Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 3: "Don't be Afraid!"

“Don’t Be Afraid!” 
Matthew 10:24-39

            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.

            These words of the pre-school children often ring in my ears.  “Don’t be afraid!” they tell me. 
            It’s often when I tell them a particular Bible story. 
            When the angel came to Mary, before Jesus was born – and what did the angel say?  “Don’t be afraid!”
             They all shout. 
            Or when I am telling the story of when Jesus walked on the water, late at night.  It was the middle of a storm, and they all thought he was a ghost. 
            But what did Jesus say?  “Don’t be afraid!”  they shout. 
            Or when I tell the story of the angel at the tomb, after Jesus rose from the dead, except that no one knew it yet. 
            And what did they angel say?  “Don’t be afraid!”  they all shout. 

            I have to admit that I admire their enthusiasm. 
            They don’t whisper; they shout. 
            They don’t walk; they dance. 
            They are confident that there is nothing to be afraid of, because Jesus said so. 
            They remind me of the time I witnessed a class trip to a place called “Pump it Up!”
            You might think that this is a venue for body builders, but in truth it is a special playground for children, where everything is built like a bounce house.  No hard edges. 
            All landings guaranteed soft. 
            No danger of being hurt.  Nothing to be afraid of.  
             And the children – all trusting – played hard that afternoon, running and taking risks and living unafraid.

            Wouldn’t that be nice? 

            Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to play and live like the children?

            In truth, we know that life is more dangerous than the children know;
            that there are no guarantees of soft landings, that we will be hurt, that being a disciple of Jesus is no guarantee of an easy life. 
            Disciples will face storms and illnesses and tragedies just like everybody else. 
            That’s what Jesus means when he says that “A Disciple is not above the teacher.” 
            There are dangers, there are risks in life – and there are risks involved in being a disciples of Jesus. 
            There ARE things to be afraid of.

            And yet, I couldn’t help noticing, three times Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t be afraid.”  “Have no fear of them.”  “Do not fear.”  “Do not be afraid.”  He must mean it.   

            I have to wonder why he even says it.
             We can’t help how we feel, after all. 
            And there ARE things to be afraid of in life.  
            He says, sometimes our faith is going to cause division, we will be misunderstood and we will be mistreated sometimes when we take a stand, when we go where the love of God leads us. 
            There are things to be afraid of.  

            I can’t help but remember back to words I learned when I was in school.  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
             Who said them?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  When did he say them? 
            During the Great Depression – another time when there were many reasons to fear.
             And he said those words, I believe because he knew that we could only go forward as a country by NOT giving in to our fear, but instead living by our hope, even in the darkest of times. 
            He knew that out of fear – people would do the wrong thing, take actions that hurt rather than helped – themselves, and other people.

            So Jesus says it too: he says it three times.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  Don’t be afraid!  What are you afraid of?

            Then he tells them about the sparrows. 
            Perhaps this is one of the most beloved passages of scripture, partly because of the song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow…. And I know he watches me.”  
            He tells them that two sparrows are sold for a penny.  They are cheap and abundant and not valued much.
             Even today, I think that sparrows are not valued. 
            I was looking on Amazon for those stuffed birds that have the bird calls in them?  Do you know about those? 
            And they have all kinds of birds – they have the cardinal and the robin and the bluejay and even the northern mockingbird (I want one of those!) 
            But you know what they don’t have?  Sparrows

            Many of Jesus’ first disciples were sparrows. 
            They were the poor.  They were the ones who were not valued by society. 
            They were easily thrown away. 
            And Jesus didn’t promise them that they would never be hurt, but he did say to them, (all evidence to the contrary) they were valuable to his Father. 
            They not one of them fell to the earth without his care. 

            Do not be afraid, he tells them.  Follow me. 
            It’s going to be hard, and you will suffer, but you will ALWAYS be in my hand.
             That’s what he wants us to know.
             That’s what he wants us to do.  He wants us to stand up for the sparrows, to go where his Gospel leads us,  hanging on to those promises like the children who bounce off the walls and slide down the slides and dance and jump as high as they can – because they believe they cannot be hurt.

            They are right you know. 
            Even though it’s hard for me to believe, and hard for me to follow sometimes, hard for me to trust.

            I remember when I was a little girl, one of my uncles, Roger – like to play games with the children. 
            In many ways he was a big kid himself. 
            He had had polio as a teenager and his legs were weak, but his arms were strong because of all of the exercises. 
            So one of his games was that he would lie on the floor and lift us up in the air on his hands. 
            It was a great game, but I was afraid to play.
             All of my cousins and my sisters and brothers did it, but I would hang back.  Because I was afraid.

            But when I look back at the pictures of the children in his hands – (there’s so much joy. )
            He could have dropped us, but he never did. 

            There’s danger in following Jesus.  I won’t deny it. 
            We will find ourselves on the side of the little ones, the sparrows.  We will stand up for those who are misunderstood and mistreated.  
            We will tell about the one who love the whole world so much that he died – and the life that is in his name.

            And we will live as if it’s true.  Despite our fear.
            You know why?  Because there’s also so much joy.  There’s so much joy when we follow Jesus. 
            That’s what the children know.

            So jump as high as you can, sing as loud as you can, run as fast as you can. 
            Be like the children, who know that no matter what, they are in his hand. 
            Listen to their voices, speaking the truth, and “Don’t be afraid!”



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sermon For Pentecost 2: "Traveling Light"

            Maybe it’s because the Vacation Bible School children will be going to Peru this week (at least virtually), but lately I’ve been thinking back to my own mission adventure in Japan long ago. 
            Specifically, I’m remembering the preparation – I remember getting a huge packet of information in the mail one day. 
            It was a large book of instructions, written by all of the current short-term missionaries, with helpful hints about what to bring or leave at home. 
            Some people recommended bringing clogs, because I would be taking off my shoes whenever I went inside. 
            Others mentioned favorite foods I might miss, like Peanut Butter, or boxed Macaroni and Cheese. 
            Some advised bringing a good one volume Bible commentary for help in preparing English language Bible studies for the students. 
            I remember that besides my two suitcases, I purchased a large trunk to fill with necessities.  And I did fill it.

            I can’t help noticing the contrast between the booklet I received, and Jesus’ instructions to the twelve in this passage of Scripture.  
            No advice about what to bring along, no helpful tips about how to change money, no what style of shoe to bring. 
            Instead, Jesus begins by telling them their message, “the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.’ 
            And then he tells them what actions go along with this message:  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. 
            That’s it. 
            Tell the people the good news, and do good among the people where you go.  
            That’s the simple job of missionaries, and it has ever been:  tell the good news, and do good. 

            And then, instead of a list of what to bring, Jesus has a list of what NOT to bring, which is sort of odd.  
            Instead of giving them a list of what to pack, he gives them a list of what NOT to pack, a list of what to let go of, a list of things that might even – for some reason or another – weigh them down.

            I loved being a missionary, and I love mission trips.
             I hope to take more of them with some of you – whether as far away as Peru, or as close as downtown Conroe.
             And I have my bag all packed, but after reading Jesus’ instructions, I’m beginning to think that I may be taking along some things that I don’t really need.
             Maybe I should check it out. 

            Hmmm.  I see that the first thing I have here is my little box of coins from all over the world. 
            I probably don’t need that, since Jesus says, “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts.” 
            In fact, it seems like Jesus is saying that I don’t even need my billfold with my cash and credit cards. 
            I will admit, this makes me kind of nervous. 
            I wonder why he told his apostles this.
             I suspect that he wants them to go not as people who have everything, including all of the answers. 
            He wants them to get to know the people in the communities where they are going, and to receive hospitality from them. 
            That means I probably don’t need these canned goods I brought along, because I thought I would miss my favorite foods. 
            Jesus wants his disciples to find the people who are “worthy” in the community where they go, and stay with them, and eat with them, because it’s only when we sit down to eat with people that we can truly get to know them and share the good news in a way they will hear.              
            Make no mistake – the disciples went out to give – to give healing and hope and help – but they also went out to receive. 

            I see I brought an extra sweater – sort of the modern-day equivalent of a tunic, but Jesus says don’t bring any extra clothes along.         No fashion statements for me. 
            If I need extra clothes I will have to trust that I will receive them along the way. 
            And I see that Jesus also says that I am not supposed to bring these extra shoes either.
             I wonder what that is about. 
            It seems like he must want me to go not as someone who is comfortable, but at least sometimes, uncomfortable, and maybe a little needy. 
            But he says don’t take them, so I guess I will put them back. 
            And my bag IS getting somewhat lighter. 
            So that’s not a bad thing.

            Jesus also tells me that the message is really simple:  the good news, the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.  In fact, it’s so close, that it’s in these simple but awesome acts of healing and goodness. 
            That’s it.  So maybe I don’t have to bring these heavy theological books I packed, the ones that make me think I have all the answers
            to the questions people might ask me.
             At least not on this missionary journey that we are taking together. 

            You know, my bag is much lighter now, but there is still something here, and maybe it is something I can take along with me. 
            Oh!  It’s my baptismal certificate! It tells me that I am God’s child.  Maybe that’s all I need, to know who I am, and who I belong to.  
            Maybe this is the most important thing of all.

            When I think about the gift of baptism, usually I think of it as this comforting identity, this promise that life with God, now and forever.              And it is.     
            But baptism is both a gift – and a call.
             It’s the time when we are given the promise that we belong to God, but also the calling to go out and be missionaries!  “let your light so shine before others….” 
            And the only thing we HAVE to take along is our identity… and in fact it’s better that way… because God wants us to travel light.
            We take – ourselves – with all of our gifts and all of our faults – all of our hopes and all of our fears –
            And God uses us – who we are – somehow – to proclaim his mercy and grace.

            The Kingdom of God has drawn near – whether we believe it or not – whether we recognize it or not –
            And when we go to share this good news
            When we travel light
            We don’t go as people who have all the answers
            We go as people who also depend on mercy
            We go as people who are also hungry
            We go as people who are also imperfect
            We go as people who are also needy.

            So put down all the things you think you need today.
            Put down all the things that weigh you down, what you think you know or you need to know.
            Put down your answers, and pick up your questions, your curiosity, and your love,
            Pick up the one thing you need –
            The love which has been poured into your heart,
            The name in which you were baptized.
            The one who will never let you go.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Sermon for Trinity Sunday: "Always"

            I’ve always loved the old standards – I heard my parents sitting at the piano and singing and playing many of them:
             Beautiful Brown Eyes, I Dream of Jeannie, Blue Skies….  but one of my very favorites is this one:

            I’ll be loving you Always
            With a love that’s true Always.
            When the things you’ve planned
            Need a helping hand
            I will understand,
            Always, Always….

             That’s the song, and that’s the word today:  Always.  The song was a wedding present from Irving Berlin to his wife. 
            So ALWAYS is a promise – like the vows we make to one another – for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health – for better and for worse….
            And ALWAYS is Jesus’ promise to us, at the very end of gospel:  I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

            It’s right there in this short passage of scripture – which in four verses, gives us both promise and challenge. 
            There they are, just eleven disciples, on the mountain with Jesus.  And there they worship him.
             But some of them are doubting. 
            (I wonder about that.   – Even Jesus rising from the dead can’t totally erase their doubt.)  
            There Jesus promises them that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him
            – even though there will be plenty of opportunities to doubt this reality
             – when their mission does not seem as successful as it should be – when they are being questioned
            – there Jesus tells them to go into all the world and make disciples – all the world – just eleven of them
             – and then he gives us this promise.  ALWAYS.

            It’s so re-assuring to hear isn’t it?
             I suppose that’s why it’s one of my favorite songs. 
            But I wonder if we really believe it, and I don’t mean just believe that it’s true, but really LIVE as if it’s true.
             I imagine that there are times when we do – there are times when we  can’t help it because that’s all we have.
             There are times when relationships fray, when the diagnosis is grim, when it is clear that we have taken on a task that is beyond us.  And then it’s all we can do:  trust God. 
            But oftentimes we believe that God is with us while at the same time also sort of suspecting that everything is really up to us.
             I imagine that this is an occupational hazard for pastors – with our often-long hours and high expectations,
             it’s easy for us to come to believe that the ministry of the church and its success (whatever that looks like) depends on us, more than God.

            Today is Trinity Sunday, and I imagine that our gospel reading for today was chosen for just this reason.
             Matthew 28 names the Trinity:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
              Jesus doesn’t explain the Trinity and he doesn’t instruct the disciples in the correct theology of the Trinity.
             He just tells them that it is in this name that they baptize, that it is in this name:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that they go.
              Theologians have written oceans of books on this subject, and I could try to explain it,
             but I suspect that at the end, the sermon would be both awfully boring, and also incomprehensible. 
            How can God be both one and three?  Don’t even try to figure it out.

            But here’s what I will say:
             The first Christians starting speaking this way about God because of what they were experiencing. 
            They believed in one God because they were all good Jewish men and women. 
            But they were experiencing something in life and ministry of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit. 
            God was still God, Jesus, a human being, was a part of their experience of God now, and it was the Spirit who kept making Jesus’ presence real in their lives. 
            They experienced a relationship with God that was somehow different, because of Jesus.

            Maybe that’s why, when I hear Jesus’ promise at the end of the gospel of Matthew, I immediately think of this song, and that leads me to the promises of marriage.
             The cross and resurrection are God’s commitment to be with us ALWAYS, through everything, and in everything. 
            And this commitment is important not only in our individual lives, but also as a community of faith, as together we fulfill Jesus’ instructions, to go into all he world…

            When I talk with couples getting married, one of the exercises we often do is one called Couple Goals. 
            There each person names 3 personal goals, and three couple goals, and they talk about how they are going to fulfill them together.      The idea is to get them thinking that they are a team, that their lives are inextricably connected.  

            God’s life is inextricably connected with ours. 
            God became one of us, and suffered all that we suffer, and when he rose, he sealed the promise, “I am with you always.” 
            Even death won’t separate us.  And we are inextricably connected with God’s mission – it is us who God sends into the world to bear his image, his message, and his love.
             I can’t imagine how the disciples thought they were going to fulfill this mission – only eleven of them, some of them doubting, and a whole world in front of them.
             They could only do it by the mercy and grace of God.

            And there is the promise.  “I am with you always.”  ALWAYS. 

            I used to visit a retired pastor and his wife.
              I remember how, when I first came to church, they sat in one of the front rows and he would always take notes during my sermons which was just a little intimidating.
              Then later I found out that he was taking notes because he always called one of his daughters on Sunday evening so that they could compare notes on the Sunday Sermon. 
            His wife began to have dementia, and when she went into a nursing home, he came to visit her every day.
            On the rare occasions that he couldn’t be there, he sent one of their children
            .  But every day he visited her and stayed the day by her side.         When I came to visit with communion, I experienced this. 
            I could see her anxiety and her fear, and how she would say, “Don’t leave me.  I’m afraid.”
             And he would repeat, over and over, “I’m not going anywhere.  You can’t get rid of me.”
             And then we would share communion, and he would help her remember the words, and the promises, too.

            For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…. That’s the way it is with God, and us.   Always. 

            Go therefore into all the world… it is our shared mission, always.  AMEN