” The “one thing” in Jesus’ logic is the “best part” which Mary has chosen. And what is that? According to Jesus, hearing the word of God’s messenger is the one thing needed, not providing for his physical needs. However important hospitality is in Luke as a broad social context for the spread of the Christian message, he says it’s even more important for followers to tune in to, be present to, be mindful of Jesus’ message and messengers. 

   So, Jesus’ response to Martha, while seemingly harsh to us, is less a condemnation of her frenzied activity and more a commendation of Mary’s posture as a disciple. Jesus’ repetition of her name, “Martha, Martha,” is a rhetorical device used to indicate compassion or pity, making it difficult to imagine that Luke’s audience understood Jesus’ praise of Mary to be an implicit criticism of Martha’s hospitality, even as we know that Jesus had the capacity to level such criticism. We see this in the story of Simon the Pharisee, who, when he fails to follow proper hospitality protocols (Lk. 7:36-50), is called out and publicly rebuked by Jesus. That suggests that another approach to this text would be to focus on the presence of Jesus as both guest and host.  

   Jesus is frequently a guest in someone’s home - the recipient of hospitality. And sometimes even he doesn’t always exhibit good manners. As a dinner guest, he criticizes his host and other guests in three other places in Luke’s gospel. (5:29ff; 7:36ff; 14:1,7ff). When his host is a Pharisee, we don’t notice his criticism so much, or if we do, we justify it because, well, he’s Jesus and they’re Pharisees. His criticism of Martha, though, gets our attention, it makes us a little bit uncomfortable, even offends us. She’s trying to fix him a meal, after all, she’s trying to be a good host. The narrative doesn’t distinguish between hosts, though. Whether Jesus is the guest of a Pharisee or Martha, he has dual roles as both a guest as well as host to those who have come to be with him, to be in his presence. Jesus' presence points to the coming of God's realm and the reordering of what is customary and expected.  Martha does the right thing, she does what is customary and expected of her as a host, yet misses the presence of Jesus and the good news he represents. Mary risks the contempt of her sister, and perhaps that of the gathered disciples, in order to be fully in the presence of the guest, to tune in to what he is saying to all of those gathered. This brief encounter within Luke’s gospel purposely disrupts expectations and disturbs our sense of propriety. But as is sometimes the case, we get too comfortable with our ideas of a Jesus “meek and mild,” forgetting that Jesus is said to have come to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” 

   Theologian and scholar Elisabeth Johnson suggests,
   “The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality…but rather that she is worried and distracted. The word translated “distracted” in verse 40, periespato, has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions.
   “Martha’s distraction and worry leave no room for the most important aspect of hospitality -- gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she breaks all the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest, and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute. She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her. Martha’s worry and distraction prevent her from being truly present with Jesus, and cause her to drive a wedge between her sister and herself, and between Jesus and herself. She has missed out on the “one thing needed” for true hospitality. There is no greater hospitality than listening to your guest. How much more so when the guest is Jesus! So Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
   “Jesus’ words to Martha may be seen as an invitation rather than a rebuke. Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. 
   "The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God.”

   It is in Christ’s gentle reminder to Martha (and to us), that Mary’s is the better part that we are both invited and encouraged to set aside regular time to “tune in” to God and to “tune out” the worries and distractions. Actions, even acts of Christian charity and hospitality, if they are to be sincere, if they are to be sustainable, if they are to bear “withness” to our faith in the ever-present God through Jesus Christ - always, always follow being; that is, what we do flows naturally from who we are. Who we are has already been decided for us: we are beloved children of God. How we are as the beloved of God is determined by how “tuned in” we are to God and God’s presence in our lives.

   In the 1960s, psychologist Timothy Leary and LSD advocate is famously quoted as saying we should all, “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.” That is actually a ridiculously abbreviated and out of context representation of what he really said. And understanding that he was advocating for the large-scale use of LSD - something that I would never support - what he saw as the benefit of that is, ironically, in tune with what we’re talking about today. So here’s what Leary actually said, and I invite you, if you can, to set aside the drug context in which this was first heard, and listen, if you will, through the lens of what our message suggests today. 

Timothy Leary actually said:
“TURN ON to contact the ancient energies and wisdoms that are built into your nervous system. They provide unspeakable pleasure and revelation.”

     My take on that is that in our context we might think of those “ancient energies and wisdoms built into our nervous system” as that seed of God that is planted within each of us, that make us one with God in Creation. We should turn on to, be aware of the fact that we are one with God as beloved children of God.

Then Leary said, 
TUNE IN to harness and communicate these new perspectives in a harmonious dance with the external world.” 

   To me this suggests that once we’re aware of who we are in God, we can tune in to what that means for how we live together in unity with others in the world, whether they’re like us or not.

And finally, Leary suggested we should: 
DROP OUT. Detach yourself from the tribal game. Current models of social adjustment - mechanized, computerized, socialized, intellectualized, televised, sanforized - make no sense to the new… generation who see[s] clearly that…society is becoming an air-conditioned anthill.” (i.e. on-going busyness)

   This sounds similar to Jesus’ admonition to be “in the world, but not OF the world.” We’re to detach ourselves from how the world tells us to be, what the world tells us is important, so that we can attach ourselves to God’s reign, God’s vision for the world, which is love.

   Henri Nouwen, the late Roman Catholic theologian and psychologist, reminds us that an apple seed grows into a tree  and produces apples. Likewise, a pear seed grows and begets pear. The seed of God planted within us, if fed and watered, if connected to a source of light and nutrition, grows to produce within us something of the fruit of God. It is because of that of God which is planted within us, that we are called to strive to cultivate a deep connection with Jesus, to both tune in to and to live out his teachings about love of God and love of neighbor; because that is who we are in God. We actively work to feed and care for our neighbors as a sign of our love for God, and because God’s seed of radical hospitality grows within us and within this place. Tuning in to that, cultivating that, living into that, Jesus tells us, is the “one thing,” the better part.  Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

3-17-19 “Preparing A Table”

3-17-19 Sermon  “Preparing A Table”

   One of my earliest memories of the kitchen in the house I grew up in was that it included a large, round, dark-stained oak table on a wood pedestal. 
I don’t remember how many chairs were around it, but I remember that it could expand with a leaf, but that the only time that was ever used was when we had guests. Otherwise, it was a circle. And I remember that so well because the first time I sprained my ankle as a kid was while chasing my sister - or was she chasing me? - around that table, round and round, when I tripped - I blame it on her - and I fell and sprained my ankle. 
I said it was an early memory - not necessarily a pleasant one.
   As a kid it was common for one of us to have a friend over for dinner, or to be invited to a friend’s house for dinner. At least once a week I would be invited for dinner to either my friend Mike’s or my friend Steve’s house. And likewise, one of them was at my house for dinner about as often. It was the same with my younger sister and her friends - although she didn’t eat away nearly as often as I hoped she would!
   And there were other guests as well. Friends of my parents, friends from church, the pastor and his wife and kids - it was not uncommon for some combination of those folks to be at dinner with us at least once a week. And often, we had fried chicken. That was one of Mom’s go-to meals. I had a lot of fried chicken as a kid. So much in fact, that after I left home, I went years without eating it because I needed a break. 
   And with Mom’s fried chicken there had to mashed potatoes too, and while Mom made pretty good fried chicken, her mashed potatoes were, well…
They used to be really good, but at some point she stopped making them from real potatoes and starting using those flakes in the box stuff. From then on her potatoes were either the consistency of spackle or runny enough they could be consumed through a straw. There really was no middle ground with them. 
So, if I was going to invite a friend for dinner, it was always good to find out what was on the menu first.
   So, all of that dinner talk aside, while it would be easy to preach an entire series on the 23rd Psalm, spending one week on each phrase, our focus today is primarily on the one line:
 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
   Now, this is not a Holy Communion reference, although it could be used that way, even if it is a pre-Jesus, pre-Last Supper Old Testament passage. 
And it’s not an invitation to the potluck next Sunday, although it could be that as well. No, the Psalmist - presumably David in this case - makes a larger point that is less about us and more about who and how God is. 
   The structure of the psalm is interesting as well. David begins by speaking about God in the third person. “The Lord..” does this, “he” does that, and so forth. But then in the middle, in the line at the very center of the psalm, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” (or the “valley of the shadow of death” if you prefer the King James version) the voice changes as David transitions to second person, saying, “you are with me,” “You” do this and “You” do that. David moves from talking about God in the first part to talking to God in the second. One commentator points out that in the original Hebrew, the word “with” is exactly in the middle of this psalm, the same number of words before as after the word “with.” God is with David. God is with us. God’s “withness,” this suggests, is not only at the center of the psalm, but is at the center of who and how God is with us. For David, it’s as though in the middle of this song, God moves from holding a place in David’s head to a dwelling place in his heart.
   In the midst of our often self-imposed busyness, as we face the myriad things we feel compelled to get done - all the things to do, places to go, people to see - this psalm reminds us that the unhurried God is with us whether we realize it or not, in the good times and in the bad, at the very heart or center of our lives. And that that has always been the case, from the beginning.
   God first revealed God’s self to be present with us, to be immanent, in the Creation. The Spirit of God, Genesis tells us, hovered over the waters even before God spoke creation into being. God created everything out of nothing; nothing, that is, except for God’s presence in that hovering Spirit. The God who was present in the primordial waters before Creation is the same God who is present at all times and in all things, all places and all peoples now; the panentheistic God who God is present everywhere and in everything, including in each and every one of us. God is present; God has never NOT been present with us. But because, in part, we either lost track of that, forgot about it, don’t trust it, or don’t want to believe that God is present in people who are different from us, God came to be one with us in Jesus Christ, called Emmanuel in the scripture passages that foretold this human incarnation. We remember that Emmanuel literally means “God with us.” God couldn’t have made the Holy presence any clearer if God had tattooed it on our body. But, do we experience God’s presence primarily in our head, or in our hearts? That’s the question, isn’t it?
   This “withness” of God doesn’t mean, though, that our lives will not have their problems, that there won’t be dark valleys that we must journey through. What it means though, is that whether as individuals, as a church, as a community, nation, or world, we don’t travel life’s hills and valleys alone. We do face challenges - every day. For some the challenges are existential; how will I get by today, where will I find food or medicine or shelter today, how will I live through this day. For others, while perhaps not as dramatic, the challenges are nevertheless just as real:
How will I get to this doctor’s appointment? 
Where will I get the money for my rent, or utilities, or medicine? How will I get my addiction under control, or that of my child? The challenges are real, even as they vary from person to person, from day to day.

   And then we encounter this “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” line and wonder what we’re to make of that. The Twenty-third Psalm can provide great comfort as we imagine those green pastures and still waters, as we consider a life in which God restores our soul and in which we no longer want for anything. But it also recalls those dark valleys that we’d just as soon avoid or forget, and that maybe even make us doubt or deny the existence of those promised green pastures. And on top of that, and even more challenging, it calls us to the not-so-easy practice of sitting down at the table with our enemies.

   Now, when I hear the word “enemies” my first thought is usually tied to Batman and his arch-enemy “The Joker,” or some other comic book superhero, who almost always has an “arch enemy” of some kind. I guess, in the midst of a sea of enemies, the archenemy is the principle enemy, the main foe. What kind of challenges must one face, existential or otherwise, what kind of world-view, that makes one think of other beloved children of God as “the enemy.” I can’t think of a single person I would consider an enemy. Now, there are people I don’t agree with. And there are people I don’t really like so much, but enemies?

   Nevertheless, regardless of the labels we attach to those who look, speak, pray, love, or vote differently than us - our “thems,” our enemies if you will - the unhurried God of Creation who is present with US in the good times AND in the difficult times, is just as present with THEM, and not inly invites us, but challenges us to be radically present to each other in the same way God is present with us. As much as we might like, we simply can’t just gloss over this line of the psalm. “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies” deserves some thought. From a Christian perspective, Christ’s table is the place where reconciliation begins and ends. It is where we are invited to share in the body of Christ which is all of Creation. The gospel writer Luke quotes Jesus as saying that when you have a dinner party, don’t invite those who can invite you in return (Luke 14) - invite those who can’t, or won’t. When all that he has worked for seems on the brink of falling apart during his final night, Jesus breaks bread with his disciples - the faithful, the denier, and the betrayer. He models for us that we, too, are to make peace at the table, not just with our friends and pals, but with those with whom relationships are broken or even nonexistent.
   You see, it’s when we’re willing to break bread at Christ’s table, or any table, with our enemies - those we would consider as “them” or “those people;” and we all know who that is for us - that we truly experience the “withness” of God’s love that is offered to us and the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus invites us into, will be more than a mere hope, it will be an overflowing cup.
   Let’s conclude by reciting together the Psalm - it’s printed in your worship folders:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Ps 23, CEB)


Sunday, March 10, 2019

3-10-19 - “The Right Tempo”

3-10-19 Sermon - “The Right Tempo”

   I think we all have times when we feel, as Jesus describes in this passage, that we are “weary and carrying heavy burdens.” Sometimes that comes from being busy and just having a lot of things to do or to deal with in a certain space of time, and other times it comes more from the nature of what we have to do, the heaviness of our task, more than the quantity of tasks. This week, coming off of renewal leave, was a busy week in the sense that there were many calls to make, several people to visit, lots of things on my desk to catch up on, a few appointments, and two worship services and messages to prepare. So there was a quantity of things to be done, but nothing that I would call “heavy” or “burdensome.” 

   Now, had someone died this week, within our church family or among my family or friends, had there been some kind of tragedy that occurred like a disaster, a terror attack, a car that drove through our church building, that likely would have made this week “heavy.” Something like that not only brings with it worry, pain, and grief, it comes bearing an added weight, a heaviness that is simply laid over the top of everything else that is already going on. We feel that weight in our bodies, in our minds, and in our souls. And we need support, we need help to bear that kind of burden, or it can break us.
   In the passages leading up to our reading today, Matthew is attempting to help us understand Jesus within the larger Wisdom tradition of Judaism. And God’s Wisdom, in scripture, is almost always referred to as feminine, her or she - to which the women present knowingly nod, thinking, well of course she is. 
In fact, the words Jesus speaks in our reading is taken from the Wisdom Writings of Sirach, that we find, not in our Hebrew Bible or Old Testament texts, but in the section called the Apocrypha, which most Protestant Bibles don’t include unless it’s a study bible. In Sirach 51:26, also sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, the writer says,
 “Put your neck under her (Wisdom’s) yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.”

   So Jesus is speaking to his listeners here, quoting from a Wisdom tradition that is largely lost on modern readers, while using an agricultural metaphor that, in this age of industrialized farming with multi-million dollar equipment harvesting more in a day than a farmer in Jesus’ time would have reaped in their entire life, is also largely lost on us. It’s easy for us to gloss over this passage as so many nice thoughts, or to respond cynically, “yeah, right!” and move on.
   But before we write this passage off as another pretty little saying to embroider onto a throw pillow or wall hanging, let’s explore what Jesus is trying to tell us here. And to do that it helps to understand exactly what the purpose of a yoke is. We often think of a yoke as something that confines us, a tool for labor that restricts us in our movement, our direction. But the purpose of the yoke was actually to train, to teach an inexperienced animal how to do the work of the farm by pairing it, yoking it, to a more experienced beast. By teaming the inexperienced, neophyte beast of burden with the more seasoned partner, the younger could learn how best to bear the weight of the plow together rather than trying to do the work alone - they would bear the burden alongside one another.

   Now, let’s make one thing clear in this image - the use of the word “easy” is a mistranslation. The passage talks about burdens, and by definition burdens are not “easy.” The better translation of that word here, as corrected in various commentaries, is “kind,” “good,” “useful,” or “well-fitting.” As Karoline Lewis offers,

   “To believe in Jesus is not escapism from burdens or struggles or the events in our lives that cause the kind of weariness that might strip us of our very souls. To be a disciple is to be yoked to Jesus.
   “We are yoked to Jesus, whose yoke is kind, good, useful [or well-fitting]. Yes, it is still a symbol of burden, oppression, and hardship. 
But we can’t forget who is pulling the burden with us, with his head through the other oxbow.With that truth in mind, I think this text says more than: you are not alone in your suffering. Although that is also true about this passage, nevertheless I think there is a promise that the load really will feel lighter. True, you are not alone. And therefore whatever burden you bear, you do not bear it alone. There’s the difference. There’s the good news -- realistic, good news we might actually experience."
 (Karoline Lewis,

   So as we consider this passage in our Busy series, we find that each of us has a tempo that fits well for us, that energizes us, and other tempos that are burdensome. We want to explore what tempo gives us life and energy? What tempo feels toxic to us? And what is the cost of not living at a healthy, energizing, and life-giving tempo?

   When Matthew has Jesus quoting Sirach about being yoked to God’s Wisdom, he is yoking the ancient Judaic Wisdom tradition to Matthew’s concept of the Kingdom of Heaven; being in the Kingdom of Heaven is living in, yoking ourselves to the Wisdom of God, which we see in the person of Jesus. The Gospel writer John attempts the same thing but comes at it from a different angle, when he writes, 
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And later, “The Word became flesh.”

   To John, the Word, the logos of God, is the Wisdom of God yoked to, as Richard Rohr translates it, the “blueprint” of God - God’s “plan,” if you will. 
Matthew approaches this from the perspective of traditional Judaism while John’s approach is from what would later become known as a “trinitarian” point of view. Either way, I think we can see that they are suggesting the same idea.
   As followers of Jesus, we willingly “yoke” ourselves to Jesus as Wisdom, as God’s incarnate/enfleshed blueprint for the world - the Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew refers to it. So what does that mean? It’s not a yoke of simple mental agreement with ideas or doctrines “about” Jesus - it’s not THAT easy. It’s a yoke of cohabitation, if you will. It’s a yoke of partnership, of going in the same direction or the same way, doing the things Jesus explicitly instructs because that’s where the “more experienced” one with which we are yoked in the team is leading us. 

   Theologian Lois Malcolm puts it this way,
“As we take on Jesus’ yoke, we not only become more fully united with Jesus, God’s tangible Wisdom in and for our lives; we also enter more fully in to the intimacy Jesus had with the one he called Father. In this way, Jesus truly is God’s Wisdom for all of us, whose yoke embodies a new way of being in the world, not as a set of standards [or rules] we need to live up to, [or a new set of ideals], but rather as God’s incarnate… presence within our lives.”   (FOTG - Matthew I, page 300)

   In the season of Lent we often think of “giving up” something that we enjoy - chocolate, desserts or the like - in order to “deny ourselves” and somehow let that denial move us closer to God. And that’s not a bad thing, IF that giving up us does in fact, bring us closer to or more in alignment with God, or helps us live life at a more life-giving tempo. Sometimes, as counter-intuitive as it might seem - in order to get the right tempo, we have to take on something that was missing in our life. Not in order to add more busyness, not so as to burden ourselves in a heavy and cumbersome kind of way, but so that we might share the yoke of that burden with the one who knows our life, who knows our pain, and who willingly comes alongside to bear our burdens with us.

   Shelley Best reminds us that,
“Jesus knows our yoke. Through him, we learn how to do our own work - and of the rest that comes when we work with him. Through faith, we are partnered with Jesus and taught how to balance and maneuver what is at hand, with the help of one who is more seasoned in the tasks associated with living. At first, the appeal to take on something more (like spending time in prayer or Bible study or other spiritual disciplines) in order to walk closer to Jesus seems impossible - or at least a step in the wrong direction. Jesus promises that by walking closer to him, our encumbrances will be lessened and we will find repose in the midst of what would otherwise be an onerous and lonely journey.”

   So perhaps the most restful, the most life-giving and burden-sharing thing we can do is to yoke ourselves more closely with Jesus. That is the invitation of this series, that is the hope of spending time daily in our “prayer chair.” 
That is the relief offered by physically writing down the things we can no longer control -   the things that bring us stress, and anger, and pain, and literally handing them over to God by placing them in your own “God box.” 
   In this brief passage that we explored today, “Jesus pairs ‘yoke’ and ‘rest’  - one conjures an image of oxen bound for work and the other invites us into a state of peace for one’s soul. Perhaps we are being challenged to consider that the most fruitful and productive of all labors is precisely that which brings our souls closest to God.” (Erick Olsen, FOTG, page 300)

“Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest,” Jesus invites. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is [well-fitting,] and my burden is light.”  Amen.