Monday, January 25, 2016

Jubilee

Psalm 113
Luke 4:14-21


I probably ought to start this sermon with a disclaimer.  We’ve been together long enough to trust one another.  And so I want to take the risk of being really honest with you about this thing that we do together called “church.”  I am not preaching to you because I think of you as the saints.  I can’t begin to tell you how much I love you and how grateful I am that you step up to take care of one another.  I asked for help with Faye Wilkinson’s memorial service and hospitality for her family members and had more people volunteer that we needed.  You are so generous!  I want to have an important conversation with you and this is my long opening concern.  I would love to continue this conversation in any venue you choose.
What did you hear in the gospel reading?  I hear it as Jesus claiming his mission statement.  There was a time in the latter part of the 20th century when churches were encouraged to write their own mission statements.  Christian churches were beginning to decline and for whatever reason, the Church began to look to the business community for advice.  Perhaps it was because business and the economy were booming.  We wanted to learn how to grow our business.  That should have been a red flag because we are not a business.  But it wasn’t.  We were beginning to be afraid because our future as an institution was looking more and more uncertain.  The business gurus of the time encouraged companies to create vision and mission statements.  So United Methodist churches began to develop their own mission statements with workbooks like Vision 2000, which challenged congregations to imagine what they would like to be five years down the road when they reached the turning of the century and to write a vision and mission statement to help them live into that vision.  I would imagine that this church’s statement was developed then, “Inviting all to share the Christian journey.”   Or maybe this mission statement comes from the second round about ten years later.  
That’s about the time that the greater United Methodist Church came up with a mission statement of its own: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That’s not a half bad mission statement.  It echoes the closing of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  But the cynic in me notices that we betray our fear of declining numbers at the beginning of the statement by “making disciples” who will somehow transform the world, whatever that means, I’m sure that will be good and useful, but what we need is more people!  So I’ll ask you, ask I have asked myself and several other churches (because I have been something of a mission statement guru), have we lived into our vision?  Almost every mission statement had to do with growing in numbers.  Have we grown?  The answer for all of those churches is no.  But, and this is an important but, most other membership driven groups have also declined.  All Christian denominations are in decline in the United States and almost gone in Europe.  There are some United Methodist churches that are growing, but they are an anomaly I think because they have a very special vision.
The irony is that vision and mission have always belonged to the people of God.  Business borrowed it from us and we embraced a corrupted version.  The genius of business is that it realized that stating the reason for your existence and then doing only that could be an effective model for success.  The shadow, or dark, side is that business often allows the bottom line to overshadow the debt it owes to the human beings that contribute to the bottom line.  Investors become more important than employees.  When the Church began to fear for its life, it began looking at the bottom line in terms of seats in the pews and income and who would take on the functions we have learned to think of as necessary.  It tries to hold on to everyone and continues to count members who have long since moved on or lost interest.  When it cannot support itself, it begins to ask the community for support.   
But, again this is an important but, the Church should never have become an institution.  The Church started out as a renewal movement within the Jewish faith.  When the movement expanded beyond and lost its connection to the Jewish community, it was still a social movement.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  That’s a movement that breaks down social barriers.
I believe that Jesus believed that God had a vision that was expressed over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures, first in Leviticus and also in Deuteronomy in which God lays out a detailed plan for the well-being of the whole of creation including human beings, animals, and the land.  In Leviticus, God commands the year of Jubilee:
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years.  Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land.  And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.
I won’t read the whole of the 25th chapter of Leviticus, but I suggest you do later.  What Jesus quotes Isaiah proclaiming is an announcement of the year of Jubilee.  Not that we have any written documentation of the year of Jubilee ever being celebrated.  Jubilee is not a fuzzy wish, it is a call for specific actions.  Jesus believed he was anointed by the Holy Spirit to live Jubilee.  His actions were in accordance with bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.  He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor—Jubilee.
That is our mission statement.  Everything else that we do is kindness within our community.  But our job is Jubilee.  If we are not bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free, we are not being faithful to our call, and there is no reason for us to exist other than as a social club.  At the heart of this mission is love and mercy.  We have to figure out how to do these things with passion and risk the life of this institution doing it in order to continue to have life.  Not to grow, although that may be a by-product, but to live.  The Spirit gives us life in order to offer life.
Richard Rohr is one of my favorite contemporary theologians.  He writes:
If we're honest, culture forms us much more than the Gospel. It seems we have kept the basic storyline of human history in place rather than allow the Gospel to reframe and redirect the story. Except for those who have experienced grace at their core, Christianity has not created "a new mind" (Romans 12:2) or a "new self" (Ephesians 4:23-24) that is significantly different than the cultures it inhabited. The old, tired win/lose scenario seems to be in our cultural hard drive, whereas the experience of grace at the core of reality, which is much more imaginative and installs new win/win programs in our psyche, has been neglected and unrecognized by most of Christianity.
I remember speaking at a prayer breakfast in my early years in Cincinnati and saying, "What if the Gospel is really a win/win scenario?" At the break, a successful Catholic businessman came up to me and said in a most patronizing way, "Father, Father, win/win? That wouldn't even be interesting!" And it really wouldn't be interesting to most people who live their entire lives inside systems of weighing, measuring, earning, counting, and performing--which is pretty much the only game in town.
Up to now, Christianity has largely mirrored culture instead of transformed it. Reward/punishment, good guys versus bad guys, has been the plot line of most novels, plays, operas, movies, and wars. This is the only way that a dualistic mind, unrenewed by prayer and grace, can perceive reality. It is almost impossible to switch this mind during a short sermon or service on a Sunday morning. As long as we remain inside of a dualistic, win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and vindictive moralisms and myths (Star Wars being a most recent example) and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus offered us. The spiritual path and life itself will be mere duty instead of delight, "jars of purification" instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party (John 2:6-10). We will focus on maintaining order by sanctified violence instead of moving toward a higher order of love and healing--the heart of the Gospel.


The heart of the Gospel is love and healing, mercy and forgiveness, release, recovery, and freedom.  We have good news to share and important work to do.  I have so many “What if” questions in my head this morning.  I won’t trouble you with all of them, but what if we were to rethink church (that’s another United Methodist slogan, by the way)?  But I mean it.  What if we looked at everything that we do and question whether it does what Jesus laid out in his mission statement—which is our mission statement if we are in truth his body?  What if we looked at how we spend our time and our treasure?  Anybody interested?   I can’t think of anybody I’d like to have these conversations with than you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Delight

Isaiah 62:1-5
John 2:1-11

John uses signs instead of miracles in his gospel.  These signs have two purposes.  One is to help us believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  The other is so that we may have eternal, abundant life.  John intends for us to read and analyze the signs, to discuss them, to dig for their deeper meaning and hopefully to become followers of Jesus, obedient to his teaching as the servants are in the gospel story we just heard.  We should be on the lookout for references to the Hebrew Scriptures throughout John’s gospel.

Let’s just walk through a couple of those references:
This event happens at the end of the first week of Jesus' public ministry.  On the first day we see John baptizing in the Jordan River.  On the second day, Jesus is baptized, on the third day two of John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus.  One of those disciples is Andrew who tells his brother Simon about Jesus.  Simon comes to meet Jesus and is given the name Peter.  On the fourth day, Jesus meets and calls Philip and Nathanael.  Three days after that, the seventh day, Jesus is at a wedding celebration with his mother and disciples.  On the seventh day creation was complete.  It is a day for celebration and worship.  When we read “on the third day,” if we had memorized the Torah, we would think about God being revealed on Mt. Sinai.
The Lord said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow.  Have them wash their garments and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (Exodus 19:10-11)
Jesus’ glory is about to be revealed.

The scene of Jesus’ revelation is a wedding banquet.  If we are familiar with the words of the prophets, a wedding should make us hear the words of Isaiah that Dick read for us this morning.  
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
   and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
   and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:4-5)

Is it possible that in this allegory, God is the bridegroom?  And the wedding feast between God and Israel has run out of wine?  There are six jars for purification, a symbol of the purity laws, but even they are not full as Jesus tells the servants to fill them with water.  There is no wine, no joy, and the law is running dry.
Prodded by his mother, Jesus tells the servants to fill the purification jars with water.  The water becomes 150-180 gallons of good wine.  That is a lot of wine!  An overabundance of wine!  The steward, the one who serves the bridegroom, has no idea where the wine came from.  Wes Howard-Brook suggests that the steward represents the religious leaders who have let the wine and the water run out.  Religion has become a set of rules and duties with no joy or celebration.  These religious leaders will remain clueless about the source of Jesus’ connection to God and Jesus’ power to spread joy.  And the overabundant wine?  That should call to mind God’s eternal banquet’s “overflowing, reconciling joy” as found in the prophet Amos:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
   when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
   and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
   and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
   and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
   and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:13-14)

So how shall we read this sign of Jesus turning water into wine?  What does it have to say to the church and to those of us who follow Jesus?  I believe we are being asked to evaluate the joy and delight within our rituals and other practices.  Is our faith and devotion merely a duty?  Or is it a source of delight in our lives.  Do we laugh and dance and play as God’s beloved children or do we trudge through our faith?  Are we grumblers who are sticklers for the rules?  Are there too many “shoulds” in our faith and not enough pleasure?  Are we too serious to sing and laugh and dance and play?  Would anyone see you being a Christian and want what you’ve got?  Does your face say “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart?” or “I’m behaving and you should too.”  
Our rituals should shout abundance and joy.  Our baptismal font should be large and full.  You have a beautiful font.  It stands at the entrance to the sanctuary so that you can touch the water and remember your baptism.  I remember looking for the font in one of the churches I served in an internship.  I finally found it in a cupboard in an office.  It was the size of a candy dish and tarnished.   Baptisms should have lots of water and oil and candles—and joy!  Last week we had a lot of water!  And oil and candles when we baptized Tom Olson in Puget Sound.  I will never forget the joy on Tom’s face!  Our symbols should be as abundant as the grace they represent.
There is always more bread on the communion table than we can use.  I would give you a great big chunk of bread and let you take it back to your seat and enjoy eating it.  You know that you don’t have to eat the whole piece in one bite, right?  The bread and wine symbolize God’s abundant grace and God’s delight in you and me.  We are loved and cherished and sung over with joy.  Our heritage is delight.
So hear this prayer from pastor and poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes.  Feel the delight in God’s love.  Feel free to pray with your eyes and your heart open.
Abundant life
O extravagant God,
thou gourmet chef of audacious feasts,
creator of unnecessary beauty
and wonder that transcends all usefulness,
you have poured out the water of this life
and turned it into wine,
and all of life becomes a wedding celebration,
a feast of gratitude
for faithful love.

O God of overwonderful grace,
you always save the best for now.

Like sailors in love and awe of the sea,
like wedding revelers whose best friend
has found the love of his life,
let us raise the cup
of blood-red grace and pass it around,
let us reel with the songs of your mighty acts,
stumbling from this world into the next.

O God who surpasses,
whose love exceeds, whose glory overflows,
take the water of my life
and turn it into your wine,
your sacrament,
your transformative drink.
Serve me to your people,
whelmed with grace,
until they stagger, singing
out into the light.

-- Steve Garnaas-Holmes

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Beloved

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22


Martin Luther was a priest.  He was highly intelligent, dedicated to the church and a student of the gospel, and he also struggled with self-doubt and despair as well as persecution for his honesty.  Whenever he became fearful, or tired, or overcome by doubt, he would cry out loud, “I am baptized!”  In that affirmation he found strength to pursue his work and continue his spiritual journey.


Baptism is one of two sacraments that we celebrate.  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of God’s grace in our lives.  Through ordinary daily routines, and in the earthly stuff of our lives, God’s love is revealed in the sacraments of baptism and communion.  Every day we bathe and we eat.  So every day we can remember God’s goodness and grace.  Today Tom Olson will be baptized.  Today ordinary water and oil will come to mean something extraordinary—a sign of God’s love and a seal for eternity.
In baptism we become God’s people set apart for God’s purposes.  We are named before God, water washed and oil anointed to be light for the world.  


We are named before God.  It’s not that God doesn’t already know our names.  The psalmist declares that it was God who knit us together in our mother’s womb.  In our baptism we claim our inheritance, or in the case of infants, the church claims it for us.  We acknowledge in public that this one belongs to God.  This is a child of God no matter what age!  Isaiah imagines the ecstatic song that God and the angel choirs sing as we are welcomed into God’s family:  “I have called you by name, you are mine. . . .Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. . . . Do not be afraid, I am with you.”  In baptism we are named, and claimed by God.


And we are washed in water for the forgiveness of sins, not once but continually.  Just as parents bathe their children, God bathes us tenderly in love and forgiveness symbolized by water.  Like our bodies, our spirits collect the dust from the road—the naturally occurring dust and grime that comes from living in the full community of creation.  That sounds pretty obscure.  But our spirits are affected by natural disasters that we cannot comprehend, or illness, injury, or the death of someone that we love, that can leave us feeling anxious, weary, gritty, edgy, numb, even angry.  Or we accumulate the guck and smell of what our surrounding community does—and that sometimes includes our own actions.  By that I mean the effects of mean statements and rude encounters, the spirit-bruising personal and institutional slights of racism, sexism, agism, and other –isms.  I mean the grit of violence, greed, poverty, and insecurity.  All that we read in the paper, all that we see on TV, all the unfairness on the playground, or anxiety in the classroom, or stress in the office, or loneliness in our families—they build up in our spirits like grime on our bodies.  
     The other build up on our spirits is sweat.  Our spirits sweat from exertion and anxiety as much as our bodies—from trying to be perfect parents or super students, from trying to hold both halves or a marriage together, from trying to please everyone except ourselves, from trying to apply our childhood faith to our grown up world, from keeping excruciating pain hidden, from struggling to make ends meet, whether it’s money or nerves, our spirits can be drenched in sweat from trying so hard or being so afraid.
     And we forget.  We forget that we are water-washed and spirit-born.  We forget that our spirits came clean from our Creator and they are washable.  We are baptized once as a symbol, but we can be washed every day.  That’s why the font stands at the entrance of the sanctuary.  It is a reminder that we are water-washed and spirit-born and the water is there for us to touch so that we can remember our baptism and in our worship offer our spirits to God for cleansing and renewal.  That’s why, after we touch the water and sing a hymn of praise, we join together to confess those things which have caused pain, confusion, or alienation to ourselves or others through us.  We confess individually and as a people.  We ask God to cleanse us so that we may see more clearly and free us to act differently.  And then we hear words of forgiveness, hope, and challenge.  We remember who we are.  We are re-membered with the community of faith.  We remember whose we are.  We are re-membered with God who loves us more that we can ever love ourselves.  When Martin Luther needed to re-member, he affirmed, “I am baptized,” not I was baptized.  We are bathed continually in the living waters, they become a spring within us that well up and give us abundant life—not just ordinary life, abundant life.  


We are water washed and then anointed.  We are anointed with oil as a consecration to our priestly office.  In Ephesians we read that “We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  What an incredible promise!  But there is more.  We are anointed as Christ’s ambassadors in the world.  We pray prayers of intercession on behalf of individuals, situations, and the world.  We pray for reconciliation between individuals, peoples, and between those who are lost and the God who seeks them.  We offer ourselves as a living sacrifice in worship to our loving God.


And we are sent.  We become beacons of light in the darkness.  Our words, our deeds, and our work should give glory to God.  In all that we do we are to reveal the purposes of God by speaking truth, seeking justice, and working for peace.  


I’ve given you a prayer that I have on a plastic card that hangs in our shower.  I start each day by remembering my baptism.  I hope you will do the same.  Whenever you are assailed by doubts or fears, cry aloud as Martin Luther did, “I am baptized.”  As you prepare for sleep remember your baptism so that the last words you say before sleeping may be to the One who has called you by name.  And allow God’s song to embrace you as you sleep:  “I have called you by name, you are mine. . . .Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. . . . Do not be afraid, I am with you.”  Remember that you are baptized, you belong to God who loves you more than you can image, and be thankful.



Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Spiritual Home

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Luke 2:41-52

We don’t often get to read the story of Jesus staying behind in the temple in worship.  This is a story that more frequently appears in children’s Sunday school.  It’s the only story that bridges the birth narratives and Jesus’ adult ministry.  Jesus is a twelve year old boy, entering the age of maturity, in which Jewish law declares that he is old enough to bear his own responsibility for keeping the law.  He has memorized the Torah and is building his own relationship with God.  Aside from the fact that his behavior frightens his parents, we hear his spiritual awakening and homecoming, “Why were you searching for me?” he asks his parents.   “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house (or, literally, about my Father’s interests)?”  For three days, Jesus had been sitting in the temple listening to the teachers, asking questions, and entering into the discussion with such insight that all who heard him were amazed.
Do you remember your spiritual awakening, your spiritual homecoming?  How would you tell that story?  I was at senior high camp in the mountains of New Mexico.  I was 17, about to enter my senior year of high school.  We woke up each morning and got dressed in silence.  Keeping that silence, we walked through the woods to the site of morning prayer, a clearing on a hillside that overlooked mountains and valleys and the rising sun.  I heard God calling me to ministry on one of those mornings, which was confusing because I had never seen a woman minister.  I did not know that was even a possibility.  But I was suddenly alive in a way I had never experienced.  The small group discussions were exciting.  I needed to know all about this God I had just fallen in love with.  I remember the preacher who led our group taking me aside to tell me that he thought I was being called to ministry and that I needed to take that call very seriously and follow through with it.  It took me a long time to figure out how to go to seminary, but God’s house became my home.  My mother said I ran in every time the doors flew open.  And it’s true.  There have been other times when I have felt the presence of God with such power because God keeps calling us to a closer relationship, a deeper knowing.
Jesus found his spiritual home in the temple, but we have to be careful that we don’t try to duplicate awakening circumstances.  I think the Church has often done a disservice to our children and youth in standardizing our confirmation programs.  I taught senior high Sunday school for many years and would see young people go through confirmation because they were “supposed to” and then discover God for themselves at some point as we read the gospel together.  They had already been baptized as babies and confirmed as young teens, and there was no ritual left to solemnize or celebrate their new relationship and commitment.  We find our spiritual awakening when it’s time.  We find our spiritual home when we meet the Mystery that lovingly calls our name.  There is no cookie cutter process that makes disciples.  It is God who woos us and we respond when we are ready.  And it is a natural as waking up or falling in love.  Jesus couldn’t believe his parents wouldn’t know where he was.  He had found his spiritual home.
There is a reason that when our spirits awaken, we find our home.  Richard Rohr explains that what we seek is what we are.  He writes:  
To understand this, I must know that I am, at least in part, the very thing I am seeking. In fact that is what makes me seek it! But most do not know this good news yet. God cannot be found "out there" until God is first found "in here," within ourselves, as Augustine profoundly expressed in his Confessions in many ways. Then we can almost naturally see God in others and in all of creation too. What you seek is what you are. The search for God and the search for our True Self are finally the same search.  
This is what I hope you will do.  Go home and write the story of your spiritual awakening for yourself.  If writing isn’t your thing, although I think it’s really powerful, remember that story in as much detail as you can and be thankful.  Your story is going to be as unique as you are.  There is something lovely about realizing how God communicates with our one-of-a-kind spirits.  Some of our favorite Bible stories describe the unusual ways that people met God.  Moses discovered God in a burning bush.  Jacob wrestled with an angel all night long.  Samuel heard God call his name in the night.  Paul was blinded on the road to Emmaus.  
But what about today?  I know one person in our congregation heard God’s voice though a novel.  One man that I know says that he followed a pretty girl to church and met the love of his life—not the pretty girl, but Jesus.  A ten year old girl came to church because she was bored at home and curious, and left church dancing.  She brought her grandfather to church with her several weeks later and he stood at the communion rail weeping while the congregation sang the closing hymn.  An eleven year old boy spent one summer asking questions about life through my office window.  One young couple was mystified when they were invited to attend a leadership conference and came home on fire with a vision.  An older teenage boy found God through his keyboard.  One man I know credits his mother’s persistence in prayer with awakening his spirit in his fifties.  His late awakening also led him to prison ministry.  Another man that I know hears God’s voice most clearly through his Native American spirituality.

Each of our lives is a story through which God reveals God’s self.  When we tell our homecoming stories, we tell God’s story.  How does your story begin?  And where is God leading you?  May we be as faithful in our ministry as Jesus was in his.