Sunday, January 25, 2015

“YOUNEVERKNOW” - January 25, 2015

Texts: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

Many years ago, my friend Kevin got box seats to a couple of St. Louis Cardinals games through his dad’s work.  So four of us went to St. Louis for a great road trip.  The Cardinals were playing the New York Mets (back in one of those rare eras when the Mets were good.)  The young pitching sensation Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets, and the Cardinals’ pitcher was Jouquin Andujar.  Jouquin was a colorful character, a real hot-dog.  When he took his practice pitches before each inning, the last pitch he would throw wildly and like a bullet, about 15 feet up on the screen.  Besides just plain orneriness, he did this to intimidate the batters.  The message was, this guy is out of control, and if one of his pitches gets away from him, you could get hurt.

We loved Jouquin.  A reporter once asked him to describe the game of baseball in one word.  He was from the Dominican Republic, liked to be known as One Bad Dominican, and his English wasn’t that great, but he had a wonderful response.  The one word to describe baseball, he said, was “YOUNEVERKNOW.“

His math skills may have been lacking, but it was an inspired answer.  YOUNEVERKNOW.  

It’s true.  When you go to a ballgame, YOUNEVERKNOW.  One night, there may be a no-hitter and the next night, it may be 18-17 in 14 innings. 

YOUNEVERKNOW actually applies to a lot of things.  This morning we have read a part of the story of Jonah, and if you were asked to describe the story of Jonah in one word, a good answer would be Jouquin Andujar’s answer: YOUNEVERKNOW.

God asks Jonah, a prophet, to go and preach to Nineveh.  Nineveh was a foreign city, in Assyria, across the river from what is now Mosul, Iraq.  Nineveh was well-known as a decadent, evil place.  It was denounced for its violence and evil by the prophets Zephaniah and Nahum.  God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and not surprisingly, Jonah didn’t want to go. 

Jonah didn’t like these people, didn’t like the idea of God caring about these people, and personally, it would be fine with him if they all rotted in hell.  Jonah was not interested in “drawing the circle wide,” as our choir sang this morning.  And besides, Jonah knew it would be an exercise in futility.  There was no way the Ninevites would listen to him.  So he did what any self-respecting prophet would do: he got on a fast boat headed in the opposite direction.

That makes Jonah a lot like us.  If we were asked to do something that seemed just too difficult or too distasteful, our first reaction might be to run.  If God were to ask you to go to Mosul today, for example, most of us would not be chomping at the bit to go.

Jonah skips town and fast, but his escape does not go as planned.  The ship comes upon a terrible storm and it looks like everyone will die at sea.  The crew figures out that they are in this predicament because Jonah had disobeyed God.  So they do what they have to do.  Jonah is thrown overboard, but he ends up being swallowed by a big fish and then vomited up on  the shore.

This is where we pick up today’s reading.  The Lord asked Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh.  It’s an offer Jonah can’t refuse – I mean, he’s already done time in a fish’s belly.  So he goes to Nineveh.  He went grudgingly, he didn’t have to like it, but he went.

Nineveh was a very large city.  The passage says it took three days to walk across the city.  This may be a case of describing the city in legendary dimensions, but historically, Nineveh was for a time the largest city in the world.  This was the greatest urban center on earth.  God had told Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city.”  The Hebrew says literally “that great to God” city.  This may have meant great because of its size or importance, or great because God cared for the city.  And since God had asked his prophet to go there and prophesy, apparently it was “great to God.”

So a reluctant Jonah goes.  He travels one day into the city – he doesn’t reach the heart of town.  And here is his entire text: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  That’s it.  That’s his sermon.  In Hebrew, it’s just five words.  A five-word sermon that does not mention God, does not say why the city will be overthrown, and holds out no hope of escaping this sentence.  To be honest, it was a pitiful performance, a half-hearted effort.

But amazingly, the people of Nineveh responded.  Jonah doesn’t even mention God, but the people nevertheless believed in God.  They take the lack of details in Jonah’s message as an opportunity to believe that the future is open-ended, that there may be a chance for a reprieve.  They fasted, put on sackcloth, and repented of their sins.  The news reached the king, who followed the lead of the people.  He took off his crown and his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  He proclaimed that every living thing, human and animal, will put on sackcloth and ashes and repent of their evil ways and the violence in their hearts and perhaps God will spare them.

When we read this story in Sunday School last week, people were struck by the sackcloth and ashes.  What’s up with that?  We don’t have many modern-day equivalents.

Maybe thinking about that trip to see Jouquin Andujar took me back to college days, but I remember that when I was in college and had a big test the next day, maybe physical chemistry or organic or calculus, I had clothes I would wear when studying.  There might be a study session in the library, and I would wear a t-shirt that was just riddled with holes, almost falling apart, and some pants I had bought at an army surplus store for $2.  The night before a huge test, I wore the worst clothes I owned.  In time this became a tradition, but initially I just kind of did this intuitively – I was completely throwing myself into studying, and what I wore matched the feeling of desperation that we had over the situation. 

Sackcloth and ashes are a way of completely throwing oneself into mourning or into repentance.  You don’t just say, “I feel bad about what I have done” and then go about your business. Sackcloth and ashes meant that you took this with the utmost seriousness.  When they wore sackcloth and sat in ashes, the Ninevites’ appearance and lack of comfort matched their spirit.  They threw themselves into repenting and humility before God.

And because of their repentance, God decided to spare the city. 

This made Jonah very upset.  He was not at all happy that Nineveh repented, and the rest of the book of Jonah deals with Jonah’s disappointment.  Jonah was disillusioned and depressed by the success of his mission in Nineveh.

The lessons of this story can be summarized in that one word: YOUNEVERKNOW.

1.  YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do.  It was inconceivable to Jonah that God would want him to go to Nineveh.  He thought he knew better than God.

The thread that ties this story with our New Testament reading is this matter of calling.  Contrast Jonah with Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus says “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”  And Andrew and Simon and James and John follow.  Just like that.  No questioning or delay is mentioned.  Now I imagine there was some uncertainty, some sense of “what are we getting ourselves into?”  But nevertheless, they followed, because they knew that God had called them. 

2.  YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do, and then YOUNEVERKNOW how others may respond. 

Jonah had the Ninevites all figured out.  They were worthless heathen, beyond hope.  This was the stereotype, the reputation of the city.  But even if that reputation was deserved, every person in the city repented.  Men, women, rich, poor, slaves, merchants, craftsmen, boys, girls, royalty.  They all repented of their sin.  Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and repented.  (This gives us hope, because I have known more than a few cats who needed to repent.)

Jesus spoke of the city of Nineveh.  In Matthew 12:41, Jesus says, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”  Far from being a hopeless case, Nineveh becomes an example for others.  As lousy a prophet as Jonah was, the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God anyway.

Today, there are people that society has by and large written off as worthless.  As beyond hope.  The church can sometimes write those people off too.  What would happen if we took seriously the fact that no one is beyond hope, no person is beyond reaching?

The great German pastor Helmut Thielicke had an old photograph on his desk. It was a snapshot of a nativity pageant. A group of grizzled looking men are wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands. Another group of men is kneeling before them, feigning terror.  It is clear that they are supposed to be the angels, speaking to the fearful shepherds.

Why was this photograph the only one on the pastor's desk? Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain.  The men in the scene were all convicts, hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ.  These murderers and thugs were dressed like angels.  For Thielicke, it was a parable, not unlike the story of Jonah, a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to change us. The message of Jonah is that change is possible even in the most unlikely places and unlikely people.  YOUNEVERKNOW.

3.  The story of Jonah also tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring.  Jonah would not have imagined that God would ask him to go to Nineveh.  When he finally did go, he was pretty sure of how things would turn out.  In fact, he basically sabotaged his own message.  He was hoping to fail, trying to fail.  And yet, the people repented.

The fact is, YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring.  For Jonah, there were storms at sea, being thrown overboard, being swallowed and then barfed up by a big fish, and how many of us expect that?  YOUNEVERKNOW.

We may have the future planned, everything nicely mapped out.  But rarely does it turn out that way.  There are some of you who never would have believed you would be where you are today.  You couldn’t imagine yourself at Iowa State, or married, or in your line of work, or liking sweet potatoes, or in church on a Sunday morning.  Or in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning.  But here you are.  Like Jouquin Andujar said, YOUNEVERKNOW.
4.  As much as anything, the story of Jonah tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW about God.  Jonah assumed that God was just like him, assumed that God didn’t care about those no-good Ninevites, assumed that God operated in predictable ways. 

Have you ever noticed that an awful lot of people believe that God thinks exactly the way we do, with the same tastes, same likes and dislikes, same pet peeves, same political philosophies, same opinions?  It’s interesting, isn’t it?   

Marcus Borg died this past Wednesday.  He was a leading New Testament scholar and theologian.  Our theology class is familiar with Borg from videos they have watched and I think they read one of his books.  One of the qualities that drew people to Borg was his humility.  He didn’t claim to have all the answers.  He was a leading liberal voice, but was open to others and in conversation with folks who thought differently.  In fact, he wrote a few books together with a more conservative theologian.  An Episcopal priest in Houston, who said that he agreed with Borg about 75% of the time, recalled a time when Borg made a presentation at his church.  In the question time that followed, a woman asked, “But how do you know that you’re right?”  Borg paused and responded: “I don’t know.  I don’t know that I’m right.”

In a world in which everybody seems to be so certain about things, such honest humility is refreshing.

I love the king in the story of Jonah.  The king has a better insight into God than God’s own prophet.  He says to the people, “Who knows?  Maybe God will relent.”  He doesn’t claim to understand how God operates.  He knew that we don’t control what God will do.  But he also understood that what we do does matter.  And because of the people’s repentance, we read in verse 10 that God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.

This is a wonderful verse, because it says that the future is wide open.  The future is filled with possibility.  We are not just actors playing roles that are designated for us, but God allows us to help shape the future.  What we do matters. 

Jonah thought he had things all figured out, but he was wrong.  Like Jonah, we get into trouble when we think we know it all.  But the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.

To say YOUNEVERKNOW does not mean that we know nothing.  There is a lot that we do know.  That one word, YOUNEVERKNOW, is maybe best understood in the phrase, “YOUNEVERKNOW until you try.”

YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do until you
really listen.
YOUNEVERKNOW how others will respond until they have the opportunity.

YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring until you
have lived it.
YOUNEVERKNOW about God until you commit yourself to following in God’s ways.

YOUNEVERKNOW is really an invitation to give things a try – to give God a try.

The invitation is to commit our lives to following where Jesus leads us.  That might mean going some places we do not expect.  That can mean living without knowing all the answers.  That means the future is wide open.  But until you follow Jesus, well, YOUNEVERKNOW.  Amen. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

“Called Together” - January 18, 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

Samuel was young.  He was just a boy, and he did not have what you would think of as a typical living arrangement.  Samuel did not live at home with his parents, he did not live with his grandparents, he didn’t live with any family at all.  Samuel lived in the temple with the old priest Eli.

The way this came about was that Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was well advanced in years and still childless.  She had prayed and prayed for a child when God heard her prayers and gave her a son, whom she named Samuel and dedicated to God.  So when Samuel was old enough, he went to live at the temple with the priest Eli, learning to work in God’s service at the temple.  It doesn’t sound like that fun of a boarding school, but that’s the way it happened.

One night, lying in bed, Samuel hears a voice.  “Samuel, Samuel,” the voice calls out.  Samuel goes to see what the priest needs.  But Eli has not called Samuel.  He tells him to go back to bed.  It must have just been a dream or something.  But Samuel hears the voice again, and again tells Eli, “Here I am.”  But again, Eli says that he has not called Samuel.  So Samuel is sent back to bed.

And then it happens yet a third time.  And this time, Eli perceives that God must be the one speaking to Samuel.  He tells Samuel that when he hears the voice again, to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Samuel does as Eli instructs, and God speaks to him.  This is the call of the prophet Samuel.

To be real honest, it’s kind of a scary story.  As a child, I would hear this story in Sunday School and feel bad for Samuel, this little boy living what sounded like a sad and lonely life in this cold, dark temple where his mother visited him once a year, to bring him a new coat.  There were pictures of his mother bringing him a coat and Samuel was smiling and looked happy, which didn’t seem quite right to me.  Even though it involved a little boy, it wasn’t really that cheery a story for a kid to hear.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it as a great story, because it turns the tables on what we would expect.  To whom would God speak – a veteran priest, or a little kid?  Samuel wasn’t even a Levite, which meant that he was not eligible to ever become a priest.  Yet God spoke to Samuel.

Although, when we read the whole story, God was really speaking to both of them, and both needed the other in order to hear God.  On his own, Samuel did not comprehend that God was speaking to him.  But the message God had for Samuel was a message of judgment on Eli’s family.  His sons were corrupt and blasphemous and made a mockery of the priesthood, and Eli had sat idly by and let it continue – he was complicit in it.  God had a message for Eli, but Eli needed Samuel to hear it.  God had a message for Samuel, but Samuel needed Eli to hear it.  Both Eli and Samuel needed the other.

That is often the way it works.  We can have a hard time hearing God all by ourselves – we need each other.  Young Samuel needed the experience and maturity of Eli, who perceived that God was speaking.  But somehow, Eli wasn’t hearing God himself - maybe he wasn’t really listening – and it was the boy Samuel who gave him God’s message.

No matter what our age, we all need some help in hearing and responding to God and we all need support and encouragement in living our faith.  Our New Testament scripture is about Nathaniel, one of the lesser-known disciples.  Nathaniel is only mentioned in John’s gospel. 
Jesus has gone to Galilee and found Philip, and asks Philip to follow him.  For Philip, following Jesus means inviting his friends to follow too, and so he goes to his friend Nathaniel and says, “Come and see the one the prophets spoke of – Jesus of Nazareth.”

And Nathaniel says, “Are you kidding me?  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was not exactly the cultural center of the universe.  It was not known for producing important leaders, certainly not messiahs.  Imagine somebody saying, “Come and see the long-awaited messiah, Bernie from Zearing,” and you get the idea.  Yet Nathaniel learns that he has indeed come face to face with the kingdom of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  And it’s because of Philip.  Without Philip, Nathaniel doesn’t come to Jesus.

Most of us need help hearing God’s call.  Most of us need someone walking alongside us as we follow Jesus.

We live in a world where the notion of hearing God’s voice sounds, well, a little crazy.  The idea that God might speak to us, whether it is through a voice or a dream or a growing awareness or a deep conviction - however it happens, the idea that God might speak to us is for many people a little bit suspect.  And the ability to hear God’s call, to perceive that God is speaking to us, can be just as hard for us as it was for Samuel.

Frederick Buechner is a great preacher and writer, author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction.  One of the clearest messages woven into his many books is to pay attention - to your life, to the people with whom you are closest, to the things that happen to you.  This, he says, is the best and most authentic, way to experience yourself and God.
 You never know what may cause them.  The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before.  A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure.  But of this you can be sure.  Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.

God can speak to us in many ways, and as Frederick Buechner says, it happens as we listen to our lives.  But listening can be very hard, as we all know.  It was hard for Samuel and Eli, and we could all use some help.

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC on a cold January morning and started to play the violin.  He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.  During that time, since it was rush hour, thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.   A minute later, the violinist received his first tip: a woman threw a dollar in the till and without stopping continued to walk.  A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again.   In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while.  About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace.  He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it.  No applause; no recognition.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy.  He wanted to stop but his mother tugged him along.  So the child turned his head and looked backward at the musician as he walked.

No one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world.  He played very intricate pieces on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.  Two days before playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where patrons paid $100 a seat and up.

This whole episode was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post that explored perception, taste and priorities of people.  The questions were: in a commonplace environment at an unexpected hour, do we perceive beauty?  Do we stop to appreciate it?  Do we recognize brilliance in an unexpected context?

One of the questions this experiment might raise for us is, “If we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing beautiful, powerful music, then what else are we missing?”

What if God is speaking to us, is all around us, is like a musician playing beautiful, inspiring notes, but we are too busy or too cynical or too disinterested to notice?

Samuel at least heard the voice calling his name.  He didn’t have it figured out, didn’t know who was speaking to him, but he was at least listening, and with Eli’s help he made sense of it.  I wonder about us?  With all of the busyness of our lives, are we able to perceive the call of God?

We don’t have the advantage of seeing Jesus face to face as Nathaniel did, and not many of us are called in such dramatic a fashion as Samuel.  But what they shared was that it took another person to help them sort out the call.  Philip invites Nathaniel with this wonderful invitation.  “Come and see,” he says.  Philip doesn’t have it all figured out, he isn’t condescending, he doesn’t argue with Nathaniel, doesn’t tell Nathaniel, “This is the way it is.”  He simply tells him about Jesus.  Nathaniel expresses skepticism – Jesus is from Nazareth, after all – and Philip says, “Come and see.”  Decide for yourself.  Nathaniel does – Philip is his friend - and as he learns about Jesus, Nathaniel follows.

Old Eli helps Samuel to understand that God is speaking to him.  He points Samuel towards God and helps him receive the call.  That’s the way it is for most of us.  We aren’t called all by ourselves, we are called together. 

In the church, we need one another and we depend upon one another.  The church is to be a family, a community of faith, and we are to welcome others as brothers and sisters and love one another and care for one another as a family.

We are called together – that is, we discern God’s call to us with the help of others, as part of a community.  Together, we hear our call.  But we are also called together in the sense that we are called to be together.  We are called to community.  We are called to care for all of humanity.

This weekend we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was a great civil rights leader and social activist.  But at the heart of it, Martin Luther King was a pastor.  We take pride in the fact that he was an American Baptist pastor, part of our denomination. 

King popularized the term “Beloved Community.”  As he fought for justice, the goal was not to defeat his opponents, not to bring down the oppressors, but to bring about reconciliation.  King loved and prayed for his enemies.

The church is certainly called to be a Beloved Community, where there is peace and welcome and reconciliation are freely offered, but King extended that idea to all of humanity.  Our concern is not simply to be for ourselves and those close to us.  King understood that we are indeed “called together.”

King wrote an essay called “The World House.”  He wrote,

Some years ago a famous novelist died.  Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of [humanity]. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. . . All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.
King also said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people share in the wealth and goodness of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because human decency will not allow it. Racism, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.  In the Beloved Community, disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries.  Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent action.  At a victory rally following the announcement of Supreme Court decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses he said,

The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.  It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.  It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [people]. 
 King actually followed Jesus’ admonition to “pray for your enemies.”

When we look at our world today, how much do we need this kind of vision of a Beloved Community? 

Eli and Samuel needed one another.  Nathaniel needed Philip, and there were no doubt times when Philip needed Nathaniel.  In the church, we all need one another.  We are a family.  And Dr. King would tell us that we are part of a World House, a Beloved Community, and our goal is to bring others, to bring even enemies, into the Beloved Community.

We are called together.  Called to follow together, called to serve together, called to live together.  We need one another to hear God’s call, and we need one another to live as a Beloved Community.  May it be so.  Amen. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Road to Bethlehem - December 21, 2014

Text: Luke 2:1-14

It is 101 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  According to Google Maps, it would take 33 hours to make the journey on foot.  That is just walking time, not counting meals and rest stops.  Of course, if you had to walk for 33 hours, you might be walking more slowly by the time you got close to your destination.  And of course, to arrive at 33 hours, Google is counting on paved roads, bridges and other improvements in infrastructure that would not have existed in the first century.  Google does not account for such contingencies as marauding bandits hiding along the route, deep rain-washed gullies cutting through the path, or lack of available rooms at the inn.  And if you are 9 months pregnant as you travel, you can throw the estimated travel time that you get from Google Maps right out the window.

It is hard to imagine how difficult that journey was - long, tiring, exhausting, dangerous, unpredictable.  And you might add inadvisable and foolhardy.  But it wasn’t Joseph and Mary’s idea.  They are not taking a vacation; they are not heading south for the winter.  Caesar Augustus has called for a census, and everyone has to go to their ancestral home.  Joseph lives in Nazareth in Galilee, 100 miles to the north, but his family roots are in Bethlehem and that is where they go.  Many days of difficult travel ensue, Mary threatening to go into labor at any moment, and it is all to sign some government forms so that they can be taxed.

I’m sure this did nothing to add to Caesar’s popularity; it is stuff like this that can really make you really hate an invading, occupying power.

Count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under some soulless bureaucracy.  They represent all of the poor, powerless, defenseless people everywhere, in all times, who suffer under the whims of whatever Caesar happens to be in power at the moment.  They represent all of those who are disrespected, oppressed, put down, and feel out of control.

Joseph and Mary go on this long, arduous journey at the worst possible time.  Why?  Because they have to.  It is not up to them.  And even though Bethlehem is his ancestral city, either family ties are not that close or most of the family has by now moved away, because the best Joseph can do is find a barn where they can stay, and that is where Mary winds up having the baby.

They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome.  They are nobodies.  Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the power of Rome or the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.

Tom Long points out that as American power and influence grew over the last century, hope became a casualty.

We became more confident of our strength and promise, and we began to imagine ourselves as those who need no hope.  Who needs hope when you have unfettered progress?  Instead, we began to express our longings for the future as “hope nots”: I hope the stock market doesn’t crash again.  I hope my children don’t get hooked on drugs.  I hope I don’t [have to go to a nursing home] – all expressions of the fact that we were steaming along complacently, simply hoping that no icebergs lay in our path.       
A lot of folks come to the point where they feel they really don’t need anything beyond their own resources.  If you have arrived, if you have it all together, if you have caring friends and a supportive family, if you have health and a good job and relatively few worries, then you don’t really need to hope.  If you are in such a place, as Long points out, “hopes” can become “hope nots”: we hope not to lose the good thing we’ve got going. 

As a nation, we have at times been in such a place.  We are America, for goodness sakes.  Life is getting better and better.  But look around us.  Glaciers are melting, terrorists are striking, predators prey on children, economies are faltering, seemingly endless wars go on and on; various corporate entities, North Korean hackers, and our own government apparently have access to our personal information; and our culture becomes harsher, more polarized, more angry, less compassionate.  Our 21st century world is not completely hunky-dory.

Considering this from a more personal level, while we can sometimes believe we are self-sufficient, that we can handle whatever comes our way, life can change our minds pretty quickly.  Losing a job, facing illness, losing a loved one, going through divorce, struggling with addiction, worrying about your children, watching someone you care about make terrible choices – we can quickly be disabused of the idea that we don’t need hope beyond ourselves.  At some point, we all become Marys and Josephs, traveling a weary road that we did not necessarily choose.

It is 101 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  A long, hard journey.  It is 6393 miles from Ames to Bethlehem – that is in straight-line travel, although if we were to go to Bethlehem, we would certainly not travel in a straight line.  It is a long way, but with modern travel, we could leave right after church this morning and arrive in Bethlehem more quickly than Joseph and Mary would have gotten there by walking from Nazareth.

For us, the road to Bethlehem is more a journey of the heart, a journey toward hope, a journey toward the wonder and promise and love that God sends into our world and into our lives, so often in unexpected times and places and ways.

The Ames Area Religious Leaders Association (that’s AARLA for short) met a couple of weeks ago.  There were newer folks and guests present, so we began by introducing ourselves.  We were to give our name and what church we served, and then in this season of Advent we were to share something we were hopeful about.

Well, that is a tough question – sharing our favorite pizza topping would have been easier.  Something you are hopeful about…  Nobody really wanted to go first, but finally one person, who works with a Hispanic community, spoke of the hope so many in his community were feeling about changes in immigration policy – they were less fearful of their families being separated by deportation.  Another spoke of hopes for those suffering from mental illness.  Another spoke of hopes for a more civil society.  People talked about cultural and political and big-picture hopes. 

Then some spoke more personally.  Our guest that day spoke of so many outstanding young police officers that he works with, and how this gave him hope for the future. 

And then some of us spoke about our own lives.  There were personal losses in families and the pain was fresh.  There were friends and parishioners who had been diagnosed with cancer or were facing very trying situations.  And the hopes we had were for healing, for peace, for strength.  Sometimes we get to a place where when it comes to hope, the best we can do is hope to have hope.

Joseph and Mary made this long, hard journey to Bethlehem.  Not yet married, subject to public ridicule, wondering perhaps if the angelic visions they had received were for real or maybe just strange hallucinations, the hard journey no doubt matched their emotional state.  They were hopeful, but maybe afraid even to hope.

For the most part, Palestine consisted of dangerously rugged expanses of land.  Arid temperatures scorched the soil.  The earth was parched; vegetation was scarce – as was water.  Joseph and Mary trudged along through this mostly harsh, bleak landscape.

But as they approached Bethlehem, things began to change.  Bethlehem was different.  The name itself means “house of bread.”  Travelers approaching Bethlehem would be excited to see wheat fields and vineyards.  In the middle of this desolate environment, a fertile land appeared.  Figs and olives abounded.  Bethlehem was a place of promise. 

Bethlehem was not at all known as a religious city; before the birth of Jesus, nobody thought of Bethlehem as a holy place.  Jerusalem was the Holy City.  It was just six miles away, but in terms of culture and sensibility, it was a lot farther than that.  Though a small place, Bethlehem was a governmental and political center.  Herod lived in Bethlehem.  Tax collectors and census takers worked there.  By no stretch of the imagination was a trip to Bethlehem a spiritual pilgrimage.

Bethlehem was known as the ancestral city of David, and people hung on to that past.  It had now been hundreds of years since the time of King David, but for a lot of people, that was still what came to mind when they heard Bethlehem.  A small town near Jerusalem whose glory days were long past.

There were a few references to Bethlehem in the scriptures – we read one this morning, as Micah spoke of coming glory for Bethlehem.  But these hopes seemed like a quaint idea, or something that was still yet a long way off.  There were prophecies and dreams about a messiah coming from Bethlehem, but it is not as though anyone really expected anything to happen anytime soon – there was no evidence to support such an expectation.  Depending on how you looked at it, Bethlehem’s best days were either long past, or somewhere out in the distant future.  The present certainly did not offer much promise.

But in a time of foreign occupation, when the nation was at a low point, and in this place with a glorious past and a possible future but not much of a present, Jesus was born.  He was born not just in Bethlehem, but at a particular place in this town.  There was no room at the inn, and the best that Mary and Joseph could do was to find a stable, a place for animals, a most humble, inauspicious place, and that is where Mary gave birth.

Luke tells the story of that night.  The child was born in a stable and placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  We have head this story so many times that we have romanticized it, but I doubt that many of you would want to have a baby in a barn and then finally set that baby in a feeding trough because that is the only option you had.  It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t sterile or hygienic, it wasn’t easy.

That night, angels announced the birth – not to religious leaders, not to leading citizens, not to world leaders, but to shepherds – lowly shepherds, out working in the fields. 

This was an unexpected birth in an unexpected place, announced to unexpected people.  A common, humble birth.  And it was a birth that brought great joy and great hope.  It still brings joy and hope, because if the birth of Christ was celebrated by rough shepherds, then what the angels said was true: this really was good news of great joy for all people.

This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen.  Sometimes it can be a literal road.  A couple of weeks ago, Susan’s father died unexpectedly.  We had to make plans to travel to Arkansas.  We had to decide whether to bring our dog Rudy – which can make traveling that much more difficult.  (Some of you have been there.)  We had to make arrangements for Zoe, who was in the last week of classes, to fly from Indianapolis to Little Rock.  Emotionally as much as physically, it was a hard journey.

And I know that there are those of you who are in the midst of hard journeys, sometimes journeys that do not involve any actual travel but are difficult nonetheless.  A journey can be 101 miles or 6393 miles, but sometimes the journeys that take place in our hearts and souls can be the longest and hardest ones.

We can reach the place where we are no longer confident in that idea of continual progress.  We can come to the point where the empty promises of Caesar no longer ring true.  We can get to the point where our own resources, our own strength and intelligience and good looks and good fortune are not enough. 

We all reach that point.  And when we do, then maybe we are ready, maybe we are open, to the hope and the wonder to be found in Bethlehem. 

God does not force God’s will and ways upon us.  More often than not, God does not show up with pyrotechnic displays.  Sometimes God arrives in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, even in the midst of our difficult journeys. 

In Christmas, we celebrate the love of God that reaches out to us even in the midst of those hard journeys, the love of a God who came to us in all the weakness and vulnerability of a baby born in an out of the way place in an out of the way country to young, poor, parents.  A birth announced by angels to lowly shepherds. 

Kate Compston offered a prayer which speaks to the joy that may found on the road the Bethlehem:

Thank you, Scandalous God, for giving yourself to the world, not in the powerful and extraordinary, but in weakness and the familiar: in a newborn baby.

Thank you for offering, at journey’s end, a new beginning; for setting, in the poverty of a stable, the richest jewel of your love; for revealing, in a particular place, your light for all nations.

Thank you for bringing us to Bethlehem, House of Bread,
where the empty are filled, and the filled are emptied; where the poor find riches, and the rich recognize their poverty; where all who kneel and hold out their hands are unstintingly fed.
It can be a long and arduous road to Bethlehem.  But at the end of that road, we find hope and joy.  Love came to us in Bethlehem, and that Love is with us, even here, even now.  Amen.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

“The Secret” - November 23, 2014

Texts: Psalm 65:1-4, 10-13; Philippians 4:10-20

Earlier this fall, we spent four weeks in Paul’s letter to the Philippians – one Sunday on each chapter.  We looked at a key insight or idea from each chapter.  Just for fun, as a refresher, I’ll mention those themes:

“Let the way you live be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

“Have the same attitude as Christ, who set aside his rightful place of power and became a servant.”

“I count all of my achievements and knowledge and pedigree as nothing compared with the surpassing value of knowing Christ.”

We ended with the fourth chapter, “Whatever is just and true and honorable and excellent and praiseworthy, think about these things.”

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, as our hearts turn toward giving thanks, I want to go back and pick up the last part of that last chapter of Philippians.  Paul has been going on for several pages in this letter – and remember, it was an actual letter that was read in worship one Sunday morning at the church in Philippi – he has gone on for several pages and then finally, at the end, he gets to the occasion for his letter – the reason that he wrote in the first place, or at least the reason that he wrote when he did.  He finally gets around to a thank you note.

Paul addresses a couple of situations in the church, he has words of advice and encouragement, he urges them on toward faithfulness in Christian living, and then finally, at the very end, he gets to the matter at hand.  Out of concern for Paul’s plight in prison, the church had sent Epaphroditus to bring a financial gift to Paul and to help attend to Paul’s needs.  Epaphroditus, you may remember, winds up taking ill, becomes seriously ill, and once he is able to travel, Paul sends him back to Philippi, saying in effect thanks for your help but I really don’t need a sick deacon here on top of my other worries.  So he sends Epaphroditus back home with a big thank you note for the whole church.

Now, it’s not what you would call a good thank you note, but it is a thank you note just the same.  Sometimes you will get a card in the mail, and without even reading anything, you know that it is a thank you note.  Well, a thank you note or an invitation.  If it opens bottom to top bottom instead of side to side and it is a smallish card, it is probably a thank you note. 

“Thank you for the sandwich press.  Of all the wedding gifts we received, it is our favorite because sandwiches are the one thing we know how to fix.  P.S. We will be trying some other things.  Love, Bill and Betty.”  Now, there is a good thank you note.  It is short and to the point, has a bit of humor, and it doesn’t matter if everybody’s note says that their gift was the favorite.  It is a thank you note.  It is supposed to make the recipient feel good.

Compare this with Paul’s thank you.  He tacks it on to a rambling theological treatise, and even when he gets to the thank-you part he hems and haws and equivocates and goes on and on.

It starts out poorly.  “I rejoice in the Lord that finally you have renewed your concern for me.”  What kind of thank you is that?  I am thankful you have finally shown concern for me?  Very bad form.  Then Paul backtracks a bit, maybe realizing he had come on too strong.  “Well, you were concerned for me all along but didn’t have the opportunity to show it.”  It makes you wonder if paper and ink were in short supply, especially in prison, and rather than scribbling out and correcting himself or just starting over, Paul puts to paper something that doesn’t sound so great but then just goes on, trying to make up for it.  Then he continues, “Not that I am complaining; I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”  Remember, this is a thank you note, for goodness sakes.  If your spouse asks if you could write a thank you note for a gift the two of you have received, or if your mom or dad tell you it would be a good idea to send Aunt Maude and Uncle Newt a thank you card, you can’t say, “I’m not sure what to say.”  Because no matter what you say, it will probably be more appropriate and less awkward than Paul’s thank you note.
“I have learned to be content,” Paul says.  “I know what it is to have plenty and I know what it is to have nothing.  I’m not just banging on the bars of my cell asking, ‘Has the mail come yet?’  I know how to get mail, and I know how to get no mail.  I know how to have a lot, I know how to have nothing at all.  I can handle being well-fed and I can handle being hungry.  Either way, in whatever situation, I am OK because I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.  But at any rate, I do appreciate your concern.”   

Finally, the first actual word of thanks, such as it is, but then he goes on, “Not that I seek the gift.”  He just doesn’t know when to quit.  “I don’t care so much about the gift itself but rather your faithfulness in sending the gift.”

A simple “thank you” would have been a lot better, if you ask me.  How about, “Thank you so much for your gift.  I really appreciate it.”  But Paul does reference the special relationship he has with the church in Philippi.  “Out of all the churches, you alone sent aid when I was in Thessalonica.  Time and again, you helped me,” he writes.

Paul did not want anyone to have reason to question his motives.  He apparently got a good bit of criticism as it was, but to make sure no one could accuse him of being in it for the money, he paid his own way.  He was a tent-maker.  He didn’t depend on the generosity of the churches he served.  This church in Philippi was special; it was the only church that he allowed to help out financially in any way. 

Well, any way you cut it, it is a very strange, very weak thank you letter.  Part of the strangeness is that it had to do with money.  If money is hard for us to talk about, as we considered last Sunday, it was just as hard in Biblical times because there were conflicting ideas circulating, even in scripture, about money.  Wealth was a sign of God’s favor.  “The one who delights in the law of God shall proper in all he does.”  Or, it was a sign of corruption and taking advantage of the poor.  Poverty was a sign of God’s disfavor.  Or, it was a sign of faithfulness.  “Blessed are the poor.”  Luke tells about the rich man who dies, and poor Lazarus who dies.  Guess which one winds up in heaven and which one suffers in the flames of hell?

Part of the awkwardness had to do with the kind of gift, and then part of it had to do with Paul.  Paul is a giver and it is hard for him to receive.  A lot of us are that way.  He is not used to receiving, and he’s not good at it.  “Thank you for the gift.  You finally remembered me.  I know you were thinking about me before.  You just didn’t have a chance.  I don’t really want or need anything.  But I’m glad that you wanted to give.  Not that I needed it … it’s just really, really awkward.  But finally, he blurts it out: “I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

Well, gifts are not easy.  We will be with my family at Thanksgiving, and while there we will do Christmas.  So we are coming up on a Christmas shopping deadline.  The clock is winding down and we have just got started in our shopping.  You try to find the right gift, a great gift, or in the end, at least a serviceable gift.  Of course, some people are harder to shop for than others, and most all of us have been on the receiving end of gifts that were – how shall we say this – underwhelming.

The whole experience of giving and receiving gifts can be very complicated.  With Paul, you almost get the feeling that here is someone who has had a bad experience with gifts.  Some of us can perhaps relate to that.  But at the same time, gifts can be a precious thing, a powerful thing.

In Greek, the word for “gift” and the word for “grace” and the word for “thanks” is all the same word – charis.  We hear echoes of it in numerous words: charisma, charismatic, eucharist.  Gift.  Grace.  Thanks.  The greatest gifts we receive are really not tangible items, not things that you can wrap in a package.  Joy, peace, kindness, understanding, friendship, loyalty, time, compassion, belonging, love.

Tucked into this rather awkward thank-you, Paul includes a very interesting line.  He says, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

“I have learned the secret.”  It is the sense of being initiated into some secret society.  The New English Bible has this, “I have been thoroughly initiated.”  Another translation has it, “I have been initiated into the secret.”

What is it?  What is the secret of being content, of doing well in any situation?  What is the secret of living in plenty or in want?

The secret is gratitude.  Grace.  Gift.  Thanks.  “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”  That is the secret.  To understand that life is a gift, that it is all a gift, and to live our lives in gratitude.

Paul lived with such gratitude that he really was content whether he had a little or a lot.  If you live a life of gratitude, if you are thankful for all that you have, then you focus on abundance and blessing, not on scarcity and want.

The secret of a relationship with God that truly sets you free is gratitude.  You will never meet a truly grateful person who is at the same time mean, or small, or bitter, or greedy, or selfish, or who takes pleasure in another’s pain.  Gratitude can change your life.

The great preacher Fred Craddock said that if he were on a search committee, looking for a minister for the church, and the committee was looking at a particular person, the question he would want to ask first, even before “Can this person preach?” is, “Is there any evidence that this person is grateful?” 

Our choir sang a marvelous piece this morning from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land.  What I like about it is that the overriding feeling and image that one gets from the piece is sheer gratitude.
The promise of living, with hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving our friends and our labor.
The promise of growing, with faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.
The promise of living, the promise of growing
Is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving.
And then,
Give thanks there was sunshine, Give thanks there was rain,
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain,
O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful,
Come join us in thanking the Lord for His blessing.
When we have learned the secret of gratitude, we can look around us and find more and more reasons to be thankful, and it can transform our lives.  No less a theologian than the actor Jim Carrey was quoted in USA Today: “I challenge anybody in their darkest moment to write what they're grateful for, even stupid little things like green grass or a friendly conversation with somebody on the elevator.  You start to realize how rich you are.”  A conscious choice for gratitude can change our lives.

The Psalms are a particularly rich expression of gratitude, and they are so powerful because like Paul’s testimony, the gratitude is not dependent on present circumstances.  Even amidst expressions of pain and hurt and fear and disappointment, there is still gratitude.  Gratitude is woven into the fabric of life, and when that is true, one can persevere and move forward, even in those dark moments.

For our closing hymn today, we will sing Now Thank We All Our God, a great hymn of praise.  It was written by Martin Rinkert in the year 1636, during the Thirty Years War.  The city of Eilenberg was hit by a severe plague and Rinkert was the only surviving pastor in the city.  At the height of the plague he conducted 50 funerals a day and he buried 4000 people that year, including his wife.  It was during that time that somehow, with a heart of gratitude, he wrote the words “Now Thank We all Our God.”

Gratitude is the secret that truly sets us free.

Psalm 65, which we read this morning, is a wonderful expression of this kind of gratitude that understands it is all gift, all grace, that all of life is reason for praise:
You visit the earth and water it,
   you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
   you provide the people with grain,
   for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
   settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
   and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
   your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
   the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
   the valleys deck themselves with grain,
   they shout and sing together for joy.
Look around you.  There are a million wonders right in front of us, every day, if only we will see them.  There are countless reasons for gratitude, not the least of which is thanksgiving for one another.

Paul may have been lousy at thank you notes, but he really had learned the secret.  The secret to living is really no big secret: it is gratitude.  Amen.