Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sermon: Meeting Your Maker

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob comes from a religious family. His grandfather is Abraham, the one who makes the first covenant with God. Abraham is often recognized as the father of Judaism and Islam. His grandmother is Sarah, who is visited by angels and told that she will give birth to a miracle baby at age 90. So Jacob’s grandparents are pretty well respected by a lot of religious people.

But that isn’t all. Jacob’s father, Isaac, is the miracle baby who was promised by the angels, and then he is nearly sacrificed to God as a child, but is saved by a timely appearance of a ram. Isaac is very careful to go out of his way to find a wife that also follows God. He doesn’t want to marry one of the women in the area where he lives that worship a different god. So he travels a long way to find and marry Rebekah, a holy and God-loving woman. So religion is important to Jacob’s family.

But Jacob has always been a problem child. He steals from his brother, cheats his way through relationships, sneakily obtains his father’s blessing, and uses people for his own gain. So religion, whatever it may have meant to his family, doesn’t seem to mean a lot to him. He was like the boy who when asked by the Sunday School teacher why he believed in God said, “I don’t know, unless it is something that runs in the family.”[1] If he believes in God, he certainly doesn’t act like that belief should change his behavior. The impression that we get is that religion for Jacob is something that is a tool for getting what he wants, that he doesn’t really care if God is real or not, but if he can find gain from this religion thing, then he will milk it for all it is worth.

And then one night God comes to Jacob in a dream. Now, what would you expect God to do when meeting with a person like Jacob?

Yell at him about his past? Tell him to get in line or he will be punished? Strike him with an illness or have him kidnapped and enslaved by foreigners? Something like that perhaps? Certainly we would expect some words from God that tell him to clean up his act.

Amazingly as God meets with him, God doesn’t do any of that. There is no yelling, or threats, or punishment. Instead God promises to be with him in the future and bless him and his descendants. God says every family of earth will be blessed because of him and his descendants. Those are pretty big promises and kind words for a liar and a cheat.

But here is the funny thing -- Jacob’s reaction to this meeting is being terrified. The words God uses aren’t terrifying, they are quite comforting.

So why is Jacob terrified? Probably because he realizes for the first time that God is very real. Not just abstractly real, not just a nice idea, but really real – able to touch you real. He says in verse 16 “The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.” That disturbs him, because he now knows that God is standing beside him, and the life he has been living isn’t really the one he wants to live with God looking over his shoulder. God has seen what he has been doing, and although God didn’t yell at him, the thought that God saw his actions terrifies him.

Such a change of thinking can happen to any of us. We may have come from a religious family, we may be able to name the people who are pastors, or church leaders in our ancestry, but we may have never quite taken it seriously. Perhaps we have even been the problem children, the ones who acted out, who did everything that our family hated. But I have news for you. God still wants very much to meet with you, to be part of your dreams and visions for the future. God won’t dwell on your past, but will forgive it and move on, because what God really wants is to be with you in the future and bless you and your descendants.

For example: Soon after Bill admitted himself to the Towns Hospital for what would be the last time, he cried out: “If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”

His hospital room was filled with a white light. He was seized with an “ecstasy beyond description.” In his mind’s eye, he stood on the summit of a mountain, where a great wind of spirit blew right threw him. “Then came the blazing thought: ‘You are a free man.’” He became aware of a Presence, like a sea of living spirit. “This,” he thought, “must be the Great Reality. The God of the preachers.” Bill Wilson never took another drink. He had started down the path to become one of the cofounders of Alcoholic Anonymous.

When God becomes very real to us, as opposed to just a nice idea, when we become convinced that God is present, as opposed to far away in heaven, it changes our attitudes and the very way we approach our everyday lives. That change in how we live can become the basis for blessing not just for ourselves but for people all around us, people who will never directly meet us.

Yet that meeting, that moment of deeply real connection with God may end up terrifying you, as you realize that God is standing beside you when you are at your best and when you are at your worst.

Even though we know that God loves us. Even though the words that God speaks are comforting and calming. We end up being terrified, because (I think) that simply is the reality of meeting the one that is much more powerful than we are. I don’t think that God is trying to scare us, I just think that when we as humans stand before the greatness of God, we are so awed that it can be frightening.

I certainly have had my share of experiences of this. There are times and places where I know that I have been in the presence of the Holy, like a sea of living spirit, and in that moment God is very real. And even though the message that God has given me is one of comfort, yet the actual meeting with God can be disconcerting and even terrifying. It has changed how I think about those places where I have met with God. Like Jacob, they become places that I remember as sacred and especially spiritual. I almost desire to build a little shrine there, a reminder of what has happened as God emerged into our world so vibrantly for me. And perhaps you have had experiences like this as well. Where God is near and it is both comforting and terrifying, where you stand in awe, and feel the sea of living spirit around you.

The good news is that despite our feelings of terror, God works with us lovingly and patiently to craft us into a new creation. God wants us to be that blessing to the world.

God wants us to live into our full potential. So if it takes God erupting into our world, disturbing our dreams at night, or suddenly bursting through to us while we are in the hospital, God will do it. All so that the world can receive the blessings that God wants to pour upon it through us. Yes, you are an agent of God’s blessings. Maybe that thought terrifies you a little, because you have a great responsibility. But through it all God reminds you, I will be with you always, I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.

[1] Humor form ChristianGlobe

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Sermon: Which Pastor Do You Want?

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In case you haven’t figured it out, you are stuck with me for another year as your pastor. That means you are stuck with my limitations and my strengths for another year. Some of you are probably happy with that, others would like a person with different strengths and weaknesses. That’s okay. People have different needs, different wants, and different ideas of what religious leadership should look like.

Actually, today’s bible passage is exactly a discussion of that. Imagine that Jesus is sitting down with a group of people and talking about what they expect the Messiah to be like. And the fact is that some people preferred the serious style of John the Baptist – they liked that he didn’t eat much, that he didn’t drink alcohol. He approached life like a funeral, expecting people to be solemn and respectful. Some people thought the Messiah should be like that. But others thought there had to be something wrong with him to act like that – some even said he had a demon.

Other people liked the style of Jesus who ate with sinners, drank with tax collectors and socialized with all sorts of people. He approached life like a dance, and invited others to dance along. Some people thought the Messiah should reach out the outcasts. But others saw his actions as irreligious, not serious enough, too much like the sinners themselves. So they called him a drunk and a glutton.

So here is Jesus having this discussion with people and they are giving their feedback about what the Messiah should be like, as Jesus reminds them, that some people would complain about the Messiah no matter what he was like – they would point out all the flaws and never be happy. If invited to the funeral, they wouldn’t be serious and respectful; and when invited to dance, they would sit there like lumps on a log. Jesus is trying to challenge them to open their minds and see that he really is the one sent from God.

As I was reading it, I began to reflect upon pastoral leadership and honestly about the kinds of people we put into other leadership positions like lay leader and Ad Board chair.

What if we take Jesus’ discussion here as the beginning of a discussion about all of the leadership in church?

For example, you have two choices in a pastor. One is a pastor who is like John the Baptist, strict in his religious observances – fasts, never laughs, doesn’t dance, and comes at life and religion with a very serious approach. The other is one who is like the Human One who eats and drinks with sinners, who visits the bars, who dances to music, and likes to laugh. Life and religion are a source of joy to be shared with everyone.

Which would you pick? What would you complain about with each? Turn to your neighbor and tell them which one you would pick! [wait]

Of course all of know that that really isn’t enough information is it? Could you really pick a pastor just based on that? Well, you could but it might not work out very well.

When Jesus tells this story he is really inviting us to a discussion about what really matters. Is it the outward signs or is it something different? Is it something deeper?

So a couple of months ago I went to two training seminars that talked about demographics and one of the things that people study is what different types of people look for in their religious leaders. In fact, the studies are so detailed that they can tell based upon what block you live in what you probably look for in a pastor and in other church leaders. I know, that is a little frightening – in the information age, people know so much about us. But my goal isn’t to scare you. Actually I want to look at the top six major demographic groups in Buchanan and tell you what they are looking for in church leadership.

So for example, I can tell you that the largest demographic group in Buchanan likes pastors who graduated from a well-established school of theology and from the “School of hard knocks”.

They want a person who has expertise and commonsense. They want someone who works closely with the church board but does not take over. They want a pastor who listens carefully to all points of view, and seeks advice of the lay leaders. They expect the pastor to be on call 24/7 and to be a good caregiver of the people.

Similarly, our third largest demographic group in Buchanan likes pastors who are ordained by an established denomination and are primarily approachable and friendly.

They want a pastor who not only visits in homes and hospitals, but is also an excellent administrator, who is more like a CEO and can run a business or a non-profit agency.

Our fifth largest demographic group has a little different perspective. They are pretty open to different kinds of leadership styles.

They prefer a pastor who preserves harmony, who is sensitive to different generations and acts as friend, counselor and facilitator. They are capable preachers and administrators but don’t have to be the best.

Do you hear the differences start to emerge? This group doesn’t care so much about the CEO approach, of even how they work with the board. This group wants the pastor to be their friend.

Where things really get different is our six largest group. This group wants a pastor who has a live and let live attitude and has let go of all the sacred cows of churchy institutions. 

The pastor has to be laser focused on servant evangelism and helping disciple young adults. The pastor works with the people individually and in small groups to help people shape a do-able and portable spiritual life for themselves and their families.[1]

So this last group really doesn’t care about administration at all, they want a person who disciples them and teaches them how to live a spiritual life. And all the traditions respected by the first few groups can go out the window.

Turn to your neighbor and tell them which of these groups you most agree with. [wait]

As you can see, no one person can be all of these things. So what has to happen is that churches either will never attract certain types of people, no matter how hard they try, because they leadership style just isn’t right, Or – the church lay people, you all, fill in the leadership gaps and become the bridgebuilders who reach to those other groups.

So we need lay people who meet the needs of the first group that have expertise and common sense, who listen carefully to everyone’s point of view. We need lay people who are approachable and friendly, who are excellent visitors in homes and could run a company. We need people who are concerned about the church’s harmony and are sensitive to different generations, who can be a person’s friend and counselor. We need people who question tradition and are willing to toss it aside, and we need people who are willing to meet with people individually and in small groups and help them figure out a spirituality that fits their busy lifestyle.

So the next time you complain about your pastor, or about one of the other church leaders, think about that. While you might not like it, it may be exactly what another person is looking for in a leader.

Also, before you complain remember that all of that is outward stuff. Kind of like Jesus says, all of that is about the personality of the leader. Are they more like a funeral or a dance?

But what we really need in our church leadership is people who first and foremost love God. People who look to Jesus as their ultimate leader, as their messiah. You can have the right personality all day long, but if you don’t have that, then there is a problem.

Of course since I am not perfect, I will fail you. Since our other church leaders are not perfect, they will fail you too. The delight here is that Jesus is ultimately our leader – and he tells us some very specific things about his style of leadership. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me (he doesn’t say we won’t have work to do). I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

So when I fail, when the church leadership fails, look to Jesus. After all our religion really is about following him, not following me, or our board, or anyone else.

[1] All Demographic Summaries are from Mission Impact Guides, V2.0 From MissionInsite, LLC available through www.missioninsite.com

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Sermon: A Cup of Hot Coffee

Matthew 10:40-42

The scripture from Matthew is all about how we give and receive hospitality. It is about welcoming the stranger, and being welcomed when we are strangers. Obviously, in Jesus’ day, especially in the desert, it was vital that you offer strangers water when they were travelling. To not do so might be condemning them to death. They might literally collapse from dehydration if you refused them. So one of primary values of that area at that time was hospitality to strangers, especially in the provision of water.

Jesus knows that as he sends the disciples out, they will be dependent upon the hospitality of others for survival. It simply is a reality of their being travelers in a harsh environment. Perhaps he is reminding them of that, or perhaps he means for his teaching to be a reminder to those who will be receiving the disciples that they have a duty to treat his followers well. To provide them with what they need.

As you read the passage, you may have a bit of déjà vu, when Jesus says those who receive you are also receiving me.

The language here parallels what Jesus says at another time in his ministry (a probably more famous passage later in Matthew where Jesus describes separating the sheep and the goats, and the goats complain, when did we see you hungry, when did we see you thirsty, and Jesus says whenever you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did not do it for me.) In today’s passage, Jesus says that when we receive a stranger we have received him, and when we receive him, we receive the one who sent him. The two passages are very similar. I think it is helpful to see that Jesus shares this teaching more than once – he repeats it because it is important that we know that how we treat the least of these is vitally important.

But the thing is, we live in different times and a different climate than Jesus, with different needs and fears. Travelers can get water from the store, or a large coke from McDonalds. There are inns and hotels. It is a lot less likely that we are going to have someone come to our door whose very life is dependent upon whether we give them a cup of cold water or not.

So how does this scripture connect with our lives today? I would extend Jesus’ teaching, and say that the hospitality that Jesus is suggesting is anything that gives life, that helps the person to survive.

Today that might still be water, especially in situations around the world where water is scarce, or unclean. But more often it is in helping them with the very things they need to survive the day.

It could be food, like we do through RAM. It could be heat like we do through RAM. Like in this video: Show [Take Care of Each Other]

What is interesting is that such generosity not only helps the other person, but it also helps us. Studies have shown that being generous with others actually increases our happiness. In the 2015 World Happiness Report, Richard “Davidson and Brianna Schuyler explained that one of the strongest predictors of well-being worldwide is the quality of our relationships. Generous, pro-social behavior seems to strengthen these relationships across cultures. Generosity is even associated with better health and longer life expectancy. Generosity seems to be so powerful that, according to researchers David McClelland and Carol Kirshnit, just thinking about it “significantly increases the protective antibody salivary immunoglobulin A, a protein used by the immune system.” So it seems that money can buy happiness, if we spend it on other people.”[1]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, ““I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way— I’ve certainly found that to be the case so many times— you gave and it then seems like in fact you are making space for more to be given to you. “And there is a very physical example. The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give. And we are made much that way, too. I mean, we receive and we must give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.”[2]

But you may say to yourself. I have no money, I can’t afford to give away much. It could be something simpler than money. Anne Weems has a brief poem:

Sometimes that cup of cold water,

Turns out to be a cup of hot coffee,

And what we’re asked to do is to pour it . . . and to listen.[3]

What I think she is saying is that a deep conversation, an opportunity to connect and share, a chance to shed one’s guilt and shame or talk about the things that one fears, to really talk, over a cup of coffee might be the most life giving thing we could do for a stranger.

I confess, it is something I don’t do as well as I should, I often don’t really take the time to listen to everyone’s story – there are so many people and so little time, and I suspect that may be true for many of you. And yet Jesus suggests when we do such a life-giving thing, we are doing it for him. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and have a cup of coffee with Jesus this week?

Jesus says that everyone who does this will certainly be rewarded. He doesn’t say what the reward is, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t want a reward from God. Share a few cups of coffee with strangers, listen and talk with them, and in return get an invitation to a banquet in heaven. Sounds good to me!

But if even that is too much for you, consider walking around with a smile on your face. Look people in the eye and smile at them.

That may be the cup of cold water that sustains them on a difficult day. Perhaps that day they have heard nothing but complaints, perhaps that day no one has said “I love you” to them, perhaps that day there has been nothing that has brought them joy, and you bring a smile that says – I am happy to see you.

Sarah Stevenson in Psychology today tells the following story, “It’s a rough morning. First, my alarm doesn’t go off. Then I’m late getting my son to school because another driver decides to roll into me. It doesn’t damage my car, but it completely wrecks my mood. Then I get to my doctor’s appointment only to realize I’m an hour early. Just great. It must be a case of the Mondays!”

“I decide to pop into little French cafe around the corner to grab a cup of tea while I’m waiting. As I sit under my little gray cloud, my pretty, young server Colette flashes me a dazzling smile that sticks there for the entire interaction. I can’t help but smile back. In fact, I even catch myself smiling while washing my hands in the bathroom. Suddenly my day doesn’t seem so bad. I finish my tea and head to my appointment equipped with a grin on my face, feeling as though I’ve slipped on a pair of rose-colored glasses. Today’s lesson? It turns out that when I smile, the world smiles back.”

Later in the article Sarah explains, “Did you know that your smile is actually contagious? The part of your brain that is responsible for your facial expression of smiling when happy or mimicking another’s smile resides in the cingulate cortex, an unconscious automatic response area. In a Swedish study, subjects were shown pictures of several emotions: joy, anger, fear and surprise. When the picture of someone smiling was presented, the researchers asked the subjects to frown. Instead, they found that the facial expressions went directly to imitation of what subjects saw. It took conscious effort to turn that smile upside down. So if you’re smiling at someone, it’s likely they can’t help but smile back. If they don’t, they’re making a conscious effort not to.”[4]

So smiling can be a cup of cold water given to another as a lifeline, and it actually will help you feel better as well.

Whether it is literally a cup of cold water, a cup of coffee and a conversation, or a smile, make sure that you are practicing generosity. As you do it, you are doing it for your own health, for others, and as Jesus says, even for him.

[1] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (p. 265). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[2] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (pp. 263-264). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[3] Seasons of the Spirit
[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201206/there-s-magic-in-your-smile