Monday, August 26, 2019

Living As We Believe - Somonauk 8/25/19

Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 13:10-17
Somonauk 8-25-2019 

Living As We Believe 

            The prophet Jeremiah and Jesus are both challenging the status quo this morning by representing God’s Good News, without regard to the “rules” that would restrict their behavior. It does not mean that rules do not have value. It simply means that human rules are a poor substitute of the power of God’s love. 
         This is a tricky concept. How do we establish order and meet expectations, if we cannot limit the behavior of those in the church? These are tough issues, because rules can be spelled out in black and white, but the inspiration of God’s love is a full color assault on our senses. I deal with various levels of this in my current position in the church. 
         I am off and running without a proper word of greeting. I am the Rev. Chuck Maney, I prefer the title Pastor Chuck when I am serving a congregation. I served this congregation as an Interim Pastor from mid-November of 2015 to May of 2107. 
         I then served Community UCC of Morton, IL, as their Interim Pastor from August of 2017 through August of 2018. I also covered for the Rev. Kathy Lawes in Prairie Association as Interim Associate Conference Minister while she was on sabbatical from late November of 2018 to March of 2019. In May, when the Illinois Conference called the Rev. Kim Wood to the Acting Associate Conference Minister for Eastern and Western Associations, she had to relinquish the position of President of the Illinois Conference. I serve in that role now. 
         The United Church of Christ is structured much like a non-profit. The professional staff reports to a Board of Directors, just as your pastor works with and through the Council. In the Illinois Conference we call it the Conference Council. The President chairs that group. In quiet times this position is largely ceremonial. This year we have an Interim Conference Minister, and 2 new Associate Conference Ministers, a third resigned just this week, and a fourth is retiring at the end of the calendar year. So, church order means something special from this vantage point in my life. 
         You and I call ourselves Christians, as we have responded with our hearts to the love of God we have heard expressed by Jesus of Nazareth. In humility, we would acknowledge that what is true about God that we learn from Jesus, may also be discovered by faithful people in other faith traditions. God’s love and truth has the freedom to seek out a response from all of creation. It is an honor to have our Christianity, a form and tradition of faith tailored to us, and others certainly feel the same way. 
         The prophet Jeremiah felt the power of God’s love in his life. In humility, he resisted as he was too young and undeserving. That is kind of a joke from God’s perspective. No one deserves God’s love and blessings. God is love and cannot contain the desire she has to love us, right here, right now, ready or not. 
         I also do not believe that God invented Wisdom teeth and introduced them to the human biology, so that the prophet may speak words of wisdom. I really think that Jeremiah was being poetic when he says the LORD touched his mouth and gave him the words to say. 
         Many years ago, long before Martha and I took leadership roles in our home church, there was a controversy that resulted in many ugly confrontations. On one Sunday, a parishioner interrupted Sunday worship to harass and denounce the pastor. No one stood up to say the things that should have been said that day. It was clear to me what needed to be said, but I did not believe I had the authority to speak at that time. I still regret that. 
         Our focus this morning is not to sit in admiration of the bravery of the prophet Jeremiah. We are not being called only to offer worship to Jesus. I am quite sure God with Jesus appreciate our songs and prayers. However, we are called to hear the word of God, and then live it. Our call is to live with confidence in the inspiration of our faith. 
         The word “angel” means messenger. The prelude was a song called “Voice of an Angel” which celebrates the discovery of God’s word coming out of ordinary mouths. The song was written as a reflection on that Sunday morning when anger interrupted our morning worship. Discovering the words for the moment right at the tip of my tongue, made me aware of the power of God’s grace. 
         Many things happen in the world, not because God chose for them to happen. God allows us free will, which often feels more empowering than self-discipline, though it seldom produces lasting benefits. But the grace of God, and the power of God’s love is always with us. God does not turn her head and look away when we do evil to others, or others do evil to us. God’s love is there within us. 
         My friend Ron Colby of the UCC congregation in Spring Valley likes to say that when he steps into any new circumstance, he breathes the prayer, “Jesus, take my hand and go with me.” He is also quick to point out that if he pulls into a spot where he thinks, “This looks interesting, Jesus why don’t you wait in the car while I check it out,” then he might not be doing the will of God. 
         So how do we trust that what is in our mind is from God and not from our own desires? The answer in the United Church of Christ is that we try to discern God’s will in community. We invite others to think about and consult with us on the things that are on our minds. My sense is that truth, within creation, is like a jig saw puzzle. The piece of the truth that you hold and the piece that I hold, are both genuine. We cannot determine the context without putting our pieces together, and see how it all fits. 
         When we are motivated by the love of God, we can trust that truth and action are not diluted when they are shared. In fact, our power to represent God’s love becomes more whole, and more holy, when the discernment takes place within the gathered body where each voice is honored as bringing a genuine piece of the big picture. 
         We see in the scriptures this morning that God is not hung up on sticking with the hierarchy. The distribution of God’s word goes to any and all of God’s children. As we study and pray, and put ourselves in the places where ministry takes place, we learn to live with the confidence to share what we have been given. It is not to claim personal glory, but to empower the entire community. We feel the presence of God best when we are in the community of the faithful. 
         I want to touch one more idea before we move on. I often speak of a “thin reality.” Since I trust in the power and presence of God’s love, I try to always be mindful to listen for “deeper” insights. Our culture is largely driven by profiteers, all sorts of sins can be overlooked as long as we create the illusion of wealth in that system. I call that a thin reality. In the kingdom of God, lasting wealth is built on the power of God’s love, shared without regard to boundaries, membership, ownership or balance sheets. 
         We can never dismiss the fact that the bills have to be paid. This is a challenge for the Illinois Conference Council when the Conference Operating Budget endured a loss of nearly $1 million dollars last year. We try not to obsess over the measure of dollars and cents. We seek a balance of prudent choices and clear ministry objectives. We trust that when we do God’s Will, God will provide. We begin with what we have and a generous spirit. Generosity inspires generosity. The better job we do of demonstrating God’s love in the wider community, the more God’s love will grow within the community. 
         This is success as defined in the Kingdom of God. Any church culture can get caught in the trap of thin reality. We can try to redefine our priorities to let the balance sheet tell us where we should turn and what we should do next. We must listen first for the Voice of an Angel, and a message from God. We have to return to our scriptures that tell us time and again what God values. We must be ready to share God’s power and the word of God’s truth that gets put into our mouths. This past week I was in a training learning to be a professional Coach. One the instructors talked about the feeling when “the Jesus in me leaps up to greet the Jesus in you.” I found that a meaningful and powerful image. 
         So I have a new song that I call, “Living As We Believe.” It is in the form of a power ballad, which seems appropriate. 

Saturday, June 8, 2019

2019 Report of the President Illinois Conference

Report of the President to the Illinois Conference of the 
United Church of Christ
June 8, 2019
Love in Action – Life Together 

            The future has arrived at our doorstep. It is not dressed the way we expected it to be dressed. It does not seem to have the kind of manners that our mothers required of us. There is no sense of sentimentality about it all. 

            To be completely candid, I cannot tell if it seems more masculine or feminine. The attire and hairstyle do not seem to present any clues. It would appear indifferent, if it were not right at the door and seemingly perturbed that we are slow at allowing access. 

            I searched some recent literature in order to gain a clue as to what I should expect of the future. The Handmaid’s Tale seemed a chilling warning about what could happen if we acquiesced to a swing to the extreme religious right. It is a frightening reflection of the reaction to the rights and role of women as equal members of society. 

            Ready Player One, seemed a bit more human and hopeful within the range of interpersonal relationships, while the world culture was identified as a stark appraisal of where ecological neglect could lead, and political power manipulated by corporations rather than the electorate leaves a foreboding lack of justice. 

            The future at our doorstep today is more immediate. It is not clearly claiming one kind of future is more likely than the other. But when the future steps inside of the church, the church structure seems poorly prepared to do battle. 

            Without an institutional memory, the future looks at our grand pipe organ, and lack of young skilled musicians, and silently does the math of what pipe organs receive as scrap metal. Without a sense of community, long heavy oak or walnut pews look like feed stock for furniture saw mills and a side market for local wood crafters. Our meeting space may be sturdy enough, but who would ever want to heat or cool all of that dead air space? 

            But I am getting ahead of myself. I am the Reverend Charles Maney. When I serve a congregation, I prefer to be called Pastor Chuck. I am not the person you elected as President last year. The Reverend Kimberly Wood has accepted a call to be the Acting Associate Conference Minister serving Eastern and Western Associations. I was selected as a candidate from Prairie Association, where I have my standing. 

            I received a phone call asking if I would consider filling a vacancy in the Conference. At this stage in my life I am doing Interim Ministry. I like going into a congregation, helping them sort out their issues and differences, and then support them as they call a new pastor. Then I go home to my wife Martha and rest for a while. I try to stick to what I do best with my limited skill set. 
            My primary church skill is making wisecracks and bad jokes from the back row during choir practice. I have been assured, there is no vacancy for that role – not in any choir in the Conference. Among my secondary skills, I am able to lead a meeting. It turns out the Conference President is expected to lead a lot of meetings. I am able to do what is needed. With that background out of the way, let’s turn our attention Back to the Future. 

            I am trying to confront the future in a Pastoral way. I want to show compassion for those who were raised outside the church, and believed the tales that they were told. All of us inside the walls are judgmental and self-centered, they were told. We all believe in a distant God who will ride in on a great day in the future and make everything right, they have heard. God has a plan, and all the world bends towards that plan, is what they expect us to think. God will make it all right, just believe. The future does not accept that thinking. 

            You and I need to be aware that the love of God does not accept the thinking of the culture, either. We cannot not fight fire with fire. We are not going to do battle with their chosen weapons of war. 

            We are not without hope, you and I. Our strength lies in the power we have to trust each other and the power of the Holy Spirit that holds us together. Our power grows when we reach outside of the walls of our churches, and make a difference for the good. The love of God is as strong a presence in the world, as the love of God can be made real in the actual ministry we do together.

            Future plans have no power. Mission Statements that are printed on paper and not burnt like brands on the hands of the servants of God or labelled on the backs of mission Team t-shirts, are ineffectual. We must live like the love of God is a jet pack tied to our backsides, where we cannot sit still, we cannot be content, we cannot rest while there is human suffering and souls longing for the love of God. 

            There is an awakening call echoing across the Illinois Conference of the UCC. It is a call that seeks a response. Do you harbor the love of God within you? Is there a spark of passion for justice within you? Are you ready to tell the story of Jesus; the ‘son of man’ misunderstood; and tortured and executed by the powers of law and order – a sacrifice to the collusion of a politicized church and state. Jesus modeled what it looks like to suffer injustice, and not be co-opted into the prevailing corruption, and not be reduced to confronting their violence on their terms. 

            In this time and place, this Conference is building a bias for action. Where we find a passion for love in action, the Conference will bring fertilizer, and water, and sing and pray and dance until the sun rises again for God to bring growth. 

            A bias for action means that we can work on the language for the tri-fold handout later, but first let us begin to do the work. We only need to ask, “Do you feel the presence of God in this work?” “Do you have a number of others who feel the fire?” “Has this discernment taken place in the community?” Lone Rangers are so easily compromised. 

            Denominations in general are under siege by a future that does not believe the promises of the “modern” world that were so important 50 years ago. The entire logical sequences that were the building blocks of modern thought were based on expectations that we took for granted. Upon closer examination of the gospel, the “American” perspective on faith, that accompanied the explosion of the middle class in the 1950s and 60s, was a tangent at best. The heart of the gospel is not built on self-sufficiency and social mobility. 

            We cannot take anything for granted any more. If we want to share our inclusive view on the love of God in this post-modern world, we must share our flame with others, and make a ministry that touches real people where they live. We will need to make a ministry that builds a sense of community for young people - working multiple lousy paying jobs - from corporations that dodge taxes and any sort of accountability. The hunger for genuine community is real.  

            The future is at the door but it does not expect to confront the love of God. The love of God is a better dealthan what the future was told to expect. The United Church of Christ is a better wayto be a Christian for thinking people. Find thinking people around you, and find your common passion that makes the world better. Then start! Ask for prayers and help, but start! Genuine ministry is the most compelling evangelism. 

            A good choir director can improve the musicality of singers who have no training. The director can introduce skills and exercises to improve the ability of people to sing in tune, to hear each other, and blend their voices. We learn how to shape words in our mouths to be understood. Sometimes, we can even learn to keep time. 

            The choir may joke; “How many choir directors does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer of course is; “Nobody knows, nobody is watching the director.” But it is only a joke, because we love our director, and appreciate that the director makes choir members sing better, and sing together. 

            Our strength is in the covenant, the promise we make, to love and stand with each other. There is no time to wait. The future is at the door. We must increase the power of our community to meet the future and the legitimate suffering it faces. We need to be present at our Association meetings. We need to bring more of our friends to the Conference Celebration. We need to send our hearts and prayers with our liveliest representatives to General Synod, so that our great way to be a thinking Christian, will be prepared to meet the future - with love and compassion. Each of us needs to seek, or at least accept, the invitations we receive to bring whatever gifts God gave us, to serve the wider church and it’s mission. We need to listen to each other so that we can sing in tune, and blend, and eventually even keep time

            I am most aware of the presence of God, when I am in the company of God’s saints. I get my strength from serving with those great saints. Our theme this year summarizes what we know to be true for the hope the church has going forward, “Love in Action – Life Together.” Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, the future needs your hope, your love and your compassion. You are needed as a partner in the face of this great challenge. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Truth About Power 
Psalm 27 - Luke 13:31-35; 3/17/19  

So the Psalm 27 tells us, we should not be afraid, but wait on the Lord. It is all going to work out. 

Luke’s gospel says that Jesus rejected the implication that he should live in fear and run from trouble. He confidently said he was going to keep on about his business. But he also said, a prophet cannot be killed except in Jerusalem. I take this to mean that, “true prophets,” who speak their truth to corrupt power, cannot stand in the city where the religious authorities and the civil authorities are in collusion.  

Jesus does not say that the authorities cannot touch him. He does not say, “I am going to destroy those who misuse their authority.” He simply says, “I will not live my life in fear of what might happen when I encounter small minded people.”  

There is an implied message that we do not actually talk about too often. Jesus, the actual incarnation of God’s love, was not successful in changing the world. He was actually crucified; tortured and executed; by the forces of law and order, with the faith community forcing the hand of the civic authorities. 

You and I believe in the God of the Psalms, whose power exceeds all of the power of this world. And yet, we live with our eyes open, knowing the cruelty that humanity is capable of. We strive to let the love of God within us, empower us to live with faithfulness, and avoid living in the fear and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm our sense of the almighty.  

In my reading for today’s message, I found a sermon preached in 2007 by Peter L. Steinke - ELCA Lutheran Pastor and Church Consultant. He noted the theologian Paul Tillich had identified 3 (three) dimensions of anxiety. “Human beings, Tillich noted, must confront the anxiety of nonbeing (death), the anxiety of meaninglessness, and the anxiety of fate (unpredictability, uncertainty). I know that technically fear and anxiety are distinct from each other and are even believed to travel along different neurological circuits in the brain. Fear has an object; anxiety is free-floating, a kind of generic dread. But they are close relatives, both warning us of threats to life. 

“Fear is a wake-up call. It arouses awareness of danger; it puts us on high alert. Yet it can also do just the opposite, overwhelming us and diminish our alertness. Neuroscience links fear to the a-myg-dala in the lower, primitive brain. This small structure scouts for trouble and in detecting it, sounds an alarm and jerks multiple neural cords. As it reacts quickly to the threat, it ignores fine distinctions and uses generalizations. Its strength is rapid processing, and its weakness is lack of precision. With extreme fear, nor-adrenaline flushes through the body, initially producing intense vigilance, but then flooding the brain and riveting attention on the object of fear. Now the fearful person can hardly shift attention elsewhere. Tunnel vision occurs. Fear takes over, overwhelming the imaginative capacities and advanced reasoning. The fearful one becomes locked into the present and loses the ability to envision something other than what is now threatening. Reality is pruned to the senses, to the synapses mediating fear, to the paralyzing moment. 

“Rabbi Abraham Heschel claimed that the role of the prophet is “to cast out fear.” The psalmist does this using poetry in the service of prophecy, showing a way to parlay fear into energy, to transmute danger into possibility and to switch power from the scary present to the things that might be. “I believe,” the psalmist exclaims, “that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Even though present conditions appear to deny God’s goodness, he trusts that which is not seen and which escapes sense experience. God will be faithful—“the Lord will take me up.” This assurance is the heart of the gospel. God will not let his promises return empty. In Christ all things will become new.” 

Now I hate it, when we rush to say that the power of God is relegated to the here after, the existence we have after death in this life. (This is distinctly different from the Great Hereafter in my daily life, when I walk to the other end of the house and say to myself, “Well, I am here, now what was I after?’) 

The challenge for me as the preacher this morning, and for you as the people of God all week long, is how do we keep our focus on the presence of God, creating the possibility of love in the anxious world we live in? That focus is the core challenge in today’s message. In spite of the limitations of the reality we face, we believe that God is with us, and all things remain possible. 

Jesus responded to the folks whispering to him to get out of Dodge before the bad guy in the black hat rode into town. Jesus told them this was not the time and place for the final showdown, and he had work to do. 

Fear and anxiety will tie our hands together, and put our imaginations in chains, if we would allow it. So we need to remind ourselves to focus on the presence of God, in spite of the risks involved. 

So where do we find the presence of God when times are hard? Each of us is wired with our own resonant priorities. We respond best to the stimuli that we are most in tune with. We come to church because we find the presence of God and our inspiration here among the faithful. Some of us get a lift as we greet the other faithful souls each week. Some of us may actually get greater relief amidst the teasing and singing at choir practice -than we do listening to the sermon. (I have been in the choir a lot longer than I have been a preacher, so I get it.) 

Some of us know God is present when we sit across from a person we love, but have very different political understandings, and discover new ideas when we talk about things that matter to both of us, but our natural responses are so very different. Those new potential solutions are the real presence of God. 

The presence of God means that we believe that there are real possible ways to escape doomsday scenarios. We acknowledge that the religious and political leaders, who are often exclusively focused on the immediate practical concerns of the day (and on the next election cycle), may find it hard to identify opportunities to do the greatest good, for the greatest number of people, without denying the rights of any. So we work and pray that our activities may be faithful and have useful consequences. 

We expect that God may change hearts at any time. We recognize that each one of us is filled with enough of God’s love, to change the course of history. We are not guilty if we fail to change the world, we are only guilty if we quit on God, and give in to the forces of fear and anxiety. 

The truth about power is hidden in plain sight, we have the presence of God, and have it as a generous serving when we are together. We are only weak when we fail to live as we believe. I will close with my most recent song that is titled, “As We Believe.” 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Human or Divine?

Human or Divine? 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 : Luke 6:27-38 

To err is human, to forgive divine. All people commit sins and make mistakes. God forgives them, and people are acting in a godlike (divine) way when they forgive.” This saying is from “An Essay on Criticism,” by Alexander Pope. 

Are you surprised? Is this one of those things that you may have assumed came from one of the Wisdom books in the Bible, maybe buried in Proverbs somewhere? That’s ok if you did. A good line is a good line, wherever it comes from. It is always useful to find inspiration to be the best that we can be. 

In a time when the world has seemingly encouraged us to be hypercritical of others (and avoid self-reflection), one of the things we count on in gathering for worship on a Sunday morning, is being encouraged to shift our thinking. See things with different eyes. 

As a seminary trained, ordained pastor, I am here to confess to you today that my faith in God is wonderfully different than the faith I professed at the conclusion of my seminary degree. Faith is not like a rock that once you have it, you can store it safely under the basement steps, so you can pull it out if you suddenly feel like you need it. 

Faith is actually more like a living thing, like a muscle group. If you want your muscles to be healthy and thrive they need to be fed good stuff, like inspiring quotes; and then regularly exercised. You know, faith exercises, like; forgiving, being generous, showing compassion. 

In the miraculous story of Joseph, he attributes his power and success in Egypt to God, and forgives his murderous, lying, deceitful brothers. I call it a miracle story because, you know, I actually have brothers. We get along ok, but I know there is a line somewhere, and I am sure the line is way before being beaten, stripped, and sold into slavery. Just sayin. 

Luke goes on to quote Jesus as saying we must love our enemies, even the ones who do us wrong. This is the point I want to pivot on. 

In the evolution of my faith, I have been wrestling this past year on the thought about Jesus as being human and divine. In my entire life I have heard the words, but every sermon I have heard - focused exclusively on Jesus as God, suffering the indignity of human form. But if Jesus were only God in human form, then Jesus would not truly be one of us, but only a visitor. 

What if, for the sake of argument, we let Jesus be human, if only for this morning? What if Jesus knew the world, with doubts about his place in the world, that were more in line with our own experiences? What if, everything Jesus was able to do, we are able to do, through the love of God that is still with us? 

We are clearly able to live with integrity. We may have ups and downs like the history of the stock market closing prices, but we can gain a bit more stability with grace and concerted effort. Personally, I have found every small gain in emotional maturity makes faithful living more possible. 

We are able to bless others and be a blessing, just like Jesus was. I am not just speaking as a pastor here, I was 52 years old when I finished seminary. There were times in my life, even long before I changed careers, when I felt the presence of God within me as I sat with people in pain, or trouble, or frustration. Everyone of us can radiate the grace that God gives us. 

The fact that God’s grace is able to live in us does not make us little mini-gods. We are human, but God gives us blessings to have and to share. As we develop that potential for living with and sharing God’s grace, the line between what we can do and what God can do in us becomes blurred. 

This is the goal of contemplative prayer. We see the love of God, spread widely across the whole of creation. We feel the power that is accessible to us. We see the hurts of the world, and we extend what grace and blessings we have to share, and make the world a better place. 

Clearly the power of God’s grace inhabited the person of Joseph, at least at the moment the biblical transcribers captured in this miraculous moment of forgiveness. 

Clearly the love of God is present in the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and do good to those dirty, rotten, brothers of ours who hurt us. 

The everyday person on the street does not have the tools to understand the message we are preaching in here. It sounds pie in the sky. The world they know is pay-as-you-go. Pay-to-play. Nobody does nothing for nothing. I call that a thin reality. 

In the richer life of a living faith, the presence of God is most evident when we feed and exercise it. We feed on the word of God, and thrive in the loving community, where forgiveness and generosity are more than just a dream, but a way of seeing the whole world. 

In the interest of full disclosure I need to make a few observations before we let go this morning. If you have not read the entire Joseph saga in Genesis lately, you should know that there are several versions, from different points of view, loosely held together in the text. 

The brothers made their first appearance in Egypt a year earlier. The text does not say it explicitly, but I believe Joseph was not immediately moved to miraculous generosity. I have to think he needed to go to God in prayer - for a whole year - before he was ready to make a move toward reconciliation. 

The text goes on to say Joseph pulled a trick on the boys in order to insure that they will hold up their part of the bargain. He knew the kind of people he was dealing with could not be trusted without a show of power. 

And that makes this next observation important. These are the 12 sons of Jacob, the original dirty trickster. God named Jacob ‘Israel,’ which means wrestles with God, or another translation might be - “Antagonizes God.” God does not will the dirty, rotten, scoundrels of this world to do vicious and cruel things, but over the long arc of their lives, God’s grace never abandons either the oppressors nor the oppressed. 

Joseph’s miraculous interpretation of God’s intention within the sinful actions of the boys is best done 30 years later and from a position of safety, if not power. If we try to accept abusive treatment as God’s will, it may well lead to death and worse. Opt for safety in the moment, and let God’s grace change the interpretation over the long haul. 

And finally, we do not need to be so bad as Jacob and the worst of his sons, nor so good as Jesus of Nazareth, for God to give us blessings in our own lives, and blessing to share. The miracle of the incarnation, ‘God with us,’ means God is alive in the very bodies of the living world, and is present in every time and circumstance. I play the guitar as a folk singer. I like to write songs that reflect what is going on in my head and my heart. It takes me a long time to get a song from a wish and a dream to something I can strum and sing to people. I brought you my newest song today. 

I call the song “Living As We Believe.” It is all about seeing the world with confidence that God’s love can make a difference. It is a song about sharing in the power of God’s love, just as Jesus did. It is a song where faith inspires a different way of living, not just a set of things to believe. 

This is of course the challenge of being the church. We need to be good to each other, especially the stranger. But beyond that, we need to create a culture where each of us gets to grow in faith and develop the graces and gifts God gave us. We each are called to use whatever God gives us for the greater glory of God. 

We are in the midst of a terrible time in the history of this young nation. People are screaming at each other over simple disagreements. So many folks are drawing a line in the sand, and condemning all of those on the other side of the line as beyond salvation. There are terrible examples of extreme behavior on the far left as well as the far right. There are church congregations that behave the same way as the least mature people in their faith community. We know we are called to do better.  

It is a hard message we preach here this morning. Love your neighbor, seems easy enough. Love your enemy, that one is hard. Do good to the one who hurts you, makes being a follower of Christ very hard. In order to do that, I would need to be blessed with divine blessings; and doing the best I can to share those blessings. To err is human, but being available to God’s love - is the best part of being human. To truly be human, we must be available to start “Living As We Believe.” 

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Peace of Christ Be with You

The Peace of Christ Be with You  
Psalm 40: 1 - 5; Luke 11:1 10

The LORD put a new song in my mouth. “But I like the OLD SONGS,” I told the LORD. “Ah yes, the OLD SONGS suit you,” God said.  “And I did not throw out the Old Songs. But, I have put a NEW SONG in your mouth.”  

Why does God need a new song? You see, when we think we have heard it all before, and have made ourselves content with the good, old, days; then the sun rises. The baby cries. The teens are ready to spread their wings and fashion their own way to be faithful in this very complicated and difficult world. They NEED a New Song to inspire their own kind of faithfulness in this hi tech, spin-cycle news, and increasingly violent world. They need words and tunes that represent the authentic connection - they feel - with a God who is alive today, and ready for tomorrow. 

Where can the people of today look for the key to faithfulness? Look to the God who ‘is.’ God can never be a ‘was.’ God is not somewhere out there in the future. God ‘is.’ God told Moses, “Tell them ‘I AM’ or in another translation, ‘I Will Be Whatever is Needed,’ sent you.” God, the Great I AM, God the ever present and ever in the present, is ready to put a New Song in your mouth. It is a song that suits today, and leads you to tomorrow. 

It is such a temptation to fix our minds on the God who touched our hearts when we lived through the hard times that came before. And God also loves the memory of those times that you shared. Still. God is doing whatever is needed, to lead this people into a new time, and provide you with a NEW SONG, to celebrate the continuing march of faithfulness. 

There is more than one gospel lesson. Matthew was the favorite of the early church. It is the closest to the Jewish roots. Matthew goes to great lengths to picture Jesus as the new Moses, leading faithful people to an entirely new and different way of seeing God. 

Matthew is also very interested in authority, who has it, and how is it expressed. That coupled with the fact that Matthew is the only gospel writer to even use the word “church,” well, it is easy to see why Matthew was the early favorite. 

Mark’s gospel is the shortest, and the most raw. It is very uncommon for Mark to be used in a class on biblical Greek. His Greek is limited, and often ungrammatical. Mark paints the disciples as never understanding what Jesus is saying or doing. My shorthand for this is that Mark sees all of us as “duh-ciples.” Mark does not tie a nice bow around the end of the story. There is a very artificial ending added to the gospel, but it is completely unsatisfying. 

The gospel of John bounces to the beat of another drummer. John’s gospel does not try to create heavy tension leading up to the betrayal of Jesus. Instead, John writes long passages with descriptions and interpretations folded in, like a baker folds in egg whites to create airiness and suspension. 

When we say Our Savior’s prayer, we very much follow the way it is recorded in Matthew. I often lean towards Luke. I think of Luke as the “Potluck Gospel.” Every time you turn the page reading the gospel of Luke, Jesus is eating with another group. He always seems to be having a meal with someone, often those who are not well respected at all. 

At the top of the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple Mount on the west, sits the Church of the Pater Noster, which is Latin for Our Father. There are large tiles throughout the building and garden grounds that display the prayer in different languages and dialects. 

The church itself is built over an ancient cave, that tradition claims was a favorite place for Jesus to sit and teach his disciples when in the area. While the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tell their story in such a way that Jesus only goes to Jerusalem one time in his public ministry, it is a literary device to add to the tension and a sense of drama. The gospel of John appears to show the disciples attending the Passover three times with Jesus, and this is the source of the tradition of Jesus having a three year public ministry. 

The Mount of Olives is a hill that separates Jerusalem from the small town of Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. We might expect that Jesus and the disciples would have known all of the foot paths over, around, and through the Mount of Olives. The Palm Sunday processional is recreated over the Mount of Olives, and winds down the western side of the hill, in full view of the Temple Mount across the Kidron Valley. 

You see, our faith has practical roots, in the story of an ancient child of God and his friends, who sought to build an authentic relationship with the one true God. This relationship shares the roots of the experience of God with the Jewish people, but draws different conclusions, and sings a new song, about who that God is, and how welcoming God is to the creation. 

In the Lukan version of Our Savior’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us our sins, to the extent to which we forgive those who OWE us. Ouch. The words of Matthew say about the same thing, but as we reduce it to formula, we use authority type words like debts or trespasses, we can keep our own stuff at a distance. It is hard to give up power over others, even if it is long held resentments. The culture has made power into a golden idol. 

In Luke, who is always thinking about eating, Jesus explains that we are expected to get out of our comfort zone, to put others at ease. Get out of the warm, comfy bed and share your bread. Recognize that the God who loves you, is way, way more generous than we are. Recognize that the God we seek to please, is worthy of love and adoration. 

But the clincher is; trust in God. If we would trust in God, we would recognize it is ok to ask God for what we need, and it is ok for us to supply our neighbor with what they need. We are in this together, seeking the love of a good and generous God. 

So we look around the sanctuary, and see the face of God in each person. We see God in those who have faithfully held down their favorite pew for decades. We see the face of God in these new people, who we do not know very well yet, but have been here in worship with us this summer. We see God in the face of the visitors here, to help us mark the passing of this interlude in the song of this congregation. We see in the face of the Associate Conference Ministers, that we belong to a larger church, with whom we are in covenant. When this congregation has pain or need, the larger church reaches out with the best of the bread that is in the cupboard at the time.  

And we continue to sing. We sing Party Clothes, knowing that in the end - our angelic tones will be sung in the presence of God. We sing, It Is All About the Relationship, because our being together is more important than the task, or doing it the way we have always done it. We try to resist the temptation to always have our own way. 

And we are ready to learn that NEW SONG that is the way forward from here. That new song about the stress of this time of high anxiety. That New SONG, that reminds us that God is here, in this time and place with us. Those memories of meeting God on the mountaintop, are valuable memories. Those memories of being touched by God in surgery and the 
Recovery Room, have helped to shape the faith we have today. 

We are able to accept a new song, as long as it puts the person we are today, in touch with the God who is here to lead us into faithfulness tomorrow. I would never want to face tomorrow, without the Peace of Christ in my heart, and in my song. 

And so we welcome this transition. We accept the memory of laughter. We are glad to have had this time to see ourselves through new eyes. We rejoice because we know: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. And because God is good, we live today with a song in our hearts, and trust that God will provide a New Song, suitable for tomorrow, Amen. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Maturity Is the Path to Wisdom

Maturity Is the Path to Wisdom  
Psalm 111; 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Throughout the Bible God tries to upend the persistent intent of the people to make God out to be mean, and visiting punishment on children, in particular punishment for the sins of the father. King Solomon is a classic example. Solomon is the second child of David and Bathsheba. The traditionalists might have expected the progeny of this couple to be flawed and an embarrassment. Instead, Solomon established the high water mark for the culture. 

As Solomon survives the battles between his older brothers to move into the throne, he demonstrates the wisdom to show humility before God. The early days of his reign are marked by dramatic success, and great respect for his wisdom. 

The truth of the matter is, in time Solomon believed too much of the adulation of the crowds and began to feel like he had earned all that he amassed. It is a long known challenge for those who have money and success to keep in touch with their own humanity and limitations. 

Today though, let us focus on the text at hand. The book we know of as First Kings is treated by Christian scholars as a history book, part of the Deuteronomistic Historians story of Israel and Judah. The Jews consider these texts as a part of the “Former Prophets.” However it is approached, it should be read as a theological reflection on the events of the time. 

God appears before Solomon in a dream, the God for whom he will construct the Temple, that will forever be remembered as the ultimate celebration of the faith and the partnership between God and the King of Israel. 

Solomon is a young man. He has emerged as the favored son of the legendary King David. It would be expected that he would be full of himself. That is what makes this such an unexpected prayer. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this - your great people?” 

We are not yet ready to write the legend of what comes next to Community UCC in Morton. But we may be visited in our dreams by God. We know that like the Psalmist, we can praise the Lord. We can give thanks for the blessings that are in our hands, and the blessings that are yet to be discovered, like surprises along the various Exits of the Interstate. We thank God because we trust God. We trust God. 

In the heart of Solomon’s prayer, he asks God for wisdom and the ability to sort between good and evil. Solomon trusts God. When we think about Adam and Eve; they were tempted by the lure of the knowledge between good and evil. The difference is, Adam and Eve tried to steal it in disrespect of God’s wishes, and Solomon asked boldly. 

Let me level with you. God already knows what is in your heart. God already knows what you need. God wants to hear you say that you love God and trust God. It is a relationship thing. More than numb obedience, we should model Solomon and ask God to give us the wisdom to make choices that result in what is good for this congregation, and the people the congregation is called to serve. 

Being a church is not first and foremost about making yourself happy and satisfied. That is what God expected Solomon to ask for. “Make me happy and satisfied.” Being a church is being called to service. It is service shared with the community. The sense of community sustains us and gives us courage. But the community is first a presence in worship before God, and then a force for the good God desires to be done in this community. As Solomon asked for wisdom to protect and guide the people of God, we pray for God to give this congregation the wisdom and tools to serve those who would be discounted, or left hurting, or without voice, in the busyness and bustle of Morton and the surrounding area. 

The Search Committee had a wonderful batch of candidates apply to join you here as your new pastor. There are many UCC churches that receive very few interested candidates. There is keen competition for ministry positions in and near the city of Chicago and major suburbs. There is often little attention directed downstate. 

The beauty of having a variety of candidates, is that the committee has the hard work of sorting through multiple people who have the right credentials and desire to be here. Then a higher level of discernment takes place. Is there a candidate with a vision and a skill set that suits this congregation in this time and place, and is ready to walk into the future? 

There are candidates who presented experience in being successful in the past. However, the past is unlikely to come around again. Even if there is a resurgence of respect for church and community life, it will not resemble the faith of the 50s and early 60s. That faith existed with a certain naivety and trained blindness to prejudice and bias that cannot be claimed with integrity in the world of today. 

So your committee settled on a candidate that has been prepared through life experience to live and breathe in the world of today, and has hope for the future of a healthy UCC congregation in this conservative area, attached to the city of Peoria. This is a church with a future and is calling a pastor with a vision and the energy needed to move the vision forward. 

We read about Solomon’s opening prayer to God at the start of his time in office. What he asked pleased God. What does God like to hear from us? What could we ask of God, that would make God happy? I have an idea for you, and I expect you have several of your own. I suppose if I name yours, you will decide that I am a wise man, too. 

The first of my ideas begins and ends with gratitude. Solomon approaches God with words of thanks for blessings already received. It is impossible to be thankful without acknowledging that God is the source of what is good, and the logistics manager extraordinaire. We get what we need right on time. 

We might not immediately recognize the value of the gifts we are given. I have seen many occasions when what was first considered a weakness, put me in position to accept a great blessing. 

We might think we know better than God, and complain that what was sent does not meet our expectations. It is not what we wanted. I suggest that you be careful. God has a much better idea of what you need than you can imagine. In fact, God is way ahead of you, and is providing gifts for your present situation, as well as the stuff you need for what is right around the corner. Funny thing about corners, you can be very near to what is coming, and not even know it. You have not seen around the corner! 

The key then to petitioning God in a way that makes God happy, is to let yourself acknowledge that God is God, and you are not. Reflect first on the ways God has responded to your needs in the past, and express your trust in God’s ongoing grace and intentions.  

The other thing that Solomon demonstrated is that he asked for the ability to serve those that God provided to him. We already touched on that briefly. If a congregation shifts its focus to being pleased and squabbling with each other over the building and appointments, and not about its ministry, they are on a path that leads them away from God.  

So then we pray for the wisdom and maturity to serve the community in ways that give glory to God, and please the God of infinite creativity. 

I would like that to be a point of emphasis. God is the creator of all. It was God who developed the forces of nature that resulted in the Big Bang, that might be the best explanation we have of the origins of our solar system. I am no expert in these discussions. 

What I want to emphasize is that God is continually being creative. God inspires the great and small, with words of hope - the voice of wisdom, and as we draw near to God, when we recognize that at every junction there may be only two manmade roads forward, but an infinite number of ways to turn as seen through the eyes of God. God is all about diversity, and choices, and rainbows, and love for one another. 

You have a new pastor on the way. You have a congregational history of ups and downs. Your committee was diligent and prayerful, and God will be with you. Thank God for the blessings you have received. Thank God for the opportunity you have to share God’s love of diversity in this time and place. Ask God for the wisdom to appreciate the gifted new pastor, and the future ministry you will begin together, that is already near but hidden from sight. 
Close with Psalm 111 

Psalm 111
111:1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

111:2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.

111:3 Full of honor and majesty is (God’s) his work, and (God’s) his righteousness endures forever.

111:4 (God) He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful.

111:5 (God) He provides food for those who fear (God) him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.

111:6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

111:7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

111:8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

111:9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.

111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.