Saturday, October 12, 2019

“The Walk of Life” - October 13, 2019

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Colossians 2:6-7

I walked in my first Crop Walk in 1984.  I was a seminary student doing a campus ministry internship at Virginia Tech.  I walked with some of our students in the Blacksburg CROP Walk.

My next CROP Walk was in 1992.  Susan and I and 6 month old Zoe lived in the small town of Arthur, Illinois, and for as long as we were there, I participated in the Douglas County CROP Walk.  A couple of years into it, the chair of the CROP Walk, a pastor in a neighboring community, moved to a church in another city.  He called and told me that I was now in charge of the CROP Walk.  No committee meeting or anything - I was the chair. 

We varied the route a bit from year to year, walking in and around and between the small towns in that county.  The walk was between 6-7 miles, which was shorter than the original 10-mile walk.  A couple of times, when we walked a route entirely in the country, I had to find a farmer on the route willing to let us put a port-a-potty on their property, and then I had to call Midwest Pottyhouse to order a port-a-potty.  (And by the way, Midwest Pottyhouse is a great company name because I still remember it.)

One year we drove through a hailstorm to get to the walk.  And one of the more memorable CROP Walks was 1998.  Mark McGwire of the Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs were chasing the all-time home run record and it came down to the last day of the season.  They were both playing that afternoon as we walked on the CROP Walk.  The county was 50% Cub fans, 50% Cardinal fans.  (Well, maybe 5% Chicago White Sox fans in there somewhere.)  With a long walk, we always had a Sag Wagon.  If you were too tired to go on, the Sag Wagon would pick you up and take you to the end of the walk.  Susan was driving the Sag Wagon that year – it was our 1988 Plymouth Colt - and so that we would know what was happening in the home run race, she was supposed to honk the horn once if McGwire hit a home run and twice if Sammy Sosa hit a home run.  (We didn’t have smart phones then, but we did have car radios.)

In 1999 we moved to Ames, and I was amazed at how much money our church raised in the CROP Walk – despite our relatively small size we were always close to the top in amount raised.  This was due to the efforts of John Anderson and Harris Seidel.  (If you didn’t know John, he was Joyce Davidson’s father.)  John and Harris were both very dedicated and even if they could not be there the day of the walk, they would walk at a different time.  John often walked from Northcrest to Perkins for the men’s breakfast and used that as his CROP Walk – one year I could not make the CROP Walk and so I walked with John to Perkins.  John was such a fixture at the CROP Walk that the year after he died, our Ames CROP Walk was held in John’s memory. 

Many of you have walked in the CROP Walk over the years, and if we include sponsors, then even more have participated.  It has gotten easier over the years, as we walk about 3 ½ miles, with a shorter option for those who need it.  This is not so much about making it easy as a recognition that there are many folks who participate who physically can’t go the long distances.  We have had some memorable walks, including walking in the cold, having canine walkers representing First Baptist, and last year, walking in a driving rainstorm.  

Well, today is CROP Walk Sunday, and so I’ve been thinking about the CROP Walk.  There is a reason that Church World Service raises funds through a walk.  One of the slogans is “We walk because they walk” – a reminder that there are millions of people who have to walk each day for food and for clean water.  We walk because they walk and we walk no matter what the weather because if you need water to drink, you have to walk no matter what the weather.

A walk to raise money or raise awareness makes sense because walking is a powerful metaphor.  The word walk is filled with meaning.  In scriptural terms, to walk has to do with the way we live.   The way we relate and participate in the community.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  And then there is our reading from Colossians.  It reads, “Continue to live your lives in Christ, rooted and built up in the faith…”  But in Greek the word translated as “live your life” is literally “to walk.”  (You can see that in the footnotes in our pew Bibles.)  Continue to walk in Christ.

Walking makes it sound easy.  And comfortable.  Not a run, not a frantic effort, just a walk.   

If something is an ordeal, a person will say, “Well, it’s no walk in the park,” like a walk would be the easiest thing ever.  In baseball, if the umpire calls four balls, you get to go to first base.  It’s called a walk and you can just mosey on down to first with no regard for how fast you get there. 

But contrary to popular perception, walking can be plenty difficult.  If you have joint pain or use a walker or wheelchair, walking isn’t so simple.  I read this week about a six year old girl with cerebral palsy who took her very first step.  It was a joyful moment, but it was far from easy.  In terms of our life, in terms of our spiritual journey, some walks are harder than others.  If you have experienced heartbreak and loss, if you have experienced those times of desperation – and I should probably say when you have experienced those times - you know that our walk of life can be very difficult.

The 23rd Psalm 23 says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Our walk may lead to some difficult places, but we do not walk alone.

In the coming weeks we will be thinking about issues of what we might call practical Christianity.  In the big picture, the word for it is stewardship.  I try to steer away from the word stewardship when possible because a lot of folks hear it and only think money, but stewardship is much bigger than that.  It is really about the way we live our lives.  It is about our walk.

Richard Rohr is a spiritual writer.  The Theology Class may be familiar with him as they used a video he was featured in last year.  Rohr wrote,

Christianity is a lifestyle - a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.  However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself.  One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness… The suffering on Earth is too great.
In simple language, we night say that you can talk the talk all you want, but it means nothing if you don’t walk the walk.  What we really believe, what we truly believe, will be seen in the way that we live.  To say that we are a Christian, to say that we follow Jesus, doesn’t mean much unless we actually try to follow the way of Jesus.

The prophet Micah took up this theme more than 2700 years ago.  Saying that what God really wanted was not vain words or empty ritual, he wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God?”  Now, that is really not three distinct things – attention to justice and mercy is a part of our walk with God.

Life is a journey, and to walk humbly with God means that we journey with God.  The life of faith is not about arbitrary rules or outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about living our life with God as our companion.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love mercy.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

To walk humbly with God is to live a life focused on love and justice and kindness and faithfulness.  To be honest, for most of us it is probably less about Sundays and more about the way we live the rest of the week.

This is a time of year when mission – making our faith active - is at the forefront for our church.  Last Sunday, many of you were here for our Great Day of Sharing, as we participated in projects aimed at serving our community and beyond.  We were involved in our neighborhood by participating in Make Campustown Shine, picking up trash around Campustown.  We were involved in the wider community by making blankets for newborns at Primary Healthcare and singing and visiting residents at Northcrest.  And we served people in need both across the U.S. and around the world by assembling hygiene kits for Church World Service.  Just this week, additional hygiene kits were shipped to the Bahamas to help victims of Hurricane Dorian.

The other big mission effort for our church this time of year is the World Mission Offering.  We join with more than 5000 American Baptist Churches in receiving this offering which supports our mission work around the globe.

A couple of weeks ago, several of us went over to Boone to hear ABC Missionary Ray Schellinger.  He is our Global Consultant for Immigration and Refugees.  People who are forced to leave their homes, their communities, their countries and seek shelter and safety is a huge worldwide issue.  Ray works with churches in places like Lebanon as they reach out to refugees there, who make up close to 25% of Lebanon’s population.  Think about that.   It would be like having 90 million refugees in the United States.  Among other things, Baptists in Lebanon are providing schooling for Syrian Muslim children in refugee camps.  They are assisting refugees with food and transportation and access to healthcare.  In a country like Lebanon where the Christian community and especially the Protestant community has mostly kept to themselves as a small minority, this has taken the Baptists of Lebanon far beyond their comfort zone.  And it is bringing new life to these churches.

Ray especially shared with us about immigrants at the southern U.S. border.  He shared heartbreaking stories of families who had fled the threat of death in their own countries and walked for weeks or even months on the dangerous trip to the U.S. border, only to be treated like criminals and have their vulnerable situations taken advantage of.  He works with a number of shelters in Tijuana and other places – shelters run by churches or other groups that initially thought they would provide housing for a small number of asylum seekers for a few weeks, but it has turned into large numbers of people for months at a time. These people are serving faithfully and compassionately in extremely stressful conditions.

After sharing so much disturbing information, I asked Ray how he goes on.  How does he get up every morning and continue this work? And he talked about the small victories - how much it meant to people who felt utterly abandoned to be treated with kindness and respect.  How opportunities for schooling for children, opportunities for traumatized people to talk to a caring person, how having their stories heard and having someone pray for them meant so much to people.

Ray is just one of our international missionaries.  Our mission work is done with compassion and integrity and great commitment, and it is worth supporting.  It is a way for us to walk alongside brothers and sisters in need.

We are called to walk humbly with God.  We are called to walk alongside others.  It is a daily walk.  It can be difficult.  I think there is a reason Micah wrote, walk humbly with your God.

Michelle Singletary is the personal finance columnist for the Washington Post.  This week she wrote a column and suggested that people should tip well at restaurants even when service is not so great because the tip is big part of the wages these people earn.  I was struck by her follow-up column:

I’ve written about a lot of personal finance topics — the cost of retirement, health insurance, economic inequity — but which topic has received the most comments?
Tipping…  The outrage factor about tipping is titanic, with hundreds of readers arguing passionately that it’s their right to withhold or greatly reduce a tip if service was unsatisfactory… I was stunned by people’s lack of empathy for folks who wait on them.  And the name-calling and swearing was over the top.
She ended it: “Of course, you are free to do what you want with your money.  I just provide a forum for us to respectfully discuss such issues.  So, stop swearing at me!”

What does this have to do with walking with God?  A lot, I think, actually.  We may not agree all about tipping and that’s OK.  But a lack of empathy for others, and the feeling that it is OK to spew profanities at someone you have never met is an absolute epidemic.  Walking with God is about all of life, remembering justice and kindness even in such everyday matters.  

The invitation today has to do with walking.  First, very literally, I would invite you to walk in the CROP Walk.  It’s not too late, we have Fellowship Time after worship and I guarantee that you will get sponsors.  I would also invite you to give to the World Mission Offering - to walk alongside those around the world in need of hope, in need of help, in need of support as we share in the work of peace and love and justice and reconciliation – as we share in the work of the gospel.

And then, I would invite you to think about your own walk – your own life – your walk with God.  What do you need to do to strengthen that walk?  What do you need to do, perhaps, to get back on the right path?  And who do you need to walk alongside as you walk with God?

God has called us – God has called you – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  Amen. 

“By Request: What Is God’s First Name?” - September 15, 2019

Text: Exodus 3:1-15

When we set out a suggestion box at the end of May and asked for sermon ideas and suggestions, I knew that some interesting things might turn up.  I did not promise to use all of the suggestions because, well, you never know.  But in the end I was able to use each suggestion.

This is the last week for this series, and it has been so fun that I may just try it again.  As far as interesting questions, the one for today may be at the top of the list.

Here it is: “My three year old granddaughter asked me – ‘What is God’s first name?’”

What is God’s first name?  It’s not a question I was expecting.  It wasn’t too hard to figure out where this question had come from.  I told the grandmother, “Well, you could just tell your granddaughter” (let’s hypothetically say her name is Quinn) “you could tell her, God just has one name – like Beyonce or Cher.  Or Barney.  Or Elmo.  Or Ariel.” 

That might be good enough for a three year old.  Or it might not.  I initially didn’t actually plan to preach on this question, but I kept thinking about it.

You know, we are all theologians.  Theology basically means thinking about God.  And it may be that three years olds are some of our best theologians because they are willing to ask questions.  They are not so limited in their thinking.  They don’t have all of this accumulated baggage that some of us have.  And the more I thought about it, I realized that this is actually a fabulous question.

What is God’s first name?

When we meet someone, what do we want to know?  What do we ask them?  We want to know their name.  There may be other questions – if you are around campus, some of the questions are  where are you from, what is your major, do you live on campus, did you go to the game, and so forth – but for pretty well anybody, we want to know their name.  I’ll walk our dog around the neighborhood, and little kids come up and want to know if they can pet the puppy.  And do you want to guess their other question?  “What’s your dog’s name?”  If they know that he is Rudy, then they have actually met him.

What is it about names?  Why are they so important?

A name is just a means of identifying a person – or a dog, or something.  Why is it such a big deal?  In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously says, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  A name is just a tag, just a means of identification, right?

Well, that is true, but I think the desire to know another’s name means more.  It has something to do with relationship.  With knowing another.  When we know another’s name, they are no longer a stranger.  We have a better understanding of them – we have a handle on them.  It’s no coincidence that a name is referred to as a handle. 

Names can be filled with meaning.  That was the case for so many Biblical names.  When Sarah overhead messengers from God telling Abraham that in her old age, Sarah would have a child, she laughed, as any 90 year old woman would do.  And when the child was born, the child was named Isaac – which means laughter.

Then you’ve got Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons – Esau, which means “hairy” – a name which definitely fit him - and Jacob, who was born second, grabbing at Esau’s heel as he entered the world.  Jacob means “heel-grabber,” and it pretty well prophesied the way his life would go in connection with his brother.

This kind of thing happens again and again.  Samuel means “God has heard.”  Ruth means “friend.”  Names were so important that significant events could lead to a change in one’s name.  After wrestling with God, Jacob, the heel-grabber, becomes Israel, which means “strives with God.”  And this becomes the name for the nation.

Jesus gives Simon the name Cephas, or Peter, which means “Rock.”  And the name Jesus means “God will save.”

The name of God has been an issue from the very beginning.  In the scriptures, it plays out most poignantly, perhaps, in the story of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses had fled Egypt for his own good some years before.  Now he lived in the land of Midian and was married to Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But his thoughts were still with his people, living in bondage in Egypt.  And one day, while tending flocks for Jethro, his father-in-law, Moses sees a bush that is on fire and continues to burn without being consumed.

He approaches to check it out and hears a voice calling to him.  It calls his name.  “Moses!  Moses!”  The one speaking from the bush knows him.

Moses responds, “Here I am.”  And the voice tells Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  

It is God speaking to him.  And God proceeds to tell Moses that he has observed the suffering of the Israelites and will use Moses to free them from Pharaoh.  Moses is to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let me people go.” 

Moses seems almost more concerned about how he will be received by the Israelites than by Pharaoh.  He says, “If I go to the Israelites and say, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask what is his name, what shall I say?”  In other words, if I am going to have credibility, I need to know your name.  I need to be able to show that I really know you, that you have indeed spoken to me.

It may be helpful here to understand the mindset during Moses’ time.  While names are important for us today, they were an even more important matter in Moses’ day.  A name was often thought to express the essence of a person, as we have seen from some Biblical names.

Beyond that, knowing another’s name implied having some power over the person.  And so, you did not just broadcast your name to anybody.  All of these factors played into the importance that one’s name had in the theology of Israel.  In the name of the Lord, one experienced the very presence of God.  And so God’s name had to be protected from insincere usage – or put more positively, the name of the Lord was to be revered, or hallowed, as Jesus puts it in the Lord’s Prayer.

God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and says, “I am who I am.  Tell them that I Am has spoken.”  I love the artwork on the bulletin cover.  If you look in the flames, you will see the words “I AM.”

This name of God was considered to be so holy that the people would not speak it out loud.  In Hebrew this is the consonants YHWH, or yud-hey-vav-hey, which is spoken as Yahweh, or Jehovah.  When YHWH shows up in Hebrew, Jews are taught to just say adonai, which means Lord – and in most English versions of the Bible, this is translated as THE LORD, generally in all caps.  

As Christians, Jesus puts both a face and a name on God.  We sing about the name of Jesus – as we did this morning – but we don’t talk so much about the name of God.  There are names, plural, for God – really more descriptions of God: rock, deliverer, savior, judge, helper, mighty fortress, father, mother, counselor, advocate, prince of peace, and so on.  But we don’t often used God’s name of Yahweh.

I was struck by an article I read recently by Julie Zauzmer.  She was reflecting on reading a book by Michael Coogan titled God’s Favorites.  The book is about the idea of chosenness – being a chosen people, as both Jews and Christians have understood it from ancient times up to the present.

Zauzmer wrote:

Coogan’s description of this yud-hey-vav-hey god (Yahweh or Yehovah, if you want a common pronunciation) as a character with certain unique personal attributes… felt somewhat jarring to me…  Partway through, I realized one reason why: in Coogan's writing, God had a name.  We’re not used to that. 
That God would reveal that name is a reminder that God is a personal God, a God who desires relationship.

Knowing another’s name is important.  It changes the relationship; it changes the way we think about things.  It is one thing to be acquainted with the guy at the hardware store.  It is another thing to know Howard in the paint department. 

Some of you remember the sitcom “Cheers.”  It was set in a bar in Boston and filled with characters like Sam and Diane and Woody and Norm and Cliff.  The attraction of Cheers, as captured in the theme song, was that it was a place where “everybody knows your name.”  It was a show about community.  About belonging.  About acceptance.  And that was captured in the idea that everybody knows your name.

Besides our given name, there is the phenomena of nicknames.  This too is seen in the scriptures – remember Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John?  Jesus calls them Sons of Thunder, a reflection of their volatile personality.

We may use nicknames that are terms of endearment or adulation.  I still remember, for some reason, shooting baskets with a friend at an outdoor basketball court at church.  This was treated as more or less a public court.  We were maybe sixth or seventh graders, and a group of older guys came along.  They wanted to play full court – in other words, the whole court.  So they asked us to play.  They just bestowed names on us.  They called Brian the Brown Bomber.  He had brown hair and he liked to shoot from outside.  They called me Dependable Red.  Red hair, and I could play.  Those were pretty charitable nicknames.  But names have power.  It felt good for these older guys to include us.  I mean, they could have just run us off the court.  But they included us, and the names were a part of that.

The way we name things, the way we name others, is immensely important, more than we probably realize.  Names can be used to bless and build up, but they can also be used to hurt, to divide, to manipulate, to put down.  I could go through a list of hurtful names, but there is no point in it.  Most of us have been on the receiving end of such names.  There is far too much name-calling that goes on, and we don’t need to relive it.

So many of our public disputes are about what we name things.  Is it discrimination or religious freedom?  Is it security or bigotry?  Is it investment in the common good or wasteful government spending?  What something is named makes a big difference.

And names can become tainted by misuse.  Perfectly good names can become loaded terms.  Words like liberal. Evangelical.  Even Christian.   

One of the 10 commandments has to do with the way we treat God’s name.  Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name – that is one of those cases where in Hebrew it is Yahweh - in vain.  We are not to misuse the name of God.  This is not only, or not even primarily, talking about cursing that incorporates God’s name into it – although that would definitely be using God’s name in vain.  The commandment really is about using God’s name for our own purposes.   

Well, back to that original question asked by our three year old theologian.  She knew that names matter, and at the heart of it, I think her question had to do with wanting to know God better.  What is God’s first name?

Well here’s the thing: while we may want to know God, God definitely wants to know us.  God wants to know and be known.  The Bible might be described as the story of God’s self-revelation to us.  God reveals God’s own self to us in many ways.  Through creation: “the heavens are telling the glory of God; the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  Through the Law.  Through the prophets.  Through all the scriptures.  Through the Spirit.  And finally through Jesus, who came to show us who God is and what God is like and how God wants us to live with one another.  This is a God who wants to be known. 

And to that end, the relationship with God is a two-way relationship.  It is not just that we know God’s name; God knows our name.  God is interested in us.  God is invested in us.  God has compassion for us.  God wants the best for us.  Isaiah 43:1 reads, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

God desires a relationship with us, and from our side, the way to deepen that relationship begins with wanting to know God.  Which maybe starts with asking great questions like, “What Is God’s First Name?”  Amen.

“By Request: 1 Corinthians 13” - September 8, 2019

(Worship Under the Trees - held indoors due to rain)

We have been doing a little experiment of sorts this summer: we asked for suggestions from the congregation and I have been preaching on topics and questions that the church has suggested.  In most cases, these have sprung from interests or concerns or questions that people have.  How do people get called to ministry?  What is the relationship between science and faith?  What do we mean when we talk about grace?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  And more.

All great suggestions.  The suggestion for today is a little different.  Instead of a question or topic, the suggestion was a particular scripture: 1 Corinthians 13.  1 Corinthians chapter 13 is one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible.  It is called the Love Chapter.  It is a staple at weddings.  The poetry is beautiful.  “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” 

I don’t think this suggestion was made because someone had a bone to pick with this text.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was a matter of not understanding this scripture and wanting clarification.  I think it is something more like the way we want to sing a favorite song.  The way we want to hear again a favorite story.  There are those special places that we want to go back to again and again.

In the same way, there are those scriptures we want to go back to - like the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd…”  Like John 3:16: “for God so loved the world.”  Like Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require: but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  And like 1 Corinthians 13.

And so we look again today at a text that is a favorite for many of us.  It is beautiful and inspiring and it has a message that we need to hear.  But here is the thing about the Love Chapter of the Bible.  We sometimes think of it as though it comes from Paul’s Letter to the Wedding Planners.  As though it is written to extol the wonders of romantic love, or to reflect on the power of love in an abstract and theoretical way.  

But this is not the case.  Not at all.  These words were written to a church – to a congregation of people who as it turns out were seriously messed up. 

Church dysfunction and conflict is a function of the fact that we are all human beings.  Any group of human beings is going to have issues of one sort or another.  But here is what was going on in the church in Corinth.

This was a church that argued over all kinds of things.  It argued over food and the propriety of eating meat that had been sacrificed to foreign deities.  It argued over which star apostles were the biggest stars.  There were debates about sex, with Paul conceding that it is better to marry than to burn with passion.  There was an instance of a man having an affair with his mother in law.  Rich people were stuffing themselves and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper while poor people barely got anything.  People were all braggy about their spiritual gifts.   And that’s just a start.

The Love Chapter of the Bible was written to this church, to these people.  Nadia Bolz-Weber called the church in Corinth “Paul’s little church plant gone bad.”  The church was bickering and dysfunctional and they had turned church into a kind of competitive sport.

In his letter, Paul reminds the people that the church functions as a body, and if one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is hurting.  You can’t say, well, it’s no big deal, it’s just a kidney.   

And then Paul says, I will show you a more excellent way – not by focusing on who has what gift or where a person came from or what their salary is, but rather by focusing on love. 

So while this passage is a favorite at weddings, this is not about romance.  But this certainly speaks to couples.  It speaks to marriages.  It speaks to families.  This is a word for all kinds of families, nuclear families and church families and co-workers and neighborhoods.  This is an issue for the human family.

Paul says that without love, the gifts we have don’t really amount to much.  In the church in Corinth, there were people with tremendous gifts: teachers, healers, great preachers.  Some had the gift of prophecy.  There was enthusiasm, there were willing workers.  They had everything needed for a vital church except for one thing.  The missing ingredient was love. 

Vince Lombardi was the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.  Lombardi was once asked what it took to make a winning team.  He said:

There are plenty of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game.  Then you come to the third ingredient: if you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care about each other.  You’ve got to love each other.  Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and say to himself: ‘If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken.  I have to do my job well in order that he can do his.’
Vince Lombardi will never be confused for some kind of relationship guru, but he has it exactly right about love.  This is not simply about having a warm feeling for your teammate, although you may have that.  It is about our actions.  Love is willing and working for the best for the other.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

You might think about these qualities in the midst of family life.  Are we patient?  Are we kind?  Are we envious?  Are we boastful?  Are we irritable or resentful?  Do we have to have our way?  This is hard stuff.  This is the nitty-gritty of being family, whatever kind of family we are talking about.

I was reading about redwood trees the other day.  Redwood trees can grow up to four hundred feet in height – roughly the same as a thirty-five-story building.  They are the largest and tallest trees on earth.  Interestingly, they do not reach these amazing heights by sinking their roots deep into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out horizontally and connecting with the other trees.  They are tall, because they bear each other up.

That is a perfect metaphor for our lives.  Through love we bear one another up.  Through love we help one another to believe and to hope and to endure, even through the difficult times.  Redwood trees are a testament to the power of love.  And like those trees, we grow taller and stronger -- we are better people - when we are connected in love as a community.

Love is so important that Paul says our love must exceed our knowledge.  “For we know only in part.”  Let’s face it: living here in Ames, we are surrounded by knowledge.  This has got to be one of the top places for knowledge per capita in the country, maybe on earth.  I am all for knowledge.  Knowledge and learning and education is important to our church.  But knowledge alone is not enough.  Knowledge does not insulate us from the problems of life, and none of us have it all figured out.  There are so many problems we face for which there are no easy answers and on which we need to proceed with great humility.  We need knowledge, to be sure, but we need love in even greater measure. 

If you wanted to capture the essence of Christian faith – strip away all of the peripheral matters and get at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus – there is one thing.  What it is all about is not a doctrine or a set of rules or a creed or a confession.  When you come down to it, it is about faith and hope, and at the core of it all is love. 

Jesus showed us that love is always something you do.  Love is always an action.  Jesus lived a life of love, a love that would endure whatever the powers threw at him.

The choir anthem this morning is a song we sing every once in a while as a congregation – “Siyahamba,” or “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”  With the anthem this morning, we got to hear the verses, which are less familiar.  And I was struck by the last verse: “We walk in the strength of the Lord, God’s love is ever sure.  We shout that the world may hear, we sing a joyful song.”

Do you know what this song is about?  Do you know who was singing this?  This is a South African freedom song.  Sung by people hoping and praying and working for an end to apartheid – people who were suffering oppression and injustice and the indignity of racial segregation and second-class status in their own country.  And yet this song is not filled with bitterness or a desire for vengeance; it does not come from heavy hearts or troubled spirits.  This is a joyful song.  If is filled with faith and hope and at the center of it all, love.  Because God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Steve Donst shared a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13.  I have adapted his words, and share them with you now:

What if I could stand up here and say the most wonderful things, and sound impressive and answer everyone’s questions, but I didn’t love anyone - what would be the point?

What if we were the most incredible church where every pew was filled, the preaching was always inspirational, we had a choir that always sang perfectly and we served the best coffee in town but no one felt love - what would be the point?

And if as a community we teach our children lots of information and knowledge and they can recite the books of the Bible and know all the right answers but they don't know how to love, then we’ve failed them.

If we pray every week for the poor of the world and yet we don’t feed the hungry and reach out to the poor of our community, where is the honesty in that?

If we don’t love, then what’s the point?
Love is kindness in action, offered simply and humbly.

Love is not meant to make us look good, score brownie points with God, or draw attention to ourselves.

Love is co-operative; there are all kinds of ways of doing good and God is happy to use every way there is.  Love only cares that what’s needed is done; love has the best interests of the other in mind.

Sometimes we grow weary and give up - we can’t think of what else can be done.  But God never gives up; God's love continues and new possibilities are always appearing.

What we know now is never the whole picture.  What we do now is never the whole story.

In some ways we’re like children: we do what we can and what we know to this point.  But there’s still more for us to learn, to grow into, to accept.

Some day we’ll look back on where we are now, and wonder how we could ever have wondered and doubted and refused to accept what was happening.  In some ways, it's like looking in an imperfect mirror.  There’s a reflection there, but it’s not quite right, not totally true.

We are the body of Christ, the image of God - but not perfectly, not completely, not totally truly … not yet.

The day will come when we will see.
The day will come when we will know.

Until then, we live in faith, trusting God’s love.
Until then, we live in hope, hoping for God’s love.
Until then, we live in love, showing God’s love as best we can - because love is the point of it all.  Amen.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

"By Request: Prayer as a Way of Life” - September 1, 2019

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Luke 5:11-21

Shelly Pennefather was a basketball phenom.  She grew up in a big Catholic family and played basketball with her brothers.  By the time she was a teenager, she was unstoppable.  Her high school team in Denver won 70 games without a loss in her first three years and won three state championships. When the Air Force transferred her dad to New York before her senior season, nothing changed. Utica's Notre Dame High went undefeated, too.  She never lost a high school game and won four state championships.

Pennefather played college basketball at Villanova.  Over her career she broke Villanova’s all-time scoring record for both women and men. This was before there was a 3-point shot, and her record still stands today.

In 1987, she won the Wade Trophy, given to the best women’s college basketball player.  There was no professional women’s league in the US when she graduated from college, but professional basketball overseas offered good money.  She signed with the Nippon Express in Japan, the place where her whole life would change.

The pace in Japan was much slower -- the Express played only 14 games in four months.  Away from her college teammates and the chaos of her large family, she felt homesick and alone in a faraway city.  Her second season there was especially tough.  She did everything she could to keep busy, reading books, learning Japanese, teaching English.  But she still felt a deep emptiness. 

Until while doing volunteer work that next summer, at a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  She went to a retreat and was asked to read a Bible verse that spoke of communion with God.  And suddenly she knew that she was not alone, that God was with her and had always been with her, even in the lonely times.  This experience of God’s presence led to her decision to become a nun.

But she did not join just any order.  She joined the Poor Clares, one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray.  They never rest more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours a day, except for one hour when they walk around the courtyard in sandals.

The Poor Clares are cut off from society.  Now Sister Rose Marie, she will never leave the monastery unless there’s a medical emergency.  She gets two family visits per year, but has to visit with her family through a see-through screen.  She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, at a ceremony marking the renewal of her vows, she can hug her family.

That service was held this summer.  The Mother Superior allowed her college coach and three teammates to sneak into the line of family who had the chance to hug her.  Her mother, who is 78, will be able to hug her again is she lives to 103.  

The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.

But why would someone with so much to offer the world lock herself away and hide her talents?  Who, looking at one of the biggest professional contracts in their sport and at the top of their profession, would subject herself to such strict isolation and sacrifice?

I read this story of Shelly Pennefather, now Sister Rose Marie, and found it fascinating and moving.  (You can read it on espn.)  And I thought of this story as I read one of the topics suggested for a sermon: “Prayer as a Way of Life.”  Another wonderful suggestion.

When we think of prayer as a way of life, completely separating oneself from society and devoting one’s life to prayer like the Poor Clares is one way to do it.  And to live that kind of life certainly shows an absolute devotion to prayer.  You don’t just make that kind of choice on a whim.

For most of us, however, if prayer is going to be a way of life, it will have to be understood differently.  To think about prayer as a way of life, we have to first think about what prayer really is.

The psalms offer us a picture of prayer.  And it is a multi-faceted picture.  People cry out on behalf of themselves, their loved ones, their community, their nation.  They cry out for justice.  In pain they curse their enemies.  In lament they mourn losses.  In joy they offer God praise and adoration.  In worship they speak of God’s glory.  In confession they ask for forgiveness.  In confusion they try to discern the ways of the Holy.  In hope they pray for the nation, for the future, for children.  Pretty well every human emotion is shared with God.

We can sometimes reduce prayer to a kind of take-out order.  “I would like this and this and this.  And make that to go.”  As it turns out, that is not the Biblical understanding of prayer.  Prayer is much bigger than that.  

Prayer is essentially a connection with God.  An ongoing relationship and conversation with the Holy in which words may be used. 

Toward the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul gives some assorted final instructions.  In the passage that Rita read, Paul says “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  How are we to “pray without ceasing?”  I mean, you have to cease praying at some point in order to go about living, right?  You can’t do your job, you can’t go to class, and you can’t have your Fantasy Football Draft if you are praying all the time, can you?

If prayer only means to close your eyes and bow your head and talk to God, then, no, you can’t do that 24/7, even if you are a Poor Clare.   

In our scripture from Luke, Jesus is going about his ministry of teaching and healing.  He heals a man with leprosy, and the growing crowds become even greater.  For his part, Jesus seems to want to limit the crowds and tamp down his fame, telling the man he had healed not to say anything about it - but to no avail.

And then, what is most pertinent for us today, he goes away to a quiet place to pray.  And it wasn’t just this one time; it was a regular practice.  We see Jesus doing this in other instances; the verse says, “He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.”

For Jesus, there was a regular rhythm of prayer and action, of worship and service, and it was his life of prayer that made the action possible.  Prayer was the fuel that got him through.  He lived a life of prayer.

I had a weird thing happen this week.  I’m working on this sermon about prayer on Thursday afternoon, and the phone rings.  Janelle, our office manager, had just left for the day.  I answer the phone and the person asks if there is a pastor around.  I said, “You’re talking to one,” and she says she has a question about prayer.  It’s about a verse in the Bible, 1 John 5:15: “and if we know that God hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”  But she had been praying and was wondering when those requests were going to be obtained – when her prayers would be answered.

The verse does make it sound pretty simple.  I quickly looked up the passage and noted that the verse just before speaks of asking God anything according to God’s will.  So it is not just a blank check.  You don’t pray for a million dollars to arrive in the mail and it shows up the next day.  The passage is speaking of praying in a way that aligns with God’s will.  And then she mentioned she had been praying for a long time for another person to change.

That is especially difficult, and many of us have prayed those kinds of prayers.  The Bible speaks of persistence in praying.  But there is also the reality that God does not force any of us, even toward a good purpose.  We all have free will.

The answers to our prayers might be yes or no, but a lot of times it is maybe or eventually or give it time.  Or maybe the answer is, I want that as bad as you do, but it’s not entirely up to me.  Or not infrequently, we’re not sure what the answer is.  Or maybe there are those times when an answer, as we think of answers, is not the main point. 

I asked this person how she had come to call our church, and she said she was new around here and didn’t have a church and just wanted to talk to a pastor. 

Once in a great while I get a call like that, but the timing of it – while I was thinking and sermonizing about prayer – was really curious.  But that short conversation was a reminder of how complex prayer is.  And how important it is to us.  And it was a good reminder that prayer is not so much a transactional enterprise. 

Prayer is not a matter of we ask and God delivers.  Prayer is much deeper than that.  It is about cultivating a relationship; it is about immersing ourselves in the ways of God so that the things we hope for and dream about, and the things we work for and strive for – the things we pray for - are aligned with God’s ways.  It is about transforming our hearts toward love and justice and compassion and truth and being aware and open to God’s work and presence in the world around us.  It is about sharing the depths of our souls with God.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen captured what it means to think of prayer as a way of life:

To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God.

As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.  Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone (as Jesus did), prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of God.  Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue.  This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation.  The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.  (Clowning in Rome)
Prayer is about thinking and living in God’s presence.

Now it is important to set aside time both for personal prayer and for prayer as part of a community.  Nouwen also said that without community, individual prayer becomes self-centered, but without individual prayer, the prayer of the community becomes a meaningless routine. So we need both individual and community prayer - one without the other is problematic.

Both personal and corporate prayer are essential, and when we are mindful of God’s presence throughout our daily activities, then prayer become a way of life.

For me, a time when this happens more easily is as I walk our dog in the morning.  Taking in the beauty of the morning, noticing the trees and flowers and sky and clouds and sunshine.  It is a time to be mindful and grateful for the blessings around us.  I may think about the day ahead or concerns that I have, or maybe I am totally in the moment, maybe I'm more focused on Rudy's adventures as we walk, but I can be mindful of God’s presence in the midst of it.

When we think of prayer in that sort of way, it can change things.  We are able to simply be in the presence of God.  This may be what Martin Luther had in mind when he said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” 

And so, our singing can be a prayer.  Our work can be a prayer.  Our activities can be a prayer.  Our study can be a prayer.  Our drive to work can be a prayer.

Anne LaMott wrote this wonderful little book that we used for a Lenten Study a couple of years ago: Help, Thanks, Wow.  She says those are the three essential prayers.  When prayer becomes a way of life, we go through our day in a kind of conversation with God, as Nouwen describes it, and as the day unfold, we can be quick to ask for Help, quick to give Thanks, and quick to exclaim Wow.

Most Sundays, we pray The Lord’s Prayer as a part of worship.  Part of what we pray is, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  If that is truly our prayer, then we will also be working toward those ends.  And those things we do to help our neighbors, to work for a more just society, to build community, to care for God’s earth, to visit the sick, to nurture children, all of these activities are a kind of prayer.

Prayer is more – it can be more - than periodically having a talk with God.  That is very much a part of prayer, to be sure – it’s an essential part of prayer.  But prayer as a way of life is an ongoing awareness and attitude of God’s presence with us – through the good and the bad, through the joys and pains of life and through our day-to-day living.  May it be so.  Amen.