Sermons

Dear Friends,

It has been a few weeks since we have met together. This snow is endless. In November I was chatting with someone who told me the Farmer’s Almanac was predicting a snowy winter. I smiled at her and pushed that information out of my mind. Well, after living in a snow globe for the month of February, her words have floated back into my mind. In our absence from one another, the season of Epiphany has slipped through our fingers and without much fanfare the extravagant lights of Epiphany, doused with Alleluias and wonder, have been packed away. In their place we are left with the solemnity of ashes, fasting and repentance. Perhaps you are feeling the way I am feeling, that we were cheated out of the last few weeks of Epiphany. That in these past few weeks of snow and ice and shoveling, Lent came early.

The thing about Lent that gets lost in our talk of fasting and repentance is that it is actually and paradoxically, Lent is a season of new beginnings. Just look at the texts for this week: Noah is newly off the ark and Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit is declaring the presence of the Reign of God.(HINT: The blue, underlined words are links)

    The story of Noah offers a response to those who seemingly find the wrath of God every.single.place they look. Enter the rainbow. In it we are offered the continual promise that never again will the fury of God be unleashed on the earth. The story of Noah is a story of God’s love for the world, it is a story of God’s salvation of the world. It is the story, that is the new beginning of things and holds the whispered promise that we are not alone.

Our other story is the story of Jesus, walking onto the scene as John the Baptist is arrested and killed. Jesus comes with a story of repentance, a story of restoration. The message of Jesus is that God is making us whole despite all evidence to the contrary. He calls it Good News. Why is it so much easier to believe bad news? Why do we so easily slide away from his petition to stop seeing and proclaiming the darkness and instead point to the presence of Light and proclaim Good News?  

    It is common to talk about abstinence during this season of repentance. People give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol or meat. Inevitably there can be a puffing up of our own holiness and conversely a judgement of others in this process. My friends, we can not earn our way in to God’s Reign through self-improvement. Christianity is not a self-help book.  This was not and is not the Good News. The message of Jesus is simple, God is making you whole. God is making the world whole. Tell others. Point out wholeness when you see it and call the brokenness what it is: lies. Join God in this work...make the small things whole that you can. Not because you can bring the kingdom but because God has called us partner and friend.

    So as we begin this season, start with yourself.  Look at your own life. I believe it was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Examine yourself. Be honest...as frightening as that can be.  Consider the things that are lingering inside yourself that do not contribute to your wholeness and give those up. Or just pick one of them. We do not give things up to make ourselves perfect in order to be loved by God. We give things up through the help of the Holy Spirit because “we are becoming who we will be forever.” (Dallas Willard)  It might look different for each of us. Here are a few examples:

  • Fear of Failure - We do not succeed without experiencing failure. Just make sure you fail forward

  • Your Comfort Zone - It is when we step outside our comfort zones that new discoveries are made

  • Feelings of Unworthiness - You are fearfully and wonderfully made by the God who loves you.

  • Impatience - God’s timing is perfect timing

  • Retirement - As long as you are still breathing, you are here for a reason

  • Comparisons - Celebrate your own unique contributions

  • Blame - We take responsibility for our own actions...even when it is hard

  • Guilt - We are loved by Jesus. We are forgiven. Today is a new day.

  • Overcommitment - Do less better

  • Worry….A small view of God...Ungratefulness...Disunity...Loneliness...Busyness… Resistance to Change...

    To the list goes on. Click Here to read more.

Let us step forward this season as the little lights who shine in the darkness. Let us live as little christs because that is exactly who we are. Let us not be afraid of self change because the God who loves us is making us whole.

Be Well,

Amy

Hospitality and the Reign of Christ

    It never fails that the Sunday of Thanksgiving and The Reign of Christ the King Sunday fall on the same week year after year after year. Yet, every year - without fail, this fact surprises me, catches me off guard and leaves me puzzling about whether to focus on Thanksgiving or Christ the King because surely it would be noisy and disjointed to focus on both. This year, we are going to be noisy and disjointed. No matter which direction we focus, something is missed.

    Thanksgiving Day is a day we set aside to be grateful. It is a day we set aside for eating copious amounts of food and watching football. My grandmother would have detailed lists surrounding the preparation and cooking of the Thanksgiving day meal. She would start days and days in advance shopping, chopping, and preparing to make a large, elaborate meal. While the rest of us were sleeping in, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, playing outside and munching on snacks. My grandmother was up before it was light out to put the turkey in the roaster and get the sides put together and inside the oven so that we would have a delicious Thanksgiving meal. Thanksgiving day meals do not just happen. They are a lot of work. It was my grandmother’s act of hospitality. She worked and worked and planned and prepared so that we enjoy a great meal together. Thanksgiving is also a day of hospitality. A day we open our homes, and set our tables and share a great, meal.

    As we come into this space together and regularly gather at the table of the Lord, we also acknowledge that hospitality is part of our life together as well. For early Christians, hospitality was central to their life together. But today, hospitality is understood a little differently. It is a little more of a Disneyfied and Martha Stewartized version of this once radical practice of graciously welcoming one another, especially welcoming the stranger, as God has welcomed us.

    Today’s lesson is often talked about as the judgement which will accompany the Reign of Christ. We wonder if we are a sheep or a goat and perhaps even determine the label of those we know because, we believe, there will be a day when some will be labeled sheep and invited closer while others will be labeled goat and sent away. But, what if this parable is not one of judgement. What if this parable is a lesson of encouragement to see, experience, and respond to the world in new ways. What if we are supposed to search the face of every friend and stranger for the aspect of Christ that he or she most uniquely reflects. Indeed, I hear Jesus' words today reminding me that I simply don't know when I will encounter the face of Christ next: thus making nearly all ground holy ground. In the end, maybe that is precisely what Jesus meant for his words to do.

    Flannery O’Connor has a short story entitled Revelation about a large Southern woman named Ruby Turpin. Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s characters she is stuck inside her own narrow way of viewing the world. Ruby believes her actions and decisions are superior to “black people” and those she labels “white trash.” As the story opens, Ruby and her husband Calud enter a crowded Dr’s waiting room. She insists her husband take her chair and immediately notices a dirty toddler with a runny nose lying across two seats. She is appalled that the child’s equally dirty mother does not make him move over so she can sit down.

While in the doctor’s waiting room, Ruby strikes up a conversation with a “pleasant” woman

who is there with her college-aged daughter, Mary Grace. She is studying a book entitled Human Development, and only looks up to glare hatefully at Ruby.  Ruby and the pleasant woman chat about the importance of being hard working, clean, and having a good disposition. They also talk about being grateful and how it is important to be thankful for the good things you have been giving in life.        

As the pleasant woman and Ruby chat, Mary Grace seems to grow angrier. The pleasant lady begins to speak about Mary Grace in the third person. I know a girl she says in a clearly frustrated voice whose parents would give her anything and this girl should be grateful for all she has in life. Claud then pipes in that the girl ought to be paddled.

Mary Grace becomes outraged at the conversation and throws the Human Development book at Ruby and hits her above the eye. She lunges across a table and grabs Ruby’s throat before she is given a sedative by the doctor. In all of this commotion, Ruby begins to believe that Mary Grace has a message of truth for her. She confronts her before the sedative kicks in saying What you got to say to me? Ruby sees some kind of revelatory light in Mary Grace’s blue eyes. Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog.  Whispers Mary Grace as the sedative takes effect and she is taken away.

Ruby finds Mary Grace’s comment to be unsettling and wonders if it may have been a message from God, who may be trying to intervene in her life. She decides she hates that notion and returns home while she is still upset.

Later, she is hosing down her own hogs in their sty while obsessing on what she is terrified may be an intrinsically true message from God. She rants inside herself as she scolds God, demanding to know how she could possibly be the good, upstanding, polite Christian she sees herself to be AND a warthog at the same time.   

As rays of the setting sun become a kind of lavender road from the earth to the sky, Ruby has a vision of redeemed souls winding their way to Heaven as if on a highway of crimson light through a field of fire. What is telling about her vision is that she, Claud, and the proper white Christians are at the back of the throng.

Flannery says:

And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom [Ruby] recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything, and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was.                                                                    

    Flannery O’Connor’s striking point is that no matter who we are, no matter what we do or have done, there isn’t another line to stand in. Sometimes we identify the least of these as the poor and downtrodden, the outcast. Certainly that was true in Jesus’ context, it was true for Ruby in Flannery O’Connor’s story, and is true for many of us as well. But, scripture does not narrow it’s definition of  least of these to the people only those groups. The least of these can be any person or group you scorn, judge, or politely tolerate. For Christ, the least of these is defined as those for whom you feel the least responsible.  

Elizabeth Newman reminds us that hospitality is deeper than friendliness and polite niceties. The hospitality of Christ begins in worship where the Children of God are invited and gathered by God. And, in this hospitality, God re-creates Gods children through the people and places we are given. When its all said and done, we will all be sitting at the table of Christ, we are all the least of these - a motley group of the weak & wounded, sick & sore, and especially those for whom we feel the least responsible. What does the hospitality of Christ ask of us? At the very least,  we must open our eyes and search the face of all we meet for the face of Christ, we must reach out our hands and realize that the least is not fundamentally different than we are but someone just like us. And when we open our hearts to Christ’s hospitality, we will be re-created.


 

The Blessing of Faith Together

Exodus 33:12-23

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Proper 24a

More and more I am convinced that we miss something vital to our faith relationships when we insist on approaching God one by one. Our individual relationships with God are very important, but in and of themselves, they do not make us the body of Christ. It is our life together that makes us Christ’s body, a mysterious organism that is much more than a collection of individuals who gather in the same place every week. When we come together to worship, we form a new being with a name and an address, which has its own life and reputation. We call this church - not the building but the people - this is a phenomenon that has been around much longer than any of us and much longer than this building where we gather. When we say we belong to this church, we are not pledging allegiance to 37 W Main street but we are saying that we belong to one another, we have a commitment to share in faith with one another.

 

Faith is one of those common Christian words that is often thrown around. But, you should not let me go any further without first saying what I mean when I say the word faith. You might hear a person say, Have a little faith and what they mean is things will work out. You also might hear a person say, Bessie is so faithful and what they mean is that Bessie is someone you can depend on. I believe faith is the stubbornly relentless belief that God is present with us and in us and is an acting presence in the world among us and through us. The book of Hebrews tells us that Faith is being sure of that which we might only dare to hope for. It goes on to paint us pictures of those who are giants in faith. Men and women who believed impossible things. I do not know about you but it can be intimidating to read their stories as we wonder to ourselves if our faith is even in the same stratosphere. Sometimes the prospect of having faith can cause us to feel like Alice in Wonderland staring at the White Queen in disbelief as she proclaims that there are times she has believed up to six impossible things before breakfast.

 

Have you ever experienced a time when you felt like Alice and everything seemed impossible and your faith felt very small? It doesn’t help when we look at people of faith and compare ourselves to them in a specific moment without considering the span of their life and faith.

 

This morning’s text offers a very different picture of Moses. This morning we meet up with Moses as he boldly makes requests of God - requests that take a great deal of faith. He tells God, that the Israelites need  God’s presence to go with them and God agrees. Then, he courageously asks to see God. It is a request that I might be hesitant to make of God. But not Moses, Show me your glory, he says. In one of the most amazing images in Old Testament scripture, God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him with His hand while He passes by. When it is safe, God allows Moses to view the backside of His Glory as it passes by.  Moses’s faith leads him to ask the question that you or I might never dare to ask. But, Moses did not start out in that place. Moses started out with his knees knocking together at the burning bush as he stuttered and sputtered excuses as quickly as they flew into his mind. This is not to say that Moses did not have any faith at all. Scripture tells us that his mother, Jochebed, taught him about the God of his people- the God of Abraham, the God’s love and life. When Moses’ faith felt small, God sent him Aaron and Miriam to him to believe along side him and remind him that he was not alone.

 

It is a strange thing to realize you are surrounded by those who support you in faith even while your faith seems small and you feel alone or adrift.

 

    One of my oldest friends is my friend Jessica from college. We met our first year of school and we lived together the next two years. We have seen one another through family deaths, job uncertainties, cross-country moves, boyfriends and break ups, and marriage. Her little girl was born the week after Josiah. We have shared many aspects of life together. My Junior year of college, Jessica struggled with depression especially after a terrible break up with the person she thought she might marry as well as quite a bit of relationship tension with her mother. Throughout the year, Jessi became more and more withdrawn. One night as we talked she told me that she struggled to see that God was present in her life. She knew she needed to have faith but she was not quite surehow to do that anymore. In a moment of what I can only call Holy Spirit inspiration, I told her, borrow my faith. Until you are able, I will have faith for you. I will have faith with you.

 

    I think that is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians.And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, Paul says. When he says imitators, Paul is saying that they share faith with one another...they believe with each other and for each other. The people of this church were experiencing persecution and facing death. As they struggled to have faith in the face of persecution, I imagine they felt alone I imagine their faith felt small. I imagined they doubted whether they even had faith in the first place. If I were in their midst, I might look at the persistent persecution and wonder if my faith was lacking. Paul sends them encouragement in his letter. He reminds them that they are not alone in their persecution, they are not forgotten by God. He reminds them that he, Silvanus, and Timothy have faith with them. Paul’s message is that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep trusting relationship with one another. These relationships have depth when they are experienced along with God in community with God’s people. The imitation of one another, the sharing of faith, becomes an outgrowth of this strong community relationship.

 

    We often talk about our relationship with God as if it is a solo endeavor. We often talk about church as if it is a place where individuals come so that they can individually worship God with the company of familiar people who are also individually worshipping God. But, what if it is more. What if church isn’t just the place where we come to be fed and sheltered, but it is also where we come to stand firm with those who need the same things from us. What if, what makes us a church is the fact that we share in faith with one another. What if our worship is not only the songs we sing and the prayers we pray but what if our worship is our lives shared together as we encourage one another, believe alongside one another and even believe for one another. And maybe, what makes us the church is our decisions not to just believe alongside the person we sit next in coffee hour. Maybe what makes us the church is the decision to believe alongside the people we do not sit next to and are not always quite sure how to ask about what is going on in their lives. Maybe what makes us the church is our decision to believe alongside the chairs left empty because even though we do not see anyone sitting in them now, they represent people who need someone else to believe for them...they need others to be their church.