Monday, November 21, 2005

Thanksgiving Sermon

Sermon Texts

Deuteronomy 8: 7-18
2 Corinthins 9: 6-15

What does it mean to live our thankfulness? The passage we heard from the book of Deuteronomy is the witness to a God who delights in our delight. When we receive the gifts of God with a joyful and thankful heart, God is propelled forward with us—charged up by our gratitude. When we fail to live with thanks and joyfulness in our hearts, when we instead turn inward and live in complaints or dissatisfaction, God’s activity is veiled from our eyes. As we heard from Matthew last week, to those who have much, much more will be given. And to those who have nothing, what they have will be taken away and given to those who have much. This is not about material possessions, it is about living with joy and thankfulness in our hearts. When we share our thanksgiving with others, it has a way of multiplying and spreading. When we do nothing but complain and act callous with one another, we isolate ourselves and descend into “the outer darkness” of despair and lonliness.
Deuteronomy tells us of the end of the journey of Israel out of exile and into the promised land. At the end of the 40 years of wandering, they come to the cusp of a new era in their collective history. These people who have been on such a journey together have known God’s provision during the time they were in the desert, they have known God’s salvation from slavery. Now God asks them to be thankful in the bounty they are about to receive. Likewise, we are at the end of a journey together. This is the last Sunday of the Christian year. We stand at the cusp of Advent, waiting for the bounty which God will reveal in the Birth of Christ. This is a time to pause and lift up our thanks to God.
Though God leads us toward abundance and a bountiful life, the good life can cause us to forget about God and start thinking that we provide for ourselves. We have seen in the industrialized world a dramatic exodus from the Church. In parts of the world where there is much trouble and strife, the church is strong. God promises Israel a land flowing with milk and honey, but God knows that the ingredients are there for amnesia. One reason the Jews celebrate Passover every year is to prevent that amnesia. Keeping God’s prevents us from forgetting about God. By living thanks, we pattern our minds and hearts to dwell in the grace of God. If we simply accept the good without giving thanks, amnesia sets in and we begin to believe in another God. We begin to believe in the God who says we deserve what we have because we have worked for it. We begin to serve that God by taking without gratitude, by spending without thought of others, by living the “looking out for #1” life. When we forget to live thanks, we forget that God is God and that we are not. God saves us from that trap by commanding us to remember—to remember who we were and the journey we have taken as a people. To remember that the bounty we share is a gift from God. IN the sharing of thanks, we remind each other of our gift.
As Paul says in the second letter to the Corinthians, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” The more thanks we sow, the more thanks we will reap. If we live with a joyful and thankful heart, we will continue to live in joy. The generosity which is an outpouring of gratitude will multiply our gratitude. If we don’t feel thankful, then we probably need to give more. If we don’t feel a warm sense of gratitude when we give, we are probably too attached to our things and maybe we have the idea that we deserve what we have. Paul says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Thanksgiving is about Thanks and it is about Giving. Sharing our thanks together is an “overflowing of Thanksgiving to God.” ThanksLiving is making this openness to God our lifestyle, our permanent dwelling place. Thanks-Living is making our heart an altar, and bringing the light of Christ to that altar.
Have you noticed that oftentimes, it is easier to generate a sense of collective victimization than collective joyfulness? When we get together with people we may not know, sometimes we bridge the gap of unfamiliarity by gathering around the things we despise. We pump ourselves up on our shared troubles or worries or whatever it is that unites us negatively. Politicians play on this human condition and build a following by talking about the negative attributes of the other candidate rather than the positive attributes of themselves. Despite what pollsters have said is a general public disdain for “mudslinging” or “attack ads,” politicians continue to utilize this form of campaigning because they know it works. Yes, it is our temptation to rally around our shared dislikes, complaints, and feelings of victimization.
What would it be like to identify with one another by our thankfulness? What if, instead of uniting around our shared dislikes, we instead found a common bond in our shared gratitude? This, I think is the community we are called to form under the banner, “Christianity.” When we live with thankfulness in our hearts and share that thankfulness with others, the things we have to be thankful for seems to multiply.
Let’s take a moment to experiment with this. We’re a community of believers, and I would hope that we have a lot to be thankful for, yet it is sometimes easier to think about our prayers of need or struggles than our prayers of thanksgiving. Let me be the first to share with you some things I praise God for.
I’m thankful for…….
My wife Lara being a supportive and challenging partner in marriage. My son Wesley living with such delight and wonder at the world—it helps me live with delight and wonder. My sister being a bold person who is seeking a career which she will be passionate about. I’m thankful for my parents inspiring me to follow my heart. For watching football games with my son. I’m thankful for green mountains turning red and gold and orange and yellow. For windchimes on my front porch. For the faithful witness of a great co-worker. For a community of believers who have been receptive to things I say in this pulpit that stir my heart—what a blessing it is to hear that something you have said has made a difference to someone else!
Take a moment and write some things you’re thankful for. Try to be specific about it. Instead of just saying, “I’m thankful for my wife.” Write on that piece of paper what it is that makes you so thankful for your wife. Is it her cooking? What is it about her cooking? Do you like the way she puts more chocolate chips in cookies than the recipe calls for? Well write that! Don’t just write, “I’m thankful for deer hunting season,” what is it about deer hunting season that you love? Spending time with family in the woods? Being away from church on Sundays? Write that! Try to be as particular as you can.
Now, because we are a body, because we are a congregation who can be strengthened by shared joys, I want you to find someone here in the congregation you’d like to give this list to. Thanksgiving is a sharing. We as a community of believers have to get real with each other and share our gratitude with one another. This is “living” thanks. We share our praise and thanksgiving together as a body of believers. Because the Living Christ is here among us when we gather together, our shared thanks in that Living Christ elevates our thanksgiving to God’s holy throne. Instead of just giving the list to your mom or dad or wife or husband, try instead giving that list to someone across the aisle on the other side of the sanctuary. Share with someone you may have known for less than 5 years. Share with someone you may have had a disagreement with in the past. It is sharing our thanks together which unites us, so let’s strengthen that “blessed tie that binds.” Take the next couple minutes to stand up and find someone to share your list with. Don’t take a list from more than one person, I want everyone here to have a list from someone else.
This kind of activity is the heart of our denominational heritage. IN the early days of Methodism, worship was a small group gathering in a person’s home. The small group met each Sunday and shared prayers of thanksgiving together as a family. They served one another by being accountable to one another. A traveling Anglican priest who was part of the Methodist movement would travel around from group to group and would serve the sacrament occasionally. (this is where our denomination gets the tradition of the iteneracy.) Sharing thanks, being in conversation with one another is not some peripheral part of our heritage. It is central. Some may see our emphasis on thanksgiving and fellowship as “being a social club” in lieu of “real religion” I would offer that instead, it is an enactment of the communal reality of the Triune God. Last week at our “junior youth” gathering, one of the kids asked about friendship in the Bible. I told him that the very nature of our God is friendship because we believe in the Trinity. The Trinity is one and three—three dimensions of God in an eternal process of relatedness. The picture on your bulletin is an icon of the Holy Trinity. As you see, the three figures of the trinity are seated around the table of fellowship. The circle formed by the interior of their fellowship signifies the eternal nature of this aspect of God.
As you sit around the Thanksgiving table this week with your friends and family, I hope that you might take a moment to really be stop and consider what we are doing. We’re not just stuffing ourselves silly with turkey and scalloped potatioes and green bean casserole. We’re not just napping on the couch while NFL teams clash in throwback uniforms. We are carrying on a great tradition. Gathering around the table of fellowship with our family is a true act of worship. God opens to us the treasure of gratitude. By giving thanks, by living thanks, we glorify God and we enhance our own existence. We can either toot our own horn by going through life without a grateful heart, or we can listen to the symphony of thanksgiving. God does not just demand thankfulness because God has a fragile ego. God invites us into a dance by setting a pattern of gratitude.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

After a fun acolyte training, Um Kids make Advent wreaths to deliver to the shut ins. Fun was had by all!

November 13 Sermon: "Buried Talents"

Sermon text: Matthew 25: 14-30

Preacher enters the church dressed like a farmhand with shovel.
"A few days ago the master came to the three of us. He announced that he was going away on some kind of business trip, and he was going to be away for awhile, and he wanted us to be responsible for his fortune. I was kind of taken aback by this suggestion. Now I could understand him making this arrangement with his slave who happened to be his manager. That guy handled his money anyway—it was a little odd that he told us he was going to be gone for so long, after all, with that information we all knew that we could take his money and be a long way away before he returned! But to his manager he gave the bulk of his fortune—5 talents! 75 years of wages for a day laborer—that is like 3 whole lifetimes of money! To his house slave, also an educated man, he gave 2 talents. I was beginning to wonder why he had even summoned me to the room—did he just want me to be a witness for what he had given the two? But then he turned to me? With a smile on his face he handed me a talent. A talent! 15 years of wages! It was more money than I had ever handled in my whole life! My stomach dropped down into my feet. Why in the world would he entrust me, an uneducated slaves, with his fortune? I am simply a farmhand--What is he hoping to achieve with this odd investment? I was shocked and afraid. I knew my master was a pretty harsh guy. He had me reap where he didn’t sow and gather where he didn’t spread any seed. He was always pushing a little beyond where I thought we should go. Doing things a little outside the lines of what I consider to be fair! What was he expecting of me now! What if I lose it or accidentally use some of it while he’s gone? What will he do with me when he returns? The whole thing weighed on my back like a bag of rocks, jagged little edges poking into my back. Then the idea was dawning in my mind like the sun comes up in the east. I could just settle this whole thing by doing what farmhands do best. I took this shovel here, chose a good unsuspecting place under a tree, and dug a hole. I’d just put the talent in the ground, that would solve my problem! When the master comes back, I’ll just get the shovel out, dig it up, and bring it back to him! No commitments, no risk, no worries….no problem! As I covered the talent back up with that cool soil, the weight of the situation lifted off my shoulders. I had completed my task, and now I wouldn’t have to worry about it and could go on with my life, which to me seemed pretty wide open since the master was going to be gone and I could make my own schedule!
What does happen to this slave? Let’s read the scripture and find out………….Read Matthew 25: 14-30
I wanted to start with the first hand account of the slave first instead of the scripture because I want us to identify with him for a little while. How are we like him? He seems to have the master pegged as a harsh man doesn’t he? Throwing him out into the darkness? He gets his money back, right? Would the master have been as happy with his other two slaves if they had come back with less money after unsuccessful business ventures? Was the master rewarding the risk or the results?
What is the difference in these three? Why are the first two rewarded and the third one “thrown out into the outer darkness?” Not to do with the product as much as it has to do with the attitude about the investment. They take ownership over what the master has entrusted in them. The first two slaves invest their money and use it to grow more money. To do this, they had to claim that money and have some ownership over it. They had to accept that the master had given it to them. The third does not take any ownership over his sum of money. He still speaks of it as “your money” in the passage. The first two by contrast spoke of “what I did with your money.”
How might we refuse to claim our talents in this church? There may be those who have heard that voice saying, you can help with this…the church really needs this! But for fear of sticking your neck out, you may instead decide to keep quiet. Why do we refuse to use the gifts, the talents that are given? The steward in the passage cites fear as the main reason he doesn’t want to lose the talents. When we bury our talents, we bury it in the dirt, the soil of fear of rejection, also we bury it in the fear of what it may claim for us—more responsibility. With our encounter with the slave who buried his talent, what did you sense motivated his idea of putting it in the ground? He wanted to avoid the responsibility! He never claimed the talent that he had been given!
Jesus ends the parable by saying “to those who have, much more will be given, and given in abundance, but to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Let me just warn you that there are preachers out there who like to use this text to justify something called the “prosperity gospel.” This is an “American Gospel” that is born out of our deep rooted need to justify to ourselves the wealth that we heap upon ourselves. In it, God has especially blessed our country, and that is why America is so rich. This movement of Christianity is intended to help those who have a lot of things feel okay about what they have, as long as they give a bunch of money to the church as well. This movement of Christianity is not the kind of Christianity that John Wesley believed in. It’s not the Gospel that this church was founded on. It is a distortion and a corruption of the Gospel. Now don’t get me wrong--I’m not interested in making you feel bad about what you have---but I am interested about what this parable has to say about claiming and using the fortune that has been entrusted to us! There are pastors who stand up in front of their congregations in $3000 suits and promise their people that giving is some kind of magical ATM machine. All you have to do is “make a deposit” and your investment will be rewarded 10 fold! They have members get up and tell stories about how they gave money to the church and the next week their business pulled in 4 times what they usually do in a week. Now, perhaps with our apportionment looming, this isn’t the best time to be refuting this kind of approach to stewardship, but in my opinion that kind of approach isn’t honest and isn’t stewardship at all—it’s playing the lottery with God! Giving isn’t, or shouldn’t be about, getting back. The abundance that is spoken of in the Gospel associated with giving has more to do with an abundance of the heart. Now I won’t refute that some who give generously are then generously rewarded. God can do what God wishes, and some deserve to be rewarded for their faithful stewardship. But when we approach giving with expectations of what we might get in return, this destroys the whole nature of giving.
Perhaps the master in the parable is rewarding the risk more than the results. Perhaps those who have much and those who have nothing is more about our “perception” of what we have rather than our W2. IF we recognize the abundance of what we’ve been given, we will come to understand its inwardly and outwardly multiplying nature. After the slaves who have taken a risk with the master’s money report success, some versions of the Bible have the Master exclaiming, enter into your master’s joy! If we dwell on what we don’t have, we’ll never be able to glorify God, we’ll never be happy. This story is not about results—it’s about our attitude toward receiving the message of grace!
We are entrusted with gifts—the gifts are a part of God’s grace. To utilize our gift, we first must accept it. Accepting grace is not just about saying “okay God, I believe you love me.” That is the first step—that is like holding out our hand and receiving the talent. If we put that belief to use through the gifts we are given, then that is like acting on the responsibility with which we’ve been entrusted. How can we multiply our talents? The two slaves who did obviously believed in themselves and what they could do, so perhaps this is a good place to start!
At our charge conference this past week, we shared with our district superintendent many great things this church is doing. We also shared with him our challenges that lie ahead. In this system of accountability, we are truly owning and lifting up our identity as a church. We are celebrating and accepting who we are as a church. In doing so, we are utilizing the talents we have been entrusted with.
Are you doing all you can to contribute to the church’s identity? Are you claiming and utilizing the talents the Master has entrusted in your hands? Or are you more content to bury your talent and avoid the responsibilities? Does the idea of working for the kingdom just sound like too much?
When we receive the offering, I do something symbolic that is a ritualized expression of our claiming what we’ve been given. When the plates are collected, I bring them to the altar, and I lift them up. In doing so, I say for us “This is what we’ve been given. Master, look what we’ve done with what you have given us! We claim it, we celebrate it, and we give it back to you. (Keep in mind you are invited not only to put money in the offering plate, but also prayers, ways that you can assist the church, etc. In lifting the offering up to God, it is blessed. It multiplies in its use in our community and in the larger context. In returning our gifts, we claim God’s ultimate ownership over our whole lives—God is our master and we are joyful slaves. If we offer ourselves in hope and possibility, if we utilize our talents and take the risk of rejection or failure—God makes us his partners. He entrusts us with more. Do we want God to give us more? Do we understand what “more” is? I hope we are prepared to say “yes, Lord!”

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Harvest of Life--All Saint's Day Sermon

Sermon Texts
John 6: 35-51
1 Corinthians 15: 51-58

I’m sure we’ve all been noticing it in the past week. The seasons have changed; we are being enchanted by the colorful spectacle of the fall. I wrote in a little meditation for the Movement of the Spirit group that the colors of fall are one of the most effective evangelists of the natural world. Riding back from Conway with Diane this week, we marveled at the blazing reds, the vibrant oranges, and the rich golds of the trees along HWY 10 and 80. Do you have favorite places to go during the fall? God’s creation gives us a grand finale of celebration before the leaves fall to the ground and decompose. One day the nutrients that they generate seeps into the very roots of the tree from which they once sprang forth. Do you think the leaves lament their separation from the tree of life? As the chlorophyll drains from them, as their ability to nurture the tree drains, they seem to celebrate to me! The marvelous colors we see in the fall are a testament to the mystery Paul writes about to the Corinthians---“We shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye—we shall not die, but instead we shall live.”
I read a magazine article about the cellular process of apoptosis. Has anyone heard that word before? In Greek it means “falling leaves” and is a reference to the continuous process of death within life, as natural and necessary as leaves falling from the trees in autumn. During the past 20 years or so, the scientific world has realized that the process of death is a part of every moment. Each day, millions of cells are dying in our bodies, allowing physiological balance and the movement of life within us. We are only 6 weeks old when our cells begin to die, through the process of apoptosis. Our fingers are webbed together, and through the voluntary death of cells in that web membrane between our fingers, our hands take shape with these miraculous little digits that have made life on land a lot easier.
In adult life, the right balance between living and dying cells means harmony and health, while disturbances in this balance are the basis of every chronic disease. Cancer is the failure of cells to die through the natural process of apoptosis. A particular and crucial role of death within life is found in the immune system, where bacteria fighting cells armed with sophisticate biological weapons actually self destruct after releasing their “weapons.” The increased or decreased rate of apoptosis lets the body know if it needs to be on high defensive alert (with fever, cough, sneezing, etc), or if the rate of apoptosis decreases, the body knows that the invading bacteria has been dealt with.
What a mystery the end of this life is! We cease to breathe, our brains stop generating electricity, our heart stops pumping the blood through our circulatory system that delivers our breath to our cells. Yet Paul tells us that the mystery is that we do not really die at all. Our perishable body puts on imperishability, we eat of the Bread of Life, and our lives become something more than we are quite aware of. Can you believe it? It isn’t scientifically proven! We have no evidence of it being so! Perhaps like cells which undergo “apoptosis,” our life and death contributes to some whole, some greater birth, which we cannot comprehend.
Bob Dylan wrote a song patterned after our Corinthians text called “Ye Shall be Changed”
(Now) the past don't control youBut the future's like a roulette wheel spinning(And) deep down insideYou know you need a whole new beginningDon't have to go to Russia or IranJust surrender to God and He'll move you right here where you stand, andYou drink bitter waterAnd you been eating the bread of sorrowYou can't live for todayWhen all you're ever thinking of is tomorrowThe path you've endured has been roughAnd when you've decided that you've had enough, thenYe shall be changed, ye shall be changedIn a twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blowsThe dead will arise and burst out of your clothsAnd ye shall be changed
Today we lifted up the names of our beloved family members and friends who have passed from this world to something we can never know until we get there.
At this preaching workshop this past week, the presenter had a favorite phrase. He’d say, “Preaching the gospel is hard, because we’re standing six feet above contradiction.” Deep in the back of our minds we have some awareness of it—we don’t spend much time thinking about it until it looms at our door like the picture of the “grim reaper,” but our lives come to an end and our bodies are put in the ground or incinerated. What we know of ourselves ceases to be in existence.
Is the Good News that has been passed down from 2000 years ago any match for the cold, hard reality of death? When it comes down to it, do these ideas we subscribe to, these beliefs we keep in our hearts—do they rise to the challenge when we are laying on our death beds? A very wise Indian philosopher named Krishnamurti said, “IF one can find out what the full meaning of living is, the totality of living, the wholeness of living, then one is capable of understanding the wholeness of death. But one usually enquires into the meaning of death without enquiring into the meaning of life.” Normally we are in denial about our mortality. This is not to say that we believe we won’t physically die—we know with our intellects that we will—but the reality doesn’t enter our interior life, our feeling, and our being. The process of death is so uncomfortable that we avoid thinking about it.
I can remember visiting a dying member of my father’s congregation in Arkadelphia. Roy Bass was a favorite member of the church, always quick with a smile, always helping out with the youth group. I remember him constantly working on one of the old church vans that we had. Roy was a Vietnam war vet who battled the aftereffects of agent orange. He was on oxygen, and battled cancer. I can remember when the family knew he was going to be leaving soon, they gathered around him, and my dad was there too. My dad told me that they were saying the Lord’s prayer together—Roy had been unconscious for a few weeks. As they all said the prayer together, “Our father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…at that moment, as if Roy was summoning every bit of strength he had left, he opened his eyes to look at his family one last time. “Thy will be done” his family gasped. Roy’s heart moniter flatlined. As his family melted into tears, Roy died with his wife and daughter’s hands on him.
Paul tells us We are resurrected in a new life in a new form. As the harvest of our fields leads to the complex foods we create, our newly created lives will be in the service of God in ways which we can not imagine any more than a grape could comprehend its place in a glass of wine, or a grain of wheat its place in a loaf of bread.
We come to this table to eat the bread of life and to drink the everlasting cup, the cup of salvation. Jesus told us in John’s Gospel that he is the bread of life, comparing himself to the manna that rained down from heaven to energize the Jews on their journey of the Exodus. The Jews complained that they didn’t have meat to go along with the manna that God provided. Do we complain that this simple meal is one of the only legacies we have from our Lord? Do we take it for granted, as the Jews took for granted the manna in the wilderness, and hesitate to show up on communion Sundays because the service might be 5 or 10 minutes longer than usual? Leon Trotsky, a father of the Russian socialist revolution, said “We only die when we fail to take root in others.” The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, took root in others, and continues to take root in our lives today, 2000 years after he lived on earth. It is through his “taking root in others” that we believe he continues to live to this day. Through his holy spirit, especially in this meal that he instituted, he continues to live and participate in our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our triumphs, and our salvation. We cannot escape him—he is as inevitable as death. In fact, Christ is more powerful than death, and through his victory through death and resurrection, he takes us on his back to eternal life. Jesus thought of the end of his life as a harvest. Bread and Wine would be products of this harvest, and in a very real way, he would remain with us in the celebration of this meal. Imagine the sense the sense of wholeness that Jesus had as he approached his own death, after struggling with the very real emotions of fear and regret, Jesus opened himself to God’s reality for him. “Not my own will, but thine own,” he said. Life and death are woven together in an intricate design. We celebrate death as a part of life, giving birth to a greater whole. We believe death is not the final chapter, but instead the end of the prologue. We celebrate the lives who have gone before us because we believe that in the remembering, in the celebration—their life carries on. Amen!