Friday, August 14, 2015

"Redeeming the Time" - August 16, 2015 (Habitat Sunday)

Text: Ephesians 5:15-20

“Make the most of the time, because the days are evil.”  Or as the King James puts it, “Redeem the time.”  That is our text for the day.  Or our first text, our Biblical text.  Our second text this morning is that classic motion picture, “Groundhog Day.”

“Groundhog Day” was released 20 years ago or so, and I understand a stage musical version is coming out next year.  The movie starred Bill Murray as Phil Connors – a rude, arrogant TV weatherman from Pittsburgh who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day.  He goes with a cameraman and his producer the night before to be there for the early morning ceremony where it is determined whether the groundhog can see his shadow.  Phil and his crew do their piece for the news but on the trip back to Pittsburgh, the highway is closed due to a blizzard, so they go back to Punxsutawney for a second night. 

The next morning, the clock radio in his hotel room goes off at 6 am and Sonny and Cher are singing, “I Got You Babe,” same as the day before.  Phil goes to breakfast and it’s the same hostess with the same customers sitting in the same places.  Phil winds up reliving exactly the same day, but he is the only one in this weird time loop.

He lives this same day, over and over.  At first he is despondent.  Then he tries to use the situation that he finds himself in for his own purposes.  He meets an attractive woman and learns what high school she went to and her 12th grade English teacher.  The next day when he meets her, he says, “Hey, I know you – Mrs. Jones’ 12th grade English class!” and he winds up getting a date.  He notices an armored truck driver who drops something on the ground and doesn’t pay attention very well.  The next day, Phil walks by at that exact time and picks up a bag of money without being detected.

But these self-serving efforts are futile because when he wakes up the next morning, the woman doesn’t know him, he doesn’t have the money, and he has to live the day over yet again.  It drives him to desperate measures to try and break the cycle; he gives terrible, inane on-air reports hoping to get fired and finally, he kidnaps the groundhog and drives off a cliff, plunging both to their deaths.  But it doesn’t matter; he wakes up the next morning and it is February 2 yet again.

Groundhog Day is a comedy but it has something important to say about time.  Time is something all of us struggle with.  For many of us, the struggle is a lack of time.  Too many commitments, too many responsibilities, not enough time.  For others, there can be the opposite problem.  Having nothing much to fill up your days can be worse than having too much to do.  We all have to make decisions about how to use our time.

The Apostle Paul wrote the church at Ephesus, encouraging them to live in a new way, as we explored last Sunday.  He applies this idea to the concept of time and how we use it.  “Redeem the time for the days are evil.”

Make the most of your time makes sense, but the part about the days being evil goes against the way most of us think about time.  We think of time as good: “Time heals all wounds.”  “Things will get better in time.”  In the early 1960’s, a group of white ministers issued a public statement urging Martin Luther King, Jr. to be more patient in his quest for racial justice.  His response came in the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  He noted that he had heard many such requests for delay and had just got a letter from a white brother in Texas who wrote, “The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”  Dr. King replied that such an attitude stemmed from a sad misunderstanding of time, the notion that time itself cures all ills.  King argued that time could be used for good or evil.  Human progress, he said, is not inevitable, but comes through the efforts of people willing to be co-workers with God.  Without hard work, he said, time is an ally of the forces of oppression.  Which is maybe another way of saying that unless we redeem the time, it tends to be used for evil. 

How do we make use of our time?  Well, let’s go back to that movie.  What if you were that person trapped in the same day, over and over.  What if you only had one day, knowing that there was literally no tomorrow?  What would you do?

Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day turned from despondency to self-centeredness to desperation to the point where he used time to better himself.  He learned ice sculpture.  He took up piano lessons.  This gave way to using time to help others.  A boy fell from a tree—at the exact time, every day—and he was there to catch him.  A man choked on his steak—Phil was there in the restaurant every day to give him the Heimlich maneuver.

Finally, he becomes a genuinely giving person.  Instead of putting down the cameraman like he always did, he brings him donuts in morning.  Instead of being sarcastic to Rita, his producer, he was kind.  And then at the end of a wonderful day with Rita, he says, “No matter what happens tomorrow, no matter what happens the rest of my life, I am happy today.”

The next day he wakes up and it’s not Sonny and Cher on the radio.  He looks out the window and crowds are not heading over to be a part of the early-morning Groundhog Day festivities.  After he set aside his selfishness, his self-pity, and his worry over tomorrow and began to use the time he had for good, then he could go on living.

For me, the movie was a good illustration of redeeming the time.  Living each day to the fullest and making the most of the time doesn’t mean we don’t plan for tomorrow.  For a lot of us, planning better for tomorrow would make most of our todays go a little more smoothly.  So it’s not so much that we live each day as if it were our only day, but we live each day as if it were the only today we have--which it is.

How do we live each day to the fullest?  Earlier in this same chapter, Paul says, “Live as children of the light--the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” 

Every day we have is a gift from God--a gift we can use for good, or a gift we can abuse.  A gift we can hoard for ourselves, or a gift we can share with others.  Phil Connors discovered that living for others actually leads to greater joy and happiness for yourself.

----

The other day I was leaving church and couldn’t go down Lynn Avenue because a semi was trying to back in next to the new building on the corner and was having trouble – the cab was actually parked on the sidewalk at the time, with the trailer sideways across the entire street.  This did not surprise me; this sort of thing happens all the time.  So I turned on Chamberlain but knew better than to turn on Stanton because of all the construction there – I had previously learned that the hard way.  Hayward isn’t an option because it is completely tore up and closed all summer.  I could have gone around the block to Ash, but it has also been difficult if not closed recently with construction work on a couple of fraternity houses.  So I went down Welch, my only viable option, though not without its own problems.  I successfully navigated the block to Lincoln Way only to find that I couldn’t turn right on Lincoln Way because there was giant boom parked in the only open lane of traffic.  Basically, I couldn’t get there from here.
 
Well, eventually I made it home, but this is almost a daily occurrence.  Roads are tore up all over town, the worst I can remember, but around campus it all has to do with construction projects.

What is driving all of this construction?  The answer is fairly straightforward.  The enrollment at Iowa State has been booming for the last several years.  We are at 35,000 students and counting.  And the question is, where do we put all of these students?  ISU Housing is building new apartments and residence halls, and tons of new apartment buildings are going up – out west, by the vet school, in Campustown, and pretty much wherever there is land available.

Growth is generally good and we can brag that we are now a bigger school then Iowa, but there are repercussions.  One is that the market for affordable housing is very tight.  An increased number of renters in town means that rental prices go up for everybody.  There are a lot of people who work in Ames who can’t afford to live here. 

This is where our scripture for the day and the work of Habitat for Humanity intersect.  We can choose to redeem the time by using it for the sake of others.  The problem of affordable housing is not going to get better by itself.  Time alone is not going to cure it; we need to find ways to act.

Now, it is easy to get into the mindset that our actions are inconsequential.  In the light of the significant challenges regarding affordable housing in our community, what can we really do?  Folks have been working for years on this problem, long before there was a boom in student enrollment.  What can we do?
  
Well, it can be best to start with tangible action that makes a real difference for people.  We can’t solve the entire problem overnight, but Habitat for Humanity is part of the solution, and for Habitat homeowners – people like Christi and Mook and their family - our efforts make a real difference.  Investing our time and effort and money and prayers in an organization like Habitat is a way to make the most of our time – and our resources.  As Habitat homeowners participate in the life of the community and as their mortgage payments go to help build more houses, our efforts are multiplied.

I know that many of you have worked on Habitat houses.  Many of you have prepared lunch for those who are working.  Some of you may have led devotions at the work site.  Many of you have contributed financially to this ministry.  As a church we have prayed for the work of Habitat. 

When Phil Connors began to think of others, he really began to live.  The same is true for all of us.  As we think of others and not just think but act on behalf of others, we redeem the time.  Amen.          

Friday, August 7, 2015

August 9, 2015 - “Paper Towns and Real Christians”



Text: Ephesians 4:25-5:2



Last week we were at Brookside Park, worshipping together with friends from the Christian Church and the UCC.  It was a lot of fun, as it always is, and while we all have our own unique emphases and styles, it is important to celebrate what we share in Christ, and that our family of faith is bigger than just our church or just our denomination.  

Our passage this morning begins with the word “therefore,” and as a wise person once said, when a verse starts with “therefore,” you need to look and see what it is there for.  When we go back to earlier verses in chapter 4, we see that the big issue is unity in the church.  We are to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  We are all one in the Body of Christ, and there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all.”  As we worshipped with other congregations last Sunday, we celebrated that while we are from different traditions, there is indeed a unity in Christ and that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

By virtue of our common life in Christ, says Paul, we are new people, and we are to clothe ourselves with a new way of living.  This is the background of our passage, and the text for today spells out some of the implications of living this New Life – what it looks like to live in God’s new way.

So what we have here is not a list of random rules for Christians or a laundry list of do’s and don’ts so much as it is a way of living together as a community.

There are a lot of different admonitions and instructions that Paul gives in this passage – when we read it in two alternating parts, as we did this morning, I think it is easier to see all of the individual statements that Paul makes.  Rather than try to cover every individual admonition, we are going to look at a couple of these statements and then look at how they illustrate the larger argument that Paul is making.  


The first statement is, “Be angry but do not sin.”

Some of you may have heard this story before, but this is a memorable experience I had with anger in the church.  I spent a year while in seminary doing a campus ministry internship in Virginia.  After attending a church there for a while, I joined the church on a Sunday morning.  The pastor asked folks if they would support and encourage me as a brother in Christ and they indicated their desire to do so with a hug or a handshake after the service.  It felt good to “officially” be a part of this church.

That evening, I went back to church for a potluck dinner and the quarterly business meeting.  This was a small church and there couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 people at the dinner.  After the meal we headed upstairs to the sanctuary for what I assumed would be a quick business meeting.  I was wrong!  There were a lot of people upstairs—many of whom I had never seen before.

The ringleader of this contingent of folks was Frank.  I had met Frank shortly after I started attending the church.  He wasn’t particularly friendly, but I learned not to take it personally – he was unfriendly toward most people.  What you need to know about Frank is that he had a high-stress job and an unreasonable tyrant of a boss.  Things felt out of control at work.  Things weren’t so great at home either.  But at church, things were different.  At church, Frank was in control.  But things were changing.  There were new people who had new ideas.  Among other things, this Southern Baptist church, in the mid-1980’s, had started ordaining women as deacons, which was a rather bold move.

Frank did not like the changes, he felt like his power was slipping away, and that night at the business meeting, he got together as many people as he could who weren’t satisfied with the direction of the church.  To be honest, most of these folks had not been to church in several years and didn’t care that much one way or the other, but Frank called in all of his IOUs and got them to show up for the meeting.

In the meeting, Frank criticized the pastor, criticized the finance committee, railed against the choir director – he especially had it in for her (I later learned he had been purposely skipping her when he served communion.).  He broke confidences and slandered people.  I thought his head was going to explode.  A few others joined in.  Finally, Frank moved that the pastor be terminated immediately.

I was in shock.  I had just joined the church that morning.  I had thought these were nice people; now I wondered what I had got myself into.  Frank had gathered together enough folks that it appeared the pastor was gone.  The core members of the church, those who had been at the potluck dinner, were shell-shocked, and no one seemed to know what to do.  And so finally I stood up and said that given the importance of this vote, it seems like the membership should know about it ahead of time.  So I moved the motion be tabled until a special called business meeting was held.

Now you can imagine what Frank thought of my idea.  He asked the moderator, “When does a person actually become a member of the church?  Isn’t when we receive the letter of transfer from his last church?”  In other words, shut this kid up.  But Judy stood up.  She was thoughtful and quiet and highly respected.  Judy said, “This morning we all promised that we would encourage and support David as a brother in Christ, and now you’re slapping him in the face!”  Gene, the moderator, ruled that I was a voting member and could make the motion to table.

That motion passed by 2 votes.  When the special business meeting was held, 85% of the membership supported the pastor.  Frank left the church, the other 15% never attended anyway, the pastor stayed 10 more years, and the church moved forward.  But the outcome was nearly very different.

What happened in that church, and what happened to Frank, happens far too often.  Paul’s words have something to say to us.  The letter to the Ephesians was a circular letter, written to churches in the region around Ephesus.  These were young churches with conflicts and struggles, churches that had to deal with anger.

The verse says, “Be angry,” which is definitely not a problem.  With all of the construction going on, just try to drive around Ames without getting aggravated.  (Just trying to get to church can make you crazy.)  Anger is just a part of life.

This is not a big revelation, but sometimes we don’t hear the message in church that anger is OK.  Which is kind of ironic, because look at Jesus.  He threw money changers out of the temple, got angry with the religious leaders for their smug self-righteousness, and was even put out at the denseness of his own disciples.

Paul did not say, “Don’t get angry.”  But he did say, “Don’t let your anger lead you into sin.”  This can happen when we allow our anger to control us.  Frank suppressed his anger about work, but eventually the anger exploded.  Paul gives us some very wise advice regarding anger:  “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”  Failing to deal with anger can lead us into sin.

Now remember, Paul is speaking to the church.  Anger is not in itself a threat to the unity of the church.  Anger is just going to happen, whether we like it or not.  But the way we deal with anger can be a huge threat to unity.  It is important for the church to learn to deal creatively and constructively with conflict.

Anger can be a motivating force for bringing about justice, for working toward reconciliation, for building up.  Or anger can be a destructive force used to tear down.  It’s all in how we deal with it.  Frank needed to be careful not to take out his anger from work at church.  It is best to express your feelings to the source, but if Frank couldn’t do that, he needed to find someone with whom he could talk about it.  He needed to find ways to deal with his anger instead of blowing up at a business meeting and trying to drag the whole church down with him.

One person remember that growing up, when mama was angry at the kids, she took it out on the bread.  It took a lot of effort to knead the bread, and the worse the kids acted, it seemed like the better the bread was that week!

There is another statement Paul makes that I want to look at.  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Be kind.

You know, sometimes the simplest things are the most important.  I have known people to get all worked up over their interpretation of scripture and their understanding of faith.  I have seen angry fundamentalists speak hatefully and spitefully about those who do not share their views.  I have heard those who ground their attitude in the Bible, saying, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  For those people, I just want to quote a very simple Bible verse.  “Be ye kind one to another.”  That’s the way I learned it in Sunday School, back in the King James days.  “Be ye kind one to another.”

I was on campus near the library one day and there was a guy preaching.  Yelling at people.  Telling students he had never met how sinful they were.  He believed the Bible backwards and forward, believed every word.  That’s what he said, but I had to question whether he believed this verse.  “Be ye kind one to another.”

On several occasions I have encountered the Westboro Baptist Church.  This is the church in Topeka basically made up of Fred Phelps’ family.  They picket churches and schools and busy street corners with signs that say “God Hates Fags” and worse, and they picket military funerals with signs saying that this is God’s judgment on America.  Bible believers, spreading the gospel, they say.

What about kindness?  Do they believe that part?  What about, “Be ye kind one to another?”

Well, the weird preacher on campus or the Phelps bunch are easy targets.  What is harder to admit is that we don’t always do so well with kindness ourselves.  We too can have a holier-than-thou attitude about our own beliefs and convictions.  And we can write off folks whose beliefs disagree with ours just as easily as the fundamentalists do.

Beyond that, it is just plain hard to be kind to some people.  If we are honest, it can be hard to be kind to each other even in the church.  It can be hard to be kind to the people who mean the most to us.  Kindness is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.  But in a way, kindness is an antidote to all of the issues discussed here.  Kindness leads us to speak truthfully, to manage our anger well, to work honestly and share with those in need.  Kindness makes us build up rather than tear down and keeps us from bitterness and slander and malice.

Zoe and I went to a garage sale last week that had hundreds of record albums.  Some of you students may not know what an album is – you can call and ask your parents this afternoon.  Anyway, I came across a Glen Campbell album that was the first album I ever bought, back in 1969.  

Glen sang, “You’ve got to try a little kindness.”  What a difference kindness can make.  There are those people who just radiate kindness, and it makes a world of difference.  I happened to look at our bulletin board this week and there is a little clip art piece that I assume Bev, our Office Manager, has posted.  It said, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

Anger and kindness are just two of the issues touched on in this passage, but they illustrate what Paul is getting at: the way we live our lives really matters, and the way we treat one another in the Christian community is an indication of our faith.  We can claim to believe all kinds of things, but what we really believe is shown in our actions.  Christian community depends on our living in this new way.

As a way of summarizing his argument, Paul says, “Be imitators of God.”  And we thought kindness was hard.  How can we possibly be imitators of God?

Map makers will often include a few fake towns on their highway maps.  They do this to protect their copyright – if another mapmaker produces a map that includes one of these non-existent towns, it will be obvious that they simply copied the first company’s map.  They are called copyright traps or Paper Towns because they only exist on paper.

In the 1930’s General Drafting Company produced a map that included the fictional town of Agloe, New York.  The name came from the initials of draftsmen who worked on the map.  In time, a general store was built at the crossroad identified on the map as Agloe, and then a gas station.

There was a time when gas stations gave away free road maps, and these maps distributed by Gulf and Shell started to show the town of Agloe at that rural intersection.

In the 1970’s Rand McNally, who by then owned the copyright, sued an oil company that had published such a map, claiming it was obvious plagiarism.  They thought they had a great case.  But the oil company argued that this was not a fictional town.  There is a store.  There is a gas station.  It is a community gathering place in that rural area.  This is an actual place, they argued.  And it was.  Once a paper town, Agloe had started to act like a real town until it was a real town.

In a sense, Paul is saying that to be an actual Christian – not just a Christian on paper, not just a believer in theory – this is what you need to do.  You need to live in a certain way.  Speak truthfully, deal with your anger appropriately, work honestly, build one another up, show kindness, be willing to forgive.  Act like a Christian and you will become one.

The great German theologian, Karl Rahner, said that it's better to say that we’re always becoming Christians than simply saying that we are Christians.  He suggested that we are growing into an identity rather than achieving a goal.  We never finish this task, but it is a daily calling.

Paul says it like this: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”  Amen.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Perspective" - July 26, 2015

Text: John 6:1-21

It is good to be back!  We had a wonderful time on our sabbatical, with a mix of continuing education, travel, and family time, as well as the American Baptist biennial meeting in Kansas City.  I was able to do a good bit of reading and some home projects.  (Don’t worry; I left plenty of projects to do later.)  We will be sharing more about our sabbatical experience.

During our sabbatical, I learned some things and gained some inspiration, it was a time of rest and renewal, but maybe the most important thing was to gain a renewed sense of perspective.  Attending different churches, hearing a variety of preachers, reading more widely than usual, seeing new parts of the country – things like this all contribute to considering life and ministry from different vantage points, and that can be very helpful.  For starters, visiting a number of different congregations made me appreciate our church all the more.

As far as my sabbatical went, the matter of realizing that there are multiple perspectives came right away.  On May 10, following worship here, I left for Denver to attend the Festival of Homiletics.  There were about 1800 preachers in attendance from all over the U.S. and Canada and even a few from England, Australia, and New Zealand.  The opening session was held in the Colorado Convention Center, which is a huge building – some of you have probably been there.  I was walking to the Bellco Theatre, the meeting space where our gathering was to be held – I’d say it was a third of a mile hike from where I entered the building to where I was going – and I kept seeing signs saying, “Get the new ATS app for your Android or iPhone.”

I am at a meeting with 2000 ministers, so I assume that ATS is the Association of Theological Schools.  I know Dan Aleshire, the director from back when he was a seminary professor.  ATS is the accrediting agency for seminaries and divinity schools and a general go-to group for information on theological education.  They perform an important function, but I couldn’t imagine why they needed an app.  I suppose a potential seminary student might wonder if their school of choice is on academic probation, but I can’t imagine there really being much of a market for this app. 

Well, I forgot about the ATS app until a couple of days later.  After that first night, sessions were held concurrently at three neighboring churches, but I took the light rail into downtown Denver and the train went past the convention center.  They had big banners on the building: “Welcome American Thoracic Society.”  Well, now it made sense.  There was a bigger market for an app for heart and lung doctors than for seminary administrators.

If you heard the letters “ATS,” various things might come to mind depending on your perspective.  If you are shopping for a high end sport sedan, you might think of the Cadillac ATS.  It is possible that the Antarctic Treaty System or Antique Telescope Society or Anderson Trucking Services might come to mind.  Or maybe for you, ATS stands for A Tricky Situation – that’s more likely for most of us.

The point is: what we see is colored by our perspective - by what we expect to see.  We find this in our scripture this morning.  Jesus has just finished a long theological discourse as a way of defending himself against his critics.  After this, he goes off across the Sea of Galilee to the other side.  Jesus needs some time away from the crowds.  But the crowd follows Jesus around the lake (the Sea of Galilee is really more of a lake), walking the 8 or 10 miles to find him on the other side.  John tells us that the crowd followed because Jesus had been healing the sick.  You start healing sick people, especially in a time when there was very little in the way of medical care, and people will start following you around too. 

Jesus arrives on the other side of the lake, but before long people are coming in droves.  Jesus sees this large and growing crowd and asks Philip, who was from a nearby town, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

Jesus is a prophet, not a caterer.  Why would this be his reaction on seeing the crowd?  Why would he think that this was his responsibility?  It’s not like he invited 5000 of his closest friends for dinner.  John clues us in that Jesus knew what he was going to do.  This was just the setup.  Philip answered Jesus’ question, saying, “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food for all these people!”  But Andrew reports that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  That is all the food they can scrounge up - but what would that be among so many people?

The way this boy’s lunch is described tells us something.  Barley bread was the food of the very poor – it was thought of more as a grain for animals.  If you took barley bread in your lunch to school, the other kids might make fun of you.  So this is not just a small boy, but a poor boy.  And don’t think that he had a couple of nice salmon in his lunchbox.  Think something more along the lines of sardines.  There were large numbers of small sardine–like fish in the Sea of Galilee that were often pickled.  This boy had some bread eaten by the poorest of the poor and a couple of pickled sardines. 

From the perspective of the disciples, this was not at all promising.  But Jesus has a different perspective.  He views things differently.  He doesn’t wring his hands over what they don’t have.  Instead, he blesses what they do have.  He took the loaves and fish, gave thanks, and distributed them to the crowd.  And it was more than enough.  Everyone had all they wanted and there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets.

You know as well as I do that this is more than simply a story about food.  It is about generosity and stewardship and about God meeting our needs.  It is about the choice we have to live with an attitude of scarcity or to live with trust in God’s abundance.  And it is not just about food for our bodies, it is about food for our souls.

How do we look at the world?  The common perspective is one of scarcity and fatalism.  There isn’t enough to go around, and we can’t make much of a difference.  There is not enough money.  There is too little time.  There are too few willing workers.  Patience is lacking.  Good will is lacking.  Imagination is scarce.  Kindness is scarce.  We can’t find good information.  There is too little love. 

The tension between scarcity and abundance was certainly felt in Jesus’ time, and no matter that we live lives of ease and comfort and opulence compared to first century folks, we still live with this tension between scarcity and abundance.

It is with this background that we read John, and what do we find in his gospel?  Pure abundance.  In the first chapter, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  The first miracle, or sign, reported in John is when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Jesus instructs the servants to fill some jars with water, and they fill them to the brim.  The result is a profusion, not merely of wine, but of excellent wine.  Abundance.

At a community well in Samaria, Jesus tells a woman about living water gushing up to eternal life.  No just a trickle, but water all over the place.  Abundance.  In Jesus’ address to his disciples before he is arrested, he says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Not just room for a few, not an exclusive view of eternity, but an expansive and inclusive kingdom.  Abundance.  At the end of the Gospel, John closes by noting that in addition to all he has told us, there is so much more that if it were all reduced to writing, there wouldn’t be enough space in the world to contain the number of books that would be required.  Abundance.

Whether it is wine at a wedding or rooms for eternity or picnic food, there is always more than enough.  In Chapter 10 Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In John you find abundance all over the place – there is an abundance of abundance, if you will.

How would life be different if we really lived out Jesus’ way of joy and fullness and abundance?  What if we lived our lives with the perspective of delight and possibility and grace? 

Though Jesus time and again reveals abundance, the disciples just don’t see it.  Our scripture reading continues with Jesus’ disciples heading out on the lake.  It was now dark; the wind was blowing and the waters were rough.  Then Jesus approached them, walking on the water.  This scared them, as it would scare us to see someone walking on the water, but it is another example of perspective.  They had witnessed miracles of Jesus, or signs, as John calls them, but they still have a hard time seeing Jesus from the perspective of God’s power and possibility.

While we were away these last 10 weeks, there were a number of big news stories, one after another it seemed, and being out of the pulpit over the summer, I thought about folks who were preaching with all of this going on.  Lots of news: Supreme Court decisions, a treaty with Iran, the latest on Donald Trump, and so on.  What was heartbreaking were the mass shootings that seem to come more and more frequently.  Last week at a military recruiting station in Tennessee; this week at a theater in Louisiana.  What has continued to be on my mind is the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.  A stranger comes and joins a Wednesday night Bible study and is welcomed into the group before shooting nine people to death.  It was tragic and horrifying.

I thought about his as we went to church the following Sunday and then as we went to our ABC Biennial Meeting.  I thought about those who had gone to a place of worship and wound up losing their lives.  As much as this had touched me, it was important to hear the perspective and experience of others.  The shooter didn’t just choose any church; it was an African-American church.  Kind of lost in the news is that six churches have been burned to the ground since that tragedy.  They were not just random churches; they were all African-American churches. 

In recent months we have time and again heard stories of people who were stopped by police for minor infractions and who wind up dead.  This not a commentary on police; I would guess that police officers are no better or worse than preachers or teachers or doctors, and the ones I know are all very dedicated and people of integrity.  But when these incidents occur, it is always an African-American victim.

It hurts to hear these stories, but as I talked to African-American colleagues and heard African-American preachers this summer - and as I talked to friends and colleagues who have African-American children and grandchildren - I was reminded that these events affected them in a much more personal and existential way than they could affect me.  I need to hear and understand their perspective. 

When we are really open to other perspectives, to new and different ways of looking at things, to new possibilities, we may be surprised by what can happen.  The disciples went along and did what Jesus asked, feeding the crowd with the little boy’s lunch, and they were stunned by the results.  Some have suggested that seeing this child who was willing to share his lunch, others in the crowd shared what they had, and that there was enough for everyone.  John doesn’t report on the mechanics of it, but if it happened that way it would have been no less of a miracle.

This story invites us to be open to possibility – to be open to God’s power and grace, which can do amazing things.

Philip and Andrew stand in for so many of us in the church who worry, who doubt, who bring “realism” to dampen dreams and visions.  “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food.”  “We’ve got some bread and a couple of fish, but it couldn’t possibly be enough.”  They were living with the soundtrack of scarcity playing in their minds.  They could not imagine a different way.

What if we learned to give thanks for what we have and share, rather than bemoan what we don’t have and hoard?  How would life be different if we were able to understand that God’s provision is enough, and we were willing to share what we have been given?  What if we were truly open to God’s possibilities for us?

Like anywhere else, it is so easy in the church to focus on what we lack.  If only we had more members, if only we were in a different location, if only we had more Sunday School teachers, if only we had a bigger choir, if only we had more young people.  If only we had a decent preacher.  If only…

And when it comes to the big issues that confront us as a society, as a nation, it is so easy to throw our arms up in the air and say that there is nothing much we can do.  How could one person, or even a group of people, possibly make a difference when it comes to solving problems like violence or racism or poverty or hunger or homelessness or any number of things?  And what about those personal hurdles we face, like unemployment or debt or addictions or illness or grief or broken relationships?

It is easy to get caught up in scarcity and fatalism.  But when we instead recognize our blessings and are willing to share what we have, when we are open to new and different possibilities and perspectives, when we take seriously the power and grace and surprising ways of God, we may find that those obstacles and situations that we face are maybe not so impossible.  We can find that there is enough – enough resources, enough know-how, enough collective will, enough commitment, enough hope, enough love, enough grace.

Seeing through the perspective of God’s abundance can change things, because we serve a God of grace, A Transforming Savior. (And that’s ATS, if you didn’t catch it.)  Amen.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Spirit and Structure - May 3, 2015

Texts: Acts 1:15-26, Ezekiel 37:1-14


Before I begin this sermon I want to ask you to please look at the back page of your bulletin.  You will find a number there.  OK, we are going to have our drawing, and the winning number is  ___.   Congratulations, you are our winner!  As hopefully most of you know, Susan and I will be on a 10-week sabbatical that begins after worship next Sunday.  You may have been wondering who will be preaching during the sabbatical.  As our grand prize winner, ___________ will be bringing our messages this summer. 

OK, we actually do have a plan already in place.  Just a little fun here on a Sunday morning.  Now many of you might think that drawing a preacher out of a hat is a terrible idea, or an example of the evils of gambling.  Or you might just be glad it’s not you.  Or you might be thinking, why don’t we do this throughout the service, hand out door prizes, maybe it will keep people awake?  But some perceptive souls may say, “Finally we are beginning to recover the faith of the early church.  Matthias, the disciple chosen to replace Judas, was chosen by lot.  If it’s good enough for the early church, it’s good enough for us.”

The Book of Acts open with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that then they will be witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world - and then he ascends into heaven. 

So the disciples are waiting for the coming of the Spirit.  Jesus has ascended but the Spirit has not yet come.  What happens in between the Ascension and Pentecost?  What happens as the disciples wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  They have a business meeting.  Seriously.  A business meeting, of all things.  Why do we find such a mundane event in the middle of such important, dramatic happenings?

It’s a good question.  The simple answer is that twelve was an important number.  Jesus had called twelve disciples, and this matched the twelve tribes of Israel.  Eleven just wouldn’t cut it; Judas was no longer with them and they needed another apostle.  There was tradition and there was symbolism; twelve was important. 

But that still begs the question of “why now?” Why have a business meeting when the Holy Spirit is scheduled to show up any minute?

Our reading from Ezekiel may help us.  This is the familiar reading of Ezekiel and the dry bones.  The bones were put together, but they needed the breath, the Spirit, of God to be breathed into them in order to live.  Likewise the Spirit needed the bodies, the bones, for there to be life.  In order to live, there had to be Spirit, but there also had to be structure.

That is exactly the case with the Church.  The Church needs both Spirit and structure.  It may seem like a crazy time to have a business meeting, but maybe it was exactly the right time.  There needed to be structure so that when the Spirit came, they would be ready.

There are a lot of people who complain about the “institutional church.”  I have a book on my shelf titled They Love Jesus But Not the Church, which is written about millennials but describes a lot of people.  There are people out there who have perhaps been hurt by those who seem more committed to the institution of the church than they are to loving God and loving their neighbor.

On the other hand, Spirit with no structure can be chaotic.  Faith can turn into emotionalism.  I have known people who have inspiring ideas, who seem like spiritual powerhouses, but who never get around to putting ideas into action because there is no structure.  They may be sincere; they may have a kind of spiritual fire about them, but nothing ever seems to come of it.

For the church to truly be the church, we have to have both structure and spirit.

In high school, I played in the jazz band.  What was great was when we improvised.  There was a basic tune we played, a basic melody, and then we would take turns improvising.  But we had to have both order and creativity for it to work.  There had to be structure beneath all the improvisation.  We played in a particular key and counted out a particular beat.  If it were all improvisation – if there were no structure at all – if everybody just played whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it - it wouldn’t work. But if it were all structured, with no improvisation, no opportunities for originality, no creativity, no freedom, then it would have been lifeless.  It wouldn’t have been jazz.

I think it’s that way with most of life.  We all need a starting place – we need structure.  The structure is to help us and guide us – it’s not there to weigh us down.  If the goal is to fly, then structure and tradition can be our wings.

The apostles would go on to do all kinds of things that had not been done.  God would lead them in new directions.  God would give them power and courage and strength to face all kinds of adversity.  This was all the work of the Spirit.  But they were able to do what they did only as they were tied to the community and as they worked together.  That was the structure.

God often speaks to us as we gather together for worship.  We may find wisdom, or comfort, or inspiration through prayer or Bible study or music or as we serve in the community.  Worship services and Sunday School and choir rehearsal and committee meetings and volunteering your time - these are all part of the structure that allows the Spirit to work in our church and in our lives. 

An increasing number of churches are offering sabbaticals to pastors – a time away from the responsibilities of church ministry to focus on attending to one’s spirit and on renewal for continuing ministry.  A time of sabbatical can be beneficial for both the pastor and the congregation.  I am very thankful for the opportunity Susan and I have for a sabbatical this summer.  Since next Sunday is Music Sunday, this is the last sermon I’ll preach here until July.  (I thought I would get at least a few Amens on that.)  A sabbatical might be thought of as a structured way for the Spirit to be at work in renewing both clergy and congregations.  When we approved a policy for sabbatical leaves at our church, we made room for the spirit, but also built in some needed structure.

Seven years ago, as part of my sabbatical, I visited some emergent churches.  That was the name given to a new kind of church – the idea being that we’re not sure what the church will look like in the future, but it will be different, and a new movement of God is emerging - so emergent churches.  They were made up mostly of people in their 20’s, and they rejected the megachurch model of doing church.  While definitely a new and different thing, they were also open to traditional and ancient liturgy, and many had a strong focus on the arts.  In a sense what they did - and do - is very new and at the same time very old.  The whole movement is hard to describe, partly because there is so much difference from church to church, but I decided to visit some of these emergent churches.

There was one church in particular that was very interesting to me.  They had started out several years before as a church of 20-somethings, mostly single or at least without kids.  They were doing something new and exciting – it was a movement of the spirit.  By the time I attended this church, they had been around a few years and were now in a new location – they had grown a bit, and they met in a theater in a hip urban neighborhood.  Dogs were welcome – a couple of worshipers arrived with their dogs, which I really liked.

But here was the thing: they had been very focused on spirit as they started out, on this new thing that God was doing, but in time they realized they needed structure.  They were getting married and having kids now.  They had to think about a nursery, and do we have children’s church or just have the kids in worship with everybody else, and what kind of programs and activities do we have for our children?  There has to be a structure for the Spirit to be able to work. 

I hope to visit that church again this summer, 7 years later, to see how it is all working out.

There is so much that goes into our being the church that seems mundane, that may not seem all that spiritual.  Paying the bills.  Picking up beer cans in the parking lot.  Operating the sound system.  Changing diapers.  Watering plants.  Fixing leaks.  Trimming hedges.  Making coffee.  Counting the offering.  Tuning the piano. 

But all of this is necessary, because it takes both structure and spirit for us to be the church.  Without spirit, our structure can be meaningless.  But without structure, the spirit has no place to work.

Maybe it is exactly right that in between two big, dramatic, spiritual events, the Ascension and Pentecost, we find a business meeting.

The Church needs leadership.  Another apostle was needed to replace Judas.  It was decided that the new apostle, as a witness to the resurrection, needed to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning.  Two were put forward as being qualified and worthy: Justus and Matthias.

Then we come to a very interesting part: they cast lots to determine who would serve.  This is where our little exercise at the beginning of the service comes in.  Actually, this seems to be a fairly common approach in the scriptures, and this was not seen as mere chance; this was seen as God’s choice.

Some have continued this practice.  In some Amish traditions, several qualified men will each take a Bible from a table; one of the Bibles is marked to indicate that the one who chose that Bible is to be the pastor.

And it’s not just the Amish.  An Episcopal priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared that her congregation chooses its vestry – its governing board - in a similar way.  A group of people is nominated, and at the annual meeting, all hear the responsibilities explained and agree to serve if selected.  The names are placed in the offering plate, the church prays, and then names are drawn to fill vacancies on the board.   The church has been doing this for over fifteen years, and has found that more people than before are willing to serve.  It has helped to encourage the mindset that all church members have gifts to share.  The decision to go to this form of “election” was based on this scripture from Acts.

This summer we will have a kind of experiment in leadership.  Our boards and committees will take on more responsibility as Susan and I are away.  Our deacons will be responsible for pastoral care.  Our co-moderators and our committee chairs will have a little extra responsibility.  There has been a lot of planning for the summer, especially in the area of worship, and we have attended to some of the structure of the time of sabbatical so that we might be better open to the work of the Spirit among us.

Both Justus and Matthias had been faithful in following Jesus and were willing to step in and serve.  In the Bible, we don’t hear of either of them again.  But they are an example for all of us: willing to serve and open to the Spirit.

I grew up in a church culture that had certain structures.  One rule was that there was a limit on how women could serve in the church.  They could do a lot of things, but they couldn’t be pastors.  So when Susan and I became American Baptists and went to our first regional denominational gathering and saw women praying and preaching and leading in worship and elected to leadership positions, it was every refreshing, very freeing.  It felt like home, and it felt like there was a real openness to the Spirit.

A couple of years later I remember attending that same gathering.  I was looking forward to hearing the Bible Study leader, who was a friend and an outstanding scholar.  There was music and there were reports and presentations, all of which probably went a little longer than they were supposed to, and then before the Bible Study segment, new congregations were recognized.  The pastor of one of these churches was asked if he wanted to say a few words about this new congregation.  As often happens, he said more than a few words, and so the program was running late.  

I was proud to be part of a denomination that would invite a woman to be the Bible Study leader for this gathering, but the person in charge of things, who was extraordinarily time conscious and had everything planned down to the minute, was in a near panic and decided that we didn’t have time for the Bible Study and we would just skip it in that session.  Never mind that this invited guest had been preparing her presentation for weeks.  It felt like a complete triumph of structure over spirit.

We need a balance of structure and spirit.  But to paraphrase Jesus, the structure is always in service of the Spirit, not the other way around.  As we work and serve together, we need to remember that the purpose of it all is that we might better follow the Spirit of God.  Amen.