Monday, September 26, 2011

Apple Festival Sunday

The Lord be with you./And also with you.
Our God is always working within us, so that we can follow God’s will.
Come, let us worship.

Sermon for 9.25.11: Apple Festival Sunday
Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

When things seem all at sixes and sevens, I try to remember a blessing that I’ve just received. This can sometimes turn me around. It’s comforting to me that Paul is doing much the same thing in this famous passage from Philippians. There are problems in the church at Philippi and Paul hopes to help. He himself is in prison, waiting to be executed, and he wants to lift his own spirits too. I’m sure that the early church saved this letter in part because it showed the way faith can bring us through hard times.

So Paul starts by reminding the Christians of Philippi of all the good that they have experienced through Christ. Our translation starts with a series of “if”s: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit,” Actually the passage is a series of statements with which Paul knows the Philippians already agree: “Since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is consolation from Christ’s love, since there is fellowship in the Spirit”—since we know these things are true and since we know we are the better for them, it is possible to live in an even more Christ-like way. Doing so will bring us closer to salvation, will be pleasing to God, and can only make matters better among us in our community.

But how do we live in a more Christ-like way, with the same attitude or mind that was in Christ Jesus? How do we respond more appropriately, more fully to our blessings? To answer his own question, Paul quotes a hymn to Christ that also explains who Christ is. Maybe the most exciting part is that Paul introduces the hymn by asking us to be part of it: “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.” Eugene Peterson, in his interpretation, the Message, is bolder. He writes, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”

The first part of the hymn states what we know: Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be [all puffed up about], but emptied himself, taking the [status] of a slave, being born in human likeness.” In other words, Christ, because he was God, was not only willing to humble himself in order to be born as a human. To become human, he had no choice.

The second verse too is familiar: Here is the Resurrection and Ascension! Because of Jesus’ humility, God exalted him and made him Lord over all, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue …confess that [He] is Lord”-- a power greater and better than anyone can imagine.

But first Christ had to be humble. Look at the way Christ’s humility is described. The hymn says he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (vs. 7). The Greek word that Paul used became important theologically: It’s kenosis. I want you to hear it, even if it sounds like the name of a disease or maybe an imported sausage: kenosis. Paul is imagining what it meant for Christ to empty himself of his Godliness in order to become one of us, to become Jesus. Self-emptying. The word asks us to think about the Incarnation, not only for Christ but for us.

To become man, Christ had to be humble, had to empty himself of all that Godly power and might, and-- to live among us—you know He had to be incredibly loving and humble. Not in the abstract, not remotely, from on high. Humble towards us, loving towards us, loving creatures so different than God’s own self.1 And because of this, Christ—the God/man---had to love justice, peace, and the well-being of all creatures. Such self-emptying was a passion for him—a passion great enough to die for. So how can Paul start with asking us to think of ourselves the way Jesus thought of himself?

In the second verse, we are told that we respond to Christ’s emptying of Himself by bowing before Him: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow” (Hymn 168). This doesn’t only mean praising God or a motion we go through in church before prayers. It means that we respond to Christ’s self-emptying with an emptying of ourselves. This isn’t just theology. There’s a message, a real hope here for each of us. Christ is asking something that might seem strange, impossible even, but in silencing our mind chatter, we are allowing Christ to enter our lives.

We get all puffed up with ourselves, our ambitions and dreams, all filled with our worries, our burdens, our anger, our hurt. But Christ, a higher authority, asks us to be like him. He tells us to have the mind of God’s humble servant and empty ourselves sufficiently to allow God to work within us.

Christ’s authority begins to come from within as we listen. As we allow God to work within us, we are more likely to act on God’s authority. Allowing the divine presence to work in us takes prayer work, the discipline of specific time given not only to talking with God, but listening to God speak within us. This is also humbling work. Sometimes we have to admit that maybe God is working within us in ways we can’t yet hear, ways we can’t yet understand. But if Christ could empty himself, we can at least try to do so.

There’s the old joke: If you were accused of being a Christian, what is the evidence that would convict you? After the last month, many of us would have the right to say: Lord, I was faithful. I came and worked at the church for hours, day after day, until I was exhausted. And this past weekend, Lord, was over the top! While pastor was upstairs happily typing, many of us were doing heavy kitchen duty downstairs. And all for your glory.

This is true and this is good. And yet, when we get a little rested and begin to recover, help us to remember that there are many ways to act on the Lord’s authority. Help us to remember that they also serve who only stand and wait for the Lord’s presence to fill the space prepared within our hearts.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, let us enthrone you in our hearts. Let us allow you to transform all that is not holy, all that is not worthy of you. Give us the humility to empty ourselves so that we leave room for you and your authority. Let your will enfold us in its light and power and love. Let our work be for your good pleasure. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Grumbling vs. Honest Questions

The Lord be with you / and also with you
Our God is more generous than we can ask or imagine
Come, let us worship!

Sermon for 9.18.11: “Grumbling vs. Honest Questions”
Exodus 16.2-7, 10-15, 19-21; Matthew 20.1-16

I realize that “Revised Common Lectionary” may be a strange term. It’s important because it represents a huge ecumenical effort over decades and Methodists are asked to follow it. Last week, for good reasons, I made my own choices from Scripture, but usually we are to read and preach from four passages: a psalm, the Old Testament, something from the New Testament, and then the Gospel. We can use a psalm during our opening and then follow with two or three of the others. Two passages are ok, but using three is traditional and unites us with mainline Christians, including the Roman Catholics. That doesn’t mean that everyone does this; often they don’t. But the idea is for all Christians to be united in as many ways as possible. And so, for me, the idea that on Sunday morning, we are all focusing on the same texts, praying over them, trying to understand them better is a truly holy thing. We should never discount the power of Christian unity: working together and praying together as the full body of Christ, even across denominations; honoring together the words that have been saved for us in Scripture to tease our minds into more active thought.

That being said, I read only two passages this morning, and I did play around a bit with the verses in Exodus. These two readings and the psalm--considerably shortened--are from the Revised Common Lectionary. Note the word “Revised.” Pastors, priests, and scholars struggled over the selection for years because they hoped that by following these readings in three-year cycles, the faithful would hear or read the crucial parts of the Bible. Not everyone loves their choices. Another way is to read chapter by chapter on a daily basis, and many of us do. But this lectionary attempts to showcase those parts most relevant to our growth as Christians. That means a lot of history and those “begots” can be put to one side. Sexy parts too. There has also been a heroic attempt to chose passages that go together in some way. Sometimes pastors tear out their hair; sometimes pastors try very hard to draw them all together; and sometimes we just give up.

This morning I left out the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, although it would have been fun to tie it in with the grumbling of the children of Israel wandering in the desert and the workers in Jesus’ parable. Paul is grumbling because he’s in prison and wants out so badly that he wishes that God would end his life. You can read any of the passages on your own before church since I print the readings for the following week. When I was sitting in the pews, I liked to try to guess which the Pastor would pull. This wasn’t so much an intellectual exercise; I wondered how to make a fuller picture of God’s Word.

There is a common thread in Exodus 16 and the parable from Matthew. In Exodus, the people haven’t been on their journey for very long, but they’re already complaining: Not “Are we there yet?” but “Why did we come at all?” They had been desperate to escape Egypt, and for good reasons. Now a very small part of their life in Egypt becomes what they long for most: the familiar taste of bread. This is so human and so true to life.

The people make life a nightmare for Moses and Aaron. But God hears anyway. "They want bread," says God, "I’ll give them bread." And it was wonderful bread: with the taste of coriander and honey. HOWEVER: God’s ground rules are different. If they tried to hoard this bread, it became unfit for consumption: full of worms. Could it sound like "Give us this day, the bread that we need for this day—that we actually require"? God’s blessings, like manna, cannot be hoarded. God’s blessings, like manna, are fresh every day.

The complaints in Jesus’ parable are different: There everyone gets paid the same wages for the day, even those who had been hired for just a few hours. It’s tempting to side with the workers who’d gotten out early and sweated through the entire day. Their question is an honest one: We ask God such questions all the time: Is this fair? I don’t understand, God. Why? And especially, Why me?

But this is not a story about labor relations or even about God as a rigid parent/boss who requires that we follow the rules, whether we like them or not. Don’t forget the opening. This is a parable that describes the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who….” And then it explains how things work in this kingdom that we pray will come to us on earth and that we will find in heaven. A kingdom that we pray will come, even though we can only dimly grasp what that means in moments of grace, in those moments in which we transcend out usual selves. God answers the workers questions. The first may seem authoritarian: “Can’t I do what I want with what belongs to me?” But listen to the second: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

The message here is about a world, here and hereafter, that is not run by clocks or payscales. That is not run the way we usually think things should be run. It is not about the way we compare ourselves to others. It is a way of showing God’s generosity. The kingdom of heaven is conceived and implemented by a generosity that our conditioning makes hard to accept. Too bad this isn’t a sermon on stewardship; the message applies. It is a message that shines upon those who in so many ways work hard for the good of this church, even those who come to help at the last minute or who hope that whatever their honest contribution, it may be of some use. It is a message that shines upon those who seek to learn how to be emergency responders for a crisis the likes of which our region has not experienced in some time.

The kingdom of heaven comes a little closer as we stretch towards generosity of spirit through time, money, and whatever talents God has graced us with. Remember the father in the parable of the prodigal son. The father is willing to wait until his son is on the road home and then welcomes him with the fullness of love. Even if we show up later than others, God longs for our hearts to be moved in this way. And God can be patient. As for those who were First Responders for the Kingdom, that’s cool too. God pays them in full. As the father says to the son who has labored at home all those years, “I am always with you and all that I have is yours.”

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, thank you for your overwhelming generosity to us. Give us the grace to trust it, even when to us it seems slow in coming. Help us to be more generous to those whom you have given us to know. Help us to be more generous in the way we see others. Help us to be more generous in the time that we spend with you. Help us to be more generous in judging ourselves, for we are your laborers, valued and provided for by you, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

We Have Options

The Lord be with you/ and also with you
No matter what happens, even when shadows gather, we can trust our God.
Come, let us worship!

Please pray with me: Dearest Lord, by the might of your Spirit lift us to your presence, where we may be still and hear your word and your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From today’s Gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

These have been sobering weeks for us—as a congregation, a town, and a region. We have said our earthly goodbyes to two women loved in this town, Mabel Myers and Ruth Van Leuven. Kingston paid its final respect to Doug Cordo, the young soldier killed in Afghanistan. And then our region was ravaged by winds and floods, with many still in desperate need of help.

Now we are observing a national day of mourning, the tenth anniversary of the attack upon our country by terrorists. If any of you had personal losses on that day, I invite you to lift them up during our time of concerns. But even those of us who were removed from the carnage and grief, remember the disbelief and then the horror and despair of that first 9/11. The unthinkable had happened. I was in New Haven at seminary. I remember the vigils all over campus. There were a few angry signs painted on plywood as I drove home. But mainly people stood in speechless sorrow with their flickering candles, looking for some way of being with others when words were impossible.

How is such a wound healed? How is such a nightmare quieted? How do we live with such memories? Where is God in all this? As I read through the special issue of New York Magazine this week, I was haunted by a photograph of two men who jumped from the towers. Many such photographs have been suppressed, considered an insult to the dead and too shocking for the living. These photographs make us realize in one more way just how vulnerable the victims were. Probably 7 percent of those murdered on 9/11 died by jumping. “Those trapped in the towers had only two choices--, “ wrote the reporter Susie Linfield (p. 82), “to jump to their deaths or to be incinerated—which is to say they had no choice at all….What the 9/11 victims faced was the absence of options.” It is essential that we honor all those faced with the absence of options.

We must also honor those who, God knows how, made options for themselves. Those directly affected have been telling their stories this week. There was the firefighter father who went to ground zero looking for his son. He didn’t find him, but as he looked he found others. Here is someone’s son, he realized, here is someone that needs to be found. I heard an interview with a young woman who must have been barely twenty when she lost her mother. She has spent the last ten years making documentaries of terrorist action in the Muslim world to show the many caring and reasonable members of Islam the horrors that are being enacted in the name of their faith. And there was David Bouley, owner of a 4-star restaurant near Ground Zero, who for weeks afterwards fed any worker who came in.

These people, in the midst of grief, either their own or that of others, found options. In some way, they were beginning the process of healing by reaching out to others, known and unknown. They were proving that peace and community are stronger than hate and violence. Think of the concentrated emergency-service response—the largest in American history (New York, 62). Despite all the horror, the outpouring of energy and courage and selflessness of the next days and weeks cannot be forgotten. It was as though the only possible response was to give all one had, without thought for the consequences, even though, for many of the rescuers and workers, those consequences were fatal. They were and must remain amazing role-models.

God had to have been moving the hearts of many in that tragedy. God had to be at the side of those struggling to respond and then struggling with the toxic after effects, either physical or spiritual. As Christians, we can honor “the circles of fellowship” that formed and that continue to strengthen those changed by that day. Without in any way minimizing the tragedy, we must realize the gift that those responders and those survivors have left us. I see in them a gift of healing and a gift for our future together as a nation and beyond. I see in them a reminder that as Christians, we have options.

In looking for Scripture that would comfort and guide, I was drawn to Isaiah’s God-given vision of a world in which there is neither weeping nor cries of distress. In which there is neither murder nor destruction. These are powerful words. They are not fantasy or poetry. They are words of prophesy, even though, in their own way, they are as hard to believe as news reports of sudden tragedy. They are the words of a God who gives us options.

The first Christians believed that such a world was possible if they worked towards it together under the guidance of Christ. In the passage from Acts, we are told of the choices they made, the options they forged for themselves. They ”devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They gave to any in need. They were inspired to do so “because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” We read of conversions, even of public officials, and of countless physical healings.
Such productive fellowship may well seem unrealistic, beyond our reach. And yet, at times, we approach it. I have seen it in this church, among us here, over and over again. All Christ asks is that we fall in love with the possibility and that we see it as an option. Christ asks that we work our hardest to listen and follow his parting words: I leave you my peace, but my peace is not what the world gives. As your pastor, I cannot presume to say what each person’s individual choices might be, but I am convinced that, as a start, we must seek and nurture God’s peace within ourselves, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in any part of our lives where they are needed.

Each one of us can begin with basic questions: Am I willing to be forgiven by God? By myself? By someone else? Am I willing to forgive someone else? Am I willing to be the one to act? Am I praying for any group toward whom I feel fear, anger, resentment, or indignation? Am I also praying for myself?

For me, it is good to remember the prayer of St. Francis: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant they we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.