Category: Sermons

The Sinking Feeling: Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

 

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. – Soren Kierkegaard

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Have you ever had a sinking feeling?  It’s phenomenon that happens in the stomach that  we can’t control but we can  always remember the last time we experienced it– when the phone rang, or the report card came, or news came on and we feel like all of the blood has come out of our head and we feel sort woozy and well, out of control.

In all of the times I have had a sinking feeling the primary experience in all of them was a feeling of vulnerability.  I didn’t know what was going to happen and I was scared.  Chemically, what is happening, when you have a sinking feeling,  is that blood is leaving your stomach, because your brain has gone into survival mode and doesn’t think you need to eat anymore.  It thinks you need to survive and that means you either need to fly or fight.

Sinking feelings are o.k. to have once in a while and should be expected in moments like– the first day of school  or the moment the doctor comes in with the test results, or unexpected life event takes place.  It’s when that sinking feeling starts happening all of the time, when it becomes more often than not, that people can get a little twitchy.

That’s the situation the disciples were in in the 14th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  By the time we get to the end of the 14th chapter of Matthew, the disciples are twitchy. Here’s why:

At the beginning of the chapter, something awful has happened.  Something that made them realize they weren’t as safe as they thought.  Something that made the disciples realize that being a disciple of Jesus Christ could get you killed. Remember that they are following a Rabbi who fighting the establishment, and the establishment just pushed back, big time.  Do you know what happened?  They beheaded John the Baptist. 

They killed Jesus’ cousin.  They sent out a warning shot to stand down, because this is what happens when you mess with the Roman Empire.  Imagine the sinking feeling they had when  the heard the news that he was killed.  Imagine Jesus’ grief and vulnerability when he learned of the news.  It is this context of deep grief and shock that the disciples try to get away. Matthew says they retreated.  You could say that the sinking feeling resulted in flight.

Sometimes we look at the atrocities of the world and we read stories so horrendous you can’t help but wonder how in the world could something like that happen?  Or, even how could God let it happen?  Or where is Jesus when the world appears to be falling apart?  And the news and all that it is in it, can make someone just want to fly away and live on the island of Denial.

Sometimes there is too much chaos.

But, here’s the bad news, being a follower of Jesus Christ, desiring a spiritual life that is rich and meaningful cannot be achieved by running away. Henri Nouwen put it this way:  “The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.”

And so as the disciples try to move into a retreat, they find they are being followed by the pain of the world.  Five thousand people come to this barren land.  They are hungry and thirsty and sick and broken and Jesus looks out at all of those people and has pity on them and the disciples look out at all of those people and they have a sinking feeling and think there is no way we can address all of these needs.  Jesus says “that’s right,  you can’t, but I can,  let me work through you” and by his miracle, the disciples are able to feed the five thousand.   Sometimes when we have a sinking feeling, instead of running away, we think, “No way. It’s impossible there is no way I can do this.”  The sin here isn’t in the defeatist attitude. The sin is thinking that we are the ones who perform miracles in the first place.

So when we are in chaos, or see our brothers and sisters in chaos, we do not flee, we feed. We clothe. We share. We clean. We move. We give a hand. We look out on to sea of people who are hungry, frightened, and uncertain, just as the disciples did, and we trust that there will be enough for everyone to be fed, and by the grace of God and the hands of the disciples, they will be.

At last we come to the end of the 14th chapter of Matthew, and why a I say that at this point the disciples are now, twitchy.  They have had their share of sinking feelings.  They have witnessed violence they never thought they would see and they have seen 5000 people crying out for help.

So Jesus  put the disciples on a boat and he goes off to pray. – What can go wrong?

All of the disciples are in a boat, out to sea, sort of like how all of the church is the body of Christ in the world,  and a storm comes upon them and they once again get that sinking feeling, although this time they really might sink and they are really uncertain they are going to make it to shore, or survive and then they look out into the sea and see what appears to be a ghost moving toward them and now they are really afraid. More afraid than when they heard about John the Baptist, more uncertain than they were when they fed 5000 people.

And Jesus speaks out and says, “take heart it is I, do not be afraid.”  And Peter, who is known as the Rock, the Father of the Church says to Jesus, “Lord if it’s you let me come to you… ” Which is  strange thing to say.  Couldn’t he have asked for a safer litmus test?  He says “let me come out on the water” and Jesus says, “sure come out” and Peter starts walking toward him, full of faith and hope and then he suddenly gets that sinking feeling, Um this impossible.  It’s impossible to walk on water. What if…. What if it’s not Jesus. What if I’m crazy, after all I just stepped out of a boat. What if I drown?  What if he can’t save me?  And Peter sinks into the Ocean and this is my favorite part,  Jesus, reaches out his hand and saves him.  That gets me every time.  He reaches out his hand and saves him.  You know that tells me?  That tells me that Jesus wasn’t very far away from him at all, he was close enough to reach out and grab him and bring him back to the boat.

And then Jesus says incredulously, “you of little faith, why do you doubt?”  These are words none of us want to hear.  Why can’t I have more faith?  Why can’t I trust God?  Why do I let fear take over my faith?   I believe I am in God’s hands, but when I feel vulnerable or afraid, I start to sink. When have faith, but then when turn on the news, or get sick, or lose a friend and we  start to sink.  What if Peter hadn’t sunk?  What if he had just slung his legs over the side and  just walked on out there and given Jesus a high five?

That may have been an exciting story, but that wouldn’t have been our story. Like Peter we have faith and we have doubt.  We have hope and we have fear.  They are not mutually exclusive.  We are both, people of faith and doubt. They exist at the same time, allowing us to rise and fall in they storms of our life.

So take heart, Jesus gets it.  He does not judge your doubt, or punish you for it, he only asks you why?  Why do you doubt?  Think on that for a while… when you have doubts  in your faith life, why are you doubting, is it because you are angry, or hungry, or broken, or sad or disillusioned or anxious?   Jesus doesn’t condemn Peter, rather he says, “take heart….”

Madelyn Lengle – “As long as Peter didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”

It suggests that at one point we were able to do it and have forgotten.

What are all of things we have forgotten? –  Have we forgotten that Jesus  has always asked  his disciples to do impossible things and his disciples continue to do impossible things every day?

God is constantly asking people to impossible things.

He asked Mary to be the mother of God.

He asked Moses to change the course of history.

Jesus asked the disciples to feed 5000 people

Sell everything and give it to the poor.  Impossible

Love your neighbor – even your social media neighbor. Impossible.

What are impossible things that people try?

We fight diseases that have non existent cures. Impossible

We go to Haiti – the poorest place on the earth and try bring clean water and stop cholera. Impossible

We believe in forgiveness.  Impossible.

We believe in mercy. That our salvation comes from grace. Impossible

We believe in prayer. That we can personally speak to God. impossible

Parents watch their children grow up and then they have to let  them go – impossible.

People go to cemeteries and hope they will see their loved ones again – impossible

Only a short time ago, we watch in horror as hate and fear march through the streets of Virginia and  we wondered how can this be happening? End racism in our nation? Impossible.

Now we are glued to our news footage as we see the thousands of people impacted by great flooding, and we wonder how can we serve all of these people?  Bring order out of chaos? – Impossible

And suddenly walking on water doesn’t sound so impossible when up against all these impossible things.

It is impossible unless, we hold fast to Paul’s words: “ love bears all things, believes all things,  endures all things, love never dies”

 

If you are sinking, take heart, be not afraid.  He knows the impossible thing he is calling you to do  and he will not let you sink.  Take his hand. He’s not so very far away. Amen

Lord Hear our prayer,
For those who have lost everything.
For those who are stranded
For those who are frightened
For the elderly
For the child
For the parent
For the rescue worker
For the aid provider
For the police officer
For the reporter
For the lost
For the weary
For the sick
For the mentally ill

God, move your loving Spirit over each broken heart tonight and settle yourself on their shoulder. Pull them close to you and rock them back and forth, back and forth and say to them, “I will not leave you, I will not leave you, I will not leave you.”

Strengthen them for the journey ahead. May angels intercede and hope come from despair. We pray your light outshines the darkness.

Lord In your mercy. Hear our prayer.

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The Park Bench

park-bench-resized-600John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I would like to begin this morning by asking you to shut your eyes and imagine something for a few moments.

Just sit back in your pew, close your eyes, take a breath and imagine you are sitting on a park bench, outside on a warm spring day.

Imagine that someone comes and sits beside you.  You look over and you see that this person is Jesus.

What does he look like to you? There are no right answers.

How do you know it’s him?

Do you feel nervous sitting next him?

Do you reach over and hug him, like you are greeting an old friend?

Do you feel angry sitting next to him and start asking him questions, like, “how could you let that happen?”

Do you see that it’s him, feel so uncomfortable that you get up and walk away? – Hoping that he did not recognize you?

Do you sit in silence next to each other, knowing that you know each other, but choose to sit in comfortable silence?

How do you approach Jesus? 

O.k. you can open your eyes.

If you did this exercise every day, or once a month, or every now and then, or even every morning and night, you would find that every time Jesus comes and sits next to you on that bench, that you would respond differently.  Sometimes you may know him well, sometimes you may not know him at all, sometimes all you will want to do is weep and ask him to take away the hurt, and sometimes you will feel so much doubt, you will want to get up and walk away.  While you may change your behavior when you go through this guided meditation, what does not change is that Jesus always comes and sits on the bench.  He faithfully comes and sits and waits and we respond.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus comes and John the Baptist introduces him, not only to the disciples, but to the readers in the Book of John and indeed to the world. This is how Jesus comes on stage in the Gospel of John – John the Baptizer sees him coming down the road and says, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of this world.”

He doesn’t say, “Behold, my cousin, Jesus!”

He doesn’t say, “Behold, the Messiah!”

He doesn’t say, “Behold, the King of Kings and Lord of All!”

He introduces Jesus to the world as “the lamb of God.”  First observation: Jesus is not of this world. He is the lamb of God. So the first thing people are asked to see when he comes and sits on their park bench is that he is from God, that he is of God, that he is God.

Now, what is even more difficult to get our heads around is the second part of the sentence. After John says, he is “the lamb of God,” he says why he is here. John the Baptist says,  “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He did not say, “behold the lamb of God, who will make you happy, rich, or successful.”  He said, he is the one takes away the sin of the world.  The sin of the world.  Now just think about that.

There has been a critique, and I think it’s a fair one, that churches don’t like talking about sin any more. It’s not a good way to fill a church. It’s not good for PR.  And if we are going to talk about sin, well, we should talk about the sin of others and not our own.  And yet, every week as Presbyterians we begin faithfully with a prayer of confession acknowledging both our individual and corporate sin.   But I think we often leave that confession tightly in that place and then move on with our lives.

Think for a few minutes about the enormity of the sin in the world. Think about all of the cruel things people have said to each other just these past months either on social media or directly.  Think about the way we have been treating our brothers and sisters.  Think about the atrocities of the human race around the world. Think about the pillage of our earth.   The weight of sin is so heavy upon us, it’s almost suffocating.  It’s enormous.  Now, this is our time and place, but make no mistake sin and evil was just as powerful 2000 years ago, and in that moment Jesus appears and John says, “Here is the one who will take away the sin of the world.” 

Why didn’t John say,  “Behold, the Lion of God, who takes away the sin of the world?”

Wouldn’t a lion be a better animal to take on sin and mangle it to bits?  Wouldn’t it have been smarter to describe Jesus as aggressive and sort of like a vigil anti.  – Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but making Jesus a lamb – doesn’t that sound…. weak and powerless? –  I mean; this is the sin of the world we are talking about.  Do we really think that a lamb can take on ISIS?  Could a lamb take on the Nazis?  Could a lamb take on the KKK?  Well sure, a lamb could take them on, but he’s going to get himself killed!!

The next day, the would be disciples are curious about John the Baptist’s introduction and they come to Jesus and he turns to them and asks, “what are you looking for?”  and they say, “Rabbi” which means teacher.  He then asks, “where are you staying?”  and he invites them to “come and see.”

Now if people of don’t like talking about sin, the only thing they dislike more than that is talking about evangelism.  We really worry about offending people by “pushing our faith on others.”  Put it this way, we are sitting on a park bench with Jesus and a friend comes by and sits next to us  and instead of introducing our friend to Jesus, we choose not introduce them to each other.  Jesus, whispers in our ear, “I think I could help out here…” and we choose to ignore him.

Out of fear of offending our friend, we offend and pretend like we don’t know Jesus.

Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Now Jesus gives us three actions for how to introduce people to him safely. He asks the question, what are you looking for, and the disciples answer “a teacher,” and then they ask,  “where are you staying?  And Jesus replies, “come and see.”

If you know someone who is lost in their faith, or lost in sin, or lost in the world, and you think that if they knew Jesus or had a measure of faith, they might be less lost, but you don’t know how to invite them, ask them this question, “what are you looking for?” It’s a safe, open ended question.  Take the time to listen to their answer.  Sometimes we are so caught up in our stuff, that we don’t stop and really ask the question of ourselves, “what am I looking for?” and then once you identify need, stay with Jesus, the lamb of God,  follow him to find the answers.

Recognize friends, that the way you answer that question, is your deepest prayer.  It’s your soul’s deepest desire to ask and its Jesus’ deepest desire to know.

Take a minute to try to answer that question – What is it you are looking for?

Is it peace?

Is it hope?

Is it justice?

Is it forgiveness.?.

The truth is, we have enough lions in our world. We have enough roaring and aggression and violence.  We don’t have enough lambs.  We don’t have enough gentleness, compassion, empathy and kindness. And if we believe in the lamb of God, we must believe that he can overtake the sins of the world, and he does so through the scandal of grace. We don’t have enough people willing to sit on a bench. willing to listen, and not judge, willing to stay with us, and help us find what it is we are looking for.

Evangelism is as easy as sitting on a park bench with someone you love or don’t know and letting them tell you what it is they are truly looking for, and loving them enough to help them find the way.  Little did you know, that you were being Jesus on the bench.  You sacrificed your time, yourself, your energy, your love for the sake of another person.  It’s that easy to be an evangelist.

Close your eyes, one last time. Imagine that you are sitting on a park bench on warm spring day, and someone comes and sits beside you.  You look over and recognize that it is Jesus.  What does he look like?  You turn to him and he recognizes you.  He asks you, “what is it you are looking for?”  Take some time this morning to sit in a quiet space, stay with him, and tell him what you are looking for….

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, 
have mercy on us. 

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, 
have mercy on us. 

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, 
grant us peace, grant us peace. 

Amen.

1

Time

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Happy New Year.

We begin this first day of 2017 with an ancient piece of scripture from the book Ecclesiastes.

This book is set in the section of the Bible known as wisdom literature.

There was an ancient teacher of wisdom who was called in Hebrew Qohelet. The name in Greek is translated “Ecclesiastes.” This wise person understood time quite differently from the way it is understood today. He wrote after the Babylonian Exile, an experience that had taught the Hebrew people that human experience was never going to be easy and that time should not be a tyrant that demanded all our allegiance. In other words, Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is more to life than time.

Today’s reading catalogs various seasons of life, 28 of them arranged in sharp contrast to one another and yet each an undeniable part of human existence. begins with what is most fundamentally true–that one day, we are born into this world, then, just as inevitably, our life in this world comes to an end.

Listen to this ancient poem again, for the first time.

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

I have been thinking a lot about time lately.  For one reason, I suppose because time seems to be going so quickly.  This past Christmas season came so quickly, It seemed like school started and the with a blink it was Christmas.  I was talking to a member of our session last month and was saying that I needed to get the church officer retreat organized for our new officers, and I felt like I had just done that.  Wasn’t it January, 2016 only five minutes ago?  Where has the time gone?

Dr. Suess shares this feeling, he wrote a little poem that went: How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?

This happens when I look at pictures of my kids and see how much they have grown and changed and I think to myself where has the time gone?

My days are spent trying to control time.  Sometimes I curse time.  This happens when I wake up at 3:00 in the morning, and turn to see the clock, and I think, “why in the world am I up at this time?”  I lay there in the dark, trying to will myself back to sleep,  but call it anxiety, call it clarity, call it wanting to get things done, call it annoying, whatever it is,  the list starts going, and I give in and get up and get to it.

Allan Burdick wrote in a recent article for The New Yorker,

For more than two thousand years, the world’s great minds have argued about the essence of time. Is it finite or infinite? Does it flow like a river or is it granular, proceeding in small bits, like sand trickling through an hourglass? And what is the present? Is now an indivisible instant, a line of vapor between the past and the future? Or is it an instant that can be measured—and, if so, how long is it? And what lies between the instants?

Indeed, Augustine wrote, what we call three tenses are only one. Past, present, and future are all immediate in the mind—our current memory, our current attention, our current expectations. “There are three tenses or times: the present of past things, the present of present things, and the present of future things.”

To consider this present is to glimpse the soul, Augustine argued.

Much has been said about 2016 being the worst year ever.  While it has not been the best year for the human race, if we know history we know that there have been some years far worse than this one.

But if you know history, you know that there have been some far more tumultuous years than this one. The Dark Ages wasn’t exactly a picker upper.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents lately.  All of them are gone now, and I will never get to spend any time with them.  I think about the lives they lived, and the things they saw.  I try to imagine the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, or the day the stock market crashed, or the day Kennedy was shot, and then Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy and they must have thought, “these are the worst of times.”  I wonder if they worried about the future, how things would turn out. I’m sure they did.

But when I knew them and spent time with them, time was slow.  I never knew their worries for the future, because their futures had arrived. Their present was their future.  And in their future, their granddaughter would come to their house for a week every summer, and climb trees, and pick strawberries in the garden, and play with tools in the basement, and ride bikes to the grocery.  We would eat long meals, with cloth napkins and sip coffee from tea cups. Conversations would linger over pumpkin pie, until the sun  set and it was time to go into the den and sit on the davenport and watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and we wouldn’t move too fast, or be in a rush.   It was joy.

Time is something we have constructed.  It’s relative.  If you have ever waited for someone to call, or to get home, or for the mail to arrive, or the results to come in, or the surgery to be over, you know that time can move at a snail’s pace.  And if you have ever gone on a week vacation, or been wrapped in a great show or been immersed in a fruitful conversation, you can later look at your watch and ask incredulously,  “Where has the time gone?”

Time hasn’t changed, what has changed is how we feel in that moment.  So on this New Year’s Day, I invite you to pay more attention to the moment and less attention to what is next.  The more mindful you are of the moment, the closer you are to your soul and thereby more connected to God.

Writer Anna Quindlen authored an essay on being a mom in which she wrote,   “One of the biggest mistakes I made as a mother is the one that most of us make while doing this.  I did not live in the moment enough.  This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs.  There is one picture of my three children sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 7, 4 and 1.  And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night.  I wish I had not been in such a hurry to go on the next thing: dinner bath, book, bed.  I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.” 

You know, the same thing can be said for the church. What if we said as a church community that “we are going to treasure the doing a little bit more and the getting it done a little less?” What if we really tried to pay attention to those with whom we worship every week? What if we were less concerned about what was ahead of  us, and were more concerned with who was beside us?  What if we came to the Lord’s Table and let the bread and juice touch our tongue and could taste and see that the Lord is Good. What an interesting New Year’s Resolution it would be to covenant together to not worry about tomorrow and not grieve the past, to but to be present with each other in the present.

I don’t want to sound sad here, but I want to say that over the past three years, so many wonderful people have greeted me at these sanctuary doors, and they are no longer on this side of heaven.  I miss them. I wish I had one more moment to greet them.  I don’t want to rush through life so quickly that I miss that holy moment of looking them in the eye and greeting them as a brother and sister in Christ.  It’s too important.  So my charge to all of you who faithfully came to worship on a holiday weekend is to ask that we all commit to finding the joy in the moment, regardless of the season.  God is in every season and if God is there, there a glimpse of joy. Let’s covenant to treasure the doing a little bit more and the getting it done a little less.

We don’t know what 2017 will hold, but we do know there will be birth and death, there be a time to speak and a time to be silent, a time for love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. Whatever the time presents, God is there and if we are present with God, no matter where we are, there is always the potential of joy.

As we stand at the threshold of a new year uncertain of it will bring, we have control over very little, except for how we respond to what comes our way. I will conclude with words from another wise poet.  Mary Oliver writes:

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don’t Hesitate)”

Amen.

Allen Burdick, “The Secret Life of Time.” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/19/the-secret-life-of-time

Anna Quindlen, “All My Babies Are Gone Now”  Newsweek Columnist and Author

Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

 

Filled with the Spirit: Confirmation Sunday

Ethan baptism2The process of letting go is never easy, especially if you love the person you are letting go. Kindergarten, high school, college, marriage, each stage is a sucker punch to the parent’s soul   All of life is really a cycle of birthing, creating, forming, and then letting go.  Think of the seasons, from the spring that birth of flowers  and new baby animals to the summer and the bounty of crops to the season of autumn and harvest, to winter and a time of dormancy and hibernation. We give birth to children, watch them grow and then let them go.  We start jobs, work hard, and then retire and let somebody else take over.  We age and we let go of our capabilities, our driver license’s even our homes.   But in each letting go, is new life.

The season of Easter – these past 50 days is another season that is about letting go. It’s a season in which the disciples continually see signs of the resurrection. Signs of life after death. Jesus keeps coming back for moments of witness to the resurrection. He eats a meal, he mends his relationship with Peter, he walks on a road, he breaks bread, he shows the disciples his hands. He reminds them that he is still with them, even in his death.  And then one day, he’s gone.  He ascends to heaven.  He’s reappearances are no longer going to happen. And the disciples have no choice to let him go.  The season of Easter is the gradual process of letting go.

Until eventually there is a new normal.  And so the more things change the more they stay the same.  They return to  their traditions.

It’s the festival of Pentecost –  A Jewish festival in which Jews from every land come together to celebrate the beginning of the spring. Jesus  is no longer among them and they are not certain what to do next, so they go back to their traditions – and at that traditional gathering something new and unexpected happens:  Something unexplainable and intangible.

I imagine it’s like that moment around the campfire when you feel you are closest to God and you try to explain it, but it’s not something you can explain – it just is – and it stirs your soul and makes you cry and laugh at the same time because you know you are not alone and you feel  that something or someone is upon you and has been all along it’s just that you were too caught up in stuff to pay attention to the fact that the Holy Spirit has been with you and is with you now – and it sort of scares you and makes you feel like you better straighten up and stop swearing and judging other people, because if the Holy Spirit is upon you then it knows what you have been thinking about other people, yourself,  that you have been cutting yourself down, or  mean to your sibling, or kicked the dog, or lost your temper and if the Holy Spirit is upon you, you realize that you are loved unconditionally and that is an overwhelming thing.

That is what I imagine the moment of Pentecost was like – It is a bubbling up of the soul.

So the disciples are in this upper room and they have accepted that Jesus is gone for good and they come together to worship, they come back to their roots, their tradition and they sing and pray and read scripture and then suddenly the earth beneath them shakes and the wind blows and they start speaking in different languages and they all look at each other and say, “are you experiencing what I’m experiencing?” And they are afraid and inspired at the same time.  And then they hear the commandment to go out of the room, down the stairs, out the door, into the street and out the world and teach the world about Jesus Christ. And they do.  And they were killed for it. And they keep teaching. And they went to war over it. And they keep preaching. And they are kicked out of their home towns for it and they keep teaching.  And then they started fighting each other over things like whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine, and why he died on the cross and how to interpret scripture, and how to explain the virgin birth, and whether or not the resurrection really happened, and they started fighting among themselves, and they split up and became little churches based on their individual beliefs, but the spirit remained over it all. The Spirit kept on them, pushing them on and they kept teaching.  They met in houses, in caves, in store fronts. They built churches, meeting houses and cathedrals.  They kept teaching.  Two thousand years, the Holy Spirit kept moving through the people. Some tried to stomp it out.  Others tried to tame it.  Others tried to make it their own. The Holy Spirit willed itself and kept pushing, loving and moving.

And one day, you were born. And the Holy Spirit came to you and whispered in your ear, “Hello child of mine. I know every eyelash, every hair on your head.  I know your heart and your mind.  Some day you will know me. But for now, I will be a quiet presence.  Like the sea shell you picked up on the beach and you put in your pocket, I will remain with you and you will forget I am here, until way day you reach down and realize I have been with you this whole time.  And you will remember me, and you will remember who are.

When you were born, you were a helpless baby. Soft and warm. You were closer to me than to the world, and then you grew. And you became more close to the world than to me.

And one day your parents and grandparents came to church and brought you up to the font and water was poured on your fuzzy little head, and the community gathered around and said, ‘we will look over this baby, we will support these parents, we will teach like those before us taught us.  We see that Holy Spirit is with this baby.  We promise to love this baby and raise this baby to know the love of Christ and then one day that baby will grow up and they will affirm what happened on this baptism day.'” And so they did.

The Holy Spirit was there on the day of your baptism and whispered in your ear, “You are a blessing and you will be a blessing to others.” And then you grew. You grew and you grew.  Many voices started telling you who you were. Some of the voices told you, you were amazing and you believed them. Other voices were shaming and told you were no good, and you believed them. You grew. You grew and you grew.  And then you became a teenager and it was time for you to decide for yourself if you believe in the Holy Spirit or not.

And so on your confirmation day, you stood before the church with some measure of faith and some measure of  doubt and you put your hand deep in your pocket, and you found the shell that you had forgotten was there, and you held on.   The Holy Spirit came into your heart,  it bubbled up from your soul and suddenly you knew, it was there all along.

And the spirit filled the room and said, “Be my disciple. I know you have many things you think are supposed to be. You are supposed to be a child, a student, an athlete, a musician, a friend. And I know those things are important.  But more than anything be my disciple.  Treat others the way you want to be treated. Spread kindness. Show compassion. Love the person who is the most difficult to love. Give back. Share your gifts. Be genuine.  Pray. Listen. Learn. Pray some more.  Go out of the room,  down the stairs and out the door and be a light to this world.”

Today we celebrate that our children have grown into full membership of this congregation. They are not half members or adjunct members, they are members with all of the rights and responsibilities. Today they respond the claim that was set forth at their baptism that they are beloved children of God.  Today, they affirm that belief for themselves.

And with that belief comes the responsibility to live every day trying to follow the Holy Spirit where it leads us. On that Pentecost day, thousands of years ago, a group of young people, no more capable than you, were told to be the church in the world.  Today the Holy Spirit says the same to you.

There is a story once told by Desmond Tutu, that went like this:

“You know the story of the farmer who in his back yard had a chicken, and then he had a chicken that was a little odd looking, but he was a chicken. It behaved like a chicken. It was pecking away like other chickens. It didn’t know that there was a blue sky overhead and a glorious sunshine until someone who was knowledgeable in these things came along and said to the farmer, “Hey, that’s no chicken. That’s an eagle. “Then the farmer said, “Um, um, no, no, no, no man. That’s a chicken; it behaves like a chicken.

“And the man said no; give it to me please. And he gave it to this knowledgeable man. And this man took this strange looking chicken and climbed the mountain and waited until sunrise. And then he turned this strange looking chicken towards the sun and said, “Eagle, fly, eagle. “And the strange looking chicken shook itself, spread out its pinions, and lifted off and soared and soared and soared and flew away, away into the distance. And God says to all of us, you are no chicken; you are an eagle. Fly, eagle, fly. And so confirmands, listen up, God wants you  to shake ourselves, spread our pinions, and then lift off and soar and rise, and rise toward the confident and the good and the beautiful. Rise towards the compassionate and the gentle and the caring. Rise to become what God intends us to be….

Today we set you off, to become the disciple you are called to be.

God bless you.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Series on Jeremiah Lent 2016: Using Symbolic Acts in Worship

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Lent I: Symbolic Act,  The Lord’s Supper

Sermon Title: Being Human

Scripture: Jeremiah 2:8-11

We begin today on a five-week sermon series on the prophet Jeremiah. On Wednesday evenings we are going to study the book in its entirety, and on Sundays we will pull out specific scripture readings and focus on how they speak to us today.

The book of Jeremiah is a challenging book to read. There is no logical stream of consciousness in the book. Jeremiah did not have a very good editor. There are all of these different kinds of writings put together in one book. There are writings called oracles. There are prayers. There are historical narrations. There are times when God is speaking.  There are times when Jeremiah is speaking. There are times when we are not sure who is speaking.

The historical context of the book is written to a community that is experiencing what we would call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  If you have been brave enough to watch the footage of the Syrian refugees being forced out their homeland and seeking refuge, I would imagine that those images would be similar to the mass exodus of the Israelite people being evacuated from Jerusalem on to the banks of Babylon.

Now let’s just talk for a few minutes about the position description for being prophet. Prophets are and were people who speak on behalf of the oppressed against those in power.  They are usually people who the majority want to keep silent.  They are usually controversial and they are always silenced. –

Who would ever want to be a prophet?

Jeremiah’s prophetic words were not received with accolades of popularity – not everyone bought into what he was saying. And so the prophet did not just preach to the people – he offered symbolic acts in order to get his point across.  A symbolic act is an action that in the act itself seems small, but on a larger scale sends a profound message.

Here are some images of symbolic acts both in movies and in history that if not for the symbolic act, their message may have gone on deaf ears… (Show images, about one image a second)

The Prophet Jeremiah expressed symbolic acts throughout his preaching.  Every Sunday we will be participating in one of his symbolic acts in worship.  We will then post that symbolic act on our mandala located on our wall.

Our symbolic act today will be the act of communion

Today we begin with the Jeremiah’s first symbolic act. It has something to do with a cracked cistern.

Here’s the situation;

Jerusalem has not yet fallen under the Babylonians, and Jeremiah predicts that if they don’t change their ways, they will suffer.

Our passage today is Jeremiah’s most basic argument. Most simply, the prophet announces that Judah’s central problem is that those who should be expected to know what YHWH demands of the chosen ones, and should be expected to proclaim those demands far and wide, have in fact revoked their duty, and instead of being the solution to the issue of widespread ignorance of YHWH have become the lodestone of the problem.

“What sort of evil did your ancestors find in me that they moved far from me, and went after wind and thus became wind themselves” (Jer 2:5)? Here is the first charge that Jeremiah levels against Judah: Judah’s ancestors, those whom YHWH led out of Egypt and brought to the land of promise, found it all too easy to forget YHWH and to turn their allegiance elsewhere.

They are in a word, broken. He says:

1”3for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

So let us begin our season of Lent considering where we are broken. – where we like the people of Judah are the furthest from God.

When I was growing up, one of my heroes was a famous Evangelical Christian named Joni Erikson.  She became a quadriplegic as a teenager and went on to write a lovely memoir about that story and her relationship with God.  Having lost the use of her arms she eventually learned to paint by holding a brush in her teeth. She was a real hero of mine growing up.

She was interviewed a few years back she was a guest on the 700 Club and spoke on healing. Nadia Voltz Webber recounts this story saying, “Not surprisingly,  a whole lot of well meaning and enthusiastic “prayer warriors” often offer to pray for Joni to be healed of her quadriplegia…. But from her wheelchair Joni Erikson says to them, Could you instead please pray for the times when I cherish inflated ideas of my own importance … the times when I fudge the truth … the times when I manipulate my husband to get things my own way…sin…’mam if you want to pray for me pray that I receive the power of  resurrection to put to death the things in my life that displease God.

What a prophetic voice – to name one’s own brokenness and ask for healing.

When come to the table today and take a broken piece of bread – name before God where you are broken and are needed of healing.

Because here is the truth about the cross:   You just can’t look at the cross and think “Wow, good thing Jesus did that for the people we’ve identified as being the problem around here.”

He died for all of us. His grace poured out in all of us.

Here are the prophetic words we need to hear today. They come from Rev. Bob Moorhead, .

He writes:

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.
These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill.

Remember, to spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever.

Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side. Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn’t cost a cent. Remember, to say, “I love you” to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you. Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person might not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.”

 

Jesus said, this is my body broken for you – take and eat. And remember me. Amen.

 

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LENT II.Symbolic Act: Baby Pictures

Sermon Title: Being Called

Jeremiah 1:4-10

We continue with our reading of Jeremiah today as we read the first chapter. – The call of Jeremiah. The passage begins with God telling Jeremiah, that before he was even born, he was chosen to be the prophet for the nations.  This morning, we asked everyone to bring pictures of themselves as babies.  Why? Well for one reason, because we wanted to see how cute you were. But more so, to remember that we all started out the same way. We all start out small, and helpless, and needing the basic things – food, shelter, and love.

We all began our lives fresh from God. Known. Treasured. Named. Before our egos were formed, before we heard messages that told us to be better, work harder, be perfect, hurry up, or please others, we were simply little beings filled with curiosity and wonder.  It takes a long time for that little infant to gradually grow an independent identity.   Day by day, year by year, as we grow and mature there are many  new voices that tell us who we are, and what we are to do, and who we are to become.  Those voices can shout louder than the original voice that knew us before we were even born.

Our identity as Christians teaches that God does have something in mind for us, each of us, individually. Paul reminds us “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” And in the Old Testament, long before that, in the history of God’s people, prophets are called.

The year is 627 B.C. The last strong leader of the Assyrian Empire has died, and there are major changes on the horizon for Israel. And at that moment a young boy hears a voice: “Before I formed you I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you to be a prophet to the nations.”

It happens several times in the Old Testament. And so does what happens next: “Ah, Lord God! Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

The pattern is consistent. God calls. The candidate declines.

For example, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock in the wilderness. A bush goes up in flames and a voice tells him his job is to go to Egypt and liberate his people. And Moses says, in effect, “Who me? Thanks, but no thanks.”

Likewise, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and Jonah heads out in the other direction.

And then we have Jeremiah and Jeremiah stammers, “I don’t know how to talk. I’m not up to this. I’m only a boy.”

Here is the pattern:

God calls. Candidate declines. God won’t take no for an answer. God is persistent.

God keeps after Moses, tracks Jonah down all the way to the belly of the whale, says back to reluctant Jeremiah, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy;’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

And then the gracious promise: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” And Jeremiah, years later, looked back at that amazing time and remembered: “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth.”

I can resonate with Jeremiah. Now being in ministry for almost 15 years, I can look back 25 years and see that God’s hand was persistent.  When I first considered that God was calling me into ministry I came up with a hundred excuses why it was a bad idea.

First of all, I was a female. Now I know that sounds offensive and sexist, but none of my pastors were female when I was growing up. I didn’t have any models of female preachers. The only pastors who were women were those who worked with children and youth.  So, maybe I thought to myself, that would work, and then again, maybe not.

Second, I wasn’t perfect. In fact I was a sinner. I assumed all of my pastors were pretty much perfect people. I assumed that didn’t swear, or speak ill of anyone. I assumed they were always in good moods, and pretty much had it all together. I went to a pastor-friend of mine and said,  “I don’t think I should be a pastor, because I’m not good enough.”  To which he replied, “you aren’t. None of us are.  God doesn’t call you because you are good enough, God calls you because you are enough.”

Third, I wanted to be a mom. How could I be a good Mom and a good pastor. That’s impossible.  I’m still trying to figure that one out.  And even though God is in it and God called me to do it, God never said it would be easy.

Jeremiah was set apart at birth to walk with people who have been traumatized and demoralized. He was told not to have children, he was thrown in a pit, he survived the stockades, he was isolated and outcast.  Yes God was with him, but it was not easy.

Writer Parker Palmer tells the story of watching his granddaughter from her earliest days on earth. He says “she arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul.  What Quakers call the inner light or that of God in every person.  He writes, “I am gathering my observations in a letter.  When my granddaughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make sure that my letter finds its way to her with a preface saying something like this:  Here is a sketch of who you were from earliest days in the world.  It is not a definitive picture—only you can draw that.  But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much.  Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.”

Our symbolic act today is to remember the inner light that is in each of us. To begin to reclaim the gift of true self. To look at those sweet little babies that we all once were that are now adult men and women and to remember that at the core of each of us is a sacred soul.

Ironically being your true self has nothing to do with being all about yourself. In the age of the selfie, this is a counter culture idea.  To live a life that is focused on God’s purpose we need to focus on these fundamental truths.  Truths which David Brooks calls the humility code.

From David Brook’s book,  The Road to Character:

Believing that you are called and following that calling occurs when you remember these things:

Number 1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. The best life is focused on increasing excellence of the soul. If you want to live a life focused on God’s purpose we need to work on living a life of purpose, righteousness and virtue.   The question is not are you living happy life, the question is are you living a holy one. Your calling is from God – that is what makes you holy.

Number 2. Although you are flawed, you are blessed. You are both fearfully and wonderfully made.  You are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeking.  You have the capacity to struggle with ourselves and grow stronger, change and live differently.  Perfection is not required, only seeing that you are blessed is.

Number 3. As you struggle with your weakness, humility is your greatest virtue. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.

Number 4. We are all ultimately saved by grace. Grace is accepting that fact you are accepted. Once you acknowledge that you are accepted, gratitude fills the soul and fills you with the desire to give back.  Let’s say life hasn’t worked out exactly has you had planned and it pretty much has become big, hot mess. Remember grace happens. Remember you are loved not for what you do but for who you are.

Number 5. Maturity is not based on talent or gifts. It is earned not be by better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. Remember who you are and act like it.

If you want to live into your calling, think on these things.

I do not know what your calling is – but I am clear of one thing: that God speaks to each of us and calls our name, and that each of us has been given gifts and a voice to tell our story. It’s not random, or accidental.

You will have moments of clarity when you know why you are here and what truth you serve. When the moments come, they will not be overwhelming and all powerful, rather they will come like a hummingbird to your window, like a shooting star in the night sky, like the ocean mist on your face, and you will smile and you will know peace.  And your life will be complete.

Amen.

 

 

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LENT III:  Symbolic Act: Potter’s wheel/Making pinch pots

Sermon Title: Being Molded

Jeremiah 18:1-11

We have in our house a shelf that is designated to pottery art projects that have taken place over the years. Some are pinch pots, some are little animals, and some are more in the nature of what would be described as “modern art.”

We had a good friend in Iowa who was a potter. His studio was in his garage and sometimes he would have us over and show us how he would transition from a big block of grey clay into a beautiful piece of pottery.

He would talk about the process of kneading, centering, opening, pulling, shaping, and reshaping, firing, and trimming the clay into a beautiful vessel. Often a piece would not come out perfect.  Sometimes there was a bowl that was not balanced, or there was a slight crack in a vase.  Sometimes he would change his mind and rework the clay into another form, pounding it down, and starting over again.  Sometimes what he visioned in his mind was not his final product.

One day, a long time ago, God told the prophet Jeremiah to go to a potter’s house. Jeremiah did as he was told. There he saw a potter, working on his kiln.  God used the potter and his clay as a symbol.  He used it as a teaching moment.  He said, “watch the potter – notice how the artist works”

Jeremiah watched the potter. The potter made a vessel and it spoiled in his hands, so the potter had to start over again.  “Now,”  God asks Jeremiah,

“ Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? “

God says, I am the potter, and we are all a block of clay. We are in God’s masterful hands and God can work us just like a potter works a block of clay.

Now on the one hand we can take comfort that we are in God’s hands – but on the other hand, just like a potter who can change his mind on what he wants to do with his vessel, so too can God, change his mind. God says, “if evil is done in my sight, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do.” But, God goes on to say, as the master potter, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

God keeps kneading us, centering us, opening us, pulling at us, shaping and reshaping us pushing evil out of us and creating us in his vision.

God keeps working on us, until we surrender, repent, give way and adapt. God can and does use all of us.

One preacher put it this way,

“If you don’t think that God can use Jeremiah’s metaphor of a potter to change things around to those who obediently let God remold them, consider this:

Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old,

Isaac was a daydreamer, Jacob was a liar,

Leah was homely, Joseph was abused, Moses had a stuttering problem, Gideon was afraid, Sampson had long hair and was a womanizer, Rahab was a prostitute, Jeremiah and Timothy were too young,

David had an affair and was a murderer,

Elijah was suicidal, Isaiah preached naked,

Jonah ran from God, Naomi was a widow, Job went bankrupt, John the Baptist ate locusts and wore a scratchy shirt, Peter denied Christ, the disciples fell asleep while praying, Martha worried about everything, the Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once, Zaccheus was too small, Paul was too religious, Timothy had an ulcer … AND Lazarus was dead!

So today, we remember that we are in the hands of God, who molds us and uses us in spite of ourselves.

Today our symbolic act is to take a piece of clay in your hands and to feel the texture and molding around a little mirror, which reflects your image. Imagine you are the clay and God’s hands are surrounding you, molding and shaping you. At the end of the service, leave your clay on the table and we will add it to our mosaic.

Now as you work your clay, I want to talk about how beautifully imperfect we all are and the fact that all of us from time to time need to be pounded down into a ball and reshaped again and again.

We live in a society that focuses and celebrates achievement, excellence and perfection and we forget to teach that success is not in the winning, it’s in the failing. It is so important to fail.  Only by failing can we be molded into what God wants us to become.

When Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player in history, was a sophomore in high school, he tried out for the varsity basketball team but was rejected by the coach for being too short. He once said:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the win­ning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Pete Athans is a famous mountain climber who has reached the world’s highest peak, seven time. He said, “I learned how not to climb the first four times I tried to summit Everest. Failure gives you a chance to refine your approach. You’re taking risks more and more intelligently.” In his case this meant streamlining his team and choosing less challenging routes for his first successful ascent, in 1990. “ If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation,” says Athans. “Wanting to exceed your grasp is the nature of the human condition. There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”

Here are some stories of other failures:

Charlie Chaplin was told he was non-sensical and was rejected from Hollywood.

Socrates was called a moral corrupter of youth and sentenced to death.

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four or read until he was seven, leading teachers to believe he was mentally impaired.

Marilyn Monroe lost her first contract with Columbia because she was told she was not pretty or talented enough.

Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper because he was told he lacked imagination and good ideas.

Thomas Edison was both hearing impaired and fidgety. He only lasted three months in school where his teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He eventually was home schooled by his mom. In talking about his invention of the light bulb, he said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” – Thomas Edison

Vincent VanGough was a manic-depressive. He could barely function half the time. He never saw success in his lifetime, but his work is often regarded as the greatest painting ever done by any human on earth. Because of this, his name has become a war cry for artists around the world who have been repeatedly rejected and sidelined.

“Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.” – Vincent van Gogh

The next time you fail, rejoice that you are in good company and figure out what you achieved in your failing.

Now, we believe that God not only has his people in his hands, we believe God has the church in his hands. God, the potter is kneading we the church. God centering us, opening us, pulling at us, shaping and reshaping us pushing evil out of us and creating us in his masterpiece. Now the church is a stubborn piece of clay to work with – it does not easily adapt to the image that God intends. You will remember the story of the Israelites who came out of Egypt. In the Book of Numbers Moses sends scouts to see the promise land where God wants them to go and the scouts come back and one of them says, “I think it looks good, let’s settle there” and the other 11 say “no way, it’s not safe enough, we will be eaten alive there.” And they begin chanting “Egypt, Egypt take me back to Egypt.” Most of them had never been in slavery and or they forgot what slavery was like – so Moses prays, “please God, they may not want to go forward, but they can’t go back to the way things were.” So God says, “o.k. we will not go forward or back, I will have them wonder in the wilderness for 40 years until all of the complainers die off and then we will take them into the promise land.” And that’s what happens. The wonder until they are willing to change.

The church has to be willing to move into the future that God wants for it and cannot go back to a past that may or may not exist. The only way for the church to succeed is for it to be willing to fail.

Thom Rainer wrote a book entitled “The Autopsy of a Dead Church” in which he pointed out 11 elements that brought a church to its ultimate decline and death. He later wrote the antidote to those elements. Here is the reshaping that must take place for church’s to live:

  1. A leader must rise and be willing to lead the church toward radical transformation regardless of the personal costs to him.(or her) That leader is typically a new pastor in the church, but it does not have to be.

  2. A significant group in the church must admit that they are desperate for help. The significance of the group could be their sheer size; for example, they could be a majority of active members. Or the significance could be the influence of those in the group rather than the number. This group must lead the church from denial to a painful awakening to reality.

  3. That same group must confess guilt. They failed to reach the community. They held on to the idolatry of yesterday. They were only comfortable with “our kind of people.” They saw the church to be a place where their needs were met and personal preferences catered.

  4. The group must have an utter, desperate, and prayerful dependence on God. They can no longer look at the way they’ve always done it as the path for the future. They must fall on their faces before God and seek His way and only His way.

  5. The church must be willing to storm the community with love. The church can’t assuage their guilt by having a food and clothes pantry where community residents come to them once a week. Members must go into the community, love the unlovable, reach out to the untouchable, and give sacrificially of time, money, and heart. The community must be amazed by these church members.

  6. The church must relinquish control. If the church reaches the community, the community will come to the church. They may be poorer. They may have different colors of skin. They may speak differently. They may have a radically different culture than members of the church. If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church. This attitude is radically different than welcoming the outsiders to “our church.” It is an attitude that says it is now “your church.”

God sent Jeremiah to the potter’s house and said “look here, I am like this here potter. See how he keeps at it? See how he keeps shaping and reshaping? So too I will keep working on my people.”

I think that for whatever reason we often think we are put on the shelf. That God is done with us and has moved on to a new project. Either because we tried and failed, or because we are too old, or too poor, or too rich, or too committed or too tied down, or too far gone, or too addicted, or too stressed, or too in debt or too young

Rest assured God is not done with you. He has you in his hand, let him mold you into the creation he has envisioned for you to become, and be not afraid. Amen

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LENT IV:  Symbolic Act. White cloth/marker

Sermon Title: Being Vulnerable

Jeremiah 8:1-11

This is our Fourth Sunday studying and reflecting on the prophet Jeremiah. And today we turn to Jeremiah’s lament. Laments are essential prayers that are found throughout the Bible. Prophets lamented, psalmist lamented, Jesus lamented. A lament is an honest prayer, in which we come before God and say, “Dear God, this really stinks. It hurts. It’s not fair. I don’t understand. Make it go away. Explain to me, God children with cancer. Actually just explain cancer. Explain to me God, Father’s who die from heart attacks. Explain to me God, why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad? God you are God and I am not, so make this pain go away.”   There are times in the Bible when the people lament before God and there are times in the Bible when God laments for his people. Today is such a day.

The Israelites were in exile in Babylon.  They had once known a good and prosperous life.  They had once worshiped with joy in their own home town.  Now they lived as captives in a foreign land, victims of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of their land.    Jeremiah believes that the people have brought this on themselves. They have sinned, gone through the motions and forgotten God.

Today, God laments for His people. Jeremiah writes.

Bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs; 2and they shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have followed, and which they have inquired of and worshipped; and they shall not be gathered or buried; they shall be like dung on the surface of the ground. 3Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, says the Lord of hosts. The Blind Perversity of the Whole Nation

4 You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord: When people fall, do they not get up again?    If they go astray, do they not turn back? 5 Why then has this people* turned away    in perpetual backsliding? They have held fast to deceit,    they have refused to return. 6 I have given heed and listened,    but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness,    saying, ‘What have I done!’ All of them turn to their own course,    like a horse plunging headlong into battle. 7 Even the stork in the heavens    knows its times; and the turtle-dove, swallow, and crane*    observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know    the ordinance of the Lord.

How can you say, ‘We are wise,    and the law of the Lord is with us’, when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes    has made it into a lie?  The wise shall be put to shame,    they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word of the Lord,    what wisdom is in them? Therefore I will give their wives to others    and their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest   everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest    everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,    saying, ‘Peace, peace’,    when there is no peace.”

This morning, our focus in worship is about naming our sinfulness, confessing where we fall short, and asking for forgiveness. What would Jeremiah have to say about our faithfulness to God today? What lament could we imagine God crying out on His people today?

This morning, the banner bunch as provided for us a cloth. I invite you now to take that cloth and a marker and write on it a prayer, a word, a confession – maybe it’s greed, jealousy, anger, distrust.  Write that word down now and ask God for peace and a clean heart.

….

Later this morning we will ask you to drop your marked cloth in a basket in the back of the room and you will be given a clean one, as a reminder that you can be made clean and whole through the grace of Jesus Christ.

The story for us does not end on the banks of the Babylonian, Our story is one that is set with one who came to carry the burdens of the world. There is Jesus. So our second half of our sermon this morning will be a play called the Ragman, by Walter Wangrin.  It is the story of a savior who carries our wounds and died for the sins of the world.    As you leave you will you’re your cloth in a basket and be given a new one.  To remind you that Jesus said, “come to me all you who are heavily burdened.  Believe in God, Believe also in me.”  Let us not take the sacrifice of Jesus lightly.  There is a Catholic story that St. Bernard asked our Lord which was His greatest unrecorded suffering, and Our Lord answered, ‘I had on My Shoulder, which I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound, which was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men.  Honor this wound with thy devotion….’”

One of my friends wrote the other day:

I have been thinking about the wounds people carry, those unbearable weights that take their toll on our bodies and hearts.  I think of the old but not elderly woman who complained for months to her doctor about a cough, and when he finally got around to taking her seriously, discovered that cancer had taken over.  She was told she has only weeks to live. It is a wound of not having been taken seriously, as if facing death were not wound enough.

I think of the acquaintance whose young nephew has leukemia, his wearing those large, dark-ringed eyes and bald head of children living with chemo and cancer, her bearing worry and hope at the same time, the soul-vertigo that causes.

I think of that parent in Nigeria, those last shards of hope disintegrating, living in fear of Boko Haram and knowing that rage will only cause more trouble.

I think about the invisible responsibilities people choose to bear – the responsibility of caring for a brother who is mentally ill and a hoarder, who could at any moment be thrown out into the streets.  The young mom, a professional in a high-profile position, diagnosed with breast cancer and having to be the gracious face of positivism and faith when maybe, inside, there is terror and an absence of God.  The many who have put their hope and trust in the church only to have that trust broken in ways they believe can never, ever be mended.

People carry so much.  It takes a toll.

There’s the other weight, too – the weight of not being able to do one damn thing about the suffering.  It’s a secondary weight that is as heavy as the primary one, maybe: the weight of being left behind, alone; the weight of being powerless, the weight of not having stopped some part of the tear in the fabric of the world.

  • Beth Merrill Neel, on her blog , Hold Fast to What is Good.

Our Roman Catholic friends have a prayer, a novena the shoulder wound of Christ – the wound caused by the weight of the cross he was forced to carry.

O Loving Jesus, meek Lamb of God, I a miserable sinner, salute and worship the most Sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so tore Thy Flesh and laid bare Thy Bones as to inflict on Thee an anguish greater than any other Wound of Thy Most Blessed Body. I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain and by the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross to be merciful to me, a sinner, to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins, and to lead me on towards Heaven along the Way of Thy Cross. Amen

Ragman by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

(play presented by Senior High Youth)

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. hush now, and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: ‘Rags!’ Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

‘Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!’

‘Now this is a wonder,’ I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, signing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

‘Give me your rag,’ he said gently. ‘and I’ll give you another.’

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.

Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.

‘This is a wonder,’ I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.

‘Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!”

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.

‘Give me your rag,’ he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, ‘and I’ll give you mine.’

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood — his own!

‘Rags! Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.

The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.

‘Are you going to work?’ he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: ‘Do you have a job?”

‘Are you crazy?’ sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket — flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.

‘So,’ said the Ragman. ‘Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.’

So much quiet authority in his voice!

The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman — and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

‘Go to work,’ he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I need to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.

The little old Ragman — he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I waited to help him in what he did but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he signed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.

Oh how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope — because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know — how could I know? — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.

Light — pure, hard, demanding light — slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: ‘Dress me.”

He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

 

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LENT V : Symbolic Act, Signs of Hope

Sermon Title: Being Hopeful

Jeremiah 32

I have recently become obsessed with a book by Alfred Lansing, called Endurance.

It is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in 1914 and the subsequent struggle for survival endured by the twenty-eight man crew for almost two years. I is one of the most amazing adventure stories ever told.

 The vision to cross the Anarartica was risky to say the least, and fool hardy for anyone with common sense. Shackleton had made the attempt two other times before, but had to turn back to do to illness. He perseveres, finds financial backers to back his ship and expedition and then sets out to find his crew. This is the advertisement he placed in the London newspaper in 1914.

“MEN WANTED: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 

Now one would think that such an honest and unappealing advertisement as this would result in little interest, but on the contrary, Shackleton had to turn people away. People wanted an adventure.

You know, every year around nominating season we bang the bushes hoping and praying for individuals to respond to the call of ministry and often we do a soft sell and then throughout the year we look for Sunday school teachers, greeters, coffee servers, and ambassadors. And we sort of walk this balance between begging and sugar coating. But what if we said:

 Wanted, committed disciples of Jesus Christ to discern the future of his church on the corner of 106th and Rangeline. Long meetings, difficult decisions and no pay. Assurance of fulfilling your calling and using your gifts to build the kingdom of God guaranteed.   Would you be up for an adventure?

Shackleton had a vision that was greater than what he knew was right in front him. His vision was cross the Antarctic and the fact is he had more uncertainties than assurances. He had far more reasons to believe he would fail than succeed.   He came equipped with a capable crew and resources, but he could not predict the weather, or the formation of the ice, or the disease of men. He knew what he was set out to do, but he had no assurance that he would succeed.

I love this book because of the adventure, but I also love it because it reminded me of Orchard Park and the journey we have been on. Next week I go to Chicago to defend my doctoral thesis. It’s the final step, in a very long process. The thesis is the story of Orchard Park. The title of the thesis is “Raising Anchor: Leading a congregation through transformational change.” Throughout the paper I refer to Orchard Park as a huge ship, an ocean liner, and the paper is about process of becoming unstuck and moving out into new waters. As we have worked on raising our anchor and moving out to sea, I have been drawn to stories about leaders who were risk takers. Leaders like Shackleton and Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s situation is a perilous at Shackleton’s:

In 588 B.C.E., during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah found himself imprisoned in the royal palace of  King Zedekiah of Judah. He had been charged with desertion  and treason and insurrection. And on some level, the charges had merit. Jeremiah had been forcefully pleading for Israel to turn from their ways. He saw the gathering storm of Babylon coming from the north. He spoke God’s word of judgment and divine condemnation of social injustice and idolatry. So, King Zedekiah had good reason to lock Jeremiah up in the palace. Jeremiah simply didn’t tow the royal line.

But then in Jeremiah 32, with war raging and despair undoubtedly growing, Jeremiah gets a new word from God. And this word is different. This word is in regard to some family business. A plot of family-owned land needs to be purchased. And by the right of redemption, a law found in Leviticus 25 which prevents the loss of family property, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, asks the prophet to buy the family field in Anathoth. It is an absurd request. It is not the time to invest in real estate. It is not the time to invest in the future. It is a time to panic about the present. War is raging. Terror is threatened on all sides. Exile is coming. For Israel the future looks bleak.

Now I do not have a degreee in real-estate – but I do know that there are two things that matter when deciding whether or not to buy property and the first is:

Location. Location. Location.

Jeremiah is being offered land that is currently under Babylonian rule. It’s a war zone. Furthermore the entire city is being plummeted. The bottom has fallen out of the housing market.

Hardly the time to buy property.

The family farm was under Babylonian control.

Verse 9-12 he scrapes together a down payment.

Goes through the settlement.

Buy a field in the possession of enemies.

Why? What good reason?

  1. The Lord told him to do it. – I knew this was the word of the Lord.
  2. Bold Faith
  3. Hope

Jeremiah says in verse 15 that he has bold faith and great hope that while things are  going to hell in a handbasket today, some day Houses and fields and vineyards will be restored. Like Shackleton he had a vision beyond the present  moment.

When we are faced with a hard decision, a bold decision – it’s easy to let the “what if’s” get in the way. Psychologist call this the guardians of ideas –  They protect us from failing and succeeding.

There’s a great line in the 1985 movie, Back to Future in which George McFly decides not to ask the girl who is supposed to be his wife because he says, “What if she turns me down, “I just don’t think I can handle that kind of rejection.”

Or you might remember the scene in Field of Dreams when Ray tears down his cornfield to put up a baseball field, because he hears a voice that tells him to do and his brother in law says, “Ray, you are broke. Sell now or you lose everything.

You will be evicted” But James Earl Jones says, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Now here’s the reality, life is not the movies and we don’t all have James Earl Jones on our front porch to give us advice, or a time machine to see the past or the future. We have mortgages, and illness and taxes, and grades and decisions to make.

Moreover, as one elder put this week as we were praying – the world is just crazy. The unfathomable violence, painful racism, hunger for food and clean water is overwhelming.

Do we sit in the prison of our own worry and doubt about the shape of the world, or do we make a radical statement of hope?

You know, last September there was a lot of hope around here.  We had a summit, a discovery and dream summit in which the congregation said, we want to do something different. We want to lighten up our walls and look more inviting. We want to engage with this community – with our neighbors in authentic ways.  We want the congregation to identify and live into their spiritual gifts. We want to expand our hands on mission right here in this city, for this city.

And so, those ideas have evolved and a strategic plan has been created in the weeks after Easter you will learn the first steps we will be taking to put those visions into action.

They are all risks. We don’t know for certain if we will succeed. They may not work. We may have to change course along the way, or throw somebody over board – just kidding…It will require bold faith and great hope.

But here’s what I don’t believe. I don’t for one second believe we are on the titanic. I don’t for one second believe that we are alone at sea. I don’t believe for one second believe that God is not guiding us into new waters.

So today our symbolic act is about hope.   And the question is not what do you hope for – the question is, what does God hope for you?  What is God’s hope for you?  What is God’s hope for this church?  What is God’s hope for our community?  What is God’s hope for our world?  Be bold enough to ask God what it is God is hoping for.  Take that yellow piece of paper and write down that hope.

Does he hope you buy a field?

Does he hope you take a risk?

Does he hope you love your neighbor?

What is the hope God has for the world?

Be bold enough to ask God that question.

Have enough faith be believe that God has an opinion.

Have enough hope to believe that God’s vision can be a reality.

During communion today, I invite you to come forward and before remembering the you have been given the bread of life and cup of salvation – listen to God, name the hope you believe God has for you and the world – lay that hope on the table.

One final word, from another person who had a vision for the church at time, when they wondered what in the world was happening. That person is Paul – who wrote to the church and Rome and gave this vision when things were looking bleak:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time nare not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us….For yin this hope we were saved. Now zhope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we await for it with patience.

Thanks be to God. Amen

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Whole Hearted People

This is the first of a three-part series on the topic of trust.  Over the course of the past month our congregation has had various discussions on trust.  We have looked at our hymns and contemporary music and explored all of the places trust is part of a Biblical story.  Once you start looking, you see that trust is everywhere! 

SERMON, MATTHEW 14:22-33

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“I love you with all of my heart.”  That’s what my mother would say.  “I love you with all of my heart.”  To which I would reply, “do you love Joanie and Rachel (my sisters) too? “Yes,” she would say.  “With your whole heart?” I would ask.  “Yes,” she would reply.  “How many hearts do you have?” I would challenge.    How many people can you love with your whole heart?  And how can I trust what you are saying to be true?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about makes sacred communities of faith thrive and what causes them to die, and I believe the most important foundation of what makes sacred communities flourish and what can cause them to fail is trust or lack thereof.   So this led me to ask, “What makes people trust and what makes people mistrust?”  It’s funny, when you ask people to talk about trust, they usually tell stories of distrust.  Someone once said that  “trust is like clean air:  you don’t recognize it, until you don’t have it.”

About 13 years ago, before children, our home was robbed.  It was one of the most violating moments we had ever experienced. The idea that someone had gone through our home, ransacked our closets, obviously looking for our diamonds and emeralds, made us feel unsafe in the very place we should have felt safest.  After that awful day we purchased a security system and for a while felt afraid when we came home from work alone.   We had lost a trust we had previously taken for granted.

I’m sure you can all think of times we have either been the victim or the violator of trust.

“You said you would pick me up and you forgot!”

“I told you that in confidence.”

“How long have you been keeping that from me?”

Did you eat the browning I was eating?”

The thing about losing trust is that it makes us feel unsafe and when we feel unsafe, we feel afraid and when we feel afraid, we feel vulnerable.

And nobody ever wants to feel vulnerable.

Vulnerability is like those dreams you have when you show up at work in your pajamas, or worse. Vulnerability is the moment people see how human, how imperfect, how normal you are, and you risk being judged, unaccepted and unloved.

Vulnerability is like being in a major storm and risking drowning to make sure that the person you trust most in the world is out there.

I hate feeling vulnerable.  I will do just about anything to stay in control of my environment and look like I have my act together.

I imagine I am in good company.

Peter was an accomplished fisherman and was used to maneuvering through big storms.  He could maneuver himself through rough waves while digging his ores in the tumultuous waves.   Storms came and went and he always lived to tell the tale. That’s just how life was as a fisherman, you learned to ride out the storm.  Nevertheless on this particular night, just before dawn, a storm was raging and they had to have the disciples out to sea and they need to have their wits about them. I imagine that their survival skills were in full throttle and they are using all of their abilities to stay alive. Suddenly this figure appears on the water and that scares them to death. They immediately think it is a ghost and they scream in terror.

The ghost speaks and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The ghost does not say who he is, only to “take heart” and to not fear. Those lines are enough for Peter to wonder if it is Jesus and so Peter challenges him and says, “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”

Does Peter trust the ghost? No.

Does Peter trust Jesus?  Yes.

Does Peter know it’s Jesus? No

But Jesus tells him to “come” and  Peter obeys the command and Peter steps out of his boat.

Peter abandons the thing that keeps him safe and does something life threatening.  He jumps into the water in the middle of a storm. And once he’s out of his security he sees how bad the storm really is and then he gets really afraid, panicky even and he starts to sink.

You know, you don’t have to be a sailor to be in a storm or be really afraid.

We have all had our moments when then winds pick up and we have been in stormy seasons in our lives.

You get a call in the middle of the night. It is your worst nightmare confirmed. Your son is at the hospital. There has been an accident. The car is totaled. “Come right away,” they say. And when you ask how he is doing they only tell you to hurry. And you strain against the oars and the water seems to be rising, and you cry out in fear and despair, “Jesus, are you for real or you just some ghost?”

Your place of business is having to cut costs and they decide to lay you off and you are three years to retirement and this was not part of your plan. A child gets sick, a car get sideswiped, an accident happens. As you strain against the oars and the water rises, and you cry out in fear and despair, “Jesus are you feel real, or are you just some ghost?”

Let’s be clear, we don’t go find the storms, storms come to us and when that happens we need all of our mind, body and spirit and get through it. We certainly don’t have time to pray, we have to get out of debt. We definitely don’t have time to call on Jesus, we have to get to the doctor. We definitely don’t have time to get out of our comfort zone, we have to protect yourself.

Every time you make a leap of faith, or make a decision under the foundation of believing that you are walking toward Jesus you will realize that you are really vulnerable, and when you realize how vulnerable you are, be prepared to sink, because you are a human being and human beings don’t walk on water.   Don’t try this at home. Human beings are vulnerable.

All human beings are vulnerable. Not all human beings believe they are loved and accepted for their vulnerability. Some human beings embrace their vulnerability, take heart and do not fear.

Writer and researcher Brenne Brown calls these people “whole hearted people.”

She asks the question, “What separates the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those that don’t?”

Brenne found that whole-hearted people had three things in common:

  1. Courage –  “A strong sense of courage.  … They had the courage to tell the story of who they are with their whole heart … These folks had very simply the courage to be imperfect.”
  2. Compassion“They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.”
  3. Connection – “And, the last was they had connection.  And this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity.  They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were, which is, you have to absolutely do that, for connection.”

The other thing that “Whole Hearted” people have in common is “They fully embraced vulnerability.  They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating, they just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say I love you first. … The willingness to do something where there are no guarantees. … The willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. … Be willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

The church needs to be place where we practice being whole-hearted. It needs to be a place where people believe that they are worthy of love and belonging. It needs to place where people have the courage to show their imperfections, show compassion and be authentic. Moreover it needs to be a place that embraces vulnerability. A place filled with whole-hearted people.

So that when the storms come. And God knows they will come, we can step out,whether the storm and be saved. Jesus said, “Trust. Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. I love you with all my heart.”

 

The Messy Church – Sermon on Acts 2:42-47

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I’m not sure I fully believe it. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure I fully believe Luke when he describes the early church. It’s not that I don’t believe that they broke bread or sang songs or grew in number, it’s just I think our memories are biased, and I think Luke’s memory has become idyllic.

It’s why you have a second baby, because some how your brain makes you forget the child-birth, the sleepless nights, the colic, the poopy diapers and all you remember is that little baby and you think, “ it wasn’t that bad, let’s have another one.” How quickly we forget.

We do that with vacations and holidays. We only take pictures of everyone smiling, we don’t take pictures of the temper tantrums and bad traffic. Thus our memories of the event are slanted to the ideal experience and not the actual one. nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but life is messy.

We do that in the church a lot. “Remember the days when the sanctuary was full, the children all knew the Bible by heart and everyone loved each other and everything was perfect?

I think that is what Luke is doing in the book of Acts. The Book of Acts is the one book that tells the story of how the disciples formed the church after Jesus was resurrected. It tells the story of how the disciples created a sacred community. I imagine that Luke wrote this with future communities in mind and so on there best days this is what the church looked like:

They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed where together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

The church in the Book of Acts was a community of people who ate together, treated each other with kindness and generosity, and shared what they had. Their compassion toward each other was contagious and their hospitality toward each other attracted attention by people who were not part of the community. Scholars tell us that they had a radical openness and that their hospitality and inclusivity was so noticeable and controversial and impressive. People who never ate together, rich and poor, men and women, clean and unclean, moral and immoral, all were welcome. That’s the ideal picture. Sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t.

This morning is called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s the Sunday that while we are told this story of the ideal church, also remember we are sheep, which is a pretty humble image. We’d all like to believe we are a little more than sheep.

There is a story of a minister who had all the kids in the congregation up front on the steps for a short children’s sermon, and it was on the 23rd Psalm. He told the children about sheep, that sheep weren’t smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd’s job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals, and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.

Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, “If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?” He was pretty obviously indicating himself. A silence of a few seconds followed. Then one boy said, “Jesus. Jesus is the shepherd.”

The young minister, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, “Well then, who am I?” The child frowned thoughtfully, and then said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.”

This was not the ideal children sermon. But it was the ideal message. We all need to remember who is really in charge and who truly is the shepherd.

It is hard for us to think of ourselves as the sheep, to relinquish control, but if we do suspend our skepticism for a moment and actually do think of the image of sheep . . .

 All sheep need a shepherd. If we want to spiritually mature people, we begin with the premise that spirituality happens in the most humbling of circumstances.

I used to think that the ideal spiritual person only prayed on mountain tops or by the sea or in monasteries. I used to think that in order to really be a deeply spiritual person I would need to leave the world behind and enter the peaceful quiet world of some other place. I used to think that in order to have prayer time with God I would need lots of space and lots of quiet. I used to think I knew something about God and spirituality and life.

Now I know better. Now I am a mother.

If you want to find me, I am in one of three places, if I am not at work, I am at home, and if I am not at home, I am in my car or minivan schlepping kids from practice to lessons to school has resulted in me imagining myself cruising down the street in a Harley Davidson or a red mustang convertible. As much has I try to keep the it clean and perfect, I find that life gets in the way. A water bottle gets left behind, stinky soccer socks, piano music, pony tail holders and bobbie pins, a leaf from a fall hike, old homework, handouts and art projects seem to be forever being stored there. I try to always keep hand sanitizer, sunscreen, an extra jacket for each kid, a pocket-size Bible, reading material for upcoming sermons and a communion set , just in case. My car in many ways is a reflection of my life – which can often be messy, harried, and in need of a good wash.

Life doesn’t really happen in a monastery or retreat center. Life happens in messy minivans. That is where conflicts are raised, prayers are said, stories are told and routine becomes prayer.

The ideal is overrated, it is in our messy lives where the Holy happens.

In his book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli, puts it this way:

“My life is a mess. After forty-five years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing him in the crowded busyness of my life. I know Jesus is there, somewhere, but it’s difficult to make him out in the haze of everyday life. I want desperately to know God better. I want to be consistent. Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency. Who I want to be and who I am are not very close together. I don’t want to be St. John of the Cross or Billy Graham. I just want to be remembered as a person who loved God, who served others more than he served himself and who was trying to grow in maturity and stability. I have been trying to follow Christ most of my life and the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following. I wake up most days with the humiliating awareness that I have no clue where Jesus is. Even though I am a minister, even though I think about Jesus every day, my following is…uh.. meandering.” Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People Hardcover
by Mike Yaconelli

How about you? Where are you going and who are you following? How do you know you have faith? How messy has life gotten for you. If you have survived twenty, forty, sixty, eighty years of this life, you have survived something. You have overcome adversity, you have known loss, you have experienced a trial or two. There may have been a time when you didn’t know if you were going to make it. Maybe you chose the wrong road, or loved people too much or not enough. Maybe you have followed too much the devices and desires of your heart, and maybe sometimes your heart called you to be brave, kind and honest and you have not followed through. But even still you did not give up. Why? What kept you going? Maybe you remembered that you are a child of God. Maybe you remembered that you were made in the depths of the earth and that the one who created you and knows you by name has journeyed with you. Maybe you remembered that Christ died for you. So that you could live. Maybe you remembered Christ in the disguise of another person, who forgave you, sacrificed for you, loved you without question. Maybe you remembered Christ in those who gave you strength to carry on. Maybe you remembered Christ in the hospitality of the stranger on the street, the kindness of a friend, the compassion of a neighbor.

What we remember about our messy lives matters.

Writer Anna Quindlen authored an essay on being a mom in which she wrote, “One of the biggest mistakes I made as a mother is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of my three children sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 7, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to go on the next thing: dinner bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”

When I meet with family members and we plan a funeral, they come in raw with grief. The best part is when they start telling me stories of their loved ones. They always tell me the stories of them at their best, at their ideal. The stories of their loved one begins to unravel like yarn and they weave a tapestry of stories about the person they loved, what they liked, what they believed, what they learned, what they taught, that healing begins and the person comes to life in the tapestry of memory. And slowly their cracked, grieving souls are filled with healing grace. Of course the person wasn’t perfect. Of course the person lost their way from time to time, but at the moment what matters is where their light most shined. What mattered were the moments in the sun.

Luke was looking back on the 1st Century church and remembering with love it’s days in the sun when people got along and all loved to sing the same hymns. But the truth is the first church was idyllic not because it was perfect, but because it was messy.

I don’t want to be part of a perfect church. I want to be part of a messy church, where people are real and vulnerable. Where people bring their dirty mini vans, and cluttered cars and their honest stories and we sit across from one another and ask questions and listen and learn and pray and cry and laugh and share. This is the ideal. It’s messy and challenging and joy-filled and honest. And it always, always, always relies on one and only Shepherd who leads us through dark valleys and restores our souls.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Road of Transition, Sermon on The Walk to Emmaus

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I would imagine that many of you are familiar with the  prayer written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which has been named the serenity prayer. The original version went like this: “God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Change is a part of life. Change is life. Every day is a new day and as hard as we might try to keep things as they are, things keep changing– I hate it when that happens.  Changes can be small, like they moved the bread isle in the grocery story, they can be annoying, like you have to take your shoes off when going through security at the airport, and they can be life changing, like you will be on a certain medication for the rest of your life.  Change is hard.  Sometimes it’s for the better and sometimes it’s for the worse and sometimes it just is. Some of us are more adaptable to change than others.  Some of us can accept cultural changes like email, texting, Twitter and Facebook and some of us are just fine with our landline, mailboxes, and 8 track 47’s  thank you very much.

These changes are normal, expected and predictable.  The changes that I find more life changing are transitions. Transitions are hard. They leave us vulnerable, unsteady and disarming.  Transitions are always about leaving the past and entering a new normal. It always involves pain, loss, possibility and hope.

They were walking along a road to a town called Emmaus.  It had been a few days, or was it a few weeks, or maybe just an hour had past since that horrible day?  It was hard to say. So much had happened, time was measured differently and they were in a fog.  Too much change was happening to them at once.

There was an arrest, a trial (if you can call it that), a flogging and eventually a crucifixion. It was awful.  He was gone. They heard tell that he had returned but they hadn’t seen Jesus themselves.  So they decided to get out of town for a while. Clear their minds.  There was just too much change all at once.

They journeyed down a road they hadn’t planned on taking after an event that had not planned on experiencing. Ugh. Life didn’t work out as they had planned.

I wonder if they did some bartering. “Maybe if we had done this, this wouldn’t have happened” or some magical thinking, “Maybe if we just escape for a while, everything will return to normal.,” Maybe they were angry, “why did this happen to us?”  Maybe they were grieving, “why can’t things go back to  the way they were?”  They are on a road between the past and the future.  They are on the road of  transition.

As they walk along a stranger shows up and starts listening and asks what they are talking about.

Surprised by the man’s lack of knowledge on Jerusalem’s current events, they see this stranger as the chance to let their story pour out of them.

They tell him the events of the last few days, and their loss of their friend and the rumor that he was alive. And then an unusual thing happens, this unknown companion responds to their story by referring to scripture.  He puts what just happened in the big picture of Old Testament and he helps them remember what the meaning of Jesus’ life and death is all about.

It’s interesting that in dealing with grief and change the unknown companion reminds the travelers of the foundation of their faith. This is the first lesson of this famous story – when you are experiencing a great deal of change and transition in your life and everything is different, remember your foundation.  What do you believe at your core?  What keeps you grounded?  What gives you stability?  No matter what is going on in your life, these things will not change.  If you are in a state of unknown, focus on what you do know.    I have a good friend whose father was dying.  After weeks of holding vigil and watching him suffer, knowing he was going to die, she was at the end of her rope. She went into the hospital room bathroom and sobbed and sobbed.  Suddenly, the words of the Lord’s prayer came to her. She hadn’t said the Lord’s Prayer since she was a child, but suddenly she remembered the words. She prayed it over and over again, and the words provided a healing salve in the midst of great grief. Lesson one, when  everything is changing  rely on your foundation, return to your core beliefs – rely on scripture, prayer and calling on God to keep you grounded and aligned.

As the disciples remember who they are and what they believe,  they start behaving in a manner that reflects their beliefs.   They remember their manners and they invite the stranger to dinner.  They extend hospitality to a stranger.  Even though they are still in the unknowing and  they have been taught. And when they sit down at the table and  Jesus break bread and Luke says,  “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” Lesson number two, Jesus reveals himself when we practice what we believe.

We  have been through a huge transition the past 9 months. Our family is transitioning to a new town with a new life. Orchard Park Presbyterian Church has been on transition steroids for past three years!  Not just changes in the bulletin or in the order of worship or in communication, but real challenging transitions.  The old life has gone a new life has begun and that process is  painful.  There is a reason Paul says, the whole world has suffering in labor pains and Jesus says, “come to me all you who labor” because when you are changing and growing and transitioning, it is painful. So when we as a congregation or as individuals go through transitions, it would be wise for us to remember our foundational beliefs staying strong in our core values and practicing disciplines that remind us that we belong to Jesus Christ.  Breaking bread together, praying together, being hospitable to strangers, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, teaching children, studying the Word, these practices are constant in the midst of change and remind us who we are and why we are here and that Jesus is with us.  We keep our eyes on the practices we believe in, while the changes swirl around us.

This brings us to the third lesson:  God journeys with us, always.  This is what “Emmanuel,” God with us is all about.  This is not some glib Christmas card cliché. This is always the case – God is always with us.  Have you ever gone hiking through the woods and after a while realized that the whole time you have been looking down to the ground, watching out for roots and dips in the earth, for fear of falling, and you realize that you have to consciously make yourself look up.  You have to trust that you will not fall and when you do finally look up you see such glory.  I think walking with Jesus is like that.  We walk along with our face to the ground, thinking, thinking, fretting, fretting, and all along if we just stop long enough to look around we will see something glorious.

In his book The Dance of Hope, William Frey, retired Episcopal bishop from Colorado, recalls how he volunteered to read to an older student named John, who was blind.

One day, Bishop Frey said, I just had to ask him, “How did you lose your eyesight?” “A chemical explosion,” John answered, “at the age of thirteen.” Still curious, Frey asked John, “How did that make you feel?” John responded, with brutal honesty, “Life felt like it was over for me, I felt helpless and I hated God with all my heart. For the first six months, I did nothing but stay in my room and I ate all my meals alone, by my choice. Then a curious thing happened. One day my father entered my room and said, ‘John, winter’s coming and the storm windows need to be up. That’s your job. I want those hung by the time I get back this evening or else.’” The John’s father turned and walked out of the room and slammed the door. John reported that he was so angry that he was thinking, “Who does he think he is? Who does he think I am? I’m blind.” He was so furious, he decided to do it. “I’ll show them. I’m gonna try to do it and I’m gonna be not only blind, but I’m gonna be paralyzed, ’cause I’m gonna fall. I’ll get them.” He felt his way to the garage and found the windows and located the necessary tools.

He found the ladder, and all the while he was muttering under his breath, “I’ll show them. I’ll fall, and they’ll have a blind and paralyzed son. That’ll be great payback.” Eventually, he did complete the goal, the assignment; he did get the windows up before evening.

But the assignment achieved more than that. It achieved the father’s goal as well. John reported that it was at that point that he slowly realized that he could still work and even more so that he could begin to reconstruct his life. As John continued to tell Bill Frey his story, John’s eyes, his blind eyes began to mist. “Seven years later, I learned that something else important had happened that day, that the entire day my father was no more than three or four feet from me.”

Long ago, there was an appearance on Old Emmaus Road. And there are appearances even today.  Sometimes we find ourselves in places we never thought we would be, and we think, “how could this happen?”  and we find ourselves in despair. When that happens, return to what you know. Open yourselves to the ancient words of the Bible, stay committed to prayer, find assurance in those words.  Once you remember what you believe, practice what you believe. Show kindness to strangers, pray for each other,  perform acts of justice…when you do these things, you will suddenly realize that Christ is sitting at your table, your eyes will be opened, and you will recognize him.

Let us pray:

God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Lord Jesus, stay with us. Be our companion on the way. Kindle our hearts and awaken hope that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

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Seeing Through Tears: Easter Sermon on John 20:1-18

iStock_000008712641SmallWhen does Easter happen this year?

It’s a question we ask every year – will Easter come early or late? Will it fall on Spring Break or after the snow birds return from their winter condos. Will it interfere with March madness or final exams?

When does Easter happen this year?

From an lunar perspective, the answer is: Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter is set by the moon and always coincides with the greening of the earth. When the sap rises from the dormant trees and the crocus’ emerge from the hard earth. When life overcomes death, Easter happens.

When does Easter happen this year?

It’s a question that suggests something of the future… which is ironic when we often we think of Easter as a moment in history…as a recorded event that happened long ago to one person-Jesus. We tend to think of the Resurrection as a day in history that we are commemorating. Like a Birthday, or an anniversary. We Easter as something that happened. But, what if we thought of the Resurrection that something about to happen? What if the miracle of the resurrection was that Jesus appeared to us even today – would you believe it if we saw it?

Would we recognize Jesus if he appeared before us today? Seeing that none of us were alive back then, it’s doubtful we would know him by looking at him. But Mary Magdelene knew him. – Surely she would recognize him. She ate with him and learned from him but even she didn’t recognize him on that Sunday morning. Her eyes were too filled with tears and her mind was too distracted with grief.

In the early dawn, as the birds began to sing, before the sun began to emerge over the horizon she walked in the cool of the morning to the place he had been buried. Her eyes stung after a night of weeping, her head pounded from wailing, after she saw him take his final breath, and her body ached for his. At last dawn has come after a night of not sleeping. It felt good to do something…to have a job, a way to make things better, some how. So she gathered the oils and spices and walked in the cool morning where his body lay….. Where his body lay…. Could this be happening? She saw with her own eyes his suffering and death and yet she still could not believe he was truly gone. He was everything to her. He was everything to so many. So many people believed in him and now it was over.

And what good came out of it? Really? Was all of this in vein? Just pretend happiness? The least she could do is pay respect to him in his burial to thank him for what he gave her.

So she walked on.

Even from a distance she could sense that something wasn’t right. Something just didn’t look right – the stone…the stone was moved. Oh God, what have they done?

Can you imagine the desperation.. no, no, no, this is not happening. This is not fair. First they kill him. Then they take him. It must have been like watching him die twice.
Even angels could not soften her weeping. They were there when she worked up her nerve to look inside the tomb, sitting where he had lain. “Why are you weeping?” they asked her.

“Why am I weeping?” “Why I am weeping?!”

“Seriously, you have the nerve to ask why I am weeping?”

Have you ever been incensed with someone’s cluelessness? You have just lost someone you love? Someone who you shared breakfast with, shared Christmas with, shared your life story with and they are gone and the world keeps happening? The mail still comes and the grocery stores are still open and your world has fallen apart and you cannot stop crying. All you see before you are clouded tears, and someone has the nerve to ask you “why you are crying?”

Mary is kinder than I would be. “They have taken away my Lord,” she answered them, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” Mary doesn’t stop and interview them, inquiring why they may be sitting in a tomb… how terrifying. She seems sort of oblivious to the fact that she has just spoken to angels. It’s like she doesn’t see them. That happens when we have lost our faith – we can’t see anything but despair.
She turns around and is startled again. Another man stands there and asks, “Woman, why are you weeping and what are you looking for?”

Mary doesn’t answer the question. She wants answers, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

I love that about Mary. She thinks she can make everything all better on her own. “Mary,” he said to her, and she turned to stare at him. Mary does not see Jesus, until she hears him speak her name.
The very thing she is looking for is right in front of her, if she can just see through her tears.
And once he says her name, she recognizes him, “Rabbouni!” she cried out. “My Teacher!” “Do not hold on to me,” he cautioned her, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

It is interesting that Jesus is concerned about her holding him, when there is no evidence that she was about to embrace him. Could he mean, instead of literally holding him, he means holding him back? Holding him back from where he needed to go? He was on his way, you see. And Mary must be on her way too. He says, don’t stand here and hold me, but go and tell others that I am going to my Father. And here’s the powerful part of this story. The part that gets me every time. Mary walks away from Jesus, the very one for whom she sought and grieved over, she walks away from him, she doesn’t ask for one more day with him, they don’t sit on a rock and chat, she doesn’t even fall to her knees and worship him. Rather, with this amazing faith and resiliency, she lets him go. She turns and walks away, her heart beating with tremendous joy. Through her tears she has seen the face of God.
Easter has happened.

When is Easter going to happen for us this year?

Here’s the thing about Easter. It is not made out of sugar and bunnies. It’s not plastic and it’s not pretend. We can’t pretend we live in a world we don’t live in. Cancer happens. War happens. Violence happens. Injustice happens. Loss happens. And sometimes our eyes can be so clouded by loss and wanting to control what’s happening to us and to our loved ones, that we miss angels standing right in front of us and Jesus asking us what is we are looking for, and calling us by name.

If you were to turn around this Easter morning, and find a familiar but unrecognizable face asking you what it is you were looking for, what would you say? Would you recognize the Lord if he stood before you this morning?
Would you see him?

Can you see him through your tears? Will you be brave enough to turn walk away and tell others that you have seen him?

Easter happens every time you find hope in despair. Every time you find joy instead of fear. Every time you experience healing instead of pain. Easter is not a day we remember. It is a day we live into.
Jesus says to us today, I will be there in your future. There is no tragedy so great that I cannot in some way redeem it, and there is no personal loss so profound that I cannot overcome it, and there is no pain so deep that I cannot bear it with you, and there is no cause so hopeless that I cannot redeem it. When does Easter happen this year? It happens when we see differently that which is already in front of us. That Jesus has gone before us, a head of us, and we cannot hold him back. He’s right out front redeeming, overcoming, enduring, loving. There is no tragedy that Christ cannot redeem. There is no loss that Christ cannot overcome. No cause so hopeless that Christ cannot energize his people to devote themselves and his kingdom earth.

When does Easter happen this year?

It happens every day, every morning you wake up and realize that you are known by name. And that you are not walking towards death, but life. When you see the future in a different way and realize that you do not need to hold on to the past so tightly, because Jesus is holding you. He has walked before you, gone on ahead. He is not here. His is risen. – Now Go. And tell the others .

Thanks be to God.

Climbing Mountains, Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9

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Being a lifelong Midwesterner I have always been in awe of mountains.  As a runner and biker, my friends in San Francisco laugh when I tell them “I am running hills.”  “You don’t what a hill is,” they say.  I have always found myself drawn to stories about mountain climbers and their desire to make their way to the summit.

One mountaineer wrote about his experience this way:

“I truly believe that there is no greater metaphor for life than climbing mountains. The mountains have a way of stripping the mind down to its basic senses and forcing us to live in the moment.  In order to do this we must respect everything around us and maintain balance.

If you guys truly value your lives, then you must live them to the fullest. We have planned this trip for quite some time and have known from the beginning that it would be dangerous. To turn back now is useless. To turn back in the face of a fierce storm or worsening conditions is obvious. We must expect the worst and hope for the best. If we do not summit because we make the decision to turn back, then we will have learned yet another lesson. If we do not summit because we did not try, then we will learn nothing.

I hope we all realize that if we believe mountaineering is about getting to the top of mountains, then we are treading a path of foolery. Mountaineering is about everything BUT getting to the top. It is about teamwork, courage, fortitude, good decision making, determination, etc. Getting to the top is merely the culmination of effort and circumstance.”

This morning in our Gospel reading we hear another mountain climbing story.

In Biblical times when people heard that someone was going up to the mountain to pray, they understood that the person was trying to get physically closer to God.   They knew about mountain stories, because their ancestors had told them about what happened to Moses on another mountain.  They knew that profoundly mystical things happened on mountain tops and so when they heard the Jesus was heading up a mountain to pray, to become closer to God, they knew something significant was going to happen, and indeed it did.

Jesus took Peter and James and John with him and went up on a mountain to get away, to claim some quiet time: while they were there, a miraculous thing happened. They are awakened and discover that Jesus is being lifted into the air and he is glowing in a dazzling white.  The light was so bright that it hurt their eyes. A combination of fear and awe overwhelmed them. They fall backwards wondering what to do. And then they see in the light Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus. Peter, always the outspoken one, made an attempt to respond to all of this by suggesting that they could build three booths there on the mountain as symbolic dwelling places. But instead of getting a response to this impromptu idea, they heard a loud voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” And when the three disciples looked up, the light was gone and only Jesus was standing there. This was the ultimate mountain top experience.

Sometimes on our faith journey, we are given moments when our response to God is “amazement.”  Amazement, awe and wonder – Anne Lamott says when these moments happen our prayer response is “wow!”

“What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath.” Help, Thanks, Wow!: The Three Essential Prayers.

“Wow”  to the miracle of new-born baby.  “Wow,” to the sunrise. “Wow” to the generosity of strangers. I have a good friend who texted me the other day while she was waiting to for her 13-year-old to have an MRI.  He was getting concussions too easily and the doctor was wondering why.  As she sat in the waiting room, she wrote, “you know those little moments when life seems amazing, we need to really cherish them!”  Far too often wow moments are overlooked.

The artist Rapheal was commissioned to paint this ultimate mountain top moment.

The painting on the screen was his last painting before he died at the age of the 37, and was finished by one of his students.

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At the top of the painting is Christ, seemingly floating in the air, revealed as Son of God, with Moses and Elijah floating beside him, clutching respectively the tablets of the commandments and the book of the Old Law. The shining cloud behind them is both taken from the gospel text and a conventional depiction of the divine presence. This is what we think of when we think about the transfiguration.  This sort of out-of-body, ethereal experience that if you weren’t there you might think, “hmm, maybe the altitude was getting to them.” –  When God reveals himself in glory it’s hard to fully articulate the experience unless you witness it for yourself.

Raphael’s painting would have been pretty remarkable if he would have painted this part of the story, but the artist doesn’t stop there. The artist paints what happens next in the Gospel. The lower half of the painting is dark and chaotic.

In the next chapter, after Jesus is transfigured they come down off the mountain and are surrounded by chaos.

There is a boy who has been overtaken by demons and the disciples are trying to figure out how to help him.  In the painting, A chorus of disciples’ pointing hands sets up a strong movement from lower left over to the boy on the right and from him up to Christ, in whom hope for the boy’s healing will be found. The movement starts with a disciple, taken to be Andrew, poring over a large book, which I take to be the Book of Law, echoing that held by Elijah above.

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The book in itself offers no hope.

Amidst all the chaos there is one figure draws our attention; he or she is pointing decisively up the mountain to the transfigured Jesus.

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He points to the One who will come back down the mountain to bring healing…not only for this boy, but for the world God so loved. ”

Jesus doesn’t stay up on the mountain, and he doesn’t want his disciples to stay up there and commemorate the experience either.  No booths – No statues. No memorial wall.  That’s not the point he says.  The point is the glory of God is with you on the mountain and off of the mountain.  At the top of the mountain Jesus says, do not be afraid.  It’s a verse in the Bible that is written over 375 times. Do not be afraid.

When will we obey this commandment?  Jesus came to be  with us in the scary stuff.  He came to be with us in the dark places of our life and bring healing and wholeness to your brokenness.

Today in the liturgical calendar is Transfiguration Sunday – not a Sunday Halmark has done much with.  But nevertheless it’s the Sunday that transitions between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. On Transfiguration Sunday we focus on the glory of God and it’s really beautiful and amazing and all about the Wow factor, but in four days we move to Ash Wednesday.  A day we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. A day we are reminded of our fragility and our brokenness.   A day we remember that we are saved only by the one who came down off the mountain to heal us.

“If we  were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” (Anne Lamott)

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There is a  story of a mountain climber who, desperate to conquer the Aconcagua, initiated his climb after years of preparation. But he wanted the glory to himself, therefore, he went up alone. He started climbing and it was becoming later, and later. He did not prepare for camping, but decided to keep on going.

Soon it got dark. Night fell with heaviness at a very high altitude. Visibility was zero. Everything was black. There was no moon, and the stars were covered by clouds.

As he was climbing a ridge at about 100 meters from the top, he slipped and fell. Falling rapidly he could only see blotches of darkness that passed. He felt a terrible sensation of being sucked in by gravity. He kept falling… and in those anguishing moments good and bad memories passed through his mind. He thought certainly he would die.

But then he felt a jolt that almost tore him in half. Yes! Like any good mountain climber he had staked himself with a long rope tied to his waist. In those moments of stillness, suspended in the air he had no other choice but to shout: “HELP ME GOD. HELP ME!”

All of a sudden he heard a deep voice from heaven… “What do you want me to do?”

“SAVE ME.”

“Do you REALLY think that I can save you?”

“OF COURSE, MY GOD.”

“Then cut the rope that is holding you up.”

There was another moment of silence and stillness. The man just held tighter to the rope. The rescue team says that the next day they found a frozen mountain climber hanging strongly to a rope…
TWO FEET OFF THE GROUND.

We all have our mountains to climb and we all face chaos and fear.  And none of may ever see firsthand as did Peter, James, and John, the glory of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ. That transfiguration experience stands alone. It is incomparable. But that’s all-right. That’s as it should be. You and I have our own mountain, our own story, our own moment when God turns that which is unbearably painful into something meaningful; when God turns the joyful into something absolutely miraculous; when God transfigures the ordinary into an unmistakable revelation of God’s great love for us.

Sometimes  our prayers are nothing short of wow and sometimes they are help and sometimes they are thank you. Thank God, Jesus comes down off the mountain and meets us in our insanity and heals our brokenness. Thank God, God takes us on journeys that gives us moments where we see the glory of God revealed to us so that we may know he love.  Thank God,  God is with us when we are overwhelmed by his presence and when we are overwhelmed by life.

The miracle today is not that Jesus rose in the air and became dazzling white and we are reminded of his holiness.

The miracle today is that he comes to the earth, into the chaos of our lives and  provides healing.

Whatever mountain you are climbing today, look for moments to be amazed and say wow.  In your moments of fear, pray help me. And in your moments of healing pray thank you.

Dear Friends, know this – whatever mountain you are climbing today – whatever challenges you face –whatever it is you are looking for cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, or building of something material.  Whatever you are looking for can only be discovered by a spiritual journey. A journey that is arduous and humble and joyful.  Hear Jesus’ words to you today, “get up and do not be afraid.” Amen.