Monday, September 28, 2009

Outrageous Sowing

Apple Festival Sermon for 9.27.09
Lectionary selected by pastor: Psalm 17:1-8a; 2 Corinthians 9:6-10; Mark 4:26-32

Please pray with me: “O Lord, I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5, 6).

From today’s Gospel: “When [the mustard seed] is sown, it grows up… and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

I have witnessed a miracle this week, the miracle of work and prayer and hospitality. Many of you came here to peel apples after a long day of work, some took days off, or simply did not go to work at all so that you could help. People came who don’t belong to our church. The Children’s Home sent two groups of boys on consecutive nights, with a staff member, to peel apples—and the Director phoned me the next day to thank me and tell me what a wonderful time they’d had. Your former pastor David Houston arrived with a whole group from his church! And after the day-long Festival, there was dinner—two seatings worth! People were still down in the kitchen cleaning up as I finished this sermon at 9:30.

Several workers introduced themselves to me as “I’m one of your parishioners who doesn’t come to church.” Well, they were here this week, drawn by something that only a community of many hands and hearts can achieve. We stretched ourselves and made Esopus a happier place. I believe that we found the will to do this day proud—that we were stretched—by something bigger than all of us.

Because I’m your pastor, I want us to know how Biblical we have been. As a Community of the faithful, it is so important for us to realize this. The passages that Marilyn and Joy read so beautifully to us describe and affirm what we have seen here with our eyes, hearts, touched, and tasted of the word of Life!

You have the passage from Corinthians right in front of you on your leaflets. In this passage, Paul shows his love of the idea of sowing and reaping, and he starts by describing us: “The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” How does this happen? Here are Paul’s guidelines: #1 We give, each one of us, just as we have decided in our hearts to give (NIV translation). “Hearts” is better here than “mind,” which sounds calculating, too rational, and certainly doesn’t describe our energy. #2 We give “not reluctantly or under compulsion.” Clearly this was the case. #3 In fact, our sense of well-being, of having done what was simply good—exhausting as it may have been—brings blessings “for God loves a cheerful giver.” #4 Moreover, says Paul, the Creator who orders the seasons for sowing and harvest, will also “increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

You have been doing this Apple Festival for a long time and the harvest of your righteousness has grown. I am taking nothing from you, I hope, when I involve God, our Creator, in the whole process. Here is verse 10 again from Corinthians: “He who supplied seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” Paul uses the image of sowing and reaping because it captures the interplay between God, the seed giver, and us, the harvesters. God is not only the source of abundance, but the source, the supplier, the initiator of the Grace that allows us to respond with goodness and generosity. This wonderful interplay is one reason that I start so many of my prayers by asking God to be with us and by thanking God for being with us. For me, this week was indeed filled with important human interactions. The week was also overflowing with God. Dancing in the light of God, actually, as one of our hymns puts it. I think that’s pretty awesome.

And that brings me to the gospel of Mark. Mark is telling us a story about bringing in the Kingdom. “The kingdom of heaven,” he loves to say, “is as if…” and then he fills in the blank. Guess who filled in the blank yesterday! We were living in the Kingdom, good people.

Mark’s first parable suggests that this happens slowly, mysteriously, almost without people knowing it. “The seed would sprout and grow,” Paul writes, the farmer “does not know how.” And then suddenly, there it is, something immense!

Mark also gives us a second parable of the Kingdom. How on earth, he says in effect, can we describe the Kingdom of God? Well, it’s like a mustard seed, so small, and yet when it grows, it “becomes the greatest of all shrubs.” In the Middle East, it typically grows from about two to six feet. And I’ve seen fields of it in India, spreading across the landscape like great golden saris.

As Paul’s listeners knew, this plant is both hardy and intrusive; once it takes hold, it tends to take over. What’s more, it “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Please savor every word here: The branches of the mustard plant are strong and wide enough so that creatures can find refuge, a place that is home. This week, I felt as though I was watching mustard seeds—or maybe apple seeds—pushing up and taking over.

I saw how happy the boys were who came from The Children’s Home. I watched people really enjoying themselves. There were reunions—with Pastor Johnson and his wife, for example. There were chance encounters, serendipity all over the place. Because we drew from all over our township, I was able to meet people whom it would have taken me hours to find otherwise. I was able to have conversations with them about the town and the people here. I believe there will be harvests from these conversations for our church and for our town. And harvests of different kinds for each of us.

But I hope we will remember the outrageous nature of that mustard seed: It can shelter because it is hardy and persistent. It knows its potential for good and achieves it. Such is God’s Kingdom on earth of which we, this church, in this time and place, are a part.

Let us pray: Dear God, help us to build on our time together this week, with one another and with you. Let us not forget our energy and excitement. Let us go from strength to strength, praising you who are the course of that strength and of our abundance. Thank you for loving us as the apple of your eye. AMEN.

*** BULLETIN ***
Apple Festival Worship – September 27, 2009
Lectionary readings for next Sunday: Genesis 1:20, 22-26, 28, 31; Psalm 148; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 25:31, 34-40

Organ Prelude
Greeting by Pastor
Invocation (in unison):
Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you; eyes to behold you; ears to listen for your word; a heart to love you; and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Introit #707 “Hymn of Promise”
*Call to Worship: Psalm 17
Pastor: Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
People: Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
Pastor: From you let my vindication come;
People: Let my eyes see the right.
Pastor: If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
People: If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress.
Pastor: As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
People: My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.
Pastor: I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
People: Incline your ear to me, hear my words.
Pastor: Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
People: Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me.
*Opening Hymn #170 “O How I Love Jesus”
Prayer of Dedication (in unison):
Lord, hear; Lord, forgive; Lord, do. Hear what we speak not; forgive what we speak amiss; do what we leave undone; that not according to our words or our deeds, but according to your mercy and truth, all may work for your glory and the good of your kingdom, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Words of Assurance
*Assurance Hymn #128 “He Leadeth Me”
Greeting One Another with the Peace of Christ
Time for Children of All Ages
(Children 3 and older may proceed to Children’s Church.)

Proclamation of the Word of God
New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 9:6-10
Instrumental Music
Gospel Reading: Mark 4:26-32
Sermon: “Outrageous Sowing” Pastor Dora J. Odarenko

Response to the Word of God
*Hymn #83 “Canticle of God’s Glory”
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer
The Offering of Our Gifts
*Prayer of Thanksgiving

Sending Forth
*Closing Hymn #711 “For All the Saints”
This hymn is dedicated to Shirley Corder, Roger Mabie, Ethel Howard, Ann Petrizzo, Nat Ciccone and all of our Apple Festival Champions.
*Dismissal with Blessing
Organ Postlude

Monday, September 21, 2009

Who Is the Body of Christ?

Sermon for 9.20.09
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:33-37

Please pray with me: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you” (Psalm 26:2-3).

From today’s Gospel: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

One of the Bible verses that sticks with me from the beloved King James Bible of my childhood is “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14). I’m sure I wanted Jesus to love me, but I wasn’t so sure when it was explained that Jesus loved sweet, dear little girls. I wasn’t always sweet and dear. Thus my first real theological dilemma: Did Jesus love ME or only the little girl that others expected me to be? I didn’t need to have worried, and I’m going to tell you why.

This verse from my childhood actually comes from another chapter in Mark, but we often import the interpretation I just gave to our passage this morning. The disciples have been arguing about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom and, to put an end to their quarreling, Jesus takes a little child and tells them to be more concerned about welcoming such a child because this is the way to welcome him and to welcome God.

Sounds a bit like our last sermon? With the ante raised? Deny your own self-centeredness, Jesus said last week, and enter fully into a relationship with me and the journey into which I invite you. Is Jesus now extending that relationship to those who are pure in heart? Some of us don’t have a whole lot of little children to welcome.

And this is the point. We romanticize childhood, at least for our own children and grandchildren. Some of our hardworking grandparents or parents very much wanted a more carefree growing-up than they had experienced in the Depression. And at present, the huge development of markets for pre-teens, children, and even babies gives at least the illusion of total gratification and privilege.

In the time of Jesus, however, children were invisible, non-people. Galatians 4:1 sums it up: “Heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property.” Children who were not to be heirs were virtually slaves. Think of the African-American children on the pre-Civil War plantations. In fact, the child whom Jesus takes in his arms in this passage may well have been one of the slave children of the household that he and his disciples had entered. Mark’s language is so economical that it’s easy to miss his emphasis, but here Jesus is Rabbi. He sits down to assume the formal position of a teacher. Next he gathers his disciples around him and makes a pronouncement: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he does the “Show and Tell.” Taking a child and standing him or her in their midst, he clarifies his statement, “Whoever welcomes one such child….”

To complete the sentence by saying, “whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” is not shocking since kings and generals sent emissaries to deliver their commands. But for a child, a slave, a nobody, to represent God is something else. Children were to be with the women, and slave children had to work. To receive such ones was certainly not what a serious teacher and serious male disciples would expect. And yet Jesus gives the worthless child enormous value. The worthless child becomes a stand-in for him. “Such a one” becomes a stand-in for him and therefore a source of great concern for any of his disciples—including us.

Jesus’ “Show and Tell” gives me much to think about, to pray about, to watch in myself, whenever I am in a situation that gives any possible advantage: as teacher, pastor, family member who knows all the histories, as friend who knows all the vulnerabilities. It also gives me sure footing when I am in a situation that may provide very little advantage. There is a whole culture outside these church doors that ranks us according to birth, brains, success, personalities. Given our environmental crisis, I must also say that our culture ranks creatures and natural resources according to perceived usefulness to us and our perceived need.

Jesus sees it differently. We can take seriously the words of our hymn this morning, “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” The hymn asks questions, and Jesus answers that for creatures—and our children—to praise, and to say “life,” “peace,” and “home,” “the first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus is urging humble service of others, including even the oddest Other. He is urging his disciples to recognize him and God in those who are given no significance and those outside of our own safe groups, even our own safe mission projects. Jesus insists that his sphere of influence and his power transcend the security of our own community and our own church. In taking such risks, we begin to discover who is the body of Christ, who else is in this body of Christ of which we are a part.

As a corollary, it is only fair to admit that there are many children who are not protected in the way we have tried to protect our own. The notion of privileged childhood is an illusion of innocence when youngsters even in our own county are poorly fed, undereducated, under loved, and totally without adequate medical resources. We are not a society that nurtures all of our dependants, either young or old, and yet Jesus states that our discipleship can be measured by how we regard our most vulnerable.

Those vulnerable ones can be in our own families. The youngest of my cousins was always something of an odd duck. A sad fellow, really, without close friends, and so uncomfortable socially that I’m afraid I sometimes hoped I wouldn’t bump into him when we were both students at Columbia. Then one of our aunts died, leaving her money only to her nieces. Unfortunately Sandy thought that she had loved him. In his hurt, he decided to boycott the lot of us. Nothing that we did, including offering him some of our inheritance, made any difference. He refused to see us, letters were returned, phone calls rejected. He had two master’s degrees and an excellent position with a major corporation, but in his anger and isolation, he made himself an outcast, a kind of non-person. For ten years, his sister and I prayed for the healing of this breach, surrounding him with all that we knew of God’s love. We never stopped trying to reach him. Through my prayers, I found—not surprisingly—that I really longed to see him in a way that had not been the case before. And finally there was a break-through. When a second aunt died, he agreed to come from California to the funeral. When he walked through the passenger gate, we all fell into one another’s arms. Something had happened that we could not have done on our own. He finally agreed to some testing and we found that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that explained much of the behavior that the family had found difficult. Our full love for him is now accepted and returned. Like the little child described in Mark, he is among us and welcomed, for himself and as a child of God.

Jesus’ teachings may demand that we do the hard work of changing long-established patterns, but that is because Jesus is challenging us to respond as he does, to respond with the fullness of God. In responding—rather than reacting—to one of those “others,” there is a wonderful exchange, a recognition of kinship. We will probably encounter some Others during the Apple Festival, but that’s all right: they are not only our guests, but God’s. Another of our hymns this morning expressed it beautifully—and in words closer to our notions of childhood: “Like a child we receive all that love can conceive, like a child we believe, Jesus comes.”

Let us pray: Dear God, confirm and strengthen us in all goodness so that in discovering and cherishing more of Your own, we may learn more of Your beloved son, Jesus Christ, and more of You, both in this world and the next. Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Must I Take Up the Cross?

Sermon for 9.13.09
Mark 8:27-38

Please pray with me: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25:4,5).

From Today’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This Gospel verse gives us three directives: We are to deny ourselves, we are to take up our crosses, and we are to follow Jesus. In certain parts of the southwest and in Latin American countries, there is a tradition, on Good Friday, of walking the way of the cross in a dramatically literal way. The one staggering under the load of the cross beam is often really flogged, and the faithful, who follow along the path to Golgotha, thoroughly immerse themselves in the tragedy of Christ’s suffering.

We Methodists are less comfortable with drops of sweat and blood, at least in church. We find other ways to revere Jesus’ sacrifice. Perhaps we are more private until grand old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” or Spirituals such as “There is a balm in Gilead” draw out grief and devotion. Then again, while our lives are often difficult, even harsh, we may not have known the desperate poverty and oppression that lie behind Latino reenactments.

Thus, as the children discovered this morning in our time together, we have crosses in our churches, rather than crucifixes. And the wonderful symbol of our church is the cross draped with the living flame of the Holy Spirit. And yet the words of Scripture remain: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Do we shy away from what seems like an overly difficult, even unfair demand?

In fact, many of us—right here, right now—are carrying huge burdens, crosses of our own. All we need to do is to feel the tightness in our backs, the knots at our trigger points, and the tension is clear: Illness of body, of mind, of ones we love; financial, workplace, or personal difficulties; worries about our children, spouses, parents. This is the human condition, and some of us, it seems, are hit far harder than others. Most of us don’t have to look around for a cross to carry to show our devotion; it’s already there—or waiting. We are already right in the middle of that Gospel verse, sharing Christ’s suffering. The verse promises that Jesus is also sharing ours.

And those of us who are ashamed of our troubles might also remember how incredibly shameful Jesus’ punishment was. Crucifixion was not only torture, it was the death reserved for slaves, those considered worthless except for labor and profit. The extreme dishonor of crucifixion not only confirmed their status, but spelled it out publically. There were a number of times when 1,000 or more at one time were nailed on crosses along a roadway.

Second-century non-Christians considered Christians insane for associating a crucified one with God. Some Gnostics even argued that Christ—the real and spiritual Christ—had to be outside of the body of Jesus on the cross. Thus the crucifixion was not even depicted for some 250 years, or if it was, the cross was a support for vines so that it became a tree of life. The little painted cross from El Salvador that I showed to the children belongs to that category: It’s filled with hope. Animals and a plowed field and children and a teacher!

By giving such details, I’m not trivializing what I’ve said about taking up our own crosses. Our troubles are dignified by the comparison. The symbol that links us and these hapless slaves to our Lord must be taken very seriously. The troubles, mistakes, conditions of none of us are worthless. It is the Christian promise that the cross is always taken seriously by God.

Acknowledging our cross, therefore, is actually good news. But first we are to “deny” ourselves. This may be harder. Let’s be clear about what it isn’t: There is no evidence that Mark is talking about further punishment for us here—the kind of no-candy-in-Lent mentality. What Jesus is asking is for each of us to give up our place as the center of things, to let go of that tightness that whispers that all else must revolve around us. It’s what I call the ego rampant! Even bruised, the ego manages to arrange this. Psalm 25 says it so well: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

Sometimes we have to get to the very end of our rope before we are willing to give over pride of place, pride of ego, even pride of suffering. This is, in part, the fear of having to do it on our own and the fear of not being tough enough or strong enough or loving enough. Since Jesus is reaching out his hands to us from the cross, we must also be willing to reach out and grasp them, again and again. To do this is not to follow behind him, but to enter into relationship with him.

And then the story is not over. The third requirement, that of following Jesus, takes us beyond the tomb. New life is shown on the little painted cross in terms of this life; that would be the hope of mission, of programs for food and education. But for every one of us—so-called privileged or so-called poor—there is the hope of new strength, of renewed purpose, of healing of spirit as well as body; the promise of victory and triumph. These are Transfigurations, right here, right now; they prefigure Resurrection.

One of the crosses I showed the children is called the “tau cross” or the “T cross.” In Hebrew the letter for T is “tav” and it is the last letter of that alphabet. Just as the omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and reminds us, in our own church windows, that God is the center and circumference of all things—the beginning but also the end—so this “tav" cross reminds us that God, in God’s way and God’s time, ends all things well. This is why we are signed with the cross at Baptism. In the words of our hymn this morning: “Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified; peace is there that knows no measure, joys that through all time abide.” Since the final word from the cross is alleluia, we cannot do better than to take up the cross that we are given, knowing that it is draped with the living flame of the Holy Spirit.

And so we pray: May our proclamation be that God is worthy of our trust and Christ of our discipleship. May we know that we are not alone. In the midst of this life, may we live as followers and heirs of Christ. May we know that we are in a world that God is endlessly creating and loving. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Recognizing God's Messengers

Sermon for 9.6.2009
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125 or 124; James 1:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I’m sure that each of us has felt exhausted, overloaded, underappreciated, ignored, and even desperate. These emotions are the starting point for the account from the Gospel of Mark this morning, the story of the Syrophoenician woman. A similar woman also appears in Matthew, but there are details in Mark that make the situation for both the woman and for Jesus more pointed. I must add the obvious: whatever the difference in details, the appearance of a similar story in more than one Gospel suggests its importance to those living within the memory of Jesus’ earthly lifetime.

In both Gospels, Jesus enters Gentile territory after what can only be described as a grueling schedule: crowds of people, denseness on the part of his disciples. In Matthew, the woman sees him and runs after him shouting for help for her daughter. But Mark creates a special setting. There Jesus—who often seems to have the introvert’s need for withdrawal—enters a house and does “not want anyone to know he was there.” In other words, he hides. Yet even in the house, Mark tells us, “he could not escape notice.” Hearing that he is in the house, somehow—the Gospel doesn’t explain—the desperate woman gains entrance.

What we must realize is how truly shocking her entrance was. Whether the door was locked, closed, or simply an open passageway, for that day and time, the woman’s action was appalling. For any woman other than a wife to intrude upon a single man was unheard of. The fact that she was a foreign woman and therefore unclean made matters worse. This is the behavior of a prostitute…… or of a mother who is so desperate for a miracle for her daughter that nothing else matters. Once there, she is hard to ignore because she bows at his feet and begs Jesus to exorcize the demon out of her daughter.

But hers is not the only character study in this account. Many readers find the passage difficult because Jesus is so harsh. He is not the gentle “suffer the children to come unto me” Church School poster. Of course, one can say that he was only testing the woman’s faith, but this is not the only possible reading. We can also imagine that he had had a really hard, exhausting day. Now he simply wanted to be alone, without demands. And suddenly, here is this unappetizing, aggressive woman making demands that suggest that there is still more lying in wait for him. As though the Jews, crowds and rulers are not enough, is he now supposed to take on the Gentiles as well?

Perhaps this is why he speaks so rudely, comparing her to an unclean animal, a dog. His doing so is roughly equivalent to calling someone a swine—or even worse. No other supplicant in the gospel receives such treatment. But at this point, I think it is important to allow Jesus his fatigue, and thus, in fact, accept his humanity.

In response to his fatigue comes the marvelous tour de force of the woman. Jesus has used the diminutive of dog, “little dog” or “house dog,” but he also uses the verb “throw,” which suggests flinging the food out of doors. The woman throws the remark right back at him, changing the metaphor while reverently addressing him as “Sir,” actually as “Kyrie,” or “Lord.” “Sir, even the little house dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Are the children careless or do they love to slip little treats to their pets? Either way there is precedent, she suggests, challenging the exclusive right of the Jews to the mercy and love of God.

Commentators like to speak of the Greek/gentile custom of allowing pets at meals and so point to the symbolic cultural gap that is preserved in this story. I am much more interested in the woman and what this exchange can mean for us. Her keenness must come from her despair buoyed by a wonderful faith. Moreover, her wit—if that is what we want to call it—her response comes from the depths of her being as a mother, a caregiver. Her world is the household, where creatures are nurtured, loved. As a mother, she knows that love cannot be limited or selective and that to do so sours the entire home. We too deserve your mercy, she says in effect, and such is its power that even the portion that you give me will be enough.

And Jesus does respond: “Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’” Note the “then” that starts the sentence. We never quite know whether that means a time for deliberation or an instance response, but whichever way, it is equally unequivocal. These two worthy opponents have come to a rich understanding. Healing and grace result.

As so often in the Bible, I see templates for us in both characters. This is a moment in the life of Jesus in which we can fully place ourselves. In the presence of this good woman, this good mother, Jesus himself moves a little more into the fullness of his mission. His heart is stretched, I may even say graced by her. If even Jesus—who was as human as we are yet without sin—can be discouraged and then pulled by experience into a greater understanding of who his people—the sheep of his pasture—really are, isn’t there a demand that we love more fully as well? And isn’t there also hope for us when our vision is narrow? If we allow Jesus his humanity, we can be more forgiving of our own failures and those of others. And so we can pray even more fervently: “O God, grant us grace to receive Jesus Christ in every person and to be Jesus Christ to every person.”

As for the woman: She is a role model for me in assertiveness, even with God. Her faith and passion for her child are such that nothing stops her. In so doing, she must have love for herself as well. She is sure enough of her own worth to ask, to enter, to barge into the presence that she knows is holy and that she treats with reverence but firmness.

If Jesus was stretched by her, we can be too. That may include loving ourselves more fully, seeing ourselves as fully worthy. We each have that right, for ourselves as well as for our loved ones. Jesus’ response makes that clear. Our memory of this is critical on those days when others—or even we ourselves—regard our mountains as molehills, not worthy of attention, and God doesn’t seem to respond as quickly as we want.

And so we may now pray: Lord, grant us eyes to see your messengers, your presence and your peace in strange places and unlikely people, even in ourselves. AMEN.