Monday, September 19, 2016

Pride Versus The Meek

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Matthew 5:1-12 and 7:12-23:

“I am an invisible man….” Thus begins Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man.  “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquid, -- and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ellison says, but, he continues, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” I am invisible because people refuse to see me. I thought that was an appropriate way, or the appropriate sentiment, to begin today’s sermon as we continue in our series on the seven deadly sins and the beatitudes and tackle the deadly sin of pride, the way of the world, against the way of the Kingdom of God, as contained in the beatitudes and the sermon on the mount with those who are poor in spirit and those who are meek, the people we might never see, or refuse to see, and certainly the people society says we shouldn’t pay any attention to not only because they are not worth or time, but even more because they are simply unworthy. They are losers.  Our society values the rich, the educated, the famous, those who are athletically gifted, the powerful, those whose who are physically beautiful. The meek, the poor, they deserve whatever they get, and should be happy to receive anything at all, even our disdain. They should be grateful we don’t truly act as if they are invisible.  If they don’t have enough pride to assert themselves, then there is nothing we should do for them. Losers.

But, Jesus says, while that might be the way the world would like to operate, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be, it’s not the way of God, it’s not the way of the Kingdom of God. God calls for something different, and God rewards something different. So Jesus says, as we heard last week, blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called what? Children of God, and if you missed last week’s message I would encourage you to watch it online.  And blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. That again turns the world on its head, for how it’s not just that the meek and the poor in spirit are blessed, and we’ll come back next week to what it means to be blessed, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It’s theirs now in the present tense. Don’t confuse Matthew’s usage of the term heaven here with the afterlife. That is not what Matthew is referring to, and so if you need to hear something different to get away from the afterlife connotation, you can place in the term Kingdom of God here, which is the term that both Mark and Luke use consistently. That’s what the poor in spirit get, and what do they meek get, they shall inherit the earth. The whole earth, not some small part of it, not the part they have marked out hiding behind some pole because they are meek, but the whole earth, as an inheritance. Why do you inherit something? Because you are related, which means that God is claiming the meek as God’s own, as children, as heirs to inherit what God has to give. The meek. As they say in Monty Python's Life of Brian, "That's nice, I'm glad they're getting something, 'cause they have a [heck] of a time."

Monday, September 12, 2016

Wrath Versus Peacemakers

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Matthew 5:1-12 and 5:38-48:

Most of us probably remember where we were and what we were doing 15 years ago today. We remember the moment when we first heard about a plane, or planes hitting the world trade center, we remember seeing people fleeing from the buildings, and seeing the fire department running towards the buildings. We remember the buildings collapsing and our tears and our sorrow and our questions and maybe our fears. Some watched from a distance not knowing anyone involved, and others had their lives ripped apart that day.  When we lived in Boston, Linda and I were friends with a woman who had a plane ticket for one of those flights, but her meeting in LA got cancelled, and so she never got on board, and in both churches we served there, literally right around the corner from both of them was a memorial to the people in those towns who had lost their lives on that day. and yet in the devastation of that moment we experienced something special, something unique. We witnessed bravery and heroism most of us had only heard about. We witnessed sacrifice and selflessness. We witnessed a nation, and to a large degree a world, coming together, not based on national or tribal affinities, but based on a shared and common humanity.

Jesus said that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And so, someone said that in witnessing the firefighters and the police officers running into a burning building while everyone else was running out, laying down their lives for their friends in the greatest sense of that word, we glimpsed the kingdom of God. Of course that glimpse did not last long, and we soon turned away from the things that brought us together, and instead started building up barriers and walls, shouting tribal chants and seeking revenge and war. A war that continues to this day, so that this year’s entering college freshmen can never remember a time in which we as a nation were not at war. But for a moment, in the midst of the chaos and violence and tragedy, we witnessed the kingdom of God.

One of the responses I received about what people would like me to preach on was to talk about the election and how we as Christians should be thinking about and responding to what is happening. With disgust might be one response, but probably not the appropriate one. I do think it’s appropriate that we talk about the election, but how I was going to do that was the issue. I do know that there are some people who get upset and think that politics should never be talked about it in church, but that’s actually an impossibility. Because to proclaim Jesus as Lord and King, is to make a political statement; it’s to claim where our allegiance belongs, to God, and also where it doesn’t belong, to the things of the world. In addition, Jesus had a lot to say about things that are impacted by what we would call the political realm. So if we are to proclaim ourselves as Christians, as followers of Christ, that is political.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How To Listen To A Sermon

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 13:1-9:

In 1940, the philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler published a book entitled How to Read a Book. Now we might think reading a book is sort of self-explanatory, after all if we needed to know how to read it wouldn’t we have been taught. And yet, if you have read Adler’s book you come to realize we come to realize that we actually didn’t know how to read a book. So today we are going to try and tackle something more important to us, and that is how to listen to a sermon. Perhaps this too should be self-explanatory, after all we have been doing it for a long time, but I’m guessing that we were never taught how to listen to a sermon, or what we might do to get the most out of a sermon. I was certainly never taught that, nor have I ever taught it. I was taught how to preach, or at least the basics of doing it, but never how to receive the words of scripture. This was not always the case. It used to be that people would be taught how to listen to sermons, but according to Christopher Ash, who published a pamphlet on this very issue in 2009, he could not find any writings on this subject over the past 200 years. But, I think knowing how to be active listeners is even more important since TV has turned us into passive recipients of information.  But the truth is this emphasis on how to hear God’s word goes all the way back to Jesus, as we heard in the passage from Matthew.

Jesus tells us that a sower goes out to sow seeds, and some seeds fell on the path, and some seeds fell on rocky ground, and some seed fell among the thorns; all of those seeds did not take root because the soil was not ready or able to receive them.  But, some seed fell on good soil and they produced a plentiful harvest. And then Jesus says, “let anyone with ears listen.” While this is called the Parable of the Sower, it might just as well be called the parable of the soil, because is there anything wrong with the sower? No, the sower is doing his work just fine and scattering the seeds everywhere. Is there anything wrong with the seeds? No. The seed is absolutely fine, and the same seed is scattered everywhere. The sower is not using different seeds for different soil, it’s the same seed. Now Jesus will go on to explain that the sower is God (or Jesus himself) and the seed is the word of God, the message of the kingdom, so if the sower is fine and the seed is fine, what is the different reactions to the seeds? It’s in the soil, it’s in the people who hear the word, some people Jesus says, are hearing but not listening. The sower can be the best sower ever, and the seed can be the best seed every, but if the soil is not ready, if we are hearing but not listening, then nothing will take root. Let anyone with ears listen.

That means that what I am up here doing nearly every week is not entirely up to me; you play a crucial role in this process as well.  The effectiveness of preaching is not simply up to the preacher. It takes all of us to be involved. So, here is how I believe we prepare the soil of our lives in order to be able to hear and listen to a sermon.

Monday, August 29, 2016

State of the Church

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14:

Normally in June I preach a state of the church address to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year, talk about where we still have room to grow and to set out a vision for where we are going in the coming years. I was set to do that message in June, but I instead preached about the shooting in Orlando, and so today I am going to deliver that message, even as we mourn another senseless killing except this time it is in our backyard.  But, I am now into my fourth year serving here at Mesa View, and we have seen some large highs and some large lows, and I am hearing two different themes about my tenure here recently. The first is that since the last two pastors to serve here were only here for four years, people think that I too will be moving very soon. It’s always a possibility, but I don’t think a very strong one, at least not at this moment, and the other thing to remember is that the two pastors before them were both here for ten years each.

The other thing I am hearing a lot of recently is that people want me to stay another 20 years, which is often followed by “so that way you can do my funeral.” I appreciate the vote of confidence, I think, but two problems with this. The first is that it sort of says, “stay here until I’m gone, and make sure to turn off the lights when you leave.” But the bigger problem is that 20 years would only get me to age 63, and I don’t really want to have to move to a new church to get me to retirement, so at least say you want me to be here for 22 more years.  But here is the real truth. If you want me to stay, we have to do a lot of work to make that a reality, and the biggest ones are to be financially stable and viable as well as to be growing spiritually, missionally and numerically. The Bishop is not inclined to move clergy from churches that are doing well. So keep that in mind for today’s message as well as for the coming years.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Run The Race Before Us

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Hebrews 12:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Tonight many of the athletes will gather once again will gather for the closing ceremonies of the Olympic games, not including those who fled the country with the police on their heels.  At tonight’s ceremony, the head of the International Olympic Committee will declare that the Rio games are officially closed, and then the flag of Japan will be hoisted up in the stadium, as they will be the host nation of the next Olympic games, and the race to the next Olympics will be begun with stories of cost overruns, of the inability of the city to host the Olympics, of the worries of terrorism, and as we get closer the reality that many of the facilities are not yet completed, just like we hear every single time the Olympics come around.  We move from what has just happened, and we move forward to the next games. In some sense this is just one big relay race, one nation passing the baton on to the next, and on to the next, with everyone hoping the baton doesn’t get dropped, or perhaps with a little glee at the spectacle hoping the baton does get dropped.  But regardless, the athletes and Tokyo are now all working hard to prepare to be ready come back in four years to do it all over again, to run the race that is before them.  And so today we conclude this series looking at what we can learn from the games about our faith in how we run the race that is before us.

Last week when we looked at wrestling, I said that it was believed to be one of the oldest sports in the world and one that is found in every culture.  But, since walking is an Olympic sport we would have to go with walking as being the oldest sport, something we have been doing for some 4 million years, but running probably comes in as the second oldest sport in which we undertake. Although my guess is that the earliest races were not about being the fastest person, but instead only about not being the slowest person, because when you’re being chased by a wild animal intent on killing you, you don’t have to be the fastest one, you merely have to outrun the slowest person in order to survive.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Wrestling With God

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Genesis 32:22-31:

We are now one week down in the Olympics, with one week to go. Some of the things that were expected to happen, happened, and some things not expected to happen, also happened, just like life, and so we continue looking at what the Olympics can teach us about our faith, and today we look at one of the oldest of the sports, wrestling.  Wrestling was one of the original sports found in the ancient Olympic Games, as well as those of the Isthmian Games, which took place in Corinth. But, of course, the sport is even older than that.  It’s said that wrestling has been found among every culture in the world, and thus may be one of the original sports in which humanity participated. Since somehow walking is also an Olympic sport I’m going to have to say that it’s probably the oldest.  There is a Sumerian wall carving from around 3000 BC which depicts a wrestling match, along with what appears to be a referee overseeing it.  In a carving from the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptahhotep, around 2300 BCE, it shows six different wrestling holds, five of which we still use.

Wrestling also has had spiritual ramifications as well. According to Shinto legend, the ownership of the Islands of Japan was established when the thunder god Take-mikazuchi defeated his rival in a wrestling match, and in Greek myth, Zeus and his fellow Olympian gods wrestled the older Titan deities for ownership of the universe, ending with Zeus defeating his own father Kronos.  So perhaps it should not be surprising that we also have the story from Genesis we heard this morning of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger, whom we come to see as God. But perhaps, because of its prevalence and apparent importance in the ancient world, we should be surprised that wrestling is not found more often as a theme, or an event within scripture, but what is even more striking that of the places in which wrestling does occur, all of them, except one, which is a passage in Colossians about Epaphras wrestling in his prayers on behalf of the Colossians, all of the other references are found in the story of Jacob.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Opening Ceremony: Celebration

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Philippians 4:4-9:

For the next two weeks, a large majority of the world is going to have their eyes turned towards Rio and the Olympic games taking place there.  This is the first time the Olympics have been held in south America, which is like America, but south, and also the first time the summer games have been held in the winter. And so I thought it might be a good time for us to turn our eyes to the idea of sport, and Olympic sport in particular, of what it can teach us about our faith, or how we might apply what we see in the games to our faith.  Now this idea is not really as far off as it might seem, because, in fact, there are several different illusions to sport to be found in scripture. Jacob wrestles with God, something we will grapple with next week. Moses served in the courts of the Pharaoh, so there is tennis, and of course baseball, the greatest sport, is mentioned twice when we are told that God did things in the big inning.  But on a more serious note, we do see this specifically in the writings of Paul.  While we are much more familiar with the ancient Olympic games, which also took place every four years, they were not the only games taking place in the ancient world.  There were also the Isthmian games which were held the year before and the year after the Olympic games. The Isthmian games were named after their location, which was on the isthmus of Corinth, a city in which Paul spent plenty of time.  And so when we hear him say to the Corinthians, run the race before you, that is not just some generic statement, he is making a reference to an activity with which they would have been very familiar.  So as Paul used the games for his illustrations of living a Christian life, so we too are going to use the games for the same purpose, and we’re going to begin with where the Olympics begin and that is with the opening ceremonies.

Now I am aware that there were actually some games that started even before the opening ceremonies started on Friday night, but that is really seen as the kick-off, the beginning of the Olympics. It draws the largest number of people both in terms of participants who will be there, but also in drawing the highest television ratings of any of the events that will take place at the Olympics. Consider that for a moment. The biggest event, the biggest celebration, the thing everyone wants to attend and to watch is not the celebration at the end, but instead a celebration at the beginning. A celebration to begin things. That’s sort of the opposite of how we normally do things. We normally have a party at the end of events as a celebration that it’s all over and to celebrate what was accomplished. I was trying to come up with some other things that we celebrate before they actually begin. I think the first would be Christmas, which we celebrate on the 25th of December and then act as if Christmas is over, when really it’s only just begun as it runs for another 11 days. But I think that’s more out of ignorance than an intentionality of celebrating at the start. There are New Year’s Eve celebrations, but those really end with the stroke of midnight, so we’re celebrating the start of something, but also, and maybe to a larger degree it’s the saying good-bye, and perhaps good-riddance, to the prior year.  We celebrate ground breaking for new buildings, but those usually still pale in comparison to dedication celebrations.  There are baby showers, celebrations before the baby comes, but I think that’s because new parents need the items to be ready, and also we know they will be too exhausted to do anything after the baby comes. There are bachelor and bachelorette parties, but that’s more to mourn the loss of singleness to a degree, then to actually celebrate the wedding. Perhaps the wedding itself is one area where we truly celebrate an event when it begins, to kick off the marriage rather than celebrating some other time.  But again, that is by far the exception to the rule. Is there some other event I’m missing where the celebration at the beginning is bigger than the celebration at the end, or at least the same?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Okay, Group Hug! You Too Anger.

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

We continue in our series on the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Inside Out.  Another film where the lead character is female, and really four of the main characters are all female.  The main lead is Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father has gotten a new job. But while it’s about Riley, it’s also about a lot more than Riley because what we actually see going on for most of the movie is what’s going on in Riley’s head, and how her emotions function together and operate her life, and the lives of others around her as well.  Although we have many different emotions, for simplicity sake, the Pixar team narrowed it down to five. There is joy, who is designed to look like a star, sadness, who is designed to look like a teardrop, disgust, who looks like broccoli, and fear, who is tall and thin, supposed to be like a nerve, and my personal favorite, anger… These emotions live and work in the central complex, headquarters, pun intended I am sure, and control what is going on in everyone’s lives. Rather than trying to explain this to you, take a look at how this works….

As it turns out, Riley is miserable with the move, the moving truck hasn’t arrived with their stuff, and her dad’s job is not going well, but to make matters worse is what happens to joy and sadness.  As Riley has an experience, the memory comes into her mind as a round ball, and it is color coded according to what emotion is associated with it, red for anger, yellow for joy, blue for sadness, etc.  These balls then get moved into long-term storage at night where she can recall them and the emotions associated with them. But, it turns out, the emotions associated with them can also be changed, and so when sadness touches one of these memories, it changes from what it was to a memory of sadness. This of course makes joy very upset, and she seeks to try and control sadness, at one point drawing a circle for sadness to stand in so that she can’t touch anything or bring any more sadness to Riley, which is what Joy doesn’t want to happen.  In trying to keep sadness in her place, or where joy wants her to be, both joy and sadness get sucked into the brain where all the other memories are stored, leaving only anger, disgust and fear in control, which sends Riley’s life into turmoil leading to anger making the brilliant suggestion that Riley’s life was happy and great in Minnesota and so she decides, or they decide, that Riley should run away, while joy and sadness are desperately trying to get back to headquarters.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Speed. I Am Speed.

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42:

Today we continue in our series in the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Cars. Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen, whom we just say, a racecar who is trying to become the first rookie racer to ever win the Piston Cup (He did what in his cup?) In the last race of the season, McQueen has a huge lead on the last lap when his tires blow allowing the two main competitors Strip Weather, also known as The King, who is in his last season, and Chick Hicks, the racer who is in perpetual second place, to catch up and there is a three way tie to end the race. McQueen’s tires blow because he has fired three crew chiefs and refuses to listen to the rest of his team, because, as he says, he is a one-man show, which then causes the rest of the team to quit. It is decided that to resolve the tie that there will be a three car race in California the next week, but on the way to California, Lightning accidentally comes out of the truck he is riding in, and in his confusion, ends up in a small town by the name of Radiator Springs, the cutest little town in Carburetor County, along Route 66, and while being chased by the police for speeding ends up tearing up the main street, where he is then arrested and sentenced to pave the street before he will be allowed to leave. While in the town he encounters a strange collection of characters that includes another former piston cup racer who has become the town doctor, but who has hidden his true identity from everyone else.

Up to this point, McQueen has seen racing and life as a zero sum game, as he has just said, there is one winner and 42 losers. One person is at the top, and everyone else is a loser in both senses of that words, of not winning the race and also not winning at life. Lightning has confused the idea with winning with being a winner, the same mistake that Chick Hicks will make at the end of the film, and we often do the same thing. There are some things in life that really are races, but not many, or certainly not as many as we would like to make them, especially when we turn life into a race and want to declare winners and losers. Seth Godin has said, in a competition in which the point is to win, you’re not supposed to enjoy the ride, learn anything, make your community better, slow down for anything, you’re supposed to win. It also justifies the use of any means in order to reach that end, winning. And when we treat life as a race, with winners and losers, then we end of cheating, literally and figuratively, everyone, most especially ourselves.  And so what Lightning has to do is to come to the realization that that is what he is doing with his own life.  He has equated “I won the race” with “I am a winner,” and he realizes how he has treated everyone else in his life, that he doesn’t have any real friends, that everything and everyone is a means to an end, just as others, like his agent Harrv, only see him as a means to an end.  As a result he is rushing through life, and life is rushing by him, and he’s never getting the time or taking the time to stop and learn how to smell the roses, as it were.  This becomes clear to him when he has an afternoon off from paving the road, and Sally, the owner of the local motel, the Cozy Cone, takes him for a drive…

Monday, July 11, 2016

Mend The Bond Torn By Pride

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Ephesians 4:25-5:2:

We continue today in our series on the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Brave. This is the first Pixar film to star a female lead, a redheaded female at that, and it is also the first in which the entire story real centers on and focuses around two female characters, Merida and her mother Eleanor.  It is also the darkest of Pixar’s films, in that it resembles some of the fairy tales we all know, although Merida doesn’t need any gammy boy to come to her rescue, she can do things quite fine all by herself thank you very much.  Eleanor is trying to raise up Merida to be a proper princess who will be able to lead the kingdom along with her husband in strength, just as she has done. Merida, however, doesn’t want to be the person her mother wants her to be, this is another example of the sense of identity that runs throughout Pixar films. Eleanor invites the other clans and their first born sons to come and compete to claim Merida as a bride, but Merida has other plans, and first subverts the contest that is to decide who she will marry. Then she gets a witch to cast a spell to change her mother, which Merida hopes will convince her mother to change her mind on forcing Merida to get married, but instead gets her mother changed into a bear. Merida is then told that if her mother isn’t changed back to a human by sunrise of the second day that she will remain as a bear for the rest of her life. As it turns out this is not the first time this curse has been laid on the kingdom, and to overcome it, to change her fate, the witch tells Merida that she must “look inside, mend the bond torn by pride.”

I already told this story a few weeks ago, but at annual conference this year, Bishop Cynthia Feirro Harvey told a story about her husband. She kept telling him things, but he said he didn’t hear them, or was acting as if he didn’t hear them, and so, getting a little older decided to get his hearing checked out. At the end of the appointment the doctor asked him why he had come in and so he told her, and the doctor said, well you’re hearing is just fine so perhaps it’s not your hearing but your listening that’s not working. We hear but we don’t listen. Merida and her mother are encountering exactly the same problem in that instead of talking to each other, they are talking at, or around each other, or not even to each other…..  Does that seem like a familiar story? Each of them have something to say, each of them have reasons for doing what they are doing, but neither can express that to the other, perhaps because even if they do they think they won’t actually be listened to.  And there is that moment, when literally and metaphorically Merida feels like she is being stuffed into something that is too tight, that constrains her too much, that is not who she is, and for a brief moment both of them appear to let down their guards, and are going to be honest and open, but then Eleanor can’t do it, and Merida can’t do it, and they go right back to their own positions.