Tuesday, June 24, 2014

“Jesus the Coach” - June 22, 2014

Text: Matthew 10:24-29

A time honored tradition in coaching is the locker room speech.  These used to be largely a mystery to those who were not athletes, but with cameras allowed in locker rooms more and more, we can often listen in on a coach’s instructions to the team before the big game.  In the NBA Finals, for example, those who were watching could listen in on what Coach Popovich or Coach Spoelstra said to their teams.

We know a little bit about locker room speeches here at Iowa State.  Football coach Paul Rhoads, after a big upset of Nebraska in Lincoln in his first season, told his cheering team in the locker room after the game, “I am so proud to be your football coach!”  This carried even more weight because the previous coach didn’t seem so proud and in fact seemed pretty eager to get out of town at the first opportunity, but Coach Rhoads’ obvious love and passion for his team shone through, and the video went viral.  And then we had Coach Hoiberg dancing – if you could call it that – in the locker room after the Cyclones defeated North Carolina in the NCAA tournament, which endeared him to ISU fans even more, if that is possible.  We occasionally get such glimpses of coaches’ locker room communication with players.

The most legendary locker room speech ever given belongs to Knute Rockne, the great coach at Notre Dame.  It was popularized in the movie Knute Rockne, All-American.  It was halftime of the game against Army in 1928, and his team was losing badly.  To inspire his players he told them the story of the greatest player ever at Notre Dame, George Gipp.

The scene begins in the Notre Dame locker room. The players are seated with blankets draped over their shoulders.  They are dejected and silent when the door pushes open and Rockne enters.  They look at Rockne and then turn away in order to avoid his eyes.  He looks over his team for a full moment of unbroken silence. Then, quietly, as if the game didn’t matter to him, he says:

“Well, boys ... I haven't a thing to say.  Played a great game...all of you.  Great game.  I guess we just can’t expect to win ‘em all.”

And then he paused and said quietly, “I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years -- None of you ever knew George Gipp.  It was long before your time.  But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame... “

There is a faraway look in his eyes as he recalls George Gipp.  He talks about Gipp on his deathbved and continues, “And the last thing he said to me – ‘Rock,’ he said – ‘sometime, when the team is up against it -- and the breaks are beating the boys -- tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper...’”

The coach's eyes are misty and his voice is unsteady as he finishes.  “’I don’t know where I'll be then, Rock,” he said – ‘but I'll know about it - and I'll be happy.’”

Rockne slowly leaves the locker room.  Finally, one of the players says, “What are we waiting for?” and with a single roar, they throw off the blankets, rush onto the field, and of course they come back to win the game.

The phrase “Win one for the Gipper” came to be a part of our American lexicon, and was heard in political campaigns because the actor who played George Gipp in the 1940 movie was none other than Ronald Reagan.

Now, historians doubt whether Rockne’s version of George Gipp’s last words was true, and Rockne was known for inventing such scenarios in order to motivate his team, but that is beside the point.  Whether he quoted George Gipp accurately or not, Rockne’s words are the gold standard for locker room speeches.  He knew how to fire up and motivate his team.

Why do I bring this up?  Our scripture this morning includes instructions Jesus gave to his disciples before they were to go out in ministry – before they were sent out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick and cast out demons.  This is what he told his followers before they were to go out on to the field, as it were.  This is his “Win One for the Gipper” speech.

Except that as such speeches go, I would take Knute Rockne’s any day.

In our scripture this morning, we join Jesus’ locker room speech already in progress.  Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission by reminding them of how hard it was going to be.  They would be persecuted.  They would face danger.  They would be arrested.  They had to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 

If they malign and slander me as the leader, you can expect at least as much as my followers, he says.  Sure, they can do you harm, in fact they very well might kill you, but no matter what they do, they cannot do anything to your spirit.

Now, a coach might prepare the team for an opponent who is taller or faster or stronger, but this is another order of difficulty altogether.

Can you imagine this being used as a recruiting tool?  Think of Jesus as a coach on a recruiting visit in a high school athlete’s home.  “We’d love to have you on our team.  Sure, you will be vilified, slandered, betrayed.  You may be disowned by your family and you might even be killed.  How about it?  We’re offering you a full-ride scholarship.”

On first reading, this comes across as very intimidating.  This is certainly not an easy passage.  But remember, Matthew is not only telling his readers about the life of Jesus; he is writing for a community who were themselves smack in the middle of persecution and oppression.  Some of those original hearers were people who had been rejected by family and friends because of their faith.  This wasn’t just an abstract, hypothetical idea.

And so while it comes across as very challenging and very strong, Jesus is simply holding up reality.  And as he does so many times, Jesus says, “Do not fear.”  They are not to fear their opponents because while their opponents may be able to hurt them physically, they can do them no spiritual harm.  God, however, is the one who has power over both body and spirit, and God has promised to guard and protect them and bring them to eternal life.  The God who created and tends every living thing, values them more than anything.  God cares for the sparrows; how much more does God care for us. 

Lord knows, our situations are far, far different from those earlier followers of Jesus.  Although in some parts of the world, in parts of the Middle East, in parts of Africa, it may be very much like the situation of the early church, and one can face danger and even death simply for being a follower of Jesus.

We thankfully do not live in that kind of environment.  But what we do have in common with the early church is this issue of fear.  We all have to face fear.

Now at times, Jesus’ sayings are in the category of hyperbole.  At least, when he says he has come not to bring peace but a sword and to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother, I certainly hope it is hyperbole.  But he is addressing a very real issue.  There is a cost to being a disciple.  It is not simply that becoming a follower of Jesus could mean drastic changes for family relationships; Jesus is getting at a core fear of most of us, and that is the fear of conflict.  Nobody wants conflict, and we want it least of all in our families.

This includes church families.  We can get so afraid of conflict, so worried about disagreements that our witness is muted, our voices are quieted, and new, fresh, creative ministry is limited for fear of upsetting the apple cart.  Jesus invites us to remember that there are worse things than conflict and that following him will in fact have costs – including at times conflict, even among families.

Jesus’ pep talk, if you want to call it that, invites us to acknowledge how much fear has influence over our lives.  You might be thinking that no, you don’t spend a lot of time or don’t use up a lot of emotional energy being afraid.  But after reflecting on it, I think fear is bigger in our lives than we might at first believe.  We have just gotten so used to it that we may not notice very much.

I’m no financial expert, but it seems to me that if you want to buy stock in a company, you could do a lot worse than investing in a company that has something to do with security.  Security cameras, car alarms, home alarms, insurance of all sorts, radon detectors.  Security against identity theft, computer viruses, malware.  I’m not saying there is no cause for concern, I’m just saying that fear is definitely a growth industry.  Fear has everything to do with the proliferation of guns in our country.  And lucky us, it is already campaign season, and there will be one political ad after another playing on various fears. 

There is a huge fear of not having enough.  We learn to have an attitude of scarcity about life in general.  Not enough money, not enough resources, not enough wisdom, not enough skill, certainly not enough love and kindness and goodwill.  And we come to believe that somehow we are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough.  These messages are reinforced every day.  Watch a few commercials and it is striking how much of our advertising has to do with fear – fear of not fitting in or not being attractive or not having the latest and greatest.

Rather than focus on the abundance that God offers us, we focus on what we lack, or seem to lack.  It is a form of fear.

We could go on and on listing the ways that fear affects us.  We fear for loved ones – for their safety, for their future, for their success, for their happiness.  We have fears about an uncertain future – for ourselves, for the ones we love, for our church, for our community, for our country, for our world – there is no limit on those kinds of fears.

There are all kinds of fears over being accepted – whether we are moving on to middle school or high school or college or a new job, or whether we are entering a retirement community, we never really lose those kinds of fears.  And we can certainly have fears about losing our health.  The list just goes on and on and on.  The news brings a daily dose of war, terrorism, natural disasters, human suffering, disease, abductions, and economic upheaval.  That, and Donald Sterling and the Kardashians.  It can be downright depressing.  There is a lot to fear.

This week I was at the ISU Orientation for new students and their parents.  The Religious Leaders Association has a table at an activity fair that students and their parents attend toward the end of orientation.  We had information on churches and other places of worship in Ames and religious groups on campus – we were not just representing our own faith communities but providing information on whatever group a person might be interested in.

It was very interesting watching the students and their families.  Of course, it was the end of a tiring event, and I noticed a lot of different attitudes and emotions.  Two stood out to me: excitement and fear.  Some moved through the room and took in all of the variety of opportunities and had a sense of excitement about it all.  You could just see that they were excited about coming to ISU.  It wasn’t just students – parents were excited too.  But others seemed a little bit intimidated, kind of overwhelmed by it all.  Often, it was the parents.  Parents would come by and want information on churches and ministries while their son or daughter went to a display on Recreation Services or Greek Life.  Or, a family would approach our table together, but it was clearly the parents who were more interested.  They were afraid that their child would come to school, get in the wrong crowd, get involved in all sorts of things, and they wanted to steer them toward a church or campus ministry.  Not a bad strategy, but it has to be the stduent's idea.

We all know about fear.  Rather than ignore the fear that is just kind of in the air, both then and now, Jesus comes right out and names some of those fears facing the disciples, from whether their message will be received to whether their families will still accept them to whether they can stay out of jail and for that matter stay alive.  And his answer is this: “Do not fear, for you are of great value to God.  God cares for the sparrows; how much more does God care about you?”

Do not fear.  Three different times during his talk to his “team,” Jesus says, “Do not fear.”  If you spend your life trying to drive away all of these fears, he says, you will lose your life in the process.  If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.  But if you forget about yourself and look to me, if you jump right in and invest your life in following me and living by my way of hope and grace and peace and abundance, then you will find yourself and you will learn what living really is.”

To truly follow Jesus can be a hard thing.  To do justice, to act with kindness, to walk humbly with God is not easy.  To do what is right rather than what is expedient, to take a stand that may be unpopular, to live by faith in God rather than faith in money or power, to strive for faithfulness rather than success, to love our enemies, to be willing to offer forgiveness - these can all be very scary.

It can be easy to give in to fear.  It can be easy to feel downtrodden.  It is easy to feel like that Notre Dame team, getting beat up by big bad Army, blankets over our shoulders, nursing our wounds.  But that is not the way we are meant to live.

We all face fears, but those fears do not have to define us.  Ultimately love is far greater than fear, and the love of God in Jesus Christ can lead us to rich, abundant, joyful living – even in a challenging world.  Amen.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The Circus" - June 15, 2014

Text: Acts 2:43-36; 5:12-16 (really the whole book of Acts, but that would make for a pretty long reading!)

When I was growing up, there was a routine, a certain rhythm to the year.  There were the usual holidays, of course, and there were birthday celebrations.  The rhythm of the various seasons went well beyond that.  In the winter, we played basketball and if we had a good snow, there would be snowball fights and sledding.  In spring we would spade the garden and get ready to plant vegetables – and we would look forward to the end of school.  In the summer we played lots of baseball and rode bikes.  A couple of us kids would pick wild blackberries which we then sold to the neighbors.  Dad was always off work the first two weeks in August, and we would go on vacation, more often than not to grandma's house. In the fall, there was the start of school – always after Labor Day, the way God intended – and we played football.  We raked leaves and after we raked them, we burned them.  We would go to the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival, which was a lot bigger deal than it sounds.   And in late fall, the Shrine Circus came to town.

The Shrine Circus was very big.  For 81 years, it has been held the day after Thanksgiving.  It’s an Evansville institution and growing up, nearly everybody went to the Shrine Circus.  But not quite everybody.  For example, our family never went.  Many years later, we took Zoe when were in town for Thanksgiving one year, but I’m not sure if I ever went as a kid.  The reason we never went to the Shrine Circus was that we had the Whirlpool Christmas Party.

In the early 1970s, Whirlpool employed 10,000 people in Evansville, including my dad, who made refrigerators.  With that many employees, an office party is out of the question, and a company picnic is kind of problematic.  So, what do you do?  What they did was that every year, in early December, they held the Whirlpool Christmas Party.  Now, with that many employees, the majority at that time probably in their 30’s and 40’s, there may have been 15 or 18 thousand children of Whirlpool employees living at home, and the Whirlpool Christmas Party was designed with kids in mind.  What it was, was a circus.  It was held at Roberts Stadium, a basketball arena about the size of Hilton, and I'm sure there were multiple sessions to choose from.  They would have a great circus, and what I especially remember was that each kid got a few tickets that you could take to the concession stand and get a free ice cream or popcorn or cotton candy.  It was exotic, it was fun, and it was free.  Truth be told, my parents are not the biggest circus fans, but the price was right and we went every year.

I have been thinking about the circus this week because our Music Camp put on a musical on Friday night with a “circus” theme, “Step Right Up.”  Many of you were here for the performance.  Our performers starred as various acts in the circus – Mighty Muscle Men, Balancing Beauties, jugglers, clowns, tumblers, and more.

This was our 15th Music Camp.  During Music Camp week, I am involved in most of the activities that take place during the day but I can often slip away during the choir time and get a little of my other work done.  (I know, you probably thought ministers only worked on Sunday mornings.)

Well, this year we had an extra-energetic group of campers and it was pretty much all hands on deck all week, and along with several of you here this morning, I have been completely immersed in the circus this week.  Circus games, circus decorations, circus crafts, and of course the circus musical.

So in keeping with the theme, I thought I may as well just preach on the circus this week.  To be honest, after thinking on it a bit, I kind of dared myself to preach on the circus.  What?  Preach on the circus?  This sounds like a classic example of a sermon idea, and not even a very good one, looking for a scripture to go with it.  How could you have an even vaguely Biblical sermon about the circus?

But then I started thinking – what have we been looking at the past few weeks?  Does anybody remember what book of the Bible I have been preached from the last three Sundays?
Of course.  Acts.  The perfect circus book.  Have you ever wondered why it is called “Acts of the Apostles?”  It sounds a little strange.  It could be called something else; Clarence Jordan’s translation calls it “Happenings.”  Usage-wise, “Actions of the Apostles” or “Adventures of the Apostles” or “Outreach Efforts of the Apostles” or “Early History of the Apostles” or “The Apostles in Action” are to me all more of the way we actually talk.  But no, it’s Acts.  Acts of the Apostles.  Clearly, this is a book for the circus.

And then, if you read through the book of Acts, it is just chalk-full of, well, amazing acts.  Acts that are more than a little reminiscent of the circus.

Like the circus, it is exotic.  Oh, the places they go!  Malta, Cyprus, Athens, Turkey, Crete, Rome.  It is a regular traveling show.  People remembered when the apostles came to town the way people used to talk about the circus coming to town.
And then, like the lion tamer or the high-wire act, the acts of the apostles are dangerous.  There is danger lurking on just about every page.  And our heroes do not always escape danger.

The apostles are arrested, beaten, flogged, imprisoned.  Stephen is stoned.  And this threat of violence and arrest and imprisonment and even death hovers over the early church.  Being a Christian was a dangerous business.    

It was dangerous, and yet like the circus, like a Harry Houdini act, there are daring and amazing escapes.  A few weeks ago, we looked at Paul and Silas escaping from Thessalonica when the mob came after them.  There was another time, shortly after his conversion, when Paul’s enemies are guarding the city gates of Damascus day and night so that they can do him in, but to foil them he is lowered in a basket from the walls of the city and manages to escape.  In another act, Peter is in prison, bound with chains, sleeping between two soldiers in the cell, with more guards on the other side of the door.  But an angel shows up, taps Peter on the side to wake him up, shines a light, and says follow me.  So Peter does, and he escapes from prison, the last iron gate opening of its own accord.  There are escape acts; I’m telling you, it’s like the circus.

And there is more.  The book of Acts is chock-full of amazing feats.  There are acts of healing.  One of our scriptures this morning is from Acts chapter 5.  We read that many signs and wonders were done by the apostles, and because of this great numbers of people believed.  The apostles were healing people through the power of God, and people believed so strongly in the ability of these followers of Jesus to heal them that they would bring the sick out into the street on cots, just hoping for Peter’s shadow might fall on them, and they were healed.  Now that is the kind of act that will get attention.

In Acts chapter 19 we read of another miraculous act of healing.  When handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them.

There are amazing acts of healing, and there are amazing acts of generosity.  Life was very difficult; poverty and hunger were widespread in the Roman Empire.  Many Christians came from lower social classes and were in great need.   To meet this need, many shared freely of what they had; some even sold their possession and contributed the money so that everyone might have enough.  A man named Joseph was especially generous and caring; he sold a field that he owned and gave all of the proceeds to care for others.  The apostles gave him the name Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement,” and after Paul’s conversion, Barnabas kind of took Paul under his wing.

Then we find in one of readings for today, in Acts chapter 2, that many signs and wonders were being done by the apostles, and out of a tremendous sense of community and compassion and generosity, the believers lived in community, sharing their goods with one another, and providing for others as they had need.  There were amazing acts of generosity and compassion.

There were amazing acts of breaking down walls of separation.  On one occasion, Peter is hungry and in his hunger he has this vision of all kinds of foods that are unclean.  God asks him to eat and he says, “No, I can’t, this is unclean,” and God says, “What I have made clean, you must not call unclean.”  And Peter realizes that this isn’t just about food, it is about people, and that he must not consider Gentiles as unclean but rather accept them fully into the church.  It is difficult for him and it was difficult for many in the early church, but the church came to accept Gentiles on an equal basis.

There are amazing acts of inclusion and broadening the boundaries of the church and its leadership.  A woman, Lydia, is the first European convert.  Women like Dorcas and Priscilla and Damaris are included among the leaders of the church, and we read of Philip’s four daughters who were prophets.  Ho-hum, you might think.  Well, it was anything but ho-hum in that day, it was absolutely amazing.  For some reason, there are Christians yet today who still don’t notice or try to explain away those passages.

And then, it is not only men and women, it is not only Jews and Gentiles; people from all over the world are included and welcomed and become a part of the church.  Last week we read a long list of nationalities who were present and who became part of the church on the Day of Pentecost – people from Mesopotamia and Egypt and Libya and Rome and Arabia – from all over the place.  It is crazy and chaotic and it is wonderful – just like a circus.

And you know, with all of our differences in the church, with all of our imperfections, with all that can and occasionally does go wrong, it helps to have a sense of humor about it all.  And so if the church is like a circus, well, we really do need the clowns.

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, and the rest of the Book of Acts is essentially about all of the amazing feats that the Spirit, through followers of Jesus, is able to pull off.  Against all odds, the church grows, and the amazing acts just keep coming, even in our day.  We do not have to dig very deep to recall occasions when God was at work in our lives in amazing ways.  The greatest acts are not those of Paul or Peter or Barnabas or Stephen or Lydia; what we read about in scripture is the amazing acts of God.

Anna Carter Florence is a preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia.  I had a chance to hear her speak recently, and she spoke on the topic, “A Parable Universe.”  Not a parallel universe, but a parable universe.  Her point was that Jesus was constantly comparing the kingdom of God to things he observed every day, things like fields and mustard seeds and bread and houses and wedding celebrations.  Jesus spoke mostly in parables, in comparisons.  Since the only way we can really talk about God is through metaphor, by saying “God is like…”, we need to be on the lookout for life experiences that may help us describe what God is like, or are helpful ways of thinking about the kingdom.  This past year she assigned her students the task of bringing a parable of the kingdom based on their own experience to each class session.  That’s a lot of parables.

I think that is a great way to encourage imagination and creativity in young preachers, and I think it is a really good practice for all of us, whether we are preachers or not. 

So, here goes: The kingdom of God is like a three-ring circus, where incredible things are always happening...  Or better yet: The kingdom of God is like the Whirlpool Christmas Party, where everyone shares their amazing gifts, there is something for everyone to enjoy, and everyone gets in free.  Plus, there is free ice cream for everybody.

That actually may be a pretty good picture of God’s kingdom.  You don’t have to pay an admission charge, and there will be amazing feats of strength, courage, faith, and healing.  I’ve seen it, and you have too.

Or how about this: the Kingdom of God is like a Campers talent show, where a young camper freezes when she gets in front of everybody to sing, and then another camper spontaneously joins her, encourages her, and sings along with her, and together they get through the act.

Or, the Kingdom is like that same Talent Show where every performer does their best, and regardless of their skill level, everyone gets a standing ovation.

Or this: the Kingdom of God is like a Music Camp in which counselors are wiped out after a challenging first day with a rambunctious bunch of kids, but they stick with it, continue to love the kids, and before it is all over make great connections with the campers.

Or this: the Kingdom of God is like an older adult who has difficulty getting out but nevertheless comes to church every week because they love the Lord and the community is so important to them.

Or since today is Father’s Day, how about this one, which Jesus told and maybe you have seen or even experienced yourself: the Kingdom of God is like a father who never ever gives up on a wayward child and welcomes them home with a great celebration.

All of these are amazing acts.  The kingdom, it turns out, really is a lot like a circus, filled with incredible feats. 

So, how about it?  You don’t have to run away to do it, but would you like to join the circus?  Amen.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"Dreams and Visions" - June 8, 2014

Texts: Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21

Good Morning and Happy Birthday!  Today we celebrate the day the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Today we remember and celebrate the day when God’s power was unleashed through the church.

Thousands of people were in Jerusalem celebrating Pentecost, which commemorated God giving the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.  On that day, the disciples were gathered together in a house when suddenly, it happened.  Wind and fire swept through the disciples.  Everybody was amazed and astonished and there was an overwhelming feeling of power and energy.  There were people in Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world, folks who spoke many various languages, and the thing was, everybody understood.  Everybody heard the disciples in their own language.  People were both amazed and perplexed by it all.

Some were pretty skeptical and thought that clearly, alcohol had to be involved, that this must have been some kind of massive, out of control Veishea party.

A huge crowd gathered around Peter and he spoke.  “These people are not drunk, as some of you have suggested,” he said.  “For goodness sakes, it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning.  No, this is the work of God.  This is what the prophet Joel prophesied long ago.  God has given us the Holy Spirit.”

It was probably the most successful sermon ever.  Three thousand believed and were baptized, and just like that – boom – the church was born.  And today is the church’s birthday.

We have balloons here this morning, but if we really took this seriously we would all have noise makers and party hats and an awesome band playing.  We would have a huge party.

Theologically speaking, after Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is the most important day in the Church year.  But somehow it doesn’t feel like it.

Charley Reeb told about being invited to a birthday party.  It was for one of the kids in a church he served as pastor.  It was a great party: they had invited a bunch of kids and they had one of those inflatable jumpy-bouncy houses out in the yard.  There was a clown making balloon animals and kids running around, excited, all over the place.

Charley said that he was taking all of this in, enjoying it, thinking about birthdays when he was a kid, when he struck up a conversation with an older guy who turned out to be the birthday boy’s uncle.  He didn’t look too excited to be there.  He said something about it being too noisy, the kids being too loud, too exuberant.  Then he said, “It’s funny. When you are young, you get excited about your birthday, about life and all that is ahead of you.  But as you get older, there seems to be less to get excited about.  And when your birthday comes, it’s just a reminder of how old you are.  People keep saying ‘Happy Birthday’ to you, but there’s really nothing happy about it.” 

Well, maybe you have been there.  Maybe you have felt like the birthday boy’s uncle.  I confess there are those times when I don’t have the enthusiasm or excitement I may have had at one time.

The story of the uncle at the birthday party maybe sheds some light on our attitude toward Pentecost.  We can read the account of the disciples on the day of Pentecost and think of it as sort of a noisy party from the past.  We know it is part of our history, and sure, we are all for the Holy Spirit.  But we would just as soon eat our cake and go home and take a nap.  There may have been a time for all that enthusiasm, for wind and fire, for shouting and carrying on, but now we are more mature, more refined, more civilized if you will, and we don’t want to get too carried away.

It’s that way with every movement, with every institution.  We start out with fire and enthusiasm, but at some point the movement needs structure and organization – you can’t just run on fire and energy and pure spirit all the time.  So, you develop routines and traditions and by-laws in order to make the whole enterprise work.  We have boards and committees and proper channels.  We have bills to pay.  We don’t just do whatever we feel like on the spur of the moment.  The choir rehearses.  We print an order of service.  We order curriculum.  We publish a newsletter.  We set schedules; communion is the first Sunday of each month.  I mean, you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants, you have to plan ahead.

It started with fire and wind, but in time the church developed a mission enterprise, sending missionaries far and wide and building clinics and hospitals and children’s homes and camps and colleges and seminaries and settling refugees and responding to human need.  We built structures and organizations, and hired staff and chose boards of directors to run all of our mission efforts.  We started a publishing house.  We filed as a non-profit organization.  We offered a retirement plan. 

All of this is good and necessary.  Times were different, to be sure, but there was an organization, a structure present even in the early church.  Jesus had the 12, and the church had no more than got started when they appointed deacons to meet needs in the congregation.  Some of the earliest Christian writings included rules for church life; we find some of that in the New Testament. 

There is nothing wrong with structure.  I am very much an organizational person – involved in the denomination, participating in ecumenical ministerial groups.  I love history and tradition.  I’m not knocking any of that.

But you know, it is possible to focus so much on our traditions and our institutions and on the organizations we have built to further the work of the ministry that we kind of forget about that Spirit that started it all in the first place.  We can be like that uncle at the birthday party, more worried about propriety and doing things decently and in order than we are in catching the fire of the Spirit and joining in the new thing God may be doing even now.

It is interesting that in his sermon at Pentecost, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel.  And part of what Joel speaks of is dreams.  Visions.  And this is what he says: God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh.  Kids will dream.  Older folks will dream.  Women will have visions.  Men will have visions.  Those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder – they will have dreams.  God will give dreams and visions to all of us.

The Spirit has come and God’s promise is that the Spirit will inspire dreams and visions.  But I’m afraid that a lot of us shy away from dreaming. 

There are reasons for this, of course.  For one thing, we may think of dreams as being something for the young.  Ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, and the sky is the limit.  Literally – they may want to be an astronaut.  Or a movie star or a ballerina or a baseball player.   Or the president.  Kids can have really big dreams.

And not just for themselves.  Children can dream of a better world. 

Blare Gooch is a 13-year old boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Two days after the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Blare saw a little boy crying in a pile of rubble on a newscast. The story brought him to tears. The next day, still thinking about what he’d seen, Blare remembered the teddy bear that always comforted him. “Then I thought, ‘We could start a drive for Haiti,’” said Blare.  At school, his teachers let him announce his plan over the PA system and ask other kids to donate bears.  Soon a local TV and radio station got wind, and, via Facebook, other schools joined in.  The result is that Blare’s Bears for Haiti gave 25,000 teddy bears to Haiti and about 22,000 more to nonprofits.  This year Blare’s group will collect toys and school supplies, too.  Blare said, “It doesn’t really matter how small or old you are,” he said. “If you’re young and think you can’t make a big difference in the world, well, you actually can.”

In 2008, 9-year-old Katie Stagliano brought a tiny cabbage seedling home as part of a school program.  She planted and cared for the cabbage and it grew to 40 pounds.  Katie donated her cabbage to a soup kitchen where it helped to feed more than 275 people.  Moved by the experience of seeing how many people could benefit from the donation of fresh produce to soup kitchens, Katie decided to start vegetable gardens and donate the harvest to help feed people in need.  Today, Katie’s Krops has many volunteers and donates thousands of pounds of fresh produce from numerous gardens to organizations that help people in need.  Katie is now a 12-year-old student in Summerville, South Carolina.

Whether their dreams make the national news like these kids, children are able to dream.  Children can dream big.    But as we get older, our dreams can become a lot smaller.  And at some point we may stop dreaming altogether.

We may have the idea that dreaming is not something that responsible adults should do.  But remember, Peter quotes Joel to say that everyone will see visions, everyone will prophesy.  He makes it a point to include old men among those who will dream.

Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner write that one of the keys to innovation is to be willing to think like a child and relearn how to question assumptions.

Who says the church can’t grow?  Why do we assume certain people won’t be interested in church?  Where did we get the idea that we don’t have much to offer to the community?  Who says we can’t try something completely new?  There are a lot of those things that “everyone knows” that need to be questioned by some active dreaming.  Maybe the Spirit will help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before.

I think too that some people are hesitant to dream because they are afraid that dreams may be divisive.  What if your dream is different from mine?  How would we decide which dream is better?  What if somebody doesn’t like my dream?  Maybe it would be easier to just leave everything exactly as it is instead of dreaming and risking potentially divisive change.

Paul reminds us that there is always diversity and difference in the body of Christ.  There are a variety of gifts, a variety of dreams, but one Spirit.

A whole boatload of dreams, a vast array of possibilities, could be just what we need.  Paul says we need to consider our visions in relation to common good.  Each member of the body -- and each member’s dream -- has a role to play. 

It may be helpful for us to remember that the Spirit did not come to make things easy, but to set hearts on fire.  If there is some struggle along the way as we discern between gifts and dreams of the Spirit, that is OK – we just need to remember that we are all members of one Body.

Our Old Testament reading is a rather obscure passage in the book of Numbers.  Moses has appointed seventy elders, who are given the Spirit in order to prophesy to the people.  But two men in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also received the Spirit and continued to prophesy even after the official elders no longer did.  A young man ran and reported this to Moses.  There was unauthorized prophesying going on!  Joshua hears this and says, “Moses, you have to stop them!”  But Moses said, “I wish everybody had the Spirit like that.”

It is remarkable that in that time of unquestioned, top-down leadership, we would have this story reinforcing the idea that God’s Spirit is available to all, even to those who are not the official, designated leaders.  If we all joined in on some dreaming in the Spirit, that would be more than OK.  It might be just what we need.

And then we may shy away from dreaming because we are afraid it will just leave us disappointed.  Dreaming feels like getting our hopes up, and we have had our hopes crushed before.

I suppose that dreaming carries with it that risk.  Maybe that is one of the reasons Jesus so often said, “Do not fear.”   He wants to breathe upon us the same Holy Spirit he gave his first disciples and set us loose to share the good news, meet human need, work for the welfare of our community, provide strength to the weak and courage to the fearful, and share with all the dream and vision of Christian community.  Is it possible that we might fail?  Of course.  We may fail spectacularly.  But never failing means we are never attempting anything.  And God seems to have ways of bring surprising victories from what appear to be complete failures.

Around 15 years ago, some of us brainstormed about building on our ministry with children.  It was hard, because we basically had 4 kids in the church.  But we decided to try a children’s music camp.  We weren’t exactly sure what we were getting into, but we had this idea, this dream, if you will.  I thought that if 15 kids showed up and nobody got hurt, it would be a big success - we would have tried something new and had a success.  Lo and behold, we had a fabulous music camp, and 15 years later, it is still going strong.  We have continued to offer a wonderful week of learning and fun and music that has been a real ministry both to our children and to the community.

Two years ago, we went through what was called a visioning process.  As part of the process, we shared our hopes and dreams for the church.  We have undertaken some new things as a result of that process and we continue to live into some of those dreams.  But dreaming is not just something we do every once in a while as part of a church program.  Being open to God’s vision is an ongoing thing.  Being open to the leading of the Spirit is simply part of being a follower of Jesus.

We need to dream new dreams and see new visions, and it is the Spirit which not only helps us dream dreams and see visions, but also helps bring these visions to reality.

I think back to that uncle at the birthday party. When it comes to dreaming, instead of sitting on the sidelines, instead of grumbling about those loud, enthusiastic kids, what if we joined right in?  What if we jumped in the bouncy house and played with balloon animals and got icing on our faces?  And what if we went ahead and dreamed with wild abandon?  What if we were open to the new possibilities that the Spirit may have for us?

Happy Birthday, and dream on.  Amen.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

“Common Ground” - May 25, 2014

Text: Acts 17:22-34

We often read the Bible in snippets – a few verses here, a few verses there.  This morning we have heard two readings forming together a bit longer passage in the book of Acts, but we still didn’t hear the whole back story that sets the stage for this episode in the life of Paul. 

So, here is a bit more background: Paul and Silas are on a missionary journey, a journey filled with all kinds of adventures.  They had been to Thessalonica and spoke in the synagogue.  Some had become believers and they found Gentiles and women of means to be especially receptive, but the Jewish authorities were furious.

To be fair, you really can’t blame them for being furious.  Imagine if a couple of guys showed up here on a Sunday morning, started preaching a bunch of what sounded like bizarre ideas, and as a result some of our congregation left to join some new religion.  We would be more than a little upset.

What do you do when you are upset?  The time-honored answer is, “You start a riot.”  It was the answer then and is apparently still the answer now.  So - and this was completely without the help of social media – they formed a mob and took to the streets.  As things started to get out of hand, some of the new believers help Paul and Silas get out of town, but a guy named Jason along with others were roughed up by the mob and thrown in jail on trumped-up charges before being released on bail.

Paul and Silas headed for Berea, where the synagogue was both more receptive to their message and a lot more civil toward Paul and Silas.  Some Jews in Berea become believers, along with a number of Greeks, including some leading citizen-types.  But the Jewish authorities in Thessalonica heard about it, and perhaps miffed that Paul had managed to get out of town before they could get to him, they send a group to Berea to stir up trouble and incite the crowds there, as Luke reports it.  Apparently, the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica really hated Paul.  So the decision is made to get Paul out of the city.  Silas remains along with Timothy, their younger colleague, but Paul is sent to the city of Athens to wait up there until Silas and Timothy come and join him.  Paul seemed to be a real lightning rod, and sending him to Athens comes across as something like getting the gasoline away from the fire.

This is the back story; this is what precedes Paul’s arrival in Athens.  Oh yeah, one more thing: right before going to Thessalonica, Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown in jail in Philippi.  Like I said, it was a trip filled with all kinds of adventures.  If they could do it without making it too cheesy or overly pious, it would make a great TV miniseries.

So, after all of this, Paul finds himself in Athens.  Try and put yourself in Paul’s shoes for a minute.  You are on an extended journey, away from home for months at a time.  Life is hard.  Travel is exhausting.  If you think air travel in the 21st century can be a pain, try to imagine travel by boat and by foot in the first century.  In the previous days and weeks, Paul has been beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and threatened by mobs, besides enduring difficult travel.  He is in Athens to avoid danger in Berea.  One would think that he would be both physically and emotionally exhausted.

If it were me, I’d take some time off.  I would relax.  I’d read a book.  I’d hang out by the pool.  I’d watch a ballgame.  I’d maybe do a little sightseeing, do a little shopping.  I’d catch up on laundry.  I’d take it easy.

Paul is not in town to start a church or assist a fledgling congregation; he is just waiting for Silas and Timothy to meet up with him.  He is just there so he can keep out of trouble.

But if Paul’s supporters thought that he would keep a low profile in Athens, they didn’t know Paul very well.  He just couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Athens, of course, is the center of culture.  People are there from all over the world.  Athens was a place where thinking and reasoning and knowledge were highly valued – it was a place committed to learning, committed to education.  Many philosophies and beliefs were present.  It was a very pluralistic society.

All of which makes Athens a lot like Ames.  Athens is a lot like a college town.  In fact, there are a number of college towns named Athens.

Here, knowledge is valued, thinking and reasoning are important.  Here, we have folks from all over the world.  And a university community can be a marketplace of ideas, including religious ideas.

Thirty different student religious organizations are listed on the ISU web page, ranging from the Dizang-Qi Buddhism Club to the Salt Company to Hillel to the Atheist and Agnostic Society.  This is not to mention those religious groups that did not register with the Student Activities Office as well as all of the different places of worship in town.  There are 45 groups listed on the website under multicultural organizations, around 80 special interest organizations, various student political groups, and a few hundred academic and departmental organizations, each with their own slant and approach to learning and living.  That sort of diversity of thought and belief and commitment is also found in the wider Ames community.  

Paul finds himself in a place with great diversity of belief.  He arrives in Athens and almost immediately he notices temples to this god and that god.  His ministry has largely been about right belief, but here he finds all kinds of beliefs that are just all over the map.  And what’s more, there are folks who seem to be open to swapping beliefs the way that kids used to trade baseball cards.  It is all so opposed to Paul’s understanding that you expect Paul to encounter all of this and just blow a gasket.

But he doesn’t.  He shares his message, he tells the story of Jesus, there is give and take as he debates with others, starting in the synagogue, as was his custom, but also in the marketplace.

And Paul’s ideas were so different, so out there, what with this story of Jesus’ resurrection, that people were intrigued.  They loved hearing about new ideas; Luke reports for us that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”  These people were addicted to Facebook and Twitter 2000 years before they were even invented.

So, Paul is asked to come to the Areopagus, known to the Romans as Mars Hill, to explain what he has been babbling on about.

What Paul says is pretty astonishing, when you think about his history and background and his theological commitments.  Not to mention his track record.  Paul is absolutely a monotheist.  He has had the best rabbinical training.  The notion of acknowledging, let alone worshipping multiple gods is pretty much anathema to him.
Here is Paul’s chance to rebuke this city for their pagan ways, for their worship of multiple deities, for their propensity for making matters of the spirit into a kind of intellectual game.  He could have started off with fire and brimstone, he could have gone with “Repent, sinners; turn or burn.”

But amazingly, Paul is able to put things in perspective.  He is able to appreciate Athenian culture – not all of it, to be sure, but he looks for what is good and appreciates what he can.  And the key to his speech at the Areopagus is that he seeks first to find common ground with his listeners.

“Athenians, I see how religious you are in every way,” he says.  He affirms what is good.  He finds points of commonality.  He tells them that among the temples and shrines he has encountered, he found a shrine to “an unknown god.”  And he uses that as an opportunity to speak of the God he knows and to tell about Jesus.

In his sermon, he quotes some of the Athenians’ own poets and philosophers.  They had some good stuff.  They had truth.  Paul didn’t buy all of it, but he chooses to focus on what they share, what they have in common.

If we shift gears now back to our day, back to the marketplace of ideas and commitments and spiritualities that is all around us, maybe Paul gives us a good model – both for how to bear witness to our faith and how to get along in a pluralistic world.

I was in Minneapolis this past Tuesday for the Festival of Homiletics.  It is a preaching conference that draws people from all over the country and in fact from several countries.  It is a weeklong event but I only attended the one day.  On Tuesday afternoon I heard Eric Elnes.  He is now in Omaha but a few years ago, Elnes was pastor of the Scottsdale UCC church in Arizona.  A church member told him, “I am tired of being Christian, but…”  What?  She clarified: “I’m tired of meeting new people and when it comes out that I’m a Christian, I might as well have told then I’m radioactive.  I’m tired of always feeling like I have to qualify who I am by saying, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t think gays are evil,” or “I’m a Christian, but I believe women are equal to men,” or “I’m a Christian, but I care about the earth,” or I’m a Christian, but I don’t think people who believe differently from me will fry in hell for all eternity.”

Elnes and others who were concerned about the way Christian faith is often presented in the media and who wanted to share the news of a more compassionate and inclusive way of following Jesus put together something called the Phoenix Affirmations, statements of a more progressive vision of Christian faith.  And then they organized a walk across the country, called CrossWalk America, to dramatize and bring attention to this more open way of following Jesus, but also to engage and listen to people they met along the way.  Elnes wrote about this in his book Asphalt Jesus.

Anyway, early on in the walk, they found themselves in a small town in northeast Arizona on a Sunday in which none of the group of walkers would be speaking in a church.  They saw a billboard for a church that looked like the most conservative church going, Jesus First Baptist Church.  Elnes wanted to go to there for Sunday morning worship.  Nobody else really wanted to, and they were afraid of provoking a fight.  Elnes said he didn’t want a fight; he just wanted to share about what they were doing and see how people reacted.  Finally, a young woman in their group of 8 walkers agreed to go along.  And a camera guy who was part of a documentary film about the walk asked if it would be OK if he came too.  The camera guy called the pastor to explain what they were doing and ask if it would be OK if they came to worship.  He was surprised when the pastor enthusiastically welcomed him and also invited them to the Bible class before worship.

So, the three of them showed up and were warmly greeted. They sat in on the Sunday School class where a guy was teaching about Revelation.  Meanwhile, the pastor was in his study reading up on CrossWalk America.

Elnes said he was looking for common ground, looking for something he could affirm, but there was nothing.  He literally disagreed with everything the guy had to say about the book of Revelation and how it was to be interpreted.  But Elnes said that what surprised him was that he found himself really liking this guy.  He came across as a kind, honest, sincere person of faith.  He wasn’t angry or malicious.  Elnes could imagine being a friend of this guy.

In worship, the pastor introduced Elnes and asked him to tell about the walk.  He said they were walking with the message that you can love Jesus and love gay people, you can love Jesus and love science, you can love Jesus and love the earth, you can love Jesus and be in conversation with people of different faiths, and so on.  As Elnes told about why they were walking, the congregation’s body language became very negative. But when he said that on their walk they wanted to meet people who believed differently than they did and to do as much listening as talking, their body language loosened up and smiles returned.

When it came time to sing one of the songs, the song leader said, “I think this is a CrossWalk America song.”  He asked Eric and the other walker to come to the front.  The congregation made a circle and joined hands and sang “Shine, Jesus, Shine” for CrossWalk America.  Elnes was just flabbergasted.  In the sermon, the pastor mentioned Crosswalk America three or four times, always positively.  He didn’t mention the beliefs of the group that he disagreed with, but he talked about their commitment to faith, putting their faith in action, and joyously following Jesus.  And then at the end, he said, “I feel the Holy Spirit leading us to take up an offering for CrossWalk America.”  And so this super-fundamentalist church took up a love offering to support a walk across America to call attention to a more progressive kind of Christian faith.

After the service, Elnes gave the pastor a copy of his book, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity.  He said, “Sir, I’m sure you will find things you disagree with in this book, but I’m also sure you’ll find we share a lot of common ground.”  And the pastor said, “Son, at the foot of the cross it’s all common ground.  God bless your journey.”

I loved that story.  Both Eric Elnes and the pastor and people of Jesus First Baptist Church were honest about who they were and what they believed, but they focused on what they shared.  When we look for what we share, for what we hold in common, we may be surprised by what can happen. 

There is great diversity in our community.  We’re not all alike.  Shoot, we’re not all alike even here in our church.  Bearing witness to our faith is not always easy.  But like the apostle Paul, maybe we can begin by looking for common ground.  Amen.