Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sadness and Grief

None of us want to be sad. We would much rather be happy and filled with laughter than be weighed down with tears. Yet, as we live we will face losses, difficulties and hardships that fill us with tears. When those times come we may wonder, why does God allow such sorrow? Why are sadness and grief part of life? Wouldn’t life be much better without them?

Recently I have been reading The Book of Joy, a collaborative book by The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. It is a book filled with wisdom. At several points they have the discussion of how it is possible to have joy even in the midst of hardship. In a chapter on Sadness and Grief, the Archbishop says, “We don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunky-dory-ness. It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.”

Abrams then cites a scientific study by Joseph Forgas that shows that mild sadness actually makes people more generous, increases our empathy and even helps us to have better memory. (As an aside, the researcher also notes this is not the same as depression where a person often shuts themselves off from social relationships.)  It seems that mild sadness and even tears serve to connect us as human beings.

As I personally think about that, I can think of many situations where that has been true. Whether it is in the sharing of a powerful moment of love as a person is dying, or the hugs of family and friends or a funeral, or the prayers of a church member when heartache is evident. All of these serve to deepen our relationships, not just with family but with humanity in general.

The challenge in times of sadness, the Dalai Lama reminds us, is not to focus on ourselves – doing that has the potential to lead us into despair and depression – rather we must “use it as motivation and to generate a deeper sense of purpose. When my teacher passed away, I used to think that now I have even more responsibility to fulfill his wishes, so my sadness translated into more enthusiasm, more determination.”

Essentially what the Dalai Lama is doing is using his love for his teacher to continue influencing his life. As I work with families around funerals, I always ask what the deceased taught them. What were their biggest lessons? What did they want you to know about life? I do that so that I can understand what was at the person’s heart, and what was most important to them, but I now understand that those questions also help the grieving family to continue their loved one’s legacy, move their sadness into concrete action and purpose toward the future.

So although none of us want to be sad, sadness can be a great gift. It can help us to be more compassionate, it can deepen our relationships, and it can be a motivator for us to do what is most important in life. This doesn’t explain why God allows us to cry, but it does show that God can very much work through our sadness for greater good.

Sermon: The Unifier

John 17:1-11

Both of the puppets wanted to climb the tree, they both wanted to pick the fruit. Neither of them wanted to have the job of holding the basket. I shared with them that Jesus prayed for us to be of one heart and one mind. That was a bit of a simplification for the kids, because what Jesus actually says is, “May they be one just as we are one.” In other words that we may have the same kind of unity that Jesus and God have. And that concept is hard enough to explain to adults let alone to kids. So let’s struggle with what it means to be one like God and Jesus are one.

For some churches being one means that we all have to believe the exact same thing, so they make sure that they have very detailed statements of what they believe, and all of their church members have to ascribe to these statements of belief. This was very true during the protestant reformation 500 years ago. So they often had detailed teachings with questions and answers that people were expected to answer. For example the Geneva Catechism has 373 questions and answers. The Heidelberg catechism only has 129 questions and answers but the answers about three times as long.

For other churches being one means that we all have to dress alike: women should have long hair, men short hair; women must wear dresses, men wear button down shirts and ties; John Wesley our own United Methodist founder discouraged wearing jewelry. The Amish are probably the most extreme example of this type of unity.

But I am not convinced that either of these are what Jesus meant, when he spoke about us being one as he and God are one. Listen to the scripture and see what you think Jesus is saying. This is from John 17:1-11

When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.

“I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

As I listen, what I hear is that Jesus and God are one in their work, they have the same goal of bringing eternal life to humanity even since before the world was created; but then Jesus takes their oneness deeper, he says that everything that he and God share all things, everything that is his is God’s and everything that is God’s is his. Including their name. So what might that mean that Jesus and God share a name?

Well when I think about it, the people that I have the same name as are my family. We share the McPherson name. We share a connection that suggests we are relatives and connected.

Likewise, “The United Church of Canada has, since 1944, had the words “that they may all be one” on their crest. These words appear in John 17:11 and 17:21. In 1980, they added the words in French, recognizing that they are a church in a bilingual nation. In 2012, expanding their recognition of the First Nations context for the church, they added the Mohawk expression: Akwe Nia‘Tetw√°:neren (aw gway nyah daydaywaw nayrenh) meaning “All my relations.” Similar to John 17:11 and 21, this phrase expresses an awareness that we are all connected. Perhaps this was what Jesus intended in his prayer as he was leaving this earth – a plea that we would recognize how we are all related.” (Seasons of the Spirit)

Certainly that is an area in which our modern culture can grow. We are more likely to see people as opponents than relatives. Some of our older traditions have a lot to teach us. For example, a Caucasian man speaks of the first time he was invited into a Cree sweat lodge: “When we entered the sweat lodge Stanley, our guide, told us we needed to respect the hot stones in the centre. ‘Those are our grandmothers and grandfathers,’ he said. Just that statement brought me to a new understanding of my connectedness with all of creation.” (Seasons of the Spirit)

So perhaps that is what Jesus means by our being one with each other: that we are to be like family, to treat each other as relations, to understand our connectedness. Remember he says this not long after he acknowledges that everything that is God’s is his. We all belong to God and to Christ.

But even as Jesus encourages unity, this passage sets up a challenging dichotomy. It talks about Jesus’ disciples being people that came from this world, that still dwell in this world, and yet there is something different about them from the world. He even says he is praying for his disciples, but not for the world.

So it leaves me asking the question of who does Jesus intend to be included as his disciples in his prayer, and who might be outside the circle. There is a tension between who is “all my relations”, who are my grandmothers and grandfathers, and who or what is not. This is not easy.

Some Christians draw the circle of disciples very tight including only their own denomination, a select few and suggesting these alone are who Christ is speaking of. Other Christians draw the circle very wide including people of all faiths and traditions suggesting that Jesus is asking for unity among all people. I personally draw the circle quite large, because that is how I interpret the biblical texts, but you may disagree. And there is where we get to practice our unity. How can we work together as Christians, when we have disagreements? What does it mean to have unity when we are not always of one heart and one mind.

Even among this small group of people being as connected as Christ and God are is a huge challenge! Let alone when we try to take that to the global Christian community!

One of our issues is that we have a problem seeing the difference between unity and uniformity. That phrase comes from our recent small group study here in the church called Different Not Divided.

In the study the presenters remind us that unity is not the same as uniformity. Uniformity is when we all look alike, we all believe the same things, pray in the same ways, talk the same, think the same, vote the same, we come from the same socioeconomic background, ethnic group, and so on. Uniformity is comfortable because we know what to expect from each other. But unity is not the same thing. All we have to do is look at the early church. These were people Jews and Greeks, people who spoke different languages, men and women, slaves and masters, rich and poor – they were clearly not uniform, but they were united. Their unity came from Christ’s spirit at work in their lives.

You might compares us as human beings to a group of trees, saying that what unites us is that we are all planted in the same soil: a passion for Jesus Christ, shared inspiration and a desire to live God’s ways. Yet each of us as trees looks different, bears different fruits. We should not despise the others for their differences, but rather honor the fact that we share a common soil. Or in the words of the scripture we share the common name, we are relatives.

So how do we do that? And I begin by acknowledging that it isn’t easy. The study suggest several practices but the all boil down to one essential thing.

Share your story, your opinion, your perspective. Share from your experience, share personally. It is our stories that make us unique, and ultimately it is our stories that shape our opinions and our differences.

As we do that we must honor one another’s stories. We must listen to understand how their differences spring from that common soil we share. We need to try to avoid saying things that shut them down as they tell their story, don’t force them to withdraw or defend themselves, don’t try to make them conform to you.

By doing this we become united even in our differences, because we share a common name, a common soil. We are rooted in the same ground, and share the same foundation. Our fruit may look very different, our opinions may be very different, our approach to life and even ministry may be very different, but we grow from the same source.

All my relations, you and I are called to unity, not sameness. To interconnection and relationship, as God and Christ are interconnected and in relationship. So are we. Let us celebrate the soil we share, even as we see such differences between us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Buchanan High School Baccalaureate Message to the Graduates: Finding Joy

Philippians 4:4-8

So here I am standing before you. I have known that I would be speaking to you for a couple of months, but you know how it is a couple of months is a long time. So I put it off because I had time to work on it later right? Once in a while the thought of this time with you would flash before my mind, and I would say to myself, what am I going to say to them? How can I congratulate them and inspire them?

And no ideas would come to me and I would put it off again. I even sat down in front of my computer a couple of times to start writing, and I just had no ideas. You all have had to write papers, you’ve had deadlines, you understand don’t you? So today just kept creeping closer and closer, and I hadn’t done a thing.

So I thought to myself, I’ll just copy one from the internet. Someone has to have given a great speech to graduates and I will just use theirs. But then I realized I was talking to people with cell phones and internet connections and they could probably just google what I was saying and I would be caught as a horrible plagiarist. And none of you would listen to what I was saying because you would know that I wasn’t being sincere.

You see, the thing is, there is so much I could share with you about life. The wisdom gained not only from my life but from the hundreds of people I have visited with over the years. I have stood alongside people as they smiled at their weddings, and I have been at their bedside as they took their last breath. I have watched people make the absolutely worst decisions possible, and tried to help them repair their relationships and their lives afterwards; and I have congratulated people on overcoming hardships and obstacles on the way to great success.

I like to think at least that I have gathered a lot of wisdom over the years, when it comes to life. I like to think that, and then I try to get out of the car with my seatbelt still on. [pause] So despite what I have learned I can still be intensely stupid. But that’s okay, I accept that. It is part of being human.

So here I am with all this wisdom, and all this stupidity, trying to figure out what is absolutely the most important thing I can say to you and . . . still blank. So I reverted to being a student and said, maybe if I include a couple of good quotes, you know with footnotes, and all the bells and whistles of a research paper I can pull it off. So I went to BrainyQuote.com and typed in graduation. And there were all these quotes from people much smarter than me about graduation. You can do that now if you want, while you are listening to me, there are some good ones there.

By the way my favorite was from Tom Brokaw: “You are educated. Your certification is in your degree. You may think of it as the ticket to the good life. Let me ask you to think of an alternative. Think of it as your ticket to change the world.” I like that. But as much as I like it, honestly it didn’t say what was most on my heart.

What is most here, [point to heart] is that you have lives filled with joy. You see, one the universal things that all people want is to be happy. I want that, you want that. In many ways that is what the whole purpose of religion is, the search for happiness. The problem is that life is filled with garbage that gets in the way. There are things that are beyond our control that bring us sadness, that cause us suffering, and it can be very hard to find joy in those times.

What I want you to know is that you can find joy. It is possible. Even in the rough times of life. Have you ever noticed that two people can go through the exact same thing and one person will overcome it and other will be destroyed by it. One person has alcoholic parents and it ruins their life, but another finds inner strength and becomes an example to us all. One person hears they have cancer and they feel sorry for themselves and it crushes their spirit, but another faces it and says I will not let it stop me from loving life. Have you noticed that? Maybe not, but I see it all the time.

How can you be the people that face the tough times in life and still have joy? That’s where the passage from Philippians comes in:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.

Quite honestly, it works. By trusting in God, by giving thanks for the good things that are there even in the midst of the troubles, by remembering that God is near, by showing compassion to others, by reflecting on the things that are true and holy, pure and lovely, you can actually change your frame of mind and find joy when life just plain sucks. Your attitude makes all the difference between being crushed by life and finding joy. And the single greatest thing that can help you with that attitude, is God.

I know that religion isn’t really popular now, I know that people kind of frown on church, and being a pastor I know that religion has its faults, but the thing is, if you want the peace that exceeds all understanding, if you want joy that dwells within you not just on the good days, but even on the bad days, those come from God. There is strength there and power there and hope there.

And I want you to have that joy, that strength, that hope, that peace. I want you to have that good life. But I can’t do it for you. You have to make the choice that God is going to be part of your life. You have to allow your heart to be in touch with the heart of God, to allow your spirit to be in touch with the spirit of God. I can tell you about it, but I can’t make the connection for you. You have to do that. And over time when you do that, you will find your attitude changing and a sense of deep, unshakable joy. But that is a life’s work. Work that you begin today, as you step out into that next chapter of your life.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Congratulations on a great achievement. Focus your thoughts on all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. May joy fill your lives. Not just on the good days, but on all days. That is truly my prayer for you.

Sermon: The Child Advocate

John 14:15-21

When the home life of a child is not safe, when there are drugs involved, or physical abuse that threatens the child’s life, our society has to make a difficult decision. Should the child stay in that situation, or would it be better for the child to move to a new home, a foster home or perhaps even an adoptive home? Often in the midst of this process the court appoints an advocate for the child. That person’s job is to listen to the child and to speak what he or she cannot in the court, which could be a very frightening and confusing place for the child. But even more than that, the hope is that with the help of this person, the child’s best interests are looked after.

An example, Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers Connie and Pam have working together with a boy named Cal since 2006. The Agency has had permanent custody of him since he was 10. Cal was placed in two pre adoptive homes, but both ended up not working and Cal returned to foster care four years after entering the system. Despite the families not working out, “one positive came out of the second pre-adoptive placement; that family had enrolled Cal in an excellent Charter school that was a perfect match for his special needs.”

But when Cal returned to foster care, “the new Foster Mother decided she couldn’t provide transportation for Cal to and from the Charter school and wanted him moved to a public school in her neighborhood. The Agency who held custody of Cal agreed and decided to remove Cal from the Charter school.”

The two advocates knew Cal better than anyone else on the case because they had worked with him for so long. They “objected and asked the Agency to find alternative transportation. The Agency declined, stating that no transportation was available. Knowing this Charter school provided something very special for this troubled child,” they asked their Court Appoint Special Advocate Office for assistance. “This request was not made lightly.” Connie had been a volunteer for 25 years and had asked for attorney assistance only once. Pam had been a volunteer for 9 years and had never had an attorney to represent her.

“To say they felt strongly about the Charter school being in Cal’s best interests is an understatement.” A motion was filed on behalf of the volunteers, “and the Agency was ordered to keep Cal in his Charter school for the time being. Pam and Connie immediately went to work looking for transportation for Cal that would both accommodate him and meet with Agency approval.” They found that the city had a special bus service for riders with disabilities that transported some other children to that Charter school. Two months later Cal was approved for that transportation without ever having to leave the school that met his needs. Cal is 15-years-old now and his volunteers continue to advocate for him.[1]

That’s a great story, right? There was someone to speak up for Cal and what was best for him when he couldn’t do it for himself. I tell that story because in our scripture lesson, Jesus tells us that although he is leaving earth, God’s spirit will remain with us, and that spirit will act as an advocate for us. Let me read it so you can hear it as the gospel of John tells it. Jesus says,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

It is a bit of a confusing passage, I admit. But focus for a moment, just on the idea that the Holy Spirit that Jesus has sent us is an advocate. In many ways the word used here for our advocate is like the work done by a child advocate. The spirit’s job is like that of a protector and defender, who is meant to encourage, help, comfort, and above all make sure that our best interests are looked after. If you look at the scripture carefully you will see that Jesus tells us that the Spirit will listen to us, love us, and ensure that we are not orphaned or lost in the system. Which is all wonderful. Especially in those days when we feel like no one is listening to us.

So even though Jesus is no longer physically here on earth, even though he isn’t walking along side of us, he has made sure that another is looking out for us. Great message, and we could stop there and feel good about ourselves, saying, “Yay! We have an advocate!”

But if we stop there with Jesus’ message to us, we will miss an important piece of what he is teaching here. He is not simply telling us that we have a person we can go to so that we can have all our wishes fulfilled. Our advocate isn’t just a wishing well.

The advocate also has a role in shaping us. It is clear from the Bible passage for the day – the Spirit must teach us to love as well.

Five times in this passage the word love is used as a verb[2]. Jesus is not talking about the idea of love, but reminding us that love is an action, a thing to be done, an activity to be pursued. It is a commandment to be followed, but also a power to be received.

Think about it for a moment. Imagine that you are a puppy in the shelter awaiting adoption. One day two families come in and both want to adopt you. The first family says that they love you. They tell you that they have a loving home, they say that they have strong feelings for you, and that they are very interested in you. The second family also tells you they love you but when they come in they give you hugs, they have brought a toy and they sit and play with you, they let you lick their faces and laugh. Which family would you want to go with? The one that talks about love as an idea? Or the one that loves through their actions?

Most of us would probably choose the second because the love is lived. That is what it means to say that love is a verb, an action. Likewise, Jesus isn’t talking about an idea that comes from God which we receive with our mind, but Jesus is talking about an active power that flows through the Spirit, and then fills us until that same love flows through us to others. It moves through us and is shown, and lived in our actions towards others.

So Jesus when he says that he will not leave us orphaned, and that he is sending us an advocate, and then speaks of love using a verb form of it five times, he seems to be suggesting that the Holy Spirit has a role in our learning about love.

Going back to my initial metaphor, our Child Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is in many ways working to make sure that we are brought into God’s home, but also that while we live in that home we experience love, and we learn to love others.

In a sense you could say that we are being sent to a charter school by the Holy Spirit, and the lesson we are expected to learn is a lesson in love. This is how God looks after our best interests. God knows that one of the problems that sometimes happens to those who feel abandoned, to those who are afraid, is that they don’t have anyone to teach them how to love, and so God has left us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and do just that for us.

So as I read it, Jesus is quite clear, that our advocate not only listens to us and our needs, but also is striving to push us and challenge us – even commanding us – to love. That command in this passage is to love Christ, but in the very next chapter Jesus will also command us to love others. In a sense, the advocate is like that person who looks out for us and shows us love, and we learn to love that person in return. Eventually we learn that this individual’s unconditional love is an example to us on how we can love others, and so in learning to love them we also learn to love others.

So let me summarize: I realize that the scripture today was complicated, but think of the Holy Spirit as though Jesus appointed a special advocate who wants the best for us, who dwells with us through thick and thin, who shows us love. This is good news. In doing that, the advocate expects us to learn from the example we have been shown, and to grow in our ability to love. This is the challenge to put the good news into action.

[1] http://www.casakids.net/stories-of-hope “Cal and the School Move That Wasn’t”
[2] Seasons of the Spirit

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sermon: The Renovator

1 Peter 2:2-10

From time to time on TV I watch home renovation shows. There are lots of them, and all of them are about the same in terms of process. They start with a home that looks old, doesn’t function well for the current owner’s lifestyle because they have married, had kids, or some other change in life. In addition, the house probably has a couple of hidden challenges – like scary plumbing or a weight bearing wall that shouldn’t be weight bearing. Into this challenging mix steps the amazingly gifted renovator who is able to see the potential and beauty that is hiding just out of sight of most of us. After lots of work, and a bucketful of money, the house is transformed into something new, attractive and functional.

I think what draws me to the show are the transformations that are possible. To see something that was once the source of frustration become something that is a source of joy to the owners is exciting.

And I wonder if God ever feels like a master renovator of our lives. God sees the potential and beauty in us that is hiding just out of sight of most of us. And so God pours in lots of work, and a bucketful of resources to transform us, so that rather being a source of frustration to God and others we can be a source of joy to both.

There is a lot of potential in the parallels between ourselves and an old building in need of work (not that I am saying you are old), but rather that all of us need work. Scripture actually makes use of that image a couple of times – you remember the phrase that your body is a temple? That’s from 1 Corinthians 6:19 – “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?”

But there is another longer passage in 1 Peter in which Peter uses the image of building a temple. Jesus is the cornerstone, and each of us are stones to be used in the building of the temple. The building which God is building is not us alone as individuals, but rather us together as a community – the church.

Listen as I read 1 Peter 2:3b-10 and see if you can see how God, the renovator, plans to use us.

Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Thus it is written in scripture, Look! I am laying a cornerstone in Zion, chosen, valuable. The person who believes in him will never be shamed.

So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone. This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble. Indeed, this is the end to which they were appointed.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Peter starts our calling us stones, stones that are being made into a temple for God, where each of the stones is meant to be a holy representative, of God. I suppose the biggest difference between this image and the home renovation shows is that this is a new build. We are not told to imagine an old decrepit, falling down temple that has lots of problems. Instead we are told to imagine a new build. A build where the people who were once nobody are now God’s people, where stones that were once rejected have now been shaped into ones that are specially chosen and valuable.

For us as individuals that is wonderful news. If you weren’t raised in a church, if you never felt loved, if you felt rejected by others, if you have never felt like you had a place or a home, or you never fit in, God is calling you to be a part of this new thing that God is doing in your life. Take joy my friends that God does not reject you, rather as the renovator in the home improvement show, God really does see the beauty and potential in you. I wasn’t making that up.

But the passage is not just about us as individuals, as I said, what God is building is a community, a temple in which we all fit together, and God has been working on this Christian project for some 2000 years, so the church of Jesus Christ is no longer a new build, in fact it is more like a building in need of renovation.

Now, I am not talking about the church building being in need of renovation. When I talk about the church I am talking about the people, the congregations, the Christians around the world who follow Christ, however we are organized. That’s the church to me. And I am not talking about the things that church growth experts talk about, like the style of the service and the programs we offer. I am talking about much deeper things – the heart of the church, that which has always been vital and true.

So I began to think about what Peter would tell us if he were to compare our church situation with a home renovation show.

I think he would begin by telling us that there is much that we need to keep, that we need to remain built upon our foundation of Christ, and that the bones of the building of the church are very good. He would probably remind us of the potential of the church, how it can be everything that we need it to be, that it can be functional and beautiful again.

But . . . as with every renovation, he might also suggest that there are some big changes that need to happen – like gutting the kitchen, removing a wall or two and totally redesigning some of our inner workings.

Again I am not talking about our church building, but about the way we as Christians are organized and come together. Perhaps what we once thought was good is no longer useful, or it has been misused, and now needs to be rebuilt. If I had to name one example, I would suggest that our biggest problem right now in the church is that we have lost our sense of mystery and our willingness to ask questions. We have looked for security in certainty (well defined answers about God that are 500 years old or older). And when someone questions those answers, we treat them like outsiders. In other words we reject the stones that God wants to use in the temple because they make us uncomfortable. It is no different a situation than the one Peter faced as he reached out from the established Jewish religion to those who were not Jewish. He understood that through Christ the cornerstone, people were being invited in that did not share his old established religious values, rather they came as a new priesthood, bringing spiritual sacrifices to God.

We may live in a similar time in which we have to open our doors to people that will question everything we do and say, that may challenge the very things we think are most fundamental about our faith – stripping it to the very foundation where only Christ remains – but what do I know! I am no prophet or seer who can see the future, I only know that there is a great source of building material out there that doesn’t feel welcome in the church – and that isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Anyway, enough of that.

A second renovation that I think Peter would suggest is that he would remind us that although God is the builder, we are the building materials of the church. Since the construction of the church uses us, what the church ends up being very much reflects us. So if we are shoddy Christians, our builder has to work a lot longer and harder on us to get us to be ready for the final reveal. We may need some repair, repainting and a bit of polish. So we should be working on ourselves. It should be our personal goal to be the very best Christians we can be. We should be brushing up on our bible knowledge, getting better in our prayer life, and most of all we should be growing in our ability to love others – that is the most vital of all the spiritual gifts. If you don’t love people more today than you did yesterday, you aren’t growing in your spirit like God wants. You can speak in the tongues of angels, but if you have not love, you have nothing. So people work on growing in love. Remember the church looks like you.

Of course, most of us will never quite perfect ourselves in love, but here is the good news, God chooses to use us anyway. Perhaps because we have character, or perhaps because God sees the potential in us, just as God sees the potential in the finished church. But God uses us, calls us a part of the royal priesthood, even though we have growth yet to accomplish.

The renovator is still at work on us personally and on the church. We are living stones in the greater work which God is doing. We should be striving toward perfected love so that our place in God’s work is beautiful and complete.

As you go from this place today, my prayer is that you would know that God chooses even the people rejected by the world for the building of this holy temple. That means you are accepted, claimed and valued by God. It also means that God values and accepts other around you who may be rejected and despised. With this group of unusual stones God then builds. Our role is to grow into the potential that God sees in us – especially in that one vital gift – the gift of love, which is the bedrock of Christ, and the foundation of all that we believe.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sermon: The Zookeeper

John 10:1-10, Psalm 23

In my career I have preached on sheep and shepherds many times -- Which makes no sense, because I have never taken care of sheep. Everything that I know about sheep and shepherding I have learned from books, google or Wikipedia. I really shouldn’t be preaching on sheep. Of course, let’s be honest. I’m not really preaching on sheep at all. Neither was the psalmist or Jesus really talking about sheep. They were really talking about people, and using sheep as an image to help draw us into the teaching, so that we would listen and learn and grow.

But if Jesus were to walk into Buchanan today, he probably wouldn’t use sheep and shepherds as his main teaching images, because most of the people here, like myself, don’t really understand sheep. So what image would he use to tell you about himself today?

And I jokingly thought to myself, zookeeper. Because working with people is like working with a zoo. We have our strong gorillas, our cute little wallaby’s, the grand and proud egrets, the goofy giraffes, the grouchy bears, the dangerous tigers, and the playful otters. I know why I came up with that image, it’s because I personally enjoy going to zoos, because I love to see the animals. Quite often when we go on vacation, we will check out the city zoo.

But I must admit, that among zoos there are different types and qualities. Years ago, many of the zoos kept animals in cages or enclosures that were too small and were more like prison cells than homes.

You had to feel sorry for these animals. I remember one bear that had clearly lost its mind. It walked the same path, with the exact same number of steps back and forth, did the exact same turn at the edges, for hours. No variation. Zoos are working hard to improve. But there are still some bad zoos out there, and some bad zookeepers.

Starting his new job at the zoo, the eager young zoo keeper asked the Head keeper what he should do for his first task. "Go and clean out the aquarium" he was told. Arriving at the aquarium, he discovered that all the fish were dead. He rushed back to the head keeper and asked what he should do. "Throw them to the lions" said the head keeper, "the lions will eat anything". So the young keeper returned to the aquarium, picked up all the dead fish and threw them into the lion's cage.

That done, he returned and asked what he should do now. He was instructed to go and clean out the ape house. Off he went and started cleaning. He was shocked to discover dead chimpanzees in the cage, and rushed back for instructions. "Don’t worry" said the head keeper, "just throw them to the lions, the lions will eat anything". So the young man returns to the ape house and throws the dead animals into the lion’s cage.

The next day, the zoo obtains a new lioness. The lioness is walking around the new cage for the first time, and starts asking the other lions what things are like here. "How’s the food?", she asks. "Fine" comes the reply from one lion."

"Not bad" replies another, "yesterday, we had fish and chimps."

Most zoos are more careful about giving animals space to roam that resemble their natural habitats. They also try to give the animals things to play with, changes in their scenery, ways to keep their minds and bodies engaged.

And some caretakers of animals really go out of their way to ensure that the animals are healthy and happy. I have a video example for you:

[show lion hugger this is how Sirga the lion greets her owner]

That’s an image of a good zookeeper! That lion clearly loves him. Maybe a little too much.

One of the zoos we visited did a demonstration on how they train all of the animals so that they can give them their health check-ups. They used an otter, which of course made the demonstration cute. When the zookeeper would hold out a stick with a red ball on the end, and give a command, the otter would stare at the stick like it was the tastiest fish it had ever seen. And it would do it for a long time. This would allow the vet to look over the animal without it struggling or putting up a fight. Then when given another command the animal would relax and be given a reward.

It was so funny to see this hyper otter act like it was playing freeze tag. It would whip its head to find that focus, and hold absolutely still. I don’t know how many hours it took of training to get it to do that, but I am sure it wasn’t easy. They claimed they used the same method for many of the other animals, although not all animals can be trained so easily. I’m thinking rattlesnakes don’t listen well.

The point is that the zookeepers took a lot of time with the animals so that they could take care of them. They spent hours training them, working with them, calling them by name, just so that they could be examined by a vet if they got sick.

At other zoos we have seen demonstrations on feeding the animals, and how it is important to make sure that the animals receive a healthy diet. Each species requires different foods.

My favorite was a time we were watching – I think they were lemurs, but it has been so long ago that I don’t remember properly – They were thrown a whole bunch of fruits and veggies. Clearly the favorite was the grapes. All of them went racing for the grapes ignoring everything else that was thrown into the enclosure until all the grapes were gone. Then they raced around looking for the bananas, obviously they were second best. The whole community all shared the exact same order that they ate their food – because if you didn’t grab a grape in the first few seconds you didn’t get one. Last to go were, I think carrots or something like that – and honestly I didn’t blame them for leaving those for last. No one wanted them, but when everything else was gone, they ate them.

So here’s the thing. If Jesus is our zookeeper, and not just any zookeeper, but a good zookeeper -- Jesus knows what each and every one of us needs.

He understands our differences, but he also knows that ultimately he is responsible for our safety and security. As a good zookeeper, Jesus takes the time to know us by name, and make sure that we know his voice. Of course there are problems with the comparison. None of us likes to think we are caged up, or on display for others’ entertainment.

But I think there is value here in the comparison. The idea is that Jesus actually cares about us, whether we are otters, lemurs, bears or chimps or rattlesnakes. He wants the best for us. He doesn’t want us to be stuck in a life where we are trapped and confined. He doesn’t want us to lose our mind and pace back and forth in a never ending trance. No, he takes the time to teach us a different way. So he asks us to sit at his feet and learn from him, what is important, and what is not so important. He wants us to enjoy the food we eat, to chase the grapes. But he also wants what is good for us, so he gives us carrots. He really wants us to have life to the absolute fullest.

Likewise, we could look at the 23rd Psalm and rethink about it from the perspective of the zookeeper.

Perhaps the words of the psalmist would be that the Lord as my zookeeper leads me to my perfect home – whether that is deserts for tortoise, or cold water for the polar bear. God prepares my perfect banquet, he cares for my health and well being, protects me from predators, parasites and zoo guests that might unwittingly harm me, and in the end provides the best life for me possible.

There is something powerful in the knowledge that in this zoo we call life, we have a keeper, a good one at that, who calls us by name, who leads us and who cares for us. It is a message that is simple and timeless – God knows us, God loves us even though God knows us, and God tirelessly works on our behalf. Even showing sacrificial love in the death of Christ on our behalf. We have a good zookeeper, a good shepherd, and for that we should be truly grateful.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sermon: Emmaus Never Happened

Luke 24:13-35

Lately I have been reading renowned Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable. The first half of the book is one of the most powerful explanations that I have ever read about the purpose of Jesus’ parables. He says that Jesus’ purpose in teaching is not to hide secret messages behind confusing symbols, his purpose in teaching is not even to impart to us instructions for how to live good ethical lives; rather, Crossan says that Jesus is trying to challenge our assumptions about what it means to live as participants in the realm of God.

The couple of keys words there are challenge and participants.

Jesus is shaking up the world, including the religious world, and he is challenging our thinking. Still 2000 years later he is taking what we think we know and turning our beliefs upside-down and saying that isn’t what following me is about. Crossan suggests that every teaching of Jesus is meant as a challenge to our normal way of thinking, and if it doesn’t challenge us then we probably aren’t reading it right. Jesus wants us to struggle and wrestle with the clash between social norms and God’s expectations, with the clash between our thinking and God’s thoughts, with our emotions and God’s love.

The other key word to Jesus’ teaching is participation. Crossan says that Jesus is always inviting people to openly participate in the kingdom of God, in following him. Jesus never teaches about being passive observers, about letting God do it and we just watch. So every teaching moment is about our role in the work of God, every parable should leave us asking, “How am I to participate based upon this teaching?”

All of that is an introduction to a profound statement that Crossan made about this week’s gospel reading in his book. He says, “Emmaus never happened.” Now before you get angry saying that he is denying the Bible, he follows his first statement with a second. “Emmaus always happens.” 

What Crossan explains is that we do not know the exact location of this village.

The bible says that it is about 7 miles from Jerusalem, but we know of no town called Emmaus at that distance. There are several towns named Emmaus that are much further, the most likely being Emmaus-Nicopolis which is 18.6 miles from Jerusalem, but if that is true the biblical writer got the wrong distance. Or there are several villages that are around 7 miles from Jerusalem that it could be, but perhaps the biblical writer got the wrong village name. So the scholar writes “Emmaus never happened” as if all these details being not quite right make the whole thing false. It is the sort of thing that skeptics do all of the time. They look through the bible and find one contradiction or one incorrect fact and say, “See, it is false.” As if one small problem makes the whole thing false. So Crossan is taking up the skeptic’s chant here. Emmaus never happened because something is wrong here.

But then he refuses to throw out the whole thing. He follows it up with “Emmaus always happens” because the very idea of the story then becomes that Emmaus could be anywhere. I think that is part of the reason that it got picked up as a name for the Emmaus walks – meeting Jesus can occur anywhere, Emmaus could be anywhere. Crossan suggests that we treat Emmaus as any other teaching parable of Jesus – meant to challenge us to participate in the unfolding realm of God.

Like the story of the Good Samaritan who comes along and helps a person beaten by robbers when the religious folk passed him by, like the story of the prodigal son who wastes his inheritance in wrong living, but comes home and finds himself welcomed. Whether all the specific details are exactly right isn’t important, what is important is that the story should impact our lives.

So what does the Emmaus story teach us about that? How does it challenge us?

It starts by reminding us that encountering the risen Christ can happen for us anywhere, on any road, in any village, in any place. Yes, the story of Emmaus is about us seeing Jesus in our daily lives. Do we, when we walk along the road with a stranger and talk about faith, see Jesus? Do we, when we break bread with a stranger, see Jesus? We should.

The truth is we have all had the experience of failing to recognize someone we know very well. Perhaps they are in a place we don’t expect, or we aren’t looking very closely, or our brain is playing one of those tricks that come along with aging, or the person is wearing a crazy wig and a Halloween costume. But then they say to us, “Don’t you know who I am?” and then we take a closer look and realize who it is. This story is about that happening with Jesus. How often are we running around in life, we are out in a place where we don’t expect to see Jesus, or we aren’t looking very closely, or we just aren’t thinking about religious things, or perhaps he has disguised himself in the form of a person that scares us, makes us uncomfortable – Mother Teresa used the phrase “Jesus in his most distressing disguise” -- and then something happens that awakens us and opens our eyes. And it is as though Jesus is saying to us, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Brandon Vogt (a Catholic author, blogger and speaker) tells about a muggy Tallahassee day.  He was resting at a picnic table when suddenly a strange, disheveled man plopped down right across from him. His face was grizzly, his beard was dirty, and without exchanging hello’s he stared deep into Brandon’s eyes and boldly shouted, “I am Jesus Christ! Your Lord and Savior, who died for your sins!”

For a moment Brandon just sat still, blinked a few times, and wondered whether he should agree for the man’s sake, or run away as fast as he could! But after a few beats, the man smiled, chuckled and confessed, “Aw, I’m just kidding you. The name’s Rick!”

Brandon then takes him to McDonalds and for a couple of hours they hung out. I like what Brandon says in reflection about the event. “I wondered whether Rick really thought he was Jesus. I couldn’t be absolutely sure.”

“But . . . I became convinced that his claims were true whether he believed them or not. If Jesus was right–if Mother Teresa was right–then through Rick I really had encountered God. Not because Rick claimed to be Jesus, but because Jesus claimed to be in him.”[1]

Now, usually the people we meet don’t quite so blatantly remind us that they are Jesus in disguise. Normally, it is like the story about Emmaus, it isn’t until we are breaking bread together, it isn’t until we are sharing in hospitality that we realize what is happening.

That helps explain why Crossan says that the Emmaus story is a two-fold lesson for us –  it is about us welcoming the stranger, inviting them to walk and talk with us, to eat with us, to stay with us, and being hospitable to those we meet.

But it is also about us finding Jesus fully present in our lives, loving us, feeding us spiritually and even physically. So Emmaus is a two-fold lesson for us: when you see Christ in others, you discover Jesus is walking with you all the time.

Those two things come together to create a holy moment, where two more teachings of Jesus happen. First, the parable of the sheep and the goats becomes reality as Jesus turns to us and says, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” And we reply, “But Jesus when did we see you hungry or thirsty.” To which he answers, “Whenever you did it for one of the least of these, you did it unto me.”

But at the very same time Jesus feeds us: he tells us how he is the bread of life and the living water. As we feed another, Jesus sees the hunger of our souls and gives us the bread of life. As we quench the thirst of another, Jesus sees the thirsting of our souls and pours us the living water. Through the encounters where we reach out and touch others, Christ then touches and nourishes us.

The story of Jesus appearing on the road to Emmaus challenges us to open our eyes to see Christ in the people around us, and it invites us to allow our hearts to be warmed as we participate in the kingdom work of reaching out to them.

The encounter is meant to be an example of something we should always be making to happen around us. So we could argue about the names of the village or the miles they stand from Jerusalem, saying “Emmaus never happened.” or we can make it happen today. I say let “Emmaus always happen.”

[1] http://brandonvogt.com/his-most-distressing-disguise/