Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Sermon

John 6:24-35
      Thanksgiving.  This is one of the most important days of the year for me…it is also a day that should actually be EVERY day.  I showed you a video a couple months back about a study that had been done on gratitude.  This study showed us that those who actually take the time to express gratitude…gratitude to loved ones, to family, to friends, to God, to ANYONE are actually much, much happier. There was also an article this week written in SFgate that shows that expressions of gratitude, taking the time to realize all that we have to be grateful for contributes significantly to physical well-being as well. And I'm struck by the deep truth, once again, that the things that God calls us to do are not because GOD needs us to be grateful, or because God needs to know that we recognize the blessings that fill our lives.  God calls us into gratitude for our own souls, for our own happiness, for our own wholeness, for our own well-being.
      And yet, gratitude can sometimes remain elusive to us.  In today’s scripture, Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you”.  But, by trusting in other things besides God, wanting signs and proofs and reassurance other than our faith, by focusing on our needs and wants and security rather than on gratitude for the gifts of today, we are doing exactly that – working for food that spoils.  These other things won’t last.  They don’t last.
     People trusted in Moses, they trusted in their leaders for the food, the manna.  But at the same time, we know people can’t be trusted completely, so even while they trusted, they tried to “collect” and “preserve” and save the manna, not trusting that it would come the next day.  They forgot to trust in God. People turned to Jesus’ signs.  They sought him out because they were fed, but also because the signs they had seen of healing and the feeding they had experienced didn’t feel like enough.  They continued to ask for more proof, as we read today, constantly asking for reassurances that everything would be okay.  I wrote a blog article about happiness awhile back.  Sometimes people try to trust in happiness, but it too can’t be counted on.  This is a paragraph from what I wrote:  “ I find it very hard to "trust" happiness because it is fleeting.  It is a fickle friend.  And as such, it cannot be relied upon to stay for long, or to return when summoned, or to come when needed. Sometimes it is there constantly, every day making repeated calls, sending constant "texts" and stopping by to visit and stay.  And then, just as suddenly as it came, it can disappear and stay away for weeks at a time, not responding to calls for help, no matter how desperate and needy they are. When it comes it is incredible and wonderful and we find ourselves hoping that it will stay as constant, as helpful, as faithful, as hopeful, and as intense as it sometimes is, filling us with a sense of well-being and of being loved, causing us to laugh and play and feel young and alive.  But it never does.  It comes and goes of its own accord, when and where it will, and therefore truly can't be trusted.”
     Whatever it is that you are trusting that is not God, Jesus challenges.  No, we are not made whole, we are not made alive, we are not “okay” because of our leaders, or because of the signs that reassure us, or because we are fed today.  We don’t find wholeness in an hour’s happiness or a day or even a week or month.   We are okay, we are whole, we are on the “way” with God when we can trust, when we can live in that trust and faith, without the signs, without the proofs, without trusting in flawed and broken humans, emotions, objects or anything else that is not God.
And again, one of the easiest, most fulfilling and best ways to renew our faith, our trust and our commitment to God is by taking the time to remember our blessings and to offer gratitude, again and again.
    Still, in our society, this remains a challenge.  And this year, perhaps, more than others.
Matt Walsh at HuffingtonPost wrote the following (see whole article here) in response to black Friday actually expanding into Thanksgiving Day itself: “How appropriate, then, that a holiday created by our ancestors as an occasion to give thanks for what they had, now morphs into a frenzied consumerist ritual where we descend upon shopping malls to accumulate more things we don't need. Our great grandparents enjoyed a meal and praised the Lord for the food on the table and the friends and family gathered around it. We, having slightly altered the tradition, instead elect to bum-rush elderly women and trample over children to get our hands on cheap TVs.  For a while, Black Friday and Thanksgiving coexisted. We thanked God for His blessings on Thursday, and then jumped into the consumer mosh pit at Best Buy on Friday. But this Black Friday-Thanksgiving marriage was tenuous and rocky from the start. It was doomed to fail. Thanksgiving offers tradition, family and contentment; Black Friday offers smart phones at drastically reduced prices. In America, we all know who wins that battle. So Black Friday, like a black hole, violently expanded; it absorbed the light that surrounded it and sucked everything into its terrifying abyss, where all substance is torn to shreds and obliterated. Black Friday could not be contained to a mere 24 hours. It is Consumerism. It wants more. It always wants more. Nothing is sacred to it; nothing is valuable. So, now, Black Friday has eaten Thanksgiving alive. Thanksgiving let out a desperate cry as Black Friday devoured its soul, but we barely noticed. It's hard to hear anything when you're wrestling 4,000 other people for buy one get one free cargo shorts at Old Navy…..Will the Black Thanksgiving shopper carve a moment or two out of their busy bargain hunting schedule to break bread with their family and friends? Will they make it all the way through grace before dashing out the door, trading in tradition and merriment for cheap electronics and kitchen appliances? "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts yada yada -- gotta go, Walmart opens in 10 minutes!..... But even if I stumbled into some demented parallel dimension where the prospect of shuffling like a dead-eyed zombie through Target on Thanksgiving suddenly seemed appealing to me, I'd still pass. If for no other reason, this reason is reason enough: I'm not going to force some single mom to ring up my worthless purchases instead of enjoying Thanksgiving with her children….Capitalism is great, but some things are greater. Family is greater. Yes, these folks choose to work at these stores. Yes, they likely knew when they signed up that they'd be sacrificing their Thanksgivings. Yes, at least they have jobs. Yes, sure, and so what? If that's enough in your mind to justify participating in the destruction of a great American tradition -- good for you. But you COULD wait until Friday, couldn't you? And if you did wait until Friday, and if everyone waited until Friday, no store would ever open on Thanksgiving again, right? So you COULD take steps to protect Thanksgiving from the decay of materialism and consumerism, and, while you're at it, give this wonderful holiday back to the customer service representatives who have been forced to abandon it and cater to the stampeding throngs, right? Right, but then again, those skirts at JC Penney ARE super cheap. Oh Lord, if you don't go on Thursday to buy stuff, there might be slightly less stuff available on Friday! Think of the stuff! We must get all the stuff! The stuff must be purchased! Family can take a backseat. Tradition can wait. These employees should just be grateful for the opportunity to stand behind a cash register for 14 hours while the rest of us eat our pies and drink our wine. Thanksgiving is just a holiday. But stuff, things, toys, gadgets -- these are what life is all about. Why give thanks for what you have when there's so much you don't have? That's the new meaning of Thanksgiving: count your blessings, and then buy some more blessings and count them again.”
     No.  No, and no.  God calls us this day to be thankful, not to be trying to get “more and more and more”.  God calls us this day not to look at what we don’t have, but to stop and give thanks for what we do have.  God calls us this day to trust that even if we aren’t out getting “more and more and more” that God is with us and that God is really all we need.  God calls us this day, as every day, to be grateful.  For it is in the vision that sees the gifts around us, it is in the vision that sees how God blesses us with every breath we take, it is in the vision of our hearts that sees the beauty of the snow and the warmth of human hugs and the strong presence of God and can do nothing else but cry out from our hearts, “THAnk you!  Thank you!  Thank you!”, it is in all of that that we find joy, hope, love, LIFE, GOD.
      Janet posted on facebook today a quote that said, “There is always, always, ALWAYS something to be thankful for!”  That should be our thanksgiving day focus.  On Thanksgiving, and on every day!  Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Today's Sermon - Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 23:33-43

     On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate and remember that Christ had many roles and functions, and that one of them is as King, King of us, King of creation, King of all.  But the question, as always, is, Who is this Christ?  Who is this king?
     When we think of royalty, when we think about rulers of any kind, we have certain visions in our minds.  We have certain understandings of the kind of strength, power, and authority that it takes to lead a world, a country, a state, a city.
     But always, ALWAYS, when it comes to God, when it comes to Christ, we are handed a vision and understanding that does not, CANNOT be anything like what we think.   In order to understand THIS king, I think it can be helpful to return to our original Biblical stories of what a ruler and king are.
     The Hebrew people were told, from the beginning, that God was their God.  They were told that because of who God is, God’s strong presence in their lives, God’s overarching leadership and most of all, God’s amazing and faithful love, that the Hebrew people needed no other ruler, no other guide.     But the Israelites were scared.  They were scared to be a nation without a clear leadership who could defend them, lead them into battle, show them as a united and strong people.  They insisted, they asked for a ruler.  God gave them judges, people who could help them make decisions and interpret right from wrong.  But again, these were not what the people wanted.  They were afraid.       They didn’t believe they could rely on God alone against other nations.  We hear the rest of this story in the book of 1st Samuel, chapter 8.   “Now when Samuel got old, he appointed his sons to serve as Israel’s judges. 2 The name of his oldest son was Joel; the name of the second was Abijah. They served as judges in Beer-sheba. 3 But Samuel’s sons didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice. 4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me[a] from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”[b]10 Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king. 11 “This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said: “He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. 12 He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. 14 He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. 15 He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys, and make them do his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! 18 When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”  19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us 20 so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”  21 Samuel listened to everything the people said and repeated it directly to the Lord. 22 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Comply with their request. Give them a king.”
     So the people were given kings.  And we’ve had those kings as models for us ever since.  We have come to expect that rulers are people who give us a certain stability or protection, but that do so at a very high price.  We expect this.  No matter where you stand politically, or who you support or what kind of government you value, we all know that there are costs we’d rather not pay to having human leadership, human rulers.
     And yet, God continues to show us another way.  God continues to show us God’s way.  And God’s way is different.  And when we could not see it from what the judges had to say, and when we could not accept it based on what the prophets had to say, and when we could not live it based on what God said to us through scriptures and stories and people and history, God finally sent God’s son to us.  God sent Jesus to show us this other way, this different way.  Jesus came, the real king, the ultimate king, who acts nothing like we expect or understand rulers or leaders to behave.  He doesn’t walk around with body guards protecting his every step.  He doesn’t insist on taking from us to feed his profession or the services he offers us.  He doesn’t build a strong defense system or any other kinds of large government operations or organizations.  Instead, instead he shows us something very, VERY different.  He feeds anyone who comes to him hungry.  He heals anyone who comes to him sick (and sometimes even dead such as Talitha and Lazurus).  He listens and allows even the most rejected, the least “acceptable”, the least “worthy” to physically touch him.  He includes children, women, people of different nationalities and backgrounds such as the Serophoenician and the Samaritans, he includes tax collectors and prostitutes.  He doesn’t reject them because they aren’t “the chosen ones” or part of his nation, or part of what we deem acceptable.  He doesn’t take their wealth and live in a big mansion.  He lives poorly, simply, and asks for nothing in return.  He relies on the kindness of strangers and does not worry about his own survival or well-being.  He leads with TRUTH rather than threats or negotiations.
     And when THIS king, this king that we cannot understand, this king who acts completely differently from what we want or expect or demand from our human rulers, when this king is killed, as of course he would inevitably be, this king still, on the cross, in his dying moments, behaves completely differently from any king we can imagine.  He doesn’t send for his troops to rescue him.  He doesn’t call for a start of war or revenge.  He doesn’t threaten the end to those who did this to him.  He doesn’t shout out “you will be sorry”, and he doesn’t fight back in any way.
     Instead, as he hangs there on the cross, as he dies, as he suffers the deepest pain,  he continues to think about others, others who are suffering.  And again, it isn’t the “good” people he worries about in that moment.  It is anyone, anyone at all who is suffering.  He is hanging on the cross next to two people who have done wrong, who are being killed as criminals for some atrocity or another.  Maybe they were both murderers.  Maybe they killed children.  We aren’t told.  What we are told is that in that moment Jesus doesn’t ask.  He doesn’t care what they have done.  What he cares about is that they are scared and suffering.  And in that moment, this king, who does not “rescue” them or himself, even when he is goaded on to do so, instead, in that moment, as he suffers, hanging on the cross – he offers to the criminal crucified next to him the promise of paradise.  He reaches out with the strength of knowledge and love that goes beyond any personal suffering, and he offers life, real life, to the scared and dying person next to him.
      This is the KING that we are given, the REAL king, the savior, our God.  He does not jump off the cross to save himself, despite the pain, and the inevitable death that he faces.  He does not “negotiate” or play politics.  He lives life following God to the fullest, and he pays for it with death, a death he accepts even while he loves and cares for those around him, even those whom, like this criminal next to him, we would probably not deem worthy of that love or care.
     Walter Brueggermann said it this way – “Every (government) regime is frightened…..  It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the (earthly) king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”  Well, again, the king that we see, the king that Jesus presents is not this kind of king.  This is the king who IS the prophet, who IS the artist…who takes all of our understandings of rulers and leadership and what it is to command people, and he turns them on their head.
     This week is Thanksgiving.  And then we begin Advent.  And all of them, Christ the King, Thanksgiving, and Advent connect… all are about seeing God in the unexpected places, being grateful because we have seen God, and expecting that God, Christ, King, Jesus as a baby – will not be what we expect.
     I struggled with the sermon this week.  I struggled to write it because I am saying the same thing that is being said across the country on this Christ the King Sunday.  That Christ the King is nothing at all like the kings and leaders we think we need.  That instead Christ the King is the King GOD wants us to have – a king of love, compassion, service, selflessness, faithfulness – God wants us to have nothing else but God for our king, our leader, our ruler.  What is new in that?  What new word can I bring that you have not heard every year on this Sunday?  What stories can I possibly tell you to illustrate this reality?  But then I thought, the thing is, we need to hear this every year.  Because we are still, STILL looking for that earthly king to lead us.  We still are.  And that is not the king God calls us to have lead us.
     So how will we recognize this Christ?  How do we recognize this King?  As we enter Advent, as we come to God with thanksgiving in our hearts for all we have been given, how do we know our loyalty is to the right king?  How do we know we have found Christ again?
We will know him, as we always do, by his love.   Amen.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Intimacy with God - Wednesday homily recap

(usually I preach on Wednesdays more extemporaneously - ie, I don't write out my sermons.  So this is an attempt to write out what I said - HA!)

Scripture: Psalm 63:1-8

What does it mean to really be close to God?  What does it mean to be close to anyone?  What creates intimacy?

Sharing deeply - both the good and bad stuff, being willing to admit our wrongs and things we struggle with, hearing the other, listening and getting to know a person for their good and bad.  Acceptance of the other: all of these things create and demonstrate intimacy.  But one of the other things that also can create genuine intimacy is when we speak the truth to the other about things that hurt us or that anger us.  When we have the trust, courage and strength to say, "you have hurt me." or "I am angry with you", it does several things.  First, it clears us to hear their version of the story.  It helps us let go of our feelings to speak them, and then we can be open to really understand what the other is saying.  Also, when we speak, usually it invites the other to speak in turn.  When we hear from the other, we grow in our understanding of who they are, why they do what they do, why something happened the way it did...and that deeper understanding means a deeper intimacy. Also, it expresses a deep caring and trust to take the risk of speaking your truth.  Showing that trust, that depth of caring, usually increases intimacy too.

Well, the same is true with God.  But sometimes I think we are afraid of intimacy with God.  We know that God knows us, fully and completely.  But that is a uni-directional or one-dimensional relationship.  Do we really know God?  Are there things in the Bible that describe God that make us uneasy or uncomfortable?  Are we uneasy thinking of God, for example, as angry?  or jealous?  Both of these are descriptions of God in our scriptures.  Do we push these descriptions aside?  What about a God who forgives everyone?  We want God to be "just" in our understanding of justice.  We want a God who will punish those who hurt us and rescue us from their wrath and vengeance.  So when we read that God loves everyone, sometimes we don't like it.  That is not the God we want to know.  So how often do we just accept a one-sided intimacy with God because we don't want to really know God?

I am reminded of this quote from the book, The Alchemist (p.16) by Paulo Coelho, "When someone sees the same people every day, as had happened with him at the seminary, they wind up becoming a part of that person's life.  And then they want the person to change.  If someone isn't what others want them to be, the others become angry.  Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own."

Do we do this with God?  Do we avoid getting to really know God because we'd rather create God in our own image?

Regina Brett wrote this amazing article that is published in her book, God Never Blinks.  It is lesson 8, "It's okay to get angry with God.  He can take it".  I won't put the whole essay here, but if you get the chance to read it, it is really worth the read.  The point of it is that when we finally are able to speak "truth" to God - whether it be anger or pain or frustration or whatever it is, God grants us peace.

Following up on that, I would say even more that speaking our "truth" to God - especially those uncomfortable feelings we'd rather NOT share with God, is an exercise in intimacy.  We don't really understand God.  But we often do not really KNOW other people either until we are open with them first.

Like in the book of Job, Job tried to avoid expressing anger or frustration to God.  Job felt it was not okay, it was not acceptable to speak those feelings.  But finally he snapped and spoke, saying all that he felt and feared and wanted said.  God's response?  God's response was to show up!!!  God's response was to return the communication and talk back to Job.  God also revealed more of who God really is to Job in response to Job's honest and open communication about who Job really was.  God said to Job and Job's friends that no, sometimes bad things do happen to good people and the assumption that God is Santa Claus - giving good to the good and bad to the bad is a complete misunderstanding.  They might not have liked that answer, but it invited them to know the true God more fully, more deeply, more honestly.  God then said to Job that Job simply didn't understand..."think about creation" God said.  And that, too, opened up for Job a different and DEEPER understanding of who God is.  God is a God we just have a little glimpse of understanding, but who will give us more of God-self every time we ask, every time we seek, every time we choose genuine, honest, real, open relationship with God.

Personally, there are times I, too, don't really want God to be the way God is.  There are moments when I try to create God in my image, when I want God to be different.  I sometimes don't like that God is not more active, for example, in "fixing" things.  Why doesn't God just take away the pain and the problems and not allow God's children suffer?  But when I actually take the risk, the time, and trust to tell God I'm upset and struggling, God shows up for me as well.  And I hear, very clearly, "This challenge that you are facing is not for Me, your God, to fix.  This challenge is here as a gift to you to learn things, to grow, to become closer to me.  This challenge is a blessing to you - an opportunity for depth and intimacy.  I am here with you in it, but it is yours, not mine, to face and walk through."  At times I may not like this answer, but at the same time I find great comfort and truth in it.  God is with me through it all.  And because God wants the best for me, God won't just take away the struggles.  Our paths towards wholeness and intimacy with God, these are not ever going to be comfortable journeys.  But they are paths towards true deepening, wholeness and intimacy with God.  God wants that for us.  As Rick Warren says it, "God is more interested in your character than your comfort."  And that is a blessing indeed.