Monday, September 26, 2016

Sloth Versus Mourning

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was John 11:17-27, 32-44:

Pulitzer Prize winning play write Wendy Wasserstein wrote a tongue-in-cheek account of a self-help book that could sweep the nation entitled Sloth: And How to Get It. It promoted sloth as being achievable in just five easy steps, and even used sloth as an acronym. The S is for sit instead of stand, L is for let yourself go, O is for open your mouth and let anything you like enter, T is for toil no more, and H is happiness is within me, I don’t have to work at it. Now the problem with a self-help book promoting sloth is multifold. The first is that anyone who wants to promote such an idea is probably too lazy to actually write it, and the second is that those who want to become more slothful are too lazy to go get the book and those who would actually leave their couches to purchase it are too self-actualized to ever truly become slothful, and thus a book on how to become a sloth is probably destined never to be written. And perhaps that’s all for the best since sloth is one of the deadly sins, which is why we are looking at it today in comparison to what we find in the beatitudes and that is Jesus’ statement that those who mourn are blessed.

From the earliest times that the seven deadly sins were being compiled and pronounced, they have been compared against the virtues that the church thought we should be pursuing, but the list of comparative virtues has changed around depending upon who was doing the expounding. And so as I was trying to put together my list of comparing and contrasting the beatitudes and these sins, which I was not the first to do, I had to figure which was going to go with which, and the hardest one was for those who mourn. I decided to put sloth together with mourning because in some sense they can be very similar, or at least the behaviors can be similar. That is people who are mourning are often depressed and don’t want to do anything, which can be seen as sloth, and yet it’s not, besides for the fact that Jesus tells us that those who mourn are actually blessed. Do you feel blessed when you mourn?

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.