Sunday, May 25, 2014

Testify to hope

1st Peter 3: 13-22. NT page 234 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, then to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. Sermon Do not fear what they fear says the second scripture lesson – but what is it that they fear? According to some study or another, what people really fear is public speaking, and I can understand that as I fear public speaking too. As much as I love to preach here in this sanctuary, I build up an incredible amount of anxiety about it, and generally by Friday night I’ll have this re-occurring nightmare, where it’s Sunday morning and time for church, in fact I’m already sitting in that chair, only I haven’t written a sermon yet. Last Friday night the nightmare was even worse. Not only had I no sermon, I also forgot to put on shoes. There I was in my dream, no sermon and no shoes, but it was time to preach. Do not fear what they fear says Peter, and I believe that they do fear public speaking, because I fear it too. I love it, but I fear it maybe most of all because once something comes out of my mouth I no longer have much control over it – and the words that I preach, they are a piece of me for you to reject or embrace, and it feels as though you won’t just reject or embrace my words, you’ll reject or embrace me. That is something else that they fear, and I know they fear it because I fear it too. They fear public speaking because they fear rejection, and it seems better to hide than to risk rejection doesn’t it? But without risking rejection there can be no acceptance, there can be no love, if you never ask her out on a date she never has the chance to say “no” it’s true, but she also never has the chance to say yes. So do not fear what they fear, scripture says, do not fear rejection. But I do fear it. I fear it every time we go to the beach – the beach which seems to demand that you just put yourself out there on a limb to be judged. No shoes to cover up your toe nails. No normal shirts or nice long pants. Everyone out there wants to look the same way – on the beach everyone wants to look more like someone else and less like themselves. But you know who I think really has it figured out? The lady in the yellow bikini who walked by, and just because you weren’t at the beach with us last week you still have seen her before I’m sure. She was tan, she was out walking, and it was definitely a bikini she had on, bright yellow, even though this woman was at least 700 years old. But was she afraid of who would see her? Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, says our second scripture lesson, but it’s easy to be afraid. And what do they fear? According to this study that I remember reading, public speaking is the number one fear of North Americans, but I find that hard to believe, because that would mean that public speaking even outranks death. I think that they fear death so much that they’re not even able to talk about it, and while I fear it too, I am ready to talk about it. After all, I’m convinced that not talking about it can only make it worse. Death is one of those things that gets bigger the more you look away from it. If the goldfish never dies but gets replaced by your parents while you’re sleeping, and if grandma never dies either but just goes on a cruise that she’s never coming back from, then how are you ever going to wrap your mind around the reality that one day your own heart is going to stop beating? They do fear death. I fear it too. Reminders of it are all around all the time. We were at the beach last week, and the beach on the one hand is a place that feels very much alive. The waves keep rolling in, which is something that makes children smile. They’ll stand with you holding your hand, and as the waves come in, if they’re small enough, they’ll be surprised each time it happens, and maybe when a big wave comes they’ll scream and run away – again and again and again. It’s wonderful, but if you look down you can point out the tiny mollusks that dig down into the sand. They’re pink and white, and so is the sand that they’re digging down into, because the sand is made up of the shells of last summer’s little mollusks. Some would say that it’s not a good idea to think about these things too much. It might ruin your day at the beach. But better than not thinking about these things is not fearing them. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Do not fear rejection, do not fear death – and with gentleness and reverence, always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you. There is no reason to fear you see, because hope casts out fear, and you have a hope based in water. Just as Noah was saved by God through the ark during the flood, you have been saved by God through baptism, which is not the removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God. No, baptism is not the removal of dirt from the body – it is not a bath which makes you clean…for now, scrubbing off the sin and all its odor only to get dirty again. Baptism is instead the sign that you have been claimed by God, and joined to Christ through a baptism like his, so you will join him in heaven through a resurrection like his. Here then is the foundation of our hope – and by this hope even death losses its sting. By this hope, you can look up from the mollusks digging through the bones of generations gone before and look into the smiling face of a child bright with life and expectation of life eternal. By this hope, you can live again – no longer fearing rejection, for you have been claimed by God, redeemed by Christ, so what do you need the ever allusive approval of the world for? In the eyes of the world you must be a certain size, you must have a certain look – and what that look is exactly – you can only be sure that it is not what you already look like. I hear it again and again and again – you can’t because you aren’t good enough. So you stop cooking in the kitchen for fear that the meal won’t turn out as it should, and you microwave something from the frozen food section while watching the professional chefs on the Cooking Channel. You stop playing sports because someone told you that you’re not good enough. You don’t even go to try out, you settle instead to watch from the sidelines leaving running and throwing to someone else. You can’t sing either – or you think you can’t because you don’t sound like they do on American Idol, so singing becomes nothing more than a commodity to consume and the joy of singing yourself is lost – all because our world has taught us to be afraid of not being good enough while God yearns to hear your voice. But don’t you see – you must not fear what they fear – for in your baptism God finally tells you the truth. You are good enough – good enough to die for. You might fail – but you are not a failure. You might sin – but you are redeemed – forgiven - because Christ has redeemed you. And you need not be afraid, fearing what they fear – for Christ is your sure and certain hope. Amen.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The shepherd and guardian of your souls

1st Peter 2: 19-25, NT pages 233-234 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. Sermon Early on in my ministry at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church I decided it would be a good idea to contribute to the newspaper. My contribution would be small after all, just 250 words in Saturday’s paper, right alongside 5 to 10 other clergy all writing in a response to the question of the week. The editor of the Faith and Values section that these responses would appear in would think up the question and send it out to us on Monday – maybe something harmless like, “What’s your favorite Bible verse and why?” or something seasonal like, “is it best to say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?” but sometimes the question would be controversial, and so my clearest memory of writing for the paper has to do with the question, “what does the Bible say about homosexuality?” I thought about not answering, but after a day or so I came up with an answer that I felt like clearly stated my beliefs without being too radical. So I wrote something like, “in reality, the Bible is not as clear on this subject as we are sometimes told that it is. Many of the passages that form modern day opinions on the subject have little to do with the kind of same-gender relationships that we see today. Take the account of Sodom and Gomorrah for example, for this passage often marks plaquards protesting gay rights. In Genesis 19 Lot protects two male angels from a mob who pushes the doors desiring to violate them. Lot offers his two daughters to the mob instead, and this series of diabolical events hardly describes the actions or motivations of any of the same-gender couples that I have known. It’s true that the Bible can be less than clear on this subject in other cases as well, and when the Bible is less than clear the Golden Rule of Bible Interpretation tells us to seek out Jesus’ words for clarity. But when we do, Jesus is silent, not mentioning the subject even once. The question then becomes, should Christians ever fight tooth and nail over an issue that Jesus fails to so much as mention?” That was my response. It appeared in the paper on Saturday, and on Sunday morning a member of the church had made dozens of copies of it, enough copies to place one on every seat of the sanctuary, so when Jim Hodges, the chair of the committee who had interviewed me and come to a consensus that God was calling me to serve Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, I thought I knew why. I climbed into his truck to ride to lunch like I had a dozen or so times before, and before he had a chance to lecture me I started right in, telling him that I was sorry, that I was sorry to have been so rash, and that I would never write for the paper again. He looked at me and asked me what I was talking about. “Jim, didn’t you see how someone made copies of what I wrote in the paper and put them on every pew of the sanctuary?” I asked. He told me that he had seen the copies, and just assumed that whoever made them liked what I wrote so much that he wanted everyone else to read it too. That wasn’t true, but still Jim re-framed my situation and suddenly I saw things differently, and it’s hard to underestimate the importance of presenting reality in a different or new light. That’s what the author of 1st Peter does, and if you read verse 18, the verse that precedes our second scripture lesson he reframes reality not for pastors, but for slaves. “Slaves,” he says, “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” This is a hard saying in scripture, one that the church has used to justify slavery and maintain it as an institution rather than working to bring an end to a system that de-humanizes and abuses, and while the author of 1st Peter does not speak out against slavery, he does provide a means to reframe it’s oppression, a way to enable the men and women confined by slavery to remember who they are. “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly,” for to suffer unjustly is to be like Christ. That’s not what it feels like in the moment however. When you suffer unjustly, when you’ve been kicked like a dog, the natural thing is to feel like a dog – and even the children of God claimed in baptism must fight the temptation to feel this way. Howard Thurman, one of the great authors of the Civil Rights Movement, knew this to be true, so when he walked his two daughters by a brand new playground behind a white public school in Florida he chose his words carefully. “Look, Daddy, let’s go over and swing!” his daughters said while jumping for joy. In Thurman’s words, “This was the inescapable moment of truth that every black parent in America [had to face in the segregated south] soon or late. What do you say to your child at the critical moment of primary encounter?” “You can’t swing in those swings,” he responded. But his daughters asked: “Why, Daddy?” “When we get home and have some cold lemonade I will tell you.” When we had had our lemonade, Anne pressed me for the answer, “We’re home now, Daddy. Tell us.” Thurman said, “It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school. Only white children can play there. But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida – it takes all these to keep you two little black girls from swinging in those swings. That is how important you are! Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how much power people are willing to use to keep you in the place they have assigned to you. You are two very important little girls.”((Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart; The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1979), 97.)) In ignorance we judge harshly – both ourselves and each other. In sadness we hear the worst case rather than the best. And when we’re already beaten down we assume we’ll be beaten down all the more – so we misunderstand and we’re misunderstood. On this Mother’s Day I am mindful of the reality that mothers need a day like today because most people spend the least amount of time on the one who’s love seems to be a sure thing. It’s easy to misunderstand such a mindset, so mothers sometimes wonder if they’re really appreciated, if anyone would take notice if they packed their bags and headed out for the beach. It’s a thankless job sometimes – but it’s thankless because for many children, for many grown children, your love is a sure thing. You don’t get called every day because they think you’ll always be there. They don’t break down the door to see you because they already know what you’ll do when you see them and they think your hug and kiss and smile is guaranteed. So your love – it’s taken for granted – which makes it a lot like God’s love. Like the faithful God of a wayward people, mothers love even those who don’t love them back. Like the God of the Garden of Eden, you were there when Adam and Eve were created, you cherished those times walking with them in the cool of morning, when they wanted to talk and when innocence was lost, when discipline was needed, you know the heartbreak that comes from carrying out a punishment that also punishes you. And like the incarnate God, Christ who sets this table, you give your very self, not knowing if the ones who eat here will notice what it is that you have done. This is love – to pour yourself out even while knowing that some may not ever notice – but to do so is to be like Christ – to be like the one who “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” On this Mother’s Day give thanks for a love like that. Give thanks for your mother now because you will miss this kind of love when it is gone – but also be mindful that a Mother’s love points to the love of God and God’s love for you can never die. Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

On the road

Luke 24: 13-35, NT page 90 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Sermon I know what this line means in the beginning of our scripture lesson: “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” because my eyes suffer from temporary blindness often enough. Every morning I riffle through the pantry looking for peanut butter – and where do I finally find it after pushing everything to the side, lifting and stretching to see what’s at the very back of the top shelf? The peanut butter was there all along, right in front of my eyes. On the road, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and on that road a stranger asks them what they are talking about as they walk along. These two don’t know who it is they are walking alongside – their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Jesus asks them what they are talking about, and they say to him, he was a “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” they say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Death, despair, disappointment – these things have a way of shouting so loudly that all logic is filtered out, the obvious is missed, knowledge slips away, and eyes can no longer see what is right in front of them. And his death – such a disappointment was his death that all they could see was a tomb, sealed shut, confining not just his body but all their hopes for who he was and who he would be to them, sealed and buried, after being hung up on that cross, promises and hopes are broken just as his body was broken. These two saw it happen – they thought they had found salvation – and instead they found death and the meaning of this death was not assurance that he was in fact the Christ but complete and utter disappointment. So they left, and began walking towards Emmaus and back to life as it was before, though they knew that life would be just a little less sweet because they had hoped for something and seen that hope crucified. But for some reason, though they have no idea who he is, they urged him strongly saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” It’s nothing really, just an invitation. “Stay with us,” they said, but in those words was the beginning of something - a new faith, a stronger faith, the kind of faith that rises up out of the hopelessness of death. The reality of things is that death, disappointment, failure, loss, are the inevitable hardships of life. These realities deserve your tears. Last Sunday afternoon the Rev. Jennie Barber who has served this church faithfully as an Associate Pastor, was called by God and the congregation of Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has accepted this call and next Sunday will be her last Sunday of ministry here. Such a change as this one is unsettling. Something important is ending, a chapter is closing, and this change is worthy of your tears – but do not be blinded by your sadness. I say that because that is how we are sometimes. Life is full of breakups, but sometimes the end of a relationship hurts so bad that you swear you’ll never love again. You wind up laid off, but it doesn’t feel like the end of a job, it feels like the end of the world, so rather than picking yourself back up you start to wonder if you really have what it takes. Or maybe you believe in some thing or someone. Say you believe in him so much that a spark of hope becomes a brightly burning fire in your heart and you start to believe in something you’ve never dared believe in before. He rides into Jerusalem and you cheer him on because you allow yourself to believe that this man is different – he really is what we’ve been hoping for – the Messiah the Son of God. But his death on a cross deflates all that, and the tears of such disappointment are so blinding that you can no longer see. Still, not knowing who he was, “Stay with us,” they said, and while he was at a table, not so different from this one that Jennie has stood behind to say the words of institution every month for the last three years, behind this table where together we pray a prayer that she wrote proclaiming that God will overcome every wall that can hurt or divide us. It was at a table like this one that he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. We all walk the road to Emmaus, away from how we had hoped life would be and towards accepting it as it is, but on the way there he stopped them and while grief and disappointment had closed their eyes, he opened them again and they could see that he had never left. And he hasn’t – but your eyes must be open to see him. Too often disappointment has closed my eyes. Last week I took our daughters to Woodland Park, and I had been hoping to see some familiar faces, but instead the park was full of strangers, people I had never seen before. Being around strangers can make me feel uncomfortable, I’m not my best self – instead of being outgoing, the mulch on the ground captures my attention, and then the ice cream truck pulled up – not the nice one, the really creepy one, and I suddenly wanted to pick our daughters up to take them back home. But a little boy, his mother sent him over and I had noticed that she didn’t speak English, so she sent him over to give Lily a watermelon popsicle. And in the opening of that popsicle – in the breaking of the bread, suddenly my eyes were opened. He was there all along. He is with you even now. So do not be blind to his presence. Do not let disappointment, sadness, or grief blind you to reality or to hope. And while what you expected to happen has not happened, he still walks beside you, for he is risen indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.