Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Can’t Stop

Sermon Delivered July 8, 2012 – Pentecost (6B) 
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Acts 5:27-42
Luke 2:1-15

There are some things in this life that you just can’t stop. We like to think that we can control and channel the elements of nature - and to some extent we always have. Crops have used the power of the sun and rain to feed our families. Winds have been harnessed to blow ships through the sea and air for centuries. We have even used the gravitational pull of the earth to balance out the thrust and and extension of our hand into the depths of space.

We can do all of these things. We have done all of these things, and we will do more. But we still can’t stop the tide. We can use inertia, but we cannot change the fact that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Likewise, we can not always predict the reaction we are going to illicit!

When it works the way we want it to we call that a job well done. When the reaction exceeds our expectations we might even call it providence or grace. And when things happen that we do not want or like, well, we call that a lot of different things - some of which I won’t say from a pulpit.

As a community of Christ’s followers, however, we come together to be assured that, no matter what, God is involved in our lives. God is not involved because we are God’s favorite. (Incidentally, a mentor of mine once showed up at a church retreat wearing a t-shirt that said, “Jesus Loves You - But I’m His Favorite” as a joke.) God is involved because that is who and what God is - involved!

Involvement - I have heard it said that the current generation of 20-30 somethings is the most involved generation in their community since the World War II generation. Community involvement, for many of them, is not simply something to do for a merit badge. It is a way of life.

And yet, we still have many of the same problems we have always had. Robert Lupton, a community organizer and a long time advocate for the poor, writes about this issue in his book, Toxic Charity. He argues that – for all of our charitable giving, government programing, and corporate philanthropy – things are getting worse. Why? Primarily because our efforts are not geared toward being in relationship with those in need. Even those of us who work to build others up can get caught up in the trap of seeing chronic needs as a crisis. And when we try to treat chronic needs as a crisis, we simply feed the chronic need until we have created a monster that has the potential to harm us both.

It’s funny how kids can see right through things like this. In 2006 I took a group of youth on a mission trip to Belize. One evening I was walking back to the hotel with a kid named David. A beggar came to him, and David gave the guy a dollar. I told him that I admired his generosity and he replied dryly, as only a 16 year old can, “Yeah, I think I just solved poverty in Belize.” The thing is, he knew that he had given the dollar for his own comfort. Even so, he did feel that it was the right thing to do. He felt compelled to do something – and so he did.

All of us are faced with choices that we feel we have to do something about. In our congregation, we adopted a policy for social assistance a little over a year ago. The Session – realizing that we have some serious limitations and real obligations – agreed that we, as a congregation, would not give money directly to anyone. Members may still do as they feel compelled to, but we do not give money to individuals. We may offer limited assistance by paying for an emergency need, but our primary efforts go toward doing what we know we can do well.

So, we set up an emergency food bag ministry, and we focused our efforts on collecting peanut butter and making gift baskets. The peanut butter goes to families in need through the United Christian Outreach, an organization that members of our congregation helped charter and still support as volunteer labor. Some might argue that the UCO would make better use of a dollar than a jar of peanut butter. This congregation has repeatedly affirmed the value of the relationships that we share with others by physically picking up a jar of peanut butter with someone else in mind.

The gift baskets work in much the same way, only on a grander scale. It may seem a silly thing to give gifts when people need their utilities to be paid. It may seem a silly thing when there are mouths to be fed. It may even seem like all we are doing is perpetuating the greed that has taken over the season of Christmas. It may seem that way to some, but not to those whom I have met who have received these baskets. It was not silly to the woman who broke down crying last year in the Abundance Room because she did not believe that anyone cared about her or her family. It is not silly to the family who returns every year – former clients who now return as volunteer shoppers to assist others. It is not silly to the social workers who take car loads of presents to build up confidence and encourage struggling clients. No – this basket ministry is serious stuff! This basket ministry is an announcement of the Kingdom of God.

And so, today, we are celebrating Christmas in July to prepare for and begin the work of our C.U.P.S. elves! Sure, it is a little gimicky. Businesses and congregations have been using this tag line to drum up funds in a slow part of the year since the 1940‘s when the movie with the same title debuted. But it is also fun! Christmas is a time of great joy. And although there are some that find the idea of playing Christmas music out of season an apostasy – the real issue is about reverence to God. Even during the actual season of Christmas we must ask ourselves if we are worshiping our hopes or the one who gives us a reason to be hopeful.

Culturally, most people agree – or at least want to believe – that Christmas is a time when everyone has permission to express and to experience good will toward one another. The reality is that there is never a time when everyone is nice to everyone, and so Christmas is also a time of great sadness and depression for those whose expectations go unmet. I wish I could put a stop to that – but we all know that I can’t.

I would probably be elected Supreme Chancellor if I could! That is what the people had in mind with David. Here is the one who led us in battle! Here is the one who took care of us like a shepherd! Let’s make him our King! And so they did, and David’s name became great, not because of the things he did, but because of what the Lord did through him.

David on his own – following his own desires – made some pretty bad choices. But David following God built a city and a people. The city of David – which Luke’s gospel claims as Bethlehem – was not connected to Jerusalem. It was outside of the power and control of the city gates. It was in the same way that the Christ child came into the world – resting in a manger.

I never realized how terribly incredible this story is until I had my own children, and I mean that in every sense of the words used – terrible and without credibility. What a miracle that a newborn might be exposed and delivered in a stable – placed in a food trough for animals – and still survive! But I guess there are some things that just cannot be stopped.

That is the testimony of the Apostles in the book of Acts – religious practice and doctrine cannot stop the will of God. The Apostles had been healing people in the name of Jesus, and it made the religious authorities look bad. So they had the Apostles jailed. The next morning the Apostles show up again, full of the Holy Spirit. The religious leaders don’t even ask how they got out. They only see what they want to see, and they say, “Hey – didn’t we tell you to knock that off? You’re making us look guilty. Stop it.”

The Apostles tell them that they will only follow the will of God, and the authorities want to kill them – that is until a scholar steps forward who seems to know a little about the vanity of chasing after the wind. Gamaliel reminds them that if this is of God, they cannot stop it from happening.

And so it was with Shepherds in the fields watching their flocks by night when the angel of the Lord appeared with a heavenly host to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God. After such an event they could hardly say anything other than, “Let’s go see.”

That’s the thing about an experience of God. One can hardly encountered the Divine and come away unchanged. One can hardly encounter the Divine without reacting in some way. One can hardly encounter the Divine without wanting more. And that’s where it can get scary. Denominations and congregations have been tearing themselves apart from the inside for years over social issues – all because we want a King that will make us feel good about ourselves.

And when it comes down to that, we have a King who suffered rejection so that we might find acceptance. We have a King who came in the most vulnerable way possible, and who invites us to suffer so that others might find acceptance as well.

There are some things we can not stop. People (including you and I) will make choices that are both faithful and selfish. Blessings and disasters will strike the good and the bad alike. And yet – God is involved. God still shows up as a vulnerable gift in a small basket. God still shows up in a congregation that reuses and recycles the abundant resources of a community bent on throwing God’s providence away when it no longer fits or shines.

I think it all boils down to the difference between feeling compelled by the presence of God in our midst and simply acting on our own desires. Following my desires – no matter how pure the motivation may seem – always gratifies me. Feeling compelled attempts to glorify God, and that usually puts me in relationships with others.

It kind of reminds me of a song by David LaMotte about a drop of water falling to the earth and realizing his value as a part of a whole. “The water’s gunna role, from the mountain to the stream. The water’s gunna role, from the river to the sea. We will roll on together ‘till everyone can see – that mighty tidal wave is made, of little bitty drops like me.”

We can not stop the will of God – even though we sometimes get confused between God’s will and our own – because God is still working in and through us. God is establishing God’s kingdom. And when we realize that, we cannot stop moving toward it. At least that is my prayer and my firm belief for you and for me, and to the glory of God. Amen.
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