Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Place to be From

Psalm 84:1-7

Acts 21:7-14

John 1:43-51

This is the third and final sermon in my series, “A Journey of Faith.” The first sermon, “Calling,” we considered how to discern God’s calling in our lives through the internal nudge, the confirmation of gifts by others, and the opportunities God opens to us. In the second sermon, “Sacrifice,” we looked at the way in which following God’s call naturally leads us into a practice of giving up our own desires in order to follow God’s. We considered how sacrifice is not just giving something up in order to make God happy, but it is a letting go of our willfulness in order to understand and fulfill the will of our living and loving Lord. Today we we’ve come full circle, as we again consider Jesus’ call to his first disciples, this time from the Gospel of John.

Now let us enter into this space in prayer. Most Holy God, silence in us any voice but your own. Let our beating hearts burn with joy for your word and become beacons of light guiding all people to you. In the name of Jesus, the Messiah, Your son, our Savior, amen.

As we begin, I have a request. I’d like you to take a second and feel your pulse. You may prefer to check it on your wrist or on your neck; either is fine. (Pause) Consider the regularity and rhythm of your body, the beating heart that sustains you, the hearts of all those around you and the rhythm of life that moves in and through us without a sound, without our care or consideration. Thank you.

The ebb and flow of life surrounds us on this island. Just the other day I took Sam to the state park for a nature walk. We went out to the observation tower at low tide and saw the crabs running around in the mud. Later that day I went to the same place with Zoe and had a totally different experience, as the tide was in and the crabs were stingily clinging to a bush or the boardwalk, or whatever they could. Do you ever feel like that? All of us do at times.

The Psalmist wrote of an even more extreme experience than the tides. Psalm 84 celebrates the return of rains after the dry season. For the ancient Hebrews, God’s presence was especially evident in the coming of the rains, and the crops that followed. The Creator re-created and made all things new. Food was produced that sustained life. Redemption was offered in a physical, tangible way. They chose to celebrate the renewal of life as a reminder of the renewal of their hearts through worship. I know some people like that. They look just like you! And they confess their need for renewal every Sunday. I wonder…do we greet our confession like the rain that nourishes a dry land? I like to think so. Otherwise, why would we do it?

I’ll tell you one of the rhythms of life that I am enjoying here. It is seeing people return from out of town. Today is an amazing time of fellowship and celebration, which is why we have come together as one body – to celebrate the common unity we have in Jesus Christ! It is amazing to me to have been so far apart this summer and yet not become fragmented and divided. Such a feet can only be done by the will of God’s Spirit. So, I guess that means something. I guess we better think about what it means to have such a great amenity as a church that loves us no matter what.

Of course the church is no amenity, even though we may treat her that way at times. Truly the church is a necessity for the salvation of humankind! For as Claire reminded us last Sunday; we cannot separate personal faith from corporate life. Just as we are called into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we are called into relationship with one another. Faith is personal, but it is never private. We cannot respond to God’s grace without having someone to love as we have been loved. Otherwise the grace we have received becomes like the manna that was selfishly stored and rotted before it could be enjoyed.

All that being said, it amazes to me to think about the connection we have through the centuries to those congregations mentioned in Paul’s travels as well. Sometimes I think the Bible stories become locked in history and out of our reach because we forget that this story is our story. And if this is our story, it means that we are responding to and carrying forward the experiences of Paul and the message of salvation he proclaimed. We are the lifeblood of that Gospel message that moves in and out of the heart of God, not by our choosing but through God’s grace.

In our passage from Acts, Paul tells his friends and loved ones that he expects not to see them again. He expects to die. Instantly they are hurt, sad, and grieving. Paul knows this, because through Jesus Christ he has become a person who suffers with others just as easily as he celebrates with them, and he reminds them that it cuts both ways. He wants them to see that a calling, at some point, includes sacrifice, and that his suffering is an opportunity from God to proclaim the Good News even more loudly than before. Paul understands in his heart that God has something greater in mind for him. Of course Jerusalem was not the end of the line for Paul, and because of his faith he was placed in a position that allowed him to influence the entire Roman Empire from a jail cell!

See how powerful God is? And all of this began from the calling of fisherman, tax collectors, and peasants. Often in our walk with God we have to come back to the beginning to move forward. We need a home base, a place to return to. In order to be sent out, we have to have a place to be from. That is why Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel was from a small town not far from Nazareth. He knew the region, and the idea that a king (the Anointed One) might arise from this rural town was ridiculous! There were no assets to leverage, and certainly no way to raise an army. He might as well have said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Which is kind of interesting because that’s what Philip told him to do. “Come and see.”

And then he did! He saw this man who knew him from far away. He saw this man who saw right into his heart and spoke with authority, and he immediately called him “Rabi,” and “the Son of God,” and “the King of Israel.” There’s something we are missing from our modern perspective that Jewish readers of John’s gospel would have gotten. Nathaniel made his decision pretty quickly, and we can presume that it is because Jesus saw him before he was physically with him. But Nathanial was sitting under a fig tree. A fig tree is often mentioned in Proverbs as a place of rest and a metaphor for wisdom, and it is ingrained in Jewish tradition that the fig tree is a metaphor for the Tora (God’s law). For the fig tree is pleasant, and it’s fruit cannot be harvested or enjoyed all at once. Yet all at once Nathaniel knew, and we can too, that this Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and the Prophets!

But he would not have known if Philip had not said, “Come and see.” Isn’t that what we do as the church? We turn to a broken and fearful world and say, “Come and see. I have met the Son of God, and I want you to meet him too!” You know, for so long this community has been full of vibrant families. Many children have been raised in this church from the days of its beginning in the fire house, and most of them have gone to other places to find jobs and raise families. There are different ways to look at the demographics of this island and the opportunity of being the church here in this place. We can say, well it is a retirement community and people are just getting older. We can lament over the economy and the stagnant sales of homes on the island. Or we can go out into the world and say to everyone we meet, “Come and see!” We can ask cashiers and ferry boat captains, schoolteachers and shopkeepers, mechanics and plumbers if they have a church home. We can invite everyone to come and experience the presence of God here and now in worship! That is the heart of who we are, a community that worships God. We experience God’s presence in the relationships that are formed as we worship together! We experience God’s presence in opportunities to learn from God, honor God, and serve God that flow out of our worship together!

Can you hear the rhythm of your heart now? Can you feel the desire to reach out of the darkness of your own life and into the darkness of someone else’s? That is how light begets light and the heart begins to beat anew.

Chris and Carry Tuttle are friends of Treva and I. Treva worked with Chris on the staff of the Montreat Conference Center in the summer of 1999. Chris and Carry went to seminary, married and started a family. In 2008 he received his second call as a solo pastor. Then disaster struck. They went for a routine check up with their 9-month-old son, Heath, and before the day was finished he had been to multiple specialists and determined that he was in need of a heart transplant.

An article in the Durham News quotes Chris as follows:

"That day in the emergency room was the worst day of our lives. He coded three times but we were there holding him even as the room was full of medical people. It was terrifying. That night he was put on life support and we spent the next eight days waiting for a heart. It never happens that a donor heart is found in eight days, but it happened this time. Some family in the worst moment of their life chose to be generous." Heath got his new heart on the morning of Dec. 14, the third Sunday in Advent. He spent a month in the hospital and has had a brief hospital return for an infection but is now doing well. "I have no idea how God was at work on the front end of this thing, but I have no doubt how God was at work on the back end as we were cared for by so many people who took care of our daughter (3-year-old Ella Brooks), our dog and our family. I have no doubt that the way the community responded was God at work. And I'm getting used to not having an idea about why."

Tragedy is by definition unexplainable. We can attempt to say what is or is not God’s will in the face of it, but that’s none of our business. Our business is to respond to the needs of others, and to trust in God when we are in the middle of it. There are no figs to be enjoyed in any other path. Still, it is terrifying and maddening when a heart does not work as it is supposed to. I believe that is especially true when that heart is the church. Isn’t it good that we have this holy responsibility, and that God takes even our weakest attempts and uses them beyond our ability to dream? Isn’t it amazing that God would place his very own heart in our hands? Isn’t it good to have a place to be from? And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sacrifice

"Sacrifice"

Journey of Faith - Part Two

Ruth 1:18-19

Philippians 2:5-11

This is the second sermon in a series titled “Journey of Faith.” My first sermon was on calling. We looked at the call of Matthew and talked about finding the connection between the world’s greatest need and your greatest joy. Greg Garis, our Interim Presbytery Exec. Followed it with a sermon on Jacob wrestling with God. He reminded us to Go for it, and claim the blessing that comes from wrestling with God even if we walk away limping. Today we are considering the story of Ruth and Naomi as well as one of the earliest confessions of faith in Christian tradition.

As we continue in this journey together, let us pause for a word of prayer. Lord, silence in us all competing thoughts and concerns, that nothing ring true in this place but the sound of your light in a darkened world. And Lord, if there are any words spoken or considered that are not in keeping with your truth, strike them quickly so that the only thing that takes root in our hearts is your word…that it may bear fruit in due season. In the name of the Judge who is the Redeemer, amen.

I love candles! I always have. Something about the dancing light of a candle has always fascinated me. Growing up in the South, it seems that citronella candles have always been a part of my life. My favorite candles were the ones in our sanctuary, growing up. I can remember my brother and sister and I trying to blow from eight rows back on the side section to make the candle flicker. Of course they knew that it was the air conditioning draft that made it do that. But they timed it so well that for years I really thought we had made it flicker!

Candles are also a reminder of God’s presence. That is why the ancient Hebrews kept an oil lamp burning in the Temple, and that is why the light from our candles is processed out at the end of the service. It has been said that “all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one small candle.” The best example I can think of for this is inside of a cave. For those of you who have been spelunking, you know that inside a cave is a place of consummate darkness. Without any light you are completely blind. The darkness is so real that it has a heaviness to it that you can almost feel.

Naomi knew what that felt like. She fled her homeland in a time of famine only to loose her husband and two sons. How do you like that? You give up everything to take care of those closest to you, and for what? In Naomi’s world her son’s wives were bound to her, and she knew that she would be a liability to them so she sent them off. But Ruth did something spectacular. She said, “No. I am yours and you are mine. Everything you value is what I value. Your people are mine, and your God is mine.” This, most likely, is a death sentence, and Ruth knows it. They have no assets, no property rights, and no resources. They have nothing but the rumor that God has remained faithful to God’s promises to Naomi’s people. Ruth is not simply saying, “You do not have to die alone.” She is saying, “I am going to die with you because I have bound my life and my fate to yours.”

For light to enter darkness there must be some level of sacrifice. A candle is burned to make a flame, and it becomes something more than it could have been by being expended. Even a flashlight requires a battery to be used up. I wonder though, when you do not see the transformation, does it mean as much? Do we, perhaps, have a sanitized view or concept of sacrifice today? Webster’s Dictionary defines sacrifice as 1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar 2 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost.

The Bible is full of sacrifices demanded by God that include people, animals, and produce. The smell is said to please God’s nose. The Bible also contains commentary against it, saying “I demand obedience not sacrifice” and “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

What’s going on here? The point of sacrifice is not ritual appeasement but about orientation. Obedience is sacrifice if the result is fulfilling God’s will instead of our own. That’s why we have Ruth. She’s kind of like a sign post to remind us where we are and where we are headed. You know, they have those outside of caves in National Parks, and many of them also have a book to sign in and out in case you get lost.

Things can get distorted pretty easily in a cave. When you sit still and quiet, there is virtually no sound, no wind, and absolutely no light. That’s how we feel when we are in the grip of despair.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a guy who knew about that. He was a clergyman in Nazis Germany who opposed Hitler and helped form a group of group of congregations to speak out against him. Their words are the ones known as the Theological Declaration of the Barman in our Book of Confessions today. Bonhoeffer died in a concentration camp, but while he was there he continued to teach about Jesus and his love. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer talks about the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is forgiveness without anything else connected to it, no love, no responsibility, no response at all. Cheap grace is the attitude that says, “It is easier to gain forgiveness than permission.” It is self-centered, and self-administered. Costly grace, on the other hand, comes from God alone. Though God has paid the price, and it is freely given, it means nothing to us if we have not truly confessed our sins and if we do not respond by a deeper faith, a changed way of doing things, and involvement with others who are trying to do the same thing (that’s the church, friends). Costly grace means that because Jesus paid the price we can be transformed into something greater than ourselves, like the flame of a burning candle spreading light to all the world!

It means that we can have the same mind as Christ Jesus! By the way, the word translated as “mind” is “phroneo.” It literally means to be being disposed (used) in the same way as Jesus! Who, according to this early hymn of the church, did not exploit (use for himself) grace, but instead gave it away.

The text says he was obedient unto death – even death on a cross! Do you know why that matters? It matters because in Deuteronomy it says that a person who dies hanging from a tree is cursed, cut off from the people, cut off from God! That’s why the Romans used crosses! They wanted to say, “God can’t help you now!” And that is exactly why Jesus took up his cross, to say, “There is no curse, there is nothing that can be put on you from the outside, that can separate you from me! For you are my beloved."

I once heard Jean Matasume Ashe, the wife of Arthur Ashe, speak at a symposium on art and faith. Arthur Ashe was the first African American to succeed in professional tennis. He was not aloud to practice or play on the courts of whites as a child. Trgicly he contracted AIDs from a blood transfusion and died. Mrs. Ashe is a photographer. In reflection upon her life she said, “Isn’t it amazing that to get an image entirely dependant on light you have to go into a place of total darkness? And isn’t that what the cross was all about?”

Friends, here’s the good news, through our sacrifices and in our times of sharing we become light to one another! I have seen you do it. I have seen you sit with one another in hospitals. I have heard your stories of tutoring children, and the legacy of service to the community that flows from this place! Through Christ we do not just offer companionship but the very presence of God. So, I ask you, will we keep this legacy alive? Will we continue in the journey that requires sacrifice? Will we give up our advantages to be with someone in their adversity?

I have heard it said that Christian faith is like bacon and eggs. The chicken was involved in your breakfast. The pig was committed to it. We may feel like an old stump of a candle, but we are truly more like the refillable kind; and our refill comes in the offering of ourselves for others. In our journey of faith we can’t get very far without surrendering our current position. But the beautiful thing is this: through Christ giving is receiving, obedience is sacrifice, and every step into the heart of darkness is a chance to shine more light. This does not happen just anywhere. It happens here, around this table, in this place; and it shines into the darkness beyond, and the darkness can not overtake it! Thanks be to God. Amen.