Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Sermon: Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen

            Just a couple of weeks ago, I received a surprise message from a friend.  It was late Wednesday evening, and it just popped up in my messages, and I opened it, and a strange voice began to speak.   She had sent me a Video of a man in a car. He had tattoos on his arm, and he knocked on the car window as if to get my attention.   And you know what the Message was?  It was so simple:  “Hey you! You’re awesome!  Keep doing what you are doing!  I love you.”

            Well, I have to say that even though this was a simple message, and even though I didn’t know the guy in the video, something about these words was really encouraging to me, and so, I sat down on that Wednesday evening and I shared this video with a bunch of people I knew. Just randomly.  

            And it made me think about the power of words:  our words. Simple words.  
            Maybe we don’t think enough about how powerful a few words can be.  Right?  
            Last week we heard that words are not enough.  We need to do things – works of mercy, works of love. 
             But this week, James is reminding us that words are powerful, that they can affect us in powerful ways.    Word can help and they can hurt.

            James, however, teaches us more about the power of words to hurt  -- to set a fire we can’t put out.   
            The tongue is a small member, he says, but it boasts of great exploits.  
            Sure, we can say, as we did when we were children, that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” – but is it true?  
            Sometimes words wound more deeply than sticks or stones….  

            When I think about the power of words to hurt – it’s easy to go to the big abuses first – gossip and lies and slander
           Like a fire, a small hurtful untruth can spread into a huge forest fire of lies – There are also the ways words of can be used to make fun of or belittle people 
            – I think of the little girl I knew in kindergarten that everyone called “daddy long-legs” because she was tall for her age, or the boy I knew in Japan who everyone laughed at because he didn’t know the answers to the questions.  
            He was daydreaming and everyone thought he was stupid.  Until one day he won a contest for the best invention in the prefecture. 
            I remember hearing a story of a woman who was keeping vigil at her father’s bedside when he was dying.  
            And when he awoke, he turned to her and said, “Well, I guess you wasted your whole life, didn’t you?” 

            What was it that made him say such hurtful words as he was dying?  
            James is telling the truth – our words are powerful.  What we say to one another makes a difference.  
            And maybe we don’t think before we speak because – well – we just don’t realize how powerful our words can be  -- or maybe – we really do – and there are times when the urge to hurt and destroy someone is inside us.   

            So there are a lot of examples of the ways that our tongues can be unruly – untamed, and that we can use them to hurt.  
            And even if we are wise enough to listen more than we speak, and even if we are guarded enough not to spread gossip 
            – I still think there are ways that our tongues are untamed – when we tell a secret without thinking, when we say something and then realize later it was insensitive.  

            There’s something larger going on here than any particular thing that we say – and it is reflected in verse 9  “With our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”   
            Blessings and curses. It is about how we see others who are made in God’s likeness – and what we say to them, about them.  
            How can we bless God – and at the same time curse those who are made in God’s image?  With our words.  With our tongues…. 

            So to train our tongue is not just a training in what NOT to do – to guard your tongue, be careful what you say and how you say it 
            – to train our tongue is to learn to bless each other rather than to curse.  
            It is one of the reasons that the final step in the Faith 5 – that we teach families – is Blessing 
            Every evening parents and children share the highs and lows of the day, read a scripture verse, talk about it, pray and – last of all – bless each other.  
            “You are an awesome child of God.”  “Jesus loves you.”  “May God hold you in the palm of his hand”   
             It is so important to learn to bless one another – with words of truth that God asks us to pass along.  

            This is not simply being Pollyanna, and it’s not about telling people lies in order to make people feel good.  
            God doesn’t ask us to give empty compliments, but he does remind us that every single person we meet is created in the image of God, not to be ridiculed, not to be diminished.  
             It’s a hard world we live in sometimes, full of meanness and tragedy and sorrow, as well as joy and abundance.  
            And God gives us the gift of blessing.  Because words are so powerful.  More than we know.

            So I received that video, the one that said, “YOU are awesome!” and it warmed my heart somehow. 
            And I sat down and sent it ahead to a few people.  And you know what?  I was surprised to hear back from a few people right away.  
            A single dad, saying, “Wow, I really did need that right now.”  A college student, saying, ‘You have no idea what that meant to me.”    A high school student vowing to send it along. 

            The power of the tongue. The power of blessing.  

            I went to visit a shut in recently.  
            We sat and talked about our lives, our families, troubles and ailments.  We read the scriptures, and prayed and we shared communion.  And at the end, I said the benediction, the traditional one, the one I’ve known since I was a little girl.  
            May the Lord bless you and keep you,” I said.  
“May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.  May the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace.”  
            And afterwards she said, ‘You know, somehow when I hear those words, I feel calm.  I feel comforted.  
            And I said, “Well then, the words are doing what they are supposed to do.  
            They are God’s words of blessing to us – and they were given all the way back when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness  And we still say them today.”

            And she said, “Well, it seems like we are still in the wilderness today sometimes.”  

            It’s true.  And in the middle of the wilderness, God gives us powerful words, the gift of blessing.  
            Words not our own, words that belong to God, but can harness the power of our tongues for God’s purposes.  

            Repeat it after me, to your neighbor
            “May the Lord bless you and keep you….” 
            May the Lord’s face shine on you and be gracious to you
            May the Lord look upon you with favor
            And give you peace.”

            In the midst of all of the Bad words in the world – there is a Good Word – for you, from God.
            His name is Jesus. 

            You – are Awesome. He loves you.  He died for you.  He lives in you.  Pass it on.

            AMEN

Monday, September 17, 2018

Things that Should not Be

It was just a little over a month ago that I was in my hometown for my brother's wedding.  My brother asked me to officiate, and felt honored to be there.  It wasn't a big wedding, but it was such a joyous occasion, to be able to share in the love of my brother and his new wife, and see so many of my cousins come out to be a part of the celebration.  We all grew up together, but we don't get together very often now.

Then, just two days after the wedding, on Monday morning, I was back home in Texas, and I saw a Facebook update from another of my cousins.  He was grieving.  He was telling us about the death of his sister.

My cousin Karen had been fighting cancer for several years.  She had setbacks and she had victories. I have kept up with her life mostly on Facebook these days, but when were children they lived just a few blocks from us for a little while.  She was a few years younger than I was back then, and very shy.  I remember she loved kittens.  She grew into a beautiful and talented young woman.  She grew up and had babies.  She played the harp.  She was also someone who pursued God and faith intensely.    And she had cancer.

For so many reasons, her death didn't seem real to me.  Maybe it was simply because we had lived apart for many years.  We had had only virtual conversations.  Maybe it was the idea that when we were celebrating my brother's wedding, she was dying.  Maybe it was just the memory that she was my younger cousin, the little girl with blue eyes who loved kittens.  How could it be?  She should still be alive.

That's what I believe, that there are things that should not be.

It was just about a week later that I got a message from a colleague.

A young pastor that I knew had just had a serious heart attack.  He wanted me to know, and he wanted me to join those who were praying day and night.

I had known this young woman since she was a seminary intern at my congregation.  Bright and articulate, full of passion and clarity about her call:  that's how I remember her.  She played the violin.  She taught us lectio divina.  She worked closely with the youth and the youth director.  After she graduated, she spent a couple of years in the Pacific Northwest, and then returned to our area to be a valued colleague at a neighboring congregation.  She was a fierce voice for justice, for inclusion.

She was the pastor of a vibrant congregation; she had a husband and three young children.

We prayed passionately.  It was just the sort of occasion made for miracles.  And that was what we prayed for.  We prayed for her heart to be strong.  We prayed for a full recovery.

We did not get what we wanted.

It's true.  We don't know the wisdom of God.  But I will also say:  these were not selfish prayers.  Our friend was a gift to us -- but she was also a gift to the world, someone who was doing healing work here.

There are some things that should not be.  There world is not yet what it should be, what it will be.

If you do not believe me, these are the words of the prophet Isaiah, longing for a different world,

"For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind....
no more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed."

Brothers and sisters,
do not be afraid to grieve.
We long for a new world.
It is meet and right so to do.

There are some things that should not be.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Sermon: "Faith and Works"

James 2:1-18 

            May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen

            I had my fifteen minutes of fame a number of years ago when I was in a church production of “My Fair Lady.”  
             I still remember with affection that I got to play the leading lady – Eliza Doolittle – transformed from cockney flower girl to a real Lady.            But when I read James this week, I couldn’t help thinking of one particular song that Eliza sings, never the end of the play.  
            She sings to a young man who is professing his undying love for her.   
            While he goes on and on about his undying affection, she finally interrupts him, saying, “Words! I’m so sick of words! ‘  If you’re in love – show me!”  

            Show me – that’s what James is saying to us in this application of practical Christianity this week
            And what he wants us to show – is our faith.  In the last verse we read today he say, “Okay, you say I have faith and you have works. 
            Show me your faith apart from your works   -- and I by my works – will show you my faith.   

            James is throwing down the gauntlet here!  
            He’s making a challenge – show me your faith – and I’ll show you mine!  But just who is he challenging?  
            At first, it might seem to be none other than the apostle Paul.  
            After all, isn’t he the one who said, we are saved by grace through faith?  
            Paul is adamant that our works don’t get us anywhere with God.               It’s only faith that saves us.  But James begs to differ – or at least it seems that way.  

            But I don’t think James has an argument with Paul – not really.      The real question is – what is faith?  
            What do you think when you hear the word ‘faith’?  
            Do you think of  a “statement of faith”, like the Apostles Creed – and that saying “I agree with that” – that’s faith?  
            Faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines – perhaps --  but to both Paul and James it’s more than that.  Faith is trust.  
            Or to put it another way, we don’t just have faith in the doctrines, but faith a person, faith in Jesus, faith in God.  
            And when we say Trust – there’s action involved in that.  If we trust someone, we – just naturally – act on that trust.  
            Like Abraham, in the Old Testament. When God told him to “go to the country I will show you,” he went. He trusted God, and so he followed.

            But James is, in particular, I think, speaking of acts of mercy.  Works of mercy to others.   
            He begins by talking about the divisions we make – partiality to some, against others.   
            In his church – or synagogue, he has seen people be deferential to those who are rich, and dismiss those who are poor.  
            He warns against this – after all, he says – can’t we learn better how to trust God from those who are poor and who have to rely on God’s goodness more than others? 
             It’s also tempting to pay more attention to the people who we think can help us in our lives, and pay less attention to those we might think are less useful.   (whether rich or poor – or young or old – friend or stranger)
            But practical as that might be in life “in the world” – James doesn’t want us to do that.  
            No – there’s something else at stake for him here.  And it’s not about doing “good works” to prove to God how good you are – and it’s not even about doing “good works” to prove to JAMES how good you are.  
            It’s about something else entirely.   It’s about mercy.  It’s about the mercy shown to us in Jesus – and how did it become real to US?          Someone – somewhere – probably SHOWED us.  Someone – somewhere – probably forgave us.  Someone – somewhere – made the gospel real to us.  

            The example that James uses is a person who is naked or hungry.  If you see that person, and just say, “Bless you.  Be warm and fed”, but don’t DO anything, what good is it?  
            The cold and hungry person, the sick and lonely person – needs more than that.  
            They need the gospel in more than just words.  

            Martin Luther said it best.  He said. “God doesn’t need your good works. But your neighbor does.”   
            That’s what James is trying to say as well.   
            When we make our faith visible in works – then our neighbor experiences the grace of God – through us.  
            And by the way – we don’t get to choose our neighbors – they are given to us by God – God shows us – the ones he wants us to reach out to, share with, listen to.
            
            There was once a volunteer youth worker named Daryl.  
            He had just started volunteering, and it ended up that one of his jobs was to go to the nursing home with the youth group, when they did a church service once a month..  
            So he went, although he had his misgivings.  
            He didn’t really know what to do.  
            He was leaning against a wall, between two wheelchairs, when suddenly someone took his hand. 
            He looked, and it was an old man, in a wheelchair, who had reached up to grab his hand.  Daryl didn’t let go, as the youth did their nursing home service.  
            The man didn’t say anything.  At the end, for some reason, he didn’t want to let go.  
            He leaned over and said, “I’m sorry.  I have to go now, but I’ll be back next month.”  
            Then he found himself saying, ‘I love you.”

            Every month it was the same.  
            He stood by the old man, and he held his hand.  He found out that the old man’s name was Oliver.  So, when he had to leave, he leaned over and said, “I’m sorry, Oliver. I have to leave now.  I’ll be back next month.”  And then “I love you.”  

            Until one month the youth group came to the nursing home and Daryl didn’t see Oliver.  
            At first he wasn’t worried, but after awhile, he decided to go and search for him.  
            When he found Daryl’s room, he could tell his friend was dying.  He went into the room, and took Oliver’s hand.  
            There was no response. Daryl stood there for a long time. But then it was time for the group to leave.  
            Daryl said, “I’m sorry, Oliver, I have to go.  I love you.” Oliver squeezed his hand!  

            On the way out of the room Daryl met a young woman.  It was Oliver’s granddaughter.  
            She said, “I’ve been waiting to meet you.  My grandfather is dying you know.  

            She told Daryl that she was very close to her grandfather.  He had said something puzzling to her.  
            He said, “Can you say goodbye to Jesus for me?”  
            She couldn’t understand what he meant.  “Grandpa, what do you mean?  He’ll be the next person you’ll see!’

            Then her grandfather closed his eyes, smiled, and said, “you don’t understand.  Jesus comes to see me every month, and he might not know I’ve gone.” *story from Mike Yaconelli’s book, Messy Spirituality

            It’s true.  You also could be mistaken for Jesus some day. You might be the only Jesus someone ever meets.  Feed them. Give them shelter.  Hold their hand.  Show them.

            Show them the faith God has planted in you.  Show them that the grace God has given you – is for THEM, too.  

            You don’t have to prove anything -- to God.  God loves you already abundantly and unconditionally.  
            As for your neighbor -- Show them.

            Amen

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Holy Spirit on Sunday Morning

I'll be honest:  I was sort of worried about worship this Sunday.  I have been dealing with some neck and back pain of mysterious origin for the last month or so.  There are times when it doesn't bother me much, but there are times when I feel like the pain is draining all of the energy from me.  I put on a lidocaine patch and took pain medication and prayed for help from the Holy Spirit.

I put on the green stole that a member of my congregation made for me.  I have been wearing it for several weeks, but until this week, I had forgotten to mention anything to the members of the church. Today I boasted in the gift.

During the first song, some of the children came forward and played rhythm instruments, while the congregation sang "Lord, Reign In Me."  After that, a little girl stood in the center aisle and gave the Call to Worship while her grandmother recorded the moment.

For the children's message, I asked the children if they ever had to learn to do something that was hard.  Most of them didn't think that anything was hard for them (well, one little girl learned the meaning of a word that I couldn't even pronounce.)  I asked her what the word meant.  I'm not sure, but I think she said it meant 'thinking about thinking.'  Anyway, they were all scandalized that some of the disciples GAVE UP on following Jesus, because his teaching was too difficult.

"You should never give up," they said.

Then my sermon, and my aching back.  Somehow I thought there should be one more paragraph, but somehow the paragraph did not appear.

Then there was singing, and piano and the drum, and the xylorimba, and then we shared Holy Communion.

And then it happened.

Just as I was getting ready for the benediction, a woman from the congregation raised her hand, and said, "I need to say something. I have a prayer request."  She told us that she had just received a text message from one of her children, and that one of her grandchildren was being taken to the hospital, and that they were afraid.  And they would like us to pray.

So we did.  Before the benediction, we prayed together.  I invited people to come forward and surround her, and a few people came forward to lay hands on her.

And then I noticed something else:  so many of the children were coming forward too.  They came up to be a part of the prayer.  They came up to be ministers of the gospel.

It was a holy moment, and I was in awe.  Why did I worry about worship?  The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness.  With sighs too deep for words.  With the hands and feet and voices of children.  We are the body of Christ.  We are children of God.  We pray for one another.

Still I wonder:  why did the children come?  What made them able to hear the call?  Was it because it was a child who needed prayer?  Was it because they have been encouraged to participate in other ways?  Was it the Holy Spirit, and they could hear better than we do?  As one person said to me later, "We are raising them better than ourselves."

All I know is this:  the children came.  The Holy Spirit showed up.  This is church.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Ten Blessings

Over the past few years, I have tried to take time to name ten blessings of the day.  I think that the idea is that I am supposed to do this every single day.  Sometimes I am pretty consistent; other times I have forgotten, often for days at a time.  However, I think that it's a simple, and potentially powerful thing:  just to take time to name ten blessings ever day.

I learned this practice from a member of my last parish.  Harriet was a retired airline executive who had traveled all over the world.  She was also the daughter of a minister who had grown up in a small town in Minnesota.  When I met her, she lived within a few blocks of the church, in a small house decorated with Norwegian Rosemaling.

Harriet once gave a moving Adult Forum on her travels, and how she found a place to worship no matter where she was in the world.  Her Forum was called "The communion of Saints."

I say that I learned this practice from Harriet, but it was not until near the end of her life that I learned it.  Fiercely independent, she found herself in a nursing home.  When I was planning to visit her with communion, her executor told me that Harriet had this faith practice.  Every day she named ten blessings.

"Make sure you remind her to do this when you go to visit her," she said.

So I did.  I got out my communion, and I went to visit Harriet at the nursing home where she didn't want to be.  We talked, we shared communion, and I asked her what her ten blessings would be that day.

When you are living in a nursing home, it's not so easy to find the blessings.  She had to think about it for a bit, and be creative, and resort to the simplest things, like being alive.  I remember that one of her blessings that day was a box of chocolate.

Ten blessings.  Every day.  I have never read about it in any book.  It's so simple.  Anyone can do it.  If you can count to ten, you can name ten blessings.

The Jesuits have a practice called "seeing God in all things."  Somehow I think this practice relates to that one.  There are times and places where it is easy to see God.  But in all things? How do you do that?  Start by naming ten blessings, wherever you find them.

A woman who lived close to my church lost her home to a fire.  We took up a collection to help her.  When I called her on the phone (I didn't know her personally), she said that the fire was, "the worst blessing."  I was taken aback.  She said the blessing was in the outpouring of care from her neighbors.  She saw God in all things, although I am not sure how she managed it.

When I think of Harriet's life, I think of the ways she was blessed.  She was a pastor's daughter from a small town, and she ended up traveling around the world.  But she never married, and I suspect sometimes she was lonely.  She had blessings and she had burdens.

And every day she named ten blessings.  Maybe some days they were so small they didn't seem like blessings.  Maybe other days she could have named twenty.

But at her funeral I claimed the promise of the saints:  the promise that they have received more blessings than they can count, more than the stars they cannot see.  We can't hold that promise in our hand, but we can name ten blessings.

Every single day.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Benediction

Last week I went to visit a shut-in couple, with communion.  I had heard that she was hospitalized while I was on vacation, and wanted to check in on both of them.

It has been a tough year for her.  She has been hospitalized three times already, one time on Easter weekend, when she fell and had to have many stitches.  It has been a tough year, and we talked about that, and about their children, and their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren.  Their large, friendly dog sat at her feet.

At the end of the communion service, I gave the traditional benediction, the one I know by heart:

"The Lord bless you and keep you.
 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. 
the Lord look upon you with favor, 
and give you Peace."

Afterwards, she said to me, "You know, whenever I hear those words, I feel calm and comforted. I don't know what it is."

And I said, "it's the benediction. The words are doing what they are supposed to do."
I said, "God gave those words to the people of Israel when they were wandering in the wilderness. We still say them today."
And she said, "Well, it seems like we are wandering in the wilderness today too."

I remember that I replied, "But we are on our way to the promised land."

I suppose I thought it was my job to say it, to complete the circle, to say another word, a final word.  We are on our way to the promised land, wherever that is.  I am not sorry I said it, but it sounded a little too glib, like I was trying to make a dissonant chord resolve.  

But she told the truth, that we are in the wilderness, that we are not there yet.  She was the truer preacher, even though I suspect that her wilderness looks different than mine.  She worries about the floods and the fires, and thinks perhaps that we are in the End Times.  I worry about the floods and the fires, and I  think that we are abusing the earth, and wonder when we will repent and treat it as God's sacred creation rather than a commodity.  We are afraid of different things, I believe, but it is the same wilderness and we are wanderers.

All we really have, on the way, is the promise of the benediction, that the Lord blesses us and keeps us, that God's face shines on us and looks upon us with favor, that God gives us, in some strange way -- peace.  Peace in the wilderness.  Peace for the wilderness.  Peace even though we don't know where we are going.  Peace for the meantime.  Peace for mean times.  I worry that these are very mean times.  I'm sure she does too, but for different reasons.

For some reason, the benediction is enough.  The words do what they are supposed to do.  They give us what we need in the wilderness.  Because we do not live by bread alone.  We live by these words.  In the wilderness.  And we put them in our mouths, and they are sweet, and we live again another day.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

God and Country

When I lived in Japan as a missionary many years ago, I heard a lot of stories.  I heard stories of Japanese Christians, and how they came to faith.  Some of the stories were from the time immediately after Japan lost World War II.  It was a time when the Japanese people did a lot of soul-searching.

I heard one story about man who had been in the military during World War II.  I no longer remember his position, but I still remember the American pastor pointing to the pew where this man always sat, every single Sunday.  He threw away his Shinto "god-shelf" when he became a Christian.  He no longer venerated his ancestors as you were bound to do, as a good Japanese man.  He was all in.

What had finally convinced him of the truth of the Christian faith?

It was the story of the creation of the world.  The Shinto religion only had a creation story for the creation of Japan.  But the Christian faith -- their creation story told of the creation of the whole world.  Therefore, the Christian God must be the greater God.  The Christian God is the God of the whole world, not just one country.

The Christian faith is a tiny minority in Japan.  All of the churches where I worshipped were small, just fifty or sixty people making a congregation.  Yet there was a witness of the good news in Japan, good news of great joy to all the people:  not just one country.

After three years of living and working in Japan, I returned to the United States.  I remembered this man's story, although I'm not sure exactly why.  Perhaps it was so odd to me.  I am used to testimonies that focus on the grace of God in Jesus.  I'm used to hearing stories that focus on personal redemption.  And all of that might have been there.  But the final piece of the puzzle for this man -- was that the Christian God created the whole world.  A god bigger than his country -- that was a god he would follow.  A God who created the whole world was a god worth believing in, a god worth following.

A God who created the whole world.  A God who loves the whole world.  Not just one country.  That is the God we confess when we come to church every Sunday.  That is the God we claim to follow.  So as much as I love my country, as much as I love this place I call home, I have to believe that God has wider concerns.  God loves the people fleeing violence in Central America, the displaced children in Syria, people who are starving, no matter their country.  God wants them to be fed.  God wants them to know God's love and grace.

In the Scriptures there are stories of a promised land and a chosen people:  Abraham and Isaac, and the nation of Israel.  But the chosen people were always set within a larger story:  the story of a God who created, and loves, the whole world.   Not just me, but you.  Not just American children, but children from Syria, children from Guatemala, children who are hungry, children who are afraid.  Wherever they are.

Tonight I am thinking about that Japanese man, the one who threw away his god-shelf and went all-in, who never thought that being Japanese and being Christian were the same thing.  Maybe it was easy, in a country where there were only a few Christians.  But even here in the United States, where there are many more Christians, I think we need to make a distinction.  I need to make a distinction.  I need to throw away my god-shelf and go all in.

I believe in a God who is bigger than my country.