Friday, February 29, 2008

The Intended Audience

I am not sure how many people read this blog, but I know there are a few. I post my sermons and stuff on two websites--this one and a MySpace site. Generally, the sermons that I post are the manuscripts of the sermons I have preached in my two churches. Most of the people who read them are either friends who understand the context of the original delivery, or are members of the churches I serve who missed a Sunday, or are snowbirds, etc.

Recently, over on the MySpace site, it has come to my attention that there are readers who do not fit either description, and to them, something I have preached and then posted may not neccesarily translate from the pulpit to the public written word well.

So, let me say this--I have not spent a lot of time editing the sermons for an audience wider than people I know and/or serve. I probably should. If I was to develop a wide non-church member reading audience, I probably would need to. I am not quite there yet, but I will try to read my posts as I post them with a wider, non-contextual audience in mind.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Yep, Even Them

John 4: 5-26, 39-42

The first reason why I went to church was because my parents took me. I’ve attended United Methodist and Episcopalian churches since I was very small.

The second reason why I went to church was that there were girls that I wanted to date. That’s how I attended Baptist and non-denominational churches.

It was at one of the second type of those churches where I heard God’s call on my life and was baptized. It only took 20 some-odd years. I accepted Jesus as my savior in the second type of church, but within the year, was attending one of the first.

People come to churches for many reasons, only some of which are spiritual. Some folks come because their parents bring them. Others come because they want to date someone who attends. Some come to church because it improves their business contacts—it’s good to be seen as a member of the “right” church. Others come for the music. Some come because it is the only time all week that they can be around other people. Some come for the message, and the need to get a touch of the divine in a week that is all too earthly. Some come to be reminded that there is more to life than just job and bills and homework and chores.

Most come because they need living water. They need to feel accepted someplace, and if that acceptance comes in the language of salvation and Jesus and Amen, then so be it.

Our story today is about a woman who is three-times rejected. First, she’s a foreigner. Or rather, Jesus is in a land that is foreign to his culture, as well as the perspective of the author. I could stand here and give you the history of hundreds of years that explains why this is true, but let it suffice that Samaritans are definitely a “Them”. Second, she is a woman, and men from the “right” culture are definitely not to have any dealings with women of the “wrong” culture. Third, she’s not exactly been chaste. She’s had five husbands, and she’s not married to the current man, the sixth.

That’s why she’s at the well at the middle of the day, scholars believe. Think about it—when do you need water the most? In the morning and in the evening, for cooking and for washing. But she’s showing up at the middle of the day, when it’s less likely that anyone will be around.

The original audience for this story would be definitely primed for a certain scene. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is a motif of women meeting the men they will marry at a well. Moses and Zipporah, Jacob and Rachel, Isaac and Rebekah all have this common scene. It’s like when we see a scene in a movie where there is a battle or large and dangerous task, and the best friend of the hero says “see you on the other side” or something like that; you know he’s toast. Women and men at wells in the Bible are the same deal.

And here’s this Jesus at the well with this alien woman who is culturally marked as someone, shall we say, “of experience”. In its own way, our hero is in some peril, the same as Indiana Jones sneaking around the Nazi sub base.

But here, John turns the motif on its head. Jesus is not expecting marriage, or any romance at all. Jesus knows her, one of the “unchosen”, if ever there was such a thing, and still offers her “living water”. She tells everyone she knows back in Sychar about this guy out at the well who knows everything she ever did, and they go have a look. The story ends with most of the village believing in Jesus as the Messiah, after his having stayed with them a couple days.

The living water Jesus offered the woman is the knowledge of the acceptance and the love of God. She found out from him that her three-fold banishment is not God’s rule, but the rules of people. She is as valuable to God as the richest most important man in the village.

We are the ones who are now called to be the face of Jesus to the world. Pentecost has happened, the Holy Spirit has come to both Jews and Gentiles, and we sit here this morning as the inheritors of that gift and responsibility.

Do we understand that living water to be for everyone? Do we offer it to the people who are three time losers in our culture? Do we offer it without condition? Do we say, “Jesus loves, you, you are a child of God”, or do we say “stop that behavior, change your ways, and Jesus will love you”?

It’s like the “about the author” page in the book Ark Building for Dummies that Evan is given in the movie Evan Almighty; God created the universe and has 7 billion some-odd children.

That is all the world’s population. Their point is that there are no people on this earth who are not the children of God.

We have pledged to be Christians. We are not inheritors of the task of chalking up believers in Jesus, like the big Mc Donald’s signs that used to count how many millions of burgers had been served. We are not called to keep score. We are, however, inheritors of the task of giving living water, God’s love to all.

Lent, as we have said before, is the time when we repent of the ways in which we have drifted off course. Do we still remember that God loves us? Do we still drink of that living water ourselves? Do we still offer that living water to all, without judgment of their lifestyle or the way they look or sound, or what they believe? That is the way of God, and to do otherwise; to lay conditions of our own making on the free gift of God is to have drifted off course. It too is a matter for prayer and repentance.

Folks come to churches for many reasons. Folks don’t come for many more. Whether they are here, on our home court, or we are with them out there outside the doors, the job is the same. We are the carriers of God’s love and acceptance. It is our inheritance from Mary, Peter and Paul, from the saints and the founders of this church.

Reflect on your personal witness; do you offer unconditional love and acceptance to the people you meet? All of them? Do you offer living water?

Yeah. Even them. And no, I don’t either. Let’s you and me do better, Ok?

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Following or the Faith?

John 3: 1-17

You’ve probably all heard this text before, somewhere. It is the story that contains one of the most famous scriptures used during field goals in football and free throws in basketball. No, not as a prayer by the kicker, or by the shooter, but enterprising young Christians who have deduced that during those moments of the televised game, when the camera is more stationary than usual, and pointed at the end of the field or court, they can hold up a sign that says “John 3:16”. For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, so that all who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. One of the true bedrock statements of the faith, to be sure, but there is a lot more going on, here.

Let’s retell the story: Jesus is in Jerusalem, and it is near to Passover. There’s a lot of ferment in the air, it is a tumultuous time, and one of the religious leaders comes to see him. Now this guy, Nicodemus by name, is inclined to believe in Jesus and his teachings, and he says that there are others. They have a conversation about the relationship of God and a new Spirit brought from God, and Jesus says that one must be born from above. Born of the spirit, he says. Nicodemus fixates on the born bit, and ignores the rest. How can one be born a second time, he thinks?

Jesus seems to be saying here that the only way to understand being born of the Spirit is to be born of the spirit. You can’t explain what it feels like, you can’t explain how your mind alters.

This week was Valentines’ day, and it seems to me that love and romance is a similar concept to what I mean. You can’t explain it unless you have experienced it, and if you have done it more than once, then you also know that it is different each time.

To know, we have to do first. It’s not the way we want it; we want to think about it, like buying a car—do the research on it’s safety rating, it’s fuel mileage, ask other owners what they think of it, test drive it,, arrange for the financing, before you actually buy the car. You can’t do that with love, romance, and commitment; there’s a large amount of uncertainty when you fall in love. “Who is this person?” “Who will this person become in 30 years?”

We’ve taken a lot of uncertainty about it, of course—there are still cultures in the world who won’t even let you meet the person you will marry until the day of the wedding. Now that is uncertainty! Here, though there is still a large amount. We may know their families, we may know their financial security, but there is still a certain amount of uncertainty.

I like to think of it in the way my vows were worded when my wife and I got married; “loving what I know, and trusting what I don’t yet know.” All marriages and long term covenantal relationships have this idea at their root.

It is no different for the Christian relationship with God. It is no accident that Jesus says more than once in the Bible “come and see.” There’s just some things you can’t explain. All you can know is that there are a lot of people out there who have had their lives changed by their relationship with God, and that there must be something to it.

But there is this chicken and egg-ness of it. For it to work, for faith to become part of our lives, we have to believe in some things we can’t see. We have to commit without all of our questions answered. We are attracted to what it claims, we can see what it has done for others, but we can’t kick the tires; we can’t surf the web for information; we can’t solve the mystery before we start the book.

Which comes first? The faith or the following? In our world, we want to know where the end is. What does this get me?

You don’t get to know. Faith in God will bring you joy, but not in ways you can predict. Faith in Jesus Christ will bring you comfort, but not necessarily the way you want. The faith of our fathers and mothers will bring you a deep and rich life, but not the way you picture it in your mind.

So, the following has to come first, and the faith will come. John Wesley, the founder of our denomination, is quoted as saying that we must preach Christ until we have Christ. I’ve also heard it said that to become the person you want to be, you have to act like the person you want to be. We don’t get romantic love until we commit to it. Nicodemus won’t “get” being born from above until he follows Christ.

And that’s the way it needs to work. The guys in the end zones of football games may or may not believe in Christ, but I hope they understand that saying “For God so Loved the World . . . “ is a hard thing to swallow for a world that isn’t oriented to trusting what they can’t see. The wind blows, Jesus says, and we do not know where it came from or where it goes. It takes a leap to try to trust in the wind without reaching for the weather report, the wind direction map and the isobars graph, but that is where Nicodemus must go.

That is where we must go, too. And if it is a true journey of faith in Christ, we must do it again and again, every day. We must step out in faith together as a community, we must step out in faith as individuals. Where are we being called? Where does God want us to serve the world?

What we do know is that we are not called to stay still. We are not called to preserve a way of life by putting it under glass, or to be afraid of the world. We are not called to hide in our homes and defend our faith by withdrawing from the world. As Christians, we are called to go out into the world and to serve it in its pain, knowing that because God so loved the world, and because we are His people, we must engage the world.

Which comes first? The faith or the following? Just as Nicodemus comes to a place where he ends up claiming Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, making a public statement of a sort, so to we must make our faith public somehow.

Follow Jesus, and the faith will come.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who’s Got Time for That?

(Sorry that this is late this week, snow days wreak havoc on people who work from home!)

Matthew 4: 1-11

So Jesus has just been baptized, and it seems that pretty quickly after that happens, he’s sent out into the wilderness. He’s got to see for himself what he’s made of, before he can make this journey that he’s just been called to.

And the devil tempts in three ways that are specific to his mission—he is tempted to save himself from hunger, to call upon God and the angels to save him from foolish choices, and to take the whole world in power.

These are choices that he must make, these are the temptations that are specific to him. Those of us who are here in this room today aren’t in any position, really, to be tempted by what Jesus is tempted by.

We have our own. We’re called to something different, and Satan, in a cruel imitation of Jesus, also meets us where we are. Somehow, the devil, Satan, the tempter, the advocate, whatever you want to name the personification of evil, knows exactly what we’re tempted by.

Jesus was able to go into the desert in order to face these demons head-on. Monks go into the wilderness to reduce the amount of distraction the world presents to those who wish to be more godly. They go to extremes—There are stories of Irish monks who go out in boats, away from any land, comfort, food or even a place to walk, in order to be able to hear God more clearly.

But who’s got time for that? Got to get supper on the table. Got to get to work Got to get the kids fed, dressed and off to school. Got to run got to go, got to work the list. I don’t think I even have time to be tempted, much less face the devil and his temptations.

Got to go, got to go, got to go. That in itself is a temptation. We live in a world that is very busy. Many things demand our time. And they are all good things, really. It is good that kids are involved in things outside of school. It is good that we try to get exercise, eat, work to put food on the table, and improve ourselves through Bible study, going to school, whatever.

But we get to the end of each of our days and measure what we did that was worthwhile, and realize we can’t remember much more than being in the car, or staring at a computer, or feeling the weight of the welding helmet on our neck. Where were the great spiritual insights? Where were the moments of divine light? We don’t remember.

And the devil has won for another day. We’ve not grown closer to God, and isn’t that the tempter’s goal?

Oh, it’s great to talk about the great sins Our Catholic brothers and sisters have categorized and named a very accurate and wise list--gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, and the others. Some of us do ok with one or two of them, but not so well with the rest. But we don’t really even have time to handle the biggies, because we’re caught up in the “littilies”. We get to the end of each day and poof! We’re done, caught up in the small stuff, and we’ve lost another day with God.

What’s important to you? No, really. What is it that you think is important to cultivate your relationship with God; your walk with Jesus?

Do you even know? Do you know what your favorite way to pray is? There are many ways. Do you know how to read your Bible?

Your relationship with Jesus is more than showing up here on Sunday mornings. It’s more than dropping money into the plate. Sorry, folks, but being with me and each other once a week isn’t much of a relationship with God.

We need to make our own wildernesses, because we can’t just up and leave work, family and church to take on what it is God would have us do.

So it becomes a matter of taking that little bit of time to check in with God. You don’t think you have time? We just took about five minutes at the beginning of worship today. You can do that. Pick a moment when the house is quiet, if you live in a busy home. For me, it is right after every one else has left the house for the day. Set a kitchen timer. Read just a little bit of Scripture, doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter the academic understanding. Just let it roll around in your head. Be gentle with yourself if you are distracted during that time. Acknowledge that you’re distracted and gently steer yourself back to focus in on the text.

When the timer goes off, say amen and go on. Congratulations, you’ve just kicked Satan in the teeth for the day!

If you take this on, feel free to give your pastor a call, e-mail her/him about how it’s going if you get stuck. Let them be a resource to you, if you want to do this. They have their own struggles, they may not have the answer to every question, but you can sure talk about it, anyway!

We may not have out own desert to go to, but we can be sure that the devil has a whole list of temptations for us, and we may also be sure that in our busyness, he’s been winning. So, be not busy in the presence of God, and you start to take back your life. Who knows where it will lead?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? We’re here tonight to observe a tradition that traditional Protestant readings of Scripture flatly reject. Many folks aren’t even here, because this is not a service they think is necessary, their upbringing called “pagan” or “popish”, or worse. For others, it is just too demonstrative. Some folks don’t even wear crosses, much less walk about on this day with smidges on their heads.

So, why does the United Methodist Church observe this day, when we never used to? Christian radio doesn’t talk about it much, a lot of the churches we hear about that aren’t Catholic don’t do it. Why do we? And what about that scripture text you just read, pastor?

All good questions. All questions that I have wrestled with, too, and continue to.

First of all, there is something old, ancient, and slightly mysterious about this act. Ashes on your head. The Bible has all these places where putting ashes on your head is the symbol of mourning. Sackcloth and ashes, they go together a lot. By doing it, it seems like there is some sort of connection between us and the people of Nineveh, all the Biblical heroes.

But what if we are not in mourning? Why do we all do it on one day, and then go wash it off, and don’t do it again for another year?

Now we get into one of the meanings of ritual. Why do we gather together on Sundays? Couldn’t we all just pray, sing, do all those things we do at home? Couldn’t we jut hear a good message by turning on the radio, or the TV, or now, even downloading a podcast or watching a sermon on YouTube? Well yes, we could. But there’s something to doing it together, in one place that is dedicated for that task, with no separation from each other. We need companionship.

Today I was down at the hospital, and there were many people who had been to an Ash Wednesday service. There had also apparently been some priests who had administered ashes to people in the waiting rooms, too. People were walking around a hospital marked with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, which are usually given with the words “from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” A reminder of death in and among the relatives of people who are in many cases, very near death. It seems to cross a line, to somehow be in bad taste, to acknowledge that death is the end of all of us in a place where death is so close for some of us. But I felt a kinship with all of those marked people, knowing that they at least had declared themselves as something today. Catholics? Christians? Sinners? Yes, for some, all three. And I was with them in my heart as they did so.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. It is the beginning of forty days of “getting real” with ourselves and with each other. The Jews have their day of Atonement, we have our 40 days to pull ourselves together enough to try to reconcile with those we have fought with. It is our time to get real, and it begins with a reminder that we are not all that and a bag of chips. We get too big for our britches, too, and while someone may be wrong, our sin is in getting resentful about it. The cards I made for you all are a quote from the Celtic Daily Prayer prayerbook I have, and it is one of the entries for Lent.

Ash Wednesday is the Christian traditions’ giving you an opportunity to “get real”. We are human. We are less than the angels. We will die. We are less than God intended us to be. And it is through sin that we are so. We must repent. We must change direction. We must not persist in resentments. We must not be stubborn. We must repent, and seek reconciliation.

Yes, you may say. We get that. Lent is about repentance and reconciliation. But shouldn’t that be private? Why this public statement? Matthew does say that we aren’t’ to practice our piety in public.

Well, let’s read it again. Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” And again in verse 5; And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so that they may be seen by others.

The prohibition isn’t against praying in public. The prohibition is against praying in public so that you will be seen. Acknowledging your mortality, beginning a journey of repentance, discipline, Scripture reading and prayer in the way that the Christian church has long done so isn’t a really good way to make yourself look good. Rather, ashes are the acknowledgement that we have fallen short of the glory of God, and we do want to be better stewards of God’s love.

Ashes are messy. Ashes clog your pores. Ashes drop dust down on your glasses and clothes. If you wanted to be seen as a Good Christian, there are lots better ways than by having a smudge of dirt on your face.

But then again, perhaps that is the point. If we are seen as so obviously imperfect, if Christians look and feel a little bit foolish on this day, then maybe that is the first step toward what the day is for.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Thing About Boxes

Matthew 17: 1-9

When I was younger, I had a can of fog. Really! Right there on the label, it said “genuine San Francisco Fog”.

Many of you may know that I was born near San Francisco. I lived there until I was in 5th grade, before we moved east, to Illinois. I spent a lot of that time in my new town missing the old one, and on a visit back is when I think I acquired that can.

Sure, I knew that it was probably just an empty can, and I thought it was funny. It did help me remember, in a fun way, all the things that I missed about my first home. But I did have a little hope, way down deep in that place you don’t often show people, that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that there really was a bit of air vapor in that can. Maybe, just maybe, that can would have inside that feeling of coolness on my face. Maybe that coolness would bring back the sound of the bells of the cable cars, maybe it would bring back the smell of the crabs steaming on Fisherman’s wharf, maybe it would bring back that taste of a hot dog joint that I loved that has been gone so long.

When I say that I spent a lot of time in my new home missing the old, I think I probably got a little crazy about it. I am not sure what I was trying to do, but I am pretty sure that I missed out on some of the neat stuff about the new place where I lived, because I spent so much time in my head with the old.

You see, I had had a strong experience, and I tried to construct ways to commemorate it.

Peter does the same thing here, though his strong experience is seeing Jesus lifted up and made equal to Moses and Elijah, up on the mountain. Peter knew it was important. A week earlier than this story, back in Chapter 16, Peter knows who Jesus is. “You are the Messiah, the son of God”. Jesus tells them that the role of the messiah is to go to Jerusalem and be killed, and Peter tells him “don’t be talking like that, Jesus. You are the Messiah, and the Messiah isn’t supposed to die.” Jesus responds to that with “get thee behind me, Satan”, which means “don’t tempt me with this common understanding of what the Messiah is; I know what I have to do.”

Then, Peter is one the three who goes up on the mountain, and sees Jesus transfigured before them. He still wants to put some kind of fence around Jesus, though—“Hey, Jesus, let’s build us some sheds here, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah,”

God has other ideas. In Matthew, the words are barely out of his mouth when something even bigger happens—a true, inarguably true theophany occurs. That cloud that descended from heaven every time God showed up to Moses on the mountain returns, and there is a voice, the same voice that was at Jesus’ baptism, saying the same thing. This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” With an added kicker at the end: “Listen to Him!”

Listen to him. A week ago Peter was told what kind of Messiah Jesus would be. He hasn’t gotten it yet. He’ll have other failures, Peter will, we’ll be hearing about them in about 6 weeks toward the end of Lent. But here, he, James and John receive the first theophany, experience of God, in a long time. And the purpose of this theophany is to show them that they have one right in front of them, every day, in Jesus himself. Peter is still one of the three entrusted to this knowledge that Jesus tells them they can’t share until he is raised from the dead. Raised from the dead. An idea that even shuts up Peter.

These events are too big to try to fit into a booth on the side of a mountain. His wanting to build “dwellings” is his cultures’ way of putting up shrines, or those blue signs that mark the locations of historical events, like the battle of Wyoming or the tavern where coal was first burned in Wilkes Barre.

Remembering is nice. Remembering is good. It’s a way not to forget an event. But sometimes people go too far, and then they focus so much on what was that they forget to look at what will be. Peter’s in the middle of the event, and you get the feeling he’s blurting out and interrupting Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah with his suggestion about the dwellings. Never mind that the thing he wants to commemorate is still happening. He’s trying to can fog.

All of us have had experiences of the divine. Summer camp, the birth of a baby, surviving a car crash, weddings, baptism, it can happen in public and private ways. They really happened, they are real. They are also good to remember, but God does not mean for us to stay in that place in our lives. When I was baptized, I joined a more charismatic church than the United Methodist church is. They said to me that the Christian faith is meant to be simple, and the understand of it that I had them is the one I needed to struggle to keep. If I was feeling like faith was more complex than that, then I was being tested and tempted by Satan.

Faith is indeed simple. Jesus Christ loved the world, so much that he died for us, and God resurrected him in order to save us. The world will test that in an infinite number of ways. Holding fast to what is essentially scientifically impossible takes a great deal of faith sometimes. But holding fast to that doesn’t mean being afraid of the world. We know that it was true. We can’t explain it, but we know it happened. And the fact of that happening, for us, should motivate our being in the world, sharing that love, not being afraid of the world. People may mock, but it doesn’t matter. We know. We know. And our knowing sends us out to collect canned goods and donations in football jerseys. Our knowing sends our children to volunteer in Appalachia.

The thing about boxes is that they hold stuff. Scrapbooks, memory boxes, they all have their purpose. But living a life of faith inside them is difficult, and isn’t the purpose of the faith that we have been given. It’s not meant to be held, to be canned, to be boxed. Yes, I am from California. That fact affects my faith and practice in unique and special ways. But it would not do for me to stay there in my soul, because God is calling me to places I can’t imagine. Like Texas, like Guatemala, like here.

The thing about boxes is that they hold stuff. And God is not to be held. Not held in dwellings on a mountain, not held in Peter’s understanding of what a Messiah is, not held by death itself.