Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Drenched in the Waters

So last week my mom came home after being on a mission trip in Haiti.
I was talking to her on the phone and hearing all about her wonderful time there and all the people she met, and all the life changing experiences she had.
I had gone on a similar trip in Seminary to El Salvador.
And we were talking about how hard it is to express to people when you return about your experience.
There are really no words to this type of thing.
And it is hard to get people to understand how it really affects you.
To be with people experiencing poverty on an everyday level and to see their hope, their faith, and their perseverance is really a remarkable thing.
And once you return you really feel a little out of place.
Especially when you hear some of the ways that people in the United States talk about people living in poverty.
Your perspective is just totally different.
You don’t see the world in the same way.
Because poverty is not an issue, used by people to score political points, or balance a budget.
Poverty becomes a face, it becomes a person, or many people that you met and now know and respect.
You also realize that your responsibility to be part of the solution is not just about giving away some old clothes you have, or maybe doing a couple of things for people, but it is about justice.
It is about how I take for granted so many things in my life, that so many other people in the world don’t have like running water, a bed, a toilet, a stove…and a million other little things.
You realize how spoiled you are, because you go about your day without really having to think that hard about how you will eat.
And then something else happens even when you talk to people you start to feel like you are condemning them because they are well off.
And so you stop talking about it.
What my mother went through was going to a different place than she has ever known and coming back into a world that is totally different from that place, and having to try to put into words the experience.

That is how I sometimes feel about being a person of faith, or how I feel about being a Christian.
I feel that I have been to some other place, I have seen a different vision of what the world can be, should be, and it is hard to explain it to people.
I know that many of you feel this way too.
Because I have heard you express it in different ways.
About how hard it is to talk to coaches of sport teams that want kids to be at a game on Sunday morning.
Or how kids find it hard to explain to their peers why going to worship on Sunday morning is important.
Or how it is hard to talk to your co-workers because they will think you are weird for even bringing up faith in a conversation that is just about “common sense”.
How it is hard to have these discussions within our families because it will sometimes mean getting into a fight about it.

We have been hearing for the last three weeks the greatest sermon ever given, and it hasn’t been by me, but by Jesus.
In the Sermon on the Mount he has been teaching about what it means to be a spiritual person, a person of faith, a follower of Jesus Christ.
And for most of those three weeks I have been thinking to myself that what Jesus is saying is really out there.
It is like Jesus is from another country.
“Don’t be angry”, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, “blessed are the peacemakers”.
And it is hard to reenter the world and apply those things, but is also hard because they fly in the face of so called, “Common sense”.

Today we have another example of that.
Jesus is asking us not to seek revenge, not to act in violence.
Jesus is asking us to love our enemies, and pray for those that persecute us.
If you think that this is common wisdom that you forget what life was like in the United States after 9/11.
I remember I was at a Bible Study and I made a woman cry because I suggested that going to war may not be the answer.
I suggested we needed to pray for the people that did that horrible act.
I suggested that we needed to find a third way.
You know after 9/11 there was an uptick in church attendance.
What I believe is that people came to church to find the answer.
But when they heard the way to heal, the way to move forward was to forgive, was to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
I think they left shortly thereafter.

Today Katie will be baptized.
And I guess I want to warn you about it.
Baptism comes with two things.
The first is the unconditional love of God.
Our baptisms are a reminder that God loves us no matter what.
When we rise in the morning and throw water on our face we can remember that God has claimed us as his children and loves us through whatever we will face.
The second is that knowing this love, knowing Jesus Christ messes us up.
It changes us, because we want to know what it means to serve this God of love.
And it means wanting not what we want, but what God wants.
It means being holy because God is holy.
And that changes how we view ourselves, our neighbors, and the world.
What I pray for you today Katie is that you continue to deepen in your relationship with Jesus to learn about what he desires and wants from your life.
That you know of God’s forgiveness of you, so that you can forgive others.
That you know of God’s love for you, so that you can love others.

That is what Jesus does to all of us.
Jesus makes us see things that maybe others don’t see.
I am not saying that we are better people than other people.
We simply have been taught a way to live that doesn’t always go along with what the world sees as a way to live.
Every week when we come here to this place we receive something from God, and then we are sent out into the world to share it.
That sounds nice until we realize what God is asking of us.
God is asking of us to be different than everyone else.
Jesus is asking us not to get what is only best for us, but to also struggle what is best for other people, some of them not very easy to like.

In Jesus day, it was common understanding that if you were wronged you should get retribution for what you got.
It was common thinking to love your family and friends, just as it is in our day.
But to love our enemy, to pray for them, to act on their behalf is something all together more radical.
It should be noted that love here has nothing to do with how you feel about someone, and everything to do with how you act towards them.
Love is an action here not a feeling.

So how do we act in love?
How do we go into the world and explain ourselves?
We go out drenched in the waters of our baptism.
We can only be in the world as God’s beloved Children.
We have no chance of being holy without God’s holiness.
When we trust God’s love we trust that God is with us in those difficult conversations.
We trust that God is already in the world with us.
And we trust that we don’t have to win an argument only that we act out of love.
It is in the waters that we are drowned in that make us able to live out the difficult teachings of Jesus.
That is both the gift and the responsibility of knowing God’s love.
It is the gift and responsibility that Kaye you get today.

It is the gift and responsibility that we all have received.
It is our prayer that we continue to grow and act in love.
May we by the power and grace of God be able to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Deeper Blessing

So it is interesting that we have been talking about the “nones” (People who check none of the above when asked on surveys what religion are you.), because this week I met one.
I was in Pittsburgh, PA, (long story as to why) and at the end of the night we were having a drink at the bar next to the hotel.
The bartender was a really great guy.
One of those Irish bartenders who likes to talk to you and get to know you.
He finds out that I am a pastor so he starts to talk about his beliefs.
“I am spiritual. I believe that you treat others the way you want to be treated. Follow the golden rule.”
I thought a lot about what he said.
Of course, this is nothing new to me or to you.
We hear this all the time from many different people.
But I was thinking about our Gospel for this morning.
What the bartender said is true we should treat others the way we want to be treated.
We should love our neighbors as ourselves.
But for me this is only the base line.
It is only the start.

Take our Gospel this morning.
It is really challenging.
Jesus seems to setting up goals that seem impossible.
That if you are angry with someone, or if insult someone, that is equal to murder.
Or if you just look at someone else with lust you have committed adultery.
Or that we should never swear to anything we are not 1005 sure of.
These are hard teachings.
In these antitheses Jesus is not trying to get rid of the Law of Moses, but is probing deeper into what that law means as we live in the kingdom of God.
They are part of what Jesus is expecting of the Church.
Jesus wants our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees.
But this is why we keep coming back to church, because to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to go beyond common wisdom.
It is about more than merely being kind and nice to other people.
It is about giving even more.

When I read Jesus teaching this morning I will tell you that I am convicted.
I was wondering what I was going to preach without being legalistic or moralistic.
Because when I read what Jesus said I know that I don’t do these things always.
I would be lying if I told you I never looked at another woman.
I would be lying if I told I never was angry at someone, or that I never insulted someone else.
I would be lying if I told that I never said, “I swear that so and so is true…” only for it to be false.
I fail at so many of these things.
I suspect that you do too.

This is one of the reasons why I am glad I am a Lutheran.
I am glad I am not a biblical literalist because if I was I would have had to pluck out my eye, and cut off my hand.
I don’t believe that Jesus is being literal there.
What he is doing is trying to make a point.
That following God is not as easy as we think.
It demands of us our total concentration.
It demands everything of us.
And that is what my bartender friend didn’t seem forget.
Not that he was a bad person, or that he wasn’t spiritual.
But that he was only starching the surface of what it means to know and follow God.

And that is why I love being part of a community of faith.
It keeps me honest.
It helps me to do and be better.
And yes, when I fail this is the place I come to be forgiven.
This is the place I come to so God can lift me up and then send me out into the world to lift up God for others.
Following Jesus is not easy, and that is why I need a community of believers with me on this journey.
This is why we need each other.
So that we can learn from one another.
So that we can grow together.
I can’t do faith without all of you.

Also while I was in Pittsburgh I had breakfast at the best breakfast place ever.
It was called Pamela’s.
On the wall at Pamela’s are all kinds of pictures.
And I notice there was a framed letter with the title “blessing”.
Here is what it said in part, “We thank you (God) for the blessing of family and friends and for the loving care that surrounds us on every side.
We also give you praise for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us and in particular this new venture, this restaurant whereby people will be fed and nourished in body.
Let this place serve not only to satisfy physical hunger, but as a place of delight, of comfort, of welcome, of blessing.
We ask your presence here not only today, but all days and that all who work here, eat here, visit here would be blessed simply by crossing the threshold.”

This is what we all desire.
We desire for God’s blessings to show forth in our lives.
We could easily say this about our houses, our work, our marriages, our friendships.
We would like for people to feel blessed when the cross the threshold into our lives.
Jesus is getting at this deeper meaning of what things are about.
Marriage is about more than a piece of paper, it is about the ways that we serve and love one another.
Being a member of congregation is about more than merely giving money and sitting in the pew.
It is about giving our lives over to God, and learning every day the will of God for our lives.

This is what Jesus is trying to get at this morning and with the Sermon on the Mount in general.
We could just do the basic thing.
We could do the easy thing.
But that is not worthy of us who know the blessings of God.
It is not worthy of us who receive God’s best everyday of our lives.
God has called us to a higher calling.
God has called us to go the extra mile with one another.
Think about the killing commandment.
I think that most of us can refrain from killing each other.
But the idea that we shouldn’t be angry or insult one another is harder, and it demands of us practice and learning.
Jesus calls us to this higher place.

The problem is that most people see this higher calling as a burden.
But Jesus means it as blessing.
Just as the blessing, on the wall in Pamela’s restaurant, called for high quality of food and hospitality, but not as a burden but as blessing.
So that all that came to that place would be blessed.
I have to say having eaten there a couple of times, it really is a blessing.
The food is so good, the service friendly, and people inside are just so happy to be there.
That is what the kingdom of God looks like.
It looks like people living the will of God with joy.
It looks like people going beyond what is simply the baseline of what is expected to something more.

So let us go forth to not merely love our neighbor, but to bless them with the blessing we have received.
Let us go forth this week and give our best to the task that God has called us.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Let Others See Your Good Works

When I was on internship you had to fill out a midyear self-evaluation of your performance.
Before I filled out my evaluation my supervisor pulled me aside to give me some advice.
He told me to make sure that I was honest about my work.
“Don’t hide your light.”
He wanted to make sure that I gave myself credit for the work I had done in the Church.
He was worried that I would undersell myself.
I think we are often like this in the Church.
We are harder on ourselves than we should be.
And in the church in order to look humble we don’t do a good job of letting our light shine.
We don’t want to be seen as bragging.
So what we do is a bad job of sharing with the world the work we do for others.
It probably seems wrong to brag about our Gospel work.
But this is just what Jesus asks us to do.
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”

Jesus is not addressing us as individuals.
When he says, “you are the light of the world.”
He is addressing us as Church.
The “you” in the Greek has no official English equivalent.
But it is best translated in the southern part of the United States, when they say,  “Ya’all”.
Ya’ all are the light of the world…
We together make up the body of Jesus and together we represent Jesus in the world.
People, for good or bad, see Jesus reflected through us as the Church.
We are called to be the spice of God’s passion for the world God loves.

And yet we are often no good at letting that light Shine.
We are not good at letting others know all the good that we as a congregation do together.
This morning if I was to start pointing out what we do it might make some of us uncomfortable, or embarrassed.
Some might think that sharing our accomplishments as inappropriate.

But what happens when we don’t share our light is that others don’t see it and judge us accordingly.
Can we blame others for not seeing our good work when we are not good about telling about it?

Today after worship we are going to be hearing from some nones.
Nones are folks who check the box, “none of the above” when asked what religion they identify with.
I want to give some context to this phenomena.
First, they are the fastest growing religion in America.
It was first reported through a pew poll entitled, “the Rise of the Nones” in 2010.
In that poll 1/5 of all people identified as nones, and 1/3 of all people under 30 unidentified as nones.
There are people who are studying this growing trend.
They are doing that by talking to nones.
The thing about nones is that they are not necessarily atheists or agnostics.
Most of them still believe in God, they just don’t like the Church.
They have a really bad picture of what actually happens in Churches.
I know that many of our first reactions are going to be defensive.
I want to ask you this morning to get all of that out now.
(I will give you a few minutes.)
OK. Now I want you to listen to what is being said.
I want you to understand what is being said.
So for just one example, a none from Kansas had this to say about the Church.
“the big church organizations—Habitat [for Humanity] or whatever—will do things like (help others in need). Or, maybe after a hurricane.
But day to day, week to week, you don’t really see [churches] where you live being involved—out on the streets with homeless people.
I think most of them are just trying to hold on to the members they have, to make them happy and comfortable.
They take care of their own, in my experience.”
It is sad to me that this is how we are viewed.
My first thought after reading this is that she doesn’t know our congregation.
She doesn’t know that we are all the time helping “homeless people”. (By the way I have given up using the term homeless people because it is offensive. I try to use the phrase, “people experiencing homelessness”.)
She doesn’t know that we care a great deal about people experiencing homelessness.
She doesn’t know that we serve at the friendly kitchen.
That people in our congregation fold clothes for Rise Again.
That people in our congregation volunteer overnight at the emergency cold-weather shelter.
That every week we collect food, and other items for people experiencing need.
She doesn’t know that for two years we have been helping a refugee family.
She doesn’t know that just last week I spent a half of my day driving someone experiencing homelessness to the veterans hospital in Vermont to get medicine they needed.
Or that last week one of our members spent half the day helping someone get clean clothes and a shower.
She doesn’t know that we helped someone experiencing homelessness get a car and an apartment.
Or that we were the first congregation to sign up to be a host congregation for Family Promise (A program that helps families and children experiencing homelessness).
Or that we gave money this year so the guidance counselor at our local school could give our clothing to families in need.
She doesn’t see all the people we helped with rent through Emergency Assistance Network.
Why doesn’t she know this?
We often don’t do enough to share it.

There is no excise in our day and time for not getting the word out there there are tons of ways to share our good works, to let our light shine.
There is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, newspaper, tv, radio, ect…
We can use these to help us get out the word.
We can use these tools to better share our good work with the world.
Most important we have to stop being afraid to let our light shine.
We can stop hiding it.
And perhaps we can turn the tide a little bit at least.
I had a colleague tell me that people at the cold winter shelter were talking about the work of our congregation.
And in fact all the churches in Concord and how much we do to help those others.
Perhaps we can make Christianity known for our works of compassion, service, and giving, instead of being in the known for the things or people we denounce.
We have to say what we are for and not just what we are against.
We can let our light shine, and others will see it and give thanks to God.

And this light it comes naturally.
What Jesus says is that we are already the light of the world.
“You are the light of the world.”
He doesn’t say that we will become the light of the world, or that we could become it.
But that right now today we are the light.
We can let it shine and let others praise God for it.

I saw this great quote about the folk singer Pete Seeger.
It was from another favorite folk singer of mine Anni DiFranco, “He was a great teacher of the activist spirit-that you don’t fight to win, let alone for your own glory.
You fight because it is a joyous thing to do.”
We don’t do the things we do for our own glory, or to win the day with our ideas.
We do them because it is a joy.
Because in doing them we serve God.
We do them because we are the light of the world.
Let us share that with the world.
Let us sign it from the highest mountains, yell it from rooftops, and to all who will hear and listen.
So that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.