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Seeing Visions

2 Oct

What a morning!  Baptisms (yes, plural!), World Communion Sunday, new faces in church and a sanctuary full of people.  What more could a pastor ask for?

Today’s sermon – audio is here!

Isaiah 5:1-7

Seeing Visions

Planting a garden begins long before a seed is ever actually planted in the ground. It starts with a vision.

This morning’s scripture comes to us from the Old Testament, from one of the Prophetic Books, the book of Isaiah. The book as a whole is actually not written by one particular prophet, it is a composite work. It was the product and writings of several different prophets who were ministering in the nation of Judah throughout different parts of Judean history. Isaiah is typically split into three parts and the first part, the part that we just heard from, was actual supposedly written by a prophet name Isaiah; Isaiah was an 8th Century BCE prophet.

In many ways, like other nations in the Old Testament, the nation of Judah was kind of a mess. They were, as a people, plagued by conflict, by power struggles and shifts and by mixed messages. The prophet Isaiah himself and the messages he was prophesying were both rejected by some kings and embraced by others; there was not a whole lot of unity throughout the nation.

And yet, the book starts off by saying, “The vision of Isaiah.” Despite the challenges Isaiah faced and knew that he would continue to face, Isaiah had a vision for this nation.

“The vision of Isaiah.” The vision.

What is a vision? Is it simply a prophecy that prophets have? Or is it something more?

Planting a garden begins long before a seed is ever actually planted in the ground. It starts with a vision. Before you plant a garden – or a vineyard, in the case of this morning’s scripture – you have to have a vision. You have to decide what you want to plant, where you want to plant and if where and what you are planting is even conducive to planting and nurturing a garden to harvest. You have to think about what your resources are and where you are in life and develop a vision for the future of your garden.

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard,” the prophet says. Let us see how my vision is unfolding, you might say that he meant.

Unfortunately, the name of this particular piece of scripture is titled “The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard,” not “The Song of the Fruitful Vineyard,” so the vision did not necessarily pan out in a positive and happy-go-lucky way. The vineyard yielded wild grapes that could not be used to make wine. Was that the vision that Isaiah had? Was that the harvest he was hoping to yield?

Now this is a parable, of course. Isaiah was not specifically talking about a vineyard yielding wild grapes and not being able to harvest them. He was talking about the future of the communities that he was ministering to, the unity he was trying to bring and that nations that were still at war with one another.

But the question that he poses afterwards is interesting. “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,” he says, “judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

In other words: What did I do wrong? Was this my fault? Could I have done something different? Was my vision too grand? Should I lower my expectations for next time? How do I move forward? How do I see new visions amidst these bumps along the road?

It is ironic that this passage comes up when it does. This church and many mainline protestant churches in the United States are preparing for their stewardship campaigns. Now I know people don’t like stewardship campaigns – no one really likes when someone asks them for money – but bear with me for a second and hear me out.

I took a class in seminary on nonprofit leadership. I walked into class on the day that we were scheduled to talk about fundraising and I said to my professor, “Just so you know, I hate talking about money, I hate asking for money and I am not looking forward to today’s class.” And he just smiled at me. He said, “I love asking people for money.”

I thought he was nuts. I kind of gave him a strange look so he continued. He told me that it is all about perspective; that he would never fundraise on behalf of an organization that he really did not care about. And by having that rule, he said, you are then really only asking for money for something or someone that you really care about.

The lecture that day was unbelievable. My professor, Dr. Jenkins, captivated me by talking about visions. He said that in fundraising, you should only ever ask people to help you fund something that you genuinely and truly care about; that deep down you have big dreams for – and great visions of for the future. He said that by telling your story, by telling the organization’s story and by telling the stories of the lives that are being changed because of what you represent, you eventually get to a point where you are not asking someone for money; rather you are inviting them to be apart of something very, very special.

So fear not: I am not asking for money. But I am inviting you to see your own vision: Your own vision of this church, of this community of faith and of you and your family being apart of it all. What does that vision look like to you? What is your story?

Planting a garden begins long before a seed is ever actually planted in the ground. It starts with a vision. Building a church, growing a church, reigniting a church happens long before anything concrete is actually visible. It starts right now.

What is your vision for this church?

Would you want to see it grow? Would you like our worship options to expand from our one weekly service? Would you like our Church School to have more resources for new curriculum and supplies? Would you like to see more bible studies and adult education offered? Would you like to see our staff grow?

Would you like more support to be available for youth and young adults as they transition into adulthood? Would you like to have the opportunity to once again travel through our missions programs? Would you like to reach out into the community in new ways? Would you like to see improvements to our building that would enhance our ministries?

What is your vision for this church?

That ‘New Beginnings’ sign is still hanging because now is the time when we can start to have those visions; now is the time when we can get ourselves ready to plant some seeds.

It is not easy. Isaiah prophesied that visions of a fruitful harvest would yield wild grapes that could not be harvested. But in the end, I think Isaiah was wrong. He said, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down,” etc. etc. etc.

If our visions do not turn out exactly the way we saw them at first, do we allow them to be devoured, broken down and trampled? I don’t think so. I think we are called as Christians and as members and friends of this community of faith to allow ourselves to dream big and to see a grand vision. And then we are called to move towards it. To plan, to plant, to pray, to nurture and to be flexible and faithful when we encounter bumps along the road.

So – like I said, I am not asking for money. (Not yet anyway!) I am asking for something a lot more fun. I am asking for you to see visions: Visions of this church, visions of this community and visions of what that means for you. Look long, look far and dream big. It starts with you. It starts with your vision. That will be a great story to tell. What is your vision?

Amen.

Finding Your Christian Self

25 Sep

Good news!  I stayed on two feet during my sermon.

I’m trying to relax the afternoon away – hope you are having a great one!

Audio is here.

Philippians 2:1-13

Finding Your Christian Self

This morning’s scripture comes to us in the form of a letter. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi.

I was leaving the Middle School Youth Group meeting last night when I turned to Bruce.
{Me} Hey Bruce, do you know what Paul’s job was besides being an apostle?
{Bruce} No Sarah, what was Paul’s job?
{Me} He was a baker! You know, because he to go to “fill-a-pie” …
So in all seriousness, Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia; the present municipality of Filippoi is located in East Macedonia near the ancient ruins of Phillipi in Greece.

The Book of Philippians is dated approximately between the years 60 and 62. The Philippians actually sent a messenger, a man by the name of Epaphroditus, to Paul, who returned with this letter to read to the community.

As an aside, the Book of Philippians, Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, is peculiar because of Paul’s relationship to the Philippians. Paul obviously spent much of his life writing, preaching and community building and rarely accepted payment for what did (he actually supported himself by making tents in Corinth).

Paul did, however, make an exception for the Philippians; he took gifts from that community. So some scholars believe that this letter may have been a response to a gift that Epaphroditus brought to Paul from the Philippians.

All of this is to say that Paul had a very special relationship with the Philippians. He genuinely cared for them and this letter comes from a place of love, a place of gratitude and a place of thanksgiving.

This letter is affectionate, it is an expression of the deep friendship that Paul shared and wished to share with the Philippians and it is filled with a call for unity throughout the city. Paul urged the Philippians to be humble with one another and to always, always remember that all of the works that they did were really God working through them. This letter acts as a reminder that sometimes it is not material gifts that are necessarily the most important; rather it is essential as Christians to embody God’s love for others to see and to be touched by.

Paul reminds the church that to be a believer does not mean to be idle, rather it means to be active. In this particular passage, Paul urged the Philippians to imitate Christ: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul said.

Actively imitate Christ – that is what it truly means to be a Christian.

Imitation is a tricky thing. It is not a far cry from emulation or mimicking, which have never seemed like genuine traits in a person to me. Surely, that was not was Paul was talking about, was it? Here is the thing: I do not think that it was.

In my research for this morning’s sermon I came across a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Carol Kerr at the Blue Point Congregational Church in Scarborough, Maine. Kerr is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and is currently a counselor for Psychological and Spiritual Growth in Portland, Maine. Kerr said the following about this passage and about imitation:


We are creatures of conformity. We are inherently imitators of people around us. Imitation is how we learn at every level. We learn to speak by imitating. … Some things we imitate are innocent enough. But, some things are not. … For better or for worse, we are what we imitate. Although we like to pretend to be unique individuals and nonconformists, the reality is about 99% of what we do is imitating someone. Monkey see, monkey do. Each of us is a mosaic of influences resembling many people in our past and present. The question is not whether you will imitate someone but who you will imitate. … Who do you copy? Who do you aspire to be like and to imitate? Most people at some time in their lives aspire to be rich, like a John D. Rockefeller. … Some people will imitate their favorite sports hero. … Women like to imitate beautiful Hollywood stars. There is a new line of lipstick in the store whose colors are named after the stars that wore them.

Kerr goes on to say:

We are here this morning because we are looking for someone to imitate and the best one we can think of is Jesus. … But, how do you imitate the son of God? We all have seen the bumper sticker “WWJD?” Which stands for “What would Jesus do?” How do you answer that question for yourself and in your particular situation. Do what Jesus would do, but what would Jesus do? Do you wear a toga and sandals? Do you grow a beard? Do you observe the Jewish holidays such as Passover, and worship in a Jewish temple as Jesus did? Some people have actually tried these very things. But, they seem to be missing the point. … How do you imitate Jesus. WWJD? What would Jesus do? Even if we are ready and willing, it seems the bar is set impossibly high. We might as well go back to celebrities with pink lipstick.*

So – in response to Kerr’s remarks: What is it going to be? Celebrities with pink lipstick? Togas and sandals? Or are we called to do something much greater than all of that? Are we called to really imitate Christ? Christ, who – as Paul said – was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited; Christ, who took the form of a slave; and Christ, who walked in human form, humbled himself and was obedient even to his death on a cross.

Let’s face it: Kerr is right – Jesus did set the bar pretty high. But that does not mean that we cannot try. In fact, the Christian faith is foundationally rooted in individuals, like you and me, choosing to live a life like the one that Christ led. Christianity would not exist as it does today if it were not for over 2,000 years of individuals waking up every day and trying to imitate Christ in their lives.

I can think of a few people that I personally think have done a good job trying throughout their lives, some of whom were very much in the public eye – Mother Teresa obviously comes quickly to mind – and some who I know in my own life. I think of Miguel Giron, the director of the mission that I support in Honduras, who is the face of hope to the impoverished village of Teupasenti and my friends from seminary, who pushed me to do better, to be better, who pray with me and who pray for me. I am inspired by all of those people – and many more – to try harder to be an imitation of Christ in my own life.

Who do you think of? Who inspires you?

But here is where I urge you to be careful. Imitating Christ and being inspired by those who do does not mean losing yourself. You can strive to imitate Christ and you can be inspired by the people that you think really embody the type of person that Christ called us to be. But do not lose sight of who you are. Do not lose sight of the gifts – the unique gifts – that you, as an individual, bring into ministry and bring into this world. Always seek to honor your Christian self.

I wore this stole this morning, because it is a beautiful image of how small, different and unique pieces that are unlike one another can come together to form something so beautiful. Through our imitation we must still strive to be different.

How, then, are we fulfilling our call to imitate Christ? We know that imitating Christ does not mean finding a cookie cutter model and conforming yourself to fit the mold.

Imitating Christ means embarking on a journey to find your Christian self; to listen for God speaking to you, calling you to act a certain way, to walk down a path laid out for you and to be part of a ministry that you will help to thrive. Imitating Christ does not mean that you should look to your neighbor and mimic their actions or expect them to mimic your actions; rather you should celebrate the unique gifts that you both bring to this church and to this world. Imitating Christ does not mean repeating words that were printed on a page and trying to live your life word-for-word according to the bible. It means trying to understand what those words mean in your life today. It means waking up every morning and choosing to live out the gospel message; to spread the good news and to show a Christ-like face to the people that you meet along your journey.

Amen.

*To see full sermon text, please visit: http://bluepointchurch.org/?p=205

Leaving Our Footprint

18 Sep

I need to get something off of my chest.

I was moving around and hopping from foot to foot while I was preaching this morning (this is actually not the confession, that’s just how I preach) when I caught my heal on my pulpit chair and almost wiped out mid-sermon.

I think I held my composure pretty well, but I like to keep things real on here and felt the need to fess up regardless.

Today’s sermon – I remembered the audio today!  That’s all here.  Enjoy!

***

Philippians 1:21-30

Leaving Our Footprint

I have a confession: I had my sermon basically completely outlined by the end of this week; I had an illustration that I thought was pretty solid and would work well with this particular scripture, the rest I knew would flow and by Friday morning I was in great shape.

So on Friday I snuck away to Connecticut to see the opening night performance of a local production of Shakespeare For My Father, a play written and originally performed by the actor and playwright Lynn Redgrave.

Now some of you know that Lynn was a church member of mine at my church in Connecticut and a good friend of my family. So seeing this play – seeing a character that she based on herself and once played – was meaningful on many levels to myself, to my family and to my extended church family that had gathered in the theater that night.

Shakespeare For My Father is about Lynn’s relationship with her father, Sir Michael Redgrave. Sir Michael played many a Shakespearean roles throughout his lifetime and career and Lynn’s memories and anecdotes of her life with her father are intertwined with Shakespeare’s dialogue throughout the entire play.

Early on in Shakespeare For My Father, Lynn’s character quoted the Bard’s play, As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

As soon as I heard that, I immediately lost track of what was happening on stage and knew I needed to make some changes to my sermon when I returned to Massachusetts.

This morning’s scripture comes to us from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul says to the Philippians, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
Paul said, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”

And Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

So if all the world is a stage – the world we are living in, the world we are present in right now, the world that we are in the flesh in, as Paul said – then what characters are we playing right now, in this world, in the flesh?

Paul said that it is necessary for us to remain in the flesh, that there is work that needs to be done here on earth. Paul said that it is imperative that we remain here and that we continue to share our faith with each other and with those around us. Paul said that we need to live with spirit of outreach portion out what we have abundantly with those in need. Paul said that we should live our lives in a manner worthy of the ministry of Jesus and of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul was saying that there is work that needs to be done right here, right now. And he was saying that we all need to walk in the path of our journey; to play our own part.

When the actor who played Lynn said the words, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” I immediately thought about this scripture, the scripture that I was preaching on this morning. I couldn’t help but think that this – this world that we are living in – is our stage.
And I couldn’t help but think that each of the characters that we are playing are important, that each of the characters that we are playing are different, that each of the characters that we are playing are irreplaceable and that each of the characters that we are playing have the ability to make a huge impact on that stage – on the world.

Okay, okay, I’m sure that somewhere my 9th grade English teacher’s ears are ringing because I doubt that is actually what William Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote As You Like It. But think about it: What character – what role – are you playing in this world? What character – what role – do you want to play in this world?

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t say that as soon as I heard the sentence, “All the world’s a state, and all the men and women merely players,” I thought about the role that Lynn had on my life and on the lives of the people that I love. But here is the thing: Thinking about the role that she had in my life brought so much joy to me in that moment – because I started to think about all of the wonderful ways that she impacted my life while she was here, on earth, in the flesh, on this stage.

And then I started to think about all of the other saints that have come and gone before me. And I thought about all of the wonderful ways that they impacted my life – those who I knew and those who I didn’t know. So many people have impacted my life because of the time that they spent here, on earth, in the flesh, on this stage.

Who are your saints? Who are the people in your lives who have impacted you because of the life that they lived and the footprints that they left behind?

I wonder how each and every one of us might impact the lives of those who come after us because of the lives that we are living here, on earth in the flash, on this stage, because of the footprints we are leaving behind.

Paul said, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that … I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” He is challenging the Philippians – and challenging us today – to strive to do great things, to live out the gospel, to be on a constant quest for hope and for peace here on earth.

If we live our lives in the flesh, if we live our lives for today and if we live our lives seeking to live out the Gospel message then we will leave that footprint for those who come after us to see.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” We are all playing a role in this world in our journeys through life and we will all leave our footprints behind. I think it is important to ask ourselves now, “What do we want those footprints to look like? What paths do we want those footprints to be walking down?”

This scripture text acts as an extravagant invitation to all of us to focus on living in the moment, to be in the flesh and to think about how we can truly walk along a righteous path. This text invites us to think about and look carefully at how the decisions that we are making today are impacting the footprints that we will leave behind one day and to consciously decide what kind of legacy we want to lead.

Every step that we take, every decision that we make, every relationship that we form happens in this moment, on this world, on this stage. But – it also has the ability to impact the lives of so many who will follow behind us. And that is extraordinarily powerful.

What footprint do you want to leave behind?

Amen.

Why We Come

11 Sep

What an incredible morning!  I saw so many faces in church that I haven’t seen in awhile – it was great to hear the choir back, to be with the kids during children’s time and to see a sanctuary full of people.  My heart is full and my cup overflows.

Here’s today’s sermon – and subsequently my reflections on the anniversary of September 11th.  Unfortunately, I got so caught up on Rally Sunday that I forgot to record it!  Eek!  Oh, well …

***

Romans 14:1-12

Why We Come

Several months ago I looked at my calendar and realized that the ten-year anniversary of September 11th would likely fall on Rally Sunday. And to be quite honest, I have had mixed feelings about the timing of things ever since.

Rally Day is supposed to be a time of great celebration; a time of laughter and joy, of eager expectations of new possibilities and of hope for all good things to come. It seems appropriate for me to preach a sermon full of life, jokes, wisdom and passion. And yet – yet – should we be joking and laughing on a day like today?

Now I know there are differing opinions about how to honor an anniversary such as the ten-year anniversary of September 11th. There are people that think we should be somber and mournful, there are people that think we should rejoice in the opportunity to move forward with hope and there are people who are not quite sure what to think. And I think that everybody is right – there is no right or wrong way to respond to a day like today.

So I will start with a story.

Over the past couple of weeks I have spoken with several clergy in the area about what their churches are doing to honor and commemorate the ten-year anniversary of September 11th. And in their descriptions, many of them described the sermons that they preached on Sunday, September 16, 2001, the Sunday that immediately followed the attacks on the United States. And that got me thinking …

I was 16-years-old on September 11, 2001. I was a junior in high school, actually looking for something in my locker in between classes when I overheard someone say that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. As I hustled to my next class, I heard snippets of conversations that made me realize that this was not just an unfortunate accident.

Yet despite what all of this meant for our country, I was worried about something much more personal.

At the time, a good friend of our family was a pilot; he flew for American Airlines and flew the New York to Los Angeles route. When I heard that two planes, headed for Los Angeles, had struck the twin towers, I immediately started to panic that Lou was piloting one of the jets because I knew he was scheduled to be out of town. I made it through my next class, but as soon as the bell rang I shot up, forgot about where I was supposed to go and ran to my father’s office in the music department in a state of hysteria.

My dad, at that point, knew more than I did and was able to tell me that the planes had flown out of Logan and that Lou was safely in California. I think I stayed in the music wing of my school for the rest of the school day. There was something about being near to my father that made me feel safe in the midst of all of the confusion that was happening.

Heather Armstrong, who has authored several books and writes the blog, dooce.com, said the following as she recollected that day, living in Los Angeles at the time:
I immediately got in the car and headed back home because I desperately needed to be with Jon [her husband]. I thought of my family a bit, mostly my mother, but I wanted Jon. If Los Angeles was next on the list, and they thought it would be for the weeks that followed, then I wanted to be with Jon when it happened.

Like Heather and despite my adolescent age of 16, in that moment I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to feel protected, to know that I was safe and I wanted desperately to find something good in the tragedy that was unfolding that day.

And when those memories started to come back to me, I realized that I could not think of a more perfect place to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 than right here, with my church family.

It is Rally Sunday; and what a perfect scripture we just heard as we come back from a summer away and we continue to reignite the spirit of our church community: “Welcome those who are weak in faith … for God has welcomed them,” Paul writes.

This scripture is the perfect example of why we need to understand what is written in the bible within the context that it was written in. In this letter, Paul urged the church in Rome not to despise and/or pass judgment on one another for what they were eating or abstaining from eating. And if we took that literally, it wouldn’t really be that relevant to us. But in Rome, at that time, food was more than just something people put into their bodies; it was a divisive theological point of contention between the Jews and the Gentiles. But Paul was saying, “That’s not what really matters”.

We have those types of issues here. We do not necessarily argue about food, but we do not all agree on everything all the time, we do not always get along and there are divisive issues that are difficult to work through. And I have said it before and I will say it again: It’s normal – and it’s okay. But Paul said, “That’s not what really matters”.

I have a question for you: Why do you come to church? Why do you come to this church?

It is not a trick question, but it is one that I always ponder. And it is one that I would like to attempt to answer today – today, on the ten-year anniversary of September 11th and today, on Rally Sunday.

We come to church because, for many of us, our families live far away and this is our family. We come to church because we want to feel comforted and protected in a world that is fast moving, that is unpredictable and that is oftentimes scary.
We come to church because we are tired and we want to be renewed. We come to church because we crave spiritual nourishment. We come to church because we have questions and are not sure how to seek out the answers. We come to church because we do not want to take this journey through life alone. We come to church because we know that the problems that exist in the world are much to great for us to face as individuals. We come to church because we are inspired by the life and ministry that Jesus had and we want to walk in his steps. We come to church because we feel connected to those who have come before us; those who now watch over us. We come to church because we know – despite the differences that threaten to divide us from our neighbors – we are one; we are united through the grace showered upon us all by God. We come to church because when scary things happen in the world – and they will – we want to be with our family.

Paul urged the church in Rome not to judge one another and I do think that is an important lesson to take out of this text. But I also think it is important to look at why Paul is telling us not to judge each other. Paul says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.”

I cannot think of a better way to honor the lives lost, to represent a beacon of hope for the future and to take a step towards peace on earth than to rally our church back for another year and worship together in harmony.
Peace on earth does not have to be some unattainable, outlandish vision that we can never really achieve. It can come from individuals choosing to come together, to put aside differences and to live as one, united by God’s grace.

We are so lucky to be a part of this community; to love one another, to support one another and to be in ministry with one another. It isn’t always easy. But God is always, always with us on our journey.

I think it is going to be a great year. Praise be to God!

Amen.

What Noah Didn’t Have

7 Sep

I was driving into work this morning and realized that I never posted this week’s sermon!  I was having problems with the audio after church on Sunday and said I would try again but never did.  As usual, audio is here.  Here you go!

Genesis 6:11-22

What Noah Didn’t Have

So … how was everybody’s week?

I think the highlight of mine was probably some point on Thursday morning when I sent Bruce a series of nine text messages explaining the unwritten code of coffee shop conduct when it comes to internet and outlet usage and how a man had broken it at Starbucks that morning and stole the outlet that I was planning on using that morning to work.

When Bruce did not respond in a timely manner I then called my mother to explain it to her over the phone while she was trying to work.I thought I had hit my breaking point.

I invite you all to share yours with each other after church – I think we have reached the point where we can joke about it.

Regardless, this week without power has given me a lot of time to think. I think it is safe to say the same for those of you sitting here this morning in worship. As a society we are not used to living for an extended period of time without simple luxuries like electricity and running water. We are not used to not having answers when we ask questions directly and we are not used to having to wait. We are not used to actually having to trust that things are going to be okay. We are not used to not being able to control the things going on around us.

And as New Englanders, we are not necessarily used to hurricanes either. We are not used to the work that goes into preparing for them. We are not used to waiting and wondering what is going to happen. We are not used to simply not knowing.

Now you all know that I tend to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary. It gives me, as a preacher, focus and direction and it gives us as, a church community, the opportunity to live out the Christian Year and to really experience the seasons.That being said, I threw away the lectionary this week. Because sometimes life and context are more important to preach on; and this week life got a little hectic. I decided to preach on Noah and the flood because there was a question that kept popping into my head over the last week and a half.

And so now I will pose that question for you: Do you ever wonder how overwhelming or frustrating or even scary it must have been for Noah to prepare for such a flood all by himself?

That thought crossed my mind several times as I prepared the church and the parsonage for Hurricane Irene last week and then reacted after it happen this past week. Noah did not have church leaders to converse with as decisions about cancelling meetings, events and worship had to be made. Noah did not have friends offering to help at all hours of the night. Noah did not have family and friends checking in on him through calls, text messages and emails. Noah did not have a consistent flow of media reporting on the storm and the power outages with the latest updates. Noah did not have a governor issuing a state of emergency. Noah was not able to grab a case of water or non-perishable food items. Noah could not access websites and radio stations giving tips on how to best ride out the storm. Noah did not have people whose neighborhoods were recovering more quickly offering water, showers and electricity to charge electronics.

How lucky am I? I have all of those things.

How lucky are we? This past week – despite the frustrations that we all inevitably felt at one point or another – we were blessed with all of those things.

God told Noah to build an ark, to cover it with a roof, to put doors on the side and to add multiple decks to it. God told Noah to bring his family and their families and two of every type of animal in the world onto the ark with him. God told Noah to make sure that there was enough food on the ark to keep everyone alive during the flood. And Noah did all of these things.And he did them without the same kind of support that we all had as we weathered last week’s hurricane.

Hurricane (or Tropical Storm) Irene may have caused us all several inconveniences these past two weeks, but at least we were all able to experience those inconveniences together. We live in a time and age of such vibrant communities and connections with and to our brothers and sisters in faith. With the ability to quickly connect with and to one another through phone calls, text messages, emails, facebook and twitter—outreach and support flow freely like a fast moving river.

A friend of mine who is a pastor in Florida called me the Saturday night before the storm to see how I was doing. It was so wonderful to hear her reassuring voice give me some practical hurricane tips and tell me that everything was going to be okay.

And that was only the beginning. There was not a single day this past week that I did not receive a phone call, an email, a text message or a facebook message either from someone in this community or a friend or family member from near and far checking in on me and checking in on the church.I felt reached out to, I felt loved and I felt completely supported.

And I would be willing to bet that if you all put aside the frustrations of the storm and the lack of power and water and some of the communication issues with National Grid and really, really thought about everything that has gone on over the past week or so, you might feel reached out to, loved and completely supported as well.

There is a community in Taize, France, which is in the eastern region of France, called the Taize Community. The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic order composed of 100 brothers of both Protestant and Catholic traditions. The order focuses on meditation through prayer and song and silence to really connect to God on an individual and personal level. Every year thousands of people visit Taize to experience not only the worship, but also the monastic life of the brothers.

The worship hymns of Taize are very simple and very repetitive. They are written in Latin, but of course have been translated into English. There is one hymn in particular that I kept singing quietly these past two weeks as we prepared for and then reacted to the hurricane. It is called Ubi Caritas et Amor, which in English translates to Where True Charity and Love Abide. The song goes: Ubi caritas et amor,ubi caritas Deus ibi est. That translates to in English:Where true charity and love abide,God is dwelling there; God is dwelling there.

Was God present with Noah as he prepared for the flood? Yes. Has God been present with all of us as we prepared ourselves for and then dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene? Yes. But the difference between then and now is that we could see God dwelling – like the hymn says – through the love and charity extended to all of us by our brothers and sisters, by one another.

We could see God dwelling in every phone call made out of concern for a friend or a family member. We could see God dwelling in every bottle of water or box of food dropped off to someone in need. We could see God dwelling in the hours and hours of overtime put in my police forces and utility workers. We could see God dwelling in the time and energy given to our community by the volunteer fire and ambulance crews. We could see God dwelling in the one member of our household that was not melting and who continuously said throughout the entire ordeal, “It is going to be okay”. We could see God through the relief crews that traveled and are continuing to travel day and night to areas that were affected more than their own.

Even though we were frustrated – I really do believe that we could see visible signs of God all around us this week.

Where true charity and love abide – God is dwelling there, God is dwelling there.God is dwelling here.

Noah waited weeks and weeks and weeks before he finally saw a visible sign of God’s dwelling presence in the olive leaf that a dove brought back to him.How lucky are we that we were able to visibly see God in the midst of everything that went on?

Where true charity and love abide – God is dwelling there, God is dwelling there.God is dwelling here.

Amen.

Life Explained: Thoughts On Grace & Mercy

14 Aug

Today’s sermon was fun to think about. And to preach. There were times when I channeled my inner southerner and almost asked to hear an “Amen!”

Sort of.

Audio is here – enjoy!

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Life Explained: Thoughts On Grace & Mercy

In case you did not hear – coming from the church this week – the screaming and shouting, the running around, the enthusiastic reciting of memory bible verses, the boisterous karaoke and the animated countdown for yet another pie in the face for a good cause, I am hear to tell you that this past week was Vacation Bible School at Rehoboth Congregational Church.

I think we are all a little bit tired.

But it was a great week. Kilian, you coordinated an unbelievable event; parents and volunteers, your time and talents fueled the enthusiasm that was needed throughout the week and teen helpers, thank you for your hard work and your consistency.

This year’s theme for Vacation Bible School was S.C.U.B.A. – Super Cool Undersea Bible Adventures. The kids looked at Noah’s Ark and the flood, Jonah and the whale, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus walking on water and Jesus calling his disciples to be fishers of men.

I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with the kids each morning before they went off to their classes and then again when they came back to Fellowship Hall to wrap it up for the day. One of the things that we went over their ‘memory verses’, a bible verse that pertained to the day’s lesson that we encouraged them to recite and memorize every day. Each day there was a new memory verse.

On Wednesday morning, I had a really interesting reaction to the memory verse. The kids were getting ready to learn about Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was baptized on the Jordan River by John the Baptist and as Jesus was coming out of the water the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him – like a dove, the Gospel of Mark says. The verse that followed was the kids’ memory verse for the day: “You are my Son, and I love you. I am very pleased with you.”

After we recited the verse a couple of times, I asked the kids what they thought it meant. “Who was speaking?” I asked them. “God!” was the unanimous shout. “Who was God speaking to?” I followed up. “Jesus!” Again – unanimous.

I looked at the kids and I said, “Yes, it was God speaking; and yes, God was speaking to Jesus because Jesus was his son. But do you think that God also says those words to every single one of you because you are all God’s children?”

Silence.

Now let me tell you something, silence was extremely hard to come by this week! But in that moment a connection was made for all of those kids. And their eyes were opened wide and they realized that they, too, were children of God just like Jesus was; that God loves them and that God is pleased with and proud of them.

It is easy to get caught up in ‘our world’. It is easy to get caught up in what is going on here at the Rehoboth Congregational Church, in the Rehoboth and the surrounding areas, in the United Church of Christ, in our families, in the United States and in 2011. There are days when we are focused on survival; there are days when we are focused on how we are going to make ends meet today, how we are going to make worship meaningful today, how we are going to help everyone get along in our present community, how we are making sense of our faith right now. Sometimes it is hard not to get sucked into the vacuum of ‘our world’.

But the Christian Faith does not exist in a vacuum!

In this morning’s epistle, Paul told the church in Rome that he himself was an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. You see at the time there was a movement going through the emerging Christian Church called “supersessionism”. Supersessionism was a belief that the new covenant in Christ that was made, the belief that salvation came through Jesus Christ alone, replaced – or superseded – the covenants of the Old Testament, the covenants of Moses and of Abraham. The thinking behind supersessionism was that now that we know the truth, we can throw away all of that Judaic history and move forward with a new Christian beginning.

Paul said no. Paul pushed back against the notion that Christianity had just replaced Judaism and that thousands of years of faith should be erased from our history so that we could just start over at the resurrection. In this letter to the church at Rome, Paul was saying, “Look! I am a follower of Christ, I am preaching the Good News and yet I am still a descendent of Abraham.” Paul was not willing to let go of the truth that we are all – all – connected by God’s grace and God’s mercy.

My college chaplain had a benediction that he used every week in worship that used to give me chills. It said something to the effect of, “May the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Joseph and Mary of Nazareth, the God of Martin and Coretta and the God of you and me bless us all as we leave this place.”

Now Rev. Rice’s research was rooted primarily in religion and the Civil Rights Movement, so the reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King had a much deeper meaning in this context. But – how incredible is it to think that the God that told Noah to build an ark and to protect his family, that the God that gave Moses the 10 Commandments, that the God that called the prophets of the Old Testament, that the God that said to Mary, “You will bear my son,” that the God that Jesus cried out to in his last moments on the cross, that the God that every single one of the pastors pictured on that back wall – your pastors here at Rehoboth Congregational Church – prayed to and worshipped every week is the same God that is here with us today. It is the same God whom we worship, who comforts us when we cry, who celebrates with us when we rejoice and who showers us with grace and with mercy.

We are not living in a vacuum. We are part of something much, much greater.

It has been a very difficult summer for a lot of people in our community. When Church School finished up for the year back in June, I looked at our Prayer Shawl supply on the altar and thought that there were plenty to carry us into the fall when we could do another blessing with the children. But last week, I took a count after church and realized that there were only four left on the altar. To me, that is extremely indicative of the pain and the hurting that has gone on both in the lives of members of our community and in the lives of those whom we love and care for. And so I planned to do a blessing this morning – before I even looked at the scriptures for this week. But, oh how well it is all coming together!

These prayer shawls are more than just a token of our prayers given to those in our community and beyond. These prayer shawls are a visible reminder of what Paul is saying in this morning’s scripture. Paul was saying that we cannot just live within a vacuum of the world that we are physically and presently living in. Paul was saying that we are all descendants of Abraham, that we are children of God, baptized by the same waters and affirmed like Jesus was at his baptism when God says, “You are my sons and my daughters, and I love you. I am very pleased with you.”

If we truly, truly want to live out God’s call for us all in the world, we have to – have to – think beyond the world that we exist in right here, right now. We are servants of and for one another, for our brothers and our sisters in past, present and future generations all around the world bound together by God’s grace and God’s mercy.

Rejoice in the good news that we are not alone. But Feel called by the truth that we are not alone. Open yourselves up to something greater. And know that God’s grace and mercy will always, always be with you.

I am going to close by reading this week’s lectionary Psalm. Psalm 67, The Nations Called To Praise God:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

God will bless us. All of us. Amen.

Hiding In Caves

8 Aug

Today has been crazy!  We had a church dinner (unfortunately it was raining so I left my camera inside!) which was an absolute blast.  After dinner Bruce and I ran some errands and then ran over to the church.  This week is Vacation Bible School and Bruce volunteered to teach the bible story portion!

Our Church School Director has been in all week with volunteers decorating and the space looks great!  They are doing underwater stories this year.

I think the kids are going to have a great time!

Here is today’s sermon … As usual, audio is here!

***

1 Kings 19:9-18

Hiding In Caves

A couple of weeks ago we were in the first book of Kings – like we are this morning – and we talked about how unstable the nation of Israel was at that point in their journey. As a nation, they were moving into a united monarchy, to be governed by a more defined leadership of Kings, as opposed to a more fluid influence of prophets and other religious figures. My sermon was called “Strong Servants, Weak Servanthood” – and I talked about how King Solomon allowed himself to be weak in front of God so that God could help Solomon be strong in his leadership.

The transition to the united monarchy was a very, very shaky one and by the time we get to this morning’s passage, the stable leadership that we were sort of seeing with King Solomon was falling to the wayside and the Kingdom of Israel had been divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

So we once again have a mess on our hands in Israel. And Elijah – the main character in this morning’s passage – was not necessarily helping the situation.

Here was part of the problem. Elijah worshipped one God, like it was stated in the 10 Commandments. That God was referred to in this part of the Old Testament as Yahweh. There were people, however, that worshipped Baal. Baal was another God; a different God.

And as I am sure you can imagine, Yahweh worshippers were not happy. After all, Yahweh had given Moses the 10 Commandments and they clearly stated, “I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other Gods before me.”

And yet there were people worshipping Baal.

Elijah had a great solution for dealing with the people with whom he disagreed with: he killed them. But it did not end there. After Elijah killed several prophets and worshippers of Baal, another worshipper of Baal – Queen Jezebel – sent Elijah a message saying that she was going to kill Elijah and Elijah, distraught over the divisions between the Yahweh worshippers and the Baal worshippers and fearing for his life, ran away and hid in a cave.

And that brings us to this morning’s scripture lesson.

Cheerful, right?

Let’s recap: Essentially we have two different groups worshipping two different religious Gods. Both groups were mad at the other group for each other’s opposing religious beliefs, both groups were upset with one another about their opposing religious beliefs and their solution was just to kill one another.

And this is why preachers hate preaching from the Old Testament! This is why Sunday School teachers hate teaching from the Old Testament! It is violent, it is graphic and it is raw. But it is real. It is very, very real.

For me, the interesting thing about this passage is not the peculiarities of the worshippers of Yahweh versus the worshippers of Baal. Rather, it is the fact that after it had all fallen apart, after Elijah had acted violently out of religious passion and frustration, after Elijah had been threatened by Queen Jezebel and after Elijah felt that there was nothing left to do but to run away and to hide in a cave – God was still with Elijah; God still spoke calmly and softly to Elijah; and God revealed himself to Elijah.

Every now and then, things fall apart in our lives. We get sick, our lives get busy, we feel anxious, we are consumed by grief or we stumble into an unsettling conflict. And when that happens sometimes I think that our natural intuition as human beings is – like Elijah – to run away and to hide in a cave. We do not want to face the hard times because they are just that – hard. We do not like conflict, we do not like messy emotional messes and we do not like to admit our own weaknesses.

When you are going through a difficult season in your life, it is so much easier to run away and to hide in a cave than to admit that you need help. It is so much easier to run away and hide in a cave than it is to ever ask for that help. It is so much easier to run away and hide in a cave and hope and pray that the difficult season that you are experiencing is just going to blow over than to brave the storm from the outside.

But here is the thing – God is present no matter how far we may run to hide. It does not matter how scared we may be at any point in our lives, God is with us. It does not matter how far we want to hide from life, from our family, from our friends, from the people who love and support us and want to help us so badly. God is with us. God is with us always.

Elijah was scared and frustrated and ran away from a life that was so overwhelming to him and sought shelter in a faraway cave, but God still found him.

And when we try to run away from our problems, from our insecurities, from our overwhelming schedules, from our illnesses, from our fears, from our frustrations and from the differences that we think divide us from one another, God will find us. God is with us. God is with us always.

I have talked before about how I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, a resource that brings preachers and their congregations through the bible by highlighting a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, a Gospel reading and an Epistle every week. This week’s Epistle is a favorite of mine. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:
For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

I love that last part, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

It is easy for us to use our feet as tools in which to hide; to run from the things that we are afraid of, from the insecurities that hold us back, from the pain and the grief that we face every day and from the illnesses that are making us weak. But what if, instead, we used our feet as tools in which to bring the good news to those we meet along our journey that God is with us, that God is with us always?

But what if, instead, we used our feet as tools in which to bring the good news to those we meet along our journey that God is with us, that God is with us always?

There is a lot that we can take away from this passage from 1 Kings. It is very busy and multifaceted, it is full of a volatile history of fear and division and can be extremely difficult to understand. But I think that on a very basic level this passage shows us a scared, upset and distraught man who tried to hide – and found God along the way.

When you are scared, when you are frustrated, when you are sick, when you are grieving, when you are divided from your neighbors and when you are confused, I pray that you find God in your journey. And I pray that along your journey you find the strength within yourself to use your feet to bring the good news to those around you.

Amen.

Maybe It’s Not About The Loaves … Or The Fishes

31 Jul

I took a different take on the “Loaves and Fishes” story this time around. Please let me know what you think!

(Audio will be up later tonight!)

***

Matthew 14:13-21

Maybe It’s Not About The Loaves … Or The Fishes

A pastor walked into church one Sunday morning and realized during the singing of the first hymn that he had left his sermon manuscript in his office. The scripture that morning was the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Loaves and Fishes story.

He decided just to wing it, but in the middle of the sermon got a little bit flustered and tongue-tied. Specifically, he said that Jesus took five thousand loaves and two thousand fishes, fed five people and still had plenty left over.

At that point during the sermon, a man in the back of the congregation called out, “Well, anybody could do that!”

“Could you?” replied the pastor, not realizing that he had mixed up the numbers.

“Certainly I could,” the man replied with a snarky tone.

After the service, the pastor confided in one of the deacons and complained about the man’s conduct in church. The deacon explained to the pastor that he had, in fact, flip-flopped the story during the sermon. The pastor scoffed. “Well, next week, I will not leave my sermon in my office. I will show him!”

The next week the pastor confidently approached the altar and preached his sermon. During the course of the sermon, he once again brought up the miracle of the loaves and fishes. He talked about how the five loaves and the two fishes had fed five thousand people. He then pointed towards the heckler in the back of the congregation and asked, “Could you do that?”

“I sure could,” the man replied with confidence.

“And just how would you do that?” the minister asked.

“I would use the loaves and fishes left over from last Sunday.”

***

We all know the story: John the Baptist had just been killed in prison and Jesus withdrew to a deserted place on a boat. When he returned saw a crowd of thousands that had gathered at the shore (the scripture says five thousand, but that number only included the men – most likely there were over 20,000 people there that day). The disciples tried to tell the crowd to go home and to buy food for themselves, because they did not have enough food for everyone. But Jesus calmly told the disciples to let the people stay and asked them to bring him the fives loaves and the two fish that they had. Jesus blessed and broke the bread and there was enough to feed not only five thousand men, but also the women and children and there was plenty left over.

There is no doubt about it – it was a miracle.

In fact, if you look at all four Gospels, this was the only miracle recorded. It was – and is – a true testament to the disciples, to the crowd that had gathered and to us reading today that God provides. This is a story that draws parallels to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament when the people of Israel were exiled and without food in the dessert and unleavened bread – or manna – fell from the sky so that they could eat abundantly. This miracle story reminds us that God nourishes our bodies, that God is a creative love, that Jesus is a redemptive hope and that the spirit sustains us – always.

This miracle pushes us to remember that if we trust, God will provide. It is a miracle that, through the generations, Christians have clung onto in the worst of times and glorified in the best of times. God is good – all the time.

But here is the problem with that interpretation: We are living through a recession. There are people in this community and in our country that have very little. We live on a planet where resources are not evenly spread. There can be abundance in one place and utter desolation in another. Needs are great, but resources are limited. People die of hunger every day. Bread For The World, a faith-based organization that works to end hunger on an international level, estimates that 16,000 children die every day of hunger. That is one child every five seconds.

A skeptic of the Christian faith might ask, “Where is the miracle in that?”

Miracle stories are difficult to preach on when the reality of what individuals face every day is dark and dismal. Why did God provide for the thousands that day on the shore 2,000 years ago, but not for the 16,000 children that day every day today? Why not for those in our community who are struggling to make ends meet?

That is a question I cannot answer.

This scripture lesson can be a beautiful reminder of God’s grace and power in our lives. But it can also be an opportunity to struggle with some of the unanswered questions that we face in the reality of the world that we live in.

I do not think that this story is about the loaves – or the fishes. In fact I do not think that any reading of the Gospel should be done as a way to literally interpret the words on the page and make sure that they live out here – today. I think that they are meant to inspire us, to call us and to push us to a ministry greater than any that we can envision today.

Here is a question: What does it mean to be Christian?

Now, that’s a loaded question that I doubt any of us have the same answer to. But I would wager a guess that most of us here think that there is more to being a Christian than just believing in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a hands-on aspect to living a Christian life. There is an element of service and mission, an element that mimics the one that Jesus displayed to his disciples and to the people he met along his journey. And there is a call to us to be the face of Christ – in an imperfect and human way – to the people that we meet along our own journeys.

There is a hymn in the New Century Hymnal, which is the UCC hymnal that came out in 1995, that is called, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?” It is based off of the old hymn, “The Servant Song”. The lyrics are so beautiful and just so true to our call as Christians that I would like to share them with you this morning. The hymn sings:

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road;
We are here to help each other go the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.

I do not think that this story is about the loaves or the fishes; I do not think that this story is about waiting for our own loaves and fishes miracle; and I do not think that this story is about looking beyond the reality of the world that we are living in and hiding behind the curtains of the unknown “God’s plan” and “long-awaited miracle”. I think that this story calls us to be the providers of the loaves and the fishes. I think that this story reminds us that in a moment of hunger and in a moment of need, Jesus stepped up and said, “Do not send these people away, we will provide them with food and nourishment.”

I have talked about this before, but my call to ministry came in 2003 following a trip to Honduras to observe an educational mission in the small village of Teupasenti three hours outside of the capital city. When the Mission started it was focused solely on education, but they realized very quickly that you cannot teach hungry children. And now one of the biggest parts of the organization is its feeding program. Since 2003, I have returned once to Teupasenti, embarked on many fundraising journeys for the Mission and a few weeks ago was asked to fill an open slot on the Board of Directors.

In the eight years that I have worked with the Mission, I have learned a few things. First and foremost, God does need to be present in my ministry and in my service, I need to pray to God for guidance and for strength and to provide us all with patience and resources. But I also cannot sit idly by and just expect a miracle to happen. I need to be proactive in my ministry and in my service and I need to be the face of Christ to my brothers and sisters who are struggling.

Yes, God is active and present in the Mission, but so are the individuals that are called to actually live out the gospel message. And yes there have been times when finances and programs were tight and we had faith in God that things would work out – and they did. But in those moments of uncertainty individuals stood up and answered the call to serve. There is a point of intersection where the road of the divine and the road of individuals that feel called to serve intersect. And that is where the true miracle happens.

I do not think that when Jesus said to the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” he meant to imply to them that they needed to stop the crowd and wait for the miracle. I think he meant to imply that sometimes it is important to remember that we are all in this together. As the hymn says, we are here to help each other, go the mile, bear the load, hold the Christ-light for one another, hold out our hands, speak peace and see our journeys through together.

There is a food pantry that my church in Connecticut supports that is called Loaves and Fishes. And I always thought that was such a beautiful way to connect an unexplained miracle that we read about in the gospel and the understanding of what we are supposed to do to live out the gospel.

It is not about the loaves or the fishes. It is not about food of substance appearing out of nothing. It is not about wondering why the miracle happened in one place and not another. It is about us – and what we are called to do, every day.

Amen.

Weak Servants, Strong Servanthood

24 Jul

Whoa … It has been an absolutely crazy day.  I have a lot to say right now, but my brain isn’t functioning.  So here is my sermon (and if you listen to it, ignore the fact that I was so tongue-tied today!) …

***

1 Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39

Weak Servants, Strong Servanthood

I want to start off this morning’s sermon by thanking everyone for joining me for worship this morning. I was working on my sermon this past Friday, the heat index was a stifling 107 degrees Fahrenheit and it occurred to me that most people could probably find a cooler activity to partake in on a Sunday morning than sitting in an un-air conditioned sanctuary.

So thank you for being here – and I promise not to be long-winded. Which, to be quite honest, may prove to be difficult because the passage that we just read from in the first book of King is kind of peculiar.

Let me set the stage for you. We are in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel has been in crisis – floods, wars and exiles – and now is entering a time of significant social transformation.

Have you all heard of the Albert Einstein quote that, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Well, Israel was trying something drastically different: They were going from a people of the land, a people of covenant and a people with religious reverence to God – who they called Yahweh – to a period of kingship.

So take yourself back – we are approximately in the year 961 BCE. The era of the kingship – or the United Monarchy as it was called – really started around the year 1020 BCE with the reign of King Saul. Saul’s reign was, what my Old Testament professor referred to as, a “shaky transitional rule” – not the greatest start to Israel’s kingship. In fact, the chapter on Saul in one of my Old Testament books is called, “Saul: The Threat, the Promise, and the Tragedy of Kingship.”

But King David came along in the year 1000 BCE after Saul died and had a much more stable rule, he really put the word “United” in “United Monarchy”. David’s chapter was called, “David: The Man After God’s Own Heart.” David died in 961 BCE and his son – Solomon – took the throne. Solomon’s chapter was titled, “Solomon: Empire and Fracture” – and you can read about the beginning of his reign at beginning of the first book of Kings.

The most peculiar part of this passage is Solomon himself. Immediately, upon taking the throne, Solomon emerges as a violent character. One of my theological guides to the Old Testament says the following about the beginning of Solomon’s reign:
When David names Solomon as his successor and dies, Solomon consolidates his power with a ruthless purge of his opposition. He has his half brother and rival Adonijah killed, along with his influential supporters, including David’s general, Joab. David’s priest Abiathar is banished.

So in very simple terms, we just had the following happen: King David had a solid, unifying reign. Right before he died, he named his son Solomon to be his successor.
And when Solomon rose to the throne, he consolidated his power by killing and/or banishing any of his rivals and their supporters.

Not a great start to his reign.

That being said, by the time we get to this morning’s passage, just one verse later, we are seeing a completely different side of Solomon. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked what God should give to him and Solomon first showed great appreciation for all that God gave to Solomon’s father, King David. “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father, David,” said Solomon, “because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.”

Then Solomon continues his response to God by showing humility in asking for what he wanted and needed. “Although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” Part of me wonders if Solomon took the throne after his father died, acted out in this initial state of violence to claim some sort of authority because he thought, “well, how hard could this be?” and then immediately became overwhelmed by all that there was to do.

Have you ever done that? Have you ever taken on a task that you thought would be really easy and that you thought you had complete under control and then – after diving in headfirst – realized you were completely overwhelmed? Have you ever gone looking for perfection and ended up receiving a large batch of humility? It happens to me all the time.

What I love so much about this passage is what happens after Solomon saw how great of a people, how numerous a number of people, he has been chosen to lead. He doesn’t charge forward with more violence, he doesn’t try to lead on his own and he doesn’t allow his arrogance and overconfidence to lead Israel. Rather, he asks God for guidance. “Give your servant therefore,” said Solomon, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Solomon does not ask to be the perfect leader, he does not ask for God to get the people of Israel together, he does not ask for God to work everything out for him on the ground. He asks God for an understanding mind and for the ability to discern what is right. He is humble as leader in front of God in that one moment so that his leadership can be strong in the years to come. He allows himself to be weak as a servant in order to have a strong servanthood.

There is something about our society that makes us think that we have to be perfect. Diet campaigns promise quick results, photoshopped models make consumers think they need to have flawless features, new computer and social networking programs are designed daily to supposedly make our lives our easier and the speed of production and expected productivity gets faster and faster every day. There is something in the media and in our culture and even in our churches that tells us that we have to quickly get bigger, faster and better.

And yet – this plea to God from King Solomon shows us that we are allowed to be weak, that we are allowed to have imperfections and that perfection should not even be the goal. This plea to God from King Solomon shows us that we should walk humbly, that we should embrace our weaknesses and we should ask God every day to give us strength.

The passage just gets better after this. “Is pleased the Lord,” the scripture says, “that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word.’”

God wants to be let into our lives. God wants us to be humble and ask for guidance in our lives, in our work, in our families, in our friendships, in our churches, in our communities and in our leadership. It pleases God. And God is good to us when we open up that door in our lives.

A few years ago, I was at General Synod, the biennial national meeting of the United Church of Christ and I was sitting in a meeting about a resolution that was going to come before the delegates the next day. The resolution was about depleted uranium in weapons, something equally over my head, and yet at one point an argument erupted in the room and the debate was getting heated. And the moderator calmly brought the room to order and paused for a prayer. By the time she said “Amen,” the anxiety level in the room had dropped. Because in those moments of prayer we asked God to enter into our conversation and to help us discern; because in those moments of prayer, we remembered that the work we are doing as a church needs to have more to do with God than it does with us; and because in those moments of prayer, God was present. It was in that moment that we paused long enough to realize that we did not have to have the answers. It was in that moment that we paused long enough to realize that we did not have to reconcile this resolution on our own. It was in that moment that we realized that it was okay to admit to God our shortcomings and ask for strength and guidance.

It is okay to be a weak servant. Being a weak servant does not mean that you will have a weak servanthood. In fact, based on how God responded to Solomon, I think that being a weak servant, being humble and admitting imperfection only makes our servanthood – as a whole – stronger.

I paired this passage from First Kings this morning with this week’s epistle lectionary text from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, the Book of Romans, chapter eight, verses 26 through 39. I’m not going to go in depth into this passage, but I am going to highlight the beginning of it for you once again, after hearing my sermon and thinking about what Solomon did after beginning his reign. Paul said:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

So I said that the passage from Kings was peculiar. Solomon jumped onto the throne with violence and then paused with humility to ask God for help. And if it ended there, it would be a great story to tell. Unfortunately, Solomon was not that humble throughout the entirety of his reign. His violent side came back. But I do not think that his inconsistency as a character that we read about, as a King and as a person should diminish what he did that day in his dream. Because none of us will have that one moment where we humble ourselves, seek out God’s help and then never once fall back.

Life is a journey, one where we wake up every day and have to decide how we want to live our lives. Some days we will be humble and seemingly do all the right things and God will be right there. But there will be days when we forge ahead on our own. And so on those days we need to pause, take a deep breath and invite God in once again. It is not about finding perfection and setting up camp there; it is about allowing ourselves to be weak along the journey.

But like Paul said, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Amen.

On Faith And Weeding

17 Jul

I did some baking yesterday.  It involved this:

I haven’t gotten a good finished product photo yet, so the recipe isn’t ready to post yet.  But I promise, the recipe for both the cake and the frosting will be up later today when I muster up some energy!

In the meantime, here’s today’s sermon – more parables!  (Audio is here)

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Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

On Faith And Weeding

So last week we looked at the Parable of the Sower and we talked about sowing seeds of faith. We talked about what it means to sow seeds of faith in our own lives, in our community and right here at this church. We talked about how difficult it can be at times and how frustrating it can be to watch a disappointing crop falter as you are trying everything you know how to do in order to grow your seeds to harvest.

I closed last week’s sermon by saying the following:

We cannot control the rain that will fall, the sun that will shine or even the pesky little rabbits that will find their way through the fence and nibble away at our lettuce. We do the best that we can, we plant where and when we should, we water when the soil seems dry and we weed when we think the roots need room to grow.

We weed when we think the roots need room to grow.

Monday morning I took a look at the lectionary texts for this week and had to laugh when I saw the Gospel reading – The Parable Of The Weeds Among The Wheat. I wondered if choosing this text to preach on would be overkill in the parable department – but then realized that it would be a wonderful follow-up to what we thought about last week about sowing seeds of faith. Because when you sow seeds – seeds of agriculture and seeds of faith – you will (you will!) face weeds.

Let’s talk about parables in general for a second. Parables are tough because when you talk about them you are essentially speaking in metaphor. And sometimes I feel as though you get to a point where you are so caught up in the metaphor that you have completely lost sight of what you are actually talk about. For example – there could have been a point during last week’s sermon where you wondered if were really talking about church communities or we were actually just talking about my vegetable garden.

So since I made you sit through a sermon given almost entirely in metaphor last week, I thought I would take a different approach to the parable presented to us this week. I have three points to make about The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat and I am going to make those points by going back and forth the metaphorical parabolic language and real life.

So Jesus put before the people another parable. ‘Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.”’

Here is what Jesus is saying in the parabolic world: So we have all had this happen to us. We spend an entire day planting seeds and plants, go to sleep proud of all of our hard work and how beautiful our gardens look and wake up the next morning only to find a handful of weeds popping up. And very quickly those weeds start to wreak havoc on the entire garden.

And here is what that means in our world: We can spend days, weeks, months and even years trying to grow a community. We can do everything “right” and one “weed” – one conflict, one negative person, one tragedy – can pop and very quickly start to wreak havoc on the entire church community. It doesn’t take much to bring a community down.

Do you all know that game Jenga? In this game, you build up a structure piece by piece and then try to pull the logs out from the bottom. Eventually the removal of one log brings down the entire structure.

One log – one weed – one conflict, one negative person or one tragedy → this is all it takes to bring down a church community.

The parable continues: ‘And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”’

Now this is where the line between metaphor and reality start to blur a little bit, because I do not think that anyone has ever thought of the weeds in our garden as “evil” – we just think they are annoying and part of life.

But in our world, in the world that Jesus was speaking to, the “evil” is the root of the conflict that will bring down a community.

Now personally, this it point where I am a little confused – because I am not sure if the “evil” that Jesus is referring to is an evil person or the devil. But – I do not think the “who” is the point of this parable.

And here is my point #1 about this parable: We need to stop focusing on where the weeds are coming from and start focusing on how to nurture the plants that are in the ground to help them grow. The weeds will come, that is a given – but it is what we do after they come that will determine how well the garden will grow.

In our world, we need to stop focusing on who and what we think the evil is in our church community and start focusing on nurturing our church community. There will be conflict in churches. You cannot avoid it. In churches, you are putting together a diverse group of passionate individuals – you are bound to not always agree and conflict is bound to arise.

But the transformation comes not from finding out who was to blame back then – but from nurturing the community from where we are right now.

Point #1 – There comes a point where we need to stop focusing on where the conflict came from in the past and start focusing on how to nurture the community towards the future.

Here is my second point – and bear with me while I head back into the parabolic world: Dealing with weeds doesn’t end with the weeding itself.

About two weeks ago, Bruce weeded around our lettuce and subsequently loosened the ground around the plants. By loosening the ground, he rid the lettuce of the weeds that were preventing their growth, but by loosening the ground he also got rid of some of its support system. And because of that, when a harsh rain came through the next day, all of our lettuce plants completely fell over. And it stayed that way and attempted to grow out from its pile on the ground. And they haven’t done that well since then.

Essentially we cleared the weeds away so that the lettuce would have room to grow. But we left the lettuce without a support system, which created a whole new set of problems.

When we rid the lettuce of the weeds around it, we needed to build a support system to hold it up as it grew without the weeds around it.

Back to the real world: If there is a conflict in a church community and that conflict – or the person that may have been causing the conflict – is removed, the work does not end there. In fact, the work only begins there. There needs to be an intentional effort to build a strong support system and network for the fragile community that is left behind.

We are in the middle of “A New Beginning” here at Rehoboth Congregational Church. And I am sure that I am starting to sound like a broken record when I keep referring to the new beginning from behind the pulpit, in meetings and in my epistle letters. But I continue to do so because we are at the stage where the weeds have been pulled and the soil around us has been loosened. We are in a fragile state.

We are trying to re-build programs that have fallen to the wayside, we are trying to be good stewards of our finances and we are trying to move forward. We – as a church community – need to make sure that we are finding ways to support one another. We need to be intentional about supporting our leaders and communicating with one another as we support one another. We need to be open to thinking about new ideas and new approaches to old ideas.

Do not underestimate the residual effects of all that has gone on in this church over the past couple of years. The weeds may been pulled around us and we may be watering the community with a fresh batch of new beginning, but we need to realize that our work is not over. In fact, it is only beginning. We need to support each other.

My final point doesn’t come from the parable at all (but I’m sure Jesus was thinking it, it just never made it to print): Have fun! Let’s face it – you do not have to come to church to be a Christian. But you do – you all do. And you come to this church. And you support this church and you care about this church. And there are plenty of other things to be doing on a Sunday morning, so if it’s not fun, what’s the point?

The parables are not meant to scare you – they are meant to give you something to think about. They are meant to describe this imperfect life that we are living in. And they are meant to give you some food for thought on how to find balance in it all.

Yes, there will be conflict in the church. And yes, that conflict will have to be dealt with. But my final charge to you today is to have fun and to not let yourself be brought down. Because being part of a church and growing that community to its fullest potential should be fun and completely full of grace.

On Thursday afternoon, I was sitting in the sanctuary for some time of prayer and meditation. I was staring at the cross and thinking about some of my friends who are facing illness and tragedies in their families and also the friends of this community who are facing illness and tragedies and was led to open a bible. And the bible fell open to Psalm 146, “Praise For God’s Help”. I read it out loud and it touched me in that moment. And as I was preparing my sermon for this morning, I realized how relevant this psalm was. Because in then end – no matter why we are weak, no matter where the conflict we are dealing with is coming from, no matter what the tragedy or hardship is that we face – God is with us, always.

I think it is a good reminder to us as we move forward as a community that we need to let God in. So I would like to share that psalm with you this morning:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I love; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

Amen.