Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon: Rising Waters and a Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17

I read recently that the Arctic ice is melting at the highest rate in at least 1500 years. ͞Not wanting to accept one group’s assessment of the issue, I looked at the Nation Snow and Ice Data Center, who state that arctic sea ice in 2017 has been declining 3.7% per decade since 1978 when satellite imaging began. NASA’s estimate is considerably higher, suggesting that arctic sea ice is decreasing at 13.2% per decade. The Pentagon has argued that we need to update our defense strategy to deal with the diminishing ice levels.

As our global climate changes, rising seas, superstorms, and devastating floods are a very real and ever-present threat.͟ I am not trying to be political here; rather, what I want to observe is that we live, like Noah, on the edge of a world with dangerous waters. Noah received a warning that a flood was coming, and he was the one who listened, while others mocked him. While we may not be worried over a worldwide flood, we do know that the changes in our world have resulted in more frequent flooding, with water and storm damage devastating people’s lives.

I personally have never experienced the true horror of a flood. I have been caught in storm runoff that stalled our car when the water became over a foot deep, and we have experienced the flooding of our church basement here.

But I have never experienced what Mike and Michaelann Hammods experienced.

“As darkness descended one May evening in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, rain fell in sheets on the ranch-style house where the Hammonds family lived. Around 10 p.m., Mike and Michaelann Hammonds went downstairs to check the basement and found water seeping under a window along the basement’s south wall. The couple began to push boxes of clothes, toys, and household items toward the center of the room.’

“Minutes later, without warning, the basement’s west wall gave way, and a flood of cold, muddy water rushed in, engulfing the room and the couple and covering the stairs. By the time the surge ended a few seconds later, Mike and Michaelann were caught in eight feet of water, pinned in place by debris on opposite sides of the room. They had to hold their faces just above water. The smell of natural gas permeated the room.’

“Go get Don!” Mike yelled to their kids, Emma, 14, and Matthew, 13, who were standing at the top of the basement stairs. Don Molesky, 49, a long-haul trucker, and his mother, Helen, 75, lived across the street.

“Don was mopping up water in his own basement when he heard the kids yelling for help at his back door. He waded with the kids across the street, where they led him to the basement stairs. When Don saw what was happening, he called to Matthew to dial 911, then ran back across the street to get a saw.’

“John Underwood, 29, vice president of a development and property-management firm, had stopped his truck behind a disabled car at the flooded intersection just outside the Hammondses’ home. When he got out to check on the driver, he heard a girl scream, “My parents are trapped!”

“John, a retired Marine, ran toward the house. Once inside, he realized that he’d have to cut a hole in the floor to reach the couple. He sent Matthew to grab an ax from the garage.’

“Where are you?” John yelled through the floor.

“Here!” Michaelann responded from an area under the front door.

“John pulled up carpet and yelled out a warning to Michaelann, then swung the ax and hacked a line across the living room floor. Don returned with his circular saw, and the two men cut out a rectangular panel. John pulled back the wood and heating ducts and thrust his hand into the water. Michaelann grasped it, and John and Don pulled her out. Then Don wrapped Michaelann in a coat, and a neighbor ushered her out of the house.’

“The men were dizzy from breathing the gas, but they went back for Mike, who’d been in the freezing water for about 45 minutes.’

“John called down to Mike, who was found in a space under the hallway between the living room and kitchen. As John and Don began to cut, three firefighters arrived; together, the five men broke through and pulled Mike to safety. “I couldn’t stop saying thank you, ” says Mike.’

“Three days later, city authorities condemned the Hammondses’ house. The couple didn’t have flood insurance, but county officials agreed to buy the house for the amount the family owed on their mortgage. They’ve relocated to a furnished rental house close to their old neighborhood for the time being.’

“John and Don didn’t consider for a moment that their lives were in danger,” Mike attests.

“As for the heroes, they were simply happy to help their neighbors. Says John, “Now we’re all connected.”[1]

And here perhaps is the greatest similarity with this story and the story of Noah. You see, Noah experienced the flood and then the rainbow.

It wasn’t until after the storm, after the flood that he knew that God deeply and truly was committed to creation and saving it. Like Mike and Michaelann, Noah first had to face the horror and devastation of the flood itself. And he must have been worried in the midst of it. It isn’t until after going through the deep waters that he is shown the promise of the rainbow and God’s promises for the future.

And how symbolic is that of our lives regarding how troubles in our life occur? Most of the time we face the deep waters, the problems, the heartaches of school shootings before we ever experience any of God’s promises that it will be okay. The pain and the trauma come first, and then the hope.

And yet, one of the things that we often forget is that we live in a world where the rainbow promise has already been made. We already can trust that God is going to protect us, even in the midst of the storm. We shouldn’t be worried. As one commentary says, we know that ͞”The rainbow reminds us God is the saviour, not the one from whom we must be saved. Always. Because – more than anything else – God is love. Full stop. And that love is mightier than a raging river and deeper than a roiling chasm. It pierces the night like a bolt of lightning illuminating the cloud filled skies. It rumbles over the face of the earth shaking the ground with its message – a message not of fear, but of love; a message not of judgment but of grace; a baptismal message, a covenant promise.”[2] ͞

Noah did not have the luxury of the covenant until after the flood. As the waters rose and the torrents rushed about, as the waves tossed the ark, would he have known that he could trust God? Probably not. God hadn’t made any promises to anyone else at that time. There was no Abraham who God told he would have descendants as numerous as the stars, there was no David whose Son would reign forever over Israel, there was no Christ with his promise of eternal life – no rainbow in the sky – just a warning from God that a flood was coming and he should get ready. Could he trust this God? We know he could, but he didn’t. In the same way Mike and Michaelann had to trust that their kids would find help, that these neighbors that they had never had to rely on in an emergency would be the kind they could trust. And fortunately, they could.

And I could end my sermon there with the basic message that we live in a time when we know we can trust God and we can hold on to that. However, that isn’t really enough.

There is also a challenge to us from that passage. We must be people who also claim responsibility for that promise that God made to creation.

God said the earth would not flood again, and we have a role in being the flood preventers, flood responders, and rainbow rememberers. Alongside God, we are meant to be ones who are protectors of the promise. As followers of God, we have always been co-workers in God’s history of salvation, we are the Noah’s who build arks, his children who collect and preserve animals, and in the process sharers of God’s love. We should be the Johns and the Dons who cut through floors to save our neighbors, we should be the people who respond to cries for help, we should be people who help those who are in the horror of the floods of life, and are searching for rescue. Like I said, we are the flood preventers, the flood responders and the rainbow rememberers.

The rainbow reminds us that God’s intention is not to destroy through flood, it reminds us that God is the savior not the one from whom we must be saved, but it also reminds us that we have a role in that – just as Noah did -- a calling to hard work to bring salvation not just to other people, but to all of creation.

There is a call to action in this story. A call to action based upon the hope that God gives us, that God is a God who saves. God is a God who can be trusted, and often we are the eyes, hearts and hands of God in the world who make God’s salvation real. So when the storms hit, and they will; when the floods come, and they will; be people of the rainbow. Bring healing, bring hope. Be agents of God’s goodness even in the face of rising waters.

Sermon: Who Am I Following

Mark 9:2-9

Imagine for a moment that you are Peter, James or John. You were fishermen, and you gave up your lives fishing to follow this man, Jesus. You gave up everything: not just your jobs, but your family, your friends, your homes, and everything you knew in life to do it. And day by day as you followed him you saw amazing things.

If you glance at the book of Mark, since joining Jesus, they have seen him heal people with unclean spirits, cure those with paralysis, withered hands, make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and even bring back a to life a dead girl; they have witnessed miracles as he stilled a storm while they were sailing in it, fed huge crowds of people twice, and walked on water; they have heard him teach with many parables, explain spiritual life and predict that he would die and rise again. They have witnessed a lot.

But if you are anything like me, always in the back of your mind there would be little nagging thoughts like, “These are not normal things that he is doing. Is he safe? Who is this man? Because if I can’t answer that question, why am I following him?” You see, I am really good at second guessing my decisions.

Like the decision to ask to move this year. I know that for the church and its finances it is a good idea, and yet, I am terrified by the thought – I haven’t had to adjust to a new place or a new group of people in almost 12 years. I know you, and I love you anyways! So there is a part of me that says, you shouldn’t have requested a move, even though I know deep down that it will be for the best.

I know myself well enough to know that if I were one of the disciples, there would be moments when I would be missing my family, or missing the days going out and fishing, when I would ask, “Did I make the right decision to follow him? Should I go back to my family and the life of safety and security I knew? Or should I continue following? Fishing made sense, but this, this new life often doesn’t.” I know there would be a part of me, if I were Peter, James or John that would wonder if I had made the right decision.

And then comes this day, this day where we are on a mountaintop and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, and the a cloud of the presence of God settled on the mountaintop and proclaimed, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”

Well, now what would I feel?

This moment would certainly help answer my questions about who Jesus is, and whether I had made the right decision in following him. If you are going to follow someone, the Son of God seems like a good choice among all the options out there. I mean, follow a politician or a teacher or a pastor or the Son of God. Hmm, seems pretty easy. So I would be more confident that I had made the right choice in following Jesus. But this experience on the mountain which we call the transfiguration still leaves me with questions – what does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God? And what is expected of his followers?

These are not easy questions. When a person applies to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, one of the questions we have to answer at great length is, “What does the Lordship of Christ mean?”

In other words, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God, and what is expected of his followers. Sound familiar?

For me, I summarized Christ as the love and wisdom of God in human flesh. Christ is God’s love put on earth, in motion, and at work in the world. He is also God’s wisdom and word, that teaches us and instructs us what we are to do and be as the people of God. For me that is what it means when I say that Christ is the Son of God, but clearly that is only how one person answers that question. Each of us perceives it slightly differently, explains it with different emphasis, and struggles with the question in our own way. If we all understood it the same way, we wouldn’t have to ask the question.

“Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University wrote a remarkable study of the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ titled Jesus Through the Centuries. Dr. Pelikan demonstrates how Jesus has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture. Each age has made Jesus relevant to its own needs. Jesus has furnished each new age with answers to fundamental questions as every generation has had to address new social problems that tested the more fundamental questions of human existence. The world had to take note of Jesus as a rabbi, as the Cosmic Christ, the Ruler of the World, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Son of Man, the True Image of Man, the Great Liberator. In many other ways Jesus furnished the answers and the images that affected society in positive ways.”

“Dr. Pelikan's thesis is that Jesus did not and does not belong to the churches and the theologians alone, but that he belongs to the world. None of this is to say that we can make Jesus what we want Jesus to be. Quite the opposite. It is to say that the Christ is adequate for all our needs and that Jesus transcends culture in such a way that he is able to belong to each age and to address the issues of all time.”[1]

Whew, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

It reminds me that even after reading great theologians, and personally writing a many page paper on the Lordship of Christ, I still must confess that like Peter I am still somewhat ignorant.

There is still mystery and confusion about the nature of Christ, and that leaves me a little out of sorts so that I don’t quite know what to do.

Thus Peter wonders aloud, should we build things to honor God? A question we still ask. Is it important to have shrines where holy encounters take place? Or is there other work that is more important? See, Peter doesn’t look quite so foolish when you realize we struggle with the same questions.

I like what one commentary says about this, “As we stand with the disciples, we share with them their ignorance for fully comprehending these events. Yet we are not left purely baffled. The voice of God gives us definite insight and directions: Jesus Christ is God’s beloved son, and we are to heed his words. Under the authority of Christ and in obedience to his teaching, we are called to live our lives.”[2]

Or in my own words, when we walk with the disciples we realize that we also are confused by what we have seen.

But we also hear the voice of God telling us that our primary job as a follower is to listen to Christ, to experience his resurrection from the dead and then to be witnesses to what we have seen.

Listening to him is not just hearing his words. When someone commands us to listen to them, they aren’t asking us simply to hear them, but they usually want us to actually heed their words. It is more than using our ears, but also our hearts, minds and hands. We must absorb his words into ourselves so that they are our very way of life. Listening to Christ means living out his teachings.

Experiencing his resurrection is not just arguing about the historical accuracy of the biblical account, but it is seeing how Christ continues to bring life to the world around us today. It is understanding that he is able to overcome hatred and death with the power of God’s eternal love – not just for himself, but that he leads us all to that victorious place. It isn’t just reading about it, but it is seeing it as it happens, in our lives and in the lives of others.

Witnessing to what we have seen is not simply seeing it and recording it in our memories, but it means being willing to tell others about our experiences. A court witness who had seen the crime but could not testify about it would be no use. To be witnesses to Christ means striving to tell the truth about our experiences of him in our lives. It means sharing what we have learned: the good, the bad and the ugly. It means passing on what we have heard and what we have experienced.

That’s really a summary of our job as followers. Listen, experience and witness. Or in words that are closer to our church vision statement: See, love, serve. Use your eyes, your hearts and your hands.

So as we follow Christ, we realize that what is possible with God is miraculous, and mind-stretching. It can leave us feeling ignorant and foolish. Despite that, God’s expectation of those of us who witness such miracles is relatively simple. Sit at the feet of Christ, learn from him, discover the death-challenging power of resurrection, and then show and tell others the good news.

[1] CSS Publishing Company, Which Way to Jesus?, by Harry N. Huxhold
[2] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Soards, Dozeman and McCabe

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sermon: Even Eagle Scouts Grow Weary

Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39

In a combination of the scripture and scout Sunday – my title is in some ways a play on words. But it is also a reminder of the truth. No matter how awesome we are, all of us as human beings grow tired. Even a scout is tired after backpacking 15 miles in one day with a heavy pack through the Smokey Mountains – I know from experience!

Or watch a marathon runner. They get to the finish line and their legs start to give out, they wobble, they fall down, they collapse in physical exhaustion. 2012 Olympic marathon runner Desiree Davilla says that it takes her a full two weeks off from exercise to start to recover. Then she takes two more weeks very lightly. That’s one month.[1] As great a condition as these peak athletes are in, they hit the wall following this event, and their body has to recover.

The same is true even if we aren’t marathon runners or backpackers. In life, there will be times when we stumble, when we are tired, when we feel burnt-out. When we simply can’t go another step and we have to stop and rest. It doesn’t matter how amazing we are, it can happen. Nobody can go 100% all the time. Eventually we will collapse.

And we haven’t even talked about the other thing that Isaiah talks about, getting old. That happens to us all if we live long enough too. It is part of life. And as we age, our bodies eventually wear out. Our knees need to be replaced, our elbows hurt, our energy is less than it used to be, and we take more naps. Isaiah is reminding us, that no matter who we are: youths will grow weary and tired, young men will stumble. Given enough time – it will happen. That is part of being human.

Isaiah then contrasts us with God. You see, God’s strength is not like ours. God’s strength is everlasting.

God has been around from the beginning crafting and shaping the universe. Isaiah reminds us that every day the sun rises and sets without fail. That seeds are planted, root and grow because the breath of the Lord blows upon them. God’s strength is unending.

Isaiah then goes on to say that when we are confronted with this dichotomy: our weakness and God’s strength it is tempting to say “My way is hidden from the Lord, my God ignores my predicament.” In other words, we may think we shouldn’t grow tired if God is with us, and so if we do grow tired, God must be ignoring us. That is what the Israelites are saying in their troubled times when this was written. But it isn’t true –even if we feel abandoned and worn out, we are not ignored and unimportant. It is simply part of being human that we need rest. God doesn’t work by taking away our human limitations; rather, God works by restoring us through rest, through healing and through wholeness. God reminds us of our humanness, reminds us that we are not like God, and helps us to be at our best again.

So God’s strength is not one that takes away the struggles and the difficulties of life. God doesn’t make it so we can run a marathon without getting tired; instead God uses that strength to bring us healing and wholeness. God uses that month of rest to do miracles within our body, healing the bones, the cells, and restoring our strength.

The hardest part of this for us as humans is that oftentimes this healing and recovery do not happen until after we have already hit bottom. God’s timing is often not our timing. And yet the message of Isaiah to a people who have given up hope is of God’s ability to renew and restore, to bring about refreshment even after they have collapsed.

Just to help us understand that, let’s look at another passage. This is from the gospel of Mark, and it is about Jesus and his healings.

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

Listen to this quote from Bruce and Katherine Epperly, “Jesus was a pulsing center of divine power and energy. Like an electrical transformer, the energy of love flowed from Jesus toward persons in need of physical, relational, emotional, and spiritual healing. The power that emanated from his touch and presence was akin to the power of the big birth and the first light of creation, the primal energy that penetrates the darkness and brings forth life from God’s womb of creativity. Grounded in his unity with God, Jesus was the connective “vine” through whom God’s life-giving energy flowed abundantly to everyone he touched.” (SOS)

But he still needed to get away. His human body could only take so much. Even Jesus had to rest, he could only heal so many people, only put in so many hours of work, before he would collapse. Then what restored him was that connection with God, his time of prayer.

We also should be seeking that connection with that renewing and restoring power of God, especially when we are exhausted. Because that connection with that energizing touch of Christ is still available to us –

When we grow weary, tired; when we are in need of healing physically, emotionally or spiritually, we can reach out and be connected through the vine to our very creator -- the one who made the grasshoppers, the redwoods, and the stars in the heavens.

I can certainly give personal examples. There have been many times in life when I have been exhausted. There are days when I need to go home early. Days when visitations at the hospital, or when funerals and grieving families start to weigh heavy on my soul. There are days when I personally am struggling with depression. There was one stretch, one summer here when I did 10 funerals in 8 weeks. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed rest. But God didn’t leave me there. Over time with prayer, and with reconnection to the love of Christ, and allowing his love to refill me, and flow through me again, I was restored. It probably took days and weeks, perhaps even months to completely feel restored, but eventually it came. Vacations help! (That’s why I went away last week, I was feeling exhausted). That is part of being human. We run and we do fall down. We do grow tired.

But God does not abandon us. We can find ourselves renewed in strength, so that we can fly like the eagles, run and walk with growing weary (at least for a while).

God gives power to the tired, and revives the exhausted, brings healing to the sick, and hope to the downtrodden. When we hit bottom, when we collapse, that help and power is available to us. And we need to take advantage of it. We can connect to that life-giving energy, that primal power of the divine, and while it will not make us gods, it will revive us and give us renewed strength. Yes, it can take days, weeks, even months.

So when you are tired, it is okay. God hasn’t abandoned you. Rather, it is part of being human. Even Eagle Scouts Grow Weary. But know that God can restore you. And when the day comes when your body ultimately gives in to age and needs its final rest, God will restore you then too. Giving strength to your soul, healing to your spirit, and allowing you to mount up with wings like angels into the heavenly realm.

[1] https://runnersconnect.net/coach-corner/how-much-time-do-you-need-to-take-off-after-a-marathon/

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sermon: Some Assembly Required

Mark 1:14-20

Jesus begins his ministry with the words, “Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom!” As though he is saying today is the day. Too often we talk about the kingdom of God as something that is not yet here, that is still to come in the future. And I confess I have done that too. But that isn’t how Jesus starts his ministry – he starts it saying, “Now is the time.”

I remember one of my professors asking the very provocative question, “When does eternal life begin?” He was trying to get us to think about whether we had to die before it started. Is it a future reality or are we even in this life beginning that time of eternity? Jesus’ statement is much the same, “Now is the time.” The kingdom is here, eternal life has begun, you are already stepping into the new.

Of course, we also still have a foot in the old. This world is not yet perfect. There are still tears and death and grief. There is still evil and violence, hatred and rejection. We ourselves still have bodies that grow weak, and spirits that are capable of sin. But even so we are also stepping into the new. It is here, just not finished.

It is like at Christmas when you were a kid, and you unwrapped the present that was just what you wanted. You were so excited, there it was, it was really yours. But when you opened the box, there were those words you hated to see – some assembly required. And so you had to wait while dad or mom got out the screwdriver, the wrench, the hammer, the arc-welder, whatever was required and put it together.

Funny story. Have you heard about the man who ordered a tree house over the internet?

When the box arrived, it had printed on the top the words that have become every parent's nightmare: "Some assembly required." I didn’t know Ikea made treehouses.

The man began to assemble the tree house (but would you believe it?) as he laid out all the parts on the floor and began reading the instructions, he realized (to his dismay) that the instructions were indeed for a tree house, but the parts were for a sail boat!!

The next day, he sent an angry e-mail message to the company complaining about the mix-up. Back came the reply:

"We are truly sorry for the error and the mix-up and the inconvenience. However, it might make you feel better to consider the fascinating possibility that somewhere today there is a man out on a lake trying to sail your tree house."[1]

Fortunately, with the kingdom of God, we know that we have the right plans, and the right parts, but what we need are the workers. I think that is what Jesus was saying that day, “Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom. Some assembly required. And I am recruiting assemblers.”

Now I know that Jesus uses a very different metaphor in the scripture passage. He talks about recruiting fishermen and women. But the idea is the same. Jesus is recruiting people to do the work of the Kingdom. In my example, rather than fishers, Jesus is looking for assemblers who can put together the gift that God has planned for us. And that’s what the disciples were, people who started putting the kingdom together. And you and I are the next generation that has been hired for the job, to keep the work going.

You see, some buildings take longer than others to complete. Construction on St. Peter's Basilica began in 1506 and was not completed until 120 years later in 1626.

That means that it is very unlikely that the workers that started on it were the same ones that were there on its completion. Unless you had some kid who started at six helping carry tools who was still there in at 126 putting finishing touches on the decorations. In fact, during this time of construction there were 17 popes. So the vision for the project and the person in charge of the fundraising changed frequently.

We also know that the original architect was Donato Bramante, but when he died just 6 years into the project he was replaced by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, who was also a famous painter. Raphael died in 1520. Worked stalled for a bit, until Antonio da Sangallo the Younger became the chief architect and proposed several changes, including strengthening the supports which had already begun to crack. In 1547 Michelangelo became the superintendent of the building program at St. Peters. He eventually handed the work off to Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana. And I am going to quit there because I quit trying to pronounce all those Italian names!

As you can see, popes changed, architects changed, building supervisors changed. I would also suspect there were many changes in the construction supervisors, the work team leaders not to mention the building crews. The fact is, such a large and complex work required handing off the responsibilities to the next generation in order to complete the work. How did they do that? Well, they left a few drawings, explanations and details, but the most helpful method of keeping the final goal in mind was a large wooden model of the finished product. It was understood from the beginning that the project was going to take longer than one person could bring to completion. And they knew they needed to pass on the information.

With the kingdom of God, That is what you and I are called to do and be as well. We are the ones who have been handed the work, job by job and role by role from the very hands of the disciples.

We are the current assembly crew, and we are also the one’s training the next crew that will replace us in the task. It is a little humbling to realize that each of us will be replaced, that our plans may not be the final ones, and that our names will probably be forgotten. (I mean who remembers who cut the stone that is the 5th from the left and 6 up in St. Peter’s basilica?) But we still do the work to the best of our ability, to the best of our knowledge of what will work best. At the same time we teach the next generation how to use the tools of the trade.

And we have a model, in the form of the teachings of Christ, and we have the work that has been done in the twenty centuries since Christ, so we aren’t building from nothing. Yet we also know the project is far from completion. And sometimes there are cracks in what has been done before us, and we have to patch and fix it along the way. But still Jesus says, “The kingdom is here.” He didn’t say it is coming, but it is here. The gift is sitting on your floor like the Christmas gift you’ve opened.

And like those before us, we must pull the pieces out of the box, and strive to put it together. Thankfully the master has given us instructions on how --  but he still expects us to use our hands for the work. As he says, the time is now!

So just for a moment consider, what is your role in the assembly of God’s kingdom? What is your contribution? Are you a designer with an eye for beauty? Are you a nuts and bolts person who understands the practical parts? Are you the organizer who helps bring people together to get the work done? Are you the financier who helps pay for it? Are you a little of all of these things?

As I was driving this week, I was listening to a book on church leadership, and I heard to story of Hal and Gus. These two men attend church together every week. Hal is in a wheelchair, and Gus is blind. Gus pushes Hal, and Hal tells Gus which way to go, where to turn, etc. Together they are a great example of the church. We each have limitations, but we also have abilities that we can share with others. Alone we might not get where we are going, but together we can. So your skills are important, each of us is needed to assemble the Kingdom. Designers, construction crew, organizers, and financers.

Because Jesus is calling all of those kinds of people to keep doing the work. And he needs you. He can even train you to be the next link in the important chain that brings the kingdom of God to completion.

[1] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by James W. Moore

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sermon: The Best Call Story is Yours

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Twice a year I and a great team of others from around the state lead a two day seminar for people who are considering going into professional ministry. It is the first step of a journey toward becoming a pastor. One of the important parts of that seminar is sharing stories of call – kind of like Samuel’s. We bring in pastors from around the state who share how they felt God’s call.

When we use the phrase God’s call, what we mean by that is how they struggled to know what God wanted them to do with their lives. How did they know that God was leading them into pastoral ministry? What had God done to draw them or to push them that direction?

The story of Samuel is a perfect example of a call from God. But most people’s stories are more complex than this one. Usually they don’t hear a voice in the night, but there is clearly a leading from God and the involvement of other important people. So I invite pastors from around the state to share their call stories with these people who are considering ministry. The idea is that by hearing how other people knew and understood God’s leading, it might help these new folks who are trying to figure out God’s call in their lives.

So for example, during these presentations I might tell how I ended up in pastoral ministry.

My grandmother was one of the most amazing women that I have ever known. She had 8 kids, and she prepared every one of them to be very successful. One of her dreams was that one of her children would be a pastor, but that dream did not come true. My dad thought about it, he met with the supervising committee to talk with them about it, took a some classes in preparation, but the meeting didn’t go well, and he didn’t do very well in the classes, so he went into engineering. My dad had told me all of this as I was growing up – so perhaps God was planting a seed early on. My grandmother died my freshman year of college.

That was a very difficult time for me, I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. But across the hall from me lived a wonderful friend, and he invited me to become involved in a Christian group on campus. It was a great place of friendship and fellowship, and it taught me just how deeply God loved me, even if I didn’t deserve it. Through that group during the summer between my sophomore and junior year I went to a three week leadership camp, where I learned an incredible amount, but I also had a moment during one of our meetings where I knew that God wanted me to be a pastor, so I said to God, “Yes, I will do that.”

About an hour later I changed my mind, I remember praying, “God, I don’t think I need to be a pastor, I can serve you just as well as a teacher or a professor.” You see, I planned to get a doctorate in English Literature and work at a university. So I followed my plan. In my senior year in college I sent out applications to all sorts of graduate schools to pursue my doctorate in English Literature. I even got a full ride offer.

Before going to graduate school I decided to take a year off and earn some money to pay for this further schooling. And that is where the weird started to happen. The school that had offered me a full-ride lost my application, and the opportunity vanished. I sent out other applications and was not accepted at any of the other schools. I began to wonder what was happening while I remembered in the back of my mind that commitment at camp.

So again I prayed, “God just to humor you, I will send out one seminary application. Just one. And we’ll see what happens.” What happened was that as soon as they received it, they personally called me, and asked me to come and visit. I did, and before I knew what was really happening I was enrolled and attending United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH.

During my second year of seminary, I started working at a church for the first time, and I knew that this was what God wanted me to do, and it was what I needed to do. And my grandmother’s dream was fulfilled, and from heaven I know she was proud of me. That’s my call story.

So during this seminar that I lead, we have the attenders gather in small groups and share how they got to this point. What is it in their lives that has made them think God is calling them to a professional ministry?

They share, like I shared. It is a deeply personal and powerful time of reflection. There is laughter and tears. What I’ve learned from this is that although Samuel’s call story is pretty amazing – the best call story is yours.

I mean, it is pretty cool that God calls Samuel in the night four times, that Samuel actually hears the voice of God, that Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of his master. And it is a little creepy and frightening that his first job is to tell his master, Eli, that God is angry with his family and will punish him, so that their family will no longer be priests in the temple. From that moment Samuel is a prophet of God, bringing messages of hope and messages of condemnation. That is a cool call story.

But yours is still better. Because your call story is the one that God has for your life. Sharing that story is more powerful than sharing Samuel’s because it is real to you – you have lived it.

Now, I know that not everyone is called to professional ministry. But everyone is called. That calling may be to be the best Christian business executive you can be, it might be to be the teacher that demonstrates God’s love to the kids, it might be to help serve at every potluck the church has, it might be to volunteer at RAM, it might be speak a prophetic word to leadership; but we are all called by God, every day. Sometimes it is easy to hear that call (like a voice calling to Samuel) – and other times it can be very hard to tell if God is speaking to us or not (like mistaking that voice for the voice of the master). Sometimes we accept that call (like saying “God, I will do that”), sometimes we refuse it (like saying “God, I don’t think I need to be a pastor”). But you are called whether you hear it easily or not, whether you accept it or not.

Think about that for a moment, how did you get to where you are? Where has God led you? When have you felt God nudging you?

Perhaps you had not thought of this before. Perhaps God is calling you someplace new today – and you are fighting it like I did. But you are called. And it may be time for you to answer, “Here I am, Lord, Speak for your servant is listening.”

Or perhaps your call has developed over your life, and the path has taken you many places you never would have guessed, through valleys, over mountaintops, and God still has plans for you.

Or perhaps you have a clear moment in your past like Samuel’s, or like mine where you knew what God was leading your toward, and you can say, this is the day it happened.

Whatever the case, I recommend that you spend some time thinking about your call story, about where God has led you, and how God has been involved in your life, because it is in sharing this story that you will touch other people’s lives. I mean, you can share Samuel’s story, but it is just a story in a book. But if you share your story, with your passion, with your heart, with your flesh and blood presence in front of another person – that has power. It is a witness to God’s activity in your life. And it will bring laughter and tears.

So as much as I love Samuel’s story, the one I hope that you leave church today with, is yours. Think about putting it into words. Who in your past helped you to know what God wants you to do with your life? How did God your attention? What roadblocks and opportunities have cropped up along the way? Where has God spoken to you, and how have you responded? When did you realize (or maybe you haven’t yet) that you were on the right path?

Oh, and remember that your story is not done yet. God is still calling you. There may be something new tomorrow that God calls you to. Never put “The End” on your call story, until God brings you into the eternal home in heaven, because until that day, God still may have more surprises in store for you!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sermon: Watermarks

Baptism is so simple.  Find one of the most common things on earth, water.  Then get wet.  But it is so much more than that.  Bishop Judith Craig had an excellent visual example several years ago at Annual Conference.  She took a piece of paper, held it up to the light, and said yes there it is.  A watermark.

You can see them on stamps, checks, extra fine letterhead or typing paper.  All sorts of things have watermarks.  Usually the marks tell us who made it, and what grade of paper it is.  These marks are there to assure us of the document’s authenticity, they are also there to assure us of their quality. According to Wikipedia, watermarks were first introduced in 1282, in Italy!

The term is also used for those marks on online photos so you don’t use copyrighted materials. In a sense, these say, “These images belong to me and are not for use without permission.” Like watermarks on paper they are there to prove the authenticity of the final product.

Bishop Craig said that, those of us who are baptized have watermarks.  If you hold us up to the light of God you can see them. [grab eraser]  And once we are baptized no one else can erase it, though we ourselves might ignore it.  It is an indelible claim that God has made on our lives, which says you are special.  An authentic handmade creation of God’s, you are the highest quality.  God doesn’t want us to forget it.

A story is told of Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, who sparked the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

It is said that he would from time to time find himself in great anxiety, doubt, depression, and felt like he was being tempted and taunted by the devil. In those moments he would repeat to himself, “Baptizatus Sum” and no that is not some Harry Potter incantation. It means “I am baptized!” In those moments of despair he was remembering that he was watermarked by God, and that nothing could remove that. He was God’s and that gave him strength to go on.

Bishop Craig’s sermon stands as the best explanation of baptism I have ever heard. It takes what might seem like a weird ancient practice, and gives it meaning. If you have ever had a hard time expressing what baptism means to you, if you have ever been puzzled about how to explain why you would want a child baptized, here is a visual example! There is upon you a watermark a of God’s grace.  Not something that we earn, not something that we put there ourselves.  But a mark on our spirit left there by the touch of God’s finger, which expresses that we belong to God and it conveys God’s grace and love.

This is an act commanded by Christ, which bears years of tradition and speaks beyond what words can express.  “Over the centuries Christians have debated what baptism accomplishes, to whom it should be administered, and how much water should be used.”[1]

But let’s be honest that is like arguing about the best way to make a watermark. Should you use the Dandy roll process which uses a wet stamp or rollers to press an image into the paper making a thinner spot in the paper where the light comes through, or should you use the cylinder mold process which is much more complicated, requires rerolling the paper multiple times so that the thickness of the paper is the same throughout, but the paper is less dense in the area of the watermark and that lets the light through? This makes a clearer image and is what is usually used on money, passports, and so on.

What really matters is not the method, but what is happening in the process. As we are baptized we are immersed in the grace of God anew, and now we can shout, as Luther did, “I am baptized!”

Baptism, as the rite of initiation in Christ’s holy church, reminds us that we are forever ‘watermarked’ with God’s love.  So, even though baptism is a once in a lifetime event, we can remember our baptism as often as we like.  To remind ourselves that the mark is still there, it can’t be washed away.  Whether a person received this gift as an infant or an adult, God’s grace entered into that person’s life more fully.

Can those sitting around you see yours?  Can you see them on the people around you? Can they see that you are an authentic creation of God’s of the highest quality? Perhaps when the situation is just right, yes. But perhaps at other times the mark is invisible.

Phyllis Faaborg Wolk tells this story that helps explain that: Mrs. Detweiler worked at Murray Elementary as the special education teacher. It didn't take her students long to see her watermark which made them feel special and loved. Even though she was a special education teacher, the students of Murray Elementary considered it a privilege to be invited to Mrs. Detweiler's room. The walls of her small classroom were covered with stars made out of bright yellow construction paper. Neatly written in black permanent marker on the star at the top of each row was the name of one of her students. As soon as a student finished reading a book, the title of that book was placed on another star that soon appeared directly beneath the star bearing the student's name. The more books a person read, the more stars accumulated under the name. Whenever her students finished a book, Mrs. Detweiler made them feel like stars, themselves. Her ability to make her students feel special and important was the light of God shining through her.

But even as one created in the image of God, Mrs. Detweiler would be the first to say that she had her faults. There were times when she let her students down; times when she lost her patience; times when her mood affected her ability to respond to her students enthusiastically. Mrs. Detweiler wasn't perfect, there were times when the light did not shine through the watermark so clearly, and yet still she was claimed as God's child through her baptism and renewed each day with the gift of forgiveness. As she gave God what belonged to God by giving of herself to her students, Jesus worked through her. Through Mrs. Detweiler, God's love, acceptance and encouragement was shown to many students as they grew and matured into the people God had created them to be. As she gave God what belonged to God, God continued to give himself to her, revealing his love again and again through the sparkle in her students' eyes.[2]

So sometimes the watermark is easily visible, on our good days; and other times it is hard to see, on our bad days, but it is always there, whether people see it or not.

Baptism is so simple.  Find water.  Then get wet.  But it is so much more than that.  Because God willingly touches ordinary water and then willingly touches ordinary persons, watermarking them for life. 

In baptism, we are touching God and God is touching us.  God says you are mine, special to me, and I will never let my love for you be washed off.  When trouble comes, shout, “I am baptized!” In your daily lives, let my light shine through you, show that you are my authentic child.

[1] Christian Theology in Plain Language, p. 158.
[2] INVITATIONS TO THE LIGHT, by Phyllis Faaborg Wolk

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sermon: Hold the Baby

Luke 2:22-40

Every once in a while we have a new baby in the church. And it never fails that when I go to see the parent or grandparent who is holding the child that they will say to me, “Would you like to hold the baby?” And of course the answer is always, “Yes.” Holding a newborn is such a special experience. They are so tiny, so fragile, and hold so much hope for the future. What wonders will this child do? What will they be? How will they bless the world? Each child, every child brings that hope.

So imagine Simeon, imagine Anna, in our scripture today. People who had been waiting for the Messiah for so long. People who had been told that they would see the salvation of God come into the world. And then comes the moment when they get to take Jesus into their arms. Not only is this like holding every other newborn, not only are the questions of what wonders and blessings will come from his hands. But this child is so much more, and they know it.

Simeon prays as he takes the child into his arms, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

Then he tells Mary, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

So Simeon knows that the child in his arms is the source of salvation, that he will reach out to the whole world, that his very existence will cause us to examine our hearts and innermost thoughts, and that tragedy will break Mary’s heart.

“The great renaissance artist Giotto captures the essence of this scene in his "Presentation at the Temple." Simeon holds the baby Jesus, his lips moving beneath his hoary beard, carefully reciting the lines of his nunc dimittis: "now may your servant depart in peace." Giotto knows his Simeon, and he knows his babies too. The infant Jesus, far from resting contentedly in his arms through this holy aria, is responding as all babies do when held by weird strangers. His eyes are narrowed and fixed in frozen alarm on Simeon. He reaches desperately for his mother, every muscle arched away from the old man toward Mary. But looking carefully at the background, we see the artist's true genius. The child seems suspended above the temple altar, that place of sacrifice. As art historian John W. Dixon puts it, "This very human baby is known, from the very beginning, to be the eternal sacrifice for the redemption of the mankind."”[1] That’s Simeon holding the child.

And then there is Anna. Anna’s exact words aren’t recorded (leave that to a bunch of male disciples) instead her speech is summarized as “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like Simeon, Anna also knew that the child would bring about the redemption of the people and she praised God for Jesus.

Imagine what she must have been thinking as she held this child in her hands! Imagine what Simeon was feeling with the future of God’s kingdom held in his arms!

And I am a bit jealous, aren’t you? Can’t you imagine Joseph and Mary coming up to you and saying, “Would you like to hold the baby?” What a joy that would be! Once in a while I have led meditations where we imagine ourselves approaching the manger in the night after Jesus has been born, and Mary asks us if we would like to hold the child. It is a way of placing ourselves in that intimate moment where God’s grace is still so new, so helpless, and the hope of what he will do is just beginning to be revealed.

Cara Callbeck tells the story of the first time she tried this type of spiritual exercise.

“Sadly lacking in imagination, I found myself struggling greatly with contemplation, and I was dragging our poor director along with me to the point that I thought he was going to “excuse” me from the Exercises altogether. Nearing Christmas, he had me discard all previous attempts and follow this one simple instruction instead: “Just spend some time holding baby Jesus.” That was supposed to be easier? I expected the experience to be as fruitless and frustrating as my prior attempts at contemplation to that point. But I trudged on, and I am so glad I did.”

“By the grace of God, I did manage to hold baby Jesus in my next attempt at contemplation. In holding that sweet, sleeping babe in my arms that night, I started to appreciate the humanity of Jesus. Babies have a way of making us feel peaceful, protective, and completely in love. There Jesus lay in my arms fully divine, but fully human, too. Just like any other baby, I could smell that lovely baby smell, marvel at his tiny hands, and count his tiny baby toes. This baby in my arms was completely dependent; he got hungry, tired, or just needed to be held. Dependent, needing, tiny—those are not qualities I had ever really associated with the divine and thus never appreciated in Jesus.”

She closes her reflection by saying, “I encourage you to do as my director instructed and spend some time just holding baby Jesus. You can’t help but fall completely in love when you hold him in your arms.”[2] [pause] I would add, try it for a week. See what you notice. What does God reveal to you as you hold Christ in your arms every day? Is it something deep and prophetic like Simeon expressed? Is it a simple joy that Cara experienced? Or is it something else?

You see, part of the joy in that meditation and in the scripture today is that, we can hold the baby. We can take Christ into our arms. Not only in our imagination, but also in other profound and mysterious ways. Christ asks to dwell in our hearts, he asks to be part of our lives, he wants us to hold him within us each and every day. All we have to do is say, “Yes. I want to hold the baby. I want to have the Salvation of God, the child of hope, the prince of peace, the light of the Gentiles, the glory of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem, the Son of God in my arms.” You can have that.

Paul says it in Ephesians 3:16-19 as he prays for us:

“I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.”

Paul suggests that through faith we can have Christ in our hearts, that his love can fill us with the fullness of God. It is as though we are holding the very Christ-child not only in our arms, but allowing him to touch our hearts. Now I know, this sounds kind of sappy. Clearly there is more to religion that just holding a baby. But at the same time I can think of no greater delight than holding that child. That hope. That very real representation of the love of God, in my arms today.

There is something miraculously transforming in the knowledge that God’s son is not a distant memory, not a historical event, but a continuing revelation born anew into our world in every age. Born anew into our lives, our hearts. So we can set the past behind us, and move into a new year with new blessings and new life. So we can re-experience the power and wonder of all that God is doing today.

So I ask you today – would you like to hold the baby? In your arms, in your heart?

[1] Christian Glove Networks, Inc. Illustrations by King Duncan
[2] Cara Callbeck, Reflections on Ignatian Spirituality, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/18329/holding-baby-jesus