Monday, June 29, 2009

I.C.O.N.

So what is an Icon? Literally, it means an image. When we think of Icons we often think of people who are larger than life, people who symbolize movements or ideals like Bob Marley, Chez Guevara, or Martin Luther King Jr. These are people who's faces end up on t-shirts, and sometimes the image is used for things the person never intended. We like to do that kind of thing. We glamorize "idols" and love to lift up the ones who are truly weird but still successful. Why? I guess it's because it make us feel better about ourselves. No matter how good we are we know we can't be MLK or Gandhi, so isn't it good that some one else was. No matter how bad we are at least we aren't Jennifer.

Icons are also smaller than life. It is the term we use to describe the little images we click on to open a computer program. They move us from something small into something bigger. In the Christian tradition, Icons have been used in this same way for centuries. These Icons are pictures that are usually focused on the face of Jesus. The idea is that as you consider God's love for you, you begin to feel God's presence in your life. Icons are a window into heaven in the same way that a person's eyes can tell you a lot about what they are thinking and feeling.

When I was a teenager I heard someone say, "The eyes are the window of the soul." I immediately began wearing sun glasses anywhere and all the time. I even custom painted sunglasses with splatter painted designs to the point I could barely see out of some pairs. Brilliant. I was in a lot of pain because of my parent's divorce, and I did not want to let anyone in for fear of being hurt even more. It didn't happen all at once, but over time I came to realize that the only way out was to let others in. The one who showed me this through the examples of others was Jesus.

Everyone has their own reason for feeling awkward at times. If you don't think you do, then you are hiding from yourself under some pretty thick shades. But the good news is this, in 2 Corinthians 5:6-21, Paul reminds us that we can take off our shades and look directly into the Son. In fact we have to. In fact, when we do, we become the "Icon" that someone else needs. So take time to look others in their eyes. Take time to look Jesus in his eyes. Chances are, you'll find that you can see yourself more clearly when you do.

Take care, have fun, and be the person your best friend thinks that you are.

Rev. Zach

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Walk This Way

Psalm 139:1-14,23-24

Matthew 5:43-48

Ephesians 2:10

Once upon a time a young boy became frustrated and used a word he had been told not to use. His mother sent him to his room and said, “When your father gets home he will deal with you, young man.” When his father got home he said, “I’ll teach him a thing or two about swearing!” Unfortunately he slipped on the way up the stairs, and while falling let fly a string of expletives the likes of which the boy had never heard. Then Mother said, “I think you’ve taught him enough for tonight, Dear.”

Today is Father’s Day, and (for those who do not know) it is not just a scam from the cartel of greeting card lobbyists in Washington. It actually started 100 years ago when Mrs. John B. Dodd of Spokane, Washington began to understand the hardship her father endured on her behalf. Her father, William Smart was a veteran of the Civil War, and lost his wife during the birth of their sixth child. He raised six children as a single parent on a farm through harsh winters in Washington State before the advent of indoor pluming and a modern infrastructure of electricity. Similar sentiments continued around the country, and President Lyndon Johnson finally signed the national holiday into being in 1966.

Father’s Day is an interesting time for me, personally. Many of you know that I only recently lost my own father a year ago in February. Truly he is not “lost” though, for I know whose loving embrace holds him until he can again hold me. I do find it interesting though that God would elect for me through seemingly random and unrelated events to preach on the two Father’s Days directly following this profound loss. This is of particular interest to me because I have, for years, struggled with the concept of fatherhood primarily because of my father’s absence during my adolescence. I say these things not to use the pulpit to engender sympathy or to make anyone feel awkward or bad. Rather I say it to acknowledge that we all have different perspectives from our experiences that color our preconceptions about who and what God is as “our Father.”

The thing that God has done that has taught me the most about fatherhood is to make me one. My children teach me many things, but two of the most profound have to do with who I am and who God is. I have learned that what I do not say and do not do often says more about who I really am than the things I do say and do. I have also learned that our Father in Heaven is trustworthy, and that his grace is sufficient for me. Just the other night when tucking Zoe to bed we had this conversation, “Daddy, do you believe in God?” “Yes, Zoe.” “Do you trust in God?” “Yes, Zoe. Now go to sleep.” “Daddy, do you believe and trust in God?” “Yes, Zoe. Do you?” “Uh-huh.” “OK, good. Go to sleep now.”

That’s the kernel of truth in understanding and accepting God as our Father, isn’t it? Do you believe and trust in God? Our scriptures today speak of being created by God for good works and walking in the path offered us through Christ Jesus. Naturally, when pondering this concept I thought of the song “Walk this Way” by Aerosmith, even though I must say that song is about something much more base than good works. If anything it is the antithesis as Steven Tyler belted out an anthem for a generation that looked to pleasure for a sense of satisfaction. My thoughts then turned to one of the oldest gags in film and theater involving a stooping butler who says,“Walk this way,” as the hero follows in a similar fashion.

Isn’t that just how we feel when we read a text that tells us that we must be perfect? Something inside us recoils at the idea and walks away limping because it is a lot easier to find solace in a good game of golf or tennis than it is to deal with the problems of the world. Besides, I’ve been fighting the good fight, and this is my time. Or maybe there are other burdens that keep you feeling that if only you could get this rock off your chest you could do something about the rock on someone else’s.

Unfortunately that is not what our text tells us. These words from the Father who loves us like no other confront us and make us feel like the dad who trips on his way to enact justice only to land in a position that makes our need for grace undeniable! So, instead of charging off with all facades intact (as my mother is want to say), let us look more deeply into the rabbit hole to see where it takes us.

In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount we find a turning point. Jesus has been speaking about our relationship with others and is beginning to move into our relationship with God. What I find interesting about this passage in Matthew is that the Greek form of the verb for you and me ‘to be’ perfect is a future tense. It is not so with God. God ‘is’ and always shall be the present tense. We ‘shall be’ perfect, as God ‘is’ perfect. But how? The clue precedes the command. By doing what God has done through Jesus Christ. By loving our enemies and “praying for those which despitefully use you,” as one translation puts it. As we consider our enemies and how hard this is we must remember this one thing. We once were the enemies of God ourselves.

But thanks be to God that we have been created, that we are being created. One translation of that word is ‘achievement.’ We are the very means by which God has decided to achieve God’s purpose! We…even we are God’s workmanship, created for good works that God thought up before God even thought up you and me to do them! It’s like the Crabbing event, or the congregational retreat we are having this fall. It’s like anything that we are called to do in this congregation. These are all God’s ideas. And God also thought up people to do them, and you are one of them. This congregation is part of God’s project! Not to compete with the Baptists or Methodists, but to burn so brightly that all the world might see the power and majesty of God spilling out the doors of this sanctuary and into the world!

Some of us saw this happening last week in VBS. This place was alive with activity, and the children loved it. We taught them about God’s saving love through Jesus Christ. Our theme was G.A.D.G.E.T.’s Garage, and the story that wove things together was about a teenager who built a robot in his garage to take out the trash. G.A.D.G.E.T. stands for God is Always Doing Great Exciting Things, and we tried our best to encourage the children to see that God is doing exciting things through them today. One of the things they did was to share their pennies and quarters in a mission offering supporting the Bethesda Home for Boys. They raised around $130.

What about you? Are you ready to make good on that same promise, the promise God has made for you through Jesus Christ? Is this proclamation simply for children, and now that the job is done we can pack up our robots and go enjoy our day? I have to admit feeling that way at the end of VBS. I was so thankful for the week, but I wanted it cleaned up and out of here so that I could get on to the next thing. An elder in this congregation stopped me from throwing away a pile of the cardboard boxes we had been using. He wanted to recycle them.

A small thing I know, seemingly insignificant. But it is the smallness of our faith that makes way for the greatness of God! It is in the wanting of the right thing that we put ourselves in a place to do the right thing. For God set a table for you before you could eat from it! God created a community of believers for you before you could join it! God created you and me to love those who would not love us. In fact God even created us to pray for them, and we may be the only ones who ever do. For God created them to help us find our true selves, since we were once the enemies of God ourselves. And I will tell you one thing more. God created you to offer hope where there is no hope, even if the place of hopelessness is within your own heart.

You know, last Wednesday I was feeling a little low. It was the middle of VBS and I had trouble waking up. I prayed for help and found none. Then I remembered that my sister was running a day camp this past week, and I had not prayed for her once. I began to pray for her, and then for the others here staffing VBS, and an amazing thing happened. I suddenly became energized! As soon as I took the focus off of myself I became so full of life that my entire worldview changed. And guess what. It hasn’t changed back.

We have been created for a purpose, and all we need do to find it is to look to our Father in Heaven. About a month after my father died, Treva found a card in a store that has the following quote from G.W. Douglas. “A father is neither an anchor to hold us back or a sail to get us there, but always a guiding light whose love shows us the way.” My father was not the kind who mentored me. He was absent in a significant portion of my life. But he taught me something no one else could in the humility and self-offering of his confessions and his care in the later part of his life. And before he left me I had the privilege of serving him his final communion at my grandmother’s kitchen table. The reconciliation we have through Jesus Christ is the most precious gift in all the world.

You know, my dad had a piece of paper on his desk that said, “People will forget what you say. They will forget what you do. They will remember how you made them feel.” What witness do your unspoken interactions offer to the world? Do they reflect the love that you have received as “God’s beloved, chosen and holy, clothed in righteousness” through faith in Christ Jesus? Salvation is not an afterthought, friends. It starts today, and both of my Fathers would think it a sin if I did not offer it to you today. If you want to talk about a closer walk with God I am here for you, as are John and Claire. For whether our faith is life long or brand new we all stand in need of grace, and we all should be walking toward the goal that God has set for us in Christ Jesus. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wedding Ring

I have a blister on my left hand ring finger. I was trimming the shrubs the other day without work gloves, and I got a blister. I'll spare the overly trite metaphors about work gloves, protection, and injury resulting from inattentiveness. Instead I want to share what occurred to me in reflecting on the blister and its location. It's not a bad blister, but all the same I could not resist picking it. Foolish, I know, but I just couldn't help it.

As I look at the resulting blemish and the wedding ring that covers it I can't help thinking about my marriage. I have a wonderful partner and a great marriage. All the same, there are times when focusing on my needs before her causes damage. Yet there is something deeper that we cling to. Something unending and unchanging, like the circle of the ring.

The scripture we chose for our wedding was Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:

10 If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!

11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?

12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

That ring covers a multitude of sin through the simple reality that it points to. There is one that binds us who is more consistent than my headstrong and willful ways. Thanks be to God that I have the privilege of being bound to Treva through God's love for me. That love is most perfectly expressed in Jesus, and I hope to love her as I have been loved by God. Of course that means that I should be taking out the trash right now.

See ya!

Rev. Zach

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Debts and Debtors

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51:1-10

Mathew 6:5-12

Today is Trinity Sunday, and it is well timed by those councils who set, under God’s direction, the celebrations of the church season. It comes at a time where we have experienced God’s creative power in the coming of spring, God’s triumph over sin and death through Christ’s resurrection as we celebrated at Easter, and the offering of God’s active presence in the Holy Spirit as we celebrated last week on Pentecost.

Interestingly enough, the term “trinity” is not found in the Bible. It was developed almost three centuries after Christ’s resurrection, as Christianity emerged from persecution and became the religion of the Roman Empire. It was the result of two separate councils of Christian leaders from a wide variety of communities and traditions who were trying to come together and state what they believed was true and real about what God had done through Jesus Christ. Though it could be said that Christians are still struggling with that very same task, it can also be said that the Council of Nicaea got it right. And I believe that the words of the Lord’s prayer, as we find them in Matthew, reflect a knowledge of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life.

I have to admit, this prayer is one that is so common that there have been times when I have simply said the words without thinking about what they really mean. It is also so severe that there have been times a word or phrase has convicted me to the point that I have fumbled one of the later and equally familiar phrases. I can remember going through confirmation as a youth and trying to pray this prayer by myself for the first time. It was like it didn’t make sense unless bunches of people were saying it at once. But as we look at Matthew’s gospel we find that the prayer that we can hardly understand apart from public worship was part of Jesus’ instructions for personal intimacy with God. “Go in a closet. Pray this way,” we are told. Even so, it is located as the central turning point in the Sermon on the Mount. All the blessings and woes and instructions to be salt and light lead up to one place, the instruction to give honor and glory to God alone, with forgiveness being the lynch pin to our success.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel knew that this section would be used as a guide to worship as well as instruction for personal discipleship. But what about us? What if we used the Lord’s Prayer for personal devotion? What if it became not just phrases of orthodoxy, but instead a conversation with God. I think it might look something like this…

(Lord’s Prayer Skit)

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, in The Scarlet Letter:

“It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.”

Sometimes we just can’t let it go. It’s sad how many times I have heard people say that they have family members or loved ones they have not spoken to in years. Often times no one even knows why. Some one got fed up about something, and they just could not let it go. Now, I realize that sometimes mental illnesses, deaths, and other factors may prohibit the reality of being reconciled, but forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness may open the path to reconciliation, but it does not guarantee it. Forgiveness is something we must do for ourselves before we can see its affects on our relationships.

Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D. is a staff chaplain at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. In an article posted on the Mayo Clinic’s website, she discusses forgiveness and how it can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Dr. Piderman begins by defining forgiveness as “a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you.” Forgiveness disconnects the power we give to other people and events, and puts it back in God’s hands, where it belongs. “For Thine is the power.”

Dr. Piderman goes on to talk about clinically proven health benefits and risks associated with the decision to forgive or withhold forgiveness. She discusses the barriers we place before forgiveness, signs that tell us we need to, and how it affects ongoing relationships and the potential for reconciliation. In summary I can tell you that she defines forgiveness as a process, not an action. Forgiveness is not in any way, shape, or form permission for offenses; nor is it easier to receive than permission. Forgiveness does not condone hurtful actions. That is because forgiveness does not affect the one who has hurt you. Forgiveness affects the one who has decided to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean that everything is O.K. It means that someone has decided to let go of the need to feel justified in hatred, anger, and negative actions because that person knows that he or she has already been justified in Jesus Christ!

Forgiveness is something that requires radical, fundamental, and ultimate trust in God as Provider, Redeemer, and Life Giving Force. For as we are instructed in scripture, our very lives depend upon it. “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

And so today we come to this table, this memorial feast. Today we remember who we are and whose we are. Today we look deeply into the essentials of Reformed theology and the experience of being called together as God’s beloved, clothed in righteousness we do not deserve. For this is not about what we deserve. This is about the grace of God.

I wonder, how many of us have been thinking about the things we need to forgive? I don’t know that we’ve allowed for that so far in the service. I want to give you that space for just a moment. Consider one moment in your life in which you have felt wronged. Consider the person or the people involved in that situation. I want to invite you to make the decision to begin to let go of your feelings of responsibility for that pain. That’s what our anger and anxiety comes from, you know?

We cannot control the affections, the desires, and the actions of another person. When these actions go against our expectations and against the spoken or unspoken agreements we have with others it is hurtful. And guess what. We don’t like to hurt.

Now here’s the really tricky part. In trying to avoid being hurt, we end up struggling for power and hurting ourselves. That’s why everything hinges on forgiveness. Forgiveness is the very essence of God’s character, and it is the only means of putting ourselves into a place where God’s providence and power can offer us a life that is truly living. Forgiveness does not mean rolling over and accepting evil and abuse. In fact it is just the opposite. Forgiveness means seeing the humanity in someone else and the sin in our own souls. It is the way by which we put God in the driver seat so that our actions to restrain evil and alleviate suffering are in keeping with God’s instead of some form of retribution that we call justice.

This prayer that we say every Sunday is about who we are as a people. It is also about who we are as individuals. The funny thing is, you can’t really separate one from the other. For we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. I often hear members of this congregation say, “I’m not really a Presbyterian.” Well, I’m sorry, but if you joined this church than yes you are. All of us are first and foremost followers of Jesus. And we have followed Jesus to this table. It is not a Presbyterian table, it is the Lord’s. It just happens to be in a Presbyterian church and the sacraments are rightly administered here.

As a sacrament, Holy Communion has this effect; sacred making. Through receiving the bread and juice as Christ’s body and blood you are affirming the love God poured out for you in the sacrifice of His only son, Christ Jesus. More than that you are bound in common unity with all the saints, sinners, prostitutes, and disciples that have come before you and who sit with you and stand before you today. Being in community requires not good fences but the willingness to take down our own and to be vulnerable unto one another. So let us look deeply into the chalice of Christ and find the will to forgive the one most in need, that one being ourselves. And then let us watch as forgiveness spreads like a wildfire burning out our control, a fire that consumes but does not destroy, a fire that gives life, and gives it abundantly. And to God be the glory, for Hallowed be thy name!