Monday, October 24, 2011

You've Lost That Loving Feelin'

In my time as a pastor I have heard it many times, “I just don’t feel God in my life.”
This morning I am sure that someone here is struggling with this issue.
That even though they come to Church and participate in the life of the congregation they just don’t feel God’s love.
Or they question their own faith, because they haven’t been, “Feeling it.”
There are times like that for all of us when we come to church expecting that our palms will get sweaty, our heart rate will increase, and we will get goose bumps.
We will expect that God will show up for us and make us feel something.
That while worshiping we will feel love all around us.
But in the words of the Righteous Brothers, “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”.
This morning I want to propose something radical to you.
Our relationship with God has nothing to do with our feelings.

This morning Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment.
He responds by quoting two Old Testament verses one from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the other from Leviticus 19:18.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Now when we hear this verse we think of love as a feeling.
That is how love is presented to us in our culture.
Love is a Righteous Brothers song.
It is a mushy feeling we get about someone or something.
But in Greek the Word is Agape.
Unlike Eros or Phila, Agape love has nothing to do with how we feel about something or someone.
It has to do with how we act towards others.
And that is the kind of love Jesus is talking about here.
Our love for God does not come from a feeling we get because we heard a hymn that gives us goose bumps, or we heard a sermon that really knocked our socks off.
Our love for God is about action, it is about doing.
To love God in this case is about how we act towards God.

If you want to get back that loving feeling then act like you love God.
Do something that shows your love.
Even if you don’t feel like it do it.
I had a parishner once who told me this story about his giving.
He said that he didn’t tithe because he never felt good about the Church.
There were all these things that the Church did that he disagreed with.
So he was waiting to give until he felt better about the Church.
One Sunday he had an epiphany.
That perhaps if he tithed he would feel better about the Church.
So he tried it.
And wouldn’t you know he started to care more about Church.
He became more passionate about what happened because that is where his money went.
His relationship with God grew.
In his own words it changed his life.

This is not a sermon about giving money to the Church.
It is a sermon about the way we love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul.
And sometimes we get discouraged in our faith life because we just don’t feel it.
We don’t feel the love.
We don’t get the same feelings that we once had about God.
And how can we?
It would be impossible for us always to feel the same about God.
Some days are better than others.
Some moments are better than others.
Some worship services are better than others.

The same is true in our relationships with one another.
In our marriages for example, we don’t always feel the love.
I would suggest that in our marriages that instead of waiting for that to come back do something for your spouse that in no way helps you but shows them that you love them.
My wife will do this for me when she buys me olives.
She does not like olives, but she buys them for me because she knows I do.

So what we are confronted with is how do we keep this relationship with God going when we are not feeling the love.

One suggestion I have is to do something for someone else.
Jesus tells us that loving our neighbor is the same as loving God.
And if we want to feel close to God we can do something good for someone else.
It is in many ways counterintuitive to what we think we should be doing.
We think that in order to get closer to God we should go off somewhere and pray, or be alone to connect better with God.
What Jesus says is that doing good for others draws us closer to God.
If you want to become closer to God.
Go serve at the Friendly kitchen in the people you serve you will see God.
If you want to be closer to God go play bingo at a nursing home with some of the residence, in their faces you will see God.
If you want to be closer to God forgive someone who you have held a grudge against.
If you want to be closer to God sit with refugees as they welcome their new baby into the world.
If you want to be closer to God give some of your money away.
It won’t make you feel any better, but it will make you more loving.

Loving God, growing in faith, is about action.
It is about caring for the world and the people that God has made and put in your path.
I would suggest that worship is not about what we get out of it, but what we put into it.
When you come to worship do you come with your whole heart, mind, and soul?
Do you bring all of yourself and give it to God.
If worship is about feeling something good than we will not always succeed.
I know that there are weeks that I feel something deeply about God.
I will get goosebumps as we sing a “Might fortress is our God” on Reformation Sunday, or “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, or “Beautiful Savior” at a funeral.
But there are other weeks when all the hymns sound alike or I don’t know them and the sermon is just not that great.
Or there are times when I am distracted.
I am thinking about a fight I had with my wife, or the way my kids misbehaved, or all the things I gotta get done following worship.
So worship can’t always be about the way we feel.
Instead it has to be about the way we love God.
The way we give ourselves over to God for this one hour of time.

How would thinking about worship in this way change the way we experience it?
For example, I know one person whose favorite part of the whole worship experience is the offering.
It is there that they get to do something for God.
It is there they get to give and show their love.

How about the peace?
The reason we share the peace with one another is so that before we have communion we make peace with our neighbors.
Jesus tells us earlier in Matthew’s Gospel that before we come to the table we should make sure we are all set with our neighbors.
One of the reasons I make sure that I share the peace with everyone in the congregation is because I just got done preaching and I am sure I made someone mad along the way, and want there to be peace between us before we share communion.
Perhaps sharing the peace is the best part of worship because it is there we get to show our love for one another.
It is there that we get to forgive one another.

The hymns are not about if I like them or not, it is about singing praise and thanksgiving to God.
The sermon is not about how good the preacher is, but about my ability to use it to grow in faith towards God.

You might like worship or not like, it is your right to have an opinion, but worship and our life as people of faith is not about our opinion.
Our life of faith is about how well I am able to give my whole life over to God.
It is about acting for God and neighbor.

So if you have lost that loving feelin’.
If you are struggling in your relationship with God you can get it back by serving others, and giving all you have to God.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Third and Fourth Possibility!

“They were amazed.”
Why were the religious leaders that come to entrap Jesus so amazed at his answer?
Because they never for one minute considered that there was any other possible answer to their question.
They thought that they had thought of the perfect question to entrap Jesus.
Either he says, “Yes”, or “no”.
If he says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Empire then he would turn the crowd against him.
Jews in Jesus day hated paying taxes. (I guess not much has changed)
They hated it because it was giving money to Caesar who claimed equality with God.
If Jesus answers yes, then he is going against the teaching in the Torah that the land belongs to God and therefore Israel, and they should not pay taxes to a graven image.
More so they hated it because the system was rigged against them.
They paid so that corrupt politicians could become richer and more powerful.
They paid so the empire that oppressed them could continue to do so.
If Jesus says that it is not ok to pay taxes then he is going against the empire.
Jesus is creating an act of treason.
It would be easy for the religious leaders to get rid of him and charge him with being a zealot out to rise up an army and retake the land.
Either answer Jesus gives in this situation it appears that the religious leaders have painted him into a corner.

But Jesus does not fall for the trap.
He does not fall for the idea that there are only two possible answers to a question, and he comes up with an answer that is both and neither.
He comes up with a third option that upholds both our living in this world and our call to a new reality under God.
“Give to the things that are Caesars and toGod the things that are God’s”
Jesus gives a third option that drives us away from the position that it can only be one or the other.
It can only be God or politics; it has to be about us and them.

This is a big problem in our world still today.
We are often left thinking that the solutions to the problems we face, the choices we have, are only two.
It is either this or that, yes or no.
Being a Christian I think takes us away from such a harsh dichotomy of thinking.
It is not that we are against the idea of right and wrong.
It is that as Christians we use our imaginations to think of better alternatives then the world gives.
We consider ways to build bridges to understanding.
In our political discourse it seems at times that all we have are two options.
Often we don’t think outside the box.
We don’t consider that beyond the political rhetoric there are better ways.

One thing that disturbs me about our current religious and political climate is that people too often use God to back up their political ideology.
Sometimes it seems that people are using their political ideology to dictate their theology, rather than using God’s ways in dictating their lives.
For example, I have heard people from the tea part movement argue that God is for fewer taxes on the rich, because to tax rich people and use it for helping the poor breaks the 6th commandment. (Though shall not steal)
It seems to me this is really stretching the meaning of that commandment.
It appears that in their political ideology they have tried to squeeze out a meaning of the Bible that is not intended.
I have heard Michelle Bachman talk about God’s desire for a government that is smaller.
In an infamous incident she claimed that recent natural disasters were God’s wake up call for Washington.
“I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.
We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane.
He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now.
They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending."

On the left we have an equally egregious ideology.
People on the left believe that social security, Medicare, and Medicaid are somehow ordained by God.
They hold that Government’s job is to follow the Biblical mandate to help the poor by having a certain tax code.
Al Sharpton has implied on many occasions that God would be displeased with the way our tax policy is geared towards the rich.
There is no doubt a Biblical mandate to help the poor.
I am not sure that Jesus had a particular legislative agenda in mind.

So maybe the best thing would be for religion to stay out of politics all together.
There is after all a separation of Church and State.
I would argue that this is impossible.
That whatever we are doing as Christians God is always on our mind.
That even in the voting booth God is there with us.
To suggest that somehow we can divorce ourselves from our faith simply because we enter the public square would be ridiculous.
And it would mean that we were making some kind of arbitrary rule about how to compartmentalize our lives.

Instead I would suggest this morning that we always begin our lives by searching for the third way.
By searching not for our ambition but striving for the kingdom of heaven.
And the first step towards that is moving away from the dichotomy of us versus them.
And towards a worldview that we are all one.
We are all on this ride together.
As one of my college professors would say to us, “We are all bozos on this bus.”

An Episcopal priest whose congregation is on Wall Street wrote this about the protest happening in Manhattan,
“I write and preach regularly that in God's economy there is only an "us," and whenever we fall back to us-and-them thinking, we are contributing to a powerful but failed system that Jesus came to tip into collapse.
Jesus in his Resurrection, steps beyond death and creates a new dimension.
There is no retribution for his killers, how could there be? – he has just stepped into larger life where the only message can be: "Come on, join in the party."
Any act of scapegoating - it's their fault; this one is to blame - feeds the old death-bound beast.
Making something new is making something together - receiving something together from a God who gives all.”

In our public lives we can be amazed to know that there is a third way, maybe even a fourth way.
A way that points us forward not to a political triumph, but to a life lived under the reign of God.
My friend and I were talking this week about how bad our politics have become.
It seems that the only thing that politicians care about is winning.
It is creating a system of us versus them.
A system with winners and losers.
Jesus teaches us a new way.
A way were the last are first, were the mourners rejoice, were the old and young come together, were the rich are overly generous, and were we are all one under God.
It is a way of no losers only us working together for a better tomorrow.

When rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s we can never forget that we are bound to something so much more.
We are bound to a God who sees no limits and has no bounds.
We are bound to a God who is not bound to our two dimensional thinking.
A God who is not trapped into an either/or mentality.
We are bound to a God who is always outside the box.
A God who talks of a King who invites good and bad people to the wedding feast, a God who opens up a better tomorrow, a God who is generous beyond our comprehension, a God who loves more deeply than our prejudices and dislikes, a God who does not give us what we deserve but gives us what we need.
This is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
This is what amazes us is God’s constant grace for us.
It is a God who loves enough to give up everything for us.
For you this morning God has given up everything and asks nothing in return except for your love, trust, and devotion.
There are no taxes to pay for God’s love.
In short, God asks you for everything, but in return you get more then you can possibly imagine.

God is not boxed in by our thinking.
God does not have to give only one of two possible answers.
God can give a third answer, even a fourth.
May we have the creativity and grace to always look for that third and fourth possibility.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Prepare for the wedding feast!

I wonder how many of you would have turned down an invitation to go to the Royal wedding of William and Kate’s.
If you would have been invited what would you have worn?
I bet that many of you would have bought a new outfit for the occasion.
I know in my house when we go to a wedding I have to spend some time going through the different options of what my wife might wear.
Usually it takes at least two days of thinking about what to wear before she settles on a dress.
This is all to say that when we go to weddings even the most mundane of weddings we take time to think about what we are going to wear.
And if we ever went to a royal wedding we would think about even more.
How much more should we think about showing up at banquet prepared by God?
That is the question that is posed to us this morning in our Gospel.

When we first read the Gospel parable this morning we might be perplexed at how the guest who shows up without the correct attire is treated by the king.
It seems a bit harsh.
No one else wanted to go this wedding so he should get some points for showing up right?
Why does the king treat him so badly?
Well, because showing up is only the start.
When we have faith in God we grow in a relationship with God.
We begin, sometimes unconsciously, to bend our lives towards God’s will.
We begin to think more seriously about who we are and what we are doing in relation to God.
Just like if we went to the royal wedding we would give lots of thought to our dress and manner.

This parable is not about good people versus bad people.
Notice that both good and bad people are invited to the wedding feast.
It is about being prepared to live a life of faith.

Today we get to be witnesses to the Baptism of Allison Mamos.
And today is the start of her relationship with God.
For it is in the waters of our Baptism that God claims us as his beloved children.
It is in these waters that we are freed from death and sin.
It is here this morning that Allison will receive the greatest spiritual gifts her parents could give her.
Baptism is not about who is good or bad.
In fact, it assumes that we are all a complicated mix of good and bad.
That we are born in the image of God, and with a rebellious spirit of sin.
Baptism also does not remove these things from us.
The question becomes what are we going to do with this gift?

What are we going to do with the invitation that God has given us to the banquet table?
This morning I want all of you to think about what are you going to do with that gift?
What will Allison do with the gift?

I remember as a kid receiving a new stereo as a present from my parents.
It was a great gift.
It had these really big speakers, a turn table, tape deck, and even a place to plug in one of those new CD players that had just come out.
The gift was free.
I didn’t really deserve the gift.
As a son as was at best mediocre.
I didn’t always get good grades, I didn’t always come in on time for curfew, I didn’t always do what was expected of me, or even what I was taught was right.
However, my parents gave me this stereo anyway.
The only question was how I would treat it, and what I would do with it.
I treated it with great care.
I honored it and treasured it.
I really liked that stereo.
I used it all the time.
The same is true of our faith in God.
It is a gift.
We have done nothing to earn it.
In fact, at times we really try to mess it up.
Yet, God invites us anyway.
What will we do with it?
How will we dress for the banquet feast?

Today Paul gives us some ideas.
“Rejoice in the Lord always!”
I hope that all of you take time in your day, in your life to rejoice in what God has done for you.
Sometimes we can get caught up in all the things we don’t have, instead of looking at all the ways God has blessed our lives.
Even in the worse of circumstances I bet there are ways that God is blessing your life.
Paul even though he was in prison rejoiced in what the Lord had done for him.
I hope today for Allison that she knows how much God loves her, and how much God has done for her so that in all the times of her life both good and bad she can learn to rejoice in the Lord.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
Living a life in Christ means learning everyday how to love and forgive more.
It means learning to be less judgmental of others, and showing mercy and grace to all those we encounter.
In Baptism we take on the righteousness of Christ and learn how to live more fully into it.
I hope for Allison she learns to be gentle to herself and others.
Always willing to forgive others as she knows that she is forgiven.

“Do not worry about anything”
What a blessing to not have to worry.
We are told in Psalm 23 of God’s care and concern for us.
We are reminded of this again and again.
And yet so much of our time is spent worrying about things that will never happen or things that we can’t control.
To live a life of faith is to put all of our life into God’s hands.
I hope today for Allison that she learns to put her life into God’s hands so that she will not worry about anything.

“But in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests be known to God.”
Prayer is our constant communication with God.
It allows us to complain, to unload our burdens, to ask for our needs and the needs of our loved ones.
Prayer is what helps to settle our often disjointed soul.
Prayer is what helps us stay connected to God and his love for us.
In prayers we hand over the burdens of our lives to God and in doing that find a peace.
I hope today that Allison finds the peace that is beyond understanding.

These things are not meant to be rules.
They are meant to be a blessing.
In this life that is so complicated and often out of our control it feels good to be able to rely on God.
The Gospel from this morning can be seen as a harsh judgment.
Surely no one wants to be cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But let me suggest that when we fail to hear the gracious invitation to the wedding banquet, when we fail to keep our relationship with God going, then we are already in the outer darkness.
Our lives are not as rich, are not as peaceful, and are not as whole as they can be with God at the wedding banquet.
Jesus sometimes uses harsh language to describe what it means to be away from God not because he wants us to be in the outer darkness, but because that is the truth.

I hope for all of you today that you count your blessings.
That you give thanks to God that God invited you to be part of the wedding feast.
I pray that we may spend no time in the outer darkness.
Because we have taken time to prepare ourselves for the joy of the wedding banquet.

Monday, October 3, 2011

There Is a Big Bright Beautiful Tomorrw

This last week I was on vacation with my family in Disney World.
My favorite ride in all of Disney World is a ride called, “The Carousel of Progress”.
For those who have never had the extreme pleasure of going on the Carousel of Progress let me explain a little about the ride.
It was originally designed by Walt Disney as an attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
You sit in a theater and watch a number of scenes as an American family move from the turn of the 20th century until the present day.
The theater moves in a circle as the father of the family explains all the technical advances of the 20th century.
For example, in the opening sequence the father of the American family explains that they can get from California to New York in Seven days by train.
He goes on to explain that two brothers are working on a flying contraption that “will never work”.
I love this ride because it reminds us of where we have been, of all of the progress that we have made in a short time of human history.
But I love it most because it reminds us that the future is wide open.
That all things are possible, and that we as human beings have a great capacity to think, invent, and create.
The chorus to the song on the ride goes, “There is a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.”

When I read the Gospel for this morning I instantly thought of this ride.
Because one of the questions we always have to wrestle with is why didn’t the religious leaders of Jesus day recognize who he was?
Why didn’t they know he was the Messiah?
Why did they conspire with political authorities to have him killed?

Last week we heard them question Jesus authority, and Jesus told them a parable.
They didn’t understand that parable so Jesus tries again with the parable of the vineyard.
In this parable the stewards of the vineyard come to believe that the landowner is done with the vineyard, and that now they own it.
So when servants show up to ask for the fruits of the vineyard the steward left in charge doesn’t want to hear it.
Here is part of the problem of the religious authorities.
They stopped believing that God was talking to them.
They believed that God had chosen them, and have made certain promises to them.
That God would deliver the kingdom to them.
They came to believe that the vineyard was theirs instead of God’s.
They got stuck in what had always been and forgot that God is always working on the future.
Because of this they did not believe that God was still at work in Jesus.

I believe this sometimes our problem too.
We have become complacent with the idea that Jesus Christ is our savior.
We have become complacent with the idea that the Church is the gathering of God’s people.
Because of this we forget that God is always speaking to us.
God is always demanding that we are producing fruit.
To be the people of God, to be the Church, it is not enough to merely believe that God is with us.
We have to act like we believe it.

If we live in the grace in mercy of God then we will act like it by extending that grace to others.
Do we believe in the big bright beautiful tomorrow of God?
If we did we would not believe that everything is done or that are best days are behind us.

One of the great things about the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that it points us not to what happened, but what will happen.
It shows us that God is never done, but always working.
We should always be in on the lookout for what God is up to next.
I once heard a comedian talking about people’s obsession with television.
He said, “You gotta understand my generation saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on national television. We were glued to the screen for the next forty years wondering what would happen next.”
The same is true for our lives in Christ we should be clued to the screen wondering what will God do next?
What ways will God call me, our congregation, and the Church to bear good fruit?
What needs to be gathered and harvested for the good of others?
What is it this day that God is calling me to give so others may flourish?

I really believe that we are living in an extraordinary time in Christian history.
It is time when anything and everything is possible.
All of the old doctrines are being questioned.
Lines of denomination and even religions are being crossed.
Barriers to people often left out are being crumpled to the ground.
Consider that in our day the supposed third world has the largest growing population of Christians in the world, while Christianity in America and Europe are fading away.
I could for see the day when Africa sends missionaries to the United States to try and convert us heathens.
Consider that in our day young people are saying no to discrimination, hatred, and prejudice based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else.
Consider that more and more people are pushing the boundaries of the Church beyond four stained glass walls and into bars, coffee shops, homes, and wherever people are meeting.
Consider that information and ideas flow between people at a pace that is sometimes dizzying but always interesting.
All of these things are making for some pretty exciting times in Christianity.
They are making for opportunities to reach out and be a blessing to the world.
Are we ready to follow God into his bright big beautiful tomorrow?

It is also scary times for some people.
Ways of thinking that have sustained people in difficult times in the past are being questioned.
Ways of making ourselves feel safe are being torn away.
But I believe it is simply God speaking to us in new ways.
God helping us see the progress that tomorrow brings.
God helping us see what happens when we labor in the vineyard, not because we own it and expect to get paid, but because we know it belongs to God and expects everyone to share in the bounty.

I suppose some of you could take my sermon this morning and just think that I have gone drunk with the magic of Disney.
But my sermon comes from my faith in God who does not leave us alone.
It comes from a Biblical faith that God has promised us a bright big beautiful tomorrow and given us the gift of being stewards in the vineyard.
What a gift to have this wonderful vineyard that God planted, put a fence around, dug a wine press in, and built a watchtower.
What a privilege to serve God in God’s vineyard.
And God knows that we need reminding from time to time that it is not our vineyard, but God’s.
We need reminding that we don’t tend this vineyard for our own purposes, but for the world to see.

In our Isaiah reading this morning the prophet reminds the Israel that God made them a people not for their own good but so they might be a blessing to other nations.
That is why we have a church.
Not to hold the relics of the past, but to remake a big, bright, beautiful tomorrow in the image of God.
That is why God sent Jesus to us.
Not so we could brag that we are favored by God, but so that we might spread God’s love, joy, and peace to the world.

The religious leaders of Jesus day might have known the past.
They might have known tradition, but they forgot God’s future.
They forgot that the vineyard was planted not for them to horde, but for them to give away to the world.
Because of that they shut their hearts to hearing the message Jesus brought.

May we always have our hearts open to Jesus message as we see God’s great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of everyday!