Wednesday, February 24, 2016

To God Be The Glory!

It happens sometime that what I think I am going to preach on in at the start of the week is not what I end up preaching on.
This week was one of those weeks.
I was going to talk about doing our best even when it is not what we want to be doing.
Even when our dreams are not met there is something really important about doing our best at whatever job we happen to be doing.
I was going to talk about Joseph and how he provides a good example to us about doing our best at whatever task we find ourselves.
I read a lot of Biblical commentaries this week commenting on Joseph’s character.
How he had grown up and learned to obey the Lord.
How through this difficult time of being a slave Joseph learned how to have courage and integrity.
It is not a bad message.
If you left here this morning thinking about the job you hate and how there is honor in doing it well that would be a good message.

But the more I read this part of the story of Joseph.
And on Wednesday night at worship when I listened to people talk about what they got out of the story I realized something I was missing that was really important.
It is not Joseph at all that was doing any of those things.
It was God.
A careful reading of the story shows that God is really behind it all.
Consider what it says, “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man.”
Not, “Joseph being a man of good character and hard work became a successful man.”
It was because of God.
God is mentioned 7 times in this chapter of Genesis.
God gets all the credit for any success that Joseph might have had.
It was God who made Joseph what he was.
It was God that blessed the Egyptian’s house because of Joseph.
It was God the whole time that was with Joseph in prison.
God is the subject of this story not Joseph’s character.

I wonder how much of what happens to us in life do we take credit for when it is really God’s hand at work.
I wonder if Joseph knows that it is God who is with him during this time.
This is the thing about God’s work in our lives it is usually invisible to us.
We can’t see it all the time.
It is obscured to us because we believe that if God is with us than nothing bad should ever happen to us.
But if we consider Joseph’s life so far we see it is not like that.
Lots of bad things have happened to him.
He was sold into slavery by his brothers.
He was falsely accused of trying to have an affair with his master’s wife.
He was thrown in prison.
One could ask the question, if God is with Joseph why didn’t God stop all these bad things from happening?

Lots of times in our lives when we have hit a dead end, or taken a wrong turn, we wonder why God allowed that to happen.
I offer no explanations for that, and neither does the story of Joseph (at least not at this point).
What the story tells us is that even when our dreams don’t come true in the way we expect.
Even when there are turns in the road, even when there are dead ends, God is with us.
God is working in those times in ways that we might not recognize or understand.
But the worst thing we could do in those times is think that turning our lives around is based on what we can do.
That what is needed from us is more effort, better character, stronger courage.
The best thing we can do is turn over to God our lives and move ahead one day at a time.

The reverse is also true.
In good times we can’t take credit for what we have done, how we have prospered, what we have accomplished.
God gets the glory for anything that might have gone well.

Here is why this is important to me.
I really believe that we are all the same.
People are people.
Success is the product of something that none of us can bottle up.
No one has the solution.
And none of us is better than other people.
But if you listen to people who are “successful” talk it is all about them.
What they did.
How they persevered.
How they overcame.
How they worked hard.

Let me say something very clearly.
We shouldn’t get points for working hard.
Working hard is part of life, because life is hard.
Just because you work hard that doesn’t make you better than someone else.
It just means you did the basics.
My parents worked hard.
And our family did not become super rich, or famous.
So working hard doesn’t make you special.

Let me give you an example.
Everyone talks about Larry Bird how hard he worked.
He was the first one in and the last one out of the gym.
It is commendable, (and of course it helps to work hard) but there are probably tons of people who worked just as hard as he did and didn’t become one of the top 5 best players in the NBA.
Bird was gifted with things that no one else had.
Where did that gift come from?
I would say God.
Why Larry Bird and not someone else?
I don’t know.
I am not God.

But let me bring it down to our congregation.
I was out to eat lunch with two of our members.
They said, “Wow, it is amazing that our congregation is growing. Not many other congregations can say that.”
It is amazing and here is the thing I have no idea why.
There are other congregations that are growing but they grow because they are different, creative, and new.
They are led by extremely talented leaders.
We don’t have that going for us.
All I can say is, “To God be the glory!”
And that would be my answer is that God gets the credit.
If I preach a good sermon it is not because I know something that is great.
It is because God put that into me to preach, God gave me those words to say.
And the Holy Spirit moved among us that day.

On the second week of lent I think that is a great thing to hear, because lent is about realizing that our life belongs to God.
That in all things good and bad, in all times and places, in our best moments and at our most desperate, we give our thanks and praise to God.
We give our thanks for God who gives us courage to live through hard times.
We give our thanks to God who blesses even our meek efforts.
We give thank to God who picks us up when we are disheartened.
Thanks be to God who has given us the gifts to do the work in front of us.
Thanks be to God for blessing us.
Thanks be to God for being with us in all things.
God gets all the credit, to God be the glory.      


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sibling Rivalry!

We often think of the Bible is about big theological concepts.
We think it is about the meaning of God, the meaning of existence.
And certainly there are theological concepts in the Bible.
But really what most of the Bible is about is family.
The Bible is a story about a really big family that struggles to live together, and love each other.
The Bible is about how God’s promises come true despite all of the complications that come with family.
This Lent we are going to be hearing and talking about one of the central Biblical stories about family.
Our Sunday school is going to be learning about the story of Joseph, and I thought it would be interesting and fun for us as a congregation to also hear that story in worship.
It will be the texts that I preach on this lent.

It is important from the start to understand what is going on in this story.
God made a promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars.
And most of Genesis is the story of the obstacles that make it difficult for that promise to come true.
What we hear this morning is that Joseph is the favorite of 12 sons of Jacob, who was Abraham’s grandson.
My reading of the story is that Joseph is a spoiled brat.
He likes to brag to his brothers about how great he is going to be, and he often tattles on them to their father.

Anyone who has had a sibling can identify with these things.
Within a family there is often sibling rivalry.
Siblings often tattle on their brother or sister.
They will often feel superior to the other.
In our house when one of our children are in trouble the other one seems to take great pleasure that their sibling is in trouble and they are not.
Sometimes they even brag about how good their behavior is compared to the other.
Sibling rivalry is part of life for those of us who have a sister or brother.
According to an article I read in Psychology today, “While few adult siblings have severed their ties completely, approximately one-third of them describe their relationship as rivalrous or distant.
They don't get along with their sibling or have little in common, spend limited time together, and use words like "competitive," "humiliating," and "hurtful" to depict their childhoods.
So that is what is so great about the Bible is that it helps us understand God by telling us stories we can identify with because they are about real life.
We can understand why Joseph’s brothers “hated” him.
Joseph’s story is a human story.
Today we see that it starts in a human way.
With a rivalry with between brothers, it starts with sin.

It is appropriate that we begin our Lenten journey here with sin.
In the start of this story there is plenty of sin to go around.
First, we have Jacob.
Jacob should know better than to favor one son over the others.
Sibling rivalry is often caused by parents who show favoritism to one child over another.
It is caused by a parent’s inability to recognize that all of our children are gifts of God.
Each of them come with unique gifts and talents and as parents we have to be careful not to try and make our children feel that they are less than their siblings.
We have to uphold the wonder and beauty of each.
We have to celebrate their accomplishments of each as they have the ability.
Perhaps the worst thing a parent can say to their child is “why can’t you be like your brother/sister.”
Jacob is guilty of playing favorites and stoking the sibling rivalry.

Second, is Joseph.
Like I said earlier he is a bratty kid.
He goes around telling his brothers about his dreams of greatness, telling on them to their father.
I can imagine showing off his wonderful coat.
He fails to recognize that being a sibling also means having some sense of humility.
Perhaps one of the best things our siblings can do for us is to teach us how to get along with other people.
They teach us that we are not the center of the universe.
They can teach us how to be humble and gracious as we allow others the spotlight.
Joseph is young and has not learned this.

And of course, the brothers.
I don’t really even need to talk about them.
No matter how much of brat he is Joseph does not deserve to be sold into slavery.
There is no excuse to lie and tell your father that your brother is dead.
That is the point it is hard for us to allow our siblings to have success.
But Joseph’s brothers go an extra mile in how much they let their hate for him overtake their actions.

There is plenty of sin in this story.
And we see right away that this sin is putting in danger God’s promise.
What will it mean for one of the brothers to be sold into foreign hands.
This is a big problem.
What will it mean for Jacob?
What will happen to Joseph?
What will happen to the brothers?
God can’t allow the brothers to prosper after what they did to Joseph?
Will Jacob recover after losing his favorite son?
Will Joseph survive in a foreign land?
The Promise of God is a promise of a family together being God’s people.
This story puts all that in jeopardy.

Isn’t that always the issue?
How will our sin, our petty jealousy, our immaturity, our mishandling of the things God has put in our hands, mess up God’s promises?
That is where our story begins.
Because we are in many ways like Joseph we have dreams of grandeur in our head.
We are seeing signs all around of how much we are special.
But we are unable to see beyond that.

In my last congregation there were two sisters who didn’t like each other.
I was told on my very first Sunday at the congregation that the two sisters did not talk.
They hated each other.
I was wondering how that was going to affect the ministry of that congregation.
I was wondering how I would navigate that relationship.
I don’t remember why they were fighting.
And I don’t remember it ever being a real problem, except that one of them didn’t come to church very often.
But when I first heard of it I didn’t know how this would affect the church family.
That is what we are talking about this morning.
How our sin gets in the way.
How it is always a question mark in the scheme of things.
And perhaps the biggest problem is that we don’t see it.
Jacob wasn’t aware of how his behavior was affecting his sons.
Joseph seems unaware that his dreams made his brothers hate him more.
The brothers don’t seem bothered by what they did to Joseph.
How would this story look different if the characters knew about how their sin affects others?

That is what lent can do for all of us.
It gives us time to take stock of how our sin hurts other people.
It gives us time to think about how we can mend the family of God by not being blind to the havoc our sin takes on others.
How can we repair the relationships of those we have done wrong?
How can we find a way to a kinder and gentler interaction with our family?

Families can be difficult.
The Bible is story about family.
About the ways we hurt each other.
This lent let us take time to consider how we have hurt one another and make amends to each other for it.
Let us put aside sibling rivalry to love each other, to celebrate each others gifts, to humbly allow others to shine in the spotlight.
Let us put aside our jealousy, our blindness to the needs of others, our immaturity, and our dreams of grandeur so that we can be part of God’s family that lives in God’s promises.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Why Don't They "Get It"?

A couple of years ago I was hanging out with pastoral colleagues at a conference.
A newly ordained colleague was talking about her new call.
She was talking about how the congregation needed to change.
How they didn’t “get it”.
How they only thought about themselves and not about the people outside of the church.
This is a familiar story.
I hear many pastors talk this way.
Being a pastor is a weird profession for many reasons but one of them is because our job is all about people.
At the end of the day or a career there isn’t a lot to point to that shows our success in this area.
We don’t build things, create things, we don’t make lots of money.
We bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people.
And at the end of the day often there is nothing tangible to show us that we did that well or we failed.
So we measure our success by how much people, “get it”.
That night I challenged my newly ordained colleague and told her that I think that her congregation will never change, they will never “get it”.
And that it is not our job to change people.
That if she believes that is what she is doing she will end up really disappointed.
Over my 12 years of ministry I have tried to keep this in mind.
It was told to me by a veteran pastor when I was just starting out.
And for the most part I can remember this and not be frustrated.
I can love all of you for who you are, and not who I think you should be.
Every now and then it does get to me.
I get frustrated because I realize that even though I preach every week about opening ourselves up to others it doesn’t seem to get through.
And every now and then I can’t hold back.
I become disheartened and wonder why am I doing this.
What is the point?

What often saves me is realizing my own inability to change.
I would love to be one of those pastors who is always calm cool and collected.
I am sure that is how my grandfather was a pastor.
He always seemed to be graceful knowing the right thing to say and the right way to say it.
But that is not me.
I can’t always hide my displeasure.
I can’t always say the right thing.
So if I can’t change why would I expect you to?
If I fail often in my discipleship why would I expect you to be perfect in yours?

Maybe our Gospel this morning can help all of us.
Because when we read this Gospel about the transfiguration we might want to think about the disciples.
What did it do to them?
How were they changed after seeing Jesus with their religious heroes Moses and Elijah?
How did they change after having heard the voice of God from the cloud?
The answer is they didn’t change at all.
Peter is still impetuous speaking before he thinks.
When they come down off the mountain they are unable to cast out the demon of a young boy, even though Jesus had shown them how to do it before.
After this in Luke there will be other stories of how the disciples are not ready, and don’t get it.
Reading about the disciples always makes me feel better because I see myself in them.
I see the church in them.
Imperfect, fumbling, stubborn, blind.
But you see this is the point.
The story of the transfiguration is not about the disciples at all.
It is about Jesus.
It is not the disciples that are transformed, changed, and transfigured it is Jesus.
Jesus is the one who becomes “dazzling white”.
Jesus is the one who talks with Moses and Elijah.
Jesus is the one that is called “my son, my chosen” by God.
The attention of this story belongs on Jesus.
This is Luke’s way of saying to us that Jesus is the one we should listen to.
Jesus is the one who will die in Jerusalem on the cross to save us.
Jesus is the one who is the savior.
Jesus is the one who changes not us.

And isn’t that the problem.
We have made this all about us.
How we need to change.
How we need to grow in discipleship.
How we need to be different.
How we need to do this or that.
And church is not about any of that.
It is about seeing Jesus in all his glory for what he is our savior.
This is not about us, it is about Jesus.
And that is what gives me hope for our congregation and the Church at large.
As St. Paul says, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Not because we believe that we will change and someday we will magically “get it”.
Not because we believe that we will someday wake up and be ready to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Not because our efforts to being better people are successful, but because we know the wonderful mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ.
That is what saves us.
That is what our ministry is built on.

At Wednesday worship this week when we were talking about this Gospel lesson people didn’t have a lot to say.
Lots of times we have to end the conversation before we run out of things to say about it.
But this week we ended just sitting there staring at our papers.
That is the correct and really only response to this story.
It is a mystical story that defies explanation.
It is outside our experience.
And we have the same reaction that the disciples had who witnessed it first hand, silence.
And that is perhaps the only reaction we should have in the face of the mystery and wonder of God.
Not some treaties on the nature of God.
Not some list of things that we need to work on and get better at.
But simply silence in the face of a God that is dazzling white.
A God, who gave the law, spoke through the prophets, created the world, and sent his son to fulfill it all.
A God who is filled with mercy.

That is the God of this Church.
It is the God who makes this ministry possible, because it is not built on me as your pastor (Thank God), and my agenda.
It is not built on you.
It is not built on you “getting it”.
It is built on the mercy of God who has called us here together.
This ministry is not here so that you can change, it is because we can’t, won’t, and don’t.
It is here because we are all so imperfect, stubborn, sinful, selfish, and lost that we need a savior.
We need a savior to shine light into the dark places of our lives.
We need a savior to bring us good news.
We need a savior to bring us hope.

And today on this transfiguration Sunday God has done that through his son Jesus Christ.
Today may you see Jesus dazzling white connecting us to the source of mercy that gives us hope so we do not lose heart.