Sunday, July 31, 2011

July 31, 2011, "Heaven Looks Like This"

Matthew 14.13-21

Are people hungry?
In many places around the world, people are just plain hungry … not enough food - drought and war and bad economies condemn millions to starvation.
A major problem here in America is hunger for good food … childhood obesity, diabetes; a host of medical issues reflect a poor diet, loaded with “Iowa sugar,” too much fat, too much salt - highly-processed foods laced with too many chemicals and not enough food-value.
Beyond food, how many millions are hungry for safety?
A good roof over their heads.
A home where their children are safe.
Good schools.
Good jobs.
Health-care for their families.
Job security.
A living wage.
Respect for their work.
Hope for tomorrow.
The right to choose.
The right to marry.
How many hunger and thirst for righteousness?
For truth.
Reliable ideas.
Hope and love.
The kingdom of heaven … thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven ...
Hunger comes on many different levels.
On every level of hunger, we find Jesus at work.
Hungry souls.
Empty bellies.
Wherever the hunger, Jesus is there.
Whatever the need, Jesus goes to work.
Our text this morning begins on a sad note … Jesus seeks solitude when he hears of John’s death at the hands of Herod; Jesus wants to be alone … like any of us, when hard times come our way.
To be alone with our thoughts and sorrows …
“Leave me alone; I don’t wanna talk about it.”
We need time to think.
Privacy for our tears.
We want to be alone, when there’s nothing to be said, nothing to be done.
I can imagine Jesus, wanting to be alone with his thoughts … the man who baptized him in the Jordan 30 years earlier, is dead now, at the hands of craven king, a king too drunk, too proud, to say no to Herodias and her dancing daughter at his birthday party. 
This moment of wanting to be alone is one of the most touching chapters in the gospel stories … if anyone thinks that Jesus is above and beyond the trials and hurts of life, here’s proof that Jesus feels the deeps of life and its many hurts.
A friend wrote to me the other day, “I’m tired of being hurt.”
I understand that … for sure.
Yet I wrote back, “To live is to risk hurt, and the longer we live, the more hurt we acquire.” 
We cannot escape “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
But God is at work in our hurt!
God walks with us in the valley.
Until we have some healing, and then God takes us by the hand and leads us back to life.
I think of Elijah hiding out in the cave of his hurt.
God comes to Elijah and asks, What are you doing here?
Elijah replies with a long of list of sorrows and hurt … I’ve got good reasons to be hiding in my cave.
Yet the LORD says to Elijah, There’s work to be done. Get on your way to the tasks at hand.
Here in our story, there’s work to be done: the crowds.
They find out where Jesus is, and that’s where they go.
Instinctively, they know that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life … they’re hungry for life … and as the day wears on, their bellies grow empty!
It’s a large crowd.
5000 men, plus women and children.
A lot of people - stomachs growling all over the place.
The disciples are uneasy.
They know what Jesus will say to them.
So they make the first move … This is a deserted place, Jesus; it’s late; send the crowds away so they can buy food in the nearby villages.
The disciples are hungry, too.
They’re afraid there isn’t enough to go around.
The pie won’t be big enough.
All we have are five loaves and two fish.
Send the crowds away.
They can fend for themselves.
We have ours, and it’s just enough to feed us, and we’re not about to share any of it.
The message of scarcity - strange things happen when the message of scarcity takes hold of the soul.
Kindness and generosity evaporate, vision dies; the haves throw up barricades to the have-nots. 
The message of scarcity.
Can we see how this creates boundaries?
Jesus looks upon the crowd with compassion … the disciples look upon the crowd fearfully.
Them versus us.
Outsiders and insiders.
Deadly categories:
Good folks, bad folks.
The deserving and the undeserving.
Hard-workers and the lazy.
When we think the pie is too small to feed everyone, we grow protective of the pie, especially if we think it’s our pie.
Before we press on with story, I pause here for a moment to consider what’s going on in America … the debate about health-care, Social Security, Medicare, raising the debt-ceiling, taxation, the Dream Act, immigration, and dozens of other issues …
So much of it’s driven by fear.
The scarcity message.
The pie is too small.
There won’t be enough to go around.
Send people away to fend for themselves.
The virtues of sharing and compassion are in short order these days … 
The folks with the pie want all of it.
And why?
I suppose they’re frightened.
We’re all frightened, in some ways.
Fear is in the air.
And fear is never helpful!
Fear distorts everything.
Remember the children of Israel in the wilderness, on the borders of the Promised Land? 
The spies return, and say, Yes, it’s a good and beautiful land, but there are giants there, and they’ll give us a good thrashing. We don’t stand a chance.
That day fear took hold, Israel turned tail, walked away from the Promised Land.
Fear does terrible things to us.
The young man in Norway, who killed so many of his fellow citizens - driven by fear, riddled with fear, upside down with fear … fear of the stranger, fear of Islam, fear of other cultures, fear of change … the pie isn’t big enough.
He claims to be a Christian.
He fashions himself a Knights Templar - a military order of Europe’s Middle Ages.
Because the pie isn’t big enough … we only have five loaves and two fish, and we’re not about to share any of it with anyone.
If the church of Jesus Christ has a mission for today, any meaning whatsoever, it has to be the fearless message of Jesus … and the message of abundance … 
A message that seems ridiculous to us … 
Yes, let’s be honest.
Have we ever said about the gospel, “Well, that’s Jesus. He’s perfect. He can think way. But we can’t think that way. We can’t live that way.”
The message of abundance, the message of no-fear, seems ridiculous to us!
But it’s not ridiculous at all - sharing is the reality of love; giving is still the truth about life.
As God created life abundantly there’s more than enough to go around; this is a world of plenty … the pie is big enough … don’t be afraid … don’t let fear twist and distort how you see things.
Something, now, of great importance in our story.
Jesus does NOT tell the disciples to share.
Jesus says to them, Give ME what you have.
Can we see what he’s doing?
A great favor to them.
Their five loaves and two fish … they cling to them … hold them tight … like Gollum and the Ring of Power … or Voldemort and the Elder Wand … 
Jesus doesn’t command them to share what they have.
Because commands aren’t good enough.
Jesus doesn’t ask them to be charitable.
Because charity isn’t big enough.
No, something more important here.
Give ME what you have.
Jesus knows that as long as the loaves and fish are in the disciples’ hands, there won’t be enough.
There’s never enough when we’re in charge of the pie.
In our eyes, the pie is always too small.
Jesus does them a great favor.
Jesus asks them to surrender the fish and the loaves.
Surrender the pie.
Reminiscent of God asking Abraham and Sarah to sacrifice their son, Isaac … God had to know what kind of people God was asking to found a new nation … God needed people who could really give … 
So God asks for the son.
And in the moment when Abraham is ready to plunge the knife into the boy, God stays his hand … There in the bush, the ram … there’s your sacrifice … but now I know the kind of man you are; you can give.
Jesus needs disciples who can give.
The cycle of selfish ends now … in this moment … give the loaves and the fish to me …
And when they do, Jesus knows.
And so do they.
The pie is big enough for the whole wide world, and then some … with plenty left over at the end.
The promise of abundance.
The message we proclaim and live, because of Jesus.
The pie is big enough!
There’s more than enough to go around, and then some.
Don’t be afraid.
We can feed the world.
No one needs to go to bed hungry.
It can be done.
It must be done.
And the church of Jesus Christ can lead the way.
The next time we watch the news, or read the headlines, pay attention to the message of scarcity - the pie isn’t big enough to feed everyone, so we have to send folks away.
Pay attention to that message, because it’s hell’s message.
Not heaven’s message.
Not the message of Jesus.
When we’re afraid for the pie we have, and we wanna send people away, we must listen to Jesus, and his message of abundance.
And his command to give what we have to him.
In his hands, there’s more than enough.
And then, Jesus gives the fish and the loaves back to the disciples so they can feed the crowd.
In the moment of their surrender, they give away their fear.
When Jesus returns the fish and the loaves to them, they gain their courage.
And feed the crowd.
With twelve baskets of leftovers.
Enough for everyone, and then some.
And that’s what heaven looks like.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July 24, 2011, "Angels' Work"

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

The kingdom of heaven surprises us.
We stumble upon it, quite by accident.
Or we find it because we're looking for it.

Let's begin with a basic question:
What is the kingdom of heaven anyway?

Jesus speaks of sowers and seed … weeds and wheat … mustard seeds and yeast … treasure in a field, a pearl of great value, and a fishnet.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done … on earth as it is in heaven.

What is the kingdom of heaven?

We might begin in the beginning, with Genesis … the creation story; God’s mandate to us: Care for the garden I've created … care for the world I give to you.
Birds of the air, fish of the sea, all creeping things … all things, great and small.  

We can listen to the prophets … and no better word than Micah:
The LORD has told you, O mortal, what is good;
      and what does the LORD require of you
      but to do justice, and to love kindness,
      and to walk humbly with your God?

Jesus in the wilderness:
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Do not put the LORD your God to the test with foolish behavior and immodest demands.
Worship only God, and serve no other.

The Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who make no claim for themselves … who show up with empty hands!
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – a fair world, where love has a chance, and everyone is well-respected.
Blessed are those who strive for peace, for they will be called children of God.
Whenever you fast, do not look dismal.
Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.
No one can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.

The kingdom of heaven comes to us in all sorts of ways.

For me, it’s often in movies … like “Avatar” or more recently, “Transformers” and the last of the “Harry Potter” series – themes of loyalty and sacrifice and love … people, or machines, going the extra mile and then some … my spirit is stirred … tears well up in my eyes.

I might be reading when the kingdom of heaven comes my way, with a startling thought, a new idea.

I can be singing a hymn, and the kingdom of heaven washes over me with grace, mercy and peace.

The kingdom of heaven sneaks up on me when I see brave people struggling against enormous odds … a child with severe physical challenges runs a race, every step, labored and demanding, but runs the race with joy. 

The Catholic Workers Soup Kitchen on 6th Street, downtown LA … near the end of lunch-time, there wasn’t much left – a young man, in his early 30s, came by - I ladled onto his empty plate the remnants of some beans and salad … I said to him, “I’m sorry, this is all we have left.”
And he said to me with a smile, “That’s all right. When you’re hungry, it all tastes like steak.”

The kingdom of heaven shows up in my work with CLUE – Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice …
We recently had a successful effort to organize food workers at LMU … a two-year effort … stories of hardship and humiliation at the hands of a corporation that needed to do better by its employees.
With work and planning, it was done … they have a union now.
They have job security, affordable health-care, pay for overtime, and no one can threaten them with job loss when they’re sick. When I saw their tears of gratitude, the kingdom of heaven was there.

There’s no predicting it; God is a God of surprises. 
But God is also faithful.
God sees to it that the Kingdom of heaven comes our way often.

Let's take a look at three parables this morning.

In the first parable, a man in the field.
What was he doing there anyway?
The land isn’t his.
Might he be a tenant farmer?
Or out for stroll in the rolling countryside of Galilee?

The man finds a great treasure.
Hidden by some previous owner?
In a time of war?

War was common in Galilee … nations fought to control it, because of its agricultural wealth and its broad planes.
The writer of Revelation chooses Galilee as the sight of the final struggle for control of the earth … Armageddon … or in the Hebrew language, har Megiddo … or Mount Megiddo … about 25 miles southwest of the southern tip of Lake Galilee.
Fortresses were built there to guard the main highway between Egypt and lands to the east … the trade route came up from Egypt along the Mediterranean Sea, and then crossed to the east through Galilee and its planes.
Soldiers were a common sight.
Perhaps some frightened family buried their treasure to avoid confiscation … who knows what happened; they never returned, and the treasure lay there, maybe for years.

It’s found one day, quite by accident.
And it’s large.
Too large to dig up and put in the pocket.
This is a serious treasure trove.
A real find.

The man joyfully liquidates all he owns, and buys the field.

I suppose we could ask questions about proper ownership, and shouldn’t the man have made some effort to find the original owners, or their descendants, or at least tell the owner of the field?
We cannot and should not push a parable for every detail … lest we miss the point.
And the point?
The kingdom of heaven is sometimes found, quite by accident.

Let’s move on.
The pearl of great value is found by a pearl merchant.
He knows what he’s looking for.
The merchant gladly liquidates his holdings to purchase the pearl.
Again, might ask questions.
Like, what comes next?
Now that he owns the pearl.
Can he eat it?
Will the pearl provide shelter for him?
Again, we shouldn't be sidetracked.
The point is clear:
If we're looking for the kingdom of heaven, we'll find it.
Ask, and it will be given; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.

And we'll know it, when we see it.
And when we see it, we’ll know that we want it.
Donna’s little niece received a gift last week, and when she opened it, she said, “My heart tells me; this is just what I wanted.”
When we see the kingdom of heaven, our heart tells us: “This is just what we wanted.”

Now to the last parable …

The parable of the net … to the shores of Lake Galilee - someone throwing a net … when the net is full, it’s dragged to shore - good fish into a basket … and the rest discarded.
Jesus adds a serious note to all of this.
So it will be at the end of age … as the wheels of history turn … one era ends and another begins.
For some, regret and sorrow … painful grief … tears and clenched jaws … bitter remorse.

Because they chose to stand on the wrong side of history.

Pharaoh instead of Moses.
Caesar rather than Christ.
Wealth over God.
Privilege and power.
Grab the sword.
Enslave others.
Mistreat the poor.
Pillage the earth.
The wrong side of history:
Apartheid in South Africa.
Hitler and his hatred.
The Berlin wall.
The smell of napalm in the morning.
The young man in Norway.

The choices we make against the will of God … choices that diminish love rather than build it up … negative thoughts; bitter feelings … the darkness we welcome and the light we shun.

The wrong side of history.

And then the moment of truth: the crushing realization. 
And there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The parable of the net - a reminder to stand on the right side of history … choose well what we value … the greater journey, the better way, the life and love of Jesus Christ our Lord … what is true and right, just and good.

The right side of history!
For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

July 17, 2011, "Relax"

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

For years, when I get a little tense, Donna says to me, “Reeeeeee-lax!”

It’s not always so easy to relax.
I fret and I fuss.
Get edgy.
And that never helps anything.

So, Donna says to me, “Reeeeeeeee-lax!”
Puts a smile on my face.
I take a deep breath.
Tension drains away.
I feel better!

I wrote the first part of today’s message on Monday.
Later in the day, grocery shopping.
Got what I needed, put it in the trunk, got in behind the wheel, pulled out of the parking space … when, I REALIZED, I still need milk and OJ.
*choice words* … I said to myself, “Eggebeen, practice what you preach; REEEE-LAX.
Pulled back into my parking space.
Back to the store.
Got what I needed.
And, you know what?
It made no difference.
I got home in a timely manner and made dinner.
And now there’s milk and OJ in the fridge.


Over the years, I’ve learned a few things.
Donna would say, “VERY few things.”
Oh well.
But a few things, indeed.

I’ve learned:
1.   Most of the things that send my emotional thermometer into the red zone are of little consequence, and will pass in 5 minutes or less. The guy cutting me off on the 405; the busy check-out lane, when someone has an unmarked item; the clerk has to do a price-check, and no one answers the phone, so the clerk steps away, and it’s an item on the other side of the store, a least a mile away. Things like this pass quickly!
2.   Hard things rarely last more than five days – a difficult encounter with someone, and we go home and rehearse what was said, and we think, “If only I had said thus and so …” and we think of all the clever things we could have said, or at least ways of saying it differently. Or maybe we plan an ambush; how to get back at them, return hurt for hurt. Come on now, fess up; we all think like this, don’t we? But I’ve learned: hard things rarely last beyond five days. And if we go to work with hurt or anger, it’s only gonna get worse. We have to let things go. We have to trust. Because hard things last only a few days.
3.   Even terrible things work their way through our lives … it may take months, maybe years … some things, like the death of spouse, or the death of a child, never fully leave us … but time does ease the pain. At the moment of our loss, at the time of our tears, none of us want to hear, “Time heals all things” … we don’t want our sorrow healed … we don’t want cheap comfort … but a couple of years down the road, we know it’s true, “Time heals every wound.” Scars remain; memories flood back like it was yesterday; but time heals the soul. Even the most terrible things work their way through our life.

The rule of 5: five minutes, five days, five years.

But I find again and again: it’s the five-minute things that really trip me up.

Did someone misunderstand me?
Did someone say something unkind to me?
Was I humiliated?
Was I hurt?
Sure, all of this and more.
Happens all the time.
And I get angry about it.
Maybe you do, too.

Maybe the other person IS at fault.
But we need to keep in mind: “Maybe I’m the other person now and then. Maybe it’s my fault.”
A quick apology is always in order.
Even if we think no apology is needed.
Offer an apology anyway.
An apology never hurts anyone.
And it might help.
It’s good for the soul to apologize.

And if it’s the other person’s fault, and no apology is offered, we might just have to let it go.
Don’t stumble over five-minute things.
You’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Interim pastors had a meeting this week – we share stories, laugh a lot, and pray a lot for one another.
One of my friends told of being at the Hollywood Bowl recently, sitting in front of a lady whom he recognized, but couldn’t place.
During intermission, he turned to her, and asked, “Do we know each other?”
She replied, “Are you an attorney?”
He said, “No, I’m a Presbyterian pastor.”
“Oh, “ she said, “You’re the one who fired me 25-years ago.”
She never let it go.
Sometimes our memory is too good.

REEEEEEE-LAX, says Jesus.

Issues of trust are a big part of learning how to relax!
Maybe we’re not sure that anyone else can do the job as well as we can do it.
And why do we feel this way?
Because we care!

But care, unmanaged, evolves into control.
When care becomes control, look out!
Control is not a pretty picture.
We call people who control, “control-freaks.”
If you’ve ever worked with a control-freak, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s doesn’t work.
Control-freaks never let go.
And it’s likely to end badly.

If I want someone else to do a job I’ve been doing, I have to let go, and let God.
I have to step back and trust.

Things will get done.
Maybe not the way I want them to go.
But things will get done.
Even if the ball is dropped, it won’t be the end of the world!
And when I’m dead and gone, guess what?
The world will go on without me.

Jesus tells the disciples, REEEEEEE-LAX.
Because edgy disciples are no good for the kingdom of God.
Disciples hot and bothered by the weeds only make things worse.

I wish I had known this weed parable when I was young.
Mom or Dad would tell me to go pull weeds in the flowerbeds.
If I had known this parable, I would have told them, “Jesus doesn’t want me to pull weeds. I’ll pull up the flowers, too. We’ll have to wait!”
Wish I had known that years ago.

Christians needs to know this story, too.
Lest we panic about the weeds.
And there are weeds, of course.
Plenty of them.
But Jesus tells the disciples to cool their jets, settle down, and REEEEEE-LAX.

Dear friends, this is a big problem for some Christians.
They’re bent outta shape over the weeds!
They wanna get into the field, pull up the weeds, and throw ‘em into the fire.
They love images of hell, Armageddon, destruction and calamity.
All they see is loss and decline, everything going to hell in a handbasket … their world full of conspiracies and evil forces … they believe themselves to be persecuted – paranoia is the order of the day.
Their list of enemies is long: secularists, humanists, liberals, the United Nations, President Obama, public schools, scientists who teach evolution, Hollywood, radical Islamists, progressive Christians, Communists, socialists, those who support choice for women, the ACLU, gays and lesbians, immigrants, labor unions, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Their list of friends is short, and getting shorter every day.
Because all they see are the weeds …

Some of these Christian groups are deeply involved in heresy trials.
Finger-pointing … Judgment … Exclusion.
Because all they see are the weeds …

Their preaching is filled with fury and threat and damnation.
They’re edgy, angry, aggressive, frustrated, belligerent and condemning.
Because all they see are the weeds …

Sledge-hammer Christianity.
Christianity with a snarl on its face.
Because all they see are the weeds …

And they’re afraid.
They’re afraid of the weeds.

Fear is never any good for the Kingdom of God.
Fear distorts everything.
Remember the children of Israel at the borders of the Promise Land?
The spies return and tell the people, “It’s a fair and beautiful land, but the people there are like giants, and they will defeat us.”[1]
Fear makes things seem worse than they really are.
Fear creates judgment and division:
Who are the weeds and who is the wheat?
Who are “real” Christians and who are “false”?
Who are “true believers” and who are only pretending?
Who’s orthodox, who’s heretical?
Who’s saved, who’s damned?
Who’s in, who’s out?
Who’s gonna make it, and who’s gonna burn (woo hoo) forever?
The kind of judgment Jesus forbids us to make.[2]

When Jesus and the disciples enter a Samaritan village, and the people find out that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, they turn Jesus away.
The disciples ask, “Shall we call down fire from heaven and burn ‘em all up” - just like Sodom and Gomorrah?
Jesus rebukes them, and they go on their way to another village.

Fearful, angry, Christians need a good dose of Presbyterian confidence in God.
God’s sovereign work, doing just fine.
God’s love, wide and deep and broad and sure.
Where’s there’s sin, grace abounds.
God is victorious, and we have peace with God.
God still does the converting and does it very well.
The Lamb of God is truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sins the world![3]
Jesus builds the church, and not even the gates of hell can prevail.[4]
The Kingdom of God unfolds as it should.
God’s timeline is right on target.
Faith, the size of a mustard seed, is more than enough to move a few mountains.

Oh, there will be a time when things are sorted out.
But that’s up to the angels.
At the end of time.
Not now.
Not us!

Not even God pulls weeds while things are still growing.
The Apostle Peter writes: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.[5]

“REEEEEEEEE-LAX,” says Jesus!
Don’t be afraid of the weeds.
Rejoice in the wheat, instead.
Be positive.
Stand up and sing The Star Spangled Banner.
And write some poetry.

It’s better than you think.
The sky isn’t falling.
The house is just fine.
It’s not always easy, but don’t make things worse by pulling up the weeds![6]
Trust in God always!
Trust also in me.[7]
The world is being saved!
Creation redeemed.
From top to bottom.
Inside and out.
As God has promised.
I am with you always, to the end of the age![8]
I will never leave you or forsake you, so we say with confidence, the LORD is my helper, I will not be afraid.[9]

And that, dear friends, is the news from Calvary on the Boulevard, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.[10]

Amen and Amen!

[1] Numbers 13.
[2] Matthew 7.1.
[3] 1 John 2.2.
[4] Matthew 16.18.
[5] 2 Peter 3.9.
[6] 1 Peter 4.15.
[7] John 14.1.
[8] Matthew 28.20.
[9] Hebrews 13.5-6.
[10] From Prairie Home Companion on NPR, Garrison Keillor. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

July 10, 2011 - "Presbyterian Confidence"

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23


Confidence is a powerful attitude.
With confidence, Lewis and Clark set out on their journey up the Missouri River, across the Rockies and into the Columbia River Basin, finally to reach the Pacific Ocean.
Years later, confidence moves the pioneers into their wagons for the long trek westward; they endure disease, injury, violence and death … it’s been said that the Oregon Trail was paved with the bones of children who died along the way, from the smallest injury, when infection set in, or if they fell out of a wagon, trampled to death by an on-coming team of oxen.

Confidence is a powerful attitude.

Confidence brought my ancestors to this nation.
Grandparents, on my father’s side, came from the Netherlands in the late 1800s … with confidence, they boarded the boat and make their way across the wild North Atlantic, to land in New York City and make their way to Wisconsin, Iowa and back to Wisconsin again.

Great, great grandparents on my mothers side – left Silesia, in Poland, 1848 – hard times for Europe – confidence took them to the New World, to farmland in Wisconsin … and there to begin life anew, with plenty of challenges … including three sons drafted into the Union Army – they all came back home, safe and sound, and one of them was my great grandfather.

Confidence brings new immigrants to our shores.

The restless animal that we are.
Feet always moving.
Eyes peering over the horizon to see what’s there for us.
Sometimes, it’s the quest for adventure.
Sometimes, to flee war and poverty.
Always, the search for a better life.
If not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren.
Always, the wonder-working power of confidence.

With confidence, we take a test.
Overcome an obstacle.
Challenge the odds.
Start all over again.
Find our way.
Seize the day.

The belief that we can do it.
Whatever life throws at us.
However life plays out for us.
If there’s a mountain, climb it.
If it’s too high, dig right through it.
If it’s too hard, go around it.

Because we’re created in the image of God.

God creates the heavens and the earth, with confidence!
God said, with confidence, Let there be light.
With confidence, God confronts Adam and Eve after their disobedience and makes good clothing for them.
With confidence, God comes to Abram and Sarai, and asks for a few moments of their time.
With confidence, God watches the people of Israel go down to Egypt, where they became slaves.
With confidence, God calls upon Moses at the Burning Bush, to head back to Egypt, and help Pharaoh “Let my people go!”

We have confidence, because we’re created in God’s image.

Yet confidence can be dangerous.
All the dictators of history had confidence.
Alexander the Great had confidence, to conquer his world.
The Roman Emperors had confidence; with sword and spear, allowed no enemy to stand.
Hitler had confidence in his twisted plans to dominate Europe and cleanse the world of Jews and homosexuals, in defense of the homeland and for god and the German people.
Bernie Madoff had tons of confidence when he began in Ponzi Scheme.
So does your average bank robber.

Confidence can get us into trouble.
I suppose Eve was confident when she plucked the apple from the tree.
Judas was confident when he made his bargain with the authorities.
We sometimes describe risk-takers as “over confident.”

Confidence is a dangerous attitude.
When the moral compass is broken!

History is filled with hideous moments - people with a broken moral compass and blind confidence … immoral confidence, confidence even in god, they might say … but the moral compass is broken, and their crimes are great.
Christian missionaries joined hands with Spanish soldiers, and everyone thought it was okay to convert the native population with a sword to the throat, and if they didn’t convert, everyone agreed, it was okay to kill them.
Christians created the Crusades and the Inquisition … Christians have spilled a lot of blood on the pages of world history.
1492, Columbus sailed the blue - Christians in Spain told  Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion.
American Christians thought it was okay to take the land occupied by Native Americans, and for lack of understanding, Native Americans were simply labeled, “savages.”
President Andrew Jackson, a Presbyterian, oversaw the forcible expulsion of the Cherokee from the Carolinas; the trail west came to be called The Trail of Tears … ending in Indian Territory, what we now call Oklahoma … and when Americans wanted more land, well, so much for any agreements with the Cherokee and other Native Americans.
It was Federal policy – kill the buffalo and we’ll get rid of the Sioux.
“The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”
Christians smelled money and sailed to the west coast of Africa, bribed stronger tribes to attack and enslave weaker tribes, and drag them onto boats, take them across the Atlantic to the New World, with chains and shackles and whips– to grow and cut sugar cane – and everyone agreed, it was okay, because people of color were less than human.
Presbyterian pastors reached into their Bibles and found verses to defend slavery … well into the 20th Century, Christian preachers stood cheek-to-jowl with the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws throughout the south, and far too often, things were no better in northern cities like Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, what with red-line maps and housing covenants and all-white churches that barred people of color from entering their doors.

Terrible stories, are they not?
Stories to warn us.
Give us pause.
Make us think.
Christians, too, can have a broken moral compass.
And a morally broken confidence, and do hideous and cruel things, all in the name of Je-sus.

Today, in this place, we examine our souls.
Because God’s people have been wrong about many things.

Which reminds me:
An old snake goes to see his doctor.
"Doc, I need something for my eyes...can't see well these days".
The Doc fixes him up with a pair of glasses and tells him to return in 2 weeks.
2 weeks the snake tells the doctor he's very depressed.
Doc says, "What's the problem...didn't the glasses help you?"
"The glasses are fine doc; I just discovered I've been living with a garden hose the last two years.”

That’s why we use the Prayer of Confession – maybe we’ve been living with a garden hose the last few years, and we couldn’t see it.

So it’s good to take a personal inventory now and then.
Every Sunday, is probably just right.
To deal with our spiritual and emotional rubbish.
Dig around in our mental attics and basements.
Examine our motives.
Ask tough questions of ourselves.
With prayer and care.
Thought and learning.
Wisdom from trusted sources.
Make some repairs.
That’s how we keep our moral compass calibrated, well-oiled.
The moral mechanisms of our soul running smoothly.

But let’s push on!

Confidence is creative, when the moral compass is working well.
Confidence celebrates the past, but asks for more, because times change.
What worked yesterday may still work today, sort of, but something new might work even better, and unless we try, we’ll never know for sure.

Something as remarkable as the Space Shuttle is no longer state-of-the-art; oh, it still works, but we’ll find new ways of reaching for the stars.
Henry Ford’s Model T was a great car, but only aficionados and collectors want to drive one today.
Remember the rotary phone?
331/3 LP vinyl records?
8-track tape?
Cassette tapes?
Dot-matrix printers?

The world is a different place than it was 50 years.
Even ten years ago … five years ago.
And ten years from now, who knows?
But confidence is creative.
Confidence is brave.
Confidence likes to experiment.

Good to experiment.
Try something different.
Our soul needs stimulation.
Too many Christians fall into a rut.
And a rut is nothing more than a grave with the ends kicked out of it.

God says:
Do not remember the former things,
      or consider the things of old.
      I am about to do a new thing;
      now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
      I will make a way in the wilderness
      and rivers in the desert.[1]

The parable of the sower is all about confidence.

The sower reaches into the bag and grabs a fistful of seed … nothing skimpy here, dear friends … not one seed at a time, but handfuls of seed, thrown here and thrown there, with abandon.

The sower sows with delight and confidence.
Not worried about the seed that falls into poor soil.
Because the sower knows that most of the seed will produce a fine harvest … a hundred times what is sown … in other parts of the field, a bit less - sixty times what is sown, or even thirty times.

Spiritual insight here:
Not every seed produces a harvest.
Not every idea is going to work.
Not every project will make it.
Not every dream comes true.

But stay with it.
Keep on sowing.
Don’t give up.

Lots of seed WILL make it.
With a good harvest.
More than enough.
To make up for the seed that never makes it.

The power of confidence.
The power of God.

We live with joyous abandon.
We laugh easily and we love deeply.
We’re bold and we’re generous.
Innovative and inventive.
Welcoming and affirming.
We say Yes a thousand times before we say No.
We have open arms and open minds.
We’re faithful and patient.
Kind and thoughtful.
And we never, ever give up.

Amen and Amen!

[1] Isaiah 43.18-19.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

July 3, 2011 - "Nothing Like a Good Yoke"

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Let’s take a look at Galilee, where these words were said
Where Jesus lives and works.
After Jesus is born in Bethlehem, his family returns to Nazareth, their hometown in Galilee, and in Galilee, Jesus grows up.
His disciples are from Galilee.
He spends most of his time preaching there.
It’s to the people in Galilee that Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God.
The people Jesus knows so well, and to them, he extends this greatest of invitations, Come to me … and I will give rest.

Galilee is in the middle of everything.
Travelers and goods moving up out of North Africa or coming in from the East, on their way to Rome, pass through Galilee.
Merchants and soldiers and politicians and teachers from Europe, Rome and Greece, on their way to Egypt, or to the East, pass through Galilee.
All roads lead to Rome and back again.
Galilee the Bread Basket of the Middle East.
Rich in agricultural resources.
A summer retreat for the wealthy.
Kings and queens and emperors frequent visitors.
Multi-cultural, multi-lingual … wealth and poverty … small towns and big cities, agriculture and fishing, itinerant  preachers and teachers for all kinds of philosophies and religions:

Judaism, as well, had all kinds of competing schools of thought – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots, just to mention a few … sort of like Protestant denominations: Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, with lots of variations in every group.

Jesus speaks to people who are bombarded every day with endless options.
And the people are weary.
Hard to please.
Jesus quotes a proverb to describe them:
We play the flute, and no one dances.
We lament, and no one mourns.[1]

The people were saturated with the world.
Everything at their fingertips.

Sort of like our world today!

24/7, we’re told how to keep our hair beautiful, our teeth white, our waist slim, and have a fabulous love-life.
Politicians tell us they can do better than anyone else.
TV preachers offer wealth, health and happiness.
Financial gurus tell us how to beat the odds and grow rich.

Drugs to cure all of our problems – “check with your physician to see if our drug is right for you, and if it is, we’ll give you a month’s free supply.”
Then the fine print in the ad or the quick-reading voice on TV: “this drug has been known to turn your hair purple, cause delusions, increase appetite, shorten your left leg, cross your eyes, keep you awake at night, make you drowsy during the day, give you depression, suicidal thoughts, and generally make you a horrible driver.”

The self-help section of a bookstore – how many books can there be all promising us the moon? – five easy steps to wealth and happiness … six secrets to love and success … seven steps to personal power … eight ways to build a strong marriage … nine insights that will make you rich … 10 rules to overcome anxiety and depression.
Like walking through a carnival midway … barkers on every side, doing their song and dance – wanting to separate us from our money, promising thrills and chills and a chance to “win a big stuffed dog for your girlfriend.”
We’re bombarded morning, noon and night.

Young parents are a big target for merchandising:
Guilt-inducing ads about child-rearing, early-learning, potty training; getting your child ready for college, proper motivation, choosing their career, managing their moods, eating-habits, sleep patterns … sibling rivalry … tooth decay, self-confidence … IQ development … and all the dangers that supposedly surround childhood, until parents want to shrink-wrap their children and keep them inside 24/7.

TV, radio, magazines and the internet.
Political campaigns.
Health shows and medical infomercials.
Parenting books and conferences.

It’s tough to find our way through all of it.
And all of it plays upon our fears.

We’re afraid of missing out on something.
Not having enough.
Making the wrong choice.
Premature aging and wrinkles.
We’re fearful of many things.

And religion doesn’t always help.

Hell-fire preachers and brimstone peddlers.
The kind of religion that fills a child’s mind with fearful images of fire and pain.

A friend of mine grew up in Oklahoma, not just the Bible Belt, but the Buckle of the Bible Belt … tells of a time when communion was served … he took the little cup and poured the juice into his mouth, but didn’t swallow it.
Held it in his mouth until worship was over.
Ran outside and spit it out.
He was afraid of “drinking unworthily” unto his own damnation and going to hell.

Another friend tells of hiding under the pews, hoping that God couldn’t find him, so afraid was he of God.

Fear squeezes out our courage … we stop thinking, we no longer ask questions, or admit our personal doubts - hoping against hope that God never finds out what’s truly in our hearts and minds.
We can’t let our neighbor know.
And we’ll never tell the preacher … who might just tell us that we’re gonna go to hell if we don’t shape up and get right with God!
Fundamentalist hell-fire preaching in America has had a terrible influence on how people think about God and how they live their lives.

Jesus offers a radical invitation.
Come to me!
Take my yoke upon you.
Learn from me.

The invitation of a rabbi.
To become his student – that’s what disciple means.
To follow this outstanding rabbi, and learn from him.
In Galilee, to be invited by a rabbi to join him was a high compliment … young men yearned to find an important rabbi and learn from them … and women, too – look at Mary at the feet of Jesus; code language for a disciple.

When the rabbi teaches, he’s giving his yoke to the student.
Jesus says: For I am gentle and humble in heart.
In other words:
I’ll not hurt you.
I’ll not ask of you anything more than I ask of myself.
Because I came to this world not to be served, but to serve.[2]

And then, the promise, the promise of rest.
After a long hard day of work, it’s great to get home, kick off the shoes, put up our feet, get a drink, sit back and relax … and rest!
It is with good reason that God rests after creation.
Makes the day holy … commands a day of rest for all of creation.
But with Jesus, something special.
Not a day.
Not a ritual.
But a relationship … in him, we find our rest!
I will give you rest, says Jesus.

When we’re well-rested, we think better.
Our world looks better, even the boss.
Well-rested, we can more easily figure out the difference between the trash and the treasure.
Well-rested, we make better choices!

Does Jesus tell us what investments to make?
Or what video games our children should play?
Or where we should vacation?

Of course not.
He offers us something deep and powerful.
An organizing principle.
A center-point.
So that we can be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

So that we can be courageous:
Courageous to love and welcome.
Courageous to open wide the widows of the soul.
Courageous to get up in the morning and make the sign of the cross over our life: In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – this is who we are!
And to Christ we belong!

What a gift to give to our families: our centeredness in Christ.

And these days, where we’re bombarded every minute of the day with medical ads … in Christ,  do the best we can, of course; take care of ourselves; be responsible … but in Christ, come to grips with our mortality – that’s the real issue here – mortality; the world is frightened of death – from ancient Egyptians and their pyramids to our endless quest for youth and beauty, we’re driven by a giant fear, the fear of our mortality.
The truth be told: we grow old, strength ebbs, and one day, dear friends, “when the roll is called up yonder,” we’ll close our eyes one last time, draw our final breath, and life will be no more.
Yet in Christ, rest.
Through Christ, courage.
With Christ, peace.
We’re at peace with death, because we have peace with God.[3]
God is the LORD of life AND the LORD of death … we neither live unto ourselves nor die unto ourselves, but unto the LORD Jesus Christ.[4]

We have a gift for you today … a card to carry with you - put it in your Bible, stick it on your refrigerator … and share with a friend.
If you want more of these cards, let us know … we’ll have more next week … after worship today, come up to the LORD's Table to get a card or two.

Dear Christian Friends, Jesus your rabbi.
Let his words enter deep into your heart and mind:

Come to me all you that are weary and overburdened and I will give you rest … take my yoke upon you … learn from me … I am gentle and humble … my burden is light, and my yoke is easy.

Amen and Amen!

[1] John 11.17.
[2] Matthew 20.28.
[3] Romans 5.1.
[4] Romans 14.7-9