Friday, February 22, 2013

Who Did It For You?

These sermons of Lent are inspired by the chapters of the book “24 Hours that Changed the World”, by Rev. Adam Hamilton.

Mark 14: 12-25

The meal that Jesus gathers with his friends for in this story is the Passover dinner, a ritualistic meal in the Jewish faith that remembers the Exodus, or the story of their deliverance, as a people, from slavery in Egypt.

I’m not real clear on the symbolism, or even if the Passover as observed now is the way it was 2000 years ago. I do remember, in the modern Passover that there’s a place where the youngest person ion the room gets to ask “why this night isn’t like any other night?”

The order of ritual is called a Haggadah, and there are many variations in the modern world.

What they all commemorate, though is the greatest event in the Jewish world, the event that created them as a people. As good Jews, Jesus and his disciples and friends would of course have observed this, too.

Remember when Jesus told John the Baptist that it should be so for now that he should baptize Jesus? There are just certain things that we have to do as matters of passing, matters of societal acceptance. It may seem weird for Jesus to have observed the Passover, but also remember that he was a good Jewish man, and this is what good Jewish folk do. There may have even been a few years in which Jesus was the one who asked why this night wasn’t like all other nights, if they did that back then.

Passover is a remembrance. It’s a way to remember their history; a way to remember who they are.

Last night, at dinner at a restaurant, my father asked my son a question about his genealogy from his mothers’ side, a question about Edward I, Longshanks of England, whom my wife’s family can trace back to. He was asking about whether he was related to the body that had just been discovered recently in England (which turned out to be Edward II).

My father tells these stories for the same reason the Jews celebrate Passover-so we may remember who we are and where we come from. We all have certain facets of remembrance in our lives. There are stories we all tell about what is important to us.

Jesus, in the Passover dinner, is no different.

They were there to tell the story of their common heritage. But Jesus changed it up, that night. He took up one of the four cups used in the Passover then, and said to the people around the table (including Judas, who Adam Hamilton suggests was immediately to Jesus’ side at the place of honor the way the table was set up in those days), that this wine was his blood. Then he told them that the unleavened bread he held was like his body.

Surely this made the disciples tense, because they knew that the clouds were gathering, the evil was rising, the bad people were starting to have a plan. But when he says “each time you eat this, remember me,” they were surely confused. Jesus is not using the language of resistance.

Something new was instituted that night, and that something new itself became a remembrance, which is what we are doing today. Communion is a direct outgrowth of the actions Jesus took at the Passover dinner the night before he died.

During these next six weeks of Lent, we’re going to be concentrating on the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, as written about by Rev. Adam Hamilton of the church of the Resurrection, a United Methodist church in suburban Kansas City.

Jesus gathered his friends for Passover, which is a remembrance. We take communion as a remembrance of Jesus’ choices for us. We may also remember the ones who have come before us to the rail we come to in our churches. We may remember some significant moments while taking communion at camp, or at your wedding, or wherever.

Whatever it may be, may this be the beginning of a fruitful and meaningful Lent, as we rededicate ourselves to God’s purpose, of loving the world as he would love it.

Ash Wednesday 2013


It’s not easy for us to remember that we’re going to die, someday.

It’s inconceivable for this kids who are, here, and maybe just a little more conceivable for those who are more mature in years, but still extremely unpleasant. We also, however, know people who have said top us or to others, “I have lived too long. I am ready for God to take me home.”

We don’t want to think about it, though, until it is time. This may even be true for those who have seen death, both timely and untimely. We may have sen death in war, or the death of elderly and not so elderly, loved ones, or car accidents, or disease. Through those occurrences, there may be a few of us who are slightly more settled with the concept of death than others, but it is still uncomfortable for all of us.

And yet the traditional language of Ash Wednesday is nothing but the contemplation of returning to dust.

There’s a scene in the movie “Dead Poets’ Society” in which the English teacher, Mr. Keating, has taken all of his students to the awards case in the school’s foyer. He bids them to look at the pictures, see the faces, see their pride, their arrogance, their power, and their joy. He says that these boys in these pictures were once exactly like them, with pimples, hormones, wonderings about their future. He tells them that all that is different between the boys in the pictures and the boys staring at them are that the boys in the pictures, grew, up, married, had children, grew old, and have died. They are no more. They have gone the way of all flesh. But their voices still speak to us.

It is the ultimate stroke of humility in our lives to realize that, after all, we are not immortal. We are not indestructible. Just as that foyer had those photos in them of those who had gone before, so too we have the photos in our churches, large Sunday school classes, social groups, people who were once young and vital, and their parents and grandparents. They were just like us, in all the ways that matter. Some hated paczski, some loved them, some could not conceive of getting ashes on their foreheads, as too Catholic of a thing, others did so without a thought.

They had the same frustrations about parenting and weather, and people not showing up for church roast beef dinners enough. They lived the same lives we did. And now they are gone.

And there will be a time in which we will no longer be here, either. There will be a time in which we are not.

From dust we have come, to dust we shall return.

You might be uncomfortable right now, wondering why the preacher is hitting so strong on the idea of death.

It is, in part, that idea of a finite amount of time on earth that gives us the permission to not feel like we need to finish the Work of God before we are Gone. We know, most likely, that we will leave the job undone.

It is a relief, perhaps, to realize that. While we are not permitted to abdicate our responsibility to share God’s love, to comfort the sick, feed the hungry, neither are we required to finish the building of the Beloved Community. God has designed it this way, and we know this by the fact that we do, in fact, return to dust.

We’re only called, just like the people in all those photos on the walls, to do the best we can while we’re here.

We are indeed God’s children, put on earth for a finite amount of time, a time span which we don’t know the length of, and neither do our families, or our doctors.

And we are given a task with that time. The general task comes from Scripture: To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ. The United Methodist church adds on “for the transformation of the world.”

But how we do that, how we use the gifts and graces we’ve been given in the time we have, this is the riddle of life, this can be what Lent is for.

Once we realize we are not immortal, once we realize that we must decide how our gifts and graces should be used to construct our own little piece of the community, this can be what Lent is for.

Once we realize we are not responsible for the whole world, that weight of the world slips off our backs, and we take responsibility of just what is in front of us.

There’s the story of the guy walking down the beach, throwing starfish into the ocean. A friend comes along and tells him he’s nuts, and does he really think he can save every starfish? And he replies “well, I made a difference for that one!”

That’s all were called to do, with the time we have. And Lent is the time we can use to rededicate ourselves to our task.

And it starts with the reminder, tonight, that we are finite.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Prophets and Hometowns

Luke 4: 21-30


“No Prophet is without honor except in his hometown.”

And then Jesus illustrates this by telling the story of Elijah, who, in a time of drought in Israel, is not sent to prophesy to any of the widows of Israel, but instead to a widow in Sidon, who lives in the town of Zarepath.

And then there was Naaman the Syrian, Who was a great and powerful leader of the Syrian army, and was therefore an enemy of the Israelites. And whom was he sent to to heal his leprosy? Elisha. A prophet of Israel.

I talk last week about how hard it can be to be a leader of a people when you have grown up amongst them. People tend not to believe the wisdom of someone for whom they have babysat, or dated, or tipped cows with.

You actually tend to have, in a way a certain amount of contempt for them, if "kindly" contempt is a word we can use.

Think of Einstein’s wet nurse. He knew about his learning delays, his inability to speak before he was 8. To her, that is all he would ever be. When his brain starts working, and he gains great renown through his research and his theories, she probably still rolled her eyes. To her, he was probably just “putting on airs.”

Most folks never find out what that feels like. We accept what people tell us we are. We never find, or feel led, into the excellence that God has given us the gifts for.

It doesn’t have to be Einstein, or a pastor, or a CEO. But if you say to someone “well, I’m going to use my vacation to go build houses in Ciudad Juarez,” there will be some folks who will say “Really? Don’t you want to go further down the coast to Acapulco and have a REAL vacation?” Of course, what they are really saying is: “Acapulco is where I want to go, and by you choosing to do that, I now feel bad, and I don’t like that! And now I’m mad at you!”

It takes strength to be excellent. It takes strength to follow your call from God. It takes change. It takes the people re-adjusting to the person you are now.

And yes, there are people who will hear the criticism of their family and friends, and will step back, if for no other reason than they just don’t want to continue to be beat up. It is indeed, very hard to be a prophet in one’s hometown. Some say that one should leave where one is from in order to fulfill ones’ call, and indeed, these are the reasons that United Methodist pastors are not usually allowed to serve their home congregations. They just know you too well. And you may carry with you old childhood impressions of people that would not serve you well as an adult prophet.

We are called to grow. We are called to change. We are called to be prophets-to call people to account regarding the will of God.

You might think you are having a hard time. If folks think you are pitting on airs, because you are going to school; or because you might be the first person in your neighborhood who has been made a manager of your plant, and there are people saying “what, are you better than us?”

You might think you are having a hard time. But Jesus had it worse. When he started “putting on airs”, they tried to throw him off a cliff! He was that troubling to them.

Be who you are called to be. If you have a strong sense that you are called be somewhere that you are not right now, take the steps to get there. Our God is strong enough to lean on, so we can grow into who God leads us to be.

Or another way: We are called to be strong. We are called to be independent; we are called to be a loving witness. But sometimes, the people around us don’t want us to do that. God is strong enough to lean on in those cases, so we can be who God intends.

God is strong enough.

God is strong enough to hold back a whole towns-full of people wishing to see you fall off a cliff, and let you walk right through them.

God is strong enough for you, too.

Waving our Bibles at the Comet


Luke 4: 14-21

This scripture that we read today is a great opportunity, for those who live today, to feel a little superior to the people who lived in Jesus’ time.
It’s easy for us to say, and indeed I have heard, that we would have known Jesus is the messiah at that moment in the synagogue.

But may I submit to you that, if someone who grew up in your church, whom everyone had seen for years, and then who went away for a while, to college or to military service or for a job, and then came back to your church, as asked to read scripture, and then claimed that the scripture they had just read was actually about them; may I submit to you that you might be thinking that person might be a little disturbed? I know that if it happened in my churches, I would be thinking in my mind which mental health professional I could call.

I’m thinking that the people in that synagogue that day were no different than us, and this was a troubling event. I can hear the voices! “Who does that Jesus kid think he is? We remember babysitting him; we remember him throwing the baseball through my window; we remember him dipping that girl’s braid into ink.”
It’s no accident that the second half of this passage ends with the townspeople wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff.

It’s a strong claim he’s making to the people he’s grown up with. And just as we would have reacted to someone making claims like that in our churches, so they probably reacted then.

And yet.

He was right.

I’m not one for apocalyptic visions. If you asked me about the Mayan calendar, if you asked me about Harold Camping (twice!), if you asked me about every prophecy about the world ending, my answer is always going to be “don’t believe it!” But that doesn’t mean I do not believe Jesus will return. I just pretty much believe that Jesus will come again at a time and place, and in a way we don’t expect. I think it’s likely that he’ll return again as an infant, in an occupied territory, as a member of an oppressed minority. Maybe he already has been born, and lives in Syria, or Mali, or Darfur. Maybe he (or she) lives in the great big city dump in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, or the mountains of West Virginia. It’s going to be that sneaky, again.

Like a thief in the night. And it’s probably going to be someone we, because of our worldview and culture, don’t like. Someone who we are uncomfortable with, because of who we are.

There’s a t-shirt I once saw in Deep Ellum, the music and nightclub section of Dallas TX, that said “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy”.

We are not called to be people who recognize the Messiah when he or she comes. We are called to be, instead, people who are trying to serve God as best we can in whatever way we can, even when it is uncomfortable, or challenges our prejudices. And when we just happen to meet Jesus in those circumstances, among those whom we have learned to see as children of God, well, then, we have been caught serving. Oops. We aren’t called to be the people on the roof of the skyscraper, waving out bibles in the air as the comet flies by, but we are the people down the street in the basement, making sure the clothes are sorted properly, or that the women in front of us wearing donated business clothing, looks good for a job interview.

Giving people dignity. This is who we are called to be.

Who knows? Maybe some of those people in that synagogue later were convinced, and followed Jesus. Even if they remembered the baseball through their windows.
This is who we are called to be. Gentle, humble, joyful, passionate, generous, forgiving, compassionate, not prone to gossip, or prejudice.
May you be such people, in your lives, to the best of your ability. And know that we learn more how to do it every day. There are always people we’d rather not be around, and we are called to see them as children of God.

Let the Christians take care of themselves. You be a follower of Christ.

The Miracle of Hospitality


John 2: 1-11

Everyone has a few favorite scriptures; mine include Acts 10, when God tells Peter than what God has created no one shall call profane; this is another one.
This one is another one-it was one of the ones read at my wedding. It is important because of the obvious, that it was a wedding scene, but it was also important to me because Jesus’ first miracle is a miracle of winemaking.

Before I was in ministry, I was in the wine business. I was born in Napa Valley, CA, and went through a phase of life where I wanted to be a part of the fabric of what made my hometown significant. So I was a cellar worker, dipping my arm up to the shoulder through the top of an outdoor 10.000 gallon tank of Pinot Noir to get a lab sample; I was a tour guide, leading groups of folks through the tank rooms and aging rooms of the California branch of a French champagne company.

When you read this scripture, and preach it in a town like Napa, you get to do all kinds of things with it, such as applying brand names to be lesser and greater wines; “The steward praises the bridegroom for holding back on the Mondavi till all the Gallo had run out;” things like that.

Aside from all the wonderful stories I can tell as a preacher in conjunction with this scripture, what I love about it is how few people actually knew about it when it happened. It also matters who knew.

This is a wedding, there are likely hundreds of people there. Jesus is there, the disciples are there, Mary is there; probably most of the town of Cana is there. The steward figures out that the wine is going to run out; maybe it’s a hot day, or maybe there are more guests than expected, or maybe the consumption is way more than expected. It doesn’t matter-the bridegroom is about to be embarrassed. Mary is sensitive to this, and lets Jesus know there’s about to be a social faux-pas in that wedding, and she hollers over to Jesus to do something.

Jesus’ first miracle isn’t the returning of sight to the blind, or healing someone who can’t walk. It’s a quiet little miracle that keeps a bridegroom from being embarrassed on his wedding day.

And he doesn’t even know it. The steward doesn’t either. I can imagine the face of the groom as the steward compliments him; a certain amount of bewilderment, pleasure, and relief at a problem solved.

But the servants know what happened. The disciples probably know, Mary knows, but the wider parties, including the principals, have no clue. And maybe they never do. They just know that that wedding that day was awesome, because the wine was above average.

Isn’t that the way with miracles? Miracles, to me, are those things that change the way we act in life, but are not big splashy things that make it into newspapers. Miracles are very generally huge to the people they are affected by, and unknown to the people around the rest of the world.

We do misuse the world miracle, too. Was it really a miracle that the USA beat the USSR in ice hockey in 1980? (“Do you believe in miracles?”) Was it really a miracle that Sully Sullenberger was able to land that plane in the Hudson river after all of his engines failed, or was it, as he said, just well trained people doing their jobs? Is it really a miracle that chemotherapy and radiation works? Or is it just medical science doing what’s designed to do?

It’s a hard thing to talk about miracles. There needs to be this unexplained component of an event, but more importantly, there has to be a component of the event giving glory to God in some way. It has to point to God. No matter what may have been said back then about “godless Communism”, the US’ hockey victory points more to the glory and power of coaching, training and teamwork, than God.

It seems to be frivolous that Jesus’ first miracle is to provide the drug that keeps the party going. For teetotalers, this miracle becomes problematic as well.
But keeping the party going is not Jesus’ intent. His intent is hospitality, which for many people is the only grace they feel they are capable of. When someone is sick, everyone can cook (or order out) food for the family of the sick person. Lasagna, brownies, each of those things is hospitality; helping other people, providing comfort to others, is as important to the testifying of God’s love and grace as any return of sign to the blind. In a sense, even those healings are hospitality, too!
And the miracle of hospitality is the thing that we are all capable of. This is within our grasp. I cannot make someone who can’t walk to walk again; but I can make a plate of fried chicken! I cannot take away cancer, but I can learn how to perform surgery to remove it as best I can, or I can clean their cat box, or clean their bathroom.

The miracle is in the love we show. The miracle is in the caring we show, and it is no less a miracle than turning water into wine.
It may sound like a strong statement, but try it sometime. And then try to receive someone else’s hospitality. When we receive someone else’s grace, it can be as powerful as successful surgery.

Hospitality can be a miracle. Truly.

Baptism of Christ


Luke 3: 15-17. 21-22

Nobody is born a Christian. You can be born into a Christian culture, just like you can be born into a Jewish culture. But one can be an atheist in still be Jewish. You cannot say that about Christianity. You must choose it, at some point.

It may feel like you can; some of you were born into Christian families, and have been attending church since you were brought in a baby-carrier. But there was some point at which you made some sort of a decision, either in small portions, or all at once, to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

I was in and out of Methodist and Episcopalian churches my whole life, wherever my father was hired as a singer or a choir conductor. But I did not become a Christian in either of those denominations; instead, I became a Christian at 26 years old in a non-denominational church. I remember the day well, and am still friends with one of the people who were also baptized that day. It was a time when I needed help, and I saw in God the strength to do what I needed to do, but that I could not do myself.
Those of us who were baptized as infants do not remember the day. You were brought to the church by your family or friends, and the congregation (if it was Methodist) pledged to bring you up in the ways of the faith, until such time as when you were able to be confirmed, and at that time, you took responsibility for your own salvation.
For each of us, there has been a time when we were not Christian. Whether it be for a few weeks, a month or two, or a year, or whether it was much longer, like me, there was a time when we were not marked as God’s own. Baptism was the sign that we all participated in to mark us as Christ’s own.

Today is the baptism of Christ. Today is the day we acknowledge that even someone who had the connection with God that Jesus did; access to the bandwidth that Jesus did, had to start with a very mundane procedure to mark the acceptance of God’s grace in his life; his “repentance”.

John, in another account of the story, sees Jesus coming and, since they’re cousins, and since John knows who Jesus is, since his birth, says, “I should be baptized by you!” Jesus tells him “let it be so for now.”

No one is worthy of being the person who performs baptism, but it still has to happen. Baptism is for us the “outward and visible sign of an inward movement and change.” Someone’s got to do it, but we all know that we are not anything more than just the vessel through which the Spirit works.

There are some churches, as well, who believe that you must be baptized again each time you change churches, but we in the United Methodist traditions do not. We do not “rebaptize”, whether you come from Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, whatever. If you were baptized in any church that believes in the Trinity, that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he was resurrected; if the church claims that doctrine, even if you personally have issues with it, you are still not rebaptized.

But I do know that it can be hard to find meaning in baptism, or in being baptized, if you don’t remember. For others, our baptism is a memory that needs to be claimed and cherished.

So this morning, we do a re-affirmation of our baptisms.

Nativity Scenes

Matthew 2: 1-18

It’s an important thing to remember; the lectionary reading for today ends at verse 12, but it’s important to remember what happens after Jesus’ birth, in Matthew. The coming of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus, even as a human baby, meant a threat to people in power.

You read this whole periscope, therefore, so we are reminded that the coming of the messiah does indeed bring a sword; that Herod was so threatened by the appearance of three wise foreigners to his land looking for a king foretold in the heavens, that on their word, he sends soldiers to kill every child under two years old in the district the wise men mentioned they were headed toward, as a way of ensuring that that one child would also be eliminated.

It is important to remember that these things happen. Power is jealous. That which is good in this world is often opposed by those for whom the world will change.

It is important to remember, but it is not my main point today.

Many churches these days will display nativity scenes in their sanctuaries, or outside in their yards. Many folks will also have them in their homes.

Do you know where the tradition of nativity scenes comes from? The inventor of the idea is generally understood to be none other than St. Francis of Assisi himself! That makes nativity scenes a tradition some 800 years old.

From his invention, we see Polish woodcarvings that depict the steeples of one town’s churches surrounding the holy family; we see Veggietales characters as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and Jesus; and scenes that are on the lawns of courthouses, private residences. We see live ones, static ones, rubber ones, stone ones, ones dressed in traditional first century middle eastern garb, and ones that reflect the regular dress of the people who created it.

My son has a self contained one that holds only the Holy family, that as created out of a gourd, and the people inside are dressed in traditional Bolivian garb, with Mary wearing that distinctive fedora women wear there.

If you have a crèche, you probably have a story about where it came from.

The birth of Christ, and his childhood, are universal touchstones. Many of us know what it means to care for a newborn and infant. We may not know what were used for diapers on Jesus; Procter and Gamble didn't exist back then. But sleepless nights from colicky babies is something Mary may have known as well as us. The wondering when the proper time is to transfer the baby to more solid food; the worry if the baby will get enough to eat if Mary’s milk dried up too early. Just as we have these worries now, Mary may have had them then.

Because Jesus came as a human being, we all understand what his life was like, to a certain degree.

This is what Francis wanted to see, I think. He invented the practice after having gone to the traditional site of the birthplace, to the church built over the site, and the reality of such an occasion was what he wanted to highlight; this is why he invented the practice. That’s real straw, those are real donkeys and goats, these are the smells and the sights that greeted the Christ child when he drew his first breath on earth.

I think he also would have loved that these scenes have taken on the colors and the clothing and the styles of the cultures that create them-it highlights to me anyway, the universality of the gift of the messiah. I think he would have loved that these scenes can be made into toys, even LEGOs and Veggie Tales!

This story is for everyone; so everyone is allowed to dress their characters as they want to. Masai tribes-people can put Kente cloth on their figures-Japanese can put kimonos on theirs.

“Unto us a son is given”, we sing in the Messiah. This means the whole world, no exceptions. For some, that is a blessing. For others, as we read at the end of the passage, it is a threat.

Which is it for you?