Thursday, June 28, 2012

Peace

Sermon delivered on June 24, 2012 – Season After Pentecost (4B) 
1 Sam 20:12–17
Acts 4:32–35
Mark 4:35–41

A tired Jesus slumps into a commercial fisherman’s boat, says, “Get me out of here!” and falls asleep. I bet it was a good sleep, too. Just yesterday I had been working on projects in the yard all day. We had dinner in the back yard, and I fell asleep in my chair. It was a good sleep. My daughter had been at a friend’s house the night before and stayed up very late. She fell asleep on the couch – barely waking when the dog was encouraged to lick her face. It was a good sleep.

This passage is one of those that affirms the humanity of Jesus for me. I know, he gets all metaphysical before it is over with, but the man was tired! And when he woke up he simply looked death in the face and said, “Peace. Be still.”

This word, peace – shalom in Hebrew – is not as simple a word as we might like it to be. In the tradition of the Jews it was used as a greeting – still is by some – and can mean hello or goodbye. Shalom means an end to conflict, yes, but it also means completeness. Shalom is also an expression of care for the other – an expression of hope that all is well with you. Even stronger – it is an expression of faith that all will be well with those who love the Lord.

Shalom is an acknowledgement of fidelity in the face of uncertainty and fear. When chaos seems to be reigning, shalom is a statement of defiance. Shalom is a statement of unity. Shalom is the acknowledgement that the One who has the habit of making order out of chaos is at work here and now.

And so Jesus looked at the storm and said all of these things in one word. And then he said another – be still. Of course, technically speaking that is two words. Not only that but the text is in Greek and does not say that he said, “Shalom.” Yet, I don’t think it is too big of a stretch to believe that Jesus said a word that meant the same – let conflict cease, let this storm be finished, let harmony and mutual well being replace chaos, doubt, and fear.

Many a sermon has been, and will be, preached about the obvious metaphor of the storms in our lives and the way in which Jesus will get us through the middle passage. That’s a good message. There is truth in it – except that it doesn’t always work that way. The storm does not always stop just because we have said the name Jesus, in fact it rarely does. I am not denying that Jesus can offer peace in the storm. In fact I would say that Jesus is the only one who truly can offer peace in the storm.

All of this makes me wonder about our expectations of Jesus, and that makes me wonder about the disciples’ expectation of Jesus. It’s not clear at this point – nor is it for the majority of Mark’s Gospel – if anyone other than Jesus thinks of him as the Messiah. He is definitely perceived as a Rabbi, maybe even a prophet, and also as a healer. Jesus has publicly claimed authority over sin – which is utter blasphemy for anyone, even in some messianic traditions.

Some are looking for a military leader, some a teacher, and some are looking for a prophet. But what have the disciples seen? They have seen a great teacher who has invited them to follow him. They’ve seen him heal the sick and cast out demons. That was not an uncommon claim for prophetic leaders of the day. So, what did they expect when they woke him up? Did they really expect him to quiet the storm?

The Rev. Mike Baughman, A United Methodist Pastor who contributes to the blog, The Hardest Question, asks this, “Were they handing him a bucket?” That may not seem like so hard a question until you stop and think about what it means for us as we approach Jesus in the midst of the storms we face. Rev. Baughman asks if we are expecting miracles or hoping for mediocrity. He offers these thoughts from his personal experiences:

I’m totally guilty of this…of handing bailing buckets to God when what God really wants to do is calm the storm. When doing pastoral care, I so often find myself praying for manageable goals instead of miracles. When I pray for the ministry I share, I pray for goals that can be attainable by a team of people and not for goals that are attainable by a group of people who have been empowered by GOD!

Sometimes I hand bailing buckets to Jesus because I don’t have faith—not because I’m weak but because I can remember so many storms that Jesus slept right on through. Sometimes I hand a bucket to Jesus because I don’t want to be disappointed when the winds continue to blow.

Sometimes I hand bailing buckets to Jesus because miracles are scary. Anyone who stares in the face of God and does not cower a bit is a fool. Miracles simultaneously humble and raise the bar of reasonable expectations for what we can accomplish in the name of God.

And so we stand here with our buckets in hand, looking at Jesus who just said – right in front of his Momma in Mark 3:31-35 – that “those who do the will of God are my next of kin.” We look at him and say, “WE are about to die. Do YOU not care about this?” We say it when we are anxious over the church finances, or membership, or staffing. We say it when we are hurting, and we SCREAM it when our loved ones are in pain.

Somehow, I have never seen him pick up a bucket. Instead he says, “Peace. Be Still.” Stop. Know that I am God, and you are not defined by this present conflict. You are defined by my love for you. You are defined by your awareness that you are a part of a greater purpose, a greater story, a more complex narrative. You, in your incompleteness, are whole and good and meaningful to God.

That doesn’t mean that we have permission to ignore our faults or an excuse to continue in patterns of self destruction. It just means that there is more to surviving the storm than the bucket in your hand. It means that even though we may get a grumpy Jesus that questions our faith, turning to Jesus is still the right thing to do. And Jesus says, as he always does, a word that we barely understand anymore – Peace.

I have to admit having a confused perception of this word myself – having grown up in the age of fond remembrances of the cultural upheaval of the late 1960’s. Film and media have watered down the pain and suffering of that time and selected the hippies and peaceniks as victors. The reality, I would guess, is that we lurched forward – for good or for ill – and claimed the best memories for our scrapbooks.

The one quote that I do think rings true from that time is one that I saw at the MLK Center in Atlanta recently. Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted as saying, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” For King, justice did not mean retribution, but reverence. Reverence for God, and reverence for life. The presence of justice means that all people have the opportunity to experience a feeling of completeness and wholeness. The presence of justice means that we are constantly seeking each other's well being, never quite getting there, but always pressing toward the goal of peace.

The question is not whether or not we will be successful. The question is whether or not we will be faithful. The question is this – when we pick up our buckets, will we pick them up in hope or out of desperation? I would guess – if we are truly honest with ourselves – it is always a little of both.

But this much I do know – storms will rage. We will panic. God will be present – working toward completeness. In our vulnerability, we will find strength by pooling our resources, just as the early church in Acts. In our vulnerability, we will find comfort in our fidelity – just as Jonathan and David. In our vulnerability, we – as disciples of Christ – are in a good place to turn to Jesus and hear him say, “Peace. Be still.”

Sociologist, BenrĂ© Brown – in her virally popular TED conference presentation – found that people who are comfortable with their own limitations seem to be more at peace with the world. She suggests that the world would be a better place if we could see others as vulnerable, broken, and still worth loving. Not only that, but we must see ourselves as worthy of love even with our own vulnerability and brokenness.

And in our vulnerability and brokenness we look to Jesus. He looks to the storms that rage within and without and says, “Peace. Be completed. Be Still.” He looks to us and says, “How many times do I have to tell you? I love you. You are worth saving.”

Interestingly, the Greek text that is used has two verb forms. Peace is stated in the present active tense. It is an order to be completed right now. Be still is in the Past Perfect tense. It is an action that has already been completed. It reminds me of the childhood argument:

“Make me.”

“You’re already made and too slow to know it!”

Yes, that is absolute nonsense – I know. But the reality is that our completion – the fullness of every task we expect of ourselves – is found in God alone. So, let us turn to God. Let us turn to one another. And let us be still and know that God is God. Amen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Resonance

Sermon Delivered on June 3, 2012 – Trinity (B)
Isaiah 6:1-8
John 3:1-17

Today is Trinity Sunday, and it is an appropriate time to consider the fullness of the Godhead. It’s appropriate and good because we are coming down from the highs of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter and the unleashing of the Advocate - God’s Holy Spirit - at Pentecost. It’s important to remember the fullness of God during this point of the year because sometimes the limitations of language get in the way of experiencing God’s presence, God’s activity, and God’s intention for our lives.

Last week I talked about hope and how good it is - in fact how vital it is - that we do not know how or when our hopes will be realized. A member of the PNC (Pastor Nominating Committee) who always gives me impeccable feedback said that he sees lots of things to be hopeful about - every day! I want you to know that I do, too. And I want you to know that I believe that the nature of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is the reason why I have hope in this world.

Not only that, but the knowledge that each of us may experience God in fullness through one another gives me hope. It gives me cause to sing. It gives me cause to tremble in fear because of my unworthiness, and it gives me the desire to say, “Let me share this faith, because if I try to contain it I will be torn apart by it!”

That may not be exactly what Isaiah meant, but it’s the closest I can come to it in my own experience. I mean - I’ve never had a Seraphim attempt to cleanse my mouth with a hot coal, but I have received particular instruction from Dr. John Senick in which he, by the grace of God, rearranged the capabilities of my mouth in order to sing in worship!

If any of you could have seen the first time we worked together on a Psalm you would have laughed and cried. I’m pretty sure John was near tears. In fact he told me later that he called a colleague or two just to say, “I really don’t understand what is happening with him - what do I do?!”

But we pressed on - trying like mad to “put to death the deeds of the body” in order to orient our lives around proclaiming the goodness of God. I imagine that I am not alone in this experience, given John’s tenure of 18 years here.

It is difficult to acknowledge the ending of this particular era without acknowledging the sadness and grief that comes with separation - for to leave the pain of separation unsaid is to act as though the joy of presence did not matter. Dr. John Senick matters.

John’s ministry here matters. It matters to us, and it matters to God. As I think about today’s readings, and about John’s ministry here, the word resonance comes to mind. Acoustic resonance is the concept of frequencies absorbing the energy of like frequencies as they join together. Most instruments have a particular range of frequencies that they can offer. Most people have a particular range of frequencies that they can offer. That is why the members of the choir sit where they sit. It’s not because they like the person they sit next to, though through their time together they have come to love one another.

And that is the essence of Christian faith - through our shared experience of being drawn together, paired and combined in ways that frequencies which are both alike and different may express something greater than any of us could on our own, we experience the very presence of God. Through our experience of God we are moved to express the very heart of God. And in expressing the heart of God we become fully aware of who we are as God’s beloved children.


And somewhere along the way, God had the idea that John Senick might be a good person to help us do just that - experience, express, and explore the very presence of God. That is why John’s ministry matters, and that is why we sing. I don’t think that God really cares about music styles. God could have used anyone. God used a stick with a snake on it for the ancient Israelites, and God has used a cross that is empty for you and for me and for John.

And even though God could have used anything or anyone, God chose John. In speaking with some of our members over the last few weeks, God’s actions through John have been made clear to me. Edna Perkins told me how meaningful it was that John was the one who answered the phone when Dave called to say that their son, Layne had been in a life threatening accident. Wes Cady told me that she joined the church for three reasons: 1) there wasn’t a Quaker fellowship in town, 2) Mac Drake was a member, and 3) our music ministry enhanced her experience of God in worship.

I have already pushed him way past his comfort level by saying these things, but I want to give him a gift that someone gave me when I left a call of significance. I’ve asked Chuck Peddy, as a member of the Choir, an officer of the Church, a brother in Christ, and as a friend to share a few thoughts on the importance of the music ministry of this congregation and it’s impact on his journey of faith.

“In 1995 I was approached by former choir director Carolyn Gibson and asked "Why aren't you singing in the choir?" I had honestly never considered myself good enough to get up and sing in front of people even if I'm hiding behind a whole bunch of good singers. Sure, I had been through elementary and high school band but hadn't ever trained my voice and hadn't read music regularly for several years. I very politely dodged the topic for several weeks.

Well, apparently there was collusion between Sweet Ms. Carolyn and the nefarious Dr. John Senick. After about a month John approached me and said "So, I hear you should be in the choir." I was slightly taken aback and said that I wasn't sure if he wanted me messing up his music. To his credit, John didn't push but said that I should try out for him. Now, I don't know if anyone else has EVER had try out for John, but apparently he didn't want to get a "pig in a poke" with me.

Joining the choir helped me greatly to get more involved in the very lifeblood of this congregation. I have made some wonderful friends in the choir (some still here with us and some now in the church triumphant) and from my experiences in the choir I've actually "come out of my shell." You see, some people don't realize that I'm really a painfully shy person. Through my involvement in the choir I've stepped up to do some things that I might not have done before. These things include becoming a permanent fill-in for Phil Andrew for the Church Christmas Supper, giving sermons for Laity Sunday, and I have even sung a couple of solos.

Besides increasing my involvement, John helped me look at the liturgical meanings and scriptural tie-ins of much of the music we sing. And, because I was in choir, I had more than my fair share of conversations with Mac Drake. Mac had an incredible knowledge of liturgical music and our hymnal in particular. Let me tell you, nothing enhances your appreciation of the worship experience like good music. In fact, one of the anthems we are singing today is an adaptation of one of my favorite hymns AND if you look at the hymn in the hymnal, you'll notice it has words but you must read the music from the prior page. The tune is "Nettleton" and the hymn is "Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing."

So, to close, I will "raise my Ebenezer" (That's a biblical reference to Samuel 7 and means "stone of help.") and quote this hymn to try to summarize my choir experience:

Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

Thank you, Chuck. It is through Christ Jesus that all of our imperfections become wrought into something more beautiful than anything we can do by ourselves. John has been as Christ to us, just as we have been to him. John has helped us to sing the songs of our souls, and for that we give thanks to God.

But in all of this talk about the importance of our ministry together, I am betting that there is one thing that John would not want us to forget, and that is the fact that we worship God - not our organ, not our experience of God, not our leaders that help us to feel that we are good people because we can do pretty things together. We worship the God that yearns for us to be transformed. We worship the God who did not just call John into ministry but who called you and me and anyone who walks through those doors or down the street.

We worship the God who created and is creating. We worship the God who has redeemed and is redeeming. We worship the God who has sustained us and is sustaining us today. And while we regret losing John and his influence on our faithful practice of worship, we trust that God will continue to work in his life and in ours. We trust that God has already called someone to enable us once more to sing a new song unto the Lord! And, unless we plan to sneak off into the night shaking our heads like Nicodemus, we will look for ways in which we can become transformed by the grace and mercy of Christ into something new. Every day holds with it the promise of redemption and the threat of destruction, yet through the grace of God we are constantly invited into a deeper and more resonant faith.

Thanks be to God for the ministry of Dr. John Senick that has enabled such faith. Thanks be to God for the challenges that lie ahead. In the name of the God who created and is creating, the God who has redeemed and is redeeming, and the God who has sustained us and will sustain us today, tomorrow, and all the days yet to come - I say amen, amen, and I invite the Church of Jesus Christ to join me in saying it once more, “Amen!”

Hope

Sermon Delivered May 27, 2012 – Pentecost (Year B)

John 15:26 - 27, 16:4b-15
Romans 8:22-27
Acts 2:1-21

Please join me in a moment of silent reflection on the scriptures we have read and the hope they proclaim... Amen.

Have you ever hoped for something so strongly that it seemed like there were no options left if that hope remained unanswered? Have you ever wanted something so terribly that it felt like nothing else mattered? Have you ever had the experience of waiting, expecting, and longing for something that turned out so entirely different from your hopes that it changed the way you understood who you are, who God is, and what the relationship between you and your Creator is truly about? 


If you have, then you have had a Pentecost moment. If you have not, then I would suggest that you either have not lived long enough, or it happened in a way that you either didn’t understand or aren’t willing to admit. I don’t say that to condemn anyone. I say that as a person whose hope rests in a God who is active and present and always in our midst. 

Or perhaps we are always in the midst of God. God is the ground of all being. God is, and because God is - we are! 

Today we celebrate Pentecost as a time to remember the birth of the church - a time when God’s Holy Spirit blew in and through a certain people to declare the truth about sin, and righteousness, and judgement! And the truth we know - Jesus Christ offers forgiveness. Righteousness we proclaim - through Christ we become one with God. Through Christ we become aware that the creation reflects and enacts the will of the Creator - and that includes us. For through Christ we are convicted in the judgement of all who oppose God, and we are set apart to demonstrate a way to live in concert with the source of life itself. 

That is the reality of Pentecost. That is the hope we live in and long for. Salvation from self-deceit and the invitation to participate in the will of God - that is the new reality ushered in by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. That is not - I imagine - what the disciples hoped for. The disciples gathered because they were told to - awaiting this Advocate, who or whatever that was supposed to be. The disciples locked the doors because they were afraid, and their fears were answered by a rush of wind and visions of fire. 

The disciples fears were not answered by establishing committees and setting up criteria for membership. The disciples fears were not answered by demonstrating denominational identity to set them apart from the Medes and the Parthians. The disciples fears were not answered by the recommendation to stay put and effectively manage their resources. Their fears were answered with a kick in the pants that through them out into the midst of the very people they were trying to keep out! 

This was not - I do not believe - what they were hoping for! Obviously this raises the opportunity for us to think about our own hopes and fears. We are in a time of transition (when is anyone not?), where we are in need of new leadership for our choir. We are a small congregation with a deficit budget. We are beset by denominational issues. We are of an age that makes it seem impossible to bridge a generation gap that we have been peering down into and turning from in denial since before I was born. [For the record, I just turned 42.] Our culture is becoming more and more polarized in ideology and economics, and our country is still at war on multiple fronts with enemies that are both real and ideal. 

With that in mind, it is important to note that tomorrow is a day set aside in our country to remember the sacrifices of those who have fought in wars past and present. It is a day to give thanks to God for the freedoms we hold dear. It is not a day to worship the honored dead or mourn solemnly - though many will do just that. Tomorrow is instead a day to remember that those who have fought - whether we think the wars and campaigns just or not - fought because they hoped that fighting will one day cease. 

And so today, and tomorrow, and every day we have been given, is given to us that we may hope for something even better than the gift of the very day in which we live. For in the words of the Apostle Paul: 
In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Hope is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, seconded by faith and only out shined by love (again according to Paul). Hope is so strong that it was threatening to Nietzsche and inspiring to Einstein. Without hope, we loose our patience, and we turn inward to try to answer for ourselves the need that only God can provide for. The need for hope is expressed constantly throughout history in art and media, and it continues to be expressed today. 

In the recent film based on the best selling teenage novel, The Hunger Games, there is a scene in which the President speaks about hope to defend his position for the rules of the game. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic land that once was the United States of America. All that is left is a collection of colonies, each supporting The Capitol with different commodities. Each colony is in return given resources for an impoverished survival - and nothing more. 

In the formative days of this new land there was an uprising - and the thirteenth colony was destroyed. As a reminder of their superiority, the Capitol holds annual arena style games in which teen-age tributes from each colony are selected to fight to the death. The winner gets a life of luxury filled with remorse and shame while her or his friends and loved ones continue to suffer around them. 

In the film, President Snow justifies his position to the chief Game Maker - the one who coordinates the games - telling him that the winner of the games gives the colonists something to hope for, because “hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous.” 

A little hope is effective - it keeps you from dreaming too big. A lot of hope is dangerous - it can lead to things that are beyond your control. And that begs the question - what do we hope for, and what is within our control? Well - ultimately - nothing is entirely within our control. 

We a not in in control - even though we live in a world we think we can manage. We a not in in control - even though we live in a world where a minority of the population use the majority of its resources, which are produced by the majority of its population. We a not in in control - even though we command the most technically advanced and well funded military on the planet. Ultimately, we are not in control. 

But thanks be to God that we have an Advocate! Thanks be to God that we have hope that the new reality we are moving toward does not look like the one we live in now or even like the one we remember from days gone by! Thanks be to God that we do not have a clear and particular vision of what that new reality looks like; for we would surely manipulate that vision into something that pleases us more than it pleases God. 

Thanks be to God that we have been called together as a particular people who feel the rush of God’s Spirit in every breath we take. Thanks be to God that our tongues and our hearts may burn with Pentecostal fire that spreads light into darkened places when we reach out to others in the simple act of loving as we have been loved. 

Even more than all of these, we say thanks be to God that even when we accept smaller, more palatable portions of hope there is yet a banquet prepared for us where every bite is filled with more grace and mercy than we could ever consume. It is here, at the table of Christ, that our hopes are met with the reality of forgiveness. It is here, at the table of Christ, that we become the righteousness of God - living as one with the Creator, an expression of the very love that forms and sustains us. It is here, at the table of Christ, that we stand redeemed and released from self deceit and the limitations of doubt. 

We do not know what tomorrow holds - but we do know who holds tomorrow. Not only that, we know that God will use our hands - no matter how young or old, no matter how strong or tired - to hold it with. Like the first disciples we are waiting for an Advocate to testify on behalf of Christ. Like the first disciples we have also been told to testify. When the Spirit of Truth came to the disciples they became what they were waiting on - and they became Advocates for those they previously kept out, for the disciples had been afraid. 

Their fears, just like ours, were real. Yet perfect love casts out fear, and the Spirit of truth pushed the disciples out into the world to proclaim the love and hope and redemption they had received through Jesus Christ. Even though it terrifies me sometimes - it is my hope that the Spirit of Truth will do the same to me and to you in ways that are beyond our ability to foresee and control, and to God be the glory - now and always! Amen.