Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Talking Points

I watch the news on TV sometimes, and listen to the political pundits, which, I know, is not really the same as being informed.  Sometimes I think it would be better for my health not to listen at all.  It is not that I prefer to be ignorant.  But what I realize, after listening for awhile, is that I actually learn very little.  What I hear is "Talking Points."

Talking points have become very predictable.  I know almost exactly what everyone is going to say.  It is as if someone gave the commentator a piece of paper, and told them what to say.   And I am not sure what I dislike most about the talking points.  I'll admit, sometimes it is just the fact that I disagree.  I think they are not taking something into consideration.  Sometimes it is the utter partisan predictability.  But sometimes it is the fact that they don't really feel real.  They don't acknowledge how messy life is, how complicated real solutions to our political issues really are.

They are talking points, not a real conversation.

So I am thinking about talking points, and wondering if perhaps we don't have talking points in the church sometimes too.  I was thinking about this on Sunday, when I preached about Jesus casting out a demon.  It's a really rich piece of scripture, and there are a lot of theological points to be made, the authority Jesus has, the power of evil, how Jesus won't let the evil spirit speak.  And I love all these points, and I'm really good at talking about them.  I learned a lot in seminary, and I have been in the church for a long time.  And I have been praying and talking to Jesus for a long time too.

But while writing down and thinking about all of the relevant points, sometimes other thoughts creep in, wreaking some havoc on the talking points I am so good at.  I think, Jesus, I have known you for long time, and I believe that you can cast out demons, and that you have more power than evil.  But I have to say that sometimes, terrorists blow up more people in Kabul, a young woman in despair completes suicide, a baby is stillborn, a drunk driver kills a family of four -- and it's hard to talk about Jesus casting out the evil, because there is so much evil still here, and I don't know what to say about it.

The talking points are fine, but they aren't enough.  They don't acknowledge how complicated life is, how messy faith is, how you can have trust in God and be floundering at the same time, how you can be trusting and rebelling, a sinner and a really good person, and how God is sometimes really hard to believe in, if you live in the world.

I remember a confirmation class a long time ago.  A junior high student was having a hard time with a particular aspect of faith that evening.  "You can't tell me what to believe!" he said.

My colleague sort of chuckled and said, "It's my job to tell you what to believe."

What he meant, of course, was it was his job to tell us what our faith's answers are to the great questions of life, what kind of God we have, what we believe about sin and evil, that God is the Trinity and Jesus is completely God and human, what it means when we pour the water over someone's head, where to find hope.

Those are the talking points.  But underneath the talking points, there is something else.  There is testifying to God's voice and God's silence in our life, why we believe when it doesn't make sense, what we do when everything falls apart.  And sometimes it does.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

When the Children's Message Becomes the Sermon

I asked someone to bring in a fishing pole for the children's message last Sunday.  I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with it.  I know that Jesus didn't fish with a fishing pole.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time so I took the fishing pole with me when I sat down with the children.

I asked them if they had ever gone fishing.  A few of them were enthusiastic that they had.  I asked them if they knew what would be good to put at the end of a fishing pole if they wanted to catch fish.

"Worms!" shouted one little boy.

I said that Jesus told that his disciples that instead of catching fish, they were going to be catching people!  And what would you use at the end of a fishing pole if you wanted to catch people?

Okay, it was a silly question.  And I got some silly answers.

But in Jesus time, people didn't fish with fishing poles.  They used nets to catch fish.  And the disciples would use a kind of net to catch people.

It was the net of God's love.

I got some of the children to make a circle, so that they could be like a net.  Then we caught a few of the other children in the net.  The children in the middle of the circle didn't know how they felt about being inside the net, though.  "How do we get out of here?" they said.

They became a part of the circle.  Pretty soon all of the children were a part of the circle, and there was no one left in the middle.  I said to the congregation, who wants to be inside of God's love?

A few people jumped up, and they got inside the circle.

Pretty soon, though, they were holding hands, and a few more people from the congregation were "caught."

And after they were caught, they became a part of the circle, catching others.

Later on, I preached a "real" sermon, but it wasn't until later in the afternoon that I realized that the circle of God's love was a pretty good image of what it means to be a disciple.  You get caught by God's love, but a little while later you are a part of the circle who shows tells other people about God's love.  You are never meant to just be inside.  You are always meant to be a part of the circle.

And we don't do any of this work alone.

Maybe I should have just kept adding people to the circle and forgotten about the "real" sermon that day.

Sometimes you don't need words.  Sometimes you just need actions.  Sometimes you just need to keep expanding the circle.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sermon for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany


based on Mark 1:14-20

            Sometimes it’s the small things you notice.    
            On Tuesday I woke up expecting to see a lot of snow on the ground – I ended up looking for the small pieces of sleet and snow that signaled danger
            Or those small pieces of ice – that can trip you up if you aren’t careful.  
            Or small signs of life --  when I used to visit the desert in Arizona, it would look pretty barren – but if I looked closely I could tell it was really alive.
            Sometimes it’s the small things you notice – that I notice – here – on Sunday morning – when we’re sharing the peace, or sharing communion, or visiting after the service.
            A smile.  A word.  A Gesture.

            Or in this passage of scripture from Mark – the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. 
            I’ve always focused on the obvious – the men were fishermen, and Jesus calls them by telling them that they will be “fishing for people” now.   
            And in using those words and that image – Jesus hooks them right away. 
            But today you know what I am noticing?  The word “immediately.”   
            Did you notice that word?  Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. 
            He has just been baptized and driven out to the wilderness.  (And by the way, the Spirit drove him out – immediately.)  
            And  afterwards he sees two fishermen and he calls them – and they follow him – immediately. 

            That’s sort of incredible. 
            I mean, you can chalk it up to Jesus being the voice of authority.  If he calls you, you just have to go. 
            When I went to do a church service at the Denver City and County Jail once, the inmates all told said that it was no surprise – that they followed “immediately.” 
            Because – Jesus. 
            You can’t trust anyone else, but you can trust Jesus. 
            So -- It’s a sign – a revelation – that when Jesus calls disciples, they follow “immediately.”  They can’t resist. 

            In the church, this season is called “Epiphany” – which is a word that means “Revelation.” 
            The word “epiphany” with a small “e” actually means a moment when the truth is revealed to you without you having to study or figure it out.
            You just suddenly (for example) knew, just KNEW that 2 plus 2 really does equal four, or that that key in the middle of the piano is middle C, or that the thing that you touch with your hands and drink and wash with – that’s called water. 
            The disciples heard Jesus call their name and suddenly they just KNEW, without having to study it, that he was the one.  It was a revelation.

            But what does it reveal? 
            The disciples know that Jesus is the one, they know he is the Messiah, but they don’t know much about him.  Yet. 
            They will learn more, and more will be revealed to them, but for now they have just heard him calling. 
            And they followed.  Immediately.
            And for me this reveals three things.  It reveals something about the disciples – that they were waiting. 
            They were waiting for someone, for something, for the kingdom of God, the Messiah, someone they could follow. 
            They were waiting for someone who would teach them, and heal them, – but they were also waiting for someone who would make them teachers and healers. 
            They were waiting for something that God had promised to Israel – that God had promised to the world. 
            So they followed immediately.          
            But  “immediately” also reveals a sense of urgency – that this is not the time for delays. 
            This is a time for action. 
            This is a time for repentance, by which I mean, a time to turn around, go in a different direction, actually follow Jesus. 
            And as much as we might say, OF COURSE the disciples followed immediately, it’s not that easy, is it? 
            So the other thing that this reveals is our – my – hesitation. 
            I want to ask, “Wait a minute?  Is it that really God calling?  I have a couple of things I have to do first that are important.”   
            Most of the time, following Jesus may not seem that urgent to us.  In fact, most of the time, the decisions we make may not seem that urgent – until the flood waters come up and you have to leave your home – or stay –
             or until someone is in trouble and you have to help – or not
             – or someone asks you (for example), “will you marry me?” and you have to answer yes – or not.   
            The Kingdom of God has drawn near – and do you want to be a part of it?   -- Don’t take your time.

            So, it’s a small thing, but the word immediately sticks out to me.    As being a part of the epiphany – a part of the revelation.
             And you know what – it happens TWICE. 
            Twice that word “immediately” – when Jesus calls the second set of brothers, James and John – he calls them immediately.
            Peter and Andrew didn’t hesitate. 
            But when Jesus gets to James and John, he doesn’t hesitate either.             He doesn’t ask for resumes.  He doesn’t have them do a personality test. 
            He doesn’t have a conversation with them first, so that he can find out if they are right for the job. 
            He calls them  -- immediately. 

            If you ask me, this is even more incredible. 
            That Jesus does not hesitate – to call Peter and Andrew, James and John – and us. 
            And this – this reveals something too, something about Jesus, and something about us.

            But what does it reveal? 

            What do you think? 

            God is not hesitating to call you – right where you are. 
            And not just (or even immediately) here, in church. 
            I just get to remind you about it on Sunday. 
            NO – he’s calling you while you are casting your nets into the sea, which is to say, he is calling to you while you are doing your daily work, while you are going to the grocery store with your kids,
            while you are at the office, in the truck, meeting your neighbors, playing with children. 
            God is not hesitating to call you – immediately -- to be a part of God’s reign of mercy and love and compassion

            And what does it reveal? 

            Today Jesus is calling you  -- and suddenly – suddenly – you know – without studying or having to figure it out – you just know – that despite everything – you are beloved and valuable –and worthy to bear the good news. You are God’s beloved child, and he is calling you without hesitation.          

            “Follow me,” he says to you – every single day. 
            And you know – sometimes it’s the small things that you notice.     The child who needs encouragement to follow her dream
            The stranger who needs hope.  The family who needs a home. 
            The refugee who needs shelter.   
            Every person who needs – the kingdom of God.  Right now.

            Immediately he calls you.  Because he loves you.  Because he sees you.

            Don’t take your time.  AMEN

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord

Acts 19:1-7/Mark 1:4-11

“Life Survival Kit”

            All of the reports of the cold weather all over the country are bringing me back to my days as a pastor in rural South Dakota – and the Sunday morning one winter day that one of my parish members handed me a box. 
            It was a gift, she said, and this particular gift was useful – it was a winter survival kit.  I’m from the Midwest, you know, but I had never had a winter survival kit. 
            So I looked inside to see what was in it.
            The box had a flashlight, candles, a bar of Hershey chocolate, matches, a coffee can, and a roll of toilet paper.  I thought it was very interesting.  I put it in the trunk of my car. 
            Truthfully, I did not now what any of it was for, or how it might help me if I was stranded on the road on a winter day. 

            For the next few years that winter survival kit stayed in the trunk of my car.  I never used it. 
            I didn’t know what it was for.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  I had a couple of ideas. 
            I had for example, an idea about the chocolate bar, and I was pretty sure about what the matches were for.  I also thought I knew what the toilet paper was for – but I was wrong….. 
            What I didn’t know was that I really had everything I needed in that box, everything I needed to survive in a blizzard.
             But I didn’t know how to use it.

            Everything I needed – maybe we don’t think of it this way, but when we are baptized we receive everything we need for the life of faith.  We receive the Holy Spirit.   
            It goes all the way back to John the Baptist in the wilderness.
             He was pretty clear when he was baptizing people…. “I have baptized you with water… but the one who is coming after me?  HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  
            Not that the water is unimportant – but there is something more going on when we are baptized – the point is the water AND the Spirit.     And, you may not remember it, but when we are baptized, no matter what age that is – whether we are 2 months or 2 years or 20 or 80 – when we are baptized – we also receive the Holy Spirit.
            “Pour out your Holy Spirit on Tori  -- or Dennis – or Henry – or Yvonne --we pray….  The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence…”  
            Everything we need.   For the life of faith.

            That is what we get when we receive the Holy Spirit.  And we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized.  
             That’s the way it is supposed to be. 
            That’s behind this story from Acts 19 that we read today.  Paul comes across some believers and asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. 
            And they said – they haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit.  They had only received John’s baptism. 
            So he baptizes them and they do receive the Holy Spirit.  And they receive gifts – strange gifts it might seem to us, but gifts. 
            Everything they need for the life of faith. 

            I can’t help thinking though that even though we have heard of the Holy Spirit,
             that the Spirit’s gifts to us are sort of like that “Winter Survival Kit” I received – they are sitting in the equivalent in the trunks of our cars. 
            Because maybe we don’t have any idea what they are for.  How does the Holy Spirit help us in the life of faith? 
             What do we receive and how do we use it?  Maybe we should ask.  Maybe we should be curious, and take a look and….

            Wait a minute… what do I have here?  There’s a box here, and it says, “Life survival kit.”  Do you think I should open it?   Let’s see what is inside.

            1.  The first thing I’m seeing is a slingshot. 
            You know what this slingshot reminds me of?  It reminds me of that story in the old Testament about David and Goliath. 
            And how Goliath was someone to be afraid of, a bully, and how David was young, and everyone thought it was foolish of him to stand up to the giant, but he did. 
            And all he had was this slingshot.  He didn’t have a sword, and he didn’t have any TNT and he didn’t have any nuclear weapons. 
            All he had was a slingshot.  But that’s what the strength of God is like. 
            We’re promised the might of God, but it’s not like the might of the world.
             We’re not promised that God will make us into giants, but that God will give us what we need.   A different kind of strength.
              Remember also that David used the slingshot against Goliath, but he also used it to protect the sheep. 
            The strength we get from God is to help those who need protection – the poor and the vulnerable and the weak.

            2.  What’s this?  Here are some ear buds.
            One of the things that the Holy Spirit helps us do is hear God’s voice. 
            There are a lot of voices in the world, and not all of them belong to God. 
            Some of them are telling us to be afraid, and some of us are telling us to be selfish and some of us are telling us that God is not around. 
            But the Holy Spirit helps us to hear and recognize God’s voice, God’s word, in the Scripture, and in our lives. 
            The Holy Spirit helps us to hear that God is with us, and helps us to know what God wants us to do and who wants us to be in the world right now. 
            Sometimes God shouts and sometimes God whispers, but God is always speaking to us….

            3.  Here’s something else  (big glasses!)  The Holy Spirit gives us a way to see what God is doing in the world – that God really is active in the world.  And in our lives.
             Sometimes the Holy Spirit helps us know where to look – because it’s not often we see what God is doing when we look in the obvious places – the places where the powerful people are – and where important things happen
            – but God is working in small ways and through ordinary people and we need these new eyes to see it.  Through us! 
            Through family Promise!  Through the pre-school – and the children –

            4.  And here’s something else we receive (a microphone).  This reminds me that one of the things that God gives us is a voice. 
            God wants us to speak up. 
            And that can be scary.  But God gives us a voice and will give us courage when we need it – to speak up –
             to speak up with words of love for our enemies – to speak up with words of mercy for those who are down
            – to speak up for words of truth for the powerful –   oh, and I see that there are some bandaids here too
            – because it’s not just about words, right?  But actions are important too…

            5.  There’s one more thing in here – and it’s a passport.  Huh. 
            It has my name on it.  I can carry it with me anywhere, so that if anyone asks me who I am – I can tell them that I am a child of God.           When Jesus was baptized, that’s what the Holy Spirit told him, and that’s the most important thing – because there were plenty of people who did not believe him. 
            But he kept on his mission:  loving people and forgiving people and healing people – anyway. 
            And that is so important for us as well – to remember who we are.  To remember our mission. 
            Because there will be plenty of people who will encourage us to doubt it. 
            And there will be times when we will doubt it, because of things that happen to us. 
            Martin Luther said that when he felt beset by adversity, he would say to himself, ‘I am baptized!”  A passport reminding us of who we are – and what our mission is. 

            The Holy Spirit.  Everything we need. 
            For the life of faith. 
            Everything we need to – not to survive – but to live.  Wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, fear of the Lord,  joy in your presence.  Joy. 




Saturday, January 6, 2018

Saturday Night Stream of Consciousness

It's Saturday night.  Sermon is about ready for preaching.  I've been looking up verses for a Bible study which begins tomorrow.  Actually, it's not so much a Bible study as it is a Study of the Christian Faith.  We will be studying theology.  So I've been thinking about theology this evening, both the basics that I've learned, and the experiences and questions that I've had.   I've got the movie "2001: a Space Odyssey" on in the background.

May I say it?  I have never understood this movie.  I don't remember seeing in the theatre because I was only about 9 or 10 years old when it came out.  But I remember my dad and my uncle having a conversation about the movie, and what they thought it meant.  It was a theological conversation, that's all I remember.  They were talking about things that were beyond me, but I was curious.

My uncle died just after Christmas, so he's been on my mind.  I've got "2001" on in the background, and I'm still not sure what it means, and I'm thinking about my uncle, and theology.  It's that part at the end of the movie, where the old man becomes a baby, that I think my uncle and my dad were talking about.

It's funny what you remember, on a Saturday night

My uncle was one of the forming influences on my life.  I thought he was a smart adult, and I always got the impression that he thought I was smart too, and that made a difference.  He was interested in a lot of things, and one of those things was theology.  He talked about Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Barth.  He knew about the historical critical reading of the Bible.  He was passionate about grace, I think because he knew he needed it.

So, tomorrow I'll be starting this study of Theology.  A lot of people think that theology is boring.  I think theology has to do with everything in life.  So if you do it right, it can't be boring.  Ordinary life and extra-ordinary life,  questions and certainties, whoops of joy and sobs of sorrow, everything goes into the theological mix.

I couldn't go to my uncle's funeral this week.  I have been thinking about that too.

Tomorrow morning, when we introduce the study of theology, perhaps the music of the movie "2001" will be playing in the background of my mind.  And maybe the music of my uncle's life.

And then we'll go to worship, and we'll remember the baptism of Jesus, and dip our fingers in the water, and remember our own baptism too.  We'll dip our fingers in the water and maybe we'll remember the other times we dipped our fingers in the water, or how we never learned to swim, or how we were scared of the water or how we loved the feeling of it.  We'll dip our fingers in the water and wonder what it means to be children of God.

Tonight I'm thinking about my uncle, and theology, and "2001" and the water.  And theology.

It's funny what you think about, on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Twelve Books of Christmas, January 3

For the 10th Day of Christmas, I have chosen one of my favorite Christmas stories:  "Christmas Moccasins" written and illustrated by Ray Buckley.  It is a Christmas story in that the gift given is on Christmas Eve.  but it is also a story of being wronged and forgiving; it is a story of extravagance; it is a story of our baptismal vocation, and how difficult and necessary it is.

It is also a story told from a Native American perspective.  The grandmother in the story is both steeped in the Christian faith, and also in the traditions of her community.  The story speaks about the particular way the grandmother prays, and also the value of the beautiful beaded moccasins she makes.

The story begins one winter as the grandmother and the boy are beat up by two teenagers as they walk in the woods.  The youths steal their coats and grandmother's moccasins.  The grandmother lost two toes to frostbite, walking home.

What will be their response?  What will they do?

This book is a Christmas book, but it's about more than Christmas.  It is about how faith can inhabit our whole lives, from one degree of glory to another.

The illustrations are also as gorgeous as the story.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Twelve Books of Christmas, January 2

I thought for a long time before deciding on the book for today.  It is not a picture book, but a compilation of short stories for children, called "A Newbery Christmas."
 The stories in this book are by Newbery award winning authors like Madeline L'Engle, Lois Lenski, Katherine Paterson (my favorite), Eleanor Estes, and Rachel field.  Some are excerpts from longer books, such as Eleanor Estes book, "The Hundred Dresses", a story about a little Polish girl who is poor and made fun of and claims she has one hundred dresses in her closet.  It is a story not entirely about Christmas -- but it is a story about gifts in all of their varieties.

I first encountered Elizabeth Yates' lovely story, "Once in the Year" in this book, and then I found the original version.  Katherine Paterson has a story from one of her two (now out of print) books of Christmas stories.  Ms. Paterson originally wrote these stories for her husband, a Presbyterian minister, to read on Christmas eve.  The story in this collection is "Woodrow Kennington Works Practically a Miracle", about a boy having trouble with his little sister on Christmas Eve, and how exasperated he gets, and how mean he is to her, and how he breaks the TV set, and fixes it again and, well... I guess you just have to read it so see how Woodrow practically works a miracle on Christmas eve.

A Newbery Christmas is out of print, and it's a pity.  But the book is still available if you have a mind to look for it.  There are plenty of stories, and authors, to discover.  It is a book to read and savor over many days of Christmas, and many Christmases.

Some of the stories are overtly religious, (Paterson's) and some evoke memories of Santa and family celebrations.  Some bring us back to Christmases past.

P.S. this book does not have illustrations.