7/1/2012 Sermon: “Get up!”

Mark 5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat* to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing* what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 Good News vs. Bad News. Over the last few weeks, many communities around the country were celebrating high school and college graduations.  If you walked across a platform and received a diploma somewhere recently, congratulations! 

For many years, for a lot of churches and for me personally, the next event on the calendar has been a mission trip!  Of course, this can mean immersing yourself in the life of someone who doesn’t have much to celebrate.

In 1985, I was the new associate pastor for youth at a large church in Ohio.  We moved in July from Massachusetts, and a few days later, I was in a van full of teenagers headed for the Back Bay Mission (UCC) in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was my first church mission trip.

Like many places, Biloxi is a combination of very rich and very poor, often living next to each other.  I went there three more times with mission groups, usually painting the house of an elderly person, as I recall.  Very meaningful.  A visit to New Orleans was the fun day out. Interesting things to see and maybe the best food in the world.

Then came the hurricane – Katrina.  In 2006, I went back to New Orleans, taking a group to help gut houses in preparation for rebuilding (all of the drywall containing mold had to be removed).  Almost 250,000 homes were destroyed or made unlivable in the New Orleans area because flooding.  I’ve seen worse destruction (Hurricane Andrew in Miami, 1993; see last week’s sermon, “Riding Out the Storm”), but the amount of destruction and the number of people displaced in New Orleans was staggering.  In wheelbarrows, we took families’ personal possessions to the curb, including personal photos, where the Army Corps of Engineers would haul them away to landfills. That was truly depressing.  All of us were thinking, these were normal people living normal lives when Katrina washed their normal lives away.  This could have been us (Maybe it almost was last year, 2011, during Hurricane Irene!).

For two weeks following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this New Orleans house sat in flood water up to the middle of the upper story windows. Our group from Goshen, CT, gutted 3 houses in 1 week.
Personal possessions, including family photos, were taken to the curb.

The local churches were doing heroic work helping people survive.  It’s often said that church is something like a hospital. This is because, like Jesus, people come to us when tragedy strikes, when they need to be healed, when there is a personal struggle, when they need help. Minus the presence of massive disaster, even when times are generally “good,” gathered in the same room on a Sunday morning, there are people having fun and people in despair.

There will always be this contrast. It is true that there are people in our community and in our churches who are struggling. They are living through the worst kinds of tragedy. And some people are having a good time; and it appears that God has blessed them. Many of us are taking turns with these experiences. I believe we have great wisdom when we can bridge that gap, and one can help the other when needed. Through it all, we are here because we believe that Jesus Christ is the great equalizer, the one who can calm our internal storms.

As we sit here, we can each think of someone who is experiencing a tragedy. It is precisely at these moments of the worst possible news that the good news of Jesus Christ comes to impact our lives. In the gospel story for today, Jesus brings the good news of health and life to confront and overcome the bad news of sickness and death.

There is something very important to pick up on in that story. The good news of God’s kingdom and Gods overcoming of sickness and death is all about a relationship with God. Jesus makes himself available to Jairus the synagogue leader and is near the woman with the hemorrhage. With both of them, when they first come into the story, healing is possible, but hasn’t happened yet. What happens between that first moment of meeting Jesus, and the good thing takes place in their lives? It wasn’t automatic. God is trying to teach you something in this story.

The healing of Christ doesn’t happen because you follow the rules and regulations and then get in line to receive your blessing. God wants a relationship with us more than God wants our religiousness. They received because they believed. They believed enough to speak:

Jairus said, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (5:23)

The woman believed and said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” (5:28)

They believed. They came to Jesus with faith. They didn’t say, “Jesus, I hope you can help.” Or, “Hey, why don’t I give this a try?

With whom do you most identify in this story? There is the woman with an illness that owns her and owns her future. Jesus wants to know who touched him, because if it was that woman, it was against the Jewish religious laws that she touched him. There are probably some religious types nearby who know she is unclean. So, according to the religious/cultural laws, they are both in trouble. Bad form, unacceptable that she touched him. Religion can be mean. Maybe you’ve had that kind of experience with religion, and it would help you to know that the Jesus walking by is ready to heal you. Just touch him.

There is a distraught father, a religious leader who would probably be one of Jesus’ enemies if he weren’t desperate. Having your child in trouble

makes you desperate. There is a little girl whose young life is being cut short unfairly. There are the confused disciples, and the crowd who doesn’t know what to think of all this. Where are you?

Have you ever had a moment when all you could do was put your head in your hands and say, “I don’t know what to do?” That’s when Jesus shows up, and it’s an intrusion. What is he doing here? What does he want? The little girl is dead. From the other side of the door, over all the crying and wailing, you could hear Jesus say, “Get up!”

In this story, no one really does anything, except to cry out in desperation. No one, far as I can tell, believes, or feels, or thinks. The story of our faith is not about us and what we do; its about Jesus and what he does. Jesus can’t heal if you believe in yourself more than him.

And now, I think he may be calling to you. “Get up! Get up!”

Back in the 1990s, I took a group to what had been communist East Germany just a few years before. We went to Wittenburg. There is a huge, dark, foreboding church building there, in which Martin Luther is buried, and it has a great tower which stands over the skyline of the city. It looks like a castle, and it is called the Castle Church. It was on the tower of this church that the Communist government posted the words from Luther’s most famous hymn. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God, a bulwark never failing.”

During those years before the wall fell, believers in Wittenberg, whispered among themselves “The communists should have quoted from the first line of the second verse of the hymn, ‘If we on our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.”’

I know people who have problems with the Christian faith. They can’t understand Christian belief. They have difficulty with some of Jesus’ teachings. They are confused by the Bible. They feel they’ve have failed at their attempts at prayer. And I wonder if I as a preacher have helped them or not. Too many of the things I say from the pulpit implicitly suggest that in order to be a Christian you have got to try hard to believe this, or that. You’ve got to straighten up and get your life together. You have got to feel this or that in your heart. Or maybe you’re ready to let Jesus do what Jesus does. You’re ready to let go. In the name of Jesus, get up, you are free to live. All he wants you to do – all he has ever wanted you to do – is believe, and make him your Lord. 

 Prayer

 Lord, on this bright, summer day, with all the world fresh and green, and everything full of promise and summer warmth, we appear to be so full of life. Yet you know, seeing into our souls, deeper than we ourselves see, that all is not well with us. Some of us here feel hopeless. We fear the future.

Give us all a vision of what the world could be like is we step out to serve you, in your name. Others of us face some seemingly impossible situation. Help us all to know deeply how much we need you. So come to us, call to us, raise us up, bring us life. Amen.

6/24/2012 Sermon: “Riding Out the Storm”

Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Riding Out the Storm.  Beginning this week, around the country, many church youth groups undertake a yearly pilgrimage: their annual mission trip.  For many years, when working with youth groups, tried to alternate these experiences between a destination that’s far away, usually requiring a passport, and a destination that’s close by (or, at least in the United States!).

Being in Connecticut, one of my favorites has been the Youth Service Opportunities Project in Manhattan (www.ysop.org). Our groups usually take a school bus into the city and spend the next 24 hours there.  First, on Friday evening, they serve a small group of homeless men a chicken dinner, taking the time to get to know them.  Then on Saturday, they spread out around the city in small groups to serve lunch in soup kitchens. 

Each night in New York City, 33-35,000 people use the municipal shelters.  A huge number are children.  Most do not choose to be homeless.  They each have a story to tell.  Their situation might involve bad choices, but it is just as likely to involve something that happened to them.  It might have been a sickness, the abuse of someone in the family, or the collapse of their personal finances because of the economy.

It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, but one of the things I heard repeated while we are in the city is, “You are only a paycheck away from disaster.”  That may not be literally true, but you know what it means.  The proverb I’m more familiar with is, “You’re only a phone call away from disaster.”

What our kids learn on these trips is that the homeless person you just walked by – and tried to avoid – is a person with a story.  And, “there but for the grace of God go I.” 

We want to make life good for our kids; how do you prepare them for times when things go badly?  I think you have to learn to let go and let them succeed or fail on their own.  Learn when not to help.

 Help them know how to prepare for bad times, which might have something to do with living in ways that avoid creating bad times.  And I think you have to exercise faith yourself.  That’s the best thing that I think the adults of the church can show our youth – how to have faith.  Sometimes, when you’ve done all you can, you just have to step out and trust that God will take care of you, no matter what happens.

The gospel reading this morning is about trust.  It’s about what to do when storms happen.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked about the Sea of Galilee several times.  It’s actually a large lake, a beautiful spot.  It’s about 700 feet below sea level, and is surrounded by hills.  It’s a fairly shallow lake, which can make it good for fishing, but bad for storms.  It’s not unusual for storms to come up so quickly that people who are out too far in their boats are helpless. 

Maybe you could picture that storm happening out on the lake.  Black sky, the rumble of thunder.  In Galilee, there are seasons for storms like that, just as we have a hurricane season on our coast. It’s a common thing and the locals know how to be careful.  It’s in shallow lakes that storms can be killers.

I think most people have a story about getting caught in a storm.  Most of them are probably about watching a storm.  In August of 1991, we sat in our living room on Cape Cod and watched Hurricane Bob go by.  We watched the ground heave around our trees in the front yard, and a couple of them slowly came down; I think the winds were about 110 mph.  But that storm was more of an inconvenience than a danger – at least to us.  We had to clean up the yard and went without power for three days.  We lost everything in the freezer.  Of course, last year (2011), most of us went much longer without power after Hurricane Irene.

But I heard a different story about a hurricane when I took youth group went to Miami in 1993.  We were there to help clean up the damage from Hurricane Andrew, which was a much more powerful storm than anything most of us have seen.  Andrew was nearly tornado strength, and wiped neighborhoods of homes from their foundations.

One night we were invited to a local church to “hang out” in their youth room.  They had a big sectional couch in one corner of the room and that’s where most of us were sitting as we listened to the youth director of the church give us a talk.  He said, “Let me tell you about that couch you’re sitting on.”

“When Hurricane Andrew passed through here, that couch was in the living room of a girl in our youth group.  She and her little sister and her parents were sitting in the living room watching the storm get worse and worse.  They thought they could just ride it out.  But then the windows started to break.  And the walls started to bend.  And the roof started to move.  The parents took the sectional couch apart and propped it up over the kids and went to take cover in the bathroom.  But before they left the room, they kissed their daughters good-bye.  They all survived, but at that moment they honestly thought they would never see each other again.”

The ancient maps show pictures of dragons and beasts out in the ocean.  It’s normal to have at least a little fear of water.  When a storm comes up, it’s hard enough to survive on land; out in the water, people are almost totally vulnerable.

Who Is This?  The waves are whipping the boat around, most everybody has a white-knuckle grip on the side of the boat, but Jesus is asleep on the stern cushion.  At least half of these people were seasoned fishermen.  They knew what to do in a storm.  They needed everybody to help bail, and there’s Jesus, asleep by the rudder.  At first, they might have been more annoyed than afraid.  But there they are, wind howling and water filling the boat.

Remember, these are fishermen.  They have seen storms like this before.  Okay, maybe they were afraid of the storm, but after the storm was over, after the wind died down and the water became calm, they were still afraid.  Actually, another translation says they were filled with “great fear.”  (4:41)  Who is this?  That’s the right question.  If that’s the right question, what’s the right answer? 

The right answer has to do with faith, and it turns out that the disciples were more afraid of Jesus than the storm.  They suddenly got a glimpse of who that was who had been asleep in the back of the boat.  This is the one who can sleep anywhere he wants to, because he has no reason to be afraid – even if the boat is sinking.  And having Jesus with you in your boat opens your world to all the possibilities and potentials of God’s strength in you.

He wakes up and asks, “Have you still no faith?”  There will always be situations that make you wonder:  “Doesn’t God see what’s going on?  Doesn’t God care?”  Why is Jesus sleeping next to me in this boat? 

 Another pastor puts the question this way:  Am I willing and ready to trust a sleeping Jesus?

When I’m in the doctor’s office awaiting a diagnosis, am I willing to trust a sleeping Jesus?

When I’m in the middle of a bitter disagreement, am I willing to trust a sleeping Jesus?

When I’m making a change in my career path, am I willing to trust a sleeping Jesus?

It might be easier if faith came in a bottle. Might be easier if all we had to do was spray on some Liquid Trust. Instead, all we have is our experience of Jesus, and words on a printed page that tell us about him. Because –

  • Jesus will calm some of our storms.

  • Jesus will not calm all of our storms.

  • We have to trust that Jesus knows which storms need calming.

   And no, we don’t have the physical Jesus sleeping in the back of our boats. What we have is more difficult. We have words. We have the words of his disciples.

When Thomas realized Jesus had truly risen from the dead, he said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (John 20:28-29).

Who is this?  This is the one you want with you when your boat is going through a storm.  But you need to invite him into your boat before the storm, in fact, before you even leave shore.  As we pray, in your own personal moment of prayer, tell him you believe.

 Prayer

 O God, the trip is peaceful and we’re relaxed, but then suddenly the waves come up and the boat is gets swamped.  We feel like we’re sinking.  The storm came up and we had no way to know we were in trouble.  We just didn’t know.

We see you at work in the sunsets and the lightning, and we know we need you.  We can’t make it to the other shore without you.  Come along with us, sit beside us.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Amen.

 

6/17/2012 Sermon: “Out in the Field”

The shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, near the ancient ruins of Capernaum. March, 2011.

During the last few weeks, for a few days at a time, we’ve had some of the weather we’ve all waited for, and we remember it’s not so bad living in New England.  Just the right temperature, a little breeze, the smell of lilacs and barbecues.  This is the kind of weather we’ve been waiting for.

Now take a little trip with me in your mind.  We’re outside, walking along the shore of a lake, surrounded by rolling hills, and lush, green fields.  Here and there you can see a little flock of sheep, little groups of ivory colored bodies with black heads.  The weather is wonderful: comfortable, sunny, a little bit of a breeze.  Ahhh… Out on the lake, people are fishing – with nets. 

Now you know that this probably isn’t a Connecticut lake.  But Galilee, or the area around the sea – or lake – of Galilee, isn’t really all that different.  It’s not that hard to imagine.  The place where Jesus began his ministry and did his first preaching is actually a lot like the area around us on the Northeast, without some of the trees.  Farms, pastures, animals, fishing.  Jesus taught the people out in the fields and from a boat on the shore, saying…

 Mark 4:26  “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30  He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  31  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32  yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33  With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;  34  he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

 Aside from the miracles, this is what people remembered from the ministry of Jesus, that he taught using parables – touching the people where they live, telling stories using real life experience.  But there’s more to the parables than that; they end with a surprise.  Parables finish with a punch line; the parables of Jesus come back, turn around, and turn the story upside-down.  This is why the people in Galilee remembered them.  This is why people like us might have to dig a little deeper to get the whole meaning sometimes.  First, we start with a big field of grain.

The Parable of the Growing Seed.  Out in the field, life goes on as usual; the farmer tills the soil, scatters the seed, then stands off to the side and the grain grows on its own.  What a great looking field; it feels so good to just to get out of the car and walk through it, and watch it reflect off the lake and wave in the breeze – then it’s gone. The harvest comes and the farmer takes it away. To people who aren’t farmers it can seem like such a shame; it was so beautiful before it  was cut.  But this field isn’t growing just to make the hills more beautiful; it has a purpose.  Then the process starts all over again with more seed.   The farmer grows this stuff so that people can eat. 

The seed is the good news of Jesus, which bears fruit. How it grows is a mystery to most of us, like the field – photosynthesis and all that. In the same way, the kingdom has no control over itself.  We can hear and respond to the words of Jesus, but we can’t “make” Christians and we can’t make the church.  Anybody can have a civic group; only God makes the church. 

It’s a big, big field and it can’t be hidden. The church is people who have faith in the resurrection – another mystery.  The church is the public proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and it grows because of the mysterious power of God. But we don’t exist just to look good; God wants to harvest a good crop from this field.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (see Matthew 13:31-32).  On the other hand, the mustard seed is a kind of secret conspiracy.  It’s such a tiny little thing, it can sneak into the field and nobody even knows it’s there.  But then it grows, and if you don’t do anything about it, it turns into a huge bush.  It attracts birds, it’s so big!  

This is the little seed of faith that grows big, and that’s good, but imagine you’re a farmer.  What don’t you need in your wheat field?  Bushes and birds. 

This parable turns the whole thing around.  The mustard seed is that Christian that gets planted somewhere in the world where they become the presence of God to the people around them.  They are the most insignificant seed whose behavior has a ripple effect throughout the whole field. These are the people who decide they don’t have to go along with everybody else, or maybe they are just different from everybody else.  Each one of us, in our circle of relationships at school, at work, or at home, can be the mustard seed from God that changes things.  You think you don’t have an effect, but you do. God becomes a mustard seed in the Christian’s life and the Christian becomes a mustard seed to the world.  It’s a conspiracy!

The kingdom of God is here.  It’s so small, we don’t even notice it.  It’s so big you can’t miss it.  It’s simple, it’s mysterious.  God teaches us and leads us in the most surprising ways at the most unexpected times.  We have opportunities every day to touch someone for Christ.  It’s real life, and Jesus invites us all to be a part of what he is doing.  How about a more contemporary parable?

The Ancient Train.  William Barton was a Congregational minister at the turn of the last century who wrote a column for a Christian magazine.  His way of making a point was to tell a “modern” story – a parable – in the style of an Old Testament prophet, and this is one of his stories:

“It came to pass that I went upon a journey, and I lodged in a certain city, and I arose early in the morning to go forward upon my journey.  And the Train came on time and I got on board.  But it was not the kind of Train I expected.  For the Train advertised was an express train, with Pullman cars and other expensive luxuries.  And this train had no such things.  There was only an engine, and a baggage car, and one coach.  And the coach was a very old one.

“And the passengers began to make Remarks.  And one said that this Train had not seen improvements since Noah used it as an Ark.  And many such like things did they say.

“But I spake unto myself, saying, there is a reason, and if we be patient, we shall discover it. 

And the conductor came through. And he wore no uniform; but had a badge on an elastic band fastened around a derby hat.  And I had not seen the like in many years.

And the passengers made remarks to him about the kind of Train in which we were riding.

And he answered not a word until he had taken up all the tickets.  Then he stood in the aisle and delivered an oration.  And he said:

I have listened to the fool remarks of you who think you are wise concerning the quality of this train.  Be it understood by all of you that this is not the regular train, neither am I the conductor of that train.  But I got out of bed at 4:00AM to run this flivver from the junction to the depot as an accommodation to those of you who have not sense enough to suspect that somebody is trying to do you a favor.  We knew that about twenty passengers were arriving early and we wanted to help you out.  And because our regular crews are overworked and many of them are sick with the flu, it was no easy job to get a switch engine and a couple of old cars.  And because there was no conductor available, the division manager undertook to see this train to its destination and that’s me.  But if any of you want to take the regular train, and are discontented with this one, behold, I will stop this old boat and let you out, and you can walk back if you want to.  For the regular train is in a ditch about fifty miles back and the track behind us will be blocked until noon.

And no one decided to get out and walk, neither did any complain more of our Train.

And I considered this thing, and I said, that if we were to stop and think before complaining, we should sometimes discover that the things whereof we complain are those for which we should be thankful.

 Prayer

O God, sometimes you are so obvious we can’t see you.  Then suddenly we realize you’ve been standing right next to us all along.  Just now, we stop for a moment and think about how much we need you in our lives, and about how much our world needs your peace, your healing, and your love.

Give strength to our church today.  Give us the willpower to become the kind of influence on our friends – and our enemies – that helps them know who our savior is, and whose kingdom we belong to.  Plant us where we are needed, and give us opportunities to bring others into your family.  Help us communicate by our words and actions that your door is open and your light is on for all of us.  Amen.

6/10/2012 Sermon: “D-Day”

1 Samuel 8:4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8Just as they have done to me,* from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle* and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people ofIsrael, ‘Each of you return home.’

D-Day.  Over the last week or so I’ve been watching and reading all the memories of D-Day coming from veterans – the people who were there.  It’s really sobering to hear them talk about what they saw and how they felt.  Since they are in their 80’s and 90’s, we won’t have the privilege of hearing their words for much longer.

I’m thankful that the media can serve a useful purpose for a change in preserving those memories.  Thos veterans are a great advertisement against war.  One of the things the veterans kept saying was, “We weren’t heroes; we had a job to do and we did it.”  I think that the least my generation can do is ask, what if they hadn’t done what they did?  Who knows how the world would be different, and probably not for the better?  I know there are still a few veterans in the church, and I don’t know when the last time was that you might have heard this from my generation, but I’d like to publicly thank you for what you did for our country and for us.  Of course, we owe thanks to all of our veterans.

I think it’s interesting how our attitudes toward war have changed, or at least changed somewhat, and maybe it’s just from my perspective.  Do you remember how war was glorified in the early sixties?  World War II movies and bubble gum cards – as if this war was a great adventure and its main purpose was to helpAmericafeel good about itself.  All the kids in my neighborhood had helmet liners and green fatigue shirts from the local Army-Navy surplus store. 

But listening to those veterans talk, I don’t have the impression they thought they were on a great adventure.  They had a job to do and they did it.  They were far away from home and they hated it.  And they talk about things they saw that they can’t get out of their minds.  My father and all my uncles served during the war, and I don’t remember any of them ever talking about it much.  But then, I probably never asked. 

A few years ago, when one of my uncles was dying of cancer, he wrote to some of his war “buddies,” and they wrote back.  He was reliving one of the most important times in his life, and his family shared the letters with the rest of us.  He told one story I’d like to pass along to you.

He was leading a platoon of soldiers during the invasion of France, and they were fighting their way inland.  They were on their way to a French town and passing along a road that had a lot of bombed-out German vehicles on it.  It was a supply convoy to the German front line that never made it to where it was supposed to go.  As they walked along, they found a German soldier – a truck driver – sitting wounded against the wheel of a truck.  My uncle and a couple other soldiers stopped.

The man was a little older than they were, maybe in his thirties.  He looked up and slowly fumbled through his pockets and pulled out a wallet.  Out of the wallet he took some pictures of children and a woman.  He handed them to my uncle and then he died.  This was one of the memories my uncle couldn’t get rid of.

One of the other things that the veterans kept saying in their interviews, especially whenever they were at one of the battlefield cemeteries, was, “What a waste.”  There is probably no greater truth about war.

World War II didn’t start at Normandy, and although there are plenty of villains to point the finger at, historians point out that most wars are the result of a chain of events that might go back centuries. Cause and effect – that’s how history works, as they say.  You do something, I do something back.  It has to do with how people resolve their problems.  Every war starts with a problem between people somewhere and the scripture for the day describes the beginning of a problem for the people ofIsrael.  This is the kind of problem that eventually leads to a war.

Israel Wants a King.  Ever since the tribes ofIsraelcame to the promised land, they had been governed by judges, who were something like a combination of prophets and administrators.  They were responsible to make sure that justice was served in the land and that God’s voice was heard.  The more the judge relied on God, the better things went for the people.

Samuel was the last of the judges, and this story describes how the tradition of judges ended.  It ended because of a problem: Samuel made the decision to appoint his two sons to be judges after him.  This was his decision, not God’s.  These two sons of his were well-known for taking bribes and otherwise “perverting justice” (see 1 Samuel 8:1-3).  The people rejected this idea of Samuel’s, as they were right to, and asked for a king instead.

So, Israel was faced with one problem and turned it into two problems:

1.  They rejected God leadership.  Instead of coming to God with the problem and waiting for God to help, they also made their own decision.  God was perfectly capable of finding the right person, if they had only asked, if only Samuel had asked.

2.  Their second problem was that they wanted “to be like everybody else.”  All the other nations had kings.

One of the differences between a king and a judge was that a king was the commander of an army and a judge was not.  A king could organize the nation for war.  The people of God were saying that they wanted to be able to fight wars with other people.

But God’s people are not supposed to be like everyone else. God had been trying to teach them that if they got into a dangerous situation with another nation, they should rely on God, and God never failed to help.  But the mistake the chosen people make over and over throughout the scripture is that they turn away from God and go it alone. It’s that pride thing again.  And God usually decides to let them learn the hard way.  The people got their king, and his name was Saul.  He did everything Samuel predicted, and war became part of their lifestyle.  This was the event that got the ball rolling: a combination of selfish pride between Samuel and the people. 

Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, 1989

Do you ever wonder how will the next major war start? It will start somewhere.  Somewhere, somebody is going to turn their back on God.  Somebody is going to decide things aren’t right and they are the ones to make things right. Pride demands it.

We learn the hard way, too.  And in every conflict, somebody can make the decision to “break the cycle of violence” as Jesse Jackson puts it.  Some conflicts can only be resolved with a D-Day, but I think even that battle could have been stopped before it started – somehow, years before.  Maybe I’m naive; maybe it couldn’t have been stopped.  But it’s still true that God’s people are not supposed to be like everyone else. They have the power at their fingertips to control pride.  A war may start somewhere, but it doesn’t have to start with us.

There’s a scene in the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” where Robin Williams, the English teacher, tells his students to rip out the first chapter of their poetry textbooks.  This was supposed to shock the kids in his class, as well teach.  Instead of helping, that first chapter was keeping him from teaching poetry the way he thought the kids should learn it. We have opportunities all the time to jump into conflict, but if the world is a teacher, God ripped the first page out of the world’s textbook.  It’s hard to remember, but we don’t have to be like them. 

We should all keep watching the D-Day specials, and maybe record a few.  If nothing else, they may prompt us to think about how we live on this planet, and to look for ways to avoid future D-Days.  For the sake of our kids, may God help us.  Amen.

 Prayer

 O God, we have so much to learn about you and about ourselves.  You think and act in such different ways from us. Help us put aside the pride that keeps us from admitting our need for your love; help us love each other.  Change the pride that corrupts us into the kind of concern that heals our wounds and brings peace.  Open our minds and our hearts to the Savior you sent to us, who overcame a world of pain and hurt and death. 

God, we hear you calling us to new life.  You open the door to our tombs and we come out to you.  It’s a brand new day.  Now show us how to live and how to give life.  Amen.

6/10/2012 Sermon: “Night and Day”

2 Corinthians 4:13.  But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

5:1  For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

In the earliest years of the Christian faith, compared to the Christian Jews in Jerusalem, the Christians in Corinth were a world away.  When you study scripture, if you ask, “Who is this letter being written to?” you can open new doors to understanding your Bible.

In comparison to the people of the southeastern European city of Corinth, the people of Palestine were mostly peasant-farmers or fishermen from the countryside. But in the first century,Corinth was a major city in the Roman Empire.  It was a crossroads in the middle of the mainland of Greeceand had all the problems of an urban area.  The church there not only had to fight off the temptations of loose living, it had to compete with a variety of pagan religions.  In some ways, we have a lot in common with these people.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are probably the oldest “books” in the New Testament.  They are the product of Paul’s relationship with the church; a group of people; a relationship which wasn’t always pleasant.  They wrote to him with their problems and he wrote back.  Reading his letters to them is like eavesdropping on a conversation.  It takes a little detective work some times to figure out what he’s talking about, but it’s lively and sometimes a little earthy. He says things to them we pastors today would probably never have the courage to say.

With the Holy Spirit working in him, Paul drew the people of this church together, and he was well-versed in answering the question: “What must I do to be a Christian?” Paul says, “Believe and speak”  (2 Corinthians 4:13).  Grasp the truth of Christ in your heart for yourself, and then tell somebody else.  It’s a prescription for a living faith and it hasn’t changed in almost two thousand years.

And in essence, he says the same thing to Romans when he writes to them: “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).  A relationship with God has to do with believing and speaking.  Believing what?  Simple: that Jesus rose from the dead.  Do you believe that?  Is it more than just a fairy tale for you?

Many of us have had the opportunity to believe in the living Christ, but many don’t have opportunities to speak about their faith, which is unfortunate.  My faith grows when I stand before you and say I believe in the living Christ.  My faith grows when I hear you talk about how God has worked in your life through your faith.

We need to make opportunities to talk about faith; to express faith; to recognize the opportunities we have to share faith. When someone opens the door to a conversation about faith, don’t be afraid to step in.  A seminary education really isn’t necessary to be a verbally effective Christian.  That’s the beauty of Christianity.  Do you believe in the living Jesus? Does he make a difference in your life?  Just say so.

So this is how the seed of faith starts growing; where the Holy Spirit starts moving: when we believe this wild story about a man who claimed to be God who was executed and buried, but rose from the dead.  We believe it and something happens inside; we have to talk about it.  “He who raised Jesus will raise us also…” (v.14).  If this is our future, who are we to worry?

This faith begins to affect the things we do as the Holy Spirit nudges us toward helping here, forgiving there, saying this instead of that.  This is the love of Christ which begins a gradual process of taking over our hearts.  It is the grace of God living in us; God’s undeserved favor which begins to make a difference in our lives and in our relationships with those around us (Acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense).  It is the work of the Spirit.  It is contagious.

As Paul says, “…it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (v. 15).

This love, this grace, is supernatural.  It is not something we can come up with on our own.  It is more than just being a nice person.  It is seeing people, seeing issues through the eyes of Jesus.

The Spirit, God’s grace in our lives is like spiritual bypass surgery: new blood vessels placed around the heart, to get by the ones that don’t work so well.  We are never completely rid of the evil inside, but through the Spirit, because of grace, God works against the evil (rebellion against God) and the sin and death it causes.

We have been thinking of faith as an individual decision, but this work of the Spirit that Paul talks about is what happens through relationships in the church.  When the Holy Spirit came to the early church, it came when they were together, not when they were by themselves.  The powers and the gifts God gave them helped them help each other, to build each other up and work against the evil together.  So the Holy Spirit doesn’t come into your life just to make you a better person; this is how God reaches out: through the church to the world.  A Christian working out their faith alone is like somebody playing baseball by themselves.  A game without purpose or goal; ultimately a waste of time and boring to watch, too.

The war of life can be discouraging, and sometimes the evil wins a few battles.  Death is one of those battles.  The Corinthians believed that the body was worthless, so enjoy yourselves, and in the end, you’re gone.  But, Paul says, for the Christian, this life is just a temporary stopping place.

In the writings of Paul, this is a constant battle for every Christian, the fight between the spiritual, which he calls our “inner nature” and the death at work in our bodies or, the “outer nature.”  For those with high standards and little faith, it’s a frustrating fight.  We see death just around the corner and it seems we can never be good enough for God. But it’s not we who win the war in the end.  It’s Jesus, and in him, we win.  He writes the last chapter – we are raised like him, and for the Christian, the presence of the Spirit is proof.

“So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (vv. 16-18).

Christians find faith through relationships.  The same is true for evil.  Bad relationships can exist between things and people, between things, and between people.  Money isn’t bad in itself, but our relationship to it can be evil. 

As computer technology has advanced over the years, scientists have been trying to create artificial intelligence; an artificial brain which could store the essence of a person’s mind as the body decays. This mind would have to be able to make decisions and sort out the good from the evil.  Is it possible to transfer the good without the evil?  The discernment of evil, of course, is a reflection of God in us, the image of God in us.  No other creatures can perceive, or feel,  right from wrong as we do.  And a machine cannot process what is evil and what is not.

“Does evil exist, or do bad things just happen?”  I think Paul would say that both things are true.  For humans, evil just is.  The potential for faith is always with us, and so is the potential for evil.  Our dark side is never completely wiped away until we are with Christ.  This is why we need Jesus.

This is also why God comes down so heavily on judging others. The outer nature, the sin, the evil, is present in all of us. As Paul says in Romans, all of us fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  To deny it is to deny the cross, where Jesus put sin to death.  To say that your evil is so small that God will overlook it is to say that Jesus didn’t need to die for you.  But he did.  Through Jesus, God forgives and saves all of us.  The power of the Spirit working in us, through faith, gives us the ability to tolerate and forgive, to see each other as God sees us.

 Night and Day.  Long ago, in a Middle Eastern country, a Teacher sat around a blazing fire with small number of students late one night.  As they talked with each other, there would be long periods of silence as they gazed at the stars and the moon.  It was after one of these long silences the Teacher asked a question.  “How can we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”

Eagerly, one young man answered, “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you can look off into the distance and tell which animal is your dog and which is a sheep.  Is that the right answer?”

“It’s a good answer, but it’s not the one I would give.”

The students huddled together and spoke in low voices.  Then they turned toward the teacher and one of them asked, on behalf of the others, “You know the night is over and the day has begun when light falls on the leaves and you can tell whether it is a palm tree or a fig tree.”

The Teacher shook his head.  “That was a fine answer, but it’s not the one I’m looking for.”

Now the students began to argue with each other, and finally, one of them begged the Teacher, “Help us, Teacher; we can’t think of another answer.”

The Teacher made sure he had eye-contact with everyone in the group before he spoke.  “When you look into the eyes of another human being and see a brother or sister you know it is morning.  If you cannot see a sister or brother, it will always be night.”

May our faith in Jesus make that little statement more true than it has ever been. Amen.

 Prayer

God, we are living in troubling and difficult times. Often, evil seems close by.  We feel confused and we are often full of fear. Some of it we imagine, and some of it is real.  As we struggle to tell the difference, help us as we worship, to see clearly the life of Jesus, to know him in deeper ways, so that he can guide how we live and think.  Help us muster courage to confront wrong things.  Free us from the belief that we are small and insignificant.

Help us live our lives filled with the power of your love, as he did.  Give us the discipline of forgiveness and peacemaking.  Help us, each day, feel a sense of calling – that there is a ministry you give each of us – and all of us together, as we live and serve in a world full of need and injustice.

Give us the vision to see opportunity to serve you when it presents itself, and the will to make a difference.  None of this, Lord, can we do on our own, but only through faith, and the power of your Spirit and your love flowing through us. We believe, Lord, help our unbelief.  Amen.

 

6/3/2012 Sermon: “Here am I; send me!

Isaiah 6:I.  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.3And one called to another and said:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

4The pivots* on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.7The seraph* touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

[Note: This sermon was given at Westbrook Congregational Church UCC, Westbrook, CT]

Here Am I; Send Me!  Does anyone here remember the spaceflights of the early 1960’s? Was anyone watching TV on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon?

Last week, there was another major accomplishment in space.  A private company called SpaceX sent an unmanned craft to the International Space Station, docked with it, and then returned it to Earth. 

“This couldn’t have gone any better,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and chief designer. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”

The Dragon spacecraft became the first privately-owned vehicle to fly to the International Space Station… The capsule also became the firstU.S. spacecraft to reach the space station since the last space shuttle flight departed in July 2011.

With Thursday’s splashdown, Dragon proved it could fill a void left after the shuttle’s retirement in returning experiment samples, broken components and other excess hardware to Earth.

(http://www.spaceflightnow.com/falcon9/003/120531splashdown/)

In an interview last week, Mr. Musk (he is South African), talked about how the original Apollo astronauts were his heroes.  Then he teared-up when he talked about how painful it was to learn that they disapproved of his work (60 Minutes).  But he decided to push on anyway, because he had a vision.  I wonder how many of us have had that same experience in our Christian lives: a spiritual peak, a high-five moment, a victory, preceded by a valley, a low-five moment, a disappointment, a let-down.

Today’s passage is a little snapshot of Isaiah’s spiritual evolution, which I think many of us can relate to:

1.   Starts with a low point:  In the year King Uzziah died.  A “what’s- to-become-of-me” moment.  What’s to become of us?  It’s a “what-else-have-I-got-to-lose?” moment.  King Uzziah had disobeyed God by taking burning incense from theTemple altar.  Maybe it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in effect, Uzziah was worshipping himself when he did that, in God’s house, and in God’s presence. Because he was deflecting worship from God, he became sick and died.  So the people go from bad leader to no leader at all.

2.   In that moment, God gives Isaiah (a young, low-level servant of the king) an ecstatic vision: The Lord sitting on a throne with seraphs – the highest order of angels, the ones next to God.  Almost no one in scripture gets to see God, but at his lowest point, Isaiah does.  With special effects: smoke and an earthquake. 

3.   It’s overwhelming, and Isaiah sinks even more.  The king has gotten us all in trouble.  I am lost.  I have unclean lips, and so do the people!  It’s interesting that Isaiah feels lost because of things he has said – and the people he represents, things they have said.  He owns this; it’s a confession.  He feels unworthy in God’s presence.  I’ve sometimes asked in small groups, if Jesus came walking into the room right now and sat down next to you, how would you feel?  Many people would say “unworthy.”  Then grateful.

4.   At his lowest point, God steps forward to save Isaiah.  The angels touch Isaiah’s lips with the burning incense.  They give the incense to him.  God cleanses Isaiah, blots out his sin, and Isaiah is a new guy.  When God needs someone to “go for us,” you can hear the enthusiasm in Isaiah’s voice:  OOOOH, OOOOH!!!  Send me!!!  The cleansing of his sin, the awareness of his forgiveness, gives him a new life.  He is a different person.

Really, it was almost like a 12-step program.  Can you see it?  There’s the low point: ownership of where you are and how you got there.  Realization that only a higher power can save you, then a new beginning, new life, as God steps through your open door.

So, it was “in the year King Uzziah died” when it seemed everything was lost, that God gave the incense, the burning coal, to Isaiah.  It touched his lips and gave him the ability to speak for God.  Isaiah didn’t ask for it.  He didn’t have to.  He didn’t have to develop a special talent or get a degree in prophet-speaking.  All he had to do was say yes, and God did the rest.  That’s how it is for anybody who says yes to God. 

Isaiah was God’s prophet for another 40-50 years, the prophet to five kings.  It was to Isaiah that God gave the visions of the Messiah to come.  Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the Old Testament.

Last week, was Pentecost Sunday, when we remember that God sent the Holy Spirit to a group of frightened people in hiding.  And what was the first thing the Spirit did? The Spirit gave them a supernatural ability to speak, to communicate God’s love for an unbelieving, hostile world.  What does that mean for you?  The presence of God’s Spirit in your life means you are a prophet in one way or another to someone.

There are moments, when somebody near you needs to know that you believe.  It might not involve anything you say outwardly, like a sermon or even a prayer.  But a prayerful attitude can make all the difference.  Let God help you be tolerant.  Let God help you be forgiving.  Let God help you be available.  Let God help you overcome whatever it is you struggle with – and bring a friend with you.  Let God help you say, “Here am I, send me.”

Practice saying it: Here am I, send me.

This church is sending a team to West Virginia to build or repair homes for the disadvantaged. God says, the people in West Virginia need a demonstration of my love.  What is your response?  Here am I, send me.

 

Closer to home, you have a Vacation Bible School coming up, which is a demonstration of God’s love for the children of the community.  God says, the children of Westbrook need a demonstration of my love.  What is your response?  Here am I, send me.

And there are so many situations that are not public.

God asks, who will I send to the shut-in who has no transportation to visit the doctor?  Here am I, send me.

God asks, who will I send to the friend who needs intervention?  Here am I, send me. 

There are as many opportunities for service to God as there are people in this room.

God asks, who will I send?  Here am I, send me.  

I think it would be safe to say that we live in a world that is not impressed by the church.  I don’t think that matters – it’s the faith of believers that matters.  It’s whether we say, “Here am I, send me,” that matters. 

We come here to get recharged during this hour, and then it’s what we do during the rest of the week that really matters.  God is able to do powerful things through us.  Whatever it is, we have to remember that we don’t do this on our own.  Through our faith, God is doing it through us and with us. We are never alone.

Prayer

There are so many places, so many situations that need a word from you; a word of healing and love.  Challenge us with opportunities to be your messengers.  Help us practice peace.  Help us get really good at peace, so that we can teach others. Let it begin with us and the power that comes from our faith in your son Jesus.  Amen.