Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Self-Giving Saints

“Rejoice in God's saints, today and all days!
A world without saints forgets how to praise.
in loving, in living, they prove it is true:
The way of self-giving, Lord, leads us to you.”

--from a hymn by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)

All Saints Day is observed on November 1, 2014.  Take time on this day (and other days too!) to reflect on the persons who have lived faithfully before God and neighbor or helped form you as a person of faith to go and do likewise.

Saints of the Church may be the officially declared ones, identified through a process of discernment and declaration.  Saints may be found, hidden in the layers and levels of one's faith journey, discovered only in retrospect and really the type who didn't look for the spotlight or the fuss.  Nope, just plain spoken folk (or a little too cranky to sound like they fit the part) who kept the Gospel in their words and deeds alike. 

However they came to "be in that number" (to quote the Dixieland gospel standard), they got there by faith, hope and love, not of the world but of that other Kingdom/Reign that Jesus taught through parables that turned the world inside-out and topsy-turvy.  If you look closely at their lives, surely their stories are planted with mustard seed-size tales of "the way of self-giving" and perhaps even over-grown from the abundance that comes with such trust in God.

Thanks be to God for those who were, are, and yet to come.  May we join them in the holy endeavor to follow the pilgrim way of Jesus Christ!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Good Neighbor Policy

Personally, this sermon on questions of God and neighbor continues to be my favorite. Here's some thoughts on this week's lectionary from a sermon I have delivered in the past and will give again this weekend at the First Baptist Church of Ossining, NY:

The word “neighbor” had an odd meaning for me, growing up in rural Kansas, primarily because the nearest neighbors were a distance away, rarely seen, and being good practitioners of the Protestant work ethic, we rarely took time out for socializing. Fence to be mended, fields to be plowed, cattle to be pastured, grain and hay to be hauled, and on a rare occasion, a little potluck on a Saturday evening where the men talked of grain prices, the women talked of the vacations they wished they could take if it weren’t for the summer’s work, and kids played in the yard, sliding down ancient slipper slides and screaming with glee.

The word “neighbor” made a bit more sense to my young mind, thanks to watching television as a child. On one hand, you had “Mr. Bentley” from The Jeffersons. He was quite an eccentric neighbor, who showed up often at the door, complaining of back spasms that he thought George Jefferson alone could cure. “Can Mr. J walk on my back?” Bentley would say. The audience would roar as Sherman Hemsley did his little dance on the witless neighbor.

On the other, you had Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with old Fred in his cardigan, talking in that low, measured tone that never patronized children. He called us all his neighbors, and for thirty minutes every weekday, he taught his young viewers how to treat everyone with respect. All with that remarkable grace and a friendly smile.

It seems an odd place to begin this sermon with Kansas farmers toiling on the prairies, George Jefferson’s impromptu attempt at holistic home healthcare, and Fred Rogers’ desire to make the whole world all his neighbors, with cardigans, sneakers, and trolley in tow. Rather, I believe these odd memories illumine a theological observation: How we choose to live in this world matters. God made us social creatures. We are meant to relate to others, yet we humans tend to spend most of our time doing so only in part.

Instead, we spend much of our time racing around, tending to the affairs of life, and settling for repeating the mantra of “I’m too busy” than engaging in conversations and a common meal that isn’t “fast food”. A worse habit, however, happens when we look around us and see persons who we choose not to see, and we take part in practices, written and unwritten, that keep those persons acutely aware of our disinterest in making them our neighbors.

If we take it seriously, a sacred text that says, “take your neighbor as seriously as you do your devotion to God” should not seem merely an overly familiar Bible story. This text ought to press us, an ancient word critiquing all too well our modern sensibilities. It might even wind up freeing us to live in ways we have forgotten.

In Matthew’s gospel, the question posed by a learned Pharisee is a chance for confrontation. The religious establishment questions Jesus about matters of faith. Some questions are directed at Jesus’ ministry or issues of the day (“By what authority do you teach?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”), while other questions deal with matters of orthodoxy (i.e. How does one interpret the Law of Moses?). It is in this latter line of questioning that we hear, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
If you have turned off your television, wearied of the current political debates leading up to Election Day, my apologies that you came to church today and found something similar awaiting you in the gospel lesson. The lawyer put forth by the Pharisees is the last in a line of questioners, sort of religious pundits trying their hand at tripping Jesus up. Many eyes are upon Jesus and his questioners, persons wondering where this showdown was headed. On his own count, Jesus rode into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and began verbally sparring with the religious leadership. Each time, Jesus keeps the upper hand. Pharisees, Sadducees, and even a handful of Herodians have walked away in a daze of defeat. So, the Pharisees sends out their last ditch effort: a legal expert whose credentials are impeccable, whose knowledge of the law is above reproof. If there is anyone who can go toe to toe on matters orthodox, it is this guy. And his question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

The question sounds simple enough, because we readers of the Gospels are familiar with Jesus’ response. If you have been in Sunday school at some point in your life, this story was probably recounted to you a few times over. However, to Jesus and this expert in the law, there were six hundred thirteen commandments to choose from. And just like the political debates on our minds, there are differences of opinion and strongly held convictions about which core “truth” or orthodoxy should win the day. Jesus gives an answer that sounds straightforward, however, when you dig deeper, neither has the Pharisees’ lawyer given a softball question nor has Jesus done anything other than knock one out of the park.

In artful fashion, Jesus has referenced the foundational belief of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). However, Jesus adds a follow-up comment, citing Leviticus 19:18, adding in the good word about loving your neighbor as yourself. This response apparently satisfies the lawyer that Jesus gives a righteous and astute answer, as he disappears from the text without further comment. The question, however, is why these two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures are intertwined in Jesus’ response and therefore serve as an indication of Jesus’ reading of the law and, as he insists, the prophets.

Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to love your neighbor as yourself is part of the law, part of a chapter of Leviticus that presents a new vision of human relationships where all persons, especially those who are marginalized and vulnerable, are to be treated well. To love your neighbor as yourself is to realize “one’s own welfare is intertwined with that of the other” (Warren Carter, Matthew in the Margins, p. 445). This value is reflected in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus instructs the disciples and the crowds how to love the poor, the dispossessed, the unclean, and yes, even one’s own enemy. In Matthew, Jesus instructs the disciples to lead “a life of indiscriminate loving” (Carter, 445).

And now we see the beauty as well as the difficulty of this teaching. To love indiscriminately is a noble vision, but living it out is another thing altogether! Jesus weaves together the sum of faith (“the Lord should be loved with our own being”) with the realities of life, where we falter in loving someone completely, especially if they are indeed too much the part of being “the other”. Suddenly, we realize, as did Jesus’ detractors that the righteous way of leading life has little to do with exacting purity and ironclad authority. Only in humility and due deference to one another do we start embodying, rather than merely citing, the values of the sum of the faith we seek to keep.

Rowan Williams, the learned scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on the day we call “9/11”. In fact, he was preparing to lead a day’s teaching at a prominent church in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center, when the day’s tragic events began to unfold. In the months after, Williams began work on a small book that tried to make some sort of theological sense out of 9/11. In his book Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Williams spoke with sensitivity and candor about the difficult events of 9/11 and the varied ways that the Church and the world could respond in productive or destructive ways. Williams shared a concern that some might be tempted to close themselves off to persons toward whom they harbored distrust, anger, or some form of anxiety.

Even a few years on, we find ourselves still sorting out the events and fallout of that day. Williams’ pastoral word from late 2001 still rings true:
“We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity—a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us—to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.” (Writing in the Dust, 59-60).
We sometimes count among our neighbors those who are close at hand or those with whom we choose to interact and socialize. Our faith tells us that the neighbor is the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. Our neighbor is that person whose political lawn signs differ from our own. Our neighbor is the one who we come to realize embodies the very reason that we keep the faith: to love God fully and authentically. The wholly other becomes our way toward becoming holy.

As the Anglican bishop says, “If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A good story (Matthew 16:21-28)

       Have you ever read a book more than once just because it’s a good story.  Such plotting, characterization, and dialogue draws me again and again to certain books.  The genre of book may change.  A “good story” might be a work of fiction, a play, a collection of short stories, a mystery, or even a graphic novel. 
        On the latter count, I remain intrigued and amazed at the stories found in the “superhero” comics.  In the right hands, a story about Batman does not have to be an Adam West campy-1960s TV farce.  Sometimes the way the mysterious guy in the shadows operates as an unconventional detective tells us something about the world and humanity while we read of yet another adventure as he chases after a brightly costumed villain.
         A good mystery does not have to be about the mystery.  Instead, the cast of characters can captivate you, seeing human nature on display as the detective pieces together “whodunit”.   The settings may change, yet the plot of human vanity, avarice and hubris underlying a good mystery novel still tells a good story about humanity in all its failings and vanities.
         A good story is found in that book you discovered years ago at a library sale and after reading it several times over, you would be hard pressed to donate it for a similar library sale.  Instead, you keep it on that shelf where you can find it again in a year or two, ready to retrace the plotline and recall a great line, and hope that nobody calls while you’re reading.

         A good story stays with you.

         I remember being read to by my parents and my grandmother Hugenot who lived on the farm with us.  In turn, they encouraged me to start reading back to them.  I don’t remember everything I heard told to me or that I read when getting more excited with the idea of reading as something that was fun to do.  Nonetheless, a few stories stay with me.  Indeed, I think about stories from childhood from time to time, not as mere stories to be told to children and then put away (almost as if in adulthood they become an embarrassment).  No, a good story learned early on can be a long-term investment, a story that you latch onto and treasure.  Values and ways of looking at the world can be shaped by a fable told well by a loved one interested in you being more than entertained just before bedtime.  That story from long ago can be still resounding within you as you navigate through the adult world where shades of grey await.

             A good story stays with you.

           In the gospels, we encounter a number of times when Jesus offers a story to his disciples, the crowds that gather from time to time, and even when in the midst of those at the ready to criticize and discredit him.  A parable spun while at the dining table may seem innocent enough, yet from such stories (even two millennia later), readers of the gospel still puzzle and marvel (and with parables, face it, puzzle some more) what sort of faith is required if this parable is measurement of God’s expectations of the world.
            The gospels have differing approaches, yet the same end overshadows the four gospels:  a cross looms in the narrative, a part of the plot that cannot be omitted if you leave it out.  Jesus will go to Jerusalem.  A disciple will betray Jesus.  Jesus will die.  The story does not end there (indeed, the resurrection is a good story that is always meant to stay with you!), yet the story of Jesus’ life and resurrection does not skip his death.
            In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commends Simon Peter’s faith and envisions the followers becoming “Church”, built upon such faith.  While Jesus teaches his faithful, Simon Peter is the one who cannot handle what he is hearing.  He cannot imagine the necessity of this story to unfold this way.  Simon resists what he is hearing as it does not fit the story he’s imagining is “the story” of a wise teacher he has declared just moments ago to be “son of the living God”.  What sort of teacher claims death by the hands of his enemies as something that must come to pass?  In the minds of some, this would sound awfully weak and downright foolhardy if you knew something bad was going to happen and yet still went there—willingly!

            Matthew’s gospel is quite frank.  As Jesus begins to teach about what will come to pass, the narration claims, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.”  The operative word here is “must”.  As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, we learn the story of Jesus by way of this gospel’s particular interest in discipleship, questions of what it means to follow Jesus.  Consider this interest in discipleship runs concurrently with the greater plot of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and you will understand why Jesus reacts strongly to Simon Peter’s dismissive word.  If you follow me, there’s a cross for you to pick up and carry as well!  Deny yourself and follow my path, no matter where it leads.
            Just as in the text, we readers have to consider the challenge of this story.  What happens when a story begins to work on us, asking hard questions, unsettling our conscience, disrupting our sense of “how things work” in the world?  The story Jesus is telling is one of unveiling how God shall work through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and in turn, summon a body of women and men into a people gathered around a story with a cross inescapably in its telling.   Do we toss the story aside for a narrative that “sells better” in the world, or do we pick up this story and follow Jesus?
             A good story stays with you.

            Simon Peter’s brash reaction is not that unfamiliar when we consider faith something tame.  We don’t like faith sometimes to be goading our conscience, or we don’t give faith enough credit to fan to flame the hope life is otherwise missing.  Does the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide a framework for how we live and love, how we treat one another and ourselves?  Is our faith something we shelve away when it’s not “Sunday, 9:30 AM” or a seven-day-a-week essential?
            In the gospels, discipleship is not following Jesus and riding his coattails to certain power and glory.  (The Church has struggled with that for centuries, even in our present day.)  Discipleship is about being a learner, sitting at Jesus’ feet, walking by his side, learning to love God and neighbor just like Jesus, and understanding that following Jesus means you don’t follow your own will and ways, nor that of any other.
            From time to time, I return to this word of wisdom from 20th-century monastic writer Thomas Merton, who observed, “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”
            This story of Jesus calling his disciples to the fullness of faith (self-denial and cross included) is not about having it all together all the time, but remembering how your story fits into the greater story of the way of Jesus.  Do you find what you read in the gospels in your day-to-day living? How does your following Jesus influence the many calls to follow a lot of other voices competing for your time and allegiance?  Does the gospel influence you as you ponder what to do next when work or school or family issues make you toss and turn in the middle of the night?
            Remember and take heart:
a good story stays with you.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Struggling to Pray: A time for prayer, lament and action

O God, yet again we come to you, knowing that our hearts should be full of praise, but our hearts are breaking at the great illness and death toll caused by Ebola virus outbreaks. We feel discouraged and shaken just as when the mighty waters or winds come unexpectedly with destructive force or strife among the nations rage seemingly unchecked.
Yet we know that in the midst of the chaos, You summon us especially to be in the fray, serving as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in this broken world.  Through the Gospel, we learn of Jesus’ unrelenting care and embrace of the ill and the marginalized, of Christ’s compassion deeply moving his ministry in the midst of all people.  As his disciples, we are called to join Christ wherever suffering abounds.

We are needed to cry out for those who are suffering, especially when fear threatens to overcome our call to treat those in crisis, when medical resources are inaccessible or scarce, when our call to support our neighbors in the global village goes unheeded in our financial support of humanitarian organizations and efforts.

We pray for the work of Baptist World Aid and the All African Baptist Fellowship, gathering and deploying resources to serve persons in need.   May the efforts of individuals and organizations, nations and non-governmental organizations be lifted up in our constant prayer, so that more needs can be met and more support can be given to those in most desperate need of medicines, food, clean water and education to prevent the spread of this disease and other challenges to our public health and global well-being. 

In the name of Jesus, the Great Physician and the Good Shepherd we pray, AMEN.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fall into Stewardship Season: Resources for Churches and Clergy

In the Fall, the pastor is caught in the changing of seasons.  The leaves are changing outside, yet the well prepared minister knows that Fall is just as much about the ministry at hand (i.e. Trunk or Treat events, Youth Group apple picking or other uniquely Fall events) as well as the need to get ready for Advent and Christmas as well as stewardship and pledge season (and the big questions that inevitably await about preparing a 2015 budget.)

Next week's blog will share some thoughts on "Advent prep", however, in the meantime, let's talk about money and note that we may feel angst or pause for some awkward silence that usually accompanies the conversation some pastors and congregants have within themselves, let alone with each other. 

And then, let these resources below help you be more at ease in talking about part of God's abundance, the ministry and mission made possible by our tithes of time, talent and yes, treasure.  I wish you good reflection and then good preaching and presentations about "money and ministry" throughout this lead-up to Stewardship emphases as well as the rest of the year.  We cannot escape planning ahead to be effective in ministry, yet it's great to know that we're joined by many others willing to share the journey through their offerings of the following books and resources:

Christopher, J. Clif.  Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship. 
Abingdon, 2008.

Cloughen, Charles, Jr.  One Minute Stewardship Sermons.  Morehouse, 1997.

Durall, Michael.  Beyond the Collection Plate:  Overcoming Obstacles to Faithful Giving.  Abingdon,

Durall, Michael.  Creating Congregations of Generous People.  Alban/Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Hall, Douglas John.  The Steward: Biblical Symbol Come of Age.  Wipf & Stock, 2004.

Hamilton, Adam.  Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity.  Abingdon, 2009.

Hicks, Douglas  A.  Money Enough:  Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy.  Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Jameison, Janet T. and Phillip D. Jamieson.  Money and Money:  A Practical Guide for Pastors.
Westminster/John Knox, 2009.

Jones, Clifford A., Sr., The Star Book for Stewardship.  Judson Press, 2012.

Lane, Charles R.  Ask, Thank, Tell:  Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation. 
Fortress, 2006.

Lake Institute on Faith and Giving.  “2013 Congregational Economic Impact Study”. PDF report
available via:  http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/congregational-economic-impact-study

Marcuson, Margaret J.  Money and Your Ministry:  Balance the Books While Keeping Your Balance.
Marcuson Leadership Circle, 2014.

Mosser, David N.  Stewardship Services.  Abingdon, 2007.

Mosser, David N.  The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching.  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007.

Satterlee, Craig A.  Preaching and Stewardship: Proclaiming God’s Invitation to Grow.  Alban/Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

Tennant, Matthew.  Preaching in Plenty and in Want. Judson Press, 2011.

Robinson, Anthony B.   Stewardship for Vital Congregations.  Pilgrim Press, 2011.

Watley, William D.  Bring the Full Tithe:  Sermons on the Grace of Giving.  Judson Press, 1995.