Monday, January 29, 2018

Flexing the Power of Love

Flexing the Power of Love
Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28 

The psalmist writes that everything about this life is related to the power and reliability of our Creator. Our trust must be in God alone. We live in an age where our faith is misunderstood and misinterpreted by both the very conservative and the very liberal. So when we react to the scriptures from our world view of the third millennium of the Common Era, we need to pause and ask, “Just what was it the writers of the Bible were trying to say in their time and place?” 
In Psalm 111 this morning, the complete focus is on God. And to be even more specific, the Psalmist praises God for the works that God has done. We best know God, by observing the practical, physical, results of God’s works.  
There is a natural stress or tension between being a believer in the love of God and Jesus his Christ, and being a citizen of the world. We live in that tension. And if the truth be known, we thrive in that tension. 
The muscles of our body only work when they are in tension. The body moves in response to coordinated muscle contractions, pulling with and against each other across the joints of the body. Without tension we are just a blob. Tension then brings out the best in us. 
Our faith cannot flex the power of its value without recognizing and responding to the tension between confidence in God’s love and the values of the world. We live and thrive in that tension. 
The gospel of Mark fires like a staccato attack. After John had been put in prison, Jesus began preaching the same message. Wait, what? John was put in prison? Why? What happened? You do not get such answers from Mark. His message is all about Jesus of Nazareth, the man of action. Something happens and Mark says, “Then immediately Jesus goes and does or says something.” You have to love the bare bones approach to the life of Jesus in Mark. 
Jesus begins preaching and then goes down to the lake to call fishermen to be the core of his band of merry men. And Mark dutifully recalls, and at once – or in some translations – immediately, they left their boats and followed Jesus. 
Mark does not say if they knew Jesus. Mark does not say if they had heard him preach. Other gospels claim to know more about the origins of the apostles, but Mark says Jesus called and immediately they followed him. 
Then they went to the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus preached, and in the presence of the community, healed a man. Talk without action is just talk. It may excite some, but until actual results are visible, it is simply noise. 
Most of us are not easily persuaded. We decide slowly and proceed with caution. We do our best not to claim too much. As people of this world we want health insurance, a pension, and time to plan our vacation in careful detail. But we are also followers of Jesus. We do cling to the Good News that Jesus delivered. We set our hopes on the love of God, best understood through the life, teaching, and practical ministry of Jesus. In our heart of hearts we realize, we are a part of God’s love in action.   
This congregation is moving into a time of some stress, as there is a change in leadership. The Unified Board Meeting on Monday night was a local church rite for the transfer of authority. The Boards met after the Council and largely settled on the practical organization of their year. Who will be in leadership, when will we meet, what is the best way to contact each other?  
We are also entering a time when we consider a change in the pastoral office. When we think about the questions, what kinds of skills and abilities should the new pastor have in order to make this congregation the most effective vehicle for sharing the Good News on the north end of Main Street in 2018 and beyond? What do we need to share and emphasize about the nature of the congregation when talking with potential candidates, in order to attract one who might help us be our best? 
These are stressful and challenging questions. Fortunately, you do not have to reinvent the wheel. There is a process, more art than science - and less predictable than a manufacturing process, that guides loving congregations and caring pastors in their efforts to find each other. 
In order for these processes to be effective, all of you need to participate. You have to speak up for what is on your hearts and minds. If there is something you think is really important that needs to continue, it is time to express your concern. Do not be afraid. You are among friends who want to know what helps you, and will respond to both you and respond to your ideas and concerns. 
I read a couple of articles recently that say communities are most effectively built side by side. If there is something you care about, find others who share your interest and concern. Start right away on your own, do not wait and expect leadership to come down from on high and make it happen. The other article said that the mark of a vital faith community, is the impact they have on people who are not members. This is never more true than in a church like this one.  Each member provides support and continuity to the others.  
An example of that is the mission project that is being championed by the Property Board. With Divine inspiration, the Property Board, who has every right to claim that they more than enough problems and responsibilities, latched onto the practical local mission of Community’s Caring Cupboards. With the blessing of Council, and the promise of seed money from the Memorial Fund, they are moving ahead. They are forging partnerships with the Youth Board, seeking other Morton churches to get involved. 
This model of responding to inspiration, forging partnerships in the church and reaching out into the community, is a useful and important way to express the vitality of this faith community. Faith without passion creates a congregation dedicated to the preservation of memories. Following our passion into action, makes us followers of Jesus, like the Jesus we meet in Mark’s gospel. 
If our trust in God were limited to what one individual can do, our expectations might be pretty small. But what we are able to do together, within the framework of this supporting faith community, well that is amazing. We believe that God responds to our prayers. We believe the presence of the Holy Spirit is active where two or three are gathered. This is a power that belongs to the congregation. 

The power of the people of God is not flexed when frozen by counting our losses and limitations. The power of faith is flexed like a muscle in tension, moving with power. You are the power of love, put together by a loving God, to speak to a world that needs the hope we possess. And when do you start? Well, immediately of course. Mark would have it no other way. Amen.   

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Time for Action Is Now

This sermon from 1/21/18 has a problem. The references to “The Sound of Music” are accurate except, the song quoted is from “My Fair Lady.” The setting for “My Fair Lady” is not the same as the setting for “The Sound of Music.” Sorry. I looked up the lyrics, but did not question my memory about where the song originated. 

The Time for Action Is Now  
  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

The play, “The Sound of Music” is coming to the stage of the Peoria Civic Center next month. The romantic musical is set amid the tensions of the late 1930s as the German Nazi government conscripted the Austrian population into the war machine. That serious drama is always within reach of the play’s characters. All of our lives are written in small print on the time line that is dominated by the relationships of nations and their leaders. 

Today we have a couple more call stories out of the scriptures. God reaches out and asks specific people to take on specific ministry jobs. Jonah drops his resistance and goes to Nineveh to preach repentance. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry after John the Baptist is arrested. 

The initial sermons of Jesus are repetitions of John’s theme, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and,” Jesus adds the element, “believe in the good news.” We all know the word Gospel means Good News, but what exactly is the Good News, and how is it different from what the people had before? 

As in days of old, people were called to repent - stop living in their old sinful patterns - and live in new ways; that are less sinful, and marked by care and compassion. Over time, the religious authority of the Temple, had interpreted this message to focus on personal piety and satisfying an angry God with sacrifices, through the intervention of the priests. 

Jonah was able to achieve a change of heart in the city of Nineveh, by the love of a good and generous God. As unlikely as it seemed, a change of heart took place in a real hurry. Foreign strangers, not even converts to the faith, heard the call to change their ways, and responded. God continually reaches out to all of creation, and does not respect the boundaries of nations, let alone the boundaries of faith denominations. 
For us to make-up with God, we have to be ready and willing to admit our sins, and willing to do our best to not fall into the same bad habits all over again. I guess the warning I would have to give you here is, do not ask God for a skinny waistline, and then stop at the store to buy cake and junk-food on the way home. To repent is to turn away from the bad habits of the past, and make room for new and better ways of living. 
To repent then is more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” If you argue with your spouse, you know that this is true. You are not off the hook with words alone. You need to say it. But repentance is not over when the words have left your lips. Your spouse knows that much and will gladly tell you so. To truly repent requires ACTION. 
John the Baptist claimed that true piety was also concerned with the matters of state. He was imprisoned for calling out Herod for stealing his brother’s wife. There is an undeniable public component to living a life of faith. There is an unmistakeable expectation that those who serve to benefit the community, have much expected of them. We live lives that have both a local and a wider dimension. 

The good news is that God loves us, and is not a meanie with an enemies list. God is not easily offended, but instead God is busy trying to encourage care and compassion in the most sentient beings in Creation. We can best “see” God when the image of God is active in our lives, active in moments of care and compassion. We can best see God in others, when they demonstrate care and compassion, especially our leaders.  

Are we expected to call out our leaders for their public immoral behavior? I am pretty sure John the Baptist would have. I am pretty sure we can name those occasions where use of the resources of our democratic state do not respect the sanctity of life on the planet, so we must call for something better. When others are authorized to represent our interests, we are expected to encourage their good and useful behavior. I think of the political pressure evident in the setting of the Sound of Music as a counterpoint to the love songs.  

Jesus seeks out fishermen to begin his collection of followers. We should note that being a fisherman was not a profession that would have been regarded as too lofty or too lazy. These would be seen as hard-working men, characteristic of the community they come from. 

We also note that fishermen, despite their rustic upbringing and direct manner of speech and dress, are accustomed to failure. They are not so full of themselves after one good catch, because they know they cannot control what they will find tomorrow night. Like the farmers who surround us here on the Illinois prairie, we all can talk about the weather, but none of us can control the weather. We all know that if the weather is not good for the crops, the crops will not be good for us. If Jesus were in the greater Peoria Area, his first disciples would more likely be farmers. 
We do have people fishing here, but it is largely a sport activity and not a commercial venture. A fisherman in our area, no matter how hard he or she works at finding trophy fish, is characterized as taking time off work, not working hard. 
We are also reminded of the classic tales of morality – fish tales if you will. “Give a man a fish and he will eat for one day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” That might be the commercial fishing version. The sport version goes, “Give a man a fish  and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he becomes a liar for a lifetime.”   
If we truly want to love God and neighbor, we have to be willing to look at ourselves with some honesty. What do we do that keeps us from being closer to God and neighbor? Are we ready now to change our behavior? Are we ready to take responsibility for the things that we do and the things that we say? 

I am not going to go on and on, at least not today. But I have an example that I wish you would think about this week. I told the congregation in Spring Valley many years ago, that I believed sharing gossip is the characteristic sin of the Illinois Valley - and has been elevated to an art form in Spring Valley. You know better than I about how widely it exists in Morton. 
I think it has such a variety of forms and fills such a widespread catalog of needs and urges, that most of it passes undetected. It is so prevalent in our community, that we listen and pass these sinful exchanges without a second thought. It will be hard to repent of this sin, because it is going to take a lot of work to begin to even recognize it and label it. 
The HIPPA Privacy laws implemented carefully in the hospitals have helped to make us aware of how commonly we share personal information, then without permission. As a pastor, I do my best to only share what I have permission to share. It is not important to know all of the details about a person’s medical condition to pray for them. 
To repent means we have to be ready to say, “Yes, I am able to love God and neighbor better than I do today. I even know some of the things that are hurtful, that I am guilty of. I know I cannot take back unkind things I have said, but I can stop doing it anymore.” 
When we decide that we are really going to be disciples, we will end up changing our behavior. We will end up telling folks to stop in the middle of some juicy tidbit, because it is a sin to listen - just like it is a sin to spread gossip. And that, will take willpower, and that will make others look at you funny. 
But you are called to spread good news. There is no sin that God will not forgive, when you repent. You have been offered the chance to change. The word of God changes lives, the word of God saves lives. Are you ready to be saved? Are you ready to be a part of saving others? Are you ready to go from saying “I’m sorry” to be moved enough to take ACTION?   
The word from God is clear and simple, turn from your sin and be saved. In order to share God’s good news, we need to purge our mouths of those stories that reek of death and sin. Like the honest dentist I have to tell you, “I cannot deaden the area completely. This is going to hurt a little.” But the rewards are immense, and eternal. 

The gospel of Mark is so straight forward. There is no ornamentation. Be in the moment, be a part of the action. Julie Andrews sang in the Song of Music (sic), “Show Me.” The evangelist Mark would be in line with this, “Don’t talk of love, lasting through time, make me no undying vow - Show me now!” 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Your Own Call to Faith and Action

Your Own Call to Faith and Action  
  • 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

When I went to seminary I was fairly grownup, I was 48 years old. Among several of the startling things I discovered about myself during that experience, is that I was not very emotionally mature. I nearly always reacted emotionally from my own point of view before considering any other points of view, if ever. That surprised me. As I look at the culture today, it is pretty clear to me that the culture does not encourage emotional maturity. The result is that wide portions of the population are swayed by emotional appeals that effectively limit their willingness to be persuaded by facts and logic. 

One characteristic of a lack of emotional maturity is that not only are we reactive to appeals directed at our own hot buttons, but we “lend” our emotional reactions to others in our family or cohort groups, and then cover it with rationalizations, pretending to be smart. 

Within families, we often consider sharing anxiety as a measure of love. If Joey says something that makes me angry, I might tell Martha and put pressure on Martha to get angry at Joey with me. If she does not get angry, I might doubt that she cares about me, if I was raised that way.
The truth of the matter is, Martha is a pretty smart person. She might ask if I understood what Joey was trying to say. Maybe I misheard him, or he was trying to agree with me by being funny. (To be honest, I have had more than one occasion, when I was in violent agreement with someone. We agreed, but were unable to talk with each other and assumed we were arguing.) If Martha is mature, she will resist the tendency to get hooked emotionally until she is persuaded that there is a reason to be anxious. 
If I keep pressing her to be angry at Joey with me, this will expose my lack of emotional maturity, and put her under pressure to either help me grow up, or we may suffer some distance in our relationship, if I am unable to see why she behaves differently than we used to behave in my family of origin. Emotional maturity gives us tools to help each other see things in different ways, and find different and better ways to act and react to emotional stimuli. 
The call of Nathanael is simple and poetic. He was invited by a friend to see Jesus, and he was captivated by seeing in Jesus, the love of God personified. He was initially skeptical of any rustic soul coming out of Nazareth. Imagine Nathanael of Morton saying, “Can anything good come out of Creve Coeur?” Truly Nathanael was a spiritual person, and meeting Jesus was a spiritual event. 
The call of Samuel is also simple and poetic. The voice of God rings out and wakes the young man from his sleep. He presumes it is Eli. Samuel was delivered to Eli by his parents to serve an apprenticeship in the Temple of God. Eli recognizes that it is possible the young man is having a spiritual experience and encourages him. 

So what is a spiritual person or experience? I would first say that we are all spiritual beings in our very nature. Throughout the 1,000 years since the church split between East and West, and then after an even more combative split in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century; the Western church has invested virtually all of its energy in the rational mind. 

In our tradition, we love to be right, believe the right things, and enjoy a sense of superiority over those who fail to meet our exacting standards of divine interpretation. Unfortunately, our ideal godliness is focused on the wrong target. 

In the embodiment of God’s love that we celebrate in Jesus, we do not find a model of ruthless academic precision. In the teaching and behavior modeling we identify in the scriptures, Jesus remains approachable, generous, and caring for all. The target is not precise knowledge, but generosity and compassion. 

The challenge for young Samuel when he is called by God, is much more profound than it is for Nathanael. All that was asked of Nathanael was to come and see, and meet the Lord. Right from the start, Samuel was entrusted with a word from the Lord. And the word he received is bad news for the family of Eli. Nobody enjoys the favor of God when it contains bad news. From the very outset of Samuel’s career as a prophet, he was burdened with the uncomfortable truth, this time in the form of the corruption exposed in the house of Eli.   

Samuel was forced into emotional maturity by God, who entrusted him with hard truths from an early age. Eli, to his credit, had the maturity to recognize the spiritual nature of young Samuel; and recognize the truth God spoke to Samuel; and distinguish that truth from the boy himself.  

You and I have our own call stories. Many of us gathered here, have been in the church all of our lives. The revelation of God has come to us incrementally, often best expressed in the memory we hold of specific mentors in the faith. We remember people, often people of another generation than our own and from another family, whose kindness impressed us early in life, and around that basic charity, we have constructed our belief network. 

I think that this is true for a great number of people. I see that Community UCC has identified this basic approach and tries to make it intentional with mentors for each of the kids in confirmation, and more widely with the TEAM concept that encourages adults to pay specific attention to one of the kids in the church. 

I believe that our spiritual nature understands that this orientation to kindness and compassion is the presence of God in our lives. And still we prefer to rationalize in our heads about issues and dogmas, and model the combativeness of the world, and presume that the church honor that secular model.  

Invitation into the love of God can seem so much more powerful when it comes directly to us as an adult. This is part of why our friends who “discover Jesus” become so enthusiastic about the moment of their salvation. They resonate with a startling awakening that took place for them at a specific time and a specific place, and feel that the only true faith must be rooted in an ecstatic experience. For them “spirituality” is rooted in an emotional moment combined with an act of human will. 

Many times we see this sense of revelation trigger the culturally driven practices of emotional manipulation to bully people they love into the faith. That manipulative effort is in stark contrast to a mature faith, rooted in charity, compassion, and invitation. The world of human faith and spirituality is often held captive by emotional immaturity. 

We can read the call stories of Nathanael and Samuel from that point of reference, and claim that these represent specific moments of epiphany or spiritual awakening. Or we can see the larger script, where these individuals were prepared in advance, in order to have the capacity to grow when the moment arrives. 

From Samuel we see that emotional maturity is not measured by years, but instead an awareness of ourselves, and an intentional effort to understand and control our “automatic” emotional reactivity. 

In time and space we learn about our own emotions, not to label them but to understand what they are, and then control our responses. If we can channel the energy that used to be spent willy-nilly on our favorite forms of outbursts, we make room for facts and logic to influence our thinking. 

It is possible then, to train our awareness to see more than just our own perspective. We might see the needs of our emotions; and also the needs of the community; the validity of the other; and also the contributions of society. And then, maybe, we can let the model of Jesus guide us to think and react in ways that demonstrate the love of God, in our time and place. 

We are called to demonstrate love and care in this time and place. Well, actually, you are called to live and love here. I only have a few months with you. I hope to encourage you to see the great love that God has invested in this community, and the enormous potential you have to provide a radical welcome in a conservative neighborhood.  

You are called. With God’s love, may this community grow in patience and wisdom. May you be permitted to develop a new capacity to see more than what is right before your eyes. May you be enabled to hear not only the thoughts, but the hopes and fears of those around us. And may you be empowered to represent the love of God, relying on the spiritual awareness of the presence of the Christ within you and among you. Amen. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Love of God Shows Through

The Love of God Shows Through
Matthew 2:1-12, Mark 1:4-11 

Today we have a double share of worship blessings. The gospel of Matthew is from the Epiphany, which was yesterday, and the Mark gospel is from today, the Sunday that celebrates the Baptism of Christ. 

I think the use of Matthew’s Epiphany story of the three wise men along with the Baptism of Christ from Mark’s gospel make a nice way to compare and contrast the two gospels, and make clear the handoff from Matthew, last year’s lectionary evangelist, to Mark, the voice of this year. 

I make this statement because the two gospel writers use entirely different stories to make the point that Jesus is here for all of humanity. The foreign visitors, Matthew’s wise men, are the first gentiles to recognize the infant as the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, sees the love of God for the whole world show through, at the very beginning of Jesus’ life. 

The gospel of Mark has no stories of the birth of Christ or the childhood of Jesus. For Mark, Jesus - the man of action - appears in the Jordan River, receiving the Baptism and blessing of John the Baptist. He is a grown man, stepping into his role in public ministry, tying his approach and ministry to the message of the “the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” The introduction of Jesus, away from his home in Nazareth, sets the stage for Jesus, the man of action, on his way towards the conclusion of the story. Mark presents Jesus on a journey, making the love of God for all of the world show through, while moving toward a final conflict in Jerusalem. 

I agree with a significant number of scholars who believe that the gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be written. Matthew and Luke were written later, at the same time as each other, following Mark’s outline. They added Jesus sayings that were circulating at the time, and then each added their own original material. 

Both Matthew and Luke add their own versions of the story of the birth of Jesus to Mark’s outline. They interweave their birth narratives with the story of John the Baptist. The baptizer set the stage for the ministry of Jesus that follows. The significance of the birth narrative depends on the ministry of Jesus for context and meaning. By itself, the birth of a baby is touching, but not enough to change how the world knows God. 

Matthew uses the story of the wise men to say that from the very beginning, we recognize that the Messiah, is not the exclusive savior of Judaism or even Christianity. The love of God is for the world, recognized and nourished in the community of faith. That is a challenge for us, to let the love of God show through, even to those who do not accept Jesus.  

Mark is written in staccato bursts, Jesus did such and such, and then immediately went off to do something else. I have suggested before that it is a useful exercise to read the entire gospel of Mark in a single sitting. It takes about an hour. It will give you an entirely different feel for the flow of the story, and I think you will see why I always introduce Jesus from the gospel of Mark as “The Man of Action.”    

In this year with Mark leading the way, we will see how easy it is to make the transition from telling the story of Jesus, to letting the love of God show through by imitating the actions of Jesus. It is easy because Mark spends precious little time teaching and philosophizing. For Mark, the love of God is active, feeding, healing, and giving hope. 

So the church New Year began with Advent in December, but as our cultural year begins in January, we take up the work of God’s love in earnest now. We make our New Year’s resolutions to be active (with Mark’s encouragement), we promise to be hopeful (as we pray for the Search Committee), we practice our loving in the church (by Working Together with intentional respect), so that we can let the love of God show through. 

We move quickly from the birth narrative to visits from foreign dignitaries, who initiate the threat of Herod, and the baptism that initiates the public life of Jesus the Christ. Our Jesus calls us out of our private, personal worship of God, into the messy and active world. We are compelled to be visible and engaged. We are prodded by the gospel lessons to stick out and claim the faith that makes us unique and lovable. 

I know you are worried about the health of the congregation. I realize that practical people have an eye on the budget and bank accounts. That work is necessary and important. But let us remind each other, our first job is to love the world like Jesus loved the world. Jesus felt the need to express that love in practical and positive ways. 

The best way we can assure the future of the congregation is to let the love of God show through, in all of the ways we do church. When our priority is making the love of God show through, there is nothing to fear, and everything to gain. 

The love of God shows through in community when we learn and practice the hard work of listening. We listen to each other, for both the thoughts and the emotions that are being expressed. We encourage those who have dreams, to share those vision. We intentionally select those activities that permit us to strengthen each other, and represent a welcome to the wider community. 

At Christmas we decided that Jesus the Christ came to make the love of God incarnate, the love of God has a body. In the days after Christmas, we embrace our role as the church, the body of Christ. We embrace the recognition of God’s love among the participants in the church, even as we look to show and showcase a welcoming love in the wider community, as the body of Christ, the church of action. Amen.