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,